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Session 2006 - 07
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Public Bill Committee Debates

Alterations in the Provisions of the Highway Code



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Greg Pope
Brazier, Mr. Julian (Canterbury) (Con)
Buck, Ms Karen (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
Dobson, Frank (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab)
Gray, Mr. James (North Wiltshire) (Con)
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian (Leeds, North-East) (Lab)
Hollobone, Mr. Philip (Kettering) (Con)
Kemp, Mr. Fraser (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab)
Knight, Mr. Greg (East Yorkshire) (Con)
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen (Minister of State, Department for Transport)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
Raynsford, Mr. Nick (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)
Rosindell, Andrew (Romford) (Con)
Rowen, Paul (Rochdale) (LD)
Roy, Mr. Frank (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Slaughter, Mr. Andy (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab)
Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab)
Keith Neary, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Third Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 26 June 2007

[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]

Alterations in the Provisions of the Highway Code

10.30 am
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Alterations in the Provisions of the Highway Code proposed to be made by the Secretary of State for Transport.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Pope. My opening remarks will be brief, as it would be more helpful to use the time to respond to hon. Members’ concerns at the end of the sitting.
The Highway Code must be updated from time to time to reflect changing conditions on the roads, and that is done by a comprehensive process of consultation. A redraft is placed before Parliament, which can pray against it if hon. Members are not happy.
There were several matters of controversy in agreeing this version of the Highway Code. It would be nice if there could be a consensus on these issues, but in my experience absolute consensus is not a possibility, so judgments have to be made about the right wording.
One of the most obvious areas of discussion in the consultation was about matters on which there is legislative provision—where people on the roads must or must not do something. Those are marked as “must” or “must not”. There are also parts of the code in which there is no prohibition or compulsory statement, and the words “should” or “should not” are used to indicate that people have some choice about those matters and should exercise their personal judgment when using the road. Most of the debate prior to tabling this version of the code was about the difference between those two areas of activity.
The version before us meets everyone’s requirements, as far as that is possible. I say, in passing, that we cannot debate rules 61 and 63 of the proposal, which we have withdrawn because they were the subject of controversy. We have replaced them with amended versions of the rules, which we have placed before the House and which will be the subject of a future debate should hon. Members wish to pray against them. I am happy to answer questions on the remaining aspects of the code and hope to satisfy hon. Members’ concerns.
The Chairman: I am grateful to the Minister for pointing out that we cannot debate rules 61 and 63, as they will be the subject of a separate order.
10.33 am
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Pope. I thank you for your words of guidance.
Some of the changes made by the document are welcome and timely. I am glad to see a beefed-up declaration that pedestrians have right of way, more clarity on the use of mobile phones and better guidance for dealing with emergency vehicles. Properly pursued, they should go a modest way towards improving the culture of safety on our roads. Nevertheless, I have a number of points for the Minister and I shall leave the most controversial until last.
How many changes were made to the old copy of the Highway Code prior to consultation? I suspect that the answer is quite a large number, as there seem to be lots of detailed changes. What steps is the Minister taking to publicise this new version of the Highway Code? It will obviously go on to the Department’s website, but I doubt if more than a tiny proportion of road users regularly consult it.
The Minister implicitly acknowledged that in some cases there is a change in the law, rather than a recommendation. It is therefore manifestly clear that if the Government think that changes should be made, the public must be told about them. Conservative Members agree with some of the changes, including the examples I have given. I look forward to hearing how the public will be informed.
In your ruling, Mr. Pope, you made it clear that we cannot dwell on cycling, which will be the subject of a separate debate. However, I am delighted to hear that it has been removed from the proposal and is being handled separately, and that the Government appear to have listened to the concerns raised.
The controversial area of this statutory instrument relates to riding. What specific representations were received from the British Horse Society and what changes, if any, were made to the draft code as a result? Cyclists’ concerns seem to have been addressed; it seems odd that those of the British Horse Society appear to have been brushed aside. The society advises us that it has considerable worries about the changes to the code. Without straying too far and straining your patience, Mr. Pope, I should say that those worries are felt against a well publicised background of huge insurance pressures on equestrian organisations. I gather that that issue will soon be considered on the Floor of the House during a private Member’s Bill debate.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): The hon. Gentleman referred to the British Horse Society. It told me that it was informed in a meeting with Department officials that there would be no further amendments to the parts relating to equestrian use of the highways because there was no time. If there was time to make changes for cyclists, surely there was time to make changes for horse riders.
Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It seems a terrific shame that the society, which represents many small equestrian organisations under huge pressure from insurance interests, should be treated in that way.
Dr. Ladyman: The point about there not being sufficient time is not entirely true. The simple fact is that we have to draw a line somewhere and say, “This is what we are going to publish, but we may continue to discuss the issues and that may lead to further changes in the future.” That is exactly the position that we have agreed with the British Equestrian Federation. For the benefit of the hon. Members for Canterbury and for Orkney and Shetland, I shall read out a letter from its chief executive. It states:
“Thank you for your helpful letter of 18 June 2007. I am pleased that your officials are working with the BHS on these important matters to ensure that the best arrangements are put in place for all road users.”
I believe that we have a measure of agreement.
Mr. Brazier: I hear what the Minister says: he is pleased to hear from a recent letter that the society is working with officials. Nevertheless, the representations that we are getting from equestrian organisations leave us with considerable concern.
