|The Committee consisted of the following Members:|
|Sir Alfred Broughton(Chairman)|
|Awdry, Mr. Daniel (Chippenham)||Horam, Mr. John (Gateshead, West)|
|Bradford, Mr. Robert J. (Belfast, South)||Howell, Mr. Ralph (Norfolk, North)|
|Callaghan, Mr. Jim (Middleton and Prestwich)||Huckfield, Mr. Leslie (Nuneaton)|
|Hughes, Mr. Roy (Newport)|
|Carter-Jones, Mr. Lewis (Eccles)||Le Marchant, Mr. Spencer (High Peak)|
|Clark, Mr. Alan (Plymouth, Sutton)||Lester, Mrs. Jill (Beeston)|
|Cohen, Mr. Stanley (Leeds, South-East)||Mulley, Mr. Frederick (Minister for Transport)|
|Dunnett, Mr. Jack (Nottingham, East)|
|Durant, Mr. Tony (Reading, North)||Wise, Mrs. Audrey (Coventry, South-West)|
|Finsberg, Mr. Geoffrey (Hampstead)|
|Fox, Mr. Marcus (Shipley)|
|Fry, Mr. Peter (Wellingborough)||Miss A. Milner-Barry, Committee Clerk.|
|Golding, Mr. John (Newcastle-under-Lyme)|
§ 10.30 a.m.
§ The Minister for Transport (Mr. Frederick Mulley)
I beg to move,That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the Road Traffic Bill [Lords] ought to be read a Second time.The Bill makes a variety of important improvements to road traffic law and has implications for the continuing programme to combat road casualties, for the effective administration of the law, especially in the matter of parking in the cities, for the environment and the consumer. I think all hon. Members know that this legislation has had a chequered history. A similar measure was introduced in another Place in the last Parliament and received a Second Reading 1532 in the Commons just before the Dissolution. On that occasion, I welcomed the Bill on behalf of the Opposition but drew attention to parts of it which seemed to me to be misplaced because full consultation and agreement had not been reached with the interests concerned.
I am glad now to try to push on with this measure, which is extremely useful and I, together with my hon. Friend the Minister of State. Home Office, whose Department is principally concerned with some parts of the Bill, have had representations and met people about the Bill's proposals.
To avoid delaying the Bill unduly, it was introduced again in another place while some of these matters were under discussion, and, for this reason, clauses 1533 affecting drivers and operators of heavy goods and public service vehicles, including clauses on bus licensing, were not included in the Bill as presented. During the Bill's passage in another place, clauses on these subjects were inserted into the Bill and I shall indicate the Government's attitude to them when I outline its provisions.
Before coming to the provisions which have been added, I should briefly mention an important clause that was taken out of the Bill in another place—namely, an enabling clause to permit the Minister to require the compulsory wearing of seat belts. I should like to make it absolutely clear that, in normal circumstances, I would wish to ask the House to reinsert that clause, but I think we must be realistic and, in the short time now available to us—I hope before the recess—and having regard to the fact that the Committee stage of the Bill is due to be taken on a Friday, it would be absolutely wrong to ask the House of Commons to come to a view about seat belts on a Friday when we all know that it is the only day that many of us have to make engagements in our constituencies and, therefore, all hon. Members who might wish to take part in such a debate could not be expected to be present. I think, too, that the public generally would take a very poor view of an important matter of this sort being determined at the end of a parliamentary session with probably less than a full attendance of hon. Members.
In order to facilitate the passage of the measure, therefore, I do not propose to put down an amendment on seat belts on this occasion, although I must say that I found it extremely odd that another place, having inserted the clause in the previous Bill, on this occasion, after I had accepted their view and put it in my Bill, took it out. But that is something that we have to live with, and I think that the House generally would wish that that matter should perhaps be dealt with separately in the next parliamentary session. That, ceartainly, will be my intention if I have any influence in these matters.
I now come to the provisions in the Bill as received from another place. The important Clauses 1 to 5 and Schedule 1 are in substance the same as in the pre- 1534 vious administration's Bill, which received its Second Reading in the House less than six months ago. The clauses are designed to require that the registered owner of a vehicle, in addition to the driver, should be liable for certain minor stationary road traffic offences when fixed penalties are not paid, and for unpaid excess parking charges.
Since 1960, when the fixed penalty procedure came in, there has been great concern about the large number of such charges that have not been paid. For example, in 1972 it is estimated that of the 23 million fixed penalty notices issued in England and Wales, payment was made for only two-thirds. The position is getting progressively worse. In the last figures which we have, for 1973, of just under 2 million fixed penalty notices in the Metropolitan Police district, there were over 600,000 cases—an increase of more. than a quarter of a million over the previous years—in which the Metropolitan Police were unable to prosecute within the six months that the law allows.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg
Could the Minister tell us later how many from that figure could not be served or collected because the owners claimed diplomatic immunity? My understanding is that they would still be able to get away with it.
§ Mr. Mulley
I have nothing like that kind of detailed information. I could probably obtain it, but I do not think that there are 600,000 possible diplomatic cases.
As well as bringing the law into disrepute, a great deal of police time is taken up at a time when all of us want the police engaged in more constructive duties. It is widely accepted by the Geater London Council, and a number of other authorities which are trying to restrain traffic in our great cities, that unless they have some way of dealing with the problem it is quite impossible for them to get on.
I stress that the owner's liability will arise only in matters of a fixed penalty or excess charge notice. It will not apply to other cases, such as moving traffic offences, but only where, in a sense, the normal processes of law have been short-circuited by the fixed penalty procedure that was introduced in 1960.
1535 If I am speaking quickly it is not that I wish to curtail the discussion but, on the contrary, it is to leave plenty of time for members of the Committee to deal with points that are raised, and for me to reply accordingly.
The Bill is necessarily a hotch-potch of measures. There is no thread, or theme, through it. It is an attempt to bring together a large number of measures all of which we hope will make a contribution to road safety and road traffic control.
Clause 6 arises as a result of a recent decision in the courts. The police do not have power to direct traffic for surveys and censuses. Hon. Members often ask for traffic information, and it will not be obtainable without this power. This clause does nothing to alter the position, because answering questions from the survey staff is absolutely voluntary. No motorist or other road used is under any obligation to give information, but without these powers it will be illegal for the police to direct traffic in a way that makes the taking of the census possible.
Clause 7 was originally introduced in the previous Bill in another place. We have re-introduced it in a modified and less comprehensive form, and it is designed to deal with environmental nuisance caused by the parking of vehicles on pavements and verges in towns. It provides for local highway authorities to grant exemptions where appropriate and for special cases such as emergencies. I know that when the Bill was previously before the House there was a general welcome for this provision, but it does present certain problems. For example, I have had representations from the Post Office Engineering Union that this provision could present problems for it in carrying out its work where it wants to use the vehicle as a safety measure for people working in dangerous circumstances. In discharging the onerous responsibility of Whip for the Committee, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) will give us his views as persuasively as he has done in making representations to me. We shall want to watch very carefully the regulations and the exemption procedures in the clause.
Clause 8 transforms the power of local authorities to carry out road safety work 1536 into a statutory duty which will generally be exercised by the new county councils—something which has been welcomed in all quarters.
Clause 9 gives greater flexibility for regulations on vehicle lighting and reflectors by assimilating these matters to other aspects of the construction and use of the vehicles.
Clause 10 is an amendment to the original Bill, inserted against the Government's advice in another place, with a view to ensuring action on vehicle noise. We are all in sympathy with the objective of the clause and I gladly repeat the assurance given. If it is the wish of the Committee, the Government intend to table an amendment to substitute a more practical provision to enable noise tests to be carried out as part of spot checks on vehicles on the roads. I cannot advise the Committee to accept Clause 10 because I do not think it would be practicable as drafted.
Clause 11 puts the present voluntary scheme for type approval of new vehicles on to a statutory basis.
