HC Deb 18 June 1973 vol 858 cc330-42

5.55 a.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

The clasic reason for the Adjournment debate is the redress of grievances. I am pleased, at this early hour, to raise a grievance which originated with one of my constituents, Mr. R. L. Cryer, but which raises a number of questions relevant to the whole country and in particular to those who use the roads and are owners of motor vehicles.

My constituent was unfortunate enough to have an accident with a vehicle from abroad, a continental lorry which he claims ran into his vehicle while it was stationary. I have no reason to doubt that my constituent is correct. Having obtained from the driver of the lorry a copy of the particulars of his green card which showed the insurance arrangements, my constituent went about getting his car repaired and making alternative arrangements for his own transport.

In this case there were, happily, no personal injuries involved and therefore it was purely a matter of the costs of repairs to the car and certain costs which Mr. Cryer had to incur to keep himself mobile. When he came to try to recover costs from the insurance company responsible for the lorry he met with great difficulty. For some time he got no reply from the continental firm concerned. He sought the assistance first of the Home Secretary, who explained that as there was no question of personal injury, there was no direct reciprocal arrangement between Governments and that Mr. Cryer would have to whistle for his money or take the continental insurance company to court.

Naturally my constituent thought that in the days of international co-operation taking the matter to law would be an expensive matter. He was not satisfied that the arrangements made by the Government for such circumstances were adequate. He brought this matter to my attention and I followed it up. The Minister for Transport Industries referred me to a reply which he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) on 28th March 1973. The Minister said: Claims against foreign nationals for personal injury damages arising out of road accidents in the United Kingdom are handled by the Motor Insurers' Bureau. Claims for property damage, liability for which is not compulsorily insurable, can be pursued in the English courts, and reciprocal arrangements for the enforcement of judgments exist in the case of several major Western European countries."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th March, 1973; Vol. 853, c. 330–1.] There was no reciprocal arrangement for making claims but there was for enforcing judgments. That exists only in the case of certain major Western European countries and was not of use in this case.

This seems to be an unfortunate gap in our international arrangements because understand that many people are in difficulties, although the Government do not appear to believe that this is so. It is clear that anyone who has a claim against someone who bumps into him can have difficulty if the other driver comes from this country. He may, indeed, have to take him to the domestic courts. But the difficulty there is small compared with the difficulties in another country.

The Automobile Association does not agree with the present situation. While, of course, it admits that insurance against third party damage is not compulsory the AA says that third parties concerned cannot be forced to disclose the identity of their insurers and the difficulties which obtain where the third party is a United Kingdom resident are, of course, magnified where he is a foreigner. What is required, in our view, is a change in the law making third party property damage compulsorily insurable. It appears that the Department of the Environment has no intention of promoting such legislation because it claims to be unaware of any significant number of cases where the loss has not been recoverable through the medium of civil proceedings. In our own experience there are many such cases. It is often found that it is a waste of time and money to commence proceedings against the third party if he is not being backed by insurers. Even if judgment is obtained it does not necessarily follow that satisfaction will be automatically achieved. One cannot have recourse to the Motor Insurers' Bureau as that body will only meet liability where the same is required to be covered by a policy of insurance by statute. Therefore not only is there difficulty in domestic cases, but it is compounded very considerably in cases involving foreign vehicles.

My attention was drawn to the whole question of the ports. It appears that it may be possible for a vehicle to come into this country and for its documents not to be in order. I received a letter from the Minister for Transport Industries, who outlined to me the present situation for inspection at ports. Apparently, it is done only on a random check basis. Moreover, it is done not by a Government agency but by the motoring organisations themselves. I will not question that as a matter of principle, for perhaps it is of historical origin, but I am a little surprised that the arrangement is that the random check sample is of only 20 per cent. of incoming vehicles. I appreciate that that is a minimum and that in fact the number inspected is in excess of that, but I suggest to the Minister that there is something amiss here, because the ports give opportunity for checking to see that the law is being carried out, irrespective of whether the vehicle is foreign.

Opportunity should be taken when vehicles enter the country to see that all is in order, and the ports give ideal opportunity for this. This is particularly true of lorries coming from abroad. I know there are some arrangements now, but I should like to know exactly what happens. Many people are of the opinion that lorries are not weighed and that many are overweight.

The question of road fund licences arises. I was told in a letter dated 5th June that in the Metropolitan Police district alone the number of reports of licences out of date and of unlicensed vehicles in 1972 was 380,023. I know that there is a great deal of public concern about this, and one would have thought there ought to be checking on this at the ports as well.

Therefore I have extended the range of this debate to the whole matter of what the Government do at the ports and what they intend to do over a whole range of matters. It includes the nature of cargoes and the Customs arrangements. This is probably not the responsibility of the hon. Gentleman who has so kindly waited to reply to me. That I appreciate, but, of course, it will become important next year, in January 1974, when the EEC arrangements will change the existing ones.

