Motion to Approve
That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 9 March be approved.
My Lords, this statutory instrument is being made to reintroduce an agreement to allow for the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Noble Lords may recall that our previous arrangement on this matter under the 1998 European Convention on Driving Disqualifications ceased to apply in the UK from 1 December 2014, when the UK exercised its right to opt out of various EU police and criminal justice matters under the treaty of Lisbon.
The United Kingdom has one of the best road safety records in the world, and this co-operation between the Administrations of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will improve it further. This measure is particularly important for the people of Northern Ireland, who share a 310 mile-long border with Ireland, where around 15,000 people cross at 300 crossing points on a daily basis, travelling between the two. Last year, traffic accidents caused 68 people to needlessly lose their lives in Northern Ireland.
In summary, if a British or Northern Irish driver receives an instant disqualification from driving while travelling in the Republic of Ireland—say, for example, for drink-driving or for causing a serious injury to another road user—the disqualification can follow the individual back home. The same is true for Irish drivers disqualified here in Britain or in Northern Ireland.
The treaty that my officials have negotiated with the Irish is almost identical to the now defunct European Convention on Driving Disqualifications—but with one important difference. The convention gave rise to a loophole in its wording, whereby some drivers could escape a ban following them home by falsely claiming normal residence in the country where the offence occurred. We have amended the wording accordingly, to close this loophole. This will ensure that those unscrupulous individuals trying to escape punishment can no longer do so.
The mutual recognition process is straightforward. When a British or Northern Irish court determines that a driver is to be disqualified, and that driver is normally resident in Ireland—the driver can be the holder of any particular driving licence, whether Irish, EU or another—the driver will be able to appeal the decision. If an appeal is either heard and rejected, or not filed, the DVLA will write to the Road Safety Authority in Ireland and inform it that a driver resident in Ireland has been disqualified. It is then that the case is referred to the Irish courts, and judges there can elect to uphold the ban. Again, the same is true of British and Northern Irish drivers disqualified in Ireland.
These measures are not to be considered as a double punishment. Drivers have the right of appeal against the initial ban, and indeed against the ban applying in the country of normal residence. But a driver who commits an offence serious enough to merit instant disqualification needs to be taken off the road both in the UK and Ireland for the appropriate duration. If the Irish court imposes the additional punishment of being forced to resit a driving test or taking an extended driving test, we in Great Britain and Northern Ireland will similarly impose such additional punishments. Any driving disqualifications arising from the totting up of penalty points are not covered in this series of measures. However, Ireland and Northern Ireland are continuing to engage on a bilateral basis, through discussions in the North/South Ministerial Council, for the mutual recognition of penalty points.
The agreement on the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications between the UK and Ireland will not be affected by the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union. Indeed, as the Prime Minister herself stated on 30 January following a meeting with the Taoiseach, for the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland the ability to move freely across the border is an essential part of daily life. That is why the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister have both been clear that there will be no return to the borders of the past. Maintaining the common travel area and excellent economic links with Ireland will be important priorities for the UK in the talks ahead. I look forward to the brief debate this afternoon.
I note that the Minister referred to the “brief debate” this afternoon. I take it that that is a statement of hope on his part—although, judging by the numbers in the Chamber at the moment, perhaps we have both misjudged the situation and the debate on the Specified Agreement on Driving Disqualifications Regulations 2011 really is packing in noble Lords. I thank the Minister for his explanation of the purpose of these regulations, which we support, and the background to them—but I have one or two queries that I would like to raise.
The Explanatory Note indicates that mutual recognition of driving disqualification between the UK and Ireland was previously in operation between January 2010 and December 2014, pursuant to the European Convention on Driving Disqualifications. It indicates that, following the Lisbon treaty, we opted out of the convention from December 2014 as part of a block opt-out under the treaty. It states that the purpose of this instrument is to specify a bilateral agreement dated 30 October 2015 between the UK and Ireland on the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications imposed by either state for certain specified road traffic offences, which, as I understand it, and indeed as the Minister has confirmed, do not include disqualifications arising from the totting-up process. Now that the Minister has confirmed that that is the case in relation to the totting-up process, I invite him to say a little more about why.
In the Commons the government Minister said that Northern Ireland and Ireland were engaged in bilateral discussions through the North/South Ministerial Council about the mutual recognition of penalty points, but added that it was still work in progress. Is this such a big problem that it still cannot be resolved some 18 months after the bilateral agreement dated 3 October 2015, even accepting that penalty points are assessed in a different way in Ireland? Frankly, how much longer is it going to take?
