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Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford) : How could the European Commissioner responsible for this proposal--Mr. Stanley Clinton Davis who used to be a Member of this House--have written a letter claiming that he had steered the proposal through the Commission in the light of the facts that my hon. Friend has just provided for the House?
Mr. Bottomley : There are some things that I cannot answer. It is common ground between the Commissioner emeritus, myself and hon. Members on both sides of the House that the Mobility Alliance, which represents many of the groups which would be affected by this part of the proposal, has been praised by ex-Commissioner Clinton Davis. If he and I respect the work that it does, we should respect its opinion. I think that it is right to say that the present Commissioner, Mr. van Miert, is willing to look at the matter again. I do not want to turn this into a personal attack and that is why I responded to the rather extraordinary letter of 14 December in the way that I did. That may have been a mistake. Perhaps I should have invited a punch up, but I cannot believe that the evidence is not so clear that in time the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers and, I hope, the Commission will come together and acknowledge that Britain has developed a system of transportation which will be of value throughout the EC and which should be protected in Britain and be allowed to spread.
Mr. Bottomley : That is right. We are way behind some European countries on pedestrian safety, but we are way ahead in the provision of non-commercial transport for groups with special interests or needs and with community interests such as students. When students go to another college to play water polo-- [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) may laugh, but that is what I did. If we consider rugby as he suggests, we include a spare man and we will start going above the 16 -seat capacity and we are talking about minibuses with between nine and 16 seats.
There is common interest in this matter throughout the House. Many other countries will have difficulties with parts of the draft directive. I suspect that during the next year or so the Council of Ministers will be finding ways of allowing flexibility, which will be important. If other countries find difficulties when we do not, it is not in our interests to force them to change unnecessarily. They may be trying to protect a position that we may wish to adopt. We may want to learn from their experience. We want to try to bring some of the obvious problems into the open. One of the problems is minibus driver licensing, which is wrong. I hope that there will be unanimity in the House on that, although, sad to day, there was not unanimity in the European Parliament on 14 December when one or two people of other political groups said that the Secretary of State was trying to use deregulation of buses to assist his arguments.
We want to make it plain that commercial operators of minibuses would be required to have their drivers take the public service vehicle test. It is the volunteer drivers who are important and well worth protecting.
Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak) : Many hon. Members receive letters from many charitable organisations and we are heartened not just by my hon. Friend's view but by his flexibility. Can he give us a genuine and clear understanding that that flexibility will take place in Europe? The charitable organisations that use the minibuses do an enormous amount of good for hundreds of thousands of people.
Mr. Bottomley : I think that the message is getting through. Some developments that Britain has pioneered have been copied by others. For example, the orange badge scheme which allows privileges to people with real mobility difficulties has now been copied. In London the air buses between Heathrow airport and the London railway stations each take two wheelchirs. That sort of integrated service is far better than a specialist service. That is the kind of transport spectrum which many people have developed-- [Interruption.] That is a sensible expression for those with mobility handicaps. For others we use the word coherent. I am sure that, as the Labour party searches for reality, it will come to adopt that, together with most of the other policies that it is learning from us.
The key point is that we want to try to spread what is good and right. Something that is as good as or better than going by car or not moving at all needs to be protected.
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland) : I am sure that the Minister will enjoy the unanimity that he is seeking, but can he give some idea of the extent to which he has discovered, in discussion with his fellow transport Ministers from other Community countries, that the argument that we are advancing is gaining ground?
