HL Deb 07 March 1995 vol 562 cc118-20

3 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon asked Her Majesty's Govemment:

Whether they will bring forward legislation to make it a specific offence for the driver of a moving vehicle to use a mobile telephone or car phone.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, we have no plans to introduce specific legislation on the use of telephones while driving. We believe that the offences of "failure to exercise proper control of a vehicle" and "careless driving" provide sufficient powers of prosecution.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that I find his Answer rather disappointing? Has he been on a motorway (I am sure that he has) and seen a driver who is quite obviously concentrating on the telephone rather than the driving tearing past at over 80 miles an hour with just one hand on the wheel and the other holding a telephone? Has the Minister seen cars whose drivers are using the telephone come up so close behind him that he almost has a heart attack? Does he agree that people cannot be mentally and physically in charge of their cars while they are concentrating on talking to other people on the telephone? Does he agree that the only way forcibly to make people aware of the danger is to create a specific offence? I hope that he will do so.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the noble Lord has already listed a specific offence which in his example had been; namely, that of speeding. That committee illustrates that having a specific offence is not necessarily the catch-all. The Association of Chief Police Officers agrees with the Government's view that under the offences that I listed there are sufficient powers to prosecute. If the police feel that a motorist is driving dangerously, or is abusing a situation and is not able to control his vehicle properly, they will prosecute him.

Lord Elton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that paragraph 43 of The Highway Code states:

You MUST exercise proper control of your vehicle at all times. Do not use a hand-held telephone or microphone while you are driving"?

Does that not provide for prosecution on grounds of unsafe driving—rendered, I would have thought, more effective if it were done anywhere near the Victoria Memorial?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right about the provisions that we have included in The Highway Code. However, as regards prosecution, the two offences that I have listed are the means that the police can use if they feel it necessary.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

A phoney argument!

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is the Minister aware that this could apply only to hand-held telephones, which are not specifically mentioned in the Question but which are, I assume, within the contemplation of my noble friend? While he says that there are ample grounds for prosecution if the offences to which he referred have taken place, does he agree that perhaps there is some lack of comprehension on the part of many drivers that they are acting in breach of an instruction in The Highway Code which in any event does not constitute a specific offence, and that there might be some deterrent value in having a specific offence? This could excite in the minds of the people involved the fact that they are involved in doing something that is very specifically illegal. Does the Minister accept that there would be some advantage in that?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, there are any other statements in The Highway Code that are put forward as advice but for which there are not specific offences. There are many other things that can be done in a car with one hand which do not come under the category of specific offences—

Noble Lords


Viscount Goschen

—such as perhaps operating a tape-recorder or indeed taking a drink. These are not specific offences. We certainly condemn the practice of using a hand-held telephone. I agree with the noble Lord that using a hands-free set is preferable, although indeed that too can be distracting.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is the Minister suggesting that there might be pending another ministerial resignation?

A Noble Lord

Not worthy!

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I think noble Lords would have to read a great deal into my remarks to reach that conclusion.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, can my noble friend say how many prosecutions have taken place, if any?

Viscount Goschen

No, my Lords, I am not able to give that figure. We should have to go back through all the court records to determine that information. That would not logically be possible or indeed practical. The important point is that the Association of Chief Police Officers believes that the current law gives sufficient powers to act where it is thought necessary.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I asked the driver of the cab that brought me here this morning what he thought about this question, and whether or not the matter should be pressed? To my surprise, he was very strongly in favour of it. In view of this unusual support coming from a taxi-driver, will the Minister perhaps reconsider his lukewarm attitude?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Lord has consulted on this issue—and indeed with an expert. We do not want to have an over-specific, over-regulatory system. The police have powers; they can, and do, act where they believe it to be necessary.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, in spite of what the Association of Chief Police Officers might say, it is not always right. As a matter of fact, it is very often wrong. Does the Minister agree that the use of in-car telephones is growing at a very fast rate, and therefore the problem will become worse as time goes on? Does he accept that the only thing that will prevent people from using them—this is my view, and I hope that he will agree—is to make such use a specific offence resulting in quite a high fine for those who break the law? Will the Minister ask his colleagues to reconsider this matter?

Viscount Goschen

No, my Lords. The police are in a particularly good position to judge. They are the ones who would have to enforce any such law, as they enforce the current law. They have powers to act and they use them. We do not believe that there is any specific need for a specific power. However, I agree with the noble Lord that in-car mobile telephones are increasingly being used.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, can the Minister say whether advice has been taken from Australia. where this is an offence?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I have not personally taken advice from Australia on this matter. We have our own laws in this country, which are geared to the problems that are prevalent. The police do not support the idea of a specific offence in relation to this problem. They believe that the powers that exist cater for it adequately.