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Viscount Goschen: I hope that the Minister will carefully consider the argument put forward by my noble friend Lord Rotherwick. Anything that helps introduce clarity into the exercise of traffic officers' powers, particularly in relation to the police and in the context of our debates on previous amendments, would be a good thing. I hope that the Minister agrees that requiring guidance to be published would help to ensure clarity.

Lord Davies of Oldham: I am grateful to both noble Lords. As they will have anticipated, I have considerable sympathy with the arguments they have put forward on this proposed new clause. I hope to convince the Committee not of the merits and arguments behind the new clause, but simply that the new clause would be otiose because we already have the powers, as the Bill provides, to do exactly what the new clause suggests.

The new clause is unnecessary because the appropriate national authority can already issue guidance. It does not need a specific statutory power to do that. It needs to issue guidance only when the authority is dealing with a third party. As the traffic officer service will be provided by the national authority, we do not need to provide a statutory power, and certainly not a statutory duty, in the Bill.

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In practice—as noble Lords have indicated, this is the merit behind this debate and behind their new clause—operational guidance is certainly a necessity. As the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, was generous enough to acknowledge, such guidance is already in an advanced stage of preparation. Very substantial consultation has taken place on the procedures and guidelines being established for traffic officer activities. Members of the Committee will recognise that that has been done by working very closely with the police, so that both parties are absolutely clear on the respective roles and responsibilities.

The procedures cover all aspects of the service, from the high-level partnership arrangements and objectives to the detailed procedures that traffic officers must follow out on the road. There has also been extensive consultation with other stakeholders, including local authorities, maintenance contractors and breakdown recovery service organisations. I can assure the Committee that that consultation will continue.

One aspect was raised in relation to motorways. I want to emphasise that our motorways, as all Members of the Committee will recognise, are special roads. There are severe restrictions on the ability of statutory undertakers to effect anything that may impede safe progress on our motorways. All agreements, procedures and protocols are being carefully documented and will be continuously reviewed and updated if necessary. If in the future the traffic officer service were to be provided by a third party, the work done to date would be incorporated into contracts that would be necessary in those circumstances.

I recognise the merits behind the new clause in articulating matters that need to be done and consultation that needs to be carried out. I can assure the Committee that the statutory authorities have the power to do that and are doing it. I hope with that reassurance that the noble Lord will not feel the need to press the amendment.

Lord Rotherwick: I thank the noble Lord for his assurances. It would have been more helpful if the Highways Agency had already published its governance and guide for the traffic officers. We would then have had more clarity in relation to this matter and may not have had to push the Minister for an explanation. We shall read his answer. I am grateful to him for trying to give greater clarity. If necessary we shall return to the matter at a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 9 [Removal of certain vehicles by traffic officers]:

[Amendments Nos. 39 and 40 not moved.]

Viscount Astor moved Amendment No. 41:


    Page 5, line 19, at end insert—


"(3) In any regulation made under subsection (1), the Secretary of State shall not remove the right of a person present whose vehicle is to be removed pursuant to section 99(1)(b) of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 (c. 27) (removal of vehicles illegally, obstructively or dangerously parked, or abandoned or broken down) to choose who shall remove the vehicle, unless it would, in the reasonable opinion of the traffic officer, be unreasonable to do so because of an imminent danger to persons using the road or because the vehicle is causing an obstruction on the road."

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The noble Viscount said: This is an important amendment and an important issue which concerns the motoring organisations, particularly the AA, the RAC and other organisations involved in aiding motorists. As the Bill stands we are concerned that there will be a detrimental effect not only on the motorist but also on how such organisations work in aiding the motorist. I recognise that there have been discussions between the Government and the organisations and that the Government have tried to be helpful, but they have not been able to go as far as they or we would wish. Therefore, we have tabled this amendment.

My amendment will ensure that motorists will retain the right to call out a breakdown operator of their choice. Despite assurances from the Minister in another place that there is no intention that traffic officers should find an alternative recovery service, my legal advice suggests that Clause 9, as it stands, currently gives the Highways Agency free rein to assume a policy of removing a number of broken-down vehicles.

I recognise that this is a difficult area and so my amendment has been drafted to take account of the concerns that were raised in the other place by the Minister when this issue was debated. I remind the Committee that the motoring organisations are concerned only with breakdowns on the side of the road; they do not interfere, and never have done, with breakdowns on a carriageway. That has always been a matter for the police, and will remain a matter for the police as there are important safety aspects. Motoring organisations like the AA and RAC deal only with vehicles that are at the side of the road and not on the carriageway.

