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Session 2004 - 05
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Standing Committee Debates
Road Safety Bill

Road Safety Bill

Standing Committee A

Tuesday 25 January 2005


[Mr. Kevin Hughes in the Chair]

Road Safety Bill

9.25 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): On a point of order, Mr. Hughes. I would be grateful if you would allow me to make a short statement to clarify two matters that arose during our proceedings on Thursday 20 January.

First, during a debate on clause 1 I said that the national safety camera programme had received £120 million in fixed penalty receipts, of which £100 million had been used to cover the cost of camera operations and the remaining £20 million returned to Hansard—[Interruption.] Returned to the Treasury, I am sorry. No wonder the Hansard reporter is looking so well attired today! Having revisited the Hansard report, I see that I also gave the impression that the figures were for the last financial year. What I meant to say was that they were announced in the last financial year. The figures were published in 2004, but they cover the period from 2000-01 to 2002-03. The fixed penalty receipts were a total of £99 million, and recoverable expenditure on camera enforcement was £79 million. The bit that I got right was the amount returned to the Treasury, which was £20 million. I hope that that clarifies the matter. The amounts are on record in ''The national safety camera programme: Three-year evaluation report'', published last year. I am certain that it is in the Library and available for those who want to see it.

Secondly, the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) asked whether local highways authorities in England had the powers to introduce variable speed limits. I said that I thought they did, but that I would check. I can confirm that they have such powers under section 84 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984.

I am grateful to you for allowing me to clarify those two matters, Mr. Hughes.

Clause 7

Driving record

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 25, in clause 7, page 5, line 3, leave out paragraph (c).

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 26, in clause 7, page 5, line 6, leave out paragraph (e).

Government amendment No. 62.

Mr. Chope: I begin by thanking the Minister for raising those two issues on a point of order. It is still clear that £20 million could have been reinvested in road safety in that period, but instead it went to the
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Treasury—not to Hansard. The Minister would have more excuse for muddling up the Treasury and Hansard if he had attended the splendid Chamber of Shipping dinner last night, to which he had been invited. However, sadly, I think for the third time in as many years, the ministerial invitee failed to attend. I am told that the organisers knew yesterday that the Minister would not attend. The excuse given was that he was so busy with the Bill. Opposition Members, and I include in that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), must take some credit for the fact that our incisive amendments are keeping the Minister so busy burning the midnight oil that he does not have time to attend such dinners.

It is interesting that the Government amendment has crept in just in time only because we adjourned when we did on Thursday. I am glad that the Government have been able to table it today, instead of having to leave it until Report, as happens with so many Government amendments.

Amendment No. 25 is a probing amendment to discover why the Government feel the need to include fixed penalty clerks as a specific breed of person who can have access to all our driving records. It has always been my understanding that they work for the Court Service. In that case, surely they should be covered by paragraph (a), which refers to courts. In accordance with their terms and conditions of service fixed penalty clerks will no doubt have to sign confidentiality statements and be subject to the discipline of the Court Service. I see no problem with that.

Constables are covered by paragraph (b). Setting up a separate category for fixed penalty clerks seems to widen the ambit unnecessarily. Will the Minister tell us whether he has it in mind to privatise the fixed penalty clerk service—for example, so that separate, free-standing contractors can deal with the issues—and why that category of people will be elevated as set out in paragraph (c)?

The other amendment covers paragraph (e), which deals with other prescribed persons. I suspect that in looking at how to deal with that amendment, the Minister's advisers decided that there was a lacuna in the clause which needed attention anyway, hence the Government amendment. Who do the Government have in mind for the category of other prescribed persons? That raises a real issue about misuse of official information. It was only last weekend that the Daily Echo, a splendid newspaper that circulates in my constituency, carried a report of a special constable who had been convicted of gaining access to Criminal Records Bureau information. She had used her position as a special constable to find out more about the people who worked alongside her in her main job as a pump attendant at a petrol filling station.

The fact that a special constable was able to access and use that information is concerning enough, but she was brought to justice largely because it was possible to track down the person who used the information; there are specific lines of responsibility, and a limited number of people have access to Criminal Records Bureau information. I am concerned that if information on driving records can be accessed so
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easily by people in officialdom, it will be difficult to track down the perpetrator of any misuse of that information. Without the effective deterrent of detection, it is likely that the misuse of such information will continue to increase.

Although my example concerns someone with their own motive for gaining access, perhaps out of spite or simple interest, people who access such information could use it for their own profit by providing it to the press and so on. It would be unhealthy if a whole host of fixed penalty clerks and other prescribed persons spent their day trawling through the records to see whether they could find anything interesting about anybody, which they might be able to supply to the press for profit. I hope that the Minister will be able to allay some of our concerns about the clause.

Mr. Jamieson: Subsection (2) sets out those persons who may have access to information in a person's driving record. Amendment No. 25 seeks to remove the fixed penalty clerks from that list. The position of fixed penalty clerk is not new; it was first set out—possibly when the hon. Member for Christchurch was a Minister in the Department—in the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988. The people who have been doing that job for the past 16 or 17 years operate under the protocol and the systems pertaining to their office.

The role of the fixed penalty clerk is especially important when conditional offers are issued for speeding offences detected by speed cameras. In such cases, the offender delivers his or her licence and counterpart direct to the fixed penalty clerk for inspection. The clerk will inspect the counterpart to ensure that the imposition of penalty points would not take the driver up to 12 points or more, thereby requiring a court appearance with a view to the person being disqualified. As the clerks need to inspect the driver's licence and counterpart, they need to have access to information held on a person's driving record. I am sure that there is a procedure for dealing with anyone who trawls through the records and tries to misuse information in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggested, although that is not dealt with in the Bill. Nothing has been brought to my attention on that.

Clause 9 introduces a new system of endorsement for all drivers based on the inspection of the driving record rather than the counterpart. If fixed penalty clerks could not access information held on driving records, someone else would have to make the necessary checks, which would of course create additional burdens elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman often talks about trying to cut the burden of administration and bureaucracy, but there would be more bureaucracy if clerks could not access that information.

Amendment No. 26 seeks to remove the Secretary of State's power to prescribe that other persons may have access to information held on a driving record. We expect it to be up to five years before the new system of endorsement for all drivers introduced by clause 9 can commence. It will take that time to create the necessary links between the police, the courts and the DVLA. In addition, clause 9 and schedule 3 remove references to
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the counterpart from legislation, with the result that the counterpart will no longer have any statutory function. It will take the DVLA up to five years to establish alternative procedures for all the counterpart's other functions.

We have tried to identify all the persons who, at this stage, we envisage being required to access the information held on the driving record, but, when we commence the new system of endorsement in a few years, it may become apparent that others require access if the system is to work, hence the reference to ''other prescribed persons'' in subsection (2)(e).

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we have any ambition to privatise any part of the service. I am not aware of any such proposals, although his party last week suggested privatising a large number of Government organisations, including, I think, the DVLA, the Driving Standards Agency and many other organisations that come under the auspices of my Department. He may want to revisit his comments in light of that.

I will speak briefly to amendment No. 62. In drafting the Bill, we noticed that there is an omission in proposed new section 97A of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988. In that Act, unlike the Road Traffic Act 1988, the word ''prescribed'' is not defined as ''prescribed in regulations made by the Secretary of State''. That may be an omission in the Act, but it was certainly an omission of ours not to spot it. The amendment will correct that by explaining that other persons will be prescribed in regulations made by the Secretary of State.

In view of what I have said, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment, and that the Committee will support amendment No. 62.

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Prepared 25 January 2005