HC Deb 28 April 1995 vol 258 cc1131-55

Considered in Committee; reported, without amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.

12.41 pm
Dr. Michael Clark (Rochford)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The House will recall that the Bill is about new drivers. Although new drivers do not necessarily equal young drivers, the vast majority of new drivers are young. On Second Reading, the House was reminded that, although young drivers make up just 10 per cent. of drivers on the road, they are involved in 20 per cent. of road accidents and 25 per cent. of road fatalities.

The Bill is designed to achieve better standards of driving from new drivers, particularly young drivers. The Bill provides that any driver who gains six penalty points in the first two years of driving will have his or her full licence revoked and will revert to a provisional licence until such time as that driver passes another driving test.

I was grateful to the House for its unusually warm reception of the Bill on its Second Reading on 3 February. I am also grateful for the support that I received from many organisations, notably the Automobile Association and the Royal Automobile Club, from the Metropolitan police and other police forces. Many individuals, in particular, the parents of learner or newly qualified drivers, have also expressed their support. I have received many letters of support from my constituents and others in south-east Essex, as well as from people throughout the country.

I received an anonymous letter from one mother who does not live far from my constituency. As you will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, hon. Members do not often take notice of anonymous letters, but I did on this occasion. She told me that her daughter, who had recently passed her driving test, had abandoned almost all the driving skills that she had been taught by her driving school and that she was unhappy with her daughter's driving style. The mother was unable to persuade her daughter to change that style and she thought that my Bill, which would subject that young lady to the threat of reverting to being a learner driver should she get six penalty points, would act as a good deterrent. One can understand why that mother wrote that anonymous letter—she did not want to be identified in case her daughter found out.

This is the first time that I have introduced a private Member's Bill and I dare say that the experience that I am about to relate is not unusual. When I presented the Bill on Second Reading, especially after the approval it received, I was convinced that it was perfect in every respect, or at least as close to perfection as any Bill can be in this imperfect world. As the weeks have gone by, various small matters have been drawn to my attention. I discovered that, in one or two fairly minor respects, the Bill was not quite as perfect as it might be. Putting right what I took to be one or two small matters has proved to be quite a complicated exercise mainly because, although the ideas behind the Bill are quite simple, the existing law on driver licensing and endorsement is remarkably complex.

Hence, we had an eventful couple of mornings, on 5 April and 19 April, in Standing Committee C in the course of which the Bill acquired no fewer than 50 amendments, all tabled either by me or by my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London, whom I thank for his co-operation and assistance at every stage of the Bill's passage. Although there were many amendments, they covered only three main issues, but for the three major changes to come into effect, a vast number of consequential amendments were needed in other parts of the Bill. In the circumstances, it was just as well that nobody else saw fit to table amendments in Committee. If they had, we should certainly not have been ready for the Report stage today.

For the benefit of hon. Members who were not members of the Standing Committee and who have not had time to digest the Hansard reports, I had better begin by explaining briefly the purpose and effect of the amendments that were agreed in Committee. They were all intended to improve the drafting of, or to close possible loopholes in, the original Bill. None represents a change in the original policy. Indeed, the Committee was remarkably unanimous in supporting that policy, reserving its criticism for points of detail. Those criticisms, from hon. Members on both sides, were constructive and helpful, and I thank all members of the Committee for that.

The first of the issues is what to do about the awkward squad who do not produce licences in court when required to do so, either because they have genuinely lost them or because they think that they will gain some advantage by keeping them tucked away for some other day. In its original form, clause 2 required the court to send the licence to the Secretary of State for him to revoke it, as he would have the power to do under clause 3. If people did not produce a licence, the Secretary of State could not revoke it. On the face of things, that seemed reasonable enough, but the provision rested on the assumption that the court would get hold of the licence at some time.

The courts have ample powers to get hold of licences under existing legislation, so I did not think that there was a problem. Section 7 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 requires a person who is prosecuted for an endorsable offence to deliver or to post the licence to the court clerk so that it is available the day before the hearing or to have it with him or her at the hearing. Section 27 of the same Act requires the licence to be produced to the court, if the court does not already have it, so that it can endorse it at the time of any conviction. Under this section, failure to produce a licence without good reason when required to do so is an offence that carries a level 3 fine up to a maximum of £1,000. Moreover, if a person fails to produce a licence when required to do so under this section, the licence is suspended and is of no effect, therefore, until it has been produced.

However, real life is not quite as simple. As my hon. Friend the Minister explained in Committee, the courts frequently face the choice of adjourning the hearing until they have got hold of the licence or proceeding without it. Different courts will handle that problem in different ways. Hon. Members who served in Committee with me will remember that my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) left the Committee in no doubt of the robust approach that she took during her time as a magistrate.

Given the pressure of business, and the nuisance of adjournments to all parties concerned, the increasing tendency is to get a print-out of the licence record from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which gives the courts all the information that they need to proceed with the case without seeing that licence. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Minister for also said, the print-out is often more accurate than the licence, giving details of convictions which were never endorsed on the licence because it could not be produced or was not produced—wilfully probably.

Of course, if the courts do not get hold of the licence physically, they cannot send it to the Secretary of State and he cannot revoke it. So we need, so to speak, a metaphysical or theoretical equivalent of sending a licence back. The courts simply notify the Secretary of State of the circumstances of the case, sending the licence, if they have it, so that it does not return to the offender. Even if the courts did not have the licence to send, the Secretary of State may revoke it and also has the right to get it back from the offender. That is not really putting a new burden on the courts because they have to send such information to the Secretary of State in any case, whenever they endorse a licence.

That seemed a simple enough change, but it required a large number of amendments, partly because there were several different references in the Bill to sending a licence and partly because, with more than one kind of notification, we need to be more explicit in our use of terminology. That large batch of amendments was duly voted into the Bill, mainly into clauses 2 and 3, which are the heart and soul of the Bill, but also into clause 9, which deals with interpretation and schedule 1, on which I shall say more in a moment.

As a result, it is now possible for the Secretary of State to revoke a licence even without it coming into his possession, although no doubt the DVLA will do its best to get hold of it, even if it has to require the help of the police, as I believe quite often happens at present in cases of disqualifications and so on. More importantly, the changes mean that an offender cannot avoid the licence being revoked simply by pretending that he or she has lost it or by not producing it when asked. That means that we have closed what could have been quite a serious loophole.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way while he is on that precise point. His Bill refers not merely to licences issued in this country but to those issued in other countries, especially other European Union countries with which we have reciprocal arrangements, which means that such licences are valid in this country. Clearly such licences can be endorsed, but will he explain how they can be revoked? Will he explain whether there is an alternative? Perhaps we may use the same system. Will he explain the procedure followed when someone with a licence issued by another EU country says that he cannot find it, that he has lost it and that therefore it cannot be sent to the issuing authority to be revoked? Is there an equivalent of the print-out from the DVLA to which we refer in this country and are procedures in place to enable courts in this country to receive documentation from the relevant continental authorities in the country in which the licence was issued?

