HC Deb 26 July 1974 vol 877 cc2106-19

'(1) After section 33 of the 1972 Act (protective helmets for motor cyclists) there shall be inserted the following section:— Wearing of seat belts. 33A.—(1) The Secretary of State may make regulations requiring, subject to such exceptions as may be prescribed, persons driving or riding in motor vehicles to wear seat belts of such description as may be so specified. (2) Regulations under this section—

  1. (a) may make different provision in relation to different classes of vehicles, different descriptions of persons and different circumstances; and
  2. (b) may make any prescribed exceptions subject to such conditions as may be prescribed.
(3) Any person who drives or rides in a motor vehicle in contravention of regulations under this section shall be guilty of an offence. (2) In Part I of Schedule 4 to the 1972 Act (prosecution and punishment of offences) after the entry relating to section 33 there shall be inserted the following entry: 33A. Driving or riding in a motor vehicle in contravention of regulations requiring wearing of seat belts Summarily £50." '—[Mr. Wiggin.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a second time.

Unlike some of my hon. Friends I have no drafting problems because the drafting has already had Government approval and is the work of Government draftsmen. The clause was inserted into the original Bill by the Government, and the other place, on Report, threw it out. I seek merely to restore what the Government should be restoring.

When the Bill made its first appearance under the previous Government the other place inserted a clause to permit the Minister to make an order for the compulsory wearing of seat belts. The clause was given a Second Reading by the House of Commons in the last Parliament. Consequently, the present Government redrafted the clause, included it in the Bill and introduced it into the other place. The other place gave a Second Reading to it in Committee but, for some reason which I cannot discover—because I am unable to get the appropriate HANSARD from our Vote Office or from the Printed Paper Office in another place—threw it out on Report by a narrow majority. I hope that the Government will be sympathetic to restoring the clause. I am also unable to obtain the HANSARD for the Second Reading Committee debate but I was present in the Gallery for part of it and I heard from my hon. Friends what was said.

The Minister may argue that this matter is of too great importance to deal with today because time is limited. There has been a good deal of agreement between the two Front Benches—which is always a good reason for a back bencher to query what is going on. The Bill was not introduced into the other place until 15th May—two and a half months later—so it is unfair to plead time reasons.

I shall not delay the Committee with a lengthy argument because the facts are well known. I made a fairly lengthy speech on the subject in the Second Reading debate on the original Bill.

Perhaps I may deal with some of the objections to the compulsory wearing of seat belts. It is said by some people that the wearing of a seat belt in a motor car is restrictive and claustrophobic and causes discomfort to may people. Those countries which have introduced such legislation seem successful in getting over these difficulties, and, of course, there would be medical exemptions in any regulations which had to be made. As for being trapped in a fire or in water only about one-half of 1 per cent. of all accidents resulting in physical casualty involve fire or water, and the chances of a trapped occupant of a car remaining conscious and thereby enabling rescue to be effected or self-release to be carried out are greater if he is strapped in.

Many people say that they do not want to wear seat belts during short journeys in town. One-third of the accidents which occur happen in built-up areas, and more than half of them happen within 10 miles of the drivers' homes. It is possible to have a fatal accident at a speed of only 12 mph.

There are those who say that it would be better to be thrown out of a car involved in a collision. I have heard it said "I was thrown out, and I can prove that otherwise I would have been dead". No one can prove that, and experiments show that it is more than twice as dangerous to be thrown out than to remain in the shell of a car.

In Australia, where there is legislation providing for the compulsory wearing of seat belts, enforcement is no problem. Many people here ask how the police could enforce legislation. It can be done just as it is done for lighting, for bald tyres, and for the thousand and one other regulations concerning motor vehicles. The wearing rate in Australia is now more than 70 per cent.

I come, then, to the basic point about the freedom of choice. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) will oppose me about this. He has been consistent in his opposition. He is the only hon. Member to be so consisted. He even opposed the drugs legislation. If we are prepared to authorise legislation against the taking of drugs, on the basis that it protects the individual, if we are prepared to authorise legislation for the wearing of crash helmets on motor cycles, as we did in the last Parliament, all I can say is that both breach the objection of my hon. and learned Friend. What is more, if the time ever came when we found that each week 20 people hurled themselves off Westminster Bridge there would very soon be an outcry to erect a safety fence.

