HC Deb 12 June 1967 vol 748 cc7-20
Mr. Mawby

I beg to move, in page 1, line 21, at the end to add 'and (c) provision requiring reflective material of specified size to be fitted on each side of vehicles exceeding 18 feet in length and all articulated vehicles' I am sorry that I jumped the gun, Sir Eric. On Second Reading, I referred to a type of vehicle to which I hoped that the Parliamentary Secretary would give careful consideration. I said: There is no requirement under the law to show a light on the side or even to have a reflective material for use when a long vehicle is turning. This has led to accidents. I hope that the Minister, in making orders under the Bill, will take into account the long articulated vehicle and require a reflective material at some point along the side of the vehicle. The Minister showed that he was sympathetic and said: The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) mentioned the importance of distinctive markings on lorries. I should like to emphasise this. I hope that the Bill will make a contribution by enabling my right hon. Friend to make further regulations about this."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st May, 1967; Vol. 747, c. 10–26.] That shows that the Minister and I were at one on this matter, and I do not doubt that the hon. Gentleman meant exactly what he then said.

However, since then I have studied the Bill closely and I doubt whether Clause 2 gives the Minister sufficient power to require that certain vehicles should have reflectorised materials on their sides. I am not an expert, and I may be wrong about that, but that is the reason for my Amendment. I have also drafted an Amendment to the Long Title so as to make the Bill wide enough to permit the Minister to have these powers. That Amendment is in line 5, after 'vehicles' to insert: 'and to impose requirements with respect to reflective material in the case of certain vehicles'. The Parliamentary Secretary may have been able to take advice since these Amendments appeared on the Amendment Paper and he may be able to satisfy me that the Clause enables him fully to implement his promise on Second Read- ing, in which case, of course, I should not press the Amendment. However, he may feel that some change is required.

I am not a Parliamentary draftsman and I am not prepared to go to the stake on the wording of the Amendment, but if the Parliamentary Secretary feels that there are not sufficiently wide powers, I hope that he will accept the principle of the Amendment, which will help everyone concerned and make sure that his promise can be fully implemented by Regulations. Since putting down the Amendment a number of matters have come to my attention. For instance, because the Amendment would apply to vehicles more than 18 ft. in length, it would obviously include buses and coaches which are normally lighted and which therefore do not present the same danger as goods vehicles. Naturally, it would be wrong to attempt to tie the Minister to too much detail.

Those are my main arguments for the Amendment and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will appreciate that I have moved it with good intentions and that I hope to hear either that the Clause provides all the power needed, or that he will accept the principle of the Amendment.

Mr. Swingler

It may be convenient if I say straight away that the Minister has all the powers necessary to achieve this object. We are now engaged in considering draft regulations to amend Regulations 28 and 29 of the Road Vehicles (Lighting Regulations), 1964, specifically to provide for more effective side lighting of long vehicles. I can assure the Committee that in our discussions with the trade my right hon. Friend will take into consideration the possibility of using reflective materials, but it is quite clear that no additional powers are required in this respect if my right hon. Friend wishes to include reflective material among those to be used for the side marking of vehicles.

Mr. Webster

When does the hon. Gentleman expect a decision to be made and action to be taken on this matter?

Mr. Swingler

I said that we have draft Regulations, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we go through a certain period of consultation with the trade. We have been considering the 1964 Regulations and it is hoped that in a very short time my right hon. Friend will be able to make an announcement about what we regard as an important matter.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson

I am glad to hear that Regulations dealing with this matter are being considered. I added my name to the Amendment assuming that it would not apply to passenger vehicles, which in any case, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) said, normally have inside lighting which makes them visible when turning. However, long vehicles, particularly articulated vehicles, when making a turn to the left in the dark can be very dangerous. Military vehicles already have lights on their sides.

However, there is a matter to which I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will pay attention when the Regulations are being considered. This rule is already followed in Sweden, and the Common Market countries have regulations which are recommended although not yet officially approved. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will bear those European regulations in mind when drawing up his own, because it would he convenient if the two sets of regulations could be kept in line because of the greater number of vehicles travelling between the Continent and this country on roll-on, roll-off ferries and so on, and if we have a Channel Tunnel the number will be even greater.

Mr. James Dance (Bromsgrove)

I added my name to the Amendment because I thought that the issue needed clarification, and we are grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for saying that the position is fairly clear.

