HC Deb 05 April 1973 vol 854 cc745-75

10.3 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of the Motor Cycles (Wearing of Helmets) Regulations 1973 (S.I., 1973, No. 180), dated 7th February 1973, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th February. Perhaps I should say a word about the form of this motion. It started life as a Prayer against the statutory instrument requiring those riding on motor cycles to wear crash helmets, but before time could be found for it to be debated the 40 days applicable to a Prayer had run out. Accordingly, my motion has been transformed into one to "take note" of this statutory instrument. That is the procedure to be adopted, but I assure the House that the last thing I want to do is to take note of this instrument. Since I consider that an important question of principle arises here, having moved that motion, I shall ultimately vote against it and invite my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite to adopt the same procedure of principle with me and to vote against taking note of this instrument, that being the only way in which at this stage after the 40 days have passed the House can indicate its dissent from the course that has been taken.

This statutory instrument, which comes into operation on 1st June, is the end of a long story. There have been those who for many years have tried to bring the compulsion of the law upon those riding motor bicycles as drivers or passengers to wear safety helmets. This first arose to my recollection in 1956 in the Road Traffic Bill of that year. I am happy to say that I made then very much the same speech I propose to make tonight.

I am glad to say that on that occasion both sides of the House took very much the same view. Both Front Benches took the same view very emphatically and vigorously. At that time it was the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) who was on the Opposition Front Bench, and he was both emphatic and explicit in his condemnation of this gross infringement of persona] liberty.

On the Government Front Bench there was my right hon. Friend who is now Lord Watkinson. Ministers of the Crown are not usually explicit and staunch in their vindication of principles. They lend to adopt a rather more empirical view of life but my right hon. Friend was on the right side anyway. There was also Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett. He, too, spoke vigorously against what was proposed. There were other good men and true on both sides of the House. The general feeling was that this would be an outrage against the established principles of freedom which we in this country prize so highly.

At the time that that debate took place in 1956, 40 per cent. of motor cyclists —I use the word in the broad sense of passengers and riders—were in the practice of wearing safety helmets. That was the figure that we were given. It was in that situation, when 60 per cent. of those on motor cycles did not take this sensible precaution, as I am sure we all think it is, that right hon. and hon. Members, without much hesitation, took this stand of principle.

The next stage was in 1962, on the Road Traffic Bill of that year, when there was proposed on Report—an awful lot of mischief happens on Report, but I must not digress into that, tempting though it be to do so—a new clause to give the Minister power to make an order such as the one that has been made and is before the House tonight.

That again was a matter of great controversy. By that time the right hon. Member for Vauxhall had changed sides. He has done what I think is nowadays called a U-turn. I had the pleasure of quoting some extracts from his speech in 1956—I think somewhat to his displeasure. On the Opposition Front Bench was the present Minister for Local Government and Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr Graham Page). I shall not quote what he said, because I have not given him notice. I have not given anyone notice, so I must not quote what others nave said. But there were again good men and true, and they stood up for the right principles and opposed the infringement of personal liberties which this kind of thing involves.

That was only a question of power, but that is how liberty is lost—never all at once. Ministers are given power to do something if it seems desirable that it should be done. I ask right hon. and hon. Members to cast around in their memories to discover whether they can recall any instance when a Minister has been given a power in such circumstances and has not ended up by using it.

Mr. Ernie Money (Ipswich)

Would my hon. and learned Friend agree that, the House having taken that view, it was equally incumbent upon it to take a far stronger line on a matter of far deeper concern to the majority of motor cyclists, namely, the raising from 16 to 17 of the age for licences?

Mr. Bell

My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money) has raised a very interesting, but I am sure he will not mind if I say, a not very relevant, point. This has to do with motor cyclists of course, as has the cost of petrol, tyres and repairs. These regulations are all about motor cyclists, but they have nothing whatever to do with the issue of principle before the House tonight, namely, whether it is a right use of the law-making power to interfere with people solely for their own good and without having to take into account at all the good of the rest of the community.

The point at issue in 1956—I have not mentioned this before because I thought it was clear—and in 1962 was the principle of liberty as to whether it is legitimate to use the power of Parliament to interfere with somebody to prevent him from doing harm to somebody else, but not in order to force him to live his life as we think wisely and to his own best advantage.

Indeed, I cannot improve on the way it was put by the right hon. Member for Vauxhall. The right hon. Gentleman will not mind my quoting this because I quoted it in 1962 and he made his protest then. As he said then, the motor cyclist could harm himself and nobody else: … if a motor cyclist chooses not to wear a helmet, in spite of all the propaganda and all the pressure which has been put upon him he will not in fact be causing the death or injury of anybody but himself. That is a point to bear in mind. Therefore, by insisting on everybody wearing crash helmets, we shall not be reducing casualties on the roads except those of motor cyclists themselves. It is different introducing regulations providing that the motor cycle must conform to certain mechanical principles".—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 31st May, 1956; Vol. 553, c. 501–2.] That might affect other people. That, of course, is the principle. There cannot be a free society if its law-making body interferes with people on occasions when they can damage only themselves and not other people.

It may be foolish and, indeed, it is foolish, for a motor cyclist to go on the road without a crash helmet or for somebody to ride pillion on his motor cycle without a crash helmet—the order does not apply to those in sidecars—but he puts nobody in danger other than himself.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)

Would my hon. and learned Friend give way for a moment?

Mr. Bell

If my hon. Friend will be, first, relevant and second, short.

Mr. Cormack

Would not my hon. and learned Friend agree that the motor cyclist who rides without a crash helmet encourages his pillion passenger also to ride without a crash helmet? Does that not involve somebody else?

Mr. Bell

This does not apply to the pillion passenger. My hon. Friend may have been short, but he was not, if I may say so, relevant.