I have to remind the Committee that 1,000 deaths and 14,000 serious casualties are caused each year because people will not wear safety belts which are already fitted in their cars. Advertising has cost the Government nearly £2 million. That sum has been virtually thrown away because it has increased the wearing rate only from about 15 per cent. to 20 per cent. In a few areas is has gone up to 30 per cent., but it has been found to be only a temporary increase. It has dropped off again when the advertising campaign has ended. Persuasion does not work.

Australia and New Zealand have legislation governing the compulsory wearing of seat belts for all journeys. France and Czechoslovakia have it for all journeys outside built up areas, somewhat illogically; but it is a start. Austria, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and a number of States in America are considering legislation.

The only responsible organisation in this country which still opposes compulsion is the Royal Automobile Club. I cannot understand why. The AA is heavily in favour. The police are in favour. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and a host of other organisations which have been consulted feel that legislation should be introduced.

The clause is mild and permissive. It says that the Minister "may". It does not say what all the regulations shall be. I understand that, if the clause were passed and the Minister brought in orders, they would be subject to the negative procedure and we should be able to debate them in due course. If the Minister accepts the clause. it will merely give him power to bring in legislation.

5.0 p.m.

I sincerely hope that the Minister will recognise the substantial percentage of people in this country who believe that this ought to happen. The AA conducted a public opinion poll, which was published in Drive, which showed that well over half the people in this country approve the measure and that nearly three-quarters believe that the Government will do it anyhow.

Mr. Berry

Is my hon. Friend sure that the majority of seat belts fitted to cars in this country would have the beneficial effect that he is describing?

Mr. Wiggin

It is true that about 90 per cent. of cars and light vans are now fitted with belts and that there are some slightly substandard belts which were probably fitted some years ago; but nothing in this world is perfect. Presumably, if the order were introduced, there would be a period in which people would be encouraged to check whether their belts were of the correct standard. I take my hon. Friend's point, but I do think that it is a substantial objection to accepting the clause. The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray, Segrave and Stourton, speaking for the Opposition in the other place, said that the proposal was accepted in principle. I am not sure about my hon. Friend. It is for him to say, not me. I merely point out that we have already accepted the necessity for the wearing of crash helmets by motor cyclists.

I think that the matter must be tested. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that the clause should be in the Bill. If not, and if I can find someone to act as a Teller with me at this late hour on a Friday, I feel that we should take the matter to a Division.

There will be those who, cynically perhaps, with the prospect of a General Election looming and on the basis of objections to impingement on the rights of the individual, will say that we may lose a few votes because we are bringing in this absolutely necessary clause. That we should even think of putting votes before lives is inconceivable. I hope that the Minister will ask his Whips to ensure that his hon. Friends support the clause for humanitarian if for no other grounds. I only hope that votes may be seen by some as being of less importance than lives.

Mr. Mulley

I hope that it will be for the convenience of the Committee if I indicate my views now. It may—one can never be sure, least of all on a Friday—shorten the proceedings.

I am sure that the Committee has been impressed by the passionate and eloquent argument put forward by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr.Wiggin). Certainly if I had had the opportunity to move the clause, as it would have been my wish in different circumstances, I doubt whether I could have done it nearly as well as the hon. Gentleman.

On the merits of the clause there is nothing between us. It was in my Bill. If it had still been in the Bill I should have sought to retain it. But there are difficulties.

The hon. Gentleman said that he was unable to extract from the House of Lords proceedings—because they do not exist—the reasons for their attitude towards this proposal. I am not so sure that he would be clear if those proceedings were available.

There was no provision for this matter in the previous Government's Bill. It was inserted in another place with, at best, lukewarm support from the then Government. But, to be fair, my predecessor accepted that the House of Commons should be given an opportunity to debate and determine the matter.

Naturally, when it was my responsibility to reintroduce the Bill, I introduced it and amended it somewhat, because the original clause, having been inserted in another place as a back bench proposal, was not technically proficient. That is why it is in this form rather than in its original form.

I believe that this is the most dramatic way of reducing road casualties. If people urge that something should be done they must find it difficult not to support a measure of this kind, although there are problems about individuals' rights. We have had similar arguments in other directions on road safety and road traffic.

I think that we are in a difficulty today. I do not see it so much as a matter of what the public outside will say, although that is not unimportant because we want people to feel that this issue has been properly considered. I see this more as a House of Commons matter. My predecessor said it, and I have said that this is a matter on which the House of Commons ought to have a proper discussion and come to a view.

