I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 5, line 19, at end insert—
'(3) When exercising any powers made under provisions referred to in subsection (1), and before arranging for the removal of a broken-down vehicle, a traffic officer shall, when this can be done without compromising safety or unreasonably impeding traffic-flow—
(a) grant the driver of the vehicle, where present, a reasonable opportunity to contact a breakdown organisation or other service provider of their choice, and if that organisation confirms to the traffic officer that it will attend the broken-down vehicle as soon as practicable, then the traffic officer shall allow that organisation a reasonable period in which to attend the aforesaid vehicle; or
(b) where the driver of the broken-down vehicle is not a member of a breakdown organisation, take into account any wishes of the driver with regard to attendance on the relevant vehicle and accede to such wishes where this would fulfil the purpose or purposes specified in section 5(3).'.
The amendment would prevent up to 10 million customers of the Royal Automobile Club, the AA, Green Flag and other motoring organisations from effectively being short-changed as a result of the changes proposed in part 1 of the Bill. Assurances have been sought from the Government on this issue, with which the Minister is familiar. Ministers made it clear on Second Reading and in Committee that they do not want the result that motoring organisations fear will flow from the Bill. There is one way in which matters can be satisfied, which is for the Minister to accept this amendment.
The amendment is a modification of what was proposed in Committee. It specifically incorporates the qualification that motoring organisations would not have the right to attend to their customers if, by so doing, they would compromise safety or unreasonably impede traffic flow. In all other circumstances, the customer of a motoring organisation who had broken down on the hard shoulder of a motorway would be able to phone up to call that organisation to attend to his or her needs. The amendment is particularly important for disabled groups and we know that the Disabled Drivers Association strongly supports it.
Briefly, I spoke on Second Reading in support of co-operation between the Highways Agency and recovery operators of the sort that currently obtains between the police and those operators. It is disappointing, all these months later, that the necessary talks have still not happened. I have a copy of the memorandum of understanding between the Association of Chief Police Officers and the operators, so why on earth can we not now have a tripartite understanding between the police, the Highways Agency and the operators?
This is an important issue—and not just because 90 per cent. of the activity is already carried out by the operators. It would be iniquitous if all the people who were members of motoring organisations were denied the use of those operators' services. The Minister would become unpopular if people started getting bigger bills for the removal of their vehicles from the motorway roadside than they would if their operator had turned up.
A constituent recently contacted me about his experiences. It was not a motorway case, but the Minister may be interested to know that the Highways Agency arranged for a private operator to turn up and remove a little bit of oil from the road, for which my constituent was charged £600. The Highways Agency will lose control over the costs. How much better if there were co-operation between the Highways Agency and the operators who have the skills and abilities to work with that agency on a collaborative basis. That would be more efficient, more time-saving and certainly less costly.
I rise to support my hon. Friend on his important amendment. I find it extraordinary that the Government want to do so much damage to well established motoring organisations such as the Royal Automobile Club and the Automobile Association, and to deny motorists their choice and opportunity—[Interruption.] The Minister protests, but he has only to read the reasonable words of the amendment, which make it clear that we wish to
"grant the driver of the vehicle, where present, a reasonable opportunity to contact a breakdown organisation or other service provider of their choice".
Why does the Minister object to that, which seems such a reasonable thing to do? If he does object, as seems to be the case, I presume that, if we had enough time left, he would recommend that his hon. Friends voted the amendment down. That must mean that he has no time for the AA and the RAC, and that he would like them to be displaced by the expensive monopoly proposals in the Bill.
I do hope that the Minister will think again. I shall not develop my argument further, because I want to hear his reply in the hope that, even at this last moment, he might have seen the folly of his ways and grant us leave to add the amendment to the Bill.
One of the reasons provided by several organisations to explain their concerns is their fear of a change of Government. I would certainly endorse that. The real danger with the Bill is that we end up with a Tory Government. I wholly concur, and any sensible person would also be fearful of that possibility.
There remain some genuine concerns about the need to ensure that the breakdown companies remain competitive, and that there is a national competitive framework governing the operation of the various providers. There is concern that the Bill's reasonable provisions are not so open-ended as they appear. The discussions need to be brought to a conclusion. I believe that the memorandum of understanding should become tripartite and that that should happen as quickly as possible. The Government should reiterate the assurances that the breakdown industry is seeking.
Again, these issues were rehearsed at length in Standing Committee. In case there is no time later, I want to make it clear that this Government hold this country's recovery organisations in high regard. The AA, RAC and Green Flag, to name but three, give their members an excellent service. The Government have absolutely no intention of supplanting the excellent work of those organisations. I hope that that reassures the Opposition, who seem hellbent on perpetuating a myth about the Government's intentions.
Clause 9 paves the way for regulations to be made that will empower traffic officers to remove vehicles that are broken down or abandoned, or parked illegally, obstructively or dangerously. The framework set out in regulations under section 99 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 already allows the police to remove vehicles in such circumstances. Opposition Members should be aware of that, as the measure was passed by a Conservative Government. The legislation works well, and so we intend to enable traffic officers to deal with the problem in a similar way.
Vehicles that are broken down, damaged or abandoned represent a safety hazard, especially on motorways and other high-speed roads. They can cause congestion and pose risks to road safety. It is essential that those vehicles can be removed quickly in the interests of the safety of any occupants and of other road users. Motorway hard shoulders and dual carriageway verges are dangerous places, and there are still too many fatalities and serious accidents involving stranded vehicles. It is therefore vital that traffic officers have the ability to require the removal of a stationary vehicle.
Amendment No. 2 would constrain the ability of traffic officers to sort things out. Over time, those officers become very experienced in assessing such situations, but the amendment would impede their discretion to have a vehicle removed. In practice, that could result in an increasingly dangerous situation: the removal of a vehicle from a hazardous location could be delayed while discussions were held on how long it might take a breakdown organisation to come along, or whether a friend was going to come to the driver's assistance.
On a busy motorway, with a vehicle in a dangerous position, that would clearly be totally unacceptable. I fully understand the concerns of the recovery organisations and their members that they should not to be subjected to over-zealous removal by the authorities, but that has not happened to date and there is no reason to believe that it will happen in the future.
Who is in the best position to judge an appropriate course of action? That is a key question. Traffic officers are well trained and experienced professionals who know the network and the prevailing traffic conditions. They will understand more fully the risks inherent in various breakdown situations. They will be at the scene, and also will be in touch with the regional control centres that can provide information relating to conditions elsewhere on the road. They are in the best position to make a judgment on the most appropriate course of action, not the driver or the recovery operators.
I emphasise again that the recovery organisations will be able to attend their members who break down on motorways and trunk roads, as they do now. For those drivers who are not members of a breakdown organisation, the recovery of their vehicles will be dealt with as it is now. That may include the use of police contracts to remove the vehicle from the motorway or trunk road.
The Government are committed to an ongoing dialogue with the recovery industry to see how further improvements can be made to the way that breakdowns are dealt with on motorways and trunk roads. The Highways Agency is convening a working group to discuss issues of removal and disposal of vehicles, and representatives of the recovery industry will be invited to attend. I am told that the working group will meet next
In light of what I have said, I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.