Clause 1 - Traffic officers: introduction

Traffic Management Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 27th January 2004.

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Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South 9:45 am, 27th January 2004

I remind the Committee of the money resolution and the Ways and Means resolution in connection with the Bill, copies of which are available on the Table in the middle of the Room. I remind hon. Members that adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a general rule my fellow Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments, including any that may be reached during an afternoon sitting of the Committee.

Having heard no trilling of mobile phones, I assume that all hon. Members have turned them off. If not, I suggest that they do so now. I hope that members of the Committee will live up to their fine words this morning about intending to move speedily through the Bill while also giving it the detailed scrutiny that it requires. I am sure that my fellow Chairman would agree with that.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 1, in

page 1, line 9, leave out from 'network;' to end of line 11.

No. 26, in

page 1, line 9, leave out '; or'.

No. 27, in

page 1, line 11, at end insert

'; or

(c) the detection and enforcement of traffic law and regulation on the relevant road network'.

No. 87, in

page 1, line 11, at end insert—

'(ba) liaison with local traffic authorities to assist the management of traffic moving over relevant and local roads'.

No. 2, in

page 1, line 15, leave out from 'State);' to end of line 2 on page 2.

No. 145, in

clause 5, page 3, line 17, after 'the', insert 'safe'.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

This is the first time I have ever sat on a Standing Committee on a Bill, Miss, Begg, and I did not expect to speak to the first amendment. If, therefore, I proceed incorrectly, I beg your indulgence and the Committee's, and hope that you will speedily put me right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) and I tabled amendments Nos. 86 and 87, which affect subsection (2) but fulfil separate purposes. Amendment No. 86 would make it clear that the role of traffic officers is connected with the safe movement of traffic as part of their overall duties. It might be argued that that would put too much emphasis on safety, but nothing in part 1 as it stands refers to safety. Having no mention of safety could mean that the sole duty of the traffic officers was centred on moving traffic along. There are times and places where there could be a conflict between best practice for safety and what might be best for congestion. In those situations, officers will need to have due regard to safety. I am not at all certain that the amendment is the perfect way of achieving that aim, so if the Minister would like to suggest a better way, I should be delighted to listen.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Does not ''management'' suggest an ordered routine and, by implication, that it should be ''safe''?

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

That is an interesting question, about which we could have a long debate. When I used to lecture on the difference between management and leadership at Cranfield and other places, we spent a great deal of time arguing about what management was. Many companies refer to health and safety management as something separate. The responsibilities of company directors for health and safety are clearly set out apart from their fiduciary and other duties. That is because successive Governments have rightly insisted that health and safety in the workplace is so important that it needs to be singled out from overall management. I should like to draw a parallel between that and the provisions in the clause. I do not seek to force the amendment, but wish to find a way of ensuring that a proper regard for safety is part of the overall duties of a traffic officer. I am grateful to the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety for having suggested the amendment, but I am aware that others may be possible.

Amendment No. 87 would add a new duty on traffic officers, after subsections (2)(a) and (2)(b), to liaise with local traffic authorities. The reason for that is that we are entering uncharted territory. We are going to have a new force of officers to deal with traffic, new traffic managers and, possibly, new traffic directors. Many in local government are worried that

if those in such posts are allowed to go their own sweet way without due regard to what local authorities try to do, we might end up with a dialogue of the deaf. Amendment No. 87 would therefore impose a duty to discuss what is going on with local traffic authorities. There is a feeling that the Bill does not anticipate the concerns of equivalent staff employed by local authorities. Amendment No. 87 makes it clear that there should be a relationship with the authority, because officers might not be aware of its traffic management pressures, including issues that arise from duties set out elsewhere in the Bill. The duty to liaise will therefore ensure that the two parties talk to each other.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:00 am, 27th January 2004

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman. One cannot go far wrong, one might think, in concentrating on safety and liaison, particularly when discussing road traffic. I have no quarrel with what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I hope that the Minister will say why the amendments should not be incorporated in the Bill.

Turning to the amendments tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends, amendment No. 1 is a probing amendment to discover why we need clause 1(2)(b), which states:

''the performance of any other functions of the appropriate national authority (in its capacity as a traffic authority or highway authority).''

What exactly does that mean and can the Minister expand on it?

