Clause 2 - Designation of Traffic Officers

Traffic Management Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 27th January 2004.

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Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 3, in

page 2, line 10, leave out from 'officers;' to end of line 11.

Amendment No. 28, in

page 2, line 11, leave out 'another person' and insert 'the Highways Agency'.

Amendment No. 4, in

page 2, line 18, leave out 'may' and insert 'must'.

Amendment No. 91, in

page 2, line 20, leave out subsections (5) and (6).

Amendment No. 29, in

page 2, line 28, at end insert—

'(8) No traffic officer shall be designated unless he is the holder of a current valid driving licence and has been the subject of a check with the Criminal Records Bureau.'.

New clause 17—Duty to consult—

'In monitoring and evaluating the work and effectiveness of traffic officers, the appropriate national authority shall establish and consult with an advisory group comprising such members as may be considered appropriate.'.

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 shall speak to amendments Nos. 89, 3 and 91, which are all designed to do the same thing. As I was not certain quite how to go about achieving the end I had in mind, I browned a covey and had a shot at anything in sight. All three amendments are concerned with powers in relation to traffic officers under the clause. It is my understanding that the things that I want to change are provisions that enable the role of traffic officer to be undertaken by contractors at a later date.

If I have understood correctly, the Government intend at present that traffic officers should come not from private companies but from the Highways Authority. I have no problem with that, in that they would be Government employees, like community support officers. I have no doubt that under that arrangement they will receive proper training, management and guidance and that much of what we have been discussing will happen in the proper way.

If, however, the Government, or any future Government, intended to privatise the relevant powers and move the officers from local or national government employment to being private contractors, that would be to cross an important rubicon. It is important that appropriate legislation should be passed at the time in question, rather than the powers being slipped in now through the Bill.

The amendments are designed to get the Government to speak on that point, and to find out their intentions as to the privatisation of traffic officers. If they do not intend it, as I have been led to believe they do not, why are they taking the powers?

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

The explanatory notes on clauses 1 and 2 state:

''In the longer term there is the option to employ contractors to provide the traffic officers.''

There is no explanation of why that might be necessary or why it is included in the Bill. I hope that the Minister can explain what he has in mind. My understanding is that, in England at least, traffic officers are to be employed by the Highways Agency. That is why amendment No. 28 specifies that the authority from the Secretary of State to designate individuals as traffic officers should be limited to the Highways Agency. I see no problem with that, but I do see a problem with giving a broad power for any Tom, Dick and Harry to become a potential employer of traffic officers, particularly given the importance of their responsibilities. It is appropriate that the national uniform, and national standards and codes of practice should also be under the auspices of the Highways Agency.

Amendment No. 29 deals with the qualifications of traffic officers and says:

''No traffic officer shall be designated unless he is the holder of a current valid driving licence and has been the subject of a check with the Criminal Records Bureau.''

I hope that the Minister accepts that, because it insists on no more or less than what I understand the position will be. In answer to a parliamentary question, the Minister said:

''As well as undertaking a check against security service records, the Highways Agency is also in the process of registering with the

Criminal Records Bureau (CRB). Registration with the CRB will enable the Agency to pick up all criminal convictions, and carry out checks against relevant departmental and police records.''

That is important information, but the amendment would put that requirement into the Bill. The Minister also said:

''The level of security and criminal record checks that the Highways Agency is expected to apply are equivalent to those that exist for staff currently employed by the Police service, such as Traffic Police and Community Support Officers.''—[Official Report, 13 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 677W.]

The Minister has supplied me with the Highways Agency job description and person specification for a traffic officer, which says that the eligibility criteria include three years' demonstrable driving experience and two years' experience in an operational role, or one year's experience in an operational role, a minimum of five O-levels or GCSEs and a clean driving licence. The essential criteria include

''Previous police (patrol or dispatch) or roadside assistance experience . . . Proactive driving skills . . . Basic radio operation and dictation''

and basic first aid skills. On the basis of what is set out in the Highways Agency's job description and person specification, I do not see how anybody could have a quarrel with the suggestion that traffic officers will be highly responsible people, well qualified to perform the function that they are to be given under the Bill.

