HC Deb 21 November 1974 vol 881 cc1639-58

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

Before calling the Minister to move the Second Reading of the Bill, I would inform the House that Mr. Speaker has not selected the amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis).

Mr. Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We are to have a debate on the important subject of compelling people to wear seat belts in cars. It is 9 o'clock, and the Leader of the House said during Business questions that at 10 o clock the debate will be adjourned. We shall, therefore, have to discuss this matter again on another day. Would it not be more sensible for the Government to adjourn the debate now so that we have the debate in its entirety and hear all the arguments at one sitting?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Hon. Members have not had this matter sprung upon them. It has been known that these two Bills were being discussed today. It is for the Government to place their business on the Order Paper. The busi- ness has been on the Order Paper, and I cannot deal with it in any other way.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In your capacity in the Chair you have a right to protect hon. Members, particularly back benchers, and to safeguard the value of our debate. There is no doubt that the subject is contentious. I take the opposite view from that which my hon. Friends take, but it is a matter that may well be decided by debate on the Floor of the House. It is, therefore, all the more important that there should be continuous debate upon it.

The Deputy Chief Whip is present. We should lose but 55 minutes and it is not as though we should bring the whole of the Governments programme to a halt by deferring consideration of the Bill. I ask the Government seriously to consider postponing the debate. That would enhance the standing of the House and underline the importance of debate in deciding issues. We should then have a full day on this important measure, which is important not only to those who oppose it but to those whose lives will be saved by its implementation.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Hon. Members are raising too many points of order. I wish to make it abundantly clear that I have no power to adjourn the debate before 10 o'clock.

9.3 p.m.

The Minister for Transport (Mr. Frederick Mulley)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am sorry that hon. Members, whose concern I understand, did not wait for me to say that the Government's intention is that there should be a proper debate on this subject. We shall not seek a decision today. If anyone is disadvantaged by the debate being in two sections, I feel that in moving the Bill I am at the maximum disadvantage. I have no choice whether to speak today or next time, whereas other hon. Members have such discretion.

It might help if I spoke fairly briefly. In these special circumstances the House might agree that on the next occasion I should have leave to reply to the arguments put in the debate.

Mr. Marcus Fox (Shipley)

Is the Minister saying that he will make his speech and that, whenever, through the usual channels, we get a further day's debate, he will make the same speech again? That would be a great waste of time.

Mr. Mulley

I think it would be for the convenience of the House if I were to continue my speech. I do not seek to take too much time now. I shall listen to all the contributions and hope that the House will wish me to reply to points made in the debate. I shall not seek to make the same speech twice, but I shall see that the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Fox) receives a copy of HANSARD which he can carry with him until we next debate this subject.

This is a short enabling Bill the purpose of which is to permit me to make regulations requiring the compulsory wearing of seat belts and to make other regulations concerning exemptions and related matters.

The background to the Bill is fairly well known to the House, but some newer hon. Members may not be aware of the provision in a similar form to that which is now before us which was inserted by another place in the Conservative Government's Road Traffic Bill almost exactly a year ago. A Second Reading was given to that Bill, including that provision, but it proceeded no further because the February election intervened. When I came to introduce my own Road Traffic Bill in May, I put this clause in my Bill, but on that occasion another place decided to take it out.

When we reached the end of last Session and dealt with the Committee stage of the Road Traffic Bill on that occasion, I had hoped—and the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) would have called me to task had I been neglectful in this respect—to reinsert the provision in respect of seat belts, but I regarded five o'clock on a Friday as not the most convenient time to debate these matters.

Hon. Members

It is late now.

Mr. Mulley

In parliamentary terms five-past nine on a Thursday is rather more respectable than a quarter-past five on a Friday afternoon. However, clearly we could not then have dealt with the matter in the short time that remained before the Recess. I undertook on that occasion to give the House an opportunity to debate this matter as soon as possible in the new Session. This Bill is the first instalment, as it were, of that undertaking.

Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)

Although I appreciate that my right hon. Friend is not the manager of the Government's business, will he undertake that after this debate has been adjourned, we resume the debate at 3.30 on an afternoon in the middle of the week, so that we may devote proper time to considering a serious subject of this nature?