Amendments Nos. 26 and 27 would make it clear that

''the detection and enforcement of traffic law and regulation on the relevant road network''

is a material part of the duties of a traffic officer. Does the Minister regard the role of a traffic officer as akin to that of the community support officer who supports the police in their role nationally? Will the traffic officers have a similar role vis-à-vis the road traffic law, or will they be restricted to clearing away incidents and removing obstructions from the highway?

The Minister may think that the detection and enforcement of traffic law is important. For instance, he may think that if a traffic officer is first on a scene at an accident, he should be responsible for making notes and asking questions, as appropriate, centred around evidence that there has been a breach of traffic law and regulation on the road network.

We know that the incidence of breaches of traffic law is great. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will agree that most people would regard the drivers of vehicles that crash into the back of others on the highway because they are not driving at a safe distance as having a greater degree of culpability than those caught speeding at 85 mph or 95 mph on the motorway in clear conditions, especially when no lives are put at risk by their driving behaviour. However, relatively few people involved in the concertina accidents that bedevil the motorway network, which take a long time to clear up, are prosecuted for driving without due care and attention or of driving without

reasonable consideration for other road users. If the knowledge that their being involved in such an accident results in drivers being proceeded against, we may see an improvement in the quality of motorway driving. The same should apply to those who hog the outside lane or overtake on the inside.

I am interested to hear what the Minister thinks the relationship should be between the role of the traffic officer and that of the ordinary police, and whether, as a result, there will be more traffic officers and fewer police on the motorways. If traffic officers are first on the scene of an accident, should they not have some responsibility along the lines suggested by the amendments?

Amendment No. 2 deals with Wales. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne is an expert on that and will address the Committee on it. The other amendments deal with safety, and they have been discussed. I hope that the Minister will, as a result of this short debate, expand on what he sees as the traffic officer's role.

Photo of Mr Brian White Mr Brian White Labour, North East Milton Keynes

Amendment No. 145 is similar to amendment No. 86 and has, in a sense, been amalgamated with it. When I tabled it, however, I did not realise that the Liberal Democrats would table something similar. I can assure the Minister that it is not normally my habit to agree with the Liberal Democrats. Having said that, it was the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley)—now the Conservative health spokesperson—who tended to end up agreeing with me in the previous Committee on which I served, which considered the Communications Bill. The Minister may or may not think that the present circumstances are an improvement.

Amendments Nos. 86 and 145 are about the safe management of traffic. The issue of safety is implicit in the Bill, but, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross rightly said, there is an opportunity to make it explicit. Given the number of deaths on the roads, there are clearly issues around road safety, but as several hon. Members said, there is the possibility of confusion.

As the new officers are introduced, however, we will have an opportunity to raise road safety awareness. Much of this part of the Bill is about how the new structure will operate in practice, but the Minister could use this opening to make it clear that traffic officers will play a key role in promoting safety and will have a great opportunity to reduce deaths and improve road safety. It would be a major improvement if the Minister, in considering the practicality of operating the system, took on board the fact that safety should be an explicit and key part of traffic officers' duties.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch rightly predicted that I would address the Committee on the amendments. He also applied the word ''expert'' to me, but it will become clear over the next couple of weeks that I am no expert in anything.

I find myself in the same difficulty as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White). As he demonstrated, it comes hard to say

that the Liberal Democrats are being sensible, although the hon. Member for half of Scotland—if I understand my geography correctly—has come up with something reasonable, albeit that he had help from others, as he admitted. I say that because I represent the busiest bit of the M25, between junctions 12 and 15, and anyone who wants to assert that attempts to manage the M25 are, by definition, sensible and safe should come to my constituency. In the light of my experience, I am not persuaded that attempts to sort out even one bit of road will be successful if we simply tell someone to go and manage it in the belief that they will do so sensibly and safely. I therefore have a degree of sympathy for amendment No. 86, tabled by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. Of course, it would be quite awkward if he were to put me in a real fix by asking me to vote with the Liberal Democrats, but we shall see.

On amendments Nos. 1 and 2, I do not need to be an expert on Wales to say that amendment No. 2 mops up the point that amendment No. 1 tries to make. Amendment No. 1 deals with places that are not in Wales, while amendment No. 2 applies the same argument to those that are. Of course, it is perfectly reasonable for the Government to introduce a Bill, saying, ''We are going create traffic officers and to specify what they will do.'' We can debate whether traffic officers are a good idea; that is part and parcel of why we are here. Our judgment as to whether they are a good idea will be based on what they are intended to do. Clause 1(2)(a) makes it clear that they are there for the safe management of traffic on the relevant road network. We can debate that idea, which is reasonable if it will make our roads safer and we can help people to move around more quickly.

