HL Deb 01 April 2004 vol 659 cc1530-62

5 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This a Bill to cut out the unnecessary congestion that motorists and other road users encounter. Decades of under-investment coupled with rising prosperity and mobility mean that the pressures on our road network are greater than ever before. The Government are committed to improving the reliability of journeys for business and individual road users. Some £180 billion of public and private money is being invested in transport over the 10-year plan period. That is 45 per cent more than over the previous decade. But we cannot build our way out of all our problems. The financial, social and environmental costs would be too high and, in some places, there simply is not the space for new infrastructure.

The Bill will help the Highways Agency and local authorities to manage existing road space more effectively, so that, for all the investment, the public gets value for money. Turning the Bill into action will give the Highways Agency and local authorities the powers that they need to manage roads in the interests of the people who use them—clearing up quicker after accidents and managing roadworks better, to give just two examples. There will be a sharper focus on reducing congestion. Local traffic authorities will have a new duty to secure the expeditious movement of traffic. Ministers have tasked the Highways Agency with becoming a network operator, managing traffic and responding quickly to incidents.

On trunk roads a quarter of congestion is caused by incidents, but that is only one part of the picture: 65 per cent of it is a result of lack of capacity. We are investing in more capacity where the need is greatest, widening motorways like the M1, M6 and M25, and completing 17 new trunk road schemes last year. With the right safety procedures in place we will also be piloting hard-shoulder running, and new powers will help the agency to minimise the disruption caused by works.

Part 1 of the Bill will help to reduce the amount of congestion that incidents cause. Before the end of this month, there will be a uniformed traffic officer service helping to keep the network clear, working with the police to get traffic moving again after incidents, so that people are not held up any longer than necessary. Once the Bill receives Royal Assent, traffic officers will be able to do more, such as divert traffic away from incidents. The service will be developed in tandem with new regional control centres, which will manage on-road resources and provide motorists with more accurate information to help plan their journeys. In time there will be 1,200 traffic officers—additional, dedicated resources freeing up the equivalent of 540 police officers. Police forces will be free to redeploy that officer time to focus on tackling serious crime.

On local roads the challenges are slightly different. Capital funding for local transport authorities has more than doubled in the past five years. We announced another £1.9 billion in December: a package including funds for new roads, such as the A354 Weymouth relief road and the A509 Isham bypass, as well as major public transport schemes such as guided busways in Cambridgeshire and Luton. We are providing both new capacity where that is sensible, and attractive, sustainable alternatives to the private car.

In our cities, it will be recognised that there is little space for new roads. But our cities are thriving centres of economic activity, attracting lots of people and traffic. Existing capacity has to be managed properly. There are many potential obstacles to free-flowing traffic on local roads. The new network management duty, together with the new powers elsewhere in the Bill, will help authorities to identify and tackle those obstacles, such as roadworks, inefficient junctions, skips, drivers ignoring box junction rules, and so on.

Desperately needed powers will help authorities to manage road works better—an issue that the House has addressed on a number of occasions. Utilities provide vital services, but the disruption that their works can cause creates a very significant cost for the wider economy. Works need to be co-ordinated effectively, and completed as quickly as possible, at less disruptive times. In 1985, the cost to the economy of the disruption caused by street works was about £35 million. Now that cost runs into billions of pounds every year. Authorities have a duty to coordinate all works, including their own, but, until now, legislation has not even allowed them to tell a utility not to carry out its works on a particular day.

Parts 3 and 4 will put effective powers in place. Those carrying out works will comply with stricter conditions to limit the negative impact on road users. There will be longer digging embargoes after major works to help co-ordination and protect the public from endless disruption. A tougher enforcement regime will ensure that the new measures are taken seriously. Much of the detail will be in regulations. Working groups are looking at what form those regulations should take. They will report to us in the summer, after which there will be public consultation, so that key regulations can be in place as soon as possible.

In Part 6 there are new civil enforcement powers to bring more aspects of traffic management under the control of local authorities. Minor offences can cause congestion and safety problems: people blocking box junctions, making banned turns, or driving into pedestrianised areas. These are all offences, and have to be enforced if roads are to work well for the people who use them. But the police, understandably, have more obvious priorities. It is quite understandable that many forces are focusing more and more acutely on serious and violent crime, including serious traffic offences, such as drink-driving.

If we are clear that traffic offences should not be committed, then we have to be clear that they should be enforced. Part 6 allows for that, giving local authorities powers to enforce parking, bus lanes and a range of moving traffic offences. These powers will be used sensibly. Authorities will be expected to comply with guidance. To take the example of yellow box junctions, it may be that in many places an authority will want to enforce only one or two key junctions. But doing that might be an important step towards keeping traffic moving. London authorities have these powers already and will be piloting them soon. We will learn from what happens in London before extending the powers to other authorities.

But we are not just creating new powers. Often the right powers are already in place. They need to be used effectively. So many activities can affect traffic flows: management of junctions; public transport; winter maintenance; on street parking; roadworks; and street works. The new duty to keep traffic moving can be a stimulus for authorities to revisit some of those activities. We are working with local authorities and others to develop the guidance on the network management duty, and will make a draft available in Committee.

Authorities will identify the causes of congestion or disruption, now and in the future, and find appropriate ways to respond to them, minimising or preventing adverse effects on road users Local authorities are well placed to know what is happening on their network and can use the additional funding that they are being given to implement the right solutions. Many authorities are doing this already and we have been pleased to see more authorities adopting this kind of approach, even with the Bill before Parliament. In future, we expect all authorities to meet the standards set by the best. But it would not be prudent to take this for granted. The Bill contains powers for government to intervene if faced with a clear case of an authority that was failing local road users and unable to turn things around.

The Bill will see effective management of our roads by all local authorities and by the Highways Agency. Reducing congestion and making journeys more reliable is at the heart of our transport objectives and policies. The Bill will put the right powers in place and create the right environment for these policies to be delivered. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, that the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)

5.10 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill. There is much in it that we welcome and support. However, like many Bills that arrive in this House, there is still more work to be done—rnore work to be done so that the Bill does not become a greater burden for those it affects but brings about improvements. We are pleased with the few changes that were made in another place, where the Government did listen to the concerns of the Opposition and promised to come forward with changes in this House. I am always prepared to give the Government credit when it is due, but it does not happen very often.

Sadly, this Government have not been a friend of the motorist. In their first Parliament they cancelled new road building, cut road spending and cut road improvements. They have only just begun to concentrate on how to catch up with the vital work needed to maintain our road network. But today we hear that the Highways Agency has admitted that 10 major road improvement schemes are under threat due to cuts as the money will have to be diverted into the rail network. Only last year, the Secretary of State Alistair Darling announced the revival of the road projects cancelled by John Prescott. I wonder whether the Minister will tell us if they have been cancelled again.

The Bill is about traffic management and easing congestion. Congestion does not just irritate the motorist; it has far more serious implications. Congestion has economic and environmental effects. It raises costs for industry, it delays those involved in road haulage, it makes us less competitive and it increases pollution. The motorist in this country is unloved by the Government, overtaxed, harassed and often abused. A revenue of £45 billion is raised every year from the British motorist.

Let me turn to the proposals for the Highways Agency to take over responsibility for getting traffic moving on the motorway network. There is a risk that this new army of enforcers will end up competing with the AA and the RAC. The result will be that motorists who break down will be charged twice, once by the Highways Agency to shunt them off the motorway and then charged again by the breakdown services to get them to a garage or to get them home. Why not use the existing service providers rather than create a new bureaucracy?

Traffic officers should be directing, not being operators. The Bill as it stands creates a monopoly roadside recovery service, funded by charges levied on the motorist. There will be 1,200 traffic officers who will theoretically free the police from some of their duties but who will come under the police. As most incidents on motorways are the result of accidents, the police will still have to be there taking evidence. They will need to be at the scene of the accident anyway. In the proposals, there are therefore recipes for further delay rather than improvement. They could result in doubling up of resources. We will want to examine that in Committee.

As the Minister said, congestion is largely caused by road traffic use. In the Government's transport plan, published in 2000, they foresaw a drop in car use; in fact, car use has grown and road spending has not kept up. The Transport Research Laboratory report shows that 66 per cent of all congestion is caused by road traffic, a figure that has increased every year that the Government have been in office. Accidents cause 24 per cent of congestion, a percentage that has remained about the same during the period, and 10 per cent of all congestion is caused by roadworks, split equally between local authorities and utilities. That figure has halved in the period.

We are all amazed, however, when we see how often streets round us are dug up—it is sometimes almost weekly by different operators. Just as they have finished, or sometimes half-way through or before they have started, along comes a local authority and resurfaces the road. Then one again wonders when the next person will come along. We welcome the idea behind London Works, a database of all work by local authorities and utilities, which we hope will improve planning and management of our capital's roads. However, it costs money for utilities to dig up roads and provide the services that most of us take for granted. Utility companies do not dig up roads for fun. The longer the job takes, the more it costs them. Very often they undertake the work because of an emergency or problem with their utility.

