HC Deb 23 May 1994 vol 244 cc26-43

Amendments made: No. 25, in page 27, line 31, leave out `(c)' and insert '(d)'.

No. 26, in page 27, line 43, after 'is' insert 'available and'.

No. 27, in page 27, line 45, at end insert— '(d) the capacity of the place so specified (if there is only one) or of both or all the places so specified taken together (if there are more than one) is sufficient to provide an operating centre for all the vehicles used under the licence.'.—[Mr. Norris.]

3.45 pm
Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

I beg to move amendment No. 21, in page 28, line 14, leave out `and may assume that those undertakings will be fulfilled'.

Madam Speaker

With this, we may discuss the following amendments: No. 22, in page 28, line 20, leave out `and may assume that any conditions so attached will not be contravened'.

No. 23, in clause 38, page 36, line 28, at end insert— `(dd) that during those five years the licence holder has, in the opinion of the authority, at any time operated otherwise than with due regard for the requirements of road safety and grounds (a) to (d) above and (f) below do not apply'.

No. 19, in clause 49, page 46, line 9, leave out `and may assume that those undertakings will be fulfilled'.

No. 20, in clause 49, page 46, line 27, leave out 'and may assume that those undertakings will be fulfilled'.

Mr. Fatchett

Amendments Nos. 21 and 22 would remove some of the assumptions in the Bill, especially about undertakings given and conditions that may or may not be met. The amendments would make the licensing authorities more able to consider certain issues and to see whether they are pursued.

That is the technical nature of the amendments, but the real reason for the debate is the safety of heavy goods vehicles and coaches, which greatly concerns the general public.

Why this debate in this form at this stage? The answer is easy. It is because safety is a key element of the Bill and a theme which came up time and again in Committee and on Report. It is a question of the balance between various interests.

The Government's definition is that the deregulatory process is stimulated by removing a burden on industry. To be fair, the Government also refer in the Bill to the need for necessary protection. Our concern throughout has been the need for a balance between the various interests—those interests that are legitimately represented by business and industry and those represented by employees, consumers and the general public.

We would argue that the Government have listened to industry and not to other interest groups with a valuable opinion, which should be listened to, on safety and the general public interest.

We have just heard a series of points of order about the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. The Government response to the issues in that Bill has always been to point out the burden to industry. Nothing could illustrate the argument on deregulation better than the Government's response to that Bill. Their short-sighted and limited perspective meant that they talked simply about one range of burdens and one area of interest. We argue that under that legislation and in many other cases broader interests have to be taken into account. Nowhere is that more vividly illustrated than in relation to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, as many people have a direct interest in that legislation.

The role of good government and good administration is to weigh those interests, achieve a balance and ensure that all the voices are heard. As much of the ideology that underpins the Bill shows, the Government are driven by just one of those interests: the industrial interest. They are taking little or no account of the interests of employees, consumers or the general public.

In the context of the safety of heavy goods and commercial vehicles, I believe that a variety of interests need to be taken into account. It is not just the industry itself that should be listened to; the Government should listen to the police, the public, those who travel on buses and those who live in areas that are affected by buses and heavy goods vehicles. We fear that the Government will listen only to the voice of industry and not to these other important voices; and the amendment is designed to tease out the balance that the Government intend to strike, and to include in the Bill a greater commitment to the general points of safety that I have already mentioned.

The bus and heavy goods vehicle industries have faced severe economic competition and suffered to a considerable extent as a result of the recession—in many respects, as a result of Government policy. These are clearly industries that have to deal with great pressure on costs. Our concern is that the Government are giving a wink and a nod to those who may see the Bill as a sign that they may take short cuts with safety and maintenance standards as a way of dealing with the pressure on their costs. We have argued throughout that the Government should have as their first priority not just the industry but the general interests of the public.

There is no great backing for these provisions in any case. They are yet another example of the Government's trying to save a relatively small sum of money without necessarily gaining the support of much of the industry or of other organisations. For instance, Headlight, a trade magazine which speaks for the industry and is widely distributed in the industry, has argued that the current legal controls have provided worthwhile benefits in terms of vehicle condition and driver standards. People fear that if the Government reduce these legal and administrative controls they will be giving cowboy operators a sign that standards can be further reduced.

The Police Federation has expressed its alarm at the prospect of continuous licensing—the essence of this part of the Bill—for heavy goods vehicles and buses: Any licence relating to an operator's fleet size, business premises and hours of business granted in perpetuity could severely affect the safety of members of the public and have a detrimental effect on environmental factors. So the police are unhappy about the proposals embodied in the Bill.

The public have good reason to be genuinely concerned about safety issues. The figures are appalling: in 1992, the latest year for which we have available figures, 742 people died in road accidents involving heavy goods vehicles. HGV accidents are also likely to be more serious than road accidents generally—4 per cent. of people caught up in accidents involving heavy goods vehicles incurred fatal injuries, compared with only 1 per cent. overall. All the evidence, in fact, points to the need for the current system to be maintained or toughened up, not weakened.

The annual report of the licensing authorities shows that there has been a huge increase in disciplinary action taken against vehicle operators, from 742 cases in 1991–92 to 1,255 in 1992–93. In 611 of those cases, the offence was serious enough to result in a licence being taken away. The most common reasons for licences being revoked were poor maintenance, overloading and drivers' hours. The number of HGV drivers' conduct cases referred to the licensing authorities has also increased, from 47,000 to 50,593.

