HC Deb 24 November 1995 vol 267 cc900-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Burns.]

11.4 am

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for rushing back to be here for this debate, which has been brought forward somewhat. I congratulate his driver on getting him here along the M4 through the Thames Valley police area. In view of the subject matter of the debate, I hope that he did not drive too fast past any speed cameras.

In only a few minutes, I do not have time to address the criticisms of those who are opposed to speed cameras. I know that some people feel that there is something sneaky about them and that the increasingly widespread employment of that kind of technology in law enforcement is a threat to privacy. I respect those concerns. Doubtless, as we see more use of cameras generally for law enforcement—I think it is a policy of the Home Office to promote their use—the House will need to reconsider the privacy issues that are raised. However, when we passed the Road Traffic Act 1991, we approved the principle of using speed cameras to detect speeding motorists and I dare say the issues of principle were fully considered at that time.

We should not misjudge public opinion. Individuals who are caught speeding are often irritated and even angry. There was an article in one of the Sunday newspapers a few months ago by a journalist who had been caught speeding not once but twice in the same afternoon in Oxfordshire. He resented that and took advantage of his position as a columnist to complain about it. Opinion polls that ask people about the issue as an abstract proposition, and not in the immediate context of having just been detected speeding, show strong positive public support for speed cameras. For example, the 1993 Lex report on motoring asked those interviewed their attitude to the statement: cameras to catch people speeding or going through red lights are an important contribution to road safety". Some 86 per cent. of those asked agreed with that statement. A recent survey by the firm Autoglass found that six out of 10 drivers thought that speeding was as socially unacceptable as drink-driving.

Why is there public support for speed cameras? I think they are simply common sense. People know by instinct the high cost, to individuals, families and society as a whole, of road accidents, and they know by instinct that there is a connection between road accidents and speeding.

The practical question is whether speed cameras make a difference. They have been in operation in Germany, the Netherlands and some states of Australia for a number of years. They have also been in operation in this country since the implementation of the Road Traffic Act 1991, notably in Oxfordshire where three years ago a special initiative to introduce the cameras was adopted jointly by the Thames Valley police and Oxfordshire county council. I wish to pay public tribute to the two officials most closely involved, Chief Superintendent Peter Viner of the Thames Valley police, and David Hook, the county engineer.

Our experience in Oxfordshire demonstrates that speed cameras are effective in reducing accident rates. Since the cameras were introduced, accidents at camera sites have fallen by 36 per cent., casualties are down by 31 per cent. and serious and fatal accidents are down by 23 per cent.

The gains to the individuals and the families who have been spared death or maiming are obvious. The House always has a duty to recognise the wider social and economic gains. The Thames Valley police have given me an estimate that a mere 1 mph reduction in overall speeds would give the NHS at least £31 million a year to spend on other things. Social services would have to pay less to victims or their families by way of benefits and disability allowances. The emergency services would require less resources if there were fewer accidents to clear up. On the wider economic front, congestion costs on the roads would be reduced and fewer accidents would mean that less output would be lost from the economy.

The principle of speed cameras is right and the evidence justifies the view that the House took in 1991 when it voted for its introduction. The problem is essentially one of implementation and there we come to the problem of financing, which is what I am mainly concerned with today.

Although speed cameras are being slowly introduced around the country, the fact is that, because of pressure on their budgets which I do not expect to be relaxed in the near future, few police forces can afford to introduce speed cameras, their related equipment and the civilian staff to process the data. The Thames Valley police and Oxfordshire county council, working together, have put over £500,000 into their scheme, but that is still exceptional across the country. If the policy is to be implemented on the appropriate scale and the full benefits reaped, there has to be more financial support or stronger financial incentives to encourage the authorities responsible for road safety to introduce and operate it.

The obvious way forward is to tap some of the funds that are generated by fine income for the introduction of speed cameras. Thames Valley police currently operate no more than 16 cameras at over 200 locations in their police area. That generates an income from fixed-penalty fines of some £2 million a year. The money goes, in toto, to the Treasury. None of it is, at present, directly available to sustain the arrangements that generate that income.