The question that we must address is whether the proposals in the Bill will make a difference for the better. Will additional costs to the utilities be passed on to the consumer—to you and me? The jury is still out. In the pilot schemes operated in Camden and Middlesbrough, in spite of the charges made on utilities, delays were just as bad. We all want improvements. Local authorities are as responsible for the delays as the private sector. Should they not also be brought under the charging scheme, or at least suffer the same penalties? That is something that we will want to examine in Committee.

We shall also wish to see draft regulations and guidance that the Government intend to issue. The devil is always in the detail, and in this case the details are particularly important. Various groups have also raised concerns that the regulations will be accepted without proper consultation. Therefore, I expect that the Minister would welcome the chance to calm those fears by saying that he will be able to publish the draft documents in time for Report in this House at the very latest, enabling scrutiny and discussion to take place on the details.

A particular concern is the charging element, and we want to ensure that local authorities can charge only reasonable fees and not use the new regulations as a way of gaining extra revenue. We fear that it could become another stealth tax, as the costs will be passed on to the consumer. It could cost every household £55 million, a total of £1.2 billion a year.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I think that the noble Viscount means £55 per household, not £55 million.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, £55 per household totals £1.2 billion a year. We will consider whether the Bill should include statutory powers of arbitration to avoid any disputes arising from the operation of the permit scheme.

If there is one aspect of driving that infuriates us all, it is the uneven and sometimes dishonest way in which the public are treated by those responsible for the administration of parking. Wardens are often driven by commercial considerations—simply greed—to catch as many motorists as they can, because they are under pressure from above to meet quota targets that affect their pay and bonuses. Widely ranging practices are currently applied to decriminalised parking enforcement contracts from one council to another. We all have our own horror stories. I had a recent one when I tried to take on Westminster Council over improper clamping. I failed miserably; I suddenly realised that my appeal had no chance of succeeding, however much I was in the right.

The Government have conceded that there is a problem. On Report in another place, the Minister there offered that his department would issue guidance to all local authorities. That was very welcome; we must give him credit and welcome that here. However, I must tell the noble Lord that we will require to see at least draft guidance before the Bill leaves this House, otherwise we might be tempted to amend it here.

We will want to ensure that local authorities show some consistency. Will the Minister explain why only 80 local authorities outside London have acquired decriminalised parking enforcement powers under the Road Traffic Act 1991? I would also like to look at the law governing rogue private dampers, if I may call them that, who often hold the innocent hostage, demanding exorbitant fees. Their business seems to be not parking enforcement but extortion, and there is no appeal apart from a rather long, complicated and expensive process through the court.

The Bill will allow Transport for London to coordinate traffic management between the boroughs and other traffic authorities. We approve, and the Bill also allows for a single London-wide permit scheme to cover all types of works in the street. However, we are concerned with the clause that allows a traffic director to be appointed to intervene if the boroughs fail. On what basis exactly would they fail, and against what criteria will that failure be judged? I would be interested if the Minister could help us on that.

I understand that there is no requirement for local authorities to publish their policies and objectives for road management. Can the Minister confirm this? Does he think that they should publish their objectives and policies?

There is much that should be better co-ordinated in London. A simple example is that every London borough has its own gritting policy. Some do it well while some do it badly. Has the noble Lord's department considered issuing guidance on such policies to ensure that pavements and roads are made safe and kept free of ice and snow?

The new network management duty is crucial and I understand that the Government plan to issue guidance. We will want to consider whether Transport for London should be given the power to issue supplementary guidance for the capital.

I turn briefly to the issue of bus lanes. Different councils have different policies for bus lanes, and this subject was debated at length in another place. Bus lanes operate at different times and varying rules. While it is clear that we need bus lanes during the rush hours, do we need to keep them almost empty for the remainder of the day and night? I think that we should explore a sensible policy on their use.

We will also want to debate why this Government feel so strongly about not moving closer to Europe when they consider speed limits. Why do we not operate the same speed limits as some of our European neighbours? Does the Minister think that our drivers behave worse on our motorways than do our continental neighbours on theirs? The argument that the Government have always used is that we have a better safety record. However, does that really stand up to scrutiny? Can the Minister provide us with a breakdown of figures for road accidents showing not only what they are generally, but also making a comparison between incidents on motorways, ordinary roads and minor rural roads? I think that those statistics may change the argument somewhat.

I have touched on some of the issues that we will all get to know well. But let me end with a plea for the British motorist. Most drivers do not use the roads for pleasure; they do so out of necessity. We need to make sure that this Bill makes life better for them.

5.22 p.m.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I am pleased to join in what I suspect will be a general welcome for this Bill because there is no doubt that there is much public irritation at road delays and congestion caused by what are seen as unnecessary street works.

I should have thought that few people could take exception to the proposal to establish traffic officers to manage traffic on the roads, to monitor the condition of roads and to report on defects and problems. Equally sensible are the new duties to be placed on each traffic authority to manage its roads in a way that secures the movement of traffic and to co-ordinate the digging up of roads by utilities and local authorities. There is nothing more irritating than to see one lot of road works undertaken by one utility being followed immediately by those of another.

However, I do have a number of concerns about the Bill which I think are more of emphasis than substance, and it may be that my noble friend will be able to answer some of these when he responds. We shall certainly be able to come back to them in Committee. The most important of my concerns centres on road safety, and I declare an interest as president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. I am proud indeed to follow my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham, who is my distinguished predecessor in that role.

I can understand why the Government would like to speed up the clearance and reopening of highways after an accident, and that is obviously what lies behind the transfer of a range of traffic management powers from the police to Highways Agency officers, including responding to road incidents. But there is a worry that an apparently streamlined procedure could delay matters, because if it appears that a criminal offence has been committed in the cause of an accident, the police would have to become involved alongside the Highways Agency people. The temptation to clear a crash site and get traffic moving at the risk of losing important evidence always needs to be resisted. Whether the Bill needs to be amended to take account of this concern is something we can look at later.

Looking at Clause 16(1). it is fine for the Bill to place a duty on local traffic authorities to secure, the expeditious movement of traffic on the authority's road network'', as long as keeping traffic moving is not achieved at the expense of road users other than motorists. I am reassured that the Government's response to the report of the Select Committee in another place made it clear that the term "traffic" applies to cyclists and pedestrians as well as motorised vehicles. In view of that, I hope that they will give the assurances that the All-Party Group on Transport Safety is seeking that this definition of traffic is contained in the guidance accompanying the Bill and that indicators for measuring congestion will include the safety and ease of transit of pedestrians and cyclists.

I also hope that the Bill will not in any way be used to weaken the important road safety initiatives which have had such an effect in reducing casualty figures, particularly in London. Traffic calming, for example, is an extremely effective way of saving lives and preventing injuries. The 20 miles per hour zones in London have achieved huge reductions in the numbers killed and seriously injured in those areas where they have been introduced. These include 61 per cent fewer child pedestrian casualties, 60 per cent fewer child cyclists killed and seriously injured, 47 per cent fewer child car occupants killed and seriously injured, a cut of 50 per cent in the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed and seriously injured, and a reduction of 68 per cent in the number of motorcyclist casualties.

Those figures provide the answer to local authorities such as the London Borough of Barnet, which is adopting fanatically pro-motorist policies. Perhaps the noble Viscount approves of them, but I do not think many other people do. These measures involve ripping out sensible traffic-calming and safety measures such as speed humps and bus and cycle lanes and allowing pavement parking.

In that context, I commend to your Lordships the very helpful brief which I, and I imagine other noble Lords have been sent, by the Royal National Institute of the Blind. On pavement parking, it makes the point that illegally parked cars block the footway, causing people to knock into them and force pedestrians on to the road to get past them—a dangerous and frightening experience for visually impaired people. The RNIB would like the law changed so there is a universal presumption against pavement parking, as there is in London.

A further area which requires clarification is the new network management duty. This is obviously a crucial element in the Bill, and it will be necessary for the Government to publish rather more guidance on this than has appeared so far. From what my noble friend said earlier. I am sure this will be forthcoming. But I wonder whether particular concern has been taken of the special requirements of London in this regard.

On Tuesday I was one of a number of Members of this House who visited the London Traffic Control Centre which Transport for London runs in partnership with the Metropolitan Police. Apart from being the engine room of the congestion charge—which, happily, continues to have a beneficial effect on the volume and movement of traffic entering central London—the control centre monitors congestion through the use of 1,000 closed circuit television feeds. It has the potential to spot congestion building up and then do something about it.

In common with virtually everyone else, TfL supports the Bill. It does, however, believe that the Mayor of London should be empowered to give additional guidance to London authorities in relation to strategic roads. This, I suspect, is a matter to which we shall want to return in Committee. We might also look at the possibility of establishing in London a single system for the granting of permits to carry out street works.

