HL Deb 08 June 1967 vol 283 cc538-48

3.55 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I was very pleased to comply with the request of the originator of the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill to introduce this proposed measure for your Lordships' consideration. This, I am sure your Lordships will agree, is a very useful Bill. When originally introduced by my honourable friend, the Member of Parliament for Gateshead, West, in another place, it was sponsored by supporters of both the Government and the Opposition, and it has received general approval. The provisions of the Bill are accepted by the motor trade and by the motoring organisations as necessary or desirable in the interests of road safety.

The Minister has been in discussion and in communication with the Society of Motor Manufacturing Traders, the Motor Agents' Association and the Scotch Motor Traders' Association on behalf of the trade, and with the Standing Joint Committee of the R.A.C., the A.A. and the R.S.A.C. on behalf of motoring organisations, and has been able to resolve or satisfy questions or doubts on detailed points raised by them. Therefore I was a little surprised to receive some representations from the R.A.C. which raised a certain amount of doubt. However, the R.A.C. has expressed some doubt whether the written evidence permissible under Clause 7 would be accepted by the courts. In reply, I can only repeat the words of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport in the Committee stage in another place. The report of the Committee, is dated March 15. May I quote his observations at column 21: All that the clause says"— that is referring to Clause 7, which was introduced by the Ministry when the Bill was going through Committee— is that the person concerned must prove to the court 'that he did not know, and had no reasonable cause to suspect, that the facts of the case were such that an offence would be committed.' It does not say that the court may not accept written evidence, if satisfactory written evidence can show, 'that he did not know, and had no reasonable cause to suspect …'. I understand that the Criminal Justice Bill, with which we are concerned in this House, contains clauses that make it permissible for written evidence to be accepted by the courts. Therefore I hope that my words here may give some satisfaction to the R.A.C., who are rather doubtful about this point; but if it be that more suitable wording can be found, I am very willing to discuss this with the Ministry to see whether it is possible to find ways and means. But I must express a warning that I question whether anything more can be done than accept that advice offered by the Parliamentary Secretary at the Committee stage. I thought it would be as well to clear this matter up at this stage.

It is the purpose of this Bill to correct some anomalies and to rectify some omissions in the Road Traffic Acts which experience has shown to be necessary or desirable in the interests of road safety, and in particular to secure effective enforcement of the regulations relating to vehicle condition. I propose first, with your Lordships' permission, to outline briefly the several provisions. The first is to require owners whose vehicles are found to be defective at a roadside check, carried out under the provisions of Section 67 of the Road Traffic Act 1960, to have the defects remedied within a specified time and to furnish proof to the Ministry of Transport that this has been done, or alternatively to show good reason why it has not been done.

Section 67 enables any vehicle to be stopped on the roadside by a police officer in uniform for the purpose of the vehicle's examination by Ministry of Transport officers to ascertain whether it complies with the statutory provisions relating to construction, use and lighting. The provisions of the section were designed to operate as an advisory rather than a punitive measure and they have been applied mainly to private cars and motor cycles, because goods vehicles are dealt with under other provisions of the Act which enable the further use of a defective vehicle to be prohibited pending satisfactory repair.

Although the drivers of private cars which are found to be defective at roadside checks can be, and in particularly bad cases are, prosecuted, there is no power to enforce the repair of the defective vehicles. It is not to be implied that these roadside checks carried out to date have been ineffective or wasteful. They have not; they have been extremely useful. Since the provisions were put into effect in the autumn of 1960, some 20.000 vehicles have been inspected each year.

As a car is seldom delayed for more than twelve to fifteen minutes the checks impose a minimum of inconvenience on motorists and have been generally welcomed by them. They have stimulated an awareness of the need for regular maintenance and attention, and the attitude of drivers generally has given reason to believe that the majority of those who are notified of defects get those faults remedied. However, that cannot be said of all, and as the records show that about 50 per cent. of the total number of vehicles examined, which includes all age groups, are defective, mainly in brakes, steering or lighting, the number of vehicles which continue to be used in defective condition must be considerable.

In almost every case the defects are due to lack of regular maintenance, and the checks show how quickly vehicles in constant use can deteriorate with this lack of attention. This is particularly so in regard to the older vehicles, even though they are subject to an annual test. But newer vehicles are no exception. Twenty-five per cent. of vehicles under three years old are found to be defective. I think it will be generally agreed in the light of these considerations that the proposals now before your Lordships are fully justified for the purpose of seeing that defects are remedied.

