HC Deb 28 July 1983 vol 46 cc1388-400 7.21 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)

I beg to move, That the Traffic Areas (Reorganisation) (No. 2) Order 1983, a copy of which was laid before this House on 12th May, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved. The order was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell), the former Secretary of State, on 10 May and laid before this House on 12 May. It gives effect to changes in traffic area boundaries which, subject to the approval of both Houses, are to take effect on 1 April 1984. It may help the House if I first explain what traffic areas are and what they do, and then say why the Government wish to reorganise the boundaries.

Traffic commissioners and the traffic areas for which they are responsible were set up in 1930 to regulate the growing bus industry, which before then was regulated in some areas by local authorities and in others hardly at all. The country was divided into 13 traffic areas. Sometimes the boundaries followed county boundaries; elsewhere they followed the operating boundaries of the major bus companies of that day. It was established that the chairmen of the commissioners were to be appointed by the Secretary of State, but thereafter would be thoroughly insulated from political interference. Two other commissioners in each area were to be chosen by the Secretary of State from panels, one nominated by county councils and the other by district councils.

The commissioners do an excellent job. In 1934, the chairmen were made responsible for the quantity licensing of road haulage. The commissioners are also responsible for the licensing of bus and heavy goods vehicle drivers. The traffic areas now employ about 800 staff directly in support of the commissioners' licensing functions. Their turnover is about £50 million per annum, almost all of it self-financing through licence fees paid by users.

Meanwhile, the nature of the commissioners' original function regulating the bus industry has changed, as we all know. The Transport Act 1980 therefore freed from licensing all long distance bus services, abolished fares controls, and established a presumption in favour of granting licences for local services. The net effect of those changes was to reduce the workload on the commissioners and on their staff.

Meanwhile, other aspects of the traffic areas' work have continued to demand attention, especially their responsibilities for road freight licensing. In particular, and most recently, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) will remember, the Transport Act 1982 gave them new responsibilities for considering environmental issues relating to goods vehicle operating centres.

The traffic commissioner system has served us well for over 50 years. It has proved thoroughly flexible in responding to the new demands placed upon it. During those years, the boundaries established in 1930 have been changed only three times: once in 1933, when the southern traffic area was abolished, reducing the number to 12, and the present power to change boundaries by order was established; once in 1940, when the two areas in Scotland were combined into one, leaving the 11 areas that we now have — on that occasion the wartime emergency was cited as the reason; and in 1960, when some minor modifications were effected by a consolidating Act. That was the last change. So the power under which this order is made, now continued in a further consolidating Act of 1981, has not been used in the past 40 years.

The onus is therefore on the Government to justify changing a system which has served us well. What persuaded us that the time for change had come was that, because of the changing workload on the bus licensing side, we were not using to the full the talents and expertise of the chairmen of traffic commissioners. The independence of the chairmen and commissioners is an immensely valuable element in our licensing system, and one that we all wish to continue, but the chairmen themselves recognise that the system was not operating at full stretch. It is essential, in my opinion, to make full use of those men's talents.

So, with the agreement of the chairmen, we looked at various proposals, originally to reduce their number from 11 to seven or eight, coming up with the final suggeston that I put to the House tonight, to reduce the number from 11 to eight and the number of areas from 11 to nine. No chairman will lose his job because of this reorganisation, nor will any member of their staff. We have taken the opportunity provided by retirements to reorganise, without any need for loss of jobs. We shall keep a close eye on the pressures that there may be on the chairmen and their staff following the boundary changes, especially in view of their new responsibilities under the Transport Act 1982, although I do not believe that it is at all likely that further boundary changes will be needed in the near future.

Our second main reason for changing the traffic area boundaries is that since the local government boundary changes of 1974 it had become a source of irritation that the traffic area boundaries did not coincide with local government boundaries. They never had coincided everywhere. In 1930, our predecessors thought it more important in some areas to follow the bus company operating boundaries, but, as I have said, bus service licensing has become relatively less important and the local government reorganisation has made the problem worse. As a result, a number of local authorities had to deal with another traffic area for just one or two parishes. Plainly, that is not appropriate.

