HC Deb 13 January 1981 vol 996 cc945-60

Motion made and Question proposed, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) Regulations 1980 (S.I., 1980, No. 1734), dated 14th November 1980, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th November 1980 in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled—[Mr. Booth.]

Mr. Speaker

I understand that it is in the interests of the House to discuss with the motion, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Heavy Goods Vehicles (Drivers' Licences) (Amendment) Regulations 1980 (S.I., 1980, No. 1733), dated 14th November 1980, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th November 1980 in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled.

10.18 pm
Mr. Roger Stott (Westhoughton)

I wish to associate myself with the congratulations offered to the Secretary of State for Transport on his elevation to the Cabinet. A Transport Minister should be in that position. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks earlier today, which I assume were directed at me.

For the convenience of the House we propose to deal with the two sets of regulations in a single debate because they are interlocking and consequential. I believe that the Government have no objection to our doing so. One of the more unseemly characteristics of the Government is their increasing habit of annunciating policy and laying orders—both of which have far-reaching consequences on the lives of ordinary citizens—either during a parliamentary recess or by furtively slipping them out at the eleventh hour by way of an answer to an inspired parliamentary question.

The regulations may appear innocuous, but they raise an important issue of principle and the Opposition felt that the Government should justify in debate their reasons for laying them and the consequences that will flow from them.

We are not alone in wanting to question the Government on this issue. The Select Committee on Statutory Instruments recently issued a report that stated: the Committee draw the special attention of both Houses to the above Instruments on the ground that the need for making them requires elucidation. We, too, want the Government to elucidate their reasons for making the regulations.

Why were the orders necessary in the first place? Last November the Fire Brigades Union was engaged in discussions with the employers about a pay claim. Because of the Government's policy on cash limits it seemed at the time that the firemen were unlikely to get, their previously agreed increase. The Fire Brigades Union called, successfully, for a full national strike. Fortunately, the Government and the local authorities backed off and conceded the justifiable claim of the firemen. The national strike was averted.

During that time, however, the Government, including the Secretary of State for Transport, were formulating their contingency plans to deal with the strike. Although it did not materialise, the Secretary of State laid the regulations which subsequently came into operation bestowing permanent powers that could be used under section 6 of the Emergency Powers Act 1964 in accordance with the Defence (Armed Forces) Regulations 1939.

The effect of the regulations is that a person aged 17 serving in the Armed Forces may drive any vehicle to carry out urgent work of national importance without having to hold a heavy goods vehicle licence. In civilian life such a licence is obligatory in the interests of road safety and may not be held by persons under the age of 21.

Far from being limited to short-term needs in respect of a particular dispute, the regulations are sweeping and contain permanent powers, unprecedented in peace time. They raise major issues concerning the use of the Armed Forces in civilian disputes. No one wishes to see unnecessary loss of life or property during a dispute involving the fire services. All hon. Members will pay tribute to the firemen for their conscientious and courageous service, just as we pay it to the members of the Armed Forces who took great risks during the previous firemen's dispute. However, the Government are seeking to take advantage of the atmosphere of agreement that exists between the parties, and in so doing are playing a dangerous political game with the Armed Forces and with road safety.

I do not doubt that the Under-Secretary of State, with his usual innocent face, will attempt to play down the effect of the regulations in presenting them to the House. He will no doubt argue that they merely close loopholes in long-standing practice. The House should not be deceived, however, by his amiable manner or soothing words. We believe that the Government are clearly attempting to introduce into law what might be entitled "The Permanent Aimed Forces (Strike-breaking) Charter" at the expense of working people involved in legitimate industrial disputes, of the reputation of the Armed Forces, and of road safety.

The House should be clear about the practical effects of the regulations. We are not discussing just the driving of fire appliances or similar vehicles as fire-fighting tenders, as was the case during the last firemen's dispute, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Stockton (Mr. Rodgers) introduced concise and specific regulations. These regulations specify that members of the Armed Forces will be allowed to drive any vehicle—presumably commercial vehicles and public buses, as well as emergency appliances—that the Defence Council can commandeer during an emergency and that they may be driven by 17-year-old Service men.

I was not born in 1926, when the General Strike took place, but I know the lasting resentment felt by millions of working people at vehicles being commandeered by the Armed Forces to break a peace-time dispute.

Nor are we talking only of experienced soldiers who are trained to drive heavy goods vehicles. The Under-Secretary may claim that all personnel will be trained to Army standards, but the fact remains that a 17-year-old with little experience will be able to drive any vehicle on the roads. Can we realistically be expected to accept that a youngster of that age, by definition with little experience, is fit to be let loose in any vehicle, on any road, at any time of the day or night, supervised not by civilian authorities or experienced driving instructors but by the Defence Council under the regulations of 1939?

During the Christmas Recess I read the Official Report of the road safety debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill. In an excellent debate, the Under—Secretary made a notable speech. The hon. Gentleman is sincerely committed to road safety, but his credibility will be seriously diminished in the eyes of many of us if he is a party to setting loose on the unsuspecting civilian population vehicles of any size driven by young Service men hardly out of school.