However, the main point I want to clarify is the length of time for which there has been no mutual recognition of driving disqualification between the UK and Ireland. On the understanding that the previous arrangements ceased on 1 December 2014, I simply want to clarify—although I think I know the answer—that they were not then reinstated through the signing of the bilateral agreement dated 30 October 2015, and that the impact of that agreement is being brought into effect by these regulations only some 18 months later and some two and half years after they ceased to apply. That appears to be the situation, and I think it is what the Minister has indicated.
If indeed these arrangements have not applied for that lengthy two-and-a-half-year period, why has it taken so long? Presumably, the Government had decided well in advance of the 1 December 2014 opt-out date that they would be making the block opt-out from the Lisbon treaty, and surely steps that would at least have reduced this apparently lengthy gap could have been put in train much earlier. I would like an explanation from the Government of why this whole process could not have been expedited more quickly. It does not look as though it has been given very high priority even though it relates to road safety, and even though the opt-out led to a weakening of legislative powers on road safety for which there was no supporting evidence or justification on road safety grounds.
What happened to the mutual recognitions on disqualifications then in force under the convention when we opted out? Did they remain in force, or did they then no longer have any legal standing? What is the Government's estimate of the number of people who could have been disqualified under the mutual recognition arrangements had these not apparently been brought to an end in 2014 with the opt-out, in respect of whom who it has not been possible since then to apply the mutual recognition arrangements because they have no longer been applicable since the opt-out? In particular, how many people to date have we had who have been able to drive in the United Kingdom who would not have been able to do so if we had not opted out of the convention on the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications? How many of those people have subsequently committed road traffic offences in the United Kingdom?
If the Minister thinks that I am asking for somewhat obscure information, I am certainly not; this is about road safety and potentially about people who should not be driving around on the roads in the United Kingdom. I ask for this specific information particularly in the light of paragraph 7.2 of the Government’s own Explanatory Memorandum, which accepts that it,
“is important to the UK for reasons of road safety to ensure that drivers so disqualified in Ireland cannot drive on UK roads”.
It appears that they have been able to drive on UK roads for the last two and a half years.
My Lords, maybe I was a bit presumptuous in my opening remarks, but from the response from your Lordships’ Chamber perhaps I was right that this would be a short debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, for his support for this measure. He has raised a number of important points. I would not for a moment suggest that his points at this time, or indeed any that he raises with me at the Dispatch Box, are not important. I of course align myself totally with his sentiments about the importance of road safety.
I shall take some of the issues that the noble Lord has raised in turn. First, on the question of why it has taken since 2014 to do this, and with regard to the European convention itself, the 1998 convention ceased to apply in the EU in December 2016. With regard to the mutual recognition between ourselves and Ireland, the only way that we could introduce these arrangements was via the treaty. The Irish constitution itself forbids agreements of this nature to be made by items such as an MoU, for example, or similar informal instruments. Such matters therefore take time to be agreed. I believe the provisions from the Irish side were carried within a wider Bill that was subsequently passed by the Irish Parliament.
On the issue of penalty points not being included, there are different methods of calculating points between the UK and Ireland. To give some practical examples, they are legally incompatible, and the UK counts one way and the Irish count the other. As to actual enforcement, different points are applied to different defences. If I may, I will get the Northern Ireland Office to write further about specific arrangements between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
On the numbers of drivers, I can tell the noble Lord that about a hundred people per year from Ireland were banned under these measures in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and about an equal number were banned under these measures in Ireland.
I think I have answered most if not all the questions that the noble Lord asked. I emphasise to him once again, as he raised the importance of this issue, that here we are on the last day of term, so to speak, and the Government are putting this forward again. That underlines the importance that we attach to ensuring these provisions can be made and translated into statute.
Did the disqualifications in force under the mutual recognition arrangements at the time of the opt-out in December 2014 continue to apply, or did they no longer have any legal status following the opt-out? Could the Minister, whatever the reasons may be, confirm that it has been a two-and-a-half year period during which people have been driving around on the roads in the UK who would not have been able to do so if that opt-out had not been made in 2014?
As I said, the convention continued and ceased to apply in the EU in December 2016. On the specific issue raised by the noble Lord about the number of people who may or may not have been driving through any intervening period, I will get that information to him in writing. I emphasise once again that the reason why there has been a delay, as he sees it, between 2014 and the date that we are now putting forward is that we were respecting the other side of the discussion, the Irish side, in ensuring that it could go through its appropriate due process to ensure that it could implement this legislation.