The time has therefore come to tackle the two problems together: to reduce the number of traffic areas, consistent with the work that is being undertaken—

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)


Mrs. Chalker

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish the point—and to align the boundaries with the county boundaries, wherever practical. Before doing so, we have thoroughly consulted the bus and freight industries, local government associations and other interested bodies, trade unions, and in particular the traffic commissioners themselves. Our proposals were modified in response to the views of those directly affected. Indeed, most of the changes from the original proposals in the consultation paper circulated in May of last year were designed to keep to an absolute minimum the disturbance to the customers who need to use the traffic commissioners and the traffic areas themselves.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Does the Department derive any financial benefit from this reorganisation?

Mrs. Chalker

As far as I can see, immediately no, but from the point of view of organisation, it is sensible to do it.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

The hon. Lady said: "As far as I can see, immediately no". If there are therefore longer-term benefits, from which part of the reorganisation do they derive?

Mrs. Chalker

I can only say that we have not yet had the experience of operating the Transport Act 1982, which deals with the operating centres for heavy goods vehicle operators. When the traffic commissioners get to grips with that, some benefit may be derived as a result of this order which would not have been derived without it—if the House approves the order. Therefore, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a categoric answer that there will be no benefit. On the other hand, I cannot say that there will be any benefit to the Government except that which results from the organisational common sense of these changes.

Let me take the House rapidly through the order. It seems somewhat long for rather minor changes but law as it was written in the 1930s was a good deal more complicated than it seems to be even today. The main operative provision is article 4. That brings the new boundaries into force on 1 April 1984 and introduces the schedule which defines the new areas by reference to local government boundaries. Therefore, article 5 abolishes the signed maps which, since 1960, have delineated the traffic area boundaries. Articles 6 to 9 contain transitional provisions to do with matters of internal organisation such as the traffic commissioners' reports spanning the date of the boundary changes. Finally, articles 10 to 17 provide for such matters as the treatment of applications for licences that are in hand when the boundary changes take effect. Those provisions are designed to keep inconvenience to the users of traffic area services to a minimum.

Briefly, in article 4 and the schedule the order proposes a reduction in the number of areas from 11 to nine, as I have already said. That involves amalgamating most of the present northern area with most of the present Yorkshire area, and most of the eastern area with most of the east midland area. Other changes are designed to reduce the size of those combined areas which would otherwise be excessive and to adjust to local government boundaries.

In practice, we succeeded in following county boundaries in all but four counties—Derbyshire, Essex, Surrey and Kent — where the strength of operational links crossing county boundaries seemed to outweigh the administrative convenience of following them. In those counties the new boundaries follow district council boundaries and the details are set out in the schedule to be found on page 9. When my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State announced those proposals on 19 November 1982, he laid a map in the Library showing the new boundaries.

As I said, we consulted thoroughly. I can commend the order to the House as a modest administrative reform which commands the support of the majority of those directly affected. I do not want to claim too much for it, but I do not apologise for taking up the time of the House with it. Our predecessors in the 1930s judged it right that traffic area boundaries should not be changed except with the express approval of both Houses.

I am glad to have the opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the traffic commissioners and their staff and to bring that to the attention of the House. They work on, rarely receiving our gratitude and often receiving only our everlasting investigative questioning, and they do a good job for us. I trust that the House will follow me in supporting this small but sensible administrative reform which does not have wide implications.

7.32 pm
Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I begin by associating myself with the congratulations that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport offered to the traffic commissioners and to all the staff who work in the traffic areas.

The Traffic Areas (Reorganisation) (No.2) Order 1983 is, as is clear from its title, the second order to be laid before Parliament in order to bring about this minor administrative change. The first order had to be withdrawn because the eagle eye of the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments, under the excellent chairmanship of Bob Cryer, who is, sadly, no longer with us, spotted and drew to the attention of the Department of Transport and the House the fact that it was technically deficient. In view of the earlier debate, it is interesting that that deficiency arose because the order's vires were being questioned. This order has corrected those technical defects and has been before the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments which has found it to be technically correct. Even had Bob Cryer been here, one can say in all fairness that he could have had no objection to its technicalities.

