This short debate is about the new regulations applying to eye tests for the drivers of heavy goods vehicles. I declare my interest at the outset: I am, and have been throughout my years of service in this place, a sponsored member of the Transport and General Workers Union. I have always been very proud of my trade union connections. I approached the Transport and General Workers Union on the subject—about which there is much public concern—as it has a great deal of experience and expertise to offer.
I am the first to agree that safety must be the paramount concern when issuing driving licences. However, I am perturbed that the new regulations could put some of our safest and most experienced drivers off the road. Many could lose their livelihoods and be forced to join the bulging dole queues, without receiving any compensation.
The problem began with European Union directive 91/439, which stipulates that commercial vehicle drivers cannot be given a new licence, or renew an old one, unless they pass a minimum sight test without the aid of glasses or contact lenses. The argument is that a driver must be able to drive safely if his glasses are knocked off while driving—although there is no evidence that that has ever caused an accident.
The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Sir P. Fry) put down a series of rather interesting parliamentary questions on that subject, and received an answer from the Minister for Transport in London, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris), who will reply to the debate today. The questions, which were directed to the Department of Transport, were as follows:
(1) how many road accidents have occurred in the last five years for which figures are available where one driver involved was driving a passenger service vehicle and required spectacles or contact lenses;
(2) how many road accidents have occurred in the last five years for which figures are available where one driver involved was driving a passenger service vehicle and was blind in one eye;
(3) how many road accidents have occurred in the last five years for which figures are available where one driver involved was driving a heavy goods vehicle and required spectacles or contact lenses;
(4) how many road accidents have occurred in the last five years for which figures are available where one driver involved was driving a heavy goods vehicle and was blind in one eye".
The hon. Gentleman received an omnibus reply to his four questions, which stated:
This information is not available".—[Official Report, 4 March 1996; Vol. 273, c. 25.]
The Minister is on record as saying that he decided to introduce the new standards. However, in the light of that answer, it seems that he based that decision on pretty flimsy evidence. The new eyesight test rules have been copied directly from the EC directive on driving licences No. 91/439.
The other important change in the regulations is the removal, from 1 July 1996, of the so-called grandfather rights. They give drivers the right to continue to drive buses or lorries if their eyesight falls below any new, higher standards that may be introduced. Under existing regulations, drivers may drive such vehicles if they continue to meet the eyesight standards which applied when they obtained their licences, despite the introduction of higher standards subsequently.
The Government now believe that grandfather rights for eyesight standards pose sufficient risks to road safety and can no longer be accepted. I have said already that the Government's conclusions appear to be based on pretty flimsy evidence. What is even more remarkable is the European Commission's admission that Britain is the only country in Europe that intends to enforce the new tests for older, more experienced drivers. Every other country in the European Union plans to retain grandfather rights which allow existing holders of licences that were issued before 1983 to keep them and to continue working. British drivers will be put out of work as a result of the Government following that absurd European Union directive—which, incidentally, came about while in pursuit of a common driving licence which would operate throughout the European Community.
The Government tend to play down the number of jobs that could be lost as a result of the directive. That was evident in the reply that I received from the Leader of the House when I raised the subject during business questions on 22 February. He suggested:
some press reports have given an exaggerated picture of the impact of the changes and have caused unnecessary alarm".— [Official Report, 22 February 1996; Vol. 272, c. 515.]
The Minister has estimated, after minimal research—to put it politely—that up to 3,000 jobs could be lost. However, the Transport and General Workers Union and other trade unions have conducted their own surveys and they believe that the number will be much greater. They suggest that the job losses will be on-going, as drivers who are currently all right experience deterioration in their vision and lose their licences in due course.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that, under the new regulations, someone who acquires a passenger service vehicle or heavy goods vehicle licence at the age of 25, for example, will not be subject to the regulations until he reaches the age of 45? Within 12 months of reaching that age, he may need to wear glasses or contact lenses. That means that younger drivers could wear glasses or contact lenses and continue to work for some 19 years, while those aged more than 45 would lose their livelihoods.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right: that illustrates the absurdity of the new directive. I shall give hon. Members some examples of the sorts of people who are likely to lose their jobs as a result of the directive. Mr. Jim Good is a chemical tanker driver from Southampton. He is a highly trained, highly experienced professional driver, with a perfect record and a clean licence. He is 51 years old and will apparently lose his licence in three years. Mr. Michael Kavanagh owns a small haulage firm in Huddersfield. He has only one eye and will be unable to afford to employ another driver in his place. His business is likely to fold.