Mr. Bottomley : It is difficult to be certain. However, if Members of the European Parliament who spoke against the Government's proposals change their minds, that will help. There were one or two who, as reported in the official journal of the European Parliament of 14 December, made it plain that they were not convinced. I do not want to personalise this matter in any way. I know the difficulties that can arise. I see that my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary is in his place, so I may know more very shortly. However, I am sure that in the last month that Commissioner Clinton Davis was working he tried to clear many issues--and bringing the draft directive into the open was important. Nevertheless, a mistake was made. If he could be man enough to say, "I am sorry. I made a mistake over minibus driving licences", that would make a great difference to the staff within the directorate concerned. I repeat that I do not want to be personal. When Clinton Davis wrote a rather peculiar letter to me, I turned the other cheek. That may have been a mistake, but it was probably better to go on as I did and to ask him to change his mind and accept the case for safety and mobility, and to join the all-British campaign to maintain the right to drive minibuses on ordinary driving licences--perhaps with the extra assurance of safety that that option will be available only to people with two years' driving experience. That system is one which we think will work for motor bikes of greater power or of larger cubic capacity.
The Commission's proposal is the latest step in Community plans for harmonisation. Discussions began more than 10 years ago, and the first directive was adopted in 1980. It is intended that the latest initiative will complete the harmonisation process.
Conformity of licensing systems is generally welcomed. It is good news for drivers--especially those of lorries and buses--who go abroad, as common format licences will be recognised immediately in all member states. The introduction of a single licence showing all driving entitlement offers opportunities for streamlining the existing system to provide a quicker and cheaper service. This should not be achieved at the cost of existing safety standards or of the mobility of sections of the population. A number of serious issues must be resolved before we can agree to the latest proposals. The Commission's proposals are supposed to replace and enlarge upon the 1980 directive. There is a long way to go before their adoption. The proposals will need to be discussed in a European Council working group, and negotiations are likely to take many months--I suspect that that means one year or more--to complete.
Widespread consultations are in progress. The Department is consulting about 800 individuals and bodies. There are three major areas of concern. One is the indefinite recognition of licences issued in other member states. That will cause problems for the driver record, because a category of drivers would be unrecorded. It would cause problems also for the fixed penalty system, because there is no provision for recording endorsements
Column 864on licences issued in other member states. It would cause problems for the courts, because they have no jurisdiction to endorse licences issued by other member states.
I ought to share with the House the information that a number of other member countries are to examine our system of penalty points and endorsements, because it offers a flexibility that others might welcome.
Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield) : Italy imposes an age limit of 60 on the drivers of commercial buses and lorries. Will the Minister advise the House if in future negotiations it is attempted to impose such a limit on British drivers?
Mr. Bottomley : The Department must be open with the House because here and in industry--among unions and employers alike--there is a common interest in working out what makes sense. It is a question of deciding what is right and then ascertaining whether such is possible. I shall certainly be open with the House, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.
Mr. Meale : The Minister is surely aware that a number of commercial vehicle drivers are aged over 60 and are intending to retire at 65. He must be aware also that a number of the people who offer their services as drivers to voluntary groups are also aged over 60.
Mr. Bottomley : Without saying that our system is the best in all respects, we try to judge people by their medical condition rather than just by their age. People are different from racehorses. Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East) indicated assent.
Mr. Bottomley : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) for agreeing with me. In him we see the new shadow Cabinet spokesman whom we recognised last Friday. I should not say too much about racehorses, having read The Guardian on Sunday and discovered that none of its tipsters put the Grand National winner in the top four.
The specification of details of conditions attached to drivers with a disability on the licence causes another problem. It is incompatible with the "until aged 70" licensing which we have, because vehicles, adaptations and prostheses are likely to change several times over the life of a licence holder. The proposal would be hurtful to disabled people because their disability will be printed on the licence. It will be difficult to fit the details on computer licences because limited space is available. Of those reasons, I regard the third as the least important and the first two as very important.
As I have said, there is a problem with the treatment of drivers of minibuses and light goods vehicles. The directive would be disastrous for the voluntary and community transport systems, because volunteers would not come forward if a second test and higher medical standards were required. Dr. Barnardos estimated that it would lose five out of six volunteer drivers with this sort of system. Those who suggest that it is up to Government to pay the cost of extra tests do not understand how the volunteer system works.
The proposal for the treatment of drivers of minibuses and light goods vehicles is unjustified on road safety grounds because statistics show that travelling in minibuses is safer than travelling in cars. If adopted, the
Column 865proposal would be a missed opportunity for other member states, who could enjoy the benefits of our system. Other points may arise in the light of the consultation exercise.
