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3.31 pm

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland) (by private notice) : To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the situation in Gorazde.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Douglas Hurd) : Close air support was requested by General Rose on the afternoon of 10 April in response to the threat to United Nations personnel trapped in part of Gorazde by Serb attackers closing in on the town. There are at present 12 UN military observers in Gorazde--eight of them British-- and four United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees personnel.

The request, which was backed by General de la Presle, the commander of UNPROFOR in the former Yugoslavia, was speedily authorised by the UN special representative, Mr. Akashi. Two US F16s under North Atlantic Treaty Organisation command carried out air attacks against a Serb artillery position. Serb shelling continued for a short period thereafter, but, according to UN reports, the city was mostly quiet during the night.

Yesterday morning, the shelling resumed, despite warnings from UNPROFOR commanders and demonstration flights by NATO planes. General Rose requested further close air support after Serb shelling of the city close to UN positions. At 12.21, two F18 aircraft under NATO command bombed three Serb armoured vehicles. We understand that the shelling has since diminished.

The decision to call for close air support was taken in accordance with agreed UN and NATO procedures and has our full support. The UN Secretary- General, Mr. Boutros Ghali, has also approved the action taken. The safety of UNPROFOR personnel, including the 3,300 British troops on the ground in Bosnia, is always paramount. On this occasion, the risk to UNPROFOR personnel was thought by UNPROFOR commanders grave enough to warrant a request to NATO for air support. Such air support is clearly authorised by UN Security Council resolutions 836 and 844.

Despite some threats, there has so far been no significant military retaliation and only minor harassment of UNPROFOR and UNHCR personnel. All humanitarian convoys crossing Bosnian Serb areas and aid flights into Sarajevo were suspended. They have not yet resumed, although we hope that they will be able to do so soon. The Overseas Development Administration remains in close co-ordination with UNPROFOR and UNHCR on contingency planning.

Although the situation in Gorazde is, I am told, now relatively calm, more than 100 people are reported to have been killed there in the past few days. The parties should sit down and agree to an overall ceasefire. That is what UNPROFOR has been trying to negotiate, as a first step towards a general political settlement involving, as it would have to, substantial Serb withdrawal from territory now occupied.

I am in touch with Mr. Kozyrev about the important Russian role in this effort. The parties should draw the right lessons from the use of air power. Sir Michael Rose has made it clear that UNPROFOR is not taking sides in the conflict. That is not its task. It does not intend to be drawn

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into open-ended intervention for or against any of the parties. But the international community has made it clear that it will not tolerate attacks on UNPROFOR, and attacks on the safe areas must cease. I am sure that the House will welcome the prompt and necessary action taken by NATO in support of UNPROFOR personnel, with the full support of both those organisations.

Dr. Cunningham : Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we accept that the action taken was fully authorised by existing resolutions of the United Nations Security Council and, as such, has our complete support ? Does he also accept that we believe that it was not necessary to seek anyone's prior agreement before that action was taken and authorised by commanders on the ground, with the support of the United Nations representative in Bosnia ?

What political strategy is the United Nations now to follow in view of this latest setback involving the Serbian advance on Gorazde and the reimposition of the blockade on Sarajevo ? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that it is not the intention to use air power in defence of designated safe areas unless such use is authorised by a further resolution of the United Nations Security Council ? What change in circumstances led to action yesterday rather than two weeks ago when the first Serbian advances on Gorazde began ? Why did the United Nations and NATO wait for two weeks before taking action in support of UNPROFOR forces on the ground ?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the importance--I believe that he does --of keeping Russia fully engaged in the situation, especially as its support was so vital in securing a ceasefire at Sarajevo and Mr. Churkin has expressed the intention to get the Serbs back to the negotiating table as quickly as possible ? Should not Russia have been informed earlier of the action taken by NATO warplanes ? Is it not clear that the Bosnian Prime Minister, Dr. Silajdzic, has a point when he says that the Serbs have again gained territory without the United Nations acting quickly enough to prevent the Serb advance ? Is he not also right when he says that it was entirely predictable that the decision to allow the Serbs to take away their heavy artillery from Sarajevo would inevitably mean that those guns would be used for the bombardment of Gorazde and other safe areas ? Exactly when does the right hon. Gentleman think that further action will be taken and what will be the nature of such action if, as he says is the intention, the Serbs do not withdraw to their positions as of 30 March this year ?

