HC Deb 24 May 1976 vol 912 cc188-202

11.18 p.m.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. J. D. Concannon)

I beg to move, That the Road Traffic (Drivers' Ages and Hours of Work) (Northern Ireland) Order 1976 (S.I., 1976, No. 581), a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th April, be approved. This Order is a parity measure which corresponds to the Road Traffic (Drivers' Ages and Hours of Work) Act 1976, which extended only to Great Britain and which recently received Royal Assent. The Order amends the minimum ages for driving certain classes of motor vehicles in Northern Ireland and gives the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland wider powers to make regulations about drivers' hours. These changes enable the Northern Ireland law on these matters to conform to the requirements of EEC Regulation No. 543 of 1969. The Order has been made by the "urgent" procedure because the provision of that Regulation relating to minimum drivers' ages came into force for internal journeys within the United Kingdom on 1st January 1976 and it is, therefore, desirable that Northern Ireland law should be brought into conformity with the minimum delay.

Article 1 of the Order makes provision for its coming into force. The provisions of the Order relating to changes in minimum driving ages have a limited retrospection to 1st January 1976, which is the date of the application of the EEC Regulation. Originally it was envisaged that the provisions for the harmonisation of the Northern Ireland minimum driving age legislation with Article 5 of the EEC Regulation would be brought into operation on that day, and a supply of amended driving licences was ordered for that date. However, harmonisation on 1st January 1976 did not prove possible, and the retrospective provisions are therefore required to validate the licences already issued in the new form. The provisions relating to drivers' hours will come into operation on a future date to be appointed by the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland.

Article 3 of the Order deals with changes in the minimum driving age and substitutes a new section for Section 2 of the Road Traffic Act (Northern Ireland) 1970. The effect is that anyone below the specified minimum age for the various categories of vehicles will be disqualified from holding a licence. The new provisions, however, apply only to first applicants for a licence. The main effect of the substitution will fall on 17-year-olds, who on first licensing will be restricted to driving goods vehicles not exceeding 3.5 metric tons permissible maximum weight—about 30 cwt unladen—instead of their present entitlement of 3 tons unladen. Persons between the ages of 18 to 21 will on first licensing be restricted to goods vehicles not exceeding 7.5 metric tons permissible maximum weight instead of their present entitlement of 3 tons unladen.

Where passenger vehicles are concerned, new drivers under 21 years of age will be limited to nine seaters including the driver. At present, under Northern Ireland law such persons are entitled to drive passenger vehicles up to 3 tons unladen weight irrespective of their seating capacity, subject of course to the overriding requirements which apply should the vehicle in question be used to carry passengers for hire or reward. No one over 21 years of age will be affected at all.

The opportunity is also being taken to revise the threshold for the heavy goods vehicle driver licensing scheme from its present 3 tons unladen weight limit to 7.5 metric tons permissible maximum weight. Schedule 2, however, contains provisions which safeguard existing entitlements.

Articles 4 and 5 of the Order deal with drivers' hours and take account of the relevant provisions of EEC Regulation 543/69. My hon. Friend the Minister for Transport has already explained to the House during the passage of the Road Traffic (Drivers' Ages and Hours of Work) Bill the United Kingdom position on this Regulation. Application has been deferred until 1st July 1976 and the Commission is preparing proposals for the amendment of the Regulation itself which, it is hoped, will provide for a further period of deferment.

Drivers' hours entitlements in Northern Ireland are governed by the Road Traffic Act (Northern Ireland) 1970 and permit an 11-hour driving day as against the 10 hours applicable in Great Britain. I should mention at this point that action is in hand to bring the maximum driving day in Northern Ireland into line with the standard 10 hours in Great Britain. Article 4 therefore provides power for the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland to ensure capatibility between the 1970 Act and the EEC Regulation and to extend the enforcement provisions of the 1970 Act to any directly applicable Community provisions. This article also makes provision for supplementary and consequential provisions particularly in relation to record-keeping.

Article 5 extends the jurisdiction of courts to try summarily prosecutions for the contravention of the drivers' hours and record requirements of the 1970 Act. At present in Northern Ireland such offences are dealt with under the Magistrates' Courts Act (Northern Ireland) 1964, which provides for offences of this nature to be dealt with by a court of summary jurisdiction sitting in the county or county borough in which the offence was committed or in which the defendant resides. This article overcomes difficulties which can arise under existing powers by providing that proceedings can be instituted in a court with jurisdiction for a place where the person charged was driving when evidence first came to light, the place where the offender is or where he resides when proceedings are commenced, or the place where the offender normally resides.

