HL Deb 20 June 1988 vol 498 cc554-86

6.50 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Nugent of Guildford.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The BARONESS Cox in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Compulsory wearing of rear seat belts by children]:

[Amendment No. 5 not moved.]

Lord Bruce-Gardyne moved Amendment No. 6:

Page 1, line 14, at end insert— ("(2A) "Reasonable excuse" shall be defined to include the fact that—

  1. (a) the child was in a recumbent position for the purposes of sleep; or
  2. (b) the child had disconnected its own seat belt; or
  3. (c) the child was being held in the arms of an adult.").

The noble Lord said: We have heard a fair amount about the arrangements which it is proposed will be made by way of regulations if this Bill is carried into law. To some of us the scope of these regulations seems very wide if not absolutely and totally open-ended. It seems to some Members of the Committee that there may be a desirable purpose in trying to insert into the Bill some definitions of the phrase "reasonable excuse" in subsection (1) of this clause. In conjunction with the noble Lords, Lord Monson and Lord Cobbold, I have tabled a trio of possible definitions of "reasonable excuse" which might be inserted in the Bill to make it a little more clearly defined than as the Bill now stands. They are to be regarded as the extenuating reasons why children travelling in the back of a car might not at any given moment be wearing seat belts.

In due course we shall come to a later amendment of a more philosophical nature. These propositions are essentially practical suggestions of ways in which it might be reasonable to define what is represented by a "reasonable excuse". The first is that a child is asleep in the back of a car. Noble Lords who have travelled with small children over the years when they are young will agree that it is often a matter of great relief when the children are asleep in the back of a car. I remember extremely well when my own children were small—the older two in particular—that the moment they dropped off to sleep was a moment of enormous relief because they spent most of the rest of the time in the car in furious dispute with each other.

In practice, I submit to the Committee that it is likely to prove very difficult for parents who have to cope with exhausted children in the back of a car, to ensure that they go to sleep with seat belts attached. The children may be lying prone on the seat. In any case it must be questionable how much value the attachment of a seat belt would be to children in that position. Here again, we are talking essentially about practicalities. It is not an unreasonable practical proposition to suggest that the parent of a child who is apparently asleep cannot be held under those circumstances to be responsible within the law if a seat belt is not attached.

The second issue is one which I believe has been touched upon in another place. Children are restless and they are disinclined to take kindly to restraint, in particular physical restraint. I believe it is only common sense to ensure that where a parent, guardian or driver of a car can establish that the child had disconnected its own seat belt, that must be a reasonable excuse for the fact that the seat belt was not attached and in operation. If the driver of a car is to be under an obligation to turn around every minute or two in order to make sure that a child has not detached its own seat belt, I suggest that the hazards to the driver and passengers alike would be very much greater than the hazard that would arise when the child does not have a seat belt attached.

The third proposition is perhaps more debatable; namely, that the child is being held in the arms of an adult. I understand, and I have read the evidence which has been produced, about the hazard which may arise to the child in an accident where it is being held in the arms of an adult. We must have some regard to practicalities. An extremely restless, small child may be very upset and may require the comfort and reassurance of the mother's arms. It does not seem to be either practical or reasonable to suggest that if the mother is holding the child in her arms for what may appear to the parents to be good and sufficient reasons, this in itself shall lay the parent open to the allegation that an offence had been committed.

Throughout the discussions on this measure one feels—if I may venture to say so to my noble friend—a certain lack of reality in the understanding of the nature of the responsibilities of parents in a car and the way in which they fulfill those responsibilities in the real world. This is a modest amendment which might make greater sense than what my noble friend is seeking to do with the clause as it stands at present. I beg to move.

Lord Monson moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 6, Amendment No. 7:

Line 5, at end insert ("; or (d) the child was—

  1. (i) under four feet in height; and
  2. (ii) being driven in circumstances where no suitable purpose-designed child restraining device was available.")

The noble Lord said: It goes without saying that I support Amendment No. 6 to which I have added my name. However, I prefer to provide the additional safeguards contained in my Amendment No. 7. In 1980 the Department of Transport produced a draft document which said: People under five feet in height, including children, may be unable to wear a seat belt without discomfort because the diagonal strap lies too high on the body".

Precisely the same point was made in a Second Reading speech made by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, from the SLD Benches. When one considers human beings who are substantially shorter than five feet, one is talking not merely about discomfort; one is talking literally about danger to life and limb.

As long ago as 1967, a medical journal described at least two cases of decapitation by seat belts; undoubtedly, the numbers must have risen over the last 21 years. I have the medical journal in question with me. If any Member of the Committee does not believe me, I hasten to say that the photographs are happily in black and white and not in colour.

The Rutherford Report for the DHSS in 1967 showed a considerable rise in injuries to the heart and to the sternum in consequence of seat-belt wearing, although admittedly injuries overall were reduced. Where purpose-built child restraints are available the danger of injuries is very much less than if ordinary seat belts are used. However, there are many occasions—one of the children being met from school or a party, or who may be ill and has to be run to the doctor or dentist—when purpose designed child retraints cannot be used.

I am no expert on unarmed combat, but I have always understood that one of the most dangerous karate blows is a blow to the throat which can paralyse or even kill by virtue of its impact upon the major arteries and the central nervous system. The danger to a child's throat does not only arise in the circumstances of a collision. Even a sudden stop caused by hard braking when a cat or a dog runs into the road could be dangerous to the neck or throat of a child. As a most distinguished member of the Conservative Party in another place pointed out on 13th May: "to leave matters as they are in this Bill would be manifestly a danger for small children". The height that I propose of 4 feet may not be exactly right. Perhaps 3 feet 9 inches or 4 feet 3 inches would be preferable. It is the principle that requires to be established. I beg to move.

Lord Sherfield

I rise to oppose these amendments. They seem to me extremely complicated and very difficult to administer. This is the sort of thing which ought to be left to the good sense of the police and the magistracy. Having said that, I align myself with what the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, said last week in Committee; namely, that I fully support the Bill but that I do not propose to spend time intervening in the argument.

Lord Cobbold

I support the amendment. It is clear from the debates we have had on the Bill that there is genuine confusion in the minds of its supporters as to how it will operate in practice. We are left with a difference of opinion between, on the one hand, those who favour rushing the primary legislation through and sorting out the manifest difficulties of its implementations by subsequent and as yet unspecified regulations, and, on the other, those who believe that clearer directions as to its implementation should be written on to the face of the Bill.

I believe that Amendment No. 6 is a genuine and helpful attempt to bridge the gap by adding to the Bill a non-exclusive definition of the phrase, "reasonable excuse". Parents and other law-abiding citizens will be given a clear indication of what is considered reasonable in dealing with the practical situations that are part of everyday life. Giving some definition to the phrase "reasonable excuse" will not undermine the principal purpose of the Bill. It will not stand in the way of those who, like the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, by his submission to us last week, feel the need to use the threat of the law to reinforce their parental authority. I must say that I question whether the reinforcement of parental authority should be a primary purpose of law-making.

Incidentally, the spectre of the fierce policeman who will come and get you if you are naughty is in sharp contrast to the efforts of the Minister's colleagues who are trying to promote a softer image of the police, particularly in the eyes of children. I have here a colouring document for children issued by the constabulary in my county under which is written in large letters, "A policeman is your friend".

Amendment No. 6 has, as has been pointed out, three paragraphs to which others could be added covering the most common of the circumstances which would cause genuine problems to parents. Paragraph (a) deals with a point I raised on Second Reading of children lying down to sleep on the back seat or on the flat surface created by folding forward the rear seat of an estate car or a hatchback. As the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Gardyne, has said, when children go to sleep, there is obvious evident relief, and the journey may proceed in relative peace.

Paragraph (b) deals with the difficult circumstances of a child that undoes its own seat belt while the car is in motion. Clearly, it is vitally important that children's seat belts should be easy to undo to enable them to be quickly extricated in the event of accident. It is therefore inevitable that children themselves will undo them. If the driver is then forced to stop or, worse still, to look over his or her shoulder, the consequences could be very dire indeed, as has already been pointed out.

Paragraph (c) deals with the circumstances of restless children who might be better contained by being held in the arms of a parent; but it also deals with the circumstances of young babies held in their mothers' arms, either for the purpose of comfort or sleep, or, on long journeys, for breast or bottle feeding. The paragraph also covers perhaps the most ridiculous of all the anomalies raised by the Bill; namely, the circumstances of parents with two young children who want to take the grandparents for a Sunday afternoon outing in the family car. The inference of the Bill, as I see it, is that this would only be legal if the grandparents were to sit on the laps of the strapped-in children. I ask your Lordships to consider the Giles cartoon family and the risks to which Grandma in those circumstances would be exposed.

