§ 'Subsection (3) of section 199 of the Road Traffic Act 1972 (statutory instruments containing regulations under that Act to be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament) shall not apply to the statutory instrument containing the first regulations made under section 33A of that Act and the Secretary of State shall not make those first regulations unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament'.—[Dr. Gilbert.]
§ Brought up, and read the First time.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I remind the House that with this we are to take Amendment (a), leave out first "first"; and Amendment (b), leave out second "first".
§ Dr. Gilbert
I have no greater enthusiasm for debating these matters on a Friday than that of Opposition Members, but there are certain exigencies with which we are all faced, as I am sure they will appreciate. It is certainly not the Government's intention to try to pursue debate on this matter late into this evening, and I am sure that we shall reach an amicable understanding when we see how we progress. We are, after all, faced with only six groups of amendments for debate. We had a whole day on Second Reading and 15 hours in Standing Committee. The general principle behind the Bill was emphatically endorsed by the House in a free vote not so very long ago.
The effect of the new clause is to fulfil a pledge that I gave in Standing Committee that the initial set of regulations under the Bill when it is enacted will be subject to the affirmative procedure. I recognise straight away that hon. Members face some difficulty in handling this legislation, because once the general principle has been endorsed in the Bill, the substance of the legislation will be in the form of regulations which are not yet before the House to be debated.
I have done my very best to be helpful to hon. Members with respect to information, consultation and guarantee of de 2038 bate. Concerning information, I have circulated to members of the Standing Committee, and have also made available in the Vote Office and the Library, a draft of the consultation document which I intend to send to interested organisations as and when the Bill is passed, and a note on the exemptions which have been given in the other countries which have introduced the compulsory wearing of seat belts.
Concerning consultation, I would welcome, in addition to whatever is said in this debate, any representations that hon. Members may wish to make to me, and representations from the general public in addition to those I am soliciting from interested bodies.
Concerning a guarantee of debate, this new clause effectively fulfils the commitment that I gave in Committee. Even this commitment that I am fulfilling is not without cost, because there will be a period, necessarily, between the time that the draft regulations are available and when time is found to be available for the debate on those regulations, in which lives will be lost and serious injuries will befall members of the public because of the delay which may be necessary due to the exigencies of the parliamentary timetable. It is only right that I should counsel hon. Members about the difficulty that is inevitable in the procedure that they would wish me to follow.
§ Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)
Is the Minister suggesting that had we maintained the negative procedure there would not have been a similar delay while in anticipation of a debate on this matter?
§ Dr. Gilbert
It would remain to be seen under the negative procedure whether time would have been found for a debate and whether hon. Members would have wanted time for debate, bearing in mind all the previous amount of debate which would have been given to this matter. However, that is a matter of speculation.
§ Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)
If, as I believe, the Government are concerned about loss of life due to time being lost between the various stages of the Bill and its enactment, why was there more than two months' delay between Second Reading and the Committee stage and a 2039 month's delay between the Committee stage and the Report stage?
§ Dr. Gilbert
I deplore all delays in the passage of this Bill. I am as anxious as is the hon. Gentleman to get an effective Bill on the statute book at as early a date as possible. All I am saying—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not quarrel with the proposition—is that any additional delay will involve a cost to the general public in terms of casualties. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would have been as anxious as I am to keep that delay to a minimum.
I turn to the two amendments in the name of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler). I should like to say how much I regret his inability to be here today. I gather that he is indisposed. I hope that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) will convey our best wishes to him for a speedy recovery. I know how intensely interested he is in these matters and appreciate the contribution that he made in Standing Committee.
The effects of the amendments proposed to the new clause is to extend the requirement for the use of the affirmative procedure to all subsequent regulations to be made under this legislation. I said in Committee that I was reluctant to accept that proposition when we debated it in Committee. I have considered the matter further. I am afraid that I am still not of a view that I could recommend that procedure to the House. Perhaps I may set out the circumstances in which I foresee that there might be a need for further regulations. It may help the House in coming to a view on the matter.
I imagine that the main reason why hon. Members were pressing for this extension of the affirmative procedure is that they might have in mind a situation in which there will be an extension of the compulsory use of belts, say, to the back seats of cars, after a period of compulsory fitting being required. I must say that I do not think it is necessarily automatically the case that when the majority of a vehicle fleet, for instance, is equipped with belts when it is not at present required to be equipped with belts, compulsory wearing would be automatically extended. That would be a 2040 decision for whoever was the Minister for Transport of the day. For example, I should think it unlikely that compulsory fitting would ever be extended to everybody who travelled on a stage carriage bus.
But if there came a time when it seemed appropriate to recommend an extension of this legislation I should think it would be easier for the House to take that decision than it will for it to take a decision on the matter that we are debating now, because a decision in principle will have been taken. I do not foresee that time coming for quite a considerable period, if at all, but if it does come we shall by then have had a lot more experience of the enforcement of the legislation, and more experience of the operation of the exemptions and the questions that would arise would be fairly simple ones of practicality rather than principle. I should have thought that the negative procedure would have been a safeguard to the House.
Another set of circumstances that I envisage is that there might be technical developments in the use of belts or restraint mechanism that would make it possible for people less than 5 ft. tall to wear them without discomfort or inconvenience, and it might be appropriate to remove that type of exemption. I am merely speculating. I assure hon. Members that I have nothing specific in mind. I know of no immediate developments that would bring about such a situation, but I am guarding against theoretical possibilities.
Finally, it is conceivable that we—by that I mean Ministers and the Department—and the House in its scrutiny of the regulations will find that by an oversight we have failed to realise that certain classes of individual deserve exemption but do not have it under the regulations. Those classes might come to light only after a period of experience of the operation of the legislation. Therefore, if there were that genuine need for exemption it would be a matter of some urgency to try to see that that need was catered for. I imagine that it could only be a small class of people, because most of these matters have been aired in this country and abroad, but still I do not exclude the possibility of that. I should be the last to claim that Governments 2041 have a monopoly of wisdom in these matters or that they have a divine infallibility when it comes to drafting legislation.
While in circumstances of that sort the police would no doubt wish to deal sympathetically with those who would be in breach of the law, I feel sure the House would agree that it would be desirable to give relief as quickly as possible. If we were bound by the proposed amendments to the new clause the individuals affected would suffer until time could be found for debate, particularly if it was a controversial matter, and I think that that again is something that the House would not lightly wish to see happen.
With those few words I commend the new clause to the House, but I have to advise my hon. Friends that, as things stand, I could not encourage them to endorse the amendments.
§ 11.45 a.m.
§ Mr. Fry
I very much appreciate the kind remarks of the Minister about my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), and I shall pass them on to him. It is a matter of considerable sorrow to us on this side of the House that my hon. Friend is not here. We understand that there is a certain amount of sorrow on both sides of the House today, but particularly on the other side following last night's by-election result at Rotherham.
In no way do we underestimate the size of the Minister's concession in the new clause. As we said in Committee, we welcome it and regard it as a genuine attempt to go quite a long way towards meeting our point of view, but I must stress that many Opposition Members regard this as one of the most important matters in this legislation. We feel that as things stand far too much has been delegated to the Minister's authority, and we have grave doubts about how future regulations will be brought forward.
One of the points that the Minister made this morning about delay rang a little hollow, bearing in mind how long we have been waiting for his consultative letter and document. For example, I had to ring the Minister's office yesterday afternoon to ask when we were to get the draft consultative letter. I was informed that a letter would be coming through to 2042 me personally yesterday afternoon, but I received it in the post this morning, and had I not asked at the Vote Office whether copies were available I should not have seen a copy of the document before.
