I beg to move,
That the Motor Vehicles (Speed Limits on Motorways) (Amendment) Regulations 1974, a copy of which was laid before this House on 21st March, be approved.
The purpose of the regulations is simply to permit goods vehicles of over 3 tons unladen weight to travel at up to 60 mph on motorways, the position prevailing before the blanket 50 mph limit was brought in to save fuel last December. The House may be wondering why we should be debating speed limits for heavy lorries rather than the restoration of the general road speed limit of 70 mph on motorways, and how it is that limits which were introduced very simply require a long and complicated process to reverse them.
The regulations made last December introducing the general maximum speed of 50 mph on all roads not subject to lower limits were made without the need for specific parliamentary approval as a result of an Order in Council under the Fuel and Electricity Control Act 1973, which dispensed with the procedural requirements of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1967. Such a procedure is not available for the restoration of pre-December limits, and that prescribed by the 1967 Act for quite different circumstances has to he followed.
As for motorways, for vehicles other than heavy goods vehicles we must proceed under Section 13 of the 1967 Act, and regulations have been made subject to the negative resolution procedure to restore the general 70 mph limit from tomorrow.
To restore the 60mph limit for heavy goods vehicles requires an affirmative resolution under Section 78 of the 1967 Act, and this is the resolution now before us. If the House approves it, as I hope it will, it will come into effect tomorrow, thus putting motorway speed limits back to where they were before the fuel crisis.
I regret that petrol supplies at present do not permit restoration of the 70 mph limit for all-purpose roads—that is roads other than motorways—and this limit must remain at 50 mph until the supply position improves. When the time comes to change it, it can be done under Section 77 of the 1967 Act, and no parliamentary procedure is involved.
I was interested to hear the right hon. Gentleman's reference to the petrol supply position. Can he say whether we now have as many days' supply of petrol in reserve as we had at this time last year? There are indications in the Press that that might be the case. If he can give this information it will better sustain his argument.
Order. I have no intention of allowing a wide debate on this rather narrow matter. The debate is purely restricted to whether there should be a limit of 50 mph or 60 mph for lorries on motorways. That is all that is being debated.
I will not pursue that matter, Mr. Speaker, and in any event the House understands that responsibility for petrol supplies lies with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. But petrol remains on allocation, and it is necessary to stress the importance of motorists continuing to exercise economy if shortages are to be avoided, particularly as demand is likely to increase in the spring and at Easter time.
It is relevant to say that there is no present shortage of derv, the fuel for commercial vehicles, and restrictions on its supply have been lifted.
Since some relaxation is possible it seemed right to begin with motorways, on which the 50 mph restriction is most irksome and most difficult to enforce. Despite occasional accidents, such as the recent tragic accident on the M1, it is important to stress that motorways are our safest roads in terms of accidents. The accident rate is about one-third per mile travelled compared with other roads. Therefore, it was right to restore the status quo ante in respect of speed limits which were reduced only because of the fuel situation, and if petrol supplies permit we shall restore limits to the pre-energy crisis level. This is without prejudice to consideration of what is necessary in the longer term on both road safety and energy grounds.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman has stressed that the only reason for alteration of speed limits was the oil supply situation. I trust, therefore, that you will allow the right hon. Gentleman to give some details of the supply situation, which is the only reason for the regulations now before the House. If the right hon. Gentleman is not allowed to tell the House about the supply situation the House will be restricted in discussion of the essential background of the regulations now before us.
I must deal with the regulations which are before the House. We are considering a very narrow statutory instrument. There may be wider issues, but other occasions will be found for debating them. The issue before the House is the regulations, which relate only to goods vehicles going more than 50 mph or 60 mph. Another occasion must be found for debating the wider situation.
I respect your ruling, Mr. Speaker. In the context which is strictly relevant, the derv position is satisfactory. As my right hon. Friend has announced, the fuel for the commerical vehicles we are talking about is in sufficient supply to make this relaxation possible.
I hope that the House will agree to the regulations, which, if the House approves, will come into effect tomorrow.
I am mindful of your ruling that we must not widen the debate too far, Mr. Speaker.
I welcome the lifting of the speed limit to more than 50 mph on motorways. The restriction has had a harmful effect on commercial life, especially as many of our industrial centres are linked by motorways.
I hope that extra petrol supplies will be diverted to motorway filling stations, if necessary. The Minister mentioned Easter and spring motoring.
Safety matters relating to motorways are often discussed when we debate speed limits. I hope that the Minister will ask the police forces to make much greater use of the computer-controlled hazard warning lights. It is a mystery to me why they were not flashing the 50 mph limit notice during the time of restriction. A great deal of the taxpayer's money was spent to install this expensive equipment, and I hope that it will be used more frequently.
There are times when speed limits should be less than 70 mph. I am thinking particularly of the southern section of the M1, which is heavily used by commercial and private traffic, and the conditions in winter and bad weather. I hope that the Minister will ask the police to use the lights at such times.