I believe that the amendment bridges the gap between the two points of view that have been expressed and that it warrants the support of the proposers of the Bill and of the Government. It will improve the Bill and will be welcomed by all law-abiding parents and guardians.

Lord Kilbracken

I generally welcome the thinking behind the amendment put down by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Gardyne. However, I should like to make one or two remarks about the wording. First, in paragraph (a) I do not know why we have to say that, the child was in a recumbent position for the purposes of sleep". It reminds me of the line from Oscar Wilde, "Arise, sir, from that semi-recumbent position". I do not know why we cannot just say that the child was asleep. Paragraph (b) seems to raise some rather unfortunate possibilities.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord. I am sure that the amendments are deeply defective in wording and everything else, but I should point out that the child might be asleep sitting up in which case it might logically be wearing a seat belt. The problem arises when the child is lying down. That is the reason for the insertion of the words, "in a recumbent position".

Lord Kilbracken

I quite see the point raised by the noble Lord. Perhaps the details could be given further thought. The wording refers to the child who has disconnected its own seat belt. Incidentally, I think it should be "his" seat belt because the child is not neuter. The usual well-worn cliché is that the male embraces the female and that the word "he" includes the word "she" whatever the feminists may have to say about it. However, if that wording goes into the Act it will mean that when little Tommy says, "Oh, Daddy, I don't want to wear my seat belt", Daddy can say, "Oh, that's all right darling, I will attach it and as soon as I am sitting in my seat you can detach it and then we will be perfectly inside the law".

Paragraph (c) seems to be completely essential. If a mother is sitting for safety in the back seat with a young baby of nine months, three months or even a week old, as I understand it the law will be broken if the mother has the baby in her arms or indeed if she is breastfeeding the baby. So far as I am aware, you cannot put a baby under six months old into a seat belt. Indeed, I certainly would not like to do so.

However, I should like to refer briefly to the amendment tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Monson. In the amendment it states that a seat belt need not be used if a child is, under four feet in height". I wonder just how practical that is. I also wonder how many parents know how tall their children are. I know that my little boy, who is 6½ years of age, reached the height of one metre some six months ago. I dare say that he has now reached a height of 125 centimetres; but of course I have not measured him since that time and therefore I cannot say. Perhaps the amendment should be worded in centimetres. Nevertheless, I feel it would be advisable, even though the height of each person varies, to put an age rather than a height in the legislation.

Lord Underhill

I am most surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Gardyne, while moving the amendment should say that we must have regard to practicalities and that there is a lack of reality to the real world in this connection. The noble Lord should realise that although we may be in our seventies, we have all had children. Indeed, most of us have young grandchildren with whom we travel in cars. All of them would be covered by what is proposed. Therefore we have some knowledge of the practical world and about driving cars with children in them.

If one looks at the amendment and the amendment to the amendment, one sees that there are five separate points. Every point could occasion a fairly long debate. I am pleased that we have provision in the Bill for "reasonable excuse", because that gives the opportunity for such matters to be publicly discussed. Indeed, on Second Reading we noted the large number of organisations which were supporting the general aims and principles of the Bill, including the motoring organisations and medical organisations.

As regards these two amendments I believe, as I have said on previous amendments, that so long as we have the provision for reasonable excuse under Clause 1(1), and so long as we have all the possibilities of exceptions, then the fullest possible consultations with the bodies who support the Bill will endeavour to get over the points mentioned in the two amendments.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, for his customary solid support. It is interesting to note, especially in regard to the amendment tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Monson—which I shall address first—that that point was debated for over an hour in another place on Report. I suspect there was another motive for the length of the debate but, nevertheless, there was a debate on the subject.

Many points were covered in the debate, at the end of which the Members of another place reached the conclusion which the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, is commending to the Committee; namely, that such points are best left to regulations, after extensive consultation with the many interested motoring and other organisations which have already declared their support for the Bill. Let me assure my noble friend, who seems anxious about our state of mind, that such organisations will take a practical view of what we are trying to do.

Let me further assure the noble Lord that the main motive behind the Bill is the most practical one of all; that is, to try to save lives and prevent serious injuries. That is the stake. We are now losing every year about 60 children who are killed because they were not wearing rear seat belts; and something in the order of 7,000 injuries occur in similar circumstances. Therefore the point is an important and practical one if we can save a substantial number of those serious losses.

While I recognise the points made by my noble friend and by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, they are practical points and must be dealt with by consultation upon the regulations. Let me assure the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, that it is not possible to write such provisions into the Bill without putting in rigidities which then become serious problems when an attempt is made to put the law into effect. It is most important that such regulations are preceded—my noble friend has already assured us that they will be—by the most intense consultations with all interested parties. Indeed, that is precisely what it is intended to do.

I now turn to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Monson. This was the amendment which was debated in another place. The debate, which took over an hour, was on the point that children under three years of age should be excluded from the effect of the legislation; that is, from the necessity to wear a restraint. After hearing the Minister's reply, the other place decided that the right action to take was to leave it to regulations as the only effective way to deal with the matter.

Of course the 4-ft. child can be protected by a seat belt. He would almost certainly be better if he were seated on a booster cushion; but he certainly can be protected. It is interesting to note that that is the law today for children sitting in the front seat. Indeed, it has been so since 1982. I do not think that there have been any cases of children who have received the appalling injuries that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, described. Therefore the adult seat belt does give protection to the small child, though probably not to a child as small as a one year-old. It would obviously be better if very small children were either lying in a carrycot strapped to the rear seat or perhaps in a rear-facing carrier which again would be a perfectly safe and secure place for a child to be.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

I apologise for interrupting my noble friend, but is he satisfied that the parent or driver of a car in which a child was so placed—that is, strapped in a carrycot or a rear-facing device—would be fulfilling his legal obligations under the terms of the Bill?

Lord Nugent of Guildford

I think the answer is that he probably would be. My noble friend is somewhat impatient. We are not making the regulations this evening. The Bill says that if a child is in the back of a car where there is a seat belt, then the child should be strapped in. What exemptions there will be is a matter which must be put into the regulations.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

I hope that my noble friend will give way for a moment. If my noble friend Lord Bruce-Gardyne turns to page 2 of the Bill and looks at subsection (6), he will see that the term "seat belt" includes, any description of restraining device for a child and any reference to wearing a seat belt shall be construed accordingly". Therefore it would cover the type of device just mentioned by my noble friend.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

I hope that what the Minister has said reassures my noble friend Lord Bruce-Gardyne. Such practical problems are in the minds of the legislators, and in mine; indeed, they will be covered by regulations. There is of course the problem that naturally the legislators do not wish, nor do I, to put additional expense on the parents. On the other hand, we wish to ensure that children have the maximum safety that can be given to them. Therefore it is quite a nice balance to try to get the matter right.

As regards strapping in a carrycot crossways on the rear seat, I suppose that almost certainly would not cause any extra expense because pretty well every mother would have a carrycot. Therefore that would be a safe answer.

The broad point for the noble Lord, Lord Monson, is this. This is the law at present, as stated in the 1982 order, for children aged one year or more sitting in the front seat of a car. We are not introducing anything revolutionary by putting that requirement, in principle, into the Bill, and leaving it to regulations to define more precisely how the smallest children should be safely dealt with.

I come now to the other exemptions which my noble friend commended to the Committee. The one to which I do not doubt my noble friend the Minister will be able to agree is where the child has disconnected itself. That is bound to happen from time to time. It would obviously have to be accepted as a reasonable excuse.

I take note of the danger which the noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken, mentioned: that exemption might provide an incentive to disconnect which parents would go along with. Our belief is that in the main parents believe in the value of seat belts for their children in the back of a car. Members of the Committee may have noted that there was a public opinion poll last year which showed that 91 per cent. of adults approved of having seat belts for children in the back of motor cars. Although only about 30 per cent. were using them, nearly all felt that it would be a jolly good thing to have them. I think we can expect that if the seat belts are there and we make the wearing of them law, there will be a good level of observance. Reasonable excuse should be provided for in the regulations. I notice that my honourable friend the Minister stated so in another place in the various debates that they had there. I leave the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and, as we are debating them together, I turn to the points made by my noble friend Lord Bruce-Gardyne. His amendment says: the child was in a recumbent position for the purposes of sleep". In other words, the child was lying in the back of. say an estate car. I doubt whether that will be regarded as a safe solution, because in an accident the child's body would undoubtedly fly forward and be exposed to great danger.

