HL Deb 13 July 1989 vol 510 cc492-500

7.51 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 26th June be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, during the passage of this legislation, we gave an undertaking to consult widely on the draft regulations. We produced a consultation document setting out the issues involved. We sent out almost 5,000 copies. We received responses from 65 organisations and from many individuals. We are most grateful to all those who took the trouble to respond and for their helpful comments. The draft regulations before noble Lords are framed around those comments.

The consultation exercise exposed the issues of what should happen when, for instance, there are draft regulations. It may be helpful to noble Lords if I explain what is not meant by these regulations. They are not about compulsory fitting. They do not make it obligatory for drivers to buy or fit rear adult belts or child restraints. The primary legislation states "where fitted". They are not about limiting the capacity of the car. They do not prevent the large family or a group of children—on the school run for example—from travelling together. They are not about compulsory wearing for adults. What the regulations are about is protecting the 80 per cent. or so of children who currently travel unrestrained in the rear.

The consultation exercise exposed the issues of what should happen when; for instance, there are more children than restraints; there is a mix of adults and children; luggage is being carried; seats can be folded down; and third party drivers are involved. They also opened up for debate who should wear what. I should like to deal with that last point first.

The consultation document explained that expert opinion was divided about the youngest age at which it was reasonable to require a child to wear an adult belt in the absence of a proper child restraint. Clearly, they would not be appropriate for children under one. They should be restrained in an approved baby restraint or a restrained carrycot. Where such suitable restraints are available, the regulations require them to be used. But what about slightly older children—those aged up to four? We proposed discussions with professional experts. A seminar was held on 19th April and was attended by the following: the Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety; the Child Accident Prevention Trust; the National Automobile Safety Belt Association; the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents; the Transport and Road Research Laboratory; the Medical Commission on Accident Prevention; Dr Gordon Avery of the South Warwickshire Health Authority, and other officials from my department. We are extremely grateful to all those who took part. We are also grateful to the Consumers' Association which also dealt at length with this issue in its response to the consultation exercise.

The unanimous opinion of the seminar participants was that, on balance, it was probably safer for children aged under four—those aged one, two and three—to wear an adult belt rather than no belt at all, but that the law should not go as far as to require that they do so.

The issue is one of public acceptability. We recognise that many parents would feel uneasy about being required by law to restrain a small child in an adult belt that clearly did not fit well and was not designed to do so. Those at the seminar agreed, again unanimously, that the risk of belt-induced injury to children in this age group using an adult belt was minimal when using a booster cushion. We therefore propose that the range of restraints appropriate for children aged one to four should include an adult belt used in conjunction with a booster cushion.

We acknowledge that that is something of a compromise, but it is an option which can make a valuable contribution towards achieving the objective of the Act, which is to provide for the safety of children in cars. It is, of course, far better for a very young child to be restrained in a purpose-designed child restraint. We would expect all responsible parents to provide these for their children. We would hope that other drivers—grandparents, for example—who might expect to carry young children on occasions will, as a result of these regulations, be prepared to buy one, or perhaps two, booster cushions, which are comparatively inexpensive, in the knowledge that they are approved restraints for this age group.

There would be nothing in law to prevent a child in the one to four age group from being restrained in an adult belt if the driver wanted to offer some protection to the child, provided no other suitable restraint was available. Where a suitable restraint is available in the vehicle, it will have to be used. We shall continue, with the full backing of the seminar experts, to give the advice that, for this age group, an adult belt is better than no restraint at all.

Perhaps I may turn to the problem of more children than restraints. I have already explained that these regulations were not about limiting the capacity of the car. The regulations require suitable, available restraints to be worn. Where, for example, there are three suitable restraints available, but more than three children travelling in the rear of a car, three of them must be belted up. Then, as now, it will be the driver or parent's dilemma to decide who should travel unrestrained.

In the case of a mix of adults and children, there are clear safety benefits from allowing an adult to be restrained rather than a child. The heaviest unrestrained passengers can cause the most severe injury to others in the car in the event of a crash. The draft regulations allow for that: if an adult is using a belt, it will not be regarded as being available for a child and the child will not be required to use it. An adult not prepared to belt up will not be allowed to deny a child the use of that restraint if it is suitable for the child or could be used to hold an appropriate child restraint, if one is available. The adult would have to vacate the seat, unless that adult has a medical exemption certificate.

