HC Deb 03 May 1985 vol 78 cc538-73 9.41 pm
Mr. Ian Mikardo (Bow and Poplar)

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 14, leave out 'seven' and insert 'ten'.

Mr. Speaker

It will be convenient to consider at the same time the following amendments: No. 7, in page 2, line 14, leave out 'seven' and insert 'ten'.

No. 15, in page 3, line 5, leave out 'seven' and insert 'ten'.

No. 22, in page 3, line 25, leave out 'seven' and insert 'ten'.

No. 28, in page 3, line 42, leave out 'seven' and insert 'ten'.

No. 30, in page 4, line 3, leave out 'seven' and insert 'ten'.

Mr. Mikardo

It is convenient to discuss those amendments together, Mr. Speaker, because they relate to the same point and are consequential.

The whole House is in the debt of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) for introducing the Bill. While it is, he will agree, a modest measure, it will lighten a burden on people who have committed no real crime or act of gross negligence. They should not, for an act of forgetfulness or something similar, be made to suffer.

I hope that, well before the conclusion of our proceedings today, the Bill will have received its Third Reading and been sent to another place, and that when it gets there the gods on those Olympian heights will also look kindly on it and get a Neptune from among their number to give it a fair wind.

My only complaint about the Bill is that it does not go far enough. I am endeavouring by my amendments to fill somewhat further the cornucopia of blessings which the hon. Member for Beaconsfield is planning to give to offending motorists.

It is unreasonable for motorists to have to produce these documents within five days. To do so can sometimes cause great difficulty. Imagine a chap who lives in Newcastle upon Tyne driving with his family to spend their holiday in Torquay. They stop for a Devon cream tea in Honiton and the chap parks the car in a spot where it should not be parked. For that misdemeanour he may be under an obligation to produce his licence within a few days because he has left the document at home. Should he drive all the way from Honiton to Newcastle or cut his holiday short, to five days, so that he can return in time to produce his licence and not commit an offence?

Since tabling the amendment, I have been wondering whether 10 days is a sufficient period. A chap from Newcastle upon Tyne is driving with his family to a camping site in France where they intend to have a 14-day holiday. They stop for tea in Dover just before boarding the ferry. Having parked in the wrong place, he is asked to produce the necessary documents but discovers that he has left them at home. Should he give up his family's place on the ferry and drive back to Newcastle or board the ferry and risk prosecution?

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield may tell me that all such contingencies are covered by clause 1(2)(d) and that people can cite that in their defence. There are two things wrong with that safeguard. First, if there is to be a defence, why increase the period from five to seven days in the first place?

By increasing the period and by adding that defence, the hon. Gentleman has tried to reduce the number of people who find themselves in difficulty when having to produce these documents. That is a worthy aim, but if, as I say, we are to rely on a defence for people who have committed an offence through sheer forgetfulness, the period could have remained at five days.

Secondly, the phrase in subsection (2)(d) which states it is not reasonably practicable for it to be produced there could cause complications. Having been a member of many Standing Committees, I can scarcely recall one when there was not a long debate about the words "reasonable" or "reasonably". Such words always create legislative difficulties because they are imprecise. What is reasonable to Tom may not be reasonable to Dick, and one cannot tell how a court will interpret "reasonable".

I hope that I do not utter a blasphemy when I say that courts have been known to be unreasonable, and I recently had an experience of that. I parked my car in a spot where it should not have been left. Being the defendant, I drew the attention of the court to the fact that, according to Butterworth, one may put in a plea in mitigation referring to similar cases that have come before the courts. The lady in charge of the bench that day flatly refused to allow me to mitigate in that way, although I saw her clerk drawing her attention to the relevant passage in Butterworth. That is why I say that great difficulty can be caused when words such as "reasonable" are put in legislation.

I had intended to try to amend subsection (2)(d) with a different form of words which I thought would be more helpful to the defendant. Mr. Speaker did not select that amendment, and I make no complaint about that; perhaps he felt that I was replacing one imprecise term with another. I still believe that it would have been easier for a motorist to defend himself under my wording than under the subsection as drafted.

I hope that my amendment will be accepted, although I do not propose to have a great battle over it or, indeed, over anything in the Bill. If it is accepted, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield may care to suggest to any friends he may have in another place that they might take yet another look at the period within which documents must be produced. As I say, I am not sure that 10 days is long enough.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wish to protest about the procedural position that has developed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has a point of order for me. The hon. Gentleman cannot make a protest, but must make a point of order on which I can rule.

Mr. Cash

My point is that these proceedings are wasting time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The business is perfectly in order, or it would not be on the Order Paper, and the amendments would not have been selected.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

I wish to speak briefly in support of the amendments of the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo). I understand the good will with which my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) moved his Bill, and I support the complimentary remarks about the matter. However, we must first examine what the matter is about.

If I understand the law correctly, every motorist is required to carry with him the statutory documents to which this matter refers. When the Government passed the two original statutes, they wrote in a modest concession that permitted five days grace. That was reasonable and right. I support the prospect of increasing that period from five days.

The hon. Member for Bow and Poplar made a good point when he said that seven days was a rather inconvenient period for many people because a week is often a holiday period. Therefore, I agree with his amendment. However, if my hon Friend can persuade me that a period of more than seven but fewer than 10 days is better for any reason, I shall accept his view.

I recall an occasion when Iwas stopped because one rear light was not working. I gave it a kick and it worked again. However, because of the procedure, I was required to produce the documents. My secretary was away on holiday and I can never find anything in her filing system. It took me a considerable time to overcome what I consider to be a ludicrous bureaucratic process. I share the will of the promoter of the Bill and of the group of amendments

The matter is serious. Many matters in the Road Traffic Acts apply to all the motoring citizens of our nation and should therefore be debated more frequently. It is an indictment of our legislation that it is necessary to produce a Bill for a minor amendment. I have great pleasure in supporting the amendment. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that it is tabled with the best of intentions to improve what is already a concession and to make it more agreeable to many people.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

I support the amendments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) said, the Bill is practical arid limited in intention, but useful. We all talk at length about the need to improve relationships between the police and the public. Various surveys have shown that road traffic matters are the major area of conflict. They lead to all sorts of resentment, disgruntlement and feelings of hostility towards the police. Anything that we can do to minimise that must be useful.

The Bill is too unambitious. It seeks to lengthen from five to seven days the period allowed to produce documents required by the police. That is insufficient. Nowadays, people are more mobile and move around the country far more than they used to. People are away from home on holidays and for work purposes, and often for a week or more. If people are away from home and are required to produce documents, they may have to travel home again. They may not have all the documents to hand, and they may have to make arrangements to obtain them. Many people would find it difficult to produce the necessary documents within seven days.

It may be useful to the House to detail the documents to which we are referring. Clause 1(2) refers to certificates of medical exemption from wearing seat belts. A person may have such a certificate or be entitled to such an exemption, but not have the certificates with him. He may then have to return home, see his doctor, obtain such a certificate, and return to the place where the police stopped him in the first place. That could take more than seven days.

Clause 1(3) refers to a driving instructor's certificate or licence. Clause 1(4) refers to the ordinary driving licence. Obviously, that is the most common provision under which motorists are caught. Although I am not a motorist—I am a great supporter of public transport—I understand that driving licences that are sent for renewal are frequently held up in Cardiff.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Nothing is held up in Cardiff, except through the inefficiency of the post from time to time. The driving and vehicle licensing centre is in Swansea, but that, too, has an excellent record.

Ms. Short

I apologise to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), who tells me that the organisation is efficient and that the post causes delays. Whatever the cause, I am aware that there are great delays when people renew their driving licences.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I have been listening with great care, but I have a tiny worry. Will my hon. Friend tell me exactly what she has in mind about the production of certificates of exemption from wearing seat belts? That is an important point, on which I shall have something to say shortly. Does she believe that people may be inclined to seek to avoid the responsibility of wearing seat belts by saying that they cannot produce that certificate, and by using the extra time to get, for example, a private practitioner to give them a certificate? I am worried that that may be possible.

Ms. Short

I understand my hon. Friend's worry. However, the law on the compulsory wearing of seat belts has been enormously successful and is popular. The claims that it would infringe civil liberties have been unfounded. I have not come across people who have defiantly refused to wear their seat belts. Therefore, I believe that my hon. Friend's fears are groundless. On the other hand, some people may have genuine reasons for medical exemptions but may not be able to find their medical certificates. They may be away from home and they may need to see their doctor. My experience of the law on seat belts is that it is popular, and that people comply with it and do not wish to resist it.

Clause 1(5) refers to the other documents which may have to be produced, such as an insurance certificate, an MOT-test certificate, a plating certificate or a goods vehicle test certificate.

The first purpose of the Bill is to extend the time in which people can produce their certificates, and the second is to end the absolute offence of failing to produce the certificates in time. That is right. It allows a person to demonstrate in court that he had reasonable cause for being unable to produce any of the certificates. If we extend the period from seven to 10 days, we shall reduce the number of trivial cases clogging up the courts when people have reasonable excuses. There are enormous costs and increasing delays in our legal system. Justice delayed is justice denied, and it is extremely desirable that the amendment should be accepted. It might be acceptable to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith), who has so usefully introduced the Bill, and it would be beneficial to us all in the ways that I have outlined.

10 am

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

I oppose the amendments. Although it would be superficially attractive to allow the extra few days, in practice some flexibility should be allowed. I suggest that the police should have the power to demand the documents more or less immediately if they believe that something is wrong.

Britain has the worst stolen car record in Europe. A report in The Times on 1 May stated that twice as many cars are stolen in Britain as in France, and six times as many as in West Germany. It is believed that as many as 6,000 luxury cars have been taken abroad. If a policeman stops a luxury car on its way to Dover because he has reason to believe that it would be taken abroad illegally, he should have no hesitation in demanding to see the driver's licence and other documents immediately and to hold the driver until they could be produced.

The Home Office has suggested setting up a study group to investigate the epidemic. In France, the manufacturers and distributors of BMW cars are suggesting that registration numbers should be etched on windscreens and all the windows. Perhaps we should go further than that. Will the Home Office study team consider the suggestion that someone who has been convicted of stealing cars should be tattooed——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I find it difficult to relate the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the amendment. He must relate his speech to the amendments that we are discussing.

