May I add a word of welcome to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Waddington), who is highly valued here? His return to the House of Commons is a cause of much rejoicing among his many friends. I hope that he will contribute in the future but in a way with which I am able to agree. That is not the case this evening.
Last Monday there was, quite rightly, a statement made in the House about a mining accident in Lancashire, in which five miners died. Today, quite rightly, there was a statement about two people who were murdered in Holland, one of them being highly distinguished. Every week 120 people are killed on our roads, which means 6,000 deaths on our roads every year. The figure of 6,000 is of the same order as the total of all the people killed in Northern Ireland in the crisis over the past 10 years. However, there never is a statement about the 6,000 people killed every year on our roads.
As the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) implied, the effects upon the families of people killed in road accidents may be just as shattering as those upon the families of dead miners. We all sympathise with them. When it becomes law, the Bill will prevent about 1,000 deaths out of the 6,000 every year. I say"when"purposely, as I believe that it is only a matter of time before this Bill, or something very like it, becomes law. It will prevent about 10,000 or 11,000 serious injuries and free a large number of hospital beds for orthopaedic patients who need beds but who must wait. It will free a large amount of the time and skill of doctors, nurses and psysiotherapists.
The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) cast doubt on the predictions by referring to the drink-drive law and saying that the predictions were not in accord with it. I was surprised that a former professor of Greek philosophy should fall into the logical trap of arguing from analogy.
I should like to quote from a letter dated 10 November 1978 from Lord Ashby to The Times, before that newspaper went out of circulation. Part of it reads:
A report on road accidents in Great Britain, published by the Department of the Environment in 1976, records the casualties to front seat drivers in automobiles in Britain for the year 1974. There were 19,211 casualties among persons wearing seat belts, of which 3,952 (206 per cent.) were fatal or serious; and there were 96,327 casualties among persons not wearing seat belts, of which 26,485 (27·5 per cent.) were fatal or serious.
It is reasonable to assume that if the 96,327 victims had been wearing seat belts only 20·6 per cent. of them would have suffered death or serious injury. This would have meant a reduction in fatal or serious casualties of 6,642 persons, i.e., about 128 fewer deaths or serious injuries per week.
The hon. Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Young) referred to the need for persuasion. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Clitheroe referred to the value of encouragement in trying to persuade people to wear seat belts. However, encouragement simply does not work. It has been tried many times by means of an expensive advertising campaign. I believe that £5½ million has so far been spent on it. The advertisements lift the level of the wearing of seat belts to perhaps 32 per cent. of drivers.
When the advertising stops the figure drops, within months, to where it was. It does not begin to lift the level of the wearing of seat belts up to 80 per cent. or 90 per cent., which has been experienced in Australia, most Continental countries, and countries in other parts of the world where this is compulsory.
It is hopeless to demand and useless to expect that persuasion and encouragement will be effective in achieving the desired results. Therefore it is a waste of time to go on and on talking about voluntary persuasion.
I come to the question of compulsion. The opponents of the Bill, among whom I count many of my hon. Friends, say that it is an infringement of liberty and freedom.
Liberty and freedom are very big words. They have many shades of meaning. Liberty and freedom are not some sort of single indivisible concept. I regard the great freedoms as being those such as freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and perhaps, above all, national freedom—freedom from being governed by some foreign country.
That is another matter, and I do not propose to be drawn into that argument. There are in this House many right hon. and hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Down, South, who risked their lives in fighting for these freedoms in the last war. I was not old enough to do so myself but I have relatives who did, and I claim to care as much as anyone does about the basic and fundamental freedoms.
There are other hon. Members who might talk of concepts such as freedom from poverty and freedom from fear, by which they mean absence of poverty and absence of fear. They use the word"freedom"in a completely different sense. The words"freedom"and"liberty"cover more than one concept.
We can also use the word"freedom"in relation to small freedoms that we do not have and may not want, such as freedom to drive on the wrong side of the road, or freedom to go through a red traffic light, or, as the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Magee) said, freedom to buy or use heroin, or freedom to drive a car without brakes or without lights, or freedom to buy dangerous drugs of any sort without a prescription, or freedom to disregard the safety rules in factories.
If we use the word"freedom"over matters such as those, we are really talking about a different dimension from that of the basic and fundamental freedoms. I believe that we, as a legislature, should have the wisdom and judgment to distinguish between those minor freedoms, which are worth sacrificing in exchange for a major advance or improvement in health and safety, and those major freedoms on which none of us would want to compromise.
If we are looking at this question critically and analytically, it is foolish to be hypnotised by the use of the word"freedom"without examining its wide range of meanings. We should adopt a commonsense and not a doctrinaire approach to this matter. I really believe that it is worth a minor infringement and sacrifice of freedom to save a large number of lives and to prevent an enormous number of major injuries. I would feel that we were living in an extremely odd world if any of my hon. Friends were to suggest that we would be losing a last bastion of freedom if we lost our freedom to crash our head through the windscreen of the car or to crush our chest on a steering wheel.
Those of my hon. Friends—and some Labour Members—who oppose the Bill, and who talk about liberty and freedom, are not so much motivated by love of freedom and love of liberty in some philosophical sense as by sheer exasperation at thus being made to do just one more thing in the highly over-governed country and society in which we live. This is shown by the fact that hon. Members never object to the compulsory wearing of seat belts in aircraft. I have never heard one of them object to that, although the purpose, safety, is just the same. They never say that that is an outrageous interference with their liberty.
There is a profound distinction, is there not, between the compulsory wearing of seat belts in aircraft and those in motor cars on the ground? If, in the confined space of an aircraft, people do not, on take-off and landing, wear their seat belts, they constitute a danger to others. The argument on the Treasury Bench here is that the non-wearing of seat belts in motor cars constitutes a danger to the persons not wearing them.
I doubt whether the wearing of seat belts in aircraft saves any lives. Usually, if there is a crash, all the passengers are killed, anyway. I believe that it is far less necessary to wear seat belts in an aircraft than in a motor car.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) and other hon. Members have suggested that it is monstrous to have a new crime, but I feel that the use of the word"crime"in this context is a departure from common sense. No one talks of a parking offence as being a crime. It is a minor offence and it is not endorsable on a driving licence. It may be technically a crime, and it is a punishable offence, but to use the word"crime ", as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Clitheroe did, is to put a gloss on it which does not really correspond to reality. I would regard the offence of not wearing a seat belt as being more like a parking offence.
About six or seven years ago, the House decided to make it compulsory to wear crash helmets, and other hon. Members have referred to this. There were similar cries then from the freedom fighters to the effect that it was an interference with liberty, but that decision has saved a considerable number of lives each year. I do not regret the decision we took then, and I pray that we shall take the right decision again today.
I abstained on the Bill concerning the compulsory wearing of seat belts. I did not then give much thought to the arguments, and I suppose that I was influenced by the thought that in a small minority of accidents it might be better not to be wearing a seat belt. An example is when a car catches fire and there is the fear of being trapped for perhaps a split second or two before being released, because of having worn a seat belt. I thought about that argument at the time, but I believe now that it bears little examination.
In the vast majority of cases, lives can be saved and injuries avoided by the wearing of seat belts. All the evidence shows this, and that evidence has influenced me into adopting a more rational attitude. It is not only a question of the saving of life and the saving of injury to the driver. We have also to consider the other people in the vehicle and the other drivers who may be run into. We have to bear in mind their freedom and their right to live. It appears to me that the attitude of many of the opponents of the Bill is very narrow-minded and inward-looking, to say the least.
I was also influenced by the argument that the traffic police are overstretched, but that is not really a plausible argument. If there are insufficient traffic police, their number must be increased. To say that we cannot legislate because we have not enough police would be a most irrational attitude to take. Even without the Bill, I believe that the traffic police should be increased in number, but I believe that the Bill is a good one and should be enacted.
The argument of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) was most remarkable. He spoke about there being no financial provision in the Bill for the enforcement of the law. If we were to follow that principle with every piece of legislation, we should be in a most remarkable position. There would be arguments against any Bill which required money for its enforcement. That is an argument which ought to be ruled out. If it were to be applied in this case, it would be necessary to apply it in other cases.
I suppose that I was also influenced by the argument about personal freedom. We all show a certain bloody-mindedness from time to time when we are being regulated.
We feel this on both sides of the House from time to time. We all kick out occasionally at something, even when we should not. It is a question of personal discontent. But, as has been said, our personal freedoms are not absolute, and they should not be absolute. If they are, they affect the personal freedoms of others. That is an old and well-known argument, and it is one on which I do not wish to dwell.
I have never believed in the right of people to commit suicide, but in some cases that is what people are doing when they do not use seat belts. I have never accepted the argument that people should be allowed to injure themselves. The contrary view must be held by many of the opponents of the Bill, yet they would probably be among the strongest opponents of freeing the taking of drugs.
When people are inadequate they need to be protected against themselves, and that applies to drivers. As has been said several times, a driver's family, friends and other dependants need to be considered. By dependants I mean including people such as highly skilled surgeons or others of great value to the community. These are people on whom other people depend for work. We must consider this Bill from the point of view of the community as a whole as well as from the point of view of personal freedom.
It has also been said that the cost of treatment for injuries and the cost of deaths on the road and a considerable drain on the Health Service. Those services are free, but road injuries and deaths cause a burden on the taxpayer. Opposition Members frequently talk of the need for freedom from excessive taxation. The Bill provides one way of helping to keep taxation down.
There is little need to say much more, because much of it has already been said both by my hon. Friends and by Opposition Members, but finally—and I believe that this is a new point—I should like to mention the relationship between the enactment of laws and morality.
It frequently happens, especially in a society which is not too bothered about morality, that the formulation of law sometimes forms a new morality. For instance, I refer to the attitudes and the legislation on drinking and driving in Sweden, where driving under the influence of alcohol is regarded as a much more serious offence than it is here. To some extent, I believe that that is due to the fact that the laws in Sweden are so hard on drunken drivers. It creates a new attitude, if not a new morality, to what one should do. This has had some effect on me, because although I feel very uncomfortable when I set out on a long journey—especially on a motorway—without having put on my seat belt. I frequently take short journeys without doing so and without feeling uncomfortable. If there were a law against my doing that, I believe that it would make me feel uncomfortable, and perhaps I would stop and think long enough to fasten my seat belt.
I hope that the controversy will not last for long and that it will soon be put on one side, as it has in the vast majority of other countries, because of the obvious need for the Bill in the interests of the whole of mankind. Persuasion has been tried again and again and has cost the Government a lot of money. Since persuasion has failed, I believe that compulsion is inevitable, although regrettable.
The Bill arouses a great deal of emotion in each of us, but I am sure that we all accept, on whatever side of the argument we come down, that the feelings of those who take a contrary view are perfectly honourable, if mistaken. Unlike the hon. Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins), the last time this matter came before the House I cast a vote, and I see no reason for having changed my mind.
In introducing the Bill, the Minister, in his usual friendly and charming way, said that experience was the best argument. He then trotted out a lot of statistics, one of which the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Magee) multiplied 10 times without bothering too much about it. I think he raised 10,000 to 100,000.
If I may just correct the hon. Member—the number of expected lives saved is of the order of 1,000 per year and the number of expected serious injuries is—my right hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong—100,000.
I am absolutely delighted at having given the hon. Gentleman a chance to correct himself. I believe that one of the blemishes of the Bill is that the Minister, after all this time, has still not been able to include anything about the exemptions. I realise that there will be exemptions. There may even be exemptions that will be extended or restricted, but I believe that shows what one might almost call a degree of incompetence when, after all this time, we still have no exemptions—unless there is something far more menacing behind the exemptions.
It is not a question of"I cannot do it ". I decided that it would be better not to, in the interests of the House. I had a lot of consultations and more will take place. I have no doubt in my own mind what the exemptions should be. It is merely a matter of the best procedure in order to get the final decisions right.
The method which the right hon. Gentleman is adopting will impose severe restrictions on the House. Will he undertake that when he brings the exemptions forward he will do so one at a time, so that the House will be able to decide on each individual one?
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but this is a point of which some substance has been made. I made it absolutely clear that in my view there should be a preliminary discussion in the House so that all hon. Members could express their view about what those exemptions should be. When that discussion has taken place, there will inevitably be a further debate under the affirmative resolution procedure.
The problem is that those exemptions will be discussed in the House probably between 10 p.m. and 11.30 p.m. at the earliest. If the right hon. Gentleman deals with the Bill by the method that he has described, I hope that he will impress upon his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that the matters should be heard and discussed at a decent time of the week.
I believe the Minister said that there are between 20 and 30 injuries daily as a result of car accidents. The hon. Member for Leyton kept that figure down to 20. Therefore, on this occasion, he was lower rather than higher. If we continue to judge this matter based on the number of accidents, it is true to say that more accidents occur in the home than on the roads—and certainly more suicides. The hon. Member for Preston, North said that he was not in favour of licensing suicide—
The hon. Mem-for Preston, North mentioned suicide. If the hon. Gentleman was present at the time, I think that he, among others, decided that suicide should not be a criminal offence.
No, I did not say that the hon. Gentleman did. I said that he might have been in the House. All I know is the House decided that suicide should no longer be a criminal offence.
If the right hon. Gentleman is looking for methods by which he can prevent accidents, he could reduce the speed limit to 20 mph almost overnight. As to more dangerous injuries, I think that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Waddington) mentioned the dangers of sport, particularly climbing. One could name many sports that are dangerous. Rugby football, I think, has a much higher rate of accident than any other activity, unless one includes skiing.
I happen to be enthusiastic about parachuting, which is a reasonably dangerous sport. A number of accidents have occurred among parachutists, and it is now mandatory to wear a second parachute when one does a free-fall drop. Does my hon. Friend believe that it is wrong to have such legislation?
I must confess that I had not given much thought to the merits of parachuting, but if sports are being thrown about, I might mention hang-gliding, which so far as I know requires no parachute to be worn. But let us come closer to home. I believe that riding motor cycles is 20 times more dangerous than driving a car. Therefore, if the Minister wants to stop accidents, let him introduce legislation to stop the use of motor cycles.
No, indeed not. I am trying to direct my attention so far as I am able, with lots of interruptions—which perhaps I have invited—to the question of motor cars. The question of advice is quite interesting. The Minister gives the House the benefit of all the wisdom and advice that he gets. On the last occasion, I pointed out that the same source of advice—his Ministry-was the same Department as many years ago advised the House that there was no further merit in putting cat's eyes in roads. It was the same Ministry that advised me—it was a suggestion that made, but I do not claim any parenthood—that the idea of box junctions would be self-defeating and pointless and that they would slow up traffic rather than speed it up. Yet we do it today.
As to enforcement, I have a nasty feeling that this type of legislation will go the same way as the dog-tags legislation, under which everyone is supposed to have a collar and identification on his dog, whereas everyone knows that it is not done.
What will happen? When someone is driving, it is practically impossible to see whether his seat belt is properly fitted There is no way of seeing whether it is fixed at the botton. When the policeman comes, and the man is fiddling with the belt, I am certain the reply will be"I was just taking it off"rather than"I was just putting it on."
The question of cost has also been mentioned. In the explanatory and financial memorandum under the heading
Effects of the Bill on Public Service Manpower
—quite honestly, I wish that the right hon. Gentleman would explain this a little more, because I can see no way in which the Bill will fulfil what it says here—it states:
The Bill is not expected to impose any requirements on public service manpower.
Even if it means only one policeman going to the court on one occasion, I would have thought that that statement was bound to be untrue.
I know that my hon. and learned Friend is a lawyer and that I am not, but it says that it will not
impose any requirements on public service manpower.
It says nothing about"extra ". It does not say whether extra policemen will be required, it merely refers to
any requirements on public service manpower.
Discussion and argument have taken place previously about occasions on which people can be in more danger by wearing their sea belts. Examples have been given of the open car, and questions of fire. We even had the example of the claustrophobic old lady. The last point is perfectly valid, because on these occasions some people get positively claustrophobic. However, if we are against this measure, as I am, some sort of alternative must be thought of.
There is a point that I hope the Secretary of State will explain. Under the law of this country, everyone who drives a motor car is required to have third party insurance. I am quite certain that had the arguments about the enormous difference between wearing a seat belt and not been valid, the insurance companies would have drawn a distinction in premiums between those drivers who wore seat belts and those who did not. I suspect that they do not because they know that such a law is unenforceable. Surely the same argument applies to the police.
I am talking about insurance policies and premiums charged. We are talking about an area of deterrence. People seldom visualise themselves going into a court; they always visualise themselves having paid the premium before starting off on their motoring career.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about creating a new criminal offence and said that he is instinctively against legislation. In agreeing with him, I have thought about this for many years. It comes from deep within me that we are doing something that we shall regret. I do not accept the argument about what the French or Italians do, because I do not believe that it is valid. I believe that we should be very careful before we extend this type of legislation in this way.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt) and I have shared many battles and have shared many barricades—who was firing in which direction has differed from time to time—but on this occasion I am on a different barricade from him and firing rather different shots.
Last Friday I argued from these Benches that it was no part of my version of Socialism that the State, Government, or Parliament should do for other people what they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves. One week later I come to this same Chamber and these same Benches, ready and willing, however reluctantly, to support a Bill that will compel people to do something that we know they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves. That is a dilemma which applies not only to me but to many other hon. Members.
Last Friday Conservative Members argued that there should be compulsory legislation—what it was about is not particularly important—whereas today those who argued for compulsory legislation are arguing for personal liberty. At least we recognise the contradiction.
I go so far as to give the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) the principle, if he will give me the custom and practice. In this instance I believe that the custom and practice will be more important to people than the high principle. I cannot deny that we are restricting the liberties of the subjects of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. On the custom and practice, I argue that we ought to do so and I remind the right hon. Gentleman of a little saying,
He was right,
As he drove along,
But he's just as dead
as if he'd been wrong.
Surely we are talking about the practical results of the legislation. It may be that if the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell), who has played a decisive role in this argument over many years, catches the eye of the Chair he will persuade me differently between seven o'clock and nine o'clock, but I do not know whether we are here to be persuaded or merely to make statements.
At the beginning of the debate my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis) argued that this should be a balanced debate. He has helped that by absenting himself from the Chamber for most of the time. The only way in which that could be achieved would be to have a vote at the beginning, have a debate, have a vote at the end and see whether any possible differences emerge We cannot do that.
All the evidence that has come to me over the years, and I presume to other hon. Members, leads me to the inevitable conclusion that if seat belts were worn by all drivers we would have fewer deaths, and fewer and less severe injuries. The argument about what will happen in the future is based on that. The only way of bringing about such a position is to make this compulsory and to hope—in spite of the Conservative Front Bench—that the majority of United Kingdom citizens are law-abiding and will accept the law.
The advice offered by the BMA and the Royal College of Surgeons makes that conclusion inevitable. The detailed proof, which I believe every hon. Member of the House has received, from the Automobile Association makes that clear. The AA asks that the House should support compulsory legislation. I am not going to argue whether this would save 50 or 500 or 1,000 lives. The differences between what ought to happen and what will happen are comparatively unimportant. Whilst I criticise the AA for being, in its higher management at least, the tightest closed shop in Europe, and whilst I might doubt some of its advice on the taxation of motorists, or other things, because it has a vested interest, when the AA says that there should be legislation to restrict the rights of its members and of other citizens, we ought to take proper notice.