My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) has brought to my attention the plight of one of his constituents: Mr. Alan Forester, of Jarrow, feels that he is in danger of losing his job as a result of these new regulations. Fred Morse, 50, of Bristol, has an excellent record but he will shortly lose his licence.
One of my constituents, who has a clean licence and an outstanding record—in fact, he has been recommended for safety awards—is likely to lose his job if the directive goes through unamended.
That is yet another example of the type of people who will be affected. Mrs. Judith Pearman, of Buckinghamshire, wrote the following letter to her local newspaper:
My husband Ken has been a heavy goods vehicle driver for 25 years but now seems likely to lose his job. Why? Redundancy? Sacked for theft or gross misconduct? No, none of these.
The European Union has decreed that all holders of LGV licences must pass an eye test, unaided, without glasses or contact lenses. Drivers who don't pass lose their licences and their livelihoods.
Is the Government concerned? No: Commons leader Tony Newton says it will affect only a small minority. Well, I've got news for him. One-third of my husband's colleagues wear glasses or contact lenses: that's 15 people about to join the ever-growing scrapheap of experienced workers. And I've even more startling news for bespectacled John Major: they used to be Tory voters.
Is this the Government's way of taking lorries off the road to ensure more goods are transported by Wisconsin Railway? … We mustn't let the road haulage industry be steam-rollered into submission like the late-lamented fishing industry. Watch out, left-handed people: you're next.
Another truck driver—who has proved to be one of the most skilled in the country—faces losing his livelihood after failing a mock-up version of the new eyesight text at his optician. Norwich-based Les Gaskins, a veteran with over 30 years' driving experience and a 1989 finalist in the driver of the year contest, has worn glasses all his life and will lose his licence because he is required to take part of the test without them. He says:
With my glasses on I have good vision and my driving record shows that, but without them my optician says I will definitely fail. I am looking at losing 12 years' driving—nearly £250,000 in wages—and have less than a year left on my licence.
Mr. Gaskins says that if the Government class defective eyesight as a disability, the drivers affected should receive disability allowances.
On 31 January, Mr. Raymond Trotter, of Woodthorpe, York, North Yorkshire, wrote the following letter:
I am writing to you about the new law concerning lorry drivers. I recently went for a medical, with my work's doctor, to renew my class 1 LGV licence. I was told that he could not pass me, because of a new directive from the DVLC.
This says that because I wear glasses, I have to be able to read the top letter on a wall chart from three meters, without my glasses. Even though I had been to the optician that morning, and had got a good enough reading on my eye test to pass the previous limit, my optician said that I was alright to carry on driving lorries. It was afterwards that my work's doctor showed me the new DVLC directive.
My optician was obviously not aware of this new directive, as were a few lorry drivers that I have spoken to since. I think this is something to do with if a driver breaks his glasses whilst driving. I can't think of any reason for anybody to be driving without his glasses if they need them to drive.
Those are the sorts of people, from all over the country, who are likely to lose their jobs.
Why is Britain taking such a rigid line on this issue? I understand that no other country in Europe is to abolish the so-called grandfather rights, and the Commission is permitting them to follow that course. The Transport and General Workers Union is adamant that, given the lack of evidence to the contrary, the retention of the grandfather rights does not compromise health and safety. To some extent, the College of Optometrists backs up this point of view and says that it is difficult to understand the reason for a set standard of uncorrected vision.
The Government have made a mistake: it is a proverbial cock-up. I advise them of the old adage: when in a hole, stop digging. I urge the Minister to take a far more flexible line on this European Union directive. He would be wise to do so.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) for initiating this debate, and I welcome the opportunity to present the facts about the changes to eyesight standards for lorry and bus drivers that come into effect in July. I am afraid that the facts and objectivity have been sadly lacking in media coverage of this matter in recent weeks, and in the hon. Gentleman's speech. I have read far too many newspaper reports that have completely misled their readers and grossly exaggerated the effects of the changes in the law by giving the impression—incidentally, an impression conveyed in some of the letters that the hon. Gentleman has just read—that most bus and lorry drivers who need to wear glasses for driving are to be forced off the road.