When we dealt with these issues in Committee, my hon. Friends spoke about a number of surveys on the increased pressure on drivers' hours, safety and stress. They made it abundantly clear that the industry will be deregulated at great risk and at a loss to the public of safety standards.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

The House will agree with the hon. Gentleman's serious points about the need to reduce stress and to maintain regulations on drivers' hours and on vehicle condition. The hon. Gentleman says that he would not favour the introduction of continuous licensing. How are the two issues linked and why would it not be possible to revoke continuous licences?

Mr. Fatchett

The hon. Gentleman may be well advised to read some of the arguments in Committee when the point was explored in great detail. I have quoted the view of the Police Federation and I certainly maintain that there is substantial symbolism in the Government's action. I warned the Minister at the time—I think that on this issue, if on no other, the general public would be on my side —that the evidence and the image being presented by the Government is that they are prepared to take a risk with safety.

The Police Federation and some people in the industry argue that there is a virtue in continuous licensing, and the Government are making a mistake in appearing to soften the regime. That is essentially what we said in Committee and what we shall be saying in this debate.

As the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) rightly said, the figures are serious. There has been a series of tragic events about which some of my hon. Friends will speak in relation to their constituencies, and I shall not delay the House by going through specific incidents. However, some of them have clearly shown that the current safety regime is not strong enough. Comments from magistrates, coroners and the police show that they do not wish to see a softening of standards, but would like to see them toughened for goods vehicles and coaches.

By stretching the amendment slightly, one could relate that to the public concern about safety standards for minibuses. There have recently been a number of incidents involving school minibuses. There was an incident at the weekend about which there was a public outcry, and the reaction was that we need tougher safety standards and that there should be legislation to ensure the compulsory fitting of seat belts.

I introduce those issues to show that the Government have got the balance wrong and that public concern on these issues is for greater safety. They wish to see standards improved for their own good and for the good of those who travel by coach or by other forms of regular transport.

There is a strong argument for industry to have the highest possible safety standards. If standards are reduced, the only organisations that will benefit will be those that are prepared to take short cuts to cut costs. The law should be tough on those organisations and sanctions should be severe. The good operator will lose out and the not-so-good and the cowboy will benefit. That is in nobody's interest: our interests should be to maintain or improve standards.

Our amendment would toughen the system and make sure that there was power to investigate what was going on. It would ensure that safety standards are rigorously enforced. That is what the public and good operators in the heavy goods vehicle and coach industries want. For those reasons, I commend the amendments.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

The House and the country will understand that there is a need for operator licensing. For environmental protection, for ensuring that there is a responsible manager, and for other reasons, that system should continue.

The point before the House is whether there is a significant detrimental risk by moving to continuous operator licences. I do not think that there is.

There is a danger that, in arguing about specific cases, which, as the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) said, might happen in this relatively short debate, we lose sight of how we cut the number of casualties on our roads.

Without wanting in any way to diminish the anguish that is felt by any family affected by a road crash—I often wish that we could refer to road crashes rather than accidents, because they have causes—and without wanting in any way to diminish the importance of taking further measures to reduce the consequences of a crash, I do not think that it is sensible to have this kind of debate without putting on record what was said during the debate on the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill last week.

4 pm

Since the Government set the target of cutting the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads by 30 per cent. by 2000, there has been a 40 per cent. increase in traffic. So the index of traffic has increased from 100 to 140. The number of tragedies involving deaths and serious injuries has been cut by a third. So the index for casualties has gone down from 100 to 70.

Those figures show that, in the past eight years, the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads has halved in relation to the amount of traffic. That is not a fully fair comparison, because it does not take into account the special needs of the vulnerable road users.

It is clear that when a crash involves a heavy goods vehicle, especially if it is laden, it will be more severe on the people in the vehicle, or those without a vehicle, who are hit by it. It is also clear that when a vehicle comes down a hill and crashes in the town, as happened in one of the very sad incidents of the past year and a half, it has a devastating effect on the people involved.

It is right, if I may say so in the margins of the debate, that people in minibuses should wear seat belts, and that they should be provided by the people who run them, but those issues can take us too far away from other truths that are important. Statistics show that, if I am a passenger in a minibus, I am one third less at risk than I would be as a passenger in an ordinary car. If our debates get people to move from minibuses to cars, we are increasing the risk on present seat belt wearing. It is possible to reduce the risks significantly, but we should be saying that minibuses are good things. We have more of them than other countries. We have the information and we should go on trying to use it.

On heavy goods vehicles, anyone who has had the opportunity of seeing the enforcement agencies at work will know that it is enforcement that matters, by transport managers and by the authorities, and that, of those, enforcement by the transport managers is the most important.

I should like to see further disciplinary action taken against managers whose tachograph records show that their drivers persistently exceed the legal speed limit. There may be difficulty in prosecuting a driver for going above the legal speed limit, because one cannot say where the excess speed took place—under our present law one needs to be able to do that—but the tachograph provides evidence of when drivers persistently exceed the limits.

The same applies to offences over drivers' hours. Transport managers should be held accountable, because that sort of issue matters so much more than whether there is continuous licensing. I do not think that moving to continuous licensing will make a significant difference to firms. Other areas of deregulation make more sense. The ridiculous bureaucracy involved in getting exemptions from the London lorry ban is one of the most stupid things that I have ever seen, but that might be for another occasion.

