HL Deb 29 November 1994 vol 559 cc577-92

5.28 p.m.

Lord Teviot rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what has been the impact of European Union legislation on the United Kingdom motor coach industry.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have pleasure in declaring an interest of which many of your Lordships are aware. For many years I have been in touch with the bus and coach industry, and I am delighted to ask this Question today. I thank those noble Lords who are taking part in the debate.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, will develop the subject of road safety. I shall touch on it but will allow him to develop it. I am also pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, who this afternoon is wearing his hat as the official Opposition spokesman. It would be helpful if he could give the benefit of his wisdom on the background of some of the legislation with regard to Europe. It is an important subject for the industry as a whole.

The major part of the motor coach industry in the United Kingdom—the number of vehicles is estimated at 15,000—is operated by small to medium sized enterprises. That ranges from operators of one coach to those with up to 50 vehicles. We do, of course, have a few significant large international operators with fleets numbering hundreds. However, many of the fleets are family owned and rely upon the dedication and flair of their owners for their continued success. In rural areas coaches are frequently the only means of transport for work and leisure pursuits and also provide evergreen holidays. But, most importantly, both nationally and internationally motor coaches play a key role in inter-urban travel and key express routes.

The safety of passengers is one of the principal concerns of United Kingdom coach operators and governments alike. Proven solutions to increasing safety have always been welcomed by the industry. I must confess that 1994 was not the best year where accidents are concerned, but coach travel continues to be one of the safest forms of transport.

Legislation from Europe which has opened up the market for transport by motor coach has been welcomed. That has been particularly true of the simplification procedures and authorisation of certain services. Common rules for access to the profession are all welcome. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, was responsible for that in his 10 years as a Commissioner.

The Commission White Paper on the Common Transport Policy, especially the development of the Citizens Network, is most encouraging for the role of communal transport, in which coaches play a key part. However, there are a number of developments in Europe which add significant additional costs to the operator and may put many of the small enterprises out of business. Among the most worrying is the proposal to apply value added tax on intra-Community bus and coach travel but to allow air and rail travel to be zero rated. That move is discriminatory and places the bus and coach sector at a competitive disadvantage. In addition to that outright discrimination, the nature of the VAT will create such a burden that many will be forced to withdraw from established operations.

The international coach passenger, when compared with international passengers travelling by other modes, is least able to bear the increased cost of travel which will arise from the imposition of VAT. While VAT will be paid in the country of the point of departure and not on "territoriality", it will be zero rated in the United Kingdom. The industry is concerned to know whether, if a positive rate of VAT is introduced in the UK, other forms of travel will have a positive rating for value added tax. Coaches are further discriminated against, since they pay the full rate of excise duty on fuel, whereas rail and to a lesser extent air travel are exempt.

I now move to speed capability. By 1996 the EC Directive 1992/6 will have reduced the maximum speed capability of most motor coaches to 65 miles per hour. At the time when that directive was agreed, the United Kingdom Government reassured the industry that the reduction would not result in a ban from the outside lane of motorways. Yet the Government have now consulted on such a proposal and are due to make a decision shortly. They have in their possession an independent report which shows that: there is no conclusive evidence that the exposure to the risk of accidents would be either increased or decreased due to the imposition of a ban on coaches from the third lane". So why is it being considered? There are serious safety and commercial implications for the coach industry if the ban goes ahead, because coaches will have to operate at the level of the heavy goods vehicle at 56 miles per hour and will thus be placed at a competitive disadvantage with other forms of transport. That is another example of discrimination against motor coaches. It seems to be against the general encouragement for people to travel on public transport.

I turn to weights. The European Community allows two-axle vehicles of up to 18 tonnes to operate throughout the Community, but the UK Government have a derogation until 1998 to allow for bridge strengthening. It would be helpful if the Government could find some means of relaxing those rules to permit vehicles of 18 tonnes on some parts of the network so as to allow UK operators to compete more effectively with Continental operators. Reports indicate that the bridge strengthening programme is almost complete.

Another point which has been brought to my attention in the past hour is a problem which has been dealt with responsibly by operators. It is that some of their passengers have wished to purchase ample quantities of duty-free goods, thus overloading the coaches. The operators have had to achieve a compromise with their passengers to avoid grossly overloading their vehicles. I can only add that if vehicles of 18 tonnes were allowed on the roads, that problem would be unlikely to exist.

