HL Deb 11 May 1964 vol 258 cc67-79

5.41 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. It has come to us from another place, where it passed through all its stages with remarkable rapidity, in fact passing "on the nod" every stage until it reached Third Reading. At that time, there was a debate upon it in which every Member who contributed supported the Bill. I hope that we shall find the same unanimity in our House with regard to it.

Your Lordships will probably recall that last year certain experiments were made by the Minister of Transport with regard to the introduction of speed limits throughout the country. Over a series of weekends the universal speed limit of 50 m.p.h. was introduced experimentally on every ordinary road in the country—that is to say, excluding motorways. It was not a very successful experiment. I think my noble friend the Parliamentary Secretary will agree that on the first weekend there was a certain amount of observance of the speed limit by motorists; on the second weekend the observancé was by no means so marked, and in subsequent weekends the special limit was virtually disregarded altogether. I do not believe that that result came as much of a surprise to my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport, because I think he and his Ministers also recognise the fallacy of seeking to impose upon all classifications of road in this country one single speed limit: the same speed limit for a winding lane in South Devon as that applied to a normal main road in the country, or to a dual carriageway built virtually to the standard of a motorway. Therefore, I am quite sure that it is only by the imposition of realistic speed limits that we shall succeed in getting them observed by road users all over the country.

I certainly do not blame (and I hope that none of your Lordships will) my right honourable friend the Minister for the failure of his experiment. His hands were completely tied by Parliament, because the powers which we had given him to introduce these temporary and experimental speed limits were powers which enabled him to do so only over all the roads of the country. The object of the Bill which I am now introducing to your Lordships, is to grant to the Minister powers to introduce, experimentally or temporarily, speed limits which can be varied by him according to different classifications of road.

If I may turn to the Bill itself, I would say that it is about as badly drawn a Bill as any that I have ever come across. I only hope that your Lordships will acquit me of any responsibility in this connection, because I did not draw the Bill myself. The main purpose of the Bill is contained in Clause 1(1), and the difficulty throughout the Bill is that it does not really do anything at all. All it does, by Clause 1, by reference to an earlier Act, the Road Traffic Act, 1962, is to enlarge the powers given to the appropriate Minister by Section 13 of that Act. The "appropriate Minister" throughout the Bill always means the Secretary of State for Scotland, in regard to matters appropriate to Scotland, and the Minister of Transport, in regard to matters appropriate to England and Wales. The Bill does not extend to Northern Ireland, and so there is no "appropriate Minister" for Northern Ireland.

Section 13 of the Road Traffic Act, 1962, subsection 1(a) was the section to which I referred just now in which Parliament had given the Minister powers to make temporary or experimental speed limits applicable to all the ordinary roads of the country; that is to say, to all roads excluding motorways. Clause 1(1) of this Bill extends that power so as to grant to the appropriate Minister power to make such an order …in respect of roads of any class specified in the order or, alternatively, in respect of all roads other than roads of any class so specified. The subsection then goes on to explain that roads may be classified by reference to any circumstances appearing to the … Minister to be suitable for the purpose, including their character, the nature of the traffic to which they are suited, or the traffic signs provided thereon. Subsection (2) of Clause 1 is a very mysterious clause indeed. It provides that: Subsection (4) of the said section 13"— that is, Section 13 of the Road Traffic Act, 1962shall apply in relation to any limit imposed by an order made by virtue of this section as it applies in relation to a limit to be observed on all roads. That somewhat mystical phraseology means that it will not be necessary for the Minister to put up traffic signs all along the roads of our country to indicate where these new speed limits are being introduced. Obviously, as I think your Lordships will agree, that would be completely impracticable. Having regard to the nature of the classification of the roads to which these varying speed limits will apply, I think that it is also quite unnecessary, because the nature of the classification is likely to be that there will be a universal speed limit of, say, 50 m.p.h. on all roads throughout the country, other than motorways and except on specially classified types of road, such as dual-carriageways, clearways, or something of that sort. Those are perfectly easy classes of road for any road user to understand and to get to know, and therefore the necessity for specially marking them with speed limit signs does not appear to arise.

