§ Order for Second Reading read.9.33 am
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Exceeding the speed limit, driving while using a mobile telephone, failing to observe basic seat-belt rules are things that we all do every day although we know we should not. Road safety across the nation would be greatly improved if we took better notice of those things that we know we should be doing. My Bill helps to address that issue.
My Bill will also help to improve driving safety in icy and snowy conditions and to reduce driving speeds, we hope, on rural roads and in villages; and, very importantly, will enable elderly and disabled people to use their concessionary bus passes in neighbouring local authority areas. The variety of the Bill's sponsors would suggest that I am right to hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that those are laudable aims and give the Bill a fair wind.
§ Mr. Forth
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In fairness to him, I should say that I certainly would not want to give his Bill a fair wind. Specifically, at this stage, can he tell me what proportion of cars in the United Kingdom have telephones installed in them, or what knowledge we have of the number of those who use a telephone in their car? Is there a danger that he is seeking to legislate for a very small minority rather than for the majority?
§ Mr. Gray
I am very grateful to hear that my right hon. Friend does not approve of my Bill. That means that it joins the distinguished company of the wide variety of measures of which he does not seem to approve. I look forward to hearing more from him later.
People who take the opportunity of standing in a London street and watching cars go by will know that they can bet their bottom dollar that the cars that are driving towards them, swerving back and forth, failing to 1180 indicate properly or driving at the wrong speed in the wrong lane are being driven by people with a mobile telephone pinned to their ear. We all do it.
§ Mr. Gray
My right hon. Friend should know that there is no answer to the question of how many drivers in the United Kingdom own mobile telephones—just as we cannot say how many drivers own bananas. Such a statistic is not available and could not be available to the Government. However, there is very powerful anecdotal evidence suggesting that the use of hand-held mobile telephones while driving should be cause for severe concern.
§ Maria Eagle
I make no such promise. When I was promoting a private Member's Bill I was very generous in giving way to the hon. Gentleman, and I am glad to see that he is reciprocating. I was just wondering which part of the Bill's long or short title deals with bananas.
§ Mr. Gray
Although we can have a lot of fun with the Bill—I am looking forward to it—it must be said that it contains some important provisions, such as those on bus passes for the disabled and the elderly, so I do not intend that the debate should become frivolous or lightweight. I made the point about bananas when trying to deal with the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) made concerning the number of people who own mobile telephones. I do not know the answer to his question, and I do not know about bananas either. I hope that that will satisfy the hon. Lady. I should now like to deal with some of the serious, worrying and important matters dealt with in the Bill.
I pay tribute to and declare an interest in my Bill's supporters. The AA has been extremely helpful both in providing a wide variety of briefings and in paying for most of the costs of the parliamentary draftsman. I have registered that matter in the Register of Members' Interests. Age Concern is another supporter of the Bill and has been helpful, as have Wiltshire county council, North Wiltshire district council, and the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety or PACTS—that excellent organisation which does so much good work in this place.
I am particularly indebted to the Public Bill Office Clerk, Mr. Priestley, who has been very helpful; and to Angus Walker and Bircham Dyson Bell, who have drafted the Bill very expertly for me.
I am also particularly grateful to my Bill's sponsors on both sides of the House—four of whom are Labour Members, four of whom are Conservative Members, and one of whom, the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), is an Ulster Unionist Member. That list includes two former Secretaries of State for Transport, 1181 a former special adviser to the Department of Transport, a joint Chairman and two other members of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, and a member of the Opposition environment, transport and the regions team. It is a cross-party group with demonstrable expertise and knowledge in transport.
I acknowledge that some elements of my Bill—like any Bill, but it is particularly true of complicated, Christmas-tree Bills such as this one—need to be improved. I very much look forward to debating those matters in Committee and, consequently, producing a worthwhile and workmanlike Bill.
The inspiration for the Bill comes largely from my own constituency. In areas such as North Wiltshire, transport—both public and private—is an overwhelmingly important issue. Last year, I went round all 60 parish councils in my constituency, and all of them raised with me issues such as road gritting, road speeds and road safety. Most of them also raised with me a variety of public transport issues that are beyond the scope of a private Member's Bill, to do with standstill Britain, as we call it, and the Government's attempt to prevent us from using our trains and roads successfully and safely.
I am the president of an excellent organisation called BCLAS—the Bath and Chippenham to London Action Society—which is the largest single commuter group in Britain. Representatives are coming to see the Minister shortly to let him know our concerns about the poor state of the Chippenham to London line. It costs 8p a mile more than Concorde and the service is a great deal less good than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. That and other issues of public and private transport are beyond the narrow remit of a private Member's Bill, however.
The issues in the Bill are of huge concern to people in my constituency and to people across the nation. This morning, I did 15 interviews on local radio stations, and I am told that there were a large number of bids from other stations. That demonstrates how important such issues are to people in local areas. They may not be earth-shattering—it may not be a case of "Hold the front page"—but these are important local matters, as the interest from local radio this morning demonstrates.
§ Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)
I share my hon. Friend's concern that we should have a serious debate, because some of the issues in the Bill are of the utmost seriousness. As he says, there are concerns about safety on local roads, and I shall be drawing attention to some of them if I catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. On one road running through my constituency, 40 people have lost their lives over the past 10 years. It is time that something was done about it.
§ Mr. Gray
My hon. Friend makes a telling point, and I hope that he will, indeed, catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker. In an area such as Yorkshire, part of which my hon. Friend represents—and represents so well—issues of road safety are hugely important, as they are in Wiltshire.
That brings me to the first issue in this Christmas tree of a Bill—the gritting of roads in icy and snowy conditions. About 1,000 people a year are killed on our roads as a result of icy and snowy conditions. There are 1182 two reasons for that. First, there is insufficient gritting, as we all know. We cannot grit every road across the nation every time it becomes icy and snowy. However, we can do slightly more than we have been doing. I am aware of the resource implications of my proposal. It costs about £25,000 to do a morning's gritting in an average rural area, so it is not cheap, but the Bill does not propose gritting everywhere, all the time.
The second problem is that people have no way of knowing whether the roads have been gritted. Broadly speaking, council officials wake up in the morning, look out of the window, decide whether or not it is cold, and work out how much of their budget they have used in the year so far. Then they may or may not send out the gritting lorries.
The Bill would require local authorities to publish a clear plan of which roads they intend to grit, when, and under which conditions. The motorist would then know which roads were safe to use. Equally, voters would know how large an area the local authority intended to grit or how small the gritting plan was and would be able to take a view in the forthcoming local elections.
§ Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)
I presume that when the hon. Gentleman speaks about local authority officials looking out of their window on cold, snowy mornings, he is referring to those in his constituency. The people of Sefton are rather more well prepared than that.
§ Mr. Gray
I am delighted to hear that the hon. Lady's local authority is more well prepared than those I described. However, there is no requirement under the law for her local authority to do anything other than to carry out gritting on a haphazard basis. The law does not require her local authority to make provision in a satisfactory, planned way. Figures across the nation show that. In Scotland, 40 per cent. of all roads are gritted regularly. In Devon, the figure is 19 per cent. In my county of Wiltshire, 26 per cent. of roads are gritted normally and a further 26 per cent. will be gritted in extreme, severe weather, making a total of 52 per cent. There is no overall plan with regard to who grits and when. The hon. Lady makes a grand claim for Sefton. I have not looked at Sefton in detail, but I am delighted to hear about it.
Wiltshire has produced exactly the sort of plan that I suggest should be produced across the country. I propose the production of a clear plan, perhaps with a map, such as that included in the leaflet issued by Wiltshire county council. The plan would show which roads were to be gritted, when they would be gritted and the weather conditions under which that would take place.
§ Maria Eagle
I can see no requirement in clause 1 for the local authority to produce a plan, although I accept that it may be a very good idea. Does the Bill achieve that?
§ Mr. Gray
Yes, it does. I am delighted that the hon. Lady is taking such a detailed interest in the Bill. We had a little conversation earlier this morning about some other equally detailed matters. I therefore very much hope that the hon. Lady may be prepared to consider serving on the Standing Committee considering the Bill, if we are lucky enough to reach that stage. I know that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) is also very keen to take an active part in the detailed discussions in Committee.
1183 The notion is to make it plain which roads are gritted and when and to find a way of encouraging local authorities to increase the use of gritting. This matter has been highlighted by the judgment in the case of Goodes v. East Sussex County Council last year. The Law Lords concluded that the Highways Act 1980 placed no general duty on a highways authority to pre-salt any road. In making the judgment, however, Lord Hoffmann indicated that a person who has suffered injuries owing to ice on the road had a right to expect a remedy. That is a very important point.
Paul Watters of the AA says:this year is a landmark year because local authorities know that they don't now have a statutory duty to salt all the roads in their areas.They should. Across the nation, people believe that local authorities should grit and that they have the right to expect that to happen. At present they do not know whether roads will be gritted.
The Bill would replicate the situation in Scotland. Clause 1 is taken from the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984. The Bill would let people know whether the roads were to be gritted.
§ Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)
I am struggling to understand the hon. Gentleman's earlier response to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) in relation to clause 1. He said that clause 1 would require local authorities to publish plans, as he outlined. My understanding of clause 1—and I have re-read it since he said that—is that authorities will be bound totake such steps as they consider reasonableto prevent snow and ice from endangering pedestrians and drivers. I cannot see how taking such steps as they consider reasonable to prevent snow and ice from endangering people would include publishing in advance a plan of their gritting programme. I should be grateful for clarification.
§ Mr. Gray
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It sounds as if we have in him another volunteer to serve on the Standing Committee, as he is showing a keen interest in the detail of the Bill.
The answer is the word "reasonable". The word is taken from the 1984 Act to which I referred. It means that authorities must take reasonable steps to clear snow and ice from the roads—something that local authorities in England do not have to do—and that includes producing a plan.
§ Mr. Gray
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I have given way to her twice, including once on this point. Gritting is a very small part of the Bill, and I intend to make a little progress. Perhaps she could contain her excitement until she is serving on the Committee, which I hope that she will be happy to do. The Bill would improve the quantity of gritting across the nation and improve the driver's knowledge of whether roads are gritted.
Something like 1,000 deaths a year are caused by people driving at the wrong speed on the wrong roads. AA research demonstrates that the issue is not simply about 1184 enforcement and penalties and, indeed, the Bill does not deal with enforcement and penalties. The Bill deals merely with what speed limits should be applied where.
The AA research demonstrates that where drivers understand the speed limit, know what it is and believe it to be sensible, broadly speaking they obey it. People know that in most towns the speed limit is 30 mph, so they go at 40 mph, although they should not: they observe the speed limit in the breach. Equally, on motorways, they know that the speed limit is 70 mph, so they go at 80 mph. They observe it in the breach.
However, in rural areas, people do not know what the speed limit is. In rural villages where no other speed restriction operates, and on single-lane country lanes such as I have in my constituency, the speed limit is 60 mph. That is absurd. One could not go at 60 mph through most villages or on most country lanes. People do not know that that is the speed limit, but if they did, they would not observe it, because they would think it silly.
The aim, which I believe the Government have in the back of their mind, although they plan to implement it within a longer time scale than I envisage, is to introduce speed limits across the nation which make sense and which drivers understand—or, in the AA's expression, buy into. Drivers will know what the speed limit is, they will recognise that it is sensible and they will observe it, albeit in the breach. For example, it might be sensible to implement the suggestion of the Council for the Protection of Rural England that there should be a speed limit of 30 mph in most villages, and perhaps 40 mph on single-track rural lanes. At present, speed limits across the nation are haphazard, people do not understand them and therefore do not observe them. They make up their own rules on speed limits.
The excellent Malmesbury Standard, my local newspaper, reports in its editorial this week that Mrs. Lewis of Ashton Keynes says that she issick and tired of having cars pulled from her front gardenbecause nobody pays attention to the speed limit in and around the village of Ashton Keynes. The newspaper calls for exactly the measures that I propose in my Bill—slower speeds and greater ability to apply speed limits, particularly in rural areas and, to some degree, in towns.
Last year the CPRE produced an excellent report entitled "The rural traffic fear survey", which revealed that 65 per cent. of people felt threatened all or some of the time by speeding traffic. It is a huge problem. I discovered from my parish council a couple of years ago that the biggest problem that we have in rural areas is cars going too fast through villages and round bends. Horse riders—I am a horse rider myself—are terrified. Even in the smallest rural lanes, cars travel at speed, for no reason at all, and they are not breaking the law.
Clause 2 would require local authorities to produce a plan setting out what they believe to be sensible speeds for the particular conditions in their area, subject to national guidelines. Under the Transport Act 2000, the Secretary of State is required to produce a hierarchy of speeds in rural areas within 12 months. I believe that that was a CPRE-inspired amendment to the Bill, on whose Standing Committee I served, as did the Minister.
My Bill would require the Secretary of State to produce a plan in a shorter time than that required by the 2000 Act, or in any event would remind him of that obligation.
1185 In Committee, I shall be happy to listen to the Minister's explanation of what the Secretary of State intends to do with regard to speed limits in rural areas. The clause may become superfluous if the Secretary of State produces a clear plan for dealing with rural speed limits. Clause 2 thus tries to find a way of making speeds in country areas in particular both understandable and sensible.
The present procedure for introducing speed limits is extraordinarily complex and burdensome. Wiltshire county council, which proposed the relevant part of the Bill to me, told me that under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, to introduce or change a speed limit, or even to move a speed limit a small distance entails various stages: initial consultation with the police and local council; drafting of a notice and traffic order; obtaining the formal views of statutory consultees; advertising in the local press the intention to make the order; formal consideration of objections; and publishing a notice that an order has been made. Finally, the speed limit is introduced, changed or moved, and the appropriate sign is put up.
Typically, I believe, that takes six to 12 months and costs about £5,000. For example, in my constituency, in Corsham, St. Michael's Roman Catholic school is just outside the 30 mph speed limit. That means that people are driving past the entrance to the school at 60 mph and slowing down when they come to the 30 mph speed limit. We have been campaigning for some years to have the speed limit moved by 100 yd, so that the school will be within the speed limit in Corsham town. To do that, as I said, costs about £5,000, and the county council simply does not have the money to do it. The town council, on a tiny precept, also cannot afford to do it.
The Bill proposes doing away with the burdensome, bureaucratic and expensive procedure for bringing in and changing speed limits. The local authority would have to consult only the police and would then introduce or alter a speed limit.
§ Maria Eagle
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. His Bill ranges over many different subjects, so I hope that he will not think that I am being excessive. Would clause 2 require consultation with local people? It is not clear to me that it does.
§ Mr. Gray
The hon. Lady is quite right: the clause does not require consultation with local people at all because that is precisely the burdensome part of the present procedure. One must presume that the local authority acts because it seeks to get the local people's votes at the forthcoming local council elections. The point of local democracy is for the council to do what it believes local people will like. Plainly, if a local authority introduced speed limits all over the place that local people did not want, the chairman of roads would have difficulty in justifying what he was doing.
1186 Most local people want speed limits sensibly applied in their local area. The Hooray Henrys and general speedsters who do not want speed limits are not people whom we ought to consult. The hon. Lady is right to say that the Bill cuts out consultation with local people.
§ Mr. Greenway
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that this is a technical matter that could be resolved in Committee, but if a review is undertaken, one assumes that people would get to know about it and would gladly send in their opinions. When the local authority undertakes such a review now, it is usually because there has been significant pressure from local residents, particularly in rural villages.
§ Mr. Gray
My hon. Friend makes a good point. His experience in Yorkshire is clearly the same as mine in Wiltshire. There is an extra element. Under clause 2, the local authority would be required to produce a review of every speed limit in its area, and to produce a clear plan of the speed limits that it proposed. Under clause 3, it would become significantly easier to put those speed limits in place.
§ Mrs. Curtis-Thomas
I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman's comments about consultation and the notion that consultation should end with local authority members. Is he aware that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has introduced community strategies the purpose of which is to do something about the democratic deficit? Under previous Administrations, the views of people whom an authority purported to support were totally ignored. That situation could not go on because people became disenchanted with it. The community strategy implies that people living in the community have a right to express their views on matters such as these he is discussing. Has the hon. Gentleman heard about that, and would he support it in his own constituency?
§ Mr. Gray
The hon. Lady makes her own point in an interesting way, although I suspect that the quango, and the spinning that she describes, which DETR is so good at, are not quite within the remit of the Bill. I do not support the innovations that she describes. The Government love launches, fancy titles and the fancy leaflets but they do not increase democracy at all.
In my view, democracy means people voting for parish councillors, town councillors, district councillors, county councillors, Members of Parliament and Members of the European Parliament. That is democracy.
§ Mr. Gray
Not at the moment.
If those councillors do not do what local people want, they take the consequences at the next election. To set up some new DETR-run quango with a fancy leaflet to try and overcome what the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) describes as the democratic deficit is the wrong way to go about things. We want to reinforce democracy by strengthening parish councils—not by doing what the Minister for the Environment suggested at a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference two years ago. The right hon. Gentleman said that parish councils 1187 had served their time and were a waste of space and that Labour would abolish them. He has since gone back on that view, because he realised how unpopular it was, but the Labour party does not really support parish councils—[Interruption.] I do. Parish councils are vitally important. The Minister made his views clear at that meeting; he has withdrawn them only because of pressure from parish councils.
That is what I believe democracy to be. I do not like all the committees, reports and quangos; I like straightforward democracy—people casting their votes for the candidates who they believe will do what they want them to do. That is what will happen in May: we shall see how many Labour-controlled county councils there are then. I suspect that there will be fewer than at present. However, Madam Deputy Speaker, you have been extremely indulgent to the hon. Member for Crosby. Perhaps we have moved away slightly from the purpose of the Bill, so I shall not dwell longer on her comments.
I agree with the CPRE and others who do not want the countryside littered with a million new signs. To that end, I have some reservations about traffic-calming measures; they can often ruin the appearance of a village and do not serve to reduce speeds at all. I also have reservations about the plethora of speed limit signs that appear all over the place. In my own tiny hamlet in Wiltshire, there are signs pointing out that the maximum speed limit is 30 mph. My goodness, you could not even drive at 10 mph along some of the roads in the village. It is absurd to have so many signs. Speaking as a Back Bencher, I support the view of the CPRE; we should adopt the French system—the village sign shows a 30 mph speed limit and at the other end of the village a sign with three lines across it shows that the speed limit has ended. A sensible speed limit operates throughout the village, even though there are no signs. I do not want a huge growth of speed limit signs across the countryside.
The next section of the Bill may be more controversial. We have already had a few interventions on it. It would ban entirely the use of hand-held mobile phones while driving. At present, people can be stopped for dangerous driving or for driving without due care and attention, if the police consider their driving to be less than first class because they are using a mobile phone. However, there is no absolute ban in the United Kingdom—with one honourable exception. Curiously, that is in the Isle of Man; the Manx Parliament introduced a law banning the use of mobile phones while driving—well done to them. My provision is based on that law.
§ Mr. Gray
My right hon. Friend has only just arrived in the Chamber. I fear that he may not have heard some of the earlier parts of my speech, so he will doubtless forgive me for not taking his intervention. I am sure he will have an opportunity to catch your eye later on, Madam Deputy Speaker, although whether a right hon. Gentleman who misses the opening speeches is then entitled to take part in the debate is a matter that you may have to consider—[Interruption.] My right hon. Friend says that in that case, he will leave now and not bother with the rest of the debate. I am sure my hon. Friends will be happy to wave goodbye as he leaves. He is a close and dear friend; I was his special adviser when he was a 1188 Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, so we go back a long way. That is why I am able to be so rude in a light-hearted way. I know that he will forgive me.
The truth is that we all drive while using mobile phones. I do it. I am the first to admit it. We drive along using our mobile phones. When the phone rings, there is a terrible temptation—[Interruption.] Several self-righteous Labour Members are shaking their heads, I see.
