HL Deb 25 October 1982 vol 435 cc357-65

5.14 p.m.

Lord Bellwin rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 22nd July be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, these draft regulations have been the subject of a report by the Joint Scrutiny Committee, which commented that their purport calls for elucidation, and that the necessary elucidation is supplied by the memoranda submitted by the Department of Transport.

I am conscious, therefore, that this instrument is rather technical in its drafting. This is probably inevitable in a draft which uses the powers in Section 2(2) of the European Communities Act to amend existing main legislation—the 1972 Road Traffic Act—as distinct from the more radical approach of rewriting this main legislation, which would necessarily have taken up more parliamentary time.

However, I owe it to the House to explain both the impact of these regulations, and the European obligations to which they give effect. Essentially, the regulations make it possible for a person who has lived and held a licence to drive in one country of the Community to move to another member state and obtain a driving licence there without first taking a driving test. This is the central provision of the directive on driving licences which was adopted by the Council of Ministers on 4th December 1980 and which comes into effect on 1st January 1983. A further provision of the directive, the issue of new licences in common format, will be introduced in this country on 1st January 1986.

The directive was many years under negotiation. I should like briefly to recount this background because I think it will make clear why the directive does what it does in the way it does, and why it does not do some other things which people have suggested it should do. The initial proposal in the early 1970s was that all member states should issue the same driving licence. This remains the very long-term object which is stated in the directive, and accounts for its title: on the introduction of a Community driving licence".

But the title has caused confusion because the actual provisions fall far short of this. In fact it emerged in the course of negotiations that there were major discrepancies among national practices in regard to driver licensing which militated against achievement of the most ambitious aim.

After prolonged negotiations the Community finally got down to the essential question: how to remove undue obstacles to the freedom of movement of workers, as guaranteed by the Treaty of Rome, without compromising the essential aims of national driver licensing. The Community identified driving competence and medical fitness as the key areas where harmonisation of minimum standards was both desirable and realistic. That is what the directive of December 1980 sets out to achieve. However, it was accepted that, for the future, there must be adequate minimum medical and driving test standards. The directive did not rule out individual states maintaining their own higher medical standards, and indeed expressly provided in Article 8 that they might be imposed on applicants for exchange licences. In fact, neither the driving test nor the medical standards affect practice in Britain, because in essentials our standards are at least as high as the directive prescribes. The other member states must adopt these minimum standards not later than 1st January 1983, if they have not already done so.

Another reason why negotiations on the draft directive were long drawn out was that the United Kingdom had special supplementary licences for heavy goods vehicles in several classes for which there is an exacting driving test, and similar vocational licensing for public service vehicles. These schemes set high standards of competence in the interests of road safety, on account of the known hazards presented by large, heavy vehicles with complex controls and in some cases special handling characteristics. We insisted—rightly—on maintaining stringent safeguards on access to these licences. Our partners however were able to point out that the directive's contribution to freedom of movement of workers would be incomplete if it did not extend to vocational driving. This roadblock, if I may so call it, was finally removed by the device which has been used in this and in other countries when a new licensing scheme is introduced and it is not practical to test all of those who are currently driving. In 1970 when the heavy goods vehicle driving licence was introduced, it was granted to many thousand drivers on the basis of certificates of recent driving experience. I should like to stress this, because it means that in fact many of our HGV licence-holders entered the scheme without taking the British HGV test. This does not remove the quite legitimate grounds for concern about admitting drivers from other Community countries to the scheme, but it does, I hope, place the matter in perspective. We are talking of at most a couple of hundred drivers a year coming without equivalent tests into a scheme which contains about a million and for which tens of thousands of tests are conducted annually.

Moreover, what was negotiated in the directive was an arrangement which provides more stringent safeguards than were possible when many thousands were admitted to the new HGV scheme in 1970. It has been agreed that the applicant must first obtain the British ordinary licence by surrendering his current Community licence. He must then apply to the independent licensing authority in the local traffic area and satisfy him on three counts. First, the licence he surrendered must be valid for heavy goods vehicles in the country of issue. Second, he must produce a certificate from former employers showing exactly what types of vehicle he has driven in the last three years, and for what periods within that time. And third, except for passing a British test, he must meet the same requirements as other applicants by providing a British medical certificate and declaring any driving convictions. He must satisfy the licensing authority on these matters. If he has been a self-employed driver he must produce evidence comparable to an employer's certificate which like that certificate can if necessary be checked. If he cannot satisfy the licensing authority about his experience or on any other count laid down in this or other legislation, he will not get the licence without a test. Exactly the same applies to applicants for exchange who want public service vehicle drivers' licences.