Returning to the Bill again, Clause 1(3) is "curiouser and curiouser". It says: This section shall be construed as one with the said section 13. The interpretation of that mystical phraseology is that the Bill does not confer upon the appropriate Minister a power to impose a temporary or experimental speed limit on special roads—which again means motorways—as, in fact, the appropriate Minister already has certain rights to impose temporary or experimental Teed limits on motorways, under Section 37 of the Road Traffic Act, 1960. That is an explantion, which I hope is sufficient for your Lordship's purposes, of what the Bill seeks to do. It is, in my submission, a Bill which gives the appropriate Minister powers that will achieve two objects: one, to assist the traffic to flow more freely upon the roads; and, second, to introduce a greater element of road safety than exists at the present time. I hope that your Lordships will give the Bill a fair wind, and I beg to move that it be now read a second time.

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

5.51 p.m.


My Lords, I must admit that when I first picked up this Bill I thought it looked a simple little Bill, and I am bound to say that at first glance I wondered what it was all about. It seemed to me that the Minister had all the powers he could possibly need under Section 13 of the 1962 Act. Clearly, as the noble Viscount has told us, that was not the case; hence this Bill, which had an easy passage through the other place. Rather surprisingly, as the noble Viscount mentioned, it had all the Second Reading speeches on the Third Reading of the Bill. Up to that point not a word beyond "I beg to move" had been said upon it.

As I understand the present position, the speed limits at experimental periods have to be general ones, such as an overall 50 m.p.h., or, if they are not general ones and certain classes of road are selected for speed limits, the selected roads must have signs indicating the speed limits applicable to them. As I see it, this Bill will make it possible for the Minister to impose a speed limit of 50 m.p.h. upon Class II roads or, say, a limit of 60 m.p.h. on all classes of roads, without having to erect signs indicating this fact. That is how I understand it. If that is not so, I am sure the Minister, when he intervenes, will tell me so.

The difficulty I see about this Bill will be that of clear identification by the motorist of the classes of road to which the varying restrictions will apply. I must admit that, with the exception of a motorway and a clearly marked clearway, I never know, for most of the time, what class of road am driving on. I do not look at the signpost to see whether the route indicator is preceded by an "A" or a "B"—whether it is road "84307" or road "A4307". The "A", of course, indicates a trunk road or Class I road, and in the case of a "B" a Class II road. There are a variety of roads in this country. I think the simplest definition of the classes would be "motorways" and the three other classes of roads Class I, II and unclassified. But there is the difficulty of some being called "trunk roads" and others "clearways"; and, I suppose, when we get the Worboys Report implemented we shall then have "primary" roads, which will further add to the confusion of the motorist as to the road on which he is actually driving.

So under this Bill confusion will be caused if the Minister makes a general order for, say, a 50 m.p.h. restriction for Class I roads and part of such a road has a good dual carriageway or a four-lane road upon which the imposed limit is clearly seen by the motorist to be nonsensical. As I understand it, and the noble Viscount has told us this, it is the case that this fact made something of a nonsense of the general restrictions of past years. It was found that motorists in the first week tended to accept the speed limit. Then, in the second week, it was found that once they came to a dual carriageway, a clearway or something of that sort, they immediately started to speed up to the old speed that appeared to be operating on those roads—and that was understandable.

I see something of this sort happening in my own home town area. There is a 30 m.p.h. restriction operating all the 24 miles between Cardiff and Treherbert. Through the Treforest Trading Estate, which is about half way between the two towns and in my town area, there is a good dual carriageway, and immediately motorists come to it, despite the fact that there are no derestrictive signs, away they go at 40, 50 or 60 m.p.h. If the local mobile police find that their book is a little light for a period, down they go to this Trading Estate dual carriageway road, and they soon find enough cases to make their book pretty heavy.

