HC Deb 10 June 1959 vol 606 cc1137-46

10.57 p.m.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Legh.]

Mr. John Paton (Norwich, North)

I express my regret to the Parliamentary Secretary and to the officials of the House for detaining them at this relatively late hour, but the subject I have to raise tonight is one of very great importance, not only regionally, for the region with which I am particularly concerned, but also nationally. It is the subject of the wide infringement that is now known to be taking place of the Regulations of the Traffic Acts which are laid down for the keeping of records and for the limitation of the hours of work of the drivers concerned.

When these Regulations were first laid down in 1930, they were made for the specific purpose of regulating in the strictest possible fashion the number of hours for which these men engaged in driving on our roads could be employed continuously, and to ensure that the employers themselves kept strictly correct records of the times these men put in. That was done, but it was recognised that these drivers were in a special category and if they were permitted to work undue hours on the roads they would very gravely increase the dangers to which other road users would be subjected.

We now know that during the last few years there has been a growing increase in the volume of these infringements, and we have reached a position today where it can truthfully be said that the Regulations to which I am referring are more or less openly flouted over great areas of the country. This is a very serious and important matter, because it should be recognised by the Ministry—and I have no doubt that they do recognise it—that the effects of extreme fatigue on a driver are just as deadly as the effects of taking alcoholic liquor; indeed, the effects are not greatly dissimilar. Therefore, we have to deal with a problem which is just as deadly in its effects on the conditions of our roads as is the well-known problem of the drinking of alcohol. Indeed, many of these drivers are drunk with fatigue when handling these vehicles on our roads. When we remember that the men are sometimes driving in conditions of great fatigue, 25-ton lorries or coaches holding fifty or more people, it will be appreciated that this is a matter of very great importance. Therefore, I make no apology for pursuing the matter even at this relatively late hour.

We know that there is difficulty in getting evidence. It is well recognised that there is often a conspiracy between employees and employers. We know that there are drivers who conspire with their employers so as to get the extra money coming from flouting the Regulations, but there are many more drivers—so I am assured by transport workers in my own constituency, and by the many letters that I have received from transport workers all over the country since I raised the issue—who are doing these things under compulsion—under the fear of getting the sack. The problem, therefore, is of great significance because of its social effects on those concerned.

In passing, I would say, from the knowledge I now have of the widespread nature of these offences, that it would appear that almost wholly the offences are committed by small hauliers and not by the large concerns. The persistent offenders, both among employers and employees, are those connected with small firms.

The Ministry has established a system of examiners, who are enforcement officers, to see that the Regulations are observed, but it is part of my argument that the system is wholly inadequate to deter those engaging in these offences because there are far too few enforcement officers. The Eastern Area, which covers a great area of the country, has only seven examiners charged with enforcement duties, but the number of goods and public service vehicles there means that each of those seven men has to enforce the law in relation to more than 10,000 vehicles—a completely impossible task. Over the whole of the country there are 120 examiners, and each responsible for seeing to the conduct of the drivers and employers concerned with over 11,000 vehicles.

It will be seen from those figures that the system is at present completely inadequate to deal with this problem. I am not suggesting that the examiners are failing in their duty in any way. In the Eastern Area, they obviously work very hard and, within the limits of their numbers, extremely effectively, because last year they each had an average of 176 convictions to their credit. That clearly means very hard and arduous work on the part of each of them.

When the examiners do get offenders convicted, we discover another factor which is a very great source of weakness. The magistrates' courts are, in the main, treating these cases in a completely casual and routine fashion, and are imposing penalties that are really derisory. During 1958, there were 1,236 convictions in the Eastern Region, in only 29 of which were the offenders fined more than £3. That means that 1,207 had inflicted on them a penalty of less than £3. That type of penalty can, in fact, only be called absolutely derisory. One of the objects of this debate is to try to bring to the notice of magistrates the effects of the casual treatment they are giving in the consideration of these offences. What they are doing by awarding these derisory penalties is to let loose death upon our roads, making our already dangerous roads a far greater menace than they need be.