The regulations make it an offence for somebody to ride without a crash helmet. That person, whether it be the driver of the motor cycle or the pillion passenger, can harm only himself or herself by the decision which he or she takes. He or she cannot harm anyone else.

Mr. Money rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

Order. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bell

No, I do not. I sat down, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I thought you had stood up when you said "Order", but you had not. We have only one and a half hours for the debate and, if I let my hon. Friend in, none of that time would remain.

The decision could harm only the person who takes it. If one person persuades another to take a foolish decision in any branch of life, never mind motor cycles and crash helmets, that does not constitute an offence, even under the order. Everybody must be responsible for his own decisions and I question whether it is necessary to make it a criminal offence to take a foolish decision affecting only the person who takes that decision. It was said on the two previous occasions, and it will be said tonight, I am sure, that a man is not alone in society, that he has parents or a family, that others would be bereaved or affected by his death, and that society would lose the lives of young people. But these are all arguments which could be advanced in defence of any other interference with the liberty of the subject. No man is isolated even when he makes an error of judgment whereby he deploys himself to less than his best advantage. If that is an argument for imposing on him, by law, a wise course of conduct, then all freedom is indeed lost.

It was said in 1956 and in 1962 and it will be said no doubt again tonight, "Oh, but if a man does not wear a crash helmet he is likely to be very seriously injured if he has an accident and so he will impose expense and the expenditure of time and energy on the health service. So you are entitled to interfere with him." On the last occasion that we debated this I said that I did not think I had ever heard a more flagitious principle than this when a man has to be restrained by law from doing anything which might cause extra expense or trouble to the community. Upon that basis also all freedom is certainly lost, because we are all part of one another. If a man makes foolish decisions he may impoverish his family and be a burden on the community. At the very least he subtracts a benefit from the community that behaving more wisely he would have conferred upon it. If we are to define occasions when we interfere with people through the criminal law, surely it must be only on those occasions when the detriment they cause to others is direct and significant, not indirect. If we choose to establish a health service and to insist upon people paying for it communally through their taxes and not individually we must not use that as a lever in depriving them of their ordinary freedom and their right to make their own decisions.

The thing which slightly depresses me about this evening is that unlike 1962 and 1956 there are not a great many people here. I have not felt, although perhaps I am wrong, that same concern with principle which was so strongly and explicitly present on previous occasions.

Mr. Money

My hon. and learned Friend might have if he had given way.

Mr. Bell

Very well, I give way.

Mr. Money

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. The point I was seeking to deploy was that surely the State has a duty towards plaintiffs just as much as it has a duty towards defendants, and that being so it is entitled to create a situation in which damage to other road users legitimately is mitigated to its utmost extent.

Mr. Bell

My hon. Friend has raised another interesting point. First, I do not understand it and secondly I am convinced that if I did it would not be relevant.

Mr. Money rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We cannot have two hon. Members on their feet at the same time, however learned.

Mr. Money

Will my hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr. Bell


Mr. Money rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must resume his seat.

Mr. Bell

I think that to give way twice is quite a lot, but three times would be too many.

I was saying that what worries me is that there is not the same preoccupation with the principle tonight. The importance attached to the wearing of crash helmets has been declining. There has been an increasing willingness to say that there must be a tangible advantage— that is, pure accident and less of these dreadful broken skulls. Apparently any principle must be sacrificed provided we can show a tangible profit in what we are about to do.

I am aware that when I divide the House, as I shall at the end of the debate, even though there may be only one or two hon. Members in the Lobby—I hope that there will be more—I shall probably not carry the day. However, I venture to suggest to hon. Members on both sides of the House that if Parliament goes on taking the power of decision away from people, forcing them by law to be wise and right or to adopt what is thought to be the best practice, it is weakening the people of this country as individuals. We cannot have a strong community made up of weak individuals. It is much better to take these risks, to incur these tangible losses, in order to have a vigorous, even stiff-necked and slightly rebellious people.

What are we throwing that away for? I gave the figures earlier. In 1956 40 per cent. of motor cyclists were wearing crash helmets. In 1962 the figure was 70 per cent. It had moved up 30 per cent. The position of principle was in a way abandoned, but only contingently. Now it is being abandoned in substance.

What is the position now? It is that 88 per cent. of motor cyclists are wearing crash helmets under the voluntary dispensation. If we have a law about it— we are to have it on 1st June unless we prevail tonight—may I ask whether anybody imagines that we will get 100 per cent. conformity? Of course not. Will the figure be much higher than 88 per cent.? I wonder.

It is a difficult law to administer. When Mr. Harold Watkinson rejected it in 1956 he said that he had been advised by the police that it would be impossible to apply it thoroughly. So, for probably a marginal and trivial advantage, we are abandoning this position of principle.

It is sad that so few hon. Members should attend this debate. They are always here for the shadow boxing on economic issues, but when it comes to issues which really matter in the long run, which are allowed to drift through on a Friday or in the middle of the night, nobody knows or cares. I ask the House to support me in order that we may establish this proposition.

10.24 p.m.

Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)

I must first declare an interest in this matter. I rode a motor cycle for many years and the only time that I wore a crash helmet was when I was in His Majesty's service. Subsequently as a private citizen I refused to wear a crash helmet on the ground that it carried purchase tax and I took the view that purchase tax on an article of safety, such as a crash helmet, was immoral.

I have sat on a motor cycle as a matter of principle, just as the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) has spoken as a matter of principle. I support him on this, which may surprise him. A Socialist should support him on this, and it should not really surprise him. I take the view that this is a matter in which we are dealing with intelligent people, because motor cyclists are intelligent people. As the hon. and learned Gentleman has said, 88 per cent. of them already wear crash helmets voluntarily. They do not need a law to make them do that. I do not believe and have never believed that morality or good conduct can be forced on people by passing laws. That is really what this is about. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I hope that hon. Gentleman who are cheering will walk behind me in the Lobby on subsequent occasions. But, as they say across the Channel, "A litres temps, autres moeurs".

