Road Accidents

– in the House of Commons at 8:40 pm on 7th June 2005.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Watts]

Photo of Ben Chapman Ben Chapman Labour, Wirral South 9:08 pm, 7th June 2005

I should like to begin by welcoming the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend Dr. Ladyman to his new position, by congratulating him on his promotion and by welcoming him to his first Adjournment debate in his new capacity. I am delighted to have secured this debate on road traffic accidents and tiredness. I intend to cover three points on signage and its ability to prevent, lessen or cause accidents.

Anyone who has driven on a motorway in recent years will be aware of the presence of the blue signs that warn that "Tiredness Kills". The location of those and their potential effectiveness in enhancing road safety is the first of the issues that I want to raise. The signs seek to tackle the issue of falling asleep at the wheel. Research carried out by Loughborough university has found that 17 per cent. of road crashes that involve road death or injury were sleep-related. That was, in the researchers' opinion, a conservative estimate. That compares with a figure for alcohol-related crashes, for example, of just 3 per cent. The disparity is startling. It might be a measure of the extent of public awareness about drink-driving that, thankfully, now exists.

On the issue of tiredness and driving at the wheel, the Department for Transport has not been idle. According to its website, roughly £1 million a year is spent on publicity warning the public of the dangers of falling asleep at the wheel. There have been press advertisements, one of which I have brought with me. It carries the message:

"You drive for a living but you'd kill for some sleep".

I welcome that stark and effective message, but I have not come across those advertisements nearly as often as I would have liked to have done. There is also a dedicated road safety website, among whose pages a substantial section is devoted to "Tiredness Kills", but much more is necessary.

Driving while under the influence is, in 2005, considered by the vast majority of people to be socially unacceptable, but it has taken many years of public information campaigns from the 1960s to the present day to achieve that. Just this week a new campaign is to be launched that will target the summer months. The budget for it is around £2 million a year. Just half of that sum is to be spent on publicity warning the public of the dangers of driving while tired, although doing so causes many more accidents.

In some ways, of course, one cannot compare the two causes; it is by no means an exact science. One needs to look at the matter carefully to work out the real causes. There is evidence, for example, that undiagnosed medical conditions have their part to play, as do prescription drugs. We cannot suggest that in all cases a driver acted grossly irresponsibly in causing an accident through tiredness as we can for those driving under the influence, but we can credibly claim that there are many cases in which precisely the same culpability is attached. The level of public awareness has not yet caught up with the reality of the situation, and I press the Minister to commit more resources to a campaign in that regard.

The quibble that I have with the "Tiredness Kills" signs lies with their siting and not their funding. According to the Minister's predecessor, there are 57 signs on motorways in England. To the best of my knowledge, they are without exception sited immediately prior to the entry slip road of motorway service areas. That is good, but of course highly convenient for the commercial operators who maintain and benefit from them. I am not sure that the signs fully optimise their remit. Indeed, as I learned from a written answer, they are sometimes erected purely at the request of operators of the service areas.

However, there are large stretches of motorway throughout the UK that are devoid of places of rest and consequently of signs reminding drivers to take a break. The Loughborough university research found that sleep-related crashes occur least on Fridays and most on Mondays. It should not be beyond the wit of man to assess the location of sleep blackspots and to site warning signs accordingly, using methodology similar to that relating to speed camera locations. In fact, the Loughborough research did precisely that—identifying classes of crashes related to driver tiredness on the A1 in Lincolnshire and elsewhere.

What is surely needed is such a study conducted nationwide. We should not be in the business merely of reacting to the data as they are collated. Such an exercise would of necessity be lengthy, and I would argue that blackspots can be reasonably accurately predicted according to, for example, the type of driver who frequently uses a particular section of road and at what point in the majority of journeys one enters identified periods of increased vulnerability to sleep. There are surely many different criteria by which one might seek to predict the most suitable location for "Tiredness Kills" signs and which would result in their more effective siting than the current approach. Another way of tackling the issue of tiredness is to use the variable message signs that can be programmed to give notice of congestion and so forth more intelligently and extensively to alert drivers to the dangers of tiredness.

