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Standing Committee A
Tuesday 27 January 2004
[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): I beg to move,
(1) during proceedings on the Traffic Management Bill the Standing Committee shall meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9.25 am and 2.30 pm;
(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order, namely Clauses 1 to 39, Schedule 1, Clause 40, Schedules 2 and 3, Clauses 41 to 50, Schedule 4, Clauses 51 to 60, Schedules 5 and 6, Clauses 61 to 69, Schedule 7, Clause 70, Schedule 8, Clauses 71 to 73, Schedule 9, Clauses 74 to 80, Schedule 10, Clauses 81 to 86, Schedules 11 and 12, Clauses 87 to 93, new Clauses, new Schedules;
(3) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 5.30 pm on Thursday 12th February.
It is a pleasure, Miss Begg, to serve under your chairmanship. I have done so on a number of very happy occasions, and I hope that the next few weeks will be just the same. It is also a pleasure to be here on such a quiet day in Parliament. Very little is going on, and I suspect that there will be enormous press and other interest in what is happening in this Committee, as opposed to elsewhere in the House.
There was general agreement between the usual channels that about eight sittings would be sufficient to deal with the Bill. Obviously, we want to get on with considering it, but we want to do so in a way that is commensurate with proper scrutiny. At last night's meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee—chaired by this Committee's co-Chairman, Mr. Beard, under whose chairmanship we also look forward to serving—I asked whether the Opposition needed more time, and there was no indication that they did. None the less, the Government will be quite happy to reconsider the matter as the Bill proceeds, because we want it to receive proper scrutiny. All being well, we should make good progress. I hope that we can complete part 1 by the end of today, parts 2 and 3 by the end of Thursday, parts 4 and 5 by next Tuesday and the remainder of the Bill, including part 6, by Thursday 5 February.
The principles behind the Bill are clear, and I hope that most of its aims are uncontroversial. It will empower the Highways Agency and local authorities to get to grips with some of the causes of congestion and disruption on our roads, including the motorway and trunk road network and local roads. It complements the other efforts that we are making towards the same end. We are creating additional capacity at key pinch points in the strategic road network and investing billions of pounds in local transport capital, including the £1.9 billion that we announced as recently as December.
We want to get to grips with some of the unnecessary disruption that we all face on our roads and to keep traffic moving on the motorways and
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trunk roads. The new traffic officers at the Highways Agency, whom I hope we will have time to discuss today, will be given the job of clearing up after minor incidents and accidents, of ensuring that people are held up no longer than they need be, and of making our roads less congested and much safer.
I also hope that we can get on with discussing how we get the traffic flowing on local roads. The Bill places a new duty on authorities to keep traffic flowing, and there are new powers to enable them to overcome some of the greatest barriers to free-flowing traffic, including powers to control utility street works so that roads are not dug up at the convenience of whoever wants to dig the hole. The Bill will put authorities outside London on a par with those in London, so that people in all parts of the country will follow the accepted rules of the road. With those words, let me say that I am looking forward to our debates.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Welcome to the chair, Miss Begg. This is the first time that I have had the privilege of serving under your chairmanship, and I very much look forward to the experience. I am delighted to say that Conservative Members are taking the Bill seriously, which is obvious from the fact that we have an extremely high-powered team, including my right hon. Friends the Members for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) and a powerful, speaking Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire).
In introducing the programme motion, the Minister almost made a Second Reading speech. We have no argument with the principle that we should try to reduce congestion on our highways, but we have concerns about much of the detail of the Bill. The Minister referred to events and discussions taking place elsewhere in the House today concerning funding for higher education. That is an argument involving about £1 billion of funding for universities. In part of this Bill, there is a proposal for the extension of lane rental, which would impose a burden of £1.2 billion on ordinary consumers of our utility services. That is a large figure in a significant part of the Bill that has not hitherto attracted sufficient public scrutiny or interest.
We do not accept the principle that a Bill such as this should be programmed from the outset. Therefore, we shall not support the motion. However, I always listen to what Ministers say and I have no reason to doubt the Minister's sincerity. If he is more interested in ensuring that the Bill is properly scrutinised than in forcing it through in a particular period, I am sure that we can make progress in a reasonable way without the pressure of a programme motion. That, indeed, is why I believe that it is regrettable to start with one. Years ago, we trusted people on the basis that if it turned out after a long time that a Bill was not being properly scrutinised and there were unnecessarily long speeches early in its scrutiny, the Government could take appropriate action. I hope that we can establish mutual trust from the start, but that is made difficult by the fact that there is a programme motion before us. Having
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said that, I hope that the Bill will be properly scrutinised.
