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House of Commons

Monday 12 March 1990

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


United States Secretary for Transportation

1. Mr. Colvin : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on his meeting with the Secretary for Transportation of the United States of America.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Cecil Parkinson) : We met in Washington on 11 January. We discussed a variety of topics, including the prospects for liberalising services between the United Kingdom and United States of America and arrangements for new United States airline services to regional airports. Those discussions are now being carried forward.

Mr. Colvin : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that any air service agreements with the United States will be based on reciprocity, particularly with regard to cabotage, and that they will be negotiated by Britain on a bilateral basis rather than in concert with our European partners? We have much more at stake than other EEC members. To negotiate with them might lead to the building up of a fortress Europe mentality, which would be very much to Britain's disadvantage in its relationship with the United States.

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Mr. Parkinson : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that the package of measures that we agree between us is fair to both sides. The Commission has its work cut out to make progress on liberalisation within the Community and is certainly not ready to take on the duties of negotiating our bilateral international agreements. I therefore agree with my hon. Friend on both counts.

Mr. Prescott : At that meeting, did the Secretary of State discuss with Mr. Skinner the information that came to light in the presidential investigation into the Lockerbie tragedy--that 80 per cent. of the American embassy people who were to fly on that plane cancelled on receipt of the warning about that crash? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that that is another good reason why he should reopen the inquiry into the Lockerbie tragedy, as it causes grave offence for him to co-operate with the American authorities while refusing to conduct such an inquiry in Britain?

Mr. Parkinson : I did not discuss the information about the United States personnel, although I discussed with Mr. Skinner the implications of Lockerbie for aviation security. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the two Governments have been co-operating to promote international agreement on a range of matters. We are still investigating Lockerbie--the investigations by the police and the air accident investigation branch continue. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate has made it clear that there will be a fatal accident inquiry and he is already making those arrangements. There is no question of that terrible disaster not being fully investigated. Road Improvement

2. Mr. Barry Field : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport how much is being allocated in transport supplementary grant to local authorities in 1990-91 for road improvement programmes.

The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Robert Atkins) : Government grants of £233 million have been made available to local councils this year--a 15 per cent.

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increase on last year--further proof, if it were needed, of the Government's real commitment to improving local roads.

Mr. Field : I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent news. Has his Department had time to consider the report by Sir John Wolfe-Barry and Partners, dated 24 May 1924, on the construction of a bridge between east and west Cowes? I wonder whether my hon. Friend would like to earn 66 standing ovations on the Isle of Wight, one for every year since that report, as well as a free holiday on the Isle of Wight, for joining east and west and announcing that he will fund the river bridge over the Medina.

Mr. Atkins : My hon. Friend may have been around when the article was published, but I most certainly was not. None the less, his point is not lost on me or on my Department. The case for the Medina bridge is strong. As my hon. Friend will understand, I cannot commit myself at the moment to announcing whether transport supplementary grant can be made available, but this is obviously a good candidate. Clearly, were I able to provide that grant, a free holiday would be an attraction, but not the most persuasive one.

Mr. Fearn : Is the Minister aware that many bridges over disused railways are in a very bad state of repair? In the programme of moneys that he has in mind to allocate to the local authorities, are there any moneys for the repair of the bridges, as there is no doubt that they are in a dangerous state?

Mr. Atkins : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have made an adjustment this year to enable local authorities to ring-fence the resources that were previously available to them under the rate support grant and which are now available under our own grant, to enable them to repair their local bridges. The local authorities have told me that they require more money, and we are considering that at the moment, but the Department's programme of repair of its own bridges on trunk roads, motorways and so on, is progressing fast and satisfactorily.

Mr. Adley : Is my hon. Friend aware that those who have had to listen over the years to the endless arguments about the Winchester bypass recognised the dilemma in which the Secretary of State found himself, and that most people realised that he had no choice whatever but to reach the decision that he reached? The decision that the Secretary of State has taken to return the existing road to greenery will do a great deal to allay the understandable concern about the environment, and most reasonable people accept what the Government have decided to do.

