HC Deb 25 February 1963 vol 672 cc1031-46

10.2 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Motor Vehicles (Tests) (Extension) Order 1963, dated 30th January 1963, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6th February, be approved. The House will recollect that on several occasions in the past I have had to move an Order in similar terms to this one as we have successively brought down the age limit under which motor vehicles become subject to vehicle testing. The scheme originally began in 1961, and since then two Orders have been made under Section 66 (3) of the Road Traffic Act, 1960, one in October, 1961, substituting seven years for ten years, and the other in July, 1962, substituting six years for seven years. The Order now before the House reduces the period still further by substituting five years for six years.

If the House approves the Order the effect will be that as from 30th April next it will be illegal for a vehicle to which the scheme applies, and which has been registered for five years or more, to be used on the roads unless it has a test certificate in force. It will also not be possible to renew the excise licence for such a vehicle without producing the effective test certificate. I estimate that about 820,000 vehicles will be affected by this change and these will have to be tested before the end of April if they are to comply with the law.

The House may be interested to know that after the Order is in effect, this is to say, after the end of April, about 4½ million vehicles will be subject to the annual test. That represents about 45 per cent. of the total number of vehicles in the testable classes currently licensed.

On previous occasions the House has given a generally favourable reception to these extension Orders, when I have usually taken the opportunity to put on record some details of how the vehicle testing scheme has been working in general, and, with permission, I should like to do that again tonight. Hon. Members are usually most interested to know the extent to which vehicles tested fail to qualify.

We keep a very comprehensive analysis in the Ministry based on the records of the testing stations. Out of 5 million vehicles over six years old which were initially tested, between 1½ and 1¾ million failed to qualify. This represents a failure rate of around 30 per cent. Of the vehicles found wanting, 61 per cent. were failed because of faulty brakes, 50 per cent. had faulty steering and 37 per cent. had faulty lighting.

Hon. Members may have seen the recent small exhibition, which my right hon. Friend arranged in the Upper Waiting Hall, of defective parts recovered from vehicles which had failed in the tests. I felt that it was a fairly impressive exhibition. Nevertheless, some general improvement is apparent, because the average rate of reduction has been showing a fairly consistent lowering month by month, although, frankly, it is a small one.

When the scheme started and only 10year-old vehicles were liable for testing, over 40 per cent. failed. Now that we have brought the age limit down to vehicles of six years old and over the failure rate has fallen to just under 30 per cent. I think that currently it is about 28 per cent. I hope that there will be a continued reduction in the failure rate now that we are reducing the age limit to five years.

The House will know that, quite independently of the vehicle testing scheme, we have carried out spot checks on the roads, and the results to date of this show that about the same precentage of vehicles now five years old were found to be defective to a degree which made them dangerous. Another interesting point is the general acceptance by motorists of the justice of the conclusions which are reached by the individual vehicle testers.

There are over 19,000 authorised examiners, as they are called, the great bulk of them being at private garages, although there are about 80 testing stations run by local authorities. Out of 1¾ million cases where a test certificate has been refused, there have been only 43 appeals. Of these, 17 failed, 13 succeeded and another 13 partly succeeded.

In nearly all the cases, the decision was, to be honest, of a fairly borderline character. But these figures show the general acceptance by the motoring community of the validity and fairness of the tests. Therefore, in commending the Order, I think I can justifiably say that the scheme is going well and I have no doubt—although this is not susceptible to statistical proof—that it is making a significant contribution to road safety, which, of course, was the main purpose for which it was designed.

10.8 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)

The House will welcome the change which is to follow the introduction of this Order. There was great hesitation and opposition when the proposal was first put forward that there should be compulsory testing of vehicles, and many people, including the Government at the time, objected and suggested that spot checking would be adequate. Fortunately, not by the action of the Minister of Transport of the day but as a result of the insistence of the Standing Committee that considered the 1956 Act, the decision was finally arrived at that annual tests should take place, starting with cars 10 years old and more.

During the ensuing period, there has been, as the hon. Gentleman said, more or less general acceptance by the motoring community—even by the two motoring associations, which usually oppose any change for the public benefit which might be of inconvenience to motorists—that the tests are salutary and are having a useful effect.

We are grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for the most illuminating figures he has quoted, and to the Minister for the exhibition he held upstairs, showing some of the extraordinary defects which had been discovered in cars as a result of this annual check. The important point is that most of these defects were almost certainly unknown to the motorist. He was not deliberately flouting the law. He was unaware that his car was defective and a danger to himself and his family. In most cases the result of the check has been to show the motorist some defect which may have been serious and of which he was unaware, but the remedying of which may have saved himself and his family from serious injury or even death.

