HC Deb 24 June 2004 vol 422 cc1484-509

[Relevant Documents: Eighth Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2002–03, on The Work of the Highways Agency, HC453, and the Government's Response thereto, Cm 6088, the Highways Agency Business Plan 2004–05, and the Department for Transport Annual Report 2004, Cm 6207.]

Mr. Speaker

Before I call the Whip to move the motion, I should like to make a statement to the House. Given that two subjects are being debated on one estimates motion, Members will wish to know that the debate will be divided between two subjects. Exceptionally, I have decided that Members may speak twice to the same Question, once on each subject. We will begin with the debate on the Highways Agency. At a point to be determined, the debate on that subject will be concluded, and the House will move on to debate the regulation of taxis and private hire vehicle services in the United Kingdom.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the year ending with 31st March 2005, for expenditure by the Department for Transport—

(1) further resources, not exceeding £5,665,964,000, be authorised for use as set out in HC 466,

(2) a further sum, not exceeding £5,144,950,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to meet the costs as so set out, and

(3) limits as so set out be set on appropriations in aid.—[Joan Ryan.]

2.21 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab)

The maintenance of the roads system in the United Kingdom occasionally seems to be a matter of great emotional involvement. I never quite understand that, any more than I understand the undying love that some people have for the combustion engine. They are both particular commitments that have rather passed me by.

The work of the Highways Agency not only is fundamental to the efficient working of the economy of the United Kingdom but provides one of the most basic and important functions of any part of our economic interest. It is therefore concerning when major difficulties arise. In debating this subject, I hope that we can refer to the work of the Highways Agency and to the eighth report of my Committee from Session 2002–03.

Perhaps I should begin by saying that I believe that the Highways Agency generally performs well, and any criticisms that one has to make are on specific aspects of its work or specific difficulties that arise. However, my Committee was deeply concerned when we discovered, as far as we could see after taking detailed evidence, that in the period when we were suddenly hit by major snowstorms an agency as important as the Highways Agency not only suddenly found itself unaware that its contractors were not performing to the level that would enable them to keep our motorways clear, but was not aware that the contractors concerned appeared to be unable to communicate with their own work force.

In the United Kingdom, we have an interesting attitude towards weather. I had a Russian friend who used to say to me, "In Russia, we know it will be cold and so we have big coats and big fires, and we are always prepared. In the United Kingdom, you know it will be cold but you always hope it will not be." I suspect that many of our major services are based on assumptions of that kind. It seems extraordinary when we consider in detail what allowed a major agency to be taken by surprise by what is, after all, a traditional part of the British winter: a fall of snow. We took evidence from both the agency and the Department for Transport, and it became clear that there were a number of difficulties. The agency said that it was well informed of what was happening generally but had not been aware that the contractors working for it had such an inadequate form of communication with their own work force that they did not know that many of the ploughs that were supposed to be working to keep the roads clear were not operating. The contractors appeared not to have a way of communicating with their own work force. What was more, that situation went on for such a long time that some people were trapped on the motorway in their vehicles for 11 hours. That must have been a frightening situation, and it is extraordinary that it did not cause a great deal more comment and uproar.

Further to that, the Highways Agency did not seem to become aware of that difficulty for four days after the situation had become manifest. I have to confess that I find that extraordinary, and when the Committee issued a report it made it very clear that it thought that that was unacceptable and should not be allowed to continue. The Highways Agency did not have at the time, so far as we could see, an information system or a response system to enable it to deal with such circumstances. We asked it to come and give evidence, and we were singularly unimpressed with the performance of the then chief executive, who is no longer in charge.

The situation was very strange, and it gives one pause. All Departments have developed stand-alone agencies that are nevertheless staffed by civil servants, who are responsible to their particular Department. Indeed, their accounting systems are only partially at one remove and it is possible for the Department for Transport suddenly to find itself at the end of a financial year having to account for problems in the accounting not of the Department itself but of a stand-alone agency. When we queried what had happened, we were told that when the Department was moving to a system of resource accounting, a system that had been discussed for a long period and examined by our Select Committee, it suddenly found that one agency had produced budgeting that left it with a major amount of money in the wrong part of its accounts and distorted the overall accounting of the Department.

That seems to me an extraordinary set of circumstances, and one that I trust will not arise again. Not only were the Department and the agencies concerned given very long notice of the change in the accounting procedures that were going to come about, but the Select Committee looked at the move towards the new system and made various recommendations. We have said that we think that the accounting treatment of the Department and the agencies must be monitored carefully in future to ensure that if mistakes are made in the agencies, they do not cause the Department's accounts to be overspent. I should have thought that that was common sense, and it is extraordinary that we have to highlight that matter and make the agency aware of the need to look very carefully at how it is proceeding.

We also said that it should be fundamental to the routine operating practice of the Highways Agency that the day-to-day maintenance of the motorways be fully co-ordinated. We highlighted the inadequacy of the control that the Department had over contractors. Just because a contract exists, the Department must not assume that everything is therefore going to proceed on a perfectly even basis. When we took evidence, it became clear that in many of the contracts—I almost laugh because the absurdity of the situation strikes me so forcefully—the Department did not have sanctions that it could apply to people who were not conforming to the contract terms. Why not?

The Government are keen on the sort of arrangements whereby many private functions are handed over to individual companies and not left as the responsibility of the civil service. That might or might not be an efficient way of proceeding, but surely it demands that the least that we as taxpayers can expect is that the contracts will include penalty clauses. If not, why not? Can the Minister assure me that, in future, all those contracts will automatically include sanctions that can be taken against those who do not do the work that they have undertaken to do in the manner that we would expect? Even in our own homes, we would hardly pay up for an inadequate builder, yet the Government seem to be prepared to pay large sums to people who are not even competent.

The Select Committee also believes that, although the Highways Agency was not directly involved in coordinating operations when they went badly wrong on 30 and 31 January 2003, it is essential to establish a method by which it can take direct control when faults in the arrangements come to light. It should not be allowed to sit back and wait for four days to be told that things are not working properly and that someone else has not performed adequately.

In their reply, the Government said that the Highways Agency anticipates that improvements will come from its direct operational command and control. They talk about the introduction of regional control centres and a uniformed patrol of traffic officers. The Minister will know that I, being a rather cynical old bird, have some reservations about traffic management officer schemes. First, can he tell us exactly what training these new civilian officers will undertake? Secondly, where will the dividing line be between their management of the motorway system and the police's management of the system? Thirdly, is it the intention of Her Majesty's Government to insist that traffic goes back into the core responsibilities of chief constables?

It is extraordinary that the Home Office, in setting up the responsibilities of individual forces, does not seem to think that traffic management, particularly of our motorways, is a matter of national importance. I would have thought that it was one of those things that manifestly have to be the same across the whole of the motorway network. That can happen only if police forces have a direct responsibility and maintain the same standards throughout the whole motorway system.

We said that the Highways Agency was sometimes producing results, but with inadequate information—occasionally with inadequate methods—about its own responsibilities and solutions when things went wrong. How much more likely are there to be problems when there is a civilian work force whose sole responsibility is to keep the motorways running?

I have highlighted the difficulties that could arise if, for any reason, the agency's staff arrived at the site of an accident on a motorway before the police, and then took decisions that in some way corrupted the evidence relating to that accident. I know that the Minister is well aware of our worries about that. However, it is still not clear who is going to be responsible for what; it is not clear what the instructions to the motorway officers will be if they get to the scene of an accident before the police; and it is not clear who will take the final decision about the moment at which the motorway can be cleared and the traffic called on.

