§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.11 a.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Neil Carmichael)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The essence of the Bill is modernisation. It is designed to give the country a centralised vehicle and driving licence system best equipped to meet the increasing demands of the motor age. It takes advantage of new technologies on offer which will both aid administration and give the public generally a better service.
Licencing of drivers was first introduced in 1903 and vehicle registration in 1908. At that time there were about 8,000 vehicles on the road. Today the total stands at 14½ million, and it is growing fast. Between now and 1980 the number of vehicles is likely to double. Faced with this sort of vehicle explosion it is time to reshape the vehicle and driver licensing organisation. This is not just a Ministry view; local authorities, the police and others who are directly concerned are unanimous that a change is needed.
Along with the mushrooming vehicle growth has come a number of regrettable side effects—vehicle duty evasion and increased difficulty in detecting and checking people driving illegally. It is surely quite intolerable that the mass of decent, law-abiding citizens should have to suffer and subsidise the selfish minority. Also the police, in their fight against crime, need a national information service giving quick and accurate answers about vehicle ownership, and that is not possible under the present system.
Over the years the local authorities and their staffs have stood the strain well in responding to increasing demands placed upon them. No doubt modern management techniques would bring further improvements to the present arrangements, and many local authorities have already 1699 introduced mechanisation. These, however, are really only marginal gains, however well they are introduced. The present set-up is fragmented, with all the built-in limitations that this implies. What is needed now is a centralised scheme to cope with the vast and ever-increasing numbers of vehicles and drivers. Computer equipment, servicing a centralised national system, is surely the answer.
The Bill recognises the need for future change. It sets out a detailed framework for a new, centralised vehicle and driving licencing system based on computer equipment housed in a central office at Swansea. At the same time, it takes the opportunity to make possible a number of straightforward improvements in the present arrangements, mainly concerned with the physical fitness of drivers and the granting and validity of driving licences. I feel sure that these aims will commend themselves to hon. Members on both sides of the House.
The new centralised system must be run by the Ministry of Transport; everyone agrees about that. Clause I therefore provides for the Minister to take over the job from a suitable date. We hope to conclude agency agreements with local authorities for them to carry on, during this first transitional phase, as agents for the Minister. To provide for unexpected difficulties at this stage, or later, Clause 2(1) gives the Minister power to take over, with compensation, any property needed for him to provide a direct service. We hope not to have to use that subsection, or Clause 3, which is there to cater for two possibilities which we trust are remote but which will enable the Minister to make appropriate adjustments either if a local authority should be unable to carry on or if there are major changes in local government boundaries before the period of transfer.
Once the new system gets under way the best way for the public to get their licencing business done will be by direct dealing with the Swansea central office through the post. The computer will issue postal reminders. There will be no need to go to a post office or local office to obtain a renewal form. It will be enough to return the signed reminder by post, with the appropriate documents and payment, for example, by cheque or Giro transfer. But for some time after 1700 centralisation those preferring to do so will still be able to renew vehicle licences across the counter at post offices or local offices and if they do so they will be given temporary licences under Clause 5, to display until the full licence arrives from the central office.
The location of local offices has caused us a great deal of thought. Because local facilities will be limited and transactions with the central office so easy, the local office structure will be reduced from the present 189 offices to 81. But people will be able to deal with any local office or main post office, for example, near their place of work, instead of, as at present, only offices in the areas where they live. The exceptions are dealers and motor traders, who must still go to the offices in their areas. The new local office locations were announced in November, following full consultation with local authority representatives. Later, as more people communicate direct with Swansea, the continued use of post office and local office facilities will be reviewed again.
From the point of view of the individual member of the public the principal benefit will be ease of transaction. He will get an individual licence reminder. It will take the form of an application for a new licence. It will have printed on it the licence-holder's vehicle details, his name and address, and if these are correct it will be a simpler job than now to complete the form, sign it and post it off.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)
Supposing the person concerned is a deliberate dodger, who refuses to pay his vehicle tax or to give any licence number at all?
§ Mr. Carmichael
The details of forms and the working of the computer are matters that will be better dealt with in Committee.
§ Mr. David Webster (Weston-super-Mare)
The Minister has said that this procedure will be much smoother, but what will happen when a temporary licence expires? Does the owner have to advise the computer? What happens if he fails to do so, and what will be his legal liability?
§ Mr. Carmichael
Before a licence expires a reminder will be sent to him, 1701 giving him about 17 days' notice. This reminder will take the form of a new application form for a licence. There will always be difficulties if people deliberately try to evade tax. There will be a permanent record, and if people try to evade their responsibilities by telling lies in completing the form they will almost certainly be caught ultimately—certainly if they are involved in any sort of motoring offence. Naturally the penalties in that case will be greater.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
The point of my interjection was that similar regulations have been in being for years but deliberate dodgers have also been operating for years, and no action has been taken against them. The Minister says that this and that will happen, and that if these people continue to dodge their responsibility the Minister will look at the question again. I thought that this Bill was going to stop that.
§ Mr. Carmichael
One of the provisions of the Bill lays down that when someone who has been running a vehicle illegally is discovered there will be a continuous liability as well as a fine. So the penalty for dodging will be the statutory fine whch already exists, plus a continuous liability from the last time the vehicle was registered.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
I appreciate that there is dodging, but in many cases it is a question of forgetfulness in renewing a licence. Do I understand that some system will be adopted, as with radio and television licences, of a reminder being sent?
§ Mr. Carmichael
Yes, that is one of the very helpful new steps which the Bill will take. As I said, 17 days before a licence is due for renewal, a communication will be sent in the form of a new application form. We expect this will be much easier to fill in than the existing form—
§ Mr. Webster
What is the legal status? Will the Ministry be legally obliged to do this, since many people will be dependent on it? If the Ministry do not do it, those people may forget to apply.
§ Mr. Carmichael
The question of the legal status of the Ministry would be 1702 better discussed in Committee, but we expect that the reminder will be done by the computer, and we have no reason to suppose that there will be a failure in this respect. Whether there will be a legal obligation on the Minister to ensure that the reminder is delivered is something which we will need to discuss in Committee.
§ Mr. Michael Heseltine (Tavistock) rose—
§ Dr. Reginald Bennett (Gosport and Fareham) rose—
§ Mr. Heseltine
Is not the whole justification of the new system that there will be this reminder, and if it is not to have legal validity, will it not confuse those who might rely upon it?
§ Mr. Carmichael
It is going too far to say that the whole justification for the system is the reminder. The real justification is that the number of vehicles and people holding licences coming on the roads will be so great that the local system as we know it could not cope. Some new system had to be devised, and that is the one in the Bill. The reminder will be an important side-effect, but the important reason for the Bill is the scale which we expect in the foreseeable future.
As I was saying, the renewal form will have printed on it the licence holder's vehicle details, his name and address. And, given that these are correct, it will be a simpler job than now to complete the form, sign it and post it off. For some people there will be a real financial saving, too. Clause 4, for example, introduces date-to-date licensing instead of the present month-to-month system. At the present, anyone licensing a new vehicle on any day other than the first of the month inevitably loses out. Someone, for instance, buying a car on the 20th of the month forfeits 20 days licensing—worth 30s. Taking the same 20-day example, the saving in terms of a heavy goods vehicle or coach, would be £17. Date-to-date licensing will also help the new system—and ultimately the public—by spreading the workload. The present arrangement creates time-wasting 1703 peaks. This is anathema to good computer practice and Clause 4(8) allows the Minister a two-year period to achieve a balanced spread of licensing work.
Refunds of duty, on the other hand, will not create peak-load problems, making up only an estimated 8 per cent. of licence applications. Just the same we have decided—as provided in Clause 8—to allow refunds to be claimed for any number of days outstanding on the licence, subject to a minimum of 30 days. Where a surrendered licence has more than this minimum unexpired, the financial benefits will be the same as those stemming from date-to-date licensing.
These changes will mean a fall in revenue—and therefore a positive gain to individual users—estimated to be nearly £10 million in the first full year. But this reduction in revenue will be offset by the savings following the more even flow of work, plus the increased difficulty of duty evasion resulting from continuous liability, which I shall deal with in a minute—
§ Mr. Webster
Why is there a minimum period of 30 days? If the Minister has power to reduce someone's licence period by 15 days, why should that person not have compensation?
§ Mr. Carmichael
There are some technical details about this, and many of them will be gone into in Committee. We feel that 30 days is a reasonable time. People can, after all, give warning in advance that they are ceasing to use their vehicle, and we feel that it should be possible to give some notice. This in itself will enable more flexibility in the cancelling—
§ Mr. Webster
I am very sorry, but I am talking about the Minister curtailing a licence and not the licence holder. In that case, surely the holder should get compensation?
§ Mr. Carmichael
I should like notice of the question of obligations in that one, but we will deal with it later.
These changes will mean a fall in revenue, but this will be offset by the savings following a more even flow of work, plus the increased difficulty of duty evasion resulting from continuous liability. In the past, there has been 1704 criticism that both motor dealers and the public suffer through dealers being unable to licence a vehicle outside the normal local authority working hours. Clauses 6 and 7 remedy this. They permit the Minister to allocate motor dealers temporary licences. These will be valid for 14 days and dealers will be able to issue them to people buying vehicles from them.
The dealer will have to prepay, in full, the amounts of duty for the licences allocated to him. They will probably be available only for cars and motor cycles, as other vehicles involve a judgement on classification, which needs to be made by the Minister. The arrangement will be permissive and allocations may be refused, but applicants will have the right to require the Minister, under Clause 19, to review the refusal. In return for these benefits, and to make the system work effectively, the Bill requires some extra obligations from the public. They are not unreasonable and they will need to be discussed in detail in Committee. But I will mention the reasons underlying the two most important.
The first is so-called "continuous liability" under Clause 10. This is a shift from the present arrangements and puts the onus on individuals to notify the Minister where they do not intend to "use or keep" their vehicle on the road. In the past we have expected miracles from the police—looking to them for help in vehicle excise enforcement among all their other duties. If future vehicle excise enforcement is to be really effective, we must move away from complete reliance on spotting offenders on the road. The new system will ease the burden of the police, at the same time being much more comprehensive in its effect. Of course, "spotting" will still have a part to play, but it will be a supporting rather than a solo role.
But to achieve this, enforcement needs to be geared to the computer licensing record—in particular, the record showing that a person has not licensed, is not exempt from duty and has not indicated that he has laid up his vehicle, or sold or scrapped it, or taken it abroad.
Where no notification has been given then duty will be liable for the appropriate period. I am sure we shall need to discuss the details of this "continuous liability" in Committee. But I must 1705 stress that the principle is, in our view, absolutely essential to an efficient centralised system.
A second new obligation will be to require drivers to give their dates of birth. There are already more than 18 million drivers over the whole country. By 1975 we shall reach a national record of about 25 million drivers, so ease of identification then becomes crucial. Details of name, sex and date of birth will be the key. They—and the address—will be the main particulars to be given in applications under Clause 12, and the courts and police are given certain rights to require them under Clause 20.
The centralised system cannot, of course, be introduced overnight. The present timetable is for the Minister to take over the local authority functions under Clause 1 about April, 1970. Simultaneously, under Clause 2(4) the local authorities will be appointed, as the Minister's agents, to carry on the existing system until centralisation begins to take effect. This formal transfer will facilitate the change-over from the old system to the new. It will also enable us to settle the future of the staff concerned well in advance of the operation of the new system.
The changeover will operate progressively between 1971 and 1974. By 1975, it will be fully operational and it is then that date-to-date licensing and continuous liability will be introduced. Progressive transfer is essential. Over 40 million records will have to be translated into computer terms. The detailed planning for achieving these target dates is going ahead now—including the building programme at Swansea and discussions with International Computers Ltd.
My final point on centralisation is the vital issue of employment. Inevitably, the reorganisation has wide implications for present local taxation office staff. From the beginning we have kept in close touch with both the local authority and the staff associations. Together, we have considered what best needs to be done to keep the system working during the transitional days and to ensure that it is properly equipped with suitable staff when centralisation is complete.
Naturally, we are anxious that as many of the existing staff as possible should be 1706 able to continue their careers in the new organisation but that where redundancy is unavoidable it should be dealt with fully and sympathetically. About 5,000 staff are involved. There will be the same number of posts in the new organisation. But whereas the existing staff is spread among 185 local authorities, most of the new jobs—about 3,500—will be at Swansea. The balance will be in 81 local offices throughout the country—all of them likely to be filled by local authority staff. Three thousand of the Swansea vacancies will be for clerical and sub-clerical grades. We recognise that quite a lot of those grades in local authority service will probably decide that they do not want to move to Swansea, so there will be considerable job opportunities at Swansea for locally recruited staff—predominantly female.
I must re-emphasise that we are doing all we can to minimise the effect of the changes on local authority staff. A memorandum is currently being prepared—with the help of the appropriate associations—answering the questions most likely to cause concern, and we hope it will be in the hands of each member of the staffs concerned before Christmas. But for any local authority staff who suffer loss of employment or pay reduction, Clause 2 provides that the Minister must pay compensation—which, of course, will follow the recognised rules.
I turn now to Clauses 11 to 14, which introduce certain improvements to the existing system of driver licensing. They are not designed to make any radical changes in driver licensing. But they do provide for the possibility of some relaxation of the existing rules, where this can be done without risk to road safety, for greater flexibility in procedures and more precise definition of diseases that are a bar to holding a driving licence.
First and foremost, Clause 11 makes getting a driving licence easier for epileptics whose symptoms are adequately controlled. It is a liberalising Clause and I am sure that, in the light of modern advances in medicine, these relaxations can be made without impairing road safety in any way. In fact, the United States experience is that this class of epileptic has a better than average road safety record.
1707 At the same time, we are seeking powers, in Clause 11 so that we can lay down more precise medical criteria for assessing a driver's physical fitness. Certain diseases which are a bar to holding a licence have to be specified on the application form at present—and this is not a very practical or satisfactory method. It is right that these diseases should be clearly and precisely defined, rather than placing reliance—as at present—on general questions to the applicant.
I turn now to Clause 12, which makes certain changes to the existing rules about the grant and duration of driving licences. I am sure that they will be welcome. Briefly, we propose that, in general, full driving licence holders will be given provisional entitlement, subject to the usual restrictions, to drive all other vehicles. The present arrangements are inconvenient to the public. The new proposals seem more sensible than making someone, who already has a full licence to drive some vehicles, go through the formality of applying for a separate licence to drive other vehicles provisionally.
We also want to increase the period of validity of a provisional licence from six to 12 months. Most learner drivers need two six-monthly provisional licences anyway and Clause 12 will save them time and trouble. There is also provision for the issue of short-term full licences. At present, a full licence is for three years or not at all. This facility for short-term licences is an essential part of the new liberal policy towards epilepsy.
In Clause 14, we are trying to help the person taking up residence in this country. If he holds a valid overseas licence, we want to be able to allow him to drive here for a time without needing to take the driving test or be subject to the restriction of a provisional licence. The idea is to give him a breathing space while he is looking for a job, a house and, perhaps, schools for his children.
Last, but not least, Clause 14 cuts the period from 10 years to 5 years during which holding a driving licence or passing a test will maintain an entitlement to a heavy goods vehicle driving licence. The rapid developments in the construction, design and complexity of heavy 1708 goods vehicles have led us to make this change in the interests of road safety. This is very much a look to the future. Heavy goods vehicle driver licensing is still waiting on the side lines.
As I said in opening, the essence of this Bill is modernisation—planning for the future in the interests of good administration. I feel sure that these aims will be recognised by the House as a whole. There is little of principle at stake in the Bill's proposals, and when we come to the details in Committee I am sure we will be able to deal with them both sensibly and on a non-party basis.
§ 11.38 a.m.
§ Mr. David Webster (Weston-super-Mare)
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving such a thorough description of the Bill—as usual, in the absence of the Minister. It seems that, every time we have a debate on transport, we also have a financial crisis. When the right hon. Lady the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity was happily guillotining the Transport Act on the night of 14th-15th March last, the decision was taken to close the exchanges next day and the then Foreign Secretary resigned in the middle of the night.
§ Mr. Webster
I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. It is probably just that, every time we have a debate, we have a financial crisis.
We support the main objectives of the Bill if these are to produce a central machinery and if that machinery is to be more efficient and more economic. That is obviously the intention. We also support the prevention and punishment of evasion of tax liability. I am glad to see the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) here. I think that one could call Clause 10 his personal memorial or testimony and hope that he can now feel satisfied that his political career has been of some use and can be terminated.
We also feel strongly that, in this change-over, there should be maximum concern for the convenience of the motorist and for his benefit. I thing that much of the disagreement about the Bill will be found to be because there is not 1709 enough concern for the convenience of the motorist. When it comes to considering the economies involved, all my motoring friends, have asked me to say, "Can any of the reduction of expenditure caused by the Bill be used to reduce road user taxation?"
§ Mr. Webster
Yes. We reckon that "not much" will probably be the answer.
On the convenience of the motorist, I note that according to the Bill there is to be a vast amount of delegated legislation. Practically everything is to be done by regulation and by order. This is unamendable. We would prefer that the format should be laid down in a proper schedule so that we can debate it and it can be properly approved by the House. It is logistically impossible physically to examine all these bits of delegated legislation. Tons of it goes through without the possibility physically of debating it in the House. Therefore, if we do not make these Amendments and they are not accepted, the Government are taking carte blanche and no Parliamentary consent at all.