Mr. Thurnham

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was trying to say that the police should have more flexibility and should be able to demand documents immediately and to hold a person until the documents are produced. If the police stopped a suspicious-looking motorist, they could ask to look at his left wrist. Recently, a person was arrested for a serious offence because he was wearing his watch on one wrist rather than the other. If the motorist was seen to be keeping his left hand firmly in his pocket, the police might have reason to suppose——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The amendment deals with whether the production of documents should be required within seven or 10 days, and the hon. Gentleman's remarks must be addressed to that.

Mr. Thurnham

I would favour an arrangement whereby this could be left to the discretion of the police officer. If he has reason to suppose that a vehicle is being taken abroad illegally, he should be able to demand the documents immediately and should not have to wait for 10 days.

Mr. Wigley

I support the extension of the time available for the production of documents, because this is a constituency problem that I have come across many times. It affects people in an area such as mine, where tourism is a major industry and where, regrettably, there is no adequate public transport system. Therefore, more people must rely on motor vehicles. Indeed, the ownership of motor vehicles in my county is the highest per thousand population in the United Kingdom. The next highest is in Powys, which is another rural area.

The majority of tourists to my area travel by road, and of those, the majority come by car. Every summer, problems arise with people who have been stopped by the police, for major or minor traffic incidents, who do not have their documents with them. Many people have come to my office during holiday periods looking for help. They have driven to the beauties of Snowdonia, the Menai straits, the Lleyn peninsula, perhaps from London, Scotland or Newcastle upon Tyne——

Ms. Clare Short

And from Birmingham.

Mr. Wigley

Many people come from Birmingham and from north-west England, but I was thinking especially of people who come from even further away and who, regrettably, do not have their documents with them.

I take the point made by the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) that there may be a case for people carrying their documents with them at all times, although I would oppose any recommendation from the Home Office study team to which he referred that would impose such a restriction.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

The hon. Gentleman says that there may be a case for people carrying documents with them at all times. I have been a motorist for many years, and on some occasions, although I have not broken the law in any way, I have not had all the three documents that I need to drive a car. I have not been able to produce them immediately because I had sent them to Swansea or elsewhere.

Mr. Wigley

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, and I was about to refer to Swansea. It is possible to overcome the problem of documents being tied up in Swansea. I realise that there were difficulties in Swansea, but most of them have been overcome. However, in the past, documents were lying in Swansea for a month or even two, which made it impossible for people to comply with the requirements of the law. Indeed, it would have made it impossible for them to comply with the requirements of this Bill, even if the period were extended to seven or 10 days.

Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is the minimum that should be asked for? Often the motorist who is required to produce his driving licence or insurance certificate is completely innocent. Has the hon. Gentleman considered the possibility of the police contacting Swansea or the motorist's insurance company, if the motorist can produce some identification to show who he is?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will resist the temptation to go down that road, which is wide of the amendment.

Mr. Wigley

I note what you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and will comply with it. The question whether there should be an extension from five to seven or 10 days depends upon what other powers the police could be given instead. As the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) said, there may be other ways of overcoming the problem. Although an extension of the period from five to 10 days will cut the number of instances of people being unable to produce documents in time, it will not stop them altogether. The hon. Gentleman's question was valid, although I realise that the debate must relate to the extension to seven or 10 days.

It would be practical for the police to check some things, including the ownership of the car. Indeed, they can do so already. A police officer can radio from his car and check with the central computer to discover who owns the car that he has stopped. It would be much more difficult to check insurance and MOT certificates and disablement documents, which are also covered by the amendments. Although there is merit in considering whether some of the problems can be resolved by the means suggested by the hon. Member for East Kilbride, it would not answer all the problems. We must return to the time limit, which is the matter under consideration now.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Some years ago, I spent a holiday in the hon. Gentleman's glorious constituency. Without being offensive to him, may I ask why the Welsh are so bureaucratic?

Mr. Wigley

When those who visit my constituency ask nicely in the Welsh language for their mitigating factors to be taken into consideration, they have no difficulty at all. When they ask in English, it is not too bad. But when people use other languages or accents that are difficult to understand, it sometimes causes problems.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) makes a pertinent point. Like others, he has been on holiday in my lovely part of the world, to which he paid tribute. I hope that he will go again and take his friends with him. He has come up against the bureaucracy which is at the core of the problem. We must try to overcome that bureaucracy.

The hon. Gentleman might have to go to the police station in Pwllheli, Portmadoc or Criccieth and produce his documents. He might not have those documents with him, but if he were allowed a week or two to produce them that would allow him to return home and to present them to his local police station, where he will be a well known person, and bureaucracy would be reduced. I am sure that the police in my area are not deliberately awkward, but they have to enforce the law.

The problem applies not only to Wales but to the south-west and the Lake District where many people spend their holidays. If a traffic offence is committed, documents have to be checked.

Mr. Thurnham

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that people who holiday in the Lake District are particularly liable to commit motoring offences? I live there and that is not my experience.

Mr. Wigley

I was not aware that the hon. Gentleman lived in the Lake District. He is lucky to have a house there in view of the restrictions imposed by section 32 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. I am sure that the people who holiday in the Lake District commit no more offences than those who holiday elsewhere. If the police do their job properly the problem is bound to arise. We have to decide how to stop disrupting people's holidays unnecessarily.

People who go to Gwynedd usually plan to stay for at least 10 days. They arrive on Friday night and stay until a week the following Sunday. We must allow at least 10 days for documents to be produced. An offence might be committed on the journey. A driver might be forced to turn back to look for the necessary documents. Of course, drivers should carry the documentation with them. That would save trouble all round.

Mr. Wiggin

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but it would be wrong to suggest that the problem affects holiday makers alone. The insurance document causes most difficulty. For example, a garage or company might insure 50 cars and have only one insurance certificate. The problem is widespread and serious.

Mr. Wigley

I accept that and intend to deal with it when I have completed my constituency argument. I have received direct representations from constituents with bed and breakfast establishments, hotels or caravan parks who are worried about how their guests are somtimes messed up by the regulations. I have also heard from constituents who have been out of the area on business or for other reasons.

Disabled visitors to my constituency have also encountered problems. Some disabled people have difficulties with seat belts and many have certificates which allow them to travel without wearing seat belts. A number of places in my constituency specialise in holidays for the disabled and so more than the average number of disabled people go there for their holidays, and I welcome that. Disabled people often find it difficult to make long journeys and it is even more difficult and painful for them if they are forced to make the long journey back home to find a document. They might have then to curtail their holiday and not be able to find an alternative place.

Any disabled person who wants a certificate of dispensation should seek it immediately rather than after the event. I am not sure whether people have a right to apply retrospectively for a certificate permitting them to travel without wearing a seat belt. Such a certificate will probably not be valid if it is obtained after the event.

10.15 am
Ms. Clare Short

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is right in that disabled people must have the certificate of dispensation before they drive. However, the certificate might be lost and the person would have to return to the doctor for a new one.

Mr. Wigley

That is true of driving licences, certificates of insurance and MOT certificates, which can also be lost. The possibility of losing a document is one degree higher for a disabled person.

An extension of the time allowed to produce documents to at least 10 days is essential. I should prefer 14 days to be allowed and I regret that I did not table an amendment to that effect. However, I shall support the amendment to extend the time allowed to 10 days.

Before I came to the House I worked for the Hoover company in Merthyr Tydfil. The company had sister factories outside Glasgow and outside London at Greenfield. One day a problem arose and it was necessary for me to drive to Scotland. I was stopped in Scotland and asked for my documents. I did not have them with me because I did not expect when I left for work that I should have to speed to the other factory.

Ms. Clare Short

Did the hon. Gentleman find the people in Scotland bureaucratic?

Mr. Wigley

I found the people in Scotland difficult to understand, particularly in the Glasgow area, but they were friendly. The word "Glasgow" originates from the word "Glasgae" meaning "blue field."

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

I fear that I must correct the hon. Gentleman. I believe that "Glasgow" means "dear green place", not "blue".

Mr. Wigley

That is interesting because the word "glas" has two connotations in Welsh—one suggesting blue and the other green. That might reflect the colour of the fields in Wales which are a blue shade of green as opposed to the emerald green of Ireland.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I realise that the hon. Gentleman is being tempted, but I hope he will now address his remarks to the amendment.

Mr. Wigley

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for rescuing me from the blues and greens of Glasgow.

I was making a serious point. Many people are caught without warning on a long journey when they do not have their documentation with them. Some documents cover more than one vehicle or more than one driver. For example, my wife and I drive the same car, but we have only one MOT document. It is not practical for one of us to carry the document. Given the number of car break-ins, I would hesitate about leaving the document in the car. Therefore, we shall need to plan in advance if the MOT document is to go with the driver.

When people are called away on business, it may not be practical for them to carry documents with them.

Mr. Thurnham

The hon. Gentleman is losing sight of the main point, which is that papers should be available to show that a person is authorised to drive the vehicle. If we extend the period from seven days to 10 days, we will give a person who has stolen a car more time to get away. I do not suppose that he would be going to Glasgow if he intended to take the car abroad, but if he is on his way to a port, he would be given more time to get away.

Mr. Wigley

There is an alternative way for the police to keep an eye out for stolen vehicles. The police computer is very efficient, as I know from an incident in my constituency. The computer can trace the owner of a car very quickly.

Mr. Leo Abse (Torfaen)

Is not the hon. Member dodging the issue? It is abundantly clear that the issue of stolen cars is relevant to the amendments. Extending the limit would give thieves many days' start before the police were put on inquiry. That important point has not been met and it is one of the most fundamental problems that we shall have to consider on some of these amendments.

Mr. Wigley

The logic of the hon. Gentleman's argument is that we should do away with the five-day period and that the police should be entitled to see documents on the spot. Once the driver has left the scene, the police are back to square one.

There has been a great increase in the number of stolen vehicles, and safeguards are needed, but I question whether they should include cutting down the five-day period, which is the only logical way to meet the point made by the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Abse). That would impose enormous inconvenience on motorists. They would need to take documents with them whenever they were in a car and, when there was more than one driver of a car, multiple copies of the documents would have to be made. The bureaucracy about which we heard complaints earlier would be extended.

