HL Deb 19 May 1995 vol 564 cc763-83

1.31 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

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

The Bill was introduced in another place by my honourable friend the Member for Rochford, Dr. Michael Clark. It attracted enthusiastic support from all sides of that House and has now passed through all its stages there.

Its subject is one of great importance and concern. It deals with the behaviour of newly qualified drivers, most of them young. At a stage in their driving careers when they are still inexperienced it is all-important that they drive safely and pay attention to traffic regulations and the Highway Code. Even those whose behaviour is blameless will be more at risk of accidents than the experienced driver, simply because situations develop that they have not anticipated or do not know how to deal with. But that risk increases greatly if they get carried away, overestimate their skills, try to impress passengers or simply flout the law. It is at that irresponsible element that the Bill before your Lordships is primarily aimed. They are a minority, but the trouble they cause is disproportionate to their numbers.

The matter is of great concern among a wide cross-section of the British public. My honourable friend has had a large number of letters, not only from his own constituents but also from many other parts of the country, congratulating him on his choice of subject and voicing their own concerns about the dangers caused by inexperienced drivers on our roads. Some have been from the parents of children who have recently passed their driving test but who, in their view, are not sufficiently experienced or mature to be trusted to drive safely. Others are from people who have been injured in road accidents involving new drivers.

It was, nevertheless, with some trepidation that I approached my own family regarding the Bill. As some of your Lordships will know, it is my good fortune to have five daughters and a son. One is currently a learner and the others will no doubt wish to learn to drive when they are old enough. Therefore, I was prepared for quite a rough reception when I told them what the Bill was all about. I am very pleased to say that all of them thought that the idea behind the Bill was eminently sensible. My elder daughters were particularly supportive as they had been passengers—sometimes extremely frightened and anxious passengers—of young men whose driving was not as careful and as courteous as it should have been.

The Bill has also been welcomed by, among others, the police, the AA and the RAC, the Parliamentary Advisory Committee on Transport Safety (of which my noble friend Lady Gardner is a director), and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. I therefore regard it as an honour to be bringing it before your Lordships today.

Because most of us spend a great deal of our lives driving, we tend to forget or underestimate the risks involved, we forget that we have in our hands a lethal weapon that can kill or maim in a few seconds of inattention. Yet I shall never forget the terrible occasion, when I was about 18, when a close friend of mine was killed by a young man who was driving much too fast and had lost control. The driver survived unscathed. Far too many people have experienced tragic losses of that kind, and death in a road accident is one of the most pointless and unnecessary ways to die.

At present the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency issues about 1 million new provisional driving licences every year. That means there are 1 million new learner drivers or motorcyclists on our roads and, eventually, most of them will pass a driving test and become qualified drivers. About half of them begin learning at the age of 17, and a quarter of those who pass the driving test do so before they reach their 18th birthday. Many more do so between 18 and 21.

Those are the dangerous years. Just 10 per cent. of all driving licences belong to people under 21, yet those drivers are involved in a quarter of all fatal accidents. Things would be even worse if they drove as long distances as older drivers. Mile for mile, a youth of 17 is seven times as likely to have an accident as a middle-aged man.

That is not, in most cases, because they have not learnt the basic driving skills—after all, they learnt enough to get through the test. All too often, what happens is that, once they have passed the test, they think that they know it all and that they have suddenly become expert drivers overnight; and they want the world to know it. They want to prove to themselves and to their friends how fast they can accelerate, how ably they can corner, and how suddenly they can brake. Perhaps they cut up other motorists to prove the point. What they often lack is the ability to read the road ahead, anticipate hazards and know when to react. They may also lack tolerance and consideration for other road users whose reactions are slower than theirs.

Even among young and inexperienced drivers, there is a real difference between the accident risk of a responsible driver and of a tearaway. The Transport Research Laboratory has been looking in detail at new drivers and has found that drivers who commit offences in the first year after passing the test are more than twice as likely to be involved in accidents as drivers who do not. They remain at twice the risk of accidents in their second and third years too. So there is a clear link between offences and the risk of an accident. That is why it makes sense to target the offenders and make them pay for extra lessons, another test and a great deal of humiliation, rather than, for example, making the driving test harder for everyone.

As its title suggest, the Bill is not only about young drivers, but about all new drivers. Not all of them are young—a survey of test candidates in the late 1980s showed that 43 per cent. were under 20, but 22 per cent. were over 30. Research shows that, at any age, inexperienced drivers are at greater risk of accidents than experienced ones.

The Bill will therefore apply potentially to new drivers of all ages for the first two years after they pass a test for the first time. I say "potentially" because it will not really bite unless they commit offences in that time. The vast majority keep their licences clean and they will be no worse off as a result of the Bill, though perhaps a little more cautious in keeping to the law. On the whole, the new drivers who fall foul of the law will be the younger ones, and predominantly male.

I shall now briefly describe how the Bill hangs together. Clause 1 defines its scope. Anyone learning to drive, or to ride a motorcycle or moped, starts with a provisional licence and L plates. As soon as they pass a test, either in a car or on a two-wheeler, they are entitled to a full licence in that class of vehicle. From that point on they are qualified drivers in the terms of this Bill and the two-year probationary period begins. Some of these drivers may go on to pass a test in another class of vehicle, but that does not make them probationers all over again. It is only on the first occasion that this clause will bite.

The clause applies the Bill to holders of British licences, whether they passed their test in Great Britain (as the vast majority do) or obtained their GB licence as a result of a test passed in certain places outside mainland Great Britain with which our authorities have a reciprocal arrangement. Where the date of passing a test outside Great Britain is known, as it normally will be in these cases, it is recorded on the British licence and thus defines the start of the probationary period. It is quite likely incidentally that by the time the Bill is in force newly qualified drivers will be issued with a new form of plastic licence with a photograph, on which the Government have recently been consulting.