We also have the risk, particularly with this Government, that the liability is far too often placed on the citizen. The Government must be reminded that both they and the computer are here to serve the citizen, not the other way round. We will wish to move Amendments in Committee to make this so.
I notice that in Clause 21—and I hope that my hon. Friends will press to amend this—there is uncontrolled discretion given to the Treasury on the increase of fees. As a House of Commons man, it is obnoxious to me that we should give this permission to the Treasury. I remind the House that the driving test fee has recently gone up from £1 to £1 15s. I do not know whether that was referred to Aubrey Jones. The vehicle test fee has been raised from 15s. to £1 5s. for cars, from 10s. to 15s. for motor cycles, and the road fund licence for cars from £17 10s. to £25 in the last Finance Act. So there has been a tremendous increase in the burdens on the motorist. I do not see why we should give carte blanche to the Treasury in this respect.
1710 Although this may be a Committee matter, on the detail of Clause 2(4), there is to be the exercise by local authorities of certain functions which are being transferred to the Minister. If certain local authorities do this, it will cause great confusion for people moving from one area to another. I appreciate that Clause 3(1) envisages an interim period, but if my hon. Friends will look at Clause 2(4) they will find that there is a possibility of a great deal of this being permanent. This will cause a great deal of confusion. However, I will not dwell on this at great length.
I am grateful—I might as well say "thank you" occasionally—for the Minister making the vehicle licence payable from the day specified by the user. We welcome that instead of the first day of the month.
On the other hand, I am much less happy about Clause 5, which is concerned with a temporary licence pending the issue of a permanent vehicle licence. Some explanation was given. But what will be the legal situation of the person who has to remind the computer that it has not sent him a permanent licence? I foresee a great deal of exasperation by motorists and a deluge of letters to hon. Members. There will probably be protests to the Ombudsman, too.
Can the Minister give an assurance that if the temporary licence expires the motorist will not be liable under Section 8(3) of the Vehicle Excise Act, as amended by the Transport Act of this year, for not displaying a current valid vehicle licence?
§ Mr. Carmichael
The temporary licence will be issued by the Post Office or the dealer, but the full fee will have been paid, either for the four-monthly period or the annual period, and a receipt will be given to show that it has been fully registered. I agree there is a slight possibility that, even after four months, the return will not have come through, but this is most unlikely.
§ Mr. Webster
I am thankful for that explanation. On the other hand, we know that when a computer is running in there can be a great deal of confusion, so we should be careful about the legal liability. I noticed many of 1711 my legal hon. Friends listening to what the hon. Gentlemen said.
In Clause 4(8) we note the variation of 30 days; but, at the same time, in Clause 8(3) the refund is to be not less than 30 days. If the Minister varies a person's vehicle licence without his consent for a period of, say, three weeks, he gets no compensation. This seems unjust and we shall want to amend it in Committee.
I do not see my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro), but I think that he will wish to know whether the special number plate is to be allowed to remain.
§ Mr. Carmichael indicated assent.
§ Mr. Webster
I take the Parliamentary Secretary's nod on that as being as good as a wink and acceptance.
§ Mr. Carmichael
There will be arrangements for cherished numbers. I think that that is the technical name.
§ Mr. Webster
I thank the Parliamentary Secretary. I think that that has prevented my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South attending the Committee stage. However, it is a little early, as yet, to tell.
I now come to the memorial to the hon. Member for West Ham, North on the subject of continuous liability. We support efforts to stop the evasion of taxation responsibility. At the same time, many points need to be taken into account in protecting the individual. We do not want the thing swung round so that every individual will be presumed guilty unless he proves himself innocent. We are talking about ordinary citizens—not business organisations—with their problems and lack of efficiency.
First, there is the worry that in Clause 10(1) "at any time" means retrospective liability. May I have an assurance, either here or in Committee, that if a vehicle changes hands the liability for taxation that may not have been paid does not go with the change of hands of the vehicle? This matter will cause a great deal of worry.
In Clause 10(2)(b) we have the requirement that the motorist must inform the computer that he is not using the vehicle. This is a grave change. Many people 1712 will be worried about this. Millions of people are involved. The ordinary citizen has to notify the Ministry and the computer at any time that he will not be liable for vehicle Excise Duty. I wonder how far this might go. The principle could apply to television and wireless licences. I do not want to annoy the other side by saying that it could also apply to dog licences. But there are all these ordinary citizens who, if this principle is accepted, will be under the obligation of advising the central department when they are not undertaking the liability.
What happens if the reminders to the Ministry go astray in the post? This has happened. We have the friendly postman, the 4d. whiz and the 5d. whatever it is, and things do go astray. They could get lost in the Ministry. There could be illness or other incapacity by the person concerned. There are those who only use their vehicle during the summer months—I can imagine the deluge of reminders from people in this sphere—those who have to be abroad, and the thousand and one emergencies which could occur. We shall want to look at this very carefully.
The citizen is not as efficient as a Government Department is supposed to be. There will be a great deal of anxiety on this matter. I think that my legal hon. friends will agree that this is a change of principle in the law of taxation. I hope that the Ministry will help us by moving Amendments to put the onus on the computer, which is our servant, and not on the citizen.
I pass to Clause 11. There are many regulations here. The third line in the first sub-section of the revised Section 100 of the Act of 1960 says:in such form as the Minister may require.We appreciate the problem of the infirm driving vehicles, and we want to avoid it; but there is probably a good deal of over-dramatisation on this subject. I would urge the medical people who are pressing this with the Minister not to be too enthusiastic and thereby cause more problems. I urge the Parliamentary Secretary—I would say this to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister himself if he would come to the House—to be cautious on this subject.
Dangerous diseases are referred to medical practitioners and panels. This 1713 week we heard of cases of doctors operating with the police and the Ministry on other aspects of medicine and the law and expressing themselves as being thoroughly dissatisfied with the immense burdens that are being placed on them. We could have considerable congestion and unconscionable delays in this matter.
Subsection (1) goes on to say that an application for a licence…shall include a declaration…in such form as the Minister may require…The phrase "may require" seems to be the main theme of the Bill. The Minister may make excessive requests for information. We are informed that in these examination papers one must include not only one's age but one's sex, which reminds me of the story of the Service man who, when arriving at that question on a form, put beside the question "Sex?" the answer "Yes".
Why is this information necessary? The nosey parker Government we have are always inquiring for information which is not necessary to enable them to govern. We will do our best in Committee to halt this trend. The Daily Express carries a report today about the Post Office inquiry if men over 80 are riding motor cycles. I wonder why this detailed information is necessary?
There is the danger in filling out forms of this type that unless the relevant regulations are printed on the back of the form, one may not know the correct diseases to declare. There could, therefore, be a great deal of accidental flouting of the law; and I suggest that there will be a lot of deliberate flouting.
Clause 12 states that a person moving house must send in his driving licence for the necessary change of detail to be made. The Post Office does not always deliver the mail quickly. If a person has sent in his driving licence and is shortly afterwards stopped by a police officer in uniform—I gather that that is the only way in which he can be stopped, although there is doubt about that—and is asked to produce his driving licence within five days at the nearest police station, he could be in danger if there has been a delay in the post. How can such a person be protected?
In Clause 15 we have a number of miscellaneous matters. This provision contains an extraordinary series of permissions 1714 available to the Minister under regulations. We read, for example, that the regulations may…require a person who becomes or ceases to be the keeper of a mechanically propelled vehicle…to furnish the prescribed information to the prescribed person in the prescribed manner".That resembles Isaiah 28, Verse 10:…precept upon precept; line upon line…here a little, and there a little ".We do not know what information is likely to be required. We note in Schedule 2 that information supplied by a police officer is to be conclusive evidence. That could give rise to danger.
We have been talking about the use of a computer and computer techniques. I recall that when we were discussing data processing legislation not long ago, when the Government set up a computer, I wondered whether it would be used at 100 per cent. capacity and, if so, when that point would be reached. To a certain extent it is the policy of the Government to have excess computer capacity and then to compete with private computer bureaus. These dangers have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett). I will not delay the House now on this matter, but we may return to it in Committee. Our objection to the Bill is the great danger that instead of the computer and the Government trying to do something to make the motorist's lot more pleasant, they will make him liable for a large number of offences and, thereby, put the onus greatly on the citizen.
I accept the basic principle of greater efficiency and reduced cost of operation. I fully accept the principle of trying to ensure that people who evade their legal taxation liabilities are caught and clobbered. At the same time, we must ensure that the innocent and ignorant citizen is protected, and this we will do in Committee.
§ 11.56 a.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)
As hon. Members will appreciate, I intend to deal with one aspect of the Bill. First, however, I must admit that, like the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) I am somewhat apprehensive about the regulations to be introduced under the Measure, but my apprehension arises for a different reason.
1715 At present we have 2,000 or more regulations concerning road vehicles, licensing and driving. On only rare occasions are most of them implemented, and I regret to say that few attempts are made to implement them. Regulations already exist to cover most contingencies, but because the Ministry says that something is not its pigeon, and the matter is passed to the Home Office, and because that Department passes it to the police, who pass it to the local authorities, no action is taken. While I welcome the general principle of the Bill, I fear that its objectives may not be implemented. Only if they are put into force will we cure the evils with which we are concerned. Unfortunately we already have evidence to show that a lot of legislation is not advantageous. I would, therefore, like to see the Ministry coping with the task of implementing the laws that already exist.
This brings me to the question of road tax evasion. I am in no way condemning the person who forgets to renew his road fund licence. It is strange, however, that so many people should forget—for two or six months and even two or three years—to renew their road tax licences. However absent-minded one may be, I suggest that it is impossible for one to overlook such a matter for such a length of time, since one's road tax licence is virtually staring one in the face whenever one drives.
§ Colonel Sir Harwood Harrison (Eye)
That is not quite so, because the licence is not directly in front of the driver. It is on the windscreen to his left, facing outwards, meaning that he may drive for ages without noticing its date.
§ Mr. Lewis
I agree that some people will forget, but they are in the minority. The Road Fund licence should be on the windscreen to the left of the driver. I agree that he might not see it on entering the car, but considering that he sees his car whenever he drives it, I suggest that 14 days' grace is ample.
In any event, I am not concerned with the small minority of drivers who are absent minded in this matter. I am concerned about whether the computer will work and whether the Ministry will see that it does work. On my way to the House today I took note of a vehicle which does not have a Road Fund licence 1716 displayed, even though I have been reporting this vehicle to the Department, the police, the G.L.C. and the Home Office for a considerable time. It is a red Jaguar. I have given a description of the car to these authorities and said where it is situated outside the House. It has been without a road fund licence to my knowledge for three years, yet no action has been taken. Any licensing officer can see it and I will willingly show the vehicle to the Minister after the debate. I have with me a list of vehicles which for up to three years have been unlicensed. When I take this matter up with the Ministry, the Department just passes it on and the ball is kicked from one official to another.
A good example of what I mean is the behaviour of a school of motoring. It is the Regal School of Motoring of Holloway. After reporting this case for two years, involving two companies and two fleets of cars, I eventually got the G.L.C. to take action. A prosecution was brought and I am glad to say that a fine of several hundreds of £s was imposed. But what happened? After the fine, they took out a quarter's licence, and the G.L.C. has admitted to me that the same vehicles are again unlicensed. These firms take people on to the roads and teach them to drive. I could name a number of these. I would say that this is wrong.
I raised in the House a little while ago the fact, which I can prove, that policemen are deliberately refusing to report these people who deliberately break the law. I can give chapter and verse of a number of cases. Mainly street traders are guilty of this offence. I have seen a policeman standing talking to the owner of a vehicle with his hand on the place where the licence should be. I have asked the policeman to report the offence but he has refused to do so. I have reported and no action has been taken.
Is it any wonder that those same people tell me that they have no fear and are not worried because they give fruit and vegetables to the policeman on the beat and they do not have to have a licence? I do not know whether that is true, but that has been put to me and I can quote half a dozen cases.
I raised a case a little while back of a policeman who had been driving his 1717 private vehicle for over 12 months without a Road Fund licence. Strangely enough, after I reported it and after a lot of jiggery-pokery—because that was what it was—I got a letter from the Commissioner of Police saying that on the day I reported it, a licence had been taken out. That, of course, was purely coincidental.
Since then I have had dozens of letters from ordinary taxpayers—and we are all interested to protect the law-abiding taxpayer—who say that they have seen policemen in their street in uniform driving their private vehicles for month after month without a Road Fund licence. They say that they resent this, and I agree with them. When one asks the police to take action and they refuse to take it, is it any wonder that people have doubts whether they themselves pay for a licence?
I am told that the Police Review, which I never read, has now made a report on this. Strangely enough, one person wrote to me about a police officer who had been driving up to the time I raised the matter in the House and the same day that it was raised and reported in the Police Review, I am told that a licence was taken out. But, of course, there was no question about the back pay.
§ Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)
If my hon. Friend has been keeping records of how many policemen or street traders evade payment of licences, has he any general comparative figures concerning, for example, schoolteachers, Members of Parliament and people in other professions? My hon. Friend has a justifiable complaint, but it might be assumed outside that every policeman is offending when those of whom he is speaking are only a small number. If he is giving figures for one set of people, equally he ought to give them for others.
§ Mr. Lewis
It should be appreciated that one is not able entirely to differentiate between trades or professions, but policemen are the law enforcers and one would expect them to enforce the law. When they refuse to enforce it and one finds that because of their uniform they are able to avoid payment, it is natural 1718 that one notices it more. Equally with regard to street traders.
My hon. Friend is quite right. I am not singling out the police. This is prevalent also among industrial concerns. I can quote business firms which have now hit upon the idea that, as enforcement is not being properly carried out, it pays them not to have licences. They are industrial firms.
Again, I have reported five or six heavy five-ton sand and gravel lorries which for the last three years—at least, until today; now, I have heard that they are to be prosecuted—have not been taxed. I know that the police, the Greater London Council, the Home Office and the Ministry of Transport have been notified of their numbers, their registration, the colour of the vehicles and where they can be seen.
Those vehicles are being used to take sand, gravel and rubble to and from building sites and the drivers are getting £200 or £300 a week tax-free. This is another point I want to mention. Some of them not only do not license their vehicles and dodge the £150 in the case of a heavy lorry, but they are afraid that if they license the vehicle, a check can be kept on them by the Inland Revenue for the £100 or more a week which they are getting for taking the rubble away. Hence, they would have to pay the tax not only on the heavy lorry, but on their Jaguar car or on their Jaguar and Daimler cars. This is going on.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) that this is not prevalent among only one section of the community. All sorts of people are doing it. They are getting in on the bandwagon and, frankly, I cannot blame them. I blame the Ministry and the authorities. I am not concerned whether the Minister will say that it is not his pigeon but is a matter for the enforcement officer or the police. It is someone's job to see that the law is carried out. It is not being carried out, and it has not been carried out.
I am all for the motorist. I have been a motorist for 35 or 36 years and I drive every day of the week. I agree with the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare that the motorist is being penalised in many ways. Hence, I am not against the 1719 motorist. I believe, however, that the motorist resents what is going on and if he sees that some people can get away with it, he wonders why he should pay his just dues.
It is not only a question of tax. I have not revealed this before because it is somewhat dangerous. There is an aspect of severe danger to this matter. Many of these vehicles are not even registered. There is no record of them. This is done deliberately, not only to dodge the tax, but so that they do not have to have a road test certificate, which many of them do not have. Many of them have never been registered under the owner's name.
I am not attacking the police. I pay tribute to them. A police superintendent told me that he had seen one of these vehicles knock an old lady down on a pedestrian crossing, a hit and run affair. Fortunately, the police superintendent, who on that occasion was in plain clothes, saw the incident and took the number of the vehicle. He thought that everything would then be all right. Fortunately, the old lady was not severely injured, although she was shaken.
The police superintendent made it his business to follow up the matter. He tells me that after nine months of trying to trace the owner, he eventually came up against a brick wall because the last person he could trace was somebody who had legitimately sold the vehicle 10 years ago. Since then, the vehicle has been travelling around with no record or registration. There was, therefore, no question of compensation for the dear old lady, who, fortunately, was not severely injured.
That leads to the next point. Because these people have no Road Fund licence and no roadworthiness certificate, they not only save the tax but they save the fee for the road test certificate. Moreover, the people who are doing this have no record kept upon them of their industrial activities. That is the big dodge and that is why many of them are doing it.
I am pleased—I do not say this boastfully—that it was because of my efforts that in the last Finance Bill a provision was introduced to cover the arrears of tax for periods when a vehicle has been 1720 on the road without a licence. Until that time, it was a wonderfully paying proposition. A person could run his vehicle unlicensed for three or four years. If eventually he was caught, all that he did was to pay for one quarter. I agree that when people are reported and they are caught they immediately go along and pay the tax. Therefore, the enforcement officer, because there is so much of this going on, is naturally pleased. He has the money for the quarter's licence, and he does not trouble to prosecute. Immediately, these people go back to the licensing authority and trade in their licence. They get back the money for the quarter less the amount for the appropriate number of days or months which have been used and start again. This is not a question of forgetfulness.
Another dodge is this. I know that the hon. and gallant Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) does not drink, but if he did he would know that there are two good drinks. One is a Bass, which has a red label on the bottle very similar to the current red motor vehicle licence. People put the red Bass label on their cars. The police see them but take no action. The colour of next year's motor vehicle licence is blue. The Worthington label is blue, and so the motorist uses a Worthington label. [Laughter.] This may be laughable, but when the enforcement officer and the policemen see this they should take action.
