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5.37 p.m.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, this is a transport Question and as it is one of my interests I put my name down to speak. However, I found it difficult to discover what problem the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, intended to address. He mentioned axle weights; this morning I attended an interesting conference at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre concerning natural gas vehicles. Those vehicles have extremely low emissions, but the manufacturers were asking for an increase in rear axle weight to accommodate a rear engine and the necessary gas bottles.

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It will always be possible to produce a case for a modest increase in axle weights, but the problem is that coaches are already extremely difficult to recover when they break down. Any increase in the weight of the coach will make it impossible to lift and tow the coach while using the recovery vehicle with reasonable axle weights. Furthermore, the coach will operate at or near its maximum axle weight for a large proportion of the journey time, whereas a goods vehicle will be fully loaded for only about 50 per cent. of the time and often much less for certain types of work. If a heavier vehicle is required to carry passengers, goods, luggage and so on, we should use a vehicle with more axles.

With regard to the cost of diesel fuel, the Government have a duty to raise revenue for their expenditure programme. Road transport has always been properly taxed.

The noble Lord mentioned speed limiters. I have a problem with these. The regulations set the speed limit for a speed limiter at slightly below the maximum speed at which the vehicle is allowed to travel.

I also support the noble Lord's concern in relation to the banning of coaches from the outside lane of the motorway. Coaches are a priority form of travel on the motorway. They can often carry 40, 50 or 60 people and should therefore be allowed to use the outside lane even if it inconveniences people in their private cars.

I contacted the Confederation of Passenger Transport on two separate days, but surprisingly I received no briefing on any problems that it might have. I was, however, very grateful for the DoT accident statistics which the organisation sent me. There are so many tables that it should be possible to prove any hypothesis on safety matters that one cares to propose. What is clear is that only the air travel fatal accident rate was better than that for buses and coaches. The accident rates per billion passenger kilometres are: 0.2 for air travel; 0.5 for buses and coaches; surprisingly, 1.0 for rail--twice as bad as the rate for buses and coaches; and 4.5 for cars. When one looks at the accident rate for motor cycles, it is surprising that there are any motorcyclists left. The picture is not so rosy when one looks at the "killed or seriously injured" rate. But the figures are still quite good compared to those for private cars.

I do not suggest that we should be complacent about coach safety. I looked at the statistics for evidence to support the need for seatbelts--I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, will mention this point--and I found the figures to be confusing and contradictory. The accident rate is so low that it is difficult to reach a rational opinion; so I have none.

There is always scope for improvement. The noble Lord, Lord Teviot, mentioned the enforcement authorities. Those authorities must be eternally vigilant and must continue to ensure that our buses and coaches are maintained and operated to the highest standards. I am sure that the noble Viscount the Minister will assure me that they are doing just that. But can he confirm that the number of vehicle inspectors has been reduced and that that process will continue? Is he aware that such a policy will only encourage cowboy operators? No doubt his brief will mention multi-agency checks, and they are very valuable. But the Minister should be aware that

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inspectors' visits to operators' premises can be very revealing. That aspect of enforcement should not be neglected.

I now turn to minibuses. A minibus has no more than 16 seats, and a special vocational licence is not required to drive such vehicles. They are often used by schools, colleges, clubs etc. At one point I was involved in commercial vehicle driver training. We had a contract to assess drivers for a London borough in order for it to comply with the requirements of its insurance company. A significant number of minibus candidates had to be failed as they clearly did not have the skill and experience to drive a minibus. I expected to find some resentment when failing such candidates. More often, however, I found relief. The teachers, lecturers, club leaders etc. often had no choice as to whether they drove a minibus as it was part of their job.

While I realise the need for EC harmonisation of driving licences, can the Minister tell the House whether any method is available to ensure that all employers assess their minibus drivers? I am thinking of a scheme along the lines of the well-established non-statutory arrangements for the testing of fork-lift truck operators in a factory. No responsible organisation uses unqualified operators as it may fall foul of the Health and Safety at Work Act.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth: My Lords, with the indulgence of the House I should like to crave two or three minutes. I did not put my name down on the list of speakers because I had not expected to be in the House this afternoon. Perhaps the noble Baroness will forgive me--I understand that she is speaking below the gap perhaps on behalf of the party opposite.

I fear that my noble friend Lord Teviot, whose interest in the bus and coach industry is very well known--indeed, my noble friend is very knowledgeable about it--is pleading a special cause; namely, that, sadly, the last year or so has produced a number of somewhat disastrous accidents involving coaches which have called into question their safety. I do not believe that any effort to improve the safety of coaches can or should be ignored. That goes essentially to the design factors that enable seatbelts to be fitted on vehicles, whether in a large passenger carrying vehicle or in a so-called minibus which is not designed to take seatbelts. This is something of a longer term project and should be attended to.

The plea about excise duty on fuel is an old bone in a comparatively young dog's mouth. It applies equally to the heavy goods vehicle industry. One should not call out a preference for the passenger carrying bus or the coach business. It is a competitive business. What one should perhaps have is a level playing field with other modes of passenger carrying transport. But I fear that special pleading is not on the agenda.

When we come to the very narrow question of the use of motorways, there is a general misconception that the outer lane on a motorway is used either for the faster vehicle or for special kinds of vehicle. In fact, as I think

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noble Lords will agree, that lane is primarily built for overtaking so that the other lanes can carry the more moderately speedy vehicles.

