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Road Traffic (Northern Ireland)

Volume 76: debated on Wednesday 3 April 1985

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10.18 pm

I beg to move,

That the draft Road Traffic (Type Approval) (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 18th February, be approved.
The order provides for the introduction of national type approval arrangements for motor vehicles in Northern Ireland by extending the powers of the Department of the Environment under the Road Traffic Order (Northern Ireland) 1981. The arrangements envisaged would be broadly similar to those that have been in force in Great Britain since 1978.

The provisions have been urged on the Government by a number of hon. Members, including the right hon. Members for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) and for South Down (Mr. Powell). The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) has given this subject his usual scholarly attention. I am sorry we have not been able to bring the order forward before.

Type approval is the process under which a vehicle or vehicle part is submitted, usually by a manufacturer, for testing against objective standards of design, construction and environmental protection. Once that vehicle or vehicle part has been approved as meeting the standard or standards in question, individual vehicles or vehicle parts produced in conformity with the approved type can be certified as meeting the standard without further testing.

The order will enable regulations to be made listing the standards with which vehicles must comply before they can first be licensed in Northern Ireland. The intention would be initially to make regulations apply only to cars and certain dual-purpose vehicles. For the time being they would not extend to goods vehicles. In their scope, the regulations would cover all the requirements in the construction and use regulations and lighting regulations. They would be precisely the same as those in Great Britain, which are largely based on standards set in EEC directives or regulations issued by the Economic Commission for Europe—a United Nations body.

Hon. Members may ask why type approval is considered necessary if motor vehicle standards are already laid down in the construction and use regulations and lighting regulations. The main point is that there is no means of checking that vehicles comply with the requirements of those regulations. Therefore it is possible to license a vehicle that is not in compliance with the regulations.

While the vast majority of new vehicles in Northern Ireland were supplied either from manufacturing plants or import concessionaires in Great Britain, where national type approval is already operated, this distinction was not important. However, with the growth from 1982 of imports direct from the Republic of Ireland and continental Europe—a point to which right hon. and hon. Members have drawn our attention since 1982 — there was less assurance that imported cars complied with the requirements.

Purchasers of non-complying vehicles therefore face the possibility of prosecution for infringement of the construction and use regulations. This type approval order will help overcome that problem by enabling other type approval arrangements to be introduced. The draft order therefore represents a consumer protection as well as a road safety measure.

The draft order closely follows corresponding legislation in Great Britain. Indeed, it is very closely modelled on the Road Traffic Act 1972 and the amending Act of 1974. In essence it provides for the establishment of type approval requirements by the Department which, if met by a particular model, will result in the issue of a type approval certificate. En turn it enables manufacturers to issue certificates of conformity for individual vehicles.

I draw the attention of hon. Members to the provisions of the inserted article 31(d)(iii) which would enable the Department to make regulations making the first licensing of a vehicle conditional upon its being type approved.

Since most new vehicles will continue to come into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, and as it is proposed to apply exactly the same requirements as those in Great Britain, arrangements will be made to accept type approval issued in Great Britain as applying in Northern Ireland, and vice versa. In practice, since vehicle manufacture in Northern Ireland is negligible, most, if not all, applications for national type approval will be dealt with in Great Britain by the Department of Transport, which has facilities for testing and inspection and the issue of approval certificates.

However, against the possibility that an application for approval would be made in Northern Ireland, arrangements would be made for the Department of Transport to act as agents for testing and inspection. That would mean that there would be no need to provide separate testing and inspection facilities in Northern Ireland.

When the draft order was considered by the Northern Ireland Assembly, the position of personal imports was raised. I wish to make it clear that regulations made under this order will not be retrospective and that those who purchased imports through independent dealers have no cause for concern. The regulations would, as in Great Britain — we are being entirely consistent — exempt vehicles that qualify as personal imports from the requirement to produce type approval documentation.

I appreciate that importation in bulk by parallel importers will fall outside the scope of that exemption and that, unless they can obtain the necessary documentation, their business will be adversely affected. That point was put to me forcibly by the Independent Car Importers Association, which sought the withdrawal of the draft order.

