HC Deb 27 November 1946 vol 430 cc1619-43

Order for Second Reading read.

3.38 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The main object of the Bill is to exempt from the driving test those persons who hold or have held wartime provisional driving licences, and who satisfy certain requirements. In Clause 2 of the Bill hon. Members will find details of the requirements to which I have referred, but it would perhaps be advisable if at the outset I recalled the prewar conditions in regard to driving tests, to which we are now about to revert. In the Road Traffic Act, 1930, driving tests were imposed upon those suffering from disease or physical disability. Section 6 of the Road Traffic Act, 1934, granted a driving licence only if the person passed the prescribed test of competence, and in the Motor Vehicles Driving Licence Regulation, 1937, the provision was introduced that the applicant should carry the learner's "L" plate, and should be accompanied by an experienced driver.

We are now about to revert to those conditions which prevailed before the war and from which war conditions compelled the departure. The driving examiners, like many other persons in the community, had to be diverted from their peacetime occupations and duties to war tasks. That, of itself, prevented us from carrying out these driving tests; but in addition, hundreds of thousands of experienced drivers in trade, commerce and industry, were also withdrawn from their duties for the Services, for munitions and for other war purposes. That led to the necessity for encouraging women, and other drivers, to take their places for temporary duties, during the war, and the whole system of the provision of driving licences had to be discontinued.

This was done by Defence Regulation 72, paragraph 6. In place of the peacetime provisions there was introduced a provisional licence for periods of 12 months. During this time, over 1,500,000 provisional licences have been granted. I think it will be agreed in all quarters of the House that those who received provisional licences had to drive under exceptionally difficult conditions. The Armed Services, in conjunction with the Ministry of War Transport, as it then was, undertook to pass their drivers through a set test which was agreed with the Ministry. I have not available the number of drivers who obtained, or are entitled to, certificates under this system but, of necessity, it must be a high figure. Any Service driver who has passed through that test, and received a certificate, will be entitled to a substantive licence. The National Fire Service put their drivers through a similar test, and the same thing will apply to them.

I was faced with the situation that there are, roughly, 1,500,000 civilian drivers who have received provisional licences during the war, and there are a large number of Service personnel in a similar position, as well as a more limited number from the National Fire Service. If I had for one moment contemplated reimposing the peace time test on that vast number at a rate of between 300,000 and 400,000 a year, which is the maximum we could possibly pass with our system of driving tests, I should have been faced with a lag of, approximately, five years of work. In the meantime, there would be nothing to prevent this great number of persons from driving on our roads. Therefore, in view of the general shortages and difficulties with regard to manpower, it appears to me an eminently sensible arrangement that they should not be brought within the provision of the peacetime licensing procedure. I do not consider that there is any difficulty in this respect, because the majority of them are experienced drivers today. They learned, as I indicated, under the most arduous conditions. The purpose of this small Measure is largely to regulate that position.

Those who are not covered by that form of exclusion will now have to pass the driving test. Clause 1, which revokes the Defence Regulation, will bring that into operation. With reference to Clause 2, hon. Members will see that those who received provisional licences during the war, under the conditions I have indicated, will not be entitled to a substantive licence if they have been guilty of any of the offences enumerated in Subsection (1) under headings (a), (b), (c), (d), and (e). Clause 3 lays down who is to get the fee in future in respect of driving tests. Before the war, this was not defined, and I think it shows a commendable lack of acquisitiveness on the part of the driving examiners of the Ministry of Transport that the whole of these fees were paid over to the Department. However, this provision is introduced to avoid any difficulty in the future.

3.48 p.m.

Major Sir David Maxwell Fyfe (Liverpool, West Derby)

We on these benches have had an opportunity of examining this Bill, and we are also grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the lucid exposition of its contents which he has just given. We appreciate the problems which arise in connection with this matter and we agree that a solution of them must be found. There are certain matters, not of major importance, which will be raised either now or hereafter, and on which we hope that the right hon. Gentleman or his colleague will give an answer in due course. We also feel—and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would be the first to agree with us—that the easing of the position for certain drivers, inevitable though it may be, must not be taken by anyone as a relaxation of the necessity, which is the desire of the whole House, for careful, improved, and tested driving on the roads. Subject to that, we do not intend to oppose the Second Reading of this Bill.