It may be difficult to obtain this information, but it would be interesting to know the extent to which the annual testing of motor cars has been a contributory factor in bringing down the number of road accidents. Before the 1956 Bill became an Act the Road Research Laboratory made a careful study of this matter. It came to the conclusion that in 20 per cent. of the accidents on the roads a mechanical defect was a contributory factor. That was a striking percentage, and I think that it had some effect on the Government coming to the decision that the annual tests were necessary.

Now that annual tests have been in operation for some time and cover 4½ million cars I wonder whether, if similar research took place today, it would show that the same proportion of accidents on the road were due to mechanical defects in the vehicle. I think probably not, but if it were possible to get such a figure—it may be that the Road Research Laboratory has it—it would be most valuable.

Nobody can make any conclusive judgment on the matter, but I believe that an important factor in the remarkable reduction in the accident rate which has taken place recently—remarkable in the light of the increased number of vehicles on the road—has been the elimination of mechanical defects from a large number of cars. The figures are striking. The latest figures that we have for accidents and casualties during the first eleven months of last year—January to November—show that they decreased by 2.7 per cent., and that the number of casualties compared with the previous year decreased by the same percentage, in spite of the fact that the number of vehicles on the road increased by 4 per cent.

Among the various activities which have been launched by the Ministry of Transport to reduce the rate of accidents, speed limits, and so on—activities which have our full blessing and support—I believe that the elimination of mechanical defects on a large number of vehicles has been an important factor in achieving the remarkable result to which I have referred, and I pay full tribute to the Minister for his many activities in this field. It is perhaps the only field of activity in which the Government can appear in a white sheet and invite and get the support of the Opposition, and probably the public at large.

No doubt as time goes by the period of five years will be reduced to four and then to three, and then maybe to one year, because the evidence shows that a remarkable number of cars come off the assembly line in a defective condition. We have had some evidence of that in recent research published in the newspapers. I shall not pursue the matter; it would probably be out of order, but I should like to know whether the Minister is satisfied that the checking and elimina- tion of mechanical defects in commercial vehicles is being carried out with equal efficiency and equally good results.

Most commercial vehicles are not subject to this annual test; they are covered by other provisions. There is spot checking, and so on. Some of us believe that annual tests should apply to all vehicles on the road. I do not know whether the Parliamentary Secretary can give me a satisfactory reply to the point that I have raised, but on behalf of my colleagues I welcome this Order. We are glad that it has been found possible to reduce the period from six to five years, and also to know that these very important checks are finding general acceptance with the public. We hope that the time will not be too far distant when the Government will find it possible to reduce still further the period before which a car has to be annually tested.

10.17 p.m.

Mr. Leonard Cleaver (Birmingham, Yardley)

I welcome the action of the Government in bringing this Order before the House. I do so, first, as a pedestrian, and, secondly, because it has been welcomed by all sections of the motor car industry. The value of the test lies not necessarily in the fact that vehicles have to be mechanically tested once a year, but that it draws the attention of the motorist to the need to service his car regularly and to keep it fit for its test each year.

I was very impressed by the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for bringing in the Order. The statistics that he gave were illuminating. My figures may not entirely coincide with his, but it would appear that, up to March, 1962, of 3 million cars tested 1 million failed the first test and 5 per cent. failed the second. That seems to show that most of the defects found could be put right by ordinary maintenance. I understand that it is the Minister's wish ultimately to place these tests upon a one-year basis. I welcome that idea, but I point out that it in no way reflects upon the quality of vehicles or the service rendered to the public by the retail trade. What it shows is that far too many motorists fail to realise that to obtain the best performance from their cars and to run them economically and safely they must ensure that their care are maintained regularly.

Finally, I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that he always co-operates adequately with the trade in these matters. If he envisages any alteration in the Order I hope that he will give advance notice of it, and ensure that it is given adequate publicity. It would be a mistake to have floods of cars going for vetting to service stations which were not able and ready to cope with them.

10.20 p.m.

Mr. Niall MacDermot (Derby, North)

I must confess that I am a reluctant supporter of this Order—but a supporter, because I am convinced by the impressive statistics which the Parliamentary Secretary brings forward in respect of this Order every time it comes up for review. I am a reluctant supporter for a reason which I expressed the last time that we discussed the matter, which is that it seems to me somewhat unfair that this scheme operates as a tax, as I think it does, upon the man who happens to own a car of some years of age which he has maintained properly. Apart from the nuisance of having to take it to the garage to get it checked, he has to pay 15s. each year.

