HL Deb 12 July 1996 vol 574 cc595-605

3.25 p.m.

The Earl of Courtown rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 17th June be approved [25th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg to move. These regulations represent one of the stages in the process of implementing the Second EC Driving Licence Directive. They may be regarded as paving legislation, amending primary legislation to give effect to some of the provisions of the directive. With the exception of one set of measures which I shall presently come to, the UK will implement the directive on 1st January 1997.

Implementation also requires changes to secondary legislation. Regulations introducing theory testing for cars and motorcycles took effect on 1st July. Regulations covering the remaining changes—theory testing for other vehicles, additional tests to drive certain vehicles, including minibuses and small goods vehicles, and changes to eyesight requirements for lorry and bus drivers—will be presented to the House for approval in the autumn, following public consultation.

The second directive takes forward harmonisation of driver licensing and testing within the EU initiated by the First Driving Licence Directive of 1980. This introduced mutual recognition of driving licences, underpinned by minimum health and testing standards, and licences in a common format. As a consequence, checking driving entitlement throughout the Community became easier. Mutual recognition effectively meant that drivers who took up residence in another member state could exchange their licences after a year without having to pass another driving test. The second directive consolidates mutual recognition by removing the exchange requirement.

These regulations primarily affect drivers from EU member states and other states within the European Economic Area who take up residence here. For convenience I shall refer to these as Community licence holders. The key provisions are as follows. Paragraph 9 of Schedule 1 gives to all Community licence holders the same right to drive as their British equivalents. It also makes their licences valid for the same period, unless those licences expire earlier. Community licence holders who take up permanent residence in Britain may still exchange their licences for British ones if they wish.

Paragraphs 3 to 5, 11 to 12 and 20 to 28 of Schedule 1 bring resident Community licence holders within the same medical and conduct regimes as British licence holders. For example, if they are entitled to drive lorries or buses, they will need a medical examination at the age of 45, then every five years till 65, and every year thereafter to renew their licences. And they may be disqualified or have their entitlements suspended on grounds of conduct.

Effective enforcement of the medical and conduct regimes depends on the DVLA being aware of the drivers concerned, as they are of British licence holders. Paragraph 10 of Schedule 1 requires Community licence holders authorised to drive goods vehicles over 3.5 tonnes or passenger vehicles with nine or more passenger seats to register with the DVLA within a year of taking up residence. Other drivers may register if they wish. A registered driver will receive a counterpart to the licence—like the document that accompanies a British licence. Registration and the issue of a counterpart will aid the recording of endorsements ordered against Community licence holders. But they will also bring benefits to the drivers concerned: it will be much easier to replace their lost or stolen licences; they will have access to the fixed penalty regime which, among other things, makes it unnecessary to attend court for each offence; and the DVLA will be able to contact them about licence renewals and send them information about driving in the UK.

Paragraph 2(2) and 2(3) of Schedule 1 will require an applicant for a licence to be normally resident; that is, to have lived here for at least six months in any year. Noble Lords may recall press reports some months ago about the thriving business of driving licence tourism, with disqualified German drivers coming here to obtain a UK licence. These provisions will make that type of operation much less likely.

Schedule 2 incorporates amendments to the Road Traffic Offenders Act to bring Community licence holders within the scope of penalties associated with the above provisions.

The regulations also extend to Community licence holders certain entitlements which currently are only available if a British licence is held. These include, in Schedules 3 and 4, the right to be licensed to drive taxis or private hire vehicles or to drive small buses for charitable and similar purposes.

In summary, therefore, the changes which these regulations introduce will enable new residents from other member states to drive on the same footing, with similar entitlements and subject to similar constraints, as those who hold British licences. British licence holders will of course have commensurate benefits when they take up residence in another member state. The Government believe that these regulations fulfil the aims of the directive to promote the free movement of people throughout the European Union on the basis of parity of treatment of drivers, underpinned by common testing and health standards. This is an important landmark in driving licence legislation. As such, I commend the regulations to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 17th June be approved [25th Report from the Joint Committed].—(The Earl of Courtown.)

3.30 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for his explanation of the regulations. The debate provides a convenient vehicle for me to address concerns about licences to drive articulated vehicles. First, I should declare an interest as I am president of the Heavy Transport Association. I also have a Class 1 HGV licence, now known as a C+E licence, by test. I also employ HGV drivers in the Territorial Army.

