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11.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): As is customary, I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) on securing this important debate and on the passion and detail with which he delivered his speech. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), who has also contributed to the discussion. I pay tribute to the excellent work of both hon. Members in RoadPeace. I join in the expression of condolences to the families of Police Constable Jon Odell, of the young people tragically killed in Nottingham and, indeed, of all those who have lost their lives in road accidents recently, the pain of whose loss will be acute to their bereaved relatives.

Although Britain's roads are, with Sweden's, the safest in Europe, the risk of accidents and the numbers of deaths and injuries are still unacceptably high. We must do all we can to reduce them.

I am certain that the House will be aware of the Government's firm resolve in that area. Earlier this year, the Prime Minister himself launched our new road safety strategy, which focused on 10 main themes and the corresponding casualty reduction targets that we have set ourselves. As has already been mentioned, by 2010, we want to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries by 40 per cent. and, within that, the number of child deaths and injuries by 50 per cent.

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As the House will appreciate, with such a large range of activities, I shall have to restrict myself to some headline news on our latest initiatives. There is time only to scratch the surface.

Road safety is an integral part of all thinking about roads and traffic management and of our aim to reduce the use of cars by providing attractive, reliable and efficient public transport as a realistic alternative for many journeys. Clearly, if people think that the roads are unsafe, they will not want to walk or to cycle.

The Government's road safety strategy is a joint effort by many Departments, with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions co-ordinating. The Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department, for example, are primarily responsible for enforcement, justice and victim support, be it for people who have been involved in accidents, or for families who have had to suffer the sad consequences.

Similarly, the Department of Health is responsible for the care of the injured. We are pleased to be part of its new accidental injury taskforce, which is looking at accidents of all types, whether they occur at home, work or play or when travelling between them.

To start with the freshest news, it is only a few hours since Lord Whitty, who has lead responsibility for road safety in my Department, joined the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), at the launch of the Government's consultation paper on penalties for road traffic offences. We are applying the results of research to what we do and we want responses to our ideas. It is better to go forward with consensus.

Through the Home Office-led review that has produced the consultation paper, we have been looking for a robust package of measures to reduce drink driving. The review has specifically considered raising the minimum disqualification period for first-time, high-risk offenders from one year to two and making drink driving an offence for which a convicted driver has to retake the driving test.

We hope to clarify the law to allow the police to breath-test in locations where they suspect drink driving to be taking place, without having to have grounds for suspicion in each individual case. That is not random breath testing, but it will allow the police to take a more targeted, intelligence-led approach to that branch of enforcement.

On drug driving, which is already an offence, we are continuing our research into how drugs may affect drivers and into effective counter-measures, such as drug-testing devices. The "Cannabis and Driving" report, which was published last Friday, shows that driving under the influence of cannabis can be a hazard, although the effects are less drastic than those of alcohol. We are strengthening enforcement. The police are training officers to recognise the symptoms of drug use and impairment. We intend to give the police powers to test for drugs at the roadside.

Although it was not possible to commit ourselves to legislation on such matters in this Session, advance drafting of a new safety Bill was announced in the Queen's speech. That is the most likely vehicle for the final proposals when we have been able to take account of views expressed in response to the consultation. If I might offer some advice to hon. Members present, I am sure that it would be a good idea to respond now to the

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proposals in the consultation paper and, if necessary, draw attention to proposals that they favour, but which are not covered, rather than waiting for firmer proposals to come before the House.

Mr. Miller: My hon. Friend tempts me; I have a long list. I thank him for his invitation. I concur fully with the observations made by the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell). Will my hon. Friend accept the first consultation from me? Page 15 of the consultation document deals with sentences and sets out the averages for sentences over five years. The figures for sentences in the circumstances mentioned by the hon. Member for Colchester are incredibly low. Will my hon. Friend bring that point firmly to the attention of the Lord Chancellor and the judiciary? Will he also look carefully at ensuring that driving bans do not run concurrently with prison sentences but are consecutive and, preferably, that they are life bans?

Mr. Hill: I shall draw both the points that my hon. Friend made so forcefully to the attention of the Lord Chancellor and other relevant Ministers. As of this moment, I can declare the consultation period open.

