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House of Lords

Wednesday, 3rd May 2000.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bradford.

Lord Brennan

Daniel Joseph Brennan, Esquire, QC, having been created Baron Brennan, of Bibury in the County of Gloucestershire, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Williams of Mostyn and the Baroness Scotland of Asthal.

Baroness Cohen of Pimlico

Janet Cohen, having been created Baroness Cohen of Pimlico, of Pimlico in the City of Westminster, for life--Was, in her robes, introduced between the Lord Paul and the Baroness Goudie.

Insulin-dependent Drivers

2.49 p.m.

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the licence regulations banning insulin-treated diabetics from driving vehicles over 3.5 tonnes should be replaced by a system of individual assessment of fitness to drive.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have the task of assessing for fitness to drive people who suffer from this and other medical conditions. Our general approach was reviewed in a valuable report by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology. We have today published the Government's response to that report. Our response confirms that we will review the scope for more individual assessment, subject to advice from the Advisory Panel on Diabetes and Driving.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, that is a very encouraging reply. However, does my noble friend agree that the blanket ban and the current regulations are arbitrary, illogical and inconsistent, as detailed in the recent report by the House of Commons Select Committee? Does he agree that the blanket ban represents an offence against the human rights of 100,000 of our fellow citizens? Further, does my noble friend accept that such unwarranted discrimination could be remedied by the introduction of a regime of individual assessment for those insulin-dependent diabetic drivers who wish to test their fitness to drive Class 2 vehicles?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the prime consideration, from the Government's point of view, must be fairness

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to all road users in terms of road safety. That must be our central concern. There are still a number of accidents which occur to people with diabetic conditions. It is not true to say that there is a blanket ban. Car drivers can obtain a licence for up to three years, and renewal depends on medical assessment. However, the Select Committee made some valuable points, particularly in relation to small commercial vehicles where there is a degree of inconsistency in the regulations and probably a degree of unfairness. That is why I referred in my original Answer to a review to look at the possibility of greater scope for individual assessment.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, is the Minister aware that I am experiencing a severe case of gold-plated deja vu? Is it the case that an insulin-dependent driver from the Netherlands would be able to drive in the UK while a UK driver with the same medical condition would automatically not be able to do so?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I do not think that it is a question of gold-plating. There are EU regulations on the matter and each member state carries out administratively the means to comply with those regulations. I do not have the precise details of the Dutch provision, but so far as concerns small commercial vehicles it depends on medical assessment. Therefore, it is not the case that any driver with this condition who has a Dutch licence can drive over here. Drivers with a Dutch licence will have been subject to a degree of medical assessment, which is more or less what the Select Committee in another place recommended for this country. There is no blanket permit anywhere in the EU.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend for his original reply, but what assessment has he made of what constitutes high and low risk in relation to individual fitness to drive? In particular and specifically, does he agree with the finding of the Select Committee on Science and Technology in another place that a key criterion is whether licence applicants are able to spot the warning signs of hyperglycaemia and are in good control of their blood sugar levels and that those with good control and awareness may be considered low risk?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, in general terms I agree with that assertion. The area of contention relates to driving vans and minibuses where there is greater danger to others than there is in driving a car. In this area the Select Committee recommends individual assessment. The EU regulations relate to "exceptional circumstances" for this class of vehicle. We have hitherto interpreted that to mean people having a proven record of driving frequently and regularly before they can be considered for exemption. It may well be that that rather blunt identification of exceptional cases needs to be replaced by something closer to an individual assessment. It is not by any

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means certain that individual assessment would lead to larger numbers being permitted to drive, but it would relate more directly to an individual's condition.

Lord Addington: My Lords, following on from the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Morris, does the Minister agree that the statistics should be broken down to indicate those who collapse at the wheel as a result of hyperglycaemia so that we can act on that information? I have heard a figure of 120 for those collapsing at the wheel as a result of the condition. Has the Minister any idea what the statistics are, as they would give some idea of the magnitude of the problem?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, there are significantly more cases of people collapsing at the wheel due to hyperglycaemia. Not all such incidents result in accident injuries--I believe the noble Lord is referring to injuries--but all have the potential to cause injury and therefore present a problem. Research on the matter is not robust, as the Select Committee pointed out. We are about to commission substantial research which will give a very much better indication of the size of the problem and, therefore, it is to be hoped, scope for a solution.

Modern Language A-levels

2.55 p.m.

Lord Watson of Richmond asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to reverse the decline in the numbers of British students taking German and French at A-level.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, the post-16 curriculum reforms we are introducing in September are designed to enable students to opt for a wider range of subjects while maintaining current standards. I expect many young people to use the new advanced subsidiary qualification, representing the first half of the full A-level, as a way to continue studying at least one modern language at advanced level. A number of universities have already indicated that they will be giving credit to broader programmes of study in selecting candidates for entry from 2002.

Lord Watson of Richmond: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, I wonder whether Her Majesty's Government will consider the proven impact over a long period of time of youth and student exchanges between countries. Over the years, for example, the Franco-German exchange has resulted not only in an enormous enhancement of linguistic ability in both languages and in both countries, but also in an understanding of the culture that lies behind the language. Given the importance of our relations with those countries, will the Government consider actively enhancing the level of youth and student

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exchanges, not only between France and Germany and the United Kingdom, but between this country and other members of the European Union?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, there is no better way of learning a modern foreign language than going to the country where it is spoken and using the language there. The Government strongly endorse everything that the noble Lord says about the value of such visits and exchanges. Indeed, the Government support the work of the agency that promotes such exchanges between schools. I accept that even more can probably be done. Under the new Socrates programme which has just been agreed right across the European Union, more work will be done to promote visits by young people, not just in France and Germany but in other European countries also.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, as the Minister will doubtless know, just one week today we shall have the report of the Nuffield language inquiry that was chaired by Sir Trevor McDonald and Sir John Boyd. Will the Government seize this moment to make a fresh onslaught on our deplorable monolingualism, so that we can start approaching the educational levels achieved apparently effortlessly by our continental neighbours, along with the cultural values that flow therefrom?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the Government greatly look forward to the report of the Nuffield languages group. I have had one meeting with some of those who are involved in it; however, I cannot anticipate exactly what they will say. An onslaught on monolingualism is more difficult in a country whose own language and mother tongue has become the lingua franca around the world. But we do need to encourage as many young people as possible to study a modern language beyond the compulsory school leaving age of 16, up to which time they do have to study a modern language. Since young people choose what subjects they take at A-level and AS-level, it is a matter of promoting a climate in which young people think it worth their while to study these subjects rather than of forcing them down their throats.

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