As I run my eye down this list, and I remind the Committee that I am not a lawyer and do not have all the relevant offences or sections of particular Acts in my mind, it seems to me that on occasion someone who is not so cluttered up with the minutiae can see things that the lawyer does not. I would like the Minister to comment on a couple of matters in the schedule. I am sure that my colleagues and others will raise other issues.
Let us put aside the argument about how great the fines should be and run our eyes down to line 15 of page 57, which refers to section 65(6) and relates to penalties for:
''Interference with safety measures taken by undertaker''.
As a layman, I can see the sense in saying that some action ought to be taken if somebody interferes with safety measures. There are other instances such as that in the schedule. If the Minister were to give me the full details, I would say that if we were going to have such offences and levels of fines they should perhaps refer to such instances. However, I find a couple of the provisions mysterious. Line 10 of page 57 refers to section 57(4) and:
''Failure to give notice in accordance with s.57 (notice of emergency works)''.
I can conceive of a situation where the emergency comes to mind rather than the requirements of section
57(4). If we are dealing with a gas leak, I think that I would rather have someone do something about the escaping gas than have bureaucrats worry about who they should give notice, on what form, and where they have to deliver it.
It seems unreasonable to say that one should decide not to worry about the leaking gas until one has done the paperwork or else receive a level 4 fine of £2,500. One should be congratulated for doing things in the right order. The concept of saying that someone has failed to give notice of emergency works per se and ought to be punished by that sort of a fine is unreasonable, particularly as the Minister said as a general statement of policy that all offences should be prosecuted. Even under extenuating circumstances, the Minister's dictum is that all offences should be prosecuted. I think that is what he said; he would perhaps like to modify his views. It seems quite absurd that people who put safety first without doing the paperwork will find themselves in that sort of a situation.
I find it even more extraordinary that line 12 refers to section 60(3):
''Failure to comply with duty under s.60(1) (general duty of undertakers to co-operate)''.
What on earth is a general duty to co-operate? Who knows what general duties are? What is co-operation? If somebody, somewhere, wants to raise another stealth tax and decides that they will take action under the terms of a general duty to co-operate, the fine is £5,000 for not co-operating. That is absurd. Some of the offences that seem reasonable to me and get a level 4 fine could be quite serious.
Is my right hon. Friend inviting me to fine him £5,000 for being a little late this morning? My colleagues in the Whips Office would be delighted if I came back bearing that amount of money in the course of a morning's activities.
To pick on an issue such as a general duty to co-operate for the highest level of fine—£5,000—is to get our priorities dreadfully mixed up. There are safety issues, works issues, and issues relating to interfering with other people's equipment, none of which necessarily attracts that size of fine. Can the Minister justify including those offences in the schedule at all, let alone the level of fine to which he wants us to agree?
Will the Minister explain what he believes to be the appropriate role for a street works authority? Bodies such as disability pressure groups have made representations asking why the requirements to ensure that the street works are safe are not also incumbent on the street works authority when it is responsible for the works. That concerns the Royal National Institute of the Blind, in particular, and I would be grateful if the Minister would take the opportunity presented by this short debate to explain the Government's thinking on safety and on blind people in particular when they are confronted by street works that have been carried out by the street works authority or the street works authority contractor, and
which are unsafe, not properly guarded and in other ways in breach of the offences under the schedule. Those offences should apply to the authority or contractor, except that they do not.
There is nothing new in the schedule, which is simply a list of offences listed in the 1991 Act, which was passed by a Conservative Government who thought that it was entirely appropriate at the time, and the relative increases in the levels of fine that each offence will accrue. A simple reading of the original Act will show how irrelevant—the most polite word possible—contributions to this debate have been. How could anyone disagree with section 65(6)—
''Interference with safety measures taken by undertaker''—
which the hon. Member for Spelthorne picked up on? How can anyone disagree that that should be the larger charge? The principal Act states that an offence is committed:
''If a person without lawful authority or excuse . . . takes down, alters or removes any fence, barrier, traffic sign or light erected or placed in pursuance of subsection (1) or (2) above, or . . . extinguishes a light so placed''
obviously for safety reasons. How can anyone object to that? It is easy to pull a phrase from the schedule without referring to the original Act and have light, if not terribly witty, fun with it. Ultimately, however, the fun is at the expense of the Government of the party of the hon. Member for Spelthorne and at the offences that they determined were appropriate in 1991. We agree with that list of offences, and are not changing them for the purposes of the schedule. We are merely changing the levels of fine for the reasons that I gave earlier, and we are changing no more than that.
I am disappointed that the Minister thinks it useless to refer to the very genuine concerns of the RNIB about the need for a level playing field when protecting street works and preventing danger to blind and partially sighted pedestrians. Surely the provision should apply to all authorities. The Minister's last point was to ridicule the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne rightly expressed. There is all the difference in the world between the contents of this schedule and the schedule to the 1991 Act, taking into account the fixed penalty regime that is to follow. Under the 1991 Act, the maximum penalties were not automatic, but they were subject to the discretion of the magistrates. If the lighting around a structure on the highway was removed by vandals, the person responsible for the lighting could be prosecuted under the 1991 Act, but if he could show that despite his best endeavours the lighting had been removed by vandals, probably no penalty would be imposed—indeed, he might not even be prosecuted. Under the regime that the Minister is linking in with schedule 1—the fixed penalty notice regime—if the lighting around some street works was removed by vandals, it would not be a question of whether a prosecution would be reasonable or what level of fine would be appropriate; the fixed penalty
notice regime would click in, and the local authority would be able to say, ''That is another £500. Let's tick that one off, and put the money in the coffers.'' That is why the substantially increased—
The hon. Gentleman has given me enough for debates on the next couple of clauses.
The fixed penalty regime has nothing to do with the schedule. As I was saying before I was so tediously interrupted, much of what the hon. Member for Spelthorne alluded to, and much of what the hon. Member for Christchurch said, is clear in the principal Act. Section 59(1)(b) and section 60(1)(b) in the principal Act both require the street authority and the undertaker to
''minimise the inconvenience to persons using the street (having regard, in particular, to the needs of people with a disability)''.
I have no argument or quarrel with the Royal National Institute of the Blind or others who serve people with disabilities. Rather, I would argue with the hon. Gentleman for invoking those good works on such a fatuous point. It remains a fatuous point, clearly showing that neither he nor his colleague has read the principal Act. I said last week that the Bill cannot be seen in isolation, whatever we see in our little goldfish bowl. Not only must we consider it in the broader context of other elements such as health and safety legislation, but it must be seen in the context of the principal Act.
Without wanting to be churlish or unduly combative, I have to say that all the comments made by the hon. Members for Spelthorne and for Christchurch were fatuous. If they were intended simply to fill in the time from 11 am to 11.13 am, so that we could move at a more gentle and appropriate pace this afternoon, I shall withdraw the charge of fatuity. However, if the two hon. Gentlemen are being fatuous for the sake of it, I shall not withdraw the remark.
Question proposed, That this schedule be the First schedule to the Bill:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 4.