Some of my hon. Friends have already said this morning that there has been considerabe delay in dealing with the Bill. There was delay in holding the Committee stage. The draft notes were not sent to Members of the Committee until 6th May and, as I said a moment ago, the draft consultative letter was sent out only yesterday. If the regulations when they come forward are to be the result of meaningful consultations with all the parties involved, the Minister must not accuse others of dragging their feet, because his Department has already done that to a certain extent. We have gone over the argument about the date of the original Second Reading debate in the last Session of Parliament. I do not intend to go into that again, but I think that what I have said answers the point that the Minister was trying to make this morning.
Another reason why we are unhappy about the proposed new clause is that even if our amendments were accepted the whole thing could still be subject to the statutory instrument procedure, and any regulations brought forward could not be amended but would have to be accepted or negatived as they stood. There should be a reasonable debate on the matters involved. We made this point several times in Committee, mainly because we feel strongly that one of the main problems with this legislation is the need to obtain the maximum popular acceptance of it if the Government are to get anything like the wearing level of seat belts for which they hope in order to save lives.
Very often, debates held under the negative procedure are restricted. For example, on 10th December last the important issue of the speed limits currently in force was debated for a mere 12 minutes. We maintain that there could be considerable extensions to the operation of the Bill that would justify much longer debates than that. Furthermore, the subject could well justify a debate at a reasonable hour, and too often, even if a Prayer is accepted, the 2043 temptation is to put the debate on in the early hours of the morning, which of necessity means that it does not receive the kind of attention that is given to debates held at other times.
Fears that there will be a constant stream of legislation and great difficulty in fitting such debates into the parliamentary programme are unjustified, because to a large extent future amendments are in the hands of the Minister and his Department. If they do their job properly in having consultations, if they go into all the exemptions thoroughly, and if they allow the House to debate the exemptions and decide upon them, the need for future changes or additions will be very small.
We therefore come back to another fundamental point about the Bill, which is that because of the way in which it is framed it is inevitable that many people will be worried about the introduction of regulations which they have not seen and which might be extended without being subject to the kind of parliamentary control that many of us would like. Therefore, if we proceeded by the affirmative resolution procedure there would be of necessity some delay, but much of the need for future debates could be obviated by the Government.
Although we all agree there should be no substitution of consultation for parliamentary debate, if the Minister had been able to come to the House—and he need not have brought the Report stage before the House today—after he had had consultations with the interested parties, we would all have been much happier. I had a letter from the RAC only yesterday morning. It was under the impression that it would be consulted if the Minister restored the penalty to a £50 limit. It was rather surprised that it had not been consulted. I do not think there is the necessary confidence in the consultation procedure, which is essential if we are to get acceptance of this Bill.
The Minister went on to talk about the possible reasons why there should be extensions of the regulations. I would like to refer the Minister to the discussions we had in Standing Committee on this point. It was obvious from what the Parliamentary Secretary said, in reply to questions I asked him, that the effect 2044 is contained in the Construction and Use of this Bill depends very much on what Regulations. Regulation 17 outlines the circumstances in which it is compulsory to fit a seat belt.
The relevant point about these regulations is that their extension is subject to the negative procedure, and therefore any major changes to the Construction and Use Regulations would not, of necessity, be debated in the House. This is not just a question of whether seat belts are to be fitted to rear seats of cars. It could be decided that seat belts should be fitted to all seats on coaches. There are a number of wide-ranging opinions about that. Many members of the travelling public, as well as the coach operators, would like to be consulted on this point. I suggest to the Minister that it would be a major move forward if, in these circumstances, the House were entitled to a broad debate and the matter were not just subject to the negative procedure.
If the Minister is saying that he still has an open mind on such extensions to the regulations, I would answer that this is not good enough. The fact that he feels that the matter could be settled reasonably is not sufficient, when we are considering a detailed piece of legislation. The Minister must be much more explicit. If he were prepared to say that he accepted the dependence of this Bill on Construction and Use Regulation 17, and that any extension of these regulations which would bring about a change in the Bill itself would be introduced subject to the affirmative procedure, then we would be much more in agreement with him. I do not honestly think that as the matter stands I could possibly advise my hon. Friends not to divide the House on the two amendments in my name and the names of my hon. Friends. We believe that this Bill is very far-reaching and we feel very strongly about the necessity of having a proper debate.
Many people in this country feel that this legislation is not essential. Most of them accept it entirely on the grounds of road safety, but they think it should be left to their own discretion to use seat belts or not. If they get the impression that more and more regulations are being imposed on them with minimum discussion in this House they will suspect increasingly that this House does not reflect their views as well as it should. They will also suspect that they are being 2045 run by regulation, as opposed to the parliamentary democratic system.
§ Dr. Gilbert
I am not quite clear about this. Is the hon. Member asking me whether I am prepared to give an undertaking that any change in the Construction and Use Regulations should be subject to the affirmative procedure?
§ Mr. Fry
One could say that with very minor changes in the regulations it may well be that that would not be necessary. If the Minister sees a minor change which will actually save more lives he may think it unwise to take up a lot of parliamentary time debating it. But the point I am making is that because this Bill depends very much on Regulation 17, if there is a major change to this regulation, in these circumstances the scope of the Bill will be changed as well, and we believe that such an amendment to the Bill should be subject to the affirmative procedure. I hope I have made myself clear.
§ Dr. Gilbert indicated assent.
§ Mr. Fry
It is absolutely vital that the public are aware that we are considering the many representations which have been made to us. This is one reason why we should not be stampeded into easy acceptance of the Minister's soothing words.
There was the problem of crash helmets on motor cycles. I took part in the Committee stage of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) which will allow exemption from the wearing of safety helmets for members of the Sikh religion. If the right consultation had taken place at the time the crash helmets legislation was introduced—and I accept that it was introduced under the administration of my party—this kind of problem would have been foreseen. As it is now, it has been necessary to bring about a whole new piece of legislation to meet the point about Sikhs.
Therefore, if we find that we are still awaiting a full list of exemptions, and we are being asked to pass this Bill in the dark, to a certain extent, without knowing what is to follow, the very least the Government can do is to concede one very small step further than the Minister has already gone. If he can satisfy us on that point, we could come to agree 2046 ment, but if he insists on the strict terms of the new clause, in the interests of those who are unhappy about the Bill and those who want much closer parliamentary control of the Executive I shall ask my hon. Friends to support the amendments.
§ 12 noon.
§ Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)
I am not sure who are the people to whom the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) has referred who are unhappy about the Bill. He said that most people consider that the wearing of seat belts should be left to the discretion of the individual motorist. I do not know on what he bases that supposition. My own judgment, from feedback from my constituency, is that people are becoming far more safety-conscious and that the overwhelming majority believe in enforcement as set out in the Bill.
The hon. Member suggested that the Government had been dragging their feet over the Bill. I do not know the truth of that assertion but it is clear that his amendment would mean substantial delays as parliamentary time was found for debate.
§ Mr. Anderson
The Minister has clearly made a proper concession on the first set of regulations. It is now suggested that each subsequent set, however important it is, should be dealt with by means of the affirmative procedure. The hon. Member conceded the weakness of that point. Searching around for some point of importance, he mentioned the coaches which may yet be brought within this legislation. He conceded that it was impractical and time wasting for each amendment and tuning of the proposals in the light of experience, whatever their intrinsic merit, to come before the House. So he concedes the Minister's point that it is likely that only relatively small technical amendments will be involved. The major issues will come up by way of affirmative procedure with adequate safeguards. Therefore, I certainly support the Minister.
§ Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)
I support the amendment because I have come to the conclusion that the negative procedure is becoming a farce. Order after Order is prayed against but no time can be found for debates. If it is found, it is only months after the Order has come into force and there can be no question of withdrawing or even amending it, as can be done under the affirmative procedure. I regard the possibility of amendment as an important consideration. Over and over again with the negative procedure one finds that, since the matter has been in force sometimes three or four months and is the law of the land, even if a Minister would like to withdraw it and substitute another because some good point has been discovered, he cannot in practice do so.
