HC Deb 21 July 1961 vol 644 cc1659-83

12.59 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay)

I beg to move, That the Motor Vehicles (Variation of Speed Limit) Regulations, 1961, dated 29th June, 1961, a copy of which was laid before this House on 5th July, be approved. The First Schedule to the Road Traffic Act, 1960, lays down speed limits for vehicles of certain classes or descriptions, and paragraph 1 (1) of the Schedule provides that for passenger vehicles having an unladen weight exceeding three tons, or adapted to carry more than seven passengers exclusive of the driver, the speed limit imposed by Section 24 of the Act on certain types of vehicles, when used on any roads other than motorways, shall be 30 m.p.h. The definition I have just read covers buses, coaches and such miscellaneous vehicles as the 10–12 seater personnel carriers. Smaller passenger vehicles such as cars are not subject to any speed limit on unrestricted roads.

These Regulations amend the First Schedule of the Road Traffic Act by increasing the speed limit of buses, coaches, and so on, from 30 miles an hour to 40 miles an hour, except where the road itself is subject to a speed limit of less than 40 miles an hour. The Regulations will therefore bring into effect the intention of my right hon. Friend the Minister to increase the speed limit for buses and coaches which he announced on 4th May last. His announcement was generally welcomed at the time. I therefore hope that the House will now agree to approve the change made in these Regulations.

1.1 p.m.

Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)

I must tell the Parliamentary Secretary straight away that many of us on this side of the House do not approve of these Regulations. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there has been a change of business today. It was announced rather late in the week. I wish the presentation of these Regulations had been delayed. I wish that they had been brought before the House with another Measure which the Minister has laid, which is to be debated next week. That is the Measure which increases the size of buses and coaches. Both Measures are related and could properly be discussed together. I recognise that I should be out of order at the moment, through no fault of yours, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, if I talked about a Measure which is not before the House. However, the two Measures are related.

The trade unions which represent the vast majority of the men who drive buses and coaches are bitterly opposed to these Regulations.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

That is amazing, because most of them already drive at 40 miles an hour.

Mr. Mellish

I am coming on to that. I said that they oppose the Regulations, which increase the permitted speed of coaches and buses to 40 miles an hour. They feel—I agree with them—that raising the speed limit will increase the risk of accidents. We are not convinced that the present speed limit of 30 miles an hour should be raised merely because it is broken in many cases. If the limit is raised to 40 miles an hour, we shall soon be faced with the argument that that limit is being broken and should be raised to 50 miles an hour. It is not a sound argument that the 30 miles an hour limit should be increased merely because some drivers exceed the limit.

It is sincerely believed by the organisations representing bus and coach drivers that the risk of accidents will be increased. It must be remembered that the Regulations specifically deal with buses and coaches which carry, as the Parliamentary Secretary said, more than seven passengers. The emphasis today should be on care and safety rather than on speed when we are talking of large numbers of people. I am also asked to point out to the House, which is very relevant, that if these vehicles are now to travel at the much faster rate, as they certainly will once the limit is raised, the work of conductors will not be made easier but will be made much more difficult.

It is said that the higher speed limit applies only to areas which are not built up. The trouble is that the definition of built-up areas—

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;

House counted, and, 40 Members being present

Mr. Mellish

I was saying that it is argued that the higher speed limit will apply only to areas which are not built up. The definition of built-up areas has changed considerably in the last few years. Many areas are not built up now by definition which in the past were built up; in other words, there are now greater areas in which buses and coaches can travel at this speed. They will be able to travel at 40 miles an hour virtually everywhere. Buses and coaches travelling in the country will certainly proceed at that speed. I gather that many of them will travel at more than that speed.

One argument advanced by the Ministry for increasing the permitted speed is that there will be less overtaking of buses and coaches by private cars. The Parliamentary Secretary did not mention this reason, but he should have done. The Government should give reasons for introducing Regulations of this kind. I understand the view is taken that al present if a coach is travelling at 30 miles an hour in a built-up area it is very difficult for a private motorist, who can go much faster and is allowed to, to overtake. The private motorist finds it dangerous to overtake. I do not think that there is much in that argument. After all, coaches and buses have to stop and pick up passengers and overtaking has to take place in any case. It is not valid to argue on that ground that the increased speed limit is right.

Another aspect which should be considered by the Ministry is that immediately the Government start altering speed limits those who own buses and coaches—some of them being private owners, some of them being nationalised undertakings—will understandably alter their schedules. This will cause a great deal of friction, difficulty and argument. I am not one of those who, because of that, favour no change, but this aspect should be considered by the Ministry. What discussions did the Ministry have with the unions concerned?

We do not believe that the Regulations are necessary. We believe that raising the limit will not make for more safety on the roads. We think that it will make for less safety. We have had no figures from the Ministry—we do not know whether they are available—as to whether the present limit of 30 miles an hour for buses and coaches has caused accidents. Can the Parliamentary Secretary provide us with any figures? If the Regulations come into force research will certainly be carried out in an effort to compare the present accident rates with what is known in a year's time when the Regulations have been in force for some time.