The measures contained in the Road Safety Bill recently introduced in another place may include proposals to pilot French-style picnic and rest areas. I welcome that; indeed, I urge the Minister to ensure that the programme is rolled out as quickly as is practicable and to reject the representations of service area operators lobbying against it, albeit for sound business reasons. Such areas are a welcome alternative to the catch-all services areas that currently predominate. In present circumstances, I fear that most drivers will stop only if they have cause to do so for reasons of thirst, hunger or, as it were, the call of nature. An alternative without the shops, restaurants and so forth would encourage a cultural shift in the manner in which long journeys are embarked upon.

I turn to roadside advertising, which is, in many forms, a hazard. Anyone who has recently travelled to or from the north of England using the M6 will not have failed to notice a plethora of advertisements in fields adjoining the carriageway. Some offer used cars for sale, while others might offer to help solve debt problems or to provide fitted kitchens. Some sites are used by well- established multinational corporations and others by what appear to be one-man or one-woman bands. I saw one of particular note between junctions 18 and 19 of the north-bound M6 which advertised escort services, although on closer examination it may have related to ancient Ford vehicles.

However, whatever the repute of the advertisements, the raison d'être of these signs is to draw attention to themselves and to the messages and details that they contain. Some are more effective than others at doing this, but the point is that if they do not distract, they do not work. If using a mobile phone while driving is now illegal, albeit much ignored, trying to get people to take down a telephone or website address by whatever means while driving at speed is no less questionable. I am not suggesting that a competent driver is unable to deal with myriad potential distractions and complex driving situations, but what concerns me, as well as several of my constituents and, I imagine, colleagues in the House and road users up and down the country is the sheer scale and apparently intractable nature of the problem. Companies have been set up specifically to cater for and nurture the demand for such advertisements, one of which boasts on its website:

"Advertising on motorways is one of the most effective ways to send your message to hundreds of thousands of potential customers . . . it grasps the attention of the bored motorway user; as a consumer he/she fully absorbs and thinks about the message your advert has just delivered."

Frankly, they ought to be thinking about something else—the safety of themselves and other road users.

It seems, although it is not the case, that this is an area that is free of regulation. The fact that that impression is given, however, is enough to suggest that the measures that are in place are not being used as effectively as they might be. Signs of this nature are covered by the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) Regulations 1992. It would not be helpful or interesting for me to go on an excursion into the minutiae of planning regulations, but it is worth mentioning that two tests are specified by the regulations—public immunity and safety. I contend that the vast majority of advertisements placed in fields adjoining motorways would fail both of them. Certainly, when due process has been followed by prospective advertisers, it seems that there are very few occasions when planning permission has been granted, and even when it has, it is by no means clear that it should have been. A circular from the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions gives the following guidance:

"Land alongside motorways is landscaped for reasons of safety and appearance . . . It is hoped that local planning authorities will take steps to ensure that on land alongside motorways but not required for them, no advertisements that could adversely affect amenity or constitute a danger to traffic are allowed."

That, you might think, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is clear enough, but an apparent loophole exists in the regulations through an exclusion applied to vehicles. Most of the offending advertisements consist of an articulated lorry trailer painted or draped with an advertisement. Those involved might be under the impression that because vehicles are exempt from the regulations they do not apply to them. If there is such an impression, however, it is mistaken, as it cannot be claimed reasonably that such trailers are, in the words of the conditions,

"normally employed as a moving vehicle" or that they are

"not used principally for the display of advertisements."

While the middlemen who act as go-betweens for the farmer and advertiser are nothing if not entrepreneurial, the practice has not altogether enjoyed the status of legitimacy. I am pleased, for example, that the Outdoor Advertising Association is at pains to condemn this, and that it is not something with which its members would associate themselves.

