HC Deb 17 July 1962 vol 663 cc313-27

The ability to read at twenty-five yards in good daylight (with glasses if worn) a motor car number plate containing six letters and figures shall no longer be required as a condition of claiming to be subjected to a driving test in order to drive a mowing machine or a vehicle controlled by a pedestrian, nor as a condition of holding a licence to drive such a machine or vehicle.—[Mrs. Castle.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

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

I wish to make clear the very limited nature of the change which I seek to make in the driving licence regulations. I am not trying to pull against the general purpose of the Bill or to diminish the efforts made to tighten up the precautions to improve road safety. I would certainly be against any diminution of the standards for driving tests in general, whether it be to drive a motor car, motor cycle, tractor or even a moped.

A few minutes ago we dealt with a new Clause relating to eyesight, and hon. Members agreed that we should have tighter and not more lax precautions. I am afraid that when I raised this matter privately with the Minister he did not understand the very limited nature of what I am trying to do. When I wrote to him, he replied that far from easing eyesight requirements in the direction you seek, I thought that there might well be a case for tightening them up. I should spend a little time in making clear the effect of the new Clause. It deals with only one group of vehicles out of the list in the schedule to the driving licence regulations. It deals with Group C, which relates only to mowing machines and vehicles operated by pedestrians. As the law stands, one needs a driving licence to push a motorised mowing machine and to pull a vehicle operated by pedestrians. Group C is the only group of vehicles requiring a driving licence in which the person who operates the vehicle does not ride aboard or drive it in the normal way. In the case of all the other vehicles —tractors, trolley vehicles, agricultural tractors and road rollers—one mounts aboard the vehicle and drives it. Therefore, although these are motorised vehicles, they are not motorised in the normal sense.

The relaxation which I am seeking does not apply to any motorised vehicle which a man actually drives. An anomaly in our law is that we should have put vehicles with some kind of electric battery on them or some kind of motor, however small its capacity, in with vehicles which are driven. They come under a very distinct category. The precautions required in dealing with them if road safety is to be assured should be different.

The regulations require that a man should pass a driving test to get a driving licence to operate a vehicle like this. Secondly, the requirements asked of him for passing that driving test are as far-reaching as those in respect of a man driving a Jaguar at 100 m.p.h. This is absurd. I would go further and say that we are probably unique in the world in requiring that people should have a driving licence to operate this sort of vehicle. Certainly the number of people in this country who require a Group C licence on its own, namely, a licence to operate a mowing machine or to pull a vehicle operated by a pedestrian, is very small. A Group A driving licence covers Group C vehicles as well.

As the Minister knows, my interest in this matter arises from a case which has come up in my constituency. If it were not for this, I should not have become aware of this curious group in our driving licence regulations. Many people to whom I have spoken expressed astonishment on discovering that people need a driving licence for this type of vehicle. Most people were as surprised as I was.

7.30 p.m.

It came to my attention simply because there was a young man in my constituency called David Crane who, for some nine months, with a provisional licence has been earning his living pulling a milk float on a milk round. He is a young man admirably fitted to be in charge of the vehicle in every way, except that, unfortunately, he is shortsighted. He has never attempted to get a Group A licence. He is not asking to drive a motor car, a motor cycle or even a moped. He is just asking for the chance to go on earning his living pulling a milk float round my constituency.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Will the hon. Lady make it quite clear that, when she says that he is pulling a milk float, it is not a thing like a wheelbarrow? It is a thing with batteries, in fact, electrically operated. It is a mechanical machine.

Mrs. Castle

I am coming to that. I have already said that it is an electric machine, and I want to put all the facts before the House. The fact remains that it is pedestrian operated. He does not mount on it and ride it. He walks in front of it, and it has a handle with which he pulls it round.

Indeed, he is such an excellent employee of this milk firm that they acquired this vehicle specially to enable them to keep him in their employment as a milkman, because they were confident that it was entirely within his capacity, and because, unfortunately he would not pass an eyesight test necessary before he could drive a vehicle. He has been pulling this vehicle round for nine months on a provisional licence. He could have run into anything during that period if he was considered to be so blind that he was a danger on the roads, but, on the contrary, he has earned nothing but tribute from all those who have come in contact with him.

