HC Deb 29 February 2000 vol 345 cc157-66 3.30 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions if he will make a statement on the Government's new proposals to reduce deaths and injuries on our roads.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill)

We shall be publishing the road safety strategy tomorrow. To the best of our knowledge, there is no precedent for making a statement to the House about road safety policy, but I am happy to come here today to tell the House some of the measures that will be in our strategy. It will be a long document, so I shall not be able to cover all the details.

This country has, overall, a good road safety record, second only to Sweden in Europe, but our record on child pedestrian safety is not good. We have, historically, been near the bottom of the European league table for child pedestrian deaths. Although we had a better year in 1998, 103 child pedestrians were still killed.

The strategy will therefore include a major thrust on child safety, and a separate casualty reduction target for child deaths and serious injuries of 50 per cent. by 2010. We shall set a reduction target for all road deaths and serious injuries of 40 per cent. over the same period.

We do not, of course, disregard slight injuries. We have not been so successful in reducing those. They went up by 16 per cent. between 1981–85 and 1998. During that period, traffic increased by 55 per cent. We shall set a target to keep slight injuries well below the rate of traffic growth.

There will be new measures, and reinforcement of existing ones, to support those targets to improve road safety for all road users. Many of the measures will be aimed at increasing the safety of children, so we will strongly encourage local authorities to use their powers to create 20 mph zones—powers that we gave to them last summer—especially around schools and on the way to school. That fits in well with our policies to encourage walking and cycling to school, which will happen only if they are thought to be safe.

We have for the first time placed road safety in the national curriculum. We do not accept the proposition that we should not tell children about road dangers. We plan properly researched practical training for child pedestrians.

There will be a range of other measures in relation to speed, which is the greatest contributor to accidents. We must persuade drivers to slow down, and make speeding as socially unacceptable as drinking and driving. The speed review, published tomorrow, will demonstrate overwhelming evidence of the dangers.

However, such persuasion must be effective. It is no good just changing speed limits in the hope that they will be observed. We need to target our measures. Of course, limits have a part to play and we will give details of what we propose at greater length tomorrow. It will be a mixture of targeted changes in limits, appropriate safety engineering in vehicles and roads, and persuasion of drivers by presenting them with the facts and improved enforcement of limits.

We shall publish a range of measures to reduce the number of deaths and injuries in which new drivers are involved, in response to the helpful and timely report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. We shall concentrate on improving the training that new drivers receive, and indeed, the training of all drivers.

We shall tackle the problems of irresponsible drivers—those who have had too much to drink, which is a continuing problem although much progress has been made. Most measures will tackle the worst offenders. Drug-driving has long been an offence, but we suspect that it is more prevalent now. We have proposals to provide effective means of controlling it, but we also need to know far more about it. That is why we shall continue to undertake ground-breaking research, especially on the effects of cannabis. We also need to give more publicity to the effects of tiredness on drivers. We now suspect that tiredness contributes to 10 per cent. of all accidents.

We shall propose measures to protect walkers and cyclists in line with our policies to encourage those activities. We are committed to reviewing the strategy and the targets every three years. We shall do better if we can.

We shall naturally set out the strategy in more detail in a written answer tomorrow. We had always intended to do that. Copies of the strategy and associated documents, including the review of speed policy, will be placed in the Library from 10 o'clock tomorrow morning.

Mr. Jenkin

I welcome the broad thrust of the Minister's response. Conservative Members have always attached the highest priority to improving road safety. The Labour Government inherited an enviable record from the Conservative Administration—one of the best road safety records of any developed country.

However, I agree with the Minister that the number of road casualties remains intolerable. They are the equivalent of 100 Paddington disasters every year. We therefore welcome the Minister's intention to set new casualty reduction targets and I would be grateful if he could specify them to the House.

Given the supreme importance of road safety, where is the Secretary of State? Will the Minister confirm that, had we not tabled this private notice question, the Government would have given Parliament no information before the Minister for Transport delivered a speech elsewhere tomorrow? Is that the priority that the Government attach to road safety—no statement to Parliament and no Secretary of State?

Why were the Government so reluctant to address the House on the issue, when many hon. Members on both sides would wish to support their objective of reducing road casualties? Why have the Government taken so long to introduce their policies? The strategy was promised for last year.

