I appreciate your calling me in this debate, Mr Hollobone. It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I begin by commending the work of the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), and the way in which he has not only gone about the gathering of evidence for the inquiry, but actively promoted the response from the Government and the conclusions of the Committee. He is to be commended for that. I would also like to record, on my behalf, and, I am sure, that of all members of the Transport Committee, our thanks to the members of staff, the subject specialists and all the support staff who have been involved in preparing this third report of the current Session.
As I believe the Chair of the Committee has already pointed out, this is not the first Transport Committee report scrutinising all lane running motorways. Although I welcome the Government’s acceptance of the Transport Committee’s recommendations, safety risks on all lane running motorways, such as those raised by our predecessor Committee in 2016, should have been addressed before those motorways were rolled out.
My own party and I personally have long felt that the Government needed to halt the roll-out of smart motorways. The Committee identified considerable evidence that there are serious flaws. It is a tragedy that so many lives were lost before action was taken.
There is a slight danger of conflating smart motorways and all lane running motorways. There are smart motorways that work, as with the M42, which is a key part of the motorway box around Birmingham and vital to the economy of this country. We therefore need to differentiate, and to look at what has worked and at why that was not followed through on. It is enormously important not just for those travelling to work, but—given that this country and its economy runs on its trucking industry and its drivers, as we found out recently—to keep things flowing. We have to look at extending that, rather than wrapping all those together in one framework.
That is a reasonable point. I certainly do not disagree with my right hon. Friend. I point out that our third inquiry was launched in response to concerns that the Committee had received about the increasing number of fatalities and to criticism by professionals, including coroners, about the risks that arise when we do not have hard shoulders, or when they are used as an additional lane.
As we heard in the Chair of the Committee’s opening remarks, the number of miles of motorway without a hard shoulder increased from 172 to 204 between 2017 and 2019. Over those two years, the number of deaths on motorways without a permanent hard shoulder increased from five to 15. At least 38 people have been killed on smart motorways in the past five years. On one section of the M25 outside London, the number of near misses has risen twentyfold since the hard shoulder was removed in April 2014.
Thanks to the dedication of bereaved families, the roll-out has been paused. As part of the Committee’s inquiry, we heard some of the most harrowing and moving evidence from the families of those who, tragically, have died on smart motorways. That testimony, I believe, was very valuable and I thank all those who gave evidence in person and in writing.
All lane running motorways were primarily a money-saving exercise. We skirted around that issue earlier. In the rationale, they were introduced to add capacity while delivering savings on capital, maintenance and operational costs compared with previous smart motorway designs. The aim was to achieve the savings required by the 2010 spending review while maintaining Highways Agency safety standards. Clearly, those motorways could reduce the costs of implementation by up to a quarter.
It is now evident, however, that cost-cutting has played a part in the utterly inadequate roll-out of smart motorway features. That has put lives at risk. The problems with the safety of all lane running motorways remain, years after the original Transport Committee report.
National Highways has been given £27.4 billion this year. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it might be a case not of a shortage of cash at National Highways, but more a lack of focus on the need for safety?
Some important questions need to be asked, and agencies and individuals need to be held to account for the decisions made.
It is staggering that since the first smart motorways went live, those basic standard safety features referred to earlier and in the statement this morning have still not been fully implemented—that smart technology to detect broken-down vehicles in live lanes. Emergency refuge areas are too far apart. CCTV cameras on smart motorways are not routinely monitored, which is an incredible admission that the Committee uncovered. Compliance with and enforcement of red X signs remain problematic.
Cameras capable of enforcing compliance will not be fully rolled out until September this year. As the Chairman of the Committee alluded to, the Committee was originally promised that the deadline for that would be six years earlier and that those cameras and that technology would be implemented in 2019. Also, we have now been told that stopped-vehicle detection will not be rolled out across all lane running motorways until September this year, six years after the Transport Committee was told that the technology worked and would be part of the standard roll-out of these schemes.
Emergency services and traffic patrol officers still struggle to access incidents in a timely manner, especially during periods of heavy congestion. Of course, the introduction of all-electric vehicles brings a whole new dimension into potential chokepoints and road traffic accidents, if such vehicles were to run out of power on an all lane running motorway.
The Committee’s report makes it clear that engagement and clear communication with the public about smart motorways will be key to their safe and successful roll-out, so education is a key issue. However, almost half of the British public do not know what to do in the event of an emergency on a smart motorway. We do not have any smart motorways or all lane running motorways in the north-east, but my constituents travel down to London and use these roads, which do not have a hard shoulder, so education is absolutely vital. However, it was a profound mistake that the first public information awareness campaign about smart motorways was not launched until 2021, years after they came into operation.
We know that smart motorways, given their current form and inadequate safety standards, are not fit for purpose and put lives at risk. I believe that Ministers were wrong to press ahead with them when there was strong evidence that safety-critical features should be introduced as the sections of smart motorways were being developed.
I am pleased that the Government have acknowledged the Committee’s concerns and paused the roll-out of all lane running smart motorways until five years of safety and economic data is available, and improvements have been delivered and independently evaluated.
I will conclude with several questions for the Minister. First, is it not illogical that hundreds of miles of smart motorway will continue to be used? What about the remedial work? How is that being programmed? Does she agree that the delay of the roll-out programme, caused by the delays in installing the relevant technology to detect broken-down vehicles, has risked lives, and that the continuing use of hundreds of miles of smart motorways before remedial work has been carried out is a risk to public safety? And will she and the Department for Transport engage with the Transport Committee to agree what data will form part of the evidence-gathering assessment over the next five years to determine the relative safety of smart motorways?