Some of those more highly coloured reports have even suggested that any driver who wears glasses will lose his licence. Inaccurate reporting is something that Governments have to get used to—but my main concern about some of the things that I have read is that too much unnecessary distress has been caused to large numbers of drivers and their families, most of whom have nothing to worry about.
Much of the press comment has written up the story as a Brussels bombshell, but the second driving licence directive was agreed by member states in 1991. It contains a number of measures designed to make life easier for motorists moving around Europe—for example, mutual recognition of driving licences—and generally to improve road safety. By and large, the measures represent a joining together of existing practice in member states.
To put the record straight on eyesight, the standards prescribed in the second directive are largely those that already apply in Britain. That is not surprising as we had a major input into them. The vast majority of bus and lorry drivers, including those who need to wear glasses or contact lenses for driving, will not be affected by them. The EC directive requires a minimum level of vision in both eyes with or without glasses. The United Kingdom already applies the identical standard. It requires a normal field of vision in both eyes, as does the United Kingdom. It requires that drivers must not suffer from double vision. That is already a requirement in the United Kingdom. Finally—this is where people seem to be getting somewhat carried away—it requires all drivers who need to wear glasses for driving to meet a minimum standard of vision without their glasses or contact lenses.
Let me make two points about that final requirement. First, we already require, and have done since 1983, a minimum standard of vision without glasses for bus and lorry drivers. There is absolutely nothing new in that. The only change is that the standard will have to be met in both eyes rather than in one.
Secondly, the standard itself has not changed and is not a tough standard, as some reports have suggested. It is equivalent to reading the top line on an optician's chart from a distance of 3 m. I hope that the House will reflect for a moment on what that means. There is a practical reason for that: it is designed to ensure that, in the event of glasses or contact lenses being dislodged in an emergency or collision, the driver has at least the minimum vision needed to bring his vehicle to a halt or to manoeuvre it to safety. It does not seem unreasonable to require a driver in that situation—however rarely it might occur—to be able to see other vehicles or pedestrians and take the necessary precautions. Having to hand a spare pair of glasses or contact lenses is not the answer in an emergency. Apart from that practical consideration, it is likely that a driver who could not pass the test without glasses would require lenses so thick that he or she would not have a normal field of vision when wearing glasses, and would fail the standard on that account.
I shall not give way now as I have a great deal to say to correct the dreadful misinformation that has been put about, but I shall give way later, if I have sufficient time.
The standards in the directive, which, as I have said, are very much in line with current United Kingdom standards, represent the consensus view of road safety and medical experts in the EU member states as to what minimum eyesight requirements are compatible with road safety for the drivers of large and potentially dangerous vehicles.
In the light of that expert advice, the Government had to take a decision as to whether the new standards should apply only to new drivers—those who apply for a licence after 1 July—or to current licence holders as well. That is known as the grandfather rights issue. It is complicated by the fact that in the United Kingdom we have for many years operated a system of grandfather rights that allows drivers who continue to meet the eyesight requirements that applied when they first obtained their licence to continue driving even if they cannot meet the more stringent requirements that were introduced subsequently. So, for example, a person with sight in only one eye is already barred from applying for a licence to drive buses or lorries.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Sir P. Fry) has left the Chamber, but I shall reply to him in his absence. A 25-year-old would not be granted a licence that did not conform to the requirements of the second directive. We have been applying that new standard administratively for some years. I should tell the hon. Member for Newport, East, who unwisely agreed with my hon. Friend, that the youngest driver likely to be affected will be about 32 years old.
Let me make it clear that we still allow relatively few drivers with sight in only one eye to continue driving simply because it was allowed at the time they obtained their licences. The standards in the directive add another stricter requirement to the current standards, so people driving on grandfather rights will fall even further behind the requirements considered compatible with road safety.
In considering the position of existing drivers, we were only too aware that some of those who would not now be entitled to drive were it not for the grandfather rights provision might well have an accident-free driving record, and for some the loss of their licence could mean the loss of their jobs. On the other hand, continuing with the grandfather rights system would effectively permit licences to be renewed by a few individuals whose eyesight fell well below what had been agreed as the minimum safe standards. Our view was that the system of grandfather rights carried significant risks to road safety.
