HC Deb 24 May 1973 vol 857 cc803-25

10.11 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mills)

I beg to move, That the Road Traffic (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order, a draft of which was laid before this House on 9th May 1973, be approved. First, may I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on his elevation to the Opposition Front Bench.

Last year in Northern Ireland there were 5,261 road accidents in which 372 people were killed, 2,430 seriously injured and 5,595 slightly injured, making a total of 8,397 casualties. While it is only to be expected that more extensive publicity is given to those killed and injured in civil disturbances in Northern Ireland, the fact remains that over the past three years substantially more people have been killed and injured in road accidents in Northern Ireland than as a result of the civil disturbances.

This is a sobering thought, particularly as road accidents mount up to a serious social problem which will continue to be present long after the disturbances have ended. It is, of course, also a problem shared on a much larger scale by the rest of the United Kingdom. It would be unrealistic to present the order as a "cure-all" for road accidents, but its main purpose is to bring Northern Ireland law more closely into line with that in Great Britain on a wide variety of miscellaneous matters, including several of importance to road safety. Driving licences issued in Great Britain are valid in Northern Ireland and vice versa, and it is accordingly desirable that similar standards should be applied. I do not think anybody would disagree with that.

The order enables regulations to be made which will permit driving licences to be granted in carefully defined circumstances to controlled epileptics. Driving test standards in Northern Ireland are already the same as in Great Britain and Article 3 will enable the same standards of physical fitness to be applied. At present the six county councils and the two county boroughs in Northern Ireland are the responsible licensing authorities in relation to driver licensing. Following local government reorganisation the eight local licensing authorities will cease to exist, and Article 15 of the order therefore provides for the transfer of driver licensing functions to the Ministry of Home Affairs on 1st October 1973. This is in line with the position in Great Britain, where the Department of the Environment is the single licensing authority.

I now turn to the inspection of vehicles, which is very important. Although Northern Ireland can boast of a scheme of goods vehicle inspection dating back to 1934, over 30 years before its introduction in Great Britain, there is at present no scheme in existence for the annual testing of private cars. Many of the cars currently used on the roads in Northern Ireland are in such poor condition that they would have no hope of passing the MOT test. Some of us who have been over there for some little time can witness to that fact.

While it is difficult to determine precisely the part played by mechanical defects in the causation of accidents it is estimated to be a contributory factor in between 10 per cent. and 15 per cent. of all accidents. The order provides for the introduction of a scheme of annual inspection for private cars to be carried out by the Ministry's Vehicle Inspection and Driving Test Branch. This will be a comprehensive inspection of the vehicle carried out by an independent and impartial examiner. In this way it is hoped to avoid most of the problems experienced when testing is done by authorised commercial garages.

Initially it is proposed that the scheme will apply to cars over 10 years old, but the order permits the scheme to be extended progressively down the age range. In addition to providing for annual inspection, the order also extends the powers of authorised officers to carry out roadside checks of all vehicles in all age-groups and provides for the service of prohibition notices in respect of vehicles which are so defective as to constitute an immediate risk to public safety.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

The hon. Gentleman states that an authorised officer may check vehicles at the roadside. Would the power be limited to a constable in uniform, or would it also apply to an officer of the Ministry, who evidently would not be in uniform?

Mr. Mills

The power would be for the constable.

I now turn to something which is extremely important these days, with so many goods going on the roads. The order also extends the existing powers to regulate drivers' hours of duty. No immediate changes are envisaged here, but the amendments are considered desirable to enable the domestic law on drivers' hours to be brought into line with the requirements of the EEC regulations which will apply to domestic journeys in Great Britain and Northern Ireland after 1976.

I now turn to the matter of traffic wardens. In Great Britain the powers of traffic wardens have already been extended to enable them to carry out additional duties, and the order provides for a similar extension of powers in Northern Ireland, where there is an at least equal if not greater need for wardens to act in relief of the police. I am sure hon. Members will agree that that is a worthy aim, particularly in present circumstances. Because of the exigencies of the situation traffic wardens are already being employed very successfully on traffic duties. The order provides that in such circumstances it will be an offence to contravene traffic directions given by a traffic warden, who will also be empowered to require a driver to give his name and address. The order also extends the scope of the fixed penalty procedure as in Great Britain to cover additional offences, including the failure to display a current tax disc.