Mr. Atkins : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are grateful for my hon. Friend's judgment, bearing in mind his known interests in matters that are not always road based. I think that it is fair to say that a number of us involved in making the decision resent strongly the suggestion that, because that difficult decision was faced and taken, those at the Department of the Environment and at the Department of Transport are somehow less aware of the environmental considerations that are so important to many of us. My hon. Friend knows the area well and his support for the road on behalf of his constituents is greatly appreciated.

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London Assessment Studies

3. Miss Hoey : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport how many responses he has now received to the London assessment studies consultation ; and what was their nature.

Mr. Parkinson : Several thousand responses were received on the London assessment consultation and they are now being analysed.

Miss Hoey : Will the Secretary of State confirm that the vast majority of responses that he received from local authorities, businesses and property developers oppose the road-building aspects of the road assessment studies and call for more money to be spent on public transport? Will he now listen to what people are saying and, in particular, to the thousands of people in my area who are trying to save Clapham common from devastation?

Mr. Parkinson : Assessment of the representations is still going on and it would be unfair to suggest that we can summarise them in a word or two. Certainly, some of the major road-building proposals are very controversial but in other cases people accept the need for adjustments and improvements. I should also point out to the hon. Lady--I am glad that she underlined it her remarks--that the assessment studies contain quite a large number of public transport options and that the Government are already committed to the biggest ever investment programme for Network SouthEast and London Underground.

Mr. Gerald Bowden : Will my right hon. Friend note that during the consultation period I received an unprecedented number of letters--some 1,500 individual letters--from constituents about proposals for the south circular road? The vast majority of my correspondents do not wish large- scale road development to take place ; they seek minor improvements at junctions and traffic management schemes. They would also endorse the proposals that I know my right hon. Friend and his Department are to put forward to improve the public transport system--in particular, the extension of the Underground route to the south-east.

Mr. Parkinson : On this occasion, as on others, my hon. Friend accurately assesses the mood of his constituents and represents it to the House. I thank him for his acknowledgement that a huge programme of investment to increase capacity on the Underground, to develop new lines and to extend and modernise existing lines is now under way and is being carried through.

Mr. Spearing : Does the Secretary of State agree that many of his public pronouncements have emphasised the importance of environmental factors when new roads are being built? Will he now reassess the decision-- either of his Department or of the former Secretary of State for the Environment--not to put a road tunnel, as the inspector recommended, under Oxleas wood? Does he realise that the Government's failure to do that makes their claims to be green completely specious?

Mr. Parkinson : It is a little wild of the hon. Gentleman to say that the Government's reputation depends on a single decision, with which he does not agree, which affects his constituents. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the

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matter is being reconsidered and an inquiry is being reopened. We shall have to wait and see what recommendations are made.

Mr. Tracey : In his deliberations, will my right hon. Friend be clear about the fact that the London boroughs, and in particular the inner London boroughs, now place a much higher priority on environmental protection than on road building? Will he do all that he can to divert passengers to public transport and will he replenish the investment on public transport, which fell so radically under the Greater London council?

Mr. Parkinson : My hon. Friend is right to say that the Government must not underestimate the contribution that public transport can make in London. If we consider the investment programme, which is approximately four times what which we inherited from the Labour-controlled GLC five years ago, and also the £1,200 million that is to be invested in Network SouthEast, it is clear that we act while others talk and moan. We are aware of the need to improve public transport. However, we also recognise that many millions of people in London expect to use their motor cars and we are trying to ensure that that opportunity is open to them.


4. Ms. Ruddock : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport whether he has yet received the report from the chief inspector of marine accidents about the Marchioness accident ; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister for Aviation and Shipping (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin) : The chief inspector of marine accidents will submit the final report on the Marchioness accident to my right hon. Friend when the parties specified in the marine accident regulations have had a chance to comment on his findings. That process of consultation began last week and may take up to two months.