§ Mr. Gray
The hon. Gentleman doubtless wants to declare that he does not talk on his mobile phone while he is driving. Let me issue a challenge to the local papers and television companies in the areas of all the Labour Members who are shaking their heads so self-righteously: if they see an hon. Member using a mobile phone while driving, it should appear as front-page news.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill)
The hon. Gentleman casts an outrageous slur on the driving habits of hon. Members on both sides of the House. I can say categorically that I have never driven and used a mobile phone at the same time, for the simple reason that I have never learned to drive—I am not a car driver.
§ Mr. Gray
We take the general point. It is useful to know that the Minister does not drive. I thought he was going to say that he does not use a mobile phone because he does not own one. Had he done so, I would have taken my hat off to him
I cast no slur on anyone, because I have already said that, in the past, I have used my mobile phone while driving. In that context, I am no virtuous character. I have done so and I know that it is bad driving. We only have to look around the streets locally—
§ Mr. Gray
I am sorry, but I have taken enough interventions about mobile phones. I do not intend to take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps he could sit quietly, take it easy and listen. There may be some opportunities for him to have his say later on. My experience of previous Fridays in this place is that he has a great deal to say on most subjects. Perhaps he will be lucky enough to catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall take no further interventions from the hon. Gentleman; he will be talking about his own Bill later.
I do not want this debate on important matters to become too frivolous. Labour Members seem to be straying into frivolity. We need to give the measure careful consideration. Many lives depend on road safety. We are talking about children crossing the road. Although levity from Labour Members is fine for a while, it might 1189 be sensible if the House settled down and listened, and thought carefully about the important provisions in the Bill.
We all drive while using mobile phones. I have done it. I do it all the time.
§ Mr. Gray
I am sorry but I shall not give way. I have given way to the hon. Lady three or four times already—rather more than she allowed me when she was promoting her ghastly Fur Farming Bill. She was quite reluctant to give way. We should make progress and consider these difficult issues.
We all know that we should not drive while using mobile phones. If I knew that it was prohibited, I certainly would not do it. More and more people have mobile phones and most people would welcome such a provision.
The Government support clause 5, which tightens up some flaws in the existing legislation on seat belts. Since the law requiring the wearing of seat belts was introduced by the Conservative Government in 1988, compulsory seat-belt wearing has saved about 550 lives a year and prevented about 9,000 serious injuries a year. Even though the libertarian wing is not keen on the compulsory wearing of seat belts, it saves a great many lives.
The one exception, which, by and large, I wholeheartedly endorse and accept is granted to drivers of delivery vans. Postmen, milkmen and so on could not possibly keep putting on and taking off their seat belts every few yards. The exception is perfectly sensible. However, it is being abused by many van drivers.
The statistics speak for themselves. Van drivers currently wear seat belts 64 per cent. of the time. Their passengers wear them even less—only 53 per cent. of the time. By comparison, car drivers wear seat belts 91 per cent. of the time. The Transport Research Laboratory estimates that if all van drivers were required to wear seat belts most of the time, about 20 lives would be saved and about 270 serious casualties would be prevented annually. The clause is a small provision, but it would save lives. I suspect that such a law would be happily accepted by most of the van drivers who blatantly do not wear seat belts when they know they should.
Clause 6 would correct a small anomaly in sentencing for the non-wearing of seat belts. At the moment, if people sitting on the front seat do not wear seat belts, they pay a £500 fine, but if children or others sitting on the back seat do not wear seat belts, they pay a £200 fine. We all know of tragic cases in which people sitting on the back seat go through the windscreen, so it is just as important that people wear their seat belts when sitting in the back seat as it is for people sitting in the front seat. Clause 6 would equalise the penalty at £500 for not wearing a seat belt wherever someone is sitting in the car.
Clause 7 would correct a very technical anomaly in the Road Traffic Act 1988 in relation to whether the Secretary of State pays for medical checks for the exemption from wearing seat belts. Those three measures would simply tidy up the rules on the wearing of seat belts, but they would be valuable none the less.
I am keen to allow hon. Members, who obviously want to express their views, time to speak in the debate, so I turn, finally, to question of concessionary fares. Last year, 1190 during consideration of the Transport Act 2000, the Opposition tabled amendments to suggest that elderly and disabled people should be allowed to use their concessionary bus passes in other local authority areas. Age Concern, which supports the Bill, would like people to be able to use their bus passes in any local authority area across the nation. There is a precedent for that. For example, all 32 local authorities in London recognise one another's bus passes. There is some sense in that; it allows people to go wherever they like. However, I realise that there could be large resource implications if that were suggested.
I have therefore persuaded Age Concern to compromise with the Government by introducing a de minimis but sensible concession under which pensioners and disabled people would be allowed to use their bus passes in neighbouring local authorities. Often, especially in rural areas, the neighbouring authority will be a unitary one like Swindon, which is just outside my constituency. People only three or four miles away at Wootton Bassett in my constituency cannot use their bus passes in Swindon, and vice versa. That is, frankly, crazy. Elderly and disabled people travel into their local towns to do their shopping or go to the hospital or cinema or whatever, and it is crazy that they cannot use their bus passes there.
Under the Transport Act 2000, local authorities can do deals with each other and try to find reciprocal ways in which they can recognise each other's bus passes. I am pleased to say that North Wiltshire district council has been very active and has done deals with Swindon, which will be implemented shortly, and also with Bath and Bristol. So some local authorities are making such arrangements, but they are not required to do so. A local authority may, or may not, do such deals. Under clause 8, local authorities would be required to recognise one another's bus passes. That is an obvious, simple, very cheap and cost-effective provision, but it would be of huge benefit to elderly and disabled people throughout the nation. I am certain that most charities for elderly and disabled people would welcome it.
§ Maria Eagle
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, as we have moved on to a different subject. He says that the concession would be very cheap. Does he have any figures on how cheap or expensive it might be?
§ Mr. Gray
I am sorry; I have said that I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman again because he has had more than enough time. Moreover, it is important that I should answer the hon. Lady's question before giving way to anyone else, and the fact that the hon. Gentleman is jumping up and down while I am trying to do so seems a little silly.
1191 Although we do not know how many people travel from one authority area to another, it is reasonable to presume that there will not be all that many since we are only talking about the neighbouring area. Anyhow, such arrangements would be reciprocal. People from North Wiltshire would go to Swindon and people from Swindon would go to North Wiltshire, so the cost would be extremely small.
§ Mr. Dismore
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the arrangements in London and those between counties. The Bill does not deal with London. My constituency, which is in London, borders Hertfordshire. Many people from Hertfordshire—for example, from Watford—may wish to travel into central London to do their shopping or to go to entertainments there, or whatever. How will the Bill address the problem of people from outside London wanting to avail themselves of London transport? I am pretty sure that fewer people will want to travel from London to Watford than will want to go from Watford to London.
§ Mr. Gray
The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right, but the local authority could do a deal with the Mayor, or with individual London boroughs, to ensure that its bus passes are recognised in London. However, the Bill does not represent an attempt to cure all ills in all places. Other people have raised with me the problem that people might not want to travel to the next local authority but the one beyond that. In some geographical areas, the main centre may well be two authorities away. The Bill would not deal with that problem; it is a very modest little Bill, which would address particular difficulties in certain places.
§ Mr. Maclean
Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend. As he seems to have information that suggests that the Government are keen on the Bill and that it should be considered in Committee, perhaps he will enter into discussions with the Government—I hope they will agree—with a view to introducing a new clause or an amendment on Report to deal with that London problem. I am sure that the Government would co-operate with him.
§ Mr. Gray
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I very much hope to hold those discussions with the Government when the Bill is being considered in Committee. My right hon. Friend brings me on to another interesting subject.
I had thought that this was a modest, sensible, down-to-earth and rather quiet little Bill, rather than an earth-shattering, front-page news one. It is a decent, normal Bill, which has cross-party support. Indeed, I was encouraged to hear during informal chats with the Whip and the Minister that the Government would be neutral on the Bill. I take great comfort from that. Although it is a matter for all hon. Members, I understand that the Government intend to let the Bill be considered in Committee.
1192 In that context, I was more than a little surprised to be handed a letter last night from the Leader of the House to the Minister who will be looking after the Bill. It says that they have discussed the Bill and they propose thatthe Government remain neutral on Second Reading".I take great comfort from that, but the right hon. Lady then says:If the Bill proceeds to Committee, then we would make it clear to James Gray that it would be blocked on Report unless all the provisions apart from those on seatbelts were removed.In other words, the Leader of the House is saying, "Here we have a big fat Bill, with lots of stuff in it to help elderly and disabled people, but we shall pretend to be neutral on Second Reading and then we will tell the hon. Member for North Wiltshire what his options are. He can drop all the first-class stuff that would help the elderly and disabled, and just have one tiny clause that would tidy up the law on seat belts"; in other words, "If you don't want to do that, you ain't going to get the Bill."
The Government are trying to appeal to my ego. They seem to suggest that I will chuck all the principles away and do anything, saying, "Please, please, Government, let me have my own little Bill." That seems to be a sort of parliamentary blackmail, and it is perfectly bizarre.
§ Mr. Maclean
With all my hon. Friend's years of experience as a special adviser to the previous Government and in the House, has he ever come across such a shabby letter or such potentially underhand dealings on a Bill that the Government profess to like?
§ Mr. Gray
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, and no, I have not. It is extraordinarily interesting to hear those on the Government Benches falling about guffawing with laughter when I quote the letter from the Leader of the House. The right hon. Lady does not treat the matter with such levity.
§ Mr. Gray
The hon. Lady should allow me to finish my quotation. No doubt she is very concerned about the fact that the Minister has been given instructions to block most of the Bill in Committee. She is concerned for the good reason that doing so would damage disabled and elderly people and not help to save 1,000 lives a year on the road. All those measures would be blocked by the Labour Government in favour of their little seat-belt provision. The Leader of the House knows that that would be a problem, because her letter continues:You should develop a robust handling strategy in the event that we do have to block the Bill, as the Government will be challenged as to why it cannot supportthe principles. I am pleased that the letter was copied to the Prime Minister, who is taking a keen interest in the Bill's progress.
The Government are planning to appear to be neutral on the Bill this morning; to let it be considered in Committee; to apply that complicated blackmail; and to block the Bill on Report if necessary. So elderly and disabled people will not be able to use their bus passes in neighbouring local authorities. No gritting will be allowed to continue on ice-covered roads. Speed limit breaches will be allowed to continue unabated until such time as the Government choose to do something about them. They 1193 say that they are worried about such matters, so of course "a robust handling strategy" will have to be developed to overcome the embarrassment. The newspapers this morning—The Guardian and The Independent—realise how embarrassing the letter is for the Government. They have chosen to pick on a small but worthwhile Bill which has cross-party support and which is backed by Age Concern, many other charities, motoring organisations, PACTS and four Labour Members. The Government have chosen to pick on this innocent little Bill to try to apply complex Machiavellian strategies to get one small clause through.
The Government are ditching the people whom my Bill aims to help. When the Minister replies, he must tell us which of those groups he will face up to in the run-up to the general election. Will it be the disabled, will it be the elderly or will it be those who might be killed and injured on our icy roads? To which of those groups will he explain why he wants to appear neutral about the Bill, when he intends to block it in Committee? He will have to explain the letter, and I very much look forward to his doing so.
This is a modest and sensible little Bill, which will make our roads safer. It has cross-party support. I commend it to the House.
§ Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on his luck in being successful in the ballot and on the way in which he has presented his case. I wish his Bill every success—I support it. As he said, it does not matter which part of the country we represent. The traffic issues and problems that are dealt with by his Bill are the problems that exist throughout the United Kingdom.
On a Bill's Second Reading, we have the opportunity to raise other interrelated matters. When a Bill goes into Committee, we have the opportunity to table amendments and new clauses. I hope that this Bill receives its Second Reading and goes into Committee.
I am a London Member, and those of us who live in London know that we rarely face severe weather conditions. However, we know from what has happened in recent weeks that many other parts of the country suffer from atrocious weather. I am sure that clause 1 will, therefore, be welcomed in the north of England, Scotland and many other parts of the country. All Members would pay the warmest tribute to the people and local authority employees who, in recent weeks, have had to struggle through atrocious conditions to keep the roads open in their areas. They deserve a great deal of credit.
Clause 2 deals with speed limits. As the hon. Gentleman said, this issue causes concern and confusion to motorists and to residents. The speed limits in an area are often not clear, and motorists often wonder what their purpose is. It is clear that, in some areas, the speed limits should be clearly defined. For example, the roads around schools and play areas and the busy roads in built-up areas need to have clearly defined speed limits. That would not cause any problems. It does not matter whether we are dealing with Tooting or with North Wiltshire, because motorists and the general public readily understand the need for clear speed limits. We need to introduce a system 1194 that ensures that speed limits are thought through and are clearly understood throughout the country. The chances are that they will then be followed.
I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), and the hon. Member for North Wiltshire will agree that we must do something about the attitude of motorists to the speed at which they drive. In today's Daily Mail, there is a report about Mr. David Beckham, the footballer. This week he has again been charged by the police for speeding. The report says:It was the fifth time he had been caught in about three years.It adds:Beckham was not available for comment yesterday. A spokesman for him said: 'He was only just above the speed limit.'
What kind of example does that set? I imagine that tonight and over the weekend people in our constituencies will say, "Have you read about David Beckham? They've caught him again speeding. What a lad he is—he gets away with it." Therefore, there is a clear need for my hon. Friend and his Department to issue clear instructions. If, as the Daily Mail suggests, Mr. Beckham has had five convictions for speeding in the past three years, the point will come when he should not be allowed to drive on our roads for some time. It is very well to say, "I was only just over the limit", but what would he say if, sadly, someone were knocked down and killed? We know that can happen at a very low speed. My hon. Friend must consider this issue very carefully.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire said that the views of motoring organisations would be sought. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) referred to the need to involve the general public and, later in my speech, I shall describe how the public can become involved with an another issue. Seeking the views of motoring organisations is important because they represent the views of motorists, and I agree that we should also involve local authorities and the police.
In some large towns, different local authorities adjoin each other, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) made that point in relation to concessionary fares. Cycle lanes are of great benefit and some London boroughs provide them for their residents and the people who cycle through. However, once cyclists leave that borough, they enter another in which there are no cycle lanes. Without doubt, that causes confusion and adds to the danger of cycling.
§ Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)
Is my hon. Friend aware that the position is possibly even worse than he suggests? In the glorious outer London borough of Ealing, the cycle lanes are painted red and, in adjoining boroughs, they are painted green. That inspires something approaching cycling schizophrenia in the two-wheeled population. Is he aware of any plans, particularly from the Greater London Authority, to rationalise the system for cycle lanes, particularly with regard to highway markings?
§ Mr. Cox
I am not aware of any such plans, but my hon. Friend makes a valid point. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take it on board. It illustrates the need to involve local authorities and to take a consistent approach towards speeding.
1195 I have told the hon. Member for North Wiltshire that I support his Bill. However, if it had only contained clause 4, it would still have been welcome. The problem of people using hand-held mobile phones when driving a car is now totally out of control. One sees that happening throughout the country. I have a mobile phone, but I can honestly say that I have never used it when driving, because I see no need for it. I hope that the problem will be tackled, and clause 4 clearly outlines what action should be taken.
At the moment, the police have no clear policy on mobile phone use. I am sure that in some areas they come down hard on people who drive while using their phone, but that is not generally the case. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have asked Transport Ministers when they will introduce legislation, and I have been told that measures already exist in the legislation on dangerous driving and on driving without due care and attention. However, that simply is not working because it is not being used. I do not have the figures—perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister does—for the number of people who, in the past two years, have been charged with, convicted of, and, one assumes, fined for driving while using a mobile phone.
We know that we now live in a society dominated by mobile phones. One sees them being used everywhere, and sometimes we are surprised at their use. In clause 4(1), the hon. Gentleman has clearly said in 29 words what should be done about the problem. We have all seen what I can only describe as the idiots who drive a car while using a phone. Last week, as I was coming to the House, I saw a young man driving a car along Wandsworth road. He had a mobile phone pushed into his shoulder and in his left hand was a plastic cup from which he was drinking, and he was steering the car with his right hand. What control did that driver have over his vehicle? We all know how near one can come to having an accident—it happens in a second. I believe that people want what the hon. Gentleman proposes in clause 4.
I have been in the House for a long time, and looking round the Chamber this morning, I see only Members, including the Minister, who were not present when we were discussing seat belts. I took part in that debate, and I remember some Members saying that they were opposed to the compulsory use of seat belts, despite all the evidence supporting their use, because it infringed human rights.
I listened to the closing remarks by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, and he must take up the matter that he mentioned with the Leader of the House, which he obviously has the experience to do. I urge him not to give way if he is pressed on clause 4. When hon. Members on both sides of the House meet their constituents, this subject invariably comes up. They ask when something will be done about the idiots who use a mobile phone while driving. One wonders how urgent some of the calls can be. If a call is urgent, the driver should stop the car, as I do when I want to use my phone. It is as simple as that.
On Second Reading, Madam Deputy Speaker, one has the opportunity to raise issues that are related to the Bill, and with your permission I intend to raise three such issues. Two of them are important throughout the country, and the third relates only to my constituency. The first problem occurs throughout London and possibly even in 1196 the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I am absolutely appalled every day when I see people of all ages riding bicycles without front or rear lights.
Now, in winter, it is dark in the mornings and in the evenings, yet many of these cyclists wear no fluorescent clothing and have neither front nor rear lights on their bicycle. I am told that it is against the law to cycle without lights. I am not critical of my local police, indeed I have a very good relationship with them, but when I take up this issue with them, they say, "We know what happens but we are too busy to deal with it. We have other important issues to tackle." A former Member of this House, who is now a Member of the upper House, was knocked down and severely hurt by a cyclist a short time ago—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal)
Order. I appreciate that this is an important issue, but it does not relate to the Bill.
§ Mr. Cox
With great respect, Madam Deputy Speaker, I do not dispute that, but as you and I know, if the Bill gets its Second Reading and goes into Committee, we will have the opportunity to introduce new clauses. The Bill deals with broad, interrelated issues of transport and safety. A cycle is a means of transport, and I have commented on cyclists without lights because action needs to be taken against them.
My next point concerns bus lanes. I am a great supporter of bus lanes, which exist throughout London and, I am sure, in many other parts of the country. However, the restrictions on the use of bus lanes in the morning and evening are not being enforced. Why do we have bus lanes if we allow people to drive in them at those times? The vast majority of motorists respect the restrictions, but there are people who completely disregard them, as there are people who disregard speed limits. I shall be interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say about the number of prosecutions that have taken place.
The Bill is fairly wide ranging, and it is not controversial, as its promoter stated. A clause could be added to deal with bus lanes. I hope that the Minister will comment on what thoughts his Department has on the abuse of bus lanes.
§ Mr. Dismore
Is my hon. Friend aware of the experiment that the Minister sanctioned on route 32 in my constituency which runs down the A5 corridor? There has been a crackdown using cameras in bus lanes and tighter enforcement by traffic wardens. That has made a significant difference to buses' reliability and speed.
§ Mr. Cox
I welcome my hon. Friend's intervention. I should like to see similar developments elsewhere. It is time to deal with the flagrant disregard of the restrictions which happens in the mornings and the evenings throughout London. Why introduce restrictions if they are not enforced? It would be interesting to know how many people have been charged with driving in a bus lane during restricted hours. We should seriously consider tabling a new clause.
1197 Mention has been made of consulting the general public. We should make consultation with our constituents our top priority. I am concerned about controlled parking zones in my constituency. I have two secretaries who work in the House and they have been inundated with calls from residents bitterly complaining about the lack of consultation on the introduction of the zones in Wandsworth.
My hon. Friend the Minister represents a constituency adjoining mine and we have worked together on many issues. There is absolute uproar in the London borough of Wandsworth about the council's attitude. Local people say that they are not being consulted and that, no matter what they say, the council does not listen. Not only residents but business people say that policies that they do not want are being steamrollered through.