Mr. Mulley

I would be happy to give that undertaking if I were in a position to do so, but, as my hon. Friend says, Ministers do not have the opportunity of picking their own time for their Bills. Consultations have to take place on these matters. However, I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point and I hope that it will be noted in many quarters.

The Bill is couched in wide terms and this has been done to permit maximum consultation. If the Bill's provisions are thought to be too wide, assuming that the Bill receives a Second Reading, we can deal with that question in Committee. If we can get a Second Reading in reasonable time, I intend to try to bring in regulations next spring.

I should make clear that I seek only to deal with cars and light vans already fitted with seat belts. They are cars registered since 1st January 1965, light vans registered since 1st April 1967, and certain three-wheelers registered for the first time on 1st September 1970. This excludes less than 10 per cent. of vehicles on the road, and probably less than 5 per cent. of the annual mileage. I should make it clear, however, that we seek to make the wearing of seat belts compulsory only for front seat passengers and drivers.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

Am I to understand from what my right hon. Friend has said that old jalopies—untaxed, un-insured, with no certificates of road worthiness and with faulty steering and bad tyres—can be free from seat belts, but that the brand new car which is an efficient vehicle is compelled to have seat belts?

Mr. Mulley

My hon. Friend should not assume that I said any of the things that he said. I said simply that the regulations would apply only to those vehicles which are required now by law to have seat belts fitted. The purpose of the seat belts is to protect the passengers and not the vehicles. That probably disposes of my hon. Friend's point.

There would be need for a number of exemptions, and I am ready to consider any reasonable grounds for exemption. I have in mind situations such as where people are driving in reverse, local delivery and collection services like those performed by milkmen who drive a few yards only to deliver more milk, small children, medical cases—obviously we shall want to consult the profession about the best way of getting medical certificates where there are medical grounds for people feeling that they should not wear seat belts—taxi drivers and, very important, those physically unable either to fasten belts or to reach essential controls if they do so.

Mr. Wiggin

The right hon. Gentleman has suggested a very important list of exemptions. I think that he included taxi drivers. I am not clear about how we are to proceed with this Bill and how the right hon. Gentleman proposes to implement his proposals, but I hope that perhaps in Committee we shall have a chance to debate the exact exemptions. I can think of many rural taxi drivers who should not be exempted.

Mr. Mulley

We can do that if we get that far. My first concern is to get the Bill into Committee where these matters can be considered in detail. Obviously I want the advice of hon. Members on any reasonable grounds for exemption.

The case for the Bill has been made very clear in recent weeks in the Press and with particular force and clarity in last week's Sunday Mirror and in today's Daily Mirror. The case simply is that we have the opportunity to avert the deaths of at least 1,000 of our citizens every year and 10,000 cases of serious injury. I could produce statistical evidence to show that those forecasts are very much on the low side. Judging by the experience of other countries, it could be 1,300 deaths and 13,000 serious injuries. In simple terms that means saving three lives and averting 30 serious injuries every day.

That is the issue before us. This is not theory. There has been a great deal of research done by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory and others. We have also the experience of countries not so dissimilar from our own. The wearing of seat belts has been compulsory in Australia since January 1972 after an experiment in the State of Victoria which started in 1970. The same has been true of New Zealand since June 1972, and more recently in France since July 1973. On the basis of how it has been going this year, the French Government estimate that it will save 1,200 lives. It is clearly getting across because all the Scandinavian countries, West Germany, Holland and others are contemplating bringing in the compulsory wearing of seat belts next year.

When we have the prospect of making this immense saving in life and suffering for our citizens, hon. Members may ask why this should be a contentious issue. I understand and accept that many hon. Members feel that it is. I remind the House that a similar controversy was generated when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, then Minister of Transport, introduced her drink-and-driving law in 1967. We do not hear anyone now saying that that should be repealed. Indeed, all the arguments are that it should be strengthened, and I have set up a committee to examine that law. It is calculated that my right hon. Friend's initiative has saved at least 5,000 lives since it was started seven years ago. The measure of what we are considering tonight is that at the minimum in seven years we should save 7,000 lives and 100,000 cases of serious injury if nearly all people wear their seat belts. That is the issue in favour of the Bill.