Clause 2 contains the meat of the Bill. Its effect is that when, before the end of the probationary period, a driver gets six or more penalty points on his licence, either through a court conviction or by paying a fixed penalty, the licence is subject to revocation. The first two subsections deal with conviction by a court and require the court to notify the Secretary of State of the endorsements and send him the licence if it has it. If it does not obtain the licence, the Secretary of State has powers under existing law to demand its return, using the police if necessary. The remaining subsections cover the case of a fixed penalty, and require the clerk who accepts the payment of the fine to send the licence to the Secretary of State. In practice these functions of the Secretary of State are carried out by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea.

Clause 3 follows logically on. When the Secretary of State receives the licence or is notified of the conviction, he must serve notice on the holder that the licence is revoked. This person can no longer drive as a fully-fledged driver but may apply for a provisional licence and start again as a learner. Clause 4 goes on to the next stage. Now that he is a learner again he is not eligible for a full licence until he has passed another test. But to avoid unnecessary harshness, this clause does not require people who have passed more than one class of test before the revocation to pass them all again; passing just one of them will get back all the lost entitlements. Nor does it prevent these people from learning to drive a new type of vehicle and passing the test in that. But doing that will not win back their old entitlements as well.

Clause 5 deals with special cases where the person affected by the revocation appeals against a conviction that caused it. Provided that the Secretary of State is notified of this he must issue a licence to allow that person to continue to drive while the appeal is pending. If the appeal is successful enough to remove the penalty points or reduce them below six, then the Secretary of State must grant a permanent licence replacing the one taken away.

Clause 6 and Schedule 1 cover essentially the same ground as Clauses 2 to 5, but apply to special cases where a person has passed a driving test but not yet handed in the test pass certificate to get the licence to which they are now entitled. Current legislation allows a two-year period in which test pass certificates can be exchanged. Most people exchange them straight away, but there are a few who choose not to, or forget to. There are two such groups: those who have passed their first test and still have only a provisional licence, while being entitled to a full one, and those who have a full licence and have passed a test to drive another class of vehicle and have not upgraded their licence to be full in that class. The rather extensive provisions of the schedule are necessary to close potential loopholes which might allow the re-testing procedure to be evaded by people with unclaimed test certificates.

Clause 7 has two purposes. First, paragraph (a) prevents a person being doubly penalised if a court uses its existing powers to order a re-test. The court order takes precedence over anything in this Bill and once it has been made, the person is no longer regarded as being in the probationary period. In many cases the re-test ordered by the court will be a double length test, whereas the tests required by this Bill are always of the normal length. Secondly, paragraphs (b) and (c) prevent a person being caught in a continuous round of re-testing. Once that person has passed a re-test, he is no longer subject to the provisions in the Bill. But he is still in danger of losing his licence because passing the test does not wipe the licence clean of penalty points. Those six points are still sitting there, and if the driver gets a further six before they are cleared, making 12 in all, the court will disqualify him outright for six months under the existing totting up procedures.

The other clauses, and Schedule 2, are supplementary and I shall not go into detail except to make two important points about Clause 10. Subsection (2) of that clause allows commencement of the Bill to be on a day appointed by order. This flexible arrangement will give the Department of Transport, the police and the courts time to make all the necessary arrangements and to ensure the scheme is well publicised. And subsection (3) of this clause is drafted so that the provisions will not apply to anyone who was already a qualified driver before they came into force. This will avoid drivers being taken unawares by a change in the rules affecting licences they already have.

I hope your Lordships will agree that these provisions strike an appropriate balance between toughness and fairness. They will not make it any harder to qualify as a driver in the first place, but they will make it harder for people to keep their licences if they misbehave in the first two years after passing the test. Research suggests that drivers are more deterred by the threat of losing their licences than they are by fines. At the moment they need not worry too much until they get close to 12 penalty points, and that may allow them to commit as many as four speeding offences. This scheme will bite at six points. It will not stop people driving altogether, but it will force them into the world of L plates and the need to have an experienced driver by their side.

I am confident that the Bill will play a part in improving the standard of driving and behaviour among our newly qualified drivers. If it succeeds in that, it will make our roads safer for all users, as any one of us could be the victim of a new driver accident. I beg to move.

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

1.49 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, at the outset I wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, for having introduced the Bill in this House in an eloquent and complete manner, having explained its individual clauses. I also wish to pay tribute to Dr. Michael Clark for his work on the Bill and the way in which he carried the Bill through Committee in another place. Dr. Clark is a friend of mine, and I recognise that the work that he and his noble friend in this House have undertaken is invaluable.

I want to say a word about procedure. I have made a number of complaints about Bills of this kind before, because this is self-evidently a government Bill. I do not believe that a Bill of this character should be introduced as a Private Member's Bill. It is noticeable that in the Committee stage in another place the Minister for Transport in London, Mr. Norris, was primarily responsible for answering all the difficult questions. A Private Member's Bill is subject to all kinds of difficulties, particularly in another place. The procedures can render the progress of the Bill very risky indeed. I hasten to say that we on this side of the House fully support the Bill. I have one or two questions to ask, but we support unquestionably the principle underlying the Bill. However, important Bills of this character should not be subject to the procedure I have described. I hope that the noble Baroness dealing with the Bill on behalf of the Government today will make that representation, although I fear that such representations fall on deaf ears. I do not think that that is right.

A number of organisations dealing with road safety have applauded the Bill, and rightly so. The Automobile Association has helped your Lordships with a brief representation of support. It has highlighted the point that new drivers, who are mainly young drivers, are substantially over-represented in accident statistics. Although it is a minority, far too many young drivers—about 35 per cent.—can be characterised as unsafe drivers. That is not merely an assertion. The point has been made on the basis of studies undertaken by Southampton University, commissioned by the AA's Foundation for Road Safety Research. That is a frightening statistic and more than justifies in itself the provisions of the Bill.