Will the Minister assure the House that he has given a full statement of all the Government's proposals that were due to be announced tomorrow? Does he accept that a successful road safety strategy depends on a combination of improvements in vehicle and road design, the right penalties—appropriately enforced—for dangerous driving, and better awareness among all road users of the risks and responsibilities of using the road?

Does the Minister agree that speed is only part of the equation? I welcome the fact that he has dropped plans to prosecute every minor speeding offence, which would have absorbed a huge amount of police time in pursuing largely law-abiding motorists.

I also welcome the Minister's confirmation that there are no plans for blanket reductions in speed limits, which would be an ineffective short cut rather than a proper review of speed limits with a formal timetable and a budget.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government have dropped their more extreme proposals, such as raising the driving test age to 18? I support retaining the current drink-drive limit, but urge the Government to target the small minority to which the Minister referred.

I also welcome the proposed initiative to pursue training for company car drivers. We read about that in the papers, but the Minister did not tell us about it today. Company car drivers represent only 10 per cent. of drivers. Nevertheless, if they are responsible for almost half of all accidents, it is sensible and imaginative of the Government to make the suggestions that they have outlined.

What are the Government doing through public education for the generality of drivers and pedestrians, who comprise half the casualties on our roads? If we are to create the same intolerance of dangerous driving as that of drink-driving, will the Minister commit the Government to the necessary public information campaigns that will achieve that?

How can we expect our courts to hand out stiffer penalties for dangerous driving in an atmosphere that is still too tolerant of bad driving and accidents on the roads?

Will the Minister also acknowledge that the savage cuts in the roads programme included cuts in many schemes that would have reduced deaths on the roads, according to the Government's own appraisal tables?

What measures will the Government introduce to deal with the increasing incidence of driving while under the influence of drugs? Is the Minister aware that the Transport Research Laboratory is merely repeating research that has already been undertaken in other countries, and that there are many who believe that the Government could act now on this issue?

I welcome the special target for child casualty reduction and the proposals for educating child pedestrians. What are the particular measures the Minister proposes to reduce the number of child casualties on our roads? If he plans to leave this entirely to local authorities, what figure will he put on the resources he will give them to achieve the 10-year child casualty reduction target?

Finally, will the Minister confirm that the way to reduce the number of casualties on our roads is not to demonise the car, but to work with car manufacturers and responsible representative organisations of all road users, including cyclists and pedestrians, and to increase public awareness of how many lives can be saved by working with the grain of people's common sense?

Mr. Hill

I think that on the whole I can express my gratitude for the brief elements of welcome in the remarks of the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) in response to my statement. We heard the grinding of a few rather ancient axes, such as the charge that the present Government are in some way anti-motorist. That is not the experience of motorists, who are benefiting this year from an increase in the road maintenance budget, which is absolutely critical to road safety, of no less than £450 million on the levels projected by the previous Administration.

However, I do not want to be wholly churlish. Indeed, I fully accept the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the success of the road casualty reduction targets initiated by his Government. 1 go even further and pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) who, as the junior Transport Minister, was responsible for setting those targets. The remarkable decrease in the level of deaths and serious casualties on our roads will be an abiding monument to his contribution to British public life.

I wish that I could pay tribute to the contribution of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman). The hon. Member for North Essex referred to the absence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but we are getting used to thinking of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells as the silent Member on the Conservative Front Bench.

I should like to pick up one or two of the specific points raised by the hon. Member for North Essex, who asked a wide range of questions. I shall not be able to answer all of them in detail, but I shall try to answer some.

On targets, I reiterate that our objective is a 40 per cent. reduction by 2010 in the number of people killed or seriously injured; a 10 per cent. reduction in the slight casualty rate; and a 50 per cent. reduction in the number of children killed or seriously injured.

The hon. Gentleman asked about public education. As I said in my statement, the Government are committed to a major programme of investment in a campaign to improve attitudes towards speeding. That is partly a matter of enforcement measures, but we have to effect a cultural change among drivers. Drivers must recognise that speeding is as socially unacceptable as drink-driving. We are committed to a major programme of public education.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about proposals with regard to those travelling for work. It is our intention to improve safety standards in work-related driving, and we are about to set up an inter-agency task group to examine the scale of the problem and how to manage it. We shall consider the development of an occupational highway code.

