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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The Secretary of State was listened to with great care by the House and the same politeness should be extended to the hon. Member who is now addressing the House.
Mr. Green: In 1976, fewer than 20 million people held a driving licence, compared to 32 million in 2000. The Secretary of State made the point that that increase may be a sign of underlying economic success. I agreethe underlying economic success in the 1980s and 1990s led to a rise in prosperity. The growth in the number of people holding driving licences has been greatest among women and older people, so those who sneer about the growth in car use are attacking the growth in access to its use among groups who in previous generations did not enjoy that facility. That extension of choice from the few to the many should be welcomed and should not be used as an excuse to make the lives of all motorists a misery.
It is understandable that Ministers should seek to solve some of the problems caused by inadequate traffic management. No one could object to the principles behind the Bill. On motorways, on trunk roads and on roads in towns and cities, frustrations build up and occasionally boil over because of unnecessary obstruction. We would have welcomed a Bill that introduced practical and sensible measures to keep traffic flowing smoothly. Sadly, this Bill is not it. Instead, it is a wasted opportunity promising more bureaucracy, more confusion and more anger among motorists as they realise the full extent of the disappointment they face. That is why we tabled an amendment designed to encourage the Government to go away and think again. Others agree that this is a rushed and therefore imperfect Bill.
The Secretary of State covered a number of issues in his wide-ranging introduction. He made interesting points on the successful transport Bills introduced by Conservative Governments, particularly under the aegis of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), but one of the more extraordinary things he said was how widespread the welcome for the Bill had been. I think that he has been reading only the old cuttings rather than the recent ones. From his speech, it appears that he spent a large amount of the Christmas and new year period either listening to me on the radio or reading newspaper articles in which I was quoted, but he needs to look at what other people have said since they have looked at the detail of the Bill. Of course, everyone welcomed the principle of the Bill but recently many people have agreed that its preparation has been rushed and that therefore it is deeply imperfect.
The Transport Select Committee rightly describes as "absurd" the Government's decision to allow only four sitting days between the Bill's publication and this Second Reading debate. The Government have also ignored the fact that the Committee is currently inquiring into one of the Bill's key policies. The AA, moreover, says that it welcomes the Bill in principle, but complains that there has been a paucity of consultation and discussion. It says:
Let me address the individual aspects of the Bill that cause most concern, and which the Secretary of State dealt with. The first is the replacement of traffic police with the Highways Agency's new traffic officers. We all want the police to concentrate on fighting crimeneither side of the House regards that as a controversial issue. It is also true that the police have steadily withdrawn from traffic duties. Between 1997 and 2001, there was a 12 per cent. rise in the volume of traffic and a 12 per cent. decline in the number of police officers assigned to traffic duties, but there are legitimate reasons for thinking that the Bill's proposals go too far. As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) pointed out, the new traffic officers will have responsibility for clearing wreckage and obstructions, rather than for ensuring that offences have not been committed. That will have severe practical effects. Often, when a car is pulled over by the police for dangerous driving, further checks are made that reveal wider criminal activity. That option simply will not be available to civilian traffic officers, so we will be making the police less effective than they currently are in their wider crime-fighting duties.
In response to an intervention, the Secretary of State said that the police would be in charge at all times, but which police? In the Bill's supporting papers, the Government admitindeed, they boastthat there will be 550 fewer traffic police as a result of these measures. If there are 550 fewer traffic police, they will not be available to perform the duties that the Secretary of State says that such police will still perform. So in his own terms, his attitude to this part of the Bill is, I am afraid, completely incoherent.
The AA is right to warn about the need for clear lines of accountability in respect of traffic officers. It says:
There is also the practical issue of giving the Highways Agency the powers and the duty to clear away broken-down vehicles and charge drivers for doing so. The Secretary of State rather cavalierly said that the RAC and the AA were needlessly worried, because their fears were not consonant with the Government's purpose. Charging drivers may not be the purpose of the Bill, but it will be the effect, and it is perverse to deny people the opportunity to take out a sensible insurance policy so that expert bodies can remove their cars quickly from the roads for repairs.
The Secretary of Stateunlike many Government Members sitting behind himis on the wing of the Labour party that purports to believe in the efficiency of markets, so he may agree with me. He will observe that, since the proliferation of breakdown services and therefore greater competition, the efficiency of those services has improved markedly. It is now much rarer than it was 20 or 30 years ago for people to be left for hours by the side of the road: the standard has improved.
The RAC observes that the Bill will lead to a needless doubling up of resources. Up to 70 or 80 per cent. of its customers call from a mobile phone when they have broken down on the motorway, and a patrol vehicle is dispatched in response. The same applies, of course, to all the other breakdown services. If the Highways Agency is to devote itself to doing the same thing in all circumstances, it will lead to the ludicrous situation of having competing breakdown vans racing along the motorway in an attempt to solve the same problem.
The problems will be even worse, because the Highways Agency will charge for carrying out its duty. The current charge is £105, so if the Highways Agency gets there first, that is presumably what motorists will have to pay, even if they have already called for their own breakdown service to assist them. It will lead, in the first case, to unfair charging and, as an obvious second-order effect that seems to have been ignored, to a reduction in the number of people signing up for various insurance breakdown services. That will be an inevitable consequence of the Bill. It is surely absurd that the effect of a Bill that is designed to make it easier to remove broken-down vehicles from motorways will actually reduce the number of people offering services to do so.