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Column 815The hon. Gentleman made some accusations about the Department. A letter was written by one of the Department's regional offices that mistakenly referred to a fatality. Within four weeks the Department had written again to correct the mistake. Nobody who reads the report of the hon. Gentleman's speech will realise that. He said that people laboured under a misapprehension for three months.
Mr Griffiths : The switchboard of the office for blind people that I visited this morning was jammed with calls from people who were inquiring about a fatality on a talking crossing. Why did the Minister not make sure that that statement was repudiated, not in four weeks, but in four days?
Mr. Bottomley : Partly because I was not aware of it. I should have done ; I am one of those people who find it quite easy to apologise. The hon. Gentleman clearly does not. He has given the impression that the Department did not correct the mistake. I did. I am perfectly willing to apologise again on behalf of the Department and to take responsibility for it.
The hon. Gentleman needs to take responsibility for his own remarks. I intend to quote from the transcript of the radio interview that I gave after the meeting. I said :
"It's not England versus Scotland, although obviously the talking Pelican got approved in Scotland, and I accept that the blind people were happy with it."
When the hon. Gentleman suggested that I said the reverse, he got it wrong. It was a mistake on his part. I said that I accepted that blind people were happy with it. I went on to say :
"They'd be just as happy with the cone of noise, and the cone of noise has a number of advantages over using speech."
I refer the hon. Gentleman to an article in the Oxford Mail of Tuesday 31 January and to an article in Auto Express of 10 February. The article in the Oxford Mail is headed
"Residents' fury over talking pelican crossing."
The article in Auto Express is headed
"Cross words over talking pelican."
When I said in the radio interview that the cone of noise had a number of advantages over using speech and that
"I think most people accept that--not everyone--but most people will accept that"
I was not claiming unanimity. Then I said :
"Certainly the physics are in its favour. What is the best way of providing guidance at divided crossings in Great Britain, and also what will help blind people abroad, and quite frankly if you've got a hundred and seven highway authorities in England, it's rather better to ask people to hang on for a few more months to get it right, when the best is not the enemy of the good, if you've got a better product that's going to be available, and more people will benefit." I think that the hon. Gentleman referred to 14 installations of what we might refer to in shorthand as the Scottish crossing with the tape-recorded voice. I went on to say in that radio interview :
Column 816"In a year or so's time people will be saying We were happy with the talking Pelican, but we think that what we're getting now is better, is going to be spread more widely, and provide more advantage, more safely' ".
The interviewer asked :
"And is that the time scale do you think, about a year for seeing some solution to the problem?"
I said : "I hope so."
Some of that is inconsistent with what the hon. Gentleman said, but as presumably we are working from the same transcript I think that he will accept that as I have read out all my quoted remarks in that transcript I have provided more illumination than he did. The Department has received recently a letter from the joint committee on mobility of blind and partially sighted people. It tries to act--and it succeeds--as a co- ordinating body. It believes that "bleep-and-sweep" audible signals at staggered dual carriageway pedestrian crossings are better. That is not disputed.
The hon. Gentleman has raised a number of issues with me. It might be thought from what he has said--probably inadvertently--that the Department's new sound unit is dangerous and has had to be withdrawn. It is worth saying that the fault was not in the new sound units ; it was in the controllers that were made between 1977 and the early 1980s. A talking pelican is equally at risk if it is connected to one of the faulty controllers.
It might be suggested that the Department was slow to act when a pelican fault condition occurred. That is not so. One crossing out of 7,000 pelican crossings was faulty and it was dealt with quickly. The fault was found on 26 September and the Department was notified on 27 September. The Department wrote to the manufacturer on 30 September. On 19 October the manufacturer replied that the fault had been rectified. On 24 November the Department received a formal request to approve a design modification. It was approved on 21 December. On 3 January regional officers were asked to switch off audible units, and 1,000 out of the 7,000 were affected.
The hon. Gentleman raised the question of notification. With hindsight, I think that it would have been better to say that 1,000 out of 7,000 were likely to be switched off. I think that my willingness to say so indicates that much of the rest of what the hon. Gentleman was saying was not up to scratch. The purpose of the press notice was to clarify the situation rather than actually to announce that action was being taken.
