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Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, the driving licence, which is already a voluntary identity card, in effect, for most Members of the House, has in the corner the flag of the European Union. Can the Minister assure us--or assure certain Members of the House--that this is not an attempt by the Government to smuggle us without knowing it into carrying the identity card of a European superstate?
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, although the Minister is perfectly correct in saying that if one has too many things on a card the card will perpetually be being sent in to be updated for one reason or another, that does not mean to say that an identity card itself is not a valid thing to have. Can the noble Lord say why we should not have identity cards when our identities are already known in so many different ways, as has been explained by other noble Lords?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I did not say that we should not have identity cards. I tried to indicate that the Government, as with the previous government, have a very open mind on the issue. The previous government consulted in 1995. They had not made up their mind by the time they left office. The noble Earl should know that better than most because he was a Minister in that government. We are giving the matter careful consideration. Certainly, a voluntary national identity card may have benefits. We have discussed this afternoon the value of smartcards. I have no doubt that when we finally conclude on this issue we shall, of course, come up with the right answer.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, responsibility within NATO for ensuring that Alliance plans for Kosovo operations are neither leaked nor disseminated inappropriately rests with the NATO Office of Security. That organisation oversees comprehensive security measures at NATO headquarters in Brussels and elsewhere. The text which appeared on the Internet recently was caused by a benign virus; it was not a deliberate leak. The material, which is now unclassified, had already been shared with some other nations, including Russia, as well as civilian personnel in Kosovo.
The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, our bombing plans were leaked to the Serbs, and now we have the leak of a nine-page document on the rules of engagement for land operations--material which I understand was restricted and which the Minister says is now declassified. Does not that give the Government great cause for concern that our soldiers operating in Kosovo are being put in added danger? What action are the Government taking against the NATO Office of Security in regard to this matter?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, it is important to distinguish between the two sets of incidents to which the noble Earl refers. I hope that I have made it clear to the House that there was no deliberate leak of NATO information. The appearance of the text of the rules of engagement in Kosovo was, as I indicated, the result of a virus. The security classification, which was "NATO/KFOR confidential", appeared at the top of that text as the extract formed part of a larger document, but the creation was a genuine accident. The originator has been identified and appropriate disciplinary action has been taken.
The noble Earl then asked about other incidents where there have been allegations of spying. It is a matter for NATO; however, a NATO spokesman has indicated that there was no evidence of any leaks. Had there been such deliberate leaking in the way implied by the noble Earl, it is surprising that the Serbs did not
Lord Hylton: My Lords, is it not essential that NATO's plans for such flashpoints as Mitrovica and the frontiers of southern Serbia should be kept absolutely secret? On the other hand, is it not important that NATO's determination to protect democracy and maintain the status quo in Montenegro should be made absolutely clear and public?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, of course it is enormously important that any NATO plans for the future handling of the situation in Kosovo--which, although immensely improved compared to the situation previously, is very volatile--have proper security, not least because there are many allied troops whose safety would otherwise be compromised. I assure the noble Lord that we are keeping a close eye on the situation in Montenegro. Mr Milosevic should be in no doubt whatever about that. He has caused enough trouble in the region already. We want Montenegro to have the right to choose its relationship with Serbia and we keep in very close touch with President Djukanovic and his government. I hope the noble Lord is reassured. There is enormous vigilance. He is quite right: NATO should remain secure.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, does the Minister agree that no one in the world has any power to stop the placing of material on the Internet? Does she further agree that when the courts purport to do so, as in the recent case of Demon Internet Limited, the effect is probably that the user takes the custom to foreign service providers?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, there are of course the issues raised by the noble Lord in relation to the Internet. What matters in the first place is the security of documents at their place of origin. That is why it is important that documents that are kept on computers are kept in such a way as not to compromise their security. In this country, the MoD continually reviews and seeks to improve our procedural and electronic security systems. We make sure that all MoD staff are required to read, agree and comply with the security operating system that is used in this country. In addition, we have laws that protect such information, as do our allies, including the United States, to ensure that this kind of information is not compromised by such things as freedom of information.
Lord Burnham: My Lords, what action are Her Majesty's Government taking to ensure that information which is rightly classified in this country is not freely available on the Internet in the United States due to the iniquitous freedom of information legislation in the US?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I indicated that the United States has clear laws on this matter, as we do. The United States freedom of information Act contains an exemption for information which is,
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I begin by expressing a hope that the Minister who will reply to the debate will carefully read, mark and learn the well-informed and extremely well-timed article that appears in today's Evening Standard. I hope also, in view of the excellent advice that I have received from the RAC, that Ministers might lend their ears--that is, if their ears are still working--to the RAC.