Dr. Clark

My hon. Friend asked a lot of questions, but I shall do my best to answer them. Let us take them one at a time. First, various licences are completely exchangeable for UK licences—those from, among other places, the Isle of Man, the Channel Isles and Gibraltar. If they are exchanged for a British licence, the date on which the test was passed is shown and therefore a probationary two-year period may be identified. My hon. Friend need have no concern on that score. Other countries in the European Union and European Economic Area have an understanding that licences can be exchanged. More importantly, on 1 July 1996, a European directive will be implemented to provide a common format for all licences in the European Union and in the economic area. It will include the date on which the holder passed his or her driving test and will therefore identify the 24–month probationary period. That licence will fit nicely with my Bill's provisions.

My hon. Friend asked also about a person with a European licence who wilfully or forgetfully does not produce his licence in court. I am a little less certain of my ground in that regard. The situation may be difficult between now and July 1996, but when the European model licence is introduced—even countries outside the orbit of the European Union are adopting it as the ideal model—the same provision should exist for notifying the central licence agencies in European countries that a licence has been endorsed, so that endorsement would be effective. I will conclude my replies to my hon. Friend, because I believe that my hon. Friend the Minister wants to be helpful.

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

It is slightly unusual to intervene at this stage in the debate, but my hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) makes an important point. At a time when licences are increasingly used in various European Union countries, it seems sensible to apply UK law to someone who holds a French licence. At present, that is not easy to do. The French presidency expressed interest in harmonising European law so that there could be common understanding of offences for which a licence could be withdrawn. It is not for the British Government to withdraw a French licence. The French Government would withdraw the licence of a French licence holder, but acknowledging that an offence had been committed in Britain of a type agreed to be commonly regarded as dangerous. The British Government have been generally supportive, while recognising the great disparity of views throughout the EU of what constitutes an offence and of the treatment of offences. We cannot move immediately to a concrete proposal, but there is room to thrash out the concept of a Europe-wide scheme.

Dr. Clark

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) feels that 95 per cent. of his points have been answered. He leaves 5 per cent. doubt in our mind, and we must take account of that cautionary note. My hon. Friend's intervention was timely because I had just finished my first main point.

The second main issue is of marginally more importance than the first, but in terms of amendments it caused us much more trouble in Committee. It concerns a group of drivers that I had rather overlooked when the Bill was drafted. The main part of the Bill deals with the straightforward case of a qualified driver who has passed his driving test and has exchanged his provisional licence and driving test certificate for a full licence, on which he is now driving.

Schedule 1 originally modified those provisions to deal with the case of a qualified driver who has not yet exchanged his test certificate and still holds a provisional licence, so taking advantage of the two-year period of grace allowed in section 89 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, whereby a test certificate retains its validity and can still be exchanged. However, the original schedule 1 did not cover drivers who have passed the test in one class of vehicle and obtained their full licence, but have later passed a test in another class of vehicle and have not exchanged their pass certificate for the second test. There could be two or three tests if people have taken tests in two or three categories.

When we first considered that issue, those drivers did not appear to be so much of a problem as the ones with provisional licences only. At least they would have a full licence, with a date of entitlement on it, to show the court or fixed penalty clerk that they continued to be in their probationary period—or not, as the case may be. However, it gradually transpired that, if those drivers held an extra test certificate, there was the danger that they could abuse the system.

Let us take as an example the case of a person who obtained a full motor cycle licence and then passed a car test, but did not exchange the test certificate. Let us suppose that that driver has his licence revoked as a result of receiving six penalty points. The court returns the licence to the Secretary of State, but, as the Bill was originally drafted, the driver would not be obliged to produce the test certificate to the court. Indeed, the court would have no reason to know that he had one.

The driver then obtains a provisional licence under the Bill, because the full licence for the motor cycle was revoked. However, let us suppose that, by that time, he is not interested in driving motor cycles any more; he has had his period of driving motor cycles and he is far more interested in driving a motor car.

So the driver has lost his full motor cycle licence; it has been turned back into a provisional licence. However, he then has in his hands a provisional licence that comes from his downgrading of the motor cycle licence, plus the test certificate that he received for passing his motor car test. He realises that he continues to have the unexchanged certificate for passing his car test, so he sends that off, with his provisional licence, to apply for a full car licence.

As the Bill was originally drafted, the agency would arguably have had no option but to give the driver a full car licence, or at least would have had no right to refuse him one, so he neatly could have avoided being retested, as long as he did not take up motor cycling again.

Obviously, that was not right, so I had some amendments drafted. However, I had not anticipated that that involved rewriting almost all of schedule 1, which now appears very different from the original schedule 1. The difference in real terms is not great. It is simply that a new set of circumstances are catered for as well as the original set. However, the result is that we now have a most impressive-looking schedule 1 in five parts.

Hon. Members who have a copy of the Bill will notice that the five parts are as follows. Part I is a general part. Part II imposes a duty to provide a test certificate. Part III concerns newly qualified drivers with provisional licence and test certificate. Part IV concerns newly qualified drivers with full and provisional entitlements and a test certificate. Part V contains some of the supplementary explanations and provisions of the schedule. It has become quite a different schedule as different categories of drivers have become subsections of that schedule.

The third set of amendments, on which I shall not detain the House long, concerns the procedure that is used when the person threatened with revocation of his licence has a temporary stay of execution, if I may call it that, while an appeal is pending against the court decision that led to his receiving six penalty points, or when he receives a permanent reprieve by having his points reduced or eliminated on appeal—in other words, when the appeal is successful.

All those matters are dealt with in clause 5, and the amendments that were moved by my hon. Friend the Minister were about matters of detail, to adapt the powers better to current practice. They make no fundamental change to the principle. One or two small drafting amendments were made in Committee to clarify matters that might have been a trifle ambiguous. I shall not dwell on them as they are not of consequence, but have tidied and improved the Bill, which now reads better.

The important thing is that we had a successful Committee stage; the Bill returns to the House much improved as a result of the detailed scrutiny given to it by the hard-working members of the Committee. I am grateful to all members of the Committee, on both sides, for their patience and assistance. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill), who chaired the Committee so admirably.

1.4 pm

Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

I shall not speak for long as I had the opportunity to speak on Second Reading and served on the Committee that considered the Bill.

I think that the House knows that I give my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark) my full support, both for the theory behind the Bill and its practice. The House also knows of my admiration for the way in which my hon. Friend introduced it and piloted it through to this stage.

I shall sum up my main reasons for supporting the measure. Its main purpose is to help to avoid accidents. It is a road-safety measure, primarily aimed at cutting the carnage on our roads. It must be viewed in the context of accidents and what causes them. There are many reasons for accidents, some of which are impossible to categorise, but accidents can fall into three main causative areas: drink, speed and inexperience.

Other measures have, to a large extent, tackled the problems caused by drink driving. Today, while it still remains a problem, it is much less of a problem than 10 or 20 years ago. That shows that legislation, when carefully targeted to deal with a cause of accidents, can reduce the accident toll.

The second main causative factor is speed. Steps have been taken to resolve that problem, but I hope that in future the House will take further action to deal with the horrendous problems that can be caused by irresponsible drivers who regularly exceed the speed limit. Anyone who drives on our roads can see the risk, the threat and, ultimately, the disasters that can be caused by excessive speed.

