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European Standing Committee A
Monday 13 September 2004
[Mr. Nigel Beard in the Chair]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): I am pleased to see you back and looking so refreshed after the summer break, Mr. Beard, and to see members of the European Scrutiny Committee here. I thank that Committee again for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue and probe a little further into the third driving licence directive. In next month's Transport Council we shall have the opportunity to play our part in determining the Council of Ministers' general approach in response to the European Commission's proposals. The resulting directive will set the framework for driving licences throughout Europe for many years to come.
Each year, the United Kingdom authorities issue more than 6 million new and renewed licences. Overall, there are almost 40 million full licence holders in the UK and more than 300 million throughout the enlarged European Union. The UK driving licence has been part of a family of European driving licences for many years, and there are benefits from that international approach. Drivers travel more and more across international frontiers, and a common licensing framework can ease that movement for drivers and authorities. There are also clear advantages to being able to share technological and medical information, and to having a common set of minimum standards for driver testing and training.
We must, however, be ready to adapt to changing circumstances and new technologies. One of the Commission's main justifications for this proposal is that it will improve the security of the licensing system. Although the driving licence is not intended to be a document establishing identity, it is often used as such, so it is vital that we combat driving licence fraud on an international scale.
With the entry of the new accession states, more than 130 models of driving licence, in various formats, are in circulation in the EU. Opportunities for impersonation and forgery are numerous, which is why I broadly welcome the Commission's proposals on developing a single European format of photocard licence. Allowing member states to insert a microchip in the card will also help to protect the future security of the system.
A secure driver licensing system can also improve road safety by helping to force fraudulent and often unsafe drivers off the roads. Measures to prevent driving licence tourism, whereby a driver disqualified in one member state obtains a licence in another, will have a similar effect. Road safety is further enhanced if entitlement to hold a driving licence is underpinned by European requirements for the thorough qualification
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and training not only of drivers but of instructors and examiners.
All that said, I have approached the proposals with caution. Some of what is proposed is directed at changing what I regard as the less crucial aspects of the driver licensing system. The Commission wishes to introduce new rules redefining categories of vehicles and who can drive them. I am not in principle opposed to such changes, but each one needs to be justified by a well demonstrated benefit, particularly in terms of road safety. I fear that some proposed changes could bring new complexity, a lack of clarity for drivers, and enforcement difficulties at the roadside. In the negotiations, we are therefore resisting such changes. Financial implications for industry, the public sector and private individuals could also result from the need for training organisations to buy new vehicles, and for companies to train individuals for new categories.
We must also ensure that any measures adopted are proportionate to the problem to be tackled. For example, I support the intention behind the measures to combat driving licence tourism, but we must ensure that the resulting costs of international co-operation and data exchange are kept within sensible bounds. Member states need to be able to manage their driver licensing to suit national circumstances, and I see the benefits of a degree of administrative harmonisation among the states.
A common maximum period of administrative validity for driving licences will make it easier for drivers to understand the rules, as well as enhancing the security of the system. However, member states should be allowed discretion to issue licences for shorter periods when circumstances require. They should also be free to decide when drivers should undergo medical examinations according to national needs, albeit within the framework of common medical standards, which are not being amended. Similarly, I support measures to improve the selection of driving examiners and to ensure that they receive proper training. However, the emphasis should be on the competencies that the examiners must achieve and display rather than the hours and days that they must spend in training.
In summary, I share the Commission's view that the directive has the potential to improve the security of the driving licence system and improve road safety. We are supporting measures from which clear benefits can be foreseen, such as making the card more difficult to forge, as well as measures to oppose driver-licensing tourism. At the same time, we are opposing apparently needless changes to the current system that will place undue administrative burdens on government, businesses and individuals as well as complicating the work of enforcers. I hope that that is a useful opening to our deliberations today.
The Chairman: We now have until 5 o'clock for questions to the Minister. I remind Members that questions should be brief, and should be asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample opportunity for all Members to ask several questions.
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Matthew Green (Ludlow) (LD): The Minister's position can be best summed up by, ''Yes, but''. In that case, what are the Minister's red lines?
Mr. Jamieson: The red line is clear. As I said in my opening remarks, it is that the provisions must be proportionate to whatever they are tackling, and give road safety benefits, while not putting undue administrative pressures on government, businesses or local individuals. There are many small red lines to be drawn in the great complexity of the document, but those are our guiding principles in drawing those red lines, as the hon. Gentleman describes them.
Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): In general, driving standards in the UK are significantly better than in some other member states. Having returned from Italy not long ago, I know that from personal experience. How will my hon. Friend ensure that we do not reduce standards in determining who should and should not have a licence? More especially, how do we ensure that our member state colleagues do not allow low standards for their drivers who come to drive on our roads?
Mr. Jamieson: My hon. Friend rightly points out that the standards of driving in this country are generally higher than those in other countries in the European Union. I am proud of that fact, which is borne out by a good road safety record compared with other member states. None the less, as I always say, we have a good record, but it is not good enough. It must improve. Today, as on most days, nine or 10 people will be killed on our roads, and that is not good enough, despite the fact that the rate is higher in other European countries.
In all aspects of the negotiations on the directive, we have tried to ensure that we do not undermine or reduce in any way the things that we do well in this country, and that on issues where we think that we can improve, we carry on making improvements. A small example would be that of access to small motor cycles up to 125 cc or 11 kW. We are saying that someone should be at least 17 before they have access to such a vehicle, whereas other European countries believe that the age should be 16.
There will be derogations. We want those that meet our national requirements to apply to us, and in no way do we want to weaken our approach to road safety. As I am sure that my hon. Friend will see, there are clear benefits in having a more co-ordinated system, particularly in tackling forgery, fraud and the people who try to misuse the system. It will also guarantee that people who come from other European countries to drive in this country, which is now happening more frequently, also meet high standards.
Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): As a fellow member of the Treasury Committee, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Beard. The Scrutiny Committee's report of February this year said that the Minister drew particular attention to his concerns about subsidiarity. He has hinted again today that in some respects the measures go too far. Will he bring us up to date on what stage the discussions have got to, and whether there is any sign that the Commission is prepared to drop areas
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that go beyond what ought to be dictated from the centre?
Mr. Jamieson: The hon. Gentleman has asked a wide-ranging question, which is almost impossible to answer, partly because some negotiation and debate is ongoing. To give him one example, we have had withdrawn the requirement that people driving heavy goods vehicles should have a medical test every five years to get their licence renewed. However, changes have taken place in very many areas—this is a changing feast, as the hon. Gentleman probably realises—and once we get into the next part of the debate, there could be other changes. Therefore it is almost impossible to give an answer, because we would have to cover 50 or 60 areas in which changes have been made.
What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that the major concerns that we had when I wrote to the Committee in January or February have been overcome. Most of what is in the directive now being discussed meets the requirements that we put down at that time in the United Kingdom. We may have to compromise in a few small areas, but they are not areas of great concern to me. There are also one or two areas in which further flexibility may be found on the part of other countries.