Newly Qualified Drivers

– in the House of Commons at 1:34 pm on 19th October 2001.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 1:55 pm, 19th October 2001

These are difficult and challenging times for us all and I wish that the subject of this Adjournment debate could lift our spirits, but the House will soon recognise that it is a very sad tale that I have to share.

There can be nothing worse than losing one's children. Tragically, on the morning of 26 August, two families were devastated when three young men were killed in horrific traffic accident. Two brothers, Glen and Gary Dineen, and Mark Baker ploughed into an electricity transformer. Their car exploded and they were killed. No one knows precisely how the accident happened.

Let me say at the outset that I have no intention of blaming anyone for the cause of this accident. I am simply concerned that the two families who now have to cope with this tragedy should be reassured that this mother of all democracies will take the matter seriously. They realise that they are not unique; this has happened to many families before. However, I want to reassure them that the House is minded to consider the proposal that has been made by one of the fathers involved.

Mr. Henry Baker—the father of Mark—came to my surgery a few weeks ago and shared with me his ideas for trying to change the circumstances in which driving licences are granted, so that such a tragedy could never happen again. I know that the Minister is sympathetic to some of the points that I shall now share with him.

Mr. Baker has organised a petition, which I shall present to the House in a few weeks' time. It is headed "Help Save Young Lives", and goes on to state:

"In the early hours of Sunday 26th August a tragic accident claimed the lives of Mark Baker (18), Glen Dineen (18) and Gary Dineen (16). Although I attach no blame to any of the boys involved I believe that a change in the law may save lives in the future. I would like to see legislation forbidding drivers aged between 17 and 21 from carrying passengers aged under 21 until they had driven for six months after they had passed their driving tests and also a review for a graduated licensing system. Similar legislation has already been introduced in the USA, Australia and New Zealand. I realise this may be inconvenient for some, but if this legislation were to save one life I feel my son's death would not have been in vain."

I think that I will carry the House with me when I say that it is remarkable that this father has set about trying to do something positive as a result of this tragedy. I certainly applaud him in all his endeavours.

I have been furnished with a great deal of information on this subject and, as ever, I am grateful to the House of Commons Library for the information that it has gathered for me. I must admit that I had not been aware that this was recently the subject of an exchange of views in the other House. I had not realised that quite a number of hon. Members are interested in the subject too, but I suppose that I am on my feet now only because of personal circumstances in a constituency. I hope that some good will come of it.

I am informed by the Library that, during the 1990s, many states in the United States of America—I know that it is a much troubled country at the moment—moved to a system of graduated driver licensing. If the House is not familiar with it, under that system the driver moves gradually to full licensing.

There are three stages: a minimum supervised learner's period; an intermediate licence once the driving test is passed that limits unsupervised driving in high-risk situations; and a full licence available after completion of the first two stages. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the United States has produced a blueprint for graduated licensing. The minimum age for a provisional licence is 16; some states have lower minimum ages but I certainly would not advocate that for this country. The learner stage lasts at least six months, during which parents must certify at least 30 to 50 hours of supervised driving. The intermediate stage lasts until at least 18 years of age and includes a night driving restriction starting at 9 or 10 pm and a strict teenage passenger restriction allowing no teenage passengers, or no more than one.

I fully realise that, if the House were to agree to such a scheme, it would be very difficult to enforce—we need only consider the fact that the law relating to curfews at night for youngsters has never been brought into force. There are great difficulties, but I personally have always been in favour of identity cards. I am proud to say that three ten-minute Bills in my name deal with identity cards. Indeed, the one to bring in a voluntary system was not divided on in the House—the first time ever that that had happened. This is a wonderful time for us to revisit the matter. It would be useful in changing the requirements for young people to have licences.

I know that the Minister is pleased that the Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs conducted an inquiry into standards and training of young drivers in 1999. I am a member of the Select Committee on Health. Our Select Committees do wonderful work. However, I sometimes despair. The time that we have on the Floor to debate these issues is under pressure. I wonder sometimes whether the reports, which are worth while and contain evidence from expert witnesses, are given sufficient time for us really to consider the conclusions and then perhaps legislate.