Against that background, I and other Oxfordshire Members have been pressing the Home Office and the Treasury for action to enable some of the resources generated by the policy to be used to finance it. I do not know whether the Home Office has some concealed doubts about the principle of the speed cameras policy. If it does, I hope that it will say so and justify those doubts. If it does not regard road safety as a priority, it should say so and explain why; and ditto if it has any doubts about the efficacy of speed cameras in promoting road safety or, indeed, about the principle of remote surveillance.

Meanwhile, the Home Office is presenting the problem as essentially one of Treasury doctrine, specifically the Treasury doctrine against hypothecation. Of course, there is a good case against hypothecation. It was summed up in a recent letter on the subject from my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd) which, in connection with speed cameras, argued: the earmarking of revenues, or hypothecation, could lead to waste and poor value for money in the areas it happened to favour, and to problems in financing other essential elements of public spending. I do not accept the validity of the second part of that sentence, which suggests that there might be problems in financing other essential elements of public spending but I recognise that the first part, about possible waste and poor value for money, has a point. On the other hand, there is also no doubt that the lack of finance is preventing the full realisation of the speed camera policy with all its potential economic and social gains. That, too, needs to be fed into the equation and balanced against the anti-hypothecation doctrine, which I do not believe can, or should be, regarded as an absolute that blocks all progress.

Meanwhile, it cannot be said that the Treasury is incapable of striking such a balance between its doctrine and practical common sense. The Road Traffic Act 1991 provided that the enforcement income arising from parking offences in the 34 London boroughs could be retained by those boroughs. That policy has now been extended across the whole country. Indeed, I understand that Oxfordshire county council is considering the introduction of such a scheme in Oxford city. If measures against illegal parking can be financed by retaining the income from fixed penalties, I ask myself, why can the operation of speed cameras not be so financed?

Let me give another, perhaps somewhat more remote, instance. In the summer, I and other members of the all-party arts and heritage group had the privilege and pleasure of visiting Hampton Court, which has been transformed over the past 10 years by the work of the Historic Royal Palaces agency. That achievement was possible only because the Treasury has been prepared to relax its hypothecation doctrine and allow the agency to retain the gate fee from visitors, thus giving it and its staff both a financial incentive to attract visitors and the means by which to make the palaces more attractive to visitors. That was a welcome instance of a relaxation of Treasury doctrine in the direction of common sense and an interesting parallel with the case that we are considering today.

I understand very well that there would be legitimate grounds for complaint if speed cameras were to come to be regarded by local authorities and the police as an additional source of revenue. There would be real problems if the public were to come to believe that that was how they were regarded. Welcome as it might be to Oxfordshire's hard-pressed schools if some of the money generated by speeding fines in the county of Oxfordshire could be spent on them, it would be a mistaken approach. We need a financial system which allows the police and local authorities to retain enough of the fine income generated by speed cameras to cover the cost of their introduction and operation. In that respect, section 55 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 could be a model. It requires that any surplus income from fines for parking offences over the costs of policing them has to be declared annually and its expenditure has to be ring-fenced.

In the context of speed cameras, the surplus revenue from costs should probably continue to flow to the Treasury, although that would of course not necessarily provide any guarantees for the public against suspicion that the policy has a revenue-raising, as well as a road safety, motivation. Indeed, perhaps the best way forward would once again be to follow what I understand to be the policy of the 1984 Act, according to which surplus income from parking fines has to be applied to the support of public transport or to highways improvement.

It is not my purpose today to pursue those details. My point is simple. The House has voted for a certain policy: the introduction of speed cameras. That policy can be demonstrated to be working and shown to have substantial benefits. The widespread implementation of the policy is being blocked and hindered by a lack of financial resources. A ready remedy lies to hand, but access to it is denied by a combination of Home Office misgivings and Treasury absolutism. That Treasury absolutism can be shown to be less absolute than it has been presented by the Home Office. It is time that the Home Office committed itself to making this valuable and worthwhile policy effective.

