I beg to move amendment No. 156, in
page 5, line 7, at end add—
'(2A) No regulation made under section 99 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 shall require the payment of a fee by the registered keeper of a vehicle when that vehicle has been moved or disabled as a result of any unlawful act by another person.'.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment No. 157, in
page 5, line 7, at end add—
'(2A) 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 grant the driver of the vehicle, where present, a reasonable opportunity to contact a breakdown organisation 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.'.
Amendment No. 158, in
page 5, line 7, at end add—
'(2A) Any fee or charge set for the removal of any vehicle under this section shall be reasonable and in line with similar charges applicable in the open market.'.
New clause 20A—Traffic Management Forum—
'(1) The appropriate national authority shall create a Traffic Management Forum.
(2) Membership of the Traffic Management Forum shall comprise representatives from the Department for Transport, the Highways Agency, the Local Government Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers, accredited recovery organisations and such other bodies or persons as the appropriate national authority considers suitable.
(3) The Traffic Management Forum shall prepare a Code of Practice (the Code) to be observed by traffic officers, by accredited recovery organisations and by any organisations providing services equivalent to those provided by accredited recovery organisations (collectively known as rescue and recovery organisations).
(4) The Code shall include guidance on—
(a) the exercise by traffic officers of powers under sections 99 to 102 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to remove broken down vehicles;
(b) procedures to be adopted by traffic officers and by rescue and recovery organisations in order to achieve the purposes identified in section 5(3); and
(c) any further and consequential matters that relate to the existence provided by rescue and recovery organisations in the performance by traffic officers of their duties under this Act.
(5) The Traffic Management Forum may from time to time prepare a revised version of the Code.
(6) Before preparing or revising the Code, the Traffic Management Forum shall consult such bodies or persons as it considers appropriate.
(7) After preparing the Code or a revised version of the Code the Traffic Management Forum shall send a copy to the appropriate national authority.
(8) If the appropriate national authority approves it, the Code shall be laid before each House of Parliament and the Code, and any revised version of the Code, shall not come into force until it has been approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.
(9) The appropriate national authority shall not issue any guidance on the issues detailed in subsection (4) without first consulting the Traffic Management Forum.
Our debates have been more productive than the exchange that I had in Westminster Hall, so I am delighted to be back in Committee.
The amendment would provide:
''No regulation made under section 99 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 shall require the payment of a fee by the registered keeper of a vehicle when that vehicle has been moved or disabled as a result of any unlawful act by another person.''
One might have thought that that was common sense and the way of the world. Apparently, however, it is not. Increasingly, the victims of crime are being charged for the privilege of collecting their vehicles from where a criminal has placed them. A recent topical example was drawn to my attention by one of my constituents who runs an archetypal small business called Perfect Pizza. One of his delivery mopeds was
stolen. On the following day, he was told that the moped had been recovered and that he could collect it on payment of £105 to the Portsmouth depot of Boarhunt Garages Ltd. Thereafter, daily charges of £12 would accrue until it was collected. After my constituent had reported it stolen, it was found less than 400 yd from his business. It had been removed on the instructions of the police so that their scene-of-crime officers could carry out forensic tests. It was then taken to Boarhunt Garages.
This is a Government who say that they are in favour of ensuring that the victims of crime get a fair deal. I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment, thereby demonstrating that, in this narrow area at least, he is prepared to accept that that principle should rule. Surely it is intolerable that such a financial penalty should be imposed on the owner of a small business when he is the victim of crime and the vehicle is taken away at the behest of the police in order to help to identify the perpetrator? The response of the owner of this small business to the suggestion, ''Don't worry, you can claim it on your insurance,'' was, ''Claim it on my insurance? That means that ultimately I and other people who have insured cars and vehicles will end up paying the bill.'' That is why he is a very successful businessman: he applies those principles across the board rather than believing that claiming on his insurance is a nil-cost option.
Amendment No. 157 relates to a slightly different issue, but it addresses the concerns of the RAC recovery services, the Automobile Association and Green Flag that the Bill as drafted will give power to the Highways Agency effectively to double charge their members. This concern was expressed on Second Reading. Discussions and correspondence with the Minister and his officials have not yet allayed the concerns of the roadside recovery industry. Hence, amendment No. 157—I will not read it out in full, but I hope the Minister will agree that it will effectively encapsulate in writing what he has been saying all along, namely that the roadside recovery services have nothing to fear from the wide terms of clause 9. If they have nothing to fear, he can satisfy them, by accepting amendment No. 157.
Amendment No. 158 addresses the issue of the standard charge. It would provide that any fee or charge set for the removal of a vehicle under this section of the Bill will be reasonable and in line with similar charges applicable in the open market. At present, there is a standard charge of £105, which has been in place since the late 1980s. The charge is the same, whether the vehicle has to be moved many miles or only a short distance, and irrespective of how far the rescue vehicle has had to travel. Without this provision is would be open to the Highways Agency to start setting fees so that it made a substantial profit on the recovery of vehicles, and thereby to impose a further stealth tax.