What I object to, and have done on every Committee on which I have sat—I shall be interested to see whether the Minister can persuade me otherwise—is that, having defined in subsection (2)(a) the purpose of traffic officers, subsection (2)(b) says that they perform other functions. Why bother with a subsection that says what they can do if there is another that says that they can do anything? Alternatively, why have a subsection saying that they can do anything when the purpose of the legislation is to say that they can do something specific? The purpose of amendments Nos. 1 and 2 is to clear that up. We need either subsection (2)(a) or subsection (2)(b); we do not need both. To give blanket permission to officials to do whatever they like is a bad way of going about things, so my preference is for subsections (2)(a) and (3)(a), rather than (2)(b) and (3)(b). Which is it to be? If the Minister says that we need to give general powers, I look forward to hearing his explanation. He will have a mighty task to persuade me that he is right.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

My connection with RoadPeace, as a patron of that charity, is in the public domain. I also chair the all-party group on road traffic victims, which works in the interests of victims and their families.

On behalf of victims' organisations, I seek assurances on a number of points. The Minister

knows, as does every member of the Committee, that the investigation at the scene of a road traffic crash is a highly specialised task. However, there are enormous contradictory pressures. For example, road users want the road cleared quickly, but in the interests of justice, victims and their families want a thorough investigation. In many instances, the circumstances that an officer faces are similar to those in a house where there has been a burglary; it is sensible to seal off the place so that the scene is investigated as a scene of crime, but the pressures of the situation can result in potential evidence being cleared up quickly in the interests of other road users. It can cause enormous distress to victims' families if the consequence of that is that prosecution cannot take place.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Is there not a difference in the way in which the police treat different sorts of victims? If the victim merely has a damaged car, the police may, as a matter of policy, decide before attending that if there is no personal injury they will not prosecute, even if it is clear that somebody has been driving carelessly. Then they will make no attempt to preserve the evidence, and that can make it difficult for the person with the damaged car to present proof in a civil action. However, so far as I am aware, in every case in which there is serious injury, the police ensure that the evidence at the scene is preserved.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. I agree with the line that he is developing. I am obviously putting my remarks in the context of the new position of traffic officer.

My argument is that the traffic officer should not interfere with potential evidence without the authority of a properly appointed investigating officer. That may mean that, from time to time, motorists will be inconvenienced, but I think that Committee members will agree that where justice needs to be done, such inconvenience may be necessary.

There are circumstances in which only one car might be involved. It seems obvious that in such a case there would be no potential for prosecuting another person, and that the car should therefore be removed from the scene as quickly as possible. However, even in those circumstances there are exceptions; the crash might have been caused by design failure. That is increasingly rare with sophisticated modern car design, as I know from the excellent cars built in my constituency. I hope that the Minister has driven in one of them.

Will the Minister make it clear that normally, where more than one vehicle is involved and a death or serious injury has occurred, the traffic officer will not attempt to remove evidence before a proper investigation?

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:15 am, 27th January 2004

I rise primarily to speak to amendment No. 27, which is a probing amendment. I should like to hear what the Minister has to say about this aspect of the matter. Surely, while carrying out their primary duty under clause 1(2)(a), traffic officers should have a

responsibility to keep their eyes and ears open for traffic law infringements.

It would not be an onerous duty if traffic officers directing traffic were expected, while there were stationary or near-stationary queues, to have a look at tax discs and make a note of cars with no disc or an out-of-date disc. The information could be relayed to the police. Alternatively, there might be clear evidence from a driver's demeanour that he was under the influence of drink or drugs. Will traffic officers exercising duties under paragraph (a) also be encouraged to look out for other traffic infringements?

I appreciate that that might create problems. Traffic officers will not, presumably, be versed in the laws of evidence in the same way as police officers, or trained to deal with troublesome characters. Their engagement should not therefore be at the same level as a police officer's. However, they should surely keep an eye out to see that the traffic that they encounter obeys the law in the relevant respects. It is no part of our argument that traffic officers should be made into cowboy constables, but they should be given direction about their role in the wider duty of preventing motorists from breaking the law in various respects.

The benefits would be assistance to the police in detection of traffic offences and to the DVLA in keeping track of vehicles not properly taxed; the Treasury would thereby also be helped to recover some of the money that those motorists avoid paying. I should welcome the Minister's comments on the amendment.