The hon. Gentleman asked about our proposals to improve the safety of children. That is central to our concerns. I have already mentioned our target for reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries. Within the terms of the local planning system, we shall be encouraging local authorities to create more 20 mph zones, to provide safe crossing facilities and to make enforcement more effective. As the House will recall, last year the Government announced the establishment of nine pilot home zone schemes in England next year: we hope that they will be a success, and that more can be created in due course.

We shall be instructing the Highways Agency to establish child friendly areas on trunk roads near schools and residential localities. That is one of a range of measures designed to enhance children's safety. Many of them were announced a couple of months ago when we published the report of the School Travel Advisory Group, which contained many practical suggestions that we want to implement at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

As my hon. Friend will know, in my capacity as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for justice for road traffic victims and their families 1 have made representations to a wide range of Departments. I am pleased by the progress that I have made.

I entirely accept that a cultural change is needed, and I hope that it will be led by hon. Members on both sides of the House. May I ask specifically, however, whether any of the proposals relating to sentencing policy and the role of the judiciary will be dealt with tomorrow? At present, the judiciary in particular do not seem to understand the needs of victims and their families when they are dealing with such difficult circumstances.

Mr. Hill

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's excellent work. He asked about enforcement. We want to make penalties and enforcement more effective, and more appropriate to the seriousness of the offence. The Home Office is to conduct a major review of all road traffic penalties—for example, for speeding and drink-driving.

We take on board my hon. Friend's point about the way in which the relevant authorities deal with victims' families, and are giving the subject wider consideration.

Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

I welcome the broad thrust of what the Minister is saying, but, like others, I regret the fact that he had to be forced to make his statement here. Does he recall what the Deputy Prime Minister said on the occasion of his rail safety statement last week? He said: there are always complaints about leaks and whether statements are made to the House. It has always been my intention—and my history—to make statements for which I have responsibility to the House.—[Official Report, 22 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 1383.]. Can the Minister tell us whether he has instigated a leak inquiry into how some reports have appeared in the press?

Given the Minister's statement that there are a great many more details yet to be released, will the House have a proper opportunity to debate important issues? As has been pointed out, road safety, especially that of children, is an important issue for the country, and one that has been ignored for too long. Will the Minister also confirm that he intends to ensure that local authorities have the resources that they need to implement the proposals, and that police forces will have the resources that will enable them to enforce those proposals?

Mr. Hill

I shall take the hon. Gentleman's questions in reverse order.

Many of the measures designed to improve safety will be the responsibility of local authorities, and we expect them to be included in authorities' transport plans. I need hardly remind the hon. Gentleman that this year investment in local transport plans, at £755 million, is 20 per cent. higher than it was last year; next year, it will increase by a further £250 million to the great sum of £1 billion. Part of the guidance that we offer local authorities says that we are looking for precisely such road safety measures to be included in their transport plans. The resources are there to sustain them.

With regard to the opportunity for a debate, the hon. Gentleman raises a proper point. It is not, of course, for me to decide what issues are debated in the Chamber. It is not only for the Government to decide which issues are debated here.

Last week, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made it crystal clear when he came to the House to make his statement on rail safety that my Department was not in the least responsible for any of the leaks. He has a first-class record on honouring the conventions of the House and making the appropriate statement to the Chamber. There is no question of instituting a leak inquiry about the plans.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the target on reducing deaths among children will be warmly welcomed by every sensible parent in the land? It is not just the amount of resources available to local authorities and others who have to implement the new measures that will make the difference, but the degree of monitoring of the results. Too many young males are killing themselves and other people regularly. We need to know why, and how to stop them. We need to explain to our population the devastation that is caused by that unnecessary and unacceptable form of death.

Mr. Hill

I need say nothing more than that, as ever, my hon. Friend makes important and apposite points about the need for monitoring. That falls within our plans. I entirely agree with the sentiments that she expressed.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

I thank the Minister for the way in which he made his statement. He is right to focus on crashes and casualties. Can we hope that, tomorrow, there will be acknowledgement of the work of the police, paramedics and major trauma centres, because post-crash treatment has helped to reduce deaths and serious injuries by a fair number?

