Road Safety Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:20 pm on 22nd November 2005.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) 3:20 pm, 22nd November 2005

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord both for his accuracy and his brevity, which I shall try to match in my reply. I understand his concern that as persons under 16 cannot be charged with the offence we are discussing there is an apparent gap in the law. I am at one with him in seeking to ensure that compliance with seat belt laws extends as far as possible. We have no doubt at all about the efficacy of seat belts as a road safety measure. That applies to young passengers as much as to drivers and others. I share that objective with the noble Lord.

There is no doubt that getting people to wear seat belts has made an enormous difference to road casualty figures, and the noble Lord is seeking to build on that. As I explained in Committee, the two proposals made in this amendment raise wider issues about law enforcement and levels of fines. Consistency is also important, and the issues should be considered as a whole and not piecemeal, offence by offence.

Reference was made in Committee to what Home Office circulars say about young offenders. Home Office Circular 7/97 advises that fixed penalty notices can be given to 16 and 17 year-olds. Home Office Circular 92/85 advises that fixed penalty notices for road traffic offences should not be given to younger juveniles. That is simply because they may not have the money to pay. If the fines are to be realistic, how do they pay such an amount? If they do not pay, parents or carers may find themselves, as guardians, with an unexpected summons in respect of a fixed penalty notice. It is therefore police policy not to issue fixed penalty notices to juveniles for failure to wear a seat belt.

However, that does not mean that the police cannot deal with juveniles; they can take whatever action they consider appropriate. They can, if necessary, charge someone with an offence, which means a summons to appear in court. It is not true that the courts cannot deal with people under the age of 16. The normal penalty for seat belt wearing offences would apply, which is a fine up to a maximum of £500. It remains the Government's view, as I said in Committee, that it would be unwise to change the arrangements just for this one offence until we have properly considered the wider question in the round. It was explained in Committee that the Home Office is addressing the issue of juveniles, and I hope that the House will recognise that wider issues are involved.

It was explained in Committee why the Government consider that the endorsement of licences with penalty points should be reserved for the most serious driving offences. Having regard to that and to the structure of penalties generally, the Government believe that the proposed level 2 fine of £500 is appropriate for the offence of not wearing a seat belt. Endorsement, which automatically increases the fixed penalty fine from £30 to £60, would put the offence on a par with speeding and traffic light offences. I put it to noble Lords that they are not the same level of offence, not least because of the danger to other road users caused by the other offences, which scarcely would apply with regard to the seat belt offence. The best approach is to continue our constant attempts to educate drivers about the importance of seat belts, supported by police enforcement as appropriate.

I am not complacent about rates of seat belt use; we campaign constantly to get them higher because we are not satisfied. Even 93 per cent compliance by people in the front seats of cars is too low, and there is still a problem with children in the rear of cars. Nevertheless, we have been making considerable progress with compliance in recent years. I accept that there is a lower level of wearing of seatbelts for adults in the rear of cars, and we intend to continue to campaign and work on that problem. I hope the noble Lord will recognise that there are difficulties with his amendments, although I entirely share his objectives. We have good reasons why we want to consider the offences within that context, and I hope that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.