HL Deb 06 March 1969 vol 300 cc290-319

3.55 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time. May I first apologise to the House for two small but unfortunate typographical errors which appear in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum on the front of the Bill. They are in the section headed Financial effects of the Bill. The two amounts mentioned in the last two lines of the fourth paragraph on page v, the one beginning, "The annual administrative cost", have been misprinted. In the last line but one, the figure for miscellaneous savings should be £1.3 million, not £0.8 million. And, in the last line, the figure for extra postal costs should be £1.8 million, not £1.3 million.

Now, my Lords, to the Bill. Many of the provisions deal with technical matters which are perhaps more appropriate for the Committee stage. Furthermore, many of these matters, in the view of the Government, are under the Bill to be dealt with by regulations in due course. Many of the changes to be made cannot be introduced for a number of years and we should not now inhibit by inflexible statutory provisions the consultation and detailed planning that will be needed before precise solutions are found to many of these complex problems The Bill has two main aims: one, to authorise a radical modernisation of the whole structure of vehicle and driver licensing; and two, to introduce some immediate improvements to the present system. I think it will be more helpful to the House if I give a general picture of the modernisation of the system and what it involves rather than go through the Bill clause by clause. The task is to match the demands of an ever-increasing vehicle and driver population. To-day we have 14½ million vehicles and 17 million drivers. By 1980 we can expect both figures to double.

Despite the admirable way in which local authorities and their staffs have stood the strain so far in responding to the demands placed upon them, the existing system cannot meet the extra demands which inevitably come with rapidly increasing motorisation. Already many of the 185 local authorities concerned—including most of the largest ones—are finding increasing difficulty in getting enough suitable staff; they employ about 5,000 altogether now. By 1975 they would need almost half as many again. They would be hard to get, and very few authorities are anything like large enough to justify computers to save clerks. Furthermore, the dispersal of written records between 185 different authorities creates great difficulty in an increasingly mobile age. It is difficult to keep up-to-date records of the movements of vehicles between areas and so help the police in the fight against car stealing and other crime. And there is also the possibility of disqualified or unqualified drivers getting licences somewhere else.

The absence of a single up-to-date record means that prevention of tax dodging by unlicensed use of vehicles must rely basically on spotting on the road. As a primary tool, this is wasteful and inefficient. In addition, the present system is too strained to allow us to introduce extra facilities which will help the customer, such as the issue of reminders for vehicle licences and the facility to license vehicles on a date-to-date instead of a month-to-month basis. The only answer to cope with needs in the 1970s, let alone beyond, is a centralised national system, aided by modem computer equipment. With this we can cope with the difficulties I have referred to and also provide for easy and efficient expansion. There is unanimity among those concerned in central and local government that a radical change of this kind is the right answer. This Bill, then, sets the framework for this change to a new centralised vehicle and driving licensing system based on a central office of the Ministry of Transport at Swansea using computer equipment. I am sure these aims will commend themselves to the House.

Centralisation will be reached in four main stages. The first step, under Clause I, is to transfer the present licensing functions of local authorities to the Minister of Transport. This will take place about April, 1970. Simultaneously, it is hoped that, under Clause 2(4), the local authorities will agree to be appointed agents of the Minister to carry on the existing system until centralisation begins to take effect. Their role, as agents, will diminish as centralisation progressively takes over between 1971 and 1974. Formal transfer of functions in 1970 will facilitate the change-over and enable the Ministry, as soon as possible, to settle the future of the local authority staff who operate the existing system. The House will no doubt wish to know how the Government are proposing to minimise any undesirable effects of the changes on local authority staff and I shall deal with this later.

My Lords, the second stage is reached early in 1972. Centralisation will begin and between then and the end of 1974 the manual local authority records of vehicles and substantive driving licence holders, which will total some 40 million by 1974, will be progressively converted so that they can be included in the computer record. As each record is taken on to the computer the first benefit to the public will emerge—a reminder of the expiry of a vehicle licence. And the central office will continue the present practice of sending driving licence reminders. There will be no need to go to a post office or local office to get a renewal form for the reminder will itself be a renewal form with all the particulars filled in. So the best way for the public to get their licensing business done will be to deal direct by post with the Swansea central office. But for some time, at least, after centralisation is complete, those people preferring to renew vehicle licences across a counter will still be able to go to a post office or a local office. If they do so, they will be given a temporary licence under Clause 5 to display until their full licence arrives from the central office to which their application will have been sent on.

With a central record of some 20 million drivers it will be necessary to be sure that each driver is precisely identified. We shall do this by giving each one a unique driver's number. To enable this to be done people will have to give their date of birth when applying for a driving licence for the first time during this stage or when a court orders a licence to be endorsed. The powers are in Clauses 12 and 21. As conversion proceeds, this record will help road safety by making it much harder for disqualified drivers to get driving licences.

My Lords, when the enormous task of converting all the records is complete at the beginning of 1975, we enter the third stage of centralisation. The agency agreements with local authorities will be terminated and the Minister of Transport will assume direct full responsibility. There is no need to continue the present number of local taxation offices, because many of their functions will have been transferred to the central office. However, in order to maintain a personal service to the public, and to carry out some specialised functions such as issuing trade licences to motor traders, there does appear to be a need for a local office structure, but of reduced size. The proposal is for 81 local offices, instead of the present 189. The location of these offices was decided upon after a careful study and the network should provide the best possible accessibility for the maximum number of people. The locations were announced on November 18 last. Having attained, at the beginning of 1975, a fully operational centralised system the central record will make possible a much quicker information service to the police and help them in the fight against car thefts and other crimes. The system of manufacturers' notifying chassis numbers under Clause 18 will also help in this way. We shall then, in 1975, enter the final stage of centralisation and introduce the remaining benefits of the system and one obligation on the public.