However, there are one or two things which must be said, because the public is not fully aware of the present danger. When I was at school, although not a great scientist, I learned the rudiments of heat, light and sound, and one of the things I learned about light was that nothing had any colour in the dark. It is only when it is lighted up that it has colour. A white object reflects much more than a black object. That is why people in hot countries are apt to wear light clothes. Exactly the same applies to vehicles. A great dark black lorry does not reflect very much light, even when seen in good headlights.

This was brought home to me quite recently when a large and very dirty lorry was parked on the side of a country road and when, although I have extremely good brakes on my car and was travelling at a reasonable pace, I almost drove into the back of the lorry because I had not picked it up in my lights. In exactly the same way, an articulated lorry was once turning to the left in front of me. At the moment of turn its rear lights were at right angles to the road and I did not see the lorry until within a few inches of it.

It should not just be permissible to put reflective signs on the side of a long lorry and particularly an articulated lorry. Such a rule should be compulsory. Although the Amendment may not be necessary, it has helped to clarify the position.

10.30 a.m.

Sir Ronald Russell (Wembley, South)

I would like to support what has been said by my hon. Friends and hon. Gentlemen opposite about articulated lorries and lighting on the sides of lorries. The hon. Gentleman the Joint Parliamentary Secretary may remember that there was a bad accident in Birdcage Walk about two years ago when a car struck a lorry which was turning into Wellington Barracks late at night. I believe that the driver of the car was killed. There has been a reluctance on the part of lorry owners to put either lights or reflective material on the sides of lorries, and I suppose this is understandable because of the expense.

Anyone who has driven in France at night will know that most lorries are festooned with lights, let alone reflective material, and they can be seen a long way off. There is no danger of mistaking blank space for a lorry. Urgent consideration should be given to this. There is no reason why we should not be as good as the French and why we should not avoid these accidents which occur through lorries not having proper lights.

Mr. Webster

I would add my thanks to those of my hon. Friends for what the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has said. I am glad that there are powers in present legislation to make regulations. When will they be ready and when will we have a chance of seeing them? Will it be before the House rises for the Summer Recess because, as the Joint Parliamentary Secretary knows very well, if we do not debate them we return to a lighting-up time which is much longer. It is not so urgent during the summer, but we will not have a chance to deliberate upon this until the autumn and early winter.

I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell me that the regulations will be laid before the House rises. Can he give us any indication of what progress he has made, and whether these regulations have been to the National Road Safety Advisory Council and whether it has expressed a view? It will be helpful to the Committee to know this. I am glad that the information should be a little more favourable than it looked on 31st May. The Committee owes my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) a debt.

Both of us raised this point then, and it appeared to me then that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary was trying to say, "Let us get through this limited Measure first." Now we know, as a result of what he has told us, that there are existing powers. I suppose that if he had been able to tell us this—maybe he was not in a position to do so—it would have saved my hon. Friend coming up all the way from the country in order to move his Amendment and have avoided a Monday morning, for which he has all my sympathy.

This matter requires urgency, and I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary can tell us that these Regulations will be introduced before the House rises in order that they may be enforced in advance of the dark nights. What has been done in this Bill is most important and useful, but it is not half as urgent as the point raised by my hon. Friend in his Amendment, nor as the point that I have made in my new Clause, which is not in order. Both of these are more urgent matters, and I trust that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give us a progress report on what we consider to be more urgent than the main intentions of the Bill.

Mr. Swingler

I do not know how far I am permitted to go in discussing something that is not in the Bill. I shall be very sorry if the hon. Gentleman the Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) feels that his journey was not really necessary. I regret that, but knowing his keen interest in the Bill I suspect that he would have made the journey in any case. I am glad to have been able to clarify the position, and I would emphasise that the Minister will make regulations obliging the use of certain types of side-lighting. In reply to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Truro (Mr. Geoffrey Wilson), we will take into account the point he raised about uniformity with Europe.

It is because we are involved continually in international discussions, designed to bring about a desirable standardisation especially in Europe—because of the interchange of transport—that many regulations are being held up. We shall endeavour to make new regulations about the side-lighting of vehicles as rapidly as we can, I hope in advance of the winter.

