Road Safety Bill

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Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I agree. I speak from a parental point of view. We are strict about seatbelts for the two children in the back, but, on an anecdotal basis, all too often we see children walking around and standing up in back seats. If the hon. Member for Christchurch was suggesting that we send out a signal that either the front or back was safer or less safe than the other, the danger would be that we would encourage people to feel safer in the back and that they do not need to belt up. Those of us who are really concerned want all children to be belted up, whether they are in the front or the rear.

Mr. Jamieson: My hon. Friend makes the point far better than I could have done. It is just dangerous for a child to be unrestrained. Even sharp braking, which one might have to do occasionally, could injure a child.

To return to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Christchurch about the front or the rear, in recent years we have become more aware that if a person or object is in the rear of the car and circumstances involve severe braking or a collision, the child, adult or object can become a missile inside the car that can injure those in the front. Even a dog could cause injury in those circumstances. The hon. Gentleman may have seen the advert that we occasionally bring back. The story is that the mother, who is driving the car, is about to meet her killer. Of course, he turns out to be the son in the back of the car, whose head flies forward, hits the mother and kills her because he was not restrained in the back of the vehicle.

The issue is important. Children do not make choices in such things, particularly young children. They are not in a position to make a choice; the parents are, and the person who is driving the car and is responsible for those children is. The penalty for not wearing seatbelts in the rear and front of cars should be the same.

Mr. Chope: I am familiar with the figures for compliance with front seatbelt wearing, which I think are between 94 and 98 per cent. Can the Minister tell us the figures for compliance with rear seatbelt wearing for children?

Mr. Jamieson: I probably can give the hon. Gentleman those figures, if he will give me a moment. Perhaps we can come back to it later, but the compliance rate for rear seatbelts is lower. In the case of both front and rear seatbelts, the numbers are increasing. Inspiration is coming to me as we speak. If we take the latest figures that we have, those from October 2004, the compliance rate for car drivers—who are obviously in the front seat—is 93 per cent. For front seat passengers, it is 94 per cent. For adults in the rear seat—adults meaning those who are 14 years and over—the figure is 65 per cent. and for children in the rear seat it is 93 per cent. The overall figure for rear seat passengers is 83 per cent. It is amazing how my memory can suddenly be jogged.

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I hope that we can pass the clause. It is another small but important measure that we are taking to assist road safety.

Mr. Chope: In conclusion, the figures show the success that has resulted from the introduction of rear seatbelt wearing, which was something that I was proud to be associated with as a Minister. I am glad that we have forced the Minister to justify the change that he is proposing.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 21

Using vehicle in dangerous condition etc.

Mr. Knight: I beg to move amendment No. 36, in clause 21, page 24, line 39, at end insert

    'and the offender was not an employee driving a vehicle owned by his employer in connection with his employment.'.

I move this initially as a probing amendment to tease out of the Minister why he wants to make the change proposed in clause 21. Clause 21 would make disqualification for using a motor vehicle in a dangerous condition obligatory and not discretionary if the driver has committed a similar offence in the previous three years. Why should a good driver, who is not the owner of a vehicle but merely an employee, automatically lose his livelihood when there may be no culpability on his part? The courts should decide on the basis of the evidence before them, not be ordered by Parliament what view they should take on disqualification. Amendment No. 36 would seek to exempt any offender who was an employee driving a vehicle which was not his from the insistence that a second offender receives an obligatory ban.

There are certain circumstances in which, if one is driving some else's vehicle in the course of your employment, one knows that there is something wrong with it. The most obvious example is that if the brakes are faulty, one immediately knows one is driving a dangerous vehicle. There are many other vehicle defects, however, which are weighty enough to make the vehicle dangerous, but which the driver may not know about, particularly if it is not his vehicle. For example, a badly corroded chassis would not be immediately evident to the driver of a vehicle. If it was a commercial vehicle with a tipping facility on the back, one would not necessarily know if the tipping mechanism was in a dangerous condition. Why should an employee lose his license—and thereby, perhaps, his whole livelihood—when it is entirely the fault of the person who employs him?