I thank the Minister for his kind words to me. I read an article by Auberon Waugh, I think on 15 February 1986 in The Spectator, about the death of his sister in a hit-and-run crash. He said that only a fool would inquire into the causes. I was the fool. He is now the fool. The Minister is right to be concerned with reducing the devastation.

Tomorrow, will consideration be given to asking the Scottish Executive whether they would agree to changing to summer time in winter, which would save about 100 lives? Will the Executive be asked whether that can be considered in the interests of the Scots, as well as of those further south? I know that it is a sensitive issue, but there are 100 lives there to be saved.

If the Minister's general approach is to listen to what those with experience and expertise have to say, he will receive support throughout the House for the things that work. The reason that this country has done relatively well is that we have tended to avoid the things that do not work and we have done the things that do.

Mr. Hill

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I join him in paying tribute to the fantastic work done by police, paramedics and trauma centres in dealing with victims of road accidents.

I am not aware of any intention to seek to prevail on the Scottish Executive to change whatever their attitudes are to British summer time. My recollection is that, when the matter has come to the House, there has been a free vote. On that matter, as on a number of others, the hon. Gentleman and I have stood shoulder to shoulder, but that was on an entirely personal level.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

I strongly welcome the announcement that there will be a separate target for reducing child casualties. I hear what my hon. Friend the Minister says about reducing casualties through reducing speeds. Can I take it, therefore, that road traffic enforcement will be a core policing function?

Mr. Hill

I fully understand the points made by my hon. Friend, and have already described the measures for improved enforcement that the Government are contemplating. Although we take those measures extremely seriously, on this occasion I shall have to ask him to wait for the detail that will appear in the very detailed report which will be in his hands from early tomorrow morning.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Will the Minister give an assurance that there will be no changes tomorrow to the age at which people can take their driving test?

Mr. Hill

I sometimes feel that there is nothing more deadly than a helpful intervention in the Chamber, and I was the victim of such assistance in that case.

The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of young drivers. The Government's intention is to tackle bad and irresponsible driving. We intend to propose a package of measures to raise driving standards, especially for young and newly qualified drivers, who are more at risk. We shall consult the public on a range of measures—for example, on probationary plates for new drivers. Our aim is to encourage people to get more experience before they take their driving test, and we will consult the public on how to improve the casualty record of young drivers. Raising the driving age may be one way of doing that, but we want to work through with the public what they think about the issue.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

May I take the Minister back to expenditure on local road safety campaigns? What monitoring does he propose to introduce to ensure that local authorities have sufficient funds to continue campaigning, particularly among children, on the need for improved road safety, and particularly to ensure that the many young people who ride bicycles—I welcome the fact that the number of such young people is growing—receive proper safety and cycle proficiency training? In many boroughs, there is insufficient funding for all children to be trained in how to ride bicycles safely. Will he ensure that such campaigning and training is considered in future standard spending assessment allocation, to protect local expenditure in addressing those issues?

Mr. Hill

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those questions, and certainly take extremely seriously the issues that he has raised. Indeed, I have the pleasure and privilege of being the chair of the National Cycling Committee. The Government intend that local transport plans should include measures to increase cycling, walking and safety improvements. We also intend to promote and monitor cycle helmet wearing. It is certainly our intention, as I have explained, to devote to local authorities significant new sums to pursue their local transport plans, of which safety issues are an absolutely essential and critical part. I give my hon. Friend that assurance.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

Will the Government empower and encourage the courts to disqualify from driving drivers who are found to have cannabis or another banned drug in their bloodstream?

Mr. Hill

As I have explained, we are certainly aware that the issue of cannabis and drug-driving has become more prevalent. We are conducting significant new research to identify the role of drugs in road accidents. As the hon. Gentleman will know, drug-driving has long been an offence. It is certainly our intention, when we have the right evidence, to ensure that there is better public education on, and better enforcement against, that particular offence.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

I welcome my hon. Friend's comments thus far, and look forward to tomorrow's publication of the strategy document. Will he pay particular attention to improving road safety on what are commonly known as rat runs? At 7.30 this morning, I met some of my constituents who live in Sherwood road and in surrounding roads, in south Harrow, and they were rightly very concerned about the speed of traffic along local roads. May I commend road safety on such roads as an issue that is worthy of further attention both in the Department and in relation to local authority SSAs?

