HC Deb 18 May 1960 vol 623 cc1432-9

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

Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)

I understand that this is the last Clause that we are to discuss tonight as it is the last Clause in Part I, and I am sure that hon. Members will not want me to make a long speech because they, as I do, want to go home.

This is an important Clause. Its title is: Use of motor vehicle unlicensed during compulsory test. The Clause refers to compulsory tests, and we believe that it is almost a fictitious Clause because at the moment there is no compulsory test for road vehicles, and we wonder whether we will ever get them. I will be in order if I relate my speech to the whole question of the testing of vehicles which has been discussed before in the House.

In 1956, we debated the Bill dealing with compulsory testing of vehicles. We were delighted with the Bill and the intentions of the Government at that time. It was on Report that the then Minister of Transport, who is now the Minister of Defence, the right hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Watkinson), said that the House would be interested to know that under the voluntary testing plan that had been established 72 per cent. of the cars tested proved to foe defective. He went on to say that it was important to get the Bill through as quickly as possible so that cars of a certain age and of a certain vintage had this compulsory test.

We all applauded those remarks and we agreed with them at the time. I want to be fair about this. The Minister said that in his view it would take a long time to prepare the scheme, and pledged himself not to implement it until it could be done properly. We agreed with that and many of us thought that the longest time that would be allowed for implementation would be eighteen months.

It is four years since compulsory testing was first discussed in the House, but, as far as I can judge, we seem to be as far away from it now as we were then because we have had so many extraordinary and peculiar excuses. In June, 1958, the same Minister of Transport, the right hon. Member for Woking, said that preparations were going well, and promised to introduce a scheme before the end of 1958. Then, in November, 1958, he suddenly came out with the first legal excuse in relation to the Bill. He said that certain legal objections had been raised which could have prevented the smooth working of the scheme and that some small changes would have to be made in the proposals before they could be laid before the House.

As I understand, those legal objections were small. There was the question of fees for the retesting of vehicles that had failed the test, and a question of regulations about testing car lamps. There is no party point in this, because the Bill received the approval of the whole House and was given a Third Reading. In February, 1959, the right hon. Member for Woking came to the House and said, in effect, "I have done it. Everything is fine. Now you will get the Bill and there will be no further delay. We have, in fact, cleared all the legal difficulties." That is what he said, and we believed it. We poor simpletons believed that we would get a Bill saying that vehicles of a certain age and vintage would be compulsorily tested. Nothing happened. Five months later, in July last year, we were told that the legal difficulties had been cleared up, but that there would have to be a slight delay as the Government had found one or two other small points on which they would have to come before Parliament. We are not quite clear what they were but, again, we were considerate and understanding in our position. We recognised—

The Deputy-Chairman

Order. I am not clear how the hon. Member is going to relate all the small points to which he is now referring to the Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Mellish

That I can show very easily, Sir William. These are not small points. If you look at Clause 12, you will see that it deals entirely with compulsory tests of vehicles and gives authority to examiners appointed under the Act of 1956 to which I referred. We regard the Clause as completely fictitious because the Act has never been implemented. I am trying to show that under this Clause the points I am making about the Act are quite relevant. I hope that you will allow me to go on, because matters which deal with the question of safety on the roads are very important.

If I may recapitulate, in 1959 we were told that everything was fine and we would have the scheme. To bring the story a little more up-to-date, on 31st March this year the present Minister of Transport—.this gay young Lochinvar of ours—said he would have to define the performance of brakes. This was something we had not heard of before, but he found out about it. We had told his predecessor four years ago that the question of brakes, which the present Minister now raised, ought to be considered. We said then, and I repeat now, that the standard and performance of brakes, lights, tyres and steering would have to be worked out and written into the regulations. We recognised that that would be a legal and tricky job, so we were not surprised when the present Minister said that brakes were a thing which was being looked at.