There is increasing use—and increasing advocacy of the use—of the hard shoulder. This morning I received information from the Department and I looked carefully at some of the schemes that were being suggested. I have to tell the Minister that I am very concerned. Emergency services use the hard shoulder and find it very difficult when, for one reason or another, there are solid blocks of traffic across a road system.

The Minister might like to examine the history of a particular site, with which those of us who regularly use planes as well as trains may be familiar. Part of the road to Heathrow is on a raised platform and emergency vehicles find it extremely difficult to get there when there is an accident. I have seen ambulance men come up the wrong way on that part of the motorway and climb over the barriers to get to an accident on the opposite carriageway. Where ambulances cannot get to incidents such as that, I am seriously worried about the advocacy of hard shoulder use for motorway controls. I understand the reasons, but I hope that the Minister will assure me that it will apply only to a very limited stretch of motorway. I am not convinced that, at the moment, sufficient note has been taken of the implications for accidents.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab)

Is my hon. Friend aware that construction work is now going ahead on the first of these schemes—on the M42 in the west midlands? Does her Select Committee intend to carry out further investigations into the safety implications of using the hard shoulder?

Mrs. Dunwoody

With a member of the Committee in his place looking at me, I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that I cannot give a commitment on our future programme. However, this morning I saw the lists of people who were consulted on this particular scheme, and it was noticeable that many representatives from the police, the fire service and other road agencies were involved, but only one from the ambulance service. Frankly, that worries me.

It has been suggested to me that, if the hard shoulder were being used for running purposes and an accident occurred, it would be possible to stop the traffic and allow the emergency services to approach from the opposite direction. Having spent 20-odd years helping in a medical practice, I can tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I saw the results of some very nasty road accidents and spent a lot of time trying to help people in those circumstances. I am afraid that accidents do not always happen in the way that the emergency services would like them to happen or in the way that some people have planned for them to happen. Before we make use of the hard shoulder a common practice, I hope that we set up a series of limited experiments and look closely at the results. I believe that there are considerable difficulties still extant.

My Committee is not concerned with only the day-to-day working of the Highways Agency. We said that we found it, frankly, intolerable that it had no financial sanctions available to it. I hope that the Minister will assure us today that the Government have not only examined that problem, but remedied it. The Government suggested in their reply that there was a right to damages where one party to a contract suffered loss as a result of the other's breach. Have the Government allowed a large sum for legal expenses? If we are going to resort to law every time a contractor fails to maintain a proper standard, I can see some real difficulties arising.

We pointed out that the Highways Agency was performing its functions, but that there were a number of shortcomings. The Secretary of State told us that the agency would have a much more active role, but we felt that the failure of operational communications and the failure to co-ordinate emergency operations had been revealed and that we expected the new chief executive to deal with those problems.

I am sorry if I have rambled on across the various concerns of the Committee, but I believe that I should make one or two points in conclusion. If the Government want to set up and control arm's-length agencies while at the same time delegating direct responsibilities and expecting the tasks to be carried out, they must be quit clear about their methods for producing the final results. It will not be good enough for the Department for Transport to say that a matter is a responsibility for the Highways Agency, on the grounds that the agency controls the operational work on our motorways, that its officers are responsible for deciding when a motorway should be reopened after a crash, or that it must take responsibility for relationships with contractors and deal with them about breaches of contract. That may be the narrow legal point, but the Department has political and financial responsibility for such matters. Ultimately, it is answerable to the House of Commons for the efficient working of the Highways Agency and its ability to deliver the services that we expect.

There is no point in waxing eloquent about the need for more roads to be built or for their better maintenance unless we are clear that it is taxpayer's money that is used for those purposes. Taxpayers demand that we in this House have a clear and identifiable way to call the Department for Transport to account when we think that the agency is not performing properly

2.41 pm
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab)

It is a pleasure to follow the distinguished Chair of such a high-performing Select Committee. I shall begin by saying something about the changing role of the Highways Agency.

The week has been dominated by debates about public services and their responsiveness. We should treat users of public services with the same respect and attentiveness as they receive as consumers in other areas of their lives. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is pleased that the Secretary of State is well ahead of the field in that respect. I recall the speech that my right hon. Friend gave at the Automobile Association awards ceremony on 26 March last year. It was entitled "Treating Motorists as Customers", and it is pleasing that the Department should consider that people who use the roads should be treated as customers, worthy of attentiveness and respect.

The role of the Highways Agency has shifted. Where its role used to be one of building and maintaining roads, its new role is as a network operator, responsible for ensuring that the whole network is used effectively. The trunk roads for which the agency is responsible amount to only 4 per cent. of the road network, but they carry more than one third of all traffic.

Today's debate on estimates is important, as the strong growth in the Highways Agency's budget is due to the fact that its new role is more expensive. The agency will continue to build new roads and widen existing ones, but it will also make better use of existing capacity.

In part, that is what the Traffic Management Bill was all about. The Highways Agency already has uniformed staff in liveried vehicles patrolling motorways in the west midlands. Some may be surprised at that, as the Bill has not yet received Royal Assent, but those staff are operating under existing powers, not the new ones that will be brought into force when the Bill is enacted. The task for those staff members is to tackle congestion and keep traffic moving, and thereby to keep customers satisfied.

I am chairman of the parliamentary advisory council for transport safety, and I am concerned that the Highways Agency does not lose sight of its key function, which is to ensure that road safety is the top priority for road users. As they patrol the country's motorways, I am sure that traffic officers will always have road safety at the forefront of their minds. To that end, they will make sure that they remove obstructions, such as debris, before they cause a crash, and they will arrange the safe recovery of vehicles that are stationary, broken down or abandoned at the side of the road. Those officers will also contribute to reducing long delays, so that people do not get frustrated and take risks that cause collisions, and they will collect information at the scene of crashes that will contribute to the prevention of their reoccurrence. I hope that road safety will be improved by the new role of the traffic management officers employed by the Highways Agency.

I do not suppose that my hon. Friend the Minister will want me to say too much about the fears of the recovery companies such as the AA, the Royal Automobile Association and Green Flag about the extension of the Highways Agency's business empire into the new area of vehicle recovery from the side of the road. However, I am sure that he will not object to taking one more opportunity to reassure them on that score.

When we talk about road users as customers, it is inevitable that we will discuss what they pay for the service, and how they pay for it. Once, politicians did not want to talk about road charging for fear of offending people, but it is coming awfully close. We have congestion charging in London, and the M6 toll motorway is already operating in the west midlands. Not too far in the future, all lorry operators will have to pay road user charges. That shows that road charging is now a reality, and we must get to grips with our policy on it.

The M6 toll motorway opened earlier this year. Its construction, by a private operator, finished ahead of schedule. It opened smoothly, apart from a slight hiccup early on when it had to close because of a problem with the road surface, and it is now being used regularly. I use the M6 motorway on many occasions, and I can attest that the toll motorway is a qualified success, in that it takes some traffic away from the very overcrowded M6. By spreading the load, it has helped to reduce congestion.