The needs of local authorities in relation to digging up the roads are pretty similar to the needs of the utilities. It would certainly seem to make sense for there to be a uniform approach, perhaps, as TfL suggests, in the hands of the borough traffic manager. provided that he or she is independent of the highways department.

I gather that the utilities are worried that the Bill would allow different permit systems to be developed by the various traffic authorities, thus imposing a significant extra burden on them. One way round this, as far as London is concerned, is to have a single system in the capital.

Finally, I promised my noble friend Lord Puttnam, as he cannot be with us today, that I would raise one issue on his behalf, which he intends should be the subject of an amendment in Committee. This concerns the closure of roads for the purpose of filming. His amendment would allow local authorities specifically to classify film as an event, by amending the Road Traffic Regulation (Special Events) Act 1994, thereby giving them the power to close roads to allow filming to take place. My noble friend has kindly provided me with a comprehensive briefing paper on the matter, but it would be better if we waited until Committee before going into detail.

In essence, the aim of the Bill is to achieve a consistency of approach across the country. However, that is an issue for Committee, along with a number of other matters, which I am sure will be raised at that stage. I look forward to further discussion and, meanwhile, wish the Bill well.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Sheppard of Didgemere

My Lords, I wish to comment on the Bill with particular regard to its impact on London. I probably should declare various interests—I was born a Londoner, I am a Londoner, and I was the founder and am now president of London First.

Business is particularly concerned about the inadequacies of most of London's transport, but congestion is a particular problem, as we have heard, not only because of the cost impact but because the variability of journey times makes any matters such as planning meetings impossible. The situation has improved with congestion charging in central London.

If London's economy is to prosper—and without the prosperity of London the UK will suffer—an effective road system is vital. We could bore each other with statistics, so I shall give the House only a couple. For example, the 16 per cent worsening in average off-peak speeds in inner London during the 20 years ending 2002, compared with the 31 per cent improvement in morning off-peak speeds that took place on red routes in the second half of the 1990s, shows that effective road management can improve matters.

It is important that we do not talk about "cars versus public transport"—85 per cent of commuters to central London use public transport. Efficient use of roads is essential, not only for cars but for the emergency services, deliveries and buses. As we know, London, like other cities, cannot build its way out of the road congestion problem. To that extent, I welcome the approach of the Bill, because it attempts to manage the existing road network better. Of course there are some details to be examined, to which I shall return.

We have just heard about Transport for London's traffic control centre near Victoria Station, which I also visited earlier this week. There, one can see at a glance how complex the problem is, both in terms of traffic flow monitoring and road works systems. One is also struck by the determination and professionalism of the people there who work with the boroughs and the police to achieve improvements. Many of the computer systems that they are examining are just about beginning to work. They look as if they are heading in the right direction—let us hope that they make it.

With 35 different highway authorities in London, any one of them can cause havoc by interacting badly with another—whether it is TfL or one borough with another borough. The Bill's encouragement of greater co-operation and co-ordination is essential for both road works and traffic flow. We must discuss in Committee whether the balance between the boroughs and TfL is correct and whether TfL is being given slightly too passive a role, although that is an emotive subject. Local residential roads and high streets are best managed by local knowledge of the boroughs. However, London needs a single authority to manage its main roads. The problem is where to draw that line and how to distinguish a main road, in terms of being strategic, from a local road. The current position is not satisfactory.

The fact that the Bill lays the basis for attempting to define a wider strategic road network in London is welcome. I shall not name the few boroughs that deliberately discriminate against traffic on main roads by setting traffic lights to give more time to minor roads. They are probably trying to benefit the people that vote for them, who live on minor roads.

Under the Bill, TfL will be able to stop that kind of interference. The question is: is that realignment enough? Co-operation between TfL and the boroughs is obviously vital. It cannot be only one-way co-operation and needs to be based on a more coherent strategy for managing the strategic road network in London. TfL has not yet produced such a strategy. Once it does, the Bill should give it fractionally more powers than those being proposed to avoid deadlock with the boroughs. The Bill should require boroughs to implement the strategy, and it should give TfL powers to ensure that its implementation of the strategic network which are similar to those which existed for the operation of red routes.

I also welcome powers in the Bill to co-ordinate street works and set time limits. If what currently happens were not deadly serious, it would be a joke. The comment that this should extend to the roadworks carried out by highway authorities is right. It is critical to avoid digging up parallel routes. Different authorities may control river crossings, for example, and it would be crazy if there were no co-ordination. We all know examples of that.

Should there be a single scheme for Londoners so that utilities do not have to provide 35 authorities in different formats of input? From reading the 200 pages of text I was given, naively having asked to be briefed on the Bill from all types of sources, I was not clear whether the penalties would be hypothecated back to transport. Clearly, TfL fines will come back to a transport authority, but could they be spent in another way in the boroughs? I do not know what happens outside London but I believe that the fines should be hypothecated.

A controversial issue that is not covered in the Bill is lorry control. A London-wide scheme was introduced by the GLC in the mid-1980s banning the movement of HGVs in London at night and weekends—unless a specific permit had been issued. But the world has moved on since then. The M25 has stopped many lorries driving through London on their journey from the north and the Midlands to the southern ports. Lorries are now quieter and have fewer emissions than was the case 20 years ago, although I am sure they could do better. So should we be looking at a lorry ban? The ALG is doing so, but it seems to be doing so slowly. Is this costing business—and therefore all of us—money? Certainly it is. Taking one example, Sainsbury's reckons that when operating its fleet within the GLA area, the lorry ban, with its predetermined routes which must be followed, annually adds 750,000 kilometres to its fleet operation. That cannot be too good for Sainsbury's and it is not good for the rest of us who are trying to breathe the air. This is a London-wide issue. Should the Bill be amended to transfer this role to TfL in order to achieve a pan-London approach to the lorry ban?

My view, on behalf of London, is that the Bill is to be welcomed. However, we have much to discuss in Committee because much detail needs to be debated to make the Bill even more effective. Furthermore, I here must be a great deal of regulation behind the Bill. It is vital that there is full consultation with all interested parties on that, including the business community, if we are to have legislation that works and makes London a better place in which to live and operate.

5.39 p.m.

The Earl of Erroll

My Lords, I welcome the idea of keeping traffic moving fast because I get fed up sitting in traffic jams while the road is being dug up in front of me. I want to concentrate on the implications in the Bill that might hinder the Prime Minister in achieving his stated aims to make Britain the best country for e-business in the near future—by 2005 or 2008. The problem arises with minor works because under the proposals it could take time to obtain a permit.

It is not the telecommunications companies that are now digging up the major roads. The vast majority of the long-distance, or trunk, capacity for the telecoms backbone is now complete, but we still need to connect businesses to that backbone. That can be a minor job, often taking less than a day, and yet it will still probably come under these regulations. Minor swift repairs and servicing also need to be carried out to ensure that things do not get worse and lead to an emergency. We should bear in mind the old saying, "A stitch in time is worth nine".

At present, telecommunications companies have a major incentive to work speedily, partly for commercial reasons but also because they can be fined heavily under current legislation. Interestingly, the Commons Transport Select Committee did not believe that a new system was required. I note that there is some concern that the new system penalises the private sector utilities while favouring the public sector local authorities and highways agencies, which are responsible for 50 per cent or more of the roadworks. That balance is perhaps not fair.

I believe that the real problem is the increase in bureaucracy implied in trying to obtain a permit for small works. I am told that the system in Scotland—Susiephone—has been in use for some time and has worked terribly well. It is not a musical instrument but a telephone line and information centre. People can ring up to find out about networks that are planned in the future and dovetail their own works with those. That system was also used in Northern Ireland. I should have thought that something along those lines would achieve far more, particularly in relation to minor works, than any heavy-handed regulation. I draw the Government's attention to the Better Regulation Task Force recommendation that the Cabinet Office should use its report to promote awareness of the alternatives to classic regulation. I believe that there is certainly a case for that.

I want to highlight another problem relating to the regulations. Their drafting will not be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and, in that case, the assurances from the Minister that the utilities will be consulted might count for little. I am briefed that it is already becoming clear in the meetings of the working groups which are tasked to draw up the regulations that the DfT is attempting to backtrack on some of the commitments made in the Commons. That is slightly concerning.

One other aspect that rather worries me is the potential liability on business to be responsible for the future costs of resurfacing. So far as I can make out, that liability can lie on a company's balance sheet for some time. I do not think that that provides for good business planning in companies and it should be given careful consideration.

That is all on the IT side. The other point that I was unsure about concerned the Highways Agency being able to operate recovery services in some areas. Personally, I should prefer to use the recovery service to which I subscribe. It is well set up and well organised, and it knows how to get my vehicle out of a difficult situation and transport me to my final destination because that is what I have paid for. Dealing with two sets of people who are trying to recover vehicles could cause greater complexity and would be less efficient, and the public would become very cross, which would not help at all.

5.43 p.m.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for comprehensively introducing this Bill which, like the curate's egg, is good in parts.

