HC Deb 26 July 1979 vol 971 cc1112-20

2.44 a.m.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

My purpose in raising this topic is to discuss the policy of the Home Office towards speeding motorists and the devices used to detect them. I hold no brief for a motorist convicted of speeding—excessive speed plays a major part in many accidents—but motorists. Parliament and the Home Office have a right to be sure that the evidence of these devices is accurate whenever a conviction is achieved.

In 17 years of motoring I have never been convicted of speeding by the use of one of these devices. I should hate the Minister to feel that I had a personal axe to grind.

My concern is shared by various organisations. The Automobile Association, for example, wrote to me some weeks ago, and it has written in the past to the present Home Secretary and to his predecessor. The Home Office view is that the use of these devices is a matter for individual chief constables. Although one might think that radar speed devices were one of the problems of modern living, in fact they have been around for almost a quarter of a century. The first—known as PETA—was introduced, I think in Northern Ireland, in 1956, and came on to the mainland of the United Kingdom shortly afterwards. It was designed, built and tested to Home Office specifications, and over the years many thousands of motorists have had cause to rue its accuracy. In the last year for which figures are available, 15,000 motorists in the Greater London Council area alone were fined for speeding after being detected by PETA.

There is one important difference between the first of these devices and those in use today. The Home Office itself will provide expert evidence if PETA is challenged, but it is now virtually obsolete and many police forces are phasing it out. Its successors do not have the Home Office stamp of approval. Chief constables are free to order any type—two or three appear popular—but there is no Home Office evidence about their accuracy.

If a motorist charged with speeding challenges the accuracy of these latest devices, normally a representative of the manufacturer gives evidence. That basic difference should concern us all. It certainly concerns the AA. The "Monitor" column of the March-April issue of "Drive", the association's magazine, contains a detailed critique of the way in which the Home Office appears to have bowed out of any responsibility for the introduction, testing and evidence regarding the accuracy of these devices.

The magazine says that the director-general of the association, Mr. O. F. Lambert, wrote recently to the Home Secretary to say: The Association has no brief for the lawbreaker, nor does it wish to make the enforcement of road traffic laws more difficult for the police … but we do view with considerable concern recent developments in speed detection and the apparent lack of central control of the adoption of sophisticated devices". He went on to stress that the AA believed that the way in which such devices may be offered to and adopted by individual police forces for the provision of evidence of speed-limit offences may not be in the overall public interest. As a result of that article and correspondence with the AA, I tabled some questions to the Home Secretary. I did not receive much enlightenment about the change of policy on the provision of expert evidence in the event of a motorist challenging the accuracy of a device.

I was asked to appear on a television programme produced by ATV, a Midlands company. I did not see the completed programme. The interviews were filmed separately and ATV provided me with a transcript. Many of the criticisms made in "Drive" were repeated by representatives of the AA and others. Following the showing of a short film on the devices, Mr. Douglas Houston, the head of engineering research at the AA, said: We are worried, and our own tests show, that vehicles will show a reading on this device"— that is, the new type of speed detection device— that don't even appear on the line of sight of the device. We are also worried about one of them which tended to throw up spurious signals due to audio interference. One instance we were using it in a car, not pointing it at anything, and it was throwing up a signal merely by switching on the car heater blower. To our mind, things like that ought to be investigated by some independent body. Those comments must cause anxiety to anybody who drives a car. If a motorist drives along listening to Capital Radio or Radio One, will he inadvertently cause a wrong reading on a device at the roadside? If that motorist has the heater blower on at the same time, will there be an even more inaccurate reading?

Some police forces may be worried about the accuracy of some of the devices. In the programme to which I referred earlier Mr. Houston said: Now I think most police forces are worried that they certainly will take any tuition that is given to them—but that the tuition is basically given by the people who are selling the devices. And certainly these people are not going to draw their attention to any possible limitation or problems. Chief constables order these devices because of representations from super-salesmen in this competitive industry who are anxious to sell devices to as many police forces as possible. All the new devices are fairly expensive, though the latest one is not as expensive as its predecessors. The earlier devices cost about £3,000 and the later ones cost about £800. May we be assured that chief constables will not be tempted to sacrifice accuracy for cheapness? If cut-price devices do not make the AA confident, should the average motorist be confident of them?

One of the people appearing on the ATV programme was Mr. Tony Sedgwick, who is the general manager of a firm known as Muniquip, whose speed detection device is in common use throughout the country. He said: What I would like to see personally is an industry standard supported by the Home Office where we all get together with the AA and the RAC and the police and the manufacturers and say what do we need to make a reliable set. And we as manufacturers would support that move. But it is a move that the Home Office shows no signs of initiating. Will the Minister tell us whether his Department has a view about the long-term accuracy of these machines, bearing in mind that they may be subjected to fairly rough handling?