I certainly hope that we can table a new clause—it would be easy to draft—requiring the fullest consultation on the introduction of new controlled parking zones, the results of which must be published. People often tell me that they have not been consulted, yet the council insists that it has consulted everyone.
I have hundreds of letters on the subject, but I shall read just one, which comes from Earlsfield. It says:I am appalled by the council's arrogance and the way they steamroller their policies through. I believe it is against the law for a Council to impose parking schemes to raise revenue and would appreciate if you could intervene and help curb their unlawful and undemocratic behaviour.
§ Mr. Dismore
I have the reverse problem in my constituency, where people want more controlled zones but the council is having difficulty finding the necessary resources. For example, in Hendon central, which has become something of a commuter trap, it is very hard for local residents to find somewhere to park and a CPZ would help.
§ Mr. Cox
That is a matter of opinion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon would know from his professional background that one presents one argument for the defence and quite another for the prosecution. We know that some people will say that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire is an idiot to try to restrict speeds and curb the use of mobile phones. I am reporting what my constituents tell me. These are interrelated issues.
Hon. Members of all parties often have very good ideas. I was a Government Whip under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan and I have sat on the Front Bench, listened to excellent Bills being introduced and thought that they were something that my constituents would warmly welcome. I hope that the Bill gets its Second Reading.
I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your courtesy and generosity in allowing me to talk about things that were not in the Bill but relate to the overall issue of transport. I wish the Bill well.
§ Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on his success in the ballot and on introducing a Bill that gives us the opportunity to debate matters that, as the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) said, are of real concern to our constituents. I am somewhat surprised that there are not more of us here today. The fact that there is not one Liberal Democrat Member here is a disgrace. I know that an event is likely to take place in three months' time that is encouraging colleagues to spend more time in their constituencies, but I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter that I once tried, unsuccessfully, to raise on the Adjournment.
There are five elements to the Bill. I want to concentrate on the first two: the duties of highways authorities to maintain roads, and revised procedures for speed limits. On the other three, I have not reached the position that the hon. Member for Tooting has reached, but I might yet be persuaded that we should have a complete ban on hand-held telephones in cars. It is certainly a matter that Parliament will have to determine before too long.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind my saying, as a former policeman, that the illustration that he gave of the phone on the shoulder and the coffee in the hand was plain sailing for a charge of driving without due care and attention. The problem is that it has to be seen by a police officer, but when we see it we are powerless to do anything about it. There are certainly some idiots around, and I have even seen the same thing happening at 80 mph on the motorway. Clause 4 concerns an important matter to which we will have to return at some point.
I am not sure why further provisions on seat belt exemptions are included in the Bill. It seems that that is one of the clauses in which the Government are in favour, and I have no strong views about it.
As the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) suggested, there are problems with travel concessions. He raised a valid issue. I have similar problems in my constituency of Ryedale, which includes the entire Ryedale district, a significant part of City of York council and part of Scarborough borough council. The biggest problem is that many elderly people in rural areas receive no travel concessions.
§ Mr. Greenway
I understand that. I am not making a big issue about it, but the Minister knows that if there are no rural buses, the elderly cannot travel on them, whether they are entitled to free transport or not. I should like to see greater uniformity across the country on travel concessions. I know that Ministers both in this Government and in the previous Government have examined that.
The suggestion that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire makes in clause 5 seems sensible, and I shall listen with interest to what my Front-Bench spokesman and the Minister have to say about it.
Clause 1 is a narrow provision to oblige local authorities to clear snow and ice. When I told my wife that I was spending the day in the Chamber debating this Bill and that it contained such a provision, she was surprised that the obligation did not already exist. Most 1199 people think that it is already a requirement, but those of us who have studied these things know from Goodes v. East Sussex County Council that the Law Lords interpreted the Highways Act 1980 differently, so the clause is welcome if it seeks to correct that position in law. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire did not refer to it directly, but I presume that that is largely what lies behind it.
May I enter a slight caveat? It is all very well to introduce a statutory duty on local authorities, but we must have regard to their resources. My constituency covers several hundred square miles of rural North Yorkshire—England's biggest county. Many miles of its roads are never gritted. No one expects them to be gritted because the local authority does not have the resources to do so. When I was a member of North Yorkshire county council, and in my almost 14 years in this place since, the issue of budgets for winter maintenance has always been topical at this time of year. There is never enough money to do everything that one would wish.
Similarly, there are problems with budgets for maintenance of the road fabric, which are seriously under pressure. I do not make a partisan point; it was the same under the previous Government, and it has not changed much under this one. There is a long backlog of repairs. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) that a plan needs to be published. I understand that the statutory duty works perfectly well in Scotland. The wording that my hon. Friend has used in the Bill, which is technical, is precisely the same as the Scottish legislation. There will have to be consultation, because it is important that people know which roads will be gritted. Clearly, the main county roads that link one place with another and give access to the main urban centres such as York, Scarborough and Middlesbrough on the north side of my constituency—many people have to travel up to Teesside—must be gritted.
There is some dissatisfaction among rural residents of my constituency. They feel that they pay road fuel duty, but that the money is not spent on their roads. We understand the arguments about why that is so. I do not propose hypothecation, but people feel that more needs to be done to maintain the fabric of the rural road infrastructure than merely clearing snow and ice.
Clause 1 is narrow; it aims to correct provisions in the 1980 Act on the duty of highways authorities to maintain a road in good condition, but the issue that that touches on goes further than simply the state of the road surface. Parliament really ought to get its teeth into whether roads themselves are dangerous. The road surface might be dangerous because it has not been repaired, but the alignment of the road might also be dangerous and it might be a contributory factor in many accidents. If so, where should the responsibility rest?
§ Maria Eagle
I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman. I understand his point about resources, but not his point about the alignment of roads. I have some concerns about the adequacy of the clause. Is he suggesting that some bends are too sharp or that roads need to be changed in some material way to be safer?
§ Mr. Greenway
In some respects, I am. I want to contrast Parliament's attitude to the state of the roads with its attitude to the state of the railways in the past few 1200 weeks. This is the point that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, kindly allowed me to make in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire.
The A64 trunk road from York to Scarborough runs through my constituency for about 37 miles. In the past 10 years, there have been no fewer than 40 fatalities on that stretch of road. That is not 40 fatal accidents, because in some instances more than one person was killed. If hon. Members want to see the road, I can give them the precise details. There were two tragic fatalities recently. There were two accidents in which four people were killed at Golden Hill and Huttons Ambo. Analysis of the 40 deaths shows that 10 were in the section between the end of the Malton bypass and the beginning of the dual carriageway at Whitwell-on-the-Hill. It is a single-carriageway stretch of road with many dangerous bends and people drive too fast and overtake when they should not. That has been a major cause of the accidents.
Two Bradford ladies were killed in a head-on collision on the bend at the top of Golden Hill in September. In late October, a girl of 15 and a boy of 17 from Thornton-le-Dale were killed on exactly the same bend in precisely the same circumstances, coming round the bend too fast, heading south towards Malton. In between those two accidents, four people were killed in a rail crash at Hatfield. The road is dangerous.
Concern about the number of teenagers who have been killed on roads in Ryedale has spurred local people, under the leadership of a local GP from Pickering, to create an accident prevention group for young people. I commend the scheme to the Minister. We are working to ensure that every fifth and sixth-former at Lady Lumley's school has a workshop day on road safety and on being behind the wheel of a car. The police are working hard to help us. If the Minister wants, I shall send details to him, as well as to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire.
The road is dangerous. In March 1997, Mr. John Watts, then roads Minister, came to my constituency to discuss the future of the A64. Some of the improvements that we are now making were taken on by the current Government; we are grateful for that. The problem at Huttons Ambo was one of the difficulties identified in 1997. Ministers have agreed to remedy the problem at Golden Hill. In September, after the first double fatality, I wrote to suggest that an overtaking lane should be removed; the Minister for Transport in the other place agreed immediately that it would be removed in March or April. We are grateful for the fact that there are only one or two months to go, but the Minister will understand local people's concern about how long it takes. In their minds, they contrast the speed with which, post-Hatfield—an accident in which four people were killed—the entire rail network was brought to a halt so that every danger could be removed, with the fact that it takes six months to remove an overtaking lane after four people are killed on one stretch of road for which the Government are responsible. I criticise not the Minister, but the system: it takes far too long for urgent problems to be remedied.
I concede that my argument is over-simplistic, but my point is that many parts of our road network are, by their nature and because of the volume of traffic now using them, dangerous. I suggest that Members of Parliament—especially Back Benchers putting constituency interests before partisan politics, as the hon. Member for Tooting 1201 did earlier—start to question where responsibility rests when, as the hon. Member for Garston said, it is obvious that a road, because of its design and layout, is dangerous.
It is now clear to me that transferring transport infrastructure to the private sector will enable us robustly and properly to provide against wrongdoing and shortcomings. The hon. Member for Hendon looks aghast. He might think that people have had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into taking action, but the enforcement of higher safety standards is occurring on the rail network, precisely because it is in the private sector. It is perfectly valid to contrast the speed of the process when responsibility rests with the public sector.
§ Mr. Dismore
All the reports on all the train crashes of the past few years that I have read point to a lack of investment by Railtrack—a privatised company—a lack of enforcement and fragmentation of the railways. That is a consequence of privatisation. The hon. Gentleman's argument is nonsense.
§ Mr. Greenway
I do not agree. The lack of investment occurred when the railways were in the public sector, not after it was transferred to the private sector. When the railways were in the public sector, after a train crash, the action that has in recent months been taken against the rail infrastructure companies was not taken.
§ Mr. Greenway
No. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman does not agree. However, the public can see that the legal position of Railtrack and the existing enforcement structure enable the Rail Regulator and Ministers to take out their big stick and force the company to act. The fact that people are launching legal challenges against some of the private companies makes my case.
§ Mr. Greenway
No. The hon. Gentleman will have the chance to make his own speech later. My point is that the rail infrastructure has been repaired and brought up to date in record time because of the—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I have allowed a fairly lengthy exchange of views on that topic, but we should now return to the Bill.
§ Mr. Greenway
I am grateful for your intervention, Madam Deputy Speaker, because the hon. Member for Hendon—
§ Mr. Greenway
I am not in a hole. If four people had been killed in the hon. Gentleman's constituency on a bend in the road that Ministers said was dangerous and it took six months to rectify the problem, he would not regard that as acceptable. It is not acceptable. We have to do something: people pay their road and fuel duties and they expect their Member of Parliament to argue their corner, which is what I am doing. I am grateful for 1202 Ministers' agreement that the road has to be changed, but that changing it will take six months is not justified. There have already been several more serious accidents at the same spot; thankfully, no one has been killed, but it has been close on two occasions.
Driver error is a major problem. People drive too fast for the condition of the road. The hon. Member for Tooting spoke about people driving at or just above the speed limit, and he mentioned David Beckham. I am told by police officers that if people drive above the speed limit on certain bends in the road, an accident is likely. The problem is not necessarily people driving well in excess of the speed limit, but people driving at or just above it on a road whose alignment means that an accident is possible.
§ Maria Eagle
Given the difficulty that would be involved in changing the alignment of roads on a grand scale, does the hon. Gentleman agree that lowering speed limits might be another way in which the number of accidents could be reduced?
§ Mr. Greenway
Yes. I am coming to precisely that point. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire was right to question the appropriateness of existing speed limits. In some cases, the speed limit is inappropriate because it is too high, in others because it is too low. We need to review and debate the issue. Appropriate speed limits are important if they are to command the respect and confidence of motorists. Whatever speed limits we establish, enforcement is an issue—there is no point setting speed limits that cannot be enforced.
§ Mrs. Curtis-Thomas
Has the hon. Gentleman read the excellent document "Tomorrow's Roads: Safer for Everyone", which was published in March 2000 by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions? I refer him to page 49, paragraph 6.16, in which the Government state:We will revise our guidance to local authorities on the setting of local speed limits to achieve appropriate and consistent standards nationally to reflect, as far as possible, the needs of all road users on different classes of roads. The guidance will help authorities to take sensible measures, including lowering speed limits where necessary, to achieve safer vehicle speeds.Will he confirm whether his local authority has engaged in that activity? Mine has.
§ Mr. Greenway
I am sure that North Yorkshire county council, which is Conservative controlled, and City of York council, which is Labour controlled, will co-operate on these matters, but how long will the process take? The Bill requires local authorities to undertake an immediate review in their areas. If the hon. Lady is saying that she believes that that fits hand in glove with what the Government are saying in their White Paper, no doubt the Minister will tell us how much he welcomes my hon. Friend's Bill, and particularly the clause that I am addressing. There must be a re-examination. We must ensure that we have appropriate speed limits.
Motorists are driving too fast on country roads, especially through or near villages. For many country lanes, the 60 mph speed limit is now inappropriate. What we should do to deal with the problem does not permit an easy answer. If we begin to impose a lower speed limit, signs must clearly demonstrate it, whether it is 40 or 50 mph.
1203 We have made great progress with speed limits in recent years. Countless villages in my constituency had no speed limit when I was first elected. They now have a 30 or 40 mph speed limit, traffic-calming measures and much improved road signs. Those features have made a huge difference to road safety in terms of reduced accidents and a feeling of greater safety and protection among families and children who live in the villages when, for example, children are going to school.
We must have also regard to the motorist, who is not always sure what the speed limit might be. We need to spend on signs as well as cameras. There needs to be uniformity, and speed limits need to be easily understood. However, I am in favour of more restrictions in rural communities, and especially near schools. In the York suburbs of my constituency, there are 20 mph speed limits and speed bumps outside school gates. The speed limit outside some rural schools is 60 mph. That cannot be right. We must ensure that there is the same protection for children going to schools in rural areas as in urban areas.
I am not sure that it is necessary for 20 mph limits to operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. However, if there are speed bumps it is not possible to travel at more than 20 mph anyway.
We must redress the balance and local authorities must undertake reviews, with the support and guidance of Government. As has been said, I believe that there must be local consultation. In my constituency, local views are generally well known. Rural residents are already making their views clear to me on speed and on the volumes of heavy traffic on country lanes, which are being used as rat runs. These are not easy matters to resolve, but we should air people's concerns at every opportunity and find some way of dealing with the issue.
There should be a review of speed limits. All the matters that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire has raised in his Bill seek to address issues of concern to our constituents, whether as road users, pedestrians or parents worried about their children. I believe that these issues will return to us, whether or not the Bill reaches the statute book. I entirely agree with what the hon. Member for Tooting said about that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing these matters before the House. He has one simple aim, it seems, and that is to save lives. There is no more important matter for the House than that.
§ Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), even though it seems that he got out of bed this morning on the wrong side. I think that he was in a slightly ratty mood. He suggested persistently that everyone in the House breaks the law when it comes to speed and mobile phones. None the less, I congratulate him most warmly on his luck in coming second in the ballot. I, too, have managed to do that during this Parliament, so I know the feeling. As I recall, it is a combination of great elation and then great trepidation as one wonders how one's staff will deal with the deluge—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises the word—of correspondence and suggestions that follows, setting out the most appropriate changes in the law. The additional work can put a strain on any Member's office. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and his staff have had that experience.
1204 I congratulate the hon. Gentleman also on preparing a good-looking Bill. It is well written and it has obviously been drafted by those who have some knowledge of the issues. Many Members who have not had our luck in securing second place in the ballot do not necessarily realise that everything is down to the Member who is in charge of the Bill. One cannot use the parliamentary draftsmen and it is necessary to prepare and produce the Bill and get it into the Vote Office in a short time. All that happens after having had relevant consultations with those who have an interest in the chosen subject. It is by no means easy, especially when the Member is also an Opposition Whip. On top of that there is the constituency work to deal with. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman most warmly on managing to produce a good-looking Bill in the short time that he has had.
I have much sympathy with many of the aims in what the hon. Gentleman described as his Christmas-tree Bill. I am not sure whether he meant that it has coloured lights that flash. I suspect that he meant that it deals with a number of disparate but slightly related subjects. I shall concentrate my remarks on some of them.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not be offended—I shall try to do this as gently as possible—when I say that I shall raise some issues about the wording of the Bill and some concerns about whether the clauses will achieve what they have set out to do. If the Bill gets into Committee—I know that I will regret saying this—I shall be happy to serve on it. I have said it now, and it will be in Hansard tomorrow. I shall be happy to assist the hon. Gentleman in any way that I can in Committee. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind when deciding who to suggest to the Committee of Selection should be appointed as members of the Committee that I do not agree with everything that is in the Bill.
The long title is about as long as my arm, and will therefore allow many amendments and changes. That is a good thing in many ways, but for the Member in charge it can be a double-edged sword. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), who is no longer in his place, did not try our patience but he was ingenious in introducing many other subjects that he thought should be in the Bill. Perhaps he, too, should be a member of the Committee. Other matters will have to be fitted into the long title and the hon. Gentleman may find that he has one or two problems in keeping his Bill under control once he gets it into Committee, particularly if he has Members on it who have an interest in these matters. There is quite some scope for amendment. The Bill may come back on Report containing about 2,000 clauses. The hon. Gentleman needs to be careful about that.
Clause 1 deals with snow and ice. It is an important subject and local authorities do not always give it the consideration that it deserves. They take the view that it does not snow that often in Britain. It certainly does not snow that often in Liverpool. Local authority policy rests on fingers being crossed and hope. Whether that is a reasonable policy would, under the Bill, be a matter for the courts to consider. Given the pressures on resources to which every authority will always be subject, no matter how many resources they have, there will always be the question of how much should be done.
The House of Lords decision in Goodes v. East Sussex County Council was most unwelcome. For many years many of us had thought that a local authority had a statutory duty, at least in respect of its main roads and the 1205 main trunk roads that are used through cities. In my case the local authority has responsibility for a city. I accept that many Opposition Members represent rural areas and the problems are slightly different in those areas. As the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) explained, it is not easy to grit 700 miles of country lanes. However, there are similar problems in cities, not least because their higher populations mean that there are a lot more road users. The road network may be smaller in terms of the miles travelled, but the potential for accidents and problems in snowy conditions is just as great—in some cases, in fact, it is greater.
§ Mr. Dismore
A particular problem in cities relates to housing estates. Sometimes it is a little ambiguous which road is under the control of the local authority's highway authority and which is under the control of the housing department. That has certainly led to confusion and problems in my area. Is it the same in Liverpool?
§ Maria Eagle
I am afraid that it is. I suspect that the local authority will not thank me for that, but it is Liberal Democrat-controlled, so I am not too concerned.
§ Maria Eagle
Indeed—not here, for certain. One problem is that if there is any dispute, or if the ice is on a minor road or on one in an estate, people simply do not grit. There is no argument about who should do it; it simply is not done. I am sure that that is a problem in many areas apart from my own.
The judgment in Goodes v. East Sussex County Council was unwelcome for several reasons. One has a great deal of sympathy with the original plaintiff in this case, who suffered catastrophic injuries as a result of skidding on black ice. From what I can tell, there is no indication that he was driving badly. His car simply hit a patch of black ice which had not been treated. The case went all the way up to the House of Lords, and the judgment changed at every stage; the plaintiff lost at first, won in the Court of Appeal and lost in the House of Lords.
§ Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)
Even with gritting, there will be bad conditions on roads. One cannot get away from the fact that there will be ice on the roads—a driver's responsibility is to drive with regard to prevailing conditions. Whether the road is icy, or whether salt or grit has gone down, one should have regard to the conditions. I have a slightly different view of the judgment and whether it was right to compensate someone for crashing a car in those conditions, when, as a driver he should have been aware of them.
§ Maria Eagle
The hon. Gentleman is right that the driver should have been aware of conditions. However, one cannot see black ice on the road, so the hon. Gentleman takes a harsh view of the matter. My sympathy with the original plaintiff, who is not a constituent or anything like that, may derive from the fact that, when I practised as a solicitor, I tended to act for plaintiffs in personal injury cases. I do not think that that is an interest that I should declare, but I used to deal with cases on 1206 behalf of people like Mr. Goodes. In such instances, huge changes in the common law are made in the House of Lords, but someone always suffers. In this case, a man suffered catastrophic injuries.