Later this month, on the M42, the Highways Agency will commence a trial to see how its roles and responsibilities in the transfer to it of certain duties carried out by police officers will proceed in practical terms.

The most common incident on motorways is the routine breakdown. Ministers in the other place have stressed that it is not their intention to prevent breakdown services continuing to operate. However, lawyers acting for the AA have advised their client that the Bill could enable the Highways Agency to establish a monopoly roadside recovery service funded by charging motorists.

A friend of mine overheard a conversation only yesterday which might confirm the fears of the AA, other breakdown and recovery organisations and the noble Viscount. Lord Astor. That conversation was to the effect that the Highways Agency will be able forcibly to remove a broken-down vehicle from any part of the trunk roads, including the hard shoulder, and then charge the victim at least £105 for so doing. The poor motorist will then he taken to a designated area—probably a recovery yard—where he will have to make onward removal arrangements or face storage charges. I am led to understand that a simple amendment to the Bill, consistent with the ministerial assurances, would ensure that such powers will not be given to the Highways Agency without intent. Once people understand what the Highways Agency can and cannot do, there will be vociferous complaints from justifiably aggrieved motorists if the overheard conversation proves to be correct.

Further as the Bill is drafted, it would not only enable the removal of motorists' existing right of choice of commercial provider, but also remove the right of one motorist to stop and offer assistance to another—usually family and friends. Consumer protection issues also appear to have been overlooked because the Bill gives powers for charges to be set to create a revenue stream in the financial interest of the Highways Agency or contractors—those who are empowered to remove vehicles.

The Disabled Drivers Association draws attention to the special needs services provided by the major roadside recovery organisations and that it would neither make sense nor be acceptable to the association to put these national services under threat. Going one stage further, what would be the knock-on effect on those millions of drivers who currently benefit from recovery services sold with new cars? I am delighted that duly authorised people will be given power to inspect disabled drivers' blue badges and I hope that that could be extended to inspections of vehicles in supermarket car parks and in other places where abuse regularly takes place.

The blocking of box junctions has been mentioned and such junctions are mentioned in the Bill. I have a vague recollection that there is an anomaly concerned with box junctions. A box junction is exactly that. It is a yellow painted box at a junction. However, some box junctions painted yellow are on roundabouts. Under current legislation my understanding is—I hope I am wrong—that it is not clear whether a roundabout is a junction. Perhaps we can have clarification about whether a roundabout is a junction.

The current edition of the Police Federation of England and Wales has a couple of excellent articles on the demise of roads policing. I will, as always, advise your Lordships that I passed the Class 1 advanced police driving course in the early 1960s and that I am encouraged by a number of constabularies to take further advanced driving courses, despite, in their eyes, my advancing years. I am the president of the Driving Instructors Association and a council member of GEM Motoring Assist.

Almost two years ago I passed the traffic police fast road and motorway procedures course which concentrated not only on various necessary actions to be taken but also on health and safety implications. In basic terms it is considered that two sets of eyes are better than one where fast-moving traffic is present. Having two traffic officers in a vehicle has, regrettably, not stopped sonic of them being killed on our motorways and dual carriageways. That should not happen.

None the less, I was surprised to learn that because of the falling numbers of specialist traffic officers, some constabularies are to introduce single-crewed traffic vehicles patrolling fast roads and motorways. We are told that the Highways Agency will ensure the smooth movement of traffic by coning off the sites of collisions and that they will be comprehensively trained. Consider this: if the police officer of a single-crewed vehicle is required by the Highways Agency to attend the scene of a collision and thinks that he or she needs assistance, what will happen if the vehicle called to attend is at the scene of another collision and so will be unable to proceed for some hours? The lone officer may consider it absolutely necessary to close the road—motorway or dual carriageway—until the other vehicle arrives.

The Highways Agency traffic officers will have to follow the instructions of the police officer and traffic would come to a standstill simply because some senior officers consider it safe for a lone officer to attend in dangerous situations. That, of course, is a situation that is forced on to the shoulders of senior officers—mainly due to cost considerations—but the well-being of their officers should come first. I can see the scenario of a single officer refusing even to get out of his car until another arrives.

There was a time, not so long ago, when one could not travel on a motorway without seeing a motorway patrol car. That offered a significant deterrent to all manner of offenders, from the speeding motorist to the violent criminal. That is no longer the case and criminals feel free to use the motorway and trunk road network to ply their trade: they can travel long distances, away from their homes, with little fear of being stopped and found to have stolen goods in the vehicle.

The reliance on camera enforcement, while being effective in catching offenders with a current V5, is no deterrent to somebody using a car registered to no one or with its identity disguised by false registration plates. However, these actions would spark the interest of a road policing officer, who may well go on to detect or prevent more serious crimes.

The Highways Agency officers will have limited powers given to them and will not have criminal actions on their minds. First, let us consider moving traffic. A police officer has the power to stop a suspect vehicle or one that has committed an offence. He is able to do a search on the police national computer, to search the vehicle for stolen goods, drugs or offensive weapons and to inspect the vehicle to see if it is roadworthy. The police vehicle may well be fitted with ANPR—a very useful bit of equipment—enabling the officers to determine ownership of the vehicle stopped, among other matters. The Highways Agency officer cannot do any of that.

Let us now consider the scene of a collision. The Highways Agency officer can cone off the scene and sweep up debris. Will that person sweep away important evidence, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Faulkner? Will that person know that important evidence is being swept away before the arrival of a traffic officer, who will need to investigate the collision where death or serious injury has happened? The last time I attended a road death was on a motorway and there was debris all over the road, which needed thorough investigation before being swept up.

If the intention is for the Highways Agency to police motorways at some time in the future they will have to be given the same powers as police officers, otherwise they will not be able to work effectively. I wonder if these proposals are intended as a cheap form of roads policing? Is this the precursor to a separate traffic police force?

The arrest rate for non-traffic offences by specialist traffic officers is very high; they have a feel for the imperceptibly studied driving of somebody who is trying to hide something. It is not only detectives who arrest offenders, but those arrested by the traffic officer are usually ignored. As I frequently say, a burglar will not carry stolen goods on the top of a bus. No, that person will travel by car, as quickly as possible. We should not forget that traffic officers are in the front line of stopping other crimes. Some 80 per cent of disqualified drivers have a criminal record, while almost half of convicted dangerous drivers have other convictions.

This highly observant body of specialist officers is being reduced little by little, with scant recognition of the implications. They should not be cast into obscurity. Criminals' cars break down; criminals get involved in all sorts of collisions; and drunk drivers stop to urinate on the hard shoulder. Without the police dealing with such incidents, these people would be allowed to continue undeterred—sometimes with fatal consequences.

A loss of expertise has been accelerated by safety cameras, which, I hasten to say, perform the sole but good job of filming those motorists who commit the criminal offence of exceeding the speed limit. But the cameras will not detect the dozens of other offences that motorists commit—both minor and major. If we are to reduce the level of collisions, we need more traffic police in addition to the role proposed by the Highways Agency, and the public should be convinced that the carnage has to stop. With drivers assuming that traffic police are so few that they can usually deal only with scenes of collisions, they will completely ignore legislation in respect of motor vehicles. The number of people killed and seriously injured on our roads will increase and the Government's clear intention of reducing the KSI figures will be in tatters. This must not happen. The pendulum will, eventually, swing in the direction of more police traffic officers—I hope.

I wonder why 540 police traffic officers are to be replaced by 1,200 Highways Agency traffic officers. Surely, that is not financially viable. Every time they get an awkward situation they will have to call the police, of whom there will be very few that are health and safety trained, to do their work on main roads. I find it somewhat ironic that I have these qualifications but that there are many police traffic officers who do not. Of course, by the time one of the few qualified officers gets to the scene of a collision the offenders might have left or, even worse, the situation could have escalated.

The potential problems posed by the Highways Agency doing certain things leading to warrant-holding specialist officers in patrol cars being withdrawn is, I think, fraught with problems which might have been discussed but which are not and will not be appreciated until collisions occur.

Finally, the most dangerous place on a motorway is the hard shoulder. To make use of this as an additional lane seems to me—I cannot say mad, because that is the wrong word, but the implications have not been thought out. Despite my misgivings about certain areas of this Bill, I hope that it proceeds smoothly.

5.55 p.m.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken in this debate this afternoon, I believe that the objectives behind this Bill are certainly admirable. There are a number of provisions here that we can all support wholeheartedly. Indeed, I recognise some of the issues that this Bill seeks to address from days gone by, from a different era, in the latter part of the last century, when I and my noble friend Lord Astor sat on the other side of the House. I may well return shortly to address the point that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, made in a sedentary intervention.