We get very annoyed at the way in which the present Minister of Transport states these things. He is unlike his predecessor. He stated outside the House that only because of legal difficulties the scheme was being held up. It was a fair speech to make. He said that the implementation of the Act was held up because of legal difficulties. My right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), who is an expert on these matters, unlike me, an amateur, asked a Question. The Minister of Transport replied that he did not make that speech outside, but from the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Hay

indicated dissent.

Mr. Mellish

I am stating facts. This gravely offended my right hon. Friend and the matter was taken up in the newspapers. There has been a protracted correspondence with the Minister of Transport. I understand that now—perhaps the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will agree—the Minister has admitted that the statement that he made the speech from the Dispatch Box was wrong. We, and I think hon. Members opposite, are getting a little fed up with this sort of thing, because the House of Commons is a great place and Ministers cannot treat us in this way. We do not mind a certain amount of bluff, tout there is a limit to the amount which we can take.

The Deputy-Chairman

Order. What is perplexing me is how all this is properly related to the Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Mr. Mellish

Your state of perplexity is coming to an end, Sir William, because I propose to wind up my remarks. All of us want to see the implementation of a Measure which received universal approval at the time when it was before the House. It is to make certain that every vehicle of a certain age is in good order to go on the road. We do not know how many accidents have been involved because of unfit vehicles, and I will not guess.

I have a great admiration for the ability and sincerity of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. I ask him to take this matter seriously when he replies. I ask him not to confine his remarks to a narrow, obtuse argument connected with the Clause, but to reply to me and give me a simple answer to my simple question, namely, when shall we get the Bill which was promoted in 1956 and the regulations associated with it? That is all we have been asking for. If the hon. Gentleman will give us a straightforward answer to that, the debate will have been worth while.

Mr. Hay

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) seems to regard it as his mission in life to do nothing more or less than make remarks about my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport. The hon. Gentleman frequently makes those remarks without giving my right hon. Friend any notice that he intends to make them. That is quite contrary to the normal customs and habits of the House of Commons. It happened a week or two ago, and it has happened again tonight. I do not propose to enter into any argument with the hon. Gentleman about whether my right hon. Friend made a speech outside, what words he used, and whether he subsequently denied or did not deny making it.

I shall address my remarks, first, to what the Clause does and then I shall tell the Committee, as I think the Committee is entitled to know, what our intentions are with regard to the implementation of the vehicle testing scheme. I would very much like to go over the history of this matter, as the hon. Gentleman has attempted to do, because there are very conclusive and weighty reasons, as I discovered when I first became involved in this problem, why this scheme has been delayed so long. However, this is not the opportunity, nor is it really the time, to do that.

I will deal, first, with the Clause. Under Section 15 of the Vehicles (Excise) Act, 1949, it is illegal for an unlicensed motor vehicle to be used on a public road. The Clause is essential for the implementation of the scheme for the compulsory testing of vehicles. One of the essential parts of that scheme, as I think the Committee knows, is that when vehicle testing is in operation any vehicle over ten years old which has not got a valid test certificate in force will not be licensed. It will not be possible to licence it.

When the scheme is fully in operation, therefore, the grant of a licence permitting a vehicle to be used on public roads will be subject, in the case of 10-year old vehicles, to the production of a valid test certificate, in the first place. In the Finance Act, 1958, provision was made to permit unlicensed vehicles in these circumstances to be used on the roads for the purpose of submitting them for the statutory test, but this did not take account of the fact that the test itself will in many cases require that the vehicle should be driven for a short distance on a public road.

To put it more shortly, if one has a vehicle for which one wishes to obtain a test certificate, but which is not licensed, under the existing law the vehicle can be taken to the testing station, but once there the existing law does not cover its testing on the road by the people at the testing station. Therefore, this Clause is introduced to permit an unlicensed vehicle in these circumstances to be so driven by the authorised examiner or inspector appointed under Section 1 of the Road Traffic Act, 1956, or a person acting on behalf of the examiner.

The Committee is entitled to know when it is likely that these provisions will come into effect. One of our problems—it is the most recent and, in many ways, the most difficult of the problems that we have had to overcome with regard to the testing scheme—has been whether or not the standards of braking performance with which a vehicle must comply under a test should be dealt with by a separate regulation or should be incorporated in the Motor Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations.

