Road Safety Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Carmichael: I do not need to detain the Committee at any great length. The hon. Member for North Shropshire said that the clause is benign, which is a view that I share. Its objectives are well intentioned and would be of significant benefit. There is merit in some of the thoughts that the hon. Gentleman floats in his amendments, especially the requirement for consultation in amendment No. 15. Although I am no great lover of annual reports—barely a day seems to pass when half a dozen do not end up in my bin—it would be appropriate for there to be a proper mechanism whereby we could keep track of the impact of clause 1. I would have preferred the report to be to Parliament, because too often we labour away in Committee, the Bill is enacted and that is the last we hear of the proposals, often because the Government do not implement them. I hope that this measure will be implemented, because it can make a significant difference.

11 am

The hon. Member for North Shropshire was right to say that localism is important. Communities should feel that they have a meaningful say on road safety measures—that they are not just visited on them from on high. It is much more likely that there will be proper obedience to road safety measures if communities have some sense of ownership of them.

I did not follow the hon. Gentleman’s thinking when he said that the exclusion of any organisation that comprises, or is part of, a safety camera partnership would necessarily lead to a greater degree of localism, but that may emerge from the debate.

Mr. Paterson: My point is that we want to get over the normal local authority organisations and go right down to local level. The county might be part of the safety camera partnership but we want to go beyond that to the school or the parish council. The amendment was deliberately intended to probe the Minister on how the money would get through.

Mr. Carmichael: I accept that the amendment is probing and that the motivation behind it is good and sound, but I have reservations about whether it provides the most effective means to achieve what is intended.

Mr. Knight: One thing that unites hon. Members on both sides of the Committee is that we all want road safety to be improved, although we may disagree on
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how to achieve it. One way of doing so is to ensure that every driver who transgresses receives penalty points on his licence and eventually is removed from the road.

I believe that a one-eyed approach is less effective than a broader approach that encompasses educating all road users, not just those who drive a motor vehicle but cyclists and pedestrians, and increasing warnings. My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire mentioned the flashing electronic signs, which are very effective because they warn all road users who may not be familiar with a stretch of road that they need to take care. I hope when the Minister replies he will confirm that he will take a broad view of road safety and consider a mixture of penalties, education and warnings where appropriate. Some Opposition Members feel that the so-called road safety camera partnerships in some parts of the country are obsessed with raking in fine money by catching motorists speeding and less focused on the wider promotion of road safety.

The clause is very widely drafted, which may be a reason to applaud the Minister. Subsection (1) states:

    “A national transport authority may make payments to any local authority or any other authority or body for meeting the whole or part of the capital or running costs of any measures”.

If “any measures” are indeed to be considered—if the issue is to be considered in the broad sense—there is a case for encouraging local innovation. If a parish council has a unique idea about how road safety can best be promoted in the village or villages it represents, why not encourage that and give it a grant? The measure does not have to be yet another red box alongside the road; it may be a scheme to go into schools to teach children about the dangers of traffic, or a method of encouraging members of the community to play their part, as they do in neighbourhood watch schemes which have been such a success in tackling burglary. There may be many such ideas that the Government have not yet picked up on but that should be encouraged. I therefore hope that the Minister will confirm that he envisages the clause operating as broadly as possible.

I agree with the comments on amendment No. 17. In general we do not want to encourage more bureaucracy, but the Minister will satisfy us if he can say how he envisages the effectiveness of the clause being monitored. Does he expect his Department to do that and feed back to him? I would be satisfied if there is to be active monitoring by officials at the Department for Transport: I do not necessarily want the over-regulation of an annual report. If that is how the Minister envisages the clause working, perhaps he will undertake periodically to make a written statement to the House stating what grants have been given, what new ideas have been encouraged and so on. I think that the Minister will be able to allay many of our concerns when he responds to the debate.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): On a point of order, Sir Nicholas. Will you give members of the Committee permission to remove their jackets?

