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2.4 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I join my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) in congratulating the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on introducing the Bill. It is

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wide-ranging and even if, as I shall explain in relation to some particulars, the Government are unable to accept every element of it, the hon. Member for North Wiltshire has given us an opportunity to debate several important topics, not least those relating to transport safety.

As with every private Member's Bill, the Government have thought carefully about the contents of the Bill and our approach to them if and when they came to be debated. That is proper, and normal constitutional practice.

The Government have thought more carefully about the Bill than the hon. Member for North Wiltshire thought about our approach to parish councils. It is absolute nonsense to assert, as he did, that the Government are dismissive of the role of parish councils. On the contrary, our rural White Paper contained commitments to a parish transport fund, amounting to £15 million over three years, and funds of £5 million to support the preparation of parish plans. Both of those are due to come in from the beginning of April; not to mention the community services fund for basic services in communities, which will benefit parish councils. Some £2 million funding will be made available for the training and development of parish councils over the next three years.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Would my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hill: I would love to give way to my hon. Friend, but I have a short period in which to respond to a long debate. As she knows, I have sat here for all but 10 minutes of this five-hour debate, making careful notes. I am anxious to respond to the many important points made during the debate.

The Bill is wide-ranging and has given rise to our customary wide-ranging Friday morning debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox)--my parliamentary neighbour--spoke powerfully about those who exceed the speed limit and the use of the mobile phone. We all look forward to my hon. Friend's active participation in the Committee. I am well aware that he stated his intention to propose further clauses to the Bill. The opportunity to work closely with my hon. Friend on the Committee is a strong incentive to move to a further stage of scrutiny.

My hon. Friend asked how many prosecutions there had been for offences involving mobile phones. He will be aware that because of the character of the law at present, using a mobile phone while driving is not a specific offence. I regret to say that the information is not available.

The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) talked passionately about the A64. I have travelled on the A64 from York to Scarborough and I am aware of the problems on the road. My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) has also been forceful on the subject. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Highways Agency is reviewing the possibility of further improvements to the road. In fact, he has acknowledged that there have already been a number of improvements, including bypasses and an element of dualling.

I note that a commitment has been made to deal with the overtaking lane at Golden Hill, but let me assure the hon. Gentleman that I will seek to expedite progress on

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the matter. He will be aware that, before Christmas, I was able to announce the Government's intention to construct a bypass at the village of Rillington in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby.

Mr. Greenway: No, in mine.

Mr. Hill: In that case, it is important that I correct the record. I am glad that we have been able to make that important contribution to improving safety on the A64. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I would be delighted to hear about the road safety days at Lady Lumley's school.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) spoke with singular insight, based on her experience as a personal injuries lawyer, on the Goodes v. East Sussex County Council case. I will say more about that shortly. I am certain that the House was gripped by her alarming description of the impact of snow on the normally balmy climes of Liverpool. I suppose the reference to the wrong kind of salt was inevitable. I am absolutely certain that we are all relieved that the Liberal Democrat council has gone quiet on the issue of zoo poo. [Hon. Members: "Where are the Liberal Democrats?"] I propose to come to that in due course.

Let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for Garston that her point about the concept of reasonableness in the Bill was well made and she has certainly inspired us to think further and more carefully about the matter. I should add that the definition of a highway includes roads and the footpaths adjacent to them. My hon. Friend is evidently an enthusiastic supporter of speed cameras, so she will be pleased to know that following an extremely successful pilot scheme in eight districts in various parts of the country, the new Vehicles (Crime) Bill now going through Parliament will permit all highway authorities to ring-fence the proceeds of fixed penalties for speeding offences precisely for investment in the deployment and maintenance of speed cameras.

The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) spoke for the official Opposition. Let me say at this point that it has been notable throughout the debate that the provisional Opposition--the Liberal Democrat party--has been totally absent from our proceedings today. That is an appalling reflection on its lack of commitment to the important matter of transport safety to which the House has devoted so much time today.

As usual, the hon. Member for Poole spoke with common sense and some originality on a range of issues in the Bill. He asked about the statistics for deaths on snow or ice. According to the road casualty statistics for 1999, there were 69 deaths and 520 serious injuries as a result of snow or ice that year. We are unsure where the report of 200 deaths, which has been quoted during the debate, comes from or how that figure was calculated.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) is another personal injuries lawyer. He asked a great many questions. Time constraints prevent me from answering them in their totality, but I can absolutely confirm that my hon. Friend was the first hon. Member to raise the implications of the Goodes case with the Government and, in his usual admirably assiduous fashion, he has persisted in pressing for a legislative solution. I can assure him and my hon. Friend the Member for Garston that the Government will consider very carefully their observations in today's debate.