Drivers, especially of motor cars, use the toll motorway in reasonably large numbers, but the high toll imposed on lorry drivers means that they stay away. That is a bit unfortunate: clearly, the operator does not want to meet the cost of the maintenance that would be required if lots of lorries used the toll motorway. I am somewhat surprised that neither the Conservative Government nor the present Labour Government ensured that the contract for the toll motorway contained at least a right of representation about the charges imposed on drivers. There are clear strategic national interests involved that we should be able to explain to the operator, so that they are taken into account when charge levels are set.

Most of all, I want to speak to the Minister about the role of the Highways Agency in widening the M6. He knows that that subject is close to my heart; he and I enjoyed a debated in this Chamber on 27 March last year on that very matter. One of his predecessors as Minister of State met me and a delegation of local councillors in Staffordshire on 10 February last year about the Secretary of State's announcement—made on 10 December 2002—that the M6 would be widened. The Minister's predecessor told the Staffordshire delegation that the Highways Agency would produce new plans for the widening of the M6 through the county. He said that there would be widespread public consultation, and that the Government would put the plans in its targeted programme for investment by September 2003.

Nothing had happened by the end of September 2003—nor by April 2004, which is when I asked another parliamentary question about progress. The answer that I received was that the plans were proving more problematic than expected. I was told that they were not yet ready, but would be soon. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say what progress has been made with the plans.

This is a vital matter for the more than 1 million people who live alongside the M6 as it passes through Staffordshire and Cheshire. It is also very important for the top half of the country, which depends on the motorway for its main communications north to south. Many businesses in my constituency support the widening of the M6, whereas many other people—and I am one of them—oppose it on environmental grounds. It remains vital that we sort the issue out. Clearly, it is unsatisfactory that the Department should claim to have made a decision as long ago as 2002 when, 18 months later, nothing has happened.

I lost the debate about whether the M6 should be widened, but my concern is that the greatest possible environmental protection should be afforded to all those who live alongside it. Some people's back gardens are immediately adjacent to the motorway, and they must be protected from the effects of the widening works and of the increased traffic that will follow.

I should be very grateful if, when he winds up this short debate, my hon. Friend the Minister will say something about the Highways Agency's work in the future, and about the need for it to consult about protection with the people who live alongside the M6.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) mentioned the plans for active traffic management and I intervened on the subject. The plans include the regular use of the hard shoulders of motorways for running traffic. That is something that causes alarm and raised eyebrows among the public. Only this week I was speaking to another hon. Member about those plans and the hon. Member asked me whether I was joking. But it is serious. It has been done already in some parts of the world—the United States and the Netherlands in particular. In the Netherlands the measure not only reduced congestion but reduced accidents and casualties. So there seems to be some argument in favour of it. The worry is bound to be about the safety of using the hard shoulder for traffic when there is an accident. How on earth do emergency vehicles get to the scene quickly? My hon. Friend the Minister has to convince the doubters that his scheme will allow for that.

I know from an Adjournment debate in which the Minister and I took part that the regional control centre will have real-time information and the ability to respond immediately when something out of the way happens so that the safety and treatment of people injured in crashes on the motorways can be ensured speedily. I would welcome the Minister's confirmation that that will be the case.

This is a debate about the budget of the Highways Agency. I have explained how the budget is growing. I believe that its new role is the right one. It is a valuable role. It is important that as the changes happen the Highways Agency is attentive to the people who are interested in its work—not just road users but decision makers such as Members of Parliament—and keeps them informed.

Recently my constituents and I received from the Highways Agency some literature about its plans for the network in my area. That is a sensible thing for it to do. It is a good use of public money to keep people informed so that they know about things before they happen and what may happen in the future. My particular concern is to know what may happen about the widening of the M6 in Staffordshire.

2.52 pm
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)

The lack of attendance in the House can be put down to the fact that many hon. Members want to use our highways to get back to their constituencies in order to be in front of a television set by 7.45 pm. That is a laudable objective, and we wish our players all the best this evening.

I shall comment on only a couple of matters because my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has covered all the issues that the Select Committee looked into. It is worthy of comment that the Highways Agency on the whole is a very efficient organisation. Its actions go largely without comment, which is probably testimony to the fact that it does its job reasonably well. As with all organisations, it is in extreme circumstances that its preparations for certain eventualities are tested and its activities brought to the fore. In the severe weather last year the arrangements that the Highways Agency had put in place were found wanting in the extreme.

The communications system was inadequate and seemed to rely on the mobile telephones of drivers. It was most shocking to us when we cross-examined people from the agency that once the gritting lorries had left the depots it was impossible to keep track of where they were, what they were doing and whether they had got stuck themselves. That was clearly a failure of the agency to put in place adequate procedures to maintain an efficient service when it was most needed by people on our road network.

The other issue that came to light in that cross-examination, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich has referred, was the lack of penalty clauses in the contracts for private contractors. My hon. Friend the Minister has obviously taken that message on board because I can see him nodding, but the problem needs to be stressed and emphasised. We need to ensure that we do not fall down on that issue in future. If we are setting aside seriously large sums of money for litigation to deal with penalty clauses, perhaps we ought to consider an in-house service over which we have more direct control so that we do not rely on so many contracts that are perhaps not as enforceable as we would like.

Another issue to which I should like to draw attention, and which was also referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, is the role of the police and the Highways Agency at the time of a severe accident on the road network. The issue concerns who takes control at that point, and who has responsibility for reopening the road. A clear protocol needs to be drawn up to ensure that the responsibilities are clear. Responsibility for the road network and enforcement of the relevant laws should clearly lie with the police. It has been emphasised recently—not just in evidence to our Committee—that there is a link between crime and antisocial behaviour and traffic offences, so we would create difficulties for ourselves if we separated the responsibilities for traffic management and for enforcement. There is increasing concern in our communities about antisocial behaviour and we are trying to build partnerships between local authorities, the police and other agencies. At times, that can prove to be difficult. New powers have been handed to the police to deal with antisocial behaviour. I am finding it excruciatingly difficult to get the local authority to go along with what the police want to do to deal with the problems. I use that as an example of how the police may lose out on essential information and intelligence if they lose the responsibility for traffic management and traffic issues.

In the knowledge that hon. Members who are present may want to get back to their constituencies, I will conclude my comments.

2.57 pm
Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (LD)

This is a useful debate, and it is a pity that for the most part only eight hon. Members have been present in the Chamber. It is important that the House hold to account the Minister and in turn Government Departments and agencies following Select Committee reports. The Highways Agency has a budget of some £4.6 billion, which is bigger than the whole international development budget. Clearly, an enormous amount of expenditure goes on the maintenance and expansion of our road network. Hence it is a pity that more hon. Members are not able to take part in the debate.

I wish to highlight a number of issues. I pay tribute to the staff of the Highways Agency; they do an exceptionally good job. The tragedy is that only when mistakes are made do they come to the fore, whereas they play an important role in keeping our roads moving day to day—some 5,860 miles of motorways and trunk roads.

The aim of the Highways Agency stated in its business plan is: Safe Roads, Reliable Journeys, Informed Travellers. For the most part, it achieves that It aims to reduce congestion, improve reliability, and improve road safety while respecting the environment and seeking feedback from customers. I know that the roads Minister likes to mention the fact that the Highways Agency plants more trees than any other organisation in the country.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson)

After the Forestry Commission.

