HL Deb 12 May 1983 vol 442 cc679-83

8.15 p.m.

Lord Cullen of Ashbourne

My Lords, I beg to move. This brief measure was introduced in another place by the honourable member for Newbury. It is, I believe, uncontroversial. To explain what the Bill would do I must give your Lordships some background; but unless asked to do so I do not propose to go through it clause by clause. The Community Driving Licence Regulations which this House approved in October 1982 gave people who come to live in this country and hold other European Community driving licences the right to exchange them for the equivalent British driving licences. These arrangements came into force on 1st January 1983. These regulations were made under Section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972.

Owing to limitations in the enabling powers, two small groups of United Kingdom licence holders were placed at a disadvantage compared with the holders of licences issued in other Community states. One group so disadvantaged is the holders of Gibraltar licences who can now exchange their licences in every country of the Community except here in Britain. The other group consists of Northern Ireland and Ireland holders of public service vehicle drivers' licences who, unlike Northern Irish heavy goods vehicle drivers and unlike holders of vocational licences elsewhere in the Community, do not have the right of exchange in the United Kingdom. In his memorandum on the regulations to the Joint Scrutiny Committee, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport promised that this anomaly would be put right at the earliest opportunity and that is one purpose of this Bill. The other purpose is to fulfil an undertaking given by the then Secretary of State for Transport when opening the debate on the European Community Draft Directive which introduced the Community driving licence exchanges. He said he would be ready to consider extending similar exchange arrangements for cars to other countries provided, of course, their standards are satisfactory.

I stress that he did not propose—and nor does the Bill propose—any extension of the present arrangements under the directive for the exchange of vocational licences; that is, heavy goods and public service vehicle drivers' licences beyond the United Kingdom and the European Community. The Bill does not extend to Northern Ireland, but I understand that similar legislation will follow in that Province if this Bill is passed into law. I believe that the Bill is such as to be welcomed on all sides of the House, and I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.— (Lord Cullen of Ashbourne.)

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cullen of Ashbourne, for explaining the Bill. When one had the Bill this morning for the first time it was difficult to understand exactly what were the provisions because it inserts bits and pieces in other legislation. But from the explanation of the noble Lord one can now see quite clearly the purpose of it, and I am grateful to him.

When the Community Licence Regulations were introduced last October, I said on that occasion that any provision which eases the movement of people, assists them to work and to take up residence is to be welcomed, but at the same time I added—and other noble Lords echoed this—so long as there is no lessening of our effective safety standards. On that occasion, the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, made some points and gave assurances in that direction.

I am pleased to note that the Bill not only deals with Gibraltar but when the Community Licence Regulations were introduced I recall I made the point that if the Government proposed to introduce primary legislation to deal with the position of Gibraltar, I hoped at the same time they would take the opportunity of providing for bilateral arrangements with states outside the Community. In effect, the Bill makes that provision, or the opportunity is there. I note that an amendment was put in the other place—I do not know at what stage because there was no Second Reading debate and no Committee stage so it must have been during an abbreviated Report stage—to provide that the Secretary of State shall have appropriate consultations before he designates other states outside the Community to which this may apply.

I hope some care will be exercised in that and although of course this Government cannot bind the incoming Government—which I have no doubt will be totally different—nevertheless the Bill takes effect within two months of passing. No doubt the Government and the department will be considering steps to implement the Bill. I have no doubt that the Government will accept the Bill in view of the assurance given previously. I am sure the Government will pay careful attention to the need for the preserving of standards. The Minister, in connection with the Community Licence Regulations gave an opportunity for dealing with standards throughout the Community. As this Bill now gives the opportunity for the Secretary of State to designate countries outside the Community, there could be a problem as regards ensuring that our standards are adhered to. I hope that attention will be given to that important matter and that the Secretary of State will take it into consideration when he considers designation.

I regret that there appears to be no provision in the Bill for any designation by the Secretary of State to receive Parliamentary approval, even by a negative order. I assume that it is merely a designation that the Secretary of State will make. That makes it more important for attention to be given to the question of safety standards.

I do not think I need refer to the provisions of Clause 2 as the noble Lord has made it clear that this applies solely to the position of Gibraltar regarding heavy goods and passenger service vehicles. When we look at Clause which deals with passenger service vehicle licences operating in Northern Ireland, we find that if a person has held, within the previous five years, a licence to drive a passenger service vehicle in Ireland, there need be no compliance with a condition for a passenger service vehicle test, as there is in this country.

