HC Deb 17 February 1970 vol 796 cc285-99
Mr. Wylie

I beg to move Amendment No. 31, in page 13, line 14, leave out subsection (1) and insert— (1) Before any person uses or causes or permits to be used on a road any vehicle from which mud, clay, lime or other substance is liable to fall to such an extent as to cause danger to persons using the road he shall place, or cause to be placed, such warning notices as are appropriate in the circumstances, and where mud, clay, lime or other substance has so fallen on to the road he shall as soon as reasonably practicable take, or cause to be taken, all necessary steps to clear the road.

Mr. Speaker

With this Amendment I suggest that the House should take Amendment No. 32, in page 13, line 20, at end insert: save that any farmer who finds the temporary deposit of mud on a public road unavoidable, may instead for the duration of that deposit exhibit approved warning signs on the approaches to the hazard'.

Amendment No. 33, in page 13, line 25, at end insert— (3) Where the terms of subsections (1) and (2) cannot be effectively complied with due to the nature of the work being performed by the said vehicle and when the activity in which it is engaged necessitates the repeated use of a certain section of the highway over a period of more than one day, it shall be the duty of the person in charge of that vehicle to obtain from the highway authority a suitable warning sign or signs which he shall prominently display and appropriately site so as to give approaching traffic due warning of the nature of the hazard likely to be encountered. It shall be the responsibility of the highway authority to provide a suitable warning sign or signs on loan without charge to any person who satisfies it that there is a bona fide requirement for such a warning; and if requested in writing the highway authority shall offer guidance on the positioning of such a warning sign or signs. Where a person has complied with the terms of this subsection he shall not be guilty of an offence under the next following subsection. and Amendment No. 34, in page 13, line 32, at end insert— (5) A person in charge of cattle that require to make repeated use of a certain section of the highway over a period of more than one day involving the deposit of mud or other matter on the highway so as to leave it in a slippery condition shall obtain from the highway authority a suitable warning sign or signs which he shall prominently display and appropriately site so as to give approaching traffic due warning of the nature of the hazard likely to be encountered. It shall be the responsibility of the highway authority to provide a suitable warning sign or signs on loan without charge to any person who satisfies it that there is a bona fide requirement for such a warning; and if requested in writing the highway authority shall offer guidance on the positioning of such a warning sign or signs.

Mr. Wylie

Clause 21(1) creates a statutory offence, and during the discussions in the Scottish Grand Committee on Second Reading and in Committee several criticisms were made about the provisions contained in the Clause. I will not delay the House by going into detail about the criticisms because the Government accepted that, as the Clause stood, it was unsatisfactory, and agreed that changes would be made. The Clause in its original form is still with us, but I understand that it has not been possible for the Clause to be redrafted in the time available.

I repeat what I said before. The problem of mud on the roads from farm vehicles, and so on, is not confined to Scotland, and it would be preferable if the provision were contained in United Kingdom legislation, preferably in the Construction and Use Regulations. The provision fundamentally relates to the use of vehicles, and the Construction and Use Regulations are the appropriate regulations for this kind of provision. That is where one would look for it rather than in a roads Bill. The Construction and Use Regulations are revised every few years, and it would be possible to introduce necessary changes in the regulations within a relatively short time. But as it stands we are satisfied that the provision is not adequate.

I do not suggest that this Amendment is the solution to the problem. Amendment of the Clause is a matter for a skilled parliamentary draftsman. What is set down in Amendment No. 31 cannot claim that kind of expertise. But it seeks to embody the proposals contained in a letter from the Scottish National Farmers Union as to the best way to go about this problem.

7.0 p.m.

The Clause as it stands creates a statutory offence where there has been a steps to remove mud, clay and other substances adhering to the wheels or tracks or other parts of the vehicle, which, if not removed, would cause obstruction or danger or inconvenience to road users. It will be seen that I am paraphrasing the subsection. The Amendment seeks to create an entirely different offence. During the Committee stage my noble Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North (Earl of Dalkeith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) pointed out that it is almost impossible to prevent this kind of occurrence except at the most enormous cost which would be quite unacceptable to farmers, contractors or anybody else who was liable to create this kind of problem.

We began by recognising the fact that, particularly in country areas, one cannot stop vehicles going on to roads and depositing heavy mud and other substances on them. The Amendment would place a statutory duty on the user, if this happened to such an extent as to cause danger, to put up a warning notice before he started on the road at all. In other words, if he had reason to suspect that this would happen, his first duty before he started his operations would be to put up a warning notice.

