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5.48 pm

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): I wonder whether I might ask your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in respect of a procedural point before I come to my comments on the Bill. I raise this point having listened to the very powerful contribution of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and to other contributions, and having received last-minute advice from my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). I understand that there exists a Special Standing Committee that could consider the Bill and take evidence. May I ask you, therefore, to reflect on whether at this late stage you might accept or consider accepting a manuscript amendment for the committal of the Bill to a Special Standing Committee, given that the period between publication and Second Reading has been so short? I shall leave that thought with you.

There is much in the Bill to commend. In giving it a broad welcome, however, I have to say that at first sight it is a rather modest measure on a very important subject, and that it is perhaps more noteworthy for what is left out than for what it includes. Although its central thrust of tackling congestion on our roads cannot be argued with, and many of its objectives are perfectly acceptable—even laudable—it has serious omissions, of which I should like to mention two. First, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, there is no mention of road safety in relation to the duties of traffic officers or the network management of local traffic authorities. When that was raised with the Secretary of State, he replied that the Government did not want to put too many duties on to traffic officers; yet clause 1(2) stipulates precisely one duty, and it would be very simple to add after paragraphs (a) and (b) a paragraph (c) stating that they should have regard to road safety in performing their duties.

Secondly, the Bill omits any mention of the environmental impact of what traffic managers may or may not do and the way in which the networks are managed. Again, it would be simple to put that duty into the Bill to enable them to take account of that important aspect.

Notwithstanding those clear defects, which my hon. Friends and I will seek to amend, and our considerable concern about many details that I shall touch on later, which we shall also seek to amend, we will, in the light of the Bill's basic objectives, support it on Second Reading.

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I want to make two general criticisms of the Bill. First, it is riddled with clauses that permit future actions and decisions—I believe they are called Henry VIII clauses—and much of it can be wholly changed by subsequent regulations. That desire to leave alternate options open in every part suggests either that the Government have not actively thought through in sufficient depth what they wish to achieve or that they do not have sufficient confidence in the proposals as currently drafted. Moreover, there is much reference to the guidance notes that are to be issued at a later stage in relation to several clauses. That makes it difficult to know exactly what will be put into practice. Will the Government consider publishing those guidance notes in draft before the detailed consideration of the Bill is complete in order to give the House some idea of their impact and the way in which the Government's thinking is going?

Secondly, many of the clauses are drafted in such a way that they are open to a variety of interpretations. Indeed, without the explanatory notes—I was grateful to have the notes so that I could understand what the Government were driving at—it would be difficult to know precisely what the Government intend to achieve. One example is clause 2(6), which appears to suggest that if an individual who has been specified in subsection (1)(b) as an authoriser of traffic officers were to move on or to lose his or her job, the traffic officer who has been authorised would automatically lose their job, too. Perhaps that is what the Government intend, but it seems perverse, to say the least. There are many other such examples.

The creation of a special force of traffic officers to deal with general traffic issues that occupy considerable amounts of police time is a sensible concept that we support. However, that must lead not to a reduction in the policing of our roads, but rather to more effective policing by allowing the road traffic police who are liberated from more mundane duties to concentrate on those who are involved in serious road crime or serious road traffic accidents. The reduction of police numbers has direct consequences for road safety. According to the Government's own figures, in the three years from 1999 there were 8 per cent. fewer police patrolling our roads in England as a whole, while the figure for London, so I have been told, is nearer to 25 per cent. in the same period. In that same period, road deaths increased. It is therefore essential that officers who are freed from routine duties that are to be covered by traffic officers can concentrate on serious road crime. The Bill's only reference to road safety in respect of traffic officers is in clause 5(3); and it is very small. Given the cost of road traffic accidents in lives and money, such officers should have a general duty to have regard to road safety.

The Bill is very vague about how traffic officers will operate. For example, what training will they have? Will they be appointed, given a day's induction, and let loose on a "fire and forget" basis; or will they have some proper formal training? If they are to have such training, why cannot that be specified in order to give us some assurance on how they will perform their duties?

Clause 8, which deals with further special powers, is unnecessary and potentially dangerous. Surely the Government should decide what they want in the way of powers and include them in the Bill instead of inserting a clause that permits any changes at a later date.

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The principle of network management by local traffic authorities is perfectly sound, as is the appointment of traffic managers; but, again, the network management duty makes no mention of road safety. Moreover, clause 16(2) could be interpreted in the opposite direction as requiring the removal of, or prohibition of the introduction of, such things as home zones and traffic calming measures. I cannot believe that that is what the Government actually intend.

Mr. Redwood: The hon. Gentleman is inadvertently misleading us. The Bill makes it very clear that it is a duty of a traffic officer to avoid

and there are similar caveats in the local authority provisions. He should read the Bill before commenting on it.

John Thurso: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but I have read the Bill, as he will see from my reference to the clause. My point is that the Bill does not include a general duty for traffic managers to undertake such action.

It would be helpful if the guidance notes that are mentioned in clause 18 were available in draft, which would give us some idea of what the Government have in mind.

I now come to the provisions dealing with interventions and the appointment of road traffic directors—or tsars. Not content with tsars, we now seem to have super-tsars. It says something about the Bill when this part of it says more about defining how interventions will be dealt with than about the general duties of network managers. The fact that there are whole clauses on interventions confirms the Government's desire to dictate from the centre. There is no need for traffic directors, and we should strangle them immediately by deleting those clauses.

Under the pernicious clause 30, every time central Government choose to interfere by installing a super-tsar, the poor local authority—and even poorer local taxpayer—has to pick up the financial burden. I see no merit whatsoever in traffic directors, and I should like that part of the Bill to be removed.

Parts 3 and 4 touch on permit schemes and street works. It is obvious that good co-ordination of street and roadworks is a major factor in reducing congestion. The question therefore is whether the permit scheme envisaged in the Bill and the amendments to the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 will achieve that objective. Permit schemes can work. They do in other countries. They work in Scotland, as has been pointed out, and they work in New York, as the Secretary of State mentioned. Any fair scheme should work in this country.

I remain to be convinced that, as currently envisaged, the scheme in the Bill would not simply increase costs and bureaucracy without tangible result. In particular, the Government must make it clear that any fees charged should be fair and designed only to recoup reasonable costs. Fees must not become another backdoor tax.

I do not see that the changes envisaged in part 4 add much to the 1991 Act, which it amends. That will need careful consideration in Committee. I am particularly

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concerned about the resurfacing provisions and the ability to charge retrospectively for resurfacing. That has the potential to create a nightmare of contingent liabilities on utility company balance sheets. The temptation to use clause 54, which becomes new section 73D of the 1991 Act, as a revenue-raiser for authorities may prove overwhelming. That could add considerably to costs for utilities, for little or no real gain. Indeed, much of the resurfacing provisions is so worded as to give rise to the suspicion that they are inspired by the desire to raise revenue, more than anything else.

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