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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 2007



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. David Amess
Cairns, David (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland)
Challen, Colin (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab)
Cooper, Rosie (West Lancashire) (Lab)
Donaldson, Mr. Jeffrey M. (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
Engel, Natascha (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Gibson, Dr. Ian (Norwich, North) (Lab)
Hermon, Lady (North Down) (UUP)
Lancaster, Mr. Mark (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con)
McGovern, Mr. Jim (Dundee, West) (Lab)
Marshall-Andrews, Mr. Robert (Medway) (Lab)
Owen, Albert (Ynys Môn) (Lab)
Purchase, Mr. Ken (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op)
Redwood, Mr. John (Wokingham) (Con)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Salter, Martin (Reading, West) (Lab)
Scott, Mr. Lee (Ilford, North) (Con)
Shepherd, Mr. Richard (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con)
Taylor, Mr. Ian (Esher and Walton) (Con)
Touhig, Mr. Don (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)
Chris Shaw, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 30 January 2007

[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

Draft Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 2007

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 2007.
I welcome you to the Committee this afternoon, Mr. Amess; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. This is Northern Ireland’s first major piece of road traffic legislation since 1996. It amends existing instruments to bring the laws of Northern Ireland in line with legislation in Great Britain, including many of the provisions in the Road Safety Act 2006. The order will enable Northern Ireland to tackle many of the behaviours that most often cause road traffic casualties, such as speeding, drink and drug driving, the non-wearing of seat belts, and careless driving. The order allows for more effective penalty and enforcement regimes and paves the way for better regulation of driving instructors and improvements in the quality of the service that they provide.
It is the Government’s fervent hope that this is one of the final batch of orders that we will have to be put through the House in this way, pending what we hope will be the restoration of the Assembly in March. The order makes the non-wearing of seat belts an endurable fixed penalty offence and doubles the fine for careless and inconsiderate driving. It is already an offence to use a hand-held mobile phone while driving, but the fact that in 2005 the police issued 15,500 fixed penalty notices suggests that there is a need for a stronger deterrent. We envisage three penalty points and a fixed penalty that will have doubled to £60. Temporary speed limits are needed to protect road workers and users where there is a hazard such as roadworks. That is why we propose that a breach of a temporary speed limit should be an endorsable offence attracting between three and six penalty points.
There are also provisions to clamp down on owners and keepers of uninsured vehicles, including police powers to seize and dispose of vehicles and to enforce continuous insurance from the record. Graduated fixed penalties will help make the punishment fit the crime. In the case of speeding that will mean that the faster someone drives, the more points they will get and the quicker they will lose their licence.
Foreign-registered drivers who offend should not get off scot-free simply by leaving Northern Ireland. We are proposing regulations requiring errant drivers to pay a deposit in lieu of a fixed penalty or pending a court appearance. There is scope too for EU drivers to avail of the fixed penalty system.
The order also allows for regulated courses for other serious offences such as speeding, to which courts will be able to refer the worst offenders.
Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): It is some time since I have served under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess, and I am delighted to do so this afternoon. Would the Minister reflect on the penalties for those who live outside the jurisdiction and focus in particular on those who travel freely and frequently from the Republic of Ireland? How will those fines and penalties be recovered—in the Republic of Ireland or by the Police Service of Northern Ireland?
David Cairns: In the first instance by the PSNI in Northern Ireland and I am assured that there will be a comprehensive range of ways in which people can pay at the roadside, including credit and debit cards. If somebody has been photographed when, for example, speeding and there is a photograph of their registration, we can obviously keep that on record, and should that person come back to Northern Ireland we would be able to use the evidence that we have gathered against them. I will confirm this again in a moment, but it is not our intention to pursue people in other jurisdictions; rather we will do what is done in most of the EU: take a sum of money in lieu of the fixed penalty notice or court appearance. If a person goes to court and is found innocent, they obviously get the cash back.
It is vital that drivers and those who teach them have the best possible training. At present, only car driving instructors need to register with the Driver and Vehicle Testing Agency. The order enables regulation of the registration, training and examination of all driving instructors, including those for lorries and motor cycles. Although the voluntary code has a good take-up, most people would be surprised to hear that it is not at the moment compulsory for people who set themselves up as motor cycle instructors to register. We will be making that compulsory through the order. Implementation of the measure will increase professionalism and can only raise standards in the industry.