Certainly I do not believe that passing these regulations will save any lives, because I take the view that most sensible motor cyclists wear crash helmets— and there are many in the House tonight carrying their crash helmets who are lobbying against these regulations and will carry their helmets with them into the Lobby. Why? I did not catch that remark.

Mr. Cormack

I merely said they might get pinched if they have left them outside.

Mr. Hamling

I did not catch it that time either. The hon. Member's articulation is not so hot.

They are people who understand what motor cycling is about, and they will not accept compulsion. One of the nice things about Englishmen is that they do not like compulsion. I do not myself. I will not be pushed, and I hope that other hon. Members of this House will not be pushed.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

A pillion passenger.

Mr. Hamling

I did not catch that one either. The articulation of hon. Gentlemen opposite is not so good tonight.

I am all in favour of people behaving in a sensible way but I do not believe that we can make people do that simply by passing a law and making something a criminal offence, and this is really what these regulations are about.

The other question I want to ask is this: why pick on motor cyclists? Why not pick on motorists? There are far more people killed through not wearing safety belts in motor cars than are killed through not wearing crash helmets on motor cycles.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

A very good idea.

Mr. Hamling

Listen to the authoritarians on the Government benches. They talk about Socialists being authoritarians, but when it comes to authoritarianism they have nothing to learn.

There are far more people killed on the roads today through not wearing safety belts in cars than are killed through not wearing crash helmets on motor cycles. Why do not the Government introduce regulations on that one? I wonder why. I know that the hon. Gentleman who will reply to this debate is a motor cyclist like myself. We are two Members of the House who can claim to be motor cyclists. Obviously the Government do not get a motorist to reply to this, they get an old motor cyclist. They nobble him. I know that he used to wear a crash helmet because he believed in it, not because he was compelled to do so. Since the hon. Gentleman is a decent Englishman, I have no doubt that if someone had said to him, "You will do this", he would have said, "Like hell I will." That is how Englishmen behave, is not it?

Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)

My hon. Friend could have fooled me.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) would help the House if he did not ask too many rhetorical questions. They tend to receive answers.

Mr. Hamling

I would not mind if we got some sensible answers.

Most motor cyclists, including those who have lobbied us, wear crash helmets. The law falls into disrespect if it tries to lay down conditions which ordinary people will not accept. That is really what this order is about. They will not accept something which is partial and which, if I may say so, is based on a prejudice in certain circles against motor cyclists. Other hon. Members may have differing views, but I believe, like anyone who has been a motor cyclist or has had anything to do with young people who are motor cyclists, that in certain circles there is a prejudice against motor cyclists who are a minority of road users. The belief is that the state of public opinion is such that motor cyclists can be pushed around in a way that motorists cannot be. But if the Government are to be logical, they will lay down conditions for all road users and not just pick on a small minority.

I return to what the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South said. What evidence is there that these regulations are needed? An obligation lies with the Government to prove that the introduction of compulsion will work, when all the evidence is that most responsible motor cyclists already wear crash helmets and accept a personal obligation to look after themselves. Surely that is all we ever expect a reasonable and sensible law to lay down. Any law which does not measure up to that standard, we in this country traditionally have rejected.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)

I shall be brief, because I know that several of my colleagues wish to take part in the debate.

I am afraid that I cannot associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) or those of the motor cyclist who spoke before him, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell).

I have received a great many letters on this subject. Many people have written to me to claim that this is a great issue of principle. I cannot accept that.

I must admit that my reaction is partly a subjective one—everyone's reaction to any situation is—in that as a young boy I witnessed a particularly hideous accident involving a motor cycle and it left a deep impression upon me. But I cannot accept that this is a grave infringement upon the liberty of the individual, in spite of the forensic skill employed by my hon. and learned Friend. He could have deployed a similar skill to argue against almost any of the restrictions that we have placed upon the individual over many years, especially with regard to road traffic regulations—

Mr. Ronald Bell

I do not wish to prolong what my hon. Friend promises will be a brief speech, but this is quite wrong. All the regulations on the motorist are in the interests of other users of the road.

Mr. Cormack

These regulations fall into that category too, as I shall seek to explain.

We have repeatedly said in this House that people should not do certain things. For example, those who travel on the roads may not travel above a certain speed; those who own a car must have their cars tested for roadworthiness; and those who drive must be a certain age, must have insurance and must have a licence. Surely all those requirements are in a sense an infringement or a limitation of the individual, just as the regulations are which we have passed concerning the use of drugs. Those regulations may be considered to be an infringement of the liberty of the individual as they stop him from doing something and damaging himself in the process.

This cannot be compared with the safety belt argument. It is possible to produce evidence and to explain how the wearing of a safety belt can possibly add to an injury or even induce a fatality. It is, however, impossible to point to an accident where the wearing of a crash helmet could harm the individual. The wearing of a helmet can only increase the individual's chances of survival; it can only increase his safety. It can also induce in him an attitude towards the machine which he rides, towards the road and towards other road users which can only be helpful.

I intervened in the speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckingham, South, and my hon. and learned Friend felt that my point was not relevant. I suggest that it was. A young motor cyclist who takes out a pillion passenger and who encourages her, if it happens to be a girl, not to wear a crash helmet is helping to place somebody else at risk and in jeopardy. Riding without a crash helmet too often leads to a certain recklessness. Many of us, when we have driven cars into the countryside, have been passed by motor cyclists who have not been wearing crash helmets. No doubt we have thought that they have been reckless. I have had that experience on many occasions, and I am sure that other hon. Members have had such experiences.

If we consider the Factories Acts, we find that guards must be put on machines, even if they were to be used by oneself. If a person opens a hotel he must provide a fire escape. All these matters might be said to be infringements upon the individual's freedom. It is a semantic argument to say that this is a special matter, one which is unique and particular. I do not accept that.