One of the ironies of the situation is that Regulations concerning speed limits, the size of buses, and so or, come forward all the time. We feel that this should be done in a much more embracing Measure. We should be talking not only about the aspect to which we are confined this morning, because that is all there is before us, but also about many other aspects of road safety. There was a Bill and we should have seen it, but it has been allowed to lapse, although ironically the Government have found time to legislate in respect of betting and gaming and more drinking. They have not found time to deal with road safety, which is extraordinarily odd, even for this Government. We shall get that Bill next Session. I should like to think, even at this late hour, that we could defer raising the speed limit of very large buses and coaches, which carry as many as 60 to 70 passengers. If the Regulations come into force, these vehicles will now travel at well over 40 miles an hour. I cannot believe that this will increase safety on the roads.

Representations have been made to most hon. Members by the Pedestrians' Association, and although I do not always agree with that Association, I think that here it has adopted the right approach. It is stated in the brief that has been sent to all hon. Members, and which the Parliamentary Secretary may have seen, that the Association was told by the Ministry that one of the present troubles was the danger of overtaking by the private vehicle; that when these buses and coaches are not going as fast as the present speed limit allows, it is all very sad for the poor private motorist.

I do not accept that. My experience as a private motorist is that some of our finest drivers are to he found amongst those who drive coaches and buses, and it ill becomes the average private motorist to criticise them. There are the odd exceptions to the rule, but I believe that the average coach and bus driver sets a perfect example of courtesy on the road. He is always the first to give hand signals, and to wave people on when the road in front is clear. I do not think that we often get that even with the average lorry driver.

I believe these Regulations to be a retrograde step, and we have not been told why this matter is now so 'urgent. I want to register this protest on behalf of those who represent the men who get their living by driving these vehicles, and I say again that we ought to have from the hon. Gentleman a much more detailed explanation of why, at this stage in the crisis on the roads, we should increase the limits.

1.12 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary bring these Regulations before the House at a time when the figures for last year show that public service vehicles were involved in 23,732 accidents causing death or injury, or 65 a day, and when, in those accidents, 17,669 passengers, or 48 per day, were killed or injured. To take more general figures, these Regulations come to us at a time when we know that during the first half of this year the number of accidents has increased by 8 per cent., and when the number of persons seriously injured on the road has increased by 6 per cent.

Is this the right time to increase the hazards on the road? It must be common knowledge—and, if it is not, it ought to be—that to increase a speed limit or to relax its enforcement results in an increase in accidents; and that the reverse is also true. That has been proved again and again.

My hon. Friend has explained that these Regulations increase the speed limit for buses and coaches from 30 miles an hour to 40 miles an hour, except, of course, where the road has a 30 mile an hour limit. We are not today discussing some other regulation that has been laid, but I think that I am in order to mention that, as the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) has said, we must bear in mind not only the existing buses to which these Regulations may apply, but those to which they may apply in future. The maximum length of a bus today is 30 ft., but these Regulations will in future apply to buses 36 ft. long.

To understand what a 36 ft. long bus is like, one has only to think of the London Transport double-decker bus, which is 27 ft. 6 ins. in length. I have no doubt that when taking parties round this House, hon. Members frequently point to the face of Big Ben and say that a London Transport bus will just fit through its face. We shall have to amend our guide patter in future, because these new buses, which will not only be longer but wider, will not fit through the face of Big Ben.

I understand that this increase in size is being sought, not only to accommodate Continental buses touring in this country, but to provide for the new standee buses, in which there will be a large number of standing passengers. If those buses, as well as ordinary buses and coaches, are to travel at up to 40 miles an hour, I cannot think that it will be a contribution to road safety.

My hon. Friend's Department has endeavoured in correspondence to justify these Regulations on several grounds. I know that my hon. Friend takes advice from his Road Safety Committee and that the majority of that Committee's members have supported an increase in the speed limit for buses and coaches from 30 miles an hour to 40 miles an hour but, as the hon. Member for Bermondsey has mentioned, one of them, the Transport and General Workers' Union, objected an behalf of the drivers, while the Pedestrians' Association objected on behalf of the other people who are most particularly concerned in this, the passengers. Drivers and passengers are far more concerned in this problem than are those represented by the other outside associations on this Committee.

My hon Friend has also sought in correspondence to justify this increase by saying that it is right at this stage to bring this matter into line with current legislation before the House. In other words, in his Road Traffic Bill the increased penalties for exceeding the speed limit are very severe. Therefore, as I follow his argument, we should reduce the offence because we are increasing the penalties. To start with, that legislation is not yet before us. Secondly, to say that because we are increasing the penalties in order to enforce the law we should reduce the offence itself is, in my view, an extraordinary principle.

