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10.46 am

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on his success in the ballot and on introducing a Bill that gives us the opportunity to debate matters that, as the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) said, are of real concern to our constituents. I am somewhat surprised that there are not more of us here today. The fact that there is not one Liberal Democrat Member here is a disgrace. I know that an event is likely to take place in three months' time that is encouraging colleagues to spend more time in their constituencies, but I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter that I once tried, unsuccessfully, to raise on the Adjournment.

There are five elements to the Bill. I want to concentrate on the first two: the duties of highways authorities to maintain roads, and revised procedures for speed limits. On the other three, I have not reached the position that the hon. Member for Tooting has reached, but I might yet be persuaded that we should have a complete ban on hand-held telephones in cars. It is certainly a matter that Parliament will have to determine before too long.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind my saying, as a former policeman, that the illustration that he gave of the phone on the shoulder and the coffee in the hand was plain sailing for a charge of driving without due care and attention. The problem is that it has to be seen by a police officer, but when we see it we are powerless to do anything about it. There are certainly some idiots around, and I have even seen the same thing happening at 80 mph on the motorway. Clause 4 concerns an important matter to which we will have to return at some point.

I am not sure why further provisions on seat belt exemptions are included in the Bill. It seems that that is one of the clauses in which the Government are in favour, and I have no strong views about it.

As the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) suggested, there are problems with travel concessions. He raised a valid issue. I have similar problems in my constituency of Ryedale, which includes the entire Ryedale district, a significant part of City of York council and part of Scarborough borough council. The biggest problem is that many elderly people in rural areas receive no travel concessions.

Mr. Hill: That is down to the local authorities.

Mr. Greenway: I understand that. I am not making a big issue about it, but the Minister knows that if there are no rural buses, the elderly cannot travel on them, whether they are entitled to free transport or not. I should like to see greater uniformity across the country on travel concessions. I know that Ministers both in this Government and in the previous Government have examined that.

The suggestion that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire makes in clause 5 seems sensible, and I shall listen with interest to what my Front-Bench spokesman and the Minister have to say about it.

Clause 1 is a narrow provision to oblige local authorities to clear snow and ice. When I told my wife that I was spending the day in the Chamber debating this Bill and that it contained such a provision, she was surprised that the obligation did not already exist. Most

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people think that it is already a requirement, but those of us who have studied these things know from Goodes v. East Sussex County Council that the Law Lords interpreted the Highways Act 1980 differently, so the clause is welcome if it seeks to correct that position in law. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire did not refer to it directly, but I presume that that is largely what lies behind it.

May I enter a slight caveat? It is all very well to introduce a statutory duty on local authorities, but we must have regard to their resources. My constituency covers several hundred square miles of rural North Yorkshire--England's biggest county. Many miles of its roads are never gritted. No one expects them to be gritted because the local authority does not have the resources to do so. When I was a member of North Yorkshire county council, and in my almost 14 years in this place since, the issue of budgets for winter maintenance has always been topical at this time of year. There is never enough money to do everything that one would wish.

Similarly, there are problems with budgets for maintenance of the road fabric, which are seriously under pressure. I do not make a partisan point; it was the same under the previous Government, and it has not changed much under this one. There is a long backlog of repairs. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) that a plan needs to be published. I understand that the statutory duty works perfectly well in Scotland. The wording that my hon. Friend has used in the Bill, which is technical, is precisely the same as the Scottish legislation. There will have to be consultation, because it is important that people know which roads will be gritted. Clearly, the main county roads that link one place with another and give access to the main urban centres such as York, Scarborough and Middlesbrough on the north side of my constituency--many people have to travel up to Teesside--must be gritted.

There is some dissatisfaction among rural residents of my constituency. They feel that they pay road fuel duty, but that the money is not spent on their roads. We understand the arguments about why that is so. I do not propose hypothecation, but people feel that more needs to be done to maintain the fabric of the rural road infrastructure than merely clearing snow and ice.

