HC Deb 21 May 1999 vol 331 cc1352-70

'. The Secretary of State shall authorise the use of information in the records maintained under section 45(6B) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 for the purposes of any inquiry into a road traffic accident in which death or serious injury occurs, and shall maintain a record of all such incidents concerning vehicles for which an appropriate test certificate has not been issued.'.—[Mr. Miller.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.35 am
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 4, in clause 1, page 2, line 6, at end insert

'; and

(c) the registered keeper of the vehicle.'.

Mr. Miller

I congratulate the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) on an excellent idea. Through our deliberations this morning, we should ensure that the Bill reaches the statute book in an appropriate form to fulfil the purpose for which it was designed.

I have been involved in the issue of road traffic incidents ever since I have been in the House. I declare an indirect interest as a patron of RoadPeace, the charity that looks after the needs of road traffic victims and their families, who are let down badly by the way in which we as a society treat road death and injury. We regard that as something that might have happened to any of us, but we do not treat the matter with the seriousness that it deserves.

About 3,000 people a year die on our roads. If that happened in one incident—for example, several jumbo jets crashing simultaneously—it would be regarded as a major disaster. The fact that the deaths occur sporadically on roads throughout the country seems to militate against the seriousness of the issue. There are a number of measures that we can take to assist.

My hon. Friend the Minister is aware that Lord Whitty is taking seriously representations made about driver training, the design of roads, speed enforcement and law enforcement. An amazing amount of work is going on in the Department. My hon. Friends in the Home Office are also examining carefully some of the issues relating to the appalling waste of life that occurs each year on our roads.

During my research one thing that became consistently clear was the lack of data to enable us to identify where responsibility lies. We know that some responsibility lies with drivers, but we as a society must improve the situation and reduce the likelihood of such drivers emerging in future.

I find it astonishing that no central records are kept on any subject relating to road deaths. No information emerges from the magistrates court, for example, partly

because, as the House knows, very few road deaths become the subject of an inquiry by that court. If a magistrate were dealing with a case in which it was alleged that a driver had exceeded the speed limit, had a bald tyre and did not have an MOT certificate, under current law—regrettably, in my view—the fact that that driver had caused a death might not be the subject of inquiries by the magistrates court. Surely that important information should be collected.

I have argued—I shall touch on this briefly because I realise that the matter is tangential to the clause—that a different approach should be taken to death on the road by making the death central to the charge that is brought against the driver. I shall be publishing some information in the next few weeks, following the research that has been undertaken by my office into international comparisons. It would be extremely helpful at magistrates court level if there was some recording of information to go on to a central database. The connections that are present—at least anecdotally, from conversations that I have had with magistrates—could be put together so that serious scientific analysis could take place.

We all read in the local press of drivers—they are usually males under 25 years of age driving a vehicle that is not properly licensed, not insured and without an MOT certificate—being convicted of various motoring offences. However, there is no collection of that data and I would argue that there should be.

Coroners courts, of course, deal with deaths that result from road incidents. The consequence of such a death on the family is obvious; it results in an amazing amount of trauma. However, the connection between such a death and the non-existence of an MOT certificate—anecdotally, this appears to be the position in a significant number of cases—is not recorded. The purpose of my new clause is to make a small addition to the excellent proposition that has been brought before us by the hon. Member for Basingstoke.

I realise that the Under-Secretary may say that my new clause would have significant resource implications. I appreciate that. Literally—that is how we are supposed to read clauses—it could have resource implications for magistrates, the police, coroners, my hon. Friend and the Home Office. That point will have to be considered. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will respond in the spirit of the clause. Such considerations need to be balanced against the extraordinarily high cost of death on the road each year.

It has been estimated that the cost throughout Europe is an amazing £40 billion. That is the calculation following a serious piece of research undertaken by the European Federation of Traffic Victims. The federation has observer status at the United Nations so it is a respectable organisation. The Government should consider carefully how to balance that huge cost to the public purse against expenditure implications.

I would argue, if it came to the point of argument with my hon. Friend the Minister, that the balance must be in favour of the victims and their families. Modest expenditure could bring about massive savings consequentially.

9.45 am
Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

I have considerable sympathy with the objective that lies behind the new clause. I have some experience in the courts in Scotland in dealing with road traffic prosecutions. I am aware that there are sometimes difficulties in obtaining the information that is available about the roadworthiness of vehicles. I am also concerned about the narrowness of the new clause. My experience is that the correlation of information about serious injury or death in road traffic accidents is sometimes a matter of chance.

I have been involved in many road traffic accident cases where there was no serious injury or death, but where the outcome was contributed to by the significant unroadworthiness of vehicles. I suspect that that is the position in the majority of cases. Has my hon. Friend given any consideration to the possibility of extending the new clause so that we might focus on the roadworthiness or otherwise of vehicles involved in accidents, which perhaps is what the Bill is about, rather than the consequences of accidents?

Mr. Miller

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is right that our primary focus should be on unroadworthy vehicles, the competence of drivers, the proper design of roads and the reinforcement of the message to drivers—it has been given by this Government and previous Governments—of the consequences of drinking and driving, especially over Christmas. That focus and that message are critical.

