9 July 2012 : Column 119
is not the other place. No. It is that deeply damaging sense that politicians here, in this House, are out of touch.
Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that reforming the other place will not solve the problems of reforming this place? This House needs to be more effective in holding the Executive to account. Making changes down the road, with who knows what outcome, is not the answer. We must reform this House and ensure that the other House serves by revising our legislation, rather than undermining the democratic supremacy of this House.
Nadhim Zahawi: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the reasons why we in this place are perceived to be out of touch is that people feel that we put the interests of party before those of our country, that we care more about securing a party political legacy than about growth capital for our businesses or good local schools for our children. The public want a Parliament that legislates well and in the national interest, and they want MPs who are on their side and up to the job. They do not want to see, and certainly do not want to pay for, more politicians and more party patronage.
I have conducted new scientific polling that shows that 60% of the public are opposed to spending more money on politicians and elections, yet that is what the Bill offers them. If we are really to fix Parliament, we must give it the tools to legislate better. Let us strengthen the role of Select Committees and give more time for Back-Bench business. Let us not solve the problem of a broken legislature by making it harder to legislate. Let us not inflame the deep mistrust of party politics by bringing in a system that hands more power over to the party machine.
I am a loyal critic of the other place. The White Paper states that it performs its role of scrutiny and revision with “distinction”, yet I know that there is much that we could do to improve it. We could reduce the number of peers, abolish prime ministerial patronage, remove the final hereditary peers and increase the professional expertise that already makes such a great contribution to the quality of parliamentary debate. I have argued, and will continue to argue, for all this and more, but subverting the primacy of the Commons is not the answer to reform.
The Government know that it would be impossible to write into law the conventions governing the relationship between the Lords and Commons. As a result, the only protection against legislative gridlock between the two Houses would be the good faith of the new senators. We would have to require 360 career politicians to promise not to use their new democratic mandate to oppose the will of the Commons. If one day in the future this House is legislating on military action or an emergency Budget, for example—situations in which time is of the essence—we would run the risk of a costly delay as our new senators discover the power and publicity that this mandate conferred. Of course, we could always use the Parliament Acts to ram a Bill through this new House of senators, but that hardly seems to signify a new era of democratic accountability to me. Indeed, how ironic that the supporters of a Bill for reforming our democracy are refusing to take their argument to the country.
9 July 2012 : Column 120
The claim that the choice was put to the public at the general election does not hold up either. Where was the choice when all the main parties offered it in their manifestos? The polling overwhelmingly shows that an elected House of Lords is not a priority. Does it stretch belief that voting intentions may have been dictated largely by what our parties were promising to do on the economy and public services, rather than on constitutional reform? A referendum would ensure that the public have all the facts before making their choice known. In the same polling I quoted earlier, even Liberal Democrat support for these proposals fell to just 29% once the costs of elections were factored in.
I know that many colleagues will have been urged to express their concerns on Third Reading, but those suggesting that approach are being disingenuous at best. Unless a referendum clause is added now, there is no guarantee that it will be added later and, with a combination of the Parliament Acts being used and Opposition Members saying that they will support the Bill on Second and Third Reading, there is little chance that a Back-Bench amendment would be successful. The only way that the views of hon. Members would be heard and debated properly is if we vote against the programme motion and, in the absence of a referendum clause, vote against the Bill’s Second Reading. Anything else is merely a protest vote, not one that will make a difference.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): The House of Lords has more than 800 Members, and that is far too many; it has Members who are there simply because of who their fathers were; and in this Parliament it has had so many Liberal Democrats from Wales appointed to it that it sometimes seems there is none left to populate the Assembly. The House of Lords therefore needs reform, and for that reason I will vote to support the Bill’s Second Reading tomorrow. If there is no reform with this Bill, there will be no reform in this Parliament.
I will vote against the Government’s programme motion, however, because the time that it allocates is wholly inadequate. This Bill is so important to all aspects of our parliamentary system that it must be considered in its entirety, and all Members who have views that they want to express should be permitted to do so.
I specifically asked the Whips to maintain strong opposition to any programme motion for this Bill primarily because of the Government’s appalling behaviour in respect of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. By their deeds shall ye know them. I spent a great deal of time in this Chamber waiting to speak on the aspects of that legislation which affected our constitution, and on the relationship between Wales and the United Kingdom, but, in the words of the great Diana Ross, “I’m still waiting”, and I have no doubt that if this programme motion is passed I will have no opportunity to make my views known on the profound inadequacies of this Bill.
My fundamental view is that it makes no sense to undertake such a profound review of the second Chamber without taking into account the massive constitutional change of devolution. It is high time that we approached constitutional reform in a holistic way. Every change to a part of our constitution affects the whole, and we currently have more inquiries and commissions on different
9 July 2012 : Column 121
aspects of our constitution than I can ever recall. We should scrap the lot and undertake a single constitutional review, looking at the procedures of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the devolved authorities, with the aim of arriving at a single, settled constitution.
If there is one lesson to be learned from devolution, it is that it opens a Pandora’s box of proposals to change the powers of the body it has created: the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the London Assembly all pressed to change their powers immediately upon being provided with them. I have no doubt that any change to the second Chamber will lead to exactly the same process, unless it is accompanied by a constitution defining its powers. That is a massive flaw in the Bill.
Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman says that the Scottish Parliament looked for a change of powers immediately upon its creation, but that is not true. In its first eight years it was run by an unambitious Labour-Liberal Democrat Government and did not look for any change to its powers. It is only now, with an ambitious Scottish National party Government looking for further powers, that that is happening.
Ian Lucas: That statement is simply untrue. There was further devolution to the Scottish Parliament and to the National Assembly for Wales, and it happened throughout the course of devolution’s development in the United Kingdom.
There are further flaws in the Bill which we need to discuss. Creating separate types of Member of the second Chamber is wrong: having elected Members, appointed Members and bishops will create confusion and undermine the democratic principle. Having bishops as Members is wrong, too. Giving precedence to Church of England clerics is an extraordinary thing to do, and it is even more inexplicable on this very day, when the Church of England has decided not to appoint women bishops. Is not having such a clause in the Bill a breach of the European convention on human rights? Will the Minister give a specific response on that point?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) said, little consideration has been given to the proportion of elected Members allocated to each part of the United Kingdom. It appears to have been done on a purely mathematical basis that takes no account of the different nations within the UK. That point was well made by Dr Paul Behrens of the university of Leicester, who refers to the very different approaches taken in the United States and German constitutions.
