Orders of the Day — Road Traffic (Seat Belts) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th June 1976.

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As amended (in the Standing Committee), Considered.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Sir Ronald Bell Sir Ronald Bell , Beaconsfield

I am flattered by that vote of confidence in me and the desire to hear further what I have to say on these important amendments.

You will remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that when interrupted I was referring to the list which the Minister for Transport has circulated. Regrettably we have lost the Minister again so that for the time being I have lost the opportunity of persuading him—I suppose he will be back before dinner, but I do not know. I will carry on for a time and see whether he returns to hear what we have to say about his Bill.

The Minister who is not with us at the moment circulated a list of the categories. The Minister has rejoined us. Now that the Minister has arrived—No. 42 in the Division, I suppose—I can address him, through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and attempt to persuade him that he should accept into the Bill, as distinct from the regulations, some of these limits and criteria which we are proposing. The list which he has sent round, for which we are grateful—although we did not have time to read it before we came here today—shows that other countries have a wider range of exemptions than is proposed in the Bill.

The first example is New South Wales. Reversing is common to all of them. The next category is "medical conditions by certificate". That is the same as the Minister proposes. Then there is the category "Physical condition by certificate." I do not quite know what that means. It is something other than "medical conditions", I suppose. A further category is work journeys involving frequent stops, under 15 m.p.h. That is a perfect description of a commuter journey into or out of London in the rush hour. If we could have an exemption such as that, we should all be very happy. People are frequently stuck in traffic jams—

4.15 p.m.

Photo of Mr Roger Moate Mr Roger Moate , Faversham

That description covers not only people commuting by car but my constituents commuting by train.

Photo of Sir Ronald Bell Sir Ronald Bell , Beaconsfield

We have not yet heard of it, but the Minister no doubt has plans to introduce scat belts for use on trains. However, I am not sure that trains are motor vehicles, therefore perhaps I ought to pass on.

Another category is "inability to drive properly". That would cover many people. I do not know whether it covers the Minister. At the moment, the Minister has in mind using seat belts only in front seats. One of the great pests is the back seat driver. Back seat drivers ought to be made to wear seat belts—and gags as well.

In what is listed as "Australian Capital Territory" there is a final category, namely Those who can show 'that failure to wear a belt was not unreasonable'. That is apparently not part of the Minister's thinking at present. In other words, he is not making any allowance for the occasion where a defence arises. One realises why that is so when one comes to the end of the Minister's first document, obtained from the Vote Office, which says that the Secretary of State has felt it right to draw the definitions tightly, believing that the combination of tight rules and flexible enforcement is least likely to lead to confusion or dissatisfaction. That is not a view that I or others who have signed these amendments hold.

As I said earlier on a different group of amendments, it is contrary to our general tradition of English law that there should be a strict law and lax enforcement of it. I do not think that the Secretary of State will avoid dissatisfaction if he uses any system such as that. In a matter such as this people are entitled to know where they stand and within what circumscription they are to keep themselves. While we cannot achieve that by amendments that put requirements into this clause—and I accept that none of the four amendments actually achieves that—nevertheless the amendments make it more practicable and more possible for that objective to be attained.

Amendment No. 2 reads: notwithstanding the generality of paragaph (b) shall prescribe that exception be made for such categories of occupation as may be prescribed. That again seems to me to be a very much better approach than that envisaged by the Minister.

Other hon. Members have referred to these fantastic definitions which the Minister has circulated. For example, he is not exempting milk roundsmen as such, although that would make sense. One does not have to exempt a milk rounds-man because he is on a journey to Brighton with his family. That is not the point. But the milk roundsman driving a milk float should be exempted qua milk roundsman.

Instead of that, what we have here provided is that he is exempted if at the time he is engaged in a journey or an operation that requires him to stop no fewer than 10 times in every mile and, if engaged on a journey on which he is required to stop no fewer than 10 times in a mile, he claims exemption when stopped by a policeman on a journey of no more than 200 yards.

When that is applied in practical common sense it is just too silly for words. If he has to stop at least 10 times in a mile, his average length of journey is 176 yards. That is the average. He is allowed a margin of 24 yards because his customers may not live precisely the average distance apart. How silly can we get? If he is engaged on a journey of 220 yards between two customers who live a little further apart than the average and a policeman stops him, he will explain that he is a milk roundsman, but the policeman will say that he has travelled more than 200 yards without wearing a seat belt and he will land up in court.

Photo of Sir Frederick Burden Sir Frederick Burden , Gillingham

Would it not be a wonderful sight to see police officers with long rules in front of milk floats measuring whether they were going just over the distance allowed by the law?

Photo of Sir Ronald Bell Sir Ronald Bell , Beaconsfield

That would be essential, in my view. There would have to be a milk float gang. What is more, there will have to be a continuous measure of 200 yards long otherwise there will be arguments about whether there was a finger placed between rules or that they overlapped.

Photo of Sir Frederick Burden Sir Frederick Burden , Gillingham

I suppose that it would be possible to put down tapes in the road marking off the distance between houses to facilitate the bringing of prosecutions.

Photo of Sir Ronald Bell Sir Ronald Bell , Beaconsfield

There are many ingenious methods that could be adopted. However, my broad point is that this is lust too silly for words. I see the Under-Secretary leaning forward pretending that he wishes to intervene—

Photo of Mr Kenneth Marks Mr Kenneth Marks , Manchester, Gorton

I am sorry to interrupt the Morecambe and Wise act to which we have been listening during the past couple of minutes. However, electric milk floats do not have to be fitted with seat belts and, therefore, are not covered by the Bill.

Photo of Sir Ronald Bell Sir Ronald Bell , Beaconsfield

In that case, I must ask the hon. Gentleman why he has all this joke about 200 yards and stopping 10 times in a mile if it does not apply to milk roundsmen.

