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Obligatory Test Certificates For Passenger-Carrying Vehicles

Volume 981: debated on Monday 24 March 1980

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

'In section 44 of the Road Traffic Act 1972 (obligatory test certificates) in subsection (4) (excluded classes of vehicles) the following words (which relate to the exclusion of large public service vehicles) shall be omitted—

  • (a) the words from "to public service vehicles" to "passengers or"; and
  • (b) the words from "but shall apply" onwards.'.—[Mr. Fowler.]
  • Brought up, and read the First time.

    3.32 pm

    I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

    With this we are taking new clause 8—Annual inspection of public service vehicles:

    'The Minister shall prescribe in regulations arrangements for the annual inspection of public service vehicles at either official public service vehicle testing stations or, if the equipment provided is adequate, the operator's premises, but no such regulations shall be made until a draft thereof has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.'.
    and Government amendments Nos. 75, 76, 91 and 92.

    I am delighted to open the debate by proposing a new clause that I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome. The clause concerns, basically, the safety of vehicles. It paves the way for a new annual test of all large passenger-carrying vehicles. It is a commitment to higher standards.

    On the day after a coach accident in France in which 16 young people lost their lives, we must all be aware of the need to tighten standards. I emphasise again, as I did in Committee, that although this Bill reduces restrictions on the number of services that can be provided in this country—we look forward to an increase in services—it does not reduce safety standards. Our aim has been to produce a system that does not mistake paperwork for effective safety controls.

    The Bill generally attacks the problem in three ways. It deals first with the fitness of the operator—what I might call the first level of prevention. The Bill requires an operator to demonstrate both his competence to run buses and that he has adequate maintenance facilities or arrangements. If an operator cannot meet the standards, he cannot operate.

    Secondly, the clauses on vehicle fitness ensure that the Ministry of Transport's examiners have powers to inspect public service vehicles at any time and to prohibit their use straight away if they are defective. With this clause we are looking ahead to the more formal requirement of the annual test, as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary undertook to do in Committee. I should like to thank the hon. Members for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) and for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cowans), who raised the matter in Committee.

    What will the annual test achieve? I believe that it will be a tighter, more foolproof means of ensuring that all buses undergo a thorough examination. The rather informal process of inspection now carried on runs the risk that some vehicles may not be examined as regularly as they should be. Secondly, and just as important, the new test will apply to all passenger vehicles with more than eight passenger seats, regardless of whether they are used for hire and reward. As we discussed in Committee, there has been, since 1930, a rather uneasy distinction between the safety standards required of public service vehicles and the lack of controls over privately run buses. The new annual test takes a major step towards bringing all buses into line. I believe that this will help to give the public the confidence that they deserve to have, whatever kind of bus they are travelling on.

    When will the new test be brought in? Inevitably, there must be time to make all the necessary practical arrangements. We are required by the EEC—this is one EEC requirement, whatever hon. Members' views, that can be welcomed—to have a testing system fully in operation by January 1983. This means carrying out the first tests in January 1982 at the latest.

    We shall shortly be circulating the necessary regulations in draft for consideration by all interested parties. We shall also be discussing with operators the best arrangements for testing. We have already said that we accept the case for using operators' premises to the fullest extent possible consistent with the maintenance of safety standards and a reasonably economic deployment of resources, both public and private.

    I commend the new clause to the House.

    Before I call the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth), I draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Government did not move the motion on the order of business, outlined on the Notice Paper. In order that there should be no misunderstanding later, I should like to put on record that the result is that instead of proceeding to Government amendment No. 1 after new clause 9 is disposed of the House will go straight on to discuss the remainder of the new clauses, beginning with new clause 5.

    On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. That is correct. The Government did that with the agreement of, and at the request of, the Opposition.

    I understood that. In case the matter is raised by hon. Members who are not now in the Chamber, the occupant of the Chair will be in a position to say that the matter was explained succinctly.

    Thank you, Mr. Speaker. We always welcome your guidance. It is helpful for the House to be absolutely clear about the order in which it is to proceed with the Bill.

    The Minister's statement on new clause 1 is surprising. In a Committee stage that was pretty barren of joy for Opposition Members, the willingness of the Minister, on the raising of this issue, to agree that there should be some provision within the Bill for annual testing of public service vehicles shines like a beacon. It should have been in the Bill from the outset. There should have been a Government proposition in the Bill for annual testing of public service vehicles.

