HC Deb 26 July 1974 vol 877 cc1995-2004
Mr. Fry

I beg to move Amendment No. 54, in page 11, line 7, at end insert: '(4) Nothing in this section shall permit a constable to prevent immediate departure of any person who when given a traffic direction indicates that he is unwilling to furnish information for the purposes of a traffic survey'. Subsection (2) of the proposed new Section 22A provides specifically that the power does not include a direction requiring any person to furnish any information for the purposes of a traffic survey". That clearly rules out any element of compulsion. I have proposed this amendment, however, because it should be made clear that anyone who decides not to co-operate should not be penalised, even unofficially.

The vast majority of motorists are only too happy to provide information and to co-operate with the police and the Ministry. On the other hand, we need an assurance, and I suggest that a directive might be given by the Home Office to police forces that an over-zealous policeman should not penalise anyone who decides to exercise his undoubted right not to furnish information required at a survey point.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Carmichael)

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important matter, and I hope to reassure him on it. The definition specifically excludes a direction requiring any person to furnish information. The effect will be that a constable will be able to divert motorists to a survey point, but motorists will not be obliged to answer questions or give information, and any motorist who does not wish to furnish information will be free to go on his way without delay.

The survey sites will be designed so that no one will be held in queue if he is not taking part in the survey. I hope that that explanation is satisfactory.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Beaconsfield)

I am afraid that that does not meet the point. Immediate departure, or departure without delay, should not in this context mean departure after the person has waited and been interviewed by whoever is taking the survey. That is not good enough.

I regard the whole clause as a serious interference with the normal rights of people on the highway. A person may be in a great hurry. There are occasions in life when one has no time to draw in and wait while particulars are taken by someone conducting a survey. The subject must have the right to say to the policeman, "No, I shall not go through the control. On this occasion, I do not wish to co-operate." He must then be free to go, and he will not be unless this amendment is accepted.

If the Government intend that the procedure shall operate in the way I have just described, they should accept the amendment. Otherwise, the motorist will not be entitled to do that. He will be told to divert to a particular point and there wait. He will not be free to go. Indeed, I suppose that under the terms of the new Section 22A the policeman could keep him there almost indefinitely if he were bloody-minded enough to do so. If he took the view that the citizen was being bloody-minded, he might choose to be bloody-minded himself.

I am not happy about the clause. We ought not to give the police power to direct the law-abiding citizen to go to a point indicated by the policeman if he does not wish to do so. At the very least, therefore, this amendment should be accepted. For my part, I hope that the clause will not be retained in the Bill. It is a dangerous departure.

Mr. Carmichael

I hope that I can reassure the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell). Part of the reason for giving the police power to give a direction is specifically to prevent the possibility of a build-up of traffic on the road while a census is being taken. I have already said that the survey sites will be designed so that no one will be held in a queue if he is not taking part in the survey. But first there will be a direction from a police officer—we must all abide by the directions of a police officer in uniform on the road—and the police officer will merely divert the motorist to the specially constructed or arranged site, at which point the motorist will be free to say, "I do not wish to take part "—or he may tell the policeman he does not want to take part in it—and then go into the lane which will take him straight out of the laid-out site.

The hon. and learned Gentleman speaks in terms of a policeman possibly being bloody-minded. If any policemen were so bloody-minded, I do not think that they would need the excuse of a survey to hold up someone for a long time.

The House is always anxious, as I am, to ensure that citizens' rights are protected. But surveys are important. Most people, as the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) said, will co-operate in a survey, but we want them off the road so that there will not be a long queue of traffic forming perhaps on a busy road. It should be remembered that surveys are often taken on busy roads.

I fully appreciate that the amendment is put down with a constructive intention, but I hope that I have reassured the Committee. The operation of these arrangements will be watched carefully. They will be supervised by fairly senior police officers—perhaps not all the time, but fairly senior officers will certainly be there at the lay-out stage and will always be available. I hope that the Committee will accept the proposal as it stands in the Bill.

Mr. Bell

I wish that I were more impressed by that assurance. If I have learned one thing in this place, it is that ministerial assurances, though always given in the utmost good faith, are always valueless. I can remember so many. For example, when the 30 mph speed limit was first introduced, an amendment was moved that it should not apply after 11.30 at night. The Minister gave an assurance that the police would not bother motorists on empty roads and that the amendment was therefore not necessary. Nobody even remembers now that that was said, and I should not like to be the motorist who tried to remind a policeman of it nowadays after being pulled up at 1 o'clock in the morning on an empty road for going at more than 30 mph or whatever the limit might be.

