Session 2010-11
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General Committee Debates
European Committee Debates

Cross-Border Enforcement

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: John Robertson 

Baker, Steve (Wycombe) (Con) 

Colvile, Oliver (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con) 

Fitzpatrick, Jim (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab) 

Goggins, Paul (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab) 

Harris, Mr Tom (Glasgow South) (Lab) 

Hopkins, Kelvin (Luton North) (Lab) 

Leech, Mr John (Manchester, Withington) (LD) 

Penning, Mike (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)  

Rees-Mogg, Jacob (North East Somerset) (Con) 

Shelbrooke, Alec (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con) 

Smith, Angela (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab) 

Vara, Mr Shailesh (North West Cambridgeshire) (Con) 

Weir, Mr Mike (Angus) (SNP) 

Alison Groves, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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European Committee A 

Tuesday 25 January 2011  

[John Robertson in the Chair] 

Cross-border Enforcement 

4.30 pm 

The Chair:  Does a member of the European Scrutiny Committee wish to make an opening explanatory statement? 

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab):  It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. It might be helpful to the Committee if I take a few moments to explain the background to the documents and the reason why the European Scrutiny Committee recommended them for debate. 

In March 2008, the Commission presented a draft directive—document A—to establish a system to help member states to recover financial penalties for road traffic offences committed by non-residents, if enforcement did not take place while the offenders were in the country where the offence occurred, by aiding the detection of the offenders. The legal base for the document is transport. Negotiation on the draft directive was stymied because a number of member states, including the UK, believed that the proposal should have a legal base from title V—justice and home affairs—of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union. 

In July 2010, the Belgian presidency, in the absence of a revised proposal from the Commission, produced its own informal text—document B. It was similar to the Commission’s original proposal, but with a title V legal base. If the draft directive is adopted on the basis of title V, the UK will have to decide whether to opt in. My Committee understands that to maintain the Council’s unanimous support for a title V legal base, the UK and Ireland have to announce their intention to opt in at the Transport Council of March 2011. The European Scrutiny Committee recommended this debate so that Members could consider the substantive issues, such as how the proposal would work in relation to registered keepers of offending vehicles and the apparently significant adverse imbalance between the costs and benefits for the UK. 

4.32 pm 

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning):  It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. This is the first time I have done so, either in opposition or as a Minister of the Crown. It is also the first time I have attended one of these Committees, so this will be a learning experience for all of us, except the shadow Minister, who tells me that he has done this before. 

I welcome the European Scrutiny Committee’s interest in the matter and its recommendation that the directive, which facilitates cross-border enforcement of road traffic offences, should be considered by the Committee. Like the shadow Minister, I am an ex-firefighter, so I am well aware of the casualties relating to foreign motorists. As a fireman in Essex, I served on the M25 and A13 for many years. No one can blame an individual country,

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but there are significant problems with overseas drivers committing offences. Equally, I recognise that some British motorists drive abroad recklessly and cause accidents and deaths, as foreign drivers can in the UK. I also recognise that our citizens contribute to the casualty problems in other parts of the European Union. The European Commission estimates that at least 400 road deaths each year in the EU are caused by non-resident drivers. 

There are pros and cons to the legislation, and I shall try to indicate what they are as we go through it. There are also concerns, which is why the European Scrutiny Committee recommended that the proposal should be considered by the Committee. I shall also talk about some of my worries, which are the reasons why the Government have not made a decision on what to do about the draft directive. We have not made a decision, so we will listen carefully to what hon. Members say during this sitting. 

The proposed directive centres on making data exchange within the EU compulsory, and it designates eight road traffic offences, including speeding, drink-driving and not wearing a seatbelt. As I have said before, other offences could replace the seatbelt one, such as drug-driving, which is a significant problem across the EU, or the use of mobile phones while driving which, as we know, is a menace on European and British roads and causes a lot of accidents. 

Major issues are associated with the proposal. We would appreciate the Committee’s views on its effects on my Department, on the justice and home affairs legal base, on the meaning the UK opt-out—should we wish to opt out—and on the cost implications of opting in. Most of the instrument concerns police co-operation, even though information would have to come from my Department and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. 

Opposition to the use of the legal base of transport remains. All the way through, there has been a feeling that this should come under home affairs and justice. Even so, it falls under my Department to decide whether we opt in or out. 

The proposals will put large obligations on EU member states, including us, should we decide to opt in. As is required under Prüm decisions, the UK shares certain vehicle registration data when necessary for combating serious crime. I will not go into the details of that framework now, but that shows that we already exchange information—as we need to—on various criminal offences. If the UK wishes to exercise its right to opt in, this proposal will require the UK to provide keeper data to other member states—within 10 seconds of a request taking place, I understand, which will involve a significant IT requirement—when a UK-registered keeper is detected committing one of the offences on the closed list, which we think should be extended, if we decide to opt in. Under the Lisbon treaty, it remains possible for the UK to opt out of earlier justice and home affairs measures. We need to carefully consider the decision on whether to opt in as we move closer to March. 

The decision on cross-border enforcement is obvious. We have a problem in this country with speeding and other traffic offences involving foreign-registered vehicles. I emphasise that we do not know whether the drivers are foreign, which is one of our problems with the proposals. We have great difficulty enforcing the law on reckless driving and speeding, particularly when speed

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cameras on motorways are involved. I recognise that there is a major issue here, in that it is fundamentally wrong that a British citizen will almost certainly be prosecuted after being caught by a speed camera, but the driver of a foreign vehicle invariably will not. 

I fully support parts of the proposals. We know that people who drive recklessly—without seat belts, using a mobile phone or drink-driving—are more likely to cause accidents, and that is a major problem. We have some of the safest roads in the world, but there were 2,020 recorded deaths last year. That figure is too high and is obviously affected by the drivers of foreign-registered vehicles who are not willing to adhere to speed limits and think that they will not get caught. 

The way in which prosecutions are brought to enforce sanctions under the framework directive will have cost implications for each member state. For instance, the French estimate that 500 speeding offences were committed there by UK-registered vehicles last year. We would have to enforce any sanctions, which would result in significant burdens on the Ministry of Justice. If about 70,000 British-registered vehicles committed offences in France last year, the cost implications arising from one member state—let alone all—will be significant. We may keep the fines, but the cost of collecting those fines will almost certainly exceed their value here. 

I therefore understand why the European Scrutiny Committee found difficulties with the cost-benefit analysis. Yes, there can be significant benefits from using prosecutions to reduce the number of offences committed in member states by our and other citizens. However, the cost of implementation to us, given the numbers of British drivers offending in EU member states, will be significant. 

There is one other significant problem: the legislation refers to the vehicle, not the driver, which was one of the problems with the congestion charge in London. It was necessary to change legislation to ascertain whether the registered keeper was the driver of a vehicle and to insist that they state who was driving the vehicle or face prosecution. That is not the same in other member states, and it is certainly not the information that they will be requesting from us. 

