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Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Please allow me to wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the rest of Mr. Speaker's team and the staff of the House a happy new year. I should declare a non-pecuniary interest of some relevance, in that I co-chair the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, which has been mentioned; however, everything that I will say in this debate constitutes my own views. Like many Members who have spoken, I am a some-time motorist, a some-time cyclist, and a some-time pedestrian, so of course, I have an interest in the Bill.
I should like to declare my sympathy for and solidarity with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), in that her Committee was deprived of the opportunity of pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. I am an enthusiast of draft Bills and pre-legislative scrutiny, which improve the quality of legislation passed by this House. It also gives the outside world the opportunity to comment before the House begins the formal stages of debate and scrutiny, rather than learning about such legislation afterwards and complaining to us.
I agree with those Members who expressed regret at the absence of a more explicit commitment in the Bill to the objective of road safety itself. I should certainly like closer reference to be made in Committee to strategies such as the Government's road safety strategy, and to the aim of reducing casualties on roads. However, the official Opposition's spokesman was well wide of the mark when he described the Bill as an anti-motorist measure. Perhaps that is a predictable and well-worn Opposition response to any Government proposal relating to our roads. I would argue that in fact, the Bill is unambiguously pro-motorist, and answers many of the loudest and most frequent complaints made to me and to other law makers by motorists themselves. Indeed, the more proactive management of the road network of England and Wales is surely a desirable aim that has long been neglected by this House and Parliament. However, it is important to put this proposal in the context of the rest of the Government's road transport proposals. Substantial investment is being made in trains and buses, and in local road safety measures through local transport plans. The building of some new roads has been proposed, along with the widening of certain major roads. Together, that amounts to a package to aid motoring, not to obstruct it.
During my contribution, I propose to imagine myself in the driving seat of my car, and to consider the differences that I will see as a driver if the Bill becomes law in its current form. It is important to make a distinction that some Members have not quite made. There are clear differences of approach in terms of trunk roads, including motorways, which are managed by the Highways Agency, and the networks of local roads that are managed by local authorities. When I drive along motorways and trunk roads in future, I can expect to see the Highways Agency's new uniformed traffic officers on patrol in their marked patrol vehicles. However, they will be in addition to, not in place of, police officers. Indeed, the spokesman for the official Opposition did the House a gross disservice by suggesting that when the Highways Agency's traffic officers are introduced, the police will withdraw from the highways that the agency manages. In fact, the excellent research paper on the Bill, prepared by the House of Commons Library, provides a very good description of the history of the collaboration between the Highways Agency and chief police officers in attaining their respective roles and responsibilities in the future policing and management of trunk roads and motorways. That passage of the research paper is very helpful, and is reassuring for those who have any doubts about the future presence of the police on our roads.
Mr. Kidney: [Interruption.] No, and the Bill's proposals are clear enough in that regard. I hesitated because I remembered my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich asking what was meant by the reference to an ability to increase traffic officers' powers at a later stage. We should certainly pursue that matter in Committee, but here we are talking about the police's role in enforcing the law, and the traffic officers' role in managing the network and keeping traffic flowing.
However, the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook) makes a good point about the powers of traffic officers. What will I need to know about their powers as I drive along the motorway? First, I will need to know that they are there as part of the Highways Agency's new role as the network manager. They will be proactive in trying to reduce congestion, especially after the breakdowns and crashes that occur on motorways and trunk roads. Among their powers will be the power to order me to stop, or to use, or not to use, a particular motorway lane. If I resist or obstruct them in carrying out those duties, I face a fine of up to £1,000 and a month in prison. Under the terms of the new criminal justice legislation, that will change to a maximum of 51 weeks in prison, to take account of the custody plus powers that will eventually apply. Of course, traffic officers may also place signs on the motorway that give those instructions to me, and which I must obey. Importantly, as clause 4 tells us, those officers must defer to police officers.
More importantly, if I am at the side of the motorway because of a crash, I will be confident that it will not have been my fault. I will want the police to be on the scene, carrying out their investigations to establish where the fault lies, before the traffic officers allow the traffic to drive over the scene of the crash, thereby destroying any evidence to support my contention that the crash was somebody else's fault. If there is a dispute in terms of traffic officers wanting to clear the backlog of traffic, and the police wanting to continue their investigations, it is important to come back to clause 4, which makes it clear that police officers will have the final say.
