17 September 2006

None so blind...

After my rant last Friday about the stupidity of Mary Ann Sieghart in The Times, for devoting her whole column to a complaint about the new seat belt law which come into force tomorrow, while failing to mention that the law was implementing an EU directive, today it is the turn of The Sunday Telegraph to exhibit exactly the same level of stupidity.

Even in their own terms, this is dismal hackery but, in their determination to avoid confronting the elephant in the room, these hacks are missing an even bigger story. Not only is the EU imposing "safety" laws of dubious value, it is also stopping the UK government from introducing much-needed road safety measures that would prevent thousands of accidents.

Dealing first with the Telegraph article, we have no less than two dismal hacks, Ben Leapman and Roya Nikkhah, blathering under the title, "Doubts and confusion as child car seat rules are tightened up".

We are told that, "Rules on car seats for children look like stalling before they get started, with the minister responsible for their introduction describing it all as 'a bit confusing'", with critics railing against the law because "it takes little account of children's varying size and weight…".

Then we get a quote from Pat Harris, the founder of Belt Up School Kids, adding his own brand of confusion with a declaration that, "We believe the Government should delay their introduction."

Someone please should have told him that not only is this law implementing an EU directive, it should have been implemented in May and, if the government delayed any further, we would be up in front of the EU court of justice a risk of massive fines for failing to obey our government in Brussels.

Roger Gale MPBut, to compound their own stupidity, the hacks then turn to Roger Gale, the Conservative MP for North Thanet, who is given space to describe the new law as "the nanny state run amok". "Of course, parents want to protect children in cars," he burbles, but laws have to be sensible and enforceable". Not a single mention of the EU.

Why, one must ask of the hacks, ask Gale? He has no transport portfolio in the opposition ranks. What not ask the shadow transport minister, who actually represented the opposition when it was debated in the House?

That apart, the problem once again, of course, is that the ordinary reader, unaware of the issues, would take this article at face value, and thus would be further ill-informed rather than instructed – this seemingly being the role of the modern media. And it is this "leaving out" which does so much damage in distorting the debate about how badly we are governed.

Three classic examples of this occurred earlier this year during the committee stage of the Road Safety Bill. The Conservatives, adopting the new, "non-confrontational" approach of their new master, the Boy King, decided to support its main provisions but also decided to introduce a series of constructive amendments, tightening up safety where there was real evidence of a need.

One of those was a proposal by Owen Paterson, shadow transport minister, to make mandatory "blind spot" mirrors on foreign trucks. This was not particularly controversial. It had been brought to the attention of committee members by the experience of the wife of Julian Brazier, MP for Canterbury. She had had a horrible experience when overtaking a Hungarian lorry on the M2 – very near the constituency of Dr Stephen Ladyman, the transport minister.

She had been pushed into the central barrier, and the young Hungarian driver was aghast and horrified at what had happened. His lorry was completely legal according to Hungarian regulations, but did not have a wide-angled mirror fitted to the passenger side of his lorry. As a result, he simply did not see her.

The important issue here was that an EU directive was already in force making it compulsory for all new heavy goods vehicles to have wide-angled mirrors from 26 January 2007. Furthermore, Holland and Belgium had already gone down that route and sought permission from the Commission to make it compulsory to fit Class 4 wide-angled mirrors to all HGVs.

Analysis had already shown that the retrofitting of mirrors had been effective and there was clear anecdotal evidence of the danger. Thus, the directive as it stood was not good enough because it would apply only to new vehicles.

The idea was supported by David Kidney, Labour MP for Stafford, who recounted his own horror story. A constituent of his had told him he was luck to be alive because when driving home on the motorway he had been overtaking a lorry from Turkey which pulled out and struck his car, turning it round completely. He found himself driving at 70 mph in the wrong direction down the middle lane of a three-lane motorway.

Nevertheless, despite this, Dr Ladyman advised the Committee against accepting this new clause. It was not, he said, because he did not believe I was not right in identifying this as a very real issue. All Kent MPs, he said - of which he is one, with a wafer-thin majority of 612, were aware of the problem. But, he added, "it is more complex than the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Owen Paterson) realises."

That complexity, it turned out was EU law and what is known the "occupied field" doctrine – which prevents member states legislating in areas where the EU already has competence (which it gained under the Maastricht Treaty).

Simply, because of that, the minister said, we could not enforce any requirement on foreign lorries. We could require it for our own lorries, and when they go abroad and have the same problem on the other side of the cab it would be useful, but it would not help with foreign lorries coming into the UK. All he could offer was the assurance that the Commission had identified a problem and had started a consultation on how to insist on retro-fitting. But, he could give no indication as to when the issue would be resolved or indeed whether.

This, concluded Dr Ladyman, was an area the Commission has competence. "The structural requirements for vehicles are a matter for the EC. We can require things to be done on our own vehicles, and that is probably what the Dutch have done, but we cannot require changes to made to every vehicle entering the country."