The third causative factor, which the Bill principally seeks to deal with, is the risk posed by inexperienced drivers. That is not to say that all newly qualified drivers are a risk; many prove to be careful, responsible drivers who do not have accidents. But a large proportion of accidents happen where a newly qualified driver—a driver with only two years' experience following the passing of his or her test—is either the cause of the accident or in some way involved.

The Bill ably seeks to minimise that problem, but it must be viewed alongside other measures that have recently been taken and will be taken in forthcoming years to deal with the specific problem. It must be viewed alongside greater education, tighter testing and the introduction of the theory test, which is imminent.

The next question that must be asked is: does the Bill successfully answer the tests that I have just set? The theory would suggest that it would meet those tests because theory is bound to lead one to conclude that any driver who has only recently qualified is bound to pose a risk as he is bound not to be as experienced as a driver who has driven on the roads for many years. That theory is also true in practice. To quote just one of the many statistics on the subject, one quarter of all fatalities result from accidents involving a new driver.

Statistics show that young drivers pose specific risks, but my views on the subject differ somewhat from those of several hon. Friends and I shall deal with the issue later in my speech.

Mr. Norris

I take the opportunity to point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) that, ironically, it is 25 per cent. of young drivers, rather than new drivers, who are likely to be involved in fatal accidents. It is important to make that distinction and I am interested to hear what my hon. Friend will say on the subject.

Mr. Merchant

I accept what my hon. Friend the Minister says; I should have been more specific in my comments.

It is difficult to distinguish whether those accidents are caused by inexperience or youth because, by definition, a young driver will be newly qualified because one cannot get a licence before age 17. I will return to that point later in my speech.

The Bill deals not only with accidents—I sometimes wonder whether "accident" is the right word to use, because there is always a clear cause and disaster may be avoided—but with bad driving. Therefore, it will make our roads safer while making the experience of driving more pleasant. All drivers would agree that good driving practices would lessen the physical danger to life and limb associated with that activity as well as make driving more pleasurable, relaxing and acceptable. One realises how stressful and unacceptable driving can be when one drives in other countries where bad driving seems to be endemic.

A second benefit of the Bill is that it will make driving in this country more enjoyable, which I think should please all drivers and pedestrians.

The Bill will take reasonably newly qualified drivers who demonstrate poor driving practices off the roads as solo drivers. They will return to learner status and, when they do drive, they must be accompanied by an experienced driver. That practical effect of the Bill will prove extremely beneficial. The accumulation of six penalty points will demonstrate that, in one way or another, a driver is not behaving appropriately when in control of a vehicle on our roads.

Unfortunately, to that extent, the Bill will have the effect of locking the door after the horse has bolted as its provisions will apply only after a person has demonstrated that he or she is a bad driver—indeed, an accident may have already occurred.

More important, I believe that the Bill will act as a deterrent. It will become absolutely clear to all newly qualified drivers that they must exercise great caution because they face an additional penalty that does not apply to more experienced drivers—the loss of the ability to drive alone. I think that that deterrent is the more important of the Bill's effects.

Dr. Michael Clark

I am very interested in my hon. Friend's remarks. Does he agree that part of the deterrent to which he refers is the humbling of the macho male who will be forced to return to L-plates and ask auntie to sit beside him when driving?

Mr. Merchant

My hon. Friend has anticipated the third point that I was about to make. He is absolutely correct: that is an extremely important effect. Both of those effects will act as deterrents to bad driving and our principal aim must be to prevent accidents from occurring. By creating a probationary period—a significant new introduction—for newly qualified drivers, we are also telling them very clearly that they are not the same as fully qualified and experienced drivers. We are creating a third, in-between category of driver.

There would be, on the one hand, the learner driver who is protected—or rather, from whom the rest of the public is protected—by virtue of the specific requirements of being a learner driver, including having an experienced driver sitting next to him or her. The second category, which also already exists, would be that of the fully qualified driver, but we would insert between those two a third category of probationary drivers—those who are allowed to drive alone on the road but who must do so bearing in mind the fact that they will be treated differently by the law if they go wrong.

The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford is absolutely valid. The sort of people who previously felt the sudden thrill and exhilaration of being free after they had passed their test would know that they were not entirely free, but were being watched by the law and kept in that slightly controlled status. They could not behave as if they were unencumbered, as they would be able to once they had passed through their two-year probationary period.

I do not want to make heavy weather of the issue, but I shall return briefly to the question of experience and age. I do not for one moment challenge the assumption, which is no doubt valid, that young drivers, by virtue of being young, pose specific forms of risk. We have rehearsed that argument at previous stages, and I do not propose to go through it again.

Nevertheless, I must sound a note of caution. The Bill is not specifically about imposing probationary periods on young drivers. A Bill could have been drawn up to achieve that effect, which could have been in the title and the clauses could have proposed specified age brackets. The Bill does not do that; it is about newly qualified drivers. I accept that, by definition, most young drivers will be newly qualified, especially the under-20s, just because of the age limit for first qualification, so there is bound to be a close link between the two. However, I do not accept that the risk lies only among young drivers.

I wonder what the situation on the roads would be if most newly qualified drivers were over 50. One can envisage a different era in which that might be so. I suspect that we should still find that in the first two years of driving people would pose a much greater risk on the roads than they would after they had gained experience, because experience is so important in driving a motor car.

That is why it is right that the Bill deals with experience, and with a period of time after first qualification, rather than purely with age. It is important that when the Bill comes into practice people bear that fact in mind, and do not think that it is aimed only against young drivers. That would be both inaccurate and, I believe, wrong.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford spoke at some length about foreign licences, and I do not therefore propose to repeat any of his comments, except to say that the subject posed some severe problems in Committee and has not been entirely resolved because of the changing nature of international law in that regard. The mere fact, that the House is aware of that small potential problem means that it can be ably dealt with in future.

Another suggestion made in Committee, which must form an important part of the consideration of the Bill, is that it should go further and that some form of mandatory training should be imposed on those who fall foul of the two-year probationary period. In Committee it was decided that that was not appropriate, and I strongly endorse that opinion. It would be wrong to go further at this stage, because I believe that the Bill strikes the right balance.

There is a need for further measures in other areas of traffic law, but not in that respect at this stage, although, as always with the law, as the years progress and the impact of the new Act is felt, it may indeed be considered necessary to strengthen it in one respect or another.

I throw out one idea, merely as a suggestion at this point, that at some future date it may be desirable to consider some outward mark on the vehicles of probationary drivers to show their status. That system applies in some countries.

Finally, I believe that the Bill will be strengthened when there is greater enforcement of general road traffic law. Certainly the Bill will act as a deterrent, but its practical impact will depend on enforcement of the law. People have to acquire six points on their licences before triggering the measures in this Bill, and that will require the enforcement of existing road traffic legislation. Here I enter a plea to the Minister for more effective measures to enforce road traffic law. My constituents repeatedly make it clear to me that many of our good driving laws—laws against speeding and others—are often honoured more in the breach than the observance. Modern techniques such as speed cameras can make enforcement much more effective and cheaper, and can ensure safer and better standards of driving. That is why I hope, for the sake of this Bill, that further action will be taken.

