HC Deb 24 October 1950 vol 478 cc2717-28

4.14 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

I beg to move, That the Motor Vehicles (Variation of Speed Limit) Regulations, 1950, a copy of which was laid before this House on 26th July, be approved. The purpose of these regulations is to exempt utility vehicles—very often called "estate cars" or "shooting brakes"—from the speed limit of 30 miles an hour. I have received representations from Members of both this House and another place drawing my attention to anomalies that have developed and surrounded these increasingly popular vehicles in recent years. My difficulty has been how to deal with this matter and exempt this particular class of vehicle without exempting a number of other similar categories.

As hon. Members are aware, speed limits are governed by the First Schedule to the Road Traffic Act, 1934. In 1937 this problem was complicated by a High Court decision which determined that, as the utility vehicle was not constructed solely for the purpose of carrying passengers, it was subject to the speed limit of 30 miles per hour. As I have already indicated, the growing popularity of this type of vehicle has increased the anomalies surrounding the use of what I consider is a very desirable type of car today.

Finding this situation not very satisfactory, in examining the First Schedule to the 1934 Act, it was not possible for me to deal with it in paragraph 1, because paragraph 1 lays it down that passenger vehicles must be solely constructed as such, and, of course, as hon. Members are aware, the adjustable back seats of the utility vehicle do not permit it to be dealt with under that paragraph. So I have proceeded to, and, I think, accomplished, a fairly satisfactory solution by submitting this Amendment to paragraph 2 (i) (a). The Amendment now constitutes two new sub-divisions to replace the original 2 (i) (a) in the existing Schedule which covers goods vehicles under three tons unladen weight and prescribes the limit of 30 miles per hour. It is the new sub-division (a) with which we are concerned tonight, because the other sub-division (aa) merely reproduces the second part of the existing subdivision.

The effect of this will be to exempt from the speed limit—outside, of course, built-up areas—vehicles such as estate cars which do not operate under a carrier's licence and are used like private cars, but it will retain the speed limit for this type of vehicle if they need carriers' licences as at present. The carrier's licence is, of course, required for goods if the goods are carried for hire or reward or in the course of trade or business. There are certain classes of goods vehicles which do not require a carrier's licence, although they are goods vehicles. I am referring to exemptions such as farmers' goods vehicles, vehicles needed for road cleansing, vehicles owned by the British Transport Commission and their executives that were exempted under the Transport Act, and goods vehicles in the service of the Crown, of which probably the fleet of Post Office vans is the best example. While these regulations exempt the utility vehicles, it again picks up that class of vehicle which is exempted by other provisions, because quite obviously they should not escape the 30 miles an hour speed limit.

I trust it will be seen from this explanation that it is not a substantial change that I am proposing at the moment. It is a relatively minor adjustment designed to reduce the anomaly which has emerged from this new type of vehicle, which is, in fact, no different when used for passenger purposes from any type of private car. I think the method I have adopted on this occasion represents the type of flexibility and adjustment that we need in these directions, and will meet the convenience of a great number of people. I trust I shall have general support in carrying through these regulations.

4.22 p.m.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, South)

There is always some commodity, substance or article, or, as in this case, vehicle, which, as it were, lies on the borderline or margin of legislative activity. This utility vehicle is one such. One can imagine the feelings of the manufacturer after having seen the way this class of vehicle has been badgered about by Parliament over the course of the last few years. At one time it was allowed to use white petrol; then it was made to use red and then it was put back to white. It was included in the Purchase Tax range; it then had to have some of its windows blocked up to escape Purchase Tax, and now it is again back in the Purchase Tax range. Similarly, on this question of the speed limit. I only hope that as a result of these regulations the business of meddling with this vehicle will be concluded, and that the manufacturer will be able to design a body and an engine which will be standardised and will contribute to the increasing growth of this vehicle in the export market.

We on this side of the House give approval to these regulations. We think that the right hon. Gentleman has taken an unconscionable time in bringing the matter to a conclusion. Really, his Department is one of the slowest moving Departments in the whole of the State's apparatus. It was two years ago that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Sir J. Lucas), asked a question about this, and the Minister then said he was thinking what he would do about it. Almost a year ago my hon. Friend the Member for Bury and Radcliffe (Mr. W. Fletcher) put down a question, and then the right hon. Gentleman discovered for the first time a formula of delay which he produced in answer. When asked whether he would increase the speed limit to 30 miles an hour he said: No. I have so far found it impracticable to devise a definition which would enable these vehicles to be treated as a separate class or description for the purposes of Section 10 of the Road Traffic Act, 1930."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st January, 1949; Vol. 460, c. 199.] That was almost a year ago, and I imagine we must conclude that a civil servant in his Department has had a wet towel round his head for almost 12 months devising the form of words to be found on the Order Paper this afternoon. I admit that it is a bit complicated, and at first sight rather difficult to understand; but most Parliamentary intelligences ought to be able to discover what it is about after an hour's work in the Library, and I am astonished that the right hon. Gentleman's officers have taken so long in putting through this necessary little reform.

