HL Deb 23 April 1991 vol 528 cc214-21

7.58 p.m.

Lord Strathcarron

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The provisions of the Bill are entirely aimed at a subject which I confidently predict will be close to the hearts of all your Lordships; namely, to further improve the safety of child passengers in motor vehicles. Children are especially vulnerable in car crashes. According to road accident statistics, there are over 1,000 deaths and serious injuries to children in cars each year and about 10 times as many slight injuries.

Much has already been done. The Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Rear Seat Belts by Children) Act 1988, has, since its implementation in September 1989, required children under 14 to be restrained in the rear seats of cars. The 1988 Act describes the types of child restraint appropriate for different children: it has led to almost a doubling of the number of children restrained in rear seats. This, it is estimated, has prevented about 200 deaths and serious injuries in the first year. That is a significant achievement, but we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent. There are still far too many deaths and injuries occurring to child passengers each year.

Deaths and injuries to children in cars remain a major element of all child casualties on our roads. That is particularly true for children under four years old who should always be restrained by the appropriate type of restraint for their weight. Such restraints have been shown to save about three-quarters of deaths and nearly as many serious injuries compared with unrestrained children in similar accidents. Seat belts alone are far from ideal for such young children, because they are designed for adults.

The Bill will enable the Secretary of State to make regulations under the Road Traffic Act 1988 to control the sale and hire of safety equipment for children so that only that approved to British or international safety standards can be sold or hired out as being for protecting children in accidents. It will also mean that retailers will have to ensure that all the appropriate information which the standards specify is provided with the restraint at the point of sale. This includes the weight of children and in certain cases the vehicle models for which the restraint is suitable, clear instructions for installing the restraint in the vehicle and the child in the restraint and specific warnings about the dangers of misuse.

It is vital that parents are given the best possible guidance in this respect. Child restraints and associated safety equipment incorrectly installed can in many cases mean that it would be quite ineffective in the event of an accident. More needs to be done by vehicle manufacturers, child restraint manufacturers and standards makers to develop restraints which are less prone to misuse. If this Bill is successful it will encourage those manufacturers who comply with the latest standards and increase the incentive on them further to improve those standards. It will also encourage the correct use of the most appropriate restraint for the child.

The types of equipment which would be designed by the regulations made under the Bill would be those which in some way, directly or indirectly, are intended to restrain a child in the event of an accident. Present legislation only controls the sale of those types of child restraint which are considered to be vehicle parts and are in themselves complete restraints directly attached to the vehicle. Equipment such as booster cushions and carry cots which comply with the standards do not fall into this category. While the use of such equipment could be regulated such action would mean that all ordinary cushions and carry cots would be banned from vehicles. This would be unacceptable and could not be justified on safety grounds.

I turn briefly to the details of the Bill. Clause 1 is the main provision. This allows regulations to be made prescribing types of equipment that are recommended as being conducive to children's safety. It provides that equipment cannot be sold as conducive to safety unless it conforms to the type prescribed in the regulations. Clause 1 also enables regulations to be made requiring appropriate information to be made available and prohibiting inappropriate information. The remaining clauses are supplementary. Clause 2 provides for certain defences against offences under the Bill. Clause 3 provides for penalties and Clause 4 provides for the Short Title.

The Bill has attracted widespread support and, to my knowledge, no opposition from any quarter. This gives noble Lords some idea of its worthiness. It will prove a useful contribution to the aim of further reducing child injuries on the road and there can be no better reason for any piece of legislation. I commend the Bill to the House.

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

8.7 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I find myself in a very difficult position. I agree basically with everything said by the noble Lord, Lord Strathcarron. However, I have read the Bill through four or five times and I regret to say that at the end of it I am no wiser. The Explanatory Memorandum states that it is an offence for such equipment to be, sold as being so conducive in relation to a class of child or motor vehicle". I am sorry, but I do not understand what is meant by "a class of child", I read the Bill through again, thinking that somewhere along the line the term would be explained. In asking around, the nearest I could get is that it refers back to a Bill in 1988.

We have a Prime Minister who wants a classless society and here we are, talking about a class of child. I have said that I am in favour of any Bill on motoring which will protect and defend the lives of young children. I have worn a seat belt since before it became mandatory. I honestly do not understand this Bill.

In winding up perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Strathcarron, can explain to me what is a class of child and what is a class of vehicle. He referred to the weight of a child. A child is a child and should be protected and should be restrained. I cannot see that the class of vehicle matters. If one has a child in a vehicle that child should be protected from itself, from its weight and from other road users. I wish I could be more positive. I have two children who are now grown up. I can only repeat that I do not understand this Bill. I understand what it is aiming for, but I am afraid that the Bill as it stands is nonsensical. I am very sorry about that. I wish the Bill well, but basically I do not know what it is talking about. I wish I did.

8.9 p.m

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, before I heard the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Strathcarron, I was in a similar position to that of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. Having heard his explanation I think I am considerably clearer than I was about what the Bill means. 1 t is brought home to me by the fact that I have four grandchildren. Once again the House is debating a transport matter. I notice that the cameras have gone off and the lights are going down because I am speaking; but that is a short intervention.