Mr. Hurd : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support of the NATO action. He asked about the back-up diplomatic strategy of the UN. With the full encouragement and active work of the Americans, there has recently been a Croat-Muslim agreement and the task now is to hook the Serbs into it. As I said in my original answer, it involves substantial Serb withdrawal from land that they now occupy. They agreed that in principle on HMS Invincible. The powers for the air action were exercised under United Nations Security Council resolutions 836 and 844. The right hon. Gentleman knows the content of those resolutions and how wide they are. Those powers have not been exceeded on this occasion. Obviously, if it were proposed to take further action outside the terms of those resolutions, a new resolution would be needed.

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The right hon. Gentleman asked about timing-- those are matters for military judgment. Close air support is not called for until and unless the commanders involved and Mr. Akashi feel that all other ways of protecting UN personnel in the safe areas have been exhausted. Their judgment was that the right time--that moment--came over the weekend.

The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly right : of course, it would be better if everything--all ills, suffering and fighting in Bosnia--had been brought to an end in one go, but that has not happened. We have had progress step by step. It is right to say that there is much more to be done. The present tensions and fighting in Gorazde illustrate that, but they are not a condemnation of what has been achieved so far.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about Russia--his concern links with, but slightly contradicts, one of his first questions. If one is to take air action of that sort, it must be done quickly

Dr. John Cunningham : I said "informed".

Mr. Hurd : I am coming to "informed". Forty-four minutes elapsed between the request and the action. It is precisely because of the need for speed that both the UN and NATO agreed procedures that allowed for speed, but did not mean that member states could be consulted in advance. They were informed soon afterwards--in New York on Sunday afternoon.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South) : Will my right hon. Friend accept that what is at stake here is not just a beleaguered town in Bosnia, but the authority and credibility of the United Nations itself ? Does he accept that it is vital that ethnic cleansing, territorial aggression, and the seizing of territory and the altering of boundaries by force are not rewarded and are not seen to be ultimately rewarded ?

Mr. Hurd : I agree with my hon. Friend's point. Some of those objectives can be secured by the use of force as defined by the decisions of NATO and the UN Security Council ; some of them require economic pressure ; all of them require political pressure. It is that mix which must be constantly brought into action.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) : Self- evidently, no military action in Bosnia is without risk. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that by far the greatest risk would have been the flouting and humiliation of the UN's authority by allowing the bombardment of the safe area of Gorazde to continue unchecked, and that that risk has now been overcome ? Can he confirm to the House the reports that, this morning, General Rose has warned the Bosnian army against continuing attacks on the Serbs ? If that is so, does it not disprove the absurd charge that the UN has abandoned neutrality ?

Mr. Hurd : General Rose and UNPROFOR have been concerned about actions in Sarajevo and Gorazde by all sides involved, and, in central Bosnia, by the Croats as well. It is perfectly true that the weight of attack and the weight of blame rests on the Bosnian Serbs. The right hon. Gentleman is right.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath) : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the procedures for calling for

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close air support have been drastically improved in recent months, and it is essential that decisions are taken at the lowest possible level in Bosnia ? Has consideration been given to rotating the nations supplying the aircraft for that specific role ? Can my right hon. confirm that the principle of the minimum use of force will be adhered to as closely as possible ?

