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Motor Cycling

1 pm

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford): I am delighted to have been able to secure this important debate on motor cycling and I am delighted that the Minister is here to respond. I am chair of the all-party motor cycling group. It is extremely active, with members in both the Commons and the Lords. We have taken up some serious issues relating to motor cycling over the past three years while I have been a member.

There are about 1 million motor cyclists in Britain today, which is a substantial proportion of the population. The size of the national fleet is sometimes debatable, but 1 million is a fair estimate. For many people motor cycling is an easy, affordable, accessible and convenient form of transport. They have chosen to use motor cycles to get to work, to see their friends to go out in the evening and to do all the things that we do in our communities.

For many motor cyclists, myself included, motor cycling is also a passion--it is in their heart. They perhaps love their bikes more than most car drivers love their cars. The issues surrounding motor cycling are therefore extremely important to them. I am pleased that we have parliamentary time today to explore some of those issues. It will inevitably be a canter through the issues as it is a big agenda and I know that the Minister will want to respond in detail on some specific issues.

I am pleased that the Government, for the first time ever, have established an advisory group on motor cycling to represent the motor cycle industry, the British Motorcyclists Federation, the Motorcycle Action Group, the Automobile Association, the Royal Automobile Club and a host of road users and people who are concerned about these issues. It is a sign of the Government's commitment: they see the role of motor cycles and powered two-wheelers generally as important in developing transport strategies.

The advisory group on motor cycling has just issued its first interim paper, which is quite detailed. As is par for the course with this Government, they have set up a number of taskforces to examine the issues in greater detail. They are all reporting back and doing excellent work. I want to press the Minister on the development of a motor cycle strategy. We have the advisory group, but we need to move on to a clear set of proposals for putting motor cycles and powered two-wheelers at the heart of transport policy. The report talks about producing a strategy in 2003. I should like the Minister to confirm that timetable.

One of the things for which motor cyclists most often press is the ability to use bus lanes. That would help to free up traffic in cities and towns. As motor cyclists, we feel that we have a major role to play in easing congestion. If motor cycles could use bus lanes we could speed the traffic along, whether for couriers, dispatch workers or people on their way to work. A host of users could get through the traffic much more swiftly. That would not just ease congestion, but would reduce pollution, as there would be fewer idling machines and emissions would be reduced.

There have been a number of experiments on the use of bus lanes in Reading and Bristol, and in Hull, in the constituency of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The local

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authorities there have been progressive and have been prepared to look at the use of bus lanes by motor cycles. I am disappointed that the report of the advisory group says in paragraph 34:

It is not a matter of the Government's dictating what happens; local authorities have an important role in implementing many of the proposals. However, the Government can endorse those proposals, give them a fair wind and say that they are rooted in research, based on fact and a very good thing to do. I hope that there will be a much more widespread use of bus lanes in future.

I want to discuss the need for secure parking. For years, motor cyclists have not had access to secure parking, especially in towns and cities, and the problem of motor cycle theft is immense, perhaps because motor cycles are easy to steal. It is hard to make a motor cycle theftproof; one has to invest in locks, chains, concrete posts and so on to reduce theft. A simple way of cutting motor cycle theft would be for local authorities to provide simple, cheap roadside or kerbside bars to which bikes could be chained, so that there was less chance of their being stolen.

Approximately 20,000 motor cycles are stolen every year. As I said, for most motor cyclists their bike is their passion. When my motor cycle was stolen I went on a crusade to recover it, and was able to wheel it back to my house. I know how angry motor cyclists are about motor cycle theft.

I am pleased that the Government's local transport plan guidance recommends local authorities to consider the appropriate number of parking spaces needed for motor bikes and the need for good access to them. It also encourages local authorities to introduce secure parking where possible. A helpful amendment to the law last year enabled local authorities to provide secure parking without being accused of obstructing the highway. We must encourage more local authorities to take note of these issues.

I spoke recently to people in my local authority about a range of issues such as bus lanes, secure parking, road maintenance and so on. They said, "We have never thought about these important matters because we do not have a motor cyclist on our local advisory group and there is no one to bring these issues to our attention. No one in our department rides a motor bike. No one in the highways department has highlighted these issues." It would help if the Government suggested that local authorities' consultative committees should make positive attempts to encourage motor cyclists from their local community to bring their perspective and ideas to

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community-based discussions. Local authorities could perhaps place an advertisement in the local paper asking motor cyclists who might be interested in taking part in policy making to come forward.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): Does my hon. Friend agree that one advantage of the involvement of bikers in planning and policy making is that it helps to destroy the unfortunate stereotype, to which even Ministers are not wholly immune, that occasionally casts motor cyclists as aggressive and antisocial? My hon. Friend and I were present at a meeting of the motor cycle group when we heard the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) claim that he had once ridden from Great Britain to Greece wearing only a baseball cap. He later qualified that by saying that he was referring to head covering--he did not like crash helmets--but by then an awful image had lodged in the mind, which is the stuff of nightmares to this day. Does my hon. Friend accept that most motor cyclists are not antisocial, but responsible adults who recognise that powered two-wheelers represent a fuel-efficient, cheap, accessible, efficient and guaranteed method of transport in urban areas?