However, as hon. Members may know, the Department of Transport and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders have agreed a code of practice under which a parallel importer can apply to a manufacturer or to his accredited representative in Great Britain for the type approval certification needed to enable the imported vehicle to be first licensed in Great Britain.

Under the code, that certification will be issued provided that the vehicle was built in conformity with an approved type or can be converted so as to comply. It is proposed that steps shall be taken to extend these arrangements to vehicles imported into Northern Ireland.

That being the case, the order should proceed, given that it offers substantially increased protection to motorists in Northern Ireland and should enhance road safety. I therefore commend the order to the House.

10.26 pm

My party welcomes the order, though it has been a long time coming. Its history goes back a considerable time, for the Government were being asked, not only by the motor agents in Northern Ireland but by my party—notably by the party's leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. Powell)—as far back as early 1982 to do something about the matter.

It would seem that the problem arose, as the Minister said, because of a shift in the economic advantages of importing vehicles. Apparently the manufacturers cut the prices of the vehicles that they supplied to the Irish Republic because of the levels of car tax and VAT pertaining in the Republic. That meant that if one could avoid the tax, the vehicle was much cheaper in Northern Ireland, taking into account the sum actually charged by the manufacturer of the vehicle.

In addition, the taxation policy on the collection of VAT was being altered in a way which rendered it even more beneficial to those who could import cars in large numbers, and it so happened that the Republic's assemblers of vehicles were protected by the Treaty of Rome from imports which were similar to vehicles being assembled in the Republic.

To add to the burden on the folk in Northern Ireland, they were in great difficulty when it came to exporting vehicles to the Republic, because only registered exporters could send vehicles south of the border. Thus, it came down to being, for financial and trade reasons, a one-way street, and that bore heavily on those who were the traditional suppliers of cars and other vehicles in Northern Ireland.

The VAT arrangements in the Republic apparently gave a time lag which at one stage enabled the importer to get his cars in and have them sold—not necessarily even in Northern Ireland but possibly in Great Britain— before they had to pay the VAT that was payable on the cars.

There was, therefore, a considerable flood of cars coming across the border in early 1982 and for 12 months thereafter. It is hard now to say exactly how many were coming in. So many were at the game—those who were buying as individuals and those who were importing in quite large numbers—that nobody really knows the true numbers.

The trade suspects that several thousand were coming across the frontier. However, I wonder, if that were the case, where all those cars went to. It is clear that they did not stop in Northern Ireland. One suspects that quite a few went straight out through Larne harbour to Stranraer, and goodness knows where they are now in Great Britain.

In a Treasury parliamentary answer on 30 April 1982, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Down was told that five vehicles had been imported in October 1981 and that by March 1982 the number had risen to 442, a considerable number of vehicles for a population of 1·5 million. It is alleged that at that time, of all the Ford vehicles sold, two thirds were imports, and that more than half of the Mazdas sold were imports. At least a quarter of all cars sold in Northern Ireland were the grey imports from the Republic. After years, the position eased because of pricing and tax changes in the Republic. By June 1983, the figure was between 5 and 10 per cent., or even lower.

There is no doubt that those who engaged in the importation of those vehicles were doing well and therefore, we should not be surprised that the independent parallel importers object to the regulations. Although at first sight those people appeared to be good for consumers, they were not good for the Province or consumers in the long run. The importers and sellers invested little, there were few jobs and little back-up if anything went wrong.

The regulations have taken a long time to come to the House. On 27 May 1982 my right hon. Friend the Member for South Down received an answer from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport to the effect that he would try to introduce the regulations. I understand that at that time it was expected to take about nine months. When nine months extends into three years, one wonders how long it will take to get the legislation through the House.

