HL Deb 15 December 1980 vol 415 cc887-94

3.38 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. As noble Lords know, we have debated it before, and I see that the long list of speakers who wish to take part includes the names of those who have spoken before, as well as some new speakers on the subject. I shall make my own speech as short as possible in the hope of setting an example, so that perhaps the vote will be at a convenient hour tonight.

It is three and a half years since we last went round this course and in the interval some more countries have decided to make the wearing of seat belts mandatory. So now 20 countries, including, I think, every country in Europe except Italy, Eire and ourselves, have legislated in this way, and I see that Switzerland has just decided by referendum to join the band, too, and to make seat belts compulsory. So there is now considerable experience to show what is the benefit of wearing seat belts, and I suggest that we should thus consider the matter again.

I shall declare my own interest as president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, and I should like to express my thanks to the BMA, which has given me very substantial support. I found that the BMA itself was campaigning this summer, and I have been glad to join forces with it and have its help in bringing the Bill before the House today. In the interests of brevity I shall not deal with the medical arguments, strong though they are. I shall leave them in the capable hands of my noble friends Lord Porritt and Lord Richardson, who will be speaking of the medical implications of the wearing of seat belts and the saving that could be made in that respect.

The argument for the mandatory wearing of seat belts is very simply stated. It is just this. On the voluntary basis of seat belt wearing, the wearing rate is low; and that is common experience everywhere. On the mandatory basis, the wearing rate is high. In Britain today the average wearing rate is approximately 30 per cent., but the major Government campaign which brought that about cost some £6 million, and was quite an achievement. It raised the rate from 14 per cent. in 1971 to 30 per cent. in 1976; but that seems to be about as far as you can get it to go on a voluntary basis. Some noble Lords may be aware of an interesting experiment done by the Wessex Regional Health Authority, comparing experiences in Winchester and Salisbury, which tends to prove this. On the other hand, the mandatory wearing of seat belts is expected to increase the wearing rate in this country to something between 80 and 90 per cent. This expectation is based on experience elsewhere, and particularly in Australia and New Zealand, which are obviously most like us in mentality.

The Transport and Road Research Laboratory calculates that, if we had the mandatory wearing of seat belts in this country and thereby raised the wearing rate to 85 per cent., the annual saving of lives would be some 600 to 800 per annum, and the annual saving of serious injuries would be some 8,000 to 11,000. Experience in other countries really does substantiate this sort of estimate of the saving that might be achieved. It is a dramatic potential saving; and the accident rate of the last decade shows that seat belt wearing literally halves the risk of death and serious injury. So this is the basic case for the Bill.

I turn now to the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye, which he has, with great skill and considerable effect, moved and won each time before. The basis of my noble friend's amendment, that your Lordships should refuse to give this Bill a Second Reading, is because of the element of compulsion. Of course I recognise that the liberty of the subject is an aspect of life in which every noble Lord in this House has the deepest interest and one to which a very high priority is given, and that any law limiting it must have exceptional justification. But, in the context of the law affecting motor vehicles, there are many laws and regulations which we have accepted in the interests of road safety and the smooth movement of traffic. Inevitably, to some extent all of them involve some sacrifice of freedom—even something as fundamental as driving on the left in this country, most other countries driving on the right. I am told that the only country in which this does not happen is Malta, and on inquiry as to why it was that some people choose to drive on the right and some on the left the answer was that everybody tends to drive on the shady side of the road. That may be, but I think it could be counter-productive.

There is, of course, a whole range of regulations with which we must conform in order to drive at all—driving tests, third-party insurance, annual tests of cars over three years old, and a whole range of traffic regulations. I suggest that in the perspective in which this proposal for seat belts must be seen it really is not a limitation of the liberty of the subject to which we should object. Nor must we forget an aspect of life in which my noble friend is particularly well versed—that is, that every time we get into an aeroplane we are obliged to put on a seat belt.

I turn to a second anxiety which I know has been in the minds of noble Lords who have objected to seat belts in the past, and that is the question of enforcement. While some chief constables still object—they are not unanimous; chief constables, like noble Lords, are very independent people—the majority are now in favour. I think I should just read a letter which I have had from the Chief Constable of Warwickshire, Mr. Birch, who is the honorary secretary of the chief constables' traffic committee, in which he says this: Whilst there is not a unanimous police view"— of chief constables, this is— nevertheless the majority of chief officers are in no doubt that the introduction of such legislation would do much to reduce the toll of fatal and serious accidents on our roads. There might be some problems associated with exemptions, but with intelligent and sensitive enforcement there is no reason why we should not follow a lot of other countries in introducing this accident prevention measure". In addition, the Police Federation—that is, the police constables—are in favour of it, and the police superintendents are also in favour of it. It does seem that opinion among the police is changing as they recognise the general benefit coming from seat belt wearing. Of course, in practice, the non-wearing of seat belts would be picked up in the course of other duties when a motor car was stopped for some other offence, as is very common now with various traffic offences. So I suggest that there really is not a serious problem on the matter of enforcement.

