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Mr. Portillo : My hon. Friend puts his finger on the crux of tonight's debate and that is the very issue that I am addressing. The issues have been clearly set out in the Select Committee's excellent report. I was trying to expound some of those issues. I was saying that road conditions, social habits and outlooks and driver behaviour vary from country to country, as does police enforcement practice. I agree that to try to legislate effectively from Brussels to encompass such variation risks imposing over-simple solutions on complex issues. We do not need harmonisation in this area to obtain the primary objectives of the treaty. The principle of subsidiarity should apply. Road safey measures are best decided by national Governments to suit different circumstances. I think that my hon. Friend would agree with that.
Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) : I am grateful for what the Minister said. It gives us a splendid idea of what the Government think. But my hon. Friend must be aware that the Commission's representatives have said clearly and categorically that practically all these measures are covered by the common transport policy which enables any other appropriate provisions to be made. The House would like to know whether the Government take the same splendid view. If the Commission's view is wholly different, as it is, what can we do about the proposal before us and a host of other imminent proposals, in which the Community is extending the EEC's powers by stretching the treaty of Rome and the Single European Act?
Mr. Portillo : We are dealing here with a disagreement between the Commission and the British Government, which the Select Committee report describes well. I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) that all the matters covered by the report and which are the subject of tonight's motion were taken before the Council of Ministers but did not find favour there. The British Government opposed Community competence, and fortunately our view found favour with other member States. None of the provisions included in the motion has been adopted by majority voting, contrary to the wishes of the British Government, because a blocking minority in the Community clearly shares our view.
Mr. Marlow : My hon. Friend said that there has been a blocking minority, but I understand that when it came to tyre tread depths, that blocking minority evaporated. Therefore, we found that we were outvoted and that the measures were imposed on us. These are more important measures, to do with road safety, drink-driving, seat belts and road speed signs. My hon. Friend said that he is opposing what the Commission is trying to put forward. Supposing that my hon. Friend is defeated.
Supposing that the Government are defeated, and the Commission, through its various machinations and
Column 954through use of the European Court--to help it to use majority voting where the Government do not believe that it should use majority voting--succeeds? What then will we do about it? How then are we going to get the powers back to this House? That is what we are here for--to exercise powers, to exercise the sovereignty of the British people. We had it recently over signs on cigarette packets, when we lost that one. How are we going to get it back?
Mr. Portillo : My hon. Friend asks a series of hypothetical questions. He is saying that, so far, our Community partners and ourselves have formed a blocking minority so that the proposals in question could not be adopted. Therefore, our policy must be to continue to oppose the proposals and to encourage our Community partners who form the other part of the blocking minority to maintain the same view.
My hon. Friend asked me also about the measure on tyre tread depths. He will appreciate that that is not the subject of tonight's motion, but he is right to say that, in that instance, the blocking minority evaporated. The motive behind the decision by some of our Community partners not to back us on that issue related to their belief that there were broader considerations relating to freedom of trade within the Community. Whether or not one agrees with that point of view--as the British Government do not, they voted against that proposal--the same argument was advanced by other member states. Therefore, that would not be a promising case to take to the European Court.
As to the proposals now before the House, I give my hon. Friend a pledge that we shall continue to resist the Commission's proposals. If we are defeated in due course--although I have no reason to think that we will be- -we should have to consider taking our case to the European Court.
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow) : With this measure, as with 1,001 others emanating from Brussels, we are witnessing the continuing diminution of British parliamentary sovereignty. To answer the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor), there is little or nothing that the Government can do about Community measures relating to road safety or to the fishing, steel, and many other industries. We are witnessing the remorseless diminution of our parliamentary sovereignty.
Mr. Portillo : We are witnessing the consequences of a series of decisions, taken by Parliament over a period, to bring the United Kingdom into the European Community and to make it a signatory to the Single European Act. The British Government doubt the Commission's competence to advance proposals arising from that.