In fairness, the Bill must be seen as part of an overall strategy that has been declared by the Government, the purpose of which is to improve standards of driving among new licence holders. Again, we thoroughly applaud the Government's actions. It may be uncharacteristic for me to applaud the Government's action, but one can do so on so few occasions that it is nice to make an exception.

There is no purpose in my continuing to applaud the Bill. I have already done so. I support the idea of taking action which can deter behaviour which is wholly irresponsible. That was one of the main points of the presentation made by the noble Lord a moment ago.

It would be wrong to see the re-testing procedure simply as a humiliation or as a punitive measure. If new drivers have established that they are not sufficiently responsible to drive, whether they are young or old, as a matter of pragmatic necessity they should go through that procedure again. However, I dare say that some young men may see it as an attack upon their manliness. So be it.

I want to raise a number of points which were touched on in another place in Committee but were not dealt with wholly satisfactorily. I start with a point raised by my honourable friend Mrs. Dunwoody in connection with the holder of an international driving licence. The Minister and Dr. Clark admitted that a number of anomalies remained in relation to the Bill. I raise these matters now in order to ask the noble Lord and the Minister whether they feel that it is impossible to cure some of those anomalies by amendment. If so it could be done on an all-party basis. However, it may be that on reflection the Government feel that it is impossible to deal with those matters. We do not have the draftsmanship skills available to enable us to undertake that work.

The point made in relation to the international driving licence is that somebody holding such a licence could escape the provisions of the fixed penalty notices which apply to someone holding a United Kingdom licence. Consequently, such people would not be covered by the provisions of the Bill. It was argued in another place that that represents only a very small number of people; it is admittedly an anomaly but there is nothing that can be done about it. I ask the Minister and the noble Lord to let me know whether that remains their view. I believe that however much of an anomaly that is it is recognised as such and it ought to be cured. I hope that something can be done.

There is also the question of a British citizen living abroad temporarily and holding an international driving licence who may be able to escape investigation of the points that might exist on a previous driving licence. If there are points on that previous driving licence which are not indicated on the international driving licence, an anomaly is again capable of arising.

The noble Lord referred to the second European directive, which it is hoped will take effect on 1st July 1996. Perhaps the noble Baroness or the noble Lord will respond to this point. Am I right in thinking that the directive reinforces but is not to be seen as a substitution for the provisions of the Bill and that the provisions of the Bill will stand whether or not the directive comes into force on the due date?

As I understand it, the directive will deal with the case of a person who holds licences issued by two member states within the European Union contemporaneously. The difficulty at present is that a person might hold a British licence; he might hold a French licence. While travelling in Britain it might be more convenient to produce the French licence rather than the British licence in the circumstances envisaged in the Bill. That being the case, is it not possible that such a person would escape the provisions of the Bill?

At present one can hold a British and Irish licence contemporaneously. I do not know whether one can hold a French licence; that may have been an incorrect assertion. Whatever the position, the situation is quite clear. Substitute "Irish" for "French". One might hold the two licences and escape the provisions of the Bill. As I understand it, that will cease to be possible under the terms of the second European directive.

We do not yet know whether the directive will come into force. In the meantime, another anomaly could arise. It would be beyond the capacity of an ordinary bobby dealing with these matters to be able to resolve the Irish question, using the Irish example. It is difficult enough for Ministers to do that. How does the ordinary bobby manage to identify such a. situation?

I wish to pose another question which is not wholly germane to the Bill. However, perhaps the Minister will respond to it. Would it be possible to have a different form of L plate when this form of testing is being undertaken? If the intention is to distinguish between the provisional licence holder and the person who is going through the re-testing procedure, I should have thought it desirable to have a different L plate. It is not unknown. That procedure is undertaken in different parts of the country. The procedure outlined in the Bill is not unique; it has been tried before with success. Therefore I raise the question regarding the identification of the driver in those circumstances.

There has been a suggestion that a provision is to be introduced about theory testing by the Government. In her response, will the Minister indicate when that statement is likely to be made? Is it likely to be in advance of the adoption and implementation of the second driving licence directive?

My last point deals with what I believe to be the necessity for a European Union scheme. In my view there should be harmonisation throughout the member states of the European Union. The principles of this Bill, and similar provisions elsewhere, should apply throughout the European Union. Enforcement would remain with the member state. Nevertheless, because the principles which underlie the procedures are so compelling I should like to hear the Government suggest that a European Union wide scheme should be introduced and that such provision will be forthcoming from the Commission at an early date.

2.4 p.m.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, certain matters to which I shall refer do not come strictly within the scope of the Bill but I believe that nonetheless they should be mentioned. I support and welcome the Bill with very few reservations. Consequently, I intend to be brief in addressing your Lordships today. I hope that I am not being too provocative, but I believe that the provisions of the Bill should go further.

The Bill is intended, I believe, to penalise newly qualified drivers who choose not to drive well and to encourage the remainder to raise their standards. When we start driving we affix L plates to the vehicle and hope that more experienced drivers will display consideration and courtesy towards us. At the moment we pass the Ministry test we throw the L plates into the air, yell "Whoopee" and think that we are able to drive any vehicle in the class or classes passed. That is when problems can occur. We find out that we do not know everything about driving and are lucky if we do not have or do not cause accidents.

In the Australian state of New South Wales, where for a while in the 1960s I spent my leisure time working as a part-time examiner for the advanced motorists, provisional licensing (equivalent to the proposed probationary licensing) was introduced in 1966. Provision was made for both theoretical and practical re-testing of any P plate driver convicted of traffic or criminal offences involving driving. That remained in force until 1985 when only theoretical re-testing was required. That has worked well in New South Wales and, in their own formats, in other states of Australia.

Newly qualified drivers have to display P plates; they are limited to driving at 80 kph (equivalent to 50 mph); and the maximum blood alcohol level permitted is limited to 0.2 gm/100 ml. Probationary drivers are very careful. A provisionally licensed driver who has more than four points on his licence has the licence cancelled for three months—I assume for a longer period if warranted—and, after re-testing, starts the probationary period once more.

