Clause 19 - Exemptions from speed limits

Road Safety Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:45 pm on 21st March 2006.

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Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:45 pm, 21st March 2006

I beg to move amendment No. 62, in clause 19, page 23, line 23, at end insert—

‘(c)is operating blue flashing lights.’.

This is an interesting clause, and we sympathise with what the Government are trying to do, but I am concerned that it will heighten the divide between the 34 million drivers whom I have cited and those who enforce the law. I know that the clause applies to the fire and ambulance services, doctors, those delivering blood and so on, but my main concerns are about police cars.

There is a real danger of a feeling that there is one law for them and another law for us. Some of the statistics that I have dug out are astonishing. For a start, there is an enormous variation between the speeding cases in neighbouring forces. The most spectacular that I have found was in Lothian and Borders where last year 2,272 cars triggered speed cameras, but no action was taken against any officer. That cannot be doing much for the confidence of law-abiding motorists in Lothian and Borders. Of 78 unmarked cars that broke the limit, three were given £60 fixed penalties, with nine further cases outstanding.

On the other hand, in Dumfries and Galloway, which has a police force one-sixth the size of Lothian and Borders, 15 officers were fined for speeding. In the vast majority of cases, officers were exempt from fixed-penalty fines and prosecution because they were speeding in response to a 999 call or on other operational duties. Of the five Scottish forces that supplied details of police cars caught speeding, only 34.5 per cent. were fined, taken to court or still had cases pending.

Actually, Lothian and Borders had only the fourth highest rate of officers caught speeding. Essex had 3.26 incidents per officer, Bedfordshire had 2.04 and   Staffordshire had 0.91, which was tied with the Metropolitan police. I dug out those figures from the Press Association.

Public confidence is a problem. The RAC Foundation said that they believed that the results showed that some forces were overusing their exemption powers. The RAC’s Kevin Delaney, interestingly enough, a policeman for 30 years, said the following:

“The exemption rules are widely misunderstood by rank-and-file officers as giving them a carte blanche exemption from the speed limit when driving a police vehicle. That is clearly wrong and suggests that something is wrong with police driver training. Forces with the lowest number of camera triggers and higher proportions of officers refused an exemption have clearly taken a stand on this.”

We heard similar words from Neil Greig, who is head of policy in Scotland for the AA Motoring Trust:

“I think the vast majority of motorists understand that marked police cars responding to emergencies may be required to break the speed limit. But the number of exemptions given to police in some forces does concern me.”

There seems to be an inconsistency in the way in which the forces perform. I had a spectacular case in West Mercia where an officer was caught doing 159 mph in an unmarked police car, and he was caught by his own on-board video recorder.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Perhaps my right hon. Friend wants to buy one. It was a new unmarked Vauxhall Vectra GSI. Apparently, it was being tested—that was the explanation. That does not seem sensible and cannot be a good idea. I have the highest possible regard for West Mercia and I spend a lot of time defending its right to continue as a force, but that sort of case damages the reputation of law enforcement.

Our amendment is simple and I will not waste a lot of time on it. We say simply that emergency vehicles, when driving above the speed limit, should have blue flashing lights. That is not much to ask, and it might help with public perception. We fully understand that there are times that do not pertain to normal drivers when those working for the fire, police or ambulance services, or those making blood deliveries have to go at top speed, above the legal limit. Under those circumstances there should be a blue flashing light so that all drivers are aware and can get out of the way of a 159 mph flyer.

I hope that the Minister has listened to my points. There is great variation in the way that police forces behave, and we are asking for a modest amendment to the clause to allow for a blue flashing light to show where those vehicles are and to allow the public to get out of the way.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I think that when the hon. Gentleman talked about a car doing 159 mph he almost made a sale to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire. Love died, however, when he heard that it was a Vauxhall.

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, and he is quite right that that type of case—or at least the way it was reported—caused a lot of furore and upset a lot of people. There was a feeling   that there was one rule for them and another for the rest of us. That is why we think that it is appropriate to have a clause in the Bill specifying when somebody is exempt from a speed limit. It clarifies, for example, that the officers involved must be in pursuit of their duties or in legitimate training. They cannot just be getting back to the station because someone told them that the kettle had been put on—there has to be a legitimate purpose.

I also understand what the hon. Gentleman was trying to get at with his idea that officers should have a blue light on. The point that I would make to him is that covert surveillance is an important part of what serious crime officers now have to do. Sometimes they have to engage in covert following of people who break the speed limit. If we were to require them to put a blue flashing light on their car, every time they were following some bad guys, I suspect the bad guys would pretty soon figure it out and do something about it.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

The Minister will be aware that paragraph 66 of the explanatory notes referred to the amendments that were made to the Road Traffic Act 1988 by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. At the time of writing the notes, the amendments that were made by the 2005 Act had not been brought into force. Will the Minister say whether that is still the case, and whether his Department or the Home Office have any plans to bring them into force?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I do not immediately know the answer, so I shall either write to the Committee, or if inspiration comes to me later I may be able to provide it. Nevertheless, I hope that I have given sufficient explanation to the hon. Gentleman as to why we need to give discretion to the police, sometimes, to break the speed limit without their lights on. Those occasions should be very limited and should only apply to officers who have been trained for that purpose and are in pursuit of a serious objective. I expect chief constables to enforce that policy rigorously among their staff.

If it is of any further reassurance to the hon. Gentleman I can tell him that I am meeting Meredydd Hughes, the chief constable responsible for road policing, in the near future, and I undertake to remind him that Members expressed concern about the issue.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am indeed reassured by what the Minister said. It would be particularly helpful if he put it across to his colleagues in the Home Office, and to the police, that the extraordinary variation in the way the police allow their officers to transgress is unfair. I understand the circumstance he mentioned when it would not be appropriate to operate blue flashing lights. On condition that he puts the message across, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

On a point of order, Sir Nicholas. I wonder if you can advise me how I can bring it to the attention of the Committee that the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 amendment to section 87 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 came into force on 1 January 2006?

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

The Minister has done a splendid job. He has done what he set out to do and I hope that it is noted by all members of the Committee.