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House of Commons
Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Christopher Fraser
Bacon, Mr. Richard (South Norfolk) (Con)
Clark, Paul (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)
Cruddas, Jon (Dagenham) (Lab)
Goodwill, Mr. Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
Hunter, Mark (Cheadle) (LD)
Jack, Mr. Michael (Fylde) (Con)
Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab)
Leech, Mr. John (Manchester, Withington) (LD)
McGovern, Mr. Jim (Dundee, West) (Lab)
Marsden, Mr. Gordon (Blackpool, South) (Lab)
Moss, Mr. Malcolm (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)
Ruane, Chris (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)
Seabeck, Alison (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab)
Tami, Mark (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)
Touhig, Mr. Don (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)
Wilson, Mr. Rob (Reading, East) (Con)
Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Third Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 10 February 2009

[Christopher Fraser in the Chair]

Draft Contracting Out (Highway Functions) Order 2009
10.30 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Contracting Out (Highway Functions) Order 2009.
It is a delight to be under your chairmanship this morning to expedite this business, Mr. Fraser. I am asking the Committee to approve the draft Contracting Out (Highway Functions) Order, made under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994.
The Government consider it right that services are delivered in the way to achieve best value for taxpayers. In some cases, that means the service being provided by a third party. This contracting-out order seeks to continue to allow highway and street authorities to delegate the listed statutory functions to a third-party operator. Existing contracting-out orders, covering highways functions, are currently in place and have operated well. We are now proposing to build on this by including more functions in this new order. The new functions relate mainly to amended street works powers that have come into force over the last year.
We are also taking this opportunity to consolidate the existing three orders into one new order. This will enable highway authorities to continue to contract out existing highway functions. Currently, a contractor has to gain permission from the highways authority before carrying out functions that are not included in a contracting-out order. For example, where substantial street works are planned, the contractor would have to ask permission of the authority before publishing a notice informing other utilities of the planned works.
Another example is when a contractor wants to give a direction to a utility to undertake works at a different time, in order to reduce serious disruption to traffic. It would first have to gain permission from the authority to do so. I am sure members of the Committee recognise that such disruption is not good for anyone and not the most efficient way to proceed. It is not the best way to delegate functions such as these: it leads to those unnecessary delays, increases costs and adds an unnecessary layer of administration. The order will remove that barrier and enable effective and efficient working practices.
Authorities are under no obligation to delegate any of the functions included in this order, nor do they have to contract out all the listed functions. Authorities have the freedom to continue to contract out only the functions they consider meet local needs and provide the most efficient way of delivering the service to their local communities. Authorities will still be responsible for the functions and the way they are carried out, and are accountable to the public for that service. It is important that authorities effectively manage any contracts placed, so that they achieve best value and deliver an effective service.
The order will enable more efficient delivery of services and maintenance of local flexibility, but without any reduction of accountability in delivering public services. I commend it to the Committee.
10.33 am
Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Fraser, and I thank the Minister for outlining the proposals so succinctly. It is the first time we have come up against each other, although “against” is not the right word in this situation, as we are pretty supportive of the measure. I hope that he will fill the shoes of his colleague, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), with similar aplomb.
We do not think the order contentious—in fact it was the Conservatives who invented contracting out as a way of getting best value for such work. It is all the more important these days that we have good value in the provision and purchase of such services, not least because of the £1 billion backlog in the maintenance of our road network and the recent publicity about the failure in some parts of the country adequately to address the challenge presented by the snow. We are not minded to divide the Committee, but I do have a few questions that I hope the Minister can answer.
I was pleased that the Minister confirmed that it will not be compulsory for street or highways authorities to contract out functions. Could he further confirm that this measure does not send out any new signals to authorities that more contracting out should be necessary or required?
I note that included in the measure, under section 41(1A) of the Highways Act 1980, is the following phrase:
“that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow or ice”.
What assessment has been made of how that may alter our preparedness for unusual weather events such as last week’s? We are all aware that the private sector is keen on everything being “just in time”—having supplies delivered at the point when they are needed, and not building up big stocks. Surely this would not apply to grit and salt stocks. Has any assessment been made of how a further contracting out of snow clearance and the gritting of roads might affect preparedness? I suspect that it might be tempting for contractors to reduce their stocks. I hope that this provision will not change the situation.
On payment of damages, I note that the filling in by an authority of a ditch that has been deemed to be a danger to users of the highway, under section 101(2) of the 1980 Act, can now be contracted out. I can see a situation in which land might be flooded by that work being carried out. I wonder whether the contracting out of such work could lead to confusion as to who is responsible—the authority ordering the work, or the contractor carrying it out—and whether that would make it more difficult for the aggrieved party to claim damages. I suspect that it is not a problem, but I would appreciate some clarification from the Minister.
My fourth question is on noticing. The Minister may be aware that last year, the Government introduced a new measure to encourage the cohabitation of holes in the road. I am not talking about Swampy and his girlfriend; rather, when a road is closed for certain types of work, there is provision for other utilities or providers to use that opportunity to carry out works at the same time, and the pricing and noticing structures are determined in such a way as to encourage that to happen. Will the effectiveness of the “Code of Practice for the Co-Ordination of Street Works and Works for Road Purposes and Related Matters”, published in July 2007 and updated in March 2008, be affected by that? When we were considering that measure, I asked the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central, what level of sharing she would judge to be a success. At that point she did not venture a figure. I know that the Minister is going to announce an evaluation that will be completed in 2010. Is there a progress report on that? Could he give us some indication of how today’s measure will affect its effectiveness?