I have four grandchildren. I have struggled with some of these pieces of equipment that their parents are capable of handling perfectly well. However, I am beginning to see what the noble Earl is getting at. There is a variety of types of equipment into which children can be put to restrain them from being hurt in accidents. Some face forward and some face backwards. It is important that equipment is related to the weight and size of the child. Obviously, a five-year-old child should not be placed in a restraint which is intended for a baby, and vice versa. That would render the equipment quite useless. In so far as the noble Lord, Lord Strathcarron, is seeking to ensure that equipment which is sold is appropriate for the job that it is supposed to do—I understand that that is the purpose of the Bill—I certainly support that aim.

I also understand that what is appropriate for one type of motor car may not be appropriate for another. When such equipment is sold, it is important that the instructions should clearly state the type of motor car for which it is appropriate. Although I expect that the noble Lord cannot put this provision in the Bill, I believe that there is a need for better signing on such equipment.

I have four grandchildren aged between nine months and five years. If one only uses such equipment from time to time, it is often difficult to fit it into a motor car and ensure that the safety straps are in the correct position. Indeed, if the straps are in the wrong position, it could lead to the child being injured in an accident. I believe that there should be some means of advising manufacturers on how to put signs on equipment indicating how it should be used and in what circumstances. Perhaps the Government will take that point on board.

I heard the noble Lord say that booster cushions and carry-cots were not covered by this legislation. I trust that I heard him correctly. It seems to me that some booster cushions are sold for that purpose and therefore they should be covered by the provisions of the Bill. Further, I dare say that some carry-cots may be designed in such a way as to fit into restraints on the rear seats of cars. Again, if they are sold for that purpose, surely they should come within the scope of the Bill.

Having said all that, I should add that I was most interested to hear what the noble Lord said. I thought that his final sentence stating that there could be no better reason for legislation than trying to ensure child safety was as wise a phrase as I have heard in this House for a long time. On that basis, I certainly support the Bill in principle.

8.12 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I should like to offer my full support for the Bill. In so doing perhaps I may pay tribute to Mr. Michael Jopling in another place and to the sponsors of the Bill, not least because Mr. Jopling, as a former Chief Whip, had a great deal of experience in being the executioner of a great many Private Members' Bills, as he himself conceded. I should also like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Strathcarron, on the comprehensive way in which he introduced the Bill and on the clarity which he attached to his remarks. He is absolutely right to say that enhancing the safety of children travelling in cars is of critical importance.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathcarron, drew our attention to certain statistics. I should like to add some figures to those which he adduced. Of the 10,000 or more children who were either slightly or seriously injured or killed during the course of last year, no fewer than 4,864 were injured in cars which had no seat belts fitted to them, or, if they had fitted seat belts, they were not worn. That is a serious state of affairs and one which demonstrates overwhelmingly the need for this Bill.

It is important that enabling provisions should be added to the Road Traffic Act 1988 to permit regulations to be made by the Secretary of State to prescribe recommended types of equipment and to ensure that the equipment meets certain prescribed safety standards. That is not only part of the continuing process of enhancing safety standards; it would also enable us to adjust to new requirements as they become necessary. I believe that this Bill would certainly play its part in that respect.

There is certainly no room for complacency. I do not believe that we should rest content with this Bill. The Government need to address themselves to such improvements as safer steering wheels and safer car fronts. They should also consider measures to reduce hazards to pedestrians on impact and ensure side-impact protection and leg protection on motorcycles. Indeed, one could continue listing the measures which are still necessary.

However, this Bill is a significant step. It owes its position to quite remarkable changes in attitude which have taken place recently. Indeed, it is not so very long ago that many people were resolved to oppose the concept of wearing seat belts on libertarian grounds. I never saw very much merit in that argument. However, I believe that those who fought for the change have been totally vindicated. We also had the introduction of legislation for rear seat belts and restraints for children.

Public attitudes have changed because of an awareness of the terrifying accident statistics. I believe that it would be appropriate at this stage to pay one or two tributes to those who have stimulated that awareness. First, there is the Volvo company which has led the way in providing, often on a voluntary basis, safety changes way ahead of the rest of the market. Secondly, the Lex company has produced annual public surveys which have also played their part. There was also the European road safety year some years ago, with which I was associated.

But, as we amass more knowledge and more information to mitigate accident risks, it would seem that this is a task which will never be completed. Some people say that the prime target should be the way in which vehicles are driven. However, I do not think that dealing with that and dealing with safety equipment are mutually exclusive tasks.

Among those who have become more aware of the risks are children themselves. As the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, referred to their grandchildren, perhaps I may be permitted to refer to my three year-old son. I can remember occasions when I attempted to drive him somewhere in my car—he actually wanted to drive himself—when he was only two years old. As soon as I got into the car and he noticed that the red warning light was flashing to indicate that I had not put my seat belt on, he would point it out to me.