Of course to start with children may find it difficult to be comfortable in a seat belt. They may feel restless and may find it difficult to go to sleep, but the evidence shows that they accept seat belts and go to sleep while wearing them. They are safe, and their parents need have no anxiety about them. That is a practical point, and, as my noble friend rightly says, when the children have gone to sleep lying in the back of a car, how happy the parents are and what a nuisance it will be if they have to have the children sitting up with seat belts on. I suspect that my noble friend the Minister will confirm that the regulations are unlikely to be flexible on that point.

Finally, there is the question of a child being held in the arms of an adult. Here again, we are up against a difficult problem. A small child is sometimes frightened and upset and a mother's arms are the only place where he will be comforted. We have to accept that that is not a safe place for a child. The American experiments have made that point clear. A certain amount of experimental work has also been done by the TRRL. I shall give an account of what happens in the event of a 30 mile-an-hour frontal crash when there is a 15 lb. baby lying in its mother's arms. When the crash takes place that little body is projected forward at 30 times its own weight. The little baby shoots forward into the windscreen and the motor car in front. The American experiments with dummies have established that point. There is no way the mother or anyone else can do anything about that when an accident happens. There is a sense of false security.

I do not envy my noble friend the Minister's task in hammering out that regulation, because the case put to him and to me by my noble friend Lord Bruce-Gardyne is a cogent one. No place seems safer or more comforable for a baby than its mother's arms; but it is a fact that when sitting in a motor car going at 30 miles an hour a baby is in real danger. If there is a crash the baby will be seriously injured. My noble friend must somehow work that point out in the regulations.

I took note that in another place my honourable friend the Minister, Mr. Peter Bottomley, felt that he had to resist that solution. I commend to my noble friend the Minister the points which have been so lucidly put this evening as important, practical points which must be catered for in regulations. They should not be written into the Bill because that would give a rigidity which would be entirely impractical. They should be carefully considered for the regulations, and should be accommodated as far as is humanly possible.

I hope that after this useful debate the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and my noble friend Lord Bruce-Gardyne will feel able to withdraw their amendments and with some confidence leave those important points to be catered for in the regulations.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

Perhaps I may briefly repeat what I said the other day, which is that consultations on regulations will include what has been said in Committee last week and today. I agree with my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford and the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, who spoke so well on the amendments, that we do not want to see them written into the Bill for the reasons that my noble friend has given. They will either be much better dealt with in regulations, which will need to be carefully drafted after careful consultations, or they are matters which are best left under the "reasonable excuse" clause; for instance, where the child might undo his own restraint. That point would be much better left to the courts do decide on the merit of each case, as it is with the front seat belt legislation.

I entirely endorse what my noble friend said about the carriage of children in an adult's arms. It might not necessarily only be the mother. There are great dangers in that. Anyone who has seen the film produced by the Parliamentary Advisory Committee on Transport Safety will be well aware of that danger. As for a child being unrestrained while horizontally asleep, it is much better that children should be encouraged to sleep upright and in a restraint. My children are perfectly happy sleeping in that way. With regard to children under four feet tall, restraints are available to suit all shapes and sizes of children. Perhaps I may quote my own case. My five year-old wears a conventional seat belt with a booster cushion which brings him up to the right height to wear a conventional seat belt. That is a matter which will have to be carefully looked into in the drafting of the amendments where, for example, people do not have a booster cushion available.

With regard to the other part of the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, relating to the availability of suitable restraints, the Bill provides for the making of regulations prescribing for the purposes of that subsection the description of seat belts to be worn by children of any prescribed description and the manner in which they are to be used. I think that a great deal of what has been said today will need to be carefully looked at when we are drawing up the regulations. I can assure noble Lords that it will be carefully looked at, but some of it is best left to the "reasonable excuse" clause. So I entirely endorse what my noble friend Lord Nugent said.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Monson

I pointed out last week that the supporters of this Bill, for all their good intentions, do not seem to understand the ordinary day-to-day problems which are faced by parents. It is all very well saying, as my noble and learned friend did that matters should be left to the good sense of the police and magistrates. But in reality, busy mothers do not have the time to go to court and argue their case. If it came to that point, they would simply pay the fixed penalty fine, even though they might have been entirely in the right, simply because they cannot spare the time to do anything else.

All responsible parents want to protect their children. Nearly all would be happy to strap them into properly-designed child restraints, where those are available. However, there are emergencies; people will ask, "Can you run so-and-so home from school? His mother is ill", or whatever it might be. Booster cushions and special restraints may not be available. So unless some exemption is made, parents will face quite incredible difficulties. Children have nightmares; children have ear-aches, very often they have toothache, they have painful cuts, sprains or bruises or they are frightened for a number of reasons. On all these occasions they long to be held. Alternatively their mothers may want them to be able to stretch out and fall asleep on the back seat or in the rear of an estate car, if the children have been up all night with teething problems, for example.

I can think of a very recent occasion when this happened with my own grandchildren. My son and daughter-in-law are extremely careful about the safety of their children; but the fact is that maternal instincts prevail at such times. Mothers feel that they simply must take their child in their arms when the child is screaming or crying. It is far better that this should happen despite the minuscule additional statistical risk than that the driver—whether it be the mother or the father—should become distracted or agitated by children screaming at the top of their lungs, thereby possibly precipitating a collision.

As regards paragraph (b), which concerns a child undoing its own belt, perhaps I may draw attention to the mistaken assumption made by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. Of course, today he is preoccupied with far more important and exciting business overseas. He suggested on Second Reading that: if these provisions become law, some parents may well feel grateful to have them on the statute hook because at least they can say to their children, 'You jolly well stay there—because the law says you must stay there and not just because I say so!'".—[Official Report, 6/6/88; col. 1177.] That may very well work with younger children, especially those aged 10 or 11—a delightful age on the whole for children—but it is likely to have precisely the opposite effect when children reach the bolshie age of adolescence: nowadays that age starts as early as 12. I cannot think of anything more gratifying to an aggressive adolescent than being able to blackmail his parents by threatening, "If you don't stop and buy me a jumbo hamburger and an ice-cream, then you will be arrested". That is why I think that provision is so necessary. If it is self-evident that it would be an excuse in practice, I do not see why it cannot be written into the Bill.

As for my Amendment No. 7, perhaps I may reply to the noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken. I do not believe that the European Commission has as yet outlawed imperial measurements, although no doubt such a diktat will not be long in coming. I am shocked that the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, should suggest that his erstwhile colleagues in another place should have had not entirely worthy motives for debating this point for one hour last month. I accept that Amendment No. 7 needs further examination because it is not perfect, for a number of reasons. As regards Amendment No. 6, I have no hesitation; I feel that it is very important. Whereas I certainly intend to withdraw Amendment No. 7, I shall reserve my position on Amendment No. 6 until I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Gardyne, has to say.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

Perhaps I may first of all say to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, that of course I am not remotely suggesting that Members of the Committee here tonight are not practical people with experience of dealing with children and grandchildren. I suppose very few of us here tonight do not have such experience. Certainly nothing I was intending to say was designed to imply otherwise.

What I do say is that the drafting of the Bill as it stands indicates to my mind a certain lack of practical awareness of the realities of transporting children by car. First perhaps I may say what I feel I should have said earlier to my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford. I am aware that he himself is in considerable pain and discomfort tonight and I am sure that he will not take it amiss if I say to him that he probably ought to be somewhere else. However, his devotion to duty on this occasion, under circumstances of considerable discomfort, is wholly admirable. I should like to felicitate him upon it.

I am bound to say that I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, made a powerful point. In all the discussions that we have had on this Bill, in another place and here, the consequences of restraining children in a seat belt, on the behaviour of the children and the effect that that might have on the driver of a vehicle, are simply ignored. The truth is that if children are artificially restrained, particularly young children, and they get emotional, excited and they start screaming, the attention of the driver is distracted from the road. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, is entirely right. That can be far more dangerous to the children than the fact that they do not have a seat belt attached. To my mind, this is an example where we are trying to impose legal rigidities in a situation where the discretion and good sense of parents is a much better guiding line.