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The Chairman: I am extremely traditional but I am prepared to move with the times. If members of the Committee wish to remove their jackets in order to be more comfortable, I am happy that they should do so. I hope that that is a satisfactory response to a matter of comfort, rather than a point of order.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): I rise to speak to amendment No. 15. As chairman of the governors of a local school, I shall talk about some of the problems experienced in suburban areas where traffic congestion and parking causes immense problems for children on their way to school. Anything that can help in that respect—for example, signs that flash up the speed that cars are doing—is to be welcomed. Many of those signs have been put up in my constituency, but local authorities have limited resources and anything that can bring extra money for such purposes is to be encouraged. I therefore support my hon. Friend’s proposal.

In the average suburban area, single-line traffic and cars parked either side of the road cause enormous problems. The proposal will help to solve them and save lives in the long term.

Dr. Ladyman: I ask you to indulge me for a moment, Sir Nicholas, and allow me to talk about what clause 1 is intended to achieve, which would usually be more appropriate to a stand part debate. However, I need to do that in order to explain the Government’s view of the amendments.

The Road Traffic Act 1988 made it possible for the Government, in promoting road safety, to make grants to bodies other than local authorities. I have no doubt that the Government at the time intended that Act to allow them to give money to bodies other than local authorities as well as giving money to the local authorities themselves. However, they succeeded only in making it impossible for Government to give money to local authorities for one-off schemes, which is perverse. The clause will allow us to give money either to local authorities or to other appropriate bodies to carry out demonstration projects—pieces of work that might teach us something about a road safety measure that we can then disseminate to all local authorities or more widely throughout the country.

We have various mechanisms for providing money to local authorities. The hon. Member for North Shropshire, who opened the debate, asked what happened to the existing funds that go to local authorities. We can make road safety funds available to local authorities through the local transport plan arrangements, but ring-fencing that money is difficult. Local authorities have a great degree of local autonomy at the moment and they can spend that money on virtually anything, as long as they are accountable to the local electorate. Clearly, if we want a particular local authority to do a piece of work for us as a demonstration or proof of concept, the last thing that we want is to hand over that money only to have the local authority decide that it is not going to do the project and that it will use the money for something else.

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We want to be able to give specific local authorities one-off sums of money to do the sort of experiments that Opposition Members have highlighted. We might want a local authority to experiment with flashing warning signs or with 20-mph zones around schools, for example, and to feed back the information from that experiment so that we can disseminate the experience more widely.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): The Minister says that local authorities have a fair degree of autonomy at the moment, but to a large extent that is not true in London. The amendment would allow London boroughs to try a number of road safety schemes. In my borough, where I am still a councillor—for another eight weeks anyway—we have tried to get such schemes but were constrained by road safety funds and grants made available by Transport for London. The thrust of the amendment would be to allow local authorities and—perhaps more importantly and at an even more local level—ward councils to push for schools and parts of their area to get such funds, which are not available at the moment.

Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I do not want to get into a discussion about local government in London, as I suspect that you would pull me up sharply if I were to do so, Sir Nicholas, but clearly if we agree to the clause as it stands, we would be able to give one-off grants to specific local authorities in London. We would want to do that in collaboration and co-operation with Transport for London—we do not want to go behind its back—but we would have the power to make the sort of grants to which the hon. Gentleman is referring.

I hope that I have answered the point that the hon. Member for North Shropshire raised and the concerns expressed to him about local authorities spending the money that they had coming to them for road safety generally in the hope that we would then provide them with additional money. That is certainly not the way in which we envisage the grant being used.

The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire talked about the carrot and stick approach, which the hon. Member for North Shropshire also mentioned. I agree with them that it is no good thinking that we can impose road safety on the world. We have to bring people with us and win over their hearts and minds. We have to make sure that they have all the information and all the training needed to be able to use the roads safely, and we need a lot of innovation if we are going to do that.

I believe that we in this country have the safest roads in the world. One of the downsides, from our point of view, is that we have already hit all the easy targets. Now, we have to be innovative to get further advances in safety. We have to have fresh ideas. Where the stick will come in is often clear—we can see how it might help us to improve road safety in certain areas. It is often much more difficult to identify where the carrot can work—where providing that extra information or training programme can work—and that is where I envisage the grants being used. We might, for example,
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test ideas about training young people about road safety issues and driving before they are even old enough to be drivers; however, I would not want to pump money into a national scheme until I knew that it would work. The obvious people to do that work for us and to find out whether it works are local authorities. We want to have the power to make such grants without going through the cumbersome special grant procedure.