I commend the Order to the House.

11.25 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

A number of questions arise on this Order and perhaps I might put them successively to the Minister in the hope that he may have the opportunity to respond.

As the Order shows upon the face of it, it is being debated after it has been brought into force because we are operating under the urgency provisions. But I was not clear how the urgency had arisen. The Minister appeared to say that in some respects the things for which the Order provides were already in force since 1st January.

So far as Great Britain goes, there has been an Act of Parliament which received Royal Assent on 25th March, so that Great Britain managed to survive from 1st January to 25th March until the proper legislative procedures were gone through. I am not clear, therefore, why the remaining three or four weeks until the Order could be considered before its implementation by the House were so vitally urgent.

I appreciate that other provisions, as I understand it, of the Order come into force on 15th April and that it is obviously desirable that they should come into force simultaneously in all parts of the United Kingdom. Clearly 15th April was urgent in respect to the date of 13th April, on which I see the Order was made. Had the Order, however, been made no earlier than Royal Assent to the Great Britain Bill, which is reproduced by the Order, there would have been no need on that ground for the urgency procedure to have been applied and we could have debated the Order in the due manner.

I make something of this point because the whole House would agree that, while it is clearly necessary under this procedure that there should be some provision for genuine urgency requirements, we should be especially vigilant to ensure that urgency is not claimed unless a strong case can be made for it. I do not believe, if I have fully understood what the Minister of State said, that he has succeeded in making the case for urgency in any natural sense of the term.

In that connection, I was even more puzzled when I thought I heard the hon. Gentleman say that the Order would enable licences to be validated which have been in issue since 1st January.

Mr. Concannon

indicated assent.

Mr. Powell

The Minister assents that I have not misunderstood him. If that is the case, are we to understand that for the last three or four months, people not just in Northern Ireland but in Great Britain, where the Act did not receive Royal Assent before 25th March, have been going around with invalid licences? That is an alarming state of affairs. While clearly it must be put right, it seems to me to require some more explicit recognition of the exceptional circumstances in which we have had invalid licences for three or four months without being able to know anything more about it than has so far been vouchsafed by the Government.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I expect that you, like other hon. Members, have read the Order with the schedules and done your best to relate it to the previous legislation. I do not conceive that you have found this a very enjoyable occupation or that any other hon. Member has done so who has attempted it. There is a general prejudice against what is called legislation by reference. Yet we all know that a good deal of legislation by reference is both unavoidable and convenient. But there can rarely have been a more disagreeable example of complicated legislation by reference than this Order. Both in the body of the Order and in the schedules, the user must go to vast trouble to amend the existing legislation to discover what will be the law after the Order.

Although there may be circumstances in which legislation of this kind, even of this complexity, is justified, I urge that, for legislation governing such matters as drivers' hours and the age of drivers entitled to drive certain types of vehicle, it is particularly desirable that he who drives may read. If firms are wise, they will in circumstances of doubt seek the advice of a solicitor, but on the whole we want to make Orders and pass laws which will be broadly intelligible to people who are to be bound by them. It would be a bold advocate of such Orders who would say that those who were to be bound by them would find them readily intelligible.

There is another circumstance which further aggravates the question of legislation by reference. I want to illustrate what I mean by referring the Minister of State to paragraph (2) of Article 3—or, rather, paragraph (2) of the new Article 2 to which effect is given by Article 3 of the Order. That paragraph gives the Department—not the Secretary of State—power by Regulations to provide for totally different classes of vehicle and corresponding ages from those enacted in Article 1, paragraph (1), of the Order or in the corresponding section of the Great Britain Act.

That presents two difficulties. First, it is unnatural that Parliament should enact a series of limitations on ages and types of vehicle and should in the next provision apparently endow the Secretary of State with the right to replace those provisions by anything he thinks fit. I hope that the Minister of State will be able to explain the reason for such an apparently wide and remarkable dispensing provision being given to the Minister in Great Britain and to the Department in Northern Ireland.

It may well be that the intention is to use this regulation power only for certain specific purposes and within certain limits. If so, I hope that those specific purposes and limits will be made clear so that they are on the record. That would be a help. Nevertheless, I still say that it is not right that powers for subordinate legislation was more general than are required for what is to be done and for the purposes which are to be served should be conferred by statute.