The Automobile Association mentioned the findings of a British study on the peer group effect in its memorandum of evidence to the Select Committee. It said:

"The AA Foundation for Road Safety Research commissioned two studies into the younger driver from Southampton University. The first of these, published in 1991, concluded"— this is the crux of the matter—

"that a significant minority of young drivers (some 35 per cent.)"— a large percentage—

"could be categorised as unsafe drivers. It was not that these drivers did not have the skills to drive safely, more that they chose not to use these skills. It was believed that this was because they either obtained, or felt themselves likely to obtain, peer group approval for driving in this way."

I have five children, the oldest of whom are 17 and 16, and I know that everything that I am now sharing with the House will go down like a lead balloon with them—but when this House legislates it should take not what we believe to be popular measures, but the measures that we feel are right and proper. If we feel that it is right and proper to tackle this issue, we should.

All the figures prove that when youngsters first pass their driving tests and go out with fellow youngsters, without more experienced people, they are more likely to have an accident. There is no argument about that fact, which is reinforced by a second study that examined in detail the differences between the safest and the least safe drivers in the original sample. There is little evidence that the position has changed in the 10 years since then; if anything it has got slightly worse. Later I shall talk briefly about mobile phones, whose use by very young people is aggravating the situation.

Another AA Foundation study by Reading university, although concentrating primarily on gender differences in road safety, highlighted the effect of age as greater than the effect of gender. Young drivers—usually those of our own fair sex, Mr. Deputy Speaker—drive faster and closer to the car in front. There is no doubt about that, whether it is testosterone or anything else that causes it. They overtake more riskily, they pull out into shorter gaps and they enjoy speed and sensation seeking.

There is little evidence to suggest shortcomings in young drivers' mechanical ability to drive, and much evidence that a risky driving manner is chosen, rather than caused by poor training or technique. None of us wants to criticise our driving instructors or driving schools.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

I strongly agree. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I do a lot of work in the House in connection with death on the roads. Young people take people such as Michael Schumacher as their role models. Michael Schumacher is a brilliant driver, but we cannot use his skills on the road. We need to emphasise more and more strongly the point that for road safety a different style of driving is necessary from that used for going fast on properly designed tracks.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I agree heartily with the hon. Gentleman, who has long had an interest in that matter. Is it not tragic when these young people are killed, and all their friends turn up and are devastated? I suppose politicians are not necessarily the right role models for young people, as we saw during the general election, with the very low level of interest. It would be wonderful if we could find some real role models whom young people could connect with, to say that speeding is not a macho thing to do. I fully acknowledge the role that the hon. Gentleman has played in that regard.

The peer group effect is also reinforced in that: the presence of young male passengers leads young drivers, both male and female, to drive faster, and there is no doubt that the presence of female passengers leads to slower speeds for drivers of both sexes.

I am grateful for some information from the RAC—a valuable briefing prepared for me by the British School of Motoring. It says that there have been recent reductions in the number of road casualties, and I congratulate both this Government and the previous Government on everything that has been done to bring those about. When my hon. Friend Peter Bottomley, who is part of one of the husband and wife teams in the House, was a Transport Minister, that was always in the forefront of his mind. Last year, however, we still suffered more than 3,400 deaths. We are devastated by the events in the United States of America, yet the figure of 3,400 just trips off the tongue. The lives of all the families involved will never be the same again. There were also 38,155 serious injuries last year and more than 278,000 slight injuries. Those are huge numbers. The House would do well to deliberate on those tragic figures and come to some positive conclusions on how to deal with the problem.

It is a regrettable fact that a disproportionate number of those statistics relate to young, relatively inexperienced drivers and riders. Drivers aged between 17 and 21 account for only 7 per cent. of the driving population, yet they are involved in 13 per cent. of all injury accidents. If we are to meet the Government's casualty reduction targets, which I fully support, a strong focus on the new driver is vital, and I know that the Minister wants to pursue that matter.