Clause 12 closes loopholes in the law on the sale of unroadworthy vehicles. We must all know of instances where secondhand cars have been sold in an unroadworthy condition, and there has been little redress for the unfortunate purchaser. The clause attempts to deal with that loophole.
Clause 13, in conjunction with Schedule 3, makes amendments to the law on drivers' licences, including changes which are desirable for economy in the administration of centralising licensing. It empowers the authority to inquire into medical conditions which may affect fitness to drive and to permit the issue of licences which would normally remain valid until the holder is 70. Again, largely on economy grounds, both to the individual driver and to the Civil Service in administering the scheme, the idea that instead of renewing licences every three years they would normally remain valid until the holder reaches the age of 70 has been generally welcomed.
Clause 14 provides for regulations to be made on the methods and standards of weighing vehicles so that a new type of weighbridge may be introduced to check overloading.
1537 We now come to the provisions on minimum ages for vocational licences. I attach great importance to the safeguards envisaged by Clause 15 in relation to the driving of heavy goods vehicles by drivers under 21. I believe that these safeguards will be sufficient and effective not only in the interest of road safety, but to prevent any misuse of the opportunity afforded by the clause for the proper training of young drivers. We want a genuine apprenticeship scheme and we do not want these young people to be used as a cheap way of providing drivers by unscrupulous people in the industry.
Drivers under 21 will be able to drive only in accordance with the training scheme of the operators by whom they are employed. The operators will have to be approved by the committee set up to control the operation of the training scheme. The training board and both sides of industry will be represented on this committee, and I am confident that applications by employers to take part in the scheme will be thoroughly screened. Secondly, I envisage that the regulations which will be made under the clause to control the detailed working of the scheme will be in a form which will make any abuse or infringement of the conditions, whether by employer or driver, an offence which could result in loss of the appropriate licence.
The chairmen of traffic commissioners, who are, of course, also the licensing authorities in respect of heavy goods vehicle drivers' licensing, will be able to take the appropriate action. At present no such scheme is envisaged for training young people to drive public service vehicles. There are inherent difficulties in devising such a scheme, particularly because of the heavy responsibility which a bus driver bears for the welfare of his passengers and the lack of progression of vehicles of different sizes through which he can graduate in taking full charge of a bus-load of people.
My advice to the Committee is that while we should accept Clause 15, which was introduced in another place, we should not proceed with the proposal about public service vehicles and that this clause should be deleted.
I turn now to Clauses 17 to 19, which deal with bus licensing. The amendments introduced in another place represent a 1538 modified version of those contained in the previous administration's Bill. On that occasion, as spokesman for the Opposition, I criticised the proposals because I was informed that they had not been accepted by many operators; they were opposed by the trade unions and they had given concern to a large number of local authorities. While it can be argued, on the one hand, that relaxation of the licences might produce extra services in the way of mini-buses, lifts and so on, there was great concern that if, as a result of the introduction of some of these services, the local authorities were unwilling to support existing scheduled services, the mini-bus operators might find that it was no longer either attractive or profitable to run their services. They might withdraw them; they might even go on holidays; they would not be under the obligation to run a scheduled service. If they disappeared, the all too inadequate routes run by the National Bus Company and other operators would have gone and it would be difficult to resurrect them. Matters could well be made worse, not better.
I think we are all agreed that there is proper cause for great concern about the inadequacies of rural transport, and that something ought to be done—perhaps something radical—to try to create a much better system. To some extent, that was already done in the last Parliament by increasing the powers of local authorities under Section 203 of the Local Government Act. Rather than reintroduce these clauses, I set up a working party under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who cannot be with us this morning because he is engaged in another Committee along the corridor. We have already had meetings with the operators and trade unions, and further discussions with local authorities are planned. We have asked that this should be delayed for a little while, but we hope that these consultations will result in other proposals for rural transport which I expect will be embodied in new legislation.
I am also advised that these clauses have certain technical defects which, if the clauses were implemented, could create problems. My advice, at this stage, is that these provisions should be deleted from the Bill. Let us continue with the process of consultation with a view to 1539 trying to find a system which is as satisfactory as possible to deal with the real problems of rural transport.
Clause 20 and Schedule 4 contain a number of provisions to strengthen the disciplinary powers of the traffic commissioners, and have been welcomed by the road haulage industry.
Clause 21 is another clause which was reintroduced in another place and which was in the previous administration's Bill, but not in mine. It was not in mine because I have found, through discussions with both sides of industry, that nobody really wants tachographs. Anybody who does is quite entitled to have them now. No legislation is needed for that. The purpose of the clause is only to encourage them in a modest way by relieving the operators who have them of some record-taking in the normal form. As I have discovered, there is no great demand for this. It was, I believe, only introduced in the context of forthcoming EEC commitments, particularly for the arrangements planned for 1979. So I do not think that the time scale is pressing. Certainly, as the Committee knows. there are other important matters relating to Europe which have to be determined long before that. I therefore ask that this also be deleted when the time comes.
Clause 22, I gather, has caused a certain amount of controversy. However, I think that many of the people who have beseiged us with communications about this proposal to conduct experiments in the use of road humps for controlling the speed of vehicles have misunderstood what is involved. It is not proposed that this should be a general power to highway authorities, the Secretary of State, or anyone else to start putting these humps in the road. What is proposed, and which we cannot do without specific legislative authority, is that the Transport and Road Research Laboratory should have power to conduct some experiments particularly on a new type of hump which it has developed. This is 12 feet long and 4 inches high and, it is claimed, will not have any detrimental effect on the vehicle and certainly will not create the problems to which owners of two-wheeled vehicles think they will be subjected. It will only cause trouble to people who drive over it recklessly. There would, of course, be 1540 signs and warnings, and the experiments could take place only with the consent of the highway authorities and the specific approval of the Secretary of State. It could not be generally extended without further parliamentary authority.
As hon. Members will know, we are all constantly under pressure to do what we can about road safety, and it seems that this method, which is widely used on private roads—with perhaps rather cruder humps—should possibly be considered as a means of checking the speed of traffic at particularly dangerous points where all the evidence of accidents suggests that some more effective measure than merely signs is required. Therefore, whilst I appreciate that there is some controversy, I hope that this can be given a fair run, with the House understandably taking a great interest in the conduct of the experiments and being very loath to widen their use without being absolutely satisfied that this is an effective and worth while road safety device.
Clause 23 regularises the use of flares by the police as warnings to traffic at night and in fog. They have been used for some time, but there is some doubt about their legality. In view of the concern that I know all hon. Members have about fog on motorways, I do not think that we would wish to take that power away from the police.
In Clause 24 there is a power to detain towed away vehicles until charges are paid. This is complementary to the provisions to Clauses 1 to 5 to strengthen control of parking in cities.
The provisions of Clause 25 have been welcomed by the motor insurance industry. Most of the companies are already affiliated to the Bureau, but I think it is desirable that they should all so belong.
Clause 26 and Schedule 5 vary the penalties for road traffic offences. This is very largely, of course, a matter of up-dating and standardising in accordance with the unfortunate fall in the value of money. One provision has given rise to controversy in that the Magistrates Association criticised the fact that magistrates would lose the power to imprison for road traffic offences except for that of driving while disqualified. These criticisms were fully aired in another place, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave very thorough consideration 1541 to all the points which were raised before endorsing the proposals which we have taken over from the Bill introduced by the previous administration. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office has had a number of meetings with the magistrates concerned. In fact, I will let the Committee into a minor secret. One reason for the delay in reintroducing the Bill was the time and consideration that the Home Office was giving to this particular matter. I understand that magistrates are not anxious to send people to prison for this or almost any other offence and I feel that, although it is not my prime responsibility, these provisions are right. I supported them when the previous administration introduced them and I hope that they will be approved in this Bill.