The second aim of the Bill is to obtain better enforcement of Section 68 of the 1960 Act, which makes it an offence to sell or to offer for sale a vehicle in a condition in which its use on the roads would be unlawful. Although goods vehicles in use may be examined at the operators' premises, others, and those up for sale, may be inspected on premises only with the permission of the vehicle owner or, failing his consent, on the expiration of 48 hours' notice, and the consent of the owner of the premises must also be obtained. Efforts to ensure compliance with the law by dealers in secondhand vehicles, and sometimes inquiries into suspected or reported instances of the fraudulent issue of a test certificate, can be frustrated.

This Bill makes provision for Ministry of Transport examiners, on production of proof of identity, or police officers to enter dealers' premises without prior notice for the purpose of inspecting any used vehicles offered for sale. It is by no means suggested that the majority of second-hand dealers are neglectful of their obligations, but we all know that there are some who are much less scrupulous than others. The House will be aware of the problem of "written-off" vehicles: many of them are resold after inadequate or unsatisfactory repair. These proposals, if approved, will provide a better means of checking on the extent to which this happens and will act as a deterrent.

The third main provision of the Bill is directed at used vehicles imported from abroad or sold on the civilian market after use by the Service Departments. The age of vehicles subject to annual test under Section 66 of the 1960 Act is defined by reference to the date of the first registration in this country of the vehicle. The result is that imported or ex-Service vehicles may escape the test for three years, even though they may have been used considerably before that time, and, as I have indicated, they are beyond the age at which other vehicles need to be tested. This Bill provides that these vehicles will be liable for a test in accordance with their real age. Fourthly, the Bill includes provision for a minor amendment of Section 65 of the 1960 Act to enable urban district councils, as well as county and borough councils, to operate public testing stations if they so wish.

The Bill contains two further provisions inserted as amendments by my right honourable friend the Minister of Trans- port on the Committee stage in another place. The first, to Clause 6, is to remove a difficulty which arises from a doubt about the correct interpretation of some of the penalty provisions of the Road Traffic Act 1960. As the law now stands, it is in many cases not clear, despite an amendment to the Road Traffic Act 1962, whether for certain offences against the Construction and Use Regulations prosecutions should be brought under Section 64 or under Section 239 of the 1960 Act. This causes the courts and the police considerable practical difficulties, and it is administratively inconvenient. This Bill aims to clear-up this difficulty a little. The present position is that breaches of some regulations carry a penalty of £50, and in others it is only £20. The provision in the Bill removes this anomaly by providing that all offences against the regulations shall be dealt with under Section 64 of the Act and be subject to the same penalties.

Finally, provision is made in Clause 7 to correct an anomaly which may arise when an employer is convicted of using a vehicle in contravention of the Construction and Use Regulations. Because the owner is vicariously liable for the acts of his servants, an employer may be convicted of an offence against these regulations although his servant was the actual user of the vehicle and the employer did not know of the defect. In such a case the employer's personal driving licence may be endorsed and he may be disqualified, or become liable to disqualification under the totting-up system. This principle may operate very harshly on a man who is running his own business. It particularly affects road haulage operations, but instances are known of other kinds of business in connection with which vehicles are operated and in which difficulties have arisen.

There is the further anomaly that the driving licences of employers who are proprietors of, or partners in, a private business are at risk whereas those of members of a limited company are not. At present the law, in effect, discriminates between the owners of non-limited and limited companies on these offences. The effect of the measure now proposed is to remove the possibility of an owner's being disqualified or having his licence endorsed when his conviction arose solely from his vicarious liability for his driver's acts—that is to say, just because a defective vehicle was used by one of his employees—provided he can show that he had no knowledge or constructive knowledge of the defect. It provides similar protection for the driver in a case in which it can be shown that he had no knowledge of, or reasonable cause to suspect, the existence of the defect. This provision, of course, has no effect on the liability of either owners or drivers to be convicted and fined for the offence with which they are charged.