Methods of addressing the safety of new drivers must start before they are of driving age. My wife would be the best person to ask about my driving skills. I have never pretended to be a wonderful driver. The other day, a Scottish lady of 100 who had been driving for more than 70 years had her first road accident. I applaud her. When people say that they have never had a road accident, I do not know whether that means that they have not been damaged or whether they are ignoring the fact that they may have inadvertently caused accidents. However, from what I observe on the roads, the overall standard of driving is not wonderful.

As someone born in London, I have seen how traffic congestion has developed. Nowadays if we stop at traffic lights—which is a requirement—when the lights change from red to green, unless we take off immediately we are likely to get tooted. The impatience of other drivers is appalling. I do not want to bore the House with my views on mobile phones again, but the situation is completely out of control. I drove in from Southend, and when I was stuck in traffic I could see any number of people with their mobile phones hooked underneath their arm, turning corners, with no regard for what was happening. Everyone seems to be doing it. I do not know whether there are enough police officers to enforce the law in this regard, but I can see very serious accidents resulting from the use of mobile phones.

The British School of Motoring believes that methods of addressing the safety of new drivers must start before they are of driving age. We need to reconsider the requirements for getting a driving licence. Skill and reaction times are very little to do with the driving performance of new drivers. Their attitude to owning and driving a car is key. According to the British School of Motoring, these youngsters, by reason of their age, feel invulnerable and capable of anything, yet they lack the experience necessary to function on the road.

Pre-driver education focusing on attitude—such as the British School of Motoring courses "Ignition" and "Signal", which have recently received funding from the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions—is a vital component in what must be a multi-agency approach.

Road safety should be a feature of the school curriculum. Courses designed to improve risk awareness and hazard perception are of the greatest importance, and provide an opportunity to influence the attitude of potential drivers. The pressurised environment in schools currently means that too often road safety is unfortunately glossed over. It appears that the portion of time given to road safety is inadequate, given the number of deaths and injuries that I have described, especially compared with the amount of time that is spent on talking about drug or alcohol abuse.

Once formal driving tuition has begun, it is vital that it is structured and balanced between tuition and practice. Tuition needs to be delivered in a structured way by properly trained instructors employing all the latest techniques. Practice needs to be facilitated in a safe environment and should be linked to the tuition received from the instructor.

The current test regime fails the candidate; once they have passed there is no formal requirement to take any further tuition. I can hear the howls of my constituents, as they say, "Goodness, David, you want to call us all in for another driving test, you want to have our ability questioned and you want us to be monitored." All I am saying is that the current arrangements are inadequate. If my constituents have attended the funeral of someone killed in a road accident, it might make them think again about being retested.

New drivers may have driven only 600 miles or so, yet they are able to drive anywhere, with anyone, without further assessment. A graduated licence system would be a logical step forward. It could prohibit the novice driver from driving a car with more than a modest engine capacity for six months. The number of passengers could be restricted. Obviously, I am aware of all the difficulties in that, but the BSM believes that in a car driven by a newly qualified driver of 17, each extra male passenger increases the risk of an accident by 30 per cent. That is a huge increase. Restrictions could be placed on the use of motorways pending additional training. Training for driving in adverse weather conditions might be considered.

As the Minister knows too well, the graduation of licences is not a new idea. That approach is currenly taken in relation to motor cycles. The BSM believes that better driving skills and driver behaviour would make an enormous difference in reducing the number of road casualties. The way in which we train new drivers and the standards that we require from them need to relate to the demanding nature of driving. We must make sure that systems are in place to protect young people as they venture out on to the roads. The right attitude is vital, and it must encompass the issues of alcohol, drugs and fatigue. Above all, learning to drive in all its aspects must be relevant to today's road conditions.

I end with a final plea from Mr. Baker. He would like a graduated driver's licence. Phase 1 would be L-plates. There would be a written exam. He would like to see minimum professional driving tuition hours for a set period of six months to one year, the introduction of computer-based driving hazard simulator tuition to teach driving on motorways and dual carriageways, night driving, and driving in built-up areas. I certainly think young people would readily enjoy that. The final part of phase 1 would be that the driving test would include a simulated test.

