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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) (Amendment) Regulations 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Mike Weir
Bellingham, Mr. Henry (North-West Norfolk) (Con)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
Dobson, Frank (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab)
Henderson, Mr. Doug (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab)
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen (Minister of State, Department for Transport)
Leech, Mr. John (Manchester, Withington) (LD)
MacDougall, Mr. John (Glenrothes) (Lab)
McGovern, Mr. Jim (Dundee, West) (Lab)
Meacher, Mr. Michael (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab)
Morgan, Julie (Cardiff, North) (Lab)
Paterson, Mr. Owen (North Shropshire) (Con)
Roy, Mr. Frank (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Slaughter, Mr. Andrew (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab)
Taylor, Mr. Ian (Esher and Walton) (Con)
Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab)
Vaizey, Mr. Edward (Wantage) (Con)
Viggers, Peter (Gosport) (Con)
Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 5 July 2006

[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]

Draft Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) (Amendment) Regulations 2006

2.30 pm
The Minister of State, Department for Transport(Dr. Stephen Ladyman): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) (Amendment) Regulations 2006.
These regulations are about reducing casualties on our roads, especially child casualties. They amend existing legislation and implement European directive 2003/20/EC on the wearing of seat belts in different types of motor vehicle. The regulations update an earlier directive from 1991. Some of the new requirements already apply in the United Kingdom—for example, we require seat belts to be worn in goods vehicles of more than 3.5 tonnes. The changes to our existing requirements may be considered in two parts. The first relates to children travelling in cars, vans and goods vehicles and the second relates to bus and coach passengers. I shall deal with each in turn.
I should explain three points at the outset. First, the current requirement to wear seat belts is in sections 14 and 15 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, as amended, and in regulations made under those provisions. The regulations before the House amend section 15 of the Act and also the regulations made under sections 14 and 15. Secondly, “child restraint” is the term used in the directive and regulations for baby seats, child seats and booster seats and cushions. They are used for children of different weights of up to 36 kg.
Thirdly, the Committee may have noticed that the regulations deal only with children travelling in rear seats and not front seats. Of course, children travelling in front seats, as well as in rear seats, need to be provided for. That is provided for now by section 15(1) of the 1988 Act. That Act was a consolidation that brought together several different powers to make regulations covering seat belts.
It is an historical curiosity that the regulations for children in front seats are subject to the negative procedure, but we need an affirmative resolution for the others. Amending the regulations covering children in front seats will be done separately, but the intention is to make the regulations covering front seats come into force at the same time as the regulations that we are discussing today.
It is important that children should be a road safety priority, whether they are walking, cycling or riding as passengers in vehicles. We have made considerable and welcome advances in reducing child road casualties. The regulations take us one step further. We have had seat-belt legislation in this country for many years. It was controversial at the outset, but is now almost universally accepted. Observed wearing rates are high and the Department for Transport continually seeks to improve them.
Seats belts have prevented many fatalities in road accidents and estimates for the Department suggest a figure of more than 2,000 a year. Bearing in mind that total road fatalities are now down to some 3,200 a year, the impact of seat belts is clear. Wearing rates are now high and are still rising slowly, but we have some way to go—for example, with adults in rear seats and in commercial vehicles. However, we must improve the record for children.
We have just received a survey report from the Transport Research Laboratory which looked at the way in which children travel in road vehicles. At first sight, it looks good and only 2 per cent. of children sitting in a front seat were unrestrained although, alarmingly, more under-fives were observed being carried on a front-seat passenger’s lap, which is dangerous as well as illegal.
The survey showed that most children travel in rear seats and of those only 2 per cent. of under-fives and8 per cent. of those aged five to nine were unrestrained. However, a large number of children in front and rear seats were using adult seat belts. Of those, 91 per cent. of five to nine-year-olds were in front seats and 71 per cent. were in rear seats. Those children should have been using a child restraint. If they use a seat belt, the appropriate restraint can be easily fitted.