As regards vehicle lengths, I should be grateful if the Minister would state the Government's views on the use of 15-metre vehicles, which are in common use throughout the continent. Many United Kingdom operators would like to use 15-metre vehicles in this country.

To wind up my remarks, when one talks about any form of legislation one comes to the matter of enforcement. The enforcement of regulations is a key part of transport and coaching in particular. Adherence to regulations on drivers' hours is a key part of road safety. There is a growing anxiety about the level of enforcement in Europe and the lack of consistency. The Commission's response to the issue is not to suggest that member states provide the right level and quality of staff but to computerise enforcement by means of a tachograph black box. Again, that brings additional costs, makes the system complicated and discourages further small to medium sized enterprises.

I have been brief, but I hope that I have dealt with the subject adequately. The issues are of great concern to the industry and I look forward to hearing the views of your Lordships and in particular of the Minister on these important matters.

5.37 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, this is a transport Question and as it is one of my interests I put my name down to speak. However, I found it difficult to discover what problem the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, intended to address. He mentioned axle weights; this morning I attended an interesting conference at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre concerning natural gas vehicles. Those vehicles have extremely low emissions, but the manufacturers were asking for an increase in rear axle weight to accommodate a rear engine and the necessary gas bottles.

It will always be possible to produce a case for a modest increase in axle weights, but the problem is that coaches are already extremely difficult to recover when they break down. Any increase in the weight of the coach will make it impossible to lift and tow the coach while using the recovery vehicle with reasonable axle weights. Furthermore, the coach will operate at or near its maximum axle weight for a large proportion of the journey time, whereas a goods vehicle will be fully loaded for only about 50 per cent. of the time and often much less for certain types of work. If a heavier vehicle is required to carry passengers, goods, luggage and so on, we should use a vehicle with more axles.

With regard to the cost of diesel fuel, the Government have a duty to raise revenue for their expenditure programme. Road transport has always been properly taxed.

The noble Lord mentioned speed limiters. I have a problem with these. The regulations set the speed limit for a speed limiter at slightly below the maximum speed at which the vehicle is allowed to travel.

I also support the noble Lord's concern in relation to the banning of coaches from the outside lane of the motorway. Coaches are a priority form of travel on the motorway. They can often carry 40, 50 or 60 people and should therefore be allowed to use the outside lane even if it inconveniences people in their private cars.

I contacted the Confederation of Passenger Transport on two separate days, but surprisingly I received no briefing on any problems that it might have. I was, however, very grateful for the DoT accident statistics which the organisation sent me. There are so many tables that it should be possible to prove any hypothesis on safety matters that one cares to propose. What is clear is that only the air travel fatal accident rate was better than that for buses and coaches. The accident rates per billion passenger kilometres are: 0.2 for air travel; 0.5 for buses and coaches; surprisingly, 1.0 for rail—twice as bad as the rate for buses and coaches; and 4.5 for cars. When one looks at the accident rate for motor cycles, it is surprising that there are any motorcyclists left. The picture is not so rosy when one looks at the "killed or seriously injured" rate. But the figures are still quite good compared to those for private cars.

I do not suggest that we should be complacent about coach safety. I looked at the statistics for evidence to support the need for seatbelts—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, will mention this point—and I found the figures to be confusing and contradictory. The accident rate is so low that it is difficult to reach a rational opinion; so I have none.

There is always scope for improvement. The noble Lord, Lord Teviot, mentioned the enforcement authorities. Those authorities must be eternally vigilant and must continue to ensure that our buses and coaches are maintained and operated to the highest standards. I am sure that the noble Viscount the Minister will assure me that they are doing just that. But can he confirm that the number of vehicle inspectors has been reduced and that that process will continue? Is he aware that such a policy will only encourage cowboy operators? No doubt his brief will mention multi-agency checks, and they are very valuable. But the Minister should be aware that inspectors' visits to operators' premises can be very revealing. That aspect of enforcement should not be neglected.