In addition to proposing the deletion of some clauses for the reasons I have given and one or two drafting amendments, I should like to introduce one new clause. It is not at all controversial, but hon. Members will know that there was a great deal of controversy and concern among the public—many of us had letters from our constituents—about the selling to unsuspecting motorists of tyres which had been rejected by the manufacturers and which were suitable only for farm vehicles with low speeds. There was great concern when a number of accidents occurred because of this, and I think it is right to take this opportunity of bringing in the clause, which has been a little difficult to draft, in order to stop this practice—not merely the sale of tyres, but the selling of any unsuitable components to unsuspecting motorists.
I appreciate that I have gone through the Bill rather quickly. It has been rather a mixture of a lot of measures, but I feel that these measures together will make a contribution to road traffic control and road safety, and I hope that the Committee will agree to this motion.
§ 10.58 a.m.
§ Mr. Marcus Fox
I have listened with great interest, as I am sure my hon. Friends have, to the explanation given by the Minister. He deserves attention. He has been in and out of office in this job on a number of occasions, and I am rather afraid that some of what he has said to us this morning will ensure that his departure may on this occasion be somewhat speedier.
1542 I assure the Minister that we have no intention to oppose the Second Reading. The Bill will, we hope, help to reduce road casualties, and because of the previous agreement, we had looked forward to doing something to help people in rural areas who want better public transport. Apart from the 1967 "breathalyser" Act, it is about 10 years since we had the last Road Traffic Act. Had it not been for the General Election, as the Minister said, we should have introduced a Bill very similar to this in total. It commenced its journey in the last Parliament, and what I have to say will take account of what took place then.
My position is very similar to that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton). We were surprised to read initially that a number of important clauses had been deleted from the Bill in its present form. We felt that the relaxing of the bus licensing system was extremely important, as was the lowering of the minimum age for driving heavy goods vehicles and passenger vehicles. There were others, but those were the two most important points. However, thanks to decisions taken in another place, we now have before us what we on this side consider a much better Bill than was presented to their Lordships a few weeks ago. Contrary to what was expected originally, we can look forward to a fairly long debate on Friday, and there will be a few hard words to say.
As the Minister said, it is not easy to summarise the aims of the Bill. It touches so many aspects of road transport that all we can do is say that it will certainly strengthen and up-date the law regarding road safety and the environment. We welcome many of the provisions to restore the effect of the law on parking in our cities, a menace that any Government would have had to tackle. My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry) will have more to say on that. We welcome the new emphasis on road safety and other measures which take account of the reorganisation of local government. These are important matters, and it is right that Parliament should tackle them from time to time.
Because of the Bill's complexity, I select only one or two important issues, knowing that my hon. Friends will cover other matters. The additions to which the Minister has referred are few. None of us. 1543 can take exception to Clause 6, which merely enables the police to carry out traffic surveys. It is eminently sensible to put right an anomaly which was pointed out in a court case not long ago.
On Clause 22, we have grave reservations about the need to conduct experiments into the effectiveness of road humps. The Transport and Road Research Laboratory, I suggest, can do all that is necessary here. Personally, I doubt the extent to which this type of safety measure can be used. I have in mind the experience of the Freight Transport Association, which has friends on both sides of the Committee, which asked 1,000 executives to look into the matter. The association reported that it viewed an extension of humps with many fears. Indeed, in Northern Ireland there are many bad examples of their use, resulting in damage to vehicles and goods. I give notice, therefore, that we may seek to remove that clause on Friday.
I come now to what we consider a retrograde step, namely, to take out of the Bill the clauses relating to the relaxing of bus licences. I am amazed that the Minister should again talk of consultations. We have had them regularly since 1971. I am intrigued that a working party has been set up by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvingrove (Mr. Carmichael). I hope that what he said on 30th January in the previous Second Reading debate will be borne in mind by the Minister:I accept that the rural bus service is a difficult problem, but I am slightly worried by the suggestion that we must take care of the scheduled services. In some parts of Scotland that I know well there may be a rural bus night and morning only, but it would still be on an existing bus route that a mini-bus, for instance, would operate. It would be difficult if some sort of concession were not allowed between, say eight o'clock in the morning and five o'clock in the evening. It is bad for old people to have to go to market towns at eight o'clock in the morning and have to wait until five o'clock in the evening before being able to return. I hope that there will not be too many pettifogging regulations about the use of minibuses on existing bus routes."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th January 1974; Vol. 867, c. 474.]
§ Mr. Mulley
I should make the point—the hon. Gentleman will no doubt agree—that, in choosing my hon. Friend 1544 as chairman of the working group, I have chosen someone with a real concern for doing what may be necessary in rural transport, even though it may be a little unconventional.
§ Mr. Fox
I am glad of that assurance I only hope that the fruits of power have not tainted the hon. Gentleman already. I have a sneaking feeling that he may come forward with something quite contrary to his remarks when he was a pure back bencher.
I thought that the Minister accepted the need for a relaxing of this system. We are talking here about country areas which often have no bus service at all. Were we seeking only to defend areas with some bus services perhaps we could go a little of the way with him, in many parts of the country now there is literally no public transport service at all. Rail went long ago, and many of our bus services have been gradually taken away. Had we had the courage in 1968, I think we should have accepted that fact of life when we introduced that Act. The writing was on the wall, and we should not fail now, six years later, to take action to help these deprived people. They are indeed deprived. We are talking here of elderly people and young wives with children who are literally isolated. I am horrified to think that the Government are doing this for political reasons. I shall pursue that on Friday in the House. I can only think that, once again, the unions are wielding the big stick. There can be no other conclusion.
I defy anybody to tell me of an area where there is not a shortage of bus drivers. I do not know of one, but I could be wrong. There may be one small corner of England, Scotland or Wales where there is a surplus, but within my knowledge the difficulty is to get bus drivers. So why they are defending jobs that do not exist is beyond my comprehension. But let us not go into too much detail about that at this stage.
The public interest must come first. What is proposed in the Bill will give protection to existing operators. We simply want to change the emphasis in relation to the traffic commissioners and put the public interest first. This is only taking account of changed circumstances. Some 40 years ago, the commissioners 1545 were established by Act of Parliament, and in the inter-war years many operators were put out of business because of pirates who creamed off their best traffic. But it is nonsense today for that same approach to be taken by these gentlemen. The public interest must come top of the list. I am sure that people in rural areas anyway will understand what we are trying to do.
I move now to the clause relating to the reduction of the driving age. I am glad that the Minister has made clear that he does not intend to remove this clause, although he has said that he will remove the clause relating to drivers of public service vehicles. I am delighted that he has seen sense regarding heavy goods vehicle drivers. This is where the big problem lay. We have all had letters from constituents in the road haulage industry who have been short of drivers. It is right that the age should be reduced from 21 to 18.
We accept that the driver apprentice scheme must go hand in hand with that change. None of us imagines that a young man of 18 will automatically step up to the biggest lorry and be able to drive it. But at long last there will be a chance for the industry to have a career structure for drivers. Many young people leaving school want to enter this sort of work, and I believe that what we are doing here will be of great help not only to the industry but to those individuals also.
We shall not oppose the removal of that part of the clause referring to public service vehicles, because that is not a problem, and I think it fair to say that, had that clause gone through, one would not have had people of 18 driving a double-decker bus. Obviously, within the industry there would have been a similar sort of training scheme.
I move on to the clauses relating to the fixed penalty system. The Minister is right to draw our attention to the fact that the law has been flouted. My information is that 1 million fines remain unpaid each year. None of us can support the disregard of an Act of Parliament. I welcome the change to owner liability. But I have one question for the Minister. Although the owner will be liable, may we assume that there will be no question of these offences being recorded against 1546 him? For example, if he owns a few cars and everything is recorded, he will have a pretty substantial record if he is himself caught on anything. He may well not be guilty, save in the technical sense. I should like that assurance.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) that we should turn our attention to the number of diplomats who claim immunity on this type of offence. It causes great resentment to many of our people when they hear of such cases. Although we are not talking of hundreds of thousands, in relation to the number of diplomats who can claim this privilege the number of cases is enormous. I think that we may be able to do something about that, but I leave it for the Minister to consider.