I strongly support the Bill; I am pleased to be here to see it reach this stage. I often think that if as many people as are injured or killed on the roads suffered the same fate in any other area of life, there would be a tremendous outcry. We would not be here today to talk about this important, if limited, measure. There would be emergency sittings of Parliament to pass major laws if as many as 5,000 people died each year in rail accidents or air crashes—or in the construction industry or in the North sea. Imagine the fuss there would be, yet for some reason over the years we have become inured to high numbers of deaths on the roads.

The Minister and his predecessors have made huge strides in the past few years to tackle the problem. The death rate has consistently fallen even though traffic on our roads has increased. Year after year, ever more effective measures have been introduced as we have come to understand the causes of accidents and how they can be dealt with—drink-driving legislation is but one example of that.

I commend the Government's work, but today above all I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford for introducing the Bill, because it is so significant in this regard. It is part of a pattern of legislation that has successfully helped to reduce the number of road accidents. For me, the Act cannot come quickly enough. The sooner it is on the statute book and in force, the better.

1.22 pm
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

It is a great pleasure to follow that thoughtful speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant), and to lend my support to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark). I apologise for not being here for the Second Reading debate.

I have a great interest in this subject. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) on the Treasury Bench today. I recall that he introduced an analogous measure in respect of displaying learner plates during a probationary period, but I am sure that he would agree that this Bill approaches the subject in a better way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford said that we had had to wait a number of years before seeing his first Bill. The wait has been well worth it. It is an important piece of social legislation which will make an enormous difference to British society and the way in which we drive. Perhaps hon. Members who preach social policies should bear it in mind that the way to change things is to apply a common-sense approach to everyday issues. Even though my hon. Friend, in Committee, had to watch his Bill being amended in a number of technical areas by my hon. Friends, it remains essentially simple and it will have a considerable effect.

The car is a great liberator. It has made an enormous change to the way in which we go about our everyday lives. Essex is the home of the motor car. It is where production of the first cars took place in this country. Cars are endemic in our society. With the growth of prosperity, two-car households are not the exception or the novelty that they were when I was growing up. They give people—particularly young people—a great deal of mobility and their first opportunity of independent travel.

I can remember when I was in the sixth form that a student who had a car was a novelty, but now we see car parks being extended in schools to accommodate pupils' cars. We know that the cars that those young people drive tend to be older than the current production models. We know that one of the factors in the great reduction in the number of car fatalities has been the improvement in standards of motor vehicle construction. Last year, I was involved in a fatal car accident as a passenger. I know that I would not be here today had it not been for an air bag and for the safety that is integral to a new car. I walked away with superficial injuries, whereas 10 years ago I would undoubtedly have died.

We see young people with slightly older cars experiencing that first taste of freedom. The Bill seeks to ensure that that does not turn into a nightmare. I deliberately used the words "young people" because I want to take issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham. I think that there is a distinction. I have a relative, my auntie Marjorie, who—I am sure that she will not mind me saying this—was in her mid 60s when she passed her test. She took the test following the untimely death of my uncle and passed first time. She is a very safe driver. Having travelled with her from the beginning, I can see an enormous difference. She has gained experience, but she knew from day one what her limitations were. That is the distinction. She realised that she was not as competent a driver as someone of her age who had been driving all their life, and was cautious in her approach. I think that the residents of my old home town benefited from that. I would be quite confident to travel any distance with my auntie Marjorie, who is a formidable woman.

I know that P. G. Wodehouse had views on aunts. Undoubtedly he would have approved of my auntie Marjorie.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

Does she have a Ferrari?

Mr. Pickles

No, she does not have a Ferrari, but I am sure that she would handle one with great aplomb if she did.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham was quite right about one point, and I commend it to the House: if the level of deaths that we are talking about, even though there has been a reduction, took place on one day in one place, there would be an outcry. Although there has been a considerable reduction—I believe that it is 37 per cent.—in car accidents since 1987—

Mr. Norris


Mr. Pickles

My hon. Friend is quite right; I meant to say fatalities.

Although there has been a considerable reduction, we are talking in terms of about 80 fatalities a week. I have seen grief counselling up close. I can remember that, after the Bradford stadium fire, full resources were brought to bear on a community that was grieving, but road disasters take place in all our constituencies every week. The community is not geared up to offer the same help and counselling as we offer after major accidents. Family life is shattered by road fatalities. People never recover. I am sure that we have all seen in our constituencies the grieving parents of a young child whose life has been cut short, either as a pedestrian or as a newly qualified driver.

No doubt you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are a frequent traveller on motorways; no doubt, on occasion, you stop at motorway service stations. One feature of them is that they often contain a section with video games, and popular among those games is the opportunity to sit in a racing car or on a motor bike and attempt to go round a circuit. Another is to sit in the cockpit of a starfighter. I am sometimes amazed at the reactions of young people and their ability to drive a pretend car around a circuit with great skill: I could not do that.

However, there is a great difference between playing a video game and actually being behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. It is then that people learn that to avoid an accident they do not need the reactions necessary to fly a star fighter; they need the experience not to get into circumstances that make such reactions necessary. Good driving is courteous driving—it is knowing when to slow down; it is knowing not to travel too fast in snow, fog or rain. That knowledge comes only with experience.

I live close to the A12, near what is described as the Billericay shuffle. I am not referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), but to a roundabout just off the A12, close to my house. It is an unusual roundabout, but the major turn-off is not signposted until half a mile before it is reached. All too often, we see a car in the outside lane, sometimes with its lights on, travelling at speeds well above the permitted limit. The driver suddenly finds that he has to get on to the roundabout to go to Billericay. Accidents are avoided only because I and other drivers put a foot on the brake and allow the driver to get in. Quite often, that driver is a young person; sometimes he is not.

I cannot help but feel that such incidents would not happen so often if drivers had had the discipline over two years of knowing that if they did not obey the speed limits and show basic courtesy to others, they would lose their licences. The Bill will change behaviour because two years of having to drive in a certain way will create a habit that will stick with people for the rest of their lives.

My hon. Friend the Minister has the Chigwell motorway police control centre in his constituency. I had the opportunity to go out in a patrol car along a stretch of the M25 and the M11. Quite frankly, what I saw in just a couple of hours changed my view of how safe it was to drive on motorways. I saw inconsiderate driving, people exceeding the speed limit and people using mobile phones in a reckless manner, despite the fact that we were in a fully marked police car.

What brought it all home to me was what the police said when I asked what was the difference between travelling at 95 to 100 mph and obeying the speed limit. They told me to imagine that I was following a car that suddenly stopped, that I had to slam on my brakes at 75 mph and that I had managed to stop within an inch of the back of the other car. They said that if I attempted that from the same distance, but when travelling at 95 to 100 mph, when I was one inch from the back of the other car I would still be travelling at 75 mph. That is the sort of experience and understanding that my hon. Friend is dealing with.

I said that I thought that my hon. Friend was dealing with social change. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham said, the proposal is on the same level as the breathalyser. I think that I started driving in 1967. I can recall people at public houses drinking far too much and taking their car on to the road. I remember the old song by Frank Sinatra in which he sang, "One for my baby and one more for the road". It was regarded as a sign of manhood to swill back six or seven pints and still to take a lethal machine on to the road.

Such behaviour is now socially unacceptable. Although we will still find people prepared to drink and drive, their number is diminishing. Friends and acquaintances who have been convicted of drunken driving have one thing in common: they feel a deep sense of shame. That is what I mean by the change in social attitude.