We have used a lot of parliamentary time during the last 200 years at least. Governments have enacted Acts of Parliament to restrict and protect fools from their own folly—and not only fools, but the thoughtless and the careless. The AA evidence gives many examples, so we are setting no particularly new precedent.
A little while ago the hon. and learned Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) made the point that over the last few years the courts have themselves been differentiating between damages for someone who is injured through absolutely no fault of his own and damages for someone who, even where there is no requirement of law, has been negligent and failed to protect himself purely against the possibility of injury. In the latter circumstance the damages have been less than they would have been if he had protected himself properly.
Those examples take a long time to work through, but it is relevant to the point made by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury. I, too, had hoped that the insurance companies would be able to take a more positive, helpful attitude as regards the difference in the premiums to be paid by someone who promises to use a seat belt at all times—for which he would get a bonus or a reduction in premium—and others who could not give that undertaking. Of course, the only time that the insurance company would know whether that undertaking had been honoured would be when there was a claim and a report of the circumstances of the accident.
The insurance companies tell me that in the main the cost of paying claims for damages to motor vehicles is so much greater than the cost of damages for personal injuries or death that there is no real relationship between the two. There would be no immediate impact and this would make no great difference on the insurance policies or on the use of seat belts.
The point I was trying to make was that if insurance companies could decide that a person was not wearing his seat belt and he was covered only by third party insurance, that would have a greater effect in built-up areas, which is where people mostly do not wear their seat belts.
This is a matter which is still being considered by insurance companies. The options would have to be in very large print, as regards both the benefits and the penalties, but at this stage they do not seem to be able to promise quite so dramatic an effect as I would have hoped.
We have to recognise to a degree the call on the health services, and this was explained in information that presumably came to every English or Welsh Member through the National Association of Health Authorities in England and Wales. The NAHA says quite clearly that the calls on health services, nurses, casualty staff, doctors, ambulance services, police and fire services in their rescue actions and the use of taxpayers' money in the health services would be reduced if universal use was made of seat belts and it supports a Second Reading for the Bill.
I said"universal use ", but clearly there have to be exceptions, and everybody has his own group of persons in mind. This afternoon we heard one hon. Member, for very valid reasons, say that people with a particular disability or problem should be exempted as a group. Whether this would apply to a group of apparently quite determined ladies of a certain style or stature who are arguing that their problems ought to exempt them as a group from the compulsory use of seat belts, I do not know. I think that"problems"is perhaps the wrong word, and that what is a problem to them might be the envy of their sisters or of male Members of this House, but I hope that there will be ways of resolving their objections.
The Bill will make extra demands on the police, and the House ought to recognise that fairly and squarely. Whether it increases the use of manpower is another argument. It will make extra demands on the police, but I do not think they will be impossible demands. It is not unknown for a constable or a police sergeant to approach a motorist who he knows has been exceeding the speed limit and when the driver knows that he has been exceeding the speed limit. How the police officer goes about dealing with the case depends upon the circumstances and on many other things. He does not have to go up and verbally belt the motorist. The driver's failures and lack of proper regard can be explained in other ways.
I have no doubt that for a period after the passing of the Bill the failure of a motorist to use a seat belt can be pointed out in a way which will not cause any difficulties for the police or occasion any loss of regard for them. In fact, one radar trap I can think of on a Saturday morning or afternoon in Lower House Lane in Liverpool leads to many more difficulties than would anything under the Bill. So, while we recognise that the police will have more to do, I do not think it need cause any great problem between police and public.
I have not always been a consistent user of a seat belt, but I am now, and I find it only takes a moment of time. At first it seemed to take a long time to fasten it, but now it seems to take only a moment. It is a habit. It gets more difficult with the age of the car and the type of seat belt. If Ford can develop its"instant"device, that will help. I believe that I have a better feel of the car when I am wearing my seat belt. I feel more at home in the car and get a better response from the car than before, and my conversion was due to three things.
The first is the Jimmy Savile campaign, and we ought to pay a tribute to those who organised it and carried it through. It was not a failure; it was a first-class campaign, but it was not as successful as we had hoped it would be. The new one"The Blunders"is coming along now and is of interest, again, and is compelling attention. It has a real impact, and I use that word advisedly.
The second reason for my conversion was the reminder from my two boys every time we get into the car that we all ought to"clunk-click ". The third is that, having voted for the last Bill dealing with seat belts, I felt compelled to honour my own obligations.
As it is, I think that we all make our minds up on this. I grant hon. Members who oppose the Bill their principles. I have to go for the practice. Some good will come of this and the price will not be too high. Certainly at this time it is a price that I am prepared to pay and I believe that the majority of my constituents will also be prepared to pay.
Order. As I understand it, the winding-up speeches are due to begin at 9.15. There are roughly 14 hon. Members still anxious to take part in the two hours remaining before those speeches. May I therefore appeal for brevity so as to be able to accommodate as many hon. Member as possible?
I will certainly be brief. It seems to me that politics is very largely an irrational subject. Here we are in this House engaged in a debate which has ranged from the sombre to the absurd, if I may say so without disrespect. And this is a debate in which I do not believe there is any difference at all on the facts. I do not think there has been any quarrel between the leading exponents of cither view, the ayes and the noes, in this debate. The curious thing is that there is room for this extreme variance in attitudes deriving from the very same evidence. That, surely, is one of the things that makes politics an imponderable subject, as perhaps the next few days may show. We agree about the evidence.
As a more or less disinterested party, so long as I am allowed to be, I would never attempt—at least not to the extent of any extravagance—to dissuade people from committing suicide. If they wish to do so, that is up to them. As for the carnage on the roads, about those who have asked for it and got it there is nothing to be said. That may be a rather harsh attitude, but I do not believe that any other is reasonable.
However, one of the factors that has moulded my attitude on the matter is that on which the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) has just touched—that nobody has a right, by sheer foolishness, to put huge charges on our faltering Health Service by taking up masses of man hours, woman hours, bed hours and ward hours in hospitals when he would not need to be there if he had been reasonably forward-looking and cautious. I am talking not about people's driving abilities but the simple matter of using the seat belts, which have to be there and can be used.
That is why I deplore the lack of use of seat belts. I deplore the part played by the injured—the self-injured if one likes. It is that which makes me feel that the use of the seat belt must be made compulsory.
We have heard the evidence, which nobody would attempt to deny, that the incredible amount of taxpayers' money that is being spent on trying to persuade is unavailing. I think that the use of seat belts has increased from 10 per cent. to 30 per cent., in broad terms, after the expenditure of millions of pounds. I do not think that the spending of any more millions would make any further difference.
I think that most of us would acknowledge, if we thought of it at any time, that there is something curious in the psychology of our fellow citizens, perhaps not excluding ourselves. A very reasonable man, who will talk logically and reasonably in a debate in the House about all the values that we are discussing, becomes positively insufferable when he gets inside a car.
We can go back in history and think of the days of chivalry. When a fellow got into his tin can and was hoisted by a davit and dropped into the saddle of his 1-hp hay-motor, he shot off and was thoroughly bloody-minded to everybody he met. I believe that the same thing happens in the firm's Cortina on the Cromwell Road, or anywhere else. People who would be perfectly reasonable, and agree with everything that is said about the advisability of wearing seat belts, raise the metaphorical number of fingers at everyone outside once they get inside their armour plating. They think"To hell with the seat belts."
I do not believe that that highly irrational attitude is subject to any reasoning or to the spending of millions of pounds by a well-meaning Government Department. If that is so—and I ask the House to believe that it is—I see no alternative to a degree of compulsion. That is why I favour the Bill.
I like the analogy of the hon. Member for Fareham (Dr. Bennett) with the knights of old in their suits of armour. But there is a difference. Although they used to fight each other tooth and nail and knock each other off their horses, those knights at least were chivalrous to women. When male drivers see a woman on the road, they lose every bit of chivalry that they have.
Male drivers try to drive a woman off the road. That is what the motor car has done to us.
As so many hon. Members have pointed out, the carnage on the roads is horrific. I have just obtained from the Library the figures for the total number of British casualties during the Second World War. In the five years of that war we had 583,847 casualties. In the past five years there have been 1,750,000 casualties on British roads. That is the measure of the problem. The Second World War was undoubtedly the most horrific experience that we in this country have ever had, yet the number of casualties on our roads is about three times as great as it was during that war.
I have worn a seat belt for many years, and so have my family. I have never suffered any discomfort from wearing one. Indeed, I now feel very uncomfortable unless I have one on. I feel rather odd in the train going home at night because I am not wearing a seat belt. That shows how used one can become to wearing that appliance.
We are talking not only about drivers but about front-seat passengers. It is easy enough to tell my young son"Put your seat belt on." Within limits, I can say the same to my wife, although I have to be rather more careful about that. I can say it to a very good friend, but it is much more difficult to say it to a stranger or a passing acquaintance. One can hardly tell such a person"Get your seat belt on or I do not drive you."
That is a difficulty that a driver who is convinced of the argument for wearing seat belts has when taking a passenger. The compulsory wearing of seat belts would remove it. It would be the law, and the driver—who, after all, has a big responsibility for his passenger—would be able to tell the passenger"It is the law that we wear seat belts, and I am sure that you will put yours on."
We have heard a great deal about the saving of lives and preventing serious injuries. It is estimated that 1,000 lives would be saved and 10,000 serious injuries prevented by the use of seat belts. I emphasise that those are the figures for every year, not simply one year.
The numbers of people killed and injured since we last debated a similar measure are 3,000 and 30,000 respectively. It is likely that if we had passed the legislation three years ago there would be 3,000 people alive today who are now rotting in their graves and 30,000 who would be playing tennis or football, having a good time with their families and living a normal life, who are now in hospital or in a wheelchair. That is the measure of the three-year delay.
Every hon. Member values individual persona] freedom, but the freedom of many people is tied up with this measure. There is the freedom of the policemen, the ambulance men, the doctors and the nurses who have to deal with the casualties. Ambulance men and policemen suffer a horrific experience when they see people splashed all over a motor car or all over a road and have to scrape them up. Their individual freedom is involved and should be considered.
When a serious injury occurs, the position of the relatives has to be considered. There is the wife who sees her life as well as her husband's life ruined because he is confined for the rest of his life to a wheelchair, because of a road accident. She might have to spend 40 years looking after her husband. Her freedom is curtailed—her freedom to go out and about as she would like to with her husband and family. Do we not also have to consider her freedom?
There is the freedom of road users to be safeguarded against other road users. Very often when an accident occurs at speed the door of the car flies open and the occupants are thrown out. The car then careers on and hits the car of an innocent motorist coming the other way and kills or injures him. Does not he have some freedom? A driver wearing a seat belt is likely to remain in his car and be able to control it so that it avoids other vehicles. Those who talk about personal freedom should take into account all those other freedoms that I have mentioned.
The estimated yearly cost to the community of the non-wearing of seat belts is £60 million. The cost to the Health Service is £7·2 million every year, equivalent to building and running a 650–bed general hospital. That must be taken into account by those of us who are concerned about the long waiting lists and shortages in the Health Service.
Undoubtedly, most people obey the law, as the figures in Australia and New Zealand have shown. After seven years of operation of the law the wearing rate is 75 per cent. in Australia and 90 per cent. in New Zealand. The evidence clearly shows that lives and serious injuries have been saved. People will obey the law.
If the wearing of seat belts is made compulsory and people do not wear them, insurance companies may have something to say if there is an accident, because the law will have been broken, and that may affect the insurance policy. The police are worried about enforcement but the trouble is, although I have great respect for the police, they hold some very conservative views on this subject. The police in general appear to believe that their sole role should consist of fighting serious crime. That may be the role of the police, but I do not think it is. I believe they have a many-sided role in a democratic society. If we pass the Bill we must ensure that it can be enforced by enabling the police force to recruit more men or by setting up a separate traffic police force.
I believe this measure is long overdue, and I sincerely hope that when hon. Members vote tonight they will think of all those who are dead but could be alive, and the people who a year from now will be dead unless we pass this legislation.
My assessment of the debate is that it is between those who think that if the Bill goes through their liberties will be curtailed and those who think it vital that the Bill should go through to save lives and money and the time of the police, nurses and doctors in doing certain jobs.
We all have a number of liberties, many of which we have given up in war and at other times. We have to weigh in our mind whether it is better to give up a liberty to produce something good. A lady for whose driving I have the greatest respect and who as far as I know has never been involved in an accident told me that she did not think she should have to give up a liberty she prized. She might not have wished to give up that liberty, but I think we should give up liberties if it is necessary for the sake of society as a whole.
I am president of the Motor Schools Association and also on the executive of the Advanced Drivers' Association. Therefore, I come into contact at certain periods of my life with people who are concerned with teaching people to drive and assessing how they drive. I have always been grateful to the Secretary of State for coming down to Worthing on a rather wet day to open my annual school. I am grateful to him for all he said and what he is doing to help us. The Motor Schools Association is the largest free association of men and women who have come together for a common good. There are some smaller associations which could easily join us but they either have not the money to do so or they like to hold out. The Department knows that we are the people to ask for our knowledge of motoring.
Drivers must be prepared to give up some liberty. I confess that if I had my way I would not wear a seat belt because I am lazy and will not take the trouble. I do not take the trouble to put it on when travelling from my house half a mile down the road to the village shop, but that is when I should be most careful. I put it on when driving up to London, because I feel that it is more risky, but that is not so. It is on the short trips, when one thinks that nothing can happen, that an accident may occur.
After I had been a Whip, I was fortunate in drawing a place in the private Members' ballot three times running. Each time I chose to debate the safety of the roads. At that time I was more closely in touch with road safety and could quote figures. Figures have been quoted today but I shall not give any. I learnt how much suffering and loss of life and limb was caused by not wearing seat belts. It is argued that not wearing a seat belt can in some accidents be beneficial. Those occasions are rare, and we must consider where the greater need lies. We should all wear seat belts.
I hope that the Bill will go through and that we shall become so accustomed to wearing seat belts that we will not consider it inconvenient. I am certain that we shall save money. We hear that the economy is going wrong, and any money that can be saved on hospital charges or elsewhere is worth while, and, by jove, the amount of suffering prevented will be legion. I should not like to think that people are injured unnecessarily.
I presented a Private Member's Bill to increase rear lights on cars or bicycles from one to two, and that Bill passed through the House and was my contribution to road safety. Records confirm that that measure has saved lives. I shall vote for the Bill tonight. I do not know what sort of drivers my grandchildren will be but I hope that, like my son and daughter, they will be good. I hope that they will not be involved in an accident of their own causing, and if they are involved in an accident caused by someone else, I should not like to think that a Bill had not been passed that could prevent their being injured.
I walk with a slight limp. I do not want to be ungallant, and I can only see one lady present. Perhaps I can say that I maintain that that was caused by a lady driving up Whitehall far too fast. She knocked me over, threw me on to the roof of her car and chucked me off into the gutter. I woke up 15 hours later when, fortunately, my wife was by my bedside.
I am sure that the Bill will do nothing but good, and we are here in Parliament to do good. We cannot better spend our time than helping the passage of the Bill. It was a pity that it was not passed last time, and the opportunity does not often occur to put right what one has previously missed. I wish the Secretary of State luck with the Bill. It is presented late in the life of this Parliament, and was cut short in the last Session. I hope that it is not struck off the list in the remaining months of this Parliament.
The hon. and gallant Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) was perhaps giving an indication of chivalry in reverse. I can just imagine the hon. Member for Fareham (Dr. Bennett) dashing about on his horse, although I do not know whether he could get a steed to hold him.
We should be debating the efficacy and value of seat belts and not the infringement of personal freedom, as though freedom were only an abstract concept. It is no wonder that Parliament sometimes gets a bad name. We have carnage on our roads, and this House often talks as if it were a university debating society dealing with an abstract concept. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) hit the nail on the head when he talked of balancing the practical situation against the abstract principle called freedom. We are living in the real world. We are not discussing how many angels can balance on the head of a pin, but what is happening year in and year out on our roads.
I am much more impressed by the statistics of carnage than by the wonderful rhetoric of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). It is always dangerous to evangelise and assume a superiority over one's fellows in grasping a concept. It is intolerable to talk of infringement of freedom as if we were extending to a ridiculous extent laws for the protection of the public. Of course it is interfering with an individual's rights to injure himself or other people, but that interference does not worry me overmuch.
Reasonable people know where to draw the line. A well-thought-out slight improvement should not open a floodgate, as those who are against the Bill suggest. They suggest that such legislation opens the gate to all kinds of infringements of personal liberty and freedom, whatever that means.
There are countries whose legislatures start with that basic assumption that people are incapable of thinking for and looking after themselves and believe that every possibility of any kind of individual or personal freedom should be banned and that only gradually and very gently should limited exemptions be introduced.
But we in this country start from almost the opposite standpoint. We believe that people can think for themselves and very often want to do for themselves things which impinge upon the rights and freedom of others. We believe that interference with that freedom is necessary in some instances, and I believe that in a matter such as this it is not only necessary but vital.
I am impressed by the statistics. We have seen repeatedly the incontrovertible evidence of the value and efficiency of seat belts. Doctors throughout the country are in the forefront of the demand for this legislation. Medical and nursing staffs of hospitals near motorways or dangerous junctions will tell anyone of the deaths which could have been prevented if seat belts had been worn.
Many of these highly respected members of the medical profession believe that it is wrong to use their scarce skills and resources in matters which are so largely and calculatedly self-inflicted. I use that word advisedly. Under the influence of emotion—that is, adrenalin, or any other drug—people may do something silly or even dangerous. It is an action carried out in the heat of the moment. But that cannot be said about not wearing a seat belt. That is a deliberate act of omission, and it is not something about which one feels emotionally charged and which leads to an act of folly.
As a doctor, I believe in prevention. How much more do we need to be convinced about the value of seat belts? I concede that this matter involves an interference with rights and liberty, but I argue that that interference is minimal and is vital in present circumstances. I am not impressed by those who say that they are not concerned about what happens in other countries. I am concerned that other countries have had experience of this. They have had seat belts legislation for some time, and their statistics bear out what we believe would happen in this country.
I ask my Front Bench colleagues whether it would be possible for them to ensure chat seat belts are made more comfortable. Many seat belts tend to hold the body too closely and too tigthly. All belts should be of the inertia reel type.
We are talking here about the driver wearing a seat belt, because in the final analysis it is the driver who is responsible for steering and controlling the car. Often, however, it is more important for his passenger to be wearing a belt. It is possible for the driver with a quick reaction to brace himself. That possibility does not exist for the passenger, who can get thrown through the windscreen and break his or her neck or, at least, suffer serious injury to the face and head.
