Skip to main content

Motorways

Volume 726: debated on Wednesday 30 March 2011

Question for Short Debate

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are satisfied with the present arrangements for monitoring and patrolling motorways.

My Lords, the motorways are the vital commercial arteries of our nation. They are for the carriage of goods, for the carriage of people and, sadly, occasionally, for the carriage of villains but above all for the purposes of commerce. They have replaced in that role the railways of previous centuries. Indeed, we now have some 5,000 kilometres of motorways altogether, and they are a vital part of our national transport infrastructure.

Until the early 1990s, they were patrolled largely by the county constabularies. Each constabulary patrolled its own proportion of the motorway which went through its particular county. That, naturally, was not a very efficient way to do it. As the networks grew and vehicle numbers increased, county constabularies gradually withdrew from regular patrolling. Today, you can drive from Leeds to London without seeing a single police car. That is not to say that there are no police available, but nowadays police activity is largely in response; that is, police units respond to calls, often from long distances and often not even from places on the motorway. I do not wish to denigrate or decry the efforts of the police who do their best in these circumstances, but response is obviously longer, inevitably so.

What is the task? It is to respond to accidents, obviously, to police motorway activity generally—for example, dealing with dangerous or unsafe driving or vehicles—and, particularly nowadays, to detect and intercept vehicles wanted by the police for one reason or another. The police are assisted in that task by the so-called automatic number observing system, which I have seen in operation. Virtually every vehicle entering the motorway system these days is observed by a camera of some kind or another. The registration number comes up on a computer and those that are wanted for one reason or another can often be intercepted, even for the most minor transgressions—for example, an expired MOT or a lack of proper insurance cover.

Not all motorways lack regular patrols. There are two units, one in the north-west around Manchester and another around Birmingham, where five or six local constabularies have come together to pool their resources and provide regular patrolling or a dedicated response. Indeed, I was lucky enough to visit the Central Motorway Police Group last year and spend a valuable day watching and hearing about its work. I am particularly delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Dear, will speak in a moment, because he, I believe, founded that group when he was chief constable in the West Midlands. I look forward to hearing what he has to say. The Central Motorway Police Group and its colleagues in the north-west represent, I suggest, a valuable template which I hope commends itself to Ministers. I recognise that there is little prospect of additional funds for these purposes, or indeed any other, at present but the CMPG model represents a reordering of existing resources and not, I suggest, new money.

Perhaps there is another way forward. Would it not be possible to extend the role of the British Transport Police to include not only the railways, which it polices very effectively at present, but perhaps the motorways and some other major road routes as well? For now, I put it to my noble friend the Minister that the expansion of the British Transport Police’s role as I have suggested might be considered. As before, I see this as a reordering of existing resources, not new ones.

Before I end, I must refer to the traffic officers of the Highways Agency. I do not for one moment wish to decry or denigrate their efforts. There are some 800 of them, and presumably only about 200 or so are ever on duty at any one time, but their powers are very limited, although I recognise their usefulness in dealing with minor incidents and perhaps assisting the police in major ones. Yet if the highways officers are to be of real value, they really need more power. Most of them are, I gather, retired police officers, so perhaps they could be re-enlisted as special constables or community support officers, which are quite fashionable these days. I fear that, for now, they are something of a wasted resource.

Our motorways are a vital part of our national transport infrastructure. They need to be better patrolled and supervised, and I invite my noble friend to bring forward proposals for that purpose.

My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, on securing this debate today. It is a subject that has caused me some concern and indeed distress for some years. It was 30 years or so ago that the Home Office and the Department for Transport put forward a formula that sought to indicate the numbers of police patrol vehicles that should be on motorways or A-class trunk roads. It varied according to motorway or A-class trunk road and varied according to day or night. Those numbers were never achieved; they were seen to be extravagant, even 30 years ago. But although they were never achieved, the fact was that in those days, and right up to 15 years or so ago, chief constables deployed something between 7 per cent and 10 per cent of their total strength on road motor patrol duty, dedicated to the patrol of A-class roads and motorways and dealing with the situations that occurred on them.

When one looked at the work rate of those officers, a lot of it was not to do with traffic incidents at all. It was to do with major crime being committed on the motorways or criminals using the motorway network and the A-class trunk roads to travel about in pursuit of crime, carrying stolen property, and so on. The numbers of arrests made by traffic officers in that theatre of police work was considerable, impressive and undoubtedly a potential deterrent to criminals, who would have to think several times before venturing out onto a motorway or main road network.