On the wider duty in paragraph (a), will the Minister explain the relationship between traffic officer and the vehicles inspectorate? Will the traffic officer assist members of the vehicles inspectorate when they decide to carry out a traffic check? If so, who will have the command position? To whom will the vehicles inspectorate be accountable? We can all understand why the vehicles inspectorate is necessary. The scrupulous owner of a heavy goods vehicle has it plated regularly, which means that it undergoes a test to see that it is roadworthy. An unscrupulous employer, however, may deliberately overload a heavy goods vehicle that he owns so that it carries a larger payload, which makes it dangerous. The vehicles inspectorate therefore performs a valuable role when it checks heavy goods vehicles.

I am less certain of the need for the vehicles inspectorate to stop and check private motorists, because a private car that is properly taxed will have had to have had an MOT test within the previous 12 months at the most. I know from personal experience how many times the vehicles inspectorate has decided that it wants to check private cars on a main tourist route at the height of summer, thereby increasing traffic delays considerably. The traffic officer has a duty, which I hope is his prime duty, to keep traffic moving. If the vehicles inspectorate suddenly decides that it wants to stop cars on a road that is a busy holiday route to one of our seaside towns, I hope that the traffic officer can tell the vehicles inspectorate to think again and point out that that is not the right time or place for it to start checking private vehicles.

As I said, I well understand why the vehicles inspectorate checks heavy goods vehicles. There is, however, a case for it to have a lighter touch when stopping private vehicles. I hope that the Minister will explain whether the traffic officer will be able to direct the vehicles inspectorate in that regard.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

That was a helpful and good-natured opening to the debate.

Safety on our roads is enormously important to us, and has been to Governments for a long time—since the 1950s. I am pleased to say that Governments of all parties have seen a reduction in the number of casualties on our roads, to the extent that, for the miles travelled and the number of people who move around our country, we now have the safest roads in the world. In our 10-year plan, we set ourselves a target of reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured by 40 per cent., and by 50 per cent. for children. I am pleased to report that after only three years, we have seen an overall reduction of 17 per cent. Spectacularly, we have seen a 35 per cent. reduction in the numbers of children killed and seriously injured on our roads. That must be good news. It is down to the work of a large number of people.

Safety is at the core of everything that we do and is the core of this part of the Bill. The amendments tabled respectively by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East are unnecessary, because part of the duties and functions of the Highways Agency has always been the safe operation of the roads. As hon. Members know, it is central to highway and traffic design, maintenance, construction and operation. The agency is, of course, subject to health and safety legislation, which provides an overarching framework for the way in which it operates. There is a difficulty in dealing with safety alone in the Bill a way that would unbalance some of the competing risks and priorities that need to be managed when dealing with incidents on the motorways. We need a flexible approach because, as we all know, every incident is different. No one wants the motorway closed for hours because traffic officers have been driven to take an unduly cautious approach. On the other hand, we want them to ensure that the roads are safe. Earmarking safety could rule out some of the other priorities that traffic officers have, such as keeping the traffic moving. That is an issue partly of convenience, but it is also an important economic issue. The hours lost in congestion through major hold ups and incidents may not create any further risk to people, but they certainly cause massive inconvenience and sometimes enormous economic loss as people try to get to work and lorry journeys are delayed.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

Does the Minister accept that it is also an environmental issue? To go back to my point about the M25 near Heathrow, one of the biggest problems confronting the Minister and his colleagues is that stationary traffic generates more air pollution than aircraft do. The issue needs to be addressed. If this measure helps, local people in my constituency will be grateful.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; there is an environmental issue. A vehicle standing still on tick-over is at the most polluting part of its cycle; it is when it is travelling at perhaps 50 or 60 mph on a motorway or trunk road that it is at the least polluting part of its cycle. Those who live close to major trunk roads and motorways find it a problem when the traffic is congested. I lived for a long time next to the A38, which takes people from all over the country into Devon and Cornwall. My house was no further than 70 yds from the road, and at some times of the year it was extremely polluting. Mercifully, most vehicles are now endlessly cleaner than they were 20 years ago, but it is still a problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) and the hon. Member for Spelthorne raised a good point about what would happen if a traffic officer were first at an incident on the road. Of course, that may well be the case. If traffic officers are going about their everyday duty, patrolling the roads, they may see an incident and be the first there. Sometimes as ordinary citizens, we find ourselves the first person at an incident.