I have been into police stations and I have said to the police "Will you take action?" and the police say, "There are thousands of cases like this. We cannot keep up with them". I do not blame the police. Let us consider what happens on any day of the week in London except in the restricted areas marked by yellow bands. Take the Caledonian Road Police Station. From 1.30 to 2 o'clock, one sees dozens of policemen going into the station. Parked outside the police station along both sides of the road are dozens of unlicensed vehicles which they pass by with impunity. There is plenty of opportunity to enforce the rules and regulations.
Is the Minister sure that there is any necessity for further legislation? Is he satisfied that it will make any difference? I do not see any need for it. All that is needed is the enforcement of the existing regulations. Let us ensure that the 1721 present law is implemented. I do not see that this Bill will make any difference unless the Minister gives an assurance that it will be implemented when it is on the Statute Book.
§ 12.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Martin Maddan (Hove)
I wish to talk about another aspect of leakage concerning vehicle licences, namely leakage of the value of vehicle licence data for commercial and industrial forecasting purposes. I have been in touch with the Ministry of Transport on this subject over about three years. As a member of the Market Research Society, I was asked by the society to try to help in this matter. The society could welcome one of the main purposes of the Bill—setting up the central office in Swansea—provided that we had a categorical assurance from the Minister that vehicle licence data will be made available, perhaps for a fee—there would be no objection to that—to those who want it.
The problem relates particularly to the manufacturers of motor vehicle components and the distributive trades. The component manufacturers and the distributive trades cannot get data on the number of new vehicles being licensed by make, model and year, which is exceedingly important for them. I referred to this on 4th May, 1967, when we were debating the Report of the Select Committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Woolwich West (Mr. Hamling) on the Government's statistical services.
A manufacturer of wiper blades like Trico Folberth must know something about the number of cars with windscreens of different shapes going on the market. It does not have that information. In practically any other country worth a rap, the company could go to the distributors and say, "If you stock our blade, there is a potential market of so many hundred thousand vehicles, so it is worth stocking them." It cannot do that in England, which is a most extraordinary state of affairs, which must be remedied.
In the distributive trades—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will link his remarks to the Bill, which is about licensing.
§ Mr. Maddan
Yes, Mr. Speaker, I will do so.
In the Bill the Government propose to establish facilities at a central office and will be able to make this data available, but they give no undertaking that it will be done. I hope that the opportunity will be taken to make this data available. I am explaining why this information is essential.
The Motor Agents' Association has installed a computer so that its members can control stock levels of spares and replacement parts. But some of the essential information to be fed into the computer concerns the number of vehicles for which such parts will be required. They cannot get it reliably and satisfactorily from the motor manufacturers, for a wide variety of commercial reasons. The motor manufacturers are trying to sell vehicles, and it may be in their interests not to reveal that a certain model is a bit of a flop. Therefore, lack of this knowledge can put people stocking spare parts in a hopeless position.
The present position concerning motor manufacturers is this—and here we come to another abuse concerning vehicle licences. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which is really the vehicle manufacturers, pays the Ministry £10,000 a year to get new vehicle data from the local authorities. This data comes from members of the public and not from motor manufacturers; it comes from people who fill in the vehicle licence form. The society analyses this data by make, model and year and makes it available only to British vehicle manufacturers.
It is very curious that British vehicle manufacturers are prepared to declare to their most direct competitors, namely, other British vehicle manufacturers, details of their sales but are not prepared to have that information made available to the component manufacturers and the distributive trades. In every other vehicle manufacturing country in the Western world all this information is available—with the possible exception of France, where it is available only through the back door, which is a typical French arrangement, and we should not hide behind it.
The Ministry says that it is not in the public interest that this information should be made available beyond the realms of British vehicle manufacturers, 1723 because, not as a result of any Statute, but as a matter of policy, the Government do not release information based on official returns if it reveals the business of an individual manufacturing company. I can understand that principle. But if they adopt it, they must stick to it, and they must not make data available to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders just because there is a sort of masonic agreement between the Ministry and the manufacturers that they will break the rules themselves but will not allow anybody else to do so. This is very unsatisfactory.
Now I come to the exact position at present and what I think must be done, and what I have been saying has been to lead up to just this. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology—the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Fowler)—wrote to me on 10th July. Talking in this part of this letter specifically about new vehicle registration, he said:I am glad to be able to inform you that agreement has been reached in principle on wider access to details of new registrations. The methods of implementing this decision are still not finalised, and I will write to you again when these have been agreed.In the previous paragraph he referred to discussions with the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. Why particularly with the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders? They are the people with no problem. Why not with the component manufacturers? Why not with the distributive trades? Those are the people who have a problem. So we have an assurance that agreement has been reached in principle on wider access, but we do not know how wide, and we ought to know that, and if we do not get an assurance from the Parliamentary Secretary today I shall see whether I can move a new Clause to the Bill in Committee.
The second thing is that we do not know when agreement in detail on this will be reached, and so as to both the scope and timing of the agreement we are very anxious. This has all to do with new vehicles, but I cannot conclude without saying something about the park of vehicles—old and new ones—as a whole, because this is also very important. The hon. Member for The Wrekin, in his letter, kindly said that a comprehensive 1724 statement could be issued when the new system at Swansea is in operation. There could be, but he gives no assurance that this is to be so, and we want that assurance, also, relating to the total vehicle park.
The hon. Gentleman also said, and I am glad to know it, that the Ministry is considering a special manual exercise to count the total vehicle park in the meanwhile. But that is only another hope, and in view of all the disappointments and the secrecy that has been maintained—and the, I think, ill-advised policy which has been adopted over past years—I very much hope the Parliamentary Secretary will say something in his reply about this too.
If he is not able to be absolutely categoric today he must expect Amendments to be moved in Committee.
§ 12.23 p.m.
§ Mr. Will Griffiths (Manchester, Exchange)
I hope that the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Maddan) will forgive me if I do not follow him in what I think was an extremely interesting speech, but I would reinforce what he said about the need to examine the Bill in detail in Committee. I am sure that those especially interested in the Bill will look forward to his deploying his argument in great detail, especially about the use of the computer and what might be the use of a considerable capital investment in a wider sense than that envisaged in the Bill.
I suppose that most hon. Members and their constituents often hear nowadays the observation that the police persecute the motorists. I am sure that other hon. Members will have heard, as I often have, people say, "Why do the police always chase the motorists? They really do persecute us. There are much more important matters for them to attend to." I believe this to be a gross misconception about the enforcement of the law on motorists.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) said he has been a motorist for 35 years, and I suppose that anyone who was a motorist before the war will recall that in those days it would have been quite impossible to have driven along the roads for any length of time with an expired Road Fund licence. The reason is very 1725 simple. There were fewer motorists and relatively more police, and the enforcement of the law was the more easy.
While my hon. Friend was speaking I was reflecting that in those days when I first had a motor car I could just afford to pay the quarterly licence. I was often in a state of some anxiety as to whether I should be able to renew the licence, and I took full advantage of the 14 days' grace between the expiry of the licence and the date at which it had to be renewed. I cannot remember one single occasion, during any of those periods of 14 days, when I was not stopped by a police patrol car and the police politely put a sticker on my windscreen to ensure that I would renew the licence or to warn me that, if I did not, I would be prosecuted.
It is a myth to suggest that the police these days are harder on motorists than they used to be. It is a not a question, really, whether the police are harder on motorists or not. The fact is that they are overwhelmed by the problems which face them. Everybody could regale the House with personal experiences—anyway, those of my generation. Consider how impossible it would have been to park without sidelights in a street. One would have been reported at once, and, undoubtedly, prosecuted for such an offence. Nowadays motorists have manifestly more licence than they had thirty years ago.
Some of our suburban streets, certainly in London, are almost impassable to pedestrians because of what I sometimes think is the arrogance of the motorist who parks halfway across the pavement with complete disregard for the welfare of pedestrians. I know that many of our suburbs were not designed to provide garage and parking places, but it is a mistake to think that motorists are being persecuted.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North has done a very considerable service by his persistence in raising this matter in the House of Commons. I suppose that, to some people, it has seemed to be rather a triviality. I have never thought so. It is not a triviality, really, is it? All of us are concerned about the law being brought into disrepute. We may argue very much about what the law ought to be; that is the function of the House of Commons, and it goes on every day; and hon. Members exercise great 1726 vigilance, and quite rightly, over the Executive on these matters and about the desirability of laws being enforceable. Here we have one which is manifestly not being enforced—the law about vehicle licensing. The breaking of it is on such a scale, and so obvious and so easily recognisable by the citizens, as to be damaging to the whole conception of law enforcement.
Stimulated, perhaps, by my hon. Friend's interest in this matter I have myself, from time to time, on going for a walk where I live, started to count among the vehicles parked along the road the number of those with licences no longer valid, and I have not gone a mile before abandoning the exercise, because they are so numerous. My hon. Friend is quite right. This applies to all classes of the community. It would be a mistake to single out any one section, for the evidence is that the quality of the car is nothing to go by. From my observations this applies to old jalopies and Rolls-Royces. The serious thing about it is the contempt in which the evader holds the law, and also the contempt in which he holds his fellow citizen who is law-abiding.
It infuriates me to think that the man who lives perhaps just across the street, and who is evading paying his licence, thinks that people like me and my neighbours who are paying for licences are mugs. That irritates me profoundly. So I do not think that there is any difference between us on the need to try to do something about this matter.
I was sorry and disappointed that at the conclusion of his speech my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North said that he did not think that anything in the Bill gave to the Executive more powers than they already have to enforce the law I would like to look at this in more detail, although I have not the expertise on transport matters of many hon. Members. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) seemed to be rather more concerned about the invasion of the privacy of the individual than about the need to put an end to the evasion of the law.
§ Mr. Webster
I made it clear that we on this side were determined to help in this matter. The expression I used was that we did not want any bilking. At the same time, one must preserve the 1727 balance relating to the rights of the citizen.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I quite agree, and I apologise if I slightly distorted the hon. Gentleman's remarks. As I understood him, he was objecting to the obligation being placed on the citizen for notifying the computer that he did not intend to relicence his car. This is a matter which should be considered in Committee. I was led then to saying that the hon. Gentleman placed emphasis on that. Of course, he said that the law ought not to be evaded, and I readily acknowledge that.
If it is clear, as it must be to all of us, that the law is not being enforced, and people are not paying their road vehicle tax, what is the remedy? It is true that the police are not enforcing it; this is not through ill-will on their part, but because of the enormity of the task. I do not know whether it is in order for me to say that possibly one might find other instruments to enforce the law, but this, no doubt, will be thoroughly examined in Committee within the rules of order. It must be faced that the system is breaking down and that we and our constituents are being outraged by this. The obligation is upon those of us who find nothing in the Bill to remedy the position to produce alternatives.
Even if one accepts the central computer, and even if the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare is persuaded that this is reasonable, as I understand it the system will not be in operation fully until 1975. I do not know whether that means that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North will see little change in the position during the next six or seven years.
§ Mr. Frank Tomney (Hammersmith, North)
I have been closely following my hon. Friend's interesting argument. Although I am not a lawyer, it occurs to me to wonder, if an unlicensed motor car is on the road for a quarterly period while covered by a yearly insurance premium, what is the position should the car injure or kill a pedestrian and the insurance company, by a clause in the policy, renders the claim invalid?
§ Mr. Griffiths
My hon. Friend knows me well enough to know that I cannot 1728 answer that, but no doubt the Parliamentary Secretary may wish to reply to it.
§ Mr. Carmichael
I mentioned 1975 as being the date for the total application of this provision. Hon. Members will realise that, because of the large number of records to be transferred, there must be a timetable, of which I could give details if hon. Members are interested. There are altogether, between driving licences and vehicle licences, about 40 or 50 million documents to be transferred, so it must be done progressively.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I am much obliged for that answer.
I hope that when the Committee considers this more detail might be given, and perhaps the Ministry will be able to persuade us that there will be a progressive improvement arising from the legislation before the enormous task to which the Parliamentary Secretary has referred has been completed.
I turn now to Clause 11 which deals with physical fitness, and the rationalisation of disabilities. I understood the Parliamentary Secretary to say that there was to be no change except for a more exact definition. He is not here including an extension of the existing disabilities but redefining them and making the definitions more precise. That is to be welcomed, but we should be concerned about greater road safety. Most people would agree that the infamous breathalyser has produced beneficial results, perhaps more by its psychological effects than by the convictions which have been secured through its use.
I must here declare an interest. Outside the House of Commons I work in ophthalmic optics. When I am examining people's eyes I am shocked by the visual standard of many of my patients who come to me for the first time before they take a road test. That, indeed, is the only reason they come. The number plate test given is very rough and ready and is conditioned by many factors, as my professional colleagues who are closely interested in this matter have reminded me. They believe that it is inadequate for present requirements it involves too many variables, such as light, weather conditions, the cleanliness, design, colour, position and type of plate, and the general nervousness of the subject.
1729 No doubt if I were to argue that every applicant for a driving licence or for the renewal of a driving licence ought to have an eye test by a qualified opthalmic optician or ophthalmic medical practitioner, I would be open to the charge of pushing to the extreme a vested interest, and I am not doing that. Not immediately, but in the future, we must devise a more sophisticated screening method for testing eyesight than the rough and ready check of reading number plates.
I have had plenty of personal evidence of the low standard of the eyesight of people who are for the first time applying for a driving licence. This leads me to suspect that a large number of people who have not had to face the test, but have simply renewed their licences are on the road to the danger of themselves and their fellow citizens.
I am sure that the Bill, while receiving a general welcome today, will be susceptible to close examination in Committee, and I hope that it will emerge as a piece of legislation that will make a contribution to greater safety standards in our transport.
§ 12.40 p.m.
§ Sir Ronald Russell (Wembley, South)
I shall be very brief, because I want to make only two points. First, I wish to support the hon. Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. Will Griffiths) in what he said about tests, provided that no one suggests the imposition of any definite age limit. I saw in the Press a few weeks ago that a coroner, a Mr. Milne, suggested that people over 60 should not be permitted to drive at all. I think that that is a monstrous suggestion. Probably it was made after a very sad case that he had before him.
There may be scope for test to see if people are fit, but there can be no scope for any age limit for automatic disqualification. I do not know whether the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) drives a car, but, judging by his work in this House, if he has the same standard of physical fitness as his mental fitness, he would be perfectly capable of driving a car at his age. I hope that, we shall have none of it.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that an eyesight test would be useful, providing 1730 that statistics show that eyesight failure has been a contributory cause in a significant number of accidents. I have not seen it suggested anywhere, and I wonder if the Minister has any information about it.
I support my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) in his plea that too great a burden is put on the general public by this Bill in some respects, as it is by other legislation. I am wholly behind the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) about the need for getting in all drivers who are not paying their licence fees, but I am not in favour of putting further obligations on the public. The administration—and I do not mean only this Government—tends to put more and more burdens on the public, and in my view it is quite wrong. We gave a Second Reading to the Post Office Bill a few days ago which does the same sort of thing. I would prefer to see a lessening of the burden on the public by putting it on the machine to chase up people who do not pay their licence fees. In principle, the method set out in the Bill is quite wrong.
§ 12.42 p.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
The Bill contains some useful changes but, judging from the Long Title, it makes rather a jumble of changes, with provisions concerning Excise licences, drivers and driving licences, and miscellaneous provisions dealing with the transfer of vehicles, test certificates and prosecutions for the non-payment of Excise Duty. I understood from my hon. Friend's opening speech that the main object, apparently, is to centralise the organisation dealing with Excise Duty.
I listened attentively to his speech, and I have looked into the provisions carefully. I gather that the Clauses affecting Excise Duty provide for the transfer of responsibility from local authorities to the Minister of Transport, and then they make the local authorities the Minister's agents. Local authorities are given power to enter into agreements with the Minister, presumably to exercise the powers that they had before, subject to the authority of the Minister. From a practical point of view, I do not know to what extent, if at all, that will result in an improvement.
1731 The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) referred to an important point about delegated legislation. I agree with him in his condemnation of this extension of delegated legislation, and I do so for this reason. In delegated legislation, laws result from the passing of regulations, and there is no power to amend them. It seems to me that we are getting to the state of affairs long ago condemned by many eminent politicians—if I remember rightly, by Lord Hewart, who was Lord Chief Justice many years ago. The time has come when a protest should be made against the idea that discussions in this House are irrelevant when we frame our laws. When a Bill comes before us, we are able to discuss it and we have the chance of moving Amendments in Committee. When regulations are brought in, we have no power to amend them. I venture to support the protest against the increase of delegated legislation.
I turn now to the problem put so well by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis). He has been assiduous in drawing attention to the failure to prosecute when vehicles are unlicensed and licences are out of date. On a former occasion, he referred also to the risk of leaving unlicensed vehicles in the road, especially when they are a source of danger to children playing round them. He gave us a detailed account of what he had done. He acted the detective to a great extent, giving a lot of information to the powers that be. It is astonishing that there has been this lack of any follow-up and prosecution by the authorities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. Will Griffiths) asked what change in this respect is to be made in the Bill and regulations made under it. Although undoubtedly there are many cases of the deliberate evasion of Excise Duty, I think that the majority are due to forgetfulness. I confess that on occasion, I have forgotten to renew the Excise Duty for a period, and I think that it would be wrong to assume that the majority of people endeavour deliberately to evade the payment of Excise Duty on their cars. It will be a useful measure if a reminder is sent to car 1732 owners, in the same way as it is in the case of radio and TV licences. In my opinion, there should be an obligation on the Minister to do it. The cost of doing it would be covered amply by people paying the duty on being reminded.
