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House of Commons

Friday 9 February 2001

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Orders of the Day

Road Transport Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.33 am

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Exceeding the speed limit, driving while using a mobile telephone, failing to observe basic seat-belt rules are things that we all do every day although we know we should not. Road safety across the nation would be greatly improved if we took better notice of those things that we know we should be doing. My Bill helps to address that issue.

My Bill will also help to improve driving safety in icy and snowy conditions and to reduce driving speeds, we hope, on rural roads and in villages; and, very importantly, will enable elderly and disabled people to use their concessionary bus passes in neighbouring local authority areas. The variety of the Bill's sponsors would suggest that I am right to hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that those are laudable aims and give the Bill a fair wind.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gray: It is early, and I dare say that we shall be hearing a great deal from my right hon. Friend during our proceedings, but I happily give way to him.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In fairness to him, I should say that I certainly would not want to give his Bill a fair wind. Specifically, at this stage, can he tell me what proportion of cars in the United Kingdom have telephones installed in them, or what knowledge we have of the number of those who use a telephone in their car? Is there a danger that he is seeking to legislate for a very small minority rather than for the majority?

Mr. Gray: I am very grateful to hear that my right hon. Friend does not approve of my Bill. That means that it joins the distinguished company of the wide variety of measures of which he does not seem to approve. I look forward to hearing more from him later.

People who take the opportunity of standing in a London street and watching cars go by will know that they can bet their bottom dollar that the cars that are driving towards them, swerving back and forth, failing to

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indicate properly or driving at the wrong speed in the wrong lane are being driven by people with a mobile telephone pinned to their ear. We all do it.

Mr. Forth: How many people do it?

Mr. Gray: My right hon. Friend should know that there is no answer to the question of how many drivers in the United Kingdom own mobile telephones--just as we cannot say how many drivers own bananas. Such a statistic is not available and could not be available to the Government. However, there is very powerful anecdotal evidence suggesting that the use of hand-held mobile telephones while driving should be cause for severe concern.

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray: All I have done so far is to make a few introductory remarks and I am keen to get into the meat of my speech before I deal with quite so many interventions--but if the hon. Lady promises not to bounce up and down too often, of course I shall give way to her.

Maria Eagle: I make no such promise. When I was promoting a private Member's Bill I was very generous in giving way to the hon. Gentleman, and I am glad to see that he is reciprocating. I was just wondering which part of the Bill's long or short title deals with bananas.

Mr. Gray: Although we can have a lot of fun with the Bill--I am looking forward to it--it must be said that it contains some important provisions, such as those on bus passes for the disabled and the elderly, so I do not intend that the debate should become frivolous or lightweight. I made the point about bananas when trying to deal with the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) made concerning the number of people who own mobile telephones. I do not know the answer to his question, and I do not know about bananas either. I hope that that will satisfy the hon. Lady. I should now like to deal with some of the serious, worrying and important matters dealt with in the Bill.

I pay tribute to and declare an interest in my Bill's supporters. The AA has been extremely helpful both in providing a wide variety of briefings and in paying for most of the costs of the parliamentary draftsman. I have registered that matter in the Register of Members' Interests. Age Concern is another supporter of the Bill and has been helpful, as have Wiltshire county council, North Wiltshire district council, and the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety or PACTS--that excellent organisation which does so much good work in this place.

I am particularly indebted to the Public Bill Office Clerk, Mr. Priestley, who has been very helpful; and to Angus Walker and Bircham Dyson Bell, who have drafted the Bill very expertly for me.

I am also particularly grateful to my Bill's sponsors on both sides of the House--four of whom are Labour Members, four of whom are Conservative Members, and one of whom, the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), is an Ulster Unionist Member. That list includes two former Secretaries of State for Transport,

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a former special adviser to the Department of Transport, a joint Chairman and two other members of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, and a member of the Opposition environment, transport and the regions team. It is a cross-party group with demonstrable expertise and knowledge in transport.

I acknowledge that some elements of my Bill--like any Bill, but it is particularly true of complicated, Christmas-tree Bills such as this one--need to be improved. I very much look forward to debating those matters in Committee and, consequently, producing a worthwhile and workmanlike Bill.

The inspiration for the Bill comes largely from my own constituency. In areas such as North Wiltshire, transport--both public and private--is an overwhelmingly important issue. Last year, I went round all 60 parish councils in my constituency, and all of them raised with me issues such as road gritting, road speeds and road safety. Most of them also raised with me a variety of public transport issues that are beyond the scope of a private Member's Bill, to do with standstill Britain, as we call it, and the Government's attempt to prevent us from using our trains and roads successfully and safely.

I am the president of an excellent organisation called BCLAS--the Bath and Chippenham to London Action Society--which is the largest single commuter group in Britain. Representatives are coming to see the Minister shortly to let him know our concerns about the poor state of the Chippenham to London line. It costs 8p a mile more than Concorde and the service is a great deal less good than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. That and other issues of public and private transport are beyond the narrow remit of a private Member's Bill, however.

The issues in the Bill are of huge concern to people in my constituency and to people across the nation. This morning, I did 15 interviews on local radio stations, and I am told that there were a large number of bids from other stations. That demonstrates how important such issues are to people in local areas. They may not be earth-shattering--it may not be a case of "Hold the front page"--but these are important local matters, as the interest from local radio this morning demonstrates.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): I share my hon. Friend's concern that we should have a serious debate, because some of the issues in the Bill are of the utmost seriousness. As he says, there are concerns about safety on local roads, and I shall be drawing attention to some of them if I catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. On one road running through my constituency, 40 people have lost their lives over the past 10 years. It is time that something was done about it.

Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend makes a telling point, and I hope that he will, indeed, catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker. In an area such as Yorkshire, part of which my hon. Friend represents--and represents so well--issues of road safety are hugely important, as they are in Wiltshire.

That brings me to the first issue in this Christmas tree of a Bill--the gritting of roads in icy and snowy conditions. About 1,000 people a year are killed on our roads as a result of icy and snowy conditions. There are

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two reasons for that. First, there is insufficient gritting, as we all know. We cannot grit every road across the nation every time it becomes icy and snowy. However, we can do slightly more than we have been doing. I am aware of the resource implications of my proposal. It costs about £25,000 to do a morning's gritting in an average rural area, so it is not cheap, but the Bill does not propose gritting everywhere, all the time.

The second problem is that people have no way of knowing whether the roads have been gritted. Broadly speaking, council officials wake up in the morning, look out of the window, decide whether or not it is cold, and work out how much of their budget they have used in the year so far. Then they may or may not send out the gritting lorries.

The Bill would require local authorities to publish a clear plan of which roads they intend to grit, when, and under which conditions. The motorist would then know which roads were safe to use. Equally, voters would know how large an area the local authority intended to grit or how small the gritting plan was and would be able to take a view in the forthcoming local elections.

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