The road safety provisions in Clause 8 are extremely important. I welcome the duty on local authorities to promote road safety. Perhaps they will for the first time turn their attention to the comprehensive training of young road users. We all know that drivers are most accident-prone between the ages of 17 and 24. We must somehow ensure that local authorities provide the basic training that should be given before anybody goes on the road in a vehicle. We are lagging behind many other countries in driving training in schools. I am told that in America 95 per cent. of pupils have this driver training. We have a golden opportunity—with the problems relating to the raising of the school leaving age—to introduce something that could keep many of these pupils occupied. If we need any help, I am sure that the Army or the Air Force could give us a few tips on how to train pupils of that age.
Next, Clause 26 and the penalties for certain road traffic offences. I know that some of my hon. Friends are concerned about the power being taken away from magistrates. I, too, am concerned. The Home Office under the previous Government accepted this as in line with the thinking on penal reform. None of us wants people to languish in prison for offences that could be dealt with in another way. But there are grave fears that, by removing this deterrent, we may be doing a disservice. I shall look closely at the matter before we reach the Committee stage on Friday. The Magistrates' Association and the Justices' Clerks 1547 Society are two responsible bodies, and we must consider their evidence carefully.
We are not surprised that the move on tachographs is seen to be another attack, as it were, on the Transport and General Workers' Union. I have no doubt that Jack Jones has made his views known on tachographs. It is a simple clause. There is no compulsion to instal tachographs; it is merely that duplication in written work will be done away with. I see no reason for taking that clause out of the Bill. We shall, perhaps, pursue that on Friday.
The Minister will be glad to know that I agree with him on one point. I should hate to think that on Friday, along with all the other points I have suggested, we might get round to the compulsory wearing of seat belts. I assure him that there will be no official attempt from the Opposition to introduce that into our debate.
Finally, what does the Minister intend to do about the assurance that was given in another place about the banning of vehicles parking at urban junctions? Was it an oversight that he did not mention it? Or did I, perhaps nod off at the time he mentioned it? Assurance was given that a new clause would be tabled. I am not pressing for a new clause, but I am a little anxious about a 30-yard restriction at junctions. If, from the point of view of parking, we remove 30 yards from each of the ½ million road junctions in this country we may be overdoing it, over-egging the pudding as it were. I think that 15 yards may be sufficient. It is argued that there are a few occasions when 30 yards are needed. Are we right to try to legislate for those few occasions? Local authorities already have the power anyway, and 15 yards would, perhaps, be adequate. I simply ask the Minister whether it is intended to introduce a new clause.
§ Mr. Mulley
I shall deal with that, but I should like the hon. Gentleman's views as well. I made some observations on the previous occasion along the lines he has just spoken, and I wonder whether every junction in this country, including those in back lanes and quiet residential areas, even cul-de-sacs, should have 30 yards. It would pretty well neutralise parking in all the back streets.
§ Mr. Fox
I am sorry. I thought that my views were clear. I do not suggest 1548 that we introduce a clause to bring it back into the Bill. That should tell the Minister what he wants to know, but I was interested to know his thinking.
I hope that the Committee has not got the impression from my observations that the Opposition are opposed to the Bill. We need the Bill. Many parts of it are long overdue. I only hope that common sense will prevail and that on Friday the Bill will remain as it is now.
§ 11.16 a.m.
§ Mr. Alan Clark
I make no apology for returning to Clause 26 and Schedule 5. The Minister spoke about the Home Secretary's long reflection on this matter and said that the present delay was in part due to the consultations with magistrates. However, the Committee should reflect seriously about it.
The effect of the clause is to remove completely from magistrates' courts the power of imprisonment for all offences other than those of driving while disqualified. We know the sad statistics of driving while under the influence of drink and of the rising graph every year. Were this power to be removed from the magistrates' court, besides reducing the deterrent effect it would result in a serious increase in the case load in the Crown courts.
Furthermore, the offence of failing to stop after an accident—which may seem fairly innocuous—covers the much more serious case of the hit-and-run driver. Here again, if magistrates are no longer allowed the power to imprison for offences of this nature, there may be a serious increase in such offences because of the inevitable downgrading which this reclassification seems to imply.
In addition, there are the numerous offences relating to forgery of documents in connection with regulating one's motoring affairs, in particular, the forging of documents so as to obtain third party insurance. Here again, a serious state of affairs is latent. When an offender forges a document to allow him to be issued with an insurance certificate and then, in a subsequent accident, his insurance cover is found to be false, those who suffer in that accident will suffer financially also when the insurance deriving from the forged document is found to be abortive.
1549 By removing the power of imprisonment from magistrates one also removes automatically those powers which magistrates enjoy under the Criminal Justice Act 1972 to commit offenders under 21 years of age either to borstal, to a detention centre or attendance centre, or even to make a community service order. I hope that the Committee will agree that to some extent that vitiates whatever possible benevolent intentions of penal reform are inherent in what is proposed. In effect, it will severely restrict the power of magistrates to deal with offenders, particularly younger offenders outside imprisonment.
§ 11.20 a.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg
I think that the Bill has a large number of gaps, and the Minister has not given a satisfactory explanation of some of the issues involved. I start with what he said about traffic offences and parking offences committed by the diplomatic corps in London. I am surprised that he should come to this Committee knowing the number of questions that have been asked in the House over the past two or three years and not be able to give us the figures. By the time he comes to reply, I hope that he will be able to provide those figures. My information is that they run into several thousands per year, and I certainly hope that he will not be left bereft of statistics by the time he comes to reply. Up to now I fear that he has not been of much help to us in providing the figures.
§ Mr. Mulley
I said that I would do my best to get the figures. It is not really one of my responsibilities, and my point was that it would be wrong to think that if the diplomatic problem did not exist the case for the owner-liability would not exist. I felt that that was the suggestion in some quarters. The numbers are thousands, not hundreds of thousands as the hon. Member has said.
§ Mr. Finsberg
I hope that the workings of the bureaucracy of the Department will provide the figures by the time the Minister comes to reply.
I am surprised that the Minister has not sought to do something to tighten up the law affecting vehicle excise licences. I should have thought there was a case—rather supporting his hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Arthur Lewis) who is so 1550 vigilant on the matter of the number of vehicles, particularly in London, remaining on the streets unlicensed—for introducing a clause to give power to impose on-the-spot fines for people not displaying or possessing a valid excise licence. Perhaps we shall have to do the Minister's work for him and table a clause on that ready for Friday.
I think the clause on the sleeping policeman is a doubtful proposition. I first encountered the sleeping policeman in what was then British Honduras and is now Belize. Subsequently I saw it in Jamaica. There are mixed feelings among the authorities there. Perhaps there are not so many objections in rural areas as there would be in towns. In general, the sleeping policeman has a function not always readily acceptable. In all countries where it exists Ministers seem to think that it may aid road safety. I do not believe that it will. I should like to see the clause deleted, or a limitation put upon the length of time for any individual experiment—say, 15 months. That would allow a full 12 months' observation and then a couple of months to remove the installation rather than—as I read the Bill as drafted—for the sleeping policeman to remain as long as the Minister wishes to be there.
Equally, I should like to see better protection for local residents in the method of objection offered to them. I hope that between now and Friday the Minister will have further thoughts on this.
I want to declare an interest, being a life member of the Magistrates Association. I should have thought that the Minister would have had representation on Clause 26 from a close member of his family. I recall that his wife is an active member of the Magistrates Association. Many of us made representations to the previous Government saying that we thought they were utterly wrong in taking away from magistrates the power to imprison if they thought it necessary. One cannot have the professed views of suecesive Lord Chancellors about the excellence of our lay magistrates and how much more expensive and less efficient it would be to introduce a stipendiary magistrates system throughout the country, and then have in a tiny, obscure clause of a relatively unimportant Bill this massive reduction in the powers of lay magistrates.
