HL Deb 30 January 1991 vol 525 cc765-9

7 p.m.

The Paymaster General (Lord Belstead) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 18th December 1990 be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order introduces amendments broadly in line with provisions already put into effect in Great Britain by amending the Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1981. The order deals mainly with two subjects: driver licensing and drinking and driving.

The order is in two main parts. Articles 3, 4 and 5 in Part II pave the way for a new unified driver licensing system in Northern Ireland. As your Lordships may be aware, drivers of motor cars, heavy goods vehicles and public service vehicles at present require separate licences for each class of vehicle. Ordinary car licences are issued by the Driver Licensing Central Office in Coleraine, while separate, so-called "vocational licences" to drive heavy goods vehicles and public service vehicles are issued through the Vehicle Inspection and Driving Test Headquarters in Belfast.

This means that there are effectively two driver licensing systems in operation in Northern Ireland, each with its own legislation and rules. Drivers seeking licences to drive heavy goods vehicles or public service vehicles must pass a special test and meet tougher medical standards than for ordinary licences. Those additional requirements will continue under the proposed arrangements.

At present, one professional driver could have two or even three separate licences authorising him to drive an ordinary car, a heavy goods vehicle and a public service vehicle. This multiplicity of licences can be confusing, particularly when lorry or coach drivers take their vehicles abroad. By contrast, most of the other European Community member states have a single licence showing all the driving entitlements. It is updated as any changes in the licence occur.

The new system which will be introduced by the order will include a single licence document showing all driver licensing entitlement. From 1st April, all driving licences will be issued centrally from Coleraine when they become due for renewal. These arrangements should offer considerable scope for making the system more cost-effective This should be good news for drivers since the costs of issuing vocational licences are reflected in the fees charged. In addition, drivers who go abroad will have the benefit of an internationally recognised single licence. This will be of particular benefit to lorry and coach drivers who will no longer have to explain in other countries the significance of their supplementary PSV and HGV licences.

The move towards a unified driver licensing system is not only desirable in itself but it is necessary to enable not only Northern Ireland but the United Kingdom as a whole to meet their commitments under the law of the European Community. The first step was taken in 1980 with the publication of the first directive on driver licensing, which required all driving licences to follow an EC model—namely, a single document showing all driving entitlement. A second directive is expected shortly from the Commission to put the finishing touches to the process. Negotiations are continuing on the second directive, but the provisions of this order will facilitate any changes that may be required.

Part II of the order also introduces compulsory training for all new riders of motorcycles and mopeds. These vehicles make up a small percentage of road traffic, yet quite a large percentage of all road deaths and serious injuries are to motorcyclists, many of whom are still in their teens, and they are therefore one of the most vulnerable groups of road users.

At the moment there is no requirement at all for motorcyclists in Northern Ireland to take any training. Learners can ride for the 10-year duration of their provisional licence without any requirement for them to pass a driving test. In practice, that means that many riders never take the test; they simply give up riding after a period of time or after they have a serious accident. So Article 7 in Part II prevents a provisional licence taking effect unless the holder has successfully completed the prescribed training course or is undertaking training on the road.

Article 8 of Part III of the order deals with drinking and driving. It introduces new provisions for driving or being in charge of a motor vehicle when under the influence of drink or drugs. With three exceptions, these provisions are similar to the existing arrangements in Great Britain. This will be the first major change in over 20 years to Northern Ireland's drinking and driving provisions and will scrap the present two offences or "major and minor" offences as provided in the 1981 order for Northern Ireland.

The present disqualification of not less than three months for the minor offence will be scrapped. This will be replaced by one single offence of driving or being in charge of a motor vehicle with an alcohol concentration above the prescribed limit of 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood or 35 micrograms of alcohol in a 100 millilitres of breath. A hand-held screening device is being introduced in order to indicate whether motorists are over the prescribed limit. The equipment will be used in conjunction with the evidential breath testing equipment and will greatly enhance the Royal Ulster Constabulary's operational effectiveness in the detection of motorists for the offence of being drunk in charge of motor vehicles.

The three exceptions to which I referred earlier are that in contrast to Great Britain, where evidential breath tests may be conducted only at a police station, this order will provide for evidential breath tests to be carried out at the roadside or at a police station. Different penalties are being introduced and the so-called "hip-flask" defence will not be included.

The RUC traffic division is equipped at present with mobile evidential breath testing machines and has asked that the facility to conduct the roadside testing should be continued. The RUC has used this facility for the past 20 years and I can see no valid reason for denying its use now. That is the first of the differences between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Secondly, in Northern Ireland new penalties for those found guilty of driving while under the influence of drink or drugs will be introduced by this order. Disqualification for holding or obtaining a licence or a provisional licence will be for a minimum period of 12 months. A person so disqualified will at some time after the expiry of the period for which he is disqualified have to pass a test of competence to drive. As all newly qualified drivers in Northern Ireland have to comply with the same conditions, he will then be subject to the "R" plate provisions in Northern Ireland and will have to display an "R" plate for 12 months and not exceed 45 miles per hour. Disqualification and endorsement are obligatory in such cases. Therefore everyone convicted of driving when under the influence of drink or drugs will have to pass the test of competence to drive and will have to display "R" plates for 12 months. That shows that the penalties will be more stringent in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain.