Mr. Hurd : Yes. Decisions are taken by Mr. Akashi on behalf of the UN and by Admiral Boorda on behalf of NATO. That has been carefully worked out in principle and is now working effectively in practice, but, of course, it is a matter of last resort. It is for the NATO authorities to decide which planes on which occasions should be responsible for carrying out the action.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) : Is the Foreign Secretary aware that some of us have been advocating such action from the outset ? If it has been proved as successful as he said it has been, would not a great many lives have been saved had the policy been employed 18 months ago ?

Mr. Hurd : I made a mistake in naming Admiral Boorda--he was replaced by Admiral Smith.

Those are matters of judgment, in which military advice need not always be paramount but is bound to weigh heavily. That action was taken at the time and in the way recommended by General Rose and approved by his superior, General de la Presle, and the UN. I am not at all clear that earlier action would have received that kind of approval.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is inconceivable that the United Nations, having declared a safe area, could allow it to be overrun ? Will he clarify the status by which those save havens can be protected, and say whether anything more is necessary from the UN, to enable air strikes for that purpose--as opposed to the purpose of looking after the lives of UNPROFOR personnel ?

Mr. Hurd : If my hon. Friend reads Security Council resolution 836, he will find there the definition of the mandate. We are content with that, at present. I believe that all the allies, and the UNPROFOR commanders, are content with it. One cannot peer wholly into the future, but I believe that the present mandate is sufficient. My hon. Friend's first point was entirely right. The UN needs not so much an extension of the mandate as more troops, and Britain took the initiative a short while ago to bring that about. It produced a certain result, which was very necessary. In addition to our own 900 extra men to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence referred a few minutes ago, we have commitments and some extra men.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : But not enough.

Mr. Hurd : But not enough. Turkey, the Czech Republic and other countries have made commitments. The sooner those troops can be effective on the ground, the better.

Ms Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) : In welcoming the action taken to help save lives in Gorazde, may I ask the Foreign Secretary whether he has communicated with President Clinton in the past couple of days, concerning the possibility of American troops helping to protect safe areas

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--particularly Sarajevo, where there is peace at the moment ? That would be in line with American policy of participating as part of a peace process.

Mr. Hurd : President Clinton has made his position clear often enough. The United States would be willing to consider providing ground troops in Bosnia under NATO command, up to a certain proportion, once there is a general settlement. He has not moved from that position. What is happening--particularly in Sarajevo--is that the Americans are active in the task of reconstruction. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was last in Washington, he agreed with President Clinton a joint Anglo- American civilian task force designed to help Sarajevo to get back to normal. The Americans are active in that way and in the air.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that there has been a sea change in attitudes in the former Yugoslavia ? Whereas, previously, many were reluctant to see a further commitment given, it was right to build on the improvement there. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, from a diplomatic point of view, there is every argument for consulting everyone before using close air support--but from a military point of view, it is crucial that there should be minimal delay between calling for close air support and using it ? Is he satisfied that delay is minimal now ?

Mr. Hurd : Yes, I am. My hon. Friend put his second point extremely well--he is exactly right. As to his first point, there has been a substantial change, and we must not see it thrown away. That is why we took the decisions that we did--giving a lead in that respect and reinforcing success. The ceasefire in Sarajevo was followed by one in central Bosnia and the agreement between the Croats and Muslims that I mentioned. That is not nearly enough, but it is the start of good news. It would be a tragedy if, through any lack of effort by the UN or any failure of nerve, that good news were to turn to bad news.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : If the Russians had been informed of impending action, would there have been a danger of their trying to block it ? If so, would they have been successful ?

Mr. Hurd : No, because the action did not require a new Security Council resolution.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : Does my right hon. Friend recognise that NATO has available massive air assets, and that the minimum amount used in this instance demonstrates how carefully thought out was that particular operation ? It is one thing to attack tanks and other heavy armour, but another to make assets available for attacks against mortars and more difficult equipment--and there would be huge political and military risks in any escalation.

