HL Deb 22 April 2004 vol 660 cc27-38GC

(1) The appropriate national authority may—

  1. (a) publish guidance as to the exercise of any powers conferred on traffic officers by or under this Part, or
  2. (b) approve for the purposes of this Part any such guidance published by another person.

(2) A traffic officer shall have regard to any such guidance in exercising any such powers to which the guidance is relevant.

(3) Before publishing or approving any guidance under this section, the appropriate national authority shall consult and have regard to any representations made by—

  1. (a) such bodies representing the police,
  2. (b) such persons who exercise functions as undertakers in relation to street works or apparatus in streets, and
  3. (c) such other persons,

as the authority considers appropriate.

(4) In this section

"undertakers" has the meaning given by section 48(4) and (5) of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 (c. 22), and

"street works" has the meaning given by section 48(3) of that Act."

The noble Lord said: This comprehensive proposed new clause has been put forward to ensure that traffic officers would have sufficient guidance to carry out their duties effectively, efficiently and with sensitivity to the uses of the Queen's highways. Having this provision on the face of the Bill would ensure consistency across England and Wales. Furthermore, it would provide a clear and approved understanding of the role of the traffic officer.

As several noble Lords pointed out at Second Reading, and will repeat today, the traffic officers' goal of keeping traffic flowing must be tempered and moderated by the important objectives of our road network. One of those is road safety: the need to keep the roads safe for all road users is a topic that no doubt other noble Lords will deal with later. The objective of the amendment focuses on the need to provide and maintain other essential services.

The Minister in another place indicated that the guidance issued will cover that point. We understand from discussions in another place that the Minister has confirmed that,

"The Highways Agency is already in the process of introducing a governance and guide for traffic officers in exercising their duties and powers".

We understand that liaison with the Association of Chief Police Officers to establish an operational framework should not be rushed. However, the Minister also indicated that,

"there will be clear guidance on how officers should operate in connection with those who carry out work on the roads for the Highways Agency or the utilities".

Can the Minister assure us that the utilities are also being included in the consultations? Can he indicate which organisations he is consulting on this? We have indications from various bodies that they are not being involved as they would desire to be. As I asserted, this amendment will provide a clear understanding of the powers and duties of the traffic officers as well as ensuring that the Government take account of the views of the utilities in drawing up their guidelines. I beg to move.

Viscount Goschen

I hope that the Minister will carefully consider the argument put forward by my noble friend Lord Rotherwick. Anything that helps introduce clarity into the exercise of traffic officers' powers, particularly in relation to the police and in the context of our debates on previous amendments, would be a good thing. I hope that the Minister agrees that requiring guidance to be published would help to ensure clarity.

Lord Davies of Oldham

I am grateful to both noble Lords. As they will have anticipated, I have considerable sympathy with the arguments they have put forward on this proposed new clause. I hope to convince the Committee not of the merits and arguments behind the new clause, but simply that the new clause would be otiose because we already have the powers, as the Bill provides, to do exactly what the new clause suggests.

The new clause is unnecessary because the appropriate national authority can already issue guidance. It does not need a specific statutory power to do that. It needs to issue guidance only when the authority is dealing with a third party. As the traffic officer service will be provided by the national authority, we do not need to provide a statutory power, and certainly not a statutory duty, in the Bill.

In practice—as noble Lords have indicated, this is the merit behind this debate and behind their new clause—operational guidance is certainly a necessity. As the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, was generous enough to acknowledge, such guidance is already in an advanced stage of preparation. Very substantial consultation has taken place on the procedures and guidelines being established for traffic officer activities. Members of the Committee will recognise that that has been done by working very closely with the police, so that both parties are absolutely clear on the respective roles and responsibilities.

The procedures cover all aspects of the service, from the high-level partnership arrangements and objectives to the detailed procedures that traffic officers must follow out on the road. There has also been extensive consultation with other stakeholders, including local authorities. maintenance contractors and breakdown recovery service organisations. I can assure the Committee that that consultation will continue.

