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8 Dec 2009 : Column 50WH—continued

In 1997 a report specifically looking at the consequences of fitting HGVs with seat belts indicated that some 130 deaths and serious injuries could be prevented if all truck drivers wore a seat belt. A further study conducted for the DFT in 2001, prior to the legislation being
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introduced, concluded that three deaths and 35 serious injuries could be prevented if seat belts were fitted to HGVs.

Of course, even when seat belts are fitted they are not always worn. A decade ago, when the Government were thinking about introducing the legislation, it was estimated that only one in 10 truck drivers regularly wore a seat belt when fitted. That low level of usage remains a problem today, and I know that the Minister and his colleague are anxious to address the problem, and rightly so.

It is welcome that both the DFT and the organisations representing the road hauliers, most notably the RHA, are actively encouraging drivers to wear a seat belt when one is fitted. Sadly, Peter Williams did not have that option. If he had wanted to wear a seat belt, he could not have done so because his lorry was one of perhaps many thousands that did not have one installed. No one will ever know whether, if Peter's lorry had been fitted with a seat belt, he would still be with us, but I hope that most sensible people believe, as I do, that it is not unreasonable for lorry drivers, regardless of the age of the lorry that they are driving, to be afforded basic protection from death or serious injury in the event of an accident. We are all rightly concerned, here and in wider society, about drivers of cars and lorries not wearing seat belts when they are fitted.

I am no great fan of the nanny state approach to public policy, but when research consistently shows that one third of car occupants who received fatal injuries were not wearing seat belts, society, the Government and the law have a responsibility to act. Most people would agree with that. My question is a simple one: should we not extend our concerns from drivers not wearing their seat belts to vehicles that do not have seat belts fitted? Those are two sides of the same coin. They are both road safety issues, and they need to be addressed.

I know from conversations with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), that he is worried about the current loophole. My hon. Friend, like his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town, has taken an active interest in the Williams campaign, and I thank him for that. In essence, its plea is simple. It is urging haulage companies to fit seat belts to all commercial vehicles on the roads that do not have them. More than 10,000 people, many from my constituency, have already pledged support for the campaign, and they are not alone.

Mr. Andrew Tweddle, the Durham and Darlington coroner, who presided over the inquest into Peter's death, has called for the current law to be reviewed. When I approached the RHA, I was pleased to receive its support for a campaign that focuses on the operators of older vehicles that have anchorages fitted but no belts installed. Similarly, when I contacted the Health and Safety Executive, it offered to assist in disseminating messages about the fitting of safety belts in lorries.

Such a campaign is long overdue. I hope that today my right hon. Friend the Minister will pledge his Department's support for that campaign and, more than that, I hope that he will actively work with the various organisations representing road hauliers to make that campaign a priority for the new year. The aim
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should be to win the hearts and minds of the firms operating older lorries to fit seat belts to every single one of them. It is far better for the loophole in the current law to be addressed by voluntary action than by the sometimes arduous and often long process of legislative change. For one thing, that action, if the will exists to make it happen, can make progress quickly. Equally, however, if that campaign does not happen or does not succeed in persuading road hauliers to install seat belts, I hope that the Minister will at least keep open the option of amending the law to make such a change mandatory. I hope that common sense will prevail, and that we do not have to contemplate moving down the legislative route. More than that, however, I hope that common human decency will prevail.

Without seat belts, older lorries can become death traps for drivers who are unfortunate enough to be involved in an accident. We know that from what happened to Peter Williams. Nothing can bring Peter back, but I hope that lessons will be learned from his untimely death. My plea to my right hon. Friend the Minister is straightforward. Let us not wait for another preventable death before action is taken. Now is the time to take action, and I hope that he will pledge that he and his Department will take the lead in making that happen.