That contrasts considerably with many others who are employed by local authorities under the civil enforcement regime. Such people seem to be incapable of exercising discretion and appear to have a minimal understanding of traffic law, or even the English language. That has caused much conflict between the motoring public and those enforcement officers, so I am delighted that traffic officers will not fall in that category. I hope that the Minister will accept amendment No. 29, so that that safeguard is included in the Bill.

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

I wish to speak to new clause 17. Second Reading and today's debates have highlighted some of the tensions and balances that Ministers say will be needed. A number of organisations have expressed concerns about that. Being a terrible cynic, and having gained knowledge of some organisations over a number of years, I know that although it would be in their interests to consult, many do not do so. There is a great deal of expertise out there, and it should be utilised. Making consultation explicit in the Bill will go a long way to reassuring those who have fears and concerns. The new clause therefore suggests a duty to consult.

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

I rise to amplify the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, particularly with regard to amendment No. 29. Although it is a probing amendment, it is motivated by genuine concern. If the Minister cannot allay our fears, Miss Begg, we would ask your permission to allow a Division on that amendment. I hope that it will not be necessary.

I wonder how many Committee members have a driving licence. Those who do will know that the experienced motorist has a totally different perception to those who are ignorant and untrained in the use of a

motor vehicle. Surely, all those who hold a licence have had as a passenger someone who has never driven a car, who says as you pass a particular turning, ''Turn here'', despite its being clear that it would be impossible to turn the vehicle without rolling it over. On the other hand, we may have had as a passenger a nervous elderly relative who does not drive, who asks us to slow down a mile before you reach the turning that he knows we wish to take. That lack of judgment is born of ignorance, and in some non-motorists it is appalling.

We say that a traffic officer should have first-hand experience of driving and of being in motoring situations, so that he can apply that judgment to the situations that arise.

The second part of the amendment seeks to ensure that the person exercising the role of the traffic officer is not of a dubious character, and is not someone who might be tempted to use the position for profit or for some form of criminal activity.

I hope that the Minister will be able to address those serious concerns, unless, of course, he is going to say that he gladly accepts the amendment.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

The devil of these clauses always lies in the detail. I hope that the Minister can give detailed assurances on the points raised by Opposition Members. The track record of the Department for Transport is not good in that respect; the Road Traffic Act 1984, as amended in 1991, includes a series of ambiguities that have a precise impact on the Bill. The question arises also in part 6 of the Bill. I hope that the Minister will be able to give detailed and categorical assurances.

The hon. Member for Christchurch mentioned Tom, Dick and Harry. It is Dick that concerns me—the Dick Turpin clause. Thanks to the ambiguities of the 1984 Act, local authority car parks that are managed by private operators operate in a different way from everything else, so there is no opportunity to go to the parking adjudicator. Yet, because of the failure to tighten the wording of that legislation, private operators can operate as they like and can use both civil and magistrates courts, or can attempt to do so. I have raised that ambiguity many times with the Department and with the Minister—I have won in court over it on behalf of a constituent, but it remains in the legislation. I call it the Dick Turpin clause because, for a private operator who has no interest other than profit margins, it is a licence to print. That is the scenario of local authority car parks operated by private operators. The contracts that are drawn up by some of the major operators allow them to print tickets, harass people, and threaten them with criminal legislation to get them to pay fines.

It would be dangerous to appoint people in uniform who felt that they could do the same thing. When we discuss civil enforcement, we shall be able to investigate in precise detail whether the proposals will address that ambiguity in the law that gives to latter-day Dick Turpins a licence to print money. I hope to hear the Minister's assurance, in relation to the new traffic officers, that it will not be possible for a private operator, given authority and a uniform and

operating solely for the money, to profit by staying only just within the law in pursuing and haranguing motorists, as has happened in the civil enforcement of local authority car parks by private operators.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne 11:15 am, 27th January 2004

I have just a few points. First, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham have explained the importance of amendment No. 29. I agree entirely with them.

I should like to say something about amendment No. 3, but I have to start from the Liberal Democrat amendment No. 89. I have no difficulty in disagreeing with it, because it does not achieve what it sets out to achieve. Taking out ''individuals as'' still leaves the power to get somebody else to designate. I am concerned—I think that amendment No. 3 is a better way of achieving what we seek—about taking out completely the power to authorise other people, irrespective of whether individuals are being authorised. I agree with the spirit of amendment No. 3, but do not like the way in which it is drafted. On the other hand, I am perfectly happy with amendment No. 28 as another way in which to achieve the same thing.