We must look for other ways of checking for stolen cars, and the use of the police computer is one such way. I should like the time limit lengthened rather than shortened.

Ms. Clare Short

Any suggestion that the Bill relates to dealing with stolen cars is misguided. The Bill aims to ensure that people are properly insured and that their cars have MOT certificates. There are other ways of dealing with the problem of stolen cars. I believe that the police are now entitled to demand that people give them their name and address, and a simple check on the police computer will reveal the name of the owner of a car.

Mr. Wigley

I agree with the hon. Lady. We have to follow that line because of the implications of doing otherwise. If we are to react to the problem of stolen cars by allowing the police to demand documents on the spot, we will create serious problems. We must go one way or the other. At the moment, we have the worst of both worlds. I can see the argument for shortening the time limit, but the price that would have to be paid by the 95 per cent. of innocent citizens is not worth paying when there are acceptable alternatives.

Because the Bill would present problems in relation to tourism in my area, because of the difficulties of those who make long journeys away from home—our lives have changed in recent years and many more people now use cars—and because of the implications for disabled people who might have to interrupt holidays or journeys that are often undertaken in pain and with difficulty, I believe that we need to change the Bill. I recommend hon. Members to support the amendments, though I should like them to go further.

Mr. Abse

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) in congratulating the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) on having brought his Bill thus far.

Knowing, as I do, the anxieties of hon. Members when their Bill seems to be coming to the end of its passage through the House, but other hon. Members are still exploring the issues, I should tell the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that, although I feel compelled to speak about the amendments and, doubtless, other issues, I am sure that my view that the House must reach a decision on the Bill is widely shared. I say that to relieve anxiety as I begin to speak in what so far has not been a debate about each of the amendments in the group.

As a result of the seductive persuasions of my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar, we have been misled into believing that the same theme runs through all the amendments. In fact, the same principle is not necessarily involved in each amendment.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Is not the real reason for the hon. Gentleman's speech—apparently he intends to speak at length—the intention to prevent debate on and passage of the next Bill on the Order Paper?

Mr. Abse

Let us deal with one Bill at a time. Each Bill is important. I hope that we shall reach other Bills in which, evidently, the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) is interested, but it would be wrong for us, in our desire to reach other Bills, to fail to scrutinise the amendments before us, all of which are exceedingly important and impinge on millions of motorists. I shall not be deflected from my path as a consequence of the enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Orpington, which share, to debate other matters.

Mr. Mikardo

I hope that my hon. Friend will not be deflected from his path by interventions that are a direct criticism of the Chair.

Mr. Abse

I am sure that Mr. Deputy Speaker is well able to protect the Chair. I hope that the admonition implied by my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar will mean that we shall not have any more such interventions.

10.30 am

We must relate our remarks to each amendment. I shall deal first with the seat belt amendment. I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar said, but why should we become more permissive and relax the rules about the wearing of seat belts?

I hope that the Minister will tell us why we decided that documents should be produced to the police within a specified time. Part of the armoury of the police force is to be able to check on a range of matters to protect the public, motorists, pedestrians and law-abiding citizens against thieves. Before we start denting that armoury, as we shall if we accept the amendments, we must constantly bear in mind that there was a rationale in regulations which insist upon the production of documents. They did not come about out of caprice. They are part of the armoury of the police, and they should not be taken away from them.

Mr. Barron

I was once involved in a road accident. Eventually the police discovered that the person in charge of the other vehicle was uninsured. As I had only third party insurance, I lost the car that had taken me about two years to buy. The production of documents is necessary in those circumstances. The rationale is to protect other people, not necessarily the driver.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Abse) will bear in mind that we are discussing not the rationale of the production of documents, but a time factor.

Mr. Abse

I am sure you will agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we must take into account the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) who was stressing the difficulties that could arise if we extend the time, as proposed in the amendments, for the production of an insurance certificate. It is an important point.

The first amendment relates to seat belts. I asked why we should relax the rules. If someone drives without wearing a seat belt, he is not committing a criminal offence, but placing the public at risk through the administrative expense of pursuing a prosecution. The consequences of someone sustaining an accident while not wearing a seat belt are serious for the community as well as for that person.

We should consider whether to be more permissive to exempt drivers. That point has been mentioned during the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) expressed misgivings and challenged the view that it would not matter if we allowed an exempt driver longer to produce documents than is proposed. I am not satisfied that that is right. I hope that I do not appear to be insensitive. The exempt driver suffers from a disability. The issue is whether an exempt driver should be able to obtain a medical certificate retrospectively. If a person wants to drive without a seat belt, he must follow the prescribed procedure to obtain a lawful exemption which includes the production of a medical certificate.

Ms. Clare Short

This is ultimately a legal question. Surely my hon. Friend is not suggesting that there should not be some provision for retrospective authorisation for not wearing a seat belt if, for example, one broke one's arm on holiday and had it in plaster, and was stopped and required to explain why one was not wearing a seat belt.

Mr. Abse

I shall not be tempted to pursue that point. I know that Mr. Deputy Speaker has his vigilant eye upon me. I do not want to go outside the parameter of the amendments. I am sure that I shall receive your admonition, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I develop the theme, as my hon. Friend is tempting me to do.

The exempt driver knows that he is suffering from a disability. There is nothing unexpected about it. He knows that when he goes on holiday to that delightful part of the country in the finest part of the kingdom described by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley). The minimum precautions that a disabled person can take before he or she enters the Principality is to ensure that he or she carries a medical certificate.

It may be said that as not all of us carry our driving licences and insurance certificates with us, why should we impose a further difficulty upon the exempt driver, who may have a severe disability, and say that he must carry his medical certificate?

I can understand the arguments put forward about the danger of keeping documents in a car in a holiday area. The hon. Member for Caernarfon has the most law-abiding constituents, as I know from the statistics, but, unfortunately, his constituency is so attractive that often other people of different temperaments—I hope I shall not be accused of xenophobia by saying this—pour in. I understand the point that he made about the difficulty of ensuring adequate security for documents. Is it being seriously suggested that if an exempt driver took a photocopy of his certificate anyone else would want it? Of course not. He could take the precaution of taking a copy with him at all times.

Mr. Wigley

The hon. Gentleman has not followed my argument about leaving documents in a car. I was talking about the MOT certificate. There might be several drivers of a car, but only one document for the vehicle. There is an argument for requiring documents to be in the vehicle rather than on the person. I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the documentation relating to the person in the case of the disabled. A difficulty arises, however, because some disabled people might be given a certificate for a limited time. The expiry date of driving licences and insurance documents is clear, but that is not so for certificates for the disabled. Disabled people might therefore be caught out.

Mr. Abse

Like others, the hon. Gentleman seems to believe that when a policeman pulls somebody up, he must ask that person to go to a police station with the necessary documents within five days. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that that does not happen. The police officer has discretion. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that, if an out-of-date certificate is presented and the police officer can see that the driver is severely disabled, he will ask him to go to a police station with the relevant documents? Of course not. But if there is no visible sign of disability, it is right to ask the driver to go to a police station, because of a possible deception.

10.45 am
Mr. Wigley

Surely the hon. Gentleman does not want to put the police in the invidious position of having to make a value judgment about disability. Their job is difficult enough already. The whole point of the extension of time is to take away a discretion which the hon. Gentleman recognises is necessary if a disabled driver's documentation is not intact. As for the visibility of disablement, the hon. Gentleman must have seen people who appear fit, but have orange badges and who might have a serious condition which could kill them. Some people have an aversion to seat belts which could trigger complaints, such as a heart condition, which might prove fatal. It would be wholly wrong to put a duty on the police to make a judgment.

Mr. Abse

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's first point, although I see the cogency of his argument. We should not have a rigid bureaucratic attitude about the duties of police officers. They exercise their discretion sagely, and I should hate to take it away from them. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the lack of visible disability, but only the genuine disabled should be exempt.

What is the likely result of the extra days in which drivers can go around without wearing a seat belt? The longer the extension, the greater the dangers to the community. The cost of people not wearing seat belts is not marginal. It is not possible to calculate what extra cost would be incurred if the nation were allowed to drive without seat belts for two days, but it would be gargantuan. There were 465 road deaths in 1982 and 353 in 1983. It has been calculated that £132 million has been saved as a result of the seat belt legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar said with some insouciance that the only major consideration is administrative convenience. He should consider the consequences in terms of the cost to society. I do not want to delay the House as there are many amendments which require discussion.

Amendment No. 7 concerns the production of certificates and licences. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar really fail to appreciate that the amendment is wholly misconceived? It has been said that the amendments in this group are similar. Indeed, they have been taken together. I am sure that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield will confirm that this part of the Bill has nothing to do with the production of documents by the ordinary motorist. This point, which has not been brought to the attention of the House, is relevant to section 137 of the Road Traffic Act 1972, the heading of which states: Production of certificates and licences to constables and authorised persons. Other sections of that Act make it clear that the amendment has nothing to do with the ordinary motorist. The amendment is concerned with the production of documents involving licensed or certificated driving instructors. Will the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, who is the Bill's promoter, confirm that my understanding is correct?

Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)

I can confirm that section 137 of the Road Traffic Act 1972 provides that a person who holds a driving instructor's certificate or licence must produce it if required to a constable or a person authorised in writing by the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct.

Mr. Abse

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his corroboration of that point.

Do we want to relax the rules, as the amendment intends? This would be a serious step. During the debate on the 1972 legislation, the House gave great attention to the people in charge of people learning to drive. Hon. Members were not prepared to allow any Tom, Dick or Harry to make out that he was capable of teaching others to drive. I admonish my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar for not having directed the attention of hon. Members to section 137.

Mr. Mikardo

Perhaps it would ease my hon. Friend's concern—I am always anxious to do so—and save some of the valuable time of the House if I say that I do not propose to move the amendment to which he refers.

Mr. Abse

I do not think that that is satisfactory in a long debate of this kind on an issue that will be relevant to Third Reading. We need to know a great deal more about why the Bill's promoter wants the time to be extended. In tabling the amendment my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar has given us an opportunity to understand why an extension of time should be allowed for driving instructors.