I assume that the licensing authority has to be satisfied that the person has held a licence in Northern Ireland for five years; but a situation could arise where a person has held a licence for only a few weeks and therefore there is no evidence of real experience in driving a passenger service vehicle. In such a situation I hope that the Secretary of State will pay careful attention to this point and that there will be an opportunity in such cases for the licensing authority to insist that there should be a test. With those minor comments. I welcome the Bill. I hope the Government will accept it and that it will come into effect within two months of its passing.

8.24 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I do not think I need add more than a few words to the explanation of this measure which has been given to your Lordships by my noble friend. The present discrimination against certain United Kingdom licence-holders, to which he has referred, affects only a very few drivers. Nevertheless, this is an injustice which we would all wish to remedy as soon as possible. The initiative taken by my honourable friend the Member for Newbury and by my noble friend Lord Cullen is therefore most welcome.

As has been explained, the Bill takes the opportunity to extend ordinary licence exchange to third countries outside the Community, subject to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State being satisfied about their driving test and other aspects of the driving licence. I envisage that there would be reciprocal arrangements with the countries concerned: in fact many countries already exchange British licences. I would underline what my noble friend said: there is no proposal to extend beyond the European Community the arrangements stemming from the Rome Treaty guarantees on free movement of workers for the exchange of vocational driving licences. In other words, there is no question of diluting our vocational licensing scheme through this Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, raised a very important point. Since he asked the question of the Government, it may be appropriate if my noble friend allows me to put the Government's point of view regarding that question. The noble Lord spoke of the amendment which the Government accepted in another place last night. It was of course an Opposition amendment, stemming largely from the very reasonable comments made by the Royal Automobile Club that there ought to be consultation before countries outside the Community are designated for exchange of licences.

Your Lordships may be interested to know that in the department we estimate that there are some 200 driving licence administrations in the world. These range from nation-states to colonies, provinces and so forth. There are the Australian and American states, the Canadian provinces and so on, each with its own laws. We shall need to consider very carefully which of them meet the standards set by the United Kingdom and the European Community. With the international contacts that the motoring organisations have, there is no doubt that their knowledge will add to that which the department will gather from the Governments concerned. That will enable the Secretary of State to reach an informed decision on each designation.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, referred to this. I think he would be reassured to know that in making these decisions the basic criteria would be those standards set both in the United Kingdom and in the European Community. I believe the noble Lord will appreciate that even having made the designation—by order admittedly—there is provision for the reversal of the same, should there be a change of circumstances in the country which has been so designated. Obviously it will not be possible to do this all at once. Countries on which we can gather sufficient information during the months before the Act comes into force will be designated subject, as we have said, to consultation and without delay. However, information on other countries may take longer and there will have to be further designations from time to time.

The noble Lord also raised a very important point on Clause 3: the Northern Ireland licence to drive public service vehicles. May I paraphrase his question: will the licensing authority be assured that the PSV licence-holder in Northen Ireland has undertaken this kind of work for a period of five years without committing an offence? I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and other noble Lords, will recall that passenger service vehicles drivers' licences are granted by the traffic commissioners in the same traffic areas and by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner at the Public Carriage Office in London. Their powers are based on Part II of the Public Passenger Vehicles Act of 1981, although driving licences are issued in several other United Kingdom jurisdictions. It will therefore be up to the commissioners, in considering this transfer of licence, to take account of all relevant facts. I have little doubt that the commissioners will be very much seized of the point which was made by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. I repeat that we will attempt to ensure—indeed we will ensure—that there will be no lowering of standards, particularly among vocational driving licence holders.

May I also mention that this Bill is concerned with people who become resident here. The existing international conventions will continue to cover visitors engaged in international commerce and tourism. So it is a fairly restricted Bill and is one which I wish to commend to the House.

Lord Cullen of Ashbourne

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, for his welcome to the Bill, and even more so to my noble friend Lord Lucas, who spoke for the Government, for his welcome.

On Question, Bill read a second time; Committee negatived.

Then, Standing Order No. 43 having been suspended (pursuant to Resolution of 10th May): Bill read a third time, and passed.