HC Deb 02 December 1966 vol 737 cc886-92

Order for Second Reading read.

3.20 p.m.

Mr. Harry Randall (Gateshead, West)

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

Hon. Members who have listened to the debate that has just ended could not have failed to catch the deep feeling of hon. Members taking part, and their knowledge of the problem being discussed. On both sides hon. Members spoke movingly, and the House must be very grateful for a debate that dealt with a deep and human problem. In its way, the Bill now before us concerns another human problem, because it seeks to alleviate the very serious problem of safety on the roads. As its purpose is to improve road safety, I am quite sure that it will have the support of the whole House, and I hope that the same unanimity of opinion will be shown as was expressed in the earlier debate.

The House will probably agree that I could not have chosen a better time for introducing the Bill, as this is the year in which the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. It is a felicitous moment to pay tribute to the splendid work that the Society has done in promoting road safety.

The Bill seeks to make certain amendments to the Road Traffic Act, 1960, which experience has shown to be desirable to secure effective enforcement of the requirements relating to vehicle condition. Of the four main provisions in the Bill, the first requires that owners whose vehicles are found, at a roadside check carried out under the provisions of Section 67 of the 1960 Act, to be defective, to have the defects remedied within a specified time, and to furnish to the Minister of Transport proof that the work has been done, or to show good reason why it has not been done.

Section 67 enables any vehicle to be stopped on the roadside by a police officer in uniform to enable an examination to be made by an officer of the Ministry of Transport to ascertain whether or not the vehicle complies with the statutory provisions relating to construction, use and lighting. I understand that it was designed as an advisory rather than a punitive provision. It has been applied mainly to private cars and motor cycles, because goods vehicles are dealt with under other provisions of the Act which enable further use of a defective vehicle to be prohibited pending satisfactory repair. Although drivers of private cars whose cars are found to be defective at roadside checks can be, and, in particularly bad cases, are, prosecuted, there is no power to enforce the repair of defective vehicles.

It is not for a moment suggested that the checks have not served a useful purpose; they have. Since the provisions of the Act were put into effect in the autumn of 1960, I am informed, 20,000 vehicles have been inspected each year. As a car is seldom delayed for more than 12 or 15 minutes on checks, the checks impose the minimum of inconvenience to motorists and have been generally welcomed by them. I think it important in this age of the motor vehicle that the checks have stimulated an awareness of the need for regular maintenance, for they are a positive contribution to road safety. The attitude of drivers generally gives reason to believe that the majority of those who have been notified of any defects in their vehicles get the faults remedied.

However, this cannot be said of all of them. The records, I am informed, show that about 50 per cent. of the total number of vehicles examined—which include all age groups—are defective mainly in brakes, steering and lighting. The number of vehicles which continue to be used in a defective condition must be very considerable. In almost every case the defects are due to lack of regular maintenance. The checks show how quickly vehicles in constant use can deteriorate through lack of attention. This is particularly so with older vehicles, even though they are subject to the annual test, but the newer vehicles are no exception. Twenty five per cent. of these under three years old are found to be defective.

It will be generally agreed in the light of these considerations that the proposals now before the House for checks and for the remedying of defects within a specified time and proof of their remedying, are justified. As a motorist, I have always maintained that every car owner should undertake to fulfil to the letter the Highway Code. Then there would be very few accidents indeed. The only accidents likely to occur would be because of defects in the car or the engine. So maintenance and checks are very important indeed. They are a very positive contribution to road safety and they are essential if we are to achieve freedom from accidents.

That is the first aim of the Bill. The second is to obtain better enforcement of Section 68 of the 1960 Act. That makes it an offence to sell or offer for sale a vehicle in a condition in which its use on the roads would be unlawful. Although goods vehicles in use may be examined on the operator's premises, others and those on offer for sale may be inspected on the premises only with the permission of the vehicle owner, or, failing his consent, on the expiration of 48 hours' notice. The consent of the owner of the premises must also be obtained.

Efforts to enforce compliance with the law by dealers in second-hand vehicles and sometimes inquiries into suspected or reported incidents of fraudulent issue of test certificates, can be frustrated as a result. The Bill makes provision for Ministry of Transport examiners, on production of proof of identity, or police officers, to enter dealers' premises without prior notice for the purpose of inspecting any used vehicle on offer for sale.

It is by no means suggested that the majority of dealers in second-hand cars are neglectful of their obligations. I do not say this, but there are some dealers who are less scrupulous. But I am sure that the House will be aware of the problems of written-off vehicles, many of which are alleged to be resold after inadequate or unsatisfactory repair. The proposal, therefore, if approved, will provide better means of checking on the extent to which this happens and act as a deterrent.