I shall embarrass the Minister by saying now what I was going to say at the end of my speech. This may be his last day in this job, and he may be destined for greater things—we do not know. However, given that there will be changes in the Government tomorrow, I should like to say how much I have enjoyed sitting opposite him. We sometimes agree and frequently disagree, but our discussions have always been governed by mutual respect.
Let me be clear about the main objections to the proposed alterations. Equestrian organisations’ greatest single concern is that the draft rule states that equestrians should
“never ride more than two abreast, and ride in single file on narrow or busy roads and when riding around bends.”
I was not much of a rider. As a child I briefly learned to ride, but I was not very good and kept falling off. However, even with my limited experience, I know how important it is that people should be able to ride abreast. The reasons are obvious—if a novice has never ridden on a road before, if a small child is riding, or if a child’s horse has turned difficult. For a variety of reasons, it may be important for an experienced person to ride protectively on the outside of a vulnerable rider.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman quoted from the final bullet point of rule 50 on page 20. I understand from the representations of the British Horse Society that the phrase about never riding more than two abreast is an amendment to the original draft. I understood him to say that the concerns of the British Horse Society had been largely overlooked. Is the very rule that he quoted not an example of an amendment to the original draft that was made in line with representations by the British Horse Society?
Mr. Brazier: I look forward to the Minister’s comments on that and I hope that he will be able to show that he has met the society’s concerns. If he can, that is all well and good, but if he cannot, Conservative Members will feel bound to register a protest by forcing a Division.
Rob Marris: I am not a rider myself, but my wife is a keen rider. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the British Horse Society would condone a child being out on the highway on a horse that is known to be difficult?
Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman heard what I said—that the horse had turned difficult. There is a variety of reasons why even the most placid horses turn difficult, and I am sure that his wife will know about that. It may have been frightened by something or may have picked up a stone, and that can cause a variety of difficulties if one happens to be on a road a long way from home at the time.
The BHS says that leaving the relevant passages in would be especially foolish given that on page 124 the code says:
“Although failure to comply with the other rules of the Code will not, it itself, cause a person to be prosecuted, The Highway Code may be used in evidence in any court proceedings under Traffic Acts to establish liability.”
It adds, crucially:
“This includes rules which use advisory wording such as ‘should/should not’ or ‘do/do not’.”
The society believes that if those words remain in rule 53, they could have serious legal consequences for riders who are riding two abreast on a narrow or busy road or around a bend when they are involved in an accident.
Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman is right that the Highway Code can be used in court for the purpose of establishing liability, but, in making its decision, the court would have to take account of the fact that it was considering advisory rather than compulsory statements.
Mr. Brazier: The Minister knows that I have a particular interest in the issue of risk and the courts’ attitudes to it. I am the co-chairman of an all-party group on the subject and tried to introduce a private Member’s Bill on the issue. The problem is that the courts have had a steady history of overriding professional views over the past 15 years.
Let me take one example from outside the world of horse riding, which neatly illustrates the point. It involves a mountaineering case—I can write to the Minister afterwards with the details—in which a climber was killed when travelling with a professional guide. What really shocked the professional mountaineering community was that there was no dispute whatever in the court about the facts of the case. Everybody fully accepted them, but the judge’s view simply went against that of almost all the mountaineering community and he disagreed with the mountaineering instructor’s split-second decision. If that can happen in such a case, one can imagine how easily it could happen in the much more commonplace situation of riders getting into difficulty on a road.
On a different concern, the advice given in the section “First Aid on the Road”—I think that this is on page 131—is that after an accident those attending should
“not remove a motorcyclist’s helmet unless it is essential.”
The BHS suggests that that should also refer to the helmet of a horse rider, after an accident in which a horse rider was involved. That seems eminently sensible, and I should be interested to hear why the suggestion was not included in the final draft. I suspect that the point made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland about shortage of time may indicate the cause. I cannot believe that there would be a substantive reason for the Department not to agree to such a reasonable and sensible conclusion.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on the two points about safety in relation to riding horses.
Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Brazier: I am just about to finish. I particularly look forward to the Minister’s response to my first point. If he can respond satisfactorily, it will not be necessary for us to divide the Committee.
10.46 am
Mr. Carmichael: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pope, and I also welcome the debate. When changes are made to a publication such as the Highway Code, it is useful that Parliament should have an opportunity to comment, at the very least. I agree with what the Minister said about the process of reaching consensus. We will never reach the nirvana of a Highway Code that is acceptable to everyone. Indeed, it is a curious beast—a strange mixture of advice and statements of best practice and of black letter law, all pulled into one document, which is probably at best advisory.
I am mildly concerned about the way in which the Committee can proceed in relation to rules 61 and 63. I have heard your ruling and fully understand it, Mr. Pope. I have also had sight of the alterations to rules 61 and 63, which were presented on 15 June. However, the material before the Committee includes those rules in a version different from that which is to be revised. I do not want to comment on the content of rules 61 and 63—that would be otiose—but the Committee should be concerned about the process by which we reached the form of words and by which the Minister has sought to proceed thereafter. If you are, Mr. Pope, minded to allow limited comment on that, the necessity of forming a Committee to consider the revised draft of 15 June may be avoided.
Mr. Carmichael: That being the case, I hope that we may not in fact need further Committee discussion of that process.