On the question of when luggage is being carried, we are, I am sure, all agreed, that children must come before luggage. We propose no exemption for children travelling unrestrained simply because luggage is being carried on a rear seat.

Some vehicles are designed so that part or all of the rear seat may be folded down. Under the regulations, a rear seat folded down to create more luggage space would not be regarded as being availabe for use, nor would any seat belt fitted to it, provided the additional luggage space is necessary for luggage to be carried and it is being so carried. We believe this pragmatic approach to be right.

Perhaps I may now turn to the question of third party drivers. Taxi drivers and private hire car drivers argued strongly for exemption from the law on the grounds that they should not be expected to compel other people's children to wear seat belts or be responsible for ensuring that they continue to do so while travelling. The consultation exercise revealed that the vast majority of people were strongly against any such exemption. We see no case for exempting taxis generally or private car hire drivers. Indeed, the case that they put could be used by any third party driver—relatives or friends—to escape the responsibility that the new law places on them.

In some taxis, for instance, the "black cabs", and some hire cars, there is a fixed glass partition between the driver and the rear seat. Such a partition limits the scope for the driver to supervise the child passenger. We therefore propose that drivers of such vehicles which are properly licensed as taxis would be exempt from the new law. Organisations representing drivers of these vehicles—the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association and the London Taxi Board—have both said that they fully support the fitting and wearing of child restraints. We propose to work with those organisations to see how we can encourage voluntary retro-fitting of seat belts in those taxis with suitable anchorage points, which are those manufactured since 1981. All taxis manufactured since October 1986 are required to have belts fitted. We shall also want to explore what we can do to encourage voluntary wearing by adults as well as children.

It is clear that the vast majority of the public welcome this measure. It is very much in tune with the climate of opinion and within the spirit of the enabling legislation that the House passed a year ago. I therefore commend these regulations to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 26th June be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Brabazon of Tara.)

8 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, once again I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the regulations. As he reminded us, during the Committee stage of the legislation considerable reliance was placed on the regulations that were to be introduced in order to deal with the various points that were raised. The general view was that the Bill was so useful that noble Lords did not want it held up by tabling amendments but would rather rely on the regulations.

By and large the Minister and the department have fulfilled the undertakings that were given, and the regulations generally are welcome. Regulation 6, to which the Minister referred in some detail—"Interpretation of reference to availability" —appears to have clarified quite satisfactorily many of the points raised under that heading. I wish to raise only three points. I assume that Regulation 6 taken in conjunction with Regulation 4 on exempt vehicles means that the regulations will apply where a seat belt is available (that is, where a seat belt is fitted) irrespective of the age of the vehicle or the year of its manufacture. If I am wrong on that point I am sure that the Minister will correct me when he replies.

I understand the explanation given by the Minister regarding licensed taxis and hire cars but I am still very concerned about the compromise which has been arranged. The object of the Act and the regulations is the safety of the child. That is the important matter. I hope that discussions will take place with the organisations concerned to see how far that can be developed. Presumably where there is no partition fitted the vehicles will not be exempt. Therefore it is solely a matter of whether or not the taxi driver or licensed car driver can satisfactorily supervise the operation of seat belts for children. I am still rather concerned about the position and hope that it can be clarified.

The Minister mentioned the wide representation at the seminar and the general agreement reached. He also referred to the presence of the Consumers' Association. No doubt he is aware of the communication which was delivered to me today by express courier giving the views of the Consumers' Association. I should like to have the Minister's views on it. The association is particularly concerned about paragraph (3) of Regulation 3, which refers to the position of young children between the ages of one and four years. The regulation provides that the wearing of an adult seat belt should be in conjunction with a booster cushion. The Consumers' Association expresses the view that a booster seat and not a booster cushion should be used, or alternatively a child safety seat.

There is an important point which arises from that. If it has not been done already research should be thoroughly carried out as soon as possible into the age at which an adult seat belt can safely be worn by a child of one to four years, whether or not with a booster cushion. It appears that the desire for research is also expressed by the Parliamentary Advisory Committee on Transport Safety. Therefore two very important bodies urge that this research should be carried out fairly soon.