Photo of Mr Mark Carlisle Mr Mark Carlisle , Runcorn

A vehicle delivering milk does not necessarily have to be an electric float. Where I live, the milk is delivered by a petrol-engined car. I assume that that will be covered.

Photo of Sir Ronald Bell Sir Ronald Bell , Beaconsfield

I think that my hon. and learned Friend may assume that the situation will be dealt with by allocating electric milk floats for all those people who live more than 200 yards apart and petrol-driven ones will have to do for people who live a bit closer together. I am sure that the Minister will tell us shortly how the police will cope with that. This is the fairy land into which we are led by this absurd kind of pettifogging definition.

The amendment says that it should be by specified occupation, and that implies while the person is engaged in that occupation. It does not cover him on a family trip to Brighton. It covers him on his milk round or his bread round, and we do not need all this footling stuff about distances apart.

The second amendment in this group deals with emergency situations. That is what I was speaking about just now. There is no provision in the Minister's mind or in his circular for the emergency situation. I instanced a person suffering from the heat who felt that he had to remove his belt. That was only an illustration. There are many other instances when it would be reasonable for a person to drive without a seat belt.

The third amendment in this group deals with that situation. As the Minister has told us informally that he is not proposing to cater for that situation, it is important that we press that the amendment goes into the Bill. There should be such an emergency category.

The fourth amendment relates to categories of children. Again, we are getting into fairyland. Children are not dealt with, but people less than 5 ft are prescribed. It is a very odd way of proceeding. There are many people who are shorter than 5 ft and there are many children who are taller than 5 ft.

I understand that some countries sensibly refer to "unsuitable stature". What about the chap who, far from being 5 ft, is over 7 ft? In some countries he would come within exemption because he would be considered to be of unsuitable stature. The chap who is 8 ft tall will still have to wear a belt, even if he is sticking out of the top of the car. In that instance he would be firmly secured and could not possibly be thrown forward.

This is an absolute nonsense. We may see policemen producing a tape measure to measure a child. They may insist on the child lying down in the road while they run a tape measure along it. It is too silly for words. If the child is growing quickly, it may pass the 5 ft level before the measuring takes place. A little common sense would be very useful.

Photo of Sir Ronald Bell Sir Ronald Bell , Beaconsfield

A little common sense would be more easily found on this side of the House if we did not have to debate these matters late on a Friday afternoon. The hon. Gentleman cannot expect us to accept the Bill and sweep all these matters aside. It may well be necessary to stay here until 7 o'clock, 8 o'clock or 9 o'clock tonight, or even later, when we come to important matters upon which there are strong feelings—for example, the Government were defeated in Committee on the size of the penalty. There will be Third Reading, on which Members will want to vote.

It is an absolute scandal that we should have to consider these matters at a late hour on a Friday afternoon after suspending the four o'clock rule.

Photo of Sir Ronald Bell Sir Ronald Bell , Beaconsfield

It may not be the Minister's fault, and it is not for him to say whose fault it is, but he might find that a little astringent lotion would be poured over our proceedings if we were given a reasonable assurance about the proposed future of today's business. In the absence of that assurance, and being extremely conscious of the importance of some of the matters on the Order Paper, I am afraid that we shall have to give these matters the close, careful, persistent and elaborate attention which they plainly deserve and which we are all here to ensure that they get.

Photo of Mr Roger Moate Mr Roger Moate , Faversham

I agree with the remarks of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) about the inappropriateness of the time for a debate of this significance. I believe that it was quite right to vote against suspending the rule. It would be seen by the country as being quite wrong for these important matters to be considered at a late hour on a Friday when by custom and accepted practice the House is thinly attended.

4.30 p.m.

I remind the Minister of an event that occurred in the House about two years ago on seat belt legislation. On the occasion to which I refer my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) and I forced a Division on the principle of adding seat belt legislation to a road traffic Bill then passing through the House. The then Minister, though a supporter and advocate of seat belt legislation, voted against our proposition. His reasons for doing so were that he thought that a Friday evening in a thin House was quite the wrong time to discuss a matter of such importance and with such an impact on the people of Britain. Yet here we are again, two years later—and when the Government preach urgency, let them remember that it has taken two years to come back to this matter—and again dealing with matters of very extreme importance in just the same circumstances that the then Minister previously regarded as wrong.

I hope that the Minister will use his influence on his colleagues to ensure that this does not continue indefinitely and that we come back at a more appropriate time to discuss the important issues still ahead of us in considering the Bill on report, and certainly before Third Reading.

Photo of Dr Alan Glyn Dr Alan Glyn , Windsor and Maidenhead

Is it not true that this sort of thing does not enhance the stature of the House when the Division records are seen and when, as my hon. Friend has just said, matters of such importance are discussed and the public read the next day that only x number of Members were here and that the matter was dealt with on a Friday afternoon? I agree with my hon. Friend that this is not the time that a matter of this sort should be discussed.

Photo of Mr Roger Moate Mr Roger Moate , Faversham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reinforcing the point. That point is supported by so many hon. Members. I suspect that it is supported by the Minister. I think that he is a victim of the Whips, rather than the culprit. I hope that he will rectify this situation fairly soon so that Members can go and perform their constituency duties, which they are straining at the leash to undertake this evening.

Regardless of whether one supports any or all of these amendments or is against them, had it not been for my hon. Friend tabling these amendments relating to exemptions we might not have had any opportunity on Report of discussing exemptions at all. There is no other provision in the selection of amendments or new clauses whereby we could be dis cussing these questions at all. That is quite a reflection on the procedure that has been adopted. It might have been the case that the House was not able to discuss the exemptions. Yet there could hardly be a matter of greater sensitivity or importance to the public than the exemptions proposed. Had these amendments not been tabled, what would have been the point of the Minister producing the consultation document which has now been made available to all hon. Members? What would have been the point of that had we not had an opportunity for debating the exemptions?