Finally, there is the objection which has been expressed cogently by some noble Lords in the past, that seat belts can actually injure the wearer. I recognise that in a motor car accident situation the possibilities of injury are infinite. Huge forces are at work. Again, the Transport and Road Research Laboratory have studied the possible danger by analysing a large number of accidents, and they conclude that the odds against such an injury are something like a thousand to one. Of course, I recognise that such things do happen. The personal experience of my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth stands vividly in my mind. But, put at its lowest, the danger of injury from an accident is greatly reduced—in fact, it is estimated to be halved—by wearing a seat belt.

Briefly turning to the Bill, the Bill is an enabling measure which tacks on to the parent Act of 1972 and would permit the Minister to make regulations with regard to seat belt wearing in a way very similar way to that adopted in the case of safety helmets under the 1972 Act. Of course, such regulations would be preceded by extensive consultation with all interested parties, and so would provide exemptions wherever they were justified. But I have had drafted in the Bill three specific exemptions; first, drivers of delivery vans, drivers who are in and out of delivery vans providing milk deliveries and so forth; secondly, drivers reversing; and, thirdly, persons holding a medical certificate to the effect that wearing a seat belt is inadvisable. These seem to be three obvious exemptions which clearly should be in the Bill whatever happens.

Clause 2 of the Bill, I should briefly mention, is a rather complex piece of drafting by the parliamentary draftsman which has the effect of requiring that if the Bill became law the initial order introducing the regulations would have to be an affirmative order and it would not be by negative procedure, as the 1972 Act provides. Let me conclude, then, by saying that I have dealt with the main points in the Bill and the main arguments for it. I warmly commend the Bill to your Lordships as a single measure which will save more life and limb than any other single measure, and I hope your Lordships will give it a Second Reading. I beg to move that it be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Nugent of Guildford.)

3.49 p.m.

Lord Balfour of Inchrye rose to move as an amendment to the Motion, That the Bill be now read a second time, to leave out all the words after ("that") and insert ("this House reaffirms its decisions on 25th June 1974, 26th April 1977 and 24th May 1977 to reject the compulsory wearing of car seat belts and therefore declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which accepts the principle of compulsion.")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move the amendment which stands in my name on the Order Paper. This Bill, so charmingly moved by my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford, is contentious; it cuts right across parties, and it has been voted on three times in your Lordships' House, when the principle of compulsion has been rejected. Before I come to the main principle of the Bill, compulsion, I should like to say just a few words about the Bill itself—words which I hope will appeal to noble Lords in all parts of the House who are parliamentarians. I think this is a bad Bill, because it is an extreme example of delegated powers which, by order, can be exercised by the Minister and which may well offset the living conditions of a great section of our citizens.

My noble friend Lord Nugent said that for three specific reasons (which I need not elaborate for they are clear in the Bill) the Affirmative Resolution procedure would be followed. But there is nothing to say that in practice the Minister cannot hold back from the original Affirmative Resolution procedure orders and produce further contentious orders later which would have to be passed with the Negative Resolution procedure which, as your Lordships know, is virtually automatically accepted by the House of Commons. Your Lordships also know that this House, by custom, does not divide upon orders which have been passed by the Negative Resolution procedure in the Commons.

There is as yet no list of exemptions. I regret very much from the parliamentary point of view that that list (which had been debated for a long time in the other place in Committee) has not been included in the Second Reading of the Bill. There are great anomalies which may arise. On the matter of the medical certificate, no doubt we shall hear from the medical lobby later. But as far as I can see, there is no possibility of having a standard medical level. I do not know how many thousands of doctors there are; but each one may have his own individual idea as to what should or should not qualify for exemption. For instance, I understand from previous debates in another place that obesity is one of the conditions which would allow exemption. How does one define obesity? I should be interested to hear from the doctors who will speak shortly as to when somebody who is comfortably covered enters the area of obesity. I do not know, and I do not believe the doctors will agree on, a common standard for that. I wonder whether there will be a panel set up by the Minister of Transport to which appeals can be made when a certificate is refused. Or is the man who wants a certificate to go running round to try to find a complacent doctor who will say, "You suffer from obesity"? There is no information on this blank cheque that we are going to give the Minister. The Minister takes powers to prescribe a fee. That, I presume, will be by negative procedure order. I think it is bad parliamentary practice to allow that.