Part 3 provides scope to change the driver licensing system. It envisages future regulations providing for full driver licences to be issued automatically to people who have passed their driving tests, and for the replacement of paper counterparts with electronic driver records. The order also addresses the anomaly whereby people coming to live in Great Britain can exchange their licences in Swansea but those coming to Northern Ireland cannot do it in Coleraine. I know that that issue has quite properly exercised Northern Ireland Members, and the order will put Northern Ireland’s framework on a comparable basis to Great Britain’s. Also, MOT enforcement will be bolstered through the mandatory display of MOT certificates.
Some of the provisions, including increased penalties for offences relating to seat belts, mobile phones, driving without proper attention and careless driving, can be commenced fairly soon after the order is made. Other provisions anticipate and underpin an impressive and important programme of change over many years. In others, we are taking powers to make further regulations, but it is my fervent hope that those will be made by local Ministers in consultation with and, where necessary and appropriate, with the approval of a restored Assembly.
We have a higher rate of deaths from road accidents and serious injuries than Great Britain. I know that the Committee will be pleased to hear that the numbers of people dying on our roads are falling, but every death is one death too many. The measures are aimed at tackling some of the most serious offences leading to deaths, because many deaths are avoidable if people drive with care and attention, mind their speed and do not drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs. We believe that the measures will enhance the safety of our roads and further reduce the number of people killed or seriously injured.
Lady Hermon: Can the Minister confirm that budgetary allocation has been made to promote public awareness of these significant changes and this lengthy order of 86 articles and eight schedules? Surely to goodness he can confirm that a set amount has been allocated for television advertising and other publicity campaigns.
David Cairns: Mr. Speaker—[ Interruption. ] I am promoting you rapidly, dramatically and entirely deservedly to higher office, Mr. Amess. The hon. Lady makes a valid point. It is pointless to make the changes if we do not let people know about them. We have budgets for specific campaigns. I launched a fairly significant campaign to ensure that children are strapped in properly in the back of cars, and I think that it got a reasonable amount of coverage.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We need to keep such matters under review and ensure that we promote what we are doing here. I hope that the press and the media will find time on this day of all days to cover some of the measures, although others will not be effective right away. As they take effect gradually, we will be able to have campaigns on the specific issues. It is also important to note that the Road Safety Council receives a fairly hefty grant for a voluntary organisation and does an excellent job with it. It is a significant sum of money, and the council can take the message of the vital aspects of road safety out to the community.
As I said, we are trying to tackle the types of behaviour that most often cause road traffic casualties. Ultimately, we want greater safety on our roads and reduced deaths and casualties. I hope that the order will achieve that, and I commend it to the Committee.
4.39 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Welcome to the Committee, Mr. Amess. The Minister started by saying that he hopes that this is the last group of Northern Ireland statutory instruments that we will have to deal with, as the Assembly will hopefully be up and running soon. I certainly hope so, because the order has 86 articles and eight schedules, which is hardly ideal for a statutory instrument. We do not have the opportunity to amend it at all—we must accept or reject it, like all statutory instruments—but this is a particularly long one. I regret that we are considering it today. Although there may be a good reason for not doing so, I wonder why the changes relating to Northern Ireland were not incorporated in the Road Safety Act 2006. Then they could have been considered not only on the Floor of the House by any hon. Member who wanted to discuss them, but clause by clause in detail in a public Bill Committee. Surely, that would have been a better way of dealing with the matter. Perhaps the Minister will explain why that did not happen.
What the Minister says about improving road safety has to be right. We all have to agree with that, which is why we on the Conservative Benches supported the 2006 Act when it was passing through Parliament. However, we raised one or two issues that I want to run past the Minister. He touched on some of them in his opening remarks, so I hope that he will forgive me for mentioning them again.
We expressed concern during discussions about the Bill about the position of illegal drivers—those who are uninsured or with fake tax discs, those who have not passed their test at all and those with no MOT or a fake MOT. What estimate has the Minister made in respect of that problem as far as it exists in Northern Ireland? Given those problems, does he consider that the proposed penalties are sufficient? I note that he is increasing those in certain cases, but will they be sufficient to deter those who cause the problems that exist?
I should also like the Minister to revisit a matter that he touched on briefly. I understand that one problem with MOT certificates is that they are still a nationalised industry in Northern Ireland, inasmuch as if someone buys a car and needs an MOT, unlike you or I, Mr. Amess, they cannot just go to a garage authorised to carry out MOTs, but have to go to one in the public sector. Northern Ireland is over-reliant on the public sector at the moment and we all want to see that changed. Does the Minister have any plans to change that aspect of the MOT market in Northern Ireland?
I have no more questions, so I shall not detain the Committee any longer. I look forward to hearing other hon. Members’ comments and the Minister’s response.
4.42 pm
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Amess.