The use of the 15-year term that many Members have mentioned is appalling, and I am amazed that it has survived from the draft Bill. I have not spoken to anyone who supports it, and I was astonished to hear one or two Members do so even though they are in a tiny minority. It is a recipe for the creation of isolated, narcissistic Members of a second Chamber who will have no connection whatever to the real world.
Those are just a few of my concerns on the specifics of the Bill; I have many more and I am sure that more will occur to me as we discuss the matter. I have no doubt that further issues will arise when the Bill is considered in detail, because it is a bad, bad Bill—badly
9 July 2012 : Column 122
drafted, badly drawn and based on a compromise that is not working. My concern is that proper consideration will not take place because of the inadequacy of the time that is allocated. The result will be a very bad Bill going to the Lords, where it will no doubt be scrutinised at greater length, and the reputation of the House of Commons will be diminished still further.
The hon. Gentleman has declared that he is in favour of reform. He cannot be so naive as not to realise that if there is no timetable, those whose objective is not to have any reform along these lines will talk and talk to try to drive the Bill out. Is he going to suggest a better timetable to those on his Front Bench?
Ian Lucas: It is quite something to be patronised by the right hon. Gentleman. I understand the position on parliamentary procedure. I also understand that the Liberal Democrats suppressed my right to have my say about my constituency on behalf of my constituents when the Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and denied the people of Wales the opportunity to discuss a fundamental constitutional reform. I therefore know that I cannot rely on him or his colleagues to allow me to speak on behalf of my constituents. The only way I will secure enough time so to do is to vote against the programme motion, as I certainly will on the basis of the appalling behaviour of Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches.
Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): It is an honour and a privilege to speak in a debate of such fundamental importance. We have heard some truly fascinating speeches from Members on both sides of the House. I personally take the view that the weight of argument is firmly on the side of those who do not support the Bill, but we have heard some interesting speeches across the board. It is a particular honour to sit next to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), who made what must have been a particularly difficult speech.
The economy is struggling, the eurozone is tanking, the banks are in crisis, and Syria is burning. Our constituents must be blinking in bewilderment at the time, effort and political energy being expended—
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am here today to speak about this extremely important issue, but I speak regularly in this Chamber about key events and intervene in others. I am not one of those Members who chalks up short speeches on
9 July 2012 : Column 123
TheyWorkForYou and then judges themselves by the number of speeches they have made rather than their quality.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Mr MacNeil, I have had enough. You keep interrupting everybody. This debate has been going on all day. I ask you to sit there quietly and stop trying to disrupt other people’s speeches.
Discuss this issue we must. Most Conservative Members are of the view that we would rather not, but if we have to it must be discussed fully and properly. This is a fundamental and irreversible constitutional change. It is not normal Government business. The idea that such a change should be rammed through with the routine whipping and programming is unthinkable.
The Bill is not about democracy. Too many people who support it seem to think that simply using the word “democracy” shuts down the debate. That is not the case. I was a soldier for nine years. I took the Queen’s commission and served Her Majesty. I was taught at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and the Royal Military College at Shrivenham to uphold and preserve democracy and the rule of law, which I do. I challenge anybody in this Chamber to tell me that I do not support democracy. That I support it does not mean that I must support the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) described eloquently our complex and ancient constitution. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) made a passionate speech on the nature of the upper House and its specific and unique role in our constitution, which does not automatically require that its Members be elected. I was rather hoping that I would be called to speak immediately after him, because I would have been tempted to say, “What he said,” and sit down.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) ran through a list of other parts of our system that are elected. Interestingly, I have the same list in my speech in order to make the opposite point. My constituents already have the opportunity to elect every level of government. They elect parish councillors, borough councillors, county councillors, Members of Parliament and MEPs. They elect their Government when they elect their MP. That is our system. If we move, in an ill-thought-out way, to a system in which they also elect, in a manner of speaking—I am not a fan of this system of proportional representation—Members of the other place, which House will form the Government? That system will result in confusion and chaos.
This change is being imposed. There is no suggestion that it will go to the people in a referendum, unlike the question of whether the people of Coventry want an elected mayor, as numerous colleagues have pointed out. Apparently, this fundamental change to the constitution of our country is not suitable for a referendum. The people who want to impose this fundamental change
9 July 2012 : Column 124
should at least come to the House to explain what the upper Chamber is supposed to do, what it is about the current system that is failing to achieve that end and how the proposals will achieve that end better.
It seems to me that the Bill fails in what it sets out to achieve. It will not make the upper House more accountable. I will not repeat the arguments involving the party list system and the 15-year terms, but the new Members will not be accountable. The Bill will not end the Prime Minister’s right of patronage. Ministerial Members will be appointed by the Prime Minister, not by an independent appointments commission, and he will be able to appoint as many of them as he wants. As long as fewer than eight of them are serving as Ministers at the time, he can appoint more. He can appoint eight on day one. If they all resign on day two, he can appoint eight more. He can do that every day. The power of parliamentary patronage is therefore still there. That means that it will not be an 80% elected Chamber. If each Prime Minister appoints only eight ministerial Members in each Parliament and they stay for three Parliaments, it will be a 74% elected Chamber. Let us call it what it is. And that is ignoring the Lords Spiritual.
Dan Byles: My hon. Friend is being naughty, because he knows that I have. He knows that there was some confusion in the Ministers’ office about how many times the Prime Minister could appoint eight ministerial Members. At one point, it was suggested that they could appoint only eight per Parliament. However, a constitutional expert in the upper House, whom I shall not name because I have not asked his permission, assures me that as the Bill is written, there is no limit on the number of ministerial Members who can be appointed.
The scope for constitutional deadlock that the Bill will bring about has been described at great length and with eloquence. Those who want us to give the other place what they see as more democratic legitimacy cannot run away from the fact that it will want to use and exert that legitimacy.
I am pleased that the Deputy Prime Minister is back in his place, because I would like to pick up on one of his points, if he is listening. He is not. He was naughty in his opening speech when he discussed the potential costs of the reform, because he included the costs of reducing the size of this place. The House will know that that was in entirely separate legislation that will be on the statute book regardless of whether this Bill is accepted. That reduction should form the baseline from which the costs of the Bill are judged.
