HC Deb 22 March 1979 vol 964 cc1719-59


Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Speaker

Before I call the Secretary of State, I must inform the House that almost 50 right hon. and hon. Members seek to participate in the debate. The occupant of the Chair is very much in the hands of the House. I can only appeal to the House. If short speeches are made, I shall be able to call many more hon. Members, although I doubt whether I shall be able to call 40.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, Northwest)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have an almost impossible task. I do not wish to be patronising, but I must say that you do a wonderful job. This Bill does not involve a party political matter. It might be difficult for the Chair to judge which hon. Members are for and which are against the Bill. The usual practice is for the Chair to call hon. Members from alternate sides. If that practice is followed today, the Chair may call only hon. Members who are in favour of the Bill, or only those who are against it. I have no interest in this matter as I did my battling earlier, but if the Chair was told in advance which hon. Members were for the Bill and which were against it would be easier to strike a balance.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. This is a difficult matter, but I do not wish to encourage a queue of hon. Members at the Chair. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's suggestion will be borne in mind for the future. Perhaps when hon. Members write to me expressing their anxiety to be called they will indicate whether they are in favour of or opposed to a non-party issue.

4.36 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. William Rodgers)

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

The issue that we are discussing today is familiar to hon. and right hon. Gentlemen in all parts of the House. It is now almost exactly three years since the House gave a Second Reading to a similar Bill which failed to make adequate progress before the end of the Session.

But the history of seat-belt wearing—and the discussion it arouses—goes back much further. The first parliamentary questions about seat belts were asked 20 years ago and discussion about compulsory wearing started not long after. The first requirement to fit seat belts to front seats came in 1966 and the present regulations—in their complete form—date from 1971.

I mention this only because most hon. Members have been through the arguments time and time again and many have devoted much anxious thought to the matter. I hope that the arguments in support that we hear today—including mine in favour of giving the Bill an overwhelming majority—will carry weight with those who still remain in doubt. But the most persuasive argument, and also the simplest, is the argument of experience—sometimes bitter experience. The inescapable fact is that the wearing of seats belts saves lives and the compulsory wearing of seat belts would save very many more.

There is no other single step that Parliament could so easily take that would save the lives of so many people. Whatever votes are cast today, I believe that future generations will be deeply puzzled that we failed to take such steps at an earlier date. I say that without disrespect to those who have taken—and may still take—a contrary view of this Bill. Of course, there are arguments the other way, as there are on every great issue. The fact remains that in the perspective of time our hesitations—the hesitations of Parliament—will be difficult to understand.

I return to the simple point because it is overwhelming. On the best available evidence of accidents occurring in this country—evidence which has not been seriously contested—compulsion could save up to 1,000 lives and 10,000 serious injuries a year. If we were talking not of seat belts but of avoidable mining disasters or avoidable consequences of fire or flood, the House would not hesitate to give the highest priority to the Bill.

Every day this Bill is delayed, two or three persons die who need not die and two or three families are bereaved. Every day this Bil is delayed, 20 to 30 people are seriously injured, some of them permanently disabled or horribly disfigured.

This must be the starting point for those who vote against compulsion, or who do not vote at all. They must set their arguments against it.

The passage of time has simplified the issues that we are discussing. The effectiveness of seat belts in reducing accidents is not in dispute. The success achieved by other countries with compulsion has not been seriously challenged either. The seat belt is also well established as the simplest, most effective and most acceptable means of avoiding the sort of casualties with which it is meant to deal.

As for the argument that persuasion alone—through advertising and publicity—will do the trick, this has now been demonstrated not to be the case. The voluntary approach has been valuable in raising the wearing rate from 14 per cent. in 1971 to an average of about 32 per cent. today. But, in practice, over the last few years an annual expenditure on advertising now over £1 million a year has resulted in no lasting improvement in wearing rates. We have been running in order to stand still.

I do not propose today—particularly as so many right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak—to follow the convention of taking the House through the Bill in detail. It is short and self-explanatory. I doubt whether any remarks of mine could contribute substantially to the understanding of it.

Similarly, I do not propose to go steadily through all the issues which arise on the Bill, dealing carefully with each. It would take a great deal of time and there are many right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on both sides who will deal with them adequately in the course of the debate. This will enable my hon. Friend, in replying, to focus on those issues which clearly matter most to the House and require a ministerial comment.

I shall not even burden the House with the impressive list of professional bodies—from the British Medical Association through the Institute of Advanced Motorists to the Police Federation—that support the Bill. Some—such as the Automobile Association, which represents more than 5 million motorists—have been in touch with hon. Members. Others have expressed their views less publicly.

I want to comment on only four issues—whether the wearing of a seat belt can increase the risk to life in certain circumstances; the problem of exemptions; the question of enforcement; and the"criminal"offence argument where it flows over into the freedom-of-the-individual argument.

The risk-to-life argument can be dealt with very quickly. Of course, it is impossible to say that there are no circumstances whatsoever in which wearing a seat belt might increase the risk to life. I am familiar with the example of the driver whose car catches fire or rolls off the quayside into deep water, although even in these cases he is more likely to be knocked unconscious without a seat belt and thus be unable to escape. But the risk of accidents involving fire or water is of the order of one in 1,000. On all the best evidence—the evidence of research and medical evidence—the chances of faring worse rather than better with a seat belt in these and other such cases is remote. I make the point this way because it is relevant to the justification for compulsion. It is already accepted by those who approve the voluntary wearing of belts.

Mr. Neil Macfarlane (Sutton and Cheam)

As the Secretary of State is commenting on this point, will he address his mind to the problem of the passenger who, under the proposed legislation, would be belted in on the front passenger side? Let us suppose that that passenger was a parent who had a small infant or a child on his or her lap. Does this constitute an offence, or will the Secretary of State make it an offence for any passenger in the front seat to have a small infant or child on his or her lap?

Mr. Rodgers

I do not propose on this occasion to go further than the limits of the Bill. But, speaking for myself, I think that it would be a very foolish parent who had a small child on his lap in the passenger seat. That would be ridiculous. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House would take the view that this would be extremely unwise.

I come to the question of exemptions. There are many views on this matter as to how different individuals might be dealt with, but the argument on detail is not for Second Reading, legitimate though it is. It must arise on later stages of the Bill.

In the first place, as seat-belt wearing saves lives, it follows that exemptions should be reduced to a minimum if the effectiveness of compulsion is not to be undermined. Secondly, however, I acknowledge that there is a case for certain exemptions, which I take to be the view of all supporters of the Bill.

I put it that way because we can decide in due course about how exemptions should be drawn. But the case for exemptions and alternative views about who should be exempted cannot be an argument against the Bill on Second Reading. I acknowledge differing opinions, and I shall express my own. But no one who believes that compulsory seat belts make sense can vote against the principle because he is not satisfied about how exemptions should be drawn. Let us not seek to deceive ourselves or others.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

Does the Secretary of State realise that at least one Member of this House will base his decision on his vote on this point of exemption? The right hon. Gentleman cannot cover this point merely by saying that it should be left to the Committee. It is absolutely vital to the principle of the Bill on which we shall be voting.

Mr. Rodgers

I differ from the hon. Member, and I wish that I could persuade him to support the Bill by saying otherwise. We must discuss the question of exemption in Committee and on Report. The details of exemption will be spelt out in the regulations made under the Bill. At a later stage the House will have the fullest opportunity to express its own views. It would be impossible for me today to produce a formula which would fairly represent the differences of opinion inside the House, let alone outside. In addition, it would be quite wrong for me to try to tell the House exactly where those exemptions should lie. Therefore, the details of exemption will have to be decided later. The most that I can do today, and the most that anyone can do, is to indicate perfectly fairly which view he or she takes.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

Will the Secretary of State try to help the House a little more? I am an enthusiastic supporter of the Bill, but I feel that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) has a point. Perhaps the Minister could help by saying that his propensity for exemptions would be more favourable in medical cases, where there was a strong attestation by a medical practitioner, than in cases based on the size of a person, because the seat belt can be adjusted to accommodate people of small stature.