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher) : Judging from comments tonight and previous discussions in the House on this issue, it appears that the House is behind the Minister in his battles with the European Community. Will he comment on the fact that this matter will be taken under majority voting by the European Community under article 100A? Therefore, of much more importance is whether he has the support of the Council of Ministers.
Mr. Bottomley : We have not yet reached that stage. I shall share with the House a letter which I have received from Commissioner Karel van Miert, who has taken over as the transport Commissioner. He said that he was much impressed by our case for
"still more sympathetic consideration in the provision of transport services and of the difficulties which may be experienced by people with restricted mobility".
That goes slightly beyond the strict charity definition. The Commissioner said that he attached
"great importance to this issue and would like the Commission to play an active role in this area."
It seems as though we are regaining some of the ground that should never have been lost. The Commissioner said that he will accept our suggestion to have this important matter discussed--starting with discussions between officials, and then between the Commissioner and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or me. That shows that there is an appreciation of our initiatives on mobility and safety. If the rest of the European Community had our road safety record, 40 per cent. fewer people would have died last year. We lead the Community in road casualty reduction and in mobility for those with special needs.
The United Kingdom is generally able to comply with the directive, without major changes to existing arrangements. The draft directive offers the opportunity to consider changes in tests, other than those required by it, and we shall consider our tests generally in the light of consultations on the directive which are now in progress. The basic concept of staging of entitlement for driving lorries, passenger vehicles and trailers is acceptable in principle, but individual cases will need to be considered very carefully. We look forward to the results of the consultation, in which we hope people will participate. In some cases, experience criteria will be preferable to extra tests. We made that compromise on minibuses and it may also apply to motor cycles of more than 400 cc or more than 35 kW in power.
We agree with the Commission's proposal to limit the size or power of bikes which inexperienced motor cyclists may ride. Considerations of the detailed proposal--whether it should be a cubic capacity or a power limit--are still being considered, and we have an open mind on that.
We do not accept the need for a separate test before motor cyclists may ride large machines, although I am prepared to continue to give consideration to the motor cyclist who passes the test and then wishes to move on to a larger machine. It may be appropriate to allow the option of an extra test. We shall argue for two years' experience after passing the old motor cycle test before allowing a motor cyclist to ride larger and more powerful machines.
Column 866The Government aim to get the Commission to accept changes that maintain an incentive for drivers to exchange licences issued elsewhere for the United Kingdom version if they are to spend some time in this country. We want to allow descriptions of disabilities on licences and details of prostheses to be in a generalised form compatible with long-period licensing. We want the Commission to allow minibuses and light goods vehicles to continue to be driven on an ordinary car entitlement without a second test or higher medical standards. We are not trying to ease the qualifications for commercial bus drivers, which may have been one of the
misunderstandings that occurred in December.
There are some signs that the Commission is willing to listen to our arguments. We will need to work with other member states, many of which have similar if not identical concerns, in discussions in the Council working group. In the meantime, it is necessary to press ahead with existing commitments under the first directive. The Road Traffic (Driving Licensing and Information Systems) Bill will come before the House for Second Reading on Thursday. It will be essential to meet existing commitments, particularly the integration of ordinary and vocational licences to show all entitlements on a single licence. This will be an advantage to professional and vocational drivers. The change will involve a major transformation of both systems. The transfer of vocational licensing to the DVLC will lead to a quicker and cheaper service for lorry and bus drivers as well as improvements to the service for ordinary drivers. It is sensible to facilitate the adoption of the best features of the Commission's latest proposals, and we are doing that. I assure the House that the Bill that we shall consider on Thursday does not facilitate the introduction of the proposals that are of concern, especially those on minibuses. It does not sell the pass on these issues ; it is drafted on the assumption that our present arrangements will continue. If we are unsuccessful in Brussels--and I do not expect to be--and have to adopt any of the proposals, we will have to return to Parliament before we implement further changes. I am grateful for hon. Members' support and I hope that we can spread it so that it becomes universal among our representation in Europe, and I hope that we can get a little change from the Commissioner emeritus, which would make it much easier for the Commission to accept a sensible change that would maintain and enhance safety and mobility.