If the debate is focused on casualty reduction, let us remember why we have the lowest casualty rate on our roads compared to other parts of the motorised world. It is because we focus on the things that matter most. If we left it to the sort of issues that get into the headlines, we would find that we were spending all the money on motorway fog crashes, the minibus type of issue or the unusual coach crash.

We have improved the figures dramatically because of a partnership between the Department of Transport and the Transport Research Laboratory, to which I pay a well-earned tribute. I think that the Government are wrong in privatising it, as Ministers need to have confidence in the advice that they get from people who look at the road environment, the vehicle characteristics and the road user behaviour. I also pay tribute to the parliamentary advisory council on transport safety—which, in so many ways, has helped us to focus on the issues that matter most—to drivers and their representatives, and to the Freight Transport and Road Haulage Associations. They understand what matters; it is they who are buying the newer vehicles, which are safer and provide greater comfort for drivers who spend their professional lives on our roads.

With the help of the European Community, we have contributed to the simplification of regulations governing drivers' hours and rest breaks, but more needs to be done. I feel that the amendments—probing though they may be —do not concentrate on the issues that matter enormously; I hope that the hon. Member for Leeds, Central does not mind my saying so.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I urge the Minister to support amendment No. 21. The Bill contains many irresponsible proposals, but none grieves me more than the proposal to stop requiring operators of vehicles such as buses to reapply for their licences every five years. Under the Bill drivers will, in effect, obtain licences for life. The Government may argue that depots will be open to inspection every five years, and that there will be a requirement to make that public by means of advertising; the truth is, however, that to all intents and purposes the ability of local people to object has been destroyed.

In September last year a tragic accident occurred at Sowerby Bridge, which is in my constituency. A 10-tonne lorry with no brake linings ploughed into a BT van and demolished a newsagent's shop and two terraced houses. The drivers of both vehicles died, and three young mothers and a two-year-old toddler lost their lives. Words cannot describe the sense of loss felt by the people of that small town: the whole town mourned with the friends and relatives of those who had died, and those who witnessed the accident will bear the emotional scars for the rest of their lives.

The inquest revealed that the 10-tonne lorry had no brake linings and had not been serviced for 60 days. The coroner's report urged the Department of Transport to toughen safety inspection procedures. The Minister for Roads and Traffic replied that he would consider the coroner's suggestions, but that it was generally felt that the number of lorries involved in serious accidents was very small indeed.

Only this morning, at 7 am, yet another lorry went out of control at the very same spot. Miraculously, the driver managed to steer the lorry into a wall—it appears that the brakes may have failed—and walked away unharmed. The Minister may say that the number of such accidents is very small, but they seem to be becoming all too common in Sowerby Bridge. I cannot begin to imagine the fear and worry that must have gone through the minds of all who were involved in the previous fatal accident.

I am calling for tighter road safety legislation, not a relaxation of such legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) pointed out—and it is worth repeating—that in 1992 742 people died in road accidents involving heavy goods vehicles. Of all the lorries stopped by the vehicle inspectorate, 20 per cent. were deemed unsafe enough to have an immediate prohibition notice slapped on them. If the Bill is passed it will drive a 12-lane highway through the vehicle inspection system and cowboy operators will be free to put unsafe vehicles on to our roads. All the evidence points to a need to strengthen the current system rather than weakening it.

My hon. Friend was right to draw attention to the annual report of the licensing authorities, which showed a huge increase in disciplinary action against vehicle operations. That figure, too, is worth repeating: it has risen from 742 cases in 1991–92 to 1,255 in 1992–93. That is a very worrying trend. I urge the Government not to ignore that worrying statistic.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central said, many respected institutions such as the Association of District Councils, the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the Police Federation oppose this type of deregulation. Surely any responsible Minister should hesitate before ignoring such experienced and expert opinion.

Since the terrible accident at Sowerby Bridge, there has been yet another frightening accident, this time involving a school bus and a lorry. Ironically, yet again it involved a school bus from Christchurch junior school in Sowerby Bridge. Earlier this month, the school coach was travelling to Whitby when it ran into the back of a lorry on the outskirts of Pickering. Fortunately, the injuries sustained by the nine children and two adults involved were reasonably minor, although the shock and horror of the experience will stay with them for a long time. On hearing about the accident, I contacted the head of the school, who was able to reassure me about the injuries sustained by the children. Nevertheless, the feeling that history was repeating itself was uppermost in all our minds.

I have always supported the fitting of seat belts on school buses, but that accident made me take a long hard look at the issue of children travelling on school buses, not only on trips, but on a daily basis. The wearing of seat belts on school buses must be made compulsory. Only last week we heard of the tragic accident involving children from Keighley who were returning by coach from a camping trip. Two eight-year old cub scouts and a 42-year-old man were killed instantly and others were dreadfully injured.

In the face of such appalling tragedies, I do not see how any Minister can continue to resist the call for legislation making it compulsory for bus operators to fit seat belts. The "Belt up School Kids Campaign" has said that over the past year there has been an average of an accident a week involving school buses, leaving more than 20 children dead and hundreds injured. Whatever Conservative Members say, that is a dreadful statistic and if we can do anything about it, we have a duty to do so. Those statistics provide all the evidence that the Government need; if they ignore the calls from all sides for the compulsory fitting of seat belts, they will have to accept responsibility for any further accidents and deaths.