I will confine my remarks to two parts of the Bill, the first of which, Part 6, allows for the civil enforcement of certain driving and parking offences. We have already heard some remarks about that this afternoon. We already have private contractors operating as parking attendants as a result of the Road Traffic Act 1991 and subsequent legislation. We now have a real problem in terms of the degree of respect that the average motorist holds for parking attendants. They are performing their duties in a different way from how traffic wardens used to. We are seeing practices whereby parking attendants are paid a low basic wage, and they are highly incentivised through bonus schemes to dish out tickets.

That has resulted in motorists feeling victimised. All too often, one has seen parking attendants going up and down roads, noting when parking meters are due to expire and hiding round the corner, only to come out and pounce when the clock has gone one second past the due time. This is a good way of raising revenue, and that is what all this is about—at least, that is what the motorist thinks it is about. There is little belief that this has anything to do with getting traffic flowing by discouraging illegal parking. It is about being overly aggressive towards motorists. That is unhealthy and unnecessary.

That is just the current situation. I note in Clause 73(5) that parking attendants appointed under Section 63A of the Road Traffic Act will be designated as civil enforcement officers. The idea of parking attendants who are carrying out their duties in the way that they are—certainly in London—with little training, making judgments on road craft fills me, for one, with utter horror.

Schedule 7 defines the many traffic contraventions that will be subject to Part 6 of the Bill. Section 10 of Schedule 7 gives a substantial Henry VIII clause, to allow the addition of new offences and new contraventions to be put in, with the proviso that they are not offences that would result in automatic endorsement. If this is to be the way that these minor offences will be prosecuted, we must be convinced that there will be proper training for civil enforcement officers. I would appreciate it if the Minister could address that point in his closing remarks. My noble friend Lord Astor talked about the guidance that the Secretary of State said would be given to local authorities. Again, I would certainly endorse his desire to see that at the earliest possible stage.

If one is pulled over by a policeman, for example for turning right when there is a no right turn sign, certainly one has the opportunity at least to discuss the matter with the officer before he decides whether or not to issue a ticket. A considerable degree of discretion applies. However, I should feel very differently if I was talking to an official who I knew would be remunerated according to the number of tickets that he or she issued. I am genuinely very concerned that the enforcement of traffic violations could earn the disrespect of the public, as has the parking system.

I wish to comment briefly on charges. I understand that the penalty for a parking contravention can be as high as £100. That could be awarded to someone who was one second over the limit of the parking time he or she was allowed. I suggest that is an entirely disproportionate amount of money when one considers that the road fund licence for a car for a year is, I believe, £165. A fine of £100 could be awarded for a moment's inattention or perhaps for a moment's delay in returning to one's vehicle that arose through helping someone on the street. That is a wholly excessive amount of money. Perhaps the Minister will say something about the level of charges that will be imposed and whether it will be any different from those that currently apply.

I echo the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, in making a plea for police not to withdraw from traffic management. We need only to think of what is alleged, or reported, to have happened with the people who are suspected of causing the Madrid bombings to realise the importance of having high profile policing on the streets and to have people looking at vehicles. A number of terrorist outrages have been foiled due to stolen vans having "dodgy" lights that attract attention. That is a significant point. We need to see a transparent declaration of the sources and applications of the funds that are raised.

Part 1 relates to the establishment of traffic officers. Few people here would argue against a body of civil servants or contractors who would be able to help get traffic moving quickly on motorways and other trunk roads by cleaning up after accidents. That all sounds admirable and, of course, it is, but again we come back to the point that was very well put by the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, that we need to maintain a high traffic police presence on our roads. It is all very well for traffic officers to be tasked with clearing up after accidents, but despite their uniform and powers to stop and direct, they will not be policemen. Motorists need to know that they will still be vigilantly protected by the police. A reading of Clause 1 would seem to define a national traffic police force, or something that is one step away from it. Will the Minister comment on whether he sees that as a long-term objective?

I am concerned by Clause 8 which states that the national authority may, by statutory instrument confer further special powers on traffic officers". That is a substantial Henry VIII clause enabling the Secretary of State to say, "Oh, no, we wish traffic officers to have not just the power of stopping but further powers that are currently exercised by the police". Further safeguards need to be established in that regard.

There should be no confusion about these officers. We are now seeing on our streets a proliferation of people in uniform. There is genuine public confusion about who is responsible for what. We now see community police officers. There are many of them on the streets around Westminster, for example. I would be very surprised if the average man in the street knew what powers and responsibilities those officers had and whether they could stop and search people and so on. I have a residual concern about another group of uniformed sub police officers. For example, will they be able to travel with blue lights on their cars? Will traffic be required to give way to them? If they do not have blue lights, what happens at the scene of a major accident when those officers are the first to arrive? I suggest that without blue lights on their vehicles, they would find it difficult to perform the functions with which they are charged. I would like to know more about their interaction with the police; to have a clearer definition of their roles and responsibilities; to know about their training regimes; and to know how they deal with complaints, investigations and disciplinary proceedings.

Those are just two aspects of the Bill to which I should like to return in Committee. Overall, there is a great deal to be welcomed and I support much of the Bill. My final disappointment concerns the regulatory impact assessment of the Bill. The Department for Transport is rather good at analysing costs: for example, it costs road deaths and can say how many road deaths are needed in order to get a junction improved, and so forth. If any department is equipped to produce an impact assessment, that department would be. However, we are still rather vague on the costs and, more particularly, on the benefits that would flow from the Bill. It seems to be rather difficult to perform a cost/benefit analysis without a grasp of the costs or benefits.

6.6 p.m.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, as I go about my daily activities in London or outside London, I am as conscious as anyone of the inconvenience caused by obstacles making it difficult to exercise one's common-law right to pass and re-pass on the Queen's highway. So I am in favour of stringently enforced regulations for parked vehicles. From the outset, I have been keen on the Mayor of London's congestion charge. Like my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester, I am impressed by its initial success. Therefore, I welcome, too, the general thrust of the Bill to restrict and limit the bad effects of breakdowns, accidents and road works of all kinds.

I imagine that one of the most popular provisions in the Bill will be Clause 41, which will extend the duty of street authorities to co-ordinate the street works of statutory undertakers. and of themselves. Clause 49 extends the authorities' powers to restrict new works on roads where works have recently been carried out: I expect that clause will be popular too. As the noble Viscount, the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, and, I think, my noble friend Lord Faulkner said, the public have to put up with different bodies digging up the road in an apparently unco-ordinated manner in disregard of the public good.

However, balanced against those points, it is important that the obvious public interest of reducing obstruction in our streets, of which I have been speaking, is balanced with the less obvious, but none the less at least as important, public interest in the safety and efficiency of our gas and water mains. Certainly, the public ought to have as much concern about what goes on under and over our roads in terms of sewers, supplies of gas and water, telecommunications and so forth, as in the flow of traffic along the roads.

I do not have any current interests to declare, but for many years until last year I was a non-executive director of a water company. I became very aware of our responsibilities as a provider—both now and in the future when greater demands for water will undoubtedly emerge—of sustainable supplies of good quality water. I am sure we all know that the local media often voice the outrage of local people when there are frequent leakages from mains causing justifiable concern at wastage and sometimes disruption and damage to property.

Major programmes of mains renewal are needed in many parts of the country—probably most especially in London, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard. Those renewals programmes cannot be carried out except with some—albeit as temporary as possible no doubt—obstructions of the highway. Many people do not realise that half of London's water mains are more than 100 years old. Thames Water, the main supplier in greater London, has carefully worked-out plans—after the practicalities and the costs have been piloted—for the replacement of more than 1,000 miles of mains in the next five years. All our major cities and elsewhere have the same kind of problem.

While I accept the purpose of the Bill is to regulate—and I am all in favour of regulating such works—I ask that those who administer the permit schemes provided for in Part 3 should do so sensitively and with the public need for mains renewal and replacement firmly in the front of their minds. It is important that conditions imposed on the utilities are not unduly harsh—requiring, for example, that work be done only at night—and the charges imposed should not be as high as to suggest that they are generating revenue rather than being fair impositions on the utilities and their customers.

The utilities are quite reasonably concerned about the Bill but, because local authorities and highway authorities will not be charged for permits, utilities may in effect be providing subsidy to the works of those authorities.

As with so many Bills, a great deal depends on what will be in the regulations, and I agree with what the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, said earlier in the debate.

We should look at Clause 36, the permit regulations, and Clause 54, the resurfacing regulations. On the face of it, Clause 53, which precedes the clause about resurfacing regulations, imposes a very extensive obligation on utilities to resurface roads after they have dug them up and worked upon them. However, they not only have to resurface the part that has been opened up, but the whole of the road. In the meantime, of course, that will lengthen the process of traffic disruption. Regulatory uncertainty arises and there is a risk of one or more local authorities taking advantage of the position and funding their obligations by making unreasonable demands upon the utilities and their customers.

This is a good Bill but, as others have said, it will need detailed scrutiny in Committee.