We need to ensure that, if newly qualified drivers fail within the specified period, they feel shame and embarrassment at having someone next to them. We must also recognise, however, that they might live a lot longer because of that. If, having passed a test, people knock up six points within the short period of two years, they need to reassess the way in which they drive.

Those people will face something else that will change social attitudes: premiums on insurance. I am certain that a person whose licence is taken away and who must sit a new test will pay not only by feeling shame, humiliation and inconvenience, but by feeling it in their pockets, probably for the rest of their lives. I say to them, however, that it is better to feel it in their pockets for the rest of their lives than to hold their head in shame because they have killed someone through inexperience.

I have absolutely no doubt that because of the Bill there are people who will enjoy a full life who otherwise would not have done so. When the Bill reaches the statute book, it will be something in which he can rightly take considerable pride.

1.37 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) said that the Bill applies not only to young people but to older people, a point that I raised on Second Reading. The Bill's sponsor, the hon. Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark), said:

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) pointed out that he is a non-driver and, were the Bill to come into law, he—a man of mature years—would be caught within its provisions if he were to apply for a licence. Despite that, he welcomed the Bill."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 3 February 1995; c. 1356.] I welcome the Bill, but I do not welcome the methods by which it has been pursued. After I had been lucky in the ballot for private Members' Bills, I received a letter from the Minister. It asked me to introduce the Bill and stated: The attached papers describe a Bill designed to improve the safety of new drivers by requiring those who offend to re-take their test. It ended: If you are interested in taking this up, please telephone my Private Secretary". I responded by saying that I was broadly in sympathy with the Bill but that I would be introducing other measures. I thought that, if the Government would only arrange the business of the House better, they would not need to seek the assistance of left-wing Back Benchers in pursuing their measures. I am a bit unhappy that, although this private Member's Bill is entirely in order—I am by no means challenging the procedures of the House—it is a pseudo-private Member's Bill because it is a Government Bill in disguise.

Perhaps the Minister can also tell me why it took the Committee one hour and 40 minutes to deal with clause 1, when the promoter of the Bill has pointed out—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying from Third Reading. A Third Reading takes place after the Committee, so he cannot debate any element of those Committee proceedings.

Mr. Barnes

I am in favour of the Bill and I do not believe that anyone will speak against it. We could easily vote for Third Reading now—in fact, that could have happened earlier in the day. After all, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. French) said that he did not intend to clog up the proceedings, so that the Road Traffic (New Drivers) Bill could advance.

I am concerned that the debates on clauses 2 and 3 of the Road Traffic (New Drivers) Bill, which were considered its the heart and soul, were dominated by entirely unrelated matters.

Although the Bill completed its Committee stage a week last Wednesday, it has reached the Floor of the House only today. It would have been technically possible—had the promoter so decided—to consider it last Friday. If he had done so, that would have left space for items—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We cannot debate now matters that affect the running of the House and the relative merits of one Bill versus another. The House is charged this afternoon with the Third Reading of the Bill and other hon. Members still wish to catch my eye to speak. I would be grateful, therefore, if the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) addressed just the Third Reading and nothing else.

Mr. Barnes

I intend to sit down shortly to enable other hon. Members to speak. My speech would have been shorter if I had not fallen foul of your rulings, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Although I cannot say anything else about our procedural arrangements, they have caused such feeling that they have prompted a disability march this morning to the House from the home of the hon. Member for Rochford. I have been involved in that, which is why I have been going in and out of the Chamber.

Dr. Michael Clark

I hope that you might show me the same indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you have shown the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes), because I should like to explain that had my Bill reached the Floor of the House one week earlier, there would have been grave danger that the Carers (Recognition and Services) Bill could have been disrupted. No one wanted that.

Mr. Barnes

I am a firm supporter of that Bill, but I believe that if the Road Traffic (New Drivers) Bill had been considered last Friday, arrangements could have been made—

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Barnes


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman heard my ruling: either he will address the Third Reading of the Bill or resume his seat.

Mr. Barnes

Professor Oakshott, the theorist of Conservatism, wrote a book entitled "Rationalism in Politics" in which he said that Conservatives did not feel the necessity to speak. It is unfortunate that, on this occasion and on related ones, they have not adhered to that principle.

1.44 pm
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

I must disabuse the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes), who haunts Fridays like a spectre at the feast. He claimed that his Bill, the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, had not had proper time. I assure him that not all Conservative Members are in favour of the Road Traffic (New Drivers) Bill. I do not want to spoil the consensus in the Chamber today, but I must tell hon. Members that I have some serious reservations about the Bill. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East, who has offended many of us by prompting demonstrations at the House by people who are persuaded that they will thus gain publicity, should consider that—

Mr. Barnes

Is that in order?

Mr. Atkinson

If I am out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall return sharply to order. The Bill has laudable intentions; there is a real problem with inexperienced and especially with young drivers. However, there is a sense that the Bill comes out of the mould of "Something must be done. This is something so let's do it." That worries me. We often debate such Bills. on a Friday. We run the danger of introducing complicated and unnecessary regulation which, at the end of the day, may not achieve the desired result—which is, of course, an improvement in road safety, and especially an improvement in the driving habits, of young drivers. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark), whom I compliment on steering through the Bill—he deserves great credit—could not have dreamt that it would be so complicated or that it would require no fewer than 50 amendments. However, at the end of the day, will the Bill achieve its objectives?

We have the salutary warning of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, which was passed because there was perceived to be a particular problem. It was pushed through the House to deal with the outcry in the press. As a consequence, we are left with a legislative muddle which will shortly have to be put right. I hope that the same will not apply to this Bill. I was surprised, therefore, that the Automobile Association and the Royal Automobile Club leant their support to the Bill. Those organisations are there to defend drivers from unnecessary regulation, yet they are underwriting a Bill that will impose on them unjustified regulation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) touched on a flaw in the Bill, which is that we are dealing with a question of youth, but also a question of experience, which is the particular difficulty. I give an example from my constituency, which is an agricultural one. Young men and some young women have driven all-terrain vehicles and tractors from an early age and they are fairly competent drivers when they take their driving test at 17 and upwards. There is no doubt that many young people are extremely dextrous and competent when doing the kind of driving required to pass the current test and I have no doubt that those young people will pass the future improved test. It is not difficult for them. Driving tests cannot be a test of maturity; they can be only a snapshot of the driver's competence on the day.

Here is the rub. Macho young men—let us be blunt and admit that that is what we are talking about—will not be put off by the idea that they may have to sit a driving test again. They will not see that as an awful insult to their manhood, but will simply book another test. In my part of the world, where the test centres do an excellent job, one can obtain a test within three weeks to a month if one is lucky. Within three weeks or a month of having to return their licence, these young men can sit the test once more and pass it with flying colours. When these young men drive cars, they may be reckless and irresponsible, as young men often are, but they are not incompetent; most are extremely competent drivers. We have, therefore, the problem that the Bill will not produce the desired result.