There are two ways in which those proposals can be resisted. In the first instance, the British Government can oppose them and seek to make common cause with other Governments who take the same view : that tactic has been deployed successfully in the case of the measures that we are discussing this evening, which were not adopted owing to a blocking minority. If, however, we were unable at some future time to sustain that blocking minority and some of the measures were adopted, and if we continued to doubt the competence of the Commission or the Community, it would be open to the British Government to take the matter to the European Court, where the treaty of Rome and any other relevant provisions could be interpreted.
Mr. William Cash (Stafford) : If our Government and the legal advisers to the Select Committee on European Legislation consider that a measure goes beyond the competence of the treaty, there are other options, not least the opportunity to exercise a veto. It really is not good enough to assume that the only possible route leads to the European Court of Justice : that is a protracted and uncertain route, especially in view of the political integrating policy of that court. Will my hon. Friend be good enough to tell us whether the Luxembourg accord has been considered, and whether we propose to exercise it in this case?
Mr. Portillo : So far, consideration of that has not been necessary, because it has been possible to bring about a blocking minority in the matters that we are discussing. The United Kingdom Government will, of course, be willing to consider any means of carrying forward their view that such matters go beyond the competence of the European Community.
Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield) : May I pursue a slightly different tack? Why can we not adopt a common policy on drink-drive levels within the European Community? Presumably we have common standards for airline operation because the flights transcend national boundaries, but does not the same apply to motor cars, heavy goods vehicles and coaches? What is wrong with arriving at common standards on a voluntary basis?
Mr. Portillo : In the unlikely event that I am allowed to progress with my speech, I intend to deal with that later. I see no reason why we should not have the same standards in every country, but I think that there is a strong argument against the imposition of that by the Community. Perhaps my hon. Friend's question should be my cue to make faster progress.
We consider our line of argument to be one endorsed by the treaty of Rome. The founding fathers were political realists as well as idealists ; nothing in the general articles at the beginning of the treaty--or in the transport chapter--suggests that the development of common road safety policy and rules was ever perceived as a necessary part of Community activity.
Arguments may be put to the contrary : the issue has never been tested head -on before the European Court. One particularly relevant case, mentioned in the Select Committee report, is the Schumalla case, which goes a long way to suggest that the court would share our view if the matter was ever tested to the full. In that case the Court's Advocate-General, in his analysis of the legal issues involved, suggested that road safety could be seen as an objective of the treaty, and it is on that opinion that the Commission relies. In its final judgment, the court seems studiously to have avoided endorsing the wider arguments suggested by the Advocate- General. The omission of any endorsing comment suggests that the full court, when confronting those arguments, had serious misgivings about them. The Commission relies on what it calls the "precedents" for legislation on transport safety. The main examples are the drivers' hours legislation on road transport and various maritime transport measures which have significant safety implications. In each case, the primary purpose of the measure is something other than "pure safety". The drivers' hours legislation is primarily about competition ; the maritime measures are primarily about
Column 956Community trade. We have no problem with measures which serve the primary objectives of the treaty and have related safety benefits. We give a positive welcome to the concept that the Commission should give more weight to safety considerations in many of its proposals, but that is different from bringing forward pure safety measures which have little or no relevance to the Community's primary objectives.
The House may wish me to go into the safety merits of each of the proposals later, so for the moment I shall be brief. The essential point is that the content of the proposals heavily underlines why it is unnecessary and inappropriate for measures such as this to be enacted at Community level. We are far from satisfied with the United Kingdom's road safety record, which is why we set the target of reducing road casualties by a third by the year 2000. We are constantly on guard against complacency, but the fact remains that we have the best road safety record in the European Community. Although we are not among the best on some specific aspects of road safety, the Commission's proposals are concerned not with any of them but with driving and occupancy of motor vehicles, on which our record is second to none.
