Lords amendment: No. 14, after clause 27 insert—
C.—(1) After section 84(4) of the 1972 Act (under which a person may drive a vehicle without a licence if he has previously held a licence to drive vehicles of that class and has applied for and is entitled to obtain such a licence) there is inserted—
(4A) The Secretary of State may by regulations provide that subsection (4) above shall also apply (where the requirements of that subsection are otherwise met) in the case of a person who has not previously held a licence to drive vehicles of the relevant class.
Regulations under this subsection shall, if not previously revoked, expire at the end of the period of one year beginning with the day on which they came into operation.".
(2) In the words in parenthesis in section 199(2) of that Act (exceptions from duty to consult before making regulations), after "section" there is inserted "84(4A) or".
The immediate reason for seeking this power is, of course, that the issue of all licences from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre at Swansea has been blocked for some months by the industrial action of some civil servants and that, even if the current dispute is quickly settled, there will be a substantial backlog of applications to process there. The problem centres on first-time applicants for provisional licences, since those who are renewing licences are already entitled to drive when an application has reached Swansea.
I am fully aware of the difficulties and hardship that are being caused to those awaiting their first licences. Many of these are young people who need them in order to travel to work by moped or motorcycle or to start training for driving jobs. I have also had many pleas from driving schools and instructors, whose flow of new pupils has dried up and who thus face an extremely serious loss of business. Some are threatened with going out of business. There are also signs of a drop in sales of two-wheelers. Some 300,000 new applicants are now waiting for licences, and their number is growing by 30,000 a week.
After reviewing all the possible ways of alleviating these problems, the Government decided that the speediest and most effective measure was to provide that in this, and any future, situation where the issue of licences is held up, the new applicant can be enabled to drive from the date when a valid application has been received. This requires primary legislation, and the clause was tabled in another place to that end.
Regulations made under the clause will put the person applying for a first provisional driving licence in the same position as one who is seeking renewal of his licence: that is, if he has reached the minimum age, and is not medically unfit or disqualified, he can drive as soon as the application is received at Swansea, instead of having to wait until the licence is issued. The regulations will automatically lapse after a year.
If the clause is accepted by the House, the intention is to make regulations immediately the Bill receives Royal Assent. We shall seek wide publicity for the measure, taking the opportunity at the same time to stress that entitlement will exist only where the application is itself valid—where no order of disqualification is in force and where the applicant has reached the qualifying age and is not suffering from any of the medical conditions likely to make him a danger when driving. These are matters which the licensing centre would normally wish to check on the form, but I should emphasise that only one in 2,000 first applications is turned down. I believe that the House will agree that the very small risk of unfit persons starting to drive has to be accepted for a limited period in the interests of the majority who so badly need their entitlement.
I should also mention in this connection that the Department has been in touch with representatives of the vehicle insurers, who have agreed that their cover should extend to people who receive the right to drive under this provision.
I am sure that the House will readily appreciate the need to accept this important new clause which the Opposition accepted in the other place. It will be of great significance to thousands of would-be learner drivers.