The second phase would involve the use of a P-plate probationary licence. That would ease new drivers into high-risk driving exposure in low-risk settings. No passengers under 21 would be allowed. Night-time restrictions would apply between 9 pm and 5 am. Road and speed restrictions would apply, perhaps on motorway and A roads, for at least six months. Finally, to enable those criteria to be enforced, deterrent penalty points could be imposed and driving licences would be carried at all times.

The final phase would involve issuing a full driving licence only after young drivers have gained experience for six months in a safer environment, when they should be more proficient at driving in high-risk areas.

I do not say this to criticise other right hon. and hon. Members, but all sorts of measures have been opposed since I have been a Member of Parliament. Hon. Members will recall that some Members opposed seat belts. I have never forgotten sitting next to my former colleague, Toby Jessel, who spoke from the Government Benches in a debate on a road safety measure. I did not quite understand what the measure involved, but he became very emotional. His only daughter was killed, as a child, in a road accident, and he was devastated by it. I simply use that example to show that, although the majority of adults, including hon. Members, understand the sense in what I have been advocating, a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House would oppose such legislation. If we are seriously to change the requirements, a Private Member's Bill would not be the correct way to proceed; a Government Bill would be necessary.

I know that the Minister and his colleagues genuinely want to do all they can to help. I know that he recognises how those two families have been devastated by the loss of those three young men, and I simply ask him to consider very carefully whether there is a way to agree on the issue and to change the law so that, I hope, there will never be another occasion on which an hon. Member has to address the House because of the deaths of young people on our roads.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions 2:23 pm, 19th October 2001

First, I congratulate Mr. Amess on securing a debate on a matter of such great importance to his constituents. I also congratulate him on the way in which he has conducted this debate, which has been a model of what Adjournment debates should be.

I fully appreciate that, for any parent, there can be no greater agony than the loss of a child, especially when that loss is needless and has come about in circumstances that should not have prevailed. I fully understand the profound concern that they feel and their desire for action.

Time allows me to put the matter into context and to give the detail of the nature and size of the problem. As the hon. Gentleman said, approximately nine people are killed on our roads each day. The equivalent of a medium-sized primary school of children is killed every year on our roads, either as pedestrians or in cars. Clearly, that is unacceptable.

It is also worth noting that road safety in this country is much better than that in many other European countries. In fact, the French rate of people killed and seriously injured on the roads is two and half times ours. However, our record for children and young people is not good, and even though our record is good on the whole, it is certainly not an excuse for complacency. We can see that the measures that we have been taking over many years have worked, and we must continue to reduce the casualty figures.

The hon. Gentleman will know that our 10-year plan is rigorous and sets high targets, including a 40 per cent. reduction in the total number of those killed and seriously injured, and a 50 per cent. reduction in child casualties. We are taking other measures, which I will not dwell on today, except to say that we are looking at vehicle construction and the engineering of roads. Those factors, as well as the quality of the person behind the wheel, contribute to road safety.

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to hear that the Swedes are taking a zero-tolerance approach to death and serious injury on the roads. Policies that stem from such an approach will provide different solutions to the problem. The Swedes are saying, "People will make errors, but we must ensure that those errors do not result in death or serious injury."

I hope that Mr. Baker and the other constituents whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned will contribute to our consultation on possible changes to the law.

I shall provide some background to convey the size of the problem and to give the hon. Gentleman an idea of the action that we have in mind and the measures on which we will be consulting. I assure him that we have an open mind. We want workable solutions that will be supported by ordinary people. We want measures that will contribute to road safety and benefit young people when they are first driving.

Driving is an acquired skill, and a demanding one. It is our intention to improve the safety of newly qualified drivers by making learning to drive more relevant to today's road conditions. The House should be in no doubt about the Government's commitment to reducing the tragic number of casualties that occur on our roads every year. We published our road safety strategy last year, and one of our key aims is to improve the way in which we train and test drivers. Our strategy recognises that better driving skills and behaviour would make an enormous difference to reducing the number of road casualties, particularly among newly qualified drivers.