Another amendment was a highly technical proposal requiring all HGVs to be fitted with an audible warning system that shall sound if the driver exits the vehicle when the brakes were not applied.

This, as with the mirror amendment, was introduced by Owen Paterson, after he had been told that approximately seven people a year were killed in accidents involving a driver hitching the tractor unit of a semi-articulated trailer to a stationary trailer, often in a yard.

The problems was that, when the airbrakes have no air, they are applied and, therefore, a parked trailer in the yard will be safe and secure with the brakes on, because there is no air coming through. But, when the tractor unit is reversed up, the driver will sense a big clunk as the big, greasy black disc - the fifth wheel - connects to the coupling on the trailer. What should happen then is that the driver applies the handbrake so that the whole unit of tractor and trailer is connected.

Sadly, that often did not happen. Instead, with the trailer airbrakes still not connected, and because the driver felt that the unit is stable, he jumped across the catwalk and connects the hoses that introduce air to the air brakes. Immediately, the air brakes come off. At that point, because the handbrake is not applied and the air takes the trailer brakes off, the whole unit begins to move.

For self-preservation the driver should sit tight, but all too often he jumps down, frantically scrambling for the cab to try to apply the handbrake in the vehicle. Alternatively, the whole unit runs backwards and crushes someone else in the goods yard.

For that reason, Paterson proposed an alarm to be fitted to every heavy goods vehicle so that when the driver jumped down from the cab without the brakes on, an alarm goes off - a simple, common-sense solution. Again, the costs were modest about £100 on a rig that may cost £100,000.

Once again, Dr. Ladyman conceded that there was a real problem. However, he said, "the sort of regulation that he suggests cannot be introduced unilaterally in the United Kingdom; it would have to be a matter for European-type approval." So, once again, his solution was “to work with the Commission and with European "colleagues" to "make them realise the benefits of including the provision in future changes to regulations." Because this was an "occupied field", this great sovereign nation of ours had no powers to make laws in this area.

However, it was not only the Conservatives that introduced amendments. Dr Brian Iddon, the Labour MP for Bolton South, also proposed one, which the opposition strongly supported. This was to require, by 2007, the compulsory fitting of reflective tape markings on the sides of HGVs in order to reduce side collisions.

Here, there was already an EU law in preparation, a technical specification had been agreed and the tape was commercially available. But the law was not expected to come into force until 2011 while, each year – according to the Transport Research Laboratory - an estimated that 30 to 34 occupants of cars were killed every year in collisions with the tail end of HGVs and that another 40 to 44 people were killed in collisions with the side of HGVs. Additionally, there were many serious injuries.

The tape had a proven record of reducing such collisions and, at the rate of 385 a year, there would be 1,540 more collisions if the measure was not introduced until 2011, when the EU was expected to make it mandatory.

Furthermore, for earlier introduction, there was cross party support and Henry Bellingham had a particularly strong reason to be in favour. His stepfather had been killed when travelling south on a dual carriageway section of the A1. He had driven under a lorry that was squatting in the central reservation with its trailer in the fast lane on an unlit section. No one travelling at 70 mph could have stopped in time. What was more, the industry was in favour and the cost was modest – about £100 per vehicle – and the application of the tape could be arranged easily and quickly. There was no case for any further delay in a measure which had been in the pipeline for time years.

Dr Dr Stephen Ladyman, transport minister - hands tied by EU lawOnce again, however, Dr. Ladyman opposed the measure. A "persuasive case" had been made, he agreed. But, while the government could permit the use of the tape, it could not make it a requirement, "because of obligations under United Nations Economic Commission for Europe measures and EU directives". We could not, he added, "make any unilateral requirement of vehicles in this country". If we were to change the legislation in the way suggested, "our partners in the European Union would certainly object and take infraction proceedings against us". The amendment and the clause were "redundant and perhaps illegal… we would certainly be breaking EU law and proceedings would be taken against us."

It was left to Dr Iddon to remark that he was "tempted to break certain European laws because they are barmy". His personal opinion was that Britain should be given the chance to go ahead on these sorts of issues unilaterally without having to wait for the rest of Europe to join us. But it was not to be.

Thus, in three proposed amendments, where there was no dispute about their merits – and widespread support for them – the EU doctrine of the "occupied field" intruded and Members of Parliament and a Minister were disbarred from making laws in our own House of Parliament which would have, indisputably, saved lives - all because, in 1990, we had given away our power to legislate on road safety.

The point here is that we are not dealing with "Euromyths" or eurosceptic scare stories about things which might happen in the future. This was "here and now", the ordinary, boring business of Parliament, going about its routine business of making and amending laws, to make Britain a safer, better place. And neither the MPs of both main parties, including members of the governing party, and our own transport minister, were allowed to do the job for which they were elected.

And was any of this of any interest at all to the MSM? Don't even bother answering. Blind, stupid, ignorant, or what…?

(amended 21 September)