Draft Functions of Traffic Wardens (Amendment) Order 2002

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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Thank you, Mr. Hurst. May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time. I do not recall having done so previously.

I do not intend to oppose either part of the order, as the suggestions appear sensible. However, I preface my remarks by saying that it was firmly the view of my hon. Friends and I when we argued the matter through the passage of the previous legislation, that a small dividing line was developing between the functions and duties of traffic wardens employed by the police authority and of community support officers. It

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would have been better had the two roles been merged within a single body and individual officers had a clear role and a clear spectrum of competences, which would be recognised and identified by the general public. However, that view was rejected at the time and we are now engaged in another minor amendment to the role and functions of traffic wardens running parallel to that of community support officers. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) is right to question why that was not made explicit in the previous legislation. He may be on less firm ground to say that it is not necessary now because of the omission in the previous legislation.

I have no quarrel with giving the power to stop vehicles for the purposes of the Road Traffic Act 1988 and for testing vehicles. However, I want briefly and in similar terms to those of the hon. Gentleman to explore the role of escorting abnormal loads. That is of great relevance in my constituency at present, as the Somerset carnival season is upon us and from time to time some 200 very large vehicles are escorted through the lanes. That needs the support of the local constabulary.

The argument about escort duties has been going on for a long time. In the early 1990s, I was chairman of a police authority that actively campaigned for uniformed constables to be relieved of the duty of escorting abnormal loads because it is a waste of police time. It is not a sensible use of an omnicompetent police constable to do something that could be done by people from a range of different agencies. The Minister said that consultation was still ongoing on the alternatives; a number of views have been canvassed over the years on whether the function is a necessary duty of an official of the police authority or the local authority or whether, instead of using uniformed officers, the duty could be subcontracted to a responsible highways organisation such as the Automobile Association or the RAC.

The suggestion that traffic wardens should carry out the function raises an important issue. Traffic wardens are not usually mobile; they do not have clearly marked vehicles that are suitable for the proposed duty. Police authorities often provide vehicles for the constabulary, but traffic wardens do not use vehicles except those that deliver them to their place of work. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire was right to question the Minister on the matter. I look forward to the Minister's reply as to whether he envisages a new class of mobile traffic warden who is provided with a vehicle and, if so, what will be its capital source. Police authorities may have difficulty in providing the vehicles. Does the Minister intend to introduce orders for marking the vehicles to distinguish them from police vehicles?

On traffic wardens' areas of authority, I hope I am correct in saying that I thought that traffic wardens employed by a police authority could carry out functions only within that police authority area at the direction of the chief constable.

The Minister intimated that the measure would allow the easier movement of abnormal loads across

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the country by relieving the need for a transfer from police officer to police officer at the boundaries of police authority areas. However, I do not see that that is so. Perhaps he can explain why a transfer at a police authority boundary will be easier between traffic wardens than between police officers.

Will there be a complication in those areas where the traffic warden functions have been removed from the police authority to the local councils, or where that has partially happened? Some districts or boroughs within a police authority area employ their own traffic wardens for parking control duties, and the police authority maintains a core of traffic wardens for other duties. With regard to the functions of traffic wardens within their own police authority areas, is that compatible with the 1970 Functions of Traffic Wardens Order?

If the Minister answers those questions, he will at least flesh out a little the requirements that relate to the order. I certainly do not intend to force a Division, because sensible provisions such as these should reduce the amount of police time spent on inessential tasks, and allow it to be more properly used for fighting crime and the other core functions of the police.

4.57 pm

Mr. Denham: I shall reply as best I can to the points that have been raised. On the need for the legislation, its architecture is that the amendments that were made during the passage of the Police Reform Act 2002 did away with the restrictions on the power of traffic wardens to stop vehicles. However, through secondary legislation, we can proscribe those functions for which traffic wardens can stop vehicles, which means that the power is not unlimited. The order does not, for example, confer on traffic wardens the ability to stop vehicles in pursuit of section 44 of the terrorism legislation. We took in primary legislation a fairly wide-ranging power, with the purpose of defining the circumstances in which it should be used in this legislation; hence the two powers. Primary legislation potentially allows a broadening at some future point, but this secondary legislation does not do that.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome advanced an argument about merging the two roles, an argument that was rehearsed in Committee on the Police Reform Bill. I accept that, in some ways, it would have been more elegant to do what was suggested. However, there were real practical difficulties, not only in drafting that complex legislation, but in the fact that not all traffic wardens would wish to become a CSO. There could have been the problem that perhaps hundreds of traffic wardens could no longer do their job because it had a wider range of responsibilities.

However, in many areas, including, I understand, the Metropolitan police service area, it is intended to designate traffic wardens as CSOs where possible. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman may not be far away from what will happen in practice, but this measure enables traffic wardens to exercise the powers as traffic wardens should they remain in that role, and should that be the decision of police forces in future.

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The hon. Gentleman asked about the range of people who could carry out escort duties. Such duties could potentially be carried out by accredited community safety officers, who would not be police authority employees, and by people from other agencies, such as the Highways Agency. There could potentially be accredited private companies that, in the chief constable's judgment, had sufficient training and the ability to carry out the duties. We have produced quite a wide range of possibilities and a flexible range of options that can meet needs in different circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire asked whether the Government envisaged a new class of mobile traffic wardens, and if so, what vehicles they would drive, and so on. That is a little further down the road than we have gone so far. When drafting the legislation, it seemed logical to remove the bar on traffic wardens, which, in effect, means that they can exercise powers only on foot. We would have to work through how that would be done with any police forces that want to use traffic wardens in vehicles. Designation of vehicles must be examined in detail, but does not need to be prescribed in this legislation. It did, however, seem sensible to allow that flexibility.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. If I have understood him correctly, he is implying that if a chief constable wants to use traffic wardens for escorting abnormal loads, he will have to apply in some way to the Home Office. Does that mean that if the order is passed this afternoon, that is not the end of the story? My understanding was that once the order is passed, a chief constable might use a traffic warden to escort an abnormal load if he so wishes. However, the Minister is suggesting that the chief constable will have to come back to him to ask what sort of car he can use and which logos he can have on it. How will the order work?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman is right about the status of the order in that no further legislative powers would be necessary. Chief officers would be responsible for the deployment of traffic wardens in the role. In practice, however, there tend to be discussions with the Home Office, and guidance may be given in those circumstances. Legally, the chief constable could act on the basis of the legislation, and would be responsible for making the appropriate decisions about the vehicles used and their markings. That will be the position as a result of this change. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman's question.

Mr. Paice: Yes, it answers the question, but it also gives rise to the concern, which I expressed in my opening comments and which is shared by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, that the chief constable could simply allocate to his traffic wardens one of his traffic cars for the purpose of any escort, and neither road users nor anyone else would have any way of knowing that the occupants of that car were not fully qualified policemen. That causes us some concern, and we believe that there should automatically be some central guidance on the markings to distinguish a car manned by traffic wardens from a proper police car.

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