One aspect was raised in relation to motorways. I want to emphasise that our motorways, as all Members of the Committee will recognise, are special roads. There are severe restrictions on the ability of statutory undertakers to effect anything that may impede safe progress on our motorways. All agreements, procedures and protocols are being carefully documented and will be continuously reviewed and updated if necessary. If in the future the traffic officer service were to be provided by a third party, the work done to date would be incorporated into contracts that would be necessary in those circumstances.

I recognise the merits behind the new clause in articulating matters that need to be done and consultation that needs to be carried out. I can assure the Committee that the statutory authorities have the power to do that and are doing it. I hope with that reassurance that the noble Lord will not feel the need to press the amendment.

Lord Rotherwick

I thank the noble Lord for his assurances. It would have been more helpful if the Highways Agency had already published its governance and guide for the traffic officers. We would then have had more clarity in relation to this matter and may not have had to push the Minister for an explanation. We shall read his answer. I am grateful to him for trying to give greater clarity. If necessary we shall return to the matter at a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 9 [Removal of certain vehicles by traffic officers]:

[Amendments Nos. 39 and 40 not moved.]

Viscount Astor moved Amendment No. 41: Page 5, line 19, at end insert— (3) In any regulation made under subsection (1), the Secretary of State shall not remove the right of a person present whose vehicle is to be removed pursuant to section 99(1)(b) of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 (c. 27) (removal of vehicles illegally, obstructively or dangerously parked, or abandoned or broken down) to choose who shall remove the vehicle, unless it would, in the reasonable opinion of the traffic officer, be unreasonable to do so because of an imminent danger to persons using the road or because the vehicle is causing an obstruction on the road.

The noble Viscount said: This is an important amendment and an important issue which concerns the motoring organisations, particularly the AA, the RAC and other organisations involved in aiding motorists. As the Bill stands we are concerned that there will be a detrimental effect not only on the motorist but also on how such organisations work in aiding the motorist. I recognise that there have been discussions between the Government and the organisations and that the Government have tried to be helpful, but they have not been able to go as far as they or we would wish. Therefore, we have tabled this amendment.

My amendment will ensure that motorists will retain the right to call out a breakdown operator of their choice. Despite assurances from the Minister in another place that there is no intention that traffic officers should find an alternative recovery service, my legal advice suggests that Clause 9, as it stands, currently gives the Highways Agency free rein to assume a policy of removing a number of broken-down vehicles.

I recognise that this is a difficult area and so my amendment has been drafted to take account of the concerns that were raised in the other place by the Minister when this issue was debated. I remind the Committee that the motoring organisations are concerned only with breakdowns on the side of the road; they do not interfere, and never have done, with breakdowns on a carriageway. That has always been a matter for the police, and will remain a matter for the police as there are important safety aspects. Motoring organisations like the AA and RAC deal only with vehicles that are at the side of the road and not on the carriageway.

My amendment does not require traffic officers to make any decisions that they will not already have to make. It states unequivocally that the final decision on whether a motorist is allowed to call his breakdown service provider still rests with the traffic officer at the scene. Thus, it maintains sufficient flexibility for the traffic officer to tackle unforeseen problems, while recognising the essential role played by the breakdown service providers.

Therefore, I do not understand why the Government cannot put the assurance that they have given on to the face of the Bill if that is their true intention. Some confusion was brought about by an article in the Birmingham Post on 17 April, which referred to highway officers patrolling motorways to help drivers on a trial basis. In the light of that, I should be interested to know from the Minister whether the Highways Agency officers took the power to carry out that trial. Perhaps the Minister could tell us when he has the results.

There are several reasons why I believe that the Bill, unamended, would be detrimental to road users. First, I believe that it could lead to a doubling-up of resources. The RAC alone states that 70 to 80 per cent of their customers call for help from mobile phones. Therefore, in many cases, the breakdown organisations will have already been deployed before the Highways Agency becomes involved. The agency would also use the same pool of contractors.

Secondly, the Bill will enable the Highways Agency to charge drivers a standard charge for removing broken-down vehicles. That charge has been £105 since 1993 and is now under review. Can the Minister tell us what progress has been made on the review and indicate to what level it has been decided to increase the charge?