I was not a member of the Standing Committee, but I have read the reports and I note that some interesting research was carried out on the subject at Southampton university. It showed that the vast majority of the young male drivers studied rated their driving skills and driving safety as considerably above the average for their age group. This is the problem; they think that they are good drivers. My hon. Friend the Minister talked about his experience as a 17-year-old driver. When I passed my test, I was probably an extremely unsafe driver. I had a sporty car and I thought that I drove it extremely well. I have absolutely no doubt that I drove extremely recklessly, cornering at the limit of the car's ability and travelling far too fast, but it was in the nature of the young man. Therefore, I do not think that having to take my driving test again would be a distraction at all.

Dr. Michael Clark

While I am interested in hearing some of my hon. Friend's exploits as a young driver and his cornering on the limits of the car's safety, perhaps he should consider that someone who has fallen foul of the Bill's provisions and has to revert to being a learner driver would have Aunt Marjorie, the aunt of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), in the car with him. I am sure that Aunt Marjorie would ensure that he respects the other road users and the limitations of his motor car and that he would not, for the few months during which he is once again a learner driver, be testing the patience of other roads users to the same extent as he otherwise would have been.

Mr. Atkinson

I heard exactly what my hon. Friend said, but I also heard the sedentary intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, which perhaps the House did not hear. He said that when I started driving they had to have red flags in front of the car. I must deny that. Red flags had been abolished a few years previously. At the time, I would not have been a very good driver and I hope that I am very much better now.

I shall move on to another point, which causes me some agony: foreign drivers. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) intervened on the subject, but some questions are still up in the air. Perhaps I did not understand the answer of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford or that of my hon. Friend the Minister. If, as an Irish citizen, I arrived in this country with an Irish driving licence—an EC driving licence—issued by the Irish Ministry of Transport, with which I was perfectly entitled to drive, and was called on by a British court to surrender that licence, would my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is the recipient of such licences, have the power to revoke that licence? I find that difficult to understand.

Mr. Norris

The position is very clear. A visitor to this country using a foreign driving licence would not be susceptible to the actions of the British courts. The Secretary of State has no jurisdiction over the issuing or re-issuing of Irish driving licences. My hon. Friend must remember that a person who is resident in this country is required either to take a test and acquire a licence, or to exchange their licence if it is exchangeable. He will know from the previous proceedings that even if a person has not yet exchanged their licence but commits an offence for which points can be endorsed, those points will be registered on the DVLA computer and can be added to the exchanged licence the minute that it is exchanged. Very few people indeed will fall outside the scope of the Bill, especially bearing in mind the fact that it applies only during the first two years in which someone acquires a valid licence.

Mr. Atkinson

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's clarification. I understand the matter slightly more clearly. What attracted my attention was that clause 1(3) specifically deals with Liechtenstein, which I find a rather curious legal anomaly. Since Liechtenstein does not appear to be part of the agreement, its citizens who are resident in this country and who commit an offence having passed their driving test more than two years previously will undoubtedly escape the provisions of my hon. Friend's Bill.

I took the trouble to go to the Library, and discovered that 27,000 people are resident in Liechtenstein; as most of it is mountainous, I do not think that that anomaly will pose a great threat to road safety in this country. One other interesting point about Liechtenstein, which I accept is totally out of order, is that it is one of the few states which has not—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman accepts that the point is out of order—he is not allowing me to make a judgment—I hope that he is not even going to raise it.

Mr. Atkinson

I shall return to order. I am sorry to have to deprive the House of a little nugget of information that may have amused hon. Members, but I abide by your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to be able to contribute to the debate.

I am not a great supporter of my hon. Friend's Bill, and I have concerns about particular aspects. Perhaps they will be raised in the other place. However, as my hon. Friend has worked hard on his Bill, I hope that it receives a fair wind in the other place. If it were shown over time that the Bill's provisions were not having the intended impact, the legislation could be presented to the excellent Select Committee on Deregulation of which I am a member, which could remove it from the statute book.

1.54 pm
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I will be brief because I am aware that the Minister has yet to comment and that the hon. Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark) will want to reply.

This is my first opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for Rochford on his Bill, which has our full support. It is important that any measure to improve road safety and to reduce the number of casualties, particularly among young drivers, reaches the statute book.

The lottery of private Members' Bills greatly concerns the Labour party. Road safety proposals should be presented to the House in an integrated way, and the Third Reading of this Bill should be part of such a framework. I do not want to stray out of order, but time after time on Fridays it is not possible fully to deal with Bills of the sort introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes).

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Lady may not want to stray but she is doing so. I urge her to return to the Third Reading of the Bill before the House.

Ms Walley

I will endeavour to keep in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but making time available to deal properly with Friday Bills is a matter of concern.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) spoke about alcohol, speed and inexperience. Great progress has been made in dealing with drink-driving, but there is no increasing concern about the effect of speed. It is important to get rid of the macho image and to instil in young people in particular the importance of safe driving. I am all in favour of that being done in schools' road safety education and as part of the probationary licence procedure.

I regret that the Bill is being presented piecemeal rather than as part of an integrated approach. Its value has been amply demonstrated by the hon. Member for Rochford and by the Automobile Association, which perhaps played a large part in its drafting. The AA, as a representative of drivers' interests, should play a role, and I recognise its contribution to the Bill. I acknowledge also the support given by the parliamentary advisory committee on transport safety. It is concerned that the re-test should be a different sort of test. Perhaps we may consider that at a later stage.

Hon. Members who served on the Committee demonstrated the value of the Bill, which is appreciated by the general public, our constituents and anyone who has been involved in a terrible tragedy caused by irresponsible driving.

The need for the Bill has been demonstrated by statistics. I shall now introduce a controversial aspect into the debate because I notice that, on Second Reading, the Minister justified the support for the Bill on the grounds of the results of important research that had been carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory.

I bring to the Minister's attention the fact that, on the day that he made those comments—3 February 1995—in the same edition of Hansard as the Second Reading debate there was a reply to a parliamentary question that I had tabled, which stated that the Government are making considerable cuts in the number of people employed at the Transport Research Laboratory to do that very important research work.

All hon. Members know that that invaluable organisation, the Transport Research Laboratory, is in the process of being privatised. Where would we be if its important research had not been carried out? I have grave anxieties for the future as a result of that idiotic privatisation proposal, with which the Government are proceeding.

It would be wrong of me not to refer to the sterling work that has been done in another place by Baroness Barbara Castle, who set up the Transport Research Laboratory. Her foresight has given us so much anxiety about the extent of road accidents and so on, and it is important that we support her campaign to retain the Transport Research Laboratory.

Many important issues were mentioned in Committee to which I wish to refer on Third Reading, one of which is the theory test. I should be grateful if, when the Minister replies, he would enlighten us about the most recent position regarding the theory test. Some time ago, the then Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor), promised new proposals that would harmonise us with Europe in respect of the proposed theory test. I am still not sure what the theory test will be. I am not sure when it will be introduced and when we shall have an opportunity to debate it.

That subject is relevant to the present debate, because we are discussing driving licences. I hope that the Minister will enlighten us about that and deny categorically that there is any truth in newspaper reports that the Government are backtracking on a new theory test.

I should mention the argument made to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) about motorway driving. We must carefully consider the way in which new drivers and young drivers are properly prepared to drive on our motorways and the scope that exists in the current test, or in the retesting that will take place, to ensure that people are capable of motorway driving and properly prepared to undertake it.

