Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I count myself fortunate to have any time at all to debate a Bill on a Friday that I have drafted, or which has been drafted, with minimal assistance from me, by officials of the House, who have also given me guidance, for which I am eternally grateful. It is relatively unusual to have a Presentation Bill debated in the House in this Session.
The reason why I asked to put the previous Bill back to next Friday is that I already have a Bill dealing with the European Union on the Order Paper for that day, so I thought that I should regard today as providing an important opportunity to talk about an equally significant issue for our constituents and citizens—namely, road traffic congestion reduction.
Earlier this week, I was privileged to attend a dinner in Wandsworth town hall to celebrate 30 continuous years of Conservative control in Wandsworth. During the course of that dinner, the former MP for Henley gave us an updated version of part of the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, which he felt moved to provide because we were in the presence of Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. The former MP for Henley thus said:
“Where there is congestion, let there be free flowing traffic”.
That is very much the theme of the Bill.
Does my hon. Friend accept that his Bill is defective in its drafting and that it could have been a much better Bill if he had drawn its terms rather wider? He is seeking in the Bill to
“Place a duty on highway authorities and police forces to minimise congestion and delays caused by collisions and other incidents on the highway”,
but should he not also have included reference to circumstances where delays are caused by deliberate policies, such as the policy of the disastrous former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone?
My right hon. Friend makes a point that could be dealt with in a separate Bill. I am grateful to him for supporting my Bill on the basis of its long title. If it gets into Committee, there will be every opportunity, within the scope of the long title, to deal with some of his concerns.
Let me explain briefly what the Bill is designed to achieve. It will
“Place a duty on highway authorities and police forces to minimise congestion and delays caused by collisions and other incidents on the highway”.
It will do so by changing the duties of local traffic authorities under the Traffic Management Act 2004 to include a requirement on the network management organisation to minimise
“congestion on the authority’s road network”,
“action to remove expeditiously obstructions caused by collisions”
and to establish
“contingency plans to ensure that traffic is directed to alternative routes when roads are temporarily closed or obstructed”.
Clause 1(4) also requires information to be provided. It stipulates that
“a local traffic authority should publish, on an annual basis, information regarding closures or partial closures of roads in excess of a specified duration, including details of…the duration and cause, and…the action taken to minimise the duration of such closures.”
Hon. Members will be aware that recent years have seen an increasing number of total closures of motorways, trunk roads and other highways by the authorities following collisions and other incidents. The duration of those closures has increased significantly. I have tabled written parliamentary questions, the responses to which have been depressing reading for the travelling public.
Clause 2 places a duty on police authorities “to minimise congestion” by requiring such an authority to
“include in its local policing plan a requirement that, in attending collisions and other incidents on roads, the police should, so far as is reasonably practicable, minimise any congestion and delay for road users and, in particular, only close a road as a last resort and for as short a period as possible.”
If anyone is in any doubt about the relevance and topicality of the Bill, perhaps they will change their mind when they hear about an incident in my constituency reported on the Transport Direct website this morning. In the “Live travel news” section, which I last checked at 9.38 am during a Division, there were severe delays on the A31 eastbound at Ringwood road because the road was closed between Ashley Heath junction and the M27 Butchers Bush junction for accident investigation work. That closure began at 5.24 am, and it was still in force at 9.38 am, when the rush hour was over. I am delighted to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) seems to be expressing surprise and dismay that such a thing has happened. Let me tell him that that is just one incident today in my constituency. I do not know whether it has yet been resolved. The delay was not due to the accident itself, but to accident investigation work. Surely there must be a better way of dealing with accident investigation work than closing important arteries and forcing the travelling public to take alternative routes.
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, but does he not accept that one has to acknowledge that when there is a fatality, a highway will often have to be closed to enable the police to collate evidence? We should be considering ways of speeding up that process.
Absolutely; I agree with my right hon. Friend. Indeed, the Highways Agency is talking about doing just that. I have with me its latest annual report, published last July. I imagine that the next one will be published next month. There are paragraphs on journey reliability, an important objective for the Highways Agency; perhaps the Minister can talk to us about that later. The report contains a statement about the agency
“putting additional measures in place to tackle unreliable journeys, including…trials of collision investigation equipment to speed up accident investigations”.
I do not know whether one of those trials was taking place on the A31 this morning; I hope not. The travelling public in my constituency would probably have been much better off if such investigation equipment had been available this morning to prevent those unwarranted delays.
