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My right hon. Friend the Minister referred to the approach as being belt and braces, but to my mind, it is not only belt and braces, but safety pins and keeping our hands in our pockets as wellit really over-eggs the process. Try as I mayhon. Members with more experience may be able to correct meI have not been able to find a parallel in local government decision making for this two-stage appeal process followed by an opportunity to go to court. In planning, major decisions are made that
affect individuals, companies and commercial interests through applications, enforcement notices and structure plans, but we do not have a three-tier, or two-tiercall it what you willappeal process. We do not have such a process in environmental health enforcement, licensing appeals or the allocation of school places, so why do we need it in this case?
Quality contracts in places such as Leeds and West Yorkshire will ultimately prove to be the only mechanism available to deliver the sort of services that communities need and passengers deserve. They should provide greater reliability because services will be thoroughly monitored and good performance incentivised. If we get them right, they will provide more stability with fewer changes to fares, times and frequencies. There will be better integrationa point made time and time again in this debateand an ability to make services cleaner and greener, as the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) rightly said.
Implicit in the Bill is the assumption that local authorities and passenger transport authorities, or whatever their successors are called, will somehow engage glibly and mischievously in the pursuit of quality contracts, but nothing could be further from the truth. There are so many risks and complex issues that have to be taken into account before anyone embarks on this process. The transition to quality contracts and the associated legal process would be difficult enough, even if the Bill were straightforward.
Those who want to introduce such contracts will have to address issues such as the location of depots, bus fleets, or what to do if there is currently a monopoly, as referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley. All sorts of approaches could be implemented, such as the closing down of depots. No local authority or passenger transport executive in its right mind will engage in the process unless it can be confident that it will achieve value for money, that resources will be better spent than under the status quo and that it will find operators to run the services laid down in the contract. To suggest otherwise is to fly in the face of reality, experience and logic.
The point has been made about the extra measures introduced on statutory quality partnerships. To echo the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough, if operators are not happy with what has been suggested, they can simply walk away. I have still to hear a cogent argument that explains why the measures are necessary in such situations.
I close by saying that I welcome other measures referred to, such as the establishment of a bus champion. I hope that it will not be a half-hearted measure, but a rigorous proposal that has teeth and that is sufficiently regional or local for us to understand what the challenges facing passengers and communities might be.
In conclusion, it came as no surprise that the Opposition oppose the Bill, and specifically the quality contract measures that it contains. Change must come. Those of us who have any affinity with our constituencies and any sympathy with those who depend on buses know that change must come. The status quo simply cannot be allowed to continue. The case is overwhelming. I, along with a number of my hon. Friends who have spoken, want to ensure that the Bill puts into effect practical proposals for ending the long nightmare for bus passengers that has followed from bus deregulation.
I beg your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in allowing me to talk about quite a narrow issue relating to part 7 of the Bill, entitled Miscellaneous provisions. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who is no longer in his place, said that there had been some missed opportunities and, in the case of clauses 117 and 118, he was absolutely right.
I am indebted to the SPARKS programme, which is the cross-border civil traffic enforcement group, for its assistance to me in, I hope, putting the case to the House this afternoon. I commend to hon. Members its report of July 2007 entitled Foreign registered vehicles on UK roads. To put the issue in context, the expansion of the European Unions borders has seen increased international trade and greater freedom of movement across borders. It is now estimated that 3 million foreign-registered vehicles enter the United Kingdom each year. The number of foreign goods vehicles visiting the UK has trebled over the past 10 years, while the number of European nationals employed in the UK has trebled in the past five years and the number of European visitors has increased by 50 per cent. The by-product of that has been a surge of foreign-registered vehicles on our roads, with estimates suggesting 142,000 such vehicles in the United Kingdom at any one time.
Such vehicles are difficult to trace, and it is often impractical to impose penalties for traffic or parking violations, or tax evasion, for example. There is a concern that somenot alldrivers of foreign-registered vehicles are aware of the loopholes in the system, particularly the inability to enforce penalties, and are therefore more likely to drive dangerously and take risks. The Department for Transport does not collate data relating to foreign-registered vehicles, however. Indeed, I have been informed that
the enforcement of decriminalised contraventions is a matter for the relevant local authority; they are not required to provide such information to the Government.
With no means of tracing, tracking or recording the number of foreign-registered vehicles in the United Kingdom, and with little idea of the patterns of movement, mileage or, of course, traffic contraventions, considerable strain is being put on local police forces, local authorities and enforcement agencies, which are being required to address the increasing incidence of foreign-registered vehicles violating traffic regulations ad hoc.
I should like to refer to a freedom of information request by the Peterborough Evening Telegraph this monthI am mindful of Erskine May and your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I will not wave a copy of the article. Suffice it to say that the response to the request revealed that between September 2003 and January 2008, 1,748 of 1,886 penalty charge notices issued to foreign-registered vehicles had been written off and remain unpaid, costing Peterborough city councilthe local authority in my constituencymore than £86,000. Some reports nationally indicate that untaxed foreign-registered vehicles have cost the taxpayer £214 million in lost revenue in the past five years.