The cases are fed into the local court machine, where we, the magistrates, churn them out as fast as possible, and I must admit that I get a little sick before the morning and afternoon is over of hearing: "£5; licence endorsed", which is the usual charge in the court for exceeding the speed limit on this particular stretch of road. Of course, the local motorist has no excuse, and seldom tries to make one; he just pays out, and that, except for the fact that his licence is endorsed, is the end of it. But strangers invariably excuse themselves by saying: "I never thought that this could be a restricted road". I must admit I have some sympathy for them, but we go on churning out "£5; licence endorsed" for those just as easily as we do for the others.

An order made for a class of road that has wide variations of road type within it is bound to be confusing to the motorist unless it is clearly marked and (this is important) unless it is seen by the motorist to be reasonable; and motorists cannot be expected to see a general restriction as being reasonable when, as part of the road upon which is put a general speed restriction, there are dual carriageways or four-lane roads.

Then there is a question of enforcement, and here we get on to the old problem of a sufficiency of police, of radar checks and the like. If the Minister makes an order, I think he must, and we must, see that everything possible is done to enforce it. I do not care what methods are employed to trap the law breaker, for I do not regard it as some sort of sporting contest between the police and the motorist. We say, and the statistics of road accidents clearly prove this, that stupid speed kills; and we ought to use every means possible to catch the potential killer. To those who say that such traps as radar are a bit below the belt, I say that their complaint reminds me of the burglar who said that the police ought not to wear rubber-soled boots at night.

I regard this Bill, provided that everything possible is done to ensure that it is enforced, as a sensible measure which will enable the Minister to exercise a greater degree of flexibility in this matter of the temporary or experimental speed limits. But it will fail, as the general speed limits in the past years have failed after the first weekend, unless the limits imposed are obviously sensible and the roads are clearly defined in the mind of the motorist and unless there is adequate enforcement.

6.1 p.m.


My Lords, I must first of all congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, on the most novel way in which he asked your Lordships to agree to the Second Reading of this Bill. His conscience almost got the better of him before he had finished. I shared his mystification when 1 read this Bill. I turned to the Proceedings in another place to see whether they would enable me to understand it properly. I do not understand it even now-I must be quite frank about it. I believe I know what is the intention of the Government, and I think I sympathise with it. But I am going to make this prediction: the experiment that this Bill is supposed to authorise will be as abject a failure as the last one was. As the noble Viscount said, it was a failure, and it failed because it was absolutely impossible to enforce it. It will be absolutely impossible to enforce this experiment as it is set out in the Bill.

I want to ask the noble Viscount this question—I must address this question to him because he introduced the Bill. Did he ever consult the police to ask their views about this and whether it was possible to enforce this? I now address another question to the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, the Minister who is going to intervene and, I can only suspect, give this Bill his blessing. The Minister has to make orders under this Bill. Will the Ministry of Transport, before they make the orders in conformity with this Bill, consult with the police authorities whether the police think this is possible of enforcement, or are we going to follow the usual course that we have followed for years and years, loading the Statute Book with a lot of Statutes which are absolutely unenforceable, and then wonder why the law is brought into disrepute?

The failure of the last experiment was due to the fact that it was unenforceable. The value of any experiment lies in its enforcement. We can get a true idea of whether or not a particular experiment is a success only if it is being enforced to the letter. I say that, in this case, this is absolutely impossible. It is impossible for the very good reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Champion, has pointed out. Lord Chesham's colleague in another place, the Parliamentary Secretary, in explaining the Bill, said this [OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 693 (No. 96), col. 1717]; One of the difficulties up till now has been that though there are different kinds of roads easily identifiable at the Ministry …"— they are not easily identifiable to motorists, because he went on to say— The important thing is not whether or not the roads are signposted but whether or not they are easily identifiable to the man in the motor car. He further said, in talking about the 50 miles an hour speed limit in the last experiment being unduly restrictive [col. 1718]: But this is unduly restrictive on most dual carriageway roads and even on some single carriageway roads as well. I am an ordinary motorist. I can identify a dual carriageway; I can identify a clearway; but I am hanged if I can identify a single carriageway road which, in the opinion of the Ministry of Transport, should be restricted unless, as the noble Lord, Lord Champion, said, there is a sign to tell me so.