I listened very carefully to what my noble friend Lord Nugent said in refutation of these amendments. I was particularly struck by what he said in response to my Amendment No. 6(b), where the child has disconnected its own seat belt. I hope I am not misquoting the noble Lord, he said that parents believe in the value of seat belts. Indeed they do, I am sure that that is absolutely correct.

What do we add by putting legislation on the statute book which, as my noble friend himself recognised this evening, would force us to accept as being a reasonable excuse that the child has disconnected its own seat belt. Just consider the consequences of that. I entirely agree with my noble friend that, left to their own devices, where the seat belt is available in the back seat, parents will want their children to have the seat belt attached. But if, for whatever reason, the seat belt is not attached, if they have not attached the seat belt for what seemed to them to be good and sufficient reasons, and they are stopped by the police, what do they say? "The child disconnected the seat belt itself". Who can prove whether or not that is true?

I must honestly say, it seems to me that my noble friend is right; the argument must be recognised. But for that recognition to come within the terms of a reasonable excuse makes a nonsense of trying to legislate in this way. Surely to goodness that is the explanation which would be given by anybody who was stopped by a policeman who complained that a child in the back seat was not wearing a seatbelt.

Therefore I submit that that in itself demonstrates the unenforceability of this legislation. I have always believed that we would not want to carry into law legislation which carries within it the nature of its own unenforceability. If ever a Bill met that criterion, I submit it is this one.

I accept what my noble friend the Minister said about how these matters will be taken into consideration. I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, said. While I cannot speak for the noble Lords, Lord Monson or Lord Cobbold, I am not minded to press this group of amendments. However, I submit that what we have heard from my noble friend the promoter of the Bill demonstrates the basic fallacy which it contains.

The Earl of Halsbury

The passion with which my noble friend Lord Monson and the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Gardyne, have addressed the Committee is the passion of men who have been caught with their insularities down, to borrow a phrase from another context.

They ask me to believe that what I have lived with in Canada cannot be practised in Britain. It does not make sense. Grandparents, parents and grandchildren—myself and my wife, my daughter and my son-in-law, who was on a NATO posting in Ottawa, and my three grandchildren, travelled all around Canada. We drove from Canada to Florida with all the problems that that entailed. Seat belt wearing was de rigeur. When the children came back to this country I took them for a drive in my car. They said to me, "Why have we no seat belts?"

Children will become used to wearing seat belts if their parents tell them that they must wear them because the parents have to wear them. Nearly all the difficulties raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Gardyne, and by my noble friend are in their imagination. Mothers, housewives and grandparents sort these things out for themselves as they go along. I telephoned my daughter last night for confirmation and asked whether she had gone on a school run in Canada. She said that she had. I asked how she managed the children and the seat belts. She could not remember but said that it managed itself. It managed itself in such a way that they came home conditioned to seat belt wearing.

There is a passage in Pilgrim's Progress where pilgrim has to go up a difficult path at the top of which there are two lions. He is scared stiff. However, he pulls himself together, goes up the path and finds at the top that the lions are chained. They are tame lions and are chained down as ornaments or something of that kind. "The lions are chained" should be a good motto for people who are trying to initiate something new. The dangers one imagines do not materialise. The side effects that one has not thought of very often do. They are best dealt with by regulations and not on the face of the Bill.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

I should like briefly to say a word about what happened to me today. At the previous meeting of the Committee I spoke about two-door cars. I still believe that they are a danger because children strapped in the back cannot get out. However, when driving today I saw a four-door car in which a young mother was being taught by an instructor from a well known driving school. Between the two seats of the car—the mother in the front on the right hand side and the tutor on the left—was standing a little child who could not have been more than two years old. The mother braked suddenly and the child hurtled into the front of the car. I saw that today.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

I thank my noble friend Lord Bruce-Gardyne for his kind words of sympathy for my physical disability. Let me assure him that my physical pains are nothing compared with my emotional pains from the sharpness of his dialectic. I shall bear them both with fortitude and carry on the job. I am not completely clear whether he wishes to withdraw his amendment or to test the opinion of the Committee. For myself, I am content to accept it either way.

Lord Monson

In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment to Amendment No. 6, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

I made it clear that I proposed to withdraw the amendment standing in my name.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne moved Amendment No. 8:

Page 1, line 14, at end insert— ("(2B) "Reasonable excuse" shall be defined to include the fact that the driver of the vehicle was the legal parent or guardian of the child and had signed a declaration that he regarded the application of compulsion to the wearing of a rear seat belt by his children as incompatible with the fulfilment of his duties as a parent or guardian.").

The noble Lord said: As I said briefly on an earlier amendment, this is more in the nature of a philosophical amendment. Throughout the discussions on this Bill, in another place and in this Chamber, there has been a tendency to treat the child as the principal in the Bill. Of course the child is nothing of the kind. Under the law the child cannot be the principal. At the previous meeting of the Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, whose absence tonight we entirely understand, challenged me to say whether I was questioning the concept that the parent had legal liability for the child up to the age of 14. That seemed to be going a little wide of the amendment we were discussing at that moment but the concept is certainly relevant to this amendment.

I replied at once that I accepted the concept of the legal responsibility of the parent for the child and the young adolescent. There was no argument about that. However, this amendment is designed to attend to the way in which we believe the law should intervene within the duties and responsibilities of the parent. The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, has just told us about his grandchildren in Canada. He asked his daughter how they coped with the school run. They coped very well and I have no doubt that his daughter undertook her parental responsibilities sensibly and with essential awareness of the need to safeguard the wellbeing of her children. I submit that in practice one does not enhance the sense of responsibility and awareness of parents by inserting the law between them and their obligations to their children in the way in which this Bill is designed to do.

In recent years we have had so many extensions of the nanny state into the arena of personal responsibility. I do not believe that that has led to a greater sense of duty among parents towards their children; but rather the reverse. I believe that the Bill as presently constituted is designed to carry that damage one stage further. What I propose in this modest amendment is that: 'reasonable excuse shall be defined to include the fact that the driver of the vehicle was the legal parent or guardian of the child and had signed a declaration that he regarded the application of compulsion to the wearing of a rear seat belt by his children as incompatible with the fulfilment of his duties as a parent or guardian"— that is to say, is incompatible with the fulfilment of his personal responsibilities to his children as opposed to the responsibilities imposed on him by law.

If there were such a provision as that, I submit to the Committee that very few of our fellow citizens would take advantage of it. However, those who did take advantage of it would do so because they conscientiously and reasonably believed that they would pay more attention to their responsibilities for their children and the safety of those children (including the wearing of seat belts by children in the car) if they did not have the letter of the law coming between them and those responsibilities. That is the essential philosophical purpose behind the amendment. I commend it to the Committee.

Lord Monson

Like the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Gardyne, I do not think, given the public opinion polls cited by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, that there would be a large number of parents going to the trouble of signing the declaration stipulated by the amendment. Those few who chose to do so would almost invariably have sincere and valid reasons for doing so. For example, their children might suffer from chronic or recurring conditions, or even temporary conditions not serious enough to be covered by the exemption provided under the new Section 33C(4) of the Act, which necessitated children lying prone on the back seat or in the back of an estate car or being held in the arms of a parent. Alternatively, a parent might well find that he instinctively drives more slowly and cautiously knowing that there is an unbelted passenger in the back of the car, as most of us do almost without realising it.

Also, parents may have watched helplessly while people who were trapped by seat belts burnt to death in blazing cars. That happened on 30th December last year when three people were killed, and on 28th January this year when two people were burnt to death. There may have been other examples since which have not been brought to my attention. There are a number of valid and genuinely serious reasons for the amendment. That is why I have put my name to it.

Lord Underhill

I believe that both noble Lords proposing the amendment are sincere in their views of what should be regarded as freedom. However, we have been here before. Those were the arguments used against the amendment requiring the wearing of seat belts in front seats.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne


Lord Underhill

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Gardyne, agrees. On that occasion, the House decided that seat belts should be required and the other place accepted the amendment.

It is my view that a parent who signed such a declaration would be acting irresponsibly as a parent or guardian. It would be the complete opposite of acting responsibly. Members of the Committee who were present when we debated the amendment which referred to seat belts in front seats will recognise the arguments put forward tonight as regards the freedom to decide for oneself. The House completely rejected those arguments. At the time of that debate the Automobile Association was completely in favour of a compulsory requirement for the wearing of seat belts in front seats, and the RAC was in favour of the use of seat belts in front seats but was opposed to compulsion. The RAC now supports the mandatory requirement. As was said at Second Reading, 91 per cent. of motorists believe that seat belts for children should be compulsory. The amendment which we are asked to support tonight may be philosophical. However, I believe that the Committee should pay no attention to it.

