HL Deb 25 October 1982 vol 435 cc354-7

5.1 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin) rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 23rd June be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order which is before the House today forms the last part of a package designed to meet the requirements of the European Community directive on roadworthiness tests. Your Lordships may not be very familiar with this directive, so perhaps I could quickly run through the main points in it, before explaining why the Motor Vehicles (Tests) (Extension) Order is needed, and how it affects testing arrangements in this country.

The purpose of the roadworthiness directive is to harmonise the arrangements in all the counties of the European Community for testing goods and passenger vehicles. It covers all motor vehicles with more than eight seats, excluding the driver's seat, used for the carriage of' passengers. It covers, motor vehicles and trailers used for the carriage of goods with a maximum weight exceeding 3,500 kg; and taxis and ambulances. The directive goes on to require that tests on these categories of vehicles should be carried out one year after the date on which the vehicle was first used, and then after that on an annual basis. It also lists the items which should be tested, but leaves member states to decide how tests are to be carried out, and by whom. In other words, the directive lays down certain minimum standards; it is quite modest in its scope, and is, I think, a useful road safety measure for the Community as a whole.

We are fortunate in this country, that we already have extensive testing arrangements for the vehicles covered by the directive and, in the main, these arrangements already meet, or in some cases even exceed, the requirements of the directive. However, we have had to make two significant changes, in order to comply with what the directive lays down. The first was the introduction of a formal annual testing scheme for public service vehicles, which replaced the old informal inspection system. Your Lordships may remember that the legislative foundations for this were laid in the Transport Act, 1980. The detailed arrangements for the new scheme were laid down in the Motor Vehicle (Tests) Regulations 1981, which came into operation at the very end of last year. They were subject to the usual negative resolution procedure.

The second change which we are obliged to make concerns the age at which vehicles have to be tested for the first time, and that is the reason for this extension order. In order to comply with the directive, we have to ensure that from 1st January 1983 all taxis, ambulances, and large passenger vehicles, as well as public service vehicles, have their first test by the time of their first birthday. This order introduces that new requirement. Goods vehicles are not included in the scope of the order, because their annual test already starts at one year old, and no change is needed.

The form of the order is governed by the provisions of the 1972 Road Traffic Act. Section 44 deals with compulsory test certificates for certain specified classes of vehicles and provides the foundation for the MOT tests. It makes it an offence to use a vehicle on the road without a valid test certificate, if it comes within the MOT test scheme and if it is over a certain age. When Section 44 was written, the age specified was 10 years, but the Act provides that a shorter period can be substituted by statutory instrument. As noble Lords will know, this power has been used several times, and the age for the first test under the MOT scheme has been gradually reduced to its present three years.

The last Motor Vehicle (Extension) Order was made in 1966. This new order revokes the 1966 one, and brings down the age of the first test from three years to one year for the roadworthiness directive vehicles. The House will note, however, that paragraph 5 of the order provides for the three-year period to continue in force for all vehicles except taxis, ambulances and passenger vehicles with more than eight passenger seats. This means that the testing of private cars, motorcycles and light vans is not affected in any way by the order.

I imagine that some of your Lordships may feel some concern about the apparently rather short deadline. The effect of the order is that from 1st January 1983, any vehicle which falls within one of the specified categories and is more than one year old on that date must possess a test certificate. I can, however, reassure the House on this point. The intention to bring in the order was widely publicised a year ago and the new arrangements for testing vehicles have been operating throughout the year.

Generally speaking, there is very little change at all, with vehicles being tested at the same places, by the same people and to the same standards. Apart from the new testing arrangements for public service vehicles, and the difference in the age at which some vehicles must be presented for their test for the first time little else has been necessary. I am sure, however, these two changes are very worthy ones and will encourage an improvement in the maintenance standards for the vehicles affected. There is no radical revision to the testing systems already operating in this country, and on that basis I commend the order for approval by this House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Motor Vehicles (Tests) (Extension) Order 1982 laid before the House on 23rd June be approved.—(Lord Bellwin.)

5.8 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I am certain that your Lordships will wish to thank the Minister for so clearly explaining the points in this order. Anything that will assist safety standards should be encouraged. I am almost tempted to join in the discussion in the light of what the noble Lord said that national States will be free to determine how the testing shall be done and by whom, but that will be trespassing on your Lordships' time. However, in view of the Government's decision in the recent Bill to transfer the testing from our very efficient arrangements, I am tempted to do so. As the Minister said, in effect the order makes no change to the arrangements this country already has for heavy goods and public service vehicles. It extends them to other classes and this will add in general to safety conditions.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, William Shakespeare was no doubt right when he said that: All's well that ends well". The department certainly chose for itself a hard and stony road to travel over to get this order. That may be gleaned from the last paragraph of the explanatory notes to the order, which state that the order of 1981, with a similar title, not having been approved by Parliament, was never registered.

The 1981 order came before the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments who questioned the vires of it. They invited the department to submit a memorandum. The memorandum stated four grounds upon which the department contended that the order was intra tires, none of which grounds appealed to the joint committee. The committee invited the department to come and give oral evidence. I shall not weary your Lordships with all four grounds that were contended for, but with only one.

An assistant solicitor in the department giving evidence before the joint committee said that one could see that the order was intra tires when one looked at what the Minister had said in the Committee stage of the enabling Act. When confronted with the proposition that it is well known that the courts in interpreting legislation may not look at Hansard, the witness relied upon half a sentence of the judgment of Lord Reid in a House of Lords case of 1969 called Regina v. Warner. The words which the witness quoted were as follows: I am bound to say that this case seems to show that there is room for an exception where examining the proceedings in Parliament would almost certainly settle the matter immediately one way or the other". Those words, taken by themselves, certainly seem to support what the witness was contending for, but when one looks up the case to see what Lord Reid really said on this point one finds that Lord Reid was saying the exact opposite. I shall tell your Lordships what Lord Reid did say. It is not very long and it reads as follows: ...the layman may well wonder why we do not consult the Parliamentary Debates, for we are much more likely to find the intention of Parliament there than anywhere else. The rule is firmly established that we may not look at Hansard and in general I agree with it, for reasons which I gave last year in Beswick v. Beswick… This is not a suitable case in which to reopen the matter, but", and he then says the words quoted by the witness. At the beginning of the next paragraph Lord Reid makes the situation perfectly plain when he says: As things are we must do our best with the material available to us". It is a sorry day when a witness from a Government department quotes a snippet of a judgment of a judge who, in fact, one finds when one looks up the case, is saying the exact opposite to what the witness is relying upon. That is why I say that the department have chosen a very stony path, but they have got here in the end.

On Question, Motion agreed to.