3.49 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Hamilton (Sudbury)

I welcome this Measure not only because of the desirability of increasing the technical competence of people who are driving vehicles on the roads, but also because I think it can be psychologically helpful from the point of view of road safety. We are all greatly concerned about the slaughter which takes place on our roads, and are anxious to do everything we can to reduce it. The Minister has spent a lot of money and taken a lot of trouble to try to make people more road-minded. He has spread his propaganda in a very catholic way—

Mr. Speaker

This Bill deals with licences and not with making people road minded. The hon. and gallant Gentleman must stick to the subject of licences, and little else.

Lieut.-Colonel Hamilton

I wanted to appeal to the Minister to issue instructions to all his examiners to impress upon all candidates for driving tests the desirability of taking a pride in driving with the utmost care and of having a sense of responsibility for the safety of life and limb. The people who are undergoing these tests are keyed up, and in an impressionable mood, and that is the time when these things could be impressed upon them. I think that, if that were done, we could improve the general standard of driving. Many drivers already have this sense of responsibility, particularly bus drivers. They take a pride in their careful driving. But there are a great number of drivers who think only of how quickly they can get to their destination and are not conscious of their responsibilities. I hope that particular instructions will be given to all examiners to bring this point home to every candidate.

3.52 p.m.

Mr. Oliver Poole (Oswestry)

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) has said, there is not in this Bill any point of substance on which we disagree, and it is particularly pleasing that we can discuss it today in an amicable frame of mind. It may be that, in the near future, we shall meet the right hon. Gentleman in a rather less amicable frame of mind, if what we hear be true.

There are however one or two points in the Bill on which I should like elucidation. In regard to the examiners to be appointed to test applicants for licences, can we have some more information about who is responsible for choosing them, and how many have already been chosen? In my constituency, various people have told me that they have applied, but have been told that the ranks are already filled. Others have asked me to whom they should apply, and I am bound to say that I have not been able to answer this question with any great knowledge. I do not think it is necessary for us to emphasise how important it is that these men should be most carefully chosen, and that there should be sufficient of them. The Minister has already called attention to the fact that he could not deal with all the people wanting licences. Even so, a very large number of people will be required to undergo these tests, and we should like some assurance that they will not be indefinitely held up. This applies particularly to people who require licences for commercial purposes, or for the conduct of their own business. They should be able to get licences as quickly as possible.

There is another point on which I should like some explanation. At almost the same time as this Bill was published, two Orders were produced, one of which is S.R. & O. 1749, the other being a divisional Order. One puts up the price of the tests from 5s. to 7s. 6d., and the other deals, so far as I can make out, with people who have physical disabilities. This would seem to me to be an extraordinarily complicated way of doing it. This is a matter which affects a large number of people. The ordinary man in the street is affected by having to take a driving test, and it does seem complicated that, after the Bill is produced, two different Orders should be produced at the same time, referring to previous Acts. I wonder why they could not all be put in the same Bill. It seems to be going an extraordinarily long way round to do it this way. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will explain why this could not have been done in a more simple way. I like everyone else, welcome this Bill, and hope that the fact that people have to take these tests will lead to more careful driving.

3.55 p.m.

Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

This is not a controversial Bill, and it is not likely to have very great news value. At the same time I think it is a very necessary and very useful Bill. Unfortunately, during the war, it was necessary to suspend these tests, and I am glad that the Government have taken this early opportunity of seeing that they are reintroduced. The motorcar has been described, and, in point of fact, the description is only too true, as a lethal weapon, and it is only right that those who control a motorcar should have to undergo certain searching tests.

I should like to ask the Minister to give us some information about the tests that will take place as the result of the passage of this Bill. Are the tests which are to be imposed now on those who have to qualify, exactly the same as those which existed before, or will there be any new additional tests? I would also ask the right hon. Gentleman if there are to be medical tests as well, because that is a consideration which has been proved to be very important. I would also like to have further information about the qualifications of those who are to do the testing. I presume that a great many of these men who held similar positions before the war will be reinstated, but a certain number of fresh appointments will have to be made. My information is that a rather low age limit has been imposed in the qualifications for testing drivers. There may be some good reason for that, but it has the disadvantage that a comparatively young person will not have had the driving experience. I have a letter from a man in my own constituency, a comparatively young man, who, while he is over the age limit, has had 30 years' experience with a very good record. I should have thought that a man with that experience would be very useful, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell us why this age limit has been imposed and whether he is satisfied that the age limit is such that proper account has been taken of a person's driving experience. We want these testers to be men who have been driving for a considerable period, and who can perform their duties adequately.