As I have shown, too many children travel without wearing any restraint at all, even when the vehicle has seat belts. Too many drivers, who may or may not use a seat belt, have unprotected children as passengers. Clearly, if we are to tackle those matters, we must specify the safe means of travel for children of different sizes. Seat belts are designed for adults. An adult belt or wrongly used child restraint may fail to hold a child on impact and can cause serious internal injury.
Children are not little adults. They have smaller and, crucially, less-developed frames. Babies and children have been killed tragically or seriously injured in accidents because the right restraint had not been used. Fortunately, such tragedies are relatively rare, but properly fitted child restraints avoid such dangers and ensure that our children receive the same full benefit of the safety belt as adults.
Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): I follow the thrust of the Minister’s argument and, as a proud grandparent, may I ask him whether he is really convinced that it is necessary to have the full weight of the law in respect of such issues, or does he consider that it would be possible to have a code of conduct, similar to the highway code, that gives guidance to drivers and occupants of vehicles? Is he not satisfied that that would be sufficient?
Dr. Ladyman: No, I am not. I shall explain in a moment what the directive and regulations are meant to achieve and say why that is better than a code of practice. Frankly, the evidence is all too obvious. Most parents know what they are supposed to do and those who allow their children to travel wearing adult seat belts often know that they are doing so at far too young an age. I put my own hands up to that. I can remember my daughter pressuring me to allow her out of her child seat so that she could wear an adult seat belt probably at far too young an age. I do not believe that a code of practice would deal with such a situation. If parents know that the law says that children must be in their booster seat, at least they do not look like the bad guys when insisting that children remain in the booster seat.
Let me explain the regulations. They require children of up to 135 cm in height, which is 4 ft 5 in, to be secured with an appropriate child restraint in the rear of motor vehicles, but they allow all children above that height and all those aged 12 or more to wear an adult belt. We could have used a higher limit of 150 cm or 4 ft 11 in, and it is good practice for children to continue to use a booster seat until they reach that height, so the code of practice suggested by the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) might deal with the situation of larger children. However, the directive allows the lower 135 cm height limit and, for practical reasons, we have chosen to use that.
We are creating an offence and the case for doing so must be clear. We know that parents will have a job persuading older children who now use an adult seat belt to go back to a booster. I believe that we are right to be realistic and use the lower limited allowed by the directive. The safety benefits for older children who would otherwise use a belt are small. Our estimates suggest that the lower limit will make little difference to the anticipated casualty savings.
The new rules will prohibit children under the age of three being carried in the front or rear of a car, or goods vehicle, unless they are in the correct child restraint. Fortunately, the majority of parents and carers already understand the need for babies and very small children to use a baby seat. The regulations will also prohibit the use of rear-facing baby seats when there is an active frontal air bag. Air bags are powerful devices and they help reduce casualties among grown-ups, but they are designed to restrain an adult. A rear-facing baby seat presents a different shape. Tests show that an air bag is liable to tip up such a seat violently enough to force the baby out of the straps and into the rear of the car. Parents might not realise that danger, although vehicle and child seat manufactures, as well as the Department, have publicised it for some years. The regulations underline that advice with a prohibition.
The regulations contain various exemptions designed to make the new rules work in a practical way, and I shall summarise them. There would be a considerable practical difficulty if it were a fixed rule that child restraints had to be used in taxis. It is one thing to say that they must be used if available, but another thing to insist that they are provided. Taxi drivers cannot be expected to have the right seats for every child passenger they pick up and their passengers cannot be expected to have child seats with them, so there are exemptions. Children over the age of three can ride in the rear seats of a taxi using an adult belt if the appropriate child restraint is not available. A child under the age of three can also ride in the rear seat if an appropriate child restraint is not available, but it has been considered ill-advised to make it a legal requirement for such small children to wear adult belts instead.