If the Government really care about the safety of children being transported to school, a thorough investigation should be conducted into school buses. Urgent legislation is required to stop overcrowding. Every child on a school bus should have a seat. It is ridiculous that three children may have to sit on a seat designed for two, and standing on buses should stop. Perhaps something should also be done about the speed limit for school buses.

Tomorrow, the owners of the lorry which caused the devastation in the Sowerby Bridge accident—Hewston Transport Ltd of Skipton—face charges at Calderdale magistrates court in relation to defective brakes. The Crown Prosecution Service has apparently decided, for whatever reason, not to prosecute. Nevertheless, the managing directors of Hewston Transport Ltd will be in the dock tomorrow and no doubt justice will take its course. In those circumstances, it would be improper for me to comment further, save to say that nothing will bring back the victims of that dreadful tragedy. In their memory, however, we should at least try as legislators to do something to help prevent such dreadful accidents from happening in the future.

I remind the Minister that the deputy coroner, Mark Hinchliffe, said when giving his verdict at the inquest: It all amounts to involuntary but nevertheless unlawful killing and that is my judgment in each of these cases. If the brakes had been properly inspected and checked in the days leading up to this tragedy, these defects would have been obvious. He could have added that the lives of the lorry driver, Mr. Derek Waterworth, Mr. Peter Scott, Mrs. Ann Crossley and her daughter Karen, Mrs. Beryl Rose and Mrs. Angela Rooke could have been saved. Will the Minister tell us how he thinks that removing the obligation to relicense every vehicle every five years will help to prevent such accidents?

4.15 pm
Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I strongly urge the Government to accept the amendments. Throughout our debates in Committee we kept coming back to the central dilemma posed by the Bill: in what circumstances does the lifting of a burden on business mean placing a burden on the public? That is the core of the Bill. Had the Government accepted our core amendments in Committee—to the effect that the Bill was inappropriate where public safety was concerned—we should not be debating amendment No. 23 today because anything to do with fire, road or environmental safety would have been removed from the Bill and the public would have been protected.

Acting in the public interest is always a restraint on individuals and businesses. For example, we do not drop litter because it is unpleasant for others. It is our responsibility, in the various facets of our work in the House, to set out what the public interest means.

The Prime Minister said that the Bill was necessary. Apparently, Parliament has gone too far in stressing public interest, the standards demanded are too high and, too often, business finds compliance too costly or too much of a burden. In Committee and on Report we have tried and are trying to stop the drive towards anarchy and to set limits in relation to what we believe that the public demand.

Last week, we tried to protect fire safety provisions and today we are arguing for road safety to be protected through the vehicle licensing system. I hope that our amendments will meet with a sympathetic hearing. Our plea is simple: if, in any five-year period, the safety of an operator's vehicles—whether goods vehicles or public service vehicles—is called into question, the operator's licence should be reviewed automatically and carefully. That would cover the whole gamut of the many unsafe road practices that we discussed in Committee.

Excessive driving hours, for example, would be covered. At present, drivers can drive for up to 16 hours a day, or 10 hours in urban areas. Personally, I feel that I need a break from driving after two hours and I believe that that is the responsible way to drive. It is unacceptable not to keep the operators of goods and public service vehicles under strict and careful review to ensure that drivers' hours are strictly limited and not exceeded in any circumstances.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) made an eloquent speech, and I need not repeat what she said. She stressed that the condition of vehicles could be a major potential cause of crashes if vehicles were not kept up to scratch. Again, the only way to ensure sufficient standards is through careful review, careful enforcement and an insistence that standards are maintained. In this context, my hon. Friend spoke eloquently of the tragic accident at Sowerby Bridge in her constituency.

I shall concentrate on public service vehicle issues, which are covered from clause 40 onwards, especially school buses and seat belts in minibuses. The recent appalling accident in north Yorkshire, which resulted in the deaths of the young cub scouts and their leader, raises with great acuteness yet again the issue of children's safety in minibuses. I accept that travel in buses, minibuses and coaches is probably safer than travel in private vehicles, but that does not reduce the urgency of our insistence in the House today that we should ensure by law that seat belts are fitted in minibuses and that such legislation is enforced. I hope that everyone supports that.

If we agree today that seat belts should be fitted—I hope that speakers on both sides will insist on that—how will such a law be enforced satisfactorily when, as a result of the Bill, the enforcement system is being weakened at every turn? We need stronger methods of enforcing important aspects of vehicle and road safety which we believe are in the public interest. We should not weaken the enforcement system by saying that there is no need for a five-year review and no need to increase staff numbers at vehicle licensing offices. We must ensure that regulations are enforced adequately.

Responsibility for enforcement will fall on the vehicle licensing authority if the Bill is enacted. Our worry, which is shared by members of the Civil and Public Services Association, is that if continuous licensing is introduced it will not be possible, with the current structure of the licensing system, adequately to enforce crucial standards. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) also mentioned the strong representations from the Police Federation, which has said categorically that if continuous licensing is introduced it will not be possible to regulate and adequately to enforce necessary safety standards. Both the key bodies involved in enforcement are saying that we should be careful because safety standards will not be enforceable.