The best deterrent against a continuance of practices of this kind is far higher probability of detection. That is recognised in relation to penal law by all penologists. The greatest deterrent is not necessarily the amount of punishment but the probability of the detection of the offence. The same thing applies in this case. What we ought to seek, first of all, is a far higher number of examiners engaged in this matter of the enforcement of the law. Do not let the Ministry think in terms, as it is doing now, of a possible 150 examiners for the whole of England and Wales. Let them set their sights far higher, recognising the very serious importance and urgency of this matter, and put sufficient examiners on the road to increase the probability of detection.

The second suggestion I make is that the Ministry might establish its own inquiry in order to assemble the facts and, having assembled the facts, then engage in a campaign to publicise them with a view not only to educating the magistrates to the importance of their duty in these matters but educating the public also. The public can be a good watchdog if it really understands the need for effective action.

I have put these points as briefly as I can and I shall now conclude, because I want any of my hon. Friends who wish to contribute to this debate to have a few minutes in which to do so.

11.7 p.m.

Mr. Ernest Davies (Enfield, East)

I am sure that the transport workers in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. J. Paton) and in the country as a whole will be very grateful to him for raising this matter, and in the few moments available to me before the Parliamentary Secretary replies I should like to support him.

I do so because this matter has been raised in the House on many occasions since 1953 when denationalisation brought about this deterioration in the conditions in the industry. The fact that it has to be so frequently raised is a serious reflection upon the working conditions in the road haulage industry. Every time this matter is raised I get considerable correspondence confirming the fact that workers are driving considerably longer hours than they are permitted under the statutory Regulations and they are forced to "cook" their log sheets to get away with it. If they do not fall in with the wishes of their employers they are confronted with dismissal.

Only this morning I received a letter, following some references in the weekend Press to this matter. My correspondent, who is a lorry driver, who asks that his name shall not be disclosed, says: I can say how right you are that the fear of the sack has been well and truly restored for long distance men. If you don't want it you can get out. That's what one gets from the boss nowadays. That is only one of numerous letters which I have received in the last few days.

The reasons why the bad conditions continue are, first, the excessive competition in the industry; secondly, the ineffective enforcement to which my hon. Friend has referred; thirdly, the inadequate penalties which are imposed— derisory, my hon. Friend called them—and fourthly, the bad working conditions.

Since the private road hauliers after denationalisation have shown how unscrupulous they are in honouring the law, the only way they can be deterred from carrying on these nefarious practices is to put into them the fear, first, that they will be found out—which means adequate enforcement and an adequate number of enforcement officers—and, secondly, that the punishment will fit the crime and be heavy enough to affect their business. Only if their pockets are affected will they refrain from working their drivers to the point of endangering the public on the roads and, at the same time, bringing about such poor and deteriorating conditions in the industry.

It is ridiculous that there should be only 100 examiners or enforcement officers for more than 1¼ million vehicles. How can the Parliamentary Secretary possibly regard that as adequate to cope with the situation which has developed on our roads? The hon. Gentleman knows very well that, if he meets lorry drivers in any of the transport cafés. each one of them will be able to tell him either of his evading of the law himself or of his colleagues' doing so. They make no secret or mystery about it. Everywhere one goes to talk to people in the industry it is admitted that this is going on. Yet the Minister refuses to face the facts. He denies in the House time and time again, with the utmost complacency, that conditions are any worse than they were. Everybody but he knows that they have deteriorated considerably.

We on this side of the House are compelled to ask whether the Government are taking this state of affairs seriously. Is it their intention to try to bring about an improvement so that this breaking of the Regulations will be stopped? If it is not, there will be some very serious accidents on the roads resulting from excessive fatigue and the loss of full control of vehicles by the drivers at the wheel. There have already been some very serious cases. I assure the Minister that many people in the industry are worried. They fear that, if these practices are not stopped, there will be some more serious accidents, and for them the Government will have to take responsibility.

