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23 May 2007 : Column 492WH—continued

Willie Rennie: The right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point. Indeed, he has great
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foresight: I am coming to that issue later in my contribution. It has wound up a number of cyclists, who are extremely concerned about the shift in “The Highway Code” in favour of motorists and against cyclists. We need to resolve that issue.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I do not want to heap too much responsibility on my hon. Friend to deal with further issues in his comments, but research that was released only a month ago by Transport for London shows that cyclists who jump lights are safer than those who abide by the law, and as a regular cyclist in London as well as in Cornwall, I can confirm from my own experience—without giving too much away—that following the law can put one in much more danger. When my hon. Friend addresses the issue, could he bear that in mind, because research seems to be confirming that following the law makes cyclists less safe?

Willie Rennie: Of course, I would not encourage cyclists to break the law, but my hon. Friend makes a very important point. People have to be extremely streetwise when using their bike and have to have a certain form of aggression when they are cycling in order to ensure that they are not pushed off the road. Yesterday, I saw a cyclist running right through the middle of a red light when there was no need at all to run through the red light. That gives cyclists a bad name, but I recognise that abiding by all the laws makes it extremely difficult.

Ian Condie, a member of Dunfermline cycling club, made the point to me that we need to ensure that there are alternatives in place that work. He said:

The issues that stirred up the greatest emotion at my meeting with the cycling club were the relationship between cyclists and the motor vehicle, and the highway code.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): Many of my constituents are also concerned about “The Highway Code”. The Minister has informed me that the word “possible” was used instead of the word “practicable” in rule 61 of the draft code because it is clearer. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the word “practicable” has a completely different meaning from the word “possible”, and that it is not a particularly complex word to have in the code?

Willie Rennie: I do not think that the main point of the debate is whether the word “possible” or “practicable” is used in the code. The problem is about cycle lanes and facilities being included. The guidance used to be about routes, which are signed roads for cyclists that may or may not have facilities on them. We need to focus on the fact that cyclists are now being encouraged—almost forced—to use those facilities when they may not be appropriate. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point that the wording is extremely important and that we must get it right.

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Hon. Members will remember the deaths of Thomas Harland, who was only 14 when he died, Maurice Broadbent, Dave Horrocks and Wayne Wilkes. They were all members of Rhyl cycling club and were out for a Sunday morning ride in January 2006 when they were killed. The tragedy of their deaths stirs powerful emotions within the cycling community, and cyclists are extremely sensitive about the attitudes of some irresponsible road users towards their leisure activity. They bitterly resent reckless drivers who kill and maim but often receive only a small fine in court.

In that case, the court determined that the driver’s bald tyres were not a contributory factor and that the ice on the roads was the reason for the accident. As a result, the driver received only a £180 fine. I realise that the changes in the Road Safety Act 2006 moved us in the right direction, but there are still concerns that people who are convicted of careless driving when a death is involved can receive up to five years in prison, whereas dangerous drivers who do not cause death can receive only up to two years. We are addressing and penalising the outcome of behaviour rather than the behaviour itself, and I am keen that we should address the behaviour.

Cyclist deaths were up 10 per cent. in 2005 to 148—those are the most recent available statistics—compared with 134 in 2004 and 114 the previous year. Cycling was the only mode of transport in which an increase in deaths was recorded in 2005. That is why cyclists are so infuriated by the proposed changes to “The Highway Code”. They fear that the changes will do nothing to change the attitudes of reckless drivers.

The main point of contention concerns the wording in the consultation draft of the new version of “The Highway Code” that was published last year. The advice regarding cyclists was changed from saying that they should use cycle routes “when practicable” to saying that they should use

After much protest the wording was changed to “wherever possible” in the version that was laid before Parliament on 28 March, but cyclists are still extremely concerned for the reasons that I have given. They protested in their thousands to Members of this House and to the Government, and they want further changes.

The issue is not about the wording “wherever possible”, but about the fact that cycle facilities have been included, even though they might not always be the safest route for cyclists. The new code must make it clear that the use of cycle facilities such as cycle tracks is discretionary. Governmental guidance in “Cyclecraft” and in the national standards for cycle training advises cyclists that it is often safer to use the road. The Department for Transport highway engineering guidance, the “Manual for Streets”, states that cycle tracks

Hon. Members need only refer to the Warrington cycle campaign’s website to see how unsafe some of those facilities are.