Within those limits, I welcome the Bill. After all, it is a contribution to the solution of one of our great national problems. To the extent to which we can make those who use our roads skilled, we shall be making an important contribution to road safety. Obviously, the first qualification for driving a motorcar is to know how to drive it in all conditions, and, to the extent the Bill will bring that about, it is to be welcomed, though the Minister will realise that it is only a small contribution in relation to the size of the problem.

3.59 p.m.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge (Bedford)

I rise, for only a few minutes, to give my blessing and welcome to this Bill. That driving tests should be more searching was, in fact, a recommendation of the Alness Committee on Road Accidents, which was later endorsed by the Interim Report of the Committee on Road Safety, presided over by the present Secretary of State for Air, a report which was published some months ago.

In my view, uninstructed driving is one of the main causes of accidents on the roads today—apart, that is, from the overriding consideration that our road system itself is hopelessly inefficient and out of date. Bad manners, lack of courtesy and want of imagination, I know, all play a very large part, but, in the end, I think it is the lack of exact knowledge of the elements of simple mechanics, and of how a car behaves on the road, that is responsible for most of the dangers and disasters with which we are all too familiar. We can no longer afford the cost and the suffering of any accident which can be prevented, and I am astonished at the apathetic acquiescence of so many people in this country in this evil in our midst. It seems, in some cases, to be motivated by an uncaring callousness, which does no credit to those who exhibit it. I think I am right in saying that it was once the case that all instructors of driving schools, and all Government driving inspectors, had to obtain a certificate of competence from the police school of driving at Hendon. I believe that some of the men now employed—and this was underlined just now by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson)—have no such certificate. I am told that one examiner recently confessed that he did not even know the contents of the Highway Code. That seems an extraordinary confession by a man who is supposed to test a driver in order to see whether he or she drives in conformity with that very Code.

I would like to press the Minister to call for a report on each individual who originally went through the police course and who is now employed again, and I would like an assurance that those found to be unsuitable will be removed from their jobs. Education and correct instruction in driving are vital factors in cutting down the accidents on our roads. We have a right to expect that only the best people will be used for this work. I think I am right in saying that the total cost of road accidents in this country is something in the region of £100 million per annum. I am credibly informed that if the excellent motor patrol scheme, which was put into operation in Lancashire before the war, were to be adopted throughout the country, the cost would be merely £2,500,000. That scheme alone cut down accidents in Lancashire by 46 per cent.

Mr. Speaker

I must point out to the hon. Member that this Bill does not deal with accidents; it deals only with licences, and the way in which they are to be provided. We cannot discuss the whole problem of accidents or safety on the roads under this Bill.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, if I erred, but I was trying to link up certain remarks which I have already made, with the employment of the "courtesy cops" who did such a successful job in Lancashire before the war. The whole question of road accidents is a great human problem. This Bill will help in the right direction, and, for that reason, I very much welcome it.

4.3 p.m.

Sir Stanley Reed (Aylesbury)

May I ask the Minister if he will consider issuing instructions to his examiners to aim, not merely at the maintenance of the present standard of driving, but at something very much higher? My experience is that the standard of driving today has markedly deteriorated, particularly in London. Even those admirable drivers, the bus drivers, are falling a little short of their high standard. Those driving in London tend to disregard traffic signals and to cut in. I hope that the Minister will ask his examiners to look at this question with the object of aiming at something a little better than we have at the present time. I trust I shall not be out of Order in adding that pedestrians have obligations just as much as have motor drivers, particularly when the traffic lights change.

4.5 p.m.

Mr. Turner-Samuels (Gloucester)

The point in this Bill is really very simple. During the emergency it was necessary to do away with certain provisions under the previous law in regard to driving tests for motor vehicles. Now that the emergency, so far as that is concerned, has passed, it is very essential, in the interests of the public, to restore the protection of those provisions. I do not think that there would be any quarrel with that in any part of the House.