It is necessary for us on this side to question whether the Government, in view of their past relations with the hauliers, are seriously approaching the problem which confronts the industry, or whether they are conniving with the hauliers in order to permit these offences to continue.

11.13 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Richard Nugent)

This is, of course, a complaint which I have heard before from the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies), but the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. J. Paton) is a new protagonist to me in the matter. I think that it would be fair to the House and, indeed, to the hon. Member for Norwich. North if I were to put the complaint in its correct perspective. I wish to refer to the complaints which I receive from the opposite aspect, from the employers, who complain that they have been unfairly penalised.

The Regulations place an absolute responsibility on the employer for the keeping of accurate records by the drivers, and for the drivers whom he employs keeping these Regulations with regard to hours. The result is that the employer may be, and sometimes is, prosecuted on his own, and sometimes with the driver, for offences which have been committed. Employers have complained to me, and I have received representations through Members of Parliament, that this is an unfair burden placed upon them, because it is obviously physically impossible for employers, especially the bigger hauliers, to check all the activities of their drivers all the time. The result is that employers are sometimes convicted of offences by their drivers, in spite of the fact that they may have no control over the matter, and sometimes for things which have been against the instructions of the employers. I have received these complaints, and I have——

Mr. Paton

This is a matter for the courts, and the accused's employers have the right of appeal to a higher court.

Mr. Nugent

If the hon. Gentleman will listen to the argument, he will find that I am trying to put the picture into perspective. He has made some savage charges against the employers. He must now hear the rest of the story.

I have felt it my duty to investigate this subject very closely, because I have had these complaints which at times I felt were substantial. I have, therefore, conducted a review inside the Department as to how the law works and whether it is fair that the employer should have this absolute responsibility placed upon him for his own drivers. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I have had to conclude as a result of the investigation that, despite the burden which is placed on employers—that is, that they may be prosecuted for their drivers' faults—the present balance is right. If the employer was not made absolutely responsible, then to secure a conviction at all would be so difficult that the law would be impossible to enforce.

Also, during the course of this review, I have heard no evidence of widespread allegations of breaches such as suggested by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Norwich, North and the hon. Member for Enfield, East. On the other hand, I am bound to say that I have heard of offences which have been committed by the drivers themselves while directly disobeying the orders issued by employers.

If the hon. Member for Norwich, North has evidence of breaches, individually or generally, he should let either myself or the traffic commissioners have them. And if a driver is asked by an employer to drive in breach of the Regulations, he can go direct to the traffic commissioners. That may be unlikely, but, in any case, in most instances he has the simple remedy of taking up the matter with his trade union and asking them to complain anonymously to the traffic commissioners. The commissioners are able to take action against an erring employer by means of what is known as the "silent check" on what the haulier does. If these complaints are made to the Commissioners they will follow them up; but what happens is that these allegations are made in this House while not being supported by complaints in practice.

This allegation of widespread infringement of the law has been made in the Sunday Pictorial. I saw an enormous headline, "Slave Drivers," and there is supposed to be evidence of widespread infringement. It is a report of a speech by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Enfield, East, and there is the comment that there is a hot tip that he is a future Labour Minister of Transport. But an even hotter tip is that no fewer than a quarter of a million drivers, according to this article, are "slaves of the road" although there is only one specific case in support of this figure of a quarter of a million.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I have met these men, and I have seldom seen men who look less like slaves than the drivers of the heavy commercial vehicles on our roads.

Mr. Ernest Davies rose——

Mr. Nugent

I cannot give way because I want to give him a few figures.

Mr. Davies

What the hon. Gentleman has attributed to me was not a speech.

Mr. Nugent

If it was not a speech, I apologise. I am only taking what I read in the Sunday Pictorial. I accept that the vital statistics published in the Sunday Pictorial are usually published more to catch the eye than convince the mind, and perhaps this was one such instance.