Things are very different now. There is an old adage—tired and much used—that you can never find a police officer when you want one. It could never be truer than if one drives around the main road networks of this country. I have to say—and it saddens me to say so—that there has been a complete retreat from the targeted policing of main roads and motorways in this country. As the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, has already alluded, in 1989 I set up the Central Motorway Patrol Group, which is a consortium of police forces that is still working and which patrols that big industrial complex in the centre of the country, drawing officers from the West Midlands police, which I commanded at that time, Warwickshire, Staffordshire and West Mercia. I think that Warwickshire has dropped out of it now, but certainly the group still patrols vigorously, accurately and with considerable success. It was copied in the north-west, as has already been said—in Manchester—and for a time was also copied on the M25 ring, although I believe that has now dropped away.

Elsewhere the patchwork is very poor indeed. One could say that the cupboard was virtually bare. The police patrolling of main roads, including A-class roads, is sparse to the point of invisibility. I drive around 20,000 miles a year, frequently on a 400-mile or so round trip from the Midlands to North Yorkshire and beyond, and I can say with absolute confidence that on most of those journeys I never see a police patrol vehicle, yet those motorways have some of the heaviest traffic in the country. There is not even a token police vehicle. In my own rural county in the centre of the country, I drive around on all the main roads and motorways in that small area, and I cannot remember the last time that I saw a dedicated police road patrol vehicle.

As the noble Lord has already said, those who work for the Highways Agency are about. One frequently sees them in operations on motorways clearing up after an accident or picking up debris. Occasionally, it is true that the police are there dealing with an accident, coning off and taking statements and so forth at the scene of the incident. But those vehicles that are turning up frequently, although they are equipped to deal with the aftermath of accidents, are being deployed the majority of the time as response cars for other incidents within the totality of policing. They will only be deployed onto the main road to deal with the incident as and when it happens. They are then redeployed back to the plethora of 999 calls and other calls on police time.

The fact is that motorway and A-class road patrolling has been virtually abandoned by the police. It grieves me to say so, but it also concerns not only me—a small part of the equation—it concerns the motoring organisations as well. With one voice and frequently, they have drawn attention to it.

One hears a number of views expressed in defence of what is happening. One has already been mentioned: that cameras and automatic number plate recognition or ANPR can produce a result. To counter that, I would say that no chief officer of police could get away with a statement that said that he had totally left the policing of the city centre to cameras and that there would be no police presence in uniform at all. He could not sustain that argument. Yet the argument that we can apparently do with just cameras and ANPR is apparently allowed to be applied to main roads. That is not acceptable.

Another argument that is deployed is that road deaths are going down. So they are, but they still stand at something like 3,000 a year. Much of that reduction is down to better provision of engineering on the roads—the increased safety design of motor vehicles and the speed and expertise of casualty evacuation—CASEVAC—from the scene to the hospital. All of that will contribute to a smaller number of deaths on the roads. It is true that motorways are numerically the safest roads on which to travel in terms of numbers of accidents, although one has to say that when an accident occurs it is normally catastrophic because of the speeds that are involved.

I have already mentioned to your Lordships that crime takes place on motorways and the products of crime are travelled through motorways. Many criminals are thoughtful people. They use vehicles and travel immense distances across borders, taking part in criminal activities. They know full well that the cameras are there. Any thoughtful criminal will not use a car that they guess will be on the register, flagged up with a warning note. They will almost certainly either hire a vehicle or get hold of a vehicle that they know is, in the parlance, clean.

What about plain cars? I introduced them in the West Midlands with on-board cameras—the first major experiment in the country. The scheme was copied by various forces in the country shortly afterwards. I know the tell-tale signs to look for on plain cars, which are not particularly apparent, but I look for them and do not see plain cars very often either.

The problem grew from the target culture introduced by the Home Office in 1999, 2000 or thereabouts. A whole plethora of performance indicators were visited on chief officers of police with which they had to comply. It is interesting to note that not one single performance indicator required attention to road transport or road safety matters. There was nothing to do with roads. Chief constables predictably moved away and concentrated on other things. Ministers will say, quite rightly, that deployment of reasonable resources is solely a matter for the chief officer, and so it is. I do not say that Ministers could have done more in this instance at all. The sad fact is that chief officers of police have taken their eyes off main road patrolling. They will pray in aid increased demand of workload elsewhere and shortened budgets, but I do not think that that is good enough.