One can imagine a situation in which a police officer on traffic duty would be measuring the speed of passing vehicles and would perhaps receive an emergency call on his radio. In his hurry to proceed to the emergency, he might throw one of these devices on the back seat of the car and drive off at a fairly high speed. May we have an assurance that that sort of treatment would not affect the long-term accuracy of these devices? The manufacturers will not give that assurance. The Home Office appears not to want to have anything to do with licensing the supply or checking the accuracy of these devices. It appears that once they are bought it is for chief constables to decide whether an individual piece of equipment is accurate, should be checked and should be tested. That should concern the Minister.

Mr. John H. Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)

I take it that the hon. Member not restricting his remarks to the radar gun, as it is known. In South Yorkshire radar guns are on trial. They present some problems. Policemen have been known to pop out from behind trees and alarm motorists. The devices cause consternation about whether they are accurate.

Mr. Snape

I think that occasionally when policemen have popped out from behind trees and pointed radar guns at motorists, the motorists have wondered whether their last moments on earth had arrived and whether the devices were something more lethal than a radar gun. That is certainly a problem. Manufacturers have been anxious to design these devices to look as unlike a gun as possible. However, if they are to be hand held and operated, the best that the manufacturers can suggest is that they be shaped like a hair dryer. Any motorist travelling fairly fast would be unlikely to tell the difference between a gun and a hair dryer.

There are various types of these devices. I have referred to Muniquip, which is now either in use or being used in training with 22 police forces. Its main rival, the Kustom HR4, or the slightly more sophisticated HR8 version, is now in use or being used in training with eight police forces. It is apparent that these devices are in use throughout the country. In my area of the West Midlands they will come into use with a fanfare of publicity in September or October. The publicity is designed to deter the speeding motorist, and we all welcome that.

With the use or these devices, thousands of convictions will no doubt result. Many of them will be eminently justified, but they will have been achieved by devices which have been marketed or manufactured by private makers with no official sanction, approval or check from the Home Office.

Will the Minister answer a few points—if not tonight, in due course? Does the Home Office license these machines under the wireless and telegraphy Acts. Surely they are liable to be licensed under those Acts because of the very nature of the devices.

Does the hon. and learned Grentleman agree that it is a slight contradiction that over 25 years ago the Home Office initiated, approved, designed and specified PETA, the first of these devices, yet appears to have taken a dispassionate role ever since and decided that it is for others to design and specify PETA's successors?

Will the Minister consider calling a conference of manufacturers, the motoring organisations and representatives of police forces, as suggested by the manufacturers? Does he think that it is right that the only measurement of accuracy is provided by the manufacturers of the devices? Who advises chief constables on the type of device that should be purchased or is most suitable for the area under their control? Will the Minister consider attempting to persuade his right hon. Friend not to shrug off the problem as being a minor one? It is certainly not a minor matter. It causes concern to many.

I have no brief for the speeder. However, where endorsements are involved, with the loss of driving licences leading to losses of livelihood, there should be no doubt in the motorist's mind about the accuracy of the device that leads to his conviction. The feeling that there may be inaccuracy is caused by the desire of the Home Office not to become involved in the design, manufacture and testing of the devices. I suggest that that should be changed as soon as possible.

3.2 a.m.

Hhe Miniser of State, Home Office (Mr. Leon Brittan)

The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) is right to stress the importance of the law on speed limits and the understandable concern that motorists—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Richard Crawshaw)

Order. I think that the Minister has spoken in an earlier debate prior to my taking the Chair. I take it that he is speaking with the leave of the House.

Mr. Brittan

By leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As I was saying, motorists have every reason to be concerned about the operation of speed limit law, and the House is indebted to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue.

During their long enforcement of speed limits, the police have always been anxious to make the fullest use of technological advances in new devices and techniques. In modern traffic conditions it is no longer practical to follow a speeding vehicle for a reasonable distance while checking its speed on an accurately calibrated speedometer. Many years ago the stopwatch was superseded by the radar speed meter.

The first radar meter, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, was known as PETA, the portable electronic traffic analyser. It was designed with Home Office assistance and was rented by the Home Office to police forces. Unfortunately PETA is now reaching the end of its useful life. A working party of the Association of Chief Police Officers was set up three years ago to consider its replacement. When that happened, the Home Office informed the association that it was prepared to continue to supply and support one roadside radar device in succession to PETA. After evaluating the many devices that are now available, including the hand-held devices, the working party recommended that forces should in future be equipped with a wider range of devices than hitherto.