I shall briefly mention some of the points that are so often brought out against the Bill. The most powerful, which no doubt will be deployed in the debate today or when we resume it, is that it is an interference with the liberty of the subject. There has to be a distinction—indeed, when we discussed the compulsory wearing of helmets some time ago I made this distinction—between a measure that is primarily concerned with the protection of the driver and passengers and one that is concerned with third parties. That is broadly but not entirely true.

Anyone who dies or suffers a serious injury, who would not have died or suffered serious injury if he had been wearing a seat belt, owes substantial responsibilities to his family which may impinge on the community. Every case of serious injury throws an extra burden on our hard-pressed doctors, nurses, hospitals and public funds. Every serious accident or injury that otherwise might have been a slight accident or no injury had the person concerned been wearing a seat belt usually gives rise to great traffic congestion with economic cost and—without pushing the argument too far—possibly, indirectly, other accidents, because when people are held up—I am sure that this is a temptation for many hon. Members from time to time if they are unexpectedly delayed—they tend to take chances when trying to get to an appointment on time. Therefore, it is wrong to argue that the consequences are visited only upon the person who decides not to wear his seat belt.

Why not deal with the matter by persuasion? Successive Ministers of Transport have tried this for seven years. This is not a party point. That is why I am sure that all hon. Members welcome the opportunity of a free vote. In the last three years, successive Governments paid £2½million on what I think has been an effective publicity campaign with Jimmy Savile, and so on. When the expensive advertising is on, the wearing rate rises to 30 per cent., but when it is off it drops again to its steady 20 per cent. or 25 per cent. The House should contrast that with the voluntary wearing of crash helmets experiment. At the time of that legislation the rate was 80 per cent. as against 20 per cent. to 25 per cent. wearing seat belts when there was no propaganda.

Another point which is made is that this legislation cannot be enforced. In a sense there is a whole range of road safety and other legislation which cannot be enforced—indeed, no one would wish it—in a serious regular way. I am sure that no hon. Member would argue that we should dispense with the driving test and all that goes with it. How many hon. Members have to produce their driving licences every year, let alone every day?

Clearly there is no regular check, but the fact of whether people are wearing seat belts can be checked by the police in the same way as they check, as appropriate, whether a driver has a driving licence and insurance certificate. Most constables accept fully the safety implications of people wearing seat belts. The wearing of seat belts must be compulsory if it is to be effective, and the police do not see any exceptional difficulty in enforcement.

Another point which is often raised needs to be explored. I see that the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) is very excited. He probably realises that this does not apply in Northern Ireland. There are people who genuinely feel that it is more dangerous to wear a seat belt than not to wear one. One readily concedes that there have been a few isolated cases in which it might have been better if a seat belt had not been worn. Such cases are extremely rare.

All research, medical and otherwise, shows that in most accidents people are less likely to be seriously injured if they remain in the car than if they are thrown out. I admit that there are examples to the contrary. I had an experience in the Army when riding a motor cycle at 70 miles an hour or so, which was as fast as it would go. I hit a lorry which was travelling in the opposite direction at the same speed as I was travelling. I was thrown completely clear and I was not injured in any way, but I would not recommend that as an appropriate course of action. Perhaps that incident is similar to the situation in which people say that they will not wear a scat belt because of the statistical possibility of one in a hundred—or something like that—that they might be advantaged by not so doing.

All the evidence and research of several years shows that people are half as likely to meet with death or serious injury if they wear seat belts than if they do not. The risk is reduced by half if they wear seat belts. Anyone who worries about the statistical aspect would not wish to drive from here to the Home Office without wearing a seat belt. That roughly indicates the kind of odds we are concerned with.

I remind hon. Members that we are debating a very important matter. I have a responsibility as the Minister who is concerned with road safety matters, but all other hon. Members also have a responsibility. Every time our constituents learn of an increase in road casualties—happily the statistics have shown a favourable trend in recent months—they urge us to do something about the matter. A free vote on the Bill gives us an opportunity to do something.

We are being asked to save three lives and at least 30 serious injuries every day without any cost to public funds or to the individual motorist. Indeed, a saving of public funds will flow from reductions in casualties.

This is a challenge to which we should respond, and I hope that hon. Members will do so when the opportunity comes by voting for the Bill so that in Committee we can deal with the various detailed points that arise.

9.25 p.m.