Following local government reorganisation the existing permissive powers of local authorities to incur expenditure on road safety will cease to be appropriate, and accordingly under Article 7 of the order the Ministry will assume direct responsibility for the road safety officer service and for the expenditure of road safety committees. This is broadly in keeping with the proposal to confer a statutory road safety duty upon the new county authorities in Great Britain.

There are at present four full-time road safety officers employed by local authorities in Northern Ireland and it is proposed to increase this number to 11 as soon as possible with a view to providing a comprehensive programme of road safety education and training throughout the Province. I am sure that is most important. The efforts of the road safety officers will be concentrated mainly, although not exclusively, in schools where the most fruitful results seem likely to be obtained.

Ultimately, the long-term objective must be to provide future generations of road-users with a sound basic training in road safety covering the green cross code, cycle training and roadcraft. The raising of the school leaving age to 16 provides a golden opportunity to develop and expand roadcraft and driver training courses in schools and to impress firmly at an early stage the right attitudes towards driving which are of such importance.

The order also seeks to raise the standard of professional driving instruction by making provision for the compulsory registration of driving instructors in Northern Ireland. Registration is already compulsory in Great Britain, and the order will enable Northern Ireland to follow suit. At present, although the standards required of an instructor for registration as an approved driving instructor are the same as in Great Britain, the scheme is still purely voluntary.

Compulsory registration will not preclude the giving of free driving lessons or practice by a friend or relative, but professional instructors giving driving lessons for payment will be required to maintain the high standards expected of a registered instructor. The Association of Driving Instructors in Northern Ireland welcomes that requirement.

The order covers several other minor matters of a technical or procedural nature such as the giving of evidence by certificate as to the identity of drivers, a minor amendment concerning the distance a goods vehicle can be required to travel to a weighbridge and minor concessions in favour of invalid carriages. This is very much a miscellaneous provisions order, but I hope that I have said enough to show that it contains many provisions of importance to road safety in the Province which merit favourable consideration.

10.24 p.m.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

I thank the Under-Secretary of State for his kind words addressed to me.

We are discussing something which, under the terms of the Bill to which we have just given a Second Reading, would be a transferred power. Normally discussion would have been delayed until debate could take place in the Assembly when the order comes into operation. Road safety and the various transport regulations which we are discussing would seem eminently suitable matters to be discussed by the Assembly.

The Opposition would have urged that course of action had it not been for the figures which have been given by the Under-Secretary of State. This total of 8,397 road casualties is bad enough, but it almost pales into insignificance beside the terrible and grotesque tragedies taking place as a result of civil disturbances. Yet it is a terrible statement of human suffering—widows, orphans, bodies maimed and shattered. There is a tremendous burden on the State in the maintenance of decent social relationships among people who have suffered as a result of road accidents. It is also a great burden on the health services. Therefore, everything we can do to minimise road accidents should be done.

If the regulations raise the standards of road safety, as we hope they will, by putting them on a par with those in this country, one hopes that we will not be discussing them only in the Northern Ireland context but in an all-Ireland context. Ireland is a small country divided into two States, and visitors are constantly crossing the border. This subject would be eminently suitable for a new Council of Ireland, helping to foster a degree of co-operation by both sides which could help to break down tensions and suspicions.

Tachographs introduce the ugly head of the EEC again. About the only thing I have in common with the hon. Member for Antrim North (Rev. Ian Paisley) is our mutual suspicion of the Treaty of Rome.

In these regulations, we are discussing a miscellaneous collection of orders which would amount in normal circumstances to a large Bill. Such a Bill would have to go to Committee for examination in detail. Again I can only reiterate what my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) said earlier—that we need a proper procedure in the House for discussing Northern Ireland legislation. It is not good enough that an item of legislation as important as this can go through without correction or amendment or proper discussion of many of its provisions.

Naturally, we support Article 3, which will allow to drive motor vehicles epileptics who are capable of having their terrible disease adequately controlled.

