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Dr. Ladyman: Clearly there are opportunities within the process that someone must go through to have the right to drive a vehicle under the contract exemption that might allow someone who had not been appropriately checked to drive. We had this debate on Second Reading, when the hon. Member for Orpington said that the need for checks would put his constituent,
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who had a PHV company that was taking advantage of the contract exemption, at a competitive disadvantage, because he would now have to pay for his drivers to be checked. Clearly there is a loophole. I agreed in Committee to look at the matter and to decide whether, in the interests of consistency, we should close the loophole not only in London, as Transport for London had requested, but in the rest of the country. We took the view that we should close it in the rest of the country.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to cite three examples, but I cannot do so. I hope that nobody will ever be in a position to do so, because we have closed the loophole. Serious questions would certainly be asked if we did not do so. Will the change be a major regulatory burden on the industry? No, it will not. I hope that anybody who has used the contract exemption in the past has checked their drivers and gone through the whole process. The fact that they will now have to do so by law is neither here nor there. It should be no additional burden if they have followed best practice in the past. If they have not been doing so, there will be an additional burden, but I argue that it is an appropriate burden for them to carry.

Stephen Hammond: The Minister is carefully—but not helpfully—intertwining the two clauses. Under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 a taxi or minicab driver can be suspended for being convicted of a specific offence or for any other reasonable cause decided by the licensing authority. I would like the Minister to tell us what public safety requires beyond “any other reasonable cause”. As yet, he has not told us.

Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the purpose of the new clause and I accept full responsibility for not having explained it. There will be no new powers to suspend or revoke a licence. One would still have to satisfy the grounds for a suspension or revocation of a driver’s licence as under the present legislation. The difference is that at the moment if the individual whose licence is suspended appeals against that suspension, they can continue to drive people around while they await the hearing of the appeal. If someone is accused of a serious offence—as serious as rape or some other sexual offence—it would be horrendous if they were allowed to continue to drive a private hire vehicle while waiting for the appeal against suspension to be heard. Under the new clause, when the licensing authority takes the view that the offence is serious, it will be able to suspend the licence.

The argument that was put to us by some taxi drivers was that it might leave them open to false allegations and they might lose their livelihood over a trivial allegation while awaiting the hearing of appeal against suspension. However, in the experience of the use of the power in London, where it has been in place for some time, it has not been abused. Drivers have had their licences suspended pending appeal only in cases in which a serious allegation has been made against them. Given the seriousness of the offences that might be involved, I think that the new clause is a proportionate response to the situation. No driver should lose their
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livelihood lightly even for a short time, but when someone is accused of an offence of sufficient seriousness to justify the revocation or suspension of their licence, it is appropriate that they should not continue to drive pending an appeal.

I hope that I have at least partially reassured the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and other hon. Members, and that the new clauses will be added to the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 7

Abolition of “contract exemption”

‘In section 75(1) of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 (c. 57) (hackney carriages and private hire vehicles in England and Wales outside London: savings), omit paragraph (b) (vehicles used only for carrying passengers for hire or reward under contract for hire for not less than 7 day period).’.— [Dr. Ladyman.]

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 28

Delegation of power to make level crossing orders

‘(1) In paragraph 7 of Schedule 3 to the Railways Act 2005 (c. 14) (agreements by Secretary of State and Office of Rail Regulation for that Office to carry out on his behalf functions other than powers to make instruments of legislative character), after sub-paragraph (3) insert—

“(4) Sub-paragraph (3)(b) does not prevent the Secretary of State and the Office of Rail Regulation from entering into an agreement for that Office to carry out on his behalf the function of making orders under section 1 of the Level Crossings Act 1983.”

(2) Subsection (2) of section 13 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (c. 37) (agreements by Health and Safety Commission with Minister to perform functions on his behalf not to be taken to authorise performance of powers to make instruments of legislative character) is not to be taken to have prevented the performance by the Health and Safety Executive (on behalf of the Health and Safety Commission), in reliance on an agreement under subsection (1)(b) of that section, of the function of making orders under section 1 of the Level Crossings Act 1983 (c. 16).’.— [Dr. Ladyman.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Dr. Ladyman: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 37— Increase of penalties for failure to comply with traffic lights at level crossings—

‘(1) A person guilty of an offence under section 36(1) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (c. 52) (drivers to comply with traffic signs) consisting of a failure to comply with a traffic sign placed at or near a level crossing indicating that vehicular traffic is not to proceed over the level crossing shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or to both and shall have his licence endorsed with six penalty points.

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(2) This section applies in relation to offences committed after the date on which this Act comes into force.’.