At the end of the nine months, he had to apply for a driving test. He knows his Highway Code by heart, and is very proud of the care he has taken of his vehicle and of his customers. He thought he was well off, until he suddenly found that he had to read a number plate at 25 yards, and could read it, in the event, at 21 yards only. So he has been failed, and as the regulations stand at present, he can never pull his milk float again. Indeed, the firm which has been deprived of one of its best workers, has now, out of the generosity of its heart, employed another young man to accompany him, so that this other young man, who has a general driving licence, can pull the milk float while David Crane walks at the same pace by his side, but never must he put his hand on the handle, because if he does, he will break the law.

This situation, when it burst upon the people of my constituency, struck them as being highly ludicrous, and came as a shock to them, showing how assinine the law can be, if we allow it to grow up in this illogical way. It is true, of course, as the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke), who interrupted me, wanted me to point out —and I am not trying to evade it, because it is part of my case—that the difficulty arises simply from this fact. The vehicle when loaded cannot go any faster than the boy can walk. Unloaded, it cannot do more than 3¾ miles an hour. Loaded with bottles, it cannot do more than 2 miles an hour, but, alas for David Crane, this is a vehicle with a small electric motor and battery. I have got the particulars from the firm concerned. The weight of the vehicle unloaded is 6 cwts. The battery capacity is 24 volts, and the capacity of the electric motor 24 volts and 23 amps. I am not an electrician, and I leave it to the specialists in this House to decide how recklessly dangerous this vehicle is.

The young man has been to see me and has explained it all to me. When he depresses a lever on the handle, the motor starts, but he has to pull it, because if he releases the lever and lowers the handle, the motor stops and the brakes automatically come on. Therefore, it has to be pulled. It is really not much more than a mildly electrified barrow; nothing more than that.

In the present state of our law, if the milk company were to put a horse in front of that vehicle, and David were to sit on it and drive the horse, he would not need a driving licence, and he could be as blind as a bat. The horse, presumably, would have to read the number plate, as one hon. Member very correctly points out, and David Crane could gallop madly round the streets of Blackburn with the milk bottles jingling behind him, and the Minister of Transport would not be able to say him "Nay". [An HON. MEMBER: "No, but the horse could."]

Alternatively, David Crane could ride a bicycle round Blackburn, with milk bottles stuck on the carrier behind him. He could do a very considerable speed. I am a cyclist myself, and I fancy myself that I pedal a pretty pedal when I get going, and I get up quite a speed. Accidents can happen with bicycles. Indeed, there was a case in my constituency only on 21st June last, in which a woman was knocked down and killed by a 16-year-old cyclist. What happened was that she dithered and the boy dithered, and in the end they both went the wrong way, the woman was knocked down and she died of concussion. But if David Crane was even blinder than he is, he could ride round Blackburn on a bicycle and nobody could say him "Nay".

I put this case to the Minister, and pointed out the anomaly to him. I wrote to him privately in all sincerity and seriousness to point out to him that this case had surely highlighted an anomaly in the law that ought to be put right. To my intense disappointment, I got a most categorical refusal from the Minister which made me think that he could not have understood the Group C licence at all. I can tell him that it has also mystified people in many embassies of countries on the Continent of Europe, to whom I have spent much time explaining it.

The Minister replied: I appreciate that there would be nothing to prevent David Crane driving a horse and cart or a bicycle. Motor drivers, however, make allowance for the fact that the driver of a horse and cart is not required to be qualified in any way, nor is he required to hold a driving licence, whereas they would expect anyone in charge of an electric milk float to be properly licensed and qualified in every respect. And the fact for practical reasons that there are no eyesight standards for non-mechanically propelled vehicles is no argument for not applying such standards when this can be done in the interests of safety. I know that that letter was signed by the Minister, but I very much doubt whether he read it before doing so, because there is really mot a word of seriousness in it.