A real financial benefit will be the introduction of date-to-date vehicle licensing under Clause 4 instead of the present month-to-month system. At present anyone licensing a new vehicle on any day other than the first of a month still has to pay for the full month. For instance, if he registers and licenses his vehicle on the 20th of a month he forfeits 20 days' licensing. Under the date-to-date system he will pay duty only from the 20th. This facility will also help the new system—and ultimately the public—by spreading the workload. The present arrangement creates peaks of workload which are anathema to good computer practice; if these can be ironed out, people should get their licences that much more quickly than if they are not. Further financial benefit will result from the payment of refunds of duty under Clause 8 for any number of days outstanding on a surrendered vehicle licence, subject to a minimum of 30 days. These changes will help individuals by preventing them having to pay duty for part of any month in which they do not run their vehicles. In fact, it will help them to the tune of £10 million in the first full year.

In the past there has been criticism that, as motor dealers cannot license a vehicle purchased by a customer outside the local authority working hours, both dealers and public suffer. This we shall remedy, under Clauses 6 and 7, by permitting the Minister to allocate temporary licences to motor dealers which they can issue to purchasers of cars and motorcycles. The dealer will have to pre-pay, in full, the amounts of duty for the licences allocated to him.

My Lords, I now turn to perhaps the most important change which the Bill proposes—a fundamental change in the approach to enforcement of the vehicle excise law. At present enforcement depends entirely on the spotting of unlicensed vehicles on the road by street checks. This could be called "negative enforcement", for it is simply an imperfect way of determining that people have not done something. With the increasing number of vehicles on the road, manpower is not available to carry out the labour-intensive task of street checks and the resulting investigations and follow-up work. But under the new system this "negative enforcement" can be completely transformed into "positive enforcement" with the help of the central computer. For it will then be possible to introduce the so-called principle of "continuous liability" under Clauses 10 and 11—which simply means that any vehicle is accumulating a liability for duty all the time, unless positive action is taken by its owner to notify that the vehicle is not being used on the road, or is no longer mechanically propelled, or has been sold, exported or scrapped. So street enforcement becomes the secondary tool of enforcement—the primary one being the up-to-date computer record, which can keep track of everybody's licensing position, send them reminders when their licence is due for renewal, and initiate positive enforcement action for any vehicle not licensed or covered by the appropriate notification.

"Positive enforcement" makes one additional demand on the vehicle user. If he does not want to use his vehicle on the public road but to lay it up, or if it has reached the state of not being mechanically propelled, then he will have to take the positive step of informing the central office if he wants to avoid being liable for duty. If he omits to do so, then liability will continue on his vehicle and he will have to pay the duty owing in due course. This extra obligation seems a reasonable price to pay for a more efficient and satisfactory system. But the Minister will be able, in really hard cases, to "deem" a laying-up notice to have been given. We can discuss the many details of "continuous liability" in Committee on Clauses 10 and 11. But I must stress that the principle, in the Government's view, is the essential foundation of an efficient centralised system of preventing tax-dodging. It should result in substantial extra revenue to help to offset the revenue reductions resulting from the introduction of date-to-date licensing and refunds.

I now turn to the straightforward improvements to be made to the existing system of driver licensing. They are mainly concerned with the physical fitness of drivers and the granting and validity of driving licences. No radical changes are proposed in the method of assessing a person's physical fitness to drive, but the existing provisions are unsatisfactory in a number of respects and advantage has been taken of this legislative opportunity to put them right. The new provisions also provide for the possibility of some relaxation and greater flexibility where this can be done without risk to road safety. First, epileptics whose symptoms are adequately con trolled will be able more easily to get a driving licence under the provisions of Clause 12. This liberalising measure, in the light of modern advances in medicine, can be made without impairing road safety. As an essential part of this liberalising policy, we shall issue short-term licences—for example, for periods less than the normal 3 years. Secondly, Clause 12 provides that those diseases which preclude a licensing authority from issuing a driving licence should be clearly and precisely defined in regulations. The present law requires that they should be specified on the application form. This has proved unsatisfactory. Adequate descriptions are both complex and lengthy and in practice reliance has to be placed on general questions.

It is also proposed, under Clause 13, with the convenience of the public in mind, that substantive driving licence holders will be given a provisional entitlement, subject to the usual restrictions, to drive all other vehicles. We also want to increase the period of validity of a provisional licence from six to twelve months. Most learner drivers need two six-monthly provisional licences anyway and this change will save them and the licensing organisation time and trouble. We also propose, in Clause 15, to help people taking up residence in this country by allowing them to drive here for a time on their valid overseas licence. This will give a breathing space before seeking a test, so that they can look for a job, a house and schools for their children. The rapid development in the construction, design and complexity of heavy goods vehicles has led us to conclude that we should cut from 10 years to 5 years the period during which holding a driving licence or passing a test would maintain an entitlement to a heavy goods vehicle driving licence. Clause 15(4) so provides. So much for the immediate changes proposed for the existing system.

Finally, I should like to say a few words on the implications of centralisation for present local taxation office staff, as I promised earlier in my speech. Naturally we are anxious that as many of the existing staff as possible should be able to continue their careers in the new organisation and that where redundancy is unavoidable it should be dealt with fully and sympathetically. About 5,000 staff are involved. There will be about the same number of posts in the new organisation. But whereas the existing staff is spread among 185 local authorities, most of the new jobs—about 3,500—will be at Swansea. The balance will be in 81 local offices throughout the country, all of them likely to be filled by local authority staff. Three thousand of the Swansea vacancies will be for clerical and sub-clerical grades. We recognise that quite a lot of those grades in local authority service will probably decide they do not want to move, so there will be considerable job opportunities at Swansea for locally recruited staff, predominantly females. I must emphasise that we are doing all we can to minimise the effect of the changes on local authority staff, but for any local authority staff who do suffer loss of employment or pay reduction, the Minister must pay compensation under Clause 2—which, of course, will follow the recognised rules.