While still talking about New South Wales, a learner driver aged 25 or under must hold his learner's licence for at least six months before being able to take his test. What an excellent way of ensuring that he gains some road sense and experience. Are we still considering widening the scope of our test and making it harder to pass, as the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, mentioned?

So what can we learn and perhaps include in the Bill? P plates, to differentiate them from L plates of any colour, indicate that the driver is a probationer and is gaining experience. I was going to say they indicate that the driver is still a learner, but all drivers should continue to learn until they stop driving. The presence of P plates would be a useful means of identifying drivers.

I feel sure that a traffic officer would deal more leniently and with more understanding with somebody displaying P plates than another person not showing them. Limiting the maximum speed which a newly-qualified driver can attain would ensure that experience was gained while, we hope, decreasing the chance of having an accident. While this might cause frustration in some drivers, it has worked well in Australia, so why should it not work here? A vehicle with even modest power output can be a lethal weapon in inexperienced hands, so should not consideration be given to limiting size or power of a vehicle being driven during the learning and probationary period?

According to the Department of Transport figures, drivers under 21, who comprise 10 per cent. of licence holders, are involved in 20 per cent. of road accidents. Yet they drive fewer miles than older drivers. They are involved in accidents that lead to 1,000 road deaths per year—and on many occasions the fatality is not the young driver. Research indicates that it is inexperience rather than immaturity which produces the higher than average figures.

The introduction of an extended test for drivers after reverting to learner status could well be part of an attainable package of measures aimed at achieving the highest possible returns in terms of casualty reduction. If the Bill can achieve this and, at the same time, increase a sense of responsibility in certain drivers, it will have achieved its aim. While I support it wholeheartedly, I hope that the Minister will reflect on the Australian experience which has successfully withstood the passage of time. We can definitely profit from our Australian cousins.

2.9 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, as the fourth speaker in the debate I was fascinated to notice that I am the third to speak in favour of P plates. The view I hold is not new; we debated it at great length under the previous road traffic Bill when marvellous statistics from Northern Ireland were produced where R plates, meaning "restricted", are used. I also quoted the Australian experience which has just been fully dealt with by the noble Viscount. I am delighted to hear him producing that case.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, also brought out the point that we need plates for the identification of the driver. I welcome the Bill, but the one big gap in it is that it creates a probationary period but does not in any way identify the driver. When we debated the matter in the mid-1980s with the last road traffic Bill, I made the point that it is not just the tearaway drivers that we want to identify. They have been clearly described by the noble Lord, Lord Astor. We must also remember the timid driver. Many new drivers find it frightening suddenly to lose their L plates and feel that everyone towers above them, terrorising them on the road. When the young driver whom I quoted last time who was in that position, and who asked me to take the point up, found that there was no hope of achieving the provision, she put in her back window a large notice saying "New Driver". She found that of enormous benefit because people did not get so impatient if she was making her turn more slowly, was slow moving off at the lights or made the car jump forward when she tried to move off. All those actions are poorly tolerated by drivers who, on the whole, are far too impatient.

We should have either P plates as in Australia, with the P being appropriate for "probationary", or R as we have in Northern Ireland, if we wish to continue with the UK practice rather than the P plate.

The point was also made about the re-testing period. There should be a case for a difference perhaps in the colour or with a P for the normal two years and R for the driver who is restricted while waiting to be re-tested. It is important for other drivers to know the status of a driver.

I do not intend to speak any longer, it is Friday and another Bill is also due to be discussed. I support the Bill and hope that it will be possible to amend it to include some kind of identification plate to identify drivers in their first two years.

2.12 p.m.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, I too should like to thank my noble friend Lord Astor for introducing this Bill to your Lordships' House this afternoon and for the clear explanation of the Bill. I welcome the proposal within the context of the four initiatives which have the well-recognised blend of the carrot and the stick, aimed at influencing driver behaviour, specifically new driver safety, as reported in the Department of Transport's road safety report 1995.

However, I urge the department to raise its sights when considering the development of the attitude of young drivers. Again, I welcome the proposal to provide better road safety education for the 16-plus age group in schools and colleges but urge both the Department of Transport and the Department for Education to work together to enhance the provision of suitable material and general support for 12 to 16 year-old children. I ask my noble friend how the Scottish Education Department is progressing with the guidelines for five to 14 year-olds, and how the evaluation of educational material for 10 to 14 year-olds, both mentioned in the road safety report, is progressing.

We are all familiar with the excellent, well-established programmes that are available within infant and junior schools to help children learn to cross the road and ride a bicycle. But programmes of this scale are not yet available to prepare young adults for the challenge of preparing to learn to drive. I must emphasise in the strongest possible manner that the attitude and behaviour of young adults towards driving are being formed much earlier than the Department of Transport appears to recognise within its strategic plans.

As chairman of the European Secure Vehicle Alliance, which is a network of manufacturers, insurance companies, police and many others who are committed to reducing vehicle crime, I can confirm that a working group has for the past three years sought routes to develop the relatedness between the national curriculum and the driving test.

England and Wales have the most serious theft of vehicle problem in the world—and yet we also enjoy one of the best road safety records in the world. Furthermore, vehicle crime is far more a young person's offence than is total offending in general. Over one-third of known vehicle crime offenders are aged 16 and under, while a further third are aged 17 to 20.

The recent curriculum developments proposed by Sir Ron Dearing have provided an opening at Key Stage 3, and especially at Key Stage 4, to introduce new teaching initiatives. I urge the Government to take the initiative in encouraging the development of material aimed at developing a responsible attitude towards vehicle safety and offending for pre-16 year-old boys and girls who have an interest in learning to drive.

Many young adults do not value the opportunity to continue in full-time education from 17 onwards but seek to become more economically active. As the Department of Transport report highlights, motorcycle registrations have fallen sharply, especially for young men; young adults' expectations are to learn to drive at the earliest possible opportunity. Surely for these young citizens we should aim to provide a pathway which offers them, as part of their mainstream education, the opportunity to prepare to become responsible motorists.