I cannot remember the precise occasion, but I know also of an assurance that people making facsimiles of postage stamps would not be unduly harrassed, and that the prohibition was necessary just to deal with forgers. I recall that not long afterwards somebody appeared in the High Court for printing a stamp album which contained ordinary photographic reproductions of stamps, and the court said that not only was he guilty but the policeman who bought the album to give evidence against him was guilty, too. With great respect, that is an indication of the value of ministerial assurances.

The Under-Secretary says—and, of course, he means it—that there will always be, or almost always be, a senior police officer supervising the arrangements. I can assure the House that there will not. Indeed, there will not even be officials from the Department, probably only students doing a vacation job and the constable directing traffic off the road into a lay-by. What the Minister said in the House of Commons on a morning in late July will simply not come into the picture. There may be a queue and the motorist may well be in a hurry and may not want to stop. He should be in the position of not having to stop. Most people will want to co-operate because we are not a bloody-minded people, but the occasion will arise when a motorist cannot stop because he is a bit late already and does not want to break the speed limit or, at any rate, be found breaking the speed limit.

11.30 a.m.

It should be enough to say to the policeman, "I am sorry but on this occasion I am afraid I cannot help". The police usually stop every tenth car and it only means the car behind being stopped. The citizen should have this right in law, but he will not have it unless the amendment is accepted. It will not do the slightest harm to the purposes that the Government have in mind for the clause. Their aims will not be diminished or damaged in any way and there is no reason for not accepting the amendment.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I seldom find myself co-operating with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) on road safety matters, but I wish today to support what he said. Unless the amendment is made there will be a right for the police to keep a citizen there indefinitely. It may not be because the policeman is bloody-minded, but simply because it is a convenience in ordering the queue. Ninety-nine out of 100 of us enjoy reciting to these surveys where we have come from and saying exactly which girl-friend we have been with, and such personal things. But there are occasions when we want the freedom to pass by a queue, and we shall not have it unless the amendment is made.

I am sure that the Minister would make a wonderful policeman handling any of these queues. He would be courteous to everybody and anyone who wanted to go by would be told to sweep on down the line. But the Minister will not be there. There may be those who want to order matters to the disadvantage of the citizen, and we should protect the citizen. There is no danger in putting this provision in the Bill. The authorities will still get their information, so let us be fair to the citizen.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

This little piece of legislation has crept into the Bill because the civil servants noticed the recent court case where a private citizen upheld his rights. That shows that the police were not aware that people could be allowed to pass them by. I hope that my hon. Friend will press the amendment. Many of us must have taken part in these surveys on a voluntary basis, and perfectly happily, but I cannot recall in 20 years driving ever being flagged down by a police officer above the rank of constable, and the Minister said that a senior police officer would "usually" do the job.

Mr. Carmichael

I suggested that the lay out would be supervised by a senior officer and that he would be present some part of the time when a survey was being taken. I did not say that he would be stopping people. If I have misled the House I am sorry.

Mr. Finsberg

There must have been a misunderstanding. If the Minister has ever participated in these surveys, I wonder whether he, or for that matter any hon. Member, can recall being stopped by a police officer above the rank of constable. I do not believe that anyone ever has.

These surveys take place sometimes on roads where there is not usually a through path, so I hope the Minister will accede to the wishes of the Committee. There was no need for the amendment originally. The courts upheld the citizen's right. The provision in the Bill is a piece of bureaucratic nit-picking which arises because some Civil Service draftsman did not like the courts upholding the citizens' rights. I hope my hon. Friend will press the amendment and I hope that the Committee will support it.

Mr. Anthony Berry (Southgate)

Very often at these surveys there is a barrier between through traffic and the traffic that will be questioned. By the time the driver has got into the queue of motorists to be questioned and has told the policeman that he is in a hurry to catch a train or to vote in a Division, other cars are close behind him and it is physically impossible for him to get out. If he does not want to take part in the survey he must have the right to say so to the police officer.

Mr. Paul Hawkins (Norfolk, South-West)

I support the amendment. The Minister is a reasonable man. I am sure he must have spent a great deal of time motoring around the countryside and he must have encountered these situations. I have done so on many occasions and I have noticed that some people resent taking part because they are so busy and have long distances to travel, particularly in Norfolk where the roads are not very good. I cannot believe that rural police forces are big enough to allow senior officers even to do the lay out. I am sure they would not have the time. The job is always done by a junior constable, who does it to the best of his ability. But the constable must know where he stands if he is to say to a motorist that he is obliged by law to take part. I ask the Minister to think again.