It is clear that existing regulations, while they might be technically sufficient to cover the problem, are simply not working effectively. That is the evidence from just a single drive up the M6, for example. Some local authorities are better at tackling the issue than others—Chester city council, for example, has directed resources at and managed to get to grips with the problem. In another case, police motorway patrols have kept a record of the offending advertisements. The intention is for that record to be passed to planning officers. That serves only to underscore the ineffectiveness of the current regime. The issue might concern planners, but surely only on technical grounds. As we have seen, virtually all cases that are heard by local planning committees are turned down on grounds of road safety. The signs are there only by virtue of being next to a trunk road—local authorities will always struggle to police a strip of land that happens to pass through an area under its jurisdiction but is no more integral to the patch than that. I am aware that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister intends to remind local authorities of their duties in this regard later in the year, but that seems to me to be a case of flogging the wrong horse, and possibly of doing so too late.

Furthermore, the problem applies at a more localised level. Some local authorities, including mine in Wirral, have also taken to erecting potentially distracting—in my view—small-scale advertisements with a council header on roundabouts, verges and the like as an extra source of revenue. Anything that saves my council tax I welcome, but I wonder about this. The signs are treated as de minimis, and as individual signs, so they are. Taken together, however, they are a major change to the landscape, and I doubt whether they should be regarded as de minimis. In my view, they do not have a beneficial place in the landscape. I am afraid that, sometimes, they clutter the environment, and after a certain period, they look slightly tatty. As with motorway signs, if they did not distract, advertisers would not use them—they are hard-bitten business people, and they want the bang for their buck.

As an aside, I cannot see that any council would want to take advantage of a scheme, albeit one bringing in revenue, in which the gains did not outweigh the disadvantages. In addition, the appearance of such an advertisement in a frame carrying a council logo might give a spurious impression of council endorsement.

Given that we are dealing primarily with road safety, should not roadside signs be a responsibility of the Highways Agency? Currently, it looks after and has powers to intervene in all such matters, as needed, on all land that constitutes the highway, but is powerless to act on land outside it. The point at which control of the planning process transfers from one local authority to another is purely arbitrary, and advertisers are attracted to motorways as a location precisely because of their arterial nature. In conjunction with the police, the Highways Agency regularly patrols sections of road as part of its everyday duties—in contrast to local authorities, which would have to make special trips, often well away from their headquarters. A good start would be to hold advertisers responsible rather than landowners, the tracing of whom is often vastly time-consuming. While I understand that that is already possible, because this is seen as entirely a planning issue, it rarely happens. What is clear is that a change is needed, both in the extent to which regulations are enforced and in the source from which they emanate.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look at the issue again, and perhaps to consider amendments to the Road Safety Bill relating to awareness of the dangers of falling asleep and the way in which campaigns are conducted.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

My hon. Friend mentioned the Road Safety Bill. He has not touched on one aspect of this serious subject: older drivers. We are all ageing, and as we age we tend to need more sleep. Some years ago, a GP in my constituency told me that he was horrified at the number of older drivers who continued to drive well after they were no longer capable of being safe behind a wheel. Does my hon. Friend think that that too needs attention? The Road Safety Bill makes some attempt to consider it, but it needs much more attention and also research. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Photo of Ben Chapman Ben Chapman Labour, Wirral South

I think I do, although I do so reluctantly, as a driver who has reached a certain age and deludes himself that he still carries the torch of youth. I am sure that it is possible to demonstrate statistically that older drivers are more vulnerable to road incidents, and I agree that the Road Safety Bill should pay more attention to that.

We need to look at the issue of "Tiredness Kills" signs, to seek effective control of what are said to be temporary motorway signs, and to consider the advisability of local authority-encouraged roadside advertising.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport 9:27 pm, 7th June 2005

I thank my hon. Friend Ben Chapman for welcoming me to my new portfolio; I look forward to it greatly. He will have seen in the weekend newspapers a prediction of one of the more exciting debates in which we will be involved over the next year or so, to which I also look forward. As my hon. Friend Mr. Drew pointed out, the Road Safety Bill will be before us in the not-too-distant future, and we shall be able to debate in detail many of the issues that we have discussed this evening.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I know that he has been interested in this subject for a long time, and I expect to debate it with him on numerous future occasions. We have a good road safety record in this country. In fact, it is among the best in the world. The number of deaths and serious injuries continues to fall, but every road death is one too many, so the Government have set a tough target to drive it down further. We have committed ourselves to reducing the number of casualties by 40 per cent. by 2010.

