HL Deb 04 July 1995 vol 565 cc997-9

2.44 p.m.

Lord McConnell asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they intend to introduce legislation to make the fitting of seatbelts compulsory in buses and coaches carrying children and whether it will apply to Northern Ireland.

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

My Lords, the responses to the consultation exercise on this subject are currently being considered. It is hoped that legislation requiring the fitting of seatbelts in minibuses and coaches used specifically for the transport of children will be introduced in the autumn. A concurrent consultation exercise has been conducted in Northern Ireland and it is intended that regulations will maintain parity with Great Britain on this issue.

Lord McConnell

My Lords, while thanking the noble Viscount for his Answer—I am grateful for the information he has given—may I ask him whether he will also abolish what is called the "three-into-two" rule? That allows three children to be accommodated on seats designed for two adults. In many cases it results in 101 children being placed into a bus designed to accommodate 53 people.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, that is an issue we have addressed. Our proposals are that the concession which permits three seated children to share a double seat is ended where seatbelts are fitted.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, the Minister said that he is considering the use of seatbelts for vehicles specifically designed to carry children. What about those which are mainly, but not exclusively, designed to carry children? Why not seek to apply Article 36, with the agreement of the Commission, to all coaches while the Government are considering this issue?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I can correct the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. Our proposals address the issue of use rather than design. It is not a question of whether coaches are specifically designed for the carriage of children; it is a question of whether they are specifically used for the carriage of children.

Article 36 is not a tool which can be used every time a member state would like to legislate but is effectively prevented from doing so because the EC has the competence. It is not available where there is already full harmonisation of measures designed for the protection of health and life, and that is the case in these circumstances.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that seatbelts can be fitted with high or low clasps? Small children cannot wear the seatbelts fitted with high clasps. In further considering the matter, will my noble friend ensure that when seatbelts are fitted for children, they are made to fit the size of the children?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point which was raised during the consultation exercise. We shall bear his remarks fully in mind.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, perhaps the Minister will clarify something I may have got wrong. He used the words "specifically for children". Does that mean that minibuses or coaches which are used mainly but not exclusively by children will be covered by his proposals?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the simple explanation is that our proposals require a forward-facing seat with a seatbelt to be provided for every child travelling in a minibus or coach, or group of children—that is three or more—on an organised trip. That includes home-to-school journeys and school outings but not scheduled coach operations where the coach operator could not possibly be expected to know the number of children making use of the service.

Lord Milverton

My Lords, as well as considering seatbelts, is it not also important to ensure that there is better oversight and control over those who drive the school minibuses? The Minister may remember one incident when it was found that the person driving was not in a fit state to drive.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, my noble friend is right: minibuses can at present be driven on car licences. Under the second EC directive on driver licensing which comes into operation on 1st July 1996, new drivers will not be permitted to drive minibuses without passing a further test. Also, the UK has made a derogation from the directive which allows car drivers to drive minibuses within their own boundaries if certain criteria are complied with. Those criteria cover factors such as the body involved being non-commercial and non-profit-making; and the driver being aged 21 or more and providing his or her services on a voluntary basis. There are also licence restrictions, and a weight restriction on the minibus.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, will the Minister comment on the concern expressed about one design of seatbelt—the lap fitting seatbelt? Will he confirm that the Government are taking into account the concerns that have been raised about the damage that can be done by that type of seatbelt as opposed to the one that crosses the shoulder?

Viscount Goschen

Yes, my Lords. I can confirm that these issues have been taken fully into consideration both in designing our proposals and during the consultation process.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend would be kind enough to clarify a confusion which I now have in my mind relative to his reply to the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. Is it proposed that a school minibus may not carry children unless seatbelts are fitted?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, yes.