The principal concern expressed by cyclists and others about the original version was that it would introduce a new statement, or a new slant, on the question of contributory negligence. Following the ruling in Pepper v. Hart, it would be helpful if the Minister could state that that was not the Department’s intention and that it would not be appropriate for the Department for Transport to alter the law on something as important and wide-ranging as contributory negligence. I always felt that some of the concerns in question were over-stated, but as they have been put in the public domain it would be helpful if the Minister could say something.
Dr. Ladyman: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his concern again? I am not quite sure that I understood it. What he said seems so overblown that I am confused.
Mr. Carmichael: I am saying that the principal concern of many of those who commented—I think that 11,000 representations were made to the Minister’s Department by cycling organisations—was that the proposed wording before the Committee would have an impact on the law relating to contributory negligence. Although it is accepted that it will not now be used when the new Highway Code is published, the concern was that a cyclist who followed the procedures would have been in some way contributorily negligent. I accept that we have moved on from there, but I think that it would help everyone if the Minister confirmed that that was not and, indeed, never was the position.
Dr. Ladyman: I can give the hon. Gentleman that absolute assurance: it was never the intention that that should be the case. In fact, the wording of rules 61 and 63 that is before us was arrived at as a result of consulting cyclists. Following many of the comments that were made, we refined the wording in the old version of the code. I met the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on cycling, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), who represented to me a further view of these matters. I was under the impression that I had agreed with her a form of wording that would meet cyclists’ concerns, which is the wording before us in the March version of the Highway Code.
There was no intention to try to change the law. We thought that we had a version that would satisfy cyclists. When this version was tabled, I was surprised to discover that it did not meet cyclists’ concerns, because I thought that I had gone out of my way to meet those and the people who were making representations. We withdrew it subsequently and replaced it with a new version, which we are not in a position to debate today.
Mr. Carmichael: I am grateful to the Minister for that. We have probably dealt with that point.
Mr. Brazier: I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point. The concern is exactly the same as that of the British Horse Society about riders. The problem is that the new wording could be used as an aggravating factor in a negligence case in court. As I said, it is exactly the same concern, which is why I looked to the Minister for evidence that the Government have moved on the BHS’s concerns.
Mr. Carmichael: I will come to the BHS concerns in a minute.
I should commend the Minister for having met, eventually, the CTC—the UK’s national cyclists organisation—and taken its concerns on board. My impression of it as an organisation is that it is responsible and prepared to engage, and I hope that the Minister would concur with that. However, further to the point made about the process, it is unfortunate that it took so long to get around the table with the CTC. There is a residual feeling in that organisation and among many of its members that the effort required to get their point across should have been unnecessary.
I hope that when we come to deal with this situation in the future, the Minister, his successor or successors will be mindful of the fact that such organisations have a good understanding of what they are talking about—possibly even better than some of those who are advising him or her—and that, as is evidenced by the fact that the Government’s position has changed on rules 61 and 63, they have a contribution to make.
This has been a long, drawn-out process. It should not have necessitated last-minutes changes. Part of the concern was that the wording before the Committee would force cyclists to use cycle facilities that are sometimes inadequate, perhaps because they have not been maintained or were not appropriately installed in the first place. That needs to be addressed perhaps well beyond the scope of the Highway Code.
My other concern about cycling provisions in the code relates not to rules 61 and 63, but to rule 77, in respect of which no alteration has been made. It concerns the correct approach to roundabouts by cyclists. I shall read it into the record for the benefit of the Committee. It states:
“You may feel safer walking your cycle round on the pavement or verge. If you decide to ride round keeping to the left-hand lane you should”
follow the instructions in three bullet points that follow. My concern, which I know is shared by many cyclists, is that that seems to suggest that cyclists should ride round only in the left-hand lane. There must be safety concerns about that if a person is turning right at a roundabout. It seems a somewhat inelegant form of wording. I know what the Minister will say about how he interprets it, but we should not just be thinking about how we here interpret it. We should consider how the ordinary man or woman in the street will interpret it, which was my initial point about the nature of the Highway Code. Rule 77 could have been much better worded.
Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The wording of that rule seems extraordinary. Does he agree that it would be better if the words
“keeping to the left-hand lane”
were simply omitted so that it read, “If you decide to ride round you should” and so on?
Mr. Carmichael: Yes, that would be my preferred option. I understand why the Minister and the Department put those words in, but it might have been more sensible to have done as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West suggests and omit those words, and perhaps to have inserted a fourth bullet point outlining why it is preferable for people to ride round a roundabout in the left-hand lane. At the moment it is misleading and could diminish, not enhance, the safety of cyclists using roads.
On the concerns of horse riders, I have little interest to declare—I have not been on a horse since I grew tall enough to put my legs on either side of a Shetland pony, and I have never particularly missed it. However, the concerns that have been expressed to us by the British Horse Society are well founded and it is unfortunate that they have not been addressed in the same way as those of cyclists. I wonder whether things might have been different had 11,000 horse riders been motivated to write to the Department.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about the changes, but why could they have not been more significant? Why could not the sensible suggested changes to the last bullet point of rule 53 have been made? There will be circumstances in which someone is safely riding two abreast, even on a narrow road or round a bend, and it would have been sensible to leave that element of discretion with the rider rather than be so prescriptive.
