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I am most grateful to the Minister for the way in which he has conducted the Bill's passage in Committee and through this House. I should also like to say how much we will miss him when he retires from this House at the coming election. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), is obviously getting cold feet about her own constituency, because she seems to be saying that she hopes that the general election is 15 months away. We will find out in due course. I do not believe that the Minister will be lost to Parliament, however, because I suspect that he will appear in the other place. He is just the sort of warrior that Labour will need there in order to deal with being in opposition following the election.
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Mr. Chope: I do not know how to deal with that. I understand that Christchurch is not a Liberal Democrat target seat either, but just because a seat is not a target, it does not mean that any well-respected Member of Parliament should be complacent. I am sure that the Minister is working just as hard now for his constituents as he has throughout.
Having said all that, this Bill is a missed opportunity. It could have contained important provisions to strengthen the law against bad driving, and the law against those who kill or maim while driving without a licence, or while disqualified. It could, and should, have addressed the growing problem of motorists driving with illegal drugs in their bodies, and it could, and should, have done more for road safety education and training.
In its current form, the Bill outlaws equipment that identifies the location of speed cameras. That runs counter to the Government's own argument that speed cameras should be clearly identified and visible, on the basis that prevention of accidents is better than cure. We have no argument with the proposal that equipment that interferes with speed cameras should be outlawed, but we have sought, unsuccessfully, to amend the Bill so that that is the limit of such outlawing. We believe that equipment that identifies speed cameras should remain legal.
The Bill criminalises those using mobile telephones when their cars are stationary and their engines are switched off by imposing a mandatory fine and endorsement. We support penalties for those who cause danger to themselves or to others through the use of mobile telephones while driving, but the Bill goes unjustifiably further. Why should a person sitting in a five-mile traffic jam not be allowed to make a telephone call? We believe vehemently that bad law brings the whole law-making process into disrepute.
The Bill introduces a power to charge motorists for handing in old-style paper licences and to penalise them if they do not comply, despite the Government's saying that they have no present need to recall, or intention of recalling, such licences. It is now my pleasure to give way to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody).
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I just want to ask him a very simple question. He knows that laws that are plain and straightforward are those that are acceptable and put into operation. Does he really think that a law could be applied stating that as long as a person could prove that they were sitting in a traffic jam, they could use a mobile phone? This legislation has been introduced because
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there is a danger involved in such activity, which is not in anybody's interests. Why does he not make that point clear?
Mr. Chope: In CommitteeI know that the hon. Lady did not have the chance to follow our proceedings therewe moved an amendment that was not accepted by her Government, and which would have made it a complete defence for somebody to use a mobile phone in a car if it is stationary and the engine is switched off. The hon. Lady will know from the definition of driving in this country's decided legal cases that, under the law, when a car is stationary and the engine is switched off, the driver is still regarded as driving. That is why we believe that incorporating that definition within a new offence of using a mobile phone when driving is too extensive. It should be made a narrower and more specific offence, particularly when it can result in penalty points and, ultimately, perhaps the loss of a licence.
We believe that proper discretion should be exercised and the best way of ensuring that is having clear law that reflects the intentions of Parliament. I would not be at all surprised if the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, who is fair minded, shared my views on this matter. I hope that she would regard the use of a mobile phone by a driver when the car is stationary and the engine is switched off as a perfectly reasonable way of behaving. Unfortunately, the Bill says otherwise.
The Bill introduces a power to increase flexibility in the penalty points system, but the Government are evasive about their precise intentions. We believe that such an important reform should be built directly into primary legislation rather than left to unamendable regulations.
The Bill introduces some modest extensions to the system of encouraging driver improvement but, inexplicably, the Government refused to accept our proposal, set out in new clause 2, which would have allowed many more motorists to benefit from reduced penalty points in return for self-improvement of their driving standards.
The Government have given the impression that they wish to allow common sense, discretion and flexibility in the operation of the fixed penalty system, but today they have rejected our imaginative proposal to introduce discretionary rather than mandatory endorsement for fixed penalty offences to reflect mitigating circumstances. That could have been a significant development, ensuring greater respect by motorists for the fairness of the law. The Bill is a nearly empty vessel, but some of what it contains is unfair to motorists and will be counter-productive to road safety.
The Government are committed to returning to the subject of penalties for the most serious road traffic offences and are now consulting on Home Office proposals on the outcome of the Halliday review, with a closing date for submissions of 6 May. Legislation will be necessary later this year to reflect the outcome of that review.
I criticise the Government for having put the Bill into the slow lane during this Session of Parliament, but one silver lining is that it will not reach the statute book
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before the forecast general election. That will ensure that an incoming Conservative Government will be able to bring forward common sense road safety legislation, which will meet the needs of the travelling public and contribute to a reduction in fatalities on our roads, just as previous Conservative Governments achieved.