By 1 July 1982 we had been told in answer to a further question that the Government intended to introduce the legislation as soon as possible. By September 1982 the Department said that there were 100 prosecutions for the use of those vehicles pending. Perhaps the Minister would tell us what happened to them. From his remarks we know, but we would like it put clearly on the record. By 20 December 1982 Department of the Environment officials were saying that they hoped that the matter would be debated in the House about the end of 1983. That is more than a year ago.

By 31 December we had been told that officials were working on the necessary legislation, and the proposals were eventually referred to the Assembly. Now, three years after the matter was first raised, we have the regulations on the Floor of the House, where they could have been a long time ago.

We have only ourselves to blame. If the type approval regulations had been embodied in United Kingdom legislation rather than in Great Britain legislation, we would not be here tonight and we could all go home an hour or so sooner. The Minister made that point even better when he pointed out that the work done in Great Britain by the Minister of Transport is the deciding factor, and that the Northern Ireland Office would only pick up a rubber stamp and agree to accept the findings of the Great Britain authorities. It has taken far too long to get the regulations to the House. I hope that the cars are better constructed than the Orlit houses were, because we are running into severe problems with them.

Despite the long delay, the Government have taken many measures, some of which were helpful, but all of which were certainly delaying tactics. The helpful measures were the use of the construction and use regulations to make threats to those who were buying imports. It was widespread in the news media of Northern Ireland that they might not be able to use their vehicles. There were the prosecutions, but they did not appear to come to much, and the changes in the tax and pricing arrangements by the manufacturers and the Dublin Government, which affected the economics of the importation of vehicles from the Republic.

The legislation is widely welcomed and long awaited. It has been dragged slowly inch by inch—millimetre by millimetre, one should say nowadays — out of the Department. It is the best way to deal with the problem.

I am glad that the efforts of my right hon. and hon. Friends have been brought to a successful conclusion. It shows that when Ulster has a just case and the matter is pressed home in the House, it can be brought to a successful conclusion. This is one of many successful conclusions during my years in the House. It also exposes the nonsense that is often about in Northern Ireland, that because there are only a few Members from Northern Ireland in the House they can never get anything done. We have got it done. It has been a long, slow process but it has been brought to a welcome conclusion. The fact that it has encourages us all to redouble our efforts for Northern Ireland's just case in other directions.

My right hon. and hon. Friends fought the battle to a successful conclusion. We hope that in the future the Minister will listen to us rather more readily and act a great deal more speedily, and then we can all get home a great deal earlier.

10.36 pm

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) referred to what he saw as the delay in bringing forward this draft order to the House. The Minister will want to respond to that. I understand that during the Assembly process, when we were considering the draft order, it was said that his Department had experienced some anxiety about the welding of two vehicles that had been imported into Northern Ireland — the Mazda 323 and the Toyota Starlight. The Department was worried about what might happen if there were a collision. If the anxiety was as great as we were told, I wonder why the legislation did not come forward somewhat faster.

It is to some extent a comfort to the Minister to recognise that the burden of complaint by Members in the House centred around the fact that the legislation did not come earlier. That shows that the substance of the order is generally accepted by Members in the House.

The essence of the order is to ensure an acceptable standard of vehicle. I note that in the communications from the motoring organisations, the RAC and the AA give a warm welcome to the order, as does the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

There is a difference of opinion between the two organisations involved in the selling of cars. The Motor Agents Association as one would expect, is in favour of the draft order, whereas the motor importers seem to be fighting strenuously to the last. We can, of course, understand their anxiety even if we do not altogether share it. However, the general view of those of us in the Northern Ireland Assembly who have studied the draft order is that the independent view expressed by those with an interest in road safety should be taken more seriously than the views of those who have a vested interest, although that is no reason to ignore anyone's views.

When the Minister refers to import controls and says that personal imports are exempt, what thought has he given to the fact that it will be relatively easy for anyone who is so minded to carry out a relay system by personally importing cars from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland? To what extent will personal imports be limited? Will someone who is travelling from the Republic to Northern Ireland once a day, week, month or year be subject to a restriction on the number of personal imports that he can bring into Northern Ireland, and from Northern Ireland into the rest of the United Kingdom?

