HL Deb 29 January 1929 vol 72 cc801-15

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.


My Lords, I beg to move that the House resolves itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Viscount Cecil Chelwood.)


My Lords, on the Motion which my noble friend has just moved I should like first of all to thank him for having been so good as to postpone it to suit my convenience. I think your Lordships are familiar with the history of this Bill, which was introduced by my noble friend. It obtained a Second Reading and its further stages were postponed until such time as we could obtain from the Royal Commission which is at present sitting on these very matters, an intimation as to whether it would be possible for them to bring forward an Interim Report. As your Lordships will remember, I think the suggestion was that if an Interim Report during the next few months was not forthcoming, then it might be necessary to refer the Bill to a Select Committee. The Minister of Transport communicated with the Chairman of the Royal Commission as to the possibility of an Interim Report, and he received from the Chairman, Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen, an undertaking that an Interim Report would be forthcoming on the subject of this very Bill in the course of the coming summer.

I feel that no one could in any circumstances quarrel with the noble Viscount for having introduced his Bill. We are all entirely in agreement with the principle on which it was founded, and we are fully aware of the daily toll of death and injury which are the unfortunate concomitants of motor traffic in this country, and, as a matter of fact, throughout the world. It is true that the accidents which occur owing to this cause, even making an allowance for the enormous extension of motor traffic, are such as to cause all of us feelings of alarm and anxiety, and, naturally, any Government. Would be wanting in their duty if they did not support any measure or do everything in their power to mitigate this terrible number of accidents. But I would venture to put before your Lordships the fact that the Government feel it is quite impossible within the time at our disposal to bring in satisfactory legislation, or legislation which can do anything towards mitigating the accidents which are now unfortunately of everyday occurrence. Your Lordships are fully aware that any motor legislation is very highly controversial and your Lordships will remember the debate that we had in this House on the Second Reading. While everyone supported the principle underlying the Bill of the noble Viscount, and while everyone fully sympathised with the reason which he told us led him to bring forward the Bill, still there was hardly one clause which was not attacked from one side of the House or the other, which really showed your Lordships that the Bill was of so highly controversial a character that it could be quite impossible, whatever Committee was set up, to reduce it to an uncontroversial measure, which is the only measure which could possibly hope to pass through the House of Commons.

The Government may be right or they may be wrong. I can assure your Lordships we are only too anxious to do everything in our power to support the principle but, having very carefully considered this measure, we believe that because the legislation is of so highly controversial a character it is quite impossible to hold out any hope that such a Bill could possibly pass through Parliament and be brought into active operation this Session. Therefore I would venture to suggest that we should wait for the Interim Report which the Chairman of the Royal Commission has undertaken shall be forthcoming; but I can assure your Lordships that if my noble friend or those who are associated with him feel that by this measure being referred to a Select Committee, or in any other way, anything could be done to mitigate those evils with which the Bill is purporting to deal, then the Government certainly will not stand in his way. As I have said, we are at one in the principle which he put forward so eloquently on the Second Reading, that no stone should be left unturned to do whatever lies in the power of everyone of us to mitigate the evils which are unfortunately accompanying this vastly increasing motor traffic throughout the country.

EARL RUSSELL, who had given Notice to move, that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee, said: My Lords, I understood from the speech of the noble Marquess [Lord Salisbury] on the Second Reading that the Government took rather a clear view that this Bill could not well go any further and I was a little surprised when I saw that the noble Viscount had put it down for Committee. I thereupon addressed myself to the Bill and endeavoured to draw Amendments to make it a workable and a reasonable Bill, but when I came to look at the clauses I found that they were so conceived as to appear to me almost impossible of useful amendment. I was driven merely to putting down Amendments to leave them out. Having gone through that process it then seemed to me that that would not be of very great assistance, because of the sympathy which has been expressed, and which I think is universal, with the object the noble Viscount had in view.

I thereupon put down a Motion which I am now going to move, that the Bill he referred to a Select Committee, because it did seem to me that an inquiry with evidence into the various difficult points would go a very long way to clear up the situation, and, although I suppose we all agree that legislation is clearly impossible this Session, still it would be a useful precedent for future legislation by giving information upon which such legislation could be based. I ventured to say on Second Reading, and I think it is worth repeating now, that so far as reckless driving and serious accidents are concerned it is not so much legislation that is wanted as action under the existing law taken by the police. I believe that existing powers are sufficient if properly enforced in regard to dangerous driving at corners, dangerous driving at cross roads and things of that kind, instead of high speed on deserted moorlands. If attention were directed to the real dangers believe present legislation would be sufficient to deal with nearly all these matters of which there is complaint.