On drinking and driving--this answers the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King)--the Commission proposes setting a legal limit of 0.5 per cent. The legal limit in the United Kingdom is 0.8 per cent., as it is in most other Community countries. Even in the United Kingdom, where drinking and driving has been falling significantly over recent years, over half those convicted have consumed more than twice our current legal limit. Moreover, there is little evidence of a significant accident or casualty problem for drivers who have consumed between 0.5 and 0.8 per cent., although evidence is not easy to obtain.
In the light of those considerations, we do not believe that it makes sense to invite the police to diversify their enforcement effort instead of continuing to concentrate on the worst offenders and those above the current limit. We believe that the same applies for most Community member countries. If circumstances in other countries are different, we should be the last to suggest that they should adopt a strategy that does not fit their circumstances. Much the same is true for the proposal on speed limits. The Commission has addressed only passenger transport and goods vehicles. In general, those vehicles have a better than average safety record. In this country at least, many coaches are equipped with speed limiters. As 75 per cent. of casualties occur on local urban roads, the speed limits suggested by the Commission have little relevance to casualty reduction. If another car or person is hit by a bus, coach or lorry, even at much lower speeds than those under discussion, the results can be serious.
Mr. Teddy Taylor : We have been provided with helpful papers showing that under the EEC's proposal we might have to spend many millions of pounds changing our road signs from a speed limit of 30 miles per hour for vans and goods vehicles to 31 miles per hour, which is quite a significant change. Will permanent derogation ensure that that will not happen? Does the Minister accept that it would make not only the Common Market but the Department of Transport look terribly stupid if we were made to change our signs from 30 mph to 31 mph? May we be assured that we have a permanent derogation from the metrication which would make 50 km an hour apply?
Mr. Portillo : Although I am anxious to answer my hon. Friend's question, I fear that my inadequacy must show, being a late stand-in for my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham, who would have been able to answer immediately. I shall, however, take pains to answer my hon. Friend before the end of the debate.
As to whether I believe that it would be foolish for us to have to change our 30 mph speed limit to 31 mph, I concur with my hon. Friend, who gave an extremely good illustration of the problem that faces us in this area. He has done more than anybody to point out the ludicrousness of some of the suggestions that are being made. There is the proposal to make seat belt wearing mandatory. Here, the content causes us fewer difficulties. Front seat belt wearing is already compulsory in this country, and we have already made it clear that the compulsory wearing of rear seat belts is our aim. The point at issue is, again, whether it is sensible to legislate on this at Community level.
Our 95 per cent. compliance rate with front seat belt wearing stems almost entirely from the fact that public opinion was ready for, and supported, the regulations when they were introduced. If we want the same to apply to rear seat belt wearing, we need to assess again the readiness of public opinion for such a change. With front seat belt wearing so widely accepted, I do not believe that there will be any significant difficulty. We also need to consider the proportion of vehicles that are equipped with rear belts. There is little point in making the requirement mandatory until, at the very least, half the vehicles on the roads are so equipped.
As it happens, that is likely to be the case in this country by about 1992, which is the date the Commission proposes for the introduction of mandatory belt wearing. But although that is true here, it may be possible to move faster in some countries, while others may not be ready for many years longer. In principle, we support the safety aspects of this Commission proposal, but again, it illustrates the difficulties and potential dangers of seeking to legislate, in this sort of area, at Community level.
We are all striving for the same objective--the reduction of deaths and serious injuries on Europe's roads. But for fundamental legal reasons, and for the sake of effectiveness, measures should be considered, initiated and monitored at the political level which is most appropriate. In the case of the proposals under discussion, the right level is that of national Governments in co-operation with local authorities. They are not right for action at Community level. 10.37 pm
Ms. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) : I must at the outset acknowledge our disappointment at the departure of the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) from his post and the loss of his unusual sense of humour, which we were beginning to enjoy.
We are considering tonight five European Community documents relating to road safety. As the Minister said, the debate must address not only questions of policy and the issues arising from the European Commission's proposals, but whether, at a more fundamental level, the commission is going beyond its powers in drawing up these proposals.