The new wording could lead to drivers using “The Highway Code” to make claims of contributory negligence against cyclists whom they have hit if the
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cyclist had chosen not to use a nearby facility. The effects of the proposed changes could be significant for cyclists. Under criminal law, they could be more at risk of arrest and conviction for offences such as inconsiderate cycling. Hon. Members might know that last year Daniel Cadden was charged with inconsiderate cycling for using the road instead of crossing three lanes of fast-moving traffic to use a cycle track. His conviction was overturned in a retrial, but the revised wording could lead to more cyclists being charged and even convicted in similar circumstances.

The proposed changes could also make it easier for drivers to avoid civil law compensation payouts to cyclists whom they have injured if a cycle facility of whatever kind or quality was nearby but was not used. In such cases, it will not matter how culpable the driver was or how serious or permanent the injuries that they have caused; their insurers will be merciless in using the new wording to claim contributory negligence, as the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) said. The situation is different in the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, France and Germany, where motorists who injure cyclists must pay compensation unless the driver shows that the injured person did something illegal.

I am pleased to learn that there has been a constructive dialogue between the CTC and the Minister’s officials and that new draft wording is being considered. I hope that a successful conclusion can be reached in time for the next edition of “The Highway Code”, and I seek the Minister’s assurance that the wording that is eventually adopted will not be based on the assumption that it is normally safer to use cycle facilities, because that assumption is contrary to all the evidence; indeed, the opposite is true in many situations. Not making that assumption will give cyclists the necessary discretion to make reasonable decisions not to use such facilities where appropriate.

I would appreciate the Minister’s thoughts on this very important subject. This is not just about a few words; it is about our attitudes to road safety and particularly towards those who cycle.

4.56 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I am delighted to respond to the debate and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) for securing it. I shall start by responding to some of his comments and to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern).

The hon. Gentleman said that the proposed changes to “The Highway Code” will shift the balance in favour of motorists and away from cyclists, but nothing could be further from the truth. We must remember that what we say and what we are interpreted as saying in this House carries a lot of weight. It is bordering on irresponsible to claim that the proposed changes are doing something as dramatic and as damaging as that when it is clear, as I shall set out later on, that that is not the case.

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) came close to justifying cyclists running red lights.

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Andrew George indicated dissent.

Mr. Harris: If the hon. Gentleman checks Hansard, he will see that someone reading his comments might take from them justification for running red lights.

Andrew George: Let me be clear: the fact that the Transport for London research implies that what I said is the case raises certain questions. The Government and local authorities need to look carefully at road design, because they are putting cyclists’ lives in danger, particularly those cyclists who follow the law scrupulously. It is those who follow the regulations on the road who find themselves in the greater danger. Surely, the Minister must share my concerns about the conclusions in the research.

Mr. Harris: I certainly share concerns about danger to any road users, including cyclists, but I do not agree that the research suggested that it would be safer for cyclists to go through a red light on any occasion. Good practice is that cyclists should wait behind lorries, not on their inside left.

Mr. Pelling: The Mayor of London has campaigned strongly regarding irresponsible cyclists going through red lights. Does the Minister agree that pedestrians are important road users and that they can be put at risk by cyclists who do not obey the rules of the road?

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman is correct. Before I continue, I want to make it clear that the Government can justify their position as being in favour of cyclists’ greater use of the road network, but cyclists must be responsible.

I must remind colleagues that cycling on the pavement is also an offence under section 72 of the Highways Act 1835, as amended by section 85(1) of the Local Government Act 1888. The police will enforce the offence as appropriate, either by way of prosecutions or by the use of fixed penalty notices. Similarly, local police forces have the discretion to enforce in respect of the too-common practice of cyclists going through red lights, where they deem that approach appropriate.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East and other Members have expressed concern about the proposed changes to “The Highway Code”. However, for the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife to claim, as he did, that the draft highway code forces cyclists to use cycling facilities is patently untrue. I shall discuss that later.

The benefits of cycling are well known, but they are perhaps worth repeating all the same. It not only benefits the cyclist in the form of improved health and cost saving; it has positive implications for the community in the form of reduced congestion and reduced pollution. To that end, we set up Cycling England in 2005, which has a remit to work with local authorities and others with an interest in cycling, to encourage more people to get on their bikes.

A broad range of key organisations is represented on the board of Cycling England, including Sustrans, the Cyclists Touring Club, to which reference has been made, and British Cycling. The board also includes experts in health and sustainable transport, as well as
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representatives from local authorities. It has developed a programme of work to make the most of its initial annual budget of £5 million, in order to deliver its aim of

That aim will find unanimous support in this Chamber.

The recently published “Manual for Streets” approaches local planning with a focus on community, safety and the environment. With that in mind, it places pedestrians and cyclists at the top of the user hierarchy to ensure that their needs are considered. In addition, the Department issues a number of local transport notes and traffic advisory leaflets, and some time ago it published “Cycle-Friendly Infrastructure”, which we are in the process of updating. All of those offer local authorities advice on how best to cater for cyclists.