On the other hand, people who have not maintained their cars properly derive a real benefit for their 15s. They are told what is wrong with their cars. It should be emphasised that almost all, if not all, of these people are already law breakers if they have been using their cars in a defective condition. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will confirm that it is a breach of the Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations to use a car which has defective brakes, defective lights or defective steering. All those people would be subject to prosecution and if brought before the court would have to pay a good deal more than 15s.; and they would still have to pay to get their cars put right. They are getting a real advantage out of the scheme.

It therefore seems a little harsh that people who take the trouble to maintain their vehicles properly should have to contribute in this way to a system to help lazy people find out that their vehicles are dangerously defective. I shall be interested to hear whether the Government have considered this aspect of the matter to see whether it is possible for the cost of the system to operate less unfairly upon those who maintain their cars properly. I can see difficulties about having two charges, one for those who pass the test and another for those who fail, because it is a privately operated scheme, for the most part done through privately owned garages. It might be invidious for a private garage to have to charge two different sums for the same kind of test, depending on the result of the test. But I should like to know whether that has been considered and whether there is any possibility of having a differential charge.

I support the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) about commercial vehicles. The whole of the scheme is a triumph for my right hon. Friend, who was one of its principal instigators against considerable opposition. Year by year, he sees how his child waxes and grows. When I discussed the matter with a very senior police officer in my constituency—a man responsible for traffic questions—he said that he felt that in some ways there is almost a greater need for more testing of commercial vehicles. There are people who have rather ancient commercial vehicles, and if these vehicles are not in a proper condition they are a much greater danger than is the ordinary private car. I shall be interested to hear whether there is any proposal to extend regular compulsory testing, as opposed to a system of spot testing, to commercial vehicles.

Finally, may we be told what is being done to try to deal with people who are ignoring the regulations? I imagine that there must be quite a number of people who know that their vehicles are unlikely to pass the test, and who therefore take a chance and do not bother to go for the test. Have there been prosecutions, and, if so, how many and with what result and what effect? Are the penalties a sufficient deterrent and are enough additional spot checks being made to see whether people who ought to comply with the Regulations are in fact doing so.

10.25 p.m.

Mr. Charles A. Howell (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. MacDermot), I welcome the Order without any reluctance at all. Obviously, as a layman, I should not dream of crossing swords with my hon. Friend on the legal aspects. But I reiterate what was said by the hon. Member for Birmingham, YardleyMr. Cleaver) about giving prior notice of future Orders. I should like to see the next Orders bringing the system to every car annually or giving an indication of when the provisions would come into operation for each batch of cars, in periods.

Having said that, as a motorist I recognise that there have been complaints in different parts of the country from people who have had to queue up and to wait for these tests. The Parliamentary Secretary gave us details of the figures involved in the new Order. Can he assure the House that facilities are available for this test? If there are black spots, what will be the position? I well imagine that if this abnormal spring lasts much longer it will probably be even more difficult for people to have the tests carried out. I am concerned lest people who want the test find it increasingly difficult to have it made.

The only difference in the Order, in effect, is the change of the word "ten" to "five". All the other changes are what we would call consequential.

Mr. Hay

We are changing six to five.

Mr. Howell

Then I have made a mistake. This means that I cannot elaborate the argument in asking the Parliamentary Secretary to consider additional items.

My hon. Friend stole my thunder. People who buy second-hand cars are usually least able to afford the additional 15s. on top of their insurance and other expenses. On the other hand, people who can pay £2,000, £3,000, or £4,000 for a car could not care less about 15s.; that is merely a tip.

There is one point which I ask the Minister to consider when he is dealing with the trade on the question of tests. My Christian name is not Jack, but in respect of my car, I am "All right, Jack"; it is a brand-new car. I have had the first 500-mile service. Two days later I received a letter from the firm which had done the test pointing out that I could have a monthly or 1,000-mile examination of the essential points for 8s. 6d. Admittedly, it would not go to the full extent required here; it is what the firm calls a safety examination. The 500-mile service was carried out during the last day or two and I received the letter this morning.

In view of this debate, it occurred to me that if the firm could undertake this test for 8s. 6d. on a car which will go in every 1,000 miles or every month, the Parliamentary Secretary could get in touch with the trade to see whether a car going in for such an examination could have a comprehensive test at the same time. It is obvious that firms which will do this work will be qualified to do the test under the Act. The two could be done at the same time without having the car in for a special examination. If the car goes in for any repair, the garage could offer to make a test. I am thinking ahead now, because I hope that eventually all cars, including new ones, will have the test.

