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5.34 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Four times more people are killed on the roads in this country every year than are victims of murder. I should have thought that that fact would make the House of Commons think quite seriously about any legislation that affects either road policing or the control of our traffic, yet we do not include the policing of roads in our strategic objectives for the police. There has been a consistent decline in the number of specialist police who are either trained to understand the problems of traffic or who are consistently given that role. As chief constables do not have a specific responsibility to maintain traffic police, they do not do so. The evidence of Her Majesty's inspector was that forces clearly regarded both the commitment of men and vehicles to road policing as being a peripheral duty from which people could be readily reallocated—a startling fact of which we should take note.

At the risk of upsetting those on the Government Front Bench, I must say that I believe that when we discuss an important change in the legislation that affects roads and traffic we should take account of certain things. We must be sure in our own minds what we want to do. If we want the highways authority to be the Highways Agency and to have the core task of ensuring that traffic moves more readily, let us say so and make that clear, but when we are introducing new powers let us also consider the implications of what we are doing.

The Bill was introduced to the House of Commons on only Thursday 11 December and printed the day after, and it should be borne in mind that the House rose on 18 December. The Government know that my Committee is looking at traffic enforcement and that we have done some work on it, but this is an ideal subject for pre-legislative scrutiny, not simply because it is a complex subject but because it is one on which people will want to give evidence. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have clearly demonstrated the prejudices that people have about traffic. We would like a little detailed information that is based on fact. If we cannot even agree on whether speed cameras are being placed according to the criteria set down, how can we possibly have a sensible debate in the Chamber about the legislation that we are framing?

I have the greatest regard for the Secretary of State, but I regret that the Bill has been introduced so rapidly. Unlike some members of my own party, I do not have

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this great commitment and warmth towards ideas that were introduced by previous Conservative Governments. I know that that shows a want of something on my part, but it is why I am sitting on the Government Benches, not on the Opposition Benches.

The Bill has all sorts of implications far beyond simply organising the speedy movement of cars along a motorway. First, has the House considered the status of this new group of people, the traffic officers? Will they be trained in the same way as we train police officers, and, if not, at what point will they decide, when an accident or an incident has occurred, that the movement of various bits of evidence from the carriageway or the permission to resume the movement of cars will not have a deleterious effect on the collection of evidence?

We are told that the police will retain final responsibility, but can we be sure that traffic officers will get to the scene first? If so, what will the traffic officers do that police officers do not already do? The police ensure that the carriageway is reopened once it is safe to do so and proper action has been taken in relation to the incident.

It is terribly important that we know what extra powers can be given by order to the traffic police. It is obvious, because it is in the Bill, that if the Secretary of State decides in future that those responsibilities should be devolved to a private contractor, there is nothing to stop the contractor controlling and instructing the traffic police, which will have great implications for people involved in traffic incidents. It is clear from the evidence that the Select Committee on Transport took from families who had suffered bereavements as a result of traffic accidents that the police officer's initial decision at the scene can determine the conduct of a case—not just whether the motorist should be prosecuted, but the way in which the prosecution is conducted and its implications for the victim's family. That is an important responsibility, and it should not be taken lightly.

It is important that we know what the relationship between traffic managers and traffic officers will be. Traffic managers can be appointed by local authorities, but can also be imposed by the Department for Transport, so it would be helpful to know their direct responsibilities, to whom they are answerable, the terms under which they operate and the way in which they intend to proceed. Special powers in clause 5 allow traffic officers to maintain or improve the movement of traffic and prevent or reduce

They can also be used to avoid danger to persons—that is well down the list of duties—and prevent damage to anything on or near a road

Those powers are so general as to be worrying, and I would like more precision.

The Secretary of State will know that in the Session 2002–03 my Committee undertook a great deal of work on a related subject. During that period, the Government announced that they intended to appoint traffic tsars and make provision for further controls over street works. However, we have been told today that only a quarter of incidents cause congestion. In other words, three quarters of the problems that we encounter

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do not arise from circumstances that the Bill is supposed to address. It would therefore be helpful if the Bill's intentions were spelt out in more detail and its implications made clearer. Why does the Secretary of State not have a responsibility to ensure completely safe conduct? Why can there not be a commitment in the Bill saying that his first responsibility is the safety of people travelling on our roads. It is a simple commitment, but it would reassure people. In this country, we do a great deal to try to cut the number of deaths and injuries, but the reality is that we still kill thousands of people every year. Although the figures are dropping, they are not dropping nearly far enough, and they represent something that destroys people who are involved in such incidents.

I am concerned about the fact that we are creating a structure with a narrow base. Everybody would cheerfully accept the theory that the work of traffic wardens in towns should be expanded. No one can object to the principle—[Interruption.] I detect a certain note of dissent, but I think that most people would accept that view—

Mr. Stringer: It is only the Manchester experience.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Luckily, I cannot always say that I have had a Manchester experience.

Most people would accept that the work of traffic wardens is meant to improve quality of life and the movement of traffic in towns, but we are not doing something as simple as giving extra powers to an existing work force; we are looking to create an entirely new group with very narrow terms of reference.

I know that many people will highlight aspects of the Bill that concern them, but I want to ask one or two questions before I sit down. If a considerable number of police officers are to be released by the creation of traffic officers, will those policemen retain their expertise? Will they still have a responsibility for traffic and be able to fulfil the task that they currently fulfil in preparing for prosecutions where there has been a criminal act or an incident of some importance? If not, will they be absorbed by the police force and will that work be left almost entirely to people who are not trained police officers? Will the police forces themselves suffer loss of revenue from the arrangements that are going to be made? If so, how will it be replaced?

Will the public as a whole find that people whom they do not recognise as trained police officers are taking decisions that can have an immediate effect, perhaps on their full licence or livelihood? How long do we imagine that that will be acceptable? We have only to see what has happened in relation to speed cameras and to consider the artificial and frighteningly unbalanced campaign that has been built up by some tabloids about the use of cameras to realise that, in a very short time, people would be rampaging through the pages of our newspapers complaining bitterly that those administering traffic law were neither police officers nor properly trained. That is what the Bill proposes.

On the whole, the House of Commons makes a fool of itself when it rushes things, does not take time, programmes every Bill and pushes legislation through

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irrespective of the amount of consideration that it has given to the measure's wording. This matter cannot be dealt with lightly. The Bill introduces a major change; we are creating for the first time almost since the time of Robert Peel a new group of officers who are not police officers, town beadles or collectors of little bits of paper to stick on to parked motor cars, but a group of people who will have the power to take major decisions that could enable those who have been involved in serious accidents to escape prosecution or large numbers of people who consider that they have been hard done by to find that they have no recourse to any sort of appeal. Above all, we could see a situation in which the general public begin to question the common sense of the House of Commons. When that happens, frankly, we are all at risk.

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