HC Deb 28 July 1953 vol 518 cc1240-50
Mr. Moyle

I beg to move, in page 3, line 11, to leave out "or second."

This Amendment really relates to subsection (2) where it is proposed that anyone convicted of an offence under this provision shall be liable to a fine not exceeding£20. Subsection (4) of the Clause provides an alternative to the magistrates to convict either on the first offence or after the second offence. Our proposal is to eliminate the words "or second" so that there may be clarity in this subsection and the magistrates may be clear as to what is the intention of the Clause

Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

I place a slightly different interpretation on the Amendment from that placed upon it by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Moyle). I shall try to state my own version of it, which, I think, is the correct one.

This is one of the most important of the Amendments that have been brought forward, because it strikes at the very roots of this Measure. We must regard this Amendment in the light of the prevailing facts. An offence committed under this Bill is not trivial, because it deals with the possibility of removing a serious blot in respect of road injuries and deaths.

I would remind the Committee that during the last five months, January to May, there were 333 children killed on the roads and 17,137 child casualties. The object of the Bill is to try to prevent children from being injured or killed. The particular places to which special regard is being given for the purposes of preventing these injuries and deaths are those places which are to be controlled by the patrols.

The Chairman

That is rather a long way from this Amendment.

Mr. Janner

May I say, to illustrate the reason for the Amendment, that it is important to know the gravity of the situation with which it deals. Why do I say that? Under normal circumstances, under the Road Traffic Act, 1930, it is possible for magistrates to take away the licence of a person who has committed a criminal offence. A person who commits a criminal offence under this Bill is not only to have one opportunity of being protected against the removal of his licence, but he is to have two bites before his licence can be taken from him or before an order can be made that he should not be granted a licence.

That is why I referred to the gravity of the situation, because it is just as grave an offence under this Bill as under any Section of the Road Traffic Act. If it is possible, under the Road Traffic Act, to remove a licence or prevent a licence from being granted under an order from the magistrates, I see no reason at all why the magistrates should not be empowered, under this Bill, after the first offence has been committed, to impose that penalty, particularly in view of the gravity of the situation.

10.30 p.m.

It is not merely a question of the magistrates being compelled to do it. They have a discretion to do it, and why should that discretion be taken away from them especially when the life or limb of a child might be at stake. It is just as important that the people who are controlling these crossings should be given an authority which the whole country understands to be the fullest authority, otherwise nothing can be done unless police officers carry out these duties.

The Chairman

The hon. Gentleman is still very wide of the Amendment, which is only to leave out "or second."

Mr. Janner

That is precisely because the question is whether the magistrates shall be empowered to take a driver's licence away if he has committed the first offence or not until he has committed at least two offences. That is what I am getting at. I say that to make the Bill effective magistrates should be entitled to take a man's licence away after the first offence in the same way as happens in other offences under the Road Traffic Act. I hope that this Amendment will be accepted by the Government, because it is very important that those who are given control will be regarded by the public in exactly the same way as a police officer would be.

Mr. Ede

I wish to support this Amendment, and I do so as a magistrate who has from time to time to adjudicate on offences similar to these. I cannot imagine a worse motoring offence than for a motorist to disobey a sign which calls on him to stop because schoolchildren are crossing the road. I am quite sure that every Member of the Committee would agree with me in that. A driver, under this Clause, has to be convicted of that offence three times before he can have his licence withdrawn. That seems to me to be giving far too much scope to reckless and anti-social drivers.

I am surprised at the Clause being here at all, because I am quite sure what will happen on occasions is that in order to be able to disqualify there will be another offence joined to this one, such as driving dangerously or recklessly. We have spent nearly the whole day—I regret having to emphasise this again—discussing safety on the roads, and more than one Member, on both sides of the House, has drawn attention to the particular danger in which children stand. It seems to me that we shall render nugatory a lot of the discussion we have had today if we say that before a person can lose his licence for a breach of the provisions of the Bill, when it is an Act, he will have to commit that offence three times.