A scan of my local newspapers shows that the A338, which goes from the Ashley Heath roundabout to Bournemouth through my constituency, has been blocked completely on several occasions in recent months, not just for 10 minutes or half an hour, but for hours at a time. Traffic has been blocked solid on that road because there is no way of moving off it. In those situations, there is a strong case for the highways authorities providing alternative routes. That may mean opening up emergency exit areas that might normally be accessed by the police and emergency services only. On the A338, that would make it possible for some of the traffic to go elsewhere. Otherwise, if traffic builds up—often there are many miles of delays—the frustration for the travelling public, the cost to the Exchequer and other problems are disproportionate.
Let me offer a press report as an example. It stated that a crash had caused 10-mile delays on the M6, and that Lancashire police had said that a Land Rover Freelander had overturned between junctions 34 at Lancaster and 35 at Carnforth, spilling fuel on to two lanes. That was not, therefore, a fatal accident; instead, a relatively modest-sized vehicle—a Land Rover Freelander, not a great lorry carrying fuel—had, as a result of an accident, spilled fuel on to two lanes of the carriageway, and those lanes were then closed and the result was delays of 10 miles. Three lanes of 10-mile delays is equivalent to 30 miles of queuing traffic, and that was caused by a Land Rover Freelander with a split in its—diesel, I imagine—tank. That is a disproportionate consequence of such an incident. We must be able to find a better way, through the police and the highway authorities, to prevent the travelling public from being inconvenienced to such an extent.
The climate in terms of such incidents has changed so much over recent years that motorists almost feel that the authorities are trying to penalise the motoring public for the actions of fellow drivers that result in collisions—or, as they are now increasingly called, incidents. Why should people be penalised in this way? Last year marked the centenary of the scouts, and I remember that I was due to go to an event west from my constituency in Dorset, but the entire road network for tens of miles was completely clogged up because of an accident. It seems that the level of priority that the police, the Highways Agency and the highways authorities give to clearing such accidents and removing the debris is not as great as it should be.
I received some comfort from looking at a couple of the route management strategies that are being established. The A2/M2 and A249 route management strategy—drawn up, I think, jointly by Babtie Group Ltd, now Jacobs, and the HA—puts near the top of the strategy matters such as delay minimisation, provision of real-time information, installation of electronic signing, improved performance in respect of accident clearance and provision of emergency access between junctions 5 and 6 of that motorway. It makes it clear that there should be an objective of reducing not only the number of accidents, but the impact of the delays caused by those accidents.
However, the statistics in the HA annual report reveal a sad story in respect of the target of increasing journey reliability—of improving reliability to ensure that average vehicle delay on the 10 per cent. slowest journeys is less in 2007-08 than in the baseline period of August 2004 to July 2005. Monitoring up to the end of March 2007 showed a slippage of about 8.7 per cent. against the target—in other words, things were going in the wrong direction. The HA report states that that
“appears to be related to a higher impact of traffic growth than originally anticipated.”
I do not think that that is good enough, and I do not think the HA thinks it is good enough either. My Bill would make it clear to the HA and the police authorities that they would have a statutory duty to act in this respect, rather than just using such good endeavours as they might think appropriate at any particular time.
Policing and traffic management are, as in so many other walks of life, issues of priority: to what extent should priority be given to a particular activity? On too many occasions, the police and the highways authority do not give sufficient priority to clearing the roads and allowing free-flowing traffic.
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way again. He referred to his wish to put a statutory duty on highways authorities and the police to ensure that congestion is dealt with as soon as possible, but his Bill is silent on this point. Should his Bill become law, what would happen if a highway authority was clearly in flagrant breach of that duty? Would a motorist stranded in a traffic jam that was totally avoidable be able to sue the highways authority for compensation, particularly if they were a business man who had suffered losses due to missing an important meeting?
As a solicitor learned in the law, my right hon. Friend knows that it is possible to sue in civil law for breach of a statutory duty. If we put a statutory duty in this legislation, anybody who alleges that there has been a breach of it resulting in a loss to them would, prima facie, have a course of action. That, in itself, would be a deterrent to highway and police authorities not complying with this duty. Unlike the Bill in the previous debate, where all the emphasis seemed to be put on penalties—even to the extent of imprisonment and high fines—this Bill creates a framework that would encourage people to proceed on the basis of common sense, and to make sure that they were acting in the best interests of the motoring public.
Because we do not have that much time, I will conclude by referring briefly to a pamphlet published under the Conservative Way Forward imprint—an organisation of which I have the privilege of being chairman. The pamphlet was written by Malcolm Heymer, a retired former principal transportation engineer in the London borough of Havering. He takes a great interest in what is happening on our roads and has produced an effective blueprint. I hope that our Front-Bench spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), is taking this forward as part of Conservative manifesto planning for the next general election. In that document, Malcolm Heymer refers to dealing with accidents:
“Severe disruption can occur when roads, especially trunk roads and motorways, are closed for long periods following accidents. As well as the costs resulting from these delays, traffic diverting to other, less safe routes can lead to additional accidents occurring elsewhere.”