Perhaps I should enlighten your Lordships as regards the terminology. An LGV is a large goods vehicle. An HGV is a heavy goods vehicle. They are determined by the weight of the vehicle. I understand that in Germany the terms are PKW and LKW.

Perhaps I may give your Lordships a little of the history of HGV/vocational driving licences. They were introduced in the Transport Act 1968 and there were three classes. A Class 3 vehicle was a rigid goods vehicle with no more than four wheels in contact with the ground. A Class 2 vehicle had more than four wheels in contact with the ground and was generally a six-wheeler or an eight-wheeler. A Class 1 vehicle was an articulated vehicle.

There is not much difference between driving a six-wheeler and a four-wheeler but an articulated vehicle is a completely different beast to drive. The trailer cuts in rapidly and it is extremely easy to allow the rear wheels of the trailer to mount the kerb or, even worse, to crush a cyclist or pedestrian. I have extensive experience of driving very large goods vehicles. Most have involved recovery vehicles or towing draw-bar trailers. Despite my experience, whenever I drive an articulated vehicle I do so with some trepidation.

With the original Classes 3, 2 and 1 vehicles no special licence was needed to tow a draw-bar trailer. The draw-bar trailer is attached to the rear of the goods vehicle but no weight of the draw-bar trailer is imposed on the tractor unit. However, with an articulated vehicle about 20 per cent. of the weight of the trailer is applied to the tractor.

A draw-bar trailer is much easier to tow down the road and therefore there was considered to be no need to have an additional licence in order to tow such a trailer. A Class 1 HGV licence was not needed to tow a draw-bar trailer.

We then introduced the new EC driving licence classes and there were three. Class C relates to a rigid goods vehicle, no matter how many wheels it has. Class C+E generally relates to an articulated vehicle. Class C+E restricted—and this is the important part—allows people who had an entitlement under their old Class 2 or Class 3 licence to tow a draw-bar trailer to continue to do so. However, they are not allowed to tow an articulated trailer because that is much more difficult to drive.

I thought it rather unwise at the time but it did not appear to cause a problem. But now we have further harmonisation of EU driving licence classes and it appears that we are to ditch the C + E restricted class. To do that, as I understand it, the Government intend that people who have a C + E restricted licence will now be able to drive an articulated vehicle, even though they may never have towed any form of trailer behind a rigid goods vehicle, they have certainly never driven an articulated vehicle and they have certainly never undergone a DoT test to show that they can handle a trailer. I assure your Lordships that the DoT test for driving an articulated vehicle is a very stiff one indeed.

This new arrangement is extremely unfair to those who have recently passed their C + E test because they will have spent as much as £1,000 in order to achieve the vocational licence to drive an articulated vehicle. They will see people who have never taken a test and who have no experience of driving an articulated vehicle being given free, gratis, the right to drive an articulated vehicle. That is rather unfair.

I appreciate that that is a fairly technical point and the Minister may not have a full answer now. However, I look forward to hearing or reading a considered response in due course.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I must offer the House an apology for intervening in this debate at such a late hour in your Lordships' proceedings on a Friday afternoon. But this draft statutory instrument attracted my attention because it is introduced under Section 2 of the European Communities Act, which, as your Lordships are well aware, under the treaty becomes incorporated into United Kingdom legislation.

The first thing which I observed about this regulation is that it is 20 pages long. It contains numerous clauses which, in order to examine in any depth, one would have to refer to the Road Traffic Act 1988, to another Act of 1985 and to a further Act of 1989. But, on the basis of my experience of examining European Community legislation and checking it, that would take me many days and I am fairly experienced in tracing through such items in order to ensure that the United Kingdom's position, and particularly that of its citizens, is preserved fully and is in no way encroached upon.

I do not know, and I have not had time to find out, which committee in another place or indeed which Select Committee here had the opportunity to scrutinise these regulations. I should think that, by inquiry, the noble Earl will be able to tell me that when he replies. But the regulations require detailed examination. I should like to be reassured that that has been done by one or other of the Select Committees of the United Kingdom Parliament—if so, how long did it take—and whether the scrutiny was withheld temporarily at any point or whether it was passed through without scrutiny. As a representative of the Government, I am sure that the Minister will be able to tell me when the proposals were considered by the Council of Ministers and whether they were part of the list A which had been approved in COREPER, which nevertheless, by tradition, go through on the nod in the Council of Ministers, or whether they were discussed at all in the Council of Ministers, and, if so, when.