Thirdly, the Bill could result in a reduction in the number of motorists who have breakdown cover. Thus, fewer road users would act responsibly and take out national breakdown insurance, and that would have a negative effect on congestion and safety across the wider road network.

Lastly, we fear that, in effect, this measure could be an unnecessary government intervention in a competitive market. The motoring organisations currently rescue more than 90 per cent of all broken-down vehicles on this country's motorways. We do not believe that the Highways Agency should set a competitive service, nor, indeed, a monopoly service, which, in effect, it would have the power to do.

As I said, the Government have given some assurances that that is not what they intend, but so far they have resisted any amendment to the Bill. I believe that the Government need to go further and that something needs to be placed on the face of the Bill to deal with the issue. I beg to move.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw

Before the Minister responds, I add my name to that of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, as having an interest in this clause. The fact is that, if a motorist breaks down on the hard shoulder and he tells a traffic officer that he is a member of a recognised breakdown service—The AA, the RAC, Green Flag, the Environmental Transport Agency or whatever—those organisations will always be able to tell the traffic officer that the rescue service is on the way.I believe that rescue services normally tell people when they can expect to have their vehicle recovered. Therefore, I support the view that the traffic officer should be told, in guidance, that if information is available from the driver of a broken-down vehicle that the rescue service is on the way within a reasonable time, the traffic officer should not activate the powers that he has to call upon the breakdown contractor employed by the Highways Agency.

However, I would ask the Minister to go a little further. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, referred to the charges, which were fixed some time ago, for the removal of broken-down vehicles. Bearing in mind that many people who may not be members of breakdown organisations may be those whose cars are uninsured or unlicensed or that they may have been convicted of offences and are unlikely to pay the removal charges, what sanctions do the Government propose to take to recover the money when broken-down vehicles are removed from the hard shoulder?

As the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, mentioned, the majority of motorists are responsible enough to belong to an organisation which will remove their vehicles. But those who do not belong to such an organization are very likely to fall into the category of those who do not have a licence or pay for insurance or they may have a conviction. In addition, they may drive vehicles which are liable to break down because they probably care less for them than do other people and therefore they will have more need of the breakdown service.

Who, ultimately, pays for the breakdown service if the person who is rescued does not have the wherewithal to pay for it? We are very familiar with the fact that, as motorists who pay for insurance, we all are paying for the large percentage of people who do not bother to take out insurance. I shall return to that subject later. We pay indirectly through an addition to our premium, which goes to the Motor Insurers' Bureau. All of us who pay our premiums presumably subsidise those who do not bother. We know that that costs a great deal of money, sometimes for the Exchequer and sometimes for insurance companies, but I should be grateful for some assurance on that point. I accept that if traffic officers arrive at the scene of a breakdown and the driver does not have breakdown cover, the vehicle must be removed. But I am very concerned about the financial arrangements which then apply.

Lord Berkeley

I want to move the discussion on to what happens when lorries break down. However, before I do so, I understood from the noble Viscount's remarks that if a car were to break down on the hard shoulder, what he said would apply— that is, the AA, the RAC or a drivers' agency could rescue the car, but if it was on the carriageway, it would have to be rescued by the police. However, if the car is on the hard shoulder, it is not causing an obstruction. Therefore I should have thought that the need to remove a car in that situation would be less urgent.

I turn to the subject of lorries. Some lorries have rescue contracts and some do not. There have been many instances of lorries causing obstructions—not necessarily on motorways; on trunk roads as well—when there has been a conflict between the driver's or owner's desire to save what is left of the load on the lorry and the need to get the lorry off the carriageway and thus speed up the flow of traffic. I am not sure what the role of traffic officers would be in such a scenario and how the rescue services would deal with lorries, which need rather specialist equipment to remove them. I should be grateful for my noble friend's comments on that.

Lord Davies of Oldham

I am grateful to noble Lords who have contributed to the debate on this important topic. It has caused considerable debate outside and, indeed, considerable representations have been made. There has been a great deal of correspondence between Ministers and organisations, which are rightly concerned about their interests in this area.

