The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the Government's road safety strategy reflects the need to cut child road casualties by 50 per cent. and to address the problems of novice drivers. In the school curriculum, the personal, social and health education framework includes road safety and responsibility as road users. We are doubling the number of visits to schools and colleges by driving examiners to deliver messages about responsible attitudes to driving and we are encouraging higher driving standards, with improved arrangements for learning to drive and assessing hazard awareness in the theory test.
Lord Montagu of Beaulieu: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. In view of the great success of such schemes in the United States, will he initiate discussions with driving schools about establishing pilot schemes to assess their feasibility in this country? Does the Minister also agree that good tuition could not only reduce casualties, but reduce the truancy rate in schools?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I understand that that approach may have its attractions and its by-products, but adopting driving lessons in schools, on school premises or arranged by schools for people who are under the driving age, is a serious issue. Some of the evidence from America suggests that that leads to increased illegal under-age driving on the roads. The problem with young drivers is not so much their technical skill as their attitude. Improving their technical skill would not necessarily improve their performance on the road and prevent casualties.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I declare an interest as the president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that, welcome though improving driving skills might be, given our appalling record on accidents involving children, which is one of the worst in Europe, it is much more important that the school
Lord Whitty: My Lords, my noble friend is correct. Despite our generally good road safety record, we fare much worse than most European countries on child pedestrian casualties. It is important that the totality of road safety attitudes is inculcated in schools, rather than emphasising the pre-driving stage. Nevertheless, it is important that pupils understand what driving is about. That is why we encourage driving examiners and others to go into schools to give lectures and information, under the auspices of the Driving Standards Agency.
Lord Harrison: My Lords, will the Government also take note of the problem of the exorbitant insurance premiums placed on young people--typically £1,000 a year? That is an impediment to our young men and women who want to learn to drive and acquire roadcraft skills.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I suspect that, regrettably, insurance company premiums for young drivers reflect knowledge and experience of the level of accidents and damage to vehicles and people when young drivers are involved. I am not sure that it is appropriate for the Government to intervene on that subject. There are other ways of improving the performance of novice drivers.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, there are many suggestions around for improving the safety of our roads, ranging from teaching young children to behave better and to understand road safety through to reducing the speed at which people travel. We all have our favourites. Has any research been done on which are the most effective methods of reducing road accidents?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, there is a large body of road safety research, much of it funded by my department, as well as some international research. It shows that all the factors involved contribute--attitude, speed, road environment, density of traffic and the skill and behaviour of drivers. There is an indication of the relative importance of each factor, but to have a coherent road safety strategy we must address them all, as the Government's recently published road safety strategy does.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, does the Minister accept that more could be done to encourage some schools that do not allow police officers on to the premises to carry out important crime prevention and road safety work? That situation is unfortunate. A school in Liverpool that I visited uses building a car engine and driving the car as a way of improving science and technology education and helping its young people to be safer than most, particularly those who do not enjoy secure home backgrounds.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Government have no plans to introduce any measures to encourage the take-up of private health insurance. We believe that the best way to provide for the healthcare needs of all British residents is to use the available resources to fund the NHS directly rather than to subsidise those who, for whatever reason, choose to make alternative arrangements.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: Oh dear! My Lords, following the historic announcement yesterday about the decoding of the human genome, I was hoping for an Answer from the Minister that was a little more forward looking--given that that marvellous achievement was made by a coming together of private sector and public sector research, which is bound to continue. Does the Minister agree that there are now some 7 million people in Britain who have taken out private health insurance, but that we are still well below the EU average for the percentage of private healthcare as a percentage of total healthcare? Can the noble Lord try to persuade his colleagues that those 7 million people should be allowed to pay their insurance premiums without taxation? Every penny that goes into BUPA or PPP gives the NHS more scope to help others. If, as President Clinton said yesterday, we are all to live for another 25 years, will the NHS be able to cope with that alone? I doubt it.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I admire the noble Lord for looking forward. However, he should also look a little backwards. The Conservative government introduced tax relief on private medical insurance in 1990, which we removed after the 1997 election. Experience shows that, over that period of time, the number of people over 60 covered by private health insurance increased from 500,000 to 550,000 only; in other words, the tax relief went almost entirely to those who were already taking out private medical insurance, not to the health service.
Lord Winston: My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that the National Health Service undoubtedly benefits most considerably from the admission of private patients into its hospitals? Are the Government aware that one of the problems with some of the big private insurance companies is that, at present, they offer a monopolistic practice that actually prevents their insured patients going into teaching hospitals? I should declare an interest here, as I am an honorary consultant within the NHS.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, nothing in my answers has indicated a decision on the part of this Government to set up barriers between private healthcare and the NHS. Indeed, that was not the purport of the original Question. My noble friend must not draw the conclusion that we are proposing any further changes in private provision or in its funding.
Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, the original Question seemed to assume that more private health insurance would have benefits for our national health services. Is the Minister aware of any evidence which shows that subsidising private health insurance in this way would bring such benefits?
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