The latest available figures indicate that 13,400 people were killed or seriously injured in 1971 while riding on motor cycles. If the regulations could have saved even one life they would have been proved worth while. It is not necessary to go along with the figure of 300 or 400 which has been mentioned recently to contend that far more than one life could have been saved. It is almost a prostitution of principle to try to erect the sort of argument which my hon. and learned Friend put forward with such great skill. The regulations have my unqualified support.

10.38 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)

It is a matter for censure, for censure upon the manner in which the House conducts its business, that we have been unable to avail ourselves of the opportunity provided by statute for having a proper debate upon these regulations, a debate which could be brought to a conclusion in a proper way. None of us can take any satisfaction from the fact that instead we are debating a motion in formal terms and that the Division which will take place will be a means not of deciding whether the regulations are to remain in effect, but of expressing an advisory opinion.

Another ground for regret about this debate is that, for reasons which we well understand, the attendance in the House is not one which matches the importance of the issue, and is likely to be interpreted outside as indicating that we disregard either the opinions or the interests of a considerable section of our fellow citizens.

All hon. Members have had considerable correspondence on this subject in recent weeks. Whatever conclusion they have reached, they will have been impressed with the responsible attitude which virtually all their correspondence showed, and by the fact that most of the people from whom it came were people who have had long experience of motor cycling and who place the strongest emphasis on example as well as personal practice in taking all reasonable precautions when motor cycling.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that this has been compounded because a Prayer was tabled on the raising of the age—another important matter for motor cyclists—but that Prayer was not debated. Motor cyclists feel that they have been totally neglected by the House.

Mr. Powell

I share the right hon. Gentleman's concern that we cannot debate issues at the time when we have ourselves laid down that they should be debated.

The correspondence showed a greater grasp than many of my hon. Friends of the real principle that is at issue in these regulations. The writers of the letters realise that the law is making it a criminal offence for a person to behave in a way which endangers solely the person concerned and in no way places any other person at risk. At no stage, either in this discussion or on the previous occasion to which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) referred, has it ever been suggested that a motor cyclist by wearing or not wearing a helmet increases or diminishes the risk to other road users.

Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Middleton and Prestwich)

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that if another party is involved in an accident with a motor cyclist who is not wearing a helmet and that motor cyclist perishes, the other party might suffer considerable mental anguish for the rest of his life?

Mr. Powell

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is not trying to strengthen my argument. Certainly, his intervention must direct hon. Members' minds to what precisely is at issue and what this criminal offence is concerned with. It is not concerned with the effect upon other people's minds, upon their emotions, upon their feelings. The issue is whether any increase of risk whatsoever to any other road user is involved, and no one has claimed that it is.

Mr. Money rose—

Mr. Powell

No, I cannot give way. We have to be brief, and my hon. Friend's previous interventions were not such as to encourage his colleagues to permit their repetition.

In creating this criminal offence we are doing something for which at present there is no parallel. There is no criminal offence to be found on the statute book the nature of which endangers the safety of the person concerned and no one else.

Of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) can quote innumerable cases—

Mr. William Shelton (Clapham)


Mr. Powell

Suicide is not a criminal offence.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Nottingham, South)


Mr. Powell

I am aware of the point about drugs. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock can quote innumerable instances where an employer or a person who sells an article or offers a facility is required to behave in a particular way with a view to the potential safety of the employee or the purchaser or whatever second or third party it may be; but we shall look in vain for a parallel to this criminal offence where the individual himself is solely concerned and inflicts no risk upon any other.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Fowler) mentioned drugs, and I admit that this is the nearest we have come to establishing a criminal offence such as I have defined. Nevertheless, even there the nature of drug-taking in many cases is such that it cannot but inflict harm upon others. I am not saying that can be absolutely stated, and I concede that we have an approach to this nature of criminal offence in the context of drugs; but certainly in no other area has a criminal offence of this nature been created. We are debating something which is new and which is a major departure of principle; and it is at any rate right that we should recognise that we are doing it and consider why.

Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is very courteous in doing so. He has sought to draw distinctions between industrial safety legislation, where the onus is laid upon the employer, and this proposed measure. Would he favour extending the law to, for example, employers of people in a motor cycle dispatch organisation—those employed by an organisation to carry messages?

Mr. Powell

Certainly, where one person employs another, although I must look at the details, I am prepared in principle to say that it should be made an offence to employ a person if at the same time one does not provide for his health, safety, and the rest.

Mr. Whitehead

And insure?

Mr. Powell

And insure as far as an employer can. I am entirely with the hon. Gentleman in that. His intervention has helped to bring out the new character of what is being done here and the essential importance of the line which is being crossed.

On what ground are we invited to do this? We are told, first, that avoidable accidents—and nearly all accidents are in one sense or another avoidable—increase the cost imposed on the National Health Service. That is a fallacy, because the cost is not determined by the demands on the NHS but upon the supply, by what we decide from year to year to spend upon the Service.

But then it is said—and the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) said it in a previous debate—that it shifts the resources of the NHS from one sort of case to another. Of course we could enter into endless consideration of the reasons which brought patients to be treated under the NHS—all manner of avoidable accidents, unwise courses of life, unwise behaviour of every kind. Are we to make all these criminal offences because the consequences might be to divert the use of resources inside the NHS?

At other times the argument is broadened. We are told that every one has people who are dependent on him— most of us do—or linked with him humanly in one way or another, and that therefore we ought to create a criminal offence in order to punish a person for endangering the support or affectionate feelings of those with whom he is linked, or to prevent him from doing so.