Mr. Rodgers

Perhaps I should not have given way to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) because I have more to say on exemptions. The only general observation that I was seeking to make was that I do not believe that we can go through the list this afternoon and decide conclusively what exemptions there will be. I do not claim that views expressed on these matters today will be the final views of the House. The House must determine them for itself in due course. May I say a word about exemptions, because I hope that it will go some way towards meeting a number of the points which hon. Gentlemen would otherwise wish to raise at this stage?

It is true that in the debate in 1976 a number of hon. Members expressed concern that too many details were to be left to regulations. Perhaps that was the point of the hon. Member for Cambridge. Hon. Members were particularly critical of the proposed use of the negative resolution procedure. They were also concerned that, whatever resolution procedure was adopted, Parliament would not be able to change the regulations but would have either to approve or to reject them.

I understand that anxiety, and I have considered it carefully, but my basic reason for not putting more detail in the Bill is that I believe that we must leave ourselves with some flexibility for the future. We may want to extend some exemptions, and equally we may want to restrict or remove others. Other countries which already have compulsion have found it desirable to make changes in the light of experience, and we may well feel the same way. The House enjoys an element of flexibility when it can achieve it, and for that reason this is, I think, the right way to proceed.

I wish to provide as much parliamentary times as possible for consideration in due course and I should certainly expect us to debate the proposals further on the basis of a draft of the regulations before the regulations themselves were laid. That is a method of procedure that the House sometimes adopts, generally with advantage, and which enables everybody to express a view before final decisions are made by Ministers.

When the regulations are laid they will, in the case of the first regulations and any subsequent regulations which extend the scope of wearing, be subject to the affirmative procedure. So, whatever views are taken today, there will be adequate scope for the House to form its own view, whatever my own may be, about where exemptions should lie.

Mr. George Younger (Ayr)

Does the right hon. Gentleman mean that he will produce some draft regulations on exemptions for us to consider during the Committee stage? That would be helpful.

Mr. Rodgers

I am prepared to consider that. I shall have to remind myself of the precise procedures of the House and discover whether it would be legitimate for me to do so after Second Reading and before the House has given final approval to the Bill. If we could have a full discussion in Committee or on Report, I should welcome that, not in order to impede the progress of the Bill but to try to get the greatest possible measure of consensus.

May I say a word or two about the way I see the situation now, without any desire—because I cannot do it—to commit the House to the final form of the exemptions in the regulations?

As regards the scope of wearing, my intention is that the requirement should apply only to types of vehicles and seating positions where fitting of seat belts is required by law under the current construction and use regulations. That will be no great surprise to the House, but I think it should be clear that I am not seeking to extend compulsory wearing out of the range of the vehicles covered at present.

Beyond that, there is an overwhelming need to provide exemption for those for whom it is medically inadvisable to wear a belt. People who wish to bring themselves within the scope of this exemption will, under my proposals, have to obtain a certificate from their doctor. My advice from the medical profession is that it would be inappropriate to attempt to list in regulations those injuries and conditions which would qualify a person for exemption. The decision, therefore, will be a matter for the doctor's discretion, although the Medical Commission on Accident Prevention has agreed to circulate advice in due course to the profession and is preparing this now. It seems to me that this approach is in keeping with professional independence and discretion.

I also propose to provide exemption for those of the disabled and others who would find it physically difficult or impossible to wear or fasten seat belts.

I propose two further exemptions. First, I propose the exemption of drivers when reversing or performing a manoeuvre which involves reversing. That is an exemption which the House has broadly endorsed in the past. Secondly. I think that we must recognise the problems of tradesmen who make deliveries on a house-to-house basis—for instance, milkmen, bakers and postmen.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)

On behalf of the limbless, and as one concerned with the national associations in this regard, may I take it that limbless persons, particularly those, such as myself, without one arm, who may have great difficulty in fastening a seat belt which is out of their reach, will be exempt without having to obtain a medical certificate? Will the associations which represent the disabled be able to say on their behalf that they should be exempt? Could something of that kind be included?

Mr. Rodgers

Yes, indeed. That is what I would propose to the House in due course. The reference to the medical practitioner was essentially for medical conditions which are not easily defined. What the hon. and learned Gentleman says is very much what I have in mind as something which would be spelt out in regulations and on the basis of consultations and a formula which would be acceptable to the House.

I want to say a further word about exemptions and on what I have just said about tradesmen—

Mr. Arthur Lewis


Mr. Rodgers

If I may finish what I am saying about tradesmen, I will give way to my hon. Friend, but I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not give way every two or three minutes, because that would deprive a number of hon. Members of the opportunity to speak.

I do not want to exempt all short stopping journeys. Nearly two-fifths of fatal and serious accidents among drivers and front-seat passengers occur in built-up areas, and these must include people on this kind of stopping journey. What I have in mind is something on the lines if exempting people who are driving or riding in a vehicle which is constructed or adapted for the delivery of goods or mail and who are undertaking a delivery round from the vehicle. Here again, I think this category will be broadly acceptable to the House, whatever views hon. Members take.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

On the general question of exemption, my right hon. Friend said that a medical certificate would recommend exemption. Will the certificate be carried on the person, or will it be with the insurance document, the road test document or other documents? The certificate might have been left in another car or at home. What will be the position if a policeman stops the person and is told that he has an exemption certificate but has left it in Scotland?

Mr. Rodgers

I do not think that the experience which my hon. Friend describes is unusual. It is not unusual for hon. Members to be stopped, I hope for no improper reason, and to find that they are not carrying their licence. I never carry mine with me. But it is well understood that the licence can be taken to the police station within five days after such an incident. It seems to me that we should follow broadly the same rule here. A man gets his certificate from his doctor and, if he is wise, he puts it in his pocket and keeps it there. All of us fall short in that respect, but there will be no problem arising from that. The certificate can be produced at a later stage.

Mr. Percy Grieve (Solihull)


Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

One last intervention—

Mr. Rodgers

Provided it is the last intervention, I give way to the hon. and learned Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve).

Mr. Grieve

I am very much obliged to the Minister for that courteous priority. Has he given consideration to the problem of the very elderly? In my experience, many old people intensely dislike being fastened in by seat belts and find it very difficult to manage them. Has the right hon. Gentleman considered whether special exemption should be given for the elderly?

Mr. Rodgers

With all respect to the hon. and learned Gentleman, I do not think dislike, even among the old, should be a criterion for exemption from the provisions of the Bill. I must say with great respect to the many old people who drive vehicles that I do not think the manoeuvre of fastening a seat belt is more difficult than the manoeuvre of driving a car, and if they are uncertain about that I think they might have to consider whether they are totally confident of their capacity to drive.

Mr. Grieve

I mean as passengers.

Mr. Rodgers

I am sorry; I apologise to the hon. and learned Gentleman. Yes, we can look at that. It does not immediately occur to me as an overwhelming problem. I have driven elderly people in my car, and I always put the belt on for them. I should hope that this could be done and that we would not make old people more vulnerable to death or injury, bearing in mind the purpose of the Bill, than younger people.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths


Mr. Rodgers I give way to the hon. Gentleman, but this is positively the last time that I shall give way.

Mr. Griffiths

The Secretary of State must feel like one of those people who keep getting in and out of vehicles and are required to fasten their safety belt every time they get back in. I am grateful to him for giving way.

I should like to put two points that I hope the right hon. Gentleman will accept are intended to be helpful. First, before he leaves the subject of exemptions will he say a word about the emergency services—the police and fire services? Will they be caught by the need to wear seat belts?

My second point concerns medical certificates. As so much of our road safety law, whether on speed limits or anything else, requires consistency in all parts of the country, will he do his utmost to see that the advice to general practitioners is such that there is a consistency of approach and that we do not find that in some areas it is easier to obtain a doctor's certificate than it is in others?