The advantage of the affirmative procedure is that the Order does not come into force until the House says that it should. In a complicated and controversial matter such as that which has been put forward in the various consultative documents, these matters should be discussed in the House before coming into force. They will be susceptible of amendment in practice because the Minister can withdraw them and substitute others, a change not having yet been made. Therefore, I do not regard the negative procedure—in any matter, not just this one—as a democratic control.
For example, a very important matter at the moment concerns the withdrawal of legal aid in connection with divorce proceedings. It should, but cannot, be debated. Because it is subject to the negative procedure, there is no time for a prayer to be put down or debated before December, when it will have been in force for many months.
If one is serious, one must admit that the state of business in the House—not merely in this congested June and July but increasingly, because the negative procedure is increasingly used—has made democratic control almost a farce. So long as that is so, in a subject which touches sensitively on the liberty of the subject, we must insist that amendments to the rules as well as the original rules should be subject to some democratic control—and only the affirmative procedure can give that.
2048 The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) said that it would be wrong for small amendments to be debated in this way. But if they are merely matters of detail, they will not be debated in this way. We are not quite so silly as to debate matters of no imporance, but if they are important, as I think they will be, we should have the chance on behalf of our constituents to debate their details.
For example, the Minister will probably get into great difficulty with his exemptions for very short journeys, for stature and for medical conditions such as obesity. With the best will in the world, as time goes on, he will find that he will have to amend the original regulations. He must therefore give us the chance to see the amendments. If the negative procedure is followed that chance is an empty and hollow one and no democratic control at all.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell
I, too, support the amendments. We were grateful for the Minister's undertaking in Committee to introduce a new clause to ensure that the first regulations were made by the affirmative procedure. But he will agree that in accepting his undertaking and withdrawing our amendments we also made it clear that that was without prejudice to our taking this point on Report. So here we are taking it.
With respect to him, the Minister is approaching this matter in the wrong way. He says that the principle has been approved and he has made a concession about the first regulations, and that after that the matter should go through what have unfortunately become the normal channels. But some of these normal channels should have been stopped up a long time ago. Some of them are developing most alarmingly. The Long Title says that the Bill confers the Dower to make regulations. That is all that is in the Bill, and this is the kind of legislation which we should consider, even in principle, very carefully.
The argument seems to be that the principle of the Bill was approved on Second Reading—the principle being the conferment of power to make regulations—so there is nothing left to talk about and that when the regulations are made they should go through under the negative procedure. That is an abdication of the responsibility of legislation.
2049 What my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) has been saying about the negative procedure is all too true. He and I remember the days when time had to be found for a Prayer. When hon. Members put down a Prayer to annul regulations, time had to be found within the 40 days for which the relevant Act provided. That situation has gradually been eroded. First, there were a few Prayers for which time was not found, but over the past four or five years it has become normal for time not to be found. It is now found only in special circumstances, and even then after a long delay. What control of legislation does that give us, when we pass an Act conferring power to make regulations and nothing else, except the date when it comes into force and the Short Title?
§ Mr. Anderson
The hon. and learned Gentleman must concede that the effect of the voices of the House on Second Reading was not just the conferring of power to make regulations but the decisive opinion of the House that the wearing of seat belts should be compulsory. That is the key point of principle that was decided.
§ Mr. Bell
The hon. Gentleman is entitled to put what interpretation he likes on a Second Reading debate. It is difficult to say that that is the meaning of that debate, because many hon. Members spoke and each expressed a different opinion. The only opinion of the House that was collected was rather like that on the motion that will be put at 4 o'clock—whether it should be passed. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, whose constituents have become so preoccupied with thoughts of safety since he started to represent them, that it would be wise to be cautious about interpreting what the Second Reading debate meant.
In any case, even if that debate were indeed an endorsement of the compulsory wearing of scat belts rather than of the power to make them compulsory, it is an empty frame, and the picture to go inside it must be painted. The idea that it is a great concession that we should be allowed a voice on the first painting, the first version, is extraordinary.
I should go further than my hon. and learned Friend went on the question of the negative procedure. It is not only that so many Prayers are never brought 2050 on—and those with which we are concerned might well fall into that category. Can any hon. Member recall an occasion when a Prayer has been passed? I raised the point in Committee, when the only one I could remember—and I have been here a fair time—was an occasion when the present Lord Wigg, then the hon. Member for Dudley and a friend of mine, decided to challenge one of our Prayers. We were not going to vote on it, but Labour Members put in Tellers for us to show how few of us were here. However, they forgot to put in Tellers for their own side and we inadvertently won the Division because there were no Tellers for the Government. That is the last time I remember the House passing a Prayer to annul a Statutory Instrument.
Prayers always come on after 10 o'clock, and quite often later. There is usually no Whip on them, and there are very few hon. Members present. The attendance is not as thin as it is on the Government side today, but it is usually very thin. The debate is of little consequence, but when the bells ring hon. Members come in from all parts of the building and the Government are sustained by hon. Members who have not the faintest idea what it is all about. I have watched it happen for more than a quarter of a century. The suggestion that this is an effective procedure is nonsense. It is the abdication of legislative function. That is regrettable but true. That being so, if we regard these matters as being of any importance, we must have the affirmative procedure.
The Minister said, "We have approved the principle. Therefore, this is rather small stuff." I do not think that his mind can have gone with his tongue. I seem to remember that he and I were opposed to the principle of something else—our entry into the Common Market—not long ago. That was carried against us, but does he seriously contend that our scrutiny of what follows should on that account be relaxed? I do not think that he does.
When the hon. Gentleman talked about the sort of changes that might follow the initial regulations, he said that when it came to requiring the wearing of scat belts in stage coaches that would be quite a thought, that it would have to be carefully considered, and so on. But if that 2051 were done by way of an amendment it would come under the negative procedure, according to the clause. The right hon. Gentleman could make the wearing of seat belts by motor cyclists compulsory. That is covered by the Bill. It would be a remarkable thing, but it would still go through under the negative procedure. I suppose that there could be an exemption for Sikhs. [An hon. Member: "Perambulators."] They are not normally motor vehicles. The fact is that this kind of legislation is a novelty for Britain. We all want to see how it will work.
My hon. and learned Friend referred to the document we received this morning and have barely had time to absorb. I acquit the Minister of any discourtesy in that regard. He has been very helpful all the way through and is not responsible for the general incompetence of the Government machine. As we have glanced at that document at the same time as we have tried to listen to what is going on, we find that it is all too obvious that there are some very odd provisions in it. A milk roundsman would have to carry a pocket calculator with him. I do not know what would happen to him when he was metricated.
The Bill will affect millions of people, and people feel quite strongly about it. I do. I wonder whether I shall have to buy a vintage car, in order to preserve my freedom in this matter, or become a milk roundsman.
§ Mr. Bell
Then, like the late Labour Member for Central Ayrshire, Mr. Emrys Hughes, I could produce it. I remember him producing his discharge certificate and saying that he was the only Member of the House who had documentary proof of his sanity—his discharge certificate from a mental hospital. However, I must not be diverted up these attractive side alleys.
Amending regulations will come along and we shall want to express our opinions on them. We shall not do so effectively 2052 unless we have the affirmative resolution procedure.
I hope that the Minister will give the matter second thoughts. He said rather grandly at the end of his speech that he could not advise his hon. Friends to accept the amendments. I did not see a flicker pass across the face of any one of the three. I think he still has a locus poenitentiae. I think his hon. Friends apart from the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), who is so preoccupied with safety, will be prepared to accept revised guidance from him under the affirmative procedure, and I hope that he will decide that in the end what my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) is proposing is far more sensible and practicable.