Your Lordships may like me to explain in a little more detail the provisions of certain of the clauses of the Bill. Clause 1 provides that an examiner who finds certain defects in a vehicle which is inspected at a roadside check, under Section 67 of the 1960 Act, may give notice in writing to the owner of the vehicle specifying the defects and requiring the owner to give to the Minister of Transport within a specified period—28 days, or such longer period as the Minister may allow—a certificate of repair. This provision is most important. This certificate must contain a statement signed by a tester at an approved testing station that the signatory has either carried out repairs to remedy the specified defects or has examined the vehicle to ascertain that the necessary repairs have been carried out, either by the vehicle owner or by some other person, and are satisfactory. This 28-days period may be extended by the Minister if there is good cause—for instance, if the owner is ill or abroad, or if the garage had been unable to obtain the necessary spares for a repair in time.

As an alternative to producing a certificate of repair a vehicle owner may give a declaration that he has sold or disposed of his interest in the vehicle, or that he does not intend to use it again on a road in Great Britain. The clause provides penalties for failing to give a certificate of repair or a declaration within the permitted period, for obstruction of a vehicle examiner, or failure to give him information about the ownership of the vehicle or for knowingly making a false statement in a repair certificate or declaration.

Clause 1 also empowers the Minister of Transport to make regulations prescribing the manner in which examination of the vehicle is to be conducted at testing stations, and it gives a right of appeal against the refusal of a certificate by a testing station, prescribing the information to be supplied by the vehicle owner and the documents to be produced by him at an examination or an appeal. The regulations will prescribe the fees to be paid by a vehicle owner to the testing station for the examination and provision of a certificate and will prescribe the various forms of notices, certificates and declarations. The actual size of this fee will depend upon what defects are found in the vehicle, and no doubt this will be the subject of a good deal of discussion in regard to the fee to be paid.

Clause 2 empowers the Minister to require a vehicle for which a certificate of repair has been given to be submitted for further inspection by a Ministry officer to establish whether the repairs have been properly executed. This power is subject to conditions designed for the convenience of the vehicle owner, but the provision is necessary as a deterrent against malpractice and for enforcement of the requirement.

Clause 3 deals with the right of entry to dealers' premises for the purpose of inspecting used vehicles on offer for sale. The powers of inspection are applied only to used vehicles; that is to say, those which have previously been the subject of a retail sale. Any person, other than a police constable in uniform, who is an authorised examiner for the purpose of this section must, if required to do so, produce his authority for entering the premises for that purpose.

Clause 4 deals with imported or ex-Service used vehicles. It disregards any use before a vehicle is sold by retail so as to ensure that vehicles of foreign manufacture imported for sale in new condition are not affected. It provides the Minister with powers to make regulations which will make the registration and licensing of an imported or ex-Service vehicle conditional on the production of a test certificate or a declaration, as appropriate, signed by the owner of the vehicle, either that the vehicle is not of testable age or that he does not intend to use it on the roads other than for a purpose or in an area where it would not be subject to the test regulations. The age of the vehicle for this purpose is defined by reference to the last day of the year during which its final assembly was completed—a definition which is designed to avoid doubt or difficulty about the date of manufacture; for example, when a chassis is built by one manufacturer and its body is added by another.

I now come to Clause 5. I am sorry to be speaking at a little length on this Bill, but it is a very important piece of legislation; and I hope that if I explain it quite fully now it may avoid a good deal of discussion in Committee. Clause 5 amends Section 65(3) of the 1960 Act, which makes certain local authorities eligible to be designated by the Minister of Transport to appoint inspectors to conduct tests and operate public testing stations. The amendment would extend eligibility to urban district councils. The discrimination in the 1960 Act against urban district councils appears to have no logical foundation. Some are responsible for much wider areas than borough councils, and a few operate considerable fleets of vehicles and have much better facilities than many of the borough councils for operating testing stations.

I hope that I have given sufficient indication of the aims and scope of the Bill to satisfy your Lordships that the additional legislative measures proposed are justified and necessary. There can be no doubt that mechanical defect is a factor in road accidents, and I am sure that none will disagree with me in believing that we cannot afford to neglect any measures likely to reduce their number and the consequent loss of life, of wellbeing and in material, which is so often involved. All of us are road users in one way or another and are liable to suffer from a minority of vehicle users who wilfully or carelessly neglect their obligations to maintain and keep their vehicles in safe condition. My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Lord Popplewell.)

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, may I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, on successfully moving the Second Reading of this Bill, and on the thoroughness with which he described it to us? As he told us, Clauses 1 to 6 of the Bill cover a number of small but important points in regard to the maintenance of proper standards of road safety in vehicles, which experience has shown to need attention by amendment or addition to the law. I welcome them as being sensible and practical points, and after the noble Lord's very through explanation of them I do not think I need take up the time of noble Lords by further discussing them. Perhaps I might make the general comment that there is an ever-growing range and complexity of road traffic legislation which the private citizen is supposed to know, and I therefore hope that Her Majesty's Government will exercise the utmost restraint in adding to it.