Is it a fact that the price of vehicles in Northern Ireland could change fairly radically? A number of Northern Ireland citizens are expressing this fear. The Northern Ireland Car Importers Association has suggested that car prices in Northern Ireland will be increased if competition is stifled. It will be helpful if the Minister will express a view on the substance of the association's claims.

In common with the hon. Member for Londonderry, East and many in Northern Ireland, I welcome this measure, even though it is late in appearing before us. I do not want to delay its passage further.

10.41 pm

I find myself somewhat weirdly reminded by the order and the debate of Sir Robert Peel, the corn laws and the potato famine. The House will recall that Sir Robert was always intending to do something about the corn laws. When there was a potato famine in Northern Ireland—it had nothing to do with the corn laws and it would not have been alleviated by their repeal—he seized upon that event and, without arguing too nicely the logical relationship between the two, put forward the famine as a reason for repeal. It was one which no decent person could resist in co-operating with the proposed legislation, which he desired strongly upon other grounds.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) has generously recalled, I was one of those who were in correspondence with the Minister's predecessor three years ago about certain difficulties which were arising both for consumers and the trade in Northern Ireland as a result of imports from the Irish Republic. In the subsequent year or two, and for various reasons, the majority of which my hon. Friend touched upon, the problem put itself right. However, in the course of the examination of it, the fact that Northern Ireland was destitute of type approval legislation came to attention, and properly the Minister's predecessor recognised that this was something which should be put right. Certainly we should have some law in Northern Ireland in this respect, and we should always have had it, as on the mainland. It is welcome that the omission is now being made good. I thought that it should be recorded that the connection between the happy event occurring tonight and the difficulties of the year 1982 is anything but direct.

10.44 pm

It is always a pleasure to take up the remarks of the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), who managed to deliver a small but pertinent history lesson in the course of discussing the order.

The Minister referred to consumer protection and road safety and the order seems to marry the two issues. The Opposition have noted that the purpose of the order is to ensure that new vehicles offered for sale are constructed to accepted international standards. We take on board the comment of the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) that the order has been some time coming. The right hon. Member for South Down described how it came to the attention of the Government in 1982. Nevertheless, we now have it. It offers protection and tries to guarantee to purchasers that vehicles, whatever their country of origin, comply fully with the requirements of road traffic law.

There was some severe criticism from the Independent Car Importers Association, which was worried about free trade in the European Community, in case the order would be in breach of the treaty of Rome, that it might increase the price of vehicles to consumers, about redundancies and about the possibility of inflated prices. Those anxieties were communicated to the Government through the Assembly, and the Environment Select Committee asked that the Government chat to the Independent Car Importers Association again. That happened and, through the Minister, the Government took cognisance of the association's views. There were further discussions.

A memorandum in the file that has been prepared by the Department of the Environment answers some of the criticisms. One paragraph of the memorandum states:
"If members of the Car Importers Association import vehicles which do not have type approval and wish to continue to sell those vehicles they will probably incur expenditure in arranging for type approval; whether those costs are passed on to the purchaser is a matter for the importer."
The Opposition have followed this debate with some care. The speeches have not lost any of their lucidity in their brevity. The Minister carefully said what the order was about. We offer our support for it, as do the other parties in the House.

10.47 pm

I shall try to be as brief as others have been, even if I cannot manage to be so lucid.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) referred to the delay since a certain amount of dignified pressure was applied to my distinguished predecessor, now the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, in 1982. There are several reasons for the delay on this important matter, and I do not believe that we can be accused of being too dilatory. It was necessary to engage in some fairly protracted consultations to try to satisfy — not wholly successfully I must admit — the conflicting interests in this issue. There has also been a great deal of Northern Ireland legislation in the past couple of years, as right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will know. Some has been regarded as having higher priority than this, not least by the parliamentary draftsman. Nevertheless, I am sorry that we have not been able to act before. None of us is perfect, but at least we have the order before us now.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East asked about prosecutions. The users of imported vehicles which do not conform to the construction and use regulations and/or the lighting regulations are not being prosecuted, mainly because it is thought that the purchasers of imported vehicles would find it difficult or impossible to obtain information on whether their cars conformed to each of the relevant provisions of the construction, use and Lighting regulations. For example, vehicles imported from or built for sale in the Republic of Ireland might not carry the appropriate markings to demonstrate compliance. The implementation of the order will substantially remove the need for future prosecution of this type.