I mention one psychological point. One of my hon. Friends said that he felt better when he was wearing a belt. That is true, and it could be dangerous. Wearing a seat belt neither guarantees total protection from an accident nor does it, per se, have any intrinsic value. Wearing it may give some people a feeling of security which could make them less careful. That is an important point of psychology. Although legislation is not enough in a matter of this kind, it is essential. Equally it is essential that we should continue with the campaign of persuasion as well as with this Bill, which I hope we shall pass.
I have the honour and pleasure—that is all I have out of it—to be the president of the National Association of Approved Driving Instructors, which, as an organisation devoted to road safety, is very concerned about the Bill. If, by some misfortune, the Bill should become law, I hope that the Minister will see the sense of exempting driving instructors while they are involved in tuition. To lock an instructor into a belt at the moment of deceleration, which usually coincides with the pupil's moment of danger, would be not to save lives but to put lives at risk.
I am wholly in favour of seat belts, of encouraging people to wear them, and of insurance companies and courts applying sanctions to encourage their use, but I am against the Bill because it abuses the criminal law and the criminal process. Why should any citizen be forced by criminal sanction to wear something which could in some circumstances kill him? That has never been a legitimate principle of our criminal law. Why should anyone be forced by criminal sanction not to hurt himself? That was never, at least until the crash helmet legislation, a principle of our criminal law. Where will it end? Why make driving without a seat belt a crime because it could save a thousand lives, when we could stop cigarette smoking by the criminal law and save 20,000 lives a year? Why not stop by making it criminal the drinking of alcohol, which would save hundreds of thousands of lives?
When will we realise that laws not only cannot cure every evil but are frequently counter-productive? Here the harm done to our criminal process may well exceed any good that the law can do. We can see that in advance, so why do we persist with it? If there was a law which made it a criminal offence to smoke or to drink alcohol, neither of which, of course, do I advocate, just think of the amount of bereavement that would be saved, the number of hospital beds that could be put to better use, and the time and energy of our doctors and nurses which could be more usefully employed. Yet we do not consider doing that. What is it about the motorist that requires him to be singled out and subjected to this sort of legislation?
The Bill would also be an abuse of our criminal law because it would be an abuse of our criminal process. We can foretell that there will be widespread evasion of a law such as this. If there was 20 per cent. evasion among the 26 million people with cars, that would involve millions of British subjects evading the law. That could only drag the law further into disrepute. The Bill would irritate the police—and they are the defenders of the liberties of the subject. How many times would they be forced to stop motorists who would subsequently be found to be exempt from the seat belt law because they were too big, too small, too pregnant or too disabled, or because they fell within one of the other exemption categories? How irritating would this be to motorists who are stopped in these circumstances, and how much harm would this do to the relationship between the police and the public?
How much harm would it do to the legal system to have our courts even more overcrowded than they are now? Would not people feel that the legal system was once again failing and that the system of justice was yet again slowing down?
The harm to justice caused by this legislation will be far more substantial than we think. When will we realise that every little infringement of liberty, for whatever good cause, diminishes the whole concept of liberty? If life is the only criterion, why did we sacrifice so many millions of lives in two world wars? Why did we not in the Second World War lie down and say"Because millions of people may die, we should let our liberty be taken away before the onset of the Nazis "? The answer is that more important than lives is the concept of liberty.
Since I have been in the House I have seen the cogent arguments and the telling pleas of hon. Members on both sides of the House persuading and succeeding in persuading the House that it is only a very little piece more of liberty that we are withdrawing and for such great benefits and advantages. As a result we have far fewer of our freedoms now than was ever dreamed possible a few years ago. In the end we shall find that our liberties have all but disappeared. It might be possible to save more lives in Britain by this measure—and by countless other measures. But I do not see the virtue in saving more lives by legislation which will produce in the end a Britain where nobody wants to live.
I welcome the Bill, but in welcoming it I should like to express my concern at the way that it has been treated before it reached the Floor of the House. It is an important and vital measure for saving lives and has had strong support from public opinion, as demonstrated by the opinion polls. It would be more directly useful in saving lives and avoiding injuries than most measures that the House could possibly discuss but it has been so long delayed in being brought to the Floor of the House. It has been left to moulder until a time when the Government have seven more months—seven more days on some accounts—of life and it has been left to the end of the week, at a time when many hon. Members who would support it are wearing their seat belts as they drive east, north, west, or south, or around their constituencies.
The Bill has been asked to run the parliamentary race with a ball and chain around its legs. I am reconciled to this treatment only when I see the lack of vision with which it has been greeted by all too many Conservative hon. Members. That helps me to restrain my indignation at its treatment. We are told of driving instructors, for example, who seem not to have heard of inertia reel belts which allow them to move within the vehicle. The attack on the Bill has been paraded as a sort of freedom fight, based on the wholly specious argument that we should not infringe a principle by legislating to protect the individual from the consequences of his own actions.
It is wrong to erect that principle against a measure of such importance. No principle can lead hon. Members to discount the savings in deaths and injuries that the Bill could provide. The principle has been breached already in the crash helmet and health and safety at work legislation. It is a principle that ignores our obligations to others. We are not isolated individuals taking decisions whether or not to wear seat belts. Those decisions affect the families of motorists killed and injured and place great strain on the medical services. The principle also ignores the after-effects of accidents and the need to keep control of the vehicle which can be facilitated by the wearing of a seat belt.
The principle ignores the statistics. In praising the Bill, the Conservative Party spokesman on transport—the ayatollah—accepted the figures on the saving of death and injury although some of his lower-tollahs have queried those figures. Even if the figures are reduced marginally—or substantially—that would still be a major saving in deaths and injuries. How can the principle be opposed to that? In order for a principle to be effective and maintained, it has to be seen to be beneficial. When it stands against large numbers of deaths and injuries caused by the failure to wear seat belts, one is erecting a principle to an unreal importance. No principle can lead one to close one's vision to everything else. A sensible balance must be drawn. I draw that balance in favour of seat belts and in favour of compulsion.
I do so largely because of my own experience. Fourteen months ago I was driving north on the A1 from the House of Commons. A car shot across and I had no chance to avoid it. There was a collision. At one moment, I was in the safe, insulated and artificial world of the new car with its consumer joys as portrayed by advertising driving along the highway. The next moment I was a bleeding, battered piece of humanity in the written-off debris of a car. It is not only an intimation of mortality but it shows how suddenly accidents can occur and the need to be constantly prepared. Part of that preparation has to be the wearing of a seat belt.
Like another hon. Member who spoke, I am here today because I was wearing my seat belt. It saved my life and, at the very least, avoided much more serious injuries than those which I incurred. Therefore, I see the wearing of a seat belt as essential and compulsory. Even with my experience and that warning, there are occasions—isolated occasions admittedly—when I, too, forget to wear my seat belt. There needs to be the constant reminder of the law—a constant memory-jogger. It is not as if we were trying to erect the massive machinery of the police State to force motorists to wear their seat belts. The sight of policemen, the occupants of a police car, or other motorists wearing their seat belts provides that constant reminder. In that respect, the law will be self-enforcing and self-policing.
If someone like myself, with the experience of a severe accident, still occasionally forgets to fasten a seat belt, it is a demonstration of the need for a constant reminder, which would be provided by the law. My passenger in the accident to which I have referred sustained far worse injuries than myself. He is still undergoing treatment. He was not wearing a seat belt—I had not asked him to wear a seat belt. I bitterly regret that fact, and it is something that will remain with me for the rest of my life. The law would clear up the embarrassing situation and also the situation in which passengers are diffident about wearing a seat belt for fear of insulting the driver, or the driver is afraid to ask his passenger to wear one. It would clear up that difficult problem and make the driver responsible not only for his own safety but for that of his passengers.
I strongly support the Bill. It is a measure which should have been carried many years ago and it does no more than bring us into line with many other countries. I submit that the opponents of the Bill need to prove, first of all, that the statistics that have been quoted are wrong—the saving of 1,000 lives and 10,000 serious injuries per year. They may quibble and reduce the margin by one-tenth or even one-third, but there would still be a major saving demonstrably arising from the Bill. That cannot be eliminated by the quibbles and arguments that have been brought against it.
Secondly, the opponents of the Bill would need to show that the voluntary system is working and that it produces the kind of compliance which they want to see. That voluntary system is not working. We have only to trust our eyes when we are driving to see how many motorists are not wearing their seat belts. It might be an average of about 30 per cent. wearing them but no higher, and any driver must be aware that, given the risks that we face when driving that lethal instrument, the motor car, the number of drivers wearing seat belts is a comparatively small minority.
If the libertarian argument is to be mobilised, its supporters need to show to a public which the opinion polls indicate will not be convinced how essential a freedom it is to go head-first through a windscreen, to be bashed against a steering column, or to have one's face cut and bloodied against a windscreen. Given the savings in death and injury that would occur from the slight compulsion of wearing seat belts, I submit that it is not a question of basic freedom; it is a matter of social responsibility and of creating a climate in which people will do what is in their own best interests. Drivers have responsibilities not ony to themselves. It has been asked why the motorist is picked out for special treatment. The reason is that he is in charge of a lethal instrument.
Motorists have obligations to their families, their dependants, themselves, society and the medical services which are brought in when there is an accident. The compulsory wearing of seat belts is a minimal way of fulfilling that obligation.
We have had a good and intellectual debate, but I wonder what would have been our reaction if, instead of discussing motor cars and seat belts, we had been discussing an epidemic illness that affected 200 people a week, killed 15 people every week and cost the community £60 million a year and the cure for which was readily and freely available in an innocuous medicine, yet the people of this country refused to take that free medicine.
The effect of vaccination was to wipe out a dread disease which caused immense human suffering. Sadly, some people were seriously affected by the ill consequences of vaccination. I shall deal later with the ill consequences of wearing seat belts. I am far from convinced that the vaccination programme is comparable to the wearing of seat belts or has done damage to the people of this country.
I am well aware of that. That is the point that the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) was making.
If 25 people a day were jumping off Westminster bridge, does anyone seriously imagine that there would not be an outcry from the public, the press and the House demanding that we should put up a barrier to prevent such action? Of course there would be. The barrier would be put up within a few days.
Most hon. Members taking part in the debate have been through it more often than Red Rum has been round Aintree. Although we have won the vote, just as that: horse has won the race, we have not yet collected the prize. The Government should be substantially criticised for talking about introducing the legislation but leaving it so late that its chances of becoming law are slim indeed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) made much play of the problems of supervising the law, but in no country where the wearing of seat belts is compulsory—and they total 21 to date—has there been any suggestion that supervision has been a problem. About 18 months ago I spoke to the chief superintendent of traffic police in Auckland, a city of more than 1 million people. He told me that not only was supervision no trouble but that the subject had not even been raised with the force since the law was first enacted six or seven years ago.
The Government's suggestion that the regulations for exemption should be produced in draft form is useful and deals with many of the criticisms levelled at the Government on that aspect of the legislation.
Both sides of the argument accept that seat belts are a good thing. The differences are over freedom of the individual and whether there can be imposition of injury by seat belts. The hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Magee) and my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) put such good arguments about the freedom of the individual and liberty that I do not wish to follow them. However, is it seriously suggested that the 21 other countries in which the wearing of seats belts is compulsory are any less keen on freedom or the liberty of their individuals? Of course not. They are just as keen as we are and they have thought that the small price was worth paying.
Comparisons have rightly been drawn with drugs legislation, and perhaps the only hon. Member who can take a righteous attitude to the question of drugs legislation is my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell). I always acknowledge that he voted against the misuse of drugs legislation because he thought that it was a genuine imposition against the freedom of the individual. However, I do not find that many of my constituents consider that to be the case, and when the comparison is made I think that they take the point.
The Automobile Association has supplied a substantial list, drawn up by learned counsel, of legislation that it considers has been passed, over many centuries, dealing with the right of the Government to impose upon individuals legislation to protect them from their own folly. The legislation goes back hundreds of years in some cases.
Can seat belts cause death? I hope that no hon. Member will base his assessment of that question on the inexpert opinions sometimes given by coroners and widely publicised in newspapers. They are not based on scientific assessments.
Mr. C A. Hobbs examined 2,879 cases to find examples of seat belts being disadvantageous. He found that none of his vast sample would have fared better without a seat belt. It is almost impossible to argue in the mess, disaster and catastrophe of a serious car accident just what might have caused the death of the driver or passenger, but I have spoken to a number of people who have researched these matters and I am convinced that if there are any cases of seat belts causing injury, they are so infinitesimal and the proof is so lacking that it is an argument which we should rightly reject.
I asked the Secretary of State last week if he had any evidence that wearing a seat belt had contributed to any deaths last year and, if so, how he came to that
conclusion. The right hon. Gentleman replied:
I have no such evidence."—[Official Report, 19th March 1979; Vol. 964, c. 390.]
He also gave a helpful answer to another of my questions when he outlined the statistics of drivers and front seat passengers killed in cars and light vans in 1977. There were 44 deaths of persons who had no seat belts fitted to their vehicles. In 407 cases it was not known whether those who were killed were wearing a seat belt. However, 1,509 deaths occurred in vehicles in which a seat belt was fitted but was not being worn. Only 252 deaths occurred in vehicles in which seat belts were being worn.
Those figures speak for themselves and, loth as I am to surrender any personal freedom, I find that the price for preserving this particular freedom is too high. I refuse any longer to stand by and see the dreadful consequences of the present situation prolonged a minute more than necessary.
I agree with every word with which the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) has so eloquently shortened my speech for me.
I join with those other hon. Members who have welcomed back the new hon. and learned Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Waddington) because it gives me the opportunity to pay tribute—it is the only chance one gets in the House—to David Walder, who was a personal friend. He was greatly loved here as one who did not overvalue himself or undervalue others in the way that some people do after a period at Westminster. He died as he lived, in the company of friends, and none of us would wish other than that. He will be greatly missed in the House.
Another hon. Member, Tom Swain, died recently and violently. He was killed quite close to where I live in Derbyshire, in a car accident, a few weeks ago. His death has nothing to do with the seat belt argument, one way or the other, because in the circumstances he would have been killed anyway. I use the fact of his death to remind hon. Members that our number is diminished by deaths on the road more than by any other external cause. We tend to take it less seriously than if one of our hon. Members were to die in a plane crash—I am not sure that that has happened in peacetime—or in some other way. Traffic accidents are such an extraordinary decimator of the population, which is why we are having this debate.
Many hon. Members who have spoken already have had personal experience of road accidents and though some have been cruelly touched they have not referred to the facts themselves. Others, equally scarred by what has happened, for example my hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), have done so. On one occasion in my life I made that brief and unpleasant journey through the windscreen of a car in circumstances that I cannot say much about because I was concussed for a considerable time. I am extremely lucky to be alive. The point I make is that I was not wearing a seat belt. Looking back on that accident, I am not only lucky to have survived my own folly; I have had my mind concentrated on the arguments for and against compulsory seat belts.
The opponents of compulsion—their views were cogently expressed from the Conservative Front Bench—have three arguments. They have sought to challenge the validity of statistics, though none of them have done that very satisfactorily. They have advanced the arguments about liberty and utility against this proposed change in the law. I will say a word about all three.
No very clear argument has been advanced by the Conservatives to say that there would not be a saving, though perhaps we cannot quantify such a saving. It may be that the figure of 1,000 lives saved is too high. Perhaps the figure of 10,000 serious injuries avoided is also too high. But when we consider that there clearly would be some saving—and with only one exception from the Conservative Benches I think that this point has been conceded—are we really as free as perhaps some have suggested to put the argument of absolute liberty so high?
Only the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), using the figures for motor cycle accidents since crash helmet legislation was passed, said that the number of deaths each year, gave no clear evidence that there had been an improvement. The official calculation for 1977—the worst year for deaths which the right hon. Gentleman quoted—was that the lives of 120 motor cyclists were saved who would otherwise have been killed because they would have been involved in accidents when they were not wearing crash helmets.
A great many people are going to die in motor cycle accidents because when one is travelling at speed, and one comes off, there is a pretty good chance of breaking one's neck. That cannot be prevented. However, some may be, and some will be, saved and we should take that argument extremely seriously.
The libertarian argument has been put in its extreme form by the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). He said that we should not have fought the Second World War if we had wanted to put such a high premium on life and liberty. He pointed out that in a war people would be killed or hurt and that others would be bereaved. That was the most absurd argument of the whole debate. We must look at the degree to which liberty is put to different uses according to society and the times in which we live. We cannot ignore that, because all liberties are adjusted by the uses to which they are put.
There was far more freedom for motor car drivers 100 years ago, because there were no motor cars. Nobody then would have said—nor did people say for a time after cars were introduced—that a driving licence was necesary. For a long time one could drive around without a test, or without any restriction on speed. To this day, in some of those European countries where accident figures are higher than ours, the speed restrictions on roads where wild and high-speed driving is the order of the day are far less restrictive than they are here. That is probably one of the reasons why the accident rates also are higher.
I do not, therefore, take the argument based on liberty in this sense as all-embracing. I do not believe that we can do that. We have to say—I put this to the right hon. Member for Down, South—that one's liberty here has to be seen in terms of how one's freedom to do things impinges on the freedom of others, including their freedom not to be bereaved and not to be left to care for a helpless invalid or near-vegetable for the rest of their lives.
Finally, I come to the question of the utility of the regulations. It is a regrettable fact that Jimmy Savile's admirable"clunk click"campaign—admirable in its intentions and in its execution—has not, I think, had a sufficiently significant impact. Each time these advertisements come on, the shock horror effect of them is less and the consequential increase in the number of people wearing seat belts for a period after the advertisements appear has diminished.
I believe that, so long as that is the case, we have to do as has been suggested by the National Association of Health Authorities and other bodies which have made representations to us and turn to a measure of compulsion.
I regret that there is a loss of liberty involved, but I do not for a moment believe that it is one which should overwhelm the other arguments. We know the kind of people who will ignore such an advertising campaign. We know the anecdotes—they have been retailed in the House today—and we know that there are people who believe that they always know best and that, of course, nothing will happen to them. A few years ago, the Peter Simple column in The Daily Telegraph invented a rather splendid character, J. Bonnington Jagworth, the terror of the Kingston bypass, who was always going out on burn-ups and who would never come to any harm because he knew best how to use the road and handle his car.
Such people will resent a requirement by law that they belt up. But I believe that they will do it. The problem lies in the implementation of the legislation in the early stages. I think that the lesson of the crash helmets legislation has been that once the law was seen to be what it is, evasion has been relatively negligible. Some hon. Members opposite splutter at that, but how often does one see a motor cyclist of any age now riding without a crash helmet? I have not seen one. I have not even seen any Sikhs riding about without crash helmets, in spite of the protestations which they made. I believe that once people get used to the idea that this is the law of the land, they will come to use seat belts.
One more change which must come in line with what is here proposed—I am sure that it will come once there is this pressure—is in the manufacture of seat belts themselves. Until we have inertia reel seat belts in general use, we cannot effectively introduce legislation which makes the wearing of seat belts compulsory both for driver and front-seat passengers and eventtually, perhaps, for people in the back seats as well.