I was fortunate to have a new car on 1st January. A few days later it had to go back for adjustment. An executive of the firm said, "Mine was just the same; it had the same defects." The foreman was quite sarcastic about the defects on this type of car. They are built in Britain. My right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) has exposed this recently. There seems every justification for this Order and there seems every justification sooner or later, the sooner the better, to make it an annual test for all cars.

Another point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North was about the 15s. fee. Apart from the safety to the public, which I welcome, there is no doubt that although insurance companies pay more out, they benefit from the test because many accidents are prevented, particularly those arising from defective brakes. In my opinion, that saves the companies from paying out a good deal of money. It is very easy for anyone who is using his car every day not to notice a gradual failing of the brakes.

Just as the members of a family, seeing a boy every day, do not notice that the boy is growing up until a relative who has not seen him for a long time remarks on how he has grown, one does not notice the weakening of brakes, until one finds his foot going right down to the boards. Such an examination would show that the brakes were becoming defective and that would save the insurance companies a lot of money.

I do not want to labour the position, but another point arises from what my hon. Friend said with reference to spot checks. I use my car regularly between Derby, North and my constituency in Birmingham. I am amazed at the number of cars and lorries on that road with defective lights. The lights of lorries often dazzle because the driver likes to be able to see for about half a mile ahead. On the other hand, some have only one headlight. One can see them in the daytime with one of the lamps broken off. It is an offence to drive in daytime with defective lights. They must be in such a condition that they can be used at night. I cannot see with so many police cars on that stretch of road chasing all and sundry why they should not stop drivers who have only one headlamp.

I have spoken to other hon. Members and I understand that this is a frequent occurrence all over the country. There is something wrong with the spot-check. I have a feeling that inspectors find difficulty in stopping people when they are on a journey and that they cannot stop anyone——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir William Anstruther-Gray)

Order. I am reluctant to stop the hon. Member, but we are discussing only whether the period should be reduced from six to five years, not the standard of tests and how they are taken.

Mr. Howell

I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I made a cardinal mistake in warning you that I might be out of order. I shall not belabour the point, because the Parliamentary Secretary and I served on the Standing Committee which dealt with this question and he knows what I have in mind.

I hope that next year, if the Order introduced then does not bring the period down to one year, it will give the dates of the changes coming into operation so that the next will be the last time that we have this kind of Order. I do not dislike hearing the Parliamentary Secretary giving these encouraging figures, but I hope that the next time will be the last one to bring in annual dates.

I have been interested in road safety for many years. As a local councillor was on a road safety committee. I would, therefore, be in favour of anything which sought to reduce the number of road accidents. We do not need Dixon of Dock Green to tell us to take our blood to the blood bank and not spill it on the roads. We all know the unhappiness that accidents and road deaths bring upon families. A lot of pious talk is uttered about road safety. Tonight we are taking a constructive step towards reducing the number of casualties on our roads.

10.37 p.m.

Mr. Hay

I will, with permission, briefly reply to some of the questions put to me and comment on some of the points made in this short debate. I am obliged to the House for the general welcome given to the Order and the next step we are taking in connection with the vehicle testing scheme.

The right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) pointed out—and I think that I mentioned the topic towards the end of my speech—that it is difficult to point to clear statistical proof to show that the scheme is having an effect on road safety. However, there is some proof. The scheme weeds out defects which, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Charles A. Howell) mentioned, perhaps insidiously appear in a vehicle, although the driver or owner may not know they are there. As the hon. Member said, these things often come upon us without our realising that the car is defective because we are so used to the vehicle.

The next benefit is equally important. It means that with a regular series of tests drivers are becoming more conscious of the need for decent maintenance; and the more publicity we can give to the vehicle testing scheme and its success, the better for all concerned.

The right hon. Member for Vauxhall and the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. MacDermot) referred to goods vehicles. They realised that the Order is only to a limited degree concerned with goods vehicles, but I wish to put this on the record. The vehicle testing scheme with which the Order is concerned applies to goods vehicles up to 30 cwt. unladen weight. Above that weight the scheme proper does not bite. However, the House will be aware that for heavier types of goods vehicles we have fairly comprehensive cover because a substantial number of certifying officers and other inspectors are employed by the Ministry on spot-checking and inspecting heavy goods vehicles on the roads and, often, in the premises of the owners and in their garages.

There are about 353 examiners throughout the country and it is interesting to note that in the most recent year for which figures have been published, 1960–61, no less than 31,500 prohibition notices were issued in respect of commercial or heavy vehicles. Such a notice means that the vehicle must either not be driven at all, but towed from the place at which it was stopped to the nearest garage—and this happens in the most serious cases—or that the necessary repairs must be carried out within a limited time, perhaps 24 or 48 hours. Anyhow, there is the prohibition order on the vehicle, and the vehicle cannot be used until it has been repaired. In 1960–61, this was done in the case of 31,500 vehicles. The figures for 1961–62 have not yet been published, but they show an increase in the number of prohibition notices.