The Consumers' Association also stressed that there appears to be a need for adequate publicity to be given for the use of special restraints for the under-fours and for the use of booster cushions with seat belts for the over-fours. Although we welcome the regulations, as we did the Bill which is now an Act, I should like the Minister to give some assurance that the effect of the regulations will be carefully monitored and the results of the monitoring exercise publicised.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I should like to join in welcoming the regulations. This is a classic case in which consultation has been well carried out and the department, having taken notice of the consultations, has produced regulations which answer, as the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said, most of the criticisms of the Bill that were raised during its passage through the House before it became an Act. Like him, I am not satisfied with the situation so far as it concerns taxis, although I understand the difficulty of taxi drivers. It seems to me that the first step may be to increase the use of rear seat belts for adults in taxis. I think that the department would do well to persuade taxi drivers to put up signs in their taxis encouraging adults to use the seat belts which are now fitted in most of the taxis in London. That would be a step towards providing proper equipment for children.

As regards the booster cushions, I wonder whether there may not be other devices which could be used in conjunction with adult seat belts, particularly when adults are wearing them. Recently I travelled on an aeroplane and noticed a child in the next seat who was enclosed in an additional belt which fitted on to the seat belt that was in the aircraft. Perhaps there is some way of incorporating that kind of device. It is probably not as effective as a booster cushion but may be an aid that can be used in certain circumstances.

With those minor qualifications, I believe that the Government are to be congratulated on the way in which they have handled this whole affair. I know that there are others who feel that the liberty of the entire nation is at risk but from all sides we hear from parents and grandparents of young children a desire to have these regulations in operation as soon as possible so that little Johnny can be told that he had jolly well better belt up, otherwise the law will be after him. That may not be too admirable a way of doing it, but it is useful to give parents a responsibility to ensure that their children are properly belted up and a little incentive to help them do so. I commend the regulations.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the regulations. The wording is extremely complex, even tortuous. I suppose that is inevitable. Perhaps I am particularly slow-witted this evening but I found the regulations difficult to interpret and I hope that the general public will not also find them so.

By and large I regret the regulations because many—not all, but many—of the worst fears of those who opposed the original Bill have been realised. First, it will throw a clumsy spanner into the works of that long hallowed, useful and indeed vital institution the "school run" by restricting the number of children who can be carried in a car at any one time. As I interpret the Minister's remarks, only one unbelted child will be allowed in the back of the car, which means either three of four children in the back depending on how many seat belts are fitted in the car. In my day we used to take five, six, seven or even on rare occasions eight children in the car on our one-and-a-half mile school run. I wonder whether the statistics show that that practice has resulted in any harm. Certainly I can recall no instance of any child that I know—my neighbours' children or any child in the neighbourhood—being injured in any way. Perhaps the very absence of belts made us all drive more carefully than people seem to do nowadays.

One can welcome Regulation 6(2)(e), which grants an exemption for children who are too heavy for the child restraints that happen to be fitted to the car in question. However, I regret above all the absence of any exemption for children who are stretched out on the back seat of their car or in the rear part of an estate car. This was an exemption which was sought by the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, from the S&LD Benches who had found this practice extremely useful in bringing up his large family. Which driver is more likely to have an accident—a parent whose children are stretched out asleep or dozing in the back or a parent who is being driven to distraction by overtired but wide awake children squabbling fiercely on the back seat? I think that the answer is obvious.

I believe that permitting children of four and upwards to use an adult's seat belt without a booster cushion is simply asking for trouble. A child small in stature could have his neck or throat badly injured not only in the event of a collision but on a sudden braking—if a dog were to run out in front of a car, for example. I hope that the effects, of this concession, if one likes to call it that, will be closely monitored by the noble Lord's department.

Finally, it will be remembered that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Gardyne, posed this question on many occasions. What is the situation of a parent whose disobedient child of four years or upwards, who would be quite strong enough to unbuckle the seat belt, deliberately unbuckles it without the parent's knowledge, or possibly with the parent's knowledge but while his or her hands were full with driving the car? The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, referred to a parent being able to threaten little Johnny with the heavy hand of the law. But little Johnny, if he is of a certain age, will know perfectly well that it is not he who will have the heavy hand of the law clamped on him but his parents. Out of mischief he may well unbuckle his belt for that very reason. I look forward with interest to hearing the reply of the noble Lord.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I should like to say a word of congratulation to my noble friend on proposing the new statutory order. I extend that congratulation to the honourable Member in another place, Mr. Peter Bottomley, on being the main force in arranging the very wide consultations that have taken place. They have helped to give confidence all round, to iron out the many practical difficulties that we discussed at some length during Committee stage and to meet the very practical points that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, raised in his splendid traditional defence of the liberty of the subject.