The Minister is sensitive to the subject of stealth taxes, and so he should be, because his Department is in the forefront of imposing stealth taxes upon the motoring public. The example of the
moped that I used in my remarks on amendment No. 156 is an example of where £105, to take a moped to a depot three miles away, is clearly extortionate. I do not think that there should have been any charge, but amendment No. 158 would ensure that where there were charges they would be proportionate and reasonable.
New clause 20A will be spoken to by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East. It establishes a traffic-management forum. Conservatives are supportive of this, but that cannot be a substitute for the very specific amendments that I have outlined.
I shall speak briefly to new clause 20A. The hon. Member for Christchurch has outlined a number of fears about road safety, and these were articulated on Second Reading. I should declare that I am a member of CSMA/Britannia Rescue, just for the avoidance of doubt. New clause 20A is about another way of trying to address road safety concerns, by informally bringing together those involved in the roadside recovery companies with the Highways Agency. Will the Minister address their concerns? We can bring these companies together in a way that allows them to have their fears allayed and ensures that, as changes happen, there is a form of consultation. That was the purpose of new clause 20A—to try to get the Minister to look at that side of things.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch on his restraint. He managed a whole four and a half hours in Committee before he mentioned the words ''stealth tax'', but in the end he blurted it out. I am sure that we will hear more about the stealth tax.
These are serious amendments that deserve serious attention, like many of the other amendments. The proposed qualification in amendment No. 156 is not contained in existing statutory powers to charge for the removal, storage and disposal of vehicles. The existing powers are contained in section 102 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 and the Removal, Storage and Disposal of Vehicles (Prescribed Sums and Charges, etc.) Regulations 1989. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was the Minister at the time.
It must have been just after that time. However, those powers were, of course, brought in at the time of the Government the hon. Gentleman supported, and he was a Member of Parliament then and might have even voted for them. The existing powers to charge relate to the police, county councils and metropolitan district councils. The regime works well. The primary burden of responsibility for a vehicle rests with its registered keeper. That applies with all road traffic offences, including the abandonment of a vehicle, which is a major problem, particularly in urban areas. It is for the keeper to insure against any costs or liabilities associated with their vehicle, and to take due care of it.
The amendment would transfer costs from vehicle keepers to the public sector. One could call it a stealth tax. For example, the taxpayer would carry the burden of cost in cases in which vehicles are abandoned but the culprits are not identified or convicted. Shifting that burden to the taxpayer is unacceptable. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Christchurch thinks that the taxpayer should pay, so that people can fecklessly abandon their vehicles, which they do. It would prove to be a major loophole for those who seek to avoid the cost of disposing of their vehicles in a proper manner. We only have to look in our constituencies or at the roads coming in to London to see that there are plenty such vehicles around. They place a cost on the public sector, which we should retrieve from vehicle keepers where possible.
The Minister addressed amendment No. 156 as though it refers to all abandoned and dumped vehicles, but I was referring to stolen vehicles. Does he say that if items of our property are stolen and then recovered by the police, the police should be able to charge us for their storage in police custody and impose a penalty fee for their recovery? How is that consistent with the additional penalties that the Government propose to impose on the perpetrators of crime?
I feel some sympathy for people whose vehicles are stolen, and who retrieve them only to find that they have been damaged or destroyed. That is why we insure our vehicles, but circumstances when such things happen are not happy ones. Nevertheless, it is for vehicle keepers to take care of and insure their vehicle; it is not proper that that burden should fall on the public.
If the public purse were to fork out in all cases of abandoned or stolen vehicles, how many more vehicles would be ''stolen''? The way to get rid of one's car would be to park it in a road and report it stolen. The public purse would then pay for it to be taken away at no small cost. The cost of removing abandoned vehicles is substantial. We are reviewing motor insurance, and I have sympathy for people who find themselves in such circumstances, but it is not right to place the burden on the taxpayer. That would encourage more and more people fecklessly to abandon their vehicles.
If the hon. Gentleman tables further amendments during the Bill's later stages, the Government will, of course, examine them carefully.
I move on to amendment No. 157. Broken down, damaged and abandoned vehicles are a safety hazard, particularly on motorways and high-speed roads. It is essential to the safety of their occupants and other road users that such vehicles are moved quickly. Hard shoulders of motorways and verges on dual carriageways are dangerous places. There are far too many fatalities and serious accidents involving
stranded vehicles, which is why people are advised to leave their vehicles and move away from the hard shoulder in such circumstances. The Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 sets out a framework that allows the police to remove vehicles in those circumstances. The framework generally works well, and the regulations made under sections 99 to 102 set out the circumstances and charges that apply for removal and disposal of vehicles. The Bill will extend those powers to the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales, operating through traffic officers, and will enable the correction of minor anomalies involving the disposal of vehicles after removal.