Thirdly, the proposal for a draft order had included the "hip flask" defence. This is similar to the provisions of Section 15 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 and permits a drinking and driving suspect to explain away part at least of the alcohol content of his specimen by claiming it was due to drinking after he had ceased to drive. The consultation exercise in Northern Ireland raised strong opposition to the inclusion of this defence and it has been removed from the draft order. These proposals on drinking and driving have received widespread support during the consultation exercise in Northern Ireland. Drinking and driving is a major cause of Northern Ireland's road casualties and the department is determined to effect measures which will help reduce those casualties.

Article 9 of the order gives effect to the provisions of Schedules 4 and 5 which respectively set out minor and consequential amendments and repeals. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 18th December 1990 be approved.—(Lord Belstead.)

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for the way he has guided us through the articles of this order. We on these Benches consider the order to be non-contentious. The noble Lord has explained that the thrust of the order is to bring the law in Northern Ireland more into line with the corresponding provisions that apply in England and Wales and with the requirements of the European Commission directives, both current and prospective. I am particularly grateful that the Minister has fully explained the law relating to drinking and driving in Northern Ireland and why it still differs from the corresponding provisions in Great Britain. I am sure that the explanation which he has given will be helpful.

I do not propose to detain the House for more than one or two minutes. However, I have two straightforward points I wish to put to the Minister, mainly for confirmation. First, as regards Part II of the order and the extent to which it will require more drivers to take tests of competency to drive large goods vehicles, passenger carrying vehicles and motor cycles, will the Minister confirm that the department is satisfied that it has adequate testing facilities and staff to meet any such demand?

Secondly, Article 6 in Part II deals with the licensing of taxi drivers. An applicant for a taxi driver's licence has to satisfy the department that he is a fit and proper person to hold such a licence. An aggrieved applicant can appeal to the magistrates' court against the department's decision. I now appreciate—that was not the case when I first read the document—that the term "fit and proper person" is often used in this kind of legislation. However, unless I have missed the relevant paragraph, the order does not itself specify a time limit within which the aggrieved person must lodge his appeal. I am sure there must a time limit and perhaps the Minister can tell us what it is. I shall not detain the House any longer. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on those two small points.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, we on these Benches do not feel the need to detain the House too long on this matter. I wish to thank the Minister for his extremely clear and cogent presentation of the contents of the order. We particularly welcome it as it brings us into line with the EC and with legislation in England and Wales.

I wish to support the order in the sense that it deals in a clear and firm way with the serious problem of drinking and driving. However, I too have one concern which relates to the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies. I seek a reassurance from the Minister that the changeover will be as smooth as possible, not only in respect of the testing but also as regards the processing of licences. We know that changeovers of this magnitude involving computers —we experienced this many years ago at Swansea—can be disruptive and can cause great personal inconvenience to drivers. I hope the Minister can give me an assurance that the computer system and the back-up facilities at Coleraine are adequate so that they will not impose undue inconvenience on drivers in Northern Ireland. With that one reservation or query, I confirm that we support the passage of this order.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their reception of the order. I shall endeavour to answer the questions that the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked me. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, also added his voice to the matter of testing. We consider that we have made adequate facilities available in anticipation of an increased demand for tests. That matter has been considered and we believe it has been dealt with adequately.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, was good enough to give me notice some days ago of the fact that he wished to raise the matter of taxi drivers. They are mentioned in Article 6. I do not need to go into that article in any depth as it does not change the law. However, I have two comments to make in that regard. I make the first comment possibly for my own benefit as I believe that the noble Lord has satisfied himself on the point. When the term "fit and proper" is used in connection with taxi drivers, it means that they are subject to the same conditions that apply to any other drivers of public service vehicles in respect of being required to declare all driving and non-driving convictions. It is on that requirement that the use of the term "fit and proper" relies.

However, the noble Lord further asked me whether there was a time limit for appeals on the part of taxi drivers who feel aggrieved at the refusal of a licence. The answer is that there is no time limit on the period during which such drivers may submit an appeal.

Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Holme, asked me an important question. Obviously there are persuasive arguments for placing all the driver licensing facilities in one place and introducing a composite licence. By doing that we shall be in line in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, with what is going on in the European Community. However, as the noble Lord obviously knows, Coleraine has a computer facility which we consider to be adequate. But it is important to emphasise that drivers of public service vehicles, heavy goods vehicles and ordinary vehicles will not be thrown into confusion by this measure. Their licences will be dealt with at Coleraine only when they become due for renewal. Therefore the new facility at Coleraine will be introduced on a phased basis. I hope that with those remarks the House will accept the Motion.

On Question, Motion agreed to.