The hon. Member for Bermondsey mentioned a further argument that has been put forward in favour of these Regulations, and it is one that we have heard very many time. It is that the existing limit is unrealistic; that it is thought by the public to be unreasonable; that, in general, it is broken, and that, therefore, we should so alter the law as to bring it into line with those who break it. I have never thought that argument to carry very much weight.

We are faced, of course, with what I would refer to as the scandal of the non-enforcement of the existing speed limits; they are completely unenforced in the Metropolitan Police area and, in many other areas they are not enforced unless exceeded by 10 miles per hour. The argument that as the existing limit is unrealistic we should increase it by 10 miles an hour to make it realistic, and, therefore, better observed, is completely refuted by the results of increasing the speed limit for commercial vehicles.

When we increased the speed limit for those commercial vehicles from 20 miles an hour to 30 miles an hour, we were told exactly the same thing. It was said that it would be observed. I have here the Road Research Laboratory's Report following on that increase. In the summary it is clearly stated that after a change in the limit, the proportion of heavy commercial vehicles exceeding 30 m.p.h. rose from 45 per cent. to nearly 56 per cent. That is what I argued would happen when that speed limit was increased, and my observations have been, therefore, completely borne out by those figures.

A table in this document shows that whereas a decrease in the speed limit was expected, an increase occurred. Then it states: … the percentage of heavy commercials exceeding 30 m.p.h. increased after the change in the regulations … To say now that if we increase the limit for passenger vehicles it will be observed is obviously not correct. That suggestion is a fallacy from start to finish, and there can be no doubt that if the speed limit of passenger vehicles is increased from 30 m.p.h. to 40 m.p.h. it will mean, generally, speeds of up to 50 m.p.h. and over for those vehicles on the roads.

An argument put forward in support of these regulations is that the design of vehicles has changed since the limit was set many years ago. The design of vehicles may have changed, but the design of the human body has not. One can brake a large vehicle and bring it to a standstill within a short distance if one applies the brakes very fiercely. But if that is done at more than 65 g. one's passengers will be flung forward and injured.

London Transport Executive has fixed the maximum deceleration for London buses at 65 g., but generally buses and coaches comply with 55 g. If that figure is exceeded in deceleration there will be a very great increase in the number of passengers who are injured. At that deceleration a laden bus or coach can draw up in about 150 feet, not taking into account the thinking time, which brings the distance to about 200 feet; that is about twice the distance required by a private car. This is set out in the Highway Code in which it is stated: …vehicles, other than private cars or small vans, may need twice these distances to pull up on dry roads. But, of course, it is not the braking capacity of a vehicle with which we are at the moment concerned. It is the deceleration, without the risk of passengers being injured. It is, therefore, no argument to say that design has so improved that we can bring in these regulations.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Bermondsey referred to the point about impeding the flow of traffic and overtaking by other cars. We are now going to get a difference on a road on which there is a 40 m.p.h. limit between the speed of heavy commercial vehicles—which will be restricted to 30 m.p.h.—and that of the buses and coaches, which will be restricted to 40 m.p.h. We were told at the time of the increase in the speed limit for heavy vehicles that we were bringing them to a level speed and, therefore, there would be an easier flow of traffic with less overtaking.

Assuming that passenger vehicles will observe the new 40 m.p.h. limit on a road which is restricted to 40 m.p.h., are we going to assume that private vehicles will not overtake them and exceed the limit? In my view, that is assuming too much of human nature. Obviously, there will be overtaking at a greater speed, as a result of these regulations, on roads with a speed limit of 40 m.p.h.

Then, of course, in 12 months' time the Minister will say that passenger vehicles are proceeding on the roads at 40 m.p.h. while heavy commercial vehicles are restricted to 30 m.p.h. "We cannot have these different speeds," the Minister will say, and he will ask for the speed of commercial vehicles to be increased to 40 m.p.h. That is almost bound to come if we pass these regulations.

Finally I forecast, without the least possible doubt, that as a result of these Regulations there will be an increase in the number of accidents in which public vehicles are involved.

1.25 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

Very substantial reasons have been given by my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) and the hon. Gentleman the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) why we should not adopt these Regulations and I should like to add a few words in support of their argument.

It is regrettable that the Government should have brought forward these Regulations at this time. It is particularly unfortunate that they should have brought them forward at such short notice, following on the arrangement of today's business. This is a matter in which a great many hon. Members are interested and in which the public are vitally affected. It is most regrettable that the Minister should have attempted to bring it forward on a Friday, when there is not a full House and hon. Members have not an opportunity of considering the subject on its merits.

I share the view of the hon. Member for Crosby; that the only effect of these Regulations will be to increase the number of accidents on the roads, and I oppose it on that ground. The public are getting more than tired—they are getting shocked—at the continual and increasing carnage on the roads. They are appalled at the failure of the Government to proceed with the Road Traffic Bill, which has been promised over and over again, and on reliance of which other Measures have been brought forward by the Government.

