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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): No recent assessment of the effects on road safety of variable speed limits has been undertaken by the Department on local roads or by the Highways Agency on the strategic road network. However, the
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monitoring of safety on the active traffic management section of the M42 shows the benefits that have resulted from a package of measures which includes the use of variable speed limits.

Mr. Knight: Does the Minister not agree that our roads are safer if the speed limits in force are appropriate and therefore respected? Is he aware that a number of local authorities, some of them second rate, refuse to consider the introduction of variable speed limits, simply on the ground of the extra cost of the necessary signage? Will he therefore consider instructing or at least advising local authorities that they always reflect on whether a variable speed limit is the more appropriate answer? What is wrong with having a 20 mph speed limit outside a school only when that school is in use?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The right hon. Gentleman has a point to make. As he knows, we are consulting on our post-2010 road safety strategy, and we know that 20 mph limits are popular in many areas. They are a relatively new phenomenon and we are gathering evidence on the success that has clearly resulted from the introduction of 20 mph limits or zones. He also has a point in that those local authorities that have tried variable speed limits ought to be able to supply us with data so that we can incorporate them into the consultation, because we intend to issue new, stronger guidance both on 20 mph limits and, for local authorities where there is a 60 mph limit, on dangerous rural single carriageways. It is appropriate to have them revisit the issue, and variable speed limits, looking after the motorist and promoting safety, may very well be another way forward.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): Most of the main roads in Skelmersdale do not have pavements, so people are forced to use underpasses—or often to cross the roads. In particular, there are two major secondary schools with 1,500 pupils, who, when discharged, are supposed to go through underpasses or take the back way. In reality, however, they cross the main road. A child has died, yet the local authority says—to the horror of the head teacher, the rest of the school and the parents—that because the road is a main road it cannot support a reduction in the speed limit. Can my hon. Friend’s officials suggest anything to help us with traffic calming measures?

Jim Fitzpatrick: As I mentioned to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) a moment ago, we are going to issue new, stronger guidance on the use of 20 mph limits and on appropriate speed limits for other roads. Clearly, I am concerned to hear my hon. Friend’s description of roads without pavements and the vulnerable situation of many pupils. I hope that the Department’s guidance will be of use to the head teacher and parents. However, we have devolved to local authorities the decision to determine the speed limits on roads because they know their roads far better than we do at the Department. However, I hope that the guidance that is to be issued will assist my hon. Friend and her community.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Is the Minister aware that in my constituency, which covers a very large area, there is strong support for strict enforcement of low speed limits in the villages, but real concern at
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the idea that 50 mph might become the default speed limit, given that it would apply to every road in the constituency, including large parts of the A1?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point. We have clarified as best we can that we are not proposing a blanket ban or reduction from 60 mph to 50 mph on single rural carriageways. However, given that 62 per cent. of fatalities occur on roads with only 40 per cent. of the traffic, we clearly believe that the 60 mph limit is inappropriate for some roads. In the consultation document that we have issued, we propose to produce annual reports on the performance of roads, indicating where there are greater dangers.

We will issue stronger guidance to say to local authorities that there is no national 60 mph limit and that there can be 50 mph limits if appropriate. Many villages on these routes would certainly want 20 mph and 30 mph limits. I go back to the point made by the right hon. Gentleman in the original question: we need flexibility to make sure that motorists are able to get from A to B as efficiently as possible. However, we also need to make sure that they do that safely, and that the communities through which they travel are protected.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Will the Minister condemn unequivocally those local authorities that adopt a policy of reducing speed by not repairing pot holes, thereby deliberately contributing to an increase in road danger and costing local authority council tax payers £53 million a year in compensation?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I have heard and read reports of pot holes being used as a device to reduce speed, but I cannot believe that a deliberate decision by local authorities is involved. Pot holes endanger road users because vehicles may have to veer to avoid them; furthermore, they may damage vehicles’ braking and steering systems. Clearly, pot holes ought to be repaired where possible. The Government give local authorities generous grants to make sure that such matters are addressed. I do not want local authorities to use pot holes as a way of slowing down traffic.

Speed Limits

6. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): What responses he has received to his recent consultation on speed limits; and if he will make a statement. [275295]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): “A Safer Way”, our road safety consultation published on 21 April, which I mentioned a moment ago, aims to reduce road deaths by a third by 2020. We make a range of proposals, two of which are carefully targeted to reduce speed. The first is that local authorities should reduce limits to 20 mph on roads of a primarily residential nature and around schools, and the second is that highway authorities should reduce limits from 60 mph on the more dangerous rural single carriageways, when the evidence supports that. We have started receiving representations. The closing date for the consultation is 14 July.

