Orders of the Day — Road Traffic (Burden of Responsibilities) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th April 1968.

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Order for Second Reading read.

1.37 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Farr Mr John Farr , Harborough

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is a simple Bill, designed to amend the Road Traffic Act, 1960, in a fairly simple and straightforward way. There was a real omission from the 1960 Act, and this was brought to light last year by a serious accident in Leicester when a man who was cycling to work in the early hours of the morning was knocked down by a vehicle with three occupants in it, and he subsequently died. The driver of the vehicle did not stop at the time of the accident, but before the accident three known occupants had been seen to enter the vehicle, and when the vehicle was stopped not long after the accident the same three people were in it.

I do not want to go into the conditions leading up to the manner in which the vehicle was driven. The men in it had been working on night shift and had been engaged in certain other activities after that. When the police apprehended the occupants of the vehicle—the number of it had been taken—they were unable to obtain positive identification of who had been driving it. There were conflicting eye witness reports. One eye witness identified one gentleman as the driver, while another eye witness said that another of the occupants was driving. So conflicting was this evidence that the police found themselves powerless to prosecute not only the man they thought might be the driver but any of the other occupants of the vehicle.

This incident has resulted in a situation which any Minister in any Administration must agree is manifestly wrong—a situation in which a man who committed manslaughter when driving a motor car and failed to stop after the accident is now driving around the City of Leicester without a stain on his character or even an endorsement on his licence.

The Minister recognises that that situation is very wrong. I want to make it clear that I do not blame the police for their lack of action in this affair. By the law of the land—the Road Traffic Act, 1960—they are powerless to prosecute unless the person driving at the time can be positively identified.

The Minister may say the incidents of this nature occur too infrequently to justify Government action, and we may say "Thank heaven". The Minister may have statistics relating to similar cases—with the facilities at his elbow—which I have not been able to obtain. The fact remains that the present position allows tremendous scope for abuse. Who is to know that such cases will not occur much more frequently in future—when an accident occurs with one or more people in a motor car who, knowing of this loophole in the law, decide, "Why stop and face the music? Let us keep going. Even if there were people at the scene of the accident who took the number of the car, and could identify the car, provided we promise together that we will not declare which of us was driving we know that the police are powerless to act with any severity against us."

It was with this fear in mind that my hon. Friends and I, together with hon. Members opposite, thought that we should introduce the Bill. I have had criticisms from one or two of my colleagues who are specialist lawyers—which I freely confess I am not—that there are certain weaknesses in the drafting of the Bill. It has been said that Clause 1 is not drafted as clearly as it might be, and that if it were enacted it might have the effect of imposing a severe penalty upon innocent passengers in a motor car.

In response to that criticism—which is a valid one—I would claim that if the driver of a motor car knew that whether or not he remained silent, and whether or not he confessed to driving the vehicle, he would be treated in conjunction with his passengers as having driven the vehicle, there would be no incentive for his maintaining a guilty silence. In my view there would be no likelihood of such a man's declining to confess that he trove the vehicle—and certainly his colleagues in the vehicle would rapidly name him to the police.

The Bill may not be word-perfect, but I put it to the Minister that it is a sin cere effort—a starting point which will enable a Standing Committee to consider the position. I am not endeavouring to be doctrinaire as to what should be done; all I ask is that something should be done. Let us amend the Bill in Standing Committee. Let us talk about the way in which this loophole can be filled.

The Minister may feel that one way in which my object can be achieved is to increase the present penalties provided in Section 232 of the Road Traffic Act, 1960, which must be faced by those who conspire together to conceal the identity of a driver. Compared with the gravity of many of the offences to which they apply those penalties are purely nominal. In the case of Mr. Riley, my constituent, who was knocked down and killed by the driver of this vehicle, no action was taken under the Section of the Road Traffic Act. It may be that one reason why the constabulary did not proceed against the occupants of the vehicle for failing to identify the driver among their own number was that the penalty is only about £20. The constabulary may have felt that that was too trivial a fine to warrant action by them in the very grave circumstances of the case.

I want to make one plea to the Minister. I know from what he has told me and has written in letters to me—the contents of which I much appreciate, as I appreciate the spirit in which he has written them—that he is as concerned as I am about the situation, not only in the City of Leicester but in other parts of the country, that would arise if this abuse were practised more frequently. He may feel that this Measure, as the vehicle to adopt to get this wrong righted, is an incorrect one. If he feels that the Bill does not provide the right avenue of approach, will he give me an undertaking that the matter will be referred to one of the Specialist Committees now sitting—perhaps the one dealing with the revision of the criminal law?

