HL Deb 23 November 1937 vol 107 cc245-53

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I rise to move the Second Reading of a Bill of a somewhat different nature from the Bill which has just been defeated by your Lordships' House, but a Bill which I hope will find more sympathy from your Lordships than that Bill. I make no excuse for this Bill, because in my judgment and in the judgment of a great many others in the country, it is a Bill which is long overdue. It has for its object the removal of an inequitable provision in the Road Traffic Act, 1934. The inequitable provision to which I refer is to be found in Section 5 (1) of that Act, and it refers specifically to the compulsory endorsement of motor drivers' licences for exceeding the speed limits laid down in the Road Traffic Acts. It it perfectly true to say that during the passage of the 1934 Act exception was taken to the ban which was placed in this way upon the discretion of the magistrates, and as a result the words "unless for any special reason the court thinks fit to order otherwise" were inserted in the Act by way of qualification.

I assert quite deliberately that the effects of that particular provision of the law have been very bad indeed, and I should like to tell your Lordships why I consider they have been so bad. Firstly, courts of justice take differing views as to the interpretation they may place on this particular section of the Act, and actually pronounce very different verdicts under it in different parts of the country. Secondly, motorists, while feeling the injustice of the differential treatment meted out to them in the different courts, are also very sore and irritated because of the severity of the sentences imposed for what, in many cases, is a trivial offence involving no danger to the public whatsoever I would be the last to deny that there have been cases of motorists not exceeding the speed limit but still driving to the public danger, and therefore deserving of the endorsement of their licences. On the other hand, I suggest that there have been far more cases where motorists with clean records and long driving experience have found their licences endorsed for a nominal breach of the speed limit without driving to the danger of the public at all. It is these cases which have set up a sense of soreness and irritation in the minds of the motorists, and which render them highly critical—I should like to emphasise this—of all motoring rules and regulations which are issued by the Ministry of Transport.

Those who are not motor drivers may say: "But what does art endorsement matter? It is only evidence of a conviction." But motorists do not look at it in that way. An endorsed licence signifies to them a blemished record, and can never, in the eyes of good motorists, really be obliterated. I have heard many a motorist boast of his clean and unblemished record. This is particularly important to drivers of motor lorries and omnibuses, chauffeurs, and so on who are dependent for their livelihood upon their clean records, and who feel very greatly the savage severity of a sentence which may perhaps deprive them of their living, where no danger to the public has been involved at all. I am Chairman of an Association over 30,000 strong, called the Veteran Motorists' Association, and our principal object is careful, cautious, and courteous driving. We do not admit anyone to our ranks who cannot subscribe to that record or who cannot conform to it after he has joined our ranks. This very unfair provision of the law has given great concern to the members of that association, as indeed it has to all motorists throughout the country, and, as a result of that, it was decided to arrange for a working barrister, in the course of his ordinary duties, to report to the association upon cases in different parts of the country where these speed limit offences were concerned.

This barrister has now reported upon 151 instances of speed limit cases in very many parts of the country, including England, Scotland, and Wales, and over a period of some three months during this year. I should like to emphasise that all the cases reported on were taken entirely at random, and that the visits were made to court without any attempt to pick out particular cases for particular purposes. Obviously, I cannot take up the time of your Lordships' House by going through all those cases, but I have those cases, and they are available to the Minister of Transport if he would like to have them. For the moment, I shall content myself with analysing the main conclusions arrived at. Out of these 151 cases, 35 had previous convictions and their licences were endorsed; 33 escaped endorsement, though not all of these had clean records; whilst 83, with absolutely clean records, had their licences endorsed in spite of the fact they had not driven to the danger of the public. Time after time, this barrister informed us, cases arose in which the Bench obviously would have liked to avoid endorsement, but considered that under the law they had no option but to endorse.

The figures I have just quoted indicate the difference of view regarding their powers held by the different courts, and I should like, in a very few minutes, to give your Lordships a short extract from that report, which will prove to you how different these judgments are. This is the extract: A careful perusal of these cases will disclose some astounding contrasts. For instance, on the same day in Taunton there were four cases of clean records. All were fined the same amount; two cases were endorsed and two were not, the justices obviously endorsing where the speed was over forty miles per hour. In Edinburgh a man with a clean record for over thirty years was fined r and the licence was endorsed, while at Clerkenwell a man with a previous conviction was fined ten shillings with endorsement. At Worcester, on the other hand, a man with two previous convictions was fined Lf with no endorsement. North London, on the contrary, appears to make up in savagery for the gentleness of Worcester. In North London a man with two previous convictions in 1935 and 1936—they were for exceeding the speed limit—was fined £10 or twenty-one days and his licence endorsed and suspended for twelve months. The fact is that the courts in this matter can be divided into two main classes in this country: those which apply the law correctly though often against their will, and those which disregard the Act and exercise a discretion. This has given rise to a situation which obviously requires a remedy, and for that reason I have introduced and am moving the Second Reading of this Bill to-day.