That brings me to another point. While one is grateful for a consultation document of this kind, it is right to point out that receiving it only this morning in the post is totally inadequate. It is a very important matter, which clarifies certain points made in Committee. Those hon. Members who served on the Committee received the document in the post this morning. We were told that it would be on the Letter Board last night. However, I was here until 1.15 this morning and it certainly was not made available to me then. Other hon. Members not on the Committee would have heard about its existence in the Vote Office only at 11 o'clock this morning. Therefore, we cannot have an intelligent, wide-ranging and informed debate when the consultation document was made available to the House only this morning.

That emphasised the unsatisfactory nature of having regulations formulated in this way. We know that this is the growing practice of the House but it is a very unfortunate practice. We know that there is now so much legislation which provides for regulations subsequently to be made and that we have little chance of amending those regulations even, sometimes, of voting on them. It is a very dangerous procedure.

In this particular case the Government would have been well advised to have adopted a different procedure. I see no fundamental reason why they could not have incorporated these proposals in the Bill itself. I need hardly say that that would have meant numerous amendments at a later stage, but it would have made for a better examination by Parliament had we had them in the Bill.

Had that not been possible, it would still have been open to the Department to produce draft regulations which we could have discussed at the same time as the Bill. Had we had those regulations they would have been examined in depth in Committee and on Report, and again in the other place; there would have been a continuing consultation process in the country; and by the time the Bill went on to the statute book we should probably have knocked the thing into shape and achieved a better outcome. The Bill in its present form will leave many loose ends, and this procedure will increase the chances of the Minister having to come back in a year or two to make further amendments.

The situation is unsatisfactory, and there is some criticism to be levelled against the Government for having done too little preparation. My impression is that they spent so much time arguing about the principle that they gave too little thought to how they would finally present the legislation. After two years of examination they should have had a much clearer idea of what they really wanted. It is only now, after a lengthy Committee stage, that they have produced all these lists and comparisons with other countries. They could have done this a couple of months ago, and had they done so they would have helped the Committee. There is, therefore, that ground for criticism.

I now come to some of the detailed exemptions referred to in the amendments and covered by the consultation document. My first point relates to the contrast between the proposals for medical exemptions and those relating to what are called practicability exemptions. There is some reference to disabled people. An exemption is proposed on medical grounds, but different considerations apply to those who are to be exempt on grounds of physical disability. It puzzles me that in the first case the exempt person must have a medical certificate, while it is not clear that a person who is exempt because he suffers from a disability must have a certificate. In fact, it appears from the subsequent description that all those who are exempt, apart from those suffering from a medical condition, do not need a certificate. It says that people exempted under paragraphs B to F—that is, all the other range of exemptions— will not be provided with any certificate since the circumstances defining the exemption are in each case a matter of observable fact. There is an important point at issue here, and at some stage the Minister must clarify the position. If someone believes himself to be medically exempt because he is suffering from, say, claustrophobia but he has not been to a doctor to get a medical certificate, according to the consultation document he is committing an offence unless he can produce that medical certificate to the police officer at the time or within a short time thereafter. On the other hand, if he has a disability, such as frozen shoulder, which is the case that I quoted to the Minister before, apparently he does not need a medical certificate. All that he needs to do is to prove to the court afterwards that he is disabled.

There are different criteria for different classes of people, and it could mean that one person who is genuinely medically unfit but has failed to get a certificate will be penalised while another person who has what is called a physical disability but has no certificate because he does not need one will not be penalised. The Minister must clear up this matter. As the consultation document suggests, the answer is that it should be sufficient, subsequent to the alleged offence, to produce medical evidence that someone would have been exempt had he applied for a medical certificate. I cannot think that that will lead to any great abuse of the law, and I hope that the Minister will consider it.

It is suggested that the period for which a medical certificate should be valid should be left to the doctor, but be subject to a maximum of five years. Why five years? Surely doctors have sufficient intelligence to judge whether a disability is permanent? I think that it is reasonable to suggest that if a person is permanently disabled the doctor should give him a certificate for life.

I disagree with the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend which gives exemption by occupation. We have had endless debates about this—whether doctors, newspaper delivery boys, or milkmen should be exempted. This is the wrong way to deal with the question. I prefer the Government approach of classifying short journeys, but I part company with the Government because I think they verge on the ridiculous when they try to lay down such precise conditions as those which are proposed in the consultative document. For example, to suggest that occupants should not have to wear belts on roads where the speed limit is 30 m.p.h. or 40 m.p.h. and their vehicle is being used for a purpose which requires them to make 10 or more stops in the course of a mile at points more than 200 yards apart, is ridiculous. They are trying to follow through the philosophy of tight rules and hope that the courts will interpret them flexibly. This is a nonsense approach which brings the law into disrepute very quickly. It would be better to follow the reverse process—have flexible rules and leave it to the courts to establish whether a person is engaged in short distance collection or delivery services. They would be far better advised to do that.

On the question of medical certificates related to disability, we are told that these certificates have to be produced on the spot or at a police station within the normal period, which is, I believe, five days. Difficulties are being encountered at present in bringing licences to a police station in that period, and five days is often totally inadequate. The Under-Secretary has said that two or three weeks is a normal period for the dispatch of documents. In those circumstances five days would seem to be inadequate, and consideration should be given to extending the period in which the medical certificate is produced.

This is a consultative document, but I regard this as an improper time to discuss such matters. I think the Government are on the right lines broadly, and while these amendments have been most helpful in airing this matter I hope they will not be forced to a Division.

4.45 p.m.