1551 I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Fox), who is leading for the Opposition in the Committee, will table an appropriate amendment for Friday so that the House can decide whether it really wants to downgrade the status of lay magistrates as the Bill wishes. I make it clear, as the Minister quite fairly did, that the Minister inherited the clause from my party, but that does not make me any more enthusiastic about it. I have criticised them on various occasions for certain measures, and I shall go on doing so. But that does not excuse the Minister taking over a bad piece of legislation and trying to tell the House that it should be accepted. Whatever cosy arrangement there may be, or may have been, between the Front Benches in the last Parliament, I hope that my hon. Friend will not be a party to that sort of behaviour on this item.
I should like to ask the Minister a question about Schedule 5. One of the offences for which he appears to be altering the penalty is the last but one on page 55:Tampering with parking meter or using false coin, etc.",where the present maximum penalty is£50 or 3 months imprisonment or both".He proposes simply to delete theor 3 months imprisonment or both".He must know that massive sums of money are being lost in London boroughs such as my own borough of Camden. Yet, so far as I can see, he is going to delete the power of imprisonment—if there is another provision to replace it, I have not found it—and leave the penalty at this low fine of £50. This really is not good enough. It may be a slip-up; it may be an oversight, or I may have got it wrong, but if I have got it right I urge the Minister by Friday either to drop this alteration or to increase, possibly to £200, the penalty for second and subsequent offences in this category which are causing great problems to inner London boroughs.
I notice that the Bill proposes to make changes in the law relating to road traffic, and it talks about road safety. I have had many discussions over the past two years with a very distinguished constituent of mine, Mr. Edward Terrell QC, who I 1552 think is not unknown to the Minister or, indeed, to his advisers. I shall certainly be seeking on Friday to move some new clauses which would give the force of law to some of the main rules of the highway code. Mr. Terrell has been one of the leading experts in this country on road traffic, an honorary Recorder of Newbury, a Recorder of the Crown Court and the author of a well-known book on road traffic offences which has run into over three editions.
He started looking at this question of road safety and the highway code as long ago as 1965 and has tried to persuade successive Ministers, without much success, to put some teeth into the highway code. I propose to put forward some clauses which Mr. Terrell has drafted, which I believe are sensible clauses and would go a long way towards reducing the growing toll of deaths and serious injuries.
I wonder whether the Committee realises that in 1968, for example, deaths on the road totalled 6,810 and serious injuries 88,563. By 1972 the figure of deaths had risen to some 7,700. The number of serious injuries rose from 1968 to 90,000, then to 93,000, and then returned to 90,000—possibly as a result of the breathalyser—but it is creeping up again, and in 1972 had reached 91,300.
I believe that a Minister of Transport cannot remain oblivious to any contribution to road safety which can reduce the number of accidents by making the penalties much tougher for those who break the law. However much he may be advised by his officials that it may be difficult to find a perfect answer, nonetheless I think that he has a moral responsibility to adopt measures which will help to reduce road accidents. I hope that if amendments are put down, selected and debated, he will have an opportunity to explain to the House why he cannot accept them. I hope he will not be put in that embarrasisng position but that he will be able to say to the House that he willingly accepts them.
He will then go down in history as one of the good Ministers of Transport. There have not been all that number. The only ones who will be remembered by posterity are Hore-Belisha, who I think can be accounted as the best Minister of Transport the country has ever seen; the 1553 right hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), who, however much one might have disliked the way she did it, reduced road deaths and accidents by the introduction of the breathalyser; and possibly my right hon. Friend who is now ennobled and whose new title I cannot recall—Ernest Marples. I am bound to say, with the greatest deference and friendliness to the Minister, that many people would be happier to see him occupying the seat than the right hon. Gentleman who now occupies it—for different reasons perhaps. Nonetheless Ministers of Transport do not often have monuments erected during their lifetimes, nor are they much remembered after they have left this place. The Minister has an opportunity of improving the Bill and he may then qualify for the "Hall of Fame" of Ministers of Transport.
§ 11.32 a.m.
§ Mr. Ralph Howell
My main interest in the Bill is centred around the Government's intention of removing Clauses 17 to 19. There will be a tremendous feeling of disappointment in the rural areas by people who were hoping to get something from the Bill which would help to alleviate the difficulty of rural transport. The disappointment will be added to by the fact that we have seen a display of outdated doctrinaire socialism at work here today. It is about time the Socialist Party started to care about people and not about their restrictive practices.
I represent a rural area where we have declining bus services, as do practically all other rural areas, but perhaps my rural area of North Norfolk is one of the most sparsely populated areas in the country and there are many villages that have no bus service at all. I wish the Minister would pay a little attention to what I am saying.
§ Mr. Mulley
I am taking in completely the hon. Member's point, that he is concerned about the bus services in his constituency.
§ Mr. Howell
That is very good. I am glad to hear it. It is a problem which we must face. I do not know whether the Minister really thinks that Eastern Counties buses will lumber up and down little narrow country lanes carrying two 1554 or three people for ever more. This simply cannot go on.
In North Norfolk, which is one of the lowest wage areas in the country, we have one of the highest percentages of car ownership. It is simply a necessity: one must have a car to get to a town. The mere fact that it is necessary to have a car means that bus services are becoming less and less economic as more and more people are compelled to have cars. To go on believing that one can keep scheduled bus services for ever is burying one's head in the sand.
I beg the Minister for once to think about people rather than about the restrictive practices of the unions. They are out of date, and what held good in 1940, 1950 or 1960 is not practical today. I hope that a few hon. Members opposite will have the good sense to prevent the Government from making an awful hash of it and from presenting this old-fashioned image of themselves. This, to my mind, is even more serious than the aspect which we are discussing now. It is one of the tragedies of this country that the Socialist Party does not advance with the times.
The people about whom I am particularly thinking are, to a very large extent, people who do not necessarily vote for me. Surely the Minister could think a little more of the people who, even in rural Norfolk, have been solidly supporting his party for years. They want mini-bus services which are practical and which would help them to get to the town, to the doctor, to the dentist, or whatever appointment they need to make. We have reached a stage now where bus services in these rural areas cannot be sustained. A minibus service could be operated. People could phone in to a central point. Free enterprise—and only free enterprise—could do this job. There is no other way of supplying this service which people in the rural areas must have, other than by the operation of mini-buses in a truly free enterprise way. I beg the Minister to take notice of my plea, to change his mind and leave these clauses in the Bill.
§ 11.37 a.m.
§ Mr. Tony Durant
I should like to take the opportunity of commenting on one or two of the clauses.
I think that Clause 7, which relates to parking on the verges, is a worth while 1555 measure, but, as someone who has spent time in local government, I think we must appreciate that its implications are tremendous.
Council estates which were built well before the war lack garage space. This measure will result in tremendous parking in the streets. Many of the roads in these council estates are very narrow and this will result in great difficulties with public service vehicles, dust carts, and so on. I hope the Minister realises that local authorities will be coming back for more money to take into account the garaging element in particularly large council estates. There are a large number of these in Reading, and this is one of our problems in that area.
I should like to refer to Clause 26 and Schedule 5 which relate to fines. I find it somewhat surprising, and I think that perhaps they have all been increased in a carte blanche way, without careful examination. I find it surprising, for instance, that the fines for contravention of pedestrian crossings are the same as for failure to stop at a school crossing. To my mind, there is a subtle difference between the two. One is a statutory crossing area and the other is done by what is called "a lollipop man", and it can be argued whether or not he was in the road. I think that this heavy fine will perhaps give rise to a great deal of litigation and argument. I ask the Minister to look at the two cases. The fine in one case may need to be increased, and, in the other, reduced. The financial effects there are quite important. I think that these fines have all been increased instead of having been studied individually. The main emphasis should be on dangerous driving when considering the imposition of fines.