One is right to wonder how many more surreptitious regulations the Government are considering introducing if there is further industrial action in the public sector. Many Government Members would, at the drop of a hat, advocate sending in the troops in any industrial dispute. It is clear from the powers in the regulations that the Secretary of State has acquiesced in the demands of some of the more reactionary elements in his party. Harmless though these regulations may appear, they are lethal in effect.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) asked the Secretary of State, in a written question what organisations he had consulted in preparing the regulations. The right hon. Gentleman replied: The following organisations were consulted by telephone on the morning of 14 November: AA, RAC, RoSPA, TGWU, United Road Transport Union, Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, NUR, General and Municipal Workers Union—[Official Report, 15 December 1980; Vol. 996, c. 92.] and so on.

Those organisations were asked for their view by a civil servant who rang up, read the regulations over the telephone, and asked whether they objected to short-term measures to enable young Service men to drive emergency service vehicles in the event of a firemen's strike. All the organisations listed by the Secretary of State were given half an hour or so to give their agreement to the regulations. This was on the morning of 14 November last. By midnight the regulations were signed and in force. Some consultation!

The reactions of those organisations were fairly predictable. The comment of Mr. Jackson Moore was reported in The Times on 15 November. Mr. Jackson Moore is the general secretary of the United Road Transport Union, and he said that the regulations were swingeing powers beyond what the Ministry of Transport has ever had. Mr. Smith, who is the executive officer of the Transport and General Workers' Union, in a letter to Mr. Terry Parry, who was at that time the chairman of the TUC, had this to say about the regulations: I have objected in the strongest terms to the misuse of law to allow persons under the age of 21 to drive these vehicles on the public highway; that our laws were designed to protect the general public and other road users and enforced a minimum age limit and other limitations in the interests of road safety. … Notwithstanding the fact that such persons already drive such vehicles with the Armed Services, to use them in these circumstances in built-up areas is not in the interests of the general public and other road users. The other organisations—I have spoken to them—were under the impression that the Secretary of State wished to take powers similar to those taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stockton during the previous firemen's dispute. But there is a great difference between the present regulations and those laid by my right hon. Friend. The regulations made by the Labour Government were limited and specific. For the sake of greater accuracy, I have obtained a copy, and I now quote from them the relevant reference: Vehicles which are designed for fire fighting or fire salvage purposes and which are the property of, or for the time being under the control of, the Secretary of State for Defence, when being driven by a member of the armed forces of the Crown. That was specific and limited, and no age whatever was mentioned. It is plain, therefore, that the Government have been rumbled. By introducing these regulations they are preparing the ground for a confrontation with public sector unions which may decide, for whatever reason, to take industrial action.

The Opposition strongly object to these regulations. They are quite exceptional, giving permanent powers. They are unnecessary, they are damaging, and they are hardly conducive to the high standards of road safety which all of us in the House wish to maintain. I very much hope that the Under-Secretary will see fit to remove them tonight. If he does not, I shall ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to join me in the Lobby to vote against them.

10.35 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

I begin by giving a genuine welcome to the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Stott) to the Front Bench. He played a key but backroom role in the previous Labour Government and we are glad that he has come to the forefront in transport, even though, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier today, we are a little perplexed to find ourselves now outnumbered by the enemy on the Opposition Front Bench. Nevertheless, I am sure that the arrival of the hon. Member for Westhoughton is welcome, and if he continues to say pleasant things about the Under-Secretary of State his presence in transport debates will be welcome.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly anticipated, it is our view that he is seeking on this occasion to dramatise comparatively minor regulations. In no way am I seeking to avoid the main point of the debate, which is whether these minor driving licence changes are justifiable in the circumstances for which they are provided, given the overriding requirements of road safety. That interest is shared on both sides of the House.

The first essential background against which we have to consider the regulations is that they are designed for use in emergency circumstances where public safety and well-being are directly threatened. On this occasion, the situation arose out of a threatened industrial dispute. The last time the previous Government introduced similar regulations, to which I shall refer, was against the background of an industrial dispute—the 1977 firemen's strike. Nevertheless, the powers are required not because any Government seek to use the Army as a weapon against the merits of a particular strike or industrial action but because it is and always has been legitimate to use Service men to step in to maintain essential services, particularly when public safety is involved.

In judging the validity of these regulations it is right to ask the Opposition to bear in mind that when they are arguing about the rights and wrongs of driving licence changes they must consider what is necessary to ensure that people are not injured or killed in fires, that public safety is not threatened, and that emergency services are maintained. For that purpose only it is obviously legitimate to use troops to drive vehicles, including fire engines if necessary, although it needs an order of the Defence Council before troops can be used for these civilian purposes. That underlines the narrow range of emergencies in which they may be required.

We are talking about firemen's strikes and possibly other key strikes in the public sector, and also about the possibilities of, say, the Thames flooding in London, or any other national emergency that would justify the Defence Council making the necessary orders to facilitate the best use of troops. It is wrong to suggest that it makes sense, every time a specific emergency occurs, to make fresh regulations and small changes to the position of the Service men driving non-Army vehicles on the roads when dealing with emergencies.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clarke

I shall give way in a moment, but let me clarify first what I am describing as minor changes.

Licensing arrangements are involved, but I shall try to illustrate the particular problem that the Government faced, and that led them to make these regulations—with comparative haste, I accept.

