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Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I am grateful once again for the noble Viscount giving way. This is a matter where he and I have crossed swords before. Article 36, to which I referred earlier and to which I have referred in previous debates but without adequate response, exactly provides that protection where issues of safety affecting human life and health are involved. As I understand it, the Government have already sought permission as regards buses and coaches carrying primarily children. If that is the case, why do they limit the situation to that rather than extending it right across the board when they themselves are convinced that seat belts would lead to a saving of life and fewer injuries?
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord inasmuch as we have crossed swords on this matter before. I accept that he has considerable knowledge of the workings of the European Union, but what I do not accept is that we are wrong on this, despite the considerable debate that we have had this evening. I shall detail further the Government's position, why we feel that we cannot act unilaterally and the difference between acting across the board and acting towards a small, specified and highly targeted group such as vehicles used specifically for the carriage of children. I believe that the United Kingdom has taken a lead on this. We take it very seriously indeed. We believe that the best and the most enforceable and effective way of going about this is through the Union.
Following the tragic accidents which occurred late in 1993, a review of the technical and cost implications of fitting seat belts in minibuses and coaches was undertaken by the Department of Transport. That review indicated that, while three-point belts offer better
As a result of this review, the then Secretary of State announced on 19th July as part of a package of new measures to improve minibus and coach safety that: first, he would request the European Commission to set the shortest possible deadlines to introduce compulsory fitment of seat belts in minibuses and coaches; secondly, that the United Kingdom would act ahead of the Union to require the fitting of belts in mini-buses and coaches which are used specifically for the transport of children; and thirdly, that manufacturers and operators would be encouraged to fit belts in both new and existing vehicles.
Those measures are being pressed forward as quickly as possible. The draft regulations are being prepared for a consultation exercise which will begin before the end of this year. The regulations will also be used to inform the Commission of our plans to implement the proposals.
As regards the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, on mini-bus driver assessment, she may know that there is currently no power to enforce such an assessment, but I commend the advice and guidance that is provided by the Community Transport Association to organisations that run mini-buses. I believe that it would be preferable to build on that basis rather than set up a separate, perhaps bureaucratic, scheme.
This has been a useful debate. It has helped to clarify the issues. We have discussed matters of concern to the coach industry and to the many noble Lords who are present. I should reiterate that removing some of the differences between European countries must be good for passengers and consumers as well as for the bus and coach industries. I hope that what I have said provides the necessary assurances that the Government are well aware of the industries' anxieties and will continue to bear their interests in mind during any negotiations, and that the Government are well aware that those who use coaches and buses are concerned about potential problems, particularly the seat belt issue. This has been a worthwhile debate. I thank again my noble friend Lord Teviot and all noble Lords who have taken part.
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