Other issues were mentioned in Committee. There was discussion about whether two years was the right probationary period and whether it should be longer or shorter. The issue of whether we are concerned with new drivers or young drivers also arose, and has been amply covered in the debate that we have just had.

Another issue that was mentioned in Committee was the form that our driving licence should take. I refer specifically to the debate that took place with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) about licences and counterpart licences. We shall need to return to that subject, and it would have been better if we had had an integrated measure so that we could clear all the anomalies in respect of future European harmonisation now, rather than later.

Finally, there is the issue of the way in which people are prepared for driving tests. I bring to the attention of the House further replies that I have received to my parliamentary questions, which show that a very large number of days is lost as a result of sickness of examiners employed by the Driving Standards Agency. In 1994, about 29,965 days were lost as a result of examiner sickness. That is an important statistic because it has a great bearing on the way in which we prepare people for driving tests and then ensure that, having passed their test, they are able to drive vehicles safely.

With those few comments I should like to repeat that we support the Bill. However, I regret that we do not have an integrated framework to address the serious issue of road safety.

2.4 pm

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

I shall first pick up on the last point made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), who leads for the Opposition on these important matters. She advanced an astonishing proposition. She is critical of the Bill on the basis that it is a piecemeal, not an integrated, measure. In my experience words such as "integrated" are among the most dangerous in the English language. I know that an integrated transport policy means any transport policy other than the one being practised by the Government of the day.

I shall pass over that matter and merely record that when the hon. Lady talks about the measure being piecemeal and not integrated, it is clear that she does not have the vaguest idea what she is talking about. She referred to the desirability of incorporating legislation on counterpart licences. In Committee, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred to that subject while relying on the patience of the Chairman. There were those of us who, in our untutored way, thought that those observations might be well out of order, but my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) is a generous man and he allowed the debate to continue.

I make that point merely to observe, in parenthesis, that the notion that any delay on the Bill was brought about by Conservative Members is exploded once one realises that in the last few seconds of the Committee stage, at about quarter to one, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) popped up, having deigned to visit us for a few seconds—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. As I have already said, we cannot discuss today what happened in Committee. We must get on to the subject of Third Reading, however tempting it may be to reflect on the Bill's Committee stage.

Mr. Norris

I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When one hears nonsense such as that spoken by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes), it is intolerably difficult to restrain oneself. However, I understand that I cannot respond except to say how much of the responsibility for the Committee proceedings lay with Opposition Members.

I shall return to the subject of counterpart licences. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North is effectively saying that we should never legislate. The hon. Lady describes as piecemeal the current process whereby measures that will improve road safety and save lives can be brought before the House. The excellent measure introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark) has been taken so far through the House, but the hon. Lady says that we should not proceed with it until we are ready to proceed on counterpart licences, which is likely to be years away. If that is what the hon. Lady means by integrated, I should like to be the first Transport Minister to say that, in that respect at least, I do not want an integrated policy. I want very little of what the Opposition have to offer on Transport, but I certainly do not want that definition of an integrated transport policy.

The hon Lady's reference to an integrated transport policy was about as relevant as her remarks on the Transport Research Laboratory. Even before you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, invite me not to do so, I shall not proceed to debate the merits of privatising the Transport Research Laboratory. Even if the hon. Lady's comments had been relevant, which they were not, they were utterly outwith the scope of the Bill. That laboratory is an excellent organisation and will no doubt continue to do excellent research, much of which will be funded by the Department.

The hon. Lady made a number of points about the theory test—about its adequacy and about announcements. I can confirm that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will be making an announcement about the theory tests, which is an important one of the four planks of our policy for new drivers—

Ms Walley


Mr. Norris

We shall shortly be able to do that. If the hon. Lady imagines that it is a matter of no consequence that can be disposed of in a few minutes, that shows how unfitted she and her hon. Friends are for office.

I have searched the Bill and found not the slightest reference to theory testing. On that basis, it seems that it is an alleyway down which I should not proceed. It would be equally inappropriate for me to debate Driving Standards Agency absenteeism. It has come to a pretty pass when speakers who should address such matters as retesting new drivers attempt to tie in such concepts as absenteeism among DSA staff. That shows massive generosity on your part, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Ms Walley

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will he inform the House when he intends to introduce new measures about theory tests for drivers?

Mr. Norris

As I have said, my right hon. Friend will make an announcement about the theory test in due course. I am aware of the hon. Lady's propensity for making trouble and for spreading despondency when none is justified, so I make it quite clear that theory testing remains an important part of our armoury of measures in relation to new drivers. In any event, it is a requirement of the second European Community driver licence directive, as she should appreciate. We will bring forward our proposals in due course; we will certainly not be rushed into doing so by the hon. Member Stoke-on-Trent, North or by any of her hon. Friends.

I say to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East that perhaps it is best to view legislation of this sort from the perspective of a left-wing non-driver, which is how he described himself. I am not entirely sure whether "left-wing" relates to the fact that we drive on the left-hand side of the road in this country or whether it has political connotations. The implications of his statement have escaped me on previous occasions and they do so again today. It is the hon. Gentleman's practice in such matters never to be confused by the facts and, if possible, to talk from a position of total inexperience, because in that way he may indulge in the greatest flights of fancy.

The Department of Transport has welcomed the concept of the Bill. The Government are constrained in the amount of time available to introduce Bills of this sort, so we are very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford for his initiative and for the work that he has done in introducing the legislation. Its passage has not been easy—as he said, there have been a large number of amendments.

In addressing the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), I suggest that there is no danger of the Bill meeting the fate that might have been accorded to the excellent Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. As former parliamentary private secretary to the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker), who performed excellently in that role, I have yet to be persuaded that that is not extremely useful legislation.

More to the point, this legislation was agreed throughout the Committee stage. Furthermore, and more importantly, it is not likely to be drawn to my hon. Friend's attention as a deregulatory measure. My hon. Friend should understand that, to the Government, deregulation has never meant any reduction in safety standards or in standards of consumer protection. Labour Members often allege that, when we deregulate, we automatically reduce safety standards. The Government have always made it clear that safety is one of our most important priorities.

I suggest to my hon. Friend that we are not performing the role of a good deregulator—that is, removing unnecessary legislation; eliminating unnecessary burdens on business is the principal function of deregulation—but are putting on the statute book legislation that will save lives. As an innate deregulator, I have no difficulty with that concept.

Mr. Peter Atkinson

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I remain concerned that the legislation will not achieve its objective. If it fails to influence the behaviour of young and inexperienced drivers, my point is that it must then be removed from the statute book.

Mr. Norris

I have no objection to the concept that if the Bill proves ineffective—I stress the fact that in my view and in the view of every professional organisation involved, that is extraordinarily unlikely—the first to want it removed would be my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford. Nobody is in the business of clogging up the shelves with additional legislation that has proved ineffective. However, it is true that my hon. Friend's point goes to the heart of the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant), in a thoughtful and helpful speech characteristic of his approach throughout our proceedings on the Bill, drew attention to the essential difference between an experienced new driver and a young driver.He said that there were two types of new driver—inexperienced drivers who, like Aunt Marjorie, the aunt of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), are no longer young, although they may be still in their first flush, and those who are both young and inexperienced.