The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare criticised the suggestion about imposing an obligation on car owners to notify transfers or other circumstances in which the payment of duty does not continue. I think that he was right in his criticism. We do not want yet another obligation put on the owners of cars to give that sort of notification. Heaven knows, there are quite enough obligations already.
The prosecution of people who deliberately evade the payment of Excise Duty for long periods is not a matter for regulation. It is an administrative question, and I hope that the Ministry of Transport will look into it carefully with a view to devising means of following it up so that prosecutions are brought and that cases that should be so punished are dealt with severely.
Clause 11 is concerned with the physical fitness of drivers. A Question was asked in the House last week which drew attention to the dangers arising from drivers with defective eyesight. The Minister was content to reply that a declaration had to be signed, that there had been a number of prosecutions for false declarations—65 in 1967—and a number of prosecutions for refusing to submit, at the request of the police, to an eyesight test. There is a danger here. At least there might be an eye test when the applicant for a driving licence is obviously suffering from defective sight. Certainly this is a matter to be tightened up.
§ The Minister of Transport (Mr. Richard Marsh)
I should like to know what my hon. and learned Friend has in mind. It is clearly impossible to test the eyesight of everybody who applies for a driving licence and to attempt to do so would be a complete waste of time. However, this is a practical problem and I do not know whether there are any suggestions.
§ Mr. Weitzman
I was not suggesting that everybody should have his eyesight tested. What I was saying was that when 1733 during a driving test an individual obviously suffered from defective sight, some arrangement should be made for his sight to be examined.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
My right hon. Friend was not present during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. Will Griffiths) who made a similar sort of suggestion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Exchange is an optician, the Minister may care to have a word with him to see whether he may be able to help.
§ Mr. Weitzman
At any rate, my comment had led to useful advice from my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North and I am sure that the Minister will be ready to avail himself of it.
A number of urgent matters could have been dealt with by the Bill but have not been included. My main criticism of the Bill is that the opportunity has not been taken to deal with a number of matters which are exceedingly important. I have mentioned some of them before and nothing has happened, and I mention them again in the hope that at any rate the Minister's attention will be drawn to them.
For instance, the opportunity might have been taken to review the position of "L" drivers. When an "L" driver gets his provisional licence for driving a car, he can drive for long periods so long as he has a qualified driver as a passenger. When a motor cyclist gets his provisional licence, he can drive anywhere. Surely there is something to be said for compelling such persons to drive within restricted areas until they have obtained a certain competence, and also—and this suggestion has been made before—for a novice driver once having qualified to carry a "P" plate on his vehicle for a probationary period. This is not an original suggestion and the system is adopted in other countries, but it is a menace that as soon as a person has passed his test he can drive anywhere regardless of the risk to others.
Clause 15 deals with the transfer of vehicles. When a transfer of ownership takes place, the log book is handed over. I deprecate any increase in the number of forms, but it may be a good idea to provide that the original owner on the 1734 transfer of a car should, by use of a Post Office form or in some other way, notify the authorities of the change.
§ Mr. Weitzman
Clause 16 deals with the checking of test certificates. I had an unsatisfactory answer to a Question which I asked about this. I am told that a considerable number of second-hand vehicles which are years old come into this country and have no test check. If that is correct, something should be done about it.
Clause 23 deals with prosecutions. I draw attention to it in view of the criticism that we are apt to place a great deal on the motorist instead of placing the onus on the prosecution, as it should be in most cases. Clause 23 is peculiar. It says:Subject to the provisions of this section, summary proceedings for an offence…may be instituted in England and Wales by the Minister, a local authority or a constable…at any time within six months from the date—and these words are exceedingly important—on which evidence sufficient in the opinion of the authorised prosecutor to warrant the proceedings came to his knowledge…".Why in the opinion of the prosecutor? Who cares what the opinion of the prosecutor is? The point is what the court considers the evidence is and whether it considers that he had the evidence. This is an extraordinary provision and I draw the Minister's attention to it in the hope that he will think about it and see that it is amended.
§ Mr. Weitzman
I appreciate that it is a Committee point, Mr. Speaker, but it is an important matter and I draw attention to it at this stage because I should like the Minister to look into it so that something can be done in Committee.
I have dealt with a number of matters, but there are many others affecting road safety and motor transport which should have been covered by the Bill and which are not covered. It would not be in order to pursue those, but I refer in passing to my remarks in the debate on the Queen's Speech about compulsory 1735 passenger insurance, and I hope that an early opportunity will be taken to deal with that.
It is a useful Bill and I hope that it will be considered carefully, but I hope that in the near future attention will be paid to the many further reforms which need to be made.
§ 12.58 p.m.
§ Colonel Sir Harwood Harrison (Eye)
I was very pleased to be in the House this morning to hear the speech of the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis). He has waged a lone campaign about licensing evasion and has brought much information to the House. Nothing like enough attention has been paid by the responsible Departments to what he has said when he has given instances of the evasion of licence duty. He not only referred to the police, but also to driving schools.
I have had a great deal to do with motor driving schools over recent years. Many are excellent, but there are some black sheep. If the Government of my own party or the present Government had listened to my advice, and had allowed to pass my Bill to register driving schools, many of the things now done by some driving instructors in their own cars would not occur.
What the hon. Gentleman said about lorries emphasies the burden which we are placing on the authorities. Only three years ago the House passed the Road Safety Act to give the police much greater power to stop and inspect lorries. Some of us wondered whether it was too much of a burden, although it was important to stop many old lorries, particularly those carrying scrap, and it now looks as though our police are overburdened.
It is no good our simply passing legislation and leaving it there. I always remember Mr. Harold Macmillan telling me, after getting a Bill through the House, "It is not good enough simply to pass a Bill through the two Houses of Parliament. We have to see that it works and is enforced". We are in danger of forgetting that in some of the legislation which we pass.
The Bill makes considerable changes, and I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for his long explanation of it. He referred to Post Office head offices. I 1736 remind him that his right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General is lowering the status of many post offices in country areas, which means that there may be some difficulty if they cease to be head post offices.
Earlier this week, on another transport Motion, I had to call attention to the absence of the Minister of Transport. I am, therefore, glad to see that he has joined us this morning. I hope that he will remain with us for the remainder of the debate and perhaps wind up the debate. This is, after all, a very human Bill which deals, in effect, with every person over 17, affecting them all in their behaviour and what they have to do. These are the ordinary citizens to whom the Minister must pay particular attention.
I agree entirely with what was said about the Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster), and I propose to underline two of three points which he made. I was not entirely happy with the speech made by the Parliamentary Secretary, and clearly there are points in the Bill which must be considered in Committee. For example, I echo the view of the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) that too much freedom is given to the Minister to make orders by regulation. If it is to be seven years before all the Bill is brought into operation, surely much more detail could have been written into the Bill.
If I may give an example, Clause 2(2) states:'The Minister shall make regulations providing for the payment by him…of compensation to or in respect of persons…who suffer or have suffered loss of employment".This involves payment of compensation to employees of local authorities who suffer unemployment. Surely the terms of that compensation could be made known now and written into the Bill.
I hope that men and women employed by county councils or county boroughs will not be too proud to work for rural and urban district councils and will not suffer unemployment, but if difficulties of this kind arise, surely we could be told the terms of compensation or we could be told that the normal redundancy provisions applicable in industry 1737 will apply here. I do not want to create a privileged class, but I well remember the way in which the Territorial Army civilian personnel were shabbily treated for compensation by the Government when the Government virtually abolished the Territorial Army.
The main purpose of the Bill is to transfer to one authority the functions of issuing licences relating to vehicles and drivers. I am sure that that is wise. In some ways it has become an obvious solution since county boroughs and county councils have become overburdened and have passed to post offices the right to issue licences.
May I draw attention to Clause 3(2)? I have read this carefully and it seems rather to confuse everything. It could have been put a great more clearly. We know from past experience with legislation that Parliamentary draftsmen are not infallible. Obviously, we have to amend Bills. But if I read this subsection correctly it means that if, under the Royal Commission considering local government reform, a council is abolished which has been issuing licences, but the Minister of Transport wants it to go on issuing licences, it can be kept in being as though it had never been abolished. Surely that is not necessary. If one local authority is abolished, another will take its place. When we see such provisions as that we begin to wonder about the rest of the Bill.
I am sorry that my words appear to have offended the Minister of Transport, for he has already left us and it seems that he will not reply to the debate. It seems to me that Clause 6 puts very great power—indeed, far too great a power—into the Minister's hands. He alone is to be the judge whether a motor dealer is suitable. We have seen that under recent legislation passed by the House the Ministry are moving against the small garage proprietor, for example, almost driving him out of business.
Is this another attempt to force the small man out of existence? The Minister's powers under the Clause ought to be limited. Indeed, a limit is laid down in Clause 19, but I read in the Evening Standard two nights ago that in the future motor dealers will be reduced to the very big combines and the very small dealers working in backyards. In fact, 1738 we still need the middle-sized business which at the moment is threatened.
Clause 6(3,c)(ii) almost raises the question whether we need test certificates for new vehicles. Some of which have come on to the roads were in a state which indicated that that might be necessary, for some new vehicles come on to the road in a very bad condition.
The Bill also deals with the surrender of vehicle licences which in future will be calculated on a day-to-day basis. Presumably that is a quid pro quo for Clause 10, which provides that unless notice is given, a vehicle is presumed to be on the road. Has the Minister satisfied himself, from his technical advisers, that this can be done on a day-to-day basis, working with computers, and is this the reason why, if everything has to be postponed to 1975, we shall nevertheless require such a large number of people to run this new system? We should be satisfied on this point or we may run into great difficulty. We should not lightly abandon the basis of the unexpired part of the licence on a monthly basis which may still be the most economical and easiest way of handling the matter.
Clause 10 deals with continuous liability for vehicle excise duty, which places an onus on the owner, if he is not renewing the licence, to give notice to the licensing authority. There is some reason behind this provision, provided that it is properly understood and made sufficiently widely known to the public. But it is, in a sense, presuming a man guilty, which is contrary to our system of justice, under which we always presume a man innocent until he is proved guilty. This is a change which will take a lot of putting over to the public in order to ensure that they understand it. A form stating this provision—and this may be the Minister's intention—should be issued with every new licence form sent from the Department.
I cannot over-stress the importance of this matter. People forget these things very easily. I represent a farming area, and I have received a number of letters over the years from farmers who have forgotten to make an application for a subsidy, for example on barley, when they are entitled to the subsidy. If these things happen in trade and business circles, they 1739 will happen much more often with ordinary members of the public.
Will the Minister tell me how much consultation there has been with the Home Office to ensure that when the new system is introduced, the police will enforce these licensing provisions? If not, we are wasting our time discussing the matter this morning. There are hundreds of unlicensed vehicles on the roads, some of them parked in all sorts of places, and nothing seems to be happening about them. This problem must be resolved if we are to be sure that the Bill will be enforced. We must see that in due course—even if it takes seven years or more—these cars are removed from the road.
I want to say a word about drivers and driving licences. Here the individual is concerned. I should like to know more about what the Minister has in mind concerning relevant disability cases, in Clause 11. The Clause does not appear to be entirely clear. Also, I should like to know what is meant by the phrasethe driving of a vehicle by him in pursuance of the licence to be a source of danger to the public.On many occasions I have moved Motions concerning road safety, and have raised various factors concerning drivers. I shall not weary the House by going into the different categories, but I repeat that the man who is very aggressive is a danger on the road. A thug who bashes an old woman on the head may go to prison for that offence. He is probably a very dangerous driver. Will such a person be banned under the Clause? I referred to this question in a speech on 24th January, 1964, when I mentioned the different categories.
This is a matter to which we ought to pay attention. In my opinion, if an aggressive man has been convicted of a crime of violence, for some time after he comes out of prison his driving licence could be suspended, instead of his being able to get straight into a car and dash here, there and everywhere, probably maiming someone in the process.
In Clause 4 reference is made to a person disqualified by reasons of age. Perhaps at some stage during the passage 1740 of the Bill the Minister will be more explicit. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wembley, South (Sir R. Russell). I hope that the Minister does not have in mind imposing a top ceiling on age. That would be wrong, because people vary in physical fitness. It would be far better, if necessary, for them to have medical tests. On the other hand, the Minister may be contemplating upgrading the lower age limit from 17. We all know from the figures that have been published that the period between the ages of 17 and 21 is related to a high percentage of accidents. In this Session we shall alter the age of responsibility for many things. The Minister may have in mind the Latey Committee recommendations. He may be thinking about raising the lower age limit to 18. If so, the question ought to be discussed in Committee.
I agree, as provided in Clause 13, that persons who are dissatisfied may appeal to a magistrates' court. Clause 17 provides thatThe Minister may by regulations…Surely in respect of something as straightforward as the marking of engines and vehicle bodies the Bill could be more detailed. I see no reason why the Clause should not clearly set out the details, instead of our having to wait for regulations.
The Bill is extremely disappointing in its financial aspects. In the first year of the centralised system the cost will be about £11.3 million. This, presumably, is more than the cost today, because today's figure, if other things remain as they are, will go to £12.6 million in seven years' time. In something so mechanised as this I should have thought the financial saving should be a great deal more. I am not sure why the extra postal cost will be as much as £2 million. It may arise from the reminder form that is being sent, because I should have thought that it would be no more expensive to post letters to Swansea than to anywhere else.
There is the question of the £9.7 million refund to car owners in terms of a reduction in Excise Duty and an increase in refunds. This small amount will be welcome to some motorists, but only to a small section. The majority of motorists have their cars on the roads for the whole year. Nevertheless, this provision is 1741 acceptable, and is some slight counter to the obnoxious increases in Excise Duty imposed on the motoring industry by the present Government. Are the Government having a change of heart, or is it a case—as I hear—that this amount will be more than absorbed by increased licence duties or petrol duties in the near future. It may well be that when new duties are imposed the Government will say, "After all, under the Vehicle and Driving Licences Bill motorists are getting £10 million back". That will be a very poor excuse. It is no reason at all.
If the staff is to be reduced to two-thirds—and I still think that that is a high figure—why is the saving so small in terms of running the new set-up? I do not want to go into detail, but from what I can gain gather from reading the Bill the whole cost of setting up the centre will be written off in about five years. This is going back to the Treasury, and it is a very bad way of accounting. It is provided that some premises may be rented back from local authorities. Surely some better system can be found.
I find no compelling financial reasons for making this change. We want to see whether something better can be done. Is a period of seven years really the shortest time in which this alteration can be made? If it is so desirable to chase crime I must point out that seven years is a longer period than the Second World War lasted, and look at what we did then! If there is determination in this matter I am sure that the whole thing could be concertinaed into three or at the most four years. The other night we debated the new Highway Code. I suggested that a copy of this new code should be issued with each car licence. Perhaps we can incorporate a provision to that effect in the Bill.
The Bill is desirable, but because it gives a lot of power to the Minister and is also concerned with the human factor it needs careful investigation, Clause by Clause and subsection by subsection. We saw how badly prepared the Transport Bill was in the last Session. I do not blame the Parliamentary draftsmen entirely, but everyone will agree that an enormous number of Amendments had to be made—some made by the Government and others were by the Opposition after acceptance by the Government—to make the Bill not quite so bad. We 1742 must make sure that it is not possible to bring this alteration about in less than seven years.
There is nothing political about the Bill, and I hope that hon. Members on both sides in Committee will try to shorten the period required to bring the new system into being, to make greater savings, and also to see that too great a burden is not thrown back on ordinary citizens. We must make the ordinary man feel that he is playing a part in the scheme, and to do this the Minister should begin the most vigilant application of existing law. If unlicensed, apparently abandoned cars were got off the road and the owners were summoned for not having licences the public would see this Bill in a different light, and would support it.
§ 1.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)
The hon. Member for Eye (Sir Harwood Harrison) will forgive me if I do not follow him into too many detailed points. However, he is right to say that we are not considering the Bill on party political lines. He referred to our earlier debate on the Highway Code, a piece of unfinished business. Since we started and are finishing the week with highway matters, it might be said that we are doing more useful work on Monday and Friday than in between the two.
It is only a month since the Gracious Speech announced thatLegislation will be introduced…to establish a central system of vehicle registration and licensing.The Ministry should be congratulated on getting this priority in the legislative programme for the Highway Code and this useful piece of legislation. Ninety per cent. of the principles of the Bill will be accepted by almost everyone. Different Members will disagree about the other 10 per cent. on different grounds, whether political or logical.
The Bill is demanded by technical progress and the need for more efficiency and the reorganisation of social pressures. The need has been created by the people. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster), who likes to sweep in on these debates like an E-type Jaguar missing on about three of its six cylinders, seemed to think that the Bill should be intended for the benefit of 1743 motorists. As I have said on similar Bills, it could equally well be introduced by a Treasury Minister, since 90 per cent. of the purpose of licensing is to raise taxation. It has side benefits, like knowing who owns cars, but the real purpose is taxation, and any benefits to motorists are secondary.