Mr. Marsden

Absolutely. I pay tribute to what the agency does to put something back into the environment, even though obviously with road expansion and building it has to take something out. I saw that at first hand when the A5-Nesscliffe bypass was built. The Highways Agency in conjunction with the Environment Agency and the local authority did a superb job in protecting badger setts and other wildlife during and after construction. They were extremely professional in mitigating the damage to the environment.

I was slightly alarmed to note that customer satisfaction levels have fallen in respect of the performance of the Highways Agency on motorways and trunk roads. That applies to several of the criteria, including the availability of phones, provision of signs, clarity of signs, positioning of signs, availability of variable message signs and the maintenance of signs. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that and flesh out the details of the actions that the Highways Agency has taken to improve customer satisfaction. I make no apology for raising that issue, but I should put it into context by saying that the satisfaction level of road users is still around 80 per cent. Most businesses would be happy to achieve such levels, but it is worrying that the trend is downwards.

I know that an extra 600 or so variable message signs have been installed in the past year, but many motorists get frustrated if those signs are not up to date. There is nothing worse than receiving while driving information that turns out not to be true, such as a lane closure ahead or the need to reduce speed.

The Highways Agency deserves credit for reducing the casualty rates in the past seven years. It is on target to continue to reduce those rates. I worry that the agency does not seem to be achieving its target to reduce the number of slight injuries, and I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House that improvements will be made and the agency will get back on schedule in that area.

As the Transport Committee pointed out and as our Chairman has mentioned, just one inch of snow in January 2003, combined with the failure of the agency's contractors to send out gritting lorries, resulted in thousands of motorists being stranded in north London and Essex. The Government's reply to the report set out the development of contingency plans, which the agency has tested by undertaking an additional technical audit of … winter maintenance plans, and … an emergency exercise. What were the results of that audit and what improvements have been made?

The Committee also pointed out that It is intolerable that the Highways Agency has no immediate financial sanction available where a contractor fails to keep the motorway and trunk roads system free of ice and open. The Committee Chairman also mentioned that issue and she said that new maintenance contracts were now in place. Those contracts include new termination clauses, but I wonder whether those clauses could be invoked quickly enough to allow another contractor to take over at a moment's notice. It would be no help to motorists stranded by ice and snow if the contractors who were not doing their job could not be replaced quickly.

Other hon. Members have made valuable contributions this afternoon about the work of the Highways Agency, including the need to expand certain roads. As I mentioned, my constituency has a new bypass, which has improved air quality and reduced pollution, especially for St. Andrew's school, which used to have thousands of vehicles pass its doors every day. It was also very difficult to cross the road outside the school, but that has now changed. The A5 is part of the trans-European national network, so it is very important.

I accept the case for some road expansion and some new roads—such as the M6 toll road, which has been very successful. Indeed, I use it myself and it is very convenient. However, I worry that we will continue to expand and build new roads at the expense of the environment. We need a new, concerted effort to try to reduce the amount of congestion and traffic on our roads.

I am also concerned about the bureaucracy and red tape that seem to bind the 1,780 staff of the agency. Last year in my constituency, we had the case of Dorrington village. That village is on the A49, one of the main roads that runs north to south through the English and Welsh Marches. The A49 is a major tourist route and, at the height of the summer season, the agency decided to close half that road to repair a railway bridge. I know that the work was essential, but it took six months to complete. Lack of consultation and poor communication from the regional office and the chief executive's office made it difficult for the agency to win over local hearts and minds and convince people that it was doing a good job.

As the Chairman of our Committee pointed out, failures can be very costly. For example, the Thelwall viaduct project has gone hopelessly wrong. It was refurbished in 1996 at a cost of some £30 million. It is an important viaduct that carries some 180,000 vehicles every day. A spot check revealed terrible failings in the bearings, some of which had almost split in half. Remedial work is under way and will probably continue for another year, and the total cost will be an additional £24 million. Who was responsible for that? Will that extra £24 million come out of the agency's budget? Is legal action against the contractors pending? Can the Minister assure the House that such a failure will not happen again?

3.7 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)

I congratulate the Transport Committee and its robust Chairman, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), on yet another excellent report. However, it is disappointing that the main subject matter dates back to January 2003. The Committee's inquiry was set up then; it took evidence in March 2003; and it waited for more evidence in answer to its questions from the Highways Agency that did not arrive until May 2003. The report was not produced until October 2003 and it is now June 2004. Inevitably, much of the material is out of date, although it is clear that the agency has learned its lesson and is apologetic about the way in which it let down the motoring public in the winter of 2003.

I thought that today we should test the Minister on the genuineness—or otherwise—of the Government's roads policy. The excellent contribution from the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) is a good lead into that test. The hon. Gentleman pointed to the way in which the Government speak with forked tongue on the issue of the widening of the M6. He told us that the Government announced their plans in 2002 and promised that the project would be incorporated in the targeted programme of improvements by September 2003. However, it is still not in that programme. Appendix 5 of the Highways Agency's business plan for 2004–05 contains a long list of major motorway improvement schemes, under the heading "Summary of Expected Delivery for Major Schemes on the M1, M6 and M25."

A large number of those schemes—the M1 junction 21 to junction 30 widening, the M1 junction 30 to junction 31 widening, the M1 junction 31 to junction 33 widening, the M1 junction 33 to junction 35A widening, the M1 junction 35A to junction 39 widening, the M1 junction 39 to junction 42 widening, the M6 junction 11A to junction 19 widening, the M25 junction 1b to junction 3 widening, the M25 junction 5 to junction 7 widening, the M25 junction 16 to junction 23 widening, the M25 junction 23 to junction 27 widening, the M25 junction 27 to junction 31 widening and the A12/M25 Brook street interchange—to which the Government have given priority are not yet included in the targeted programme for improvements. I do not want to depress the hon. Member for Stafford, who is keen to get his local scheme into the programme, but the Government already estimate that expenditure on the 91 schemes already in the TPI is in the order of £8.6 billion. That figure comes from the Highways Agency report of April 2004. As £8.6 billion-worth of work is already in the programme, and all those other schemes are waiting to go into it, one is left with the grave suspicion that the Government intend to go into a general election having promised the earth but without having put any money into the programme they say they support.

At least the Government have changed their rhetoric. Back in 1997, it was that we should spend no more money on roads; they said that the way to control the traffic problem was not to provide more money for roads but to force people on to public transport. Now, the Government have changed that rhetoric and are talking about strategies for improving our road infrastructure.

Recent correspondence epitomises the fact that a huge alliance has built up on the matter—it is not something that concerns only Opposition Members. A letter published in the Financial Times last week was signed not only by those the Government would describe as the usual suspects in the campaign for improved road infrastructure, but by members of other organisations that have never before combined in such an alliance. They recognise, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich pointed out, that our highway infrastructure is fundamental to the competitiveness of our economy.

The Government have set out a programme of targeted improvements but they are not delivering. They are holding back on adding new schemes and they are not even beginning work on the schemes already in the programme and due to start. On page 1 of the foreword to the Highways Agency business plan for this year, its chief executive states: We expect to add 29 miles … of new capacity by completing seven major improvements. A further eight schemes will start construction during the year, and many other projects in the Government's targeted programme of improvements will progress through consultative and statutory processes. If eight schemes start this year and no others are added to the TPI, that still means that work will not have started on 73 or 74 schemes already in the TPI.