We also welcome the provision for vehicle testing. An interesting departure compared with this country is that a lot of the testing in Northern Ireland is to be done at Ministry centres and not at private garages. This will probably overcome many of the abuses which have occurred in many garages in this country where the MOT test has been perfunctorily carried out as a means of earning a quick buck for the garage owner. I emphasise that I am not making a general criticism of garage owners, many of whom are perfectly reputable. Nevertheless, one sees by the reduction in the number of garages entitled to make the tests that there has been considerable abuse. The Ministry of Transport in this country has come in for considerable criticism as a result of reducing the number of concessions, but its policy will be supported by all right-thinking people. One of the most terrible things that can happen to a driver is to drive his car having been hoodwinked into thinking that it has passed the MOT test when it has not, because its condition can result in an accident.

How many Ministry centres do the Government intend to establish, and where? How many registered qualified instructors are there to be? Over what sort of time-span do the Government see the 10-year test reducing to take in three-year-old vehicles? These are important questions about which we can reasonably ask for information, which can be given later if immediate replies are not possible.

Article 5 deals with "the spy in the cab", the tachograph. This will be introduced first for all new goods vehicles and all vehicles carrying dangerous liquids by 1976, and for all other goods vehicles by 1st January 1978. While we appreciate the need for proper safety the Minister should not forget the great amount of industrial unrest caused in this country by the proposal to introduce tachographs. I should be obliged if he can give some information about the degree of consultation which the Department has had with the trade unions concerned, which will primarily be my own union, the Transport and General Workers' Union, and its sister union, the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union.

The extension of the power of traffic wardens under Article 6 is inevitable and in some ways proper. We have not had any serious criticism of traffic wardens in carrying out their new role in England, although when it was first introduced there were adverse comments from those who preferred to be given a ticket or ticked off by the "bobby". Traffic wardens have played a noble and important part in recent troubles and it is fitting that we should pay tribute to them. I hope that the time will come when they are not needed to take the place of the ordinary RUC constable.

Article 7 raises the important point of road safety committees. In the past the road safety committee has been the responsibility of the local authority. Now this is to go to the Ministry which has announced that it will appoint local councils to deal with the subject. We are entitled to know to what extent the Ministry intends to influence the composition of these committees. How many of the Ministry's representatives will be replaced by the representatives of local authorities and other local bodies? How many will be straight representatives of the Department?

The Minister mentioned an increase in the number of officers concerned with road safety, making a grand total of 11. Is this sufficient in the light of the figures he gave us about road casualties? Surely there is need for much more road safety education in Ireland. While I appreciate the need to begin this education in the schools, I suggest that there is a need for it to go on in other social institutions and organisations.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim South)

I am not quite sure of the position in this country, but in Northern Ireland we are fortunate in having a great many voluntary road safety committees. It may be that the idea of the 11 appointees is that they should co-operate with the voluntary bodies. In my constituency there is a lot of this useful voluntary work.

Mr. McNamara

I appreciate that point. There is, however, a need to know how the Government committees will work and to what degree they will integrate with the local set-up. One of the powers contained in the order is that of the Minister to give money to local organisations to pursue road safety education policies. There may be a degree of danger in taking that power away from the local authority, where a local dignitary or councillor may be particularly interested in road safety, and putting it within the control of central Government where road safety might be one of the first services to be cut in a mini-Budget or in an attempt to cool down the economy.

The whole House will support the compulsory registration of driving instructors and the maintenance of high standards, as will all bona fide driving instructors.

In Article 10 we see an important change in the law which the Under-Secretary of State may agree to refer to his right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General for consideration in Committee on the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill. Under the new regulation it is possible to contest the evidence given by a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary on the identity of drivers, owners and users. This we welcome. This provision would also be welcomed by any person who is affected by the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill in regard to the admissibility of statements.

The Under-Secretary of State has referred to weighbridges, invalid carriages and miscellaneous matters dealt with by the order, and I will not refer to them in detail.

The Opposition welcome the order, look forward to the time when the matters it deals with will be discussed by the Northern Ireland Assembly and hope eventually that they will be the subject of discussion and agreement in an all-Irish Council.

10.37 p.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

We are discussing a matter of grave importance to the whole community in Northern Ireland. I congratulate the Minister on his sleeplessness. He is the Minister who is always here at our late night sittings.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara)—who has been elevated to the Front Bench to speak on Northern Ireland matters—underlined certain subjects of vital importance. While I disagree with him almost across the board, I pay tribute to him for making contributions in debates on non-controversial matters which affect the whole community, unlike some hon. Members who attend only on controversial issues and are not interested in matters which have to do with the general public.