The document that we are discussing must be set in the context of the European Commission's efforts to ensure the removal of all obstacles to the free movement of people. As I understand it, we are already at the first stage of that process--a halfway house requiring member states to adopt a common format for the licence, to harmonise their categories of licence and to provide common standards of competence and fitness to drive.
As the Minister said, part of the Road Traffic (Driver Licensing and Information Systems) Bill arises from the
Column 867first directive. Hon. Members will be relieved to hear that I shall keep my remarks on those aspects of the directive brief in anticipation of Thursday's debate.
We believe that our overriding aim should be the improvement of road safety. It would be disastrous to introduce legislative change simply to save money or for administrative convenience. In other circumstances, we have encountered the contradictory pulls of safety requirements and pressure to cut costs and save money. It is clear that cost-cutting should not be a priority in developing a safe and comprehensive driver licensing system.
We note that the Government's consultative document on the unified driving licence estimates that the effect of centralising the licence issuing system will be the loss of 100 jobs and savings of up to £1 million a year. Will the Minister give more detail on where the job losses will be? Will he take the opportunity to increase staff at Swansea to reduce delays in obtaining licences, especially passenger service vehicle and heavy goods vehicle licences? Will he give the House the assurance that the reorganisation of licence issuing will not be used as an excuse for a cost- cutting exercise?
I turn now to the document under discussion, which, as the Minister said, is still subject to negotiation with other member states. The document falls into a number of sections. The basic proposal is that member states should introduce a national driving licence which would be mutually recognised in all member countries. On the face of it, that seems to make sense, and would relieve a foreign national of the need to exchange his or her national licence for a UK licence when resident in this country. However, we foresee, as the Minister has described, problems for the penalty and endorsement system, as no court in one country can award penalty points or endorse a driving licence issued in another country.
The Minister has informed the House tonight that the Government are pressing for licence holders from other member states living in Britain still to be required to obtain a British licence, and in general we support that position.
That brings me to the question of driving standards. Members of the Transport and General Workers Union have expressed their concern to me about the possible deterioration of driving standards if a unified drivers' licence with mutual recognition is adopted. In order to prevent such a deterioration it will be necessary to harmonise testing throughout the Community and that testing will need to be to the highest standards. The document we are considering does lay down minimum requirements for drivers' tests, which will mean that in this country, for example, we will have to include a parking test and more theory.
No doubt in some countries the minimum standards proposed will result in an improvement in driver testing, but we believe that there are problems for us. First, the judgment used in passing or failing applicants will vary from country to country, so a standard of driving which may pass in one country may fail in another. Secondly, we need an assurance that these standards will be implemented as quickly as possible so that any discrepancies in the testing requirements are ironed out. Perhaps the Minister would comment further on these points in his response.
Column 868Harmonisation in licensing also encompasses the reclassification of vehicles and the entitlement to drive, and of course, as the Minister has said, it is this aspect of the document which has generated most controversy, with its proposed new category of vehicles with nine to 16 passenger seats or between 3.5 and 7.5 tonnes in weight. Drivers in this category will have to have not just the car licence, as at present, but a second driving test, and be subject to more rigorous medical conditions than for the standard licence.
We sympathise very much with those voluntary organisations who are alarmed at these proposals. Their drivers at present, of course, because they do not drive for hire or reward, are able to drive minibuses on ordinary car licences. We recognise, as does the Minister, that the use of minibuses by community groups is particularly widespread in Britain. Some of the organisations in my constituency which would be affected by these proposals have been in contact with me. Age Concern, Lewisham Association for People with Disabilities, the Lewisham Indo-Chinese Community and Pensioners' Link are all organisations that I know well. I know how well they serve our community. The position is unique in Britain, as has been said already tonight, for the extent of innovative and accessible transport schemes which these organisations facilitate. Many of these minibus drivers are women who gain a great deal of confidence and satisfaction from this voluntary work.