If the Government were really committed to mending their ways and to delivering road improvements, one might have expected to see the start of work on some of the schemes that the chief executive of the Highways Agency said would begin in this financial year. Unfortunately, that is not what has happened. Appendix 6 of the business plan lists the expected delivery for schemes currently in the TPI as at 3 March 2004". It includes the following starts of works: the A14 Rookery crossroads grade separated junction; the A249 Iwade-Queenborough improvement; the A421 Great Barford bypass; the A47 Thorney bypass; the A5 Weeford-Fazeley improvement; the A63 Melton grade separated junction; the M4 juncton 18 eastbound diverge and the M5 junctions 17–18 northbound climbing lane. But, in each case, before the words "start of works" there is an asterisk, which leads us to the phrase Start of works dependent on the outcome of the Spending Review 2004". Why should all those schemes be dependent on the outcome of the spending review when the Government have already signed up for and committed to a 10-year programme? The programme runs from 2002 and was revised in December 2002.

In its evidence to the Select Committee, the Freight Transport Association pointed out that the Government's review of the 10-year plan showed that there would be an increase of up to 15 per cent. in road traffic congestion on strategic roads by 2010, compared with their original pledge to reduce traffic congestion by that date. More significant, and more worrying, the FTA said that if the plan was not delivered, congestion on our strategic road network could be up to 67 per cent. worse than in 2000. The Government's dilatory progress on their roads programme suggests that they expect, and are content, that the plan will not be delivered and that that could lead to congestion on the strategic roads network that is up to 67 per cent. worse at the end of the 10-year plan than it was at the beginning.

When the Secretary of State for Health made his statement earlier today, he did not say that everything he was promising was dependent on the outcome of the spending review. Expenditure on railways has run out of control due to the Government's botched attempts to renationalise parts of the railway network and, as a consequence, the Department for Transport, with a limited budget, will only be able to balance the books by penalising, once again, the roads programme and especially the Highways Agency, which is charged with the important responsibility of delivering that programme. Will the Minister assure us that schemes whose start was promised for this year will actually begin? If he cannot even guarantee that those schemes will start, what hope is there for the other schemes already in the TPI, let alone the ones that the Government have led people to believe will be included in future? A big logjam is building up, and the Government have raised expectations to try to calm all those people who are rightly aggrieved about the prospect of much worse congestion on our roads. That is just the rhetoric, but we have the opportunity in this afternoon's debate to examine whether the Government are delivering.

I hope that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich and her Select Committee will look in more detail at what the Government are delivering, as against what they have promised. The Highways Agency business plan says that about £265 million in capital is expected to be spent on the highway network this year, as against the programme of £8.6 billion contained in the targeted programme for improvement. At that rate, that expenditure would take about 20 or 30 years to deliver, and the Government are not even continuing the programme at that rate. Although they say that they will invest £265 million this year, they have not yet started work on any of those schemes. Of course, one of the great virtues of starting work on highway schemes in the late spring or early summer is that the major earthworks can be carried out in the best weather conditions.

I suspect that the Government will delay the start of all those works even further and that they will then come to the House to suggest to hon. Members that they are making a grand gesture by announcing the start of works, after not announcing any for a long time before. That will contribute to the logjam in the programme. That is just so unfair to the motoring public, who pay the highest fuel and motoring taxes of any country in Europe. This year, they will pay the best part of £42 billion in taxes to the Government, but the Government are not even delivering them £265 million in capital investment in the highway network. That is very serious indeed.

A number of hon. Members have commented on the relatively poor attendance at the debate. I do not think that that matters; it is a question of whether the Minister is prepared to face up and respond to the strength of feeling among the motoring public and business interests in the country about the fact that the Government are badly letting down business and the motoring public by neglecting their prime responsibilities to ensure that the highway network is in a fit and proper condition to deliver the competitiveness that this nation demands. At the moment, the Government are failing in that responsibility.

The Highways Agency is charged with looking after assets worth some £65 billion—a really big business responsibility—and one would have thought that the Government would be more prepared to contribute to ensuring that that network is maintained and improved.

Mr. Paul Marsden

I understand that some schemes are obviously important to business and local communities, but which Government programmes and Department's budgets would the hon. Gentleman reduce to pay for the increases in the highways programme that he suggests are needed imminently?

Mr. Chope

The hon. Gentleman poses a false dilemma. The Department for Transport has mismanaged its budget and—as the Secretary of State said, in effect, during Transport questions—the railway system that has been set up under his control and the schemes designed by his two immediate predecessors as Secretary of State for Transport in the Labour Government are eating public money hand over fist. My concern is that the hapless motoring public must now pay for the Government's folly.

The Minister may think it perfectly reasonable that the motoring public should pay £42 billion a year in motoring taxes and get back precious little for it. I do not agree with him. It is incumbent on a responsible Government to invest in our highway network. I assure him that the next Conservative Government will invest seriously in the highway network in the same way as we did when we were last in government and I was privileged to be the Minister for Roads and Traffic.

I opened more roads during the year or so that I was Minister than this Government will start work on in a two-year period. [Interruption.] The Minister refers to the scissors that I have got at home. I have a very large number of boxes of scissors, each of which represents a triumph for the environment and improvements for the motoring public. Most of the road openings at which I was privileged to preside were to the benefit of local people—bypasses were built for them—and certainly to that of the motoring public as well. Certainly, with great significance, they were to the benefit of road safety.

The hon. Member for Stafford referred to the importance of road safety, which cannot be understated. The number of fatalities on our roads is currently levelling off. Indeed, in 2002, more people were killed on the roads than in 1998, whereas the number of people killed on the roads fell consistently, year after year, under the previous Conservative Government. One of the reasons for the levelling off in the number of fatalities on the roads is that the Government are no longer investing in road improvements in the way that their predecessor did. That is another reason why the Government should be pushed in the debate to admit that they have been going slow deliberately on their roads programme, while trying to delude people with their rhetoric that they are still on the side of the motorist, which manifestly, when one looks at the facts, they are not.

3.26 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on securing not one but two debates this afternoon. She truly is an influential force in the Liaison Committee, as well as the Transport Committee, over which she presides with such aplomb. I also congratulate her on her very fine Russian accent; I was very impressed indeed. Unfortunately, Hansard will not be able to reflect her accent, so I thought that I would do so instead.

I noted the criticisms made by my hon. Friend, and I will deal with them in my remarks. The criticisms that the Transport Committee made were very real and certainly related to things that needed firm action, although I also note that she said that, in general, the Highways Agency performs well. That was reflected in a number of hon. Members' comments. I should like to put on record the fact that the Highways Agency runs an excellent road system. Our trunk road and motorway system must rank as one of the very best in the world. It is certainly one of the best on which I have ever travelled in any country that I have visited. The way that our roads are handled, managed, repaired and maintained is quite outstanding, and we must congratulate the agency on that.

My hon. Friend raised the important issue of finance and accounting. The criticisms made at the time were very real and proper, as there was no proper accounting system for the change to resource accounting, but lessons have been learned and acknowledged. Not only the Highways Agency but a number of Departments were on a fairly steep learning curve at that time. A new finance director has now been appointed, and that person is making considerable changes to the way in which the agency operates.

I want to deal with one or two points made by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). When I was doing a scissors motion—I have certainly opened quite a number of roads; the office has a large number of pairs of scissors as a result of cutting tapes—I was referring to the cuts made when he was a Minister. We would take his comments today a little more seriously if his own party was not about to embark on a mass of cuts, particularly to the transport programme.

