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Highways Agency: Traffic Officers

Volume 713: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the role of the traffic officers employed by the Highways Agency; and what is the statutory authority under which they exercise their powers.

My Lords, Highways Agency traffic officers manage traffic primarily on motorways in England, where they perform a number of control room and on-road functions. They deal with incidents, except where there is a loss of life, injury or potential criminal activity, when they assist the emergency services. They exercise their powers under the Traffic Management Act 2004.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Does he not agree with me, however, that every time we pass a new Bill to create a new quango we include provision for a little group of people authorised to order us about? Is this not a wholly undesirable development? Would he like to review the powers of these officers, who are, no doubt, worthy and honourable people, with a view to considering whether they should be reduced, like all others?

My Lords, that is a slightly strange question. The powers granted to traffic officers were granted by Parliament, not through some secret process without due consent, but through the Traffic Management Act 2004, which I understand was debated thoroughly in this House and I see on the title page was,

“ENACTED by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice … of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal”.

The powers of traffic officers to stop or direct traffic are set out clearly and explicitly in Section 6. As to why we have traffic officers, there has been a big rise in traffic on the motorway network—a 10 per cent rise in the past 10 years alone. The problem of congestion and management of the motorway is a very big issue. If this work was not done by traffic officers, it would need to be done by the police. Mick Giannasi, chief constable of Gwent and spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers on road policy issues, says:

“The Highways Agency Traffic Officer Service provides a valuable service dealing with minor incidents and traffic management on England’s motorways. This work relieves police officers who are able to concentrate on dealing with criminals and investigating serious incidents”.

Far from this being a needless quango, these officers perform a valuable service, which keeps the traffic on our motorways moving day in, day out.

My Lords, is there not an argument for having more of these people, so that they, together with the police and the vehicle inspection agency, could target more foreign lorries in terms of safety and drivers’ hours, given the enormous number of accidents that those lorries cause on our motorways?

My Lords, I will represent his views strongly to my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because I am always in the market for expanding the scope of my department. One thousand and seventy-two traffic officers patrol 1,759 route miles of motorway, so this is a proportionate service. By comparison, for the railways there are 3,236 British Transport Police officers and police support officers, who cost £271 million. That, of course, is a long-established service, which keeps the railways running. Therefore, it looks to me as though we provide a proportionate service to keep the traffic moving. However, my noble friend is right: there are continuing issues of ensuring that HGVs abide by the law and in particular this serious issue that we face on the roads of overseas HGVs being fully compliant with UK safety regulations.

My Lords, will the noble Lord care to reflect on the fact that over the past 10 years this House has passed legislation apart from that to which he referred—namely, that setting up police community support officers—and that each time we have been told that police will be able to concentrate more of their effort on catching criminals? However, it appears to me that every time more people are put in, the police become steadily less visible. Will the noble Lord look at that?

My Lords, the traffic officers are extremely visible, so much so that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, is keen that they should be removed from the motorways. Visibility is not an issue here; the issue, which was properly debated by the House, is whether it is right to have a class of officers who are capable of dealing with traffic incidents—most of which are fairly minor, but require support to get the traffic moving again—rather than to devote police time to managing these incidents.

My Lords, the noble Lord said that traffic officers attend an accident. If they find someone dead, do they then disappear?

If the noble Baroness wishes to make me aware of a particular incident, I shall certainly look at it, but I am not aware that the traffic officers just disappear after incidents; they see that they are properly cleared up before they disappear.

My Lords, in reality, as most of us know, traffic officers are the only uniformed presence on the roads, as police patrol vehicles are almost non-existent. Given that criminals use cars all the time on the roads, does the Minister foresee an extension of police powers to traffic officers, as discussed, or will he press for a more obvious police presence?

My Lords, we are keeping the powers of traffic officers under review, but we do not believe that it would be appropriate at present to extend police powers to them.

My Lords, following on from that question, will my noble friend urge chief constables to police more consistently? It appears to me that, as has been suggested, there is a bit of a postcode lottery. Policing is more than about reducing accidents, although that is important; it is about stopping terrorists and serious and organised crime. Will he urge chief constables to be more consistent?

My Lords, this Question is about traffic officers. Their whole purpose is to provide a uniform system across the motorway network in England. The Traffic Officer Service has provided that to the benefit of motorists. Surveys find the Traffic Officer Service to be highly popular with motorists.

What has been the impact of traffic officers on relieving motorway congestion after incidents on the motorway? Has there been any assessment of whether incidents are cleared up more quickly if a traffic officer is present?

My Lords, I am glad to be able to give the noble Baroness those figures. In the past two years alone, the proportion of incidents that have been cleared up in less than 40 minutes on heavily trafficked routes has risen from 76 per cent in December 2006 to 91.2 per cent in December 2008. The proportion of incidents cleared up in less than 90 minutes on such routes has increased from 90 per cent in December 2006 to 96.8 per cent in December 2008. I take that to be a vindication of the presence of the Traffic Officer Service.