I understand from the Minister's letter and from the motoring organisations I have contacted that in 1974, under the EEC regulations, it will be not possible for us to make even the random checks on insurance we do at the moment. If that is so, I find it salutary and disturbing that a Community directive can prohibit something which seems to be a matter of common sense and something in which, I would have thought, the Government would have protected our citizens from risks and dangers from relatively uninsured vehicles from abroad. I know this is the law at the moment, but such action would have added great weight to the AA's case that there should be third party insurance for damages of this sort.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman tells us why the Government are clinging to the view that there should be no compulsory third party insurance for damage, why the Community has apparently made even the present checks impossible from 1st January next, and whether, in view of the difficulties people will have in reclaiming money from damage actions, he will reconsider the whole question of third party insurance and the question of reciprocity. My constituent is a victim of the present situation.

Irrespective of the merits of the general issue of entering the EEC, this is just the sort of situation in which our citizens should be protected even more. But apparently the risks are to increase. If we have joined the EEC for mutual benefit, which is the object of the exercise, surely we could have reciprocal arrangements which would permit our citizens to get their rights for damage to their vehicles without recourse to international courts, which is not only a lengthy process but very expensive.

The present situation of inspection at ports and the fact that we have only spot checks even for our own vehicles seems inefficient. The situation in January 1974 is full of question marks. I hope the debate gives the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to explain why the Government hold to their present view and, to the perhaps unsuspecting public, what is to happen in January 1974, and not least to give some satisfaction to my constituent, who, I hope, will, following the debate, find it unnecessary to take the matter to an international court in order to regain damages to his car suffered in West London, which may have been a relatively minor affair, since no life or injury was involved, but which to him is a financial liability and may be such to many other people even between now and January next.

6.8 a.m.

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

The hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) has raised an issue which I know is of interest and concern to all those who use our roads. He has done so in the context of the system adopted at our ports to check that vehicles, particularly heavy lorries, coming here from abroad have adequate insurance cover. But as he has made clear, his interest goes wider than this, and extends to the courses open to any British citizen who suffers loss, whether by way of personal injury or damage to his property, as the result of an accident involving a foreign vehicle and for which the foreign driver was responsible.

Some parts of what the hon. Gentleman said go beyond my immediate departmental responsibilities, but I will try to deal with them, and in any case will call them to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

The purpose of the requirement on users of motor vehicles to have insurance cover against certain liabilities is, of course, to ensure that drivers who incur a liability through their own negligence have a source of money from which they can meet that liability.

Thus, ever since 1930 the Road Traffic Acts have contained a requirement for motor insurance policies to cover any liability for the death of, or personal injury to, a third party. There was in the original 1930 Act what I think is now generally regarded as a loophole, in that this requirement did not require liabilities to voluntary passengers to be insured—although, of course, many vehicle owners in fact had such cover. This loophole has now been closed as the result of a Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) with all-party support.

So we now have the position that the law affords protection to anyone injured—or to the dependants of anyone killed—as the result of a driver's negligence—whatever the nationality of the driver, since the law applies equally to our own and foreign motorists here.

I should perhaps mention here that the law does not require liability for property damage to be insured; although here again many vehicle owners do in fact have such insurance. I am sure the hon. Gentleman does, and I certainly do. I will not go into the whys and wherefores of this argument, which has been raised several times. I have received no representations from the AA or anyone else about the problems which the lack of compulsory damage insurance causes. I will merely point out that it is a simple and prudent matter for anyone owning property, whether it be a motor vehicle or anything else—the principle extends far beyond the range of motor vehicles—to insure it against accidental damage, and so recover any loss from his own insurer.

The protection—in the financial sense—of people injured in road accidents goes wider, however, than our having made insurance a legal requirement. Of course, any law involves enforcement, and this aspect is particularly germane to our debate tonight and the problem of the hon. Gentleman's constituent. But beyond this there is another safeguard. I refer to our arrangements made, under a formal agreement dating from 1946, with the Motor Insurers' Bureau.

The effect of this is that the bureau will meet any judgment in respect of a compulsorily insurable liability which is not met by the judgment debtor. This means that anyone who establishes a claim for personal injury against a motorist who is subject to the motor insurance law has the meeting of that claim guaranteed by the bureau if, for example, the offending motorist is uninsured, whatever the reason for the absence of insurance. This arrangement applies whatever the nationality of the driver concerned, or of the owner of the vehicle involved. The bureau also deals with claims against unidentified drivers.