Furthermore, if material is left on the road the person has a statutory duty to clear the road and to remove mud as soon as reasonably practicable. I understand that this approach was recommended by the Scottish N.F.U. and appears to be a more commonsense and workable approach than that which is contained in the Bill.

I do not suggest that the wording of the Amendment is adequate. It is put down merely as a suggestion to the Government as to how it might be possible to deal with the matter when the Bill goes to another place. I understand that this is the Government's intention, and it is in this spirit that I move the Amendment.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

I support what was said by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Wylie). My colleagues and I put down Amendment No. 32 simply because, having read the proceedings in Committee, we understood that it was the Government's intention to put down an Amendment on this matter, and we discovered last Thursday that no Amendment had been put down, and thought that an Amendment should be put down so that there could be a debate on the matter.

It does not particularly matter whether the Amendment stands or falls as a matter of drafting. The important thing is that we are pressing the Government for a declaration of principle that they will produce a provision of this kind, if not in this House, in another place. Those of us who represent agricultural constituencies have an obligation to ensure that legislation of this kind is well-intentioned and does not introduce severe and unintentional handicaps on hardworking farmers. Therefore, I hope that the Minister of State will be able to give a fairly firm undertaking that this point will be included in the Bill when it goes to the other place.

Mr. Adam Hunter (Dunfermline Burghs)

I am not so much concerned about mud being deposited on roads by farm vehicles as about mud being deposited in streets in built-up areas. The right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Wylie) appeared reluctant in Committee to appreciate that there could be inconvenience. He seemed to be more concerned about obstructions and dangers. This can be seen from his Amendment, No. 31, from which the words "or inconvenience" are omitted and it is this to which I object.

Since the Committee stage I have received a complaint bearing on this matter from a constituent in the burgh of Dumfermline. The gentleman concerned pointed out that there is a huge development scheme taking place near his house and the houses of his neighbours. It is a five-year project, which has been going on now for two years. All this time mud, clay and other material have been deposited on the roadway, on footpaths and on the site of his garage for which he pays £12 a year rent and rates. This is a terrible inconvenience both to him and to his neighbours. On occasions he needs to wear seaboots to get across the mud and clay, and there is a serious problem in this respect in his area.

The gentleman concerned has complained a number of times to the local authority and to the police. He has been helped by the police on many occasions, and they have had the mud cleaned up. However, recently the police have told him that they have no power to force the contractor concerned to clean up the mud. Not just one contractor is involved; several of them are. Therefore, it is difficult to pinpoint who makes the mess on the roadway.

I sincerely hope that the Minister of State will look again at this question and not give way too easily to the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite. I hope that he will now be able to say who should enforce legislation of this kind. Is it the burgh authority or the police?

Sir John Gilmour (Fife, East)

I support my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Wylie). If it is agreed that notices shall be displayed giving warning of what is happening, then it is essential that those notices should be put up and taken down daily. On many occasions in the countryside one sees notices saying "Timber operations in progress". They stand there for weeks and months, and possibly only once in a blue moon does anyone come to remove them. I hope that consideration will be given to this particular problem.

Mr. James Davidson (Aberdeenshire, West)

I, too, rise to support this Amendment No. 31 which, I suggest, is better drafted than Amendment No. 32 which stands in the names of my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh, Peebles and Selkirk (Mr. David Steel) and myself. As a practising farmer, I would draw attention to an operation which takes place regularly throughout the autumn and winter in my part of the country, and that is the employing of middens and dung courts. When this is being done it may involve anything up to 150 trips a day between the midden and the field. It would be quite impracticable to clean off the vehicle on every run since each time it has to be backed into the midden to be filled up using a front or rear-mounted loader. Therefore, I would ask the Minister to look carefully at this Clause. It is quite unenforceable, and I am sure that the Minister accepts the principle that it is wrong to introduce legislation which is unenforceable. The words "reasonably practicable" do not mean very much in this context. What, for example, is reasonably practicable when it comes to cleaning off a tractor and muck spreader?

The Amendment might have been better if it had mentioned daylight hours. If a road has been messed up, it would be wrong for it to be left in that condition during the hours of darkness. There should be an obligation on the person who has caused the mess to clear it up at the end of the working day. However, he should not be obliged to keep it clear during the day. That would be a burdensome restriction on those doing the type of work which I have mentioned.

The Amendment should be accepted or at least seriously considered by the Minister, and I hope that he will undertake to do something along the lines proposed in it.

