HL Deb 19 February 1924 vol 56 cc187-94

EARL RUSSELL had given Notice to call attention to several cases in which persons convicted of being drunk in charge of a motor ear have been sentenced only to the payment of fines, and to ask His Majesty's Government whether they are prepared to issue a circular to magistrates advising sentences of imprisonment in all similar cases. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I imagine that most of your Lordships will be inclined to support the view that I am going to lay before you on the matter concerned in my Question, and I hope that I shall have the general assent of this House in the measures that I shall venture to suggest to His Majesty's Government. In the course of reading the ordinary daily Press my attention has been called a great deal lately to the very large increase in the number of cases of motorists who are drunk when driving motor cars. I think most of your Lordships know—


My Lords, I hope the noble Earl will forgive me for interrupting him, but Lord Parmoor, who is going to answer this Question, is not at present in his place, but will be here in a moment. I hope it may be convenient to take the next Question on the Paper first—that of the noble Viscount, Lord Novar.


I If Lord Novar is here, and if that course is convenient to the noble Viscount, I would, of course, assent.


My Lords, I found myself in considerable trouble through adopting this procedure on a previous occasion, but if the noble and learned Viscount desires, I will simply put my Question without making any further observation. It is to ask His Majesty's Government whether they intend to take up the Church of Scotland (Property and Endowments) Bill now awaiting Second Beading in this House.


The noble Viscount is quite right in suggesting that this procedure should be taken only with the assent of the House, and I ought to move, for the convenience of the noble Viscount as well as of myself, that the noble Viscount's Question should take precedence of that of the noble Earl. This is a formality which should not be omitted, and I beg, therefore, to move that the Question of the noble Viscount take precedence over the Question of the noble Earl.

Moved, That the Question standing in the name of Viscount Novar on the Order Paper this day have precedence over that of Earl Russell.—(The Lord Chancellor.)


My Lords, I am afraid, if the noble and learned Viscount will allow me to say so, that I could not hear what he was saying, and I do not quite know what is the Motion before the House.


I beg the noble Earl's pardon. The Motion before the House is to the effect that the Question of the noble Viscount should be taken before that of the noble Earl, as Lord Parmoor cannot, for the moment, be here. By the time it has been disposed of, I hope that Lord Parmoor will have arrived.


I have no objection to offer, but I really think we are entitled—

LORD PARMOOR [who at this moment, entered the House]

I must apologise to your Lordships, but there is sometimes unavoidable delay in the crossing to the House. I am aware of the Question that has been asked.


I It has not been asked.


I will withdraw my Motion.


If the Motion is withdrawn of course I will say no more.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


I find myself very much embarrassed by this interlude, but if your Lordships will allow me to continue, I was about to remark, before the noble and learned Lord came in, that I have been for the past quarter of a century driving motor cars, and I have driven 200,000 miles with my own hands. Your Lordships will therefore understand that I am not unfamiliar with traffic conditions of modern development. During that time I have always tried to stand up for the rights of motorists to the reasonable use of the roads, and I have always deprecated anything in the nature of persecution by useless police traps; but I have never supported the improper use of the roads by motorists, and I find, on looking at the newspapers, that there is a very considerable number of cases of drunkenness. I also find that there is a remarkable difference in the sentences imposed when conviction has been obtained.

I have here a set of cuttings taken as random, and on the first I find these headlines: "Forty miles an hour: Driving in traffic when staggering drunk: £23 fine." They relate to a case at the South Western Police Court. I may say that these are not all cases in which there is a difference between the provinces and the Stipendiaries in London. There is a considerable difference in the practice which obtains in the London Stipendiary Courts. I find that at the Mansion House a man charged with being drunk was sentenced to fourteen days' imprisonment. I find that at Caterham a man driving an army wagon without lights when drunk, was sent to prison. I also find, which I think is a matter of some importance, that two of these cases relate to people who, having been sentenced to imprisonment, have appealed to Quarter Sessions and had their sentences of imprisonment reduced to fines. There seems to me to be two objections to that course. One is that if you do get inequality of sentence by the magistrates, it is important that it should not be put right by the Quarter Sessions. The other objection is that poor men are not able to appeal to the Quarter Sessions, and therefore do not get the same chance as rich motorists. Then, at Bow Street, a drunken driver was sent to prison for a month's hard labour, and at Worcester a farmer was sent to prison for being drunk in charge of a motor car. I recollect a case, too, in which a motorist was charged with driving in a drunken manner between Kew and Richmond. He had driven zigzag all over the road for a distance of three miles, and had driven into three people, and he was let off with a fine of £40.