As a minister of religion I have been called to some sad and frightening episodes on the roads in Northern Ireland, and in my congregation are people who have been maimed for life as a result of tragedies on the roads. The figures given by the Minister underline the size of this problem.

I pay tribute to the work of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents which has gone a good job in Northern Ireland. I also associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) concerning the useful work done by road safety committees. It is essential that we should deal with the issue of licences and take cognisance of the state of health of people who are issued with licences, but it is also essential to attend to matters which contribute to the hazards on our roads. These have to do with the actual state of roads in Northern Ireland and the lighting of them.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be happy to take up this matter with his hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence. My opinions of the British Army are well known in this House. But I must make one criticism. It is that Army vehicles without lights sometimes come out on to very dangerous intersections with no warning. This is very serious. When a driver goes over the Albert Bridge, there is a sign which is not even illuminated saying "Please put out your lights". If the driver does not see that sign and does not put out his lights, he is immediately blinded by a searchlight, called into the side of the road, and reprimanded by the military. This is a very dangerous area. It is the Short Strand area.

I am probably not very popular with the residents of the Short Strand area. I have been taken out of my car, put against a wall and searched simply because I was not prepared to put out my lights until I had passed the intersection of Ravenhill Road and Short Strand. It is a very dark corner, and it is impossible to see without lights.

There have been numerous accidents at night because of unlit ramps. One of my constituents was almost killed, together with two of her family. She happens to be a Roman Catholic constituent of mine. She ran into an obstacle in the road which was not illuminated. Her car was wrecked, and she and her two children could have been seriously injured.

I say this without criticism. I know that soldiers do not want to show lights or to identify themselves to snipers. But in areas where the Army is operating, due warning should be given to drivers so that they may take the necessary precautions.

I ask my hon. Friend to pay attention to some very dangerous intersections and T-junctions which are unmarked in any way. They too contribute to many deaths in Northern Ireland.

I comment now on the periods during which people may drive goods vehicles. I appreciate that some provision is made in the order. I have had a terrible tragedy in my own congregation where the young and capable driver of a Shell-Mex lorry lost his life because the driver of another goods vehicle had worked too long hours and had fallen asleep at the wheel. To avoid a greater calamity, this young man crashed his own lorry and was killed in order to preserve the people in the other lorry, the driver of which had fallen asleep. I am pleased that steps are being taken in law to see that the drivers of heavy goods lorries are not compelled to work hours detrimental to their health and their capability to control the vehicles that they drive.

I want to say a word about traffic wardens and to ask my hon. Friend whether he can give any information about tickets issued by wardens. Are summonses served upon members of the public who have committed offences? I happen to know from the Police Committee in Belfast that some time ago 600 tickets were outstanding because the police authorities were unable to serve summonses. At the same time, people living in areas which are policed suffered and paid the penalty. It is hardly fair that one section of the comunity should have the law rigorously applied while another section escapes the penalties simply because they live outside the area where the police operate.

I welcome the Minister's remarks about those who drive invalid carriages. I am pleased to hear of any concession which can be given to these unfortunate people. But will the hon. Gentleman underline his assurance that only uniformed policemen can stop vehicles upon Northern Ireland roads? It appears from the Act that officials of the Ministry may be able to do that—

Mr. Peter Mills

Perhaps I might clear that up straight away. Yes, only police in uniform can stop vehicles for roadside checks, but Ministry examiners will be able to do the work of examination. I think that this is important.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I fully accept that. I am happy with that assurance. It would be unwise for people who are not clearly identified as members of Her Majesty's security forces to have the right to stop vehicles on the public highway, especially at this time.

This order comes as the result of the Macrory Report, because we are abolishing another of the powers of the local county councils. As the county councils and the two county borough councils of Londonderry and Belfast are going out of existence, the licensing powers are being taken away. In many ways I reject the undemocratic system imposed on local government by the Macrory proposals, but I believe that the Ministry of Home Affairs is the right authority in Northern Ireland to deal with the issue of licences.