I have gone into this at some length before coming to the particular subject of the port checks on insurance and other matters raised by the hon. Member—

Mr. Spearing

The letter I have from the AA of 18th June states specifically: It appears that the Department of the Environment has no intention of promoting such legislation because it claims to be unaware of any significant number of cases where the loss has not been recoverable through the medium of civil proceedings. That implies that there has been an exchange in this matter.

Mr. Speed

The AA may have been in touch with the Department but I have no personal knowledge of any problems, apart from individual letters from hon. Members. I am prepared to look into this. It is not entirely a matter for the Department. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is involved, because the matter goes way beyond vehicle insurance and applies to property and other insurance. I shall be happy to look at the correspondence with the AA, to see whether we should consider this again.

As I hope I have made clear, in relation to the financial protection which the law is designed to give to people injured through a driver's negligence, this is fully safeguarded whatsoever the nationality of the driver concerned by the arrangements of the Motor Insurers' Bureau to which I have referred.

But I do not argue—or even try to do so—that, because the purpose of the law is guaranteed through the bureau, there should be no enforcement of it. This would be a quite untenable proposition. No one would try to suggest that because the bureau will meet liabilities that should have been insured but were not, there is no need to enforce the law. Neither we nor the bureau would regard this as acceptable, if only because the bureau's funds come ultimately from a very small proportion of the premiums paid by the law-abiding motorists.

It is not unreasonable to have some regard to the consequences—or perhaps it would be better to say the lack of them—when considering the adequacy or otherwise of any particular level of enforcement activity. We must bear in mind, too, that the idea of 100 per cent. enforcement, however desirable, of any particular road traffic measure—not just insurance—can rarely, if ever, be met. Practicalities inevitably get in the way, and we have to recognise them.

Checks at ports on the possession of valid insurance cover by foreign motorists and other drivers arriving here are carried out on my right hon. Friend's behalf by the motoring organisations—the AA and RAC. They do a number of other jobs on an agency basis for my Department. This arrangement goes back many years and is well established. The Continental motoring associations do the same for Continental Governments.

I do not want to weary the House by quoting—or re-quoting—a lot of figures. I would just place on record that although these organisations have undertaken to check 20 per cent. of incoming vehicles, in fact they check a far higher proportion than this.

The incidence of vehicles discovered arriving without insurance is only just over 1 per cent. For commercial vehicles, it is very much less—only 0.18 per cent. I am told that virtually all of these drivers take out the necessary insurance before driving on—which is, of course, a good argument for having checks in the first place. In addition, the Department's staff, in conjunction with weights and measures officials, examine some incoming foreign goods vehicles; the proportion is about 4 per cent. of those accompanied by drivers. They are checked for conformity with some British traffic regulations, notably those on loading, drivers' hours and records and road haulage permits. When a green card is not carried the driver is notified, and so far no difficulty in arranging cover has occurred. The Minister is authorised a substantial increase in enforcement staff; there are now being recruited, and I expect the proportion of goods vehicles checked to rise to about 10 per cent. by the end of the summer.

An answer was given by my noble Friend the Under-Secretary in the other place last week which showed that from 1st August 1972 to 31st May this year approximately 6,000 foreign vehicles had been examined under the Road Traffic (Foreign Vehicles) Act 1972 by the Department's examiners and weights and measures officials. Of those vehicles, 1,200 were found to be overweight, 17 were mechanically defective, 58 had no permit or short-term operator's licence, and 79 contravened the hours and records regulations. Before the 1972 Act, 80 per cent. of all vehicles coming into the country were overweight. This dropped to 20 per cent. after the passing of the Act. In the last three months of this period, it had dropped again to 17 per cent. The change is clearly downwards, and the Act is having its effect.

Nevertheless, we take the view that in all the circumstances the present level of checks is a not unreasonable one, bearing in mind four considerations. First, the checks which are carried out—and here perhaps I could pay tribute to the AA and the RAC for their help in this important work—show that the incidence of uninsured foreign vehicles is pretty low.

Secondly, if one is unfortunate enough to be injured through the negligence of a driver of one of these vehicles, the arrangements with the Motor Insurers' Bureau to which I have referred guarantee that the compensation due in law will be paid. Here I may perhaps interject that even if we had 100 per cent. checks this would not ensure that visiting motorists had insurance to cover their liability for property damage. We could check only on insurance to comply with our law—this is all that insurance "green cards" indicate.

Thirdly, practical difficulties at most ports would mean, I am sure, that 100 per cent. checks would impose delays and result in unacceptable congestion in port areas. I spent considerable time recently visiting ports. Great strides have been made in getting people through as quickly as possible. The Customs "green channel" has been one improvement. However the layout at some ports, especially at peak and busy seasons, does not lend itself to 100 per cent. checks, with all the delays that they might involve.