There is also a provision in the regulations for an unexpected necessity to take a child a short distance without the appropriate child restraint. The House of Lords Select Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments expressed concern that that exemption is insufficiently precise and might cause difficulty for the courts. The directive allows an exemption for occasional journeys over a short distance, but that wording is too vague, so we have sought to express more clearly our understanding of how the exemption is meant to work.
We do not want to create the perception that there is a general dispensation for all short journeys, including planned and regular trips. If a child travels in the family car, for example, a child seat should be available for any journey, short or long. But children travel in other people’s cars with friends and other family members and on school and other trips. If those trips are planned, or regular, arrangements should be made for child restraints to be available. It cannot be right to have a lower general standard when a child is travelling in someone else’s car than would apply in his or her parents’ car, but there must be a little flexibility or it will cause more trouble than we hope it will save.
We can all imagine unexpected circumstances in which, for example, a mother has planned to meet a child from school and at the last minute has to ask somebody else to do so. It would be absurd to leave the child waiting at school because his or her seat is not available. I am sure the police and the courts can be relied upon to handle any offences sensibly. I do not foresee a serious problem applying these concepts to individual cases any more than with many other general legal concepts that the courts deal with. Similarly, we do not want to be over-prescriptive about what is meant by “short”. As the explanatory memorandum states, “short” may vary between town and country, and we would expect the courts to take that into account. I hope that parents will use the exemption in the spirit in which it has been created. We will have to keep it under review.
The regulations extend the requirement to wear available front and rear seat belts to all categories of vehicle, so they must be used where available by passengers in buses and coaches. The regulations require bus and coach operators to ensure that passengers are made aware of the requirement to wear a seat belt by means of an announcement, an audio-visual presentation or by signing. Those requirements do not apply where the bus provides a local service wholly in a built-up area or where standing is permitted and the bus is designed for it.
Many buses and coaches are not fitted with seat belts. In some cases, such as the London buses that pass the House, it is not technically possible to fit seat belts and it is not logical to require them to be fitted in a vehicle designed for passengers to stand. Bus and coach travel is very safe in this country, and deaths and serious injuries are fortunately relatively rare, but seat belts offer passengers increased protection.
The majority of minibuses and coaches are fitted with seat belts and so are some buses. The time has come to require passengers to use them when they are available. We are doing so in a practical way; we recognise that wearing a seat belt is not appropriate for passengers on a local service in a built-up area in the unlikely event that such buses have seat belts.
The directive envisages that the new rules on buses and coaches will apply to every passenger over the age of three. We have not at this time extended the legal requirement to use seat belts to children under 14 on buses and coaches. There is a difficulty about enforcement; the general rule in section 15 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 is that it is a driver’s duty to ensure that child passengers under 14 years of age wear seat belts. Those aged 14 and over are treated like adults and are responsible for themselves.
The consultation document published in 2004 recognised the practical difficulties of making bus and coach drivers responsible for ensuring that children under 14 are wearing seat belts. However, no other practical way has been identified of enforcing the requirement in the directive in relation to children on a bus or coach. It will be necessary to re-consult on how to enforce the requirement; the Department will issue a further consultation document about it as soon as possible and will prepare additional regulations reflecting the decision following consultation to ensure that children under 14 years are required to use seat belts.
The Merits Committee in another place has expressed concern that the problem has not been resolved already, and suggests that we might have tried harder to obtain clear wording in the directive. We always try to get the clearest possible wording in directives, but we cannot impose our view on other member states. They all agreed that children should be included in the rules for buses and coaches, but we have been told that none has so far been more successful than we have been in solving the question of enforcement.
We have consulted on the new requirements, and they are widely supported. We have taken advantage of provisions in the directive to make appropriate, specific exemptions and to implement it practically. Those whom we have consulted recognise that, and we estimate that up to 2,000 child casualties can be saved each year.
The regulations will apply throughout Great Britain, and the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland is preparing separate regulations to implement the directive there. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
2.45 pm
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Weir. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I thank the Minister for his opening statement.