The British Horse Society also has concerns about the use of cycle tracks. It tells me that there is something called the Cycle Tracks Act 1984—I have never heard of it, but I take the society at its word—and that some cycle tracks are constituted under that Act, but that some things that appear to be cycle tracks are not so constituted. There is no such distinction in the Highway Code as there apparently is in law. The society also says—perhaps this should be addressed in time—that although equestrians have no right to use a cycle track, there is no penalty should they choose to do so. There can be no prosecution. If that is the case, it suggests that some of the 1984 Act was poorly drafted, and perhaps it should be revisited. If that is the law as it stands, the wording under rule 54 is at best misleading and should not have been drafted in such a way.
Finally, I endorse the comments about the removal of helmets in the first aid section. When I looked for that section, I had some difficulty with the index as it referred me to first aid with italicised blue letters and 110 to 111, which, according to the key at the beginning of the index, refers to a page number, not a section number. In fact, pages 110 to 111 detail various road signs, so before the final print of the Highway Code is made, it might be a good idea to get somebody to proof-read the index.
11.1 am
Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Pope. I will make a few brief points about cycling, but not detain the Committee for too long. I am a keen and regular cyclist, and try to commute as often as I can to this building by bicycle.
Rob Marris: From your constituency?
Mr. Hamilton: Not from my constituency—although I have done it once. I welcome the fact that cycling helmets are recommended in the Highway Code. I know that they are not compulsory and nor perhaps should they be. However, I am horrified that many cyclists venture on to the roads of London and other cities without helmets. A helmet saved my life once and will save the lives of many others if worn correctly.
On rules 61 and 63, although I agree with the point that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland made about the CTC, it does not speak for all cyclists. I am satisfied with rules 61 and 63 and agree with the chair of the all-party group in her deliberations with the Minister. I think that those rules are satisfactory, but obviously if they are revised, I would be interested to see what they say.
My point relates to rule 60 about lighting on bicycles. I am horrified, as I am sure many Members are, to see people cycling at night through our cities and in the countryside without lights.
Rob Marris: Including hon. Members.
Mr. Hamilton: That is very true. However, it was my understanding that a steady rear red light was previously compulsory. The indication is that a flashing light—
Dr. Ladyman: After representation from cyclists, this listening Government changed the rules to allow a flashing light.
Mr. Hamilton: If I may finish, my point was not that we should not be allowed flashing lights, but that a steady light should also be there—steady and flashing, rather than just flashing. I would like the Minister to deal with that point and say why a front light should always be steady, as well as steady and flashing, but not the rear light.
11.3 am
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): May I start by saying that although we are considering the draft Highway Code, I am glad that there will not be a test on it?
I am concerned that I cannot see any reference in the draft to left-hand drive foreign vehicles. I may have missed it and if so, I would be grateful if someone could point it out to me. One of the big problems in Northamptonshire is that most of the accidents on the M1 there are caused by foreign-owned lorries pulling out at the wrong time into traffic that is to their right and that they simply do not see. Given the opportunity presented by the draft Highway Code, I am surprised that there is not some reference to such vehicles. There is much helpful advice for all sorts of road users, apart from those who drive foreign-registered vehicles. Although I am usually against translating Government documents, it might be helpful to publish the Highway Code in other European languages to ensure that foreign drivers, especially lorry drivers, are aware of the rules of the road in this country.
A number of countries on the continent use flashing amber traffic lights at night. Rather than going through the normal sequence during times of low usage, the lights flash amber. Drivers approaching traffic lights at night realise that the normal rules do not apply. It is a more flexible and sensible arrangement than stopping at a red light in the middle of the night when there is no traffic, and it makes driving at night rather easier. Do the Government have any plans to consider introducing it, perhaps on a trial basis, in the UK?
As I look through the document, some signs appear to be metric and others both metric and imperial. Some references in the text are metric, while others are both. In light of the recent European Union ruling on metrication, can the Government confirm that there are no plans to make all signs metric only, and that imperial will remain? If so, will the Minister go through the document to ensure that where metres only are quoted, the imperial conversion is also included?
For example, rule 307 on page 101 refers to overhead electric lines, which are normally 5.8 m above any carriageway. A lot of people in this country, particularly older people, will not know what 5.8 m is, and no conversion is provided in that paragraph. Likewise, page 109 quotes various signs—for example, “Soft verges for 2 miles”. There does not seem to be a metric conversion. On the same page, a road sign referring again to overhead cables uses imperial, whereas the reference in the text uses metric.
I have a point to make about enforcement. It is all very well having a Highway Code, but if the wretched thing is not enforced, there is really no point having it. One example is rule 264, which deals with lane discipline. Every time one drives down a motorway or a three-lane road, there are people hogging the middle lane. It seems to be getting worse and worse, and I have never seen any enforcement—police or Highways Agency vehicles—directing traffic into the left-hand lane. The rule is clear, but it seems that it is being broken more and more.
Page 121 refers to MOT, insurance and other requirements. In this country, we have a growing problem of people simply not obeying the law. I draw three things to the Committee’s attention. Page 120 says that holders of non-European Community licences who are now resident in the UK may drive on those licences for a maximum of 12 months from the date that they become resident. Does the Minister have any figures on the extent to which that rule is obeyed? There is a growing concern in this country that too many foreign-registered drivers are not obeying the law.