Mr. Rodgers

I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that at present there is no obligation to have fittings for seat belts in certain types of vehicles. I totally accept that in special circumstances it would perhaps add to the risk—not the risk to life, because that is far greater if one is not wearing a seat belt. I would not wish to move in a direction that aggravated that problem.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, I hope that advice will be given to the medical profession which will enable a measure of consistency to be found. But the choice is very difficult. We could say that the GP's view is the best in terms of the fitness of his patient to be a passenger or driver without a seat belt, and let him decide. Alternatively, we could lay down broad regulations, which could be very hard on some who might otherwise deserve to be exempt and might exclude others who otherwise should wear a seat belt. There are disadvantages. There will not be uniformity, but I think that the course that we have chosen is the better one.

Dr. Reginald Bennett (Fareham)


Mr. Rodgers

I must continue. If I do not, my speech will be a great deal longer, and I have already made clear that I have given way for the last time.

The most important category of people that I do not propose to exempt is children. In 1976 it was proposed to exempt all those under 5 ft. in height, which would have had the effect of exempting a large number of them, but there was a widespread view in the House that such an exemption should not be given. Over 1,500 of the car passengers killed or seriously injured last year were under 15 years of age. To take no steps to protect children would be inexcusable.

In fact, although belts may not be an ideal fit for smaller children, there are a number of devices, known to any parent, which might be used to make belts more comfortable for old children and small adults. My conclusion is that our best approach is to say that children should either wear belts in the front seat or—better still in my personal view—sit in the back.

There is a great deal more—I can see it from the reaction of right hon. and hon. Members—that I might say about exemptions, but given the procedure envisaged in the Bill there will be every opportunity to look for the largest measure of agreement consistent with the purposes of the Bill.

On enforcement, the third of my principal points, I do not think there is a great deal new to say. Every extension of the law raises the question of the means and cost of enforcing it. But questions of enforcement properly follow the making of the law itself. Parliament cannot hold back the necessary legislation simply on this account.

Problems of enforcement are in direct relationship to knowledge of the law and the respect in which it is held. A substantial number of people already wear a seat belt voluntarily and as a matter of course. Many others would be quite content to wear a seat belt if wearing was the law of the land. The law would push them in the direction that they feel they ought to go.

I do not expect that we shall get 100 per cent. wearing rate, any more than we get 100 per cent observance of other road traffic laws, but many other countries—with a sturdy tradition of independence and no great love of being ordered about—achieve wearing rates of over 80 per cent. without fuss or oppressive action by the police. I am sure that we can do as well.

As to overloading the police with extra work, it is right to remember that they will be saved a considerable amount of time attending, both on the road and in hospitals, to the consequences of accidents.

I turn finally to the liberty-of-the-subject argument. In a sense there is no final, absolute answer to this. Every law restricts the freedom of the individual to act precisely as he chooses. The question is where we draw the line in terms of benefits achieved in relation to freedom forgone. Each of us may draw it differently, and each age strikes the balance in a different way.

I remember reading, many years ago, A. V. Dicey's great classic"Law and Public Opinion in England in the Nineteenth Century ". It made a great impression on me, although not perhaps the impression that Dicey had in mind. I remember learning from it how the late Victorians looked back with approval on the Factories Acts and supported workmen's compensation and employer's liability, which had been anathema to previous generations. There is no enduring rule; there is no timeless certainty. We weigh the evidence, we consider the advantages, and we decide.

As I have said in the House before, I do not favour—in any walk of life—statutory regulations for their own sake. Instinctively, I prefer less legislation rather than more. But on this occasion the choice for me is simple. An extension of the law, and the restriction of freedom that it entails, is wholly justified when many hundreds of lives will be saved and many thousands more will escape injury. There is freedom here, too, a very precious freedom: the freedom to live rather than die, and the freedom to live as a whole person and without disfigurement.

I recognise a refinement of the argument against the Bill. Some people will ask, as some hon. Members will today,"Should we seek to save people from themselves rather than from the consequences of the wrongdoing or foolishness of others? Does this Bill not introduce a new principle into our legislation? "

I could argue that others may be endangered if a driver does not wear a seat belt, because there are times when he can better control a car after a crash if he is wearing one. I could argue also the case for those who are involved—without choice on their part—in the consequences of a serious accident: the police and the ambulance men, those who treat the dying and injured in hospital and—I have mentioned them before—the bereaved. But, leaving such arguments aside, I believe that we, Parliament, have a duty in this case to protect people from the terrible consequences of their own neglect.

There are precedents for such legislation. The most obvious case is in the health and safety legislation, which places on every employee a duty to take reasonable care for his own safety—and provides for heavy fines, or even imprisonment, if he does not. Regulations also require that passengers in commercial aircraft wear seat belts at take-off and landing and on such other occasions as the captain of the aircraft may indicate—and there are heavy fines for contravention. Even more to the point, article 33(2) of the Air Navigation Order 1976 requires all pilots, including the pilots of private aircraft, to wear a seat belt when in control of an aircraft.

But even if precedent were lacking, it would be mistaken to condemn the principle embodied in the Bill. Parliament cannot be bound by precedent. It is for Parliament to decide the statute law on the merits of the case. Circumstances change; we attach different values to new situations. If Parliament believes that the merits are overwhelming, it is fully entitled to legislate. It is proper for it to decide on the relative importance to be attached in this case to freedom and to human life.

On public occasions, as in private, most of us feel deeply that it is right to do whatever we can to save the life of a man, woman or child endangered by his or her own negligence or foolishness. We cannot ultimately deny the right of anyone to take his or her own life, nor can we ultimately prevent it. But, short of that, there is much that we can and ought to do. The Bill presents us with a unique opportunity.

5.10 p.m.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

As with the Government, there will be a free vote on the Opposition side of the House, and during the debate I shall express a personal view on this issue.

Let me first make a few preliminary points. I accept that seat belts save lives and prevent injury. I believe that it makes sense to wear a seat belt, and, whatever may be our views on compulsion, the public should not believe that that advice is being challenged. I believe also that road safety is an important area which the House should take seriously, and that nothing is more important than that we should seek to encourage better driving standards. I believe very strongly in that, because better driving standards prevent accidents rather than merely reduce injuries. It is for that reason that during the time I have been Opposition spokesman on transport I have taken the tests of both the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the League of Safe Drivers and, slightly to the surprise of my friends, passed those tests.

The question that we are debating is a balanced issue, and many of my hon. Friends take the view that compulsion is necessary. That is also the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), who was Minister of Transport between 1970 and 1974. I respect that view. Nevertheless, I maintain the position that I expressed in 1976 that, although I support the wearing of seat belts, I am opposed to making it compulsory by law.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

The hon. Member said that on the Opposition side there will be no Whip or binding party line on the Bill. I am not clear whether the same applies to the Government, as it did three years ago.

Mr. Fowler

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I understand—no doubt the Secretary of State will intervene if I am wrong—that there is no official Whip on the Government side.

Mr. William Rodgers indicated assent.

Mr. Fowler

First and foremost, we should be clear what question is before the House. We are not being asked whether we support the wearing of seat belts. We are being asked to make the non-wearing of seat belts a criminal offence. We are being asked to create a new criminal offence, with all the implications that has upon the police, the courts and the citizen. Although the Secretary of State believes that his case is self-evident, it would appear to me quite wrong that the House should accept the creation of any new criminal offence without giving that proposal the most stringent examination. No one would seriously expect that any other course would be followed by the House, however strongly or sincerely the case for compulsion was held.

The argument has now double force, because last week the Magistrates' Association considered its attitude towards the proposed new law and the council of the association decided that, although it supported the wearing of seat belts, it was opposed to compulsion. The significance of that decision is that it is the magistrates who will have to apply this law. Let me seek to be a little fairer than was the Secretary of State on this issue. Although that is the view of the Magistrates' Association, many magistrates support compulsion, but in the same way, although some police bodies support compulsion, I think the right hon. Gentleman would agree that many policemen oppose it. It is a very evenly divided argument.

I suggest that the House should consider very carefully before creating this new offence. I base that suggestion on two major arguments, the principle of making the law and the question of enforcement. In my view the two issues should be taken together, but, before coming to that, we should consider the background of our approach in Britain to motoring offences.