The Liberal Democrats were generally supportive of the aims of the Road Safety Act 2006 during its passage through Parliament. I welcome the Government’s decision to introduce similar legislation for Northern Ireland. The Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland has done a lot of good work in trying to tackle road safety issues in Northern Ireland. Road deaths in Northern Ireland have decreased from 171 in 2000 to 125 in 2006. That is a welcome reduction, but there is still a tragic waste of life and it is particularly distressing that, of the 125 people killed on Northern Ireland’s roads last year, 34 were young people under 21.
Under the heading, “Equality impact assessment”, the explanatory memorandum accompanying the order says that
“offenders might be expected to disproportionately comprise young males.”
The provision on hand-held mobile phones is also welcome. The message that using a hand-held mobile phone is dangerous has not got through to an awful lot of drivers. I hope that the measures will ensure that that message hits home. I also welcome the provisions on seat belts and breaching a temporary speed limit.
I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury about the difficulty of scrutinising such an order using this procedure. The order has 86 articles and 8 schedules, but it is even more complicated than that because many of the articles insert articles into other orders. I agree with the hon. Gentleman: why could not the Northern Ireland measures have been considered with the Road Safety Act 2006? That would have allowed us to scrutinise them in Committee and table amendments.
It is impossible to scrutinise the order in detail in the time available, but I want to query article 14. It substitutes article 17 in the Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, which relates to breathalyser and other tests of someone’s fitness to drive. I ask the Minister to envisage a situation in which someone comes out of a pub and walks in unsteady fashion towards their car, witnessed by a constable. After several attempts, the person gets into the car. In accordance with new article 17(2)(a) and (b), the constable has reasonable grounds to suspect that the driver is
“in charge of a motor vehicle...and...has alcohol or a drug in his body”.
That gives the constable the power to administer preliminary tests, one of which may be a breath test. He might not have a breathalyser, however, so he is able to carry out a preliminary impairment test under new article 17B. I am not sure what that test would be, but it might be to walk in a straight line, for example. The driver then attempts the test and falls over after taking two or three steps, clearly failing the test.
Under new article 17D(2), the constable is allowed to arrest the driver if he refuses to co-operate with the test and
“the constable reasonably suspects that the person has alcohol...in his body”.
There do not seem to be any powers to stop the person attempting to drive off if he attempts the test and hopelessly fails. It is worrying that if a person is clearly under the influence of alcohol, there are no powers to detain him even while a breathalyser is sent for as long as he attempts the test, no matter how feebly. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that.
If there has not been an accident but the constable has grounds to believe that the driver is under the influence of alcohol, a preliminary breath test has to be carried out
“at or near the place where the requirement to co-operate with the test is imposed”.
For an impairment test, however, the constable can order the person to go to a police station. I wonder what the reason is for that difference.
Before constables can carry out preliminary impairment tests, they must go on a training course. I should like to ask the Minister whether it will be normal practice for all police trainees to take that training course. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
4.49 pm
Lady Hermon: I hope that the hon. Member for Lagan Valley, who represents the alternative Unionist party—he was once in the right Unionist party—will see the light of day and come back to the Ulster Unionist party.
I should declare that I have an unfortunate but personal interest in this debate. I was born on a small farm some years ago—I will not mention how many—and there were four girls on that farm. My eldest sister died in a car accident some years ago, albeit not in Northern Ireland. Returning from her workplace in Birmingham, where she taught in an inner-city school, she had a car accident outside Carlisle. Since becoming the hon. Member for North Down, I have unfortunately had a number of young constituents dying in traffic accidents. Therefore, all of us should find it in our interest to put legislation into statute that will improve the chances of young and not-so-young people surviving road accidents. Where people are driving while either disqualified or uninsured, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury said—and I managed to get it right today in saying “Tewkesbury” rather than Aylesbury—they should be intercepted by the PSNI.
I begin with this point for the Minister—I am sure that the hon. and learned Member for Medway will be tempted to make a contribution on changes in the road traffic legislation pertaining to Northern Ireland in due course. I am always mindful that, while we sit and debate here for an hour-and-a-half, or two-and-a-half hours taking through this unamendable Order in Council, which I find despicable, but it is where we are—it is a dreadful procedure and the order will go on to the statute book—those at the sharp end such as police officers actually have to apply that legislation.
I bring this to the Minister’s attention, and I would like an explanation. Sitting on as much Northern Ireland legislation as I have to, since the DUP has nine Members to choose from—we welcome the hon. Member for Lagan Valley this afternoon—while the Ulster Unionist party has but one, one of the benefits is that I am aware that in the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, the Government introduced the Northern Ireland Law Commission. I checked on the Northern Ireland Office website. That legislation was passed, I repeat, in 2002 and we are now at the end of January 2007.