The Minister will no doubt appreciate that my inquiries are purely precautionary and are by no means hostile. I know that he will be able to answer me. I am quite sure that my fears and anxieties will be allayed. However—and I must apologise to the House for introducing a personal note here—I am a motorist. I hold a UK licence, and at present I do not endure any particular disability by being slightly over the age of 70. I shall not divulge my true age to noble Lords because I am quite sure that they would not wish me to satisfy such curiosity.

One section of the regulations worries me particularly. Paragraph 9(3) of Schedule 1 says: In a case where the Community licence holder is authorised by his Community licence to drive motor vehicles of classes other than any prescribed class of goods vehicle or any prescribed class of passenger-carrying vehicle, he shall cease to be authorised by virtue of subsection (1) above to drive in Great Britain any such classes of motor vehicle from— (a) the date on which he attains the age of seventy years". As I previously revealed to the House, I am slightly over that age. Therefore, I want to know whether I will attract any particular disability as a result of these regulations.

I should perhaps add that I intend later in the year to take my car over to continental Europe to visit some of the watering places which are occupied by the Council of Ministers from time to time. I would not wish anything in the regulations—and I am quite sure that the Minister would not—to cause me to suffer any disability. Therefore, perhaps he could make it clear that nothing in the regulations affects my right at present to go to Europe and travel freely on the basis of my existing British licence. Can he reassure me on that point?

My second point relates to the conditions under which Community driving licence holders are able to drive freely and without let or hindrance in the United Kingdom, subject, of course, to whatever provisions are contained within the various paragraphs in this 20-page document. As your Lordships know, a British driving licence in the United Kingdom is not issued to a British citizen unless he can satisfy the examiner of his knowledge of the Highway Code; indeed, he must have a complete and comprehensive knowledge of it. I am reliably informed that there are some aspirants to holding a licence who fail to get one on that account.

I shall be most interested to know whether Community licence holders are required to satisfy the authorities as to their knowledge of the British Highway Code before they drive on our roads. To my knowledge, its abrogation in favour of Community driving licence holders is by no means put into the regulations. I give way to the noble Earl.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, will the noble Lord study the Belgian and the French Highway Codes so that, when he drives on the Continent to check the watering holes to which he referred, he will have knowledge of them?

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have the remotest idea. Indeed, it is not a subject in which I have a detailed interest, although I am concerned to some extent as regards my personal position and would like to be reassured in that respect.

It seems to me to be rather odd that we as UK drivers holding British licences and adhering to a different side drive than many people on the Continent have to satisfy the authorities as to our knowledge of the Highway Code, while others who hold a Continental driving licence may be exempt from that process. As I said, that seems to be a little odd. I will not detain the House any longer. Those are the only queries I have. I am quite sure the noble Earl will be able to satisfy me. I trust I may have his good wishes for my tour—to accompany his Ministers—on the Council of Ministers visit.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, I am not quite certain whether it is relevant that I declare an interest as a holder of a Class 1 police driving certificate. I have been an examiner of advanced motorists in Australia.

I am concerned about the exchange of information between police forces in the United Kingdom and in continental Europe. My understanding of these regulations is that a holder of a European licence or a Community licence can drive here on that licence without having to change it if he decides to live here. If he wants to change to a UK licence, he can do so. He can exchange it. Once he has exchanged it, is it then possible for him to obtain a Community licence so that he holds two licences, in which case there is the possibility of his being disqualified for some reason or other, but still being able to drive on his Community licence—something which I am not particularly keen on? If there is that possibility, it should certainly be closed.

The second point I would like to make is that our police forces are generally more lenient towards drivers holding foreign licences and driving cars that are registered on the Continent. If someone is living here permanently, driving on his Community licence and driving a car registered in the Continent, and he is hauled up by a traffic officer, how does that officer determine where he is living? His European licence will have his photograph and his identity but it does not show an address. Can the information be obtained from abroad? Will they release it? Will the police here go to the trouble of obtaining that address to serve a summons?

These issues concern me greatly and ought to be addressed, if they have not been addressed already.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, this has been quite an interesting little debate. It has revealed a number of fascinating vignettes about the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, driving his heavy goods vehicle. I did not know about that. I have noticed that he takes a very keen interest in our transport debates but I thank him for revealing that practical knowledge, of which I was unaware. The points which he has addressed to the Minister are important points and hopefully will be responded to.

My noble friend Lord Bruce is never short on surprising the House. I wish him well on his tour. I hope that he will not get into any trouble in visiting the watering places of which he talks. I have always wondered, incidentally, whether he has one of the newfangled, European type passports. That must infuriate him enormously, but the thought of a European driving licence would drive him into an utter frenzy.

