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31 Mar 2003 : Column 723—continued

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is right. I am sure that you would rule me out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if we had a detailed debate about the nature of local government funding. However, I accept the hon. Gentleman's hint that the Government often tell us that they are going to allow something to happen, but they turn out only to be allowing the local authority to spend money that it is responsible for raising.

Bob Russell: The cost to local authorities of gritting vehicles was mentioned. Will my hon. Friend bring into the equation the cost to the public purse of a fatal road crash, a serious injury and a slight injury resulting from a less serious accident? Does he agree that £1 million spent on preventing 10 fatal accidents is money well spent?

7 pm

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, with which the hon. Member for North Wiltshire and many others would no doubt concur. One of the concerns echoed in all parts of the Committee was that so little attention had been given in the Bill to road accidents and road deaths. That is why,

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for example, we proposed in Committee the establishment of a road accident investigation branch to mirror the rail accident investigation branch and the branches that cover aviation and shipping.

The hon. Member for Vale of York introduced new clause 11, which goes nowhere near as far as we would like in regard to the establishment of such a body, but nevertheless proposes an annual report. She probably recalls the statistics that were cited several times in Committee. For example, it is worth reflecting that, since the present Government came to power in 1997, about 150 people have died on our railways and a staggering 17,000 on our roads. The focus on roads is crucial. Much that would be published under new clause 11 will already be contained in the annual publication "Road Accidents in Great Britain", but because it focuses on the issue, and perhaps elicits some additional information that could be used to improve road safety, we support new clause 11, just as we support new clause 10.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) for his party's support for new clause 11. As he rightly said, there are already a number of documents that bring together statistics relating to road accidents in Great Britain, not least the document with that title. Nevertheless, the new clause would require the Secretary of State personally to express his views in such a report, so that it would be not merely a gathering together of statistics, but an expression of conclusions that the Secretary of State draws from those statistics—lessons that he believes need to be learned and policies that will be pursued.

At an early stage in our proceedings, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) rightly pointed out that far more lives are lost on the roads than on rail; rail is a basically safe way of travelling, whereas the motor car, sadly, involves a greater degree of risk. That is not the widespread public perception. It is our view, expressed on Second Reading, that we should take any and every opportunity to raise the level of road safety, and in particular do so on the basis of proper, adequate, continuous and comparative research. Although some such work is being done, it is our belief that more could be done.

We have received representations from, among others, the Royal National Institute of the Blind, which reported that its members have serious concerns about the present design of level crossings and how that may have an impact on the likelihood of accidents taking place. Mr. Edmund King of the RAC Foundation stated that he believes that certain aspects of road design can contribute towards accidents, in particular the design and the approach that motorists take towards road junctions. When the House chooses from time to time to introduce safety measures, whether in relation to speed cameras, alcohol restrictions or other factors, it is important that motorists should understand that the House is doing so on the basis of the best research and for no other reason than to save lives and improve the prospects of reducing the tragically large number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads.

We therefore are strongly in favour of new clause 11. We hope that the Minister will address the reasons why the Government may not be able to support it at this

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stage, but if he cannot support it, we give him advance notice that we propose to press it to a Division. We also hope that even if, as is always possible, especially in the present House of Commons, the Government happen to squeak by in such a vote, they will reflect carefully on the importance of the matter—I do not imagine for a moment that they have anything other than a serious and personal commitment to improving road safety—and that they look carefully at the present range of statistical compilations that is available, and consider whether it might be a good idea for the Secretary of State to have a duty every year to publish his policies for improving road safety. With that, we commend new clause 11 to the House.

Mr. Jamieson: I am glad that new clause 10 has received such widespread support. It brings the necessary clarity to the law. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) spoke with passion about the number of people killed and injured on our roads each year, and some of them are killed or injured as a result of snow and ice that was not removed at an appropriate time.

With reference to the Highways Agency, no one can make apologies for what happened in January this year on the M11. Mistakes were made. We were clear about that at the time. It was quite proper that the chief executive of the Highways Agency should answer for those. He is initially responsible for operational matters and it is proper that he answered on that occasion. However, I should say that all highways authorities and the Highways Agency realise that proper attention to ice and snow on our roads is far from an exact science. Weather is unpredictable, and sometimes a decision has to be made whether to grit too early, thereby losing the effect of the gritting, or too late or too often. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there are also environmental issues involved, as a result of salt and grit entering the watercourses. A careful balance must be struck.

Mr. Gray: Does the Under-Secretary agree, none the less, that the curious thing is that there is already a statutory duty on the Highways Agency to grit on motorways? The new clause deals not with the M11, but with county councils and A roads.

Mr. Jamieson: Indeed. That is why we announced back in October 2002 that our view was that we should introduce legislation at the earliest opportunity. We now have that opportunity, and the measures for which the hon. Gentleman called have been introduced.

In his intervention, the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) said that Governments should do less and private Members should do more. Perhaps he should have a chat with the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who seems to think that private Members should not introduce any legislation in this place. There is many a Member on the Government Benches and a few on the Opposition Benches whose Bills have been lost, thanks to the right hon. Gentleman and his cohorts.

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The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) essentially accused us of doing the right thing, although I accept his support for what we propose. I am always happy to be accused of doing the right thing, not least by the hon. Gentleman. In response to one of his points, I can tell him that an independent survey of 29 shire counties in 2002 found that not one of them intended cutting back on gritting. Durham is an exception. That is a matter that the council must square with its electorate and with the legislation. Once the measure is on the statute book, all authorities will have to give careful consideration to the matter.

I turn to new clause 11 and the annual reporting of road accidents. New clause 11 seems to disregard the fact that sound arrangements already exist for the investigation of road accidents, for monitoring the associated circumstances and for disseminating the valuable information that is obtained. There is already a well-established investigation process for fatal road accidents, which was improved last year with the introduction of the police national road death investigation manual. I assure the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) that the police investigate such accidents thoroughly, not least because in some cases a prosecution could be brought against a driver. Such investigations sometimes take several weeks.

My Department maintains a national database of road accident statistics and uses those data to inform research studies and, through those, policy development. I assure hon. Members that such information is central to our policy thinking. It also enables us to check that we are delivering our targets to improve road safety by reducing deaths and injuries.

Several research studies are under way to consider the contributory factors in accidents. The studies include detailed on-the-spot investigations of a sample of accidents as soon as they occur and in-depth analysis of detailed police files. By analysing data from a large number of accidents and looking for common threads, that research is much more likely to lead to improved safety measures.

Individual police forces and their respective local authorities share information that helps them to improve their local roads to reduce the risk of accidents. For many years, such data have proved especially helpful to highway authorities for design purposes. Furthermore, analysing the total number of accidents, including slight injuries, provides a far better indicator for remedial action than focusing only on fatal and serious accidents. When an accident is under investigation it would not be apparent to the police officer concerned that a serious injury could lead to permanent disability. That could give rise to issues of confidentiality. I think, therefore, that subsection (2) of new clause 11 is unworkable.

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