12.45 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Sadiq Khan): It is a pleasure to respond to an Adjournment debate with you in the Chair, Mr. Benton, and one introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn). I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate and providing an opportunity to discuss the fitting of seat belts into older heavy goods vehicles. He has already written to and been in regular contact with my Department, and met Ministers. He has done a lot to bring the issue to the fore, and let us be clear that, as he said, it was not at the fore for many MPs, my Department or the Government before his campaigning. I extend my condolences to my right hon. Friend's constituents, the Williams family, on the accident in July 2007, which had such tragic consequences for Peter and his family, who are doing a huge amount to raise this important issue and to ensure that no other family goes through the trauma that they suffered in 2007.

It may be helpful if I begin by summarising the current requirements for the fitting of seat belts in heavy goods vehicles on the road. They are set out in full in the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986, as amended. Regulation 47 is key to the context of today's debate. It states that every heavy goods vehicle first used on or after 1 October 2001, and having a maximum gross weight exceeding 3.5 tonnes, shall be fitted as respects the driver's seat belt with a three-point "lap and diagonal" belt or two-point lap belt, and as respects every other forward-facing front seat with a three-point "lap and diagonal" belt or two-point lap belt. Vehicles first registered between 1 October 1988 and October 2001 were required to be equipped with the mounting points for two-point lap belts only.

As my right hon. Friend stated, a costs and benefits study for my Department in 2001 indicated that 100 per cent. safety belt fitting across the fleet would save three lives and 35 serious injuries. Since then, the number of
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HGV casualties has fallen steadily to 20 driver and three passenger fatalities in 2008, compared with 47 driver and seven passenger fatalities in 2001. That is still too many, but the casualties are fewer than originally estimated.

Our latest data from 2007 show that 527,740 large goods vehicles with a maximum gross weight exceeding 3.5 tonnes were licensed for use in Great Britain. Of those, 240,000 vehicles were first registered for use before October 2001, and my right hon. Friend made that point in his excellent speech. I have explained that those vehicles were not required by law to be fitted with three-point lap and diagonal seat belts, but some manufacturers install the anchorage devices to accept three-point belts. Some more safety-conscious manufacturers also provided the actual belts voluntarily, and we estimate that 105,000 vehicles may have been fitted with safety belts in this way, although, surprisingly, some may since have been removed. Around 25,000 vehicles-approximately 5 per cent. of the active fleet-were manufactured before October 1989 and are not suitable for any form of retrofit action.

The specific mounting points required in vehicles to install safety belts are usually incorporated at the time of manufacture. If the relevant anchorages are present in a vehicle's structure, we estimate that a safety belt could be fitted for less than £200. My right hon. Friend has explained in graphic terms the impact that a safety belt can have on the safety of a driver who is involved in an accident.

In some cases, safety belts are attached to anchorages on the seat, which are in turn mounted to reinforced points within the vehicle cab. Those seats are specially designed to withstand the large forces generated by a restrained occupant in an accident-otherwise, they would need to be replaced. For vehicles with suspension seats that are designed to reduce driver fatigue from vibrations, the retrospective installation of safety belts to the vehicle structure is an unlikely option due to comfort and ergonomic factors. In those instances, the entire seat would need to be replaced with one that used an integrated belt, at a cost in the region of £1,500 each. As my right hon. Friend will note, the issue is technically complex, and he is well versed in some of the issues involved.

Any campaign for the retrospective fitting of three-point lap and diagonal seat belts would need to target at least 110,000 vehicles. Such an action on those remaining vehicles could be completed during scheduled downtime, such as routine maintenance, thereby minimising any loss of income to the haulier. However, even if undertaken during downtime with no loss of income, such an action across the fleet would still cost between £25 million and £35 million, based on retail labour and material costs.