It seems to me that a person who drives a motor car upon the public roads ought to be responsible and ought to be made to take full responsibility, for driving safely and without danger to the public. I feel this so much that I should be prepared to support an amendment-of the civil law which would presume negligence on the part of a motorist in case of an accident. I should do that in spite of the fact that every time I go out I see negligence, and, indeed, criminal negligence, on the part of pedestrians. Yet I think it is for the man who brings these dangerous vehicles on to the public roads to take all proper care. If I take that view with regard to the sober, sane and skilful driver, your Lordships can imagine how shocked I am that men should go about in charge of motor cars when they are not sober. I suggest to the Government that they should do something by way of circular from the Home Office to the magistrates, to suggest that in clear cases of drunkenness the sentence should always be one of imprisonment without the option of a fine.

None of us, I am sure, wish to fetter the discretion of the Stipendiary Magistrates or of the Bench of Justices. We realise that only those who hear the case can recognise its true gravity, and that newspaper reports are necessarily only partial reports, but I think that a lead might be given to the magistrates as to what official view is taken of these offences. Circulars of this kind have been issued in the past, and if the Government can issue such a circular with regard to these offences by motorists I think, and I hope, that your Lordships will agree that the circular might add that in all such cases the licence shall be suspended for a period of at least twelve months. It seems to me that the person who drives a motor car upon the public roads in that condition, so utterly careless of the life and limb of His Majesty's other subjects, should be debarred from driving for a very considerable time, and the suspension of the licence I look upon as almost as important as the deterrent of imprisonment. I hope the Government may see their way to take some steps of this sort, and that I may have the general support of your Lordships in the propositions I have enunciated.


My Lords, the answer to the noble Earl is sympathetic in this sense, that I suppose we all agree as to the dangers of any one being drunk when driving a motor car, and that the punishment involved should be one of a serious kind. The objection that I have to give, in answer to the noble Earl, can be stated very shortly, and at the same time I can point out to him an occasion on which the matters that he desires to bring forward can be more fully discussed than on a Question and answer. On the first point, which does not arise directly out of his Question, I do not think it right that the appeal from the magistrates to the superior court of Quarter Sessions should be taken away. It is a very serious matter to take away a right of appeal, which has existed for many centuries, on a question of this sort. Therefore, so far as I am concerned, I do not think that an appeal should be taker away.


I think the noble and learned Lord must have misapprehended what I said. I never suggested that the right of appeal should be taken away, but what I meant to suggest was that the Chairman of Quarter Sessions might also receive this circular, and have it in mind when appeals come before them.


I will deal with the matter in a moment. The second point with which I wish to deal, and to which the noble Earl's Question does not refer, relates to cases of drunken persons driving motor cars to the detriment or danger of the public at all. Although I do not wish to be too technical in what I say, the noble Earl wants to call attention to several cases in which persons have been convicted of being drunk in charge of a motor car, which is a different offence altogether. So far as concerns persons drunk in charge of a motor car, which has been held in all our Courts to be an entirely distinct matter from drunkenness whilst driving a motor car, the offence is governed by the old Licensing Act of 1872. I think the penalties there are chiefly applicable to drunkenness in cases where the person is in charge, not of a motor car, but of a carriage or wagon, or some vehicle of that kind.

