HC Deb 22 January 1947 vol 432 cc280-5

(1) The Minister may make regulations providing that persons falling within the scope of paragraph (e) of Subsection (1) of Section two of this Act shall be required to pass a medical test of competence to drive, conducted in each case by not less than two qualified medical practitioners.

(2) Regulations may provide for the selection and appointment of persons by whom such tests shall be conducted and to the revocation of appointment, to the evidence of the results thereof and generally with respect thereto.

(3) Subsection (6) of Section six of the "Road Traffic Act, 1934, shall apply in the case of such medical tests.—[Mr. Digby.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

6.39 p.m.

Mr. Digby (Dorset, Western)

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

First, I should apologise to the House for moving a new Clause the object of which will be to give a new power to make regulations, but I would point cut, in mitigation, that that power is not a very substantial one. The category of persons affected by this Clause are those who come under the terms of Clause 2 (1. e,) those who hold provisional licences, and are convicted of being in charge of a motorcar when either drunk, or under the influence of drugs. As the Bill now stands, these people are to receive permanent driving licences, subject to an ordinary driving test during the course of which, we were told by the Parliamentary Secretary in Committee, they will be examined on the Highway Code and will have paragraph 3 of that Code, which deals with this subject, impressed upon their minds. We were also assured by the Parliamentary Secretary that he thought this would have a very salutary effect on the consciences of those concerned, although some of us were a little sceptical on that point.

It seems very pointless indeed to test people when they are sober who have been found guilty of being drunk in charge of a car and the effect of the Clause is to add an additional test, if the Minister so desires, namely, a medical test. It seems to me that the best person to tell whether a man is again likely to be drunk in charge of a motor car is not an ordinary driving examiner when the man is sober, but a doctor. The Parliamentary Secretary himself admitted that there was, unfortunately, a group of people who might again be liable to be convicted of the same offence, and it is pretty clear that the ordinary driving test will not disclose this fact. Therefore, it seemed to us that there were good grounds for providing a different kind of test, one which was likely to find them out, and those are the grounds on which I am moving this new Clause for the consideration of the House.

My hon. Friends and I were at great pains in Committee to point out that our object in drawing attention to the present position was to make it less likely that people who were again liable to be drunk in charge of a motor car, should have their licences confirmed. Our intention was not in any way to favour those who had been convicted of this particular offence, as against others convicted of offences such as careless driving. On at least two, if not more, occasions during the Committee stage, as will be seen from the OFFICIAL REPORT, we advocated this medical test, and invited the Minister to draft a Clause of this kind. As he has not done so, we thought it best, in order to make our position quite clear, to put down such a Clause. We thought it the more necessary to do so because we had been the subject of an attack in a daily newspaper, which is a great supporter of hon. Gentlemen opposite, and which gave, a completely distorted picture of our views and led its readers to suppose that the claims of persons convicted of being drunk in charge of a motor car, would not go unheeded as far as certain persons on these benches were concerned. That, in my submission, was a complete distortion of the facts, as anyone who had read the OFFICIAL REPORT of the proceedings in that Committee would know. The newspaper went on to say, in a somewhat more benevolent spirit, that "a man is entitled to drink, whether to enhance his happiness or to drown his sorrows." I have no doubt that, under a Socialist Government, the reason why he would drink would be to drown his sorrows and not to enhance his happiness.

However, hon. Members opposite now have a splendid chance to prove that they are indeed the persons that they are held up to be by this newspaper, the "Daily Herald." They have an excellent opportunity to show how concerned they are that the public should be protected against persons who are again likely to be convicted of driving a motor car whilst under the influence of drink, which can, and undoubtedly often does, cause the most serious accidents, to the detriment of all road users. In the Committee, this medical test was advocated by at least one hon. Member opposite. I commend it to the Parliamentary Secretary, and I hope that he will accept it or, at least, give us some more convincing argument that he is really considering this particular class of person, and not merely, for the sake of convenience, lumping them with persons guilty of other classes of road offences, such as careless and dangerous driving.

6.45 p.m.

Mr. Oliver Poole (Oswestry)

I beg to second the Motion.