11.15 am

That is exactly how we see the programme working. We do not see it as an alternative to local transport plans, and we certainly do not see it as a way of removing local autonomy. As to reporting on the issues, I understand what the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) means about having a bin full of annual reports. I sometimes share his concern on that, but information on such programmes tends to be provided through the Department’s annual reports and other such mechanisms. More importantly—this relates to the point made by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire—we publish the results of such experiments on our website.

Clearly, the whole point of conducting such an experiment is to learn from it and to find out what works and what does not. It would be self-defeating to carry out such demonstration projects without publishing the results widely. On certain occasions, it would be appropriate for a Minister to make a statement about the outcome of a particular experiment, especially if that outcome were so positive that we believed it presaged or would even lead us directly to a change in Government policy. It would be entirely appropriate for such results to be flagged up in a written ministerial statement. I can give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks: wherever the grants were used, the Department would monitor carefully how they were used, study the outcome of the experiment and demonstration and ensure that the information was properly disseminated. On that basis, I hope that he will accept that another report will probably not be particularly helpful.

I have no doubt that we will discuss camera partnerships in more detail later in our proceedings, but I should remind hon. Members that when we announced the changes in our policy on camera partnerships a few months ago, we said that we envisaged them becoming much wider. Frankly, I do not want to see partnerships consisting only of the police, who have responsibility for enforcement and collecting fines, and the teams that put up the cameras. Such an approach breeds exactly the mentality of those who believe that the only answer to a problem is a camera, because the people in such a partnership will essentially be earning their living out of cameras. Of course they will see cameras as the solution, and they will see more cameras as a way of providing more income.

I want partnerships to be much more widely representative of the local community. They have worked most successfully with that approach; some of
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the partnerships in the east of England are a good example. I want to see local authority road safety teams in there. I want people from the national health service and the fire service to be involved, as well as the police. Perhaps people from the voluntary sector should be there too. Clearly, if we are going to have these wide-ranging partnerships, accepting an amendment preventing us from giving grants to anyone who was a member of such partnerships would be perverse. I hope that we can dispose of that amendment.

Mr. Knight: In the Minister’s vision of wider safety camera partnerships, does he envisage a role for the local road user?

Dr. Ladyman: It is entirely possible that representatives of local road users could be in the partnerships. They could include people from the business community who have fleets that use local roads, such as those in the haulage industry, or representatives of ordinary road users such as pedestrians and cyclists. Such people may well have a place in the partnerships. At some point we might want to use one of the small grants to encourage a local authority to devise a scheme to identify the appropriate people for a partnership. We could then disseminate more widely that authority’s experience of including people.

I hope that I have dealt with all the points that have been raised. If I have not, I am prepared to try again.

Mr. Paterson: The idea of experimental money for new projects is interesting. Will the Minister assure us that it cannot cut into existing transport budgets? The obvious question that has not yet been asked is how much money we are talking about.

Dr. Ladyman: I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that we do not intend to take money from existing pots and put it into the new pot that will be at our disposal. We do not yet have a budget identified. We have used various budgets in the past to give money to a variety of organisations, including local authorities. Some of that has been disbursed through special grants and some through other mechanisms. He will be aware that the Government often have to be innovative in the way in which they make money available to projects, and we have granted money to local authorities and others through various ruses.

The sums involved tend to be relatively small. Bigger projects may sometimes receive £100,000 or £300,000. Schemes have ranged from those seeking to educate young people on road safety matters to those involving cyclists and other road users. We are not necessarily talking about massive projects, although there is scope for some big and innovative projects in the future. I am happy to write to the hon. Member for North Shropshire and other members of the Committee with examples of the schemes that we have helped in the past and would expect to fund through this mechanism. I hope that I have given sufficient reassurances to hon. Members to prevent them from pressing the amendment to a Division, and also that
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they will support clause 1 stand part. I understand that the amendments were probing, and I hope that they have probed sufficiently.

