Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Earl of Dundee: My Amendment No. 106 is in the group. It seeks to add to the requirements for those taking a driver awareness course. As things are, such drivers must pay the fee, they have to attend the course properly and show that they have followed instructions. Yet there is no reference to their need to attain an appropriate standard. Clearly this omission is somewhat anomalous. I therefore invite the Minister to accept such a reference accordingly as indicated by Amendment No. 106.
17 Oct 2005 : Column 638

Amendment Nos. 198, 110 and 112, also in my name, focus on the role of the Secretary of State. They propose that benefits of these courses are assessed at relevant intervals, that the Secretary of State may consult in their regard, and that he may extend their use as relevant.

Earl Attlee: I have Amendments No. 105, 109 and 111 in the group. Turning first to Amendments Nos. 105 and 109, New Section 30A(7) of the Road Traffic Offenders Act prohibits the court from making an order for retraining unless it is satisfied that a place is available. First, how is the court to know that a place is available? Secondly, are we not in a chicken and egg situation? This point also links in with my previous amendment and the problem identified by the Minister about training capacity. There are plenty of people who could do driver training but who choose not to. I used to be a qualified Army driving instructor. My qualification is now out of date, but I could probably re-qualify if I wanted to. I enjoy the work and have done it commercially.

However, like many others, I do not do it because it is not remunerative enough. I am also quite busy at the moment, but at some level of remuneration I would have to be tempted, even if only on a part-time basis.

If there was an increased and temporarily unsatisfied demand, more potential instructors would come forward to meet the demand. Drivers requiring retraining will simply have to pay what the market demands. After all it is their problem since it is their driving that is below standard.

My Amendment No. 111 covers appeals against issuing a retraining certificate for drink offenders under proposed new Section 30B. I have to apologise to the Committee because I should also have drafted a new provision for Section 30A which deals with penalty points. However the principle behind my amendment is the same for both new sections.

The provisions in the Bill are a major concession to offending motorists. I am concerned that the regime could be undermined if the trainers were worried about being appealed in court if they refused to issue a retraining certificate, even if they knew they were right to do so. Can the Minister explain why my fear is groundless? Without the appeal provisions, what is the worst that could happen? The offender would have to take another course with a different provider. I am not convinced that the Minister has got the balance right.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, at an earlier stage, when we discussed penalty points for speeding, the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, made the point that the police or whoever issued the speeding fine, not the court, offered the offender the choice of retraining in lieu of penalty points. I presume from what the noble Lord said at that stage that the option applied only now and therefore someone who committed their first offence when the option was not available, but who wanted to take up the option now—on their second offence, for example—would have "missed the bus". Are those training courses the same type as those about which the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, talked
17 Oct 2005 : Column 639
earlier, or is there a substantial difference? He told us that the uptake by those offered a course instead of penalty points was very high.

Lord Davies of Oldham: I am grateful to noble Lords for the clear way in which they spoke to their amendments on training courses. Under our new provision, the decision would be taken in the courts. As the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, explained clearly, it is an opportunity for drivers whose licence has been endorsed with penalty points, not disqualified, to pay by undertaking to participate in a retraining course. I emphasised why I regarded such cases very differently from those of disqualification, on which we differed during the debate on the proposals of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, asked why we do not start earlier, and why we restrict the option to those who have already committed several offences, in the bracket of seven to 11 points. He suggested that we widen the provision so that more can avail of the option to retrain to improve their driving skills and learn a few lessons. I have no doubt, given the way in which the retraining is carried out, that lessons are drawn from past bad practice; examples of bad practice will be shown and they will be clearly recognised by the offender. The reason that we do not offer retraining from the beginning is that we must be able to provide enough courses. We cannot ask the courts to make such a provision without having sufficient places for offenders.

I hear what the noble Lord says. I do not dispute the desirability of granting the option to all; nor do I deny that we should work towards potentially offering the option to all appropriate offenders. However, I ask the noble Lord to accept that we must see how the scheme goes. It is a significant administrative commitment and a big exercise. It must be guaranteed because it is about the enforcement of a penalty. Although these courses are different from the points system, they are a penalty because they are imposed. It is a useful concept, to which all noble Lords subscribe, and we want to start by dealing with limited numbers with which we can cope. As the Committee will recognise, the problem is that many people commit one offence and fall into the three-points category. We would be taking an enormous risk if we said that we could set up a strategy

Lord Hanningfield: The Minister used the very useful phrase "work towards". Plenty of legislation includes timetables. Although there are not enough retraining courses now, will the Government consider providing them over a period, so that we can work towards the objectives proposed in my amendments? It seems to be what the Government want anyway? Perhaps, even if we do not create a definite timetable, we could include in the legislation wording that would allow us to get there in the end.

Lord Davies of Oldham: We are eager to make the courts' position as credible as possible if they make such an offer. We fear that the obvious outcome would
17 Oct 2005 : Column 640
be that a court, although it would prefer the option, cannot do so because there are not enough available training places. I understand what the noble Lord is saying and do not object to his proposal in principle—far from it. We are eager to implement the principle, but his amendment would get us into considerable difficulty.

Lord Hanningfield: I would be happy to work with the Government on a better amendment for it.

Lord Davies of Oldham: I am grateful for that, too. We will continue to work together towards that common objective. I am also grateful for the noble Lord's amendment, as it gives me the chance to clarify our position. However, I must be precise about what I am prepared to accept in the Bill and that which I am not. Although I understand the noble Lord's position in principle, I cannot accept his amendment.