Photo of Mr Mark Carlisle Mr Mark Carlisle , Runcorn

I regret that we are debating these matters at this hour on a Friday evening. I think that the Minister shares this regret because when I raised a semi-improper point of order on this at 11 o'clock this morning to get an indication of the Minister's point of view, he said he did not think it was proper that we should be taking these decisions at 7 or 8 o'clock on a Friday night. If we are to carry a Bill through the House which will affect everyone who gets into a motor car, I would suggest to the Minister that it would be right for the public to see its progress through a full House rather than through a House with only a few Members on a Friday evening. I am opposed to the principle of the Bill, but if we are to have this legislation, people outside will regard it as wrong if it goes through at a time when there is not the wholehearted support of Parliament.

The exemptions show the impracticality of the scheme. I understand that the supporters of the Bill accept that there must be exemptions or the law will be a nonsense. Therefore those exemptions should be clearly defined. But it becomes immediately apparent from those exempttions that they cannot be clearly defined. We are told that obese people will find that in some seats the belt is too short to be worn. Therefore obese people will be exempt—or will it be only obese people in cars with short seat belts? I am asked, apparently, about the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith). Another of my hon. Friends said that it would be wrong to make this an issue of personalities. But what is an obese person? Will there be regulations to say that this is a crime unless someone is obese? There cannot be a medical certificate to that effect because it is not a medical condition.

This is to be a matter of observable fact. Views may vary on obesity. Will it be judged on weight, girth, height or vital statistics? The person concerned will have to prove it in court. The hon. Member who has been referred to might be taken to court for this offence. He would have to say that he was not wearing his seat belt but that the reason was that he was obese. This is what is required, but it will not do.

Another exemption is of those under 5 ft in height. The Minister said that some of these points were being taken to ludicrous extremes, but there might be a six months delay between the offence and a court appearance. When a child is involved, it is relevant to ask whether his height at the time of the offence or his height when he appears in court is to be the observable fact. If he is over 5 ft when he appears in court he will be entitled to say that he was under 5 ft when the offence was committed and no one will be able to say whether that is true.

Let me give some more obvious examples. Is it sensible to suggest that one is committing an offence if one is in a car built since 1st January 1965 but not if the car were built before then, although that car happens to have a seat belt? What is meant by the words: The requirement will apply only where the belt is capable of being used"? Of course it should apply only in those circumstances, but what is a belt "capable of being used"? If somebody cannot fasten a belt because it is unserviceable, no offence will be committed.

I have a car which has been back to the garage four times since it was bought new a year ago because of the unsatisfactory nature of the seat belts, which are of the inertia reel type. I am told that the trouble is not unusual. The belts start to tighten themselves automatically and thus become unserviceable. Sometimes one can put the belts on, but at other times they start to pull back the moment they have been fastened. It is the impracticality of the definition of exemptions which makes the point that it is absurd to proceed with such legislation.

I do not want to speak for long, because the Minister is entitled to ask, in regard to the criticism about our continuing past 5 o'clock. "If hon. Members speak for too long, what can I do about it?" Although I am an opponent of the Bill I have spoken only twice today, once for eight minutes and the other time for five minutes. I do not think that the Minister can suggest that that is speaking at undue length.

Photo of Sir Frederick Burden Sir Frederick Burden , Gillingham

How does one determine whether a person can fasten a seat belt? He may say that as a pretext in order not to wear it. How does one prove that he is capable of fastening the belt.

Photo of Mr Mark Carlisle Mr Mark Carlisle , Runcorn

That question goes rather wider than the amendment, but it covers one of my major objections to the legislation, which is that it is unenforceable and will do nothing but create friction between the police and the public.

I turn next to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate), who takes a totally different view from mine about the principle, about very short journeys. The Department, probably with the assistance of the Home Office and other Departments, has done its best to provide what it suggests is a workable definition, but it will not do. Is it suggested that if there are eight houses at 50-yard intervals, but there is a distance of three-quarters of a mile between groups of houses, the milkman is bound to wear a seat belt as he is going between the eight, but that if two other houses are built between the groups he no longer has to wear one?

If we are to have this legislation, which I oppose in principle, there is an argument for introducing it experimentally and starting with main roads and motorways outside towns. I know that it is said that many accidents happen in towns, but it would be far better initially to exempt urban traffic moving slowly in crowded conditions, where the wearing of seat belts would cause more and more irritation and where it is less likely to reduce the types of injury caused in accidents.

Photo of Mr Toby Jessel Mr Toby Jessel , Twickenham

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that the French started with compulsory wearing of seat belts on country roads only but about a year later extended the law to towns? In the intervening period there were many casualties in towns which would have been avoided if they had introduced the law for the whole country in the first place.

Photo of Mr Mark Carlisle Mr Mark Carlisle , Runcorn

My hon. Friend sticks to the view that it is only by making things compulsory that people can be persuaded to take care of themselves. I do not accept that. People should be encouraged to wear seat belts in conditions when they think it is right to wear them. We should not make the postman or the newspaper delivery man wear a seat belt when he is constantly getting out of his car every few yards, merely because there happen to be eight houses in a row and not nine or 10.

I oppose the Bill, but if we are to have the Bill let us start in a realistic way, which means having much more sensible exemptions than we have now and having the minimum number of exemptions, as put forward by the Opposition Front Bench.

I hope that I have expressed my general reasons for saying that the proposed exemptions are unworkable, because they cannot be clearly and simply defined, which the Minister states is a necessary prerequisite. If the exemptions are not clearly definable it is better not to have the regulations but to go back to persuasion rather than compulsion.

Photo of Sir John Langford-Holt Sir John Langford-Holt , Shrewsbury

I find it difficult to recall a more inept example of how to get through the House of Commons a Bill on which practically every Member of the House feels that he is an expert. One has known in one's time in this place occasions when a Department has wanted to get some business through in a hurry and other occasions when the Department was incredibly slow. In my experience it is slow when the majority of people want the Bill and it is fast when the Department has its own notions as to what is necessary.

