Clause 7 - Driving record

Road Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 25th January 2005.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 9:25 am, 25th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 25, in clause 7, page 5, line 3, leave out paragraph (c).

Photo of Mr Kevin Hughes Mr Kevin Hughes Labour, Doncaster North

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 26, in clause 7, page 5, line 6, leave out paragraph (e).

Government amendment No. 62.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I begin by thanking the Minister for raising those two issues on a point of order. It is still clear that £20 million could have been reinvested in road safety in that period, but instead it went to the   Treasury—not to Hansard. The Minister would have more excuse for muddling up the Treasury and Hansard if he had attended the splendid Chamber of Shipping dinner last night, to which he had been invited. However, sadly, I think for the third time in as many years, the ministerial invitee failed to attend. I am told that the organisers knew yesterday that the Minister would not attend. The excuse given was that he was so busy with the Bill. Opposition Members, and I include in that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), must take some credit for the fact that our incisive amendments are keeping the Minister so busy burning the midnight oil that he does not have time to attend such dinners.

It is interesting that the Government amendment has crept in just in time only because we adjourned when we did on Thursday. I am glad that the Government have been able to table it today, instead of having to leave it until Report, as happens with so many Government amendments.

Amendment No. 25 is a probing amendment to discover why the Government feel the need to include fixed penalty clerks as a specific breed of person who can have access to all our driving records. It has always been my understanding that they work for the Court Service. In that case, surely they should be covered by paragraph (a), which refers to courts. In accordance with their terms and conditions of service fixed penalty clerks will no doubt have to sign confidentiality statements and be subject to the discipline of the Court Service. I see no problem with that.

Constables are covered by paragraph (b). Setting up a separate category for fixed penalty clerks seems to widen the ambit unnecessarily. Will the Minister tell us whether he has it in mind to privatise the fixed penalty clerk service—for example, so that separate, free-standing contractors can deal with the issues—and why that category of people will be elevated as set out in paragraph (c)?

The other amendment covers paragraph (e), which deals with other prescribed persons. I suspect that in looking at how to deal with that amendment, the Minister's advisers decided that there was a lacuna in the clause which needed attention anyway, hence the Government amendment. Who do the Government have in mind for the category of other prescribed persons? That raises a real issue about misuse of official information. It was only last weekend that the Daily Echo, a splendid newspaper that circulates in my constituency, carried a report of a special constable who had been convicted of gaining access to Criminal Records Bureau information. She had used her position as a special constable to find out more about the people who worked alongside her in her main job as a pump attendant at a petrol filling station.

The fact that a special constable was able to access and use that information is concerning enough, but she was brought to justice largely because it was possible to track down the person who used the information; there are specific lines of responsibility, and a limited number of people have access to Criminal Records Bureau information. I am concerned that if information on driving records can be accessed so   easily by people in officialdom, it will be difficult to track down the perpetrator of any misuse of that information. Without the effective deterrent of detection, it is likely that the misuse of such information will continue to increase.

Although my example concerns someone with their own motive for gaining access, perhaps out of spite or simple interest, people who access such information could use it for their own profit by providing it to the press and so on. It would be unhealthy if a whole host of fixed penalty clerks and other prescribed persons spent their day trawling through the records to see whether they could find anything interesting about anybody, which they might be able to supply to the press for profit. I hope that the Minister will be able to allay some of our concerns about the clause.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Subsection (2) sets out those persons who may have access to information in a person's driving record. Amendment No. 25 seeks to remove the fixed penalty clerks from that list. The position of fixed penalty clerk is not new; it was first set out—possibly when the hon. Member for Christchurch was a Minister in the Department—in the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988. The people who have been doing that job for the past 16 or 17 years operate under the protocol and the systems pertaining to their office.