The House must perceive how far we shall be taken if we embark upon that course. There is hardly a single decision which a man can take, certainly no important decision, no decision even about what sport to engage in, without affecting potentially the welfare of his family, the interests of his friends and the affections of those with whom he is linked. If we do this thing on such grounds, we shall be laying the basis for a series of new laws which will reach right into every act, every form of behaviour, every choice of the average citizen.

The last and the most beguiling argument—and I imagine it is the argument which operates upon those hon. Members who will reject my argument and that of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South—is that if this crime is created there will be fewer road casualties from this cause. That is the most alarming argument of all that could be used in this House of Commons: that because by doing so we could reduce the number of deaths from a particular cause—not deaths inflicted by other people's carelessness, not deaths resulting from the omission of precautions which those who manufacture articles or sell them could have been caused to take, but deaths resulting from private and uniquely personal decisions—therefore we can make it a crime to take that sort of risk.

That argument is the most dangerous because it is the most beguiling. When one bastion after another of individual freedom, of independence, is breached, it does not happen in an unpopular context. It does not happen when the reasons for doing so are unattractive. It does so when sentiment and emotion and the feelings of all of us are engaged. None of us likes to contemplate the notion of a young man whose life could have been saved being lost because he was not wearing a crash helmet. Our first natural instinct and reaction, having legislative power in our hands, is to use that legislative power.

But that is where the danger lies. The abuse of legislative power by this House is far more serious and more far-reaching in its effects than the loss of individual lives through foolish decisions. [Interruption.] I say just that and I repeat that, as a Member of the House of Commons speaking to the House of Commons. The maintenance of the principles of individual freedom and responsibility is more important than the avoidance of the loss of lives through the personal decision of individuals, whether those lives are lost swimming or mountaineering or boating, or riding horseback, or on a motor cycle.

We are sent here to make laws and to preserve liberties. If we allow this regulation to stand, we shall have failed in the duties we were sent here to perform.

10.52 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

I agreed very strongly with what the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) said about the unsatisfactory character of our proceedings. The harsh fact is that whether or not the House heeds his passionate appeal that we should get rid of the regulations, we cannot. The only question before the House is whether we note the regulations.

We have the comic opera situation that the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) has given us notice that he will vote against the motion which he himself moved. No doubt the Government Whips will be put in to support the motion.

This is an absolutely absurd situation. It is made very much worse, as I want to show, because on issue after issue it is delegated legislation, and not the legislative powers of this House. Because of the total failure of the Government's Whips to provide time, we do not have an opportunity of discussing very many issues.

Mr. Angus Maude (Stratford-on-Avon)

I naturally agree with what the right hon. Gentleman says but, to be fair, he will admit that this is something which has happened under every Government. I have heard his Chief Whip complaining that he was unable to find time for Prayers. The Select Committee on Procedure has reported on this and tried to find means of doing it. It lies within the power of the House to remedy this.

Mr. Mulley

That may or may not be, but I ask the House to consider what the situation would have been if a Labour Government had not found time for a debate of this kind.

Mr. Maude

They did not.

Mr. Mulley

If the hon. Gentleman wants to make a party political point— [Interruption.] I am not making a party point. I am making a point about the right of the House to discuss statutory instruments. It is a House of Commons point, on which I think I have support on both sides. A great deal of the trouble stems from a wrong view when Bills are passing through the House as to whether to have delegated legislation subject to the affirmative or the negative procedure. It happens to have been a Labour Government's measure that causes us to be debating on Monday rather minor variations in speed limits, because the Government then decided that they needed the approval of the House, the affirmative resolution, whereas the very wide powers with which we are here concerned were sought by Ministers in a Conservative administration.

I do not think that the power to make such regulations as these without prior approval of the House should be sought or given, because of their fundamental character. But I do not accept that we can have absolute individual freedom. It is very rarely possible to have that absolute freedom without impinging on the freedom of someone else.

I accept that, and in my short time as Minister of Transport was guided by the principle that there is a vast difference between what we are discussing and many other regulations made with a view to preventing accidents rather than minimising their consequences, and preventing actions by road users that would have a consequence for other road users.

An accident whose seriousness could have been diminished if the motor cyclist had been wearing a safety helmet could lead to more accidents, simply because there is always a tremendous hold-up after a serious accident. There is also the question of competition for medical facilities, because hospital provision in many areas is not what we should like it to be.

There is a distinction between the two kinds of decision. When I considered the matter during my short period as Minister, I preferred persuasion, although it cost the taxpayer money. The very satisfactory figures of the number of motor cyclists who voluntarily wear helmets is to some extent linked with the amount of advertising and expenditure of public funds. There is evidence to suggest that when that expenditure goes down the number wearing helmets also goes down. It could be argued that the money could be better spent in other ways, possibly on the education of young motor cyclists, for which all too little provision is made.

Anyone who seeks to introduce regulations of the character of those before us should be required to give substantial reasons for that step. My own view will to a large extent be coloured by the Minister's explanation. The House may well find itself faced with a similar, and in some ways more difficult, decision about safety belts in cars—more difficult because it would be much more difficult to enforce.

As the possibility of a Division has been raised, I should make it clear that we on this side do not regard this as a party political matter, as it is largely a road safety issue. We have not issued a Whip, and my hon. Friends will vote or not vote as they deem expedient. The Government Chief Whip took out a pretty substantial measure of insurance by having the subject put down for debate at this time in an otherwise uncontentious Thursday's business. Whether or not we vote, the regulations are law already. I am advised that there is nothing we can do about that.

The Department's recent history has not been very good, in its treatment of motor cyclists in particular or in the general way in which it handles these matters. This matter has been kicked around for about two years, and everyone whom one could possibly think of has been consulted but the House of Commons.

I am advised that there could be substantial difficulty in providing enough helmets for those either who do not wear them now or whose helmets are not of the required type. Are the Government satisfied that the stocks exist? I hope that they are not going to make some panic purchases of helmets from abroad and make further inroads into our balance of payments difficulties.