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I can also confirm that Transport for London is a highway authority. I am glad to hear that the Government have been helpful with improvements to Apex corner in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and I note his further urgings with regard to Sterling corner. I am tempted to repeat the words of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and say, "Another day, another demand", but my hon. Friend makes a powerful case in relation to Sterling corner.

On the question of resources for further traffic measures in my hon. Friend's constituency, the London borough of Barnet will have benefited from the 22 per cent. increase in transport investment in London for 2001-02 announced by the Government in our 10-year plan for transport last July. In the following year available investment will be 92 per cent. higher than the current base line and in 2003-04 it will be a massive 220 per cent. higher. It is my understanding that the Mayor of London intends passing on those increases to the London boroughs. That really ought to allow ample scope for the large-scale introduction of traffic management measures throughout London. I also draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) the opportunities for the introduction of traffic management measures in the streets in his constituency to which he referred.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon also asked about radar detectors. Draft statutory instruments have been laid and consultation is due to finish at the end of March. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the Government intend to prohibit the installation and use of such devices in motor vehicles.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon also asked about child restraints. A national publicity campaign on the subject is under way this week. We have had good press coverage on the subject--on GMTV and in newspapers and the local media. Additionally, road safety officers are conducting local campaigns at schools, supermarkets and other places. The campaign includes the advice to beware of second-hand seats. I hope that that, too, will be of some reassurance to him.

I am sure that we all very much enjoyed the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) teased the hon. Member for North Wiltshire by drawing to our attention the apparent contradictions in his approach to regulation. My long-held observation is that, with one or two obvious exceptions, hon. Members on both sides the House, when they get half a chance, demonstrate an insatiable appetite for interfering in people's lives. It is the duty of a Government such as ours, who are opposed to excessive regulation, to restrain those appetites. That of course informs our approach to parts of the Bill. The House very much appreciated her views on speeding and speed limits, which are born of her expertise as an engineer by training. It was also very good to hear of the benefits of lower speed limits in her constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North reminded the House of the continuing toll of road traffic accidents, not least in his constituency. I am sure that his constituents will be grateful to him for raising those issues in Parliament and drawing them to the attention of both national Government and the local authority. I note his support for the Bill's proposals to review speed limits on roads. I hope to speak about that shortly.

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In the very brief time that remains to me, I should like to deal with the Bill's detailed contents. Clause 1 imposes a duty on local authorities to remove ice and snow from highways and springs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon said, from a very unfortunate accident, in November 1991--the subject of the Goodes v. East Sussex County Council case--that everyone of course wishes could have been avoided. Mr. Goodes was very seriously injured when his car skidded on black ice on the A267 near Mayfield in Sussex.

The judgment of the House of Lords in the case, last year, was that there was no duty on local highway authorities under the Highways Act 1980 to remove ice from highways. Nevertheless, I confirm that we expect authorities to continue to salt their roads in icy conditions in accordance with their code of good practice on highway maintenance, which has been in place since 1989. All our soundings with local authorities have shown that none of them intends to cut back on salting roads because of the judgment. Additionally, we have instructed the Highways Agency to continue its usual practice of keeping motorways and trunk roads free of ice and snow.

We have also reminded road users to follow the advice in the highway code that they must take great care in icy conditions. As various hon. Members have said, that is especially important because the reality is that no highway authority can always remove all the ice from all of its roads, whatever its legal duty might or might not be. Even with the best of forelaid plans to salt roads according to a hierarchy of their importance, salting programmes can be caught out by icy weather that arrives more quickly and severely than expected.

Although the judgment meant that there was not a duty in the 1980 Act to remove ice from a highway, we are considering whether a duty is required and the best way of bringing that about. I hope that that is some reassurance to the House and particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon.

Clauses 2 and 3 deal with the review and revision of speed limits. As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire is aware, the Government are committed to improving road safety. In March 2000, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions published the report of its comprehensive review of speed management policy, which was generally well-received by professionals and road safety campaigners alike. Its main recommendations were included in the Government's road safety strategy which underpins our target to reduce deaths and serious injuries on our roads by 40 per cent. overall and 50 per cent. for children by 2010.

I am very glad to note that the hon. Gentleman's own local authority, Wiltshire county council, has taken account of the strategy when developing its road safety action plan. I hope that it can build upon its achievement in exceeding the previous accident reduction targets.

I am also happy that authorities such as Wiltshire are embracing new initiatives like quiet lanes in their search for schemes that balance the needs of motorised traffic with those who wish to walk, cycle and ride horses, like the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, and I wish them every success.