So much for the general point which applies to the Order and to the Great Britain legislation. In the case of Northern Ireland, this is a regulation-making power within a regulation-making power. In Great Britain, those aggrieved by the Regulations which the Minister in Great Britain may make can pray against them. If they believe that he is abusing or exceeding the intentions or proper use of the power, they can initiate a debate in the House. We in Northern Ireland cannot do that, because, as this is a regulation within an Order in Council, there is no power to challenge it and, short of the report of the scrutineer—that industrious scrutineer whose proper title escapes me for the moment but whose first five reports have now happily been published and placed in the hands of hon. Members—we have no redress. Therefore, this regulation-making power hits us even more anomalously in Northern Ireland than it hits those who will be affected by it in Great Britain.

While I am referring to Article 3 of the Order, perhaps I may put a point of detail, of which, I confess, I have failed to give the Minister of State notice, on the wording of the proposed new Article 2. It refers to a person holding or obtaining either a driving licence "or a provisional licence", whereas in the corresponding Great Britain provision I find no reference to a provisional licence. It may be that there is here some difference in Northern Ireland draftsmanship, but I find it surprising that there should be this anomaly between the two parts of the United Kingdom. Perhaps the Minister of State will be able to clear that up.

The Minister of State made it clear that the object with hours of work in both parts of the United Kingdom was to enable the new law of the EEC to come into effect on 1st July. Could he elaborate a little more on the distinction between the EEC law which is to come into effect throughout the United Kingdom on 1st July and those parts of that law not yet in effect that we hope to cause to be amended?

I think that there is some confusion between the 10-hour stipulation and the 8-hour stipulation, if I may so describe them. I understand, but the Minister of State will correct me if I am wrong, that the 10-hour requirement will come into force as from 1st July, but that we are opposing a further reduction of that period, at any rate for the foreseeable future.

There is another technical matter. It is whether the new Regulations involve the tachograph and the mechanical recording of driver's hours and running of vehicles. Perhaps the Minister of State will make it clear whether these Regulations will enable the tachograph to be brought into force in Northern Ireland. I hope that that is not the case, but certainly there are many in Northern Ireland who are under the apprehension that these Regulations will have that effect. I hope that the Minister of State will make clear whether that is so. He will be aware that with the sea link and the sea journey there are certain complications in the working of mechanical monitors which would not apply within Great Britain.

Finally, does the distinction between international and internal journeys, which has been reproduced in the Order from the Great Britain Act, include as international journeys journeys between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic?

I apologise both to the House and to the Minister of State for having thrown at him a whole series of detailed questions, but this is a difficult Order to interpret by any construction and it will nevertheless directly affect and create penalties and offences for a potentially very large number of citizens of Northern Ireland. It is, therefore, no more than right that we should seek to understand exactly what the Order is bringing into effect.

11.39 p.m.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Hon. Members from Northern Ireland and, indeed, hon. Members representing other constituencies will want to make their points in the limited time available to us, and I shall confine my remarks to Article 4 concerning drivers' hours of duty. The Minister of State said that this was a parity measure. It is also, I suppose, a harmonisation measure for the European Community.

In Northern Ireland the 11-hour driving day is to be brought down to the 10 hours prevailing in Great Britain. The EEC Regulation—543/69—lays down eight hours instead of the British 10 hours. Here the ball is, I gather, still in play, but when the EEC Regulation comes into force—is it, as the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) said, 1st July?—I suppose that the Department of the Environment of Northern Ireland will have no power to vary the hours of the driving day, whatever the views of those affected in the Province may be. Excessive hours at the wheel are a hardship to drivers and a danger on the road, but I wonder what the trade union view on all this is. Has it been expressed to the Northern Ireland Office? The point raised by the right hon. Member for Down, South about the tachograph is also of concern to the workers in the industry.

Consideration must also be given to the effect of this Statutory Instrument on the Northern Ireland economy. High fuel and transport costs already bear very heavily. The Belfast-Heysham ferry, which was the subject of debate in the House, is closed. The road journey from Lame to Stranraer is considerably longer and takes more than eight hours. Drivers are compelled to make an overnight stay. If this time limit is imposed, as I suppose it will be, higher prices will result for animal feeding stuffs and other basic feeding stuffs in Northern Ireland. I wonder what calculation has been made of the economic consequences of this measure.

11.42 p.m.