The real anger felt by motor cyclists and motor cycling organisations is due to the fact that we did not even discuss the important decision, taken a little over a year ago, to raise the minimum age from 16 to 17, against all advice. It was introduced in the last few days before Christmas, without any interval allowed, so that many people who had been expecting their motor cycles at Christmas had got licences, and the Department, the Government and the taxpayer had to pay substantial compensation.

Most motor cyclists and their organisations are responsible, but the way in which statistics are used to support these measures gives rise to the suggestion that the Department wants to see motor cyclists off the road. There is no argument that it is much more dangerous to ride a motor cycle than in a car, to have two wheels instead of four, but there is a conflict about the statistics. The Government say that motor cycles are 30 times more dangerous, whereas a recent independent review sponsored by the motor cycling organisations claimed that it is between seven and eight times as dangerous. People who had the good fortune to back the winner of the Grand National would have thought it significant if the odds had been 30 to 1 rather than 9 to 1.

Motor cyclists feel that they have been discriminated against. I am not sure whether they are all such political philosophers as the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South or the right hon. Member for Wolverhamp-ton, South-West, but they feel, as a body, not only that they are not given a hearing in the Department by Ministers and civil servants but also that there is a desire to push motor cyclists off the road in the interests of better road safety statistics.

The hard fact is that there is strong public feeling that Ministers and Parliament should do something to improve road safety. One can understand Ministers being horrified at the figures. Having for a short time been the Minister myself, I can have sympathy with those who say, "What is the worst category in the figures? If we cannot get them to behave better, can we not at least get them off the road so that the figures will look better?".

Having met many people in the motor cycling world in recent weeks, I know that this feeling exists. If this debate achieves nothing else, I hope that either the Minister for Transport Industries or his Under-Secretary, preferably both of them, will make a point of meeting the motor cycling bodies to see whether they can sort out their genuine grievance. Whatever the view of the House tonight, this is already law and will become effective on 1st June, whether we note or fail to note the regulations. I think something good and positive could come from it if the Under-Secretary of State said that the Government will certainly do what they can to allay fears in the motor cycle industry and among motor cyclists that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) said, they are being picked on.

The matter is even more absurd when motor cyclists find that in the draft Council directive from the EEC the proposal is that the age for driving motor cycles should be put back to 16, which was the subject of last year's argument. That is about the only sensible part of the very strange document, which I recommend hon. Members to study. It is an extremely strange document and putting back the age for driving motor cycles is probably its most sensible aspect. Mopeds, as used on the Continent, will be much more used and the time may come when the age should be dropped to 15 for riding mopeds. That could be linked with education at school. I rode a motor cycle only when I was in the Army. I am told that most people who have ridden motor cycles are very much better and more considerate car drivers than those who have not ridden on two wheels and had cars passing so close to them as nearly to knock them off the road.

This House and the Government should show much more concern over this matter. I hope that we shall have a real case presented why the Government feel the regulations are necessary and some explanation of why we could not discuss it when we had the power to say "Yes" or "No".

11.7 p.m.

Mr. Angus Maude (Stratford-on-Avon)

If anyone were in doubt that the regulations were ridiculous, it should be made obvious to them by studying page 2, where it is said that regulations shall not apply to anyone driving or riding on a motor bicycle if it is a mowing machine. Who other than a lunatic or the Department of Transport would have thought that a motor cycle is a mowing machine. If by any strange coincidence in certain circumstances it can be, it only shows that the law which the Department has promulgated is even more ridiculous than I suspect.

These are ridiculous regulations and arguments so far deduced for them do not stand up for a moment. The only analogy produced so far to justify them has been the one on drugs. That does not stand up for a moment for two reasons. The first is that drug taking is a social habit and a catching disease. No one has ever suggested that the non-wearing of crash helmets is catching. It is a fact that those who take drugs—the soft drugs, anyway—tend to take them socially in a group and if one does it, it spreads. The non-wearing of crash helmets does not.

There is the second argument, which is perhaps more important, that if steps are not taken against the drug taker one cannot suppress the drug pusher. There is very little argument for trying to suppress the non-seller of crash helmets, very little indeed. So the drug argument does not stand up. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) was perfectly right when he talked about the slippery slope we are on when we take a decision such as this. If the only precedent which has so far been adduced—that about drugs—does not stand up, let us be careful before we provide another one.

If we pass the regulations my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) will use them as a precedent for enforcing the using of seat belts, and after that we shall be told that the alcoholic is just as great a danger to his family, causes just as much suffering and agony to his dependants, just as much expense to the National Health Service as the young man who gets his skull cracked against a kerb, and therefore we must do something about him. We shall be asked to extend the activities of the "nannie State" from precedent to precedent until there is no aspect of human life in which a decision will not be subject to some interfering Minister or bureaucrat who wants to tell us whether we should commit suicide, and if so, how.

Perhaps I may tell my hon. Friend the Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Mr. Haselhurst) that attempted suicide has been adjudged by this House no longer to be a crime. If someone can take a gun and try to shoot himself, surely he can fall off a motor bicycle without being a criminal.

The more one looks at this, the more dangerous the precedent becomes, but what is perhaps even more absurd is that it is totally unnecessary. If the Government want to encourage young men to wear crash helmets when riding motor cycles, there is no need to introduce legislation. We have been told that the precedent of industrial safety helmets, safety boots, and so on, is relevant. But of course it is not. There is nothing whatever to prevent the State from saying that an employer must not send somebody to work in certain circumstances without making sure that he is properly procted against the risks which the employment involves.

I should not object for a moment if the Army, the Post Office, or anybody else said that its motor cyclists must never go out without wearing a crash helmet. That would be a condition of employment, the employer would be entitled to impose it, and nobody would have to take the employment if he were not prepared to accept that obligation.