Mr. Paterson: That clarification has been helpful. I had not understood that the notion was that the funds would be experimental and for the purpose of carrying out practical trials. We have had an interesting debate, and I particularly liked the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire about education. I think that the Minister confirmed that funds could be disbursed for education as well as for the ideas that I put forward, such as flashing signs or speed limits around schools. I am encouraged by what he said and by his reassurance that a wide range of people will be on the partnerships. As we will discuss shortly, I think that the partnerships as they stand are flawed.

Dr. Ladyman: I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks. An example of a project that has been funded is one in Stoke-on-Trent that involved Blurton dads’ club, which is run alongside Sure Start. There was also a grant of a little less than £1 million to an older pedestrians’ initiative and one of about £1 million to a project in Liverpool called “Our walk to school.” Those are neighbourhood road safety initiative projects that we have funded. The hon. Gentleman might also want to look at a scheme called Kerbcraft, which teaches young children practical roadside skills. I hope that those are the sorts of educational schemes to which he referred.

Mr. Paterson: That was a most helpful intervention. I am glad that the Minister did not find those projects in his notes, because they are exactly the sort of projects that we would be seeking over and above the stuff about science and limits, and they would be a worthwhile addition to measures to improve road safety, as long as we had the assurance that they would not cut into existing budgets. On that basis, I am happy to seek to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Greg Knight: I rise to ask the Minister a question and to place on record an expression of hope. First, the question relates to the scope of the grants. Could a road safety grant ever be given to remove a road completely? If someone has an idea that a road should be closed to traffic and turned over completely to pedestrians, could one of these grants ever be used for that purpose?

Secondly, I hope that if the Bill completes its passage and the system is up and running, the Department will not take a one-size-fits-all view of grants under the clause, because local needs and the environment of the area must also be taken into consideration.

Perhaps I may give the Minister an example in a related area. I am well aware that Departments generally try to encourage local authorities to consider ways of promoting public transport use and to discourage unnecessary car journeys. There is nothing
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wrong with that. In cities such as Nottingham or maybe Derby, or in inner-city London, it makes sense to support the local authority if it wants to introduce a park-and-ride scheme. One way to encourage motorists to use park-and-ride schemes is to make them pay for inner-city parking, while the parking for the park-and-ride is free or very low-cost, so there is an incentive to use it.

My local authority, the East Riding of Yorkshire council, has recently been put under considerable pressure to introduce car-parking charges in Bridlington. In this case, which I give as an example, there has been no consideration of the needs of an English seaside town. We should encourage people to take holidays in the UK and to visit our seaside towns. I say to the Minister with the greatest respect that we will not encourage a young couple with children to go to the seaside, park their car and then, with little Johnny, their suitcases and their buckets and spades, use a park-and-ride scheme. My local authority has been put under pressure by the Department to abolish free parking in the town of Bridlington, and that is a mistake. It will affect the local economy, because a seaside town is different from an inner-city area in the middle of the country. I therefore hope that when we are considering grants under this provision, the Department will take into account local need, which it has not done in that example.

Dr. Ladyman: I do not know of the initiative to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, and I would be worried if my Department were applying pressure so specifically. He may want to drop me a line about the project and I shall certainly look into it.

11.30 am

We do not intend the clause to be used to allow any form of road engineering. Were we to do that with a one-off grant to a particular local authority, I have no doubt that all the other local authorities would plough in and say, “We want some, too.” That would then begin to bring into disrepute the local transport plan programme and all the other mechanisms that are in place to distribute road engineering funding fairly.

Having said that that is not what we intend, one might ask whether the clause could be used to remove a road or a piece of engineering work in the future. I will ask my lawyers to reflect on that, but my interpretation of the clause is such that if it could be argued that the measure in question was entirely a road safety measure and that that was the only rationale for it, the provision could legally be used for that purpose. I will write to the right hon. Gentleman and tell him whether the lawyers confirm that that is the case, but we certainly do not intend the clause to be used in that way.