There are no robust data on the volume and mix of foreign-registered vehicle activity, or on how it is distributed across the UK. We can only conjecture with regard to the regional distribution of foreign-registered vehicles, but with migrant workers being accountable for 28 per cent. of all foreign-registered vehicles in the UK, we can speculate that many areas will have encountered the problems associated with having these vehicles on UK roads. This is no longer a problem facing only London and the south-east, and there have been recent examples of this issue as far away as Coventry and Loughborough. Tourist and goods vehicles also account for a significant proportion of foreign-registered vehicles on the UK roads, but the problems largely associated with those categories of vehicle are perhaps regarded as the lesser of two evils, so to speak.
Speeding and illegal parking are two examples of the contraventions that these drivers might be accountable for. In fairness, the incidence of persistent offending is relatively rare, but the problem has a significant impact on local communities, which are subjected to disturbance and dangers on their roads as a result of the irresponsible driving of foreign-registered vehicles. I mentioned earlier the cost of unpaid parking fines in Peterborough. As well as lost revenue, parking regulation infringements are responsible for disturbing and annoying local residents, who largely abide by the parking regulations. Furthermore, trying to recoup payment for the offences wastes the valuable time and resources of local authorities.
There is also a real concern that if penalties cannot be enforced, higher levels of violation will inevitably occur. This is making our roads more dangerous and more expensive for the law-abiding citizen, who must ultimately bear the burden of unpaid fines and penalties. Reports have suggested that foreign-registered vehicles are 30 per cent. more likely to be involved in an accident and 20 per cent. more likely to fail roadside tests, as their drivers are less likely to observe vehicle safety and maintenance regulations. In London, the drivers of foreign-registered vehicles are twice as likely as UK drivers to avoid paying the congestion charge. That said, we should draw a distinction between foreign-registered vehicles and illegal foreign-registered vehicles.
The significant increase in the number of foreign-registered vehicles on our roads is a direct result of the increase in the number of migrant workers in the UK, many of whom have failed to register their vehicles after the specified six months. Peterborough has experienced the considerable impact of a migrant population and the burden that that has placed on local resources. Reports from local constabularies and local authorities suggest that these drivers are more likely to contravene traffic regulations. That has certainly been the case in the Peterborough city council area.
There also appears to be a core group to whom the apparent weaknesses in the system have become clear. Those involved have now become repeat abusers of the system. Their reckless disregard for UK traffic laws and for the safety of the communities in which they live is being allowed to continue because of the Governments failurenot necessarily a wilful failureto tackle this issue.
As these vehicles have not been registered, they are unlikely to have car tax or insurance, or to have undergone any vehicle safety checks, which means that they pose a considerable risk. Perhaps most worrying is
the apparent number of drivers of foreign-registered vehicles who, despite being aware of the regulations on vehicle registration, are now choosing to ignore their responsibility to get a legitimate licence or number plate, because they wish to stay outside the law and to benefit from the avoidance of fines and penalties.
SPARKS has stated that we need a holistic, equal and fair system for all drivers, because the present system is breeding a culture of complacency that leads some foreign residents to ignore our traffic laws. Indeed, the system appears actively to encourage some drivers of foreign-registered vehicles to avoid registration.
I accept that provision has been made in clauses 117 and 118 to deal with this issue, but that provision is limited. Without further powers, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency will be unable to provide local authorities with the addresses to which penalty charge notices should be sent when a foreign-registered vehicle has committed a road traffic contravention.
At present, the general situation is opaque and confused for local authorities, which has major resource implications, as I shall explain more fully later. One of the sanctions available is to clamp foreign-registered vehicles that persistently flout parking regulations, but Government guidance in respect of and under the auspices of the Traffic Management Act 2004 is that clamping should be discouraged and used only in the case of serial repeat offenders.
Mr. Jackson: I have received a number of representations, particularly from the Millfield and New England areas of the city of Peterborough, from the city council, SPARKS and a number of other key stakeholders. It is an important issue. I concede that it may not be a pertinent issue to every Member in the House, but it certainly is to me, given that over the last four years 20,000 EU migrants have moved into my constituency and surrounding areas. That is why I am speaking on behalf of my constituents about this key issue.
There is no current legislation available to the Agency, which allows for the prosecution of keepers of foreign vehicles who have failed to register their vehicles within the required timescales. However, if the Agency receives a report recording the sighting of an unlicensed vehicle on the road, the Agency is able to prosecute under the legislation provided by Section 29 VERA
There are practical difficulties with this and unless a name and address of the keeper of the foreign vehicle is provided the Agency is unable to pursue these cases. The Agency is able to utilise other enforcement action such as the wheel clamping and impounding of a vehicle.
The number of prosecutions of foreign vehicles under this legislation in each of the last five years is not collated.[ Official Report, 26 April 2007; Vol. 459, c. 1205W.]