    When the issue was raised in Committee, the Minister undertook to consider it and to bring forward his own proposition for inclusion at this stage. But his proposition in new clause 1 does not create a statutory obligation for annual testing of public service vehicles. The new clause removes from the Road Traffic Act 1972 the specific exclusion of public service vehicles from the range of classes of vehicle for which test certificate provisions can be made. Those test certificate provisions in the 1972 Act can be for 10-year tests or tests of other periods.

    We want spelt out clearly in the Bill that public service vehicles shall be annually tested. That is a basic safety requirement that we want to see written into the law.

    The Minister touched upon the use of operators' premises. There is nothing in his new clause that touches on operators' premises. I believe that new clause 8 is much better for this purpose.

    I wish to deal first with the question of a statutory requirement for annual inspection. If one was to use the procedure used under the 1972 Act for other vehicles, one would not bring about a satisfactory position on the annual testing of public service vehicles. Public service vehicles are in a special position and their testing is not the same as the testing of other vehicles.

    In Committee the Minister withdrew the requirement for an operator's disc to be displayed on the vehicle, so we have to be assured that this testing requirement can be enforced in its own right. We cannot rely on the operator licence requirement. It is virtually unenforceable, since the requirement to display the discs has been removed from the Bill that we considered on Second Reading, so the link has been removed between the operator and the number of licensed vehicles that he runs. Therefore, in some ways, the annual safety check becomes more important. It means that any safety inspector or policemen can ensure that the fitness to carry passengers of any vehicle on the road has been tested in the previous 12 months. It would be impossible to know from an examination of the vehicle whether it was covered by an operator's licence.

    But a specific requirement for annual safety tests is important because of the nature of the operation. We should all be alarmed that any large vehicles should be able to travel on our roads without safe brakes and steering, for example. A major public service vehicle can affect the safety not only of other road users but of those who travel as passengers on it. The vehicle is in constant use and stops and starts frequently. Safety control is crucial.

    The other question raised by new clause 8 is whether the operator's premises should be available for inspection. The control of PSV safety has, if anything, a longer history than safety control of other vehicles, so it is surprising that annual testing has not been insisted upon before. There is testing provision, however. Good operators often have good testing facilities on their premises. This testing has developed in a way very suited to the needs of the PSV. Major fleet operators have their own engineering facilities which they can use in the interests of greater efficiency. That should be recognised in legislation of this sort.

    However, we know that we are dealing with Ministers who are on record as wanting to put testing facilities in the hands of private operators rather than those of Government inspectors. We put down a marker about the need for independent monitoring by the Department's own engineers. There may be a difference between the two parties as to how safety testing is best achieved and how specific the legislative commitment to annual testing should be, but I hope that there is no difference between us that stringent and impartial requirements should be imposed for annual testing so that it is done to a uniform and high standard.

    3.45 pm

    At some time in the near future we need some assurance that, however the tests are done—in what are now Government stations and handed over to private control, a move that we would oppose; on the operator's own premises; or in Government test stations run by the, Minister's own staff—they will all be subject to independent monitoring by the Department's engineers, in whom we have great confidence.

    In all these circumstances, the annual inspection of PSVs should not be dealt with in general test regulations by removing the ban in the 1972 Act to imposing a test requirement on public service vehicles but should be specifically related to the needs of the special case of the PSV.

    That is why new clause 1 is inadequate. It does not achieve the purpose or the specified period of testing. New clause 8 is vastly superior. It achieves our intention and that which I think the Minister spelt out.

    I am grateful to the Minister for thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cowans) and myself for pointing out that the Bill contained no provision for annual testing of public service vehicles. If the Minister's intention is met by the new clause, we welcome it, because people who travel in PSVs are entitled to high standards of safety.

    However, I must add that it was pointed out on Second Reading that some provisions of the Bill would adversely affect safety. Right at the end of his reply to the Second Reading debate, the Parliamentary Secretary said:
    "I reject completely suggestions that safety is threatened. That is absolute nonsense. If anything, the Bill will improve the safety arrangements."—[Official Report, 27 November 1979; Vol. 974, c. 1246.]
    As originally drafted, the Bill clearly would not have improved safety because it would have got rid of the annual testing of vehicles. I am afraid that the Parliamentary's Secretary's brief was somewhat amiss.

    There is no system of annual inspection of vehicles at the moment, so there could have been no question of the Bill getting rid of it. All that we are introducing in the new clause is the ability to bring in the annual inspection of vehicles as a new concept in this country. We always intended to bring it in anyway, but we had not intended to use this Bill to do so.