Clear protocols of operation will be in place between traffic officers and the police. There will be a clear understanding of what can and cannot be done by a traffic officer when her or she first arrives. In the first instance, their job will be to ensure that no consequential collisions take place following the incident. They might direct traffic away from it. They might phone the control centre and make sure that variable message signs, where available, indicate to other motorists that there is a problem and reduce the speed limit. Such measures could stop consequential accidents. Often, when one incident happens, another occurs, sometimes in the lane going in the other direction thanks to the famous action of rubber-necking as people slow down to see what is going on.

The traffic officers would be involved in such preventative actions, and if people were injured, they would offer the sort of aid that any person would give before an ambulance arrived. They would obviously not attempt to move equipment or people in a way that endangered the people or any evidence that was to be collected by police officers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston will find that clause 4 says:

''A traffic officer shall, when carrying out his duties, comply with any direction of a constable.''

Once the police have arrived on the scene, which will generally be within a few minutes on a trunk road or motorway, it is the constable, and therefore the police, who takes over. The traffic officer will lend support—very important support—making sure that people are warned of what is happening, slowing down other vehicles and making sure that once the evidence has been collected, the road is clear in good time. That sometimes does not happen at present. We have come across incidents on occasion that have taken many hours to clear, with all the inconvenience and frustration that goes with that. I can cite an example where there was no evidence of a traffic offence, but where it took 11 or 12 hours after a lorry had

overturned to clear up. Twelve hours of inconvenience can mean millions of pounds of economic loss for people who cannot get through. We must balance the issues carefully. I think and hope that we have got the balance right.

Photo of Mr Paul Marsden Mr Paul Marsden Shadow Minister, Transport 10:30 am, 27th January 2004

I appreciate that every circumstance is different, but say, for example, there is a prang on a single carriageway that has solid double white lines down the middle, and a queue backs up down the road as the drivers exchange insurance details, documents and so on. A traffic officer arrives, sees that there is no serious injury, realises that the incident can be cleared fairly quickly, and so directs the queuing traffic to cross the double white lines in order to drive past. One could interpret that as an infringement of the highway code, so where does the responsibility lie?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Traffic officers will initially work mainly on the motorway system, where such considerations would not apply, and on trunk roads. A traffic officer might even tell traffic passing an obstruction on a motorway to move on to the hard shoulder. The hon. Gentleman's example is probably not a very good one. I can think of other examples where a traffic officer might remove part of the central reservation, completely stopping the traffic in the other carriageway while traffic was moved from one carriageway to another. Police officers sometimes do that now if there is a serious blockage. In the normal course of events that would be an offence, but the police have the ability to override that in the interests of safety and convenience.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne talked about slow moving traffic in hold-ups. Recalling the anniversary of the M11 blockage, I am concerned not only by what happens at serious incidents, but by the possibility of people being left in cars for long periods without food or heat. That poses a further risk to life, particularly to children or diabetics, for example. That is one reason why we must get traffic moving in such incidents and reduce the risks.

In August, we faced the opposite situation on the M42. People were trapped on the motorway after it was completely blocked in temperatures above 40º C. In that incident, some of the Highways Agency staff and police co-operated with local welfare organisations and took water and other refreshments to the people trapped in cars in the queue, whose health was at risk. We must consider those issues more widely than within the narrow confines of what has happened at an incident.

In connection with amendments Nos. 1 and 26, the hon. Member for Christchurch asked why subsection (2)(b) is necessary. If we remove that provision and restrict the duties that a traffic officer may be asked to perform, the opportunity for officers to undertake activities relating to other traffic or highway functions of the appropriate national authority—the Highways Agency or the Welsh Assembly—will be lost. Such a restriction would be unnecessary and would

undermine the service that traffic officers are intended to provide, which is to feed back a unique driver's-eye view of the road network and provide valuable information to the Highways Agency. That will help to ensure that the roads are in good condition and fit for use. Such activity is more closely associated with traditional highways authority functions than with traffic management, but it should not be ignored. There are other important issues that traffic officers could deal with.

In practice, traffic officers could report on and sometimes deal with matters relating to highway assets. For example, they could report on the state of the roads, and ensure that signs are appropriately placed, they could report on visible defects in the road or its structure, and they could even identify blocked drains, which was the cause of recent flooding on motorways. Traffic officers could help with other incidental but nevertheless important tasks, such as the potentially powerful role of contributing to education and information exercises with the general public. I hope that my clarification has been helpful.