Ms. Ruddock : I thank the Minister for his reply. I wonder whether I may refer to the Secretary of State through him. Fifty-one people lost their lives in that tragic accident and there was tremendous trauma for their dependants and relatives. Will the Secretary of State listen to the request of the dependants and relatives that there should be a full public inquiry into the Marchioness disaster as there was into the Zeebrugge disaster? If the Minister cannot give the House that assurance today, will he at least assure us that the Government have not set their mind against such an inquiry?

Mr. McLoughlin : It is open to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to ask for a formal investigation at any stage. However, we are satisfied that the extremely thorough nature of the inquiry and report will be based on the evidence taken in the investigation. We do not want to postpone the publication of the report.

Mr. Hanley : May I ask my hon. Friend for clarification of what he has just said? Is it true that if a full public inquiry is entered into, the publication of the report on that tragic accident will be delayed and the inspector's recommendations might also be delayed? We all want justice for those who were killed and for their families. However, to delay safety on the river any longer would be a disaster as well.

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Mr. McLoughlin : The marine accident investigation branch brought forward interim measures that were adopted very quickly after the accident. However, my hon. Friend is right. If a public inquiry were ordered, we should not be able to publish the report. I ask hon. Members to be patient and to wait for the publication of the report. When it is published, they will find that it is a useful and thorough document. That would be in everyone's interests.

Mr. Simon Hughes : May I also press the Minister to be clear? Are the Government saying that they have not yet formally ruled out a public inquiry, because press reports state that they have? Will the Minister confirm the earliest date by which the report will be published? I understand that there may be two months' consultation, but what is the earliest date when the report will be published? Just as important, will he and his Department comment on the practice whereby there is the most reluctant payment of compensation to the victims and so far no payment whatever to the bereaved? Does the Minister's Department support that? If not, can he do something to change that system?

Mr. McLoughlin : I shall try to answer the hon. Gentleman's three points. As I said in my initial answer, the consultation period with those who are specified in the regulations started last week. We hope to have the report published within seven weeks at the maximum. I confirm that, if something serious comes forward, it will still be open to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to set up a public inquiry.

I should not like to comment on claims against insurance companies at the moment, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that, at the time of the disaster, we made a substantial contribution to the disaster fund.

Goods Vehicles

6. Mr. Gregory : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received concer-ning mandatory reversing warning devices for all goods vehicles ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Atkins : Ministers received five letters on this subject in 1989, and one letter of complaint about noise nuisance from reversing alarms. We have received no representations in 1990. As my hon. Friend will be aware, mandatory fitting of alarms would require agreement from the EEC.

Mr. Gregory : I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. Is he as concerned as I am about the number of accidents involving vehicles without reversing devices? Each year, 2,000 accidents are a direct result of pedestrians coming into contact with vehicles that have not been fitted with such bleepers. Is my hon. Friend particularly concerned about schoolchildren, as lorries without reversing alarms may enter school grounds?

Mr. Atkins : Of course, I am worried about anything that may cause an accident or death. Therefore, I shall take action if I believe it to be necessary. The records demonstrate that, over the past 10 years, there have been about 50 fatal accidents involving vehicles without reversing alarms. That is a small proportion, but it is clearly too high.

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My hon. Friend understands the situation pretty well. He will know that I must do my best to encourage drivers of vehicles to ensure that they take extra care as befits their standard of driving and the highway code and also that they take necessary care when making manoeuvres associated with reversing vehicles on streets.

Transport, South-East Essex

7. Mrs. Gorman : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will review the current transport facilities in south-east Essex.

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Michael Portillo) : A total of 13 schemes are planned for the upgrading of the A13 at an estimated cost of well over £200 million. I am expecting proposals from British Rail for a £300 million package of improvements on the Fenchurch Street line, including new rolling stock.

Mrs. Gorman : I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. Is he aware--I am sure that he is--that south-east Essex has the largest influx of population in the country and that the railway lines and the A13, which he mentioned, are some of the worst in the country? At present, commuters on the Fenchurch Street line--my secretary among them--take three hours to do the journey from Southend to London. Also, the A13 services Tilbury dock, Shell Haven, the Mobil depot, Dagenham Ford, some of the biggest gravel workings in the country, and all the rubbish that is dumped from London. It is a dual carriageway for much its length. Congestion is simply terrible. It is not good enough to wait until the late 1990s.