The Minister chided my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) when he mentioned the phrase "common sense", as though common sense resided in the Minister's hands and in nobody else's. There is nothing in the history of the Department, of which he is doubtless the proud head, that gives me the notion that common sense resides there. If we are to debate these amendments relying on the judgment of the Department, one has only to remember the old idea that the "men in Whitehall", as they used to be known, knew best, that they had the judgment, that they were the oracle. In fact, this is not so. Only 60 years ago the experts in the War Office decided that the tank and the hand grenade had no military value.

Photo of Mr John Biggs-Davison Mr John Biggs-Davison , Epping Forest

There is a much more recent example when it was decided in the Air Ministry that there was no future for the jet engine.

Photo of Sir John Langford-Holt Sir John Langford-Holt , Shrewsbury

I was tempted to say that there are more recent examples in the Minister's own Department.

Soon after I first came to the House, the Ministry of Transport decided that cat's eyes on roads were not necessary. That was a key decision. It was only after an outcry on behalf of motorists and the public that the Department was persuaded to withdraw from that decision.

I went to the Department and said that in my experience the problem with traffic at crossroads lay not with the first vehicle across the crossing but with the last one that sneaked across. I suggested that a square was needed—I suggested a red painted square—at intersections over which traffic should not pass in certain circumstances. "Oh no", said the Ministry of Transport, "that would be quite impossible. It would not work. We should get tailbacks three times as long as we get already." Twenty years later the policy I advocated was introduced by the Ministry.

The Government fought Continental-type road signs for years but eventually they came round to them. There are a number of other examples.

I cannot find any reference in the consultative document to exemptions for vehicles that have no hood—the sports car. They can be lethal if seat belts are worn. Twenty years ago my wife would have been killed if she had been caught in a seat belt. If one is not thrown clear from a sports car when it overturns one's neck is broken.

Photo of Sir Ronald Bell Sir Ronald Bell , Beaconsfield

In Committee I tabled amendments about that. I said that there is nothing more disquieting when standing on one's head than having a motor car strapped to one.

5.0 p.m.

Photo of Sir John Langford-Holt Sir John Langford-Holt , Shrewsbury

Being strapped in a motor car that has no roof and no roll bar and that turns over is a passport to a broken neck and death. But there is no mention of it in the consultative document and I hope that the Minister will give the House some information about that. Hon. Members have discussed how one decides whether a person is obese. The document conveys little to me about that.

The document mentions exemption for very short journeys, but 38 per cent. of fatal and serious casualties are among drivers and front-seat passengers travelling in built-up areas. We have heard much about how many people will have their lives saved and yet we are proposing to exclude one-third of them from having their lives saved.

The Ministry is once again trying to say what people should do. I go along with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield when he said that people in their wisdom—and drivers should have wisdom—should decide when is the right occasion to use a seat belt and when is the wrong occasion. The Minister is making a foolish attempt to distinguish between the two. The average driver can do that for himself.

Photo of Sir Frederick Burden Sir Frederick Burden , Gillingham

I regret that we have to continue the debate this afternoon. In principle I am in agreement with the Bill because I find it difficult to object to it. If one accepts that seat belts save life and stop injury, it is surely difficult to argue that there should not be provision to ensure that seat belts are made mandatory in conditions in which it is believed that life is endangered and injuries may occur. One's own experience from a number of years on the road shows that accidents can occur even to the best drivers and in the most unusual of circumstances.

I have no intention of repeating what I said earlier about the involvement of the health service and the consequences to doctors, nurses, and the families of those who are injured. In general I support any regulations that will save human life and injury. That is the stand I am taking.

I am also greatly concerned about the regulations. We have before us a consultative document, but some of the points in it appear to be quite ridiculous. Throughout the many years I have been in this House I have become a little sceptical about the wisdom of producing regulations without the House being able to debate them or amend them afterwards. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will give the House an opportunity to discuss those regulations before they are made mandatory. I am glad that the Minister has agreed to this idea to a limited extent because it will help to remove many of the fears of some of my hon. Friends and many of the motoring and other organisations.

A great deal has been said about the exemptions. It appears to be a matter of medical experience, knowledge and common sense. I hope that the Minister is in close consultation with the British medical profession in an effort to produce sensible guidelines to practitioners who will have to decide whether exemptions shall be made. Obviously in many instances exemptions should be made only for a short period rather than in perpetuity. An illness or a physical disability—for example, a broken leg—may make it impossible for a person for a short period of time to use a seat belt properly. Therefore, on medical grounds such a driver may need to be given exemption, but that exemption should last only until such time as the person concerned has recovered from that disability.

I am greatly encouraged by the fact that the Minister has given an undertaking that before he imposes regulations and makes them mandatory, he will bring them to the House so that we may be able to discuss and possibly amend them. If that happens, then it will remove a great deal of concern on this matter—concern which has been expressed by a great many people, including Members of Parliament. Obviously it is felt that Parliament should be in a position to re-examine these matters.

I see the Minister for Transport and Under-Secretary of State for the Environment discussing this matter at this very moment. I am sure that they will appreciate that there is a great deal of good will on this topic in the country, although perhaps some of my hon. Friends are a little sceptical. However, a great deal of that scepticism will disappear if they had the opportunity to examine what is proposed before measures such as this are passed into law. I hope that the Minister will be able to give an undertaking on those lines.

Photo of Mr Richard Body Mr Richard Body , Holland with Boston

My hon. Friend appears to indicate that my colleagues and I are sceptical, but is not that scepticism justifield, following a debate earlier this morning when certain comments were made by the Minister about the affirmative resolution procedure?

Photo of Sir Frederick Burden Sir Frederick Burden , Gillingham

I have already explained that I was unable to be here this morning. I did not hear that part of the debate because I was at another meeting which can often be fiery—the annual meeting of the RSPCA—though it was calm and quiet today.