It is significant that even under our V5 legislation, under which an individual is a registered keeper rather than a registered owner, we would be able to provide information about the registered keeper, but we could not provide information about the driver. That creates a significant problem for enforcement, because we would probably be giving information very quickly. There are stringent controls on looking back at the information that we give, but we would be giving personal data to an overseas country about ownership, not necessarily about who was driving. That is one of my concerns, albeit laid against the benefits for road safety of reducing accidents and prosecuting people who are committing offences in other member states. 

I am sure that there will be many questions because the proposal is very technical. I hope that we can keep to the principle of what it is designed to do and debate whether it can prevent accidents, serious injuries and deaths. Is it fit for purpose? We can have a sensible discussion about whether this legislation will help. 

Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab):  Will the Minister give way? 

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The Chair:  Order. No interventions are permitted during the statement. 

Mike Penning:  Apparently there will be questions later. 

We must consider the costs of the measure balanced against its benefits. 

The Chair:  Members have until 5.30 pm to ask questions. If anyone wants to ask a supplementary question, I will allow that at my discretion, provided that there are not too many. At 5.30 pm we will move on to the debate, in which Members can make longer contributions, and we will finish by 7 pm. 

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab):  It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I should declare an interest because my signature appears on several of the documents in the bundle—my fingerprints are all over this. 

The previous Government supported the initiative in principle, but we took the strong view, as the Minister outlined, that it should come under justice and home affairs rather than transport. Does the Minister believe that it is positive that the Belgian presidency has resurrected the proposal and said that it wants it to go through under JHA rather than transport? 

Mike Penning:  I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman and his officials did a great deal of work on the proposal during his time as a Minister. Yes, that move is positive. In my opinion, the initiative should come within that remit, but one has to play the cards that one is dealt. If it can be moved towards JHA, that would be beneficial, but if not we must address it ourselves by March. 

Jim Fitzpatrick:  The Minister says that the key question is whether the cost of implementing the proposals outweighs the benefits to road safety and the reductions in the numbers of serious injuries and deaths. Has he had the opportunity to look at the European Transport Safety Council’s comments about the initiative? It found some shortcomings in the Department for Transport’s impact assessment, stating: 

“Notably this includes double counting of the costs for setting up the necessary IT which is needed for the implementation of Council Decision 2008/615/JHA…particularly in combating terrorism and cross-border crime,” 

where the UK “has already committed itself” to the IT “by EU law.” Secondly, the council said: 

“some of the resulting court costs for the follow up should also fall under the complementary Council Framework Decision 2005/214/JHA, already adopted by the UK.” 

Notwithstanding the fact that there will be costs, which I accept, will the Minister comment on the European Transport Safety Council’s view of the impact assessment, which is that perhaps the costs are not as great as initially thought? 

The Chair:  Order. That question was slightly long. 

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Mike Penning:  We will look at the European Transport Safety Council’s conclusions on and analysis of the costs. Presently, we do not agree with the council, but we will of course look at its comments. 

Let us look at a single country. Some 500 speeding offences are committed by British drivers in one year in France. The Ministry of Justice would have to bear the cost burden of dealing with that, and although we would get the revenue from fines, the analysis shows that the cost would be vastly in excess of the fines. Another significant issue for the Ministry would be whether it could physically deal with that number of fines—not only for France, but for all the other member states where British drivers may be infringing. At a time when money is tight in Departments, the Ministry has rightly said to me that the measure would have a significant impact. 

Mr Harris:  At the risk of moving away from bureaucrat-speak to a language that ordinary members of the public—or even Back-Bench Members—may understand, will the Minister give his opinion on what change prompted by this memorandum will have the greatest positive impact on road safety in Britain and throughout Europe? Can we talk about the practical changes that we can expect to see, if this process reaches a positive conclusion? 

Mike Penning:  That is very important. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The documents that carry my signature and the shadow Minister’s are, if we wish, written in Euro-speak. I am interested in exactly what the hon. Member for Glasgow South describes, which is why we are still trying to work this out. Unless, for instance, I can actually enforce speeding offences or drink-driving offences, the proposal will not do what is set out on the page and will not be fit for purpose. That is the crucial thing that we are trying to analyse. If people still get away with what they are doing now, we need to do something else. We are looking at different ways we can bring about a level playing field for traffic offences in the UK—those are my main responsibility—involving overseas drivers. At the moment, the playing field is not level, but I am not convinced at this stage that the proposal will produce what is desired. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con):  Will the Minister tell us whether there is any evidence that people who go abroad drive less well because they think they can get away with offences? Is the deterrent of being stopped by a foreign policeman actually just as strong? 

Mike Penning:  The evidence suggests that the legal position is often confusing. The situation in this country can be very different; for example, I lived for many years in Germany, which has completely different laws. Countries also have different criteria for drink-driving, as some are tapered whereas ours are fixed. 

I have seen no evidence that people with families drive differently there or here; there is only circumstantial evidence. There is certainly evidence that younger people drive completely differently when they are on their own or with a group of young people, particularly as a result of peer pressure. I have not seen any evidence that there is a significant difference abroad, but if I do, I will submit it later. 

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Jacob Rees-Mogg:  If it is mainly confusion that leads British drivers to break the law abroad, is it proportionate to allow them to be fined heavily when they come back to this country? They may have just made a straightforward mistake, which was not serious enough for them to be detained by a foreign police force at the time. 

Mike Penning:  We have to be honest about how we would look at this if foreign drivers were in this country committing speeding offences because they were confused. I would want to prosecute them, because they are endangering lives in this country, and I think that that situation has to be exactly the same for our drivers when they are abroad. There are significant offences, such as drink-driving, drug-driving, and speeding, but there are also offences that even if the proposal were adopted—and we have not made our minds up yet—that perhaps should not be there, because they are not significant enough. We have to look at what we would want for our young people and families with road safety in this country and not be hypocritical and say, “We would not do it here but we would do it there.” We will prosecute them here if we can get the chance, but at the moment we are struggling to do so. 

Jim Fitzpatrick:  I have only two more questions. If the Minister has not had a chance to look at the European Transport Safety Council’s document, which details the expected repayment of fines, and the number of people who might offend, will he confirm that he is prepared do so, as he has already said he will look at the other aspects of the report? 

Mike Penning:  In our discussions, I said I would decide whether or not we will opt in, and of course we will look at that. One of the interesting things in much of the evidence is that, although there is a lot of cost, a significant amount in fines has not been recouped. However, I promise the shadow Minister that I will look at that carefully. 

Jim Fitzpatrick:  Finally, I wish to ask about two existing provisions in road safety law. First, I am pretty sure we have a bilateral agreement with Ireland on some offences. If we decide to opt in, where does that leave Ireland? Secondly, the Road Safety Act 2006 introduced fixed penalty notices and deposits to immobilise foreign HGVs. Does that complement this measure or undermine it? We are dealing with that, so it makes it less of a problem. 

Mike Penning:  On the first point, I am pretty certain—and my officials will guide me on this if I am wrong—that our bilateral agreement with Ireland is not compromised. On the deposit—an excellent piece of legislation was introduced so that if overseas drivers do not pay the fine, we keep their deposit—that will stay in place. We need to augment that and go forward, not just on hauliers but on other road users as well. 

Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con):  I very much welcome the Minister’s commitment to the equal application of law to all drivers on our roads. Could I ask him to turn his attention to penalty points? It is my understanding that they are not covered by the measure. Could I also

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ask him to comment on the effectiveness of fines in the absence of penalty points, particularly when the measure has no ultimate means for enforcing those summary fines? 

Mike Penning:  My hon. Friend is right. That is something we need to look at, because losing your licence is often much more significant than paying a fine. On enforcement, we have powers to pursue fines through other member States and other countries. It is very expensive, and we are looking at whether we can find ways of using private organisations to recoup the fines. The fines owed to this country are hugely significant and it would be better if that money were in the Exchequer’s purse, rather than the offender’s purse. May I clarify my comments a moment ago to the shadow Minister? This legislation would not, as I suggested, affect our relationship with Ireland and the agreements that we have. Ireland also has an opt-in and has yet to decide whether it is going to opt in or out. 

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab):  The Minister said at the outset that he had not yet reached a third and final view. I wonder whether he has plans to consult members of the Northern Ireland Executive, given that the only land border between the UK and another European state is that between Ireland and Northern Ireland? 

Mike Penning:  I intend to hold negotiations. Throughout previous Administrations, discussions were held at the same time, so it is not something new to them. They know exactly what is happening and what is proposed will be no shock to them. However, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the land border between the Republic and Ulster is very important. There are some issues, but we already have a bilateral agreement with Ireland. 

Paul Goggins:  Further to that, the report from the European Scrutiny Committee refers on page 7 to offences committed in Great Britain, and says that 

“implementation of the provisions will mean that for the first time non-UK resident offenders can be readily brought to book for road traffic and vehicle roadworthiness offences committed in Great Britain. Similar provisions will be implemented in Northern Ireland in due course”. 

Has it always been envisaged—and I hope the Minister will forgive my ignorance—that there will be a two-stage approach? 

Mike Penning:  Yes it has. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse was the Minister at the time, and he is nodding, which is very helpful—I am grateful to him. But yes, it has always been there. The legislation in the north is slightly different and that is why it will be a two-stage approach. There is a bilateral agreement, I reiterate, with the south anyway about whether we opt in or out of this. 

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD):  It strikes me that, if the main issue is about improving road safety and reducing casualties, we ought to question whether the money that the measure will cost could be spent more effectively in other ways to improve road

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safety. Has an assessment has been made of whether the money could be used better to improve road safety in other ways? 

Mike Penning:  My hon. Friend has made important point about two issues. On balance, if the cost is disproportionate, it should be spent better on road safety. It is not my budget, but the home affairs and justice budget and, as the Committee knows, those Departments are unlikely to say, “Hey, Mike, we have half a million fines this week. It is all yours.” I fully accept the principle of the argument, but it is difficult to put into practice. When we make such decisions, I have to make a cost analysis. I accept that such matters are difficult when talking about lives and accidents on the road, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he has done on road safety over the years. However, significant costs are involved, which is one of the reasons why I am sounding more sceptical about such a measure. I have not made a decision, but I cannot say that we can hypothecate the money across, given that it comes from at least two Departments. 

Mr Leech:  I thank the Minister for his comments, but it could still be worked out whether it would be a useful deployment of money from a road safety perspective. There does not seem to be very much evidence that there would necessarily be a massive change in behaviour from foreign drivers if they thought that there would be a bigger chance that they would be fined or received whatever punishment related to the offence. 

Mike Penning:  I must explain the latter part of my answer. We would, of course, analyse such matters and work out as best we can whether the cost benefit would work. Under some legislation, we do use the costs of penalties. Speed awareness courses are a classic example of where money from offenders is used to train drivers not to speed. The philosophical argument that has been around for many years about whether fines have a deterrent effect is the reason why we have a points structure, and a ban on the back of that. A fine on its own is not necessarily a deterrent. Certain elements of society would take the fine all day long because they could afford to do so, whereas it would be a deterrent in the part of London where I grew up, which is a more socially deprived area. How we approach the matter is significant, and the analysis proposed by my hon. Friend is something that needs to be done before we make a decision. 

Mr Harris:  I am happy to be corrected, but the backbone of the strategy seems to be number-plate recognition of cars rather than identification of drivers. Is the Minister still concerned that the Government’s stated objective of reducing the number of safety cameras on the road network might undermine the ultimate aid, which is to keep the roads safe, identifying drivers of whichever nationality? 

Mike Penning:  Perhaps I can elaborate on the Government’s policy, which is not to reduce the number of speed cameras. That is a matter for local authorities, as we have removed the ring fence around road safety funding, and it is for them to decide how they spend money. In some areas, there has been an increase in the

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number of speed cameras. I have actually authorised speed cameras on some parts of the network in only the past few weeks because of the evidence of accident prevention. By April next year, we expect all local authorities to publish how many accidents happened before a speed camera was put in, how many accidents happened since, and the revenue that has been raised so that the public are happier that the speed cameras are doing the job for which they were designed, which is accident prevention, and are not used as a cash cow. 

It would be significant for local motorists to know what the cameras are doing and to work out whether there are fewer accidents as a result. Some authorities have decided to keep their cameras. Some have got rid of them all together. Some authorities that got rid of them have now brought them back. Some counties, such as Durham, have never had them. The other day, an hon. Member alluded to the fact that in Durham, the number of accidents, deaths and serious injuries is compatible with figures for nearly everywhere else in the country, yet Durham has never had any speed cameras. I am not completely against speed cameras, especially given my background, but I want speed cameras that are fit for purpose, doing the job they were designed for. The intention of the question concerned whether there was a contradiction in what we are looking at compared with what we have announced: no, I do not think so. 

Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con):  Drawing on the Minister’s answer about speeding fines over points, has he asked his Department to look at the system in Switzerland, which involves a percentage of salary and affects everyone in society equally, rather than a fixed fine? 

Mike Penning:  That has been looked at many times previously, including by the shadow Minister, to whom it was suggested. 

I think that the system in this country is fair and proportionate. We have changed it and it is not a completely level playing field—in particular for new and younger drivers, who are disproportionately hit, but quite rightly because, sadly, the highest percentage of drivers involved in accidents in which there is death or serious injury come from that group. Where we are is right—the system can always be tweaked, but I do not think that I will look at a means-tested version in the near future. 

Kelvin Hopkins:  I understand the Government’s reluctance to adopt the new regulation, in particular because of the enormous differences in enforcement rates in different countries, with the different costs that must be imposed. Has the Minister or the Government thought about making acceptance of the change conditional on something to do with enforcement as well? To give an example, only 9% of drivers have been checked for drink-driving in Portugal, compared with 46% in the Netherlands. Figures show comparisons under all headings. 

Mike Penning:  That is one of the great problems. I am sure the Committee is aware that we are looking at Sir Peter North’s report, which looks extensively at drink-driving. 

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Part of the problem is analysing what is happening in other countries, not just in the European Union. Many member states, for instance, as I alluded to earlier, have a graduated fine for drink-driving. People are over the limit by a bit, so they get a fine and a couple of points, but eventually they get a ban. However, we publicly accepted many years ago that we had won the argument on drink-driving, so people who go over the limit lose their licence. We are one of the few countries in the European Union to do that, which is one of the reasons why we have the safest roads in the world. People know that, if they are drunk and get behind the wheel of a car, they have a very good chance of losing their licence. That is very important. 