It is not fair to make these broad and wide allegations against the road haulage industry. The only facts we have are the statistics we keep. In 1956, there were 6,297 prosecutions and 5,842 convictions on keeping of records. We must disregard 1957 because it was not a complete year. In 1958, there were 7,521 prosecutions and 7,071 convictions. That is an increase, I agree. On the vital matter of drivers' hours, however, in 1958 there were 3,559 prosecutions and only 3,082 convictions, showing a slight downward trend.

Breaches of the Regulations concerning hours worked by drivers are, of course, the most important aspect. The traffic commissioners, who are responsible for dealing with this, are very responsible men, quite capable of using their independent judgment about what action to take. Their reports to us simply do not support what hon. Members have said.

As the hon. Member for Norwich, North said, the object of this legislation was to protect the public from the danger of drivers who, through excessive hours of driving, are unfit through fatigue to drive. Let us consider the figures. In 1957, the number of accidents to commercial goods vehicles was 55,000, of which only 65 were due to fatigue. In 1958, when there were 64,000 accidents to commercial goods vehicles, only 70, about a tenth of 1 per cent., were due to fatigue.

Is that evidence to support what hon. Members opposite have said? These are the only facts we have. The rest is sheer supposition. There is no evidence here to support the charges, made against the whole industry, of widespread infringements. These are the facts and they simply do not support the allegations made by the hon. Member for Enfield, East and his hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North. If their allegations were correct, these figures would be many times bigger.

I have made a careful review of the facts because I felt it my duty to do so. My conclusion is that most of the road haulage firms, both employers and drivers, do their scrupulous best to observe the regulations and that the area of infringement is relatively small. There is infringement in every class of life; it is only human to err, for one reason or another. The average driver and employer, however, try to keep the law.

These allegations which suggest that there are a quarter of a million slave drivers simply cannot be supported by the evidence. If hon. Members make these allegations, either they must support them or, if they cannot be supported, they should withdraw them. If they do not withdraw them, it is evident that the only basis for them is the political conviction of hon. Members opposite, which is against the independent road haulage industry, and which they wish to nationalise; before nationalising it, they set out to damage its reputation.

I say with all the force I can that that is most unfair. The facts simply do not support the allegations which have been made. If the hon. Member for Norwich, North—or drivers—can cite cases, I have explained how they can proceed without any danger to the drivers' jobs. The traffic commissioners, however, simply cannot give me instances of such cases coming to them. The fact is that hon. Members opposite start out with the conviction, and the hon. Member for Enfield, East has attacked us again and again, saying this is a widespread allega- tion, but when it comes to producing the evidence it simply is not there.

The establishment number of inspectors is 100, and I have said that we shall add 50 to it as soon as we have elbowroom with our driving examiners. I announced today that we have added a further 17 to it, and I hope that it will not be many months before we have added the full 50. We have looked at the matter carefully and I think that that is enough to get reasonable enforcement of these Regulations. But it is quite wrong to set out with the idea that the average person in this country, whether in this sector of life or any other, is a deliberate law-breaker. People are not. They are just as much trying to keep the law as hon. Members on either side of the House. We are a law-abiding community, and I am not prepared to embark on the approach advocated by the hon. Member for Enfield, East—that we should put fear into the haulage industry generally and that it should be our policy to bully the people in it so that they will conform with some line which hon. Members opposite think appropriate.

I am satisfied that the average haulier and driver try to keep the law and that it is only on the fringe that offences have occurred. With the present strength of enforcement officers and the additions which we are making to it, I am satisfied that there is sufficient supervision to get a reasonable degree of observance. The whole of this charge which the hon. Member for Norwich, North has now made, and the hon. Member for Enfield, East continues to make, is really based on a complete fiction. They should support it or they should withdraw it.

As to the penalties, I accept that sometimes they are not all that they might be, but the hon. Member for Norwich, North may have noticed that the other day a penalty went as far as £20,000.

Mr. Paton

One case.

Mr. Nugent

Well it shows that the court——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-seven minutes past Eleven o'clock.