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Minibuses

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory. ]

10.2 pm

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham) : I should like to raise the matter of a proposal coming from the European Commission which has an extremely adverse effect on the future of voluntary drivers of minibuses. Such proposals are buried in Euro-documents over which the House tries to keep some form of control. This proposal is buried in the so-called second directive on driver licensing, which would remove the ability to derogate-- which is Euro-jargon for opt out--from the categories of driving entitlement prescribed in the first directive.

The effect of all this jargon would be to oblige the United Kingdom to introduce categories of driving entitlement that would in future threaten the activities of voluntary organisations, community transport operations and many small businesses. It would also deny other member states the option of developing their own voluntary and community sectors by using voluntary drivers and minibuses. At present, voluntary drivers of minibuses who hold a full ordinary passenger-car licence may drive passenger vehicles not used commercially and goods vehicles up to 7 tonnes in weight. These new proposals from the European Commission would oblige such voluntary drivers to take a second test and to fulfil higher medical standards if they wished to drive. This would apply to drivers of passenger vehicles with more than eight passenger seats and goods vehicles of more than 3 tonnes.

This would have a direct effect on our voluntary drivers. At the moment many voluntary drivers, particularly people recently retired, are prepared to drive minibuses for voluntary organisations. However, if they had to go through another driving test and to take continuous medical inspections they would say that, although they would like to help, with all the inconvenience it was just not on.

I do not think that the European Commission has taken fully into account the scale of this sector in the United Kingdom. There are 85, 000 minibuses in Great Britain and this is way above the number in other member countries. Community transport alone in this country does some 10 million passenger journeys each year ; 48 per cent. of all minibuses are used by voluntary organisations and private individuals.

It is worth bearing in mind the fact that, without these voluntary services, thousands of our elderly and disabled people could literally become housebound and many more would be denied the only chance they have to take part in recreation or sporting activities, to travel outside their own homes and to have a holiday. There are many thousands of organisations which are totally dependent on the use of minibuses with voluntary drivers to transport their members to and from club activities and on outings and holidays.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I were to cite some cases from my own constituency. Take, for example, the Gravesend and Northfleet day centres, which are local branches of Age Concern. Both have minibuses that collect old people from their homes every day and take them to the centres for hot lunches and various forms of


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attention and social recreation. The drivers, many of whom are retired people, are all volunteers who would be adversely affected by these regulations.

On the other hand, take the Meopham community bus, again driven by volunteers, half of whom are retired. They provide many people in rural parishes with their only means of going shopping, and the bus links villages that are not served by scheduled buses. That community bus is used by old people's clubs in the area. It also takes Meopham cricket club's junior team to many away matches.

Other examples abound. The Helen Allison school, which caters for autistic children, relies heavily on voluntary drivers for its minibuses. The same applies to other organisations up and down this land--parent-teacher associations, scout groups, Mencap, Cheshire homes, and Physically Handicapped and Able Bodied. One could give an immense list of organisations that would be adversely affected. Where does the Commission's proposal come from? Tracing its origin into the obscurity of Brussels, one finds that it comes from the then Transport Commissioner. It is perhaps to the shame of this House that the then Commissioner is a former Labour Member of Parliament, Mr. Stanley Clinton Davis, who appears to have forgotten the part that voluntary organisations play in Britain and, indeed, play in his former constituency to this very day. In a quite extraordinary letter of December last year, which is in the Library, Mr. Clinton Davis condemns the Minister for lobbying in Europe against the proposals--an extraordinary process, he seemed to think.

The letters that were exchanged, which, as I have said, are to be found in the Library, contain platitudinous statements such as this :

"I think that the safest conclusion one can draw from your two sets of figures"--

the Minister's figures--

"is that road safety for these vehicles needs to be improved. Especially vulnerable groups--like the elderly and the disabled--need extra reassurance that they are being driven in safety. They are special people who, in the event of a serious accident, are obviously less able to fend for themselves."