I, as a Back-Bench Member, drafted the new clause. There may be arguments for broadening its scope. However, you would not allow me to do that today, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We are stuck, perhaps regrettably in view of my hon. Friend's intervention, with the words on the amendment paper. None the less, I hope that I can satisfy his concerns.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

I take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne). If we were able to widen the new clause, would that not act as a deterrent for the appalling people who weld together cars that have been involved in accidents? A friend of mine purchased such a vehicle. She did not have a great deal of expertise and, six months later, she found that the vehicle was a death trap. It was extremely worrying because my friend was a foster parent and was transporting children in her care.

Mr. Miller


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. Perhaps the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) should take his own advice of a few minutes ago.

Mr. Miller

I cannot remember what that was, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) raises a point that is incorporated in the new clause. I am saying that, with the technology that is now available to the Government, proper cross-referencing of information relating to vehicles and drivers—information that is sitting in court rooms throughout the country, in the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and in MOT records—will help us, first, and most importantly, to understand whether there is any substance in the anecdotal information that suggests that there is a link between drivers who persistently abuse the law and unroadworthy vehicles. Secondly, it will provide the Government with an opportunity to examine the information and to determine the best way forward.

Mr. Browne

Before my hon. Friend moves off cost implications, and the effect of his new clause and the rest of this brief Bill, I point out that one of the advantages of the database that would be created would be that the police, through the police national computer, could access relevant information instantaneously at accidents. He may be undermining his new clause to some degree in that respect. The information ought to be collated through the police, without the involvement of magistrates or anyone else.

Mr. Miller

The Bill permits the collection of some information through the police national computer, but, for the sake of brevity, I shall not rustle through my papers to find the relevant clause. The police could be empowered for the purposes of existing road traffic legislation to utilise information collected under the Bill, but, in its present form, it does not authorise the Secretary of State to use that information for purposes of inquiry.

I want to ensure that information flows both ways between those who collect MOT data and those who are responsible for overseeing the provisions of legislation dealing with death and serious injury on the road. If we achieve that modest objective, we shall have taken one step along the road of dealing with some of the issues on which I, a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House and organisations such as Brake and RoadPeace have been campaigning for a long time. That is not a perfect solution, but it is part of a complex solution.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

I am not clear about whether the information to be exchanged would include information about failure of the MOT test. Two classes of people do not have MOT certificates for perhaps a week or more: some people may simply have been careless or forgetful, but the worst incidents involve people who deliberately use their vehicle even though it has failed an MOT. It is important that knowledge of failure should be available, but I am not clear about whether that would be included in the information to which my hon. Friend is referring.

Mr. Miller

I think that the correct answer to my hon. Friend is that such examples would fall outside the scope of the new clause. I am not entirely certain of what happens to records of failures collected by MOT testing stations, and perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister may be able to deal with that issue when she responds. The individual is given a copy of the certificate, but I do not know what happens subsequently to the original information about the vehicle.

With today's technology, it would certainly be possible to include on a database information about a vehicle that failed the MOT test today, and then passed and gained a certificate a week later after having the appropriate work carried out. I think that such a provision comes within the scope of the Bill, but it may not fall specifically within the scope of the new clause.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

Perhaps my hon. Friend and I can help each other on that point. If a registration number is not on the computer, the police know that the vehicle has no MOT and must therefore be an MOT failure by definition. That is the short-circuit way round the problem identified by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner).

Mr. Miller

If the police stop a vehicle today because they suspect the driver of committing a road traffic offence or, specifically in the context of the new clause, of being involved in a death or the causing of serious injury, I and 99 per cent. of the public would expect them to have the ability to check not only whether the driver's licence is in order, using the police national computer, but whether the vehicle's paperwork is in order. That resource could be made available to the police, beneficially and within the scope of the Bill, and would be a massive advantage.

It could be argued that civil liberties would be breached, but I shall take that argument head on: the real breach of civil liberties is the death and maiming of people on our roads every year. In respect of every issue on which the Government introduce strengthened computerised databases, we must be mindful of privacy and ensure that proper data protection and privacy legislation is developed to reinforce such changes. At the same time, we must be prepared to tackle that argument absolutely head on and say that the real civil liberties issue is the injuring of people on the roads.

Dr. George Turner

Will my hon. Friend clarify the meaning of the words "any inquiry" in his new clause? I am not sure whether they would have legal definition, or whether I or a member of the public could decide to inquire into something. I should have thought that he would want to be restrictive and would have used those words in a more technical sense. Can he explain to the House whether his new clause would restrict those who are entitled to inquire and to get that information?

Mr. Miller

I do not claim to be an expert parliamentary draftsman, but the provision, through its use of the word "any", was intended to be broad brush. As I have said, I would include magistrates courts, coroners courts and the police. There is even a legitimate argument for such information to be made available to insurance companies, because it would be a material fact in respect of whether a policy was valid. We will have to look at that issue as time goes on. I intended the wording to affect not members of the public or the press, but any public authority legitimately engaged in an inquiry relating to death or serious injury. However, I can see arguments for extending it beyond that.