After all, we shall not have a flood of regulations. We shall have the initial ones which will remain in force for a year or so, and then we shall have the main revision. That main revision ought to go under the affirmative procedure. After that we can look at the matter again. I hope the Minister will change his mind and will advise acceptance of this amendment.
§ Mr. Carlisle
I did not have the opportunity of serving on the Committee which considered this Bill, but I am glad to see that when it comes to Report it certainly is, or intends to be, in rather better form than when it left the House originally, in that the Minister has conceded, and the Committee has carried out that concession, that this new clause, with the regulations which he proposes to introduce, should be subject to the affirmative order of this House.
The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) said that he did not know who opposed this Bill. Let me tell him that I have always opposed it. I opposed it when it had a Second Reading in this House, and I propose to continue to oppose it if and when the Bill reaches Third Reading. I hope that some hon. Members at least will vote against it on that occasion.
The fundamental issue is whether it is right for the criminal law to interfere with the individual's freedom to decide how he he should provide for his own safety. I must say to the hon. Member for Swansea, East that although I can understand the contrary argument, I believe there are 2053 many people who feel very strongly that this Bill unnecessarily and unreasonably extends the barriers of the criminal law.
§ Mr. Anderson
The point which the hon. and learned Gentleman must concede is that no man is an island. There are social implications in accidents, which may be aggravated by not wearing a seat belt, because of the cost to the community, hospitalisation and so on.
§ Mr. Carlisle
If I were to follow the hon. Gentleman on that point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I feel that you would probably rule me out of order. These matters were raised on Second Reading. I said then, and I still maintain, that the whole of the evidence is not one way. So long as people argue that they believe they are safer by not wearing a seat belt, it is wrong to force them by the criminal law to do so, although I believe that they should be encouraged by all other means to wear them.
The Minister said that the only thing which had given him hesitation in bringing in the proposal for the affirmative rather than the negative procedure was that this could mean a longer delay of two or three weeks in the implementation of the regulations and that this could mean more deaths on the road. That is a conclusion which I do not accept, and I suggest that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) does not accept it either. It is not a question of the use of the criminal law to save deaths. It is a matter of the use or non-use of seat belts. It is one matter to argue that people should wear seat belts. It is another matter to say that we should make it a criminal offence if people do not do things which are in their own interests. However, I am probably going rather wide of the subject and I will direct myself to the amendment.
As I understand it, it is the regulations which make the criminal offence. It is not the Bill as such which does so. The Bill merely gives power to the Minister to make regulations. The criminal offence—one which will affect every person in this country, be he motorist of passenger—is created by the regulations. Therefore, I am delighted that the Minister has agreed that those regulations and the exemptions from them 2054 should be subject to the affirmative procedure.
However, I ask the Minister to consider that if that right in principle for the first set of regulations, surely that should be applied equally to later sets of regulations which may be brought in—any new regulations changing any exemptions, either widening or narrowing the degree of the criminal law and making all of us, as motorists and as passengers in vehicles, even if we do not drive, subject to the possibility of committing a criminal offence. Therefore, it seems to me that not only is it palpably obvious that those regulations should be subject to the affirmative procedure but that any amendments to those regulations should equally be subject to affirmative order.
The hon. Member for Swansea, East said that the amendments might be minor; but even though they be minor. I believe that they still must be subject to an affirmative resolution. The alternative to that argument is that the amendments may be major. Is the hon. Member arguing that however major an amendment may be, it still should not be subject to affirmative order? That is the effect of this proposed new clause unless it is amended in the way that we propose.
I hope that when we have an opportunity later to debate a new set of amendments—I suggest that the draft consultative letter would come better on those amendments—we may persuade the Minister that the regulations which he proposes to be the first regulations are too wide and too tight, and that those of us who oppose this legislation will try to persuade him that in the first place he ought to bring them in, on a more provisional and experimental basis, limiting their application, for example, to rural areas or main roads. If we could persuade the Minister of something of that nature, if the experiment were successful and he wished to extend it to all users of urban roads, even on small journeys, that would clearly be a major amendment which would be subject to affirmative rather than negative resolution.
I hope that the Minister, who has made a major concession in bringing forward this new clause, will consider going 2055 further and will meet us on our amendments to it. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) said, the negative procedure to a large extent has become a farce. One never gets the chance to debate matters under that procedure before the amendments become law. The great advantage of the affirmative procedure is that not only is the outside world consulted, as the Minister is bound to consult it under the Road Traffic Act under which the regulations are made but also Parliament is entitled to express a view on those regulations before they become the law of the land. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough will press the amendment should the Minister not feel able to accept it.
§ Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)
I have not spoken on this Bill before, but I do so now because I am genuinely alarmed by the increasing number of fussy and burdensome regulations directed particularly against motorists. The persecution of the private motorist is one of the less satisfactory features of this Government. It builds up to a point where I am fearful that the motorist will become extremely irritated with the police and that relations between the motorist and the police will deteriorate. However, that is a subject that I probably should not pursue at this stage.
§ Mr. Jessel
How can my hon. Friend regard a measure that would save the lives of 1,000 motorists a year as a persecution of motorists?
§ Mr. Ridley
It would be possible to say that all houses should not have stairs because more people are killed falling downstairs than in any other way. It is possible to think of legislation that would conceivably prevent a large number of deaths, but we have not thought fit to embark on the infringement of personal liberty to that extent. One could stop all boxing, motor racing, motor cycling, smoking and a large number of pursuits, thus effectively reducing the scope of the human being to express his preferences.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
would my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Rid 2056 ley) extend that argument to say that, for example, in the United States, there is no need to insist on manufacturers implementing safety measures for motor cars because that is the same kind of infringement of personal freedom?
§ 12.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Ridley
I am being taken away from the amendment, but I am delighted to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes). One can draw a firm distinction between what is laid down to be necessary for the safety of motor vehicles and what people have to do.
The way that the Government push these measures through the House is extraordinary, because nobody ever comes to listen from their own side. I am not sure that we might not have seat belts attached to the Government Benches and strap in Labour Members day after day in that green expanse. They come here not to debate but to go upstairs to PLP meetings. It is a scandal the way in which members of the Labour Party use the House. They use it as a place to have party meetings and then do a bit of voting to carry through Government measures. I have some sympathy with the Minister of State who has sat "alone and palely loitering" on the Front Bench to get this legislation through.
The amendment is sensible and I shall support it. The Bill is a pretty bad one, because we are being asked only to agree to the power to make regulations, and yet it is those regulations, that matter. The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) said that the House had already voted for the principle of the compulsory wearing of seat belts. It did nothing of the sort: it voted for the power to make regulations that some people should wear seat belts.
We are told that some people will have to do that and others will not. It is the kind of hybrid Bill syndrome with which we have had so much trouble recently. When we are legislating for some citizens in a different way from other citizens it is essential that provisions be written into legislation so that they can be amended before it is passed.
What if the Chancellor of the Exchequer were to say "Give me the power 2057 to raise taxes and I shall publish regulations to tell you what the taxes are and, what is more, the tax will apply to some people and not to others." That illustrates the hybrid nature of the Bill and shows how essential it is for the regulations to be approved by affirmative Order.
It is worth going through some of the exemptions to prove my point. If one suffers from certain medical conditions, one can get a certificate of exemption from one's doctor. That will cause the most frightful problems. Doubtless there will be doctors who will issue certificates more freely than others. I shall seek out such a doctor. I have a conscientious objection to wearing a seat belt because I am forced to do so by the Bill. Admittedly, I have worn one hitherto, but I shall not do so until the Bill becomes law because I do not like the compulsion involved.
