Motion to Approve
My Lords, these draft regulations are made under the powers conferred by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and will be needed if the UK leaves the European Union without a deal. They amend domestic seat belt-wearing legislation to ensure that it continues to work following withdrawal in the event of no deal. They make technical changes and do not alter policy. In Northern Ireland, seat belt-wearing legislation is a transferred matter. Of course, the Government remain committed to restoring devolution in Northern Ireland, but with exit day six weeks away, and in the continued absence of a Northern Ireland Executive, in the interest of legal certainty the Government will take through the necessary secondary legislation at Westminster for Northern Ireland. This has of course been done in close consultation with the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
Compulsory seat belt wearing has been in place for 36 years. Subsequent obligations have been placed on front and rear seat passengers domestically. The purpose of this statutory instrument is to correct technical deficiencies that would arise domestically if we were to exit without a deal. This will enable us to maintain a functioning statute book and retain the clarity that might otherwise be lost. The instrument maintains the status quo in terms of seat belt and child restraint use obligations and the recognition of medical exemption certificates. It does not diverge from the robust legal framework we already have in place. The current EU Directive 91/671/EEC sets out the requirements for compulsory seat belt wearing. There are exceptions and caveats but the basic position, stemming from the directive and incorporated in domestic law, is that for cars, vans and lorries, seat belts must be worn where fitted. Children must also use a suitable child restraint system, and children under three cannot be transported if there is no safety system in the vehicle.
Drivers and passengers who have a medical condition making it inadvisable for them to wear a seat belt can be issued with an exemption certificate. The Road Traffic Act 1988, The Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) Regulations 1993, and The Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts by Children in Front Seats) Regulations 1993 require drivers and passengers to wear adult belts, including those approved in “another member State”, and recognise child restraints approved in “another member State”. They also recognise medical certificates exempting a person from the requirement to wear a belt issued in “another member State”. The Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, the Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1993, and the Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts by Children in Front Seats) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1993 have the same effect in Northern Ireland. This draft instrument makes the necessary changes so that the regulatory regime in place after exit continues to operate as it does now.
The regulations remove existing powers and duties in the Road Traffic Act 1988 and the Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, which exist to make subordinate legislation for implementing an EU directive. The powers and duties that are being removed relate to the implementation of the EU seat belt directive. Once the UK has exited the EU, it would no longer be appropriate to retain the powers and duties to implement the obligations imposed by a European directive. We will retain existing domestic powers in the Road Traffic Act 1988 and the Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 to enable Government to maintain, and amend where necessary, the existing legal framework governing seat belt wearing. This SI replaces the duty to provide an exemption from wearing a seat belt for any person holding a certificate issued in an EU member state with a power to do so.
The regulations replace the term “another member State” with “a member State” where it occurs in domestic legislation. This is necessary to ensure the law remains clear and continues to have its current effect. Without these changes, the relevant provisions might be rendered ineffective. Changing this terminology will ensure that medical certificates issued to drivers and passengers in EU member states who cannot wear seat belts because of a medical condition continue to be recognised in the UK.
The change in terminology will also ensure that passengers are obliged to wear an adult seat belt even when the only belt available was approved by an EU member state and is not otherwise compliant with use in the UK. That is important because there is an exemption from the requirement to wear a seat belt if a compliant seat belt is not available. If such seat belts ceased to be compliant by virtue of our not making this technical change, then their non-use would no longer constitute an offence. We want to be clear that, in simple terms, if a seat belt is available then it must be worn. After exit day, any lack of clarity over what constitutes a compliant seat belt could lead to confusion, which would clearly be neither a safe nor a sensible policy.
It is similar with child restraint systems. The final effect of the change in terminology is to ensure that driving in the UK with a child restraint system that would meet the requirements of the law of an EU member state, but that would not otherwise meet the requirements of domestic legislation on seat-belt wearing, does not become an offence. That is to try to avoid confusion for any family travelling to the UK over whether that child restraint is legal.
We have in place a robust legal framework in respect of seat-belt wearing which aims to improve road safety. In the interests of safety, we want that framework to continue after exit day. The Government want to ensure that domestic seat-belt legislation continues to work in a way that retains good travel, tourism and business access from EU member states following the UK’s exit. For this to happen, we need to ensure that the legislative basis is sound and that the statute book functions properly. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will begin by pointing out that Paragraph 7.8 of the Explanatory Memorandum says:
“With exit day less than one year away”.