6.12 p.m.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I, too, welcome the Bill and I congratulate the Government on seeking to get more out of our road system. I shall concentrate on Parts 2 and 6 of the Bill and suggest a few improvements, particularly from the point of view of pedestrians and cyclists. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, that if he used a bicycle in London he would never be late for a meeting. You always know when you are going to arrive because you do not get stuck in traffic.

My first question to the Minister is whether "traffic" in this context includes pedestrians and cyclists. I think it does but it is not quite clear. Where the Bill refers to "roads", does that include pavements? We have had this discussion many times before but it needs clarification.

I certainly look forward to receiving the guidance that my noble friend Lord Davies mentioned in his remarks, as does the noble Viscount, Lord Astor. I understood my noble friend to say that it will be available at Committee stage, but the noble Viscount seems to think that it will be available at Report stage. Perhaps my noble friend will clarify the position. It may be that I did not hear him correctly.

Behind all this, many cyclists and pedestrians feel threatened by heavier bits of machinery clunking around the road and they feel a need for inclusion and consideration in the Bill. I think they have got it, but they need a little encouragement and confidence building.

I have to question whether the duty of network management on a local authority applies to cyclists and pedestrians as well as to road vehicles. There is a suggestion in the Bill that the duty is the primary consideration, but what about the other obligations in regard to the environment and road safety? Are they secondary or equal considerations?

I would go a little further than my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester and suggest that the definition of rights and duties should come from Section 122 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. I could go into that in more detail, but it is probably a matter for another time.

In London, as my noble friend Lord Faulkner said, it is clear that the Mayor needs to be able to issue supplementary guidance to local authorities. Perhaps an appropriate amendment could be made to Clause 18. Given that Transport for London is trying to manage the traffic, it was therefore odd to hear in the briefing to which other noble Lords have referred that one comes over Westminster Bridge and drives along the Embankment on a TfL road, but that the parallel Whitehall—which carries most of TfL's buses, it seems—is a local authority road. It is crazy. That needs to be resolved. TfL suggests that it should oversee 2,000 kilometres of road, which take two-thirds of the traffic in London, even though they make up only one-sixth of the total road length. That seems sensible.

How can the Royal Parks in London be incorporated into the new arrangements? Maybe the Government have done that already, but I do not understand how. It would be odd if the Government were effectively giving themselves instructions in connection with traffic management in the Royal Parks. It would seem logical if TfL were to give guidance to the Royal Parks, and they sure need it.

My noble friend Lord Faulkner mentioned that our noble friend Lord Puttnam wanted to be able to close routes for filming. Somebody closed the Wellington Arch for filming a few months ago for 24 hours. That is used by many hundreds of cyclists a day. They were told to go around the roundabout or to get off and walk in the subway. No diversion was provided. I discovered in a Written Answer that English Heritage had earned about £1,000 for closing the arch. If there are to be cycle routes across the Royal Parks, they need to be continuous. At the moment, one goes up Constitution Hill and the cycle lane is closed. Cyclists are told to go on the road, with people shooting by probably at 50 mph. No speed cameras ever appear there and it is very dangerous. One cannot have gaps in cycle routes, because cyclists feel frightened.

TfL has done a great job with its London Cycling Action Plan. Let us hope that that improves, but the Royal Parks have a great deal to learn from TfL. I would not go so far as to suggest that London parks such as Hyde Park should be transferred to Westminster City Council, but it might be an idea in the long term. A lot could be learnt from it not just in terms of cycling, but in relation to other road management issues also. That matter will probably return to us later on.

I turn to my final point on this section of the Bill. Would it be a good idea to look again into the question of road hierarchy, as is suggested by the Government's road safety strategy, Tomorrow's Roads? The question has come up in your Lordships' House many times, and I shall not go into it further.

I turn to Part 6 of the Bill. Widening civil enforcement is a good idea. I know that many people, including the RAC, believe that it is a way to print money. However, whether my noble friend Lord Simon is right or wrong about the lack of police officers, a civil offence is much more likely to be detected and fined in practice. The offender will not do it again. It may be speeding or turning right when one should not have done. If one obeys the law, one has nothing to worry about. That applies to cyclists as well. I am not trying to defend cyclists who go through red lights and nearly hit me when I am on a green light. Everybody should be involved with civil enforcement. There is nothing to worry about, although the special enforcement areas need to be looked at.

Several noble Lords have spoken about road signs. I discovered in the Printed Paper Office today Statutory Instrument 2002/3113, which is a lovely book of nearly 500 pages of all kinds of traffic signs in full colour. It would be quite interesting to see which ones should be added to the list in Schedule 7 of offences for which civil penalties would apply. I would certainly propose to include the advance stop lines for cyclists, which are usually painted green and occupied by large lorries, taxis or cars when they should be occupied by cyclists. I would also include the continuous cycle lanes that are appearing with welcome frequency around cities nowadays. Of course, one likes Henry VIII clauses if one likes what they are trying to achieve, but I believe that we should examine the matter further. There are also anomalies in the way in which cycle lane and cycle track contraventions are proposed to be looked at, compared with the way in which motorists are being dealt with—but that is something that we can explore.

I have quickly summarised my concerns about the Bill, but it is really a very good Bill. I am sure that we can improve it by discussing it at greater length in Committee and later stages. However, I congratulate the Government on introducing it, and I wish it well.

6.21 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords. I give a general welcome to the Bill and assure the Minister that it will have the support of these Benches. I have a number of questions, which I hope that we can address either now or later in Committee.

Congestion is no doubt the greatest cause of the unreliability and unattractiveness of bus services. As the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, said, it costs business and commerce a huge amount of money, in London in particular but elsewhere as well. This Bill includes measures to deal with those problems—and, I believe, it can truthfully he said to be friendly to the law-abiding motorist.

Here I would draw something to the attention of people such as the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, who criticised the provisions, referring to "profit-seeking private contractors" being employed by local authorities to do the work. Who forced local authorities, when the party opposite was in government, to make us employ those contractors? That was the absolute leitmotif of Conservative policy, and we suffer from it. If those people are not properly controlled, I believe that traffic officers and civil enforcement officers, as described in the Bill, should have some police training. Perhaps the Government should consider the isolated examples of those people exceeding their powers, but I do not believe that the commentary of people such as Jeremy Clarkson or the Daily Mail should stand for the experience of most people.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, that the highway is for the conduct of traffic, not for the general storage of vehicles, heaps of rubbish and all sorts of other things. I want to see highways used for that primary purpose, which is what most law-abiding motorists want.

I want to know whether traffic officers, as described at the beginning of the Bill, will have the necessary powers to set up diversions. The motorways are plagued with accidents and, more particularly, broken-down vehicles, which I do not class as accidents. We hear lots about them every morning on the "Today" programme. I hope that the traffic officers will not only take action but also direct traffic on to the alternative network quickly and competently.

I wonder whether traffic officers and civil enforcement officers will have powers to enforce the payment of vehicle excise duty and to require production, when necessary, of insurance documents. We know that there is a huge problem with avoidance of vehicle excise duty, and it is time that the Government took effective steps to deal with the problem. Will civil enforcement officers have powers to stop vehicles for the purposes of traffic surveys and the necessary tests for air pollution? Will they be allowed to issue fixed penalty notices for such transgressions as pollution?

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has raised the point that the Bill is very strong on its reference to roads but less so in what it says about footways. In Part 1, it defines roads as: any other road to which the public has access". Does that include pavements and footpaths? Does it include rights of way? If it does, it opens the possibility of civil enforcement officers being able to enforce traffic regulation orders on rights of way. I would like an answer to that question.

Clause 34 requires permanent schemes to be submitted to the national authority. That will mean a huge, devastating amount of bureaucracy as each local authority submits its scheme. I wonder why local authorities cannot be trusted to abide by the guidance if it is properly drawn up and comprehensive. One cannot make fun of the differences between local authorities, which the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, did, and at the same time criticise the Government for centralising everything. One wants local responsibility or one does not want it, but one cannot have both. One either trusts the local authorities or one does not. I, for one, would trust local authorities, most of which are quite responsible and answer to their electorates.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, has given two options and I do not think that it is a fair analogy. What we want is local authorities all coming under the same regulations and treating them in the same way, giving uniformity to the way that a motorist is treated throughout the country. That is not taking away local authorities' powers to manage. It just means uniformity in the way that they behave to the motorist.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, it may appear that there is uniformity but the circumstances in each local authority are likely to be different. Some local authorities—the county council of which I am a member, for example, which owns all the car parks—choose to impose a punitive car-parking regime. I know that other local authorities do not do so. That is something that they can choose to do, as long as they do not subsidise the car park out of the council tax, which is wrong. Local authorities should be allowed some discretion. Motorists cannot expect to be treated absolutely the same everywhere.

In Clause 82, an exception is allowed to double-park, where the vehicle is being used in connection with … undertaking any building operation, demolition or excavation". While I can accept that double-parking might exceptionally be allowed when a vehicle is being towed away or the refuse men are down the street, I find it difficult to accept that building work should be used as an excuse to double-park, and effectively to block the road in many cases, except in a great emergency.

