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[Relevant documents: Fifth Report from the Transport Committee, Session 200203, on Local Roads and Pathways, HC 407-I, and the Government response thereto, Cm 6007; First Report from the Transport Committee, Session 200304, on the Traffic Management Bill, HC 144; and Evidence taken before the Transport Committee on 12 and 19 December, relating to Traffic Law and its Enforcement, HC 105-i and -ii.]
The Bill will allow us to put in place measures to make road travel more reliable and will help to reduce congestion. It has three main objectives. First, it will allow better management of the motorway network, including the introduction of a new traffic officer service, which will also free up police time for other duties. Secondly, it will provide for more effective management of the local road network. Thirdly, it will introduce new measures better to control roadworks, including the introduction of a new permit scheme. The Bill also contains new measures better to co-ordinate traffic management in London in part 5, as well as powers for local authorities to enforce traffic contraventions in part 6.
I should like to deal with each part of the Bill in turn, and I come first to the proposals in part 1 better to manage the motorway network. The pressures on the motorway network are well known. We are dealing with the consequences of decades of underinvestment, coupled with the pressures of rising prosperity. We are one of the largest economies of the world and people are better off and they are travelling more on our roads and elsewhere.
There are three steps necessary to reduce congestion and make journeys more reliable. First, we are investing in new capacity where it is needed to tackle congestion and improve safety, including proposals to widen roads and to improve various pinch-points in the system. In the past two years, 17 trunk road schemes have been completed, and we announced last year that we would take forward proposals to widen key strategic arteries, such as the M1, M6 and M25. Secondly, we are improving rail and other public transport so that it provides a better choice, and we are doubling rail spending over five years. Thirdly, we need to make better use of existing infrastructure, improving the way that it is managed, and that is where part 1 of the Bill will help.
On trunk roads, 25 per cent. of congestion is caused by traffic incidents and accidents, which is why central to this strategy is the recognition that by managing our road space properly we can get more out of it, and that is why the Highways Agency is being given new powers
Part of what is needed is better information. Already the Highways Agency's national traffic control centre in the west midlands is being brought into use, and once it is fully operational this summer it will monitor traffic conditions and be able to provide up-to-date information for the whole of the trunk network, something that I think that most people will value.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I appreciate that from the point of view of road users results of incidents need to be cleared up quickly, but can my right hon. Friend assure me that there will be no relaxation of the need where appropriate to treat the site of an incident as a crime scene?
Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is quite right. Under the Bill, the Highways Agency and the police will work together. If there is an accident, the police will be on duty and they will need to take steps to find out whether there has been any criminal activity. But the big difference in future will be that the Highways Agency traffic officers will have the sole duty of getting traffic moving as quickly as possible.
At the moment, if there is a major accident, it can sometimes take hours before the road is cleared and traffic can move freely. Once the police are satisfied that all their work is done in relation to any criminal activity or assisting with the removal of casualties, it is not their job to make sure that the traffic is moving again, debris is cleared up and lorries or cars that need to be moved are dealt with quickly. In the proposals we recognise what the police do best and, at the same time, recognise the need to manage our motorways far better than we do at present. That is the answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller).
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): The documents issued by the right hon. Gentleman say that the police will be in charge of the new officers. However, can he assure the House that if those traffic officers get to the scene first they will have to wait for the police to arrive, rather than act in their absence?
Mr. Darling: The police are not in charge of those officers, who are employed by the Highways Agency. However, there will be a clear distinction between police duties to investigate any crime when they arrive to help with the removal of any casualties and the job of traffic officers on the highway, which is not to do police work but to get the traffic moving as quickly as possible. Most people, when they see an accident or incident on the road, are anxious that, as soon as the injured are taken to hospital, the road should be cleared as quickly as possible, and that is what the traffic officers will do.
Mr. Darling: The people who decide what evidence is to be gathered and make such an assessment are the police. The arrangements have been worked up in conjunction with the Association of Chief Police Officers, which fully supports the idea that its officers' time should be freed up so that they can get on with other duties once they have dealt with the immediate aftermath of an accident. Protocols will also be put in place to ensure that it is clear who does what. The main problem that we are trying to deal with is all too commonafter the police have finished at the site, nothing happens for a long time while somebody works out whose job it is to get the traffic going. Many hon. Members have probably sat in their car on the motorway facing precisely that problem and experienced the inevitable frustration that it brings.
A decade ago, when I was Minister for Roads and Traffic, we had a go at this problem, and tried hard to find a way to clear up accidents after the injured had been taken away and so on. The stumbling block was not the police or the collection of evidence but the coroner's instructions. County coroners put a stop to efforts to clear things up quickly. They would not, for example, allow videotaped evidence, and insisted that policemen measure things with tape measures and chalk on the road. Has the Secretary of State managed to get over that particular roadblock?
Mr. Darling: I certainly hope we have. The problem is not just how much evidence needs to be obtained, which is obviously kept under review. I was talking about the delay that arises when all the evidence, on any view, has been collected, but before the traffic is moving again. The primary duty of traffic officers is to help, not just in accidents but in other incidents on the road, to get traffic moving. As I said, 25 per cent. of congestion on trunk roads is caused by incidents and accidents. If we could reduce that figure substantially, that would give us an awful lot more capacity on existing roads. There is common ground between Members on both sides of the House about the fact that we do not have enough road capacity at present.
Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): My right hon. Friend referred to the increased investment that the Government are putting into the railways. Of course, it is necessary to ensure that that increased investment results in better services for the public. What changes is he contemplating making to hold train operating companies, as well as infrastructure renewal and track maintenance companies, more responsible so that we get a good benefit for the passenger in return for the investment?