Section 137 is part of the armoury that was created to ensure that sections 133, 134, 135 and 136 of the Act were strictly observed. Section 133 enables the Secretary of State to make regulations governing the examination of a person's ability to give instruction in the driving of motor cars and to ensure that tests are carried out into the continued ability and fitness to give such intruction. A panoply of rules has been created to ensure that those who hold themselves out as capable of being driving instructors are competent to do that job. We ensured that those who passed the examinaton should be registered. We took steps to protect the public by stipulating that, in certain circumstances, it would be a criminal offence for an unregistered person to hold himself out as being a licensed instructor.

In requiring, if necessary, the production within five days of the appropriate certificates and licences, we are not bearing down harshly on a forgetful private motorist or a motorist who would suffer inconvenience if called upon to produce certain documents. We are dealing with professionals. Their duty should be to have readily available proof of their professionalism. To permit, for a day longer than necessary, an unqualified instructor to continue to hold himself out as competent is to weaken the protection that is given to the public who could be misled by advertisements or improper use of a badge. We would be allowing an instructor more days in which to give faulty lessons to an unsuspecting learner.

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport or the hon. Member for Beaconsfield will justify the proposals to extend the time during which documents should be produced by those whose schools should be properly registered. We have taken pains to prevent exploitation. It is therefore difficult to understand why such an amendment has been proposed and why, without any explanation so far, change has been proposed in what has been described as a minor Bill. I regard the legislation as significant. This proposal assaults the principles that were so painstakingly laid down by the House in major legislation. In due course, the Minister will no doubt explain why it is wished to extend the period to seven days. The amendment merely propounds an error that is already in the Bill. I shall need to hear some convincing arguments from the Minister as to why any changes are being smuggled into it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar has done us a service in a way by opening up an issue that has clearly been masked. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield has said that the Bill has the support of motoring organisations. Is he thereby saying that the AA and RAC, to which he referred in Committee, are in favour of giving more rope to the untutored to damage themselves through the existence of fly-by-night instructors? Perhaps that is what has misled my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar and prompted him to table an amendment proposing to extend the principle slightly. I hope that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield will comment on the amendment. I am sure that he realises that its implications extend to the principles that he has put forward, and in respect of which we have so far not had any real explanation.

I do not want to delay the House, so I shall turn to amendment No. 15, which deals with the production of driving licences. At first sight it may appear to be almost harmless. My hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar has pointed out, as others have, that it can sometimes be tiresome and complicated to have to visit a police station simply because one has been stopped for some possible peccadillo. However, as has been said, to extend the time, as the amendment proposes, may have more sinister implications. The statistics reveal that there are irresponsible people who drive cars before they have even passed the test. They do not have a driving licence, but they still take to the roads in lethal machines. There are others—as we well know, because they often come before the courts—who are impatient learners and who drive without an accompanying passenger.

Thus, we are not dealing with forgetfulness, but are trying to ensure that unqualified people do not drive on the roads. Those who drive when they are unqualified risk causing damage not only to themselves but to other motorists and pedestrians. We should ensure that we do not give them more rope, as the amendment does, and enable them to continue to drive, after being stopped, not for seven but for 10 days. Far too frequently drivers who have been disqualified for drinking and driving or for dangerous driving continue to drive. Should we give them extra time so that they can continue with their devastation? The figures should give us cause to pause. Before extending the time allowed, we should consider how many people drive without licences. The number is increasing, not diminishing.

In 1974, 58,000 people were brought before the magistrates' courts for driving without a licence. By 1983, the number had risen to 99,000. Furthermore, in 1974, 25,000 people failed to produce licences but by 1983 that figure had risen to 46,000. If we begin to allow extra time, as the amendment and the Bill propose, the vigilance that the police can exercise in pulling up someone will be undermined, albeit marginally.

In the light of those statistics, those who support the amendment must decide whether it is reasonable to ask for a further extension of time. It should, in particular, be borne in mind that those who continue to drive after having been pulled up will often be those who have no licence because of a drinking and driving offence or because of their irresponsible anti-social behaviour. Therefore, I urge hon. Members to resist the amendments. They are not as harmless as their supporters may believe.

Amendment No. 22, which deals with insurance and MOT certificates, has most serious implications. The number of cars on the road without MOT certificates is horrendous. We are talking not of tens of thousands, but perhaps of hundreds of thousands. It is quite usual to find that 100,000 cases a year come before the courts. That figure refers merely to those who have been discovered. It appears that those who support the amendment do not take seriously the consequences of a relaxation of the rule that obliges motorists to subject their motor cars to a test and, when requested, to produce an MOT certificate. I am aware of the difficulties that are faced by many motorists, which include the increasing cost of insurance and petrol. These factors lead motorists to believe that they might be able to avoid paying for their car to be tested. Many motorists know that their car will fail the test and that that will mean spending money to get it into proper condition. Is it proposed that we should say, "It does not really matter?" Should we encourage motorists to say, "Hundreds of thousands are getting away with it, why shouldn't I?" Should we allow those who take that view to have extra time on the roads?

It is vital that no car is driven on our roads in a dangerous condition. We should not give the driver of such a car extra time before requiring him to produce documents. Should we dilute the prevention procedure when the consequences could be so serious? We could have tens of thousands of lethal machines on the roads for five more days if we were to accept the amendment. Should we be condoning the widespread view that it is a trivial offence to drive a motor car that does not have an MOT certificate? Surely we should be emphasising the gravity of the anti-social behaviour of those who drive unfit vehicles. Hundreds of thousands of drivers are committing the offence and we should take every step to ensure that the law is enforceable. By extending the time in which it is necessary to produce an MOT certificate to the police, we are, by implication, almost abandoning the attempt to make the law enforceable.

I resist the amendment that seeks to extend greater indulgence to those who may be driving without insurance. The statistics reveal that there are many who regard driving while uninsured as a relatively trivial offence. A little thought should convince anyone of the importance of adequate insurance for drivers and their vehicles. There is a growing view that it does not matter whether one is careless about driving an uninsured motor car. In 1974, about 25,000 motorists were brought before the magistrates' courts for failing to produce an insurance certificate. In 1984, there were 50,000 such offences. In my professional life, I am only too well aware of the undeserved consequences that fall upon those who become the victims of accidents that are caused by uninsured drivers.

11.15 am

It can be pleaded that the Motor Insurers Bureau gives some assistance to those who are injured by uninsured drivers. However, that does not mean that we should agree to the extension which the amendment proposes. The bureau and the association which has been formed by the insurance companies have sought to mitigate the problem tht is caused by those who drive while uninsured and who cause accidents, but the payments that are made are limited.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley talked about the difficulties which he encountered personally when he came into collision with the vehicle of an uninsured driver and echoed the grievances of thousands of others. In such circumstances, the only remedy is to turn to the Motor Insurers Bureau. If my hon. Friend had done so, he would have received nothing for any damage that his car had suffered. I gather that he suffered no personal injury but his car was damaged and he was left without any remedy. I do not understand why it is suggested that motorists should have extra time in which to drive on our roads while uninsured and to be able to inflict the damage which was endured by my hon. Friend. I have been personally involved in such an incident. Some criminals caused an accident which led to my car being written off. The majority of motorists probably have third party insurance but fortunately I had comprehensive insurance. If I had had third party insurance, I would have had to bear the cost of buying a new car. I would have had no means of claiming successfully against those responsible for the damage. Having had that experience, I do not believe that we should allow some motorists to have more time to indulge in their reckless behaviour. It is not easy to deal with hit-and-run drivers and the difficulties will be even greater if the amendment is accepted.

I note that some of my colleagues are becoming slightly impatient. I hope that they will accept that it is important that no Bill should pass through the House without the House considering the real issues that lie behind it. The Bill before us was given a formal Second Reading and it spent only a short time in Committee.

Amendment No. 30 seeks to amend the Transport Act 1982. Again, it has not been explained why the time limit should be extended. As recently as 1982, Parliament determined nicely the procedures that are designed to stop irresponsible drivers from continuing to drive on our roads when their activities have caused 12 points to be recorded against them. The law allows the police officer who has reasonable belief that a motorist has accumulated 12 disqualifying points to cause him to produce his driving licence and other documents.

Why should we extend the time at all in this respect, let alone in the way that the amendment proposes? Our aim should be to assist police officers. We should not want matters put off so that a motorist with a series of convictions, usually in respect of serious driving offences, can be allowed further time in which to speed round the country causing heaven knows what havoc. As yet no one has explained the amendment. I hope that the Minister will say why such an amendment can be proposed to a principle which itself seems to be driving a coach and four through all the procedures which the House decided should be followed as recently as 1982.

That concludes my remarks on this group of amendments. I am grateful for the courtesy that the House has extended to me so that I might present cogent reasons why none of the amendments should be accepted.

Mr. Tim Smith

It may be helpful if I intervene now to reply to what has been a useful and constructive debate on this group of amendments.

I want first to thank hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo), for their kind words about my Bill. I think that it will be welcomed by millions of motorists, modest though it is.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) made an important point in this context when she said that the main area of contact between the police and the public arose in road traffic offences. This modest Bill will do a little to improve those relations.

In considering this group of amendments, we need to look at the two principal provisions of the Bill. There is a balance between the two. They are a package, and they cannot be considered in isolation. A good deal was made about the new defence of a reasonable excuse for delay, and the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar said that perhaps we could allow more days. This is a matter of judgment, and one has to take a view about it. However, the production of documents has to be treated as an urgent matter. We should not put into the Bill a number of days which meant that drivers became complacent. If a motorist is unable to produce his traffic documents, it should be regarded as an urgent matter to be dealt with as expeditiously as possible.

I do not think that the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) is practicable. He suggested that the time should be at the discretion of the police officer concerned. We need more certainty in the law than that, and we must have a definite time in the Bill. The only question that arises on these amendments is whether it should be seven days or 10 days.

The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) spoke of people taking holidays in his constituency. It should be stressed that people ought to take their documents with them on holiday, especially if they go abroad. However, there is no legal requirement for people to take their documents with them. They should be encouraged to do so. We shall have to see what the attitude of a court would be if someone said, "I am sorry that there was a delay. I was on holiday at the time." The court would want to view that in the light of all the facts.