As I said in opening, this Bill provides the framework for a licensing organisation which will be able to function efficiently and to bear increasing workloads in the decades ahead. The role of the computer will be to aid a large and efficient office of people, so any correspondence with the public by the central office will not be what have come to be looked upon as "stupid computer" letters. The balance of advantages to individuals and the public at large seems right, and with the introduction of continuous liability we shall have a really positive approach to enforcement. The Bill is concerned with practical and technical matters of organisation rather than political principle and I hope that its proposals will be supported by the House. I beg to move.

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

4.17 p.m.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, for explaining to us so lucidly and comprehensively the provisions of this Bill. As he said, the main purpose of the Bill is to provide for the transfer to the Ministry of Transport of the functions relating to the issuing of vehicle and driving licences. These functions are at present carried out by a large number of county and county borough authorities.

The noble Lord has told us that there are three main reasons why he wishes to make this change. The first is to relieve local authorities of an administrative burden which is rapidly increasing year by year and is already overwhelming some of the county borough authorities. This seems to be a good reason and I accept the cogency of it. The second justification is to gain the benefit in cost and efficiency of a centralised modern computer system. Again, in principle, that seems a wise move, but I have a pertinent question to ask the noble Lord with regard to the benefits because they seem to be in theory rather than in practice. The third major justification is to provide an efficient central recording system in the interests of checking evasion and controlling crime. In so far as it does that, again this seems to me a cogent reason.

The noble Lord described to us the major change of law with regard to licensing which is proposed in this Bill—that is, the introduction of the concept of continuous liability for vehicle excise duty on the owner of every vehicle. As I understand it, in layman's language, in future the presumption will be that a vehicle is in use on the road and therefore liable for duty unless notification has been made to the Minister that the vehicle has been laid up. Thus, even if the vehicle is laid up, if notification has not been made the owner is still liable to pay duty. And it is at this point that one can see the dangers for the individual citizen. Not all of us are always that efficient. We may move house, or we may go abroad, and in either case may fail to notify. All kinds of extraordinary things happen to individual people, and somehow these notifications may go astray. When they do, each one of us is then legally liable to pay the duty—indeed, we shall have committed an offence. This is a big change from the present situation, under which the law presumes that the vehicle is laid up and out of use unless the owner puts it on the road, when the liability to pay duty begins.

I feel sure that Parliament has a major duty, in contemplating a change of the law of this kind, which places a big new liability on the citizen, to see that it is fully justified. The noble Lord has sought to justify this new limitation of the freedom of the individual on the ground that it will help to check evasion. That is an objective which will command general support in your Lordships' House, and certainly commands my support. But Her Majesty's Government still have the complete onus of making out their case.

There are three questions that I feel ought to be answered, one main one and two supplementaries. The first is: what is the measure of evasion now? The noble Lord has not told us this, and we simply do not know. We know that there is a good deal of evasion, but is it so massive as to justify this big change in the law which the noble Lord is advocating to us? I think the noble Lord ought to be able to tell us what is the measure of evasion now.

The second question is: what assurance is there that prosecution of evaders will be more effective in the future than it is at present? We can all now see for ourselves glaring instances in the streets where vehicles stand without licences and are passed by policemen and traffic wardens; and no action is taken against them. The noble Lord has partly answered that point, in that he has told us that the computer will do the major part in the future. But may we have an answer to the second part of the question: will the authorities take action in the cases that we see in the streets, as well? The third question is: just how will the Minister of Transport pick up vehicles which are now continuously not licensed? I wonder how many of them there are? This would present quite a considerable problem. I thought that the noble Lord. Lord Winterbottom, partially made out his case by informing us that the computer system will pick up the evasions or negligencies of existing licensed vehicles, because its record will enable it to do so: but the noble Lord has not answered the complete case, and I feel that he should do so. What is the measure of evasion? Indeed, is it so enormous as to justify this big change?

When we come to the Committee stage, I feel that there are some provisions of safeguard for the individual that we ought to consider where an individual has failed to notify and has in fact laid up the vehicle. I am not entirely happy with the provision in the Bill that this will be left to the discretion of the Minister. I think there probably ought to be some independent tribunal to which the owner will be able to appeal.

I now turn to another aspect of the Bill, which is rather different. Some people have a rooted objection to being, as they say, put on the computer. I understand that a society has been set up for the sole purpose of campaigning against this invasion in our modern lives of the computerisation of human beings. It has a tremendous following in the United States, and is now rapidly recruiting members in this country as well—though I may say that at present those members do not include myself. I suppose the objection springs from the feeling that the individual, by yielding up details of personal information, in some way puts himself in the power of the Minister behind the system. I do not want to make too much of this objection, but I think that it deserves serious thought. In this historic House, where we are ever conscious of our history, it might be relevant to remind your Lordships that it is only about a couple of hundred years ago that witches were still being burnt in this country. The last witch was burnt, I discovered, in 1727 in Scotland. Therefore it is not so long ago that our ancesters believed that magic spells could be cast for malevolent aims. This kind of fear still hangs on in the back of some people's minds, and probably quite a lot of people.

This magic was operated usually by getting hold of some intimate possession of the individual victim. This is a reality with some people. I would only say that of course if you collect enough personal information about an individual you can construct a sort of psychological identikit and you can predict his behaviour within certain limits. The point that I want to make to the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, is that this fear is a reality, and the Government should take note of it. I feel that there is an absolute obligation on this Government and future Governments not to ask for one extra syllable of information which is not directly required for the licensing of the vehicle or the issuing of a licence. That is the point.

