Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

5.58 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, first, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, for introducing this subject for debate. It is appropriate that we should debate the issues affecting the coach industry, most particularly in relation to various elements of European Union legislation. The difficulty is that the debate has hardly been focused on particular topics. But I do not in any sense seek to indict the noble Lord for that fact.

I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, to what the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, has frequently referred to as "this transport club". Before he was elevated to his present lofty position of total inscrutability with regard to debates, he frequently said with great relevance, whenever anybody new participated in our debates, how nice it was to see a fresh face. We very much welcome the noble Baroness. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, on his elevation. He and I spent many hours together debating issues of transport, for the most part very constructively. We often agreed and it is when one agrees that one can say one is totally objective--as we have always been in relation to these issues.

As the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said, coach travel is a relatively safe form of transport. But many serious accidents have occurred in the recent past and many lessons should be learnt from those tragedies. Too many people have been killed,

29 Nov 1994 : Column 585

families bereaved and people injured. In those circumstances I shall address three issues affecting safety.

First, I shall deal with the question of seat belts--a matter with which we dealt during the course of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill. The response we received from the Government as to actions to be taken or not taken was less than satisfactory. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some further and better particulars of the actions that they are taking at European Union level in that regard. Secondly, I shall deal with drivers' hours and rest periods and, thirdly, with the enforcement of speed limits. One could go much wider but I propose to confine my remarks to those three topics.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said that he was not convinced that a case had been made out for the wearing of seat belts. He rightly said that it is a complex issue and he was uncertain in his own mind in that regard. But the Government carried out a formidable analysis of the case for compulsory fitment of seat belts on minibuses and coaches and the results were announced in a Written Answer on 19th July. To put the matter in its correct context, it is right that I should deal with those conclusions.

The Government were convinced that the strength of the case for compulsory fitment of seat belts as a standard for all European manufacturers was clearly made out by the then Secretary of State for Transport, Mr. John MacGregor. It was stated that,

    "We are formally requesting the European Commission to set the shortest possible timetable to require seatbelts on all new minibuses and coaches. This reinforces our call for action at the Transport Council in Luxembourg in June. We have also decided to seek the Commission's agreement for the UK Government to act ahead of the European Union to ensure that all minibuses and coaches are fitted with belts when specifically used for the transport of children".--[Official Report, 19/7/94; WA col. 26.]

Those were interesting observations, which I welcome. The case is now conclusively made out and the Government are convinced that their research has established that seat belts are necessary. I am sure that by their use lives will be saved and injuries reduced. The cost involved would be relatively small. I understand that a fair estimate is that on a £10 coach ticket the cost would involve an extra 4p. We are therefore talking of extremely small-scale costs for an important saving of life and therefore that is not an issue. Although lap-belts are not as effective as three-point belts, they too will have a major effect in saving life and limb.

Why therefore have not the Government acted with greater promptitude? There was surely space in this legislative programme to be able to introduce enactments of that kind. The Government have said that, notwithstanding the arguments that have been adduced in a number of our debates, European Union legislation affecting the single market prohibits them from acting unilaterally. However, that is contradicted by the Minister's assertion that he is proposing--I do not know whether he has already sought the Commission's agreement--for the Government to act ahead of the European Union to ensure that all minibuses and coaches are fitted with seat belts when used specifically

29 Nov 1994 : Column 586

for children. If that is the case, they are utilising Article 36 of the Treaty, which provides that in certain circumstances a government is permitted to avoid prohibitions or restrictions on imports and exports of goods in transit on grounds of, among other things, the protection of health and life of humans. Consequently, that is what the Government are proposing to do in relation to seat belts on vehicles which primarily carry children. Why therefore should it not be extended over the whole field? The Government cannot have it both ways. Article 36 exists to be promoted in exactly these circumstances, provided that the Government do not collude in seeking to establish discriminatory rules in regard to trade.