Mr. Thurnham

I am sure that the Bill will be welcomed by a large majority of drivers, but does not my hon. Friend feel that it will be welcomed also by the criminal element? We have an epidemic of car thefts at present, with twice as many cars being stolen here as in Europe. Will not this provision encourage thieves even further?

Mr. Smith

In my view, that is a good reason for resisting these amendments. The Bill goes far enough as it stands, and I shall recommend the rejection of the amendments. My hon. Friend advances an important reason why they should be rejected.

The hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Abse) mentioned the seat belt exemption certificate, and there was some suggestion that there was a possibility of the retrospective granting of such certificates. That is not possible under the law as it stands.

The hon. Member for Torfaen also mentioned driving instructors, and he rightly drew attention to the fact that the Bill did not just deal with the time for the production of a driving licence, insurance certificate or MOT certificate. It also deals with driving instructors, and we are here talking about part of the enforcement arrangements and about professional people. The hon. Gentleman put forward a strong reason why that amendment should be resisted. This is a different group of people, and the only reason why the number of days is being changed is so that we have a consistent arrangement for all kinds of traffic documents.

These amendments should be resisted. The current five-day production period has caused problems in the past, mainly because of the growing number of people who are on the road and away from home for more than five days. Giving them an additional two days in which to produce their documents and thereby increasing the period to seven days seems to me to be quite satisfactory and should overcome the current difficulties.

There is some evidence about this. An ACPO council traffic committee working party recently considered the production of driving documents and specifically considered whether the period for their production should be extended beyond seven days. A survey showed that only 1 per cent. of productions were made within seven to 10 days, and only 2 per cent. after 10 days. Therefore, I do not think that providing a period longer than seven days would greatly increase the level of production. Indeed, it could be counter-productive in that it could encourage delay to a point where production was put off and forgotten altogether. I think that it should continue to be treated as an urgent matter.

For those reasons, I recommend that these amendments should be rejected.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 50, Noes 108.

Division No. 196] [11.25 am
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) McGuire, Michael
Bray, Dr Jeremy McNamara, Kevin
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) McWilliam, John
Caborn, Richard Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Campbell-Savours, Dale Maynard, Miss Joan
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Michie, William
Clay, Robert Mikardo, Ian
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Cohen, Harry Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Corbyn, Jeremy O'Neill, Martin
Cowans, Harry Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Cunliffe, Lawrence Park, George
Dalyell, Tarn Richardson, Ms Jo
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli) Rowlands, Ted
Dixon, Donald Sedgemore, Brian
Dobson, Frank Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)
Dubs, Alfred Short, Mrs R. (W'hampt'n NE)
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. Skinner, Dennis
Eastham, Ken Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)
Edwards, Bob (W'h'mpt'n SE) Soley, Clive
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn) Stott, Roger
Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Hamilton, James (M'well N) Woodall, Alec
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter
Heffer, Eric S. Tellers for the Ayes:
Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall) Mr. Dafydd Wigley and
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Mr. Willie W. Hamilton.
Leighton, Ronald
Abse, Leo Lambie, David
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Lang, Ian
Alton, David Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Lester, Jim
Barron, Kevin Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)
Beggs, Roy MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)
Beith, A. J. Maclean, David John
Bendall, Vivian Madden, Max
Benyon, William Maginnis, Ken
Best, Keith Major, John
Blackburn, John Malone, Gerald
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Merchant, Piers
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
Bruce, Malcolm Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)
Bruinvels, Peter Moynihan, Hon C.
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) Neubert, Michael
Cash, William Nicholls, Patrick
Chapman, Sydney Nicholson, J.
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n) Paisley, Rev Ian
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) Parris, Matthew
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Patten, Christopher (Bath)
Clarke, Thomas Pawsey, James
Corrie, John Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)
Dicks, Terry Robinson, P. (Belfast E)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Roe, Mrs Marion
Dunn, Robert Rossi, Sir Hugh
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Ryder, Richard
Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim) Sackville, Hon Thomas
Fox, Marcus Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Fraser, Peter (Angus East) St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.
Galley, Roy Silvester, Fred
Garel-Jones, Tristan Sims, Roger
Grant, Sir Anthony Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Greenway, Harry Smyth, Rev W. M. (Belfast S)
Gummer, John Selwyn Spencer, Derek
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom) Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Hampson, Dr Keith Stanbrook, Ivor
Hancock, Mr. Michael Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Hayes, J. Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Hayhoe, Barney Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)
Henderson, Barry Strang, Gavin
Hirst, Michael Taylor, Rt Hon John David
Home Robertson, John Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Howard, Michael Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)
Hubbard-Miles, Peter Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Hunter, Andrew Wallace, James
Jackson, Robert Waller, Gary
Jenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd) Watts, John
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Wilson, Gordon
Jones, Robert (W Herts) Winterton, Mrs Ann
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine Wood, Timothy
Kennedy, Charles
Kershaw, Sir Anthony Tellers for the Noes:
Key, Robert Mr. Tim Smith and
Knight, Mrs Jill (Edgbaston) Mr. Peter Thurnham.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 15, leave out paragraph (b).

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we shall discuss the following amendments:

No. 12, in page 2, line 30, leave out paragraph (c).

No. 17, in page 3, line 10, leave out paragraph (b).

No. 24, in page 3, line 30, leave out paragraph (b).

No. 26, in page 3, line 32, leave out paragraph (c).

11.30 am
Mr. Banks

I cannot possibly hope to follow the eloquence or the clarity of my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Abse). However, I shall discuss these amendments together rather than follow his example and discuss them individually. All the amendments revolve around the same principle.

I am grateful for the wisdom of Mr. Speaker in not selecting another of my amendments. For a reason that I have yet to discover, what was meant to be four days ended up as 14 days——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not discuss an amendment that has not been selected.

Mr. Banks

I fully understand that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, I am offering an explanation to the House because if the amendment that was not selected had been selected it would have appeared that I was speaking from two conflicting positions, which I am not.

The debate on the first series of amendments was useful because the Second Reading went through on the nod and the Committee stage was completed in 10 minutes. My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen demonstrated that there are a number of serious objections to the Bill. In my view, too much leniency is already shown to motorists. I should have preferred a restriction to an extension in the number of days within which documents must be produced, hence the amendments that stand in my name.

My objective in tabling them has been to remove the permissive nature of the Bill in regard to the production of documents. I speak not as one who is anti-motorist—because I am a reluctant driver—and I am certainly not anti-police, although either interpretation could be put on my remarks.

The Bill seems to have the general intention of reducing the number of offences. It is said that by extending the five-day deadline to seven days fewer motorists would offend in that respect. That is an illogical approach to the problem, although it is typical of the attitude of the police to motoring law.

Another example of that attitude is the recommendation to increase the motorway speed limit from 70 to 80 mph. It is said that because the limit is not being enforced, at a stroke many speeding offences would no longer be offences. There are many other examples, such as calls for changes in the law applying to bus lanes and parking.

The objection to the five-day period for the production of documents is based not on principle but on practicability, and that is not the basis on which law should be predicated in relation to its enforcement. If we in Parliament legislate the ends, we should be prepared to legislate the means. In other words, if the police find that they cannot satisfactorily enforce the laws that we make, we should consider in some instances strengthening those laws, rather than making them more permissive.

It is said that people sometimes have difficulty producing their motoring documents because those documents are being processed, perhaps at the Swansea centre. We should be finding ways of speeding up the processes at Swansea rather than changing the law to accommodate the delays that people say they are experiencing.

The police are sometimes highly selective in their choice of laws that they claim are enforceable. For example, when they are concerned with the possession of cannabis or dealing with certain forms of obstruction, such as occurred during the miners' strike, the idea of illegal behaviour seems to engender a stronger desire on their part to enforce more formally the existing legislation.

In other words, the police are determining their own priorities in law enforcement. As a result, Parliament is asked to weaken the application of those laws that the police have chosen not to enforce and to strengthen those that they wish to enforce. I find that totally unacceptable. The most bizarre case of which I can think occurred with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, when the House was asked, and finally agreed, to legalise previously illegal actions by the police. This course of action represents a threat to civil liberties and the concept of the sovereignty of Parliament and should be resisted vigorously by hon. Members.

That attitude is highlighted in this instance by the complex nature of the police procedure in dealing with the production of documents. Until 1983, should a motorist not be carrying his or her driving licence when stopped, a complex form had to be sent from the police station making the request to the police station at which the motorist intended to present the documents within five days, and generally that would be the police station most convenient to the motorist concerned. Should the motorist not produce the necessary documentation within the set period, a further complex procedure would initiate activity by the police to follow up the case.

It is reasonable to argue that a more refined and simplified police procedure within the present time limit should be established. However, the procedures followed by the various forces are not standard. That may cause, for example, the Metropolitan police certain problems. I gather from comments made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) in Committee that the City of London adopted what one might call an unofficial attitude towards the non-presentation of documents.

Clearly, consistency is required, with the need to treat sympathetically those with genuine reasons for not producing their documentation within the specified period. Such changes must be devised within the concept of law, because law that is totally inflexible is often bad law. However, this measure is not the best vehicle for dealing either with the problem of consistency or of flexibility.

My amendments draw attention to several problems with the Bill. One is the large-scale lack of follow-up of existing transgressions of the law. That is due, in part, to the complexity of the follow-up procedures, to which I referred. I do not see how, by increasing the documentation deadline, we shall improve the follow-up procedure. In any event, the extension of time will lead to a range of problems in other areas.

Accident reporting is a good example of that. Motoring accidents are recorded on what is called a stats. 19 form. Those forms represent the basis of national accident recording and are administered by the police. However, there is evidence of substantial under-recording, particularly of accidents involving cyclists. A study by Bull and Roberts in 1973 found that 76 per cent. of cycling casualties in hospital had no stats. 19 record. That is why I say that it is essential to have a greater degree of follow-up of transgressions by those who do not produce their documents within the specified period.