The Northern Ireland Law Commission was to comprise one chairman and four other commissioners, so it was not a massive undertaking. According to section 51 of the 2002 Act, the duties and obligations of the commission were to codify, to eliminate anomalies and to
“repeal ... legislation which is no longer of practical utility”.
Most importantly for those who have to enforce the legislation that we pass here, week after week, in the absence of the Assembly—which I hope to see restored by 26 March—the key duty of the commission was
“the reduction of the number of separate legislative provisions, and generally by simplifying and modernising”
the law in Northern Ireland.
Can the Minister explain why, having looked at the Northern Ireland Office website for information on the Northern Ireland Law Commission some five years on, I found that,
“it is expected that the Northern Ireland Law Commission will be created in 2007”,
having been set up
“under section 50 of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, implementing recommendations following the Good Friday Agreement”?
The Belfast agreement was 1998. Why has it taken so long to set up a law commission to codify the legislation, particularly in relation to road traffic offences? Is it to do with funding, or personnel?
I say that because, for example, six days ago in this House we passed an amendment to PACE legislation in Northern Ireland, when the Police and Criminal Evidence (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 was taken through at breakneck speed last Wednesday afternoon. No representative of the Social Democratic and Labour party was present. It is keen to criticise the PSNI, or the RUC, as it was, but it certainly did not contribute to the debate on the increase in police powers.
Article 34 of the legislation that was considered six days ago contains an extensive definition of “a police force” in Northern Ireland. That is key legislation—PACE legislation—that is to be applied, used and understood by police officers throughout Northern Ireland. Article 36 of the measure that we are considering this afternoon has yet another, completely different definition of “a police force.” It says that a
“‘a police force in Great Britain’ has the same meaning as in section 73(4) of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998”.
In the space of six days we have given the PSNI a major headache as to which piece of legislation defines the simple term “a police force”—[Interruption.] Sorry, I thought that that was an intervention from one of the hon. Members representing the governing party in this Committee. I look forward to their contribution later. I would like the Minister to explain whether there is an inconsistency and why there is no Northern Ireland Law Commission to codify our legislation and to reduce its anomalies.
I want to highlight one or two matters in this draft order that cause me concern, particularly because the Order in Council is unamendable. I draw the Minister’s attention and that of the Committee to article 14, which is entitled “Testing for drink and drugs”. It gives police officers, but only those in uniform, the power to administer preliminary tests. It states:
“This paragraph applies if a constable reasonably suspects that the person...has alcohol or a drug in his body or is under the influence of a drug.”
Will the Minister explain that drafting? It is an arrestable criminal offence. There can be a preliminary test where a person
“has alcohol or a drug in his body or is under the influence of a drug.”
However, the phrase “under the influence of alcohol” is not replicated at any stage in that article. Is that an oversight in the drafting, or is the phrase contained in an alternative piece of legislation? It would not surprise me one jot if we were to find that the comparable offence in respect of when a constable suspects that someone is driving under the influence of alcohol is provided for in a separate piece of legislation. Will the Minister explain the inconsistent drafting in the provision?
I move on to article 18, which is entitled “Power of arrest in relation to failure to stop a vehicle”. I was extremely surprised that the draft order has given the power of arrest in respect of a failure to stop a vehicle to a constable in uniform, and that it amends the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989. We amended that six days ago in the draft Police and Criminal Evidence (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007. Again, has there just been shoddy drafting? Why on earth did we not consider the provision along with all the other PACE changes made last Wednesday? I am sorry if I sound highly critical of the legislative draftsmen, because I do not mean to be. I just need an explanation as to why there are such inconsistencies in two pieces of legislation passed within a week of one another.
I should ask the Minister about the consultation that was carried out with driving instructors. There is a number of them. They are highly respectable and well qualified, and they enjoy a good reputation. Will they now know that they have to register and that the registration is valid for only four years? Why has the period of four years been plucked out of the air? Was that done with the agreement of or after consultation with driving instructors, who operate a perfectly respectable business in Northern Ireland? Was it for some other reason? I would appreciate clarification on that point.
