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30 Jul 1999 : Column WA229

Written Answers

Friday, 30th July 1999.

Highways Agency

Lord Hacking asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have completed the review of the Highways Agency announced on 27 October 1998 (WA 210).[HL4076]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): We have now completed the review. We have concluded that the most effective way of delivering a more integrated transport system and a better service to road users will be for the Highways Agency to retain executive agency status.

We intend to build on what the agency has achieved in its first five years. The review established that the Highways Agency has in its first years of existence responded positively to major changes in roads policy with a shift from road construction to maintenance and operation of the network. It has promoted new procurement methods for trunk roads using private finance, reorganised the way that maintenance is delivered and achieved notable cost savings. The agency has now been asked to build on that sound basis to deliver further modernisation of procurement including long term maintenance contracts.

The agency has put much effort into becoming a more customer focused organisation. Improving the service delivered to customers has been central to the way that the agency has planned and carried out its activities. The agency will continue to build strong links with other transport operators.

The review stressed the need for meaningful and appropriate performance indicators to measure efficiency and effectiveness in the future. Work on these is under way. It also identified the need for greater clarity in specifying the role and responsibilities of the department, Ministers and the agency, which has been reflected in the new Framework Document.

The review identified one area which requires further consideration--whether there would be benefits from bringing some of the central department's and the agency's roads standards setting and advisory functions together in one organisation and where they should be located. This will be considered in the autumn.

The conclusions of the review are summarised in a report which is being published today. This, together with a more detailed report evaluating the agency's performance over the last five years, and a new Framework Document for the agency, is available in the Library of the House, and will be shortly on the Internet.

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A.2, Blackheath: Traffic Island Lighting

Lord Higgins asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Further to the Written Answer by the Lord Whitty on 22 July (WA 116) concerning the A.2, how is it that the Greenwich Borough Council were unaware that the traffic islands on the A.2 at Blackheath were unlit at night for many weeks; why regular inspection was not carried out; whether the Department of Transport will now carry out a full inquiry into the way in which the roadworks on Blackheath have been carried out without safety inspections; what sub-contractors have been employed; and whether they are satisfied with the performance of Greenwich Borough Council in acting as a highway authority.[HL4016]

Lord Whitty: I will write to the noble Lord and place a copy of my letter in the Library.

A.2, Kender Street, SE14: Traffic Lights

Lord Higgins asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Further to the Written Answer by the Lord Whitty on 23 July (WA 134) concerning the A.2 at Kender Street, what cost/benefit analysis has been carried out which suggests that the advantage of replacing the pedestrian zebra crossing with traffic lights at Kender Street outweighs the delay to traffic, congestion and pollution caused by the traffic lights; what evidence there is that the traffic lights will improve the traffic on the Red Route rather than slow it; and, in view of the congestion caused by switching on the lights ahead of the rest of the new system, whether they will now be switched off until it is completed;[HL4017]

    Further to the Written Answer by the Lord Whitty on 23 July (WA 134) concerning the A.2 at Kender Street, by how many weeks the work by Greenwich Borough Council has fallen behind schedule; and what penalties will be imposed for failure to complete on time.[HL4018]

Lord Whitty: I will write to the noble Lord and place a copy of my letter in the Library.

London Underground Sub-surface Lines: Railtrack Responsibilities

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    With respect to the sub-surface lines of London Underground, whether it is proposed that Railtrack should be responsible for the maintenance, repair and enhancement of:

    (a) track;

    (b) civil engineering;

    (c) signalling; and

    (d) power supply; and

    Whether the maintenance, repair and enhancement of track, civil engineering, signalling and power supply of the London sub-surface lines will be

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    undertaken in accordance with Railtrack's Group Standards to facilitate the through-running of trains between the sub-surface lines and Railtrack's own infrastructure; and[HL3789]

    Whether their plans for London Underground at present envisage transferring some of the surface sections of deep-tube lines to Railtrack to increase through-running possibilities via the sub-surface lines; and whether the bids being sought for the deep tube infrastructure management will reflect these savings; and[HL3790]