However, there remains some doubt as to whether the Government have the policy of boundary changes right. We have to accept from the beginning that the system of road traffic areas and the functions of the chairmen and staff in the areas exist to provide a public service. I agree entirely with the hon. Lady that it is the Government's responsibility to justify the changes. I am not convinced that those changes have been justified. That public service has been carried out for 50 years in these areas even though the pattern and style of work has changed and probably will change even more.

The system was established as a result of a Royal Commission which between 1928 and 1930 examined all the detailed aspects of the passenger and goods carrying industries. In its report of 1929, Cmnd. 3416, the Royal Commission came to the conclusion that as modern road passenger transport has grown to such importance … the present chaotic system of licensing must disappear and be replaced by an entirely different system more suited to present day needs. No one quarrelled with that. Indeed, as the hon. Lady said, the detailed proposals of the Royal Commission became parts IV and V of the Road Traffic Act 1930. There were 11 areas for England and Wales and two for Scotland. Now we have 10 for England and Wales and one for Scotland. In each of those there was a permanent full-time commissioner with two part-time colleagues.

The Royal Commission looked at the road goods carrying industry and said that it is in a condition which lacks all unity and is operated by a number of independent firms and individuals who, while endeavouring to compete with other forms of transport, are at the same time engaged in bitter and uneconomic strife with each other in their own particular branch. One could almost use that very statement to describe some sections of the passenger carrying services that we have at present with the cut-throat competition which is going on between road and rail and, indeed, between different bus companies. However, it is not my intention to stray into the present day too far.

The Royal Commission's recommendations on licensing were strongly opposed at the time and were not implemented. It was not until a conference in 1932, convened by Sir Arthur Salter to consider a number of different points, that goods vehicle licensing came into being. He said that that was necessary to eliminate the evils of overcrowding and unbridled competition in the transport industry. Therefore, we moved on to the present system of road licensing.

I stress that, not for the first time or the last time, and certainly not only on road transport, the state was obliged to step into the ring to regulate the affairs of an industry that was incapable of regulating itself, both in terms of the safety of those who worked in the industry and in the interests of other road users. The state has repeatedly had to step in to deal with such matters in the road transport industry.

Commercial considerations must be taken into account. One has to look at the public need and how that can be met. As the hon. Lady said fairly and correctly, the last decade has seen the introduction of operator licences and so on, resulting in more free competition, and I do not deny that that has meant less work for the chairmen of the traffic areas. However, that in itself does not justify the reduction in the number of chairmen. If that reduction is at the root of the order—I suspect that it is—it need not lead automatically to the reduction of traffic areas. Indeed, it is perfectly possible for a chairman to cover two traffic areas.

The order proposes separate traffic areas for Wales and the west midlands to be covered by one chairman.

Mrs. Chalker

The traffic commissioner who will cover the west midlands will also cover south Wales, but north Wales will remain under the traffic commissioner in Manchester.

Mr. Hughes

It is perfectly obvious that I am not very good at map reading.

Mrs. Chalker

The hon. Gentleman is not Welsh, after all.

Mr. Hughes

That is true. Despite the name, I am not Welsh. I take the hon. Lady's word that I have got it wrong, and I apologise. However, it looks to me like the whole of Wales. It says "Pattern 8" in my book, but I accept that the Minister knows more about the precise technicalities than I do, and shall not quarrel with her on that score.

But that does not alter my proposition that it is perfectly possible for one chairman to cover two traffic areas. I do not know why it is particularly necessary for south Wales to have a separate traffic area but only a part-time chairman, so to speak. There has been a persistent wish to reduce the number of traffic areas. I understand that there was a review in 1974, which proposed some changes. At that time, it was realised that there were no good reasons for change, and the report was simply left on the shelf. In March 1981 another report was commissioned. It has been put to me that the 1981 report produced no evidence to back up its recommendations, and that there was no attempt to make a cost-benefit analysis. Indeed, I am told that a further consultative paper had to be produced in 1982.