We should not detain ourselves long on the issue, because, throughout the debate, the essential points have been made. My hon. Friend is right that the hallmark of inexperienced but mature drivers is an awareness of their own limitations. Because such drivers are more responsible, they tend to drive within those limitations. I agree that, statistically, they represent a significantly lower risk than young drivers in terms of their propensity to cause accidents.

My hon. Friend also made a point that has emerged throughout our proceedings—that young people are extraordinarily adept. Their reactions are fast and they are good at handling the vehicle itself. That is precisely what my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham said, but what is wrong with that category of driver is often the attitude, not the technical competence.

Often, part of young drivers' attitude is a belief that they can drive on water, that they are utterly immune from any propensity to have an accident and that they know everything that there is to know about driving, despite the fact that they have held a licence for only five minutes. They tend to believe that they can control their vehicle in all circumstances, whereas the more one drives, the more one realises that that is never true, even with a car that one knows extremely well.

I suspect that the Bill was principally aimed at that distinction. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford decided to call it the Road Traffic (New Drivers) Bill, and I have no difficulty with his definition, but its important feature with regard to young drivers is that it talks in terms of attitude. The AA has introduced a questionnaire for new young drivers designed to make them confront their attitudes and to try to ensure that they approach driving as a serious business.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham referred to the concept of the macho young driver, and it was the deliberate intention of the Bill that young people should face the consequences if they build up unnecessary points. They will have to go back to first base, sit next to someone else when they want to go out, display L-plates and put up with their friends sniggering behind their hands. I suspect that most young people would consider that a fairly serious consequence.

I must make one thing clear, however. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford wanted to avoid looking as if he was merely applying unreasonable pressure to young people. He could have drafted a Bill which said, for example, that if a young driver had accumulated any points in the first two years he or she should go back for a new test. He could have attempted to introduce a three-year term, but one with a lower number of penalty points—for example, six or even nine points in three years. He did not do that. Instead, he quite properly decided that this measure will have limited application, to a number of new drivers. It will be a useful deterrent in the context—it is crucial—of changing people's attitudes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham, a noted cynic, appears to be equally cynical about the effectiveness of the Bill. I am prepared to give it a fair go. It may be of interest to him to know that many countries in Europe and beyond place restrictions on new drivers. Some countries hold such powers in reserve as long as those drivers generally behave themselves. That is what we intend to do here. Other countries again make use of probationary plates. Regardless of whether the new driver has committed an offence, he has to carry a plate denoting his lack of experience. The theory is that that helps other road users.

We have looked at the one place in the United Kingdom where the idea is already in force: Northern Ireland. There, people have to use an R-plate—it stands for "restricted"—meaning that the driver is subject to a speed limit. It has been in force already for about 25 years. We are evaluating research done by Queen's university, Belfast on whether the idea would benefit the rest of the United Kingdom. There are difficulties with establishing what the status quo ante was, because the number of accidents then was not in the minds of those who introduced the legislation in the first place. However,' the Government's mind is not closed to the proposition.

Almost everyone involved in road safety issues recognises that it is vital to deal with new and inexperienced drivers. This Bill is only one of four measures or ideas that we intend to introduce. First, there is the theory test, to which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North, like us, attaches a great deal of importance. Then there is the Pass Plus idea, designed to help newly qualified drivers to obtain better experience—and, incidentally, lower their insurance premiums. Thirdly, there is the 16-plus pack, available in schools for young people who are about to become drivers. Those three positive measures are to be allied to this one—which is the stick that accompanies the carrot, and which suggests that it may be necessary on occasion to invoke the notion that there is a price to be paid if a young driver is given to a little recklessness.

There should be no doubts about who will be covered by the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham made the perfectly valid point that one or two people—the numbers are very small—might not be covered. I do not want at this point to investigate the status of Liechtenstein, interesting and unusual though it is, because we had a technical debate about that in Committee. The Bill applies only to the first two years of a driver's full licence. Secondly, even if a person residing in this country holds a licence from another Community country, he will exchange it for a British licence while residing here in Britain. So the only category of person not covered will be a visitor. And visitors, rightly or wrongly, are exempt from most of the provisions of the road traffic legislation. There is little point in prosecuting and going through the rigmarole of awarding penalty points to someone if, after enjoying his holiday here, he returns to a far distant country. In all those circumstances, we have accepted that the present arrangements are satisfactory for the overwhelming number of young people who qualify in this country, live in this country and will go on to be drivers in this country.

The most telling point was that made by one of my hon. Friends—forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I cannot remember precisely which one—who said that what we are doing is establishing in the minds of young drivers an attitude towards driving, which, we hope, will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Mr. Pickles

It was me.

Mr. Norris

It was indeed my hon. Friend—my good friend and parliamentary neighbour—the Member for Brentwood and Ongar who made that point.

This is an excellent measure. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford for the way in which he has piloted it through the House, despite the tremendous interest, which was equal on both sides of the House, and the complexity of the amendments that were tabled.

I commend the Bill to the House.

2.25 pm
Dr. Michael Clark

With the leave of the House and with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall say a few words.

I thank everyone in the House for taking part in the debate. I would like to say a special word to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), who, because of another commitment, has had to leave the House. I was very pleased indeed to have the hon. Lady's support for the Bill throughout all its stages. I know that she was absent on Second Reading due to circumstances beyond her control, but I know that she cares passionately about road safety matters. She spoke about the second test probably being more difficult than the first, but said that it is something that we should have. That is a matter to which we can return.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London for all his help throughout and for his support this morning. I am sure that such help is invaluable to a private Member's Bill.

If I may, I shall say a few words to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson). Of course the AA and the RAC are organisations that want to protect motorists and their freedom, but they want to protect the freedom of the 95 per cent.—if not the 98 per cent.—of motorists who drive responsibly, and not that of the irresponsible 2 or 3 per cent. who drive badly. He asked several probing questions that were useful. I hope that he has received answers.

I now come to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes). I shall paraphrase—it is only fair that I do—a letter from a young disabled man in Sheffield who wrote to me. He noted that my name had come up recently due to my private Member's Bill. He told me that he looks forward to any legislation from the Government that will assist him as a disabled person. He told me that, as he became disabled as a result of a road traffic accident in 1988, he must encourage me and my Bill at every stage. He told me that if anyone writes to ask me to drop my Bill, I should put their letters in the waste paper basket. That is another side of various arguments.

I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) in his place and not hurt overmuch by the terrible road accident that I know that he had. We all have family, friends or neighbours who have been hurt or killed in road accidents. It is important that we consider this as a road safety measure. I am sure that my hon. Friend was right when he said that people who are penalised under the provisions of the Bill will have their insurance premiums loaded. It is quite right and proper that they should.

Finally, I come to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant), who has been so helpful throughout every stage of the Bill. I have just a minute to mention him. If I say nothing more, I thank my hon. Friend. He has taken an interest in road safety matters, and pointed out three aspects of road safety that are so important: alcohol, speed and inexperience. As he rightly said, the Bill will assist in preventing people with reckless inexperience from staying on the roads with a full licence. Some Bills are not a deterrent. My Bill is a deterrent. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.

Back to