In a study by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory, Downing confirmed, from the details of accidents at Oxford hospitals, the figures produced by Bull and Roberts. It was postulated that longer delays between the presentation of documents and the initial request for them produced greater errors in recording and that if the details of cycling accidents were properly recorded, the pressure on Government to support proper facilities for cyclists in cities would undoubtedly increase. The Greater London council recognised that by introducing cycle lanes and——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I realise that the hon. Member is giving the background to the amendment, but he will agree that it is a quite narrow amendment, and I hope that he will now direct his remarks to why clause 1(1)(b) should be deleted from the Bill.

Mr. Banks

I have felt it necessary to give that detail, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because a number of amendments are being discussed together, as they should, because they apply to the same point.

The increased time for the presentation of documents would give increased possibilities for personation, a point to which my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen referred. Personation can occur, particularly if the documents are presented at a police station different from the one at which the request was originally issued. In that context, a case could be made for it to be compulsory to carry one's driving licence, or for all relevant documentation to be carried by the person in charge of the vehicle. Some interesting, if macabre, suggestions have been made by Conservative Members about the compulsory registration of certain vehicle licence numbers.

Many people carry their documentation with them, but many others, and I am one, do not get into the car with all the documents to hand because there is an increasing incidence of car theft. It is extraordinarily inconvenient to lose one's car and all the documentation that goes with it. Many people do not carry the documentation with them for reasons of security. We should, therefore, find a better way of registering documentation.

One of the ideas that could be considered would be for all vehicles to carry a composite road tax licence and insurance disc, which would be readily available for the police to identify. My amendments seek to remove the wholly permissive nature of the Bill. If delay is written into the Bill, the possibility of personation and fraud is greater. I am positive that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield does not want that.

Mr. Tim Smith

The hon. Gentleman says that his amendments will reduce the permissive nature of the Bill. I have been listening to him for some time and I do not understand what he is trying to achieve. What will be the precise effect of amendment No. 3 if the House accepts it?

Mr. Banks

My point is that the Bill not only sets out to increase the number of days within which a motorist can produce documents, but in some circumstances—this is what my amendments seek to remove—to make the time limit almost non-existent. That is not right. I understand the need for flexibility, but this catch-all way is not the way to do it. It seriously weakens the job of the police, and allows far more permissiveness and gives far more leniency to motorists. I object to that, which is why I tabled the amendments.

My main objections to the Bill are based on art objection to the existing leniency towards motorists who break the law. I am not anti-motorist, but I am a reluctant motorist. Motoring offences are dealt with more leniently by the courts than those caused by someone not driving a car. If, for example, one uses a car as a weapon and drives directly at a person—there are many cases on record of that—one is treated differently from a person who takes a club from his pocket and hits another person in the street. The law treats motoring offences differently from non-motoring offences.

Dr. M. S. Miller

I follow what my hon. Friend says, but I disagree with him. Motorists are not treated differently or better than anyone else. Is my hon. Friend aware that seven days does not mean seven days because there must be an intervening Saturday and Sunday? It means five days. The motorist will be given sufficient time to produce the necessary documents only if the period is increased, not reduced.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That intervention harks back to the amendment which we have already discussed. I hope that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) will not do that.

Mr. Banks

I understand that, although the arguments are common to both sets of amendments. Although I must obey your instructions, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the amendments have some points in common and, therefore, it is difficult not to wander between both groups. I direct my hon. Friend to a letter from Dr. Trevor Smith which appeared in the Glasgow Herald on 14 June. He shows clearly that the law treats motoring offences differently. He compared the examples of a man who was fined £200 for kicking two cars, and a driver who knocked down an eight-year-old boy and failed to stop and who was fined a mere £150. That example of the way in which motorists are treated much too leniently is seen regularly in the courts.

The Bill seeks to make life easier for motorists and, therefore, I oppose the Bill's objective, and ask the House to support my amendments.

Mr. Tim Smith

As I said earlier, the Bill has two objects, and the previous debate dealt with the first, which is to extend the number of days within which a motorist must produce his documents to a police station. The second is to introduce a new defence—a reasonable excuse—for not producing the documents within that time. The amendments of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) seeks to remove that defence wherever it appears in the Bill. His objective is, therefore, to remove half of the Bill. It would not be going too far to describe his amendments as wrecking amendments.

I wish to address his argument because there is a good reason why the House should accept the Bill as it stands. In the past justice has not always been done. Driving documents have been stuck at Swansea because of industrial action or some other reason and, consequently, the driver has not been able to produce them at a police station within the five days presently allowed, and he has been convicted because that is an absolute offence. It is entirely right that there should be a new defence of reasonable excuse.

As I said in Committee, I am supported by the Royal Automobile Club. It told me of a recent case in which it had been active in assisting a motorist who had been defending himself. Unfortunately, even recently, he was convicted because it is an absolute offence. Because injustice has been done in the past, the House should reject the amendments.

Mr. Chris Smith

I rise briefly to oppose my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), and to support the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) in seeking to retain the Bill in its original form.

My hon. Friend seeks to remove the safety valve of reasonable practicality, which the hon. Gentleman has sensibly written into the Bill. I accept that there are difficulties about reasonable practicalities. There are niceties of interpretation, on which the police and ultimately the courts must make judgments. There are likely to be varying decisions from varying courts and varying police officers. However, a safety valve is undoubtedly needed. It is needed even more because the previous set of amendments was rejected. They might have removed some of the necessity for it. However, with the period standing at seven days, and for all sorts of reasons, a safety valve is needed.

There has traditionally been discretion available to police officers in the interpretation of particular acts of citizens, which may be regarded as being in breach of the law. That was a reason for the introduction of traffic wardens. Before they existed there was a degree of discretion available to police officers in operating the law on traffic offences. Understandably, there was a great deal of complaint from the public that some people were being treated with discretion and that others were not. For that reason, traffic offences were removed from the province of the police, and traffic wardens were given the job. There is no discretion available to them. They must implement the law and the letter of the law. But police officers can temper the strict interpretation of the law with the basic principles of justice. I have criticised the way in which the police use that discretion at times, but it is traditional, and the hon. Member for Beaconfield is right to ensure that there is a discretion in relation to the production of documents.

For all the reasons that were advanced in the lengthy debate on the first set of amendments, and because of the difficulties that people may have in producing documents within a strict seven-day period—they may be on holiday, it may be a holiday period or their documents may be in the post—it is only reasonable and fair that a safety valve is available. The provision of reasonable practicality, insufficient and difficult of interpretation though it may be, is necessary and I congratulate the hon. Member for Beaconsfield on inserting it in the Bill.

12 noon

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

I, too, oppose the amendments of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). I commend the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) for producing a Bill that improves the law.

Hon. Members need not always speak from experience, but it sometimes helps to give authenticity and weight to the arguments. Discretion is important, because often the motorist who is obliged to produce his documents is completely innocent. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West suggested that we are talking about motorists who have committed offences and who are therefore obliged to produce documents. He said that no discretion should be applied to them. My argument is different, because often completely innocent people are put in that position. Therefore, the discretion contained in the Bill is reasonable and fair.

Twice during last year I had to produce documents at a police station. On the first occasion, I was stationary at traffic lights when I was hit by another motorist who then drove off. I reported the accident at the police station, which I am obliged by law to do, and I was asked to produce documents. I returned later to produce the documents. Indeed, I had to produce another one because I had misunderstood what the police officer said. On each occasion I was driving home from a general management committee meeting.

On the second occasion, I was hit while moving by another motorist, who also drove away. I managed to catch him, and told him that it was usual to stop after an accident. At that point, the police arrived. They breathalysed him and said that they would also have to breathalyse me. He was arrested and disappeared from the scene. The police officer said that I had no alcohol in my system, and then we got to talking about documents, which I did not have with me. Again, I was asked to produce them at the police station, which I did. But I found it extremly difficult to do so in the five-day period, because we were working late in the House and it was difficult to get the documents together. I did it, but I had to go to the police station at about 3 am after a late-night sitting in the House. I am not pleading for special exemption for Members of Parliament, but other people will discover that their personal circumstances will be helped by the element of discretion.

Another argument for discretion is that it takes a long time for one's documents to be examined at the police station and for the officer to fill in the necessary forms. It is not a matter of having five minutes to spare and popping in to the police station. The officer must fill in complicated and detailed forms. Following the second incident, I wrote to the police saying that the forms should be rationalised because it was ridiculous to take 45 minutes of a police officer's time and the citizen's time to deal with the requirements of the legislation to produce documents. That is how long I took. If one is not first in the queue at the police station, it can take even longer.

If the House rejects the amendments, it will be in a better position to safeguard the position of ordinary motorists, many of whom are innocent.

Mr. Tony Banks

I understand my hon. Friend's arguments, but surely they are arguments for simplifying procedures and forms and finding other ways to deal with the problems associated with the presentation of documents other than extending the time period, which would allow the abuses that I and other hon. Members have mentioned.

Mr. Dubs

We are not talking about extending the period, except in the sense of giving the police discretion if the individual can show that he needs it. Of course, I favour simplifying the procedure, but it is bound to remain complex even if we simplified it as much as we could.

My main argument is that, in many cases, the motorist is entirely innocent of any offence. Therefore, it is unreasonable to remove the discretion that he will have under the Bill, thereby making an innocent person into someone who is guilty of an offence. I hope that the House will reject the amendments and support the Bill in its original form.

Mr. Bob Clay (Sunderland, North)

I oppose the amendments of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), because I have a special interest in bus drivers, who will welcome this useful Bill from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith), especially the small element of discretion that it will allow.

Although most of us need not renew our driving licences for a long time, bus drivers must renew their PSV licences every five years. When they do so, they must send to the traffic commissioners their ordinary driving licences, and it often takes the traffic commissioners a long time to process them. Therefore, for a considerable period—it can range from a week to as many as 28 days—bus drivers will not have their ordinary driving licences.

Bus drivers, especially those who work in the inner cities, are often involved, as innocent parties, in motoring incidents and offences. Since they spend seven, eight or even more hours a day driving, by definition they spend more time on the roads than the average motorist, and consequently there is more likelihood of other vehicles running into them. In some cases, the police will require the bus driver to produce his documents. If the incident happens while the driver's licence is with the traffic commissioners, he can be in considerable difficulty. As the law stands, he is committing an offence by not producing the documents within the prescribed period. Many similar arguments could be made in favour of HGV licence holders.

