Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Clarke: I disagree quite profoundly. I understand the pleading for more police officers; it comes from every part of the country, for reasons that I appreciate. In the next hour or so, there will be a debate in the Chamber on those issues, and we all know the allegations that are made. On this subject, however, it is incontrovertible that the effective speed camera operation that we seek to encourage is a more effective way to enforce the law—and to reduce some burdens on the police—than to say that in every village in North Yorkshire, and everywhere else, there should be a police officer with a speed gun.

Mr. Kidney: Surely it is a better use of resources to have a camera there 24 hours a day than to pay for three police officers to stand in the same spot checking speeds for 24 hours a day.

Mr. Clarke: That is an incisive and correct observation. What we are doing will improve the enforcement of the laws of the land, to the benefit of society as a whole.

On the specific point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, the amendments would compel the Lord Chancellor to make payments to responsible authorities. As drafted, the subsections introduce a power for the Lord Chancellor to make payments to responsible authorities. That new power fills the gap in the financial arrangements that I have described between the appropriation orders that are used now and the new arrangements in the Bill.

At present, the Lord Chancellor has the power to pay up to 80 per cent. of the expenditure of responsible authorities in relation to magistrates courts. The balance is met by the responsible local authorities, with the aid of grant provided by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The new power would enable the Lord Chancellor to make payments to meet the full amount of the costs of the courts in dealing with offences recorded by speed or traffic cameras.

I acknowledge that my hon. Friend's purpose is to preclude a payment of nil—to use his words—and I should place on the record that we do not intend that there should be a payment of nil. It would not be appropriate, however, to require the Lord Chancellor to make payments. The existing funding arrangements for magistrates courts generally do not compel the Lord Chancellor to make payments, but empower him to do so; that is the spirit of the Bill. The relevant reference is section 57 of the Justices of the peace Act 1997; the new provisions have been drafted along similar lines.

I encourage my hon. Friend, now that he has heard the debate, to withdraw his amendment; the point that he makes, however, is well taken.

Mr. Fabricant: Perhaps it will help his hon. Friend to withdraw his amendment if the Minister will tell us what undertakings he has received from the Lord Chancellor's Department, in relation to clause 37, that payments will be made? Clearly, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston is worried in case no payments are made. At present, there is a degree of trust on the Minister's part that payments will be made. What undertakings has he received?

Mr. Clarke: As the Committee knows, the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are like the holy trinity, indivisible in all respects, and have no firm public commitments on such matters, but my noble, right hon. and hon. Friends in the Lord Chancellor's Department are committed to the project and to making the payments that I have described. There is a joint approach between the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Home Office, which is supported by the Treasury. The concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston about one of the elements wanting to withdraw from the arrangements—and, in his phrase, bringing payment of nil—are not valid. All parts of the Government have agreed to work towards that end.

Mr. Bob Russell: If the cameras are successful, everybody obeys the law and, therefore, no fines are generated, will the shortfall be made up? If so, by whom—[Interruption.]

Mr. Clarke: I must make one small technical point before I respond to that. The hon. Member for Lichfield, from a sedentary position, used the word ``film''. In fact, digital cameras are being used more and more, and some of the issues about film are not as clear as they were. To reassure the hon. Member for Vale of York, none of her constituents in North Yorkshire should rely on there being no film in the cameras when deciding at what speed they drive through the villages in her constituency.

Were we to reach a universal position of absolute happiness, in which there was no speeding of any kind at any time, some administrative arrangements would be necessary. However, the savings to the state—in the national health service and in every other way—would be so enormous that, to use a phrase that resonates through our history, that would be a price worth paying.

To conclude on a minor point, it is possible that we should allow the DETR to pay money to crime reduction partnerships as opposed to specific agencies. We are considering whether it might be necessary to table an amendment later to address that. On that note, I hope that my hon. Friend will consider withdrawing the amendment.

Mr. Miller: The whole House would love to face the quandary posed by the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell), which would be a wonderful step forward in reducing the 3,000 unnecessary deaths that occur on our roads each year. However, in the spirit of the response of my hon. Friend the Minister, I trust the matter to the current Lord Chancellor, who has been demonstrably co-operative throughout the pilot process. In the long term, there might be a Lord Chancellor in whom I did not have so much confidence, although I suspect that I may have retired by then. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Miller: I beg to move amendment No. 77, in page 21, line 22,

after `applies', insert `;

    or is expenditure incurred by a responsible authority in the provision of speed cameras in locations where there is a significant likelihood of the presence of road users (including pedestrians) who would be at risk from a vehicle driven at excess speed.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 78, in page 22, line 4, at end insert—

    `( ) Responsible authorities shall utilize payments made under this clause to install and improve mobile and fixed safety cameras to record and detect excess speed; and to place such devices in locations identified as being places where all road users including pedestrians are most at risk from excess speed.'.

No. 79, in page 22, line 4, at end insert—

    `( ) ''Relevant expenditure'' shall be used to ensure, so far as is practicable, that those offences referred to in subsection (5) are reduced and, in doing so, the responsible Authority shall take into account any information that they have identifying areas where those offences are more likely to be committed.'.

