HC Deb 26 October 1982 vol 29 cc956-63


Lords amendment: No. 82, after clause 54 insert— . There shall be inserted after section 78A of the 1967 Act the following section— 78B. On the prosecution of a person for any speeding offence, evidence of the measurement of any speed by a device designed or adapted for measuring by radar the speed of motor vehicles shall not be admissible unless the device is of a type approved by the Secretary of State."

Read a Second time.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I beg to move, as an amendment to the Lords amendment at end insert '(in regulations conforming to a performance standard specified in those regulations)'. The public need confidence in the equipment used for radar speed measuring—

Mr. Peter Griffiths

Hear, hear.

Mr. Hughes

When discussing a previous amendment, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) got himself into a terrible lather and said that no one spoke for the motorist. The Opposition and, I am sure, the Minister speak for the motorist. However, it is necessary not to have excessive regard for the motorist who is committing an illegal act. The difficulty with all motorists is that once they get into that little cocoon of a vehicle, they think that they are immune to both danger and the law. I dare say that I am no different.

It is important that everyone should have confidence in the equipment used to determine speed. I understand that a number of cases have either failed in the courts or been abandoned by the prosecution because of challenges against the equipment used. The issue was canvassed at length in another place, where the Government disputed the number of cases involved and implied that the issue was not as important as some of us believe it to be.

We are all concerned to ensure that speeding motorists, causing danger to life and limb, are properly prosecuted and fairly convicted. The other side of the equation is that it is important that charges are not frustrated simply because of a technicality about the admissibility of evidence or the standard of equipment used. The courts, the motorists and the general public must be satisfied on these matters.

While the Opposition welcome Lords amendment No. 82, as far as it goes, we must point out that it does not meet our main point. The performance standard of the equipment should meet certain regulations under the control of the Secretary of State. The more that I think about the matter, the more I feel that we were remiss in earlier debates in Committee and on Report in not insisting that the equipment used should be calibrated at a regular interval of six months to ensure that it was operating efficiently, to the benefit of the motorist and the courts. However, we did not proceed with that point at the time, so I raise no complaints about the Government not dealing with it.

In the area of the motorist and his defence, the Government have been guilty of being too much concerned with the technicalities and the administration, and have not taken the wider view. As Lords amendment No. 82 stands, it simply provides that a device must be of a type approved by the Secretary of State. The standards might be set by the manufacturer, and the Home Office research laboratory will check it. The Government should take the lead and set standards and ensure that they are capable of being enforced.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) that a balance must be struck between the vitally important consideration of road safety and that of fairness in the conviction of motorists charged with speeding offences. It is clear that since the matter was last debated in the House there has been some movement by the Home Office. However, I feel that that movement has been with the aim of stilling criticism in the House and in another place and that there have been no concessions as yet concerning the validity of the criticisms about the equipment used.

I favour the amendments moved in another place by Lord Underhill to provide a standard for the testing performance, operation and training in respect of these devices. Since this matter was last before the House, there has been discussion between the Association of Chief Police Officers and the British Standards Institution to try to work out an appropriate British standard. The chairman of the traffic committee of the Association of Chief Police Officers told all chief constables in July that he was concerned that the Home Office was trying to persuade chief constables to accept a British standard. That was the view of the Home Office at that time. The chairman of the traffic committee said that the Home Office had threatened to force the use of the standard on the police if the police did not voluntarily accede to it. That was the background.

We know also that the Association of Chief Police Officers issued in 1980 what it called a "user requirement" for hand-held speed detector devices with what it called "essential minimum requirements". It is clear that, in the two years that have elapsed, devices which have not measured up, in at least two key respects, to those so-called "essential minimum requirements" have been in use by police forces throughout the country and have resulted in many convictions. The two requirements are, first, that it should be ensured that there is a positive identification of the target vehicle, and, second, that the operating sequence is not affected by external interference.