Has David been a menace to safety? As it happens, included in his milk round has been the local police station. When his case burst upon the astonished world, the police of Blackburn were full of interest and sympathy. Discovering that he had served the police station, I wrote to the chief constable and asked whether any of his men when on duty had seen David doing his rounds and could tell me whether the fact that he was shortsighted made ham unfit to be in charge of the vehicle.

I received a letter from the chief constable to the effect that two of the constables in his force had seen David operating in the town centre on numerous occasions and they report that Mr. Crane appeared to have no difficulty when operating the pedestrian-controlled and electrically operated hand truck. Neither has he been seen to cause any embarrassment to other road users. These police officers have performed traffic control duty over a long period at the Old Bank junction. Letters began to pour in to me and to the local paper protesting about the ridiculous situation which would rob this young lad of his job. Indeed, I have a petition with 4,000 signatures that the boy has spent his spare time in collecting. At the bus station in Blackburn, he has collected the signatures of people who knew him and have seen him at work, including many bus drivers in the constituency who consider the treatment of this boy as being nothing short of asinine.

I should like to read one of the many touching letters which I have received on his behalf: He is a grand lad and one of the best milk boys in England, never mind Blackburn. My husband and I must say he is fit to drive his little trolley because we have seen him and he is more to be trusted on the roads than anybody we know. David is like a ray of sunshine and a very understanding boy, and we got milk off him for about three years before he got moved. So I hope you can get this boy his work back and put a bit of sunshine back on the road in Blackburn. I have a letter from the Blackburn Methodist Mission testifying unreservedly to the boy's ability to do his job.

I am told, however, that the law is the law and that no exception can be made in David's case even if the ray of sunshine has to be eliminated from the milk round. Therefore, I have seized this opportunity to ask the House in all seriousness to look at the law and see whether, without recklessly abandoning the interests of road safety, we can do something to enable pedestrian-operated vehicles to be treated separately from those that are driven about.

My new Clause is merely one way of dealing with the situation. I do not even claim that it is the best way. I merely claim that it is the most moderate. Perhaps I have made a mistake in basing it on the eyesight test, because it has raised alarm among people that I might be trying to lower eyesight standards for drivers generally. I do not want anybody who drives a vehicle to have to pass any less rigorous eyesight test. I merely ask that somebody who pushes a mowing machine or pulls a milk float should not have to be treated by the same stringent standards as somebody who drives a Jaguar on the M.1. That is not unreasonable. I suggest, therefore, in my new Clause that people in this tiny Group C, and they alone, should be exempt from the requirement concerning eyesight.

7.45 p.m.

That does not necessarily mean that there would be no eyesight standards. As I have said, David can read a number plate at 21 yards instead of 25 yards. It this basis were adopted, so that the eyesight test could be purely empirical—that is, when a boy has to have a driving licence at all, when he is subjected to his test—the instructor could decide whether his sight was sufficient to enable him to judge the speed of an oncoming car.

The ability to judge the speed of an oncoming car is fairly empirical even now under existing standards. The fact that a person can see a car coming does not necessarily mean that he is judging its speed accurately. Therefore, all sorts of general empirical judgements have to be made when deciding whether somebody is fit to be in charge of a vehicle. In this case, the boy is fit to walk about the streets pulling the vehicle after him.

If that seems a revolutionary idea, I assure the House that in both the Italian and the Dutch traffic laws no specific eyesight standards are laid down. In Holland, I am told, no official eyesight test is required even for a driving licence to drive a motor car. Other general ad hoc tests are applied.

I do not go as far as that. I am not talking about motor cars, motor cycles or mopeds. I am talking about pulling a little cart. If the Parliamentary Secretary does not want to deal with the matter on the basis of eyesight, I should be willing to consider other alternatives. For example, we could decide in principle tonight that no driving licence should be necessary for a pedestrian-operated vehicle. If, however, the hon. Gentleman wants some kind of safeguard concerning motorised vehicles, let us say that no driving licence would be required for a motorised vehicle below a certain engine capacity or below a certain capacity of electric motor, plus the requirement that it should not be able to exceed a certain speed.