Richard Ottaway: Does the Minister accept that such worthy policy objectives bring into play the law of unintended consequences? Does he agree that this will
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increase journey times, which will increase congestion, with a knock-on effect on pollution? Is he aware that the Institution of Chemical Engineers has said that in areas where the speed limit is reduced to 20 mph, there will be a 15 per cent. increase in CO2 emissions and a 50 per cent. increase in nitrous oxide? What impact will that have on meeting his Government’s emissions targets?

Jim Fitzpatrick: We are conscious of the question of emissions, and I am sure that that will be examined as part of the consultation and monitored closely by the Department of Energy and Climate Change. However, variable speeds have been shown to be able to assist in managing and reducing congestion. The consequence that we are trying to achieve as a result of the consultation document is further to progress the improvements that we have seen in road safety. Between 2002 and 2007, there was a reduction of some 36 per cent. in people killed or seriously injured on our roads. In the longer term, our ambition is to achieve the safest roads in the world. We are looking to have a further reduction of one third in casualties by the end of the next 10-year strategy. Speed reductions are part of that, because inappropriate speeds and people breaking the speed limits cause some 700 deaths and 20,000 injuries in an average year.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): The consultation has caused confusion in the minds of some. In a rural constituency such as mine, which has three single carriageway trunk roads, there is concern that the aim is to reduce the speed limit from 60 mph to 50 mph. Can the Minister give a guarantee to my constituents that major single carriageway trunk roads will not have that reduction imposed?

Jim Fitzpatrick: As I have been trying to outline, I cannot guarantee that there will not be reductions from 60 mph to 50 mph on some roads. We are trying to achieve a reduction in speed on roads where people are being killed and seriously injured in disproportionate numbers because the quality of the road is not as good as that of most of the A roads in the country. We are looking to make an assessment, we will produce the data, and it will then be for local authorities and highway authorities to make a determination as to the appropriate speed limit for the roads concerned. We are not proposing to introduce a blanket reduction across the country: this is targeted for best effect to ensure that vehicular traffic can get from A to B as efficiently as possible, but also safely.

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): As of this morning, a petition against the Government’s A road speed limit proposal is ranked No. 2 on the Downing street website, beaten only by one entitled with the single word, “Resign”. So it is official: Labour’s speed limit policy is the most unpopular thing in the country apart from the Prime Minister, though admittedly he is ahead by a comfortable margin of 30,000.

Everything that the Minister has said this morning has signalled a major retreat on the briefing on this issue given to journalists in March. Why does not he go the whole way and drop the Government proposals that are on the table?

Jim Fitzpatrick: With the greatest respect to journalists, there was no briefing to say that we were reducing the speed limit on single carriageways from 60 mph to
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50 mph across the country. We signalled a clear intention to issue new guidance based on data that we will collect on an annual basis on the performance of roads to identify those that are most dangerous—where more people are being killed. As I mentioned earlier, the clear statistic in all this is that 62 per cent. of people are dying on those roads, which carry only 40 per cent. of the traffic. There is a disconnect in this regard. We need to ensure that we can assess the more dangerous roads and that they then have an appropriate speed limit. There is no retreat; the proposal has never been for a blanket ban. We are targeting where the 50 mph limit should be introduced, and we will produce guidance for local authorities, not an instruction or a blanket reduction.

Mrs. Villiers: But will the Minister not recognise that the flaw in reducing the default speed limit, which is what he is proposing to do, is that it will hit all motorists with a collective punishment for the actions of the irresponsible few, rather than target high-risk, problem drivers? Why are the Government failing on these problem drivers? Why, after a decade in charge of our roads, are they still using a test for drug-drivers that is no more sophisticated than asking them to walk in a straight line? Why is the average fine for uninsured rogue drivers less than £200, and will he admit that reduced speed limits and more speed cameras will not tackle either of those—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I shall try to deal with the main elements of the hon. Lady’s questions. First, we think that we are making progress. The road safety strategy for 2000-10 targeted a 40 per cent. reduction in deaths and serious injuries. Up to 2007, it was 36 per cent., so we should reach that. We had the lowest number of such deaths in recorded history in 2007, at 2,946. That is progress, and it is to the great credit of the police, local authorities, road safety officers and everybody else who is campaigning on road safety.