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair) : Order. This is a rather long, although interesting, intervention.

Mr. Pound : I thought that the mention of Greece might distract you, Mr. O'Hara. In conclusion, I say that if, at the weekend, my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears) had been at the London motor cycle museum in Greenford--that temple to the best of British iron, a gallery of motor cycling excellence--she would have seen exactly what she wanted to see: motor cyclists in the London borough of Ealing setting out their stall and working with the local authority for the betterment of us all.

Ms Blears : I am delighted to hear that information from my hon. Friend. He is right that motor cycling used to have an aggressive macho image, but nothing could be further from the truth nowadays. I am proud to ride a Yamaha Virago 535S. More women are taking up motor cycling and thoroughly enjoying it, especially on beautiful sunny days like today. Yesterday I took my bike for a spin and it was great fun.

I want to move on to road safety education. A GCSE that concentrates on motor cycling is available. It has practical and theoretical elements. It teaches young people to be safe on the roads and, hopefully, reduces the number of accidents. Unbelievably, it is accredited as a GCSE only in Northern Ireland. It is taught in this country, but not within the school curriculum, and it is difficult to get it accepted in England and Wales. Will the Minister work with Education Ministers to find a way of accrediting that GCSE in this country? It is useful and engaging, especially for young men of 15 or 16 who may not be turned on by the traditional curriculum but would enjoy taking a GCSE in motor cycling and road safety education.

Another issue is disabled motor cycling. It may be a difficult image to picture, but some disabled people thoroughly enjoy motor cycling and, in common with disabled people with motor cars, might need a small change to their machine--a different gear lever, clutch

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or brake. It is disgraceful and discriminatory that the Motability scheme is not extended to motor cycles. The excuse given by the trustees is that it is hard to find engineering firms of sufficient depth and calibre to sustain the necessary amendment to motor cycles. I can say categorically that that is simply not the case. Our group has evidence of engineers who have carried out marvellous adaptations to motor cycles and many disabled motor cyclists can now enjoy their sport and use their machines for transport. Will the Minister examine Motability further? It is unfair that people who choose to travel on two wheels cannot access a scheme that people on four wheels can. That anomaly must be investigated further.

Another issue of unfairness--I am sorry if my speech sounds like a catalogue of complaints, but the motor cycling community wants me to press these problems--is the fact that VAT is payable on compulsory, but not optional, training and safety equipment. People need higher and more competent riding skills and they need the best protective equipment to minimise any injuries. Will the Minister examine the merit of a fiscal regime that does not provide incentives to acquire the safest equipment?

Vehicle excise duty, which I realise is not a matter for the Minister, is another issue. We will press the Chancellor to encourage the use of powered two-wheelers. Vehicle excise duty has proved effective at encouraging people into smaller cars, so it might also be used as an incentive to get people out of their cars and on to two wheels.

The work done by the advisory group is good news and I am delighted at the progress that has been made. A whole section of the report deals with diesel spillage, in respect of which it would be good to make even faster progress. Motorcycle News recently organised a petition--and secured 50,000 signatures--for amendments to be made to the filling caps of heavy goods vehicles to prevent diesel from spilling out. It is amazing how many road accidents occur not as a result of any faults on the part of motor cyclists or car drivers, but because diesel has spilt out of heavy goods vehicles as they negotiate a roundabout. In those circumstances, motor cycles often skid, which can lead to nasty accidents.

I am aware of a new directive on changing tank caps and firmly closing the seal. The advisory group's report stated:

Finally, I make a plea to car drivers. Motor cycles are often paraded as a dangerous form of transport that is predominantly used by young men and, sometimes, older men--I think that they are called born-again bikers--who have accidents with huge numbers of casualties. However, many motor cycle accidents are caused by car drivers who did not see the motor cyclist coming. Such drivers may turn right out of a junction without looking or seeing the bike. There will be a crash

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and, usually, the motor cyclist comes off worst in the accident. I plead for much better training for car drivers to make them more aware of the problems, because motor cyclists are blamed too often when it is not their fault. All people who use the roads, using vehicles such as cars, goods vehicles, motor cycles, mopeds and cycles--cyclists are a very important group--have a responsibility to work together when using the roads, and I believe that we can live harmoniously. I am delighted that the Government have taken the matter of motor cycling seriously.