A great deal has been made of the fact that Britain is the odd man out in Western Europe on this question, although we should remember that in the United States compulsion has been rejected. I accept that, compared with many European countries, the police have neither the range of requirements nor the power possessed by many forces in Europe. It is possible for this country to decide to go down the path of more and more restrictions, and there are also other measures to do with motoring where the use of the law is advocated.

In some European countries the case for more law has been accepted by Governments, but traditionally this country has taken a different view. We have not taken the view that all that is required is for Parliament to pass a law and then for the police to enforce it. Ever since the important Home Office committee of 1932, we have taken the view that there is another factor to be taken into account—the effect that the creation of new motoring offences has upon relations between the police and the public.

As the 1962 Royal Commission on the police stated: The evidence before us showed that an important—according to some witnesses the most important—factor affecting relations between the police and the public today is the problem of enforcing traffic laws. That was the view almost 20 years ago and it has even more force today.

Whatever view hon. Members may take of seat belts, they should recognise first that the most common situation in which the ordinary citizen comes face to face with the police is as a motorist and, secondly, nothing is more important today than that there should be the best relations possible between police and public. So we have deliberately adopted a cautious attitude towards making new criminal offences.

Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)

Even if we accept the last point put forward by the hon. Gentleman, is he not in error in suggesting that we are embarking upon a whole new corpus of law? Are we not going down the path that we followed, with good results, for the compulsory wearing of crash helmets by motor cyclists?

Mr. Fowler

The hon. Gentleman states the precedent for this law which the Secretary of State did not, and that is the crash helmet legislation. I shall come to that argument. In considering whether we go down the path of a new motoring offence, we should consider the background against which we have customarily acted.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Why does my hon. Friend think that there will be an enforcement problem in this country when in Australia, which is just as freedom-loving—perhaps more so; some might say the people there are just as bloody-minded as they are in this country—there has been hardly any enforcement problem?

Mr. Fowler

If my hon. Friend will allow me to continue, I may be able to tell him, because that is the argument that I seek to put forward.

What the Secretary of State ignores about our approach and our attitude in this country is that far from this policy being a conspicuous failure, it has been an outstanding success. Having just completed a four-year study on this subject, comparing relations between police and public in all the countries of the Common Market, I would say that there are better relations between police and public in Britain than in any other Common Market country. It is not that the police are better equipped or necessarily more efficient; it is that there is a rapport and better understanding between police and public in Britain than there is in many other European countries. In this we lead, and nothing is more important than that this position should be preserved.

There is also another factor—the accident rate. Any death caused by any road accident is deplorable. Nevertheless, it is instructive to compare the number of road accident deaths in Great Britain with that of our European neighbours. We find that Britain does not have the highest rate; it has the lowest rate. The figures are set out in the world road statistics. The latest figures of the number of deaths from road accidents per 100,000 of the population are as follows: France has a rate of 25; in West Germany, the rate is 24; in Belgium, it is 25; in Luxembourg, it is 34; in Holland and Ireland, it is 18; in Denmark and Italy, it is 16; and in Great Britain, it is 12 per 100,000, which is the best in the Common Market countries. Australia has been much quoted in the debate. There the rate is 26 per 100,000, which is double ours.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Beaconsfield)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the only nation that rivals us in the excellence of its record is the United States, where seat belts are not compulsory and it is not intended to make them so?

Mr. Fowler

I shall confine myself to Europe and Australia, as those are the most likely comparisons to be used in the debate.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Grimsby)

If that is an argument for not attempting to improve our safety statistics, I cannot understand the logic of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler).

Mr. Fowler

I am sorry if the hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) cannot understand the logic, but I do not find it altogether surprising. All deaths from road accidents are deplorable, but the approach that we have followed in Britain has produced the best road accident death statistics in Western Europe. I am open to correction, but it has also given us the best relations between police and public. Those matters should be seriously considered before passing new laws. Our policy has proved worth while. We should consider whether the Government's proposal moves away from that policy and places its faith in laws rather than in persuading and urging people to take care of their own safety.

It is proposed that the non-wearing of seat belts will be subject to a maximum fine of £50. The £10 maximum fine, decided by a free vote of the 1976 Committee, is rejected by the Secretary of State. In addition, there will be fewer exemptions. The Secretary of State has had almost three years to prepare his case and the exemptions, and the Government have had almost five years, but it appears that they still need time to consult on what the exemptions should be. The 1976 committee considered these points thoroughly, and the position is therefore not satisfactory. The exemptions will be introduced by order instead of being set out in the Bill for the House to decide. The House will be able to accept or reject, but not amend them.

The fixed penalty procedure—the ticket procedure and not the on-the-spot fine—was introduced in the 1976 Committee stage, and that has also been rejected by the Government. Two-thirds of the work of magistrates' courts is already concerned with traffic offences, and the Government believe that that should be the way to apply the law. Perhaps we should consider the European example here.

The explanatory memorandum says, first, that the Bill is not expected to impose any expenditure out of Government funds or any requirements on public service manpower. That suggests that the Bill will be enforced by the same number of policemen, and that extra duties will be imposed. No one could reasonably argue that the costs of law enforcement are zero, and that can only be based on the assumption that this law will be enforced incidentally to another offence. A policeman will stop a person for speeding and only then check whether he is wearing a seat belt, but policemen in Britain do not operate in that way. The Association of Chief Police Officers has made it absolutely clear to the Secretary of State and the Department of Transport that it does not want that to be the practice. So, clearly, there will be a financial cost in enforcing the law.

Mr. Grieve

Surely it is implicit in the suggestion of no extra cost that in enforcing this law the police will be taken away from other and—some of us may think—much more important duties.

Mr. Fowler

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve) is correct. The law cannot simply be enforced in connection with other offences. The police force does not operate in that way and cannot be expected to.

The major detail of the Bill is unsatisfactory. It gives the impression that over the past three years little work has been done on it, and also that the Bill will not pass all its stages. A Bill is not introduced at the end of March that will go through all its stages by the end of this Parliament. The Government must want a vote on the principle of the proposal.

In principle, the essential risk is to the non-wearer, whether driver or passenger. There may be exceptional cases where a third party not in the car is harmed. If the principle is to be argued on the basis of the exceptional case, we must also consider a person not wearing a seat belt who may be saved from injury by, for example, being thrown clear. By making the wearing of seat belts compulsory, that individual would be worse off. We should therefore not argue the case on exceptions.

It is also argued that there are precedents for imposing on the individual a requirement to comply with certain legal rules.

The clear precedent in motoring is the legislation on crash helmets, but simply because there is a precedent the case is not made out for additional powers. Some of my hon. Friends voted against the crash helmet proposal, but it is suggested that that law is now universally accepted by motor cyclists. That is wide of the mark, as the Under-Secretary will confirm. The difference is that that law is conspicuously and easily enforced. It is the nearest thing that we have to a self-enforcing law in motoring. That cannot be claimed for legislation on seat belts. Even those policemen who support that law realise that enforcement will be a problem, for example, at night and in heavy traffic. There is wide scope for disagreement and argument. A policeman may believe that he has seen a motorist without a seat belt, and by the time that he has stopped him the motorist will have the belt on. The policeman may have been wrong, or the motorist may claim that he is wrong. Either way there is a dispute.

It is also argued that the law does not need to be enforced. The Department of Transport has said that it requires only a low level of enforcement, and that passing the law will be sufficient to encourage the public to observe it. That argument is nonsense. Laws must be enforced to be effective. That is why we have an organised police service. Governments found that making laws and threatening punishment was not enough. The law had to be enforced. It is the oldest rule in the book and must not easily be rejected by even the most sincere advocates of this course.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

The hon. Member does a great deal of travelling up and down the motorway, as I do. He knows that the chances of being seen by the police when exceeding the speed limit are minimal, yet the majority of motorists observe the speed limits. [HON. MEMBERS:"Do they? "] Are hon. Gentlemen saying that people obey the law only if they believe in the certainty of their being caught if they do not?