As an advanced driver for the past nine years, I welcome this Bill.

2.16 p.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, the present emotional climate of opinion—the Zeitgeist, if you like—is such that anyone who expresses the slightest reservation about the desirability of imposing fiercer punishments for almost any offence one can think of faces an uphill task. Nevertheless, plod uphill this afternoon I must. This Bill is well-intentioned. It has a great many merits. However, I contend that it goes a little too far in some respects and that, above all, it is dangerously inflexible.

Under what circumstances are recently qualified drivers or motorcycle riders likely to acquire penalty points? In the first instance it is when they have insufficient basic driving skills—when they slip through the driving examiner's net, as it were. In this minority of cases, the provisions of the Bill would be totally appropriate and wholly worthwhile.

The second instance is when those recently qualified drivers have all the basic skills and all the knowledge of the Highway Code that is necessary to pass the test, but have not acquired the very different skills that we all know are necessary to drive safely at speed on dual carriageways and motorways. Those skills come only from driving mile after mile day after day. In other words, they come from building up a body of experience. In these particular cases, the provisions of the Bill could be positively harmful in that they could reduce the opportunity to drive long distances day after day and thereby progressively acquire the requisite intuitive skills which cannot be taught by any driving school.

Here I agree with noble Lords who spoke on the desirability of having a probationer's plate with a possible speed limit in the order of 50 or 60 miles an hour. Something of that sort would go a long way to remedying the particular instance that I just advanced.

Thirdly, there are circumstances where people are perfectly skilled drivers—possibly extremely skilled in a technical sense—but where youthful impatience, arrogance or the desire to impress or show off (testosterone, if you like) leads them to drive dangerously and recklessly. I am well aware of the statistics quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Astor, and others. But here again, it is difficult to see the relevance of making those people take another driving test. At Second Reading in another place, someone spoke of the humiliation that would be visited upon them if they were made to take the test again. I suppose that there is something in that. But surely the driving test should not be used purely as a punishment. Appropriate punishments would be disqualification, fines and, in extreme cases, imprisonment.

There is a quixotic, random nature about the penalty points system itself, which is doubly random in the case of speeding. If we are totally honest, most of us will admit to breaking the law in that regard several times a week. But equally, we like to think that we only do so when we consider subjectively that it is safe or relatively safe to do so in the circumstances. Those of us who are experienced drivers, as many of us are, know that it is much less dangerous to drive at 95 miles an hour on a totally deserted motorway at 4.30 a.m. on a summer morning than it is to drive at 40 miles an hour in a crowded shopping area. But the law has to be objective and not subjective. Accordingly, the first offence attracts a recommended six penalty points and the second offence, which is by far the most dangerous one, only three points.

There is also an undesirable rigidity in the penalty points awarded for failing to stop after an accident. If the accident is serious, involving death or injury to human beings or to animals in some cases, the maximum of 10 penalty points is fully justified. Indeed, one could argue that it is a little on the low side. But if the accident is trivial, for instance, knocking a flake of paint the size of a thumbnail off a farm gate when reversing in a country lane—I have established that that is, technically and legally an accident—the minimum number of penalty points that can be awarded—namely, five—seems much too high.

The point that I am trying to make is that the penalty points system is something of lottery, which does not necessarily reflect the degree of danger, cost or inconvenience caused to other road users or members of the general public by the poor behaviour in question.

Nobody so far has mentioned, either in this House or another place, the effect that the Bill, as unamended, would have on people who have to drive for a living. A few years ago I moved an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to raise the minimum period of disqualification for drivers convicted of causing death by dangerous driving. The amendment was opposed by the Government Front Bench and even more by the Labour Front Bench. I exonerate from my strictures the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, who was not covering that particular department at that time. It was opposed by the Labour Front Bench mainly on the ground that it would be unfair to those whose livelihoods depended on the possession of a driving licence. Fortunately, the Back-Benchers of all parties, not least the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, together with the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, fully supported my amendment and it was eventually accepted, although the Government insisted upon watering it down so that the minimum period of disqualification was reduced from three to two years.

However, it is somewhat illogical to argue that those whose livelihood depends wholly on being allowed to drive should be disqualified for as little as one year if they have killed someone as a result of driving recklessly or drunkenly, but that they should be disqualified for an effective minimum of three months, which is the minimum time needed to obtain another driving test, if they have merely broken the speed limit by 10 miles an hour and perhaps scraped a little paint off a farm gate.

The Bill is well intentioned and essentially to be welcomed. But it is too rigid and inflexible allowing the courts, as it does, no discretion whatever. Let it be amended so as to allow the courts either total discretion or limited discretion, for example, where the driver has accumulated between six and eight penalty points. It is always undesirable, unnecessary and dangerous to hamstring the courts and limit their discretion. I am sure that none of us wants to repeat the grave mistakes of the wholly inflexible Dangerous Dogs Act.

2.25 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, at the outset I remind your Lordships that I am a vice-president of RoSPA; I am also on the public policy committee of the Royal Automobile Club; and a member of a number of societies and institutions that deal with transport and driving matters. There is no other interest to which I should draw your Lordships' attention.

I give a warm welcome to the Bill. As my noble friend Lord Astor explained, I see it as part of a package of measures. While it is interesting to hear not only from the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, but also from my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes—the doughty proponent over a number of years for the using of other plates on the backs of motorcars—I say to the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, and others, that I hope my noble friend Lord Astor will resist any temptation to table amendments extending the scope of the Bill.

Over the years that I have been in your Lordships' House, when we have discussed motoring matters it has properly excited all those who took part. We always hear a wide range of views. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, discussed periods of disqualification. We have heard about different forms of plates, the Australian experience, education and a number of fair suggestions put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Monson. But I should like to think that the Bill is part of a package aimed at changing the culture, not only of existing drivers, but also and most particularly of the new driver.