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)

Let me say at once that it is my intention to oppose the Bill. I hope that the House will decline to give it a Second Reading. I can assure the Minister for Transport that it is not intended in any way to be any form of criticism, either of himself or of his Department, when I say that I share the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery) that on a matter of this importance it is unfortunate that the debate should be split at least over two days. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman's acceptance of some earlier comments will be borne in mind by the Governments' business managers and that we shall not find the Bill coming back on several occasions at a rather late hour.

I share the right hon. Gentleman's view that this is an important matter. In some ways it is a small matter but often small matters are important when dealing with such things as the liberty of the subject. While I welcome the fact that we have a completely free vote on the issue, I feel it is one on which many are still undecided. They are prepared to listen and perhaps have their minds affected by the arguments advanced. For that reason it is unfortunate that we do not have the debate over one day.

In opposing the Bill, let me say at once that for the purposes of argument there are certain matters of fact which I accept. First, I accept that it is clearly sensible to wear a seat belt. I cannot pretend that I always follow my own advice. I attempt to when doing long journeys and I know that that is bad because a lot of accidents happen on short journeys. I believe it is extremely sensible for passengers to wear a belt and I think on balance it is certainly sensible to wear one when driving.

Certainly I accept for the purposes of my argument what the right hon. Gentleman has said about the figures which his Department has regularly put out. I accept that in the majority of serious accidents less injury would be caused to individuals wearing a seat belt. I accept that the majority of accidents are frontal accidents and that injury would be caused either by people being thrown against the windscreen or being hit by the steering wheel and things of that nature.

I accept the figure given by the right hon. Gentleman that there is the chance of a 50 per cent. reduction in death or serious injury figures through the wearing of seat belts. The third point I accept is the right hon. Gentleman's claim that it is right for successive Governments to continue to do all in their power to persuade people of the sensibility of wearing seat belts. Governments should be prepared to undertake advertising campaigns to that end. We should certainly encourage and persuade people to take all steps they can for their own safety.

Fourthly, I accept what the right hon. Gentleman said about seat belts being fitted to motor cars. After a period when seat belts were almost impossible to wear there are today some thoroughly good designs. Certainly the inertia type is highly to be commended.

If, for the purpose of the argument, I accept those facts, I believe that there are two facts which supporters of the Bill must, equally, accept. The first is that the Bill will in no way prevent one single accident. What it will do, and what is claimed on its behalf, is reduce the effects of injuries on those involved in accidents. With great respect to the Minister, his analogy with the drink and driving legislation was unfair.

I was one of the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen when the Minister's right hon. Friend was carrying that legislation through the House. I do not believe that at any stage in Committee it was argued by my hon. Friends that there should not be legislation preventing those who had had too much drink from driving. If I remember the argument correctly, it related not to the breathalyser offence as such but whether it was right to impose automatic penalties and automatic limits when the effect of alcohol was different upon different people. But, quite clearly, the clear distinction is that when dealing with drinking and driving we are dealing with cutting down the number of accidents and the potential danger to innocent third parties. Here what we are dealing with is not the number of accidents but injuries to people making a decision of their own choice.

Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)

I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman has made a factual error. I remember very well when Mr. Marples was Minister for Transport and we on the Opposition Front Bench moved an amendment to a Bill, asking that there should be some form of restriction and penalty for those who were found drunk or to have too much alcohol in them when they were driving, and for the details to be considered and brought before the House by the Government. That amendment was turned down by the Government of the day.

Mr. Carlisle

I bow to the right hon. Gentleman's length of experience in the House, but I am bound to say that, if my recollection is correct, driving under the influence of alcohol to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of a vehicle has been an offence for a very long time under the law of this country, and I think since before the days of the then hon. Member for Wallasey. Mr. Marples. But I was limiting myself to comments on the Bill of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) introducing the breathalyser, in which I was involved.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Beaconsfield)

It was in 1933 that it was made an offence to drive when under the influence of drink. The Bill to which my hon. and learned Friend was referring was simply about the method of proof.

Mr. Carlisle

I return to my speech. The second point that I ask the Minister and the supporters of the Bill to accept is the fact that he has accepted that there are circumstances in which a person could fairly say that he would have been worse off, rather than better off, if he had been wearing a seat belt. Those circumstances may not be many. They may be isolated. They may be the circumstances of a sideways collision, rather than a frontal collision, in which one might be hurt more by wearing a seat belt.