New clause 38— Increase of penalties for careless or inconsiderate driving causing damage to a railway or other bridge over a road—

‘(1) If a person causes damage to a railway or other bridge over a road by driving a motor vehicle on a road or other public place without due care and attention, or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the road or place, he is guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or to both and shall have his licence endorsed with not less than 6 penalty points.

(2) This section applies in relation to offences committed after the date on which this Act comes into force.’.

Government motion that clause 50 be transferred to the end of line 23 on page 56.

Government amendments Nos. 17 to 19.

5.30 pm

Dr. Ladyman: I urge the House to agree the amendments, which seek to confirm that the making of level crossing orders can be delegated to the rail safety regulator. First, I apologise to the House for the short notice given of the amendments, and for our failure to table them earlier, but I hope that it will accept the explanation.

Level crossing orders set out the protective measures that are to be provided at each level crossing. “Protective measures” are the types of signs, barriers and lights needed to ensure that the crossing has the most appropriate measures for safe operation by both rail and road users. The general process has been that, after consultation with the local authority, the level crossing operator—Network Rail in most cases—applies to the Secretary of State for an order setting out the measures that it wants at the site. The proposals are considered by Her Majesty’s railway inspectorate and the order is made by HMRI on behalf of the Secretary of State. That procedure continued after 1990, when HMRI transferred from the Department of Transport to the Health and Safety Executive.

With the transfer of HMRI from the Health and Safety Executive to the Office of Rail Regulation earlier this year, we intended that HMRI would continue to make level crossing orders on behalf of the Secretary of State, but I am afraid that doubt has been cast on whether the wording of the Railways Act 2005 allows that. In turn, that has cast doubt on whether the delegation to the HSE in 1990 was sufficiently robust. We therefore seek to amend the 2005 Act to put beyond doubt the fact that the making of level crossing orders can be delegated, and to make it clear that orders made on behalf of the Secretary of State by HMRI inspectors of the HSE are valid. If approved, the amendment will confirm that the legal position is what everyone always thought it was, as it has worked well for level crossing safety.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Before the Minister finishes his mea culpa—and may I say that it gives one or two of us joy to see the Department caught out on something so important?—I should like to ask why the amendments introduced in another place on the related subject of bridge strikes, of which there are nearly 2,000 a year, seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth with
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the speed of light. Why is it so important to deal with level crossing safety, but not bridge strikes, which affect all sorts of people?

Dr. Ladyman: For the simple reason that, in my view, the legislation on bridge strikes deals perfectly adequately with anybody who causes a bridge strike. The amendments that were sought at an earlier stage would have provided additional powers that are unnecessary. I take issue with my hon. Friend’s belief that the Department has been caught out. I remind her that it is not the Department under this Government that was caught out, but the Department under the auspices of the previous Government, back in 1990. If I may say so, we are fixing what is possibly the last bungle of rail privatisation—or at least the last one that we know about; it is always possible that others may appear in the near future.

We have introduced the amendments to make the legal position what everyone thought it was. I do not think that the technical loophole has been exploited to date, but we want to take the opportunity to make the law on level crossings clear and robust, and new clause 28 will help us to achieve that. I do not think that it is controversial, so I hope that the House will support it. I will comment on the other new clauses later if anyone wishes to raise them in debate.

Stephen Hammond rose—

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): Apologise.

Stephen Hammond: I shall certainly apologise for the failure of Members on the Treasury Bench to vote with us on these matters in Committee.

During the passage of the Bill in the other place six new clauses were added to deal with safety at level crossings. The Government stated at the time that they would remove them. In Committee, my hon. Friends and I aired and discussed those clauses and amendments, which were designed to protect the public, punish drivers who fail to obey signals at level crossings and who fail to obey bridge guidelines. To their shame, the Government voted against each of those sensible amendments to aid road safety.

The Minister stated that the Government would make new proposals to improve safety at level crossings by clarifying the powers of the relevant authorities, yet today we have before us a new clause whose intent is merely to amend paragraph 7 of schedule 3 to the Railways Act 2005, so that the Office of Rail Regulation can make regulations. Provisions under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 allow the Health and Safety Commission to do the same thing.

That is all that the Government propose to do, and it is a huge disappointment to those of us who have spoken to Network Rail and to the operators. The Government cannot be aware of what Network Rail said about the seriousness of the offences being committed—of drivers pulling out and overtaking queues, zig-zagging around barriers or pulling out on to the line and reversing to avoid trains and vehicles. They cannot be aware of the seriousness of the impact of those offences and of the consequences for human life when a train collides with a car due to a failure to stop at red warning lights. The Minister seems to be saying—as he
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seemed to say in Committee—that red lights at a level crossing are exactly the same as those elsewhere. They are not. A driver who skips a red light at an ordinary road junction will not hit or derail a train. It should not need pointing out that a collision on a level crossing between a car and an express train travelling at speeds of up to 125 mph is likely to cause the death not only of the driver but of scores of railway passengers.