In general, I welcome the proposals that have been put forward, but I regret that we have not time to look more seriously at these matters and perhaps to offer amendments which would strengthen them in a constructive way. Unfortunately, we are bound by the present system. However, I look forward to the time when Ulstermen will be able to discuss these matters in a Parliament with real powers to legislate. It may be wishful thinking, but I hope that time will soon come.

11.47 p.m.

Mrs. Bernadette McAliskey (Mid-Ulster)

I imagine that if we were to stick to matters of road safety there would be little disagreement.

I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on his move to the Opposition Front Bench.

Having listened to the points made by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), I realise that these matters belong to the Ministry of Defence. I hope that the Under-Secretary will look into these matters and refer them to his right hon. Friend.

The Minister has given us figures for road accidents and casualties in Northern Ireland. Without seeming to make a political point—that is not my intention —may I ask whether he has figures showing Army involvement in road accidents, because from all sides of the political divide there have been allegations, with reasonable grounds, of what is tantamount to gross carelessness on the part of many members of the British Army when driving their vehicles.

While not agreeing with Army tactics in Northern Ireland, I accept that in times of bomb scares or civil disturbance its members have no choice but to drive their vehicles up one-way streets the wrong way or to drive without lights. But in normal circumstances, or as normal as they are, the Army must realise that it is bound by the same regulations as other road users. Its drivers must respect traffic light signals, speed limits, and all the other regulations by which civilians have to abide.

On defence, I should like to refer the hon. Gentleman to a check point in my constituency on the south side of Magherafelt which comprises a building about the size of a telephone kiosk. On my return from Parliament I have gone along that road and not seen the check point because it has no illumination—yet it stands, like a cenotaph, in the middle of the road. It is a miracle that no security officer has been killed by somebody driving straight into him.

The high figure for road accidents in Northern Ireland is not totally unrelated to the situation there. A particular problem in my constituency, a rural area, is that, with the necessity to seal off the entrances to towns, some roads become totally unsuitable for fast and heavy traffic. The part of my home town in which I live was, until the trouble began, a relatively quiet backwater, but has now become a main thoroughfare. Only a few days ago a child of seven was crossing the road to the corner shop to spend a few pennies—something that, a year ago, would have been perfectly safe —when she was seriously injured and is now seriously ill in hospital.

I appreciate that these routes still have to be used, but, since the police are currently overstretched, there is ground for the use of temporary traffic lights and for additional speed limits. I should like to see speed limits on ramps, which are a hazard in themselves, signs warning of the existence of children on the approaches to housing estates which are now being used as through roads, and perhaps more traffic lights on crossings.

On the main road between Cookstown and Omagh there is a new, very fast stretch which one might say is a credit to the local authority. But over the whole 26 miles of that stretch there is not one public telephone within a reasonable distance for road users. Therefore, if there is a serious accident on the road, the possibility of getting medical assistance is nil. One would then have to start looking, in a rural district, for a house with a telephone or a village with a public telephone. On many main roads communications do not keep up with road development.

I join in the general welcome to the order. As I said, if we stuck to matters like this, we should probably never disagree.

10.53 p.m.

Mr. Stanley R. McMaster (Belfast, East)

I agree that this is a long and complicated order. It is unfortunate that we should have to deal with it so late at night after a long and tiring debate on the vital constitutional Bill, when hon. Members are obviously tired and have not had time to consider all the elaborate provisions in the order with the care they deserve.

As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) said, it would perhaps have been wise, if it had been possible, to have delayed all, or as much as possible, of this measure for the new Assembly to consider. I appreciate his point about how the number of casualties could mount if there were too much delay, but as the Assembly is to be elected in six or eight weeks and we have been considering the affairs of Northern Ireland for 14 months, is it so urgent to deal with the matter now?

Mr. McNamara

The hon. Gentleman may have misunderstood. I said that, although this sort of matter would be part of the responsibilities of the Assembly, I considered that the order was so urgent that it should be dealt with now. On the hon. Gentleman's own arithmetic, even a delay of six to eight weeks until the election could result in 600 or 700 casualties. If we waited until the Assembly got down to these matters, which, on the prognostications of his hon. Friends, could take six to nine months, a very large number of people could be injured.

Mr. McMaster

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is right and that the effect of passing the order will be to reduce dramatically the number of road casualties, but I am not altogether optimistic about that because, as the hon. Lady the Member for Mid-Ulster (Mrs. McAliskey) said, accidents are caused by many factors which are not regulated by the order.