Before I come on to “The Highway Code”, may I offer some words of agreement with the concerns of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife about the maintenance and design of cycle facilities in local areas? He will accept that I do not have a remit over such matters and nor does this House. Local authorities are responsible for the design and maintenance of particular facilities. I am sure that he and his local authority are working to ensure that the decisions on design and maintenance are taken where they ought to be taken: at local level.

We also provide information on safety in “The Highway Code”. I should clarify that the purpose of the code is to give sound advice and guidance to all road users on safe use of the roads, as well as to explain where the law applies. The code is intended as general guidance only, and cannot provide road users with detailed instructions or cover every eventuality. More detailed guidance can be found elsewhere—for example, through the driving test and supporting materials for car drivers, and through Bikeability for cyclists.

May I take this opportunity to emphasise that the advice on using cycle facilities in both the current and the proposed revised version of “The Highway Code” is not a legal requirement? It places no compulsion on cyclists to use cycle facilities, and it remains their decision whether or not to follow this advice. The distinction between legal requirements and advisory rules is made clear in the introduction to the code.

We consulted on proposed changes last year, and the version that has now been laid before Parliament includes many revisions following the consultation process. More than 40 changes relating to cycling were made to the draft, in response to representations made by cyclists and cycle groups. These include removing the words “where they are provided” from the rule on cycle facilities. I acknowledge that cycling organisations, particularly the CTC, still have concerns about some of the proposed wording in the code. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife said, we have been discussing these concerns with them. I am confident that those discussions will result in a form of words that is acceptable to all sides.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned bike and rail integration, which was the subject of a debate in this Chamber on 8 May. We continue to encourage all train operating companies to provide facilities at stations to
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promote more bike and rail journeys. Apart from anything else, such an approach makes good business sense. According to the Countryside Agency’s bike and rail good practice guide, which is a joint publication with the Department for Transport, cycling to a station can increase its catchment area by 15 times. That assessment is based on a journey time of 10 minutes.

In addition, we are also encouraging train operating companies to work with local highways authorities to promote easier and safer access to stations. Some highways authorities are also assisting with cycle parking at stations. This is an important point, because increasing the number of cyclists who are able to cycle to the station can increase passenger numbers and revenue for the train operating companies, and help local authorities to reduce local traffic congestion.

The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that I have signed a large number of letters to parliamentary colleagues, including him, on the subject of bikes on trains. I might have even signed one to you, Mr. O’Hara. I have signed so many that I cannot remember them individually. I believe that I have signed letters to about 646 colleagues.

We continue to encourage train operating companies to carry bikes on trains where possible. Having said that, it is important to recognise that during peak hours, when capacity is under pressure, there might be circumstances—I suspect that this is inevitable—when it is in the interests of the majority of passengers not to permit non-folding cycles on trains. I accept that that message will not be palatable to certain cycling organisations and to individual cyclists, but it would be understood by anyone who has stood cheek by jowl on a busy commuter service into London Victoria.

Willie Rennie: Will the Minister consider the CTC’s proposal of having differential fare rates to encourage cycle users to use trains outside peak times and making them pay a premium if they have to use one during a peak time? That might discourage them from doing so. Would that not be a possible consideration?

Mr. Harris: I am loth to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but it is entirely up to train operating companies to set their unregulated fares at a commercial level in order for them to exploit their own commercial market. If they wish to offer reduced fares for a particular group, that is up to them as far as unregulated fares are concerned. However, should we offer wealthier cyclists the advantage of taking their bikes on to a train where there is standing room only? We might be talking about carriages in which the number of passengers really is in excess of capacity. We would be allowing such people to take their cycles on to trains because they happen to earn more than someone along the road who cannot take their bike on the train at that particular time. If that is Liberal Democrat policy, I am delighted, but I suspect that it is probably not.

Willie Rennie: Is the Minister arguing for getting rid of all differential fares, even at peak hours, for normal passengers?

Mr. Harris: Absolutely not. It is up to train operating companies to decide on a commercial basis
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what differential fares they want, but as the Minister with responsibility for railways I am certainly not going to instruct them to introduce a set of fares to accommodate people with bikes. If I did, a wide range of other people with particular interests and requirements would look for the same sort of reductions in fares. To make a special case for cyclists would simply not be politically acceptable and not acceptable to the vast majority of train users of commuter networks.

Mr. Pelling: Before the Minister concludes, will he tell me whether it would be safe to advise my constituents who cycle that he is moving towards drafting “The Highway Code” in such a way that there would not be an increased liability on them if they were not using cycle lanes?

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