I quite agree that if we are going to have speed limits we want a variation in them. If we are wedded to speed limits, let them be sensible. The reason why the speed limit laws break down is that in quite a lot of cases the British public regard them as nonsense; and this Bill will only make the nonsense worse. Under this Bill the Minister could have innumerable variations of the speed limit. We already have a 30 miles an hour limit and a 40 miles an hour limit, and now we are going to have a 50 miles an hour limit and any variation it may please the Minister to have. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, that he will not get away with this experiment by trying to save the money it will undoubtedly cost; it is a costly thing to signpost all the unidentifiable roads, and that is where the danger will come. The danger will not come on the clearways or the motorways or the dual carriageways. But there are many single carriageways, as the noble Lord's colleague said, where a 50 miles an hour limit is too restrictive, with another road within 100 or 200 yards, or on the same road, where a 50 miles an hour limit would be very dangerous. What are you going to do?

The defence that comes to my mind, if you are caught, is to say, "I am the man in the motor car. I thought it was identifiable as a very good road". I hope the noble Lord will not be tempted to say—I do not think he will— "It is not for the Ministry to consult the police; it is for us to consult the Home Office". I do not know whether the noble Lord has consulted the Home Office about this, or whether they have consulted the police; but I should think that when they have discussions with the police they will get the answer loud and clear: "This is absolutely impossible of enforcement". Go ahead! I am not going to oppose the Bill. But I am very certain that in six months' time, or whenever it may be, I shall be able to say, with the noble Lord, Lord Champion: "We did warn you". We warned the Government about the last experiment, but they took no notice. We said: Never have an experiment in limiting speed unless you can enforce it. If you cannot enforce it, all you are doing is to bring the law into disrepute.

6.10 p.m.


My Lords, while I think I must have a few remarks to make on detailed points, on the underlying principle I do not disagree with virtually anything any noble Lord has said, and naturally I do not disagree with anything that the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, has said, because it is perfectly true that the Government welcome this Bill very much indeed. My only query, so far as my noble friend is concerned, concerns the fact that he does not much like the drafting of the Bill. I would refer him to the Long Title, which describes it as: An Act to amend the provisions of the Road Traffic Act 1962 In a Bill of this kind it is rather difficult to amend the provisions of another Act without reference back in that way. As a piece of Parliamentary drafting it is always a little more difficult than a straightforward Bill introduced to produce a new point. But I am quite sure that the drafting does what it is supposed to do.

The more important point that I think I discern in what has been said is that, if the Bill is a little difficult to follow, it has left one or two apprehensions (I hesitate to use the word "misapprehensions", although I might almost do so) in the minds of the noble Lords, Lord Champion and Lord Lucas of Chilworth. Their real apprehensions have, I believe, become a little overdone, but I think that I shall be able to say quite a bit that will set their minds at rest. Both noble Lords—certainly the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, gave me this impression—seemed rather to think that a new kind of experimental power was being introduced by this Bill. That is not so. The Bill's object is to amend the experimental speed limit power which the Minister already has. As I understand it, the object is to import into his existing power a most desirable amendment: not to create confusion—a point to which I shall come back in a moment; not to create problems of enforcement, but to help in finding a solution to these problems: in fact, to do the very thing the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth wants done; that is, to enable experimental orders of this kind when they are to apply to roads of this kind, to be enforced properly.

I can tell the noble Lord that we do consult, and have consulted, with the police; and, whether it has been done through the usual channels or otherwise, the effect is exactly the same: we have got round the table with them, if the noble Lord would like it that way. Furthermore, before we introduce any experimental speed limit order of this kind, we discuss the whole thing thoroughly with the police. Naturally, we are of one mind with noble Lords who have expressed their views on this subject of enforcement. I do not think there is any question that, if we have sensible orders, we must have proper enforcement. We believe that this new flexibility in what are only temporary and experimental general speed limits—not otherwise—is going to be a useful one. It will help their enforcement and success, and therefore safety, because they will be more realistic and, therefore, will be better respected. If they are better respected, it means a higher level of respect, not only on the roads concerned but also on other roads; and this, of course, is to the benefit of everybody, including the police, with their problems of enforcement.