My concern about the law, as it has been left by Goodes v. East Sussex County Council, is that there is clearly no liability on any local authority faced with similar litigation. During my time in the House, and from my own experience, I have noticed that when there is no potential liability on an authority for failing to carry out what one thought was a statutory duty, or when that liability is wiped out by such cases, it can be tremendously tempting not to continue to make sure that the liability is protected against. I understand, that in this case, local authority associations, as one would expect, have acted responsibly and said that they will continue to implement their code of practice. However, the case of Goodes v. East Sussex County Council cries out for legislative action to clarify the situation.
Looking at the judgment, I noticed that East Sussex county council took such action. Lord Hoffman said in his judgment:Although the council denies it has a statutory duty to keep the roads free of ice, it does in fact make considerable efforts to do so. The Highway Superintendent receives weather forecasts from the Southampton Meteorological Office and decides whether and when to send out the council's fleet of gritting lorries. Each lorry has a route to cover. The council follows a Code of Good Practice issued by the Association of County Councils and three other local authority associations. This says, among other things, that the salting should be completed before the morning rush hour".In this particular case, therefore, it seems as if the local authority did its best to implement good practice. It did not get to the patch of road that poor old Mr. Goodes was driving on before he had his accident, so it was not gritted.
In general, local authorities have reacted by saying that they will continue to implement the code of practice. East Sussex did that, but that did not prevent Mr. Goodes's accident. I am slightly concerned because, without a change in the law to clarify whether or not liability lies with the local authority in any instance, the case leaves us with no one liable for problems on the road surface rather than those that relate to the fabric of the road surface—it all centres on a definition of maintenance—which cry out for action to be put right as quickly as possible. Clearly liability would not lie with the local authority in every instance: as the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) suggested, if the driver was irresponsible, one is looking at contributory negligence or no liability at all.
I noticed with interest—as may have some of the lawyers here—that the thing that swung Lord Hoffman and the unanimous decision of the House of Lords, went back to a judgment made by Lord Denning when he was Master of the Rolls. One is not surprised about that: Lord Denning always wrote startlingly good, persuasive judgments that were extremely well argued and made a good analysis of previous common law. It may be slightly unfair of me, but I also remember that many of his judgments left us with an absurd piece of law. However, they were beautifully argued, excellently analysed and often persuasive, so I am not surprised that the judgment can be traced back to Lord Denning's minority opinion in a previous case.
It is certain that something will have to be done. I applaud the hon. Member for North Wiltshire for noticing the problem and giving it priority in clause 1. He was 1207 kind enough to thank his draftsmen, so we know that he did not write the Bill himself. They lifted a provision from Scots law and reproduced it in the Bill. That is often a good thing to do, because much of Scots law is slightly more modern than English law and uses slightly more modern language. It can sometimes usefully update the law. However, I notice that, the section of Lord Hoffman's judgment on provisions on snow and ice cites section 23 of the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984, which the hon. Member for North Wiltshire reproduces as clause 1 in his Bill.
One main argument led Lord Hoffman to the conclusion that English law, in its current form as the Highways Act 1980, does not allow for the clearing of snow and ice. He says that a modern provision similar to the Scottish provision that he cites—which the hon. Member for North Wiltshire has reproduced in clause 1—is to be found in section 150(1) of the Highways Act. Lord Hoffman went on to say:But the existence of specific provisions dealing with obstruction show that the removal of obstructions was not in itself regarded as falling with the concept of maintenance.Rather ironically, the existence of the Scottish provision led Lord Hoffman, following the persuasive arguments of Lord Denning in a previous case, to the conclusion that the current English law is inadequate. There is some irony in introducing into English law the clause from Scots law on which the House of Lords judgment was based.
I am not convinced that the provision is adequate, although I am pleased that none of my Scottish colleagues is here to argue that it is. The provision states:The authority who are for the time being the highway authority for a highway maintainable at public expense shall take such steps as they consider reasonable to prevent snow and ice endangering the safe passage of pedestrians and vehicles over the highway.That would impose a duty, not a power, on the authority, which is a good thing; that is the point of the clause. However, "as they consider reasonable" is a subjective test and almost reduces a duty to a power. That may sound pedantic, but we are discussing words that will go on the statute book, and they should be clear.
In Liverpool over Christmas, we had unexpected snow and ice, when we had a couple of bad days of snow followed by sleet and ice. Liverpool does not get much bad weather because of the gulf stream—my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) knows what I am talking about—but that was not the case over Christmas. The local authority completely failed to clear the snow and ice.
On 27 and 28 December, there was utter chaos in Liverpool. The gritting was not done in time, and then there was an enormous fall of snow. The gritting was then done, but it was too late. The city had no snow plough of any kind. In fact, most of the main bus routes were not gritted and buses could not run. People could not get to work and many cars were involved in minor shunts. The council was severely criticised by the local media, rightly, for failing to deal with the snow and ice. Every other city did fairly well, but Liverpool did not, and people wanted to know why.
The council said that the gritters had been out, and they had, spreading 1,220 tonnes of rock salt. The salt spreaders have adjustable nozzles which were turned to maximum, but it was all too late. It should have been done in advance. The council worked out that its eight gritting 1208 vehicles covered a total of 5,928 km, but they did not do so in time. As a consequence, there were accidents, buses did not run and people could not get to work. There was a surge in the number of broken legs and hips at the local hospital, which led to some ordinary operations being cancelled.
There were a number of reasons for the chaos. Not only did the city not have a snow plough, it did not take many of the precautions taken by other cities. Many cities have monitors and sensors which allow meteorological officers to forecast in more detail when bad weather is coming. Liverpool does not have those, but it did have gritters.
Were the steps that the local authority took reasonable, subjectively? Would the council think that? If we believe the press coverage, the local authority said that staff had worked hard and that it had done all it could. A senior Liberal Democrat councillor said that the salt was the problem because it did not work to a low-enough temperature. It was the wrong kind of salt. The salt is mined in Cheshire in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall).
Instead, the authority was going to use zoo poo. [HON. MEMBERS: "What?"] Zoo poo. I think that is excrement obtained from zoo animals. It was said that that would have worked. I find it ironic that a spokesman from a party that usually gets elected by promising to remove dog dirt from streets was now proposing to spread it on every road in the city. However, this was probably a diversionary tactic; the council has gone quiet about zoo poo and has decided that rock salt works well. I am glad to hear it. We need to support our local industries and not put a lot of salt miners out of work in Cheshire.
According to the detailed report that I have, which I will not go through—
§ Maria Eagle
The right hon. Gentleman tempts me to go through the report, but I have picked out the best bits. I would not want to bore the House.
Would what the council did be considered reasonable, subjectively or objectively? Subjectively, the council thought it was reasonable. Councillors told the local newspapers, radio stations and anyone who would listen that it had done everything in its power. The grit spreaders had gone 5,928 km, chucking out more than 1,220 tonnes of rock salt. That sounded reasonable to the council. The fact that it did not work was just one of those things.
The Bill only requires that such steps as the council thinks reasonable are taken; it would not create any further liability on the city of Liverpool arising out of the accidents caused in the chaos of 27 and 28 December last year.
It would not create any liability that does not exist as a result of Goodes v. East Sussex County Council.
§ Mr. Gray
As the hon. Lady is a lawyer, she will understand that the insertion of the word "reasonable" in 1209 the Scottish Act gives the judge the ability to interpret the meaning of that word, so that if a local authority has not been reasonable, it will be liable.
§ Maria Eagle
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. He may well be aware that "reasonable" is one of those words that lawyers love [Interruption.]
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I remind hon. Members that, according to "Erskine May", a debate on Second Reading should not extend to the details of the clauses.
§ Maria Eagle
I did not read that part of "Erskine May" before I came in this morning. I apologise if I am trying the patience of the House.
Although I appreciate and support in principle the idea of reimposing some liability on the highway authority in respect of accidents caused to people such as Mr. Goodes, I do not believe that the provision, long-standing though it is in Scottish law, is necessarily adequate. There should be a more objective test.
§ Mr. Forth
Would the hon. Lady go as far as to say that a measure that places an obligation on someone simply to do what they judge to be reasonable is otiose, and that one ends up with a rather unproductive circularity? Does she agree that if we simply left the clause out, matters would proceed in a perfectly acceptable way?
§ Maria Eagle
I have a great deal of sympathy with what the right hon. Gentleman says. As I said earlier, the clause reduces a duty to a power. It tells the authority with the statutory duty, "Do what you think is right." To the extent that it imposes a duty, it is good, but the duty is then watered down.
The Bill lacks ambition in that it simply attempts to put right a very small matter that has gone wrong. While we are at it, surely we should try to improve the law. Many elderly people in Liverpool have suffered falls on minor roads and pavements. Is the hon. Gentleman open to the idea of extending the range of people who ought to be protected by the duty on local authorities? The clause refers tothe safe passage of pedestrians and vehicles".Does it cover pedestrians on minor roads and pavements in city centres?
§ Maria Eagle
If that is indeed the case, it is most welcome. I wonder whether the Minister will interpret it in that way. I am not an expert on the Highways Act. Perhaps my hon. Friend will be able to tell us more.
I have probably said quite enough about snow and ice, so I shall move on to clause 2, which deals with speed limits. Conservative Members have discussed the provision mainly in relation to rural areas. I am aware that the hon. Members for North Wiltshire and for Ryedale represent rural constituencies. I represent a city, where 1210 speed limits are just as important. I shall not go into too much of the detail of the clause, but I want to discuss whether it is as flexible as it should be.
The current law is inflexible in respect of changing speed limits. Conservative Members have explained the hoops through which a local authority has to jump in order to change a speed limit, and have given us some estimates of the costs involved. It seems nonsensical that a local authority cannot quickly and easily move a 30 mph speed limit 100 yards down the road to protect children in a local school. It is ridiculous that that should take 12 months and cost £5,000, as the hon. Member for North Wiltshire told us. I therefore welcome clause 2 to the extent that it places a duty on local authorities—I stress that it is a duty, not a power—to prepare a review of all the speed limits in the area and set out what they are and what they should be. That is a good thing. However, it is regrettable—this is why I said that he might have got out of bed the wrong side this morning—that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire should say that local people should not be consulted on such issues. He expounded a view of local democracy which seemed rather paternalistic in respect of the involvement of local people.
I do not accept that voting in parish council elections, council elections and parliamentary elections every year or every four or five years is adequate in respect of community involvement. I should like people to be much more active in their communities in respect of issues that affect them such as speed limits on local roads. I should like them to be included in the provision as statutory consultees.
In that context, I am concerned about the flexibility of the measure. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting referred to zone parking, and related instances of his constituents complaining bitterly. He waved huge wads of correspondence indicating that people were most annoyed at not being consulted on matters that affected the streets outside their houses.
When local authorities carry out the reviews in clause 2, prepare an area draft order and propose changing speed limits in a swifter and easier way, it is important that local people should know what is happening, be asked for their approval and have the chance to make an input.
§ Mr. Gray
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I promise not to intervene again as I have had my say and would not wish to delay the House unduly. I did not get out of bed the wrong side this morning; I just got up rather early and I meant the hon. Lady no discourtesy. I am strongly in favour of involving local people in discussing these matters, but, equally, we must avoid delaying things by using excessively formal, complicated, expensive and difficult procedures to consult local people. Of course local communities must be fully involved in discussing exactly where speed limits should go.
§ Maria Eagle
The hon. Gentleman has obviously woken up now and is in a slightly better mood. I am grateful for his clarification that he is perfectly happy for local people to be consulted. It is important to allow flexibility, however, and I find clause 2 quite prescriptive. It suggests that the review and draft order should be prepared and a decision taken whether or not to 1211 implement it. Would the provision allow for amendments in respect of particular local roads if the council felt that it had got it wrong, or had not taken into account strong local feelings that emerged after the draft order had been produced, for example?
Let me give one example from my constituency which has caused huge upset and an enormous surge in community activity, if I can put it that way. It all arose out of speed limits and traffic-calming measures that were introduced in Gateacre drive and Barnham drive in Woolton in my constituency. Gateacre drive is just south of the main dual carriageway that takes most traffic around the south of Liverpool. It has become a bit of a rat-run because anybody who wishes to travel across the city and does not want to use the main dual carriageway can cut across Gateacre drive. Those who live on Gateacre drive did not like their street becoming something akin to a racetrack as people drove down it very quickly—as I have seen—and so were keen on traffic calming. It just so happened that the millennium cycle track was also sited along that street, so the council took the opportunity of obtaining additional funds to introduce some traffic-calming measures. The traffic-calming scheme that the council chose to use was excessive. It included not only speed humps, or sleeping policemen, but pillows and chicanes—which not only made the road look more like a racetrack than it had, but almost forced cars on to the wrong side of the road to get round them.
The scheme seemed to be intended to force drivers to slow down. However, one could argue that its real intention was to protect cyclists on the millennium cycle route by removing traffic from the route, not slowing it down.
The council consulted on the scheme, as it usually does, and included all businesses and residents on the street. The residents said, "Great. That's exactly what we want. We want cars to go slower, or not to be here at all." However, the council did not consult people on neighbouring streets, although traffic-calming schemes displace traffic to other streets. Traffic does not disappear in a puff of smoke, into thin air.
As a consequence of the scheme, speeds on Gateacre drive decreased from more than 40 mph to 20 mph—which is very good—and traffic volumes fell by more than half. However, rat-running began in neighbouring streets which were formerly much quieter. The people who were now suffering from traffic had not been consulted on the scheme or asked whether they thought that traffic calming was good idea in that particular part of the world. They woke up one morning to discover that much of the traffic that formerly used Gateacre drive was going down their street. They were not happy about that.
The neighbours complained to the council and to me. There was a local authority area meeting which was attended by about 200 people. The issue caused a huge surge in democratic participation in local community activities. It also caused some local residents to block off one of the streets with the purple wheelie bins that the council had recently introduced. I must say that to me, as a mere observer, the bins seemed to be very useful for blocking off streets, although of course their main purpose is to hold rubbish.
Having created that enormous fuss, the council was unable to deal very well or swiftly with its consequences. It was put under a lot of pressure by local people and 1212 local councillors, and it responded by panicking. It said, "Of course we consulted. We consulted the people who live on the street with the traffic calming. That is our usual consultation process." It did not really deal with the point that it had not consulted anyone else, including those who were bound to be affected by displaced traffic. Another consequence was that it had to deal with the displaced traffic.
Rather than ensuring that it had had a well-designed scheme in the first place, the council was faced with having to placate local people. It did that by removing, at great expense, the chicanes and some of the other traffic-calming measures that it had just installed. It has also had to install, without any planning, traffic-calming measures in other main streets and side streets. Those were the consequences of a badly conceived traffic-calming scheme. Six months later, there are still problems and irate local people demanding that something be done about the fact that their street has become a rat-run. There have also been accidents in streets where there were never accidents before.
I do not want to deal with the case in too much deal, but I think that it demonstrates that local people have to be asked whether traffic calming is appropriate, and if so, what type of traffic calming is appropriate. Local people know better than council officers where displaced traffic will go and which streets will become rat-runs, and the potential problems on those streets—if a lot of young children live on them, for example. The ideal is to ask those people in advance, up front, before implementing traffic-calming measures.
I think that there should be such consultation whenever any type of speed restriction is being considered. I therefore approve of the concept, suggested in clause 2, of a strategic review of speed limits in the whole city or local authority area. However, we have to ensure that, once a draft order is produced, everyone—not only police and local authorities—is consulted. Local people can spot problems that council officers have not even dreamt of, and they will be very quick to point them out. Moreover, they will usually be right. If that happens, the overall plans will be much better.
I am not quite sure—the hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire has popped out of the Chamber, so he cannot tell me—whether the draft orders will be amendable. I think that they will have to be amendable. In the process of consultation after draft orders are produced, problems will arise and issues will come to the fore. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will be amenable—I shall have to ask him later—to accepting an amendment that makes it clear that the draft order and review process will be a flexible beast and not incapable of change. Subject to those concerns, I should be very happy to support the hon. Gentleman's intentions in clause 2.
I really am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not in the Chamber, because I do not want to be unpleasant to him when he is not here. However, I should like to deal with one or two of the points that he made in his speech. He said very emphatically that he favours cutting speed limits. Cutting speed limits, whether on rural or city roads, is clearly a major contributor to saving lives. The Library's very interesting research paper on the Bill mentions some research done by DETR and other bodies 1213 that produced startling figures on the correlation between road speed and accidents and road speed and deaths. It concludes:The severity of accidents is closely linked to speed: at 20 mph only five per cent. of pedestrians die if struck by vehicle whereas at 30 mph 45 per cent. die and at 40 mph 85 per cent. die.The paper goes on to say:
there is overwhelming evidence that lower speeds result in fewer collisions of lesser severity …the faster the average traffic speed, the more collisions there are".
Moreover, the faster the average traffic speed, the more likely it is that those who are hit will die. That evidence is quite clear. My hon. Friend the Minister will undoubtedly have something to say in his reply about the evidence that the Government have produced on these matters. As he is nodding, I shall not belabour the point by reading out more statistics. However, I look forward to hearing what he has to say.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire made it clear that his Bill aims to reduce speed limits. However, he went on to say—I hope that I am not misquoting him—that he was not very keen on additional signage or traffic calming.
I do not see how one can achieve cutting speeds in practice—one could do it in theory, of course, by cutting speed limits—without signs and traffic-calming measures.
The hon. Gentleman did not refer to speed cameras, and he would not let me intervene to ask him about them. They are very effective, but they are much more expensive than signs. In the constituency example that I gave, it would, in my view, have been much more effective to stick a camera on one side of the road and prosecute and fine a few of the motorists who drove too fast. That would have solved the problem of chicanes, but of course the council said that doing that would be much more expensive.
I am intrigued to know how the hon. Gentleman, who wants to make it easier for local authorities to cut speeds and therefore cut deaths in their area, intends to ensure that that wish can be translated into practical effect if he is not willing to put up signs or have traffic-calming measures. We may have to wait until the Bill is in Committee or on Report to find out. I do not think that exhortation works. We can exhort drivers to drive more safely and stick to the speed limit all we like, but if there is no enforcement or practical way of ensuring that drivers comply, we will not necessarily see the results that we want.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be amenable to considering this practical aspect of ensuring that his Bill, if it becomes law, works. There is nothing worse than putting a Bill on to the statute book if it has no effect. We are not here to put declaratory hopes on to the statute book; we are here to make law and to ensure that it is enforced and has the desired effect.
I want briefly to discuss clause 4 on the use of mobile phones. This has already been raised not only by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire but by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting, who made some passionate remarks. He is clearly very keen on banning the use of mobile phones in cars. I can see the point of that.
1214 I, too, have seen people driving not as well as they might, whether on a motorway or in an inner-city area in London or Liverpool. I have seen them clutching mobile phones or, as my hon. Friend said, having a mobile phone under their chin while holding a cup in their hand and therefore not being in control of their vehicle. That is indicative of a driver's complete lack of willingness to ensure that he or she is driving safely. There is no doubt that such a sight shows that the driver does not care whether he or she is in charge of the vehicle and is either underestimating the risk of accidents or does not care. It is certainly reckless, as we would say in the law, and such activity could result in a crash, injury or damage.
Such behaviour must be seen for what it is—recklessness. However, the question then arises as to whether the law needs to be changed. It has already been pointed out that using a mobile phone in a car is not unlawful. It may bring into question whether one is in control of the vehicle, whether one is driving without due care and attention and, in certain circumstances, whether one is driving recklessly or even dangerously, but it is not unlawful. However, I know—as will anyone else who is aware of these matters—that the police can and do stop drivers when using mobile phones and charge them with driving without due care and attention.
I welcome the hon. Member for North Wiltshire back to the Chamber. I am afraid that he missed some of my questions, but I will speak to him outside at some point. I do not blame him for leaving briefly—let me make that clear.
