Clause 8 - Watchdog

Infrastructure Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:45 pm on 16th December 2014.

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Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport) 4:45 pm, 16th December 2014

I beg to move amendment 21, in clause 8, page 5, line 40, after “authority”, insert—

“() how the strategic highways company’s exercise of its functions or achievement of its objectives affects communities located near the highways for which it is the highway authority.”

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Full Member)

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 22, in clause 8, page 5, line 40, after “authority”, insert—

“() the views of road users in general; and

() the environment.”

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport)

One of the Department’s main reasons for reforming the Highways Agency has been the need to provide a stronger consumer focus on strategic roads. That is where the expanded role of Passenger Focus, which will become Transport Focus, comes in to represent road users.

The Government have clarified that Transport Focus will represent all users. Such a broad constituency poses quite a challenge as it covers the freight and logistics sector, which of course depends on the strategic road network business, as well as motorists, cyclists, pedestrians and motorcyclists. It also covers the emergency services and probably rather more on top. That is a much broader range of road users than simply people who could be described as passengers, whose views Passenger Focus currently collects.

We know that the renamed Transport Focus is up for the challenge, and it has a good track record of expanding its duties. We are therefore proposing to extend its remit further so that it can truly become a watchdog of the roads. As currently drafted, the Bill will compel it only to protect and promote the interest of users of strategic roads. We want the Government to think seriously about how that will work, because, as I have said before, most journeys do not start or end on the strategic road network. We want Transport Focus be able to survey and represent the views of road users in general, who may have sped down the motorway but come to a standstill in their town or city.

There are clearly challenges when it comes to data collection. One cannot stop a driver when he or she has just come off a motorway and say, “Please fill in this survey about your experience driving down that motorway.”. Well, I suppose one could, but one would not be very popular if one tried to do so. We know from Passenger Focus’s experience that people’s views change and tend to become less accurate, or perhaps less strident, the longer the time between the journey and when they are asked about it. E-surveys tend to be fairly self-selecting and might not build up an accurate picture of how all road users feel about the network. This will be the first time that we have access to evidence about the user experience of the road network, so it is important that we get it right. Can the Minister expand further on how sees it working?

The Opposition think that, for effective scrutiny, the Government must be more ambitious with the watchdog. We want to see it represent and advocate for the people and communities affected by the construction, management and operation of the strategic road network. We are particularly concerned about the effect on people’s health, quality of life and the environment. I mentioned earlier the damning European judgment on the UK’s air quality failure, and the clear and urgent risks posed by air pollution to the health of our communities and children. If the Government are going to set up a watchdog for the roads, it is sensible for that watchdog to have a remit to look at the effect of those roads on the environment and people’s health. I urge the Minister to consider that closely. This is no time to adopt a business as usual approach.

The recent debacle around the 60 mph limit on the M1 managed-motorway scheme is a perfect example of why we need a watchdog to look at the issues and make recommendations to Government. A semi-permanent 60 mph limit was proposed by the Highways Agency in order to comply with air quality limits, but it was scrapped by the Government after it caused too much confusion. What has been the result? The limit has been dropped but the managed motorway is still going ahead and there will almost certainly be further infraction proceedings. We need to beef up the remit and powers of the passengers council to ensure that it is really a watchdog on Britain’s roads. That is the main purpose of amendments 21 and 22.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Minister of State (Department for Transport) 5:00 pm, 16th December 2014

The hon. Gentleman seeks to give additional duties to the watchdog. I agree with him that it is essential that we have an effective watchdog that reflects the will and the wishes of road users. It certainly should ascertain what problems are in the system and champion  the views of users of the strategic road network. The provisions of the Bill will create a powerful watchdog. It will work to gather, understand and promote the views of transport users and its voice will be a powerful driver for accountability. However, it forms just a single part of a bigger system. Other parts of that system address some of the matters that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Of course, the environment is a critical issue, and we discussed it at some length earlier. It is absolutely right that local communities living near the network must be properly represented. Highways England will be expected to engage with action groups, councils, local MPs and others, as the Highways Agency does now. Indeed, as we discussed earlier, we have set out its responsibilities to engage with stakeholders in that way. That will ensure that it understands the effect that its network has on the surrounding community. The ongoing process of route strategies will ensure that those people will be able to shape the future of investment on the network, and influence developments in their area.

