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Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, these amendments aim to ensure that all registers are kept in electronic form, enabling those to whom a permit is issued by an authority to have unrestricted access to the information contained therein. We welcome the idea of increasing accessibility to information and thus the promotion of transparency and accountability. However, I want to ask the Minister what estimates have been drawn up for the costs of running such an online system, and where he envisages that money will come from.

Last week I was fortunate enough to be given an opportunity to see the London Traffic Control Centre control rooms. I was enormously impressed with the electronic systems already installed and the detail of the information provided by them. That is a great achievement since the centre has been up and running only since May. I understand from the staff that the information will be made available to undertakers and, perhaps, some of it to the general public in the future. I hope that this will be the standard to be set throughout the country, not only in London.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to the two noble Lords who have spoken to the amendment and to the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, for the way in which he introduced it.

As the noble Earl said, the Government have considerable sympathy with the thinking behind these amendments and we have already charged the working group of utilities and local authorities looking at the details of permit regulations to consider what provision needs to be made in relation to the keeping of registers and permits. Our initial view is that such registers should build on the registers which local highway authorities already have to keep under the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 on works which take place on streets in their areas.

We do not want to confine the group unnecessarily, especially as Clause 36 already allows for regulations to make the necessary provision in the light of the group's work. The work is going ahead in the hands of a useful, constructive working group. I am sure the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, recognises the importance of that.

As to Amendment No. 55, I should emphasise that the noble Earl is making a request to a Government who are very concerned that we should be up to date
 
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in the electronic age. He will know that a very large amount of government material is now kept in electronic form. We recognise the point he makes.

As they stand, the clauses already allow such matters to be prescribed in regulations but, once again, we believe that they are best left for the working group to consider and make recommendations before we take any firm decisions. In particular, there may be circumstances under which it would not be appropriate for information on certain works to be universally available—for instance, for reasons of commercial confidentiality. The noble Earl will recognise that automatic electronic access in those circumstances could raise some interesting points. It may be necessary to introduce appropriate checks and restrictions on the communication of such information.

We recognise the constant prods that the noble Earl gives us in relation to certain aspects of legislation and the need to move into the electronic age. We are not being obstructive, but the working group has one or two knotty problems to resolve. I hope the noble Earl will accept the assurance that we are making progress on this issue and feel able to withdraw the amendment.

The Earl of Erroll: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his kind comments. I am trying to prod some of the people behind the Minister rather than those on the Front Bench, who fully appreciate the need to move forward. However, certain elements are more hidebound and it sometimes needs a good prod from somewhere else to get them moving.

I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, that there will be a cost in not doing this because the Freedom of Information Act will become active from 1 January 2005. I believe that this is the kind of information that could be requested under that Act; I see no reason why it should be suppressed. Simply because some information may be embarrassing or difficult is no excuse for not producing it within 20 days.

It may be worthwhile looking at such systems to ensure that the information can be retrieved economically. Many government departments may not have become fully aware of these systems, although I know that they are thinking hard about them. They have been implemented in Northern Ireland and Scotland to great effect, although I believe that Susiephone has now changed its name.

I am delighted that the working group is looking at the issue. I am sure that its members are good people who, with a prod from their leaders, will get on with the job and ensure that this kind of enhanced communication takes place. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Davies of Oldham moved Amendment No. 54:


"(c) with respect to the keeping of accounts, and the preparation and publication of statements of account, relating to permit schemes."
 
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On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 55 and 56 not moved.]

Lord Borrie moved Amendment No. 57:


"WORKS CARRIED OUT BY LOCAL AUTHORITIES
(1) The appropriate national authority may by regulations make provision for the control of the carrying out by local authorities of works which would be subject to a permit scheme if carried out by undertakers.
(2) Regulations made under subsection (1) must secure that the controls correspond so far as possible with those that would apply if the works were carried out by undertakers.
(3) Regulations made under section 36(6) (permit regulation) shall require the registers to include specified information concerning any specified works that the local highway authority proposes to undertake or is undertaking in the area to which the register relates."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the amendment stands in my name and those of my noble friend Lord Berkeley and the noble Earl, Lord Erroll.

We have all been concerned, both in Grand Committee and earlier today, that there should be a measure of equity as between the utilities, on the one hand, and local authorities, on the other, when they are carrying out road works. The terms and conditions applied to utilities in order to constrain traffic disruption should, as far as possible, be also applied to local authorities when they are carrying out road works.

My noble friend Lord Evans of Temple Guiting said in Grand Committee that the word "works" in the interpretation clause, Clause 38, can be required to include works under the Highways Act 1980, covering a wide range of works carried out by local authorities, including road maintenance work. So they can be included in permit schemes. I was not entirely clear as to whether "they can be" meant "they will be". Perhaps the Minister will explain that a little further.

Given that highway authorities frequently work through the use of external contractors on annual contracts or even completely outsource the work, it seems appropriate that such works should require some kind of permit scheme in order to ensure compliance and a level playing field for the utilities. Indeed, when highway authorities grant licences to third party developers seeking access to the public highway, it is even more obvious that such works should attract some kind of permit scheme.

The amendment seeks to provide that regulations will ensure that controls over local authority works will correspond as far as possible with the controls applicable to works carried out by the utilities. I beg to move.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I support the amendment. We discussed earlier today the principle of equity between highways authorities and those who dig up the road for other purposes. We should not forget that the definition of "roads" includes footpaths and cycle ways.
 
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As my noble friend Lord Borrie said, contractors are often used and, as the noble Earl said, within local authorities the department which issues the permit is often different from the one which organises the roads. It is therefore very important that an amendment of this kind is included for reasons of equity.

Whether contractors are working for Transco or the local authority, they all have the same signs—including "road works ahead", "footpath closed", "cyclists dismount" and all kinds of other horrible things. But it does not make any difference; they have all got the same road signs and they all need to come under the Bill, whoever they are working for.


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