I believe that I said on Second Reading, in respect of regulations to be made under this Bill, if Parliament approves it, that my right hon. Friend is quite determined that the regulations should be made before the winter months. If these powers are granted, we shall certainly proceed as rapidly as possible, but I trust that the hon. Member for Totnes will withdraw this Amendment since these powers already exist.

Mr. Mawby

Let me make it clear that I do not begrudge coming here this morning for this Bill—what I do begrudge is coming up here because this Bill was put on for this morning sitting when I believe that it involves more country Members than town Members. Some consideration should have been given by the Lord President of the Council to that fact. I am grateful to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for what he has said and for having drawn my attention to the fact that there are powers in present legislation. He has assured us that that power is there, and has gone even further and stated that the Minister will not drag her feet in bringing regulations into force.

I hope that he will not take it amiss if, from time to time, if they do not appear as rapidly as we feel they ought, we nudge him and his right hon. Friend and inquire into the reasons for the delay. In view of the hon. Gentleman's reply, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Now is the right moment to raise the points that I started to raise at the end of Clause 1. This Clause gives power to the Minister to make regulations for the use of reflective material on a number of components or accessories relating to motor vehicles, in particular in regard to non-reflective number plates. There are three points to which I would like the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to address himself. The first has to do with the use of this reflective material, secondly whether it involves the use of foreign exchange for the production of material to make up the reflective number plates and, thirdly, I would like to refer to the doubts that exist about these adhesive digits.

Will it be possible for these Regulations to be satisfied by sticking reflective material on to a number plate? If this is not so, must the numbers be of a raised type and rivetted on to the plates? This is important, and should be cleared up. Some authorities say one thing, and some another. There are some counties where one would not be prosecuted for using adhesive digits, yet in Brighton recently the owner of a van was fined £10 for using adhesive number plates. This was taken up with the Chief Constable who said that on his reading of the regulations it was an offence. On the other hand, other chief constables say that as long as the numbers can be read from 75 ft. that is all they care about and would not prosecute anybody for using adhesive digits.

This is a point which should be cleared up in the regulations—whether people can take a strip of adhesive material, cut out the digits and stick them on. I do not think that that would be satisfactory, because they would come off or flap loose in wet weather. It would not be a satisfactory solution to the reflective number plate problem merely to allow manufacturers to stick on digits made out of reflective material.

Mr. Dance

Would not my hon. Friend agree that that would play into the hands of thieves? It would make it easy to change number plates in a second or two.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

That is an excellent point. Instead of having to unscrew a number plate, a thief taking a Jaguar car—they always seem to take Jaguar cars nowadays—would merely strip off the adhesive digits and put on new ones. That is a point which should be carefully considered when framing the regulations.

I am sorry that I was not present on 31st May, but I was abroad on export business on that day. I have always done my best to assist road safety. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) introduced a Bill about 10 years ago for putting two reflectors on motor vehicles and two rear lights. I advised him and helped him, even before I was in the House, because the daughter of the Chairman of London Transport, when coming to a dance of ours at home, ran into the back of a lorry as the lorry driver had only one tiny muddy reflector.

In the interests of road safety, we must do everything we can to ensure that number plates are plain and can be seen from the rear. But there are problems for manufacturers. There is also the problem of whether people will be permitted, under the regulations, to stick on reflective number digits. If so, in my view, that would be unsatisfactory.

Mr. Ogden

I should like to ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary whether his Ministry has come to a definite conclusion about the colour of the number plates which may be permitted on the rear and front of vehicles. Will there be two colours, or will the colour be the same at each end?

Mr. Lomas

I was concerned about whether the numbers could he taken off very easily. The Road Research Laboratory test, which was done over two years on vehicles which were subjected to 80,000 miles of use on the road, showed that with normal wear and tear this did not happen. I am told that provided the numbers are put on properly they would not lift. Equally, I made the point that I should be in favour of riveted raised digits being fitted to make sure that they could not be taken off. This is a question on which I hope that the Ministry will lay down certain specifications. I agree that we have to ensure that the numbers are not interchangeable and that they cannot be taken off and others substituted. The numbers which were utilised in the Road Research Laboratory's test from April, 1964, to April, 1966, clearly showed that this could not and did not happen.

