Road Traffic (Seat Belts) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd March 1979.

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Photo of Mr George Younger Mr George Younger , Ayr 12:00 am, 22nd March 1979

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.