But the Bill makes other suggestions and I cannot help feeling that a good many of these suggestions are serious mistakes. Several of them, such as the "hump," or is it the crevasse? outside a village, seemed to me to be impracticable and to stand no real chance of acceptance even by the general public who are not motorists, but I do think that the Bill should be examined and I cannot help feeling that it could more easily be examined by a Select Committee than by a Committee of the Whole House. There are many matters of detail. There is the question of compulsory insurance, one that is very dear to my heart because I believe I was the first to introduce it to your Lordships. That involves questions of very great difficulty, as I have come to realise since I first took up the subject. There I think evidence before a Select Committee would be very useful as to whether it would be possible to impose compulsory insurance on every motorist, and, if so, by what method it should be done. For all these reasons it seems to me that discussion in Committee of the Whole House, if it were a proper and useful discussion, would take up a great deal of your Lordships' time and would in many cases lead to debate without an adequate knowledge of the facts. It is because I think that evidence is required on a great many of these points that I do not think we can go very much further.

I also said on Second Reading that it is really the fault of the Government that the noble Viscount introduced this Bill. The Roads Bill has been before the public for a great many years now and the Government, with their large majority in another place, should have taken the opportunity of dealing with this controversial subject while they had time. The Roads Bill, or some similar Bill, should have been passed two years ago. Then these matters could have been dealt with. The Government have only themselves to thank if they find a certain public irritation now at the growing list of fatalities and an opinion that something at any rate ought to be done to deal with the situation. I cannot help thinking that an Inquiry by a Select Committee is as good a step as can be taken at this stage. The Report of that Committee and the evidence before it will, at any rate, show what the facts are and what useful direction legislation can take.

Amendment moved— Leave out all words after ("That") and insert ("the Bill be referred to a Select Committee").—(Earl Russell.)


My Lords, I am quite sure the House must feel considerable difficulty in this matter. There are really three courses before us—to agree to the suggestion of the Government and await the Report of the Royal Commission; to discuss the matter upon the floor of this House; and, as is suggested by the noble Earl who has just sat down, to refer the Bill to a Select Committee. On the last occasion when the matter was before your Lordships' House, the noble Marquess the Leader of the House, speaking on behalf of the Government, stated very clearly their opinion that the Bill should be withdrawn altogether. That view he certainly expressed with a good deal of emphasis. Then, after some little time, the debate was replied to by the noble Viscount who originally introduced the Bill, upon which there was a most disorderly discussion led by the noble Marquess the Leader of the House, who proceeded to make a speech after the debate had been replied to by the second speech of the noble Viscount. The noble Viscount then made a third speech and the noble Marquess the Leader of the House made two speeches without even having the excuse of being himself the mover of any Resolution.

Following upon this very disorderly proceeding the noble Marquess yielded to the fraternal pressure exercised upon him from below the gangway and he gave way almost completely. He then said that it would be a very good thing if, instead of adopting the original position that had been expressed by the noble Marquess [Lord Londonderry] the representative of the Government, we adopted an entirely different course and referred the Bill to the Royal Commission or, failing that, to a Select Committee. Now we hear from the noble Marquess who once more represents His Majesty's Government that he agrees with the principles of the Bill. He was remarkably successful in concealing that agreement when the Bill—


I venture to dissent from the noble Earl.


He was remarkably successful in disguising his sympathy with the Bill when it came up for discussion in your Lordships' House on the last occasion. I am sure that those of your Lordships who heard him and who have had the opportunity, as I have had in the course of the afternoon, of once more reading his speech, will have been very much surprised at the expressions of sympathy to which he has given vent this afternoon. It is very difficult for us to know what we are to do. His Majesty's Government have expressed an opinion this afternoon, but they expressed an opinion the last time the Bill was before your Lordships. In the course of the debate they entirely changed the advice which they offered to your Lordships, and, as they will probably do so again this afternoon, I really do not know what advice I can offer.


My Lords, this Bill stands in a rather unusual position. The Government are expressing a deep affection for its principles and they desire it to be so dealt with that we shall certainly hear no more of it in this House. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, thinks that the right way to deal with it is to refer it to a Select Committee, where evidence may be obtained and experts heard as to matters which in substance are the common experience of our daily life. I venture to ask your Lordships to say that there is nothing whatever in this Bill that is beyond the competence of this House, sitting in full Committee, to consider and determine. A mere glance at the character of the Amendments that are down for consideration this afternoon will be sufficient to satisfy you of that fact. I fail to see why this House, sitting in Committee, should attempt to escape from its responsibility. If this were a Bill dealing with the setting up of some intricate electrical establishment, I can well believe that people might say that its subject was a little too subtle for the ordinary man and that we required the assistance of trained people. But in this particular matter I must say that I should rather resent the interference of an expert.