I have in mind here the kind of seat belt that I have in my car. One of the reasons why I do not wear it all the time, although I should, is that it is very uncomfortable, and I almost disclocate my elbow every time I try to put it on. We do not want seat belts of that kind manufactured in future, and I think that there will hereafter be some urgency in the call upon manufacturers to see how they can improve the design of seat belts and also speed up the process of testing them.
If the Bill goes forward in this Parliament or the next, it will, I believe, offer an admirable occasion for the use of the new procedure that the Procedure Committee has suggested—that is, a Select Committee stage incorporated within its passage. A good deal of what is advanced on both sides of the argument has not yet been properly proved. No one can say for certain everything that needs to be said about this legislation, and one of the ways in which we can clear our minds on the subject much more effectively is to have the relevant witnesses examined in some way or other—in this Parliament or the next—before the Bill becomes law.
In the meantime, I wish the Bill a good passage. I believe it to be one of the most important things that we could be debating this week.
If the Chair is to accommodate all hon. Members who are anxious to take part in the debate, it is necessary to appeal to hon. Members to limit their speeches to about six minutes.
The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) said that it would be wrong to introduce a Bill to make compulsory the wearing of seat belts until the inertia reel belt is generally available. That is precisely what the Bill is doing. I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the Bill being pre-eminently a measure for a Select Committee. I wish that it could go to such a committee.
The hon. Gentleman will have heard what Mr. Deputy Speaker said about six-minute speeches. I should like to examine the statistics. I think that I could show that they are substantially and materially wrong. However, I do not know how one can set about examining the statistics in a six-minute speech. Such an examination could be carried out in a Select Committee, where it is possible to call and cross-examine witnesses and elucidate the validity of the propositions that are put forward. I am happy to propose that the Bill should go to a Select Committee.
For me the Bill is basically a matter of principle. I have been rather sorry to listen to the speeches of some Labour Members whose views I often respect and with whom I occasionally agree. They have somewhat diminished and cheapened the concept of liberty, to which we all attach great importance. They have even asked, like a famous character in history,"What is liberty?"Surely the answer is that there is only one sort of liberty, and that is freedom from constraint. There are not many liberties. There is freedom from this and freedom from that, but that is not real freedom.
Reference has been made to the freedom not to scrape people off the road. There is no freedom not to scrape people off the road. There is no such thing as a freedom not to have an injured husband. These are advantages or detriments, but they are nothing to do with freedom. Freedom is immunity from constraint.
We do not run a complicated society without constraints. It is necessary to interfere with people's freedom so that we may live together in rather crowded conditions. The question is always whether the circumstances being alleged justify the intrusion upon freedom from constraint. That is why I consider it important to examine the statistics. If there were not 1,000 deaths a year but 10,000, I should still, on principle, be against the Bill. There may be those whose thresholds for these matters are lower than mine.
A quick study of the statistics may be justifiable. We have heard some wild figures, especially the 1,000 deaths and 10,000 injuries, which are nonsense. About 6,600 people are killed on the roads annually. However, at least 4,000 of those are in categories to which the Bill has no relevance—for example, pedestrians, cyclists or motor cyclists. The Bill is about wearing seat belts in motor cars. It is no good the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) shaking his head.
It has been said that if the driver is wearing a seat belt and there is deceleration the belt will be tightened around the driver, and he will thus have better control of his car and he may miss the other person.
If the hon. Gentleman considers that that is a substantial element in the statistical evaluation, I must pass on. I regard that theory as ridiculous. We are talking about a Bill that refers to the wearing of seat belts in motor cars, and by the front seat occupants of motor cars. Each year about 2,550 people are killed in motor cars. The exempted categories, whatever they are to be, cannot be fewer than 550. I imagine that even those in the back seats would add up to that, apart from all the other categories.
The Bill will affect 2,000 people every year. The Government's statistics show that of those killed 235 were wearing seat belts anyway. Therefore, we must subtract that figure. There is a further category. It was not known whether people in that category were wearing seat belts. They amounted to 103. We are left with 1,650 people per annum whom the Bill might affect. These are Government figures. It is suggested that we may save 1,000 lives every year out of the total of 1,650. On the broadest approach to the subject, that is highly improbable.
In recent months there has been controversy on this matter. The medical people, who supplied the pressure behind this move, reduced the figure to 800 and then to 600. I do not say that seat belts do not work to some extent. However, I suggest that the correct figure is about 250. The Government's statistically based justification is weak. It is based on the difference between those who were and those who were not wearing seat belts when killed. That is a dangerous extrapolation. The Government's figures overlooked the fact that those wearing seat belts were voluntary wearers. It is reasonable to assume that they wore seat belts efficiently and did so in the hours of darkness.
I come to the compulsory wearing of seat belts in the hours of darkness, when the accident rate is twice as high as in the hours of daylight. We shall not find the reluctant or compelled person wearing seat belts then. I shall not do so because the police will not see me and because I am against the measure. That is easy. Therefore, we cannot extrapolate the saving rate even if we accept the Government's figures.
The Government justified the figures by a reference to the Victoria statistics. Victoria was the only place in the world that showed a 50 per cent. reduction in injuries when compulsory belt wearing was introduced. There were material distinctions. In Victoria the wearing rate was 15 per cent. when the law was introduced. Therefore, the comparison must be between 15 per cent. belt wearing and 90 per cent., which was ultimately achieved. That is different from the British figure of an increase from 33 per cent. to 85 per cent. At the same time, a 60 mph speed limit was introduced in Victoria. If that factor did not falsify the statistics, I do not know what did.
When there was a fuel crisis in the United Kingdom a 50 mph speed limit was introduced. The number of deaths on the roads dropped by 1,400. There is nothing like a speed limit for reducing the numbers of deaths. If we introduced a 50 mph speed limit we should unquestionably save the lives of 1,200 people every year who would otherwise be killed on the roads. In that case we should be dealing with pedestrians, motor cyclists and others. How can we derive any sensible analogy from the statistics?
In the other states of Australia the savings ranged from nil to 30 per cent. In Sweden, when compulsory seat belt wearing was introduced the saving was nil. Every country has its own statistics. If, in Britain, we start with 33 per cent. and take account of the difference between voluntary and compulsory wearing, and the difference between day and night for frequency of accidents, we arrive at a probable saving of deaths of about 15 per cent. That is what we are talking about. It is a matter for each Member of Parliament to decide for himself.
Serious injuries are said to amount to 10,000 per year. That figure is based on the same calculation to which I apply the same qualifications. Let us start by remembering that the definition of serious injuries is absurd in this context. It applies to someone who stays in hospital for an hour. I am told by my medical advisers that the true figure of serious injuries is about half that mentioned in the departmental statistics. We are in fact starting from 5,000, and to that figure we apply all the considerations that I have been applying to deaths.
It is impossible to do justice to the arguments in the number of minutes available to speakers in the debate tonight, if one is to be fair to other hon. Members who are waiting to speak. All I can say is that if it is a question of balancing magnitude against intrusion into the realm of personal decision, I cannot accept for a moment that this kind of advantage in any way justifies what it is proposed to do. It is a very serious intrusion into people's liberty.
We have heard much argument today about precedent, but this liberty has been encroached on already. In any State in the modern world, freedom is never lost to people who preach dictatorship. It is lost to pressure groups whose purposes are benevolent in every respect. It is erosion by balancing the tangible advantage against the intangible advantage of not accumulating restraints upon the individual until he has been weakened. We cannot have a strong society made up of weak individuals. If the people in that society are constantly prevented from making unwise decisions, they become weak individuals.
We cannot look at seat belts in isolation. That is just where the latest push has come from the medicos. The risk is a very remote one. The risk of serious injury to a driver in this country, if he is doing an average annual mileage, is once in 800 years. The risk of death to a driver of an average mileage is once in 10,000 years. If he is over 25, it is once in 25,000 years. But when we are dealing with a population of 55 million or 60 million, obviously there is a steady trickle of a few a day, and they are all channelled into the accident and casualty departments of hospitals.
The medicos who write to us watch this wretched procession of damaged human frames and they say"This is terrible, it has got to stop ". But who are they to advise us on the balance between freedom and restraint? By definition, they are people whose minds have lost their balance because of the narrow and intense experience they have.
I must stop, in fairness to others, but I hope that hon. Members, when they vote at 10 p.m., will bear in mind that this argument from my side of the question is not one that can be brushed aside. It is one of the greatest gravity and of the greatest significance for the future of a free society.
The Secretary of State moved the Second Reading of the Bill cogently, courteously and persuasively, but to what end was that persuasion? It was to show the desirability for the individual of using his seat belt. I have a cardiac pacemaker. It is fitted epicardially—that is to say, in my diaphragm. I find it very uncomfortable to wear a seat belt, but I am nevertheless persuaded by the statistics that it is right that I should wear one, and I have brought myself to do so. Perhaps I would obtain exemption under the exemption rules, but on balance I think that it is right for me to wear one. To say, as speaker after speaker has said, on the one hand that it is desirable that the individual should wear his seat belt and, on the other, that society should impose on him by law the obligation of doing so and should make it a criminal offence should he not do so, are two entirely different things.
In my submission to the House, there is here an issue of fundamental principle. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) put it absolutely clearly to the House. Were we not to limit our freedom to the extent that our freedom impinges on the freedom of others, then, in the words of Hobbes, life would indeed be
nasty, poor, brutish and short ".
We must limit our personal freedom for the good of others, but only to that extent and to that end.
What we are facing in the House this afternoon is not that problem; we are being asked to say that it is convenient for society—convenient only—that there should be fewer deaths on the road, fewer injuries on the road, and that, therefore, the individual must be compelled, for his own good, to limit his freedom. That is something that I absolutely and totally reject. It is not right. The only precedent—and I am not concerned with precedents because they may be bad—was the crash helmets Bill for motor cyclists. There, at least, there was the argument—and it was a powerful and cogent argument—that motor cyclists were mostly young people and that society has always assumed an obligation for young people in order that they should be protected against themselves.
Here we are not dealing with a section of the community consisting of minors under 21, or 18 as it is now. We are dealing with the whole of society. We must beware of eroding the liberties of the individual because we find it convenient or expedient so to do. In the complexity of modern society, where there are innumerable things at which we can look, it is all too easy to say"Ah, yes, it would be very good for the citizen, the subject of the Queen, to be restricted or constrained in this or that respect ". We should not erode the fundamental freedom of the individual where his act concerns himself alone and go beyond that and say"Ah, yes, for the good of society his freedom should be limited ".
For that reason I see a fundamental clash of principle. The principle for which I stand, for which I hope I was elected and which, for as long as I stand here, I shall sustain, is that I shall not tolerate or support any erosion of the freedom of the individual which is not absolutely essential for the freedom of others and the good of society. I do not see that in the Bill.
I should like to see more education and encouragement for the use of seat belts, but, as many of my hon. Friends have said, it is wrong that people should be compelled to do something which, in fact, may be harmful to them. That is not the core of the matter, although it is an extension of it. Seat belts may injure or kill—just as vaccination may injure or kill. That is the danger that we get ourselves into when we seek to limit the freedom of the individual. That is the major point and the principle on which I shall go into the Lobby—I hope to see many of my hon. Friends go into the same Lobby—and vote against the Bill tonight.
My second point is that the Bill creates a new crime. We cannot create a new crime, and ought not to do so, unless we have a consensus of a very large part of society. I am not saying, of course, that we must get the consent of burglars to a law against thefts, or the consent of rapists to a law against rape, but, having had a good deal to do with both types of criminal, I find that many of them recognise the justice of the law even when they offend against it. We cannot have a law that many people think is wrong and bad, which goes against the fundamental principle that should govern society. That is the second point that I desire to make.
My final point is that enforcement will create appalling problems for the police, who could be better employed. It will also increase that misunderstanding between the police and the community, which has done so much harm to the reputation of the police, when matters of real moment are tried in our criminal courts.
Suicide in this country ceased to be a criminal offence only after the war. I shall not go into the historical origins of the reasons why suicide was a criminal offence. In the old days it greatly benefited the Crown, who could seize the lands of the suicide because it was a felony. Attempted suicide has also ceased to be a criminal offence. Why? It is because this House respected the freedom of the individual. Indeed, it was a learned lord justice who said only the other day that if Mr. Relf wished to kill himself he was free to do so. The people of this country should be free to decide for themselves whether or not they should wear seat belts.
Every hon. Member who has opposed the Bill has conceded that its passage would save some lives and some injuries, even my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell). Every hon. Member who has supported the Bill has also conceded that some diminution of freedom is involved. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) said, one is faced with a balance.
But, for the average man in this country, the argument about the compulsory wearing of seat belts has already been sold. As my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) pointed out, it is impossible for the average British citizen to leave or enter this country by air without wearing a seat belt in the aircraft. Of course one can, if one buys or rents an aeroplane, but the average person travelling on one cannot avoid wearing a seat belt. During the last 25 years, I suppose that I have travelled nearly 1 million miles in the air, and I have never come across anyone who has had any conscientious objection to wearing a seat belt in an aircraft.
But I can see that there is a difference in regard to cars. This was put most forcibly by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Wadding-ton)—whom we are delighted to welcome back into the House—when he pointed out that a considerable number of people, irrespective of the official statistics put forward and the ministerial statements that only one person in 1,000 will be actively harmed by the wearing of seat belts, still believe that they will be damaged by being forced to wear a seat belt. This is a serious problem which we who support the Bill must face.
I wish that there were some way to exempt those who feel seriously about this. I accept that some people are neurotic and have phobias about it, and I believe that some machinery should be found for exempting them. I therefore regret that in the exemption procedures which the Minister outlined this afternoon we seem to have gone back on some of the exemptions that were contained in the 1976 Bill.
I also take the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield that the problem of enforcement will be considerable. I do not want the police to start a draconian drive against those who do not wear their seat belts. I also regret the fact that under this Bill the maximum penalty has been lifted from £10, as it was in the 1976 legislation, to £50. I hope that if we get to the Committee stage we will reduce it to £10. But I believe that this Bill is largely self-enforcing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield cited Australia and France. In both those countries enforcement has been very weak at times. Indeed, in France, when the Bill came in, in the rural areas no attempt was made to enforce it. Yet seat belt wearing went up from about 30 per cent. to about 70 per cent. I believe that would happen here and I believe the enforcement problem can be coped with. A lot of it is going to be done photographically in a few years' time, and I do not believe that there is going to be the friction between the police and the public that my hon. Friend thinks there will be.
To my mind, the clinching argument is that 21 countries now have compulsory legislation and in not one of them is there a serious drive to get rid of that legislation, because it saves a great deal of misery.
I think it was the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) who put his finger on one factor that has been very clear in our debates and to those who have taken part in a number of debates when he asked whether hon. Members were simply making statements or were here to argue. In a sense, those who have taken part in these debates over the years know very well the opinions that are going to be expressed and recognise them when they are expressed.
One thing has become clear in this debate today, and that is that the real issue is not whether, on practicalities, it will work, but the divide between hon. Members on both sides of the House as to whether this is a matter of personal freedom or whether, as the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) put it rather more elegantly, it is a law which interferes with others. It seems to me that that argument is fundamental, and that its resolution is fundamental, to getting the Bill through, because this is why both Front Benches have allowed a free vote on it tonight. I believe that that is not sense. I see no reason why there should be a free vote. I think that this is something that the Government have to take a grip on, decide their policy and put it through, but because there is this continuing argument whether this is a matter of freedom, both parties treat it as a matter of free conscience.
I want to devote the very few moments available to me to dealing with whether this is in truth a matter which involves personal choice or whether it seriously involves third parties. There seem to me to be three arguments, and I shall take them in reverse order of importance.
The first, I concede, is one of pure practicality and nothing else. There is no doubt that the failure to use seat belts is expensive for the National Health Service. It involves the State in disability payments and medical payments, and it involves us in loss of employment. Of course, it can equally be said that there are a number of other unsocial activities, alcoholism and so on, which result in exactly similar cost to the State, and therefore one can do no more than note that it is a cost to the State.
It is suggested that whether to use a seat belt is in itself a decision which one can make purely on one's own, without involving other people. I put aside the family because in the end, if one goes without a seat belt and ignores the consequences for one's family, on one's own head be it and on their heads be it. Nobody who has been involved in investigations into accidents or has dealt with them legally afterwards can have the least doubt about the terrible trauma when accidents happen when seats belts are not used.
For the motorist, perhaps innocent, who runs into another car and sees the other driver or his passenger thrown on to his own car or mangled on the road in front of him, it is not a matter of no importance. The incident will cause him misery at the time, and he will remember it for the rest of his life. It will cause him, and perhaps his passengers and others who see it, anxiety over months and years. A serious motor accident affects other people desperately. It may ruin their whole motoring lives.
The most important question is: what is the purpose of wearing a seat belt? Is it simply to protect the individual, or does it help third parties? My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Waddington), whom I, too, welcome back as a very old friend, was inclined to dismiss this matter as of no importance. I think that at the end of the last debate, when I made this point, the right hon. Member for Down, South remarked to me"If you are right, and it really does affect third parties, the argument is reversed ". He will probably accept that.
Does the wearing or not wearing of seat belts seriously affect third parties? Let us look at the arguments. I draw my support from some helpful figures supplied to me by an expert who has been mentioned before. Nobody who thinks about the matter can long avoid coming across the figures supplied by Dr. Mackay, reader in traffic safety at Birmingham university. He is the senior expert at the university.
The first thing that becomes clear from the figures of Dr. Mackay's papers and from other statistics is that the impression that traffic accidents involve head-on collisions and that therefore one is not protected by one's seat belt is false. At the very most, 60 per cent. of accidents occur in that way. Twenty per cent. of those are collisions on either wing, though they are included within the figures for the front of the car. Therefore, in a sense they are glancing blows.
When we look further at the figures we find that no less than 25 per cent. are side impacts. Moreover, 26 per cent. of all accidents involve no other vehicles. They are the kind of accident in which someone tries to avoid a dog or another car, does not come into contact with it, but hits a hedge, bollard or pavement.
It seems clear beyond doubt that all such accidents can be described as glancing blows. One must conclude that if the driver is retained in his seat and can control the vehicle after the glancing blow he will be able to prevent it doing more damage and hurting people on the pavements or in other vehicles.
Casualties in cars are untypical when the only occupant is the driver. More often than not—the ratio is three to one—there is more than one occupant. The driver has a duty to his passengers to wear a seat belt, because he can then control the car better.
We have the startling figure that 80 per cent. of accidents occur when vehicles are being driven at speeds between 15 mph and 30 mph or 35 mph—there is a variation between the statistics for this country and abroad. Let us take the higher figure and say that they occur at speeds between 15 mph and 35 mph. Within those limits there is every chance of the driver being able to control the vehicle once the first glancing blow has occurred. That applies to as many as 50 per cent. of all accidents. In the time available I cannot do justice to the statistics, which I have to put very badly to the House.