The other difficulty, and I can speak from some slight experience, is the way in which breathalysing and so on are done in other member states. That is not done in the same way as we do. In some countries, it is all done at the roadside, and that is often contested in the courts of individual member states. In other words, someone has the breathalyser and the prosecution test at the side of the road. I was in Cyprus only last year, and a huge lorry pulled up at the side of the road and all these technical people got off. They were actually pulling people over. Interestingly, they were also doing some pilot work on drugs, which was very significant. I want to go back and look at what other member states are doing on that subject, as we introduce our own “drugalyser” legislation. 

Legislation in different member states and the way in which different countries address not just drink-driving but speeding varies. In some member states, people can physically pay their fine at the side of the road, whereas, fortunately, we keep that sort of thing to fixed penalty notices, so physical payment is kept away from the police. That is a significant difference. 

Kelvin Hopkins:  The Minister is absolutely right that Britain has a safer driving record and safer roads than most other countries in the European Union, but we still have a high alcohol limit. Recently, much to my disappointment, the Select Committee on Transport, of which I am a member, voted to retain the existing alcohol limits for drink-driving. We are almost alone among European nations in having an 80 ml limit, rather than 40 ml or lower. Are the Government looking at reducing the limit? 

Mike Penning:  On that note, the hon. Gentleman will have to wait. 

The announcement is not for the Committee to make, but it will come soon. We will have to weigh up the balance between the economic effects on the community, the benefits from road safety and how we can police the situation. I am sure that the shadow Minister would agree that the real problem of drink-drivers is the people who do not care what the limit is, but who consistently drink-drive and think that they will get away with it. They will drink as much as they like and still drive, which is the major problem. 

As we consider this subject and the analysis of Sir Peter North’s report, the key thing for me in making the decision is whether we will be able to target the real offenders who are causing most of the accidents, or whether we will create a whole new category of people

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who have been driving perfectly legally for the past 20 or 30 years, but who will now be committing a criminal offence. We will need to assess that. 

Before I move on, may I provide clarification on the transfer of keeper data? The identity of the keeper will be transferred. We are not interested in the number plate, although it will be used through the cameras, but what will be exchanged is the keeper—not even necessarily the owner, and certainly not necessarily the driver. 

Motion made, and Question proposed,  

That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 7984/08 and Addenda 1 and 2, Unnumbered Explanatory Memorandum dated 13 September 2010 and Unnumbered Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum dated 22 December 2010, submitted by the Department for Transport, relating to facilitating cross-border enforcement in the field of road safety; and notes that the Government is deciding whether or not to opt in to this Directive under the terms of Protocol 21 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union on the position of the United Kingdom in respect of the area of Freedom, Security and Justice.—(Mike Penning.)  

5.7 pm 

Jim Fitzpatrick:  I will not detain the Committee long, as I have only two comments to make and another to pass on from somebody outside the House. 

The Minister has clearly outlined that the decision will be an economic one, based on cost-benefit analysis. I left the Department for Transport only 21 months ago, and I cannot remember the exact cost that is placed on a serious injury or a dead person as the result of a collision, but I think that it is somewhere between £500,000 and £1.2 million. I ask the Minister, when he does the cost-benefit analysis, to remember that this is not a case of the Department for Transport versus the Ministry of Justice, as the Department of Health and the NHS have a big role to play, as does the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills over the loss of employment and productivity resulting from collisions. The views of the Treasury, and not just those of the Department for Transport, also have to be taken into account. 

Our principal position is that deterrence works. If people think that they will be caught, the predominant effect is that they do not offend, which is reinforced by the level of deterrence, in the form of fines or penalties. Extending that to a Europe-wide net gives a psychological edge to saying that we should not offend anywhere. The number of UK citizens who allegedly offend on European roads is a bit embarrassing. The UK has a very proud road safety record, as hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have said. We were second in Europe for some time, but I understand that we are back as No. 1 in Europe. I confess that the fact stated in the document that European reduction stalled in 2007 was a bit of a shock, because the targets that we set for ourselves in 2000, of reducing the number of killed and seriously injured by 40% for adults and by 50% for children by 2010, were met. That is to the credit of the Department for Transport’s officials, the police and all the agencies at local authority level, as well as campaign groups, who tried to ensure that that happened. The proposal is a positive step forward for reinforcing road safety as something that every driver should take into account. 

Finally, Mr Brian Simpson MEP, who is chairman of the Committee on Transport and Tourism in the European

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Parliament, has sent me an e-mail, and I know that he has also written to the Minister. Very straightforwardly, his concluding comment is: 

“I would therefore ask you to support this EU-wide approach and to ensure that the UK applies the Directive on Cross Border Enforcement.” 

Obviously, colleagues know him better than I do—he is a Conservative MEP. This proposal should bring us in line with Europe and allow enforcement authorities across the Union to deal with people who risk the lives of decent, law-abiding citizens. In that sense, we support the proposal in principle, but we will obviously wait to see the Minister’s conclusions. Finally, will the Minister tell us what will happen after today, and before 3 March, when the decision whether to opt in or out must be made? 

5.10 pm 

Jacob Rees-Mogg:  I am grateful for the Minister’s explanation, but I wonder whether it might not be a good idea to go back to first principles and consider whether it is appropriate in terms of subsidiarity to be doing such things at European level. 

We touched on the seriousness of the offence. If we are talking about a foreign motorist here or a British motorist abroad being involved in a serious offence, such as drink driving or causing a serious injury, there are powers to detain people until their case is heard. However, fundamentally trivial cases, such as somebody not wearing a seat belt, simply should not be tackled at the European level. 

There is, therefore, already a proper mechanism to enforce road safety. With drink driving and other serious offences, the police can arrest people on the spot, hold them, charge them and deal with them. 

Kelvin Hopkins:  I am listening with interest to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He says that not wearing seat belts is relatively trivial, but the three main causes of death are speeding, drink driving and, then, not wearing seat belts. Those are all major causes of death, so I suggest that not wearing a seat belt is not such a trivial offence. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg:  I do think that not wearing a seat belt is an essentially trivial offence. I am glad to say that my car is old enough not to be fitted with seat belts, so not wearing them was clearly not thought to be so serious previously, and I do not think that it should be enforced on a pan-European basis. 

We must also be careful about camera enforcement in other countries. Camera enforcement that focuses simply on the number plate and the registered keeper could get the wrong person. Cameras could also be deliberately placed in a position where they are intended to maximise revenue or inconvenience. That is a different standard of justice from that which applies when people are stopped by an officer of the law, from whichever country. 

Mr Harris:  I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but if he receives a letter from the French traffic authorities saying that he has gone through a red light or been speeding through the French countryside, and he knows

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for a fact that he was not on holiday in France at the time, it might be quite simple to raise that defence with the authorities. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg:  I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but it obviously depends on how the law is framed and on the responsibility put on the registered keeper. If someone in this country goes through a speed camera in someone else’s car, and the car owner tells the authorities in Swansea, “I’ve no idea who was driving my car at the time,” the authorities will not accept that. They will come back to the person to try to find out exactly who was driving, so it is not as simple as saying, “I’m terribly sorry. I wasn’t in France.” 