I am glad that the centralisation is to be based in a development area, which will be a partial return to the regions. My own county, Lancashire, will have as its centres Liverpool, Manchester, Preston and Barrow-in-Furness, geographical areas, but I am concerned about the effect of this on the figures and letters on licence plates. Any driver knows that A stands for London, AA for Hampshire and that K, KA, KB, KC, and KD are the Liverpool letters. Manchester has its own, Lancashire is B, Worcestershire is AB. If I wanted an exotic plate of my own, I would have to go to Barrow-in-Furness, to get a plate EO 1, which would be out of the scope of my pocket.
What effect will this change have on local registration, in county boroughs with local identification, and on the procedures and the numbers which will be available? The reorganisation will be a matter of balance. I hope that the reorganisation will be done with due regard to those in the local authority services, whether at Preston or anywhere else, who have given mainly excellent service to the motoring public in registration over many years.
Apparently, the most controversial Clause will be that relating to lapsed licences and continuous liability. I do not like it as it stands, but can understand the Minister's dilemma and the reason for this proposal. The case has been made so strongly today about evasion that, if it is not impossible to enforce, it could be argued that, because of widespread evasion, this might be one solution.
When I changed from a quarterly to a monthly licence, I went for 10 days without a sticker on the car and wrote out a notice for the left-hand side—I did not think of the beermats referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis)—saying "Application has been made as from 1st November." I went around in 1744 fear and trembling, but was, fortunately, not stopped. We all know that hon. Members cannot afford to be involved in a licence evasion or a traffic difficulty, since it is they and not Bill Smith who are held up in the local papers. This is the best reason for making M.P.s good drivers.
I have had experience, like my hon. Friend, of passing along certain roads for three, six or 12 months' running, seeing the same cars bearing the stickers saying, "Application has been made for this vehicle." I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. Will Griffiths) that it is the sheer pressure and volume of work which has prevented the police from being completely efficient in this matter.
The hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Maddan) linked his remarks to the possible use of the statistics which will be available. I hope that, in this matter, as in any other, information will be made as widely available as possible to those who have a right to it. The hon. Member mentioned the dissension among the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the Motor Agents' Association, the distributors and the component manufacturers. No attempt has been made, apparently, to use the Minister's powers of intervention to get an agreement. The ideal solution would be an agreement between the society and the association, after which there should be no difficulty in making these statistics available.
There are 630 transport experts in this House and even more in the House of Lords, reformed or unreformed. If we were once a nation of shopkeepers, we are now a nation of drivers and transport experts. It is remarkable that, although on every other transport Bill, hon. Members have been inundated with advice, observations and requests—our Highway Code debate earlier this week was an example—on this Bill I have had only one set of observations, from the R.A.C., to whom I give credit for the way it puts forward its points of view. I do not always agree with it, but I congratulate it and am sorry that my own association, the A.A., is not so diligent.
This almost total absence of requests from interested organisations—the dealers, the motor vehicle associations and, in the main, the clubs, shows that the Bill is supported, or at least faces no 1745 great opposition. This will be confirmed after the debate when people write to agree or disagree with us. It is necessary, useful and desirable in its broad principles but will obviously be discussed in detail, and altered or amended in Committee. It will be a very interesting Committee. There is a danger of those who speak on Second Reading being put on the Committee automatically, but those who attend these debates are willing to accept the risk. I am pleased that the Bill has come forward so early and hope that it will go through as soon as possible. If advice is accepted in the spirit in which it is given, it will end a better Bill than it started.
§ 1.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)
I agree that this is not a political Bill, but, nevertheless, it affects the vast majority of the adult population, so it is by no means unimportant. There are many flaws in it and I hope that, in Committee, we shall be able to iron these out and make it, when it finally passes its Third Reading, as it undoubtedly will, a better Bill, through expressing our ideas on how to make it work more efficiently.
I see no reason why centralisation should take so long. Has the Minister a building in mind, or does he intend to build one? Whatever it may be, surely this scheme can be put through more quickly.
Clause 2 allows the Minister to make financial arrangements with the local authorities. At present, they receive the money for the licences and have to maintain their own staffs to issue and check licences. They have their income and liabilities. How will this proposal affect the income of local authorities? We all know the financial difficulties they are undergoing at present and I would not be prepared to accede to any step that would affect their income. I note that the Bill makes the Minister the sole arbiter of how much should be paid to the local authorities in respect of this loss of income.
I come now to the licensing Clauses. I shall not comment on the questions of repayment or possibly paying only for a particular week or day. This is a small change which may assist many people. But much has been said about the deliberate evasion of licence duty. Licence 1746 duty is a tax. It was primarily intended to pay for new roads, for example. Those who deliberately evade it are deliberately evading the payment of tax, and deliberate evasion of tax should be rapidly ascertained and prosecuted.
I have not gone into the deep researches which some hon. Members seem to have done as to whether many vehicles on the roads show these signs of evasion, but I accept, in particular, what the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) has said. But he slipped one point in his speech concerning acceptance by policemen of fruit and vegetables from evaders. I am sure that he was repeating what someone else has said to him and was not himself alleging that he knew of some sort of recompense being offered to the police in this way.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
I repeat that I had reported for at least 12 months that a certain trader's fruit and vegetable van had been unlicensed all that time and that no action had been taken. I then spoke to a policeman about it. When he had gone off, the owner of the vehicle said to me, "It is no good reporting me. No action will be taken because we give the police fruit and vegetables." I do not know whether this was correct or not. All I do know is that, for 12 months or more—and even after that incident—the vehicle was not licensed.
§ Mr. Doughty
As I said, the hon. Gentleman was repeating what someone else had said to him and was not himself making a case against the police. Of course, once one has registered a car in one's name, one is continually liable. Obviously, we shall discuss these matters in Committee. The real question is enforcement against those who tend deliberately to evade duty, and I do not think that the proposed licensing provisions are enforceable against them. People move around the country a great deal. They ought to give notification of change of address but often do not do so, and requests for information or notification are returned by the Post Office as "addressee unknown " and so forth.
The only way to enforce the licensing provisions is on the vehicle itself in the street, whether stationary or in use. The hon. Gentleman referred to people putting red beer labels in their window stickers, 1747 but surely that is easily ascertainable. Indeed, a Home Office representative should be here to explain the position, and how difficulty or easy it is to enforce this form of taxation. It must be enforced and I agree with the spirit behind the Clause that it should be enforced.
One of the most difficult matters is to get off the roads, as we must, those who, for medical reasons, are unfit to drive. But Clause 11 puts the onus on the person applying for a licence. But who, for example, is going to say on his application form, "I am an alcoholic"? Alcoholism is a disease known to doctors. Has the Minister ever heard of anyone admitting this in his application? Of course he has not.
People frequently come before the courts, perhaps in relation to motoring offences, who are then disclosed to have defects of some kind or another. Yet there is no power in the Bill for the court to direct that such persons shall no longer be licensed until they have undergone medical tests. It would be impossible, in view of the numbers involved, to say that all applicants for licences must produce medical certificates on the state of their health. I am trying to find something that would be workable, however, and I am pointing out that, in certain court cases, it is said in defence, "This man is an alcoholic" or that he is suffering from some other disease. That man may be punished for crimes other than motoring offences, but there is no power in the courts to rule, following such evidence, that he is not to have a driving licence again until he has gone through a medical test. The Minister should look into this aspect to see what can be done.
There is far too much delegated legislation in this Bill. It is in almost every Clause. It will be impossible to discuss that delegated legislation adequately. All one can do with regulations is to pray against them as a whole. There is no way to get a change in them after they are made. We should know more about these regulations so that we can improve the Bill.
Clause 20, relating to requests for information as to the date of birth and sex, is an attempt to deal with what I regret to say is all too common nowadays. 1748 A person is disqualified from driving by a court in one part of the country. As he wants to drive for business or other reasons, he goes to another part of the country, changes his name and goes on driving, perhaps with a provisional licence at first. This is too common an offence to be ignored, and, although it is not expressly stated in Clause 20, no doubt that is the reason behind it. It will mean that a person caught for an offence will have to disclose this information so that it can be traced whether he is disqualified in another part of the country.
Far be it from me to introduce the problems of immigration and colour into this debate, but I must draw attention to one aspect of the matter. I wonder what will be the use of these provisions in the case of someone with a name pronounced better in India or Pakistan and born in a Pakistani or Indian village. How will the police find out whether he has been previously disqualified.
Many people have not been born here, but in other parts of the Commonwealth and Europe. We have to look at that again to see whether we can ever further tighten up what is a great and growing fault in our administration and a great and growing danger upon the roads of people who are disqualified driving with licences obtained in another part of the country. They may only move nominally to another part of the country to apply for a provisional licence from that particular local authority.
I would draw the Minister's attention to one matter about prosecution. There is a Clause dealing with limitation periods. Looking at Schedule 2, page 38, line 25, we see:For the purposes of this section a certificate signed by or on behalf of the prosecutor and stating the date on which such evidence as aforesaid came to his knowledge shall be conclusive evidence of that fact…I do not like a certificate being handed in as conclusive evidence. It may be prima facie evidence. It might be evidence for the reasons therein set out, the facts on which he received the evidence and where from, so that it can be challenged. But to put in a certificate and say, "You cannot discuss it; it is conclusive evidence", brings a harsh atmosphere into the Bill. I know that the Minister will look at it, and perhaps 1749 by Committee stage there will be another form of words inserted into the Bill.
No one could possibly disagree with or dispute the general principles of the Bill. I have mentioned one or two matters. If I went through the whole Bill Clause by Clause we should be here until well after 4 o'clock. I will not do that. I hope that in Committee the Minister will be lenient and tolerant and will assist over many matters which hon. Members in all parts of the House will wish altered in order to assist him in carrying out the fundamental ideas which he wants enforced. If he does, I am sure that he will have the assistance of all hon. Members and this complicated and difficult system of licensing will be carried into effect.
When we have centralised licensing, I hope, for proper cause shown, that the information therein will be available to members of the public upon payment of a small fee. I say "for proper cause shown", because if someone bangs my car or his car is a nuisance I must be able to find the registered owner. It is no use saying that this is a Government secret and I cannot be told, because that is a hindrance to the proper administration of justice. At the same time, those who are chasing erring spouses and do not know where they have gone, knowing the number of the erring spouse's car they will possibly want to know where the owner is registered. That would not be a proper use of this information.
I look forward to discussing matters in greater detail at a later stage. I hope that the Bill will obtain its Second Reading today.
§ 1.44 p.m.
§ Mr. John Lee (Reading)
Like the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty), I do not intend to go through all the Clauses on the Bill in detail. I will make one or two general observations about some of them and deal with one or two suggestions which, I think, might represent improvements in the text of the Bill.
We all welcome the change. This is one of a number of matters of national importance for which local authorities have for a long time borne the burden. This is one instance where there is a case for centralisation. Many Members on both sides have argued against centralisation 1750 because of its dangers of bureaucracy, but this is one exception which commends itself in a very wide measure of agreement.
We are not sorry that it is not to be concentrated in London. There has been a tendency in recent years for a number of centralised Government Departments to be moved out of the capital to places like Newcastle and Hastings. In this instance it is to Swansea. That, too, is something with which hon. Members will not quarrel. I hope that it will not offend the Free Wales Army and that there will not be any demonstration of a violent kind as we had against the Inland Revenue in Cardiff.
I now turn to one of the two provisions in the Bill which demand a certain amount of comment. The hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East referred to Schedule 2, paragraph 8. I entirely agree with his observations about the use of the term "conclusive evidence" concerning certificates. This practice is to be deplored for many reasons. There is too much tendency nowadays for matters appertaining to minor offences to be treated as statutory matters to which there is no answer. The mere fact that the offence being arbitrated and adjudicated upon is of a comparatively minor character is no reason for avoiding the usual burden of proof. Many who practise in the courts, particularly concerning minor motoring offences, feel that the burden of proving innocence lies upon the defendant—at any rate before lay magistrates. This should not be encouraged.
I have one other criticism of this paragraph. I am not happy about the extension to a limit of three years from the date of commission of an offence. Where the offence is serious there is a case for that, but the overwhelming majority of matters with which this Bill will be concerned are minor motoring infringements—careless driving, parking offences, obstruction, and so on. Therefore, it would be wrong if it should be felt that there was no need for hurry in these matters—that it does not matter if it takes two and a half years before the offence is brought before the court. Evidence gets blurred in the minds of witnesses in any matter after a time, and the more trivial the matter the more likely it is to be blurred. While I do not say 1751 that this is a wholly objectionable provision, I feel some concern about it. The provision in the 1960 Act was an important one requiring a notice to be given within six months.
§ Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)
With respect, if the hon. Gentleman looks back at Section 244 of the principal Act, to which this provision relates, it is convictions for driving while disqualified or uninsured use of a vehicle. They are serious offences. I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that strengthens still further his criticism of "conclusive evidence" being used in such cases.
§ Mr. Lee
I do not understand why I are being corrected. Of course, driving while disqualified is a comparatively serious offence. What worries me is that we remove from the authority an incentive to bring matters to justice quickly. There may be a case for such a limitation to apply, not because one wants to see people go unpunished but because the authorities should not be allowed to become dilatory. I appreciate that there are formidable difficulties in the application of this principle. I will not press the matter now, except to say that it might be applied to a number of offences in this category.
The courts tend to regard motoring offences as somehow being different in character from other offences; and to some extent this may be justified. There is, however, an overlap. A number of motoring offences are just as anti-social, and, apart from questions of punishment, should not be regarded as carrying with them less social stigma than many of the more orthodox criminal offences. Nevertheless, I am not particularly enamoured with this provision.
It is excellent that there should be a regular provision made for the surrender of licences, and this is long overdue. I hope that it will not provide too much additional work for the authorities. If it did, it would offset some of the good work which will be done by centralisation.
I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East about providing information concerning personal antecedents. He gave a good illustration of this. It seems that there are so many motoring offences that it is difficult for the authorities 1752 cross-check with each other. One knows of instances of people who have managed to "take the authorities for a ride" by moving from one part of the country to another; of gregarious lorry drivers who, having collected the requisite number of offences to become disqualified in one part of the country, have gone on to repeat the exercise somewhere else before the authorities have been able to check up on them.
I welcome the 14-days' expiry provision, although I would have been prepared to see a longer period. The volume of business is so great that, as long as there is every reasonable intention to comply with the law, 21 or even 28 days might have been reasonable. The period should not be too long because that might give an incentive to the lagger, and not too short because matters would be made administratively inconvenient.
I do not think that anyone will quarrel with the abolition of special driving licences for visitors to this country. They have never required particular standards of driving and have only complicated fee licensing system by representing yet another category of vehicle user on the road.
The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) spoke of the legal consequence of a notice of reminder. It will be generally agreed that this is unlikely to have any great consequence. There cannot be any doubt that the burden of renewal of a licence must be on the licensee. I cannot think of anyone having a reasonable ground for saying that he was unaware of the need to renew or, as it is sometimes put in the courts, that he needed to be put on inquiry. Reminders would be helpful and this piece of good sense is to be welcomed—just as for many years one has seen the value of broadcasting licence reminders being sent out, although they have not necessarily stopped people from not renewing their wireless and television licences.
For some years drivers have been able to renew their driving licences for three years. I suggest that it should be possible in future to have a vehicle licence for a longer period than now applies By buy in bulk, as it were, people would be able to save and there would be less administrative work in the sense that 1753 there would be a diminished turnover of business and fewer cases of evasion to be pursued. Such a step might act as an incentive to people to renew their vehicle licences, although I appreciate that if traffic increases at the rate expected the Minister might be hazarding future revenue. I trust that he will bear this suggestion in mind.
I welcome the Bill and hope that it will have a reasonably uneventful Committee stage.
§ 1.57 p.m.
§ Sir Clive Bossom (Leominster)
The hon. Member for Reading (Mr. John Lee) put forward an interesting suggestion about vehicle licences being current for a longer period. Anything that will lessen the burden on the motorist is to be welcomed.
I welcome the Bill, which will streamline and modernise administration. The use of a computer is also to be welcomed and I hope that the Minister will confirm that I.C.L. has been given a firm contract to install a computer at the central office in Swansea. From the point of view of prestige and our ability to export more of these machines, it is important that the computer is made in Britain.
The computer will be able to collect and store the details of driving offences and this will enable magistrates to be in a better position to deal with driving cases. They will have this information at their finger tips. I also welcome licences being from date to date instead of from month to month. This will mean a small saving for the over-burdened motorist.
Like many of my hon. Friends, I have serious reservations about Clause 10. A great matter of principle is at stake, particularly since mistakes happen in the Post Office and computers are not infallible. Muddles could occur and it would seem impossible to prove liability.
The hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) deserves a small halo for the long campaign which he has carried on over Road Fund licence evasion. He has been right all along to raise this matter and the Government have been equally right to take action. But the hon. Gentleman has blown up what is provided in Clause 10 out of all proportion. The situation is not as serious as the hon. Gentleman made out.
1754 Clause 11 deals with physical fitness. To what extent will decisions be based on expert medical advice? Provided an epileptic takes his medical treatment, all is well. But what happens if he forgets to take his pills? Surely he could be a danger to other road users. I do not know whether enough thought has been given to this matter. Will an epileptic cease to be kept under review after he has been free from attacks for three years? A careful watch must be kept on this situation.
I realise that the road research experts say that physical defects are not the major causes of accidents. However, much more research should be made into the question of old age. Nor do we have the complete answer concerning eyesight, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. Will Griffiths) said.