I understand—indeed, the noble Lord has told us to-day—that it is intended to ask for the age of applicants; and from reading the proceedings in another place, I understand that it is also intended to ask for the sex of applicants. I would ask the noble Lord. Lord Winterbottom, to give his assurance that he will resist the temptation, as further forms go out, to ask for more vital statistics about the applicants, male or female: statistics which might be interesting to the people with the computer but would progressively give more and more personal information, and possibly give grounds for these irrational fears which are already felt by some people.

There are two further short points that I should like to make. The first is about the timing of this operation. The noble Lord has said that it will be 1975 before the new central computerised system is in operation. I understand that it has already been discussed for about four years, so that a period of about nine or ten years will have elapsed between the time this scheme was first conceived and the time when it will come into operation. This is a very long time in gestation. I should not expect results too quickly from this Government, but would the noble Lord tell us why it has been so unconscionably slow?

The second point is one that I mentioned earlier; namely, the financial result. The Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Bill tells us that by centralising the system there will be an administrative saving by 1975 of £1.6 million: the estimated administrative cost in 1975 is £11 million, and it is estimated that had the present existing system of local authority offices continued the cost would have been about £12.6 million. The Minister explained in Committee in another place that amortisation and other charges would amount to £1.76 million. So this little piece of arithmetic shows that in fact in 1975, when the new centralised modern computerised system is introduced, it will cost marginally more than the local authority system. This seems to me a very bad investment for the poor taxpayer who has to put up about £19 million altogether, including the interest charges, compensation charges and so on, in establishing the system at Swansea. Could the noble Lord tell us when he replies to the debate, why is the financial result so poor, and why is it that we do not receive a greater benefit from the centralised system?

My Lords, we can examine in more detail in Committee the points that I have mentioned. In principle this seems to me a good measure, a measure which is preparing for the future, and I would advise my noble friends to give the Bill a Second Reading.

4.31 p.m.


My Lords, a number of other noble Lords were on the speaking list but apparently they are not here, so I should like to say a word or two about the Bill. I do so not merely for the sake of talking but because 25 years ago one of my first steps up the ladder of promotion as a local government member was to be appointed chairman of the licensing committee of a county council. In that capacity quite a lot of information came into my possession about the extent of licence dodging, of which we have heard something here to-day. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Winterbottom and the Government on introducing an imaginative piece of modernisation.

The noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, rather threw cold water on the suggestion that there were a large number of dodgers. At every two-monthly meeting of my committee the number of dodgers, of people who had not paid—let us not attribute criminal tendencies to them all—used to run into thousands. We have read recently in the Press of the very widespread amount of dodging that exists in the community. I know of it also in my capacity as one who presides over a bench of magistrates every fortnight or so. We get a long list of these dodgers every time. This is where again I must cross swords with the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, when he suggests that we are hardly dealing in a fair way with those people who lay up their cars when, under the Bill, we are requiring them to notify that laying-up to the Ministry of Transport. Many a time I have had a case of this kind before me where a man has been prosecuted either for improperly using his car or for storing it in the street, and he says, "Ah! This car had been laid up for three months and this was the only occasion on which I put it in the street or took it out on the road". So I think it is reasonable, in view of the large amount of licence dodging which is going on, to put the onus for excusing himself upon the motor owner himself.

I rather like this idea of transferring the tax from the first of the month to the actual day upon which the licence is taken out. This is something in the nature of an immediate tax concession to the probably hard-taxed motor user. The noble Lord, Lord Nugent, tried to make our flesh creep with stories about witches and witch hunting. He told us that 200 years ago witches were punished in this country. But surely he knows that the details of those witches were not calculated through the means of a computer, as is now being suggested. I do not think there is really much to fear; that the Government are setting up a kind of Secret Service register which they will use to the detriment of our citizens. The noble Lord, Lord Nugent, also complained that we are taking a long, long time to put this reform into operation. He says it was originally conceived nine or ten years ago. I seem to remember that the noble Lord's own Party formed the Government for half of that period, so if we are laggards he is among the laggards, too.

I have a few doubts, question marks, about some of the proposals in the Bill. First, I feel that too much power is being left to the Minister to make regulations which he will introduce from time to time, with the result that we are now passing a Bill the consequences of which we do not know. With regard to Lord Nugent's suggestion that it is rather offensive to ask a motorist his age, I also thought this until I realised that the numbering system on the computer is going to be based upon the age of the person or the person's year of birth. If this is to be one of the fundamental considerations of the computer operation, then it seems to me to be sensible. I say this although I do not like the idea of an absent defendant whose case is being tried in the court having the fact trotted out that he is 70 or 75 or 85 years of age; he may be a quite young, active, virile man at that age and it is probably unfair that his age should count against him in his absence.

With regard to the similar requirement that the sex of a defendant should be notified to the court, this is probably going to be a little difficult. The two sexes are so similar in their appearances these days—they wear their hair in the same way; they often wear the same kind of clothes—that an ordinary police constable is going to be put into a very delicate position if he has to satisfy him self about the sex of an alleged offender. But I suppose some way out of this difficulty will be found.

The only other question I want to ask is this. According to the Bill, the local authority is to be the prosecuting authority. It is known at present that local authorities have what they call a system of mitigated penalties. That is to say, the offender is notified that his unlicensed car has been seen at such-and-such a place on such-and-such a date; that he was not licensed at the time. He is given an opportunity of explaining the position to the local licensing committee, who then decide, if there is an element of criminal intent, to send the case forward for prosecution in the courts; but if it is a simple case of sheer forgetfulness, they then give him the opportunity to pay a mitigated penalty. I think that this is good for administration. It does not contravene any of our ideas of justice. I should like to know whether this system is to continue in the future.