My Department has considered those costs in the context of the road casualty benefits, while also taking into account the economic situation, and in particular the burden that any new measures would place on companies in this important sector. In his important and considered speech, my right hon. Friend accepted that his preferred route would not be primary legislation. However, I am not complacent about the issue, and neither is the Department, which is actively working with trade associations to encourage haulage operators to fit safety belts into vehicles where the anchorage points are already installed. My officials have held two meetings with the Road Haulage Association and the
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Freight Transport Association, which between them represent about 75 per cent. of the active fleet. The Health and Safety Executive attended one of those meetings, and I am pleased to say that all present were supportive of the intent to encourage voluntary fitment of belts to those vehicles already engineered to accept them, and agreed to assist in the delivery of the message to their members, using existing networks.

It is mandatory to wear seat belts if they are fitted on heavy goods vehicles. However, it is difficult to get robust statistics on rates of seat belt wearing in heavy goods vehicles, because it is almost impossible to see whether the vehicle is fitted with a belt and, in some cases, it is difficult to tell whether a driver is using one. During our meeting, the trade associations also indicated that they would take the opportunity to encourage the greater use of seat belts, where fitted, among their members. If all goods vehicle drivers used their seat belts all of the time, lives would no doubt be saved. That wider message is not only for drivers of heavy goods vehicles but for drivers of other vehicles. I am pleased that both trade associations have engaged in publicity to promote the use of safety belts, and have produced reminder stickers that can be placed in vehicle cabs.

My right hon. Friend referred to the Freight Transport Association, and I am pleased to say that the FTA members magazine, Freight, included a supporting editorial that sought to remind employers of their responsibilities towards their employees, and further highlighted the issue among operators and drivers alike. The FTA has also updated its training DVD, and since January 2009 the daily checks that every driver should make as a routine part of their job now include the wearing of a seat belt where fitted.

My right hon. Friend referred to a speech made by my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) to the road safety charity Brake, at a conference on work-related safety issues earlier this year. The speech highlighted the fact that if seat belts were fitted to vehicles that were engineered to accept them, casualties could be reduced and lives could be saved. Additional publicity to highlight the issue of seat belt wearing among operators and drivers could usefully raise the profile of the problem, and we will continue to work with the industry to ensure that any opportunities are fully exploited.

Mr. Milburn: On that point, I fully understand and welcome the fact that the various associations are campaigning and giving a profile to the issue, so as to encourage more truck drivers to wear belts when they are fitted. I want to ask the Minister two simple and specific things. First, alongside that campaign, may we have a small, specific campaign run by the Department for Transport, the two associations, the HSE and anybody else who wants to get involved? It should be given a reasonable profile, so that we can see that it is happening.

Secondly, may we try to get an arrangement with the Road Haulage Association, and through it the fleet operators that it represents, to ascertain the impact of such a campaign? It would be good to be able to come back at the end of 2010-alas, I will not be here, but no doubt someone in my place will be taking up the cudgel-and ascertain what impact such a campaign has had, and how many additional older lorries that currently do not have seat belts have been fitted with them.

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Mr. Khan: I welcome that intervention, and I will respond with a couple of points. First, I am happy to look at the issue of a specific and discrete piece of work that the HSE could do on this specific and discrete problem. Secondly, of course we need to measure success on an objective basis, to see whether there has been an impact on this working relationship. In his speech, my right hon. Friend made a plea for us to keep all matters under review, and I am pleased to do that.

I conclude by saying that this is not an issue that fills the postbags of MPs. The fact that my right hon. Friend has taken up the cause means that it is higher up the DFT's radar than would otherwise be the case. I hope that he will go back to the Williams family and not only pass on my condolences but say that we have heard the message about the importance of this issue. We will continue to work with key stakeholders, road safety charities, the industry and haulage companies, drivers, the Health and Safety Executive, and with my right hon. Friend, whether he is inside or outside the House. He has been a passionate advocate for this important cause, and we must see what progress can be made. If it is not made fast enough, we must see whether we can make it even faster. I thank my right hon. Friend once again for raising this issue in what has been an important Adjournment debate.

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Immigration Policy (Language Schools)

12.57 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. This important topic is causing great concern among the hard-working people in language schools up and down the country. First, I will say something about how important these schools are, and then I will do a little geographical tour to show how important English language schools and centres are to certain areas. At that point, hon. Members might like to make brief interventions, and then we can perhaps touch on immigration policy.