There are a million motor cyclists out there, and I tell the Minister, in encouragement--he has had a tough time in the past couple of weeks, since we were involved in a slip of a tongue in the Chamber--that bikers are voters too and, if it all gets really tough, he can always get on his bike and go.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears) on securing the debate. She is, of course, the chair of the all-party motor cycling group. I also thank her for her courtesy in giving me notice of some of the detailed matters that she wished to raise in debate. I reassure her that I will study the Official Report and that I shall respond in writing, where appropriate, to questions asked in her speech that I am unable to deal with in my ensuing remarks. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) for his important intervention--he is, of course, a vice-chair of the all-party group.

Before I turn to the substance of my reply, I take the opportunity to clear up a deeply unfortunate misunderstanding that arose between my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and myself on 24 April, as a result of which I wrote to her saying:

The Government decided, at an early stage, to take a positive approach to motor cycling, and to work constructively with the industry to resolve potential difficulties. Our 1998 White Paper on the future of transport set out our position on motor cycling as part of an integrated transport policy. It recognised that powered two-wheelers have an important contribution to make, as did our 10-year transport plan, which was published last year. The White Paper acknowledged that mopeds and motor cycles can provide an alternative means of transport for many trips, and recognised that where public transport is limited and walking is

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unrealistic, motor cycling can provide an affordable alternative to the car that brings benefits to the individual and widens their employment opportunities.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hill : Very briefly, because I have much to say and little time in which to say it.

Mr. Sheerman : It would be sad if the Minister placed his remarks on the record without acknowledging that motor cycling is a very dangerous form of transport. When I entered the House, 1,000 young men a year riding motor cycles were killed on British roads, and it is an advantage that we have cut down the number of young people riding motor cycles without training. We already see an upward curve in motor cycle deaths, in many cases of men and women in their 30s. Motor cycling is a seriously dangerous mode of transport, and its safety should not be likened to that of the car.

Mr. Hill : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I hope to address the safety issue.

The role of motor cycling raises important and complex issues. For that reason we have established an advisory group on motor cycling, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salford said, to discuss key issues, including safety and the environment. The group involves a broad range of interested parties, including those who ride powered two-wheelers. That has helped the Government to move motor cycling policy forward and to define the role of motor cycles in our transport strategy. Last month, we published an interim report on the group's work and I can confirm that the Government intend to publish a motor cycling strategy in 2003.

One of the first things that we recognised was that successive Governments had failed to take proper account of the needs of motor cyclists. We have already done much to remedy that. In March 2000, we published guidance on local transport plans for local authorities, which said that authorities should take account of the contribution that powered two-wheelers can make in delivering integrated transport policies and consider specific measures to help motor cyclists in making integrated journeys. We asked local authorities to consider specific issues, including the provision of appropriate parking for motor cycles and the provision of good access, suitable facilities and secure parking at public transport interchanges. We asked them to remedy deficiencies in the road surface that affect motor cyclists, and to be aware of the role that powered two-wheelers can play in remote or rural areas.

I note with interest my hon. Friend's proposal that local authorities make efforts to involve motor cyclists in their local transport planning. As she said, we have provided powers and money for local authorities. The Transport Act 2000 gave them specific powers to provide secure parking facilities for motor cycles. In November, we announced £1 billion for local authorities to spend on maintenance over the next two years, which is double the amount of money now

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available. That will help to eliminate the potholes and bad surfacing that cause so many problems for motor cyclists and other road users.

The debate should not simply focus on what local authorities can do. The Highways Agency's safety plan takes motor cyclists into account and the maintenance plan recognises how important a contribution well-designed maintenance can make to road safety. Over the next few years, the United Kingdom will implement new European Union measures aimed at reducing fuel spillage, which represents another danger on the road surface.

The private sector has a role to play, too. We published guidance for businesses highlighting the space-efficient nature of powered two-wheelers and detailing the ways in which employers could help motor cyclists. Those include the provision of safe and secure parking, changing and storage locker facilities and safety training.

We are taking other steps to aid integration and traffic management. Several local authorities are active in increasing the amount of powered two-wheeler parking that they provide, but little technical guidance is available to those who need to take account of motor cycling in the public or private sectors. Therefore, we shall provide advice on various aspects of the planning and provision of parking facilities, including secure parking.