With regard to school buses, there has been a fairly scandalous situation in my constituency with regard to safety. In the large rural area covered by my constituency, a great percentage of children have to travel to school by bus. There have been stories of them being crowded on to buses like cattle and of many having nowhere to sit. Children have frequently been left at bus stops when buses do not turn up on time and drivers do not know the routes around the rural areas. Vehicles are out of date and some do not run on time. All those problems have led to a major campaign in Sheffield to get the law changed to make it unacceptable for three children, especially children of secondary age, to have to share a seat that is made for two. It is quite outrageous that that should happen. The campaign is also aimed—very sensibly—at ensuring that the upgrading of safety standards on school buses is carried out wherever authorities are concerned about it.

In Sheffield, the council has set down a code of practice with which it believes that all bus operators in the area should comply and the campaign is trying to ensure that that is taken seriously. However, it is not possible to get every private bus company to take the council's code of practice seriously in the light of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill. In effect, the Government are telling private bus operators not to worry and to take no notice of busybodies like the council who are interested only in the school kids and do not understand companies' business needs. That is the whole thrust of the Bill and in that climate it is not possible even to get a meeting with the Minister about the code of practice in Sheffield, let alone to get the bus operators to take it seriously.

The current climate of deregulation in the bus and coach industry has led to large numbers of new operators. In 1985-86, 91 per cent. of all public service vehicles were in the public sector and 9 per cent. were in the private sector. In 1992–93, 29 per cent. were in the public sector and 71 per cent. were in the private sector. Conservative Members will say that that is excellent, that their policies are working and how wonderful it is that they have achieved a major shift from public sector transport to private sector transport. However, Labour Members are saying that it is totally irresponsible to consider that shift from public service to private service without having tight safety regulations and enforcement systems in place to ensure that the move is not accompanied by a move away from standards of public safety. All the evidence shows that, since bus deregulation, the standards of vehicles have fallen, standards of safety on school buses have fallen and standards in the movement of people around cities and rural areas on buses have also gone down.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

And the bus fleet is older.

Mrs. Jackson

As my hon. Friend points out, the bus fleet is older as well.

To introduce continuous licensing and take away the need for operators to renew their licence every five years, with the accompanying relaxation of operators' safety regulations that will ensue, is irresponsible. It is the wrong time and the wrong place for such a move, which may immensely damage safety standards in the future. As in so many other areas of public responsibility, the so-called watchdog—in this case, the licensing authority—becomes old, under-nourished and toothless until one might just as well call it not a dog, but a mouse. I urge the House to support the amendments.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

First, let me deal with the some of the important points made by the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), whose knowledge of road traffic matters is well known throughout the House and outside it and whose expertise I acknowledge. In the context of the amendments, however, I urge the hon. Gentleman not to leap to the conclusion that, just because the general trend is towards deregulation —the right direction, as he perceives it—deregulation is needed in the bus and coach industry.

4.30 pm

There is clearly a positive approach to road safety, and there are positive developments in driver education and in the design and build of all vehicles. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman's analysis of the number of accidents per road mile is correct—I do not claim to have the hon. Gentleman's detailed expertise in this matter—but feel that there is a great danger in leaping to the conclusion that he has reached on the basis of that trend alone.

I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to take up the hon. Gentleman's point about language. For example, what are called road traffic accidents are usually not road traffic accidents. I have in mind some of the appalling cases with which we have to deal in our constituencies—in particular, the case of Mrs. Burgess, who had to initiate a private prosecution following the death of her husband, who was hit by a drunken driver. It is outrageous that such an incident should be called a road traffic accident; it was not. In the end, the courts agreed with Mrs. Burgess. Bearing in mind the case of ex parte Chaudhry, hon. Members on both sides of the House should consider carefully the law governing prosecutions that are related to death by driving. There are clearly loopholes in the system and the House should examine them.

To take up another of the hon. Gentleman's arguments, I believe that, given the value of the work undertaken by the Transport Research Laboratory, it would be an enormous mistake to risk changing its management through privatisation. There are structural reasons why it should remain linked directly to the Government of the day. There are also organisational reasons that reflect the work that is being undertaken by those who are employed there: if there is uncertainty, that work will suffer.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

The critical point is that civil servants in the Department of Transport will tend to change their jobs every two, four or six years. There must be continuity of knowledge so that it is understood what questions should be asked and what potential answers need to be tested. Those are critical factors given the nature of the research that is undertaken. I do not doubt that competition in research is worth while. I do not doubt either the motives of those in the Department of Transport who advise Ministers. But I do doubt whether they can direct the research in the way that the laboratory and some universities have managed to achieve. The laboratory has achieved that direction because of its long-term expertise; it, and some universities, have driven forward our knowledge, which we can then apply.

Mr. Miller

On occasions there is 100 per cent. agreement across the Floor of the House. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. The same argument applies to several other Government research laboratories. It would be inappropriate, of course, to follow that road.

The debate is about the signals that we send to the public, who are anxious that we act to mitigate the risks that they face day by day, especially given the incident that was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon). That example and many others illustrate the need for the House to examine carefully the way in which the various mechanisms work. Removing the regular relicensing process, an MOT-style process in respect of which operators face positive challenges, and implementing a more liberal and continuous process will not send the right signals to the public.

