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but that as things were he could only fine him. Does the hon. Lady think that that is justified, and does she feel proud of the action she is taking by not allowing the judge to have the greater power for which he has specifically asked us?

Angela Watkinson: We are not trying to prevent the judge from having that power— [Interruption.] No, we are not. It is right that that option should be open to him. However, the Bill should be dealt with in Government time. It is an important Bill, and the whole House should be able to be involved in it.

James Purnell: As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), the abolition of slavery began with a private Member’s Bill. We have race and gender equality in this country, and that too was initiated through private Members’ Bills. If the hon. Lady thinks that race and gender equality is less important than this she can say so, but the fact remains that it came about as a result of private Members’ Bills. It is perfectly appropriate for this matter to be dealt with by means of a private Member’s Bill, and the hon. Lady knows that full well.

Bob Spink: The Minister has been very generous in giving way. Indeed, I wondered whether he was filibustering on the Bill himself. However, he is not addressing himself to the Bill but playing political games. Does he not accept that while we all agree that judges should have powers to imprison people in certain circumstances in which currently they have no such powers, that is not the only thing that the Bill would allow? It would allow many other things to be done, and they require proper scrutiny. For instance, it gives the same level of sentencing powers, including imprisoning people, for minor, less serious offences that do not cause harm to any individual. I am talking, for example, about offences under section 33(1)(d) of the current Act. That provision deals simply with contravening a requirement imposed in relation to a public inquiry. That matter can be dealt with without sending someone to prison or giving them a £20,000 fine. Will the Minister address the specific technical issues in the Bill, so that we can do the job that we are supposed to be doing this afternoon?

James Purnell: I would be happy to do that in Committee, but the hon. Gentleman is about to object to that. I would accept his professions of good faith if he were to vote with us, but I suspect that he will not do so. He knows full well that a judge would have discretion about whether to use imprisonment or whether to impose a fine of less than £20,000. The problem is that a fine of up to £5,000 only may be given now.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to talk to the parents of the children who were illegally employed by a company in whose case the judge said:

27 Apr 2007 : Column 1194

—that is the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench team—

We have the opportunity to do so in the next few minutes.

If the hon. Gentleman is serious about his professions, he will vote for us, as I hope he will. I also hope that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton is starting to think about whether he should make that phone call to his leader, because otherwise we shall pursue the Opposition with this issue. It is yet another illustration of the hollowness of their claim to have changed the Conservative party—this shows that it has not changed.

I shall give the hon. Member for Upminster one final example. The case involves a gas safety installation where people’s lives were put at risk. Guilty verdicts were returned, and the judge opened his sentencing remarks by saying:

By voting against this Bill, the Conservatives are preventing judges from having that option, and are making it more likely that these things will happen again. It is clear that the Government welcome the Bill, which has been promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly. There have been plenty of opportunities to discuss this. A Bill was introduced in 1999, 2000, 2003 and 2004, and on each occasion it fell on Second Reading. We could debate the matter fully were we allowed to take the Bill into Committee: if the Leader of the Conservative party had an 11th-hour change of heart. It appears that we will not have that opportunity.

The proposals are entirely consistent with the Hampton and McCrory reports. We are satisfied that the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities are doing all that they can to bring about the right level of prosecutions and to have the light touch for which the hon. Member for Upminster was asking. However, it is clear that in certain extreme and serious cases where people’s lives have been put at risk—I have made it clear that we are talking about child working, asbestos being badly removed and gas fitting that puts people’s lives at risk—the fine available should be greater than £5,000.

The majority of the hon. Lady’s case rested on roving rather widely across health and safety legislation. She started to make hypothetical comments about what might happen were health and safety legislation liability extended. I can reassure her that the Bill does not do that; it makes no difference to the liability, changing only the level of the fine and imprisonment. Either she has concerns about the existing legislation, in which case she should object to it, or she is happy with it, in which case she should have confined her argument only to the issue of the fine. If she agrees with the current health and safety legislation and if she agrees that proper fines should be available, she should vote for the Bill, rather than object to it.

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The hon. Lady started talking, at one random point, about whether people in this House might fall over. I can give her the reassurance, should she want it, that the Government have Crown immunity, thus I believe that it applies to this House.

I notice that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton has not left the Chamber. He may be using telepathic communication, or trying to communicate with the Leader of the Opposition by secretly texting him. I hope that he has not done so because that would be against the rules. We know that the Leader of the Opposition does text; perhaps he has.