This is a modest new clause, the spirit of which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will accept. I appreciate that she may have difficulty with the precise wording, because we have not had the opportunity to discuss it, but the intention is as I have described. I hope that, as part of the House's determination to help to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries on the roads, the Government will consider incorporating at least the spirit of the new clause into the Bill.

10 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson)

May I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) for the warm tribute that he paid to our noble Friend Lord Whitty for his dedication to all the road safety issues that my hon. Friend mentioned, such as ensuring better driver training and better road design. As he knows, the Government are engaged in a review of speed, and we have already given a clear estimate of targets for the reduction of deaths and injuries. This country's record is extremely good, but that is no argument for complacency. As the whole House knows, my hon. Friend is a patron of RoadPeace and is assiduous in arguing from the perspective of those who are grievously hurt by the loss of members of their families as a result of pointless and often preventable road accidents.

As I am sure my hon. Friend is also aware, the Government have reduced the necessity for local authorities to apply to the Secretary of State before introducing 20 mph zones or limits on local roads. I assure my hon. Friend, and all members of RoadPeace and other organisations dedicated to reducing deaths and injuries on the roads, that the Government are committed to that aim. As my hon. Friend said, if the number of deaths on our roads occurred as a result of aeroplanes falling from the sky, the reaction would be vociferous. We are concerned to ensure that the number of deaths on the roads is not considered an issue about which nothing can or should be done. We are committed to reducing the number of deaths and injuries on the roads.

I presume that the new clause is intended to serve two purposes. First, it would require the Secretary of State to authorise the use of information in the database of MOT records for the purposes of any inquiry into a road traffic accident. Secondly, it would require the Secretary of State to maintain a record of all such incidents where the vehicle involved did not have a valid test certificate at the time of the accident.

On the first part of the new clause, it seems that the principal party likely to be interested in obtaining such information is the police. However, the police already have access to all relevant information under the provisions of new section 46(5) of the Road Traffic Act 1988—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne).

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) was concerned about whether the information would show that a vehicle had failed an MOT. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) pointed out to him, the whole point of computerisation is to enable the police easily to access whether the vehicle in question has a valid certificate. It is illegal for people to use a vehicle without a valid MOT certificate. They are liable to be stopped by the police and prosecuted if they cannot produce a valid certificate, which they need to produce in order to obtain a vehicle excise duty disc. If there is no valid disc, it could be because of a possible MOT offence.

Dr. George Turner

Will the Minister clarify whether the records will contain information about failure of the test? I should have thought that, if a vehicle failed its MOT because it did not have adequate brakes, that information should be available to the police because it would be a much more significant offence than simply forgetting to get an MOT certificate. Will that information be on the computer?

Ms Jackson

I repeat to my hon. Friend that it is an offence to drive a vehicle on the roads without a valid MOT certificate, for the reasons that I have already given. In many instances, when a car is submitted for an MOT and is deemed to fail in one or two areas, the whole vehicle has to be retested for technical reasons. However, the purpose of the Bill is to ensure that the computerisation process in which the Government are engaged should be capable of detailing, for those who would most need the information, not least the police, whether a vehicle had a valid MOT certificate. That is central and essential to the proposals in the Bill.

Mr. Miller

I understood the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) more clearly when I was sitting down and not under pressure to respond. He made an important point. Will my hon. Friend the Minister look at the possibility of including in the design of the central MOT record system information relating to vehicles that fail the test? Magistrates courts would quite reasonably take different views of someone who omitted to get his vehicle tested within three years and a day, and someone who had driven a vehicle knowing it to be unroadworthy because it had failed the MOT.

Ms Jackson

I thank my hon. Friend for that question because it helps to clarify the position. There will be, within the proposed database, records of passes and failures of vehicles. That is one of the valuable pieces of information that can be made available in certain circumstances to individuals but, more importantly, to the Vehicle Inspectorate because it would enable it to ensure that the testing centres were efficient and were testing adequately and properly, and to highlight areas where it might be necessary to make improvements.

Mr. Shaw

May I press the Minister on this point? Will the information contained in the records say why a vehicle failed? As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) said, if it has failed because of dodgy brakes, the magistrates court would want to take that into account.

Ms Jackson

With respect to my hon. Friend, I think that there is slight confusion about the information required in order to proceed with a prosecution. As I said, the information that I should imagine is required by the police is available to the police. The issue of defining on the database what particular faults caused a vehicle to fail the test is interesting. I hope that it would be possible to include that information within the programming of the computer base, because those issues are important not only to people who buy cars, but to those who manufacture them.

As I said, the police will already have access to all relevant information under the provisions of new section 46(5). In other cases, the Secretary of State could be obliged by law to provide information from the proposed record of MOT results—for example, where a court action was pending and evidence was required to be put before a court relating to information from the record of MOT results. That situation is already contemplated by clause 4, which makes it possible for an authenticated person, on behalf of the Secretary of State, to give evidence from the records maintained under section 45(6B) in written form.