There is one matter which I would like to bring to the notice of the Minister With regard to the driving tests that are now being reimposed by the Bill, there will be certain exemptions. For example, the Minister has told us that if anyone has held a provisional licence continuously for 12 months before this Measure comes into force, that person will be exempted from the obligation of undergoing the tests now provided for under the Bill. But there is another exemption which has not been mentioned, and which I would like to bring to the notice of the right hon. Gentleman. That is the case in which a licence has previously been held under the Motor Car Act of 1903—that is going a long way back. Nevertheless, anyone who has, in fact, formerly held such a licence will be exempted from undergoing the tests required by the provisions of the present Bill. It will be entirely outside the (Bill, however long ago his driving licence may have expired. It occurs to me and I am sure it will occur to the Minister—and I merely mention it in order that he may consider it between now and the Committee Stage—that the need for care and skill by a man who held a licence under the 1903 Act is greater now than formerly, owing to the change in the conditions of traffic, between the different periods of time. The volume of traffic was very much less then than it is today. Moreover, having regard to the exigencies occasioned by the congestion of the traffic on the roads, and the mounting casualties, together with the demands made upon the drivers of vehicles and to the greater skill called for today in handling a motor vehicle, I would like the Minister to consider whether some protection ought not to be introduced in regard to the particular case I have mentioned. It is a matter which the Minister ought to consider between now and the next stage of this Bill. Apart from that, I, like everyone else, welcome this Measure.

4.8 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Dower (Penrith and Cockermouth)

I hope that the Minister will make the best of the all-round support which he is getting for this most inoffensive Bill, because he is going to get a great deal of opposition on another matter in a very short time, particularly from those who have been most active in supporting this excellent little Measure. I welcome the safeguards and precautions against giving a person the right to drive a car. A car, if not properly handled, may do great harm to other people. At the same time, it is a serious matter to prevent a person from driving a car, and I hope that, in Committee, we shall hear from some learned gentleman an interpretation of paragraphs (a)to (e), in Clause 2, which deal with people who are to be prohibited from obtaining driving licences. Any person wilfully causing bodily harm should not be granted a driving licence, but I would like some hon. Member versed in the law to assure us that by this we are striking at the right people.

There is only one other thing on which I should like some assurance. I once witnessed a terrible accident where a large number of people were killed by a car driven by a man who held a licence, but who was subject to fits. I presume that, normally, he was as good as any of us here. He happened to have a fit when at the wheel of his car, which mowed down people right and left. I ask for an assurance that licences will not be granted to such persons, either under this Bill or any other Measure.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge

Does the hon. and gallant Gentleman not recognise that the individual he mentioned should have declared that he was subject to fits when applying for a licence, and that, had he done so, a licence would have been refused him?

Lieut.-Colonel Dower

Perhaps some people are not as honest as hon. Members on both sides of the House. I do think we should try to prevent that kind of thing if we can possibly do so, without adding any more red tape.

Mr. Turner-Samuels

Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. Before a licence is granted, a form has to be filled in, giving various particulars, among which is a reference to any physical disability from which the applicant suffers. If a man suffered from fits and said so, he would not get a licence. If he already had a licence and it transpired afterwards that he was subject to fits, or some other physical disability disqualifying him from driving a motor vehicle, then if the fact were made known to the licensing authority, the licence would be revoked.

Lieut.-Colonel Dower

How would the authorities know that he was subject to fits?

Mr. Turner-Samuels

They should know, either because of the form to be filled in beforehand, or from the information, if it were sent to them. As soon as they know—and if a man had a fit in his car, that, most probably, would be reported by the police—such a case is provided for by Statute, and the holder's licence would be revoked.

Lieut.-Colonel Dower

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his assurance that this sort of thing could not occur again, but it has already occurred. I support the hon. Member who said: Let us go for a higher standard of driving. I do so because of the greater difficulties and increased efficiency which is demanded from drivers today—not so much from the point of view of accidents as from the point of view of holding up traffic and making the roads practically impossible to drive along. We all know of the driver who hold up as many as 50 or 60 other vehicles. I hope the Minister will, therefore, be careful in the selection of the examiners, not only to improve the standard of driving, but also to make sure—which, in a way, is the same thing but is a little more thorough—that the applicants are fit to drive in traffic. I know many people, as I am sure we all do, who are excellent drivers in the country but who have no qualifications when they get into an appalling traffic jam. I hope the Second Reading of this Bill will receive support from all hon. Members, so that the Minister will be able to prepare for the great battle which lies ahead.