Although we have a while to wait for the safety Bill, the House will know that the Vehicles (Crime) Bill successfully completed its Second Reading yesterday. One of its measures provides for the transfer of some of the income from speeding fines so that it can be used to help pay for more safety cameras and the processing of more penalty notices. That will bring to the whole country the proven benefits of some successful pilot schemes that have been running in eight police authority areas, including Essex, where the hon. Member for Colchester has his constituency.

I know that safety cameras are not everyone's pet scheme--certainly not those who are fined or have penalty points added to their licence. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston rightly said, it is nonsense for some people and some newspapers to describe them as a form of stealth tax. They make a valuable contribution to road safety and, if people stop speeding, the cameras will stop flashing.

On education, the already heavy demands of the national curriculum mean that road safety cannot be taught as a subject in its own right. However, it will be covered as part of personal health and social education. We are also looking for ways to work the issues of safety into other lessons such as maths, physics and geography, where it can provide a link to the world outside through examples taken from real life.

One thing that does not transfer well from the classroom to the street is kerb craft. We are planning to encourage local authorities to give more practical experience at the roadside through a national pilot network of training schemes for children of about six and seven. We will be offering to pay authorities to employ co-ordinators to set up local schemes and to recruit parent volunteers to do the training. Initially at least, this may be mainly in areas of social exclusion because that is where statistics show that the children who are most at risk live and play.

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It is also important to get road safety messages across to older children. Independent research has confirmed the value of the Driving Standard's Agency's schools programme--presentations by driving examiners about learning to drive and road safety generally. We are doubling the number of programmes this year to 1,500, reaching some 750,000 students aged 16 to 18. Further increases will follow.

The main role of the Driving Standards Agency, however, is to help improve the quality of its own novice drivers and the people who train them. We want to improve the way in which learner drivers are tested. Since the road safety strategy was published, the Transport Act 2000 has provided new powers to enable us to introduce compulsory training schemes for users of different classes of motor vehicle and to regulate the providers of such training. We shall now be considering how to use those powers to help us to deliver the commitments in the strategy to improving driving standards and reducing the number of road casualties.

Many of the vehicles driven on our roads are being driven for work purposes. Research indicates that, mile for mile, company car drivers have accident rates that are 30 to 50 per cent. higher than those of comparable private drivers. We have established a task group to consider how best to prevent work-related road-traffic incidents. The group will be publishing a discussion document early next year and holding a conference to debate the issues raised in the document, before making recommendations to us.

Switching to two wheels for a moment, early in the new year, we shall be implementing a package of measures to improve learner rider safety while scrapping unnecessary restrictions. All learners will be taking a theory test, and car drivers qualifying in the future who want to ride a moped will have to take basic training like other learner riders. At the same time, we are abolishing the old "two years on, one year off" rule for provisional motorcycle licences. We think that a training requirement is a better approach to longer-term learner riders than a one-year disqualification.

As for the role of local transport departments, authorities must build in safety for pedestrians and other vulnerable road users as one of their priorities in their local transport plans. That entails an intensification of road engineering, pedestrian separation where necessary, and more home zones and other safe-speed areas.

Although we no longer have ring fencing for local safety schemes within the local transport plan system, after last week's announcements of their spending allocations for 2001-02, with indicative allocations for later years, authorities know that there will be no excuses for holding back on that type of expenditure. Ultimately, it is up to them. However, we know from their bids that we are allocating enough to fund 8,000 safety schemes in England alone in the next five years. Local authorities bid for them, and now they must deliver them.

Despite the new hands-off approach on local spending decisions, we are not backward in coming forward with advice. The Transport Research Laboratory is working on a guide to good practice in road safety for us, and our consultants on the safe city project in Gloucester--where the five-year project that we have been funding has shown the great benefits of adopting an area-wide approach--are writing up the results of that work, too. Both reports will

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be launched at a special road safety conference, in June, that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents is organising for us.

Once again, I give my sincere thanks to the hon. Member for Colchester for raising this issue for debate. I hope that I have been able to respond to at least some of

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his main concerns. I assure him that I shall check the Official Report to see whether, because of the pressure of time, any points have not been adequately dealt with. If so, I shall send him a fuller response.

Question put and agreed to.

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