HC Deb 25 June 1976 vol 913 cc2105-16
Mr. Fry

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 17, at end insert: '(c) notwithstanding the generality of paragraph (b) shall prescribe that exception be made on such medical grounds as may be prescribed'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may take the following amendments:

No. 2, in page 1, line 17, at end insert: '(c) notwithstanding the generality of paragraph (b) shall prescribe that exception be made for such categories of occupation as may be prescribed'. No. 3, in page 1, line 17, at end insert: '(c) notwithstanding the generality of paragraph (b) shall prescribe that exception be made for such emergency situations as may be prescribed'. No. 4, in page 1, line 17, at end insert: '(c) notwithstanding the generality of paragraph (b) shall prescribe that exception be made for such categories of children as may be prescribed'.

wish to take up the time of the House by repeating.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 19, Noes 47.

Division No. 199.] AYES [3.20 p.m.
Banks, Robert Grimond, Rt Hon J. Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch
Benyon, W. Holland, Philip Ross, William (Londonderry)
Biggs-Davison, John Hooson, Emlyn Viggers, Peter
Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent) Langford-Holt, Sir John
Brotherton, Michael Lawrence, Ivan TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Fairbairn, Nicholas McAdden, Sir Stephen Mr. Richard Body and
Fell, Anthony Mitchell, David (Basingstoke) Mr. Ronald Bell.
Glyn, Dr Alan Neubert, Michael
Anderson, Donald Dykes, Hugh Moate, Roger
Armstrong, Ernest English, Michael Park, George
Atkinson, Norman Fraser, John (Lambeth, N'w'd) Price, C. (Lewisham W)
Bates, Alf Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend) Sandelson, Neville
Bishop, E. S. Gilbert, Dr John Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South)
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife) Snape, Peter
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Stallard, A. W.
Chalker, Mrs Lynda Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Stoddart, David
Clemitson, Ivor Jessel, Toby Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Cocks, Michael (Bristol S) John, Brynmor Tinn, James
Cohen, Stanley Kaufman, Gerald Weitzman, David
Coleman, Donald Lamborn, Harry Wiggin, Jerry
Davies, Bryan (Enfield N) Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough) Williams, Sir Thomas
Deakins, Eric Luard, Evan
Dormand, J. D. Marks, Kenneth TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Douglas-Mann, Bruce Mellish, Rt Hon Robert Mr. Thomas Cox and
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Mikardo, Ian Mr. John Ellis.
Mr. Fry

We are starting to discuss a series of amendments which are very important indeed, because I think that, by general agreement, it is the exemptions that will appear in the regulations which are in effect the very meat of the Bill. The difficulty for the House, as indeed it was for the Committee, is that even with the various documents which the Minister has been kind enough to circulate to us, we still await in exact form the kind of regulations that are to be brought into force. It has been a constant worry to some Opposition Members that the Bill did not contain these regulations when it was first drafted. It is all very well to compliment oneself and to say that the Government have carefully drawn up a one-clause Bill. As I think was demonstrated in Committee, far from this being a matter of very short debate, as the Minister has already acknowledged, we had a full 15 hours of debate. Much of that 15 hours was devoted to the subject of the exemptions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) and I deliberately did not want to go over the same old ground again. However, in view of the tremendous number of representations that we and many of our other colleagues have received on this subject, and because of the high feeling that exists in the community at large, we could not pass the Report stage without bringing up this subject again. Therefore, in order to be helpful to the Government, we thought that it would be a good idea to put down the amendments in these various groupings. It is perhaps coincidental that in the draft consultation letter which finally saw the light of day yesterday, the Government themselves have produced various categories.

I deal with Amendment No. 1. It is rather interesting that Item A of the draft consultation letter concerns itself with the medical exemptions. I would be very grateful if the Minister would clear up the point as to how far the current negotiations or discussions with the BMA have gone. In Committee we had a lengthy and interesting discussion on the cost of certificates that would be provided for people exempt on medical grounds. The Under-Secretary of State quoted a figure of 75p, but I am sure many hon. Members must be aware that when one goes to a doctor to obtain what is virtually a private medical certificate, rarely does one get one for 75p. If it is a question of having a medical examination, the cost of that has to be borne in mind. Is it the intention that the cost of that examination shall be borne by the person applying for the certificate, or will it be borne by the National Health Service and therefore be a charge on the general taxpayer?

3.30 p.m.

