HC Deb 08 February 1945 vol 407 cc2354-68

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

5.23 p.m.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, South)

I beg to move, "That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again."

With your permission, Major Milner, I move to report Progress for reasons which I shall develop, and which I think you will regard as adequate. When we were discussing the Second Reading of this Bill last Friday, the question was raised whether, if the Bill became law, the Common Law rights of the cyclists would be prejudiced. I think I raised the point. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport said: I have taken legal advice, and I am assured that the Bill, neither directly nor by implication, in any way absolves the motorist from his duty to drive with due care and within the field of his vision. He went on to imply that there would be no prejudice of the kind I had in mind. A little later, the Attorney-General intervened and said: Of course, that is a fact in the case, but the fact of the bicycle rear lamp being out, although that is a breach of the law, does not relieve the motorist of his obligation to take due care in driving. They may both be negligent, and, of course, no one will suggest that the position of the cyclist should not be affected, when, knowing his light is out, for example, he goes on, recklessly and not caring."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1945; Vol. 407, cols. 1802 and 1812.] The impression on my mind, and I think on that of other hon. Members, was that the position would not be altered. Then the hon. and gallant Member for Brighton (Lieut.-Colonel Marlowe) also took part in the Debate and he drew attention to his court experience. He went on to say: I have had considerable experience in these matters, and I want to assure the House that liability must remain the same, that is an obligation on the motorist to see what is in front of him. It does not matter whether the cycle has a rear lamp, reflector or white patch, that liability remains the same. No cyclist, knocked down by a car because he has no rear light, will fail in any action if the circumstances are such that the motorist ought to have seen him. The legal liability remains untouched by this Bill. That was a very definite statement. Then we got another lawyer, the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg). He said: I quite agree that it would be a matter to raise on a Bill of this kind, if it were considered that the cyclists' claim to compensation was affected by the proposed new regulation. I am quite satisfied, with my hon. and gallant Friend and with the Attorney-General, that the cyclists' claim to compensation is completely unaffected."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1945; Vol. 407, cols. 1827 and 1835.] Towards the end of the proceedings my hon. and gallant Friend the Senior Burgess for Oxford University (Petty-Officer Herbert) drew attention to a Bill which was then pending in another place and I do not think the significance of his remarks was appreciated by the bulk of hon. Members. The Bill to which I am now referring has a very important bearing on the Bill which we are discussing. It is entitled: "Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Bill." It was introduced into the House of Lords by the Lord Chancellor on 17th January, and was read the First time in this House yesterday. Clause 1 (1) of that Bill proposes to alter the law, and reads as follows: When any person suffers damage as the result partly of his own fault and partly of the fault of any other person or persons"—

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but may I ask at what point he is coming to the reasons for the Motion?

Sir H. Williams

I am stating the evidence. I will then draw the conclusions from the facts. I will only take a moment or two. The Sub-section goes on: a claim in respect of that damage shall not be defeated by reason of the fault of the person suffering the damage. I presume that means that if that Bill does not become law, a claim might be defeated in that way. Therefore the advice which the House received from the Minister, the Attorney-General and the two other learned Members, was inaccurate. I see that the word "fault" in the definition Clause is defined as follows: 'fault' means negligence, breach of statutory duty or other act. Not to have a rear lamp, if the Bill which we are considering becomes law, will be a breach of a statutory duty. There is a Ministerial statement on this matter, because the Lord Chancellor said this: The defendant's motor car may be proved to have helped to cause the accident by his negligence, or furious driving if you like.

The Chairman

I hope the hon. Member will not take that argument any farther. There is a standing Rule that hon. Members may not quote the speeches made by Members in another place, unless they are statements of Government policy. The quotation which the hon. Member is now making is not, I understand, a statement of Government policy.

Sir H. Williams

I may be under a misapprehension. I know there was a general rule against quotations from speeches made in another place; but I understood that in recent years an exception had been introduced in respect of ministerial statements. The Lord Chancellor did definitely give that example and said that if a motor-car ran somebody down, if the person run down had committed any fault he can get no damages. We were told another thing last Friday, and the House was therefore deceived, I do not say maliciously, as to the significance of the Bill which is before us.

That seems to be a good reason why the House should give this matter more consideration before the Committee proceeds further with the Bill. There is one other ground. I want to urge that the Bill should not be proceeded with until the proceedings have been completed on the Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Bill, so that we shall know what the state of the law is with regard to this matter before we change the status of the cyclists.

5.30 p.m.