I regard withdrawal of a licence as generally the most severe penalty that the magistrates can inflict on a man. It is undoubtedly the one that motorists most dread and for which, on occasion, they will take the most astounding precautions to be quite certain that the persons who try them will be unlikely to hold them guilty of any offence that will render them liable to this penalty. That was the reason for my intervention in the speech of the hon. Gentleman when he was replying to the main discussion earlier today.

I cannot think that the Bill will be as strong a warning to people as we want it to be if these words "or second" remain. Let us be quite certain what will be the position if we leave those words out. The person will then have to be convicted twice before he can lose his licence in respect of this offence. I plead earnestly with the Under-Secretary to agree to the withdrawal of the words "or second," so that the country shall be in no doubt as to the serious way in which the House regards people who behave in disobedience to the enactment that we are making this evening.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I do not quarrel in any way with the general sentiments expressed by the right hon. Gentleman or by any of his hon. Friends. Obviously, everyone in the House will agree that to put the life of a child in danger is a very serious thing. On the other hand, when we come to deal with penalties, the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that they cannot be dealt with in isolation; they must be looked at in connection with the general scheme of penalties for motoring offences.

The existing provision of the Bill follows Section 10 (2) of the Road Traffic Act, 1930, as substituted by Section 2 (3) of the Road Traffic Act, 1934. In other words, it follows the provision for the case where a person is convicted of exceeding the speed limit in a built-up area. That is the parallel.

The right hon. Gentleman has said, and properly said, that other charges may be brought against the motorist. If he were merely charged with ignoring the sign, it would be probably on the basis that he was not putting anyone in danger. If he were careless or if, as the right hon. Gentleman said, he were reckless, quite clearly other charges would be brought against him. But suppose that he crosses at two miles an hour at a distance of 20 feet from the nearest child; there is no question there of putting a child in danger. He would, nevertheless, be committing an offence, and for that offence he could be punished as the Bill provides.

For the offence of careless driving a motorist can, on first conviction, be disqualified for one month, and on a second conviction for a period of three months. It is only on the third conviction that his licence can be suspended for an unlimited period. That is for the offence of careless driving. The Amendment would allow a licence to be suspended indefinitely on the second conviction for neglect of a school crossing sign, even where no carelessness or risk was alleged.

Mr. Janner

As a lawyer himself, the hon. Gentleman knows very well that this is not compulsory, and if exercised without proper discretion and due regard for the circumstances no magistrate would dream of inflicting it unless he was convinced that it should be done.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

That seems to me to be getting into the realm where one provides heavier penalties than the circumstances warrant. If a person is careless or reckless, then he should be charged with carelessness or recklessness; but, if he is charged with ignoring a signal, where there is no carelessness or recklessness, then he should be dealt with in the same manner as one who has ignored the speed limit—and nothing more. Both offences are bad, and should be stopped, but I suggest to the Committee that the two things run parallel, and I ask right hon. and hon. Members to stand by the Bill as drafted.

Mr. F. Blackburn (Stalybridge and Hyde)

If I may say so, it would appear that the Government rather thinks that they are dealing with dogs, and giving them the benefit of the first bite. Here we are dealing with an important matter, but it seems, having listened to the hon. Gentleman's reply, that we are making a farce of the debate which occupied the House earlier today. Where a signal is ignored, and the life of a child is at stake, magistrates should be in a position to inflict the right sort of punishment.

I cannot understand why the Under-Secretary is resisting this very sensible amendment, for, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) points out, the driver is not only given one chance, but must be convicted no fewer than three times before there can be disqualification. All I can say to that is that if a driver has ignored a school patrol signal three times, I am amazed that he should even have been allowed to be on the roads for so long.

I appeal to the hon. Gentleman to make it clear that what we have debated today is something about which we were serious; that we really mean to try to reduce the appalling losses on the roads; that we consider the safety of those on our roads as a very important matter, and intend to enforce the rules.

Mr. L. M. Lever

The conception of this Bill is excellent, but when one remembers that the adoption of it by a local authority is optional, and then, even after that, we still allow a driver to ignore the patrol signals three times before rendering him liable to loss of licence, I think that an excellent opportunity is being lost of giving a lead to the country in this most important matter of the protection of child life. I feel, too, that the way in which this Clause is drafted is a reflection on our magistrates. After all, why should not the magistrates decide whether a person should lose his licence in the particular circumstances of a given case? How can we generalise about the gravity of an offence on the occasions when a school patrol sign is ignored?