My amendment does not require traffic officers to make any decisions that they will not already have to make. It states unequivocally that the final decision on whether a motorist is allowed to call his breakdown service provider still rests with the traffic officer at the scene. Thus, it maintains sufficient flexibility for the traffic officer to tackle unforeseen problems, while recognising the essential role played by the breakdown service providers.

Therefore, I do not understand why the Government cannot put the assurance that they have given on to the face of the Bill if that is their true intention. Some confusion was brought about by an article in the Birmingham Post on 17 April, which referred to highway officers patrolling motorways to help drivers on a trial basis. In the light of that, I should be interested to know from the Minister whether the Highways Agency officers took the power to carry out that trial. Perhaps the Minister could tell us when he has the results.

There are several reasons why I believe that the Bill, unamended, would be detrimental to road users. First, I believe that it could lead to a doubling-up of resources. The RAC alone states that 70 to 80 per cent of their customers call for help from mobile phones. Therefore, in many cases, the breakdown organisations will have already been deployed before the Highways Agency becomes involved. The agency would also use the same pool of contractors.

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Secondly, the Bill will enable the Highways Agency to charge drivers a standard charge for removing broken-down vehicles. That charge has been 105 since 1993 and is now under review. Can the Minister tell us what progress has been made on the review and indicate to what level it has been decided to increase the charge?

Thirdly, the Bill could result in a reduction in the number of motorists who have breakdown cover. Thus, fewer road users would act responsibly and take out national breakdown insurance, and that would have a negative effect on congestion and safety across the wider road network.

Lastly, we fear that, in effect, this measure could be an unnecessary government intervention in a competitive market. The motoring organisations currently rescue more than 90 per cent of all broken-down vehicles on this country's motorways. We do not believe that the Highways Agency should set a competitive service, nor, indeed, a monopoly service, which, in effect, it would have the power to do.

As I said, the Government have given some assurances that that is not what they intend, but so far they have resisted any amendment to the Bill. I believe that the Government need to go further and that something needs to be placed on the face of the Bill to deal with the issue. I beg to move.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw: Before the Minister responds, I add my name to that of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, as having an interest in this clause. The fact is that, if a motorist breaks down on the hard shoulder and he tells a traffic officer that he is a member of a recognised breakdown service—The AA, the RAC, Green Flag, the Environmental Transport Agency or whatever—those organisations will always be able to tell the traffic officer that the rescue service is on the way. I believe that rescue services normally tell people when they can expect to have their vehicle recovered. Therefore, I support the view that the traffic officer should be told, in guidance, that if information is available from the driver of a broken-down vehicle that the rescue service is on the way within a reasonable time, the traffic officer should not activate the powers that he has to call upon the breakdown contractor employed by the Highways Agency.

However, I would ask the Minister to go a little further. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, referred to the charges, which were fixed some time ago, for the removal of broken-down vehicles. Bearing in mind that many people who may not be members of breakdown organisations may be those whose cars are uninsured or unlicensed or that they may have been convicted of offences and are unlikely to pay the removal charges, what sanctions do the Government propose to take to recover the money when broken-down vehicles are removed from the hard shoulder?

As the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, mentioned, the majority of motorists are responsible enough to belong to an organisation which will remove their vehicles. But those who do not belong to such an organisation

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are very likely to fall into the category of those who do not have a licence or pay for insurance or they may have a conviction. In addition, they may drive vehicles which are liable to break down because they probably care less for them than do other people and therefore they will have more need of the breakdown service.

Who, ultimately, pays for the breakdown service if the person who is rescued does not have the wherewithal to pay for it? We are very familiar with the fact that, as motorists who pay for insurance, we all are paying for the large percentage of people who do not bother to take out insurance. I shall return to that subject later. We pay indirectly through an addition to our premium, which goes to the Motor Insurers' Bureau. All of us who pay our premiums presumably subsidise those who do not bother. We know that that costs a great deal of money, sometimes for the Exchequer and sometimes for insurance companies, but I should be grateful for some assurance on that point. I accept that if traffic officers arrive at the scene of a breakdown and the driver does not have breakdown cover, the vehicle must be removed. But I am very concerned about the financial arrangements which then apply.


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