Lord Monson

Before the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, sits down, perhaps I may ask him whether he agrees that the parents at Cleveland who first objected to their children being intimately and painfully examined were initially regarded as wholly mistaken? However, they have since been vindicated by events. That is what might happen in this case.

Lord Underhill

I do not regard an argument on one particular matter as being an argument for another matter. We are dealing with the mandatory wearing of rear seat belts for children. That is the issue. All the research and monitoring on the subject suggests that the danger of being trapped by fire and flood is infinitesimal. To suggest that we should pass the amendment is to suggest that we should take a completely different view from that which was taken when we passed the amendment as regards the wearing of front seat belts, which also covered children.

The Earl of Halsbury

I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. Going around in circles on what has already been discussed is as close to a filibuster as anything that I can imagine. This is the second day that we have considered the matter and we have spent an hour on this quite short Bill. We have only managed to deal with the amendments up to Amendment No. 7, and we must deal with a number of other amendments. I appeal to the noble Lords, Lord Bruce-Gardyne, Lord Monson and Lord Cobbold, to withdraw the amendment so that we can move on.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

I know that the amendment has been moved with great sincerity by my noble friend Lord Bruce-Gardyne. Having been in the other place, I well understand that men such as my noble friend go there because they believe that to take part in the business of Parliament and to fight for the liberty of the subject is the most important thing in life. My noble friend played a distinguished and admirable part in doing just that. I understand his feelings.

However, we must look at the practical arguments. My noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Monson, argue that parents are likely to be put off by having the law step in and reduce parental responsibility. However, that is not human experience. It is not what has happened in other countries, including Australia and the United States. Seat belts are compulsory for children in every state in the United States. The compulsory wearing of seat belts by adults is only true in a few states. The law is the same in Australia. When compulsion in the matter was introduced both in Australia and the United States, the rate of wearing of seat belts went up from something like 30 per cent. to over 60 per cent. That is a fact of life. People may believe that something is a good idea. However, they do not always do it until a law is passed and they are told to do so. My noble friend, in supporting the great principle of the liberty of the subject, which he does so admirably, is wrong on this particular point.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, quoted alarming instances of children being burnt because they were wearing seat belts—

Lord Monson

I did not say "children"; I said "people".

Lord Nugent of Guildford

Very well. I know that the noble Lord reads the proceedings of another place. However, he did not quote them with complete accuracy last time. My honourable friend Mr. Bottomley dealt with two specific instances in which members of Parliament thought that children had been burnt in motor cars because they were trapped by wearing seat belts. In neither case was the child wearing a seat belt. It is easy to become upset when a child is burnt in a car and one may immediately think that the child was trapped by a seat belt. However, that was not true in either case. One must recognise the fact that seat belts will save lives and prevent serious injury. That is the simple theme on which we are proceeding. We propose that the law should be introduced with the most meticulous consultation and in that way we shall cover all the practical problems.

This amendment does not deal with a practical point; it is a major point of principle which my noble friend has raised. I appreciate his feelings but I ask him to recognise that in practice that principle is not a practical one. In practice it is only when it becomes compulsory that there is a great increase in the wearing of seat belts. I hope that in the light of those points he will feel content to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, that to my mind the fact that another place and your Lordships' House saw fit to carry into law the front seat belt legislation —as he fairly said; and I agree with him —in defiance of the kind of argument which is encapsulated in the amendment now before the Committee is no reason whatsoever why we should follow that had example.

I should like to make a further point to the noble Lord, and I speak with deep personal feeling. I know how that legislation was carried in another place because I was a Minister at the time. Although it was a Private Member's Bill, as a Minister of the Crown I was required to be present in the Lobby against all my inclinations. I am bound to admit that since the Government Chief Whip at the time happened to be an opponent of seat belt legislation we were allowed to depart unvoted, rather like priests unshriven. It was one of the more humiliating experiences of my life.

Lord Underhill

I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I think that the Committee will recall why the seat belt legislation was carried in this Chamber. I spoke from this Front Bench and made it quite clear that I was speaking in a personal capacity. There was no Whip and the legislation was carried in this Chamber on the basis of the common sense of the amendment.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

What I was saying to the noble Lord was that I confidently believe that if it had not been for what in another place is known as the payroll vote and there had been a genuine free vote, that legislation would not have been carried in another place. I am unimpressed by the argument that we should reject the amendment because it is inconsistent with the principles written into the front seat belt legislation.

I say to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, that I do not take altogether happily to the proposition that we are going round and round the same subject. This is a new amendment which has not been discussed. So far as I am aware, the principle behind it has not been debated throughout the Committee stage of the Bill. I have to tell the noble Earl that some of us have serious worries about the legislation and the efforts to drive it through within a given timetable, regardless of the serious reservations that we may have. I shall give way to the noble Earl.

The Earl of Halsbury

I merely want to observe that the state, the parent and the child stand in a complex relationship to one another. For example, there are laws requiring children to be educated at the age of five. Perhaps parents do not like it but the state says yes.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

That is a broader issue. I agree with the noble Earl that the relationship between the state and the individual is a complex one.

Turning to the remarks of my noble friend Lord Nugent, I entirely agree that in this instance we are discussing a basic philosophical principle. I think that those of us who put our names to the amendment feel that there is something undesirable about legislation which seeks to intervene between the parent and the child in the area of family responsibilty. So I think that on this matter it would be appropriate that we should seek the opinion of the Committee. Therefore I propose to insist upon the amendment.

8.5 p.m.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

The Question is that Amendment No. 8 be agreed to. As many as are of that opinion will say "Content"; to the contrary "Not-Content". Clear the Bar.

Division called.

8.9 p.m.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

The Question is that the amendment be agreed to. As many as are of that opinion will say "Content"; to the contrary "Not-Content". The Not-Contents have it.

Amendment negatived.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne moved Amendment No. 9: Page 1, line 29, leave out ("child holding a valid certificate signed by a medical practitioner") and insert ("person holding a valid certificate signed by a medical practitioner in respect of a child").

The noble Lord said: This is a drafting amendment. It covers a simple point which I think my noble friend might be prepared to accept. As it stands, the clause reads: 'Regulations under this section shall include an exemption for any child holding a valid certificate signed by a medical practitioner to the effect that it is inadvisable on medical grounds for him to wear a seat belt Surely it is not the child but the parent who would hold the valid certificate. This part of the subsection would read more appropriately: Regulations under this section shall include an exemption for any person holding a valid certificate signed by a medical practitioner in respect of a child". I beg to move.

Lord Monson

The merits of Amendments Nos. 9, 10 and 12 are obvious and require little or no explanation. A small child of under school-age cannot hold a certificate, whether in a literal or any other sense. A child between the ages of 10 and 13 might be able to do so, but might equally well, and indeed very probably would lose the certificate. It is the parent who is legally at risk under subsection (5) and that is patently ridiculous. For that reason I hope that the Committee will accept this group of amendments.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

I am afraid that I cannot advise the Committee to accept this amendment. The fact is that the exemption, if it is to be made, will depend on the physical or mental condition of the child, which the doctor is satisfied is such that the child should be exempted from wearing a seat belt. Although of course the parent is responsible for the child and for deciding to take the child to a doctor so that he or she can be examined and considered for exemption, at the end of the day the certificate must be for the child.

Therefore although I accept my noble friend's point that the parental responsibility is an important one, the certificate itself must refer to the child. I hope that he will recognise the cogency of that point and accept that the Bill should stay as it is.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

I accept that the certificate must relate to the child. There is no argument about that. I should have thought that the wording of the amendment was logically to be preferred to the wording in the Bill as it stands. However, if my noble friend is convinced that the present wording of the Bill is appropriate, I bow to his superior wisdom in the matter and am happy to withdraw the amendmnt.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne moved Amendment No. 10: Page 1, line 31, leave out ("him") and insert ("it").

The noble Lord said: This amendment too is simply a drafting amendment for which clearly I shall not have the support of the noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken. I was brought up to believe that a child was properly referred to as "it" rather than "him". However, again I am prepared to defer to the superior wisdom of my noble friend if he thinks that the wording in the Bill as it stands is the correct one. I beg to move.