The House must bear in mind the ordinary rules that apply to civilian lorry drivers driving heavy goods vehicles On the roads. An ordinary driver, including any hon. Member, wishing to drive a heavy goods vehicle—one over 7.5 tonnes in weight—must be 21 years of age or over and hold the appropriate class of licence for that sized vehicle. There are four different sizes of vehicle, which all require an appropriate licence. To drive a vehicle below 7.5 tonnes in weight—a medium—sized heavy vehicle of between 3.5 tonnes and 7.5 tonnes—a driver needs to be 18 years old or over, and it is sufficient for him to have an ordinary licence. He does not need a heavy goods vehicle licence to drive such a vehicle.

Mr. Carter-Jones


Mr. Clarke

If the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) will allow me, I should like to set out the different regulations. When I have clarified the differences, I shall give way.

It is important to bear in mind that the rules for Army drivers are different and that the regulations do not apply to Army drivers driving for military purposes. The Army rules provide that anyone of 17 years of age and over may drive Army heavy goods vehicles if he holds an Army heavy goods vehicle licence. The Army has its own heavy goods vehicle testing arrangements and is able to grant HGV licences. No age rules are applied to Army drivers driving heavy goods vehicles, but the Army is an occupation for young people and there have been on the roads of Britain for many years Army drivers of 17 and upwards driving heavy goods vehicles for military purposes—which does not mean a war, but may involve merely moving stores between depots. No one has complained about that.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

Have not those drivers necessarily passed the equivalent of the examination at the Army's school of mechanical transport?

Mr. Clarke

I said that. Army drivers of 17 years of age and upwards may drive heavy goods vehicles if they hold an HGV licence, usually an Army licence. The Army awards its own HGV licences. The age limits do not apply to military drivers of military vehicles. Drivers aged 17 years are driving military vehicles on our roads habitually. When the regulations were issued there was great confusion about what we are changing. Once hon. Members understand what we have changed, they will be able to argue against it with greater clarity.

The regulations that were in force were made by the previous Government in 1977 expressly for the firemen's strike of that year, but made permanently. They have remained in force. The previous Government dealt, as we have, not with regulations for a one-off purpose, but with regulations that they thought would cover emergencies. Those regulations provided that Service men without HGV licences could drive "green goddesses" and other fire salvage vehicles owned by the Ministry of Defence. They suspended in 1977, and permanently thereafter for emergency work, the heavy goods vehicle licence provision for Service men. Since 1977, Service men with car licences only have been legally able to drive "green goddesses" and fire salvage vehicles on the roads.

What faced the Government in the potential emergency in November that led us to make the two further changes? First, we had a look at the 1977 regulations and decided that we wanted to make the same exemption from HGV licences to Service men to drive all HGVs and not just "green goddesses' and fire salvage vehicles.

There is no road safety argument involved. The vehicles are the same size, but they are not "green goddesses" and fire salvage vehicles. It seemed to us an unreal distinction. If the Army took over coping with emergencies that arose out of fires, arguments could arise over what was a fire salvage vehicle. The Army might wish to use all sorts of ancillary vehicles in dealing with problems caused by fires. We could have had the absurd situation of a squad of drivers being divided into those who were able to drive only the "green goddesses" and fire salvage vehicles and those who could drive ancillary vehicles. The exemption does not affect road safety. The HGV system is suspended for Service men for all heavy goods vehicles, not just "green goddesses", but only in circumstances prescribed by the regulations.

Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)

As the holder of a class 2 HGV licence and as one who failed his test on the first occasion at the age of 23, I am concerned about what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. Is he saying that under these regulations anyone over the age of 17, when wearing a uniform, will be able to drive, without passing a test, any vehicle that comes under the HGV regulations?

Mr. Clarke

No. I shall describe the circumstances in which the Army uses them. We are repeating the situation that was thought proper in the firemen's strike in 1977. In an emergency—and that has to be confirmed by the Defence Council making an order—when the purpose is to protect public safety, 17-year-olds and upwards with ordinary car licences will be allowed to drive heavy goods vehicles. That was done by the Labour Government in respect of the "green goddesses". I do not recall hon. Gentlemen then saying that it was ridiculous. There 'was not a murmur of complaint from anybody at the time. There was no age exemption. In the last firemen's strike, 17-year-olds and upwards drove heavy goods vehicles. The Army made no distinction of age.

The Labour Government apparently believed that that was legally permissible with the regulations that they then made. We had a fresh look at the powers and took legal advice about whether it would be lawful to allow under–21s to drive heavy goods vehicles, given the other exemption, as they had in 1977 for non-military purposes. We were told that it would not be lawful for them to do so.

That is not a change of policy. The Labour Government—I accept, in good faith—mistakenly, if our legal advice is right, allowed 17-year-olds and upwards to drive these vehicles because they believed that it was lawful. Further examination showed that it was not. Therefore, we felt that we should clarify the position by the second set of regulations, which make clear that the age regulations were not to apply at all.

The reason is that the Army is a young Service. The use of a squad of soldiers becomes absurd if, in dividing them up for various driving duties, commanding officers have to go through the dates of birth of their men to decide which duties they are able to perform. One needs flexibility in an emergency. We acted on legal advice to bring the law strictly into line with the Labour Government's understanding and practice so that we could follow the same practice.