The Minister indicated that he hopes to be able to complete part 1 of the Bill today. I do not know whether that is a realistic aspiration. The Government do not seem to be fully prepared for the Bill, which is one reason why it took some time to come to Committee after Second Reading. I am grateful to the Minister for having made available a schedule of the secondary legislation that will flow from it, and I note that there will be five separate pieces from part 1 alone. Going by the priority accorded to them, many will be introduced by statutory instrument by early summer 2005. It would have been better if many of those provisions had been written on to the face of the Bill so that we could discuss them in Committee. Then, as part of the Bill, they would reach the statute book when it does without the need for subsidiary legislation. The Minister thinks that it should be easy to forecast how long a Bill will take in Committee, but forecasting is difficult when a Bill contains as many provisions as this one does for secondary legislation, the full details of which we are honour bound, as a conscientious Opposition, to tease out of the Government.
Sometimes, the Government are prepared; they know exactly what will be involved, they have drafts of the secondary legislation for the Committee to see, and regulations based on those drafts can be introduced as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent. That does not seem to be the situation with this Bill. From the schedule produced by the Minister, it seems that quite a lot of the regulations and guidance will involve work that has not yet started or has only just started. That shows that the Government are being rather unreasonable in saying that time is of the essence and in forcing the Bill through in a specified time when we know that they, who have all the resources available, have not yet got down to the detailed work involved in much of the secondary legislation that the Bill will give them the power to introduce.
That is probably enough of an opening salvo. I hope that we will be able to discuss and consider the legislation in a constructive and good-humoured way in the great tradition of Parliament.
John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): It is a great pleasure, Miss Begg, to be under your chairmanship again, albeit for the first time outside the Scottish Grand Committee? I was grateful to the Minister for making it possible to meet his officials to receive an explanation of much of the detail of the Bill. That was extremely useful as it allows proper scrutiny.
As I said on Second Reading, we agree with the principles of the Bill. However, considerable concern was raised by various aspects of detail that we hope to tease out in Committee, particularly about safety, the environment and those aspects of devolution that relate to the Greater London authority. It would have been helpful if draft guidance had been available to show the Government's intentions. It would be extremely helpful if those guidance notes were to be made available, as they will be critical to future management of the Bill.
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The Liberal Democrats are broadly content with the programme motion, particularly as the Government have made room for further sittings, should eight prove insufficient. We are grateful for that. Accordingly, we are content with the motion.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): May I add mine to the felicitations that you have already received this morning, Miss Begg?
I was very disappointed when the Minister moved the programme motion, as I have always regarded him as a fair and reasonable chap. I wonder why he is not prepared to wait and see, particularly with paragraph (2). The motion is part of a new procedure adopted since 1997 when the Government were first elected with a huge majority, and it smacks rather of Government impatience with those who belong to other parties and how proceedings are dealt with in this place.
A few years ago, when I had responsibility for whipping matters in the Conservative Government, a junior Whip told me that he was concerned about the lack of progress in a Standing Committee and warned me that we would need to consider a guillotine. The Opposition were making a meal of the early parts of the Bill, and no progress was being made. I asked whether he had spoken to the Opposition to ascertain whether they could agree an out date. As a Government Whip, I was not at all concerned about how long the Opposition took on each part of the Bill; my only concern was the out date. If the Opposition wanted to spend more time on the early parts of the Bill, that was surely a matter for them, since they were the ones scrutinising it. The Junior Whip left, and our Minister spoke to the member of the Committee leading for the Opposition, who was the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), who now happens to be Prime Minister. The right hon. Gentleman was fair and reasonable. He said that the early parts of the Bill were those that he wanted to spend time on and that the fact that he was doing so should not be taken as filibustering. He guaranteed that the Government would have the Bill by a certain date. On that basis, we did not consider guillotining any part of the proceedings, and the right hon. Gentleman was as good as his word.
Why does the Minister not trust the present Opposition in the same way that we trusted his party when it was on this side of the Committee Room? I hope that if we need extra time properly to scrutinise this matter, he will remember, and adhere to, his opening words that he would be prepared to reconsider the programming motion, if he felt that there was a need to do so.