Mr. Portillo : I know something about the frustration that is suffered by my hon. Friend's constituents, not least because she has written to me about it previously. She has been a great champion of her constituents' transport needs and anxieties. She will have heard me say that there is a package of £500 million investment for the road and the railway. That is a substantial figure. I hope that it will bring great relief. Taking the eastern region as a whole, we have added £1.9 billion in the recent White Paper on road spending. I am sure that that will go a long way towards helping her.

Mr. Tony Banks : Does the Minister recall that the Secretary of State for Transport denied that he was the strategic transport authority for the south-east? British Rail has also denied that that is its function. Who is looking after the strategic transport planning of the south-east? As the Government have walked away from the problem, is it any wonder that there is so much transport chaos, which the Minister, his colleagues and everybody in the south-east must know about? When will the Government take responsibility for looking after transport as a whole in the south-east?

Mr. Portillo : We took over responsibility for part of the transport network from the Greater London council, of which the hon. Gentleman used to be chairman. Since then we have doubled the investment on London Underground, and over the next three years we shall double the investment again. That investment will then be four times higher than it was under the hon. Gentleman's chairmanship. We take responsibility for that part of the network. The hon. Gentleman will have heard me say that there is an increase of £1.9 billion in spending on the

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programme for building trunk roads, for which we are also responsible. He will have also have heard me say that there is major investment in Network SouthEast. That is being made possible by the greater efficiency of the railways, which again has come about under the Government.

Mr. Squire : Will my hon. Friend accept my full endorsement of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), not merely on the Fenchurch Street line, which is still the Cinderella of much of British Rail in London, but on the A13? It is now almost 15 years since the proposal was first made to take it over the marshes. We have not yet seen the first sign of work commencing. The A13 is a major trunk road from the ports to central London and round the M25. It is critically important that we give it higher proprity.

Mr. Portillo : I agree with my hon. Friend that the A13 is of critical and strategic importance. He will know that the development of docklands has given an extra impetus to the need to get on with developing the A13. He will also know that I have a personal responsibility as chairman of the docklands transport steering group to make sure that the works are carried forward in a timely fashion. They are complex schemes, many of which have important implications, both for the environment and for residents. The necessary processes must be gone through.

British Rail

8. Ms. Armstrong : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he has any plans to meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss matters of safety.

Mr. Parkinson : There are regular meetings between myself and the chairman to discuss matters of mutual interest. Safety can be and is discussed whenever appropriate.

Ms. Armstrong : Is the Secretary of State aware that, as a regular traveller through King's Cross, I share with other passengers great anxiety that, three months after the publication of the Hidden report, it still appears that British Rail is not sure how much it will cost to implement its recommendations? It has put only £200 million into its corporate plan for safety. According to all reports, it will cost much more than that to implement the recommendations of the report. Will he give the House and passengers a guarantee today that safety will be the priority of the Government and of British Rail and that he will make sure that British Rail receives enough money from the Government to implement the Hidden report?

Mr. Parkinson : The hon. Lady is right to say that the Government attach top priority to safety. Part of the reason why it is not easy to cost in full the Hidden proposals is that the technology, for instance on automatic train protection, does not exist. We have authorised expenditure on three pilot schemes to develop the technology. Only when the technology is available will we know the overall cost. There is no question of trying to avoid the issue. All the recommendations have been accepted. Work on all of them is in hand but work on some of them, especially this one, will take longer. It is the main recommendation, the biggest and the most expensive.

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Mr. Simon Coombs : Is it correct that my right hon. Friend is considering the possibility of merging the railway inspectorate with the Health and Safety Executive? Does he except that many people--

Mr. Speaker : Order. Is the chairman of British Rail doing it?

Mr. Coombs : Yes, indeed. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to discuss that important matter with the chairman of British Rail? Will he accept the good wishes of many hon. Members that he should continue to discuss that important matter?