The hon. Gentleman said that there was an overwhelming strength of feeling that motorists are being let down. That is certainly not reflected on his Back Benches, because only two of his party have turned up for this debate. He will not have noticed, but while he was speaking, his Whip fell asleep—although he seems to have perked up now that I am on my feet.

The hon. Member for Christchurch made a point about deaths on the roads. I would hope that the matter of safety on our roads would not become a party political football. We have a very good record of safety on the roads in thus country. Casualties have been reducing year on year for a long period. That is testament to the work of successive Governments. Some of the actions taken 30 or 40 years ago are still bearing fruit today.

We produced some more figures on deaths on the roads yesterday, and they sadly show that the reduction has levelled off at about 3,400 or 3,500. That has happened in other European countries as well, and we are not entirely sure why it should be. However, it is interesting that the number of people seriously injured is continuing to fall, and fall rapidly. Also, the number of children who are killed or seriously injured is falling rapidly. In fact, the number of deaths on our roads is falling in all the categories except two. There is a slight increase in the number of car occupants who have been killed. That may reflect the fact that there are more vehicles on our roads, or that some people are involved in unsurvivable collisions. We must look into that carefully. At the same time, the number of serious injuries of car occupants is falling.

The figures would have shown a further fall in deaths were it not for the increase in the number of motorcyclists who have been killed on our roads. Yesterday's figures showed yet another increase, which is a very sad fact. I hope that, when we produce the report of the working group that has been considering issues to do with motorcycling, the hon. Gentleman will support some of the measures that we want to take to decrease those disturbing figures of deaths on our roads.

Mr. Chope

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one third of the contribution to improving road safety should be investment in engineering measures, and that it is the Government's failure to deliver on that part of the programme that is contributing to those disappointing figures?

Mr. Jamieson

That just is not the case. If that were true, the number of serious injuries would be levelling off or rising. It is not; it is falling rapidly, which is testament to the goad work not just of the Highways Agency, but of the police, local authorities and many others. Education programmes for drivers and for children crossing roads are also contributing to greater safety. I would hope that there would be some cross-party agreement on that. Much of the good work is being done by local authorities of all political parties. I have had discussions with leaders of councils and those responsible for road safety on Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour authorities, and they all share concern about death on the roads.

The Transport Committee has produced a number of thought-provoking reports—on the work of the Department and not least one on the Highways Agency. This debate is a timely opportunity to explain to the House the key role of the agency in helping to bring about a better quality of transport for all. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich pointed out how important the road systems are to our economy. As our economy grows—we have a highly successful economy under this Government, and I am very proud to say that—we are seeing more traffic on the roads and hence greater pressure on our road systems.

The agency is responsible for the motorways and trunk roads in England. Those roads are the lifeblood of the country and vital to our economic success. Although they form less than 3 per cent. of England's road network, they carry nearly one third of all traffic and two thirds of all freight. The network is essential to industry and commerce. It is also used extensively for social purposes—for pleasure and leisure. As more people in the country are working, they have more money in their pockets for such activity. A good example of that is the fact that the M4 and the M5 were successfully used by thousands of football supporters for the FA cup play-offs in Cardiff during May.

The successful economy has seen a dramatic rise in traffic levels, which has resulted in pressure on our road systems, particularly where economic growth has been strongest. To do nothing is not an option for us. If we did nothing, we would be faced with a growth in congestion levels on our strategic roads of more than 50 per cent. by the end of the decade. Our goal is a road network that provides a safe and more reliable, freer-flowing system for motorists and business.

We all accept that we cannot just build our way out of congestion, but providing more capacity where it is most needed has a part to play. We are therefore investing in the targeted programme of improvements, or TPI. That includes widening key strategic routes such as the M1, the M6 and the M25, as well as building much needed bypasses throughout the country. Many of those schemes have come about as a result of the recommendations of the multi-modal and road-based studies that we set up to consider the most serious problems on the network.

The Highways Agency will be investing more than £500 million this year alone in major improvement and widening schemes. It has developed techniques to speed up the delivery, so that improvements can come on stream as soon as possible. An example of that is the early contractor involvement in the design process. That approach has the support of the construction industry, and the programme currently costs £8.8 billion and comprises 82 schemes. Of those. seven are due to open to traffic before the end of 2004–05. A further eight are under construction and will open in the next two to three years.

Mr. Chope

Will the Minister answer the point that the present schemes will take 17 years to complete at the present rate of £500 million a year—totalling £8.8 billion—and that a whole lot more are waiting to be added to the TPI? That is not good enough—is it?

Mr. Jamieson

That is absolutely correct; we have set up a programme for a long period, and also set out how the schemes will be financed. I return to the point that the hon. Gentleman is chiding us for not building, but his party has no intention of increasing the transport budget. In fact, it intends to decrease it. When asked by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) which of the budgets he would cut and where the money would be found, he had no answer. He will of course be telling me that there will be tax cuts as well as all these roads. Before we get to a general election, it would be wise for the hon. Member for Christchurch to have a policy that stacks up. It is not enough to have a load of promises; he needs the money as well. Many years ago, my party used to do the same thing. We had lots of promises but were not sure how to deliver them. We spent 18 years in opposition. He may well be on the way to doing the same thing.

Clive Efford: I was just wondering whether the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) was asking for targets to be set since that seems to be a subject of great debate this week.

Mr. Jamieson

The Conservatives do not seem to have targets in mind these days. They want to get rid of them, except when it suits them. They want targets for road building but not for health care.

We also need to consider ways of managing our roads more efficiently, to reduce congestion and provide more reliable roads. Keeping traffic moving is the key to motorists getting a better service. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) talked about the change from the Highways Agency's traditional role as a road builder and maintainer to its pivotal role as a network operator. This year the agency embarked on its new role as traffic manager and it is developing the new traffic management systems that will deliver that better service.

The first signs of that new role that the road user will have seen are the agency's new traffic officers. They have been operating on the motorways around the Birmingham box since 26 April. They provide seven-day-a-week patrols between 6 am and 8 pm. A 24-hour service covering the entire west midlands motorway network will be in place by spring next year.

The traffic officers' main aim is to keep the traffic moving and make journeys as reliable as possible. Initially, they are focusing on patrolling motorways and assisting road users. They deal with debris, broken-down vehicles and other problems that can hinder people's journeys. They will also support the police in road safety-related activities and incidents. An additional benefit will be that the police will have more time to focus on accident investigation and managing crime.

As my hon. Friend said, when the Traffic Management Bill receives Royal Assent, the traffic officers will take over the full responsibility for handling traffic incidents, with the police retaining responsibility for enforcing traffic laws and investigating road accidents. They will want to get the traffic moving as soon as possible following incidents, and that will play a crucial role in tackling congestion.

My hon. Friend raised an issue that has been raised a number of times by some of the breakdown operators. The AA, the RAC and Green Flag do an excellent job on our roads. There will be times when a vehicle has broken down—perhaps in the outside lane of a motorway or in another dangerous place—and the Highways Agency traffic officers will remove it to a place of safety. That makes good sense. The police do it now by bringing in a contractor. However, there is no intention that the Government, the Highways Agency or the traffic officers should set up any form of alternative breakdown system. We have no intention of doing that. We are well covered at the moment. It is not a service that we want to pay for when the private sector is doing such an excellent job.

