HC Deb 10 June 1936 vol 313 cc242-8

4.56 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 10, line 17, to leave out from "know," to "who," in line 18.

The object of this Clause is one with which all the Members of the Committee will, I think, be in agreement. It is to ensure that those who drive or use unlicensed motor vehicles shall be brought to justice as easily and as quickly as possible; but in doing that we ought to see that the canons of justice are observed and that the standards on which the criminal law of the country is based are kept intact. In some cases under the criminal law if a person does a certain act the onus is on him to prove that he is not doing it for a guilty purpose. For example, if I were to strike down another hon. Member and kill him, it would be for me to prove that what I had done was done for an innocent purpose. On the other hand, if a person omits to do something, then it has been the law since time immemorial that the prosecution must prove that that person had a guilty and not an innocent purpose in omitting to do that thing. This Clause goes far away from that principle, for it says that if the owner of a motor vehicle fails to tell the chief officer of police the identity of the driver he can be fined up to £20 unless he can satisfy the court that he did not know who the driver was, and, not only that, but could not with reasonable diligence have ascertained who was driving or using the vehicle. I think there are special circumstances here in which the owner of the vehicle should be called upon to show that he did not know who was driving or using it, but to suggest that he has also to prove that he could not with reasonable diligence have found that out is to go against the whole canons of the English criminal law. May I give a concrete instance? Suppose the Minister of Transport has in his garage a motor vehicle for which he has not taken out a licence. We have suspended the Eleven o'Clock Rule to-night and the Minister, after a hard day at the House here, goes home and goes to bed, and we will suppose is awakened in the middle of the night to hear somebody driving that car out of his garage. Under this Clause he would have to get up and run out into the street in his pyjamas, or other suitable clothing, in order to try to ascertain the identity of the driver of the car. Any ordinary, reasonable person who had his car stolen in the middle of the night would turn over and say, "Well, I pay my rates and taxes, and it is for the police to find out who is driving the vehicle." This Clause goes further than any other provision in the road traffic Clauses, because we ask every owner of a motor vehicle to turn himself into an amateur detective if anybody takes his car for joy-riding purposes. While I sympathise with the object of the Clause, I ask the Minister to cut out the offensive and offending words which the Amendment would delete.

5 p.m.


I want, in a word or two, to support my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) in his appeal to the Minister. We appreciate the purpose of the Clause, because it is clearly desirable that where somebody uses a vehicle without the appropriate excise licence the owner should be under an obligation to give such information as he may have to the police but paragraph (a) goes a good deal further than that. To judge of this Amendment we have to look at the first words of paragraph (a), which are: the owner of the vehicle shall give such information as he may be required by or on behalf of a Chief Officer of Police to give as to the identity of the driver. Those seem to me very wide words. The owner has not merely to know the identity of the driver, but he is required to go further and to give any information which, in the judgment of the police officer, may be necessary. If he fails to do that, and to satisfy a condition which is entirely within the discretion of the police officer, he is guilty of an offence, unless he can discharge the onus which is thrown upon him. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton has shown that in some cases that onus may be very heavy. I hope that the Minister will be able to meet the point that has been raised.

5.2 p.m.


This is not an Amendment which we officially support. The two hon. Members who have spoken have not, I think, quite appreciated the importance of this matter from the point of view of the public interest. This deals with the case where the owner of a vehicle is not driving it. It may be that the licence of the car has expired, which is a matter of concern to the Treasury—although I gather that there will not be any more Road Fund. There is a serious aspect to this matter from the point of view of the public interest and of the individual citizen. Suppose the vehicle is time-expired, in respect of its third-party insurance, and that the person insured requires to proceed against the driver of the car and that a punishment ought to follow. The view which I always took, and which I assume is taken, is that the owner of a motor car has some responsibility in the use of the car. He has the duty to use it properly, to pay the taxes, to see to his third-party insurance, and so on. If the owner of the car allows somebody else to use it, there is a responsibility upon him to see that the car is used by a person who is entitled lawfully to drive. If anything goes wrong, there is also the clear duty upon him to give the police every assistance he can in having the matter put right.