I assure the Committee that the Government have no intention of setting up traffic officers as a competitive service, as, I believe, the noble Viscount envisaged, or anything approaching a monopoly service for breakdown activities on our trunk roads and motorways. That is not provided for in the Bill; nor is it the remotest intent of the Government to pursue such an objective.

The reason that we disagree with the noble Viscount in his representations and want him to withdraw the amendment is that substantially we intend to continue with the regulations which govern the police and their activities in relation to breakdowns. We intend to transfer such responsibilities to traffic officers but shall do no more than that. The regulations are tried and tested. They have been subject to change over time, but the legislation on which they are based goes back over several decades.

The noble Viscount will recognise that certain breakdown organisations have also existed for several decades—in fact, in one or two cases, for a century or more—and, in recent years, there have been new arrivals in the market. They have not experienced circumstances in which they have not been able to carry out their due and proper activities under these regulations, and we do not intend to change that position.

The regulations do not confer a blanket removal power on the police. A constable may, indeed, remove a vehicle which has broken down or stopped and is causing an obstruction or possible danger to road users. He can also remove a vehicle which has broken down or stopped in breach of regulations—for example, parking prohibitions or controls—and he can deal with a vehicle which has broken down and appears to have been abandoned without lawful authority. That is what the regulations say and that is what we intend should continue so far as concerns traffic officers.

In exercising those powers, traffic officers will have regard to the arrangements made by individual drivers who have broken down and to the effectiveness of those arrangements in dealing with the problem. They will want that information in order to assess what the appropriate and reasonable course of action on their part should be. They would need to take into account the relevant circumstances to assess whether the exercise of intervention and removal powers was practical and appropriate.

Existing powers contain no qualification of the exercise of the police removal powers along the lines proposed in the amendment; nor do they make any mention of the potential role of the roadside assistance organisations or the possibility of a driver seeking assistance from friends, family or other motorists who may stop and offer assistance. Yet, without any of those considerations, organisations which assist those in distress in such circumstances have been able to carry out their activities with a conspicuous level of success.

Neither Section 99 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act nor the current regulations in any way prevent citizens joining a roadside assistance organisation of their choice or calling them for help. But the regulations enable the police to make the necessary judgment as to the appropriate course of action. That is all we want traffic officers to be able to do.

The current regulations also empower others, such as traffic wardens and community support officers, to remove vehicles which are causing an obstruction and are likely to cause danger to road users or which are illegally stopped or parked. Parking attendants have similar powers of removal in respect of vehicles which are parked or have broken down and are stopped on designated parking places. Again, no such qualification as proposed by the noble Viscount's amendment is included in the regulations.

Section 99 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act provides a suitable framework for the powers to remove vehicles from the road. It has stood the test of time and we do not propose to change that. The traffic officers' role—I apologise to Members of the Committee if it is felt that I am reiterating this too often this afternoon—is to manage traffic in the event of collisions and other incidents. They will work alongside the police and other emergency services, maintenance and repair contractors, vehicle removal contractors—they will play their part, too—and others to clear incidents quickly, to keep traffic moving past the scene and via the network of local diversion routes, and to ensure that up-to-date information is fed through to motorists. They are not there to provide an alternative vehicle breakdown recovery service.

The best organisations provide an excellent service. We are not in any way seeking to interfere with that, and they will be able to continue with their lawful business. It is the Government's intention to work closely with a wide range of organisations to ensure that any new regulations and operational arrangements are developed in an open and inclusive way, in addition to the formal consultation and secondary legislative processes required by the 1984 Act.

The Highways Agency has set up a working group involving a wide range of representative bodies, including roadside assistance organisations, recovery contractors, road haulage organisations and the police. That group has already met with the intention of addressing the new regulations, the new Highways Agency contracts for statutory removal, and standards and protocols between the agency and the roadside assistance organisations and others who operate on the strategic road network.

That is the position that we already have in place and, in our view, it works effectively. It is our intention to bring the traffic officers into that framework to ensure that these provisions work more effectively, but only within the powers that already obtain at present with regard to the police.