As regards enforcement, my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford said that the police are all for it. He quoted a letter from The Times, from, I think, the assistant chief constable of some area in Wales. I live in humbler circumstances than would allow contact with chief constables. My contact is with the men on the beat. If you talk to the men on the beat, as I have and as have many other noble Lords, you will find no unanimity at all regarding the desirability of passing this legislation; because it adds yet another burden to the police constable who says that he is already well overloaded at the present time. The Magistrates' Association is not in favour. My noble friend Lord Nugent forgot to say that. The Royal Automobile Club is not in favour of this Bill; the Automobile Association is in favour of it. I make these points to show that the Bill itself is very far from perfect from a parliamentary point of view.

I now leave the Bill and come for a few moments to the main principle of compulsion. I have listened to statistics; and some were given today by my noble friend Lord Nugent. But all statistics are vulnerable because, over this matter, they are extrapolated. A sample is taken and then it is extended over the whole area of the population of that particular section of activity. Therefore, samples of 100 bodies, of 100 injured, cannot be taken as a genuine picture of the whole country. If we are going into statistics, I could remind my noble friend Lord Nugent that in Victoria, Australia, after seat belts were introduced the percentage of accidents per 10,000 cars went down by 20 per cent. It went down from 500 to 400. I think the best statistic we can show is from the United States of America which has the second best record of safety in motoring, second only to the United Kingdom. But the U.S. has not gone in for seat belts. Of course, other countries have adopted them, but very often the statistics given, particularly for Australia (and possibly for other countries as well) are mixed up with reductions in speed limits and you cannot really take a sample dating from the time the compulsory seat belts were introduced and say that that is the proof that the introduction of seat belts was responsible for all the reductions.

My Lords, I start off by saying that, of course, I am all in favour of seat belts; but I am against compulsion. Seat belts can save lives and do save lives. But, equally, not wearing seat belts can save lives, as I will illustrate in a moment. Here I come to the statement made by the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, which I feel was repudiated somewhat by the noble Lord in his speech. The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, was speaking for the last Government at the time the Bill was defeated. Let me say that I communicated with her according to the normal parliamentary courtesy and said that I would mention this in my speech. She said on April 22nd: We have no evidence from all the research carried out of any case when death has been caused to people wearing a seat belt which would not have been caused if they had not been wearing a seat belt'.

I do not want to plague your Lordships with statistics, but I have here the British Medical Journal chart. I will read the headings of Table 6. "Numbers of fatal injuries among 99 vehicle occupants. Fatalities by region of body and source of injury". This chart gives, first, the regions of the body; head, neck, chest, abdomen, and then gives the various reasons for the fatal injury, the injury which caused death, although the body may have other injuries. Included in that 99, you have steering wheel, roof header, post of door, ejection and then seat belts. Out of the 99, two deaths were put down primarily as being due to seat belts. To say that the wearing of seat belts cannot kill, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, did, is a case of "none so blind as those who will not see". I am not saying that 2 per cent. of belted fatalities are due to belts, because of course there are a lot of other factors in the accidents. I am saying that medical or other evidence shows cases where seat belts are the cause of death or injury. Let the defenders of compulsion today not take refuge in a denial—with which I am glad to say my noble friend Lord Nugent did not ally himself—because such declarations do more harm to their case than good.

I come to the question of the escape from death or injury by being unbelted, having established, I trust, that wearing belts can kill. There are many cases. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents' propaganda, which we all received, reached its zenith when playing down the burning of passengers in motor accidents. "If your motor car turns over and catches fire you are really better off with a belt". That is the gist of their propaganda.

I have taken some trouble to find one or two simple examples which I should like to show to your Lordships about the effect of no seat belts. I have in my hand an article from the Evening Standard headed: "Driver's amazing escape". "If I had been wearing a seat belt as usual, I would now be dead". I should be glad to show that to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, at any time he cares to see it. I also have a letter from a lady—I shall not weary your Lordships by reading all of it—in which she says, "I was very interested in the letter in today's Daily Telegraph. I hope you will do all you can to prevent the compulsory wearing of seat belts as I once had the unpleasant experience of getting two people out of an overturned car before they were burned to death. If they had been wearing belts, it would have been quite impossible to get them out". They could not unfasten their straps; the heat was too great.