A number of figures were quoted. I was given a fair share by the RAC, some of which have been mentioned. My noble friend Lord Astor and the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, spoke of the percentage of licence-holders who are victims of a disproportionate number of accidents. One of the RAC's findings, which was somewhat surprising, was that 17 to 20 year-old males rated their ability to drive a good deal higher than in fact it was. That comes from the macho feeling that, "We can do it as soon as we have a licence".

Around 54 per cent. of young drivers admitted to an immediate deterioration of skills as soon as they obtained their licence—the devil-may-care attitude of "I have got it and off I can go". The Bill goes a long way towards saying to that group of people, "If that is so, you run a real risk of losing your licence for a period of time". The Bill must have a salutary effect. I do not want the effect to be humiliating, but new drivers have to accept that they must be even more careful because they face the risk of revocation of their licence.

It is interesting that young people are convicted of violations such as unofficial racing, breaches of blood alcohol limits, racing oncoming vehicles for a one-car gap, jumping red lights and disregarding speed limits. Those are all fairly serious offences and must be discouraged. I was going to refer to the Automobile Association findings in conjunction with Southampton University, a matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. I endorse those findings and underline what the noble Lord had to say.

RoSPA's evidence deals with education, a subject raised by the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux. Attitudes have to change, and we have to bring in education at an earlier stage, but we should not attach that little parcel to the Christmas tree of this Bill, tempting as that might well be.

I wish to ask three questions. I am happy to have answers on another day, particularly as today is Friday, and it may well be that those questions might be better pursued by way of probing amendments at a later stage. What is the reasoning of the promoters of the Bill in conjunction with the Department of Transport for this mystical two years? New drivers, particularly the young, tend to be those who do a considerably lower annual mileage than the majority, which is around 11,000 to 12,000 miles. Young people tend to do less than that largely because they borrow their parents' cars and, of course, they are on holiday for a shorter period of the year. What is the mystique of two years?

My second question relates to the penalty of six points. In his introduction my noble friend Lord Astor spoke about points and I shall have to read carefully what he said. I think he said that this points limit would enable the driver to have as many as four speeding offences. The penalty points liabilities show me that speeding offences which are dealt with by fixed penalty can attract three points. Speeding offences which are dealt with by summons can attract three to six points. I should like to know why six points has been determined. Why should there be two chances of getting away with something? Why not just the one? Again, I would not wish to put down an amendment on that point and force a Division in your Lordships' House at a later stage because I should like the Bill to go through without any great problem.

My final question concerns a technical point which arises in Clauses 4 and 5 of the Bill. On page 3, line 24 and on page 3, line 38 we see the description "a full licence". A full licence is normally that which enables a driver to drive a number of vehicles—tractors and goods vehicles as well as light motor cars or motor cycles. I wonder whether the revocation and the restoration, particularly in the case of Clause 5 where the Secretary of State will be required to grant a person free of charge "a full licence", is right. Do we not mean a licence in the same category or the same class as that which has been revoked? If the driver has to be given a full licence without any further testing or experience, he can get a licence for a vehicle for which he has not undergone instruction or testing. I assure my noble friend that I am quite happy to be given an answer at some other time.

I give a warm welcome to this Bill. I hope that your Lordships will see that it goes through this House with as little delay as possible and that it arrives on the statute book as quickly as possible.

2.35 p.m.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever for bringing forward the Bill in this House. I welcome and support the Bill as far as it goes. It is a step in the right direction. However, I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, that the Bill does not go nearly far enough to tackle the problems. If we do go far enough we will undoubtedly have the old civil libertarian arguments trotted out, as they were in the past over speed limits, the use of seat belts, alcohol limits and breath testing. If none of these measures had been translated into law we would have more room on our roads but a lot less room in our cemeteries.

I sound a word of warning here. We must ensure that there is stricter court or police action against those caught driving under age or without a licence. If just a caution is given, which I understand is common these days, a young person may prefer to drive without a licence and hope not to get caught rather than be subjected to the more rigorous proposals of this current and, I hope, future legislation. I well remember my father saying to me—some of your Lordships will know that he was very much involved in transport matters—"You will never find one way to reduce the death toll by 1,000 lives and the correlated number of serious injuries; you have to find 100 ways of saving 10 lives".

Some of those ways may be indicated by the remarks which follow. To some extent they are covered by remarks already made. I would like to see verbal or computerised testing of a candidate, prior to his receiving a provisional licence and being let loose on the road, to indicate general knowledge of the Highway Code. Serious consideration should be given to the reduction, preferably to zero, of the permitted alcohol limit for a probationary driver and to lower speed restrictions where appropriate. There are obviously areas such as motorways where to introduce slower-moving traffic would be a severe congestion factor.

The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, have confirmed my belief in P plates, which I gained in Australia. The concept behind a P plate is not generally understood, I believe. It is that other drivers will be aware that the P driver has satisfied an examiner that he has adequate skills to continue to learn unaccompanied. This is all that passing the driving test can mean in this country until the test itself contains an element of motorway driving or night time driving. I am sure that the same old arguments will be trotted out that there is no statistical evidence that shows that P plates work; we have a different culture to countries where P plates have been accepted, etc. I do not know of any statistical evidence which says that they do not work or that they are detrimental. If there is such evidence we should obviously get rid of L plates as well. At least in that situation the driver is accompanied by a driver with more experience. I do not understand the reluctance to P plates, bearing in mind the reluctance, for example, to bring in seat belt legislation. No one in their right mind would suggest that the seat belt regulations should now be revoked.

If there is not a problem with inexperienced drivers, this Bill is not necessary. Let us accept that there is a problem and get on with tightening things up. If you believe that there is no problem, I suggest that you try to insure a car for a young driver or try to nominate a young driver for your own motorcar. Look at the premium quoted and then try to tell me that there is no problem. The premium is an assessment of risk and gives a clear indication that we should do much more than is suggested in this modest Bill to tackle the problem and to help the young, inexperienced driver to help himself.