The Minister failed to demonstrate in Committee that a continuous system had any worthwhile precedents in other areas of road traffic legislation. The analogy of the MOT-style process is important. Can we imagine the Minister taking the next logical step and saying that, in future, MOTs will be issued on a continuous licensing basis? That may be taking the Minister's argument to extremes, but it is worth considering the analogy. I urge the House, on the basis of the consensus on some aspects of road traffic legislation, to consider most carefully the points that were made in Committee and to support the amendment.

The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris)

It is one of the more tedious functions of someone who stands at this post to remind the House what the amendments are actually about. I do not suppose that I should delay the House for more than about 45 seconds discussing them as none of the Opposition speeches went anywhere near the amendments as they are drafted—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. That might be the Minister's judgment, but I regard the amendments as entirely in order and I would be surprised if the Minister did not wish to respond to them.

Mr. Norris

As I heard myself making those remarks, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I realised what you would say to me —and you did, indeed, say it. I consider myself duly admonished. Of course every word was in order. It was merely my lack of intellectual capacity that prevented me from making the connection as subtly as you did; I congratulate you on that.

To satisfy my own feeble intelligence, perhaps I should make it clear that the amendments would, in my view, add a form of words to the Bill that is already taken care of in the Bill as it stands. If an undertaking is required by the licensing authority in relation to an operator, a failure to adhere to that undertaking will cause the licensing authority to take disciplinary action. That is exactly as I am sure the House would expect. As regards the substance of the amendment, I have no doubt that the House should reject it. I am sure that the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) intended the amendment to be a probing amendment.

On the more general issues, may I in a sense take up where the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) left off? She said—and she was absolutely right —that the nub of the debate was the nexus between safety and regulation. Throughout the passage of the Bill, it seems that the Opposition have quite deliberately—and I give them credit for that—confused the issues of safety and regulation, by assuming, for example, that deregulating automatically compromises safety.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) referred to the Bill as introducing a "more liberal" regime. However, that is not what the Bill does. The Bill does not by one iota affect the power of a licensing authority, if it encounters conduct—for example, by a heavy goods vehicle operator—which is inconsistent with the proper standards required of that operator, to take that operator's vehicle off the road straight away, bring legal action against that operator, including criminal charges if necessary, and cause that offence to cease.

The hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) spoke about tragic events in her constituency, including the accident at Sowerby Bridge. I have every sympathy with those of her constituents who were affected by that accident and those who were tragically involved in it and, indeed, with those who were involved in the other incidents that she mentioned. I have every sympathy with the hon. Lady's desire to use the opportunity that she had today to voice her worries about a variety of issues. However, she must understand, because it is fundamental to the Bill, that nothing in the proposals reduces, dilutes or makes more liberal in any respect the powers of the licensing authority to come down as hard as necessary on operators who do not maintain their vehicles to a proper standard or who in any other way fail to operate in accordance with their legal obligation.

Mrs. Mahon


Mr. Norris

Let me make one point clear before I give way to the hon. Lady. She and other Opposition Members drew the analogy between continuous licensing of operators and operators' premises and the idea of an MOT test that lasted indefinitely. That latter proposition is ludicrous: she knows it; the House knows it; and I do not think that it need detain us for a second. It is not what is proposed in the Bill.

The Bill says, straightforwardly, that operators shall comply with all the undertakings that the licensing authority requires them to give; and that, having done so, if they are regarded as fit and proper—if they show all the appropriate qualifications that are required of operators —they shall be issued with a licence. When they do that, they will join the ranks of the holders of licences. About 14,000 licences were given or renewed in 1993. Of that number, about 500 applications were deemed worthy of further investigation by the licensing authority and a very small number—speaking from memory, about 225—were refused by the licensing authority. The purpose of the Bill is simply to allow—

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I was not a member of the Committee, but I have an historic interest in the sector. Does what the Minister is saying mean that Ministers expect a similar number of applications to be made successfully, perhaps by third parties, that lead to the termination of licences? The Minister says that another process will operate. Do I presume that the effect of that process will be precisely the same—apart from anything else that is going on in the marketplace?

Mr. Norris

Yes. In so far as I understand the hon. Gentleman's question, I can assure him that we expect there to be as many objections from members of the public to the grant of licences and as many concerns about environmental aspects of operators' centres as there are at present, and just as much activity to control poorly maintained vehicles. The one change that we are introducing is the removal of the necessity to go through a completely meaningless form of paperwork in respect of 95 per cent. of applications for renewed licences. That is the key.

Mrs. Mahon


Mr. Campbell-Savours


Mr. Norris

I give way to the hon. Member for Halifax.

Mrs. Mahon

I thank the Minister for his words about the victims at Sowerby Bridge, but can he tell us why he ignores the advice of the Police Federation, which is alarmed at the prospect of licences for life? It has said: Any licence relating to an operator's fleet size, business premises and hours of business granted in perpetuity could severely affect the safety of members of the public and have a detrimental effect on environmental factors. Why does the Minister ignore such expert advice?

Mr. Norris

The hon. Lady should have been in our Committee. On reconsideration, it is better that she was not in the Committee—she knows what Bill Committees are like. None the less, had she read Hansard, she would know that we made it clear in Committee that the Police Federation is not usually consulted on matters of policy. On policy matters, the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland speaks for the police service. What the Police Federation said was true, but its statement would be relevant to the Bill only if the situation that it described was envisaged in the legislation —and it was not.