Perhaps I may take the Committee back to where we started. Back in 1988, the then Government had what I thought was a very good idea: they wanted to encourage demonstration projects to be carried out by the most appropriate voluntary organisations or other expert groups, so they drew up a measure to enable them to provide those groups with money. Clearly, the groups would not be the sort that would carry out
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engineering works on our roads; they would engage with local communities, teaching kids how to get to school more safely, helping cyclists and motorcyclists, and carrying out similar projects. However, the 1988 Government did not intend to prevent themselves and future Governments from giving money for the same purposes to local authorities.

We want the clause to enable us to use local authorities to carry out demonstration projects in the same way as the 1988 Government intended to use voluntary organisations and others. That is how we want to use the clause, although on first reading it might appear that, if they wanted to, the Government could use the money in the way that the right hon. Gentleman suggests. However, as I said, I shall write to him on the matter.

Mr. Paterson: The debate has demonstrated the purpose of a Standing Committee, because we now have a much better understanding of the clause. Opposition Members like the idea of experimentation. We like the idea that the clause can be used to support small projects and that, if a project has worked in one part of the country, it might be advertised to other areas. The clause also allows variety and flexibility. On that basis we are content to support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Application of surplus income from safety camera enforcement

Mr. Paterson: I beg to move amendment No. 18, in clause 2, page 1, line 17, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 19, in clause 2, page 1, line 19, leave out from ‘(2)’ to ‘to’ in line 20.

Mr. Paterson: We like the clause, but we think that it could be better. There are real doubts in the public’s mind about the present safety camera regime, and we want to toughen up the clause so that all surpluses have to go towards road safety.

The figures are quite striking. In 2000-01 there were only seven partnerships. They received £10.362 million and spent £8.985 million, leaving a balance of £1.367 million, which went into the Consolidated Fund, which, to be blunt, is the black hole presided over by the Chancellor. That balance was 13 per cent. of the funds in 2001. What is fascinating is that there has been a spectacular increase in income and in the number of partnerships—we are now up to about 35 partnerships. In 2003-04 there were receipts of £112.2 million and expenditure of £91.8 million, leaving an astonishing £20.4 million going to the Chancellor. Not only have receipts increased approximately tenfold, but the balance going to the Chancellor as a percentage
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of total receipts has increased from 13 to 18 per cent. That means that a very substantial sum is not going towards road safety.

The issue has caused controversy in my own patch. In the autumn, the Minister kindly answered some parliamentary questions of mine. In West Mercia, £4.897 million was spent on speed camera running costs, but fixed penalty fines totalled £6.182 million, so more than £1.2 million from my area went to the Consolidated Fund. That is bitterly resented. The regime has to change. We have gone from about 200,000 speeding fines imposed about 10 years ago to about 2 million today, and very large amounts of the money raised are not being spent on safety. There are worse cases: six road safety partnerships have each made a profit of more than £1 million, with money going on to Whitehall. The biggest profit—£1.7 million—was made by the Northumbria safety camera partnership, with motorists in the county stumping up more than £4 million in fines.

The Secretary of State has announced that he will overhaul the programme and that the surpluses—about £110 million a year—will go to a new national road safety fund. That has to be done. There is an interesting quote from Edmund King, the executive director of the RAC Foundation:

    “These figures show that there is a lot that can be spent on wider road safety improvements. Some cameras are money-making enterprises, some are not. I have seen a document from a road safety partnership warning that it was in danger of not breaking even and suggesting two options. One was to place cameras where they would catch more motorists and the other was to lower the speed threshold for prosecution.”

That is exactly what we should not be doing. That really is not the way to get the collaboration of the 34 million drivers whom I mentioned on Second Reading and touched on briefly in the debate on the programme motion. I believe strongly that we cannot coerce those drivers—we cannot just use a stick. The vast majority of drivers are hard-working, law-abiding people going about their daily lives and trying to get from A to B in safety and on time. Unfortunately, the way in which the safety camera regime has been set up has caused real alienation.

A case close to me, although not on my patch, has caused real controversy locally. I had a note from the Association of British Drivers about one of the earliest cameras. I have not had time to go into the details, but the association claims that a local council and a local camera partnership provided different detailed information on a camera at a location called Bennetts bank. The association says:

    “When the information was analysed, it showed that not only did the camera partnership and the local council provide different data, but the partnership’s analyses of the figures were highly dubious and, quite clearly, there had been no accidents at the point where the camera was installed.”