Clause 20 requires the date of birth to be given. This may cause the raising of eyebrows among elderly gentleman drivers. It will cause the raising of eyebrows of ladies of all ages. I should like to suggest a more useful piece of information. Why do not we have a passport type of photograph on every driving licence? Over the years, I have hesitated to press this because, as hon. Members have said, the motorist is already bearing an excessive financial burden. This would be just another additional expense. But most countries in Europe and America insist on a photograph. This would help the police. It would be useful confirmation of the correct owner of a licence. Many young people drive cars, and they merely borrow their friend's driving licence and get away with it. It is time that we considered the possibility of putting photographs on driving licences.
Clause 21 is too vague, because the Treasury can make increases without any check being made. All in all, I feel that much of the Bill is needed.
§ 2.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Albert Murray (Gravesend)
I welcome the Bill. I should like to know whether the provision of taxation and duty particulars on vehicles has been thought through. For the first time since the end of the war, the Ministry of Transport is beginning to catch up with the motor car explosion. Nobody at the end of the war really thought that in 20 years or so there would be as many 1755 as the present number of motor cars on the road. About one family in four owns a motor car. Only after this period of time are we beginning to pass the legislation necessary to deal with the situation. I congratulate the present Minister and his predecessor on some of the legislation which has been introduced and which is to be introduced. Most of it is much overdue. I am wondering whether, by 1975, when the system has been centralised, we may have fallen behind again. According to the Bill, we are to spend about £15¾ million on the installation of a computer at Swansea. This is a great deal of money. I wonder whether the computer should have been used to work out a better method.
Has the Minister considered in depth the possibility of putting the charge for taxation on the price of petrol? The present situation causes anomalies. A driver pays £25 for his motor vehicle licence. He may drive his vehicle only at weekends, yet he pays exactly the same price as I pay, and, as a Member of Parliament, I use my car throughout the year. I am sure that the computer could work out a mean average based on the amount of road usage. The purpose of the Road Fund licence was to make provision for motorists in terms of better roads and facilities. If an additional charge were put on the cost of petrol and diesel fuel, a more equitable system would result.
In addition, a great deal of office work which must be done would be eliminated. At the moment, we have 189 motor vehicle registration offices. Even when the £15¾ computer is brought into use, there will still be just less than half the number of offices, namely, 81, in existence in 1975. I should like to know a little more about the Ministry's thinking on this matter.
I turn to the question of the location of the new area offices. How much account has been taken of the location of offices in the Government's plans for regions? Has consideration been given to whether they are in the best places in regional terms and has account been taken of possible changes in regional development?
How much consultation has there been between the Government and the insurance companies? I understand that one 1756 of the questions on car insurance forms is whether the car is taxed. I understand that when a car is involved in an accident the insurance company is not liable to pay insurance if it is not taxed. There should be a greater tie-up between the authorities issuing licences and the insurance companies.
The Government must consider some aspects of motor car insurance. A car crashed into the outside wall of the property of one of my constituents. After paying for the damage, he found that the car driver was not liable for damage to the value of the first £25. That has nothing to do with the Bill, but it shows that, because there are anomalies in insurance matters, difficulties arise. If the car is not taxed, the car owner may not succeed in his insurance claim and the person who has suffered damage may not be compensated.
§ Mr. Carlisle
I do not think that that is correct. A person is not covered by insurance if he is either disqualified from having a licence or has never held one. If he has merely failed to pay the tax, I think that almost all the insurance companies would consider him covered provided he had held a licence before.
§ Mr. Murray
I hope that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary can answer the point. My information is that there are loopholes in insurance because of the non-payment of taxation. If that is so, it should be ironed out between the Government and the insurance companies.
I welcome the Bill, but we must not jump to the conclusion that, when it is passed and we get centralisation in 1975, everybody will rush to his local office to register and license his vehicle. There have been implicit criticisms of the police in this matter, but their duties will be just as great. If the crime position remains the same, the police will still have the same difficulties of combating the crime wave. Who is to say what the priority shall be between catching criminals in the full sense of the word or somebody who has merely evaded payment of his licence fee?
That is why I consider that, even at this stage, it might not be too late to consider methods of research into the licensing system to see whether it is worth while coming back to my original 1757 suggestion of having a tax on petrol and diesel oil equated with the present income from licensing as opposed to streamlining the existing organisation. Certainly, I hope that the Bill will be another step forward in the legislation from the Ministry of Transport to streamline Britain's motoring laws.
§ 2.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Berry (Southgate)
I am sure that no hon. Member would be so lax as to allow himself to have a car which was not licensed. I certainly cannot, since the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) is one of my constituents. I admire him for his work in spotting these cars. I am sure that the great majority of the public are honest and that in the great majority of cases of those who do not license their cars the reason is simply one of mistake. Nevertheless, there are those who deliberately do not license their vehicles.
I agree with the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Murray) that the Bill will not necessarily solve those problems. Even under the new system, the police must still find the offenders. Therefore, the problem against which my hon. constituent has campaigned will not necessarily be over by 1975.
This is an interesting Bill and obviously, in principle, I agree with almost everything in it. Speaking as a Welshman, I certainly agree with the transfer of the offices to Swansea and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock (Mr. Michael Heseltine) will take the same view.
I hope that the Minister will accept that there may well be considerable teething troubles in connection with the transfer. It is all very well to specify a date, but it does not necessarily follow that as from that date everything will go well. I hope that the Minister will allow for mistakes. Wonderful as computers are, we know that they can sometimes issue gas bills for as much as £1 million. Therefore, there are bound to be troubles.
I hope that the savings in administrative costs will benefit the motorist directly. When the period for which driving licences are issued was changed from one year to three years, I was very disappointed that the cost remained at 15s. for three years as against 5s. for 1758 one year. One would have thought that the saving in cost for the three-year period might have permitted a slight proportionate reduction in the cost of the licence.
I must declare an interest in the principle of cherished number plates. I have two from the City of Glasgow, and I would not like to lose them.
I have my doubts about Clause 10 of the Bill. Again, we will be depending a great deal on the computer. We are also very much bound by the principle of Ministerial discretion. I hope that in Committee we can go into that problem in more detail.
I support those who have expressed the view that it should be possible to issue reminders when new car licences are used. I have never understood why reminders should be sent for the much less expensive driving licences, but never for car tax.
I would like to follow the point which has been made concerning the possibility of a longer period for car licences. There are obvious difficulties about this, but if licences could be issued for a three-year period this would mean that at the time the first licence expired a car would become due for its first test under the existing regulations. This might fit in very well.
On Clause 11, hon. Members have spoken of their experience with problems on the medical side. I doubt whether the improvements are all that they might be. I am somewhat concerned about the expression "prescribed disability". In the previous Act, the requirement was that a declaration should be made in the prescribed form. Possibly, in Committee, we can discuss changing the wording and what effect it has.
Subsection (2) of Clause 11 states:If…on inquiry the licensing authority are satisfied from other information".I would like to know what form those inquiries will take and how wide a field they will cover. I have always thought that we could considerably improve upon the original licensing form, in which one entered "Yes" four times, "No" twice and "Yes" another four times and tried to get them in the right order.
I am glad that we are tidying up the categories of vehicle for which a licence 1759 is issued. I have always been puzzled at the different categories of vehicles which I am allowed or not allowed to drive. I may drive, for example, an agricultural tractor as long as it is not a track-laying vehicle steered by its tracks. It has always seemed to me that there was room for improvement in classification.
I am not very happy about the powers of the courts concerning the date of birth. I appreciate that as a means of checking it is in some ways useful, but I would like to know whether this information will be made public. There are people who would not necessarily like their date of birth to be made public. In the newspaper this morning, not for the first time, I noticed a reference to Miss Zsa Zsa Gabor, who, I see, is 45. [An hon. Member: "She has been for some time."] By the time she is next in the news, I shall probably be older than her. If this information is helpful, it should, nevertheless, be restricted to those who really need it.
Clause 20 refers also to the different laws in Scotland. We do not have a Scottish Minister present, but possibly, in Committee, we might be told something about the reason for the different phraseology concerning Scotland.
In the debate on the Highway Code on Monday evening we raised the question whether a police constable could make an arrest or stop a vehicle only when he was in uniform. Clause 20(4) of the Bill uses the wordswhich enables a constable to require the production of a driving licence".The wording of Section 223 of the Road Traffic Act, 1960, wasso required by a police constable in uniform ".I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can tell me why the words "in uniform" have been left out of the Highway Code and the Bill, whereas they were in the Road Traffic Act, 1960, which still applies to the Highway Code and, I should have thought, to the Bill, too, in this respect.
I shall make no comment on the increase in penalties except to say that it is still more vital to enforce them.
I welcome the fact that drivers from overseas will now be treated in an easier 1760 way to enjoy the amenities we do when we drive in most European and other foreign countries. When I was driving in Italy this year I was given a piece of paper similar to a licence. I had to put it in the licence. It translated into Italian the different types and classes of vehicle which I was allowed to drive. Presumably, if I had driven a trolleybus a policeman might have stopped me; by looking at that piece of paper he would have known, even though he knew no English, that I ought not to have been driving it. I thought that a very helpful provision.
I am sure that we shall have a very interesting Committee on the Bill. Judging by the number of comments which have been made, we may even beat the record on last year's Bill and take longer over this one, although I make no suggestion that there was unnecessarily lengthy consideration. It is a helpful and an interesting Bill and will certainly contribute to safety on the roads. I support its Second Reading.
§ 2.41 p.m.
§ Mr. A. H. Macdonald (Chislehurst)
I hope that the hon. Member for Southgate (Mr. Berry) will not think it discourteous if I do not comment on the points which he has made, because I should like to refer to a matter which has not been touched on at all so far. This Bill is called the Vehicle and Driving Licences Bill. I take leave to suppose that it therefore refers to motor cycles and motor cyclists just as much as it refers to cars and drivers, but I think that so far everybody who has spoken has, unintentionally, I am sure, spoken as though cars are the only vehicles on the roads and that drivers of cars are the only people who hold licences. I want to refer particularly to motor cyclists' driving licences, because there is something which I should like to see in the Bill but which is not there.
The motor cyclist's driving licence differs in one or two respects, and it is rather curious that it should be so, from the driving licence for a motor car. Before a driver of a car can obtain a licence he has to go through a period of instruction, and during that there is a chap sitting beside him to guide him. On the contrary, the learner motor cyclist simply puts on an "L" plate and he is away. There is that distinction.
1761 I suppose that, because instruction is not compulsory the business of instructing people in how to ride motor cycles has never been a commercial proposition, and there are no motor cycle instructing schools of a commercial nature in the same way as there are driving schools to teach people how to drive cars. The only serious instruction which is given is done through a voluntary scheme sponsored by the R.A.C., and there are various schools all over the country, mostly under the auspices of local authorities, with whose assistance the R.A.C. and local cycling clubs give forms of instruction in how to ride motor cycles. However, only about one learner motor cyclist in ten takes advantage of those facilities. The other nine simply put "L" plates on their motor cycles and they are off on the road, possibly as extreme dangers to other road users.
Therefore, for some time there has been vexed consideration of the question, how can more—young people particularly—be encouraged to go through the period of instruction which is offered by the R.A.C. at the schools which it runs? The swiftest glance at the accident statistics will show that if there is one respect where improvement in our accident rate could be achieved with the least possible expenditure it is quite clearly that of motor cycling.
Therefore, from time to time the suggestion has been made—and this is the point I really want to put to the Minister—that the issue of a licence to ride a motor cycle should be linked in some form or another with the instruction and the testing which the R.A.C. provides at its several schools. Indeed, some people suggest that the two things should be the same and that if somebody successfully passes through an R.A.C. school and obtains a certificate of proficiency at the end of the period of instruction then that should be acceptable in lieu of a motor cycle driving licence.
When this suggestion has been put to the Ministry there have been objections, partly on the ground, which I think I understand, that the Ministry has responsibility in these matters and ought not to delegate that responsibility to some outside body however responsible and worthy that body may be, and there is something in that. But then there is the second argument put forward, that there might 1762 be no consistency in the approvals granted to people passing through R.A.C. schools in this way, as opposed to the professed consistency which can be provided by Ministry of Transport instructors.
I take leave to question this, because, having observed at more than one school the thoroughness of the instruction which is given, both practical and theoretical, and the detailed instruction which is given in maintenance of motor cycles, and the great care which is taken to ensure the actual test is carried out in an impartial and universal manner, by means of a manual, and so on, and by people coming down from heaquarters to see that the instruction and testing are even, I wonder whether this objection is so weighty as it has been thought to be. I submit that at any rate some form of linking between instruction and the granting of a motor cycle driving licence, even if identity cannot be achieved, would be a distinct encouragement to persuading young people to go through this course to provide instruction in the riding of motor cycles.
I have been a wee bit regretful that, although proposals in this connection have been washing arounding somewhere in the Ministry of Transport for several months, no too evident result has come in the shape of positive proposals. There has been a working party on this subject and it made quite sensible recommendations, but nothing has come forward. Even if full identity and linking cannot be achieved as has been argued, there could be some form of encouragement along these lines.
I should like to see this considered in connection with this Bill. Here we have an opportunity, I should have thought, to ensure that motor cycle driving licences are given only to those people who have gone through a course of serious instruction and who can show, by reason of the certificate given them from an impartial body, that they are indeed instructed and capable of being entrusted with riding motor cycles. It would be a distinct improvement on the present system which simply means putting on an "L" plate and driving off in to the traffic. I have no particular interest in this matter. Although I can ride a motor cycle, I do not do so. I have seen the voluntary work which is carried on at the instructional schools under the auspices of the R.A.C., 1763 and I hope that this opportunity will be taken to offer encouragement to that valuable work and some incentive to improve the road safety statistics which are now so bad for motor cyclists, especially young ones.
§ 2.30 p.m.
§ Mr. James Dance (Bromsgrove)
I hope that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Macdonald) will forgive me if I do not follow him in his remarks, but I am not a rider of motor cycles.
As do so many hon. Members, I also welcome the principles of the Bill. However, I share the fears of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) about Clause 10. As I shall say later, I sincerely hope that people who try deliberately to evade the law will be prosecuted and got at as hard as possible, but I am afraid that certain innocent motorists may also be brought into the broad penalties in Clause 10.
A person may make a genuine mistake; he can forget to renew his licence. For example, he may be abroad at the time when his licence comes up for renewal; and nowadays it is more difficult than formerly in that various documents are required for the renewal of a licence; the insurance certificate and the M.O.T. road test certificate.
Not very long ago I regret to say that I broke the law; I had no intention of doing so, and it was through no fault of my own. The previous Minister of Transport sent out a memorandum to garages saying that unless they had two hoists or lifts they could not continue issuing road test certificates under the M.O.T. scheme. I know of many garages who found it to be not worth their while to put in extra hoists, so they discontinued testing.
A short time ago my licence expired. The car in question is over three years old, so I had to have a M.O.T. test certificate. On my way to the station at the weekend I went to leave my car at a garage which used to undertake the tests and asked them to do the test over the weekend. They said that they did not do the tests now as it was not worth their while. I therefore had to leave my car outside my flat showing an out-of-date licence on the windscreen, and it 1764 was not until the following week that I came up to London and was able, with great difficulty, to get the road test done.
I do not know whether hon. Members have tride to get a test done in this part of London, but the garages which are prepared to do it are few and far between. Finally, I had to go to the other side of the river, some distance away, before I could find a garage which would undertake the test. Even then it was necessary to make an appointment. While I am entirely in agreement that those people who deliberately break the law should be punished, I hope that provision will be made to prevent those innocent people who have no intention of breaking the law from being penalised. If, over a period of years, a person has a record of always having an up-to-date licence, that should be sufficient evidence to show that he is not the sort of person who is just trying it on.
I come now to my next point, which is the other way round. I have in my constituency a problem, which applies throughout the country, of tinkers arriving, settling down and driving off the genuine gipsies. The tinkers then set up breaking-up dumps for the breaking-up of old vehicles. I have spoken about this to the police and they are greatly disturbed by it.
The tinkers buy second-hand vehicles which have no certificate of road-worthiness, no insurance and no licence. They drive these vehicles along the highway to the dump where they are broken up. Supposing there is an accident, and somebody is injured or killed, what redress is there against the tinkers? This is what worries the police. I hope that during the passage of the Bill provision can be made to strengthen the powers of the police to deal with incidents of this sort.
Last Saturday a horrifying case was brought to me of a man who, in partnership, had a small laundry and ran three vans. One van, which was parked in his own forecourt, was smashed into by a lorry, causing about £350 worth of damage and seriously injuring the driver of the van. My constituent approached the insurance companies, and the insurance company of the lorry which caused the damage refused all liability, because, it said, the lorry was not properly maintained. In the same way as licensing 1765 authorities require a certificate of roadworthiness before they will issue a licence, may I suggest that insurance companies, before they renew an insurance policy, ask for a test certificate of road-worthiness. This might help to prevent the occurrence in the future of such extremely unfair cases.
In conclusion, I sincerely hope that this Bill, which is good in principle, will be strengthened so as to catch those who deliberately break the law, but, at the same time, will not penalise those innocent citizens who inadvertently break the law.
§ 2.37 p.m.
§ Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)
Like everyone else who has spoken during the debate I welcome the central purpose of the Bill. It is right to set up a central register for driving licences and I am sure that it is more sensible than the present situation. I want to comment on three parts of the Bill, taking them in reverse order of importance as I see them.