I should like to add my thanks and appreciation for the care and attention that my hon. Friend has taken over detailed matters such as this while he has been looking after the affairs of Northern Ireland. We very much appreciate that, but there is one matter in particular that I should like him to consider.

We appreciate the difficulties faced by the Army in carrying out its duties in Northern Ireland. and particularly the risks that its personnel run from snipers and other factors, but I have received complaints of accidents being caused by Army vehicles travelling in convoy not obeying ordinary traffic restrictions such as red traffic lights. One or two vehicles cross an intersection while the signal is at green, which then changes to red. Drivers on the other intersecting road start to move off, but find that they cannot get across because the remainder of the Army convoy is still on the move. That kind of situation adds to the casualty figures, and to avoid them the Army should, wherever possible, obey the ordinary rules of the road.

I am concerned about the provisions relating to the stopping of cars. Article 4 says: For section 29 of the principal Act there shall be substituted certain other sections, and subsection (3) of one of those sections says that an "authorised officer" means a constable, or an officer of the Ministry, who is authorised by the Chief Constable or the Ministry respectively for the purposes of this section. The purpose of that section is to permit such an authorised officer to stop a vehicle, but it appears from the wording of the order that it is not just a uniformed officer who is entitled to take such action. I know that my hon. Friend appreciates the importance of this provision in present circumstances, and I urge him to consider whether it should be amended.

That brings me to what I regard as the futility of the House debating the order. It contains important matters which we cannot amend. There is no way of amending the order. We have to take it or leave it. In my view the definition to which I have referred should be changed in order to cope with present circumstances.

I support what has been said about the improvements that have arisen from the application of the Macrory Report, resulting in the centralisation of the testing and licensing of vehicles, but another thought occurs to me on this question.

I accept the need for testing vehicles. One problem in Ulster is that "clapped-out" cars are used by terrorists for bomb planting and other unlawful purposes. Is my hon. Friend satisfied that there is still a sufficient number of garages to carry out the necessary repairs to vehicles which are found to be defective? I ask that because the terrorists have been making a special target of garages.

Has my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary conducted any survey of the facilities available so that this provision will not be unduly onerous in present circumstances in Ulster? Business people are facing sufficient difficulties as things are. This additional burden comes when circumstances may make it very difficult. Vehicles could be off the road for a considerable time, and people could suffer financial loss as a result. Has any thought been given to compensation for owners of commercial vehicles which are tested and found wanting but which cannot be repaired because of shortage of garage space and trained mechanics?

Regarding the provision relating to drivers, how many authorised instructors are there in Ulster? Is there a sufficient number to cope with these new requirements?

Has my hon. Friend given thought to any more fundamental changes? On occasional trips abroad I have been very impressed by the power of police, especially on the Continent, to stop people for minor traffic offences and to fine them on the spot. I note that road traffic wardens are to have their powers increased by the order. Spot fines have some merit. They save the time of courts. They can save much delay. I should have liked to see Northern Ireland going ahead of the rest of the United Kingdom in this respect, for instance, in the police fining a person for speeding or crossing white lines. If the offender did not like it he could use his power of appeal to the court, as is done by motorists on the Continent. But this system can save the time of motorists who have inadvertently committed an offence and the time of others.

If the order had been presented as a Bill, in the course of ordinary parliamentary events, it would have been possible for a new clause to be added to cover this matter. However, I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would deal with that matter.

11.3 p.m.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

I welcome the order, the provisions of which are urgently needed. I regret that this matter has to be dealt with by means of an Order in Council because there are so many important matters which ought to be considered at great length and in detail. That would have happened in the Stormont Parliament. We are faced tonight, as on other nights, with the fact that we are unable to have a discussion longer than 1½ hours and unable to table amendments to the order.

I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) in paying tribute to the road safety committees. Over the years, they have done a splendid job. The thanks of the House is due to them.

Road accidents in Northern Ireland are running at a shocking level which requires the order to go through as quickly as possible. I believe that driving in Northern Ireland has been deteriorating over the last few years because the police are no longer able to keep their eyes on drivers. They are overburdened with having to deal with terrorists and they do not have time to deal with people who are driving in a dangerous or careless manner. They are too busy investigating serious criminal offences. I know from experience in my constituency and in Belfast that drivers are behaving in a manner which would warrant a summons for dangerous driving.

