HC Deb 10 December 1975 vol 902 cc611-6

11.18 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Fox (Shipley)

I should be failing in my duty, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I did not register the strongest protest about the way in which the Government have filled the Order Paper—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

Order. The Chair desires to know whether the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Fox) is moving his motion.

Mr. Fox

I am merely drawing attention to the fact that it is not possible for me to move my motion in the way that I would have liked had I been allowed sufficient time.

Accordingly, I move immediately to this important matter. I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the 60 miles per hour and 50 miles per hour (Temporary Speed Limit) Order 1975 (S.I., 1975, No. 1895), dated 21st November 1975, a copy of which was laid before this House on 21st November, be annulled. We cannot allow this Statutory Instrument to go through without some comment. There are too many measures of this kind going through and circumventing the system.

A number of the claims which have been made by the Government must be challenged by the Opposition. It is important to look back at the reasons for the Order being made originally. On 9th December, in response to the Secretary of State for Energy, the then Minister introduced legislation as a contribution to fuel-saving. That was the whole purpose of the exercise. In the course of his statement, the right hon. Gentleman said: I should also remind the House that efficient driving and proper vehicle maintenance can save petrol as effectively as lower speeds." —[Official Report, 9th December 1974; Vol. 883, c. 39.] The Automobile Association went further than the Minister, who said in his Press handout dated 12th November of this year: Consumption of motor spirit in the first half of 1975, compared with the equivalent period of 1973, was between 3 and 4 per cent. less than could be accounted for by reductions in traffic—a saving of about £40 million a year to our balance of payments. The factors leading to this will have included slower speeds, more careful driving behaviour and a tendency to use smaller vehicles. The House will notice that the Minister did not isolate the savings from the reductions in speed. He lumped them together with the savings from careful driving and a tendency to use smaller vehicles. The total saving from all these measures is 3 per cent. or 4 per cent. Given that there has been a move in favour of smaller cars, there is not much that can be attributed to the speed restrictions.

However, the Automobile Associaation goes even further and claims that, if the Minister is really interested in saving fuel, he ought to look at the proper servicing of vehicles, because in that connection the potential saving is not 3 per cent. or 4 per cent. but 20 per cent. Surely that is an area where more money could be spent more profitably on an advertising campaign than on perpetuating these restrictions.

Above all, I question the basis on which the Minister claims that the 50 and 60 mph limits have been well respected. I should like to know which civil servant has told him that. I believe that a sizeable number of people do not even know that these restrictions are still in force. Although many people were aware of them when they were initially introduced, they now think that they have lapsed Moreover, the police generally are not enforcing these restrictions. I do not blame them for not doing so, because I know that they have better things to do.

Surely it is not unreasonable to suggest that, when laws are imposed with penalties for failure to observe them, there must be a presumption that they are effective, and that the utmost care has been devoted to the terms in which they are formulated. I submit, and I am sure many of my hon. Friends agree that this is not the case.

I should like to refer to the Commercial Travellers' Association, which I am sure has put forward a valid point. That association is deeply concerned that some of its members could lose their licences' which means their jobs and livelihoods, under the totting-up procedure. Previously that procedure applied only to offences where there was an element of unsafe driving behaviour. Now, however, with these restrictions continuing, such penalties could be incurred for reasons of fuel consumption. I trust that the Minister will pay attention to that matter.

Since this measure was introduced certain ambiguities have arisen. Some people took the view that fuel-saving was becoming secondary to accident prevention. That was not the original purpose of this measure. If the position has changed, it should be debated properly in Parliament and not dealt with in this way.

It is questionable whether the claimed reduction in accidents is valid. Let us not forget that there has been a considerable reduction in traffic, mainly due to the increased costs of motoring. The reduction in the use of motor vehicles is the major cause of the reduction in accidents.

It is interesting to note that the reduction in accidents on motorways is 15 per cent., and on all-purpose roads subjected to these limits it is 16 per cent. Therefore, there is an improvement of only I per cent. more on the roads where the limits apply. I do not find that a convincing argument.