My final point, my Lords, is this. It is said that there will be a saving on local government manpower costs: it is put at £1,800,000. I am wondering whether the Government are not being a little naive if they think that all those local government personages will be pensioned off or compensated. Every local authority is short of men and women on its establishment. Every local authority will grasp at a man if there is an opportunity of employing him. I remember what happened when the Civil Defence Corps was disbanded a few months ago. In my county we had a number of Civil Defence officers who were responsible for various regions. They obviously became redundant under the scheme. Many of them were immediately snapped up by the various committees of my county council, who appointed them to jobs which were vacant and where people were really urgently needed if the services of the council were to be properly carried out. With those few words, my Lords, I repeat that I welcome the Bill. I think it is a very imaginative and modern-minded piece of work.

4.39 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that the Isles of Scilly have been included in this Bill, and are included in such a Bill for the first time in their history. They were not in the original Bill but were slipped in on the Report stage by the Minister concerned. The population of the Isles is a tiny one and their main income is derived from the flower season. If they have a bad season they have a very lean year ahead of them. I remember one family comprising a father and mother, a married son and his four children, whose whole income was £4 10s. 0d. to divide among them at the end of the flower season. It will be seen that in such a place it is monstrous to take away from these people anything that they can get as a result of their hard labour. Already goods in the shops and in the pubs are more expensive than they are on the mainland, because of the heavy costs of transportation. I ask the Minister to reconsider this matter. The sum that the Treasury will get from the Isles under this Bill will be only about £4,000 per annum, of which £1,000 will be absorbed in collecting the money, and I should be grateful if the Minister would restore the position to what it was in the original Bill, namely, exemption for the islanders, as they have always been exempted in the past. If he cannot give me an assurance on that point I am afraid I shall have to raise the matter again on the Committee stage of the Bill.

4.41 p.m.


My Lords, I have no difficulty in supporting the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, that this Bill be read a second time. He has explained it to us most clearly, but there is one point that constantly occurs to me. We have had a number of Bills dealing with motor car transport and, of course, as it is transport it is reasonable that it should come under the Ministry of Transport, which is dealt with in the early part of the Bill. During his explanation of the Bill the noble Lord also referred to the question of safety. We have dealt with several Bills which it is hoped will increase safety on the roads and reduce the number of accidents, and I believe that this Bill has in it more features which will be helpful in that direction.

In this connection it seems to me that one difficulty in regard to safety on the roads is that a great many people who drive motor cars know nothing about it. I was impressed last Saturday by a speaker on the wireless who referred to the rigorous sports in which people could participate on that day. Having referred to various ball games, he added, "Of course, there is also the sport of motoring". If motoring is to be a sport, I suppose one would use a sports car and nothing else would matter. Occasionally I attend the police court, not because I have to answer a summons, but just to listen to the proceedings. I am much impressed by the number of cases in which the person being prosecuted says, "Oh, I did not know that; I thought I was quite all right".

The certificates which have to be carried in a car are mentioned in Clauses 16 and 17. The test certificates for cars at stated ages have to be carried in the car and they have to be produced when required, but there is one thing that constantly occurs to me and which I have mentioned on previous occasions We have this new Highway Code, on which we have had a valuable discussion in your Lordships' House, led by the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom. I press very much that this should be one of the documents carried in the car, and also that a person should be at fault if he does not have in the car the certificate of the last test of the car. It would be quite easy to make it also an offence not to have the Highway Code in the car and not to have studied it. The driver of the car should really read, learn and digest it, and then he would be more likely to know what he ought to do.

In this connection it should not be overlooked that the Highway Code refers to pedestrians as well as to motor car drivers. I have noticed quite often in the magistrate's court—not that I am a magistrate—that it is a pedestrian who has caused the trouble. He has never looked at the Highway Code and does not know that it contains information on the way in which pedestrians ought to look after themselves and other people. Therefore, although it may be a Committee point, I would press that this document should be carried in the car by regulation and that no excuse should be accepted from a driver who said he did not know of the regulation.

4.47 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise for not having put my name on the list. I have no complaints to make about anything that is contained in the Bill; I want only to mention something that is not in it. It seems to me that when we are dealing with the question of drivers' licences more emphasis should be laid on the question of how the driver obtains that licence. We all know that the statutory test as it is to-day is necessarily very sketchy, because there are so many drivers to be tested that the tester has not the time to make sure that his candidate is in fact a good driver. I believe that it is absolutely essential that nobody should be granted a driving licence unless he has had professional instruction.

At the moment one can learn from one's younger brother, one's maiden aunt or anybody one likes. In my opinion it will be impossible to guarantee that drivers have had proper instruction until we introduce the regulation that a professional and authorised instructor must have instructed the learner and produced him to the examiner, together with a certificate that the candidate has had that instruction. It seems to me that that is an important regulation to introduce into this Bill. Possibly the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, may think that this regulation would be more suitable for a separate Bill. In that case I would accept his ruling, although I think it could be included in this Bill.

4.49 p.m.


My Lords, I crave the indulgence of your Lordships for intervening, in so far as my name is not included on the list of speakers but I have given notice to the noble Lord on the Front Bench of my intention to intervene. I take some exception to the continuous liability provisions as they are set out. It seems to me quite wrong that one should have to prove that one is not liable for a tax. Indeed, from my own knowledge of the motor industry I can see that the computer can be inundated with notifications of this kind, particularly where accident damage is being dealt with. It seems wrong that a provision of this kind, an additional control and restriction, should be introduced into one's ordinary life. One wonders quite where this sort of thing may stop; because if it is accepted that the onus of proof of exemption from the tax is upon the individual, why should there not be a similar onus upon him for exemption from tax in respect of television, dog licence or any other kind of licence?

I think that the provision allowing a rebate on a day-to-day basis is not perhaps in the best interests of the system, unless of course the road fund tax escalates to an alarming sum. It is already lying at somewhere about 1s. 2d. a day. If it should go up very much higher, then of course owners will be inclined to make a claim for rebate for very short periods of time, whereas at present they are inclined to carry the taxation even though the vehicle may be off the road for six or eight weeks for accident damage: and this is the kind of period the vast majority of accident cases take. If people do take advantage of this, then I can certainly see tremendous to-ing and fro-ing of little tax and rebate slips.