Community transport groups are rightly concerned that many voluntary drivers will be deterred from driving by the prospect of a more stringent test. The organisations themselves will be hard pressed to pay for the necessary training. Many of those organisations--and I must say this to the Government--are filling a gap left by Government underfunding in many cases, left by the deterioration in social service provision and, in rural areas in particular, by the collapse of public transport. These groups are already very short of money, and with the continuing squeeze on local authority finance most of these organisations--
Mr. David Harris (St. Ives) : Is the hon. Lady aware that in many rural areas of Cornwall the number of bus services has increased as a result of deregulation? I agree with her that the voluntary sector provides a valuable additional service. If voluntary organisations were unable to provide that service, it would be a terrible blow to rural communities.
I repeat that many of the community services are under pressure and are being called upon because of the reductions in public service transport. There is little prospect that the voluntary organisations, given their difficulties, will be able to find the money for extensive training.
The Minister said that we would not demonstrate understanding of the problem if we sought tonight to obtain a commitment from him simply to pay, but should the Minister be unsuccessful in his negotiations, and should additional training and testing of volunteer drivers be necessary, the Minister must give a commitment that
Column 869voluntary groups will not be faced with the additional cost and that local authorities will not be expected to pick up the bill.
Mr. Peter Bottomley : There has been no suggestion on either side of the House that it would be acceptable to impose a secondary statutory test. Even if the Government paid for all the additional testing, there would be fewer drivers, fewer voluntary minibuses and more people opting for cars, involving greater risk. In addition, more people would have to stay at home. They would lose their mobility. One part of Commissioner Emeritus's letter ought to be buried and never disinterred. Additional statutory testing of minibus drivers in the voluntary sector is not needed.
We believe that safety should come first. The Minister began by quoting the relevant safety statistics for the minibus and the car. I believe that minibuses do not have as good a safety record as other forms of public transport. They are not as safe as public transport buses. I hope that the Minister will say that he supports greater efforts to reduce minibus accidents and that he will describe the steps that he intends to take to improve minibus safety if he continues to press for a derogation for voluntary minibus drivers from the new test.
Mr. Bottomley : Passengers in public service buses are more at risk- -I suspect because of falls rather than because of crashes and collisions. People in the voluntary sector take great care of their passengers. I pay tribute to the fellow members of my own union who do much of the driving in the public sector and who have been involved in many of the developments in public transport services. I attended a branch meeting of my union this evening. All the time was spent on the dockers' centenary. No mention was made of the dock labour scheme.
Ms. Ruddock : In principle, we are not opposed to stricter medical tests for drivers who are responsible for the safety of other people or who are in charge of larger vehicles. However, the document specifies certain conditions, such as diabetes. That seems to preclude drivers from holding a passenger vehicle licence if they suffer from that condition. I am no expert in such matters, but it seems unnecessarily restrictive, and I would urge that medical conditions should not be specified in that way but should be left to professional opinion as to whether they constitute a safety risk for a particular individual. Perhaps the Minister will explain his understanding of that provision.
I shall comment briefly on two further aspects of the document--the proposals for motor cycles and the new requirements for people with disabilities. I am sure that the Minister and I share a deep concern about the accident statistics for motor cycles. As I frequently travel along the Old Kent road in heavy traffic, all too often I see how motorbike accidents occur. Furthermore, research by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory shows that the number of fatalities is higher on big machines than on smaller bikes. The Commission's proposal to introduce a test for 400 cc bikes and above appears attractive. Yet the same motor bike organisations which are supporting compulsory training as proposed in the Road Traffic Bill
Column 870are opposed to the new test. It would be helpful if the Minister could provide a little more detail about any consultation he has had on what he outlined as a compromise of passing the ordinary test and proceeding to ride a bigger vehicle on the basis of two years' experience.
