HC Deb 30 May 1956 vol 553 cc339-48

(1) A person charged with using a motor vehicle in contravention of section thirty-five of the Act of 1930 (which provides for compulsory third-party insurance) shall not be convicted if he proves that the vehicle did not belong to him and was not in his possession under a contract of hiring or of loan, that he was using the vehicle in the course of his employment and that he neither knew nor had reason to believe that there was not in force in relation to the vehicle such a policy of insurance or security as complied with the requirements of Part II of that Act.

(2) In subsection (2) of the said section thirty-five the words from "and a person convicted" to the end of the subsection shall cease to have effect.

(3) In section six of the Act of 1930 the proviso to subsection (1) (which empowers a court to limit a driving disqualification to the driving of a motor vehicle of the same class or description as the vehicle in which the offence was committed) shall cease to have effect.—[Mr. Watkinson]

Brought up, and read the First time.

7.45 p.m.

Mr. Watkinson

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

This new Clause has been introduced in fulfilment of a pledge which I gave in the Committee upstairs, and it makes the following three distinct though connected changes in the law. It provides a new defence for a person charged with using a motor vehicle on a road whilst it is uninsured. It makes disqualification for the offence of so using a vehicle a matter for the discretion of the court instead of automatically following upon conviction. It also removes the power of the court to limit any disqualification to certain classes or descriptions of vehicles.

Subsection (1) provides the new defence to which I have referred. To establish this defence the defendant will have to prove that the vehicle did not belong to him and had not been hired or lent to him, that he was using the vehicle in the course of his employment, and that he neither knew, nor had reason to believe, that the vehicle was uninsured whilst he was driving.

We had considerable discussions in Committee, and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) took a prominent part in those discussions. There was a general debate arising from Amendments which he moved both to Sections 11 and 35 of the 1930 Act. I think that the purpose of my hon. Friend was to extend in both Sections the special reasons which entitle the courts to say that the defendant shall not be disqualified where, but for such reasons, disqualification must follow.

I undertook to meet the feeling of the Committee so far as it related to insurance cases, but I said that I could not promise to alter the law in relation to dangerous driving. So the first point I want to make on this new Clause is that it is limited to the insurance aspect, as I said in my opening remarks, and it only provides a new defence to a person charged with using a motor vehicle on the road whilst it is uninsured.

I have tried to implement fully the undertaking which I gave to deal with the insurance side of the matter. I think it is a fair point because it may well be that, for example, an employee can drive a motor vehicle which is not insured, although that fact is completely outside his knowledge. The owner of the vehicle might have allowed the insurance to lapse. by design or accident, and it might be quite outside any reasonable requirement that the driver could or should have known that. We are trying to meet a practical point, and I hope that the House will feel that the new Clause does so.

I do not want at this stage to repeat the arguments into which we went very fully in Standing Committee. I will merely say that in the case of someone driving an uninsured vehicle I have tried to meet my hon. Friend's point. In fairness to him, however, I must say that I think his original desire was to give a much wider power than I have given.

Mr. Ede

I regard driving a vehicle which is not insured as the most antisocial of all the motoring offences. Anyone who has had long experience on a bench of magistrates must know of some very heart-rending cases of the consequences inflicted by uninsured motorists on pedestrians or other persons who have been involved in accidents.

I also have knowledge of the kind of case to which reference has been made, in which an employee, possibly of a big firm, drives on the roads, having no reason to suspect that his employers have not complied with the law, and then, when an accident occurs and an investigation takes place, it is discovered that the vehicle is uninsured. I agree that in such circumstances it is revolting to one's sense of justice to impose a penalty which may include depriving the man of his means of livelihood for twelve months.

I hope that the new Clause will be so linked with the original Act that the person who is responsible for the vehicle being on the roads while uninsured will still be liable to the penalties involved. I was hoping to hear from the right hon. Gentleman that precautions had been taken to make sure that that was so. If that is not done, there might be a very serious case of the kind to which I referred. Having an uninsured vehicle on the roads is so serious an offence that the House ought to be satisfied, before it exempts some persons from the penalties, that the person who really ought to be charged with the offence is still liable to the legal penalties.

Mr. R. Bell

I thank my right hon. Friend for meeting so amply the case made by many hon. Members as well as myself during the Committee stage. There is no doubt, as the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has said, that driving without an insurance policy can have very serious consequences for people who are injured. What the Amendment aims at achieving, and, I think, succeeds in achieving, is merely to remove from the administration of Section 35 of the principal Act some of the anomalies which had become notorious.

I think that the right hon. Gentleman can be assured that all that the Clause does in the way of making a new defence is to give the defence defined in subsection (1) to the person who is charged with using a motor vehicle in this manner and is able to establish the various circumstances there set out. It does not provide any new defence or otherwise reduce in any way the criminal liability of the owner of the vehicle under Section 35.