That is all quite straightforward, but if these measures were to be introduced the elderly people would not be in the vehicles but in their homes, and not taking part in a very wide range of activities. What of the figures that he referred to? The recent Transport and Road Research Laboratory study found that the accident rate for minibuses is no higher than for cars and, indeed, far lower than for buses. A more recent examination of the latest available statistics reveals that the passenger injury rate for cars is twice as high as for minibuses. The danger to passengers is halved if they are carried by minibuses rather than by cars. Indeed, Britain has a good record on road safety and road accidents. It is a fact that if the rest of the community had our standards of road safety, 40 per cent. fewer people in the European Community would have died last year. Where does the decision on this directive lie? Mr. Clinton Davis, of unlamented memory, has been trundled into the history books and is no longer the Commissioner for Transport. There is a new Commissioner, and let us hope that he will approach this matter with an open mind. The decision, in fact, will be taken by majority vote in the Council of Ministers. Obviously, it is the objective to argue


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our case with the other 11 members of the European Community. Certainly I commend the Minister for his activities with regard to the Mobility Alliance and his venture to Strasbourg to put our case energetically.

I resent Commissioner Clinton Davis's dismissive reference to lobbying and his extraordinary condemnation of the mobility allowance for having the support of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's Government. The Government should be commended for giving their support to such a good cause.

The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Peter Bottomley) : In case anyone misinterprets my hon. Friend's words, I should say that the Mobility Alliance and the Government are both working for people who have the advantage of community transport in minibuses. He and I want to make sure that the Mobility Alliance is not necessarily associated with the Conservative party, although we hope that it is. On minibuses, there is complete agreement between the Government and community transport organisations.

Mr. Arnold : The important point is that this is a non-party political issue. If the Government support such an organisation, all concerned will benefit. Over the coming months before the decision is made, my hon. Friend has the support of a great range of voluntary organisations and a great number, if not the majority, of our right hon. and hon. Friends.

10.10 pm

The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Peter Bottomley) : The House and millions in the United Kingdom will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) for drawing the attention of the House to this important issue. My hon. Friend is concerned with other transport issues. Those who were present earlier will have heard the point of view that he has been putting forward on the Channel link on behalf of his constituents. This issue should unite the House. I assume that we have the Labour party's support, but none of its Members is present this evening. I was going to say that I notice that the alliance parties are here but, sadly, they are leaving the matter to the Government.

I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham, for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and for Basildon (Mr. Amess) for their support. My hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor) is also present and he has raised this point at transport questions, when I made the point that the correspondence between Stanley Clinton Davis and me should not be regarded as a vendetta. However, it is probably true to say that the curious letter that he sent me in December from Strasbourg was ill-judged. I assume that he was let down by poor staff work. I suspect that he was getting ready to leave his job, which he had carried forward in a fairly distinguished way except in this issue. He must have signed the letter without reading it. In Woodspring and in Eltham--in every constituency represented by one of my hon. Friends who are present--many thousands of people have the advantage of community transport in minibuses. There are, as my hon. Friend says, 85,000 minibuses or more in the United Kingdom. No one in another European country can


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comprehend that. Virtually every other European country forbids people to drive minibuses unless they have a special licence. It is right that Members of the EC should be concerned about transport safety. Over the months, we have had tragic news of ferry disasters, plane disasters and train crashes. The community rises up to mourn with the families of those who lost their lives. But, as we have been reminded today with the M6 tragedy, many more lose their lives on the road- -50,000 or more a year in the European Community. Britain is by far the safest country. As my hon. Friend said, if Britain's death rate was common to the EEC, 40 per cent. fewer people would have lost their lives last year.

We want to work together with the Commission. We want the freedom to exchange licences. We are even prepared, although we did not sign the Vienna convention, to have a delay before people can drive minibuses. It could be argued that someone who passed their driving test at the age of 17 or 18 should wait another two years before they drive a large number of people. But it would be wrong for us to accept, and it would be wrong for other countries or for the Commission to try to make us accept, that 10 million journeys a year for the elderly, the young and the frail should be waved away because others cannot understand the system that we have developed for the handicapped and for community groups.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher) : Will my hon. Friend confirm that, subsequent to the departure of the demob-happy Clinton Davis, he has had discussions with the new Commissioner? Do other countries have the sympathy that I feel they should have for our case and for the safety record of minibus drivers in this country?

Mr. Bottomley : In the remaining minutes I may refer to something that the Commissioner emeritus Clinton Davis said in his letter. I shall try not to knock him, because there is not much point in doing so, although I note in passing that he referred to himself as a former Commissioner for the environment rather than as the Commissioner for transport. I suspect that he was trying to distance himself from the minibus issue. In his unfortunate letter to me he said that he was proud of what he had taken through the Commission. If that is so, heaven knows what he was ashamed of.