Let me give an illustration of my meaning. On the last occasion I pointed out that, owing to the blinding character of lights used on motor cars at night, a man had killed a passenger upon the road, being, as the magistrate accepted that he was, so completely dazzled by the light that he could not see and, though he was proceeding at as slow a pace as possible, this terrible consequence ensued. Since that debate two more such accidents have happened and two more people have been killed in exactly the same circumstances. It was, I think, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who said that the question of these lights was one upon which the experts were in controversy. I do not want an expert to tell me that, when I am blinded by a dazzling light, I can in truth see perfectly well, or that, when I can see reasonably well if the lights are veiled, I am in truth blind. I want to trust my own senses in this matter, and I resent entirely the idea that matters of that kind, which affect the daily safety of people walking about the roads and on which the common experience of each one of us is well able to judge, should be referred to a Select Committee and be the subject of a conflict of evidence.

I sincerely hope that this House is going to undertake the business of going through the Amendments upon the Paper and deciding whether or not they should be incorporated in the Bill. If the Government really loves the Bill as truly as it seems to do, the Amendments will not do it any harm. They are all very reasonable. I do not know about the first of the Amendments of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, but take, for example, the first Amendment that we have to consider. It is in the name of the noble Viscount, Lord Bertie of Thame, and it is to insert in subsection (2) of Clause 1, after the word "physically," the word "ocularly." We have not to determine whether that is really a word in the English language or not. That might be the proper subject matter for an expert. We have to assume that it is a proper word and to put it in if we like it or, if not, leave it out. The whole of the rest of this first series of Amendments is of the same character. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, wants to leave out the clause that qualifies people for holding licences. If he is right on that point, let it be left out. Why should we not decide whether people are to be qualified or not?

My first Amendment deals with excessive speed. It has nothing whatever to do with experts. My next Amendment deals with a matter which I respectfully submit that this House in full Committee, and this House alone, ought to deal with. It is this. As the Bill was originally drawn the proposal was that there should be referred to the Ministry of Transport the power of making rules, and that those rules should be the governing rules the breach of which should constitute a criminal offence. I protest utterly against any such arrangement. I do not want now to elaborate the arguments that I hope to use when the Amendment comes before us, but I do say that the matter is one of the very highest Constitutional consequence, and it certainly is not a matter that ought to be sent to a Select Committee for the hearing of goodness only knows what evidence for the purpose of instructing us that it is not the Houses of Parliament but somebody in Whitehall who has to make our laws. As for the rest of my Amendments, I desire to strengthen the punishment for some offences and to provide that men who are under the influence of drugs may be equally responsible as men who are under the influence of drink. I also suggest something which I have no doubt the noble Viscount omitted through an oversight, a little Provision about noise. The Bill has been before you, and that, roughly speaking, is the character of the Amendments.

If it is desired to get this Bill shut out of sight so that nobody will hear any more about its discussion, by all means refer it to a Select Committee. You will not hear any more about it then. If you desire that this matter should be ended once for all, let the Royal Commission report, as they will do, when another Government has come into office, and everything that has been done will be entirely lost. If, on the other hand, you desire to do that which I honestly desire, and which I believe the noble Viscount desires, if you want to say that this House is prepared to consider, and to give its best attention to considering, the means by which foot-passengers and people who use the roads can be safeguarded against the people who ought to know better and who are frequently not only selfish but criminally negligent in the charge of motor cars, then the proper course to take is to retain this Bill before this House and to discuss the Amendments that are down for your consideration this afternoon. I sincerely hope that you will do so.


My Lords, I feel myself in a position of some little difficulty. I am fundamentally and overwhelmingly convinced of the necessity for something being done in this matter. I have tried my best to follow the newspapers since the matter was before the House on the last occasion, and I see no diminution of the On the contrary, the accidents go on continually, like a perpetually running sore in the body politic. I observe that judges have been commenting on the condition of affairs. I think it was Mr. Justice Roche, in charging the Grand Jury, I believe in Berkshire, who said that there were twice as many cases as there had been on a previous occasion; and he pointed out that in his judgment these cases were due to recklessness and carelessness. I saw only in to-day's news-paper a report by a medical officer of health that the infirmaries and hospitals are crowded out with cases of accidents arising from motor vehicles. I am sure your Lordships realise what tremendous hardship that is on the whole population. They are kept out of hospitals and not able to obtain the assistance in Ordinary diseases which otherwise they would be able to obtain, because the beds at these hospitals are often full to over-flowing with motor accident cases. That is a very serious matter indeed, and requires to be urgently dealt with, and I agree with what was said on the Front Treasury Bench that the very urgency of the matter makes it most important that we should not do anything which could do no good and might do harm.