Although we can be proud of the strides that have been made to improve our road safety record, there is more that we can do, and that is particularly true for newly qualified drivers. As the hon. Gentleman has so sadly shown us today, new drivers are over-represented in the casualty figures, and I shall add to the figures that he gave the House. During 2000, 19,618 drivers aged between 17 and 21 were killed or injured in road accidents. That age group accounts for 12 per cent. of the total number of injury accidents, but as the hon. Gentleman said, it accounts for only 7 per cent. of licence holders. Research tells us that very few of those accidents occurred before drivers had passed their test. It is when they have passed the test and feel competent that these tragic events happen.

Age, inexperience and, sometimes, poor attitudes all contribute to the high accident rates in the early post-test period. For 17 and 18-year-old drivers, accident propensity falls by at least 35 per cent. in the first year. The effect of age is weaker, but it is estimated that a driver starting at 18 would have about 9 per cent. less risk of having an accident than the same driver starting at 17.

It is clear that too many people are taking the test when they are ill-prepared. The pass rate for the practical driving test has fallen over the last 10 years to 44 per cent., and is even lower for those attempting the test for the first time. A survey by the Driving Standards Agency found that in around one in every 10 tests, driving examiners had to intervene physically on safety grounds, by grabbing the handbrake or steering wheel, or using dual controls. So candidates are taking the practical test when their driving performance is inconsistent and they run a high risk of making serious and dangerous errors.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

Many learner drivers require a good deal of instruction in lessons immediately before taking the test. Although some candidates manage to drive at the required standard for the test's duration, they are not able to do so consistently, especially when they are unaccompanied by an experienced person or an examiner.

We are tackling the problem on several fronts. We want to guide learner drivers to take a more structured approach to the learning process so that they prepare for their driving career, not just for passing their test. We plan to issue a consultation document in the coming months to consider ways in which we can achieve that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman feeds his remarks into that. My hon. Friend Mr. Miller also takes an interest in this subject, and I know that Peter Bottomley has much to say on it. I assure the hon. Gentleman that all opinions will be weighed up and given careful consideration, especially those of his constituents who have such a close interest in this matter.

We need to get away from the culture that encourages people to do the minimum necessary to obtain a full driving licence. Research shows that test candidates who practise thoroughly gain more experience of varying types of road and traffic conditions. They make better test candidates and become safer drivers. We want to encourage people to get more driving experience in the relative safety of a supervised environment before they take the test. One such measure involves the use of training logbooks. Logbooks should enable learner drivers and riders to monitor their progress and development as they work through an agreed syllabus. Learners will also be better prepared for meeting the demands of driving on today's roads when they have passed their driving test.

We have introduced a voluntary logbook for learner car drivers. It provides driving instructors with a framework for training and gives trainees a checklist for monitoring their progress and a guide for practising. The hon. Gentleman will probably know that a great deal of learning in schools follows a similar pattern, so young people, especially those in vocational education, are used to working in that way. As well as car control skills and manoeuvres, the logbook covers driving at night and in adverse weather conditions. As stated in our strategy, we intend to make the use of logbooks mandatory and will consult on how to implement such a scheme.

Our proposed consultation document on improving new driver safety will also consider introducing a compulsory probationary plate scheme. Existing usage is low and there is little evidence that such plates will reduce new driver accidents. However, I am aware that some people support the scheme and it is right that we should give it careful consideration. I look forward to reviewing any evidence we receive on the advantages of a P-plate scheme.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to graduated licensing systems that operate in other countries. They aim to provide a staged progression from initial licensing to unrestricted solo driving. He suggested that, like learners, newly qualified divers should be accompanied by more experienced older drivers. I sympathise with that, but the hon. Gentleman alluded to the practical difficulties that it would involved. Again, we can consider that in the context of the consultation document.

However, we already operate one form of graduated licensing. The Road Traffic (New Drivers) Act 1995 places drivers on probation for the first two years after they have passed their driving test. It is intended to make new drivers consider their driving behaviour carefully before they commit offences or have an accident. If six or more penalty points are obtained, the licence is revoked and such drivers will be required to reapply for a provisional licence and retake both the theory and practical driving tests. Since the Act came into force in 1997, about 43,000 young drivers have had their licences revoked under the legislation and have been required to be retested.