It is also possible that the Secretary of State may face other requests for information and those would have to be considered on their merits, within the context of the regulation-making powers under new section 45(6) of the Road Traffic Act 1988. I trust that my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston would agree that those powers are already part of the Bill, so the first part of his new clause is not necessary.

Dr. George Turner

My hon. Friend said that the Bill covered the key people who would want to get at the information. I am not completely clear whether it covers all those who may have a reasonable case to ask for the information, such as insurance companies or people who have also been involved in the incident. Would they be able to request the information, or would it have to come through the police or some official mechanism?

Ms Jackson

As I said, if a case is being prosecuted in a court, the Bill ensures that the police have automatic access to such information. A requirement is placed on the Secretary of State to furnish such information as the court may require. Our courts are open and public places, so any information that is presented to a court would be open to anyone who is in the court to hear it or who reads the report of the court proceedings.

On the wider question of information available to others under the Bill, the Secretary of State will define in regulations the classes of person for whom information will be available. They would have to prove that they had a justifiable reason for making such inquiries about an individual vehicle.

The second part of my hon. Friend's new clause is concerned with maintaining a record of all road traffic accidents involving death or serious injury in which the vehicle involved did not have a valid test certificate. The proposed database would not show whether the fact that a vehicle did not have a valid test certificate was relevant to the accident. It may or may not be relevant—the database would not provide that answer, and at worst it could lead to misleading assumptions being made on the basis of spurious statistics. That is my overriding concern, rather than, as my hon. Friend averred, the perception of vastly increased costs. The point about misleading assumptions was made, in his own individual way, by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun.

Mr. Miller

The fact that there is a lot of spurious information is precisely what concerns me. There is no scientifically collected data that help us to understand whether there is a correlation between drivers driving without proper paperwork and the consequences of their actions. Academic research may be undertaken, perhaps supported by the Department, but the new clause would create the database that would supply the information to be analysed.

Ms Jackson

The Department intends to engage in research. As I have had occasion to say, the Government are concerned to do everything possible to reduce road casualties. I am not suggesting for one moment that ensuring adequate vehicle maintenance has no bearing on that objective.

My hon. Friend suggested that some vehicle owners take a somewhat casual approach to their responsibilities, and that some drivers are perfectly happy to drive without the valid and necessary paperwork. I think that he was implying that that shows their lack of responsibility for maintaining their vehicle, quite apart from ensuring that it is adequately licensed.

Mr. Browne

As my hon. Friend the Minister said, the existing road traffic legislation provides for the prosecution of the offence of driving vehicles without MOT certificates. Those who have practised in the courts know what small penalties are imposed for that transgression of the law. Unless the prosecution also includes individual breaches of regulations relating to individual parts of the vehicle, the court often does not know the reason for the failure and the reason why the vehicle does not have an MOT.

That long preamble leads me to the general point that I think my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) is making. There could be an increase in the penalty for failure to have an MOT certificate and the greater prosecution of individual breaches of regulations if it were known that there is, as many of us suspect, a significant correlation between the roadworthiness of vehicles and their involvement in accidents. I took it from what the Minister said that such research was being undertaken. Will she expand on that for the benefit of the House, and explain the objectives of that research?

10.15 am
Ms Jackson

I thank my hon. Friend for raising an issue that, as I have said, I shall touch on later. We are discussing a vehicle owner's responsibility to ensure that he is legally entitled to drive on our roads by virtue of the relevant paperwork. Vehicle owners also have a responsibility to themselves and to other road users to ensure that, when they put their vehicle on the road, it is roadworthy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun referred to penalties. However, there is, is there not, a deterrent element in the Bill? The modernisation and computerisation of records on MOT testing would affect the ease and speed with which the police would be able to check, in any incident that was brought to their attention, whether the vehicle involved was adequately, properly and legally licensed and had the relevant MOT certificate. The issue of penalties is outside the remit of the Bill.

It is precisely because we are concerned that vehicles on our roads should be roadworthy that we have MOT testing to ensure that vehicles are adequately maintained. We believe that, in the main, the MOT testing scheme serves that objective well. In practice, very few accidents are caused or contributed to by vehicle roadworthiness defects. The vast majority of accidents are caused by driver error, excess speed, or incapacity of the driver through the effects of alcohol or drugs. That is why the Government are working hard to crack down on those problems.

Research has been carried out over the years to find out what proportion of accidents are caused or contributed to by vehicle roadworthiness defects. Only a small proportion of accidents arise because of such problems. Further research is in the pipeline. An on-the-spot accident study is ready to run for the next three years to provide the Government with up-to-date information on accident causation.

Mr. Dismore

Will my hon. Friend clarify the research? My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) was making the point that the lack of an MOT certificate is symptomatic of a much greater disregard for road safety generally. Will the research cover not only the correlation between the lack of an MOT certificate, irrespective of its causative effect on the accident, and the nature of the offence committed by the driver, but the disregard of the need for motor insurance, which often goes hand in hand with the lack of an MOT certificate and a vehicle excise duty licence?