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby, North and the House as a whole, that we are not blind to the problem of the heavy goods vehicle, and are considering whether there is any method whereby we can strengthen this aspect of our affairs. I do not think that we can simply extend the vehicle testing scheme to cover these heavy vehicles. That would be extremely expensive, because comparatively few private garages are equipped to carry out the sort of test necessary for these very heavy vehicles, and to try to create a chain of testing stations equipped to do that sort of work would be extremely expensive. But we are looking into the problem, and I have no doubt that if we can do anything further my right hon. Friend will wish to acquaint the House and the public of the fact.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Mr. Cleaver) urged that we should always co-operate with the trade in the extension of the vehicle testing scheme, and I can assure him that this takes place. We work very closely indeed with the trade, and we do not prove forward and bring a fresh group of vehicles into the scheme until, as a result of talks, we are quite certain that the trade is able to cope.

That if I may say so, is really the answer to the hon. Member for Perry Barr and the hon. Member for Derby, North, who suggested that the next Order we make should cover all ages from five years right down, presumably, to the one-year-old, or even, I was not quite clear, to the "newly-born" vehicles. The difficulty is, as I have said on previous occasions, that we have to be sure that the number of vehicles we are bringing into the test scheme is not so great as to swamp garages completely.

After all, there are about 5 million vehicles subject to the testing scheme, and another, perhaps, 5 million vehicles that would be subject to the test if we brought the age limit down in one go. Realising that, it is apparent that to do this would create a substantial problem for the garages, particularly in the spring months, when a large number of people bring their cars out on the roads again after laying them up for the winter. I think that we have been making reasonable progress since 1960–61, when we first brought in the scheme as a compulsory test.

My hon. Friend the Member for Yardley also urged that the maximum possible publicity should be given to the change we are now making. We are very well aware of this. Not only will there be a certain amount of publicity as a result of this debate, but we are also making use, wherever we can get their assistance, of the other media of public information and instruction—the Press, television and radio, if they will help us. But, principally we are embarking on a very large poster campaign drawing the attention of motorists to the fact that this new group of vehicles has become subject to the test by 30th April next. These posters will be exhibited all over the country wherever we can find a suitable site, and particularly in garages where motorists are most likely to see them.

The hon. Member for Derby, North asked two other questions to which I should like briefly to reply. He suggested—and it is not a novel suggestion—that the 15s. fee for a test really operates as an additional tax on the owner of the well-maintained car, and asked whether it would be possible to waive that fee in some way for someone who could prove that he had maintained his car well. As I say, we have heard of that idea before, but have always taken the view that it is not really very practicable, because the cost would have to fall somewhere and, quite clearly, it would have to fall on the shoulders of the taxpayer in the case of the cars that are well-maintained.

It might, perhaps, be straining human nature a little far if that were the situation. It would be all too easy, when a vehicle was submitted for a test and found to be in need of repairs, for the repairs to be done, the car presented as a well-maintained vehicle, and the 15s. charged to the taxpayer. There is that risk, and I think that we have to stick to what we are doing now, and charge the fee to everyone. After all, it is not such a great impost, when we consider the amount that people spend on private motoring. The cost of petrol alone is a very huge sum for the country to bear, and there seems to be no decline in the volume of private motoring. I do not think that the 15s. fee acts as an intolerable impost.

The other point about which the hon. Member asked, and in which perhaps the House as a whole would be interested, is the question of enforcement. I am sorry that I have not the exact figures for persons prosecuted for using a vehicle without having a valid test certificate in force. I am told on a quick inquiry that they run into several thousands. But by' far the most potent of enforcement measures at our disposal is the requirement that one must produce a valid certificate when taking out an Excise licence. This has been brought into effect during the last twelve months and it means that a person cannot get a licence without a certificate.

This, more than anything else, is operating against evasion of the requirements. If anyone is caught and run in for some other motoring offence the fact that he has no test certificate in force may come forward. One often sees in the local Press that a man has been fined £2 for speeding and £2 for not having a valid test certificate in force. I am sure that the enforcement of this requirement leaves nothing to be desired.

I thank the House for the way it has received the Order and I hope that I have answered satisfactorily all the questions asked. I hope also that it will not be long before I can bring another similar Order before the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Motor Vehicles (Tests) (Extension) Order 1963, dated 30th January 1963, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6th February, be approved.