Mr. Willis

It is clear that this is a very difficult problem. Most of the Amendments talk about putting up special warning notices for the benefit of oncoming motorists. However, that does not obviate the difficulty raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfermline Burghs (Mr. Adam Hunter). In the case to which he has referred, all that the contractors need do is put up a notice, and they can carry on for another three or four years cluttering up the road with mud and water—[HON. MEMBERS: "Read the Amendment."] They have to take all necessary steps as soon as possible. However, this job is a continuing one, and the simple idea of a notice is not sufficient.

On the other hand, I appreciate the case which has been put by hon. Gentlemen opposite. There are certain operations on farms and even in towns where it would be almost impossible to take all necessary steps to prevent mud and dirt from getting on roads. Even as the Clause is worded at the moment, the words "all steps reasonably practicable" offer some form of safeguard. I cannot see a court ruling that it is practicable to stop a lorry or a tractor on the edge of a road every 20 minutes in order to clean the wheels and under-carriage to prevent mud being taken on the road. Neither can I imagine that the police, who would have to operate it, would consider that it was reasonably practicable to do so.

Thinking about the problem more and more, I tend to come down on the side of the Government and the Clause as it is, strangely enough—[Interruption.] One would think that I am in the habit of not coming down on the side of the Government. This is a very intelligent Government. It is the most intelligent Government that we have had for years—certainly since 1951. They have tried to frame a Bill in a manner which takes into account all these various and sometimes opposing considerations. I would have thought therefore that the flexibility contained in subsection (1) was of itself probably desirable.

Having said that, I agree that there is no harm done in looking again at the position, taking into account the various aspects put forward by hon. Members, with a view to seeing whether it cannot be improved. However, I still maintain that it would be difficult to improve upon the existing wording.

Earl of Dalkeith

To show what a remarkable state of mind I am in, I begin by saying that I agree with the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) that this is the best Government that we have had for five years.

7.15 p.m.

Mr. Willis

I did not say that.

Earl of Dalkeith

I also agree with the hon. Member for Dunfermline Burghs (Mr. Adam Hunter), who made an extremely valid point about building contractors operating in towns. This highlights the difficulty that we face. We are trying to produce one Clause to suit the situation in towns and the situation in the country at the same time. I do not think it is possible to do that, because the conditions are quite different.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right when he says that steps must be taken somehow to bring to book contractors who pay no heed to warnings that they are given about depositing large quantities of mud on our streets and pavements because they are not backed up with authority. In a case where an expensive building scheme is in progress, the provision of a water pump for the spraying of vehicle wheels may not be an out of the way cost. In the country, it would be ruinous if farmers had to provide the same facilities for tractors coming off fields.

I do not suggest that my Amendments go anywhere near meeting the problem. All that I attempted to do was to introduce the idea of a system of warning signs where a farmer or other user of a road cannot help making a mess on it. In such a case, he could apply to the highway authority for a suitable notice. If the Government showed their willingness to accept the principle of displaying a notice in such a case, I would be very much happier.

Mr. MacArthur

All these Amendments have a lot of merit, but what attracts me to Amendment No. 31 is that it restricts the possibility of an offence to a circumstance in which mud, clay, lime or other substance falls upon the road to such an extent as to cause danger to road users. That is a restriction which should be applied to the Clause in whatever form it emerges from this debate.

The idea behind the Amendment is that the person whose operations are liable to cause danger in this way should pre- vent the danger from harming the user of the road by displaying warning signs. This is a sensible way round the problem. If the Clause remains as it is, a farmer's life will become impossible to follow. Hon. Members already have referred to some of the extreme problems which they would face. Perhaps I might remind the House that in every working day a farmer at some time will have to drive a tractor from a field on to a road. Every time he does that, some mud will fall off the tractor's wheels on to the road. That is inevitable.

The amount of mud falling on to the road would not cause danger to the user of the road though it could cause inconvenience. The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) always tries to seek a proper balance in these matters, and it is surprising to hear him praising a Government who seek to make inconvenience a statutory offence. What is inconvenience? How does one measure it?

Mr. Willis

That is quite true. However, until now it has not applied to the case quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline Burghs (Mr. Adam Hunter), which is a very serious one.

Mr. MacArthur

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Wylie) points out to me that the problem confronting the constituent of the hon. Member for Dunfermline Burghs would very likely amount to danger. If there is mud on a road to that extent it is liable to be a dangerous area of road because of the skid risk to traffic passing along the road. Therefore, signs would have to be displayed. I think that that point is met.

Equally, I think that the Clause has been drafted from an urban-minded view, because it pays no regard to the reality of life in the country.