We had a considerable discussion on this matter in Committee, and all the relevant points have been made by my hon. Friend in moving this Motion. We have been urged to move this new Clause in order to make our position quite clear in regard to the Amendment moved in Committee upstairs. I do not think that there was any doubt in the mind of the Parliamentary Secretary as to what our intentions were, even if he was unable to accept that Amendment Even if he does not accept this new Clause, I am sure he will realise that it is a genuine attempt to improve the Bill, and is not intended to protect people found guilty of driving a motor car in an intoxicated state. We feel that, if this new Clause were accepted, the Bill would be materially improved.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr, G. R. Strauss)

I at once accept the claim of the two hon. Members opposite who moved and seconded this motion, that their intention, and that of their hon. Friends, in moving Amendments on this point during the Committee stage was to strengthen the Bill and to make the roads safer. But I must make the comment that the deduction complained of was a perfectly fair one to draw from the speech of one hon. Member during the Second Reading Debate, as he argued that, while other people who had committed road offences should come up for driving tests, even though they had held a provisional licence for more than a year, those who had been convicted of driving under the influence of drink need not come up for a test. I do not doubt that that hon. Member may have wanted a more severe test for those convicted of that particular offence, but, if so, he did not express himself very well and, therefore, the deduction drawn by the newspaper commentator was not, in the circumstances, wholly unfair.

As regards the merits of this Clause, the hon. Member who moved it said that it was only suggested that the Minister should have power to make regulations providing for a medical test, but I think that the House will agree that, if in a Bill of this sort, a Minister is given certain powers to make regulations for a certain matter, then he is expected to make some such regulations. If, therefore, he does not intend to do so, it would be wrong to accept the permissive powers. A great deal can be said for introducing a medical test into our present driving tests, but it is a highly controver- sial problem, and we think it is wholly inappropriate to introduce medical tests in this limited Measure, which attempts only to deal with granting provisional licences to about one and a half million people without any test during the war. If we are going to have medical tests for afflictions from which an applicant may be suffering, we should only do so after very careful consideration and after consultations with the various motoring organisations and a large number of other bodies. I am sure that after all that, there would be a large number of Members in all parts of the House who would say our conclusions were wholly wrong, and tell us to think again.

We did not want to introduce any controversial matter into this Bill. We have deliberately and carefully avoided that. I suggest to the hon. Members who have moved and seconded this Clause that, while I have no doubt that their motives are to strengthen the provisions of the Bill and to make driving safer in the future than it has been in the past, it would be unwise to introduce a fundamental change in our licensing procedure into this Bill. Therefore, I hope the House will not accept this Clause.

Sir Ronald Ross (Londonderry)

I hope the hon. Gentleman appreciates that the number of Ministers who now have power to make regulations in respect of almost everything which affects the lives of everybody in this country is legion, and if they all started making regulations, I shudder to think what horrors the future would hold. We on this side of the House assure the Minister that we do not wish him to make regulations if he can avoid doing so. This is a matter of considerable importance because we feel that the case of the drunken driver, and particularly the habitually drunken driver, is not adequately dealt with by the regulations under the Bill at present. The Parliamentary Secretary said that the Press report to which reference has been made was perfectly fair, but when we were endeavouring to point out in Committee that we did not mind what happened to the drunken driver but that we did not think the provisions in the Bill were sufficient to control him properly, or that the tests to which he was subjected were adequate, we were denounced as being "the drunkards' friends,"—which seemed to be a peculiar result of our desire to cope with the problem of the drunken driver.

Surely, the habitual drunkard is the most easy to detect. He is always a potential danger to navigation on the road. I think I am right in saying that the unfortunate person who is subject to epilepsy is not supposed to have a licence. That is a physical misfortune through no fault of the individual, and a medical test is applied in such a case, but in the case of the habitual drunkard no such test is applied. I appreciate that it is a step forward if we are able, by science, to do something to limit the obviously dangerous drivers on the roads, but surely we should envisage an advance in our methods. It is clear that the Government's intention here is to pass a Bill with as little controversial matter in it as possible, as they urgently desire to get this Bill through. In the event of this New Clause not being accepted, or if we are unable to defeat the Government should we go to a Division, I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will bear these points in mind and will ensure that they are kept under review by the Minister and his medical advisers. If we are able to apply some effective test to the driver who has taken life or who has had bad accidents through drunkenness, it will be of very great benefit to the country as a whole.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.