The second thing that the new Clause does is to restore to benches of magistrates a discretion which a certain judicial decision took away from them. Their power to refrain from disqualifying because they thought special circumstances existed ceased as a result of a judicial decision, and it is now given back to them. I am sure that nothing but benefit to the administration of justice will result from this provision.

I am sorry that my right hon. Friend has put in the counterweight of subsection (3), which takes away the power of a court to order a limited disqualification. I did not table an Amendment to delete subsection (3) because, like everyone else, I did not want to prolong the Report stage. However, it seems to be proceeding remarkably quickly, and I think I might well have tabled such an Amendment. If I say that I am sorry that the subsection has been inserted, perhaps the Minister will consider the point before the subsequent stages of the Bill in another place.

I know that there is a slight logical difficulty in justifying the power to disqualify from driving one kind of vehicle and not another. Yet if a lorry driver is convicted of driving his uninsured motor cycle, it is a pity that he should be disqualified from driving his employer's lorry, by which he earns his living. It is arguable that if he drives, uninsured, a lorry for which he is responsible in some way, it is perhaps a pity that, automatically and without any discretion in the court, he should be disqualified from going to work on a powerassisted bicycle, one of those little, rather noisy contraptions which are nevertheless mechanically-propelled vehicles.

I should have thought that for reasons of that type, which do not arise frequently but nevertheless exist, it would have been desirable to leave that discretion with the court so that, when the circumstances seemed to justify such a course, the court could exercise it. I do not want to be ungrateful, because my right hon. Friend has met me very fully on the insurance point, but I hope that he will consider the matter before the later stages of the Bill to see whether he can make a further concession.

I am sorry that the new Clause extends only to the insurance point. I spoke in Committee about the second conviction for dangerous driving. I feel, and I think most hon. Members feel, that the discretion should be with the court as the 1930 Act intended that it should be, and that the effect of the decisions in 1945 and 1946, which took the discretion away from the court, were unfortunate and have not contributed anything to the even administration of justice.

8.0 p.m.

Mr. Royle

I have not the advantage of having been a member of the Standing Committee which considered the Bill. I want wholeheartedly to support what was said by the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) about subsection (3) of the new Clause. I am very much in agreement with what my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) said about the importance of insurance. Those of us who have had experience on magistrates' benches know the difficulties and tragedies which have occurred in many cases through the absence of third party insurance.

I join with my right hon. Friend in asking that those who own vehicles shall in future be responsible for matters of this kind, instead of the people who may not know that a vehicle is not insured and who, by subsection (1), will have a defence. I hope the Government will not lose sight of that.

I was tempted to put down an Amendment to delete subsection (3), but I hope that we shall be able to persuade the Minister to remove the subsection when the Bill goes to another place. The subsection makes it impossible for justices to exercise a form of leniency which is not only very desirable, but which has been found to be very valuable. A man does not necessarily belong to the criminal classes because he is driving a motor vehicle in a manner of which the law does not approve, or when, for example, the vehicle is not insured.

Magistrates want to temper justice with mercy, but subsection (3) prevents that in this context. A man who earns his living by driving a heavy motor vehicle may go to work every morning on a light motor cycle. He may be convicted of an offence—perhaps dangerous driving—with that vehicle. On conviction, his licence is automatically suspended. At the moment the magistrates have power to limit that suspension to the type of vehicle he was using, but if the Clause goes through, with subsection (3), the magistrates will not have that power of limitation and will have to take away from that lorry driver the right to drive a heavy vehicle and will thereby deprive him of his living for the period of the disqualification.

That power in the hands of justices is extremely valuable in tempering justice with mercy. Some weeks ago a bench with which I am associated dealt with a case which achieved nation-wide notoriety, or celebrity—there are different views about it. Two brothers were engaged in the café business. The elder brother owned a motor car. He ran out of orange juice and said to his younger brother, "Get in the car and go to the wholesalers and get a bottle of orange juice." The car was insured only for private purposes and not for the carriage of goods.

Unfortunately, the younger brother left the car with its engine running. The police came on the scene and drew his attention to the fact that the engine was running. He was asked for his driving licence, which was produced at the police station within 24 hours. It was found that he was carrying goods in a vehicle not insured for the carriage of goods. There was a dual prosecution. Leaving the car with the engine running cost him 10s., but in the case of the uninsured vehicle the magistrates appreciated the difficulty and imposed the very small fine of 20s.

However, they were compelled to disqualify him for 12 months. The solicitor who had pleaded guilty on behalf of the defendants said that he could find no special reason to put to the magistrates to show why there should be no disqualification. But he appealed that there should be a limitation in regard to motor cars only to enable the defendant to go to work each day on his own motor cycle. The magistrates exercised their power with the result that something which was quite trivial was covered by the leniency of the magistrates.