There is not the least doubt that the arguments about personal freedom are phoney. They do not stand up. People are not being asked just to protect themselves as occurred when the wearing of crash helmets was made compulsory. They are asked to protect, first, their passengers and, secondly, those who will be gravely hurt if they cannot control their vehicles. Lastly, they are asked not to be so selfish as to think it does not matter if they are thrown out of the car through the windscreen and torn to bits on the road in front of another car, or land on the bonnet, and think that no one else will be involved. That is rubbish, and the sooner the House says so, the better.
Although I speak regularly on transport matters, I rise on this issue subjectively in the spirit of a convert, if not, the House will be relieved to know, with the passion of a convert, in the sense that, as the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) recently reminded me, although I had not forgotten, I voted against the compulsory use of seat belts on the last occasion. In 1976 I even sat through long debates upon public lending right and other matters whilst my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) was speaking at considerable length before the seat belts debate was reached, in order to vote against the Bill.
I principally rise subjectively to record my personal stand, my support for the Bill, and my congratulations to the Government on bringing it forward. I wish they had done so sooner. That is a valid criticism that should be made against them. I also rise to record my disappointment that the Opposition Front Bench, with whom I agree on almost everything, should on this occasion not be in full agreement with me and certain of my hon. Friends. I nevertheless congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) on his excellent debating speech, even if it was not in the right direction.
I originally thought that voluntary persuasion would suffice. It has not worked, with due deference to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Waddington), although a great deal of money has been spent. For me the substantive arguments are that it is beyond dispute that the measure will save lives and serious injury. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield spoke of deaths and narrowed it down. He completely ignored the 32,000 serious injuries. That is beyond dispute, and it has been conceded by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield.
The general accident rates are all very well. We know that Britain is doing a good job and that the rate in France is dreadful. But we are not dealing with general accident rates; we are dealing with serious injury and death, and that is what we want to stop by this measure, as individual Members of Parliament, on a free vote. It is a matter of common sense that it is safer to wear a seat belt. Figures can be argued up hill and down dale but we know perfectly well that if we wear our seat belts we are safer.
We have a heavy individual responsibility in the exercise of this vote. We should measure and consider that carefully. It is a bipartisan matter. A certain amount of"this side and that side"has crept into the debate, but on both sides of the House we have considered the question objectively.
There is the argument about personal liberty and individual choice. It has not been sufficiently emphasised, but we are not, by the measure, preventing anyone from doing anything. The right hon. Member for Down, South mentioned cigarette smoking. We were left with the picture that if we banned this and that everything would be much healthier, the Health Service would be saved money and so on. We are not preventing anyone from driving. We are merely advising someone to strap on a belt. If it is a challenge to civil liberty, it is extremely limited.
I greatly enjoyed the speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve). He was in good form, but I wish that he had applied his rhetoric to a more deserving issue. I cannot stand strapping on the miserable belt but realise that it is necessary that I and others wear it. There can be exemptions for people with phobias. It would be simple for a person with a phobia to sit in the back seat. The more who do so, the better.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) mentioned the affect on third parties. Anyone who has dealt with personal injury cases in court well knows that in an accident after impact a lot more can happen, not only to other vehicles but to pedestrians. The better control that one retains of a vehicle, the more that can be avoided.
One of the fallacies in the argument of the right hon. Member for Down, South was the question of children. Parents can be complacent and careless in not telling their children to wear seat belts. The hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said that he had not told the person with him, who was seriously injured, to wear his seat belt. Many parents do not tell children and young people travelling in the front seat to wear seat belts.
On the arguments of principle, it is a question of balance. That was well covered by the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Magee). We should adopt a balanced approach rather than waxing a little bit strongly and fighting the Second World War all over again.
We have heard a great deal on two subsidiary arguments concerning enforcement. The British people are generally law-abiding, and the foreign experience is overwhelming. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield said that enforcement would be difficult, especially at night and on motorways, but he went on to say that in France the law did not work until it was enforced, and we must be objective. It is most important to remember that the public will see the sense of the legislation. That is evident from opinion polls. I am sure that the law will be obeyed.
The relationship of the police and public goes much deeper than mere seat belt legislation. Spot fines, general enforcement and police relations go way beyond it. If wearing seat belts is made compulsory, I cannot see that it will be a great problem for the police force. It has its problems, and we must deal with those in an imaginative and general way, but it is a gross overstatement to say that this matter has any bearing on such problems.
I mean no disrespect to any hon. Member when I say that the House has heard no new arguments tonight. The speeches, the responses and even the interventions have been predictable. But in many ways the debate has not concerned the arguments about the Bill. A Second Reading is a practical occasion on which the House concerns itself with the prospects for the Bill. The House has been here before and heard all the arguments. On 1 March 1976 the House gave a Second Reading to an almost identical Bill to this by a majority of 110. Now we are concerned with the prospects for the current Bill. To bring in a Bill of this kind on 22 March in the dying days of the Parliament—even if the Parliament were to continue for some months—means that it is most unlikely that it will make progress.
We welcome the efforts of the Secretary of State, but we must say that the efforts on the other side of the argument by the Leader of the House can only be regarded as a cynical manipulation of the business of the House for the sake of his own private prejudices.
There is little prospect of the Bill making progress, so my concern is for the chances of a similar Bill getting on to the statute book in the future. Hon. Members may suspect that I am a little disappointed at the attitude of my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench in that they have indicated, as Conservative spokesmen, that they are not in favour of seat belts legislation. What, then, is the prospect of a Conservative Government introducing a Bill of this kind?
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), or whoever occupies his position in the future, will be persuaded, as previous Conservative spokesmen have been, of the need for compulsory seat belt wearing. I remind hon. Members of what may have been a conversion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) in 1973, when he made clear in a statement that he conceded that the public accepted the need for compulsion and that the chief officers of police accepted that legislation in this form was inevitable. The matter then went to the House of Lords and was accepted by the Conservative spokesmen there. When the Labour Government reintroduced the Bill later in 1974 the Conservative spokesman at that time officially welcomed the seat belts clause and no less a person that my noble Friend Lord Hailsham voted in support of compulsion.
Even if the Bill fails on this occasion, as I fear it must, I hope that a future Conservative Government will introduce such legislation. Of course, they will introduce it on a free vote, but the House has already demonstrated that it is overwhelmingly in favour of the principle. This is largely because of the overwhelming acceptance on both sides of the argument that whatever the differences of principle on the question of freedom, and so on, there would be a substantial saving of life and limb. That is one clear point that has come through in almost every speech. Even my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell), one of the most determined opponents of the legislation, putting his own interpretation on the figures, conceded that 250 lives a year could be saved. He thought that an insignificant figure. I do not agree. The forecasts of possible saving of life and limb are of such a magnitude that even a considerable error in those estimates would still provide a considerable saving.
If 250 lives a year could be saved, that would justify compulsion. This is a question of numbers. If the numbers were few, perhaps one could not justify this extra restraint—and restraint it is—but I do not believe that the extra restriction involved in simply putting on a seat belt involves a more valuable principle than the principle of life itself. I cannot understand why so many hon. Members accept that it should be the law to have seat belts fitted into cars and yet cannot concede that it is worth making that extra effort to compel people to use the belt, thereby saving several hundred lives a year.
Many fine points of argument have been put, for example, that it is not the same as the wearing of hard hats on a construction site. However the law was devised in the first place, they are worn to protect the workmen and that is why the wearing of them is compulsory. Why are car seat belts different from a belt in an aeroplane and the enforcement of so many health and safety at work rules? We have gone so far as to enforce the fitting of seat belts in cars, yet we have refused to take the step which would save hundreds of lives every year.
I conclude by recalling the speech that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) made on 1 March 1976. He said that he was opposed to the compulsory wearing of seat belts until he went to the Department of Transport and became responsible for road safety. After that, he saw the necessity for the legislation.
It is because the House and the Government are responsible for road safety that I believe the legislation is necessary. It is possible to reduce the appalling slaughter on the roads, and we should be neglecting our duty if we failed to take this opportunity to save lives—perhaps 1,000 lives and 10,000 serious injuries a year. It would be the most effective way of saving lives. It is a simple, practical step and there is nothing complicated or difficult about it.
I believe not only that the House should give an overwhelming majority to the measure but, more importantly, that it should bring pressure to bear to ensure that, if future legislation is needed, it is brought in at the beginning of a Session and not at the end. In that way we can forget the argument that has gone on for so many years and try to reduce the slaughter on the roads.
I should like to begin by reiterating what several hon. Members from both sides of the House have said. It was a great pleasure to hear the speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Waddington). He made an excellent speech—which came as no surprise. It is good to see him back, and we hope that he will continue to contribute to debates. I am certain that he will. I appreciated particularly the remarks that he made about a great friend of many of us, his predecessor Mr. David Walder. I worked closely with Mr. Walder on defence matters for a number of years. He was one of the nicest people that it has ever been my privilege to know in the House.
Like all other hon. Members, I shall express my own view on the matter. I am glad to give a personal view. I shall not conceal from the House the fact that I have found it difficult to make up my mind on the issue. It is not an easy issue, and there are extremely powerful arguments on both sides. Therefore, I have done my best to listen to the debate and to weigh up arguments.
Both sides of the issue have respected the views of the other. I respect the views of the Minister and those hon. Members who believe that the Bill should be introduced. It was introduced with sincerity, and the arguments were put clearly. On the other hand, those hon. Members who believe that it is not the right measure have a case which it would be wrong not to respect and listen to. I shall try to sum up the main arguments of substance, which are reasonably clear and short.
I am a total and absolute believer in the use of seat belts. I always—and I mean always—wear a seat belt and I always require my front-seat passenger to wear one. It is a great assistance to safety. However, that is not what we are discussing—that is common ground between both sides of the argument. We are discussing whether, accepting all that, it is right, necessary and proper that we should make it compulsory to wear seat belts and that it should be a criminal offence, albeit a slight one, to fail to wear them.
I hope that the Secretary of State understands that for those of us who have doubts about the Bill the question of exemptions will be extremely important in the later stages of the ligislation. Many people, drivers and others, find it intolerable, difficult, unpleasant, uncomfortable and upsetting to use seat belts. I confess that I do not understand their reasons. I find seat belts convenient and comfortable, but others find them awkward, and in Committee we shall have to probe carefully what is meant by the reference to a doctor's certificate and what guidance doctors will be given about what will be considered a reason for being excused from having to wear seat belts. I believe that there will be a number of cases in which it will be extremely difficult to describe the reason as medical.
The Minister intends to introduce details of exemptions in a statutory instrument or order under the Bill, but it will be unsatisfactory for us to be asked to vote on the exemptions in a block decision after one and a half hour's debate, probably after 10 o'clock at night. We shall have the option only of accepting or rejecting the whole package.
I hope that the Secretary of State will come to the Committee stage with a clear list of detailed exemptions and, if possible, a draft of the draft order so that we may thrash it out bit by bit.
Unless the right hon. Gentleman does that, it will not be good enough for the House to have to accept or reject a whole package in which many details may not be acceptable to some hon. Members. There are important difficulties. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) raised the question of the difficulties faced by driving instructors. They have not been covered in previous attempts at legislation, and they are important.
Two key arguments have to be decided by every hon. Member before he votes. The first argument is that because the statistics demonstrate that using a seat belt saves lives we must compel everyone to wear them. I respect the views of those who use that argument, and it has been useful to have the many representations that most hon. Members have had from members of the medical profession giving us the benefit of their direct experience, which cannot be taken lightly. They ought to know that hon. Members have taken their views seriously.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) does not regard the conclusions drawn from the statistics as entirely convincing and the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) takes the same line. I believe that many of the estimates are on the extravagant side, but I accept that there is an important saving of life by the wearing of seat belts. I do not base any part of my argument on disputing or minimising that fact.
The financial argument is that it costs the community a great deal of money to treat road accident victims. One point not made in the debate is that, as I understand it, when an accident victim has to attend an NHS hospital, that hospital has to be reimbursed, at least to some extent, through the driver's insurance policy, for the cost of looking after him. Though it is still a cost, it does not necessarily fall on the public purse. I believe that this is what happens in most cases and I hope that the Minister will confirm it.
If we accept the argument that because lives are being saved it follows that we are justified in making it compulsory for everybody to use seat belts, I suggest that we are embarking on a slippery slope. If the only argument for compelling people to use seat belts is to save lives, we should be passing a law making it illegal to cross the road. That is an extremely dangerous activity, which accounts for a large number of road casualties every year. I do not know what the exact figure is but it is large.
It would be logical to say that if we believe that saving lives is the only criterion, crossing the road should be made a crime. That smoking costs lives cannot be denied, yet I have heard no one suggesting that we make smoking a crime. There is also the question of dangerous sports. Again, if the criterion is to save lives and prevent injury, we ought to curtail dangerous sports.
Does my hon. Friend accept that wearing a seat belt does not stop one going where one wants to go, whereas if one is prevented from crossing the road, or from smoking or from mountaineering, one is being prevented from doing what one wants to do? Is there not a difference?
That is a good point. My point is that if saving lives is everything in this argument, the activities that I have mentioned ought to be made illegal, in order to save lives. It is an argument that needs to be weighed, but it is not crucial.
The second argument is much more important and is different from other arguments that we are considering. I accept that most people who wear seat belts are safer than those who do not, but there are people who believe that they are alive today because they were not wearing seat belts at the time of an accident. They may not be right, but they believe that they are.
I was impressed by the speech made by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), who told us in a very effective way of his being saved because he was wearing a seat belt. He is with us today because of that. Without wishing to detract from that, I must tell him that my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) believes—he may well be right—that he is with us because, when he was involved in an accident, he was not wearing a seat belt.
Although the majority of people who wear seat belts are safer, there are some who are not. This introduces another set of calculations and criteria which we must take into account and which emphasise the difference between seat belts and crash helmets for motor cyclists. There may be people who argue that there are occasions when it is safer for a motor cyclist not to wear a crash helmet. I am not aware of such an argument, and unless I were convinced I would not believe that it could convincingly be made. To my mind, that is the difference in the argument about the wearing of crash helmets, since it is very nearly—as near as one can get—self-evident that one is at least marginally safer when wearing a crash helmet.
But let us consider some other examples. There has already been reference to the requirement, with criminal penalty attached, that one shall not run a car on the road without an MoT certificate if its age calls for the test. Moreover, it is wrong, and subject to penalty, to drive a car on the road without effective brakes.
Some would say that the same principle applies, but it is not the same principle because there are no circumstances in which it can be safer to drive a car with no brakes or with defective brakes than to drive it with proper brakes. There is a complete difference in degree there.
Several hon. Members have spoken of the requirement to wear seat belts in an aircraft. Of course that is so, but the difference is that it is not a criminal offence to fail to do so. Again, therefore, there is a difference between what happens in that context and what is proposed under the Bill.
We should face the consequences of what is here proposed and be clear about them in our minds. What happens if a person wearing a seat belt as required under the Bill has an accident and is killed but, in the opinion of his wife, family and dependants, his life would have been saved had he not been wearing a seat belt? That is not at all fanciful. Such an event may well happen in many cases already. What is the position of the bereaved family? Are they able to claim any redress from the State if they believe that the father wore his seat belt, being required to do so under the Bill, and this led to his death? That may well happen in a number of cases, and we should think carefully about the effect of what we are doing.
Since my hon. Friend is giving thought to the effects on other people, will he take it from me that in many of our hospitals men and women spend their lives looking after frontal lobotomy cases, doing the frightening job of caring for people who did not wear a seat belt and collided with the windscreen, being reduced to gibbering idiots as a result? My hon. Friend should consider the position of those people who are affected as well.
With respect to my hon. Friend, I have indeed considered them and I have covered that matter already in what I have said.
I wish to conclude now, and I think that it would not be right to make this speech without being constructive as well. In my view, it is both desirable and necessary that we should look at the positive side. Seat belt design has been mentioned already by several hon. Members. We have a long way to go before seat belt design is satisfactory, and I hope that the Department will do all that it can to put pressure on the manufacturers to that end.
Secondly, I am all in favour of the maximum number of requirements in the construction of motor cars with reference to seat belts. Seat belts should be built in, there should be flashing lights to show whether the belt is fitted on, and, if necessary, even noises produced by an instrument in the fascia board to warn people and to encourage them to use the belt. There should be an extension of the penalties under insurance policies if those who have accidents were not wearing seat belts. The rule which is sometimes already adopted of applying penalties in the compensation should be extended. Certainly, there will be need for continued advertising and persuasion even if the Bill should go through.
I have not found it easy to make up my mind. I accept that there are great advantages in the wearing of seat belts, and I believe that everybody should always wear them, but many hon. Members have made a powerful case for saying that there would be an intrusion here upon individual freedom by the requirement on everybody to wear a seat belt, making it a criminal offence not to do so with a penalty of £50, and there are cases, however few they may be—I believe that they are a significant number—where wearing a seat belt is harmful to the life and health of driver or passenger.
This is a requirement which we should not lightly impose upon people who, for whatever reason and however misguided we may think them, do not wish to wear a seat belt. I shall continue to wear a seat belt, but I hope that the House will not make it compulsory and a crime not to do so.
First, I say in response to comments made by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) and the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) that this is a Government Bill. My right hon. Friend and I believe that the Bill deals with an important issue. That is why we have brought the Bill to the House. That is why my right hon. Friend opened the debate and why I am replying. On an issue of this sort we felt it right to have a free vote. There will be a free vote for Labour Members, as I understand there will be for Opposition Members. I thought that I should make those matters plain to avoid any misunderstandings about the position hon. Members will face when they go into the Lobbies to vote at 10 o'clock.
Before I come to the central issues for and against the Bill, I shall take up one or two remarks made by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, referred to consultation. They fairly said that it is three years since a similar measure came before the House to receive its Second Reading. That was a Bill not dissimilar from the measure before us. They fairly asked what consultation had been undertaken on exemptions, for example. A great deal of consultation has been undertaken. The hon. Gentleman will readily be able to ascertain the extent of the consultation if he wishes.
For example, there has been considerable consultation with the police on exemptions and enforcement. We have talked extensively with medical authorities on a number of issues. Our talks have concerned not merely the principles of medical exemption and who should be exempt, but the mechanics of the certificate, the fees and all the details that it is necessary to consider and which legitimately concern hon. Members. We have also entered into consultation on children and how we should treat them. My right hon. Friend made plain the Government's attitude to children in terms of the Bill. We have also talked to our own examiners, who have problems with a Bill of this sort. Therefore, my right hon. Friend was able to make a clear statement, though necessarily brief as there was a great deal to say on other matters and it was a Second Reading debate, on the broad approach that we have adopted to exemptions.
I note the remarks of the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) about our proceedings in Committee and how they might proceed. I am not able to say how we shall progress from this stage of the Bill's passage, but we shall take into account the argument that he has advanced.
We decided that it was right to introduce what is in effect an enabling Bill, followed by the business end, to quote the right hon. Member for Down, South, in the form of regulations. That decision was taken for good reasons. We shall have a degree of flexibility. Other countries have found it sensible to make small alterations to exemptions from time to time.