It seems shocking, in the absence of the Road Traffic Bill—which has now been postponed until next Session—that the House should be asked to increase the speed limit for coaches and buses on roads other than in built-up areas. In connection with built-up areas, the proposed new speed limit will apply, owing to the restricted definition of "built-up area", in a good many parts of the country which are inhabited sufficiently to make vehicles travelling at 40 m.p.h. very dangerous.

I see that the Minister shakes his head, but everyone using the reads knows that a major cause of accidents is speed in built-up and semi-built-up areas. I entirely agree with everything said on this subject by the hon. Member for Crosby.

Mr. John Hall (Wycombe)

In saying that it is an accepted fact that the cause of the majority of accidents is speed, would the hon. Gentleman quote the figures from the accident statistics which show that speed is by far the greatest factor in causing accidents?

Mr. Fletcher

I do not have the figures with me, but I should have thought that no one would dispute that speed is a major factor in the cause of a great many accidents. I have read all kinds of statistics in which speed is explained as being the cause of various accidents. In any case, speed is nearly always a contributory factor. A great many accidents would not have occurred if the speed had been lower.

Mr. John Hall

But it is different from saying that the majority of accidents, or the largest proportion of them, are due to excessive speed. It is true that in some accidents speed is a contributory factor, but by no means in the majority of cases.

Mr. Fletcher

I am not so much concerned about the proportion. I am concerned to reduce the number of accidents, because the number of people killed and injured on the road is appalling. I am shocked to think that the Government are introducing these Regulations which propose to do something which the hon. Member for Crosby said is calculated to increase the number of accidents. That is the view I take.

It is said that the 30 m.p.h. speed limit is unrealistic because that limit is not enforced and because a great many vehicles exceed it. It is inevitable, therefore, if the limit is increased from 30 m.p.h. to 40 m.p.h., that there will still be increases over and above the permitted speed limit.

It is inevitable, too, that if we have one speed limit for commercial vehicles and another for coaches and buses there will be a measure of overtaking which would not occur if we had a uniform speed limit. There is everything to be said for a uniform speed limit for all large vehicles on any road, instead of a variety of speed limits which must involve one of two things. It must involve either that some of those vehicles will exceed the permitted limit, or an increased amount of overtaking. Both of those things are dangerous, particularly with the roads in the condition in which they are today.

We have heard that these Regulations are opposed by the union which represents the drivers. It is opposed by the passengers—it must make travel in buses more difficult—and, above all, it is opposed by the general public because it will make conditions on the roads more dangerous.

In view of these objections which have been raised on both sides of the House, and in view of the circumstances in which these Regulations were brought before us, I hope that the Minister will do the sane and reasonable thing and withdraw them, in the face of the opposition that they have aroused. If the Government proceed with them and if we find that, as a result, accidents on the roads increase following the increase in the speed limit, the Government will be responsible, having raised the limit in defiance of so much opposition.

Mr. John Hall

Will the hon. Gentleman say what he means when he says that this proposal is opposed by the passengers? Is he referring to the Pedestrians' Association, which might be regarded as representing some passengers, or is there a passengers' organisation which has registered a form of protest?

Mr. Mellish

Obviously, they would be represented by an organisation like the Pedestrians' Association.

Mr. Hay

How can the Pedestrians' Association represent passengers?

Mr. Mellish

I think that that organisation would represent the interests of passengers. It would be fair to say that there is opposition to this proposal from some very powerful bodies.

Mr. John Hall

There are many motorists who from time to time travel as passengers, and they would certainly not agree with the representations which have been made by the hon. Member.

Mr. Fletcher

I certainly think that they would. I am sure it cannot possibly be to the advantage of the private motorist that buses and coaches should be allowed to travel at 40 m.p.h.

Mr. Hall

They do now.

Mr. Fletcher

If the hon. Member says that they do now, in defiance of the existing speed limit, the argument against these Regulations is even stronger, because it must be not only an appalling nuisance but a source of danger to motorists to find buses and coaches habitually exceeding the speed limit. No one has denied that they do so, and there is no reason to suppose that they would adhere to a 40 m.p.h. limit merely because the limit was increased from 30 to 40 m.p.h. It is far more likely that drivers of coaches and buses would regard a higher speed limit of 40 m.p.h. as an additional inducement to go an extra 10 m.p.h. above the limit, and then there would be more chaos, confusion and danger on the roads.

1.35 p.m.

Mr. John Hall (Wycombe)

It was not my intention to intervene in this debate, but I have been persuaded to rise after listening to the speeches from hon. Members opposite. I would imagine that the same kind of arguments have taken place in this House in previous years, when the motor vehicle was first introduced. One can imagine the type of debate which took place when there was insistence on a man with a flag going in front of motor vehicles because of the appalling danger that the new juggernaut of the roads would bring.

I can understand my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) taking the attitude that he has done, because he has often declared his interest in the matter in similar debates. I can understand the Pedestrians' Association and those who support him feel that motor vehicles should be removed altogether from the roads. There are occasions when I almost share those views, especially when one is almost poisoned by the diesel and petrol fumes which are emitted. But we must be realistic. The efforts of the Ministry of Transport in recent years—and, we hope, increasingly so in years to come—have been directed towards improving road conditions so that vehicles can travel safely at reasonably economic speeds.