11.17 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) on his success in obtaining this debate, which raises an important issue. The Government recognise that the judicious use of speed cameras has a role in improving the effective and efficient policing of road traffic and in the promotion of road safety. There is not, therefore, a fundamental difference of view with my hon. Friend about the use of such cameras. The issue is how improvements in the use of cameras can best be made and how they can be funded. It is important therefore that the background to the issue is fully recognised.

The road traffic law review report, or North report, recommended in 1988 that the law should be changed to allow the use of cameras for enforcing road traffic law. The Government accepted that recommendation and the law was changed by the Road Traffic Act 1991. The changes came into effect on 1 July 1992. The Government have always supported the use of speed cameras as a means of enforcing speed limits and reducing casualties on our roads, and there has been a significant growth in their use.

Thames Valley police—the police force in my hon. Friend's constituency—and its highway authorities have been at the forefront of the development of cameras, on which I congratulate them. In 1994, Thames Valley police dealt with over 41,000 speeding offences that were detected by cameras. Only one and a half hours ago, I was at the police college in Bramshill. I hope that offences this year do not increase to 41,001 purely because of my driving along the M4 in the past hour. I shall pass any bills on to my hon. Friend.

In England and Wales in 1994, 156,000 traffic offences were dealt with following detection by camera. Some 74 per cent. of those were speeding offences and the balance were red light offences.

Despite those developments in the use of cameras, I recognise that their funding has always been a difficult issue. The funding arrangements are not fixed, but it was originally expected that the police would be responsible for the purchase and running costs of cameras, while the highway authority would be responsible for the installation and site maintenance. The Home Office circular that set out the arrangements, however, made it clear that other funding arrangements could be agreed between the police and the highway authorities. The provision for alternative funding arrangements recognized that the highway authorities have a responsibility to promote road safety and that they might consider funding cameras.

The developments since the 1991 Act came into force have shown that highway authorities have so far funded the purchase of more cameras than the police service. The police funds for cameras come under the police forces' vehicle and minor works budget. The money available for forces in England and Wales to purchase cameras in 1995–96 is £150.8 million, of which the Home Office funds some 51 per cent. Of course, the police have many demands on their budgets and may not have been able to give the priority to the purchase and running of cameras that they would wish. The police services have difficult spending choices to make.

Against that background, I understand why a number of hon. Members have written to the Home Office to suggest that the fine income from cameras, or at least some of it, should be reinvested directly into the purchase and running of more cameras. My hon. Friend has explained in some detail why such a course would be beneficial. I have also recently received a detailed report from the chairman of the environment committee of the royal county of Berkshire about the hypothecation of speeding fines. I am very familiar with that issue and I know that the primary motive underlying such requests is the promotion of road safety. I have to say, however, that the matter is rather more complicated than it first appears. There are a number of difficulties with the idea of recycling fine income in the way proposed.

Mr. Robert Jackson

Will my right hon. Friend give us the total amount of fine income that has been provided to the Treasury from this policy?

Mr. Maclean

I cannot offhand. If I cannot supply my hon. Friend with the information by the end of the debate, I shall send it to him.

My hon. Friend mentioned hypothecation and I am glad that he recognises that there is a powerful case against the hypothecation of tax revenues, which my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department put in'his letter. It can lead to waste and poor value for money in some of the areas that happen to be favoured by it.

There is another reason to be wary of proposals involving hypothecation. If Government revenue is hypothecated and is allowed to rise in an uncontrolled way, it will either drive up the total of public spending, which I am sure that my hon. Friend would not want to happen, or squeeze out other priorities. Again, neither he nor I would want that.

My hon. Friend mentioned his visit to Hampton Court palace. The Historic Royal Palaces agency is allowed to keep the gate fees from visitors who happen to go to Hampton Court, but that is not hypothecation. The fees that visitors pay are no more taxes than the charges for entering Madame Tussauds or the cost of tickets to the theatre, so the question of hypothecation does not arise.

It is true that we have allowed local authorities to retain the proceeds of penalty charges for parking fines, but changing the recipient of the income does not change its nature or classification. Local authorities still have to account for the revenue that they receive and the expenditure they incur. We have to take account of that expenditure in assessing priorities.