Recognising the point that my right hon. Friend made earlier, he says:
“Some disruption is inevitable during rescue operations and the removal of vehicles, and the safety of emergency services’ personnel at the scene must be paramount. Once the location has been made safe, however, traffic must be allowed to flow as soon as possible and traffic managers should ensure that this happens. Extended closures or restrictions while the police gather evidence…must be curtailed.”
Some of the delays that have occurred in and around my constituency, to which I referred earlier, have arisen because the police chose not to deploy resources at the scene in time and, in a sense, made the motoring public sweat it out, often in very unpleasant conditions and circumstances.
Malcolm Heymer says that in his view, there should be the possibility of
“imposing financial penalties on highway authorities”
if roads remain closed for too long. I am not sure that I would go along with that, because that is imposing a financial penalty on a body that should already be complying with a requirement to look after its customers.
What would happen? That would just deprive the Highways Agency of money. That is one of the ironies of trying to impose financial penalties on tax-funded organisations. If the highway authority or the police authority fails in its duties, heads should roll, as the saying goes. That could be done through public naming and shaming, and the use of accountability, which would be facilitated by ensuring that information on the causes of those delays was made available, as it would have to be under clause 1.
In fairness to the Government, could they not argue that they have thought of a way of dealing with congestion—national road user charging? Of course, that involves taxing the motorist, but that is not surprising coming from this high-taxing Government. If one examines that policy, one finds that it could have a beneficial effect on congestion if the road charge was nil at non-rush hour periods. Has my hon. Friend thought whether he would entertain that provision in his war on congestion?
No, I was making the point that under the Government’s scheme the motorist would be the one who would have to pay a fee. If the Government introduced a scheme whereby the fee was nil during non-rush hour periods, would that not have a similar effect of reducing congestion, while not involving the fining of highway authorities?
The Bill’s long title gives plenty of scope for it to be amended in Committee, for its terms to have more precision and perhaps for it to include references to incentives or disincentives that might be available to any authority that had introduced so-called congestion or user charging. If one wanted to cite an example of an existing situation, one might choose the toll bridge on the M25. Under the terms of my Bill, it would be reasonably practicable for the highway authority to allow the traffic to flow through the toll booths without the need for payments to be made in order to deal with congestion. As a result, the highway authority might lose some income, but such an approach would ensure that the traffic would keep flowing. That could be done by working with the grain of the recommendations in clause 2.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I apologise to my hon. Friend for interrupting, but I have a point of order to make. The Irish people have turned down the treaty of Lisbon. You will know that there is a Bill before the House to ratify that treaty, and it cannot now come into effect by treaty law, which is unfortunately superior to the law of this House. Is it in order—is it within the vires of this House—to proceed with legislation that, by treaty law, cannot come into effect? If the answer to that is no, have you had an intimation from a Minister that they will come to this House to explain when they will withdraw the ratification Bill?
I have not had any such indication from a Minister, but of course the legislation to which the right hon. Gentleman refers is currently before the other place. Further, the points he raises are points of law, rather than points of order for this House.
Absolutely, Madam Deputy Speaker. All I wonder is whether I made the right decision earlier in relation to my other Bill. I shall not pursue that topic. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) to his place, and assure him that what we are discussing at the moment is also of great significance to our constituents. I had to make a hard call as to which Bill should take priority today, and I decided that the Road Traffic (Congestion Reduction) Bill was more important than the other Bill, because at the time I did not have access to the news wires—
May I say on behalf of the Department for Transport that we are delighted by the choice that the hon. Gentleman has made this morning. We are always grateful for the opportunity to subject the Government’s transport record to the scrutiny of this House, so we welcome his choice.
I had not imagined that the Minister would support the Bill. I understood that he was supporting my decision to give the Bill an airing today. I hope that his support will translate into allowing the Bill into Committee so that it can be debated in more detail. If the Department has any problems with the contents of the Bill, they could be ironed out in Committee.
