I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing 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.'.
Mr. Knight: That may be the Minister's job, but I am sure that he can associate himself with my remarks.
After this morning's sitting, I left the parliamentary estate. On returning, with a large pile of luggage, I was alarmed to discover that Bridge street was closed, Parliament square appeared to be closed and the Carriage Gates were closed. The police appear to have lost control of what is a minor demonstration outside. Clearly there has been a breach of our Sessional Orders. I wish that you had the power to order the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to attend on us to give an explanation, Mr. Beard. He clearly needs the help of some traffic officers. In the absence of that power, Mr. Beard, I should be grateful if you would pass on Opposition Members' concerns to the Speaker in the hope that he will speak to the commissioner to prevent that from happening again.
On a point of order, Mr. Beard. Either I owe you an apology for taking my jacket off, or you will give me retrospective permission to do so. I am very nervous about that. You have been in the Chair before when I have raised this point, having been told off once by one of your colleagues, I want to be sure that I am in order.
I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Beard. I have had the pleasure of being under your chairmanship in the past, and I fully associate myself with the comments of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight).
This morning's proceedings were exceedingly amicable. The only differences seemed to be between Conservative Members, often involving the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who has disappeared; I do not know what they have done to him over lunchtime, but there was clearly some difference of view this morning.
On the point of order made by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire, I am afraid that even if traffic officers were in place, they would not bring a lot of solace in such a scenario because they will operate not on local roads, but on motorways and national roads. Of course, they will not deal with crowd control either.
Amendment No. 89 would remove the reference to powers being granted by designation to individuals.
I understand the Minister's point about traffic officers and local roads, but my understanding of the arguments used on Second Reading is that one objective of introducing traffic officers is to remove obstructions and thus help the freer flow of traffic. A student sitting down in a demonstration is undoubtedly an obstruction. Would traffic officers not be able to move that sort of obstruction?
That is an interesting point. I think that we had debris in mind, not human obstructions. I suspect that any human obstructions on the motorway would, I am sad to say, be taken away by ambulance. The Bill is not intended to deal with demonstrations on motorways; I am not aware of such a demonstration in the past 20 years.
The Minister has indicated that there is a flaw in the legislation: he has not considered human beings. Will the Minister revisit the relevant parts of the Bill and table an amendment, or should we table it for him, either now or on Report? By coincidence, a serious point may have arisen.
The word ''obstruction'' would eventually have to be defined, probably by a court. Traffic officers will be able to move an obstruction. I am not sure whether they would be able to cope with a rhinoceros; that remains to be seen.
On amendment No. 89, we believe that it is essential for designation to be specific to an individual, not to an office holder or an organisation. That will promote transparency and direct accountability in the exercise of special powers by a traffic officer. The next three amendments seek to achieve similar things, or are coterminous with each other. Amendment No. 3—the one from which the right hon. Member for Wokingham dissociated himself this morning in what the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), called a vicious attack on his own Front Bench; I would not call it quite that—seeks to remove the power for an appropriate national authority to authorise another person to designate individuals as traffic officers. That would impede the national authority in contracting out the traffic officer service.
There was some discussion this morning about privatisation. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) said that he was very much in favour of it. He should not get too excited; while I believe that private services can be run in certain circumstances, I am sad to disappoint him and glad to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) that this is not a matter of privatisation. There could be circumstances in which the traffic officer service could be contracted out but that is not expected to happen in the first instance. We want the service to be run by the Highways Agency. However, in certain circumstances, it may be appropriate to contract out certain specific duties.
I am interested because the Minister is suggesting that there is a distinction between privatisation and contracting out. Could he clarify that, because in my dictionary privatising means handing a public service over to be run by the private sector, and contracting out means handing a public service over to be run by the private sector. Is there a point that I have missed?
Yes, there is. The Highways Agency currently contracts certain work to contractors. They work for it, but they are not running the service or in charge of the piece of road; they are performing certain services on the Agency's behalf. It is not intended that those services be run other than by the Highways Agency, but there might be circumstances in which we would want flexibility.