Among other matters the Bill also addresses three important concerns. It ensures that the equipment meets prescribed standards at the point of sale or higher and that proper information is given to the purchaser at that time on how the equipment should be fitted. I believe that that is absolutely critical. It also ensures that the equipment (of which there is such a wide variety) should be appropriate to children as regards size and age. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, was most upset about the reference to a "class of child" or class of motor vehicle. In fact, all that has happened is that the draftsman has followed the provisions in the Road Traffic Act, especially those in Section 15. Although the term is not very elegant, it is used simply to describe the children who would be covered by the regulations which would be made by the Secretary of State. It is as simple as that. There is nothing about a classless society. I must tell the noble Earl that he is on a non-runner on that issue, although he might have my support in other respects.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord. First, he was kind enough to credit me with having grandchildren. Unfortunately, I do not have any.

Lord Clinton-Davis

I am sorry. I apologise to the noble Earl.

Earl Attlee

Secondly, I said that I had read the Bill and did not understand it. I accept the fact that a little baby is of a different weight and requires different handling than a larger child. I said from the start that I agree that we need some sort of provision. However, this is the wrong way to go about it. As I said, I do not understand the Bill. If the noble Lord understands it, that is wonderful; but I do not.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, the noble Earl has made much of some inelegant drafting in the original Act. I believe that we must follow that drafting so as to be consistent in this Bill. As I said, all it does is to refer to the classification of children as coming within specific regulations for which provision is made.

It is also important that a defence should be available, as it is, when an infringement is due to an act or the default of another person when that person has been given a written warranty; for example, a retailer who can prove that he was supplied with incorrect information but had no reason to believe that it was incorrect would be provided with a proper defence. That is as it should be.

I have one or two questions of which I have given the noble Lord notice. Does the Bill apply to the provision of after sales service in relation to the equipment? If not, should it not be included? Secondly, as the original Act does not apply to Northern Ireland, may I assume that the amending Bill will be similarly limited? If that is right, and as the Bill's Short Title would appear to enable us to correct that anomaly, should we not address ourselves to that point? Thirdly, my understanding is that the Government have not extended the scope of the 1988 Act to the wearing of rear seat belts in minibuses. I wonder whether that is correct. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us. If I am correct in that assumption, what logical reason is there for that anomaly to continue, at least so far as new minibuses are concerned? It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us whether the Bill—whether he approves of it or not—could be amended in that regard. I should like to know from the noble Lord, Lord Strathcarron, whether he would in principle agree to an amendment to that effect.

As I said, I believe that the Bill is needed. The noble Lord has made out a clear case for it to go on to the statute book. In making a few suggestions I am not in the least critical of the principles underlying the Bill, but as with all Bills it is capable of being improved.

8.22 p.m.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, it may be helpful if I briefly give the Government's view of the Bill. I am sure that the House is grateful to my noble friend Lord Strathcarron for his explanation of what the Bill does. I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, will expect me to answer his questions put to me as Minister on what is a Private Member's Bill.

The Government fully support the Bill. It will play a valuable part in improving road safety and the safety of children in particular. It will mean that child restraints and other types of safety equipment meant to protect children in the event of an accident can be sold only if they are approved to well-recognised and widely accepted safety standards.

The Bill will also ensure that information on the correct installation and use of child safety equipment will be provided at the point of sale. That will make it easier for parents to ascertain what restraint is best for the size and weight of their children and whether or not it is more suitable for some cars than others.

The increased use of seat belts over recent years has played a major part in the reduction of car passenger casualties, but children still remain especially vulnerable. As the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said, over 10,000 child passengers are killed and injured each year. In the case of children under five, deaths and injuries inside cars represent as many as half the deaths and injuries for that age group in all types of road accidents. One of the best things that parents and others in charge of children can do to minimise the risk of injury is to ensure that children are using approved child restraints or safety equipment for which full instructions on installation and use have been provided. The Bill will prove invaluable in that respect and at the same time play a part in wider efforts to achieve our target of a one-third reduction in road casualties by 2000. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

8.24 p.m.

Lord Strathcarron

My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have taken part in the debate for responding on the whole favourably to the Bill. I should like to answer one or two points. I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, thought that the class of child referred to some form of social standing. It refers merely to the weight and size of a child, because children come in all shapes k and sizes. It is essential that the child fits the seat. The provision is as simple as that. There is nothing more sinister involved.

The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, mentioned cushions. It is obviously better to have a full child restraint. A cushion combined with an adult seat belt, which fills up the gap, may not be ideal, but it would be wrong to stop people using a cushion until they can obtain a proper child restraint.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, asked about after sales service. It would be illegal to repair a seat belt to a lower standard than the original. If there were a complaint, the seat belt would be taken back to the agent who would almost certainly return it to the manufacturer who would probably provide a new restraint or see that the one that has been repaired is up to the full standard required.

The Bill does not refer to Northern Ireland. That would require separate legislation. The whole question of seat belts in buses is being considered. It is not compulsory to have seat belts in any form of bus at present. I believe that seat belts should be fitted in buses. Europe is discussing a standard at present, and the question of child restraints will be of the utmost importance. We hope to see that taken into account at the same time.

I believe in the Bill wholeheartedly. It will be to the benefit of all children. I therefore ask your Lordships to give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.