It seems to me ridiculous that we should have speed limiters on coaches or indeed on other vehicles. Technically, I do not believe them to be terribly reliable. In the hands of inexperienced drivers they can be positively dangerous. What we in the coach and bus industry have to look at is a reasonably fair level playing field with other modes of transport and higher degrees of security both for the vehicle and the driver. Far too many drivers are part-time. They may very well have undertaken a day's work or shift work--they may be, for example, firemen or policemen or are perhaps in some other occupation--and then proceed to drive coaches. This is one reason why we have had over many years a number of quite serious accidents.

To take up the point that was made by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, I believe that in their enforcement the commissioners should be a good deal more stringent. I hope that the continuous operator licence system which is to come into effect with the passing of the deregulation Bill will enable the commissioners to have more time, perhaps more energy, and more expertise to devote to that aspect of coach and other transport problems.

Lord Teviot: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down--although I did not wish to interrupt him and I am very grateful for his intervention and experience--I must say that I was not doing any special pleading for part of the industry. I was only trying to point out that, compared with other modes of transport, it was perhaps being discriminated against. There was no special pleading.

5.50 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, speak, particularly as I agree wholeheartedly with much of what he said. I should begin by saying that I am one of those passionate Europeans who nevertheless dislike excessive and unjustified standardisation: otherwise I might be misunderstood. I shall limit myself to some fairly straightforward comments.

I believe that in general we should support those moves which increase bus safety and increase the use of buses as part of a sustainable transport strategy. What we have to ask about the directives that are currently in process of being either implemented or considered is whether they achieve those objectives. For example, will the proposed directive on the harmonisation of bus construction and the second directive on driver licensing contribute to bus safety and increase the use of buses? What about the actions of the present Government? How have they contributed to those objectives?

Specifically, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, about not having differential rates of taxation on different modes of transport. That is an important point which applies to a number of transport issues.

I oppose the regulation of matters which should be left to local decision-taking under the subsidiarity approach. For example, it is quite unnecessary for the

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Community to concern itself overly with the size and seating capacity of double-decker buses. That seems to be eminently suitable for local decision taking.

On the other hand, the proposals to increase the size and weight of all public service vehicles and to increase the standing density on many of them--proposals which are also contained in the directive on harmonising bus construction --exhibit some contrary points. One could justify the increased weight in terms of there being less risk of turning over. But surely the increase in standing passenger density does not contribute to passenger safety. The seated passenger is much safer than the standing passenger. Moreover, the decisions to standardise the sizes of buses smack of greater standardisation of vehicle sizes and types for its own sake rather than any interest in the two objectives that I mentioned.

Would larger vehicles assist in achieving increased bus use? I feel that we should all be concerned to bring buses as close as possible to where the users live. However, the larger the bus, the less able it is to move about a housing estate, for example, or go in and out of small villages. The change might have a contrary effect.

What about the increased costs in the UK, with its minimal public financial support of transport? The cost of transport is the main determinant of the level of patronage of buses.

We should approach the proposed directive on harmonisation of passenger vehicle size with an open mind and resolutely oppose any suggestions which appear to be motivated by a desire for standardisation for its own sake rather than to diminish a measured risk. I look forward with interest to learning the Government's intentions in this matter.

Finally, I should like to make a few comments on seat belts and the safety of minibuses, including driver training. Unfortunately, it is a sad fact that driver error is the main factor affecting the safety of transport in school minibuses and those owned by voluntary bodies. It is terrible to say but I am afraid that it is true. Very often the drivers are volunteers who do not have much experience in the management of large vehicles. So far as I know, they are not covered by legislation, directives or guidance on the length of time that they should drive. At the present time it is all left in the hands of the people who own the vehicles. In Surrey, for example, individual schools are drawing up codes of conduct for their drivers and are attempting to provide them with some kind of training. But, given the seriousness of this matter, it would be far better if the Government would co-operate with the local government associations, many of whose members try to provide training for drivers from voluntary organisations and schools, and develop guidance for additional training to ensure that, for example, within 10 years all drivers have the additional qualifications prescribed from 1996 for new drivers in the second directive on driver registration.

The hot political issue is seat belts, particularly as it affects minibuses owned and operated by voluntary organisations and especially schools, and those public service vehicles used for transport to schools. The installation of any type of belt has problems for both

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existing types of vehicles. A debate is under way as to whether we should insist on two or three-point belts--in other words, lap belts or lap and shoulder belts. There is a great difference in the types of vehicle into which the belts can be fitted.

I am worried by the argument that two-point belts--lap belts--are more dangerous in some circumstances than not wearing a belt at all. There is an urgent need for the Government to commission dispassionate advice on this matter before any regulation of any description on seat belts is implemented, because at this moment the Commission is talking about two-point belts.

There is a cost involved. Seat belts on buses for transport to school--whatever their type--will mean the abandonment of the current rule that three pupils may sit on a seat for two persons. That is probably a good idea but who will bear the cost of that?

Finally, there is the problem of the protection of the very young children who now travel on school buses as the number of small primary schools is gradually reduced in all country areas. Are the Government interested in promoting special designs of buses or special protection for those very young children?

There is clearly no reason why the UK Government should not provide guidance on driver training and the safety of seatbelts. Indeed, I understand that it is perfectly within our power to legislate on the seatbelt issue. There are in particular very real problems connected with the safety of buses and minibuses used by school pupils. I should be most grateful if the noble Viscount would respond to the questions that I have asked.

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