The other reason I wish to put forward for moving to report Progress is that on Friday, when I protested that certain statistics were not available to hon. Members, the Parliamentary Secretary said that they were in the Library. After the proceedings I went to the Library, and I found there the statistics for October, 1944, and November, 1944, but not the other statistics. I accordingly wrote to the Parliamentary Secretary, who was courteous enough to send me these elaborate and lengthy documents, I got them only this morning. They have also been placed in the Library. I do not suppose that any hon. Member except the Parliamentary Secretary and myself has seen them. I have certainly not had the time to study them, but they indicate, as I thought they would, that the bulk of accidents happen in daylight, and that in summer-time there are more accidents in daylight than there are in winter time in daylight and darkness. These are very significant figures which Members ought to study. That is another reason for reporting Progress, in order that further proceedings on the Bill may take place when hon. Members have had more opportunity of studying the problem and of considering the relationship of this Bill to another to which I have made reference.

The Attorney-General (Sir Donald Somervell)

The first point and one in which, naturally, I am interested is whether I unconsciously misled the House. I am sure my hon. Friend is not suggesting I did so consciously. May I read again what I said, as it is short and accurate, and makes the position clear? I was asked to assume that there was independent testimony which proved that the light was out and asked what was then the position of the cyclist? My hon. Friend said it would be worse than it is to-day, without the slightest doubt, so far as compensation is concerned. I said: Of course, that is a fact in the case … The law is really quite sensible in this matter. The test which the court has to apply is, Has a man acted with reasonable care in all the circumstances? It is exactly the same as if a motorist found that his rear lamp had gone out. He has to act reasonably in the circumstances. If there is a garage handy he can take it there and get it mended. On the other hand, if he refrains from getting it mended when he could do so, and drives along, not minding, that may be held to be negligence. I went on to say: … but the fact of the bicycle rear lamp being out, although that is a breach of the law, does not relieve the motorist of his obligation to take due care in driving. That has been laid down over and over again. It was pointed out the other day that any motorist must expect that there will be on the road objects such as human beings or cattle which do not carry rear lights. There was one case in which a motor car ran into a pedestrian, and the court said in effect that that was negligence. The motorist must be going sufficiently slowly, or have lights sufficiently powerful, to enable him to avoid pedestrians, who have as much right on the roads as he has. Therefore, a motorist who ran into a bicycle without a rear light would almost certainly, as far as I can see, on the principles laid down, be guilty of negligence. Whether a cyclist has acted with due care in the circumstances is a fact that has to be considered, but it does not relieve the motorist of his obligation to take due care in driving.

Another point has been laid down in a case where a motor-car ran into a lorry, the rear light of which was out. The driver of the lorry did not know that the light was out—he had looked at it when he started and so on, there was no negligence. The mere fact that he was disobeying the law did not, it was held, either amount to negligence or give the driver of the car a right of action against him. There, again, there is direct authority that where, without negligence, one is breaking the law, that fact by itself does not make one liable. I also said: They may both be negligent, and, of course, no one will suggest that the position of the cyclist should not be affected, when, knowing his light is out, for example, he goes on, recklessly and not caring."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1945; Vol. 407, c. 1812.] I was telling the House that this was a fact which would be regarded in considering a case where a man has taken due care. It would be quite impossible to forecast the circumstances. Anyone familiar with this branch of the law will agree that the courts do apply that test. They have sympathy with cyclists and pedestrians. It would be wrong to suggest there is any bias at all, but there is a feeling that the motor-car is to some extent a formidable thing and that it is its driver's business to see that it avoids others who are on the road.

My hon. Friend's main point was the existence of this other Bill. I would suggest to the Committee that that would not justify us in postponing consideration of this Bill, which lays down a perfectly clear principle which my hon. Friend is against and which other people are in favour of, namely, that a bicycle should carry a rear light. The only connection with the other Bill, and it is very remote, is that the other Bill applies over the whole field of negligence. At present, under our law, if a plaintiff is guilty of any negligence contributing to the accident, he can get nothing. The Bill to which my hon. Friend has referred modifies that. All that can be said is that there may be certain cases in which the fact of the light having gone out is a factor in a negligence claim, and if the other Bill, when it comes from the other place, is accepted by this House, the fact that the plaintiff has to some extent been negligent will not, as at present, shut him out altogether but will only reduce, according to the degree of his negligence, the amount of damages he recovers. With respect to my hon. Friend, it would surely be wrong to say that we are unable properly to consider a Bill providing for rear lights, because we may later be asked to consider a Bill which alters the general law of negligence in favour of plaintiffs who have been negligent, and will apply to cases where this factor comes in, as well as to the vast range of other cases in which negligence issues arise.

