Clause 18 - Exemptions from speed limits

Road Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:15 pm on 25th January 2005.

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Mr. Knight:

I beg to move amendment No. 41, in clause 18, page 24, line 1, at end insert—

'( ) Section 87 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 (c. 27) (exemption of fire, ambulance and police vehicles from speed limits) is to be entitled ''(exemption of fire, ambulance, police and military vehicles from speed limits)''.'.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 42, in clause 18, page 24, line 2, leave out

'Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 (c. 27)' and insert 'that Act'.

No. 43, in clause 18, page 24, line 5, after '(a)', insert

', after ''ambulance'' insert '', military''.'.

No. 44, in clause 18, page 24, line 9, at end insert

(ba) if a serving officer of Her Majesty's Armed Forces has certified in writing within 28 days of the date of any breach of the speed limit that the vehicle was being used for military purposes in the line of duty, or'.

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

This is a probing amendment relating to clause 18, which contains exemptions from speed limits. We welcome the inclusion of clause 18 on the Bill. I am sure that, like me, the Minister was disgusted when an ambulance driver taking an organ for a transplant was prosecuted some months ago for speeding, a decision made by someone whom I can only describe as a regulation-ridden, form-filling, pen-pushing nincompoop. There are occasions when we want and expect those going about their job, usually in the emergency services, to reach their destination quickly, because by doing so they may save a life. They might be an ambulance driver with an organ for transplant, a fire engine driver on his way to a fire or a police officer attending an incident.

It is quite proper that there are categories of people who are exempt from speed limits. I just wonder why a serving member of the armed forces, whose job it is to defend us all, appears not to be covered by the exemption. The rather bizarre situation could arise of a fireman exceeding the speed limit one month while attending a fire and being exempt; the following month, if there were a fireman's strike, an Army officer driving a green goddess to a fire could be prosecuted for speeding. An ambulance driver going to an accident is exempt, but a member of the armed forces using an armed forces vehicle performing the same   function could, again, be prosecuted. A member of the armed forces could, as part of his job, be attending an emergency situation no less dangerous, and no less of a threat to the public, as an incident being attended by a police officer. Yet the officer would get off scot- free while the member of the armed forces could find himself being prosecuted. The amendments, combined, seek to exempt a member of the armed forces acting in the line of duty. Subject to what the Minister has to say, I commend them to the Committee.

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions

Briefly, I am sympathetic to the points made. In my role as spokesman, I used to cover the fire services. There were instances of fire engines getting tickets, followed by the whole rigmarole of establishing that no offence had been committed, the engine was actually going to a fire, and so on. We ought to cut that nonsense out at the same time and exempt them. I have a question, which the Minister might answer in summation. Why is the term ''military vehicles'' used, rather than specifying emergency vehicles that belong to the military services?

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

The amendments seek to broaden the definition contained in clause 18 to include the military as one of those organisations allowed to exceed the speed limit. While there are certain arms of the military that may need, on specified occasions, to exceed the speed limit, I do not believe the military as a whole requires exemption. The way I read these amendments, a squaddie could come home from his tour of duty and, because he was a member of the military, go as fast as he liked on the road. I am not sure I would advocate that.

Clause 18 amends section 87 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 so as to enable the Secretary of State to prescribe, by regulations, other purposes—in such circumstances as may be prescribed—for which vehicles may be exempt from speed limits. The amendment to section 87 of that Act will also ensure the appropriate level of training is achieved by those drivers who will be required to drive at high speeds. Any organisation that believes it has a case for a speed limit exemption may of course apply to the Department, and a number have made approaches to us.

Successful cases will be granted through secondary legislation, within which the circumstances under which any prescribed exemption can be undertaken will be clearly defined. Ultimately, safety must be paramount and my Department must ensure that only those drivers who are trained properly and have a valid reason for exceeding the speed limit are allowed to receive the exemption.

In moving the amendment, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire referred to a case of an ambulance driver taking a transplant, as he termed it. My understanding is that the confusion here was that the vehicle was not an ambulance, nor a vehicle serving the purpose of an ambulance. It was actually carrying a kidney, or at least an organ for the purposes of transplant; I am not sure whether it was a kidney. Here   lies the difficulty; it was not actually an ambulance that was going at speed. That is why in this particular case those enforcing the law, to whom the right hon. Gentleman referred, were doing so properly. What may be wrong in this case is the actual law.

Within the clause, we will have the ability to look at all those cases where it could be possible that a vehicle actually taking a transplanted organ would be deemed an ambulance. But there would have to be provision that any person doing so would need to be properly trained. The last thing we would want is people going on important missions on a blue light—either to a fire, or to save someone's life in hospital—and running over someone else's child on the way. It would be totally disproportionate to the good that they may do. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right in saying we want them to reach their destination quickly, but it must of course be within the bounds of safety. That is why we have put in this piece about training.