The noble Lord, Lord Champion gave us an example of a dual-carriageway with a permanent speed limit on it. I want to make it quite clear that the sort of order we are discussing bites in no way on any road, however many carriageways it has, if it is subject to a permanent speed limit. It bites only on roads which have none. I wanted to get that absolutely clear. I do not think there can be the confusion which both noble Lords, Lord Champion and Lord Lucas of Chilworth, fear on this matter. This is the particular point on which I should like to set their minds at rest. Despite what may be said (I will come back to this in a moment), there can be no question of the kind of confusion that the noble Lord, Lord Champion, feared. If anybody had it in mind to act in the way he imagined, there would be confusion: on that I agree with him completely.

The whole essence of this matter, as we see it, is that these exceptions to a general limit would take place only on a road which is readily and easily identifiable and recognisable by a motorist. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, talked of roads that could be readily identified in the Ministry, by classification numbers, from maps, and in that kind of way. That is perfectly true. But no reasonable person—certainly not my right honourable friend-would expect any motorist to do anything of the sort. We regard this power as having value only where a road that is excepted (either exempted or having put upon it a higher limit than the general one) can be instantly recognised by any motorist as a road of a particular type.

At the present time what we have in mind for the use of this power is dual-carriageways. The reason for that is that, studying our experiment last year—and, I should prefer to say that it was inconclusive, rather than that it was a complete "flop"; because it cannot be a complete "flop" if you learn something from it—we are now building some quite good roads. And while one can argue that on many roads, and in crowded conditions on certain special occasions of the year, there is a case for an overall limit, quite often on a dual-carriageway, such as the A.1, it is unreasonable to ask and expect people to keep to a speed limit. If there is a limit on a good broad road, with little traffic on it, that creates exactly the situation that the noble Lord, Lord Champion, says he does not like. It causes unnecessary work in enforcement for the police, and it fills the courts in a rather dull sort of way. There will be no question of exempting or excepting a road by reference to its being a trunk road or a Class I road. We agree with the noble Lord that that is an unreasonable way to do it, and nobody has the slightest intention of being unreasonable. We hope that this is a power which we shall be able to use to help people: not to make things more difficult for them but to try to make them more reasonable for them.

One point that I ought perhaps to mention, as one which may interest your Lordships, is when, if your Lordships pass the Bill, we may be expected to make use of this power. I do not think that in any case it would be during this summer; because, even assuming that your Lordships were to pass the Bill and it received the Royal Assent somewhere about June 10, it still could not come into operation until July 10; and then it needs four weeks after the notice of intention to make this so. Therefore in effect it is going to be too late for this summer. In any case, I doubt whether we should want to do anything of this kind this summer, because we have already announced the speed limits on selected roads. We found from last year that it is not a good thing to do to have two sorts of order applying at the same time. It is extremely confusing for people. I do not think this is entirely reasonable and it makes interpreting results more difficult. Therefore, I think it should be at a later stage, but not during the summer holiday period. I think also—and I hope that this may further reassure the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth—that the proper, reasonable and sensible use of this power will call for careful planning and proper consultation which is what we propose to have. Rather than rush it, we prefer to make sure that what we regard as a valuable new power should be used in a considered way to produce the best possible results and, we confidently hope, increased road safety.

6.21 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to express my thanks to those of your Lordships who have been kind enough to take part in this debate and who, by and large, subject to certain exceptions and variations, have generally supported the Bill. I believe the principal anxiety of the noble Lords, Lord Champion and Lord Lucas of Chilworth, was with regard to difficulties concerning classification of roads, but I think what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, in the way of the assurances he has given as to the type of classification and the object and intention, by which roads will be classified so that all road users can freely recognise to which classes of roads the varying speed limits apply, should set their minds considerably at rest.

I was also most delighted to hear the assurance given by the Minister in regard to intentions to make the speed limits realistic. I am quite sure that this matter has led to a great deal of the difficulty in the past, and that if in fact the speed limits are realistic there will not be anything like the same problems regarding enforcement. I hope, therefore, with these two points particularly in mind, that your Lordships will be prepared to give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a; and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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