We all know the problem. No one is more disappointed than I am that this debate is taking place at five minutes past Five o'clock on a Friday. Although some of our constituents do not always appreciate us, they often want us in our constituencies on a Friday, but there is a big issue before the House and if there is a Division here and we do not vote they will want to know where their representatives were. That applies as much to my hon. Friends as it does to Opposition Members.

This is an important matter, but it is not without controversy, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will do this cause or the House a service by pressing his clause to a vote at 5.5 p.m. or later today. I respect the hon. Gentleman's conviction and passion. I hope that he will continue to urge the case on every possible occasion. I shall use all the influence that I have to bring this matter back to the House at the earliest opportunity in the next Session so that the debate on this issue should be held on the Floor of the House when every hon. Member has an opportunity conveniently to be here and cast his vote.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider whether he would not do his cause and the House a greater service by being a little more patient—I understand how he feels—than he was when he spoke about finding Tellers.

Mr. Ronald Bell

I rise partly to give my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) time to consider what has been said by the Minister, and partly in the hope that he will accede to it. I must tell him that I shall not speak for long, because I want to vote against his clause as soon as possible.

This is an important matter for some of us. It has nothing to do with votes outside. It is a question of putting principles before the other considerations that my hon. Friend outlined. He will know—indeed, he was generous enough to acknowledge it—that over the years I have opposed every proposal of this kind that has come before the House, and I think that I have been shown to be justified in doing so because each one is used as an argument and a precedent for yet a further encroachment upon individual liberty. It is said "You did it for crash helmets, why not for seat belts? You did it for crash helmets and seat belts, why not for the next thing?" That is the way in which personal liberty is eroded, bit by bit, precedent by precedent, and gradually the tangible consideration leaves the intangible almost eaten away.

If this matter were being considered seriously, I should want to make a long speech, though not exaggeratedly long. I regard the matter as of such importance that I should want to address the Committee for 20 minutes. There are hon. Members on both sides of the Committee who hold strong views about this and who, apart from the question of principle, would want to analyse the statistics which my hon. Friend mentioned in passing but which repay careful consideration.

I put it to my hon. Friend that it would be almost fraudulent if this important issue were to be decided this afternoon, when we have suspended the rule on a Friday and when most Members on both sides have gone away in the belief that we were merely passing through by agreement between the parties a broadly agreed measure on principles that are well understood. We all know what is happening. The business of this Parliament is being wound up, by agreement, on an accelerated timetable. We have even suspended the rule on a Friday. There have been understandings about Report and Third Reading, and very few hon. Members are here.

If this matter were decided in the House on that basis, on a back-bench new clause, many people outside would feel outraged. They would not feel that Parliament had done its job if this highly controversial proposal, which will, I suppose, affect half the population and raise feelings of great resentment in some who feel strongly about it, were just brushed through by some hairsbreadth majority of a tiny fraction of the House of Commons, the House being taken by surprise on a Friday.

I appeal to my hon. Friend, therefore. Let us put this argument back to another time, when both he and I can develop our cases and when hon. Members on both sides can argue their attitude towards it. Let us not scandalise the public by an almost flippant treatment of it in these circumstances.

Mr. Moate

Of course, this is a matter of great importance involving serious principles, but the arguments advanced by the Minister and by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell), though ingenious, are unconvincing. This is not the first time that the House has debated the issue. The case is well known, and the arguments have been well rehearsed in the House. It is not that we are unfamiliar with the principles involved or that we are incapable of coming to a fairly quick decision.

Moreover, we should not be taking the decision itself. The clause provides—apparently, the Government supported it before it was taken out of the Bill in the other place—that the Government shall have power to introduce an order at the appropriate time. That order may then be debated in full. My hon. and learned Friend will recall the debate on the wearing of crash helmets, in which he took part. That arose on just such an order.

Mr. Ronald Bell

My hon. Friend will remember that on those occasions one of the arguments strongly urged was that the House had already approved the principle when it voted for the clause.

Mr. Moate

My hon. and learned Friend will forgive me if I do not recall every detail, but I recall that it was a thorough and useful debate, in which he deployed his arguments with great skill. It was a full debate with a vote at the end expressing the view of the House. Acceptance of this clause today would not prevent the House coming to a decision on a future date at, shall I say, a more civilised hour—though I can well imagine the possible situation then, with arguments deployed that we should not do it at midnight, that it was too late, that the House was not full, and so on. If the Government choose, for one reason or another, or are forced to choose, to take an important measure such as this on a Friday, it is no convincing argument to say that we must not come to a decision because it is too important a matter for this time.

