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Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2015

Volume 759: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2015

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2015.

Relevant document: 20th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, this Motion will allow a new type of child seat to be used in motor vehicles in Great Britain. This has already been discussed in another place. It has long been an established fact that wearing seatbelts is an important safety mechanism. Seatbelts are a significant factor in saving lives in collisions. In a crash, individuals not wearing a seatbelt are twice as likely to die as those wearing a seatbelt. Therefore the Department for Transport takes this matter very seriously.

It is especially distressing when a crash involves young children. Safety for children in cars has improved in recent years but, unfortunately, car crashes are one of the leading causes of child fatalities. This is why the department has been involved in developing, under the auspices of the United Nations, the new standard which has been adopted by the European Union. Child seats currently come in an array of overlapping size groupings which confuse many parents and can encourage them to switch to a forward-facing seat too early. This new standard of child seat is known as i-size, and has many advantages over the existing designs currently allowed. As well as requiring a child to travel in a rearward position until the age of 15 months, it also provides side impact protection for better protection of the head and neck, with a more rigorous testing procedure for new designs, including an improved crash-test dummy. Furthermore, by doing away with the overlapping groupings and moving to a system based on the child’s height, it will be much easier for parents to choose the correct seat.

The new standard does not replace the current one. Both standards will run in parallel. Therefore, car seats complying with either standard may continue to be sold and used safely and will not require parents to purchase a new design of child seat if they are using one which meets the current standard. With the introduction of i-size, consumers will be given an extra option to choose a seat that conforms to the latest standard when purchasing a new car seat for their child. This also means that manufacturers will not have to stop making existing designs. However, many manufacturers have already designed and tested i-size products and are ready to bring them to the UK market. Indeed, they are pressing us to make this change. While it is anticipated that approvals for the old standard will eventually be phased out, it is not the intention to prevent existing products being used.

This issue is an important aspect of designing safer vehicles, which was a major challenge identified in this Government’s strategic framework for road safety. I therefore commend the regulations to the Committee. I beg to move.

My Lords, the noble Baroness the Minister described this very well. It makes perfect sense. It will help maintain the health and safety of very young children. I have only two questions but I do not know whether she will know the answers. How has the new type of child crash-test dummies been changed? How has the new side-impact test been changed again?

Perhaps I may raise just one or two points on these regulations. In particular I refer to the impact assessment. Impact assessments quite often contain little gems that are not actually set out in the Explanatory Memorandum. This impact assessment sets out the policy objectives and states that:

“The policy objective is to reduce the number and seriousness of injuries to child vehicle occupants whilst keeping any additional burden to industry or vehicle users to a proportionate level”.

It goes on to talk about UN-ECE Regulation 129, to which the Minister has referred, as intending to provide additional safety benefits over and above the existing standards. As I understand it, this regulation, which has been accepted by the EU, is not compulsory. However, I note that when the impact assessment goes on to look at the policy options, it sets out the first one as “do nothing”, which is fairly obvious, while the second option would allow the use of regulation 129 covering standard child restraints in vehicles as well as the existing regulation 44 standard. It states that this is the favoured policy option, and that indeed is what the Minister has said.

The assessment then goes on to set out that a third option to require all new child seats sold from the date of implementation to be of regulation 129 standard was dismissed, which is fairly strong language, on the basis that this would go beyond the requirements of the EU directive and would be considered to be gold-plating and not be deliverable. Am I to understand that implementing a directive in a gold-plated way means that you implement it in such a way so as to reduce the number of child fatalities, as well as the number of serious and slight injuries, on the basis, as we are told, that the new restraint under regulation 129 is safer?

Further on in the impact assessment, on page 5, two policy options are set out, excluding the do-nothing one. The second one, which I think is the one that has been dismissed—I should like to know by whom—states:

“Require all new child seats sold from date of implementation (early 2015) to be of Regulation 129 standard”.

It continues:

“This would ensure that all new units sold would be of a higher safety standard, and also ensure that these safer child restraints permeate the market quicker than would be the case under option 1”.

That is the option that the Minister, on behalf of the Government, has said is favoured and is indeed provided for in these regulations. Can the noble Baroness confirm that, given the reference to the fact that this would constitute gold-plating, the definition of “gold-plating” would ensure safer child restraints being required and that they would also,

“permeate the market quicker than would be the case under option 1”?

It would be an interesting example of what gold-plating means. Perhaps a rather happier wording could have been used in the impact assessment instead of this enthusiasm for dismissing something as gold-plating. It might have been a bit more open to have said, “Yes, we have made a decision not to go for the safest option, the one that would reduce the number of fatalities, serious and slight injuries. We have decided to go for the option that does not make it compulsory but which we recognise might not achieve the same reduction in fatalities and injuries to young children”. As that is my understanding, I think it would have been better if it had been put in that way rather than this enthusiasm for using the word “gold-plating”.

I also notice that the option which was looked at was the one that would:

“Require all new child seats sold from the date of implementation (early 2015) to be of Regulation 129 standard”.

If I have understood this impact assessment correctly, it estimates that, without it being a requirement, the take-up of the enhanced car seats will still be between 70% and 100% by 2020, with what is described as a “best uptake of 85%”. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that is the case. If it is expected that there will nevertheless still be a high uptake of child restraints that conform to the higher standard set by UN-ECE Regulation 129 over a period of five years, why was it not considered that the second option—a requirement that all new child seats sold from the date of implementation are to be of regulation 129 standard—should be brought into force in two, three, four or five years’ time? At least we would then have had a guarantee that it was going to come in.