The third point—a point which I have, perhaps, made already—is that the Minister must accept that here what we are dealing with is not the potentiality of injuries to others but the potentiality of injury to oneself. Whether or not we pass the Bill, we shall in no way diminish the risk to other road users, nor shall we in any way place at risk those who are not at risk at present. Therefore, it seems that what the House has to decide, when it divides on this issue on another day, is a fundamental issue and a difficult issue in a country which prides itself on its belief in freedom—of what are the proper limitations of the criminal law.

I emphasise "criminal" law because, again, I am not against the proposition that the failure to wear a seat belt might be a valid argument for the diminution of damages for someone who is involved in an accident because he failed to take proper care of himself. I am not against insurance companies attempting to do something in the loading of their policies because some people choose not to wear a seat belt. I am not against certain systems, such as we have seen in the Volvo motorcar, of lights which flash if one does not have one's seat belt on. What we are concerned with, however, is asking the fundamental question: are we or are we not right as a Parliament to impose the sanctions of the criminal law on an area of individual choice and an individual's decision as to his own individual safeguards?

If one is to answer that question, one has to go back to fundamentals. One has to ask, what is a crime and what should be criminal behaviour? Basically we have always recognised the distinction in this country that a crime is a crime because it offends against society and other members of society, and that matters which do not involve society are matters of civil rather than criminal law. We surely basically make criminal only that conduct which has an effect, direct or significant, which is detrimental to the rights of others members of society. We do not make criminal that conduct of people in their own behaviour unless it has a direct and significant detrimental effect on the rights of others, whether it be rights to property or rights of a physical nature.

The criminal law never attempts to intrude into an area merely in an endeavour to attempt to save people from themselves.

Mr. Wiggin

I am following with care my hon. and learned Friend's most eloquent argument. I fully understand the argument he is deploying. Will he tell the House how he would apply the same argument to the legislation on drugs or even as regards the wearing of crash helmets by motor cyclists which was introduced by a Government of which he was a member?

Mr. Carlisle

My hon. Friend will be glad to learn that the second line of my notes is "drugs". I want to make one comment before I come to the question of drugs. I will come to the question of crash helmets as well.

I want to give an analogy of the point I was making about the normal area of the criminal law, namely, that an act is a crime only if the rights of others in society are affected by one's conduct. A good example of this is in relation to alcohol, where it is no crime to be drunk but it is a crime to be drunk and disorderly.

I come to the question of drugs. I do not take the wholly classical and libertarian view that the criminal law should be concerned only when other people's individual rights are affected. I accept that it is equally a proper area for the criminal law to involve itself in individual conduct, although that conduct does not directly affect the rights of others, if the effect of that conduct in itself is such that it is wholly debilitating to the fabric of society.

It is on that basis, for example, that we in Britain have always made certain offences of a sexual nature, although committed with the consent of the other party, nevertheless criminal, because we say that it is conduct of such a nature that it is wholly debilitating to the fabric of society as a whole.

Equally, I believe that the justification for our criminal law in regard to drugs is not that someone taking drugs is directly affecting the rights of others but that the very taking of drugs itself, if sufficiently widespread, is injurious to the fabric of society. That is why we justify our legislation as regards drugs.

I also accept—I come now nearer to the crash helmet question—that society may well have a right to bring the criminal law into force in a given area to protect young people. It may also, although I think that this is highly arguable, have the right to impose the criminal law in an area where the evidence is wholly and 100 per cent. one way.

We must draw the line somewhere. We must say with regard to the implications and sanctions of the criminal law, "So far and no further".

When it comes to attempting to enforce the compulsory wearing of seat belts I believe that we are going far over the line that we should draw between imposing the sanctions of the criminal law as against the choice of the individual.

The evidence is not all one way. We can all envisage types of accidents, as the Minister said, where people would be worse off if they were wearing a seat belt. So long as there are people who can say and genuinely believe that they are alive or are less badly injured because they had chosen not to wear a seat belt, I do not believe that the House would be right to impose sanctions upon people and to force them to take a course of conduct which they themselves, as mature adults, may on mature consideration decide that they do not wish to take.