Will the Minister confirm that camera enforcement of bus lanes outside London will be allowed under the Bill? I have had answers from the Government over the past three years saying that bus lane enforcement outside London will happen "shortly", "next month", -next year", "around Easter". I have had all sorts of answers but it is never going to happen. I would like to know from the Minister's answer that it will happen. Local authorities need to enforce bus lanes, and they need to put bus lanes where they are most use.

The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, asked whether the power to inspect blue badges actually included the power to inspect the badge of anyone using a disabled parking space. It is not quite clear in the Bill that, if someone uses a disabled parking space, they would on challenge by a civil enforcement officer be required to produce a blue badge. Will the permit regulations generate sufficient funds to meet the cost of issuing permits and the necessary inspection of works? It will be necessary for local authorities to employ officers who go round like clerks of the works to see that the permits are observed.

Reference has been made by the noble Lords, Lord Faulkner, Lord Sheppard and Lord Berkeley, to the anomalies in London, which certainly need to be sorted out. Transport for London needs some sort of oversight about what goes on on the strategic bus network.

We heard from the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, and others about the importance of the traffic police in catching ordinary criminals. From my experience on the police authority, I can say that that is a vital role, perhaps more so at this time. Many active criminals—many people engaged in serious criminal activity—are caught by the traffic police, which is not surprising in that the motorway and trunk-road network is extensively used by criminals. I would like an assurance from the Minister that the appointment of traffic officers will not see a further rundown of 550 traffic police. That would be a very serious loss.

There is a provision for preventing parking where the kerbs have been dropped, but it appears to apply only in London. It is something to which we will need to come back. It is extremely annoying to find people parked across those places where the local authority has dropped the kerb for disabled people, yet the person in the wheelchair or ladies with buggies have to bounce up and down the kerb.

Generally, we welcome what is in the Bill. We hope that its provisions will extend to cyclists and pedestrians, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and to footways and footpaths. Subject to certain clarifications and minor amendments, we will give the Bill our support.

6.33 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, by way of introduction, I congratulate the Government on attempting to tackle the ever-increasing problem of congestion on our motorways and trunk roads and in our towns and cities. I wholeheartedly welcome the measures to ensure the smooth and safe movement of traffic, and to increase the effectiveness of street works. We have to be careful, however, that the legislative solution does exactly that and does not add to the heavy yoke round the neck of motorists. I feel that it is a duty of the Opposition to fight the corner of the persecuted motorist. For instance, £45 billion of revenue was raised from motorists in 2000, yet drivers do not see the road building or improvement schemes yet. Legislation can only be second-best compared to investment in an improved road network.

There has been a reduction of 12 per cent between 1997 and 2000 in the numbers of traffic police. How will 1,200 traffic officers rectify the loss of those traffic police? After what the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, said about a large amount of our crime being picked up by the traffic police, one has to ask what has been the result of that 12 per cent diminishment in their numbers, in terms of crime being detected.

Members on these Opposition Benches consider it our duty to protect the law-abiding motorist from additional stealth taxes and red tape. The Government have adopted a peculiar tactic in pushing forward such a key issue without full consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny. A cohort of various professional bodies has lined up to bemoan the lack of discussion and consultation. While welcoming the Bill, the AA has noted: There is much that is unsettling, unclear or risky". The National Joint Utilities Group is worried about the Government's limited evidence and the possibility that detailed regulations will be pushed through without full public consultation.

As we have heard, the newly created role of traffic officers has raised significant cause for concern. Their less than well defined role may lead to a reduction of policing on the road network on the one hand, and a doubling-up of breakdown rescue resources on the other. We have heard that traffic officers are to have the primary responsibility of ensuring the expeditious movement of traffic. When accidents occur, they will be responsible for the removal of wreckage and restoring the regular flow of traffic as quickly as possible. However, it will not be their function to collect evidence or take statements. Indeed they will have neither the powers nor the specialist training necessary to arrest or detain people. All that is to remain the sole province of police forces. As such, if traffic officers alone deal with scenes of accidents, criminal behaviour may go undetected and evidence may be lost. The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, and the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, touched on this point.

A further worrying situation is that the creation of new traffic officers threatens further to dilute the presence of fully trained police officers on our strategic road network. The RAC envisages that traffic officers will create a needless doubling-up of resources, and thus traffic officers threaten to complicate incident management rather than ensuring a speedy resolution.

The RAC has noted that between 70 and 80 per cent of its customers call for help from a mobile phone. This means that in many cases breakdown organisations will already have sent a recovery vehicle before the Highways Agency becomes involved. In those circumstances, the Highways Agency is likely to dispatch a breakdown recovery vehicle in addition to the patrol vehicle already on its way to the same incident. Such a situation might be amusing to the motorist in question if it were not for the sobering thought of the £105 charge to be made by the Highways Agency if its vehicle attends first, regardless of whether the motorist has already called their own breakdown service. My noble friend Lord Astor referred to this in his remarks.

Not only will that constitute another charge on the motorist, but it will replace their choice of using a variety of private breakdown services with the expensive monopoly of the Highways Agency. Again, the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, touched on the problem of monopoly.

I return to the duty of care to the motorcyclist. Like my noble friend Lord Goschen I declare an interest as a motorcyclist and, like the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, as an avid bicyclist. This topic is of particular interest to me. The provisions for motorcyclists and bicyclists within the management of our road network mean that currently, police conducting traffic duties owe no duty of care to protect road users from hazards of which police officers are aware, but were not created by them.

Spillages or spilt diesel fuel, however small, can present a serious hazard to motorcyclists and bicyclists. If you have not experienced it, it is difficult to describe the terror of the loss of control suffered at even a moderate speed when one's two-wheeler comes into contact with spilt diesel fuel. I have suffered on two such occasions. On one occasion, going at a moderate speed round a roundabout, I ended up in a petrol station, some considerable distance away. By virtue of going round a roundabout, I was obviously not going at excessive speed. I therefore ask the Minister if he will use the Bill to take greater account of the two-wheeler perils that we face in our day-to-day pedalling or motorcycling.

In the Bill's new permit scheme for street works, local authorities gain more control over works carried out by utility companies. One naturally supports the idea of redress when works stretch out over weeks and weeks on vital sections of roads, aggravating congestion. However, in the process, the Government look like creating a lose-lose situation for utilities and motorists.

My noble friend Lord Astor touched on my next point. The Ha'crow report on the Government pilot schemes in Camden and Middlesbrough showed no significant change in practices, despite utilities having to fork out substantial charges for merely occupying the highway. It also noted that journey times had not been reduced and that the additional cost for the utilities in the 11-month pilot scheme was £1.18 million in Camden. The NJUG has pointed out that the Highways Agency is responsible for the same proportion of unavoidable street works as it is, yet the agency is not subject to the same exacting penalties. Not only are the utility companies denied a level playing field with the Highways Agency but all motorists are threatened by an additional stealth tax. If the permit scheme were to be rolled out nationwide, the NJUG estimates, as my noble friend Lord Astor said, that if the cost were passed on to customers, it could be as high as £55 per household per annum.

As I drive home tonight, I will cogitate carefully on how we might improve this Bill in Committee.

6.42 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have participated in this debate. I recognise that we have some significant issues to discuss in Committee. It is not possible to reply to every detailed point that has been raised this evening, but I certainly want to respond to several very important ones.

I turn first to an expression of concern from several noble Lords who are worried about the way in which the Highways Agency will operate in relation to the police. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, set the ball rolling, with some fairly trenchant remarks in this direction. The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, also commented on these points, and my noble friend Lord Simon expressed some concern. My noble friend speaks from his considerable experience of the way in which the police operate in their traffic role, and I want to give him some assurances.

There is no doubling up with the police in these circumstances. The traffic officer will deal with organising repairs; clearing the crashed vehicles off the highway; keeping drivers informed so that people can circumnavigate the incident as best they can; controlling traffic flow; and setting up closures and diversions where they prove to be necessary if the incident is serious enough. The police will, of course, be in control of the necessary investigation of the accident's cause—they will deal with the crime issues, witness statements and evidence, and they will manage the emergency services. So there will be a clear separation of roles.

The Association of Chief Police Officers has responded to this against a background of recognising that this separation of function can be readily defined. It gives a broad welcome to the role that will be played by traffic officers. There will be clear lines of responsibility and, in broad terms—we will debate these issues in more detail in Committee—I have not the slightest doubt that we will be able to defend the Bill and its provisions in the crucial area of division of responsibility.

There is also no intention for traffic officers to provide an alternative breakdown recovery service, which was mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and others. Traffic officers cannot exercise an aggressive policy of vehicle removal in the way that he indicated—creating revenue-raising potential by clearing vehicles off the road. The Minister in the other place was clear that the Bill simply paves the way for traffic officers to exercise the removal powers available to the police.