4.13 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Lee (Manchester, Hulme)

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson) referred to the question of examiners who are to be appointed to examine persons applying for licences. I have had brought to my notice cases of people who have applied for such positions and who, to my knowledge, are experts. But I am given to understand that there is an age limit of 40 years. I submit that what the hon. Member said about the onerous conditions in which Servicemen drove during the war should apply also in this case. Very many of them—especially those who have been in the Forces since 1939—are now just a little over 40 years of age. They have spent years in the Forces as driving examiners and instructors, and it seems to me rather absurd, and certainly it will not help to obtain a high standard examiner, if we are rigorously to impose an age limit of 40 years. I have had brought to my notice—and I have already sent it to the Minister—one case of a person who was in the Royal Air Force since 1939, whose qualifications as an examiner were high and who had taught many hundreds to drive heavy vehicles in the R.A.F. Yet because he happens to be about 18 months over the age limit of 40 years, his experience, ability and service will apparently not be used by the Minister. This is in spite of the fact that, at the same time, the R.A.F. and other Services are asking men even of this age if they would like to go back into the Forces to use the same experience, zeal and energy in teaching other people in the Services how to drive competently.

Taking into account the length of time which the war lasted, which means that many of these people are now over 40 years of age, I hope the Minister will not restrict these applications rigorously to people under 40 years of age, but will use that discretion which we know he possesses in order to ensure that the public obtain the services of men of this calibre and, consequently, so that we shall have a high standard of driving on the roads.

4.16 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Cuthbert Headlam (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North)

I apologise for not having heard the Minister's speech, but I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman one question. I have not had time to study the Bill, and it may be that the question which I have in mind is covered. In 1919 I took out a driving licence which I have never renewed. I thought that I was not qualified, temperamentally, perhaps, to drive a motor car, and I have never had any inclination to do so, but I understand that under the existing law if I now applied for a licence, I would get one without any kind of examination. I am not likely to apply, but there may be many such cases in which people who have not applied for a licence for a long time may then secure a licence, perhaps without any form of proof that they are capable of driving If this Bill does not cover such persons, I should like it to be extended to cover them, because it is highly dangerous that people who have not driven for a long time should be granted licences without proving their qualifications.

4.17 p.m.

Mr. David Renton (Huntingdon)

First, I would like to commend this Bill as a very neat piece of drafting. We do not always commend the draftsmanship which emerges these days, but the drafting of this Bill is certainly very skilful indeed. There are several points which I would like to mention because, though they seem to be matters of detail, they are mainly matters of principle which the Government may wish to consider before the Committee stage.' The first is the question of Service licences. I was very interested in the Minister's explanation of how Services licences will be transferred into provisional civilian licences, and I must say I was a little surprised because there is nothing at all in the Bill about it. I was wondering whether, for the sake of clarification, the Minister would put something in the Bill to deal with that point. Is it going to work as smoothly as he hopes and suggests it will? One can imagine that many men who will be demobilised, will not have the necessary documents with them. I would like to know whether the Department is in touch with the Service Departments with a view to ensuring that at the moment of demobilisation a man who is entitled to a licence has it in his possession.

In the various disqualifications mentioned in the proviso to Clause 2 (1) there is no reference to Service offences. A man convicted of a motoring offence while in the Services was generally tried under Section 40 of the Army Act, charged with conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline. He was not tried under the Road Traffic Act, so that there are thousands of people who, while in the Services, wrapped cars around telegraph poles, and there is nothing to stop them getting a licence under this Bill. One is very reluctant indeed to suggest that those who have served their country should be penalised in this way; on the other hand, I think we should observe a balance between the Services and the civilian population in a matter of this kind. Now that I have drawn the matter to the attention of the Minister, I hope he will consider it.

There is a further point that I would like to mention with regard to this list of disqualifications. I wonder whether the Minister has consulted his colleague the Home Secretary, because although the principle underlying these disqualifications is very sound indeed, I feel that it should be carried just one stage further so that the present crime wave could, to some extent, be arrested and the police assisted in their duties. I suggest that that could be done in this way. We know that a great many of the crimes of housebreaking and burglary, now happening every day, are being committed by people who have been previously convicted of various similar offences, who have served their sentences, and have somehow managed to get hold of motor cars. Under the present law they are entitled to get provisional licences to drive those motor cars; and these people, of the worst possible type, have the freedom of the roads, and are a menace to the population. By making a small, and only a very small, addition in the Committee stage to the disqualifications mentioned in the proviso, the right hon. Gentleman could greatly assist his colleague the Home Secretary, and enable the police to check the cars that are being driven about the roads. Perhaps he would consider that point.