There is no reason to be frightened about lifting the speed limit to 70 mph. We now have crash barriers on virtually the whole length of the M1 and overhead gantry lights have been installed in the past six months. I again ask the right hon. Gentleman to remind police forces to make full use of the safety devices installed on motorways at great expense to the taxpayer.
I welcome the regulations in so far as they raise the speed limit on cars. However, I am more doubtful about lifting it in total for heavy vehicles. No motorway runs through my constituency, but it is connected with the metropolis by the M2. I have often been passed by lorries, both foreign and British, travelling at what I regard as an excessive speed, doing untold damage to the motorway in the long run and causing a considerable amount of inconvenience to other people using the motorway.
The Minister will find on investigation, as I have found, that in many continental countries there are lower speed limits on heavy lorries. Will he conduct an investigation of the whole problem to see whether there should be differential speed limits for various grades of lorries here?
I welcome the regulations as they affect motor cars, but I hope that the Minister will at his leisure have a further look at the problem of lorries.
I am surprised that the Minister feels able to introduce the regulations because, although I should like to hear that our oil supplies have improved to such an extent as to allow their introduction at this stage, my impression was that as a result of the speed limits imposed by the previous Government we had fortunately avoided petrol rationing, that the limits had had a considerable effect in reducing the consumption of petrol and derv, but that we were doing no better than coping. I was under the impression that we were in no position to guarantee improved supplies of fuel on the scale we should have expected if oil supplies had not been interfered with by political considerations elsewhere.
I therefore hope, Mr. Speaker, that you will not rule the Minister out of order if he wishes to give us some comparisons regarding the derv situation in terms of number of days' supply compared with the supply position when the order was made. Perhaps he will give us the full background and explain why he is able to give this limited relaxation on motorways which was not possible before.
As regulations will lead to an increase in speeds on motorways, will any change be made in the provision of supplies of derv and petrol to motorway service stations? Will they be exempted from the restrictions in supplies imposed on them in the past?
Finally, I hope the Minister can assure us that the order indicates that the Government are in no way committed to a perpetuation of the 50 mph limit on any roads on road safety grounds. I do not know whether his Department has made any attempt to measure the effect on accidents and road safety generally of the enforced 50 mph limit during the past few months. I shall welcome his assurance that the effect has been minimal and that there is no inclination on his part to use the present restrictions as a basis for permanent 50 mph restrictions on major roads other than motorways.
I accept the Minister's assurance that the crisis in supplies of derv has now passed. That is partly due to the response of industry and members of the public to requests by the previous administration, and to the wise and prudent measures taken by that administration during the crisis. We welcome the fact that the crisis has passed, although the consequences—such as the price of petrol—will remain with us for some time to come. The impact on the economy is well known to every hon. Member.
Any discussion about an increase in vehicle speeds naturally raises apprehension in people's minds. Indeed, the substantial fall in the number of road accidents during the period in which speeds were reduced may be in part due to the reduction in speeds and in part to the fact that there were fewer vehicles on the road.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) promised the House in January that he would make a statement on the consequences of reduction of speeds, and I invite the Minister at some time in the near future to make a statement.
I appreciate that, and I am inviting the Minister to give it on another occasison if he would care to persuade his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to make the occasion available for him.
Accidents involving vehicles are thought to be caused by the bunching of those vehicles on motorways; and the increase in speed by those vehicles will tend to reduce bunching. But that is only part of the story. It is felt strongly that many vehicles on the road today are underpowered, and measures were taken by the last administration to improve the power-load ratio. I invite the Minister to give an assurance to the House that he will make sure that those measures are enforced with the full rigour of the law and that he will watch the situation very carefully and take such further steps as may be necessary to increase the power-load ratio of heavy vehicles.
I understand the House's anxiety about fuel supplies. I cannot go into details, for reasons that you have explained, Mr. Speaker. I can assure the House, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has already done, that restrictions on derv have been lifted. These regulations, which seek to raise the speed limit for commercial vehicles, should not create any supply problems. Individual garages will be able to make the normal arrangements to obtain supplies.
The situation is not the same with petrol, which is still on allocation, and it would, therefore, be wrong for the general 50 mph speed limit to be lifted. It is for this reason that we have confined the regulations to motorways.
The hon. and learned Member for Dover and Deal (Mr. Peter Rees) asked about the possibility of having differential speed limits for different vehicles. As a general principle, I think it would be wrong to use a by-product of the fuel crisis as a means of imposing a new set of speed limits on road safety and other criteria. I appreciate the tremendous response by drivers of both private and commercial vehicles, and that is why the regulations are before the House.
I shall examine the hon. and learned Gentleman's point, but the House should understand that, in considering speed limits, there are two other factors to be borne in mind: first, the practicability of enforceability; secondly, the danger of bunching on the motorways if the speed of lorries is too low. I am advised that that could be almost as dangerous as extending the speed limit.
I am sorry that I cannot give the House the necessary information. It is very sketchy at the moment and full details are available only for December, but when the information is available I shall seek an opportunity to make it known.