Amendment No. 104, also tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, would remove the power of the Secretary of State, by regulations, to add or remove offences in respect of courses under Clause 23. I cannot see the argument for that. I understand why we must be watchful of the powers that we give Ministers, and why proper checks and balances must be in place, but new offences are bound to emerge, given the inceasing amount of traffic. It would be odd if we had to return to primary legislation before we could bring any of those within the scope of the provisions.

The last amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, would remove the power to approve courses subject to conditions. Without those conditions, we would be constrained to approve courses that might be acceptable in limited circumstances but would not in their generality meet the Secretary of State's standards and guidelines for approval. I recognise what the noble Lord is driving at and accept his point that we might need flexibility in different parts of the country. Imposing on someone in central London the obligation to attend a course for three days a week is different from imposing on someone in the Scottish Highlands the obligation to attend a course in Inverness three days a week. I am grateful for the nod from the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, who knows those issues only too well. If we can achieve the same objectives by limiting the duration of the course and cramming it into a shorter period, we may need to do so thus avoiding adverse penalties depending on the part of the country in which the offender lives. We seek such flexibility. The noble Lord indicated that Amendment No. 107 was a probing amendment. That is why we take that position.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, seeks to remove the provision that the court must be satisfied that a place on the course will be available to the offender. I am afraid that we must defend that provision.

This is an important duty for the court. In order to sustain the court's credibility in adopting this penalty for a person who has committed a traffic offence, it is essential that the penalty can be imposed and complied
17 Oct 2005 : Column 641
with. That is what we do, as I illustrated earlier, by guaranteeing places for drink-drive offences, and we seek to sustain that in Clause 23.

I understand the noble Earl's point, but we feel that to remove these requirements would leave the offender in the unsatisfactory position of not being able to take advantage of the court's order, and therefore having to have the other punishment, because there were not places available. That would put the authorities in a difficult position, one we would seek to avoid.

The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, has tabled Amendments Nos. 106 and 110. My noble friend Lord Berkeley also supports them, although he is not able to give voice to that this evening. What happens in the situation where the provider might decline to issue a certificate of completion, thus denying the offender the opportunity to benefit from a remission of penalty points? These circumstances involve failing to pay the fee, failing to attend the course in accordance with the course provider's reasonable instructions, or failing to comply with any reasonable requirement of the course provider.

As I understand them, the noble Earl's amendments provide for additional circumstances to be inserted into all this regarding failure to achieve an appropriate standard. We are all concerned about standards with regard to such courses, and I understand that his motivation is to ensure they achieve our objective. The courses improve the skills of the motorist, and make them better, more responsible drivers, so the offences are not committed again. I do not doubt the motivation behind these amendments.

The problem is that we do not propose formal assessment or marking at the end of the course. That would introduce a whole new concept into the way the courses would run, and raise a whole strand of issues with regard to appeals, which I will come to in a moment. Once we introduce the concept that the course evaluates performance in some detail, the role of these courses is totally different. Our expectation is only that the offender attends and participates in accordance with the requirements of the course provider. Lack of co-operation or recidivist behaviour would be grounds for immediate dismissal from the course, which would involve the other penalty being imposed.

We would not want to be involved in setting standards of performance. I think noble Lords will recognise that we have a large and complex enough task to establish courses of this kind and to make them work and achieve their objectives with rigour and consistency, especially if we make progress with the idea of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, to extend them to a far wider range of offenders. To introduce a whole range of evaluations and performance tests would lead us into a difficult area. I hope the noble Earl will recognise that I understand his desire to raise standards. We just do not think that is possible within this framework.

On Amendments Nos. 109 and 112, I assure him that the development of such schemes is done in collaboration with other bodies involved, notably the
17 Oct 2005 : Column 642
courts, as well as course providers, with which the Department for Transport has a routine dialogue on the subject. To bring in a statutory consultation procedure would not bring any particular benefit, and it is not necessary. There is no way we can institute these courses without the fullest consultation, both with the courts which will impose the penalties and with those who would be expected to be the providers. I hope he will recognise that I understand the sentiment behind the amendment, but we would guarantee that effective consultation went on. In fact, we cannot attain our objectives without that appropriate consultation.

8.15 pm

Finally, on Amendment No. 111 regarding the question of appeals, it seems to me that the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, is at one end of the spectrum, and the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, is at the other. If we had any evaluation along the lines proposed by the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, we would have great trouble with any concept of appeal. Suffice it to say, on the basis that we intend to operate these courses, we think the right of appeal should be guaranteed. It is in our drink-drive rehabilitation scheme, and we think the scheme should have the same concept.

It is an elementary right for people who have been through a process of this kind at least to have some challenge, if the process should let them down so hugely that they might have a case to put against the provider. That is why we think there should be a right of appeal, but we also recognise that these are offenders who go on courses because they have committed breaches of the law, so we recognise that the powers of appeal would be used sparingly on fairly narrowly defined lines. It would not escape anyone's imagination that there could be one occasion when a provider so failed in his duty with regard to the course that an individual had a complaint against him, and that is why we think a right of appeal should be there. I hope the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, will recognise that we are not weakening at this juncture, but safeguarding a basic right.

I hope that I have answered all the points on the amendments sufficient for the movers to withdraw them, but I notice I have not quite.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page