I welcome the provisions dealing with invalid carriages which will bring the law into line with the law in the rest of the United Kingdom. I should like to see most laws which apply in Great Britain also applying in Northern Ireland, but I draw the line at the Industrial Relations Act, among others, which I should not like to see introduced into Northern Ireland in its present form. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) mentioned the question of the Common Market and of tachographs which are required to be installed in certain vehicles under Article 4(d) and (f). This is an issue on which people are bound to feel strongly and it is a matter which should have had the fullest possible discussion.

There is the question of employment of traffic wardens. It never was an offence in Northern Ireland to disobey the hand-signal of a warden, but the order brings the law in Northern Ireland into line with that of Great Britain on this point. The warden in Ulster will have the same rights in future as his counterpart in Great Britain to demand the name and address of a driver. This is a good move and will help the police upon whom heavy demands are being made in the present situation. Of course, wardens do not spend very much time now looking after traffic bays. I do not think there are any traffic bays left in Belfast now, although there may be a few. Cannot wardens be used to help the police in other ways? I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will look into that.

The provisions on driving instruction are welcome. I cannot understand why it has not been necessary in the past for driving instructors to have to register as in Great Britain. I am also curious to know what is the quality of driving instructors in Northern Ireland. Will my hon. Friend say something about that and tell us how many driving schools there are in Northern Ireland? We shall also wish to know whether there is a sufficient number of testing centres. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) was worried that the IRA was making a target of garages and no doubt it has blown up a number of garages. I hope that the IRA does not turn its attention to testing centres, because that would obviously present problems.

I have experienced the same problem as my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), who referred to the sign on the Albert Bridge Road requesting drivers to switch off their car lights. I did not see the sign, and the Army was pretty annoyed. Many drivers are presented with that problem on that road, and there may be other places in Northern Ireland where drivers cannot see the sign and therefore come up against the Army.

There should be some provision about container lorries. In North Down they travel considerable distances along the road past various little ports to go up into Belfast or into the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux). The Government should establish a ferry service at Donaghadee in my constituency, which would take a tremendous load off the roads. That would benefit not only other drivers but those who use the container lorries.

I hope that the Minister will look personally at the standard of roads in Northern Ireland and introduce improvements as quickly as possible.

11.12 p.m.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

I wish briefly to raise three administrative matters. With the reorganisation of local government there is centralisation of the various licensing functions, both driving licence and motor tax licensing, under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Will the existing county council offices remain as issuing offices? Will there be many redundancies, particularly in the ranks of the senior staff of those offices?

At present motor vehicles can be taxed at certain Crown post offices. They usually work out at three a county. The present system is a great benefit, because it brings the issuing offices within easy reach of people in the various areas. Will these local facilities be maintained under the new set-up?

I turn next to the question of driving licence applications made by persons whose fitness to drive is open to question. It has been the practice for the finance and law committees of the county councils to vet such applications and make recommendations to the county council in full session. The final decision was thus made by the elected representatives. Is the function now to be transferred and performed by officers of the Ministry of Home Affairs?

Others have said that the order contains many matters of importance to various interests in Northern Ireland. I have received some representations from constituents. Many of them have taken the view that little can be done under an Order in Council procedure to secure changes in matters of substance. I content myself with drawing the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister to the purely administrative matters I have raised in this short debate.

11.14 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills

We have had an interesting debate on these very important matters. If I do not cover every point made, I assure hon. Members that I shall write to them. It is difficult to cover off the cuff every point made in a debate lasting one-and-a-half hours.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) for welcoming the order and for many of the wise comments he made. As hon. Members have pointed out, this is a matter for the new Assembly, but there are one or two urgent reasons why it should be brought before the House now. One is the provisions stemming from the reorganisation of local government, which comes into effect on 1st October. It is important that the necessary amendments to legislation should be made before that date. Secondly, we are trying to bring the law in Northern Ireland into line with that in Great Britain.