In our existing law, we are unique. I have not been able to find any other country in which a driving licence is needed for pulling a pedestrian-operated vehicle. In Germany, it is not necessary to have a driving licence for any vehicles which cannot exceed 6 km per hour, or about 4 m.p.h. In France, no driving licence is required for a pedestrian-operated vehicle. When a milk float is actually driven by the man who rides it, no driving licence is required if the engine power is less than 1 kW. In Italy, no driving licence is required for a light motor cycle whose cylinder capacity does not exceed 50 c.c. and whose maximum speed does not exceed 25 m.p.h. In Holland, no driving licence is required.

I come now to the sober Scandinavian countries in case the Parliamentary Secretary feels that he cannot trust the precedents set by the impassioned Continentals further south. Perhaps he does not consider the Italians a good criterion. I have a letter from the Royal Netherlands Automobile Club pointing out that according to Article 101 of the Dutch road traffic regulations, a driving licence is not required for motor vehicles which cannot go faster than 20 km. per hour or for bicycles with an auxiliary engine or for certain vehicles used for agricultural purposes. I am not asking us to go as far as the "reckless" Dutch. I am merely asking that we might bear in mind that no driving licence is required there for a pedestrian-operated vehicle.

There is also the example of Sweden. In many of our discussions about road safety, Sweden has been held out to us as a model. It has the toughest standards for drink tests, for example. I admire Sweden for it. I would welcome the most rigorous strengthening and application of the law where that kind of requirement arose. But those I contacted in Sweden were astonished at my query. The fact that we required a driving licence to drive a pedestrian-operated road vehicle caused widespread amusement in the embassies where I sought information. In Sweden a driving licence is not required for an engine-powered vehicle intended mainly as a working machine whose speed does not exceed 18 m.p.h. Even unloaded, David's trolley cannot exceed 3¾ m.p.h. In Sweden a driving licence is not even required for mopeds whose speed does not exceed 18 m.p.h. One certainly does not require a driving licence in Sweden for a pedestrian-operated vehicle.

Therefore, I ask the Minister—I am sorry that he is not here at the moment, but I hope the Parliamentary Secretary has already convinced him behind the scenes following our talks earlier—to accept the Clause. If he does not wish to accept it in its present form, I hope that he will accept it in principle and give us an undertaking that he will amend his regulations and meantime give David Craine a provisional licence so that he can go back on the road and do a sensible job of work again.

Mr. Scholefield Allen (Crewe)

I have a special interest in Blackburn. I have listened to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), and I commend it to the Minister. I am well acquainted with the Chief Constable of Blackburn, whose letter was written to the House. He is an able, conscientious and very careful man, and I feel certain that if he thinks there is no danger to the public of Blackburn from David Crane's driving of this pedestrian-operated trolley, then there is no danger.

I shall not repeat the argument so ably and almost exhaustively dealt with by my hon. Friend. I merely urge the Minister to give very serious consideration to her plea. The position of David Crane has aroused a great deal of sympathy, and also alarm, in that a boy of that age should be deprived of his livelihood and the people of Blackburn deprived of the benefit of his milk round because of a regulation which seems quite unnecessary in the circumstances of this case.

I hope that the Minister will be able to accede to my hon. Friend's request and take some steps which will restore to David Crane the job that he wishes to carry out.

Mr. Hay

I am sure that I have the sympathy of the House in trying to make, as I am bound to make, the case for the sort of restrictions that the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) has highlighted by her speech. It is, of course, very easy—the hon. Lady did it in a brilliant speech—to poke fun at these regulations.

It is also, of course, always very easy to find a borderline case, and the case of Mr. David Crane, the Blackburn milkman, is a borderline one in several senses of the term. He can read a number plate not at 25 yards, but at 21. He can pull a milk float, and it is so equipped that as soon as he lets go of the handle it stops instantly, and, also, it never does more than a couple of miles an hour when loaded. This is obviously a borderline case. But we have an old saying—I think that this is a perfect example of it—that hard cases make bad law.