Finally, I ask the Minister about the amount of training. We have huge expectations of what the police are going to do under this new, substantive road traffic legislation. In particular, may I ask him whether he is confident that the order will prevent completely avoidable accidents that bring about death, as happened in my constituency? I am going back to November 2002, to a very serious accident and set of circumstances involving a serving soldier, from the Argyll and Southern Highlanders, who was based at Palace barracks in Holywood, in my constituency. Not only was he already disqualified from driving and had no valid driving licence, but he had two arrest warrants outstanding against him, issued in May 2002. He had in his car a constituent of mine, unfortunately deceased now—Gemma Montgomery, an only daughter, 18 years of age and a high flier academically. He had two arrest warrants against him, was disqualified in Scotland, with no valid insurance and certainly no driving licence. He was driving through my constituency of North Down and had an accident at high speed. She was killed outright, at the scene.
That particular soldier, now ex-Private Gordon Godley, served a term of imprisonment for causing death by dangerous driving. However, can the Minister confirm how article 38 of the order defines constructing and devising a driving record? I certainly welcome the provision, but a “driving record”, to quote directly from article 38, means:
“a record in relation to the person maintained by the Department”—
for the Environment—
“and designed to be endorsed with particulars relating to...(a) offences under the Road Traffic Orders...(b) an offence under Article 20 of the Roads (Northern Ireland) Order 1993...and (c) the offence of manslaughter by the driver of a motor vehicle”.
Ex-Private Gordon Godley was convicted not of manslaughter, but of causing death by dangerous driving. The end result was the same. A young woman lost her life. Her family is left bereft of their only daughter. In the light of the figures, revealed through parliamentary questions, on the significant number of serving soldiers in Northern Ireland, can the Minister assure me that the Government have put in place the wherewithal and, given the PSNI, the opportunity to check driving records of serving soldiers who are disqualified and have arrest warrants outstanding against them? What changes, what benefits and what advantages will there be that I can take home to Mrs. Montgomery, who unfortunately is left in a very sad house on her own? What assurances can I give that no other mother will suffer the same agony as she did? It was completely avoidable. The PSNI could have arrested a serving soldier who was obviously disqualified and should not have been on the roads in Northern Ireland. I would like those assurances before we nod through and agree to the order.
5.4 pm
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I concur with the remarks of the hon. Member for North Down on a wide range of issues that she has raised and sought clarification on. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide it. The hon. Lady in her opening remarks referred to my party affiliation, but I regret to inform her that I have no plans to change that at this stage, tempted though I am when I note that I represent nine hon. Members. However, it is a mark of the hon. Lady’s influence that she can still be called ahead of us in Committee, but there you go.
I agree with the hon. Lady that it is highly regrettable that such an important piece of legislation is being considered by way of an Order in Council, which is, of course, unamendable. Some of the issues that she raised might indeed have benefited from the process of amendment had the legislative process in this place been different in relation to Northern Ireland legislation. The matter ought to be the subject of primary legislation. However, such is the parliamentary timetable that Northern Ireland business of this nature does not have enough time allocated to it for that to be possible.
I join the Minister in expressing the hope that the Northern Ireland Assembly will have the opportunity in the near future to legislate on important matters such as road safety and traffic issues in Northern Ireland. Yesterday, I was pleased to preside over the formation of the first all-party group on road safety in the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is a very welcome development. I know that that body, when it is re-established after the election, will relish the opportunity to take on the task of addressing road safety issues.
It is entirely unacceptable that we have so many road deaths in Northern Ireland. There were 125 in 2006, which is a reduction on previous years, but proportionately we still have the highest and worst figure in the United Kingdom. That is not something that we are proud of. We need to ensure that the legislative provision that we make here—and, in future, in the Assembly—goes as far as it can to address the underlying problems that contribute to road traffic accidents in Northern Ireland. I know that a lot of it is down to driver error and excess speed. Nevertheless, we must ensure that we take every reasonable step and every reasonable measure that we can to save life on our roads. The order moves us in that direction.
I am a member of the Transport Committee here in this House. Recently, it conducted an inquiry into driver and vehicle licensing in Northern Ireland, with the co-operation and approval of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Most of the issues that we dealt with are handled by the Department for Transport. I welcome the provisions in this order that will help to bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the United Kingdom. The Minister might, however, be aware of a number of anomalies that remain between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and which need to be addressed.
The Transport Committee heard evidence from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Northern Ireland agency and the Department of the Environment, Northern Ireland to the effect that they are working on those matters with their counterparts in the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the Department for Transport in Great Britain. However, at the moment a driver can acquire nine penalty points in Northern Ireland and a further nine in Great Britain—a total of 18 penalty points—without losing his licence. Although the threshold is 12 penalty points, the cumulative total is not taken into account because the two parts of the United Kingdom are treated as separate jurisdictions.