Mr. Hurd : My hon. Friend knows from past exchanges that all the thoughts that he has just uttered are very much in our minds and have been for a long time. The choice of the planes used and the choice of the targets selected show that what my hon. Friend said about care has been fully observed.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles) : Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that UN Security Council resolutions already authorise the use of force to protect the

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safe areas and not just the UN forces in those areas ? Given that air action has now been used and, apparently, has been effective, will not it be difficult in future to sustain that distinction and say that we will not use air power to defend civilians but that we will use it to protect our forces ?

Mr. Hurd : UNSC resolution 836

"Authorizes UNPROFOR . . . in carrying out the mandate defined in paragraph 5 above, acting in self-defence, to take the necessary measures, including the use of force, in reply to bombardments against the safe areas by any of the parties or to armed incursion into them".

There are several elements there, but the hon. Gentleman obviously knows the text and knows that it offers considerable scope.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) : Will Her Majesty's Government make it quite plain to the belligerents that, in the event of either technical malfunction or hostile fire leading to the ejection of Royal Air Force or Royal Navy air crew over Bosnia, entirely humane treatment is expected on the part of the belligerents towards those air crew, and that there should be no retaliation whatever to the action of UNPROFOR personnel acting as monitors who, for their own self-defence, have to act temporarily as forward air controllers to bring in close air support ?

Mr. Hurd : My hon. Friend, with his knowledge, will not expect me to speak about forward air control, but both his general points must be right.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : Did not the Foreign Secretary rather sharply confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell- Savours) that, whatever the Russians had done, in no circumstances would it have altered the situation and the decision to attack ? Is it really wise to undertake any attack without Russian endorsement, given that they are absolutely crucial to any lasting solution and in persuading the Serbs not to go on the offensive ?

Mr. Hurd : I mentioned in my original answer the importance--I would say the crucial importance--of the Russian role. The hon. Gentleman has just underlined that. The Russians, in influencing the Serbs, and I hope also the Bosnian Serbs, are indispensable. But the Russians are also realists. They know perfectly well the procedures ; they have been endlessly discussed, and with the Russians. They know the procedures for close air support. They know, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) pointed out vividly, that if one is to have such procedures, they preclude consultation in advance of member states. Member states are fully entitled to be promptly informed, and can then discuss the consequences. That is happening now.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow) : Is my right hon. Friend perfectly satisfied that it is both prudent and appropriate to use NATO forces in an offensive role, bearing in mind that, when NATO was founded in 1949, it was founded as a purely defensive organisation ?

Mr. Hurd : When one has UN troops--including in this case British personnel--at risk in a particular situation, who are approved by the Security Council with the full support of all NATO countries, action to protect those people is not offensive but essentially defensive.

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Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) : Has the Secretary of State heard the reports this lunch hour, presumably from UNPROFOR sources, that Muslim forces in Gorazde have been launching mortar shell attacks against Serb positions ? Will he confirm that the military hostilities that began two weeks ago in and around Gorazde were the result of a Muslim infantry offensive ? Should such further offensives take place from safe havens such as Srebrenica or Maglaj, what action will he recommend under UNSC resolution 836 ?

Mr. Hurd : The hon. Gentleman knows that it is extraordinarily difficult to get at the truth about the origins of each of those incidents. That is certainly true.

Mr. Wareing : It is important, though.

Mr. Hurd : It is very important, and that is why the British have placed such emphasis on getting the right equipment in place to make the best job of it that we can. But it is not an exact science. There is always a temptation for one side to start something relatively minor in the hope that the other side will respond in a way that the world then notices and condemns. That has been one of the problems all the way through.

Having said that, I think that the House will, on the whole, accept that the main responsibility for recent bloodshed--indeed, for the origins of the war--rests with the Bosnian Serbs, and that General Rose was therefore justified in specifying the action that he recommended and which was taken.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford) : Will the Secretary of State assure the House that one of the top priorities of British foreign policy is the continuing improvement of relations between Russia and the United Kingdom ? As we have become increasingly sucked into the civil war in Bosnia in the past 12 months, with increased land forces and now air attacks, will he assure the House that further increases in our involvement in Bosnia will take into account the relationship with Russia ?

