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Mr. Drew: One of the main problems with the adoption of roads occurs when builders go bankrupt. Usually, insufficient money has been held back, and the local authority sees no obligation to adopt the road. That problem bedevils parts of my constituency, and I am sure it occurs in all constituencies.
John Mann: Absolutely. There are bankruptcies, and also protracted arguments about who is responsible. We now see a greater opportunity to solve a problem that blights parts of our constituencies and causes us unnecessary work. It is not that we are unwilling to do the work, but such problems ought to be resolved by those who are making large amounts of money out of new building.
Scaffolding and skips are a problem on mining estates and properties. It is all very well when a nice semi-detached house has a drive, or a tower blocklike the one where I live, just across the river, when I am in Londonhas some land at the front. Scaffolding and skips can be placed a good distance from the road. Indeed, there is a skip in front of my flat at the moment. A property in a mining village, however, may have no drive, and it may have no garden if it is in a terrace. The price may be high in such cases. We must ensure that in a terraced cul-de-sac, for instance, no exploitation takes place, not least on the part of local authorities who might see this as a potential cash cowa way of filling their coffers that could work unduly against the interests of people living in what are generally much cheaper properties.
The concept of a parking attendant becoming a civil enforcement officer is, I feel, a major issue. I have no intrinsic problem with it, but the loophole in the current law could be replicated many times, and I do have a problem with that. The Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 makes no provision for the agents of a local authority to act on behalf of the authority. Although section 33(7) refers to the use of agents to manage car parking facilities, the Act does not authorise a third party to pursue action through the criminal justice system. The Road Traffic Act 1991 decriminalised parking offences and brought them within the scope of civil enforcement, which I think was sensible. I commend those responsible for the move.
I have raised a good deal of local publicity over a problem in my constituency, which is clearly a problem throughout the country. It relates to private operators of local authority car parks. A dispute over a fineover whether someone has or has not paid or whether he has a ticket, for instanceis a civil dispute in the case of a private car park. If a car park is run by a local authority, it is possible to consult and put pressure on democratically accountable representatives to ensure that it is run properly, but there is a problem if the car park is run privately on behalf of a local authority. Woe betide anyone who chooses to park in the Bawtry car park, which is run not by a district or county council but by a town council. Well meaning as it is, bless its cotton socks, the counciladvised by its part-time clerkhas signed an agreement with a private contractor in Bawtry for its new pay-and-display car park, which is causing a few problems.
In a written answer given on 16 December, the Under-Secretary of State told me:
Thirty-six cases were taken to court. I made four representations to the court. Fortunately for the 36 people, my first representationthat the tickets issued were invalidwas accepted by the judge, so all 36 did not have to pay their fines. Unfortunately for everyone else, that meant that the judge did not need to issue any edict in relation to the other cases.
My second representation concerned the fact that there is no provision allowing a private operator to take people to the criminal courts on behalf of a local authority. I would go further. Nothing in existing legislation allows private operators to go to civil courts where they are running a local authority car park. That is solely the local authority's prerogative and responsibility.
This is fundamental. Parking attendants, who could be renamed and re-empowered as civil enforcement officers, employed by a private company and paid by results, may be rather exuberant. When all the money from fines goes to the private operator, there is an incentive for fines to be levied. Letters saying that people will be criminally liable and will be taken to the criminal courts, despite the fact that operators have never won in any court with any case, mean that people tend to pay. The £20 or £30 fine becomes a £75 or £100 fine. People are paying £100 routinely in order to avoid what they fear will be a criminal record.
It is no good me saying to them that I do not think that the private operators have the powers to do that because most people are fearful of the consequences of going to court. That is not equitable. That is not a good way of getting public support. There is a loophole in the law that will be worsened by these people becoming civil enforcement officers. That loophole needs to be tightened.