Finally, I shall make a few comments about the proposal that people with disabilities would need to display on their licences any vehicle modifications or details of any artificial prostheses that they wear. I reinforce the Minister's point that that is a particularly offensive proposal. Any change in vehicle, vehicle technology or physical condition would have to be recorded, increasing the administrative burden. For that reason, I understand that the DVLC in Swansea is opposed to the proposal. How would it be enforced? Would people be stopped to check whether they have an artificial limb? Clearly it is nonsense. Why should disabled people be singled out in that way?
The Greater London Association for the Disabled opposes the measure because
"It is personally intrusive and demeaning for drivers to be required to make public that sort of information on a document which is often used for identification and other general purposes". I wholeheartedly agree. I support the Government in this matter, and, on what is perhaps an unusual occasion, in general we support the Government on the EC document.
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham) : I welcome the Government's objective to obtain satisfactory amendments to cover drivers of non- commercial and light goods vehicles. The EC proposal contains one of the most damaging spin-offs of European proposals for some time. The rigorous tests for voluntary drivers and the stringent medical requirements that would be required by the measure would have a devastating effect on the numbers of volunteers. At present, we rely on thousands of volunteers who are prepared to give up their time to drive minibuses for organisations and who would take a completely different view if they had to undergo difficult tests and medical inspections at frequent intervals.
I do not believe that the European Commission has taken into account the scale of this sector in the United Kingdom. There are 85, 000 minibuses in Great Britain, which is way above the number to be found in other countries. Community transport in Britain alone makes some 10 million passenger journeys each year and 48 per cent. of all minibuses in Britain are used by voluntary organisations and private individuals. Without those voluntary services thousands of elderly and disabled people could become housebound, and many more would be denied their only chance to take part in recreational and sporting activities, to travel outside their homes and to take a holiday. Many thousands of organisations are totally dependent on the use of minibuses with voluntary drivers to transport their members to and from club activities, on outings and on holidays.
It may be helpful if I cite a few examples from my own constituency of organisations which rely on voluntary drivers. The Gravesend and Northfleet day centres, for instance, are local branches of Age Concern, which has thousands of branches up and down the country. Every day, buses collect old people from their homes and take them to the centres. Many of the drivers are retired, and in all cases they are volunteers. In my constituency there is
Column 871also the Meopham community bus, again driven by volunteers, half of whom are retired. They take local people shopping and link villages not served by scheduled buses. They also provide services to the old people's clubs in the area. Other examples of organisations which rely on voluntary drivers are the Helen Allison school, which serves autistic children, numerous parent-teacher associations, scout groups, Mencap, Cheshire homes and PHAB--Physically Handicapped and Able-bodied groups.
Who brought forward this extraordinary proposal? It was the then Transport Commissioner--a certain Stanley Clinton Davis, a former and unlamented Labour Member of this House. Mr. Clinton Davis was sent to Brussels, where he promptly went native and has since tried to regulate and regiment everyone from "Ballywhatnot" in the west to the Bosphorus in the east. I found in the Library a quite extraordinary letter from that former Commissioner to my hon. Friend the Minister. It certainly takes some reading. It accuses my hon. Friend of lobbying against these proposals, as though it were a disgraceful thing to lobby and to try to apply democratic pressure on behalf of people in this country. The former Commissioner went on to complain about the kind of people with whom the Minister was lobbying --the Mobility Alliance, an organisation bringing together the Community Transport Association, Help the Aged, Barnardo's, London Community Transport Association, the Lord's Taverners, the Variety Club, the National Union of Students and Youth Clubs (UK). These are all good organisations heavily dependent on minibuses with voluntary drivers, but it seems that they are all extremely suspect to Commissioner Emeritus Clinton Davis, who notes darkly in his extraordinary letter :
"The Mobility Alliance is enjoying the active support of your Department."
His reference to "Mrs. Thatcher's Government" seems to imply some form of guilt by association. In his letter to my hon. Friend the Minister he also complains :
"Any change of these proposals would be dangerous because they merely represent a road safety measure."