The Minister argued that there is no competence within the Community's legal framework for these measures--
Column 958that is, that there are no,or only dubious, legal grounds to justify the Commission's measures. The Government argue that article 75 of the treaty of Rome provides for the adoption of measures within the framework of a common transport policy to implement the treaty's objectives. Those objectives are the removal of restrictions on trade and the removal of obstacles to free competition. The Minister is therefore arguing that where those primary objectives are not met, the European community has no power or competence to adopt any other measures relating to transport.
The Government have made it clear that they will accept Community competence only in the area of harmonising vehicle standards which relate directly to competitiveness. But they have set their face against measures proposed on safety grounds alone. My hon. Friends and I note that that view is not unanimous in member states, although the Government have said that Germany and Denmark at present share their position.
In an interesting presentation to the Select Committee on European Legislation, to which the Minister referred, the European Commission set out its justification for the measures. According to the Commission, article 25 left it open to the Community to adopt "any other appropriate measures relating to the implementation of a common transport policy."
Hon. Members may be aware that the treaty of Rome mentions transport, agriculture and fisheries as sectors that are moving towards a common policy and, in the Commission's words,
"In these sectors you have all room to manoeuvre".
The Commission cited a legal case to which the Minister referred, the Schumalla case, in which the Advocate General has advised that road safety of itself was an objective of the treaty, as was rail and inland waterway safety. The Commission argued that safety issues directly affect the play of market forces and that accidents have economic and financial consequences.
It seems clear to us that a court decision is needed to settle the issue, which appears to hinge, as the Sub-Committee states, "on different interpretations of the Schumalla case".
However, we believe that a legal framework that is so narrowly based on freeing up the market and allowing unfettered competition is an inadequate basis for promoting a coherent and integrated Community transport policy. Much is made of the need to harmonise standards in preparation for 1992 and the single market. Should not equal attention and value be given to the social and human consequences of 1992, to improving working conditions and safety standards and to giving environmental considerations a far greater role and value than hitherto? Unless that is done, if the Government's view prevails, the single market will work for the benefit of the few, not the many. If the European Commission puts forward sensible proposals within the transport sector that advance road safety or, for instance, stimulate the commitment of member states to protect the environment as a key factor in their transport policy, we believe that the Commission should be supported. The Opposition support good proposals, whatever their source.
Ms. Ruddock : I have made it plain that the issue of competence is not clear, either in the Select Committee's report or in the Government's statement, and that, to determine this matter, there would have to be a court case. However, the hon. Gentleman will understand from looking at the Select Committee's report and at the evidence of the Commission's legal adviser that the Commission believes that the Government's case would not succeed in court, because article 75 allows for the possibility of proceeding on the ground of road safety measures alone, without additional measures relating to competitiveness.
Mr. Marlow : The hon. Lady's original statement was wider than that. She said that she would support good ideas from the Commission, not necessarily just the ideas that we are considering in the debate. Does she mean that she would support any good ideas, whether or not the Commission had competence?
Ms. Ruddock : We would support any ideas on their merits. It is always possible, even if there is not agreement among all member states, for states to support good ideas and introduce them in their national Parliaments. The Minister has argued that such measures are best left in the hands of national Governments who are more in tune with national behaviour and social norms. I do not see why both paths cannot be pursued.
I acknowledge and applaud the efforts by the former Minister for Roads and Traffic in reducing road casualties and in promoting road safety. I hope that the Minister for Public Transport and his new colleagues will continue to make road safety a priority, as the Opposition have long argued. The former Minister acknowledged in his evidence to the Sub-Committee that, if he were the Commission, he would try to find every peg on which to reduce road casualties, and surely that must be the duty of all of us. He spoke also of the progress that could be made on those measures where there was doubt about Community competence, principally on design modifications to vehicles. We would support all the measures to which he referred, such as technical changes, improved seat belts, softer steering wheels and better protection on motor bikes.