I am sure the Minister will correct me if I am wrong but, as I understand it, under these regulations there is no date when it will actually become the required standard. If we are expecting such a high uptake of the new, higher-standard child restraint by 2020, what is the objection to saying to what would appear to be the relatively low percentage that would not conform to the higher standard that, by that time, you will have to conform to the higher standard? I do not understand why that has not been incorporated into the regulations. I can appreciate why the regulations do not require everyone to conform from early 2015 but, bearing in mind the high uptake that is expected, I do not understand why there is nothing in the order to say that from a certain date—two, three, four, five years’ ahead—it will become the required standard.

My Lords, perhaps I may respond first to the noble Viscount, Lord Simon. Currently, there is not a side impact test; that now comes in with the new regulations. The dummies will be designed so that they demonstrate the damage that comes with a side impact test. If there is further information on the dummies that I have not mentioned, I will gladly write to him and let him know.

On the point of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, essentially about why the new seat is not mandatory or why we do not have a date for its becoming mandatory, it is possible that the documentation has not been clear. Part of the new standard does not fit in to the car by use of a seat-belt. It requires an Isofix point to be built in, which is deemed to be a safer way for a seat to be anchored. That standard became mandatory for new cars from 2012. It would have been seen in many new cars built from around 2006 and even in some from before then, but obviously many cars that parents own date from an earlier period and therefore do not have an Isofix anchor embedded in them. If we were to make this mandatory today, we would effectively be requiring parents to go out and purchase a new car when they simply want to purchase a car seat. That really is an unacceptable burden.

There will be demand from parents who have older cars or cars which do not have the Isofix fitting to purchase a seat for their child. We are satisfied that the current standard is very safe. That does not mean that we do not want to pursue opportunities to increase the measure of safety. I described earlier the side-impact benefit and the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, followed up on it. We recognise that existing car seats provide a great deal of safety for children, so we do not feel that it is necessary to tell parents that they have to buy a new car in order to buy a seat that meets the new standard.

We accept that over time, as they replace their cars and their car seats, parents will follow the new standards, but this means that there is a period of time when we need to have both standards operating in parallel. To put in a date would in fact be artificial. It is sensible to do all we can to encourage the take-up of the new car seats in vehicles which can take the fitting. It will be a matter of parent choice, but the majority of parents want the car seat that provides their child with the greatest protection. It is also true to say that as the volume of sales of the new car seats goes up—they are currently more expensive than the current car seats—the price will inevitably come down as economies of scale kick in.

I think that we will see a very good take-up of these new car seats, but to make it mandatory would place a burden on some families for whom the purchase of a new car would be exceedingly difficult. What we do not want is for anybody to be tempted not to use a car seat because the only one that they can legally purchase cannot be fitted into the car they already have. I think that the noble Lord will recognise that. Over time, we can see what is happening with the turnover of cars; that is not something that is ideally predictable. It will be possible at some point to remove the earlier standard and simply go with the new standard because there will have been sufficient turnover in the car fleet. I hope, with that understanding that this is a sensible way that does not place an extraordinary burden on families—

Am I to take it that the cost of changing an existing car and thus enabling it to take the new fitting or arrangement is either prohibitive or just not technically feasible?

I am not an expert in whether one can easily retrofit an Isofix fitting—it has a top tether anchorage point. According to the information I have just been given, it is not possible to retrofit into a car, so it is a case of buying a car in which this fitting is part of the original design of the car, because it is so fundamental.

That is less a comment about not wanting to gold-plate an EU directive than it is actually saying that in relation to existing cars it is not possible to do it anyway. The Minister has said that it is not a question of cost, but that you actually cannot do it.

I suppose that we could theoretically require parents to go out and buy a new car, which is why we have used phrases such as gold-plating. It is clearly not feasible to bring in the new standard and require parents to have a car that meets it. They may be in the second-hand market for cars, or they may have an older car which, because of family finances, they are not in a position to replace. But as I have said, existing car seats offer a great deal of safety to children, and parents have been very satisfied with them. The industry has demonstrated their quality, but that does not mean that we do not keep on improving, and it is the rationale for running the two standards in parallel.

Parents are very concerned about safety of their children. As the new car fleet turns over, take-up of the new standard will obviously overrule the old standard and we will reach a point—I cannot tell the noble Lord in which year—at which it will be possible to phase out the old standard.

I thank the Minister for her reply on side-impact testing. From a purely academic point of view, side-impact testing has been taking place privately for many years for research purposes by TRL, the universities and the manufacturers. It is an interesting point of view that it is now being used as a logistic point of view, and it is very good that it now forms part of the legislation.

I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, for those comments. We are all very focused on the issue of safety and we have to give credit to the industry and the consumer for constantly driving forward the technical progress that makes cars safer. That is something we all want and it is an important part of the work that the Government have done on a whole series of fronts. With that understanding, I hope that this is a sensible way in which to bring in a new standard for car seats which gives parents the opportunity to move to the new standard without making life impossible for those for whom it would be unaffordable for a whole variety of reasons. Having addressed the range of issues, I hope that noble Lords will be able to agree to the regulations and that they can be brought into force.

Motion agreed.