Mr. Dance

The question of having one colour at the back and another at the front is very important. I gather that this is already done in France. I think that the colour is red at the front and yellow at the back. It helps to know whether a vehicle is coming or going. We should if possible try to get some standardisation with Europe, because we are taking vehicles to and from the Continent frequently these days.

10.45 a.m.

Mr. Webster

It is right that the Committee should discuss what should go in the regulations, because if we can give assistance to the Department this is the time to give it. When a regulation is laid, it is a case of take it or leave it. Nothing can be done to amend regulations. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) is to be commended for what he says about the doubts which exist and the different interpretations of chief constables. It would be useful if we could do something to resolve these doubts before the regulations are laid. I should be glad if the Parliamentary Secretary would tell us whether we shall be seeing the regulations in the next few weeks.

I refer to the point which I tried to raise on Clause 1 about whether existing number plates are adequate. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham said that if we have an existing device which is adequate it is unfortunate that we should have legislation under which we shall need to import equipment, whether with dollars or any other currency. I have a letter from a firm in Leeds which states that it is already producing number plates with reflective digits which conform to existing regulations and that the motoring Press and the Financial Times have been sufficiently interested in the safety aspect of the plates to devote editorial space to them. I am not resisting the Bill because the principle of it is necessary, but it seems to me that if a firm pioneers something as a result of which road safety is improved it is unfortunate that we should have to import a substitute material.

I return to the point which I made on Clause 1 and the quotation which I did not get right then. Carlyle said that that Government was best which legislated least. I agree with the point about security and that we do not want every thief who wants to take away the Jaguar of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham—and, incidentally, I am sorry that a member of the Rootes Group should use a Jaguar car—

Mr. Gresham Cooke

I was not advocating the use of Jaguar cars. I said that they seemed to be very agreeable to every thief.

Mr. Webster

I am glad that my hon. Friend has made that point abundantly clear, because it was causing me a good deal of worry.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can assist us about the security of the device, particularly in connection with the use of trailers. The number plate of a trailer has to conform with the number plate of the tractor. As the Parliamentary Secretary well knows, there is already adequate scope for putting fresh number-plates on a trailer. It may be that the next time there is a bullion raid the thieves will use a trailer. Far be it from me to instruct the criminal classes about how they should go about their business. It would appear that there is adequate scope for abuse.

I return to the point which I made earlier about a firm which has pioneered a safety device. It seems that, as usual, we seem to be penalising British enterprise—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—I hope that we are not, and certainly it is something that we here should hesitate to do.

I agree with what the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) said. I did not like the colour he used in giving the exhibition however. I once suffered from jaundice and yellow is a dazzling colour, particularly on a Monday morning, if one has suffered from jaundice.

I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will indicate what is to be in the regulations. I think that this is the time to do so. This has been a useful debate and, as a result of it, we have been able to get some indication of what we can expect. I hope that it will result in giving the regulations a fair wind, but it would be helpful to have an indication of what is to come.

Mr. Mawby

I must differ from my hon. Friend the Member for Westonsuper-Mare (Mr. Webster), although it is true that he is asking the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for information rather than anything else. I believe that we are in danger of giving the wrong impression that certain people at the moment manufacturing certain types of goods will be put in jeopardy as a result of the Clause. I cannot see how this would be possible.

The Clause codifies and anticipates certain standards either of reflective or fluorescent material and gives the Minister power to recognise the existence of these things to be fitted either at the front or the rear of a vehicle as she thinks' fit. Secondly, she will have power at least to impose conditions to standardise the type and size to be used. I do not believe that the Clause will do anything to jeopardise the position of any present manufacturer of any items which are now within the law. All we are doing in the Clause is to codify the whole thing and to bring more standardisation into what is obviously a good safety device.

Mr. Swingler

I agree with the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) that we have had a useful debate. We will take note of all the views expressed. But it would be foolish of me at this point to enter into discussion of technical data and specific dimensions that the Minister may make in regulations. We will take account of all views expressed and there will be an opportunity to discuss the regulations themselves.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding us of the quotation from Carlyle. I shall remind him of it on future occasions when he demands that we produce more Bills and more regulations more rapidly and in greater volume.

Mr. Webster

I was only suggesting that we have fewer Bills. We should have the more essential Bill, bringing more into a smaller number of Bills.