That power is being removed by the terms of subsection (3). To some degree, subsection (1) would cover the case which I have illustrated, but it may have been that that particular defendant did know that the car was not insured for the carriage of goods. It is not merely a question of the uninsured car, but of other offences such as dangerous or careless driving. The hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South, in a veiled way, referred to a case which hit the headlines of the national Press not long ago.

We know that case as Regina v. Cottrell. The case went before the Court of Criminal Appeal. Cottrell had been charged with dangerous driving. It was found that there could be no appeal for the removal of suspension for the type of vehicle which was then being driven, when a period of disqualification had been disposed at the trial. The only course for the magistrates at the original hearing was to limit disqualification for the particular type of vehicle, because it could not be done later when an appeal was made.

That shows the desirability of retaining in the hands of the magistrates the power of limitation of disqualification. In this, I am largely representing the view of the Magistrates' Association and of justices' clerks. This has proved to be very valuable practice. Without this power there is a likelihood that very severe hardship will be imposed on a defendant for a very trivial case. In spite of the fact that I have resisted the temptation to put down an Amendment to delete subsection (3), I appeal to the Minister to give an assurance that he will consider removing it when the Bill goes to another place.

Mr. Isaacs

I wish to support the appeals made to the Minister to delete this subsection, particularly having regard to the point of view of justices dealing with these cases. If a man is brought before a court, and has to be punished for an offence, it is very hard if he has to be punished a second time and his livelihood taken from him for a year.

These things may seem all right when they are examined in an office where a Bill is being drafted, but those who sit on the bench and those who appear on behalf of defendants are able to make up their minds about those defendants. Sometimes they decide that the defendant is not a bad sort, but has done something foolish and he has to pay the penalty. To deprive him of earning his living for a year is very hard. I think that magistrates throughout the country may be trusted.

The first two subsections of the Clause will be very useful and I am grateful for the opportunities they will present for avoiding injustice, but I appeal to the Minister to give justices of the peace some discretion in this matter. They are men and women appointed for their common sense, fairness and judgment, and they should be given that opportunity. If this subsection were taken out of the Bill in another place, I am quite sure that the cause of safety on the roads would not suffer in consequence.

Mr. Watkinson

First, I wish to answer a point made by the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede). The intention here in so far as it refers to insurance is to avoid exactly the point the right hon. Gentleman made—the gross unfairness which might fall on an employee through no knowledge or, indeed, culpability of his own—but it does not relieve his employer or the owner of the vehicle from his due responsibility. It merely relieves a man who unknowingly committed the offence.

I think that hon. Members have been interpreting this matter very widely. It would not be proper to give any assurance at this stage, but I will examine very carefully the points that they have made. They are certainly much wider than the question of insurance. On the question of driving while uninsured the point is that subsection (2) of this Clause repeals those parts of subsection (2) of Section 35 which make disqualification automatic except for special reasons. The effect of that repeal is that the courts under Section 6 of the 1930 Act will have the same discretion to disqualify for the offence of driving while uninsured as they now have under that Section in the case of other driving offences.

In other words, I admit that the particular issue I undertook to cover is a narrow one, but the disqualification of driving in an insurance offence will now be a discretionary matter and any hardship which the court wishes to mitigate in any such case could be dealt with through the exercise of discretion in such a way as the court thought appropriate. So there is no need to retain the proviso in subsection (3). I believe that the undertaking I gave upon insurance has been fully met. I undertake to consider very carefully the wider points raised by hon. Members before the Bill is dealt with in another place.

8.15 p.m.

Mr. R. Bell

Is it not the case that although the court has gained in discretion inasmuch as it will now be able to disqualify or not to disqualify altogether, it has lost in discretion in that it must either disqualify completely in respect of all classes of vehicles or not at all? Would it not be desirable in some cases that someone should be taught a lesson and disqualified in respect of driving one class of vehicle?

Mr. Watkinson

That is very fairly put. We dealt with the matter in Standing Committee. I am not trying to say that I will consider this question and then not do so, but the point I made in Committee was the example of a man being drunk in charge of a particular kind of vehicle of whom it may be said that it is a hardship if he is a lorry driver and has been convicted of being drunk in charge of a private car. Some people might say that it is very hard to take away his livelihood because the two classes of vehicle are not the same, but I think there is a case for saying that a man who has been drunk in charge of one vehicle might be drunk in charge of other vehicles. That is a relevant question I must bear in mind. Provided that is understood, I undertake to look at what has been said on this question.

Mr. Ede

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be very certain that he has a good look at this matter, because it must not be assumed that the House is unanimous about it.

Mr. Watkinson

I quite agree. Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time and added to the Bill.