§ Mr. Gray
I apologise to the hon. Lady and to the House for my discourtesy in having to leave to make an urgent telephone call. I look forward to hearing her questions in Committee. However, after nearly an hour of her speech—which I have greatly enjoyed, as she has said some very useful and important things—I hope that we do not reach the point where she would not have the opportunity to serve on the Standing Committee because we were unable to give the Bill a Second Reading this morning.
§ Maria Eagle
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He need not worry too much; I had not realised that I had been talking for quite so long. I am enjoying talking about his Bill so much that I have not got through my speech quite as quickly as I had originally intended. However, I am speaking about the final subject that I wish to discuss. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt be grateful that I will not be discussing all the clauses, otherwise my speech might be closer to two hours.
The use of a mobile phone, when held in a hand that should be on the wheel, is an indication of a lack of care. There is no doubt about that. I do not advocate the use of mobile phones in cars. There is an issue about whether mobile phones that are not hand-held but are plugged into an earpiece, or car phones, are equally distracting. I wondered why the hon. Member for North Wiltshire wanted to ban the use of mobile phones, given that the police think that they already have sufficient powers to deal with the issue. The hon. Gentleman's explanatory notes were most helpful. I am trying to find the relevant part.
1215 I understand that the hon. Gentleman believes that the distraction of the telephone call itself, and the driver's hand being away from the wheel, make the activity one that should be unlawful.
§ Mr. Gray
Perhaps I may give the hon. Lady a moment to check the note to which she was referring. It is true that all sorts of things, including speaking into a hands-free mobile phone, divert the driver's attention. Eating, drinking and smacking the kids are other examples of precisely the same thing. [Interruption.] I am proud of the fact that I smacked my kids when they were smaller. I am not politically correct in these matters. I am content to admit that, but the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) is horrified.
To return to the point, if we could ban all those activities, it would be useful to do so, but no law could do so. The use of a hand-held mobile phone could usefully be banned, although that would not achieve quite as much as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) might have wished.
§ Maria Eagle
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his clarification.
I have been directed to the sentence that I was looking for, which is in paragraph 7 of the explanatory notes. It states:The combination of reduced physical control of a vehicle (while holding the telephone) and loss of concentration on driving (while having a conversation) is seen as posing a sufficiently serious risk".The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that there need to be two elements—two distractions. That is what makes a mobile phone worse than, for example, listening to a radio in the car. That is a distraction, but he does not propose to ban it. I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's view.
Without going into great detail, I shall point out a problem with the clause. It refers tousing a mobile phone which is held in a hand.Every mobile phone is, by its nature, a hand-held device. One can use a hand-held device without having it in one's hand. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting gave us the example of his constituent driving along with a mobile phone on his shoulder, not holding it in his hand, because he had a drink in his hand.
If the hon. Member for North Wiltshire rereads his clause and considers the statutory interpretation of it, he will see that he may be outlawing the use of a mobile phone held in the hand, not the use of a mobile phone that is not held in the hand. He needs to be careful about that.
I shall not provide further examples because of the strictures of "Erskine May", which Madam Deputy Speaker cited earlier. We can discuss the matter further in Committee. I see the hon. Gentleman's point, but I want to see the clause tightened up.
The Association of Chief Police Officers says that the police have sufficient powers now to deal with the use of mobile phones in cars. They charge people with driving without due care and attention. They charge drivers whom they see using mobile phones with not being in proper control of the vehicle.
1216 It is incumbent on Members of Parliament to be careful that when we legislate, we are doing something that is necessary, that will improve the law, and that will make things better—and that we are not just putting declaratory statements, wishes and hopes on to the statute book. I know that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) would be nodding vigorously if he were in his place. I happen to agree with him about that. Laws that we put on to the statute book should make a real difference, otherwise there is no point in our doing so.
Has the hon. Member for North Wiltshire had any discussions with ACPO, or even with his local constabulary, about whether the police believe that the additional power would be useful? The problem is that, at present, the police believe that they have the powers to deal with the matter. They do not believe that the law needs to be changed. How would a change in the law affect enforcement? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has held consultations with his local police force or with ACPO that have shown him that the change would make a real difference. If there is no real difference, we should be giving the police extra powers—in principle, I am certainly not opposed to that—that they cannot use for various reasons, or will not need to use because their existing powers are sufficient. That will not solve the problem.
If driving while using a mobile phone were to be made unlawful and the penalties in the schedule were accepted, what difference would that make in dealing with those who committed such offences and are punished for doing so? The police say that they already have a way to deal with those offences. The hon. Gentleman may think that his measure is the answer and that it will make a big difference.
§ Mr. Gray
I am reluctant to keep bouncing up and down because I have had my say, but as the hon. Lady asks me a question, I must answer.
By and large, the police and ACPO tend not to welcome new laws; their resources are so stretched under the Labour Government that they do not want to enforce many new laws. I understand that point. However, that in itself would not be a good reason for failing to bring in a beneficial law. The measure would be a benefit because, at present, the police have to prove dangerous or negligent driving in order to pick up someone for using a mobile phone while driving. Furthermore, it would send out a message to the public and to drivers: "Don't do it; it's against the law". There is an element of public relations.
§ Maria Eagle
The hon. Gentleman makes the interesting point that his Bill would put on to the statute book a declaratory wish that people should not drive with mobile phones in their cars. Although that might be helpful, I am not sure that legislation should be about declaratory wishes—therein lie problems.
I agree that the measure might make the law easier to enforce, but only if the police were to say that the current law is inadequate. They do not say that, however; they say that the law is adequate for the three types of offence on which they can currently prosecute. The hon. Gentleman may remember the widely reported case of a constituent who was given a ticket for eating while she was at traffic lights in her car; she was accused of not 1217 being in proper control of her vehicle. Anyone using a mobile phone while driving could be charged with the same offence.
The hon. Member for Ryedale is a former police officer. Does he have views on that matter? We must consider carefully before we put on to the statute book laws that are merely wishes for better behaviour; there should be laws that the police can enforce. If the police say clearly that current legislation affords them adequate powers of enforcement, it would be better to omit the provision.
I remain to be convinced, however. During Committee, the hon. Member for North Wiltshire may be able to persuade me. I am not against the idea per se; unlike some of his right hon. and hon. Friends, I do not believe that banning in itself is necessarily bad. If he can convince me and some of my hon. Friends that the measure would make a real contribution to the prevention of the scourge and would ensure that drivers do not use mobile phones, I shall be happy to support the clause.
Is the hon. Gentleman opposed to the use of mobile phones that can be held in the hand, but that also have an earpiece or are car phones? That needs to be clarified. If he is saying that mobile phones should not be used in cars at all, that is certainly clear. However, I have used a mobile phone with an earpiece in my car; I do not consider that is any worse than listening to the radio or to a music tape. The hon. Gentleman may disagree. If the use of a mobile phone in a car is to be made unlawful, the way in which it is used should be made much clearer so that we do not inadvertently break the law. We certainly do not want to do that.
I have probably detained the House for long enough on the few points that I wanted to make—[Horn. MEMBERS: "Nor] I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be glad to hear that I do not intend to deal with any more clauses, but perhaps we can discuss them in the Standing Committee—on which I should be happy to serve if the Bill gets that far.
I reiterate my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on his luck in winning second place in the ballot this year. Perhaps the only difference between us is that I chose a better year in which to be lucky.
§ Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) on her speech. I agree with much of what she said. She spoke for an hour, but she made good, salient points throughout. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) left the Chamber, making admiring comments about the hon. Lady's contribution. I understand that he is now broadcasting to the nation, via the Jimmy Young show, on the subject of mobile phones, so he has taken the arguments elsewhere.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on coming so high in the private Members' ballot and on introducing a Bill on transport. All of us, as constituency Members of Parliament, are aware that our constituents care passionately about many transport issues; they are the subject of much of our postbags. As we have heard today, they are matters of legitimate debate. I am sure that when the Bill receives 1218 its Second Reading, there will be many interesting hours of debate in Committee about which of its provisions should make progress.
My hon. Friend is my parents' Member of Parliament. He is a most assiduous Member. He has done himself proud in introducing the Bill, and I am sure that he will do so again in shepherding it through Committee.
We have had a good debate on some pretty important subjects, the first of which relates to the much-quoted case, Goodes v. East Sussex County Council. The ruling was that the absolute duty to keep the fabric of the highway in good state of repair did not include the duty to remove formations or accumulations of ice and snow on the road. That ruling, which was given in July 2000, constituted a change in the law. As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Garston, that has, no doubt, changed the situation. The Government have been considering the position for some time, and clarification is necessary.
In 1997, in another judgment—Cross v. Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council—the Court of Appeal stated that the duty to maintain the highway under section 41 of the Highways Act 1980 was not a duty to keep highways at all times clear of surface water, snow and ice, and that the duty to maintain was limited to taking reasonable steps. A number of judgments and such matters need to be sorted out.
In the case of Goodes v. East Sussex County Council, Lord Justice Hutchinson said that the law on such matters was less than satisfactory. Most of us would welcome what my hon. Friend wants to do—to tidy up the law. The solution that he proposes, which is a good one, is to bring the law into line with the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984, under which reasonable steps must be taken. As has been said, that involves publishing plans for which roads have priority for gritting. Local knowledge is relevant. Those in a community, especially those who live in rural areas, have an idea of which roads have priority, but such information would be useful.
We all know that highways engineers' struggling to keep roads safe and passable is as much an art as a science. The United States is large landmass, so it is relatively easy to predict weather patterns. People know that the weather conditions in a town or city 100 or 150 miles to the west will prevail in their area a little later. The Atlantic is to our west and it is sometimes not always easy to predict how the weather will move or what the conditions will be like.
Most authorities have a limited budget for gritting. Therefore, they must be careful to use grit only when it needs to be used to maintain good or better conditions. Sometimes local authorities are a little slow to use grit at the first opportunity. Gritting in moderate weather may mean that the authority will use up its budget before the end of the year. Many local authorities prepare for only one or two weeks of severe weather and have stocks of salt only for that period. This is a key issue.
The Automobile Association, which assisted my hon. Friend with the drafting of the Bill, states that 700 people are killed in winter accidents in which snow or ice is a factor. When we pass our driving test, we all think that we are proficient drivers, but many people do not pay sufficient attention to road and weather conditions. They sit in a warm car, turn on the radio and presume that 1219 everything will be all right. Everyone in politics should consider carefully increased education of drivers on the dangers caused by certain conditions.
Following the outcome of the Goodes v. East Sussex case, 12 to 14 people dropped similar cases. My hon. Friend's proposal will make the law a little more straightforward, and it is a good response to the problem. I support that provision in the Bill.
An argument can be made for local authorities to reassess speed limits. However, when I listened to my hon. Friend, I was a little more worried than I was when I read the Bill. When I examined the Library brief, I assumed that speed limits could go up, as well as down, in certain areas, but he tended to concentrate on the prospect of limits going down. I served for 12 years on a local authority and I know that local highways engineers always say that there should not be too much clutter or too many limits in an area. The more there are, the less people observe them. This matter therefore requires careful consideration.
About 1,000 people are killed on our roads as the result of excessive speed. The hon. Member for Garston made a good point when she referred to the Library brief and said that speed limits make a considerable difference not only to the number of accidents, but to their severity.
This country generally has a good record on driver and passenger deaths on the road, but our statistics on children are higher than for the rest of Europe, so examining the need for speed limits on the roads near schools and the better education of drivers and children should be a key priority. Both the Government and the Opposition have taken that point on board.
We can do much more to reduce road accidents and the distress that they cause. When we drive on the road network, we see flowers where someone's loved one had a fatal accident. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) made a good point about the difficult conditions on some roads in North Yorkshire, and most Members could point to treacherous stretches of road in their constituencies.
Statistics are collected when an accident involves death or injury, but they are not collected as widely as they should be. Many stretches of road are accident black spots even though the accidents do not result in fatalities or serious injuries. On those stretches, serious accidents are waiting to happen. If through luck or judgment people have managed to avoid injury, statistics on the accidents are sometimes not collected by the police. We should do far more to collect information and we could take fatalities and near misses into account in the review of speed limits that has been suggested.
I have reservations about the widespread use of speed cameras. They should be used primarily at accident black spots and not as a means of raising revenue. It is very easy to place a camera at a point where one thinks it will catch many people who are speeding and where it will raise lots of money, but that point might not be an accident black spot. The key priority must be saving lives; the cameras should not be used as a revenue-raising exercise. I was glad to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale, who also speaks, very eloquently, from the Front Bench on occasion.
I have always felt that there is confusion about speed limits. I know that people disregard the limits in certain parts of the road network, and we need to do much more 1220 to educate people about speed. We have won the battle against drink-driving because attitudes among the general public have changed. It is now unacceptable to drink and drive, and we are down to a hard core of stupid people who do it and who need to be dealt with very severely. However, we have not yet won the battle against excessive speed. We can do that by changing attitudes as much as by changing the law because, like drink-driving, it is a life style issue. If people appreciated the fact that the danger they were creating on the road could affect their wives, their children or their neighbours, and if they witnessed the heartache experienced by people who have lost a relative in a car accident, their basic attitude might change.
In some parts of the network, however, speed limits are too low. Motorways and dual carriageways are still relatively safe and there are fewer accidents on them than on other roads. Any review ought to consider reducing speed limits in certain areas as well as increasing them in others. Historically, this country has set speed limits that apply 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That has always struck me as odd because road conditions and the amount of traffic affect how safe a road is and what speed is appropriate.
With the new technology that is being introduced, particularly on parts of the motorway network, I wonder whether we ought to consider having variable speed limits. Reducing speed limits on certain sections of motorway helps the flow of traffic, as it has on the M25. However, at 11 o'clock at night, when there is hardly any traffic on certain stretches of the motorway, it may not be appropriate to keep a 70 mph speed limit. As technology improves and the number of signs increases, we should perhaps consider greater variability in speed limits.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire has raised an important issue. Many of the details will have to be dealt with in Committee, but a good review by local authorities would be sensible, provided it was within the guidance suggested by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Secretary of State. Many roads go through three or four local authority areas, and it would be nonsense to have yo-yoing speed limits because each authority, having consulted local people, had a different policy. Ultimately, people are aiming to get from A to B, so co-ordination and common sense are required.
I oppose the clause on mobile phones. I agree with some of the arguments of the hon. Member for Garston. Hands-free technology has changed the way in which people use their mobile phones in cars. The law is adequate, and the police simply need to educate people and to enforce the law. The Association of Chief Police Officers and other policing organisations have not called for a change in the law. It has been suggested that there are many distractions when one is driving a car: children fighting on the back seat, arguments with one's loved one or the radio, CD or cassette playing too loudly. We see people drinking coffee or shaving in their car—
§ Mr. Syms
Yes, I have seen people in London using an electric shaver in their car. I do not know whether holding a mobile phone is any more of a distraction.
In recent years, we have had the report of the independent expert group on mobile phones, under the chairmanship of Sir William Stewart. The report said that 1221further epidemiological studies should be undertaken to clarify the relation of mobile phone use to the risk of motor vehicle accidents, and in particular whether the risk differs between hand-held and hands-free phones, and whether the risk of hands-free use exceeds that of other forms of driver distraction, notably conversation with passengers.
At present, we have only anecdotal evidence of people slowing down, but we do not know fully what the effect is. We all know that having only one hand on the steering wheel can be dangerous, but a lot more research needs to be done. We should concentrate on education and enforcing the existing law rather than criminalising a minority who are silly enough to use the phone while driving.
We have considered what is meant by hand-held, and the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) spoke about someone holding the phone with his shoulder as an example of how to get round the provision. Perhaps the definition is too specific. What is driving? Does sitting in stationary traffic count as driving.
§ Mr. Pound
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the recent case in which a woman was fined for drinking a bottle of water in a stationary vehicle. I have seen someone with a television set on the passenger seat plugged into what used to be called the cigar lighter. Many of us want a wider definition, because the one in the Bill may be too prescriptive.
§ Mr. Syms
That is a good point. Some cars have televisions fitted for viewing in the back seats. I have been in a very nice Rover 75 with a television. That is a distraction, as even if the passenger is watching, the driver will tend to pick up what is going on.
This may not be a matter for legislation. Do we really want to be a society in which someone who swigs a bottle of water or eats a sandwich in a car can be prosecuted? That would be daft. The traffic police, who do a splendid job, have far more important priorities. When they sort out the aftermath of accidents, they are doing something that I personally would not like to do. The Government undertook a review and thought that the existing provision was adequate, and the official Opposition share that view.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire accepted the provision on seat belts as a Government amendment. I have not yet heard a convincing argument for the need to change. I know that postmen and milkmen do not have to wear belts, and we have heard that van drivers are particularly remiss about wearing them, but perhaps the Minister could tell us a little more about which categories should come under the provision.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale made the important point that travel concessions are a bit of an irrelevance if there are no buses available, as in some rural areas. I am a little nervous about offering a benefit for which there is no costing. As a responsible member of the next Government, I am unwilling to make any commitment. If the Bill goes into Committee, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire will do more work on the cost.
I understand that the existing law allows local authorities to offer reciprocity. Until we have a cost tag, we cannot go along with that.
1222 Tidying up the law on gritting is sensible. We can support the provisions on assessment of speeds on roads, with amendment. I am yet to be convinced about the rest of the Bill, although I wish it well. I am glad that there are hon. Members who have such enthusiasm for it, even those from the mild and better weather of Liverpool, and that they want to serve on the Committee and sharpen some elements of the Bill so that we achieve decent legislation.
§ Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on securing such a high place in the ballot. I am sorry that he is no longer in the Chamber. He seems to have absented himself again, so he is not here to hear my congratulations. I thank him for the kind offer to join his Committee. Unfortunately, I will have to decline it because private Member's Bill Committees sit on a Wednesday morning, at the same time as my Select Committee, and I cannot be in two places at once. I shall follow the deliberations closely for when the Bill returns on Report.
May I tell the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, perhaps via the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), that I found the letter that he read out at the end of his speech appalling? I hope that the talk about a robust handling strategy did not include me. I have from time to time been seen as part of a robust handling strategy on behalf of the Government, but I assure the hon. Member for North Wiltshire that I should like the broad thrust of the Bill to go through.
I have some severe criticisms of some of the details of the Bill, some of which have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), so I cannot support the Bill as it stands. If the Committee has not done its job, I may wish to table amendments on Report. I assure the hon. Member for North Wiltshire that I would deplore any attempt to block the Bill, and I certainly would not be part of it. He referred to the Bill as a Christmas tree. It is probably more of a portmanteau, and he is probably sitting on the case to keep it shut, given the number of measures in the Bill. One or two other measures should be included in it, which I shall touch on in my speech.
I have taken an interest in many of the issues raised by the Bill, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will confirm, not least the Goodes case. Before I came to the House, I was a personal injury lawyer for 20 years. I dealt with many road accidents. I suppose that technically I am still a personal injury lawyer; I have a practising certificate, although I have not conducted any cases since I became a full-time Member of Parliament.
The Bill goes some way towards addressing the appalling road accident statistics. There are some 3,500 deaths and 320,000 injuries a year. I hope that the Bill will make a little contribution to reducing those figures.
The first part of the Bill deals with the Goodes case, in which I have taken an interest. I wrote to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and Lord Whitty about it within days of the judgment. It is a coincidence that the case commenced in the House of Lords exactly a year ago today. We have to ask ourselves whether clause 1 would prevent Mr. Goodes's case from happening again, with the same outcome. The object, of course, is to stop accidents happening in the first place. If an accident happened, would Mr. Goodes be able to obtain compensation?