Mr. Parkinson : I congratulate my hon. Friend on his ingenuity. I reassure him that the discussions are in hand. We believe that it is a fundamental problem, that the Government own the railways and also have responsibility for safety. We do not own the oil industry or the other industries for which the Department has safety

responsibilities. However, we own the railways. There is a case for transferring that responsibility to the HSE. That is what we are discussing.

Mr. Prescott : Has the Secretary of State read the report issued today by the Central Transport Consultative Committee, which makes it absolutely clear that the resources necessary to meet the safety recommendations of the Hidden report cannot be financed from the present corporate plan? In his discussions with the chairman, will the Secretary of State consider how the corporate plan can be renegotiated so that moneys can be found to meet those safety commitments and return some of the £2 billion that the Government have pinched from support for the railways?

Mr. Parkinson : I shall be discussing the report with the chairman of the CTCC. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are talking about a three- year programme. The chairman seems to be jumping the gun in saying that on the evidence of a couple of months he can predict what can happen in the next three years. He seems to have been listening to too many ill-informed speeches from the hon. Gentleman. British Rail will have the resources necessary to meet the capital programmes that we have devised. Those resources will come from what the hon. Gentleman calls "public money"--from grants, sales of assets belonging to the public, depreciation of assets belonging to the public and loans from the National Loans Fund at preferential rates--so let us have no more nonsense about the Government and the taxpayer not contributing.

Mr. Hind : My right hon. Friend will be aware that he has the support of his hon. Friends for the present extensive investments in British Rail, but when he next speaks to the chairman of British Rail will he stress the need for speedy construction of new rail stock, because we in the north-west are receiving many complaints that trains are shorter than necessary and more overcrowded, that safety is affected and that services are being reduced due to the lack of new rolling stock? Will my right hon. Friend emphasise the importance of speeding up that programme?

Mr. Parkinson : Yes, and I should advise my hon. Friend that the shortage does not arise from a shortage of money. It is because deliveries of new rolling stock are already 40 weeks late, which means that rolling stock that should have been replaced is still being used--[ Hon.

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Members :-- "Because BREL was privatised."] No, the backlog was built up when British Rail Engineering Ltd was in the public sector. It has not got any worse--in fact it has slightly improved-- since privatisation. We recognise the problem that my hon. Friend has identified, and it is being dealt with. The stock is on order and as soon as it is available it will replace the old stock which is causing so many problems.

Traffic Examiners, Wales

9. Mr. Michael : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport whether he will make it his policy that traffic examiners in Wales shall continue to operate under the direct supervision of his Department's traffic office in Cardiff.

Mr. Atkins : No, Sir. Traffic examiners will continue to be managed by the Department's traffic area office in Cardiff until April 1991. Thereafter, responsibility for their management will pass to the Vehicle Inspectorate Executive Agency.

Mr. Michael : Does the Minister accept that the most efficient form of organisation is that which has the most direct line of communication and supervision? Does he agree that having a properly integrated operation, with the inspectors working directly to the office in Cardiff, would be the best way of achieving the best possible supervision and the most effective operation?

Mr. Atkins : I am entirely satisfied that the Vehicle Inspectorate Executive Agency and its staff will do their level best to ensure not only that the present high standard will be maintained, but that the even higher standard for which the hon. Gentleman is pressing will be achieved under our proposals.

Air Fares

10. Mr. Tim Smith : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what steps his Department is taking to bring down air fares in Europe.

Mr. McLoughlin : The Government are committed to removing the barriers to competition in air transport by liberalisation within the Community and bilaterally. This should lead to lower fares and increased consumer choice.

Mr. Smith : What progress is being made? Does my hon. Friend agree that it is still cheaper to fly to New York than to many European destinations? Does he agree that if liberalisation of air transport is to be meaningful for air passengers it must be carried out in such a way as to ensure that there is real competition and that small airlines can survive?

Mr. McLoughlin : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about competition policy. It is vital that we ensure that there is room for all the smaller companies. Liberalisation will give those companies greater opportunities to take advantage of the market.