Mr. Burden

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. We should bear in mind elderly people and those on low incomes who might have to use their cars for a specific purpose. In those cases the certificates should be provided free, otherwise considerable hardship could result. I hope that the Minister will bear in mind what has been said by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Fry

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I go further. It is not just a question of pensioners. What about somebody in receipt of immobility allowance? Is it intended that the certificate should be paid for out of that allowance, or will extra provision be made for that? What about someone in receipt of supplementary benefit? Who will pay for the certificate in that instance? I fail to see how it can be put out that there will be no charge on the general taxpayer resulting from the issue of these certificates, because if an examination is necessary that will take time, and a doctor's time is precious.

That leaves open the whole question of people who might need an examination on what one might call nervous medical grounds—people who feel that if they have a seat belt fitted they will suffer from claustrophobia. I imagine that a medical investigation will be necessary to decide whether someone is entitled to a medical certificate on that ground, and that could be costly. It might be necessary to refer a patient to a consultant—or perhaps two consultants—to obtain the right decision. Just to pass the decision to the medical authorities to decide who does and who does not qualify for a certificate begs the question, because the resources of the National Health Service are stretched, and the Bill would appear to be putting one more load upon it.

Dr. Glyn

There seem to be two elements here. The first is the examination of a patient, which could be costly. Is my hon. Friend suggesting that the Bill means that it is the mere issue of a certificate that attracts a fee of 75p—in other words, that the patient pays 75p for the certificate and the taxpayer pays for the examination through the National Health Service?

Mr. Fry

As I understand it, that is the case. A reference to the consultative letter shows that the period of validity of the certificate will be a matter for the doctor to decide having regard to the nature and prognosis of the medical condition. How long that period will be will be up to the doctor. I submit that the cost of the examination must, of necessity, be a charge upon public funds. I see no alternative. I think that the whole question of medical exemptions deserves the closest scrutiny, and I hope that we shall hear something more today from the Minister about how far the consultations have gone on this subject.

Will any member of the public who considers himself—or herself—eligible for a medical certificate be free to find a doctor who will give him one? I imagine that there are members of the medical profession who would differ on whether an individual satisfied the conditions of the Bill. There would be a certain number of people who would run around from one GP to another trying to get a certificate. From what my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) said, I imagine he will be looking for a GP to provide him with a certificate. I wonder whether he will have much difficulty in finding one.

The draft consultation letter claims that this will be a simple matter and it talks about a small fee being payable for the issue of a medical certificate. However, it fails to answer a whole range of questions which we asked in Committee. I make the same fundamental point that if these exemptions and regulations had been made part of the Bill in the first place, much of the debate we are having now would have been unnecessary and it would have been quite clear at the end of the day where people stood. It is the uncertainty which will be caused until the regulations are agreed which is quite unacceptable.

Mr. Marks

Is the hon. Member saying that we should have included a list of ailments and complaints in the exemptions?

Mr. Fry

No, not necessarily. I am saying that if we had had the kind of regulations the Government have in mind brought forward as part of the Bill in the first place, it would have meant that although Committee proceedings would have been much longer, by the time the Bill passed all its stages in the House we would have removed all the doubts which exist about a set of regulations which we still have not seen.

If the main aim of the Bill is to get a higher acceptability on the part of the public, the public would rather see the various arguments thrashed out in advance before the Bill in principle is passed into law. Many motorists feel very strongly about this.

The second category we were concerned with in Committee was related to occupation. Here again, during Committee stage we went into considerable detail on the question of taxi drivers, delivery men and licensed driving instructors. I was interested to hear the speech on the previous amendment by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) who is honorary president of the National Association of Driving Instructors. I am aware that the consultative letter refers to persons riding with learner drivers and the fact that they might not be able to wear seat belts if they are to be able to reach the essential controls. But there is no clear commitment concerning driving instructors, or indeed on someone like myself who is going through purgatory at the moment because my son is learning to drive. If this regulation is brought into force there must be a much clearer indication of what the exemptions will be.

Mr. Lawrence

On the question of driving instructors, does my hon. Friend appreciate that unless there is a specific exemption for occupation, the exemption could be restricted to unlicensed driving instructors who are driving cars which are not equipped with dual control or inertia reel belts? Licensed driving instructors might find that they will be compelled to wear seat belts, so in these circumstances the occupational requirement is most vital.