On the direction of travel, we want a further reduction and we want Britain’s roads to be the safest in the world again, as they were previously. On dealing with those who are transgressing against our laws, we are dealing with uninsured drivers and those who do not have road tax. The numbers are the lowest they ever have been. We had a consultation suggesting that those who recklessly and dangerously speed should get double points on their licence, because that will bring them to book. We are ensuring that the sensible, decent, ordinary, courteous motorists are the ones whom we are trying to protect, and we believe they are on the side of stronger legislation and guidance. We want safer roads, and we want those who transgress against the laws dealt with.

Topical Questions

T1. [275304] Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): On 16 April, together with my noble and right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, I announced the Government’s plans to promote ultra low-carbon vehicles. That will
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include financial help for those who wish to purchase low-carbon cars. During the Easter parliamentary recess, my noble Friend the Minister of State, who has responsibility for rail, made a six-day, highly successful rail tour of the United Kingdom. He travelled 2,200 miles on local and national services, and has since announced the appointment of two station champions to suggest ways in which station facilities could be improved.

On 21 April, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), announced the publication of the Government’s new wide-ranging road safety proposals, aimed at making Britain’s roads the safest in the world. Yesterday I was in Manchester to welcome an accelerated transport package for Greater Manchester, including plans for new Metrolink lines from Chorlton to East Didsbury and from Droylsden to Ashton-under-Lyne. These extensions, along with those already under way, will result in Manchester’s tram network being twice the size that it is today.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), invited English cities to bid for up to £29 million in funding to be the country’s first sustainable travel city. That follows the success of the country’s three sustainable travel towns.

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I say that I try to use topical questions for the benefit of the Back Benchers? That should be borne in mind.

Mr. Evennett: Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and I thank the Secretary of State for his response.

At a time when we are encouraging more people to travel by train, is the Secretary of State not concerned about the problems faced by disabled people in endeavouring to access some station platforms? In particular, may I draw his attention to the lack of disabled access to Crayford station in my constituency, operated by Southeastern, and ask him what he can to do assist with the problem and its solution?

Mr. Hoon: This is a concern for the Government and we are addressing it. I anticipate that there will be some modest funds available to improve access for the disabled. It is important that we ensure that all our citizens, able-bodied and disabled alike, have access to the railway network.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Should the Government really be putting billions of pounds into Network Rail when, as a result of employment practices by a director of human resources, a man who called one of his staff a black effing b—, who kissed another member of staff on the cheek when she was on the phone, who asked to see the “white bits” of a member of staff as he asked her to take her top off when she came back from holiday, and who—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have always said right at the beginning of every Session that we must be careful as to how we use parliamentary privilege. I do not wish that the Minister should respond to this matter.

T2. [275305] Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): In March, I had a helpful meeting in Dunstable with officials from the Department about progressing the A5-M1 link—the vital bypass in my constituency.
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May I say to the Secretary of State that that is key to local economic regeneration in the whole of my constituency and beyond? Does he have any news for my constituents about how the scheme can be progressed more quickly than is currently indicated?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman had a useful meeting with officials, and we will always endeavour to assist in that way. He will be aware of the complications involved in the programming, together with the hard-shoulder widening in the M1 programme. We are considering various issues arising from those discussions. Work is continuing, and we will push ahead as soon as possible.

T5. [275308] Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): I want to ask the Minister about the welcome review of concessionary bus travel. He will be aware that there have been some problems locally, but people are very worried that they will lose the concessionary bus travel scheme. Will he confirm that the review will not jeopardise that scheme, on which many people aged 60 and over totally rely?

Paul Clark: I reassure the House that we are proud of our decisions in 2001, 2006 and 2008 to give some 11 million people access to free local bus services across the country. The current consultation is examining an improved administrative system and is looking at raising it from district authorities to county councils. I encourage all concerned to contribute to that review, but we are emphatic about keeping the facility and the provision in place.

T3. [275306] Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Eurostar has received huge amounts of taxpayer’s money in investment, yet nine years after the introduction of the pet passport scheme, which insists on strict rabies vaccine requirements, it refuses to allow passengers to take their dogs or cats on board, whereas regional railways and the tube allow that. Is that not wrong? What do the Government propose to do about it?

Mr. Hoon: I have to say that I am not entirely sure, but we will seriously investigate the matter.

T4. [275307] John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): There is enthusiasm in all parts of the House for a high-speed rail link, but does the Secretary of State agree that a UK-wide high-speed rail system needs a United Kingdom, and that a separate Scotland would be a hindrance to any future proposals?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman is right. I have recently looked at Spain’s high-speed network proposals, and part of its avowed intention in allowing people to travel at high speed across the whole of Spain is to pull the country together. It seems to me important that the ambition for this country should be to achieve the same.

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