It is not good enough when, as has already been alluded to, one considers the huge value of the loads being transported across the motorway network on an hourly and yearly basis; the huge numbers of people who travel on the motorways; and the potential for very serious incidents and accidents. All Ministers can do is to encourage—I appreciate that they cannot go any further than encouraging—chief officers, by whatever means necessary and possible, to collaborate together. As has already been mentioned, there is a call for regional motorway patrol groups across the country, and that may well be worth looking at. One way or another, they must bring to the notice of the public, and thereby to chief officers of police, the fact that motorways at the moment are not policed. They must encourage the police to do so and to recognise that the present situation is unacceptable.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, for raising this interesting topic. The Minister will reply in regard to the Government’s responsibility for this position but I am not too sure that I want to place the Opposition strongly behind the proposals being put forward. They are good in themselves—and all good proposals ought to be supported—but, although I appreciate that if our motorways and main roads were policed more some aspects of road safety would improve and that it would help in the battle against the mobile criminal, to which the noble Lord, Lord Dear, paid particular attention, I am not too sure that the withdrawal of motorway patrols has led to a very significant weakness in the response of either the police or, ultimately, Ministers, given their responsibility for road safety, or to a deterioration in the situation.

First, we know that motorways are by far our safest routes and, secondly, that Britain’s road safety record compares extremely well with other countries, although we can never be complacent. We all recognise that there are factors which may be conducive to causing that situation to deteriorate; and we can all think of ways in which we could improve aspects of road safety, costly though some of them may be. However, I would not make the issue of motorway safety a major priority. I know the impact upon the public when, as indicated by both noble Lords, a catastrophe occurs—an accident often has tremendously bad consequences—but a great deal of catastrophic accidents take place in extremely bad weather, and I am not too sure that patrolling police vehicles give any warning that remotely matches that on the gantries, which inform people that there is fog about and that it is necessary to slow down. The motorway warning system, while passive in comparison to the police, is effective and is constructive in ensuring that our system is reasonably safe.

On the issue of crime prevention, I appreciate that the number plate recognition system is extremely helpful to police forces. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Dear, speaking from vast experience, indicated, sophisticated criminals are not going to take out vehicles which are readily recognised. Nevertheless, the very fact that this system exists must act as some deterrent. Certainly, it enables minor crime such as traffic and vehicle ownership offences and so on to be covered, but not the sophisticated groups to which I think the noble Lord, Lord Dear, was referring.

Would regular patrolling greatly improve this position? Where we are able to identify very dangerous roads, it might be of enormous help. Every year, there is some identification of roads that are a nightmare to drive on, such as the famous A635, which I used to drive on regularly on Friday evenings in foul weather. It was an appalling road to be on and I was not at all surprised when it featured, for one year only, as the most dangerous road in Britain. Another road took its place the subsequent year.

We also know that road dangers are partly increased by criminal activity of a sporting kind through motorcyclists going out to break the law at horrendous speeds and taking enormous risks. While I assume that they are not quite the hardened criminals the noble Lord, Lord Dear, was identifying, the activities of these groups’ render a road very dangerous when they decide to use it for fast practice. Increased police activity on that phenomenon would be enormously desirable.

Nor do I think that the Highways Agency has a great role to play in this. I was responsible for the legislation that enhanced the role of the Highways Agency staff, but that was designed very much to try to free the motorway after accidents. By clearing the disruption and blockage that had occurred, it enabled the police to carry out their essential task of identifying what had caused the accident and whether it was due to bad driving. Yet the Highways Agency’s role was, essentially, to do its level best to ensure that the motorway continued to flow; that is its limited role. One could not conceive of Highways Agency vehicles or staff in a police role unless they were trained very differently and unless the vehicles were entirely different from those which they use at present. So I do not think there is a great deal in that.

Does that mean that I therefore think that the Government can rest on their laurels and be complacent about the present position? Certainly not if they intend to increase the speed limit. There are indications that the Government are thinking of increasing it to 80 miles per hour. I know it will be said that an awful lot of traffic flows beyond 75 miles per hour at present and that the 80 miles per hour limit would only recognise the reality of the existing position. The trouble with that argument is that if 80 miles per hour is the limit, the traffic will travel at 85 or 90 because the tolerance level will be pushed up.