The agency will roll out the traffic officer service to other motorways by the end of 2005.

Mrs. Dunwoody

On the terms and conditions of the traffic officers, will my hon. Friend assure me that they will have access to union rights and will be allowed to organise within the control centres?

Mr. Jamieson

Yes, indeed. They will have the rights of any other workers who work for the Highways Agency or any other Department. That is right and proper. My hon. Friend may have seen some of the officers in her visits to the west midlands recently. Like me, she will no doubt be extremely impressed with the quality and dedication of the people who have been recruited to the service. I have been pleasantly surprised at the quality, the enthusiasm and the dedication of the people who have come forward for the job.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I am extraordinarily grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. There will be a question of dual status. The centres will have civil servants who work directly for the Highways Agency and private employees who work for a private contractor. I just want my hon. Friend to assure me that there will be equal union opportunities for both sets of workers. As there will also be police employees in some of the centres, will he also assure me that difficulties will not arise because of the differences between terms of employment?

Mr. Jamieson

That will be the case. There will be no change. The Bill does not change the status of the police in any way. They obviously operate under their own laws and their ability to organise is set out in legislation. The laws that apply to the traffic officers will be the same as those that apply to any other civilian worker or civil servant. That is right and proper. I know of no reason why that should be changed.

By the end of 2005, 1,200 officers will provide a front-line service to road users. They will be supported by seven new regional control centres, which will be jointly staffed by agency personnel and the police, who will allocate officers to incidents, co-ordinate the responses of the emergency services and other providers, manage and monitor traffic, and control electronic signs, which many Members will welcome, because that information is not always up to date. Someone will have the dedicated role of making sure that the signs give good-quality, accurate information that does not apply to something that happened a few hours or even a few days ago.

The agency already operates one centre in partnership with the central motorways police group at Perry Barr in the west midlands. It controls all electronic motorway signs and signals in the area, as well as answering calls from emergency roadside telephones. That is already bringing benefits, as police control room operators are freed up to concentrate on intelligence-led policing activities, including the increased application of automatic number plate recognition technology, and the agency can monitor and control traffic officers on the network. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich that the officers on the road will be fully trained for the tasks that they perform. The Highways Agency has Investors in People status, and is committed to staff receiving appropriate training for the work that they undertake. My hon. Friend will appreciate the fact that the work force are new—I admit that we are still on a learning curve—and, although they have received initial training, they will need more as their role increases. When the Traffic Management Bill receives Royal Assent and becomes an Act we will need to look at other issues, such as traffic officers' ability to stop and guide traffic, for which they will require further training. We will have to work closely with the police, so that the expertise and skills that they have built up over the years can be passed on to traffic officers.

There will be clear lines of command, and a distinction will be drawn between the role of the traffic officers and that of the police. Protocols are being developed to make sure that there is no duplication of activity, and that there is a clear understanding of who does what. I was asked who makes the final decision at an incident. The police will always be in charge at a serious incident that they are required to attend, and traffic officers will act in support. If a traffic officer arrives at the scene first, he will act according to clear guidelines on what he can do in the circumstances. If people are injured, his first task will be to guide or stop the traffic to ensure that more people are not injured. He will then make sure that the appropriate services are on the way, and clear the road so that the emergency services have access. He would therefore do the things that the police currently do, but once the police arrived they would take control of the incident, and he would operate in a support role.

Very often, long delays on the motorway network and trunk roads arise after the casualties are taken away and the police have conducted an investigation into any criminal activity. Debris and vehicles have to be removed from the road, and barriers and the road surface repaired. One criticism of our work is that we take too long to do those things, so the roads are closed for far too long. Traffic officers would be able to coordinate some of that work more efficiently, and the police would be freed up to perform other essential tasks. Traffic officers could then ensure that the road is reopened as soon as possible.

Another crucial tool for dealing with congestion on the roads is information. It is vital that the agency knows what is happening on its network and communicates that to road users through timely and accurate information. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich had the opportunity to see what can be achieved in that regard when she visited the national traffic control centre at Quinton on the outskirts of Birmingham. The centre is at the heart of the agency's information network. It began operations in November last year, and when it is fully operational it will collect and analyse data on traffic conditions to supply accurate real-time quality information to motorists.

The centre already provides motorists with information on alternative routes and travel advice that can minimise the effects of congestion and incidents. It gives people more information both before they travel, which in some circumstances could influence them to leave the car at home and take public transport, and while they are on their journeys, through the variable message signs and the travel news broadcasts.

The traffic control centre proved a major asset during the heavy snow conditions that we experienced at the end of January this year. I shall deal in a moment with events that occurred the previous year. The centre enabled the agency's senior managers and myself to be kept fully informed about the ongoing situation on the network. It also provided valuable advice to road users about the prevailing conditions.

One of the criticisms concerned the reaction to the bad weather during winter 2002–03. It is an important part of any maintenance strategy that key routes are kept open and safe during the winter weather. That was a matter about which the Select Committee was rightly concerned and rightly critical during winter 2002–03, particularly the events of the end of January 2003.

The Committee pointed out that there were failures in planning, co-ordination, communication and equipment. I entirely share the criticisms that the Committee made of the Highways Agency and the contractors at the time. My hon. Friend pointed out to us in her opening remarks that people were trapped ill vehicles for a very long time, and that was a matter of deep concern to me at the time. I am surprised that then were no collateral injuries to people who were exposed to the cold in their cars for such a long period.

In future incidents, traffic officers could in some circumstances act as the motorist's friend. We had an incident on the M42 this summer in the opposite kind of weather. It was extremely hot, with temperatures around 40° C, and people were held up for a few hours in their cars. There was a danger that they would dehydrate, particularly children and elderly people. The agency did a very good job helping to provide people with refreshment and water to keep them alive, literally, while they were on the road.

I can tell my hon. Friend that the agency has learned lessons from what occurred previously. I meet the Highways Agency on a monthly basis, at least. Every month one of the major issues on our agenda is the winter planning. The meeting that we had this week still had that on the agenda. We go through meticulously the criticisms that we received in the past and we review the ongoing planning for winter and events similar to those in the past. I can assure my hon. Friend that the agency has completely reviewed its guidance to its agents and contractors on the winter maintenance arrangements. It has also developed and tested contingency plans and better communication procedures. The agency held a contingency planning exercise to test its winter service, business continuity and contingency plans. I trust that the way these improved procedures kept the network safely open during January this year, when we had quite severe weather in parts of the country, will reassure the Committee and the House that the systems worked very much better this year.

We will not, however, be complacent on this matter. We have learned further lessons even from the 2003–04 winter, and they will be built into planning for next winter. That will include closer liaison with others, including local authorities and motorway service area operators, to ensure that there are no gaps with regard to where the responsibility of one party stops and that of another starts. One thing that we found this year was that the Highways Agency had done an excellent job in gritting and clearing the trunk roads and motorways, but when people went on to the local roads, they found that the local authorities had not always been able to do the same sort of job. Of course, that created problems throughout the system. We are now working very closely with local authorities to see how we can overcome some of those problems.

Mr. Paul Marsden

Do the contingency plans allow new contractors to be brought in at a moment's notice and in the space of a few hours if other contractors fail to do their job properly, as we saw them do in January 2003?