Mr. Hurd : We do take into account the relationship with Russia, but it is a relationship of countries that are friendly but which have different foreign policies in several respects. The Russians do not expect us to dance to their tune in Bosnia. They have an important role, and when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I were in Moscow not long ago, we spent most of the time discussing that role. I understand what the Russians are trying to do. In the Baltic states it has not been positive ; but in Bosnia it has been positive, and we want to keep it that way, which means keeping in close touch with them.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East) : Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I am delighted, at long last, after the appalling dilatoriness and pusillanimity of the right hon. Gentleman and his European Foreign Secretary colleagues, to be able to congratulate him whole-heartedly on his statement and the stand that it at long last embodies ?

Mr. Hurd : It has been easy for the hon. Gentleman to stand and shout at me from the Back Benches for many months, but his type of interventions, although they are sincerely felt and strongly expressed, have not always been well judged, either in timing or in substance. The sending even of a couple of F16s and the use of force in this way, as the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel), who speaks for the Liberal party,

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recognises, are bound to be very risky decisions which can carry very serious consequences. They are not to be enterprised or taken in hand simply as a relief for emotion.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : Will the Foreign Secretary clarify precisely the chain of command ? He told us who asked for the air strikes and he told us who approved the air strikes, but who authorised them ? Was President Clinton informed before American aircraft were used in those air strikes ?

The reason that I ask the question, which the Foreign Secretary will fully understand, is that when he announced Government's change of policy he said that the unity of NATO was the prime consideration. What many people are wondering about, apart from the risk that the action might lead to escalation into a deeper conflict, is whether the unity of NATO is being put above the unity of the United Nations where the Soviet Union--Russia, as it is today--is a permanent member of the Security Council and, therefore, has a special statutory position, quite apart from its historic geographical interest in the area.

Mr. Hurd : Close air support of this kind is decided by NATO Commander-in-Chief South, Admiral Smith, once he is clear that the representative of the United Nations Secretary-General, Mr. Akashi, has approved. That is what took place this time. The President of the United States--the United States Administration--was informed at the same time as we were. They were the procedures that had been worked out and approved, and the Russians knew of them. They take place under United Nations Security Council resolution 836 which the Russians approved.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West) : The concern expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) in his original question related to the delay in informing the Russians that the attack had taken place. The Foreign Secretary knows, because he said it himself, that the Russians are crucial if we are to get the Serbs around the negotiating table. That is what concerns my colleagues. We are not asking for the Russians to be consulted ; we understand that the attack took place under Security Council resolutions, but we are concerned about the delay in informing the Russians, and that is the concern which the Russians themselves have expressed.

Mr. Hurd : The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) talked about consultation and I think that we have dealt with that point. As regards information, I have no reason to suppose that there was undue delay by the UN in informing Ambassador Vorontsov in New York of what had occurred.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin) : Is it not tragically true and salutary to point out, even at this stage, that the suffering in Bosnia over the past few days bears no comparison to the suffering in Rwanda ? Also, does not the suffering in the former Yugoslavia in the past 12 months bear little comparison to the suffering in Angola ? Therefore, what reassurance can the Foreign Secretary give the House and the country that the international community's consideration of those matters bears some relation, at least in time, energy and money spent, to the suffering in the countries concerned ?

Mr. Hurd : The hon. Member makes an extremely good point, which I have made over the years in answering

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questions about Bosnia. The international community is simply not equipped--it should not pretend that it is equipped --to bring peace with justice to all those tragedies across the world. We in this country are certainly not equipped to act as a policeman or a judge or a universal soldier in that way. We must reckon with that and we have to do what we can, where we can.

The civil war in Bosnia and the suffering in the former Yugoslavia are in our continent. They are quite close to us. It is right that we should be devoting such effort to them. I do not accept the argument that because we cannot do everything, we should do nothing. We should not pretend that those other tragedies are not taking place, because they are.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow) : A moment or two ago, the Foreign Secretary referred to the participation of Turkish soldiers in the United Nations peacekeeping role. He knows well that numerous concerns have been expressed about that. Will he tell the House what role they will play ? Is it entirely a supportive role and will they be under the tight control of General Rose and his fellow officers ?