If the owner allows other people to use the car, he ought to be able to tell the police who was using the car. If he says, what would be rather extraordinary: "I do not know who was using the car and I could not, with reasonable diligence, know who was using it," the onus is thrown upon him to show why he did not know and why, with reasonable diligence, he could not have known. The circumstances in which that might be the case would be where the car had been stolen, and that would be a perfectly good defence. In these days, the ownership and driving of a motor car is a fairly responsible operation, and to lend a car to somebody else is a still more responsible thing. I would not encourage any hon. Member to engage in that practice freely and light-heartedly. There is a responsibility upon the owner to know what is happening to the car and who is in charge of it, and to give proper information to the public authority if that information is required.

5.5 p.m.

Captain HUDSON

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) suggested that the wording of the Clause contravened the existing provisions of the traffic laws, but if he will look at Section 113 of the Road Traffic Act, 1930, he will find identical words there. This provision has been in existence for some years, with regard to public service vehicles. It is felt that the onus must be upon the registered owner of the vehicle, and it is, I would say in passing, the duty of every good citizen to help the police.

I will give the Committee the detailed reason why this Clause was put in. The object was, first of all, to prevent loss of revenue, and, secondly, to prevent the use of unlicensed vehicles on the roads. At the moment, as most hon. Members know, people are allowed 14 days' grace during which, if their licence has run out, they can get another licence. We find sometimes that owners take that 14 days' grace and do not renew their licences at the end of that time. That is an offence, and in order to prevent any large number of cars going about the roads with time-expired licences, there are instituted quarterly checks which are done partly by the police and partly, owing to this being a special duty for a short period, by retired police officers. These men have no power to stop a vehicle, and I am sure that no hon. Member would suggest that it is right and proper for anybody except a constable in uniform to have such power. All they can do is to take the number of the vehicle which, they notice, by the colour of its licence, has a licence which is out-of-date.

All that, the Clause does is to give power to require owners to disclose the driver's identity. I do not think that that is a very serious thing to make them do. The wording is taken straight from the 1930 Act. We feel that we must place the onus on the registered owner of a vehicle, and we hope that there will be two results: first, preventing unlicensed vehicles going about and, by that means, protecting the revenue.


Surely the Parliamentary Secretary has not dealt with the Amendment. We agree that the owner must disclose the identity of the driver, but my Amendment does not touch that or throw the onus anywhere else. The Clause goes further than that and says that the owner must be fined £20 if he has not exercised reasonable diligence in ascertaining who was using the vehicle; that is a monstrous injustice. It may be reasonable from the official point of view, but when administered in the courts it will become a very difficult matter for benches of magistrates to decide what is reasonable diligence. I noticed that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Hackney (Mr. H. Morrison) said that in the case of a stolen car the owner would not be subject to reasonable diligence in finding it, but upon that matter you would find a great deal of disagreement on many benches. Many benches will say that the owner has to take reasonable steps to find out who is driving a stolen car. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to reconsider the matter.

Captain HUDSON

I would point out to my hon. Friend that all that the Clause does is to say that the owner of the car must give to the chief of police certain information, and that the only reason for not doing so is that he did not know who was driving the car and could not, with reasonable diligence, have ascertained the identity of the driver. If you go to court and say that your car has been stolen, you can probably never find out, with reasonable diligence, by whom that car has been stolen. These words have worked well in the 1930 Act, and they seem to me to make perfect common sense. I do not believe that a court would have any difficulty in putting them into force and of tightening up what has proved to be a serious disadvantage in the past.

5.10 p.m.


I have listened to the discussion. We seem to be dwelling on the stolen car. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) said that he would expect the owner of a car which was being stolen to rush out and try to stop it. I believe that is what would happen. If I owned a car which was being stolen I would go after the thieves and try to stop them. I should then think that I had shown a reasonable diligence. If a man came before me as a magistrate and said: "I was asleep at the time when my car was stolen, and I was not aware of what was taking place," I should say that that was a reasonable view to put before me. If a car has been taken, the owner must notify the police that his car has been stolen and must give all the circumstances. That would be taking reasonable precautions. If anything happened afterwards and it was discovered that somebody had been killed by the car, surely the owner would not be responsible for that. He would have reported the loss, and English justice would hold that he had done all that he could, and that he had used reasonable diligence and every precaution. No court of justice would hold him responsible for anything like that. I do not take any exception to the wording. I have too much faith in English justice to think that a man would be dealt with unfairly in a case like that.

Amendment negatived.