Mr. Fry

Yes, I agree. That is why we put down a whole category under the heading "occupation". But I do not see why a mother or father, sister or brother of a driver should not have similar protection, especially if the handbrake is on the right hand side of the driver. It is often impossible to get hold of it in an emergency and it is much more difficult when tied in by a seat belt.

The greatest difficulty on occupational grounds arises in the interesting section in the consultative document about very short journeys. How short is a journey? It is the same old question. The consultative documents defines it as … using a car for a purpose which requires the driver to make 10 or more stops in the course of a mile. Will police constables drive behind vehicles to check or get out a tape measure to judge the other exemption, which specifies that there are stops … at points not more than 200 yards apart"? This will put a tremendous burden on the police. Spelled out like that, it is a nonsense. This part of the document answers no questions and will cause many disputes.

The fundamental point is to get public acceptability. This nit-picking legislation will only cause great public discontent and dispute between the police and the motoring public. Before the regulations come into force I hope that these suggestions will be improved.

Mr. Marks

It would help if hon. Members could suggest an alternative. It is obvious from the points that they made in Committee that they consider that short or slow journeys should be exempt. How would they do it?

Mr. Fry

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) in Committee gave the example of the Canadian definition, which is followed in the Department's own comparison with other countries. That is a definition of frequent journeys at less than 25 mph. So it is not true to say that there have been no suggestions from us. But the Minister is not prepared to accept them. My hon. Friend said that the Ontario legislation provided that the wearing of a seat belt would not apply … when a vehicle is in reverse or when a person is actually required to alight from and re-enter a motor vehicle at frequent intervals, as long as the vehicle does not exceed 25 mph."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B; 13th May 1976, c. 168.] Even in these days of congested city traffic most people do not drive at less than 25 mph unless making short journeys.

But it is the Government's job to present legislation and our job to question it. When we think that it is defective, we shall say so and will refer it back to the Minister.

Mr. Fell

Why does my hon. Friend keep talking about referring something to the Minister when the Minister is not here? He was well enough and disengaged enough to be here for the vote and then immediately went off. What is he doing? Why is the House of Commons putting up with this sort of rubbish which affects nearly half the people in the nation and the Minister comes in only for the vote to get his beastly little Bill through and ignores the House for the rest of the time?

Mr. Fry

I understand that intervention. I hope that the Minister is putting these moments to constructive use otherwise he may have to be in the House for many more hours today. If that is not his intention, I suggest that he is having the appropriate discussions through the usual channels.

3.45 p.m.

I turn to the third amendment, dealing with emergency situations. Here perhaps there can be a slightly wider agreement with the consultative letter, which says: There are likely to be certain occasions when it will be inadvisable for the officers of the police and fire services, when responding to an emergency, to put on seat belts. Such officers will therefore be exempt where the use of a seat belt would interfere with the performance of their duty. But I hope that it will be made clear that there is no general exemption for the police when they are on normal patrol duties. It would be bad for police-public relations if they were seen driving around without seat belts and prosecuting members of the public who were not wearing belts.

The fourth category raises some of the biggest difficulties. I know that some of my hon. Friends—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), whose attitude towards the Bill on the whole has been anti rather than pro—feel that children deserve special protection. We wondered whether we should table amendments on how to define where children should sit in a motor vehicle if they were exempt from the compulsory wearing of seat belts. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), who is not here at present, has strong views on the matter, and I hope that he will contribute to the debate.

I hope that the Government will not lose the opportunity to point out to the public that even though young children sitting in front seats may be exempt from the compulsory wearing of belts they still run a considerable risk of injury. Perhaps in their general campaign of persuasion the Government will not neglect to give advice to parents that children should sit in the rear if they cannot have a seat belt fitted.

I know that under the stature provision the height figure will apply to a child, but something more exact is needed, if only because one cannot prosecute children. The public need more advice on the subject. I hope that we shall have from the Minister something more specific on the question of exemption for children.

I hope that the Under-Secretary does not think that I have gone over much the same ground as we covered in Committee. I have tried not to do that, but we must give hon. Members who did not serve on the Committee a chance to put forward their views. Second Reading was taken up with the principle. I know that in due course we shall debate the regulations, but all that the House can do then is to accept or reject them. Now is the time to make constructive suggestions so that when the regulations are introduced they are as acceptable as possible.