There are real difficulties with such enforcement. If someone suddenly got a speeding ticket from Romania, it would be much harder for them to know the precise circumstances in which they could defend themselves than if they got a speeding ticket driving around Trafalgar square. In the latter case, they would know where Trafalgar square was, and they would understand the situation and the language in which the letter was written. Moving such things to a pan-European level has the potential not to be just. The Minister mentioned the registered keeper. 

Steve Baker:  My hon. Friend mentioned justice, and the primary principle here is the equal application of the law. Does he agree that if we are to apply the law, it is vital that it is in fact applied? Within the scope of the directive, there is no ultimate mechanism to enforce fines across Europe, so people could just throw them away. I think it would quickly emerge in the press that people could throw their fine away, so they would, which would undermine justice and the rule of law. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg:  I am not entirely sure about that. We have to look at the French enforcement of road traffic offences. Many new Presidents have come in and pardoned all the French people who have committed minor offences. If a Briton just threw their fine in the bin, would they get a pardon from the French President? Would he pardon French people who have broken English laws? It is not as simple as saying that we will have universal recognition. My hon. Friend concerns me with the direction in which he is moving, saying that because we have harmonised fines, we must have harmonised laws, so that everybody knows exactly where they are and exactly what the speed limits are. In which case, we would have to change our speed limits across the country. 

Mike Penning:  I am sorry if I misled my hon. Friend. I have not said that and it was not the implication of what I was saying. If I did say it in the way that he has interpreted, I reverse that, because that is not true. [ Interruption. ] Sorry. I thought my hon. Friend meant me. In which case, I will get back into my chair. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg:  No, I would not have dreamt of accusing the Minister of anything so dangerous. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe was leaning in that direction. If there is an equal application in this

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context, there have to be equal laws, which would be deeply unsatisfactory from a British point of view. It could become an argument used in the Council of Europe, where they would say, “We now accept fines across Europe. Would it not be simpler, tidier, to make it the same law, so that it will all apply evenly?” We should always be concerned. I know that—I was about to say my hon. Friend, and on European matters he is very much my hon. Friend—the hon. Member for Luton North is always concerned about the slippery slope of European issues. 

I want to return to standards of justice. It has been a long-standing principle in this country that we have a high standard of justice, and it is right to protect our citizens from lower standards of justice abroad. That is not to say that we want our citizens to be able to commit crimes abroad willy-nilly. It is a recognition that different legal principles and standards apply, and that we have an obligation to defend the British citizen from the application of what may be lower standards. In other areas of law, we have seen people being arrested unjustly in European countries, not having the same rights, and not necessarily having the same presumption of innocent until proved guilty that they would have in this country. That always concerns me. 

We should have cross-border recognition only with countries that have the same standard of justice. It is absolutely fine to do it with southern Ireland. Southern Ireland has a very similar legal system to ours, and we can recognise that comfortably. Do we think that is true of some of the new entrants, who apart from other things, are known by the European Community and accused by the Commission of deep corruption? Is that a risk we should apply to British subjects? 

I urge the Minister to go back to first principles and look at whether this is right in terms of subsidiarity, and whether this should be dealt with at the nation state level. I reiterate the point that if it is serious, the policeman at the side of the road can arrest that person and hold them until they are charged and dealt with by the courts. If it is fundamentally trivial, it ought not to be a matter for which someone can get into trouble for doing something hundreds—possibly thousands—of miles away, which they may not have known that they have done, which would not be an offence in this country and about which they find difficult it to prove a negative, because it could have happened some months ago. A friend of mine got sent a parking ticket by the Italian authorities from nine months previously. She had no idea whether she had parked in a particular street in a particular city in Italy on that date. There are real problems with this type of enforcement. Of course, the systems that already exist should be used to enforce the law when the matter is serious. 

5.19 pm 

Kelvin Hopkins:  I understand the Government’s caution about implementing this directive. The previous Government were equally cautious, and understandably so. There are problems with road safety enforcement, even in Britain, and the Minister has referred to that. In particular, we have many road haulage lorries coming into Britain from abroad. Whenever spot checks are done, they find a vast number are unsafe on the roads. In my view, they should be taken off the roads immediately,

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and we should ensure that they do not come back to Britain until they are safe. British road hauliers have much higher standards, and they feel that they are undercut by foreign lorries that are not up to standard. The measures would be beneficial to our road hauliers, and I see nothing wrong with that. They might be interpreted as protectionism, but it is right that the same standards should apply to foreign lorries as to British ones. 

Jim Fitzpatrick:  The Minister has referred to this. We amended the Road Safety Act 2006 to allow the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency to stop and detain foreign vehicles by the roadside until the unsafe part of the vehicle is fixed, or to immobilise them permanently. That matter was dealt with in the 2006 Act. 

Kelvin Hopkins:  I understand, but it should involve more than just spot checks. It should be much more rigorous. I appreciate that the law was changed. 

There is another point about triviality. I am reluctant to give powers to the European Union unnecessarily, and I understand the caution in this case, but our own documents say that although 25% of deaths on the road are due to drink driving, 17% are the result of not wearing seat belts. The numbers are not far away. I have always been a passionate advocate of seat belts, even before they were compulsory. A little education in engineering and forces of deceleration will do it. The human body is frail. If one walks along a pavement into a lamppost at 4 mph, one can do oneself serious damage. Hitting a metal surface or glass pane at 40 mph can do appalling damage. 

Steve Baker:  My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset did not ask me to rise to show solidarity with him, but I am afraid that I must to a degree. I doubt that anyone is downplaying the severity of injuries that might arise as a result of not wearing a seat belt; indeed, I am a passionate advocate of wearing them. The question is whether it should be a serious offence not to wear one. The point is that if someone does not wear a seat belt, they might harm themselves but they are unlikely to harm others. 

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab):  That is not true. 

Steve Baker :   We must bear that in mind when considering the seriousness of an offence against another person. The hon. Lady says from a sedentary position that that is not true. Perhaps she is referring to the likely injuries to a front-seat passenger if a rear-seat passenger does not wear a seat belt. That is quite right, but it is up to the driver whether to move off. I certainly would not move off until everyone was wearing a seat belt. However, that is an issue of personal choice involving how we take risks with ourselves. 

The Chair:  Order. I think we understand. 

Kelvin Hopkins:  We could have a long debate about it. I remember debating with one of my students many years ago the wearing of crash helmets. He wanted the freedom not to wear one. I said that his life belonged

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not just to him but to his mother, father, brothers, sisters and friends, and that it was important that he wore his seat belt for other people as well as for himself. It is a philosophical argument, and we could go on for a long time. 

Our first problem is to ensure that we enforce the law on all foreign drivers in Britain so that they do not get away with bad driving. We have an admirable safety record. When one comes back from the continent of Europe, as I do every year, one sees how dense traffic is on British roads. We have to be good drivers to survive on them, because they are so densely packed. The empty motorways in France, where one can drive for a long time at high speed without any interruption, are different. 