There are 600,000 foreign students who are in the UK to learn English, and over 400,000 are in the 435 centres of English UK. That generates £1.5 billion of foreign earnings for the UK economy. Better than that, there is great potential for growth. We are still leaders in the area; there is stiff competition from Australia and many other places, but it is an area which, over recent years, has shown and can potentially show growth. Given our nation's current economic circumstances and the value of the pound, it is an area which, if nurtured and encouraged, could generate significantly more jobs.

Many of these businesses are family businesses. In my constituency, we have the Wessex Academy, which has been going for 38 years. It was founded by the father of Andrew Doran, who is the current principal. Like many other businesses, a lot of blood, sweat, toil and tears-to use the phrase of a former great Prime Minister-has gone into building up these businesses, and a lot of hard work has been undertaken to encourage students in a competitive international market.

Language schools are very important because, according to the recent survey, 52 per cent. of their students either go on to study for professional qualifications or go to UK universities. That provides a major income for our universities. In our universities in 2007-08, 229,640 students were from outside the EU, generating a fee income of £1.87 billion-about 8 per cent. of the income for UK universities. That is a very important factor.

More importantly for the language schools-apart from the fee income-many of the students stay with local families. We know the tax break of £4,800 that families can get. Many families in my constituency not only have students staying with them but had the parents of those students staying with them 20 years ago when they came to the UK to learn English. That is of major importance to many of the centres where there are English language schools, which are fairly geographically defined. Many hon. Members in this Chamber represent areas where there are many language schools.

The income is significant. The local tourism people in Poole estimate that for every £1 million-worth of foreign exchange earned by the language schools, 22 local jobs are created. We have had many debates on the difficulties of coastal towns, where language schools tend to be prevalent. One industry that those towns can grow and create jobs with is language schools. Therefore, anything that the Government do that makes their position more difficult will cause problems, especially for the more geographically isolated. At this point, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper), who is chairman of the all-party group on English language teaching.

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David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this brief but important debate. Brighton and Hove has the full range, from English language schools to two universities, for which foreign students-overseas students-are essential. Has the hon. Gentleman, like me, had an opportunity to read the excellent submission to the review, prepared by English UK, which not only sets out the dangers to the education system in this country of the changes proposed, but offers alternative ways of dealing with suspected visa abuse?

Mr. Syms: I did look at that submission; I would draw it to the Minister's attention. We do not have time to go into the detail of it today, but it was very constructive and made alternative suggestions about how we can deal with the abuse of the system. I know how important education in all its forms is to the Greater Brighton area, and that many other hon. Members, who represent areas not too far from Brighton, take an interest in such matters.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that at the heart of this debate lies the problem that exists in his constituency and mine and all over the country, which is that this excellent part of our education system will be dragged into disrepute by the large number of over-stayers who will be able to come and abuse it?

Mr. Syms: We all want firm and fair immigration policies and we have to deal with abuses. We should not do so in a way that causes problems for legitimate businesses, jobs and the income that is generated.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I add my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on securing this enormously important debate, and I endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper). Is there not a real danger that a signal will go round the world that somehow these students are not welcome here? That would be disastrous. This issue is enormously important not only to coastal towns but to Oxford, which has a number of high-quality language schools. As the hon. Gentleman said, they are a very important source of income for the host families as well.

Mr. Syms: The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Of course, Oxford is one of the major centres. We must bear in mind those competing with English language schools. At the moment, many agents are not sure what to do. They are dealing with students who may come in March, the summer or the autumn, but are not sure whether they should send them to the UK or elsewhere. Therefore, even the process of having a review can cause difficulties. The right hon. Gentleman has a long history of taking an interest in this matter and particularly of considering regulation and accreditation of language schools.

The Bournemouth and Poole area is very important for language schools, and it would be wrong of me not to allow my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), to intervene.

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