The Government are not in earnest because of the loopholes provided, first in the matter of the optional adoption, and secondly, in regard to the possibility of a motorist being able to ignore these signals on more than one occasion before anything really serious is done. I hope that the Government will accept the Amendment and assure the country that they really mean business in this important matter.

10.45 p.m.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

I appreciate what the Under-Secretary says about the distinction between the offence as drafted and careless and reckless driving. I understand him to say that an offence under the Bill may be purely technical for which the motorist is in no sense to blame and, therefore, that he should not be liable to have his licence suspended after two bites. I can understand the line of distinction between reckless and careless driving and a technically blameless offence; but if that is the reason on which the hon. Gentleman bases his distinction then it would apply to the offences committed under the Bill irrespective of how frequently they were committed. They would apply to the twentieth, twenty-first and twenty-second offences. Each one of them might be equally technical and blameless. Of course, the truth is——

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

Surely the hon. and learned Gentleman knows that no offence could be blameless.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

I was talking in terms of common sense and not in terms of legal liability. Of course, a person may be technically liable for an offence and, therefore, blameworthy in law. At the same time, we know perfectly well that it may be a technical offence—a phrase which the Under-Secretary himself used—in a sense in which people at large would not consider the person to be blameworthy although he was legally blameworthy.

To return to my argument, where the distinction is drawn between a technical offence and a blameworthy offence—and for the elucidation of the hon. Gentleman I am using the word, "blameworthy" in the commonsense sense of the term—then if it is a technical offence there should be no suspension of licence for the twentieth, twenty-first or twenty-second time.

The reality of the position is that when a motorist ignores a notice of this kind at a place where children are crossing the street, it can hardly be a technical offence. The notice is there, the motorist knows that children are involved and that he is liable to give the children priority over the crossing. It is a case where no risk of any kind should be run. That is not a technical offence at all. In other words, we cannot have a purely technical offence within the meaning of the Bill.

That is why there is in the Bill the provision that, after the second bite, if a motorist offends again he is liable to have his licence suspended. The question arises, why should it be after the second offence? Why should it be on the third offence that the motorist is liable to have his licence suspended? Why not after the first offence?

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

Why, for example with the offence of speeding, was the provision about the third offence introduced by the hon. and learned Gentleman's right hon. Friends?

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

There is all the difference in the world between an offence of this kind where there is a crossing and children involved, with a notice that children are about to use the crossing, and the offence of exceeding the 30 miles an hour speed limit—travelling at 31 miles an hour in a built-up area. It is ridiculous to draw a comparison between the one and the other. In fact, in this case, the offence involves danger. It is in reality blameworthy, and it should be quite wrong to allow the motorist to have two bites and only to become liable after he has committed the offence three times.

We are only in Committee now and there will be the Report stage later. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will give this matter serious consideration and see whether it is not a case which is very different from exceeding the speed limit, and whether, in the interest of the children, the words "or second" should not be left out of the subsection.

Amendment negatived.

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

Mr. Niall Macpherson (Dumfries)

I wish to raise two small points to which there may be a perfectly good answer. In a Bill of this kind we really must look meticulously at every word, because, if we do not, it may involve convictions where the House does not intend them to take place, and the contrary.

My first observation is about line 28 of subsection (1) where it deals with a vehicle which is approaching a place in a road where children… are crossing or seeking to cross the road. Does the word "children" include "child"? Nothing astonishes me in drafting. We are accustomed to the phrase "any person," but last night we had a case where "he" not only included "she," but excluded "he" in a draft Regulation.

My second point is in connection with the phrase, "exhibiting a prescribed sign." It seems to me that that is very loose wording indeed. If the sign is of sufficient size, it would seem to be very difficult to avoid exhibiting it wherever one may be. If it is on the ground, that is one thing. Will my hon. Friend give us an explanation of this? How and where will the sign be exhibited? If it is being carried, at what place is it to be exhibited?

