HC Deb 26 June 1984 vol 62 cc873-8

'Schedule [Restricted roads] to this Act (which amends provisions regarding restricted roads under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984) shall have effect.'.—[Mr. Allan Stewart.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Allan Stewart

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to consider Government amendments Nos. 21 to 25, 7 and 40.

Mr. Stewart

These amendments to road traffic legislation are being introduced to remedy the serious problem which faces road authorities and the police on speed limit control. Hon. Members will know that the Bill does not deal with road traffic matters, but there is no other readily available means of dealing with this position.

The problem stems from the current system of determining what restricted roads are. They are roads which automatically attract a 30 mph speed limit. The basic criterion is that they have a system of street lighting with lamps not more than 200 yards apart. Under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1967 a second determining factor for a restricted road was that it was unclassified or, if it was a trunk or classified road, had a system of street lighting prior to 1 July 1957.

With the passage of time and changes, such as Local government reorganisation, it became increasingly difficult to establish which trunk and classified roads had lights installed on them prior to that date. As a result prosecutions for speeding offences became difficult on some roads, which were subject to a 30 mph limit but could not be proved to have one.

An attempt to remedy that position was made in the Transport Act 1982, which amended the restricted road provisions in the 1967 legislation. Unfortunately, those involved in speed limit control found great difficulty in understanding the terms of the amending legislation. The only effect seems to have been to apply a 30 mph speed limit to any road on which lights are installed, whether or not such a limit is appropriate to it. Consequently, to apply the appropriate speed limit, roads authorities must become involved in the costly and time-consuming business of making individual speed limit control orders. Moreover, the amendments to the 1982 legislation depended on whether or not certain signs were in place on a certain date, but reference to such a date caused the problem which the amendments sought to resolve.

I hope that the House will agree that the existing position is near to complete confusion. It is evident that a revised system of determining speed limit control is necessary. It is important to ensure that the changes made will not require the re-education of drivers, and will involve the minimum of expenditure. I am happy to tell the House that such a system has been agreed in joint discussions between the Scottish Office, local authorities, the police and the Crown Office. The system provides that restricted roads will be of a class or type prescribed by the Secretary of State in regulations, and which have a system of lighting such as the one that I mentioned earlier. All other roads will be subject to the prevailing national speed limits unless orders are made by roads authorities to impose different limits. A restricted road can also have its speed limit changed by such an order.

The revised system is clear, simple, and involves no references to historic dates. We have made provision for special transitional orders to be made. As they will maintain the status quo and will not affect adversely the interests of anyone, they will be free from procedural requirements.

Everyone will welcome the prospect of a coherent and workable system of speed limit control, which these amendments provide. They have been agreed by all the relevant parties, and I commend them to the House.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your clarification. The Minister said that the amendments were about road traffic regulations and not roads provision. They are two different matters. The report of our Committee proceedings last week shows that when on one or two occasions I raised issues relating to road traffic offences the Minister said that they were not relevant to the debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It might be better if I propose the Question to the House. Then the Minister can answer the hon. Member's question, which relates to the content of the Bill rather than to the order of our proceedings in the House.

Mr. Maxton

It is a point of order, and I wish to pursue it. I tabled some new clauses and amendments in Committee and on Report which were ruled out of order by the Chair because they were about road traffic regulations. Yet the Minister introduced a new clause which is about road traffic regulations. It is unfair for the Government to be allowed to table new clauses which do not relate to the Bill when Back-Bench Members cannot. If such matters are to be allowed, will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, reconsider the items which I tabled and which were not selected? If Government amendments about road traffic matters can be selected, I do not see why other such amendments cannot also be selected.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member cannot reopen the question of the selection or non-selection of amendments in Committee. The usual care was given to the validity of amendments, whether they were tabled by Ministers or other hon. Members. The Minister's amendments are in order.

