Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) on her speech. I agree with much of what she said. She spoke for an hour, but she made good, salient points throughout. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) left the Chamber, making admiring comments about the hon. Lady's contribution. I understand that he is now broadcasting to the nation, via the Jimmy Young show, on the subject of mobile phones, so he has taken the arguments elsewhere.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on coming so high in the private Members' ballot and on introducing a Bill on transport. All of us, as constituency Members of Parliament, are aware that our constituents care passionately about many transport issues; they are the subject of much of our postbags. As we have heard today, they are matters of legitimate debate. I am sure that when the Bill receives
My hon. Friend is my parents' Member of Parliament. He is a most assiduous Member. He has done himself proud in introducing the Bill, and I am sure that he will do so again in shepherding it through Committee.
We have had a good debate on some pretty important subjects, the first of which relates to the much-quoted case, Goodes v. East Sussex County Council. The ruling was that the absolute duty to keep the fabric of the highway in good state of repair did not include the duty to remove formations or accumulations of ice and snow on the road. That ruling, which was given in July 2000, constituted a change in the law. As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Garston, that has, no doubt, changed the situation. The Government have been considering the position for some time, and clarification is necessary.
In 1997, in another judgment--Cross v. Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council--the Court of Appeal stated that the duty to maintain the highway under section 41 of the Highways Act 1980 was not a duty to keep highways at all times clear of surface water, snow and ice, and that the duty to maintain was limited to taking reasonable steps. A number of judgments and such matters need to be sorted out.
In the case of Goodes v. East Sussex County Council, Lord Justice Hutchinson said that the law on such matters was less than satisfactory. Most of us would welcome what my hon. Friend wants to do--to tidy up the law. The solution that he proposes, which is a good one, is to bring the law into line with the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984, under which reasonable steps must be taken. As has been said, that involves publishing plans for which roads have priority for gritting. Local knowledge is relevant. Those in a community, especially those who live in rural areas, have an idea of which roads have priority, but such information would be useful.
We all know that highways engineers' struggling to keep roads safe and passable is as much an art as a science. The United States is large landmass, so it is relatively easy to predict weather patterns. People know that the weather conditions in a town or city 100 or 150 miles to the west will prevail in their area a little later. The Atlantic is to our west and it is sometimes not always easy to predict how the weather will move or what the conditions will be like.
Most authorities have a limited budget for gritting. Therefore, they must be careful to use grit only when it needs to be used to maintain good or better conditions. Sometimes local authorities are a little slow to use grit at the first opportunity. Gritting in moderate weather may mean that the authority will use up its budget before the end of the year. Many local authorities prepare for only one or two weeks of severe weather and have stocks of salt only for that period. This is a key issue.
The Automobile Association, which assisted my hon. Friend with the drafting of the Bill, states that 700 people are killed in winter accidents in which snow or ice is a factor. When we pass our driving test, we all think that we are proficient drivers, but many people do not pay sufficient attention to road and weather conditions. They sit in a warm car, turn on the radio and presume that
Following the outcome of the Goodes v. East Sussex case, 12 to 14 people dropped similar cases. My hon. Friend's proposal will make the law a little more straightforward, and it is a good response to the problem. I support that provision in the Bill.
An argument can be made for local authorities to reassess speed limits. However, when I listened to my hon. Friend, I was a little more worried than I was when I read the Bill. When I examined the Library brief, I assumed that speed limits could go up, as well as down, in certain areas, but he tended to concentrate on the prospect of limits going down. I served for 12 years on a local authority and I know that local highways engineers always say that there should not be too much clutter or too many limits in an area. The more there are, the less people observe them. This matter therefore requires careful consideration.
About 1,000 people are killed on our roads as the result of excessive speed. The hon. Member for Garston made a good point when she referred to the Library brief and said that speed limits make a considerable difference not only to the number of accidents, but to their severity.
This country generally has a good record on driver and passenger deaths on the road, but our statistics on children are higher than for the rest of Europe, so examining the need for speed limits on the roads near schools and the better education of drivers and children should be a key priority. Both the Government and the Opposition have taken that point on board.
We can do much more to reduce road accidents and the distress that they cause. When we drive on the road network, we see flowers where someone's loved one had a fatal accident. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) made a good point about the difficult conditions on some roads in North Yorkshire, and most Members could point to treacherous stretches of road in their constituencies.
Statistics are collected when an accident involves death or injury, but they are not collected as widely as they should be. Many stretches of road are accident black spots even though the accidents do not result in fatalities or serious injuries. On those stretches, serious accidents are waiting to happen. If through luck or judgment people have managed to avoid injury, statistics on the accidents are sometimes not collected by the police. We should do far more to collect information and we could take fatalities and near misses into account in the review of speed limits that has been suggested.
I have reservations about the widespread use of speed cameras. They should be used primarily at accident black spots and not as a means of raising revenue. It is very easy to place a camera at a point where one thinks it will catch many people who are speeding and where it will raise lots of money, but that point might not be an accident black spot. The key priority must be saving lives; the cameras should not be used as a revenue-raising exercise. I was glad to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale, who also speaks, very eloquently, from the Front Bench on occasion.
In some parts of the network, however, speed limits are too low. Motorways and dual carriageways are still relatively safe and there are fewer accidents on them than on other roads. Any review ought to consider reducing speed limits in certain areas as well as increasing them in others. Historically, this country has set speed limits that apply 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That has always struck me as odd because road conditions and the amount of traffic affect how safe a road is and what speed is appropriate.
With the new technology that is being introduced, particularly on parts of the motorway network, I wonder whether we ought to consider having variable speed limits. Reducing speed limits on certain sections of motorway helps the flow of traffic, as it has on the M25. However, at 11 o'clock at night, when there is hardly any traffic on certain stretches of the motorway, it may not be appropriate to keep a 70 mph speed limit. As technology improves and the number of signs increases, we should perhaps consider greater variability in speed limits.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire has raised an important issue. Many of the details will have to be dealt with in Committee, but a good review by local authorities would be sensible, provided it was within the guidance suggested by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Secretary of State. Many roads go through three or four local authority areas, and it would be nonsense to have yo-yoing speed limits because each authority, having consulted local people, had a different policy. Ultimately, people are aiming to get from A to B, so co-ordination and common sense are required.
I oppose the clause on mobile phones. I agree with some of the arguments of the hon. Member for Garston. Hands-free technology has changed the way in which people use their mobile phones in cars. The law is adequate, and the police simply need to educate people and to enforce the law. The Association of Chief Police Officers and other policing organisations have not called for a change in the law. It has been suggested that there are many distractions when one is driving a car: children fighting on the back seat, arguments with one's loved one or the radio, CD or cassette playing too loudly. We see people drinking coffee or shaving in their car--