One of the advantages of these regulations is that they help to bring the law into repute. I understand that prosecutions have not been proceeded with for some time on this class of vehicle, either anti- cipating Parliamentary activity or else for the reason that it simply was not reasonable in common sense to try to stop what was in effect a perfectly good passenger vehicle proceeding at speeds similar to others.

The fact that the Minister has moved in this matter emboldens me to hope that he will move in another situation cognate to this where the law is also being brought into disrepute, and that is the raising of the speed limit of heavy commercial vehicles from 20 to 30 miles an hour. I think the right hon. Gentleman is cognisant of the desire of a considerable number of hon. Members on both sides of the House that this other reform in raising the speed limit should be brought in. He is also cognisant of the fact that there are certain negotiations in progress between the trade unions and the representatives of the lorry drivers.

I very much hope that the Press and the public will take note of the fact that Parliament, with the acquiesence of the right hon. Gentleman, is moving steadily, and perhaps remorselessly, towards a situation whereby we can recognise a rate of 30 m.p.h. for heavy goods vehicles by regulation and afterwards ensure that it is enforced, which is not the case today, at the slower speed.

There is a very good case indeed to be made out for this, as the right hon. Gentleman is aware in industrial efficiency, in extra productivity for our country in its present straightened circumstances, in the standardisation of vehicle design, and, indeed, in the safety and convenience of the travelling public. All that I can do this afternoon is to express the hope that the right hon. Gentleman who, at last, has made this small concession in utility vehicles, after much questioning and pressure of opinion in the House, will also be brought to realise that this other matter is of great importance, too, and that Parliament as a whole wishes to see it enacted.

Sir Jocelyn Lucas (Portsmouth, South)

In view of my Question two years ago and of the interviews which I have had with the Minister in the House of Commons, may I congratulate him on the successful outcome of his consultations with the motor organisations concerned, even if he has taken rather longer than we hoped, and on the understanding which he has shown in this matter?

4.32 p.m.

Mr. Poole (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

When there has been so much harmony manifest in the Chamber, I hesitate to say anything to destroy it, and I am sure that I should be out of order if I sought to deal with the later part of the speech of the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke), which referred to vehicles which are not embodied in the regulations before us at the moment.

I want to make one appeal to the Minister, and to thank him for the very clear exposition which he gave us on the vehicles which are involved. The noble Lord said that anyone with average Parliamentary intelligence who spent an hour in the Library would be able to find out exactly what was involved in these Regulations. I must confess that I am not up to the average of Parliamentary intelligence. My appeal to the Minister is: cannot we really have these regulations in rather more intelligible language. I confess that having read these regulations—and I think that I read them ten times—I still do not know what they are about. I thought that they had a reference to estate cars and to hearses. I do not know whether we have converted hearses to travelling at more than 30 miles per hour, but that is not very material because when any of us are inside we shall not worry very much about the speed at which we are going.

I thought that this had something to do with estate cars, and then, suddenly, on turning the regulations over, I found an explanatory note. I was delighted to find that there was an explanatory note, until I read it. Having read it over a number of times, I found that I needed someone to explain the explanatory note, because if anyone will read this explanatory note—and I will not inflict it upon the House—he will find that it really makes confusion worse confounded. I cannot understand how it is that the people who are responsible for the preparing of an explanatory note to tell us exactly what these regulations are about cannot get the thing down in simple English which the ordinary layman can understand.

To prove that I am perhaps not so far below the standard as might be thought, I went to two of my legal friends on this side of the House, because, from previous documents that I have, I thought that these might be regulations which were doing what the noble Lord hoped might be done, and that is to raise the speed limit of commercial vehicles generally. I said to one of my legal friends, "I do not know if this is what the regulations do, but if that is the purpose, I would like you to tell me, so that I can oppose them," because I do not share the noble Lord's view upon it. My legal friend spent half-an-hour on the regulations. He is a barrister Member of this House, and for his own sake I will not disclose who he is.

Having spent half-an-hour on the regulations and the explanatory note, having confused me still more, and not having been able to tell me what they related to, to my great joy another barrister Member on this side of the House joined the company. I stayed with them for three-quarters of an hour and at the end of that time I left two barrister Members on this side of the House arguing as to what vehicles the regulations really did refer, and, so far as I know, they had not yet made up their minds.

