These amendments which are in my name and those of other members of the all-party Disablement Group, seek to embody the principle that minibuses should be regarded as normal motor cars when operated by private operators.
Last summer the Disablement Group became extremely concerned at certain restrictions which were being applied to local authority social service departments, especially in the West Country, and to various voluntary organisations when they came to use their minibuses, which had often been donated through various fund-raising activites and by various charitable bodies. The problem which arose in Devon was related to charges being levied for trips which were then regarded as having rendered those journeys as being for hire or reward. I shall not go further into those details, because the problem was largely resolved and the banning of the use of minibuses by Devon County Council and other local authorities was rescinded.
However, a great deal of uncertainty remains and it is in the light of the need for minibuses to be regarded, for driving purposes, as normal motor cars, that my hon. Friends and I seek to amend any such traffic laws as we are discussing tonight so as to allow vehicles carrying up to 16 passengers to be regarded as small passenger-carrying vehicles and therefore within the requirements of normal driving licences. Amendment No. 3 deals specifically with the definition of a small passenger vehicle, but as the other definitions of "small goods vehicle" and "medium-sized goods vehicle" also refer to passenger-carrying adaptations, I have included them in the other two amendments.
In the Adjournment debate on 19th January this year, when my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) raised the whole subject of the hire and reward anomaly which had cropped up in his own area of Devon, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment made the following remarks, which are very important in this context:
I turn to the effect of the EEC regulation. This regulation requires, in the absence of professional experience, that any driver of a vehicle carrying more than nine persons should hold a certificate of professional competence. This has been interpreted by some to mean that drivers must have a public service vehicle driver's licence. My hon. Friend the Minister for Transport is seeking exemption for private minibuses from all the provisions of the regulation. In the meantime, he proposes to
recognise an ordinary driving licence for a motor car as proof of competence to drive a minibus.—[Official Report, 19th January 1976; Vol. 903, c. 1104.]
This matter affects many disablement organisations, many schools for the handicapped, local authorities and voluntary agencies. These bodies have raised funds and purchased minibuses in order to transport handicapped and elderly people—and young handicapped people to schools—on journeys for which normal transport is not necessarily available.
Following our representations through the all-party group to the Minister with special responsibility for the disabled, the hon. Member for Manchester, Wythen-shawe (Mr. Morris), the hon. Gentleman wrote on our behalf to the Minister for Transport on 6th February. I shall quote one paragraph from his letter, which he has made available to us all, because it is relevant to these amendments:
But the Road Traffic Act can nevertheless sometimes impede arrangements for transport which would be valuable in providing greater mobility for disabled people. I should be most grateful for an assurance which I could pass on to the Group"—
that is, the all-party Disablement Group—
that this factor is being given the fullest possible weight in your examination of the whole position. I fully recognise that you have to consider the implications of any change for public transport generally, but mobility for the disabled is, I am sure, a special element of the problem: as you and I are both reminded fairly frequently, there are hazards to other ways in which disabled people may seek mobility on the roads.
That quotation from the letter sent by the Minister with special responsibility for the disabled and my earlier quotation from the speech of the Under-Secretary in the Adjournment debate accept, in effect, the principle which I propose in the amendment, that the minibus should be regarded as a motor car for the purposes of the driving regulations, and we wish to ensure that that principle is embodied in the Bill.