The review acknowledged that for speed limits to be respected they need to be appropriate to the road and consistently set throughout the country. To achieve that,

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the review recommended the development of a hierarchy of roads defined by their function, an assessment framework to aid decisions on appropriate limits and a simplified method of setting them. Although these initiatives have been broadly welcomed, I am conscious of the need to develop the detail carefully. Public consultation will play a major part in the process and will ensure that the measures implemented are practicable and effective. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is currently engaged in the development of these policies.

Let me hasten on. For the rural road hierarchy, the Transport Act 2000 requires the DETR to undertake a review of the issues that need to be resolved and the Secretary of State to publish a report of the review by November. I am glad to say that that is already well under way. Work has also commenced on the assessment framework and on a new method for setting limits. A provisional enabling clause for the latter will be included in the draft Transport Safety Bill, and will be used as the basis on which we will consult.

I recognise that clauses 2 and 3 attempt to provide new speed limit order-making powers. They also aim to ensure consistency, while allowing the Department's work on hierarchies and assessment frameworks to be taken into account. However, the mechanism employed is rather prescriptive. I am concerned about imposing a large burden such as the assessment of every road in the country on local authorities without consultation. As so much work is yet to be completed on these initiatives, I believe that the clauses are premature. Given my concerns, and the fact that primary legislation has already been identified for any necessary enabling provisions, I have to inform the House that the Government cannot support the clauses.

Clause 4 would ban the drivers of motor vehicles from using hand-held phones. The purpose of the clause is to create a new offence of using a hand-held mobile phone while driving. The penalties would be a level 3 fine and discretionary disqualifications or a fixed-penalty notice, with the licence endorsed with three penalty points.

I fully understand the intentions of this measure. However, we see no need for a specific offence to outlaw the use of hand-held phones while driving. Drivers are already required to have proper control of their vehicles at all times. The police are satisfied that they have adequate powers to prosecute drivers who are not in control of their vehicle for whatever reason. Rules 127 and 128 of the highway code give advice to drivers on the dangers of using mobile phones and other types of in-car technology while driving.

The creation of the proposed offence could even be counter-productive, as the current position provides flexibility. At present, the police may prosecute drivers for failing to have proper control of their vehicle. That is an offence under regulation 104 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use Regulations) 1986, and carries a maximum fine of £2,500. Alternatively, a prosecution for careless or inconsiderate driving under section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 might be justified. This carries a maximum fine of £2,500, endorsement of three to nine penalty points and discretionary disqualification. A prosecution for dangerous driving under Section 2 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 may sometimes be appropriate.

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This offence carries a sentence of up to two years in prison, an unlimited fine, disqualification for at least a year and a requirement to undergo an extended re-test.

All these powers ensure that the police can prosecute according to the degree of danger involved. The penalty on conviction will reflect the circumstances of each case.

Creating an absolute offence, as proposed in the Bill, could give the false impression that it is safe to use a hands-free phone while driving. The Transport Research Laboratory's research review concluded that the distraction caused by the mental effort of phone conversations is present even with hands-free phones. Although the evidence is largely circumstantial, it all points to an association between phone use and increased accident risk.

Using any type of phone while driving can be distracting, and it is not just phone use that distracts a driver's attention from the road. A specific offence in relation to phones raises issues about other in-car activities. Anything from eating--during the debate, we heard plenty about eating bananas--to tuning a radio while driving can be dangerous and lead to an accident. That is why we think that the current law is satisfactory.

In line with the conclusions of the Stewart group, the Government are committed to continuing to publicise the dangers of using mobile phones while driving. We recently re-issued an advisory leaflet to road safety officers, the police and learner drivers through driving instructors and test centres.

In 1998, we started a national publicity campaign to remind drivers of the dangers of using a phone on the move. We launched a further campaign at the beginning of 2000 to reinforce that message. There will be further campaigns. Mobile phone companies also include advice about the road safety hazards of using hand-held mobile phones in their promotional literature to subscribers.

On clauses 5, 6 and 7, I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire for putting the case for the changes in the law relating to seat belt wearing that are contained in those clauses. The Government support them all. There is little these days that is revolutionary in the matter of road safety. Progress seems to be made by small advances here and there which, taken together, produce a benefit that is measurable at the end of the year, when the road casualties figures are published. The changes proposed are minor, but they will contribute significantly to the enhancement of safety on our roads.

Briefly, on travel concessions, the Transport Act 2000 requires the half-fare concessions to be made available on journeys within the area of a local transport authority. In England, that is the district councils, unitary authorities and passenger transport executives. The terms of clause 8 go somewhat wider than those powers. In our view, the existing schemes should be allowed time to bed down before further extensions are considered. We therefore cannot agree to the inclusion of clause 8.

Finally, like the proverbial curate's egg, the Bill contains good parts, as well as bad. The Government are

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content, if it is the will of the House, to allow it to proceed to Committee, so that we might see whether we can concoct a small omelette of a measure out of its more palatable elements.

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