We have heard that many of the vehicles about which we are talking habitually travel above the existing speed of 30 m.p.h. except in those areas where the general speed limit is 30 m.p.h.

Mr. Mellish

This is monstrous. The hon. Member has no right to say that. He challenged my hon. Friend to quote figures, and now I challenge him. Has he any figures to prove that buses habitually travel at over the 30 m.p.h. speed limit?

Mr. Hall

I base my assumption on the same assumption which prompted his hon. Friend to say that speed is a major contributory factor in accidents. It is an impression. The hon. Gentleman said that as a motorist his experience taught him such and such a thing. My experience as a motorist—and I travel many thousands of miles in a year—teaches me that the vast majority of coaches, and especially long-distance commercial vehicles, travel over the 30 m.p.h. limit.

The hon. Gentleman has said that the great majority of long-distance coach and commercial drivers are first-class drivers—probably the finest drivers on the roads. I accept that and endorse every word he said on the matter. They will drive at a speed which they consider safe for the vehicle that they are driving, bearing in mind the conditions on the roads and the weather. If one examines accident statistics one finds that rarely are these long-distance skilled drivers involved in accidents due to their own fault, or to their error of judgment, or to travelling at an excessive speed. They may be involved in accidents through the fault of other parties, but rarely through their own fault. It am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with that.

Mr. Mellish

The hon. Member will also bear in mind that these first-class drivers have schedules and times in which to do certain journeys. It is by that timing that their speed is governed. At the moment, the schedules are based on the 30 m.p.h. maximum. They, as drivers, object to this speed limit being increased. One of the reasons is that undoubtedly as a result of these Regulations going through—the Ministry of Transport, I gather, is not in the least interested in this—all the schedules will be revised on the basis of a 40 m.p.h. limit and many of the drivers believe that conditions will then become very difficult.

Mr. Hall

I agree that this is among the objections held by hon. Members opposite. It means that if the schedules are changed on the basis of a 40 m.p.h. limit instead of a 30 m.p.h. limit, there may be a greater turnround of vehicles and more journeys involved. But from the point of view of road safety, which has been the main burden or argument of hon. Members opposite, I completely fail to understand their point of view.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby said that despite the improvements n the design of vehicles, including their brakes, nevertheless to travel at a speed of 40 m.p.h. is dangerous; that it does not matter what may be the strength of the brakes, it would be wrong to allow these vehicles legally to travel at a speed at which they all travel at the moment, despite the fact that the accident record of these vehicles bears very favourable comparison with that of other road users.

I beg hon. Members to look at this from the point of view of hon. Members opposite, and to examine their arguments and see whether they are logical. I ask them to forget for the moment the other matter which is at the back of their minds and which is the main reason for their opposition to these Regulations.

Mr. Fletcher

Does not the hon. Gentleman appreciate that the two reasons are interlocked? If the hon. Member were satisfied that the drivers of these buses and coaches, through their unions, take the view that this increase in the speed limit, with the consequences that it would have, will not be conducive to increased road safety, could the hon. Member still defend it?

Mr. Hall

I think I should wish to examine the reasons which led them to that conclusion. I should want to inquire whether they were bound up with the feeling that, perhaps, the various coach and vehicle companies might wish to use their vehicles more frequently over the same sort of runs, whether that meant that the companies would not have to buy so many vehicles or, perhaps, have so many drivers, whether it meant that the number of people employed in the industry would not rise or might even contract. Many considerations might have to be taken into account before one arrived at a conclusion on that matter.

It seems to me, having listened to the arguments advanced earlier, until the more recent argument introduced by the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), that the trade union leaders, if they have advanced the same arguments, are a little more out of touch with the actual work of their members than they have been with the actions and attitude of their members in regard to the Covent Garden Market Bill, which we discussed a little earlier. It seems to me that the arguments which have been adduced have much more relation to the points I mentioned just now in reply to an intervention by the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) than to the matter of road safety. I beg hon. Members to think about it again.

1.42 p.m.

Mr. Hay

If I may have the leave of the House, I wish to answer certain of the points which have been raised.

Mr. Fletcher

I do not think that it is necessary for the hon. Member to have leave to speak again in reply to a debate of this kind, on a Motion to approve the Regulations. Is that so, Mr. Deputy-Speaker?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Gordon Touche)

As the hon. Gentleman has moved a substantive Motion, he has the right to reply.

Mr. Hay

I am much obliged, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. Obviously, I should not have committed the breach of order which otherwise I feared I might do.

I realised that there would be several matters which hon. Members wish to discuss. Before the debate, the hon. Mem- ber for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) and my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) told me that they intended to raise certain matters. I thought it desirable, therefore, that I should, in opening the debate, just explain the legal effect of the Regulations and speak later, perhaps at greater length, to explain the reasons why we are taking this course.

