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Mr. Hill: However, that would be a desirable outcome to which the Government are certainly working.
I heard the hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, ask, "Why?" On the whole, the Government like to approach these matters in a slightly more considered way than responding to flashes of inspiration from Opposition Members. The hon. Gentleman has had not a bad idea, and I have tried to be responsive to the broad thrust of his observation. However, he cannot expect me to make policy on the hoof, even though we are impressed by the ideas that flow from him in such a fecund fashion.
I return to the point that I was evidently so laboriously trying to make. I was saying that we had hoped to make the provision within existing conventions by allowing the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to act as a paying agent for other Government Departments. That has not proved to be possible. Therefore, to establish a clear power for DETR to make payments on a permanent basis, new clause 7 introduces a different arrangement from that set out in clause 37.
New clause 7 is purely a mechanism to allow the funds to be channelled efficiently to any future partnerships through the one Department. In so doing, it allows the funding mechanism for speed limit and traffic signal enforcement to be established as simply and effectively as possible. I stress that the scope of the clause is limited entirely to funding enforcement activity that is associated only with speed limit and traffic signal violations.
Mr. Chidgey: Further to my previous intervention, the Minister will accept that I am generally supportive of the ambitions of the clause. However, I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman provided a little more detail in relation to the national programme that will be funded as he has described. What specific difference will it make to existing plans within the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to extend the programme of speed cameras? Will the hon. Gentleman indicate what amount of revenue--or funding, if he so wishes--will be raised in addition to what would otherwise have been budgeted for in the Department's capital programme? What impact does the Minister think the scheme will have?
Mr. Hill: First, the Government take these matters step by step. We implement experimental or pilot schemes to ascertain whether ideas are sustainable. In this instance, given the success of the pilot schemes they evidently are. Secondly, we roll out the legislation so that the measures can be applied nationally, recognising that that is likely to produce desirable results.
Within the framework that we are debating, we shall proceed in conjunction with local authorities to work out a detailed scheme of support and allocation of resource so that there can be a significant change in local arrangements. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman. It seems it does, given his assent from a sedentary position.
If clause 37 is to be replaced, there need to be some minor amendments to the schedule to reflect that. These can be seen in amendments Nos. 46 to 54.
We have debated both on Second Reading and in Committee the principle of the netting-off procedure for safety camera operation. I believe I am right in saying that there is a consensus that it is right and sensible, in the context of improving road safety and reducing the risk of accidents, to press ahead to make netting-off for speed and traffic signal enforcement available nationally. Indeed, in tabling amendment No. 26 to expand the netting-off procedure to cover careless, dangerous and drink or drug driving, the hon. Members for Lichfield, for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) and for Colchester clearly demonstrate that general support for this road safety measure is evident in the House.
I fully recognise that the proposed Opposition amendment is well intentioned, but in this context it is not appropriate, for reasons that I shall set out. The netting-off process is to be applied only to specific fixed-penalty offences. It was decided at the outset that the scheme would be limited to fixed-penalty offences, and the pilot schemes are proceeding on that basis. Some of the receipts from the penalties will be invested in greater enforcement activity, which will continue to put road safety first.
However, more complex cases outside the fixed-penalty procedure are punishable by fine or imprisonment, or both. We maintain strongly that those cases are not to be included because courts may appear vulnerable to the charge that penalties were set in individual cases for reasons of wider monetary pressures, rather than in the interests of justice and the income of the individual. The amendment includes some serious offences that can be dealt with only by court appearance and, following conviction, would result in mandatory disqualification and perhaps even a custodial sentence. Fixed penalties are certainly not appropriate for those offences.
The House will be aware that the Government are currently addressing the wider issue by conducting a review of penalties for the main road traffic offences, including drink and drug-driving, careless driving and dangerous driving. Its purpose is to consider whether the current maximum penalties remain appropriate, and to ensure that any proposed changes to penalties that we may wish to make are consistent within the whole sentencing framework.
For the reasons that I have given, it is right that the clause should be limited to netting off fixed-penalty revenue to fund speed and traffic light violation enforcement and is not suitable for expansion into other areas. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Member for Lichfield will be prepared to withdraw his amendment
I now turn to new clause 5, which was tabled by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and others, which is legally defective. It is headed,
The amendment seeks to allow the Secretary of State to make payments to local authorities for the purpose of removing abandoned vehicles, provided that the payments do not exceed the value of fines imposed for abandoning them. That would be an additional resource for the collection of abandoned vehicles. Of course, we understand the extent of concern about abandoned vehicles, and agree that the problem must be tackled. In fact, it was raised on Second Reading and in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw). However, we do not agree that the amendment would provide the practical solution that it seeks. In particular, it does not take account of the work of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the police.
Mr. Bob Russell: If that is not a practical way forward, will the Minister indicate what measures the Government have in mind to take action against that growing problem?
Mr. Hill: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was coming on to set out those precise measures.
As I have said, we are keen to tackle the problem of abandoned vehicles, which are an eyesore and cause considerable concern to the public. They are also dangerous. I well remember a pupil at a Glasgow school at which my wife once taught who died after playing with an abandoned vehicle and dropping a lighted match into the petrol tank. There was an explosion and the child was killed. It is because of such cases that it is important to deal with the issue.
We are watching closely a pilot scheme in Medway, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford is involved and which is partly funded by the DVLA. The scheme was due to begin on 22 January, and I understand from my hon. Friend that it has already made a promising start. I rather think that we will hear more from him, should he catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the mean time, I want to put on the record my tribute to my hon. Friend for his personal contribution to initiating that important scheme.
Abandoned vehicles are usually untaxed and, under the scheme, untaxed vehicles will be wheel-clamped by one of DVLA's contractors--Sureway--and, if they are not taxed within 24 hours, will be removed to one of two car pounds and disposed of after 35 days. The pilot is a multi-agency approach to the problem and, if successful, could be used in other areas. There will be no advance publicity associated with the scheme: the aim is to deliver a short, sharp shock to the owners of unlicensed vehicles and force them to relicense. A number of abandoned vehicles will also be caught in the net.
Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham): Will my hon. Friend clarify whether that scheme involves recouping the costs of disposing of those vehicles? The experience in my local authority, which is spending about £160,000 a year on the disposal of abandoned vehicles, is that, when the owners are approached, they say that they have sold the vehicle to a person in the pub or somewhere, but that he or she