Mr. Fowler

What I am saying—I do not want to deal with speed limits on motorways, much as I am tempted to do so—is that for the last 150 years we have held that it is not enough for Governments simply to pass laws; the laws must also be enforced. For any Government to rely on those laws being observed simply because they are on the statute book is not a policy that should be easily contemplated. If the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) wants further evidence of this, I direct his attention to what happened in France. There it was found that when the police did not seek to enforce the law the wearing rate dropped, only to rise when a major effort was made at enforcement. Then 40,000 offences were reported in four months.

The issue is best dealt with by a report from a standing committee of the House of Representatives in Australia. I cite the example of Australia because it is often quoted by the advocates of compulsion. That standing committee criticised the enforcement of the seat belt law in South Australia and said that the low enforcement rate was inexcusable. In its report it noted with concern the correlation between the low overall wearing rates and the low percentage of prosecutions for seat belt offences, of all traffic convictions in South Australia and feels that until a more stringent enforcement programme is undertaken, the fullest benefit from the law will not be gained. It went on to say that unless there is a real threat of prosecution vehicle occupants will tend to disregard the law ". The committee felt that the only way hard core non-wearers would respond to the legislation would be if non-wearing of belts could be made immediately obvious to the police as is the case with motor cyclists helmets. In this respect the committee feels that a device such as an outside light or some other form of indicator to show that a belt is unconnected is desirable. It is therefore credible to say that seat belt laws do not have to be enforced; they do. The police say that they do and that it will be difficult to enforce them. This is exactly the kind of law that can lead to the maximum disagreement between the police and the public.

I personally support the maximum of persuasion, including some of the outstanding advertising campaigns that have been undertaken. If the Secretary of State's views on public opinion are right that a small majority of the country now supports compulsion, there must be even more support for a voluntary programme, not a lower level of support, as he suggested. In addition, I would support construction and use regulations such as the fitting of warning devices to tell the driver or passenger that a seat belt was not fastened. That seems to be an entirely sensible back-up to a campaign of persuasion. The motorist is then given every possible advice and assistance to take the action that we believe is sensible.

We do not support the creation of a new criminal offence which will be difficult for the police to enforce, which will not help relations between police and public at a time when no single issue is more important, and which will further add to the burden on the police and the courts. I shall certainly continue to advise people to wear seat belts, but I hope that the House will accept the sincerity of those on both sides who will be voting against the Second Reading tonight.

5.35 p.m.

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

Three years, three months and three days ago almost to the hour, I was driving through the Drumochter Pass in Inverness-shire when a Royal Navy Land-Rover was blown into the path of my Ford Cortina and we collided head-on. I spent three weeks in hospital and three months off work. I lost my right knee-cap and damaged my other knee and my jaw. I survived, and I am able to stand here and take part in the debate as a fit human being and as a Member of Parliament because on that January evening three years ago I wore a seat belt.

I therefore have a very deep and, at times, subjective and personal but none the less valid testimony to make on the efficiency and effectiveness of seat belts in protecting life and limb. If I ever needed reassurance about the need to wear seat belts, I have only to recall, as I shall to my grave, just how close to death I was, or just how close I was to being, almost worse than that, a burden both to my family and to the community for the rest of what would have passed for life.

How empty would have been the noises about individual liberty and about the freedom to be irresponsible for those dependent upon me if, on that day, I had chosen not to wear a belt. That is when the theory breaks down. The numbers affected by the thousands of road casualties are not confined to the people who are injured. Each accident spreads its effect through the financial, the emotional and the practical repercussions on the dependants—the families, the relations, and those who depend upon the accident victims at their work.

What price their liberty, their freedom and their futures? Although we are capable now of calculating the cost to the community of those who axe injured, we cannot measure, in death and injury on the roads, the deep human grief that is associated with every casualty. It must be substantial. We cannot possibly ignore it just because we cannot neatly and conveniently cost it. For every fatality and every terrible injury there is a circle of family—wives and children, as well as parents—that is affected. They are all subject to the emotional blow, to the pain, and in many cases to the lifelong tribulation that comes from sharing the consequences of disablement of the breadwinner or a dependant.

In reality, is not the folly of a few a burden on us all? Those few, given the lead, would find no more fundamental objection to wearing seat belts than to using headlights in the dark or wearing a seat belt in an aeroplane.

Last week I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Paul Mostoway, who is Deputy Speaker in the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly. He told me that a few years ago his Parliament had decided to make the wearing of seat belts mandatory. He described to me the agonising among his colleagues that preceded the legislation—the division, the doubts, the procrastination that affected his Parliament in much the same way as they are now affecting ours. But now that the law is passed, he told me, the only letters that he receives in his postbag on the subject are from people who write to thank him for making the wearing of seat belts compulsory, since that action alone left them alive to write to him. The letters tell him that because the writers wore seat belts they are alive today. To those who vote against this Bill tonight I say"Remember the letters—10 or more for every day that we wait—which cannot be written because the unbelted would-be writer is a corpse, a human vegetable or a cripple."

This issue is not just one of finance, although the preventable casualties are an enormous and avoidable cost to the nation and to the families affected. It is not just a question of saving the resources of the National Health Service, the police and the emergency services—although by preventing these casualties we would save substantially on public services that are sorely stretched at the best of times. It is an issue of humanity. It is our obligation to control the worst consequences of our increasingly motorised society. The 1,000 motorists who murder themselves each year and the 60,000 who maim themselves for the lack of a seat belt need our protection and the protection of the law.

A preventable air crash or train crash causing a fraction of those casualties would lie for ever on the conscience of those who failed to prevent it. It is that duty to humanity—of which my personal experience testifies—that demands that I support the Bill. It is our collective duty to humanity to make sure that the Bill succeeds.

5.41 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

The Bill differs from the Bill of three years ago in one respect, which is important and welcome to my hon. Friends and myself who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland. It is right that I should take no more than a minute or two to put the matter on record.

The previous Bill was a Great Britain Bill. Application to Northern Ireland would no doubt have followed, had the Bill passed, by a separate instrument. Then, when that Bill did not pass, an Order in Council was laid before the House in the last Session which would have applied the principle in Northern Ireland, irrespective of whether it was acceptable to the House in its application to Great Britain. My colleagues and I are grateful to the Government for having made the right decision—not to pass that order and so proceed upside down, as they would have done by passing the Order in Council, but instead to enact the measure, if it is to be enacted, for the United Kingdom as a whole; for though technically the Bill would still take effect in Ulster under clause 3 by virtue of an Order in Council, it would be an automatic enactment in the same form with only such alterations as are required by the different statute law in Northern Ireland. In effect, therefore, this is a United Kingdom Bill, and it is as a United Kingdom Bill that it will take effect—if it ever does—in Northern Ireland.

I should like to put on record a corollary, which is also a Government decision of considerable importance. The House may be aware that statutory instruments in Northern Ireland are not subject to the same control as those made under Great Britain statutes. Under the 1974 temporary constitution, those which would otherwise attract affirmative procedure attract negative procedure only and those which would attract negative procedure attract no procedure at all. Clearly, it would be inequitable if the order applying the Bill to Northern Ireland made it possible for the statutory instrument—the business end of the legislation, which gives effect to it—which in Great Britain would be subject to affirmative procedure, to be exempt from that procedure when giving effect to the Bill in another part of the United Kingdom, namely, Northern Ireland.

When this matter was raised with the Government, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland indicated that"subordinate legislation"under the procedure beinug followed in the Act would have the same substantive effect as subordinate legislation made under the corresponding Bill. In other words, when, in due course—if it passes—the legislation is applied in Northern Ireland, the statutory instrument which gives it its effect will be subject to affirmative procedure in Northern Ireland as it will be in Great Britain.

I apologise to the House for taking the time to put these matters on record, but such aspects of legislation, where Northern Ireland claims the right to be legislated for in the House in the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom, are of considerable importance to us.

I turn to the main point at issue in the Bill, and shall do so briefly because I took part in the debate of three years ago. That it is an issue of principle and conscience is evident. That is the reason why, on both sides of the House, there is to be a free vote. The free vote on the Government side is not like the free vote on the Common Market—not because there is an agreement to disagree, but because the Bill is recognised to raise an issue of principle on which all hon. Members as individuals should conscientiously come to their own conclusions.