I have been asked a number of specific questions. The benefit of making a rather lengthy reply on the principle behind the amendment is that I am able to delve deeply into the recesses of my resources in order to provide answers to specific questions, as I shall now attempt to do.

The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, asked about certain aspects of the breakdown procedure, including cost. The present fee, which is currently subject to review, is £105. However—I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising this—the review will include other issues which also need to be considered in relation to the removal service. Therefore, we set up a working group with the Home Office, contractors, the RAC, the AA and others to work on those issues. The group has met once and it will continue to meet on this important matter.

The noble Lord also asked me what would happen when a removal contractor took away a vehicle but did not get paid for his labours. The answer is that, under current regulations, he can keep the vehicle until someone pays the proper price for the work carried out. However, as the noble Lord hinted, that may not in all cases be worth the effort involved in removal.

The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, asked me about the Birmingham trial. The traffic officers in that case did not have the powers which the Bill, when it becomes an Act, will confer upon them. Therefore, inevitably they were restricted to operating directly under the wing of police officers, carrying out support tasks and co-ordination of information to contractors, and so on. Limitations are involved in trials, but in all human experience there are always such limitations until all the powers are fully in force.

My noble friend Lord Berkeley asked me about lorries which break down. When lorries are on the hard shoulder, that often requires the closure of an additional lane to allow for repairs and removal. Traffic officers will support that work and, indeed, their role will be crucial in directing traffic and placing signs. The lorries are usually repaired and removed by specialist contractors, which, as my noble friend recognises, is specialist work. Those who carry out such work receive their payments from the owners of the lorries; otherwise they fall foul of the point that I made to the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw—that is, they do not get their lorries back.

Therefore, on the more general issues, I reiterate that we understand the anxieties of reputable organisations. I think that the noble Viscount will recognise that Ministers in another place have been assiduous—I know that my honourable friend David Jamieson has been assiduous—in meeting representatives in order to provide the necessary reassurances. However. I emphasise that the Bill's main provision is to continue the regulations that have served us well until now. On that basis, I hope that the noble Viscount will feel sufficiently reassured to withdraw the amendment.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw

Before the noble Viscount replies, perhaps we can be clear on this point. The Highways Agency will employ the traffic officers. The traffic officers will be those who arrange to have the vehicle removed—be it a lorry, a bus or whatever—unless the person is a member of a reputable organisation, such as the RHA or the Confederation of Passenger Transport, which has a rescue service. I am concerned not to put the Highways Agency in a position whereby it sites a broken down vehicle, takes it away and faces the costs. Some rescued vehicles are probably not worth sufficient to bear the cost of both removal and repair. Often when such vehicles break down a significant sum is added to the towing cost before they are fit to be driven again.

I appreciate that the Minister may not be able to answer the question. However, I hope that the matter will be taken into account in the review of charges so that the Highways Agency does not have a net charge on its books for vehicle recovery which should be defrayed by the road user.

Viscount Astor

Before the Minister replies, perhaps I may ask a question on the same issue. I am concerned about double charging. Should someone break down on the highway and the traffic officer come to their help and remove them from the highway to the hard shoulder or off the road, so that the AA or RAC recovery services can deal with it, will that movement be a chargeable action? Will they be charged—currently—£105? If so, how will they pay? Or will the charge apply only if the traffic officer organises the removal of the car to a garage, recovery point or whatever? When the Minister replies to the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, on the principles of the amendment, I would be grateful if he would kindly deal with that point.

Viscount Simon

One thing that occurred to me is that most constabularies—I do not know whether it is all constabularies, but certainly a number of them—have rules regarding the time—one, two or three hours—that a broken-down vehicle can remain on the hard shoulder. They tell the owner of the broken-down vehicle that that is the case. They also tell the owner that after that time they can be towed away by whomever the police happen to choose. If this right is to be transferred to the Highways Agency traffic officers, will the same rules apply—be it one, two or three hours—and will leeway be given as the police give?