If I could be convinced that there was some method of inquiry into some of these technical matters—because with great respect to Lord Buckmaster, to whom I am very grateful for what he has said in the discussions on this Bill, I think there are some technical matters which might be suitable for discussion by a Select Committee; compulsory insurance is one of them, and there are others—if I could be quite sure that there was some method of inquiry which could be set up immediately and would report in the next two or three months, at the outside at that you could deal with the measure, so far as your Lordships' House is concerned, before the Dissolution of Parliament, then I should see very little objection to such an inquiry. My noble friend Lord Russell will forgive me if IL say that I was not terribly encouraged by his speech because I understood him to say there was not a single provision which really ought to be adopted—


As it stood.


—and therefore he was in favour of a Select Committee. It gave me a kind of awful feeling that possibly that was because he thought it was the best way of getting rid of the Bill altogether. I am very grateful indeed to my noble friend Lord Londonderry for his speech, but I cannot think that an Interim Report of this Commission is likely to be of much value.


Hear, hear.


I observe that since the debate last December, this Commission has had two meetings in January. The first was taken up with the discussion of the Channel tunnel, and the second with the desirability of the nationalisation of the railways. I cannot think that that Com- mission, with that kind of atmosphere about it, is likely to make a very useful practical Report upon matters of detail connected with this particular Bill, and I do not think there is any prospect at all of their reporting this side of the General Election, or at any rate until just this side. So far as I am concerned, I am quite ready to accept the Motion to refer this Bill to a Select Committee, provided it is understood that this Select Committee is to report in time for your Lordships to deal with the matter in March or April. Unless that can be a perfectly genuine understanding, from all parts of this House, then I agree with Lord Buckmaster that it will be much better to proceed to discuss this matter on the floor of this House.

It really depends which is the best way to get the best Bill we can get through the House. I think there is a case for the discussion in detail, before the Select Committee, of some of these provisions, but I think also there are many of them which could be well discussed on the floor of this House. Therefore, if it is the best way to get on with the Bill, I personally am prepared to accept a Select Committee, but otherwise I would ask your Lordships to keep it on the floor of the House. As to that I am in great difficulty, because I am not sufficiently acquainted with procedure to say how certain we may be that a Select Committee would report within that time. Therefore, I think it is better that I should receive guidance from those who are better able to judge than I am.

Then there is another matter to which I would like to refer. Earl Russell said, with a great deal of truth, that there were many parts of this Bill which could be put into force by administrative action. Those are not his exact words, but it comes to much the same thing. I agree with him. There are several provisions which it would be very satisfactory if they formed part of the Statute Law, but which could be dealt with administratively. There is no doubt that through the instrumentality of the Road Board a good deal could be done to standardise and make more effective road signs, and the provision requiring the magistrates to suspend licences, I should have thought, might be dealt with by circular from the Home Office. Whatever happens to this Bill, whether we take the consideration now, or adjourn it for a week, to see whether we can arrive at a definite understanding about the Select Committee, or whatever other course is taken, I beg my noble friends on the Treasury Bench to inquire very carefully how much further it is possible to proceed by administrative action alone. The matter is so serious and urgent that anything which can be done ought to be done, and I am not really certain that the Home Office or the Ministry of Transport have exhausted their powers in the matter. I should like further to be instructed as to the prospects of the Bill if it is referred to a Select Committee, before expressing any decided opinion of my own.


My Lords, so far as the last observation of my noble friend is concerned, I will, of course, undertake that the Home Office shall consider whether any administrative steps are possible. I can give that assurance at once. I am a little diffident in addressing your Lordships, because I appear to have got into such trouble with the noble Earl, Lord Beauchamp, on the last occasion, that I feel somewhat nervous, like a man treading on thin ice, in venturing to address your Lordships on what, in my judgment, is the better course to pursue. I think the noble Earl is under a misunderstanding. No doubt the mover of a Motion is the only member of the House who is entitled, except in Committee, to speak twice, but that does not preclude other noble Lords who have not already spoken from speaking after he has spoken a second time. There I think the noble Earl, for once, has erred from the strict path of Parliamentary order. As regards the other conversations which ensued at the end of the discussion on the last occasion, in one sense, no doubt, they were disorderly, but arrangements between those responsible for business on this Bench and noble Lords in charge of Motions have to be adjusted in a conversational manner, and it is always permitted to the Leader of the House to say a word or two in order to clear the ground and to indicate to the House the path which might properly be pursued.