Mr. Beverley Baxter (Wood Green)

The Attorney-General cited the case of a motorist overtaking a lorry of which the rear light had gone out and of a collision taking place. He spoke about that accident as if the lorry driver was the person who might have been proceeded against, and that the motorist was entirely innocent because he was not supposed to look at lights that did not exist on the lorry. It seems to me, if I understood his explanation correctly, that a motorist overtaking a cyclist whose rear light has gone out is still responsible for not striking that cyclist, for looking for a light that does not exist and avoiding the cyclist. Does he distinguish between the legal liability of a motorist in respect of a lorry without any lights and that of a motorist overtaking a cyclist whose light has gone out?

The Attorney-General

The question is always the same, Did you take due care in the circumstances as they were? The circumstances may be very different. I cited that case because I thought it was of importance in the Debate, where it was laid down quite clearly that the fact that one was not complying with the law did not bring one under a civil liability to the other party.

Mr. Baxter

If the motorist had struck a lorry the light of which had gone out under any conditions, could that motorist have been proceeded against for negligence?

The Attorney-General

It entirely depends on the circumstances of the case.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Cuthbert Headlam (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North)

I am rather inclined to support my hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams), but not on quite the same ground. Judging from the letters I have received, this Bill is exciting great opposition throughout the country, rightly or wrongly. Many of us have not had the opportunity of consulting our constituents who are cyclists and who are anxious to consult us. I can see no reason why the Bill should be forced through to-day, when the point which is being contested is already in operation. Red lights are already carried by cyclists; what is proposed now is to enforce that by law. I resent our being asked to pass this Bill through its remaining stages so quickly, when there is no urgent need whatever for it. Therefore, if my hon. Friend goes to a Division, I shall support him.

Petty-Officer Alan Herbert (Oxford University)

I am a supporter of this Bill, unlike the hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams), but I think the Attorney-General might give a little more attention to what he said about a point I raised on Second Reading. It was not so much a legal point as a matter of the Government's co-ordination of policy. I gather from the Attorney-General that if the people who object to this Bill were assured that the other Bill was going to become law they would be reassured. I hope that the Attorney-General will correct me if I am wrong; but if this second Bill becomes law, is it not a fact that the dependants of a cyclist who is found dead beside his bicycle, without any evidence of his light ever having been on, will be in a much better position? Is the second Bill going to help the cyclist or his dependants, or not? Suppose we pass this Bill, but, by some accident, the second Bill does not become law; will not the situation of the dependants of the dead cyclist who had no lamp be substantially worse? In other words, is not my original point correct, that the two Bills should, so far as they concern the bicyclist, have been brought before this House together? Should not the second Bill come first, or should not such parts of the second Bill as are relevant be taken out of it and put into this Bill? I am in favour of this Bill, but I think there is a great deal to be said for the contention of the hon. Member for South Croydon that we should put into this Bill, which is causing so much disquiet—I think, unreasonable disquiet—the relevant parts of the second Bill.

Mr. Evelyn Walkden (Doncaster)

Can the Attorney-General deal with the statement made in another place by the Lord Chancellor on the Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Bill, when he stated, very definitely, that if the defendant proves—

The Chairman

Arguments used in another place cannot be quoted here.

Petty-Officer Herbert

On a point of Order. Surely, when the Lord Chancellor is speaking, not merely as a Member of the Government, but as our greatest legal expert, we can quote his words? It is not a question of quoting polemical or political utterances.

Sir Patrick Hannon (Birmingham, Moseley)

If the hon. Member cannot quote the precise words, can he give the substance of them?

Mr. E. Walkden

If the defendant proves that the plaintiff contributed to his own injury can the plaintiff recover anything at all, under the existing law? If the cyclist suffers damage or injury, or is killed, and the motorist—or two motorists—say that he had no rear light, and there is nobody else to give evidence to the contrary, is the motorist right and the cyclist wrong, in law, with the result that the cyclist gets no damages whatever?

5.45 p.m.

Mr. Edmund Harvey (Combined English Universities)

I hope that the Government will accept the Motion of my hon. Friend, because there is no doubt that among cyclists there is an impression that this Bill is being rushed through. It is most undesirable that the Government should appear to be rushing through legislation when there has not been full opportunity for the persons most affected to put their objections and to examine the explanations of the Government. If the Government can remove misconceptions the position will be much better. It has been pointed out that there is no reason for hurry, because the present Defence Regulation may continue for many months, and perhaps years. There is no reason why the Government should not use their existing powers until the matter has been carefully examined and a right solution agreed upon.