Clearly, although in July the Home Office sought to pressurise the police to accept the British standard following the reaction of the police, in particular as a result of the tactics which ACPO worked out at a conference in July, the Home Office has yielded. It has gone but a small part of the way to what is clearly desirable in this connection. In effect, it has been hijacked by the police en route to the best solution.

One of the major issues raised in the debate in the other place was the comparitive quality of the technical advice that is available to Ministers in this highly specialised sphere and the advice that was available to Lord Underhill and others who spoke for the Opposition. I note, for example, that in the concession made in the other place on 14 October 1982 the Minister said: I hope it would be agreed that the standards that will be achieved in the Home Office Scientific Research and Development Branch will be satisfactory … What we propose is that the branch will examine all the radar devices currently in use and advise the Secretary of State as to the appropriateness of approving the equipment; the need to issue guidance on operating procedures and training will also be considered".— [Official Report, House of Lords, 14 October 1982; Vol. 434, c. 992.]

I hope that the Minister can add some flesh and bones to that. Is the matter now to be left as open as was suggested in the other place?

The Home Office now says that it has sufficient expertise properly to evaluate the various devices that are currently marketed and that are likely to be marketed. I refer to a letter written to me by Lord Belstead, who was then the responsible Minister at the Home Office. The letter is dated 24 July 1981, and it says: The Home Office did not then have, and still does not have, the resources to evaluate the wide range of equipment currently available, not to speak of any future devices which the police may wish to use". That was the Home Office position in July 1981.

Just over a year has passed. What has happened? Is it a fact that the Home Office has recruited a number of qualified personnel? Is it a fact that the people who at that time were considered not competent properly to evaluate the devices have now been upgraded in the esteem of the Home Office? Why is it now, on an issue which essentially cries out for examination by the BSI—highly regarded, certainly competent—that the Home Office considers that it now has that expertise which it denied so clearly in the letter of July 1981?

Therefore, there is the matter of the comparative expertise that is available. Since I have doubts on the quality of the expertise that is available to the Home Office, I want to consider some particular statements made by the Minister who answered in the other place. He said, for example, that the prospect of achieving a design breakthrough banning radio interference altogether is remote".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 October 1982; Vol. 434, c. 993.]

However, I have documents, both from this country and from the United States—from the National Bureau of Standards, the Law Enforcements Standard Laboratory, the National Highway Safety Administration, the Federal Communications Commission and more recently from the Florida Radar Commission—which confirm that, as far back as 1977, in the United States equipment was available on which speed measurements taken could not be affected by radio interference. I concede that Britain still uses relatively outdated, first generation equipment, whereas the United States has moved to second generation, more sophisticated equipment.

8.15 pm

Motor magazine quoted a case at Wimbledon magistrates' court in which Mr. Toothill, a Home Office expert who appeared for the prosecution, agreed under cross-examination that many of the criticisms of the radar gun's performance put forward by the defence were well established. He agreed that the reading which is supposed to appear on the display when the gun receives a confused signal could malfunction.

It was also said in the other place that a reading caused by radio interference has a distinctive "flutter". Expert evidence which is available to the motoring organisations and to me suggests that that is not true and that radio interference can manifest itself as accelerating, decelerating or constant speed readings. Citizens band users advise me and the motoring associations that they now whistle into their microphones when they see a police speed trap on the horizon to cause confusion. One knows the problems that can be caused by CB equipment.

It was said in the other place that, should misleading signals be generated, thus causing a false reading, they are easily detected and that one can guarantee that such a speed reading will be made known to the operator. I am told that none of the equipment has the necessary circuitry to give that degree of confidence.

It was said, and has been said frequently, that such devices do no more than corroborate a police officer's visual observation based on his experience. The Minister may know that when Motor magazine wrote what it called the K15 file it observed errors of about 11 miles per hour in the observations of an experienced police officer who was the training officer for the Dorset police force with some 20 years' experience. Accuracy was only possible when vehicles were closer to him than 150 yards.