That led to the need for some haste. We received that legal advice—that we would need a second set of regulations—on 13 November. The hon. Member for Westhoughton said that we furtively introduced the regulations. We were not furtive, but we were hasty. That was not because, as the hon. Gentleman disarmingly said, the fire brigades were in discussions with their employers, but because the Fire Brigades Union was holding a recalled national delegate conference at which it was to recommend strike action on 21 November. We were advised that to deal with that possibility vehicles needed to be moved by the Army during the weekend of 15–16 November. In fact, the Defence Council order was made on 14 November, which was the day after we had received legal advice that it would not be lawful for these young Service men to drive unless we had these regulations.

We entered into telephone consultations, which I accept are not the most satisfactory way of consulting, but, again, the same method of consulting was followed in 1977 by the Labour Government. After the telephone consultations on 14 November, we brought the regulations into effect on 15 November.

The main concern is road safety. I hope that we are not engaged in considering the merits or demerits of the strike, or in obstructing the ability of the Army to help in emergencies, or to strengthen the bargaining power of the trade unions. We are concerned with road safety.

The result of the consultations was that only the trade unions objected. Most of the objections—there were some on road safety—were that we were not meeting what were regarded as the legitimate demands of the Fire Brigades Union. However, organisations interested in motoring and road safety did not raise any objections.

I realise that the result of these regulations may sound, theoretically, somewhat alarming as, no doubt theoretically, the 1977 regulations sounded alarming. It is the case that 17-year-olds and upwards without HGV licences are driving heavy vehicles. In practice, the military has always been allowed to use 17-year-olds and upwards for driving its own heavy goods vehicles so long as they have a licence. In practice, what the military does, what it would seek to do, what it tried to do in 1977 and would have tried to do if there had been a firemen's strike on this occasion, is not so alarming as it may sound. The Army has its own corps of trained, qualified heavy goods vehicle drivers. Naturally it uses them primarily for these tasks. Other drivers are potentially available if an emergency arises and resources are stretched. I give an example. One effect of the regulations is that a driver who has been trained on heavy goods vehicles but has not yet got round to the test would be used. Someone who has an overseas licence but not a national licence may have to wait while he goes through a domestic heavy goods vehicle test before he is used. In practice, the Army is as anxious as anyone else, for the safety of its own men and that of the general public, to use drivers whose abilities enable them to handle heavy goods vehicles.

Mr. K. J. Woolmer (Batley and Morley)

The Under-Secretary of State has attempted to clarify what was a confusing series of circumstances. I assume from his remarks that 17-year-olds and upwards were driving these vehicles in the emergency without the appropriate heavy goods vehicle licence. I understand that the hon. and learned Gentleman is attempting to regularise the position. Will he say, from the evidence presumably given to him, how many such drivers drove those vehicles? I understand that the burden of his argument is that this happened during the last emergency, under the previous Administration. I assume that he was told how many drove without a licence.

Mr. Clarke

I have not been given that information. I do not believe that it is readily available. The information that I possess is that in 1977 it was assumed on all sides that the effect of the regulations was that it was lawful for all these Army drivers to drive without heavy goods vehicle licences. The Army says, most assuredly, that it did, but that it was not bothering to distinguish because it did not realise that there was any legal inhibition affecting the age of the drivers.

The age structure of the Army and the age structure of the heavy goods vehicle drivers is such that it used, as a matter of course, its under-21 drivers. It uses under-21 drivers on the public roads already, driving military heavy goods vehicles for military purposes. I do not think that anyone seriously challenges that in 1977 they were used habitually in the course of the strike.

Mr. Carter-Jones

Is not the Minister making heavy weather of this matter? Every time the House is asked, for genuine reasons, to give emergency powers, the House has always been willing to do so. I have been a Member for 17 years. I have seen Bills go through both Houses of Parliament and become Acts in one day. The hon. and learned Gentleman has expressed the view that in 1977 what was requested came quickly. He says that he did the same in November and that it happened quickly. Will he not remove the anxieties of hon. Members by saying that, whenever he wants specific emergency regulations, he will ask for them and that, if he makes his case, he will expect to get them?

Mr. Clarke

It would seem to me, as I have already stated, to be slightly ridiculous that every time some dramatic emergency occurs the Government should have to come back to the House to make these changes in the driving licence rules for Army drivers. These 17-year-old heavy goods vehicle drivers are on the roads now. The Army wishes to use them and to make sensible use of its manpower only for emergency purposes. The changes that we are making are so comparatively minuscule and well precedented that it would be silly if, for a day or two, action was delayed while we went through the process of consultations and regulations every time.

The 1977 regulations were made permanent in their effect. The last Government were mistaken in their view of the legal changes that they had made. We are bringing the changes into line with their belief and ensuring that practice follows broadly that which applied in the past. However, we have extended the provision to all heavy goods vehicles in addition to "green goddesses" and fire salvage vehicles.

The regulations should remain permanent. Everyone is pleased that the strike which gave rise to changes has been settled. In future all types of emergencies that threaten public safety may arise, and it will be necessary to react promptly.

I have explained that the Government do not contemplate using the Army for strike-breaking purposes. The legitimate use of the Army involves safeguarding public safety and maintaining emergency services whenever they are threatenend for any reason. Plainly, it is not right to obstruct the use of the Army in order to further industrial disputes. I hope that no one will suggest that the ability of the Army to act in a firemen's strike should be inhibited, or that people should be put in danger to strengthen the bargaining position of a union. We do not live in such a country. We are dealing with sensible changes to ensure that the Army can be used flexibly whenever public safety is threatened. I hope the the House will approve the modest but necessary changes.