The Government must recognise that speed is a danger and I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that. High speeds, even on our safest roads, increase the risk of accidents and their severity when they occur. It would not be right to increase speed limits unless the Government were bent upon increasing police resources to monitor them. If it was decided to increase the speed limit, it would be absolutely essential to monitor it properly. We could not continue with the present position.

This debate has occasioned a number of real questions for the Minister to address his mind to. We should take pride in the work of our police officers and all those concerned with road safety. We should also take pride in the fact that the British nation is in some respects better at driving cars than many others. More consideration is shown by British drivers than is often shown elsewhere in the world. I can think of some hazardous parts of the world where I never want to venture again in a motor car—although some of them are a little distant from Europe, of course. There should be recognition of our achievements and our comparatively favourable accident rate, but there is no cause for complacency. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that he is not complacent.

My Lords, the Government have set out a clear vision for a transport system that is an engine for economic growth and future prosperity. A well functioning strategic road network is therefore vital for achieving this vision. As part of this, we recognise the importance of effectively managing and monitoring traffic on the motorways and wider strategic road network in England to help tackle congestion, unreliable journeys and ensure the safety of the travelling public. I am therefore grateful to my noble friend Lord Trefgarne for securing a debate on this important issue and for the contributions of the noble Lords, Lord Dear and Lord Davies of Oldham.

In England, the police and Highways Agency have a key role in the effective management, monitoring and patrolling of the motorway network. It is therefore very much a partnership approach, but with each partner having a distinct role. My noble friend has given us a very good explanation of the current situation; he mentioned the Highways Agency Traffic Officer Service, supported by regional and national traffic control centres, which focuses on detecting and managing incidents. This service ensures that traffic is kept moving safely and efficiently in and around incidents and that drivers are informed of what is happening on the network through real-time traffic information. The police role focuses on their core responsibilities of the prevention, detection and investigation of criminality on the network. When serious incidents occur the expert skills of the police and Traffic Officer Service are brought together to ensure that the human, traffic and legal consequences are managed in the most effective, efficient and safe way.

Given the importance that transport has to the wider economy, it is essential that this strong partnership arrangement continues. Indeed, we have long realised that we cannot build our way out of congestion and must maximise the value of the roads we already have. The Traffic Officer Service is integral to this. The cost of delay to the economy as a result of incidents is significant. Just one three-lane closure on a busy motorway, lasting no more than two hours, can cost over £500,000 to the economy. This demonstrates the importance of rapid clear-up of incidents; and demonstrates why the Traffic Officer Service places such an emphasis on responding to incidents within 20 and 40 minutes on heavily trafficked roads. Indeed, the Highways Agency clears over 80 per cent of incidents affecting the live lanes within 30 minutes. The Traffic Officer Service has also had a key role in the introduction and operation of managed motorways, where the hard shoulder is utilised as an additional lane. In order safely to introduce traffic on to the hard shoulder, it is necessary to have traffic officers managing the technology from the regional control centre and patrolling the road itself. Managed motorways are less environmentally damaging than conventional widening projects and cost 40 per cent less, but they could not be introduced without traffic officers in place to operate them.

At the present time, we and the Association of Chief Police Officers believe there is no immediate need to review the division of roles and responsibilities between the Highways Agency and police. The roles are very clear, particularly in respect of enforcement activities and powers, and there is no indication that there is a need to provide traffic officers with additional powers or functions over and above those which they have already.

There is an additional difficulty. If we gave Highways Agency traffic officers enforcement powers, it could compromise their ability to act as the friend of the ordinary motorist. That is quite an important function of the traffic officers. Moreover, this Government would not wish to add any further regulatory burdens which additional powers may bring, unless it was imperative to supporting economic growth.

With the Traffic Officer Service firmly established, the time is now right to review how it operates and make efficiencies while still maintaining a first-class service. A future operating model has been devised by the Highways Agency, which will generate savings of at least 20 per cent by 2013. This will include more flexible resourcing of staff, matched to demand for the network, eliminating over-resourcing at lower demand periods; flexible crewing of traffic officer vehicles; and using intelligence to position traffic officer vehicles at key locations on the network to be able to quickly respond to incidents.