I stood on a manifesto commitment to seek consensus on House of Lords reform. It is quite clear that that consensus has not been reached. When the Joint Committee, in an unprecedented move, issued a minority report signed by almost half its members urging that a constitutional convention be set up, because this matter was too important to be left to grubby political horse-trading, people should have sat up and taken notice. That is why I cannot support the Bill and certainly cannot support the programme motion.
9 July 2012 : Column 125
Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): Today’s debate has been passionate and knowledgeable, and it will stand as a fine example of the House at its best. We have heard numerous excellent contributions from right hon. and hon. Members, and we have heard a range of differing views from all parts of the House—some were in favour of the Bill and some against, but most speakers acknowledged that in the name of parliamentary democracy the proposals in it needed to feel the heat of Members’ thorough scrutiny.
Labour Members can be proud of an unmatched record on reform, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) made clear at the beginning of the debate. We have introduced many of the changes in the relationship between this House and the House of Lords, and we are proud to be the party of reform. The House of Lords Act 1999 finally removed the hereditary principle from membership of the second Chamber. Interestingly, the decision elicited this response from the then Leader of the Opposition, the current Foreign Secretary,
“let me make it clear…that we believe it is wrong to embark on fundamental change to the Parliament of this country without any idea where that will lead.”—[Official Report, 2 December 1998; Vol. 321, c. 876.]
The result of the 1999 Act was that, overnight, the size of the other place was reduced from more than 1,300 to just 669. In 2006 we created the post of elected Lord Speaker, separated the judiciary from the Lords by establishing the Supreme Court and created people’s peers—all steps that strengthened our democracy.
It is also important to remember that in 2003 and 2007 Labour initiated votes on whether there should be a fully or partly elected second Chamber. Although the 2003 votes were inconclusive, the 2007 votes favoured a 100% elected second Chamber. The Opposition recognise that vote and believe that the job of Lords reform will not be complete until we have a 100% elected second Chamber. We committed to that in our last manifesto, and we stand by that commitment.
The Deputy Prime Minister agreed with that policy just over a year ago, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting said earlier. I wonder what made him abandon yet another apparently strong belief. Page 88 of the Liberal Democrats’ 2010 manifesto stated that they would:
“Replace the House of Lords with a fully-elected second chamber with considerably fewer members than the current House.”
Despite all that, the Deputy Prime Minister has made proposals for only an 80% elected House—then again, we all know how much the Deputy Prime Minister’s manifesto promises are worth. Leaving that to one side, it should be clear to all Members that the Bill deserves the fullest possible scrutiny, precisely because of issues such as I have mentioned. The Joint Committee was split, and it is clear that a rigorous debate is required before the issue is settled in statute. The House’s task, therefore, is to ensure that the Bill is fit for the long term, fit to endure in our democracy and fit to last a great deal longer than the legacy of its main architect.
9 July 2012 : Column 126
Many hon. Members have referred to the primacy of the Commons, including, to mention just a few, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer). It is now 101 years since the Parliament Act 1911, a measure that the House laid before Parliament to curb the powers of the other place. We should consider how emboldened an elected second Chamber might be if it disagrees with the Commons. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting said, clause 2 reasserts the powers of the Parliament Acts, but it is silent on the future power and roles of a reformed Chamber, and relies on the evolution of conventions for the maintenance of Commons primacy. An elected second Chamber could evolve to challenge the conventions. Rigorous debate informed by constitutional expertise is required on Commons primacy. As the Foreign Secretary has said in the past, it is important to know and to try to establish where such measures lead.
The Opposition believe that such a major constitutional change should be put before the British people in a referendum—another hot topic in the debate. The idea was supported by numerous Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) and for Dudley North (Ian Austin), and my right hon. Friends the Members for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson). The last of those made it clear to the House, in his usual straightforward and blunt style, that he is a strong supporter of the reforms, but he also made it very clear that he supports a referendum. If cities can have referendums to decide whether they want a mayor, surely it is right to trust the British people on such a major change to our democracy.
Duncan Hames: The hon. Lady is keen to tell us that the Labour party supports Lords reform and wants a referendum. Will it therefore campaign for a yes vote to deliver House of Lords reform in such a referendum?
Angela Smith: That depends entirely on what the Bill looks like when it is presented to the British people. Hon. Members who have sat through the past seven hours of the debate will realise that the vast majority of Members of the House want the Bill debated thoroughly and amended to make it fit to put before the British people. The Joint Committee agreed unanimously on that point. It remains a mystery to Opposition Members that the party that was so keen to hold a referendum on the alternative vote system is so shy of supporting a referendum to determine the essence of our democracy and our parliamentary institutions. What on earth are they afraid of?
9 July 2012 : Column 127
The Bill clearly needs improvement if it is to work effectively to strengthen our democracy and our law-making processes. It needs to be informed by rigorous debate and further consideration of constitutional expertise. It needs scrutinising not only in relation to the issues I have already referred to, but in relation to the size of the proposed Chamber, which was mentioned by a large proportion of the Members who contributed to the debate; the proposed length of terms of representation; the transition period; and the voting system for the election of its Members. The Bill currently recommends a semi-open list system, as opposed to the single transferable vote proposed in the draft Bill. Today, however, we have witnessed a lack of clarity about what the numerous variations of proportional representation mean, so once again the need for thorough debate has been firmly underlined.
The Bill proposes the biggest constitutional change our country has seen since the Parliament Act 1911, which is why we need to take care over its progress—we need to get it right. It would damage our democracy if the House were to force through the Bill without adequate debate and scrutiny—an argument that has asserted itself at every twist and turn of this debate. It was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett)—to mention just a few.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough pointed out that a range of views are present in this debate. The fact of those views absolutely makes the case for a period of thorough scrutiny. I would particularly mention the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames), who pointed out rightly that Members need to read carefully the comments of the Clerk of the House about the reforms, particularly in relation to Commons primacy. That is a really important point. Members need to acquaint themselves with those comments and concerns before making up their minds about the Bill on Third Reading. Moreover, it would help the Bill if the Commons arrived at a consensus on the way forward by hammering out agreed positions via a process of debate and amendment.
The Opposition welcome reform of the House of Lords, and want to secure its progress and conduct the process constructively. My concluding words are therefore directed at the Deputy Prime Minister, who was asked in a letter sent to him last week by a Member of the other place to show a little more respect for our ermine-clad colleagues:
“If the future of one of the key parts of our British Constitution is to be debated in a responsible way, it is surely important that deliberate factual errors and insulting insinuations should not be part of the debate.”