10.56 pm
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

I listened to the Under-Secretary, but he did not meet the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Stott). I congratulate my hon. Friend on his first speech from the Dispatch Box. I hope that we shall hear many more such forceful speeches from him.

The Under-Secretary spoke specifically of the firemen's dispute. He said that the regulations were laid in comparative haste. That is why we believe that they should be re-examined. We are not dealing with a firemen's strike alone. If the regulations had been drafted to cover vehicles used in the event of fire, I could see the point of them. However, they do two specific things: they drop the legal age to 17 and they cover any vehicles.

The hon. and learned Gentleman spoke about any person with a car licence. I understand that a motor vehicle licence is not necessary in order to drive a vehicle in an emergency. The hon. and learned Gentleman spoke of young men being trained for their heavy goods vehicle licences. A young man at the Army school of mechanical transport may take a course to obtain an ordinary driving licence and lake his heavy goods licence test without taking his ordinary driving examination. When driving Crown vehicles, that young man would be exempt from the legislation.

I have nothing but the highest admiration for the degree of training given to Army drivers. Just before Christmas I had the good fortune to visit a school near my constituency and to talk to instructors and others involved. I admire the training given. I am not attacking that. I am concerned about whether a young man of 17 is the best person to take volunteer workers to a dock through an angry picket and to be in charge of a double-decker bus packed full of people. A provision to that effect is contained in the regulations. I speak—as I think is well known—as a sponsored member of the Transport and General Workers Union and as secretary of the parliamentary group. As has been said, these regulations are a strike-breaker's charter. Once the Defence Council has made a general order, events will be left in the hands of individuals. For example drivers or dockers, or both, might be on strike. One group might be unwilling to pass the picket line of the other. The Government might decide that an emergency had arisen and that goods must be taken to and from the docks. The issue would have nothing to do with fire or with the endangering of life. Under these regulations, powers would be available.

Let us suuppose that my colleagues in the National Union of Railwaymen were to go on strike. Let us suppose that we were to decide to maintain our inter-city services by commandeering buses from the civil sector and driving them up and down our motorways. According to the regulations, a 17-year-old would be able to drive a motor coach with 50 passengers. Again, the regulations could become a strike-breaker's charter without specific reference to the House, or need for specific powers.

We are suspicious about the regulations. The union must consider the circumstances that led to the drafting of the regulations. Had the provisions been confined to "green goddesses" and to the issues involved in a firemen's strike, we might have accepted them as reasonable. However, that has not happened. The provisions have been extended to any vehicle in any circumstance in accordance with an order of the Defence Council in pursuance of the Defence (Armed Forces) Regulations. That is the danger. There is no limit. Once the decision has been taken, any member of the Armed Forces—with or without a licence—will be able to drive any vehicle in any circumstances. That is a dangerous precedent to set.

The hon. and learned Gentleman made the point that, on reflection, he might not like that to be thought the Government's official attitude. He said that, when the various organisations were telephoned, only those representing organised workers were found to be against the regulations. He said that all the organisations concerned with road safety were in favour of them. The implication was—I am sure that the Minister did not mean it and will take the opportunity to retract the slur—that the trade unions involved in road transport were not concerned with road safety. Many regulations in the law of this land have come from initiatives of the transport unions, not least my own, the Transport and General Workers Union. I resent such an implication. Members of my union and the other unions involved in road transport are vitally concerned with safety. Not only the lives of pedestrians may be stake. Taking a selfish view, the lives of drivers are also often at stake. Therefore, they have a vested interest in road safety because of the possible repercussions on their occupation and their families.

These are bad and ill-thought-out regulations, made in haste. They should be withdrawn so that the Government can bring more acceptable provisions before the House, if that is felt necessary. Best of all, they should not bring them before the House until it is necessary to use such powers in specific circumstances, with the provision that they will lapse after the circumstances have passed.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

I assure the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara), that a car licence is required. My understanding of the regulations is that the age exemption applies only to the paragraphs of the particular Act that stipulate minimum ages for holding heavy goods vehicle licences. The assumption that totally unlicensed Army personnel could drive heavy goods vehicles is, I believe, mistaken. A car licence will be required, but, as I have explained, in practice the Army would use its heavy goods vehicle-trained drivers. The most useful application of this regulation is the waiving of the provision in the case of, for instance, people who have been trained but not yet tested, and the other categories that I mentioned.

If I gave the impression that the trade unions consulted had no interest in road safety, I retract it. The Transport and General Workers Union referred to road safety problems in its response, although it went on to complain about the cash limits policy of the Government. At least one trade union, which I shall not name, as its response was necessarily inhibited by time, refused to agree merely because the policy of the Trades Union Congress was to support the Fire Brigades Union. Other organisations either made no response or said that they had no objection.

It is significant that in every case the only people who complained of the regulations were the trade unions, which, with the best will in the world, I suspect were looking at wider implications than just road safety, if I may put it that way.

11.7 pm

Mr. K. J. Woolmer (Batley and Morley)

I wish to deal with the generality of the regulations. I said earlier that I believed that I followed the Under-Secretary's reasoning. The regulations allow rules to be waived in all emergencies as long as the appropriate approval is given.