I am advised that the K15 device that is used by the Dorset police, which is the second most popular radar device in use in Britain, has severe faults. I shall not deal with the many cases that have occurred since the Bill was first introduced in the House, but, for example, the Minister will be aware of the case of the Police v Knopp at Reading magistrates' court where the police lost a case, which was based on the evidence of two police officers and a Muniquip and costs of £1,500 were awarded against the police.

It may be said, as it was in the other place, that when evidence is disputed the courts are capable of deciding when the evidence is unsatisfactory. I remind the Minister that a defendant. Mr. Desmond Hughes, was convicted before the local magistrates' court. He had some expertise in electronics and successfully appealed. Most people who fail at magistrates' courts do not have the financial resources to appeal.

Already several summonses have been withdrawn by police forces in Avon and Somerset and even in Nottingham where Mr. McClachlan is the area chief constable and the secretary of ACPO. The main point made by Home Office Ministers is that their resources are now sufficient to allay public fears relating to the efficiency of prosecution procedures in this area. They also said that they have the necessary expertise. If the Minister was anxious about public disquiet over radar guns, she should have gone to the BSI which attracts far greater public confidence and is much respected. The Home Office should not have been diverted from its original intentions by police pressure, as it was in July.

The Minister will know of many developments by companies manufacturing these devices during that time. She will know too of the many questions raised about some of the individuals who gave evidence in support of the prosecution. For example, the Thorn EMI expert used by the police in support of the Muniquip device stated in court that radio interference would only affect devices from a few yards. However, the company's own research showed that interference could affect devices over a distance of 280 metres, thus causing false readings. I am advised that radio interference can override the signal from an approaching vehicle when the vehicle is more hart 100 yards from the radar gun.

We concede that the Home Office has moved some way as a result of criticism in this House and another place, but it has done the minimum in an effort to restore the credibility of these devices. Many questions must be asked about the advice that the Home Office is receiving. The Home Office has not done sufficient to allay both the justifiable fears expressed in the motoring press and the courts, and the general public's considerable anxiety.

Mrs. Chalker

The amendment was debated at great length in another place and the wider issue of the approval of radar speed checking devices has received much attention since the subject was last debated.

It may be helpful if I outline how far the Government have moved to meet the anxieties and wishes that have been expressed. When the Bill left this House, I undertook to consult the Secretary of State to see whether it was possible for him to provide resources and facilities to allow Home Office approval of this equipment in the near future. It was felt that to do so would to some extent infringe the prerogative of chief officers to select their own equipment and that the resources would be difficult to find within the constraints under which all Government Departments work.

After much discussion, both in the Home Office and in another place, I am pleased to say that the Secretary of State has agreed that this equipment can be brought within the ambit of Home Office approval procedure. Amendment No. 82 is the first stage of that agreement.

Although the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) still has fears on this subject, I believe that we are moving in the right direction. It is certainly the direction that his right hon. and hon. Friends urged on me at all stages of the Bill. Obviously it is in the interests of the police and the prosecution to use only devices that are demonstrably accurate. If they are using a device that has not been proven to be accurate, they have lost half their case even before beginning. Everybody in the House is agreed that the devices used by police should measure speed accurately.

The hon. Member for Swansea, East cast what were for him some unusual aspersions. We have carefully studied everything that has been said on this issue, because we realise that many people are worried about it. The reason I cannot favour the Opposition amendment is twofold. First, the phrase "performance standard" has no legal meaning, and to define it for this specific case as against a general legal definition would be extremely difficult. Secondly, the amendment ties approval to regulations.

I understand that "performance standard" is a term of art understood by engineers. It does not have a legal meaning when divorced from references to a British standard. The Opposition amendment would mean that our scientists would have to devise their own idea of a "performance standard" and turn it into a list of key points which would then have to be incorporated into regulations. I do not think that regulations are the right place for technical specification.