I now turn to minibuses. A minibus has no more than 16 seats, and a special vocational licence is not required to drive such vehicles. They are often used by schools, colleges, clubs etc. At one point I was involved in' commercial vehicle driver training. We had a contract to assess drivers for a London borough in order for it to comply with the requirements of its insurance company. A significant number of minibus candidates had to be failed as they clearly did not have the skill and experience to drive a minibus. I expected to find some resentment when failing such candidates. More often, however, I found relief. The teachers, lecturers, club leaders etc. often had no choice as to whether they drove a minibus as it was part of their job.

While I realise the need for EC harmonisation of driving licences, can the Minister tell the House whether any method is available to ensure that all employers assess their minibus drivers? I am thinking of a scheme along the lines of the well-established non-statutory arrangements for the testing of fork-lift truck operators in a factory. No responsible organisation uses unqualified operators as it may fall foul of the Health and Safety at Work Act.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, with the indulgence of the House I should like to crave two or three minutes. I did not put my name down on the list of speakers because I had not expected to be in the House this afternoon. Perhaps the noble Baroness will forgive me—I understand that she is speaking below the gap perhaps on behalf of the party opposite.

I fear that my noble friend Lord Teviot, whose interest in the bus and coach industry is very well known—indeed, my noble friend is very knowledgeable about it—is pleading a special cause; namely, that, sadly, the last year or so has produced a number of somewhat disastrous accidents involving coaches which have called into question their safety. I do not believe that any effort to improve the safety of coaches can or should be ignored. That goes essentially to the design factors that enable seatbelts to be fitted on vehicles, whether in a large passenger carrying vehicle or in a so-called minibus which is not designed to take seatbelts. This is something of a longer term project and should be attended to.

The plea about excise duty on fuel is an old bone in a comparatively young dog's mouth. It applies equally to the heavy goods vehicle industry. One should not call out a preference for the passenger carrying bus or the coach business. It is a competitive business. What one should perhaps have is a level playing field with other modes of passenger carrying transport. But I fear that special pleading is not on the agenda.

When we come to the very narrow question of the use of motorways, there is a general misconception that the outer lane on a motorway is used either for the faster vehicle or for special kinds of vehicle. In fact, as I think noble Lords will agree, that lane is primarily built for overtaking so that the other lanes can carry the more moderately speedy vehicles.

It seems to me ridiculous that we should have speed limiters on coaches or indeed on other vehicles. Technically, I do not believe them to be terribly reliable. In the hands of inexperienced drivers they can be positively dangerous. What we in the coach and bus industry have to look at is a reasonably fair level playing field with other modes of transport and higher degrees of security both for the vehicle and the driver. Far too many drivers are part-time. They may very well have undertaken a day's work or shift work—they may be, for example, firemen or policemen or are perhaps in some other occupation—and then proceed to drive coaches. This is one reason why we have had over many years a number of quite serious accidents.

To take up the point that was made by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, I believe that in their enforcement the commissioners should be a good deal more stringent. I hope that the continuous operator licence system which is to come into effect with the passing of the deregulation Bill will enable the commissioners to have more time, perhaps more energy, and more expertise to devote to that aspect of coach and other transport problems.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down—although I did not wish to interrupt him and I am very grateful for his intervention and experience—I must say that I was not doing any special pleading for part of the industry. I was only trying to point out that, compared with other modes of transport, it was perhaps being discriminated against. There was no special pleading.

5.50 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, speak, particularly as I agree wholeheartedly with much of what he said. I should begin by saying that I am one of those passionate Europeans who nevertheless dislike excessive and unjustified standardisation: otherwise I might be misunderstood. I shall limit myself to some fairly straightforward comments.

I believe that in general we should support those moves which increase bus safety and increase the use of buses as part of a sustainable transport strategy. What we have to ask about the directives that are currently in process of being either implemented or considered is whether they achieve those objectives. For example, will the proposed directive on the harmonisation of bus construction and the second directive on driver licensing contribute to bus safety and increase the use of buses? What about the actions of the present Government? How have they contributed to those objectives?

Specifically, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, about not having differential rates of taxation on different modes of transport. That is an important point which applies to a number of transport issues.

I oppose the regulation of matters which should be left to local decision-taking under the subsidiarity approach. For example, it is quite unnecessary for the Community to concern itself overly with the size and seating capacity of double-decker buses. That seems to be eminently suitable for local decision taking.