Lord Kilbracken

This is precisely the matter to which I drew attention when speaking to Amendment No. 6. Certainly I cannot agree with this proposal. The English langauge does not have a great many shortcomings but one deficiency is that there is no pronoun that can refer to a person whether male or female. The only possible course is to use "he or she" or "him or her" every time, or else, as is the convention, simply to use the masculine form and say "him". It is not very popular with some of our feminist friends, but it is the general practice. As I said earlier, it is always understood that the male embraces the female, and the use of the male pronoun includes the female. Therefore I oppose the proposal of the noble Lord.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

The noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken, is right and that is the normal convention. I think that there is something slightly derogatory about calling a child "it". Certainly many children would not take very kindly to that and neither would their parents. I believe that the Bill would be better left as it is, and I hope that my noble friend will accept that argument.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

I have always understood that when referring to a child the correct pronoun was "it". I remain of that opinion, but I should not dream of pressing this amendment, if my noble friend prefers the grammatical usage in the Bill as it stands. I shall bow to his wisdom and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave withdrawn.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne moved Amendment No. 11:

Page 1, line 31, at end insert — ("( ) No regulation made under this section shall come into force unless a draft thereof has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.").

The noble Lord said: This is a rather more substantive amendment—and in fact a very substantive one. There have been numerous references in the discussions here and in another place to the fact that the regulations which—let us face it—will embody the nitty-gritty of this legislation when they are formulated and following amendment in another place will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.

Before the Committee stage this evening I searched the Bill as it stands, and I see no indication that that is the case. It seems to me to be entirely right and proper that it should he the case and that it should be clearly understood that the regulations which fall to be made under subsection (3) of this clause must be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure in both Houses of Parliament. I must confess that I have no exaggerated illusions about the effectiveness of the affirmative resolution procedure as a means of scrutinising the very widely drawn delegated powers to define the regulations that are entrusted to the Minister under subsection (3).

As we all know, under the affirmative resolution procedure we can debate a regulation and reject it if we wish, but it is open to the Government to bring it back in precisely the same form the very next day. We cannot amend it in any shape or form; we can only accept or reject it. Therefore the affirmative resolution procedure frankly is not a great safeguard for those of us who feel that the discretion that is left to the Minister under subsection (3) in the matter of introducing regulations is extremely widely drawn in this Bill. Nevertheless, the affirmative resolution procedure is at least a good deal better than the alternative—the negative resolution procedure—where it is effectively for the Government to determine whether the regulation should ever be discussed in another place and in this Chamber. At least by writing the affirmative resolution procedure into this Bill we can ensure that when the regulations have been drawn up we shall have an opportunity to debate them. That seems to me to be a matter of considerable importance.

So far as I can see, that assurance is not carried in the Bill as it stands. I beg to move the amendment.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

I am very happy to say that I am able to agree with my noble friend on this point. I sympathise with his difficulty in not being able to understand that the Bill as drafted fulfils that obligation. This little Bill suffers from defects of which all of us have experience. It proceeds by reference. The master Act is the 1972 Act which was amended by the 1982 Act. It is therefore extremely difficult to understand what this small Bill says in Clause 1(2). In fact, in another place the point raised by my noble friend was taken. An amendment was moved into the Bill, and the Bill as now drafted requires an affirmative resolution. Therefore my noble friend's very proper point will be granted.

It is interesting that last week my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor informed us that this vast mass of complex road traffic law has been consolidated. It may be possible therefore in future to understand it. In the meantime I can assure my noble friend that his point has been granted.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

I am grateful to my noble friend for his response. That was certainly the message conveyed when I read the debates in another place. However, I confess that I am still quite unable to see precisely where in the Bill as it stands the stipulation appears. That is why I should have thought it desirable, if only for the avoidance of doubt, to write in the amendment we are now discussing. That would leave the issue beyond peradventure of a doubt.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My noble friend Lord Bruce-Gardyne will have to get hold of a copy of the 1972 Act. If he looks at Section 199 he will find that subsection (3) after 33A is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Subsection (2) of this clause adds this Bill to that, so the point will be covered.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

I suppose that I must accept that assurance. I find it bizarre that it was apparently necessary to amend the Bill in another place to ensure that the affirmative resolution procedure applied, and yet my noble friend refers back to the substantive Act. However, on the assurance of my noble friend that the affirmative resolution procedure will assuredly apply to the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Monson had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 12: Page 2, line 4, leave out ("to a child").

The noble Lord said: I tabled Amendment No. 12 on the assumption that Amendment No. 9 —which I believe is well drafted and makes extremely good sense —would be agreed to. However, Amendment No. 9 has not been agreed to. Therefore I do not propose to move Amendment No. 12.

[Amendment No. 12 not moved.]

Lord Bruce-Gardyne moved Amendment No. 12A:

Page 2, line 38, at end insert — ("(4) Subsection (1) of this section shall not come into force until such time as the Secretary of State is in a position to advise Parliament that seat belts are compulsorily fitted in the rear seats of motor cars as a condition of their utilisation upon the highway.").

The noble Lord said: I regard this as an amendment of some importance. What we are doing in this legislation —and it is as well that we are clear about it —is to impose upon those who are conveying young children on the back seat of a car an obligation to ensure that the children in question are wearing seat belts when the law does not require cars to be fitted with seat belts. To my mind this is a fundamental contradiction. It complicates immensely the difficulties of law enforcement.

I cannot imagine how a police officer on the beat, or a traffic officer, could stop a car on the grounds that he believed that children in the back seat were not wearing belts when he had no means of knowing whether the car was fitted with seat belts or not. I remind my noble friend of what the present Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, then Minister for Transport, said in another place in January 1980. It is quoted at col. 594 of Hansard, on 13th May 1988, during the debates on the earlier front-seat belt legislation: 'As things stand—and I cannot conceive that any government will move from this position"'— I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench is listening to this with care — 'the intention is not to require compulsory wearing where there is not compulsory fitting. I cannot believe that if any Minister of Transport brought forward regulations on any other basis, the House would give its approval to them'. As we know, this legislation has not been brought forward by the Minister for Transport in another place or by my noble friend in this place. However, I find it surprising that we are being asked tonight to carry into law legislation that flies directly in the face of that principle.

I submit to Members of the Committee that it is not a wholly unreasonable principle. There is something profoundly perverse about introducing legislation to oblige the wearing of seat belts when there is no legislation to oblige that seat belts be fitted in the first place. I make no bones about the fact that I would not be in favour of compulsory fitting of seat belts in the rear of cars as a precondition for their roadworthiness. Nevertheless, the fact is that this Bill is designed to impose a legal liability which —in the case of cars which do not have rear seat belts fitted—is entirely incapable of coming into effect.

All that I am proposing in this amendment is that we should defer the application of this legislation until, the Secretary of State is in a position to advise Parliament that seat belts are compulsorily fitted in the rear seats of motor cars as a condition of their utilisation upon the highway". I am not saying that it is the right way but I believe that a proposition of this kind is only common sense and logic. For those reasons I hope that my noble friend will be prepared to accept the amendment. I beg to move.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Monson

The purpose of this amendment is to resolve both an extraordinary anomaly and an evident clash of opinion within the Government over this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Gardyne, has already quoted the quite unequivocal words uttered on 23rd January 1980 of the right honourable gentleman who is now the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and was then the Minister for Transport. Yet the Bill is presently drafted in such a way that people who voluntarily, in a public-spirited way, have fitted belts at their own expense might be heavily fined if their children did not wear the belts on every single occasion, whatever the difficulties, whereas those who had not fitted belts would be totally in the clear. I cannot think of any precedent for a law drafted in that way. That is why I support the amendment so strongly.

Lord Underhill

I believe this is one case where the Bill is showing some common sense and flexibility. If the amendment were carried, it would mean that every single car on the road which was 20 or 30 years old, would have to have seat belts fixed or the Bill would not come into effect. That is what the amendment means. The amendment reads that the Secretary of State must: advise Parliament that scat belts are compulsorily fitted in the rear seats of motor cars as a condition of their utilisation upon the highway". Therefore, one of two things can happen: either every person who has a car, however old it may be, if it is registered to be used on the highway must fix a seat belt even though that may be costly in certain cars because of the type of manufacture of the car, or the Bill shall not come into effect. The Bill shows common sense and flexibility.