I do not believe that it would have been right to go any further than the fairly extensive though informal consultation in which we engaged. There was clearly no legislative backing for any of the consultation. Consultation took place on the premise that there would be a Bill. Secondly, it would have been discourteous to the House to go too far with consultations before there was clear legal backing for them. Therefore, we have made no final decisions on exemptions, for example. However, we have done a considerable amount of essential spade work. It is now a matter of putting the coping stone on to the views that we have formed after taking into account the views that are expressed in Committee.
A number of hon. Members have talked about enforcement. It has featured fairly extensively in the speeches of those who are opposed to the Bill. The basic premise of those who argue that enforcement will be a problem is that many people will not obey the law. I do not believe that that will be so. In other countries where there has been an approach similar to the one that we intend to adopt—for example, France, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden—high levels of belt wearing have already occurred. About 80 per cent. have worn belts without any excessive enforcement effort.
The answer is"No ". There has already been extensive consultation. The Bill is being discussed on Second Reading. It will go into Committee, and if it passes through the House and is enacted regulations will be introduced. If there are those who are not aware of exactly what is involved after all the talk that has taken place, they must be living in a different country.
Does the Bill pose unique difficulties in the general area of road traffic legislation? I take the point that it is difficult to tell whether someone is wearing a seat belt at night. It is equally difficult for the police to spot whether someone is driving when over the drink limit, or whether a car has taken an MoT test. Enforcement difficulties are inescapably linked with road traffic legislation. It is for individual chief officers to decide how they will handle matters. The police do not pretend that it will be easy to enforce this measure. I concede that. None the less, the majority of police representatives are in favour of compulsion. They must have weighed up this matter and come to that conclusion. They remain in favour of compulsion.
I said nothing about that, as the hon. Gentleman is aware. The police have said that they would enforce the law. They have not seen particular difficulties in this problem.
The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield made—fairly—an important point. He referred to the relationship between the police and the public flowing from any enforcement difficulty. In our discussions the police did not raise this as an issue that concerned them. Indeed, I suspect that they are caused far more trouble by existing problems, such as speed limits. I expect that there are many more difficulties in their relationships with the public in enforcing matters of that kind than they might encounter over a seat belt measure which the majority feel to be in their own best interests.
Secondly, the police have weighed the matter up. They remain in favour of compulsion. The majority of police representatives are in favour of compulsion. The hon. Gentleman made a great deal of that point in his opening remarks. He is trying to be more royal than the king. We should take the view of the police on this matter. They are clearly in favour of compulsion.
I have already given way twice. I have little time. I deliberately shortened my remarks to allow a number of hon. Gentlemen to speak both for and against the Bill. I must press on.
The Minister mentioned police views. I spoke to the Association of Chief Police Officers this morning. Its information to me was that it was apprehensive about compulsion on the grounds of enforcement and exemptions. That does not tie in with the general blanket assurance that the Under-Secretary is giving to the House now.
I am not giving a blanket assurance. I accept the point that the police made, that enforcement would not be easy. That is plain. I said that I did not believe that it would be as difficult as the Opposition said.
I quote relevant experience on the matter. One of the few international conferences on this matter was held in Melbourne in 1977. For seven or eight years, the wearing of seat belts has been compulsory in many Australian states. Mr. Butler, the commissioner for motor transport in New South Wales, speaking of his experience over seven or eight years, on a regulation to enforce compulsory seat belt wearing, said:
Enforcement has not turned out to be a problem.
He went on to say:
This is, in fact, a regulation with a very high degree of self enforcement.
That is likely to be the case in this instance. I do not expect the problems mentioned by the hon. Gentleman to arise.
The central argument against the Bill was spelt out with characteristic cogency by the right hon. Member for Down, South. I quote not from the speech that he made this evening but from the speech that he made three years ago, on Second Reading. He said then:
The principle at stake is very precise. It is whether it should be a criminal offence for a person to neglect or to risk his safety when, by so doing, he does not involve the physical, personal safety of others."—[Official Report, 1 March 1976; Vol. 906, c. 949.]
I do not think that can be improved upon as the statement of the principal opposition to the Bill. But the statement is not quite precise enough, for the fact is that the safety of others may be involved. If a person has an accident and is not wearing a seat belt, he is more likely to be flung through the windscreen or incapacitated through injury. If that is so, he is less likely to retain some kind of control over the car.
This is not the main argument that I would deploy against the right hon. Gentleman's principle but it is an important argument, for in rather over one case out of 10 there is not one collision but two. Wearing a seat belt may therefore help a person to avoid, or lessen the impact of, the second collision, and thus save the life of someone totally uninvolved in the first accident.
Some caution is therefore necessary in stating the libertarian argument. None the less, it is an important one and it must be answered. I believe that the essence of the answer is that there is not just one principle at stake here but two, and the second principle is the preservation of human life. We must choose between these two principles, and, as in any choice, we are bound to measure as objectively as we can the relative weight that we attach to each of these principles in the particular circumstances that we have here. That is how, in practice, we decide between conflicting arguments, in this field as well as in any other. It is when we look at it in this light, comparing the relative strengths of the argument, that we see the case for the Bill and the weakness of the personal freedom argument.
The right to drive a car unbelted is scarcely one of the fundamental freedoms. It is not a freedom to be set alongside freedom of speech or free elections. It is actually a minor appendage of another freedom—the freedom to drive a motor car. That itself is a freedom that, for most people, has arrived only in comparatively recent times. It is one which, as we have often said in transport debates, is very highly valued. To be asked to make that wider freedom to drive a car dependent and conditional upon fastening a belt across one is surely not to ask very much.
The other libertarian argument is that one encroachment will lead to another—that before long we shall not allow mountaineers to climb until they have been safely anchored to the top, or that we shall prohibit smoking. I do not believe that those are serious possibilities, and I do not think that hon. Members think so, either. Quite apart from any other consideration, to regulate in these areas of smoking, sport, and so on, is to regulate people's pleasures and enjoyment. The Bill is really not the herald of some new era of prohibition, or something of that kind. To claim that it is is really to claim too much.
I submit, therefore, that the infringement of personal liberty brought about by the Bill is small. Indeed, one is well justified in using the word"trivial ". It is not unprecedented in legislation and it is not the precursor of some major invasion of individual freedom. The arguments in favour of the Bill are straight forward.
About 60 per cent. of all car accidents are frontal collisions. In such a collision, a car comes to a halt in perhaps one-tenth of a second, but an unbelted occupant continues to move forward at about the previous speed of the car until he or she hits the windscreen, or some other part of the car, or is ejected. If the speed of the car is 30 m.p.h., such a movement is equivalent to jumping from a second storey window on to the pavement. That is the effect of the person hitting the windscreen. A seat belt meets the problem in a most simple and direct way by holding the occupant to the seat.
How effective a seat belt is can be judged by comparison of accidents when seat belts are worn with those accidents when they are not. We are not talking about hypotheses; we are talking about fact. These facts show that when a seat belt is worn the number of deaths is 50 per cent. less, and the number of serious injuries 45 per cent. less.
In other countries where seat belts have been introduced, the saving of life has always been substantial and frequently of the proportions that I have stated. If one applies this proportion to the number of front-seat occupants who are killed every year, and who were not wearing seat belts, one arrives at a figure of a possible 1,000 lives a year saved. That is the figure that has been extensively quoted.
Naturally, it is right to claim that this figure is based on a wearing rate of 100 per cent. Clearly the rate will not be 100 per cent.; it will be less than that. When based on the figures that have been achieved in other countries, of approximately 45 per cent., one is talking about the saving of lives in the region of 800 people per year. Even if we arbitrarily halve that figure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) suggested, we would still be talking about a truly enormous saving of lives.
It is right to be cautious about estimates of this kind, and the right hon. Member for Down, South urged us to be cautious, though curiously enough he was rather cavalier in the way that he used statistics, because he actually quoted motor cycle casualties without mentioning the fact that the number of motor cycles ridden has increased very substantially during the period about which he was talking—in fact, the number has risen by 50 per cent. in the two years after 1975.
I am quite unable to accept that legislation on motor cyclists' crash helmets and drinking and driving has had no beneficial effect. I accept that the estimate that we made at the time has not been fulfilled, but the fact is that 120 lives per year have been saved since the wearing of crash helmets was made compulsory. I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that our calculation is—though certainly the effect is wearing off since the passing of the legislation by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) all those years ago—that the number of lives saved has been about 5,000 as a consequence of the drink-driving legislation. Certainly we can go into those figures in detail if hon. Members so wish, but that is where we rest our case.
When injuries occur in a head-on collision they are very often extremely severe. It is therefore interesting to note that indications are that seat belts are most effect in reducing the most severe injuries. In particular, they are most effective in reducing head injuries. The saving of life and limb is, therefore, unquestionably high, and if there were no other reason for the Bill than that, it would be amply justified.
But there is a further argument in favour of the Bill, and that is the consequential savings to the police, the emergency services, and the National Health Service. My right hon. Friend said that the savings to the National Health Service could be about £50 million per year. Even in these days of inflation and funny money that is not a negligible sum, and in a week that began with a debate on public expenditure it is not inappropriate to close with a social measure that is absolutely costless.
It is not just the money that is important, but the nature of the demands that car accidents make on the NHS. The accidents that occur are severe and stretch the NHS at its most vulnerable point.
The Bill is comparable with others in the area of health and safety legislation. The infringement of personal liberty that is involved, though real, is tiny. To suggest that the Bill opens the door to major invasion of personal liberty is surely farfetched. The Bill will save hundreds from death and thousands from injury, disfigurement
|Division No. 1041]||AYES||10.00 p.m.|
|Abse, Leo||Douglas-Mann, Bruce||Jones, Barry (East Flint)|
|Anderson, Donald||Duffy, A. E. P.||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Dunlop, John||Kilroy-Silk, Robert|
|Armstrong, Ernest||Dunnett, Jack||Knight, Mrs Jill|
|Atkins, Ronald (Preston N)||Dykes, Hugh||Knox, David|
|Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham)||Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke)||Lamborn, Harry|
|Baker, Kenneth||Elliott, Sir William||Lamont, Norman|
|Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood)||Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun)||Latham, Arthur (Paddington)|
|Bates, Alt||Ennals, Rt Hon David||Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough)|
|Bean, R. E.||Fitt, Gerard (Belfast W)||Litterick, Tom|
|Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood||Fletcher, Alex (Edinburgh N)||Loveridge, John|
|Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N)||Fletcher, L. R. (Ilkeston)||Luard, Evan|
|Bennett, Dr Reginald (Fareham)||Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)||Lyons, Edward (Bradford W)|
|Bishop, Rt Hon Edward||Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)||Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson|
|Blenkinsop, Arthur||Fraser, Rt Hon H. (Stafford & St)||McCartney, Hugh|
|Booth, Rt Hon Albert||Fraser, John (Lambeth, N'w'd)||McCrindle, Robert|
|Boothroyd, Miss Betty||Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald||McCusker, H.|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Galbraith, Hon T. G. D.||MacGregor, John|
|Bottomley, Peter||Gardiner, George (Reigate)||Maclennan, Robert|
|Braine, Sir Bernard||Garrett, John (Norwich S)||Macmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnham)|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)||Magee, Bryan|
|Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)||George, Bruce||Marks, Kenneth|
|Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W)||Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John||Mason, Rt Hon Roy|
|Bryan, Sir Paul||Goodhart, Philip||Mates, Michael|
|Buchan, Norman||Gould, Bryan||Maynard, Miss Joan|
|Buchanan, Richard||Graham, Ted||Meyer, Sir Anthony|
|Buchanan-Smith, Alick||Grant, George (Morpeth)||Millan, Rt Hon Bruce|
|Callaghan, Rt Hon J. (Cardiff SE)||Grant, John (Islington C)||Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)|
|Cant, R. B.||Griffiths, Eldon||Mills, Peter|
|Carmichael, Nell||Grocott, Bruce||Miscampbell, Norman|
|Carter, Ray||Hall-Davis, A. G. F.||Mitchell, Austin (Grimsby)|
|Carter-Jones, Lewis||Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)||Moate, Roger|
|Cartwright, John||Hannam, John||Morrison, Hon Charles (Devizes)|
|Castle, Rt Hon Barbara||Harrison, Col Sir Harwood (Eye)||Morton, George|
|Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)||Harrison, Rt Hon Walter||Moyle, Rt Hon Roland|
|Clemitson, Ivor||Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy||Mudd, David|
|Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S)||Hayhoe, Barney||Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick|
|Cohen, Stanley||Hayman, Mrs Helene||Neave, Airey|
|Colquhoun, Ms Maureen||Healey, Rt Hon Denis||Newens, Stanley|
|Concannon, Rt Hon John||Heffer. Eric S.||Newton, Tony|
|Cook, Robin F. (Edin C)||Henderson, Douglas||Noble, Mike|
|Cope, John||Heseitine, Michael||Ogden, Eric|
|Corbett, Robin||Higgins, Terence L.||O'Halloran, Michael|
|Corrie, John||Hodgson, Robin||Onslow, Cranley|
|Costain, A. P.||Hooley, Frank||Orbach, Maurice|
|Cox, Thomas (Tooting)||Horam, John||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|Crowther, Stan (Rotherham)||Hordern, Peter||Owen, Rt Hon Dr David|
|Cryer, Bob||Huckfield, Les||Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)|
|Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiteh)||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Park, George|
|Dalyell, Tam||Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford)||Parker, John|
|Davies, Bryan (Enfield N)||Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln)||Parkinson, Cecil|
|Davies, Ifor (Gower)||James, David||Pavitt, Laurie|
|Davis, Clinton (Hackney C)||Jay, Rt Hon Douglas||Penhaligon, David|
|Deakins, Eric||Jenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanst'd&W'df'd)||Perry, Ernest|
|Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)||Jenkins, Hugh (Putney)||Phipps, Dr Colin|
|Dean, Paul (N Somerset)||Jessel, Toby||Prentice, Rt Hon Reg|
|de Freitas, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey||John, Brynmor||Price, C. (Lewisham W)|
|Dell, Rt Hon Edmund||Johnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead)||Price, David (Eastleigh)|
|Dormand, J. D.||Johnston, Russell (Inverness)||Radice, Giles|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Jones, Alec (Rhondda)||Raison, Timothy|
|Rathbone, Tim||Speed, Keith||Watkins, David|
|Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)||Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)||Watkinson, John|
|Raid, George||Stallard, A. W.||Watt, Hamish|
|Rhodes James, R.||Stanley, John||Weetch, Ken|
|Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon||Steel, Rt Hon David||Wellbeloved, James|
|Robertson, George (Hamilton)||Stewart, Rt Hon Donald||White, Frank R. (Bury)|
|Rodgers, Rt Hon William (Stockton)||Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)||Whitehead, Phillip|
|Rooker, J. W.||Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)||Whitlock, William|
|Roper, John||Stoddart, David||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)||Stott, Roger||Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)|
|Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)||Strang, Gavin||Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)|
|Sainsbury, Tim||Strauss, Rt Hon G. R.||Williams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)|
|Sandelson, Neville||Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley||Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)|
|Shaw, Arnold (llford South)||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)||Wilson, William (Coventry SE)|
|Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert||Temple-Morris, Peter||Wise, Mrs Audrey|
|Shepherd, Colin||Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E)||Wrigglesworth, Ian|
|Short, Mrs Renée (Wolv NE)||Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)||Young, David (Bolton E)|
|Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)||Tilley, John||Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)|
|Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)||Tomlinson, John|
|Sillars, James||Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Silverman, Julius||Vaughan, Dr Gerard||Mr. John Evans and|
|Smith, Timothy John (Ashfield)||Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)||Mr. James Tinn.|
|Snape, Peter||Ward, Michael|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Grieve, Percy||Nelson, Anthony|
|Alison, Michael||Grimond, Rt Hon J.||Neubert, Michael|
|Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne)||Grist, Ian||Osborn, John|
|Banks, Robert||Grylls, Michael||Page, John (Harrow West)|
|Bell, Ronald||Hamilton, Archibald (Epsom & Ewell)||Pattie, Geoffrey|
|Benyon, W.||Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)||Percival, Ian|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Hawkins, Paul||Pink, R. Bonner|
|Biggs-Davison, John||Hicks, Robert||Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch|
|Body, Richard||Holland, Philip||Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal)|
|Bowden, A. (Brighton, Kemptown)||Howells, Geraint (Cardigan)||Rees-Davies, W. R.|
|Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent)||Hunt, John (Wirral)||Renton, Tim (Mid-Sussex)|
|Bradford, Rev Robert||Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)||Ridley, Hon Nicholas|
|Brocklebank-Fowler, C.||Hurd, Douglas||Ridsdale, Julian|
|Brooke, Hon Peter||Hutchison, Michael Clark||Rifkind, Malcolm|
|Brotherton, Michael||Irving, Charles (Cheltenham)||Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)|
|Bruce-Gardyne, John||Johnson, James (Hull West)||Ross, William (Londonderry)|
|Butler, Adam (Bosworth)||Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith||Royle, Sir Anthony|
|Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)||Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine||Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)|
|Carlisle, Mark||Kerr, Russell||Shelton, William (Streatham)|
|Clark, William (Croydon S)||Kilfedder, James||Shersby, Michael|
|Clegg, Walter||Kimball, Marcus||Silvester, Fred|
|Craig, Rt Hon W. (Belfast E)||Langford-Holt, Sir John||Skeet, T. H. H.|
|Crowder, F. P.||Lawrence, Ivan||Skinner, Dennis|
|Dodsworth, Geoffrey||Lawson, Nigel||Smith, Dudley (Warwick)|
|Drayson, Burnaby||Lester, Jim (Beeston)||Spicer, Michael (S Worcester)|
|Durant, Tony||Lewis, Arthur (Newham N)||Sproat, Iain|
|Eden, Rt Hon Sir John||Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland)||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Emery, Peter||Lloyd, Ian||Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)|
|English, Michael||Luce, Richard||Stradling Thomas, J.|
|Eyre, Reginald||MacCormick, Iain||Tebbit, Norman|
|Fairbairn, Nicholas||Macfarlane, Neil||Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)|
|Fairgrieve, Russell||Mackay, Andrew (Stechford)||Torney, Tom|
|Farr, John||Madden, Max||Townsend, Cyril D.|
|Fell, Anthony||Marshall, Michael (Arundel)||Urwin, T. W.|
|Finsberg, Geoffrey||Mather, Carol||van Straubenzee, W. R.|
|Fisher, Sir Nigel||Maude, Angus||Viggers, Peter|
|Fletcher-Cooke, Charles||Mawby, Ray||Waddington, David|
|Fookes, Miss Janet||Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin||Wakeham, John|
|Foot, Rt Hon Michael||Mayhew, Patrick||Wall, Patrick|
|Fowler, Norman (Sutton C'f'd)||Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove)||Walters, Dennis|
|Fox, Marcus||Mitchell, David (Basingstoke)||Weatherill, Bernard|
|Freud, Clement||Molyneaux, James||Wells, John|
|Fry, Peter||Monro, Hector||Welsh, Andrew|
|Ginsburg, David||Montgomery, Fergus||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Glyn, Dr Alan||Moore, John (Croydon C)||Wood, Rt Hon Richard|
|Goodhew, Victor||More, Jasper (Ludlow)||Younger, Hon George|
|Goodlad, Alastair||Morgan, Geraint|
|Gorst, John||Morgan-Giles, Rear-Admiral||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Gow, Ian (Eastbourne)||Morris, Michael (Northampton S)||Mr. Patrick Cormack and|
|Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry)||Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester)||Mr. Nick Budgen.|
I remind the House that the debate must end at 11.30 p.m. Already six hon. Members, in addition to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr), have indicated to me that they hope to speak.
