Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.


Tuesday 11 July 1989



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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Ted Leadbitter

Amess, Mr. David (Basildon)

Amos, Mr. Alan (Hexham)

Arnold, Mr. Jacques (Gravesham)

Bottomley, Mr. Peter (The Minister for Roads and Traffic)

Cash, Mr. William (Stafford)

Day, Mr. Stephen (Cheadle)

Dorrell, Mr. Stephen (Loughborough)

Dunwoody, Mrs. Gwyneth (Crewe and Nantwich)

Grant, Mr. Bernie (Tottenham)

Livsey, Mr. Richard (Brecon and Radnor)

Michie, Mr. Bill (Sheffield, Heeley)

Mitchell, Mr. Austin (Great Grimsby)

Ruddock, Ms. Joan (Lewisham, Deptford)

Sedgemore, Mr. Brian (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick and Leamington)

Winterton, Mrs. Ann (Congleton)

Young, Sir George (Ealing, Acton)

Mr. S. A. L. Panton, Committee Clerk

3 Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Tuesday 11 July 1989

[MR. TED LEADBITTER in the Chair]

Draft Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts by Children in Rear Seats) Regulations 1989

10.30 am

The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Peter Bottomley): I beg to move, "That the Committee has considered the Draft Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts by Children in Rear Seats) Regulations 1989. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day) on successfully getting his Bill on to the statute book. I pay tribute to the work of the Parliamentary Advisory Committee for Transport Safety, the sponsors of the Bill, for all its work. The rewards for its efforts are high—children's lives will be saved. The legislation is about cutting out needless child deaths and injuries. No responsible parent should wait for this law to take effect on 1 September. All drivers, including those carrying other people's children, have a moral responsibility to ensure that their child passengers are safely restrained. Adults who sit in the back of the car but do not use available seat restraints double their chances of injury or death in a crash. Too many people who are driven by belted drivers die unnecessarily in the backs of cars. During the passage of the Bill, we gave an undertaking to consult widely on the draft regulations. We produced a consultation document setting out the issues involved, which we launched at a press conference on 1 March. It generated much interest. We sent out almost 5,000 copies and received responses from 65 organisations and many individuals. We are most grateful to all those who took the trouble to respond for their helpful comments. The draft regulations are framed around those comments. The consultation exercise revealed widespread support for the pragmatic approach of the draft regulations. That is a polite way of saying that they are a compromise. The regulations are not about compulsory fitting. They do not make it obligatory for drivers to buy or fit rear adult belts or child restraints. The primary legislation states "where fitted", althouth the moral and social obligation to do so is compelling. Further, they are not about limiting the capacity of the car. The regulations do not prevent a large family or group of children—on a school run, for example—from travelling together. They are not about compulsory wearing for adults. However, I ask adults to set an example to children. We should not be hypocritical. It does not do much good to tell a child in the back to put his belt on when the parent sitting beside him fails to do so. The regulations aim to protect the 80 per cent. or so of children who currently travel unrestrained in 4 the rear, invariably leaning forward, while the available suitable restraints remain unused. Anyone who has seen school runs to the primary school or playgroup, or cars in weekend traffic jams, will have noticed unrestrained children in dangerous positions. The consultation exercise exposed the issues of what should happen when there are more children than restraints, when there is a mix of adults and children, when luggage is being carried, when seats can be folded down, and when third-party drivers are involved. It also opened up for debate the question of who should wear what. The consultation document explained that expert opinion was divided about the youngest age at which it was reasonable to require a child to wear an adult belt in the absence of a proper child restraint. Clearly, it would not be appropriate for a child under one. Children of that age should be restrained in an approved child restraint appropriate to their age and weight, which includes a carrycot. Where such suitable restraints are available, the regulations require them to be used. We proposed discussions with professional experts. We held a seminar on 19 April, which was attended by the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, the Child Accident Prevention Trust, the National Automobile Safety Belt Association, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the transport and road research laboratory, the Medical Commission on Accident Prevention and Dr. Gordon Avery of the south Warwickshire health authority. We are grateful to Jean Breen and her team for all that they have done, and for their general work on transport safety. I join them in paying tribute to Jane Asher and other well-known people for providing an acceptable public face to combat child injury and abuse. Such presentable, authoritative figures, by illustrating why precautions need to be taken, allow the law to be observed voluntarily by more people. World experts were present at the seminar. I am grateful to all those who took part, and to the Consumers Association, which dealt at length with the issue in its response to the consultation exercise. The seminar unanimously agreed that it was probably safer for children under four years of age to wear adult belts rather than none, but that