I was interested in the Minister's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), who asked about the benefits to the state or the Department. She said that there were none immediately. However, I have a consultation paper dated 26 May 1982, which was issued by Mr. Wiblin. It is claimed that the changes in the traffic areas are expected to yield savings of between £ 120,000 and £ 150,000 per annum in the cost of administering the traffic area functions. Paragraph 8 goes on to say that traffic areas are meant to be broadly self-financing.

If I have understood the Minister's figures correctly, there is a turnover of £50 million a year. If that £120,000 to £150,000 is passed on in savings to the consumer, it will represent only about 1p per annum per licence. Therefore, there can be no justification for the proposal on the basis of those savings being made. Indeed, it is argued that many of the assumed savings have already been eaten up in the scheme's preparation. However, bigger savings could be made from enforcement. I am told that there could be a saving of, on average, £50,000 per annum if enforcement officers did their own prosecutions in summary cases, instead of giving the work to private solicitors.

I suspect that the Government will find that the savings are illusory and that the greater efficiency is non-existent. I also suspect that they will find that it is the wrong policy and that it may be very expensive. It may be rather like the proposition to hive off and privatise the HGV test stations. According to today's announcement, that exercise has, happily, been abandoned. I make no complaint about that, because in our many long hours in Committee upstairs we warned the Government of the dangers of proceeding. The fact that the Department did not take our advice cost it £500,000 in money paid to Lloyd's Register for the work done in good faith by that organisation.

There have, of course, been other cash costs, because of the work done on how the HGV test stations would operate. However, I accept that some of them will be returned in part. Nevertheless, it would have been better if the Department had not begun that exercise. Similarly, the Government may well find that it would have been much better not to embark on the reorganisation embodied in the order. Even if the Government could demonstrate large savings, there would still be reason to be unhappy about the reduction in the number of traffic areas. For example, there will certainly be a reduction in the service to the public.

The consultative document makes it clear that the vast majority of transactions are done by post. In any event, the Department conceded during discussions and consultations that no office would close for at least three years. That was the sort of time scale given in the guarantee. However, personal access to offices is important and should not be decried. To some extent, I question the guarantee of no office closures. I do not think that we have been given a cast-iron guarantee. It was more of an intimation. Perhaps the Minister will say a bit more at the end of the debate about the guarantee on office closures. Once it has been demonstrated that there is no immediate benefit to the Government from reorganisation and that there is no long-term benefit either, there will be yet another review which will conclude only that offices will have to be closed by administrative action in order to save money and improve efficiency. Offices can be closed by administrative action. For example, the Aberdeen traffic area sub-office in my constituency was closed. As the Minister may know, although she was not directly involved in the correspondence or discussions, I strongly urged the Minister of the day to accept that personal service was important. Ministers could not be moved to accept that the removal of a service that had existed for a long time would give rise to hardship. The Minister of the day did not seem willing or able to accept that there was a qualitative difference between travelling between Inverness and Aberdeen for a personal appointment or discussion, and travelling between Inverness and Edinburgh. The time difference is an additional three hours, and the cost is considerably greater.

Ministers simply would not accept that, and the decision to close the Aberdeen office was carried through. Ministers would not intervene. If the English traffic areas face the same sort of thing, it could give rise to hardship. I have already exposed the deficiencies in my geographical knowledge of the south-west, and I have no intention of further exposing my ignorance of English geography by attempting to describe any similar situation in the new English traffic areas. I would not dare to compare the travelling difficulties and costs as between Cumbria and Newcastle, and Cumbria and Manchester. It looks very easy on the map — straight across to Newcastle and straight down to Manchester. However, I am well aware that things are not quite as simple as that, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Workington would put me right if I attempted to expand on that. In some areas there will be two offices. I do not know how long that will continue, but where there is one office the counter service might go because of further centralisation.

The case against the order goes wider than the possible savings or loss of local services. The case against the proposed changes involves the need for the chairmen to devote their efforts to safety because that has been neglected.