Mr. Swingler

It is hard to satisfy the hon. Gentleman. He wants fewer Bills and more regulations. We will do our best for him. It will be appreciated that when Parliament has approved the Bill, the Minister will be armed with necessary powers to make regulations and certain technical discussions will be carried through as quickly as possible. We shall take all these things into account.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) raised a point which I dealt with briefly on Second Reading. The tests carried out by the Road Research Laboratory indicate that red reflective material on number plates is considerably less effective than some other colours, and if the maximum benefit is to be obtained from their use it is necessary to relax the provisions of Section 2 of the Act so as to give the Minister the necessary powers to permit use of a colour other than red to be shown to the rear of a vehicle.

Similarly, experiments with distinctive rear markers for commercial vehicles show that the most easily distinguishing marking both by day and night is made up of red reflective, red orange fluorescent and white reflective strips. We are enabling my right hon. Friend to permit such markers to be introduced.

My right hon. Friend will be able, under subsection (a) to make regulations permitting the use of yellow or amber reflective number plates on the rear of vehicles. Similarly, she will be able to make regulations requiring a distinctive marking on the backs of commercial vehicles, which would include white reflective strips. We shall naturally rely, in the technical detail of the regulations, on the results of the experiments at the R.R.L., which indicate that this would be the most satisfactory thing to do. That is as far as I can go now. The technical advice of the Laboratory is being given to my right hon. Friend, but there will be many details, including those which the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) raised, about the use of certain kinds of materials.

Under subsection (b) again the Minister will be able to make regulations specifying the kind of materials, the positioning and dimensions. Many details have to be settled. We are relying on getting the best technical information and advice, but I am not in a position now to elaborate on these things which must form the subject of the new regulations.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

But surely the hon. Gentleman is in a position to clear up the two important questions as to whether these materials will not be more expensive and whether they will have to be imported.

Mr. Swingler

I am glad the hon. Gentleman reminded me. Although in this Clause we are taking powers to require or authorise the use of lights of varying colours, I made it clear on Second Reading, on the authority of my right hon. Friend, that her intention is to make the use of reflective number plates permissive. She will permit motorists who wish to fit reflective number plates, according to certain standards laid down, to do so.

We have no idea, in moving into this permissive phase, having clarified the law on the subject of reflective materials, to what extent that permission will be used by motorists. Therefore, it is impossible for us now to estimate what will be the additional cost. Certain figures were given earlier in the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Lomas). Indeed, certain figures are well known about the cost of reflective number plates now on the market. We have no idea, because this power will be permissive, to what extent these number plates will be used. We will go into the matter carefully. I understand that these materials can be manufactured in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Dance

I can see danger here. Let us say that 50 per cent. of the cars on the road have clear, brilliant number plates which can be picked up easily. One might be lulled into a false sense of security and bring oneself up close behind a conventional number plate that is dirty. In such circumstances an accident may occur. I do not believe that this should be permissive. I believe that the Minister should make these materials compulsory.

11.0 a.m.

Mr. Swingler

I take note of that view. I hope that the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance) will take note of the fact that I said on Second Reading that my right hon. Friend has declared that, to begin with, we would have an experimental period permitting the use of such reflective materials and number plates so as to be able to draw on the experience gained. Nevertheless, this Clause contains the power to make them compulsory at a later date, if we agree that that is what should be done.

Sir Robert Cary (Manchester, Withington)

If it is to remain permissive for the motorist, will it be compulsory for all commercial vehicles?

Mr. Swingler

I have referred to certain commercial vehicles being marked by distinctive strips at the back, and my right hon. Friend is currently considering the compulsory introduction of certain requirements in that respect. However, that does not apply to the introduction of reflective number plates, for example. My right hon. Friend has declared that she will use the power under this Clause to permit all road users to fit reflective number plates if they wish to do so.

Mr. Ogden

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) suggested that the cost of this type of plate would be much greater than that of plates normally in use. The cost of the existing range of number plates varies widely, from the Rolls-Royce type down to the ordinary type. I have heard of a garage in the Midlands which charges £10 for a set of ordinary number plates for a Mini. That is excessive. My information confirms the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Lomas) that the type of plate which we are discussing should cost no more to the public than the existing type of number plate, even during the permissive period when there is only a small market. Of course, if anyone wants his number plates made in ivory, they will cost more, but at the moment the cost of the plates which we are discussing is almost identical with that of the ordinary plate.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.