I hope that the Minister will give the undertakings for which I have asked.

Photo of Dr Alan Glyn Dr Alan Glyn , Windsor and Maidenhead

I still believe that the use of seat belts should be left to the common sense of the driver and should not be a dictate from Whitehall. I thank the Minister for ensuring that we received a copy of the draft consultation letter. Even though it arrived only this morning, we have been able to go through it carefully in the debate.

Of course draft regulations cannot be debated or amended. When the regulations themselves are presented to Parliament they must either be accepted in toto or rejected completely. Even if presented under the affirmative resolution procedure, the regulations could not be changed.

I had to leave the Chamber for a short while, but apart from that I have listened to the entire debate about the draft regulations and it is clear that they are impracticable. Take the provisions regarding obesity, for instance. It will not be a question of having to put a measuring tape around someone's waist. A doctor will have to decide whether a patient is so obese that he cannot wear a seat belt. My hon. Friends have already mentioned how ridiculous it would be to measure the height of children.

I rarely speak on medical matters in the House, but I wish to comment on the medical aspects of the Bill. Although I welcome the consultations with the profession, the test will have to be whether a patient would suffer personally or his standard of driving deteriorate if he wore a seat belt. It would be extremely difficult to draw up a list of diseases and derformities for which doctors should produce exemption certificates. The Government should think again. If the Bill is to become law, we want to ensure that it is properly drafted.

It is for the medical practitioner to decide, on the criteria, whether a person is able to wear a belt. There might have to be further consideration about permanent or temporary exemptions. The doctor will be faced with extremely difficult decisions. There will always be borderline cases. I suggest that he obesity referred to in paragraph (c) of the categories should be removed to paragraph (a). Some of the categories of disabled people may well have to be treated differently from a medical and social security point of view. This illustrates the complexity of drawing up categories.

There is also the point about short journeys. It is obvious that every street in the country is different. We do not want the police going round with tape measures. This will create a good deal of conflict between the police and the driving public.

5.15 p.m.

Photo of Sir Ronald Bell Sir Ronald Bell , Beaconsfield

Would my hon. Friend not agree that if the police follow the milk roundsman with their tape measures and measure the distance he travels, the roundsman will probably eventually be entitled to a medical certificate?

Photo of Dr Alan Glyn Dr Alan Glyn , Windsor and Maidenhead

Yes, and the policeman will be very unlikely to get his milk.

These are matters which affect millions of people. They ought to be the subject of debate and ought to be incorporated into the Act. The Minister will no doubt say that previous Conservative Governments have done the same thing. That is not a defence. We have found that this procedure is unsatisfactory and we should produce something which works better. The regulations should be capable of being subjected to the scrutiny of this House so that hon. Members who are professionals in various areas can help the Government in drawing them up correctly.

I dislike legislation by means of the negative resolution procedure, or even by the affirmative procedure. I like to see everything in the statute. I have a genuine fear that we will have situations with the police racing past an ordinary motorist trying to see whether his seat belt is properly fastened. They may stop the man and by the time he is stopped it may be that his belt is loose.

This will be one of the most difficult regulations to enforce. No order should be given that cannot be carried out. Equally, we should not enact a law if it cannot be enforced. In any event, there is far too much legislation these days. We must frame this legislation in such a way that it is easily interpreted, so that it creates as little friction as possible between the general public and the police. The police will not like carrying out the terms of this legislation.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Marks Mr Kenneth Marks , Manchester, Gorton

I appreciate that some hon. Gentlemen have been seeking by these amendments to obtain assurances and to debate matters which may not have been fully covered in the Second Reading debate and the 15 hours in Committee. I accept that many hon. Members have done this with great sincerity.

I think that the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) summarised the attitude of the opponents of the Bill in the past six hours of debate. My hon. Friend the Minister is seeking to be as reasonable as he can in giving exemptions to those who may be harmed by the Bill, and the attempt has been made to prove that the exemptions are unworkable. As the hon. and learned Gentleman said, if the exemptions are unworkable, the Bill is unworkable.

I assure the House that during the coming period, after the Royal Assent is received, there will be full consultations with all organisations concerned, including the driving instructors. Draft regulations will be sent to these organisations and will at the same time be available to hon. Members.

Photo of Mr Peter Fry Mr Peter Fry , Wellingborough

Will the Minister say why there has been a delay? Surely the Department must have had some idea what the draft regulations would be. After all, there was a Bill before the House in the last Session, some 15 months ago. Why, therefore, could not the draft regulations or the consultative letter be ready, so that the Minister might have been able to report to the House today on the result of some of those consultations?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Marks Mr Kenneth Marks , Manchester, Gorton

It would not be usual for consultations of this kind to go on before an Act such as this has been passed.

I say to the hon. Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn) that the Bill is not before us at the dictate of Whitehall. It results from a decision made by Parliament and the House of Commons on a free vote, with an overwhelming majority in favour of the Bill as presented. Having obtained the support of the House, my hon. Friend has sought to be reasonable on the exemptions.

Inevitably, these can create a great deal of discussion and provide the opportunity for a great deal of fun, but this matter is serious, as has been pointed out. Injuries are occurring which could have been avoided—the evidence from other countries' experience shows this—if this measure had been in operation.

Some hon. Members have referred to what they regard as the more ridiculous aspects of enforcement in other countries, but nobody quoted Israel, where people have to wear a seat belt and where any dispensation to do otherwise is only at the discretion of the courts.

My hon. Friend has been as reasonable as he can on the subject of exemptions.