I know that the relevant Department in Northern Ireland is committed to addressing that issue, but it is not the only anomaly. We have had problems with vehicle registration and driver licensing, which have meant that when, regrettably, my constituents and those of the hon. Member for North Down drive above the speed limit in Great Britain and are caught, if penalty points apply, they are not able to avail themselves of the facilities available to other United Kingdom residents who pay the penalty and have their licences endorsed and that is the end of the matter. In fact, our constituents have to present themselves to the court in order to avail themselves of the penalty point system. That creates difficulties. It is an anomaly that needs to be addressed.
Equally, there are differences in vehicle licensing between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom that can give rise to concerns about safety standards and so on. We welcome any move that seeks to harmonise the vehicle and driver licensing system throughout the United Kingdom. The order goes some way towards that, but other areas may need to be addressed.
Excess speed is demonstrated time and again to be a cause of many accidents, and measures that can help to reduce drivers’ speeds will ultimately pay dividends in road safety. For every 1 mph reduction in the average speed, there is an expected reduction in the frequency of accidents of 5 per cent. The penalty point system to which I alluded earlier has proven to be an effective deterrent, and the extension of the system to a number of areas, as envisaged in the order, would seem sensible.
Legislation on the wearing of seat belts has been in place for a long time. Evidence demonstrates that it contributes to the reduction in deaths on our roads in Northern Ireland. I welcome the fact that penalty points will now be imposed on those who are caught not wearing a seat belt. The provisions of the order extend the law in that area. Numerous safety tests have proven the benefits of wearing a seat belt in the event of a collision. Sadly, even today we hear of road traffic accidents in which people have been killed or seriously injured because they were not wearing a seat belt.
The order provides for penalty points to be imposed for using a mobile phone while driving. It is an increasing problem, and it makes sense that penalty points should be issued, particularly given that research has shown that the reaction times of drivers using a mobile phone while driving are worse than those who are over the blood alcohol limit. We therefore welcome the provision to extend the penalty point system to that offence.
In addition, the proposal to issue penalty points for those breaking a temporary speed limit will bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the United Kingdom, and it should be broadly welcomed. However, clear signage is needed to ensure that drivers are aware of where the limits are in force. It is necessary to ensure that contractors and others involved in the introduction of temporary speed limits comply with those requirements.
Issuing penalty points to those in charge of vehicles in a dangerous condition makes sense. Significant evidence shows that vehicles falling below roadworthiness standards can be a contributory factor in road traffic accidents. If drivers do not ensure that their vehicles are roadworthy, and if there is a real danger to safety—I do not include minor problems—it is appropriate that penalty points be issued.
The proposal to give greater flexibility to police officers on the level of the fixed penalty notice but still within set limits should allow for a more common-sense use of such penalties. That makes sense, as it allows for greater fairness and proportionality between the offence and the penalty imposed. That is true if those issuing the penalties use common sense and ensure that the penalties applied to different offences are proportionate.
A system that gives drivers convicted of some offences the option of attending a driving course will give them the chance to improve their driving skills instead of facing a penalty. Again, research shows the benefits of attending such a course; and those drivers that do so are three times less likely to offend.
Mention was made earlier of the fact that many fatalities on our roads in Northern Ireland are young. It is essential that steps are taken to improve driver education, particularly in those early years, and to drive home the point that speed really is a killer.
There have been some excellent advertising campaigns in Northern Ireland by the Department and I commend the Minister and the Department for their initiatives in this regard. Our meeting in Stormont yesterday was attended by a constituent of the hon. Member for North Down, David Lyle of Lyle Bailey, whose company has been very much to the forefront in designing the advertisements. At times their content can be very shocking but they have undoubtedly had an effect in driving down the number of deaths on our roads in Northern Ireland. Driver education is essential. I commend the work of Lyle Bailey and the Department in their advertising campaigns. I urge them to continue with this strategy, because undoubtedly it is having an impact at that level.
While all of these areas are to be welcomed, some others may have been worthy for consideration with the order. They include the possible lowering of speed limits in residential areas to 20 mph. That lower limit is already in place in many residential areas and the evidence would show that far fewer people are killed or seriously injured by vehicles travelling at 20 mph than by vehicles travelling at 30 mph. I urge the Department—perhaps this will fall to the Assembly in the future—to examine the feasibility of extending the number of zones in Northern Ireland in urban areas where the speed limit is reduced to 20 mph. We believe that that, perhaps in conjunction with traffic calming measures, can have a real benefit. There is still far too high a level of road deaths in urban areas. That needs to be addressed.