I return to what I said on Second Reading, that the Association of Chief Police Officers traffic committee is in favour of the Bill and has said that it sees no problems at all in enforcing the provisions contained in the Bill.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, once again for his valuable support. He makes an important point that all the chiefs of police regard the problem of enforcement as nonexistent, and self-enforcing like front seat belts. The police will not set out to try to trap people whose children are not wearing seat belts, but when a car is pulled up for some other reason and if children were not wearing existing seat belts, that would be an offence. The police see no problem whatsoever.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, has a point that where seat belts have been voluntarily fitted and exist in a car when the Bill becomes law, then it will be compulsory to use them. In the terms of my noble friend's amendment, we should have to wait for years and years. I suppose that the solution of the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, is possible, and the Government of the day might require all motor cars running on the roads today to fit seat belts as a condition of licensing; but that would be an impossible piece of legislation which no government would attempt. Therefore the approach is as in the Bill: that as from last year it is now a legal requirement for all motor cars to be fitted with rear seat belts so that gradually year by year their numbers will increase and in 10 to 20 years' time there will be very few cars left without seat belts. It is also probable that those people whose cars have not had them fitted compulsorily will have fitted them voluntarily to protect their children.

If we were to accept the amendment it would knock the bottom out of the Bill because it would be years and years before enough cars were fitted with seat belts that would qualify for the conditions that the noble Lord has laid down. The Bill is just a start. That is what it provides. It is to be applied where seat belts exist in a car and knowing that, year by year, there will be more which will give better and better protection for our children. With all the education and publicity that goes with it, it is probable that many parents whose cars do not have seat belts fitted will fit them because they will feel that it is a sensible protection for their children.

I recognise the purity of my noble friend's logic, but I hope he will accept that this is the more practical approach and that he will not feel inclined to press his amendment.

Lord Monson

I accept the point of the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, that the amendment as drafted goes wider than we intended. I should not wish to press it myself. But can the noble Lord indicate whether he might be able to accept at the next stage of the Bill a more tightly drawn amendment so that lines 7 to 10 inclusive on page 1 will read as follows: Except as provided by regulations, a person shall not, without reasonable excuse, drive a motor vehicle to which seat belts in the rear of the car have been compulsorily fitted on a road where there is in the rear of the vehicle" — and so on and so forth? That narrows the provisions tremendously and would meet most of the objections of the noble Lord, Lord Nugent. I appreciate that the noble Lord could not possibly commit himself at this stage; but I wonder whether he will indicate his general feelings about such an amendment.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

I thank the noble Lord for his gallant attempt to draft off the cuff. I have always found parliamentary drafting to be completely incomprehensible and anything that I have ever drafted has always been ruled out as incorrect. I am quite certain that the piece of drafting of the noble Lord, Lord Monson, would come into the same category. What is in the Bill is what the draftsmen thought would stand up in practice and therefore I feel that we should stick to it.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

I must confess that I am surprised that my noble friend on the Front Bench has not intervened on the amendment, because as I pointed out, it was a Minister in this Government who himself said that he could not imagine that we should be facing the legal obligation of the compulsory wearing of seat belts where there was no compulsory fitting. It seems to me somewhat surprising that we should have a shift of position without an explanation of the ministerial thinking behind it. As I said, to my mind, there was logic in what was said in 1980 which still applies today.

However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that something perhaps more narrowly drawn might be considered at a later stage and might meet the case. The present arrangements which propose a mixture of compulsion on persons where no compulsion on manufacturers exists is unsatisfactory. However, in the light of what has been said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Monson

May I point out to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, and to the Government, that there appears to be an error in line 5, page 2 of the Bill, in so far as line 5 refers to "subsection (3) (a) above." There is no subsection (3) (a) above. There is a subsection (4), so perhaps this is something that the Minister may like to consider and perhaps table an amendment to rectify it at the next stage.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

The noble Lord is quite correct. There is a printers' error. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister can tell us whether that has been dealt with.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

I shall clearly have to look into this matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Monson. If it is necessary to bring forward an amendment at the next stage I shall of course do so.

Lord Kilbracken

Before we leave Clause I, and despite the entry into the Chamber of the two Chief Whips, I should like to draw attention to two matters that have arisen in the course of the debate. The first is that considerable doubt has been cast by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, and others, upon allegations by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, among others, that seat belts can be a great danger to people who are trapped in cars and are burnt to death or drowned.

I should like to intervene to say that I am one of those people who escaped by a miracle, despite being incarcerated in the cockpit of an aircraft which sank in 1940. I was strapped into it and I had to make a forced landing in the Firth of Forth. I do not know how I got out of the cockpit. When I ditched the aircraft I was travelling a great deal more slowly than most cars travel along the motorway today. That accounts for the fact that I havē a phobia about wearing seat belts. It made me feel inclined to vote in favour of Amendment No. 8.

Secondly, I should like to draw attention to the situation when there are more children in the back of a car than there are seat belts. It has been said again and again that in that circumstance the legal position will be that if there are two seat belts and three children the law will not be contravened provided that the two seat belts are being used. That situation frequently occurs.

I have read the relevant passage again and again and I cannot see that in those circumstances the driver is not at fault. The Bill states: Except as provided by regulations a person shall not … drive a motor vehicle to which is fitted any seat belt". If I am driving a car with three children and two seat belts in the back, I am driving a car that is fitted with a seat belt. The Bill continues: when there is in the rear of the vehicle a child … who is not wearing a seat belt". If there are three children in the back one of them is not wearing a seat belt and it appears that in those circumstances the law is being broken.

It may be said that regulations will be made to provide that in those circumstances no offence will be committed. I do not like regulations. I believe that matters should be debated on the Floor of the Chamber, certainly important matters; otherwise none of those conditions need be in the Bill. We need not have in the Bill the words "under the age of 14 years" because that could be made the subject of a regulation. Surely we cannot put into regulations something that contradicts what is at present provided for in Clause 1(1).

I believe that this matter should be included in the Bill. It must be stated in the Bill that if there are two seat belts in the back of the car they must both be used. If there are three, four, five or six children in the back who are not using seat belts, that is perfectly all right. That is what we have been told by the noble Lords, Lord Brabazon and Lord Lucas, but it is not in the Bill.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

I should like to make a correction to my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Monson. The numbering is purely a printing error. The Public Bill Office know of it and it can be put right without an amendment.

Lord Monson

The noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken, has raised an extremely important point. On Second Reading the noble Lords, Lord Brabazon and Lord Nugent, made two contradictory statements. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, said: it would not be practicable to use rear seat restraints if there were four or five children squeezed onto the rear seat". —[Official Report, 6/6/88; col. 1180.] In other words, none of the four or five children would have to use seat belts. However, the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, said: where there are more children than seat belts the law would not require children for whom there are no seat belts to wear them. They will be worn only in so far as there are seat belts provided". —[col. 1182.] Those two statements are contradictory. Either the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, is right, or the noble Lord. Lord Nugent, is right. They cannot both be right. I believe that at this stage we should be told who is right.

Lord Kilbracken

I should like to point out that the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, foresaw the possibility of there being more children than seat belts. He was asked what would happen if more children were in his own car than there were seat belts. From memory he replied that whoever gets into the car first would wear the seat belts.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

I believe that this argument has been covered over and over again, mainly on Second Reading and again when dealing with Amendment No. 1 which was debated last week. There is no contradiction in what has been said. If possible the regulations must specify, and I have said that a great deal of care will be taken in respect of them. If four or five children are in the back of a car, not all, or possibly any, can be made to wear seat belts. However, if there are two or three children and two or three seat belts, those children should wear seat belts.

Clause 1 agreed to.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Monson moved Amendment No. 13: After Clause 1, insert the following new clause:

("Annual statistics.

. The Secretary of State shall publish annual statistics indicating the number of children —

  1. (a) saved from death and injury, and
  2. (b) suffering death and injury, in consequence of the provisions of this Act.").

The noble Lord said: I cannot imagine that the Government will have any objection to this amendment, still less the passionate supporters of seat belt compulsion. They not only constantly extol the benefits of compulsion but invariably dismiss any notion of "disbenefits", to use an ugly technical term.

Annual road casualty statistics are already published. I am asking that they be fleshed out to include the additional statistics listed in my amendment. So much the better if, at the same time, we can have a breakdown of so-called serious injuries. As at present classified, serious injuries embrace many injuries which are not at all serious, thereby distorting the true picture.