Leaving that small matter on one side, I would like to address myself to the actual position. When we discussed this Bill on the last occasion those in charge of the measure, my noble friend and those who support him, made a great impression on your Lordships. I think we were all satisfied that the facts which they brought forward did indicate a mischief of such a character that a remedy was called for, and as soon as was practically possible. But it also appeared in the course of the debate that there was a very great difference of opinion among noble Lords as to what should be the precise details of the clauses. Some noble Lords criticised the clauses more than others, but I do not think there was a single member of your Lordships' House, except my noble friend himself, who approved of the Bill as it stands, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Buckmaster, although he was a very warm supporter of the principle of the Bill, was a most effective critic of many of its details.

In those circumstances I thought in the interests of the public, in the interests of your Lordships' House and may I say in the interests of the Government itself? it was most important that we should not ask your Lordships to come to a decision upon the Bill without a more detailed method of inquiry than was possible on the floor of this House. I say so on behalf of the Government as well as on behalf of the public, because really we who sit on this Bench do require a certain amount of investigation before we can be quite certain ourselves what course is likely to be most effective. And therefore I made the suggestion that further proceedings on the Bill should not be continued without some form of inquiry. I pointed out to your Lordships that there was a Royal Commission sitting, that that Royal Commission was dealing with the very subject—among others—of the Bill, and that it seemed a more reasonable and straightforward course to leave the Royal Commission itself to report, and to act accordingly, and, if an Interim report were possible, that seemed the easiest plan.

Well, inquiry was made, and it was found that an Interim Report is possible, and the Chairman has promised it. But I must admit—and I admit with the greatest frankness—that it will not be immediate—not till perhaps June or July of this year. In those circumstances I recognise that a difficult situation has arisen, and it was because we foresaw the possibility of that difficulty that I Suggested as an alternative that the Bill might be referred to a Select Committee, and I understood when those proceedings ended on that afternoon that it was accepted generally speaking by the House that one or other of the two courses should be followed. We stand exactly in the same position now as we did then. I do not agree with the noble and learned Lord that we should be acting wisely in continuing to discuss this Bill on the floor of the House. I admit that, if it were possible that legislation could take place this Session, there might be something to be said for it, but of course it is agreed on all hands that that is out of the question. There is no reason why it should not pass through your Lordships' House but it could never get through another place. It is very controversial, besides which I need not remind the House that the mind of the House of Commons is directed to other legislation of capital interest and importance, and it is impossible to find time for anything else except the necessary financial business of the year.

So that, those things being so, some kind of inquiry seems to be indicated. The noble Earl opposite has moved that this Bill be referred to a Select Committee and my noble friend asks what the prospects are of the Select Committee. I can only speak in that matter as a member of the House. Once the matter is referred to the Select Committee, the Government have no control over it whatever: it is a matter which is entirely in the hands of the House. Supposing your Lordships saw fit to agree to a Select Committee, the noble Earl and my noble friend, the noble Viscount, would be principally responsible for seeing that the members of the Committee were named, and no doubt they would be good enough to confer perhaps with us on the subject: but they would be principally responsible for seeing that the names are put before your Lordships, and there is no reason in the world why the Committee should not sit within the next few days, and carry its business through. That will be entirely in the hands of those who become members of the Committee and of the Chairman, and I have no doubt the noble Earl, the noble Viscount, and ourselves will see, so far as we can, if that be so, that members of the Committee should be put on who might be trusted to push forward the business with whatever despatch was possible. Of course, we cannot enter into any promise either as members of the Government or as members of the House, for it depends upon the course of the inquiry. That is quite evident.

Those facts being so, for my part I shall not resist the Amendment of the noble Earl to refer the matter to a Select Committee, if he proceeds with it. I believe that some sort of inquiry is necessary. I think it unfortunate, I repeat, that there should be two inquiries going on at the same time on the same subject; but, in as much as my noble friend below the gangway prefers a Report which will be made in say six weeks to a Report which will not be ready until July, the Government will not resist the proposal for the Select Committee. One thing we are most anxious about—namely, that there should not be the least impression, either here or elsewhere, that the Government are indifferent to the importance of this subject, or think if a trifling matter that this terrible toll of death and injury should take place without any legislative steps being taken to correct it.

On Question, Amendment agreed to: Order for the House to be put into Committee discharged, and Bill referred to a Select Committee.