I briefly mentioned earlier the role of National Traffic Control Centre. This is a PFI contract and will be replaced by a new National Traffic Information Service contract in autumn 2011. The new service will provide the capability to capture and interpret traffic data more efficiently, thereby delivering an improved information service to road users at a lower cost. In advance of this, the Department for Transport, together with ACPO, the Highways Agency and the Home Office, completed a review of motorway closure incidents at the end of January. The review has focused on identifying what improvements could be made to achieve the shortest timeline possible for managing such incidents; it has not looked in depth at the present monitoring and patrolling arrangements on motorways. However, it will ensure that we are collectively doing all that we can to minimise disruption to the nation’s most important traffic arteries, thereby making the most of the assets on which individual and business rely. We will publish the review shortly and set our plans, which we will take forward in partnership with the police and other parties involved in incident management.

I shall try to answer as many points as possible in the time available. My noble friend Lord Trefgarne suggested extending the role of the British Transport Police. This was a point that I took up with officials before the debate. The DfT considered some very early proposals by the British Transport Police concerning the creation of a national strategic infrastructure agency. This looked at combining the functions of the British Transport Police, traffic officers and VOSA, in relation to the policing and traffic management of the road and rail network. Noble Lords should remember that currently the British Transport Police is financed largely by the rail industry. However, no strong evidence was presented to suggest that creating any kind of national roads or rail policing force would deliver sufficient benefits over and above the cost that would be incurred to introduce such a significant change. The Highways Agency itself has already committed to making major significant efficiencies as part of the spending review. Combining such functions would also mean that we could revert back to the situation that we had pre-2004, before the Traffic Officer Service was established. This may then impact on the ability of the Highways Agency to effectively operate the network and have a number of impacts, including on the reliability of people’s journeys.

My noble friend also asked about extending the powers of traffic officers. A traffic officer’s role and functions relate to the management of traffic not the enforcement of traffic offences. They have no enforcement powers, nor do they undertake enforcement activities. There are no current plans to review the traffic officer’s roles or powers with regard to enforcement. When a traffic officer sees incidents of reckless or dangerous driving, they would do what any other citizen may choose to do and report them to the police. Of course, they have extremely good means of communicating with the police because the police and the traffic officers work very closely together. Of course, it would be for the police to determine what action to take. Traffic officers cannot stop a vehicle for enforcement purposes. That is not their role. They may stop a vehicle when it poses a danger to the network, to notify the driver, for example, when there is a loose tarpaulin or an obvious defect to the vehicle.

I am grateful for the interesting contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Dear. He describes some of the recent history of road traffic policing on a strategic network and his excellent work in the West Midlands. He talked about the paucity of traffic patrols. My experience is that when there is a serious incident the police still turn up very quickly indeed. He would be extremely disappointed with me if I did not make the point about the operational independence of the police. I am sure that the noble Lord is looking forward to the police Bill that we will be scrutinising and that he will take a large role in that Bill. I am sure, too, that he is right in his observations regarding the detections of serious non-traffic criminality by the traffic police. While I accept that I answer for all Her Majesty's Government, my department is concerned with the operation of the strategic network as an engine of economic growth. The Home Office is concerned with crime reduction. Ironically, I am also a Home Office Whip. The noble Lord will be aware that only a small proportion of fatalities occur on the strategic road network.

I am grateful for the cautions response of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham. He indicated that he did not see much deterioration in the situation and I am grateful for that observation. Partially, that will be due to better uses of resources by the previous Government. There were two obvious examples in the introduction of the Highways Agency traffic officers and the self-escorting of abnormal loads, which has freed up considerable amounts of police time. I would like to take a little bit of credit for my minor role and give some more credit to Mr John Denham, who finally made the ministerial decision to go that way. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, talked about the maximum speed limit, although that was slightly wide of the debate. I look forward to receiving all views on that subject and engaging in debate at the appropriate time.

The present arrangement for monitoring and patrolling the network worked well. The issue is therefore not about asking whether individuals have the right responsibilities and powers; it is about ensuring that we know what needs to be done, individually and collectively, for continue to deliver important services in the most effective and efficient way. Today I have set out how we are doing that to ensure that we achieve the best outcomes for the travelling public and make an important contribution to supporting economic growth.

Committee adjourned at 7.43 pm.