HL Deb 06 June 1985 vol 464 cc910-4

7.24 p.m.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Before speaking, I should like to thank the Leader of the House and noble Lords on the opposite side for breaking at this point so that my noble friend can get away for his other engagement this evening.

I have the honour, after 17 years in your Lordships' House, of introducing to you my first Bill, which was so ably taken through all its stages in the other place by my honourable friend the Member for Beaconsfield, Mr. Tim Smith. It is a small, modest measure which will be important to millions of motorists.

Your Lordships will be familiar with the existing laws relating to motorists who are stopped by a police officer and who cannot produce their driving documents on the spot. They have five days to produce them at a nominated police station. This law, my Lords, has been found to be defective for two reasons: first, because the period of five days can sometimes be inconvenient as many people are away from home for a week at a time; and secondly, because it is an absolute offence to which there is no defence in Law. The Bill before us meets these two points by extending the five-day period to seven days and by creating a defence where production of documents is not reasonably practicable within the seven-day period.

The objectives of the Bill have the support of the Department of Transport, the police, the RAC, the Freight Transport Association and all-party support in another place, even though the Bill had a somewhat rough passage on the floor of the House at its last stages.

As your Lordships will see, there is only really one clause which is somewhat long because the existing law contains quite a number of references to the five-day limit. Subsection (2) refers to the medical certificates giving motorists exemption from wearing seat belts. Subsection (3) refers to driving instructors' certificates or licences. Subsection (4) refers to the ordinary driving licence, and subsection (5) to the other documents—that is, the insurance certificate, MOT certificate and a plating certificate or goods vehicle test certificate. In each of these sections of the Road Traffic Act 1972 the same two amendments to the law are made—that is to say, increasing the five days to seven days, and the new defence of a reasonable excuse is created.

Subsections (6) and (7) amend Sections 28 and 35 of the Transport Act 1982. Both provisions are expected to come into force in April 1986 and relate to the scheme that extends the system of fixed penalties to certain road traffic offences. The Bill makes only one amendment to the existing law, increasing the time from five days to seven days.

At the outset I indicated that the RAC supported the objectives in this Bill, and it said in a letter to my honourable friend that the objectives were being pursued by an appeal case, supported by the RAC, which was heard in the High Court on 17th January this year. The RAC in that case was endeavouring to secure the reversal of a decision to convict a driver who failed to produce his driving licence to the police under the existing law because it was at the DVLC, having been sent there by another court after being endorsed with details of the conviction by that other court.

In the transcript of the case Mr. Justice Taylor said—and I summarise—that at the trial the justices took the view that the terms of Section 161(1) of the Road Traffic Act 1972 were specific and that the offence created by that section was an absolute offence. He went on to say: Prior to the establishment of the DVLC there were no problems of the kind which has arisen in this case. However, since the establishment of the DVLC it seems there have been a number of cases similar to that of Spark". —the defendant in the case. He went on: The City of London Police have had an unofficial policy since 1982 not to prosecute, which became their official policy in 1983. There is a Private Member's Bill before Parliament which seeks to remedy the situation under which this offence is committed. It was unfortunate that the officer was not aware of the unofficial policy and brought a prosecution when it would have been more appropriate if [the defendant] had not been prosecuted". Mr. Justice Taylor ruled that the terms of Section 161 were absolute and the defendant lost his case, as did other drivers during the strike at Swansea a few years ago. Thus there is a need for the new defence and I ask your Lordships to support this Bill this evening. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—[Lord Brougham and Vaux.]

7.30 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux, on introducing this Bill. I also congratulate him on introducing his first Bill after 17 years in your Lordships' House. I think it is particularly good, when one introduces one's first Bill, that it should be such a sensible Bill. If one looks at the Explanatory Memorandum one sees that it states in the first paragraph: The purpose of the Bill is to extend the current five day period available to all drivers for producing certain motoring documents to seven days"— and this is the important part— and to provide a defence for those drivers who are unable to produce their documents within that period". Really that says everything. One can imagine someone who, for instance, is driving to London Airport, perhaps to board an aeroplane to fly across to the United States to sign a very important contract, having a minor accident when the police are called, and who has not got his insurance document. The police rightly say, "You have five days to produce your documents". He says, "I cannot do that. I am going in one or two hours to the United States of Ameria to sign a massive contract, and I shall not be back." Unless we accept this Bill, he is either found guilty—because, as the noble Lord has said, the law is absolute—and ends up being fined or getting his licence endorsed, or he stays behind and misses a very important contract which might bring in millions of pounds and create thousands of jobs.

I do not really need to say any more. I cannot understand why this Bill was not introduced a long time ago. It is a very good Bill, a very simple Bill, and I commend it to your Lordships.

7.33 p.m.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I, too, should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux, on introducing this Bill, and on the way in which he did it. I would also congratulate him on having a Bill of this nature as a first Bill, because it is a really practical and well-needed Bill for the motorist and, I would say, also for the police. I think the main purpose of the Bill from the point of view of the average motorist is that it gives him just a little more time to produce these documents: that is, instead of five days, seven days. The point made by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, is also important: that as a defence some explanation should be possible in circumstances which are perhaps uncommon but not unusual. The noble Earl gave an instance of someone who was about to leave the country and who could find himself with a blemish on his licence which was really unnecessary.