The hon. Gentleman referred to an incorrect letter sent on 17 November. It dealt with the question of the fatality. The writer of the letter had been misinformed, and he sent the letter in good faith. But that was corrected-- on December 12, I think. It would have been more helpful if the hon. Gentleman had been able to say so in his speech--on the assumption that he knew about it.
The issue that we are facing is really whether, in the long term, it is better to have an audible voice than to have the cone of sound.
I have indicated to the House and to the hon. Gentleman that the cross words and the residents' fury over the talking pelican crossing suggest that there is a difficulty.
As to the disadvantages of the talking pelican, I am not saying that it should not have been approved in Scotland. Where there are separate jurisdictions it is obviously up to each to make its own decisions. That is one of the advantages, or one of the disadvantages if one were to look at it in a very rigorous way--but I prefer not to.
Column 817It annoys local residents--and I have given examples from the Oxford Mail and the Auto Express. It wastes green time while people listen to the message. Obviously, people could say that the three-and-half seconds that it may take for the tape-recorded message to be broadcast is wasted only to a stranger, and not to a local, who may set off as he hears the voice, let alone the bleep. If people do not wait to hear the message, that indicates that the spoken message is not necessary.
A spoken message also presupposes local knowledge, that a stranger coming to the pelican crossing and hearing a voice refer to traffic, to the town hall or away from the town hall, or to Oxford or away from Oxford, or to Edinburgh or away from Edinburgh, has some local knowledge already. Almost by definition, if someone is using a crossing for the first time he may not have that detailed local knowledge. Pedestrians, other than the blind, could be misled if they were not local.
The male and female voices units interlocked cannot talk together. This would limit its use in computer-controlled schemes, where full flexibility might be required. I would accept--if the hon. Gentleman had made this point--that the talking pelican crossing does not meet the pelican crossing regulations. However, the hon. Gentleman may regard that as a legalistic matter and beside the point.
I turn to the advantages of the Department's new sound unit--if I may refer to it in that way. It overcomes all the problems that I have referred to. The new sound has been selected to be distinctive in relation to traffic noise. The level of sound is varied, depending on the level of the traffic noise. The distinctive nature of the sound allows it to be operated at a relatively low volume compared with the talking pelican, and it does not cause annoyance to local residents.
To put this in perspective, I should say that there are approximately 7,000 pelican crossings in England. About 6,000 are single crossings with bleeper sound units, and about 1,000 are staggered crossings. There are six trial sites with tactile knobs and six trial sites with the new sound units, and 25 trunk road sites will be equipped later this year with the new sound unit.
Column 818Let me turn again to the hon. Member's speech, which, on reflection, I hope he will regard as one that he should have modified before he made it or when he was making it. I hope that he feels--I was going to say "ashamed of it" but I will not put it that way-- that he got it wrong.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the Department as wasting, or not spending, millions of pounds. We did not hear much justification for that remark. He said that taxpayers' money had been sunk. I regard expenditure on meeting the needs of people with disabilities as an investment. We are spending money on the provision of textured pavements, dropped kerbs, conventional sound units at single crossings, tactile devices and devices for the deaf at dual-carriageway roads, and the new sound units at dual carriageway roads.
All that we are doing for the disabled is an investment, not sinking taxpayers' money. The hon. Gentleman will probably want to withdraw or explain away what he said when he talks to groups which represent people with disabilities.
The hon. Gentleman talked of things which are strange to the truth, and of tactics, as though I, the Department, its disability unit, the Baldwin committee, which is a statutory committee that represents the needs of the disabled, or the joint committee on the mobility of blind or partially sighted people, are in some way to be disparaged because he, the hon. Gentleman, is the only one who has got it right.
I shall pass over the hon. Gentleman's reference to lies. He said that I said that blind people do not want the crossing, but the transcript says the exact opposite.
He said that I have told the RNIB this, that or the other. It is not so. It was not so--and the hon. Gentleman knew it. We want to get the cone-of- sound system into operation.
I, the hon. Gentleman and the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West want more pelican crossings which are useful to the blind and partially sighted. If the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South would like to work with us, we would welcome that, and we will put behind us his intemperate and often inaccurate remarks.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Eleven o'clock.
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