The Bill is timely and worth while, if for no other reason than it gives me the opportunity to say on behalf of my constituents that what has happened on the A31 Ringwood road today is unacceptable and intolerable. The only way to prevent further such incidents—
Does my hon. Friend accept that if his Bill became law it might be necessary for the House to revisit some decisions in the light of evidence presented to us in the reports from the highway authority and the police? For example, it might be necessary to have a national review of speed limits or of traffic-calming policies, which sometimes appear to play a part in causing congestion.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend is correct. However, my thinking was that we should try to make private Members’ Bills relatively tightly confined as they then have a greater chance of getting on to the statute book. My right hon. Friend seems to have more in mind a 100-clause transport Bill. I would be delighted to work with him to draft such a Bill, which we could bring in as soon as we get into government. However, in the context of recognising the limitations of the private Member’s Bill procedure and its vulnerability to the Government and the Executive, that would probably mean going a bit wider than I would have thought reasonable in the circumstances.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend on his success on achieving at least some debating time today, even if the Bill does not proceed any further. I am listed as one of the sponsors of the Bill, although I played no part in the drafting of it, but my only criticism, which is minor, is that I do not think that it is drawn widely enough. The title to the Bill states that it is:
“To place a duty on highway authorities and police forces to minimise congestion and delays caused by collisions and other incidents on the highway”.
Had I been drafting the Bill, I would have worded it, “to minimise congestion and delays caused on the highway for whatever reason”. Why should we only tackle congestion when it is the result of collisions and other incidents? Why should we not consider the whole matter of why our roads are congested at times and what we can do about that? If the Minister is not going to support the Bill, I hope that he will lay before the House a list of measures that he is considering to reduce congestion that will, in turn, show why the Bill is not necessary. It seems to me that far more could and should be done to improve traffic flows.
On the subject of congestion, if my parliamentary duties permit me to do so, I intend later today to visit Marlborough in Wiltshire, where there will be an international weekend for the Jensen Owners Club. It might be that there will be congestion in the vicinity of Marlborough as Jensen motor cars, built in West Bromwich but from all over the world, descend on Alexandra house for their international weekend—I hope that that helps the House.
I hope that the Minister will tell us, if he will not support the Bill, what he intends to bring forward to help to reduce congestion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) has pointed out, the present situation is far from satisfactory. I am constantly frustrated and annoyed when I drive away from this place in non-rush hour periods to my address, which is 1.3 miles away, to be stopped several times at traffic lights for absolutely no vehicles or no pedestrians seeking to cross. I then find myself in a queue with half a dozen or so other motorists on a main road being stopped for no purpose at all at traffic lights that deal with a minor road. In the spirit of the Bill, I ask the Minister why we cannot have a system operating in the UK like that in America where, in non-rush hour periods, certain traffic lights flash amber in all directions. In effect, that says to motorists, “Cross this junction with care, but you don’t have to stop if there are no other vehicles or pedestrians in the vicinity”.
I hope that the Minister will tell us, if he is not supporting the Bill, what further measures the Government will take to give motorists adequate long-distance warning. There is nothing more frustrating than being on a motorway, passing an exit that could have been used as a detour and finding suddenly that the motorway is closed and that the gantry warning signs, which could have warned motorists of the congestion and closure, had not been switched on to relay that information to motorists earlier on in their journey. It does seem sometimes that there is no joined-up thinking between different regions of the Highways Agency. I hope that the Bill will tackle that issue, if the Minister is not able to say that he is already considering such measures.
Another way of minimising congestion, which I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has in mind, is the device in America that allows drivers to turn left on a red traffic light, if it is clear to do so.
The Government started trials with flexible speed limits, but only flexible speed limits in a downward direction. Why is the Minister not being bold? Why does he not announce a policy whereby, when the roads are dry and the weather is fine, we could have a flexible limit in an upward direction on motorways, perhaps to 80 mph to bring us in line with France and some motorways in Germany?
I give some praise to the Minister for supporting a policy of hard shoulder running. I have long thought that we should introduce such a policy to alleviate congestion, particularly now that we have gantries at regular intervals, so that if a car broke down and was forced to move over to the hard shoulder when that hard shoulder was in use for vehicle running, the gantries some miles before could warn motorists to return to the main carriageway of the highway. I hope we will see hard shoulder running introduced fairly soon.
One idea which I am amazed has not been taken up across the UK is contraflow or counterflow lanes. The Department has a phrase for it which I have forgotten, but Aston way in Birmingham uses it.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend. The tidal flow mechanism works well in Birmingham, and in Lincoln—the constituency of a former Transport Minister. Why are we not encouraging highway authorities to roll out tidal flow systems in many other towns?