The statutory duty to provide operational equipment for the police, including speed measuring devices of this sort, rests with police authorities. The use of such equipment is within the operational responsibility of the chief constable concerned. Home Office approval is not required. The system that operated originally, with the Home Office providing, in effect, the equipment, was one that happened to exist for a substantial time, but many pieces of equipment are chosen by the police authorities in consultation with the chief constable. The idea that every piece of equipment of this kind that is to he used by the police forces must be provided by the Home Office is not warranted.

What has happened is that many forces have opted for a hand-held radar device to supplement their existing non-radar device, VASCAR, the visual average speed calculator and recorder, and it now seems that there will be insufficient demand for a single standard roadside radar device to warrant the Home Office purchasing and renting it. The hon. Gentleman is therefore right in saying that as PETA goes out of service the Home Office is unlikely to be involved in the evaluation, supply and maintenance of speed measuring equipment.

The hon. Gentleman referred to doubts about the accuracy of the devices which have come on to the market. It might be appropriate to mention here that the function of any speed detecting device, be it a stopwatch, speedometer or radar meter, is solely to provide corroborative evidence of the opinion already formed by a police officer that a vehicle was exceeding the speed limit. Neither the device by itself nor the unsupported opinion of the police officer is sufficient to secure a conviction.

The Home Office has not formally evaluated the new hand-held radar device, as it is not proposed that the Home Office should purchase and rent it to forces. None the less, I can say that the doubts expressed by the Automobile Association and by others have not been substantiated. I understand that the Automobile Association has had a handheld radar device subjected to extensive technical tests and evaluations over a long period of time and has not, as far as I am aware, been able to fault the equipment that it has tested.

The new devices are used only by specially trained police officers, and it has been the practice of most forces, before introducing these devices, to demonstrate their use to magistrates and other interested parties. But, that having been said, it is entirely for the courts to decide whether the evidence from these devices is acceptable, and the onus is on the prosecution to establish that the offence of speeding has been committed. To the extent that corroboration is needed and that reliance on this sort of device provides that corroboration, the onus rests on the prosecution to satisfy the court that that is proper corroboration.

Any doubt that can be cast on the accuracy of the device is likely to cast doubt on the corroboration and therefore make it difficult, if not impossible, to secure a conviction. Any defendant, whether as an individual or whether backed by the AA, who is able not to disprove the accuracy of a device but is able to cast doubts on its credibility, is in a position to prevent a conviction from being secured. I understand that the courts have dealt with many cases of speeding detected by using the new devices, which are by now quite well accepted.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the use of expert evidence by the manufacturers of the devices. It is open to the prosecution to bring such evidence, but there is no magic in it, and it does not have to be accepted by the courts if it can be challenged effectively. By the same token, short of some special statutory provision, if the Home Office were in some sense to express its approval of the device, that would not render it immune from challenge. It would be up to anyone who is able to produce reasons for doubting the evidence brought forward by the manufacturers about the accuracy of the device to challenge that evidence, whatever the Home Office or anyone else might say about it.

I am not aware of any effective challenge so far to the devices to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Therefore, I believe that the Home Office is justified in taking the view that as it was not acceptable to chief constables for a single substitute to be provided, it is up to them, as responsible officers, to choose the equipment that is available on the market and for it to be used, subject to any challenge in the courts as to its accuracy. In these circumstances, that seems to be a reasonable procedure.

I am sure that chief constables will have noted what the hon. Gentleman has said and will have borne his points in mind in considering these matters. The only other thing that I would say is that if at some future time it becomes apparent that the range of devices that is currently available has been effectively and properly challenged and found wanting, and if as a result there was not available within this country a set of devices that could be relied upon by police forces, and which they could choose for themselves, a different situation would arise. If that came about, I would draw the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I am sure that one would want to consider what action was necessary, whether of the kind envisaged by my right hon. Friend in the form of consultation or any other appropriate action. But I must stress that at the moment there has not been evidence of effective challenges of the kind to which I have just referred.

In the present circumstances, in the absence of such effective challenge, I suggest to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that the Home Office is justified in leaving the technical matter to people who are well qualified to exercise responsible choice. One can do so the more confidently in the knowledge that one is not dependent solely on the say-so of chief constables and their personal choice but also on the fact that they must make good the validity of that choice before the courts. If responsible motoring organisations such as the AA have a basis for challenging any particular device, they have both the financial resources, in supporting motorists who are prosecuted for speeding, and the opportunity, because of the nature of the evidence that happens to be put before the court, to make good any such challenge.