At an earlier stage the Minister said that injuries to children will be reduced by two-thirds if the Bill is passed. The reduction in injuries and deaths resulting from front seat compulsion is only 24 per cent., even on the most optimistic estimates which have already been challenged. If that percentage is applied to children in rear seats it suggests a net decrease of 15 deaths per annum.

If one reduces that figure further to take into account, first, the inevitable wider exemptions necessary for rear seat belts as opposed to front seat belts, and, secondly, the increase in voluntary wearing resulting from the existing propaganda campaign, it suggests a maximum saving of 10 lives per annum out of 10 million children carried as passengers annually. Of course, even one child's life in a million is worth saving, but can this not best be achieved by exhortation rather than heavy-handed bureaucractic legislation?

I beg to move.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

The existing annual publication of road accidents for Great Britain gives a great deal of detail of accidents and casualties, including a tabulation of child car-occupant casualties by age, seating position and restraint use. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, has studied that. During 1986, the last year for which final figures are available, 8,560 children sustained injuries while travelling in the rear seats of cars.

Monitoring of restraints used by children and the performance of restraints in accidents has been part of the Transport and Road Research Laboratory's research programme for a number of years. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, will be relieved to know that the laboratory's research has shown that child restraints can reduce the risk of death and injury by up to 70 per cent. It cannot recollect a single case where restraint use has made matters worse and I am sure the noble Lord will be happy to hear that.

I am inclined to think that the research might go a little further and I should put this point to the Minister. If Parliament proceeds to approve this Bill and it goes on the statute book, further in-depth research (especially as more new vehicles come on the road equipped with rear restraints) would be helpful, would assure and reassure the public and also Members of the Committee who are doubtful about the value of rear seat belts, of the value they have in reducing injury. I put that point to my noble friend. However, I hope with the assurance from my noble friend that this research is already being undertaken, that the noble Lord will not wish to press his amendment.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

Perhaps I could reassure my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that as my noble friend has said, a good deal of statistics and data are collected at the moment published in the road accidents of Great Britain casualty report, which gives data on road traffic accidents, casualties including tabulations of child car occupants and casualties by age, seating position and restraint use. Through that, we shall monitor the effects of the legislation.

Furthermore, the monitoring of restraint use by children and the performance of restraints in accidents has been part of the Transport and Road Research Laboratory's programme for a number of years. That research will continue and if this Bill becomes an Act it will be all the more important that the research should be continued.

Lord Monson

The noble Lord, Lord Nugent, tells us that the road research laboratory cannot remember a single case where the use of belts has made matters worse. Given the laboratory's passionate commitment to compulsion, one can only wonder whether it was looking very hard. However, it is growing late. I am not entirely satisfied, but I believe at this stage I can only beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Monson moved Amendment No. 14: Insert the following new clause:


. The Secretary of State may make regulations providing for compensation to be paid to children who can be shown to have suffered injury in consequence of the provisions of this Act.")

The noble Lord said: The Committee will have noticed that unlike the previous amendment this amendment is permissive rather than mandatory so as to avoid infringing Commons privilege.

It has always been conceded by supporters of compulsory seat belt legislation—not least the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, himself —that from time to time people will be killed or injured as a direct consequence of compulsion, though of course there remains considerable argument about the precise numbers killed or injured thereby. If passed, this Bill is bound to have the same effect, which will be accentuated if Amendment No. 7 (whether in an existing or new form) continues to be rejected.

Seat belt legislation, together with crash helmet legislation, is unique in that it compels people to put themselves at risk in peacetime, albeit a statistically small risk. Not only is it unique but it is anomalous. Vaccination against whooping cough is overwhelmingly beneficial for children and yet parents are permitted to refuse to have their children vaccinated, against all the urgings, promptings and protestations of the Government and medical profession, on the ground that vaccination, very occasionally, has harmful side effects.

If this Bill goes through, we shall have inevitable double standards in the matter of parental choice as between seat belt wearing and vaccination. To add injury to insult, vaccine-damaged children will be compensated despite the voluntary nature of vaccination, whereas seat belt damaged children will not be compensated despite compulsion applying, unless this amendment is agreed to. I beg to move.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

These are arguments which the noble Lord, Lord Monson, has used before. The aim or the direction of the amendment is exactly the reverse to that of the Bill. The Bill aims to bring in these compulsory seat belts in order to save life and injury. There is not the evidence —and the noble Lord does not have any to justify bringing in such a clause. I have already mentioned that the Transport and Road Research Laboratory (which has in latter years done a good deal of study on this matter) has no case whereby it can show that anybody wearing a seat belt suffered additional injury because he was wearing it. People wearing seat belts sometimes are injured when the car collapses or a piece of metal drives through them but that would have happened anyway and it is not the fault of the seat belt.

The courts nowadays, when a claim for injury comes before them, take note of whether or not the claimant was wearing a seat belt. If he was not, the damages are accordingly reduced by 25 per cent. or more. All that is a very fair indication of what we are talking about; namely, that seat belts are worn because they will save lives and injuries. It would be a complete mistake for the noble Lord to ask to put this new clause into the Bill, which goes in exactly the opposite direction. I hope that he will see that he really does not have any evidence to support him.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

The Government cannot support the amendment. I have no doubt that very similar arguments were put forward when compulsory front seat belt wearing came before the House. Indeed, as my noble friend said, there is no doubt at all that compulsory use saves lives and that there is no evidence from the monitoring programme that there is need for such a measure. Therefore, we cannot support the amendment.

Lord Monson

Both the noble Lords, Lord Nugent, and Lord Brabazon, normally argue extremely logically; but this evening their logic has deserted them. If it is the case that nobody has ever been harmed through wearing a seat belt then what on earth is there to worry about if this amendment is agreed to, because if no one is ever going to be harmed or killed then the amendment will have no effect at all. There will be no call upon the public purse.

It seems to me that the only reason for being uneasy or worried about this amendment is the suspicion that I might be right, and that some money may have to be paid out sooner or later. This amendment is not acting against the Bill but is reinforcing it. It is asking the promoters of the Bill to have the courage of their convictions, which I believe they do. If the Bill is wholly beneficial, then there can be no possible disadvantage in accepting this amendment. Neither the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, nor the Government have refuted my contention about the double standards that apply to whooping cough vaccination and to seat belt wearing respectively. They have not refuted it because no refutations are possible. However, it is becoming late and I do not want to push this at this time. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 [Northern Ireland (corresponding provision)]:

On Question, Whether Clause 2 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Monson

My purpose in objecting to Clause 2 is not to deny the people of Northern Ireland the extremely dubious benefits of this Bill if it becomes law. Apart from anything else, I believe in welding the United Kingdom together by harmonising as much as possible the laws in the different parts of the Kingdom. However, I protest once again about the way in which the people of the Province are treated like the inhabitants of a colony.

If this important legislation, which will be extremely significant and burdensome for so many families in Northern Ireland, is to be extended to that Province, then for Heaven's sake let it be done by the affirmative resolution procedure rather than by the negative resolution procedure.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

I find the argument by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, entirely persuasive. It was agreed in another place that it was appropriate for the affirmative resolution procedure to apply. We have been assured that that has been enacted, though for the life of me I cannot see exactly how. Why on earth should not the affirmative resolution apply to legislation in Northern Ireland? It seems wholly illogical.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

Perhaps I may briefly explain the position. Northern Ireland road traffic legislation is separate from that in Great Britain. While new proposals in Britain are usually adopted, there is often a time delay of 18 months to two years because of the need to promote an Order in Council. However, in those cases where it would be inappropriate for Northern Ireland to be out of step with the rest of the United Kingdom, the negative resolution clause approach is adopted. That enables the Northern Ireland Order in Council to be treated as a negative resolution statutory instrument rather than an affirmative resolution statutory instrument; thereby considerably speeding up the process and enabling Northern Ireland to implement on the same day as Great Britain.

I should perhaps say to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and my noble friend Lord Bruce-Gardyne that this clause was specifically introduced into the Commons Standing Committee following representations by Northern Ireland Members.

Lord Monson

I have great difficulty in accepting that argument. Is it really the case that introducing the affirmative resolution procedure would delay matters to any considerable extent?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

Yes, by 18 months to two years.

Lord Monson

I find the suggestion that the log jam of legislation is such that it would take up to two years very surprising. However, I accept what the noble Lord says and will say no more.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Short title, commencement and extent]:

[Amendment No. 15 not moved.]

Clause 3 agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.