We ought to be concerned about reducing deaths and accidents in all countries. Perhaps we should advocate that other countries follow our example in some respects. Finally, the Government or motoring organisations could provide clear information about the law governing motoring in other countries—maybe they already do so; I do not know—so that when one goes to France, one would know the drink-driving limits, speed limits and so on. For example, people must now carry a red triangle in the car and a DayGlo jacket, or two of them if there are two people in the car. That equipment must be visible to policemen; if they stop you, they want to see it on the back seat. They do not want it hidden away in a box somewhere. Those are strict laws. It behoves Government, or commercial organisations at the very least, to give good advice on what happens in other countries. Some other countries are appalling in their laxness and their death levels. I will not mention names, but I understand that some countries in southern Europe have appalling death rates on the roads. They ought to follow some of the laws and enforcement regimes that we have in Britain. There is a lot to be done to improve road safety across Europe, but I understand the Government’s reluctance to leap into adopting this directive very soon.

5.25 pm 

Alec Shelbrooke:  I am pleased to follow the hon. Gentleman, because I want to draw on his comments. The purpose of this document is to enable prosecution where the law has been broken. Once more, it will hand over to the European Union powers that should be kept in the member states. I understand the reasoning, but I am more concerned that almost every speech today has asked why we are doing it. We are doing it to reduce death and injury on the road, but the focus is on the wrong area. 

Standards of driving vary immensely across the European Union. In years past I have taken long driving tours across the European Union. I have gone all the way down to Slovenia, Poland and some of the new member states. The standard of road engineering in such countries is a starting point, although they are starting to be built and expanded now that they have joined the European Union. There are simple measures such as cat’s eyes, which were invented in this country. Although some of the more established European nations have them on their motorways, plenty of roads across the European Union do not have standards of night-time driving that are provided by the engineering of our roads. 

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When we consider the actual standard of driving, our driving test is as nothing compared with that which the Germans have to go through: they have quite a lot of classroom tuition; there are limits on the hours they can drive once they have passed—they have to rack up a certain number of hours; and although motorways are deregulated and drivers can go as fast they like, they have to have been driving for a certain period of time before they can do so. 

Steve Baker :   My hon. Friend has reminded me of Finland, where drivers have to learn to skid their cars because of the icy conditions. With the increasingly cold winters that we are having, perhaps we should introduce such a test. 

Alec Shelbrooke:  That is a valid point. Whether we are talking about icy conditions or any other conditions, when learning to drive at no point are we taught how to control a vehicle when it does something that we do not expect. That is an important point, because drivers in some European countries are taught to do so. 

I am basically saying that the message we should be sending back to the European Union is that, before we move down this path, we must try to equalise driving standards and road engineering. On a holiday in Greece several years ago, we took a coach trip, and I have never been so scared in my life. The coach driver was overtaking vehicles on blind corners, with sheer drops on the other side; the coach was silent. It is an amusing tale, but at the time it was not a laughing matter. We often hear about drivers in Italy: if I had a euro for every car I saw there without a dent in it, I would not be much richer. 

We have an exceptionally high standard of road engineering, and, importantly, we have a high standard of engineering between our residential roads, our 30 mph roads and our motorways. That is something else that needs to be pushed out across the European Union. I have not seen the statistics on where our road deaths occur, so I will take an intervention if someone can tell me whether those deaths occur on 30 mph roads, rural roads, or elsewhere. 

Mike Penning:  It is very important that we emphasise this. Sadly, rural road deaths are excessively high, but it is in relatively low-speed urban areas—between 30 mph and 40 mph—that most deaths occur. Motorways are the safest roads in the country. 

Alec Shelbrooke:  I am grateful for that intervention from the Minister, because it emphasises how it comes down to how we engineer our roads and how we put safety standards in place. That is the argument we should be pushing to reduce road deaths. 

I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, who does not feel the need to wear a seat belt. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg:  I invariably wear a seat belt in a car that has one; I just do not think that it is a serious offence. 

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Alec Shelbrooke:  We often hear this argument in Formula 1, with drivers of yesteryear such as Stirling Moss saying, “In my day, I wouldn’t have dared to barge a driver off the road, because I would be dead,” whereas, nowadays, we have survival cells and everything. There is the argument that we should do away with airbags and replace them with a big spike on the steering wheel—that would certainly slow people down. However, if we are making the environment that we are in more cocooned and safe, we have to use the law to say to people, “Yes, you are in a relatively safe vehicle, but you are going to do some serious harm to yourself.” We have not only the moral responsibility to protect lives; we need to consider the economic impact of the loss of someone who could easily have been saved had they worn a seat belt. The law involved is an important one. My hon. Friend has a first-class mind and makes some excellent points in his arguments, but I cannot agree with him on that point. 

Before we move down the road of how we collect fines and enforce laws, the message should be that we need to see the European Union raise the standards of its roads and driving to the standard of engineering that we have come to expect in this country. However, this country could learn a thing or two about the standards of education in driving that countries such as Germany and Finland already have in place. 

5.32 pm 

Mr Harris:  I want to refer briefly to the comments of the hon. Member for North East Somerset. I hope that he does not feel victimised or isolated in the Committee, but some of his comments have identified him as being in a minority of one on certain issues. Frankly, if his aspiration is to become a Transport Minister, I fear that he may have to shelve that particular ambition—at least for a short time. It has, however, occurred to me that if his car is too old to have a seat belt, I suspect that he does not have to worry too much about breaking the speed limit anywhere in Europe. 

My main issue is more of a procedural one. As my lame attempt at an intervention during the Minister’s opening statement showed, I am not entirely familiar with the set-up in this particular Committee. It is obviously not a standard Statutory Instrument Committee, which goes to show that what a Whip says when she invites you to attend should never be believed. 

I was delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse—is it right hon.? [ Interruption. ] It will come. I was delighted that my hon. Friend said that the Opposition supported the measure, because I am not entirely sure that the Minister does. 

Mike Penning:  After that comment about the Whips, I think that the hon. Gentleman might be on the next Finance Bill. 

It is not the job of the Committee to decide whether we should opt in or opt out. Our role, because the European Scrutiny Committee referred it to us, is to debate the opt-in and opt-out, and my role is to indicate in my summary what we are minded to do. The procedural motion then goes forward. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I was just as confused when I first I saw it. 

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Mr Harris:  That is a very helpful intervention, and I am grateful to the Minister. I was simply trying to make the point that I was disappointed that he moved the measure formally at the start of the debate. I think the Committee needs to hear a hard and fast Government opinion about the substance of the measure. At the moment, from what the Minister has said—I am sure that other Committee members share my view—I am not entirely sure that the Government are gung-ho behind it. I am sure that the Minister will take the time to elaborate on their view and dispel any concerns that hon. Members may have. 

5.35 pm 

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con):  I did not intend to intervene in the debate, because I felt I was not perhaps as well qualified as others in the room, but I want to make two quick points. In my constituency there are a significant number of foreign taxi drivers. If we are going to go down the proposed route we need to ensure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell said, that we have a similar standard of driving throughout the European Union. I am concerned that some of the foreign taxi drivers might endanger health and safety. 