I was staggered to see amendment No. 27, which suggests transferring or extending some police powers to traffic officers. We have no intention whatever of doing that. Traffic officers will obviously have a role to play in reducing congestion and helping traffic to move more safely, but it would be wholly inappropriate for them to enforce the law. That would result in overlapping and conflicting responsibilities between traffic officers and the police, which would be most unfortunate. I seem to remember that a matter of weeks ago—over the Christmas period, perhaps—the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) made some strong comments about people who are not part of the police force having a duty to enforce the law. We would not want that duty to be extended, although I accept that the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire said that the amendment was a probing one.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Can the Minister clarify one point? I understand that community support officers have a specific responsibility to escort abnormal loads on the motorways. I understand that traffic officers, too, will have the same duty. Community support officers are given specific powers of arrest in particular circumstances, and they are given quasi-legal responsibilities more akin to those of the police officer. Are we saying that, in the hierarchy of things, a community support officer will be a superior being to the traffic officer, even when they are carrying out the same function, and even if the traffic officer has higher qualifications?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

They will generally be carrying out different functions. The community support officer works in close association with the police. In certain circumstances, traffic officers could escort large vehicles or abnormal loads, but so can totally civilian bodies. A variety of groups could do that job. However, when traffic officers carry out such functions, they will take on some of the work that the police now have to do, thereby releasing and liberating them to do other things.

Amendment No. 87, a Liberal Democrat amendment, deals with working in liaison with local authorities. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said that we were moving into uncharted territory. That is not entirely so. The Highways Agency and local authorities have been co-operating closely for a long time. We cannot talk about improvements to the strategic network entirely in isolation from the local road network, and we never have. Current planning is underpinned not only at the strategic planning level but at the day-to-day working level.

We have created a land use and transport planning system that provides a genuine shift to regional and local accountability and decision making. Regional transport strategies are now an integral part of regional planning guidance, intended to ensure that major investment is properly co-ordinated across transport modes and that it reflects regional and local transport priorities. The Highways Agency works closely with its planning partners, including the local highway authorities, to influence the development of regional transport strategies and achieves an integrated approach to transport investment. Many devices already exist to provide the type of co-operation that the hon. Gentleman wants. We want that to continue, and, when appropriate, traffic officers could work closely with them.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for his detailed and comprehensive answers. With respect, the weakest part of his reply so far has been on amendment No. 27, which, as I made quite clear when I spoke to it, is a probing amendment. Will he tell the Committee what a traffic officer's duty would be if a crime stared him in the face? What guidance will traffic officers get towards assisting the police in prosecuting motorists who commit crimes within their sight? That is what we were trying to tease out of him.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

If, in pursuit of their duty, traffic officers saw someone driving erratically, for example, they would be in a good position to report it to the police. What they could not do, as some parts of the police force cannot, is hotly pursue such a driver. Such matters are, quite properly, carefully controlled.

If a traffic officer noticed that a driver was clearly under the influence of drink, he could draw that to the attention of the constable at the scene, who would be properly trained and would have powers to carry out a breath test and to arrest the driver. Traffic officers will not have powers of arrest. If we invested them with such powers, there would be considerable confusion between the roles of traffic officers and the police. That would not be helpful.

Another major role that traffic officers could play would be to act as experienced people on the road. In time, they will be a respected uniformed force. They could assist the police by being expert witnesses—for instance, if they were to see an example of dangerous driving and the driver was subsequently arrested. There are other aspects. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said, they may be able to assist the police in securing the scene of a crime. They will also have powers to direct people.

When there is a collision, they will be able to direct drivers to go one way or another to avoid a particular incident, or to stop.

Traffic officers will have certain powers, but giving them powers to enforce traffic laws and, thereby, giving them powers of arrest would be going too far and further than the Bill intends.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Does the Minister envisage that traffic officers will help to obtain witness statements in cases in which the need to obtain statements from a large number of witnesses is causing delays? That may often be the cause of major delay, because there may be a large number of witnesses to an accident, all of whom must be interviewed before the scene can be cleared. Could traffic officers do that?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

In such circumstances, traffic officers could properly be engaged in identifying people who may be able to give statements to the police. Again, the actual taking of the statements must be a matter for the police. Traffic officers could give considerable help to people who may have something to say, or could help to manage the scene generally, but they would always be under the constable's authority and direction, and they should give any assistance possible. Traffic officers assisting at the site of a collision is one thing, but going a step further and allowing them to take statements would go further than we want the Bill to go.

