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Mr. Gardiner: What?

Mr. Syms: Yes, I have seen people in London using an electric shaver in their car. I do not know whether holding a mobile phone is any more of a distraction.

In recent years, we have had the report of the independent expert group on mobile phones, under the chairmanship of Sir William Stewart. The report said that

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At present, we have only anecdotal evidence of people slowing down, but we do not know fully what the effect is. We all know that having only one hand on the steering wheel can be dangerous, but a lot more research needs to be done. We should concentrate on education and enforcing the existing law rather than criminalising a minority who are silly enough to use the phone while driving.

We have considered what is meant by hand-held, and the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) spoke about someone holding the phone with his shoulder as an example of how to get round the provision. Perhaps the definition is too specific. What is driving? Does sitting in stationary traffic count as driving?

Mr. Pound: The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the recent case in which a woman was fined for drinking a bottle of water in a stationary vehicle. I have seen someone with a television set on the passenger seat plugged into what used to be called the cigar lighter. Many of us want a wider definition, because the one in the Bill may be too prescriptive.

Mr. Syms: That is a good point. Some cars have televisions fitted for viewing in the back seats. I have been in a very nice Rover 75 with a television. That is a distraction, as even if the passenger is watching, the driver will tend to pick up what is going on.

This may not be a matter for legislation. Do we really want to be a society in which someone who swigs a bottle of water or eats a sandwich in a car can be prosecuted? That would be daft. The traffic police, who do a splendid job, have far more important priorities. When they sort out the aftermath of accidents, they are doing something that I personally would not like to do. The Government undertook a review and thought that the existing provision was adequate, and the official Opposition share that view.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire accepted the provision on seat belts as a Government amendment. I have not yet heard a convincing argument for the need to change. I know that postmen and milkmen do not have to wear belts, and we have heard that van drivers are particularly remiss about wearing them, but perhaps the Minister could tell us a little more about which categories should come under the provision.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale made the important point that travel concessions are a bit of an irrelevance if there are no buses available, as in some rural areas. I am a little nervous about offering a benefit for which there is no costing. As a responsible member of the next Government, I am unwilling to make any commitment. If the Bill goes into Committee, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire will do more work on the cost.

I understand that the existing law allows local authorities to offer reciprocity. Until we have a cost tag, we cannot go along with that.

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Tidying up the law on gritting is sensible. We can support the provisions on assessment of speeds on roads, with amendment. I am yet to be convinced about the rest of the Bill, although I wish it well. I am glad that there are hon. Members who have such enthusiasm for it, even those from the mild and better weather of Liverpool, and that they want to serve on the Committee and sharpen some elements of the Bill so that we achieve decent legislation.

12.35 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on securing such a high place in the ballot. I am sorry that he is no longer in the Chamber. He seems to have absented himself again, so he is not here to hear my congratulations. I thank him for the kind offer to join his Committee. Unfortunately, I will have to decline it because private Member's Bill Committees sit on a Wednesday morning, at the same time as my Select Committee, and I cannot be in two places at once. I shall follow the deliberations closely for when the Bill returns on Report.

May I tell the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, perhaps via the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), that I found the letter that he read out at the end of his speech appalling? I hope that the talk about a robust handling strategy did not include me. I have from time to time been seen as part of a robust handling strategy on behalf of the Government, but I assure the hon. Member for North Wiltshire that I should like the broad thrust of the Bill to go through.

I have some severe criticisms of some of the details of the Bill, some of which have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), so I cannot support the Bill as it stands. If the Committee has not done its job, I may wish to table amendments on Report. I assure the hon. Member for North Wiltshire that I would deplore any attempt to block the Bill, and I certainly would not be part of it. He referred to the Bill as a Christmas tree. It is probably more of a portmanteau, and he is probably sitting on the case to keep it shut, given the number of measures in the Bill. One or two other measures should be included in it, which I shall touch on in my speech.

I have taken an interest in many of the issues raised by the Bill, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will confirm, not least the Goodes case. Before I came to the House, I was a personal injury lawyer for 20 years. I dealt with many road accidents. I suppose that technically I am still a personal injury lawyer; I have a practising certificate, although I have not conducted any cases since I became a full-time Member of Parliament.