Secondly, in this country we are incredibly good at enforcing European Union legislation. We gold-plate it and are good at doing so. I am afraid I do not think some of our European partners are as good at doing that. As an example, which is fairly close to my heart, we are very good at enforcing regulation of fishing, but in Barcelona and Spain it is difficult to get some fisheries inspectors to go out to ports. If we go down the proposed route we need commonality. We need to ensure that our European partners are as enthusiastic as we are about acting on the legislation. 

5.37 pm 

Steve Baker:  I am most grateful for the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. If I may say so I am also extremely grateful to the Whips for the opportunity to serve on the Committee. 

I shall support the motion, but I am grateful that the Minister is considering his decision, and is listening. I want to explore questions of affordability and effectiveness. I hope that the Minister will not opt in to the directive, on balance. We are all fully committed to safety on the roads. In my view individual driver behaviour is vital and I am delighted that we are all equally committed to the rule of law—the notion that the law should be applied equally to all. 

I am aware, however, that it is impossible to apply the law equally to all who drive on the UK’s roads when penalty points are not included in the scope of the directive. I share the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset who suggested that if were to go down the road of penalty point harmonisation we might end up harmonising all our laws. That would be a mistake. 

The documentation is clear: the proposal is about speed and red-light offences. The report says that alcohol and seat belt offences would scarcely be affected because they are dealt with on the spot at the time of the offence. Therefore, although we have had an interesting debate about seat belts, in the context of the proposal

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that is a slight distraction. We are talking about automated summary fines, so I want to discuss affordability and then effectiveness. 

Mike Penning:  I just want to clarify a point that a couple of hon. Members have mentioned; I think it is important that I do so before I sum up the debate. 

The mechanism for the enforcement of fines is a framework decision that is already in place. The proposals before the Committee “simply”—I use inverted commas—make possible the identification through number plate recognition of the keeper of the vehicle so that the fines can be enforced. The legislation was passed under the previous Administration. The fines element is already established. The crux of the debate is how we enforce it. 

I accept that there is an issue about what should be in and what should be out; that is absolutely right. Most drink drivers tend to get stopped; they are not done by vehicle recognition. Obviously we cannot breathalyse them by camera—yet. It is important that we understand that a lot of this was already, and I use the words advisedly, given away, agreed to, subsumed, in the previous legislation. The fines can already be imposed. This is about giving information, so that the fines can be enforced. 

Steve Baker:  I am most grateful for that clarification. I discovered in one of the impact assessments a suggestion that the cost of the scheme would be £90.91 million over 10 years. In conversation about the measure, it seems that may be an underestimate. The Government have estimated that the upper bound of the annual fine revenue would be £4.74 million. The analysis supporting that clearly states that there is no mechanism to enforce those fines. The document quotes anecdotal evidence that about 30% to 40% of fines might be paid voluntarily on request. The analysis chooses a range of 20% to 40% with a central estimate of 30% of fines paid. That would give a benefit of just £0.95 million to £1.9 million. 

Jim Fitzpatrick:  I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to remarks I made earlier. First, the figures that he gives are contested by the European Transport Safety Council, which says that the level of fines paid in European states cross-border is between 75% and 90%. That is why I asked the Minister to look at it, because I am not taking the figures straightforwardly at face value. I know the Department and Minister will look at them. Secondly, there is the matter of quantifying the cost to UK plc of somebody who is seriously injured and disabled for life or—worse—killed, including the loss of productivity as well as the cost to family and friends. When one talks about £90 million and looks at £1 million for a life, that is pretty small beer. 

Steve Baker:  I am extremely grateful for the clarification. However, when I served in the RAF I was in a team managing risks for gas turbines. That was 10 years ago, so I feel I can speak relatively freely. At least some of those in aero-engine fleets were running the risk of catastrophic failures, and catastrophic meant lives lost. As professional risk managers at that time, we had to accept that there was a limit to how much money could be spent against the risk of death. It is a complex and, of course, emotive matter. I place infinite value on the

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lives of my loved ones, as we all do. However, we are talking about £90 million over 10 years, in an environment in which local councils will be under extreme pressure to deliver even social care. I am cautious about treating tens of millions of pounds of extra expenditure lightly. 

I would like to turn to the lives saved. The estimates in the documentation, which no doubt will be contested, are that this proposal might save 88 lives across the entire EU, which has a population of about 500 million. That is a relatively small percentage. The summary and evidence report that, in 2009, foreign-registered vehicles were involved in a disturbing 1,570 injury road accidents in the UK, with 28 fatalities, 208 serious injuries and 1,965 slight injuries. That is a tremendous human toll. However, the report quickly emphasises that not all those accidents would have involved foreign-registered vehicles committing any of the four offences relevant to the directive. In fact, most involved foreign-registered HGVs. 

Although I read it all, some of the analysis was rather tedious and somewhat speculative. The report concluded that it was not possible reliably to assess the impact of the policy on road safety. 

Alec Shelbrooke:  Will my hon. Friend expand on the point he was making, in relation to what I was saying earlier? Does he think it is more important to save lives through engineering education, or merely to enforce laws as they exist in each of those countries? 

Steve Baker:  I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. It is my view that we have entered a counter-productive cycle of over-reliance on enforcement, which tends to create a bad attitude, which tends to create bad behaviour, which tends to reinforce the need for over-reliance on enforcement. We must find ways to break out of that cycle, not because we wish to tear around but because we wish to improve road safety above the already high levels in this country. That step change in road safety is about more than enforcement. I agree that engineering and education are vital. At some stage, I will share with my hon. Friend my business plan for it. 

Turning to enforcement—I know that people are looking forward to the conclusion of my opening remarks—the proposal does not deal with penalty points, which we have emphasised, saying that it would be too difficult to do so. It acknowledges that penalty points and disqualification are a far greater deterrent than fixed penalty fines. I am conscious that each of us has a different offence in mind when we consider speeding. Somebody doing 75 mph on an empty M40 is different from somebody doing 60 mph in a 30 mph zone with parked cars, which I have seen. I suggest that the latter is a reckless offence rather than simply speeding, and that such a reckless offence deserves the full force of the law rather than a fixed penalty fine. I am cautious about what sorts of offence we are dealing with. 

The proposal contains no provisions for further actions if drivers choose not to respond. The Minister has explained that other legislation is in place, so I shall abridge my remarks slightly, but I have yet to be convinced that the proposal would fully enforce even fixed penalty fines. 

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I am ready to be corrected, but I understand that the previous Government’s experience was that financial penalties were “not a huge deterrent”—that is a quote from the report—and that the European Scrutiny Committee said at the time that there might be more penalty payments under the system, justifying it as practical and proportionate. However, the financial context today is substantially different from then. 

To quote the closing paragraph of the impact assessment: 

“Due to the lack of available evidence and resulting caveats to the analysis, there is currently no preferred option on whether to opt in or remain out of this Directive, if it is implemented. The costs and benefits monetised suggest the costs outweigh the benefits; however there are a number of impacts not quantifiable at this stage.” 

Opposition Members are nodding; that is the conclusion to a document that I know they have seen. I am sceptical of spending money on a proposal that we are unsure will be of concrete benefit in saving lives. Personally, I would rather the money were spent, as my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell implied, on engineering and education. In fact, I would rather see it spent on education. 