As my hon. Friend said, road traffic accidents caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel are a serious problem. Our research suggests that as many as 10 per cent. of accidents on our road network are sleep-related in one way or another, and as many as 20 per cent. of accidents on motorways and similar roads occur as a result of driver sleepiness. Many are single-vehicle accidents, but they can have particularly tragic consequences. We have estimated that more than 300 fatalities a year occur because drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel.

Being new to this portfolio, I, like any new Minister, began with many intensive briefings, and I was staggered to discover how high our estimate is of the number of fatalities resulting from sleepiness. It is difficult to tell, however, whether the number of accidents resulting from driver sleepiness is rising. However, as we increasingly become a 24/7 society, more people are driving at night, when the risks are higher.

In recent years, we have acquired considerable knowledge on the subject of driver sleepiness through our road safety research programme. This has established that sleep-related crashes typically involve vehicles running off the road or into the back of another vehicle, and are worsened by the high speed of impact because the sleeping driver takes no avoiding action. Sleep-related crashes are therefore more likely to result in serious injury than the average road accident. Many of the accidents are also work-related, in so far as they involve trucks, goods vehicles and company car drivers. That is one reason why the advertising campaign and poster referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South is targeted at people who drive for a living.

The body's natural biological clock has a major influence on sleepiness. Such accidents peak in the early hours of the morning—between 2 am and 6 am—and again between 2 o'clock and 4 o'clock in the afternoon. These are times when we are naturally sleepier, due to our circadian rhythms. Sleep-related crashes are more evident among young male drivers in the early morning and among older male drivers during the mid-afternoon, as the post-lunch "dip" tends to become more apparent as we get older. Young men are, of course, more likely to be on the road during the small hours, but the effects of sleep loss and sleepiness are more profound in younger, rather than older, people. Young men are also more likely to ignore the signs of sleepiness, so they are at much greater risk of being involved in a sleep-related crash.

Our research has also looked at how drivers fall asleep at the wheel. We know that sleep does not usually occur suddenly and without warning. Signs of sleepiness such as yawning are the first indication, and drivers will reach the stage of consciously trying to stay awake by taking action such as opening the window or turning up the radio before they start to close their eyes for prolonged periods. Drivers should be aware of these signs, but many fail to appreciate that their driving is impaired and just how quickly they can fall asleep.

Unfortunately, sleepiness can also cause mild euphoria and increased confidence in one's driving ability. However, continuing to drive while sleepy and relying on cold air or noise to stay awake has been shown to have limited benefits—sufficient only to enable a driver to find somewhere safe to stop and take a break. Taking a short walk has also been found to have little benefit. Nor do we recommend using sleep detection devices, as drivers may be encouraged to rely on them in order to stop falling asleep, when in fact they should not be driving because they are tired. A driver should stop well before such a device is activated.

As soon as drivers start to feel sleepy, they should stop somewhere safe—not on the hard shoulder of a motorway—and have a couple of cups of coffee or other caffeinated drink. As the caffeine takes about 20 minutes to be absorbed, drivers should take this time to have a short rest. A nap of about 15 minutes, or even just relaxing and closing one's eyes while the caffeine kicks in, is effective in combating sleepiness. Across the motorway network, service areas should be available every 30 miles or so, giving drivers a chance to stop regularly. Most other roads offer a variety of opportunities for drivers to take a break.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South referred to the "Tiredness kills: take a break" signs. They are currently sited on the approaches to some motorway service areas, particularly in places where there are few other opportunities to stop. As he said, they are generally located in advance of the signs for the service areas, where drivers can stop in a secure place. As he also said, there are currently 57 such signs on motorways in England. Decisions about the provision of such signs on trunk roads and the motorway network are a matter for the Highways Agency. I will consider my hon. Friend's suggestion that there should be more of them and that they should be located differently. As I said, I am new to the portfolio and still learning what might and might not be effective. I am prepared to look at sensible suggestions such as the one that he has made. I certainly undertake to consider with the Highways Agency whether we should have more of those signs and where they should be located.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned in an intervention, the Road Safety Bill is about to be considered by the House again. It was introduced in the House of Lords on 24 May, and it will allow the Secretary of State to establish motorway rest areas to help to combat fatigue. Those rest areas will be similar in style to French "aires" and will provide an alternative to traditional motorway service areas. The plan is for an initial trial to evaluate the potential to encourage drivers on long journeys to stop to take a break, rather than to press on to their destination.