Lord Davies of Oldham

I emphasise, first, as I have indicated, we are drawing on powers that already exist. So the Highways Agency's traffic officers will operate as regards removal only as the police do now. No charge applies to transferring the vehicle to the hard shoulder to get it out of the way as an obstruction. The charge applies when removal is made from the roadway to another safe place.

I shall make the obvious point. I must admit that I did not emphasise it enough in my initial response to the Committee. The traffic officers will not have their own breakdown facilities. They do not have any more than the police have for immediate removal of vehicles. Traffic officers will act as police officers do now in terms of summoning the necessary support to deal with obstructions on the carriageway. Their concern will be to get the carriageway clear. That is what the traffic officer is there for, in the same way that that is the current responsibility of the police officer.

On the question of the powers, I was touched by the anxiety of the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, that the Highways Agency might fall into this dreadful trap of carrying out activity which is of great benefit to all motorists, but then having to sustain undue cost from the feckless few who have caused the problems. In the discussion about the proposed regulations we shall look very closely at the point he was seeking to identify—whether it would be necessary for the Highways Agency to even prosecute in order to recover the charges in which they might have been involved. The noble Lord will recognise that this is a complex area on which a significant amount of discussion needs to take place.

I want to emphasise the main point: these traffic officers in respect of this particular activity will act as the police do now. As far as I know, relationships at national level between the police and breakdown organisations are cordial in the extreme and from time to time can have their more difficult moments in immediate incidents. But we all know the difficulties when immediate pressures are upon people. I see no reason why traffic officers should not enjoy the same good relationships with all concerned to make our highways safer and free from congestion.

Viscount Astor

I am grateful to the Minister for his clarification that traffic officers will not charge motorists to get a vehicle from the road to the hard shoulder. We are still in effect in a situation where motorists can be charged twice because the motorist may have to call for their respective recovery service to help them.

I am a little surprised by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and a bit disappointed. He seemed to imply that one only breaks down on the motorway if one is driving a clapped-out car. He suggested that it is not worth collecting it because it is worth less than the cost. I broke down on the motorway the other day. My car is quite old and might be a little clapped-out, but I would be very disappointed to find that it was worth less than £105. That would come as an enormous disappointment when I tried to trade it in for something somewhat newer.

The interesting part of the debate is that there is no difference between the Minister and myself on what we want. The difference is what is in the Bill. The Minister has been enormously helpful. I agree with everything he said about what we want and how we want it to operate. I am not sure that that is not what it says in the Bill. If we are in such agreement on the subject, the obvious point is why not accept my amendment? There is no problem. My amendment does not do anything that is in anyway in conflict with what the Minister has said: in fact it aids and abets. So there is no reason why the Government should not accept my amendment.

I am aware that there has been correspondence between the Minister in another place and the RAC on the issue. The Minister said that he, will … consider … whether there is a need to set out more fully, in any future Regulations or in other guidance material, criteria for the removal of broken down vehicles by Traffic Officers". That is helpful, but it does not go far enough because he simply says that he will consider it. We need something firmer than that. While I am grateful for the Minister's response, the Government will have to move further between now and Report, otherwise we shall bring back this amendment and seek to persuade your Lordships of its importance and validity. There is nothing in the amendment to which the Minister can object because it does nothing that the Government does not want. We know that there is always a natural reluctance for Ministers to accept amendments, but I am sure that the noble Lord is a generous person and does not have that natural reluctance. I hope he will look carefully at the issue between now and Report because the matter is important.

I recognise that the Government are trying to be helpful, but I hope the Minister will recognise that we feel that the Government need to go further than they have done thus far. Unless we can make real progress, this is a matter to which we shall return on Report and which we shall seek to put on to the face of the Bill. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5.45 p.m.

Clause 9 agreed to.

Clause 10 [Offences]:

[Amendments Nos. 42 to 48 not moved.]

Clause 10 agreed to.

Clause 11 [Uniform]:

[Amendment No. 49 not moved.]

Clause 11 agreed to.

Clause 12 [Power to charge for traffic officer services provided on request]:

[Amendment No. 50 not moved.]

Clause 12 agreed to.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester moved Amendment No. 51: After Clause 12, insert the following new clause—