1223 It is worth reminding ourselves of the facts of the Goodes case, which are set out succinctly by Lord Hoffmann in his judgment. We should note how slowly the law moves in cases such as this. Lord Hoffmann said:At dawn on a frosty November morning in 1991 Mr. Geoffrey Goodes was driving his Ford Capri on the A267 at Wellbrook Hill near Mayfield in Sussex. As he moved out to overtake on a straight stretch of road, a rear wheel skidded on a patch of black ice. He lost control and the car crashed into the parapet of the bridge over the Wellbrook. He suffered dreadful injuries and is now almost entirely paralysed.My hon. Friend the Member for Garston made an important point that drives a coach and horses through the drafting of clause 1. It is illustrated by Lord Hoffman's comments on the council's practice at the time. He said:
Although the council denies it has a statutory duty to keep the roads free of ice, it does in fact make considerable efforts to do so. The Highways Superintendent receives weather forecasts from the Southampton Meteorological Office and decides whether and when to send out the council's fleet of gritting lorries. Each lorry has a route to cover. The council follows a Code of Good Practice issued by the Association of County Councils and three other local authority associations. This says, among other things, that the salting should be completed before the morning rush hour begins at 7.30. In the present case there had been a forecast of freezing conditions in the early hours and the lorries had been despatched at 5.30. Unfortunately, by the time of the accident, the lorry covering the A267 had not yet got to Wellbrook Hill. It arrived a few minutes later and would have been able to complete its route by 7.30. But a majority of the Court of Appeal decided"—in the important decision on the facts—on the assumption that the statute imposed a duty to keep the road free of ice, that the council was nevertheless in breach of duty. The gritting should have been completed before the time when, according to the forecast, ice was likely to form.
If, as everyone thought it had, the Highways Act 1980 had imposed a duty on the highways authority to grit the road, then, as the Court of Appeal found on the facts, the council would have been in breach of that duty. However, the duty that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire would impose is that the highway authority will decide what it considers reasonable, and the council's defence advanced in the Goodes case would have been based on the assertion that the council considered the action that it took to be reasonable. It would be an absolute defence. Therefore, although I applaud the hon. Gentleman's efforts to correct the Goodes case through the clause, it would not achieve his objective.
Bearing in mind the limits of debate, I shall not attempt to construe the clause at length, but my argument was made well by one of the counsel involved in the Goodes case. Counsel for Mr. Goodes said thatthere should indeed be an unqualified and absolute duty to maintain the roads free of ice or snow, which could be a danger to safe passage. Thus the simplicity and consistency of the old law would be maintained. If it appeared to set impossibly high standards for highway authorities, the answer lay in the statutory defence under section 58 of the Act of 1980. That would enable them to resist claims in all cases except when they had acted unreasonably.Lord Hoffman said:My Lords, it seems to me that this is a view which Parliament might take. There is obviously a case for saying that a person who suffers a catastrophic accident as a result of the presence of ice which, in modern conditions, the highway authority could reasonably have prevented or removed, should have a remedy.He added:I am quite satisfied that Parliament has not yet provided such a remedy.1224 My concern is that the Bill does not provide that remedy either.
We are told that the wording reflects the Scottish legislation, but it does not necessarily follow that it should apply in England and Wales. We are now in the era of devolution: Scotland can go its own way, as can England and Wales. In addition, we must bear it in mind that, in Scotland, the roads and the weather conditions are very different. In Scotland, there are many more long rural roads that are used extremely infrequently or are wholly impassable in winter, whereas in England conditions are different. They are dealing with a different beast, so it is fair to say that the duty on English authorities should be different from the one imposed on Scottish authorities.
If the absolute duty I have advocated is inadequate or unacceptable, we could impose a duty on local highways authorities to do what is "practicable"—a provision often regarded as the next best thing by those interpreting or drafting statutory duties in respect of responsibility for accident prevention, whether through the Factories Acts or highways legislation such as the Bill before us. The next one down the list is "reasonably practicable", followed by "reasonable". The list ends with the phrase used in the Bill, which provides for a wholly subjective assessment of reasonableness. That would not achieve the objective.
We obviously have to do something. I received a note from the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers about this matter. I am a member of that association, and used to be on its executive committee. It represents those who look after accident victims. The note reads:It is simply not good enough to expect local authorities to continue salting and gritting roads as part of their Code of Good Practice on Highway Maintenance—voluntary codes are not enough when people's lives could be at stake. It is inconceivable in this day and age that no-one has a legal responsibility for ensuring major roads are kept ice-free. We've seen from press articles that insurers for local authorities are delighted that they now effectively have a loophole which means that they won't have to compensate people who are involved in accidents through no fault of their own as a result of this ruling. The only losers in this will be seriously injured motorists who will no longer have recourse to the law to help them get back on their feet."—We must act. We must legislate. My concern is that the Bill will not achieve the required objective. If it is not tidied up in Committee, I shall be proposing amendments to it on Report. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire was not in his place earlier when I said that I do not want to frustrate his Bill. However, if the issue that I have raised is not dealt with in Committee, I shall come back to it on Report.
Clause 1 refers to the highway authority, and there does not seem to be a reference in the definition clause to whether it includes the Highways Agency and its responsibility for motorways. Does it include Transport for London, which now has responsibility for trunk roads? If my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the answer to my question, perhaps he will respond when he replies. If not, perhaps it is something that should be probed in Committee. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would like to be convinced that what he is trying to do will apply not only to county authorities but London boroughs, London as a whole through the Mayor, Transport for London and the Highways Agency.
If the Government are not happy with the clause—they may be dissatisfied with it for the reasons that I have given—I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take 1225 into account when he replies that there is a strong feeling on both sides of the House so far expressed that the issue must be tackled. If the Government cannot see their way to accepting clause 1 as drafted, I hope that they will at least think about bringing forward their own measures at the earliest opportunity, perhaps slightly tougher ones than those presently proposed to deal with a serious lacuna in the law. It has existed for only six months but I can that during this winter, perhaps, there will be a series of severely injured motorists who would otherwise have received compensation and now will not.
§ Mr. Pound
I am following my hon. Friend's logic, as is most of the House, with considerable admiration. Is he aware that there is a degree factor, and that road gritting and road salting are not in themselves the solution? I draw my hon. Friend's attention to motor-cyclists and riders of other powered two-wheelers, who even on a gritted or salted road may still be in danger. Does my hon. Friend agree that when the clause comes to be re-examined, the quantity and quality of surface preparation should be taken into account, with particular reference to the needs of motor-cyclists and other riders of powered two-wheelers, who seldom survive crashes in such circumstances?
§ Mr. Dismore
My hon. Friend makes an important point. In terms of how snow and ice should be dealt with, current legislation refers to reasonable steps or an absolute duty. It does not refer specifically to grit or salt.
Perhaps I can reassure my hon. Friend to some extent. The residual Highways Act 1980 places a statutory duty on a local authority that is absolute, and that is to ensure that a road surface is safe, irrespective of ice and grit. The judgment in the Goodes case was that there is no duty to clear ice and grit, but there is a residual absolute duty on the highway authority to ensure that the road is safe in normal circumstances.
When I was practising, I took cases on behalf of motor-cyclists in relation to bad potholes, and won. Perhaps there is some comfort for my hon. Friend left in the existing law, despite the Goodes decision.
May I move on to the issue of speed limits, which is close to my heart and those of my constituents? Hendon has some of the busiest and most important roads in London. The north circular road goes through my constituency, as well as the Al, the A5, the A41 and the M1, to name just a few, which are all busy roads. May I tell the hon. Member for Poole that we have our share of serious accidents on those trunk roads? I was a little disconcerted by his rather dismissive attitude to what can happen on those major roads, which go through areas where people live.
People coming from the north may zoom down the Ml, which goes through my constituency, get off at the end and then zoom down the A41 or the A5. However, when doing so, they ought to recognise that they are going through areas where people live. Those major roads have intersections with residential roads, and some of the most serious accidents occur at such intersections. Drivers have not got used to the lower speeds of the urban area, having coming off the fast roads, and run into people who are driving, quite rightly, at a speed suited to that area. That is a main cause of bad accidents at some of those intersections.
1226 I am pleased that the Highways Agency and Transport for London are tackling major black spots. However, some road schemes to reconfigure major roads are phenomenally expensive, running into millions of pounds. If I may put in a plug, my hon. Friend the Minister will know that I have raised the matter of Sterling corner with him on several occasions, and I should be grateful if he dealt with it when he replies to the debate. However, I am pleased that Apex corner is to be attended to—hopefully, in the next financial year.
One major problem is that speed limits are seen not as limits but as the norm. People regard speed limits as targets to be achieved, not as limits which should not be exceeded. People need to be reminded that a 30 mph speed limit does not mean "Thou shalt drive at 30 mph". The law says that one should drive at a safe speed, and no faster than 30 mph.
§ Mr. Dismore
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Personally, I am more concerned about trunk roads in my own constituency. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point in relation to the Ml. When I travel from Hendon into central London, I go along the A41 at 40 mph, and someone will inevitably be behind me, flashing at me to get out of the way, then zooming past at 70 mph. I am driving safely at 40 mph, and the person behind me is driving incredibly foolishly. The hon. Gentleman may say that trunk roads are safe, but part of the problem is that people are trying to drive too fast and force others to drive too fast through their aggressive driving tactics.
§ Mr. Dismore
I disagree. If the hon. Gentleman follows the A41, he will see that it goes through a series of major traffic light-controlled junctions. Problems occur at traffic lights when people are travelling too fast and are unable to stop at a red light which they had not anticipated. As a result, collisions occur.
A couple of years ago, as part of its duties under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, Barnet council, which was ahead of the game, conducted as part of its crime reduction strategy a survey of local residents on issues that they considered important. Believe it or not, very high on that list—second, I believe—was the question of bad driving and driving offences, with particular reference to speeding. That shows that residents in my constituency view the problem extremely seriously not just in relation to trunk roads but in relation to rat-running.
As we have been talking about the A41, may I give the example of Audley road in Hendon? One can get on to the Audley road at the A41, just after Brent Cross. People zoom up Audley road and try to get back on to the A41 at Hendon Central in an effort to beat the traffic jam 1227 which tails back from Hendon Central in the rush hour. This is a serious problem to which the hon. Member for North Wiltshire may have provided part of the solution.
What the hon. Gentleman is trying to do is laudable, but there is no point in changing the speed limits if we do not enforce them. We cannot seriously expect a police officer or local warden to be on every street corner all the time. There is no point in proposing a speed limit that does not find favour with local people. Also, we should propose speed limits about which people have no choice using, for example, traffic-calming measures.
I have had a huge petition from the residents of Audley road, asking me to advance the cause of traffic calming. They think it is important because there are lots of children in the street. Frankly, the local authority does not have the resources to meet all the traffic-calming schemes that we would like to see. In the last nine months, I have proposed something like 40 traffic-calming measures on behalf of constituents. However, the authority only has the resources to do a handful each year. Rightly, residents ask whether the authority is waiting for an accident to happen before it does something.
I hope that, in looking at local authority budgets, standard spending assessments and transport settlements, Ministers will see whether we can make more resources available to local authorities for traffic calming. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire may be putting the cart before the horse in relation to allowing local adjustment of speed limits if we do not put in place mechanisms such as traffic calming to make sure that people comply with those limits.
§ Mr. Dismore
That is one of the points I was trying to make earlier. However, if it is physically impossible for drivers to go above 20 or 30mph, it will help to get agreement, if only by default.
We must also look at car design. I have raised the question of bull bars in the past and hon. Members may consider tabling amendments on that subject in Committee. I first raised the issue more than two years ago with my noble Friend Lord Whitty, who told me that the UK had supported a European proposal to tackle aggressive bull bars; sometimes known as "pedestrian chip-slicers". He added that the Government had been consulting on a range of possible options since 1997. Not a great deal seems to have happened since then.
The European Safety Council has claimed that 2,000 lives could be saved and 18,000 serious injuries prevented annually by more pedestrian-friendly car fronts. Why people need giant four-wheel-drive tractors with bull bars in the back streets of Hendon eludes me.
The hon. Member for Poole asked about speed cameras, and said that they should be seen not as a way of raising revenue but as a way of tackling accident black spots. I agree, to an extent. However, we have traffic cameras on the A41. Sometimes they have film in; sometimes they do not. But I know that when the camera goes off, everybody slows down. Although I do not think that many people 1228 end up being prosecuted, the use of cameras has an effect on road safety as people think that they are at risk of prosecution. It also makes them think about their speed during subsequent journeys. When those cameras flash, they have an amazing impact on motorists. Perhaps the hon. Member for North Wiltshire should be more open to proposals relating to speed cameras.
Radar detectors are also relevant to the issue of enforcement. There is no point in changing speed limits if they cannot be enforced. I took up with the Home Office recently the activities of a company called Roadnet, which is marketing radar detectors that would allow motorists to anticipate where radars are and thus avoid them. The company quotes in its publicity blurb Mr. Andrew English, the motoring correspondent of The Daily Telegraph whohails the arrival of the new generation of radar detectors. He says that a radar detector 'will give you the vital early warning of a hazard'.The hazard is the speeding motorist and not the radar trap that is there to catch him. Such devices are absolutely outrageous and the sooner we ban the activities of Roadnet and its products the better.
I am pleased that when I raised the matter with the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), he replied:The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is due to commence a public consultation shortly on two draft Statutory Instruments which will create tough penalties for both the installation and use of such devices in a motor vehicle."— [Official Report, 8 January 2001; Vol. 360, c.428W.]Perhaps we could jump the gun and suggest to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire that he might incorporate such a provision in his proposed review of speed limits. I am sure that it would fit well within the long title of the Bill. Perhaps the matter could be addressed in Committee.
§ Mr. Gray
I am told that it is improper for a Bill to cover more than one Department of State and therefore the enforcement of speed limits may not properly be part of this measure. Therefore, I regret that it would not be sensible to include that provision, but perhaps we shall discuss it in Committee.
§ Mr. Dismore
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have made my point and I hope that in his reply to the debate my hon. Friend the Minister will give me some assurances that the Government intend to take rapid action to deal with the problem.
Consultation has also been mentioned in respect of clause 2. It is extremely important that local residents are consulted for the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston. I shall not go into any more detail although I regret the hon. Gentleman's rather dismissive approach to consultation with local residents because they often have better ideas than traffic engineers.
Other groups should also be consulted, including the police and emergency services. The fire and ambulance services often have strong views about traffic-calming measures. We do not want to run the risk of preventing road accidents and then allowing people to burn to death because the fire engine cannot get to them in time. That would surely be throwing the baby out with the bath water.
1229 Clause 4 is concerned with mobile telephones. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire said that we all use them. I make no admission one way or the other, but in respect of our earlier exchange, if it is of any comfort to him, I can admit to eating a banana while I was stuck in traffic last week—so perhaps bananas are relevant to the debate after all.
Our starting point in addressing the issue must be the highway code, which says at paragraph 127:You must exercise proper control of your vehicle at all times. Never use a hand held mobile phone or microphone when driving"—and makes the following important prescription:Using hands free equipment is also likely to distract your attention from the road. It is far safer not to use any telephone when you are driving—find a safe place to stop first.I agree with what the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve in clause 4, but I am concerned that the way in which the provision is drafted may end up giving the impression that hand-held phones are bad and hands-free phones are good.
If just hand-held—or under-the-chin—mobile phones are made illegal because of safety concerns, people may think that hands-free phones are safe. I am concerned that the provision may be sending a mixed message.
We should further consider that issue. First, however, we should have more research on the precise impact of mobile phones on drivers. We could also consider banning the use of mobile phones in moving vehicles. The Library's brief on the Bill states:Research from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in 1999 indicated that using a mobile phone while driving greatly increased the chance of having an accident. The research was carried out using a driving simulator. The study, carried out by the psychology department at Aston university, showed that the danger existed whether the phone was hands-held or hands-free and whether the car was manual or automatic. It also confirmed that the danger remained in the minutes after a phone call had finished.
The latter part of the quote highlights the distinction between using a mobile phone in a car and using a car radio. It is easy to switch off a car radio in traffic. If I have to concentrate more on driving while listening to a tape or a radio play, I can turn off the radio or stop the tape. It is easier to switch off a radio than it is to halt a conversation, particularly if it is a business conversation. After such conversations end, people may also be distracted by thoughts about their consequences. Perhaps we should consider the general issue of mobile phone use—both hands-free and hands-held sets—while driving.
§ Mr. Syms
I suffer from stress when I have to be at a meeting but am stuck in traffic and running late. I can use a mobile phone to inform someone that I may be late. Subsequently, I can calm down. Mobile phones are not all bad. People can use one—preferably a hands-free one, rather than breaking the law with a hand-held one—to leave a message or to make a quick reply. One advantage of mobile phones is that they can help people to calm down.
§ Mr. Dismore
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. However, let us not forget that mobile phones, although they seem to have been with us for ever, are a relatively 1230 recent invention. We seemed to get by perfectly well without them 15 or 20 years ago. I do not think that traffic congestion is new either.
Perhaps we need to know a little more about mobile phone use. We could address the issue either by banning the use of mobile phones while driving or by accepting the conclusion of the Association of Chief Police Officers that current law is sufficiently flexible to address it. I fully accept the point made by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire that the Bill will send motorists a clear message not to use hand-held phones. As I said, however, I think that it could send a mixed message. As the Bill's current provision is better than nothing, I would support it. However, perhaps we can examine the provision in more detail in Committee and tidy it up a little.
The Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee has published a leaflet entitled "Mobile Phones and Driving". It may not be comprehensive, but it is useful. It states:it is safer not to use a hands-free phone while driving …never use a hands-held phone while driving".Additionally—this may deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Poole—the leaflet states:use a message service and take regular breaks".
Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister can assure us that a copy of that leaflet is issued to everyone buying a mobile phone or a phone for use in cars. If not, perhaps he will consider making the leaflet much more widely available.
Clause 5 deals with a matter close to my heart—seat belts. My hon. Friend the Minister will know that I have long been corresponding with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on the issue of children's seat belts. I shall deal with that issue in more detail later, when I speak to clause 6. First, however, I should like to deal with a matter dealt with in clause 5—the white-van-man exemption. We need to probe the wording of that clause in Committee, because "prescribed distance" can mean many things. I would hate to see such a seat belt exemption imposed without proper debate and the possibility of amendment.
The House of Commons Library paper refers to fire fighters, who are exempt from wearing seat belts's while putting on their equipment. I know that the Fire Brigades Union is unhappy about that. It issues clear advice that its members should put on their seat belts before the fire engine leaves the station. There is little point in a fire engine leaving the station a minute or two or a few seconds sooner if it then has a crash on the way to the fire, with the result that the firemen are injured and do not reach the fire at all.
I know that that happens from my previous work as a lawyer. I dealt with many cases of fire fighters who were injured when they were thrown about in the back of fire engines because the driver had to brake suddenly on the way to an emergency call. The net result was that the fire engine did not get to the fire because the crew were hurt.
We must recognise the importance of wearing a seat belt. I have some doubts about whether there should be an exemption for van drivers, although I can see the practicality. Let me give an example by describing what happened to me just before Christmas last year. I had been attending a constituency function and was parked in an enormous car park at Brent Cross, with which I was 1231 unfamiliar. Leaving the car park, I had an accident: I was travelling at 5 mph, and I hit a lamp post. That was enough to give me quite a bad cut on my lip, for which I had to have stitches. I was not wearing a seat belt, which was very silly of me, but I thought, "I'm only coming out of the car park. What can happen to me? I'll put on my seat belt once I am out of the car park because I may have to go backwards and forwards." It is surprising how one can injure oneself at very low speeds?
§ Mr. Dismore
I thought that I would sue the lamp post, but I was not sure that it was insured. Unfortunately, not every accident results in a claim. Never has my advice to disappointed customers in my former profession been more apposite than when applied to myself in those circumstances.
I take full responsibility for what occurred. At the same time, I make the point that slow-speed accidents can cause quite nasty injuries. Van drivers ought to bear that in mind, even when they are hopping from delivery to delivery. The statistics show that light van seat belt-wearing rates are very low—64 per cent. for drivers and 53 per cent. for passengers. I can see no excuse for van passengers not wearing seat belts, compared with car passengers. If seat belt-wearing rates could be increased to those observed in the front seats of cars—91 per cent. and —94 per cent. respectively—it has been calculated, by the Transport Research Laboratory that some 20 fatalities and 270 serious injuries a year could be avoided. Many more white-van men would be alive today if they had worn seat belts, and a lot of serious injuries could have been avoided.