The fourth reason is that as from 1st January 1974, the situation will change radically as a result of our entry into the European Economic Communities. Under a directive on motor vehicle insurance, which will take effect in the United Kingdom on 1st January next, every motor insurance policy issued in a member State of the Communities will include cover against those liabilities which are compulsorily insurable in every other member State. To take an example, when a German owner of a lorry or car takes out his ordinary domestic motor insurance policy, it will not only give him the cover for which he has asked for driving in Germany, but it will automatically include the cover required by our Road Traffic Acts if he uses his vehicle in the United Kingdom. In law, there will be no need for separate insurance to cover vehicle use in the United Kingdom or anywhere else in the Communities. This requirement will be backed up by an agreement between the Motor Insurers' Bureaux under which, if a motorist nevertheless drives without insurance, his own national Bureau will meet any liability he may incur if that liability is compulsorily insurable under the law of the country in which the accident happened. The effect of this will be to remove the need for any check on vehicles coming from any other EEC country, and the Directive in fact precludes such checks in the interests of free movement, except, of course, in the event of an accident. The situation will be that to be uninsured when visiting the UK the German, the French, the Dutch or the Danish motorist would also have to have ignored the requirement for motor insurance in his own country.

Mr. Spearing

It will not help on the question of damage only. I think the hon. Gentleman will agree that unless the law is changed the situation that I have described will continue.

Mr. Speed

I will come to that point later.

In the unlikely event of his having done so, then any compulsorily insurable liability which he incurred here—for example, if he negligently injured a British pedestrian—would be met by the German Bureau, although the British Bureau would handle the claim.

On the other hand, the Directive also requires that every non-EEC vehicle entering a country within the EEC must be checked at the first EEC frontier and not allowed to proceed until possession of EEC-wide cover is established. We shall, of course, be revising our system of port checks to comply with these arrangements.

In the short time remaining before 1st January I hope the House will agree that, even if there is room for argument whether our present level of checks should formally be 20 per cent., 50 per cent., 75 per cent. or any other figure, it would be both unnecessary and impossible to arrange for 100 per cent. checks to be undertaken.

Finally, I turn to the subject of the difficulties with which a British citizen is sometimes faced in trying to get the compensation due to him following an accident in this country caused by a visiting foreign motorist. The House will understand that the problems of legal actions do not fall within my particular departmental responsibilities—I am not a lawyer, and I confess that I sometimes tend to get lost in the legal ramifications—but since the hon. Gentleman referred to this aspect I will offer some remarks which I hope will be helpful and understood.

In the last resort, of course, any claim for damages, whether for personal injury or property damage, can be settled only in the courts. However, I believe that the great majority are in fact settled by negotiation and, in relation to foreign motorists, that there are no particular problems in relation to personal injury claims where the motorist is properly covered by a "green card". These are handled by the Motor Insurers' Bureau. I do not think there are any particular problems in that area.

I accept that this is no comfort to anyone whose claim is ignored or disputed by a foreign motorist who has left the country. It may, of course, be a claim for property damage. A court action is the only course open in such circumstances. It is possible to take such action in a foreign court, but it is more convenient to use the English courts. Where the defendant lives abroad, this needs the leave of the High Court, but this is usually given in the case of a road accident prima facie caused by a foreign driver's negligence. I should perhaps add that anyone suing a foreigner in the English courts is eligible for legal aid under the same conditions as apply to any other case.

Enforcement of judgments—that is, actually collecting any damages awarded—can be more difficult. To a greater or lesser extent this is likely to involve proceedings in foreign courts. However, reciprocal—I stress the word "reciprocal"—arrangements exist for the enforcement of money judgments in Austria, Belgium, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Israel, The Netherlands and Norway. These arrangements help the process considerably.

Here again, entry into the European Economic Communities will change the position for the better. We have undertaken to accede to the European Judgments Convention of 1968. This provides for the almost automatic enforcement of civil and commercial judgments throughout the Communities. Negotiations are going on for United Kingdom accession to this convention. When these steps and the necessary implementing legislation are completed, we shall have gone a long way towards solving the problems of taking and enforcing actions against motorists from other EEC countries.

I accept that this still leaves the present situation for countries outside the EEC, but for countries inside the EEC—the vast majority of motorists entering this country come from the EEC—the situation will be radically improved.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the damages situation generally is not compulsorily insurable here. It has to be taken to the courts. Nevertheless, the reciprocal arrangements cover a number of non-EEC countries, and this new convention to which we are acceding covering EEC countries can only improve matters considerably. It means that from 1st January 1974 all EEC vehicles are automatically covered by insurance here and non-EEC vehicles coming from an EEC country will have been checked.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this subject tonight, even at this late hour, and for the opportunity of explaining to him and, I hope, a larger audience what is involved in our present methods of checking and what the situation will be from 1st January 1974. I believe that from 1st January 1974—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-five minutes past Six o'clock a.m.