Following what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. E. Walkden), I feel that the cyclists, under the existing law, have a real reason for anxiety, because, in the event of an accident in which a motor car has run into a cyclist from behind, there is, if the cyclist survives, only one man's word against another's. The motorist may really not have seen the red light, and he may think that there was not one. The cyclist has only to say, "There was a red light when I last looked round." He may be asked in court, "Did you look round to see whether there was a rear light burning immediately before the accident?" In most cases he will not have done so immediately before the accident, and therefore he cannot be certain. On the other hand, the motorist will say, "I saw no red light," and the court will assume that the light was out. It may have been burning, but the cyclist cannot prove that it was. This places a great difficulty in the way of a great many good citizens, not only those who use their cycles for pleasure, but a vast number who use them for their daily work. Surely it would be better to wait for that other Measure, of which we have heard, but which has not yet received a Second Reading, rather than to alter the general law for cyclists before the position has been clarified.

Mr. Stephen (Glasgow, Camlachie)

I wish to add my plea to that of other hon. Members for the acceptance of this Motion. I realise that there is very great anxiety in the minds of many people with regard to this Measure. They tell me there are 10,000,000 cyclists in Britain, and I think that the Committee would be very ill-advised in rushing into this thing without giving full consideration to the interests of all those people. I myself am a lawyer, and, naturally, I take a certain interest in the question from the point of view of people who have suffered accidents in the past. I have a good deal of experience in connection with this type of case, and I certainly wish to add my plea to the others that have been made that the Government should accept this Motion and delay this matter until the question of compensation in the other Measure is fully dealt with.

The Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General will agree that if this legislation is put upon the Statute Book, there will be very grave difficulties in regard to cases that may arise after accidents. It is so difficult, when a casualty on the road takes place, to get satisfactory evidence, and by this Measure as it stands, unless there is a qualification so far as contributory negligence is concerned, the rights of all cyclists will be very much damaged. I think it is a great pity that the interests of the motorist, as against those of the cyclist, are having such great consideration.

The Government has had a very good day with its business and I hope that it will meet the well-founded anxiety in connection with this Measure. The major consideration is the public safety. We are all appalled at the number of accidents on the roads, and any steps that will tend to reduce them will receive the consideration of hon. Members of all parties. We are all in agreement in that respect, but, while that is so, some of us are doubtful whether this Measure will really be very fruitful in producing any reduction in the number of casualties. As it stands, all these cyclists will certainly be put into a very much worse position in regard to their legal claims in connection with accidents. I hope the Government will meet us, and agree to the Motion before the Committee.

The Chairman

There is a tendency to argue the merits of the case. I must point out to hon. Members that the Motion before the Committee is that I do report Progress, and it is to that Motion that hon. Members must address themselves

Sir Patrick Hannon (Birmingham, Moseley)

You and I, Major Milner, have seen many projected Measures of legislation thrust hurriedly upon the House of Commons, and I suggest that this Measure also has been hurriedly thrust upon us. I would suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that it would be advisable to postpone the first examination of this Measure until we get a large measure of public opinion on the subject. I agree with my hon. Friends opposite that rushed legislation in this House has always had bad consequences afterwards, and I think we ought not to inflict this great disability upon the cycling community. I support the Motion to report Progress, because I think the Measure ought to be further considered. The Parliamentary Secretary has given great thought and time to this Measure, and he has written me some very charming letters, though without giving way in the smallest degree. Consideration of the Measure ought to be suspended for a short time, because it has been thrust upon the House of Commons and there is a very strong feeling throughout the country that cyclists will be placed in a difficult situation. We should think of all our workpeople cycling to and from work in the morning and evening under very great difficulties. I strongly support the Motion.

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

I rise with some diffidence to intervene in this Debate, because I do not quite understand what the attitude of the Government may be. If we have a Division and the Government are defeated, the Prime Minister is not available to come down to the House and put us in Order again. Most of the speeches which have been made have been directed to the merits of the Bill, and our terms of reference from the House are to consider the details of the Bill, which has already been given a Second Reading. Most of the arguments that have been advanced on this Motion have, in fact, been directed against having a Second Reading at all. I do, therefore, respectfully submit to my hon. Friends who used those arguments that, if they believe they are sound, they ought to have voted against the Second Reading of the Bill and not used those arguments at this moment.