We are about to find out whether the Conservative party will pass the test set by one of their own, the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), and whether it is genuinely a caring party.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Does the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) wish to reply to the debate?

12.50 pm

Mr. David: Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you have prompted me, I would, rather unexpectedly, like to make a few remarks. I was genuinely hoping that there would be cross-party consensus—

Norman Baker: There is.

Mr. David: Including all parties. I am genuinely disappointed because, as the Minister mentioned, the debate in its latter stages focused on issues that are not in the Bill. It proposes a modest change to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. That legislation has been widely accepted as a huge step forward and a path-breaking measure not just in this country but in many others. This Bill suggests a modest and limited modification to that Act in terms of fines and the potential for custodial sentences. Unfortunately, the debate in its latter stages has tended to go well beyond that, which is extremely unfortunate. I again urge hon. Members seriously to consider whether they want to be depicted outside—

27 Apr 2007 : Column 1196

Mr. Khan: Conservative Members.

Mr. David: I again urge Conservative Members seriously to consider whether they want to be depicted outside the Chamber as being against fair health and safety standards and against reasonable fines being introduced. Inevitably, that will mean a reduction in health and safety standards.

It is not for me to say to Conservative Members how they should be projected outside the Chamber, but in all common sense and reasonableness I urge them to support the Bill.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 20, Noes 3.
Division No. 100]


Ainsworth, rh Mr. Bob
Baird, Vera
Baker, Norman
Balls, Ed
Bell, Sir Stuart
David, Mr. Wayne
Hill, rh Keith
Hoon, rh Mr. Geoffrey
Howarth, David
Khan, Mr. Sadiq
Kramer, Susan
Linton, Martin
McCabe, Steve
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
Merron, Gillian
Miliband, Edward
Olner, Mr. Bill
Pound, Stephen
Purnell, James
Twigg, Derek
Tellers for the Ayes:

Kevin Brennan and
Liz Blackman

Evans, Mr. Nigel
Lilley, rh Mr. Peter
Spink, Bob
Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Robert Goodwill and
Angela Watkinson

It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.

Streetscape and Highways Design Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

1.3 pm

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is an unexpected and happy surprise to have the opportunity to move the Second Reading of this Bill, which is supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is a Bill that attempts to introduce a complete change in the climate and culture of local government highway authorities’ decisions about the implementation of the regulations and directions that govern how our road signs are located and what they look like. Most areas of public policy require budgets and targets, and most address clear cases of need, such as teaching the young or treating the old. On issues such as taxation and spending, the battleground is well established across the divide of the House, but there are some matters that are shaped by Government and cause intense irritation while rarely figuring on the political radar. One such issue is our streetscape and the design of our roads.

Local councils are measured by the National Audit Office against all sorts of vague criteria to assess their performance in the likes of social services, housing and education, but nowhere are they held to account for the desecration they inflict on our roads. Highways officers are the monsters of local government, who for too long have got away with appalling practices and almost no accountability. They have become a law unto themselves and they need serious reining in.

Britain’s roads are better than most; their basic design is sound, central reservations are well designed, directional sign posting to show the way to this or that town is good and practical, and their safety record is strong. However, that is where the good news ends. The bad news is that throughout Britain our streetscape is in serious decline and it is entirely the fault of local highways officers.

Existing legislation, if properly implemented, presents no obstacle to good design, yet its interpretation by highways officers invariably converts well intentioned guidelines into brutalist schemes. When we travel down any road in the UK, we encounter millions of metal poles and bossy signs where just a few would suffice. Most of them are wholly unnecessary but no councillor dares challenge the erroneous advice of the highways officer who says they are essential if the council is to avoid legal liability.

Every pelican crossing tends to have two banks of lights where one would suffice, and the greatest abomination of the 21st century so far—Kettering’s new business park junction—has 118 metal poles and more light bulbs than Heathrow. The officers who countenanced its design should hang their heads in shame.

Aesthetics matter. Our built environment affects our quality of life; it requires good design, good taste and good management. Each is rare on the streets of most of our councils. Highways officers shape our streetscape with almost no accountability and, more often than not, poor aesthetic judgment. They cover all their imaginary risks with excessive over-building and nobody stops to say, “No”.