For the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, we are talking about a series of lanes of traffic without a central reservation, which allow, for example, four lanes inward to a city in the early-morning rush hour and only two coming the other way, with a reversed flow in the evening, so that when the majority of the traffic wishes to leave a city centre, four lanes can be outward and only two inward. The tidal flow is announced by lights above each lane. As far as I know, there is not an unacceptable risk to motorists' safety by using that system, because it tends to be used on roads where the speed limit is 40 or 50 mph and not 70 mph. One might have difficulty in introducing such a scheme on a motorway because one would need to remove the central reservation. But certainly on roads where the running limit is lower than motorway speeds, it seems to me that we should be making far greater use of tidal flow systems.
Sharing information is another thing that the Department for Transport has not yet grasped. If the Minister is not prepared to say that he is considering it, I hope that we might get a chance to debate it if the Bill goes into Committee. It seems to me that congestion should take no one by surprise. I suspect that 90 per cent. of motorists have in their car a mobile telephone that is switched on, or are accompanied by a passenger who has a mobile phone that is switched on. The mobile phone companies will know the whereabouts of that phone because of the signal it emits, so the telephone companies must have knowledge of where congestion is likely to occur because they will know where the vehicles are. If suddenly on their screens it appears that a lot of their customers are near Hemel Hempstead in the vicinity of the M1, it should be possible for the Highways Agency to use that information to flag up to motorists who are heading towards that congested area the message, “Avoid. There is heavy congestion". I wonder whether the Minister or his Department have been in discussion with any telephone company about using that information better to inform the Highways Agency, the police and thereby motorists of such congestion.
I hope my hon. Friend’s Bill will also cover 24-hour bus lanes. I have never understood why we permit 24-hour bus lanes when we do not have 24-hour buses. That road space is therefore denied to other road users for public transport that is not running. Once the bus service of a district ceases on a certain day, unless a contraflow lane is involved, the bus lane should be turned over to general use. That could be done easily without the Bill; the Minister could issue guidance on that matter.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the recommendation made by Mr. Heymer in the pamphlet, “Stop the war against drivers” that all existing bus lanes should be reviewed to determine whether they add to the passenger carrying capacity of the network, that those that do not should be removed or their hours of operation reduced and that all new bus lane proposals should be assessed on the same basis?
I was not aware of that. My hon. Friend very kindly gave me the booklet by Mr. Heymer a few moments ago, and the more that I read what he has to say, the more that I like him. I do not know what the booklet costs. I see on the back that the price is £12.99. If my hon. Friend is feeling in a generous mood and is willing to—
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was seeking not to advertise the booklet, but to encourage my hon. Friend to send a free one to the Minister. I hope that he will do so, because the Minister may be better informed after he has read the booklet than his policy appears to indicate.
Another developing problem is the Government’s desire for 20 mph speed limits, particularly near schools. I have no difficulty with that because, for safety reasons, it could be argued that cars should slow down to 20 mph in the vicinity of schools. That is quite reasonable, but only when schools are in use. I have discovered a flaw in that policy: I understand that, unless the local authority erects electronic flashing signs, the 20 mph must be enforced permanently. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that, if the Bill proceeded further, that might be an amendment—
Of course, I would never dream of challenging what you say, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the Bill says,
“by collisions and other incidents”
and I suppose that the existence of a speed limit might be construed as an incident, but I will move on. The Minister should consider the point that I have made.
In introducing the Bill, my hon. Friend mentioned in answer to an intervention from me—he was quite right that I was aware of the point when I made it, but I wanted him to confirm it for the benefit of other hon. Members—that the Bill would place a statutory duty on the police and highway authorities. Therefore, if the Bill became law and those authorities failed to take action to reduce congestion, they could well be the subject of claims from motorists. Although one does not want a highway authority to have most of its resources dissipated by paying fines, congestion on our roads currently costs British industry billions of pounds. If a haulier or other business man loses a contract because he is delayed by sitting in a congested area of highway, when that could be easily avoided, it seems not particularly unfair that someone else should pay the bill, especially if they have neglected to discharge their statutory duty.
My hon. Friend did not mention this, but another reason for minimising congestion is pollution. Vehicles sitting on a congested stretch of road with their engines running do nothing to enhance air quality. Heathrow’s problem with air pollution at some times of day is largely due to congestion on the M4 rather than flights taking off or landing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has done the House a service. I hope that, on reflection, the Minister will support the Bill, and that if he does not support it, he will announce other congestion-busting measures in the light of the concern that has been expressed.
This is a good opportunity to explore some of the issues surrounding the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), who, as a former Transport Minister, possibly knows more about the subject than I do. It is a subject that cuts across Departments, including the Home Office. Matters such as policing, justice, and prosecution will need to be discussed in a cross-departmental way if we are to find a solution to the problem of congestion.