I am sure that, aside from the good sense made in a great many of the observations—

Mr. Campbell-Savours


Mr. Norris

May I finish this argument? Notwithstanding the good sense of a number of hon. Members, especially Opposition Members, about matters which were not directly related to operator licences— anxieties about seat belts in coaches or minibuses and so on —which are for another time, the amendments should be rejected. I am sure that the principle of continuous licensing in no sense compromises the safety of passengers. I give way for the last time because we are reaching the end of our time.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Does the Minister accept the proposition that if an operator knows that he has to reapply for a licence, he is more likely to take action to clear up any problems for fear that he may not otherwise receive that licence, whereas under the system that the Minister is introducing that fear will be removed?

Mr. Norris

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to say that that is not the case. We discussed those matters on Second Reading and in Committee. I can assure him that that fear is unfounded.

4.45 pm
Mr. Fatchett

I congratulate my hon. Friends on the way in which they mentioned a number of important issues in the debate. On some of the issues which the Minister described as not directly related to the amendment but which are none the less in order, I hope that the Minister listened to the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) and by the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), especially in relation to the compulsory wearing of seat belts in minibuses.

The key difference between the two sides on this issue relates to the 5 per cent. of operators about whom the Minister spoke in terms of continuous licensing. My hon. Friends and I still feel that making life difficult for the 5 per cent. is worth while in safety terms. The 95 per cent. of operators who get through the system will share that view. They will recognise that there is always a danger that the 5 per cent.—often the cowboys in the industry—will be able to get away with a softer touch in future. That is unacceptable in terms of safety standards.

My hon. Friends also hold the view—as do I—that the existing system of continuous licensing gives a clear indication to the industry that the Government wish to enforce a set of standards. The dropping of the continuous licensing system gives another indication to those cowboys in the industry that it might now be possible to have a more relaxed or liberal view of safety standards.

That is why, in Committee and on the Floor of the House, we have objected to the provision to withdraw the continuous licensing proposals. We feel that the current regime makes sense and we want it to continue. That is why I ask my hon. Friends to support the amendments.

The Government have not answered all our worries about safety. As the hon. Member for Eltham was almost saying, the industry needs tight regulation to ensure that safety standards are fully maintained. The signals made by the Government will not be acceptable to the public. I therefore ask my hon. Friends to support me in the Lobby and vote for amendment No. 21.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 179, Noes 250.