It is difficult to justify on any objective criteria allowing a minority of drivers to continue to hold licences if they cannot meet the same standards that apply to the majority. Therefore, we put those points for consideration in a public consultation paper. We consulted 95 bodies, including trade associations, employees' representative bodies and motoring organisations as well as medical and road safety interests. The views expressed in response to that letter were fairly evenly divided between those who thought that grandfather rights should continue and those who felt that they should be abolished. After carefully considering those views, I personally took a decision, which I announced last October, that road safety would not be best served if drivers of those vehicles were allowed to continue driving on the basis simply of licensing history rather than of any criteria relating to safety.
It was not an easy decision, but we are not here simply to make easy decisions. I have no doubt that, had we reached a different decision, many of those who are now critical of the changes that we are introducing would be the first to complain about inadequate safety and Government intransigence if, for example, a bus driver with eyesight below the new standard had an accident in which schoolchildren were killed or injured.
Our estimate is that some 3,000 drivers will lose their entitlement to drive lorries or buses as a result of the change in the law. That represents about 0.2 per cent. or one fifth of 1 per cent. of those currently licensed to drive lorries and buses—considerably lower than figures such as 25 per cent. or the one third quoted by Mrs. Pearman in the letter that the hon. Gentleman read out and that has been quoted in the press. I wrote to the Daily Mail to point out the reality, but it declined to print my letter.
The drivers concerned will retain their current entitlement until their licences come up for renewal, when they will have to take the medical examination required with all renewal applications. Only at that point will those who cannot meet the new standard lose their entitlement.
I would not question the importance that the Minister is placing on safety, but I wonder whether he will comment on the case of my constituent, who is a one-eyed lorry driver. As he was unemployed, he was encouraged to invest in a lorry which he now owns himself. He will now be deprived of his livelihood and his savings that he invested in that lorry. Is there no possibility of compensation for people in those circumstances, such as was provided to the owners of fishing vessels?
No. I regret that there is no such compensation, but I should make it clear that I take such matters very seriously.
I have been concerned to take account of one particular issue. I can tell the House in quite unequivocal terms that no jobs have been lost in the sense that the reservoir of jobs available in Britain has been diminished. The Government occasionally agree to proposals that have the effect of reducing the number of jobs that are available, and no Minister would take such a decision lightly, but I stress that the availability of jobs has not been diminished by the measure.
Some drivers who fail the medical standards may be excluded from some jobs. I have genuine and great sympathy for the people to whom the hon. Member for Newport, East has referred, but I reiterate that in the difficult matter of having to judge the interests of safety against the livelihoods of a small number of individuals, I have taken a decision—I accept that it is not an easy one, but I am not here to make easy decisions. I listened to the evidence and read the 95 responses to the consultation paper, and I shall make them available to the hon. Gentleman if he wishes, so that he can see the arguments for himself.
Contrary to some misleading reports, most other EU member states simply have not yet reached a firm view on grandfather rights, although Austria is also abolishing grandfather rights. Press reports to the contrary are simply and unequivocally wrong.
I confirmed the Commission's view this morning with a Mr. Brisaer from DGVII. Its view is that any driver renewing a licence must comply with the requirements of the second directive, including the medical standards. The official even thought that there was an argument for making the new standards apply to all drivers immediately, but thought that might be too restrictive an interpretation. The official specifically denied that the Commission is prepared to
view sympathetically any individual states wanting to keep current minimum standards"—
the claim attributed in the Daily Mail to Mr. Smolders of the international road transport union. It is simply not the case that we are being more communautaire than the Commission or applying standards in this country that are uniquely draconian to our drivers.
Let me reiterate the absolutely essential point: 0.2 per cent., or one fifth of 1 per cent., of those currently licensed to drive will be affected. In practice, what will happen in many cases is that those drivers will continue to drive for companies but will drive vehicles of under 7.5 tonnes, as they are perfectly entitled still to do. No doubt other drivers currently perhaps driving smaller vehicles will take their jobs and so on but, in the circumstances, I am clear that we have made the right decision.
I hope that I have been able to restore some sense of perspective after the quite hysterical reporting of the issue. I know the hon. Member for Newport, East very well—