I will take a risk with Opposition Members. Having driven to Austria this Christmas, I am conscious that as soon as I crossed the channel, the speed limit was 80 mph or 130 kph on the French péages, provided that the weather was dry. In many places in Germany, as has been mentioned, there is no speed limit. I do not mind confessing that I enjoy driving legally at 130 mph. It was fantastic, and I made great progress. I recognise, however, that the UK is not ready for that. I then emerged into Austria, where the speed limit is 70 mph. 

I am sure that if we were honest with ourselves and the Committee, we would say that on any British motorway, at any time of the day or night, congestion permitting, people mostly exceed the 70 mph speed limit. Nobody is seeking to intervene. Given the desire for rule by consent, I will risk proposing that one way to improve compliance with our speed limits and reduce the burden of costs associated with the proposal would be to adopt a scheme like France’s, in which the limit is 70 mph in adverse conditions and 80 mph when the weather is not adverse. I suggest it not to promote speeding but simply to cover the clearly revealed preferences of the vast majority of British drivers, which is to— 

The Chair:  Order. Can I bring the hon. Gentleman back to what we are here to discuss, which is not speed limits? 

Steve Baker:  I apologise, Mr Robertson. My point is merely that there could be an alternative to this particular proposal, which would serve to increase compliance. 

To conclude, I very much welcome the commitment to road safety; I welcome the principle of the equal application of law to all drivers on British roads. However, I have concerns about the proportionality of this expense. I think that that is reflected in the documentation we have been given. I am not convinced it would be an effective proposal if implemented. As I have suggested, there are better ways of improving compliance on British roads and, indeed, road safety. For those reasons I would encourage the Government not to opt in to this directive. 

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5.50 pm 

Mike Penning:  The tone of the debate has been very sensible. We may not all agree on what colleagues have been suggesting. I also appreciate how difficult it is sometimes to look at such a wodge of information when you have been told that you are on an SI and you will be back in the Tea Room in 10 minutes. It is difficult to make that work. From my point of view I found this very useful. Again, I thank the Select Committee for bringing it before this Committee. It is important that we have a broad view about how we can go forward. 

May I summarise some of the concerns? The hon. Gentleman for Luton North knows me as a Eurosceptic—as he is—and when I look at this legislation I have to be careful to control my natural feelings. I have said that the framework is already in place—I am speaking now about the information given. Several colleagues touched on parking fines. They are not covered by this legislation. As a former firefighter, I have been at many road traffic accidents—as the shadow Minister has been—where people were killed because they were not wearing a seat belt, or killed by someone else not wearing one. I would like to have a long debate in the Tea Room with my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe about this. I was also sceptical—as a lot of firemen were—about issues such as drivers with stove-in chests. However, I am convinced that there are many people alive today because of the legislation about seat belts being on the statute books. 

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North that we need more information for British drivers going to other countries. It is not rocket science: it could be available on the website. I will talk with the insurers who pick up this burden, to see whether we can work together and whether that information can be available on the Department’s website in the near future. The motoring organisations also pick up many of the problems when incidents happen abroad and I hope that we can work with them too. 

May I comment on one aspect of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset? I think he has a point. Sadly, there are lot of vehicles driving around in this country with a duplicate number plate. It is called ringing. We know that it goes on and we are trying to do as much as we can about it. It is an issue that we had to address in this country when vehicle recognition technology was brought in. I accept that that technology is not advanced in some member states. I am worried that we might be in the situation of threatening to prosecute someone whose car has been rung, and who had not been in a certain country. Ringing is a simple process of buying a number plate, changing it, and for all intents and purposes driving round in a vehicle which is different. It is clever how people do it: very often they ensure that they get the same colour, make, model and year of the vehicle they are going to ring. It is a huge industry. People buy a used car in good faith, only to find that it has been rung and stolen. This is an issue that the previous Government—and indeed Governments over the years—tried to address. It raises an important point. As to seat belts, perhaps we will discuss that another time. 

The hon. Member for Glasgow South raised the difficult issue of procedure. I could have made another speech on the motion similar to my opening speech, but the way these debates are meant to work is that a member of the Select Committee makes an opening

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statement, I make a statement based on what the ideas are—not what the Government are actually going to do— 

Mr Harris:  I assure the Minister that my comments were not intended as a personal criticism. For a Tory, he is doing a splendid job. 

Mike Penning:  I hope that I am doing a splendid job in England on road safety—it is devolved in Scotland. I have visited Scotland to see the road safety work that is being done, which I praise, especially the educational work on road safety, which is devolved there. 

Mr Harris:  To correct the record, many aspects of road safety are about to be devolved under the Scotland Bill, which will come before the House on Thursday, but they are not yet devolved. 

Mike Penning:  Actually, road safety education is devolved, and I have met some of those involved in Scotland. Perhaps we will have to wait for the House to decide whether some of these things will be devolved, because you never know. [ Interruption. ] That is how the House operates, and rightly so. 

My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe spoke very well about speed limits. There is a very different system abroad. Interestingly, someone who goes about 2% over the limit in France will be prosecuted, whereas they will tend not to be on the motorways in this country. That is because the police, the local authorities and the Highways Agency give a degree—I go no further than that—of latitude. However, I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from. 

The speed limits are continually reviewed, and we will continue to work on that. As regards reducing speed limits, particularly around schools and in urban areas, we have given local authorities powers to drop speed limits from 30 to 20 mph should they deem that necessary. There is a massive difference in pedestrian accidents, particularly involving young children, if people drop their speed from 30 to 20 mph. If I might move off the subject just a fraction, Mr Robertson, I encourage local authorities to look closely at the powers they have to tackle road safety and drop speed limits in urban areas. 

I also want to clarify the issue of costs. As I said, the IT costs are significant, but they would be within our existing agreements. What is not, is the cost of running such a scheme. The Department estimates that it would cost £8.7 million a year to prosecute foreign drivers in this country, which would be four times the fines we would be likely to take in. That is why I am slightly sceptical, as I said. 

The shadow Minister’s tone was excellent. We will make a decision as soon as we can. The Government will consider the matter, and that will include giving careful consideration to the views that Parliament has expressed in this Committee. I will discuss this issue with colleagues in other Departments, because this issue has a severe impact on home affairs and justice. I will make a decision and inform the presidency of the Council by 3 March. I will inform Parliament by written ministerial statement at the same time. It is only right and proper that Parliament is told at exactly the same time. 

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We have three options, and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset touched on them. We can keep the status quo—in other words, we do not do anything, and we opt out. We can have a set of bilateral agreements with other member states, similar to what we have with southern Ireland. Finally, we can opt in. That is basically where we are, and that is what this debate has been about. It has been extremely useful, and I hope that that is reflected in the motion. 

Question put and agreed to.  


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That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 7984/08 and Addenda 1 and 2, Unnumbered Explanatory Memorandum dated 13 September 2010 and Unnumbered Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum dated 22 December 2010, submitted by the Department for Transport, relating to facilitating cross-border enforcement in the field of road safety; and notes that the Government is deciding whether or not to opt in to this Directive under the terms of Protocol 21 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union on the position of the United Kingdom in respect of the area of Freedom, Security and Justice. 

5.58 pm 

Committee rose.