Clause 1 is narrow; it aims to correct provisions in the 1980 Act on the duty of highways authorities to maintain a road in good condition, but the issue that that touches on goes further than simply the state of the road surface. Parliament really ought to get its teeth into whether roads themselves are dangerous. The road surface might be dangerous because it has not been repaired, but the alignment of the road might also be dangerous and it might be a contributory factor in many accidents. If so, where should the responsibility rest?

Maria Eagle: I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman. I understand his point about resources, but not his point about the alignment of roads. I have some concerns about the adequacy of the clause. Is he suggesting that some bends are too sharp or that roads need to be changed in some material way to be safer?

Mr. Greenway: In some respects, I am. I want to contrast Parliament's attitude to the state of the roads with its attitude to the state of the railways in the past few

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weeks. This is the point that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, kindly allowed me to make in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire.

The A64 trunk road from York to Scarborough runs through my constituency for about 37 miles. In the past 10 years, there have been no fewer than 40 fatalities on that stretch of road. That is not 40 fatal accidents, because in some instances more than one person was killed. If hon. Members want to see the road, I can give them the precise details. There were two tragic fatalities recently. There were two accidents in which four people were killed at Golden Hill and Huttons Ambo. Analysis of the 40 deaths shows that 10 were in the section between the end of the Malton bypass and the beginning of the dual carriageway at Whitwell-on-the-Hill. It is a single-carriageway stretch of road with many dangerous bends and people drive too fast and overtake when they should not. That has been a major cause of the accidents.

Two Bradford ladies were killed in a head-on collision on the bend at the top of Golden Hill in September. In late October, a girl of 15 and a boy of 17 from Thornton-le-Dale were killed on exactly the same bend in precisely the same circumstances, coming round the bend too fast, heading south towards Malton. In between those two accidents, four people were killed in a rail crash at Hatfield. The road is dangerous.

Concern about the number of teenagers who have been killed on roads in Ryedale has spurred local people, under the leadership of a local GP from Pickering, to create an accident prevention group for young people. I commend the scheme to the Minister. We are working to ensure that every fifth and sixth-former at Lady Lumley's school has a workshop day on road safety and on being behind the wheel of a car. The police are working hard to help us. If the Minister wants, I shall send details to him, as well as to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire.

The road is dangerous. In March 1997, Mr. John Watts, then roads Minister, came to my constituency to discuss the future of the A64. Some of the improvements that we are now making were taken on by the current Government; we are grateful for that. The problem at Huttons Ambo was one of the difficulties identified in 1997. Ministers have agreed to remedy the problem at Golden Hill. In September, after the first double fatality, I wrote to suggest that an overtaking lane should be removed; the Minister for Transport in the other place agreed immediately that it would be removed in March or April. We are grateful for the fact that there are only one or two months to go, but the Minister will understand local people's concern about how long it takes. In their minds, they contrast the speed with which, post-Hatfield--an accident in which four people were killed--the entire rail network was brought to a halt so that every danger could be removed, with the fact that it takes six months to remove an overtaking lane after four people are killed on one stretch of road for which the Government are responsible. I criticise not the Minister, but the system: it takes far too long for urgent problems to be remedied.

I concede that my argument is over-simplistic, but my point is that many parts of our road network are, by their nature and because of the volume of traffic now using them, dangerous. I suggest that Members of Parliament--especially Back Benchers putting constituency interests before partisan politics, as the hon. Member for Tooting

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did earlier--start to question where responsibility rests when, as the hon. Member for Garston said, it is obvious that a road, because of its design and layout, is dangerous.

It is now clear to me that transferring transport infrastructure to the private sector will enable us robustly and properly to provide against wrongdoing and shortcomings. The hon. Member for Hendon looks aghast. He might think that people have had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into taking action, but the enforcement of higher safety standards is occurring on the rail network, precisely because it is in the private sector. It is perfectly valid to contrast the speed of the process when responsibility rests with the public sector.

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