Mr. Kenneth Lomas (Huddersfield, West)

I was hoping that the hon. and learned Member would give way. He has been going on for so long and many of us have been sitting here from six o'clock under the impression that the debate would start at seven o'clock. The hon. and learned Gentleman has now come into the Chamber and is trying to monopolise the debate, and it is about time he wrapped up.

Mr. Carlisle

I thought that most of us had been here from the beginning. The Minister was asked to open the debate at nine o'clock and we shall be talking only until ten o'clock and then adjourning. The debate will continue on another day. I am explaining the argument against the Bill.

I have advanced what I believe to be the basic argument against the legislation, but I have certain further points to make. Another very strong argument against is the serious difficulty of enforcement. I do not accept the analogy that the Minister gave when he said it was difficult to know whether drivers had a driving licence. In that case the police simply ask the person whether he has a driving licence, and if he has not he has committed an offence. Under the Bill the police would be asked to enforce a law the offence against which would be not to be wearing a seat belt when the vehicle was moving. How on earth are the police to tell whether, when the vehicle was moving, the person was or was not wearing a seat belt? The police will not be able to enforce the law by saying what the driver was doing when the vehicle was stationary.

Mr. Ronald Bell

The problem would be overcome if, as in the case of the driving licence, the driver were given four days to put it on.

Mr. Carlisle

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for that contribution.

The second further objection against the Bill flows from the difficulty of enforcement. The Bill, even if passed by this House, would in practice be blatantly disregarded, and I do not believe that we do any good to ourselves or to the law if we choose to pass legislation of that nature. By passing laws which are blatantly disregarded we only serve to bring the law into contempt.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Carlisle

I never imagined the day when I would find the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) agreeing with anything I said in this House.

Mr. Skinner

The hon. and learned Gentleman has fallen into a trap.

Mr. Carlisle

I can assure the hon. Member that even though he may agree with me here, I cannot imagine myself agreeing with anything else that he says.

Is the Minister seriously suggesting that, with the exception of delivery vans, the drivers of which are not affected by the Bill, every housewife, for example, who is going shopping will remember to put on her belt when she moves the car 200 yards? I do not believe that that will happen, and that will lead to a blatant disregard of the law.

Thirdly, I believe that attempts to enforce the law will lead to greater antagonism between the police and the general public. We in this House have a duty to ensure that the laws we pass are easily enforceable. This one would not be, and it will exacerbate relationships between the police and the public.

It has been said that any regulation is justified if it will save a single life. If we were dealing here with a regulation which would save one innocent life of a third party I would agree with it, but that is not the case. The lives involved are the lives of the people who have the power to make a decision for themselves.

To bring the criminal law into the matter is in many ways an abuse of the legislative procedure. The Minister can argue fluently and convincingly that injuries cause cost to society, because they put more people into hospital and so on, but so do many other activities. We cannot sensibly pursue that argument, because it would mean preventing many people from doing many lawful acts merely because such prevention avoids accidents.

We pride ourselves on our freedom. If we are to retain that freedom we must be vigilant in its support. I am satisfied that the Bill goes beyond the limit of what the criminal law should attempt to impose by sanctions. Therefore, I hope that the House will decline to give it a Second Reading.

9.46 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

I am sure that I shall embarrass the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle), because I agree almost 100 per cent. with what he said. Perhaps that surprises him. Whether they are for or against the compulsory use of seat belts, all people can, I think, agree that it would be advisable for everyone to use his seat belt every time he uses his vehicle.

But the hon. and learned Gentleman is right to ask how compulsory use can be enforced. A person who is moving, his car from in front of his house into his garage is not likely to use a seat belt. A policeman, however, would be entitled to say "I am charging you for failing to use your seat belt, and you are liable to a fine of £50. But standing outside your door is another person's vehicle which has had no road fund licence for the past three years, and has no insurance or certificate of roadworthiness. It has faulty tyres and bad steering, but as it was built in 1965 the owner does not have to have a seat belt, and he will not be fined £50".

In anticipation of the debate, I wrote to my right hon. Friend on 2nd November asking for a list of the various rules, regulations and so on applying to motorists and vehicles on the road. He replied on 18th November. He is probably so busy that he could not let me have all the details in the letter. I believe that there are about 2,000 rules and regulations. I cannot repeat them all, so I shall mention just a few. The hon. and learned Member for Runcorn spoke of the impossibility of enforcement, and my right hon. Friend half admitted this.