the law should not require it. The issue is one of public acceptability. Many parents would feel uneasy about being required by law to lock a small child into an adult belt that did not fit well and was not designed to do so. Any parent who is anxious about that should immediately buy an appropriate age-related restraint. The seminar also agreed unanimously that the risk of belt-induced injury to children in that age group who were using an adult belt was minimal if a booster cushion were used. We therefore propose that the range of restraints appropriate for children aged between one and four should include an adult belt used in conjunction with a booster cusion. There would be nothing in law to prevent a child in that age group from being restrained in an adult belt if the driver wanted to offer the child some 5 protection, provided that no other suitable restraint were available. Where a suitable restraint was available in the vehicle, it would have to be used. There is no legal requirement on parents or drivers to buy booster cushions. We urge parents to buy them, keep them in the car and ensure that grandparents make them available. They are inexpensive and do not require fitting. However, they could save the life of a member or friend of a family. We shall continue, with the full backing of the seminar experts, to advise that adult belts are better than no restraint at all for under-fours. I turn to the problem of there being more children than restraints in a car. The regulations are not intended to limit cars' capacity—that is the driver's or parent's dilemma. The regulations require suitable available restraints to be worn. If, for example, three restraints are available but there are four, five or even six children in the car, three children must be belted. It is for the driver or parent to decide who should travel unrestrained. As to the problem of a mix of adults and children in the car, there are safety benefits in allowing an adult to be restrained rather than a child. The heaviest unrestrained passenger could cause the most severe injury to others in the car in a crash. Under the regulations if an adult were using a belt, it would not be regarded as being available for a child, and no child would be required to use it. An adult not prepared to belt up will not be allowed to deny a child the use of that restraint if it is suitable for the child, or could be used to hold an appropriate child restraint. The adult would have to vacate the seat, unless that adult had a medical exemption certificate. Everyone would agree that children come before luggage. No exemptions are proposed for children travelling unrestrained merely because luggage is being carried on a rear seat. If any member of the Committee would care to see an illustration of that in their constituency—and I am grateful to many Members of Parliament who have given their support—I suggest dropping six inexpensive plates in front of a television camera or local audience, and asking how one could carry the plates in a car. Those watching would ask for protection for the plates, such as a cardboard box or newspaper. But how many of those people would carry someone else's four-year-old unrestrained in the back of a car? Six plates could not be more valuable than a four-year-old child. Some vehicles are designed so that part or all of the rear seat may be folded down. Under the regulations, a rear seat folded down to create more luggage space would not be regarded as available for use, nor would any seat belt fitted to it, provided that the additional luggage space is necessary for luggage to be carried, and it is being so carried. We believe that this pragmatic approach is right. Taxi drivers and private-hire car drivers argued strongly for exemption from the law on the grounds that they should not be expected to compel other people's children to wear seat belts or be responsible for ensuring that they continue to do so while travelling. Consultation revealed that the majority of people were strongly against such an exemption. We 6 see no case for exempting taxis generally or private-car-hire drivers. Indeed, their case could be used by any third-party driver—a relative or a friend—to escape the responsibility that the new law places on them. In some taxis—particularly the famous black cabs—and some hire cars there is a fixed glass partition between the driver and the rear seat. Such a partition limits the scope for the driver to supervise the child passenger. We propose, therefore, that children travelling in such a vehicle, when properly licensed as a taxi, will be exempt from the new law. Organisations representing drivers of such vehicles—the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association and the London Taxi Board—have said that they support fully the fitting and wearing of child restraints. We propose to work with those organisations to see how we can encourage voluntary retro fitting of seat belts in taxis manufactured since 1981 with suitable anchorage points. All taxis manufactured since October 1986 are required to have belts fitted. We shall also explore what we can do to encourage voluntary wearing by adults as well as children. I pay tribute to members of the taxi trade for their positive response. This is the one issue on which we have not gone along with the majority view expressed in the consultation. However, I hope that members of the Committee will not regard it as the most important issue.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington): Am I right in saying that we are discussing exhortation, not penalty? I spy nothing in the reguL tions about a penalty and, as my hon. Friend explained, they will be complied with on a voluntary basis. Are the regulations on a par with what happened regarding the voluntary use of ordinary seats belts, when they were being fitted and people were encouraged to wear them?