Mrs. Castle

Oh, no.

Mr. Hay

The hon. Lady spent a long time in explaining her case, and I hope that she will allow me to explain my case without interruption before I say what my right hon. Friend would like to do about this matter.

I want to put to the House the reason why we have made it obligatory for people who are in charge of pedestrian-controlled vehicles like milk floats, mowing machines, and so on, to have a driving licence. I emphasise that it is not because the vehicle itself is dangerous. It is not the case that a milk float going at a couple of miles an hour is a dangerous vehicle. Of course it is not. But it is a fact that if the individual in charge of it cannot see, or cannot see properly, he is himself a danger to other traffic. That is the point.

With respect to Mr. Crane, however well he may have got on in all these months, it might well be that at some time when pulling his milk float he might want to cross the road against a stream of traffic. If he cannot see properly, if he cannot judge the speed of traffic, there is at least a hazard created. That is why in the correspondence to which the hon. Lady has referred my right hon. Friend has taken the view that there was no way in which he could help here.

But, quite rightly, the hon. Lady produced a further argument and said that if Mr. Crane had a bicycle or drove a horse and cart, he could be as blind as a bat and it would not matter to anybody and nothing could be done about it. One can, of course, argue that, but the plain fact is that if we lived in a perfect road traffic or road safety world, anybody who rode a bicycle, or a horse, or drove a horse and cart would have to have a licence. But we do not live in that sort of world and it is quite impracticable to do that sort of thing.

We have to draw a line somewhere, and the line that we have drawn, for better or worse, in our road traffic law has been at the mechanically propelled vehicle. This is where Parliament has always drawn the line. It has required that a person in charge of a mechanically propelled vehicle on the highway must have a driving licence for that type of vehicle. That is why we find ourselves in this absurd situation. But I hope the House will realise—I am trying to put our side of the argument—that it is not for any stupid reasons that we find ourselves in it. We find ourselves in it for very good reasons.

Although it is true that Mr. Crane's case is a borderline one, there could be very many cases where one would say, as a reasonable person, that, obviously, a certain man ought not to be on the road because he cannot see well enough to judge the speed of approaching traffic. If Mr. Crane cannot see a number plate at less than 21 yards, what do we do if we have a man who can see a number plate at only 10 yards or 5 yards? Where do we stop? We must have a dividing line.

Mrs. Castle

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that his regulations are not stupid, why are they considered stupid by the traffic authorities in Sweden, Holland, Germany, France and Italy? Can he tell me of a single country in the world which requires a driving licence to be held for a pedestrian-operated vehicle?

Mr. Hay

In the light of the ticklish state of the negotiations with the European Economic Community, I had better be careful what I say about the matter.

Mrs. Castle

Answer my question.

8.0 p.m.

Mr. Hay

I am going to answer it.

Other countries have different rules, depending on their circumstances. In Italy, and, I believe, also in France, the moped is not considered to be a mechanically-propelled vehicle for which a driving licence is necessary, yet, as we know, mopeds there can get to high speeds. I do not suppose that the hon. Lady would argue that because France and Italy do not require moped riders to have driving licences, we are stupid, absurd, archaic and restrictionist because we require people who ride mopeds to have a driving licence. One cannot argue from the precedent of other countries in the circumstances of one's own country, and I have explained to the House why, over the years, we have consistently drawn a line at the mechanically-propelled vehicle.

I have had a word with my right hon. Friend and when the hon. Lady came to see me yesterday evening we had a long discussion about this matter. I have considered it further, and I think that what we had better do is this. It is unnecessary to have this new Clause to do the sort of thing which the hon. Lady wants. We already have powers to deal with matters of this kind by regulation, but I must tell the House that, as I am advised, our powers are not extensive or flexible enough to enable us to do precisely what the hon. Lady wants and take this category out of those with the eyesight requirement.

