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House of Lords

Thursday, 6th July 2000.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Blackburn.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Mobile Phones: Use While Driving

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as President of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

The Question was as follows:

    Whether, in the light of the Stewart report, Her Majesty's Government will introduce legislation to ban the use of mobile telephones while driving.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the Government agree with the Stewart group's view that the use of mobile phones while driving can substantially increase the risk of an accident and that drivers should be dissuaded from using either hand-held or hands-free phones while on the move.

At present we share the view of the police that current legislation provides sufficient powers to prosecute irresponsible drivers. However, if drivers continue to use mobile phones while driving, the Government will review the case for specific legislation.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Given that the Minister recognises the strength of the evidence in the Stewart report, and given the obvious substantial increase in the purchase and use of mobile phones by our fellow citizens, does he not recognise that the situation is bound to grow apace in terms of seriousness and that therefore the case for legislation to restrict the use of mobile phones while driving is enhanced?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, together with the police, we accept the view that the use of mobile phones, hand-held or hands-free, does in different ways distract the driver. That could contribute to a loss of control and therefore be an offence under present legislation. The police believe that to define that offence specifically could be too prescriptive and could lead to other equivalent offences being downgraded. Nevertheless, I accept that this could be a growing problem. That is why we are keeping the matter under review; that is why we are assessing how the use of current powers affects the problem. My noble friend is right; it is a growing problem which is leading to an increasing number of accidents.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, is it not true to say that the problem with using hand-held

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phones is that a conversation held with someone not in the car is much more distracting than a conversation held with a person who is in the car? Is it not also true to say that it is more distracting than almost anything else a human being can do while driving a motor car?

Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: I said "while driving", my Lords. Is the Minister aware that Canadian research--research into actual accidents--indicates that people using phones while driving are four times more likely to have an accident than people who are not using a car phone while driving?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, most of what the noble Baroness said is correct, although the imagination of the House was clearly ahead of her and me at one point. The evidence to which the noble Baroness referred, which is partly American evidence, indicates that there is a significantly higher danger of an accident in those circumstances. This applies in part also to hands-free phones because of the nature of the distraction of a conversation. Nevertheless, it is also true that equivalent problems such as eating, combing one's hair and generally waving one's arms about can equally lead to a loss of control. That is why the police believe that the general powers are sufficient and that those general powers would cover the use of mobile phones. I accept the advice of the police for the moment. We will see whether their powers prove to be adequate.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, when the Government are considering seriously the possibility of banning the use by drivers of hand-held telephones in cars, will they take into account the points that were made when I raised this subject on the first day of Questions in this Parliament three years ago? I received an encouraging reply from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, whom I am glad to see in her place, whose department also took the occasion to issue a press release, which was also satisfactory and encouraging. Does the Minister accept that this is a very serious question which needs consideration?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I certainly accept that it is a serious situation. My noble friend Lady Hayman had anticipated the problem before mobile phones were as numerous as they are today. The department has continued to issue advice. Indeed, we are about to issue further advice on both hand-held and hands-free phones. In that advice we are supported by the police and, to a large extent, by the mobile phone companies themselves. We are continuing to warn against their use while driving. The police regard it as a major potential hazard, and the question of what is the appropriate legislation will be kept under review.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale: My Lords, how have other countries seen their way through these difficulties?

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Have they passed legislation making such conduct a criminal offence? I may be wrong, but I think that South Africa managed to do that.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am not sure of the situation in South Africa. There have been more prescriptive moves in some other countries, including, closer to home, in the Isle of Man. Our law is constructed in a somewhat different way. The more one specifies on the face of the Bill, the more it suggests that those issues which one does not specify are excluded from the general provision. That is why the police are cautious that if we prescribe the use of hand-held sets, that could restrict some other powers that they have over behaviour which loses control of the vehicle or distracts the driver.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, to whom will the advice to which the Minister has just referred be directed? I am disturbed by the radio "phone-in" programmes. The presenters know that they are talking to people who are on mobile phones but they encourage them to do so. Not only that, they ask them to hold on while a piece of music is played. I should have thought that could be stopped by advice to those people.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. Indeed, I recall a slightly bizarre episode when one radio station was covering this whole issue of mobile phones and five minutes later exactly the situation described by my noble friend Lady Gould occurred on the same station. I think that some direction needs to be given to everyone who uses a telephone as part of their professional life as well as to drivers directly. Many businesses tend to rely on their drivers ringing back to base. Very often they have not given those drivers sufficient instruction in terms of what they should do on the move and how they should pull over before engaging in a serious telephone conversation. Therefore, such instruction needs to be directed at radio stations certainly, but also at employers, businesses and individual drivers.

Fuel Poverty

3.9 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether significant action has been taken to respond to the problem of fuel poverty.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the Government have acted on the main causes of fuel poverty--poor energy efficiency and low income--by: cutting VAT on fuel and energy efficiency improvements; introducing the £150 winter fuel payment; acting to reduce domestic energy prices; allocating an additional £3.9 billion to social housing repair and improvement; introducing the affordable warmth programme and the New Home Energy Efficiency Scheme. The regulator has also

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extended the energy efficiency standards of performance schemes to include gas as well as electricity and has taken steps to ensure that most assistance is directed at low income households. An inter-ministerial group is reviewing the progress being made, the remaining scale of the problem and further measures that may be needed. The Government will then publish their fuel poverty strategy in the autumn.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, that Answer is rather commendable. Does it not suggest that the long-term disadvantage faced by many children as a result of living in very cold homes will be markedly reduced? Furthermore, are we not now on the verge of seeing an end to the incidence of hypothermia among the aged? In view of those improvements, is it not clear that this Government do make a difference?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I agree absolutely with my noble friend on his final point. We have intensified our efforts in this area and have targeted a number of programmes, including the New HEES which is directed particularly at the elderly and families living in poverty. That will enable us more effectively to tackle the problems faced by those who are most vulnerable. We have made a substantial start and we shall ensure that the full strategy is built up so that it can make a significant contribution to the elimination of fuel poverty in this country.

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