Mr. Jamieson

Even during 2002–03, the vast majority of contractors operated well and efficiently. A particular fault arose with one contractor in one aspect of its work. Clearly, it was manifestly wrong, there was inefficiency, and we will ensure that the contractor does not do the same thing again.

In the first instance, we are looking not at punitive measures, but at properly monitoring what contractors are doing and ensuring that they are doing what their contract says they should be doing, and doing it well. Previously, that was one of the weaknesses; we were not looking at the contracts sufficiently closely to ensure that they were doing the job. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) also referred to this point. We have the proper monitoring of contracts, we are looking carefully at what contractors are doing and ensuring that they are fulfilling their obligations. The new contracts that will be introduced as the current ones gradually come to the end of their lives will be much more closely focused on performance, and there will be penalty points for contractors that are not meeting parts of their obligations. In those circumstances, they will not be paid for the work that they are doing. That will be one of the penalties.

If a contractor consistently fails in those circumstances, we can terminate its contract. I do not think that anyone would advise us to take such action because of some small deficiency while the snow is 3 ft deep on the motorway in January. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham asked whether others could be brought in. Of course, we have some mutual aid, so if there is a particular problem in one area, other contractors can move in and take over some of the work.

There will also be further improvement in how the agency and service providers communicate about the winter service decisions. They are also improving communication to drivers before and during journeys. The agency is building links with the Met Office to ensure that drivers receive consistent and meaningful messages about the weather. It is also reviewing the use of electronic signs and messages, as well as issuing an improved winter driving leaflet.

While I have concentrated on the way in which the agency is meeting the needs of the road user, I can assure the House that its activities are balanced so that the needs of communities and the environment are not ignored. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Highways Agency is the second largest planter of trees in England. At many road openings, I have seen special arrangements made to enable badgers to cross the road in tunnels. On one of the sites that I visited, I saw that about 59 water voles had been temporarily removed and sent in a charabanc off to north Devon; I think that I passed them when I was travelling down to my constituency, tootling along with their swimming costumes and with their surf boards on the roof. They will also be brought back. That shows the meticulous care that the Highways Agency takes in respect of livestock, birds and other animals, as well as trees.

We have set the agency challenging targets to ensure that the environment is properly respected. For instance, the agency is reducing traffic noise by resurfacing concrete roads with quieter surfaces, and at least 50 lane-km of concrete roads will be treated this year, bringing a welcome reduction in noise.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford asked about noise attenuation measures. We have put aside a ring-fenced budget of £5 million per year, and we are examining sites where we can put in noise attenuation measures, such as fences, bunding or whatever is appropriate. Obviously, we are dealing first with those sites where the number of people affected and the noise are the greatest, which has provided relief to certain communities.

On procurement, the agency delivers the majority of its services through third parties such as contractors, managing agents and consultants. Buying in such services is therefore an integral part of the agency's business, and it is at the forefront in that particular field. The agency's procurement strategy benefits the supplier industry, because it provides continuity and certainty, which was not available in the past, by allowing companies to plan effectively and, importantly, to train and retain skilled staff. The agency's procurement strategy also improves health and safety for workers and develops sustainable working practices.

My hon. Friends the Members for Crewe and Nantwich and for Eltham raised the issue of contracts. We have put more serious sanctions into the contracts to cover service failures, and, as I said earlier, it is possible to avoid contracts altogether.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham mentioned Thelwall viaduct, which is an unhappy case. The current focus is on replacing the bearings, more than 100 of which have failed or are failing. As we replace the bearings, we are determining whether the original contractor was at fault, and we will take the necessary action if we find that to be the case. The exercise has been expensive for the Highways Agency, and money spent on such repairs is money that we cannot spend more positively in other areas.

I have already mentioned the agency's use of early contractor involvement, which increases the scope for innovation, improves risk management and shortens construction periods. The first such contract, the A500 Stoke pathfinder scheme, is being built, and it will show the benefits of such contracts. The agency uses single point supply managing agent contractor contracts to cover winter maintenance. The maintenance contracts were developed in line with the best practice principles identified in the Egan report, and they are designed to reflect three principles: focus on service delivery, the Highways Agency's priorities and keeping the traffic moving. The maintenance contracts are securing continuous improvement in both supplier performance and service levels, and the Office of Government Commerce promotes their use.

In conjunction with the construction industry, the agency has also developed the capability assessment toolkit, which is being used to procure major capital improvement schemes and large maintenance contracts. It is an innovative, industry-leading initiative that assesses the management approach of companies that are interested in bidding for major contracts, and it is also a key factor in drawing up tender lists, where it is used in conjunction with assessments of the technical capacity, financial standing and past performance of companies applying to bid for work. The industry has reacted positively to that process.

I shall pick up the point, which relates to some huge issues, made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford about the M6. The M6 carries a volume of traffic that was not imagined at the time of its construction, and we have been forced seriously to examine that route. The M6 toll road has borne some fruit and taken a lot of car traffic off the motorway. The M6 up to my hon. Friend's constituency has improved considerably. We acknowledge that it is an important strategic route and the Highways Agency is currently investigating options for widening it. However, we must find the right solution to the problem. I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that it is a big problem, which would require considerable resources to put right.

Mr. Kidney

I thought that I could help the Under-Secretary by explaining that the previous Conservative Government had a plan to widen the motorway, consulted on it and cancelled it at the last moment. I believed that at least the technical issues had been sorted out. What is the delay? I picked up from my hon. Friend's response the worrying implication that the Government are considering whether to go ahead with the widening. That would be a strange development. Did my hon. Friend mean that?

Mr. Jamieson

No. We are considering a variety of solutions. I hope that they will become more apparent to my hon. Friend later this year. However, the problem is especially great and may require some new thinking about the way in which we deal with such problems. I hope that that does not tempt my hon. Friend too much.

Mr. Chope

Will the Under-Secretary give way?

Mr. Jamieson

All right. The hon. Gentleman will doubtless tell us where he will find all the money.

Mr. Chope

Does the Under-Secretary's opaque reference to the M6 apply to all the other schemes to be considered for inclusion in the targeted programme of improvement?

Mr. Jamieson

The hon. Gentleman knows that that programme includes many schemes and could include many others. I cannot say today which schemes will be included—that is down to the assessment that is made of them. He might be surprised to know that it also depends on the amount of money that will be committed to programmes. He appears surprised to learn that the number of roads that we build is related to the amount of money that we put into the budget. I am surprised at his surprise.

Mr. Paul Marsden

Will the Under-Secretary therefore rule out the north-west relief road, which is proposed to surround north-west Shrewsbury? That would cost £42 million and be a complete waste of money.

Mr. Jamieson

I shall not rule that in or out today.

The agency has a challenging future. It has changed greatly since it was established 10 years ago. The challenge is whether it can provide safe and reliable journeys for customers. It has a customer focus, which means that it will further improve the management of the network and ease the impact of congestion on road users. There is some way to go but I am confident that the agency has been set the right objectives not only to meet the challenge but to achieve the Government's aim of a high quality, safe and reliable strategic road network.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich for giving us an opportunity to debate the Highways Agency. I am sure that we shall have other opportunities to discuss some of the issues. I assure her that the agency and the Department take seriously the points that were made in the report. We shall follow up with some vigour the issues that it properly raised.

Debate concluded, pursuant to resolution [21 June].

Questions deferred, pursuant to Standing Order 54(4) and (5) (Consideration of estimates) and Order [29 October 2002].