I will not conceal that this is a quite novel task for the licencing authorities, though one for which their experience with the road traffic industry well qualifies them. The Secretary of State was therefore interested to hear from the Transport and General Workers' Union, which had some misgivings whether the exchanges could be conducted with due regard to the need to maintain standards. The union has been invited to provide any information to which they have access which would help the licensing authorities to consider and verify these applications. I am glad to be able to extend this invitation publicly to other representative organisations on both sides of the industry.

I have given your Lordships an account both of the background to the directive and the present regulations, and of the way the exchanges will work in the most difficult field, that of vocational licences. Perhaps I could now give a short explanation of' the actual text which is before us.

As your Lordships will know, the Secretary of State is the licensing authority for the ordinary driving licences issued at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre in Swansea and the Chairmen of Traffic Commissioners in Traffic Areas for heavy goods vehicle drivers' licences. Existing road traffic law states that these authorities may not grant a full licence unless the applicant has either held such a licence previously, or passed the appropriate test. There are special provisions for both visitors and new residents to drive for up to a year on foreign licences, but there is no right for new residents to drive heavy goods or public service vehicles, and after a year they must pass the test even to continue driving a car. The directive requires, and these draft regulations provide, that the holder of a currently valid licence issued in another state of the European Community may surrender it within the first year of becoming resident here, and obtain the corresponding British licence.

Under Regulation 1, the first exchange licences will date from 1st January 1983, although issue will begin once this instrument has parliamentary approval. The licences which can be exchanged are defined in Regulation 3 as the national licences issued in other Community states. The definition is so framed as to cover the licences issued for dependants of the British armed forces serving in BAOR—the British Forces Germany licences.

Regulation 4 is a technical provision, designed to avoid any discrepancy over rights to drive during the first year of residence between our existing legislation, which concerns Great Britain, and the directive, which applies to the United Kingdom. For the purposes of this directive, this also includes Northern Ireland and Gibraltar.

Regulation 2 permits the grant of ordinary licences for the groups which most nearly correspond to the categories for which the foreign licence is valid, and for the grant of those additional groups which automatically go with certain groups on the British licence. Regulations 5 and 6 provide for the subsequent issue of vocational licences. In recognition of the need to make a separate application for these and provide additional information, they allow a further six months, making the qualifying period 18 months from the date of becoming resident. These regulations also lay down the minimum periods of experience—six months within the 18 months preceding the date of becoming resident in the United Kingdom, or one year within the previous three years. The licence will be based on the British class within which vehicles have been driven for these minimum periods.

I have spoken at some length on the detail of the regulations and of the arrangements we are making to ensure that the safety of our roads is not compromised. Let me finally put this into its broader perspective. Movement of people is a feature of the world in which we live, and this is now to a very large extent accomplished by personal means of transport—by car. Hundreds of thousands of people enter and leave this country every year as visitors with their own transport. But we are here concerned with a few thousand who depart or arrive with the intention of settling for more than a year.

The largest group of beneficiaries of the directive is, in fact, likely to be the dependants of British servicemen and women who have been on a tour of duty in Germany. Rather smaller numbers of people move here each year from other Community countries with other Community driving licences, and will be seeking to convert their licences. This is, of course, a two-way flow. The directive contributes a new and valuable element to that freedom of movement to live and work which is a tangible aspect of our participation in the European Community.

As for the more distant future, the directive seeks more detailed harmonisation of the standards for driving tests and licensing with a view to improving road safety throughout the Community. This must be right. I should perhaps add that the British driving test is viewed with great interest by the authorities in other countries, because it is thorough and relevant. Even without the stimulus provided by the directive, we should be seeking efforts to copy it; and I believe the commitment to harmonisation will accelerate that progress. If the continuing process gives rise to any proposals for modifying our own system of driver licensing, we shall of course consult both this House and all those organisations which have an interest in these matters.

As the House will have observed, this is not an area where rapid change is likely or indeed desirable. But I am pleased to be able to move the approval of a measure which marks a step of real benefit to individuals within the Community. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 22nd July be approved.—(Lord Bellwin.)

5.27 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, as noble Lords will observe, this is a set of rather complex regulations and we are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, for explaining them so clearly to us. Any regulations which have, as their objective, easing the movement of people and assisting them to work and take up residence are to he encouraged. But we must ask ourselves, is this particular harmonisation necessary and desirable and, if it is, is it adequate? Does it in any way militate against Britain's safety standards?