We have to ask how we can change driver behaviour. For a number of years, the Department—my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South referred to this—has run publicity campaigns to highlight the dangers of falling asleep at the wheel. However, to ensure that we had a good understanding of how the driver tiredness messages should be developed, towards the end of last year, the Department commissioned some qualitative research and found that drivers believed a good journey was one that could be made without stopping.

For many, the solution when starting to feel sleepy was to wind down the window and turn up the radio. Refuelling the car or stopping to buy food or to go to the toilet was seen as taking a break. Some male drivers felt that the advice to take a nap was unrealistic. We therefore decided to develop new messages as part of an integrated campaign that featured new radio advertisements, new publicity materials such as posters and leaflets, and partnership advertising. The new campaign was launched this Easter. It targeted young male drivers, who are more likely to fall asleep at the wheel; leisure drivers, who may drive further distances at holiday times than they are used to; and those driving for work, in view of the high number of fatigue-related crashes involving someone who was at work at the time.

For the male 18 to 30 age group, the radio advertisement sets out the reality of a crash when a sleeping driver has failed to brake. It was run between midnight and 6 am as that is the high-risk period. The fact that my hon. Friend has not heard the advert too frequently probably indicates that, usually, he is not driving between midnight and 6 am and that he is not listening to the same radio stations as 18 to 30-year-olds. The advertisement aimed at leisure drivers highlights how the monotony of motorway driving can send them to sleep and reminds them to take a break. We are also continuing to run the micro-sleep meeting advert targeting at-work drivers during the afternoon, when the body clock is in a natural trough.

We spent more than £350,000 on the Easter campaign and I am pleased to report that we found that 51 per cent. of all drivers understood the main message to take a break while driving. That is up from the Easter campaign two years ago, when 19 per cent. of drivers recognised the message. We have earmarked some £600,000 for the driver tiredness campaign during 2005–06.

My hon. Friend agreed that we had dedicated resources to that message. He asked us to look at dedicating more resources to see how effective it was. I assure him that we will look to see how effective the campaign is. If necessary, we will look again at how resources are targeted.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position. Besides being an excellent Minister, he was an eminent scientist in a previous incarnation. Perhaps in advance of the Road Safety Bill, it would be useful to commission research into the impact of age on sleep patterns. We have an ageing population with many more older drivers. The research could examine whether that is resulting in a greater number of crashes. I hope that he will consider that. It is not a minor matter—it is of growing importance.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. I understand the point that he makes and I undertake to look at the matter and to discuss it with officials to see what research is available. No doubt we will discuss it as the Road Safety Bill passes through the House. If a sensible amendment could be made to the Bill, I would be happy to give it careful consideration.

We shall have to take account of checks and balances. Where young men tend to overestimate their driving ability and resilience, older drivers perhaps—I emphasise perhaps—may be better judges of their tiredness, more willing to take breaks, better able to pace themselves and understand the risks of sleepiness and less willing to take those risks. Older drivers may be more prone to falling asleep, but they could be more likely to make good judgments in dealing with the problem. We shall have to debate both those issues further and determine how to deal with them more effectively.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I entirely agree and I am not in any way traducing the great elderly population of this country, but I still urge the Minister to reflect further on whether older drivers who have a serious problem as a result of age and infirmity should be allowed to drive at all. I hope that that consideration will be examined carefully and taken into account.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I agree with my hon. Friend that if an older driver has developed a condition that makes him or her prone to fall asleep and become dangerous at the wheel, it should be a matter of careful consideration as to whether they should continue to be allowed to hold a licence. I shall look further into our arrangements for checking up on that matter and ensure that people's medical conditions are properly assessed and reported to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. I am happy to give my hon. Friend the assurance that we will look further into the problem that he identifies. As I have said, if sensible amendments could be suggested to the Road Safety Bill that would be practical in effect, I would be happy to examine them.