I return now to the inconvenience point. I was reminding the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East that he was praising a Government which are causing the creation of inconvenience to be a statutory offence. It is astonishing to hear a Government supporter defending the use of a word like "inconvenience" in the Clause when, only an hour or so ago, the Minister of State was rebuking my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands for the use of the word "material" or "materially" in referring to the alteration of the level of the highway. What, said the Minister of State does "materially" mean? How can we determine what it means? My hon. and learned Friend rightly called his attention to the de minimis rule whereby one can measure the level at which material alternations begin. But, goodness me, if the Minister of State objects to the imprecision of the word "materially", how much more he must object to the imprecision of the word "inconvenience".

What does "inconvenience" mean? If a lady going to a party in high-heeled shoes, open at the toes, happens to tread in a small lump of mud that has fallen from the wheel of a tractor and damages the nylon stocking inside the open bit of shoe, she is unquestionably suffering inconvenience, and, because of that, the operator of the tractor is committing an offence. The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East shakes his head, but the operator of the tractor is committing an offence.

Mr. Willis

Only if he had not taken all steps reasonably practicable.

Mr. MacArthur

This is the point. It is totally unreasonable to expect a farmer to hose down his tractor wheels at all moments of the day. A farmer may drive his tractor on to a road and drop a small amount of mud which could not cause danger to anyone. But, according to the wording of the Clause as it stands, the lady who stubs her toe in the mud and damages her stockings is suffering inconvenience—[Interruption.]—if she suffers—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I want to hear about the lady.

Mr. MacArthur

If she suffers inconvenience and can show that she is suffering inconvenience, a farmer is guilty of an offence and will be liable to a fine not exceeding £20. This is utter nonsense. I cannot believe that the Government seriously intend to allow the Clause to be enacted as it stands.

What has happened to the assurances which the Minister of State gave in Committee about the re-wording of the Clause? I was not a Member of the Committee, but I understand that assurances were given. We are contemplating an absurd and totally unworkable Clause. I ask the Minister of State, when he next goes to Greenock, to look at the countryside in Renfrewshire to see the reality of farming life and to compare it with the impossible requirements of the Clause. If he does that, he will quickly turn to the Amendment.

Mr. J. Bruce-Gardyne (South Angus)

As the representative of a country constituency who was not a member of the Committee, I should like to support strongly the Amendment advanced by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Wylie).

I am profoundly alarmed by the Clause as it stands. I dread to think of the real inconvenience that it would cause to the agricultural industry. It refers to inconvenience to road users, but there is also the inconvenience to the agricultural industry.

We need only consider the rather horrific example advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur) about the lady in her hose and the tractor which was not hosed to see how embarrassing these problems could be.

I do not think that the objection advanced by the hon. Member for Dunfermline Burghs (Mr. Adam Hunter) to the elimination of the word "inconvenience" in the Clause stands up. I do not think that he has properly studied the concluding part of the Amendment, which states, he shall as soon as reasonably practicable take, or cause to be taken, all necessary steps to clear the road. This, or something along these lines, must be the right answer. First, the obligation should be on the farmer or the contractor to place a notice warning road users when danger is liable to occur as a result of mud being upon the road. Secondly, there should be an obligation upon him, as soon as reasonably practicable, to clear up the mess which has been created on the road.

Mr. Adam Hunter

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us what would happen if it is not done? Does he suggest that if it is not cleaned up at the end of the day and it lasts for about two years some legislation should be passed to make it an offence?

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

If the hon. Gentleman will accept the Amendment, then failure in a reasonable time to clear up the mess would clearly be an offence under the terms of the Clause. Therefore, his case is met.

The hon. Gentleman asked what authority was to take action against the kind of nuisance to which his constituent had been subjected. In a sense he got the answer from his right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East. But that was not his right hon. Friend's intention. He said that he preferred the Clause as it is because it is unenforceable. I believe that the Clause as it stands would be quite unenforceable. If anybody tried to enforce it, it would cause intolerable hardship, particularly in the agricultural industry, and possibly even to some contractors. That is why I feel sure that the Amendment strikes the right balance.

I was impressed by the point put by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour) about not wanting notices staying up for months on end. We know how often that occurs. I think that a slight emendation of the Clause of the lines suggested by my hon. Friend would be useful. We cannot allow the Bill to pass into law with the Clause as it stands.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

We have had a very interesting debate. The Government will certainly take into account the comments that have been made by all who have participated, including those hon. Members who made mention in Committee of this important matter.

Flanders and Swann claim in their famous song, Mud, mud, glorious mud; There's nothing quite like it for cooling the blood. Certainly the debate has been constructive, rather than critical, about how the Government should rewrite the Clause.