Dr. Russell Thomas (Southampton)

Always controversial.

Mr. Bevan

I do not know what the hon. Member means. What is this Chamber for? We are arguing with each other at the moment. There seems to be substance in one contention, and that is that the Government are in active consideration of a change in the general body of the law relating to this matter. If we pass this Bill, and then we have to consider the other Bill, in order to give effect to some of the views that have been expressed to-day, we shall have to make a particular Amendment, for the case of cyclists, to the general body of the legislation, and that is a very clumsy way of going about business. If the Government have under active consideration a change in the general body of the law which would affect the status of cyclists, and the use of rear lamps, that general change should be made before this particular legislation is passed.

Therefore, as there is no special urgency about the matter, the Government would be well advised to postpone the Committee stage until they had ascertained the views of the House concerning the general principles, and then should consider this particular legislation against whatever we might decide about the general legislation itself. That is a sound reason for asking for the postponement. Cyclists are being unnecessarily murdered on the highways. I am, in general, a supporter of the idea that cyclists ought to be called upon to protect themselves as far as possible, but that is no argument for doing our work in a clumsy fashion, and I hope we shall postpone this Committee stage until we have the other Bill before us and can consider the realities of the situation.

6.0 p.m.

Vice-Admiral Taylor (Paddington, South)

I hope that the Government will not accept the Motion. I understood from what my hon. Friend said that the other Bill which has been mentioned will not directly affect cyclists. The question whether cyclists should carry a rear red light is not a new one. It is a question of very old standing and ought to have been settled long ago. Undoubtedly it must be to the advantage of motorists to see more light—

The Chairman

The hon. and gallant Member also appears to be arguing the merits of the Bill. The Question before the Committee is whether I shall report Progress.

Vice-Admiral Taylor

An hon. Member opposite has mentioned that this legislation is being rushed. A Second Reading has been given to this Bill and there has been ample time for everybody to state their opinion one way or the other. I see no adequate reason why the Motion should be accepted by the Government.

Major Procter (Accrington)

I would add my plea to the Government to postpone the further consideration of this Bill until we have had greater provision made for the legal protection of cyclists as against motorists in respect of accidents. There may be two or more passengers riding with a motorist ready to give evidence against the cyclist. It is a very difficult matter for the cyclist, seeing that he cannot see whether the rear light is burning or not, to rebut the evidence or testimony of the motorist and others in a car. There is another Bill which was introduced in another place which apportions the damages accruing from an accident to the degree of negligence of the parties concerned. In future the law governing negligence of motorist or cyclist will be in line with the law dealing with negligence in the cases of collision of ships at sea. If the proposed Bill were in force now it would be possible for the quantum of damage to be approximated justly to the injuries of the cyclist provided that in this Bill there were words inserted to protect the cyclist against the difficulty of proving that in fact his light was burning at the moment of impact.

Therefore it seems to me that further consideration by the legal gentlemen and the Members of the Government is necessary to see in what way the difficulties of proof can be overcome. Everyone of us believes that there should be adequate protection by lighting to save life. We are all with the Parliamentary Secretary on this matter, but I think we are doing an injustice to the cyclist in this matter of evidence in cases where it is alleged that the cyclist had no rear light. Henceforth all a motorist will have to do in a running down case is to prove that there was no rear light.

The Chairman

The hon. and gallant Gentleman seems to be arguing the merits of the Bill. That really is not the question before the Committee.

Major Proctor

I am sorry. I ask that the Government postpone further discussion of this matter until the legal position of the cyclist vis-à-vis the motorist is adequately safeguarded, and the cyclist is protected legally as fully as the Parliamentary Secretary wishes to protect the life of the cyclist.

The Attorney-General

We have listened to the various arguments and I must be frank with the Committee and say that we are not convinced. I would like to emphasise, however, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan), that this Bill did get a Second Reading without a Division. I would also like to say on behalf of my right hon. Friend that we do not admit that the House has been rushed. The Bill was introduced first in another place. This is a very old question, and we do not admit, comparing it with our normal procedure, that the House has in any way been rushed. I will not go again into the question of the relationship with the other Bill. I have stated my argument and hon. Members have stated theirs. We hoped to make some progress this evening, but, owing to the lateness of the hour, we feel that we should not make substantial progress. Therefore, without, as I say, being convinced—and the future course will be a matter for consideration—we are prepared to accept the Motion.

Sir H. Williams

May I thank the Attorney-General very much for his courtesy?

Question put, and agreed to.

Committee report Progress; to sit again To-morrow.