The House is familiar with the cavalier manner that the Deputy Prime Minister deploys when making his arguments, and we are well accustomed to his tendency to exaggerate to make an argument, but today’s debate
9 July 2012 : Column 128
has underlined the point made by the other place. For the most part, this debate has been good humoured and civilised. He should respond by curbing his excesses and working with colleagues, not against them.
Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): The right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) was brilliantly opaque in his view of Labour’s plans for timetabling. Will the hon. Lady be a littler clearer about Labour’s plans for Third Reading? Does she propose to support Third Reading, oppose it or abstain?
Angela Smith: The House needs to decide what are the important principles in the Bill. It needs proper discussion, and we have made it clear that we will work with the Government to ensure that progress is made, but we do not believe it appropriate to pre-programme the timetable. We have been absolutely clear on that.
Many colleagues today have had to curtail their comments because of the time pressures, and it is clear that the appetite for further debate is strong. We support the Second Reading of this far-from-perfect Bill but believe that today’s debate has put it firmly on the record that the House does not wish to give the Bill a swift passage into law, as the Deputy Prime Minister suggested earlier. Rather, it wants thoroughly to scrutinise and improve the Bill and make it fit for presentation to the electorate in a referendum. I, with the rest of the House, look forward to tomorrow’s debate.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): I do not think that any self-imposed injunction on personal and disparaging comments could have been breached quite so promptly as it was by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) just then, with her reference to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. Nevertheless, this has been a good debate, in which 36 Back Benchers have had the opportunity to speak so far—and of course, it is only half-time.
There has been good support for the Bill—some qualified and some wholehearted—and it has been expressed by many. We have heard good speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy), the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain), and the hon. Members for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), for South Thanet (Laura Sandys), for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and for Carlisle (John Stevenson). Let me single out for special comment the exceptional speech by the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who made the important point that what we have before us builds on what the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) started and what Robin Cook produced in conversation with other parties, which is the bedrock of the consensus—which I hope we can still reach—on reform of the House of Lords.
There have also been speeches against the Bill. I am afraid that some have erected straw men so as to knock them down, mentioning things that have simply never been suggested by the Government, but which hon.
9 July 2012 : Column 129
Members nevertheless felt the need to speak against. However, some speeches were well argued. I would like to single out the hon. Members for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady), for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) and for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), who I know will have had difficulty making the comments she did today. We can disagree with people but still respect the arguments they put forward. Of course I do not agree with them in opposing the legislation, but I respect the way they put their arguments.
Some Members are simply against an elected House. I respect that, although of course I do not agree with them. It is not what their respective parties put before the electorate—it is not what they said in their manifestos—but it is frankly a pointless endeavour trying to bash round the head someone who is committed to unicameralism, such as the right hon. Members for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) or for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), or the hon. Members for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) or for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd). Someone who believes that there should be no second House will not support proposals for reform. I understand that: it is a perfectly proper argument.
Many others appear to think—this is a view shared by many appointed peers—that any system that appointed such exemplars of legislative acuity and perfection as themselves must be an exceedingly good system indeed. I do not necessarily share that view. I have great respect for the quality of much of the work of the present House of Lords—and, indeed, for the quality of many individual peers. However, that is not a sufficient argument for a system that, I believe, is simply not sustainable.
Many Members—particularly, I have to say, those sitting on the Government Benches—are those who I remember railing against the prospect of a House of cronies when we last debated this subject, but they seem content with the idea of a fully appointed House. It is not a view I share.
Mr Jenkin: I remember the hon. Gentleman railing against Governments who impose timetables and guillotines when he was in opposition, so how can he now come to this House and guillotine a constitutional measure—which would have been unthinkable under Winston Churchill, incidentally—which is not going to be subject to a referendum and may be Parliament Acted, so that when it is being scrutinised by the other place, he will have no option but to propose that the same damaged and inadequate Bill go back to the other House, as he tries to force it through?
There are those who say that they are for reform, but not yet. They say it is too precipitate and that there has been insufficient scrutiny. This process has been about as precipitate as the reckless progress of a particularly arthritic slug. We have had what I would describe as pre-legislative scrutiny on this for 101 years. This is not a quick process.
9 July 2012 : Column 130
answer on the issue of the guillotine? Why, when he was always against it in principle before, is he now in favour of it?
Others argue that they want reform, but not now, as there are and always will be other priorities. They are absolutely right that economic issues must be pre-eminent. That is the reason for this coalition Government, but it does not stop the House doing other things, and it never has. It did not prevent this House from passing one of the most important pieces of legislation on social policy we have ever had—the Education Act 1944—in the middle of a world war. I simply do not believe that this House cannot address more than one issue at a time.
A variety of Members said that they want reform, but not this reform. Some have argued that it is a mixture of proposals and not the unadulterated product of a single party’s programme. That is true, but these are the same people who also argue that we have failed to listen to others and that we have failed to reach consensus. We have tried to find common ground between the parties, and that is what is before us today.
Mr Heath: The right hon. Gentleman may not have noticed that we have had 14 months discussing these proposals, including by a Joint Committee of both Houses that looked at these proposals. We have had detailed scrutiny of this Bill, and we will continue to do so.
We also heard the proposals, from the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) and others, that we should be going for Lord Steel’s Bill. Lord Steel has put forward some small and valuable proposals, but if anyone honestly believes that those small incremental changes that would put right the legislative incapacity of the previous Government actually address the fundamental constitutional issues about the House of Lords, I have to say that they are fundamentally wrong.
Mr Heath: It might be because we were anticipating 14 days of debate on this measure. The fact that the Government acceded to the majority of the recommendations of the Joint Committee shows that the Government have been prepared to listen.
9 July 2012 : Column 131
Some have criticised the voting system, particularly this semi-open list. I made the point in an earlier intervention that that was something that the Labour party asked for. Of course, it asks for something and then it votes against it later, but that is par for the course; we expect that. To those who believe that a list with a voting constituency of millions is not better than a closed list with a voting capacity of one—the Prime Minister of the day, putting forward his or her nominations to the upper House—I have to say that I simply do not accept that argument.
Hazel Blears: Can the Deputy Leader of the House honestly say from the Dispatch Box today that this Bill is genuinely about increasing democracy rather than simply a device to sustain his party as the one holding the balance of power in a second Chamber?