I think you would agree, Mr. Weir, that the aim of the directive is wholly admirable: to reduce injuries and deaths among children travelling on our roads. The problem is implementation. The Minister began by commenting on the benefits that seat belts have brought. The difference is that seat belts are obviously visible, and it is clearly identifiable who is responsible for wearing or not wearing one—the person visible to the policeman.
I start with the bus directive. The explanatory notes say that the consultation exercise did not identify who was responsible. They go on to say:
“The Department has not yet resolved this practical difficulty and is intending to consult further as soon as possible over how to implement the requirement.”
It is interesting that we are passing a piece of legislation when it is not clear who will be legally obliged to impose its conditions when it comes into force in September. I should be grateful if the Minister could respond to that question immediately.
Will the Minister clarify the status of service buses? I have talked to bus operators and I understand that service buses will be exempt, but contractors to schools, for instance, who run a regular service will be obliged to adhere to the conditions of the directive, which might be quite onerous. Will he clarify that point? The danger is that those who contract to schools will simply get out of that market.
There is a real problem. Contractors who take small children to school or sports events might have to equip themselves with many booster seats to conform to the directive, and it is questionable whether some of them will do so. I talked about the issue to the general manager of a very good company in my constituency, Lakeside Coaches in Ellesmere. His company runs 15 coaches a day to schools, and he says quite bluntly that if child restraints were made compulsory, the company would not buy them. The company would just get out of the children’s market and it would expect the council to provide restraints and booster seats and to put escorts on buses to ensure that the regulations were enforced. Under other legislation, drivers are not allowed to touch children and so are not allowed to enforce the wearing of seat belts.
We have a serious problem. The regulations might threaten the operation of school buses, which in an area such as mine, which is 50 miles long by 25 miles deep, is a massive issue. The majority of school children are taken to school in buses. If bus companies drop out of the business, it might be taken up by service buses, many of which are not required to have seat belts. Will the Minister explain where we are on that?
I take issue with the Minister’s point in paragraph 8.2 of the explanatory memorandum, which says:
“The only adverse impact on the public sector will be the cost to the Department”
of publicity. I do not think that it will be. There could be a serious impact on local education authorities and county councils, who would have to fund monitors, as the bus company suggested, and to buy equipment. Will he clarify whether he consulted education authorities on the matter? I am concerned that the bus directive might be seriously counter-productive.
The Minister mentioned that we would save 2,000 lives and serious injuries. If that came about, that would be splendid. The figures that I have are that 166 children were killed and 3,739 were seriously injured in road accidents last year. Would he tell us how many of those were in buses and how many in cars? How many of those were in cars with incorrectly fitted child restraints?
Moving on to the case of cars, we are glibly told that enforcement will be down to the police and the courts. However, we are increasingly seeing fewer traffic police on our roads. Will the Highways Agency or Vehicle and Operator Services Agency inspectors have any role at all in that? He touched on taxis. Where do minicabs stand in the directive? As I read it, minicab operators would be obliged to buy equipment if they had customers with small children.
The costs are probably underestimated. The Minister cites the cost of the actual equipment but suggests—in a complacent manner—that some families, namely large ones, are going to have to buy a second vehicle or drop the standard saloon car and buy a “people carrier.” We are happily told that those vehicles have been available for several years and are available second hand. How many families does he think are going to be affected by that? Given that that is in direct contravention of the Government’s aim to drive down congestion, have the implications of large numbers of families going on holiday in two cars been thought through by the Department?
Obviously, there are the environmental implications, which are contrary to the Government’s aims. Another sad impact might be on the Government’s drive on obesity if fewer children are going to be transported around.