It is the same with the MOT. Lots of us regularly ensure that our vehicle complies with MOT rules, but we see more and more vehicles on the road that are obviously not compliant, and there are more and more uninsured drivers. There are millions of uninsured drivers in this country who seem to be above and beyond the law. In that respect, I draw to the Minister’s attention a recent experience that I had with the Northamptonshire police. I spent 22 days with them as part of the parliamentary police scheme, and I spent part of it with the excellent traffic unit at Northamptonshire police, in particular their automated number plate recognition vehicles. They sit at the side of the road, have their cameras pointing out the front and the back, and every time an unlicensed or uninsured vehicle goes past, an alert goes off. One problem is that the information that the police receive is not as up to date as it should be, and they find that when they stop many of those vehicles, they are compliant with the law but the information from the DVLA and other sources is three months out of date. I wanted to use the opportunity of this Committee to draw that to the Minister’s attention.
11.10 am
Rob Marris: What a pleasure it is to appear before you, Mr. Pope—I think for the first time. On the British Horse Society, I understand that in rules 53 and 54, the Department for Transport has acceded to the society’s requests. That is my understanding from my correspondence with the Minister over the issue. One concession—from memory, because I do not have the correspondence in front of me—was made as long ago as last August. The concession was about riding no more than two abreast, rather than in single file, and using a bridleway where possible. My recollection is that the Government have listened on that point, and I salute them for it.
The Government have not listened on the page 131 rule about helmets, which has already been adverted to. I corresponded with the Minister, and to paraphrase slightly the letter that I received, it would take too many words to refer to helmets for horse riders not being removed in an emergency. Given the length of the document, it should include on page 131, which is about first aid, a reference to helmets not only of horse riders, but of cyclists, if that is the medical advice. I suspect that it is, but I am not sure. It clearly is as regards horse riders.
In terms of cyclists, I am the honorary president of Wolves on Wheels, a cycling organisation in my constituency in Wolverhampton, which is I think a branch of CTC. Although I am not an individual member of the CTC, I should declare that interest.
I note that in rule 54, “using bridleways where possible”, the word “possible” is used. In several instances in the document, instead of using “possible”, it would be better to use “practicable”. I understand that the Department’s lawyers say that there is no difference. I am a lawyer, and I have consulted others in the House, and we feel that there is a difference. If the Department’s lawyers feel that there is no difference, they should have no difficulty surrendering their “possible” for my “practicable”, which I suspect would go even further to stilling cyclists’ fears about rules 61 and 63. However, I congratulate the Government, who have made about 66 changes to an earlier draft to accommodate cyclists’ concerns.
Rule 178 is helpful for motorists, although as someone who cycles in London as well as at home in my constituency, I wish drivers knew what advanced stop lines were and observed them, so that on my bike I would be ahead of the foremost vehicle in the queue for a traffic light. All too often, although not because of crawling traffic, car drivers fail to stop at the first white line, but encroach into the advanced stop line box. I think that a car’s failure to stop at the first white line—not in an emergency stop or when traffic is crawling, but just a failure to stop, which happens all too often—is a criminal offence, because it is a failure of that motor vehicle to stop at a stop marking. I should like some clarification from the Minister about that.
Mr. Kemp: My hon. Friend urges motorists to stop at stop lines, but would he also extend that to cyclists? Many of us have experiences, particularly driving around the capital, of cyclists habitually crossing not only stop lines, but red traffic lights. I have seen it, and other Members have.
Rob Marris: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and in fact, that point is covered in rule 69, which says that one must obey all traffic signs and traffic light signals.
As a cyclist, I say the following to my hon. Friend the Minister with some irony. Rule 59, on clothing, states that a person should wear a cycle helmet. If the Highway Code is partly about courtesy and partly about saving lives, I say to the Minister, who I believe is what is referred to as a petrol head, following his appearance on “Top Gear”, that we would save many more lives if motorists wore helmets in their cars. However, we do not see that in the Highway Code, although I stand to be corrected.
Similarly, it would actually help road safety if lots of cars had fluorescent stripes all over them. The rule states that cyclists should wear light-coloured or fluorescent clothing, but I see nothing about cars having fluorescent stripes. Cars are the major cause of accidents. I drive a car and have nothing against car drivers——I used to be a professional driver. However, there is a certain irony in asking cyclists to dress and conduct themselves in certain ways when there is a good safety argument for cars and other motor vehicles having fluorescent stickers and so on, and for car drivers to wear helmets, as Formula 1 drivers do. But only cyclists cop for it in this.
I am concerned about rule 59 telling cyclists that they should wear light-coloured or fluorescent clothing. I often do that, but not invariably. For example, I do not if I am riding in daylight from my home to the city centre, which is a distance of about 1.5 km. I do not wear fluorescent clothing on such occasions, and nor do I feel that I should, but it seems that rule 59 is saying otherwise. All too often I am passed by dangerous car drivers not wearing any protective clothing. I wonder whether it is not too late—the Minister may correct me—for the “should” in rule 59 to be softened to “are advised to”, or something along those lines, rather than counting me and other cyclists as pariahs when sometimes motorists are in need of stronger advice in that regard.
Dr. Ladyman: I shall do my best to address all colleagues’ concerns. If I miss any, colleagues should tell me so and I shall happily write to them.
I shall begin with the points raised by the hon. Member for Canterbury. I do not have a definitive number of changes, but there have been a substantial number. It is 44 pages longer, with 29 new rules, and if he really wants me to work out the exact number of changes, I will have to write to him.
Mr. Brazier indicated dissent.
Dr. Ladyman: I see that he is shaking his head, so we do not have to waste civil servants’ time on working that out.