My first point is that made both by the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. John Lee) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) on paragraph 8 of Schedule 2. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will look again at this. This is the paragraph which provides that a certificate by the prosecution, or by someone on behalf of the prosecution, when put in evidence, shall be conclusive evidence of the facts that it states. This is a great mistake. It is right to extend the period in which prosecution can be brought for such offences as driving whilst disqualified, but it would be a great mistake, on an offence as serious as that, to legislate that certain things can be proved by certificate and that the defence can have no possible grounds for objection.
My second point is on Clause 20. I do not understand the purpose of wishing to know the age, or indeed the sex, of someone who is prosecuted in a magistrates' court for an offence for which his licence could be endorsed. This is typical of legislation requiring utterly unnecessary information. It is not a serious infringement of the rights of the individual, but it is a minor infringement. Why should people be required to give their ages when there is no valid 1766 reason for it? A person charged with speeding will receive a notice from the police setting out the facts and including any previous convictions to which they intend to refer at the hearing. The accused person has the opportunity of writing to the court, pleading guilty and putting forward any mitigating circumstances. Why should he include his age on the form? What has it to do with the case? If he is charged with a serious offence, he will attend the court in person and, if the court thinks that his age is relevant, it can ask him. But in the case of a minor infringement, I cannot see any reason for the accused person to state his age. I hope that the Minister will look at this point again and decide, on second thoughts, that it is unnecessary.
I come now to my main point of criticism of the Bill. Many hon. Members have said that they are not happy with Clause 10. I would put it even stronger. I object in principle to its terms. It says that, if a vehicle is not being used, unless the owner informs the Ministry, he will be charged Excise Duty on it. That is completely unjustified.
I agree completely with the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) about the need to enforce the law, and I am sure that his speech will have caused great concern to many of us who heard it. The examples which he gave were alarming, and I do not dispute what he said, because he has knowledge of these matters which I do not have. However, since he is in the Chamber, I must say that it was a little unfortunate that he may have given the impression, unintentionally, that the police force as a whole is open to corruption in cases involving this type of offence. He spoke about the barrow boy who was not prosecuted because he supplied vegetables to the police officer concerned. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be the first to agree that that is a very serious allegation. It must be an extremely isolated case, and I am sure that he is of the opinion that the vast majority of our police are completely honest and upright in the way in which they enforce the law.
However, this has nothing to do with enforcement. If people break the law by using their vehicles on the road when they are not licensed, they should be 1767 prosecuted. With any luck, they will be convicted and fined for the offence.
This Clause, on the other hand, says that, because this problem exists, people who are not liable to tax when they are not using their cars will in future be deemed liable unless they notify the Minister in advance. This is completely wrong in principle. At present, a tax is imposed on any vehicle which is used or kept on a road. If it is not kept on a road nor being used, under the law of the land it is not liable to taxation. A vehicle can be kept in a garage and not be liable to tax. This Clause says that, if at any time in the past, a vehicle has at some stage been liable to duty and it is then kept in a garage unused and untaxed, unless the owner informs the Minister that he will not be using it, he lays himself open to taxation.
§ Mr. Will Griffiths
What the hon. Gentleman must apply his mind to is the fact that there is a widespread evasion of the law. The fact is that it was applied until recent times, and certainly before the war. If this method of reducing the amount of evasion is repugnant, as it may well be, it will be the duty of the Committee and of this House to devise a better method.
§ Mr. Carlisle
I do not disagree with the hon. Member, and I apologise if I did not hear his speech in the earlier part of the day. I agree that we must devise a proper method of enforcement. However, to attempt to do it by making people liable to tax if they do not give notice to the Minister is quite wrong. In a way, it is deeming people guilty until they are proved innocent. If I choose to allow my licence to lapse because I am not using my car, when I apply for another licence and it is not immediately contemporaneous to the previous one, I have to sign the application form stating that I have not used it in the meantime. A false declaration on the form is itself a criminal offence, and no one suggests that the vast majority of people filling in these forms are committing the offence. The vast majority of people do not willingly commit offences, and I think that it is a pity to change the taxation laws merely to meet the very genuine problem mentioned by the hon. Member for West Ham, North.
1768 My final example is a personal one. This summer, I was fortunate enough to go on a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association visit to New Zealand. On the day that I was due to leave, my Road Fund licence fell due for renewal. I knew that I would be out of the country for more than four weeks and that my car would be in my garage. Obviously and sensibly, I did not renew the licence until I returned, and I had the advantage of a month when the car was not used and when no tax had to be paid. Under the proposed system, if I had left a day or two before, the chances are that I would not have thought of writing to the Minister. Then, when I returned and tried to renew my licence, I would be told that since I had not notified the Ministry, I would be liable for tax for the month when I had not used my car.
It is wrong in principle. Even the hon. Member for West Ham, North said that he was not happy about the proposals as a means of meeting the genuine point about enforcement. It would be far better if we devised some means of enforcing the existing law rather than changing the law as proposed by the Bill.
§ 2.48 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)
I want briefly to follow the point made by the hon. Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle). I apologise for not being present throughout the debate. The point has been drawn to my attention, and it needs to be underlined so that we can have a thorough reply from the Government.
Some anxiety has been caused unnecessarily about a scheme which, basically, is a very good one in principle. I am wholeheartedly in favour of any proposal likely to improve the efficiency of the vehicle licensing system and, naturally, I support the Bill as a whole. However, if the criticisms made by the motoring organisations have any validity, it is only right that the House should pay close attention to them and not allow this Second Reading to go by without some further examination of the proposals.
If one forgets to follow all the procedures laid down for notification, one is in serious difficulty. Motorists are not always conscious of the fact that their licences are about to run out, which may cause them to break the law when no such intention is in their minds.
1769 As the hon. Gentleman has said, frequently one is not absolutely "on the ball" when the time comes to renew one's licence. It can hardly be wondered at, because one has so many other matters to deal with, and the renewal of one's road fund licence is not a matter which crops up every day. For that reason, I think that the R.A.C.'s criticism—
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis rose—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I hope that we shall not have too many interventions at this stage. The hon. Member for Orpington has just come into the Chamber.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
On a point of order. There was a point I intended to put to the hon. Gentleman, who gave way.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
I was about to say that while many people can forget, the hon. Gentleman would agree with me that the notice is stuck right in front of them for all the time they are driving their cars; secondly, they have a fortnight's notice of lapsing; thirdly, even if they overstep the mark by a month or two, the authorities will always accept a plea in mitigation, and so there is no difficulty.
§ Mr. Lubbock
I know the hon. Gentleman's view about this matter and I fully sympathise with it, but one is not constantly looking at one's windscreen to see whether the licence has run out. Only the other day I noticed that the licence had fallen off my own car, and I asked my wife what had happened to it. She said, "It is a little awkward. It must have been thrown away when I was clearing out the glove compartment with all the children's paraphernalia which tends to get stuck there. We shall have to get a replacement."
§ Sir H. Harrison
If the hon. Gentleman had been here for the whole debate instead of coming in at the last moment he would have heard the Minister say that under the new system a licence holder will get an official notice three 1770 weeks before the expiration of the current licence, so there is no need for this speech.
§ Mr. Lubbock
I appreciate that, but I am saying that one sometimes has other things on one's mind and that it does not automatically follow that because one receives a notification one pays attention to it the moment it arrives. As with such things as radio licences, one frequently overlooks these things. I am not making excuses for the casual-ness of people in dealing with important documents which arrive in their post, but merely saying that this is human nature.
While I fully appreciate the attempts made by the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) over the years to prevent the deliberate evasion of tax liability, I do not want us to go so far in the opposite direction that we create serious difficulties for the ordinary motorist who has no intention of evading his liabilities. That is the main point of the recommendations which have been made to a number of hon. Members by the Royal Automobile Club and it would be wrong if the House did not pay attention to them.
I appreciate what the hon. and gallant Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) has said. I have already apologised for not being present earlier for unavoidable reasons, but I think that hon. Members have a duty to their constituents, many of whom may be seriously affected if Clause 16 is not amended, to make some reference to it and to give the Government notice that, unless they can give a satisfactory answer at the end of the debate, the matter will be raised again in Committee.
§ 2.53 p.m.
§ Mr. Roy Roebuck (Harrow, East)
I apologise for not being present earlier, but, like the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock), I have been busily engaged elsewhere in the House.
One of the matters which the House should consider is whether we ought to tie the insurance of motor vehicles more closely to the driving licence system. Many people are concerned about the number of motorists who drive without having their vehicles properly insured. This leads to great difficulty when there are accidents and people are killed or 1771 lose limbs, or have their ability to earn a living otherwise impaired, and motorists are not properly insured. The driver of the vehicle causing an accident may be financially crippled. I am disappointed that my right hon. Friends do not seem to have considered this aspect of the matter when drawing up the Bill and I hope that some attention will be paid to it.
The House can only welcome the decision to centralise the issuing of licences. This is in keeping with the technological age on which my right hon. Friends have embarked with such vigour and enthusiasm. I hope that it will lead to the ending of the system by which many motorists are able to evade their road fund tax. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) has frequently drawn attention to this matter and most law-abiding motorists strongly feel that a tiny minority should not be able to evade the law in this way and so place greater burdens on those members of the community who pay their dues.
I commend the Bill to the House and hope that my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Tavistock (Mr. Michael Heseltine) will have something to say about the insurance aspect.
§ 2.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Heseltine (Tavistock)
I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will have exactly the difficulties which I have in winding up the debate in that it has been wide ranging with so many subjects that to cover them all is well nigh impossible. The Committee stage promises to be protracted.
I have listened to most of the debate and I have found the speeches to be constructive and helpful. There was the slightly absurd suggestion from the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. John Lee) who thought that there was a desire for an opportunity to pay licences for several years at a time in advance. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman realises how much licences now cost, but, assuming that there was a minimum of three years' payment in advance, the number of people wishing to hand over £75 for this privilege must be remarkably small. I should have thought that the House and perhaps the Committee would be 1772 better devoting attention to finding instalment methods of paying licences, or paying by banker's order, which would be much closer to meeting the general need.
The hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) spoke of the problems of eyesight. American driving licences state whether the holder should wear glasses so that a police constable may see whether the driver should have been wearing glasses at the time of any offence. It is not that one particularly wants to encourage police constables to indulge in any form of random testing, but many people who wear glasses for only certain periods might find that the knowledge that this fact was recorded on their driving licences was something of a barrier against a quick dash into the car leaving their glasses behind. This is a small point which might be remembered by the Ministry.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Sir Clive Bossom) pointed to the possibility of personal photographs being included in driving licences. These licences are being used increasingly for identification purposes, with the growth of the cheque system, and this is an aid to the citizen which might be welcomed by many people.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) made many points, on two of which I wish to comment. He referred to the cost of temporary licences to the small garage proprietor. The Bill does not lay down any amount which will have to be handed over to obtain a supply of temporary licences, but I understand that consultations have been along the lines that garage owners will be able to obtain books of up to five temporary licences. That represents £125 cash in advance, cash in the Government's hands. It is a large sum of money for a small trader to have to find, particularly bearing in mind that substantial burden which these traders have had to meet through the cost of financing their business and the imposition of the Selective Employment Tax. This is one more burden on the small garage owner. Is it intended that £125 is to be taken from such a man to enable him to use this facility, the existence of which I do not question in principle?
1773 My hon. and gallant Friend then went to the nub of the discussions which we ought to have had on the Bill, although many hon. Members have not had time to pursue it as thoroughly as they would have wished. He asked about the financial returns from centralisation by a computer process in Swansea. That is the vital question. No question of principle is involved in centralisation, for there is nothing magic about setting up a computer anywhere in the country. If such a computer is to be set up, there is no town which commands my support and devotion more than does Swansea, where I was born.
But this is an economic decision, a purely practical decision, to see whether the benefits to society, measured in economic terms, are attractive in order to commit the financial resources which this Bill enables the Government to commit to the centralisation of this system. The Preamble to the Bill contains a number of statements familiar in transport legisation. There is reference to the increased costs, to be met from the Consolidated Fund, but there is no reference to how much the increased cost will be. Presumably the Ministry have a figure in mind. The Preamble states the centralisation willnecessitate the provision of a large office and computer complex".That is exactly what we expect from centralisation. The figure of £15,750,000 is earmarked for this part of the operation. We find that in order to carry out the operation, compensation payments will be made to local authorities for the transfer of property and rights. We do not have the figure for one of these components, but we are told that an estimated £1 million is to be added to the increased cost in respect of compensation to employees who lose their jobs.
All in all, a calculation on a conservative basis suggests that about £19 million will be set aside to achieve what the Bill makes possible. I therefore ask the basic question—whether at any time, or particularly at this time, the country should spend £19 million on this exercise. I should like to ask the Minister to provide a detailed breakdown of the benefits which will flow from the exercise.
1774 I had in mind discounted cash flow returns, which I think the Treasury would want to apply to this investment. We are told that the maximum possible economies in any year are £1.3 million. That is the saving which is to be achieved in 1975, if all goes reasonably well, for an investment of £19 million. I have to ask the Parliamentary Secretory to justify that investment of £19 million in terms of a return of £1.3 million annually, because I do not see how it stands up to the criteria laid down in the Government White Paper on the return on investment of this sort in nationalised industries, or how the Government can possibly square the very small returns which are to be obtained with their own criteria.
§ Mr. Lubbock
The Financial Memorandum does not set out the saving in capital cost which would otherwise have been incurred through additions to local offices if the existing system had continued to 1975. Only revenue figures are given.
§ Mr. Heseltine
I take the point that the figures given are only revenue costs. This was what set me on the line of inquiry that I pursued. This House had no indication how this sort of scheme could be operated, taking into account the revision of local government which is likely to have taken place by then, the various alternatives it could take, or the extension of computer use by new local authorities—all those operations having been provided for in the form of financial explanations or memoranda in respect of this legislation.
I do not know the answer to this question, and there is no way in which we can know. I can only assume that the Ministry has put a slide rule over these proposals and has a comparative statement of figures showing that the real advantage lies in spending £19 million to show a return, at best, of £1.3 million.
§ Mr. Marsh
The hon. Member is missing the central point. This is not just an investment to produce a return on capital invested. This is a situation in which the whole system will physically break down under the strain. We have no alternative. The point that he makes and the information he asks for are quite fair.
§ Mr. Heseltine
I am grateful to the Minister for intervening, because when the Ministry answered my question yesterday—a day early, for which I am grateful—explaining in detail the cost that it expects to be incurred in 1975 if the present system continues, I expected to see that the costs would have escalated quite astronomically, instead of which the existing scheme in 1975 will cost only £12.6 million, allowing for an escalation of about 30 per cent. in the cost of the staff.
I can only assume that there is no conclusive evidence of a large-scale breakdown in the existing system. If there is such a large-scale breakdown or a threat of it, I am surprised that when introducing the Bill the Parliamentary Secretary did not produce chapter and verse to show the way in which it will come about.
I can only tell the Minister that, while I accept his good assurances in the matter, in Committee we shall press for the most detailed investigation of all the aspects of the financial position which went to make up the financial proposals in the Bill.
One of the gravest weaknesses of hon. Members is that they are totally incapable of making any meaningful assessment of these proposals within the Parliamentary system as it exists. We could do a better job if we were provided with greater information in advance of legislation of this sort and could, in a calm and clear way, investigate the decisions that the Ministry has made before the Bill comes to this House. Instead, we have to skate superficially over the surface.
On the evidence available there is no clear indication of a breakdown in the system, and no justification for spending £19 million to save £1.3 million in 1975. As the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) made clear, the calculation which shows a saving of £1.3 million on 1975 figures takes no account at all of any return on the capital to be spent. There is no question of writing off that capital, or a distribution of that capital, or a rate of interest on that capital. The economies claimed for this proposal are totally illusory.
§ Mr. Marsh indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Heseltine
I shall be only too happy to be corrected if I am wrong, but 1776 on the evidence available to the House the economies are all fictions.
I want to look at the detailed figures we have available for 1975. We find that some economies put forward are bookkeeping entries between Government Departments. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) has drawn attention to the fact that one economy we shall achieve between now and 1975 arises from the fact that local authorities will not receive £800,000 in rents in respect of properties which they rent to the Government. I can only assume that that means that an extra burden of £800,000 will be placed upon the backs of the ratepayers. I do not know where the money will come from otherwise. That economy will in no way materialise for ordinary members of the public.
The second example of this sort of economy is the £900,000 that the Post Office will not receive for collecting fees. That may well result in increased charges by the Post Office. So at least £1.7 million of the economies which we are promised by 1975 are simply bookkeeping entries between Government Departments which never find their way into the private sector. I have no alternative, therefore, but to conclude that the total lack of financial discipline which seems to have governed the thinking behind the Bill is typical of the way in which this Government persistently behave.
You rightly drew the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster), Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the fact that he might have been wandering out of order when he said that the last time that he and I sat on this bench on an occasion like this there was another economic crisis. It is true that it was perhaps a larger crisis than the present one—I cannot tell—but the costs then were £400 million, to be dispensed under the Transport Act. We are now dealing only with a petty £19 million, but it is typical of this Government's approach. I find it extraordinary that we should, by coincidence, be repeating the sort of strictures which we have put on this Government on two similar occasions.
Any discussion of the Bill has one common feature. All speeches on it have had to be very superficial. No one has 1777 had any choice but to skate over the surface and ask very detailed questions about the sort of Regulations which will follow. It has been difficult to detect great issues of principle, although my hon. Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) and one or two others did raise one, but by and large this is a highly detailed and technical Bill. It is the great dilemma of us all that, in practice, we shall have no real chance to examine these Regulations, to make suggestions about them and to play a part in formulating the law.