There is a further point to be made, and on this I am sure that I have the Minister's sympathy because I take it from what he said that he is with us on the matter.

Mr. Mulley

I say the same when in Government as I do when in opposition. I went on record declaring my position when the matter was first discussed, but we have never had a debate in the House on seat belts. That was part of a Bill with many provisions.

Mr. Moate

I accept that, but this is the opportunity for just such a debate. It is a reasonable opportunity. I am not at all sure that the country fully understands why hon. Members must leave at 4 o'clock on a Friday, and I believe that this would be recognised as a reasonable debate.

What is more, knowing the way that the business of the House goes, I do not know when there will be another opportunity to discuss the matter, especially with elections intervening and the well-known pressure on Government time. Ministers have great difficulty in introducing legislation, and it could be several years before there is another Road Traffic Bill of this kind before us.

Mr. Berry

I take it that my hon. Friend means that this will be our last opportunity to discuss it from the Opposition benches.

Mr. Moate

I am sure that, when my hon. Friend has his early opportunity to take an active part on the Government benches in considering legislation on the environment, he will be very ready to do so. But I suspect that the Chief Whip would say that he was sorry, but that there had been a Road Traffic Act the previous year and there would not be time for it. We are talking about lives, not about saving time or money. I will not go into the fundamental arguments about the freedom of the individual to choose. I say only that if we lay down the conditions of the road and the safety standards of motor cars we are right as a Parliament to say that we can lay down conditions under which people should drive and how they should protect their passengers and themselves.

5.15 p.m.

I was in some doubt about this principle, and whether we should infringe the freedom of the individual to this extent, but the Australian statistics convinced me where our duty lies, and that if we care about road safety and wish to try to reduce the appalling level of road casualties we should take this step. Statistics can be questioned and may not be precise, but on the basis of the Australian statistics, if applied to this country, 1,000 fewer people might be killed each year and 10,000 or 14,000—the statistics vary—serious injuries might be averted.

The provisions could make a major impact on road casualties in this country. If we do not vote tonight, I do not believe that there will be another opportunity in the near future to take this step to improve road safety. This is the opportunity for the House to vote. There will be a further chance later to discuss the actual detail of the order, but let us tonight make this decision. I hope that if we do force it to a decision no hon. Member who supports the principle of the clause win vote against it.

Mr. Fox

I must say to my two hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) and Faversham (Mr. Moate) that I cannot take them seriously when they say that we must press this to a Division. During the debate we have been criticised for the amount of legislation we have put through today, and it would be incredible if our colleagues read that we had taken a decision of this importance at this hour on a Friday—

Mr. Moate

They should be here.

Mr. Fox

One could always use that argument but this matter is far too important to be taken at this time and I cannot ask my hon. Friends to go into the Lobby on that basis if there is a Division.

Mr. Mulley

I should be in breach of faith if I were to urge the House tonight—although it is my clause that the hon. Member has been good enough to put down—to take a decision of this sort at this hour. It will be my endeavour in whatever capacity I serve in a new Parliament or a new parliamentary Session to get a debate on this issue. Nevertheless, I ask the hon. Members for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) and Faversham (Mr. Moate)—and some of us have been in this House a lot longer than they have—to consider these matters, because I shall ask every member of the Committee to vote against them if they press it, and ask themselves whether they will be doing their cause, in which I also believe, the best service by adopting an obstinate attitude at this time.

Mr. Wiggin

I am afraid I do not accept the Minister's argument. Twenty people a week are dying because they are not wearing seat belts. I have been trying to get my party to introduce this legislation ever since I have been in the House. I have pressed my hon. and right hon. Friends for an assurance that when they get back into Government they will pass legislation of this nature. I have had no such assurance, and even if it were given it would be valueless in present circumstances.

It is always the wrong time for discussing this matter. The reason we are discussing the Bill today is that the Government did not introduce it early enough. They waited 10 weeks to introduce a Bill in which there was basically nothing controversial. They delayed and delayed, and simply because hon. Members want to go on their holidays next week is no reason for not voting on this vitally important issue. I do not think any more words will change matters, unless the Minister gives me the clause.