The various rules, regulations and orders relate to speedometers, emission of smoke from exhaust systems, rusting, steering and dangerous protruding parts. [Interruption.] I thought that would bring a laugh. I was referring not to the pleasant contours of motor cars but to jagged parts. There are also rules and regulations concerned with road fund licences, insurance certificates, roadworthiness certificates and registration. I could continue at length as there are many others.

I have been driving almost daily for 42 years. [HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."] I have never been stopped, for example, and asked to let my vehicle be examined to ensure that the lights were placed at the correct height. I have never been asked to allow my door handles to be examined to determine whether they are correctly adjusted. A commander of police at Scotland Yard has told me—I believe this to be true—that invariably no action is taken on any of these matters unless there is an accident or the driver is stopped for another offence such as speeding. If a speeding offence is com- mitted or if there is the possibility of an offence having taken place and the driver is stopped, the police officer will ask, for example, to look at the tyres, the steering, the lights, the mudguards, to see whether they are hanging off, the bumper and various other parts. No doubt the police officer would go through the list.

How many times have the 2,000 sets of rules and regulations been enforced? There are not enough police to enforce them. The police are undermanned, underpaid and overworked. We are being told that all the time. The police cannot deal with these matters except when there is an accident or when motorists are stopped for a road traffic offence. That can be proved any day of the week. The statistics show that 20 per cent. to 25 per cent. of the vehicles on our roads do not exhibit a road fund licence.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I cannot believe that.

Mr. Lewis

Very well, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman goes out and has a look. Let him look round any of the streets where parking takes place. It is an offence not to have a certificate of roadworthiness. These matters go hand in glove. It is the person with an old jalopy built in 1965 or earlier which invariably is not fit to pass a roadworthiness certificate. The owners of the old jalopies, knowing that their vehicles have faulty tyres or faulty steering and would not meet the requirements of the roadworthiness examination, do not trouble to obtain a road fund licence. Invariably they do not get a certificate of insurance. That is because all these matters go hand in glove. These people are deliberate law-breakers.

The police cannot do anything about it. The police have reported thousands of cases of non-compliance. No action has been taken and the police have given up reporting. These cases cannot be dealt with in the courts because the courts are overloaded with work. If that is the situation now, what will happen if we introduce an unenforceable measure which will require motorists to put a belt across their bodies? When a policeman says "When I saw it, it was not done up", there will immediately be an argument. The regulation would be unenforceable.

I agree that the general wearing of seat belts would save several thousand lives a year—perhaps. But I remind my right hon. Friend that there are on average three accidents per day in the home resulting in death or serious injury. I am sure that many of them are caused because the victim has not been doing what he should have done. For example, perhaps there was no fireguard round an open fire. Every house should have a fireguard round an open fire. Shall we introduce a Bill to make it compulsory? Who is going to enforce it?

In almost every house in the country there are faulty electric light plugs. A faulty plug can kill. It can also damage other people's property. Shall we have a law that every electric light plug must be installed by a capable electrician and must be kept safe? How shall we enforce it? Yet such a law would save life and injury if enforced. It would also save time and money for the National Health Service in dealing with the victims of such accidents. One could go on through a whole list of advisable precautions.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)

If the hon. Gentleman carries his argument to its logical conclusion—and I do not disagree with him—should we not all stop playing football in case we break a bone and have to go to hospital?

Mr. Lewis

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is gilding the lily. But there is point to what he has said. Lord Stokes, a very knowledgeable man in the motor industry, said on "Any Questions" recently that a person who simply drove down the road to the corner shop to buy a packet of cigarettes should put his seat belt on.

Mr. Mulley

Of course.

Mr. Lewis

Of course. Then let there be a law compelling him to do it. But should there not also be a law to stop him from going to get a packet of cigarettes, because that packet of cigarettes can kill? The hospitals are full of people who have been inhaling too much nicotine through smoking.

Then again, what about the man who happens to be a little obese? Earlier, the Minister said that this was a serious subject—

Mr. Mulley


Mr. Lewis

We can always come come back to this. I was going to say that I, more than anyone else, would probably agree—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.