The role of the fixed penalty clerk is especially important when conditional offers are issued for speeding offences detected by speed cameras. In such cases, the offender delivers his or her licence and counterpart direct to the fixed penalty clerk for inspection. The clerk will inspect the counterpart to ensure that the imposition of penalty points would not take the driver up to 12 points or more, thereby requiring a court appearance with a view to the person being disqualified. As the clerks need to inspect the driver's licence and counterpart, they need to have access to information held on a person's driving record. I am sure that there is a procedure for dealing with anyone who trawls through the records and tries to misuse information in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggested, although that is not dealt with in the Bill. Nothing has been brought to my attention on that.

Clause 9 introduces a new system of endorsement for all drivers based on the inspection of the driving record rather than the counterpart. If fixed penalty clerks could not access information held on driving records, someone else would have to make the necessary checks, which would of course create additional burdens elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman often talks about trying to cut the burden of administration and bureaucracy, but there would be more bureaucracy if clerks could not access that information.

Amendment No. 26 seeks to remove the Secretary of State's power to prescribe that other persons may have access to information held on a driving record. We expect it to be up to five years before the new system of endorsement for all drivers introduced by clause 9 can commence. It will take that time to create the necessary links between the police, the courts and the DVLA. In addition, clause 9 and schedule 3 remove references to   the counterpart from legislation, with the result that the counterpart will no longer have any statutory function. It will take the DVLA up to five years to establish alternative procedures for all the counterpart's other functions.

We have tried to identify all the persons who, at this stage, we envisage being required to access the information held on the driving record, but, when we commence the new system of endorsement in a few years, it may become apparent that others require access if the system is to work, hence the reference to ''other prescribed persons'' in subsection (2)(e).

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we have any ambition to privatise any part of the service. I am not aware of any such proposals, although his party last week suggested privatising a large number of Government organisations, including, I think, the DVLA, the Driving Standards Agency and many other organisations that come under the auspices of my Department. He may want to revisit his comments in light of that.

I will speak briefly to amendment No. 62. In drafting the Bill, we noticed that there is an omission in proposed new section 97A of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988. In that Act, unlike the Road Traffic Act 1988, the word ''prescribed'' is not defined as ''prescribed in regulations made by the Secretary of State''. That may be an omission in the Act, but it was certainly an omission of ours not to spot it. The amendment will correct that by explaining that other persons will be prescribed in regulations made by the Secretary of State.

In view of what I have said, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment, and that the Committee will support amendment No. 62.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) will want to say something on clause stand part about the provisions of paragraph (e) as it is to be amended. The Minister said that the role of fixed penalty clerks is already established in legislation. However, the question that I put to him, which I do not think he has answered, concerned the fact that paragraph (a) refers to ''courts'', which are buildings, but the provision relates to people employed by the Court Service. My understanding is that fixed penalty clerks are employed by the service, in which case they should be covered by paragraph (a). If they are employed by the police, they would not be covered by paragraph (b) because they are not constables.

I do not want to insult anybody who is a fixed penalty clerk, but it seems to be a relatively low-level appointment. I would be grateful if the Minister clarified, not necessarily today, the terms and conditions of service. At present clerks can check the individual counterpart only to see whether it has nine points on it or 12. The provision would give them the power to look at the driving records of everybody in the country, which is a different order of authority. I hope that the Minister will be able to allay our concerns that fixed penalty clerks may not be of sufficient seniority to take on that responsibility without being incorporated in the Court Service.

If the Minister wants to rise again to say something about fixed penalty clerks, that will be helpful; I hope that he will. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 62, in clause 7, page 5, line 6, leave out 'prescribed persons' and insert

'persons pre-scribed in regulations made by the Secretary of State.

(3) The power to make regulations under subsection (2)(e) above shall be exercisable by statutory instrument.