The present law is this. Drunkenness in charge of a motor car is merely an offence under the Licencing Act of 1872. It is punishable either with a fine of 40s. or one month's imprisonment. In my view, and in the view of the Government, that is an entirely inadequate penalty, having regard to the nature of the offence, and if the noble Lord will wait until Tuesday next, when the Criminal Justice Bill will be introduced, he will have an opportunity, if he thinks the provision there made is inadequate or unsuitable, of moving an Amendment. I will read to the noble Earl the proposal in that Bill: Any person who is drunk while in charge, on any highway or other public place, of any motor car within the meaning of the Motor Car Act, 1903, shall, on summary conviction, be liable in respect of each offence to imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months, or to a fine not exceeding fifty pounds. If the noble Earl thinks that there ought to be no option of a fine, and that in every case of that kind the penalty should be imprisonment, that is a matter for the Legislature to consider and determine, and the noble Earl can move an Amendment.

But what he is asking is a very different thing. If the Legislature has given the option of a fine it is quite clear that no administrative body has a right to interfere with the option, which, within the discretion of the magistrate, is given by the Legislature itself. No administrative body has the right to say that that option is to be taken away, and that imprisonment is to be the only punishment for the offence. Indeed, I wonder at the noble Earl raising a point of that kind, because I believe he is very strongly in favour of the liberty of the subject being preserved under legislative provisions. I believe it is true that in certain very exceptional cases suggestions have been made to magistrates that imprisonment instead of a fine would be advisable. But unless the case is a very exceptional one, I think interference by an administrative body with the magistrate's discretion, given by the Legislature, is very much to be deprecated. As a Chairman of Quarter Sessions I have had a certain number of these cases before me, and I am advised that where the charge is one not of driving a motor car to the danger of the public, but merely of being in charge of a motor car, which may be absolutely stationary at the time, imprisonment in all cases is thought to be rather extreme.


The noble Earl, in his remarks, spoke of a circular being issued from the Home Office to magistrates generally, suggesting that they should consider, when inflicting a sentence, the extreme danger of reckless driving to the public. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord does not think that advisable?


I am glad the noble Lord has called my attention to that. I do not think it is advisable to issue instructions which may interfere with the discretion given to magistrates by the Legislature. But the question with which I was dealing was not a question of reckless driving, to which entirely different penalties apply. That is quite a different offence, and has to be dealt with in a different way.


My Lords, I do not know whether I am entitled to say a word in reply. The Lord President of the Council indicates that I am not. I am entirely in the hands of the House. But the noble and learned Lord seems to have entirely misapprehended my Question May I make it clear that I asked for no alteration of the law? The law as it stands is sufficient. If the law as it stands were not sufficient, the magistrates would not be able to impose imprisonment in some cases. The really important point, with which the noble and learned Lord has not dealt at all, is the inequality of sentences as between bench and bench. In one quarter a man will be fined 40s., and in another in a precisely similar case, the penalty will be imprisonment with hard labour. Inequality of sentence is a very undesirable thing.

On the administrative question, as to whether it is wise to issue a circular or not, I am entirely in the hands of the noble and learned Lord. But what I suggested was nothing in the way of instructions to magistrates, and, as I expressly said, nothing in the way of removing their discretion, but merely a suggestion to magistrates that, when they are imposing sentences, they should consider whether a. long suspension of the licence—a point with which the noble and learned Lord did not deal—and a sentence of imprisonment are not desirable, instead of a fine. If my Question on the Paper appears to refer to drunkenness whilst in charge of a motor car, which the noble and learned Lord has misinterpreted as an offence under the Licensing Act, I think it is clear to most of your Lordships, as I certainly made it clear in my observations, that I was referring to cases of dangerous driving in a. motor car. I wished to make my points clear, because I honestly do not think they have been met.


I am sorry if the noble Earl does not consider that his points have been met, but I do not think I have in any way misconceived his Question. So long as you have Judges and magistrates dealing with matters of this kind, and acting on their discretion as regards the particular conditions of each case, you will always have the element of inequality. There probably is no inequality if you have all the facts before you, as Judges or magistrates have when they deal with the matter either by imprisonment or by fine. No one can feel more strongly than I do the danger of people driving motor cars when drunk. That is a very serious offence indeed, but it is a different matter from that to which my attention was called. At the same time, I think that all these things are matters for the Legislature, and not for an administrative office.

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