Most of us in this House—and I wish I could say that there were many more of us—are laymen. I think that our statutory rules and orders and our legislation ought to be framed in such a fashion that they are intelligible to laymen. Without the Minister's speech this afternoon there would be very few Members of this House, I suggest, who knew what was contained in the regulations they were allowing to go through. I would ask him to tell his Department, as I would ask the Minister of any other Department which brings forward regulations in this form, to bring to the notice of his officials the need of this House to have explanatory notes which do explain something that the ordinary layman can understand.

I am in entire agreement that this class of vehicle should have this restriction removed, and I appreciate the advantage which will accrue to the manufacturers of these vehicles in now being able to get down to overcoming some of the problems which, I know, have been in their minds. For that reason, I have pleasure in supporting the Motion.

4.36 p.m.

Mr. David Renton (Huntingdon)

I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Perry Barr (Mr. Poole), and I think that he has done a good service by drawing attention to yet another example of legislation by reference, because that is the reason why we have these unintelligible regulations, difficult to explain, virtually impossible for laymen to understand and difficult for lawyers to understand.

When we consider that the purpose of these particular regulations is to remove doubts, to avoid the necessity of judicial interpretation, and to try to clarify the law, it really is quite staggering that the result is what we find it to be. A number of hon. Members—I think, if I may say so without making that too much a party point, mostly on this side of the House—have complained from time to time of the enormous amount of legislation by reference which goes on. It is defended on the ground that it is a much quicker thing to legislate by reference. That is perfectly true, but it does not need much more trouble sometimes to achieve the same purpose without legislation by reference.

These regulations could have achieved their purpose if they had read something like this: "Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the Road Traffic Act, 1930, as amended, or in any Orders or Regulations made thereunder, it is hereby ordered as follows—" and then set out the substance of what the Minister is now trying to achieve. There would have been no legislation by reference, technically the position would have been covered, and the substance of the regulations could have been understood.

Assuming that the draftsmen, by using this method of legislation, have got the matter right on this occasion, I think that there is one point which the Minister might have explained to the House when introducing these regulations. It is this: He explained that the speed limit will be retained in relation to these utility vehicles in those cases in which a carrier's licence will be needed. The thought that at once sprang to my mind was: Is it quite certain when a carrier's licence will be needed, because if it is not certain we shall be no better off than we were before, so far as the clarification of the law is concerned. I stand open to correction, but I think that we can assure the Minister, who has not assured us, that there will be no difficulty about that particular point.

An A licence is required if the goods are carried for hire or reward, and a C licence is required if they are carried in connection with the trade or business of the owner of the vehicle. A B licence has the benefit of both advantages—rather like the National Liberal Party which has the virtues of both parties and the voice of neither.

Mr. Poole

Will the hon. Member tell me what would be the position of a fishmonger who decided to have a day's fishing and used his utility van to carry his rods and bait? Would that be a journey in connection with his trade or business, or would it be purely recreational?

Mr. Renton

That is a most interesting point. I confess that it is not a problem which has posed itself to my mind, but, since it has been raised, I think we should have an answer from the Minister before we approve these regulations.

May I tentatively follow up the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinching-brooke), when he said that, while we welcome this regulation, we are a little disappointed that it does not go further towards the removal of the speed-limit anomalies? It would be helpful if the Minister could explain to us what his intentions are in this respect. There is no doubt that the law is becoming complete nonsense so far as the observance of speed limits by commercial vehicles is concerned. When laws are first made by Parliament they are somewhat experimental, but when we have had an opportunity to see how they are working out in practice, and to what extent they are capable of being enforced, we ought surely to think again about them. There is no doubt that the time has come to think again about speed limits for commercial vehicles.

4.43 p.m.

Mr. Pargiter (Southall)

I am sure that the House welcomes the removal of another of these anomalies which crop up from time to time in view of the changes in technical design and improvement to motor vehicles. The difficulty with laws is that they are essentially restrictive. While they are sometimes necessarily restrictive, we are not quite so quick to remove the restrictions when the time comes for it to be done. I share the view of the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke), that this is a case where the law will be brought into disrepute. Anyone who has travelled along our main roads and has endeavoured to pass a utility vehicle will appreciate the speed at which they go. They are recognised as being passenger vehicles, and in many ways are the same as an ordinary private car. This is an overdue reform.