I think the present position in regard to this proviso is a little strange. There will be some anomalies which will make the law appear to be just a little bit of an ass. For instance, it is rather strange that if one were to commit manslaughter with a shotgun—a very serious offence, with a high degree of moral blame attached to it—one would still be able to get a licence to drive a motor car—an even more lethal weapon than a shotgun—in which to drive all over the place; whereas, if one merely causes bodily harm, even slight bodily harm, in connection with driving a motor car, one is forbidden to obtain a licence. That is an anomalous position, and is also a matter which the Minister might care to examine. I think the solution is, to broaden the items giving rise to disqualification. If those items are broadened, and all people who are obviously undesirable and unfit to drive a car included, we would not have these obviously illogical and contradictory items.

4.22 p.m.

Mr. Viant (Willesden, West)

The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Renton) raised some very important points, but, at the same time if his theory were followed it seems to me it would become necessary for a person making an application for a driving licence to have to produce a note of good character. I see no other way, if the hon. Member's suggestion is pursued. The Minister responsible for this small Bill is already confronted with a very considerable problem. When I read the Bill the first question that suggested itself to me was: Is a period of 12 months' driving without an accident sufficient guarantee at the present time that a person is an efficient driver? That is a very debatable point. Personally, I do not think 12 months is a sufficient period. There are quite a number of people who have been driving for the past 12 months, but they have not been driving to any great extent. There must be some reason for fixing the period of 12 months. The only reason that has been advanced this afternoon is that the problem would be insoluble, because the number of people who would then have to come up for examination would probably run to well over a million, if not to two million. It is a problem which is almost insuperable from the point of view of obtaining the necessary number of examiners. As I have already said, whether or not the period of 12 months is adequate will be quite a legitimate point to discuss in Committee.

Reference has been made to the standard of driving. In prewar days the standard of driving was undoubtedly high, but since the war it has deteriorated. If we can get back to the standard of driving that prevailed prior to the war, we shall have done a good deal. In prewar days the standard of the examiners was exceedingly good. The Minister has already decided, I understand, that those who are now appointed as examiners will have to pass the test set by the Hendon school of driving—the police test. If we can get that standard I am convinced we shall have achieved a great deal, through the agency of this Bill, to bring the standard of driving up to the prewar standard. Hon. Members opposite have suggested we should endeavour to get beyond that. Well, I hope we shall. At least this Bill is already giving an indication of the intentions of the Minister in this regard. All too frequently during the course of the war local magistrates have been confronted with men from the Services who have had accidents, or have been charged with dangerous driving. As has already been said, no record is kept in regard thereto. If these men from the Services—and believe me, the standard of the driving test in the Services was by no means a high standard—are to be exempt from any test, we may run a very grave risk. I suggest the Minister might again reflect on the points which have arisen in the course of this Debate, and be prepared to meet them in Committee.

4.29 p.m.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer (Worthing)

I shall be very brief indeed in speaking in support of this Bill. There is one point which I confess puzzles me somewhat. I refer to Clause 2 (1, e), which relates to driving under the influence of alcohol. I am at a loss to understand why a man who has been convicted of driving under the influence of drink is any less likely to repeat his crime because he is subjected to a driving test some 12 months later. I suggest that this is a case in which a medical test would be far more suitable than a driving test—or, if preferred, as well as a driving test. That is the one case in which, I suggest, a medical test is essential. The man who has been convicted of driving under the influence of drink is no less likely to commit the same offence because, 12 months later, he has to pass a driving test. That is the only point I have to make. I feel that people with records of driving under the influence of drink should be prohibited altogether from driving.

4.30 P.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. G. R. Strauss)

A number of Members have in the course of this Debate, put to me detailed points concerning this Bill, and I shall do my best to reply. I would say, first, that I am delighted that this Measure has received so much support from all sections of the House. I am hopeful, but not overconfident, that the next Measure with which my right hon. Friend will deal, and which was introduced today, may be received amid the same harmony and accord; but I gather, from a few hints that were dropped, that that is exceedingly unlikely, and I am certain of this, at any rate, that the Debate on Second Reading will not pass as quickly as this has done.