Mr Heath: The right hon. Lady will have to make up her mind. Either the right hon. Lady believes that we are not going to win any seats in the next election, in which case we will not have any seats in the House of Lords under this system—although we would under an appointment system—or the reverse. She cannot have it both ways. I am afraid that there is a slight logical inconsistency in her argument.
The issue of ministerial appointments was raised, and I am happy for us to examine that in Committee. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) inveighed against the practice of bringing people in from outside, giving them ministerial posts and putting them in the upper House. I wonder whether he ever had that conversation with Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool, or with any of the other GOATs who were brought in by the last Government.
Mr Blunkett: The point that I was attempting to make—obviously not successfully—was that those Ministers were brought in as, and remained, Members of Parliament. The Government’s proposals do not allow that. They impose a system which will mean that, for the first time in our constitutional history, Ministers will not be part of and embedded in our Parliament.
Mr Heath: The right hon. Gentleman may not have studied the Bill assiduously enough. It is true that those Ministers will not be there for life: the right hon. Gentleman is right about that. Under the present system they are there for life even when they have clearly outlived their ministerial usefulness.
We heard arguments in favour of secondary election, and I think that that is a perfectly valid debate for us to have in Committee. We also heard arguments about primacy. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made what I considered to be a very sensible suggestion about the possibility of a concordat. I thank him for that: it is something that we need to debate.
The hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) asked which legal expert the Government had consulted on clause 2. It was Lord Pannick, who I believe the hon. Gentleman thinks is a very good lawyer indeed.
9 July 2012 : Column 132
The hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) compared the Deputy Prime Minister with Andy Murray. I think that, if anything, he is more like Jonny Marray, in that he is a champion doubles partner, and on that basis the coalition has been succeeding.
Let me now deal with what I think is one of the most important issues on which we shall have to reach a conclusion tomorrow. There are those, predominantly in the official Opposition, who will vote for the end but not for the means, namely the programme motion. I have long argued, as has my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, that programme motions should, wherever possible, be arranged by agreement. They should be for the convenience of the House: they should enable debate, not restrict it. That is the way in which we have managed things in this Parliament so far.
I repeatedly asked the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) how much more time he wanted. He has 10 days for the Committee stage in addition to the two days for Second Reading and the two days for Report, 14 days in all. I asked him repeatedly how many more days he wanted, but answer came there none. The Opposition cannot say how many days they want, because they decided to vote against the programme motion before it had been published or even suggested. I believe that 14 days out of a total of 88—only 88 days are available to the Government for legislative business during a whole year—are sufficient. If the right hon. Gentleman has a proposal, let him come up with it; but if, as I suspect, he has no proposal whatsoever other than a determination to oppose, he is doing his own argument a great disservice.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman just said that his fundamental principle was that a programme motion should be allowed only when it was for the convenience of the House. If he has not learned from today’s debate that this programme motion is not for the convenience of the House, should he not withdraw it?
I have no doubt that the tomorrow’s debate will be argued just as keenly as today’s. I think, and the Government think, that this measure is long overdue, and the polls show that the British public want it. It puts into effect the modest proposition that those who make our laws should be elected by our people, and I commend it to the House.
Mr Speaker: I am sure that we are very grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House. I was sorry that he ended his remarks. We were enjoying them and thinking that they would continue until 10 pm, but they did not.
9 July 2012 : Column 133
BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE
That, at this day’s sitting, proceedings on the Motion in the name of Sir George Young relating to Business of the House (11 July) may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour, and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.—(James Duddridge.)
9 July 2012 : Column 134
Business of the House (11 July)
That at the sitting on Wednesday 11 July—
(1) the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions relating to Sittings of the House and September Sittings not later than two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first Motion; such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; the Questions may be put after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply; and
(2) notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 20 (Time for taking private business), the Private Business set down by the Chairman of Ways and Means shall be entered upon at the conclusion of the backbench business on that day, and may then be proceeded with, though opposed, for three hours, after which the Speaker shall interrupt the business; the business may be entered upon after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.—(James Duddridge.)
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Listening to the Deputy Leader of the House took me back some 24 years to the time when I was on the Front Bench having to do a similar job—winding up the first day of a two-day debate—although in my case it was on the community charge legislation. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is turning around, because he was a participant in that debate, and was very much against the community charge. I remember how difficult it was to argue from the Front Bench, given the atmosphere in the House. A lot of Government Members, including my right hon. Friend, were against the community charge, as well as Opposition Members of course. I therefore sympathise enormously with what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) has had to do in the last few minutes. He should take the message that I should have taken on that occasion: when he can see that everything is loaded against him, it is better to call it a day now and abandon the Bill rather than persist with it.
Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the lesson that we all learned at that time was that the Government should sometimes listen carefully to the advice of their close friends?
The business before us relates to our discussions on Wednesday, and I want to make sure that Members who might wish to debate Wednesday’s business on the sitting hours of the House recognise that if they support this motion, they will be limiting the time for discussion to two hours. If they want to do that, that is fine, but I think it is right and proper that Members should have the opportunity to consider whether they wish to limit that debate to two hours.
9 July 2012 : Column 135
My other point is that it has been a long-standing tradition and convention in this House that a specific period of time is set aside for the consideration of private business: three hours, between 4 pm and 7 pm on a Wednesday or between 7 pm and 10 pm on a Tuesday. Nowadays, however, the Government almost invariably seek to introduce a motion undermining that principle. The consequence is that Members are left in doubt as to what the order of business will be and, if they are concerned about private business, whether they will have their special three-hour slot allocated to them, or whether it will be interfered with by the business managers. There are some important principles at stake, therefore.
What I am saying is: when it comes to discussing these issues on Wednesday why can we not say that between 4 pm and 7 pm, if it takes that long, we should be able to discuss the private business, as set down under Standing Order No. 20? Why do we need to say that the business of the House starting with the September sittings motion and followed by the debate on VAT on ambulance services should be able to force the private business much later on in the agenda, perhaps until 11 pm or later?
The consequence of that is that some hon. Members will stay behind because they are told that, although it is private business, it is very important and the Government want them to be here. They feel that they have to hang on in there late because the Government have told them to do so. The Government then blame me or somebody else; they say, “The reason you are staying late is that the hon. Member for Christchurch has required that you should stay late by talking this business long.” All I am saying is that we have a three-hour slot on Wednesday, so can we not keep that for private business?