On a previous occasion, my hon. Friend raised the issue of congestion charging. I can now reinforce the reply that I gave her. The Government believe that powered two-wheelers should generally be exempt from road user charging and workplace parking schemes. We intend to leave decisions to local discretion but will publish guidance for consultation in the summer. Some local authorities allow motor cycles into bus lanes, but to date no proper monitoring or evaluation of that practice has taken place. A thorough examination of the traffic and safety implications for motor cyclists and other road users is required to enable us to draw proper conclusions. Therefore, we have approached several highway authorities that are interested in the possibility of allowing powered two-wheelers into bus lanes, with a view to participating in fully monitored trials over the next year or two.

We recognise that mopeds and motor cycles are being used in an effort to beat congestion, and people have argued that, if more trips were made by powered two-wheelers rather than car, less congestion would result because they take up less road space. A project is under way to consider the impact of powered two-wheeler use on congestion. That will help us to answer questions on the effects that increased motor cycling will produce.

I am confident that all those initiatives will better integrate motor cycling into our transport system but other, perhaps more difficult issues and challenges for motor cycling remain. The safety of motor cyclists is a significant issue for the Government. Motor cyclists represent a large proportion of road casualties in relation to their numbers. Our most recent figures--for 1999--show that there were 10 per cent. more deaths among two-wheeled vehicle users than in the previous year. Although it is true that the casualty rate shows a welcome fall of about 9 per cent., motor cyclists remain our most vulnerable road users.

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We must deal with the problem. In March 2000, we published a road safety strategy for the next 10 years. It sets casualty reduction targets to be achieved by 2010, including a 40 per cent. reduction in the number of people killed or seriously injured. Action is required to deliver such targets and we are already taking steps to implement the motor cycling package. Following consultation, we have recently introduced regulations that deliver several of the measures that we wanted and have removed those regulations that have had no helpful effect.

We have ended the unpopular "two years on, one year off" rule. From 1 February 2001, provisional licences will last until the age of 70, but people who do not pass a test within two years must remove their compulsory basic training certificate to continue riding. That is more appropriate than a ban, during which time a rider's skills may decline. In addition, the life of a CBT certificate has been reduced from three to two years. That achieves a sensible balance between providing learners with an incentive not to delay reaching test standard, while giving a reasonable period to accommodate individual circumstances.

Until recently, anyone passing a car test was granted a full moped licence without relevant training or testing. We believe, however, that riding a moped safely involves different skills from those needed to drive a car safely. Car drivers who qualify after 1 February 2001 will be required to complete a CBT course before using their moped entitlement to ride on the road. That will ensure that car drivers receive appropriate training before taking to two wheels.

The content of the car and motor cycle theory tests has changed and diverged. For example, the motor cycle test now better meets the needs of learner drivers than it did when it was introduced in 1996. To ensure that learners are tested properly for their mode of transport, the regulations provide that exemption from the motor cycle theory test for full car licence holders, and vice versa, is ended. We have ended that exemption.

Other measures are in the pipeline. We are developing pre-test rider training for all learner drivers, based on a range of competences to be achieved. It will be supported by training logbooks. To complement that, we shall be improving the standards of motor cycle instructors. That improvement will be supported by a voluntary register of accredited motor cycle instructors.

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In the longer term, we want to make that a statutory register. We want motor cycle instructors to be trained and tested to the same high standards that we propose for car instructors.

We are worried about the recent increase in casualties among older riders. We shall therefore develop guidance for full motor cycle licence holders who are turning to motor cycling after a break and for those taking to two wheels for the first time in later life. We want those riders to have a reliable source of training and refresher courses. We shall continue to promote improvements in engineering and technical standards, which could better protect motor cyclists. For example, my Department is leading a European collaborative research project, which we hope will lead to a new helmet standard in about five years.

The Government are also considering how to protect people who ride powered two-wheelers as part of their jobs--a point to which my hon. Friend referred. Initiatives are being pursued in partnership with industry, including the development of agreed codes of practice for motor cycle couriers and for fast food home delivery operators, and improved rider training with national standards for training schemes. The Government understand that motor cycle safety is not only a matter for the rider. Bad or inconsiderate driving by people in cars and other vehicles is a significant factor. Through training and testing, we want to make drivers more aware of the vulnerability of riders.

We shall be introducing hazard perception testing for all test candidates during the autumn of 2002. That will test the ability of a driver or rider to identify at the earliest possible opportunity situations that might require them to take some form of avoiding action, such as a change of speed or direction. We shall certainly have video clips showing motor cyclists.

I hope that my remarks demonstrate that we have taken great strides to move forward motor cycling policy and to take account of the needs of motor cyclists. The Government talk to motor cycling interests regularly and reflect on what is said before developing policy. There is still much to do, but with the help of the advisory group, the Government will see through the initiatives that I have described, and others, to develop good and well thought out policies. We continue to see powered two-wheelers as important in our transport strategy and remain committed to their safe use on our roads.

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