Mr. Mulley

The hon. Member talks about saving lives, but we are all concerned about that. By passing the clause today he will make no impact on the issue because the provision cannot come into effect unless a Minister makes regulations. The hon. Member should bear that in mind.

Mr. Wiggin

That makes it all the more reason why the Minister should quietly acknowledge that the clause is a good one, and accept it. I cannot understand his objection.

No doubt when the precise regulations are debated my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) and others will come in great numbers. I believe that there were 16 of them against the compulsory wearing of crash helmets. They can argue the detailed case then. The clause gives the Minister the permissive powers that I believe he needs.

We have heard talk about scandalising the British public. What is more likely to scandalise them is the reluctance of the House to grasp this nettle firmly and to deal with the problem once and for all, and thus do more to reduce road casualties in a single order than by all the other regulations under the rest of the Bill and the last Road Traffic Act.

Mr. Ronald Bell

My hon. Friend is asking a handful of Members, who are here for the mechanical passing of an agreed measure, to take a highly controversial decision.

Mr. David Stoddart (Swindon)

I support the principle of the clause, but I shall be put in great difficulty if it is pressed. For reasons other than the principle of the amendment, I may well be forced into a different Lobby from that which I want to enter. I believe that that would do the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) a lot of harm.

I have long been in favour of the proposal. I spoke in favour of it when we debated the hon. Gentleman's own Government's Road Traffic Bill. I am committed, but I trust the word of my right hon. Friend the Minister that if he is given time in the next Session he will introduce or support the introduction of a measure to bring in the compulsory wearing of seatbelts. My right hon. Friend is well known for his honesty.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has a great deal of influence on his own colleagues on the Front Bench, and that he will have such influence with a possible, although highly improbable, future Conservative Government. If he presses his clause, he will be putting in difficulty many of us who support his cause and who will continue to support it in the next session of Parliament.

Mr. Moate

Can the hon. Gentleman explain his difficulty? He has not given a single reason why he faces any problems. Has there been any guarantee from anyone that such a Bill will be introduced? Is the Minister in a position to say what will happen in the next Parliament?

Mr. Stoddart

The hon. Gentleman understands very well the procedures of the House, and I believe that he will understand the difficulties. If he does not, I shall explain them to him afterwards.

Division No. 102.] AYES [5.25 p.m.
Page, Rt. Hn. Graham (Crosby)
Sinclair, Sir George
Waddington, David
Mr. Jerry Wiggin and
Mr. Roger Moate.
Archer, Peter English, Michael Mulley, Rt. Hn. Frederick
Ashton, Joe Ennals, David Ovenden, John
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Faulds, Andrew Palmer, Arthur
Bates, Alf Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston) Parker, John (Dagenham)
Bell, Ronald Fowler, Gerry (The Wrekin) Pavitt, Laurie
Bishop, E. S. Golding, John Peart, Rt. Hn. Fred
Body, Richard Graham, Ted Pendry, Tom
Bottomley, Rt. Hon. Arthur Grimond, Rt. Hn. J. Price, Christopher (Lewisham, W.)
Brown, Ronald (H'kney, S. & Sh'ditch) Hamilton, William (Fife, C.) Radice, Giles
Carmichael, Neil Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Richardson, Miss Jo
Carter, Ray Huckfield, Leslie Rooker, J. W.
Clemitson, Ivor Hughes, Roy (Newport) Sandelson, Neville
Cocks, Michael Janner, Greville Shaw, Arnold (Redbridge, Ilford, S.)
Cox, Thomas Jeger, Mrs. Lena Silkin, Rt. Hn. John (L'sham, D'ford)
Davies, Bryan (Enfield, N.) Latham, Arthur (City of W'minster P'ton) Snape, Peter
Davis, Clinton (Hackney, C.) Lyon, Alexander W. (York) Stoddart, David (Swindon)
Deakins, Eric Mackenzie, Gregor Thorpe, Rt. Hn. Jeremy
Delargy, Hugh Madden, M. O. F. Urwin, T. W.
Dell, Rt. Hn. Edmund Magee, Bryan Weitzman, David
Dormand, J. D. Mallalieu, J. P. W. Wise, Mrs. Audrey
Eadie, Alex Mellish, Rt. Hn. Robert TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Edge, Geoff Mikardo, Ian Mr. Joseph Harper and
Edwards, Robert (W'hampton, S.E.) Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Mr. James A. Dunn.

Question accordingly negatived

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