Today heavier lorries travel our roads and much publicity has been given to the overloading of vehicles. There is a strong case for keeping the present travel areas, or even increasing the staff. When the previous Secretary of State sought approval for his heavier lorry proposals he promised more examiners and better enforcement. The suggestion is that, instead of reorganising on the basis of reducing traffic areas and making them different sizes with fewer chairmen, we should make the chairmen of the traffic areas more responsible so that they take a more active part in road safety. Some areas are large and more staff is needed for enforcement. I wish that the Government would proceed along that line instead of by way of the order.

We believe that the position is best left as it is. The Government failed to demonstrate, in their consultation papers and this evening, that a reduction in the number of chairmanships will produce any benefits. The Under-Secretary should deal with road safety, which is given insufficient attention.

7.53 pm
Mr.D N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

I did not intend to intervene until I heard the Under-Secretary. I have received correspondence from two unions — the Society of Civil and Public Servants and the Civil and Public Services Association— containing statements at variance with the hon. Lady's comments. She suggested that she had the support of the civil servants involved. She referred to consultations with the trade unions. The House should know what the trade unions say, following their consultations with their members.

In a letter to all hon. Members dated 23 July 1983 the CPSA states: The trade unions are deeply concerned about the proposed alterations, as we believe that the changes will only lead to a deterioration in service to industry and the general public. There is no justification or need to alter the present arrangements, and we have yet to see any figures which show that the proposals will be cost effective. Indeed, we contend that additional money to pay for staff transfers and revised operational costs will increase the size of the overall bill to the Department and the taxpayer. Either the CPSA is wrong, or the Minister is wrong. The House should be convinced that the trade unions are wrong, but the hon. Lady has said nothing which proves that what the unions said is incorrect. If the unions are right, the Government may be making a mistake. The Under-Secretary should address herself specifically to the statement in that correspondence by the CPSA, in each of its points.

We have a duty to reply to the accusations, because the statement in the correspondence is based upon full consultations with members who work in the Department which the Government propose to review. They, more than anyone else, are in a position to say whether the level of public service provided by the Department will suffer as a result of the latest initiatives.

I recall a debate 18 months ago when we discussed arrangements for the privatisation of heavy goods vehicle testing stations. I remember briefs stating that it was not possible to proceed in the way that the Government proposed. It seems that in a written reply today the Government have admitted that it is not possible to proceed in that way. I must presume that the unions were right on that occasion and that they may be right on this occasion. If they are, the House must take their anxieties into account.

The Penrith branch of the SCPS, in a letter dated 21 July, states: In broad terms if the proposals are implemented it will mean that anyone from Cumbria having business at a Traffic Area Office will have to travel to Manchester and not to Newcastle-upon-Tyne— our 'natural' centre in this area. That union official refers to "our 'natural' centre". He is right; that is our natural centre. Newcastle is the regional centre of the northern region and Cumbria has always been regarded as part of the northern region.

One of the more distressing aspects of the administrative changes introduced by the Government in the past four years is that they have steadily removed the centres of administration for each of the Departments, apart from the Health Service — I refer to the Departments of Industry and Employment and the Manpower Services Commission— from — Newcastle to Manchester.

There is a residue of discontent among civil servants at the eagerness with which the Government make changes. People do not want to be regarded as being in the northwest in the way in which the Government insist that they do. Has the Under-Secretary got it right? The area in question stretches as far as Bolsover. The area which the new arrangements will cover starts in Derbyshire and stretches as far as the Scottish border. The Under-Secretary may say that that is administratively convenient to the Department, but it is not commercially convenient to those who are required to attend hearings or meetings at the central offices for administration.

I am concerned about the implications of the order. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North, pointed out, the consultation paper published on 26 May 1982 referred to some savings to the Department. Do the savings include costs referred to as staff transfer and revised operational costs derived from the admininistrative arrangements"? Perhaps I put that in too complicated a way. Do they include any of the ordinary charges which arise where administrative changes are made? Does the £120,000 to £150,000 saving include those sums?

Finally, I am concerned that there will be a reduction in service. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the northern region and my part of the northern region that there will be no upsets as a result of these changes and that all commercial operators can feel that the Department has fully taken into account the problems that they may have as a result of these increased travelling distances.