We must also remember that many coach drivers with PSV licences travel abroad or in Britain for long periods. They will be unable to produce their documents in time, because they will not return in time from the traffic commissioners. Some friends of mine in the coach industry had to tell their employers that they were unable to take a coach party away for a long period because they had to wait until their licences came back from the traffic commissioners before they could produce them to the police. They, too, had been involved as innocent parties in motoring incidents. Dire consequences can result from the lack of discretion.

Those of us involved in the dreadful Transport Bill know that the role of the traffic commissioners is to be changed. Instead of three traffic commissioners for an area there will be only one. They will be given many onerous and complicated duties.

Bus drivers have to send their ordinary licence to the traffic commissioners. Sometimes its return is delayed and it cannot therefore be produced to the police. The traffic commissioners will take even longer to process PSV licences because of the onerous tasks that the House is imposing upon them. Without the necessary staff, the problems will become even more serious for bus drivers.

One could argue the same case for many other professional drivers. Many hundreds of thousands of workers earn their living by driving vehicles. The amendment would remove from the Bill a provision which many professional drivers welcome. I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Tony Banks

I am sad to see that clearly I do not have the sympathy of the House. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Mikardo

I beg to move amendment No. 16, in page 3, line 6 after 'person', insert 'or by another person authorised by him so to do'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 18, in page 3, line 10 after 'person', insert 'or by another person authorised by him so to do'.

Mr. Mikardo

This will be the shortest speech of the day because I feel that the House is in a mood to come to a conclusion as soon as possible. My speech can be short because the amendment covers a narrow and simple matter which requires little explanation and because the amendment is so manifestly meritorious that I should be surprised if the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) did not urge the House to accept it.

Earlier I mentioned the chap from Newcastle upon Tyne going on a business trip. He arrives at Heathrow to catch a plane to Dusseldorf where he has a business date and is hoping to do some export trade. He parks his car in the wrong place and is asked to produce his papers within seven days. The chap expects to go on from Dusseldorf to Vienna and Genoa on business and will not be back within seven days.

I want it to be possible for him to ring his wife and say, "Darling, I left my driving licence and insurance certificate in the suit I was wearing yesterday. Will you be a dear, and take them to the local cop shop?" Surely that is simple and easy. What can be against it? It provides what an hon. Member called in another context earlier "a certain element of flexibility".

Mr. Barron

I might be stopped in London and I might not even have a driving licence. I could tell the police that my name was Colin Barron—my brother's name—and he could go to the local police station at Maltby within seven days and produce his licence pretending that it was mine. That would involve me and my brother in deception and lies. The amendment would increase the possibility of such action.

Mr. Mikardo

One does not draft laws expecting people to break them and take advantage of them. My hon. Friend could be driving round London with his brother's driving licence in his pocket. His argument is fanciful.

12.15 pm
Mr. Tim Smith

The hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) is, as always, persuasive, but on balance I think that his proposition could lead to more abuse, although I agree that it would be convenient in some cases. There is no argument for changing the procedures as he proposes.

When a person is required to produce his licence, the onus of doing so should fall upon him alone. That is the only satisfactory means of ensuring that the obligation is properly discharged.

We must examine the proposal in the context of the reliefs already provided in the Bill for the motorist. His life will be made considerably easier by the extension from five to seven days and by the reasonable excuse provision. I invite the House to reject the amendment.

Mr. Mikardo

It would be churlish to get into a confrontation at this stage with the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. Although I think it is meritorious, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

12.16 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Michael Spicer)

We have had remarkably full debates on a modest, although desirable, measure.

Mr. Mikardo

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that I am right in believing that the motion that the Bill be given a Third Reading has not been put.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It has been put.

Hon. Members


Mr. Abse

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Are we debating Third Reading?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Yes. I am sorry if I went a little too fast for the House. We are now debating the Third Reading.

Mr. Spicer

The deep, and no doubt genuine, interest in the Bill by hon. Members on both sides has been impressive. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) has been congratulated from all sides on introducing the Bill. The House has other business to consider and I shall keep my remarks brief.

The Bill is designed to remove some rigidity from the law relating to the production of driving documents to the police. The inflexibility has caused problems. For instance, courts have sometimes had no option but to convict for failure to produce a document when it was unavailable for reasons outside the defendant's control. An example was given by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) who explained how driving licences were stuck at Swansea, not necessarily because of inefficiency but because of industrial action such as that in 1981.

The Bill will make two changes to existing procedure. First, it will extend from five to seven days the period in which the driving licence and other driving documents must normally be produced at a police station. The main reason for that is that a growing number of people on the roads are away from home for more than five days. We have discussed whether the time limit should be extended, but there seems to be reasonable evidence to suggest that an extension to, say, 10 days would affect only a few people.

The second reason is to provide a defence for people who are unable to produce one or more of the documents within seven days, provided that they do so as soon as reasonably practicable or—where it is not reasonably practicable—before proceedings are commenced in court. The words "reasonably practicable" are frequently used in legislation.

All that is achieved by making minor changes in the relevant provisions of the Road Traffic Act 1972 and the Transport Act 1982. I believe that the Bill offers a fairer deal to the motoring public, and hon. Members on both sides of the House have agreed with that view. I join in the congratulations heaped on my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, and I commend the Bill to the House.

12.20 pm
Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)

I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) on the Bill.

Many hon. Members have said that the Bill is a small but important measure. The House wishes to ensure that proper documentation is produced, but the Bill removes what has generally been acknowledged to be an unnecessary burden on the motorist. Therefore, I ask my hon. Friends give it a fair wind.

12.21 pm
Mr. Abse

I have two major reservations about the Bill. First, as I said earlier, I question whether the minor inconveniences that the Bill seeks to remedy are so vexatious to the public that we are justified in passing a measure which may weaken our capacity for law enforcement.

My second reservation is whether the Minister and the sponsors of the Bill are correct in their belief that existing circumstances demand that we pass a Bill to save the motoring public from marginal inconveniences.

During the debates on the amendments, I explained my worry about the time limit for the production of documents being extended beyond the seven days proposed in the Bill. I concede that extending the limit from five days to seven days does not create so dramatically the hazards that the amendments would have prompted, but any extension of the time limit will weaken the capacity of the police to enforce laws that were designed to protect the public from the dangers caused by irresponsible motorists.

I do not wish to go into excessive detail about the dangers posed by any extension of the time limit. However, out of courtesy to hon. Members who have joined us since we debated the amendments, I ought to categorise the dangers, so that the House will be reminded of the risks of yielding to the pleas of the well-intentioned sponsors of the Bill.

It would have been less necessary for me to take this course if I had received a response from the Minister or from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) seeking to alleviate some of the anxieties that I expressed in the debates on the amendments. However, even on the important question of allowing further indulgence to those who claimed to be driving instructors, the Minister made no comment.

If the Bill is given a Third Reading, we must acknowledge that we shall be giving two extra days to drivers before police inquiries may begin. Drivers may have been stopped as a result of an incident and be driving without a licence because they have never passed a test. Those unqualified, untested drivers will have an extra two days to create havoc on our roads.

Secondly, we shall be giving two extra days of driving, without inquiries being started, to drivers who are occasioning appalling dangers to fellow drivers and to pedestrians by driving cars that are unfit to be driven and would not pass the MOT test.

Thirdly, we shall be giving two extra days during which irresponsible drivers can blithely continue to drive without insurance and inflict death or injury on others, leaving the relatives of those who have suffered fatal injuries or maiming, the tortuous, sometimes labyrinthine, task of seeking to recover monetary damages for their suffering.

Fourthly, we should be mindful that we are giving car thieves two extra days before inquiries are likely to be initiated by the police. Those days could be vital, as thieves would have an opportunity to disguise and alter stolen cars and to whisk them to the continent, as happens all too frequently.

Those are not minor considerations. They need to be pondered by the House and weighed against the advantages that have been adumbrated so eloquently by the sponsors of the Bill. It was to guard against the dangers that prompted the House in the past to insist upon the rapid production of documents. The sponsors acknowledge that the dangers are real. If they believed that all the dangers that I am categorising were frivolous, they would have come to us and asked us to abolish the requirement to produce documents within five days.

One of the most extraordinary features of the debate is that we have been given no explanation of how and why the House came to the conclusion that documents should be produced and that there should be a time limit. No one has explained the origin of that. No one has suggested that we should abolish the requirement. It is acknowledged that the requirements are part of the law enforcement armoury.

Mr. Tim Smith

indicated assent.

Mr. Abse

Once one acknowledges that, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, who is nodding his head, plainly does, one should acknowledge the fact that by extending the time limit we are weakening the capacity for law enforcement.

The Minister has not said why there is an overriding need to extend the period. I understood that we were all, and not least the Government, supposed to be preoccupied with the problems of law and order. There has rarely been a moment when it was less appropriate to come forward, as the Bill does, with the suggestion that we should to some degree subvert the capacity of the police to enforce the law with regard to major offences.

The increase in car theft has been mentioned. New techniques have become available to the thieves. Anyone who has investigated the matter is aware that they can take stolen cars out of the country with ease. Someone taking a left-hand drive car to the Continent might place the Customs and Excise on inquiry. Cars, in particular those regarded as highly desirable such as Rolls-Royces. are frequently stolen and taken out of the country. That has been well documented in The Sunday Times and elsewhere. Left-hand drive cars are switched to right-hand drive. That takes time.

I do not understand why we are relaxing the regulations just to meet the convenience, which I acknowledge, of motorists. When considering allowing extra time for production of documents, we should pause and ask ourselves whether we have struck the right balance between the subversion of our capacity to enforce our laws and the inconvenience which undoubtedly exists for the law-abiding motorist. That is one of my major reservations.

I seriously doubt whether we require the Bill in the light of the present state of the law and the way that it is enforced. Nothing could be worse than cluttering up our already overcrowded statute book with unnecessary or overburdening legislation. Neither the synoptic comments of the Minister nor the reply of the Bill's promoter have convinced me that we need the Bill.

I was a member of the Standing Committee which so briefly considered the Bill. I have read those proceedings with care and noted that the promoter relied heavily on a case which was decided on 17 January. He said that the case was a dramatic illustration of the difficulties that arise under present legislation. Although the decision was in the High Court, it was not given by the Court of Appeal or the House of Lords. I nevertheless concede that the ruling is significant. The House has not had the advantage, as did the Committee—even briefly—of considering the case on which the promoter founded his argument, nor has it had the advantage of hearing the details that he gave.