Mr. Jim Craigen (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I have sympathy with the difficulty that faced my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) last week when we discussed matters relating to pedestrian crossings. It was made clear that the Bill was primarily concerned with consolidation and not with road traffic matters. I have noted what the Minister said, and it is clear that where there is a will there is a way.

8 pm

The Minister is dealing with a tricky issue. As I understand it, there have been joint meetings between officials of the Scottish Office and officials of the COSLA working party which dealt with speed limits. I take it from what he said that COSLA is reasonably happy that the proposals that have been drafted and are before the House will meet the difficulties which currently face police and road authorities in establishing the status of a road and the appropriate speed limit.

In addition to what the Minister has said about the provision of street lighting, I must say that the quality of street lighting is often a problem. I hope that due regard is paid to that in the provisions that the House has been asked to examine.

How widely used will the changes be? Does the Minister envisage that local authorities will be involved in additional expenditure for the signposting of speed limits? I recall trying to persuade Strathclyde region roads department to have a 40 mph speed limit on a stretch of dual carriageway where people were a little worried about the volume and speed of traffic when they were crossing the road. On the telephone, the road engineer said to me, "We take the view that traffic finds its own speed." I replied, "If that is the case, what is the point of having any traffic restriction signs at all?"

The Minister will be aware that ideas and interpretations of regulations can sometimes vary according to the road engineer or authority with which one is dealing. I hope that the Minister can assure us on three points: COSLA's opinion, the quality of street lighting and the costs that local authorities are likely to incur as a result of these proposed changes.

8 pm

Mr. Maxton

I always find myself torn on the subject of speed limits. One can always see the point of imposing speed limits throughout built-up areas where there are likely to be pedestrians on the pavements to ensure the safety of the young and the elderly and I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall) mentioned the handicapped last week when I raised a similar point in another debate.

We must consider the subject of speed limits carefully, and the Minister may be right in what he is doing. However, I am worried about laws which are unenforceable. That is the problem with speed limits. They are ignored by 95 per cent. of the drivers for 98 per cent. of the time. As a result, the law is broken consistently. [Laughter.] I do not know what the cackle is behind me. The law is ignored, and that brings it into contempt.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

As my hon. Friend referred to me, I should explain that certain Members on the Conservative Benches are saying that my hon. Friend is wrong and that 100 per cent. of the time would have been more appropriate.

Mr. Maxton

I am sure that Conservative Members do not believe that, although some Conservative Members may ignore speed limits 100 per cent. of the time.

There is a problem with the imposition of speed limits. People do not obey them. When people disobey them, they get caught only on the odd occasion. Most motorists drive their cars and say, "If I get caught, that is too bad. It will be only once in a thousand times that I am caught for this offence."

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston)

How many times has my hon. Friend been caught?

Mr. Maxton

My hon. Friend asks how many times I have been caught. With the privilege of the House, I believe that I do not have to tell my hon. Friend that. I can assure him that I have been caught for speeding in the past and may well be caught for speeding in the future. That bears out the point that I am making—that most motorists break the law. They do not obey the speed limits. I am glad to see two distinguished Scottish lawyers in the House, including my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar). They would agree that having laws which are broken by a great many respectable people for a great deal of the time cannot be conducive to good law and order. It brings law into contempt. It makes the policeman an enemy to many people when they are driving a car.

Rather than speed limits, the more important point to consider is how we can better protect pedestrians within built-up areas. I return to the point I made earlier—I shall not stray too far, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I know that you would rule me out of order—that the major problem for pedestrians is crossing busy roads. The speed of the traffic is important, but it is only part of the problem. The other part of the problem is their ability to cross roads when there is a heavy traffic flow. That brings us to the proper provision of pedestrian phases at traffic light-controlled crossings and pedestrian-controlled traffic lights where necessary, and pedestrian crossings, to ensure that people can cross the road safely.

The present criteria that the Secretary of State uses when allowing local road authorities to establish crossings do not take proper account of the age and physical health of all the people who use the crossings. The main interest lies in the number of cars on the road rather than the people who use the crossings. I hope that the Minister will take some notice of that.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the major problems with pedestrian crossings that has not been highlighted is that elderly and infirm people do not have time to cross the road before the lights change against them?