Photo of Sir Frederick Burden Sir Frederick Burden , Gillingham

Apparently the regulations will become mandatory shortly after the Bill receives Royal Assent. Without them the Bill has no guts whatsoever. The Minister has stated that draft regulations will be released and that there will be consulation on them. One could like to know when those draft regulations are likely to be available, so that there will be sufficient time for interested organisations and hon. Members to give them consideration. It is disturbing that we shall not have the opportunity of debating them officially.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Marks Mr Kenneth Marks , Manchester, Gorton

I do not think it would be wise to print draft regulations until we have heard the opinions of this House and the other place and before the Royal Assent is received. When it is, and we have made the draft regulations, they will be issued to authorities or to anybody else wishing to see them. They will be made available to hon. Members. I have not noticed any reluctance of hon. Members or inability of hon. Members to get matters raised or debated in the House without having a specific debate, as we shall have later, on an affirmative resolution.

A number of suggestions have been made in the debate. The problem with all of them is that they will narrow the area of consultation on exemptions.

I was asked how far the current consultation had gone. So far, with the BMA it has been informal. We have written pointing out that the Bill is proceeding through the House but we have received no reply as yet, though we had an opinion from the BMA on the subject of the possible fee that doctors might charge for a certificate.

On the question of the medical grounds, I think that it would be a disaster if we or the BMA tried to give a hard and fast list of the ailments or complaints which ought to be exempted. As the hon. Member for Windsor and Maidenhead said, we ought to try to avoid that.

Photo of Dr Alan Glyn Dr Alan Glyn , Windsor and Maidenhead

The Minister misquoted me earlier. I said that it was my opinion that I preferred common sense to Whitehall dictate but that, given that, I was prepared to advance any form of argument which would help to make the Bill better. This was one of them.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Marks Mr Kenneth Marks , Manchester, Gorton

I am grateful for that clarification.

The Government envisage that individual doctors will have full discretion to decide whether and for how long a patient's condition warrants exemption. The point raised by the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) about five years is reasonable, and we shall discuss it with the doctors. Five years seems a reasonable time. Probably it is also a reasonable time for a licence printed on paper to last, too.

Many organisations, in consultation with the Government, will publish guidance on this matter. I think that it would be hazardous to give an exhaustive list of conditions. Some hon. Members may remember the problem that we had when we tried to make exemptions from prescription charges. I am sure that those opponents of the Bill who wish to obstruct it would have a field day if we attempted to make a list of ailments in the Act. If we did that, it would on the one hand preclude the issue of a certificate for a rare condition not foreseen in preparing the list, and on the other would create a misleading expectation that having a named condition automatically created a right to a certificate, even though the doctor's clinical judgment was that in a particular case the condition was insufficiently serious or took a form to which the wearing of a seat belt had no relevance.

When we come to occupations, we get into a rather difficult area. My hon. Friend has sought to find some reasonable way of exempting the drivers of vehicles engaged on short and slow journeys. Milkmen and others have been quoted as examples. Naming them by occupation would not be the answer. Even a milkman, if he were driving a petrol-driven vehicle which required a seat belt under the proposed regulations, would often have a fairly long journey from the dairy to the start of his round. If he had seat belts compulsorily fixed in his vehicle, he ought to wear them on the occasions when he did that.

As for driving instructors, their organisations will certainly be consulted on this matter. As I said in Committee, I appreciate that there are difficulties, even with dual controls, in reaching some of the controls which it might be necessary to operate urgently. So there is nothing final in any suggestion that driving instructors should not be exempt in dual control vehicles. Certainly we say that we should probably need exemptions for anyone accompanying a learner driver, by which I mean not just an examiner but anyone, whether a professional instructor or not.

We shall be consulting all these organisations of the occupations represented but we feel that it would not be wise to provide in the regulations a list of occupations which would automatically be exempted. I am sure that the House as a whole will accept that.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) is no longer with us, in view of his complaints about the police. On the question of the emergency services, we all realise that in certain cases police, firemen and so on may need to be exempted in the execution of their job, whether it is a matter of holding on to prisoners or being able to get out of a vehicle very quickly in the case of a chase. At the beginning of the debate I wondered whether some hon. Members would suggest that others should be considered as well as the police and fire service personnel, or that it should be left to the police to realise that there is an emergency when their checks take place.

5.30 p.m.

I think it is necessary to accept that the police will act reasonably. I know that they do not wish to be awkward. It may be said that many of them do not want the job of enforcing this measure. Nevertheless, the House has decided that in principle the compulsory wearing of seat belts should be enforced. It is the job of the police to do the enforcing.

As the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn said, it is much better if we can persuade people that they should wear belts, but the evidence is that persuasion has not worked as well as compulsion. We have had some great campaigns. For a while they resulted in an increased number wearing seat belts. However, as each campaign stopped, the wearing figures decreased. Other countries have found that compulsory wearing has doubled the number of people wearing scat belts. That is why we feel justified in going ahead with this measure.

Mention has been made of the possibility of somebody being affected by dermatitis in hot weather. That was an original thought that was perhaps brought on by the hot weather. Surely that is a medical condition that would be considered by the person suffering from it a long time before he or she encountered the heat wave.

There is some difficulty about children. I have talked to children of various ages and sizes, and I can assure the House that age and size are not always proportional. There are some extremely large 12-yearolds and some particularly small adults. In considering exemptions, we have tried to find some way of exempting those for whom the normal seat belt would not be appropriate. Instead of defining children, we have defined by using height. We have heard a lot of nonsense about tape measures, people lying on the ground and so forth, but I think it is reasonable for a policeman to think that a person is about 5 ft. in height and that he should or should not be wearing a seat belt.

I do not visualise the awkwardness on the part of the police that others seem to suggest. I have promised to take note of what the hon. Member for Faversham said about a five-year limit for certificates and disability. In the main, I think that the disabled will find it more convenient to obtain a medical certificate. Of course, those suffering from certain conditions would be recognised by policemen as being most unsuitable wearers of seat belts. Instead of making the restrictions tight, as has been suggested, and in my opinion, too tight, so that exception could not easily be made, we believe that we should consult the medical people and those representing certain occupations and leave a great deal of judgment with the police.