As I listened to the Minister, nevertheless I was not sure whether he had fully grasped what the issue of principle is. He described it as a matter of personal liberty. He said it was a question where we drew the line, and that as all law restricts personal liberty, the restriction of personal liberty by this as by any other legislation is only a matter of degree. But there is a difference of kind between a law which makes it criminal to endanger the lives of others and a law which makes it criminal for an adult to endanger himself: it is not a matter of gradation, it is a difference of kind, and one of enormous importance.

Nor is it a matter decided by precedent. At one point, the Minister seemed to think that precedent entered into the question. Eventually, no doubt if the principle were obscured and abandoned, the difference between principle and precedent might disappear; but while, as the Minister says, Parliament cannot be bound by precedent—and I should be the first to agree with him—Parliament is duty bound to observe principle, and it is the more called upon to observe the difference of principle between making criminal an act which endangers others and an act which endangers oneself only, because there is, so far, only one contrary precedent—the compulsory wearing of crash helmets.

Mr. Ogden

I am always cautious about intervening in the right hon. Gentleman's speeches when he makes the contrast between a right to injure ourselves and the restrictions that we have to accept about injuring others. Does he, as a practical motorist, agree that there are circumstances in which a driver wearing a seat belt is in better control of a car than a driver not wearing one?

Mr. Powell

I heard what the Secretary of State said about that, and it is to his credit that he was extremely careful not to suggest that it was on that ground that the Bill is introduced or that he defends it. There may be that incidental side effect; but we should be ludicrously insincere if we pretended that such a remotely contingent effect of the non-wearing of seat belts was the reason for introducing the legislation.

Mr. David Stoddart (Swindon)

I take the right hon. Gentleman's point that there is a difference between endangering one's own life and endangering the life of another person. The right hon. Gentleman has sought to show that there is only one precedent for the Bill, but surely there is a precedent in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which makes it a criminal offence merely to possess drugs, let alone to use them or to supply them to someone else.

Mr. Powell

We had quite a long discussion on that point, which was very much in my mind, when we eventually got the debate on the regulations that rendered compulsory the wearing of crash helmets by motor cycle riders. I believe that in that debate the case was made out that the prohibition of self-use of drugs is consequential upon the object of the law to prevent the trafficking in drugs and the spread of their use. That is why I treated the crash helmets legislation as the only truly apt precedent where Parliament has yet crossed the dividing line.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) used the expression"right"to injure oneself; but I do not think it is from the point of view of personal liberties, still less personal rights, that this matter ought wisely to be viewed. It is the question of what society decides to make criminal and to punish in an individual's own behaviour that is the effective light in which to treat the problem.

When we look at it in that light, we see what an enormous range of extension of the same principle lies open. There is self-evidently an infinitude of ways in which—deliberately in some cases, ignorantly in others—individuals act in a way that will injure them, impair their health, shorten their lives and widow and orphan their wives and children. Let no one imagine that traffic law and seat belts are the only area in which the case can be urged for rendering criminal activities which endanger the person who engages in them or the absence of precautions which endanger the person who fails to take them.

In the whole range of sport, in health, in general life, there are myriad cases. Let it once be accepted that on the arguments advanced for this Bill such acts ought to be made criminal, and we shall find that over the years there will come a total change in the relationship between the law and the citizen and between the enforcers of the law and the subject.

Mr. Jessel

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Powell

Yes; I thought that we were bound to have a little exchange.

Mr. Jessel

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that sports such as mountaineering and other dangerous and exacting sports are a training and a test of character and courage and that, in that sense, they are good for the people doing them? Would he argue that the non-wearing of seat belts was analogous to that?

Mr. Powell

I am most interested by the intervention of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) and I hope he will reflect upon it, because it means that from now onwards, in all matters where an individual may injure himself alone by his activities, the legislature is to be called upon to assess the balance of merit in that activity, whether it be cigarette smoking, mountaineering, going out in a boat or the next thing. His intervention illustrates the boundless width of the ocean upon which we launch if we render purely self-endangering acts criminal.

I was about to observe how remarkable it is that in an age when we are almost feverishly concerned about what we call human rights, we in the House are becoming indifferent to principles of law that are much more easily definable and, I dare to say, much more precious.

We are often being invited to ignore those principles if we can be presented with items of casualties and totals of lives at stake and be told that the price of not passing a law is the loss of so many lives. I have two things to say about that. First, these are principles which, in the last resort, are more precious than life and which we have been prepared to maintain at the risk of our lives.

Secondly, in the feverish atmosphere which understandably—though that does not alter its nature—surrounds the whole question of traffic accidents and death and injury on the roads, we are constantly being deceived by the promises of those who invite us to ignore the difference of principle and to cross the gulf.

Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Powell

I shall, but I warn myself that I must not give way again.

Dr. Miller

Would the right hon. Gentleman care to estimate how many people in this country would be impressed by his legalistic argument against the wearing of seat belts and how many are against them merely because they find them irksome to wear?

Mr. Powell

I should not have thought that when an essential principle to which Parliament ought to have regard is at stake, the hon. Gentleman would ask himself whether it would be understood by all, 50 per cent. or 20 per cent. of his constituents. It is our business as legislators to attend even to principles the importance of which may be apprehended by only a small proportion of the public. That does not alter their importance.

I repeat we are constantly being deceived as to the utility of the steps that we are persuaded to take in breach of major principles that ought to govern law-making. The most obvious example recently has been the difference between the promised and the actual consequences of the compulsory wearing of crash helmets.

We were told before the measure was introduced that it would save 400 deaths and serious casualties a year. A couple of years later, the Department of Transport revised its estimate down to 200. However, that estimate is still far too great, as the statistics for the first two years have already demonstrated. I am not arguing the case, I am showing how little we can depend upon the saving of 1,000 lives dangled in front of us as an inducement to pass the Bill. The implication of the statistics for the first two years was well stated by Dr. Mackay, reader in traffic safety at the University of Birmingham, who wrote to me at the beginning of 1975: I certainly agree that the accident data show essentially no benefits in terms of the numbers of fatalities or casualties in the year preceding compared with the year following the introduction of that law. That view has been borne out by some later statistics provided in a written answer on 2 May 1978. They showed in Scotland the following numbers of riders of motor cycles killed before and after the passing of the Act. In 1973, 35 riders were killed, in 1974 the figure was 37, in 1975 it was 46, in 1976 it was 33, and in 1977 the number of riders killed was 72. I do not know where in that sort of outturn the evidence is, or could be, for the massive and immediate saving in life and limb which we were promised and with the loss of which we were threatened if we did not consent to making compulsory the wearing of crash helmets.

I have one other example where another principle, just as deeply important, was infringed in the context of road safety. It is obviously right that it should be a criminal offence to drive a motor vehicle in a condition in which one's ability to control it is impaired, whether by alcohol or drugs or otherwise. That should manifestly be a serious criminal offence. Not satisfied with that, however, in 1967 this House enacted a new type of crime, a type of crime which by its nature could only be brought home to the offender by a breach of the fundamental principle of natural justice that a man should not be required to give evidence against himself. We created an offence the very nature of which is that the alleged offender must give evidence against himself and which can only be known by his giving evidence against himself. Though that meant breaching a principal of natural justice, we were told that it would make substantial inroads into the influence of alcohol upon deaths on the roads.

We know now what the consequence was. The Blennerhassett report was quite plain about this. We know in this case scientifically—it is very rare in this field that we can prove a point scientifically—that that law has had no effect whatsoever on the role of alcohol in the causation of road accidents. We happen to know that because all those killed driving motor vehicles were post-mortemed before as well as after the Act, and we can compare the proportion of those so killed before and after who showed the relevant degrees of alcohol content—a rare instance of being able to get a scientific proof.