I do not recommend going quite as far as is suggested in a press cutting relating to Dubai, which is headlined: Reckless drivers flogged in public". That is probably going a little too far. However, let us stop pussyfooting around and create some real action which will produce some real results.

2.40 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever for explaining the case for this important measure so eloquently. I strongly endorse all that he said about its value. I also pay tribute to my honourable friend the Member for Rochford, Dr. Michael Clark, for introducing the Bill in another place and giving us the opportunity to legislate in this Session.

My noble friend has set out very clearly how the legislation will work in practice. However, it may help the House if I try to set the measure in a wider context while replying to some of your Lordships' questions, where I am able to do so. Before I do that, perhaps I may comment on a concern that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, at the beginning of the debate when he asked why this is a Private Member's Bill as opposed to a government Bill. I shall pass on his message and no doubt everyone concerned will take note of what he said. I am sure that it would not be the Government's intention to restrict the ability of any Member of your Lordships' House or of another place to bring forward such Bills in any way that they wish.

As your Lordships will know, the Government have set a road accident casualty reduction target of one-third by the year 2000. I am pleased to say that we are well on our way to achieving this target. Indeed, we have already exceeded the target in terms of both fatal and serious casualties, with six years still to go. We have made great strides in reducing casualties among pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. But we still have a long way to go because of the persistently high number of slight casualties, particularly among car drivers and passengers. Improving safety among newly qualified drivers is a priority because their risk is disproportionately high.

The Department of Transport has for some time been running a major research programme to examine how to improve the safety of new drivers. It has consulted on a number of measures which, on the basis of this research, seemed likely to be most effective. These include measures to improve education and training in road safety, both before, during and after the period of learning to drive. Taken together, we hope that they will create a new climate of safety consciousness among new drivers. This may be ambitious, and it will not be easy, but it is certainly possible.

On 6th February this year, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport launched a training scheme, known as "Pass Plus", for drivers who have recently passed the L test. On completing the scheme, these drivers are entitled to more favourable premiums from a number of leading insurance companies. I am glad to say that the scheme is already proving very popular. Over 10,000 approved driving instructors have registered with the Driving Standards Agency to provide instruction, and in the three months since then some 2,500 new drivers have already taken advantage of, and completed, the course.

The Department of Transport has also prepared, as my noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux mentioned, an educational package for the 16-plus group which is designed to encourage them to think about the responsibilities of driving and car ownership at an age when they are no doubt thinking about obtaining their own transport, even if they are not all quite old enough to apply for a licence themselves. The package will be based on the BBC "Drive" programme, which Her Majesty's Stationery Office plans to market as a video, with specially commissioned notes for teachers and pupils. We hope that it will be ready for publication in time for the next school year.

We are also planning to improve the driving test itself by introducing a substantial theoretical element in addition to the practical test. The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, asked when that would be possible. In a few days' time the Minister for Road Safety will make an announcement about the form which the theoretical test will take. When the changes are introduced in July 1996 learner drivers, if they want to pass their test, will not only have to master the practical skills of driving but will also have to give much more thought to what driving actually involves. Any re-testing that is required by the provisions of the Bill will include the whole of the normal driving test; that is the theoretical and the practical. The Bill is therefore not a piecemeal measure but will form part of a coherent package of measures to promote the safety of new drivers. It so happens that none of the other measures that I have mentioned requires primary legislation.

My noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux suggested that the Government could be doing more to promote road safety among the younger age group. I can assure him that by focusing on the 16-plus age group we are not ignoring those who are younger. They are at an impressionable age and are also developing their personal beliefs and values. A number of local authorities and organisations such as RoSPA have developed suitable teaching material and the Department of Transport is drawing up a computer database of road safety material related to the national curriculum Key Stages 3 and 4. I am pleased to be able to tell my noble friend that the Department of Transport works closely with the Department for Education and an inter-departmental working group has been established which includes the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland offices.

My noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth asked why the Bill provides for a probationary period of two years rather than three and why it allows drivers to reach six penalty points before their licences are revoked. We should bear in mind that three years is the period during which any driver is likely to be disqualified if he reaches 12 penalty points. When the Government consulted on the new driver safety, the responses on the probationary period were fairly equally divided between one year and two and there was little support for a period longer than two years. As regards the penalty points, a single serious speeding or a careless driving offence can be enough to put a new driver over the six-point threshold. It would seem a little harsh to penalise a new driver for a single three-point offence, which could well be the result of inexperience rather than deliberate misbehaviour. I expect the noble Lord, Lord Monson, will be pleased to hear that. The Magistrates' Association specifically favoured six points within two years and, after all, magistrates have to deal with traffic offences on a regular basis. The Government are therefore entirely happy with the formula as it stands.

My noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth also asked what "full" licence meant. A full licence simply means a licence which is not a provisional licence. My noble friends Lord Chesham and Lady Gardner and the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, raised a number of interesting points. We are introducing a theory test but it will not have to be taken before being allowed to drive as a learner. Our experts consider that it is better that driving theory and practice are taught alongside each other because they reinforce each other.

We have considered very carefully a lower drink-drive limit for new drivers, and I am prepared to believe that that has been very effective in Australia and elsewhere, but in Britain few drink-drive offences are committed within the first two years of driving. The worst age-group of offenders are those in their mid-twenties, most of whom have quite a few years' driving experience. It would give a very confusing message to allow them to drink more just at the stage when they become more likely to exceed the current drink-drive limit. And it would also make enforcement of the drink-drive law much more complicated for the police, who will not know for how long a person has been driving until they see the licence.

My noble friend made the point also that it might be better to drive without licence at all. That is not so because the DVLA holds a shadow licence and any points incurred before receiving a licence will be shown on the provisional licence.