The hon. Member for Bermondsey complained that the House had had rather short notice of the debate. I am sorry about it. As he knows, matters of business in the House are not for me or for my right hon. Friend. It seems a little hard, after we had put down House of Lords reform as the subject for debate, only to be met with strong criticism that hon. Members could not be here, that, after deciding to meet that request of the Opposition and put down other business, we should be told that there has been insufficient notice of this debate.

The House must realise that these Regulations have been lying on the Table for some weeks. Hon. Members knew that the Regulations were coming up for debate. They knew that, at this time of the year, there is always pressure of business and, often, various matters—comparatively small matters from the point of view of Parliamentary time—have to be put in. I am sorry that more hon. Members have not been able to be here and take part, but I do not think that the Government can legitimately be accused of having taken unfair or undue advantage of their position.

I turn now to the background of the problem. The 30 m.p.h. maximum speed limit for what we in the Ministry call public service vehicles—buses and coaches—has been unchanged since 1930, thirty-one years ago. As several hon. Members have said, there have in the intervening period been great changes and improvements in the design, construction and equipment of this type of vehicle. In 1930, when the 30 m.p.h. limit was fixed, most of us used to call this type of vehicle the charabanc. Today, of course, such vehicles, their apparatus and their equipment are entirely different. Their speed, their braking power and their engine's are enormously different from what they were then. This is a new situation which we are entitled to take into account.

I am advised —I think that it must be within the personal knowledge of most hon. Members—that a speed of 40 m.p.h. on the open road for a bus or coach—certainly for a coach—is really quite safe to the driver, to the passengers and to other vehicles.

The decision to bring forward these Regulations has not been taken without a good deal of thought. It has taken some time. In 1958, the Bus and Coach Sub-Committee of the Departmental Committee on Road Safety, on which a great many of the organisations mentioned today such as the union, the Pedestrians' Association, and so forth, are represented, decided that it would recommend this alteration to raise the maximum speed limit of buses and coaches from 30 to 40 m.p.h. That recommendation was made to the Road Safety Committee itself, and the Committee endorsed it.

In 1958—I think that it was in December—we circulated our proposals, as we are obliged to do by the Road Traffic Act, to all the interested organisations. We received in reply a great many views about them. There were quite a number of views hostile to the proposition. On the other hand, there were quite a number of views entirely in favour of it, views ranging from that of the motoring organisations, for instance, which said that they agreed, to the view of the bus and coach operators themselves who maintained in 1958, and who certainly maintain today, that although this step of raising the maximum limit from 30 to 40 m.p.h, is to be welcomed it is really insufficient and there should be no limitation at all upon the speed of public service vehicles. That we do not entirely support this view is evidenced by the fact that we have brought forward these Regulations making only this limited change at this stage.

Quite apart from the road safety issues involved, which are important and which are really the foundation for the change we propose, one ought to look at the surrounding circumstances of the industry itself. Hon. Members, particularly those who come from rural areas, know that the bus industry is under very heavy pressure today. The traffic is drying up as private transport increases. Bus operators are finding it more and more difficult, particularly in remote parts of the country, to maintain the full volume of services which are licensed, and they are finding that the old principle of cross-subsidisation, whereby the profits on the lucrative services are used to offset losses on the non-lucrative services, is becoming more difficult to apply.

This change will, we believe, be of great benefit to the bus industry in meeting that problem. This was a point which a deputation from the Public Transport Association, which I saw last year, made to me very forcibly indeed. We have not decided to make the change simply because of the economic difficulties of the bus and coach industry. We have come to our decision because we genuinely believe that the change will be a measure which will contribute to road safety rather than the reverse.

Several hon. Members have mentioned the view of my right hon. Friend the Minister that what we really need in this country today in the matter of speed limits is realism. There are speed limits for certain vehicles and for certain roads which are unrealistic. When I say "unrealistic", what I mean is that people who have to use the roads or operate the vehicles do not believe that the limit in force is fair. They seek to break it, and frequently do. In many cases, so difficult is the problem of enforcement that they manage to do so without any penalty. It is our view that it would be much better to ensure that speed limits are realistic, that a road should be properly surveyed and a proper speed limit applied to it which would have the general acceptance of the people using it. That is why we are conducting this exercise in reviewing the speed limits on roads and why we are bringing these Regulations forward, changing the maximum speed limit for a certain type of vehicle.

At this point, I must emphasise one aspect which is most important but which has, perhaps, not been clearly brought out in the debate. Hon. Members, in speaking about buses and coaches going at 40 m.p.h., have done so in the sort of tone which implied that they will invariably and always go at that speed wherever they are going. All we are doing is to place a maximum speed limit on these vehicles—making it 40 m.p.h. instead of 30 m.p.h. But, as we all know, the drivers of these vehicles —and here I add my tribute to them—are extremely good. They know their job. They are extremely careful, and, of course, they will not "blind along" at 40 m.p.h., irrespective of road conditions.