The detailed figures are interesting, but Blennerhassett, gave only the totals: 25 per cent. were over the limit before the Act; the figure fell to 15 per cent. in 1968; it was back to 26 per cent. in 1971, and it had risen to 35 per cent. in 1974. Even those figures conceal something even more significant. They conceal what underlay the dip that is normal immediately after any change in road traffic law; that dip was composed entirely of cases where persons had only a little over the limit in their blood. The incidence of cases where there was a heavy, a scandalously heavy, influence of alcohol remained unaltered even immediately after the passage of the 1967 Act. In other words, we now know, in retrospect, that we laid hands upon that principle of natural justice and legislated in contravention of it for no result whatsoever—for no consequences or effects upon road casualties and the role of alcohol in their causation. Woe betide us if we now say that we have not gone far enough and ought to intensity our efforts by proceeding in the same direction.

There is always time to draw back from the brink. We have already put our foot over the edge in the crash helmet regulations of 1973, and every time the principle becomes easier to breach. We ought not to do it again. We ought to refuse in 1979 to cross the gulf by passing this Bill.

6.5 p.m.

Mr. David Young (Bolton, East)

It is obvious in a debate such as this that there will be divisions between Members of Parliament, between motorists and indeed between the motoring organisations. We are not arguing about whether the wearing of seat belts is advisable. The kernel of the argument is whether this should be achieved by persuasion or by compulsion and the use of the law. It is reasonable to argue that there is some infringement of the rights of the individual if laws are passed which in any way restrict his freedom, but in a society with such congested roads as ours it is important to recognise that the rights of the individual must be balanced against the rights of society as a whole.

I think that the fact that our society stands for the preservation of life and limb makes it right that if it is necessary to pass a measure which protects the individual against himself it is advisable to do so. We should recognise that when we are in a vehicle we are in a machine which over the last few years has, because of the advance of technology, developed from being a relatively solw-moving machine into a high-velocity vehicle.

If we compare driving—as has been suggested—with people taking part in dangerous sports, we have to be a little more careful. I assume that a climber, as he is participating in a dangerous occupation, goes up the mountain fully equipped with all the aids at his command to preserve his life. It is equally right that when people travel in a car the equipment in that vehicle should be designed to preserve life in the case of an accident. It is right that the law should be such as to ensure that that equipment will and can be used.

Mr. Powell

Is the hon. Member suggesting that it should be made a crime to climb a mountain without the prescribed equipment, because that is what he appears to be arguing?

Mr. Young

No, I am not, though it would be advisable for that to be so. On the other hand, it is not normal to have children of four or five years old climbing a mountain.

Often we deal with this issue on the assumption that we are talking of a driver who knows precisely, or who should know precisely, the risks involved. One argument which encourages me to support this legislation is that many car passengers, including children, are not in a position to assess those risks. For that reason I believe that this case is unique, and I support the legislation on that basis.

There is the argument, already well put, of the effects of road accidents on the National Health Service, and I think that it is right that we should do something to ensure that the calls on the already scarce resources of that Service are as few as possible. However, that is a minor point. We are not talking simply about saving drivers from themselves. We are considering also the lives of their passengers and, in some cases, of pedestrians. In an accident, death does not discriminate between the driver and the passenger.

Most people meet the police only as a result of a motoring offence. But what matters in many cases is whether the individual recognises the need for the law that has been passed, and a lot depends on the follow-up. We have tended to argue that there is a continuing conflict between persuasion and the law. It is my hope that if, or when, the Bill is passed, persuasion will continue.

I think it necessary that the Department should come back to the House in two, three or five years, after sufficient time has elapsed, so that then, if we can see that the law has not over that period produced a significant fall in the number of casualties resulting from road accidents, we may take the opportunity to consider its repeal.

At this stage, however, I do not believe that an inability to put a specific figure on the possible saving of death and injury should necessarily be taken as a reason for arguing that we ought not to make this attempt to preserve life and limb. One of our purposes here as parliamentarians is to have regard to human suffering, and in the present case we must do so in the light of the circumstances on our congested roads, which tend to account for a good deal of suffering. With that in mind, let us seek to pass laws reasonably designed to preserve life and limb.

6.11 p.m.

Mr. David Waddington (Clitheroe)

I am sure that I shall be excused if, before turning to the Bill, I remind hon. Members that I am fortunate enough now to be the Member of Parliament for Clitheroe, succeeding David Walder. David Walder was much loved in this place. He was a man of rare wit and charm, with a formidable intellect, and he was much admired and loved in his constituency, I know that I shall have to work hard to earn the reputation which he rightly enjoyed and to be as good a Member of Parliament as he was. [HON. MEMBERS:"Hear, hear."]

The Bill is in the same form as earlier Bills, and it is in a form which I dislike. As has already been said, the Minister had ample time to consult all the bodies and people whom he could possibly have wished to consult and to make up his mind about exemptions. Since he has had all that time, I think it a great pity that the exemptions have not been written into the Bill.

It is all very well to talk about the possible circulation of draft regulations, but we all know that at the end of the day we shall have only a very short debate when those regulations are brought before the House. They will contain the exemptions suggested by the Government and we shall have to take the lot or reject the lot, having no opportunity effectively to argue that some of the exemptions are right and some are wrong. That, therefore, is my first objection to the Bill.

In common with others, I am not here to argue that people should not be encouraged to wear seat belts, and I am quite sure that when seat belts become easier and more convenient to wear people will be more readily encouraged to wear them. My argument is that we should pause long before invoking the criminal law to protect the individual from himself.

In a sense, of course, no action by an individual fails to have some consequences for others. Some people argue—I note this from reading the reports of the debates when previous Bills were brought before the House—that one may be justified in interfering in the present case because of the excessive burden placed on the National Health Service as a result of the severe injuries suffered by those who fail to wear seat belts. I regard that as a dangerous argument, since it could be used as justification for an almost limitless extension of the criminal law into people's private lives.

That argument could certainly be used as justification for the banning of smoking. It could certainly be used as a justification for the banning of drinking alcohol. We are told—we are always given statistics nowadays—that if the Bill becomes law 1,000 lives a year will be saved, but we are told also by some of the same statisticians that 20,000 lives would be saved if smoking were banned.

The same argument could be used as justification for all manner of things—for example, imposing criminal penalties on a man foolish enough to put a ladder against the side of his house to paint it but who fails to take proper precautions to foot that ladder. It is, therefore, an argument which should be decisively rejected.

Mr. George Robertson

The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act now lays an obligation on workmen who have to use ladders against walls to take reasonable precautions, and as a result many local authorities now quite properly have to use scaffolding instead of the occasional ladder left carelessly against a wall for a man to climb.

Mr. Waddington

That is the worst argument of all, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has had the temerity to advance it. The history of our health and safety legislation shows that it was all introduced to impose burdens on employers so that they should behave properly towards their employees. One cannot place a statutory burden on an employer to see that his workman takes proper precautions for his own safety—wearing protective clothing, for example—unless one imposes a corresponding burden on the employee. So that is no analogy at all.

It has been argued that a person who is not belted has less chance of controlling his vehicle after a crash.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

Quite true.

Mr. Waddington

With respect, that is to talk in terms of remote possible consequences which no statistician would dream of trying to quantify, and it is an argument put forward as a rather lame justification by the advocates of the Bill in an effort to get away from the true position which they have to adopt, which is that they are saying that the law has to intervene to safeguard the individual against himself. That is the truth of the matter.

Generally speaking, we have in this country proceeded on the basis that the criminal law should be used not to protect the individual from himself but only to stop him acting in a way calculated to harm others. Of course, it can be said—it has been said often enough—that that principle has already been breached. It certainly has not been breached in the health and safety legislation, as I have already pointed out, but it can be argued that it has been breached, for instance, in respect of crash helmets. But there are two points to be made here.

First, if the House agrees on that principle, and if it goes on to agree that it is a principle worth preserving, the fact that it has been breached is a very good reason for not breaching it again.