We now have a clear set of regulations, with a pretty lengthy list of exemptions. However, that seems to me completely right. What remains are regulations that are clear and enforceable. Where there is doubt, the regulation does not cover that aspect.

I believe that the new legal requirement for seat belt wearing by children in the rear of cars will quickly win general observance by all parents wishing to give maximum protection to their children. I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, that it will be an additional weapon in the hands of parents to say that the law is there and that the child had better do as he is told.

The TRRL survey shows that 75, per cent. of children over five years travel unrestrained in the rear of cars. That is a disturbingly high number. Today 45 per cent. of cars are fitted with rear seat belts. Every year the quota of new cars coming in is fitted with rear seat belts. The prospect of having a large number of children protected who have not been protected before is good.

I believe that the observance of these seat belt regulations will be very high, in the same way as it was for the wearing of front seat belts. I believe that the figure still remains at over 90 per cent. We can expect that problems of enforcement will be almost nil and that there will be a significant reduction in injuries to children in the four to 14 years age bracket who now account for some 70 per cent. of all the serious and fatal car casualties. That is a pretty serious toll which we can expect to be reduced.

I found the PACTS study helpful. As always PACTS makes a most valuable contribution to this work. On the record of injury to children wearing seat belts—a point on which anxiety has been voiced—it does not support the fears expressed in some quarters. However, it makes the point that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, made and with which I entirely agree, that clearly more research is needed in this area. I agree with the noble Lord that four year-olds are obviously rather near the borderline of danger from an adult seat belt. It would be very desirable to have careful monitoring and indeed research work in that field. In the meantime, most of the children in the age bracket of four to 14 years will be protected and they will be safe enough.

I conclude by congratulating my noble friend on moving the order. I am sure that it will give substantial benefit and will be another step forward in the general wearing of seat belts, a factor which has already afforded so much benefit towards the saving of life and limb.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am most grateful for the general welcome that noble Lords, with the possible exception of the noble Lord, Lord Monson, have given to the order. It completes a process that we started last year when we passed the Bill, which was so ably piloted through the House by my noble friend Lord Nugent.

Perhaps I may answer briefly the points that have been raised. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked whether the regulations would apply irrespective of the year of manufacture of the vehicle. The answer is, yes, they will apply to any car to which a rear seat belt has been fitted regardless of its age and manufacture.

The noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Tordoff, referred to taxis. I can confirm that all taxis and hired cars, apart from those with a partition, will be covered by the regulations and therefore will be in no different position from any other third party driver. I mentioned certain discussions that we have had with the taxi trade. Those will continue. We welcome the general support that we have had from it.

On booster cushions, I acknowledged in my speech that such use by children aged one, two and three years is something of a compromise. The view of the experts is that it is certainly better to have specially designed restraints. But it is better to have some restraint rather than none. I can confirm to noble Lords—and the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, raised this in particular—that full publicity is planned in the run up to the implementation of these regulations on 1st September and on the day. We already publicise the child restraints. We shall continue to do so, especially in view of the new regulations.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, has slightly misinterpreted the regulations regarding the school run. They will not specifically limit the capacity of a car. They require only that such belts as are fitted should be used; not that all passengers should be restrained. If he were to take six children in the back of his car and there are three belts, then three belts must be used and the other three children would have to remain unrestrained.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, also talked about a child deliberately unbuckling a belt. The responsibility would, I am afraid, lie on the driver or the parent, whoever was driving at the time, and the heavy hand of the law might indeed come down on such a driver. If the child does that deliberately and if the parent is caught by the police, he will have no option but to deduct any fine from the child's pocket money over a period of time. That may be sufficient punishment for the child.

A number of noble Lords have referred to the research which should necessarily be continued into the age at which adult belts can be safely worn. That research falls into two categories. First, there is the testing with dummies where much has already been done. But there are limitations on how well this work simulates real live accidents. Standard test procedures are used for approval testing of booster cushions used in conjunction with adult belts.

Secondly, there is the monitoring of real life situations. The information available shows that children above the age of one are safer when restrained by an adult belt than when they are unrestricted. In one study of over 500 children involved in accidents—including 300 under four year-olds restrained by adult belts—only one was injured by the belt. We shall also be monitoring international experience and we shall continue to do research and to monitor this procedure.

I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford. I am sure that he is right when he says that the measure will achieve the success that the wearing of front seat-belts has achieved. It is now over 90 per cent. accepted by the general public since it was made compulsory. Therefore I commend these regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.