8.1 pm

Mrs. Chalker

With leave of the House, I shall try to respond to the hon. Members for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) and for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours).

During my earlier remarks the hon. Member for Workington asked, "What savings?" As there will be nine traffic commissioners rather than 11, there will be a saving of two salaries, but that is not a major sum. The consultation paper issued in May 1982 discussed a reduction from 11 to seven areas, whereas we are now proposing a reduction only from 11 to nine areas and the continued maintenance of the Newcastle and Nottingham offices. Therefore, there is no question of savings being made even on the scale of figures given in paragraph 8 of the consultation paper.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North asked why we did not get it right in the first place and why this is the No. 2 order. When we carried out our consultations, the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell), made the order which was to take effect from 1 April this year. The hon. Gentleman was right when he said that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments questioned whether two technical transition provisions might be ultra vires. The problem was that draftsmen 50 years ago did not anticipate all the transitional provisions which might be desirable. Things have changed a good deal. But I think we went too far in making good the lack of detail in the primary legislation. That was why we decided not to move the motion to give effect to that order, to delay the reorganisation and to introduce a new order when we had ensured that it was in no way ultra vires.

The hon. Gentleman said that he was doubtful about the policy on traffic area offices. There is no change in the policy. The hon. Gentleman went a little wider and mentioned a parliamentary question which was answered today, to which I shall come in a moment. I say again that there is no change in the policy.

The hon. Gentleman asked about enforcement. The one area where we have been stepping up our work is enforcement. While I say there will be no loss of jobs in the traffic area offices as a result of this order, I must say to him that there are changes in jobs and that more people are working on enforcement. He and I are at one in believing in the need for greater enforcement of heavy goods construction and use regulations and operating requirements. I say again that there is no change in policy. The traffic area offices continue. We have some boundary changes because the workload has changed in pattern. Operators over the past 50 years have changed in the way that they operate. That will come as no surprise as we now have motorways, which were not even thought of 50 years ago. So it is a sensible move to try to bring together the expertise and to use it wisely. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is ridiculous to have under-used "talent, which is what has been happening. We have two traffic commissioner chairmen who are coming up to retirement, so this is a convenient point to carry out these changes with no loss of jobs to the individuals concerned.

We are not reducing the service, because we have already given a firm undertaking that none of the offices will close for a minimum of three years. In those three years all manner of things may happen— as a result of debates in this House and experience on our roads— for which we may wish to make adaptations. No office will close for a minimum of three years. There will be no changes for the staff in terms of moving or anything else.

The hon. Member for Workington said that those in Cumbria will now need to contact Manchester rather than Newcastle. While I do not wish to stray from this order, I remember when doing another job the number of times I was asked whether the northern reaches of the north-west could look to Manchester because in winter people there could not get over the Pennines. That may not appear to be a very good answer to the hon. Member for Workington but it has been a problem in carrying out duties to go from Cumbria to Newcastle in winter. It caused many problems in the winter of 1981–82. As the Newcastle office is remaining open, I do not believe there is any problem for the staff or indeed for the operators with the main operating centre based in Manchester. We have not had the complaints that the hon. Gentleman's remarks might have led the House to expect.

I do not blame the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North for having slight difficulty over the geography. The map in the consultation document at which he was looking was the prior arrangement when the consideration was for seven traffic area offices rather than for nine. The proposal for the all-Wales area was dropped following the consultations, so it is not surprising that the map misled him. As I said, south Wales will look to the traffic commissioner who also looks after the west midlands and north Wales will remain under the aegis of the traffic commissioner based in Manchester. That is the existing position.

The hon. Members for Aberdeen, North, and for Workington asked about savings. I mentioned the chairmen and their direct salaries but the sum involved will not be large— less than £100,000 and only two years' savings. It is very much a one-off cost and is not being done to make savings.