We have a number of items to assist us in this discussion. I have read the debate in the other place on the original directive, which took place in November 1980, as well as the guidance note which was issued to various organisations in June this year, and also the detailed memorandum which is contained in the Thirty-Second Report of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. However, the noble Lord's explanation has enabled us to understand many of those points more clearly. He mentioned that one argument for this is that as regards Britain the main beneficiaries will be those who are serving in BGF and their dependants, many of whom will have had tests undertaken by military driving examiners and have a BGF driving licence. Although that may be very useful, does it require a Community directive to provide for it? If that was something that we wanted to provide for, surely it could have been dealt with by some other means.

On looking through the various propoals, it would appear that a person from another EEC country who takes up residence here may, as we all know, drive on his or her existing licence for 12 months and during that period that person may exchange his or her national licence for a British licence without having to take any tests. Are we satisfied that tests in other EEC countries are satisfactory? How do they compare with the British standards? Is not the harmonisation of those test standards something which is essential if this particular set of regulations is to mean anything?

The Minister has said that minimum standards are set for driving tests and health. He also says that in general the British standards are commensurate with those and in many cases exceed them. In the debate in the other place the Under-Secretary of State confirmed that it will be possible for a person to fail a driving test here, but, when living in a Community country, may possibly obtain a licence there and on moving back to Britain the licence may be exchanged within 12 months for a full British licence. The question therefore arises: Can that be justified, particularly if the driving test standard in another member state is much lower than the standard in this country?

I note that the Secretary of State in a debate on the directive in the other place in November 1980 commented that in Britain we have a practical test of ability but that several of the European systems place an emphasis on a theoretical test. That is a point that must be considered when considering the different standards of test in the different national countries.

Then, as the Minister has said—and this is mentioned in the 32nd Report of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments in paragraph 2— The main obstacle to agreement on the draft directive was the existence in the UK of vocational licence schemes for drivers of heavy goods and public service vehicles. The guidance note from the Department of Transport issued in June this year, to which I referred, says: Unlike most of her partners in Europe Britain has separate heavy goods vehicle and public service vehicle licensing arrangements. The Minister emphasised that in these connections Britain has a high standard of competence. I am certain that your Lordships will be concerned that in any measures now put before us there is to be no lowering of those standards in this country.

We know that the draft directive says that it does not provide expressly for a situation where a separate licence is issued for those particular vehicles, and we do issue those special licences. I recognise that in these regulations there are a number of proposals for safeguards for heavy goods vehicles, particularly the question that a person must either have passed an equivalent test or can show experience of driving similar vehicles in their own country. But this means that within a period of 18 months residence here a person could obtain in exchange a heavy goods vehicle licence in this country without any test whatever. I note that when this matter of the directive was debated in the other place the Opposition proposed an amendment that: no heavy goods vehicle, or passenger service vehicle, licences shall be granted to persons who have not passed tests of standard equivalent to those in the United Kingdom. I know that the Minister said that there may be only 200 applications a year, but 200 applications of persons who have not passed any standard to drive any goods vehicles commensurate with that in this country is something with which we should be concerned. The same conditions for the exchange of a heavy goods vehicle licence are to apply in the case of an application for exchange for a public service vehicle licence.

As has been stressed in Britain now there is provision that the licensing commissioners may require an applicant for a public service vehicle licence to take a driving test. They may require him to do so. Paragraph 9 of the memorandum of the Department of Transport states. It would be inconsistent to require a person who holds a valid licence of another member state to take a test. But I would ask the Minister if the commissioners are not satisfied with the evidence of driving experience, notwithstanding what has been said in the guidance note from the department, will the commissioners have the authority to require a test to be taken so as to ensure the safety provisions of driving public service vehicles?

The Minister referred to correspondence from the Transport and General Workers' Union. This is quoted in some detail in columns 461 and 462 in the debate in the other place on the regulations. I understand that, although the union has offered to obtain information they were very concerned about the effect of these regulations on driving standards, particularly as in some European countries a number of persons who are engaged in heavy goods vehicle driving are self-employed.

I recognise that the Government share concern with everyone for safety provisions and have endeavoured to bring a number of those points in these regulations. However, I note that the Secretary of State in the debate on the directive said that in the short term the directive adds very little to Britain's safeguards, but that it does cut out a lot of red tape, and that in the longer term it could contribute to better safety standards generally. It would appear to me, in the light of our own standards in this country, that it will only lead to better standards generally if there is some harmonisation in test standards throughout the Community.