I now come to Clause 8 and the financial effects mentioned in the Bill. I think it is a pity that we should cut the grant to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. I have supported that organisation for many years. It is a retrograde step to cut that money when the organisation does such good work, particularly in its campaigns, instructions to drivers, and training of schoolchildren. It would be a pity to cut that grant of £100,000.
Let us consider what is missing in the Bill. I welcome the Minister's mention of bringing in a clause about tyres. The 1556 opportunity should have been given in this Bill to clear up the position about pedestrian crossings and the begetting of pedestrian crossings. It has been a very confused picture. At one time all pedestrian crossings had to be sanctioned by the Minister. The rule was then changed to a pedestrian crossing for so many head of population; then we had the situation in which if more crossings were wanted the Minister had to be consulted.
I was involved with a traffic scheme recently. We had to submit the scheme first, then find out whether the locality was dangerous, and install the pedestrian crossings afterwards. The public really does think that this is madness of the first order, and the whole subject of pedestrian crossings should have been considered in the Bill.
It is a pity, too, that the Government have decided to drop the road junction aspect which was in the original Conservative Bill, and that it has not been put back.
I also feel that another opportunity has been missed here for wider consultation with the public on road traffic schemes. Local communities get worked up into a great frensy when a new traffic scheme is introduced. There are marches, delegations and petitions, and if opportunity were provided in this Bill for consultation with the public before the schemes were implemented it would ease much unrest.
I hope that the Minister will take note of these points.
§ 1.42 a.m.
§ Mr. Jim Lester
May I mention two points? Along with others of my hon. Friends, I was very sorry to hear that the Minister is withdrawing Clauses 17 to 19 on rural buses. There have been many surveys of areas with low populations, and I should have thought it had been proved beyond argument that the only practical way to solve the immediate problem of the rural areas is to allow the immediate use of smaller versions of passenger-carrying vehicles. In many areas in my constituency, if it were not for the fact that people helped one another—there was a self-help organisation and if someone was going into town the message would get around and those without cars would be helped—transportation would have broken down entirely.
1557 As my hon. Friend said, a 40-seater bus milling around half empty in some of the very sparsely populated areas—the demand is so infrequent that there is no call for a regular service—is the reason why bus companies have withdrawn the regular services. When one considers, as I have, subsidies of £40,000, to ensure a regular bus service for a series of villages, which was not used to the extent it should have been, I should have thought that the argument had gone a long way past even looking again at the problem. What we really want is for these clauses to allow the immediate use of small passenger-carrying vehicles.
Equally, when considering the rise in the rates, the actual cost of subsidising rural transport through a transportation scheme which involves the big rural areas is something that I should have thought any Minister would have wanted to miss.
I should like to refer to Clause 22, on the sleeping policemen. I may differ from my colleagues, as I was responsible for the introduction of sleeping policemen in my own area on internal roads. We have found them remarkably useful and effective on internal roads, schools and sports centres. They work very well indeed. If one is to use them on roads generally, one should proceed very carefully indeed and, before introducing an experiment with a road hump, one should introduce an experiment with a rough road—I call it "rough road"—a road with sufficient roughness to draw the driver's attention to a change. If anyone wants to see how this works, there is a dangerous bend on the Al where someone has made this experiment. Three sections of rough road are there, and one is immediately conscious that one must take one's foot off the accelerator and look out. In the circular and in the experiment it ought to be suggested that both methods be considered—rough road as the first stage, and if that did not work, then the road hump as the most extreme form.
§ Mr. Finsberg
I do not think that my hon. Friend and I are far apart. For convenience and time saving, I did not go into the distinction of internal and other roads, but, so far as I am aware, for internal roads—on housing estates, for example—which serve private residents one would not need to get permission from the Ministry of Transport or legislative approval. 1558 Therefore, I think there is a difference; internal roads are a separate issue.
§ Mr. Mulley
The whole point of the clause is to permit, in the first instance, experiments, but as I said, it would not be possible to extend the experiments to general use. One needs parliamentary authority and we cannot have a single hump, quite rightly, without legislative approval. Private estates are a different matter.
§ Mr. Lester
I am grateful for that intervention. But I continue to press that we should use rough roads even more extensively than we do now. Where we believe the safety speed limits to be critical, we should experiment with sections of rough road, because I find that today's plethora of road signs makes them meaningless. One reaches a junction and is sometimes greeted by anything up to 17 road signs, and in trying to flash them through one's mind to decide what to do one finds that one may just have missed the speed limit sign. The speed limit is the most critical sign, so I should like the Minister to think of introducing just a small section—20 yards, say—of rough road before the most critical speed limits at spots with an accident record. I believe that one can persuade people gently but physically. Everyone cares for his car. If sounds are heard coming up through the road wheels he involuntarily slows down, and this is a practical way of saving lives and enabling drivers to obey the law.
§ 11.48 a.m.
§ Mr. Daniel Awdry
In winding up this short debate on behalf of the Opposition, I make a minor protest at the start against the Second Reading Committee for a matter as serious as this. It really is not satisfactory for a Bill of 29 clauses to be taken in a Second Reading Committee. There must be many hon. Members in the House who would like to join in a debate of such importance. Nor will it be satisfactory to try to complete all the remaining stages on a Friday. As the Minister said, Friday is not a very good day for hon. Members to attend; they have their constituency engagements. Of course, we cannot have a debate on seat belts, but we shall have to think very hard about how on Friday we shall get through all the important issues that have been raised.
1559 We on this side do not oppose the Bill in principle. We could not; it was largely fostered by us. It was largely the idea of the previous Minister. But, of course, a number of points have arisen today which we shall have to raise strongly again on Friday.
I deeply regret the exclusion of Clauses 17, 18 and 19 relating to rural buses. We had a very robust contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Howell), and other hon. Members have spoken. My hon. Friend referred to Norfolk, and I can refer to Wiltshire where we have the problem as well. I agree that the time has come for action rather than more discussion—setting up more consultations, committees and so on. This is a subject we have all known about for many years, and it is time that action was taken to deal with this crisis—I can describe it as nothing less, of transport in rural areas.
It has been a rather one-sided debate in a way because all the back bench Members who have spoken have been from this side. There has not been a single contribution from a Government back bencher—no doubt, of course, in order to see that we make progress. But this brings out the point I made at the start, that it is not a satisfactory procedure. It is not a particularly political debate, and contributions from both sides must be useful when we are trying to save lives on the roads.
Both my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark) and Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) made powerful speeches about the question of the removal of the power from magistrates to sentence to imprisonment. There was a time in my life when I practised a lot in magistrates' courts on driving offences. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton, on certain aspects of cases. He referred to the hit-and-run case and to the forgery cases. These can be very serious offences—the man who knocks someone down and drives off, or the man who gets his documents through forgery. There will be a risk that if we do not allow magistrates to sentence these offenders to prison, the seriousness of the offence will be downgraded. That would be contrary to the interests of good criminal 1560 justice and it is something to which we must return on Friday. I realise the Home Office has its views, but we shall certainly present our own views forcefully on Friday.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Fox), who opened for the Opposition, said that I would refer to two clauses. I wish to mention Clause 30, which prohibits the parking of vehicles on verges and footways in urban areas. I can understand the purpose behind the clause. It seems sensible to prevent cars and other vehicles from obstructing footways and verges. But what of the motorcycle? I do not believe that they are properly considered here. Has the Minister had representations from the motor cycle industry on this point? He said that he had received representations from other people—he referred to the Post Office—but has he had representations from the motorcycle industry? What possible harm can a motorcycle do if it is parked on a verge or on a footway?
A motorcycle has two wheels, and is an extremely useful vehicle for shopping and for commuters. This applies to the moped, too. Surely we should encourage people to use mopeds, which use very little petrol—they do 125 miles to the gallon—but Clause 7 states:Subject to the provisions of this section, a person who parks a vehicle, other than a heavy commercial vehicle,".That includes the motorcycle. The Minister can get round this difficulty if he wants to, either by redrafting that definition and simply referring to a vehicle "other than a motorcycle or moped" or he could deal with it in the regulations, because he has to produce regulations as to how the Bill will work.