I might even form a sect, rather like the Sikhs, who have a deep-seated religious objection to wearing crash helmets. Perhaps the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) will bring in a Bill to exempt people from wearing seat belts because of their dislike of this binding of the body to the seat? Perhaps there will be doctors who will assist my sect and give its members a certificate of exemption?
§ Mr. Philip Holland (Carlton)
I understand that the Sikhs are not required by their religion to wear the turban and their objection is, therefore, conscientious rather than religious. My hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) could form a sect.
§ Mr. Ridley
It is a matter of conscience. The same business of conscience applies in the closed-shop situation.
One of my constituents wrote to me to say that he had been involved in a motor accident while wearing a seat belt and had been severely injured. He said that he would not have been so badly injured if he had not been wearing a seat belt.
§ Mr. Ridley
My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jesse)) should accept that there are differences of opinion on the issue. My constituent said that since the accident he had had nightmares and suffered slight brain 2058 damage. He said that whenever he was required to wear a seat belt, he became claustrophobic and frightened and was subjected to grave distress.
The Minister said that there would be an exemption for people like my constituent, but what is to stop anyone else from saying that he, too, suffers from claustrophobia? Perhaps members of my sect will be able to claim that every time we go "clunk, click" we break into a sweat of terror and can claim a certificate. That illustrates the need to amend the legislation and shows that there will be a need for new regulations after they have been tested once or twice in the courts and experience has been gained.
The same is true of the stature exemption. Is one to get a certificate to say that one is under 5 ft. tall? One might be under 5 ft. tall when one gets a certificate but then grow up. I can see an interesting scene on the side of a motorway with a policeman armed with a tape measure measuring a motorist who insists that he is 4 ft. 11 in. while the policeman insists that according to his tape measure he is 5 ft. 1 in. Will they be measured with shoes on or off? The mind boggles at the picture of barefoot motorists being measured in icy conditions on top of Shap on the M6. Of course the regulations will have to be amended.
Another exemption is politely headed "Practicability" It says:Obese people will find that in some seats the belt is too short to be worn".Presumably there will be a certificate of obesity. Who is to say who is obese and who is not? I am mentioning no names at all. I wish to make my remarks strictly impersonal.
If we say that obese people are exempt, I do not say that anyone would go as far as to stick a pillow up his jersey, but there will be arguments about who is obese and who is not. It will be obnoxious because people will be in the invidious difficulty of owning up to obesity or not getting an exemption. That will cause grevious problems.
The exemption for short journeys will cause more problems than anything else. The Minister has proposed in his consultative document that one must be on a road subject to a speed limit and that 2059 one's purpose is to make 10 or more stops in the course of a mile. That involves an exercise set between two points not more than 200 yards apart. Apart from a milk roundsman or other similar activities involving deliveries, we must think what will happen when we go canvassing. It is a relief that we shall be able to canvass without seat belts in the more scattered parts of our constituency which we have had to reach by car, but I can imagine appalling definition problems about short journeys.
I notice that in some places—this applies to New South Wales—there is an exemption for passengers over 70. That is obviously well in advance of old South Wales. Therefore, those old people are lucky because they will be allowed to make up their own minds. I should have thought that would be a useful exemption for us to make, because old people may often find difficulty in wearing seat belts and obviously should be excused.
Therefore, in all these categories of people who for some reason or another are not to be included the principle has long ago gone out of the window. There are certain sections of people who will have to wear seat belts, but large numbers of people will get off. The obnoxious implication is that this is a matter not of principle but of expediencey. We are prepared to insist on bringing in the criminal law to save lives in respect of some groups of people, but in respect of others those provisions are not to apply.
The guts of the Bill are contained in the regulations. The Minister should be severely censured for having brought in a Bill on these lines. If he had brought in regulations in the form of a Bill and if those matters had been carefully discussed after consultation, the House could have discussed those considered proposals and we could have amended them in Committee. However, instead it is suggested that we should be allowed to "have a go" only at the first regulations that are laid, and that even at that stage, to avoid all the difficult issues of discrimination that will arise, we may not be able to amend them. It is saying to Parliament "You give me the power to do what I like and I shall not expose the detailed and difficult arguments that will arise to the combined wisdom of Parliament".
2060 It is most unsatisfactory that we are to have affirmative resolution only for the first set of regulations. We need at least a second chance at them on another affirmative resolution. As problems come to light, we shall need to press the Minister to bring in a further series of changes on an affirmative resolution so that we can debate these matters.
Therefore, it is not the Bill that we are discussing today, but the power to make regulations. We need to have the maximum parliamentary scrutiny of the actual law when it comes—that is to say, that contained in the regulations. I am sure that enough has been said to illustrate the difficulties of interpretation and to convince the Minister to take this one small step.
§ Mr. Moate
When my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) spoke to the amendments, I agreed with everything he said. However, when he spoke about matters that might have been more appropriate for a Second Reading speech or for detailed scrutiny in Committee, I parted company from him. It is a matter of great regret that so much intellectual ability and passion for the cause of liberty to which most of us subscribe are being misapplied on this issue.
Here we have a fairly modest and totally practical measure that will save 1,000 lives a year, if the statistics are anywhere near right, as I think the evidence shows they are. Furthermore, the Bill will avoid 10,000 serious casualties a year. The strength of the case lies in the practicality of these proposals, and they will achieve a major saving of life for a fairly modest extension of a principle that is already well established—namely, the principle that seat belts should be fixed in cars.
A Government advertising campaign has encouraged people to wear seat belts. Therefore, in opposing this measure my hon. Friends have got the matter out of perspective. Loss of life on the roads is a feature that we have come to accept almost complacently as unavoidable. It is not. Therefore, Parliament must take seriously any measure that can save life on this scale.
2061 Having said that, I regret that the Minister is not able to help us a little more today. I accept that the Bill imposes a great restraint on motorists, but I think that we should try to impose a great restraint on the Executive. If the Bill is to work, it must gain the good will and acceptance of the public. If the public are to accept it, they must believe that it has been properly scrutinised and examined by Parliament.
True to his pledge in Committee, the Minister has come back with this helpful concession by providing that there should be an affirmative resolution for the first set of regulations. However, he has had to bring the Bill before the House on a Friday. I do not say that that is his fault. It is the fault of the Whips, and indeed the Minister and his predecessor have had a long, uphill struggle to bring the matter to this stage of consideration. But it is unfair that he should offer this immense chance to the Bill's opponents on a Friday. Vocal and eloquent opposition on a Friday can do dreadful things to a Bill. I hope that the Minister will recognise that further opportunities will have to be given for consideration of this measure in the near future.
Having got us here on a Friday, the Minister has got himself onto a predicament. He should try not to make matters worse by refusing to make a concession that is obviously in the interests of Parliament and that can only help to improve the Bill.
The Minister argued that even this first concession would result in delay. I do not think that that is the case. The Minister had already conceded that there would have to be a debate on these matters, and that it was light for Parliament to examine the first set of regulations. Therefore, no delay will be incurred in that respect.
The Minister further argued that subsequent regulations would result in further delays, but in the belief that there should be parliamentary scrutiny and public acceptance of these matters, we have to accept that there will always be some delay. The Executive has no monopoly of wisdom and there must be a proper public scrutiny. Indeed, the Minister said that errors occur in regulations and obvionsly the Government have to come back rapidly with new provisions. Again, Parliament will need to examine any further 2062 provisions—which is what is meant by "proper scrutiny".
We know that sometimes the introduction of new provisions seeking to amend earlier legislation makes matters worse. We have the classic example of the exemption in respect of the wearing of crash helmets by Sikhs. The amending legislation in that respect has caused great controversy and more dissension, perhaps, than the original regulations. Therefore, it is not the case that subsequent regulations will be less controversial or less important. The could be more important. Therefore, it is vital for the House to have a right to scrutinise these matters, because they deal with issues of great sensitivity to the public.