No. 53, in page 22, line 6, at end insert—

    `( ) The Lord Chancellor in consultation with the Secretary of State shall produce in 2003, and thereafter at such intervals as he shall think fit, a report outlining the extent of the provision of safety cameras, their financial implications and their impact upon casualty reduction; and such a report shall be laid before Parliament.'.

Mr. Miller: Reference was made at length, on Second Reading on 18 December, at columns 31 to 33, to the official Opposition's suspicion that the Government's proposal constituted a stealth tax. The hon. Member for Buckingham stated:

    We are also concerned to avoid yet another stealth tax from the Government.—[Official Report, 18 December 2000; Vol. 360, c. 33.]

In response to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), he continued:

    One can only assume that Ministers are anxious to extract rich pickings from unsuspecting motorists in the form of heavy fines. In so far as that policy is by way of being a stealth tax, it does not commend itself to Her Majesty's official Opposition.—[Official Report, 18 December 2000; Vol. 360, c. 35.]

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), in his response to the debate, took a considerably softer line, with which I have some sympathy. He dealt with how the money was precisely to be used, and, at column 112, on 18 December, set out his points of concern. He went on to say:

    However, concerns have been expressed that such measures could introduce something of a stealth tax.—[Official Report, 18 December 2000; Vol. 360, c. 112.]

He was not saying that he believed it, but was reflecting the fact that the hon. Member for Buckingham seemed to believe it.

Miss McIntosh: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that motorists rightly perceive those proposals—call them a stealth tax or not—as a revenue-raising device?

Mr. Miller: The hon. Lady will hear me develop my argument on this important clause. I do not think that the measure is a revenue-raising device in the context of the taxation of the nation in its entirety. Taxation goes into one pot and is redistributed through various complex mechanisms that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) understands far better than I. We can show motorists that the measure is sensible; in the long run, it will benefit them not simply as motorists but as citizens of the nation as a whole.

3.30 pm

Each death on the road has been estimated as costing the nation approximately £1 million. I am going to mention Europe again, which might cause problems. The European Federation of Road Traffic Victims has produced significant research that showed that the cost to nations across Europe was approximately £40 billion a year, which represents an extraordinary waste for the taxpayer. However, we should think, of the pain and suffering caused by the incidents that Members hear about in their constituencies—pain and suffering that is multiplied across Europe.

We are dealing with the biggest unmentioned issue of public health in this country. If we get the road safety strategy right, we can reduce that pain and suffering. As the chairman of the all-party group that supports the charity RoadPeace, I would welcome to our meetings hon. Members who have not yet faced a family who have been bereaved, or had a serious injury in their own families as the result of a road crash. The pain and suffering goes on for many years—it is not a flash in the pan that goes away tomorrow.

Through RoadPeace, we are dealing with the counselling of victims' families after crashes that occurred as long as 10 or 12 years ago. Yesterday, I had a lengthy meeting with colleagues in the Department of Health. We are considering the huge cost of supporting families in terms of the direct impact of the crash on individual members of the family, and the subsequent trauma suffered by other parts of the family. Those costs are enormous, and every small step that the nation, in co-operation with motoring organisations, takes to reduce them is important.

I agree with the tenor of the observation made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire on Second Reading. We must not allow the measure to be perceived as a simple mechanism that local authorities can identify as a nice little earner. That would be intolerable, because it would not command the support of the motorist. I am sure that the hon. Member for Vale of York would agree with that, as that was the spirit of her intervention.

The amendments have been drafted so that we can explore, with the Minister, whether we can strengthen the clause and get the balance right, so that authorities receiving moneys through the process do not see it as a nice little earner. We do not want them simply to use the moneys refunded to them or from other resources to scatter speed cameras liberally in places that they think will be the best earners. The cameras must be located in hot spots—to use another phrase employed by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. They must be put in places that have been identified as a risk to the community—by which I mean all road users, including pedestrians and cyclists.

Significant areas of all our constituencies could benefit from such a policy. I have done a lot of work on the A540, where a significant number of deaths have taken place, and which my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) knows well. There is a clear piece of dual carriageway with a gentle curve, but it has a hot spot at a point where oncoming traffic crosses into a side road. Such circumstances require the traffic to slow down. We can effect that by all sorts of mechanisms, some of which are more expensive than others. Major refurbishment of the road design is one approach; we could introduce a roundabout, or traffic lights, or simply reduce the speed limit from 60 mph.

All those mechanisms are worthy—as are speed cameras. I would expect a local authority to target that kind of location in response to the spirit of the clause, not to create a nice little earner but to reduce death and serious injury on the road. The legislation must be drafted in clear language that ensures that it is a road safety measure, as the Minister described it, not a tax-raising measure, as some Members of the Opposition believe it to be. The fact that it is a road safety measure needs reinforcing loudly. Because of the technical deficiencies of my drafting skills, the Minister may not be minded to accept the amendments as they are. However, I hope that he will put it on record, in disseminating information about the Bill, that the provisions must be used in the context of road safety, to reduce the number of awful tragedies that happen every year.

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