Mr. Maxton

As my hon. Friend will be aware, there is one clause which provides that where there is a major danger to pedestrians and that local authorities feel that that is the case they may build a bridge or an underpass to solve the problem. I accept the point that my hon. Friend makes. There are elderly people who find it difficult to cross traffic light-controlled and other pedestrian crossings. There are many busy streets in our towns where there are no such crossings and no way for the people to cross. Motorists should take more account of traffic lights and pedestrian crossings.

If road traffic regulations are to be introduced into the Bill, the Government should table new clauses to lay down new criteria for the introduction of traffic light-controlled crossings to ensure greater safety for our children, our elderly and our handicapped.

Mr. Allan Stewart

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) for his constructive response to the introduction of the new clause. I can confirm that we have had full discussions with COSLA and with the police. British standards are available and the road authorities follow them. The hon. Member has also asked me about administrative time and extra costs. A certain amount of extra administrative time will have to be spent initially by roads authorities in identifying roads whose speed limits would otherwise automatically be changed on the introduction of the new system.

I have mentioned the transitional arrangement. The changeover will involve less time and effort than would otherwise be expended by local authorities, the police and others in trying to fathom and operate the existing complex provisions.

Mr. Craigen

Is the Minister telling us that this exercise is based on a cost-benefit analysis and that we shall save in lawyer's fees the money spent by road engineers?

Mr. Stewart

No. There will be a small once-for-all administrative cost. However, no new signs will be needed.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

I am afraid that I have not looked with great care at the Road Traffic Regulation Bill. I see that the definition of a road which will be able to carry a speed limit has been metricated, and the distance is now 185 metres rather than 200 yards. I do not know whether that is an improvement. However, I also see that in any proceedings for contravention of clause 81 of the Bill a certificate signed by an officer of the Secretary of State that a road is of a specified classification or type shall be sufficient evidence of the facts certified. Presumably that means that it will no longer be necessary for someone to come to court and say that there are lights on the roads and that they are less than 185 metres apart.

Can such a certificate be challenged? Self-evidently, it will prove itself if not challenged, but if I want to lead evidence that the Secretary of State or his representative have skelly eyes and cannot count, and that the lamp posts are not the right distance apart, the new subsection (1)(a) holds out little prospect of challenging the certificate. I can challenge the assertion that the document has been signed by the person who is supposed to have signed it, but I cannot lead evidence to challenge the findings in the document.

I see the tremendous convenience of the document proving itself, but I foresee some danger if no one can prove to the Secretary of State that, perhaps because of an administrative mishap, the information in the certificate is wrong.

Mr. Stewart

I should like to take up the points made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Max ton). We are not talking about road traffic regulations as such. The House will have had much sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's major point, which was that speed limits should be realistic. If they are realistic, they will be observed by most drivers. Unrealistic limits have been shown by experience to be ignored by drivers, because most drivers will select a speed which they consider to be safe in the circumstances of the road. Hon. Members are all probably aware of the stretches of road on which cars often travel much faster than the speed limit.

The criteria must be realistic. It is therefore necessary to have a speed survey aimed at finding a speed below which 85 per cent. of traffic moves in free flow conditions. The 85 percentile speed is taken as the guideline for setting the limit.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) asked a question about certification. I am advised that the question relates only to classification. It does not relate to the presence of lights.

Mr. Dewar

It may be that there is no problem here, but I want to be clear about the position in my own mind. I have a dim memory of people successfully defending themselves against charges of parking offences on the ground that the lights on the roads were not sufficiently close together to make it clear that there could be a speed limit on the road. Does the classification cover that point? Is that a point that could be challenged, or has it been shed in some way during the processes of change? Perhaps the Minister will write to me on the matter.

Mr. Stewart

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I will write to him, setting out the position fully.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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