Mr. Hurd : Certainly, all UN troops are under tight UN command, including our own and the Russians, who are there in Sarajevo. The hon. Member should be assured of that. Where the Turks should be deployed is a matter for the UN. Obviously, there has been some concern about that, as there has been concern from the opposite point of view about the Russians. I believe that it was right of the Secretary-General, against the background of his need, to take up the long-standing offer of the Turks.

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Newly Qualified Drivers

4.2 pm

Mr. David Amess (Basildon) : I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require newly qualified drivers to display on the vehicles they are driving an indication that they are newly qualified ; and for connected purposes. The purpose of the Bill is to improve road safety by measures specifically relating to newly qualified drivers. It is a two-part Bill which attempts to combat public fears and problems of road safety. Part I requires the display of a plate for one year, following the passing of the official test, and part II reduces the maximum penalty points for the same period from 12 to nine. Let me say from the outset that my wife maintains that she is a better driver than I. She passed her test on the first occasion and I passed mine on the second. More than two decades later, we are still driving, although, when we are together, I invariably drive. When I asked my wife why that should be the case, she said that it is to enable her to give me continual instructions on how I should be driving. It would be less than gallant of me to describe such behaviour in a lady as that of a classic back-seat driver. Whatever can be said of my driving or that of my wife, both of us remember graphically what it was like to be a newly qualified driver and how nerve- racking it could be in the early days when one drove alone, especially if one had no motorway experience. A recent study shows that almost three quarters of newly qualified drivers on the road are under 25 years of age. My Bill would mean that the probationary period would apply to all newly qualified drivers, regardless of age.

The whole purpose of the Bill is to reduce the number of road accidents. That may seem a difficult objective to achieve, because accidents are often down to the unpredictable behaviour of human beings. Nevertheless, over recent years the Department of Transport has embarked upon a host of measures, after taking careful advice, and I believe that they have made a substantial contribution to the reduction of road accidents in general.

I pay a warm tribute to all those who have been involved with effective road safety measures, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic and, especially, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), who has twice tried to introduce a similar measure. I hope that with my Bill it will be a case of third time lucky. It is difficult to find adequate words to describe the horror that confronts our policemen every day of the week when they call to tell relatives that their loved ones have been injured, maimed or, worse still, killed. Such events and the traumas associated with them leave a scar on everyone involved. On what I believe to be an all- party issue, it must make sense for Parliament to do all in its power to reduce the likelihood of such tragedies.

Seventy-six per cent. of the accidental deaths of 16 to 19-year-olds result from road accidents. Even more shocking is the fact that drivers aged 17 to 21 are responsible for more than 1,000 deaths a year as a result of vehicle accidents. That age group represents only 10 per cent. of licence holders, yet its members are involved in 20 per cent. of all accidents. An 18-year- old is three times more likely to be involved in a car accident than a

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48-year-old ; every mile driven by a 17-year- old is seven times more likely to result in an accident than a mile driven by a middle-aged man.

What are the reasons for those shocking statistics ? I do not believe that passing an official driving test is very hard for many people, although I fully accept that some people who would make excellent drivers suffer from nerves when faced with the test. However, most people taking the test are younger and more dextrous. The test can be taken and passed so quickly today.

Does passing really mean that a person is fit and equipped with the necessary skills to drive safely on all our roads ? I fear not. For example, it has always seemed extraordinary to me that some people pass their tests yet appear to have no knowledge whatever of the basic workings of a motor vehicle. That is not helpful when we are trying to ensure that motorists drive safely.

