Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Committee for the Environment, meeting on Thursday, 21 May 2015

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Ms A Lo (Chairperson)
Mrs Pam Cameron (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Cathal Boylan
Mr I McCrea
Mr A Maginness
Mr Gary Middleton
Mr I Milne
Mrs S Overend


Ms Nicola McEvoy, Department of the Environment
Mr Donald Starritt, Department of the Environment

Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill: Departmental Briefing

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): I welcome back Donald Starritt and Nicola McEvoy from the road user behaviour policy and road safety strategy branch of the Department of the Environment. Oh dear, we are back again with more amendments.

Mr Boylan: What have we collectively done wrong this time?

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Please go ahead and brief the Committee. I remind everyone that this is being recorded by Hansard, as it is legislation.

Mr Donald Starritt (Department of the Environment): Thanks, Chair. I am sorry that we have to be here today and that we were not able to raise the amendments at Committee Stage. They came up in March just at the end of Committee Stage, but we wanted to take some time to ensure that we needed to make the changes. We were obviously reluctant to do that outside Committee Stage. We are now satisfied that they are essential. If you are content, Chair, I am happy to talk briefly through them.

The departmental briefing note sets out the amendments. I was not going to focus too much on the first three, but amendment Nos 1, 2 and 3 are those that we have already agreed with the Committee. Taken together, they remove the statutory option from the drink-driving provisions. Where graduated driver licensing is concerned, they retain the minimum age for a provisional licence at 17 and provide for a six-month, rather than a 12-month, mandatory minimum learning period. Those are the three amendments that the Minister is bringing at the Committee's request.

There is one very minor consequential amendment to one of those. When we made changes from 12 months to six months, we missed one of the references, so an additional change has been made there. It is just a consequential change; it is not really a technical change.

If members are content, I will talk about policy amendment No 4. The Committee will know that the Bill places a range of restrictions on newly qualified drivers. Those are things like the passenger restrictions and the need to display a plate. They are covered in clause 20. Clause 20 also defines what is meant by "newly qualified driver". That definition, as it stands in the Bill, covers new drivers from other European states, so any member state would have been covered by that definition.

This came from contact with our colleagues at the Department for Transport, so we have now found that the third driving licence directive does not allow us to do that. I think that it is probably fair to say that, because of infraction proceedings, the directive has been gone through in a lot more detail. It has been looked at closely. We challenged that, but we are now satisfied that we are not allowed to apply our restrictions to other member states. Therefore, we are amending that definition so that it covers new drivers only in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Did you not see that coming when you were drafting the Bill, Donald?

Mr Starritt: The Bill was originally drafted quite a while ago, Chair, and I think it is probably fair to say that the understanding of what the directive requires us to do has improved a lot in the last few months. So, no, we did not see it coming. Ideally, we would have, but, when we were here last, there was no sign of this. I completely accept that it would have been a lot easier to do it then.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): It is done now. We are where we are.

Mr A Maginness: Are you absolutely certain that it is for member states and not other jurisdictions? You said that, in Great Britain, it would apply to people who hold a licence in Scotland or England and Wales.

Mr Starritt: Yes, we are satisfied. We had direct meetings with our colleagues in the Department for Transport, and they are satisfied that we are within our rights to apply it to the rest of the member state, if you like, but we cannot go beyond that.

Mr A Maginness: Would drivers coming from the Irish Republic not be subject to this?

Mr Starritt: They could not be subject to our restrictions. That is right.

I can go through the other changes. We covered those under the heading "technical amendments", and the first is something that we have already agreed with the Committee. It is simply a renumbering amendment that reflects an insertion that was made by the Immigration Act 2014. That has already been agreed.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Can you remind me again what it is?

Mr Starritt: Basically, the Immigration Act inserted a residency requirement into the road traffic legislation, and, because of that, we just had to change our numbering. It is simply a numbering requirement. It is just a technical change.

The next one is headed:

"Disapplication of the minimum period for holding provisional licence in certain cases".

As it is drafted at the moment, the Bill takes away the minimum learning period in circumstances where a driver is required to retake their driving test following a restriction. So, they have already served the restricted period once and do not have to serve it again. This amendment simply amends clause 17 to refer to the equivalent provision in GB. It really means that, if you had a scenario where a Northern Ireland driver was disqualified when they were driving on the GB roads and they are retaking their test in Northern Ireland, it is ensured that that person is treated the same as a person who was disqualified in Northern Ireland. Again, that was picked up by the Department for Transport. It is perfectly happy with the amendment. It is to make sure that we cover that scenario. Those are the changes to clause 17.

The next one is a new amendment as well. It is quite a similar thing. It refers to restrictions on newly qualified drivers, and, again, it is disapplying restrictions for those requalifying in certain circumstances. That is basically saying that, given the situation with Great Britain and that the restrictions would need to be mutually recognised, we need to amend the clause so that it includes the equivalent provision in GB. It is very similar to the previous amendment and applies to a situation where someone has been disqualified while driving in GB.