Several of these matters relate to road safety, and, therefore, it is important that we should get them right. Time is not on our side. There are many things which should be done urgently now. If we wait for the new Assembly to be set up, it may be some time before what is required becomes operational. It is, therefore, important that we should get on with the task. If we save one life by dealing with the matter now instead of waiting for the setting up of the Assembly, it will be worth while. The casualty figures which I have given show an appalling loss of life. I probably travel more miles in the Province than any other Minister, and may I say, without being rude to Northern Ireland, that the number of cars which I have seen abandoned by the road or in a terrible state shows the need for taking steps to tighten up matters.

I agree with what has been said about the social consequences. We talk about the consequences of terrorism, which are bad enough, but the social consequences of the casualties on the roads are also very serious.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North mentioned the question of liaison between the north and south. Valuable exchanges of information can take place between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland on such matters as accidents, speed limits, drink and driving, and teaching aids for road safety education.

I take the point which the hon. Gentleman made about the peculiar instruments called tachographs. We have not had any consultation about this matter, but I promise the hon. Gentleman that we shall ensure that there is full consultation with the unions about it.

I am told that there are 15 testing centres. There will be an additional 16 examiners initially for annual testing of private cars. It would be unwise at this stage to forecast when tests will be extended to cover three-year-old cars, but we shall have to move towards this in time.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) referred to the road safety committees. There are four of them at the moment, and the number will be gradually increased to perhaps 30 or more. The expenditure of the committees will be borne by the Ministry.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North also spoke about the state of the roads. The Province is concerned with all sorts of other matters and cannot get on with many of the tasks it would like to do. However, I take his point, and I am sure that the Ministry concerned will note what he and other hon. Members have said. I was interested when the hon. Gentleman, who is a spiritual minister, talked about a sudden shaft of light. My mind went back to the accounts which I have heard of others being blinded by a tremendous shaft of light. Certainly we will look into that matter.

In Northern Ireland lorry drivers are allowed to drive for 11 hours. We hope that it will come down to 10 hours and will be reduced gradually to meet the EEC standard of eight hours. There is nothing worse than driving a heavy lorry when very tired. I have had that experience. We must watch that matter carefully.

Reference was made to traffic wardens and the number of tickets which they serve and the amount of money which has not been collected. We try to do our best to ensure that the money is collected, but there are problems.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mrs. McAliskey) because I think that this is the first time in the House that she has agreed with something which I have said. That is a pleasant thing to happen. She welcomed what we are trying to do. The Army has a difficult job to do in difficult circumstances. While it is easy to blame the Army for a lot of accidents, that is not the true position. The Army tries to be as careful as possible and instruction is given how Army vehicles should be driven. I promise the hon. Lady that we will try to give the figures and the numbers of casualties caused as a direct result of the security forces. We will look into the question of the check point which she mentioned. As I have said, the Ministry concerned with roads will take note of what has been said.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) said that there was not enough time to deal with these matters and that it would have been better had the matter been referred to the Assembly. I hope that I have answered that point clearly. If we can save one life or one casualty it is worth while dealing with the order now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East mentioned the manner of the Army's driving. I must point out that a driver of a military vehicle in some areas will not want to hang about. I have been out on patrol and I have prayed hard that the driver will put his foot down hard. It is not pleasant to idle or to toddle around certain areas of Belfast. We must realise the difficulties which the Army faces.

I think that the power to stop vehicles has been misunderstood. The effect of Article 29C(5) is that, although the Ministry examiners will have power to examine defective cars, they will not have the power to stop private cars. That will be done only by uniformed officers. They will try to work as a team. The uniformed constables will stop the cars and the qualified examiner will do the examining. I am sure that is right.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) about the general standard of driving in Northern Ireland at present. During the long journeys which I have undertaken I have been utterly terrified. Of course, the police are doing other jobs. It is difficult for the police to carry out all their obligations. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right about traffic wardens relieving the burden of the police and the RUC. It would be a good thing if we could get the wardens to take over some of the work carried out by the police and the R.U.C.

My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) asked about the rôle of county staffs in licensing. They will act as agents. Crown post offices will continue with the work they are doing now in licensing. I hope I have convinced the House that there is a sense of urgency about this matter. I want to see the order get under way as quickly as possible so that lives and casualties can be saved in Northern Ireland.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Road Traffic (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1973, a draft of which was laid before this House on 10th May, be approved.