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Artillery Row

Death by a thousand regulations

British politicians are allowing unnecessary laws to ruin civil society

I would bet a crisp five pound note that a Ten Minute Rule Bill introduced by Dr Thérèse Coffey last week regarding the driving licence requirement for minibuses and medium-sized goods vehicles passed you by. Yet even regulations which might seem trivial can serve, in their own way, to depress the joy and energy of the nation. Together, they can make Britain feel like a joyless, listless place.

Under the current law, inevitably inherited as a regulation from the European Union, those who passed their driving test prior to 1997 are allowed to drive these “categories D1 and C1” vehicles as well as an ordinary motor car. But those who passed their driving test after 1997 must pay between £2,000 and £3,000 to do a special course. Coffey wants driving licences for those C1 and D1 categories to automatically be given to everybody who has passed a driving test for a car. 

There are still plenty of us who passed our driving tests before 1997 but each year this perverse and ageist restriction is causing more damage. Each year the cohort legally allowed to drive the minibus becomes more grey and wrinkled. Soon, only the doddery Mr Magoo element will be entrusted with the task under rigorous modern safety culture. What makes it even more perverse is that driving tests have become considerably more exacting since 1997. 

David Cameron spoke eloquently in praise of the Big Society when he was Prime Minister, with his wish to see charity and community groups flourish. Often, a practical challenge these noble initiatives must overcome is the recruitment of someone willing and able to drive the minivan. But here we see that the weight of the Big State, crushing the Big Society, is even more formidable than it was 20 years ago. Take a volunteer who is now in their 40s, perhaps early 50s, who only passed their driving test in 1998. They offer to help a local charity or church with transport — to provide a service to children, the disabled or the elderly. The response? Come back when you have spent a lot of time and money taking an extra course. No good deed goes unpunished. 

Boosting charities is not the only argument for liberalising the rules. There is the economic argument. C1 does not include the heavy goods vehicles — the big lorries — but vehicles between 3.5 to 7.5 tonnes. That is still an important category for commercial deliveries. This is of particular importance to the countryside. “These kinds of vehicles used to do a lot of local delivery jobs, but the licence also applies to horse boxes and vehicles such as ambulances,” says Coffey. She suggests another reform: “We should consider the economic benefits of extending the lifetime of driving licences, which, due to EU law, is currently 10 years for a car and five years for several other vehicles, including horse boxes.” 

What about safety? A Department of Transport consultation last year found several respondents arguing that liberalisation would actually improve safety. That there would be “less overloading of vehicles, that heavier vehicles would have lower speed limits and that C1 vehicles are safer than in the past.” 

One respondent said: “As it would require fewer journeys to transport the goods, this would mean fewer vehicles on the road, fewer trips and therefore quieter roads. Hence improving road safety and reducing chances of road traffic collision.” 

The Community Transport Association represents 1,200 members of local charities and community groups across the UK. It agrees with Coffey, arguing the change would be beneficial:

… [as] by increasing the supply of paid and volunteer drivers it supports the sector to deliver services to those that need it most in our communities. These services are critical for the physical and mental health of so many often-vulnerable people currently not served by mainstream transport services. This change should make it easier for community transport organisations to hire drivers, which will help secure and expand their services. The continuing provision of these services and the addition of new ones will benefit communities and often the most vulnerable in these communities that would otherwise face increased isolation and transport poverty.

Where is the caring, sharing Labour Party on all this? Remorselessly, bitterly opposed. They just can’t contemplate deregulation being advantageous — least of all a deregulation made possible by Brexit. 

Sir Chris Bryant, a Shadow Minister, spoke out against Coffey, declaring: 

My main objection to the Bill is that she seeks to make this a “Brexit bonus”, as she referred to it. I disagree with that very concept, because I believe that regulatory convergence, rather than regulatory divergence, is more useful both so that British drivers know where they stand in this country and other countries in Europe, and so that European drivers are able to drive in the UK. 

Seriously? Such is the power of Europhilic prejudice that he wants to prevent the kiddies and the old folk being driven for an outing at the seaside. Coffey has explained a particular regulatory detail that punishes the disabled: “Some minibuses are just under 3.5 tonnes, but as soon as the equipment and the person in the wheelchair goes on to the minibus, it goes over that limit. As a consequence, activities can be suspended or services withdrawn.” 

But then what is this vacillating, craven, supposedly Conservative Government doing?

Sir Chris is an excitable fellow. Was his opposition just some moment of madness? He was not alone. 81 Labour MPs voted against the proposal, including Rachel Reeves, Shadow Chancellor, Steve Reed, Shadow Environment Secretary, and Lisa Nandy, Shadow International Development Minister. Diane Abbott took the trouble to arrange a proxy vote to record her opposition. Is this what a Labour government would offer us? The endless hobbling of British policy in the name of “converging” with the rules of an institution we have separated ourselves from.

But then what is this vacillating, craven, supposedly Conservative Government doing? Here is a modest but popular reform that would be obviously sensible. The Labour Party are foolish enough to oppose it, setting themselves against thousands of small charities. Yet Ministers defer to civil servants, who will always be able to come up with administrative difficulties. Meanwhile, the noose around the Big Society’s neck tightens as the minivan drivers slowly die off. It’s enough to tempt one to fill a minivan and leave.

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