However, we are not talking about that at this stage. We are talking about the facilitation of mutual recognition of driving licences across the whole of Europe, which I believe is extremely important. I would not wish us to rise for our Summer Recess without saying that I hope he will experience a revealing tour, an encouraging tour, and one with which he will regale the House—no doubt interminably—in the future. I always enjoy his interventions; he is a good friend of mine.

My noble friend is right that this is a complex set of draft regulations. There is too much cross-referencing in our legislation anyway and this is a pretty poor example of how legislation should emerge. However, it is difficult to find a remedy for the complaint. We make it frequently but it goes on, regardless of which party is in power. We thank the Minister for introducing and explaining the purpose of the draft legislation. I hope that he will note the complaint yet again. No one seems prepared to do anything about it. The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, also raised some interesting points.

I gave notice of the points which I wished to make to the Minister because in this type of debate it can be helpful, at least in obtaining a reply. First, what progress has been made in the European Union concerning the notification between one member state and another of serious convictions, either on an inter-governmental basis or by notification to the appropriate government agency? There can be no doubt that this is a matter of concern. It was raised in another place when the statutory instrument was debated. The Minister, Mr. Steven Norris, seemed to indicate that he was interested in the proposition that there should be a form of mutual notification in relation to serious offences. Of course, I recognise that one must define "serious offences". But it seems to me important because it should be a relevant factor, subject always to proper proof being given to the court of the conviction. It would be relevant in considering the sentence or in submitting evidence as to credit where a defendant has put his character in issue before the court.

For example, if a defendant who had sustained a conviction for a serious driving offence in France said that he was a man of good character when facing prosecution for a serious driving offence in this country it is right that notification can now be given to rebut that presumption of good character. Notification can also be given to offer proof of a conviction in another court. However, it does not often happen because the prosecution does not know.

Therefore, if it were incumbent upon one member state to provide that information to all other member states, it would be helpful. Since the Minister indicated some interest in the proposition, I wish to know what the Government are doing about it. It would apply to all kinds of drivers—long-distance HGV drivers moving between member states as well as drivers of long-distance coaches conveying passengers from one member state to another in the European Union.

Perhaps the Minister can inform the House what the Government have done or intend to do. If nothing has been done up to now, I suggest that, in the light of the Minister's interest, it would be appropriate, prior to the next Council of Transport Ministers, for the matter to be notified to the Commission as something on which it should report to the subsequent Transport Council. Such a matter is usually raised under "Divers" or "Any Other Business".

I believe that it was asserted by a Minister in the other place that something like only 0.3 per cent. of accidents on British roads involve foreign-registered vehicles. I wonder whether that figure includes foreign visitors to Britain who hire cars once they are here. I should think the answer is in the negative. In that case the situation might be rather more serious than is suggested by the figure of 0.3 per cent.—which can also include serious accidents.

The anomalous situation that arises is that, in the event of a foreign driver being banned in the UK, he or she can have their licence renewed once they return home. They are absolutely free to drive in their home country on the other side of the Channel. It would be appropriate for the Minister to take that matter up with Directorate-General VII. The European Union should be addressing this anomaly. Perhaps it can best be dealt with by means of a system of notification of convictions from one member state to another. There are other possible approaches and the Government should address the issue.

My next question to the Minister relates to the establishment of a technical committee which is about to be undertaken. That would be useful in considering proper recognition of the qualified entitlements to drive. What is happening in progressing that idea? Equally important is that no unnecessary bureaucratic impediment should stand in the way of people from this country as they pass through other member states. I hesitate to think what might happen to some of those who might question my noble friend in the event that any such bureaucratic impediments were to confront him. They would receive the worst of the argument.

What is happening in regard to the implementation of the new regulations concerning eyesight tests for HGV drivers? I believe that consultations are taking place between 1st July and 1st January next year, when the regulations come into effect. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that.

What is the Government's view about converting the driving licence into a form of identity card in the United Kingdom? Should driving licences carry the words, "the UK identity card", and include information that is not relevant to driving? As I understand it, the Government have canvassed the idea. It would be right to say that we should be deeply troubled if such a matter were canvassed without the assent of Parliament. This is a controversial issue. I do not hold very strong views on the matter. However, it should not be dealt with by stealth. It attracts a great deal of controversy. I hope the Minister will agree that no such proposals should be introduced by the British Government to the European Union without ensuring adequate consultation within this country and by this House and another place. It is quintessentially right for that to be done. I understand that some such proposal was advanced to the Council of Ministers and in their wisdom other member states decided that it had little value. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that.