We are faced with the situation where all that we can do by the regulations is either to have all mechanically propelled vehicles, including those in Group C in, or alternatively out, for all purposes. We cannot take vehicles, or some vehicles of Group C out of the category of mechanically propelled vehicles only for one purpose—the eyesight test.

We shall have to consider whether there is some way in which by the use of our regulation powers we can deal with this situation. I realise that this is a late stage of the Bill, and that I cannot go further and say that I will report to the hon. Lady and to the House at the next stage of what we are doing, but I hope that she and I can keep in touch on this point. We shall see what we can do. If it turns out that further legislation is necessary on this point, there are further opportunities for doing this, such as Private Members' Bills, in which the hon. Lady has been expert in the past.

We approach this with an open mind. We shall do what we can to get rid of nonsenses, but, at the same time, I want to leave the House and those outside who take an interest in our debates in no doubt that we consider that this statutory provision although it can occasionally lead to absurdities is nevertheless, a good one. We shall have to be careful what we do and how we do it, but we shall do what we can to help.

Mr. W. A. Wilkins (Bristol, South)

Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind what I believe is a fact, that very often people who are shortsighted, and, therefore, can be faulted in their applications for licences, are also very often longsighted and may well see a motor car some distance away and more or less decide what is its speed, but still not able to read a number plate at 25 yards?

Mr. Mellish

I think that the House would like me to put on record that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) has achieved the sort of thing which most hon. Members might like to achieve now and again in this great assembly. She put up a magnificent case for her constituent. To get a chance to do it when considering a Road Traffic Bill is unique, and only my hon. Friend could have done it. Whatever else people may think about this, I am sure that those who live in Blackburn will say that tonight a good case was made on behalf of Mr. Crane. I admire the Parliamentary Secretary for conceding that it makes the law absurd.

It is important that the hon. Gentleman should consider this further. I take his point about why this category has been included in those for which a licence is required. When we are talking about the issue of these licences, we are talking about mechanically-propelled vehicles, but since we put them into this category there have been a number of developments, and a mechanically-propelled vehicle controlled by a pedestrian is not the sort of thing which those who originally defined a mechanically-propelled vehicle had in mind.

Thanks to the ingenuity of people who invent these things, it is possible to move a tremendous weight with very little effort by the man using the vehicle. This sort of thing is seen in the dock industry, where no licence is needed to drive a fork-lift truck which can lift dozens of cases and buzz around at a tremendous speed. These trucks do not come into the category of mechanically-propelled vehicles.

Many anomalies have arisen in the last five years, and I therefore ask the Minister to look at this again before the end of the Recess. I assure him that we shall support any attempt he makes to get rid of this absurd situation. All we want is an assurance that this will be further considered. That is all we can ask for tonight, because if this were taken to a vote we could not expect the Minister to accept the new Clause. I feel sure that if we get the assurance for which I have asked my hon. Friend will withdraw the new Clause, on the strict understanding that we shall join together to look at this again at the earliest opportunity.

Mrs. Castle

I appreciate the kind things which have been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), and also the concluding remarks of the Parliamentary Secretary. I have the utmost confidence in the genuineness of his offer to see whether we can solve this problem without exposing anybody to greater risks. I trust the hon. Gentleman on that. I had realised that he had an opportunity to do this by regulation.

The hon. Gentleman said that he did not think he could deal with the eyesight point without taking that requirement oust of all other categories, but perhaps I might point out that an amendment to the second schedule to the regulations, under the heading, "Requirements to be fulfilled", to remove item (1) from these requirements as far as Group C is concerned would meet my point.

Mr. Hay

I take note of what the hon. Lady says, but I have had a long experience of these things and I am astonished at the complexity of the regulations. I think that I would be very unwise if I said that that would be the right way of doing it.

Mr. Scholefield Allen

There is an old adage about where there is a will there is a way.

Mrs. Castle

The Parliamentary Secretary suggested that he and I might pursue the matter further. I thank him for his sympathetic response to my new Clause, and in the full confidence that he will keep his promise, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.