I move on to amendment No. 2. I am not sure what the hon. Member for Spelthorne has against Wales. He has an expert on Wales sitting behind him in the right hon. Member for Wokingham. The amendment would remove the ability of the National Assembly for Wales to establish and operate a traffic officer service on the Welsh network.

I am not clear why the hon. Gentleman has proposed that. The Bill refers later to Wales and the National Assembly. During its drafting, the Assembly was consulted on the establishment and operation of a Welsh traffic officer service. Indeed, it was at the Assembly's request that the Bill was drafted to enable it, if it wishes, to establish a traffic officer service for Wales. The Assembly is becoming more proactive in traffic management, resulting in some shift of responsibilities from the police to the Assembly, both of which are enthusiastic about further realigning traffic management responsibilities by establishing a Welsh traffic officer service. Therefore, the Government see no reason why the Assembly should not be able to benefit from the legislation.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

There is one more matter, and it might be what the right hon. Gentleman is going to ask about. That is the vehicle inspectorate. Traffic officers will not directly assist the vehicle inspectorate, but they might on occasion work with it. The vehicle inspectorate has powers under the Police Reform Act 2002 to stop heavy goods vehicles in areas in which it is accredited by chief constables. In certain circumstances, there might have to be close liaison, as there is now, between the vehicle inspectorate and

the police—for instance, in my part of the country, where it is sometimes necessary to check holiday coaches in case they are unsafe, the inspectorate and the police work closely. In future, on trunk roads and other major roads—vehicles are not stopped on motorways—traffic officers could be involved and consulted, particularly if it was expected that traffic would be heavy or incidents might occur. I hope that that helps to staunch the right hon. Gentleman's intervention.

This has been a useful debate, and I hope that my answers have been sufficient to encourage hon. Members not to press their amendments.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I support some of what the Minister has said. He is right to reject the Liberal Democrat idea that the word ''safe'' needs to be inserted. It is obvious that all this has to be done safely. That is inherent in the word ''management'', and it is governed by other legislation, so it would be an unnecessary addition. He is also right to reject amendment No. 27. There must be clarity about the functions of the traffic manager, who needs to be the person to get things back to normal and to allow traffic to flow. There are others with duties to deal with the investigation of offences, and they will be called to the scene of an accident should its severity warrant it. It is important that we do not lose sight of the main point: at the moment, nobody is on the side of other road users, who wish to make maximum use of the road in the easiest way possible, and to minimise inconvenience while guaranteeing the best possible treatment of those who might be injured and sensible investigation in the minority of cases that warrant consideration of whether prosecution is necessary.

I was not quite so convinced by the Minister's wishing to cling to clause 1(2)(b). He was making good progress with me when he said that he had it in mind that traffic officers might want to report on the state of the highway or of the drains. I can understand that. However, when he said that they might become involved in public education and campaigns, I became a little worried about where the budget for that might come from, and whether the clarity of the function that the Government were rightly designing for the traffic officer would be lost. He did not have sympathy for the amendment designed to make it simpler to understand that the traffic officer is the person charged with the duty of trying to speed the traffic, while others will tackle serious issues when the need arises. Everybody wishes to see safer highways; none of us regards the current slaughter on our roads as acceptable. The way to tackle safety is to create better roads with more segregation between vulnerable users and motor vehicles. We need better junctions, since that is where conflicts are often at their most intense. We also need the right amount of policing of those who drive without licence or insurance and who often ally to that other reckless behaviour. That is probably the most obvious group to target in order to create safer highways free from so-called joyriders who bring so much misery and death in their wake by mistreating their vehicles and threatening other road

users. I do not believe that introducing a safety clause in relation to the traffic officer would tackle that problem or make any difference to safety. It is inherent in the panoply of legislation that management must be reasonable and safe. I therefore support the Minister in opposing the amendments. He should, however, think again about the clarity of the traffic officer's task, which might become diluted over the years if we allow clause 1(2)(b) to stand.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point about the lack of clarity surrounding the traffic officer's task. We must be clear, however, that the purpose of amendment No. 27 is to try to tease from the Government where they stand. Their response to the amendment makes it clear that nothing in the Bill will introduce a corps of second-grade traffic police by the back door. That was a major concern, and the debate has been useful in making it clear that that will not happen. Later in our deliberations, we will no doubt succeed in obtaining from the Government an assurance that traffic law and regulation will be enforced on the highways just as vigorously as it was when the police were in charge of it, despite the apparent reduction of 550 police officers on the highway network.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

