HC Deb 08 May 1967 vol 746 cc1229-35

Lords Amendment: No. 45, in page 34, line 37, at end insert: C. A constable in uniform may arrest without warrant any person driving or attempting to drive a motor vehicle on a road whom he has reasonable cause to suspect of being disqualified for holding or obtaining a licence granted under Part II of the principal Act,

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dick Taverne)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

The new Clause was put down by the noble Lord, Lord Molson, with general support in another place. It is regarded as desirable by the police and the magistrates' courts and the Government are happy to accept it as they have been considering the problem. In 1965, magistrates sentenced over 2,500 offenders to imprisonment without the option of a fine for this offence, and, in the higher court, there were over 400 such sentences. These are serious offences, because disqualified drivers are uninsured and there is evidence that it is linked with other serious motoring offences. There may be a connection between many disqualified drivers and people who commit non-traffic offences.

Police are handicapped by lack of specific power to arrest without warrant where they know that someone is disqualified or he admits it. As the law stands, such a person would be free to drive away and simply await the service of a warrant, even though it may be difficult to serve because many people travel about or try to evade service.

The power to arrest here is restricted to constables in uniform. It is desirable that there should be no confusion in people's minds that the person signalling them, who purports to exercise the power is a policeman and not a member of the public. A constable exercising the powers must have reasonable cause to suspect that the person is disqualified. This will depend on the circumstances of the case, but there will have to be some grounds.

Sir D. Renton

I am sure that my hon. Friends would not wish to oppose the new Clause, but it gives rise to an intriguing situation. A new Clause extending the power to arrest without warrant, and in very broad terms, has been tucked into the Bill between the interpretation Clause and the Clause dealing with minor consequential Amendments and repeals.

When I suggested in Committee that the law of disqualification should be substantially amended, I was told that it would not be a good thing, and that even if it were this would not be the right Bill in which to do it.

11.30 p.m.

We made several other good suggestions in Committee, but we were told, "You cannot do that. It is not within the long title of the Bill". Now we find that the long title is to be specially amended to allow this extension of the powers of the police to arrest without warrant, and we are asked to do it in this little Bill when an important criminal law reform Measure is going through Parliament in which the whole of the law relating to the powers of arrest by the police is being completely re-written.

My hon. Friends and I are grateful for the Ministers' lucid explanation in introducing the new Clause, but why has this provision been tucked into this odd place in this Bill, instead of being dealt with in the Criminal Law Bill as part of the general revision of the law relating to the powers of arrest of the police, with or without warrant?

In considering whether or not this important extension of the powers of arrest should be granted—because it is a formidable extension—we are entitled to be told how it is likely to be used, on what scale and how many people it may affect. We can get some idea of this by turning to the Lords HANSARD for 11th April last, where the Government spokesman, Lord Stonham, said: The number of disqualifications has risen from 48,887 in 1961 to 79,364 in 1965".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 11th April, 1967; Vol. 281, c. 1254.] We do not yet know the figure for 1966, but it might well be over the 100,000 mark. I think I see the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport nodding his head in assent. I take it that he, too, considers that the figure for 1966 may be over the 100,000 mark. This means that a very large number of people will be eligible for arrest without warrant, in addition to the many motorists who could, under the Clause, be justifiably arrested without warrant, although they are not eligible, but on the ground that the police have reasonable suspicion that they are disqualified from driving.

Mr. Swingler

Am I entirely wrong in recollecting that at a previous stage of the Bill the right hon. and learned Gentleman called for strong action to be taken on the issue of disqualified drivers? Do I take it that he is now withdrawing from what he previously said?

Sir D. Renton

The hon. Gentleman's recollection is rather confused.

Mr. Swingler

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is now withdrawing from what he said previously.

Sir D. Renton

I am not. I am being perfectly consistent. I do not know whether it would be in order for me to discuss the merits of the Clause in connection with what I said in Committee on a somewhat different point. Unless I am stopped from doing so by the Chair, I will answer the hon. Gentleman. I pointed out that the totting up procedure and other methods of disqualification, including compulsory disqualification, under the 1962 Act had, I thought, worked almost too successfully. I suggested—and I am sure that the Under-Secretary for the Home Department will remember—that the time had come to take stock of the position. We did not have the exact figures before us in Standing Committee, but we have the benefit of them in the Lords HANSARD from which I have just quoted. I still maintain that it would be right for us to take stock of the position, but I also agree that it is a serious offence for someone to drive while disqualified and that it is useful for the police to have the power of arrest.

Mr. Swingler


Sir D. Renton

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not interrupt from a seated position. If he wishes me to give way, of course I willingly shall.

