HC Deb 14 April 1967 vol 744 cc1584-8

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

2.28 p.m.

Mr. Harry Randall (Gateshead, West)

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

The Bill has received support from both sides of the House. Consequently, it has had a very speedy and smooth passage, Therefore, all that I wish to do is to express my gratitude to hon. Members on both sides of the House for their co-operation and assistance. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for his advice and guidance and to the draftsmen and others who have assisted.

During the 16 or 17 years that I have been a Member of the House, I have participated in the ballot for Private Members' Bills on a number of occasions, but this was the first occasion on which I was successful. It has been an exhilarating and unique experience, and I am very glad that the Bill has almost received its Third Reading. I hope that it will attract equal support in another place and will have an equally smooth passage.

It is more than trite to say that accidents do not happen, but are caused. The Bill attempts to deal with some of the causes and, therefore, it is a contribution to road safety.

2.30 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

I would like to support the hon. Member for Gateshead, West (Mr. Randall) and to congratulate him upon getting his Bill through the House. We all know how difficult it is to get a Private Member's Bill through, particularly if there is any controversy, and there could have been controversy over this Bill. I was sorry that I did not have the opportunity of speaking on the Second Reading, as I intended to, but I was stricken down with a cold and I could not be here.

I am glad to have the opportunity now to say something about it. It has been a weakness of our law that we have not been able to bring in much earlier tests for commercial vehicles, in the same way as has recently been done for motor cars. Commercial vehicle drivers and operators have been on a looser rein than the motorists. This has been bad for the industry and the operators, because there has been a large number of badly maintained vehicles, belching forth smoke, with brakes improperly adjusted, and so on.

The Ministry relied on roadside checks to put this right, but they were not sufficiently binding, because the vehicle could be stopped, but the operator could continue to run the vehicle. The Bill is an attempt to put that right, in that a certificate has to be given to the operator, specifying what the defects are, and the operator has to put them right within 30 days. During that time the Ministry inspector can come along to see if the defects have been remedied.

We all know that the great majority of operators are responsible, but there are a certain number of irresponsible operators, punching their vehicles through at considerable speed, and not giving necessary time to maintenance. These men can be caught by the Bill. One of the difficulties is that the small operator does not have a maintenance depot, like the larger operators, with a properly qualified road transport engineer. He has to rely on the local garage, and he may not take his vehicle there. Thus it can go for a long time without servicing.

I was talking to a taxi driver the other day who had a little car in which I was interested. He said that he only took it for servicing once a year. That seemed to be a risky operation for a taxi driver. If that is the way some people treat vehicles, it is no wonder that some of them are defective.

I congratulate the hon. Member in bringing forward this Bill. insuring that specific defects are remedied and that the Ministry inspector can find out whether the work has been carried out. I feel sure that this will be a helpful step forward towards greater road safety and will give support to the responsible operator who looks after his vehicle properly, while curtailing the activities of the minority of irresponsible and unsafe operators, who are still with us.

2.34 p.m.

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

May I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, West (Mr. Randall) on reaching the Third Reading with his Bill, and on his successful piloting of the Measure through the House. He has made a valuable contribution to road safety by producing this Measure, and it will be a useful weapon in the armoury used to counteract the evils of which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) spoke.

This is a modest advance in the drive to get safer vehicles on the road by trying to ensure, because of the bad behaviour of a small minority in respect of their defective vehicles, that they are compelled to have these defects repaired.

All the time we need to intensify this drive to raise the standard of the safety of vehicles on the roads. Secondly, my hon. Friend has made a contribution towards stopping the sale of defective second-hand vehicles. That is important in itself. Thirdly, he has provided a sensible way of subjecting imported vehicles to our testing regulations, according to their real age and not according to the age from the date upon which the vehicle came to these shores.

Fourthly, he has provided for urban district councils to be able to carry out testing operations, in addition to the other types of local authorities which can now do so. All those provisions were in the Bill as presented by my hon. Friend on Second Reading. I should perhaps say a few words about two further Clauses which now appear in the Bill, and which I moved on behalf of the Government in Committee.

I am very much obliged to my hon. Friend for his co-operation and willingness to extend the scope of his Measure in order to carry through these Amendments. I refer first to the Clause clarifying the position about certain offences. As the law stands, in spite of what Parliament tried to do in 1962 in the then Road Traffic Act, it is still not clear, and causes the police difficulty, whether prosecutions for certain offences against the Construction and Use Regulations ought to be brought under Section 64 or under Section 239 of the 1960 Road Traffic Act. This has caused difficulty in the courts because there are different maximum penalties.

On the one hand, some are subject to a maximum penalty of £20, and, on the other, there is a maximum fine of £50. Parliament endeavoured to put this matter right in 1962, but, unfortunately, it has been found that the Amendment then made still lends itself to interpretations which leave it in doubt how offences against the Construction and Use Regulations, which relate to the use of the vehicle but not specifically to its condition, ought to be dealt with.

We have, therefore, put into this Bill a Clause making it quite clear how these prosecutions should take place, in that they should all be subject to the maximum penalty of £50. The sort of things which we have under consideration are the use of the vehicle for an unsuitable purpose, causing danger, leaving a motor vehicle unattended while unbraked or with the engine running, opening the door of a vehicle so as to cause injury and danger, and other offences of this kind.

The second and perhaps more important Clause that we have inserted into the Bill, is that regarding vicarious liability. Hon. Members concerned with the Committee stage of the Road Safety Bill, now in another place, will remember the considerable discussion that we had then about the doctrine of vicarious responsibility, and, in particular, under the so-called "totting up" provisions, the liability of a small haulier, the owner of vehicle, to be disqualified from driving on the third reckonable offence, because the driver of his vehicle had been hauled before the courts and convicted of certain offences. I want to make quite clear what it is that we have done by the insertion of this Amendment of the law into my hon. Friend's Bill.

First, I emphasise that the Clause does not alter the position in respect of liability to conviction for the offence which is the subject of proceedings, nor does it affect the ordinary penalty which the courts may impose. It would seem to be necessary, or certainly advisable, for some senior representative of a company brought before the courts in relation to such an offence to attend the court. The purpose is to correct the position that when an owner of a vehicle with a vicarious liability is a limited company, individual members of the board are not liable to the additional penalty of licence endorsement or disqualification, whereas, in the same position, the owners or partners in a private business have the vicarious liability which attaches to the owner of a business for the acts of an employee, such as a maintenance engineer.

What we have done is something that does not in any way remove the possibility of conviction for the offence and the imposition of the offence, but it ceases to make it mandatory on the court to disqualify from driving the owner of a vehicle when considering the third reckonable offence if the owner can successfully produce the defence that he had no knowledge or constructive knowledge of the defect. I think that meets the charge of inequity that was made in the discussions on the Road Safety Bill, and I hope that it will meet with the general approval of the House.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for enabling us, by the production of his Bill at this stage, to make this amendment to the law which was demanded on all sides of the House. I commend the Bill to the House, and congratulate my hon. Friend on his good work.

Sir Clive Bossom (Leominster)

The Opposition welcome the Bill. We feel that it is a good one. As has been said, it helps road safety. We are most grateful to the Government for accepting new Clause No. 7. I am sure that the Minister will agree that if that had not been added a considerable amount of hardship would have been caused. I trust that the House will give the Bill its Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third tune and passed.