It may be as well if I begin by telling the House about those who are interested in shooting and those who take part in the pastime. Many people think that those who shoot come from certain sections of society.
A recent pilot survey of the people who shoot was classified into the 17 generally recognised socio-economic groups. Of these 17 groups, 35·7 per cent., or the biggest sector, were people who were classed in the sociological grouping as skilled manual workers. The next largest, 26 per cent., were intermediate and junior manual workers. The third largest, 14·3 per cent., were professional workers, 13·3 per cent. were employers and managers and the remaining 10 per cent were semi-skilled, or not at present engaged in a viable occupation. This shows that the sport of shooting has widespread application in Britain and that many thousands will be concerned with what we are discussing tonight.
The prayer was laid by my hon. Friends and myself because fees for firearm and shotgun certificates have escalated so much during the past four or five years, particularly since 1975, that considerable unrest has been caused throughout the country. Without going into details of how the fees have increased, it is sufficient to say that the fee for a firearm certificate, which in 1975 was £3·50, will be £18·50 if the order is approved, and the fee for a shotgun certificate, which in 1975 was £1, will be £8·50.
Those are startling increases. A fee which would be appropriate in line with the increase in the cost of living and the index of retail prices would be £8 for a firearm certificate instead of £18·50, and £2·50 for a shotgun certificate instead of £8·50. That is why we have laid the prayer.
A great deal of correspondence has come to my hon. Friends and myself on this subject recently. The figures I have quoted showing the shocking way in which fees have increased are borne out by a written answer given to me by the Home Secretary on 3 May 1978, when he stated that no fees for which he had responsibility had been increased to the same extent as the fees under the Firearms Act 1968. That was a significant admission by the Home Secretary. There are several other fees with which the Home Secretary is concerned, namely, fees under the Aliens Act, which involve a considerable amount of police time, and fees for liquor licences, which again involve much police time in inquiries. There are many other fees with which the Home Secretary is concerned, such as burial fees, which have increased only at the rate of inflation or less.
The Home Secretary issues some licences without charge, and there are circumstances where police time may be considerable but no charge is made. The police are required to inspect and advise retail chemists on the security of drugs. and no charge is made for the appropriate authorisation to possess drugs. No charge is made for police duties in relation to commercial storage of explosives. The police quite rightly spend a considerable amount of time on crime prevention advice, particularly for people wishing to install burglar alarms, and no charge is made for that.
From time to time these regular increases in fees have been questioned in debate. The Government over the past three or four years have given three reasons for these increases: first, that they are necessitated by inflation; secondly, that such fees have been dealt with in the same way as all other fees; and, thirdly, that by virtue of the Public Expenditure and Receipts Act 1968 they were required to increase fees.
I have touched on the savage way that fees have been increased in an unjustified way since 1975, and I have also dealt with the inconsistency, admitted by the Home Secretary, that no other fees have increased at the same rate as firearms fees. Until recently, the third reason was consistently given by Ministers. In a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments on 27 October 1976 and 3 May 1978, the Under-Secretary of State indicated that the Government were required to increase firearms fees by virtue of section 5 of the Public Expenditure and Receipts Act 1968. In December 1976, the Minister of State said the same thing in another place.
The Home Office now recognises that that Act places no such requirement on the Government, and never has done. In section 5 a number of charges are listed that must be regularly increased, but for that to apply to firearm fees a special amendment would be necessary. I think the Under-Secretary will agree that the Government are not required to take action by that Act.
The level of fees is increasing due to increased costs, but there is considerable room for cost reduction by improving the efficiency of the procedure. There is a teriffic variation among police forces in the cost of the procedure of granting a firearm certificate. Although I am referring specifically to the granting of firearm certificates, what I say applies also to shotgun certificates. Looking at the figures for 1977, one sees that in the metropolitan area the average firearm certificate cost £52·80, and from that high figure it ranges down to £10·41 in Cumbria.
There seem to be tremendous variations in the costings given by different police forces, which I find incomprehensible. If we want to make the system more effective, cheaper for those who have firearms and simpler for the police, could not those who have been checked out and found suitable to hold a firearm certificate automatically qualify to hold a shotgun certificate? A shotgun does not require the standard of responsibility demanded by a rifle, and if someone is qualified to hold a firearm certificate he should be able to hold a shotgun certificate without involving the police in a laborious duplication of checking. Such a dual procedure would save the issuing of 150,000 certificates a year, and that would save the police a great deal of time.
I have another suggestion that the Minister might consider. Driving licences are now valid until the holder reaches the age of 70. Could not the life of a firearm certificate be increased from three years to five or six years?
How can we improve police efficiency in administering the firearms laws? The police lack direction from the Home Secretary on this issue. Section 55(1) of the Firearms Act 1968 empowers the Home Secretary to make rules to regulate the manner in which chief officers of police carry out their duties under the Act. In the debate on this subject in the Standing Committee in 1978, the Minister said that it was for chief officers of police to determine the best system to operate. In another place the Home Office Minister said that it was up to the police to decide how to use their manpower resources and on the variations between different forces.
If, as it appears, the police are not using their resources in the most efficient way, they should be given guidance by the Home Secretary. It seems from repeated statements in firearms debates that the Home Office and the Home Secretary have almost completely opted out of giving guidance in this matter and are leaving these questions more and more in the hands of the chief officers.
Those who engage in shooting in all its forms—they come from many groups in society—are basically law-abiding people who are anxious to help the police in every way. However, the situation is approaching in which the burden of increased fees is making it very difficult for many of them to continue to possess a shotgun, a rifle or another authorised weapon.
In the 1977 annual reports of the chief officers of police for Devon and Cornwall, Essex, Hampshire, Lincolnshire, Merseyside and Surrey, it was made clear that increased fees accounted for the reduction in the number of firearm and shotgun certificates.
The House has a matter on its hands that requires immediate action from the Government. Some of us are most dissatisfied with the continual rise in firearm fees each year since this Government came into office. Some hon. Members say that the continual rises are allied to the failure of the Government in 1977 to secure the advancement of its Firearms Bill.
Many hon. Members would like answers to a number of questions. Why was the Public Expenditure and Receipts Act 1968 continually and repeatedly used as a justification for the recovery of costs? I have never received a satisfactory reply to the question. Why has the Home Secretary concluded that firearm and shotgun certificate fees should be increased at a rate disproportionate to inflation? Why are services that are provided free to many sections of the community, in respect of other licences and authorisations from the Home Office, charged at a very high rate to those who use firearms?
Why, in the systems and costings evolved by the Home Office, is the charging of police officers' time made as if they were exclusively employed on investigations? Often they are not. Nominal or no fees are charged for the issue of comparable licences, whereas the fireams fees and examinations charges that are made represent the full time of the police officers involved. What steps is the Home Secretary taking to issue guidance to the police about the efficient and cost-effective administration of their systems? Will the Home Secretary now institute an independent inquiry into the appropriate level of fees?
The House is totally dissatisfied with the actions of the Government. Since 1975 they have taken steps to price legal firearm possession out of the reach of many young people. My hon. Friends and I believe that it is wrong that lawful firearm possession should depend more and more on the ability to pay.
I am glad that the prayer, which I support, offers the opportunity for the House to question the basis of these fees. Last year, the increase in fees was introduced at a time when there was no parliamentary opportunity to ask questions or draw attention to the concern that was felt about the increase. As a result of that, I tabled a number of questions and wrote to the Home Secretary. I was wholly dissatisfied with the replies I received.
In the meantime, I have been paying considerable attention to the issue. I hope that the Minister will give a fuller explanation of the basis of the charges than we have received hitherto. There are 150,000 people in the United Kingdom holding firearm and shotgun certificates. Many regard the increase in fees over the past few years as a clear pricing policy, initiated very much at the behest of civil servants in the Home Office, and a blatant attempt to control and reduce the number of guns and shotguns.
The proposed fee for a firearm certificate from 1 May is a 15 per cent. increase on last year's figure. The increase for the shotgun certificate fee is between 20 per cent. and 21 per cent., and the increase for dealers is more than 18 per cent. Those figures are well in excess of the movement of inflation over the year.
The hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) made a number of references to charges having been introduced since the Government came to office, but it is important to point out that fees for firearm certificates were first introduced in 1920, admittedly at only five shillings. They remained at that level until 1968, when they were increased to £2·50. They were increased again in 1971 to £3·50, in 1975 to £7, in 1976 to £12 and in 1978 to £16, and the proposed fee from 1 May is £18·50.
I have referred to the sense of grievance and unfairness felt about such increases. There is a feeling that the charges are unfair and unrealistic, certainly in relation to the cost of administration by the police.
Many certificate holders feel that they are being charged for crime prevention advice or inspection and that that does not apply to other people. They feel that they are charged for the time of patrolling officers as though they were exclusively at the service of certificate holders, and, again, this does not apply to others who seek advice and assistance from the police. The holders of certificates believe that they are charged for advice given at police inquiry desks and that this also does not apply to other sections of the community.
I shall not refer to all the anomalies. They are widespread and they lead to the charge that there is no consistency in the application of fees and charges. Charges are not payable under the Aliens Acts or for licences under the liquor licensing legislation or under the explosives law. I was told by the Home Secretary in reply to a parliamentary question last year that there was no other charge for which the Home Office was responsible which had increased in the same way as have the fees for firearms and shotgun certificates.
The question of the costing of police time is an important matter. Those who have examined the subject in detail argue that there could be a considerable reduction in costs if a number of changes, of the sort suggested by the hon. Member for Harborough, were made.
A recent survey conducted by the British Shooting Sports Council showed that, for instance, of those making a first application for a firearm or shotgun certificate, 42 per cent. received more than one visit from the police and 8 per cent. received three or more visits. Even more surprisingly, in the case of renewals or variations 45 per cent. received more than one visit and 26 per cent. received three or more visits.
There are also vast differences in practice among police forces throughout the country. This is reflected in the cost of granting firearms certificates as revealed in the reviews. In the 1977 review, the charges of the Cumbria police were £10·41, the charges of the Northern Scotland police were £14·75 and the cost in other authorities, such as Devon, Cornwall, Dyfed, Powys, Humberside, Sussex and the West Midlands, varied between those figures. That is a very wide variation.
The council and firearm and shotgun holders are not grumbling negatively. They have made, and are making, a number of positive suggestions. I think that there is an obligation on the Minister to respond positively to those suggestions, which are not new but have been made over a number of years.
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give a positive response to the suggestion of combined inquiries. It is argued, and I believe with conviction, that this would lead to a drastic reduction in costs and would make increased charges less severe than they have been in recent years. Secondly, I draw attention to the extent of the validity of certificates, as did the hon. Member for Harborough in moving this prayer. It is argued that this would considerably case administrative problems and reduce costs.
No reasonable person would seek to argue that increasing the fees for firearm and shotgun certificates will make it significantly harder for criminals to obtain firearms. Criminals with money and determination find little difficulty in obtaining the weapons, or anything else that they want, in pursuing their criminal activities. It is suspected by holders of firearm and shotgun certificates that the very substantial increases in fees is designed to contain and reduce the gun population.
Such a pricing policy, if it does not deter criminals, certainly deters working people with limited means from either taking up or continuing to follow their chosen hobby. It will certainly deter younger people from taking up the sport and joining clubs where they can shoot under supervision without harming themselves or other people.
I urge the Minister to give a clear assurance that fees will not be increased substantially at regular intervals and that she will seriously consider a revision of police costs, which, in my view and the view of others, are unreal and unfair. I urge my hon. Friend to give urgent attention to the matter of combined inquiries and extending the validity of certificates.
A book entitled"Firearms Control ", written some time ago by a constituent of mine, Mr. Colin Greenwood, states in the final chapter:
The imposition of unduly restrictive conditions on the grant of a certificate appears to be increasing. Each of these conditions should be examined to see whether or not it contributes towards achieving the object of the controls.
If the condition makes no significant contribution towards this end, it cannot be justified, and it is likely to do no more than to antagonise and inconvenience the certificate holder for no purpose.
The amount of time spent on administering the controls could be substantially decreased in a number of ways without in any way losing such effectiveness as the controls may have. In the first instance it is necessary to keep in mind the object of the controls, and it is to be regretted that these are not clearly stated in the legislation ".
I think that some redress can be effected by the Minister if she indicates that the time has come when the Home Office is prepared to consider urgently the suggestions which have been made. They are made in the hope that costs will be reduced, that increases will be much less frequent than they have been in the past and that they will be smaller in scale.
I am glad to support my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) in his prayer and to speak next following the constructive and helpful remarks of the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden). We want to see sport and recreation developed, not hindered, and I find the attitude of the Home Office in relation to firearms extremely depressing. The Minister's only concern seems to be security and effecting through high charges a reduction in the number of firearm certificates and shotgun certificates.
I entirely accept that security is of great importance. Indeed, I think that we should make positive efforts to improve it, particularly in the home, and to make security generally more effective. In common with other hon. Members who, I am sure, will wish to speak tonight, I pay tribute to the work of the police in administering this legislation and arranging for the certificates. But it is right to look at the method of licensing with a view to making more economies. Can we be just as efficient and yet charge considerably less? Could we not streamline the administration?
If I am to have my own firearm certificate renewed, all that is needed is a rubber stamp and a signature on the corner. A new piece of paper does not have to be produced. Much the same applies to one's shotgun certificate. I should have thought that a couple of minutes' work would produce all that was required on one's shotgun certificate. As my hon. Friend said, why do I need two pieces of paper when one would do? There is great scope for economy in the whole operation of producing these certificates.
Certainly, there is a strong case for lengthening the currency of a certificate. In the Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments last week dealing with the position in Scotland, it was hinted by the Under-Secretary of State that this might be done. We should consider lengthening the currency of a certificate to five or seven years or even longer, in that way substantially reducing the administrative costs.
I put it to the Under-Secretary that recreation is important. I am a member, as, I am sure, are a number of hon. Members here tonight, of some of the organisations to which I wish to refer and which join with us in criticising the order, such as the National Rifle Association, the National Smallbore Rifle Association, the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association, WAGBI, pistol clubs, rifle clubs and a whole host of individual marksmen who use their rifles for active participation in club events. All those people require certificates if they own their own rifles, but, as has been said, in 1968 the fee went up from five shillings to £2·50 and now in 1979 we are looking at an increase to £18·50, or £15 for a renewal.
I wish to highlight the extremely high cost of a variation, at £15. All these increases are far ahead of the rise in the cost of living. Many top-class rifle shots will change their weapons during the year—perhaps changing the calibre of the ammunition which they use—and all this comes under a variation at £15 a time. It is putting a tremendous burden on those who shoot for pleasure if they have to pay so much to enjoy their sport. I have so far been referring to rifle shooting, but the shotgun certificate charges also are affected, though at a slightly lower level.
We want to see people of all ages, including young people, enjoying the countryside and, with appropriate permission, shooting in the countryside. Rifle shooting, pistol shooting, clay pigeon shooting and vermin shooting are all good recreation. That is shooting that should be encourged. Only through the use of firearms will young people learn the code of safety that is crucial.
We are talking about healthy occupations. They are far removed from the underworld of stolen guns and hold-ups that seem to fill the mind of the Home Office. The hon. Lady must find the right balance between sport and recreation on one side and security and administrative cost on the other. The balance could be made much finer. It should be regulated not by increasing fees as is proposed but by making economies, either through the police or by streamlining the paper work that seems to take up so much time and to be so costly.
I hope that the hon. Lady will recognise that it is terribly important that she takes the order away, reconsiders it and returns it to the House, if she has the opportunity, with the proposed increases much reduced.
I briefly suport what has already been said in opposition to the order. I know that many other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall not take more time than I need to make two or three points.
First, I declare an interest. For some years I have been a member of the council of the National Rifle Association. Bisley is in my constituency, it being the headquarters of national target shooting sports. Further, as I hope the hon. Lady is aware, I have a great many angry constituents. They are angry because they do not understand why it is thought that they, who have taken pains to apply for licences to own firearms or shotguns, should be classified as potential criminals. They take the view that the potential criminal would not draw attention to himself by telling the police that he wants to have a firearm or a shotgun. They consider the whole exercise to be pointless in many aspects.
My constituents are especially angry about the total lack of evidence that anybody has applied his mind to how the same end could be achieved more simply and cheaply. They have no evidence from the Home Office or the police that anyone has seriously studied the effect of extending the life of a shotgun or firearm certificate. It seems logical that that is one means of economy. They have no evidence that serious thought has been given to how insurance companies might play a part in increasing the security in which weapons are kept. Generally they see in the history of the whole business the worst sort of Civil Service closed mind.
These matters have gone on for a long time. The hon. Lady will know that my hon. Friends, those in another place and representatives of the sports concerned have trodden a steady path to the Home Office to try to get some appreciation of what is involved. They have always met a totally negative, unimaginative and deadpan response. This cannot continue any longer. We must have some sign from the Minister that the problem is understood, that something will be done and that long-suffering, law-abiding members of the public who want to have and enjoy firearms and shotguns for innocent sporting purposes are served by the Administration and not made to suffer by it. Part of the function of an Administration is to give the citizen what he wants and not merely to stand back and say"Pay up a bit more. We are too idle to think of an alternative."
I hope that when the hon. Lady replies she will do so in the same manner as her hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland in the Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments that sat last week. I detect in the Government a willingness to reconsider the whole problem of firearms and shotgun certificates.
There is a general desire in the House to do what the Minister has no power to do. The House as a whole feels, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) said, that the period for which a certificate is issued should be extended. If the fees go up, the period after the issue should be extended from three to six or even 10 years. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough referred to the period for which a driving licence was issued. Unfortunately, the Minister does not have power under the Act to extend the period. My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. White-law) used his place in the ballot two years ago to introduce a Bill to amend the Firearms Act 1968 and allow the Home Office to extend the period for which shotgun or firearm certificate were issued. That was objected to. I believe that the Government have had a change of heart. This came out clearly in the Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments recently.
If we are to extend the period, we must revise the Firearms Act 1968. We are in a position to look at that Act and face up to a general revision. There are one or two points that should be included in such revision if the certificates are to be realistic. I refer especially to the shotgun certificate. Such a certificate should identify the weapons held. It does not do so now. It should specify the security arrangements required of the owner from a model list to be drawn up by the Home Office related to the different circumstances of residence, locality and probable frequency of use. The present practice varies in different parts of the country.
There should be no territorial limitations on a shotgun certificate. I accept that the territorial limitations applied to a firearm certificate are an important part of the enforcement procedure. There should be no limitation on the types and numbers of shotguns held. Safe keeping for a friend or relative would be a good reason for holding a shotgun certificate. An occasional invitation to shoot should be sufficient reason for holding a certificate. There should be no restrictions on the individual purchase or possession of ammunition. If we are to reduce the cost, we must extend the period.