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): My hon. Friend is being very unfair to the Government. The suggestion that this Government would try to whip private business is absolutely outrageous; they would not require Members to stay behind.
Mr Chope: Of course my hon. Friend is right to say that ultimately it is for hon. Members to decide whether they are willing to be whipped by the Government into supporting or opposing private business and whether we should allow some things in this House—private business—to be decided by Members on an individual basis, using their own judgment. So be it.
I can recall strongly opposing a private Bill that would have resulted in a substantial destruction of the amenities and environment in Southampton. I was grateful that a lot of then Government Members, including the then Home Secretary, supported me in the Lobby against the Bill; he wondered afterwards what he had been voting for, but I explained that it was in a really good cause.
I admit that there are precedents, but why should we want to oppose having a proper discussion of why we should be carrying on with certain private legislation that has been hanging around in this House for not just one or two years, but for two Sessions or more—for two Parliaments or more? I believe that one of the motions we will be debating on Wednesday goes back to 2007, when it was first introduced in the House.
9 July 2012 : Column 136
I need elaborate my remarks no further. All I need to say is that, having raised this debate, it is right and proper that the Deputy Leader of the House should try to make a better job of responding to this debate than he did to the previous one.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): I cannot imagine why any right hon. or hon. Member of this House should ever have formed the impression that they were here beyond 10 pm purely because the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) wanted to speak. That is an outrageous suggestion and I would certainly not put it from this Dispatch Box.
This business motion is before us purely at the request of the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee and the Chair of the Procedure Committee. They asked the Government whether we could arrange business, none of which is Government business, to accommodate the House’s wish to have the opportunity to debate very important matters, given the change in the arrangements that was made to accommodate the debate on the inquiry into bankers last week.
Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): The Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee did indeed make strong representations to the Government about the Back-Bench business that was lost last Thursday because of the Government’s business on the inquiry into banking, and asked them to ensure that that business was reinstated. Having heard what the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) said about the sittings motions and the private business, I would like clarification that the air ambulance debate selected by the Backbench Business Committee, which has support from many Members on both sides of the House, will get the two hours that the Government intended.
Mr Heath: The answer, very simply, is that it will if the motion is agreed to. The motion provides for the Procedure Committee’s reports to be debated properly; for the hon. Gentleman’s motion, which I know is of interest to many Members and those outside this House, to be debated properly; and for three hours to be given over to opposed private business. There is no detriment to the House whatsoever in acceding to the requests made to us and I am happy to assist.
Business without Debate
That the draft Further Education Institutions and 16 to 19 Academies (Specification and Disposal of Articles) Regulations 2012, which were laid before this House on 24 May, be approved.
9 July 2012 : Column 137
That the draft Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (Miscellaneous Amendments) Order 2012, which was laid before this House on 14 May, be approved.
That the draft Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 (Controlled Activity and Prescribed Criteria) Regulations 2012, which were laid before this House on 14 May, be approved.
That the draft Designation of Features (Appeals) (England) Regulations 2012, which were laid before this House on 11 June, be approved.—(James Duddridge.)
That the draft Legislative Reform (Annual Review of Local Authorities) Order 2012, which was laid before this House on 10 May, be approved.—(James Duddridge.)
That the draft Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2012, which were laid before this House on 12 June, be approved.—(James Duddridge.)
European union Documents
That this House takes note of European Union Documents No. 17289/11, relating to a draft Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing the Asylum and Migration Fund, No. 17287/11, relating to a draft Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing, as part of the Internal Security Fund, the instrument for financial support for police cooperation, preventing and combating crime, and crisis management and No. 17285/11, a draft Regulation laying down general provisions on the Asylum and Migration Fund and on the instrument for financial support for police cooperation, preventing and combating crime, and crisis management; and supports the Government’s aim of encouraging flexibility and reducing waste and bureaucracy in the management of these Funds.—(James Duddridge.)
9 July 2012 : Column 138
Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise my concerns about the lack of current road traffic measures to address the incidence of fatalities and serious injuries caused by foreign drivers driving on the wrong side of the road in the UK. The UK, as we all know, is one of the few remaining areas within the EU and internationally whose drivers drive on the left-hand side of the road. The sparse statistics available on such road traffic accidents would suggest that more attention needs to be paid to such tragic accidents and that steps need to be taken to reduce or even prevent them.
On 11 September 2010, Andrew Alexander McLean, a 22-year-old, was returning home from his work in the Scottish borders when a car driven by a French driver approached him on the wrong side of the road at the crest of a hill. Andrew saw the oncoming vehicle and steered for the verge, but, sadly, as the French driver was on the wrong side of the road he too steered for the verge straight into Andrew, who was killed instantly. Although, as we can imagine, this is still a very sensitive matter for Andrew’s family, they have asked me to raise the matter through this debate in the hope that it will be given more prominence.
The French driver, a 23-year-old schoolteacher, was driving in the UK for the first time in his left-hand drive Peugeot 307 when the accident happened, and the subsequent court case in Selkirk heard that the accident was caused
“by a moment’s inattention resulting from the accused’s inexperience of driving in the UK”.
The accused’s defence lawyer claimed there were no aggravating factors in the build-up to the accident such as speeding or lack of rest. He momentarily suffered a lapse in concentration and responded by acting instinctively, moving to the right-hand side of the road, which was the right side for him but was sadly the wrong side of the road in Scotland. Even given those mitigating circumstances, Andrew’s family feels that the court’s sentence was lenient, although I appreciate that that is not an issue for tonight’s discussion.
Such accidents are a tragedy for the victim and in many cases the perpetrator. Often forgotten are the families of the victim, and I was initially alerted to this case by Andrew’s grandmother, Mrs Billett, who is a constituent living in Stirling. I have been specifically asked to highlight the case by Andrew’s family, including his father, as they wish to see the Government take steps to investigate ways to prevent foreign drivers from driving on the wrong side of the road.
I want to put a series of points to the Minister, perhaps with a view to investigating such road deaths and helping to reduce their number. I am aware, as he will be, that the Scottish Government have some devolved responsibility for road issues, such as accidents on Scottish roads, and I understand that they have published a policy framework, “Go Safe on Scotland’s Roads it’s Everyone’s Responsibility”, which covers the period up to 2020. Chapter 7 of that document refers to a Scottish Government report of 2001, stating that although
“tourist activity does not significantly boost road accident numbers in the rural… areas of Scotland”
9 July 2012 : Column 139
“involved driving on the wrong side, turning, and crossing the centre line”,
As far as I can ascertain, the policy of the Scottish Government in relation to foreign drivers on Scottish roads is the publication of a tourist information guide for foreign drivers, which includes a “keep left” sticker available in four languages. I am not sure whether a similar minimum warning is given at ports in other parts of the UK. In certain areas, there are warning signs to “keep left”.