I am concerned that although it is very important that seat belts are worn by children, there is no exemption in clause 6 in relation to an incorrectly fitted seat belt. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire raises his eyebrows. About 15 months ago, I was taking my car in for its MOT—I know that it was more than a year ago because I have had another one since—and my mechanic, who is a very public-spirited chap, said, "Did you know that child seat belts are not tested as part of the MOT?". I think that that will come as a surprise to most people in the House except my hon. Friend the Minister, with whom I have corresponded on the subject. Most people would expect that if they took their car in for its MOT, the child seat belts would be tested along with the driver and passenger seat belts. They are not.
British Standards Institution statistics show that more than 50 per cent. of child restraints are fitted incorrectly. Some 88 per cent. are fitted by the child's parents. They think that they are doing the right thing for their children, but not fitting the seat belt properly probably puts their children in greater danger than not having one at all.
In 1997, 74 children under the age of 15 were killed, nearly 16,000 were injured and more than 1,200 were seriously injured. RoSPA—the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents—estimates that two thirds of those deaths and injuries could have been prevented by proper use of child restraints. The proposal of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire is absolutely on-message, but we must ensure that the seat belts are properly fitted.
§ Mr. Dismore
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that invention. My hon. Friend the Minister is probably getting sick of hearing me raise the issue. I have lost count of the occasions on which I have raised it with him in questions, both written and oral. I last raised it on the Floor of the House during the debate on road casualties almost a year ago. I have since met my noble Friend Lord Whitty. I even took my mechanic to meet Lord Whitty, and I was very pleased that my noble Friend was prepared to meet the mechanic, so that he could explain the problem.
I am glad that the Government are taking some action. They discussed the matter with the motor trade liaison group. The consensus view of the meeting was that it would be impractical to include child restraints as a formal item of test, but it was agreed that MOT testers would in future give advice to vehicle presenters—that is, customers—about the fitting of child restraints, whenever they noticed an apparent problem
I understand that the Department intended to run a major publicity campaign about child restraints towards the end of January and during February to give advice on best practice on the radio and in Mother & Baby, and that the campaign would include the distribution of reminder cards for people to keep.
When my hon. Friend replies to the debate, perhaps he could let us know how the campaign is going. I am afraid that I have not yet seen anything about it, but then I am not a regular reader of Mother & Baby. If the campaign does not achieve the objective of making parents more aware and encouraging them to ensure that their children's seat belts are properly fitted, we may need to return to the issue.
§ Mr. Gray
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am prepared to overlook his suggestion that I am on-message—in no way could I possibly be considered to be on-message—I am interested in the important point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I look forward to seeing the amendment to my Bill which he will doubtless wish to propose, if he is prepared to serve on the Committee, as I very much hope that he will be. We will give it due consideration then.
§ Mr. Dismore
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Unfortunately, he was not in the Chamber earlier when I dealt with that point. Much as I would like to serve on his Committee, I am afraid that private Members' Bills Committees sit on Wednesday mornings, at the same time as the Select Committee on Social Security of which I am a member, and I cannot be in two places at once.
To finish the point on child seat belts, a further problem has recently emerged which was drawn to my attention by the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers. It concerns parents who buy second-hand car seats for their children, who could be buying potential death traps. APIL is concerned about structural defects in second-hand seats. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will look into the matter.
It is hard to tell whether a seat has been damaged. On the surface, it may look perfect, but a seat that has been in a crash will almost certainly be weakened by the impact 1233 and should not be used again, let alone sold on to someone else. There is a market in second-hand car seats, as they are expensive to buy new. The Government should do something about the problem through their publicity campaign or by legislating, through the Bill or otherwise, to outlaw the sale of second-hand seats.
The final issue is travel concessions. I put the point to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire in an intervention. The Bill as drafted excludes London, and I am concerned about the effect of that on London. We have mutual arrangements through all the London boroughs, and that works well. It must work, because London is a large, vibrant city and people who live in my constituency, Hendon, want to get to the west end for a show, or may even want to come and watch what I am doing in Parliament, from time to time. Unfortunately, not many have done so this afternoon.
I am concerned about the impact on the neighbouring counties and people who live there. I asked the hon. Gentleman what would happen, for example, if someone who lived in Watford, which is in Hertfordshire, wanted to travel into central London. The hon. Gentleman thought that the answer might be some sort of mutual arrangement between my London borough and Hertfordshire. That will not work.
Some people from Hertfordshire will come into Hendon to go to our big stores, which are excellent, if I may plug Brent Cross as one of the major shopping centres in London. However, they may also want to come to see their Member of Parliament make a speech. To travel from Hertfordshire, they would have to cross the London boroughs of Barnet, Brent and Camden to get to the City of Westminster. A mutual arrangement between London boroughs on that basis is not a practical proposition. It cannot work because several million people live in London—I do not know how many of them have bus passes, but there are probably about a million pensioners—but I doubt that all of them will want to visit Watford.
Watford is a very nice town. Some people travel there from my constituency to do their shopping, but there is no question of mutuality. The idea of implementing such a system countrywide, as the hon. Gentleman wants, falls down when we consider the rural or suburban areas around major conurbations. Probably, the same problem exists in Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and other big cities.
§ Mr. Gray
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Age Concern supports the introduction of bus passes that could be used throughout the nation—as do I, but that is not within the realms of a private Member's Bill. Did the hon. Gentleman make that point when his Government introduced a provision that specifically prevented disabled people and pensioners from using bus passes elsewhere?
Furthermore, the fact that the hon. Gentleman sits on the Social Security Committee on Wednesday mornings is a weak excuse for not serving on the Bill's Standing Committee. He makes powerful points on matters of extreme importance to his constituents; we have listened with great interest to his detailed knowledge. I hope that he may be prepared to seek leave from the Social Security Committee on some occasions—perhaps he could come 1234 and go between the two Committee Rooms—so that he can give us the benefit of his wisdom in the Standing Committee.
§ Mr. Dismore
I have to decline the hon. Gentleman's offer. The Social Security Committee is engaged in an extremely important inquiry into the social fund, which also affects many of my constituents. I shall not get a second bite of the cherry in the Select Committee, but I shall get a second bite at the Bill on Report. The hon. Gentleman was not in the Chamber when I assured the House that I am not part of any blocking strategy on his Bill. The measure is important. Hon. Members may think that I hold robust views on private Members' Bills—although not quite on a par with those of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)—but I do pick and choose; this is a worthy Bill.
When I was a member of the Committee that considered the Greater London Authority Bill—the Committee stage lasted for a considerable time—we tried to ensure that there were mutual arrangements within London between the boroughs, and that the existing voluntary scheme was continued. To the extent that the matter affects my constituents, I was concerned to ensure that there were mutual arrangements in London. With the assistance of the Association of London Government, I am pleased that we were able to achieve that.
The hon. Gentleman's object is laudable, but these provisions will not achieve equality throughout the country. Perhaps, through discussion with my hon. Friend the Minister and in Committee, we can explore ways to achieve a mutuality that includes the big cities, but does not cost them as a result. That will be difficult to achieve, and it needs further explanation.
The hon. Gentleman has done the country a service in introducing the measure. It contains many useful provisions, although it needs a few more—including those proposed by myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) and other hon. Members who have spoken today. One or two provisions need to be removed and the measure needs some tidying up, but I wish it a fair wind.
§ Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)
I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate. I sincerely congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). Despite all the odds, there is always the possibility that his Bill will become law. I know that because I am the successful individual who was drawn 20th in the ballot for private Members' Bills last year, so I was delighted that my Bill became law.
I should also like to mention the excellent, well-balanced and interesting speeches made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) and the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms). I do not intend to duplicate their remarks because time is pressing and my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) wishes to speak.
Given the views on regulation of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, I was rather surprised that he was so keen to introduce so much of it himself. Before I comment on the Bill's general remit, I should like to refresh his memory. In the past, he said: 1235The setting of standards by which the local authority's delivery will be judged—and the way in which the Government ensure that they are sufficiently robust and demanding—is entirely bureaucratic, to a degree that is beloved of Labour politicians in so many ways. They love committees, bureaucracy, regulations and restrictions. They love telling people what to do. They love to tell local government that they know best, that they will lay down what is best and that if local government does not live up to that, they will intervene. All that is so beloved of Labour in every aspect, and"—I pause for emphasis—so hated by Conservative Members."— [Official Report, 23 March 1999; Vol. 328, c. 247.]Hon. Members will therefore understand why I am so confused about the fact that he has introduced the Bill, which is so fulsome in requiring further regulation, bureaucracy, restrictions and, more important, telling local authorities what they should do. That is at complete odds with his utterances on 23 March 1999.
We can all change position, and therein lies the secret. Being drawn second in the private Members' ballot is such an exciting prospect that none of us can resist the temptation of throwing down our gauntlet and entrusting our hand to new regulation, but we should not be surprised if others do not feel so fulsome in their praise and do not wish to welcome such regulation with so much zeal.
I want to make some constructive points and to concentrate on what the Government have already done to address the serious issues raised by the Bill. I believe that we should stay away from regulations wherever possible, and all that the Government have done to enforce better road safety supports that view. Education and encouragement are sometimes far better than regulation.
I should like to touch on the safer speeds provisions. As has been said, too many people take a cavalier attitude to speed. Speed is a major contributory factor in about a third of all road accidents and leads to far too many deaths. It is the greatest single contributor to casualties on our roads. I am pleased that the Government are doing something about that, but the collation of road accident statistics is so far proving to be extremely difficult because of the number of different authorities that record them.
I hope that the Government might be able to replace that very complex bureaucracy with a much simpler system for the collation of accident statistics. That might take us a step closer to knowing how many accidents are primarily caused by the use of mobile phones, or by any other activity. As someone who is not in favour of smacking, I suggest that a category that includes smacking as a source of accidents would also be very revealing, but perhaps a mite too bureaucratic for most local authorities to consider.
The Government have carried out a complete review of speed management policy to establish where the problems lie, which measures work and which do not and what additional information is needed to develop policy more fully. It is acknowledged that further study is necessary in a number of areas. I know that, because hon. Members will be aware that I am a member of the engineering profession. Many of my colleagues have been called in to give advice to various departments on the range of difficult issues surrounding speed restrictions. That includes advice on speeding cars, unsafe cars, unsafe roads, road surfaces and psychological tests.
1236 The speed review has confirmed a strong link between vehicle speeds and the severity of collisions. There is world agreement on that. I am keen on objective research and, as I shall point out when I briefly discuss mobile phones shortly, one of my primary concerns about clause 4 is that there is insufficient research to support the introduction of legislation. We cannot impose requirements on people unless we can fully and objectively support them.
When a car hits a pedestrian, the degree of injury increases exponentially if it was exceeding 30 mph. In rural areas, however, the damage to car drivers and other people on the roads is much greater than it is on main trunk roads and in urban areas.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire said that he is a horse rider. I hope that he has read the proposals of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on ensuring the safety of horse riders. They call on local authorities to consider horse riders in the development of local transport plans and to consult them directly on appropriate measures for their safe passage. Given his comments about bureaucracy and his unwillingness to consult his constituents, he will have no say in that discussion unless his local councillors are also horse riders. However, he could come to my constituency, where he would be assured of having his say.
Appropriate vehicle speed is an important matter. We know only too well in my constituency, which has roads on which it is possible to drive fast, that speed limits are intended to let drivers know the maximum safe speed in good conditions. Sensible limits should be appropriate to the location and the function of the road, and thus to the safety of all the people who use it. Badly set or inappropriate limits are often ignored and make drivers less willing to comply with the system generally.
We all have anecdotal experiences of speed limits that are ignored because they do not seem to be sensible. Great Crosby is a marvellous small village in my community and a marvellous road goes through that rural area. Local residents do not want lights and they do not have lights. They have a super stretch of road—it could be blessed with potholes, but it is not—with a smooth surface that positively invites people to travel along it at 60 mph.
The signs that houses are close to the road have not led drivers to slow down, so the local authority has been forced to introduce pillows. They are not, to use that politically incorrect phrase, "sleeping policeman"—they have gone. We have pillows in Sefton, with either short bolsters or long bolsters. The road to Little Crosby has little bolsters, which allow the safe, effective passage of emergency vehicles but do not allow the quick passage of normal cars. Normal cars interfere with the pillows, and their speed is slowed. Even in a rural environment where signposting is quite profuse, its impact is limited and physical changes to the road have been imperative. I am afraid that signposting does not offer a long-term solution.
I have referred to the Government's guidance to local authorities, which has been informed by the activities of a variety of institutions and by agencies that support the DETR and its work. I know from my local authority that the guidance notes are particularly welcome.
Technology is marvellous and presents us with many opportunities that are quite expensive. Coupled with the development of technology, however, is the Government's relaxation of practices for changing local 1237 speed limits, which I welcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Garston went into some detail about speed restriction schemes in her constituency. I must confess that part of me envied her enormously because my constituency had no speed restrictions at all until we received Government funding to fulfil requirements that had existed for years. Measures are desperately needed to reduce speed. We tried speed limits and they did not work, but implementing the new guidance did work. We no longer designate roads by speed limit but by activity. I welcome that shift, which will help the hon. Member for North Wiltshire to achieve his objectives.
My constituency now has roads with a 20 mph limit. We could not have conceived of that just over two years ago, but we now have those limits and the physical restrictions to impose them. That may not suit some people, and in fact those who are most inconvenienced by speed bumps and chicanes are the very people who live in the area where the restrictions are imposed. I know because I drive along such streets every day. Despite the fact that those measures may impede my progress, however, I am greatly relieved because our children are safer. As we get older and have children, as most hon. Members here do, we naturally become better drivers because we know that the child who runs into the road may be our own.
There is genuine concern, however, about appropriate driving behaviour for younger and older people. I welcome the Government's intention to introduce a range of schemes to improve driver performance. I am sure that that will include our performance. How many hon. Members here today have subjected themselves to a test other than the one that they sat many years ago? How many of us know how many regulations we are infringing? My husband constantly tells me that I infringe a great many and that travelling with me is a scary experience. I should therefore subject myself to another test, and I have no problem with that. Now that I have said it, I suppose that I should go ahead and do it just to prove the point. The campaign to raise people's awareness is a process of education rather than regulation. It is a slower process, but in the end it will be more effective.
I think that clause 4, which deals with mobile phones, is absolutely magnificent, but redundant. I refer the hon. Member for North Wiltshire to the Lords Hansard of 9 July 1999, when the Road Traffic (Use of Mobile Telephones) Bill was considered. I presume that the hon. Gentleman has had an opportunity to read this excellent debate in which proposals similar to those in this Bill were advanced. Excellent contributions were made, particularly by Lord Carter, who responded for the Government and whose views are the same as mine.
As an engineer, I object to mobile phones and pagers for the same reasons as the noble Lords: they interfere with normal life and can cause people to be rudely awakened. I do not know whether there is mobile phone rage, but I have seen something close to it in railway carriages. I welcome the introduction by Virgin of quiet coaches, much to the relief of all concerned.
Mobile phones have made an enormous difference to all our lives, either because we have been forced to buy them for our children or because they have become a vital necessity to a loved one. I have lost count of the number of older people who now carry them. My staff tell me 1238 that they are invaluable when shopping in Liverpool, for instance. The family need no longer horde together: they can walk separately, then home in on one another and congregate in Lewis's. We could not surpass that as a testimony to mobile phones.
The Lords debate concentrated a great deal on sandwiches. I am sorry that we have not been able to dwell on that issue today. Their Lordships had a lot of fun with it, although they made no reference to different varieties of sandwich. They established that eating a sandwich presented much the same problems as using a mobile phone.
The police believe that there is enough legislation for them to deal with mobile phone users who flagrantly disobey the law. Many prosecutions have been taken, and there is no suggestion that that will stop.
If it is true that half the population now carry mobile phones, that equates to approximately 20,000 people in North Wiltshire. If they all use the phone in their cars illegally, that means a potential 20,000 prosecutions, which would be more than for any other offence. I would not support that, because the police have better things to do than to pull up people who are on the phone but driving perfectly safely, as many people do.
The highway code, however, states emphatically that one must not do that. Short of regulation, how do we ensure that people do not? It will probably be a long-term campaign, like the one against drink-driving, which took many years to work but has now proved effective. I suspect that it will be quite a few more years before people will want to put their phones down because they know that using them is not safe, but I cannot support legislation that will make them criminals.
I endorse the Government's action in encouraging mobile phone companies to inform users of their duty to themselves and to the public to use the phone safely. I also congratulate them on their action in informing us directly of our responsibilities and encouraging local authorities to be more proactive on speed restrictions. It is wholly appropriate that roads should be designated according to use, and not necessarily speed, and that we should adopt local solutions for what are essentially local problems, while having a view to the national implications of duplicating various initiatives throughout the country. Such duplication would be to the detriment of road safety.
§ Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) is an estimable Member, and I believe that this is an estimable Bill. The hon. Gentleman has conducted today's debate well, and in a spirit calculated to see the Bill through to its next stage.
Anyone who listened to today's speeches could have come up with various captions to sum up what has been said. "The hon. Member for Tooting sends off a speeding Beckham." "The hon. Member for North Wiltshire tightens seat belts around Minister's neck." "The hon. Member for Garston goes bananas over zoo poo" Those are just some of the headlines that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire might be able to use in his local press, which I am sure is following the passage of his Bill carefully.
I turn to the serious aspects of the Bill. I have received a letter from a constituent, Mr. Langley, who lives in Glenwood grove in Kingsbury. He says: 1239The sight of an elderly gentleman victim left to die, bleeding from a gaping leg wound has stunned your constituents living in this quiet residential road. Clearly far more serious than the regular catalogue of screeching near misses and crashed cars, the use of this road as a speeding cut-through for motorists must now end without delay, and this is now the time for decisive action.That is a graphic example of the correspondence that all hon. Members receive about road safety problems in their constituencies, the way in which it affects the lives of their constituents, and the reason why the measures on speed limits in the Bill are so important.
Glenwood grove is surrounded by streets in which traffic-calming measures have been put into effect. In Salmon street and Slough lane there are speed bumps and restricted width barriers. There is limited turning out of Slough lane into Roe green. As a result, vehicles that cannot be bothered to use Church lane take a detour through one of the turnings off Salmon street and Church lane and race at great speed down Glenwood grove. To save what? To save a few seconds, but to render an elderly gentleman unconscious on the roadside bleeding to death.
When I wrote to the local council following that accident, I received a fulsome response. It was a positive response, and the council appreciated the concern that residents in Glenwood grove expressed. It said that the council was working in line with Government proposals and the Government's road safety strategy to reduce the number of road traffic accidents nationally by 40 per cent. by 2010. The council pointed out that it had to work within the constraints of the transport for London plan—the interim plan. There are financial constraints, and the council had to prioritise road safety measures. So yet another street has no prospect of any imminent improvement in traffic safety or reduction in traffic speed.
I could just as easily have taken the example of an elderly gentleman who was run down in Preston road outside the Bnai Brith residential home. He did not survive. His tragic death underlined the clear need for improvements in road safety at that point, where sheltered housing and residential homes are located. Elderly people can be expected to take that bit longer in crossing the road.
A new pedestrian phase is to be installed in the existing traffic signals at the junction of Preston road and East lane, but the scheme will not be implemented until the financial year 2001–02, which means that the minimum delay will be six months, and it is possible that as much as 18 months will elapse until action is taken as a result of that fatality. It is therefore with pleasure that I support the efforts of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire to place an obligation on every local traffic authority to review the speed limits that are appropriate in its locality and to take such other measures as are appropriate to reduce the number of fatalities occurring in its area.
