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House of Lords

Friday, 26th April 1996.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Blackburn.

Road Traffic Offenders (Northern Ireland) Order 1996

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Baroness Denton of Wakefield) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 1st April be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this order seeks to harmonise Northern Ireland's road traffic laws in relation to prosecution and punishment of road traffic offenders with those in force in Great Britain under the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988. In particular, this revision of the law would introduce a penalty points system in Northern Ireland for road traffic offenders together with new dual level fixed penalties.

In brief, this order has three main parts. Part II deals with the trial of road traffic offenders and with evidence and production of documents to courts. Part III makes provision for the sentencing of offenders, endorsement of licences and disqualification. This part introduces penalty points for certain road traffic offences. Under this system road traffic offences would be divided into endorsable and non-endorsable offences. All endorsable offences would carry a number or range of penalty points and these would be endorsed on the counterpart of an offending driver's licence. On accumulation of 12 or more penalty points within a three year period the driver would be disqualified. The aim of the penalty points system is to provide for offences of varying gravity and to render any person who repeatedly commits endorsable road traffic offences liable to disqualification.

The proposed order also specifies offences which would carry obligatory disqualification in their own right and those where a court would have discretion to disqualify. In addition, provision is included introducing a new extended driving test for those disqualified on conviction of certain serious road traffic offences and for an experiment in the use of rehabilitation courses for drink drivers.

Part IV sets out the existing fixed penalty procedures and introduces two levels of fixed penalty. The present fixed penalty (£20) would continue for non-endorsable offences and a second level (£40) would be introduced for endorsable offences. These amounts would be subject to review.

The order creates five offences. These relate to failure to produce driving licences and certain information to courts, providing false statements in response to notices to owners seeking details of the driver of a vehicle at the material time and to the unauthorised removal of fixed penalty notices fixed to vehicles.

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As your Lordships will appreciate, it is a matter of considerable concern that Northern Ireland's road casualty record is worse than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. In recent years there has been a substantial reduction in the number of road traffic deaths and serious injuries and it is encouraging to see, in 1995, a 29 per cent. reduction in fatalities and serious injuries when measured against the 1981 to 1985 average. However, our target is to achieve a one-third reduction by the year 2000 and there is much to do.

Among the measures being taken to achieve this reduction is a review of Northern Ireland's road safety laws. A Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 dealing with road safety and related matters was enacted in November of that year. This, the offenders order, follows on from the 1995 order and revises the law relating to the prosecution and punishment of road traffic offenders. Its provisions are designed to increase the contribution which road traffic law can make to road safety and in particular to reduce the number of casualties on our roads in Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 1st April be approved.--(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that introduction. We welcome the order, in particular Article 41, the extended driving test for those disqualified on conviction of dangerous driving, motor manslaughter and causing death by dangerous driving. Article 36 seems to be an imaginative scheme--an experiment in the use of courses for drink drivers which brings about a reduction in the length of disqualification. We welcome the order.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that welcome. It is important that we reduce casualties on the road. We appreciate the support of your Lordships' House. I commend the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Ombudsman (Northern Ireland) Order 1996

11.11 a.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 25th March be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving the draft ombudsman order, I speak also to the Commissioner for Complaints (Northern Ireland) Order 1996.

These orders are designed to update and replace the two 1969 Acts of the Stormont Parliament which established the offices of Northern Ireland Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and Commissioner for Complaints.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration investigates complaints of maladministration against the Northern Ireland government departments and their agencies whereas the Commissioner for Complaints

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investigates similar complaints against local and public bodies. Both offices are traditionally held by one person, commonly known as the ombudsman.

Some of the changes in the orders flow from various Select Committee reports on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration recommendations and follow similar changes in Great Britain. The title Northern Ireland Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration is to be changed to Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.

There is provision for the removal from office of an ombudsman or Commissioner for Complaints who is incapable, for medical reasons, of carrying out his or her duties and is unable to resign. An acting ombudsman would be appointed to cover the period when the post is vacant pending a permanent appointment.

The original provisions which would have enabled the charging of fees for investigations by the Commissioner for Complaints have been removed as they are no longer considered appropriate. The existing time limit within which a complaint must be lodged with the Commissioner for Complaints has been simplified. Instead of a limit of two months from the time when the complainant first had knowledge of the action in the complaint or six months from such action, the complainant will now have up to 12 months from the day on which he or she first had knowledge of the matters alleged in the complaint. These limits are in line with those in the ombudsman order.