Mr. Paul Tyler (Bodmin)

I, too, support the amendment. The normal procedure in surveys of this sort—and I do not share the enthusiasm for them expressed by the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page)—is that the police select, say, every fifth, third or second vehicle, and that leads to a complicated arrangement which must be operated by the constable on duty who must ensure that the right vehicle goes into the survey queue. It does not matter, however, if occasionally he sends in the fifth instead of the sixth vehicle or vice versa. The amendment would not present difficulties in that respect. The difficulties arise in ensuring that the instructions to the constable and all concerned with the survey are clear. That is why the assurance by the Minister is not satisfactory and why we should place a clear instruction in the Bill.

Mr. Marcus Fox (Shipley)

I think that the Minister is missing the point when he talks about the lay out of these surveys. If these surveys are to be of any use the public must co-operate, and if the Minister is not prepared to accept the amendment they will be valueless. There is nothing more frustrating for people who have to be in a certain place at a certain time to be denied their liberty in this way. The amendment will not in any way change the aims of the Bill.

The Minister for Transport (Mr. Frederick Mulley)

The difficulty is that the Committee has misunderstood the reason for the clause. The clause does not seek to amend or change existing practice. A defect in the Road Traffic Act 1972—I believe Section 22—was the subject of recent judicial proceedings this year in a case of Hoffman v. Thomas which could make it impossible to conduct any kind of traffic census or survey. The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) might feel that that was a good thing, but we are quite frequently and properly pressed by hon. Members and local authorities in considering road plans to give traffic figures. If I were ever unable to give those figures, hon. Members would naturally feel concerned and upset. The question is, therefore, whether we can go ahead with these surveys. The whole purpose of the clause is to revert to the situation as it was before this legal decision. The reason for having a direction by a police constable to take people to a specially selected site is to give minimum interference with traffic so that people who are unwilling to give information—and there is no obligation on them to do so—may go through.

I make no complaint about it, but the words "prevent immediate departure" could be the source of substantial judicial argument. Having solved the difficulty of the recent case, up to a point, we may be just asking for another case to decide what is "immediate departure".

If there were more time, this is the kind of situation in which I should normally give an undertaking to try to meet the hon. Gentleman's point by redrafting. I acknowledge the tremendous cooperation I have received from hon. Members throughout the House. Without it, we could not be debating the Bill today, and there would be no chance of passing the Bill, which has been through the other place twice in substantially the same form. I am most grateful to all concerned.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

If my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) withdrew the amendment now, could not the Minister's draftsmen, who have nothing else to do on the Bill, try to find an acceptable form of working for Report? If it is technically defective, could not the Minister accept it and have it tidied up later? There is always a Road Traffic Bill or Miscellaneous Provisions Bill, whichever Government are in power after any election. I appeal to the Minister, who is a reasonable person.

Mr. Mulley

I have given an undertaking that if we had a normal timetable I should consider the matter with a view to meeting the Committee's proper concern for the rights of the individual. I have had no opportunity to discuss the availability of draftsmen. I can draft. I remember the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) saying that he often thought that he could draft better than the parliamentary draftsmen, and in fewer words. I feel that myself.

However, if there is general agreement that I should try to obtain counsel to produce a manuscript amendment on Report, I shall do so. I understand that it would be in order for the hon. Gentleman to bring forward his amendment again then if I could not.

Mr. Fry

In view of what the Minister has said, I am inclined to think that that would be best.

The speed at which we are moving is not the fault of hon. Members on the Opposition benches. I am not blaming the Minister but one of the problems is that although the Bill could have had its Second Reading and other stages much earlier, we are now being stampede on many points affecting individual liberties, which the House of Commons exists to defend.

Mr. Mulley

I was making no complaint about the shortness of time. Evidently, I did not do it very well, but I wanted to express my appreciation of the co-operation of everyone concerned. I have time to read the newspapers occasionally, and I gather that if we do not get the Bill through there may not be a further opportunity.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

Would not it be better if my hon. Friend pressed the Amendment? If the Minister could accept it, that would be fine. Then if his draftsmen felt that it was defective it could be put right before Report.

Mr. Mulley

If there will be no opposition to my producing a manuscript amendment if it seems desirable, I am happy to go along with that suggestion. I want to be as helpful as I can.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 6, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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