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Points of Order

3.30 pm

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Before the Prime Minister stretches every sinew to escape, has he or the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food asked to make a statement on the policy of transporting carcases that might be infected from an area such as Herefordshire to a clean area such as Tern Hill in my constituency?

Mr. Speaker: No.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You may recall that every day this week I have had to raise as a point of order my complete inability to persuade the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to write to me outlining the circumstances in which a landfill site is being used in my constituency for the burial of carcases. It is difficult to say the same thing in a different way every time, but if Ministers will not answer letters from hon. Members and simply reply to every question that might cause them difficulty with the formula "I will write to the hon. Member", it makes it impossible for us to discharge our function. Do you know of any precedent that sets out when the occupant of the Chair has to intervene in such matters, or do you have to listen to me saying the same thing in a different way every day until Parliament is dissolved?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that is not a matter for Chair.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My understanding is that a decision has been taken that the national census will go ahead on 27 April. Have you received a request from any Minister to tell the House what precautions will be taken to ensure that those taking the census do not spread foot and mouth disease?

Mr. Speaker: I have received nothing from Ministers on that matter.

Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will it be in order for me to table amendments to the Elections Bill to ask for all by-elections to be cancelled up to 3 May, including the Carlisle by-election which is due to take place on 19 April and is being fought by the agent of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean)?

Mr. Speaker: We have to see the amendment before we can make a decision. It is as simple as that.

4 Apr 2001 : Column 336

Street Works

3.33 pm

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): I beg to move,

The Bill sets out to ensure that there is better co-ordination of the work that is carried out by cable companies and utilities. My constituents tell me that it is needed. They find it incredible that one company can dig up a road one week, disrupting an entire area, only to find that two weeks later a different company digs up the road all over again.

Legislation has put in place a number of measures to minimise the disruption caused by such street works. The New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 provides that operators have to notify highway authorities with a minimum of one month's notice in advance of any major work or work to be carried out on sensitive streets, as defined by the local authority. The problem with the 1991 Act is that although it gives local authorities the duty to co-ordinate excavations of the public highway, they do not have sufficient powers to do so.

Correspondence on the issue with Ministers shows that they are aware of the problems and know that certain communities in the west and south-west have been particularly badly affected by new telecommunications installations. The Labour Government have recently introduced fines of up to £2,000 a day for companies if their road works are overdue, which is welcome, but the Bill seeks to minimise disruption further by ensuring there is proper co-ordination of street works. We expect new regulations later this year, and I hope that they will take on board the proposals in my Bill.

Currently, all local authorities hold quarterly meetings and invite operators to them to discuss a schedule of works. Too often, however, operators do not attend; if they do, they often do not provide accurate information. One authority told me that many companies send it nil returns for meetings, then proceed to send notices for large schemes that should have been on the co-ordination schedule. That has led to understandable frustration among road users in many parts of South Swindon, including parts of the town centre, Freshbrook, Liddington, Wanborough and Wroughton. Those frustrations have been expressed clearly to me by constituents and parish councils covering those and other areas. A classic case occurred last summer, when our local paper, the Evening Advertiser, reported that Manchester road, which houses our bus station and so has significant traffic flow, was dug up by one cable company; when it finished, another company started 10 days later. That cannot be a sensible way of proceeding.

There have been so many companies on the nearby stretch of road between Whale bridge and Fleming way that there is no room left, and there is now an embargo on the road. That raises the question of whether the number of companies, of which there are more than 300 nationally--so far, we have seen only about 20 of them locally-- is ultimately sustainable.

There are some examples of good practice. Last July, Swindon borough council held talks with Cable and Wireless and Colt Telecom and an agreement was made that the two companies would share roadworks for their cable laying. But that good example is not common.

4 Apr 2001 : Column 337

My Bill would make that good example more of the norm. It would make it a requirement for any company wishing to undertake major roadworks or any work on a sensitive street to attend the quarterly meeting of the authority. The local authority would then have a right to delay roadworks by up to a month or to bring them forward by up to two months to co-ordinate works. The authority could insist that companies share ducts and working arrangements. Colleagues may be concerned that that will delay consumers getting services and I recognise that telecoms companies have to respond quickly to consumer demand. However, with proper planning, there should be no significant delay and consumer demands have to be weighed against the inconvenience, misery to road users and business and social time that are lost as a result of disruption. Recent research by the Transport Research Laboratory has put the cost of roadworks to Britain's economy at more than £2 billion a year, including traffic delays, damage to road surfaces and accidents; the lack of co-ordination is costing the nation huge sums.

I do not want to leave this opportunity without recognising that co-ordination is not the only problem with roadworks; my constituents raise questions with me about the quality of the some roadworks and the safety precautions taken for the staff and public at the works. Better regulations are needed to ensure that local authorities are properly reimbursed for the work that they undertake. At the moment, some council taxpayers subsidise cable companies for their work and that should be corrected.

I hope that all those issues will be addressed in Government guidance and existing regulation, but the greatest frustration of unnecessary misery on the roads could be put right through the measures in my Bill. I want to stress that it is not about increasing regulation, but about changing it. I therefore propose that there should be new sections 60 and 64 in the 1991 Act, and that sections 54, 55 and 56 should be deleted. So five existing clauses would become two and, more importantly, we would achieve a much better result for the public.

Finally, in a bid to stop anyone saying that the Bill should not have a Second Reading because ten-minute Bills rarely reach the statute book, may I note and thank the many hon. Members of all parties who have expressed support for it, and tell the House that my first ten-minute Bill achieved success when its recommendation was adopted by the Government in the Homes Bill. I hope that the sensible improvement for road users proposed in this Bill will, in the same fashion, be adopted by the Government so that road users will not be unnecessarily disrupted in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms Julia Drown, Valerie Davey, Mr. David Drew, Dr. Jenny Tonge, Mr. Andrew George, Ms Candy Atherton, Mr. Martin Salter, Ms Tess Kingham, Mr. Simon Thomas, Jane Griffiths, Mr. Jonathan Shaw and Mr. Tom Brake

Street Works

Ms Julia Drown accordingly presented a Bill to amend the law in relation to cable companies and other undertakers of street works: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 27 April, and to be printed [Bill 82].

4 Apr 2001 : Column 338

Elections Bill and Election Publications Bill [Lords] (Allocation of Time)

Mr. Speaker: I should inform the House that I have selected amendment (a), which stands in the name of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), in paragraph 1(1), after "on Second Reading," to leave out

3.41 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move,

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