In Committee the Minister said that there was a prospective change in the Construction and Use Regulations that would encourage the fitting of seat belts in the rear seats of cars. It will have important consequences in future for the Minister or his successor if the wearing of seat belts in rear seats is enforced. This would be a matter of great controversy. I might support compulsory wearing in rear seats. I certainly support the compulsory fitting of anchorages. But I would defend the right of Parliament to debate the major extension of the principle.
Extending the class of vehicles and exemptions and the possibility of regulations for children are all matters of great importance. If the Minister were in opposition, he would be clamouring for debates if new regulations were being introduced by a Conservative Government. The negative resolution procedure is grossly inadequate. We need proper scrutiny and debate.
The Minister will get his legislation—which I want him to get soon—very much more easily if he makes a concession and accepts the amendments.
§ Mr. Dykes
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) on putting the central points of the debate. I did not intend to speak but, having listened to the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), which were more applicable to the wider aspects of the debate, I was tempted to take part, but not to follow him along the path he trod.
2063 The attempt of my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury to apply profound and justified doctrines of political freedom, which are extremely important to us all, to an area like this was to misuse them and divert them into the wrong intellectual channels. He spoiled the case for the political freedoms which are so important in a modern, advanced industrial society.
§ Mr. Carlisle
Does not my hon. Friend agree that there must be a limit somewhere? Every time the boundaries are extended one stage further, it is much easier to extend them the next time. Where would my hon. Friend draw the line?
§ Mr. Dykes
You might be glad, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I resisted the temptation to follow that line of thought. It would, however, be marvellous to have a trade-off to counter a disagreeable tendency which worries so many of us and to restore some of the old freedoms.
Road safety legislation in the modern world of congested traffic is still at an early stage. It is regrettably right that regulations will become increasingly strict. I fear this development and I hope that it will be carefully handled by future governments. We do not want the police to be seen as persecutors of the motorist. Some of my hon. Friends have claimed that the Bill will cause irritation to motorists, but their greatest irritation is caused by other motorists on our highly congested and dangerous roads. Regrettably, an increasing number of precautionary regulations will be needed in future.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)
I hesitated to intervene in this discussion earlier, but some observations are getting a little wide of the mark. We are dealing with regulations when they reach Parliament and how to deal with them in Parliament.
§ Mr. Dykes
I accept your admonition, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a pity that the Minister, having made what some of us regard as a major concession with the new clause, will not take the relatively small additional step of agreeing that the affirmative resolution procedure should apply to future regulations. I hope that the draft consultation paper, which is ludicrous in many respects, will be honed 2064 to a Wilkinson sword degree of precision and rationality to reduce the complexities and exemptions to a modest total and to make the affirmative resolution procedure even easier.
I share the fears about the excessive growth of the negative resolution procedure in recent years. It is an alarming tendency and redounds on the general argument about the excess of legislation of all kinds, which is one of our major problems. However, this sensible measure should not be singled out for harsh treatment in that wider argument. The Minister would be doing himself a service and enhancing his illustrious reputation by agreeing to the small additional step for which my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) has asked.
It is a matter that unites us on this side, whether we are passionately in favour of the compulsory use of seat belts, have grave doubts about the Bill, or are in the middle of the argument. The Minister should be aware of the strength of feeling on the Opposition side of the House. There is no one on the Labour Benches except the hon. Member for Swansea. East (Mr. Anderson), and the feelings of my hon. Friends represent the general view of the public on this matter. If the Minister does not make the concession, there could be difficulties later in the debate.
The Bill is a first small step. We can go on to, for instance, the installation of seat belts in rear seats as I have in my own car. That makes me feel smug, but it is right to have the compulsory use in rear seats as well. All this will come.
Let the Minister have regard to his parliamentary responsibilities and deal with this matter in a balanced and sensible rather than an oppressive manner.
§ Mr. Carol Mather (Esher)
The matter which divided us in Committee was not whether we were in favour of the Bill, but whether we thought it was an adequate or a thoroughly inadequate Bill. We spent some time scrutinising the Bill, which, effectively, has only one clause, which says that seat belts will be worn.
If we had not pressed the Minister to produce a little more information, we should never have had a sight of the draft regulations and therefore never 2065 have had a proper discussion in Committee. By pressing the Minister, we eventually received the draft regulations, which are the guts of the Bill. The Bill has no substance, so no substance was being discussed. It was only when the Minister produced the draft regulations that our discussions had any substance.
The consultative letter, which the Minister has now produced, differs slightly from the draft regulations and I agree with my hon. Friends who have said that so far we have been discussing this matter in a vacuum. There is nothing in the Bill: it is all to be done by regulations.
Some details have been changed in the regulations about obese people and those of small stature. We originally had exemption for people with short arms. That exemption does not appear in the new consultative document. We were at some pains in Committee to discover how long or how short a short arm should be. The Minister has revised that.
When we say that these regulations should be discussed using the affirmative procedure we have in mind that at some point regulations will be introduced to provide for seat belts in rear seats. Equally, there is the prospect of belts being fitted in coaches. We are all aware of the number of coach accidents that have taken place recently. Once this legislation is enacted I would expect such regulations to follow. We must have the chance to discuss such matters in the House.
We have found that seat belts are still at an experimental stage. In Committee we discussed the inertia belt, the fixed belt and other types which were being introduced experimentally. The body cushion was one such type. We do not yet have the right answer. We can expect that there will be a great deal more experiment and research, with the result that new regulations are bound to be introduced.
The regulations are necessarily still fairly tentative. There is certain to be an experimental period for the regulations and exemptions. It is inevitable that changes will be made. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) referred to this as the main revision that is bound to take 2066 place after a year or so. The details are not in this measure and it follows that when they arise they should be fully discussed. We expect important changes to be made in the regulations and we must have the chance to debate them.
§ Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)
This is a small Bill but it has important effects upon the liberty of the subject in certain respects. I object to the way in which it is drafted, since it virtually gives carte blanche to the Minister to introduce at his discretion almost any regulation, using the negative order procedure. That procedure has proved to be unsatisfactory, first because there is a time limit on the debate and secondly because there is the practical difficulty that it is almost impossible to alter the regulations. If they were regulations of no consequence, that would not much matter.
The point is that we are giving the Government powers that it will be impossible for us to debate in future. I did not serve on the Committee but I understand that the initial regulations are to be subject to the affirmative procedure. I can see no reason for excluding subsequent regulations.
I am worried by the range of exemptions involved. It is extremely difficult for a doctor to have to determine medical exemptions. We shall be giving the courts an immense amount of trouble in the interpretation of the regulations. There may be some doctors who, like me, however honest they wish to be, are slightly biased against seat belts. This is a fairly widespread opinion. It will be difficult to differentiate between persons when granting exemptions.
I am sure that the Minister will not disagree that it is difficult, when drafting regulations, to make them so foolproof that a doctor acting in good faith can sign a certificate without any difficulty. At present when someone tells a doctor that he feels ill, the doctor has to give the benefit of the doubt to the patient if he cannot find anything wrong. It is extremely difficult to refuse a certificate.
§ Dr. Gilbert
It never has been and never will be my intention to attempt to draft detailed descriptions for medical exemptions. What we are making absolutely clear is that we shall accept the advice of the medical profession. We 2067 are inviting the BMA and other professional bodies to circulate their membership and advise us about appropriate conditions. It is no part of my function to prescribe such conditions and they will not be incorporated in the regulations.
§ Dr. Glyn
That reinforces my point. If the regulations are to be reasonable, that is all the more reason why the Minister need not be afraid of using the affirmative procedure.