Mr. Chope: The number killed last year was almost identical to the number killed in 1997. I believe that the Government are missing out on the best contribution that any Government could make to road safetyrestoring the number of police on our roads to the levels experienced during the last Conservative Government. The present Government have reduced the number of operational traffic police from 9,201 in 199697 to 6,276 in 200304a drop of 2,925.
It was found that 63 per cent. of respondents prioritised "more visible traffic policing"the very area where the Government have cut back on activities over the last eight years. We are not alone in believingI know that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich agrees with methat we need more visible traffic policing, which would contribute significantly to reducing the number of fatalities on our roads. There has been a consecutive increase in fatalities on rural roads over the past four years: from 1,747 in 1999 to 1,818 in 2002 and 1,891 in 2003, despite all the Government's targets.
John Thurso: I, too, begin by expressing my gratitude to the Minister for the way in which he dealt with the Bill, in Committee especially but also today, on Report. He has tried to answer constructively all the arguments put to him, a number of which I feel that he will, at the very least, think about. That is good of him. In the main, our dealings in Committee were constructivedespite some odd outbursts.
This is broadly a good Bill. We have been calling for such a road safety measure for about three years, so it would be churlish of me to pick it apart. There are many good things in the Bill, although they are not all set out precisely as I might want. However, the broad thrust of the Bill and what it seeks to do are good.
There were some missed opportunities. I have alluded to some aspects that might have been dealt with[Interruption.] I am not used to receiving brief on the hoof. It was clear from our debate in Committee that there is deep unease about the whole question of graduated fixed penalties, not about the concept of graduation and the overall principle that there should be different punishments to fit the varying severity of the crime, but about the particular case, already mentioned by the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed), of
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the reduction in points in the 30 to 40 mph range. The Minister said that he has taken on board what was said during our deliberations so I hope that there will be no relaxation on that matter.
There were some debates on speed limits more generally. I am sorry that we did not have more time in Committee to look at some of the ideas proposed from both sides. For example, we should consider having more 20 mph limits and making a more definite distinction, especially in urban areas, between thoroughfares that are principal roads used by cars and mixed-use thoroughfares where there are pedestrians, cyclists and others, and the car is but one user. The more that I see 20 mph zones in operation, the more I think that, in the appropriate places, they are worth while.
In one of our debates, we touched on the idea of 20 mph zones around schools. That very weekend I went home to find that a school just outside my drive had fitted a sign that flashed "20 mph" during the 20 or 30 minutes when pupils were leaving and arriving. It was amazing to observe the effect on drivers: they obeyed it.
Clearly there are things that can be done. We should not just consider lowering speed limits. In principle, there is nothing wrong with slightly increasing speeds on motorways, perhaps to 80 mph as has been suggested, because such roads are engineered for the car. That is the great distinction I wanted to make. I should also like to see the reverse. Where the road is not engineered solely for cars, there should be lower speed limits.
We also talked about drink-driving, which, sadly, remains a problem and one that is increasing. More people appear to be disregarding the limits. I echo the Minister's comment; I am more concerned about trapping people who have drunk twice the limit than about lowering it to 50 mg.
We also had a very important debate that was initiated by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), when he raised issues that related to the family of a casualty. I am not sure what that family made of that debate, but it brought out very graphically why we need that new penalty. I say, "Roll on the review", whoever is speaking at the Dispatch Box. If by some complete miracle I find myself there, I will certainly undertake to ensure that the legislation is dealt with with the utmost dispatch.
A number of issues raised are not in the Bill. For example, we moved some amendments that came from Network Rail that related to level crossings, and I hope that the Department for Transport will continue to consider that issue. I hope that my dear friend the retro-reflective conspicuity, about which we had another go today, will be dealt with, and I was encouraged by the Minister's comments. We can therefore say that, on balance, the Bill will have had a good passage through the House, and that we will be all the better for putting the Bill on the statute book.
I hope that I have been reasonably fair to the Government, but I come to the one thing that concerns me. Having looked at the business timetabling in another place, I see that the Bill has been given no time and, furthermore, that there are no gaps in the timetable that it could go into, and I do not see any business that is likely to be moved to accommodate it. The possibilities therefore are that, even if the other place manages to
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squeeze in a Second Reading debate, it will be forced either to take the Bill as it stands without any debate on consideration, which would be a mistake, and pass it in the "wash-up"; or that the Bill will be lost.
I hope that the Bill is not lost, but equally, it needs to receive the further scrutiny that is required. There are a lot of ifs in this, but if 6 May does have the significance that various people keep according to it and if we find ourselves having to do all this over again, I hope that it will be introduced as rapidly as possible, so that it can be dealt with. Many people in the country trust usas a group of politicians, not simply as representatives of a partyto make the roads safer. I believe that we agree on far more than we disagree on, so I should like to see this important Bill on the statute book, with a few changes, I hope.
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