I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but I am curious about whether he had a word with the insurance companies. If somebody who has bought a vehicle which does not comply with the type regulations has an accident resulting from a fault, what will happen about his insurance?

If such an accident has already happened, as the legislation is not retrospective the driver of the vehicle will be in no difficulty after the legislation is passed. To get the vehicle licensed, the purchaser will have to go to the centre at Coleraine, and since his warranty will not show that type approval has been granted he will be unable to get a licence for the vehicle. I very much hope that such a situation will not arise.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) asked whether somebody purchasing cars in the Republic and bringing considerable numbers into Northern Ireland would or would not satisfy the conditions for genuine personal imports. Personal imports have to satisfy fairly clear conditions. The vehicle must have been purchased outside the United Kingdom for the personal use of the individual importing it, or for his dependants. Secondly, the vehicle has to be shown to have been used by that individual or his dependants on roads outside the United Kingdom before it was imported. Thirdly, the vehicle has to be imported solely for personal use in the United Kingdom. Finally, the individual importing the vehicle has to show that he intends at the time when the vehicle is imported to remain in the United Kingdom for not less than 12 months from that time.

The second point raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, East related to car prices. I do not believe that car prices should be affected by the order. While the cost of type approval can be substantial, it is minimised when costs are spread over a long production run. Therefore, the introduction of type approval should not lead to increased prices. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be comforted by that fact. A recent House of Lords study of the European Commission's proposals on car pricing showed that car prices are determined by a complex series of factors; for example, the policies of individual Governments, price control, taxation policy, exchange rates and so on.

The right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), who deserves much of the credit for this order, reminded us of the 19th century and in particular of Robert Peel. Putting recent controversy on one side, I think he demonstrated that Robert Peel was indeed a very proper Tory.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) referred to the importance of the order both in terms of consumer protection and in terms of the improvement of road safety. It was doubtless for those reasons that, as the hon. Member for Belfast, East pointed out, the draft order was not only approved and accepted enthusiastically by the Assembly but was supported by the Automobile Association, the Royal Automobile Club and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. Following their support, I hope that the order will be supported by the House and that in doing so the House will recognise how much we owe to those right hon. and hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies who have laboured in this particular vineyard and brought forth this particular crop.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Road Traffic (Type Approval) (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 18th February, be approved.

Agricultural Training Board Bill Money

Queen's Recommendation having been signified


That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Agricultural Training Board Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to that Act in the sums so payable under any other enactment— [Mr. Lennox-Boyd.]

Rating And Valuation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 79(5) (Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

That the draft Docks and Harbours (Rateable Values) (Scotland) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 18th March, be approved— [Mr. Lennox-Boyd.]

Question agreed to.

Reserve Forces (Safeguard Of Employment) Bill Lords


That in respect of the Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Bill [Lords], Notices of Amendments, new Clauses and new Schedules to be moved in Committee may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a second time.—[Mr. Lennox-Boyd.]

House Of Commons Members' Fund


That in pursuance of section 2 of the House of Commons Members' Fund Act 1939, Sir Geoffrey Finsberg be appointed a Managing Trustee of the House of Commons Members' Fund in the room of the late Sir Anthony Berry. — [Mr. Lennox-Boyd.]

Parliamentary Contributory Pensions Fund


That in pursuance of section 1 of the Parliamentary and Other Pensions Act 1972, Mr. Peter Hordern be appointed a Managing Trustee of the Parliamentary Contributory Pensions Fund in the room of the late Sir Anthony Berry.—[Mr. Lennox-Boyd.]