An issue allied to the circumstances surrounding Andrew’s death is the number of foreign truck drivers involved in road accidents in the UK. A press report of February 2012 suggested that one in every 31 motorway accidents in the UK was the fault of lorry drivers from abroad. It was also alleged that on the M25 the figure could be as high as one accident in three. While that might not be directly the result of foreign truck drivers driving on the wrong side of the road, I believe that there is little information held by the Department for Transport either to rebut or to substantiate such assertions.
I recently met the Association of British Insurers, which produced a report, “European Drivers: Crossing Borders Safely”, in November 2007. The report stated that drivers from elsewhere in Europe were involved in more than 18,000 recorded accidents in the UK. In 2005, UK drivers caused more than 5,000 reported collisions on continental European roads. The ABI believes that the UK Government are underestimating the risks that cross-border drivers pose and that they
“should establish an accurate and consistent picture of crossborder driving in the UK, in order to measure the risk that this represents and therefore take proportionate action”.
“how many fatal vehicle accidents have occurred where a visitor to the UK driving on the wrong side of the road was a contributory factor in the last 10 years.”
“reported fatal road accidents which had ‘inexperience of driving on the left’ as a contributory factor, in Great Britain for the period 2005-10. However, it is not known how many drivers involved in such accidents were visitors to Great Britain, or if they were driving on the wrong side of the road at the time of the accident.”
The table for that five-year period stated that there had been 55 such fatal accidents—a figure that I suspect grossly underestimates the scale of the problem if full reporting were in place and non-fatal serious accident statistics were included.
“contributory factors to road accidents has been collected since 1 January 2005”
“are reported only for injury road accidents where a police officer attended the scene and reported at least one contributory factor. These factors are largely subjective, reflecting the attending officer’s
9 July 2012 : Column 140
opinion at the time of reporting. It is recognised that subsequent enquires could lead to the reporting officer changing his/her opinion.”—[
, 29 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 892W.]
Since his tragic death, Andrew McLean’s family have been campaigning for Government measures that would reduce or prevent similar fatalities in the future. They have spent considerable time researching possible options, and they have advised me that some devices could be fitted to foreign cars being driven on UK roads. One such device, Lanesafe, is produced by a Scottish company, although I understand that other types of equipment are available. The manufacturers of Lanesafe have suggested that annually 8 million vehicles travel between the UK and Europe and vice versa, and more than 80% of drivers admit to momentarily, at some point, driving on the wrong side of the road. I am not sure whether those figures can be substantiated, but if they are accurate, I would contend that this subject requires much greater consideration by the Minister and his Department.
Andrew’s father strongly believes that devices such as Lanesafe, which would alert drivers when they are driving on the wrong side of the road, ought to be made compulsory for all foreign drivers. He is also totally convinced that, if such a device had been fitted to the car that caused his son’s death, his son would be alive today. Despite all the representations that he and the family have made, they feel frustrated that they cannot get anyone in the Government to listen to their suggestions on the implementation, fitting, checking and policing of the devices that he has identified. I am therefore delighted to have had the opportunity to discuss them this evening. Andrew’s family realise that his death is but one of numerous accidents involving young drivers, and they are keen to ensure that the wider issue is given greater prominence. The family have been energetic fundraisers for Brake, the national road safety charity.
I hope that the Minister recognises that there is a problem involving foreign drivers driving on the wrong side of UK roads. Without accurate and up-to-date statistics, the Government cannot say with certainty that the problem is not serious. I ask him to begin the process of ascertaining the facts, so that we can make a judgment on what action is needed. Andrew Alexander McLean’s family have made the case for action, and in Andrew’s memory as well as that of others killed and seriously injured on our roads by drivers driving on the wrong side of the road, I trust that the Government will look seriously at the options available. I certainly hope that they take into account the fact that, both in Europe and in the UK, many young people now drive cars that are not fitted to drive on the “right” side of the road in that country.
I look forward to the Minister’s response. I hope that he will give some comfort to Andrew McLean’s family by assuring me that he will consider anything that will enhance safety on our roads, not least for our young people.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): It is an honour and a privilege to respond on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government to the debate introduced by the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) on such a serious subject.
9 July 2012 : Column 141
I do not know whether the right hon. Lady knows this, but in a previous incarnation I was a firefighter. All too often, I was called to road traffic incidents—they were called something slightly different in those days, but I am more politically correct now. It is heartbreaking for families to lose a loved one, and my thoughts and prayers are with Andrew’s family.
Let me say at the outset that I hope that we can arrange a meeting with the family, because our time this evening is quite short and what we can discuss is limited. I passionately believe that, in many cases, what families bring to the road safety debate is a lot more than the “professionals” bring. It is important that families feel involved. I think it is a shame that we have not debated the matter before. I fully respect the right hon. Lady’s point about how limited the statistics are; I am all too aware of that. When I answered her parliamentary question, I tried desperately to open it up as much as possible. She will recall how long that answer was. I was disappointed that the statistics that I gave did not tell the whole story. For instance, the deaths per year figure could have included a driver from another country in Europe or anywhere in the world, inexperienced at driving on the left, who was driving a right-hand drive hire vehicle on UK roads. We are looking into whether we can make the statistics clearer. As the right hon. Lady suggested, the police have to form an opinion on whether that was a contributing factor. In Andrew’s case it obviously was. I feel for the family when a court makes a decision that does not feel to them or to us like natural justice. I know that we are not allowed to go into the court’s decision, although we have powers as Members of Parliament to appeal against leniency in some cases, and very good lawyers sometimes get results from the courts. We need to make sure that the legislation on the statute book fits the circumstances.
The title of the debate covers a broad spectrum, but as we were preparing for it I guessed that the right hon. Lady would raise a very serious issue. I thank her for the fact that her office contacted mine earlier today to give us an indication of what she would be speaking about this evening.
