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30 Jan 2001 : Column 229

Mr. Hill: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 5--Abandoned vehicles: payments to local authorities--

'2A. The Secretary of State may make payments to local authorities in respect of expenditure incurred by them in complying with the provisions of section 3(1) below, though such payments shall not exceed the amounts paid in fines in respect of offences under section 2(1)(a) above.'.

Government amendment No. 43.

Amendment No. 26, in clause 37, page 21, line 48, at end insert--

'(f) section 2 of that Act (dangerous driving);
(g) section 3 of that Act (careless, and inconsiderate, driving);
(h) section 4(1) and 4(2) of that Act (driving, or being in charge, when under influence of drink or drugs);
(i) section 5(1) of that Act (driving or being in charge of a motor vehicle with alcohol concentration above prescribed limit).'.

Government amendments Nos. 46 to 54.

Mr. Hill: Amendment No. 43 would remove clause 37. That will satisfy Opposition Members who tabled an amendment to remove the clause. I welcome their intention to withdraw that amendment. New clause 7 would take the place of clause 37, and I shall explain our reasons for tabling it.

Clause 37 establishes a power for the Lord Chancellor to make payments to the authorities responsible for funding magistrates courts to meet the full costs of administering speed and traffic light offences. However, the provision does not enable the Lord Chancellor to make payments to other bodies such as local authorities and the police, which can form partnerships to carry out the enforcement activities. The other bodies involved in the partnerships formed to fund camera placement and operation already have established financial arrangements with other Departments; for example, the police are of course funded principally from the Home Office.

When the Treasury took the decision to allow payments to be made directly from netted-off fine revenue in certain circumstances, it quite rightly placed on any proposals to do so several important criteria that had to be met before approval would be given to proceed. One of the criteria was to ensure that any scheme put in place did not result in increased bureaucracy. As a new Labour libertarian, I fully endorse that sentiment.

We are therefore left with a clear choice either to fund the various partners through several separate funding routes or to link them all up for these purposes by channelling the netted-off revenue through one Department. That is exactly how the current safety camera pilots are operating. The funds are channelled through the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions for distribution to lead authorities in each partnership, which in these cases is a local authority. That arrangement is allowed for the time being under the provisions of the Appropriation Acts, but that can only be a temporary measure. It clearly follows that to meet the

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Treasury criterion of keeping bureaucracy to a minimum, we must seek to continue the system that is working so effectively in the pilots.

Mr. Bob Russell: Will the Minister state categorically whether the new clause is a road safety, crash reduction measure or a revenue generator?

Mr. Hill: It goes without saying that this is a measure concerned with road safety and the prevention of road accidents. It could not be for any other purpose, and it would be grossly irresponsible and unfair of the hon. Gentleman to suggest otherwise.

Mr. Russell rose--

Mr. Hill: I am very fond of the hon. Gentleman, so of course I will give way again.

Mr. Russell: I welcome that clarification and reassurance. I was just observing that so far the words "road safety" and "accident reduction" have not passed the Minister's lips.

Mr. Hill: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing that clarification. I know very well of his excellent work in RoadPeace, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller). The hon. Gentleman is right to be concerned about these matters.

We had hoped to be able to sustain the pilot scheme arrangements within existing law, rules and conventions by allowing DETR to act as a paying agent for other Departments, but that has not proved to be possible.

Mr. Bercow: The Under-Secretary assures the House that in no sense is this a revenue-raising measure, but so far as my hon. Friends and I are concerned, this seems to be a case of "methinks he doth protest too much". Will the hon. Gentleman therefore confirm that in no one year would the receipts to the public fund exceed the expenditure on road safety that those funds would afford?

Mr. Hill: It would certainly be the Government's purpose to ensure that there was an appropriate balance of receipt and expenditure, but if the hon. Gentleman thinks about it, he will realise that it is not possible for any Minister, any Department or any Government to ensure that that is invariably the case. There is an intention that is fulfilled over time and in general terms, but it would be unrealistic for a Minister to offer the precise guarantee that the hon. Gentleman seeks.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman really is digging himself in deep. For the delectation and edification of the House I must repeat what he just said. He referred to an appropriate balance. That does not mean an equal balance. He referred to its achievement over time in general terms. I suggest that as a harbinger of good intent, it would be helpful if he could confirm that the equality between receipts and expenditure on road safety should have to be achieved within five years. Will he, as a junior but rising Minister, at least sign up to that commitment?

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7 pm

Mr. Hill: Notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman's slightly improbable blandishments, I will not make the commitment that he is seeking--as with the foreign policy issues on which he tempted me earlier in our proceedings. I repeat the assurance that I gave to the distinguished hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell). The purpose of the provisions before us is entirely to improve road safety and to reduce accidents. The Government's objective will be to ensure that there is a balance of expenditure with revenue, and these matters are subject to the auditing process. They are for the public record and for public demonstration.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh): I fully accept what the Minister is saying about balancing budgets over time. That is an acceptable and sensible way forward. However, I am interested to know whether the hon. Gentleman can give us any idea from discussions in his Department of what is expected in terms of revenues from fines arising from the use of speed cameras being channelled into road safety measures. What is the Department's perception of the increased funding from the use of speed cameras being used to increase road safety measures? Does the hon. Gentleman have a programme in mind? By how much will we be able to extend the use of speed cameras from the pilot schemes, which have clearly been successful?

Mr. Hill: The purpose of the proposed legislation is to enable the programme to be rolled out nationally on the basis of eight successful pilot schemes. In due course, we are anticipating a significant increase in the resource that will be available to introduce speed cameras. I hope that that is of some assurance to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Given the intervention of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), I wish there to be no misunderstanding. My hon. Friend has made it clear that the money is for road safety purposes. It is therefore axiomatic that the money must be spent on road safety purposes. It would be clear to any auditor and to any highway authority that the use of the money for any other purpose would be against the will of the House.

Mr. Hill: My hon. Friend is right. He puts the matter most succinctly, and I am grateful for his help.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. It is always a pleasure to joust with him.

We do not quite know the purpose of the intervention of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), because his purpose is rarely clear. However, the effect of his rather foolish intervention, whether he intended it or not, was to tie the Minister down. Will the Minister confirm that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said that the money must effectively be ring-fenced--[Interruption.] Yes, the hon. Gentleman did. If the Minister agrees that the money can be spent only on road safety measures, which means in practice that it will be ring fenced, why is he not prepared to commit himself to the proposition that that is exactly and exclusively how it will be spent, measured over a five-year period? It is a simple challenge. Why can he not rise to it?

Mr. Hill: The hon. Gentleman is not making an unreasonable proposition. On balance, over a five-year

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period, one would expect these matters to even out. I accept the general thrust of his observation but I am not in a position to say that there will be precise equality between revenue and expenditure at the end of a five-year period.

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