I strongly support the amendment. If we can allow the regulations to be introduced by way of the affirmative procedure for the first year, it should be possible to do so for all time. The constitutional right of this House is to discuss measures before they are placed on the statute book and before they have been interpreted by the legal profession.
When a Bill of this nature gives such sweeping powers to the Minister, it is wrong for him to refuse to bend and allow all subsequent regulations to be dealt with by the affirmative procedure. By agreeing to our request the Minister would be saying to the country that he or his successor had no intention of using the negative procedure to push through regulations which might impose further restrictions on the liberty of the subject. He would be showing that it was his intention to allow an adequate chance to alter or amend the regulations, or at least to discuss them. The Minister would be well advised to accept the amendment.
§ Mr. Freud
I am pro-seat belts and anti-compulsion, and I believe that a large number of Members on both sides of the House are in a similar position. The Bill set out to save lives. We are all agreed about that. What frightens me particularly is that the Bill may eventually do nothing but punish carelessness. There are so many exemptions that no one not wishing to wear a seat belt will be unable, using one or other of the exemptions, to obtain a certificate.
The Minister said "We shall accept advice from the medical profession." That is one of the most fatuous remarks that could be made. It is like saying "We shall accept the advice of Parliament", when we know that we can have 303 voting for and 303 voting against.
2068 What sort of advice do we get at the moment? The medical profession contains doctors who will prescribe soft or hard drugs. It contains doctors who say that Mandrax kills, and other doctors who say that it does not. If we say that we shall accept the advice of the medical profession, in doing so we are lumping together every opinion held by the profession. The one strength of the medical profession has been that if one searches long enough, there is always a doctor who will agree that one really is ill when one may not be. My point, very simply, is that, with the number of exemptions we have here, the Bill will punish those who have not the ingenuity or industry to look carefully enough for exemption.
I am naturally against negative procedures, as everyone must be, because negative procedures give absurd powers, but it is important to remember the words of the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), who said "Let us remember that this is the early stage." New materials are available with which cars can be built. I was distressed to learn only today, from a garage in my constituency, that if a car made of fibreglass is involved in an accident, it is extremely inadvisable for a driver or a passenger to be wearing a seatbelt. The reason is that fibreglass does not buckle—it breaks—and if the passenger is not wearing a seat belt, he or she will be thrown out, whereas if a seat belt is worn, the likelihood is that the passenger will be cut and much more badly damaged.
I think that we shall be here for some time—we are still only discussing the first new clause and subsequent amendments—and therefore I leave my argument at this point.
§ 1.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Richard Body (Holland with Boston)
I am filled with apprehension, because I was contemplating purchasing the very kind of car to which the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) referred.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I am passionately pro-seat belts, as I have tried to emphasise to the Minister in the correspondence I have had with him on this subject.
I want to say a few words in favour of the affirmative procedure. in the hope 2069 that the Minister will change his mind about this. He is not an arrogant man and would be the first to admit that he will not get the first regulations right. I think it was one of my hon. Friends who said that the regulations will be almost in the nature of an experiment. That will inevitably be the case.
New kinds of seat belts are being developed. Perhaps in two or three years' time the seat belts on the market will be very much better than those we have at the moment. No doubt seat belts will be produced which will be more suitable for use in coaches and vans than those in use at the moment. On the other hand, we may find many more people who should be in the exempted class than the number contemplated in the list circulated to us.
I live in a village in a fairly rural area. Our newspapers, our milk, our fish, our meat—in fact, almost everything—are delivered by a kindly tradesman. In the course of the week a considerable number of tradesmen call. But we are outside any traffic limits and have no road signs calling attention to 30 or 40 miles per hour limits; therefore none of these kindly people would come within the categories indicated in the memorandum that has been circulated.
§ Mr. Body
We have moved on from that stage in the last year or two. Our area is not alone in having these deliveries by tradesmen. There are very many areas in this category. The people who are doing their jobs at the moment in the way that I have indicated will be caught by the regulations, as now envisaged.
We know perfectly well what will happen. The Minister, with his non-arrogant mind, will let it be known that perhaps we shall have to have some fresh regulations, and the police will receive a hint or two that they need not pursue these tradespeople who are making their deliveries, as so often in the past, without using seat belts, and who can be caught by the strict definition of the regulations as envisaged in the Bill. We shall then have another area of discretionary optional law.
2070 The Minister must know the point has been made to him by chief constables and others that there is a real fear on the part of police officers that optional law is becoming rather too well known. We have had it in relation to the 50 miles per hour speed limit, which is an optional law for very many people. That may be quite wrongly so, but it is a fact. It all means that a little less respect is being shown for the law.
I am sure that the Minister gets about as much as other people, and that he must know that this is the case, even though he looks a little doubtful. The law concerning motoring offences is not receiving the degree of respect that it used to receive some years ago. Anyone who has had any dealings with magistrates' courts and the police will confirm this. Yet when the Minister is seeking to rely upon the negative procedure in introducing this new extension of law, he is inevitably seeking to extend the frontier of optional law and discretionary law. I hope that he will reconsider this point.
I am wholly in favour of seat belts—in fact, I am an "old maid" on the subject. I never drive my car without wearing a seat belt. When someone says smugly that he is having seat belts fitted to the back seats, I can say that I am doing the same. I am wholly in favour of seat belts. But, like others, I believe that there is a limit to the frontiers of the criminal law, and that the requirement that people should be saved from their own folly is beyond that limit.
I have wholly supported what the Minister has done in his campaign to persuade the public to use safety belts, but now he is swinging very far the other way. He is resorting to a bludgeon. He is not satisfied with the kind of penalties laid down in the Bill at the moment.
The Minister, in the Committee stage, said some unduly harsh things about the need for severe penalties. He had in mind the bludgeon, having not succeeded with his persuasion. Having swung from persuasion to bludgeon so violently in introducing these regulations, I feel that the Minister will have great difficulty in getting them accepted. That difficulty will be emphasised by the adequacy of the exemptions, and he will have great difficulty in getting them right at the beginning. Therefore, I hope that he will 2071 be persuaded to accept the principle of the affirmative procedure. If he does that, he is more likely to get these proposals accepted by the public.
§ Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)
I shall detain the House for only a few moments, because I am very anxious to see this legislation on the statute book. Governments of both parties have been far too long in introducing this necessary legislation.
The new clause puts me in something of a dilemma. Although I am passionately in favour of legislation being introduced to make the wearing of seat belts in the front seats of vehicles compulsory, I am equally disturbed by the very substantial progress that we are seeing towards legislating by statutory instrument. This is a complicated subject and one which creates difficulties not just for the hon. Gentleman's Department but for every Department of State in administering our highly complex legislation.
I suspect that I shall even get the agreement of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) when I say that we should legislate less. But, unhappily, in order to achieve fairness, it is necessary to make a number of fairly complex exemptions to this legislation. If I fall out about this with the Government at all it will be because it is too widely and not too narrowly drawn, as has been suggested by some of my hon. Friends who are clearly opposed to the whole principle.
I shall not support my hon. Friends in their amendments to this new clause. However, I am not sure that I can support the Government, either, for the reasons I have stated. I believe that this is a substantial concession, and I am sorry that my hon. Friends have been churlish enough not to accept it.
§ Dr. Gilbert
I am obliged to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) for his last remarks.
I do not accept that the Government amendments which appear later on the Notice Paper represent a reversion to the bludgeon. However, possibly we can discuss that when we reach those amendments later in our proceedings.
The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) asked me for various assur 2072 ances. He asked whether I could give an undertaking concerning the situation in which a change in Construction and Use Regulation No. 17 would automatically involve an extension of the compulsory wearing of seat belts. I give the hon. Gentleman the undertaking that such an extension would be subject to the affirmative procedure.