To conclude my remarks about the campaign that we launched, it was also promoted by partnership marketing activity where interested parties reinforced the driver tiredness messages. For example, Multimap encoded the "Take a break" message into their route planner, so drivers were reminded that after two hours of driving it was time to take a break. Road Chef and Little Chef offered coffee promotions. The Royal Automobile Club, What Car? magazine and the M6 toll road all distributed publicity materials for us and free truck-back advertising has also been negotiated with Wincanton to include driver tiredness messages.

Although we rely on educating drivers about the dangers of sleepiness, it is important to remember that the police can take action and prosecute irresponsible drivers who fail to take action when they start to feel sleepy. The courts also take the issue seriously, as falling asleep at the wheel is treated as an aggravating rather than a mitigating factor when considering sentencing.

Our publicity messages are, of course, aimed at all drivers, but it is important not to overlook those who are driving for work. We estimate that about 40 per cent. of sleep-related crashes are probably work-related, as they involve commercial vehicles such as large goods vehicles and vans. Employers should also ensure that employees who have to drive as part of their job have the opportunity to take breaks and know that they can stop if they start to feel sleepy.

Professional drivers are governed by additional rules. European regulations require the use of tachographs and set maximum limits on driving time and minimum requirements for breaks and rest periods for most HGV drivers and about half the bus and coach drivers in the UK. Separate UK domestic rules govern those operations that are exempt from the EU drivers' hours rules.

There is also separate legislation on working time. Generally speaking, the Road Transport (Working Time) Regulations 2005 apply to drivers and crew participating in road transport activities that fall within the scope of European drivers' hours rules, whereas the main Working Time Regulations 1998, as amended, apply to those drivers operating under domestic rules.

A further measure in the Road Safety Bill should help enforcement of the rules. New powers are being sought to enable both the police and the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency examiners to issue fixed penalty notices for drivers' hours offences. The penalties will be graduated according to the severity of the offence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South also expressed concern about the potential distraction caused by advertisements next to motorways. Although there is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that advertising alongside motorways can have a detrimental effect on road safety, the results of studies carried out to date have been inconclusive.The Highways Agency is concerned that, as unauthorised signs proliferate, there may be an increased impact on road safety, as well as obvious detriment to the environment alongside the road. However, it has no general powers to remove advertisements on private land.

Advertisements displayed in fields next to motorways should have the approval of the relevant local planning authority, but many are erected without the appropriate consent. Local planning authorities have powers under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to require any unlawfully displayed advertisements to be removed. The Highways Agency will write to the relevant local planning authority to bring the presence of the advertisements to the planning authorities' attention. I will undertake to discuss this matter again with the Highways Agency, and make sure that its officials are diligent in bringing advertisements to the attention of local planning authorities. If it appears that that is ineffective, I shall discuss the matter with ministerial colleagues to see whether other powers can be deployed or whether future legislation should be modified to include provisions to deal with this problem.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South may be aware, although the display of advertisements is not normally permitted within the highway boundary, operators of motorway service areas are allowed to display their company name on a header board fixed to service area advance warning signs. Only the name of the operator may appear, rather than merely the name of a company trading at the service area.

My hon. Friend has raised some important issues in this debate. I repeat that, as I am new to my portfolio, I do not claim to have all the answers yet. He has offered some sensible ideas and made constructive suggestions for how we should proceed, and I shall make sure that my officials study them with care. We will adopt those proposals that the evidence shows will lead to an improvement in the road safety statistics.

I emphasise, however, that in the end it is the responsibility of drivers to ensure that they do not ignore the signs of sleepiness. I shall take the opportunity provided by this debate to put on the record my plea that drivers make an effort to plan journeys so that they can stop every two hours. They should not ignore the signs of sleepiness—their lives depend on it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Ten o'clock.