The proposal that is most contentious and most strongly resisted by the Government is the draft directive on the maximum permitted alcohol concentrations for vehicle drivers. We have heard that the Commissioners propose to set the maximum alcohol limit at 50 mg. It is currently 80 mg in the United Kingdom. The Minister has outlined his reasons for his opposition to lowering the limit, and in what he says there is much with which we agree. Working to influence attitudes towards drinking and driving at all levels is vital, and a focus on the drinking limit may have the effect of implying that it is safe to drink up to that limit.
A strategy of public education and stricter enforcement has resulted in a gradual reduction in accidents resulting from drinking and driving, but the toll still remains unacceptably high. About 900 to 1,000 people are still killed on Britain's roads as a result of drink-driving, and more than 20,000 are injured annually. More steps are needed further to reduce the rate, and it may be that a reduction in the limit will be part of a package of measures
Column 960designed to reduce drink-driving, although, like the Minister, we are doubtful of its effectiveness as a single measure.
A more productive measure, for which there is widespread support in the House and outside, would be the introduction of random breath testing. We would support highly visible, systematic mass testing at roadside check points, but because of the possible abuse of people's civil liberties we would not support providing the police with unfettered powers to stop and test at their own discretion. The value of random breath testing is as a deterrent to drivers. Its secondary role is as a detector. We would support such a measure, and we hope very much that the new Minister for Roads and Traffic, the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins), will soon be making it clear to the House where the Government stand.
I move on to the draft directive on seat belts. There is little disagreement between ourselves and the Government.
Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay) : I think that I might have missed something. Perhaps the hon. Lady will be kind enough to explain what the difference is between random breath testing and calling drivers into the side of the road in a visible way, as she described, which is surely random breath testing as well. I do not understand the difference between the two.
Mrs. Ruddock : There is a significant difference. Accompanying the introduction of random breath testing is the need scientifically to randomise it. The check must be truly random. For example, one would stop one vehicle in 100, 500 or whatever. If discretion is left entirely to the police officer, there is always the possibility that that individual will choose certain types of vehicle or drivers. That can arouse suspicion among drivers that they have been picked on for some purpose other than pure random testing. It is a serious consideration for civil liberties. I can say from my constituency experience that there are many complaints from young black people who consider that they are stopped disproportionately often. If we have a random system, we must be careful that we can demonstrate that it is truly random.
Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford) : Does the hon. Lady believe that the type of testing which she has described, with which I have much sympathy, should be imposed by national Parliaments' decisions or by the Commission? She appears to be willing to consider imposition by the Commission.
We agree with the Government that what the Commission is currently proposing--a reduction in the permitted alcohol level in the blood--is not the present priority. I acknowledge that in the fight to reduce the number of drink-drive offences we need to introduce new measures. The priority of groups such as the Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety is deemed to be that of random testing. If the Commission were to bring that forward, I am sure that it would have
Column 961our support. We know that with 1992, drivers will be constantly crossing national boundaries. There is sense in having measures equalised throughout the Community.
Perhaps, I can continue with my speech, or I shall be taking too much time from other hon. Members who wish to participate in the debate.
There is virtually no disagreement between the Government and ourselves about seat belts. The Commission proposed to make the wearing of seat belts compulsory for all occupants of cars, with certain exceptions. Again, we know from the surveys by the road research laboratory that only 6 per cent. of adults use rear seat belts, but that the use of them could save about 70 per cent. of rear seat fatalities. There were 25,000 casualties in 1987, 4,000 of which were fatalities. We very much support the wearing of rear seat belts. There is a difference between the projections of the Parliamentary Advisory Committee on Transport Safety and of the Government about the percentage of cars that will be fitted with rear seat belts. PACTS believes that 45 per cent. of all cars will be fitted with rear seat belts by the end of this year. I urge the Minister to re-examine the figures, because it may be possible that, even if we are not going to act within the Commission, we can act on the national question sooner rather than later.