It has been suggested that we introduce this Bill only for those using main roads and not for the city traffic. We want to encourage people to fasten their seat belts when they get into a car and to realise that they are just as important, if they are thinking about safety as well as getting to their destination, as switching on the ignition, starting the engine, and taking off the hand brake.

Photo of Sir John Langford-Holt Sir John Langford-Holt , Shrewsbury

I apologise for not having been present at the beginning of what the Minister said, but I am told that he did not deal with the question of the open sports car, which I suggested was an absolutely lethal conveyance if a seat belt was being worn.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Marks Mr Kenneth Marks , Manchester, Gorton

The subject of the sports car was dealt with at great length in Committee when an amendment was moved by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell), and my impression was that he was so convinced by the argument that he withdrew his amendment.

Photo of Sir Ronald Bell Sir Ronald Bell , Beaconsfield

Not in the least. I allowed it to be negatived.

Photo of Sir John Langford-Holt Sir John Langford-Holt , Shrewsbury

I am sorry to press this matter, but it is important.

Photo of Mr Oscar Murton Mr Oscar Murton , Poole

We do not want to get into a second round of debate based on interventions.

Photo of Sir John Langford-Holt Sir John Langford-Holt , Shrewsbury

I was hoping that the Minister would be able to say that he had looked into this matter again. I know that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) raised it in Committee and that there was a discussion. This matter merits another look. Someone will be killed for the sole reason that the Minister has not included a particular exemption in the regulations.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Marks Mr Kenneth Marks , Manchester, Gorton

This matter will be examined. The whole point about road accidents is that usually they involve a frontal impact. The great danger in the vast majority of cases is of people being flung forward, whether they are in a sports car or any other kind of car. The danger lies in the force with which a person hits a windscreen or a steering wheel, and that applies to sports cars as to any other cars. Therefore, on balance, it is better for the person in a sports car to be wearing his seat belt so that that does not happen to him. The number of accidents involving cars over- turning is a very small proportion of the total number of accidents.

Photo of Mr Peter Fry Mr Peter Fry , Wellingborough

I thought, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you would still be calling one or two of my colleagues who wish to speak on these amendments.

Photo of Mr Oscar Murton Mr Oscar Murton , Poole

I was in the process of seeing who wanted to catch my eye.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel David Mather Lieut-Colonel David Mather , Esher

Perhaps I may make a few brief observations on these amendments. As many of my hon. Friends have said, this is a very late hour on a Friday evening. Many hon. Members who would wish to be here to debate this matter are naturally not able to be here because it was possible for them to get away to their constituencies, for reasons we well know. It is rare for the rule to be suspended on a Friday afternoon. Legislation that is very important, such as the Hare Coursing Bill, must be involved for the Government to suspend the rule and to get Ministers back from Chequers, or wherever they are. On two occasions this involved the return of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. But where are they today?

Photo of Mr Oscar Murton Mr Oscar Murton , Poole

Order. The hon. Gentleman must speak to the amendment.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel David Mather Lieut-Colonel David Mather , Esher

I should like to pick up one comment by the Under-Secretary on these amendments. His words were to the effect that the amendments would narrow the scope for consultations. What the hon. Gentleman must mean is that we are not to legislate here in this House and that the field must be left open for others to decide these matters, that we must leave a clean slate so that consultations can take place with outside bodies. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman was saying that he was debarring us from making any specific alterations and from having our amendments accepted.

I agree that it is difficult to know where the consultation process should come. However, it seems absolutely wrong that it should come after the House has considered these matters and not before. I should have thought that it would be much more sensible with a complicated measure of this sort to have a Green Paper in advance so that consultations could take place with all concerned. That process having taken place, all of us could have considered the results of the consultations and made the necessary changes.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Marks Mr Kenneth Marks , Manchester, Gorton

I may have misled the hon. Gentleman. I was saying that if we were to accept the amendment and try to tie down in the regulations the list of medical categories and occupations, we should make a big mistake. Not long ago my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport introduced a measure on the subject of headlights. There was a big row because it was said that there had not been adequate consultation outside the House before the proposal was introduced.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel David Mather Lieut-Colonel David Mather , Esher

There are two ways of doing this. There have been a number of criticisms on the detail of the regulations that the Minister has in mind. It is necessary for the House to be able to act on something specific. What is proposed is unspecific, because it is subject to changes following consultations outside the House. We were extremely lucky in Committee to be able to debate the draft regulations at all, because we were advised officially that technically it was out of order to discuss them because they did not form part of the Bill. It was only because the Minister happened to mention that some draft regulations were tucked away—

Photo of Mr Kenneth Marks Mr Kenneth Marks , Manchester, Gorton

My hon. Friend did not on that occasion say that they were draft regulations. He said that there were some ideas in the Department. That was emphasised, and I must repeat that they were not draft regulations.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel David Mather Lieut-Colonel David Mather , Esher

I do not want to quibble over this. They were ideas on the form that the regulations might take, but we were advised officially that it was technically out of order to discuss anything that was not in the Bill. We were therefore fortunate to be able to discuss those ideas at all. Now we hear that changes are likely following discussions with outside bodies, and we may therefore be discussing something that is totally ineffective.

The consultation document conflicts in many respects with earlier statements, and we are not satisfied with what the Minister has had to say. I hope that before the debate concludes he will have a chance to revise his opinions.

Photo of Dr John Gilbert Dr John Gilbert , Dudley East

I have been listening with great attention to what hon. Gentlemen opposite have said, and I see the force of the argument that possibly we have gone on for long enough today, it being Friday. I think that we have had a valuable debate, and Conservative Members, including the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body), have made more than one representation about whether we should continue our proceedings today. I hope that it will be agreeable if we adjourn. I beg to move, That the debate be now adjourned.

Question put and agreed to.

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.