For the sake of clarity, we are not talking about the reduction of 550 officers on the motorway network, but about the liberation of the time of 550 officers to perform other duties. They may well be on the highways and the major trunk roads actually enforcing the law.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister, but if he is assuring us that those police officers will spend all the released time on the highway and motorway network, that is at odds with what the Association of Chief Police Officers has been saying. I am delighted by his remarks, however, because many of us believe that it is vital for the law on the highway network to be rigorously enforced, and the paper has been very useful in that respect.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

This small debate has been important and extremely useful, particularly in flushing out the intention behind the legislation with regard to safety. The Minister's response was reasonably full. I fully accept that my amendment is probably defective in that it places too much emphasis on safety. I shall re-read it to see whether the Minister's remarks are satisfactory or whether tabling a different amendment later might be useful. I am very grateful for the support given by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East, as I was for that given by the hon. Member for Spelthorne, which was guarded but charitable and in a spirit that I would not want to put to the test. I will save him the bother by seeking to withdraw my amendment, and I will consider the Minister's comments carefully.

In addition, I shall not press amendment No. 87 to a Division. I largely anticipated the Minister's answer from the helpful advice given by his officials, but I wanted his response placed on the record. If the amendments in the names of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire and the hon. Members for Christchurch and for Spelthorne are pressed to a Division, we shall be quite interested in the argument

about whether to include paragraph (b). As a general principle, powers should be defined rather than given broadly. We would oppose amendment No. 27 for much the same reason, and we would not want to see the emergence of creeping highway authority powers. With those words, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

I beg to move amendment No. 88, in

page 2, line 2, at end insert—

'(3A) The Secretary of State may issue or approve for the purposes of this Part, codes of practice giving practical guidance as to the exercise of any powers conferred by this Part and in exercising these powers a traffic officer shall have regard to any such codes of practice.'.

I must have been suffering a touch of masochism when I tabled my amendments. This amendment probes traffic officers' duties and could act as a mechanism by which to address concerns from the previous debate.

The amendment is driven mainly by an attempt to have a consistent and proper understanding of the role of traffic officers across England and Wales. In the previous debate, concerns were expressed from several angles about the role that traffic officers should play as regards safety, crime prevention, law enforcement and so forth. Although a code of practice would not be written into statute, it would enable all authorities to have a broad understanding of that role. By referring to relevant safety issues, the environment and other matters, it might also provide a useful way of dealing with some of the problems that we have discussed. Although I am generally, in principle, against vast amounts of guidance and secondary legislation, they might be useful on this occasion.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The amendment would place on the Secretary of State the responsibility to issue a code of practice. However, under the amendment as phrased, the code would not need to set out traffic officers' tasks. The amendment is also unnecessary and would mean that the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales, as the relevant national authority, had to provide themselves with codes of practice.

The Highways Agency is already in the process of introducing a system of governance to guide traffic officers in exercising their duties and powers. The agency is, of course, working closely with the Association of Chief Police Officers to establish an operational framework for the agency and the police. The intention behind the amendment is therefore already being carried out.

Photo of Mr Brian White Mr Brian White Labour, North East Milton Keynes

There are circumstances in which, for example, emergency street works are required. Will the discussions to which the Minister refers cover circumstances in which utilities and traffic officers might clash over the timing of works?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I am not sure about street works, because officers will operate mainly on motorways and major trunk roads. The next parts of the Bill relate more to local authority roads. However, there will be clear guidance on how officers should operate in

connection with those who carry out work on the roads for the Highways Agency or the utilities.

If I may, Miss Begg, I shall add something to our previous debate, when the hon. Member for Spelthorne led me down the garden path. He talked about the vehicle inspectorate—

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 11:00 am, 27th January 2004

I do apologise; it was the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire. There is a certain antiquity to all this since the vehicle inspectorate is now the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency. However, it of course still carries out the same valuable role.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank the Minister for updating me on the description of the agency, but my points remain valid, as he admitted, I think.

Perhaps for the first and last time in this Committee, the Opposition agree with all that the Minister has said on the amendment.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

I am delighted to have been the catalyst for such wonderful accord. I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. One difficulty with the Bill is that the guidance and secondary legislation by which a great deal of it will take effect have not been available so far. When they are available, amendments such as mine may be clearly seen to be otiose. We may wish to return to the matter later, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.