On the other hand, the proposals to increase the size and weight of all public service vehicles and to increase the standing density on many of them—proposals which, are also contained in the directive on harmonising bus construction —exhibit some contrary points. One could justify the increased weight in terms of there being less risk of turning over. But surely the increase in standing passenger density does not contribute to passenger safety. The seated passenger is much safer than the standing passenger. Moreover, the decisions to standardise the sizes of buses smack of greater standardisation of vehicle sizes and types for its own sake rather than any interest in the two objectives that I mentioned.

Would larger vehicles assist in achieving increased bus use? I feel that we should all be concerned to bring buses as close as possible to where the users live. However, the larger the bus, the less able it is to move about a housing estate, for example, or go in and out of small villages. The change might have a contrary effect.

What about the increased costs in the UK, with its minimal public financial support of transport? The cost of transport is the main determinant of the level of patronage of buses.

We should approach the proposed directive on harmonisation of passenger vehicle size with an open mind and resolutely oppose any suggestions which appear to be motivated by a desire for standardisation for its own sake rather than to diminish a measured risk. I look forward with interest to learning the Government's intentions in this matter.

Finally, I should like to make a few comments on seat belts and the safety of minibuses, including driver training. Unfortunately, it is a sad fact that driver error is the main factor affecting the safety of transport in school minibuses and those owned by voluntary bodies. It is terrible to say but I am afraid that it is true. Very often the drivers are volunteers who do not have much experience in the management of large vehicles. So far as I know, they are not covered by legislation, directives or guidance on the length of time that they should drive. At the present time it is all left in the hands of the people who own the vehicles. In Surrey, for example, individual schools are drawing up codes of conduct for their drivers and are attempting to provide them with some kind of training. But, given the seriousness of this matter, it would be far better if the Government would co-operate with the local government associations, many of whose members try to provide training for drivers from voluntary organisations and schools, and develop guidance for additional training to ensure that, for example, within 10 years all drivers have the additional qualifications prescribed from 1996 for new drivers in the second directive on driver registration.

The hot political issue is seat belts, particularly as it affects minibuses owned and operated by voluntary organisations and especially schools, and those public service vehicles used for transport to schools. The installation of any type of belt has problems for both existing types of vehicles. A debate is under way as to whether we should insist on two or three-point belts—in other words, lap belts or lap and shoulder belts. There is a great difference in the types of vehicle into which the belts can be fitted.

I am worried by the argument that two-point belts—lap belts—are more dangerous in some circumstances than not wearing a belt at all. There is an urgent need for the Government to commission dispassionate advice on this matter before any regulation of any description on seat belts is implemented, because at this moment the Commission is talking about two-point belts.

There is a cost involved. Seat belts on buses for transport to school—whatever their type—will mean the abandonment of the current rule that three pupils may sit on a seat for two persons. That is probably a good idea but who will bear the cost of that?

Finally, there is the problem of the protection of the very young children who now travel on school buses as the number of small primary schools is gradually reduced in all country areas. Are the Government interested in promoting special designs of buses or special protection for those very young children?

There is clearly no reason why the UK Government should not provide guidance on driver training and the safety of seatbelts. Indeed, I understand that it is perfectly within our power to legislate on the seatbelt issue. There are in particular very real problems connected with the safety of buses and minibuses used by school pupils. I should be most grateful if the noble Viscount would respond to the questions that I have asked.

5.58 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, first, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, for introducing this subject for debate. It is appropriate that we should debate the issues affecting the coach industry, most particularly in relation to various elements of European Union legislation. The difficulty is that the debate has hardly been focused on particular topics. But I do not in any sense seek to indict the noble Lord for that fact.

I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, to what the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, has frequently referred to as "this transport club". Before he was elevated to his present lofty position of total inscrutability with regard to debates, he frequently said with great relevance, whenever anybody new participated in our debates, how nice it was to see a fresh face. We very much welcome the noble Baroness. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, on his elevation. He and I spent many hours together debating issues of transport, for the most part very constructively. We often agreed and it is when one agrees that one can say one is totally objective—as we have always been in relation to these issues.

As the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said, coach travel is a relatively safe form of transport. But many serious accidents have occurred in the recent past and many lessons should be learnt from those tragedies. Too many people have been killed, families bereaved and people injured. In those circumstances I shall address three issues affecting safety.