More recently, in a written answer of 14 March at column 694W, the present Minister prayed in aid the European Commission draft directive on cross-border enforcement of road traffic matters, which was published
on 20 March last week. The weakness of the draft directive is that it includes criminal offences such as drink-driving, speeding issues related to seat belt compliance and so forth, but not parking or other civil traffic offences. It thus specifically fails to address the wider issue of unfair and unequal treatment of all drivers. Neither the draft directive nor, indeed, the Bill will level the playing field or equalise the treatment of resident and non-resident drivers. Furthermore, both the Bill and directive address only the issue of data exchange rather than penalty enforcement, which is, in fact, reliant on Council framework decision 2005/214/JHA, known as COPEN 24.
In conclusion, I fully accept that I have focused on a very narrow aspect of the Bill, but it is nevertheless an important issue that impacts significantly on my constituency. My plea to the Government is that it is now imperative further to examine these particular provisions in Committee with a view to tabling amendments. If the Government themselves do not table them, I hope that they will see fit to support other amendments when the Bill comes back on Report. As I say, the issue is important. I concede that the Government are considering amendments, and I implore those who are fortunate enough to serve on the Committee to support them. My principal concern is that the Bill does not go far enough in tackling repeat offenders and those who avoid registering their vehicles. On behalf of my constituents and others across the country, I strongly urge the Minister to consider this extremely serious issue carefully.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I will concentrate my remarks on the contents of the Bill with regard to local bus services, and briefly mention integrated transport authorities and congestion charging at the end.
Coming from South Yorkshire, as does my right hon. Friend the Minister, it is easy for me to lapse into thinking about the golden age of bus services in the late 70s and early 80s. We can have a bit of nostalgia for that, because when fares were 10p and 12p for adult passengers, tuppence for children and free for pensioners, people actually used their local buses. It was not uncommon to see in the same bus queue the steelworker in his overalls and the bank manager with his umbrella and bowler hat, because the bus services were for everyone. As a result, even motorists who used to complain about having to pay towards the costs of local bus services in their rates benefited, because they drove their car on relatively congestion-free roads.
Within a couple of years of deregulation, bus fares were rising, passengers were disappearing and congestion was on the roads in the centre of Sheffield, where it has remained ever since. We can have too much nostalgia for the pastwe must recognise that life has moved on, living standards have changed, and the ways in which people conduct their lives have altered. It is therefore unlikely that we would have kept the same degree of bus use, even within a regulated environment. We must also accept that there were questions about value for money at the time, and about the restrictive nature of some of the services offered. We would want to move on from that, so I do not argue for a return to those days. But many of my constituents, particularly the elderly, are nostalgic, because their daily experience of local public transport is that services have got a lot worse.
Recently, passenger numbers have recovered slightly due to the elderly using their welcome free passes, for which the Government deserve great credit. Even so, for every person who rode a bus in Sheffield in 2006, there were three who rode a bus 20 years before. After deregulation, therefore, a third of the passengers are left. It is impossible to justify calling that a success; it is simply not working. The Conservative partys claim that no change in the system is needed for areas such as South Yorkshire is completely unsupported by the facts, the reality on the ground and the daily experience of my constituents. Local bus fares have gone through the rooffrom 10p to £2. Has any public or other essential service risen as much in price over the same period? I cannot think of anything that has, but perhaps somebody else can.
Congestion has arrived, with Sheffield becoming gridlocked on occasions over the past few years. The Governments welcome extra investment in the inner ring road has helped to address that, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) said, roads in the centre of Sheffield now have about 15 per cent. spare capacity at peak times. Traffic is growing at 2 to 3 per cent. a year, and it may slow slightly with the rise in fuel costs, but at some point gridlock will again be reached, unless something changes. I will deal with more such issues later.
The reality for individuals is that they cannot plan their lives. At 42 days notice, their lifelinethe local bus on which they relycan be taken away. That lifeline might take someone to an early shift in a job across town, starting at 6 or 7 am. If the bus goes, their chance of that job goes. That lifeline might be needed by an elderly person to go to the home where their elderly spouse is. If that is taken away, that person may face either a journey of an hour and a half or two hours on several buses to get to that location or the prospect of moving their loved one. The service might be needed by an elderly person who can no longer get to a post office, or an elderly couple who cannot get to see their grandchildren because their residential situation has been based on the ability to get buses to do that and they do not have a car. It might be needed by young people who want to meet their friends in the centre of town at night and suddenly find that the bus does not run any more, which means that they either have to rely on their parents and lose their independence or not go out to their normal place of entertainment.
All those things are essential parts of peoples lives and they can be removed at 42 days notice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) said, when the complaints come, the services can be removed with virtually no chance of redress or there is virtually no chance of any change being made in response. It is a policy of social and economic exclusion because it hits most the young, the elderly and those on low incomesthe people who do not have ready access to a car. It discriminates against them more than any other group in society.
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