What the Government are saying is that the individual must not go out on his own private motor cycle without wearing a crash helmet. Government regulations are not necessary to ensure that. This is entirely in the hands of the insurance companies. If they want to do it, all that they have to do is to say that the premium for insuring a motor cycle shall be £X, provided that a crash helmet is always worn, that the premium for riding a motor cycle if a crash helmet is not worn shall be £2X, and that no claim will be met if, in the event of an accident, the rider of a motor cycle is found not to have been wearing a crash helmet.

Mr. Haselhurst

It was not I who referred to suicide.

Mr. Maude

Then it was my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Mr. William Shelton).

Mr. Haselhurst

Does my hon. Friend think that if insurance companies can be allowed to lay down standards of this kind the House ought not to be allowed to do so?

Mr. Maude

Of course. The insurance companies lay down conditions in their policies in two pages of foolscap in tiny print for everything that can be insured against. They say that one must have a Chubb lock or whatever it may be. The insurance company is entitled to say anything it likes, but does the House of Commons say "You must lock your door every night when you go out to the pub"? Of course not. It says that it is a matter between you and your insurance company whether you get burgled and whether the insurance company pays if you are burgled. That is the obvious way to deal with the matter. This is not a matter for the Government and if we allow the Government to get away with this one there is no limit to what they will get away with in the future.

11.15 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Keith Speed)

We have had an interesting debate and the main issues were raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell), as he said, 11 years ago. I must remind my hon. Friend the Member for Wolver-hampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) that he was at that time a distinguished member of the Government and at that time no doubt was content with the 1962 legislation that established the principle of the regulations which we are debating tonight, tonight.

Certainly it was made clear at that time that the Government could take powers to provide for compulsion if, in spite of continued exhortation to wear helmets head injuries to motor cyclists continued to be unacceptably high. I propose to show in response to the invitation of my right hon. Friend that this stage has been reached and we believe now that the Government would be failing in their duty if they did not take positive action.

In one respect I can thank my hon. and learned Friend for raising the subject tonight because it gives me another opportunity to remind the House of the Government's continuing and not entirely unsuccessful fight to keep this distressing social epidemic of road accidents within bounds. Perhaps I could draw attention to a few general accident statistics because they are connected with the theme of things we have been discussing. The United States involvement in Vietnam has ended and during that involvement since 1961 at least 45,000 United States combat troops were killed. Yet in 1971 alone there were 55,000 deaths from road accidents in the United States and well over 55,000 people are killed or seriously injured each year on the roads of Britain. It seems a curious and inexplicable fact that the public's attitude to road accidents is fatalistic, complacent and sometimes ill-informed.

It is the job of any Government to publicise the facts and to keep death off the roads. It is extremely important that we should look to every conceivable method of reducing the accident toll, even where the methods used appear at first sight to be radical or out of the ordinary.

I must first deal with the misconception referred to by the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley), which is widely held among the motor cycling world that this Government and governments generally are pursuing a vendetta against motor cyclists. It is true that as part of the 1971 road safety package the minimum age for motor cyclists was raised to 17 for all but riders of the smallest motor cycles. The reason for this was simply that the Government believed that it was wrong to encourage young people to have their first experience of driving on the most dangerous vehicles.

There was then no intention of driving motor cyclists off the roads and there is no intention under the new regulations of doing so either. I want to make motor cycling safer, and that is something we should all aim at. I have been riding a whole series of motor cycles since 1950 and I am currently the owner of a well-known 500 cc twin—it is made in my constituency but I dare not mention its name because that would be advertising—so I have some personal experience in the matter. I respond to the invitation of the right hon. Member for Park by saying that I have made arrangements already to meet in the near future representatives of both the industry and of motor cyclists to discuss problems generally and to see how we can help in those problems. We hope to rebuild a few bridges. I can assure the House that we have received from the manufacturers of crash helmets an assurance that there are adequate supplies to meet the requirements of the regulations.

We are dealing with circumstances which are not materially changed since 1962. Since that year the number of fatal and serious accidents to motor cyclists has dropped by 38 per cent. This is paralleled by the drop in the number of motor cyclists during that period. In the year 1971 there were 13,400 deaths or serious injuries to motor cyclists, 7,100 of which concerned teenagers. The drop in the number of casualties among teenagers since 1962 has been only 11 per cent.

Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)

May we have the numbers for deaths and seriously injured in each case?

Mr. Speed

I am afraid that I cannot give the exact figures. I will certainly write to my hon. Friend and give him the details. Those were the total figures for deaths and serious injuries.

What I am coming to now is of particular concern because various figures have been bandied about regarding the wearing rate of safety helmets. In 1962, 66 per cent. of all motor cyclists wore safety helmets. In 1971, the latest figures that we have, 80 per cent. of riders of motor cycles and scooters and 50 per cent. of riders of mopeds—in other words, about 75 per cent. of all motor cyclists, taking the two together—wore safety helmets. This proportion has remained steady for some years.

In 1962 it was hoped that a period of exhortation by publicity might increase the rate of helmet wearing to almost 100 per cent., but sadly that has not happened.

Our estimate, taking all these figures into account and bearing in mind that there are no longer people of 16 years of age riding the larger motor cycles, is that some 300 to 400 deaths and serious injuries would be saved each year. One-half of these casualties would involve teenagers. I believe that this is a particularly tragic waste of life and a heavy cost to the community.

Mr. Whitehead rose

Mr. Speed

I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for not giving way. I am limited for time and I want to try to reply to many of the points which have been made. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me.

Before getting to the main issue of principle, I should like to consider the various attitudes to the wearing of helmets as distinct from the issue of compulsion. It appears to be generally agreed by everyone—I do not think that anybody has challenged it, with the possible exception of the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) who apparently had a particular aversion to purchase tax— that it is sensible to wear a helmet. Even the most vociferous opponents of these regulations agree with that.