The idea carries with it a great disadvantage. It would mean that one could not raise the standard, for example, without making new regulations, all of which could involve parliamentary and departmental time. It would delay the process of getting the benefits of the scientific research, of the work that the scientists are doing and their conclusions to the public.

I cannot see the merit of that, particularly when we already have a good tried and tested system for approving equipment which has been much used in recent years.

Mr. Anderson

Is not the point the Minister is making against the use of regulations equally valid against the construction and use regulations, which are regularly amended? If she is now saying that regulations and a standard are not appropriate, why was the Home Office leaning on the ACPO in July?

Mrs. Chalker

I am not a Home Office Minister, but I believe that the construction and use regulations covering vehicles are in a different league from a radar gun that is used by a police officer to corroborate his own view that a car is going too fast. We are talking about two different things. The system that we are using for the approval of the radar guns is the same system that has been used by Governments of both parties since 1968 for approving breath-testing equipment.

I am talking here not about equipment used at the roadside, which is relatively simple, but about the highly sophisticated evidential equipment that will come into use next year. I have said that a radar gun is used only to corroborate a police officer's opinion that a person is committing an offence. The result cannot stand on its own in court. However, a result from an evidential breath-testing machine will on its own lead to conviction, yet Parliament decided only last year that it was a sufficient safeguard to ensure that the evidential breath-testing equipment was of a type approved by the Secretary of State.

I know that mention was made in the other place of Home Office scientists, and I am sad that tonight the hon. Member for Swansea, East should have cast aspersions on the quality of their work and advice.

Mr. Anderson

I was quoting from a Home Office letter.

Mrs. Chalker

That Home Office letter related to a situation more than a year ago. I shall come to that in a moment. The Home Office scientists who are responsible for making recommendations to my right hon. Friend have said that they could not lower the standards that would prevail in the examination of radar equipment. We are aiming for more accurate standards at each stage. If, in practice, a device is found in any way wanting, I have it on the authority of several chief police officers who have spoken directly to me that they will instruct their forces to take that device out of service.

There are checks to be used before the device is put into operation and checks immediately after the device has been operated. I have had discussions with three chief police officers, and an impromptu demonstration. Those officers, who had no warning that I would ask such a question, told me that two types of device—I am sorry but I cannot immediately recall which types—had been fully checked and were accurate. The constable who demonstrated the devices told me that if they had any doubts they would not use those devices.

The hon. Member for Swansea, East asked why the Home Office now had the resources and scientists that it did not have in 1981. As time goes by, it is possible to allow those who have been working on other devices, such as the evidential breath tester, to concentrate on new issues. I understand that there has been much more work in the past 12 months than when that letter was written to the hon. Gentleman in July 1981.

Mr. Anderson

How can an expert in breath testing be moved to a totally different world, that of advanced, sophisticated electronics, and be expected so to transfer his expertise as to make a useful contribution?

8.30 pm
Mrs. Chalker

I was referring to senior scientists who oversee such work. The Home Office and the Transport and Road Research Laboratory continually move from one project to another. Those who examine the work caried out by groups of scientists may not all be experts in electronics or in other branches of science. However, they must monitor, supervise and probe the work of those scientists.

There has been much disquiet about radio interference. We can all cite different court cases. However, the police assure me that they do not intend to use any device that cannot be relied upon. The testing of such devices is crucial and they cannot be used without such tests.

This matter has been fully debated. The amendment shows that we have moved a good way to bring the equipment that can be used within the ambit of Home Office approval. Therefore, I hope that the House will accept the Lords amendment but I regret that I cannot accept the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes).

Mr. Robert Hughes

With leave of the House. I listened carefully to the Minister. No doubt we shall return to this matter because, unfortunately, there will probably be another Transport Bill next Session. However, in view of the Minister's remarks, which need to be studied with care, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment to the Lords amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lords amendment No. 82 agreed to.

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