(4) A statutory instrument containing regulations made under subsection (2)(e) above shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.'. —[Mr. Jamieson]

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I find the wording of the clause, particularly paragraph (b), rather strange. Why have those who drafted the Bill decided that it should refer only to constables and not to police officers? It creates the bizarre situation that a police constable can lawfully access a driving record, yet a sergeant, an inspector, a chief inspector, a deputy chief constable or a chief constable who did so would be breaking the law. I find that strange. Why does paragraph (b) not refer to a ''police officer''? I should be grateful to hear what the Minister has to say about that.

I did not find convincing the Minister's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch about why paragraph (e) should remain in the clause. The Minister said that it was in case there were a group of people who it was felt should have access to the records, but he was not able to identify the sort of group he had in mind. Will he give us an example of a group of people who, in future, he might feel should have access to driving records?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 9:45 am, 25th January 2005

The clause inserts new section 97A into the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988. It introduces the concept of a driving record held by the Secretary of State and designed for endorsement of particulars of offences. It will enable a new system to be established allowing fixed penalty notices to be given to drivers who do not have counterpart licences. It is intended that this alternative system will be introduced in two stages. Clause 8 and schedule 2 provide for the first stage of the new system, and clause 9 and schedule 3 provide for the second stage, which introduces the new system of endorsement of driving records for all drivers.

Clause 7 means that the driving record, like the counterpart to the driving licence, will be an official record of a driver's endorsement history, and it will enable fixed penalty notices to be given to drivers who do not have counterpart licences. Subsection (2) specifies those persons who may have access to information held on a person's driving record. The important point for the hon. Member for Christchurch and the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire is that, in practice, those are the same people who currently have access to information held on the counterpart. The existing law will be replicated in the Bill. Those people include the driver and persons whom the driver authorises to see the information, courts, constables and fixed penalty clerks. The DVLA is putting in place secure electronic and telephonic links to ensure that the information is available, and those links should be in place by the end of 2007.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Is the Minister really saying that if I am stopped for speeding by a police sergeant who then accesses my record, I could bring a private prosecution because he has no right to do so? It seems incredible to me that ''constable'' is used in the clause and not ''police officer''.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Sadly, the right hon. Gentleman will not have that defence available to him, because the reference to ''constable'' appears in all legislation going back a long way—probably before my time in the House, but certainly before the right hon. Gentleman's time. It is a standard reference in legislation to the police; it is not unique to this Bill.

The hon. Member for Christchurch asked about the role of the fixed penalty clerks. They are employed by their courts, and their role has been specifically provided for in legislation that predates not only this Government but that of 1992. I think that it comes from the hon. Gentleman's time, and I was rather hoping that he would tell us more about it. It has been included in previous legislation, and we must replicate it in the Bill, so that cross-referencing can take place.

Photo of Mr Adrian Flook Mr Adrian Flook Conservative, Taunton

The Minister may know, as it is in his next-door county, that Taunton Deane magistrates court looks after the fixed penalty points system for the whole of Avon and Somerset. Does that mean that there are fixed penalty   clerks based only at Taunton Deane magistrates court and nowhere else within the Avon and Somerset magistrates court service?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman detailed information about the court service in Somerset or Devon for that matter, but I am sure that if he cares to inquire of the appropriate Department it will be able to provide him with that information.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am not entirely satisfied with the Minister's response. The fact that reference has been made to ''a constable'' in the past is not a satisfactory answer. It seems to me that the provision could and should be improved by referring to a serving police officer. Will the Minister reflect on that between now and Report? It is odd that only one rank of police officer will be able to access the records.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

All I can say is that I am satisfied that this Bill follows the example of previous legislation, going back a long way, in referring to ''a constable''. That term is not just enshrined in the law, but has habitually been used in practice in the system. Far be it from me to come here and overturn many years of history.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

May I just help the Minister by pointing out that ''constable'' is an office, not a rank? Every police officer is a constable, right up to the top one, who retains the name in the title ''chief constable''.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Where would we be without my hon. Friend? I am grateful to him for his enormous assistance, and with that I hope that hon. Members will accept the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.