Mr. Hill

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I am certain that his constituents, particularly those living in Sherwood road, south Harrow, will be grateful that he has raised their concerns in the Chamber. Rat running is a matter of concern to people across the country. It is a major issue on which we all receive representations during our advice surgeries. A number of measures are available to deal with it, including a variety of traffic calming devices. I also draw attention to the new powers that we have given to local authorities to introduce 20 mph zones. All the evidence, including that from the previous Government, is that such zones are very effective in road traffic reduction. They should be expanded and increased.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

The Minister said that he wished to change the culture of driving. Does he agree that reducing the speed limit to 20 mph will not work because it will not be policed and implemented properly? Reducing the permitted amount of alcohol in the blood will also not be helpful. The best way to proceed is to pursue persistent speeding offenders and those who are grossly over the alcohol limit. In the same vein, will he join me in a campaign to target company car drivers who persistently cause accidents and have the damage reclaimed on the company insurance? They should be responsible for their insurance claims. Does he also agree that if we are to tackle the problem of cannabis in the blood, we need a drugsalyser?

Mr. Hill

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her proposals. We shall look at all those issues. She will find that the reports that we are about to publish take up a number of them. She and I might disagree about some of the details of her ideas. We intend to develop a national framework for determining appropriate speeds for all roads. There is not necessarily a cut and dried, black and white answer on all such matters. The speed review does not recommend changing existing speed limits. That is also a matter for further examination.

Ms Claire Ward (Watford)

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing forward these important measures, which I am sure will be welcomed by my constituents. As one who is keen on joined-up government, may I ask him whether he feels that the support of the Department for Education and Employment is sufficient to ensure that children are fully aware of road safety issues?

Mr. Hill

I sometimes have reservations about the phrase "joined-up government" on the grounds of slight overuse, but it is appropriate in this case. That is why I was delighted to be joined two months ago by my colleagues from the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Health to launch the STAG report. It is essential that all critical Departments work hand in hand on issues relating to the safety of children travelling to school.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

Does the Minister agree that greater investment in traffic calming and 20 mph speed limits is good value for money? Will he confirm that the cost to the public purse of a fatal road accident is more than £1 million, the cost of a serious injury accident is more than £100,000, and that of a slight injury accident is £10,000? Would it not make sense to give local authorities more money to invest in road safety, thus saving lives and public money? Finally, will he confirm that he will be supporting the Transport and General Workers Union in its "Say No to Tired Drivers" lobby this afternoon?

Mr. Hill

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, I might have been with the lobby had I not been detained elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman speaks good sense, as ever. It is important that he should draw to our attention the shared economic costs of road accidents, although the main issue in all our hearts and minds is the tragic consequences for individuals. He asks whether more money will be made available to local authorities to invest in road safety. As I have said, this year there was an additional 20 per cent. in the resources available to local authorities for their local transport plans. The figure was £755 million, and next year it will be £1 billion. The money is there and it is forthcoming. We very much hope and expect that local authorities will devote a good deal of it to road safety measures.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

In the context of child safety, I remind my hon. Friend of an issue that I have raised with him concerning MOT tests. It may come as a surprise to right hon. and hon. Members that child seats fitted to cars are not subject to MOT tests, despite substantial evidence that they are frequently badly fitted or adjusted, and that may potentially increase child casualties. Will my hon. Friend look again at making the fitting of child seats part of the MOT test?

Mr. Hill

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I am certainly aware of his long campaign, which has been extremely helpful in highlighting the seriousness of the issue that he has raised. We shall certainly consider his proposal.

Let me explain the central thrust of our proposals. Motorists suffer the worst casualties on our roads as a result of road accidents, therefore motorists stand to gain most from decent, proper driving practices. I am glad to say that we are confident that motoring organisations broadly support our strategy. It goes without saying that we have consulted the motorists' forum which welcomes our proposals.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Can we take it that, unless the Minister says otherwise, if you or any other right hon. or hon. Member wants to go to the press conference at 9.30 am tomorrow at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in Birdcage walk, we might be able to do so?

Madam Speaker

That is a form of advertising. It has not much to do with me.