The Bill goes some way towards addressing the appalling road accident statistics. There are some 3,500 deaths and 320,000 injuries a year. I hope that the Bill will make a little contribution to reducing those figures.

The first part of the Bill deals with the Goodes case, in which I have taken an interest. I wrote to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and Lord Whitty about it within days of the judgment. It is a coincidence that the case commenced in the House of Lords exactly a year ago today. We have to ask ourselves whether clause 1 would prevent Mr. Goodes's case from happening again, with the same outcome. The object, of course, is to stop accidents happening in the first place. If an accident happened, would Mr. Goodes be able to obtain compensation?

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It is worth reminding ourselves of the facts of the Goodes case, which are set out succinctly by Lord Hoffmann in his judgment. We should note how slowly the law moves in cases such as this. Lord Hoffmann said:


My hon. Friend the Member for Garston made an important point that drives a coach and horses through the drafting of clause 1. It is illustrated by Lord Hoffman's comments on the council's practice at the time. He said:


in the important decision on the facts--


If, as everyone thought it had, the Highways Act 1980 had imposed a duty on the highways authority to grit the road, then, as the Court of Appeal found on the facts, the council would have been in breach of that duty. However, the duty that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire would impose is that the highway authority will decide what it considers reasonable, and the council's defence advanced in the Goodes case would have been based on the assertion that the council considered the action that it took to be reasonable. It would be an absolute defence. Therefore, although I applaud the hon. Gentleman's efforts to correct the Goodes case through the clause, it would not achieve his objective.

Bearing in mind the limits of debate, I shall not attempt to construe the clause at length, but my argument was made well by one of the counsel involved in the Goodes case. Counsel for Mr. Goodes said that


Lord Hoffman said:


He added:


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We are told that the wording reflects the Scottish legislation, but it does not necessarily follow that it should apply in England and Wales. We are now in the era of devolution: Scotland can go its own way, as can England and Wales. In addition, we must bear it in mind that, in Scotland, the roads and the weather conditions are very different. In Scotland, there are many more long rural roads that are used extremely infrequently or are wholly impassable in winter, whereas in England conditions are different. They are dealing with a different beast, so it is fair to say that the duty on English authorities should be different from the one imposed on Scottish authorities.

If the absolute duty I have advocated is inadequate or unacceptable, we could impose a duty on local highways authorities to do what is "practicable"--a provision often regarded as the next best thing by those interpreting or drafting statutory duties in respect of responsibility for accident prevention, whether through the Factories Acts or highways legislation such as the Bill before us. The next one down the list is "reasonably practicable", followed by "reasonable". The list ends with the phrase used in the Bill, which provides for a wholly subjective assessment of reasonableness. That would not achieve the objective.

We obviously have to do something. I received a note from the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers about this matter. I am a member of that association, and used to be on its executive committee. It represents those who look after accident victims. The note reads:


We must act. We must legislate. My concern is that the Bill will not achieve the required objective. If it is not tidied up in Committee, I shall be proposing amendments to it on Report. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire was not in his place earlier when I said that I do not want to frustrate his Bill. However, if the issue that I have raised is not dealt with in Committee, I shall come back to it on Report.

Clause 1 refers to the highway authority, and there does not seem to be a reference in the definition clause to whether it includes the Highways Agency and its responsibility for motorways. Does it include Transport for London, which now has responsibility for trunk roads? If my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the answer to my question, perhaps he will respond when he replies. If not, perhaps it is something that should be probed in Committee. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would like to be convinced that what he is trying to do will apply not only to county authorities but London boroughs, London as a whole through the Mayor, Transport for London and the Highways Agency.

If the Government are not happy with the clause--they may be dissatisfied with it for the reasons that I have given--I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take

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into account when he replies that there is a strong feeling on both sides of the House so far expressed that the issue must be tackled. If the Government cannot see their way to accepting clause 1 as drafted, I hope that they will at least think about bringing forward their own measures at the earliest opportunity, perhaps slightly tougher ones than those presently proposed to deal with a serious lacuna in the law. It has existed for only six months but I can that during this winter, perhaps, there will be a series of severely injured motorists who would otherwise have received compensation and now will not.


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