I do not want to reprove the promoter or suggest that his extrapolation, which I might correctly have gleaned from reading what was said in Committee was supplied to him by a motoring organisation, suppressed what I consider to be one of the main features of the judgment which could lead us to a conclusion about whether we need the Bill in its present form.

I shall follow the example of the promoter, who read from the case. I shall read those parts of the case which will enable the House to understand my doubts. Perhaps I might be permitted to quote the judge's summary. He said: This is the appeal of David Sparks by way of case stated by justices in the City of London in respect of their jurisdiction as a Magistrates' court sitting at the Guild of Justice Room on Monday 14. The information had been laid by a woman police officer alleging that the appellant … had been a person whom a constable had reasonable cause to believe to have committed an offence in relation to the use of a motor vehicle on a road … and on being required by a constable to produce for examination his licence to drive a motor vehicle failed to do so, contrary to section 161 of the Road Traffic Act. The case was heard before the justices on a plea of not guilty and the evidence which they found proved or admitted was as follows: that the police officer had had reasonable grounds for believing the appellant had committed an offence in relation to the use of the vehicle … She required the appellant to produce for examination his driving licence. He did not produce it on that day. He being unable to produce the licence, the officer issued him with a form which required production of the licence within five days. The reason why he did not produce it was that it was in the possession of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre at Swansea, having been sent there by another court after being endorsed with details of the conviction by that other court. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield cited that case because of the persuasive argument that, if a person could be put at such risk in those circumstances, the legislature should be called to remedy what might appear to be an injustice.

The judge continued: It was submitted by the counsel for the appellant that it would be unconscionable for them to convict the appellant when no culpability attached to his actions. The justices took the view that the terms of the section were specific and unambiguous and that the offence created by that section was an absolute offence.

The judge stated: The case arose in circumstances which were unfortunate in this regard. Prio to the establishment of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre at Swansea there had been no problems of the kind that had arisen in this case. However, since the establishment of that body, it seems that there have been a number of cases in which persons have been asked to produce their licences and have found themselves in the same position as the appellant in this case. Accordingly"— I draw the attention of hon. Members to this point, because it concerns my query whether we need the Bill— the Metropolitan Police by October 1982, which was the date mentioned in the information, had formed an unofficial policy not to prosecute in any case in which a licence was unavailable because it was in the custody of the authority at Swansea. Even more relevantly, the judge went on to say—obviously with full knowledge—that the policy not to prosecute became official on 9 May 1983. The judge said that he had been told that there is a private Member's Bill presently before the House of Commons which seeks to remedy by way of statute the situation in which an absolute offence is committed by someone in the appellant's situation.

Mr. Tony Banks

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Abse

Then comes the rub. The judge said: It was unfortunate that the officer in charge of this case was not aware of the unofficial policy in operation at the time.

Mr. Banks

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Abse

I give way.

Mr. Banks

May I ask my hon. Friend to go back slightly? Was this unofficial practice operated by the Metropolitan police, as my hon. Friend said, or by the City of London police? My information is that it was operated by the City of London police.

Mr. Abse

I am sorry that my preoccupation in reading this extraordinarily interesting and detailed judgment or my diminished hearing, which comes with age, prevented me from knowing that my hon. Friend was seeking to intervene.

I cannot give a categorical reply to that query, but I know how carefully judges choose their words and that some evidence must have been given. I do not have a transcript of all the proceedings—I have a transcript only of the judgment—but I am sure that the judge would have been scrupulous and would have been unlikely to make an error in saying that it was the policy of the Metropolitan police. I may not have assuaged all of my hon. Friend's concerns, but I think that we can proceed on the assumption that the Metropolitan police laid down this unofficial policy.

I come to the last part that I shall read from the judgment, which contains the punch line. The judge said: It was unfortunate that the officer in charge of this case was not aware of the unofficial policy in operation at the time. Accordingly, this case, as counsel for the respondent put it, slipped through the net and this appellant was prosecuted when it would have been more appropriate if he had not been so prosecuted … it would seem that the chances of a case like this recurring, whatever happens to the Bill which is at present going through Parliament, are remote". Those chances are not only remote but clearly non-existent. After the furore that occurred because a young woman police officer was unaware of the unofficial policy at that time, would any police officer allow proceedings to move forward again? Clearly not.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield did not intend to mislead the Committee or the House, but if he had had the opportunity to examine the whole of that case he would have realised that it shows that the legislation is not required. I do not believe in trying to legislate for something that has fallen into desuetude. What is the purpose of that? There is enough legislation on the statute book without the misery of including legislation of which we have little need.

But we are being asked to accept a Bill that extends the period to seven days to cover a contingency which is, in many respects, non-existent. As the judge has said: The chances of a case like this recurring, whatever happens to the Bill which is at present going through Parliament, are remote". In Committee, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield drew conclusions from the judgment that were clearly incorrect. He allowed the enthusiasm that he has displayed for the benefit of the House today to lead him unwittingly to make a spurious assessment of the decision. I can well understand that in the light of the judgment he might well have felt that a Bill was needed containing clauses—as the Bill does—providing a defence for those unable to produce the necessary documentation within the statutory period, providing that they did so as soon as reasonably practicable after that period. But he misled himself when he affirmed in Committee that the case confirmed the need for legislation extending the period from five to seven days. It does nothing of the kind.

The defence of reasonable practicality would be quite sufficient and would enable us to avoid a falling into the trap of passing legislation which would be welcomed by law-abiding citizens but which would be even more warmly applauded by all those who drive motor cars without driving licences because they have been suspended, by those who jeopardise others by driving faulty cars and by those who, to the serious detriment of others, do not take out motor car insurance policies.

We have heard little today about the reasonable practicality clauses, but the argument that they will meet a possible need is more convincing than that which is advanced in support of the first leg of the Bill. It is unfortunate that the clauses have not been debated, despite the considerable time which we have devoted to the Bill so far.

In the case to which I have referred, the judge commented on the narrow circumstances—there had been a delay on the part of the DVLC at Swansea—and acknowledged that it was impossible for the appellant to produce his documents. However, he ruled that impossibility was not a defence because of the absolute nature of the duty laid down in the statute. Having read the cases that were cited during those proceedings and having examined other case law, I am by no means certain that outside the narrow circumstances of the particular case the same conclusion would be reached. Other High Court judges would not be bound by the decision as it lacks the authority of the Court of Appeal or the House of Lords, and they would not necessarily come to the same conclusion.

We should hesitate before enacting legislation in advance of ascertaining whether any seeming injustices can be remedied by the courts themselves. A different set of circumstances could be conceived where the defence of impossibility would obviate the need for the Bill. The case of Harding v. Price was brought into issue in the case cited by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield.

The facts of the Harding v. Price case were that, while driving along a road, the trailer of a vehicle collided with a stationary car and damaged it. Owing to the noise made by the towing vehicle, the driver was unaware that the accident had occurred, so he did not report it to a police station or to a police constable as required by section 22 of the Road Traffic Act.

At first sight, because of the absolute nature of the obligation, according to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, one would have expected the driver to be convicted, despite it being held that he did not know that the accident had occurred because the noise of his vehicle masked it from him.

Believing that the offence was absolute, the magistrates convicted that driver. When the case came before the High Court, the judges took the contrary view. To underline my belief that there is no necessity for the reasonable practicality defences proposed by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, I shall read what Judge Singleton said in the case: The justices have found that there was no guilty knowledge on the part of the appellant. He did not know that there had been an accident. We are not dealing with a prohibited act, but with the case of a man who is called on to do something, namely, to report an accident. I ask hon. Members to mark that well. Here is a case which is congruent with a large number of the circumstances that we have been discussing—the fact that people do not report. It is not a prohibition that we have been debating; it is the failure to report. Similarly, in this case the failure was the failure to report an accident about which the driver did not know.

The judge went on: How can he do that if he does not know that an accident has happened? There are two possible ways of construing section 22, and, in my view, the court ought not to adopt one which would mean that a person is called on to do the impossible"— again I ask the House to mark how differently this judge approaches it from the approach of the judge in the case cited by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield— or suffer conviction if he fails to do it when there is another equally reasonable construction which avoids that position arising. I am of the opinion that the appeal should be allowed, and the conviction quashed. In citing the case that he did, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield placed excessive reliance upon it. Although the judge, tortuously in my opinion, tried to distinguish the case before him from the one that I have cited, which in my view was decided so rationally by Judge Singleton, I remain unconvinced and I believe that it requires some resolution by a higher court if we are effectively to reconcile those decisions.

It is my view that under these two heads the House should consider whether it should pass a Bill which may not be necessary at all and which imports considerable hazards, as I have pointed out repeatedly.

For all those reasons, I suggest that, before the House approves the Bill, it should consider the obvious balance of advantage and whether there is an overriding necessity for it to be on the statute book.

1 pm

Mr. Tim Smith

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) for their support for the Bill.

I wish briefly to deal with the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Abse). He has two reservations about the Bill. His first is that it would weaken law enforcement because two extra days would be available to rogues before the police came to grips with them. That argument is fallacious. What matters is the lapse of time between the date on which the offender is stopped by the police and the day on which he is convicted in court. The fact that he has to produce his documents at a police station within a certain period of time is neither here nor there. However, that is an important and urgent matter, which is why the Bill proposes only two addional days. The requirement that a motorist must produce his driving documents at a police station is part of the structure of law enforcement.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman questioned whether the Bill is needed. It is because injustice has been done in the past. The hon. Gentleman claims that that occurred only because a police officer made a mistake. I believe that that brings the law into disrepute. If the police believe that the law is unsatisfactory, and they have an official policy of not enforcing it, we should change the law.

The other point, to which the hon. Gentleman referrred at great length, was that the matter referred only to documents stuck at Swansea. However, the Bill envisages other circumstances in which it might be appropriate for a defendant to produce an excuse of reasonable delay.

Those were the only arguments advanced against the Bill receiving a Third Reading. Therefore, I believe that the House should give it a Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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