However, the hon. Member for Wellingborough may be under a slight misapprehension about the precise nature of these regulations. In the first place, Construction and Use Regulation No. 17 would not of itself involve any extension of the compulsory wearing of seat belts. I can set his mind at rest in that respect. He will be aware that Construction and Use Regulations No. 17, in the first place, was subject to the negative procedure. In fact, a number of remarks have been made by Opposition Members who are concerned about the use of the negative procedure. Possibly they overlook the fact that, whether or not they approve of it, this is a normal way of dealing with regulations in road traffic law. I am glad to have the assent of the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle). It was his Government who passed the Road Traffic Act 1972 and, with only one exception which is the possibility of a change in the prescribed blood-alcohol limit, every Order to be made under this quite substantial Act is done by the negative procedure. That was clearly acceptable to the hon. and learned Gentleman when his party was in Government, and I have no doubt that it was to his hon and learned Friends.
I am seeking not to make a party point. I am saying that I am not creating any new precedent.
§ Mr. Carlisle
I accept that. I think that I said in Committee that the Minister had made a substantial concession in agreeing that the first regulations under this Bill should be subject to the affirmative procedure.
§ Dr. Gilbert
I am obliged to the hon. and learned Gentleman. I wanted to get it on the record that our method of trying to proceed in this matter in one way represented some iniquitous new burden being placed on the general public. Certainly it is not a new way of trying to rush matters through Parliament.
2073 I always enjoy listening to contributions from the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley). He is probably the supreme master of hyperbole in this House. But it passes my comprehension that anyone could suggest that this measure is against the interests of motorists when it is trying to save their lives and the lives of their families and trying to prevent their being seriously injured, disabled and blinded. It amounts almost to a perversion of language. The hon. Gentleman cannot seriously suggest that the Government are pushing through this legislation when at every stage it has been subject to a free vote—on Second Reading, in Committee, and now on Report—and when on Second Reading there was a free vote of 400 hon. Members present with a majority of more than 100 in favour of the principle of the Bill. The Bill also has the support of many right hon. and hon. Members of the Opposition Front Bench.
The hon. and learned Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) referred to the difficulties of getting debates on the negative procedure and he said that our proceedings were often reduced to a meaningless cypher because of the time difficulty. A vast proportion of the matters subject to the negative procedure are never debated, according to the hon. and learned Gentleman. However, if hon. Members feel strongly about a matter and they pray against it, time is found. I have personal experience of that. With the best of motives, I attempted to introduce a measure with respect to another matter of road safety concerning the use of headlights. On that occasion, time was found for a Prayer and, in view of the strong feelings that were put forward, I withdrew the measure so that there could be consultations. If a sufficient number of hon. Members feel strongly about a matter subject to the negative procedure, they are always able to make their will and voices heard.
The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) said that I was adopting the attitude that, after Second Reading, there was nothing left to discuss: I remind him that we had 15 hours in Committee. There is plenty to discuss. We are having the most prolonged consultations. We are having this Report stage. In accordance with an undertaking 2074 that I gave in Committee, we are ensuring that there is a debate on the Floor of the House in respect of the regulations when they are introduced.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell
I did not say that there was nothing left to discuss. I thought that my own performance exemplified the fact that there was something, and I shall repeat it later in the day. What I said was quite different. I said that we must not treat these as routine and small matters merely because the Bill had had a Second Reading.
§ Dr. Gilbert
I was trying to rebut the hon. and learned Gentleman's suggestion that I thought that there was nothing left to discuss. I am under no such illusion.
The hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate), whose support for the general principle of this legislation I greatly welcome, envisaged the possibility of a great many further amendments all of which he thought should be subject to the affirmative procedure. I hope that he is wrong. I cannot give any guarantee about amendments which may be found to be necessary in the future. However, I draw his attention to the fact that we are not legislating in an isolated United Kingdom context. People drive cars on roads all over the world. Other countries have enacted legislation of this kind. We have the benefit of their experience in the drafting of the legislation, in the granting of exemptions, as regards the rate of enforcement and as regards the acceptance of it.
We are not legislating in ignorance. There is nothing peculiar about the way in which Englishmen, Welshmen, Scotsmen and Irishmen drive their cars along the roads in this country as distinct from the way in which an Australian, for example, drives a car along the roads in Australia, except that we drive on the other side of the road. Everything is precisely the same in other respects. The idea that we should have to have a huge number of amendments to the regulations is thoroughly misguided. I see no reason for thinking that that should be necessary. Other States that have introduced legislation of this sort have not had that experience.
2075 I do not wish to detain the House for much longer before it comes to a decision. I have considered the representations that have been made. Indeed, I have considered them again today. I am obliged to Opposition Members for their recognition that the new clause represents a considerable move by the Government towards their opinion. I am prepared to consider whether I should invite some of my right hon. and hon. Friends in another place to consider introducing amendments to ensure that there is an affirmative procedure should there be an extension of the use of wearing seat belts as distinct from the extension of exemptions.
I am prepared to consider taking that course, but beyond that I am unable to go today. If the Opposition press the amendment, I must invite my hon. Friends to resist it.
§ Mr. Fry: By leave of the House—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)
Order. Does the hon. Gentleman ask for the leave of the House? If leave is not given, the hon. Gentleman may not speak.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
No. The amendments have been discussed, but they may not be moved formally until the Question has been resolved whether the cluase be read a Second time.
§ Mr. Mather
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I checked this point with the Clerk before the debate began and I was told that the Opposition Front Bench could speak a second time without the leave of the House. I advised my hon. Friend accordingly.
§ Mr. Carlisle
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As the Minister has made what seems to be a fundamental concession in his last few remarks, suggesting that the matter be considered in another place, if the Opposition Front Bench wishes to respond to the concession that appears to be offered by the Minister—I do not know whether it does 2076 —surely there should be some way in which it is entitled to do so.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Perhaps it might be possible, if the House so wishes, to allow the hon. Gentleman to speak again.
§ Mr. Fry
I am grateful for that ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wish to question the Minister on what appears to be a further concession.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that my preoccupation with the Construction and Use Regulations is precisely because I am aware that they are subject to the negative procedure. If they were subject to the affirmative procedure, the question would not have arisen.
The regulations result in an odd situation. For example, the third seat in the front of any motor car does not have to be fitted with a seat belt. It is an odd situation when the third seat in the front need not be fitted with a seat belt whereas the other two seats must be so fitted. There appears to be a need to consider the matter again.
I do not want anyone to gain the impression that we are in any way churlish—I say this to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin)—in our attitude to what the Minister has said. I believe that he has made a genuine move towards us. However, I believe that my hon. Friends have made out a powerful case for the amendments standing in the names of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) and myself.
We are saying that whatever procedure is adopted there is a great weakness if a regulation cannot be amended and can only be accepted or declined. That is why we believe that it is essential in matters dealing with the extension of the criminal law for there to be the fullest possible parliamentary debate.
Although some of us are not happy about the Bill, we accept that if it passes into law there must be the greatest possible acceptance on the part of the public. Our proposals are not to delay the implementation of the Bill, or to wreck it. We say, however, that the public must feel that their rights are being properly considered.
Perhaps the Minister will confirm that he has said that he is perfectly willing in 2077 another place to suggest that the Government go further and provide for an extension of the Construction and Use Regulations relating to the fitting of seat belts and that he is considering making those proposals subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.
§ Dr. Gilbert
It is beyond my power to offer that. There is no inherent connection between the regulations and the requirement that seat belts be worn. I said that if an amendment to the seat belt regulations involved an extension of compulsory wearing, I should be prepared to consider recommending to another place the amending of the Bill to provide for the affirmative procedure.
§ Amendment accordingly negatived.
§ Clause added to the Bill.