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

I am in some sympathy with the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), who questioned the way in which the Order had been brought before the House. Since the imposition of direct rule—we have been told by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that it is positive direct rule—one would hope that many of the problems which have been brought about by direct rule have been eased, to the satisfaction of Northern Ireland and its Members. However, the Order says on the face of it: by reason of urgency … this Order requires to be made". I reinforce what was said by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison). What discussions have taken place with the trade union movement in Northern Ireland? I hope that I and certain Opposition Members, being elected representatives from Northern Ireland, would be aware of the trade union viewpoint on the matter. I hope that the Order was not brought before the House without any discussion having taken place.

It may be that the legislation which is in force in Great Britain is entirely suitable, but Northern Ireland is a much smaller land mass than we have in Great Britain and the restricted hours of driving envisaged by the Order may not be totally suitable to that geographical area. I ask again: have discussions taken place?

It is important that the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should be drawn to the disquiet which is being expressed in certain circles in Northern Ireland about the effects of direct rule and about how these matters are brought before the House. I understand that in Northern Ireland tonight there is a meeting of the UUUC in Glengall Street at the party headquarters, and sentiments have been expressed that within a few hours that party will tell this Parliament that it will take direct action—

Mr. Powell

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Without wishing to be captious with a fellow Northern Ireland Member, may I suggest not only that the question that the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) has just raised cannot possibly be relevant to the subject matter of the Order but that, while subjects are sometimes raised which are slightly outside the scope of debate, it could not possibly be in the public interest that matters of which no one in the House is fully informed should be brought into debate in this way.

Mr. Fitt

I was merely illustrating—and, indeed, to some extent was agreeing with the right hon. Gentleman—the dissatisfaction of hon. Members from Northern Ireland about the way this Order was introduced. I was also illustrating—the Minister must be aware of this, because it is common knowledge tonight—that other people in Northern Ireland are objecting to direct rule and have taken direct action against the Government. It is so important that I understand that the hon. Member for Antrim. North (Rev Ian Paisley), who I thought would have been here tonight, has issued a statement saying that tomorrow he intends to seek the support of the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave)—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

Order. When the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) raised his point of order, I had not heard exactly what line the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) was intending to take, but having heard the hon. Gentleman further I must ask him to desist from that lie and confine himself to the terms of the Order.

Mr. Fitt

I shall comply with your direction, Mr. Deputy Speaker. But I think that what has been happening in Northern Ireland tonight highlights the situation. I am prepared to co-operate in any way I can with the Government, including their introduction of Orders such as this, but there are others in Northern Ireland who are not prepared to cooperate and, indeed, are prepared to engage in direct confrontation with the Government.

On the face of its there are no grounds for objecting to the Order, but I should like to hear whether the Government have engaged in discussions with those who will be affected. I should like to be assured that this is the case with any other Orders that are brought forward.

11.43 p.m.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

I understand that the Order has the general approval and consent of those who represent the people who run the road haulage industry in Northern Ireland, but, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), I am given to understand that many queries and points need clarification. I am sure that the team of Ministers at the Department will do their best to establish a forum and method of making readily available information and the interpretation of many of the regulations listed in what my right hon. Friend has called a most complicated piece of legislation. I am sure that the Minister will deal with the point raised by my right hon. Friend.

I take the liberty of raising one point which, I feel, is of some substance. It comes under Article 3, dealing with the training scheme and the training centre for drivers. The main training school is situated on the former airport at Nutts Corner and discharges its traffic on to the B101 road, which is one of the main arteries from the present Belfast Airport to Belfast, particularly to the south of the city, and Lisburn.

It has been put to me—and I have confirmed it by personal observation—that considerable traffic congestion is being caused on this road because the training vehicles, mostly lorries of very great length, tend to use that section of the road. Both branches of that road consist of very narrow, hilly, country roads, and at many points visibility is greatly restricted.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) drew my attentioin to matters which were not directly in order. We are discussing the Road Traffic (Drivers' Ages and Hours of Work) Order; we are not discussing the subject matter that the hon. Gentleman is now raising.

Mr. Molyneaux

Article 3(5) quite clearly states that 'training scheme for drivers' means a scheme for training persons to drive vehicles of a class in relation to which the age which is in force under this section but apart from any such scheme is 21 years. Article 3(6) states that No approved training scheme for drivers shall be amended without the approval of the Department. I submit, with respect, that it is asking a little too much of the Minister to expect him to exercise that function in amending the scheme and the regulations if he does not have the benefit of the advice of the elected representatives from Northern Ireland.