We have now obtained the most authoritative advice that it is possible for the Government to obtain to the effect that these braking standards must be incorporated in the Construction and Use Regulations. Therefore, an Amendment of the Construction and Use Regulations has been drafted, and on 14th April it was circulated for comment to 88 representative organisations. This is in accordance with a statutory obligation imposed upon the Minister of Transport.

The intention is that we shall hear any objections that there are to the amended version of the regulations. We have received some. I hope that it will be possible to clear these quickly. If they can be overcome, we hope to lay amended Construction and Use Regulations and the Test Regulations in the first half of July.

The official appointment of the testing stations will then proceed during the latter part of July and during August, and vehicle tests will start in early September. An Order, and a further set of regulations will then be laid which will require that as from 1st November of this year a valid test certificate will have to be in force when the older vehicles are in use on the roads.

In view of the long and somewhat chequered history of this scheme, I must make it clear that the programme that I have just outlined makes no allowance for any possible further delays at any of these stages due to the objections that I have already mentioned or some other unexpected factor outside our control. We have had so many false starts—I admit it quite frankly—and every time something fresh has been discovered which had to be overcome before we could begin the scheme, otherwise it would have been an illegal scheme.

Therefore, in outlining, as I have, to the Committee, the projected programme for the introduction of vehicle testing, I must make the reservation that the dates I have given are subject to any unexpected delays—and I hope to goodness that there will not be many more— suddenly arising as a result of a factor we have not yet discovered. That is the basis of the Clause, and that is the timing we have in mind. With that explanation, I hope that the Committee will agree to pass the Clause.

Mr. Benn

I should like to mention two points very briefly. First, under existing legislation, a car that is used on polling day does not need to be licensed. I discovered this when I used my own car in the February, 1959, election. The car was not licensed, and I was afraid that I might have invalidated the candidate I assisted, but I was told that it was not necessary for it to be licensed. I therefore understand that, on polling day, the vehicle testing scheme will not be in operation, because if a vehicle does not need to be licensed there is no need to produce a test certificate. Therefore, the risk of going to the polls in all those Conservative cars should be very considerable.

The second point came to my mind only as I heard the Parliamentary Secretary's explanation, and I make it to reinforce the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish). We have heard tonight from the hon. Gentleman one of those comforting timetables of future progress. We have had them in the past. We have had them now for four years. The hon. Gentleman and his predecessors, I do not suggest with any desire to mislead, but with the good will of the office he now holds and the optimism that goes with it. promises that it will be only a matter of weeks, or a matter of months.

As the hon. Gentleman has had the good courtesy to tell us that all this is subject to no further legal snags appearing, my hon. Friend has written into the record—or, to use the American expression, has "read into the record"— all the previous pledges that have been made, and we have from the hon. Gentleman the present pledge, which is as meaningless for the future as previous pledges have been in the past.

Although I do not blame the hon. Gentleman personally for it, it reveals a laxity in the Ministry of Transport that I find very hard to accept. It is no good saying that if it had been done earlier it would have been illegal. This House makes the laws, and if there are legal difficulties there are two ways of overcoming them. One is to take the best legal advice available and hope to interpret one's own laws favourably. The other is to make the law crystal-clear by amending legislation. Nothing said by the hon. Gentleman tonight has convinced me that it would not have been possible to overcome these legal difficulties earlier, if necessary, by amending the 1956 Road Traffic Act, now consolidated into legislation.

However, I do not think that it would be appropriate to go into this at any great length now. I will only say that although we are extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has presented his case, we are really no nearer the introduction of the scheme than we were before the debate took place. We shall continue to press for Government action, and await with interest the first part of July to see whether the regulations he has mentioned do, in fact, materialise.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Amory

I think that we have made very fair progress in our work and I am very grateful to the Committee for its co-operation. It seems to me high time that we should all adjourn for a few hours' rest.

I beg to move, That the Chairman do report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee report Progress; to sit again Tomorrow.