A letter from the solicitors of a private company talks of "criminal liability" and commencing "criminal proceedings". That is the language that solicitors are using. The Bill should deal with that because it is totally inequitable. Let me give a couple of examples to illustrate the problem. We need to keep the public on our side. There are two types of ticket machine in essence. One type has an internal heater: the tickets come out dry. The other type, which is cheaper, does not. Therefore, the ticket comes out damp. People stick a ticket on their windscreen and it falls off. Surprise, surprise, the vast majority of cases that I have come across are of people who bought tickets, were not over their time but whose tickets fell off because they were wetit was raining when they bought them. When they show the ticket to the private operator, he still attempts to fine them and threatens them with criminal litigation in the magistrates court. People are terrified into paying,
Nor can we afford to allow a disabled woman with cystic fibrosis, who is carrying an oxygen machine in a car park with a slope and who has parked where she can get out of the car without the wheel chair rolling away, to be given a parking ticket while carrying the oxygen machine. I am more than happy for her to goI will represent her if necessaryto the civil courts and to argue her case but it is wholly wrong and improper for criminal proceedings to be threatened. The concept of having a civil enforcement officer in uniform who threatens criminal proceedings is even more damaging. There is an important loophole in the law, which does not apply just to my constituents. It is a scandal, and it needs to be addressed in the Bill.
There is also the question of the parking adjudicator. The adjudicator can be approached if the car park in question is a local authority car park, but not if it is run by a private operator. That is absolute nonsense; the parking adjudicator needs to have a proper remit. The Bill needs to close that loophole in the law.
My final concern relates to drug testing. Drug testing at the roadside where accidents have occurred is important, and will be increasingly necessary in future. Such testing must not be impaired by any changes introduced by the Bill. That would be very detrimental, and the Minister will doubtless be able to reassure me on that point. It is important to raise that issue at this stage, and with that thought in mind, I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): One advantage of speaking at the end of a very long Second Reading debate is that one can sweep up most of the ideas that have been expressed. One can dispose of much of one's own speech because it has already been dealt with, and concentrate on a small number of issues that, hopefully, can be covered under the principles of the legislation, even if they cannot be included in the detailed discussions in Committee. I am not necessarily putting myself forward for membership of that Committee, but given the number of Labour Members who have spoken today, there will be considerable competition to get on to it. Indeed, this is an important Bill that deals with an issue on which many of us can wax lyrical. That could be because some of us were councillors in previous incarnations, or because, as all our postbags show, the Bill deals with a subject of great concern to our constituents.
My own constituency of Stroud is an interesting case in point, in that we have achieved some notoriety of late. It was said at the Christmas brass band concert a couple of years ago that we had become the roadworks capital of the United Kingdom. It was virtually impossible to move in Stroud without hitting a set of traffic lights or some other barrier to getting around. In preparing for today's debate, I asked the county council to give me some figures on what it considers an appropriate number of road openings. It said that some 4,000 road
I know the reason for such figures. A great deal of infrastructure redevelopment needs to take place, and I welcome such redevelopment. I am not here to attack the utilities. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) received the same letter that I received from Severn Trent Water, which takes a slightly different view of the importance of this legislation and the need to introduce it now. However, we will enter into discussions with the utilities, because if Stroud is anything to go by, they are getting a bad press. They are seen to be responsible for a great many road openings, and not just those relating to emergencies. Of course, we accept that emergencies occur over time, but I am talking about everyday repair and maintenance, which has a major impact. We do not in any way regard the public authorities as immune in this regard, and one good thing that this legislation will hopefully lead to is greater co-ordination.
I know that there have been criticisms from both sides about the timidity of the legislation. The problem of litigious excess has focused the mind of my own local authority, and we need to be aware of the possible ramifications of the Leicestershire county council v. Transco case. Neither the Minister nor I can comment on it, but the history of that case shows that previous attempts to legislate for street works or road management have not always proved their worth when tested in the courts. We have to hope that this time the legislation will work and conflicts will be amicably resolved. Ultimately, we are here to try to secure the best way of moving cars forward as easily and expeditiously as possible.