All that they will now have is the right to reach 40 m.p.h. but not to go beyond it, provided that all the surrounding road circumstances are favourable. I do not believe that we shall have the large number of additional accidents that the hon. and gloomy Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) prognosticated some time ago.

Mr. Mellish

Perhaps, at this stage, the hon. Gentleman will deal with the point about commercial vehicles, raised by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page)—that accidents among such vehicles have gone up since their speed limit was increased. Is not that relevant?

Mr. Hay

I will come to that in due course, but now I want to mention some of the safeguards which there are for public service vehicles.

To begin with, there is regular inspection of all these vehicles by the technical officers of my Department. These usually take the form of regular inspections off the road at least once a year, and many of these vehicles are also inspected by spot checks on the road. I know, from having to decide appeals on this matter, that our inspecting officers are extremely difficult to satisfy about the construction and maintenance of these vehicles. Thus, a very high standard of maintenance is achieved.

Secondly, the drivers have to have a special public service vehicle driver's licence, and the consequences of a conviction for a driving offence, including speeding, may be very serious for them. Finally, since it has been said in the course of the debate that the speed limit may well be disregarded with impunity, I must remind the House that public service vehicles are very clearly recognisable. One can soon spot a bus or a coach, whereas it is often difficult to distinguish between a private car and certain types of van. We envisage no great difficulty in enforcement.

Mr. Fletcher

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that the provisions about enforcement ought to apply universally both to coaches and to private cars?

Mr. Hay

That is so. As far as we are concerned, every endeavour is made to secure proper enforcement of the law, whatever it may be. There is, from time to time, criticism, whether legitimate or not, that we or our officers or the police have failed in this, that or the other respect, but I can assure hon. Members that it is the desire and the intention of the Government that the law should be properly enforced.

I now turn to the speech of the hon. Member for Bermondsey. Before doing so, I want to say that we are glad to see him back, completely restored to his normal, robust health, and to see that his temper has not suffered in the least from his enforced stay in bed.

I am sorry that it has not been possible to debate these Regulations at the same time as those that my right hon. Friend has made about the size of vehicles, but these are difficult matters to fit into the parliamentary timetable at this time of year.

The hon. Gentleman touched upon the attitude of the trade union's. He said that they were bitterly opposed to this change. With all due respect to him, I am rather inclined to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall). I think that there is no doubt that those who are in charge of the unions' affairs have, at the back of their minds, not simply and solely the question of road safety, but also the working conditions of their members. As far as I have been able to judge—and I am given a good deal of information on this subject—the great majority of the drivers who operate these vehicles would welcome this change. I am told that they have regarded the speed limit of 30 m.p.h. as completely anachronistic and unnecessary in these days. If a poll were conducted among bus and coach drivers, a high proportion would be in favour of the new limit.

They have in their minds another factor. As the hon. Gentleman said, we are introducing again in the next Session the Road Traffic Bill, for which time has been inadequate in the present Session. One of its essential provisions is the arrangement we are making for compulsory disqualification of people who commit certain traffic offences three times in a certain number of years. At the moment, if we were to retain the speed limit of 30 m.p.h. it would mean that the bus or coach driver who, however inadvertently, exceeded the speed limit more than three times in three successive years, and was caught on each occasion, would not only be disqualified from driving, but would be at a great disadvantage compared with others.

Here, the point of realism comes in again, because we want these limits to be realistic, particularly bearing in mind our intention to make the enforcement and the use of disqualification much more effective in the future than perhaps it is at present. I hope, therefore, that on reflection, the unions and those who conduct their affairs will realise that this is a change which should benefit their members overall.

The next point made by the hon. Member for Bermondsey was concerned with overtaking. Without meaning any offence to him, I think that he inadvertently misrepresented our attitude. We say that where a bus or coach is travelling along a road at 30 m.p.h., being rigidly kept down to that speed, there is an enormous temptation for the drivers of motor cars or other following vehicles, particularly where the road is apparently straight but only just wide enough to pass, to take a chance and try to get by. On the other hand, if the speed limit were 40 m.p.h. and the road was appropriate for a general progression of traffic at 40 m.p.h. we would not get such a situation.

That is one of the reasons why we are bringing this forward. We want to avoid those cases where motor cars overtake public service vehicles because the latter are moving too slowly for them, and doing so in circumstances which may be highly dangerous. That really is the point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby made his usual forceful contribution to this matter. I am sorry that I perhaps cannot persuade him that enforcement of the speed limit is as effective as he would like, but I can assure him that we, and the Home Office, do our best to ensure that the limits are enforced. But, as I have said, I believe that there is little doubt that, if we can have this change, it will make for more realistic speed limits and, indeed, will contribute something to road safety.

My hon. Friend suggested that there may be repercussions—that in, perhaps, a few years or even a few months my right hon. Friend will say, "I have put up the speed limit for buses and coaches, and, therefore, I must raise the limits on all sorts of other vehicles to the same degree." I cannot give my hon. Friend a definite or categorical assurance one way or the other, except to say that we are reviewing the speed limits on all types of vehicles. Our objective will be to fix limits which are realistic in modern driving conditions and have regard to the construction and equipment of modern vehicles.