Having said all that, I welcome the Government's proposals and thank the Minister for clarifying some doubts that I had previously.

4 p.m.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this very interesting debate. This is a complex area and I hope that the information I now give will add to your Lordships' further knowledge of these regulations.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, referred to drawbars and articulated lorries. My only practical knowledge of them is on farms, using agricultural tractors and large hay wagons, sometimes with four-wheeled trailers. The noble Earl is quite right; it is very difficult. His point related to the C+E class. I understand that Ministers will take final decisions on whether to grant undifferentiated C+E class as originally intended or to maintain restrictions in the light of public consultation which will shortly be undertaken.

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, who I hope will have a very pleasant visit to the Continent in the coming month, mentioned age restrictions.

Obviously, he is very fit and at an informed age. Great Britain drivers are not affected under current legislation. Licences expire at the age of 70 but are renewable every three years.

UK drivers can also drive throughout the European Union without any restrictions. There will be no requirement for drivers in this country from the European Union—as for people from this country going to other member countries across the Channel—to know the Highway Code. I know from my own experience when travelling abroad that one is given extensive literature when passing through the ferry terminals.

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, also asked where else and in what areas this legislation had been examined. I confirm that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has examined the regulations. The regulations primarily affect drivers from other European union member states and also countries within the European Economic Area who take up residence in this country.

The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, raised two queries. One very important area is whether someone can hold two licences at the same time. If a person has a Community licence and wants a licence issued by our own authorities, he must surrender the European Community licence first.

The noble Viscount also mentioned liaison between the different police forces with regard to convictions. That point was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. A certain amount of information flows between the European Union and our police forces but I cannot give any more detail on that matter at present. If there is anything more to say on that subject, I shall write to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, mentioned the Transport Council and notification of serious convictions between different countries. I am told that that matter is outside the scope of the Transport Council and falls within the responsibility of the Justice and Home Affairs Council. The matter has been discussed in working parties under that council.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, the noble Earl may not be in a position to reply today. Is he able to tell the House what progress has been made with regard to those issues? He has told the House that they are being considered by working groups. Will there be some proposition to deal with these matters? The issue is of major concern in ensuring that the law is properly dealt with.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. It is an important issue, and it is complex. I understand that these issues are being discussed in the working groups at present. The point was mentioned by my honourable friend Mr. Norris in another place. However, I can give no further information on that at present. I shall write to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, referred to the technical committee and explained his concern. Political agreement was reached at the June Transport Council on the proposal for a technical committee to review a system of harmonised codes on licences to show restrictions on driving entitlements, and for the establishment of a committee of experts to consider the changes to the directive and annexes which become necessary as a result of technical, scientific and medical progress.

The noble Lord also mentioned requirements concerning medical standards and eyesight. There was only a requirement for lorry and bus drivers to have a minimum standard of vision in both eyes without glasses. Higher medical standards will apply to new drivers of goods vehicles of between 3.5 tonnes and 7.5 tonnes (Category C1) and minibuses with up to 16 passenger seats. The UK already meets all other requirements.

Finally, the noble Lord raised the subject of identity cards linked with driving licences. I believe that there has already been some public consultation. The outcome of the proposals will be announced in due course.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, will the Minister ensure that that will not be done by Answer to a Written Question so that hardly anyone notices it? Because it is such an important matter, will he recommend to his noble friend the Leader of the House that it would be appropriate to discuss the issue in this place?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, the noble Lord is right; it is an important matter. That would be for the usual channels to decide. I understand that the regulations will come before the House. If I am wrong, I shall let the noble Lord know as soon as possible. It is, I agree, important information. I have here an even more important piece of information. There must be primary legislation to introduce a joint driving licence/ID card. I believe that that will reassure the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. I am glad that he nods his head.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt. I am aware that in order to obtain a British driving licence, a continental European would have to exchange his licence and give it up. Could he not then obtain a duplicate on the Continent?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, before the noble Lord obtains another licence he has to give up the one he already holds. If I am wrong on that point, I shall write to the noble Lord.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I am sorry to press the noble Earl. I raised a technical point to which he did not reply. Did the proposal go forward to the Council of Ministers from COREPER on List A, or was it discussed in the Council?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I am very sorry that I am unable to give the information that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, requires. I shall write to him as well.

On Question, Motion agreed to.