Leaving the best till last perhaps, the last one extends the facility of approved courses for new drivers to those who have passed the Northern Ireland test but have not yet obtained their driving licence. I should say that, although this amendment looks very lengthy, it is not as bad as it looks. The legislation that we are having to amend sits in three different places, and, therefore, there is a lot of repetition in the amendment. The clause, as it is drafted and previously agreed with the Committee, allows the Department to offer new drivers approved courses as an alternative to revoking their licence. However, some new drivers will be driving on the basis of their test certificate, having not yet got the full licence. As things stand, those drivers would not be allowed to be offered an approved course. That was not the policy intention. That is an oversight on our part that was, again, picked up by the Department for Transport. It is something that could have been picked up earlier, but, obviously, it is better that it is picked up and fixed. What we are really doing with this amendment is basically giving these people the same rights as people who have got their full test.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Hopefully, there will not be too many.

Mr Starritt: No. We got some figures for the number of people who were driving on the test certificate.

Ms Nicola McEvoy (Department of the Environment): We did not get the figures, but people can drive on their test certificate right up until the time they go to renew their licence. There is no law in place to say that you must hand in your test certificate within a certain time. We just thought that it was important to make sure that these people would be eligible to be referred to the remedial courses in the same way as those who have their full licence.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): So, once they pass their test, they hand in that certificate.

Ms McEvoy: Once you pass your test, you should hand in your certificate and get your full licence sent back to you. However, you are not breaking the law by driving with a provisional licence and your test pass certificate.

Mr Boylan: It is not compulsory to hand it in.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Because you have paid for that licence, you may want to go right to the end of that period.

Mr Boylan: Chair, after paying for all the lessons, you could not afford the licence. [Laughter.]

Ms McEvoy: The majority of people transfer within the first year and hand in their test pass certificate and get their full licence. This is just to pick up the few who might not.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): All that is being picked by the Department for Transport. OK. Are there any more?

Mr Starritt: The final section of technical amendments has already been agreed by the Committee, and there are no changes in them. That is all the amendments. We are happy to take any other questions.

Mr Boylan: Thanks very much. I would normally say that you are welcome back, Donald, but we have been through that. I just want to clarify this point. The whole idea behind the legislation is the road safety element. Are we saying in clause 20 that anybody who passes the test here qualifies for the restrictions?

Ms McEvoy: Yes.

Mr Boylan: It does not matter where they are from. If they have passed the test here, they have to abide by —

Mr Starritt: That is right: if they have done the Northern Ireland test.

Mr Boylan: That is 100%. I have some reservations. The whole idea behind the legislation is to try to reduce the number of accidents by better qualifying people and giving people, especially young people, a better opportunity and all that. That is grand. It is just one of those things. Clearly, when you looked at European legislation, you saw that it was something that we could not deal with. However, overall, I would like a better understanding.

Ms McEvoy: People who are at university across the water and take the GB test would also be subject to the restrictions when they come back to Northern Ireland.

Mr Boylan: No; that is 100%. I understand that. It is the overall policy that I am a wee bit concerned about when I look at the stats for traffic collisions down through the years. However, we are where we are.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): There is certainly better and more comprehensive legislation now. That is better than having to add regulations later to try to amend it.

Donald, what is the timescale for this? We have been waiting for the Consideration Stage for quite some time.

Mr Starritt: Where we are at the moment is that the Minister has put in an Executive paper, and we are basically waiting for it to be considered by the Executive. The next opportunity for that will be 28 May.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Is that for the papers to be discussed?

Mr I McCrea: If there is one.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): If there is one. [Laughter.]

Mr Boylan: We will continue on to see how we go.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): It is scheduled; hopefully, we will get it on 28 May.

Mrs Overend: Are you feeling positive?

Mr Boylan: We will be off next Wednesday, so we will see. You are all being recorded by the way. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): OK. Once that is approved, will we go to Consideration Stage?

Mr Starritt: Yes. Were the Executive to approve it on 28 May, I think, off the top of my head, that we would be talking provisionally about 15 June. It would be mid-June for Consideration Stage.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Then there would be the final consideration stage. Could we not finish the whole thing before the end of the session?

Mr Starritt: It would just about be possible. That is the last date that would allow us to do it.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): OK. We have heard from Donald and Nicola about the amendments that they are putting in. We have already concluded our Committee Stage and produced a report, so all that we can say is that we note them today. I will mention in my speech at Consideration Stage that these are later amendments that we have listened to officials on and noted but have not reported on to the Assembly. Are members OK with that?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): There is no point recalling the report and adding an addendum or whatever.

Mr Starritt: The Minister just wanted to ensure that it was brought to the Committee's attention. We knew that it would not change the report. It was just about doing that ahead of Consideration Stage.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): I appreciate that. Thank you.

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