There is no doubt that we do not move fast enough in the removal of anomalies, and I share the view that it is time for the Minister to look carefully into the question of the unification of speed limits. People often try to pass these vans, thinking that they have the right to do so because they are restricted in speed, with the result that they are involved, or nearly involved, in a serious accident owing to the speed at which they travel. The Minister should look at the question of the unification of speed limits in the light of the technical developments that have taken place. The law often takes no notice of these developments, and it is not until the law is being broken so many times that it is reformed. I welcome this as a small contribution towards the general problem.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. Nabarro (Kidderminster)

Like hon. Members on both sides of the House, I have an intense dislike of the pedantic "officialese" incorporated in these regulations, evidently to make them incomprehensible to Members, to lawyers and to laymen, alike. I enjoin the Minister to endeavour to simplify what he wants to do by regulation, which is something I regard as being a matter of national import. In underlining the views expressed by my hon. Friends, I should like to draw the attention of the Minister to the special position of articulated road vehicles. I would direct his attention, in particular, to the fact that, due to the very narrow drawing of these regulations, a grave loss of national resources is being caused through undue consumption of petrol on long journeys. Not only is this of national economic importance—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

The question of some other class of vehicle cannot be discussed under these regulations.

Mr. Nabarro

I must content myself with expressing regret that the Minister has found it necessary to draw these regulations within such narrow limits as to accord only a modicum of comfort to a large body of public opinion, which at this moment is gravely concerned to secure a measure of uniformity in maximum speed limits for commercial vehicles. I hope that the Minister will be able to proceed at an early stage with similar regulations that will enlarge the minor relaxation he has felt able to give us today.

4.47 p.m.

Mr. Higgs (Bromsgrove)

I am one of those who, fortunately or otherwise, have been concerned for some time with the enforcement of the speed limit in our magistrates' courts. There is one fact about these regulations, which has so far escaped notice and which is worth drawing attention to because it may be the beginning of a welcome trend. Hitherto, under the Schedule of the 1930 Act which these regulations seek to amend, when a question has arisen as to whether a vehicle is within or without the speed limit, it has had to be decided how the vehicle is constructed, or how it has been adapted. Except for the class of vehicles to which these regulations apply, that question will remain. In relation to utility or station waggons, or whatever we like to call this sort of vehicle, the test is for what purpose the vehicle is being used. It may be that the House will think that this is a welcome change.

The situation at present is that we may have two identical vehicles, one carrying passengers and the other goods, subject to different treatment. A "black maria," for example, is not constructed for the carriage of goods. It is, therefore, at liberty to travel at any speed, but if racks are put in and the seats taken out it comes within the speed limit. I always thought it was a little odd to allow the traveller to go at any speed he likes when human lives were endangered, but when it was the case of somebody's bread there was a speed limit of 30 miles an hour. The point that I am making is that we are adopting a new criterion—the use to which a vehicle is put. That is a welcome change, and if the Minister comes to look at any other class of vehicle I hope he will bear the same principle in mind.

There is one other little point which occurs to me on these regulations. So far we have, in other parts of the Schedule, set speed limits to which we may subject vehicles of 20 or 30 miles an hour. These vehicles have to carry on the back of them for the benefit of our long-suffering police force placards which tell the police what sort of vehicle they are following. We are now going to have estate cars, some of which will need to carry a carrier's licence and, therefore, will be subject to a speed limit, while some of them will not be subject to a speed limit. Has the Minister considered the case of a policeman following one of these vehicles along a main road at 50, 60 or 70 miles an hour, which he may chase for miles without knowing whether at the end he is going to find somebody against whom he has a complaint or not?

Would it not be a wise thing to require these vehicles, which have a carrier's licence, to put some mark on the back so that when the policeman comes up behind them he will know to what speed limit they are subject, or that those vehicles, which claim to be exempt under these regulations, to carry some mark behind so that the policeman will know that to follow such a vehicle will be fruitless. I commend this suggestion to the Minister.

4.52 p.m.

Mr. Keenan (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

I do not want to say much on these regulations, but I am tempted to intervene because of what has been said not necessarily about the regulations. I quite agree that a case has been made out to justify these regulations, but I am concerned whether it is a step towards speeding up on the roads. The indications are that those who have given this their blessing have tried to encourage the Minister on speed. Changes of this kind, which mean speeding up on the roads, even in the case of vehicles heavier than the ones in question, is something that this House should not allow to pass through easily. I am satisfied that because of the anomalies which have been talked about that, there is justification for this new proposal, but I am also satisfied that the increased speed allowed to this class of vehicle or to any other that will subsequently follow means more deaths on the road. That is the position whether hon. Members like it or not.

This question of speeding on the roads must be watched. Death rates on the roads are increasing. There may be some reason in arguing that certain vehicles are unable to go faster on country roads, but I am satisfied that the speeds we are permitting now are contributing to a state of affairs on our roads today which we all regret. We all know that many types of vehicle are not keeping within the limits which are laid down, and something should be done to see that agreed speed limits are obeyed. That is not being observed in many parts of the country today.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved: That the Motor Vehicles (Variation of Speed Limit) Regulations, 1950, a copy of which was laid before this House on 26th July, be approved.