I do not want Transport Focus to duplicate work being completed elsewhere, especially in areas in which it is not an expert. It is important that Transport Focus does not lose focus but focuses, quite carefully, on the interests of road users, giving them a single voice for the first time. I do not want to distract it from that clear responsibility and I certainly do not want to give it things to do that it cannot reasonably be expected to do well.

Let us talk about the second proposal to gather the views of road users in general. Clause 8(1) ensures that the interests of users of the highway are protected and promoted, as the hon. Gentleman said, by the watchdog. The Government have already amended the Bill in the other place to clarify that the term “users of highways”—I am sure that he would have raised it had it not already been amended—includes cyclists and pedestrians. The watchdog will be considering the views of all users of the strategic roads network accordingly.

Clause 8(7) provides the watchdog with the ability to engage with the local road network, but only where the local highway authority invites it to do so. Councils are already accountable through the ballot box, and the watchdog’s first priority must be to represent the users of the strategic network. It is right that the watchdog should have teeth and be effective but, in order to be so, it must have clear marching orders. The effect of the amendment might be to reduce the focus of the watchdog and muddy the waters, rather than making them as clear, transparent and healthy as they ought to be. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point but I feel that what he is suggesting is dealt with elsewhere in what we are proposing. On that basis, I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Minister is correct that, partly as a result of discussions in the other place, Transport Focus’s remit for considering, representing and giving voice to users of the strategic road network has expanded somewhat. It now deals with users who are not motorists. That is good, but it still leaves a glaring gap.

If a road user—again, I mean any kind of road user: a road trip motorist, an HGV driver, a cyclist, a motorcyclist, a pedestrian or a coach passenger—has a view about the condition of a road, they can go to Transport Focus. If they have gone to it before about a rail or a bus journey, it may have either taken up the  issue directly or said, “The experience you raised is important,” and brought it to the attention of the bus company, the local transport authority, the train operating company or even Network Rail.

However, that member of the public may make exactly the same comment about their road journey and be told, “If your comment were about the bit of the road network a mile before the bit that you are complaining about, we would absolutely be able to take it up and feed it into our thinking, because it would have been in the strategic road network. However, I’m afraid your comment is about a bit that is called the local road network, over which we have no jurisdiction. We are Transport Focus for the strategic road network.” That would not give that member of the public confidence, and it does not make sense. Much of what we have talked about today has been about integration, including looking at different modes of transport together and looking at local roads and strategic roads together.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston asked some telling questions. He asked what would happen if there was a road-related transport issue that is slap-bang on the join between the strategic road network and the local road network. Let us remember that Transport Focus, as envisaged in the Bill, will not be either the monitor, because that will be the Office of Rail Regulation—its name may change during the passage of the Bill—or the regulator, because there will not be one. Transport Focus will be a watchdog, its role to ensure that road users’ voices are heard and taken into account. I therefore do not see the problem with saying that its job is to represent all road users.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I think that when the hon. Gentleman reflects on this matter over his dinner, he will conclude that it is not a great idea to have a watchdog over every local authority that has responsibility for local roads. To do that statutorily would be an error. I understand his argument, particularly on the interface between the strategic road network and the local roads. Let me invite him to agree this with me, and then perhaps he will withdraw his amendments. I am happy for local authorities to come to arrangements with the new body, Transport Focus, and look at how the work of that watchdog can relate to and add value to the work of the local highways authority. I am more than happy to agree that we should not only allow that, but encourage it where it is desirable. That would avoid the more heavy-handed approach of giving the watchdog a role in every local authority, and it will facilitate the benefits that the hon. Gentleman seeks to derive from his amendments. On that basis, I hope he will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport)

I appreciate the Minister’s offer. If local authorities came to such an agreement with Transport Focus, it is something that I am sure we would both wish to encourage. If our amendment is unsuccessful, perhaps that is what would need to happen. I still do not think it meets the essential point. The amendments have two fronts. The first says that part of the objective of Transport Focus, in being the watchdog and representing the road user, should be to consider the affected communities located near the highways for which the  highways authority is responsible. This is not just about local authorities; it is about communities in the vicinity. I see no reason why we cannot do that.

