Belt up

Boris Johnson

Where does European law come from and what is it for? This is something that is regularly debated and argued over in the abstract, as a theoretical notion. Here is an opportunity to take a specific and detailed example.

Since Monday 18 September, it has been a legal requirement for small children to sit on booster seats in cars rather than just on the same seats that adults use. This is a road safety measure arising from an EU directive (2003/20/EC). It caught the news after an article of outrage by our friend Boris Johnson in the Daily Telegraph (read it here).

His complaints are twofold. First, he thinks that this is an unnecessary law, an uninvited intrusion into how parents look after their own children. Secondly, he objects to the fact that it originated in the EU and was not discussed properly by Westminster. How wrong, how wrong.

First, unnecessary. That’s not what the experts on road safety say. The seatbelts fitted in cars are designed for adults. Children are smaller and lighter and still growing: they need a different kind of protection. The booster seat law is an improvement on the seatbelt law and will save lives and prevent injuries. There is a libertarian argument against laws of this kind, in that adults should be free to take their own decisions about the risks they want to take, but can that argument really be extended to how adults treat children? In any case, the consensus of the nation is in favour of this kind of law.

That is shown by the second complaint, that Westminster did not discuss it properly. Come with me to the meeting of the Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation held on Wednesday 5 July 2006. We find that it was discussing the Draft Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) (Amendment) Regulations 2006. The minister explained that this proposal arose from the EU directive, all was quite clear. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat spokesmen welcomed the new regulations, Owen Paterson for the Conservatives expressing some reservations about some of the practical aspects of the implementation.

Boris Johnson complains that the measure was not discussed by a European Standing Committee. Surely it is better discussed by a committee that specialises in transport. Tory and Lib Dem spokesmen Owen Paterson and Alistair Carmichael are shadow ministers on the issue. The European Standing Committees are composed of generalists, not specialists. The content of the regulation matters more than its origin. This is the right way to deal with European legislation, not the wrong way.

Lastly, I have to comment on Boris Johnson’s freelance policy-making. He wants Westminster to have the power “to refuse to accept directives even if they are decided at a majority vote.” That would mean leaving the single market: there is no chance that all the other member states would agree to grant the UK this right any other way.

And, on the subject of the booster seats themselves, he writes that “it should surely be a matter for individual choice and not international coercion.” His front-bench colleague Owen Paterson, actually in charge on this issue, said to the contrary, “the aim of the directive is wholly admirable: to reduce injuries and deaths among children travelling on our roads.” I think that shows what to make of Boris Johnson’s contribution to the development of Tory policy.

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