The negative enforcement to which the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, referred does not seem to have too much ground. in that the Minister. in the Report of the Select Committee, gave an indication of the number of excise evasions which had occurred, and this showed in the last ten years a diminishing number, despite the increase in the number of vehicles. With the provisions now given for traffic wardens to investigate an evasion, there seems to be an already good system for stepping up the control in this respect.

There is one last point that I would make. The noble Lord, Lord Winter-bottom, referred in his opening speech to the driver's licence being described as a unique number. I share Lord Nugent's fears of being a number, unique or otherwise, on any computer system, and certainly it seems to me rather unnecessary that one should have to go to this length, giving personal details and the like, purely and simply to meet an excise or tax requirement. I would also ask the noble Lord whether he will be kind enough, when he replies, to amplify his remarks in so far as the temporary licence to be issued to motor traders is concerned, because I certainly have not been able to follow the implication either in the written word or in what he said.

4.54 p.m.


My Lords, I would venture to ask Her Majesty's Government whether the continuous liability provisions could be so used as to mitigate the nuisance of the abandoned or dumped car. It would seem possible that the man applying for a cessation of duty on his vehicle could be required to state whether the vehicle has been sold or exported, or whether it has been dumped; and if it has been abandoned or dumped, some certificate from the local authority or other body in whose hands the abandoned vehicle has been placed might well be required. I hesitate to suggest any further legislative provision, but the nuisance of the abandoned car has gone to such a degree that I should welcome any step that could be taken to avoid it.

4.56 p.m.


My Lords, having had some experience of dealing with motor taxation problems on a county council I should like to support what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, a few minutes ago: that the system of mitigated penalties should, if possible, be preserved in some way, at least until the complete transfer, which I think the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, said would be 1975. I presume that after that date it might be rather difficult to deal with mitigated penalties as they are dealt with now, but that is something which possibly could be considered. It is something, as the noble Lord pointed out, which has worked to the general advantage of people, and I think it is something which should not lightly be put aside.

The other point I have to raise is something entirely new, and it may or may not be generally welcomed. I fear that it may not be, because people are anxious nowadays to have rather fewer controls, unless they are essential for the public good. I wonder whether the noble Lord would be able to consider whether driving licences should include a photograph of the owner of the driving licence. This is something which is clone in many other countries, and it is very useful if the right person is using his own driving licence. If it falls into the hands of other people, as sometimes happens, the person who is not entitled to use the licence may often get away with quite a lot of things, not only motoring offences. I think there may well be a case for providing that the driving licence, which is now issued on a three-year basis, should have a photograph included in the driving licence folder.

It may be said, as one noble Lord (again I think it was Lord Leatherland) did say, that as it is difficult these days to tell the difference between boys and girls a photograph might not be much assistance. Even so I think that a photograph on the driving licence would help the police in their inquiries and would also be of assistance to the owner of the licence. I have often been told that I cannot cash a cheque—I imagine they think my credit must be poor—even when I produce a driving licence, because they think it may be someone else's licence that I have "pinched" for the purpose of cashing the cheque. I put that point as something that the noble Lord and his colleagues may be able to consider in this Bill, which I think will be widely welcomed by the general public when it is passed.


My Lords, may I suggest that if the photograph were anything like the sort of photograph that one generally gets for passports it would be no help at all.

4.58 p.m.


My Lords, I have one or two points to make which have not been made, and I crave your Lordships' indulgence for a moment or two. First of all, on the subject of Scotland, the fact that this proposal means transferring the registration of vehicles for the whole country to Swansea has of course attracted the attention of the Scottish Nationalists and doubtless will attract it again. I think the Minister's speech has made it perfectly clear, particularly in regard to the question of stolen vehicles and the like, that this is a step in the right direction. I personally agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, that this is a forward-looking Bill.

At the same time it is fair to remember that there are anxieties in Scotland in regard to redundancies. I think I am right in saying that this point was made in the Committee stage in the other place. Figures were adduced to show that this means that two-thirds of the existing Ministry offices will be closed in Scotland compared with one-half in England and Wales, and there are anxieties in a country where the rate of unemployment is higher than it is in the South and where depopulation is another problem. On the point of computerisation, the whole system is obviously essential in the world of to-day; this is bound to come.

But if the anxieties to which I have referred are to be absolutely allayed, let the computerised centre be efficient, which it can be. I would supplement what my noble friend Lord Nugent has said by remembering that in the whole process of computerising, to-day one of the bottlenecks—if one can use such a word—is the ensuring that the programming is simple. The noble Lord made the point that there should not be one extra item in the programming necessities for the computer which makes it more complicated for the staff which will have to be recruited in order to make the computer efficient. The machine itself should be amply adequate in capacity. To use engineering jargon rather than a philological series of words, it must not be "too tight" for the job. It must be capable of extension where it is, without redesigning the original computer. The buildings in which it is housed should be adequate—adequate in size to house such extensions—and the buildings themselves should be sited and constructed so that they can be extended.

It crossed my mind, when my noble friend Lord Nugent was pointing out the high cost of the whole scheme, that perhaps provisions of the nature I describe may mean that it may be a bit expensive in the earlier stages, but, believe me—and I have some experience in this matter—money spent in avoiding complexities of extension is money well spent. Before leaving that point, and referring again to the theft of cars and "computerisation", I welcome Clause 18, which makes it incumbent upon the parties concerned to have vehicles' engines and other parts properly numbered.