No. I was coming to that. This is the Dick Turpin clause that was referred to this morning. My hon. Friend asked whether contractors could harass people with fines. They could not, because, as we found out earlier, no fines would be imposed by the traffic officers, and they would not therefore be enforcing them. The only circumstances in which that might happen would be if the traffic officers had agreed a charge for a service with another party; then they would have some way of enforcing the charge if it
was not paid, a point to which we shall come later in the Bill. They would not have such powers in relation to the public.
It might be appropriate for people to be specifically trained to carry out a function on a certain part of a motorway or major trunk road network, such as a particular crossing or bridge. A separate group would operate there. At the moment, we expect that function to be operated by the Highways Agency, not by a contractor.
The Minister said that the duties must be specific to a person. I certainly accept that. Then he said that certain circumstances and duties—he has just touched on one—might be contracted out. Are there any other circumstances in which the traffic officer posts would need to be contracted out?
This is a case of leaving a small amount of flexibility. We are creating a new service, and it is no secret that we will be learning as we go along. Expertise is being built up. We will learn a lot from the police service when the service is rolled out in the midlands this year, so that we can carry out the process of rolling it out through the rest of the country. Should the Welsh Assembly want to roll out the service in Wales, it will possibly consider the English experience.
Once we have some experience, we may wish to attend to some small issues, but I think that they will be on the margins. Many years from now, we may decide that it is more appropriate to contract out some parts of the service. I certainly do not have anything specific in mind at the moment, and my general feeling is that we would not contract out any services at all for the first few years, while we are settling down. If we did, they would be very specific, and there would have to be good reasons to do so. We would have to guarantee that we were getting the best service, that it was thoroughly checked and that the people operating it were doing so to the high standard we will expect from all the officers, and the Bill allows for that.
That point was highlighted by the Select Committee on Transport on page 4 of its report on the Bill, its first report of Session 2003–04. It stated:
''We would like to know why the Government thinks it is appropriate that traffic officers should be employed by contractors.''
I hear what the Minister is saying, but it is vague and woolly, and he does not seem to be being specific about why contractors would be required. He says that that could be the case in several years time. I understand the need for flexibility, but would the Minister at least be willing to write to Committee members following the initial studies to explain the circumstances he envisages following initial trials of the new system and to explain further the circumstances under which contractors could be used.
I do not think that I was woolly; I thought that I was quite clear. I said that we saw the Highways Agency employing the traffic officers directly. However, we have left a little flexibility in case there are circumstances in which we find that a contractor could operate a part of the service. That
leaves some leeway for the Welsh Assembly, which may have a different view from us and the Highways Agency. It is free to hold such a view, of course. The Welsh Assembly may decide that it is more appropriate to contract out partial services in parts of Wales. That is a matter for it, but we are leaving a little bit of flexibility in case it should wish to do so.
I will be quite unambiguous; I want traffic officers to be employed directly by the Highways Agency, certainly in the early years of their operation. I cannot envisage any circumstances at the moment under which they would be contracted out. However, it makes good sense to leave flexibility in primary legislation because, as I said to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), we are on a learning curve and we do not want to have closed the door if circumstances change.
My point was that when we have gone up that learning curve, will the Minister be prepared to write back to Members and raise the issue again in Parliament to state precisely the circumstances in which contractors would be used? Would he be prepared to come back to Parliament and write to Members to explain?
If that should occur during the course of the Bill and while it progresses towards Royal Assent, should it reach that stage, we would of course write to Members. At this stage, however, I see no circumstances under which I would do so.
I should tell the hon. Gentleman that the policing of the Dartford tunnel, for example, is carried out by a contracted-out organisation, and it is done effectively with no particular problems. The people who operate the Dartford tunnel have a specific duty on a specific piece of road, and they are trained in the specifics of that job. [Interruption.] I mention tunnels, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) twitches. I do not know why; perhaps we have discussed tunnels before.
Amendment No. 91 appears to be consequential on the previous amendment, No. 3. Amendment No. 28 in effect replaces a reference to third party service providers with a reference to the Highways Agency, and it has the same effect as amendment No. 3. Since the Highways Agency does not exist in law as such, that would enable the Secretary of State to designate himself. The Highways Agency traffic management remit is to be expanded under its new role as a network operator. Traffic officers in England will be designated by the Secretary of State and will be employees of the Highways Agency. I repeat: there are no plans to do otherwise.