Ms Jackson

I should be happy to furnish my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon with that detailed information. He reiterated the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston and I have made. What we are talking about, in respect of a failure to maintain a vehicle in a roadworthy state, is a lack of responsibility on the part of the individual vehicle owner. The requirements of the Bill, and those of existing legislation, are part and parcel of a wish to encourage all vehicle owners to meet those requirements in full.

As I have said, the information that will result from the research to which I have referred, and research of which we already have knowledge, will enable us to make informed decisions about what more can be done to improve safety on our roads. I appreciate that new clause 1 stems from the deep compassion felt by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston for the hapless victims of road accidents, which I am sure that all hon. Members share. The Government certainly share it, which is why we have committed ourselves to a wide range of policies and to enabling research to take place. We are taking a number of steps to ensure that our roads become infinitely safer.

I hope that, for the reasons that I have given, my hon. Friend will accept that, in the instances that I have specified, the new clause is unnecessary. The requirements that it mentions are already in the Bill. I trust that he will be willing to withdraw the motion.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

It would be presumptuous of me to try to add to what the Minister has said, but I should like to make a few brief points about new clause 1.

I appreciated the kind remarks made by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) about the Bill, and pay tribute to his commitment to the cause of promoting road safety and related matters. I disagree only with the detail of the new clause, not with the principle.

I agree with the Minister that the Bill as it stands will effectively deliver what the hon. Gentleman seeks. Under the Bill, the police have access to all the information on the database of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and that on the proposed new MOT database. Clauses 2 and 4 enable information to be made available to any inquiry if the Secretary of State considers that to be necessary.

Dr. George Turner

May I pursue the point about who has a legitimate interest in the information? If I were a solicitor representing someone who had been involved in an accident, I would want to know some facts so that I could advise my client. The information might be available, but I assume that I would have to ask the Secretary of State for permission to have access to it. Does the Bill make it clear that it will be easy for people with a legitimate interest in the information to gain access to it, and that the police would not have to gain access to it first because a court case was involved?

Mr. Hunter

"Easy" is a relative word. Certainly the Bill allows information on the MOT database to be made available to people who have an interest in a particular vehicle. I am afraid that I do not know the precise details of the mechanism whereby the information would become available, but the Bill empowers the Secretary of State, by regulation, to make it available to those who can show an interest in a particular vehicle.

Dr. Turner

I appreciate that the regulations have yet to be drafted, but could the hon. Gentleman give us some idea of how he imagines that the regulations might make the information available, and to whom it would be available? I approve of the principle, but I should like to know more about the practicalities.

Mr. Hunter

The hon. Gentleman must not lose sight of the fact that the regulations will essentially constitute a rerun of those created by the Road Traffic Act 1988. There are points of difference because of the computerisation programme, but they are relatively minor.

I am sorry that I cannot help the hon. Gentleman more. When I was considering tabling the Bill, I went to the Vehicle Inspectorate and was told how the public-private initiative—the new private finance initiative—was working, and what else would be in the programme. I do not know the details, but I willingly accept the principle that the information should be made available as specified in the Bill.

I am afraid that, in my wish to help the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner), I have strayed from the subject of new clause 1. The new clause suggests that the record could be useful for research purposes. I confess that I had not considered that possibility, but records of road traffic accidents are currently kept, and the police are obliged to submit completed accident report forms, which are collated and summarised. I understand that they are called "Stats 19 records". That mechanism may not be perfect for providing the information that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston wants to be available, but, through discussion with the Government, the Stats 19 records could provide the sort of information that he wants more readily than the MOT database.

Mr. Browne

May I return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw)? My understanding is that clause 2 allows access to information, and that new section 46(6) empowers the Secretary of State to make regulations to allow access on a commercial basis; but the new subsection restricts access to that which excludes information about the particulars of the premises on which an MOT examination is carried out, or about the person who carries it out—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman's interventions are becoming longer and longer. May I ask him to be a little more brief or, perhaps, to make a speech later?

Mr. Browne

I will try to conform to your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The simple point that I wish to make is this. A person with an interest may want access to the information for legitimate reasons, perhaps in order to sue a garage or individual tester. Does the new clause provide for that?

Mr. Hunter

I appreciate your leniency, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in allowing the debate to wander from the subject of new clause 1.

New section 46(6) facilitates the commercial sale of information on a database, but excludes means of identifying car owners and MOT testers. New subsection (5) allows the Secretary of State to facilitate access for prescribed persons, such as the police.

10.30 am
Mr. Dismore

There is much to be said for new clause 1. It tries to deal with two different issues: first, the problem that often occurs at the scene of an accident; secondly, the problems that occur later. Perhaps at this stage, I should declare an interest. For some 20 years, I practised as a solicitor specialising in personal injury law, although I have not taken any cases since being elected to this place.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London dealt with a number of the problems that may arise through references to other parts of the Bill, but one or two key factors are still not being addressed there. At the moment, if someone is involved in a road accident and cannot produce their documents there and then, all the police can do is issue them with a document—I think that it is called a HORT/1—asking them to produce their insurance certificate, MOT certificate and driving licence.