My hon. Friend the Member for Esher rightly referred to the Commisssioner for Transport, Mr. Karl van Miert, who is approaching the matter with an open mind. I have had the advantage of meeting him twice. The first time was with a group of academics and politicians in Brussels. Commissioner van Miert kindly gave up some of his time to meet us and I said to him that I would be most grateful if he would ask his officials to reconsider and try to reach agreement on the safety facts with the British researchers. This issue should be determined first on safety and secondly on mobility for the handicapped and those with special needs--although mobility is important.

One friend in the European Community asked me, "Is it true that British accident figures are built up by the British police?" I replied, "Yes. They come in a form called Stats 19'." He replied, "In that case, no one should dispute the figures." I agree, but if anyone does have different figures, we should all--researchers, road safety experts and statisticians--put our heads together. I made the offer to Commissioner van Miert that I should come to


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Brussels and work with his officials to agree on the facts and figures. Once that was done the figures could then be offered to the Commission, to Parliament--which has to give an opinion on the draft directive--and, of course, to the Council of Ministers.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham rightly said, it is the Government who are supporting the members of the Mobility Alliance rather than the Mobility Alliance trying to support the Government. I think that that was the point that Commissioner emeritus Clinton Davis may have missed in December. If the campaign is successful, I suspect that within 10 years other European Community countries will have developed voluntary minibus schemes for people such as students, young children and the elderly.

I suspect that by then cricket will have crossed the Channel and the Lords Taverners will be raising money every week to buy minibuses in other European countries. I suspect that the International Variety Club of Great Britain will have spread beyond the few countries in which it is involved to the rest of Europe and that minibuses will appear with the International Variety Club emblem on them. There will be a degree of solidarity between the elderly, the young, and, most of all, between the volunteers who wish to give their time to drive others about.

May I remind the House that about 6 per cent. of our 85,000 minibuses have fare-paying passengers. I shall give this commitment : we shall not do anything to stop those professional drivers on fare-paying minibuses from taking public service vehicle tests. We are concerned only with the non- professional drivers--perhaps the person with a large family, the scoutmaster or the Akela or someone who is semi-retired and wants to spend two days a week driving for the PHAB club.

There are many reasons why people might want to drive together. A person may volunteer to stay off booze and drive a minibus so that the other 10 or eleven people in his group can drink. That example may be more appropriate after Easter but I give it--for what it is worth--during Lent.

The thresholds proposed by the European Community will have serious consequences for community and voluntary transport operations. There is no evidence that minibuses are more difficult to drive than vans, and the draft directive will allow vans the same size as minibuses to be driven on an ordinary driving licence. There is no safety case requiring drivers of minibuses to take a second test or to meet higher medical standards. The terms of the second draft directive should be modified--preferably as a recommendation by the European Parliament, because this is a popular issue with which, ideally, the European Parliament should deal--so that minibuses can continue to be driven with passenger car entitlement.

I repeat that, as an added assurance of competence, the United Kingdom would be willing to accept a requirement for two years' driving experience in passenger cars to be imposed on individuals wanting to drive minibuses. That would allow similar opportunities for safe, cost-effective transport operations in other member states.

I want to give the figures, although I am not sure whether giving them in a speech on the Floor of the House will make it easier to put them in tabulated form. I leave that to those who have to massage the words afterwards. Let us take the accident ratios to vehicle types. If we represent a minibus by the figure 1, the casualty rate for


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each passenger kilometre in a car is 2.5-- in other words, two and a half times as great. The casualty rate for the motor cyclist is 65. The accident rate figure for the minibus itself--the vehicle, not the passengers--is 1. It is 1.2 for the car and 15.2 for the motor cycle. That evidence shows that if we take any action that discourages people from being driven in minibuses and makes them switch to driving a car the safety rate is worsened : they are more likely to be injured. All Members of the European Parliament should begin to understand that. Most British MEPs do, although a few seem to be in the same group as the Commissioner emeritus, and have said, "There is no problem. If people abandon minibus driving in future, the Government can provide the money for extra training." For each volunteer minibus there are between six and 10 volunteer drivers. I believe that Dr. Barnardo's estimated that it would lose five out of six of its volunteer drivers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham said, it is aggravating for someone to have to show that he is qualified, and then perhaps to have regular medical checks.

In December the Commissioner said that minibuses were longer than cars. A 13-seat Ford Transit is 15 ft long, while a Ford Granada is 15 ft 3 ins long. An Aston Martin Lagonda measures 17 ft 5 ins, while a Volkswagen Transporter is 14 ft 10 ins. I think that that makes the point.