    Which body will decide on the routing and service frequencies of trains operating on both the sub-surface lines and Railtrack's lines through London; and[HL3791]

    Whether the main line stations or depots are likely to be reduced in size or closed as a result of through-running of services between Railtrack lines and sub-surface lines in London; and to whom any resulting development gain will accrue.[HL3792]

Lord Whitty: London Transport is discussing with Railtrack the scope for integrating the Underground sub-surface lines with the national rail network, on which basis Railtrack would acquire the PPP contract for those lines. This is possible because those sub-surface lines and the national rail network share a similar operating gauge--the gauge for the deep tube lines is different, ruling out through-running.

Subject to the successful outcome of those discussions, Railtrack would become responsible under contract to London Transport for the maintenance, repair and upgrade of track, civil engineering and signalling, as well as other infrastructure such as stations. The power supply infrastructure is in the process of being upgraded under a PFI contract London Underground holds with Seeboard Powerlink.

The integration discussions will cover the issues needing to be addressed for through-running, including the capacity allocation and the implications of surplus capacity being generated. It is too early to confirm any details.

Abnormal Load Escorts

Lord Hoyle asked Her Majesty's Government:

    On what issues they sought responses from those consulted about the introduction of private escorts for abnormal loads on motorways; from whom responses to the consultation document were sought; who responded and when they expect to reach conclusions to this question.[HL3832]

The Attorney-General (Lord Williams of Mostyn): The main issue in the consultation document related to the proposal to allow private escorts to take over the police task of escorting abnormal loads weighing between 100 and 150 tonnes, with a width of 4.3-4.6 metres, on motorways and linking dual carriageways only.

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The consultation document was sent to 258 consultees, of whom 57 responded. The responses include letters from the Road Haulage Association, the Heavy Transport Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Highways Agency, the Automobile Association and the Royal Automobile Club. I have arranged for copies of the consultation document, the full list of consultees and the full list of those who responded to be placed in the House of Lords Library.

We expect to reach preliminary conclusions on the issue in the autumn of this year.

The Lord Chancellor's Residence: Charitable Events

Lord Dholakia asked the Lord Chancellor:

    Since announcing that his residence would be available for charity occasions, and also open to the public visitors, how many requests from charities have been accepted; how much money has been raised or pledged for charity; and how many public visits have taken place.[HL3941]

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): Since May 1998, 52 charitable events have taken place in the Lord Chancellor's Residence. Twenty-five requests for such events in the future have been accepted and scheduled; and a further seven accepted, but not yet scheduled.

The various charitable organisations have raised over £1 million arising out of these events; and received pledges significantly in excess of that.

In addition, public tours of the Residence take place every Tuesday and Thursday whilst Parliament is sitting; and on additional days during parliamentary recesses. As at end July, 1999, 125 public tours have taken place, involving over 2,500 visitors.

Legal Aid Costs Awards

Lord McColl of Dulwich asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the Access to Justice Bill will address the legal aid costs rule which encourages low-value claims to be settled regardless of merits.[HL3952]

The Lord Chancellor: The fact that assisted parties rarely have to pay costs if they lose can deter their opponents from pressing their cases fully, regardless of the nature of the assisted party's claim, its value, or its merits. However, the Government do not believe that removing assisted parties' protection from paying costs would be the right action to take. To do so would leave assisted parties, who are among the poorest members of society, at the risk of facing large debts which they would never be able to pay off, and this could deter people from bringing important and meritorious cases.

Currently, if a successful unassisted defendant can satisfy the court that he would otherwise suffer "severe financial hardship", the court can order his costs to be

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paid from the Legal Aid Fund. I recognise that the severity of the test can cause hardship for an unassisted opponent of limited means and in future it is proposed that this test should be relaxed to "financial hardship" subject to the costs implications of such a change being addressed.

The new funding code, which will replace the existing merits test, will better ensure that weak or trivial cases do not receive public help in the first place. The code will reflect the strict costs and risks versus benefits questions which a prudent person would ask when deciding whether to run the risk of litigating privately at his or her own expense.

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