The United Kingdom is in the premier league when it comes to motor accidents; we have one of the best records in the European Union. Nevertheless, more than 3,000 people are killed on our roads each year—seven or eight a day. The problem is caused by three specific groups: those who persistently drink and drive, the young, and those who continually speed.
The motorways are our safest roads. According to figures adjusted for traffic volume, 13 of the 20 safest roads in the UK are motorways, despite the speeds at which people travel on them. Some of our rural A roads are dozens of times more dangerous, particularly single-carriageway roads on which motorists are often tempted to overtake slow-moving lorries and, as a result, are involved in one of the worst types of accident: head-on collisions.
As I am sure the Minister knows, my party’s policy is to increase the speed limit for large goods vehicles on some A roads from 40 to 50 mph, in an attempt to avoid the frustration that sometimes causes motorists to overtake in dangerous places. I have yet to meet a police officer who does not agree with me that that would be a major step towards improving safety on our roads. In fact, many lorries on A roads—I saw one the other day, a Sainsbury’s lorry—carry apologies on the back, explaining to motorists that they must travel at 40 mph because of the national speed limit.
The worst road in the United Kingdom is the A889, which wends its way through the Scottish highlands. It has 14 times the average accident rate of other roads in the country. We must bear in mind—this is particularly relevant to the Bill—that when we close a motorway or major route because of what has to be called an incident, we are diverting traffic on to more dangerous roads. When there are accidents on those other roads it is less of a problem, because vast volumes of traffic are not diverted.
When accidents occur on roads, particularly fatal accidents, the emergency services have three vital roles. First, they must clear away debris and the vehicles involved in the accident. A major problem is fuel spillage. My hon. Friend mentioned a Land Rover Discovery. It is particularly difficult to remove diesel from the carriageway, and anyone who has ridden a motorcycle—as I used to in my younger days—will know that diesel and water on a road constitute probably the most dangerous cocktail that can be encountered.
Secondly, the emergency services need to carry out barrier repairs if the central reservation has been damaged. I know that the Government are convinced of the argument for replacing steel barriers with concrete barriers. They are not only much more effective at preventing crossover accidents, but do not need the repairs that one reads about—sometimes 200 m or 300 m of central barrier has been damaged by a crossover accident. Does the Minister have any plans to step up the speed at which those steel barriers can be replaced with concrete? The case is compelling, and the only restraint is financial.
The third role of the emergency services is the police investigation, which is where the greatest streamlining potential exists. Yesterday evening I had the opportunity to read the Association of Chief Police Officers road deaths investigation manual. I was going to print it off and bring it with me, but it extends to 110 pages, so I thought it would be environmentally unfriendly to do so. In effect, the manual likens the investigation following an accident to a murder investigation. It says that one should never assume that it is just an accident and that it could be a case of motor manslaughter or even of suicide. That is why we see fingertip searches of motorways, the collection of statements and all the technical work that must be done following an accident, meaning that the motorways are often closed for a protracted period.
There have been some technological advances. We now have laser theodolites, which means that the investigating officers can use remote control to take the necessary measurements following an accident and that the information can be downloaded to a computer when they get back to the office. The manual makes it very clear that once traffic starts using the road again, the scene is compromised. The police, when carrying out any investigation, whether criminal or following a road incident, must bear in mind three important points. First, is their action illegal? Secondly, is it proportionate? And thirdly, is it necessary? On the second point, the police are sometimes a little disproportionate because of the pressure brought to bear on them from other directions, such as the legal side rather than the traffic management side. Of course, the police will always err on the side of caution, given that defence barristers—should a prosecution ensue—may try to make out that the police were incompetent or lazy in not carrying out the fullest of investigations.
One problem is that the decision to open the road is made by the senior investigating officer on the ground, and he is not always aware of the wider picture, such as the congestion further afield. The police also do not look at the likelihood of securing a prosecution; in every case, the evidence is collected in a detailed way no matter what.
A while ago, there was an incident in my constituency during the Oliver’s mount road races, which take place on what is normally a public road. Following an unfortunate fatal accident, the police officer in charge intended to close the entire race meeting for the day. Fortunately, good sense prevailed and the argument was made that, because the competitors were racing under Auto-Cycle Union rules, such action was unnecessary. Unfortunately, when there is a fatality, all too often the default position is to close the road—and to do so for a long time. There is a knock-on effect: if the A1 is closed in Lincolnshire, for example, a lot of traffic goes on to the A15 through Lincoln; and if the A1 is closed in north Yorkshire, the traffic all goes through Selby. They are dangerous roads with many pedestrians, and the knock-on effects and potential hazards to people are not borne in mind.