In attempting to convince the House and the country that the regulations should be approved the hon. and learned Gentleman made considerable play with saving lives. He said that, on balance the public would be willing, to overlook road safety and the implications for drivers, pedestrians and other road users in the interests of wider safety. However, as drafted, the regulations would extend the provision to emergencies at all times. To allow a lad of 17 years to drive a dust cart merely because it may be considered that the greater need of the public is to have refuse collected is stretching a point. The Under-Secretary should explain a little more clearly the other circumstances in which use may be made of such provisions. He might well say that, in the very nature of things, until an emergency arises one cannot be sure what it will be.

I agree with those of my hon. Friends—including my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Stott)—who say that, on the whole, regulations that are justified in terms of emergencies should, as a matter of normal parliamentary procedure and general principle, be introduced at the time of the emergency, and that it is up to the Government of the day to show Parliament why it should give a blank cheque, whatever the circumstances, for ever more, especially if the balance of public opinion is such as not to accept that the nature of the emergency justifies sweeping powers of this kind.

I put it to the hon. and learned Gentleman that, as a generality, that is not only as reasonable a position as he has taken but, in fact, a more reasonable position than he has taken tonight. I say that in particular because he appealed to the House to use common sense. It is up to him to justify to Parliament why all future emergencies, for ever more, should be regarded as justifying this procedure. His attempt to justify it in relation to the firemen's dispute—as I have acknowledged the Labour Administration did—would be very different from the attempt made in the case of the dustmen's dispute.

In those circumstances Parliament would take a great deal of persuading that the interests of public safety outweighed the dangers and the problems of road safety that would result. I hope that the Minister will feel able to explain a little more fully why, in the eyes of the country, all emergencies would justify something of this nature. I put it to him strongly that he is seeking powers that Parliament would not normally be willing to give.

Before concluding, I should like to make good an earlier omission and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton on his remarks this evening. I hope that we shall have the great pleasure of hearing him speak from the Front Bench on many more occasions.

11.13 pm
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Stott) on occupying his present position on the Opposition Front Bench. He and I have been members of a Select Committee for 18 months and I have enjoyed the experience very much. It is a great pleasure to hear him for the first time speaking from the Dispatch Box, and I congratulate him on the way in which he moved his motion.

The Under-Secretary of State said that it would be a very great misfortune if hon. Members were to oppose these regulations simply to enhance the power of trade unions in industrial disputes. That seemed to me to be a very sage observation on his part. I was rather distressed to hear some of the speeches from the Labour Benches, because it seems to me that the principal purpose of the Opposition's rejection of these regulations is their desire to enhance the power of trade unions in certain industrial disputes.

There are essentially two arguments that can be properly placed before the House. One is the about road safety and the other is about the desirability of introducing the military into industrial disputes.

I accept that the argument about road safety has been covered almost entirely by the Under-Secretary of State, but the plain fact is that in 1977 the Opposition introduced regulations of a permanent character that permitted Service men of the age of 17, without possessing a heavy goods vehicle licence, to drive "green goddesses" and fire fighting appliances. By their very nature, they are substantial vehicles and, because of the circumstances in which they are used, they give rise to a greater danger to the public than do ordinary vehicles. A "green goddess" driven to a fire is driven at speed, often through red lights, overtaking other vehicles, and so on, yet the Opposition, when in office introduced regulations that permitted 17-year-old drivers without heavy goods vehicle licences to do just that. I was not in this place at that time, but I am confident that no Opposition Member said that that was an intolerable risk to the public at large. Not having done so then, the Opposition are in no position to do so today. If they try to do so, they will be illogical and inconsistent. Therefore, their arguments about road safety do not add up.

The second argument was dwelt on at considerable length by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara), who is not in his place—but no matter; I shall deal with the points that he raised. The Opposition are putting forward the concept that Governments should in no circumstances allow the military to intervene in industrial disputes. That proposition is inconsistent with their introduction of the 1977 regulations. [AN HON. MEMBER: "The hon. Gentleman has said that already."] We shall follow through the logic. The hon. Gentleman need have no fear about that. Every little bit of logic will be examined. We must understand the facts first and then we can analyse them.

In 1977 the Labour Party introduced regulations that permitted the military to intervene in an industrial dispute. It did so because it believed that the dangers to the public were great enough to justify that action. Governments have a clear duty to protect the public at large in a wide variety of circumstances. It is for Governments to decide whether the risks that face the public as a result of an industrial dispute are of so grave a character as to justify introducing the military. That is a matter of judgment. Because the military can be introduced only in the event of the Defence Council making an order, the position has to be fairly grim or the Defence Council will not make the order. It is not a matter of principle between the Opposition and the Government; it is a matter of judgment.

We all agree that in certain circumstances the military must be allowed to intervene. Opposition Members say that that should be done only on an ad hoc basis. We believe that there should be permanent powers. Even as I say that, I am conscious of an inconsistency. In 1977 the regulations introduced by the Labour Government of the day were not on an ad hoc basis. They were permanent. They enabled the military to drive "green goddesses" and fire-fighting appliances on a permanent basis when required under a Defence Council order. Once again, it is simply a matter of judgment.