First, I shall deal with the question of seat belts—a matter with which we dealt during the course of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill. The response we received from the Government as to actions to be taken, or not taken was less than satisfactory. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some further and better particulars of the actions that they are taking at European Union level in that regard. Secondly, I shall deal with drivers' hours and rest periods and, thirdly, with the enforcement of speed limits. One could go much wider but I propose to confine my remarks to those three topics.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said that he was not convinced that a case had been made out for the wearing of seat belts. He rightly said that it is a complex issue and he was uncertain in his own mind in that regard. But the Government carried out a formidable analysis of the case for compulsory fitment of seat belts on minibuses and coaches and the results were announced in a Written Answer on 19th July. To put the matter in its correct context, it is right that I should deal with those conclusions.

The Government were convinced that the strength of the case for compulsory fitment of seat belts as a standard for all European manufacturers was clearly made out by the then Secretary of State for Transport, Mr. John MacGregor. It was stated that, We are formally requesting the European Commission to set the shortest possible timetable to require seatbelts on all new minibuses and coaches. This reinforces our call for action at the Transport Council in Luxembourg in June. We have also decided to seek the Commission's agreement for the UK Government to act ahead of the European Union to ensure that all minibuses and coaches are fitted with belts when specifically used for the transport of children".—[Official Report, 19/7/94; WA col. 261] Those were interesting observations, which I welcome. The case is now conclusively made out and the Government are convinced that their research has established that seat belts are necessary. I am sure that by their use lives will be saved and injuries reduced. The cost involved would be relatively small. I understand that a fair estimate is that on a £10 coach ticket the cost would involve an extra 4p. We are therefore talking of extremely small-scale costs for an important saving of life and therefore that is not an issue. Although lap-belts are not as effective as three-point belts, they too will have a major effect in saving life and limb.

Why therefore have not the Government acted with greater promptitude? There was surely space in this legislative programme to be able to introduce enactments of that kind. The Government have said that, notwithstanding the arguments that have been adduced in a number of our debates, European Union legislation affecting the single market prohibits them from acting unilaterally. However, that is contradicted by the Minister's assertion that he is proposing—I do not know whether he has already sought the Commission's agreement—for the Government to act ahead of the European Union to ensure that all minibuses and coaches are fitted with seat belts when used specifically for children. If that is the case, they are utilising Article 36 of the Treaty, which provides that in certain circumstances a government is permitted to avoid prohibitions or restrictions on imports and exports of goods in transit on grounds of, among other things, the protection of health and life of humans. Consequently, that is what the Government are proposing to do in relation to seat belts on vehicles which primarily carry children. Why therefore should it not be extended over the whole field? The Government cannot have it both ways. Article 36 exists to be promoted in exactly these circumstances, provided that the Government do not collude in seeking to establish discriminatory rules in regard to trade.

I believe that the Government should utilise Article 36 in both cases. But perhaps the Minister can say when the application was made to the Commission for agreement in the first case to which I alluded. What has been the response of the Commission so far? Is there is a hold-up and, if so, why? Perhaps the Minister can respond to those important points when he replies. There is a growing impatience in this country with regard to measures that should be taken, and taken rapidly—ahead of the European Union as a whole —and which can be taken legitimately.

My second issue relates to the response so far of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, with which the Government have presumably been involved in a good deal of consultation. What is its view on these matters? Is it taking a negative attitude or does it support the Government's view, particularly with regard to coaches carrying children, where it is important that this unilateral action should be taken? Or is it opposing it? What is its view with regard to the wider application of seat belts in coaches generally?

I turn next to the question of drivers' hours and rest periods. I was involved in the regulations that emerged in 1986 to replace the former regulations in what was then called the "European Community". It is now called the European Union and some people, I understand, are confusing it with a large insurance company! But the European Union was previously known as the European Community.

The reason the Commission at that time put forward proposals for reviewing drivers' hours and rest periods was because the old system was found to be hopelessly complicated and virtually unenforceable. That applied throughout the European Community. When I advanced these proposals on behalf of the Commission, I met with a less than receptive response from member states generally. They seemed to want a concept in which one could have stricter regulations in this regard, but that they should not be too carefully and fully enforced. What we emerged with was a set of regulations that was almost as bad as what had prevailed previously; and notwithstanding all my blandishments, the member states insisted on rejecting the Commission's proposals totally, which, of course, they were entitled to do, and replacing them with their own half-baked scheme. That half-baked scheme remains today.