There may be a case for looking at whether the decision should be removed to one stage higher, so that the duty superintendent or chief superintendent with force command considers when to open the road. The Northern Echo, reporting a case in October 2005, said:
“A fatal road accident closed a motorway for 16 hours yesterday causing chaos for motorists.
One man was”—
“declared dead at the scene of the multi-vehicle pile-up on the A1(M) northbound, just north of Wetherby, in West Yorkshire.”
“the spokesman for North Yorkshire police, said: ‘Pictures, measurements and large amounts of technical detail have been taken down. Statements will be taken from witnesses and all this information will be pulled together to make a picture of what happened. It’s going to be a very hard job—made all the more difficult because this is one of the region’s main highways.’
The northbound carriageway remained closed until about 2.40pm yesterday”.
It noted that many serious tailbacks occurred for many miles and that motorists were criticised for ignoring diversions and finding other routes around the accident through villages and small roads. I guess that with the advent of satellite navigation motorists are keener to try to explore alternative routes. It went on to say that there were reports of delays and congestion on the A64 and the A59 and heavy traffic around Thirsk and Northallerton. The knock-on effects of closing a motorway are very serious and have an impact on road safety in local communities.
I should like to pull out a couple of points from the ACPO manual, which sometimes puts the police in a straitjacket and does not allow them any real degree of discretion in the way that they investigate such crimes—if they are crimes. It says:
“Managing the potential for contamination should be a priority for all fatal collision investigations”.
It goes on:
“Although the closure of roads is likely to cause disruption the Senior Investigating Officer should withstand pressure from others to release the scene (eg reopen roads) prematurely. The investigation should in all cases take precedence over the need to reopen roads.”
In every case where there is fatality or serious injury, the police go to the extent of investigating and collecting evidence as prescribed in the manual. Can the Minister tell us in what proportion of fatal accidents the motorist is deemed to be at fault, resulting in a prosecution?
What analysis has been made of the risk involved in closing motorways for protracted periods? Following the Hatfield rail disaster, where cracked rails caused a serious rail crash, as a precaution the railway authorities—I am sure that the Department for Transport was involved—closed down most of the inter-city rail network for a period and then reopened certain sections, as they could, and imposed speed limits. A risk assessment would have been made of the likelihood of another rail crash, but none was made of the tens of thousands of additional car journeys that occurred because of the closure of the rail network. The problem, from a purely political point of view, was that if another rail crash had occurred the Minister or his Secretary of State would have been blamed, but there was no one to blame for the dozens of road accidents that were a direct result of that closure.
I hope that the Minister will have time to answer those points and that the Bill will be allowed to proceed into Committee, where there would be a tremendous opportunity to improve it and to consider some of the wider aspects described by my right hon. and hon. Friends.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on promoting the Bill. We do not often get to hear about Conservative transport policy, so it is great to see that it exists in some small measure, even if it deals only with what happens in respect of congestion caused by collisions.
I support the provisions in the Bill. I support the arrangements for which the two substantive clauses provide. Clause 1 makes it a local authority’s responsibility to have arrangements in place to minimise disruption when collisions occur. Clause 2 amends the Police Act 1996 so that police authorities include in their policing plan a requirement that, when the police attend road accidents, they take action to minimise congestion and delay
“so far as is reasonably practicable”.
I want to highlight the difference between the arrangements for British Transport police when they deal with an incident on the railway and those for police who deal with road incidents. Unless the incident is major, British Transport police must clear the line in half an hour. If someone commits suicide by jumping on the rails, the police will do their work and, in half an hour—assuming there is no further danger of an accident—the body will be removed and the network will be up and running again. It is a stringent requirement, which means that British Transport police must get their act together to deal with the accident. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) read out extracts from the rule book for police, which needs reconsidering because it approaches matters from the opposite angle. Of course, accidents and collisions must be properly reported and tackled, but we also have a duty to ensure that the road network works and that people can go about their business expeditiously.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I hope that the Under-Secretary will respond favourably to the Bill. Like the previous measure that we discussed, it does not require massive changes and investment. However, it could ensure that the road network moves more speedily.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on deciding to tackle the issue of traffic congestion. I congratulate the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) on his choice of tie today. It is one of those days when all Whips and former Whips are reaching for their comfort zones—and I do not think I need to say more than that.
I shall try to respond to the reasonable and good points that have been made, and I apologise if I do not deal with them all. I shall outline our principal objections—I was open with the hon. Member for Christchurch in saying that we do not support the Bill. If I have time, I shall discuss some of the reasons behind our principal objections, but I suspect that we will not have time to go into detail about the fuller reasons for our objections.