There have been a substantial number of changes, as there always will be. I have a general point to make to colleagues: do not think of the Highway Code as a definitive, unchanging document. This version will not last forever. It is not written in tablets of stone. The world changes, the roads change, the people who use them change, the law changes, and the Highway Code must evolve constantly to deal with it. However, that changing process means two things: first, that we must work continually on and update the Highway Code and, secondly, that at some point we must say, “This is where we lock it down for now. We will publish and stick with it until the next version comes along”. Obviously, that line will be drawn at an arbitrary point in time. We are in the process of drawing it at the moment.
Do I think that everyone using the road, whether a cyclist, horse rider or car driver, will be happy with this version? No, I do not. However, I can promise that as soon as this version is locked down and sent to the printers, my officials and Ministers will continue to work with the necessary groups to evolve the next version. It will be a constant listening process. Anybody who feels that they have not got everything that they want out of this version can continue to work with us. I emphasise, however, that those people need to work with us.
I would like to make a general point about the CTC in response to what the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said. We went out of our way to consult with it in tabling the version in front of us today. We listened to all its comments and engaged with it, and my officials met its representatives on many occasions to discuss this version. I also met the chair of the all-party group who gave me advice. We talked about a form of wording that she believed would be acceptable to everyone, and that was the version that we tabled. It was a surprise when the CTC came back and said that it was unacceptable.
My advice to the CTC is that it did not need a big letter-writing campaign or to organise its membership to write to MPs to get that changed. Had it simply requested a meeting with the Minister and a further meeting with officials to make its concerns clear, we could have dealt with the matter, but it chose not to, presumably for its own purposes, because it is a membership-driven organisation that wants to build up its membership base. It does so by being in constant touch with its members, and exciting them about the great woes that the Government are about to inflict on them with an end to cycling as we know it. It wound up its members and told them to write to their MPs. That is why we had these big campaigns, but it did not need to do that to engage with us. It would engage better and get better results if it showed clearer leadership, set clearer targets for itself in each version of the discussions, and approached Ministers and Members of Parliament in advance of those big campaigns.
If it is not being listened to, it should engage in a big campaign, but if it is getting its way, it should continue with that engagement because it and the Government would both get more out of it, and hon. Members would not spend their lives writing letters to Ministers who then have to write back repeating the same point over and again, ad nauseam, thousands of times.
Mr. Brazier: Before the Minister moves on from the changes that apply to cycling and other areas, will he answer my question? He is introducing 29 new rules, lengthening the code by 44 pages, and so on. I do not need a comprehensive list, but what is being done to publicise this considerable overhaul of the highway code? If it is simply being posted on the Department’s website, I suspect that it will not have a great deal of effect on road behaviour.
Dr. Ladyman: I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he seeks. He is right in saying that there have been many changes, and that people need to know about them. It is not just a matter of putting them on the Department’s website. There will be a publicity campaign to encourage people to read it, and the strapline will be, “When was the last time you read yours?” It will also become the tool for testing people in the theory test and the driving test. We must lock down a version of the Highway Code because it would not be fair on people who are planning to take their driving test in the autumn if they do not yet know which version they need to learn. That is one reason why, when I decided to change rules 61 and 63, it was necessary to have shortened consultation and to give Parliament not the normal 12 weeks that it would expect to consider the revisions, but a shorter period, first to consult stakeholders and then to consult Parliament, so that a version of the highway code that people could be tested on would be available and coincide with the publicity campaigns.
Mr. Carmichael: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He has been generous with his time.
I hold no brief for the CTC. I am not a member, and I hardly ever risk my dignity by getting on a cycle. However, I want to read an e-mail that I received this morning from the CTC. It states that the history leading to the necessity for the changes to rules 61 and 63
“apparently happened because they”—
officials in the Minister’s Department—
“had refused to meet CTC the national cyclists’ organisation (who had led on this issue with the full support of other cycling organisations). Instead they hid behind spurious excuses relating to parliamentary protocol as a reason for not doing so. Whether this was out of spite for the sheer volume of the consultation response, or an unwillingness to admit they had got it wrong, is unclear.”
The e-mail continued:
“Lessons need to be learnt both about the way consultations of this kind are conducted, and also in terms of DfT officials’ understanding of cycling.”
The Minister said that the CTC should have asked for meetings, but the CTC says that it sought meetings, which were refused.
Dr. Ladyman: I have been advised that that is not true. My officials have had regular meetings with the CTC; we have not denied it meetings. Even if what the hon. Gentleman said was true—it is not—he knows well enough that the correct thing for the CTC to do would be to approach a Member of the House, who would request a meeting and discussion with the Minister. That way, the CTC could bypass officials and go straight to a Minister. I shall write to the new Prime Minister to tell him not to include me in the Government if any Member can say that I have refused a meeting with a Member of the House to discuss a matter of importance. I always hold meetings with Members who request them, and I will do so for as long as I am in the Government. If the CTC was in the position it says it is in—it is not—it could have gone to any member of the all-party cycling group, or any other Member of the House, and asked for a meeting with the Minister. That way, they would have had a meeting with me and the Member concerned to sort the matter out.
The CTC has regular meetings, but it does not have a clear target or idea of what it wants to achieve. As soon as it achieves something, it wants to go one step further. The organisation has a disparate membership and a strategy that does not allow it to focus on what it wants to achieve. It never knows when it has benefited, or when to call it a day and wait for the next version of the code—it constantly wants to go on and on and on. That is not the way to lobby and it is not the way in which to achieve the best outcome for cyclists.