The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) spoke of the shocking number of deaths that had occurred on a stretch of road in his constituency which comes under North Yorkshire county council. All hon. Members know of places where action could and should be taken to improve the safety of their local streets and highways. In Wood lane in my constituency, there lives a lady whose garden wall has been destroyed more than a dozen times in the past 20 years. One might think that measures would be taken in respect of such an accident black spot—that bollards would have been installed or other measures adopted to slow the traffic and ensure that traffic is able 1240 to pass safely along the road in icy conditions. However, we have yet to hear whether the local council is to implement my suggestion that bollards be installed.
Traffic passes far too swiftly down two streets in my constituency, Grasmere avenue and Windermere avenue; parked cars on either side render those streets tunnels where motorists' vision focuses on the end of the road and they fail to see, for example, a young child coming out into the road, as happened last September on Grasmere avenue. The child was struck down and killed because of the speed the vehicle was travelling. A life was lost to speeding motorists because restrictions had not been put in place, despite the fact that residents had for many years been calling for them. It is essential that there is an obligation on local authorities to review speed limits and safety measures that could save their residents' lives.
I want to be as constructive as possible, because the intention behind the Bill is a fine one. However, I share the doubts that some hon. Members have expressed about clause 1. In an intervention on the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, I stated that I was troubled by his belief that the clause 1 obligation on local highway authorities totake such steps as they consider reasonable to prevent snow and ice endangering the safe passageleads to an obligation on them to prepare a plan for gritting the roads.
The hon. Gentleman and I might agree that it is reasonable for highway authorities to prepare such a plan. We might agree also that it would be a good idea were they all to do so. However, I cannot see that the wording of the Bill places that obligation on local highway authorities. The clause says that authoritiesshall take such steps as they consider reasonable",not "as are reasonable". If the clause is to have real teeth and if the Bill is to have real effect in this area, the test of reasonableness must be an objective test on which the courts can make a decision. It should not be a subjective test, which might enable any local highway authority to plead that in its view its action was reasonable and ipso facto it is not guilty even if what was done was not done to an objectively reasonable standard.
In considering the clearance of roads and ensuring that highway authorities take steps to ensure safe passage, I shall touch upon a related issue that is critical when we are considering the usage of roads in local areas. I shall use a case history from my constituency. For many months, I have been battling against a local retailer, Capital Ford, the premises of which are at the junction of Hay lane and Edgware road. I have written not only to Capital Ford but to Mr. Ian McAllister, the chairman and managing director of Ford UK. He took just over a month to reply to my letter, after prompting by two telephone calls. In his letter he was finally able to tell me that the management of the dealership was not its affair but down to another company.
The key issue is that transporters are parking in a small, narrow residential road on a hill that happens to border on a commercial area. Transporters are being loaded and unloaded in that road. That is a clear breach of any safety guidelines for local motorists. It is causing huge disruption to the local community.
The positive ending is that this morning I received a letter from Capital Ford, in which it says that it has spoken to its supplier and informed it that its services will no 1241 longer be used by Capital Ford. The offending company that was engaged in the transportation of vehicles to the site is no longer being used by Capital Ford. That is a good instance of where "working with the local community" measures can eventually be taken by business to ensure that local roads are kept safe, by making it clear to suppliers that infringements of road safety will not be tolerated when deliveries are being made.
The issue of mobile phones has been dealt with at various stages today and with varying degrees of humour. I do not propose to rehearse the sandwich argument or the banana argument. The Bill—this is a textual comment—at lines 40 and 41 refers toa mobile telephone which is held in a hand.I simply point out to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire that it may well be that if one could show that one was holding the mobile phone with two hands and driving with one's knees that would be a way around the provision. That is not to be light-hearted about the matter, because driving without care and attention is a very serious issue indeed, but one feature of legislation is that Members of Parliament and Parliament as a whole are kept to the words that we pass in legislation. It is therefore important that, perhaps in Committee, attention is paid to tightening the wording of the Bill so that its proper intention can be reasonably debated without Members getting bogged down in semantic debate.
The Association of Chief Police Officers has made its views on that serious issue clearly known. It does not support the clause incorporated in the Bill; it is clear that it has the powers to prosecute any driver who is not driving with due care and attention. Perhaps we need police officers to exercise those powers more forcefully, rather than include a particular proscription about mobile phones in the Bill.
On the question of seat belts, and the clause that deals with the wearing of seat belts by children, I speak from bitter personal experience, as my own niece was a victim of a car crash in the past few years. The driver had not asked or told her to wear her seat belt, and she went through the windscreen, which caused severe facial injuries. I have seen, at rather too close hand, the terrible effect of such stupidity on the part of drivers and adults in charge of children in their vehicles. I have seen the devastating effect that that can have on a child's life, so I give my wholehearted support to the provision, which seeks to raise the penalty for such an offence to level 2 on the standard scale. It should be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
The Bill deals with further issues, many of which are commendable. I simply conclude by once again congratulating the hon. Member for North Wiltshire on introducing the Bill. I wish it safe passage through to Committee, and I hope that its essential elements, which are important, will eventually pass into legislation.
§ 2.4 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill)
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) in congratulating the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on introducing the Bill. It is 1242 wide-ranging and even if, as I shall explain in relation to some particulars, the Government are unable to accept every element of it, the hon. Member for North Wiltshire has given us an opportunity to debate several important topics, not least those relating to transport safety.
As with every private Member's Bill, the Government have thought carefully about the contents of the Bill and our approach to them if and when they came to be debated. That is proper, and normal constitutional practice.
The Government have thought more carefully about the Bill than the hon. Member for North Wiltshire thought about our approach to parish councils. It is absolute nonsense to assert, as he did, that the Government are dismissive of the role of parish councils. On the contrary, our rural White Paper contained commitments to a parish transport fund, amounting to £15 million over three years, and funds of £5 million to support the preparation of parish plans. Both of those are due to come in from the beginning of April; not to mention the community services fund for basic services in communities, which will benefit parish councils. Some £2 million funding will be made available for the training and development of parish councils over the next three years.
§ Mr. Hill
I would love to give way to my hon. Friend, but I have a short period in which to respond to a long debate. As she knows, I have sat here for all but 10 minutes of this five-hour debate, making careful notes. I am anxious to respond to the many important points made during the debate.
The Bill is wide-ranging and has given rise to our customary wide-ranging Friday morning debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox)—my parliamentary neighbour—spoke powerfully about those who exceed the speed limit and the use of the mobile phone. We all look forward to my hon. Friend's active participation in the Committee. I am well aware that he stated his intention to propose further clauses to the Bill. The opportunity to work closely with my hon. Friend on the Committee is a strong incentive to move to a further stage of scrutiny.
My hon. Friend asked how many prosecutions there had been for offences involving mobile phones. He will be aware that because of the character of the law at present, using a mobile phone while driving is not a specific offence. I regret to say that the information is not available.
The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) talked passionately about the A64. I have travelled on the A64 from York to Scarborough and I am aware of the problems on the road. My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) has also been forceful on the subject. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Highways Agency is reviewing the possibility of further improvements to the road. In fact, he has acknowledged that there have already been a number of improvements, including bypasses and an element of dualling.
I note that a commitment has been made to deal with the overtaking lane at Golden Hill, but let me assure the hon. Gentleman that I will seek to expedite progress on 1243 the matter. He will be aware that, before Christmas, I was able to announce the Government's intention to construct a bypass at the village of Rillington in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby.
§ Mr. Hill
In that case, it is important that I correct the record. I am glad that we have been able to make that important contribution to improving safety on the A64. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I would be delighted to hear about the road safety days at Lady Lumley's school.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) spoke with singular insight, based on her experience as a personal injuries lawyer, on the Goodes v. East Sussex County Council case. I will say more about that shortly. I am certain that the House was gripped by her alarming description of the impact of snow on the normally balmy climes of Liverpool. I suppose the reference to the wrong kind of salt was inevitable. I am absolutely certain that we are all relieved that the Liberal Democrat council has gone quiet on the issue of zoo poo. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where are the Liberal Democrats?"] I propose to come to that in due course.
Let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for Garston that her point about the concept of reasonableness in the Bill was well made and she has certainly inspired us to think further and more carefully about the matter. I should add that the definition of a highway includes roads and the footpaths adjacent to them. My hon. Friend is evidently an enthusiastic supporter of speed cameras, so she will be pleased to know that following an extremely successful pilot scheme in eight districts in various parts of the country, the new Vehicles (Crime) Bill now going through Parliament will permit all highway authorities to ring-fence the proceeds of fixed penalties for speeding offences precisely for investment in the deployment and maintenance of speed cameras.
The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) spoke for the official Opposition. Let me say at this point that it has been notable throughout the debate that the provisional Opposition—the Liberal Democrat party—has been totally absent from our proceedings today. That is an appalling reflection on its lack of commitment to the important matter of transport safety to which the House has devoted so much time today.
As usual, the hon. Member for Poole spoke with common sense and some originality on a range of issues in the Bill. He asked about the statistics for deaths on snow or ice. According to the road casualty statistics for 1999, there were 69 deaths and 520 serious injuries as a result of snow or ice that year. We are unsure where the report of 200 deaths, which has been quoted during the debate, comes from or how that figure was calculated.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) is another personal injuries lawyer. He asked a great many questions. Time constraints prevent me from answering them in their totality, but I can absolutely confirm that my hon. Friend was the first hon. Member to raise the implications of the Goodes case with the Government and, in his usual admirably assiduous fashion, he has persisted in pressing for a legislative solution. I can assure him and my hon. Friend the Member for Garston that the Government will consider very carefully their observations in today's debate.
1244 I can also confirm that Transport for London is a highway authority. I am glad to hear that the Government have been helpful with improvements to Apex corner in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and I note his further urgings with regard to Sterling corner. I am tempted to repeat the words of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and say, "Another day, another demand", but my hon. Friend makes a powerful case in relation to Sterling corner.
On the question of resources for further traffic measures in my hon. Friend's constituency, the London borough of Barnet will have benefited from the 22 per cent. increase in transport investment in London for 2001–02 announced by the Government in our 10-year plan for transport last July. In the following year available investment will be 92 per cent. higher than the current base line and in 2003–04 it will be a massive 220 per cent. higher. It is my understanding that the Mayor of London intends passing on those increases to the London boroughs. That really ought to allow ample scope for the large-scale introduction of traffic management measures throughout London. I also draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) the opportunities for the introduction of traffic management measures in the streets in his constituency to which he referred.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon also asked about radar detectors. Draft statutory instruments have been laid and consultation is due to finish at the end of March. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the Government intend to prohibit the installation and use of such devices in motor vehicles.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon also asked about child restraints. A national publicity campaign on the subject is under way this week. We have had good press coverage on the subject—on GMTV and in newspapers and the local media. Additionally, road safety officers are conducting local campaigns at schools, supermarkets and other places. The campaign includes the advice to beware of second-hand seats. I hope that that, too, will be of some reassurance to him.
I am sure that we all very much enjoyed the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) teased the hon. Member for North Wiltshire by drawing to our attention the apparent contradictions in his approach to regulation. My long-held observation is that, with one or two obvious exceptions, hon. Members on both sides the House, when they get half a chance, demonstrate an insatiable appetite for interfering in people's lives. It is the duty of a Government such as ours, who are opposed to excessive regulation, to restrain those appetites. That of course informs our approach to parts of the Bill. The House very much appreciated her views on speeding and speed limits, which are born of her expertise as an engineer by training. It was also very good to hear of the benefits of lower speed limits in her constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North reminded the House of the continuing toll of road traffic accidents, not least in his constituency. I am sure that his constituents will be grateful to him for raising those issues in Parliament and drawing them to the attention of both national Government and the local authority. I note his support for the Bill's proposals to review speed limits on roads. I hope to speak about that shortly.
1245 In the very brief time that remains to me, I should like to deal with the Bill's detailed contents. Clause 1 imposes a duty on local authorities to remove ice and snow from highways and springs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon said, from a very unfortunate accident, in November 1991—the subject of the Goodes v. East Sussex County Council case—that everyone of course wishes could have been avoided. Mr. Goodes was very seriously injured when his car skidded on black ice on the A267 near Mayfield in Sussex.
The judgment of the House of Lords in the case, last year, was that there was no duty on local highway authorities under the Highways Act 1980 to remove ice from highways. Nevertheless, I confirm that we expect authorities to continue to salt their roads in icy conditions in accordance with their code of good practice on highway maintenance, which has been in place since 1989. All our soundings with local authorities have shown that none of them intends to cut back on salting roads because of the judgment. Additionally, we have instructed the Highways Agency to continue its usual practice of keeping motorways and trunk roads free of ice and snow.
We have also reminded road users to follow the advice in the highway code that they must take great care in icy conditions. As various hon. Members have said, that is especially important because the reality is that no highway authority can always remove all the ice from all of its roads, whatever its legal duty might or might not be. Even with the best of forelaid plans to salt roads according to a hierarchy of their importance, salting programmes can be caught out by icy weather that arrives more quickly and severely than expected.
Although the judgment meant that there was not a duty in the 1980 Act to remove ice from a highway, we are considering whether a duty is required and the best way of bringing that about. I hope that that is some reassurance to the House and particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon.
Clauses 2 and 3 deal with the review and revision of speed limits. As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire is aware, the Government are committed to improving road safety. In March 2000, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions published the report of its comprehensive review of speed management policy, which was generally well-received by professionals and road safety campaigners alike. Its main recommendations were included in the Government's road safety strategy which underpins our target to reduce deaths and serious injuries on our roads by 40 per cent. overall and 50 per cent. for children by 2010.
I am very glad to note that the hon. Gentleman's own local authority, Wiltshire county council, has taken account of the strategy when developing its road safety action plan. I hope that it can build upon its achievement in exceeding the previous accident reduction targets.
I am also happy that authorities such as Wiltshire are embracing new initiatives like quiet lanes in their search for schemes that balance the needs of motorised traffic with those who wish to walk, cycle and ride horses, like the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, and I wish them every success.
The review acknowledged that for speed limits to be respected they need to be appropriate to the road and consistently set throughout the country. To achieve that, 1246 the review recommended the development of a hierarchy of roads defined by their function, an assessment framework to aid decisions on appropriate limits and a simplified method of setting them. Although these initiatives have been broadly welcomed, I am conscious of the need to develop the detail carefully. Public consultation will play a major part in the process and will ensure that the measures implemented are practicable and effective. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is currently engaged in the development of these policies.
Let me hasten on. For the rural road hierarchy, the Transport Act 2000 requires the DETR to undertake a review of the issues that need to be resolved and the Secretary of State to publish a report of the review by November. I am glad to say that that is already well under way. Work has also commenced on the assessment framework and on a new method for setting limits. A provisional enabling clause for the latter will be included in the draft Transport Safety Bill, and will be used as the basis on which we will consult.
I recognise that clauses 2 and 3 attempt to provide new speed limit order-making powers. They also aim to ensure consistency, while allowing the Department's work on hierarchies and assessment frameworks to be taken into account. However, the mechanism employed is rather prescriptive. I am concerned about imposing a large burden such as the assessment of every road in the country on local authorities without consultation. As so much work is yet to be completed on these initiatives, I believe that the clauses are premature. Given my concerns, and the fact that primary legislation has already been identified for any necessary enabling provisions, I have to inform the House that the Government cannot support the clauses.
Clause 4 would ban the drivers of motor vehicles from using hand-held phones. The purpose of the clause is to create a new offence of using a hand-held mobile phone while driving. The penalties would be a level 3 fine and discretionary disqualifications or a fixed-penalty notice, with the licence endorsed with three penalty points.
I fully understand the intentions of this measure. However, we see no need for a specific offence to outlaw the use of hand-held phones while driving. Drivers are already required to have proper control of their vehicles at all times. The police are satisfied that they have adequate powers to prosecute drivers who are not in control of their vehicle for whatever reason. Rules 127 and 128 of the highway code give advice to drivers on the dangers of using mobile phones and other types of in-car technology while driving.
The creation of the proposed offence could even be counter-productive, as the current position provides flexibility. At present, the police may prosecute drivers for failing to have proper control of their vehicle. That is an offence under regulation 104 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use Regulations) 1986, and carries a maximum fine of £2,500. Alternatively, a prosecution for careless or inconsiderate driving under section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 might be justified. This carries a maximum fine of £2,500, endorsement of three to nine penalty points and discretionary disqualification. A prosecution for dangerous driving under Section 2 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 may sometimes be appropriate. 1247 This offence carries a sentence of up to two years in prison, an unlimited fine, disqualification for at least a year and a requirement to undergo an extended re-test.
All these powers ensure that the police can prosecute according to the degree of danger involved. The penalty on conviction will reflect the circumstances of each case.
Creating an absolute offence, as proposed in the Bill, could give the false impression that it is safe to use a hands-free phone while driving. The Transport Research Laboratory's research review concluded that the distraction caused by the mental effort of phone conversations is present even with hands-free phones. Although the evidence is largely circumstantial, it all points to an association between phone use and increased accident risk.
Using any type of phone while driving can be distracting, and it is not just phone use that distracts a driver's attention from the road. A specific offence in relation to phones raises issues about other in-car activities. Anything from eating—during the debate, we heard plenty about eating bananas—to tuning a radio while driving can be dangerous and lead to an accident. That is why we think that the current law is satisfactory.
In line with the conclusions of the Stewart group, the Government are committed to continuing to publicise the dangers of using mobile phones while driving. We recently re-issued an advisory leaflet to road safety officers, the police and learner drivers through driving instructors and test centres.
In 1998, we started a national publicity campaign to remind drivers of the dangers of using a phone on the move. We launched a further campaign at the beginning of 2000 to reinforce that message. There will be further campaigns. Mobile phone companies also include advice about the road safety hazards of using hand-held mobile phones in their promotional literature to subscribers.
On clauses 5, 6 and 7, I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire for putting the case for the changes in the law relating to seat belt wearing that are contained in those clauses. The Government support them all. There is little these days that is revolutionary in the matter of road safety. Progress seems to be made by small advances here and there which, taken together, produce a benefit that is measurable at the end of the year, when the road casualties figures are published. The changes proposed are minor, but they will contribute significantly to the enhancement of safety on our roads.
Briefly, on travel concessions, the Transport Act 2000 requires the half-fare concessions to be made available on journeys within the area of a local transport authority. In England, that is the district councils, unitary authorities and passenger transport executives. The terms of clause 8 go somewhat wider than those powers. In our view, the existing schemes should be allowed time to bed down before further extensions are considered. We therefore cannot agree to the inclusion of clause 8.
Finally, like the proverbial curate's egg, the Bill contains good parts, as well as bad. The Government are 1248 content, if it is the will of the House, to allow it to proceed to Committee, so that we might see whether we can concoct a small omelette of a measure out of its more palatable elements.
§ Mr. Gray
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I take this opportunity of thanking hon. Members on both sides of the House for their contributions, to which I have listened with great care. There is one notable exception—the party that prides itself on an interest in local matters, the Liberal Democrats, was not represented at all throughout the debate. None the less, we heard a great deal of wisdom, experience and knowledge from hon Members on both sides of the House. I look forward to taking up in Committee the points that were raised. I am glad of the cross-party support and commend my Bill to the House.
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
I have the gravest doubts about a Bill that is peppered with words such as "require", "ban" and "mandatory". I regret that the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) is just such a creature. I belong to a party that opposes bans and requirements and mandatory elements in statutory law—especially with regard to local authorities. My party's belief is that local authorities should be left with the maximum—
§ Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.
§ Question put accordingly, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 15, Noes 1.
|Division No. 113]||[2.30 pm|
|Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy||Grogan, John|
|Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)||Pound, Stephen|
|Baker, Norman||Skinner, Dennis|
|Chapman, Sir Sydney(Chipping Barnet)||Swayne, Desmond|
|Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)|
|Cox, Tom||Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)|
|Galloway, George||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Gardiner, Barry||Mr. Robert Syms and|
|Greenway, John||Mr. James Gray.|
|St Aubyn, Nick||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Mr. Andrew Dismore and|
|Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas.|
§ It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.