HC Deb 10 July 1930 vol 241 cc686-91
Colonel ASHLEY

I beg to move, in page 17, line 21, to leave out the words "or when in charge of."

I shall be very brief on this Amendment. Clause 15 deals with the punishment of people driving motor vehicles when under the influence of drink or drugs. We are all agreed that the person who really attempts to drive, or who does drive, under the influence of drugs or drink ought to be severely punished, but I am not quite satisfied with the wording of this Clause. It may be that I have not fully looked into the matter. This Clause only re-enacts the substance of the Act of 1925. I should like some enlightenment from the learned Solicitor-General as to what the words "or when in charge of" which I am moving to omit really cover. We can understand that if a man is in a car and attempts to drive when under the influence of drink or drugs he ought to be punished. We can even understand the position if a man who, sitting in his car under the influence of drink or drugs, may at any moment start the car. If he started the car it would be to the danger of the public. I think that the words "or when in charge of" ought not to be held to apply to a man whose car is left in the street, but who himself is suffering under the influence of drugs or drink inside a house. It has certainly been held to apply to a man who is drunk and is walking towards his car. That may create an injustice. A man may feel that he is under the influence of drink and in consequence may get out of his car in order to avoid being summoned for dangerous driving. If he goes into his own house and sits there, leaving his car outside, he is legally regarded as the man in charge of the car. It seems very hard that such a man should be brought up and punished very severely, perhaps imprisoned for four months, when he may have had no intention of driving the car and had indeed left it so that he should avoid having to drive it. Perhaps the learned Solicitor-General will be able to give us some comfort and assistance in this connection so that this sort of thing shall not happen to any member of the public.


I wish to support the Amendment. I realise that "or when in charge of" is the present law, but I think that it really refers much more to being in charge of a horse than being in charge of a motor car. The reason for this provision in the present law is that in the case of a man in charge of a horse and cart when drunk, although not actually driving, the horse may go on and he may not be able to control it. Therefore, it was only right that those words should be in the Act when it referred, as I am firmly convinced it did, to the old horse days. This Bill is a Motor Traffic Bill and not a Road Traffic Bill, and practically only refers to motor traffic. Consequently, I think that it is not necessary to have the words "or when in charge of" in the Bill at all. A motor car is not going to run away. I understood from the learned Solicitor-General when we discussed this matter in Committee that a man who walked towards his car in a state of inebriation, or who might be standing at the side of the road or even standing in the middle of a parking place or in any other public place covered by this Clause—without driving to the danger of the public or doing anything in that way—was said to be in charge of the car, and could be convicted under this Clause.


I hope that the House will not need to take up very much time on this topic. We are not enacting a new law. As the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Clitheroe (Sir W. Brass) rightly supposed, it was first, as far as the Statute law was concerned, put into force with regard to horse-drawn vehicles in the Licensing Act of 1872. It is only right to add that when the Criminal Justice Bill of 1925 was before this House the law was re-enacted in the terms in which it now appears in this Bill with regard both to horse-drawn and to motor-driven vehicles. I think that the House will feel that it is necessary that there should be some criminal provision made against, say, the man who, while not actually driving a car or attempting to drive a car, yet starts to wind up, or whatever it is you do, in front, and is so drunk that he falls across the bonnet. It is obvious that we should have some protection; and why should we not continue a law which has operated without any kind of oppression against anybody for the last 58 years?


I cannot think that the right hon. and gallant Member will press this Amendment. He may not crank up his car. He may have an accelerator, he may be up to date—I mean a self-starter—and if he starts up his car and drives it for a few yards and then stops on the wrong side of a blind corner he may be a danger to traffic which is coming along. It cannot be argued that a man who is so drunk as to do this should escape simply because he is not driving his car.


The wording of this Clause looks rather dangerous. It refers to drink or drugs. It would have been much better if the exact nature of the drug had been stated. Take a hypothetical case of a man who is susceptible to malaria and takes a heavy dose of quinine. In certain cases quinine creates noises in the ears and deafness. [Interruption.] If he has taken a dose of quinine it might be that it has made him deaf and he cannot hear oncoming traffic. Would he be liable to prosecution under this Clause. [Interruption.] This is the first time I have spoken on this Bill and I have not spoken for more than a minute. We are here to criticise Bills, and if any topic requires any explanation we are perfectly entitled to ask for that explanation without being interrupted by vocal Members opposite.


Let me give the Minister of Transport a case which actually took place a few weeks ago. A man driving a motor car called for refreshment at a public house on the roadside, and, after leaving the public house he felt that he was not sufficiently competent to continue driving the car and drew up on the side of the road. Later he was arrested and charged with being drunk in charge of the car. If a man is taking the safe course in regard to other traffic he may still be liable to conviction under this Bill. Supposing he goes into a field, and sits down there. [HON. MEMBERS "He is still in charge!"] That is an actual case which occurred only a few weeks ago in the North of England.

Amendment negatived.

Amendment made: "In page 17, line 23, to leave out the word 'drugs,' and insert instead thereof the words "a drug."—[Mr. Herbert Morrison.]


I beg to move, in page 17, line 34, at the end, to insert the words: ( ) A person arrested under this section shall be entitled to be examined by his own or an independent medical man. This Amendment merely asserts the principal that a medical man shall give his opinion before a conviction for being drunk in charge is recorded. It is a very important Amendment, and I can see no argument against it. Any ordinary reasonable person will agree that if there is any question at all as to the condition of a person who is alleged to be drunk in charge of a car, it is only right that he should have the opinion of an independent medical man who is unbiased, and who is not the usual medical man provided by the police. I do not say that they are necessarily biased, but possibly, having so many cases to deal with, they get rather used to it. We had a long discussion on this matter in Committee, but I hope we shall have more convincing arguments to-day than we heard then.


While not entirely unsympathetic to the views which have been put forward so moderately by the hon. and gallant Member, I would like to emphasise again, at the risk of reiteration, that we cannot really frame in this Bill a special code of law for the protection of the alleged offending motorist. A motorist must stand on the same footing as any other member of the community. It is quite impossible, and I think it would be deplorable, to erect as a special statutory defence for a motorist charged with an offence the right to claim an examination by his own or some independent medical expert. At the same time, we have considered this matter, and I can assure the hon. and gallant Member that this will be done—the police authorities throughout the country will be circularised—I am authorised to say this by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department—pointing out to them that where a claim is made for an examination by an independent medical expert, that claim should be acceded to and the opportunity given.

Colonel ASHLEY

I understand that a similar circular is now in existence dealing with a man who is charged with being drunk in the street. Under a Home Office circular, he can claim his own independent medical man.


The ordinary practice is that if a person charged with an offence of drunkenness wishes an examination to be made by a medical expert he selects, that opportunity is given him. We will see that the police authorities are properly circularised and reminded of this practice, and it will be pointed out to them that the Government think it desirable that the practice should be continued. In these circumstances, I think the hon. and gallant Member will consider that sufficient consideration will be given to the matter.


After the explanation of the learned Solicitor-General, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: In page 17, line 40, leave out from the word "licence" to the end of the Sub-section.—[Mr. Herbert Morrison.]