I promise the hon. Gentleman that I shall ensure that my officials and the Department for Transport will learn the lessons of the consultation, and that we will try to do better when coming up with the next version of the code. In return for that, I expect the CTC and other organisations to learn their own lessons about the way in which to campaign and represent the views of cyclists, for the benefit of their members and the Government.
I shall come back to some specific cycling issues in a moment, but I shall deal briefly with the representations made by the British Horse Society. The organisation made a significant number of representations to us, and many of the changes it suggested are incorporated in the new version of the code. For example, further information was added on equestrian crossings and horse-drawn vehicles, and the advice on appropriate lighting and reflective clothing for horse riders and on the need to use both saddle and bridle was enhanced. Further changes were made following consultations, so the Government have held a considerable dialogue with the society.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked why the Government did not have time to change the code for the British Horse Society when it had time to do so for cyclists. The answer is that further representations from the British Horse Society were made after we had tabled revisions to rules 61 and 63. Were we to make further revisions, we would not be able to publish a Highway Code in the autumn.
I shall confide with the Committee, since no one else is listening, that when we were talking about rules 61 and 63, I wanted to get the matter locked down, so I asked my officials whether there were any other matters with which we needed to deal. We talked briefly about whether we should do more in respect of horse riding. I was approached by the chairman of the all-party horse riding group, a colleague whose constituency name I have forgotten—I shall look it up later—and he told me that horse riders had some concerns outstanding. We examined those, and felt that there was a better way of dealing with them. We are therefore having further dialogue with BHS and other horse riders’ representatives, and we will continue to evolve the sections of the code on horse riding. If we decide that changes need to made, we will make them in the next version.
My understanding is that the horse riding groups are happy with the dialogue. They accept that we have a moving target and that they have got much of what they want in the code. There are still a few things that they would like, but they are happy that a dialogue is taking place and that matters arising from it can be included in the future.
Mr. Brazier: The Minister read out the letter from the British Horse Society, which I had not seen. Could he tell the Committee whether rule 53 of the code—ride in single file on narrow or busy roads and when riding round bends—was on the original list or a late addition? It gives rise to the BHS’s most serious objection because its implication is that experienced riders would be unable to protect vulnerable riders. I find it hard to believe that it was a late addition, but I should be grateful for the Minister’s confirmation. I appreciate that he may have to wait a moment or two for inspiration.
Dr. Ladyman: First, the letter I read out was from the chief executive of the British Equestrian Federation, not the British Horse Society. I would not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman in that respect. He is right; rule 53 was the core of its concern. It has a view about whether the rule is unclear, and how it might be used; my view is slightly different.
I think the rule on single file on narrow roads is correct in its current version, because that is the wording that the British Horse Society uses in its roadcraft manual, and it is therefore strange that it is concerned about it when it is in the Highway Code. Until we get that sort of issue sorted out, and work out how to give advice consistently, we should stick with the wording that we have.
If there were an accident and it was necessary for a court to determine liability, it would have to take account of the fact that the rule is advisory. I entirely accept what the hon. Member for Canterbury said about the court making decisions in these cases that are not always helpful. However, in determining the case, the court would have to decide whether the horse rider was behaving reasonably. If the horse rider’s excuse was, “I just did not feel like riding in single file,” the court would take that into account. If, on the other hand, the court was told, “The reason I wasn’t riding in single file was because I was protecting a skittish animal or a less experienced rider,” it would have to take into account that sensible decision to use the road in a particular way, acknowledging that the passage in the Highway Code is advisory, but that it might not have been the best advice on that particular occasion. The courts would therefore take the view that the person had been acting in a responsible way when determining liability.
Following further discussions with the British Horse Society on first aid, I am told that it can live with the existing wording on the basis that it should be clear to readers that the specific advice has a wider application. The BHS has asked that the wording on removing helmets be reconsidered during discussions on the next version of the code and we are happy to do that. The number of casualties involving horse riders and helmets is far lower than the number involving motorcyclists and helmets and that is why they are treated slightly differently. However, I entirely agree that the matter needs to be reviewed at a later date, which will be done.
The hon. Member for Canterbury asked about rule 54, as the advice has changed from saying that a horse “must” not be taken on to a cycle track to saying that it “should” not, in recognition of the points made by the BHS during the 2006 consultation. A cycle track has a specific legal meaning, as set out in section 329(1) of the Highways Act 1980. Cycle tracks are generally shared with pedestrians, but there are also segregated paths for cyclists and pedestrians. Cycle tracks provide a right of way for cyclists, with or without a right of way for pedestrians.
If a local authority wishes to create a highway for horse riders, pedestrians and cyclists, the correct choice of facility is a bridleway. Again, we believe that the Highway Code is correct in its current format, but I promise that there will be further discussions with the BHS to see whether it can be further improved.
I return to the question of cycling. I leave aside our disputes over rules 61 and 63—I hope that I have addressed them. Given that we have tabled new versions, and given that I have explained the background and how those decisions were made, the main point that remains outstanding is that of roundabouts. Again, I undertake to review the matter for the next version of the code. However, I disagree with what Members on both sides of the room have said about it.
Rule 76 clearly states:
“Full details about the correct procedure at roundabouts are contained in Rules 184 to 190.”