It must not be forgotten that the vehicles will be operating on a road system throughout the country which is steadily improving. I do not wish to be complacent, but we are making good progress now with our road programme. Many of the roads on which these vehicles operate will be first class.

The hon. Member for Islington, East, who made a second speech from the Front Bench opposite, has, unfortunately, left us. I should like Ito have challenged, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, the hon. Member's categorical assurance that this change was opposed by the drivers, the passengers and the general public. I have already referred to the drivers. I think that it will be found that the great majority of them are not opposed to the change but really are in favour of it.

If we have this change, it will mean for the passengers that the scheduling can be better, the prospect of arriving on time will be improved and, overall, the continuance of services of all kinds will be assured. We have had virtually no complaint about this change from the general public. We have had letters, it is true, from the Pedestrians' Association. I have discussed the matter with Mr. Frank Cousins and I know that the unions officially do not care for the change. There has, however, been no great outcry from the general public or passengers in these vehicles that we are doing something reprehensible. Had there been such an outcry, I would have expected a rather larger attendance at this brief debate today and rather more hostility than has been shown in the course of the speeches.

I hope, however, that with my explanation, which has been somewhat longer than I intended, of why we bring these Regulations forward, hon. Members will consider it a useful change to make and will not oppose it.

2.0 p.m.

Mr. Mellish

We are grateful for the extreme courtesy always shown by the Parliamentary Secretary from the Front Bench when dealing with points which we have put to him. The hon. Gentleman is a very good example to those in a more superior position in his Ministry.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the conditions of today as compared with the 1930s and pointed out that the speed limit had not been altered. That argument does not impress me and I do not think that it impresses many people. Whereas, in 1930, we went down to the seaside by charabanc, we go today by motor coach. The motor coach driver of today has a far more arduous task than the charabanc driver of 1930. He is surrounded by hundreds of motor scooters and unbelievable numbers of cars which sometimes travel at an incredible speed. The average coach driver of today faces a very difficult task.

The hon. Gentleman emphasised and supported the view of his hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) that the approach of the unions to the Regulations is concerned mainly with working conditions and not with road safety.

Mr. Hay

I did not want to appear unkind to the unions. I simply said that one of the factors very much in their minds was the question of wages, conditions of service, scheduling, and so on. I did not say that that was the only thing in their minds, because they are just as much concerned with road safety as we are.

Mr. Mellish

Having discussed the matter with national officers of the unions and with many drivers, I can only say that the emphasis is on road safety. They are well organised.

On the argument about the new schedules that may operate, the drivers are well able to look after themselves. It could well be that for many drivers, if they travel at the speeds expected, there will be even less work to do. That will not mean the employment of fewer drivers. They are, however, concerned and worried that this is only the beginning of the story by the Ministry and that it will continue.

The Parliamentary Secretary gave the game away, not from his Ministry's angle, but from the viewpoint of owners of vehicles. He said firmly that if many of the owners had their way, there would be no speed limit. I do not think that anyone in this House would say that that was right and that people could drive at any speed they like wherever they wish.

Some people have a private profit motive and would do anything purely for money. They would not care about safety. The case is made for us by the fact that some of those who support the new increase in speed are really not concerned with road safety if they hold the sort of views which have been expressed. The Parliamentary Secretary firmly believes that if there were a private Gallup poll, the majority of drivers would support him. I do not agree. I have discussed the matter with responsible drivers at trade union steward level. They feel that this change is only a beginning and that for the commercial driver, the speed will go up probably within a year to 40 m.p.h. We shall then have the story from the motoring organisations that 40 m.p.h. is not enough.

The attitude of the Parliamentary Secretary is that that is progress. I do not consider that it is the sort of progress we want. At the end of the day, speed on the roads must cause a great number of accidents. The only place where we can talk about speed nowadays is in the air. On the road, it is the most dangerous thing possible, because at certain speeds one loses control and the question of split judgment arises.

We cannot oppose the Regulations at this stage otherwise than by voice and expression of view. It is a pity that a matter of this kind was not debated with the other Regulations concerning vehicle size and also on the kind of day when there would have been more interest in the matter.

Mr. John Hall

The hon. Member made the point that certain operators would be much more concerned with the profit motive than with the safety factor. No coach or commercial vehicle operator wants to do anything that will increase his accident record. Insurance rates are so increasingly heavy that to have a worsening accident record would be detrimental financially to him. Such an operator would certainly take the greatest care to ensure that his vehicles were run in such a way as to avoid accidents.

Mr. Mellish

I was merely picking up the words of the Parliamentary Secretary, who said that if some operators had their way there would be no speed limit at all. I do not believe that any hon. Member would ever support that principle.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Motor Vehicles (Variation of Speed Limit) Regulations, 1961, dated 29th June, 1961, a copy of which was laid before this House on 5th July, be approved.