First Standing Committee Statutory Instruments, &c.


Tuesday 27 June 1995


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The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Bottomley, Mr. Peter (Eltham)

Cash, Mr. William (Stafford)

Day, Mr. Stephen (Cheadle)

Donohoe, Mr. Brian H. (Cunninghame, South)

Emery, Sir Peter (Honiton)

Etherington, Mr. Bill (Sunderland, North)

Gorst, Sir John (Hendon, North)

Greenway, Mr. John (Ryedale)

Heppell, Mr. John (Nottingham, East)

Hill, Mr. Keith (Streatham)

Hughes, Mr. Simon (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Keen, Mr. Alan (Feltham and Heston)

Key, Mr. Robert (Salisbury)

Lester, Mr. Jim (Broxtowe)

Mahone, Mrs. Alice (Halifax)

Walley, Ms Joan (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

Watts, Mr. John (Minister for Railways and Roads)

Wells, Mr. Bowen (Hertford and Stortford)

J. D. W. Rhys, Committee Clerk

3 First Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Tuesday 27 June 1995

[MR. NORMAN HOGG in the Chair]

Special Grant Report (No. 14) (Grants to Surrey Police Authority and Receiver of the Metropolitan Police District)

10.30 am

The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Special Grant Report (No. 14) (Grants to Surrey Police and Receiver of the Metropolitan Police District). The Committee will know that in April we laid regulations to authorise a controlled motorway experiment between junctions 10 and 15 of the M25. The report authorises payments to the Metropolitan police and to Surrey police for the exceptional enforcement work that they will need to undertake in connection with the experiment that will last for 12 months. It is crucial to the success of the experiment that traffic travels at the reduced speeds indicated on the variable speed limit signs. That will require a much higher degree of enforcement that would normally be necessary in enforcing the 70 mph speed limit, which applies to motorways and other dual carriageways. For that reason, it is appropriate to make special payments to the two police authorities for the additional and exceptional work that they will be required to do.

10.31 am

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I should like to say how nice it is to see you, Mr. Hogg, in the Chair for this important business with which hon. Members wish to proceed quickly and perhaps even faster than the variable speed limit. They wish our proceedings to be brief because of the momentous presentation of manifestos that is taking place elsewhere in the building. I do not want this matter to go through on the nod. I have some brief but serious questions for the Minister. The report raises important points. In particular, many people are concerned about the lack of priority that is given to the police's work on traffic regulation. We understand that extra police resources will be required for variable speed limits and we recognise that we should do whatever we can to ensure continuous traffic flow around the M25. That also requires the introduction of other traffic management items. The report deals with the priority given to such work. It may not be in the Department of Transport's remit to give enforcement powers to the police, but that is an issue for the Home Office. Therefore, it will help if the Minister tells us 4 what talks he is holding with the Home Office to ensure that resources are available for police enforcement of traffic regulations. The police may require extra resources because of additional administrative work and the cost of cameras and other equipment, but they also need further enforcement powers. The experiment is taking place over the short term, but we need to know who has responsibility for providing the resources for traffic regulation and enforcement in the long term. This special grant report raises those questions. The way in which the Highways Agency was set up was rather strange given that various traffic schemes have led to huge amounts of overspending. A good example of that is the golden mile in docklands. About £450 million was spent on that mile of motorway. The proposal for the M25 is for an experiment that requires £300,000 in extra administrative costs, but the Government's policy is short term. There is not a standard mechanism in the Highways Agency that will allow such experimental work to be planned and carried out. Will the Minister respond to our concerns about the basis on which the Highways Agency has been set up? It has been set up very quickly and is undergoing much change which is causing lack of morale throughout the country. The Highways Agency, which is a new agency, has already been considerably cut back. There is a lack of foresight in that there is not a proper mechanism for routinely planning for proper experimentation such as that in the proposal. We need more detail. At a later stage perhaps the Minister will write to me and set out the basis on which the Highways Agency has been set up and what mechanism there is to deal with this kind of proposal. I want to put it on record that anything that will deal with the traffic congestion and pollution around the M25 and the related long-term problems has our support. However, one measure alone cannot deal with congestion or the many safety issues involved. Rather than one piecemeal measure after another, we desperately need a concerted holistic approach to all the problems caused by the M25. I should have preferred the proposal to be within the context of a wider policy, which the Government still do not have in respect of the M25, its congestion or its role as a strategic motorway for this country.

10.36 am

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): It is, of course, beyond doubt that the Committee will have considered the report and there will be, therefore, no opportunity to vote against the proposal. However, if the constitutional arrangements were such that a debate could be followed by a vote to approve or not approve, I would, of course, oppose this extraordinary proposal on how a police authority should be paid. I can think of no conceivable reason why the Metropolitan police and Surrey police should have this grant put into their back pocket to finance an experiment which will be of enormous benefit to everyone, who uses the M25 and also to the police. 5 I understand that the police in Surrey have disbanded their traffic unit. So we are paying them an enormous sum of money not to have a traffic unit. However, they have a mobile response unit which will be able to respond quickly to events. Will my hon. Friend the Minister explain what will happen? Where will the money go? It is meant to be for enforcement. I have read annex C, but I am still not convinced that any additional money should be given to Surrey or the Metropolitan police. The financial story contained in the report is amazing. Here we have, I suspect for the first time, hypothecation of tax to a local authority for a new function, which is a direct relationship. Having served as a Minister with responsibility for local government finance when such matters were always hotly disputed by the Treasury, we now find that the Treasury is agreeing to a precedent. That is interesting. In addition, my hon. Friend the Minister must have slipped the proposal past the Department of the Environment without it noticing, because it breaks all the Department's rules on local government finance. There is a much simpler answer, which is to allow the fines from automatic speed cameras and other electronic detection equipment to be paid direct to police authorities, instead of going to the courts, and hence into general funds, under the present cumbersome and expensive method. I am deeply sceptical about all these arrangements. I have read annex C and I should like to know from my hon. Friend the Minister why it is that "The Surrey Police Authority shall submit quarterly estimates of expenditure for the following three months" whereas "The Receiver for the Metropolitan Police District shall submit monthly accounts in arrears". That is extraordinary. Why is there such discrimination between the Metropolitan police and Surrey police? We should know. The principle behind the measure about the controlled motorway pilot scheme is excellent and has my total support. I would be ruled out of order if I made any more nice comments about it, because it is not what the measure before us is concerned with. I am worried. The police have done well to obtain the extra money and I can think of no reason why they should have it when other local authorities will have to find money for all sorts of traffic experiments and regulation, even though I accept that the M25 is the most important stretch of motorway.