I submit that any law which allows of such variations in the administration of justice cannot be properly drawn or fair, and should be amended. A law of that description should not be allowed to continue in its present form, which is only an irritant and does not in its ultimate effect secure what is desired, and further acts as a deterrent in the outlook of a large and important section of the community upon the Government's motor legislation generally. That is why I have brought in this Bill. But I have not brought it forward without support in the country. Since the Bill has been before your Lordships' House I have received communications from all over the country. I have further been informed that the whole of the motorists' organisations which are concerned with the British Road Federation in looking after these matters support this Bill and are very anxious to see it go through, probably for the reasons I have advanced. I do not wish to take up your Lordships' time too long, otherwise I might read extracts from letters that I have received from the Royal Automobile Club, from the Automobile Association, from the Commercial Motor Users' Association, from the Institute of British Carriage and Automobile Manufacturers and many other associations whose members number thousands in all parts of the country and who consider that the provision in this Act is an injustice and is un-British. The Bill itself is a one-clause Bill. The Memorandum, together with the Preamble, explains what it is. The effect of it is this. Whereas the former Act, the Act of 1934, states that in a case of exceeding the speed limit the licence shall be endorsed, Clause 1 of this Bill substitutes that by saying it may be endorsed. That really is the sum total of the Bill. I have put my case, which has the sympathy and good will of thousands of motorists and others who are not motorists all over the country. I have attempted to put that case with restraint and with reason, and I hope that your Lordships and the Government will receive the Bill and the case I have put in the same spirit in which I have presented it.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Elibank.)


My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend's Bill for the principal reason that I opposed the original Bill on the question of endorsement from the first moment, and I propose to go on doing so as long as it is necessary. To my mind the endorsement provision was the biggest mistake that was made in the original Act. The pride which motorists used to take in a clean licence was one of the greatest factors in producing good and careful driving; but owing to this unfortunate clause many motorists have come to the conclusion that sooner or later they are bound to get their licences endorsed, and they have given up worrying whether they are endorsed or not. Now they just go at whatever speed they think is safe regardless of the thirty-mile limit. If they can afford to pay the fine it is very simple. If they keep their eyes about them they probably dodge the police and will not even get fined. There is not the slightest shadow of doubt, in my opinion, that driving has deteriorated through lack of pride that the young motorist in particular can take in his driving licence. The older motorist can at least say: "Well, I had a clean licence for twenty years" (or whatever it was) "until this Act came into force"; but the young motorist does not even try to get a clean licence, and it is the young motorist who really is our biggest problem to-day. The difficulty is to get him to take pride in proper driving. 'Unless you can get him to take a pride in his driving licence you are making things more difficult for yourself.

Personally I am convinced that this Bill will add to the safety of the roads simply through making the endorsement of the licence something that people can and will wish to avoid. As things are at present you are just at the caprice of a policeman. He may time you right; he may time you wrong. I watched a trap working the other day. The policeman who gave the signal by which the motorist was timed in the trap was walking up and down the road on a fifty-yard beat. He did not care what part of the beat he was on when the motor car passed him. He waved his hand and the other fellow pressed the button and timed the motorist on what was supposed to be a 220-yard section. If he happened to be at one end of his beat the motorist might appear to be doing forty miles per hour; if he happened to be at the other he might appear to be doing under thirty. That is what the motorist is up against. He is up against caprice in that way. He is up against chance, and the magistrates ought to be allowed to sort out this chance. They ought to be free to say "Well, this is obviously a case of a mistake," and to allow the licence to go clean. Another way in which motorists get caught is the unfortunate practice of not allowing signs indicating where the thirty-mile limit begins to remain at the places where they were first put up. You find that a sign, instead of being at the place where it was when you previously passed that way, has been carried off 500 yards down the road because someone has put a couple of lamp-posts in. You go down the road six months later and, not knowing that the sign has been moved—your vision may be interrupted by a motor lorry or something of that kind—you discover eventually that instead of the thirty-mile limit being behind you, as you expected, it is in another area, so that without knowing it you may offend against the law. That sort of thing is just bad luck, but it makes matters much worse when bad luck is reflected in your driving licence for the rest of your life.


