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House of Lords

Tuesday, 30th March 1999.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bradford.

Lord Melchett--Made the solemn Affirmation.

European Emergency Telephone Numbers: Harmonisation

Baroness Trumpington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have considered harmonisation of emergency telephone numbers throughout the European Union.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, there are no plans to harmonise emergency telephone numbers. However, the single European emergency call number, 112, which has existed in parallel with national emergency numbers since 1992 is very useful for British holidaymakers, who need to remember only one emergency number wherever they travel in the European Union.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that interesting Answer. Is he aware that I am prepared to bet that he is the only noble Lord in this Chamber who knows that 112 number? In the light of that, will the Government promote a leaflet giving that number, plus any other European emergency numbers, and the American emergency number, to all British travellers? Does the 112 number apply to a Walloon making an emergency telephone call in this country?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, in the majority of member states, including the UK, awareness of the number 122--

Noble Lords: 112!

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, 112! That number has been publicised by operators, regulators or other organisations. In the UK, British Telecom publicises the 112 number in its telephone directories. However, as neither I, before this debate, nor my wife, nor Lady Trumpington, nor anyone else I have talked to, knows of the existence of that number, I expect that we have a problem with communication. I shall talk to the Director-General of the Office of Telecommunications to consider, with the telecom industry, what more may be done.

Viscount Addison: My Lords, would it not be sensible for travel companies to issue the number on documentation that is given to those travelling abroad?

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Emergency numbers could be shown on confirmation sheets so that travellers have the necessary numbers that follow their progress.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, that seems to be a remarkably sensible suggestion. I shall make certain that, as far as we are able, we shall encourage that to happen.

Road Maintenance

11.9 a.m.

Lord Islwyn asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have held recent discussions with local authorities concerning the maintenance of local roads.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, discussions between my department and local government associations took place last summer on the standard spending assessment formulae, including the one for highways maintenance. Those formulae are used to allocate revenue support grant. Capital structural maintenance of local authority A roads is funded through the transport supplementary grant. Local authority bids are submitted to my department after discussions between local authorities and Government Office officials in the regions.

Lord Islwyn: My Lords, as 94 per cent. of passenger traffic and 91 per cent. of freight within the United Kingdom is moved by road, does the Minister agree that if we are to build an efficient and competitive economy, the highest priority must be given to the maintenance of our road network? Does the Minister recognise that there is a major shortfall in the maintenance of local roads? Can the Government make adequate funds available, besides enforcing a form of ring-fencing, to ensure that that vital work is carried out?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, my noble friend is clearly right. The majority of both private and commercial traffic is carried on roads in this country. We intend to achieve a modal shift so that more freight is carried on the railways. However, even if we achieve the target set by the Government and the freight operators of a threefold increase in freight on the railways, 70 per cent. will still be carried by road. Therefore, it is important that we maintain adequate highways, particularly trunk roads.

The roads review has allocated substantially greater resources to maintenance and there are great improvements in techniques. As far as local roads are concerned, an extra £276 million has been allocated, over the three-year period to revenue maintenance, and capital maintenance for roads and bridges has increased this year by over one-third. So we are providing additional resources.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, given that the Government intend to transfer 40 per cent. of the trunk

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road network to the control of local authorities, can the Minister give the House an assurance that sufficient funds will flow from the Government to local authorities to maintain those roads and, more importantly, that local authorities actually spend that money on road maintenance and not on other things?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, we intend to de-trunk roughly 40 per cent. of the non-motorway network, as the noble Lord said. The de-trunking will take place in negotiation with local authorities and will include a financial allocation. We have indicated that in the comprehensive spending review period that should consist both of an adjustment to the SSA and, where appropriate, capital grants.

Road maintenance has never been hypothecated. However, it is a myth that there is serious underspending. The variation has been less than 2 per cent. between the assumption and the actual expenditure of local authorities. Therefore, we are not inclined to move down the hypothecation avenue. We believe that we should leave such decisions to local authorities.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, given the Government's policy of devolution and, therefore, subsidiarity, their objective in the long-term should be for local authorities to make their own decisions on how to allocate finance, be it for local road maintenance or anything else? While I accept that they should be given adequate money to spend on all their resources, does he agree that ring-fencing for particular matters, such as the maintenance of local roads, is not the way forward?

Lord Whitty: Yes, my Lords, our whole approach is to give greater choice to local authorities to make their own decisions in the light of their own priorities. However, major capital maintenance, like other capital projects, is subject to local transport plans and therefore to earmarking by the Government.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, is absolutely right? The more that the Government ring-fence other amounts of local authority expenditure--for example, education expenditure, which is a large part of local government spending--the less flexibility local authorities have to make up their own minds? Roads matter very much to local people, as does education. If the Government continue in this manner, soon there will not be any point in being a member of a local authority.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, in terms of restriction of local authority decisions, I am tempted to make a party political point about the past 18 years, but I shall refrain. This Government's policy is to ensure that local authorities make their own decisions. The financial regime is moving in that direction. We are examining the SSA process beyond the period of the current comprehensive spending review in order to achieve that.

Lord Elton: My Lords, as one who shed the chain off a brand-new bicycle going into a pothole in Regent

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Street on the first day of riding it, may I ask the Minister whether he is aware that the question may not be hypothecated, but it is certainly not hypothetical? As a Minister in a government who believe in reducing the use of fuel, is the noble Lord aware that a pothole, which is negligible to a lorry driver, inconvenient to a motorist, and a danger to a cyclist, can kill a motorcyclist?

Lord Whitty: Yes, my Lords, that may well be the case in certain circumstances. In our guidance to local authorities--I believe that the noble Lord was referring to a local authority road--we make it clear that one of their priorities must be the safety of all road users.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, I wonder whether for my benefit, and perhaps that of other Members of your Lordships' House, the Minister can define "local roads" in the context of this Question?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as I understand it, my noble friend's Question relates to roads which are run by local highways authorities rather than by the Highways Agency in England.

Unemployment: Regional Differences

11.15 a.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why, as shown by the most recent unemployment figures, unemployment has increased in the Northern Region, while it has decreased in all other regions: and why the figure for the Northern Region remains the highest for all regions except Northern Ireland.

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