10.40 am

Mr. Watts: First, I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) for the experiment and agree with her that there is no single method that will solve the problems of congestion and pollution. However, we believe that the controlled motorway is one way to ease congestion and pollution problems and obtain more capacity from a road in so far as it relieves the pressure on a congested road and may obviate some of the need for future improvement to the road. I believe that it will be valuable, We need to 6 experiment before we can be sure that a particular technique is of value and should be considered for wider application across the motorway and trunk road network. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North tempts me into broader issues of traffic objectives for the police, which she rightly says are not a matter for my Department. In this instance, leaving aside the broader issues which she and my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) mentioned, there is a clear distinction between the degree of enforcement required to make the experiment valid and that which would usually be expected of traffic police across the country.

Ms Walley: Is not that precisely the point, which was echoed by the hon. Member for Salisbury? A precedent is being set precisely when police authorities all over the country, because of a change within which they have to operate, are making cuts in their work. At the top of the list of work that is being cut is traffic regulation and enforcement. The measure is setting a precedent which will send messages to every other police authority around the country that, enforcement measures less important than the proposed experiment will now—even if they previously had any chance of gaining priority—be less likely to gain priority because the work of the police force is being fragmented. That will have long-term consequences on the rights of the police to stop vehicles moving on roads and on motorways. Is not a precedent being set?

Mr. Watts: No, I do not believe that it is. Police authority treasurers should not be encouraged to think that I will be using my roads budget to fund their regular, routine traffic work. There is a big difference between the generality of police traffic work, which is funded through the mainstream police grant, and the high degree of enforcement that is required for the M25 experiment. That is why this is an exceptional measure. As to future levels of enforcement, drivers will see the benefits to them of complying with variable speed limits and over time, as the experiment matures, high degrees of enforcement will not be required. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury suggested hypothecation of fines as a funding mechanism. I agree that that is an interesting idea for the future, but if the experiment is successful, I hope that we will not raise a penny in enforcement penalties. My objective is for drivers to see that complying with variable speed limit signs and not being subject to enforcement measures is of benefit to them. I hope that fines will not prove to be a particularly buoyant source of funding.

Ms Walley: The Minister mentions hypothecation and says that a lot of money from fine will not be hypothecated. Regardless of whether one supports the principle of hypothecation, making the money that comes from the Highways Agency and goes to the police forces contractually binding sets a precedent for hypothecation. It is a designation of money to the work that is being done. I see the hon. Member for Salisbury nodding his head in agreement.


Mr. Watts: That point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury. The grant report does not set an entirely new precedent because it is made under general powers which we have under the Local Government Finance Act 1988 to make specific grants for specific purposes. It is unusual in that we have not done this before. I do not envisage coming before this Committee or others with a succession of similar grants to fund similar experiments.

Ms Walley: Could I ask the Minister about street lights, as it is entirely the same principle?

Mr. Watts: Street lights are in no way the same principle. They are funded by entirely different mechanisms. From my budget comes only the cost of providing and maintaining lighting on trunk roads and motorways. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury asked why there were different arrangements for the funding of the two police authorities—Surrey, quarterly in advance and the Metropolitan police, monthly in arrears. The reason is that we agreed arrangements with the treasurer and the receiver on the way in which they wished to be paid. There is no discrimination. Each authority told us its preferred method for the channelling of funding and we saw no reason to turn down their requests. I sense that the whole Committee supports the principle of the experiment. Concern has been voiced on both sides about the method of funding and the necessity for special funding, but I hope that the 8 Committee will accept that the benefits which will come from the experiment justify asking the Committee to approve the report.

Ms Walley: I sense that the Minister is reaching the end of his response to the debate and I should like to remind him that I asked why the basis on which the Highways Agency was set up does not allow it, in a routine way and with an in-built mechanism, to plan for expenditure of this nature. Could the Minister write to me about the longer term implications of the financing of such operations out of the Highways Agency budget?

Mr. Watts: The problem is not that we are not allowed within our budget to experiment but that we have no general powers to make payments to other authorities. We can fund any other experiment that we wish to operate with variable message signing or whatever and pilot projects such as ramp metering, which we have on parts of the M6. There is not a general problem of lack of power, but we do not have a specific power to make payments to the police for this sort of work. That is why we have this exceptional report in exceptional circumstances. I shall be happy to write to the hon. Lady if she would like further clarification.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Special Grant Report (No. 14) (Grants to Surrey Police Authority and Receiver of the Metropolitan Police District).

Committee rose at twelve minutes to Eleven o'clock.



Hogg, Mr. Norman (Chairman)

Bottomley, Mr. Peter

Emery, Sir Peter

Greenway Mr. John

Key, Mr.

Lester, Mr.

Walley, Ms

Watts, Mr.

Wells, Mr.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(2):

Dicks, Mr. Terry (Hayes and Harlington)