Effectively, the driver can then move off with impunity, irrespective of whether the vehicle is roadworthy. The police will obviously do a check there and then, but, in practice, whether the vehicle has an MOT certificate is not taken into account because the police simply cannot check that.

I hope that, as a result of the Bill—I think that the new clause would go some way towards contributing to solving the problem—the police may be able to dial up and check there and then whether the vehicle has an MOT certificate. However, that begs the question: what do the police do if it turns out that the vehicle does not have an MOT certificate? Do they have the power, for example, to say that the vehicle cannot be moved except on the back of tow truck? Effectively, even though the vehicle does not have an MOT certificate—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The new clause is not about the powers of the police.

Mr. Dismore

The point that I make arises out of the inquiry that is permitted at the scene of a road traffic accident in relation to the MOT certificate. My concern is whether the police can stop that vehicle being used.

The measure is also helpful for inquiries into the causes of accidents. The Minister mentioned that the vast bulk of road accidents is caused not by the condition of the vehicle, but by the carelessness or wilfulness of the driver concerned. Given my experience of 20 years in practice, I concur with that view, but problems arise concerning the condition of the vehicle, which sometimes may be detected by an MOT certificate and sometimes not.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) made the telling point that, sometimes, a vehicle has been cut in half and welded together. Sometimes, it may have an MOT certificate and sometimes not. I can illustrate the point from personal experience. A few years ago, I had a car stolen. I was very sad to see it go. It was a bit of a boy racer car—a racing green Ford Capri 2.8, the last of the line and utterly irreplaceable. When it was stolen, I was heartbroken. Ultimately, the police found it, but it had been completely stripped of everything.

Mr. Shaw

Even the furry dice?

Mr. Dismore

There were no furry dice, but the sunroof and speedy wheels had gone. The vehicle was written off by the insurers because to replace the spare parts alone would have cost £6,000.

A year or two later, the DVLA asked me the circumstances in which the vehicle had been written off because someone had bought the shell, somehow reconstructed it and applied to re-register the vehicle. When I lost it, the vehicle had an MOT certificate. That person could have reconstructed the vehicle and, for all we know, it could have been driven around in an unsafe condition. In fact, the vehicle was still structurally sound. The thieves had taken only the bits off, so I was able to reassure the DVLA, but that is the sort of problem that could be dealt with by the new clause.

Another problem that often arises in investigating road accidents is determining whether a defect on the vehicle is a latent or patent defect. Sometimes, it may be detected by an MOT inspection and sometimes not. I remember a case that I dealt with in practice where the driver's seat suddenly shifted as the driver came up to a T-junction, propelling him forward and, he said, pushing his foot firmly on to the accelerator. Needless to say, the vehicle shot across the T-junction and into the path of an oncoming vehicle. As people say in such matters, a collision ensued.

The big problem that we had in the investigation was whether the accident was a result of a defect in the vehicle, or whether the driver was making up a story. The new clause would go some way towards helping to resolve that problem.

We had grave difficulty in tracking down whether the vehicle had an MOT certificate because court proceedings at that time meant that we could not ask the other party to produce the certificate until after proceedings had commenced. Therefore, during most of the preparations for the case, we had no idea one way or the other about the vehicle's condition, other than what we could detect by inspection. We could not check whether the vehicle had an MOT certificate. The recent rules of court changes that came in a couple of weeks ago may go some way towards dealing with that problem through pre-action protocols, but it was a serious problem at the time.

One of my concerns about the new clause is that it does not necessarily deal with the position where there is a defect in a vehicle that may not require an MOT certificate. I pray in aid of that argument an accident that occurred to a councillor in my constituency only a few weeks ago. A wheel came off his brand new car—it was only a couple of weeks old—as he driving on the motorway. He had no way of knowing about the problem. Luckily, no one else was hurt, but one of the problems in those circumstances would be to determine the cause of the accident. The MOT certificate would not really help much there.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) raised an important point—the extent to which the information will be made available beyond the police and the enforcing authorities and, in particular, whether it will be made available to the victim of a road accident, or that person's lawyers.

At the moment, if a road accident occurs, the normal procedure at the scene of the accident is to exchange details of insurance. As I understand it, there is no obligation in road traffic legislation to exchange MOT details as well. It may be that, through the new clause, that could become part of the standard procedure at road accidents. The new clause may help those investigating road accidents and those at the scene of the accidents—the victims—to deal with that problem.

Ms Glenda Jackson

I appreciate the arguments that my hon. Friend advances but, under new section 46(6) of the Act, anonymised particulars and information would be sold

  1. "(a) to such persons as the Secretary of State thinks fit, and
  2. (b) for such price and on such other terms, and subject to such restrictions, as he thinks fit".
Therefore, as I said earlier, the new clause is not necessary. The requisite powers will be in the Bill.

Mr. Dismore

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point.

Fees will be levied. In parenthesis, I hope that those are reasonable because the charges that are levied by the police in relation to their reports are sometimes excessive. My concern is that the Bill creates quite a bureaucratic process by which to obtain the information. How much easier it would be if the parties could simply exchange the details there and then, on the spot, at the time of an accident, as they do with insurance details.