It would be helpful if the Minister would clarify—I think he did; I think that I was reassured—the point about short and occasional journeys. There are going to be times, as we have heard from the hon. Member for Gosport, when grandparents, uncles, aunts or other relations might be called in to do a short journey when a parent is ill or has an interview and they might not have the necessary equipment. Will the Minister guarantee on the record that there will be flexibility in the manner in which the regulation will be enforced? It is not practical to expect every car to have the correct equipment on every single occasion. As he said, it would not be good if the law was flouted, but it would be good if adults knew that there would be some flexibility and common sense.
I come to the question of enforcement. I am concerned as to the way in which the police are going to enforce this. For a start, it would be helpful if all public notices were put in imperial measurements. I had to get my secretary to work out that 135 cm is 4 ft 5 in. I am not being a metric-imperial bore but, in this country, most people’s heights are recognised in feet and inches. It would be sensible if measurements were cited in those terms.
How are the police going to identify a problem? They will see a car pass by with children in the back, but how are they going to work out whether the child is small and whether the child is sitting on a booster seat? It is going to be difficult for the police. Are they going to do spot checks at schools and get a measuring stick and check children? I am serious about that. Is that the way that it is going to work?
Why does the directive focus only on height? The Minister does not like me looking at websites but if he looks at, he will see that the weight of a child is the first feature that it picks up on. It says that child restraints are designed for children with specific weight ranges. They are concerned that children are frequently put in inappropriate equipment, but they do not mention height. They immediately go for weight as a criterion, as does Buckinghamshire county council, for instance. The council’s website shows that whether a child should be put in a baby seat, child seat or booster seat depends on their weight. I wonder why that has not been considered. Weight seems to be the criterion used by county councils when giving public safety advice at the moment, but I could not find it mentioned in the substantial bundle of notes accompanying the regulations.
I have real fears about the issue, so would the Minister be willing to review it in a couple of years’ time? We on the Conservative Benches totally support the aims of the directive, but the drafting of it will make proper enforcement incredibly hard. What I should really like is a promise that there will be a serious review of how it operates. Identifying seat belts offences is easy, because one can spot the driver who is not wearing one and one can spot adults in the front seat. We know who is responsible, but this case is different. In the case of buses, we have not even decided who is responsible, and, in the case of cars, it will be very difficult to decide whether someone in the back seat is a small child or an under-age child. Are the police really going to have the time for spot checks?
The Opposition are loth to oppose any measure that improves child safety, but I should like to hear exactly what the Minister has to say on the issues that I have mentioned. They are serious, practical questions and I am not sure that they have been addressed by the drafters of the directive.
2.56 pm
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Weir. It is the first occasion on which I have had the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship, although we entered the House at the same time, so having known you since then, I am sure that the experience will be a mutually rewarding one.
I must confess that I had not read the provisions on buses in the same way as the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson). However, he has asked the questions and I shall listen to the Minister’s answers with care. As the father of a five-year-old and a nine-year-old, my heart is gladdened by the regulations, not least because—as the Minister indicated to the hon. Member for Gosport—they seem to be as much about protecting parents as about protecting children. When squabbles start in the Carmichael household about who has to sit in which car seat with the appropriate restraints, and why, the clincher is to say, “Well, that’s because the police say so.” It is one of the few trump cards that parents have left, and I am delighted that the Minister has strengthened their hand.
The Minister mentioned the requirement for further consultation, which is sensible. During the consideration of the Road Safety Bill, which was debated in Committee many weeks ago and of which we have not heard since, we discussed penalties that are enforceable for the contravention of seat belt requirements, particularly those that relate to children. I asked the Minister then whether he would consider penalty points as the penalty with respect to child restraints.
My recollection is that an adult who chooses not to wear a seat belt is liable to a financial penalty, normally in the form of a fixed penalty notice. However, it has always struck me that an adult who has responsibility for a child in his or her care is in a rather greater position of responsibility. If an adult wishes to be reckless with his own safety that is one thing, but to be reckless with the safety of a child is something of greater gravity, which should be reflected in the available penalties. When the Minister is consulted on other matters, I wonder whether he might consider using that consultation to deal with that point too.
2.59 pm
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