The second thing is about ensuring that the views of road users are understood and advanced so that they have a voice with the strategic company. Again, I do not see that as a problem, because we are not talking about a regulator; we are talking about providing a voice for road users. I do not see that this needs to be any more complicated for roads than for other modes of transports. At the moment, Passenger Focus—Transport Focus, as it is now—could have an interface with passenger transport authorities, Network Rail, train operating companies or bus companies. Any or all of those come within its remit, and it does not have a problem with that.

I do not see why there is a problem in saying that that watchdog voice can be put forward anyway, whether in relation to local authorities, the strategic highways authority or, indeed, Ministers and the Department for Transport generally. Again, we are not saying that any of those bodies have to respond, agree or do everything they are told by Transport Focus, but why should we not empower Transport Focus to be what it is cracked up to be in relation to this Bill, which is the voice of road users? If it is going to be the voice of road users, we should not limit that by setting out the kinds of roads on which it can have a voice.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Minister of State (Department for Transport)

If I may come back one more time, hopefully we might be able to resolve the issue. For the first time today, I think the hon. Gentleman is on the wrong side of the argument, and I will tell him why. The purpose of setting up the watchdog is very much in the spirit that has been agreed across the Committee. In establishing Highways England, it is important to build lines of accountability and the checks and balances that would be expected of such a body. Local highways authorities ultimately have many of those lines of accountability. They are democratically elected bodies, with local councillors who are responsible for particular localities and have a keen interest in the interests of their constituents and the roads they use.

If we interfered in the process in the way that the hon. Gentleman’s amendment would, how would he feel if he were a local county councillor and Transport Focus turned up and started getting involved in a local road traffic issue, perhaps without his knowledge or involvement? I do not think he would be very pleased, and I certainly would not be very pleased either. The amendment is a duplication of functions that would add to their responsibilities in a way that would make it very difficult for them to exercise those responsibilities effectively in areas where it will not necessarily have expertise. The amendment would both muddy the waters and create a potential conflict with the highways authorities. It is fine if that is voluntary, it is fine if there is a good relationship and it is fine where there is a connection between their responsibilities and the responsibilities of a local authority, but I think it is too heavy-handed. The hon. Gentleman should think about withdrawing his amendment.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport)

We have hit a point where there is genuine disagreement across the Committee. To answer his direct question, would I have a problem with this as a local councillor? I do not think I would. In fact, the whole purpose of considering such things as the  implementation of the local sustainable transport fund is that local authorities are urged to engage with all the bodies and organisations that could have a say. Good local authorities do engage with cycling, pedestrian and motorists’ organisations and other groups in working out how the money should be established.

Those are voluntary organisations. Transport Focus is not. It is set up under statute and, particularly because of that, the public will or should have heard of it. It has expertise as watchdog. If it were to be a regulator, the Minister’s argument would have a great deal of force, but it is not. It is about providing a voice and trying to get road users’ input into decisions about roads. Ordinary people out there do not draw the distinction between strategic and local road networks. They want it to be clear that the roads work and that they will not be held up in congestion. If there are problems with potholes, they want to be able to raise that. If we can enable this body to be yet another champion for them, that is a good thing. On that basis, I want to press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 10.

Division number 3 Decision Time — Clause 8 - Watchdog

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Full Member)

Before we continue, the bell is about to ring. The indication that I have received, which the Committee has probably also had, is that there will be more than one Division. If that is so, given that we have effectively been sitting since 2 o’clock, with a short break for a Division, and that the staff need to be considered as well, I will suspend until 6 o’clock to give everyone a break after having voted. We will then sit again at 6 o’clock for as long as the Committee wishes.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Assistant Whip (HM Treasury)

On a point of order, Sir Roger. If there is only one Division, will that still be the case?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Full Member)

The notice said “Divisions”. If there is one Division, we will suspend until 15 minutes after the start of the Division. If there is more than one Division, we shall suspend until 6 o’clock or for 15 minutes after 6 o’clock, depending on how many Divisions there are.