I believe that the Government should utilise Article 36 in both cases. But perhaps the Minister can say when the application was made to the Commission for agreement in the first case to which I alluded. What has been the response of the Commission so far? Is there is a hold-up and, if so, why? Perhaps the Minister can respond to those important points when he replies. There is a growing impatience in this country with regard to measures that should be taken, and taken rapidly--ahead of the European Union as a whole --and which can be taken legitimately.

My second issue relates to the response so far of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, with which the Government have presumably been involved in a good deal of consultation. What is its view on these matters? Is it taking a negative attitude or does it support the Government's view, particularly with regard to coaches carrying children, where it is important that this unilateral action should be taken? Or is it opposing it? What is its view with regard to the wider application of seat belts in coaches generally?

I turn next to the question of drivers' hours and rest periods. I was involved in the regulations that emerged in 1986 to replace the former regulations in what was then called the "European Community". It is now called the European Union and some people, I understand, are confusing it with a large insurance company! But the European Union was previously known as the European Community.

The reason the Commission at that time put forward proposals for reviewing drivers' hours and rest periods was because the old system was found to be hopelessly complicated and virtually unenforceable. That applied throughout the European Community. When I advanced these proposals on behalf of the Commission, I met with a less than receptive response from member states generally. They seemed to want a concept in which one could have stricter regulations in this regard, but that they should not be too carefully and fully enforced. What we emerged with was a set of regulations that was almost as bad as what had prevailed previously; and notwithstanding all my blandishments, the member states insisted on rejecting the Commission's proposals totally, which, of course, they were entitled to do, and replacing them with their own half-baked scheme. That half-baked scheme remains today.

I should like to know whether the Government believe that it is necessary to have a new set of regulations here and what they are doing in that regard.

29 Nov 1994 : Column 587

If drivers at the wheel are excessively tired, then, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, pointed out in his intervention, serious accidents can so easily arise, and do. Indeed, I believe that in the terrible accident involving a number of American tourists last November there was evidence that the driver failed to take a proper rest before starting work, although I gather that the matter is still under investigation. However, that allegation was made. It is only one case. I am satisfied, from the evidence that was adduced before me, that there were very serious breaches of the regulations, then and now. What are the Government proposing to do? Does the Minister believe that enforcement is anything like sufficiently effective?

I turn to the next question, which is speed limiters. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has some doubts about the application of speed limiters. I do not believe that it is the Government's view that those doubts should be entertained and I certainly do not share that view myself. I welcome the introduction of regulations to restrict speeds to 70 miles per hour--new coaches are to be limited to speeds of 65 miles per hour--by the use of speed limiters. One thing is clear, however, and to this extent I believe the noble Lord is right: speed limiters are too easily disconnected. There is evidence that they have been disconnected, particularly in the case to which I have just referred.

Despite the use of limiters, and also the use of tachographs, speed limits are widely ignored by coaches and by heavy goods vehicles. Indeed, the Department of Transport survey of 1993 illustrated that one in five coaches--between 56,000 and 57,000 out of around 270,000 --broke speed limits on motorways in the United Kingdom. Some were recorded as travelling in excess of 80 miles per hour. The fact is that tampering takes place, both with the tachograph and with the limiters. I should like to know whether the Minister agrees that that situation needs further investigation; and if so, what the Government are proposing to do about it.

It is far too easy at the present time for the law to be broken. It is not good enough, and the situation needs to be remedied. When these serious accidents arose, I do not believe that the first reaction of the Government, which was to blame the European Union or European Community for not taking swift enough action, was at all justified. We are in a position of being able to act unilaterally in situations affecting the safety of our people. Of course, a case has to be made out that we are not engaging in arbitrary discrimination of trade and that we are not seeking to preclude others from entering the market for some bogus reason. But I do not believe that that is the case. Nor do I attribute such a motive to the Government. I believe that there is now an overwhelming reason for action. The Government have conceded part of the case, but why do they not concede the rest and stop behaving in an inconsistent way?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page