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): I am listening to my right hon. Friend with much care because, when I looked at this, it struck me that if someone could not reasonably be expected to know, they are still going to be held responsible. If someone says, ''Well, I really could not have found out without stripping the vehicle down,'' they are still going to be prosecuted. Is that the situation without the amendment?
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Mr. Knight: As I read it, without the amendment, the courts would be faced with a position where, if the man had previously been convicted of the offence, he would have to be disqualified from driving, even if it was not his vehicle and he did not know that the vehicle was in a dangerous condition when he was stopped by the police. This could potentially—I put it no higher than that—cause an injustice to an employee working for an unscrupulous employer.

I hope the Minister will tell us why, on the face of it, he wants to put a provision in this Bill which could, in certain circumstances, be an attack on an innocent working man working for a ruthless employer who did not properly maintain his vehicles. The worker could find that he loses not only his license but his livelihood because, if his only trade is being a driver, he would be taken off the road and out of work. The disqualification should not automatically follow. We should still allow the courts to look at the evidence before them. If it was a fault which experts would say would not necessarily be apparent to the driver of the vehicle at the time, why should that man receive an immediate ban?

I hope the Minister will respond to the real concerns that I have raised, which could, in some circumstances, lead to an injustice.

Mr. Wilshire: I support my right hon. Friend. I wanted to be clear that I understood this, because it conjures up the example of the Royal Mail delivery offices in my constituency, with a large number of vans outside every morning. There is a relatively random choice of which van a driver uses on a given day—it could be any one of 20, 30 or 40 Post Office vehicles in the yard—and he gets into one in all good faith, believing that the Royal Mail is a responsible employer. I make no suggestion that it is not, because I am sure that it takes the greatest of care over their vehicles. Something could go wrong, however. A driver goes out with his mail to deliver, gets into a vehicle and off he goes. Unknown to him, it is faulty. It is a bit of a lottery. We cannot simply say that, because it is a second occasion, the person must have a track record of not bothering, so we should hold him responsible. It is a total lottery, because the same person could be caught twice out of a range of people and a range of vehicles.

10.30 am

It seems grossly unfair that a person cannot say ''I had no reason to know that''. I would not have a clue how to check every part of my car to see whether it was roadworthy. That is why I get it serviced. One cannot expect every person working for the Royal Mail to be an expert at checking vehicles. Therefore, it is a total lottery, which I believe is unfair. The defence, ''I could not reasonably have known in the circumstances'' should be available to individuals.

Another thing that concerns me is that occasionally—how can I put it gently?—people who work for a firm like the opportunity to be difficult. We are handing people the opportunity to say, ''My job is to get into one of these vehicles, but I won't go out this morning until it has been checked over by somebody
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to guarantee to me, because I am not an expert, that it is roadworthy''. The net result is that we are providing an opportunity for industrial strife, if anybody is looking for one.

I know that both those issues are on the edge of what the Minister is trying to achieve. If a person were found to be blatantly doing something a second time, and it can be proved that they could and should have known and was being foolhardy at best, I should be with the Minister in saying that we must take serious steps to stop that. However, it can best be left to the court to decide whether it is somebody who is deliberately flouting the law or whose misfortune it was to get into the vehicle that morning, wholly unaware that it was not as unsafe as it turned out to be. I should be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): I entirely endorse the remarks by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) and my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire).

The labour market today is extremely flexible. People tend to take on jobs for short periods. Many of my constituents are drivers, driving vans and motor vehicles of all types throughout the week, often at different hours of the day, as well as at weekends and evenings. I find it worrying that, if the clause were accepted, many of them could lose their livelihoods, forfeiting the jobs that they depend on, because there is no flexibility. It makes sense to allow the courts to make a judgment in certain situations. If someone regularly offends and uses vehicles that are a danger not only to themselves but to the travelling public, the courts must act and appropriate penalties must be imposed, but to allow the clause to go on to the statute book without amendment would be irresponsible. Many people could be unfairly penalised.

Many employers who use vehicles every day of the week, employing people on an ad hoc basis, sometimes have great difficulty ensuring that every vehicle is roadworthy. There will be occasions when a vehicle used by a short-term employee proves not to be. How can it be justified that the employee can lose everything as a result of an employer failing to ensure that his vehicles are properly maintained?

I therefore endorse the amendment and hope that the Minister will address my points in his remarks.

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