There are good reasons for that. The Government are keen to influence the development of the new role and believe that best practice is for delivery, responsibility, accountability and risk to sit with the Highways Agency. Both the agency and the police agree. However, we wish to retain the flexibility of considering the option of employing contractors, but only where that is thought to offer clear value and benefits to road users without undermining the integrity of the service.
Does the Minister agree that Parliament should be told if the Government have a change of heart? Although there are no current plans to employ people in the way he described, will he give the Committee an undertaking that if he changes his view, he will at the very least issue a written statement, so that the change is recorded in Hansard?
I know that when politicians say that there are no current plans, they mean that they going to do something tomorrow rather than today. However, that is not the case for contractors. If as the Bill progresses through Parliament we foresee any circumstance in which contracting out might be an option, we will inform hon. Members, either through proceedings in Parliament or through a statement. However, that is probably well down the line. Parliament would be informed in any appropriate way if any change was made, and that would happen within the law as it would then stand. If the Bill receives Royal Assent in its current form, Parliament would be informed.
We are back to Tom, Harry and Dick Turpin. The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) asked whether anyone could set up such a service, and the answer is no. Anybody offering a service must, like those in the Dartford tunnel, be properly trained before they do the work.
Amendment No. 4 would ensure that traffic officer designation would be for a fixed rather than an indefinite period that could be terminated at any time. The hon. Member for Spelthorne spoke on that amendment, which is unnecessary, because it would limit the options for designating traffic officers. The Bill allows for fixed term designations, but does not require them. A fixed term designation would increase the administration involved, because, unless a traffic officer proved unsuitable for the task, he would have to be redesignated when the existing fixed term expired. That would involve more unnecessary bureaucracy.
I understand the Minister's point, but not his logic. If the fixed term designation of officers is bureaucratic and unnecessary, why is he leaving open the possibility that it could happen? If the idea is bad, we should remove the whole provision, but if the idea is sensible, we should adopt it. The Minister is dismissing my argument but retaining the option.
We are saying that a person would be designated until they were found to be unsuitable. It is important to have that flexibility. There may be reasons to designate someone for a particular period, but we do not want any unnecessary or unreasonable bureaucracy.
I was almost entirely in accord with what the hon. Member for Christchurch said about amendment No. 29, which is about security checks and how traffic officers are recruited. We want people who are fit and proper persons to carry out the job, and that will be ascertained during the recruitment process.
Agency wants to ensure that information about current and spent convictions, and cautions, reprimands and warnings held on the police national computer can be obtained on a candidate traffic officer. The legislation need not expressly state that a check must be carried out with the Bureau, nor is it considered necessary to state in legislation that designation cannot be given unless a valid current driving licence is held. A driving licence check would form part of the process of recruitment and appointment. The hon. Gentleman read out part of the advertisement for the post, which says that a driving licence is required. A clean driving licence is required for those on the road, and they will be checked for criminal records. These jobs will be quite sensitive. Officers could be dealing with people late at night, who are vulnerable at the side of the road. We want to check very carefully that the people we recruit are of the very highest quality and meet the highest standards. A few of those employed may have to be security checked as well, but I will not go into too much detail on that, for obvious reasons.
The Minister is probably as aware as I am of the recent confusion with regard to the Soham murder case, when the police did not pass on certain information, which many think they should have done. The reason given was the Data Protection Act 1998. Given the confusion that clearly exists because of other statutory duties, it would make sense to make provision in the Bill, so that no one could say that it was silent on the issue and that there might be a conflict with another statute. Would the best way forward not be for the Minister were to accept amendment No. 29, or to redraft something along similar lines?
We are very much aware of the Soham situation. The whole system is under review. We are absolutely determined that the information that we find out about traffic officers is as full as possible, and that it contains previous convictions and warnings that people may have had. Officers will be in a very special position. They could be dealing with people in vehicles who are vulnerable, perhaps on a one-to-one basis, and possibly late at night. We want to make sure that checks are carried out. I am not sure that putting that into the Bill takes us any further forward, but I can absolutely assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will seek checks at the very highest levels possible on traffic officers.
Given the controversy over the Data Protection Act 1998, much of which is ill informed, can my hon. Friend assure me that we will not throw the baby out with the bath water, and go back to the problems that we had with people's access to their own personal details, as used to happen? The Act is a very good safeguard for individuals whose details are in official records.
