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Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): I am pleased to contribute to today's debate. I wish to focus on the clauses relating to blood specimens taken from persons incapable of consenting, because those provisions have a particular significance for at least one of my constituents.
In November 1999, a young woman died in a road traffic accident in my constituency. Sarah Kettle was young, the owner of a dress shop in Truro and the much loved daughter of my constituent, Mary Kettle. There was another car involved in the accident and the injured driver was taken to hospital unconscious. At the point of impact, his car was travelling on the wrong side of the road at 60 mph in a 30 mph zone.
As the driver was unconscious on arrival at hospital, he was unable to give consent to a blood sample being taken. When the driver came round he promptly discharged himself from hospital. He later appeared before magistrates who banned him from driving for two years for reckless driving and fined him £250. There were eye-witness accounts of his drinking in a pub beforehand, but without medical proof there was insufficient evidence and the magistrates could do little.
In other words, because consent could not be given, the definitive piece of evidence could not be obtained. Mrs. Kettle, having endured the tragedy of her daughter's death, sat in court to witness a mockery being made of our legal system. I should make it clear that this is not a witch hunt. I was not there on the evening of the accident and it is not for me to judge. However, since hearing this story and speaking to Mrs. Kettle, I decided that the law was wrong and was not acting in anyone's best interests.
I believe in allowing the police appropriate powers to bring the guilty to justice. I also believe in giving people the power to prove their innocence. This driver and others like him are left with clouds of suspicion hanging over them for ever. The legal loophole serves only those who have committed an offence, and that is simply perverse. There are even reports of drivers attempting to feign unconsciousness to avoid an immediate roadside test.
That case is not the first of its kind, but the family involved were vociferous in their campaign for a change in the law. They did not want any other family to go through what they had, so they told their story to national newspapers, to local media and to me. I was pleased to arrange a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), then the Minister of State at the Home Office. I am grateful to him for meeting us so quicklywithin a matter of daysand for taking the argument forward through consultation with the British Medical Association and others. He passed the issue to his successor, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety. Ministers recognised that the law as it stood was an obstacle to justice; justice had to be done and had to be seen to be done.
After the Bill had begun its passage through the other place, Mrs. Kettle came to London a second time and met my right hon. Friend. She related her story once again and heard what the Government were aiming to do. Clause 51 enables a police constable to obtain a sample, irrespective of consent, in the instances laid out in subsection (1). If requested, medical practitioners may take a sample, as they frequently do for medical purposes, from an unconscious patient, and that can be passed to the police. Crucially, when the person regains consciousness, they will be asked to give their consent to the sample being taken into account as evidence. They will still have the power to refuse, as they would at a roadside check, although that could also become a matter for the courts.
I do not dismiss the arguments against the change lightly. Equally, necessary safeguards are attached. The person taking the sample would not be responsible for the immediate clinical care of the patient, which avoids a conflict of responsibilities. That very important point was made in discussions with representatives of the British Medical Association.
In most instances, as I understand it, the person taking the sample will be a police medical practitioner. I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members will agree with the BMA that the care and well-being of the patient must be the first priority of all medical staff. For that reason, blood samples will not be taken from unconscious patients if that would put them at any risk; medical staff would have the power to prevent a sample from being taken on those grounds.
Other concerns relate to the vexed question of consent. If a sample was obtained when a person had gained consciousness, was that person in a fit state to make the decision? That is a difficult question, but the validity of consent is a much broader issue.
Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): The background to this debate is a police service that is demoralised, discontented and frustrated. The police are annoyed that they are not being given sufficient resources to provide the service to the community that they wish to provide and are fed up with being abused and assaulted not only by the criminal fraternity but by many of the comments emanating from the Home Secretary. I wish to place on the record my faith in the work that the police do in my constituency and across the country. We should all be giving them our full support and encouragement.
The police are aggrieved about increased paperwork and the lack of support from magistrates, many of whom are too lenient with persistent offenders. The police are co-opted into worthwhile specialist areas such as drug abuse, child abuse and domestic violence but without the necessary additional resources being allocated for such work, they are taken off the beat, which exacerbates the already poor perception of the police presence.
More administration staff are required, as is greater administrative streamlining. That would allow others, such as wardens, to take over basic information-gathering tasks such as taking and co-ordinating statements, allowing fully trained officers to go back on to the streets. More cases need to be prepared using computerised techniques to cut down on the massive amount of paperwork that our policemen and women have to endure. Several provisions in the Bill make some attempt to make adjustments to the existing situation, and I warmly welcome them.
The Bill unbalances the tripartite relationship between chief constables, police authorities and the Home Secretary. It introduces excessive centralised control. The solution is to decentralise and increase democratic accountability, not to withdraw to a more centrally controlled structure.
The Bill intervenes directly in police forces, bypassing police authorities and thereby local democratic accountability. As has been said, the Government were defeated on the original clause 5 in another place and I hope that they will not seek to reintroduce its provisions. Clause 7 allows direct adoption of particular policing practices if the Secretary of State perceives that to be in the national interest. That is a very dangerous route to take.
Clause 30 allows the Secretary of State to direct a police authority to suspend its chief constable even when it does not judge that to be necessary to maintain local confidence in the force. I hope that the Secretary of State and his Ministers accept that following the logic of that argument to its conclusion would be very dangerous.
Clause 77 requires police authorities to submit their three-year plans to the Home Secretary. With this Government, I am surprised that the Bill does not specify a 10-year plan. The plans have to be checked, and if they do not fit in with the Home Secretary's desire, they will presumably have to be changed, irrespective of the local operational facets current at the time. I doubt whether anyone in the House would object to best practice and to forces learning from one another, but exerting political control and centralising power and decision making is not the way forward.
Both Lord Scarman and the Castle report highlighted the importance of local policing being responsive and sensitive to local circumstances. The formation of district-based crime and disorder reduction partnerships across Lincolnshire, including in my constituency, has started to improve the ability of local communities to share responsibility for community safety with police. To my mind, the Bill removes much of that local flexibility. It starts to create a national police force by the back door.
I wish to address the provisions that radically change the nature and style of local policingnamely, community support officersand provide for a whole range of auxiliary non-police officers with arrest powers patrolling the streets in our urban and rural areas. In my constituency, Boston borough council has formulated an excellent and effective warden scheme. I have met those wardens and have a tremendous amount of time and respect for them, but both the police and the wardens believe it correct that wardens should have not full or partial police powers. Their role should be complementary, not a lesser, cheaper substitute and replacement for police officers.
We must find a way of restoring confidence both in the rural villages and on the urban estates in my constituency and beyond. We must get more police on the streets and we must use our existing officers to greater and more visible effect. We must reduce centralisation and improve the local democratic accountability that this Bill will severely damage.