The only point which I wish to discuss for a few minutes is on Clause 7, which has a rather different history from the rest of the Bill. This is an addition to the Bill to meet an important point which was pressed upon the Government during the recent passage of the Road Safety Act which dealt with drink and driving, and I am not entirely happy about the measure in Clause 7 to meet this point, which the noble Lord has explained to us. As the noble Lord explained, as the law now stands the owner of a fleet of vehicles is held vicariously responsible for the roadworthiness of every vehicle in his fleet. If any one of them is found to be defective with regard to the Construction and Use Regulations his personal driving licence is at risk and will be endorsed, with such endorsement counting in the totting-up process to the total of three at which level he is liable to a six months' disqualification. This is obviously far too severe an extension of vicarious responsibility, and I am glad that the noble Lord and Her Majesty's Government, by their support of Clause 7, appear to recognise that a modification is needed.

I realise that the Bill has gone some way to meet the previous objections, by now giving the fleet owner whose vehicle is found defective a statutory defence by proving that he did not know about the defect which has been discovered. But in my judgment there is still the substantial objection that the owner of the vehicle is presumed guilty unless he has proved himself innocent. This, in any event, is an objectionable concept and Parliament, rightly, is reluctant to see it go on the Statute Book unless there is the most cogent necessity for it, particularly when the ultimate penalty of disqualification of the fleet owner's personal driving licence is the penalty involved. I do not regard this as being a very satisfactory situation, and I should like to suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, and to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, who I understand is to speak for the Government, two possible alternatives which they might consider before the Committee stage. Here may I say that I welcome the invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, to discuss this clause, arising out of the representations which he has received from the R.A.C.. particularly with regard to written evidence.

The two alternatives which I would suggest are these. First, that the Bill is amended so that automatic endorsement of the owner's licence should not follow a conviction in these cases, but that it should stop short at giving the court the discretionary power to order an endorsement in cases which in the judgment of the court warrant it. This would relieve to a considerable extent the objection which I see. The alternative approach which I throw out—and perhaps it is rather late in the process of this Bill to throw it out, but I think it is worth considering—is that instead of the ultimate penalty of disqualifying the fleet owner from driving, which seems to me anyway to be rather illogical for this offence, courts should have the power to suspend the licence of the vehicle for a limited period. This would seem to be a much more logical approach to this kind of offence, and one could be quite sure that the financial loss involved to the business would provide the necessary incentive for the management to find out who was the culprit in regard to the defective condition, and for taking the proper action.

This approach has the further attraction that it gets over the rather ridiculous anomaly that at present if a limited company is the fleet owner apparently it escapes this penalty altogether. It seems to me that that, too, is a thought worth considering, and I ask the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, and the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, to consider these two possible approaches before the Commit- tee stage. Perhaps we may have some discussion about it, and I may then put down an Amendment on one approach or the other. With that comment, I have much pleasure in supporting the Second Reading of the Bill.

4.27 p.m.


My Lords, I rise merely to make two points. First of all, I should like to join with the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, in congratulating and thanking my noble friend Lord Popplewell on introducing this Bill, and on the manner in which he did so. He may have thought that I was under the mistaken impression that he was speaking too long, but at least the noble Lord gave us a very full description of the Bill. Secondly, I should like to inform the House that the Government fully support this Bill. They welcome it, and hope that it will have a speedy passage through your Lordships' House.

The noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, raised a point in regard to Clause 7. I can see some point in the second suggestion which he made, except that there may be some difficulty as the licence for a vehicle is issued by a different authority. I am not quite sure whether magistrates would have power to withdraw that licence, since it is issued by a different body. But I shall certainly look at this matter and, as I have already indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, I shall be very happy to consult with him and with my noble friend, and no doubt with the Department, to see whether there is anything which we can do to meet the noble Lord's point of view. With those few words I commend the Bill to the House, and trust that your Lordships will not only give it a Second Reading, but will pass it through all its remaining stages.


My Lords, thank the House for the way in which it has received this Bill. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, that I am only too ready to discuss with him and with my noble friend who has spoken on behalf of the Government, the two proposals which he put forward.

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