It is in that context that I make the point to the Minister that the very restricted road leading from the training centre—for which the Minister will by this Order now be directly responsible—is too narrow for the traffic it has to carry, even as things stand, without the addition of five or six articulated lorries.

On a previous occasion when travelling in the direction of the centre, I encountered no fewer than five articulated vehicles on a stretch of one and a half miles of that road, and each of those vehicles had a queue of ordinary vehicles behind it, endeavouring to overtake. This, quite naturally, was creating a traffic hazard. I am sure that the Minister, as Minister of State responsible for the environment, would not wish to add to the hazards already existing in Northern Ireland—hazards which exist to perhaps a greater extent than in many other parts of the United Kingdom.

I never speak of problems here if I am not in a position to suggest a remedy. The remedy which I modestly suggest is that if four of every five vehicles were to turn left they would come, in about 500 yards, to what is reputed to be the largest roundabout in Northern Ireland—a roundabout for which, again, the Minister's Department is directly responsible. They would have the choice of no fewer than six main roads, and if they were to select any one of them the drivers could obtain a wide variety of experience of rural and city traffic.

In this way the Minister of State would earn the gratitude and the good will of all the other road users in Northern Ireland and would contribute in no small way to improving the standards of road safety in Northern Ireland, which, I assume, is the real purpose of the establishment of the drivers' training centre to which the Order refers.

11.54 p.m.

Mr. Concannon

With the permission of the House, I shall endeavour to answer the points which have been put to me. As to those put by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), the emergency procedure in regard to the EEC Regulation relating to drivers' ages arises from the coming into operation on 1st January 1976 of the provisions of Article 5 of EEC Regulation 543/69. By virtue of Article 189 of the Treaty of Rome, as enumerated in Section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972, the EEC Regulation took effect notwithstanding the provisions of domestic legislation.

The Regulation, however, is not comprehensive in that it applies only to certain classes of vehicle and people in Northern Ireland. To avoid any confusion which would arise from this position, it was thought best to revoke all existing domestic driving entitlements and to express those remaining in the EEC entitlements under this draft Order. It has caused some difficulty. We had hoped that all these would come together before the starting date. But certain things went a little wrong on this, and the harmonisation has now to take effect on a retrospective basis.

Mr. Powell

Is it only in Northern Ireland that there has been this anticipation, as it were, of a change in our own law, or does it apply to the whole of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Concannon

With the EEC Regulation coming in for the whole of the United Kingdom from 1st January, I assume that with Royal Assent not coming until 25th March, similar difficulties have been encountered elsewhere.

As for Article 3(2), the purpose is to provide power to make Regulations varying the classes of vehicles and the ages assigned to them without the need for further primary legislation each time an EEC Regulation modifies the age provision of Article 5. This follows a similar provision in the Road Traffic (Drivers' Ages and Hours of Work) Act 1976, and the procedure will enable Northern Ireland to follow speedily any changes in Great Britain's driver licensing law. This is, in effect, to give us power to implement as quickly as possible any further EEC Regulations in this respect which may come along.

With regard to drivers' hours, I said in opening that application had been deferred until 1st July 1976. The Commission is preparing proposals for the amendment of the Regulation itself, which it is hoped will provide a further period of deferment. As the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) said, the ball is still in the air.

The 1970 Act in Northern Ireland permits 11 hours' driving in Northern Ireland. Consultations have been taking place with all the bodies concerned in Northern Ireland, and we shall consider the points which have been made to us when we are thinking of reducing the period to 10 hours.

As for the other point in Article 3 concerning provisional licences, although there are drafting differences between the Great Britain Act and the Northern Ireland Order there is no difference between them in their effect on a person disqualified from holding a driving licence or a provisional licence.

I am pleased to say that tachographs are not affected by the Order. The EEC Regulation came into operation for internal journeys in the United Kingdom on 1st January 1976. However, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport advised the House, the Government have told the Commission that it is impractical for the United Kingdom to meet this timetable.

Transport journeys betwen Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are international journeys within the context of the EEC Regulation and, therefore, are subject to the restriction on driving time of eight hours per day.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) raised some issues which have been the subject of rumour. I can assure my hon. Friend that if anyone breaks the law in Northern Ireland it is a matter for the police.

I have taken on board the matters referred to by the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux). I shall look at them seriously to see whether anything can be done about his suggestions.

With those few remarks, I commend the Order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Road Traffic (Drivers' Ages and Hours of Work) (Northern Ireland) Order 1976 (S.I., 1976, No. 581), a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th April, be approved.