We heard this evening from the Minister exactly how safe our minibuses are by comparison. It may be of interest to the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) if I refer to the recent Transport and Road Research Laboratory study, which found the accident rate for minibuses to be no higher than for cars and--this is of considerable significance--far lower than for buses.
Mr. Peter Bottomley : In this matter I have tried to be scrupulously fair, which is why I have not joined in the Clinton Davis bashing. He is a Right-wing Socialist and I am a Left-wing Tory, so perhaps we ought to be working together. The point about the bus statistics is that in general buses are working in inner city areas, where the crash rate is higher, whereas other vehicles tend to get out on to the motorways and other roads which are inherently safer. In dealing with the point that the hon. Lady raised, however, my hon. Friend is correct in saying that, overall, passengers in minibuses are safer than passengers using almost any other form of transport.
Mr. Arnold : I thank my hon. Friend for emphasising the point about safety, and I admire his restraint in not responding in kind to the letter from Commissioner Clinton Davis. The best that one can say of the
Column 872Commissioner's proposals is that they are bland and have not been thought through. The kindest interpretation is that this is a well-meaning measure that he intended to be his epitaph. It would perhaps be less kind to regard his letter, in particular, as making cheap party political points which I regret to say were echoed by the hon. Member for Deptford.
What we need to do now is to convince the new Commissioner to think the whole issue through again, and I call on my hon. Friend the Minister to get together with him and sort the whole thing out. 12.39 am
Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor) : The EC document refers to the licences for drivers of European countries and the exchange of those licences, which is necessary as it will not only produce a common standard of driving, but will reduce bureaucracy. The standards of testing, however, should be the same throughout the Community because safety is vital.
The discrimination mentioned in the document regarding physically handicapped people and the testing of them is unfortunate and must be considered. Mobility for the physically handicapped is an important asset as it enables them to get round, to participate in the community and, therefore, to live a much more normal life. The most important part of the document relates to minibuses. In many parts of Britain, particularly in rural areas, public transport is non-existent. In the past 10 years the Government have contributed to the abolition of public transport in many areas.
Half the 85,000 minibuses that operate in our communities are driven by volunteers. Such minibuses are vital to my community, to that represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and to other rural areas. Given the dependence on volunteer drivers in remote rural areas, it is unrealistic to say that such drivers must be tested unless they carry nine or fewer passengers.
In Brecon we have a disabled club which has 600 members. That club is served by six buses and they must cover a wide rural area. The elderly are brought to local towns once a week and the disabled are taken to centres and hospitals. Those people would be unable to live a civilised life without the service provided by the minibuses. Many small communities in my constituency now operate their own minibuses and they provide a flexible form of transport for people to visit market towns, their doctors and other essential destinations. Since the loss of support from the Manpower Services Commission, volunteers now play a much more important part in the operation of minibus services.
Before I entered the House I was a lecturer at an agricultural college, which had six minibuses. All the lecturers, myself included, used to drive students round the country to visit farms, factories, creameries and so on. We worked flexible hours and the students would have been denied the benefits derived from those visits if we had been unable to drive them. It is important to note that not too many restrictions were imposed on us. Other colleges, especially those that teach technical subjects, depend on their minibuses to get their students about. The issue of private contractors is not as simple as some hon. Members have suggested. In some cases part-time drivers assist
Column 873contractors in the evening to take out local people when there is a demand. That is a particular feature of remote rural areas. I agree with the Minister about minibus services that assist the elderly and the disabled. Without such services and volunteer drivers, such people would be trapped. They would be unable to go shopping or to enjoy a day out. The mentally disabled would not be taken to places where they can enjoy themselves. This form of transport also enables children to visit the seaside and sports clubs to engage in competitive sports.
Post buses are important in remote areas, and I am not clear about the position of PSV licences and post bus drivers, many of whom drive royal mail vans. In the highlands and mid-Wales, the post buses run important services. Many of them are minibuses and are designed as such.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : Does my hon. Friend agree that this debate provides the Minister with an opportunity to reflect on the extent to which post buses could help to compensate rural communities which are experiencing the downgrading or loss of local post offices? A mobile provision in such areas of the facilities to which my hon. Friend is referring could be of considerable help.