    I accept that, but we are getting something worth while from the suggestion of my hon. Friend and myself. We look forward to the introduction of annual testing, which will make things safer both for PSV passengers and for other road users.

    In the spirit in which he moved new clause 1, however inadequate it may be, I hope that the Minister will recommend the House to accept our amendment No. 25. That would extend the provision for the safety testing of vehicles to include vehicles owned by education authorities and used as school buses. There is no requirement at present to test them as there is with public service vehicles.

    I was delighted to hear from the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) that there were some aspects of the Bill about which we agreed. We have agreed throughout on the principle that the safety of passengers should be paramount in the passenger transport industry.

    I repeat without hesitation what I said on Second Reading, that there is no provision in the Bill which threatens or reduces the present protection given to passengers in trying to maintain the proper level of safety on public transport vehicles. There are aspects of the Bill that will strengthen the protection for passengers and make the system more adequate and enforceable.

    The new clause introduces a new system of annual inspection of all public service vehicles. The Government have always contemplated that, and it is an innovation to which we are bound by an EEC directive—the so-called roadworthiness directive. This has not occurred to the Government during the passage of the Bill. We always intended to comply with our legal obligations under that directive and to bring in a new system of annual testing by 1 January 1983. That means that we must get the first tests going by January 1982.

    The only change of policy indicated by the clause is that, following representations made by the hon. Members for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) and for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cowans) in Committee, we looked at the possibility of using the Bill, while there is parliamentary time, as the appropriate vehicle for bringing in a system for the annual testing of vehicles.

    Given that we are all agreed that this is a desirable innovation, I think it is a pity that the right hon. Gentleman—though I understand that he will advise his hon. Friends to support the idea—feels it necessary to hedge that agreement about with qualifications concerning the chosen method, the precise way it will be introduced and its enforceability thereafter.

    Let me explain why, on the face of it, new clause 1 is expressed in rather obscure language and does not provide in terms that the annual inspection of public service vehicles will begin in January 1982. The wish was expressed repeatedly in Committee that the legislation could be framed in language of that kind. However, upon examination it will be found that the, clause is adequate to pave the way for the regulations. That will be the most appropriate means of fulfilling the terms of the EEC directive. The new clause and the consequential Government amendments bring public service vehicles within the ambit of sections 43 and 44 of the Road Traffic Act 1972 from which they are presently excluded.

    That Act ensures the annual testing of heavy goods vehicles. At the moment public passenger vehicles are excluded from those testing arrangements. The amendments bring passenger vehicles within the terms of that Act, and pave the way for the necessary regulations spelling out the details of the arrangements.

    The alternative way of proceeding as a matter of law would have been to draw up regulations under the European Communities Act 1972 implementing the United Kingdom's Community obligations in respect of public service vehicles. That would have given rise to considerable drafting and other difficulties and probably, for a variety of reasons, would have been a less attractive course, given the present mood of the House, to adopt. We welcome the opportunity, therefore, of paving the way through this Bill to bringing passenger vehicles within the terms of the 1972 Act and then making the necessary regulations.

    There is no policy difference between us and, though the statute will not contain details of the annual inspection, it will pave the way for the regulations. I give the clearest possible undertaking on behalf of the Government that we shall produce the necessary regulations to bring the new system into effect at the required time.

    There is the problem of the enforceability of the new system of annual inspection once it has been put into effect. As with the other safety requirements of the Bill, our view is that they are perfectly straightforward to enforce and that they can be enforced properly. It is obviously in the public interest that public safety regulations should be enforced as strictly as possible.

    Every operator will be required by regulations under this Bill to notify the traffic commissioners of the vehicles he owns and operates. Every vehicle which he possesses will be subject to inspection by the Department's vehicle inspectors. Inspection can take place in a wide range of circumstances and more or less at any place and any time to ensure that a vehicle is fit to be on the road.

    The means by which we shall make sure that an operator submits his vehicles for annual test are that, by bringing passenger vehicles within sections 33 and 34 of the 1972 Act, the test certificates to be issued under this procedure will be linked with vehicle excise duty. That means that the certificate will be producable at the time of paying the vehicle excise duty. There will thus be a ready means of ensuring that a vehicle has gone through the annual test to which it is liable.