The Secretary of State has told us that we in the west midlands, where I do most of my motoring, can expect to be the first to see the new service in operation on the motorways. I can certainly vouch for the control centre at Perry Barr. Police officers and Highways Agency staff are already located there under the same roof, side by side, co-operating in the policing of the motorways of the west midlands.
If I am driving along the M42 in 2006, I will see the country's first example of more active management by the Highways Agency. I will see more frequent gantries with overhead signs, providing the ability to impose speed limits on the lanes in which I am travelling and other lane controlsfor example, telling me which lanes I can or cannot use. If I look to my left across the hard shoulder, I will see additional emergency refuge areas beyond it. At times the signs will instruct me to use the hard shoulder as a running lane as well. It is another example of the Highways Agency's intention to do everything to keep the traffic moving.
All that applies to motorways and trunk roads, which are only 4 per cent. of the total road network of England and Wales. What of the local roads in towns and cities such as Stafford? Here we do not start from a base of no organisation whateverthe county council already has a traffic control centre in Staffordshire from which staff can monitor traffic flows and intervene when traffic builds up. Traffic light timings can be changed to speed the traffic through areas of congestion and the council can work co-operatively with the police to ensure intervention where it is necessary.
Furthermore, I am delighted to hear about a permit scheme to provide some control over what I find to be the motorist's most common complaintthe fact that no sooner has one utility company dug up the road and reinstated the surface than another comes along to dig up the same road all over again. Many people wonder why local authorities do not have the ability to co-ordinate such roadworks more closely. Happily and at long last, we have a Bill that answers that motorists' question and confers the power on local authorities. It restores the power to local authorities and goes further, making it a duty to co-ordinate roadworks, including those carried out by authorities themselves. That is a wholly desirable and necessary addition to existing provision.
I received a briefing from Severn Trent Water plc, which serves the residents of Stafford with water services. The company articulates its concerns about the new system. Its particular worry, outlined in the briefing, is about the proposal for local authorities to make orders that there should be no digging up of roads for a set length of time after they have been dug up and reinstated. I say to the company that we need a sensible and reasonable interpretation of what is meant by "emergencies", which allow utility companies to dig up the same stretch of road when it should be free from roadworks.
I personally welcome the idea of a street works register, which I hope will be open to the widest possible public inspection. I hope that it will allow the public to see what works are forthcoming and to comment on them. The local authority should then be encouraged to take some notice of what the public say. After all, authorities will be able to co-ordinate such matters as the dates and permitted times of day for roadworks, which routes will be affected and the diversions that they will entail. Motorists are keen on such issues and could contribute to the debate before the conditions were set.
The Bill also proposes that local authorities have improved enforcement powers. I believe that that is a positive policy, not something to worry about. As an example, Staffordshire has not proved too good at the civil enforcement of parking regulations under existing law. As a result, there are far fewer residents' parking schemes in Staffordshire than many residents would like. I look forward to authorities being able to use civil enforcement powers and, as a by-product, to create more residents' parking schemes that will be effectively enforced. If parking fines for breaches of regulations are collected effectively, I hope that authorities will use the money to keep the residents' parking scheme charges at a reasonable level and to ring-fence any excess for local environmental improvements for the same communities.
Many of my constituents complain that the police seem too busy to prevent everyday traffic violations, such as the abuse of disabled parking spaces, vehicles wrongly using bus lanes or parking over yellow junction boxes that should not have been entered in the first place. What we need is proper and consistent enforcement of traffic regulations. If we attain such proper enforcement in future, it would meet public expectation and help to keep traffic flowing in the future.
I see the Bill as a giant stride forward in keeping traffic moving. I hope that, as a result, the future will see less congestion, happier motorists with lower blood pressure and cleaner air. The Bill advances network management and provision of levels of customer service in a way that has not previously been attempted in England and Wales, so I welcome it and urge the House to feel that it is safe on this occasion to put the foot down on the accelerator, steer the Bill through Parliament and make for the open roads.