I hope that the points that hon. Members have made will be heeded by the Commission and that it will amend the instrument accordingly. The Government must press the issue hard at that level, and the Minister will appreciate that he has the support of Members in all parts of the House in that endeavour.
Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield) : The House is unanimous in stressing that the proposals are not satisfactory. I do not like retrospective legislation of any kind. Since gaining a driving licence at the age of 17, I have driven most categories of vehicles that that licence entitles me to drive, including minibuses and medium-sized goods vehicles of up to 7.5 tonnes gross vehicle weight.
Because of the peculiarities of British driving legislation, we have become one of the foremost producers of the 7.5 tonne truck, with the Ford Iveco cargo range and the Leyland Daf Roadrunner range, which are pre-eminent in this country. We export them in significant numbers throughout Europe because of the high demand for that type of vehicle, which a driver may drive on his normal driving licence and without having to take a special test.
I support what has been said, not just about minibuses but about the impact that this legislation may have on British manufacturers of minibuses and other commercial vehicles which hitherto we have been entitled to drive on our normal driving licences.
There will be a significant effect on the number of people entitled to drive minibuses if everyone must re-sit the driving test to enable them to drive that type of vehicle. The list of requirements in the instrument to enable one to drive a minibus is awesome indeed. For example, paragraph 5(2) on page 27 states :
Column 874"Drivers of vehicles in these categories must demonstrate a knowledge and sound understanding of the fields set out below". There follow a number of subjects in which the would-be driver must be knowledgeable, whether or not the vehicle is equipped with the items involved. If one wants to drive a Freight Rover Sherpa van or a Ford Transit minibus, one must know about the effect of wind on the course of the vehicle, rules on vehicle weights and dimensions, driving hours, rest periods and use of tachographs, the principles of braking systems and speed governors. We are talking about the driver of a minibus. He must also know about precautions to be taken when overtaking because of the dangers of splashing spray or mud. He must know how to read a road map and be capable of checking power-assisted braking and steering systems, which are unlikely to be found on such vehicles. He must know how to use various braking systems and a speed governor, which may be fitted but is unlikely to be.
If category D of the driving test has to be taken before a person may drive a minibus, much new information will be needed by the applicant before he can take the driving test. That alone makes nonsense of that category. The heading "Knowledge" on page 22 is rather intriguing because paragraph 2.2 demands that the applicant for a driving test must have a knowledge of
"mechanical aspects with a bearing on road safety ; in particular they must be sufficiently familiar with, and be able to put right, the most common faults in the steering system, tyres, lights and direction indicators, reflectors, rear-view mirrors, windscreen washers and wipers, the exhaust system and seat-belts ;".
One's mind can run amok on this. What about replacing king pins on the front steering arms of a vehicle? Perhaps one's wife could do it because her licence indicates that she is able to do it. That is nonsense if for no other reason than it is hopelessly impractical to expect any normal person seeking a driving licence to be able to put those items right. Common sense should tell people that something is wrong, but it is nonsense to expect them to have to put matters right. I suggest that something has gone wrong in the translation of the document because I cannot believe that what it says is correct. We understand that in the new arrangements the theory part of the driving test will be much more elaborate than that which we are used to in the United Kingdom. Generally, the principle has been for the person being tested to pull up by the side of the road and be asked three or four questions by the examiner on the "Highway Code". I am not sure about the present procedure, but I doubt whether it is any different from what I have suggested.
The proposals suggest that the theory test will be more elaborate than that. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will say whether he intends this to be a written examination to be taken before a practical driving test. The number of items on which people will be tested on theory precludes the side-of-the-road verbal test arrangement that has been the hallmark of the British driving test for as long as it has been taking place.
Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether we are to move towards a theoretical element in the driving test. I would not object to such a test because a case can be made for more emphasis on theory. If that means a written test, I would not argue against it.