The new clause is a monumental lost opportunity. The Government had the option to write into the Bill sensible measures that would have had an enormous impact on road safety. Current fines and penalties for offenders at level crossings—often serial offenders—are insufficient. Those offences are at least as serious as drink-driving, and sentencing ought to reflect that. Magistrates could have had powers to impose substantial custodial sentences and endorsement penalties on persistent offenders. The matter should be on the face of the Bill. New clause 28 will not affect the problem and the Minister stands charged with failure to fulfil what he undertook to do in Committee.

We are also dealing with new clauses 37 and 38. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I am grateful to Lib Dem Members for proposing provisions that are so close in form and substance to those we tabled in another place and which we aired in Committee. If the Lib Dems had been writing a novel they might have been guilty of plagiarism, so some of them might want to join us and support the real thing rather than follow a pale imitation.

We applaud new clauses 37 and 38 and the flexibility that would allow magistrates to pass custodial sentences. Our original amendments proposed slightly higher custodial sentences and endorsement penalties. None the less, we noted the Liberal Democrats’ support in Committee and if they are minded to test their new clauses tonight I shall ask my hon. Friends in the official Opposition to support them.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): In relation to the points made by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), it is indeed my intention to test the opinion of the House on new clause 37.

Before I address new clauses 37 and 38, I want to say a word or two about the Government’s proposals. Clearly, they are not the new clauses that we were promised earlier in the deliberations on the Bill, and they do not strike at the fundamental problem—the lack of force behind the current offences. As the hon. Member for Wimbledon says, it is quite improper to suggest that running a red light at a level crossing is the same in its consequences or seriousness as doing so on a road.

I, too, have seen the videos produced by Network Rail. Some of what is recorded is, frankly, chilling. The way in which some drivers are prepared to take risks at level crossings is exceptionally disturbing. This debate is partly about the message that we are sending, and I fear that the message being sent by the Government does not attach sufficient seriousness to the offences as they occur daily at level crossings.

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Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that an amendment is made more important by the fact that some parts of our rail network are approaching saturation point? In many cases the time between the barriers opening and closing again can be as little as one minute, which encourages some local people, who get used to the situation, to flout the law and cause accidents, which are, sadly, increasing.

Mr. Carmichael: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is doubtless capable of remedy by operational procedures put in place by Network Rail rather than necessitating an impact on the Bill, but it is an indication of the seriousness with which the issue is regarded in constituencies throughout the country. I can say that as a somewhat impartial observer because I have not a single level crossing in my constituency. Indeed, I have not a yard of railway track in my constituency. I hope that the House will accept that in this matter I appear as an objective and independent-minded arbiter of the truth.

Mrs. Dunwoody rose—

Mr. Carmichael: I give way to another objective and independent-minded arbiter.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I have been listening very carefully, and I want to ask the hon. Gentleman a very simple question. Is he prepared to support the commitment of very large sums from the railway budget to an urgent investigation of alternatives to level crossings in the many thousands of places where they are found? Has he done any research on what that would cost, where it would be necessary and what alternatives could be looked at?

Mr. Carmichael: Every time I am asked about commitments of finances I hear groans from my colleagues in our Treasury team. No, we have not done such research, and, with respect to the hon. Lady, that is not what this new clause is about. It is about the level of penalties that are imposed under the present regime. I am certainly prepared to work with her and others in the industry and in pressure groups to see what alternatives might be available to us, how they might be implemented, what they would cost and what benefits would arise. To answer the hon. Lady’s question directly, no I have not done the sums, but if she has done them, doubtless she will favour us with them later in the debate.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is talking about penalties. I think I understood him to say that if new clause 37 did not find favour with the Government he would seek to test the opinion of the House on it. May I refer him to the wording of line 5? I do not think that it would be very good legislation to refer to

Would he care to clarify?

Mr. Carmichael: That is line 6 in the copy that I have, but I fully accept that there is a typographical error. If the Government are prepared, or indeed if the House is
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prepared, to accept the new clause today, it would still be capable of straightforward remedy in the other place because its agreement on the new clause would have to be sought. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman raises a fatal objection, but I acknowledge that typographical error.

The Minister has explained what lies behind the introduction of the Government new clauses. I have one or two concerns that I wish to explore with him in relation to the retrospective nature of the new clauses.

The Minister wrote to me on 5 October, and I understand that copies of that letter and others have been placed in the Library. He stated that the Government were

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