The Commission has justified its proposal to harmonise speed limits on several grounds, the least persuasive of which was that speed limits have a direct effect on prices and that a distortion of competition could result from different speed limits in different countries. We tend to agree with the proposition that adequate signing is equally important, so that drivers crossing borders are aware of the different speed restrictions. Secondly, speed limits are closely related to congestion problems in each country and, as such, are not perhaps appropriate for community harmonisation. Having said that, we acknowledge that there are arguments for bringing down some speed limits. Evidence shows that reducing speed limits can reduce the accident rates, although a judgment needs to be made as to at what point a reduced speed limit may result in it being disregarded. There is a strong case for lower speed limits for buses and coaches, as outlined in the Commission's proposal. Many motorists feel threatened by the speed and size of
Column 962coaches travelling in the fast lanes of our motorways and passengers in such coaches, especially in double deckers, are frequently concerned about safety.
Mr. Roger King : Clearly, the hon. Lady will have studied the accident record of coach travel in this country and on our motorways. Is she aware that the biggest operator in western Europe has not harmed a passenger in three and a half years?
Ms. Ruddock : The hon. Gentleman may have travelled on them, but many people who have also travelled on them have spoken to me about their concerns. Anyone who is driving down a motorway at 70 mph, and is passed by a double-decker coach, is somewhat intimidated. The points which I wish to make on speed do not just concern safety. We need to work to increase an awareness among motorists of the environmental consequences of speeding. High speeds produce higher vehicle emissions and lower speeds reduce vehicle emissions, especially nitrates and oxides. The Commission states that a reduction in average speeds in the Community to 100 km per hour could reduce car emissions by 10 per cent. That is an important factor which we also need to take into account.
All the specific proposals are set out in the context of a continuing programme of road safety work undertaken by the Commission, as set out in its document on road safety. The arguments about the legal basis of the Commission's proposals have already been rehearsed. They should not obscure the fact that, with 50,000 people dying and 1.6 million injured each year on Community roads, much work still needs to be done.
We note that the legal adviser to the Commission has said that a proposal related to road safety per se would stand a good chance of being accepted as falling within article 75. However, as the Minister has said, the matter is currently academic because of the blocking action of member states, and we are content to leave it as it is.
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Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) : I hope that the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) will listen carefully to my brief comments. She said that the Commission is saying some wise and knowledgable things. Perhaps it is because I am sure that there is no group of people in the world that does not say wise things from time to time, but we may differ about their wisdom.
I hope that from the point of view of constitutional democracy, the hon. Lady will be careful about what seems almost an obsession to pass over the right to make decisions to something that is not democratic in the sense in which British people have always understood our way of making laws. I hope that the hon. Lady will accept that when proposals come forward from an unelected body such as the Commission, when the powers of the various organisations are decided by the non-elected European Court, and when the final decisions are made by the Council of Ministers, who often "swop" support in different councils on the basis of what is happening, we are moving many miles away from democracy as we understood it. I therefore hope --
Mr. Taylor : I accept that the decisions on the treaty of Rome and on the Single European Act were made by Parliament--I happened to vote against them and that is my own business--but they are now the law of the land. I hope that the hon. Lady will bear very much in mind the fact that if those powers are consistently and regularly extended by the Commission when there is insufficient protection for member states to do something about it, we have a serious constitutional problem.
We know that there are only two things that the British Government can do if a directive is brought before the Council which they think is in excess of the powers of the Community under the terms of the treaties that we have approved. First, they can seek to get the Council unanimously to say no, if it is a question of majority voting. However, it is very rare for that to happen and I am not aware of any decision in which that has happened-- [Interruption.] Yes, at its first meeting the Council of Ministers can say no unanimously, but to my knowledge that has not happened.
Secondly, one can go to the European Court. The hon. Lady will be aware that in a large majority of the cases--even in the minority, there were other factors--the court has consistently supported extensions to the powers of the institutions of the Community.