As my hon. Friend knows, the income from fines imposed by courts goes to the Consolidated Fund at the Exchequer. We believe that, in 1994, fine income from speed and red light cameras amounted to about £8.7 million. The money, along with other income, is then allocated to spending, according to Government spending priorities.

Just because speed cameras can generate fine income for the Treasury, it does not follow automatically that some of that money should be reinvested in cameras. There are Government priorities that do not generate any income and funding for those has to come from somewhere and has to be taken care of in the national cake. The first point is, therefore, whether the cameras should have a greater priority in spending decisions and I shall return to that.

There are other equally serious difficulties in recycling speeding fine income. Foremost is the importance of never forgetting that speed cameras have been introduced to promote road safety, not to make money for anyone. They were not designed to generate income. It is essential that they are never seen as money-making machines, to be placed at honey spots on roads, where they can make money. They should be placed by roads where there is a danger or a risk, or where speed has to be reduced.

Cameras form part of the law enforcement methods used by the police and it is vital that the public recognise the reasons why cameras are deployed and continue to support their use. The impersonal enforcement of traffic law by technology makes it all the more important that the road safety purpose of cameras is understood and supported by the public. Indeed, that is a part of policing by consent. Public opinion surveys have shown that speed cameras have good public support at present. That is only so because they understand why they are being used. The reasons are better understood and the public know that there is a road safety purpose. If there were any suggestion that the cameras were being introduced merely to generate income and that those operating them had a vested interest in the fine income, it could undermine support.

Mr. Jackson

My right hon. Friend will realise that I recognised that point in my speech. I hope that he will comment on my suggestion that the principle of the 1984 Act could be followed as an answer to it.

Mr. Maclean

My hon. Friend has made an interesting suggestion. Later I will tell him what we are considering and he might not be disappointed by our approach. I wanted to stress some of my fears. We must be careful about using this interesting and helpful technology, which can benefit the police and generate fine income, but, and this is of prime importance, can also reduce accidents, casualties and deaths on our roads and lead to a safer and better environment. It is a goose that is laying a golden egg by delivering, not money, but a safer and better road system. We must be careful to do nothing that kills off those benefits.

My hon. Friend is also motivated by a concern to promote road safety, and that is the purpose of the police and the local authorities in his constituency. It is no idle speculation to say, however, that using cameras to generate income puts at risk the road safety objective.

There is already evidence of that in Canada. The former local authority in Ontario recently used speed cameras in a way that was seen by the public as purely for income generation. They turned against the cameras and in the local election the Opposition promised to ban them. They won and speed cameras have now been banned in Ontario.

It is not too far fetched to say that there is a lesson to be learnt from Ontario. Retaining public support is vital. We should retain public support in the way in which cameras are deployed. They are not deployed simply to catch speeders and collect their fines. The approach is to focus on accident black spots, where the greatest saving in lives and injuries can be made. Moreover, the use of speed cameras is signed to warn motorists that they face detection, because we want to see motorists complying with the law rather than having to enforce it. We put up signs to warn motorists rather than just sneakily catching them out. Enforcement is the last, but necessary, resort. Again, that is part of policing by consent.

But there is, of course, a dilemma within that approach if the police or highway authority want to rely on fine income for their camera operations. The more successful they are at getting the public to comply with speed limits, the less income they receive. There are ways in which that problem can be lessened, but it is, nevertheless, a point that needs to be borne in mind by those who advocate hypothecation of fine income from speed cameras. It is necessary to take a long-term view of the funding issue and not base a strategy on the immediate effects and results of camera technology.

From what I have said, I know that my hon. Friend will appreciate that there are real difficulties in simply adopting a policy of recycling fine income from speed cameras. We need a considered strategy that does not put the road safety objective at risk. It must also show how best to use the cameras efficiently and effectively. The one thing of which we are currently certain is that there should not be a direct link between fine income and funding. That would undermine the road safety objective of the cameras. The funding of cameras and the enforcement of the law must be seen to be impartial. They must be separated. I know that the traffic committee of the Association of Chief Police Officers in England and Wales shares that concern.