When we are granting an important extension to the police of the power to arrest people without warrant, we should know exactly to what extent it is likely to be used and how many people may be affected. I have given figures which show the number of people who have been disqualified in the last three years. Any of them will, of course, be correctly arrested, but, as I was saying when the Parliamentary Secretary interrupted me, there will be many other people who will not be eligible for disqualification but whom the police will be entitled to arrest as a result of this new power, merely on reasonable suspicion.

One can say that the motorists of this country at large will be in jeopardy of being arrested as a result of this new power of arrest on an entirely fresh ground. That is why I say that the Government should give a further explanation so that the country can have some idea of the extent to which the power is likely to be used. That is all I ask.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) that it is very odd that this very important Clause should be brought forward at 11.30 at night, necessitating a change in the Long Title of the Bill. All the same, I shall not vote against it, for I believe it to be necessary.

It has been reported in The Times that there are probably more than 100,000 disqualified drivers of whom probably at least 20,000 are driving while disqualified. That may well be so, because as soon as they are away from their home bases in different parts of the country they cannot be caught, and when they are found it is only right that the police should have power to arrest them. My hon. Friends may take a different view.

I was glad that it was a Conservative Peer who brought forward this proposal, but it should have been thought about very much sooner, because every magistrate for some time has been saying that the law on disqualification has been far too lax. Although my hon. Friends may call a Division and vote against the Government, I shall have to abstain.

Mr. Awdry

This is a very important Amendment. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) said in his excellent speech, we shall support it. There is no question of any Division. The mover of the Amendment in another place gave some remarkable figures of the number of drivers who are disqualified but who are driving on British roads. In 1965, 79,000 drivers were disqualified of whom nearly 8,000 were convicted of driving while disqualified. In other words, about 10 per cent. of those disqualified had already been disqualified before the second offence.

This is a very serious social problem, and the point to be emphasised is that the effect of the Bill will be to increase the number of people who will be disqualified. That is why we tried to persuade the Government to allow local magistrates some discretion with regard to first offences. Our efforts were in vain, and it would now be not in order to speak further on the subject.

An interesting side effect of the Amendment, and I assume that it is intended, is that it gives power to a constable in uniform the power to arrest, not only persons whom he may suspect to have been disqualified by the court but also those who are driving under age. He will have this additional power, because those who drive under age are automatically disqualified by Section 107 of the Road Traffic Act, 1960.

We welcome this new Clause because it will help to strengthen the hands of the police and make the law more effective, although we think that the provision has been brought into the Bill in a some- what strange way. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will answer the points that we have raised.

Mr. Taverne

With the leave of the House, I will do my best to answer the various points that have been raised. To take the last point first, the hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry) is quite right; the power will cover not only those who have been disqualified by the court but those who are disqualified on the grounds of being under age under Section 107 of the 1960 Act.

I am not altogether sure about the point made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) that this provision was tucked away in a somewhat strange place. It had to be put somewhere, and whether at Clause 27, or Clause 28 or Clause 13 does not seem greatly to affect the matter.

This is not a subject for the Criminal Law Bill. That Measure does not deal exhaustively with all the powers of arrest, but is concerned only with dealing with the difference between felonies and misdemeanours being abolished. There is no extension under that Bill of the power to arrest, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman will appreciate if he reads what I said in Committee.

Sir D. Renton

The hon. and learned Gentleman has rather understated the position, if I might put it politely. Besides abolishing the difference between felony and misdemeanour, that Bill reviews the whole of the position with regard to powers of arrest by the police by giving an exhaustive definition of arrestable offences, and saying what other offences are not arrestable.

Mr. Taverne

No, that is not correct. The Bill only deals with certain kinds of offences, which are defined as arrestable offences. They are those, for example, which carry over five years' imprisonment. It preserves the existing powers, but is solely concerned to deal with the effect on the preservation of the present law, broadly speaking, where amendment was needed because the difference between felonies and misdemeanours had been abolished. In any event, arrestable offences carry more than five years' imprisonment, which cannot apply to this offence, and the power to arrest without a warrant in connection with a driving offence should come in a road traffic Bill rather than in a criminal law Bill.

It is impossible to say how many cases there will be. The constable can only use this power if he has reason to suspect that the offence is being committed, and how can anyone say when he will have reason to suspect? A large number of people will drive while disqualified, but but one cannot give the number. The article in The Times gave a figure of some 20,000 offenders, but that seems to be based on pure guesswork. I have no information of any kind to support that figure, and to judge whether it is excessive, too small or realistic, or anything. We just do not know. So, I cannot answer that part of the question because one cannot anticipate how often the power will be used.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords Amendments agreed to.

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