I take my hon. Friend's point, although the matter is beyond the scope of my powers. I know that these things are being closely looked at, and that we all—the police, the Home
Office and us—are concerned that what we do find out is the proper and appropriate information on the people who will perform the job of traffic officer. I take great personal interest in this point, because it is an issue of great importance. Apart from training, we have to have people who are of the highest quality. They must be capable not just of doing the job, but of being trusted.
New clause 17, proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White), would impose a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to set up an advisory group to monitor traffic officers' work. The introduction of a traffic officer service is a profound change in the way in which the road network will be operated. I am sure that hon. Members recognise the need for various stakeholders to be involved, in addition to the Highways Agency, and the valuable contribution that they can make to the development and operation of the service.
It will probably be helpful for my hon. Friend to know that in developing the traffic officer service, the Highways Agency has consulted, and will continue to consult, a range of stakeholders and will seek to make full use of the operational experience of many organisations. In addition, the agency liaises regularly with a number of representative bodies, such as the Motorists Forum, which does a good job, and is viewed by the agency as a useful and knowledgeable contact group.
The Highways Agency also has a range of performance indicators to enable it to monitor the service, which is essential in ensuring its effectiveness. However, I fail to see the need for the addition of an independent advisory group to monitor that performance. All the bodies that might take part in such a group are already fully engaged with the agency at all levels in talks and consultations.
I hope that my comments have covered the matters raised by the amendments, and that the Committee will resist them.
I associate myself, Mr. Beard, with the remarks made about your chairmanship.
I fully accept that amendments Nos. 89 and 91 are not the most elegant way to achieve the ends that we seek. However, we sought to leave in as much of the Bill as possible, while achieving those ends. Amendment No. 3 is more elegant and, having listened to the arguments, I would be more prepared to support that than my own amendment.
Two points of principle are involved in the amendments. The first is whether one feels that contracting out or privatisation should take place at all. My hon. Friends and I believe that any major shift of government employees from the public to the private sector should be considered by Parliament in some way. Secondly, even if one is in favour of privatisation or contracting out, it should occur as a result of a positive decision by Parliament or Ministers. In the clause, that power is reserved to the Minister; he will decide whether to make a statement. The Minister graciously said that, in that eventuality, he would make such a statement, but secondary
legislation, or possibly a sunset clause, might be ways of dealing with the matter.
We are creating a force of people who, to some extent, are quasi-police and who will undertake certain duties currently performed by the police. Having listened carefully to what the Minister said—I shall certainly study it again in Hansard—we will probably wish to return to the matter if the Committee does not take a positive decision on some of the other amendments. If the hon. Member for Christchurch were to push amendments Nos. 28 and 29 to a vote, we would be happy to support him.
I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Beard. I thank the Minister for his thorough response to an excellent debate on this group of amendments.
The Minister concedes that amendment No. 29 contains nothing that the Government find objectionable, but says that he does not think that including it in the Bill would take matters any further. However, he is not prepared to say including it would make the Bill any worse. The Government say that they do not want to do anything too quickly, but that they have an open-ended commitment to possible contractorisation of the Highways Agency in the future. In that context, we should put the safeguard provided by amendment No. 29 in the Bill.
The points made by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw in the earlier debate about problems with civil enforcement officers suggest that when we discuss that part of the Bill it may be appropriate to include other safeguards. I hope that what the Minister said today will be an important precedent when we consider that.
With regard to amendment No. 28, I was interested that the Minister fell back on the statement that the Highways Agency has no separate, corporate personality and is ultimately none other than the Secretary of State himself. That leads me to say that the Bill presents an opportunity to change that. The Highways Agency is effectively a public corporation with many assets that it manages and for which it is responsible. If people want to sue it, they should be able to sue it as a corporate entity rather than having to sue the Secretary of State.
Similarly, if people want to make a bequest to the Highways Agency—perhaps because of some fine work carried out by traffic officers—they should be able to make it to the Highways Agency specifically, rather than that money going into the Department for Transport's coffers. I do not believe that the Minister's arguments about the Highways Agency negate the value of limiting clause 2 to the Highways Agency at present. If, in due course, there is a proposal to extend the role of traffic officers beyond the Highways Agency, Parliament should have a chance to consider it.