I should like to know whether the Government believe that it is necessary to have a new set of regulations here and what they are doing in that regard. If drivers at the wheel are excessively tired, then, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, pointed out in his intervention, serious accidents can so easily arise, and do. Indeed, I believe that in the terrible accident involving a number of American tourists last November there was evidence that the driver failed to take a proper rest before starting work, although I gather that the matter is still under investigation. However, that allegation was made. It is only one case. I am satisfied, from the evidence that was adduced before me, that there were very serious breaches of the regulations, then and now. What are the Government proposing to do? Does the Minister believe that enforcement is anything like sufficiently effective?

I turn to the next question, which is speed limiters. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has some doubts about the application of speed limiters. I do not believe that it is the Government's view that those doubts should be entertained and I certainly do not share that view myself. I welcome the introduction of regulations to restrict speeds to 70 miles per hour—new coaches are to be limited to speeds of 65 miles per hour—by the use of speed limiters. One thing is clear, however, and to this extent I believe the noble Lord is right: speed limiters are too easily disconnected. There is evidence that they have been disconnected, particularly in the case to which I have just referred.

Despite the use of limiters, and also the use of tachographs, speed limits are widely ignored by coaches and by heavy goods vehicles. Indeed, the Department of Transport survey of 1993 illustrated that one in five coaches—between 56,000 and 57,000 out of around 270,000 —broke speed limits on motorways in the United Kingdom. Some were recorded as travelling in excess of 80 miles per hour. The fact is that tampering takes place, both with the tachograph and with the limiters. I should like to know whether the Minister agrees that that situation needs further investigation; and if so, what the Government are proposing to do about it.

It is far too easy at the present time for the law to be broken. It is not good enough, and the situation needs to be remedied. When these serious accidents arose, I do not believe that the first reaction of the Government, which was to blame the European Union or European Community for not taking swift enough action, was at all justified. We are in a position of being able to act unilaterally in situations affecting the safety of our people. Of course, a case has to be made out that we are not engaging in arbitrary discrimination of trade and that we are not seeking to preclude others from entering the market for some bogus reason. But I do not believe that that is the case. Nor do I attribute such a motive to the Government. I believe that there is now an overwhelming reason for action. The Government have conceded part of the case, but why do they not concede the rest and stop behaving in an inconsistent way?

6.14 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Teviot for providing this opportunity to debate the important matter of the impact of European Union legislation on the United Kingdom coach industry and I am very glad that a small but resolute band of noble Lords has contributed a great deal to that debate this evening.

European legislation covers a wide range of matters affecting the coach industry. The construction of vehicles is harmonised to eliminate barriers to trade and to provide a single market in vehicle manufacture. Harmonisation should also promote high standards of safety and environmental performance. Entry to the profession of PSV operator is covered by directives relating to good repute, financial standing and professional competence. There are rules relating to competition on international services and, on issues of safety, European legislation covers such matters as drivers' hours and speed limiters. The general effect of these measures is to ensure that competition in the provision of vehicles and coach services is broadly harmonised, and that must be a good thing for the consumer and for the industry. I understand, however, some of the worries which have been expressed about the effect on coach operators of some aspects of the legislation and I shall attempt to address those concerns in my remarks.

My noble friend Lord Teviot expressed concern about the proposal to apply VAT on intra-Community bus and coach travel. The purpose of the draft proposal is to clarify the position of transport by road and inland waterway which passes through different member states. Taxation would be at a single place—the point of departure—thus avoiding the possibility of double, or, in the obverse case, no, taxation. Although the purpose may be clarity, we share the concerns expressed by my noble friend. For that reason we have consistently opposed the proposal on the grounds that it discriminates against certain modes of transport. We would much prefer to see an all-embracing directive encompassing all forms of passenger transport. As it is, I understand that there is limited support from other member states for the draft proposal and it is unlikely to be taken further forward in the very near future.

Nothing contained in the draft proposal would make the UK have to start charging VAT on passenger transport within the United Kingdom, which is, as noble Lords have remarked, currently zero-rated. The decision to impose VAT in our own domestic circumstances is a matter within our own jurisdiction. Any amendment to the EC law to make charging VAT mandatory would be subject to unanimous agreement from member states.