May I just raise two other points. I understand that the British licences issued in exchange will be free of any endorsements, even though the existing licence from another member state may have endorsements upon it. The Under-Secretary of State in column 460 in the other place said: With the discrepancies between the various national laws, I think that would he impractical"— I think she is referring now to these being transferred to the British licences— But I shall take advice about it". Later, when asked whether, where appropriate, details of penalties could be put on the British licence for our totting up procedure she said in column 472: I simply do not know without conferring with the Home Office, whether that would he practicable". It may be asking a lot of the Minister, but is he able to say whether or not there has been consultation with the Home Office so that we may have an answer to that important point? If a licence from another member state being exchanged for a British licence has a number of endorsements, it would be wrong for them not to be transferred to the British licence.

Finally, in the memorandum from the Department of Transport, paragraph 15 indicates that for the purposes of a common transport policy of the Community Gibraltar is included in the term "United Kingdom". It goes on to say that as there are no powers there is: an intention to take the next opportunity to include such exchanges in primary legislation presented to Parliament". If the Government therefore intend to have primary legislation introduced in Parliament to meet that point would not this also he an opportunity to make other bilateral arrangements for the transfer of driving licences with other states in addition to those of the Community? There is value in the exchange in the Community proposals but surely, even if we do not want a wide-sweeping provision, there ought to be some bilateral arrangements with other states. With those points, I generally commend the regulations, but there are some problems attached to them which I hope I have been able to explain.

5.39 p.m.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, for quite properly raising again certain aspects of what is proposed. I am glad to try to give some clarification to him. It is true, as he said, that various criticisms have been made on the scope of enforcement. I have to stress that it is no part of the aims of the directive to improve the enforcement of the traffic laws in this or any member state. This is concerned with the issue of driving licences and does not touch on their endorsement or withdrawal for offences under national law except by implication.

However, I should make it clear that if a person applying here for an exchange has a current disqualification in this country the licence can, and will, be refused. If a person's licence has been withdrawn in the country which issued it he, or she, will not get an exchange because he, or she, will be unable to produce a valid licence. In the case of applicants for vocational licences the normal application form must he completed stating any recent convictions. The licensing authority may take these into account in exactly the same way as convictions in Britain declared by a British applicant.

Further than that it is not possible to go. Road traffic laws are not identical even between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, let alone among other Community countries. For foreign courts' convictions to be recorded on our licences would be to give them jurisdiction to order the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre to enter those matters in its driver records. Even if that were to be enacted—and I stress that it would represent a major and controversial step in an area of basic constitutional importance—such a transfer of endorsements would not be practicable unless there was an exact correspondence between national laws so that everything which was an offence in another Community state was an offence in British law. For my part, I cannot foresee the day when that will come about. I think it must follow that the enforcement aspects of the British licensing system remain apart from those aspects to which these regulations are directed and with which the directive itself is concerned.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, expressed anxiety about the standards of other Community driving tests. It is true that, from our point of view, many of them leave room for improvements. It is also possible that when the further discussions on harmonisation foreseen by the directive have started, they will reveal some respects in which we can improve our own requirements, although we have reason to believe that in all major respects our tests are the most thorough. What the directive offers is a framework within which we can press our partners for a general levelling up of standards, and I believe there are already signs of that. There can he no question of a levelling down.

This levelling up is of real benefit because it means that the standard of driving in the Community will be slowly but surely improved. That affects safety on the roads everywhere, above all for those who encounter visiting drivers from other member states on the roads here and those who take their holidays on the Continent or drive there on business, all matters which are a fact of life already. Allowing quite a small number of Community licence-holders to have our licences, regardless of what tests they have taken in the past once they become resident here, is, I submit, a small price to pay for setting in motion this major force of improvements. Let us not forget that a large proportion, probably the majority, of those who exchange licences will he our own citizens returning from periods of residence on the Continent.

The noble Lord was also properly concerned that there should be no lowering of standards concerning vocational licences. I went in some detail in my opening remarks into the safeguards for the exchange of vocational licences. There is a balance to he struck here. The directive is a hard-won compromise between the commitment to free movement which we accepted on accession to the community and our right to maintain our high standards in the interests of road safety. That directive is a commitment and the emphasis is now on the administrative arrangements to ensure that this balance is kept in the assessment of individual applications. I have made it clear that the Department of Transport will pass on to the licensing authorities any useful information to assist them in this task.

The noble Lord asked what would happen if the commissioners were not satisfied. If they are not satisfied, they can refuse a licence. The driver can then take a test or, of course, appeal to magistrates, and I assume that they would then take his or her experience into account in considering the matter. I hope I have covered in the main the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, quite properly expressed by him because, as we have both said, these are complex matters. They have been evolved over a period of time, they are an attempt to move in what I think it fair to call the right direction and I am sure they will take us further down the road of harmonisation in all matters of this kind.

On Question, Motion agreed to.