The other point to which I want to draw attention is Clause 12, in which changes are made in the undertakings in regard to health which are given by applicants for a licence. I know there are a number of Members of your Lordships' House—and I used to be one, though I am prepared to be convinced that perhaps it is not a very serious matter—who worry about eyesight, and I should like the noble Lord, the Minis ter, when he replies regarding the terms in Clause 12 (the reworded Section 100(1)), to say whether he pictures the applicant applying for a licence also having to take into consideration the condition of his eyesight. It is not so much a question of seeing at a certain distance; the problem in driving to-day, with the speed of approaching vehicles, involves the cylinder capacity of eyesight. Perhaps he will say something in his reply regarding the extent to which it is expected that an applicant for a licence under the new Section 100(1) is expected to take into consideration his ability to see, and whether—and of course the Road Research Laboratory can advise on this matter—the time may not come when it may be wise to have some sort of certificate of adequate eyesight (probably at the applicant's expense) attached to the application for a licence. With those words, my Lords, I welcome the Bill and its far-sighted points.

5.5 p.m.


My Lords, it is very pleasant indeed to be able to reply to a debate where such general support for a measure has been expressed. I myself have found the discussion most helpful, as I am certain will my right honourable friend, the Minister of Transport, when he studies your Lordships' debate. I should like to try to answer as many points made as I can. They were made with, may I say, commendable brevity, and noble Lords have spoken very much to the point. I think all the points made are helpful and valid.

May I start with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, in his reply to my opening speech and then branch out from there to points made by other noble Lords? First of all, he generally welcomed the Bill, but at once put his finger on the point whether the cost benefit of the operation was as great as it might be. The noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, also touched on the same point. The figures that we have at the moment are the estimated costs of the first full year of the centralised system, which turns out at £11 million, compared with the estimated projected cost of the existing system in 1975 of £12.6 million. These are estimated figures, but the makeup, the difference in the cost, is rather interesting. Under the existing system staff would cost £7.1 million as opposed to £5.3 million; a steep rise. On the other hand, the postage and telephone charges of the new system are much higher than those of the existing system, being £2.6 million against £800,000. This, of course, comes in part from what we believe is a better service to the public; warning them that their licence is running out, and so on. But I think the points made by both noble Lords are valid.

The figures given represent a comparison between the first year of the new centralised system and an extrapolation of the existing system. None of us, I think, would expect that salaries will remain constant between 1975 and 1980, but the full benefits of this new system must be felt as time passes. Amortisation proceeds at a steady rate, but salary costs must rise. Of course, this cost factor quite ignores the fact that to get the right type of human being to issue these licences is not easy. There will be increasing demands on human beings of this calibre, and almost certainly it will be very difficult for the local authorities to get them. For that reason, it is better that the actual computer is placed in a centre where employment is not particularly high—in an area which is a development area—and where perhaps a tradition of serving this computer can be built up from the surrounding neighbourhood, such as among the young people of Swansea, particularly the girls leaving school.

Perhaps this might be an appropriate time to reply to a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, and also by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford. This is the question of regional demands on these great new centres that are being set up. I have in my time served on the environmental planning committee when issues such as this were discussed. As the noble Lord must realise, the cases for Wales, Scotland, the North-East, the North-West and so on, are cogently argued by the appropriate Secretaries of State for Wales and Scotland, or by the Department for Economic Affairs for various regions of England. One of the factors of delay was first of all deciding where this computer was to go; and, secondly, the necessary design and planning before we could even decide how we could cast the scheme. That is one of the reasons for delay where a project which takes ten years to mature had to start slowly.

The noble Lord, Lord Nugent, touched on the problem of continuous liability. My noble friend Lord Leatherland also mentioned the matter, as did the noble Earl, Lord Gainsborough, and it is right that the risks of the principle of continuous liability should be aired. I hope, both to-day and on Committee stage, to convince your Lordships that we hope that this particular liability will be administered with justice. I am certain that the points made by noble Lords who have sat in magistrates' courts are of value and will be noted. This is no new principle. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, compared the possession of a car with the possession of a television set. This is a parallel. One has to pay a fee on a television set simply if one owns it, and as long as one owns it one pays the fee. So that in a sense there is a continuous liability in the possession of a television set.


My Lords, is the noble Lord right in saying that? Is the law in fact the same in regard to both the road tax and the television licence? It is the same machinery as to sending out warning notices, but if an answer comes back saying that the set is out of use, is that not a sufficient answer? I think the noble Lord will find that the law is different.


My Lords, I agree that the actual administration of the law is not on all fours, but the principle of continuous liability, unless at some time or other one states that the vehicle or television set has ceased to be used, is in parallel. I note what the noble Lord has said, and if I am wrong I will let him know.

The noble Lord then made the important point that the onus is upon the Government to prove the need for the principle of continuous liability. He asked about the measure of evasion. We do not know the answer, as I tried to say in my speech, but my noble friend Lord Leatherland, speaking as a magistrate, said that it was quite frequent. I have an estimate which gives some guide to the size of the problem. Reports show that unlicensed vehicles have gone up from one in 133 of the vehicle population in 1958 to one in 40 of the vehicle population in 1967. Those are estimates, but they indicate a marked degree of evasion. In fact, the imposition of continuous liability and proper enforcement of taxation should earn the computer a pretty profit—even if one takes into account the £10 million which it will give back to the public in this country who have to pay tax only for the actual period of the ownership of a motor car. That is the measure of evasion.

What assurances can we give that the prosecution will be more effective? The machine should enable us to cover this matter. It is not a question of a policeman spotting an unlicensed car and then initiating a prosecution. There is a tendency to walk by such motor cars because it is too much of a nuisance to do anything about it. But the procedure of the computer is to send out an advice that payment of licence is about to become due, with two warnings thereafter that there is a liability which has not been met, followed by the notice of a prosecution. This would be an automatic system proceeding from the existence of the computer. So I believe the fact that prosecutions will take place will become almost automatic.