I freely admit that no driving test in any country can be more than a poor reflection of the real driving world. The Metropolitan police believe that one of the biggest problems is the misconception of what a driver's licence means. All that it really means is that newly qualified drivers can now learn to drive on their own. The misconception causes newly qualified people to think that they are good drivers, who can drive like experienced drivers, so they are injured and killed at a disproportionate rate.

All the factors that I have outlined support the need for a probation plate for one year. We can argue about the letter that should be displayed on the plate, but the Bill's aim is to reduce the total of deaths and injuries by using a distinctive mark on vehicles and introducing tighter penalties.

Newly qualified drivers' reactions are much slower in potential accident situations. The new plate seeks to minimise the resulting dangers by alerting other drivers. Following consultation, the Secretary of State would decide what letter would be designated for the plate for the one-year mandatory display.

Even with all that, it would be necessary to introduce the second part of the Bill, which is an attempt to lower the penalty point allowance for newly qualified drivers from 12 to nine points. That would provide an incentive for new drivers to take much more care and cultivate good road manners. Last week, the Automobile Association said that a lower points allowance was a good idea. Only one in six drivers are newly qualified, but they are involved in one in four reported accidents. The AA believes that something certainly needs to be done about the problem, and that the Bill is a step in the right direction.

The AA is not alone in its support ; the Metropolitan Police also endorses its views. They are totally supportive of a reduction from 12 to nine penalty points on the ground that that would lead to more responsible driving. They quote the old saying that the safest driver is the commercial vehicle driver with nine points on his licence. If we transferred that axiom to the newly qualified driver with a lower point maximum, it would still hold true.

The Magistrates Association also supports the principle of one year's probation for new drivers and a reduction in the maximum penalty points during that period. The

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association told me that measures involving new drivers, as proposed in my Bill, would reduce over-confidence and bring about improvements in road safety.

Finally, other countries have evidence to prove the value in terms of road safety of the measures that I am proposing. I cannot believe that, with British organisational skills, we would find it difficult to administer a life-saving scheme. It is not my intention to spoil the joy of a family when one of its members passes the driving test ; rather, it is to prevent the chilling knock on the door when a policeman arrives with tragic news. I commend the Bill to the House.

4.11 pm

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham) : I oppose the proposed Bill, in the same way that I opposed the similar one introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns).

The whole House will share the respect of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) for the police when they must knock on a stranger's door and bring bad news about a traffic crash. We should stop talking about traffic accidents and talk about crashes because we know a great deal about the causes.

I do not want to focus on my hon. Friend's proposed reduction in the number of penalty points that would be allowed. I want to stick to the advertising of new qualification by what is normally referred to as a P for probationary or R for restricted plate. My hon. Friend rightly did not share with the House whether he thought that the plate that should be displayed would have restrictions associated with it.

Some people argue that one should not be able to drive on motorways ; some argue that one should not be able to drive at more than 50 mph ; and some argue that one should not be able to have more than one passenger. There is a whole series of options. I object to the principle on which my hon. Friend based his argument. As far as I am aware, there is no substantial body of evidence that having a probationary or restricted plate on the back or front of a car makes any difference.

For some time, part of the United Kingdom--Northern Ireland--has had a similar plate with various restrictions. When I served as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Northern Ireland Office, having worked as a junior Minister in the Department of Transport, I asked for a study that would show what appeared to be the impact of introducing that requirement-- I think that it has been there for about 20 years. The answer is that no one knows.

For some time, the Department of Transport has been examining whether a substantiated claim can be made for having a special plate. We have not yet seen that evidence and I doubt whether it will be conclusive when it comes.

I shall share with the House two articles from "Road Accidents Great Britain 1992 : The Casualty Report". That report contains the good news that since 1986--the European Year of Road Safety--the number of road deaths has fallen by more than 1,000. Of course, in the past year, the number has fallen by another 400. That means that many of the actions that have been taken in terms of road-user behaviour, the vehicle and the road environment have clearly been immensely successful.

The article by Kathryn Markey shows that drivers aged between 17 and 20 of either sex are involved in relatively

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