In addition, there is real merit in looking again at the drink-driving limit and perhaps considering a reduction to ensure that the limit is tightened. It is unacceptable that people drink and drive. I know that the Department’s strategy through the advertising campaign has been to get across the message that one should simply not drink and drive at all and that no level of alcohol while driving is acceptable. There are still too many deaths in Northern Ireland caused by the influence of alcohol and increasingly by the influence of drugs too. I know that this is an issue that the PSNI, the Department, the Road Safety Council and others are addressing, particularly among younger people where there is a need for further education.
Before I conclude, I commend the work of the Road Safety Council in Northern Ireland, which again has been taking a lead in tackling issues relating to road safety. It works very closely with both the Department of the Environment and the Department for Regional Development. One of the first tasks for the Assembly is to consider whether the status of the Road Safety Council should be enhanced in our efforts to reduce the number of deaths on our roads. Returning to the drink-driving limit, while it must be recognised that there is limited research in relation to that issue, it should be investigated further.
This measure should attract widespread support and would further help to enhance the work that has been done in applying the current alcohol regulations. It would help to reinforce the fact that even having one drink before getting behind the wheel increases the risk of collision and that there should be no acceptable limit. I thank the Minister and the Department for bringing this order before us. It will certainly have our full support.
5.19 pm
David Cairns: I am grateful for the broad welcome that hon. Members have given the measures, which we all accept are unfortunately necessary due to the instances of deaths and serious accidents on the roads. I shall come back to that in just a moment because I want to bunch my responses together rather than go through them one by one.
There were a number of questions about the Order-in-Council procedure. We always have that discussion in these Committees. I am a devolutionist. Such issues should be dealt with by a local assembly. Today, of all days, we have the opportunity for that to happen firmly within our grasp and the days of doing such orders are numbered. I repeat the assurance that I gave the last but one time that we met: the Government have said that in the absence of devolution we will urgently examine the way in which we make Orders in Council, but that is very much second best. The best that we are hoping for is that such measures are dealt with in the Assembly.
There are other reasons why we are doing this, which the hon. Members for Tewkesbury, for North Down and for Argyll and Bute mentioned. We are in the hands of our legal advice and parliamentary draftspeople’s advice, and the prime source of legislative framework in Northern Ireland is different from that in Great Britain, which is why we have the anomalies that the hon. Member for Lagan Valley mentioned. I am told that the discrepancies in the underlying legislative framework were such that it was not possible to make it part of the Act. We wanted to wait until all the provisions had been set out in the Act, and we essentially lifted those and made them apply to the corpus of legislation. I am not an expert, but I am advised that that was the process by which we have come to have a distinct Act instead of just tacking something on or adding “and Northern Ireland” to the scope and extent of the Road Safety Act.
In relation to the PACE issue which the hon. Member for North Down mentioned, we took legal advice on the most appropriate route to bring in the provisions. It told us that we should do it in a particular way. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury spoke about the sui generis system in Northern Ireland for getting MOT tests. That came as a bit of a surprise to me when I first took responsibility for this area. We estimate that MOT evasion is twice the rate that it is in Great Britain, which is why we are taking powers to compel people to display an MOT disc in the way that he and I display our road tax disc. That will help to cut down on the problem in the same way as having to display road tax with a date on it is an advantage when trying to ensure that people are compliant with vehicle licensing.
My priority on coming into office was to ensure that the waiting times for an MOT, which were well above the target, mainly due to a backlog resulting from earlier industrial action, were brought down to or below the target, which is where they are now. We rightly focused our effort on that. It is at the discretion of the local Minister whether to continue with the “nationalised system” that we have in Northern Ireland or to move to a system that we have in Great Britain, as the hon. Gentleman outlined. I felt that my priority was to get the waiting times down before even considering whether we would make a more radical change, and we have done that. It is properly up to local Ministers if they want to take his advice and follow on from that.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute spoke about the importance of addressing mobile phone misuse. He will have seen the Secretary of State for Transport’s announcement last week, I think, on similar steps being taken in Great Britain. He asked about the preliminary drug tests and I accept that a prima facie reading of that could make it look as though someone who co-operates but is found to be well over the limit can drive off, but that is not the case. The provision is designed to catch someone who does not co-operate and it gives the police powers to say, “You are not co-operating with us, but I’ve got a suspicion, so we’ll take you.” Obviously, if the person co-operates and is over the limit then the police already have powers to arrest them, although I accept that a prima facie reading of that could lead one to believe that someone could get off with it just because they co-operated. I am assured that they cannot.
Mr. Reid: My point was not about someone who has been proven to be over the limit by a breathalyser. I was concerned about someone who attempts and fails the impairment test and there is no breathalyser to hand. There seems to be no power to prevent that person from driving off or to detain them until the breathalyser arrives.