My noble friend Lord Lucas emphasised the question of taxation on fuel. Arrangements for excise duty on fuels used by the various modes of transport differ, but for a variety of reasons. It has, however, always been the case since the fuel duty rebate scheme was first introduced giving local buses a substantial rebate that the rebate was not available to coaches.

As a consequence of EC directive 92/6 and national legislation, buses and coaches will be limited to a top speed capability of 65 miles per hour from 1st January 1996. This point was picked up and commented on by a number of noble Lords, some in favour and some against. We did not favour requirements on set speed being included in the directive, but all other member states were in favour. The reduction in maximum speed has led to a concern that coaches limited to 65 miles per hour in the outside lane will lead to bunching of faster moving traffic behind and therefore possibly dangerous driving manoeuvres. The enabling regulations were the subject of consultation recently and a decision will be made in the near future.

The issue of weights was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Teviot and by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. While I understand the desire to increase the weight limit from 17 to 18 tonnes, the United Kingdom is constrained by the axle weight limit of 10.5 tonnes. The axle weight cannot be raised until the bridge assessment/strengthening programme has been completed. When it is, in 1999, 18 tonne coaches to the same vehicle specification as the rest of the European Union can be fully utilised in the United Kingdom. It is technically possible to increase the permitted weights of UK coaches to 18 tonnes, keeping the 10.5 tonnes axle limit. However, this would require modifications to the design of coaches to ensure a sensible distribution of the load between the axles.

My noble friend Lord Teviot raised the question of vehicle lengths. Rigid vehicles are limited at present by United Kingdom construction and use regulations to 12 metres. The European directive also limits vehicles used in cross-border trade to 12 metres. Countries can allow longer vehicles for national use in their own territory. Some have used that provision to allow rigid vehicles of up to some 15 metres.

As regards the liberalisation of international passenger services, they have been liberalised throughout the European Union as a result of two main pieces of European legislation. The first allows all services except for regular services and certain other specialised services to run without the need for authorisation. Instead they are required to carry only a control document giving details of the service the operator is running.

The second piece of legislation concerns cabotage, which is the term used for a service carried out wholly within the territory of a member state. An operator may now undertake certain types of cabotage journeys without a registered office in the relevant country. At present this applies only to closed door tours and to special regular services such as the carriage of school children, but from the end of 1995 cabotage operations will be authorised for all non-regular services.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, mentioned the Vehicle Inspectorate. I can assure him and the House that the efficiencies being sought from the inspectorate will not in any way reduce its enforcement effort.

Turning to the question of drivers' hours—a matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, among others—I share the view that enforcement of the regulations on drivers' hours is a key element in road safety, and it also helps to ensure fair competition. The Vehicle Inspectorate Executive Agency has set up a drivers' hours taskforce to target drivers' hours enforcement, and nearly 1.75 million lorry and coach tachograph charts were checked in Great Britain in 1993–94.

But the output of the tachograph—that is, the daily paper charts—is relatively time-consuming to check and there is clearly a limit to the level of enforcement that can be carried out without a disproportionate use of resources. That is why the Commission has brought forward a proposal requiring the installation of an add-on device to the tachograph which would enable data to be stored digitally onto a driver-specific smart-card.

Although the Government accept in principle the need for an alternative form of recording equipment, we are not convinced that the use of an add-on device is the right approach and, in particular, we are concerned about the security of electronically recorded data. We believe that the Commission proposal has a long way to go yet, and, as usual, we shall bear in mind the views of the industry in our discussions, and indeed the views of your Lordships which have been put forward this evening.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for giving way. In fact the situation does not change very much from the days to which I was referring. There are always reasons for not doing things and not arranging for evidence to be more easily available. What are the Government themselves proposing? What suggestions are they making to the European Commission? Surely they have had long enough to decide these matters. We have had many years since these unsatisfactory regulations were brought into effect by the decision of the member states in conflict with the Commission. Surely the Government have had ample time to consider how a system can be set up which is properly enforceable.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord has put his finger on the very point, which is enforceability. But I should remind him, as I mentioned earlier, that through the Vehicle Inspectorate Executive Agency we have set up a drivers' hours taskforce to target drivers' hours enforcement. We see enforceability as being absolutely crucial. At the moment the written tachograph sheet does seem to give the best solution to the problem. However, I agree with the noble Lord that it is time-consuming and does not necessarily represent the best use of limited resources.