In any event, there will be full consultation. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, will be aware that we have consulted recently with the RAC and other motoring organisations on the matter. I am sure that all noble Lords will value the efficiency of the breakdown organisations over their many years of motoring, when motoring became unhappy, rather than happy, when breakdowns and accidents occurred. We are not setting up a rival to those organisations at all. On the contrary, we are merely concerned with making the highway clear. The issue of recovery relates mainly to the private motorist and the organisations that provide those services.

The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, also asked about the criteria for intervening in failing authorities. Although that is a question that should be debated in Committee, I shall make an obvious point for which the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, provided the introduction. We intend to intervene in local authorities as a matter of last resort. We recognise that local authorities have important roles to play in traffic management issues and the organisation of their local roads. We need to work with them. Therefore, the concept that there is an enormous drive towards a national authority that would control every conceivable road in the country is not feasible, and it would not be meaningful to have a national plan in those terms. We will require local authorities to shape up to their responsibilities, as defined in the Bill, and show good use of the extra resources that we are channelling towards them.

I refer in passing to the comments of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, on resources. He berated the Government for their roads policy. He may have forgotten that when we first came to power we inherited plans from the previous administration and stuck to them. Our commitment to expenditure since then has been the subject of fierce criticism from Opposition Benches, who can just about restrain themselves from attacking our health service provisions but have few reservations about returning education to the benighted days. If the noble Viscount is suggesting that a future Conservative government would bring new benefits to the country by spending more on roads, he should talk to his shadow Chancellor, before he drops him further into the political mire as regards adding up sums.

My noble friends Lord Faulkner and Lord Berkeley and the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, asked about safety and the definition of "road user". That term includes all road users. Therefore, cyclists and pedestrians are part of the process. Effective road management means that on behalf of all road users we must try to create the best possible environment, given that difficulties occur from time to time.

I shall not be quite so helpful to my noble friend on the point which he generously raised on behalf of my noble friend Lord Puttnam, who is not present. Not only is he well able to look after himself when he is here, but he seems to be able to get points across when he is not. I cannot he helpful on that front—and it is not because I am inimical to the concept of filming taking place on roads. My noble friend Lord Puttnam wants that to take place, which at times would cause road blockages, and to come within the framework of the Bill. We can see no way in which the Bill can be amended in those terms. However, my noble friend Lord Puttnam is an extremely persuasive Member of this House and he may be able to deal with the authorities of the House more effectively than we have been able thus far. I will wait upon that event and say only that I wish him well. At present, we have no answer to the point he has raised.

My noble friend asked about a national pavement parking ban and how we can keep our pavements as free as possible for pedestrians. They are not intended for parked cars or cyclists, but for pedestrians. The issue is classically one which must be tackled at a local level. The authorities have the powers and we have commissioned a research project with the aim of drawing up best practice guidance for local authorities in dealing with the problem. However, we cannot make direct national provision for it.

I have considerable sympathy with the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, on TfL having a more strategic role with regard to London. Other noble Lords inevitably emphasised London's crucial role. We recognise that, which is why in certain areas we intend to carry out pilot studies promoted in London to see how schemes work here before we expect other local authorities to follow through. There is no doubt that London is a challenging environment, but many of us would recognise, despite the disparagement in some quarters, that the congestion charge has had notable success. But there are other ways in which we can improve traffic usage in London and its environment for all who live and work here.

The noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, asked in particular whether fines on utilities could be hypothecated for transport activities. He must know that that verb is outside the lexicon of normal government behaviour. But we have a working party of local authorities, utilities and the Department for Transport looking at how the fines regime will work. The department will also be exploring with the Treasury what proportion of the money raised in fines can be kept for exactly the purpose the noble Lord identified. I am not one to go to the Treasury and demand hypothecation in quite those terms, nor are many of my colleagues. And that is not merely because this Chancellor tends to be in redoubtable opposition to the concept—all his predecessors have been, too.

Lord Sheppard of Didgemere

My Lords, with the introduction of the congestion charge, the Treasury recognised the term for the first time after about 100 years of discussion, although we have not seen too much of the benefit, and I hoped that the idea was catching.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Lord has made a significant point and we shall see what progress can be made. I merely indicated that there is a framework within which we can progress these discussions, but he will forgive me if I do not anticipate 100 per cent success at this stage.

The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, emphasised aspects of the relationship between traffic officers and the police. I hope that I have given him some reassurance on that point. Perhaps I may say again that, both in the context of this group of officers and others, the crucial question has arisen of what calibre of people they will be. Noble Lords are right: we shall need to train people effectively. They will not be police officers or have the enforcement powers of police officers. Nevertheless, it is important that we identify clear areas of responsibility which the traffic officers will hold. They will need to understand the parameters of their power and how they should conduct themselves.

I take fully on board all the points made in the debate. We shall need a comprehensive training programme for traffic officers; they will need full accreditation; and they will need to be checked by the Criminal Records Bureau. I am looking particularly at the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, because I believe that he emphasised those points in relation to traffic officers. I also want to assure him that there will be a full complaints procedure should any officer transgress the boundaries of his power when dealing with a member of the public who will have the right to contest the position.

A number of noble Lords raised questions about the regulations. They asked about the timescale and how we are to obtain sight of the regulations. We shall do our best to make progress on them. However, it will be recognised that those which relate, in particular, to local authorities will be the subject of considerable consultation. I cannot promise that the regulations will be fully drafted in time for the Committee stage of the Bill or even for the Report stage in the way that noble Lords would wish. However, we have clarified some matters today and, as we move through the Committee stage, we shall identify key issues which impact upon the regulations, and that will aid the process of getting them right.

My noble friend Lord Borrie and other noble Lords raised the question of the utilities. We are not intending that local authorities will have their roads resurfaced on the cheap by exploiting the position of the utilities. That is an important area in which we must get the framework right with regard to the relationship between the two. The proper costs involved will need to be identified, and it is clear that we shall need to ensure that they are shared fairly between the local authorities and the various undertakers involved.

However, I stress again that our objective in the Bill is to seek to ensure that we are able to use our road space to maximum advantage. That is why co-operation will be necessary and why we shall need to ensure that progress is made on effective consultation in those terms.

The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, asked me a number of precise questions, some of which I shall hope to deal with in Committee where we shall be able to air the issues further. I mentioned the question of the definition of a "road". I am not sure that I can follow the noble Lord to quite the extent that he would wish on the subject of trails and other aspects of byways, highways and rights of way. But I have no doubt that he will be active in Committee and that he will explore that matter further then. We shall need to discuss the enforcement of rights of way more fully.

On the use of blue badges, the power in Clause 90 for civil enforcement officers to inspect blue badges will help to reduce improper use. Many noble Lords were shocked the other day by the information indicating how badges for the disabled are the subject of abuse. In parts of the country, particularly in London, there is considerable trafficking in the badges. This clause will ensure that the person to whom the badge has been issued is in the vehicle when the badge is displayed.

The new power will not prevent the forging of badges, but the fact that they will be subject to close inspection should take us some way down the road towards dealing with what we all recognise as a shocking abuse of a facility that we offer to the disabled, but which is used by others to evade parking restrictions.

We have not made as much progress as we would have liked in regard to bus lane enforcement in authorities outside London. That is partly because we have legal restrictions on the ability to make progress. I assure the noble Viscount that we are considering the matter actively. I have no doubt that he will return to it in Committee.

The major point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, was his anxiety about whether the introduction of traffic officers would reduce the emphasis on law enforcement. The opposite will pertain. We expect the introduction of the traffic officer service to mean that the police will spend less time managing traffic, and therefore have more time to deal with crime. If some of that crime relates to rapid get-away transport used by criminals on our motorways, the police will have an important part to play.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but my main point was that there had been a reduction of 17 per cent in the number of traffic police between 1997 and 2000, which presumably had resulted in a certain amount of crime going undetected, as the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, mentioned. I am doubtful whether putting in place traffic managers will result in any change in that.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, it will free up police time. We all know the demands on the police and that they have to concentrate on their priorities. The noble Lord will recognise that a major purpose of the Bill is to try to free up essential police time.

In general, views have been expressed about consultation on the issue of control of local roads. I want to reassure noble Lords that we expect full consultation on such processes with regard to the utilities and others affected adversely by work on the roads. That may mean, for example, that passenger transport executives need to be aware of and consulted on such issues so that they can provide the best service to the community.

We have had an interesting debate. I give way to the noble Lord, although I shall be exceeding my time limit.

Lord Sheppard of Didgemere

My Lords, sadly, the Minister may be right that I should not be ambitious about hypothecation. Perhaps I can look forward to a government amendment on who will deal with the London lorry ban.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, powers in regard to that already exist and so the matter is not strictly related to the Bill. I have no doubt that the noble Lord, with his ingenuity, will be able to press us a little in Committee on the matter. He will see how we are able to respond.

We have had a most interesting debate. It has taken me 21 minutes to respond in very general terms just to the points that have been raised. I look forward to a lively Committee stage. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Grand Committee.

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