Something must be done. Unless my co-sponsors and I receive some form of undertaking from the Minister this afternoon, we shall seek leave to divide the House on the issue.

1.47 p.m.

Photo of Mr Neil Carmichael Mr Neil Carmichael , Glasgow Woodside

I am aware of the background to the Bill which has been introduced by the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) and I know the great sincerity with which he introduced it and how strong are his feelings about the unhappy story of his constituent who was knocked down and killed by a motor car.

The purpose of the Bill is to prevent the occupants of a motor car from frustrating proceedings against the driver by their refusal or their inability—and it should be impressed upon the House that on some occasions it is a question of inability and not merely of refusal—to name the driver.

The Bill would do this by providing that where the identity of a driver has not been established, all the occupants of the motor car shall be jointly responsible. It would seem that this joint responsibility would extend to civil as well as criminal matters. As we know from the hon. Member in his successful attempt to persuade the House that he should be given leave to bring in the Bill, its introduction arises out of the case of a constituent of his who received fatal injuries from a hit and run accident in December, 1966.

In this case, the three occupants of the car were identified and were known to have been drinking at a works party. There was no evidence, however, as to which of the three men was driving at the time of impact. Although one might suspect that one was probably the driver, there was some evidence pointing to each of the three. The police considered that, on the evidence they had, they could not bring a charge, because they could not formally identify the culprit. The person responsible for causing the accident, therefore, got away scot free.

The hon. Member accepts, as we all do, that the police acted perfectly correctly, but he is also naturally anxious to block what he regards as a loophole in the law. He asked for statistics about previous similar cases, but the police are not aware of any other such cases, so it is not unfair to say that the Bill is based on just one unfortunate case, and the old tag that hard cases make bad law is not inappropriate.

The hon. Member has said that the Bill's importance is not only that it will make it possible to prosecute all the occupants of a car in some cases, but that it is likely to induce other occupants to say who the driver was at the time of the offence. It might have that effect, but only at what we regard as the wholly unacceptable social cost of putting all the innocent passengers in jeopardy. This is not only unacceptable but unnecessary, since, in most cases where the identity of the driver is in any doubt, the provisions of Section 232 of the Road Traffic Act 1960 provide a remedy. An owner of a vehicle or any other person can be required to give any information which he has as to the identity of the driver and the maximum penalty here—the hon. Member made a mistake, I think—is a fine of not £20 but £50. That also, in certain cases, with many other things at stake, is not an excessive or even equitable fine, but the police regard this as an effective provision which usually persuades people to name the driver in the very few cases.

Section 4 of the Criminal Law Act, 1967, deals effectively with acts such as changing seats when there has been an accident. In this case, offenders are subject to long terms of imprisonment if there is a deliberate intention to impede justice or apprehension or prosecution for an arrestable offence. This, of course, covers most hit and run accidents, which are the most likely cases where changing of seats might take place. So the police can and do use a fair armoury in cases which are not quite but roughly similar to this one.

But the most serious objection to the Bill is one of principle. It is contrary to the criminal law to make persons responsible for an offence for no reason other than that they were nearby when it was committed. It is a rule that there must always be a connection between the offence and the offender, and the Minister of Transport and the Home Secretary are both agreed that it is more important that the innocent should not be wrongly convicted than that the guilty should be brought to book. The Bill would turn all this upside down and large numbers of innocent people would be convicted just so that one or two guilty drivers did not escape punishment.

The hon. Member has had discussions and correspondence with the Department and with my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department and I think that he has been left in no doubt that, unless the Bill reconciled this joint responsibility with the fundamental principle of protection of innocent passengers from the threat of wrongful conviction, the Government would find it very difficult to give any hope that they would support the Bill. However, he asked whether the matter could be referred to the Specialist Committee relating to the criminal law. I cannot give an undertaking that I would so refer it or that I have the authority or power to do so, but I will certainly bring it to the attention of my right hon. Friends the Minister of Transport and the Home Secretary to examine again just how large this loophole in the law is, and how it could perhaps be stopped without putting in jeopardy people unconnected with the accident.

This is an extremely difficult and awkward legal point, and to proceed with the Bill in its present form or anything like it without the fundamental safeguards, which we are all anxious to uphold, would be quite wrong. With the assurance that I will bring the points raised and the particular question which the hon. Gentleman has asked to the notice of my right hon. Friends, I must ask the House to refuse to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Question, That the Bill be now read a Second time, put and negatived.