Both the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, very properly addressed the issue of seat belts. That is something which we have discussed on a number of occasions before, particularly during the passage of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act, as it now is. I believe that this is an incredibly important issue and I welcome this additional opportunity to discuss it and to put on record the Government's vigorous position.

Perhaps I may begin by re-emphasising that the United Kingdom has been pressing the Commission for some years to amend the directives on seat belts and anchorages to allow us to make a requirement for belts on all seats in these vehicles. There was never sufficient support from other member states to effect a change. This is of course a European Union matter because of the important role of vehicle standards in establishing the single market for the coach construction industry.

Despite an earlier lack of response which I have detailed, in February 1994 the Commission, with the agreement of member states, announced its strategy for improving coach safety, including amending the directives to require belts to be fitted to all seats in new minibuses and coaches. We expect proposals from the Commission early next year. I should stress again—particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis—that we simply cannot act nationally to require belts to be fitted to all minibuses and coaches. We would be required to allow any vehicle to be registered in the United Kingdom which met European Union standards; that is to say, with seat belts only on exposed seats.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I am grateful once again for the noble Viscount giving way. This is a matter where he and I have crossed swords before. Article 36, to which I referred earlier and to which I have referred in previous debates but without adequate response, exactly provides that protection where issues of safety affecting human life and health are involved. As I understand it, the Government have already sought permission as regards buses and coaches carrying primarily children. If that is the case, why do they limit the situation to that rather than extending it right across the board when they themselves are convinced that seat belts would lead to a saving of life and fewer injuries?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord inasmuch as we have crossed swords on this matter before. I accept that he has considerable knowledge of the workings of the European Union, but what I do not accept is that we are wrong on this, despite the considerable debate that we have had this evening. I shall detail further the Government's position, why we feel that we cannot act unilaterally and the difference between acting across the board and acting towards a small, specified and highly targeted group such as vehicles used specifically for the carriage of children. I believe that the United Kingdom has taken a lead on this. We take it very seriously indeed. We believe that the best and the most enforceable and effective way of going about this is through the Union.

Following the tragic accidents which occurred late in 1993, a review of the technical and cost implications of fitting seat belts in minibuses and coaches was undertaken by the Department of Transport. That review indicated that, while three-point belts offer better protection than lap belts, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, mentioned, in certain circumstances lap belts would offer significant overall benefits. I believe that that is the point which the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, was seeking to emphasise in his remarks.

As a result of this review, the then Secretary of State announced on 19th July as part of a package of new measures to improve minibus and coach safety that: first, he would request the European Commission to set the shortest possible deadlines to introduce compulsory fitment of seat belts in minibuses and coaches; secondly, that the United Kingdom would act ahead of the Union to require the fitting of belts in mini-buses and coaches which are used specifically for the transport of children; and thirdly, that manufacturers and operators would be encouraged to fit belts in both new and existing vehicles.

Those measures are being pressed forward as quickly as possible. The draft regulations are being prepared for a consultation exercise which will begin before the end of this year. The regulations will also be used to inform the Commission of our plans to implement the proposals.

As regards the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, on mini-bus driver assessment, she may know that there is currently no power to enforce such an assessment, but I commend the advice and guidance that is provided by the Community Transport Association to organisations that run mini-buses. I believe that it would be preferable to build on that basis rather than set up a separate, perhaps bureaucratic, scheme.

This has been a useful debate. It has helped to clarify the issues. We have discussed matters of concern to the coach industry and to the many noble Lords who are present. I should reiterate that removing some of the differences between European countries must be good for passengers and consumers as well as for the bus and coach industries. I hope that what I have said provides the necessary assurances that the Government are well aware of the industries' anxieties and will continue to bear their interests in mind during any negotiations, and that the Government are well aware that those who use coaches and buses are concerned about potential problems, particularly the seat belt issue. This has been a worthwhile debate. I thank again my noble friend Lord Teviot and all noble Lords who have taken part.

House adjourned at twenty-eight minutes before seven o'clock.