We all know that we are powerless to do more than we are doing today, because the Ministry will make up its mind, although in consultation with interested professional bodies outside, not in consultation with the public, who are the most interested body of all, and certainly not in consultation with hon. Members. They will then bring forward Regulations which we have the right to pray against, but only by rejecting them totally, and we do not want to be wrecking but to make helpful Amendments. There is no procedure for that. We have been able to make suggestions only, knowing that this is the last time that we shall be able to press the points. I have been very impressed by the speeches of the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East who have repeated these points with great force.
I should like to give an example of how one can detect a change in policy, although there may be no ground for suspicion, and nothing for probing to reveal. At the moment, there is power in the Bill for various people to demand to know the age and sex of ordinary citizens. I have just noted three occasions. On page 16, there is the Amendment to Clause 102 of the 1960 Act, which will mean that, whenever a licence is changed—in other words, in three or four years, this will apply to everyone—one will have to state one's age and sex. It will only be a short time before the vast majority of citizens are caught in this net.
Then there is the Amendment to the Schedule to the Road Traffic Act of 1962, which will give the courts, in certain prescribed circumstances, the right to demand to know the date of birth. My hon. Friend the Member for Runcorn 1778 opposed this on principle. My hon. Friend the Member for Southgate (Mr. Berry) wanted to know whether the information would then be made public. That is a second example of age and sex being brought into the public domain by civil servants and those administering the law.
The third example is that under the 1960 Act, a police constable can stop one in prescribed circumstances and demand to know the date of one's birth. I notice that he has not the power there to demand what one's sex is, but I suppose that even in this permissive society this is not yet necessary.
These are three examples where it will be possible for the age and sex of ordinary citizens to be registered and recorded. It may be that nothing more serious is intended than that the computer will not be able to function unless we give it this first-time information.
§ Mr. Marsh indicated assent.
§ Mr. Heseltine
Perhaps computers are going to play such a large part in our future lives that we as citizens must get used to the idea that these things should not matter to us—that, for example, our wives should not really mind having their age publicised, or whatever else it is that the computer cannot do without—and that we must bend ourselves to the computer. As I have said, nothing more serious may be involved but we want an assurance to that effect.
Once this sort of information is in a computer, it is possible to do a great deal with it. A large amount of research can be carried out into accidents, for example. It can do a variety of things which may be of public interest and concern. We should know, before these decisions are taken, where they will lead.
It may be that this is the prelude to the introduction of testing of older drivers. That is a possibility once we have recorded all this information. I am not now questioning whether there should be a test but, before we give this power to the computer, we should understand where it may lead us—and this is the last time, apart from remaining stages of the Bill, when we shall have the opportunity to ask this kind of question.
We want a categorical assurance that there is no other purpose in the mind 1779 of the Government than that of identification. The sad fact is, however, that, even if we get such an assurance from the present Government, it will not necessarily be binding on successive Governments. This will, therefore, be one more opportunity for the State, for the bureaucracy which rules our lives—and I do not say that sneeringly—to make decisions and to investigate our behaviour. It is right for the House, therefore, to look at this matter very carefully during its last opportunity to do so, which is today.
I suspect that we shall get an assurance that there is no intention to use the powers other than for identification, but let us at least know that we have handed them over and that the next time we want to object to them the harm will have been done and we shall have no power to get this information off the computer.
I come now to Clause 10 and the question of continuous licensing. I wonder about the principle of whether people should be expected to continue to pay regardless of any decision on their part to continue to do so. I have been influenced by the arguments on principle by my hon. Friend the Member for Runcorn and others, and by those in practical terms by the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis). I believe that hon. Members were shocked by what the hon. Member for West Ham. North had to say. His speech was quite horrifying in its implications.
I was impressed, as were other hon. Members, by the work the hon. Gentleman has done and the zealousness with which he has reported these occasions. I am appalled that it should have been necessary for him to do so. Nevertheless, he has taken it upon himself to draw the attention of one Government Department after another to open and flagrant abuses of the law and, in his own words, they have done absolutely nothing.
§ Mr. Marsh indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Heseltine
The right hon. Gentleman will no doubt ensure that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary deals with this point.
The hon. Member for West Ham, North has laid the gravest charges against certain 1780 Ministries. I was impressed at the way that he did it and the evidence that he produced and the appalling coincidences that he listed. He said that, after a year's pressure in certain cases, the very day that he threatened to take a yet more decisive step there was action. As an ordinary Member I have never had such experience with Ministries. They have always been co-operative. The hon. Gentleman made it clear that he was not suggesting a general condemnation of the police, of Ministries or of civil servants; he was merely pointing to certain examples where he had totally failed to get the response to which he was entitled.
The hon. Gentleman summarised his remarks in a totally fair way by saying that to put right the weaknesses that he and I, amongst others, have detected in the present system, it is not necessary to create a computer or to spend £19 million. We simply need to get people to do the various things that they already possess the power to do. If what the hon. Gentleman says is correct—and I have no reason to doubt it—there must be someone in some Government department not doing what he should be doing.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
A simple way of doing this, which would be helpful to the economy and to everyone, would be to give old-age pensioners the opportunity of going round sticking on the usual fixed card offence—with the right of appeal, of course. They could be paid by the guilty ones paying. The old-age pensioners who want to earn a few extra pounds could do it and the work would be done without any of this at all.
§ Mr. Heseltine
I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will take that suggestion back to the Ministry.
Another suggestion is that traffic wardens could greatly aid the police in work of this sort. I see no reason why the powers of detection which already exist should not be made more efficient by somebody saying, "This we will do". It does not seem to require any great principle or reorganisation of the existing system.
My hon. Friend the Member for Run-corn probed the principle of continuous liability. When I read the Bill I suppose that I made the sort of mistake everyone is liable to make. I read it 1781 and took the words seriously, thinking, "This is something which I would be capable of doing and it will be more efficient. Therefore, is it really a breach of any great principle which we should resist?"
I went through it superficially, first, and I think I missed the main point. There are many people—elderly people, slightly confused people, those who have not had the advantages of the education which has put most of us into this House—who simply do not fully grasp the significance of a change of this kind. It is our duty, as Members of Parliament, to consider and to protect these people. I am appalled at the prospects for these people. Admittedly they have the power to argue later that they never wanted to license their car, that they have not used it since, or that they made a mistake. But now they have to opt out of the taxation system. I believe that the Opposition would be failing in its duty if it did not warn the Government that it will look at the whole question of continuing licensing in Committee with a very critical eye. We believe that Members on both sides are worried, and we shall want coherent answers to the points which have been put forward.
There are a lot of points. We realise that under Clause 10(6)(e) the Minister has the right to make regulations in respect of non-receipt of notice. But, my word, we only have to think of the complications which the best run computer in the world will have to face. I have no reason to make remarks about the failure of the postal system. That is within the human way of life. It will always happen. It may be caused by a strike by the postmen. In 1975 and 1980 some human error may occur. I will not attempt to put the blame on this Government. However, I will point to the areas—I have listed about 10—in which there will be difficulties of one kind or another.
For instance, the paperwork which will flow from people constantly trying to prove that they have not used their cars, that they had used them but did not mean to, that they had been out of the country, in hospital, or executors arguing that they had died, or whatever it might be. Endless letters will pass backwards and forwards, which will be answered not by computer but by civil servants, 1782 who will have to examine each in detail—and who will then find the matters concerned referred to Members of Parliament for further investigation. The Minister will have to look very carefully at the regulations which he intends to make if he wishes to ensure that they do not lead to even greater complication than the existing system is supposed to be producing.
We shall, of course, give the Bill a Second Reading today, but all hon. Members realise that, while some of the general intentions of the Bill are acceptable, there is no great enthusiasm for it, because so few of the detailed questions which arise have been examined by the House. Much consultation has taken place with the people interested, and memoranda have passed backwards and forwards between the Ministry and interested organisations. Decisions, we understand, are being taken in the Ministry. But we do not know what they are. Too many questions remain unanswered. There will be opportunity in Committee to seek the answers to some of these questions, and we shall do that with great care in Committee, when we shall be reflecting the anxiety expressed on all sides of the House.
While giving the Bill a Second Reading, therefore, we warn the Government that many difficult hurdles have yet to be jumped.
§ 3.27 p.m.
§ Mr. Carmichael
With the leave of the House, I should like to reply to what has been a most useful debate, an example of the way in which the House can be a most effective place. Able civil servants and draftsmen put forward ideas on paper, but groups of ordinary people, representing ordinary people, are able from their experience to raise many valid points about them which require greater consideration. I assure the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) that no limitation will be placed on the debate in Committee and that there is no suggestion of a Guillotine on the Bill.
Most hon. Members are aware that there is a possibility of an unscheduled item being introduced later in today's proceedings. I will, therefore, reply rapidly. While the hon. Member for Tavistock (Mr. Heseltine) was speaking, I 1783 thought that perhaps his hon. and gallant Friend, the Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) may have wondered whether his hon. Friend was one of the persons under consideration in that part of his speech which referred to the introduction of driving licences for certain types of people, possibly on psychological grounds. The hon. Member for Tavistock always manages to get a remarkable amount of aggression into every speech which he makes, particularly about transport.
I will try to deal with some of the points put to me by hon. Members, some of which raised fundamental issues. Perhaps I may be excused if I do not refer to all hon. Members by their constituencies, because many of them raised the same points, although from different experiences. There was a general agreement that we were talking not about different party Governments, but about the modern process of government when we were discussing Regulations and Orders. We have tried to set out in the Bill in detail the sort of regulation and order which will be made, but the Bill will be implemented over about seven years and it is, therefore, impossible at this stage to write into it some of the detailed procedures which will be required. Therefore, as times change and as various duties are taken over from the local licensing offices, it will be necessary for my right hon. Friend to issue Regulations.
Hon. Members have asked why there should be a 30-day minimum for the refund of licences. That is the present position. One cannot ask for a licence refund in respect of only a few days. Although it may seem far-fetched to hon. Members of integrity, it is not beyond the realms of possibility for people to take out a licence for the weekend and to want a refund each Monday. This is the sort of thing which could happen. Enforcement would be impossible if there were not a minimum refund period because people would risk running unlicensed vehicles for a few days.
§ Mr. Webster
When the Minister reduces the length of the Excise licence for a period of less than 30 days, there should be compensation.
§ Mr. Carmichael
This is a matter of a decision to extend a licence or arrest 1784 the date of its duration. We could go into this in Committee.
A temporary licence will be issued when a person buys a vehicle, new or second hand, or wants renewal of a licence. The temporary licence will be pinned to the windshield until the full licence comes automatically from the central office at Swansea. This is different from reminders, which have no legal status. They are merely to assist people, just like television licence or dog licence reminders.
But there is a safeguard for the person who lays up his car for a period. If he notifies the central registry, the fact that he has laid up his car will be acknowledged and he will not require a licence. If this acknowledgement is not received, a person has a chance to write to the registry again. In spite of the criticisms which have been made of the postal service, there are therefore reasonable safeguards for the motorist.
An important point which the motoring organisations and many hon. Members have raised concern continuous liability. It is said that continuous liability is contrary to the whole spirit of British justice and the belief that a person is innocent until he is proved guilty. Objection has been made—and there is a great deal of validity in it—that there is widespread evasion and that there is an obligation on the rest of the community to try to prevent it. We do not believe that the methods which we propose will impose an onerous duty on law-abiding citizens. Ultimately, they will be beneficial to them.
We have always expected that notification of the laying up of a car would be sent, but under the new system an owner will know that his notification has been received. If a vehicle changes hands, under Clause 10, the previous owner will cease to be liable for Excise Duty as long as he can show that he did not own the vehicle as from a certain date. There is therefore no possibility of his being penalised. On the other hand, if the central office does not receive notification about a new licence or that the vehicle is being laid up, it will automatically emerge from the computer what has happened to the licensing position of the vehicle. This will be a great bonus to the efforts of enforcement, so that when a vehicle has been neither licensed 1785 for the new period nor notified as being laid up, the fact will be known. Therefore, police reinforcements in walking round the streets will be greatly strengthened.
My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. Will Griffiths) dealt with this matter at length when he said that before the war there was relatively greater enforcement because there were many fewer cars. I well remember that, particularly at the boundaries of boroughs and counties, the police would be lined up on the main roads on the day when licences were renewable, and particularly at the expiration of the 14 days, and wave people down and tell them to get something done about it. Nowadays, with 10 million cars and a total of 14½ million vehicles on the road, with all the other jobs that the police have to do it is quite impractical. Therefore, this will be one way in which the police will be greatly helped in enforcement, for the sake of the rest of the community, against the motorist who tries to evade payment of tax.
If a motorist sets out to run a vehicle without tax, if he is determined to go to the lengths that we have heard today of cutting out discs which look the same colour as a tax disc and put one on his car, if he is willing to take what I regard as the appalling risk of driving a car uninsured, untaxed and untested, there is very little except by chance that we can do to pick him up. If he is willing to be as dishonest as that, it is very difficult to detect it.
Fortunately, there are relatively few members of the community who are like that, although it is extremely annoying and disturbing that people are like that at all. Nevertheless, they are a very small number of people.
§ Mr. Carmichael
That was one of the groups I was thinking of. It would be wrong to say that all tinkers do that. Therefore, there is always a difficulty here.
The police will have certain rich fields in which they will be able to gather the offences when they are committed, 1786 and we believe that when the Bill is implemented it will certainly narrow down the field on which the police have to work. If people are so deliberate as to go to the lengths that we have heard, it is very difficult for reasonable police and law enforcement officers to keep up with them. They are always able to invent new methods of evasion.
Another point which a number of hon. Members have raised is the important question of diseases which may be prescribed. I recognise that there is a great interest in the subject of illnesses and of people who have certain physical deficiencies and who wish to have a licence to drive a car. So far, however, the evidence suggests that physical fitness is a factor in less than one-half of I per cent. of accidents. Even in that one-half of 1 per cent., physical fitness is not necessarily the only factor.
This is an extremely complicated subject. We have been having discussions with the British Medical Association, which has made certain proposals. These need to be considered with the B.M.A. and as talks develop with other bodies, a more tangible and better system of assessing illnesses may be devised.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)
Would my hon. Friend comment on the proposals affecting epileptic drivers? Is he aware that the Minister's action in this matter is considered by most people to be extremely humane?
§ Mr. Carmichael
I referred to that matter in my opening remarks. There are provisions to deal with epileptics and I know that they have been welcomed. The question of epileptics not taking pills prescribed for them has been raised, but this is another of those questions of people going out of their way to do what is not good for them. Some people deliberately take things which are bad for them. This is a question of degree.
§ Sir R. Russell
Would the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that there is no question of an age limit being introduced?
§ Mr. Carmichael
The question of age has not been discussed and there is no such limit in the Bill. If hon. Members will read the White Paper on road safety published by my right hon. Friend's predecessor they will see the position clearly 1787 set out. The Road Research Laboratory, the Ministry and various organisations are doing as much as possible to isolate the causes of accidents and tackle the most frequent types with the greatest economy. It seems, from the evidence before us, that age is not one of the most important contributory factors to accidents.
The same applies to the suggestion that after a provisional licence holder has passed his test and has become a full licence holder, a "P" should be displayed on the windscreen to show that he is not an experienced, but only recently fully qualified, driver. Such drivers are not the fundamental cause of accidents and what I said about the age question applies in this case.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
Would my hon. Friend agree that something to denote that a qualified driver has only just passed his test would be helpful, remembering what I said about the ability of a learner-driver to pass his test tomorrow, remove his "L" plates and for other drivers not to know that he is not a driver of great experience?
§ Mr. Carmichael
I suppose that all these things would be helpful, but we must assess helpfulness with cost. The idea of setting up a whole new scheme to make such a breakdown and to indicate on cars who are "L" drivers and who are "P" drivers would not seem necessary. It will be seen from the White Paper to which I referred that this category of driver is not one of the main causes of accidents. We must decide how best to spend the money that is available. There will be a gradual registration of instructors so that it will not be possible for a learner to pass his test on Tuesday and set up as a driving school on Wednesday.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
Will my hon. Friend look into what I said about driving schools not having Road Fund licences and insurance cover and taking learners on to the roads? Such people are obviously not only not qualified but are not honourable. My hon. Friend should look into this, if he does not look into anything else.
§ Mr. Carmichael
I am sure that my hon. Friend's remarks will get the publicity 1788 they deserve. He was indeed explicit and I have no doubt that the proper authorities will take note of what he said.
§ Mr. Roebuck
Has the Minister considered issuing guidance to those persons who are about to take up driving warning them against these rogues who run driving schools?
§ Mr. Carmichael
This is what I was trying to say to my hon. Friend in reply to his last intervention. Hon. Members have been concerned about the age being shown on the driving licence. This is a matter of the correct figuring for the computer. The age given on the licence will be coded and will not be understandable by the public. This is one of the few things where, except perhaps as an hon. Member said in the case of Zsa Zsa Gabor, the age is fixed, and it is a basic set of figures which can be used. Should all the documents be lost, they can be resurrected, since the individual's licence number can be made up from his name, age, date of birth and sex. This is the only reason for it.
Taking today's debate as an indication, we should have an interesting Committee stage, and I therefore commend the Bill for Second Reading.
§ 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).