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Standing Committee A
Tuesday 27 January 2004
[Mr. Nigel Beard in the Chair]
Designation of traffic officers
Amendment moved [this day]: No. 89, in
page 2, line 10, leave out 'individuals as'.—[John Thurso.]
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:
Amendment No. 3, in
page 2, line 10, leave out from 'officers;' to end of line 11.
Amendment No. 28, in
page 2, line 11, leave out 'another person' and insert 'the Highways Agency'.
Amendment No. 4, in
page 2, line 18, leave out 'may' and insert 'must'.
Amendment No. 91, in
page 2, line 20, leave out subsections (5) and (6).
Amendment No. 29, in
New clause 17—Duty to consult—
'In monitoring and evaluating the work and effectiveness of traffic officers, the appropriate national authority shall establish and consult with an advisory group comprising such members as may be considered appropriate.'.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Beard. Before I move to my point of order, welcome to the Chair.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): Very chummy.
Mr. Knight: That may be the Minister's job, but I am sure that he can associate himself with my remarks.
After this morning's sitting, I left the parliamentary estate. On returning, with a large pile of luggage, I was alarmed to discover that Bridge street was closed, Parliament square appeared to be closed and the Carriage Gates were closed. The police appear to have lost control of what is a minor demonstration outside. Clearly there has been a breach of our Sessional Orders. I wish that you had the power to order the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to attend on us to give an explanation, Mr. Beard. He clearly needs the help of some traffic officers. In the absence of that power, Mr. Beard, I should be grateful if you would pass on Opposition Members' concerns to the Speaker in the hope that he will speak to the commissioner to prevent that from happening again.
The Chairman: That is not a point of order for the Chair, but I will pass the message on to the Speaker.
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Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Beard. Either I owe you an apology for taking my jacket off, or you will give me retrospective permission to do so. I am very nervous about that. You have been in the Chair before when I have raised this point, having been told off once by one of your colleagues, I want to be sure that I am in order.
The Chairman: Yes, certainly, hon. Members may take their jackets off.
Mr. Jamieson: I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Beard. I have had the pleasure of being under your chairmanship in the past, and I fully associate myself with the comments of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight).
This morning's proceedings were exceedingly amicable. The only differences seemed to be between Conservative Members, often involving the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who has disappeared; I do not know what they have done to him over lunchtime, but there was clearly some difference of view this morning.
On the point of order made by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire, I am afraid that even if traffic officers were in place, they would not bring a lot of solace in such a scenario because they will operate not on local roads, but on motorways and national roads. Of course, they will not deal with crowd control either.
Amendment No. 89 would remove the reference to powers being granted by designation to individuals.
Mr. Wilshire: I understand the Minister's point about traffic officers and local roads, but my understanding of the arguments used on Second Reading is that one objective of introducing traffic officers is to remove obstructions and thus help the freer flow of traffic. A student sitting down in a demonstration is undoubtedly an obstruction. Would traffic officers not be able to move that sort of obstruction?
Mr. Jamieson: That is an interesting point. I think that we had debris in mind, not human obstructions. I suspect that any human obstructions on the motorway would, I am sad to say, be taken away by ambulance. The Bill is not intended to deal with demonstrations on motorways; I am not aware of such a demonstration in the past 20 years.
Mr. Wilshire: A rhinoceros certainly once caused an obstruction on the M25, in my constituency. I appreciate that that was not a student, but a point could still be made on that.
The Minister has indicated that there is a flaw in the legislation: he has not considered human beings. Will the Minister revisit the relevant parts of the Bill and table an amendment, or should we table it for him, either now or on Report? By coincidence, a serious point may have arisen.
Mr. Jamieson: The word ''obstruction'' would eventually have to be defined, probably by a court. Traffic officers will be able to move an obstruction. I am not sure whether they would be able to cope with a rhinoceros; that remains to be seen.
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On amendment No. 89, we believe that it is essential for designation to be specific to an individual, not to an office holder or an organisation. That will promote transparency and direct accountability in the exercise of special powers by a traffic officer. The next three amendments seek to achieve similar things, or are coterminous with each other. Amendment No. 3—the one from which the right hon. Member for Wokingham dissociated himself this morning in what the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), called a vicious attack on his own Front Bench; I would not call it quite that—seeks to remove the power for an appropriate national authority to authorise another person to designate individuals as traffic officers. That would impede the national authority in contracting out the traffic officer service.
There was some discussion this morning about privatisation. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) said that he was very much in favour of it. He should not get too excited; while I believe that private services can be run in certain circumstances, I am sad to disappoint him and glad to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) that this is not a matter of privatisation. There could be circumstances in which the traffic officer service could be contracted out but that is not expected to happen in the first instance. We want the service to be run by the Highways Agency. However, in certain circumstances, it may be appropriate to contract out certain specific duties.
Mr. Wilshire: I am interested because the Minister is suggesting that there is a distinction between privatisation and contracting out. Could he clarify that, because in my dictionary privatising means handing a public service over to be run by the private sector, and contracting out means handing a public service over to be run by the private sector. Is there a point that I have missed?
Mr. Jamieson: Yes, there is. The Highways Agency currently contracts certain work to contractors. They work for it, but they are not running the service or in charge of the piece of road; they are performing certain services on the Agency's behalf. It is not intended that those services be run other than by the Highways Agency, but there might be circumstances in which we would want flexibility.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Are there any circumstances in which, owing to this clause, a private contractor would be able to pursue debts owed by any citizen through any courts, and, if so, through which courts?
Mr. Jamieson: No. I was coming to that. This is the Dick Turpin clause that was referred to this morning. My hon. Friend asked whether contractors could harass people with fines. They could not, because, as we found out earlier, no fines would be imposed by the traffic officers, and they would not therefore be enforcing them. The only circumstances in which that might happen would be if the traffic officers had agreed a charge for a service with another party; then they would have some way of enforcing the charge if it
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was not paid, a point to which we shall come later in the Bill. They would not have such powers in relation to the public.
It might be appropriate for people to be specifically trained to carry out a function on a certain part of a motorway or major trunk road network, such as a particular crossing or bridge. A separate group would operate there. At the moment, we expect that function to be operated by the Highways Agency, not by a contractor.
John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): The Minister said that the duties must be specific to a person. I certainly accept that. Then he said that certain circumstances and duties—he has just touched on one—might be contracted out. Are there any other circumstances in which the traffic officer posts would need to be contracted out?
Mr. Jamieson: This is a case of leaving a small amount of flexibility. We are creating a new service, and it is no secret that we will be learning as we go along. Expertise is being built up. We will learn a lot from the police service when the service is rolled out in the midlands this year, so that we can carry out the process of rolling it out through the rest of the country. Should the Welsh Assembly want to roll out the service in Wales, it will possibly consider the English experience.
Once we have some experience, we may wish to attend to some small issues, but I think that they will be on the margins. Many years from now, we may decide that it is more appropriate to contract out some parts of the service. I certainly do not have anything specific in mind at the moment, and my general feeling is that we would not contract out any services at all for the first few years, while we are settling down. If we did, they would be very specific, and there would have to be good reasons to do so. We would have to guarantee that we were getting the best service, that it was thoroughly checked and that the people operating it were doing so to the high standard we will expect from all the officers, and the Bill allows for that.