There is no specific mention of Network Rail in the order, but there are a number of instances of railway lines crossing roads—or roads crossing railway lines—in which there needs to be co-ordination between Network Rail and the highways authority. In many cases, that work may be carried out by Network Rail. I am thinking in particular of the barriers that have been put in place following the Great Heck disaster, in which a Land Rover and trailer went on to the railway line. A number of works have been carried out in that regard. On the provision of reactive signs for tall vehicles in order to prevent bridge strikes, there is a good example on the A638 Doncaster road, just outside the village of Haworth, but I have not seen too many others around the country. Will the introduction of this measure increase the likelihood of such provision? Will the co-ordination of such work between the highways authority and Network Rail be facilitated?
I note schedule 1(2)(b) mentions the
“provision of picnic sites and public conveniences for users of trunk roads”.
Those of us who have travelled on the continent realise just how badly served our trunk roads are in that regard. Such facilities are not only for those with young families, but for the many truck drivers who, sadly, these days often resort to using lay-bys as a public convenience. As a Kent Member, the Minister is doubtless all too well aware of some of the problems occurring around Kent. Does he envisage this measure facilitating greater co-ordination between the private sector and the highways authorities in encouraging the provision not only of public conveniences and picnic sites, but truck stops, in order to enable standards in the United Kingdom to come up to those of many other European Union countries?
I thank the Minster for outlining these proposals and reassure him that in principle, we are in favour, but I look forward to hearing his response to the specific issues that I have raised.
10.41 am
10.42 am
Paul Clark: A number of issues have been raised, and I am delighted to be opposite the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby. We are certainly not against each other on this matter, as I was delighted to hear him say, because this is about being effective and efficient, so that the authorities can carry out their work and ensure minimum disruption, as far as possible, in a whole range of areas. Such measures have been in place for a long time under three previous orders, and as I said in my opening remarks, those orders are being brought together under this one. I do recognise the work done by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), although I think I might have some difficulty in filling her shoes in a literal sense.
On the question of more signals being required under contracting out, at the end of the day it is for local authorities to decide which orders they take up and which they delegate. I think that, on looking through many of the existing provisions and those that are extended—orders that are potentially there for delegation—people would honestly believe that it is common sense that, if a local authority has asked a contractor to undertake a piece of work, various matters will arise. Roundabouts, for example, have been mentioned and I will come to them in due course. Such issues then need to be followed through. To have to go back to the local authority or the highways authority leads to delay. It adds to the existing congestion on our roads—to the congestion in the whole street scene—and is unnecessary. Invariably, many of these decisions are just practical ones being taken forward.
On damages, it is purely a matter for local authorities and highways authorities as to how they set up their contracts. Of course, as I said at the outset, they should have regard to the issues of best value and delivering the best service to the public. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby raised the issue of the snow and ice problems that are being grappled with in many of our areas. I have no doubt there will be a review by local authorities, as well as strategic networks, in order to learn some lessons—there are always lessons to learn—but the highways authorities are responsible for ensuring implementation on their own networks. As I say, I am sure there will be a review of the exceptional circumstances that we saw for the first time in 18 years.
The issue of co-ordination is not covered by the order, but I can assure the Committee that co-ordination is absolutely critical. We do not, for example, want roads being dug up time and again. Some of the measures contained within this provision—for example, regulations 11(3) and 12(3)—are very much about making sure that information goes out to specified persons in order to put possible limits on when roads can be dug up again or street works undertaken. So it is exactly to meet the points raised by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby—
Mr. Goodwill: Will the Minister be more courageous than his predecessor and give us a percentage of cohabitation that he would consider a success: 10, 20, 30 per cent.? It would be a useful yardstick by which to measure the success of the other provision.
Paul Clark: I am not going to put specific figures on what would be a success, but I hope that every highways authority has regard to delivering the best service possible for those who live, work and play within the boundaries of its responsibility. I very much want the measures that we are taking to co-ordinate work in many areas, in order to ensure that our traffic flows far more efficiently, particularly in the hearts of our towns and cities.
Co-ordination between Network Rail and the highways authorities does happen, and the new provisions in the order will ensure greater co-ordination. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby mentioned picnic sites and so on, and I was interested to learn that he obviously recognises the work going on in mainland Europe, against which he put his yardstick. Those are matters for local authorities and their schemes. On the evaluation that is taking place, it is too early to say at this stage, but it will be critical to see how the work done under the terms of the order progresses.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton raised concerns about contracting out. Let me assure him that this has been going on for a long time. The order brings together three different contracting-out orders—one dating back to 1999, one introduced in 2001 and a subsequent order—under one roof.
On the creation of roundabouts, the service should be the same irrespective of who carries out the work, but it should be about delivering it effectively, efficiently and with the best value for local people and organisations. They still have that responsibility—
Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): I tend to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton. Private sector involvement in the public sector usually has a detrimental impact on the terms and conditions of employees. Does the Minister agree with that?
Paul Clark: Let me assure my hon. Friend that provisions for any change in employers’ responsibilities are covered by agreements under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 and 2006, as is clearly laid down.
I have no doubt that the order will help us to take forward an efficient and best value process for people within the remits of highways authorities. I believe that this is an efficient way forward. It has been tried and tested, bringing together the three existing orders as well as extending them. I am delighted that we have been able to consider those orders. Having said that, I am sorry that one of the official Opposition parties—the Liberal Democrats—could not be with us today.
Question put and agreed to.
10.51 am
Committee rose.

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