Mr. Ronald Bell

I support these amendments. I am not sure whether it is intended that we may have separate views on them, as they are grouped together. It is obviously inconevient to have a single vote on the amendments relating to exemptions, because one interrelates with the other. I hope that when it comes to the point, we shall be able to express our opinions on all the amendments. I do not know whether you can assist us, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and say whether we shall be able to vote on each of them.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I think I can help the hon. and learned Gentleman. Mr. Speaker has not indicated that he would accept a separate vote on each amendment.

Mr. Bell

I am obliged to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you will be aware, this is a provisional selection of amendments. You will finally decide in the light of the debate, what will be the actual selection of amendments, without the word "provisional". I shall pin my hopes on your exercising your revising capacity in that way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) has outlined the nature of our objections to the way in which the Minister intends to proceed, which may be summed up by saying that the Bill will be entirely general as it stands. It simply empowers him to make regulations, and all exemptions, definitions and qualifications will appear in the regulations. We on this side of the House vary in our attitude to the Bill itself, but I think that there has been a consensus among us that certain safeguards for the ambit of the regulations ought to be in the Bill and not merely in the Minister's discretion. He is, of course, still free to make the regulations within the boundaries so defined.

I suppose that there are two reasons why we suggest these safeguards. First, we have a very natural reluctance—I think a widely-shared reluctance—to this kind of legislation which empowers a Minister to make regulations and leaves him absolutely free to make any regulations he wants. This cannot be a good kind of Act of Parliament. I am afraid that it is not unique.

Such Bills mark the ultimate in the abdication of Parliament from its control over the legislative process. Naturally, we want to put down a few boundary marks to say that the regulations will be such as the Minister makes but that they must include provision of some kind for this, that and the other, that they must not go beyond certain boundaries.

Perhaps the Under-Secretary will look at the amendments. Again I put in my parenthetic comment that I am addressing careful arguments to him, although I know that they do not matter because the Minister is not here. He has no intention of coming here, except for the vote. The Under-Secretary will not be free to respond to anything that we say. Therefore, I do not see why we bother to say it. However, I shall say it just the same.

The first category of exemptions is the medical exemptions. In the Bill there is nothing about medical exemptions. All we have is the document which the Minister promised he would make available in the Vote Office, copies of which he would send personally to those who served on the Standing Committee, and in which document he said he would formulate his thoughts on the subject. He has done that. We regret that these documents arrived in the post only this morning, so we have not had very much time to study the Minister's thoughts on the the subject, which, while relevant to the Bill as a whole, are especially relevant to these amendments.

The Minister is saying "This is what I have in mind and in the light of that is it really necessary to put down amendments saying what the exemptions must be"? The answer is that it is. It is all very well for the Minister to say that, but what if he does not do what he has said he has in mind? There would be nothing that we could do. We know that the first regulations will be under the affirmative procedure, but we cannot amend them. It is no good saying to the Minister that he has not done what he had in mind in his consultative document circulated before Report on 25th June. That will not get us very far. We may have a debate on the regulations, but that is all.

It is important that these provisions are put in the Bill because the medical exemptions are awkward and tricky to define. The Minister has said "I shall deal with that by not defining them. A medical certificate, saying that one should not wear a seat belt will be all that is needed." That will be odd. I shall have psychological allergy against wearing a seatbelt and all sorts of other odd things could emerge.

The document says that a medical certificate will be issued for such a period as the physician prescribes, not exceeding five years. It will be a quasi-permanent certificate. What would happen if someone had no medical certificate of exemption and something occurred on a journey? Let us suppose that a person driving in the sort of weather we had yesterday—and probably have today outside our refrigerated Chamber—who

suffers from dermatitis has to take off his seat belt? He will have no defence and yet it is reasonable that he should take off the seat belt in those circumstances. We are proposing a law under which he would have no excuse.

I see that the Minister has entered the Chamber and I feel that repetition would not be tedious since the Minister does not know what I have said. We do not know where he has been. Perhaps he has been belted to a seat somewhere. I was pointing out that no provision is to be made for the physical condition which supervenes temporarily. The Minister sent us lists of what happens in other countries. One of them allows exemption in circumstances in which it would be unreasonable to require the wearing of a seat belt. That means that a person who has to go to court could say that this, that or the other happened and it was not reasonable in those circumstances to have to wear a seat belt.

That is a defence, but the Minister is not proposing anything like that. As he is not putting anything in the Bill and does not want us to do so, there is no way in which we can ensure that anything on these lines is provided. The list of exemptions in other countries does not encourage me to think that the Minister's definitions—

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

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