Mr. Bottomley: My hon. Friend raises a significant point. The House said, first, that front seat belt wearing should be compulsory, with a penalty, starting with children in the front seat. It then said that the front seat passenger and driver would be required to wear seat belts. Although there was provision for a minor penalty, there have been few prosecutions. Normally, it happens only when the police are throwing the book at someone who has done something else wrong. Most police officers say, very sensibly, "Excuse me, but you are not wearing your seat belt" and most of us immediately put it on. It is only when we have done something else that the police are likely to prosecute and bring in the penalty. I emphasise to all parents and adults driving children that, under the regulations, the smallest possible penalty is the minor fine that is open to the courts if there is a prosecution. The major penalty is the one now applicable in 80 per cent. of cases in which teenage children up to the age of 14 are driven around unrestrained in cars. I suspect that there will be voluntary compliance with the law, which has a penalty attached to it. For taxi cabs with the fixed partition, compliance will be voluntary, with the trade-off that the 7 organisations representing the drivers will encourage them to retro fit seat belts, although there is no compulsion in law. My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith) has, in part, emphasised an important point about the voluntary retro fitting of belts in taxis. Those of us who are used to using rear belts will also find them in taxi cabs. Penalties will be available to the courts if there are prosecutions under the regulations. I ask parents not to wait until the regulations take effect before making restraints available. Whatever financial penalty might be involved in a prosecution is minimal compared with the ghastly business of parents or grandparents turning up at a hospital to sit or pray at the bedside of a child who they know they exposed to injury unnecessarily because he or she was not protected in a crash. On Second Reading in February 1988, I said that the Government were keen to see how public and parliamentary opinion had moved regarding protection for children in the rear of cars. It is clear that the majority of the public and both Houses of Parliament welcome the measure. It is very much in tune with the climate of opinion and the present state of knowledge. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

10.45 am

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle): I shall be brief. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister and his officials, who have been helpful and have kept the regulations generally within the spirit of the legislation as it was first presented to Parliament. The spirit in which the measure was sold to the House has been retained in the regulations, and in general I am happy with them. It is right that there is a specific provision to deal with the problem of children up to four years old. Public acceptability is important if the measure is to work. Some parents would not have found it acceptable for the law to stipulate the use of an adult restraint for children of that age. However, I think that the public will find this provision reasonable. The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety and I should have preferred there to be more action regarding black cabs. I shall not make a fuss about the issue, but I should have preferred black cabs to be included, because the more children that can be restrained the better. Having said that, I welcome the way that taxi drivers have approached the matter and the constructive way in which they have responded to my hon. Friend the Minister's efforts to make this aspect of the regulations effective. I welcome their co-operation and hope that it will produce the desired results. I should like to thank PACTS. Without its help the measure would never have reached this stage. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, Jean Breen, in particular, has done a tremendous job. The organisations that supported the measure are too numerous to list. Many of them are members of PACTS, but I should like to mention the Automobile Association in particular, and compliment Richard 8 Drabble, who was involved in the drafting of the measure. I add my support to the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister and hope that the Committee will approve the regulations.

Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffied, Heeley): Given that I am the only Labour Member present, this is the nearest that I shall get to being on the Front Bench. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has just walked in, so that is me knackered again. I do not disagree with the regulations. I take the point about the ergonomics of the use of child restraints. Over the weekend, I fitted one of those convertible child seats-cum-belts in the back of my car. People need a degree to fit them because it is so difficult and awkward. More research should be done on the fixing of such belts so that ordinary people can do it easily. An incorrectly installed seat belt could be as dangerous as not having a seat belt at all. I hope that there will be more research on seat belts, whether they be for older people or for children under four years old. Much work is still to be done. Nothing is more attractive than getting a child or old person into a car without too much difficulty. Research will show that, increasingly, people will find the measure even more acceptable than it is now.

10.49 am

Mr. Peter Bottomley: I shall respond to the debate by making two points. First, any Member of the House of Commons or House of Lords could have blocked the Bill. We should express gratitude on behalf of the nation's children to those who had doubts but were willing to trust us to make regulations that were generally acceptable. We should therefore offer our thanks to the supporters of the measure and those who had doubts. Their generosity of spirit will be rewarded by fewer broken bodies. Secondly, in response to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie), I ask all regional television programmes to try to get a local expert, perhaps from an in-car safety centre or one of the Kwik-Fit fitters, to demonstrate the correct fitting and use of restraints and some of the simple mistakes that people make. It is important that the equipment is installed and used safely. Television should cover such demonstrations as news and current affairs. I ask all hon. Members to encourage their regional television companies to take up this suggestion. Some of the members of PACTS will be able to encourage media response, which will make such a difference to knowledge of the law and to compliance with safe fitting.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Draft Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts by Children in Rear Seats) Regulations 1989.

Committee rose at eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.



Leadbitter, Mr. Ted (Chairman)

Amess, Mr.

Amos, Mr.

Arnold, Mr. Jacques

Bottomley, Mr. Peter

Cash, Mr.

Day, Mr.

Dorrell, Mr. Stephen

Dunwoody, Mrs.

Grant, Mr. Bernie

Hind, Mr.

Michie, Mr. Bill

Smith, Sir Dudley

Winterton, Mrs. Ann

Young, Sir George