The suggestion that it is wrong in principle cannot be reconciled with what the Opposition did in 1977. Nor can we reconcile that suggestion with the duty of the Government. In the end, the Government have a duty to the entire community, which includes an obligation to take sufficient residual powers unto themselves to protect the public when they are faced with a substantial risk.

We talk about risk, but in the end risk is a matter of balance. Clearly there is some risk in allowing 17-year-old Service men without goods vehicle licences to drive heavy vehicles. There is also a risk in allowing fires to go unchecked. Therefore, the balance lies in favour of introducing the 1977 regulations.

There will be a very great risk if the Thames overflows and floods London. The House will be distinctly uncomfortable, not to mention distinctly smelly. That is perhaps a minor aspect. But many areas of London will be faced with great dangers, and Labour Members will not thank the hon. Member for Westhoughton if the Under-Secretary has to spend two days or so carrying out consultations and drafting orders to enable the gentlemen at the Duke of York's barracks to get into a lorry and rescue mother-in-law from her basement.

It is a matter of balance. The Government are discharging their obligations in taking permanent powers. I hope that the House supports them. Those who do not do so are simply trying to enhance the bargaining power of trade unions at the expense of the community as a whole. That is not respectable.

11.21 pm
Mr. John Loveridge (Upminster)

It is right for the Government to take these powers so that transport can be carried on for the benefit of the public, should that be necessary. The aspect that concerns me, however, is that, of insurance. When there is an accident involving a civilian vehicle there is normally a legal remedy against the driver or the owner of the vehicle, but in the case of 'a military driver it is possible for that remedy to be removed by Government action. Where an accident involving a military vehicle occurs while the military driver is on duty. one often finds that the Government plead the Crown Proceedings Act 1947 in order to prevent action against the driver or owner of the vehicle.

Under these instruments it is envisaged that these powers should be used not in respect of normal military duty or military vehicles but when military personnel drive civil vehicles. In an accident it would be wrong for the Government then to plead that the Crown Proceedings Act should be used in order to prevent a legal remedy against the driver. The driver would not be in normal military circumstances and should be treated as if he were a normal civilian driver working for a civilian employer. This insurance aspect should be considered by the Government. It is not a normal military duty, and I should like an assurance from my hon. and learned Friend that, if this aspect has not been fully examined, it will be.

11.23 pm
Mr. Kenneth Clarke

With the leave of the House, I shall make my last intervention in the debate and deal with the important topic raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Loveridge). It comes as a surprise to hear it said that Crown immunity is invoked in such cases. I am assured that it is not. This is an immediate and therefore not fully considered response to the point. It may be that the ordinary requirement to carry third party insurance with an insurance company does not apply to a military driver. However, liability will rest against the driver and his employer, and the Crown is quite able to carry the risk of substantial liabilities in respect of which any judgment could be enforced.

If it is possible to plead Crown immunity—I am not sure that it is—it is my belief that as a matter of practice it is not invoked in such cases. I have never encountered Crown immunity being invoked in such circumstances. A sudden whispered conversation with my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) reveals that in his experience it has never been pleaded in a similar case. Neither of us is sure that we have ever heard of that happening. I should be surprised if it were the practice, when Army drivers are involved in road accidents in which they are at fault, for immunity to be claimed so that anyone who is injured, or whose property is damaged, is not protected.

Mr. Loveridge

Some years ago, in my constituency, such a case occurred, when such immunity was brought into effect to prevent compensation from being claimed by the relative of a cadet who was killed in a Land-Rover accident when he was coming home after completing his duties. Therefore, it seems that at times the Government do use such immunity to prevent legal action. However, I am glad to have the Minister's opinion that such immunity should not be pleaded under the regulations if an accident involving a military driver occurs, especially if it results in death.

Mr. Clarke

The fact that my hon. Friend has had that experience shows that I must look into the point more carefully and give him a considered reply, perhaps by letter. To the best of my knowledge, the Ministry is not responsible for discharging the insurance obligations of Army drivers. However, I shall ensure that whichever of my colleagues is responsible writes to my hon. Friend. I should be surprised if Crown immunity were invoked in such cases.

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)

Our anxiety here is simply that in the circumstances described by the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Loveridge) the Government should be willing to build into the regulations certain safeguards so that a driver should not be able to cause injury or damage to a member of the public without the latter being able to claim proper recompense.

Mr. Clarke

I understand that that is the anxiety. As I have said, under permanent regulations there is a longstanding practice that at times of emergency heavy goods vehicle licences are suspended for "green goddesses". There is no reason why that should not apply to other HGVs. The Labour Government used 17-year-old drivers believing that it was lawful. We are merely making sure that it is lawful, because the Labour Government were using them illegally.

The question is, whether we should make those two amendments every time there is an emergency in future. We are dealing with emergencies in which, under section 2 of the Emergency Powers Act 1964, the Defence Council has made an order authorising the use of the military for civilian purposes. There is a whole range of serious circumstances, which the House should not lightly disregard, in which the Defence Council may make such an order.

The hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Mr. Woolmer) pressed me to make these two amendments every time an emergency arose. How can there be two types of emergency—one in which it is lawful, as the last Government believed, to use 17-yeaar-olds to drive fire engines—particularly the "Green Goddesses", which are difficult to drive—and another in which we must obtain permission from the House every time a water tender or a large truck is involved? There is no difference in road safety terms.