My Lords, the effect of this Bill, as your Lordships are aware, is to preserve the existing position as regards conditions for careless driving, but in the case of convictions for exceeding the speed limit to leave it entirely to the court to decide in its discretion whether or not the licence should be endorsed. Section 5 (1) of the Road Traffic Act, 1934, contains special provisions with regard to the endorsement of driving licences in the case of persons convicted for exceeding a speed limit or careless driving. In such cases the court is required to order that the conviction shall be endorsed on the offender's driving licence unless for special reasons it thinks fit to order otherwise. Thus a conviction for either of these offences must be endorsed unless the court finds special reasons to the contrary. This Act came into effect on October 1, 1934. Therefore it has been in operation for three full years. I can only quote figures for 1935 and 1936. During those years the number of convictions for speed offences and the number of endorsements including disqualifications which necessarily involve endorsement have been as follows:—In 1935, convictions 108,571, endorsements 57,349; in 1936, convictions 142,738, endorsements 75,996. Your Lordships will therefore see that even under the existing law the number of endorsements during each of these two years represented only a little over half the number of convictions for speed offences; that is to say, the courts in nearly half the cases found "special reasons" for ordering that the conviction should not be endorsed.

What these reasons were we do not know; but there is ground for thinking that in many cases the reasons were not such as ought properly to be regarded as "special." It seems therefore that to restore to courts a complete discretion in the matter of endorsement in such cases is likely to result in that discretion being exercised even more capriciously than at present. This would be very undesirable for two reasons. In the first place it would increase the existing lack of uniformity in the practice of different courts which it is the main object of the Bill to prevent. Secondly, it would also tend to reduce the total number of endorsements for this offence. I attach special importance to the latter reason. Under Section 33 (3) of the Road Traffic Act, 1934, a person who is prosecuted for exceeding a speed limit is required to take to the court his driving licence, and if he is convicted the court may require the licence to be produced, The court can then, after conviction, see whether any previous convictions have been endorsed on the offender's licence. If the offender has been previously convicted twice of exceeding a speed limit, the court has power, on the third conviction, to disqualify him for holding or obtaining a licence; and it is therefore important that the court should know whether or not it has power to disqualify him. If convictions of exceeding a speed limit are not endorsed, the court will not be able to ascertain the fact by inspection of the licence, and there may be great difficulty in proving such convictions by other means, especially if the defendant does not appear. It is therefore most desirable that nothing should be done which is likely to lead to endorsement being ordered less frequently than at present.

Here I should like to correct the two noble Lords who said that once a licence has been endorsed the endorsement is there for good. I would like to say that that is not so.


I never made such a statement. It is not the case, I know.


I made the statement from this point of view, that you cannot say you have a clean licence in court. You cannot say "I have a licence that has not been endorsed."


The point I want to make is that if there has been no offence for three years the licence is clean. If a man's licence has been endorsed and he has a clean record for three years the endorsement is wiped out and the licence becomes clean.


Not in respect of some of the more serious offences. I do not think you can wipe out an endorsement for being drunk in charge. It only applies to minor offences.


I may remind your Lordships that the thirty mile per hour speed limit was intended by Parliament to be observed, and it would be most undesirable that infractions of it should be regarded as of little consequence. His Majesty's Government feel that the Bill, for the reasons I have given, would defeat its own object by increasing rather than diminishing the present lack of uniformity in the practice of the courts.


My Lords, I listened to the reply of the noble Earl with the greatest concern, because it seems to me that the Government have made up their minds to do nothing. I was not impressed, if I may say so, by the arguments of the noble Earl. He did not reply to a good many of the arguments advanced by my noble friend and myself in our speeches. What he gave us was merely a reply communicated to him through the Ministry of Transport which took no account of the debate here this afternoon. I think it is a great pity that such a subject, which concerns so many people in this country, should be dealt with in that way, and that we should merely be told that where- as there were 108,000 convictions and 57,000 endorsements in 1935 and 142,000 convictions and 75,000 endorsements in 1936, if we had greater uniformity all the licences would be endorsed. What my noble friend and myself have been trying to argue is that the present practice is doing a great deal of harm. I can assure your Lordships that so long as this particular mistrust of the magistrates persists the Minister of Transport will not get the support of motorists in