Mr. Alfred Morris : Is it not monstrous that there should be such huge fare differences from Manchester and the London airports to other European cities approximately the same distance away? Does the Minister agree that this hurts the interests of Manchester airport, discrimin-

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ates against northern passengers and chokes the skies over south-east England even more dangerously? What action are the Government taking?

Mr. McLoughlin : A number of factors lead a person to decide where he should start his journey from. It is Government policy to encourage regional airports to take as much advantage as possible of a liberalised aviation market, and it is with that in prospect that we are trying to bring about a more liberal agreement between the Community and other areas. The Government certainly intend to see regional airports develop.

Public Transport, London

11. Mr. Dykes : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he has received any recent representations from the public on the standard of service to passengers using London public transport systems ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Portillo : Yes. The quality of service objectives that we have set for British Rail and London Transport, coupled with the much increased investment that we have approved, are designed to secure a significant improvement in service standards.

Mr. Dykes : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Although he does not have direct responsibility, will he again focus on the plight of the Metropolitan line from Harrow on the Hill to central London via Baker street? Does he recall using that line some years ago when he was a distinguished sixth former in that area and how good the service was then? Does he further agree that the daily scenario now of filthy, unswept, lurching, clapped-out old-fashioned, graffiti-swamped rolling stock, which sums up the coaches on the Metropolitan line service, despite its speed to Baker street, is an unacceptable concomitant to the daily psychological and physical pressures on my long-suffering commuter constituents? Will he discuss that urgently with his colleagues?

Mr. Portillo : I am sorry to hear of the deterioration that has apparently occurred in the past few years and I shall naturally look into it. My hon. Friend will be aware that his constituents are about to benefit from the massive investment of £100 million in new rolling stock on the Chiltern line, which runs through his constituency. They will also be beneficiaries of the £1 billion to be invested in extending the Jubilee line to Waterloo, docklands and Stratford. I hope that his constituents will derive great benefit from all that.

Ms. Ruddock : Does the Minister accept that public transport passengers in London are paying some of the highest fares in Europe for some of the worst services? Is he aware that in recent times on any one morning as many as 12 Underground stations are closed due to overcrowding, that two thirds of the timetabled bus services in the capital do not depart on time and that in January in an average week 26 Underground stations had to be closed due to lack of staff? The level of public complaints in London is clearly more than justified and the Minister should accept that.

Mr. Portillo : I am not sure what the hon. Lady is proposing. She knows perfectly well that investment in London Underground has been doubled since we took it

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over from the Greater London council, that we propose to double it again in the next three years, that we propose a major programme to upgrade all the existing Underground system and that we have committed ourselves to a £1 billion extension of the Jubilee line. The Labour Government could never even have dreamt of all the improvements which are under way now. The hon. Lady will see from the records that the Government have committed themselves not only to a record level of investment but to one which is as much as the Underground could physically manage.

Coaches (Limiters)

12. Mr. Squire : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the progress achieved in fitting speed limiters to coaches.

Mr. Atkins : The programme for fitting speed limiters to all coaches first used in 1974 or later will be completed by 31 March next year. Speed limiters should by now be fitted to most modern coaches.

Mr. Squire : As my hon. Friend knows, I welcome this safety measure. Is he aware of reports suggesting that many coach operators have been slow to fit speed limiters, which will be a legal requirement from the end of this month for many coaches? Will he take this opportunity to repeat that from the Dispatch Box? Will he also look into the possibility of his Department advising various coach operators that they face legal penalties if they do not comply?

Mr. Atkins : I am grateful to my hon. Friend who has rightly often raised this matter. I have no evidence that the campaign of enforcement is being delayed. If he has evidence to that effect, I should be grateful to hear it. I am delighted to accept his offer to re-emphasise to those on both sides of the House who are interested the importance of speed limiters to coaches in that they can save lives and prevent unnecessary accidents.

Mr. Foulkes : Has the Minister also considered the introduction of compulsory spray-suppressant mud flaps for coaches and lorries because of the great danger created to other motorists by the spray from heavy lorries on the on the motorways? Such spray is one of the greatest dangers on motorways at present.

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