There is only one point that I am really concerned about, and I think the Minister is probably aware of it. My purpose, having been asked by the Royal Automobile Club to raise it, is to get the Minister to give us a little more assurance on what unfortunately turned out to be a flaw in the Bill. There was an omission which meant that an insurance certificate was not included in the list of documents that could be produced within seven days. As the Bill stands, all the other documents relating to the vehicle and the driver are allowed to be produced within a period of seven days, whereas the insurance certificate—because of this omission in the Bill, which seemed to slip through unnoticed by many people but not, apparently, by the legal adviser to the RAC—must be produced in five. This is an obvious anomaly. If we kept rigidly to the law it would mean that the motorist obviously would not have any longer under the Bill than he has at present, because no one would be silly enough to go with his insurance certificate on the Tuesday and hang on until the Thursday before handing in the other documents.

I know that there were problems about making an amendment because the Government were not keen to have this Bill brought in and put on the statute book. I myself believe that it was possibly bad advice that was given to the Government because of the time the Bill took in another place, and without really looking at the reasons for the Bill taking as long as it did there, which really had absolutely nothing to do with the content of the Bill. This was a very old parliamentary necessity which Members of all parties have deployed at one time or another: that of using one particular Bill to help to frustrate a following Bill.

I think the Government would have got away quite easily with a proper amendment had they put it through. It would have gone through as quickly as, I hope, this Bill will go through tonight. However, if the Government feel that it is not going to be possible for them to introduce an amendment at any stage—remembering that in this House we can do it even at Third Reading—could the Minister give some sort of assurance that an allowance will be made in some way? It has been suggested that chief constables should issue instructions to their constables to be reasonable about the production of the insurance ceritificate so that it can be produced in seven days as well as the other documents. I do not know how you get the chief constables to do that because you are then officially asking a chief constable to break the law.

But this is an obvious error, and I think everyone accepts that it is an error. I wonder whether the Minister, having had the difficulty pointed out to him, can find some way round it. With that very understandable slip the Bill went through all its stages. It is understandable that the mover of the Bill did not quite catch this point, but I should like the Minister to give us some assurance. But whatever happens, I certainly would wish the Bill Godspeed and hope that it gets quickly on to the statute book.

7.38 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I, too, should like to congratulate my noble friend on the introduction of his first Bill after 17 years in your Lordships' House. I hope that future Bills that he introduces will attract as much widespread support from all quarters. My noble friend has explained the Bill so clearly that there is very little left for me to say. It is a modest measure, relatively simple and straightforward, but nonethless one which should make life rather easier for many motorists.

My noble friend has explained the present requirement to produce the relevant documents and the absence of any defence for not doing so. He has explained how the Bill will extend the five-day period to seven days and provide a defence for a person who is still unable to produce the required documents within the seven-day period. This defence can be divided into two parts. On the one hand, failure to produce driving documents within that period will not constitute an offence in circumstances where they are produced as soon as reasonably practicable; or, alternatively, if it is not reasonably practicable, where they are produced before the day on which court proceedings are started. As my noble friend has said, the Bill is likely to be welcomed by the general motoring public and the main motoring organisations and other road users. I therefore have no hesitation whatsoever in commending the Bill to your Lordships' House.

To take up the point which the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, mentioned—and I must admit that it had not gone unnoticed—the matter of the insurance document is applicable only after an accident. The Bill applies to insurance certificates where the police require them to be produced for other reasons, so it is only, in effect, in the case of an accident; it is not so in every case. But I am grateful to the noble Lord for drawing my attention to it.

I accept that the Bill does not amend this. As the noble Lord has said, to do so would require moving an amendment and this would result in the Bill having to be returned to another place for consideration. In view of the pressures on the parliamentary timetable in the other place it seems quite likely that the Bill could be lost due to lack of time.

I accept that not amending the Bill will result in a small anomaly but, given the all party support for what is essentially a relatively minor measure, it would be a great pity to risk losing it for this reason. I rather doubt therefore that we should seek to amend the Bill and I would recommend against taking any action at this stage on the point the noble Lord has raised.

With regard to asking chief constables to do something, I think it is very unlikely that I could give that assurance at all. The circular mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, would have to be issued by the Home Office. Therefore I will discuss this with my noble friend and perhaps I may write to the noble Lord. But I would not be too hopeful of giving instructions to chief constables. I would, however, give the noble Lord the firm assurance that we shall bear this in mind for the future and when a suitable legislative opportunity arises we will seek to amend the provision. With that, I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, it just remains for me to thank the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, and my noble friend the Minister on the front Bench for their kind words on my first Bill after 17 years. I take the point about the slight omission. I shall have a word with my colleague in another place and the Minister to see whether there is any way in which we can deal with this. If there is any chance of amending it before Third Reading, obviously we will, but otherwise I accept the words of my noble friend the Minister. I should like once again to thank your Lordships for your kind support and to thank my noble friend and all his colleagues for their help.

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

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure and I would confirm that we shall not return to business until 8.20 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.42 until 8.20 p.m.]