The fact is that the Opposition would like to be able to argue the merits of the industrial dispute in every case if we have continually to make these comparatively minor driving licence changes. I underline the points made so forcefully by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham. That to some extent underlines the points made, particularly on behalf of his union, by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara).

The Opposition are allowing their desire to strengthen the bargaining power of individual unions to obscure their judgment and they are raising road safety arguments. Yet they supported the firemen's strike—a type of strike that by its very nature involved the withdrawal of emergency cover and that, if nothing is done about it, involves risk to life and limb. The Opposition combine support for industrial action by such a union with road safety arguments tonight about two tiny changes in the driving licence laws. We need a sense of proportion. These are modest changes and many emergencies could occur in which these regulations and powers would, in appropriate circumstances, be required by Governments, probably of either party.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 73, Noes 118.

[Division No. 39 11.30 pm]
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Kerr, Russell
Ashton, Joe Lamond, James
Atkinson, N.(H'gey,) Lestor, Miss Joan
Best, Keith Litherland, Robert
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Lyons, Edward (Bradf'd W)
Callaghan, Jim (Midd't'n&P) McCartney, Hugh
Campbell-Savours, Dale McElhone, Frank
Canavan, Dennis McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Carmichael, Neil McNamara, Kevin
Carter-Jones, Lewis McWilliam, John
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stol S) Mitchell, Austin (Grimsby)
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D. Ogden, Eric
Cowans, Harry O'Neill, Martin
Craigen, J. M. Palmer, Authur
Crowther, J. S. Park, George
Cryer, Bob Parry, Robert
Dalyell, Tam Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Davis, T. (B'ham, Stechf'd) Prescott, John
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Dixon, Donald Rooker, J. W.
Dormand, Jack Silkin, Rt Hon J. (Deptford)
Douglas, Dick Skinner, Dennis
Eastham, Ken Snape, Peter
English, Michael Soley, Clive
Evans, John (Newton) Spearing, Nigel
Foster, Derek Stoddart, David
Foulkes, George Stott, Roger
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Golding, John Watkins, David
Grant, John (Islington C) Welsh, Michael
Hamilton, James (Bothwell) White, Frank R.
Hamilton, W. W. (C'tral Fife) Winnick, David
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Woolmer, Kenneth
Haynes, Frank
Home Robertson, John Tellers for the Ayes:
Homewood, William Mr. James Tinn and
Mr. Hooley, Frank Mr. Ron Leighton.
Janner, Hon Greville
Abse, Leo Clegg, Sir Walter
Alexander, Richard Colvin, Michael
Ancram, Michael Cope, John
Atkins, Robert (Preston N) Crouch, David
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Dover, Denshore
Beith, A. J. Dunn, Robert (Dartford)
Berry, Hon Anthony Dykes, Hugh
Best, Keith Fairgrieve, Russell
Bevan, David Gilroy Faith, Mrs Sheila
Blackburn, John Fenner, Mrs Peggy
Boscawen, Hon Robert Fookes, Miss Janet
Bowden, Andrew Forman, Nigel
Bright, Graham Fowler, Rt Hon Norman
Brinton, Tim Fraser, Peter (South Angus)
Brooke, Hon Peter Freud, Clement
Brotherton, Michael Fry, Peter
Bruce-Gardyne, John Garel-Jones, Tristan
Buck, Antony Glyn, Dr. Alan
Carlisle, John (Luton West) Goodlad, Alastair
Chapman, Sydney Gorst, John
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th, S'n) Gow, Ian
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Gummer, John Selwyn
Haselhurst, Alan Raison, Timothy
Hawksley, Warren Ridley, Hon Nicholas
Heddle, John Roberts, M. (Cardiff NW)
Henderson, Barry Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Rossi, Hugh
Hunt, David (Wirral) Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Johnston, Russell (Inverness) Shaw, Giled (Pudsey)
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Knight, Mrs Jill Shepherd, Richard
Latham, Michael Sims, Roger
Le Marchant, Spencer Speed, Keith
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Speller, Tony
Loveridge, John Stanbrook, Ivor
Macfarlane, Neil Steen, Anthony
MacGregor, John Stevens, Martin
MacKay, John (Argyll) Stradling, Thomas, J.
McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury) Tabbit, Norman
Major, John Temple-Morris, Peter
Marlow, Tony Thompson, Donald
Mates, Michael Thorne, Neil (Ilford South)
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Thornton, Malcolm
Mellor, David van Straubenzee, W. R.
Meyer, Sir Anthony Waddington, David
Mills, lain (Meriden) Wakeham, John
Moate, Roger Waldegrave, Hon William
Mudd, David Waller, Gary
Murphy, Christopher Ward, John
Myles, David Warren, Kenneth
Neale, Gerrard Watson, John
Needham, Richard Wickenden, Keith
Nelson, Anthony Wilkinson, John
Neubert, Michael Winterton, Nicholas
Page, John (Harrow, West) Wolfson, Mark
Parris, Matthew Young, Sir George (Acton)
Pawsey, James
Penhaligon, David Tellers for the Noes:
Percival, Sir Ian Mr. Carol Mather and
Pink, R. Bonner Mr. Tony Newton.
Proctor, K. Harvey

Question accordingly negatived.