The second and more important argument, surely, is that the wearing of a crash helmet cannot be a disadvantage to the wearer. It can only make life safer for him. But that is not true of seat belts. There may be no statistics available, and there may be only what was called in the last debate anecdotal evidence to show that people's lives have been saved by not wearing seat belts, but it is surprising how many people have such anecdotes to tell. My own sister Mary was thrown clear of a sports car which ran into the front of a bus and escaped with only scratches and bruises. Almost certainly, there have been cases where people have been trapped and where it would have been better not to have worn a seat belt. I am not suggesting that there are many cases. I am saying that there must have been the odd case.

In these circumstances, therefore, it is not surprising that, in spite of all the arguments, some people remain unpersuaded and say that they still believe it to be better not to wear a seat belt. In my submission, that is the nub of the matter.

The Bill may be put forward as only a very minor restriction of individual freedom. But there is a genuine feeling in some people's minds that that minor restriction could lead to death—that belting up could kill. Can it be seriously contended that a driver must be compelled by law to wear something that can kill—admittedly in only a minority of cases—and that he believes can kill him?

Mr. Ronald Bell

My hon. and learned Friend has mentioned exceptional instances where people are thrown clear or something of that sort. Is he aware that the British Medical Journal test on 100 corpses showed that 2 per cent. of deaths were caused by seat belts? That is quite different from being thrown clear or being trapped.

Mr. Waddington

I am obliged to my hon. and learned Friend for reminding me of that figure and bringing it to the notice of the House. The argument that I was advancing was allied to but slightly different from my hon. and learned Friend's intervention. We are entering into a new field if we enact law that makes conduct criminal that is conduct that a person believes will save his own life. We are getting ourselves into an incredible state if we enact a measure that has that effect.

Lastly, I say a few words on enforcement. How different are seat belts from crash helmets! Obviously a policeman can easily see whether a person is wearing a crash helmet. How is the Bill, if it is to be enacted, to be enforced at night? I can foresee interminable arguments whether a man was belted or unbelted when the police overtook him. Did he take the opportunity to fasten his belt when he saw the police, or was he belted all the time? People will argue for days in our magistrates' courts and take up more and more of our magistrates' time in doing so. Will that help relations between motorists and the police?

Mr. Grieve

No, it will not.

Mr. Waddington

Of course it will not. My hon. and learned Friend is right. Surely we should be trying to reduce and not increase the burden on the police and our courts that is caused by traffic cases.

I shall vote against the Bill. Its supporters are well-intentioned but unwise. The Bill seeks to enter an area that the criminal law should not enter. We should continue to press ahead with persuasion rather than compulsion.

6.23 p.m.

Mr. Bryan Magee (Leyton)

I preface my remarks by welcoming back to the House the hon. and learned Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Waddington). The hon. and learned Gentleman was a Member of the House once before. That puts him in the piquant and rare situation of having lost his maidenhood twice. He came to the House following a by-election in 1968 and represented Nelson and Colne. He was in the House until October 1974. The occasion of his return is a sad one. That is because it is consequent on the death of Mr. David Walder, whom I thought a most gifted and entertaining man. His death was a loss to the House. If the hon. and learned Gentleman who succeeds him does as well in this place as his predecessor, he will indeed do well. We re-welcome him to the House.

As someone who has been concerned with this issue througout the lifetime of the present Parliament and actively involved in the argument, it seems to me that far and away the most cogent argument against the Bill is that involving personal freedom. That seems to be the argument that most influences the Bill's opponents, and it influences many hon. Members for whose views I have considerable respect. Therefore, I address myself to that argument, especially because I value extremely highly persona) and civil liberty myself. In general I think that it is the most important of all political values. It should be sacrificed only when the case for doing so is overwhelming.

As I think everyone who is concerned with personal freedom has to admit, it is never an absolute. We can never have absolute freedom in any social situation. It always has to be balanced against other considerations. Almost every time we pass a Bill, we are creating a new crime and abridging people's freedom. On that consideration I believe that this Bill should be given a Second Reading, for in this case it is right that there should be an admitted breach, a small breach, of people's freedoms.

In spite of what has been said, we abridge people's other freedoms to damage themselves or kill themselves. The possession of hard drugs is an outstanding example. I do not think that anyone in the House would advocate the freedom to buy and use heroin. Safety and health measures at work also come into that category. It is striking that the arguments used by those who are against the Bill are on point after point similar to the arguments that were used in the nineteenth century against the introduction of safety devices in our factories. Yet there is no reasonable person who today would wish to abolish the safety and health regulations relating to the use of machinery.

Far and away the most dangerous machine of all in modern society is the automobile. In Britain alone about 20 people a day, or at least a figure approaching that, are killed by cars. There is no other machine in our society that kills people in such numbers. It is an astounding fact that during the political troubles in Northern Ireland more people have been killed on the roads in the Province than by political violence. We take the carnage on the roads in our stride, yet we rightly become impassioned about deaths from political violence. We need to bring some of the latter concern to the carnage that takes place on our roads. Given the opportunity that the Bill provides us to do so, I think we should take it.

It is not the case, as has been contended by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), that the only people whose lives are endangered by the non-wearing of seat belts are drivers. There are two important respects in which that is not the case. My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), in an impressive and powerful speech, brought home the fact that relations, children, colleagues at work and above all wives may have their lives blighted by the results of accidents that take place because somebody was not wearing a seat belt. Yet these are not people who have any say in the wearing or non-wearing of the belt on fatal occasions. People's lives may be destroyed by the consequences of accidents involving those who are close to them, and the suffering involved is not only personal; it is often financial, and affects the upbringing of children.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the argument that he has advanced is applicable to every respect in which a man lives his life to less than the best advantage? It affects those connected with him and all his contemporaries in the world. Therefore, the argument against freedom is entirely universal and prescription can always he applied.

Mr. Magee

No, I do not agree with that. There is something slightly mad about arguing, as do the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) and the right hon. Member for Down, South, that because we abridge one freedom we must abridge all freedoms. That is ridiculous. The whole point of a balanced argument such as the present one is that we make our decision whether to abridge the freedom in question on the concrete facts that we have to consider. Facts are involved, and they determine the decision we make. We are told that about 1,000 deaths and between 60,000 and 100,000 serious injuries will be saved.

We are not talking about cuts and bruises. We are talking about people losing limbs, arms, legs and eyes, being blinded for life, losing their faces when thrown through windscreens. People who oppose this Bill seem to me to lack imagination. They do not confront the magnitude and horror of what is at stake. The Bill proposes to safeguard people from carnage on an enormous scale at the cost of a trivial infringement of the freedom of the individual—the requirement that he should, in the words of the famous advertisement,"clunk click"whenever he gets into a car. To preserve that freedom, are we to take action that wil result in the deaths of thousands and serious injuries to tens of thousands of people? I am happy that such a frivolous attitude is not brought to all other legislation inevitably involving the abridgement of freedoms and the creation of crimes.

The right hon. Member for Down, South was inadequate in the way that he met the argument in another respect. It is common in automobile accidents for there to be more than one impact. We all know about motorway pile-ups in which impact after impact occurs. It is common for a car to hit another car, or obstacle, then veer off the road, up the pavement, and hit a lamp post, a wall or tree.

This is a crucial point. A driver wearing a seat belt is far more likely to retain control of the vehicle after the first impact than one who is not doing so. A driver who retains control of the vehicle after the first impact will, in specific instances, avert deaths and maimings that would have occurred on the second impact had he not been wearing a seat belt. That is also—as the point of principle is so dear to the right hon. Gentleman—another example of the crucial fact that death and injury are at stake not only to the wearer of the seat belt. The man who refuses to wear a seat belt, or who chooses not to wear it, materially increases the chances that he will kill or injure someone else. That is a decisive fact, because it knocks the bottom out of the argument that we are taking away people's freedom to damage themselves—and that we have no right to do so. We are not taking away people's freedom to damage only themselves. This makes the argument in favour of the Bill overwhelming.

This is the most important measure that it is possible for Parliament now to pass. That may sound a high claim. However, can any Member of Parliament think of any other Bill we could pass that would save up to 1,000 lives and avert up to 10,000 serious maimings and injuries per year? I can think of no such legislation. I hope that Members of Parliament will accept the cost of the tiny infringement of personal freedom and pass it.

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