The new clause contains the word "inquiry" as opposed to "enquiry". They have, I think, different grammatical and syntax effects. "Inquiry" effectively means inquiries by public authorities, the police and so forth. "Enquiries" would include those made by, for example, solicitors investigating the cause of an accident, or the victim of accident who is trying to find out whether the MOT certificate had any relevance to the case.

For that reason, although I share the sentiments behind it, I cannot support the new clause as it stands, although if the word had an "e" instead of an "i" I would be much more supportive.

Dr. George Turner

New clause 1 might be a helpful tool to allow us to explore the principle of freedom of information. I was elected on a manifesto that said that we, as a party, supported freedom of information.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) on his Bill. I am pleased that some progress is being made in terms of the data that is collected and the use of computers to store, and to help in the analysis of, the data.

I was shocked when, as a police authority member, I found that incidents records were still being kept, in long-hand, in a book—making analysis of the incidents next to impossible. As a result of my experience of a police authority, I believe that the failure of police to adopt information technology must seriously hamper their ability not only to investigate crime, but to analyse incidents. I am absolutely certain that greater knowledge about what causes accidents will help us to reduce the problems that they cause so many people.

I was interested in the Bill also because, as someone with an information technology background, I believe that, in introducing information technology, it is a mistake merely to make minor amendments to previous practice. A common mistake when finally involving computers in our work is simply to record what we have done before. I am concerned that the Bill may have a weakness in that it does not change enough regulation sufficiently to effect current practice.

I should be grateful if the Minister would help me to understand the basis on which information will be made available, as I am not sure whether large sums will be involved in operating the provisions. If large sums will have to be paid to gain information, the Exchequer's point of view on the matter would be understandable. However, I hold the prejudice that information should be readily available to those who want to use it, and that the people best placed to judge whether they should have it are those who will take the time and make the effort to use it.

I accept that personal details—possession of which might be deemed to be an intrusion into an individual's privacy—should be protected. However, we should not extend the concept of privacy to motor vehicles.

Mr. Shaw

I appreciate the point that my hon. Friend is making. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London gave as an example the fact that prospective purchases of second-hand vehicles might be interested to see evidence of the recorded mileage of vehicles submitted for MOT test."—[Official Report, 5 March 1999; Vol.326.c.1406.] Does he think that such information would be very welcome to people wishing to buy a second-hand car?

Dr. Turner

Indeed; and I shall deal with that very point after developing my argument a little.

I hold the prejudice that, unless large sums are involved, Government should adhere to the principle of freedom of information, and not censor information unless there is good cause to do so.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is now going rather wide of the mark, which is new clause 1. I should be grateful if he would come back to dealing with the specifics of new clause 1.

Dr. Turner

I shall, of course, take your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am essentially coming back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on the difference between an "inquiry" and an "enquiry".

We should certainly be considering the possibility of making information available on the basis of an "enquiry". We are talking about information that should, quite reasonably, be available largely on the internet. I do not know why there should be a bureaucratic procedure—in which civil servants process forms claims according to rules drawn up by Ministers, and regulations that took up parliamentary time—to gain that information. We should not create further bureaucracy to handle public information that should be available on the internet. It should take only a few clicks of the mouse to discover the history of the car that one wishes to buy.

10.45 am

Computerisation and other modern technology could revolutionise the way in which consumers are informed. I simply cannot understand why, when they are deciding on a car purchase, people should not be able to analyse the relevant information stored on the internet—such as whether a particular car model made in 1996 had a good repair record. MOT information on why a car or model of car failed its test is very useful for the individual.

Why should access to such information entail a bureaucratic process? Why should we require permission to gain that information? Should not the public have a right of access to information, unless there is a good reason why they should not have it?

Mr. Dismore

My hon. Friend is making a very interesting point. Let us suppose that someone was considering buying a specific vehicle or make of vehicle and paid a fee for information on it, but then decided not to purchase that vehicle or make of vehicle. Under the provisions of the Bill, he would have to pay a fee each time that he wanted information on a vehicle—perhaps several times—whereas, as my hon. Friend said, vehicle information on the internet could be gained at minimal cost.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) responds to that intervention, I remind the House that the new clause is not about purchasing vehicles, but relates specifically to accidents.

Dr. Turner

I understand your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am generalising from the specific point—to which I shall return.

I really should be grateful if, before the new clause is withdrawn or pressed to a Division, the Minister or the hon. Member for Basingstoke would make it clear why there should be any restriction on such information, and why it could not be gained with a simple "enquiry". I appreciate that some information is more personal, involving the privacy of the citizen, and should not be made available without a formal procedure. However, it is entirely legitimate to allow people making a simple "enquiry" access to the type of information that we are discussing—such as whether a vehicle had had an MOT or recently failed one. Members of the public should be able to access that information if they feel that they should have it. We do not need a bureaucracy to give us permission to have access to it.

