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Select Committee on European Communities Report


Letter from Joyce Quin MP, Minister of State, Home Office, to Lord Tordoff, Chairman of the Committee

  On 24 November 1997, I sent you a copy of the above draft Convention, together with an Explanatory Note. I understand that your Committee has not yet had an opportunity to consider the text. In the event the Luxembourg Presidency was unable to complete work on this important text but we have since been making efforts to finalise it. I am writing to let you know that, as a result of considerable progress made last week in the K4 Committee, this matter has become urgent, since we are hoping to put the text to the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 19 March for political agreement. It will obviously be embarrassing if the UK itself is not in a position to join in such an agreement and I very much hope you will be able to clear the text in time for the Council.

  I attach a copy of the latest draft of the Convention (with national positions deleted, as usual). I said in the Explanatory Note which I sent you in November that a particular difficulty had been the wish of some countries to be able to increase the period of disqualification imposed by the State of the offence. This question was finally resolved in K4 when it was accepted it should not be possible for a State of residence to increase the period originally imposed by the State of the offence. Another problem at that time was Article 8, and whether the State of the offence should be able to enforce the original disqualification period on its own territory, even if the State of residence has reduced it to a shorter period. You will see that the latest version of Article 8 preserves the right of the State of the offence to execute in its territory the full period of the disqualificaton which it originally determined, irrespective of any decision of the State of residence to reduce the period in that State. This is a solution which we support. We believe it would be unacceptable for a person given a lengthy disqualificaton here to have it reduced by a country whose law only permits a considerably lower maximum period of disqualification, and for the person to be able to return to the UK after that shorter period has expired and to be able to drive here.

  I have seen the evidence submitted to your Committee by some of the organisations you consulted. I was pleased to see that none of the organisations disagrees in principle with what the Convention is trying to achieve and some, such as the RAC and ROSPA are very supportive. Others, such as the Road Haulage Association, the AA and the T&G, would prefer that steps first be taken to secure a greater consistency in offences and penalties across the EU. That, as you will appreciate, is not the purpose of the Convention. Harmonisation of road traffic offences and penalties would be an extremely lengthy and difficult exercise (even if there were agreement on its desirability) and this is not currently on the EU agenda. Indeed, it is partly for that reason that the draft Convention (which has been under discussion for some seven years) has been developed in the way that it has, with safeguards being built into the text which seeks to minimise the effect of the differences in Member States' laws.

  Turning to specific points raised by the organisations, the AA refers to the question of access to justice for foreign nationals. This of course is a point which applies across the board to any criminal offences which a person may face in another country, not just to driving offences. You may find it helpful to know that we are addressing the question of the adequacy of provision for interpretation facilities for those facing proceedings in an EU Member State other than their own, in a separate Presidency initiative. A questionnaire to all Member States on the provision of interpretation facilities is likely to be issued shortly.

  The Transport and General Workers Union (T&G) supports the principle of the Convention but is concerned that a UK driver should receive no harsher penalty abroad than he would receive for the same offence here. That again goes to the question of the harmonisation of penalties which, as I have said, is not what this Convention is concerned with. The T&G go on to note that the Convention would appear to ensure the position when a driver returns to the UK. But it then expresses concern that the driver could still face a period of disqualification on return to the State of the offence, even if the UK authorities had reduced the period of disqualification. In fact, the position is not quite as set out in paragraph 8 of the Explanatory Report which I sent you in November. That paragraph said that it was likely, if the Convention were adopted in its present form, that the Government would opt for the second option described in Article 3(1)(b) (execution of the decision of the State of the offence via a judicial or administrative decision in accordance with the conditions laid down in Article 3(2)). One of the conditions of Article 3(2) is that the State of residence may reduce the duration of the driving disqualification "but only to the maximum term provided for acts of the same kind under its national law". I have since been advised, however, that there are no maximum periods of disqualification under UK law (below disqualification for life). Thus, if an offence is disqualifiable, it is entirely a matter of discretion for the court as to what period to impose. That said there are some mandatory minimum disqualification periods—for example 12 months disqualification for driving above the alcohol limit; and there are in practice guidelines used by the courts in relation to different types of disqualifiable offences. But as we have no actual maxima built into the law, this means that Article 3(2)(b) would have no practical effect in the UK and we would not be able to reduce the period set by the State of offence. That would put us in virtually the same position as if we adopted the first option under Article 3(1)(a) of direct enforcement.

  I must apologise that paragraph 8 of the Explanatory Note was to this extent misleading. What I think we must now do is to ensure, in the light of the comments expressed by the organisations whom you have consulted, and subject to the views of your Committee, that if the Convention is adopted, we consult widely at a later stage, before the necessary UK legislation is prepared, about which of the options to go for. That said, I might add that in practical terms, the inability to reduce penalties may not have much effect. The UK is regarded by other countries as having a relatively strict regime in these matters of disqualification.(By contrast, for example, the maximum period which can be imposed on a foreign driver in Austria is 28 days.)

5 March 1998

Letter from Lord Tordoff, Chairman of the Committee, to Joyce Quin MP, Minister of State, Home Office

  Thank you for your letter of 5 March. As you indicate the proposal has been under scrutiny by Sub-Committee E since last November. During that time the Committee has obtained the views of interested parties which were supplied to your officials in order to expedite the Committee's deliberations. The draft Convention has now been considered by the Committee. That consideration has been greatly helped by the evidence given by interested parties and the detailed response given in your letter.

  The draft Convention is a significant initiative aimed at improving road safety in the European Union. The Committee joins with the witnesses and the Government in supporting this important objective.

  As regards the detailed points made by its witnesses the Committee notes the explanations and comments of the Government, in particular the clarification of the position as regards the second option in Article 3(1)(b). It agrees that, if the Convention is adopted, there should be wide consultation prior to any decision of the Government on implementation. The Committee would be pleased if its witnesses could be included in that consultation process.

  As regards access to justice, the Committee has the draft Fourth Motor Insurance Directive under scrutiny, as you may be aware. It welcomes the news of the United Kingdom Presidency's initiative mentioned in your letter and looks forward to receiving more information about it.

  This letter confirms that the draft Convention has been cleared from scrutiny.

12 March 1998

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