Digging holes in roads may seem a rather odd subject with which to detain your Lordships. I should not dream of doing so were it not for the fact that the frequency of the occurrence and the numbers of people who have now made it their favourite recreation have multiplied--with the result that it has now become and serious and costly nuisance.
It may be useful to go over a little of the background to this debate. Noble Lords might recall, through the mists of time, July 1998, when the Government introduced what used to be called a White Paper. It is still called a White Paper, but somehow or other it has become rather coloured and elaborate, even though its contents are just as flat and dull as they always used to be. The White Paper to which I refer was honoured with a foreword by no less a person than the Deputy Prime Minister. Although it is not exactly a storehouse of gems, there are some semi-precious stones which deserve to be remembered.
Some of us still cherish the hope that the Government will proceed to do something about the nuisance caused by holes which so many are free to dig in our roads. I understand that the writer of the article in the Evening Standard, to which I have already referred, contacted the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (as it is now called) and was told that the Government were still urgently considering the problem. The department went on to say that it would probably be wrong to expect action before Christmas. One is tempted to ask: which Christmas?
Patience can be overdone. I know of no greater exemplars of patience than the English people. I believe that they would be well advised to remember the old adage that the axle that squeaks the loudest gets the most grease. Perhaps the time has arrived when this very tiresome nuisance is raised, not just in the hope that somehow, at some time, the Government might do something about it, but with insistence and, if necessary, a degree of anger. I should like to give the Government some of my thoughts on what they could, and should, do now as a token of their new enlightenment. (Whenever I can, I try to introduce the word "new" to bring home the point.)
Perhaps the Government will adopt the suggestion made by my honourable friend Mr Christopher Fraser. In a Bill introduced at the beginning of last year he proposed that the Government should make use of their existing powers to impose fines upon utilities that did not fulfil the details of their plans and, in particular, did not finish on time.
The Government might also consider with sympathy--that is something which central government rarely do--the plight, tasks and responsibilities of highway authorities. Their task is a formidable one. I am advised that the average highway authority can expect to receive some 20,000 applications a year from people seeking to dig up its roads. If the noble Lord wants to interrupt me to say that I am wrong, I shall be delighted. For a moment, I was concerned that my statement had caused the noble Lord some unease. I am glad that that is not so. Highway authorities are the only bodies in this country that are capable of dealing with the problem, but they have neither the muscle nor the resources to do it. I believe that there should be legislation to give them the authority of law to plan, implement and charge for this work and, if necessary, penalise those who do not meet their obligations under plans to which they have agreed.
Others have a role to play. The Highways Agency has attracted my attention. That agency, which is really the alter ego of the DETR, is helpful to Ministers because it provides them with a ready-made alibi. They can wash their hands of something and say that people must complain to the Highways Agency. I am not sure how useful is the Highways Agency at a time when the Government have suspended the road-building programme. Nevertheless, I hope that that agency will play a helpful role. Perhaps it will begin by ensuring that those operations which it still conducts are carried out in a way which has regard to the convenience and interests of the road-using public.
Having dealt with the need to provide highway authorities with additional powers, I turn briefly to the licensees or utilities--all 138 of them. I almost called them "trespassers". I wonder whether they even begin to be aware of the hostility with which they are increasingly viewed by people who are not interested in the rather shallow defence that this work is absolutely necessary. No one disputes that. What is challenged is the way in which the work is carried out--with lack of consideration and efficiency and no concern whatever for the general convenience and interest of other road users.
Some of the names are well known: Transco, Thames Water and British Telecom. British Telecom incurred a good deal of dislike for having dug up one street nine times in 12 months. Such conduct is careless, sloppy and, in the view of the public, unpardonable. In that context, I cannot forbear to mention the television cable companies which have now made their appearance. The only name that I can recall at the moment is McNicholas. They put their green pipes all over the place without any explanation of where they have come from--one can make a guess about that--what they are doing or how long they will take, appearing to be utterly careless of the massive inconvenience caused. Those licensees might do well to adopt a more constructive approach. Instead of opposing every move forward, they might seek from the Government some suggestions of how they might help rather than obstruct.
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, the whole House will be extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, for introducing this topical subject and for his admirable speech. I obtained my first driving licence in 1965. That was one year after the noble Lord had ceased to be Minister of Transport. However, I am told by those who were around when the noble Lord was Minister of Transport that there was ample parking outside every shop, traffic lights were permanently set to green--and holes in the road were known of only by the stories of whey-faced travellers from countries outside this land. Alas, times have changed for the worst.