The association claims that the camera was installed without the statutory number of accidents—at the time, four fatal accidents in a three-year period, I think—having occurred.

Last night, I received an e-mail from a Mr. John Evans, who wrote that Bennetts bank

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    “was an obvious place to trap drivers coming down from the M54 or coming from Wellington back up to Ketly Roundabout on a normally safe straight piece of road, spacious and walled on both sides except for some terraced houses at the top end.

    An employee of the council seconded to the partnership agreed with me off record and admitted that the main reason for the placement was that it was a good place to catch the 7000 vehicles per day flow. It was necessary to kick start the abominable partnership in this way as this was the first such camera in Shropshire . . . I assure you that I have no great interest in cars but hate it when both my intelligence and my pocket is abused. It is probable that tens of thousands of fines have been collected at this site alone. I know that countless people have been up in arms about this cynical ploy based on the narrowest interpretation of the law to meet the Exchequer’s requirements.”

We have to face the political reality that such opinions are out there and they are very damaging to the idea of collaboration. It is vital to implement speed limits that are respected and accord with drivers’ behaviour. In this case, there was a straight piece of road, where fatal accidents had not occurred. In fact, last night, a senior member of the Telford community told me that there were other places in Telford that really would have benefited from the installation of speed cameras.Vicky Cann, the assistant director of Transport 2000, said that

    “the very high casualty criteria are a major obstacle to greater use of cameras along roads considered dangerous. It is unacceptable that where people have already died or been seriously injured in speed-related crashes further tragedies must occur before effective speed limit enforcement is undertaken”.

The current regime is being attacked from two angles. There is a strong belief that cameras are being placed unnecessarily, rather as the Bourbon tax farmers had free rein to raise taxes and to take a slice of the revenue themselves. To put it bluntly, the more a safety camera organisation can expand its operations, the more money it can raise and the more it can fund itself and pay its employees. That is quite wrong. We must get away from the concept that speed cameras are not helpful. We need to get back to the idea, promoted by Vicky Cann, that there are areas where a speed camera in the right place could reduce accidents.

I have referred several times to the example in Telford because it caused such bad feeling in the local area. A speed camera was installed on what is regarded a straight, safe road, where, according to those who have discussed the case with me, it is probably safe to travel at 40 mph. It is vital that we return to the idea that speed cameras are associated with road safety. They should be placed in areas where there are real dangers of very unpleasant and possibly fatal accidents. I received a very good letter from Roger Geffen, the campaigns and policy manager of the Cyclists’ Touring Club. He said that

    “to kill off the criticism of safety cameras as “cash cows”, two principles must be followed:

    1) The purposes of cameras must be transparently linked to road safety objectives and

    2) That there is no risk that the Government might use camera revenue to replace other “mainstream” road safety funding, as delivered through the Local Transport Plan (LTP) process”.

Those principles are wholly admirable. We would begin to claw back some public confidence in speed cameras if people knew that all the money raised went toward road safety. That is black and white statement.
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We should be able to tell all motorists and road safety campaigners that every bit of the surplus will be ploughed back into road safety. Such an approach might begin to win back some public confidence. The Minister might comment on that in his response.

As it stands, clause 2 states that some of the money may be spent on relevant

    “local transport facilities or related environmental improvements, including road safety measures”.

Can the Minister elaborate on what the Government have in mind? I ask because the Committee received an interesting note from RBS Insurance, pointing out that

    “One area ripe for action is the framework for inspecting the quality of road repair work undertaken. At present local authorities only have a duty/right to inspect 30% of road works to make sure that their companies are meeting appropriate standards, a level that is surely inefficient”.

On what objectives is the money to be targeted?

Clause 2 would be improved greatly if amendments Nos. 18 and 19 were agreed to. The word “may” is wishy-washy—it allows the Government to park the issue for a year or two. The word “shall” should be used. It should be clear that all surplus revenue raised from the installation of speed cameras must be spent on road safety schemes. I am very interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that suggestion.

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