Other changes will bring within the remit of the Commissioner for Complaints, the administrative actions of staff in certain tribunals, and also extend the list of bodies subject to investigation. Before sitting down I would like to pay tribute to the quality of those people prepared to take on the position of ombudsman and Commissioner for Complaints in Northern Ireland. Recently retired Mrs. Jill McIvor set very high standards while in office and we are certain these will be well maintained by her successor Mr. Gerry Burns. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 25th March be approved.--(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

11.14 a.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, this order seems a little overdue. The Act which it is updating is more than 25 years old, as the noble Baroness has indicated, and during that time rather a lot has happened both in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain. I think it is generally conceded that overseeing quangos is a particularly important business in Britain. One has only to look back to some of the examination by the Nolan Committee to demonstrate the truth of that. But I think in Northern Ireland the responsibilities can be a great deal more substantial than they are in Great Britain, and certainly unaccountable quangos are highly undesirable in themselves.

One of the problems in Northern Ireland appears to be that many people seem to be entirely unaware of the existence of these bodies. Just to take an illustration,

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I understand that in the past two years there have been only six complaints about health in Northern Ireland made through the commissioner. I find it hard to believe that that represents the degree of potential complaint that there could have been within the National Health Service. There appears to be rather a worrying level of stoicism. The commissioner, Mrs. McIvor, is quoted as saying that only one in 10 people know there is an ombudsman at all. That being so--obviously it represents the truth of the matter--what do the Government propose to do about it? Will they take some additional steps to publicise the existence of these bodies? It is highly desirable that they should do so.

I have just one further question. In the event of any new quango being appointed, would there have to be a new order putting it under the ombudsman's jurisdiction? It would be helpful to know that. Finally, Article 15 gives the ombudsman powers similar to a court to carry out his investigations. That is conceded as necessary. But are the people who are to be investigated by him to be warned about that before the investigation takes place? It is important to have an answer to that question. Having said that, I welcome the proposals that the noble Baroness has put forward.

11.17 a.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, it is a curiosity that both posts are required to be specified by separate orders but they are held by the same person. I endorse the words that the Minister directed towards Mrs. McIvor who has discharged her duties with great distinction. I also endorse the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. I believe it is not a case of stoicism in Northern Ireland but a case of lack of knowledge. If an individual member of the public simply does not know that there is a remedy by way of the ombudsman complaints procedure, that is a serious defect. If only 10 per cent. know of it, surely there ought to be some effort by the government publicity machine, which is effective in Northern Ireland, to bring this to the attention of the general public. Other than that, somewhat belatedly we welcome these orders.

11.19 a.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I thank the noble Lords for their interest in these two orders. I assure them that while it has taken more time to bring this legislation forward than either of the noble Lords are happy with, that does not mean that the job has not been well done in the meantime. The action has been rather better than the paperwork.

As regards the number of complaints, we also watch that situation carefully. There are many reasons for the low number of complaints. I hope that the main reason is a positive one in that many of the matters which might be raised are dealt with before that stage is reached. I assure noble Lords that when my colleagues and I reply to unhappy people who write to us, we explain that this route is open to them. I believe that is of value. I shall refer the comments about lack of knowledge of the procedure involved to the ombudsman as that is a matter for him. However, the annual report of the ombudsman is always given maximum publicity and the

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citizens' charters have also enabled other routes and other definitions of people's rights to be made available. I believe that we can build on that.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked if there was a mechanism for bringing new bodies within the scope of the order without actually introducing a new order. Any new bodies that were to be added would automatically be added to the list of bodies within commission jurisdiction. The commissioner for complaints order also contains power to make a subordinate order to add bodies to those within the commissioner's jurisdiction. There is no intention whatever in Northern Ireland to create bodies that do not automatically fall within this power.

The noble Lord also asked whether there was a case for a mandatory warning as regards the powers of the ombudsman. The ombudsman has total discretion in the way in which he or she conducts investigations. It would be for him or her to consider the need for some warning in a particular case.

It is the Government's view that the provisions in the order in relation to obstruction and contempt are clear and should leave the body being investigated in no doubt as to its responsibility to co-operate with the investigation and as to what the penalties would be were it not to do so. However, I will ensure that the noble Lord's views are drawn to the attention of the ombudsman. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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