Dr. Godman : Is it not the case that domestic legislatures have little or no control over the decision-making of the European Commission and that domestic Parliaments have no control over Council of Ministers' decisions? Therefore, is it not almost inevitable that over the next decade or so the Strasbourg Parliament will gain more and more power as Parliaments such as this lose power?
Column 964Strasbourg Parliament getting all the power. When the EEC is based on the initiating power of the Commission, on the decisions of the Council of Ministers, and on the extension of its powers by the Court, there is no role for the European Parliament. There could be a role if we had a European Government. If we had a European Foreign Secretary, a European Chancellor of the Exchequer and a European Parliament, with nothing but a county council at national level, those powers could rest with that Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman must be well aware that for the present, and in the immediate future, if the European Parliament were to disappear, tomorrow, nobody would notice. Indeed, on these issues, if this Government and this Parliament were to disappear nobody would notice. Even if all of us decided --I exclude the new Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, because he may feel that this is not one for him--to reject this whole business, it would not have the slightest effect on what the Minister might do.
We must appreciate that we are facing a serious democratic issue. That is why some of us have asked the Government, if they think that this is an extension of Community powers, to try to do something about it. We must remember that we have given certain powers to the EEC, and if it is going out of its way to extend those powers unreasonably, the Government must do something about it. That is why we have to go all the way to the European Court. Although the answer might be no, we have to make it clear that we are not happy with the way in which things are going.
Ultimately, given the way in which the Commission is working, almost nothing will be our business. Almost every decision will be taken by the European Community, sadly, in a society which is basically not democratic. That should worry us, and the Government. The Minister, sadly, did not refer to what I regard as terribly important proposals--those on driver licensing. The Minister will be aware of the Common Market's latest ploy, which involves those wonderful vehicles to which some of us have subscribed --the special minibuses which transport blind and disabled people. They are run by wonderful charities and driven by volunteers, and have fabulous safety records. The latest proposals are for a special licence category and trained drivers.
I have received many letters from charities asking what will happen to them. I have had to reply that I cannot do anything about it, as it has all been decided in Brussels. Will the Minister make the position abundantly clear? Is he saying that the proposals are blocked? Can the charities therefore forget about the matter? Alternatively, is the question still open? The Minister must be well aware that the proposal is causing the charities huge concern and they would like to know exactly where they stand. It is on page 3 of the memorandum issued on 8 March 1989.
Mr. Roger King : I believe that the matter has been resolved successfully and that it is all right for existing drivers to continue operating minibuses with up to 17 seats. In future it may be necessary to have a higher standard of test for such vehicles. We would welcome that as it would improve safety records. Running those vehicles is an important task. We need to ensure that those who drive the vehicles, which are often loaded with scouts, cubs, football teams and so on, attain a very high standard of driving.
Mr. Taylor : My hon. Friend the Minister will probably disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) as he is aware that the standard of driving of those volunteer drivers is about the highest of any group of drivers in the country. My hon. Friend should also be aware that some of our leading charities have written to say that if they are forced to take all their new drivers as trained drivers, unfortunately those vehicles will have to stop carrying blind and disabled people, not because of a decision taken by the Government, but because of the directive. The Commission may consider it appropriate for Europe, but why on earth should we be forced to say that trained drivers must drive the minibuses for which most of us have collected cash or contributed to and believe are important to take disabled people on trips to the seaside and regularly on other journeys?
I hope that the Minister will tell us the score. Will new drivers have to be specially qualified, adding enormously to the costs of operating the minibuses, or has the matter been entirely blocked? It does not say so in any of the documents, and we should like to know. My second question concerns speed limits. The Opposition did not comment in detail on the proposals for speed limits. I was hoping that they would. I hope that those who study such matters will look at page 2 of the document issued on 22 February which puts forward proposals that for a large number of vehicles, the 30 mph speed limit should change to 31 mph, the maximum rate for certain goods vehicles should be reduced from 70 mph to 62 mph and for others the maximum of 60 mph should be reduced to 50 mph. Those are fundamental and important changes. The Government have said that to change the signs for some of those limits would cost £10 million. There are many worthy causes for which £10 million could be used, but I do not see how it will help society or the cause of the Common Market to spend £10 million on changing signs from 30 to 31. Apart from the road signs, many official forms would have to be changed.