The list of sign crimes is endless. Signposts such as “No Entry” roundels should be on the back line of the road, yet increasingly they are planted right on the edge of the kerb. New signs are placed where they obscure existing ones. Temporary signs such as “New Junction Ahead” or “New Layout Ahead” remain in place for years—one in Leicester has been there for more than a decade. Most triangular signs, such as those alerting a driver to a road junction, are optional, yet in many cases highways officers wrongly advise that they are obligatory. Needless bollards and chevrons are built into roundabouts. Councillors are often told that signs have to be illuminated when in fact most of them do not.

When new signs are erected, old ones are not removed. There are often two signs—or even many more—where just one would do. Schemes for clearways, weight restrictions or, increasingly, cycle paths never properly assess the blight of the signs that accompany them. On cycle paths all over the country, we have seen the proliferation of little blue roundels; in one example, there was one every 50 yards. I am all for cycle paths, but we do not need all the metal signs that go with them—a little painted diagram on the tarmac would be enough. Instead, there are millions of blue signs on our streets, most of them directed at passing traffic, which is utterly irrelevant to the message being conveyed. If the signs are to be there at all, they should be 3 ft high and on the pavement, to advise cyclists and pedestrians that it is shared space.

One of the greatest abominations is the red route in London. As a result of Transport for London’s handling of the issue, if we go down the end of the A1 or Finchley road, we find a red route “no stopping” sign on almost every lamppost or every 20 yards, so I think that people have got the message. At the end of the A1 in the last two-mile stretch where it begins to come into a more residential area, one can see 30 signs within about 20 square yards in some places. That is absurd: it does nothing for safety; it makes everything look ugly; and, in many cases, because of the confusion that ensues, it makes our driving and our roads less safe.

As things stand, certainly no voter and, in most cases, no elected councillor has much of a chance of getting anything changed. The problem is exacerbated by a total lack of expertise among contractors about what is necessary and what is not. They just do what they are told and are mostly concerned with the tarmac and the route of the road: they never think about the finish. A newly built bypass in Rutland in my own constituency was, I am pleased to say, within a month of opening able to have three quarters of its signs removed—and it now looks good.

Councillors need to learn to be firm with highways officers whose interpretation of the road signs regulations is often simply plain wrong. Both our urban and our rural streetscape are in serious decline. Council officers, particularly the highways officers, are the serial offenders, and most of them require the firm leadership that is being so effectively displayed nearby in Kensington and Chelsea, where this issue has become a high priority under Deputy Leader Daniel Moylan.

In the absence of a revolution in officers’ culture, sadly, I have to say, the only practical solution lies in
legislation. My Streetscape and Highways Design Bill is an attempt to address that infuriating deficiency in the public realm. It will empower and embolden councillors to take highways officers to task, enable them to challenge on the basis of proper expertise, and equip those councillors to take command over highways decisions rather than rest, as they do now, when highways officers take brutalist command of decisions over them.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I am certainly supportive of the Bill. I recall that when I was trying to reduce the number of signs in Cambridge, the Cambridgeshire county council did not even know how many signs it had—and one of the Bill’s provisions will deal with that. However, does the hon. Gentleman recognise that sometimes the problem does lie with central Government and that sometimes the central Government have odd regulations about what kind of signs have to be used? For example, there appears to be a regulation stating that we are not allowed to have a sign saying “No entry except for cyclists”, so we have to have a very complicated set of other signs instead. Sometimes, as I say, the problem does lie with central Government.

Alan Duncan: The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly good point. When I was shadow Secretary of State for Transport, I tried to get to grips with a telephone directory-sized manual of traffic signs, directions and regulations. By and large, a lot of the content of the book was pretty good, because some sort of consistency in respect of signposts is helpful to establish understanding and promote safety on our roads.

What I have since discovered, however, is that many highways officers completely misunderstand what those regulations require them to do. Many aspects of signposting are voluntary or optional, but the highways officers often tell councillors that the rules state that they are compulsory. The Government or the Department for Transport can always amend those regulations—that is not the problem—and they did so, I believe, in 2002, when they did a pretty good job of it. The real problem lies in the practical application on the ground within highways authorities. Highways officers have power over councillors in a way that even planning officers in some ways do not. These highways officers have the power to say, “Oh, councillor, you must have that; otherwise the council might face legal liability”. Much of that is stuff and nonsense, but no councillor dares to say, “Well, I don’t believe that.” They hide behind the risk and do not want to do anything about it. I want to try to establish a culture change whereby councillors can find out the truth so that they can take good decisions and we end up with safe roads that look good.

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