Ms Glenda Jackson

As I have already had occasion to say, the Bill provides that such information would be available if the "enquirer"—I think that I am right in that; not "inquirer"—could show that he or she had a legitimate interest in a particular vehicle. My hon. Friend spoke of someone wishing to purchase a second-hand vehicle.

Under the regulations, which are to be defined, it will be possible for organisations and businesses dealing specifically in the matter to buy information about a wide range of vehicles. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the Data Protection Acts, and that he joins all hon. Members in wishing to ensure that machines and other individuals are not able to intrude ever more greatly in our lives by making "enquiries", the origin of which we would not know.

Dr. Turner

I thank the Minister for making that point, although I am not sure that I entirely agree with it. I have absolutely no concern about some information about my life being available on computer. Although I should like some of it to be protected, that certainly does not include information about vehicles.

I am simply suggesting that the information should be available on the internet—which is in the spirit in which the Labour party is proposing freedom of information for the citizen. I believe that—generally, if it does not involve real cost—information held by the Government should be available to the public. The real cost of the information that we are discussing would be incurred by creating bureaucracy.

Mr. Shaw

I take my hon. Friend's point, and I am being convinced by his argument. However, does he agree that information should be available not only about a car's history and MOT, but about the garage's history and the quality of—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I do not want to have to remind the hon. Gentleman again—we are now straying very wide of the mark.

Dr. Turner

On your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall ignore that intervention.

I conclude with a straight question. If the provision involves a bureaucratic procedure, why is that necessary? If the information is stored on computer and government computers are already linked, why should the information not be available on the internet? Information that is held by the Government and is not personal is public information and should therefore be accessible to the public at a realistic charge. If the information were on the internet, the charge would need to be only some tenths of a penny.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) on introducing

the Bill, which goes a long way towards precisely what my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) suggested that it did not do—using computerisation to provide much more than paper records.

Although we have had a useful and interesting debate on new clause 1, the underlying confusion demonstrates the flaws of the proposal, which attempts to do four different things in 10 different directions on the premise of two underlying themes. The notion that there should be, in our legislative body, greater recognition, or analysis, of vehicles involved in road traffic accidents in which death or serious injury occurs is beyond doubt. I could explore why it is shameful that people get away with murder in respect of deaths on the road, but I am sure that I would be admonished. The new clause is not the vehicle to redress the imbalance in our criminal law in respect of those who cause death or serious injury. Although it is well meaning to hook it on to this commendable Bill, it is not necessarily appropriate. Nor is it appropriate to talk at length about 20 mph zones, which reduce the incidence of traffic accidents—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is anxious not to be admonished, so I should be grateful if he would return to new clause 1.

Mr. McNulty

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Although it expresses the important concern about death and serious injury, new clause 1 is inherently flawed in trying to tag it to the Bill. Its aim is commendable, but this is not the place for it.

Unlike my hon. Friends, I have serious difficulties with the flippant phrase, "any inquiry". The new clause might as well have said, "any old inquiry". The notion expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk that the information should be accessible to anyone at public cost and that it should be on the internet is nonsense. It is one of the most absurd reasons that I have heard for freedom of information. Frankly, it undermines genuine, serious arguments in support of that.

I also have difficulty with the notion that, somehow, we should narrow the scope of new clause 1 to vehicles for which appropriate test certificates have not been issued. There are fundamental reasons why it should not be in the Bill, not least because its aims are already incorporated in this and other measures. People make spurious links between the absence of a test certificate and the responsibility or otherwise of the keepers of vehicles, not least those involved in accidents, and new clause 1 would formalise that in legislation. It says nothing about the link between road traffic accidents in which death or serious injury occurs and whether or not the vehicle has an MOT and it does not make a case for obtaining the records of the vehicles involved in such accidents. Neither aspect of what is fundamentally a well-meaning new clause would achieve its objective, so it is flawed.

In respect of whether the new clause should refer to an "inquiry" or an "enquiry", the Bill makes it quite clear what is required from any legitimate source seeking to access the information. It is both flexible and permissive. I can only assume that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) was touting for trade for his colleagues in the personal injury field by seeking to broaden it further than necessary.

Although the hon. Member for Basingstoke accepted the thrust of new clause 1, which certainly has broad support on both sides of the House, this is not the place to incorporate provisions in respect of death and serious injury in road traffic accidents. New clause 1 is a nice try; it covers many serious issues, but I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) to withdraw it, as it does not add much to a Bill that does a great deal in respect of moving MOT records from a paper trail to computerisation. We would do the country a disservice if we did not utilise that opportunity for modernisation. New clause 1 is flawed and I urge the House to sling it out.

Mr. Miller

We have had a fascinating debate on an important issue. If I am allowed, I join you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in admonishing my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), who missed the spirit of my new clause. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) revealed that he is not only a scholar, but a boy racer. Perhaps another time he will give me a lesson in the use of English. The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) made an interesting speech and I am grateful for his contribution. We are on the same side in respect of this important issue. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) made some important points about privacy. I hope that the Government recognise that we should not design computerised systems simply to replicate the existing paper-based systems. If the regulations are at fault, they should be amended accordingly—

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 11 (Friday sittings).

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