In those eight points, there is an area of agreement which allows us to adjust the 1968 Act in a sensible way and in a spirit of compromise that everybody wants to see.
Bearing in mind the duty of the Home Office to protect the citizen, especially from weapons being stolen, I hope that in the next few years we shall see ourselves proceeding in this way and not have these acrimonious debates once a year whenever the fees are put up.
I am not a shooting man. Obviously, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball), who has a great knowledge of the subject, and the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) gave many of the facts to the House. I do not want to repeat them.
After the fees went up last year, I was chased in my constituency by a large number of people who liked to shoot. They asked me why I had not opposed the measure. I trotted out some answers that I suspect we may hear later this evening, such as the need to control firearms. I was soon put in my place. I therefore agreed to take a closer look into the situation. The more I looked at it, the more alarmed I became and the more I realised how right are those who have firearms and shotgun certificates to protest.
There can be no foundation for the huge increases in fees that have taken place over the past few years. I read the speech made last year by the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross). I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that he will catch your eye before the end of this debate. His speech contained facts and figures of which everyone should take note. He received no sensible answers.
We have heard this evening about the cost of collection. The hon. Member for Harborough said that it varied in the police forces throughout the country. I think he said that the cost in Hampshire was just over £10. That applies to my constituency.
The situation is getting out of hand. There is no justification at all for the Government asking for yet another increase this year. In view of the remarks of the hon. Member for Gainsborough, they should withdraw their proposal and consider revising the whole procedure as it discriminates against the legitimate holders of firearm and shotgun certificates.
I took the trouble a few months ago to visit one of the local clubs in the Isle of Wight, at Shanklin. I have had a letter from a Mr. Bloodworth—a very suitable name, perhaps, for someone dealing with firearms—in which he says:
I feel I must write to you again about a further increase in firearms certificates which will put the cost up to £18.50 on the 1 May, which is an increase of 15.6 per cent. over last year's rise.
Are we to get justification for that, I wonder, tonight? I cannot think that we shall. I think that this is plainly a means test further to reduce the number of certificates held and will have no bearing on armed crimes.
Incidentally, I met the gentleman in question, with whose case I sympathise, at a meeting of the Shanklin riflle and pistol club, as he reminds me in his letter. I was given the chance to have a shot on the range and I am glad to say that I managed to hit the target. He goes on to ask in his letter for an"independent inquiry ". I know that it has been pressed in the House many times in Committee and on the Floor of the House, and I should like to support it tonight. It really ought to take place. My correspondent goes on to quote the fees, which have gone up, as has already been said, from 1920 to the present time. He finishes up by asking, in big capital letters,"Please help us ".
I intend to do just that tonight. I hope that the hon. Member for Harborough will press the matter to a Division. If he does, I shall support him and ask other hon. Members here to do the same.
It is orders of this kind which give Governments such a bad name, and particularly the Home Office. They keep coming back again and again, asking people to pay these outrageously discriminatory prices. I shall not weary the House with the statistics which have already been adduced in favour of our voting against this wretched order.
I am president of a rifle club. I know that from time to time people invite the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister to come to their constituency. I hope that, if the Under-Secretary of State has not visited a rifle club, she will visit the Felbridge rifle club, in East Grinstead, where she will be made very welcome.
I want particularly to emphasise the effect of the order on clubs of this kind, which take great pride in their security arrangements and believe that it is a well-disciplined and well-regulated sport, encompassing a good cross-section of the community. They particularly pride themselves on being family clubs. This is typical of many rifle clubs. They are not just for elderly gentlemen, for the middle-aged, or for young bloods who want to let off steam. The clubs bring in the whole family. When they are faced, on top of the costs of maintaining the club, with these huge increases of the kind that we have heard tonight, it makes them wonder what the Government are about.
In addition to the discrimination between this sport and other activities, there is discrimination also, they feel, between the cost of a firearm certificate, whether for granting or renewing, and a shotgun certificate, whether for granting or renewing.
It is not for me to suggest that those who have shotgun certificates are likely to use them in any criminal way whatever.
They pay quite a lot and they are responsible people. Those in rifle clubs such as mine see no reason why the cost of a shotgun certificate should be less than half the cost of a firearm certificate. As the chairman of the club put it in a letter to me,
if £8·50 is an economic price for a shotgun certificate, it is an economic price for a firearms certificate ".
Some people may question that and say that before a firearm certificate is granted—especially to a member of a club—extra special precautions have to be taken. But, even so, surely it does not take double the time. There is a great sense of grievance here, and I very much hope that the spirit in which we have entered the debate will find an echo in the reply from the Minister.
I very much regret that we are back this evening once more with the miserable spectacle of the Government seeking an increase in firearm fees. Since I came into this House I have spoken on every possible occasion against the orders which have been laid, and I take no real pleasure in having to do it once again this evening. The last two occasions were on 6 March 1978, when the Northern Ireland order arrived on the Floor of the House, and on 3 May 1978, when the orders for Scotland and for England and Wales were discussed in Committee.
The Northern Ireland order will be coming up again this year, so that I shall be having another go next Thursday. For that reason, I do not intend to detain the House very long. But I want to repeat what I said last year on the orders for Scotland and for England and Wales:
I shall be very brief. I question the whole concept of firearms control as it exists in the United Kingdom and, indeed, in most of the Western world. I believe it is an almost total waste of time and effort by the police and the authorities. I believe that the whole system could be scrapped quite easily because it is utterly useless in trying to prevent firearms getting into the hands of criminals or terrorists.… In short, I believe that it is time that the whole subject was re-examined or rather, perhaps—
—and since last year I have become more and more confirmed in this view—
that a detailed examination was undertaken with an open mind for the first time."—[Official Report, Third Standing Committee on-Statutory Instruments, 3 May 1978; c. 12.]
The House will realise that I go a good deal further than those Members who have spoken so far. Tinkering with the present system is not enough. The Government are defending a set of basic premises which have nothing to do with reality, and never have. The Government are trying to defend a position which is indefensible.
This Government and successive Governments have been very foolish not to explore the whole question of firearms control, not only in this part of the United Kingdom but throughout the nation. They should approach the matter with an open mind and have a far-reaching and detailed inquiry.
Criminals and terrorists have no trouble in obtaining guns. They are the one section of the community which is always able to find a firearm to use it for an illegal purpose and to murder someone. Time has moved on since fears existed which caused the first firearms legislation to be introduced. This legislation has been maintained over the years because of false and foolish attitudes which were adopted at that time.
It is time that we had sensible decisions in order to rid ourselves of the waste of police time and effort. Will the Minister set us down that road this evening and do something constructive about firearms control?
Once a year I have the pleasure of leading a number of my colleagues from this House to battle on Bisley Common with Members of the other place. I am happy to say that a number of hon. Members from both sides of the House support us on such occasions. The least that I can do tonight is to express our gratitude for that annual hospitality by quoting a few lines from a letter from the secretary of the National Rifle Association, members of which are deeply concerned about the increase in fees for firearm certificates. I shall quote one short paragraph, which states:
Let me remind you that the NRA was founded in 1860 and incorporated by Royal Charter in 1890: ' To promote and encourage Marksmanship throughout the Queen's dominions in the interests of Defence and the permanence of the Volunteer and Auxiliary Forces. Naval, Military and Air '. And it is
on these grounds—in the interests of Defence—that my Association is registered as a Charity.
The secretary goes on to inquire how these objectives can be sustained if the Home Office is to adopt a policy, which it surely is, of increasing the fees for firearm certificates in such a way that the vast majority of members of his association—people who enjoy shooting as a hobby—will no longer be able to do so.
There can be no new arguments in this debate. We have been over this issue many times in the past few years. However, I should like to take up the point made by the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) about crime. If the control of firearms is in the interests of controlling crime, it is a Gilbert and Sullivan situation because it is the law-abiding people who do not get involved who will be penalised.
The Minister has been asked time and again to give statistics, and she has failed to do so. She knows very well that this legislation will not stop the criminal from possessing a firearm but will merely prevent those who wish to enjoy the sport as a hobby from doing so. Members of the National Rifle Association can rightly number among themselves those who are the most law-abiding citizens of the community.
Suggestions have been made for combining certificates and lengthening their period of validity. I do not know whether I carry my hon. Friends with me on this, but putting the possession of the weapons on to some sort of register is something that could and should be considered. In an electronic age, where we have surplus computer capacity, surely it is not beyond us to do something about the problem. I wholeheartedly support my hon. Friends who have rightly tabled this prayer. The number of hon. Members present for this debate shows the depth of feeling on both sides of the House on this important issue.
I agree with every hon. Member who has spoken that this is a thoroughly nasty little measure. It has been introduced on a Thursday night when, as the House well knows, the majority of hon. Members who represent rural constituencies normally go home to be among their constituents. I very much hope that the Minister will bear in mind that I am the eighth hon. Member to support the prayer of the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr). If democracy is listening to the voices of Members of the House of Commons, rather than depending on the votes of Members sitting in the Tea Room, I sincerely hope that the hon. Lady will bear in mind the concerted opposition to this measure.
I cannot agree with the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith), who would like to invite the Minister to his rifle club. I can only say that, if the Minister came to the rifle club in my constituency, I would fear for her life. There would be no kindness, because my constituents are exceedingly angry. It is felt—and this is a pretty common feeling—that the Government are looking—[Interruption.] I hope that I am not disturbing the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball). The feeling of my constituents is that the Government are looking at some section of society which they can clobber without losing votes, and that the shooting faction seems to the Government to be a convenient one for that purpose.
I would believe any protestations that we might hear later if similar increases were made in bingo licences and fishing—the sort of pursuits that are more normally practised by Labour Members—
The hon. Gentleman has woken up. I hope that he will take a deep interest in what goes on. It is important on the grounds of security to bear in mind that the more people can learn about the use of firearms the safer, and not the less safe, will this country be.
We have been Gilbert and Sullivan. I should like to finish with a quote from one of Kipling's barrrack room ballads, in which the chorus goes:
Oh, it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' Tommy go away ';
But it's ' Thank you, Mister Atkins, ' when the band begins to play.
The more people can be encouraged legally to use firearms, the safer and not the less safe will this country be.
I understand the concern that exists about the increased fee, and, although I represent an industrial town and not a rural constituency, I have had one letter from a constituent complaining about it. I understand the concern that is felt on both sides of the House.
I refute the suggestion of the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud). If he listens, he will find that I am about to refer to bingo halls. The bingo licence was £250 in 1973 and was raised to £750 in 1978.
That really is the most unfair analogy, because, as the Minister well knows, the people who play bingo receive entirely the money which they put down in order to participate in the game. Therefore, the increase comes from the people who organise the bingo, who are usually on the Opposition Benches, rather than those who play it.
That is why I cannot understand why the hon. Gentleman raised the question of bingo halls. But he did, so I thought I would simply mention that in passing.
I should like to take this opportunity to dispel some of the misunderstanding that seems to surround the interpretation of the Government's action. The order deals with one aspect of firearms control—the level of fees to be charged for certificates relating to the possession of firearms and shotguns and for the registration of people as firearms dealers. It sets out a new scale of fees payable from 1 May. It does not and cannot, as the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) appreciated, make other changes in the firearms law. In general, such changes would need primary legislation.
I have a feeling that my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr Madden) was suggesting that we should not have a fee at all. He seemed to dislike the whole idea of charges being made for this police activity. But Parliament made statutory provision for the fee for a firearms certificate in 1920, under the Firearms Act, and for a shotgun certificate in 1967. We are dealing with an order to change the fee.
I appreciate that increased charges are never welcome, and I can understand the concern of the shooting community over the regular and, I admit, substantial increases in these fees in recent years. But the reason is simple. There is no other reason; there is no subtle reason; there is no sadistic desire by the Government to put up the fee. The costs have risen, and someone must meet them. The controls needed for public safety must be paid for, and it is right that they are borne by those who use guns rather than by a subsidy from taxpayers and ratepayers at large.
If the cost is shown in the official statistics for Hampshire to be just over £10, why are my constituents charged £18·50? If it costs £50 in the Metropolitan area, all right: charge people there £50. But why cannot we get away with £10?
Perhaps I can pursue the argument, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me.
Before 1968 the fee for a firearm certificate was five shillings, and that for renewal of a certificate half-a-crown. The major portion of the costs of administering licensing and certification procedures then fell on the taxpayer and ratepayer, who provided a not inconsiderable subsidy.
But in 1968 Parliament decided that this must change and that, where a person wished to engage in an activity controlled in the public interest, he or she should be expected to pay the economic cost of issuing and renewing his or her licence or certificate. This principle was endorsed in section 5 of the Public Expenditure and Receipts Act 1968, the relevant words of which are:
With a view to securing from the fees, charges or other payments…a net return corresponding more nearly with the cost of the matters for which they are payable ".
That is the principle, and it has been the policy of successive Governments to apply it to fees and charges in general.
The hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) argued that as that Act did not specifically mention firearms fees we were wrong to apply this underlying rule and to increase them in line with rising costs. The Act does not refer to firearms fees, because at the time it was passed—March 1968—the Firearms Bill was still before Parliament. In fact, the Firearms Act received Royal Assent in May 1968, two months after the Public Expenditure and Receipt Act had become law.
Section 43 of the Firearms Act 1968 empowers the Secretary of State by order to vary the fees. It would be illogical if in the exercise of that power the Secretary of State were to disregard the principle of full recovery of costs embodied in an Act of Parliament passed only a few weeks earlier.
I must emphasise that fees for firearm certificates and for registration as a firearms dealer are set at the minimum level required to recover as nearly as practicable the costs of administering the scheme, and no more. The shooter is treated no differently from any other licence or certificate holder whose activities are regulated in the public interest. Many of the arguments put forward by shooters amount to demands that the shooting community should be subsidised and should not be expected to pay the real cost of its certificates. Parliament and the Government have not accepted that.
The Under-Secretary said that shooters are not treated differently, but she is overlooking the way in which driving licences have been extended greatly in time, which must have led to some economy. What consideration has been given to cutting down administrative work and saving money, which would obviate the need for an increase in firearms fees?
I shall come to that. It is not possible to make exact comparisons between fees for firearm certificates and those charged for various other types of licence and certificate, such as a car or dog licence. The activities are not analogous, the work involved in issuing the necessary authority is not exactly comparable, and the relevant legislation under which some activities are controlled makes no provision for any fee to be charged. In this instance we are dealing with a situation where there has been provision for a fee to be charged. In some of the examples quoted there is no provision for any fee to be charged. Nevertheless, many fees have been substantially increased in recent years. My Department is not particularly picking out shooters' licences. Costs have gone up, and police registration certificates for aliens and naturalisation certificates have, for example, gone up. It is not just this one item that has been picked out.
I should like to make it clear that there is absolutely no truth in the suggestion that the Government are deliberately escalating the cost of firearm certificates as a means of disarming the population. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby and others that there is no evidence that firearms used in violent crime are stolen from certificate holders. That is no argument for putting up the cost of a firearm licence, although hon. Members insist that it is part of the Government's motivation. It is not and never has been Government policy to prevent the possession of firearms by private individuals who have legitimate reasons for requiring them or to place unnecessary restrictions on the freedom of bona fide shooters to enjoy their sport.
I should like to examine the scale of fees. Under the new scale, renewal of a firearm certificate will cost £15. That certificate lasts for three years, making its cost £5 a year. Put another way, that is l0p a week, which is no more than the cost of a single round of ammunition. Shotgun certificates cost even less. An initial grant works out at less than 6p a week, and renewal at about 4p a week. That is again well below the cost of a single cartridge.
I shall come to that. I should like to deal with the increases themselves. I must make it clear that the revenue from these fees does not come to the Government. Police authorities collect the money and set it against overall police expenditure. At regular intervals we carry out reviews in which the police tell us the costs to them of dealing with applications for certificates and for registration as a firearms dealer. These returns are made by a representative sample of police forces in the country. The last such review was in 1977 and covered the period ending 31 March 1977. The figures revealed by the review are then examined and adjusted to take account of pay and price increases in the period since the facts were recorded or expected to take place in the period for which the order will remain in force.
The basis of the 1977 review was completely objective. A copy of our letter of guidance was placed in the Library last year and any hon. Member can see it. This guidance was designed to ensure three things: first, that all the forces taking part used broadly similar costing methods; secondly, that the details of cost submitted reflected only the cost of dealing with successful applications; thirdly, to ensure that the estimates included all properly attributable police costs, including police time and relevant overheads.
The estimates provided by the police forces taking part in the review were published. This material formed the basis for calculating the fees introduced on 1 April last year.
This year we have not considered it justifiable to put police forces to the very time-consuming trouble of making detailed returns. Instead, the scale of fees in the schedule to the Firearms (Variation of Fees) Order 1979 has been worked out by taking into account increases in costs which are known to have occurred since last April. I need not remind the House that substantial and well-deserved pay increases were awarded to the police. The first stage of the award was paid in September 1978 and the second stage of these increases is due to be paid in September this year. I am sure that the increases are welcomed by the whole House.
In addition, the cost of civilian staff and administrative overheads have risen, although by a smaller amount. The figures derived from the 1977 survey have been reassessed to take account of these increases in pay and other costs. This showed that a further increase in the level of fees is necessary in the forthcoming financial year if the shortfall in the recovery of costs is not to rise to an unacceptable level. Costs have risen and the consequences must be faced. The amounts of the new fees have been determined solely by the need to recover the higher costs, and the increases are the minimum needed to achieve that. We have made every effort to keep the increases as low as possible, and they have been agreed with the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection.
It has been suggested that police costs in administering the Firearms Act are capable of being substantially reduced. I am very much in favour of keeping costs down wherever possible, but this must not be allowed to diminish the effectiveness of the present controls. There are no easy ways of reducing police costs in administering the certification procedures. Most forces employ a very small staff. The clerical and administration work at police headquarters accounts for only a minor part of the cost. The major element of the cost is accounted for by inquiries carried out by police officers in the locality to establish the suitability of the applicant and the arrangements made for ensuring the safe custody of firearms.
Some people complain that these inquiries are too detailed. The amount of time taken over such inquiries and the manpower resources involved will of course vary from one force to another. They will depend on different factors, but it is for the chief officer of police concerned to decide how that is done.
Two suggestions have been made by the hon. Member for Harborough and others concerning possible changes. The suggestion that increased costs might be offset by increasing the period of validity of firearms and shotgun certificates is under very careful consideration, but if a system of interim checks during the validity of a certificate were to be substituted the saving in overall costs would be negligible. However, we are looking into the matter in consultation with the Association of Chief Police Officers to see whether a suitable and workable solution can be found.
The second suggestion was that there would be a saving in police work if a person held both a firearm and a shotgun certificate and could renew both at the same time. We are looking at that to see whether it might be practicable and whether it might produce some saving in police costs without decreasing the effectiveness of the firearms control. But if we did either of those it would need new legislation and police agreement.