I suggest that the following is a typical case which may arise. A couple of children may run out into the road on the way to school. At that moment, in order to give a last minute protection in some way or other, the sign may pur- port to be exhibited. Is that to be sufficient in law to get a conviction? We must be fair to the motorist as well as give safeguards to the children in this matter.

We have to be extremely careful about this wording. It may well be that the answer will be given that all these people have to be trained. It may be that the training will be completely uniform. I trust that it will be, because it will be most unfair to the motorist if in one part of the country the signs are exhibited in one way and in a different way in another part of the country. These matters are of extreme importance in considering this Clause.

There is also the question of illumination. Subsection (6, a) talks about the illumination. Illumination will be necessary in December between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. The subsection says: and, if it was exhibited in circumstances in which it was required by the regulations to be illuminated, to have been illuminated in the prescribed manner, unless the contrary is proved. It seems to me that this is going a long way. I should have thought it would be almost sufficient in cases where in darkness the driver himself did not see the sign for it to be proof that it was not illuminated. Merely to say that because the sign is exhibited somewhere it is presumed to have been illuminated as well seems a strange doctrine. I hope we shall have an explanation of this, because it is important that we should get a proper definition of what exhibiting a sign means.

Mr. H. Nicholls

This Clause refers to prescribed signs and wardens' uniforms. That is a great advance. I congratulate the Government on putting it into black and white. I would again emphasise the importance of having uniforms uniform throughout the country. So far we have had slightly different designs of headgear. That is confusing for the people using the roads. It would help the wardens in their task if a standard uniform could be laid down which would be recognised throughout the country, as are the uniforms of the A.A. and R.A.C. scouts.

I should like the hon. Gentleman to say whether it would be possible to have a uniform which is so distinctive that the prescribed signs will be unnecessary. On paper, the signs seem to meet a certain need, but, in practice, they hinder the wardens. These signs have a definite size and shape. Holding them is like holding an oar, and when it is windy, that is not easy. They are difficult to hold on a gusty day. As the wardens will have control of children, I should have thought that they will need to have both hands free. I have used the sign when in uniform, and I know the handicap it is. On the other hand, I recognise that there is the statutory authority.

My plea to the Under-Secretary to speed up the issue of uniforms to wardens, that the uniform shall be easily recognisable and the same throughout the country, and, if it is possible even at this late stage, to put the power into the uniform and the wearer of it, and so dispense with the rather clumsy board which will hamper the warden.

Mr. Janner

I should like to endorse some of what has been said by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. H. Nicholls). It is essential that there should be a minimum standard of uniform, and there should be something in it which is standard throughout the country. There might be slight differences—perhaps in the helmet, or something of that sort, as we have in the police forces—but the uniform should be so easily distinguishable, and of such a standard form that no question could arise in the mind of a person being stopped about the person stopping him.

The need for this is reinforced by the fact that in subsection (6) (b) it states that where it is proved that a school crossing patrol was wearing uniform, the uniform shall be presumed, unless the contrary is proved, to have been a uniform approved by the Secretary of State.

11.0 p.m.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson) that the word "children" in subsection (1) includes "child." He asked about the meaning of "exhibiting a prescribed sign." The short answer is that whether or no the patrol was exhibiting the sign would be a question of fact for the court to decide. There are of course practical difficulties about finding appropriate words, but I do not think there are practical difficulties about making a scheme of this kind work.

The question of uniforms is one which is exercising the minds of those in the Home Office at present. Both hon. Members who have raised this point made suggestions of a kind of which we should not disapprove in any way. The intention clearly is to have a standard uniform which will be readily recognised by all motorists. It cannot be done immediately, for obvious reasons, but it will be done as soon as possible. The uniform must be simple and clearly recognisable, and it is desirable that it should be the same throughout the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. H. Nicholls) asked me whether it might be possible to do away with the signs altogether. There would have to be some method of making the motorist aware why he was being stopped. [An HON. MEMBER: "The police do not carry a sign."] The police have powers which will not be available to these patrols. I think that is common ground in all parts of the House that the best thing is to use the signs. On the whole, they have worked well in practice, and we had better go ahead on those lines.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.