I come now to the issue which I think lies closest to the hearts of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South and others who have taken part in the debate. I respect the sincerity of those who have championed the rights of the individual against what must sometimes appear to be the wilful dictates of the bureaucratic mind.

We have in this country what is called "freedom of speech". Yet people are constrained by the laws of slander. We have freedom of dress. Yet people do not take their clothes off in the street. Indeed, they are not allowed to do so.

It is not true that a new principle is involved in making people take reasonable precautions for their own safety. Since the inception of road traffic legislation it has rightly been accepted by this House that the Government have a right, if not a duty, to restrict the freedom of action of road users, vehicle manufacturers, and others concerned with the use made of public highways to prevent road accidents or to mitigate their effects.

Mr. Maude

That is to protect third parties.

Mr. Speed

Perhaps I may give my hon. Friend an example where it does not apply to third parties. Many road traffic measures are aimed, directly or indirectly, at forcing the individual to protect himself. One could say that the requirement to fit anti-burst locks on a car applies to passengers, but it certainly applies to the occupant of the car. There is also the fitting of seat belts and the provision of safety glass in cars and a collapsible steering column.

Mr. Powell

That is for the manufacturer.

Mr. Speed

With respect to my right hon. Friend, it is not for the manufacturer of the car. The House will know that it is an offence for anyone to use a car first used after 1st July 1972 unless it has a collapsible steering column. [Interruption.] I suggest that people who are worried about that had better stick to cars used before 1st July 1972.

For example, pedal cyclists are forbidden to hold on to any vehicle in motion. Non-statutory restrictions include guard rails which restrain pedestrians from taking risks.

People have argued that these are matters for the employers. That is not so. Section 143 of the Factories Act 1961 provides: No person … shall wilfully and with out reasonable cause do anything likely to endanger himself or others.

Mr. Powell

That is in a factory.

Mr. Speed

In a factory perhaps, but this applies to the person, there is no question of a third person being involved. Section 143(1) says: where any means or appliance for securing health or safety is provided for the use of any such person under this Act. he shall use the means or appliance. This is not new. This is the 1961 Factories Act. If we go to 1903 we find such a curious thing as the File-Cutting Regulations. Those say that: Every file-cutter shall when at work wear a long apron reaching from the shoulder and neck to below the knees. The apron shall be kept in a clean state. That applies to file-cutters, not to third persons.

With the greatest respect to my hon. and right hon. Friends there are meaningful precedents in industrial legislation designed to protect the individual, without regard to third persons or whatever may happen to them. Perhaps I should also tell the House that motor cycle racing and sports events are governed by the Auto-Cycle Union and its rules require, with one or two minor exceptions, that people taking part in these events shall wear an approved helmet.

In each case I have mentioned the unqualified freedom of the individual is opposed by a principle or set of reasons which justify restrictions by the State. My hon. and learned Friend may complain that none of these analogies is precise. I would argue that certainly the steering column and the various things from the factory regulations going right back to 1903 are analogous to this situation.

Where does this leave us with motor cycles? The Government wish to compel certain motor cyclists who do not now wear safety helmets to wear them in future. That is, they want to deny them the freedom not to wear helmets. What are the opposing principles or reasons which make this a worthwhile sacrifice? They are twofold. First, the Government have a duty to save lives and prevent injuries, especially when they occur on the scale of motor cycle accidents and particularly when they are concentrated on the younger section of the community.

There is, too, the question of the burden placed on others. May I quote a personal experience? In 1955 I was driving a motor cycle from the Naval College, Greenwich, to my home in Buckinghamshire on the A5, probably travelling a bit too fast. It was a wet Saturday morning. An Army lorry suddenly came out ahead and I was faced with three possibilities—going straight into the back of it, going into a car com- ing the other way or laying the machine down. I laid the machine down and thumped my head on the road. I was wearing a safety helmet. Perhaps some of my hon. Friends regret that, because if I had not been I would not be here tonight.

I am not trying to make the point that I survived because I was wearing a helmet. I am making the point that a comparatively minor infringement by the driver of that lorry in coming out of that side road in front of me—something that all of us have done at some time or other—could have had serious results. If I had not been wearing a safety helmet I could have been killed and that could have led to that event being on the conscience of a sensitive person for the rest of his life.

I do not believe that one can dismiss this kind of situation. This thought occurred to me afterwards and that is why I decided—and I will be honest with the House—as long ago as 1955 as a keen and active motor cyclist, which I still am, that it was essential for the Government of the day to make the wearing of helmets compulsory.

Having tried to deal as quickly as possible in the time available with the question of principle, perhaps I could turn briefly to the seat belts issue raised by my hon. Friends. It is asked, why make the wearing of helmets compulsory on the one hand yet do nothing about making the wearing of seat belts compulsory? The issue is complex. There are different designs of belts. Some are awkward to use and there are various categories of people who cannot wear belts. For example, few designs of seat belts are really suitable for children. Nevertheless we are convinced of the enormous potential for preventing casualties which seat belts offer. That was the reason for the introduction of regulations to make the fitment of certain types of seat belts compulsory in all new cars sold after 1st January, 1965. That is why we are devoting a great deal of money to publicity. We are confident that this publicity will have a worthwhile effect. Whether the effect will be sufficiently great we do not know. Certainly, we hope that it will have an effect. My right hon. Friend told the House that we must consider carefully the arguments for and against compulsion if it did not have an effect.

As regards motor cyclists, many countries in other parts of the world—Australia, Tasmania, Belgium, Luxembourg, France and many states of the United States of America—have to a greater or lesser degree made compulsory the wearing of safety helmets, leading to a substantial reduction in injuries in all countries where they have been introduced.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of the Motor Cycles (Wearing of Helmets) Regulations 1973 (S.I., 1973, No. 180), dated 7th February 1973, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th February.


Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Murton.]