I understand that we can get out of this if we obtain something called a permanent derogation. Even the Commission, despite what the hon. Member for Deptford says--I know that she agrees with it--and a commissioner who wants a united Europe would say, "If they have a 30 mph limit and we want a 31 mph limit, it does not make a great deal of difference." We could split the difference and call it 30.5 mph. I think that it is something that we can resolve.
The Minister may say, "Do not worry about it, we have a blocking minority" ; but he will know that such a minority disappears. We have to ask whether we can stop provision being made long term, and the answer is that we can-- if we have a permanent derogation. It would be crazy and confusing if some vehicles had a speed limit of 62 mph, others had a limit of 44 mph, and still others had a limit of 50 mph.
What is wrong with our speed limits? If they are wrong, we can probably sort them out. If the buses are going too fast in the constituency of the hon. Member for Deptford, we can resolve it. What is the need for this obsessive commitment to get everyone harmonised on 31 mph? If, as the driver of a van, my speed limit was 44 mph, I would say not that that improved road safety but that it added to confusion.
The Government agree with me. They say that the proposals would lead to unsafe bunching, to an increase in
Column 966journey times, to increased costs and to a reduction in the competitive position of road transport and the freight industries in relation to other transport modes. I should have thought that they would appeal to the Labour party--they will undermine public transport. I am sorry to see the Labour party fulfilling the role that we used to expect from the old Liberals, now the SLD or whatever it is called- -that everything from the Common Market is to be approved of. It seems that the more that we can give to Brussels, the more likely we are to get the uniform Socialism that Labour wants. In view of that, I hope that the Government will appreciate that we have a problem. We must do something to stop silly, costly measures. I refer only to the Front Bench of the Labour party. Quite a number of Back-Bench Labour Members are still sensible and do not want this nonsense. They want to try to preserve the rights of a free democracy. I hope that they will exercise the same power over their Front Bench as some of us are exercising, with great success, on our Front Bench, which has resulted in a change in the Government's attitude to these issues.
We must accept that the Government have said that there is a problem of competence here. They told the Select Committee on European Legislation that they have substantial objections on competence grounds. The Commission said that it can do almost anything because article 75 refers to, "any other appropriate provisions". That means a lot.
I was sorry to hear the Minister say that the Schumalla case confirmed that everything is okay because the Commission's chief legal officers took the opposite view. The title of the case was "Road Safety", and a sentence in the penultimate paragraph of the judgment said that the safety of transport by road, rail and inland waterway was indeed an objective of the common transport policy. I hope that the Government will give us some idea of where they intend to go on this extension of policy. They cannot simply ignore it and say that they have a blocking minority in the meantime. This is a growing and continuing problem, and we would like to hear from the Government what their long-term policy on such matters will be. Can we stop silly things happening? Can we stop a 31 mph speed limit permanently?
I hope that the Government will make it abundantly clear to the Common Market that, although there may be some wise and even sensible men there, we do not like their seizing powers, and that the Government are determined to do something about it.
Mr. Roger Livsey (Brecon and Radnor) : I know of no proposals from the Commission to abolish miles, nor of any to abolish hours. There needs to be an injection of common sense into the debate. The hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) made points of academic interest. I hope that common sense will prevail and that we shall retain a 30 mph speed limit.
I would like the Minister to reassure us, as his predecessor did some weeks ago, that the problem of volunteer drivers has been overcome. I am a volunteer driver on some weekends and I expect to be able to continue to be one under a licensing system that makes allowances for the vast number of volunteer vehicles on