I trust that those who are supporting this Bill will agree with two things. First, wearing belts can kill; secondly, being unbelted can save. I only cite those cases in order to make those two points. If the two points are accepted, we come at once to the basic question of who should make the decision as to whether they are belted or unbelted. Of course, as I said before, belts save lives; but who can say the unbelted would not anyhow have been killed in a crash? These fatalities are at once put down as due to being unbelted and added to the unbelted statistics.

All I ask from supporters is to admit that belts can injure or even kill and that being unbelted can on occasion help motorists to escape injury. With that admitted, the responsibility for the decision must be debated and decided. It could be the right decision or it could be the wrong decision of the citizen. But I maintain that it should remain the responsibility of the individual citizen rather than the state, and I maintain that the citizen should not be put at risk—and I deployed one of those risks just now. The citizen should not be put at risk by a law of compulsion.

I suggest to your Lordships that it is not for Parliament deliberately to put a minority at risk. If by state order one man dies, the responsibility rests with no man but with the state. Even one death is one too many. What this Bill really says is that in the hope of saving many, Parliament must order some to be injured or die. For the sake of many who have made the wrong decision, which is theirs to make, we must take away the citizen's free powers of decision. I think it is morally wrong for Parliament to pass such legislation and wrong for the state to have such powers and to exercise them by law. Let the supporters face this fact when they vote.

An analogy has been touched on in previous debates—that of drugs; the possession of drugs forbidden by law. There are other matters which the law forbids. There is all the difference, as the noble Lord, Lord Foot, pointed out in one of the previous debates between the law saying that you must not do something—that is, you must not possess drugs—and saying that you must do something which is going to compel you to take a risk and which should be a matter for your own decision. I suggest with all humility that the medical lobby keeps this issue in proportion to other users for whom they do not campaign for compulsion. There are I believe 60,000 deaths a year from lung cancer. I cannot remember the starting of any pressure group formed of the medical community for compulsion on this matter. Regarding alcohol, there is possible legislation to limit the amount and conditions in which alcohol is taken which may reduce the terrible tragedy of bodies broken and constitutions wrecked by alcohol. I do not believe that the medical people have lobbied for compulsion there.

Therefore, if we are to have what I term the "nanny state", I go on from here: why do not the medical lobby go for compulsory wearing of life jackets for people who swim, sail and row in boats? At the end of the year the deaths are just as many as from accidents to people not wearing seat belts. Then what about Scottish climbers? Last year there were 40 deaths from accidents. Had they been compelled by law—supported by the medical lobby, of course—to take proper equipment before they were allowed on the hills then we might well have reduced that total. There are several deaths of potholers every year. But people are allowed to go down those desperate, dark holes without any proper equipment. The injured have to have their injuries dealt with by the doctors.

There is some inconsistency in the concentration of the medical experts on this particular issue when they are so blind to equally important issues which they do nothing about. I do not believe that these groups do not want to see accidents reduced, but I suppose the lack of campaign for compulsion is not because they trust the swimmer or the climber more than they trust the individual driver driving a motor car. It is because they know that state compulsion in such directions would not be tolerated because it would be taken as an unacceptable degree of interference with personal liberty by the nanny state. So tonight let us keep this issue in proportion and reject yet another state narrowing of individual freedom and individual responsibility.

A vote tonight is not to save 600 lives: the vote tonight will be to remove the right of the citizen to make his own decision. In passing the law, let Parliament remember that it will be condemning a minority to death or injury, which is not the duty of the state; compulsion for many, death for a minority by order of the state! Let the citizens decide for themselves this issue of the wearing of safety belts rather than have a nanny state, and all that goes with the restrictions of liberty. This is one more step in restricting the liberty of the citizens of this country, and I hope that your Lordships will reject this Bill tonight. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, That the Bill be now read a second time, to leave out all the words after ("that") and insert ("this House reaffirms its decisions on 25th June 1974, 26th April 1977 and 24th May 1977 to reject the compulsory wearing of car seat belts and therefore declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which accepts the principle of compulsion.")— (Lord Balfour of Inchrye.)

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, is he correct in saying that this House debated the issue on three occasions, the first of which is given in the amendment as 25th June? Am I not right in saying that this House debated the issue also on 11th June 1974, when, by 66 votes to 55, the House decided that the relevant clause of the Bill should stand part?

The Deputy Speaker (Lord Derwent)

The original Question was that this Bill be read a second time, since when an amendment has been moved to leave out all the words after ("that") and insert the words printed on the Order Paper. The Question I now have to put is that this amendment be agreed to.

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