I shall not speak for long because I know that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) wants to contribute to the debate. However, I want to take a slightly different angle from others who have provided a mixed reception to the Bill on Second Reading. I shall refer to a numerous group who are profoundly affected by what happens on our roads. I refer, of course, to pedestrians and cyclists.
We sometimes think of roads as the preserve of motorists alone, and forget that some people, because they are too young or too old, cannot drive. Those people are none the less greatly affected by roadworks and our management of our road space, so I make a plea for them. I want to take up their position because we too often ignore them. We have already debated speed cameras, but we need to understand that the majority of the lobbying in favour of having speed cameras on our roads is not from motorists, but from pedestrians living alongside roads. Motorists have views about what speed is appropriate, whether cameras should be installed and whether they have been fairly nicked, but if we are to represent the majority of our constituents, some of whom cannot vote, we must understand that speed causes considerable unpleasantness in some people's lives. Sometimes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who I am pleased to see again in her place, said at the outset, speed can kill people.
We should regard anything that kills people as an appropriate subject for debate, and not just talk about speed as a minor inconvenience. I was pleased to hear what the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) had to saythat people can be delayed in their journeys by 30 seconds or a minute, but if something goes wrong, speed can profoundly affect someone's family for the rest of their lives. It is an important issue that we should not talk glibly about as though it is a case of our being for or against the motorist: it is far more serious than that.
Another general point is that we have glossed over the differences between more urbanised road space and rural roads. We talk a lot about congestion and the need to move people more quickly around our urban areas, but the reverse is true in rural Britain where people feel that they are the make-waits. When people have suffered from congestion, they often take out their frustration by speeding along country lanes, and we all know that it is impossible to impose general limits other than the national speed limit. Sadly, we have witnessed an increased incidence of death and serious injuries on country roads, which we ignore at our peril. Many constituents in rural areas lobby us continually on that. I accept that some people lobby us one way and those who wear a different hat lobby us another way, but we must try to make a judgment.
I hope that I did not delay the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) when I talked about resurfacing rather than the normal way in which we repair roads. I do not want to labour the point, but we too often take a short-term view on the basis that that is how contracts can best be delivered. In the longer term, however, we have terrible road surfaces. Gloucestershire is always asked to estimate the true cost of under-repair on the roads and produces figures such as £140 million. That is pretty meaningless because its measurement is subject to all sorts of questions. However, we all know our roads are in a poor state because we have too often taken a short-term way out that fails to complete the repair once the road has been opened up. If we only thought a bit more about doing repairs properly, perhaps they would not be as expensive as they are thought to be because our roads would not deteriorate at the rate at which they do. I have seen figures in Select Committee reports and from the Government in which lovely graph lines go up and down, but much depends on the grant settlement and the decay of individual roads. I hope that we will look at forcing those who open up roads, whether they come from the public or private sector, to be far clearer about the fact that if they are asked to contribute, they may really have to improve the quality of a road by resurfacing rather than just putting a nice trench down that will last for a year or two and then deteriorate.
I agree with all who say that the Bill should have been subject to proper scrutiny. Perhaps it is just the time of year, or it may be that the Government felt that they wanted the Bill on the statute book and that there are reasons why that should be done sooner rather than later. As ever, however, we could benefit from trying to tease out some of the problems.
Hon. Friends and Opposition Members have mentioned the point about empowering people other than police officers to investigate road traffic accidents, saying that we could redeploy those officers to other things. I wish that such matters were so earnestly
I may be getting away from the Bill itself in saying that, but it is connected to the question whether road safety should be included in the Bill and the way in which we should give people satisfaction if there has, unfortunately, been an accident and, most sadly of all, a fatality. We should give justice. That is the whole basis on which organisations such as RoadPeace work: they feel that justice is not done or seen to be done. We should do anything we can to tighten up.
As a keen cyclist, I feel that the vast majority of motorists understand their obligations. Cars are dangerous weapons and, if misused, can cause all sorts of problems. A rogue element perpetrates the worst offences and we must do what we can, through this legislation, to combat it.