One then comes to the important point: how will vehicles which at the moment are unlicensed and which will continue to be unlicensed he picked up? They will now be caught because an unlicensed vehicle will still be registered and the registration number will be on the computer. In addition, all new vehicles—


My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord again, but may I ask how the noble Lord will get on to the computer the registration numbers of unlicensed vehicles?


They will start on the computer simply as registration numbers. Mr. A. will be shown as owning motor car registration number so-and-so.


My Lords, perhaps I ought to leave this matter to the Committee stage, but I would observe that the noble Lord will not know about Mr. A because Mr. A never licenses his car—he just drives it around without licensing it.


This is a longish process, my Lords. The unlicensed car of Mr. A of to-day—which is probably not a new one—will probably have disintegrated by the time the new system works because manufacturers will be feeding into the computer chassis numbers and engine numbers. Although no one guarantees that at the beginning this will be an infallible system, the system will steadily become less fallible as more information is built up in the computer.

The noble Lord, Lord Nugent, raised the important point that some individuals may object to being put on to a computer. As somebody who has lived close to, and indeed in, totalitarian societies, may I say that I share this fear to a very great degree. There is an even greater risk in the air. As the noble Lord probably knows, computerisation of social services implies that every child that is born goes on to a computer and from birth to death is listed on a central computer throughout the whole of his life. It shows how his taxes, his benefits, and all the rest, are paid and we know where that person is and what are his liabilities. I share the fear of individuals, mainly because I know how in a totalitarian society the system could be misused. Noble Lords may remember that during the war we had identity cards which were retained in a central registry. The registry was destroyed intentionally after the war so that the central control of the population of the country should disappear. I should not think that this is a foolish matter for concern; it is a matter of great concern and is something which we must consider. I can give the noble Lord the assurance that the minimum of necessary information will be fed into the computer, but unfortunately it means a good deal of information.

Various noble Lords took advantage of the fact that we are modifying certain other legislation, particularly in regard to Clauses 12 to 15, to suggest other amendments to the various systems of safeguard surrounding driving. The noble Marquess, Lord Aberdeen and Temair, suggested that it should be a statutory requirement that every individual should carry in his car a copy of the Highway Code, together with all other appropriate documents. The noble Lord, Lord Somers, suggested that a driving licence should be valid only if received as a result of professional training. My right honourable friend the Minister is in substantial sympathy with this concept, and nowadays very few people complete their driving training without a period of professional polishing-up. I would say to both the noble Marquess and the noble Lord that I will bring those points to the notice of my right honourable friend, but I think it rather improbable that they will be included in this Bill, in view of the fact that it has passed through another place, and I can foresee some resistance from my right honourable friend to making Amendments when we send it back to that place. But both points are valid and should be considered.

A point was made by the noble Earl. Lord Iddesleigh, which I thought was of enormous value. Like him, I cannot stand seeing the countryside defaced by "junk" motor cars. I will see whether this monitoring system can be so developed that when a vehicle is recorded as being a non-runner its final resting place is recorded at the same time. That might help us to track down individuals who leave cars on the roadside for someone else to pick up.


Something in the nature of an automobile burial certificate.


My Lords, another point was made by the noble Earl, Lord Gainsborough, about stolen licences, which again I thought was valid. These are going to be important documents and at least for a time an individual can gain a false identity. But the problems surrounding the fixing of a photograph on to a driving licence are at the moment very great. The cost would he extremely high, and there is also the problem that photographs can be switched. There could be no guarantee that the photograph on the driving licence was the original one. So on balance the view of the Department is that, although the idea has been considered, it is not one worth proceeding with.

Finally, I note the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, about eyesight. Again, this is a valid point. I imagine it is covered by the clause he mentioned, but if he agrees I will check on it and write to him. One of the things we are trying to do in this Bill is to define more exactly the various disabilities that have to be recorded, and to make it easier for the individual to meet the demands.


My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt the noble Lord. But I spoke off the cuff and I now remember the research concerned with this matter. It is called dynamic visual acuity. It is this new approach to the part the eye plays in driving, which occurred to me as being worth referring to the Road Research Laboratory, so that the words, suffers from … any other disability likely to cause the driving of a vehicle by him … to be a source of danger". might be considered.


My Lords, I note the point which the noble Lord has made. The applicant to-day has to declare that he can meet the eyesight standard prescribed for the driving test, and no change has been made in that respect. But, speaking personally, I find that my eyesight is not so good as it was, and I cannot think at quite what point I have to say that I am too blind to drive. But I will go into that.

I hope that I have now answered the various key points made during the debate, but I can fill in any holes during the Committee stage. In particular, I am looking forward to the discussion of the various aspects raised by the principle of continuous liability, and I am certain that noble Lords on both sides of the House will wish to probe me on that point. However, I am fairly convinced that I shall be able to satisfy them.


My Lords, can the noble Lord tell me whether he will consider looking into the matter of the Isles of Scilly?


My Lords, I beg the noble Earl's pardon. This has been considered and it was raised in another place. It was considered that, although the Scilly Isles have had the good luck to escape being included in earlier legislation, there was no permanent justification for treating them differently from the other islands of the British Isles. With regret, it is felt that this is an opportunity to include them and to bring them into line with the Channel Islands and other similar islands.


My Lords, is the noble Lord able to reply to my question, when I asked him to amplify the point in connection with provisional licences to be issued to the motor trade? Or perhaps he would prefer to wait for another time.


My Lords, I shall be grateful to the noble Lord if he will let me answer that question at the Committee stage. The principle is quite simple: we want to help both the customer and the dealer, so that after the local authority office has closed the customer can buy his motor car and drive away. But I should be grateful if I could expound the exact mechanics of this at the Committee stage. This is an attempt to give better service both to the motor industry and to the customer.

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

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