The third main provision of the Bill is directed at used vehicles imported from abroad or sold on the civilian market after use by the Service Departments. The age of these vehicles subject to annual test under Section 66 of the 1960 Act is defined by reference to the date of first registration in this country. The result is that imported vehicles or ex-W.D. vehicles may escape the test for three years, even though they may be well beyond the age at which other vehicles need to be inspected annually. So the Bill provides that these vehicles will be liable for a test in accordance with their real age.

The fourth provision is a simpler one, but it includes a provision for a minor Amendment of Section 65 of the 1960 Act. This is to enable urban district councils, as well as county and borough councils, to operate public testing stations if they wish to do so.

These are the Bill's four main provisions. Had more time been available, I would have proposed to have elaborated on the various Clauses, but there is another Bill coming on and I want to make way for that important Measure. I think that I have given sufficient indication of the aim and scope of the Bill, and I hope that I have been able to satisfy the House that the additional legislative requirements it proposes are justified.

There can be no doubt that mechanical defects are a factor in road accidents. I am sure that none will disagree with my belief that we cannot afford to neglect any measures which are likely to reduce their number and the loss, both materially and of life and well-being, which is so often involved.

3.33 p.m.

Mr. David Webster (Weston-super-Mare)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead, West (Mr. Randall), first, on his good fortune in the Ballot, and, secondly, on the way he is using it. We all fully accept the principle behind the Bill. It is an attempt to reduce the disastrous and terrible toll on the roads. However, I want to ask the hon. Gentleman a few questions.

The hon. Member for Gateshead, West talked a great deal of sense and was on a point of substance when he spoke about the used vehicle which was for sale. He also spoke sensibly on the question of vehicles which were found to be defective and stressed the need for checking that the defects had been remedied before the vehicles were allowed to be driven on the roads again. No one in the House would disagree with that principle.

I have a question on the matter of the saleroom check. If the Government give the Bill their blessing, what staff do they envisage will be required? What will be the cost of this operation? When we are spending money private Members have to be somewhat inhibited by the rules of the House. If the Department is to give the Bill its blessing, perhaps it will tell us to what extent there will be extra expenditure. If an attempt is made, in the interests of road safety, to control the proprietor of a sale-room or the driving instructor who sells his skill for reward, what of the private sale and the private method of driving instruction, which are probably slightly fringy but which are outside the ambit of the legislation? One always sees this difficulty. If the Parliamentary Secretary is, as it were, espousing the Bill and could give an indication of the cost, this would be helpful.

My legal friends will probably have reservations concerning entry to salerooms without prior notice. Not having legal expertise, this is a matter on which I should like to reserve opinion, because when trying to save life one also wants to know to what extent liberty might be infringed.

The War Office aspect is a matter in which I agree with the hon. Member for Gateshead, West and I would hope that the Army could help. I do not know whether the hon. Member has had any advice in this regard. The principles at which he is aiming are sound, but we might have reservations which we should wish to consider in Committee.

3.36 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, West (Mr. Randall), I am conscious of the pressure on time for discussion on Private Members' day, and that other Measures are waiting to be brought forward. I shall, therefore, be extremely brief.

I say straight away to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) that in Committee we shall have to give thorough scrutiny to some of the Clauses of the Bill and their cost. On that occasion, I will, naturally, supply the answers to the hon. Member's questions.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on presenting this useful Bill. Whatever differences of view may exist about the right or best method of dealing with the many problems of road transport, there is no doubt about the need to apply all reasonable means to improve the standard of road safety. That is the main purpose which my hon. Friend has at heart. We feel that the Bill would enable us more effectively to enforce the law relating to the condition of vehicles and their maintenance.

The fact that I am expressing Government support for Clauses 1 and 2 does not imply that the Minister's efforts to apply Section 67 of the Road Traffic Act have been either ineffectual or wasteful. That is far from the case, even though the number of cars and other vehicles which we have inspected represents merely a small proportion of the whole. In the great number of instances when vehicles have been inspected and faults have been found and have been brought to the attention of their owners, they have been remedied without delay and attention has been given by motorists to future maintenance. We know, however, that there is a minority, which, although small in proportion, is considerable in number, to which this does not apply. They will be affected by the measures proposed in the Bill.

The need to provide a certificate will involve the conscientious motorist in only very inconsiderable trouble and cost. Likewise, in relation to Clause 3 of the Bill, we believe that the great majority of members of the motor trade have proper regard for the interests of road safety in conducting their business. Here again, however, we know that there is a minority which is less scrupulous in regard to the condition especially of secondhand vehicles which are sold to unknowledgeable persons. The Ministry would be failing in its duty by neglecting to apply any additional measures which are available and which can reasonably be applied to stop the practices which hon. Members have frequently brought to our attention.

We feel, therefore, that the Clauses which my hon. Friend has brought forward in his Bill will assist us in this task and provide better means than are now available for dealing with the well- known problem of the written-off vehicle, about which so many hon. Members have shown concern in recent months.

For these reasons, I warmly welcome the Bill, to which, no doubt, hon. Members will want to give thorough scrutiny in Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).