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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 reallocateda 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?
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 casenot 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
The Secretary of State will know that in the Session 200203 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
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
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.