    The other point of detail raised in debate was whether it would be possible to carry out these annual inspections on the premises of operators who had the right facilities or whether all buses would be required to go to an approved vehicle testing station elsewhere. I am happy to repeat the substance of what I said in Committee. The Government are quite happy to consider the possibility of operators' premises being designated as approved places for the test. The regulations will pave the way for that possibility. We anticipate that a number of testing centres will be the premises of some of the major operators.

    First, we shall need to consider—and the right hon. Gentleman anticipated this—whether the facilities at particular premises are adequate for the rigorous tests required. I believe that only the major operators will have the kind of depot, garage and maintenance facilities appropriate for the tests. My only caveat is that the adequacy of the facilities will not in itself be the only decisive factor. We must look at various other matters, including the cost of sending our examiners to obscure parts of the country or endless testing centres to chase up specific vehicles. We must have some economy of organisation.

    There must be a proper geographical spread of testing centres to ensure that the bus industry as a whole is properly served and is not inconvenienced. There must be a testing station within easy range of an individual operator. Although we have not proposed these particulars in our discussions, it is possible that, if an operator wants his own premises to be used as a testing station, approval may depend upon the facilities being available to other operators so that their vehicles may be tested at that same station. A station will thus serve a fairly wide geographical area and be of advantage to the bus industry as a whole.

    We are prepared to discuss all these matters. We do not anticipate any difficulties in practice and we envisage that when the system is set up some of the approved centres will be operators' own premises.

    I was asked about the standards of the tests, and how they would be achieved. The standards will be the equivalent of the present rigorous ones that we attempt to apply to heavy goods vehicles and to passenger vehicles as well. We have indicated a policy intention to return the testing of heavy goods vehicles to the private sector. We are still considering the position with respect to passenger vehicles. However, whoever carries out the testing, it is the Minister who bears the responsibility for ensuring that it is of the right standard and adheres to the policy of the Bill. That policy is to ensure that the best possible protection is afforded to the travelling public by way of a regular enforceable system of testing and inspection. We can thus ensure that, once tested and inspected, the bus fleet will be as safe as reasonable regulations can secure.

    4 pm

    With the leave of the House, may I say that I cannot understand why the Parliamentary Secretary insists that this matter must be left with the Minister. I understand that he has agreed that there should be an annual inspection of public service vehicles and that that should be prescribed in regulations. Why, then, will he not support me in recommending new clause 8, which seeks to provide precisely that?

    New clause 1 removes an impediment in the 1972 legislation. That impediment is the specific exclusion of public service vehicles from test certificate requirements. However, that is not good enough. I have no objection to removing that part of the 1972 Act so as to leave the regulation-making powers in the Bill as they stand. That may serve some useful purpose, but it does not impose a specific requirement under the Bill, as we seek, to ensure that the Minister provides for full annual inspection of public service vehicles. The requirement was not in the 1972 Act, but we should take the chance to put it in the Bill. There is nothing in new clause 8 to prevent the Minister from taking the time that he needs to prepare the regulations properly; nothing to prevent him from taking account of all the considerations which the Parliamentary Secretary has very fairly laid before us.

    New clause 8 is confined to public service vehicles. In our proposals we are taking wider powers than that, and our regulations will apply to all large passenger vehicles. The powers that the right hon. Gentleman is offering us in new clause 8 are narrower than those that we propose to take in the regulations.

    I do not accept that. I do not see one new clause as an alternative to the other. If the Parliamentary Secretary will support our new clause we shall happily join him in recommending both new clauses, but the House has an absolute right to demand regulations requiring an annual inspection.

    The Parliamentary Secretary does not need to tell me, given all our debates in Committee, when we pressed upon the Government the need for a wider definition of public service vehicle, that there are vehicles outside that definition which should be covered by it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) pointed out, there are buses conveying children to school which could be outwith the definition. However, conscious though we are of the public service vehicle definition in the Bill, that is not the point at issue.

    If my hon. Friends want the House to recommend an annual inspection by regulation rather than leaving the matter to the Minister, they must vote for our new clause. I ask them to support new clause 1 and new clause 8, and that is a perfectly proper approach because none of us would want to stand in the way of the Minister making wider regulations than those we propose. If, in his wisdom, the Minister decides that other larger passenger vehicles not within the public service vehicle definition should also be subjected to annual fitness tests, we would not wish to be seen, by anything that we said or did, to be opposed to that. We are not. However, we insist that the House should decide whether there should be such annual inspections and whether they should be written into the Bill at this stage.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.