I welcome the Amendment, because it has given us a chance to debate the matter. In Committee, my hon. Friend, to whom I am indebted for carrying the Bill through to the end, indicated that a possible approach to the problem of mud on roads might lie along the lines suggested by the N.F.U. in Scotland which proposed that the alternative should remain open either of cleaning a vehicle before taking it on the road, as the Clause requires, or of cleaning the mud from the road where it is impracticable to clean the vehicle first.

We have been discussing with the N.F.U. and others how we might rephrase this part of the Bill. However, we are not at this stage able to put anything before the House. It will no doubt be debated elsewhere, because we propose to ask hon. Members not to press the Amendment, so it will probably come back to us and we can discuss the matter yet again.

I suggest to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands that it is not wise to rely on any revision of the Construction and Use Regulations to provide a solution to the problem. I accept that they are relevant and they may be part of the jigsaw that is the answer to the problem. But they will not in themselves be a solution. We have to put something in the Bill as well as buttressing it with what is done in practice.

7.30 p.m.

The Amendments deal with the way mud should be removed from the road. Amendment No. 31 is the one which I would choose if I had to choose any. It suggests that, where mud has fallen on the road from a vehicle, the person responsible for the vehicle should clear the road.

The other three Amendments deal with the placing of warning signs, but it is not good enough to leave it at that. Hon. Members have made a very good point about notices remaining up for some time and local authorities have put this criticism to us. They do not like signs being the only remedy. Their usefulness would be undermined anyway if the practice to which the hon. Member referred continued. There must be an obligation somewhere for putting up and removing these signs so that they genuinely refer to a happening on that day; they would be devalued otherwise.

Another point put to us is that it is unfair to leave it to the highway authority to provide all the signs. It can never control at what times the signs would be required and it might be more convenient, given my first criticism, for the farmer if he were responsible. This is still open for discussion, but although the design and so on would be matters for the Departments concerned—we must discuss this with the Ministry of Transport, which will mean discussion in some depth—we must ensure consistency in the use and nature of the signs.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

Would it not be possible to provide that the removal of the signs should coincide with the clearance of the road? Would that not be the simple and logical answer?

Dr. Mabon

That is a fair point, and we want to take account of it. We do not have to write a separate statutory provision into the Bill to confer powers. We already have them. Section 54 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act, 1967 empowers us to make Regulations prescribing the signs for a temporary obstruction or putting up warning signs and so on. The existing Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 1964 do not authorise farmers to set up warning signs relating to mud. We should have to make some amendment of those Regulations—

Mr. James Davidson

There is also the situation in which one drives around the corner to find a herd of cattle being driven from dairy to field, or vice versa, or a flock of sheep. When he is considering the Amendment, would the hon. Gentleman consider a sign to cover this eventuality too, because it is a parallel situation?

Dr. Mabon

With respect. I should like to consider that separately from the Bill. We must give our colleagues in another place some advice, and we should like the discussions on this issue, which is rather complicated, to reach a satisfactory conclusion, so that whatever is suggested in another place proves acceptable to us in relation to Clause 21. I will certainly investigate that other point, but I do not want to confuse the issue at the moment. It is difficult enough without taking it a stage further.

I have noted what my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline Burghs (Mr. Adam Hunter) said, and I would remind him that the agency for enforcing this matter is, of course, the police. We have to take into account the fact that we are trying earnestly to find a solution to the problem. The suggestion in Amendment No. 31 might be the right lines on which to deal with this. We cannot leave it at warning signs. We must clean either the vehicle or the roads as well. This is the drift of the present discussion and I hope that those putting down Amendments will accept that we must do something more. We shall be very interested to see what their Lordships make of this. On the strength of this definite assurance, I would ask the hon. Members not to press the Amendments.

Mr. MacArthur

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, will he assure us that, in whatever Amendments ire brought forward, the word "inconvenience" will disappear from the Clause?

Dr. Mabon

I should not like to give that assurance. Despite the highly entertaining "big toe, small toe" argument of the lady involved in the mud, that showed that there is a point in what my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline said. The hon. Gentleman's own argument, if not a reductio ad absurdum case, was at least a de minimis one. There is something in what my hon. Friend said. I would not like to dismiss the matter calmly, as the hon. Gentleman did, and say that there would be no question of inconvenience. That would preclude the present discussion, and that is the last thing which we want to do.

Mr. Wylie

I hope that, if the word "inconvenience" is retained, it will be qualified with the word "material", so that we do not create statutory offences in ridiculous circumstances.

We have had an interesting debate. I am grateful for what the Minister of State has said, and we will await with interest the further developments in another place. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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