The Minister is saying that he thinks that change should be made by ministerial fiat without even a regulation being passed. There might be a statement by way of a written answer, but that is not an adequate
safeguard. There is so much sensitivity about the issue that if there is to be an extension beyond the Highways Agency into the contractorised sector, Parliament should be able to have greater scrutiny; that is what amendment No. 28 seeks to achieve.
I beg to move amendment No. 144, in
page 2, line 27, at end add—
'(7A) The appropriate national authority will draw up, in consultation, such training programmes as may be considered appropriate.'.
The original draft of the amendment mentioned the appropriate nautical authority. I am glad to see that that has been corrected, but that lets me make the point that those who look after our shipping lanes would not consider anything other than ensuring that all agencies involved are properly trained and that the interaction between them works. There are constant exercises to ensure that training involving those agencies reaches the highest level.
The aim of the amendment is to respond to concerns about the training of the proposed traffic officers, the extent to which they will be trained in network management and crash investigation and the extent to which they will be able to interact with other agencies; the sort of points that were made this morning. Training is implicit in the Bill, and I note the Minister's comments in reply to a couple of debates this morning about training. There is, however, no guarantee about the sorts of consultations that there will be or what they will include. Nor is there a guarantee that they will not be silo-based and relate only to traffic officers, but will extend to other agencies.
I am particularly concerned about that overlapping of training, perhaps because of my background as a systems analyst when I advised companies on how to set up structures. I have seen so many projects founder either because training was seen as an add-on or because it was the first thing to be cut from the budget when the budget overran. It is not seen as central to the implementation of a project, which is why I am concerned.
My other query is about how concerns about safety issues and the way in which traffic officers are operating are fed back into the training process. The Minister will be happy to hear that I am not going to press my amendment to a vote, but will he respond to the fears to which it relates? There are several concerns in the outside world, which the Minister should address.
I notice that my hon. Friend said ''nautical''. I have other responsibilities for sea matters, and I wondered if there was something that I had not noticed when carrying them out. He makes a good point, and he is right to say that traffic officers need a substantial amount of quality training. We are aware of that. We know that traffic officers will not be instantaneously fully trained and able to carry out their full role as soon as they are appointed, but they will need quite a long lead-in period to familiarise themselves with the job, to be trained appropriately and to get some experience on the road. Even after the Bill has received Royal Assent, I suspect that it will be some time before we have people with a modicum of training who are formally carrying out their duties.
I assure my hon. Friend that the traffic officers will go through the most thorough and carefully devised comprehensive training programme. The Police Skills and Standards Organisation will set up the occupational standards to ensure the full accreditation of the training. The programme will be regularly reviewed and carefully evaluated to ensure that it is effective and efficient and, most importantly, that it will produce the right calibre of officer. Training is as vital as checking criminal records and the backgrounds of people taking on the job. Again, the traffic officers will be dealing with the public, sometimes in sensitive situations and in situations that could be extremely dangerous. They will sometimes be expected to act in circumstances in which they will be putting their lives at risk. Sadly, there is quite a casualty rate among contractors who already work on our motorways. The fact that they are on the road is of sufficient concern. I assure my hon. Friend that these issues are at the forefront of our mind.
The Opposition largely agree with the Minister about this matter. He referred to traffic officers having to deal with the public. Clearly, they will need training to do so. Once the traffic officer is trained, does the Minister envisage that the officer, like a police constable, will be expected to carry and maintain a notebook?
That will be in the protocols that will be arranged for the traffic officers, who will work closely with the police. I will certainly consider the hon. Gentleman's point. I certainly expect them to keep a log of their daily activities, and I am informed that part of their record will involve keeping a regular log. It may be different from the log kept by a police constable. Nevertheless, they will have to record their activities during the day. Just to wrap up the point, as they get more practice on the road, they will improve their skills in liaison with the police and there will be a gradual movement of responsibilities from the police to traffic officers. There will be joint exercises and training with the police. We shall also work with the maintaining agents In some cases, local authorities carry out some of the work on the national road network. All those people will be involved in the training process. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend some reassurance.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment proposed: 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.'.—[Mr. Chope.]
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 7.