We should not overlook the role of training for drivers after they have passed the test. Pass plus is one of the schemes that provides new drivers with post-test training in situations and conditions they may not have experienced during their lessons or when practising. The course was designed by the Driving Standards Agency and is provided by approved driving instructors for a fee. It costs about £100 and covers driving in towns, at night, on motorways and dual carriageways and in a variety of weather conditions. It is intended to build on the skills required to pass the practical test. More than 60 per cent. of UK motor insurers support the scheme and offer lower premiums to those drivers who successfully complete the course. In fact, it might be economic good sense for a young driver to take the course.

A number of other suggestions have been made for placing restrictions on newly qualified drivers. They include suggestions such as the introduction of a lower blood alcohol level, prohibiting the use of powerful cars, lower speed limits for younger drivers, prohibition on driving at night and limits on the numbers of passengers.

Inevitably, such restrictions would have advantages and disadvantages. It is right that such options should be considered carefully. The issues will therefore be covered in our forthcoming consultation on ways to improve new driver safety. However, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, such proposals must be workable and enforceable. That involves attacking the culture that he described and that exists among some young drivers—sadly, principally among young male drivers.

As I have already said, we should not consider new driver safety solely in terms of what happens after the driving test has been passed. We need to improve the training and testing of drivers, and a number of measures are already in hand to achieve that.

We want to raise the standard of tuition offered by driving instructors. The contribution that skilled and motivated professional driving instructors can make to delivering higher driving standards is vital. This extends beyond teaching learner drivers and includes developmental training for individuals and for companies, as well as remedial training for those who offend. Over the past four years a programme of reform has been in place, including changes to the qualifying tests that instructors must take to join the register. We shall also soon introduce changes to the arrangements for dealing with appeals against removal from the register.

We will continue to keep the driving test up to date. Setting higher standards encourages more thorough training and ensures that drivers are better prepared for the pressures of today's busy roads and fast-moving traffic. We will also ensure that there is an effective system for monitoring and cracking down on unlicensed and uninsured driving which is a major contributor to danger on our roads.

Following the introduction of the touch screen theory test last year, we are pressing ahead with plans to introduce hazard perception testing. Hazard awareness is the ability to identify situations that might require a driver to take some form of avoiding action, such as changing speed or direction. It involves techniques such as reading the road, planning well ahead and having good anticipation—skills that newly qualified drivers gain only with experience.

The main safety value to be gained from introducing hazard perception testing will be as a result of the training that it will encourage. This training should help candidates prepare for the driving test and should lead to safer driving and riding. The Driving Standards Agency will issue a discussion paper later this year about the detailed arrangements for introducing this new element into the theory test.

The Government recognise the appalling sense of loss suffered by those who lose loved ones in car accidents. At present in such circumstances, families and friends are usually excluded from the personal support that is offered under the charter for the victims of crime. We are considering currently whether to change this. In February this year, the then Home Secretary issued a public consultation paper to review the victims charter. One of the key questions on which he sought views was whether those who were seriously injured or bereaved following a death on the roads should be brought within the scope of the revised charter. We are currently considering the responses to the consultation paper as a whole, and expect to announce action that we propose to take within the next few months.

As I have said, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Southend, West for raising this subject. I am sure that our forthcoming consultation on the many issues raised this afternoon will attract a broad range of comments from specialist road safety organisations and a wider public. Inevitably, not everyone will share the same views. Like the hon. Gentleman, I remember debates back in the 1960s about whether drink-driving laws or laws on the wearing of seat belts constituted an infringement of civil liberties. I remember the ludicrous arguments that we heard at the time. Today, no one questions those things: we have experienced a change of culture and of attitude which is welcome. It will, however, be the Government's task to weigh up all the evidence, and to decide what action we need to take to ensure that our roads become safer, especially for newly qualified drivers.

Nothing that I can say today—nothing that can be said in the House today—will bring back a child lost in appalling and tragic circumstances; but I hope my comments demonstrate that the issue of safety, and particularly that of young drivers, is at the forefront of the Government's mind.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Three o'clock.