I therefore ask the Minister to give an assurance that it is not intended that Clause 7 should prevent people from parking motorcycles. If he persists, he will get into difficulties because motorcycles and mopeds are parked in little lanes and paths which are not footways. If we are to ask courts to adjudicate whether a motor cycle has been parked on a footpath, and whether it has been dedicated, there will be a lot of unnecessary trouble in the courts. That is a serious point. Little has been said about motorcycles in this Second Reading debate, and I ask the Minister to give us an answer.
1561 Now a word on Clause 22, and on what my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead has referred to as the sleeping policeman. That is a good description. This is experimental and, as the Minister said, it is not a general power to him but simply a power to start an experiment. But are we absolutely certain that this is the sort of experiment we want? I query that. An artificial hump or depression is to be built into a road with the intention of slowing people down. There will, of course, be a warning that humps are about, but again, have we thought about the poor motorcyclist?
Suppose there is bad weather, that it is snowing and the sign is obstructed. We may cause a hazard to a man who is quite reasonably travelling at a fair speed on a motorcycle, who hits something that is four inches high in the road, deliberately put there by the Minister's experiment, and shoots over the handlebars. Have we given enough thought to this? I therefore ask the Minister to reassure those who ride mopeds and motorcycles that their interests have been considered. The time has not yet come to play about with experiments of this kind. Once again, it is something to which we should return on Friday.
The Minister will now appreciate that we shall have a busy day on Friday, because we want to get the Bill through. But we are worried about one or two specific points, and I hope that, in replying now, the Minister can meet the points that I and my hon. Friends have raised so that we shall know that some progress can be made on Friday.
§ 11.55 a.m.
§ Mr. Mulley
May I have the leave of the Committee to speak again?
I am most grateful to all the hon. Members who have made, I am sure everyone will agree, constructive and helpful contributions to a subject which is not one of party-political character.
The hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry) made an important point. Why a Second Reading Committee? I am grateful to the Opposition for agreeing to this procedure. Bills can come here only if there is agreement by all parties, if the motion is on the paper for 10 days, and so on. Secondly, why a Friday? The brutal fact of life is that 1562 we either try to get the Bill through on Friday or we start from scratch again. I do not know the likely course of events, but I predict that if we come back in October for a tail-end session there will probably not be time for the Bill to go through Committee, Report and Third Reading stages. Therefore unless we concluded all the stages before the recess, I guess that it would be "curtains" and the Bill would have to be reintroduced again for third time.
Many of the measures in the Bill are agreed. Everybody wants them. They are not controversial and, for my part, I should be happy to drop everything that is controversial, which is one reason why I have made the proposals to delete certain clauses. On that proposition we could make very fast progress.
Perhaps I shall now be successful in persuading hon. Members not to hold such strong views when they leave the Committee as when they came in.
We all agree that the essential argument is about rural transport, and that it is a problem. The hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Howell) made a powerful speech on behalf of his constituents, and we all know that there is an enormous problem. But we should not clutch at the first set of solutions presented. If there is any difficulty there let me put to the Committee this point. In another place the form of these clauses was significantly different from that presented by the previous administration in their last Bill, and they had nearly four years in office. I do not doubt their sincerity in trying to grapple with the problems of rural transport, but they did not achieve anything.
Even within the six months intervening period we have had another modified set of proposals in addition to those originally proposed in the Bill. It is not just the trade unions; it is the operators and many local authorities who are not convinced that this kind of solution will necessarily solve the problems and may—I put it no higher—make them much worse. It is all very well to indulge in a bit of union-bashing—a point made by the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Fox). The union is not concerned about jobs for bus drivers, because for many years there has been a shortage. The union is concerned, as members of the community, 1563 to get a system that will improve, rather than reduce, the existing services.
Everyone talks about a mini-bus as though that were the answer, because it is only half, a third, or quarter the size of a normal bus, and that this means a corresponding reduction in costs. Far from it. The biggest element in transport generally, and particularly in road passenger transport, is the driver's wages. It costs just as much per hour for a chap to drive a mini-bus as to drive a bigger bus. While, clearly, in running smaller vehicles there is some saving in fuel and depreciation costs, it is nothing like the saving that is imagined. I am sure that no one would argue that those who drive mini-buses should not be properly paid. What, then, is the great saving?
The proposition which I shall put when we come to this matter on Friday is this. Is it not better that we have consultations and that the local authorities which are working on this and which have asked for more time to prepare their views and representations should be given time to see whether a solution can be found? Or shall we talk about it all day on Friday, and perhaps end up with no Bill at all?
Those are the issues to which we must address ourselves. There is no dispute between us about the problem. The dispute is about how best to solve it. We may need to go much more radically into whether the present licensing system is right. After all, the traffic commissioners scheme was a product of the quite different circumstances of the 1930s. Much more radical consideration may be necessary. Just putting in a few minibuses, in my view, will not solve the problem or make much of a contribution. It could—these are views that I expressed when in opposition—make life more difficult for would-be passengers if the National Bus Company and other operators were to withdraw their few existing services.
The new powers were given to the local authorities by the previous Government only in April. People should be given time—they have had less time than the Government—to look at these problems. Yet hon. Members are now saying. that this is the only way to deal with the matter. It will upset an awful lot of people if the House insists on that view.
§ Mr. Fox
The Minister is making great play about existing services suffering. Will he confirm that, under the proposals in the Bill, if a mini-bus is being run for commercial reasons the traffic commissioners will still have to approve the running of that mini-bus, and that the only exception will be a private mini-bus run by the WVS, Rotary, Round Table and so on? One can hardly imagine that thousands of private mini-buses will sweep through our rural areas. There will still be safeguards for existing operators. To suggest otherwise is to exaggerate.
§ Mr. Mulley
I may exaggerate a bit on my side, but there is a bit of exaggeration on the other side about the transformation that the clauses could give to rural transport. They would not. My proposition is that the local authorities, most of them having had these responsibilities only since April, should be allowed to finish their consultations and make their representations, in conjunction with the operators and the unions. This Government have been in power for only four months, and in nearly four years the previous Government did not succeed in solving the problem. I know how difficult it is. In fact, even in the short time between the introduction of their Bill and the amendment in the other place there have been significant differences in the two sets of clauses. Let us wait a little and see whether we can do a bit more than is proposed here. Clearly, the matter will have to be discussed at greater length in Committee.
The other matter which seems to exercise hon. Members' minds is Clause 22—the sleeping policemen or the humps. If the House is suspicious about these powers, there is some attraction in imposing a time limit. Fifteen months may be a little on the short side. A lot of procedure has to be gone through, with objections and so on. In my experience, those 15 months could pass before a hump was actually in the ground.
§ Mr. Mulley
From the time it is agreed, yes. I shall consider it between now and Friday. I am just saying that, since all of us are held responsible for the 1565 enormous casualty figures which the hon. Member for Hampstead brought to our attention, we should consider all the possibilities.
I was pleased to hear the experience of the hon. Member for Beeston (Mr. Lester). He did not put these humps on the private estates for which he had some responsibility just for the fun of it; he did it because he thought that they would do a job.
The road research people claim that the improvements they have made will mean that the humps will have no effect on two-wheelers. We want to check that and other matters. Incidentally, we are meeting motor cyclists' representatives on Thursday to try to deal with their problems, including the question of parking under Clause 7, to which I shall come in a moment. In this context, we just want an experiment. We can find out public reaction only by letting the public use them. If there were a great outcry, no Minister would be so foolish as to persist in having more experiments. The House would not give the necessary new authority for it to be extended on a wider basis. We envisage putting the first one at a point where cars are practically stationary anyway, on coming to a junction.