The rules deal specifically with ideal lane discipline at roundabouts. Admittedly, they are written from the car driver’s point of view. However, they go on to acknowledge that cyclists may not feel comfortable going around the roundabout in the same way as cars, which are not vulnerable, saying that those who decide to go around on the left rather than using ordinary lane discipline should be careful to ensure that everyone understands their intentions. That is made absolutely clear. The rules are for those who decide to do it like that, but they do not make them do so. The point is that everyone should know where the cyclist is going. That seems perfectly reasonable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) described me as a petrolhead. I do indeed enjoy driving, but I also do my bit for the environment, and I try my best to ride my bike. For instance, every weekend I go off on my bike to run errands or to get the newspapers. I have to make such a decision at a roundabout near my home. It would be a right turn for me, but it is a busy roundabout and cars often approach it too fast. I therefore have to decide whether I feel comfortable going around the roundabout in the way described in rules 184 to 190. If I feel comfortable, I follow the traditional route; if not, I have to choose between getting off my bike and crossing the road on foot and going around on the left but always making clear where I intend going.
It seems to me that our explanation gives exactly the right advice to cyclists. It says to them, “In an ideal world everyone would do it like this, but if you don’t feel comfortable doing it that way do it so that you feel safe, but ensure that everyone understands.” If I were to change that, and say instead, “You must do it this way,” or “You must not do it that way,” the CTC would be the first to complain. It would say, “Such a statement could establish liability if there were an accident, because you are saying that we have to do it in a particular way.” I believe that we have it right, but I will continue to discuss the matter with those who have an interest; if need be, we could have a different version.
Rob Marris: I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of roundabouts; I found it very helpful. I also congratulate him on riding his bicycle. When doing so, does he always wear light-coloured or fluorescent clothing in daylight?
Dr. Ladyman: I have to confess that I do not, but again it is advisory in the Highway Code. Nor do I wear a cycle helmet. Indeed, I was thinking about this at the weekend. It realised that it is not appropriate and that I need to set an example, so I told my family that we were all going off to Halfords the next weekend to buy cycle helmets. I do not accept my hon. Friend’s argument that because car drivers do not have to have luminous tape all over their cars, cyclists should not be subjected to such precautions. I have to say to him that if he wants to get into an argument about retro-reflective tape this is the place to do it. I have many scars on that subject. Colleagues in the House who have the makers of retro-reflective tape in their constituencies would gladly have it stuck on people’s cars. I think that there is a difference. Cyclists, walkers and horse riders are vulnerable road users. The Highway Code advises people to recognise that they are vulnerable road users and to take some precautions by wearing light clothing.
I know that my hon. Friend is a keen supporter of road safety. I suspect that every winter he goes to his local primary schools to promote the Hedgehog campaign, which is about telling our kids to wear something bright when they go to school. He argues that because we are not telling motorists to wear bright clothing we should not tell cyclists what to wear, which is not consistent. I suspect that he was trying to be provocative to bottom out the issues that we have been discussing.
On metrification, I can assure the hon. Member for Kettering that there is no plan to change speed limit signs to metric. I take the point that he has made about consistency in the document and I will see to it that the document is reviewed for the next version. If we have not got that right, we will think about how we can get it right in the next version.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about enforcement. Enforcement is a matter for the police and not the Highway Code. The Highway Code sets out what we must do, what we must not do and what we can do if we choose to, and it is for the police to take action on enforcement.
As for flashing amber traffic lights, the Highway Code has to reflect rather than change the existing law. Changing the law in respect of such lights is something that the House may consider in future. Countries follow different rules around traffic lights. Some drivers drift left on red if there is nothing coming—as they would in this country—while in other countries, drivers drift to the right if there is nothing coming. However, our traffic lights are timed to allow pedestrians to cross the road. Therefore, if we did some of those things, we could find the road full of pedestrians. So the fact that other countries get away with flashing amber lights and with creeping left does not necessarily mean that we can do it as well. We have to consider those facts if we want to change the law.
Rob Marris: I fully support the Minister, representing as I do a part of the country that installed the first traffic lights in the United Kingdom.
Dr. Ladyman: I imagine that my hon. Friend gave that information in his maiden address to the House when we all include odd things about our constituencies. I was not aware of what had happened in his constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East referred to cyclists and their lights. About 12 months ago, we changed the law to allow cyclists a flashing light as a result of representations from CTC and others because a flashing rear light is more visible and attracts the motorist’s attention more easily. It was a popular decision. However, we advise people to have a stable light, too, although that is not mandatory. A flashing light satisfies the law.
If people are riding around a busy city, whether Leeds or London, especially in winter when visibility is reduced, my advice is to have a flashing light as well as a stable light. We do not allow flashing lights at the front because the purpose of the front light is not only to catch people’s eyes and make sure that they see the cyclist, but that it allows the cyclist to see them. A flashing light would not be the best way in which to achieve such a result.
I hope that I have satisfied the concerns of colleagues. Our version of the Highway Code is not perfect, but it will evolve. We shall continue to engage with all groups. The CTC and the British Horse Society, in particular, will be involved closely in developing any changes that may be made to the next version. On that basis, I hope that members of the Committee can allow the version that we have been discussing to go into print and be used.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved,
That the Committee has considered the Alterations in the Provisions in the Highway Code proposed to be made by the Secretary of State for Transport.
Committee rose at fourteen minutes to Twelve o’clock.
 
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