We are considering a Bill to:
“Place a duty on highway authorities and police forces to minimise congestion and delays caused by collisions and other incidents on the highway; and for connected purposes.”
The Government oppose it on the ground that, by and large, the arrangements are already in place. The Traffic Management Act 2004 already places a statutory duty—the network management duty—on local traffic authorities. It sets out the network management duty as follows:
“It is the duty of a local traffic authority to manage their road network with a view to achieving, so far as may be reasonably practicable, having regard to their other obligations, policies and objectives, the following objectives:
a) securing the expeditious movement of traffic on the authority’s road network; and
b) facilitating the expeditious movement of traffic on road networks for which another authority is the traffic authority.”
The Bill raises four key points. First, it would mean that the primary objective of the network management duty be changed from
“ensuring the expeditious movement of traffic”
to “minimising congestion.” The Government disagree. Securing the expeditious movement of traffic encompasses the idea of minimising congestion and is much more readily understood.
Secondly, the Bill would introduce a requirement for contingency planning. The network management duty already requires that action, among many others. Thirdly, the Bill would provide that local traffic authorities should be required to publish details of every full or partial road closure annually. The value of that retrospective information is not clear. For example, who would read it? In our view, that duty would place an unnecessary burden on authorities.
Lastly, the hon. Gentleman proposes to place a duty on the police. It is the police’s view that imposing such a duty on them would increase the danger to those affected by incidents and compromise both investigations and any later road safety gains made from identification of causes. The hon. Gentleman proposes to amend section 8 of the Police Act 1996. As far as I am aware, however, section 8 has been repealed by the Police and Justice Act 2006, with effect from 14 March. We issued guidance on the network management duty in November 2004, which came into force in January 2005.
Since 1980, vehicle use has risen by more than 86 per cent. Today, the UK’s roads carry more than 28 million cars, 1 million motorcycles and 100,000 public transport vehicles. Inevitably, that places a burden on the road network that the Government have been diligent in addressing, with a great deal of investment and a host of creative ideas aimed at enhancing the efficiency of our road network. Of course there is always more that we can do. The Government are open to any initiatives that will enable us to deliver a better performing road network in the future. However, we must unfortunately oppose the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, primarily because his suggested provisions are, by and large, already in effect, as I have said.
The Government have long recognised that minimising delays should be a priority, in order to encourage smoother traffic flows, more reliable journey times and greater competitiveness. Incidents such as collisions account for about 25 per cent. of all delays on our strategic roads and represent an obvious safety risk to road users, as well as causing congestion on the network.
There are remarks later in my speech that relate to that point. However, it would probably be better for me to extract them and send the right hon. Gentleman a note about what we are trying to do on communications. To take those remarks out of context now, when I am trying to set out our principal points of objection in the brief period left, would rob me of the chance to do even that, which is not fair to the hon. Member for Christchurch.
I suspect that I should apologise. Had I prepared better for this debate, I would have checked the A31 traffic flows before coming into the Chamber, knowing that the hon. Gentleman would raise them, and would now be able to respond to him. I apologise that I cannot do that, although he has raised the point. It would be inappropriate of me not to at least drop him a line about the reasons behind that congestion and thereby either reassure him or confirm his worst fears.
Making the best use of our current road network is important for both economic vitality and society in general. That is why we included a statutory duty on local authorities to manage the road network, with the aim of achieving free-flowing traffic on that network, in the Traffic Management Act 2004. The Bill proposes to change the primary objective of the network management duty. Instead of
“securing the expeditious movement of traffic on the authority’s road network”,
the Bill proposes that the first objective should be
“minimising congestion on the authority’s road network”.
The Government believe that securing the expeditious movement of traffic on the network is a far more meaningful objective than “minimising congestion”. Congestion means different things to different people—stop-start conditions, a journey time that they cannot rely on, time spent queuing and so on—but the idea of securing the expeditious movement of traffic naturally encompasses actions to minimise congestion, whether it be caused by unforeseen incidents or collisions, works in the street or other planned events.
We issued guidance on the network duty in November 2004, which came into force in January 2005. Local authorities already work with the police to ensure that incidents are dealt with in the most timely manner possible, although I have heard the points raised by various hon. Members this afternoon. Contingency planning for planned or unplanned events forms part and parcel of the duty placed on local authorities, so it is hard to see how this proposal could do any more to benefit the travelling public than the systems and duties that we already have in place.
What is clear is that roads facilitate the transport of people and goods and provide access to home, businesses, social services and other destinations where people meet to shop, socialise and relax. It is also clear—