We have also looked at speed restrictions on new drivers. There is a 45 mph restriction in force in Northern Ireland, but it is not well observed, and there is no conclusive evidence that it reduces accidents for new drivers. That limit would be rather low for most inter-urban roads in mainland Britain, and might cause other drivers to overtake dangerously. In any case, the majority of new driver accidents occur on built-up roads with a 30 or 40 mph speed limit. And drivers have to learn to drive at speeds of up to 70 mph at some stage. We must make sure we are not simply postponing the problem to a later date. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Chesham also complained that the practical driving test does not cover motorway driving. He cannot have it both ways. On that point, I should add that motorway and night-time driving are both included in the "Pass Plus" syllabus, which I mentioned.

Many noble Lords mentioned P and R plates. Most countries which impose restrictions on new drivers require them to display some kind of plate—in Australia it is P for "probationary"; in Northern Ireland, R for "restricted". Countries which do not impose these restrictions but apply tougher sanctions if offences are committed—as this Bill aims to do—generally manage without such plates. So far as I am aware, there is no evidence from anywhere in the world that the plates themselves contribute anything to road safety, though undoubtedly they make the restrictions easier to enforce. I have explained why the Government rejected the case for various restrictions, and the case for a probationary plate on its own is still, it seems, not proven. In any case, the really irresponsible drivers would simply not display the plates. I listened with interest to what my noble friend Lady Gardner said about timid drivers. When I first passed my test, I was just like that but I left on the L plate. No doubt my noble friend's friend could do that if she wanted to.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Astor that the main purpose of this Bill is to deter the minority of new drivers who offend. They are a minority. There are almost 1 million new drivers each year, but fewer than 20,000 currently attract six or more penalty points in the first two years after passing the test—the probationary period. We naturally hope that the numbers will go down even lower as a result of this Bill. It will surely be a powerful deterrent for offenders to know that if they break the law by their foolish or aggressive habits, they will once again have to display L plates, be accompanied while driving and, above all, have to pass another driving test.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, asked me several questions. In particular, he talked about anomalies. I want to make sure that I do not answer him incorrectly. So far as concerns non-British licences, the Secretary of State does not have the power to revoke them. Therefore, that would be another matter. Certainly, I am advised that a person cannot hold two licences at once. I see that the noble Lord wishes to intervene. I give way.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I am much obliged. I believe that it is possible to hold an Irish and a British licence.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

Yes, my Lords; but I thought we were talking about French and other foreign licences. However, if I am incorrect in that respect, I shall write to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord referred to various anomalies; indeed, there were so many that I rather lost count of them. I do not know whether it would be better to deal with the anomalies which would entail the Bill returning to another place for further consideration, or whether it is much more important to get this Bill on the statute book and deal with any problems which may arise in some later road traffic Act. All I can say is that, at this stage of the Bill, my noble friend the Minister will undoubtedly discuss the matter with the Bill's sponsors.

Lord Clinton-Davis

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister again, but the issue really emphasises the point that I made at the very beginning of my remarks. Such Bills tend to come to us about this time of the year, or a little later, and we are always told, "If you start amending the Bill now, you will endanger it, because it will have to return to another place". That illustrates the mischief of the procedure. When it is a government Bill it ought to be dealt with as such. I say that with the greatest of respect to the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever. Indeed, it is one of the inhibiting factors which is imposed upon this Chamber. I hope that the Minister will, once again—indeed, it has been done many times on both sides of the House—indicate that there is some cause for concern in that respect to the Secretary of State.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, as I said at the outset, the matter will be brought to the Secretary of State's attention in any event. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, that the Minister will undoubtedly discuss the matter that he has raised with the sponsors.

Our aim should not be to mete out punishment or testing for its own sake, but to promote safer drivers and reduce accidents, particularly among the young. There is a further government commitment, under the "Health of the Nation" initiative, to reduce accidental deaths among the 15 to 24 age group by 25 per cent. by the year 2005. Road accidents are the most common cause of death among that age group, to which most new drivers belong. The Bill will help towards achieving that target as well as the more specific target for road casualty reduction which I mentioned earlier.

The Bill has the Government's full support, and I commend it to your Lordships.

Lord Monson

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, can she say whether the Government have any objection to giving the courts a measure of discretion, as legislation of this sort normally does?

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, the Bill before the House is a very simple and straightforward piece of legislation. I would not want to extend the discretionary powers of the courts while I stand here at the Dispatch Box. However, I shall look into the matter for the noble Lord, Lord Monson.

2.58 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who took part in today's debate. Some very pertinent points have been made. I was interested to hear from my noble friends Lord Chesham and Lady Gardner and, indeed, the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, who addressed the subject from an Australian point of view. I am especially grateful to my noble friend the Minister for putting the Government's point of view so clearly and for dealing with many of the points raised by other speakers.

I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, for his kind words. I am sure he will agree that his concerns and questions were ably answered by my noble friend the Minister. The noble Lord asked whether one could hold French and British driving licences. Having worked in France for 11 years, my personal experience was that I had to hand in my French licence the minute that I returned to this country and became a British resident.

I should also like to thank my noble friend Lord Lucas who spoke with all his experience on the subject. I am sure that he, too, feels that his questions were well answered by my noble friend the Minister.

As my noble friend the Minister said, we are, as a society, making great strides in reducing fatal road accidents, but we have a very long way to go. It is a staggering thought that the number of deaths on our roads is equivalent to the death of every occupant on a fully-laden jumbo jet about once every six weeks.

This is a subject about which I know my noble friend Lord Brougham, who does so much to counter vehicle crime as president of ESVA, feels very strongly. I cannot pretend that one measure on its own will transform the way our young drivers behave on the roads, but I hope that it will act as a powerful deterrent for those drivers who are tempted to break the law or drive without consideration for others. The debate today has shown there is a great deal of support in this House for the Bill. I hope it will be given a speedy passage through this House and onto the statute book.

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