I was also asked about savings on enforcement. We seek to keep the cost of enforcement under constant review. It would be hard to justify full-time lawyers in local offices, because of the amount of work, although if that work continues there may be a call for it. Engineers are far better employed inspecting vehicles than doing office work, which is why prosecutions are handled outside. I do not see the need for full-time prosecuting officers to be within the traffic area offices. I want the staff there to be carrying out enforcement, as does the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I am sorry if I gave the impression that I was advocating the employment of full-time lawyers and area traffic officers. I was pointing out that the existing staff who brief outside lawyers could adequately do the job in summary cases without the necessity to bring in outside solicitors. It has been put to me that, if that were done, savings of £50,000 a year could be achieved, perhaps more in metropolitan areas and less in small traffic areas.

Mrs. Chalker

I shall look into that. It is not an area where I think great savings could be made; I would rather that our engineers were enforcing the rules on the road.

The Aberdeen office is not affected by this measure. It is a small sub-office which does the vast majority of its work by post and telephone. It is an expensive office to run and it still needs the full range of support staff. When my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) made the decision about that office, the issues affecting the offices in combined areas were different. We expect to close the Aberdeen sub-office without making anybody redundant and there will be negligible inconvenience to the public because, as I say, the vast majority of its work is done by post and telephone and not by personal visit.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I admit that I was trespassing on the good nature of the House in having a moan about the closure of my office in Aberdeen. The consultation document said that, although most of the work was done by post, there was no intention to close any of the offices — not much of an assurance in view of what is happening in Aberdeen.

Mrs. Chalker

I have assured the hon. Gentleman that none of the offices will close for three years. I cannot look further ahead than that because already, in the last three years, we have had changes which have made a difference to the work of the traffic commissioners and their staffs in the traffic area offices. I would be foolish to give an undertaking which I might not be able, might not even be in a position, to carry out.

Mr. Robert Hughes

There might even be another election by then.

Mrs. Chalker

I doubt whether there will be another general election within the next three years.

Much has been made tonight of inconvenience to users. A few users will deal with a different office, so they will find a different system to operate, but their papers will be forwarded without undue delay and they will have the same standard of service.

The order is the result of extensive consultation. Perhaps I did not lay sufficient stress on that. In the last year we have spoken to the widest possible number of people about the subject, including the trade unions. I shall deal with what the hon. Member for Workington said about that.

I am certain that the customer will not find any inconvenience — a change of office perhaps, but for many it will be more convenient. I have said that we have no plans to cease providing an over-the-counter service at any office, but that is being used less and less, and most people are already many miles from their nearest office because of the location of the offices.

The hon. Member for Workington asked about opposition to the reorganisation from the Civil Service unions. That opposition arose because they feared that in the two pairs of merged areas— northern and Yorkshire and eastern and east midlands — one or other of the existing offices would close. I have said that that will not happen inside the next three years. The Society of Civil and Public Servants, which the hon. Gentleman quoted, has about 80 members in the traffic area offices—10 per cent. of the total staff—none of whom will lose their jobs or have to move as a result of the order.

In practice, office closures would not be cost-effective. A small number of support staff would be saved, but that saving would he outweighed by the cost of redundancies and compulsory transfers. While some may not be totally content, it is clear that we have consulted widely, and as the Department has repeatedly assured the trade unions that there are no plans to close offices in the foreseeable future, I cannot give any wider assurance. The vast majority of people concerned are happy with the final outcome, although they may not have been happy with the consultation paper as it was first presented in May 1982.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

Is the Minister saying that no civil servant will have to move as a result of the changes, or was she referring only to those civil servants who belong to the Civil and Public Services Association?

Mrs. Chalker

I said that we were not closing any offices and that the staff in them would stay and would not have to move as a result of the order. I added that, in any case, the offices would not be changing for three years.

We frequently, probably rightly, make a meal of what may seem to the outside world to be small changes, but they are important changes because we want the most efficient organisation of something which, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North said, concerns the safety of vehicles on our roads and the propriety of those who operate those vehicles. The order will enable us to be more efficient and to organise more sensibly, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Traffic Areas (Reorganisation) (No. 2) Order 1983, a copy of which was laid before this House on 12th May, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.