I keep repeating this because I want to know where these SIs have been all this time. Someone clearly did the work on them a long time ago, and we are now rushing them through this House. Why have they been left to this late stage?
That is my complaint over with. Turning to the issues in this SI, as the Minister has said, it is a simple transposition. But it is an important topic, because hundreds of thousands—probably millions—of British people travel abroad to Europe every year. A very large number of them take their car, and could therefore start off with perfectly legal seat belts only to find themselves in an illegal situation by the end.
This SI basically says “If it is legal in the EU, it will be legal in the UK. If you are exempt in the EU, you will be exempt in the UK”. What about UK drivers going to the EU in the situation I have just explained? Has the EU indicated what it intends to do in the event of a no-deal Brexit? On some transport issues, it has given a fairly clear—if not always desirable—indication. Has it made any comments on this at all?
Those who are in favour of Brexit, including the Secretary of State, want the freedom to develop our own standards. If we do, will we be guaranteed that, when we go to Europe with, say, our child’s bumper seat—which people often take with them on holiday—it will be legal when we get there?
There has been a lot of coverage lately of the end of the EU medical insurance system as it applies to UK residents. Is there a set format for the medical certificates referred to in this SI? Is there a particular form or list of medical professionals who can sign these certificates? My point is, how easy will it be in future for UK citizens to get a certificate of medical exemption that will be instantly recognised as authentic and acceptable, even by someone who perhaps does not speak English? To reverse that, if there is an EU format, then we will clearly be used to it, and the authorities in Britain coming across someone with a medical exemption would know about it. I am trying to tease out the way in which British people will be treated in future when they drive in the EU.
My Lords, leaving the EU without an agreement is a thoroughly stupid thing to do, but if it happens, this SI is thoroughly sensible and we will not oppose it. My understanding, which I think is the same as that of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, is that it is not symmetric: that it does nothing for UK drivers in the EU but sensibly addresses the issue of drivers who would unknowingly be breaking the law were this SI not completed. It produces a sensible environment in which friends—as I would call them—from the European Union can drive in the UK.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their consideration of these draft regulations. As the noble Baroness pointed out, these regulations are important—seat belts save lives. In 2017, 27% of car fatalities involved people not wearing a seat belt, and we need to ensure that as many people as possible wear them. That is what these regulations are designed to do.
I take the noble Baroness’s point on the Explanatory Memorandum. The drafting of some of these has been a lengthy process—with consultation, legal checks et cetera—but I take her point, and we will endeavour to do better for future as we get closer in.
Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord mentioned reciprocity. This SI only makes provision for continuity of current practices in so far as visitors from the EU to the UK, and drivers in the UK, are concerned. It does not address what will happen in the EU; that will be decided by the European Union.
There will be no legal obligation on member states to recognise medical certificates issued in the UK. In the event of no deal, we will recognise medical certificates. We think that is far and away the easiest way to do it. But no reciprocal agreement has been confirmed by the EU, so we advise anyone holding such a certificate to check the position with any country to which they intend to travel. There is a current format which we provide to GPs—it is essentially a GP certificate. They are responsible for issuing them, and we will ensure that that format is consistent when we leave the EU. We cannot guarantee that they will be recognised, but we would like very much to think that they would be in the same way that we will recognise theirs, although the EU has not yet confirmed that.
There is no change on seat belts. The EU directive requires drivers and passengers to wear them, if they are fitted, so the position there will stay the same. At the moment, the standards for child restraints are set at UNECE—the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe—which, despite having the word Europe in its name, as we discussed in the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, is an international body. It will continue to set those standards, and we will continue to follow them. Child restraints which meet the UNECE international requirements will be recognised by the EU; the vast majority of UK child restraints meet those requirements.
I think I have covered most questions. Again, if I have missed one, I will follow up in writing.
In conclusion, this SI will ensure that the domestic seat-belt wearing legislation continues to work as at present. The point of the SI is to maintain the status quo, both in terms of seat-belt and child restraint use obligations and in the recognition of medical exemption certificates from EU member states. The Government’s objective is to maintain the status quo to avoid difficulties that would be encountered by drivers and, indeed, enforcers if existing legislation remained untouched. I hope noble Lords will agree that this is sensible in respect of laws relating to the wearing of seat belts.