On dangerous driving offences, we are tightening up. In a serious case resulting in death, such as the one the right hon. Lady spoke about, there is in my opinion only one charge that could have been brought, but that is entirely up to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in England or the Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the right hon. Lady on bringing the matter to the House today. I spoke to the Minister earlier. With reference to the information and the statistics that the right hon. Lady asked for, will that include the relationship that Northern Ireland has with the Republic of Ireland and the relevant statistics? When it come to pursuing those who were involved in accidents and who flee the country, how will the Government deal with that?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He indicated to me earlier that he would intervene. There are reciprocal agreements between the Republic and not only Northern Ireland but the rest of the United Kingdom. Interestingly, the Commission is looking at those reciprocal agreements to see whether
9 July 2012 : Column 142
they are fit and proper. I think the agreements work well between the Republic and the Province and the rest of the UK. We have very good relationships so prosecutions do take place. In the case of an offence as serious as the one described, it would not matter where the driver came from. They would be arrested on the spot if the police thought that they were responsible for committing an offence, and they would be prosecuted through the courts, as is right and proper.
I accept that there is an issue with minor offences, though not so much with commercial vehicles because of the system whereby we hold a deposit. If the vehicle is overweight or the driver has worked more hours than he should, we take a deposit so that they do not pay the fine. There is much more of a problem with cars. We have to be slightly careful that we do not damage our tourism industry. We want people to come to this country, drive responsibly and enjoy the wonderful countryside of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. I have seen what the devolved Parliament in Scotland has put out.
The difficulty arises at port. We cannot in any way delay someone at port under the existing agreements. In the case of some of the heavy goods vehicles that come into our ports, which we know have a track record of not being as roadworthy as they should be, I would like to detain them before they get on to UK roads. We are working with the Commission on the problem, but at present we have to let the vehicles get on to the road before we can stop them, which seems a somewhat perverse way of dealing with the problem.
There are things that we can do. The right hon. Lady referred to Lanesafe. Technology is moving on enormously. I recently drove a mid-range vehicle at the manufacturer’s test track—I must not advertise the company, but it is well known in the UK. It had lane awareness, so as I started to drift from the lane it pulled me back, although it is possible to override that. It had distance awareness, in case I got too close to the vehicle in front. More frighteningly, for those of us with daughters who drive, it had independent parking, so I was able to take my hands off the steering wheel and the car parked itself. I am not being sexist about my daughters’ driving abilities, but both my girls have had great difficulty with lateral parking—they will not mind my saying that. That is not one of the most expensive cars, a dream car or a concept car; it is a mid-range vehicle available in showrooms today.
That sort of technology is becoming available and car manufacturers are producing products such as Lanesafe, which the right hon. Lady mentioned. We would have to be very careful, because the Commission would come down on me like a ton of bricks if I in any way discriminated against another member of the European economic area who has a free right of travel here. In other words, I would have to make that available across the board, so the compulsion part would be quite difficult.
The right hon. Lady said that she had had a meeting with the Association of British Insurers. I have many such meetings. I must be honest and admit that this was not at the top of its list when it raised the matter with me. There are many other things it is concerned about, particularly the cost of insurance for young people and how we can make that transparent, but we must ensure that any ideas out there are listened to and that we work on an evidence base and ensure that our roads, which are some of the safest in the world, continue to be so.
9 July 2012 : Column 143
We are very conscious of the concerns that the right hon. Lady raised about HGVs and overseas drivers, not least because they come here with their belly tanks full of diesel and compete with our hauliers. Even with the existing cabotage rules it is difficult for our hauliers to compete, so we are going to introduce lorry road user charging in this Parliament so that there is a better balance in the legislation and our truckers can compete with foreign hauliers.
However, the figures on actual incidents are very interesting. Only about 5% of the whole haulage industry is affected by overseas hauliers, and that is at the top end of the range, with the larger 44-tonners. The right hon. Lady is absolutely right that they are disproportionately represented in accidents, but not necessarily the most serious ones, which is the point I think she was making. The word “incident” is there for everyone to see. Some are reported and some are not. We are trying to ensure that foreign haulage vehicles are as rigidly maintained and as safe as our vehicles.
The Vehicle and Operator Services Agency does an excellent job of enforcement in this regard. Only recently I was on a motorway with VOSA staff when a foreign-registered 45-tonne truck went under a bridge that we had a monitor on. The electronic monitor showed that two of its axels were overweight, so the technology is simply outstanding. We pulled the vehicle over and got it to follow us back on to the weigh bridge. We identified that it was not only over its cabotage but over its hours, so we tend to pick up other things as well. What we must ensure is that exactly the same rules apply to our hauliers as apply to others.
The right hon. Lady touched on a really important point about gathering evidence. We gather unbelievable amounts of data from the police, VOSA, DVLA, ports, the Highways Agency and the courts, but do we make sure that we gather the data that we really need and are not just form-filling for the sake of it? Do we focus on exactly what we require so that, for instance, we can get a better answer to the parliamentary question she asked me? The answer is that we try. I think I am right in saying that the police fill in more than enough forms—I was on patrol with the police in my constituency on
9 July 2012 : Column 144
Friday night, and the amount of form-filling was mind-boggling—so we do not want them to fill in more forms; we want the forms to be as accurate as possible to give the information we require but not to be too opinionated. The evidence is absolutely crucial. The right hon. Lady says that the figures are often skewed because the police officer may think, at the time of the incident, that something was a contributory factor, but later, after looking at the evidence, that it probably was not.
We are trying to take the issue very seriously. The right hon. Lady was part of, and had a ministerial role in, the previous Administration, and such work is difficult, but that does not mean we should not do it. I am conscious that we need to do everything that we can to ensure that our roads continue to be some of the safest in the world, and that when we have visitors to this country, whether for pleasure or for business, we give them as much assistance as possible to ensure that they know what their obligations are on our roads.
We have reciprocal agreements with some countries, and I think we could develop that much more to ensure that prosecutions take place. In the case of serious offences, prosecutions do take place because the person is arrested there and then and often their bail conditions make it difficult for them to leave the country before they return to court.
The one thing that we must do, however, is to listen to the families—both the families who want, for understandable reasons, to walk away when a loved one has been lost or seriously injured, and the families who want to campaign and to make things better so that such incidents do not happen to others. I have done that with many families, by bringing them in to work with the Department, and we have actually funded some of their campaigns, rather than just those of larger organisations.
If we can do that, we can make our roads much safer, we can have fewer terrible incidents such as the one involving Andrew, and we can protect our tourism industry and allow, as we have to under EU rules, free movement, which is what we would all expect.