The RAC and other recovery organisations are concerned, as was said on Second Reading, that the Highways Agency might either set up its own recovery service in competition, or remove broken down vehicles in an aggressive or restrictive way, which would damage recovery organisations' ability to provide a service for their members. I reaffirm the assurance given on Second Reading that that is not our intention. Breakdown organisations, which do a good job on our roads and make a valued contribution to safety, will be able to attend to members who break down on motorways and trunk roads as they currently do. The Highways Agency will seek to work with the breakdown industry to improve further the way in which such breakdowns are dealt with.
Broken down vehicles represent a safety hazard, as statistics sadly demonstrate, and they cause congestion. It is vital that traffic officers are able to remove a stationary vehicle. The amendments would constrain the ability of a traffic officer, who will have become experienced in assessing such situations, by granting new rights to drivers and breakdown organisations. That could result in the dangerous situation wherein the removal of a broken down vehicle from a hazardous location was delayed while discussions were held about how long it would take the breakdown organisation, or a friend or relative of the driver, to attend. That would be unacceptable for all concerned.
I fully understand the concerns of recovery organisations and their members not to be subjected to over-zealous removal by the authorities, but that is not what we want to happen. The best recovery organisations, of which there are several, provide an excellent service for their members, and we want that to continue.
Is there any current contract in which a charge is made for the removal of vehicles?
Yes. The police have standing contracts with breakdown organisations to remove vehicles in their areas. In some cases, the person in the car is charged for that service. The police do not take that on lightly; they do not want to do it regularly. However, there are extreme cases, such as, for example the case when someone is not a member of one of the national organisations. I was involved in a case in which the national organisation was so bogged down with severe weather one evening that a breakdown organisation was called in to tow vehicles out of a flooded road. It was just by chance that the organisation was present to pull vehicles out of the
flood and a charge was made, including to me because my car was one of those involved.
There will be cases in which traffic officers will have to act to remove a vehicle in the interests of safety or because it is causing unacceptable congestion. It would be bizarre to compromise safety by requiring the traffic officer to hold a discussion with the driver before taking action.
Is the Minister thereby guaranteeing that traffic officers will not discount the option of using a roadside recovery operation, except in cases where it compromises safety or unreasonably impedes traffic flow?
What the police do now, if they see somebody broken down or are called or attracted to the scene—perhaps a woman is on her own—is attend and ask whether the person has called one of the emergency organisations. They obtain an idea of how long that person needs to be attended to, and assess the risk for that person of being in that location. In such circumstances, I envisage that the traffic officer would make that assessment. In some cases, it may be a matter of pulling the person off the road and putting them in a place of safety such a lay-by, for which there may be no charge. Officers would use good sense in removing vehicles, just as the police do now. They have no intention of routinely moving people about the road.
I can think of an incident in which I came off the motorway and a police Land Rover towed me back on to the road and set me on my way. I had skidded on a very muddy and wet road, as did a number of other vehicles. The police towed us all off and got us moving again. That is the type of circumstance in which the police would take that action. However, if my vehicle had not been mobile, it would have been quite proper for the police to tow me off the road, take me to a place of safety and charge me. There would have been no time to call the AA, of which I am a member, to attend the incident.
On the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East, I think that a traffic management forum to produce a code of practice could be a little over-burdensome. To single out the recovery industry for a code of practice would be inappropriate when the current arrangements are working extremely well.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the discussions that the RAC had with Transport for London and the forum that was created, as a result of which breakdown vehicles were able to avoid the congestion charge and improve their recovery within London? Would a similar thing happen after the discussions that such a forum would provide?
I shall certainly consider whether a forum can be created, and if discussions can improve matters, we shall do so. We have regular discussions with the motoring organisations, as my hon. Friend will know. We are always considering how to improve those discussions and protocols and the way in which we work together. I shall take careful note of what my hon. Friend said.
I do not know whether it was an oversight, or because the Minister was so generous in giving way to me, but he did not respond to the argument on amendment No. 158 about the issue of charges. I got the impression that he was about to move on to that when he kindly gave way. If he does not wish to say anything about charges, I shall be concerned, because I thought that there were some strong arguments on the matter.
I was just being mindful of the time. On amendment No. 158, the charges for removing a vehicle have been set in regulations since 1984. There are a number of factors to be considered in setting charges, other than the prevailing rate of membership of a recovery organisation. We shall consult openly with the representatives of the recovery organisations during the development of those necessary regulations, and I have asked the Highways Agency to put together a working group to begin work on the matter.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 7.
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendment proposed: No. 157, in
page 5, line 7, at end add—
'(2A) 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 grant the driver of the vehicle, where present, a reasonable opportunity to contact a breakdown organisation 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.'.—[Mr. Chope.]
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 7.