In this context, the helpful and constructive suggestions of the hon. Member for Beeston will be relevant. The idea is to put them not in the middle of motorways but in areas where signs have not stopped kids being killed in the streets because drivers have not slowed down when approaching serious and often hidden traffic hazards. If they see that there are the so-called sleeping policemen in the road, perhaps they will go round a Z bend a bit more slowly. But before they are contemplated as part of a road safety programme we want to see whether they actually work when used by heavy traffic in ordinary road conditions. It is not possible to do that on private estates or on the limited road surface at the Transport and Road Research Laboratory. I am asking only for experimental powers. If it will help to attach a time limit, I am quite prepared to consider that.
As a Minister, one is rightly attacked for the deaths on the road, but everything that one tries to do that might 1566 appear helpful—seat belts or anything else—is opposed. Often the same people who complain about the casualty figures are the ones who oppose everything one tries to do in an effort to reduce the figures. The public do not just blame Ministers; they blame all Members of Parliament. So I hope that on Friday the Committee will be willing at least to give the scheme a fair run.
The other matter which caused a great deal of trouble and confusion was Clause 7. The hon. Members for Chippenham and for Shipley and a number of other hon. Members raised this matter. The Committee should understand the history of the clause. It was not in the previous Government's Bill, and I confess that I should not have put it in my Bill except that another place had inserted it last time and when it came to the Commons it had been accepted by the then Minister. We have brought forward the ban on parking in a very modified way. It applies only on urban highways. We are giving local authorities wide powers of exemption. Also, incidentally, there is power in the Bill to exempt classes of vehicles. It would be possible to exempt motor cyclists as a class. I should have thought that local authorities, without incurring great expense, could exempt the kind of roads that the hon. Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant) had in mind in his account of the estates in his constituency.
I think that it would have been wrong to do it in the simple form in which it was first brought to the Commons last time, which was a total ban on any parking on any footways or verges anywhere. I hope that what we have done will be more acceptable. In the previous debates I sensed a fair volume of support on both sides of the House that something on these lines ought to be done, because there is abuse in certain areas. Again, one cannot please everybody all of the time, or even part of the time.
I do not think that anyone has firmly opposed the concept of owner liability for fixed penalty offences outlined in the first five clauses of the Bill. Several hon. Members raised the question of diplomats, but it is not possible to deal with the whole question of diplomatic immunity in a Bill of this sort. The immunity diplomats enjoy is part of an 1567 international system—I had some responsibilities for it in a previous Government in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and very tiresome it was—covering all criminal offences. It is not only to fixed parking tickets that diplomatic immunity applies.
There is concern, however, about this aspect because the figures involved are large and it is an area in which diplomatic immunity confronts the public who may not hear of, for example, a minor diplomat being involved in other criminal offences. The latest figures available for 1973 within the Metropolitan Police district—I do not think that it is a serious problem elsewhere—show that 61,600 tickets within the diplomatic category were not proceeded with, which was approximately 10 per cent. of the total of 600,000 for the district as a whole.
It is a serious matter, but this particular aspect of diplomatic immunity cannot be dealt with without raising the wider question of diplomatic immunity as a whole. My experience—I suspect that the position has not changed—was that the majority of members of the diplomatic corps exercised great responsibility and, although they had immunity, did not seek to abuse it, although, admittedly, some diplomats in some embassies seemed to have a very high average score. These matters come within the scope of my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. If there were some way round the problem I should be happy to consider it, but I do not think that the question of diplomatic privilege can be dealt with in a Bill of this sort.
§ Mr. Finsberg
Will the Minister consider between now and Friday whether, at the very least, he will look favourably on a suggestion that, where diplomats claim immunity, that fact shall have to be notified to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office by the prosecutor?
§ Mr. Mulley
I shall certainly take that up with my right hon. Friend, because it is within his area of responsibility, but there is not really in this sense a prosecutor.
I have been asked whether there is a record of convictions in the ordinary sense under the fixed penalty system and what happens in this respect to an owner 1568 of a vehicle whose driver commits an offence. The short answer is that these fixed penalty offences are not endorse-able, and I am advised that the police keep no record of convictions of this sort. Payments of a fixed penalty fine for parking offences, meter offences and the rest are not thought to be convictions in the strict sense. If a vehicle owner lends his vehicle to a friend who does not face his responsibilities, and the owner finds that he has to pay the fine, that would not be held against him in any way if he himself were later involved in a motoring offence.
I think I have dealt with the major points that have arisen, except those concerning the important issues relating to Clause 26 and the schedule—the change of practice with regard to magistrates' powers. It is not proposed that the penalty of imprisonment would not be available for serious traffic offences. It would be for the prosecution in such cases to take them on indictment to a court where imprisonment could be imposed. I know that it is a matter of great controversy. Magistrates, who use the power sparingly, would for the most part do anything to avoid sending people to prison as part of the approach to the penal system adopted by successive Governments.
My advice is that this matter having been carefully considered by successive Home Secretaries and their advisers, we ought to give it a chance to see how it works. I may not persuade hon. Members who hold a contrary view, but the question is bound to be raised on Friday when I hope to be reinforced by my hon Friend the Minister of State at the Home Office, who, no doubt, will be more persuasive than I. It is a non-party point. The clause and the schedule are, I think, identical to those in the previous Government's Bill. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Hampstead that it does not follow from that that the clause is necessarily good, but I should have thought that in this sort of area one would hesitate to argue with views that have been reached by successive Governments who have looked at the matter from different political philosophies. We shall see whether we can reach agreement on Friday.
There remain certain detailed points to be discussed—for example, the point 1569 made by the hon. Member for Hampstead about penalties under Section 42(4), fake coins in meters. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the fine should go up to £200, but I remind him that it is a multiple offence. The £50 is for every occasion that a fake coin is put into a meter so that if someone put in a series of fake coins he could be liable to multiple fines. It is in the discretion of the magistrates—and no one would suggest that it should be removed or diminished—to decide what would be appropriate in a particular set of circumstances.
Much the same discretion will apply to the point raised by the hon. Member for Reading, North about pedestrian crossings and school crossings. I can well imagine, given a similar set of circumstances, that a magistrates' court would take a more serious view of an offence concerning a school crossing than one concerning an ordinary pedestrian crossing, although they are both serious offences.
The hon. Member for Reading, North raised the question of the reduction in the RoSPA grant. I am advised that the transfer of responsibilities to local authorities has been agreed with RoSPA. The society welcomes what is proposed and will continue to play a major part in road safety. I agree with the hon. Member's views in saying how grateful we are for all that the society has done in the past.
|THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:|
|Broughton, Sir Alfred (Chairman)||Goldring, Mr.|
|Awdry, Mr.||Horam, Mr.|
|Callaghan, Mr. Jim||Howell, Mr. Ralph|
|Carter-Jones. Mr.||Huckfield, Mr. Leslie|
|Clark, Mr. Alan||Hughes, Mr. Roy|
|Cohen, Mr.||Le Marchant, Mr.|
|Dunnett, Mr.||Lester, Mr. Jim|
|Durant, Mr.||Mulley, Mr.|
|Finsberg, Mr. Geoffrey||Wise, Mrs.|
§ We would not want it to be otherwise, and we hope that it will continue to play a major rôle in the future.
§ I have already said that some of my officials are meeting representatives of motorcyclists on Thursday. I hope that we can persuade them that Clause 7, for example, and one or two other matters will not be as difficult for them as they believe.
§ I am most grateful for all the comments and suggestions that have been made. If I have missed any points, I have no doubt that hon. Members, if their constituency engagements permit, will be here on Friday to remind me of them. I put it sincerely to the Committee that, while I should have preferred a longer debate examining the Bill in depth, the question before us is whether we get a Bill at all. I suggest that it is better to get all the non-controversial material in that we can—even if we have to remove some items—rather than, at the end of the day, to have to start on this road all over again.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Committee rose at twenty minutes past Twelve o'clock.