Another claim in the unfortunate letter is that in a minibus people sit higher up. I am not sure that whoever drafted the letter could ever have driven a minibus or van. If someone is sitting higher up he has a better view and a better understanding of what is happening on the road in front of him, and is more likely to have a lower accident involvement rate for every kilometre driven.

Obviously if a minibus drives a shorter distance there may be inequality in the figures per year. The worst possible comparison is that in a year the minibus may have as many crashes as a car, but the figures per passenger kilometre are better for the minibus passenger.

I hesitate to say too much--because I think that it would bring moisture to people's eyes--about what would happen to the handicapped and under- privileged who did not transfer to a car but were left at home.

The House will forgive me for stuttering, but we have just seen an hon. Member who takes a keen interest in all European affairs, except this one apparently, leave the Chamber. I wonder what it is about the 10 million people whose journeys we are trying to protect that does not claim the interest of the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer).

We have much to learn about working in the European Community. Some countries will share the view that behavioural contributions to road casualties are not necessarily within the competence of the European Community. I shall not dispute that for the moment. I will say that we must pick up on the best and share it.

In the case of mobility for those in wheelchairs, for example, Britain is the only country in Europe that has laid down a regulation that every new taxi in its capital should be able to accommodate a wheelchair. That has been done in London. That development was announced by my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport, and


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it came into effect in February. Britain is the only country where every public bus running from the airport to the main terminals takes two wheelchairs. That is integrated transport. We are also developing dial-a-rides and the taxi-car. We are not perfect, but we are adding to the provisions for those having special mobility needs. I hope that we shall find ways of working with the European Parliament so that there will be more understanding. What is good spreads, and at the same time the casualty rate falls.

To those in Europe who read this debate, I may say that we are proud that the number of people killed or seriously injured on British roads has reduced by 6 per cent. in the past 12 months, even though there has been an increase in the volume of traffic. We are proud that the same kind of reduction was seen the year before. We weep for the families of those who died on the M6 today. Fourteen people die on our roads every day and 300,000 are injured every year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has set a target for cutting road casualties--especially those killed or seriously injured--by one third by the year 2000.

Who thinks that the House and the Government would tolerate extra risks for those being driven in minibuses? Who could point to Britain and say that we are dragging our feet in cutting road casualties? Twenty fewer people a week die on our roads than two years ago, given the same volume of traffic. We are the people who ask to combine the maintenance and enhancement of safety with the maintenance and enhancement of mobility for those with special needs or those of a common interest group--whether it is the village cricket team or those using one of the 12,000 minibuses fitted with tail lifts. I pay tribute to John Ratcliffe, who has done so much in the Variety Club as well as being in the commercial business of installing tail lifts. I pay tribute also to people like Richard Stilgoe and Stirling Moss, who came to wave off the Mobility Alliance motorcade that went to Brussels. I was accused of lobbying for those groups. Rather, I was representing their interests. It is a shared concern with the European Parliament and with the Council of Ministers.

We shall make further progress. As my hon. Friends the Members for Esher and for Gravesham intimated, it is time that we left the Commissioner emeritus behind and moved forward with the Transport Committee of the European Parliament. We look forward to receiving its opinion. We hope that it will be possible to share the arguments with it, so that we may build on the provisions we have and allow their extension to others. We hope also to build alliances with the Council of Ministers to improve road safety, rather than take actions that will severely harm our people.

I wrote to Commissioner Clinton Davis two days before he wrote to me. I said that the aim of the United Kingdom Government is to maintain and improve road safety standards. I made the point that a minibus passenger is less likely to be involved in an accident than a car passenger. I made the point also that we want to work towards common standards in driving competence, which will facilitate the exchange of licences between countries. We mean that. We also want to recognise and provide for the needs of vulnerable groups--especially the elderly and the disabled.

My father's generation fought each other. Many of his generation--the war wounded--are now travelling around as passengers in minibuses. They may have been volunteer


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drivers in their time, but they are passengers now. Let them be driven around throughout Europe by volunteer drivers of our generation. Let us maintain solidarity through the generations. Let us maintain the unity of safety and mobility. The whole of Europe will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham for raising the debate, and I hope that the message will go out throughout the Community that we must move forward together in safety and with solidarity, and remembering the vulnerable groups. Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.


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