When I worked for the Sunday Times in the 1980s the then editor, Harold Evans, was in the middle of a great campaign against cones. Every week Fleet Street's finest were sent off to scour the land in search of more cones which were holding up traffic and articles appeared in the Sunday Times attacking them. His executives, who felt that readers were becoming bored with cones, implored him to call off the campaign and move on to other issues. Harold Evans, who was a wise and experienced hand, said, "No, we must continue this campaign. It is only when they start to get bored that you're getting anywhere". So he continued to campaign. And who can say that it did not work? Ten years later John Major introduced the cones hotline.
As a result of his persistence, the campaign of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, deserves to go down in history with the campaign of Harold Evans. We have had representations from the noble Lord when we were unable to reach this House because on 7th February Parliament Square had been dug up; we have had his call for signs by roadworks telling us who perpetrates them; and we have the debate today. So we are deeply indebted to him for raising the problem.
However, I have some problems with the solutions proposed. I have learned a good deal about your Lordships' House in the short time that I have been attending. But I have not hitherto perceived it as a hotbed of traditional socialism. Yet the remedies put forward nearly all seem to belong in the Soviet Union of the 1930s: let us put names to perpetrators of the holes in the road; let us name and shame them; we shall have better co-ordination of holes in the roads; there will be greater powers for highways authorities to curb holes in the roads. Fairly shortly I expect the proposal that the heads of British Telecom--it is such a dire offender in this regard--and some of the other companies be sent for show trial and then exiled to the Outer Hebrides, there to dig and fill in holes without end for the rest of their days--and that would be no more than justice, I agree!
However, I do not think that that would resolve the problems of holes in the roads. Over the years, we have found that administrative solutions to such issues do not work. We would know by now if they did because there have been many attempts.
The noble Lord referred to New Labour. I am New Labour in the sense of believing in the market approach to these questions. I think that the way forward is relatively simple. It is to charge the utilities responsible for digging holes in the road for the value of the time wasted by drivers as a consequence. It is a transport relative of a theory with which we are all familiar and to which we nearly all now adhere: the polluter pays--the blocker pays. It is not a new principle even in transport. When new roads are to be built, they are evaluated by the DETR. A value is put on the time that will be saved by the building of those roads. I checked the figure. It is £3.98 an hour for leisure time, and £16.28 for work time. That may say something about the relative values society gives to work and leisure. The delays caused by building those roads are also costed at exactly the same rates and set in the accounts against the value of the roads. That principle seems applicable in logic to holes in the ground. The delay should be charged to and paid for by the contractor.
I can think of three possible objections, some of which we have seen reflected in the newspapers. First, it would stop certain kinds of development. We would not have cables put into our factories and so on. But a simple principle of economics is this. If the cost of doing something outweighs the benefit, you do not do it. In most cases I do not think that that would be the result. For instance, the benefits of cabling are enormous to society and would outweigh the cost. But in cases where the costs outweigh the benefits, the work should not take place.
There is a variant on that argument: that it would put up prices; that if the gas company had to pay to dig holes in the road the price of gas would go up and that would be inflationary. That is a second and equally crass economic fallacy. It is a fallacy mainly because a change in the relative price level cannot in principle affect the absolute price level in society. That is determined by macroeconomic factors. For example, if the money went to the Government, they might choose to reduce the rate of VAT. The price level would be unchanged but it would shift from a general burden on all consumers to one on the consumers of the gas whose production had caused the delays in the first place.
Finally, that is not what will happen. If one increases the cost of digging the holes, prices will not increase. Companies would start to dig those holes at weekends when there was not much traffic. In the country they would dig them at night when there was no traffic to be delayed. And new techniques would be invented because the old techniques would prove too expensive. Instead of having to dig a hole before companies put in a fibre optic cable, they would soon invent ways of leading fibre optic cables underground which avoided having to pay those charges. That is
The previous government dipped a half toe in the water. Under Section 74 of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991, they can charge for works which continue beyond their allotted time. This Government have gone a little further. Their consultation document in 1999, entitled Reducing disruption for utilities' street works, proposes that there should be a charge not only for those who take too long to dig their holes and fill them in again but also from day one when the work is started. But that is still not a charge related to the degree of disruption caused. It does not matter if it takes a little longer to dig up a minor byway in the country, but it matters tremendously if, as at present, there are dug up in swift order Parliament Square, Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly. Therefore the charges there would be much greater.
The Government have at last started to consult along the right lines, but they have not yet gone far enough. Not many long-lasting problems--it is a lesson of life--lend themselves to relatively easy solutions. I think that this solution is a rare exception. I commend it to the House and the Government.
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