David Cairns: I am advised that the police have general powers of arrest if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that someone is over the limit. Incidentally, on the point that both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North Down made, any police officer undertaking the sorts of preliminary test that we are discussing will have to undergo full training. There is a Department for Transport code on the training that an individual has to undergo. I am glad that he reminded me to make that point.
The hon. Lady described the sad experience that she had in relation to her sister. I imagine that there is not a member of the Committee who has not had the experience of a friend or relative, or certainly a constituent whom they knew, dying in a road accident. It happened to my cousin. It is so common an event that it affects every family, and I understand the experience that she described.
The hon. Lady asked about police consultation. The PSNI will have to enforce the measure. I can reassure her that we have consulted the PSNI extensively on the issue. Indeed, articles 4, 5, 14 and 21 came about specifically because the police asked for those powers to be included. If we are going to ask the police to undertake such actions, it is right that we consult them in advance, and we did.
The hon. Lady asked a question about the progress, or lack thereof, on the Northern Ireland law commission. I am just going to have to fess up and say that I do not know why it has taken so long. I will write to her, although I take comfort in the Northern Ireland Office website, which says that the commission will be created in 2007. I will set that out in writing to her if she does not mind, simply because it is not my area of responsibility.
The hon. Lady mentioned another case, which involved a serving member of Army personnel who was involved in an utterly tragic incident. I pass on my own condolences to the family of the young woman who lost her life. It is of course of very little comfort that disqualifications now automatically apply across both jurisdictions. That ties in with a point made by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley. It sounds to me as though that case involved a particularly reckless individual who was not going to be bound by whether or not they were disqualified. However, we will close the loophole—in the sense that there is one—that allows someone who is disqualified for a hideous offence in Great Britain to drive in Northern Ireland. Although that will not bring back the hon. Lady’s lost constituent, it will go some way towards acknowledging some of the reasons why she asked the question. That brings me to another point, raised by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley.
Lady Hermon: Before the Minister moves on to respond to the point made by my erstwhile colleague, the hon. Member for Lagan Valley, I ask him to answer my question: why is it that under article 38 it is only the offence of manslaughter by the driver of a motor vehicle that will be on a so-called newly introduced driving record? Why is causing death by dangerous driving not listed in the same way?
David Cairns: I shall have to write to the hon. Lady to clarify that because I do not have the answer to hand.
The hon. Lady also asked about people who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. There are blood-alcohol limits, so it is perfectly possible to have taken alcohol and still be driving legally. We do not set limits for illegal drugs. Any illegal drug is an illegal drug and no one should be taking them, let alone driving under their influence, which I understand is why we talk about a person being under the influence of a drug or having a drug in his body. That ties in with the point that the hon. Gentleman made.
I am aware that there is a live debate about the level of blood alcohol that should be permitted and I have been assured that we keep the situation under continual review. As I understand it, the majority of people involved in such accidents are not in the 50 to 80 mg of alcohol bracket—they are well above 80 mg. Although I appreciate that lowering the limit from 80 to 50 mg would send out a signal, it would not address the real problem, which is that some people drive when well above 80 mg. However, the hon. Gentleman raised a valid point that must be borne in mind and kept under review.
The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned, as he did in the Transport Committee, the continuing anomalies between penalty points in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We have closed the loophole on disqualifications, but, of course, he is right to say that a person can rack up penalty points. That comes back to my opening point about the different legislative basis, which is, frankly, ridiculously complicated. It would not seem, prima facie, to be so. However, we are determined to find a solution. The Minister of State, Department for Transport, said that work was being done between the jurisdictions to find a way through that impasse.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that I am aware that changes in DVLANI have generated some uncertainty in Coleraine over people’s jobs and livelihoods. I want to remake the commitment that I gave when the announcement was made that we will move heaven and earth to ensure that we make those changes without compulsory redundancies and that we redeploy permanent staff. Obviously, if people wish to depart, that is their choice, but we are working actively with the Department for Transport to move tasks from Swansea to Coleraine. At the moment, we have the assurance that that will give us 90 jobs, but I was pleased by the comments that my hon. Friend the Minister of State made at the Select Committee when he said that 90 was the worst-case scenario and that we will look to increase that figure. I know that that will be of little comfort to people in Coleraine wondering about their futures, but I repeat the assurance that we will do our best for them.
With the provision that I shall write to the hon. Lady on the particular points mentioned, I welcome the broad support for the order and commend it to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved,
That the Committee has considered the draft Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 2007.
Committee rose at twenty seven minutes to Six o’clock.
 
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