We have not been idle. The Government have been active in our assessment of the use of camera technology for enforcing road traffic law. The review of road traffic policing, which formed part of the review of police core and ancillary tasks, considered the role of camera technology. It recommended that the funding arrangements for the cameras should be re-examined. The review group, which included the chairman and secretary of ACPO's traffic committee, also recognised the importance of not having a link between the funding of cameras and the fine income. The Government have accepted the recommendation to re-examine the current funding arrangements.

I mentioned earlier that we need to see whether cameras should be given a higher priority in spending decisions. To do that, we need to establish clearly the costs and benefits associated with their use. Much of the support for their increased use has grown from their perceived effectiveness in reducing average speeds and the level of casualties at or near their sites. It is certainly true that much of the research undertaken on particular schemes has shown good results. For example, the Department of Transport's study of camera sites in west London shows that cameras there helped to reduce road deaths and serious casualties in the area by more than a third in their first full year of operation. Those casualties fell from 297 to 187. It is also worth noting that, in the same period, drivers' journey times improved.

But some other evidence of the cameras' success is more anecdotal and scattered. We know that the success of cameras has not been universal. The review of road traffic policing noted that more evidence needed to be collected on the effectiveness of cameras. It seems clear that much depends on the way in which the cameras are used. That covers not only their deployment but the supporting legal and penalty structure for dealing with offenders. It could also include the question whether the use of cameras has reached a saturation point at which the public consider their use to be oppressive. Nor do we know what the longer-term projections may show about the success of cameras.

Much has been made of the idea that the costs of cameras are outweighed by their benefits. Some of their benefits have been identified and costed. The savings in casualties can be costed using the Department of Transport standard costings: a fatality costs £784,000 and a serious injury £89,000. But other savings have not been fully calculated, such as the savings in police time and other savings to the health service.

On the other hand, there is the question of cost. The cost of operating the cameras has been calculated in some individual operations, but it is common to overlook the fact that there are costs over and above the capital and police running costs of a system. In particular, there are the costs to the courts of dealing with an offender, either by fixed penalty or by prosecution. Where prosecution is involved, there can also be a cost for the Crown Prosecution Service.

Generally, my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the conclusion that we have reached so far is that there is a good prima facie case for believing that cameras can bring substantial benefits, but that there are still some areas of uncertainty that need to be examined. In the light of those concerns, we have recently commissioned consultants to carry out a cost benefit study of speed cameras and traffic light cameras. The work is being carried out by a team from Price Waterhouse, and the study is at an early stage. The study is supported by the traffic committee of ACPO, and I know that Thames Valley police—my hon. Friend's own police force—is among the forces that the consultants want to visit.

Mr. Jackson

When does my right hon. Friend expect the consultants to produce their report?

Mr. Maclean

It is difficult to say when it will be produced, but I want to get it as soon as I can. It is an issue on which we want to take a fairly early view, so I will not set them a leisurely time scale in which to do it. On the other hand, I want to ensure that they get all the information and evidence that they wish, and I can see no objection if my hon. Friend wishes to give them information or evidence of his experience. I would certainly not tie their hands in the information that they collect and the views that they are given. I will also want to ensure that they talk to the highway authorities and draw on their experience, and ' consult the county surveyors.

Having said that, I want to get the report in the new year. We will then be in a much better position to assess the effectiveness of cameras and also to address the issue of funding in the light of it. I would emphasise, however, that we do not support a direct link between fine income and cameras. The prime issue is promoting road safety. That is paramount.

I am grateful that my hon. Friend has raised this issue today. It is an important issue that the Government are keen to address and on which to reach a final and considered conclusion. Our initial conclusion is that there can be substantial benefits from speed cameras. The process in which we are now engaged with Price Waterhouse and ACPO is ensuring that we get it right. If we get it right, we will satisfy the points that my hon. Friend made about the spread of cameras; we will have got the financing for it right; the fine income generated will be considered appropriate by the public; the public will continue to accept speed cameras as a good thing; and, of prime importance, we can cut substantially road accidents and traffic deaths.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Twelve o'clock.