It ill becomes me to say that I am worried about the possibility of the Government's being able to privatise something. I have always believed that privatisation is a good thing. On this occasion, I congratulate the Government on saying that they will, in due course, privatise and bring in contractors. What concerns me is that even though I am an enthusiast—the Government are now so converted to my enthusiasm that they have privatised part of my local hospital, but I shall not go down that path now—I do not believe that privatisation of a public service of this sort should be tagged on as something that might happen in the future. They can count on my support in principle if, having set the system up, they introduce a Bill to privatise it. Then we can properly debate all the issues that will arise and all the safeguards that are necessary, but it should not be tagged on to the current Bill.

My support for the spirit of amendment No. 89 and the wording of amendment No. 3 or amendment No. 28 arises not because I am trying to stop the Government from privatising something; I am just trying to ensure that they do it properly. I shall be happy to help them.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I knew that the Government would find that kind. They are increasingly converted to the proper, sensible, Conservative way of running the country. Perhaps they will get there one day.

The Liberal Democrats have tabled amendment No. 91, the intention of which, I have little doubt, is consequential on amendment No. 89. I say only that if amendment No. 89 falls, and the power remains to privatise the relevant authority, we will need subsections (5) and (6) as a safeguard. I am not criticising amendment No. 91, but I would not support it on its own, because it is a consequential amendment.

Amendment No. 4 has not yet been discussed. There are cynics in Parliament who believe that anyone who favours changing ''may'' to ''must'' or ''must'' to ''may'' is up to no good. That might sometimes be the case, but there is a genuine point to be made on this occasion. Subsection (4) states:

''A designation may provide that it is to remain in force . . . for a specified period.''

I believe that all the appointments should be, rather than may be, for a specified period. Over the years, experience has taught me that it is difficult sensibly to end an open-ended arrangement in which someone is doing something badly. Before long, the lawyers get involved in unfair dismissal proceedings and all sorts of other things. If someone is appointed for a specified period, however, they understand from the beginning that it will end on a stated date. If one wants to reappoint them after that, there can be a fresh discussion. I have, therefore, always started from the principle that we should have limits on such things.

The amendment is not a spurious may-for-must or must-for-may issue—there is a real point to it. If the Government accept that it might be appropriate to have time-limited appointments, why do they not make that an obligation? I do not see why they are afraid of saying ''must'' on this occasion.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. I was swayed by his argument and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire on amendment No. 29. It is important that designated officers should be professional drivers, with a driving licence, so that they understand the problems facing those of us who use the roads in our vehicles.

I also support my right hon. and hon. Friends on amendment No. 4. It is right that appointments should be for a specified time. Of course, the Bill may include clauses about the circumstances in which such appointments will normally be renewed. However, these are important posts, which bring with them considerable powers to influence our daily lives, so it is

a good idea for them not to be awarded automatically or made lifelong. People rightly see that Members of Parliament can play a useful role for up to five years, but they must then check to see how we have done our job. We do not need to go as far as electing our traffic officers, but it would be a good idea for them to have a contract for a reasonable period and for it to be subject to review by the relevant authority.

There must have been an error as regards amendment No. 3, because my name is listed among its supporters. Having heard the debate, I can assure the Committee that I was not in favour of it, that I did not write in to have my name put to it and that I am absolutely persuaded that it should be voted down. It is a very poor amendment, which is not up to the usual standards of my right hon. and hon. Friends. The Government therefore have an unexpected friend, should the Minister be minded to—

Mr. Wilshire rose—

Hon. Members:

Here's the Whip!

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

It is not that at all. I simply wanted to remind my right hon. Friend that when we started out, it was explained that there were three very good, seasoned Opposition Members and a Whip. I should, therefore, take all the responsibility for the problems in which my right hon. Friend finds himself and not allow him to criticise my team.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I was not expecting that at all. I assumed that there was a slip-up following my discussions with my right hon. and hon. Friends about how to improve the Bill. However, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. The Committee will now know that I have, as always, been doing my best to tell the truth. The Government can be reassured that in mine they have yet another vote, should they need it, to vote down amendment No. 3.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.