The right hon. Member also talked about the Army, who may be called upon to do other duties from time to time. There would only be very few Army ambulances going on the roads, but if they are on the public road as an ambulance and used for ambulance purposes, then I understand they are exempt from the speed limit. The same is also true for the Army when operating in place of firemen; they effectively become firemen and are therefore exempt from the speed limits when they are conducting those particular activities. So the military, when carrying out some of the excellent work that they do—sometimes supplanting civilian efforts, sometimes working in defence of this country—will be exempt in appropriate circumstances.

I hope the right hon. Member would agree that generally, when the Army are moving vehicles around the country, these are slow-moving convoys. When they are moving equipment and goods around, there is absolutely no reason why we should give them the exemption from the speed limit. Most of the vehicles—large tank transporters, for example—would probably be incapable of going above the speed limit on the road. We do make provision for them on the road. Often when they are moving heavy vehicles in big convoys, they give notice to the Highways Agency and we make provision so that they can safely do that. Although there was the right sort of motive behind these particular amendments, on reflection the right hon. Gentleman might want to revisit the amendments and, in the light of the debate, perhaps withdraw.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for his comprehensive reply, and for placing on record his view that there may be occasions when members of the armed forces need to exceed the speed limit. He was honest and fair enough to tell the Committee that he would be prepared to look at other exemptions and to consider representations. I do not think, quite honestly, that I could ask for more. The Minister has   satisfied me that he is not going to restrict the ambit of this clause to the groups named on the face of the Bill, and is therefore prepared to consider other exemptions that carry merit. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

This debate gives an opportunity for the Minister to address the issue raised, tangentially, by the hon. Member for Teignbridge in the previous debate. There is currently an enormous amount of bureaucracy involved in sending out fixed penalty notices to the authorities—the police, the fire service, doctors and so on—when someone has gone over the limit as noted by a speed camera. As I understand it, because there is effectively no discretion at that level, the driver then has to write back and explain the circumstances. There is a good reason for that, of course, because the exemption from the speed limit only applies to vehicles which are being used for the purpose of that particular enterprise. So a police vehicle which is not on police duty but exceeds the speed limit is not exempt. There is an enormous amount of bureaucracy involved in all this, however. I wondered if the Minister could explain what is being done within this Bill to reduce that bureaucracy, which I understand is quite significant.

Can the Minister also deal with the issue of people using defensive driving techniques? Certainly, during the lifetime of this Government, I think it was the Home Secretary who was being driven far in excess of the speed limit down an open motorway to the west country; going to a Labour party conference, if my memory serves me right. The Home Secretary's driver was able to argue that this was defensive driving, maybe because he was going near the Minister's home. I do not know where it was, but somewhere in the west country. Being serious about this, to what extent does the Minister feel that there is one law for drivers in that type of situation, and another for all the other ordinary motorists?

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions

Further to the point raised by the Conservatives, my understanding is that if the blue light is clearly flashing when the camera takes the photograph, a ticket will not be issued, because it is clear that it is an emergency vehicle responding to an emergency. Could the bureaucracy be cut if, instead of just relying on the fixed light, emergency vehicles had a permanent light on the back which would indicate they were on their way to an emergency? Therefore, when the camera took its photograph, it would be clear that they were on their way to an emergency, saving the ticket office and emergency services time in not having to respond.

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

The hon. Member for Christchurch talked about the bureaucracy for fixed penalties. This is an important issue, and I will certainly look at the idea the hon. Member for Teignbridge has raised as a possible solution. It may be that it creates more problems and costs than the other way around, but we   obviously have to find a balance. That is a useful suggestion, and we will certainly look at it.

It is important, even for the police, the fire service and the ambulance service—who have a dispensation to exceed the speed limit in certain circumstances—that they demonstrate that there is good reason why they are doing so.

I am sad to say that there are many casualties on our roads while vehicles are on blue lights. There was a dreadful case the other side of the river a year or so ago, near to where I abide during the week, when a blue light vehicle on the way to an event that did not involve risk to life killed somebody. It is important that, on every occasion when such vehicles exceed the speed limit and go through the cameras, they demonstrate that they are on a genuine blue light service and are not going fast simply because they have chosen to do so. Therefore, they must obey the law, but on occasions society gives them dispensation because of the work they do on our behalf.

A range of other organisations has expressed an interest. Customs and Excise often enforces the law, particularly on such things as drugs. Other groups include the Secret Service, the special forces, MOD bomb disposal vehicles and MOD naval nuclear accident teams, which are dear to my heart. Such groups may apply for a dispensation and may look to receive one.

I hope that the Committee will therefore agree to include the clause in the Bill.

Question agreed to.

Clause 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Gillian Merron.]

Committee adjourned at twenty-eight minutes to Six o'clock till Thursday 27 January at twenty-five minutes past Nine o'clock.