Division No. 251] [4.48 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Foulkes, George
Allen, Graham Gapes, Mike
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Garrett, John
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) George, Bruce
Armstrong, Hilary Gerrard, Neil
Ashton, Joe Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Austin-Walker, John Godman, Dr Norman A.
Barnes, Harry Godsiff, Roger
Barron, Kevin Golding, Mrs Llin
Bayley, Hugh Gordon, Mildred
Beith, Rt Hon A. J. Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Bermingham, Gerald Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Berry, Roger Grocott, Bruce
Blair, Tony Gunnell, John
Boyes, Roland Hall, Mike
Bradley, Keith Hardy, Peter
Bray, Dr Jeremy Harman, Ms Harriet
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E) Harvey, Nick
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Burden, Richard Heppell, John
Byers, Stephen Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Callaghan, Jim Hinchliffe, David
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Home Robertson, John
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Hoon, Geoffrey
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Cann, Jamie Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Chisholm, Malcolm Hoyle, Doug
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Coffey, Ann Hutton, John
Cohen, Harry Illsley, Eric
Cook, Robin (Livingston) Ingram, Adam
Corbett, Robin Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Corston, Ms Jean Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Cousins, Jim Janner, Greville
Cunliffe, Lawrence Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Dafis, Cynog Jowell, Tessa
Dalyell, Tam Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Darling, Alistair Keen, Alan
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral) Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Khabra, Piara S.
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil (Islwyn)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'I) Lewis, Terry
Dewar, Donald Litherland, Robert
Dixon, Don Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Dunnachie, Jimmy Loyden, Eddie
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Lynne, Ms Liz
Enright, Derek McAllion, John
Evans, John (St Helens N) McCartney, Ian
Ewing, Mrs Margaret McFall, John
Fatchett, Derek McKelvey, William
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Mackinlay, Andrew
Fisher, Mark McLeish, Henry
Maclennan, Robert Reid, Dr John
McMaster, Gordon Roche, Mrs. Barbara
MacShane, Denis Rogers, Allan
Madden, Max Rooker, Jeff
Mahon, Alice Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Mandelson, Peter Rowlands, Ted
Marek, Dr John Ruddock, Joan
Meacher, Michael Sedgemore, Brian
Meale, Alan Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Michael, Alun Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley) Short, Clare
Milburn, Alan Skinner, Dennis
Miller, Andrew Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby) Soley, Clive
Moonie, Dr Lewis Spearing, Nigel
Morley, Elliot Spellar, John
Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon) Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Mowlam, Marjorie Steinberg, Gerry
Mullin, Chris Strang, Dr. Gavin
Murphy, Paul Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
O'Brien, Michael (N W'kshire) Turner, Dennis
O'Brien, William (Normanton) Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Olner, William Wareing, Robert N
O'Neill, Martin Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Patchett, Terry Wilson, Brian
Pickthall, Colin Winnick, David
Powell, Ray (Ogmore) Wise, Audrey
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lew'm E) Worthington, Tony
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Wright, Dr Tony
Prescott, John Young, David (Bolton SE)
Primarolo, Dawn
Purchase, Ken Tellers for the Ayes:
Quin, Ms Joyce Mr. Jon Owen Jones and
Radice, Giles Mr. Peter Kilfoyle.
Randall, Stuart
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Chapman, Sydney
Aitken, Jonathan Clappison, James
Alexander, Richard Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif)
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Amess, David Coe, Sebastian
Arbuthnot, James Colvin, Michael
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Conway, Derek
Atkins, Robert Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North) Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Baldry, Tony Couchman, James
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Cran, James
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)
Bates, Michael Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Bendall, Vivian Davis, David (Boothferry)
Biffen, Rt Hon John Day, Stephen
Blackburn, Dr John G. Deva, Nirj Joseph
Body, Sir Richard Devlin, Tim
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Dickens, Geoffrey
Booth, Hartley Dicks, Terry
Boswell, Tim Dorrell, Stephen
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia Dover, Den
Bowden, Andrew Duncan, Alan
Bowis, John Duncan-Smith, Iain
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Dunn, Bob
Brandreth, Gyles Elletson, Harold
Brazier, Julian Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Bright, Graham Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Browning, Mrs. Angela Evans, Roger (Monmouth)
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Evennett, David
Budgen, Nicholas Fenner, Dame Peggy
Burns, Simon Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Burt, Alistair Fishburn, Dudley
Butler, Peter Forman, Nigel
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Carrington, Matthew Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)
Cash, William French, Douglas
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Fry, Sir Peter
Gale, Roger Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Gallie, Phil Mitchell, Sir David (Hants NW)
Gardiner, Sir George Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Garnier, Edward Moss, Malcolm
Gill, Christopher Neubert, Sir Michael
Gillan, Cheryl Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Nicholls, Patrick
Gorst, John Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Grant, Sir A. (Cambs SW) Norris, Steve
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Oppenheim, Phillip
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Ottaway, Richard
Grylls, Sir Michael Page, Richard
Hague, William Paice, James
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Patnick, Irvine
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Patten, Rt Hon John
Hanley, Jeremy Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Hannam, Sir John Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hargreaves, Andrew Porter, Barry (Wirral S)
Harris, David Porter, David (Waveney)
Haselhurst, Alan Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Hawkins, Nick Rathbone, Tim
Hawksley, Warren Richards, Rod
Hayes, Jerry Riddick, Graham
Heald, Oliver Robathan, Andrew
Hendry, Charles Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)
Hicks, Robert Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence L. Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham) Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)
Horam, John Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela
Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A) Sackville, Tom
Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk) Sainsbury, Rt Hon Tim
Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W) Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian
Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W) Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne) Sims, Roger
Hunter, Andrew Skeet, Sir Trevor
Jack, Michael Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Jenkin, Bernard Speed, Sir Keith
Jessel, Toby Spencer, Sir Derek
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Spink, Dr Robert
Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr) Spring, Richard
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Sproat, Iain
Key, Robert Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Knapman, Roger Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash) Steen, Anthony
Knight, Greg (Derby N) Stephen, Michael
Knox, Sir David Stern, Michael
Kynoch, George (Kincardine) Stewart, Allan
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Streeter, Gary
Lamont, Rt Hon Norman Sumberg, David
Lang, Rt Hon Ian Sweeney, Walter
Lawrence, Sir Ivan Sykes, John
Legg, Barry Tapsell, Sir Peter
Lennox-Boyd, Mark Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Lester, Jim (Broxtowe) Taylor, John M. (Solihull)
Lidington, David Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Lightbown, David Temple-Morris, Peter
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Thomason, Roy
Lloyd, Rt Hon Peter (Fareham) Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Lord, Michael Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Luff, Peter Thurnham, Peter
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Tracey, Richard
MacKay, Andrew Tredinnick, David
Maclean, David Trend, Michael
McLoughlin, Patrick Trimble, David
McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick Twinn, Dr Ian
Malone, Gerald Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Mans, Keith Viggers, Peter
Marshall, John (Hendon S) Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Martin, David (Portsmouth S) Waller, Gary
Mates, Michael Ward, John
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Merchant, Piers Waterson, Nigel
Mills, Iain Watts, John
Wells, Bowen Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Whittingdale, John
Widdecombe, Ann Tellers for the Noes:
Wilshire, David Mr. Timothy Wood and
Yeo, Tim Mr. Timothy Kirkhope.

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendments made: No. 28, in page 28, line 21, at end insert— '( ) In considering whether subsection (3)(c) or (d) of this section will apply in relation to a licence, the licensing authority may take into account (if such be the case) that any proposed operating centre of the applicant would be used—

  1. (a) as an operating centre of the holders of other operators' licences as well as of the applicant; or
  2. (b) by the applicant or by other persons for purposes other than keeping vehicles used under the licence.'.

No. 29, in page 29, line 13, leave out from 'application' to 'already' and insert 'was made, that place was'.

No. 30, in page 29, line 15, after 'licence' insert ' and had been so specified for a prescribed period'.

No. 31, in page 29, leave out line 22 and insert— '(5A) Subsection (5) of this section does not apply in relation to any place that, at the time the application is determined by the licensing authority, is specified in an operator's licence as mentioned in paragraph (a) of that subsection, and in that paragraph-'.

No. 32, in page 29, line 25, leave out from beginning to 'specified' in line 26 and insert— `(b) references to a place having been specified in an operator's licence do not include a place having been'. —[Mr. Norris.]

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