In the original debate the Minister for Transport said: if speed limits do not command general support from road users, their enforcement puts serious extra strain on police resources."—[Official Report, 9th December, 1974; Vol. 883, c. 48.] On those grounds alone, the Order should be dropped.

I know that a number of my hon. Friends wished to speak on this matter, and I regret that it is not possible for them to do so. However, I should like to read a letter which I have received from my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler), who writes: Norfolk County Council and the Norfolk County Police are anxious that the present speed limit should not apply for a further year. They oppose the Government's intentions to extend this Order not least because they feel that in areas such as Norfolk where there are few dual carriageways, the 50 m.p.h. speed limit is contributing to unnecessary congestion and bunching of traffic, resulting in additional driver frustration and increasing the risk of accidents. Although when the speed limit was introduced there was an initial decline in the number of accidents, the figures for more recent months show increases. Although I congratulate the Under-Secretary on his recent appointment and welcome the fact that the Minister for Transport is abroad on European business, it might be fitting to mention that we are not being very good Europeans in this matter. Europeans accept the need for flexibility depending on differing circumstances, such as road design features and traffic densities, and recommend the harmonisation of speed limits on roads other than motorways of approximately 62 m.p.h.

In all this, one thing stands out. The motorist as such holds no brief for these restrictions. He finds them confusing, unrealistic and unjustifiable and as something else with which to cope.

There is no need for the Order to be brought forward again. It is a pity that the Government have missed an opportunity to allow this legislation to lapse. Unfortunately, like all Socialist Governments, they enjoy—[Interruption.]—the hon. Gentleman has not heard it yet—regulations and controls. Should this country unfortunately still suffer a Labour Government a year from now, we shall certainly not take the view that we take tonight on this matter. We shall oppose far more strongly the continuation of such an Order if it is brought forward in another year.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Since it is clear that it will not be possible for hon. Members from the Back Benches to contribute and for the Minister to reply, may I ask whether it will be possible to secure an indication that the debate will be adjourned or stood over and not proceeded with tonight?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman will be apprised by the Chair at the appropriate moment.

Mr. Marcus Kimball (Gainsborough)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It will not have escaped your notice that, under the strict timing governing this Prayer, the time available to hon. Members to raise important issues has been eaten into by the incompetent replies of the Ministers dealing with the two previous Bills. I am certain that it is within your power to protect the rights of hon. Members who wish to pray against this iniquitous legislation. I hope that you will be able to give us some indication—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is not a matter for the Chair.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)


Mr. Cyril Smith (Rochdale)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Am I to understand that the Minister is standing up to reply to a debate which has been virtually non-existent, or are other speakers to be heard after the Minister has spoken?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman should await the decision of the Chair.

11.28 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)

First, I should like to convey the apologies of the Minister for Transport. As the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Fox) said, my hon. Friend is at present attending the Council of Ministers in Brussels.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that we were not being very good Europeans. It is significant that four of the Nine adopt the 50 mph limit on all single carriageway roads, that France and Denmark retain it at 56 mph and that only Italy and Germany go to 60 mph.

I listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman's considerable extracts from AA circulars.

Mr. Fox

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Marks

No. The history of road speed limits is sufficiently well known for me not to have to recite it again. Suffice to say that the introduction of the present 50 mph and 60 mph limits was announced a year ago yesterday as one of 12 items in an energy-saving package.

The House will know, from the Written Answer given by my hon. Friend on 5th November in reply to a Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden), that the limits have been continued by using powers conferred under the Fuel and Electricity Control Act 1973. As the hon. Member for Shipley said, the consumption of motor spirit between 1973 and 1975 was 3 per cent. or 4 per cent. less than could be accounted for by a reduction in—

It being half-past Eleven o'clock, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER, being of opinion that owing to the lateness of the hour at which consideration of the motion was entered upon, the time for debate had not been adequate, interrupted the Business, and the debate stood adjourned till tomorrow, pursuant to Standing Order No. 4 (Statutory Instruments, &c. (Procedure)).