The hon. and gallant Member for Sudbury (Lieut.-Colonel Hamilton), who is not in his place at the moment, raised the question of whether it should be the duty of examiners to impress on applicants their grave responsibility as drivers. The main duty of the examiners, of course, is to put the applicant through his test, and if we put on them propaganda duties, I think we should be overburdening them. But in the ordinary course of the test, there will be questions on the Highway Code, and I think that the applicant will be indirectly impressed with the knowledge that he has a real responsibility when driving on the road, and should always be careful.

Lieut.-Colonel Dower

Will the hon. Gentleman deal with the point about which I asked?

Mr. Strauss

I am coming to the point in a moment. I am going through the various points raised in chronological order. The hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. O. Poole) asked me a number of questions. First, he asked why this proposal is being dealt with in this complicated way, in that there have been already an Order in Council and a Regulation concerning this matter. I regret very much that we have no alternative but to put it forward in this complex way. It arises from the method by which the provisional licence machinery was introduced in 1940, and the consequential legal requirements of going back to the prewar custom. I could explain, but only at some length, why we have had to bring the matter before the House in three stages. First, there was the Order in Council; then the Regulation, and now this Bill. I regret that, but it was inevitable.

The hon. Member also asked me if I could give him any information about the examiners—how many there are—and a number of other hon. Members asked me why it is necessary that we should accept only examiners who are under the age of 41. The position is this. We are reengaging all the prewar examiners we had, who number about 170. They have been re-engaged. They have gone through one of the police schools; not with the object of testing them, but in order to bring them up to date, and to make them acquainted with the latest methods of the police in driving instruction, and so on. They have gone through that very intensive course. We have had about 10,000 applications from members of the public, many of them with the very highest qualifications, who want to take the additional posts of driving examiners which are now vacant, and which will be about the same number. We have felt it necessary to impose age limits ranging between 31 and 41—regretfully, because we realise that we shall exclude a number of people who are exceedingly competent, but, because the average age of our prewar examiners is getting high, and it is essential that we should have a balanced group of men from the point of view of age. Moreover, the work of the examiners is exceedingly strenuous. In view of these considerations we felt it was desirable to make the upper age limit 41. If too high a proportion of our examiners were old, it would, I am sure, be contrary to the public interest.

Mr. Lipson

What is the lower age limit?

Mr. Strauss


Mr. F. Lee

In view of the point I mentioned about the position of examiners who went into the Forces in 1939, the fact that they spent many years, examining, teaching and driving in the Forces, and also the fact that they are now slightly above the age of 41, which makes this limit rather hard upon them, would the hon. Gentleman not agree that, in cases of that sort, where they have been engaged in this work daily for so long, they might be engaged now?

Mr. Strauss

That would be exceedingly difficult, because a high proportion of the applicants have, in some way or another, in the police force or the Army, been concerned with the teaching of motoring; and if we depart from the rule at all we should find most of our new people well over the age of 41—maybe 45 or 50. We can consider the matter further, but I am sure we are right, and I hope that the House, on consideration, will agree that our decision was wise.

Mr. Digby (Dorset, Western)

Will a proportion of them be women, and if so what proportion?

Mr. Strauss

Yes. No specific proportion will be laid down, but among the present 170 I think there are about 20 women examiners. If new applicants who are women have good qualifications, they will be accepted. There is no sex bar in this matter. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson) asked what sort of test applicants for licences will undergo. It will be exactly the same as before the war. It may be that later, when we have caught up with the substantial back lag, we may raise it. But we think that, for the time being, it is reasonable to work on the same standard as that which obtained before the war. That is our present intention.

Mr. Lipson

Will consideration be given to the additional test that I proposed, that is, a medical test?

Mr. Strauss

I was coming to that. I have not finished with the points the hon. Member raised. There will be no medical test. There has not been any medical test before. What happens is this. When a man applies for a driving licence he has to state whether he suffers from a number of diseases such as epilepsy, fits—which were mentioned by another hon. Member—or other mental or physical deficiencies which would obviously disqualify him from having a driving licence. If he says he does suffer from one of those deficiencies, he cannot get a licence. If he does suffer from them, but states on his application form, that he does not, then he is liable to severe penalties. There is no way of avoiding this risk of a false application, unless we give a medical examination to, and look into the back medical history of everybody who applies for a driving licence; and that would really not be practical.

The hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge) said he was anxious that the driving examiners should be of high quality for their onerous and responsible duties. He instanced a man, mentioned in a Debate in another place a little time ago, who, when he was going through a police school course recently, said he did not know the Highway Code. I do not know who that man is; we have no information about him. But I can assure the hon. Member that both old and new examiners will be under constant supervision by our supervisory examiners, and that, if any of them appears to be unfit for the task, he will be taken off that duty immediately.

Mr. Turner-Samuels

Will the examiners be examined? Surely there must be some test for them too when they are appointed!

Mr. Strauss

Yes, Sir. As far as the new applications for appointments as examiners are concerned, they will be first of all examined by the supervisory examiners who will be posted in various parts of the country. It is only after they have been passed by the supervisory examiners as being people who appear to be suitable that they will be sent to the police college. They will then only be taken on for a probationary period. My hon. and learned Friend can be assured that new examiners will be very carefully selected and tested before they get the job.

Mr. Turner-Samuels

If not it would be a case of the blind leading the blind.

Mr. Strauss

We are, of course, taking on all the old examiners without further test. The hon. and learned Member asked a question, which was also asked by another hon. Member, about the position of a man who had a licence under the 1903 Act and who now does not have to pass any test at all. Of course, that is quite right, but that is in conformity with the original driving test Acts, particularly that of 1934, which said that any man who possessed a driving licence before that year need not undergo any further test, but would automatically be granted a new driving licence. That provision still applies. We are not trying, in this or in any other way, to alter the past law; all we are trying to do in this small Measure is to reimpose the practice which existed before the war.

Mr. Turner-Samuels

That was my point. This is rather an important matter, and I was asking the hon. Gentleman whether he would look into it, and see whether some modified provision ought not to be made to prevent a man from getting a licence without a test after an interval of perhaps 25 years during which he may never have driven a motor vehicle and where he has previously driven only in entirely different and less exacting conditions. That seems to be just as important as any other case.

Mr. Strauss

The hon. and learned Gentleman is suggesting that we should materially revise the law in regard to driving licences. That is not the intention of this Bill, and I think in fact it would be found very difficult in this respect because it would involve reviewing the full circumstances of everybody who had a driving licence to find out whether or not he or she should be tested. We can of course discuss this matter further, but I am sure my hon. and learned Friend will find there are almost insuperable difficulties.

Mr. Turner-Samuels

That is really not so. All I am postulating is the case of a man, making an application for a licence just as anyone else does, who has not had one for an interval of, say, 20 or 25 years. A man in that position is no better qualified than a man who has never had a licence at all, and should accordingly be subjected to the same conditions and tests.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)

The hon. and learned Gentleman is now making a second speech; he is not entitled to do so on Second Reading.

Mr. Strauss

I fully appreciate that point. We are not, however, trying to alter our licensing provisions here. People who have had a provisional licence during the war for one year need not apply for a test; that is all that this Bill is trying to do.

A certain amount of confusion seemed to appear in the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for Penrith and Cocker-mouth (Lieut.-Colonel Dower) about the provisions (a)to (e) in Clause 2. He, and I think other hon. Members, seemed to be under the impression that if anybody had been convicted of any of these offences he would be disqualified from having a licence. Nothing of the sort. All we say here is that if a man has driven for more than a year under a provisional licence, and has been convicted of one of those offences, he shall come up for a test. We are not disqualifying anybody, but that is what seemed to be in the mind of the hon. and gallant Member.

Mr. Renton

It really comes to this, that such a man does not get the benefit of Clause 2 (1), that benefit being that he would not have to undergo a test?

Mr. Strauss

The hon. Member is quite right. I come now to one or two of the other points he raised. There is no need to mention in this Bill the arrangement by which a man if he possesses a Service licence automatically gets an ordinary road licence. The hon. Member, however, raised an important point, that there may be individuals who, when they have driven vehicles in the Services, have had a bad accident record, or at least have had one accident. When they come out they will, the hon. Member suggests, be given a certificate by the Army authorities which will qualify them for a licence under the 1930 and 1934 Acts. That is a difficulty which we have considered, and we have asked the Army authorities, and they have agreed, only to give a certificate to those of their drivers who have not only driven but have a good record. Anyone who has not got a good Army record for driving will have to come up for test in the ordinary way.

Then the hon. Member raised a rather novel point, the very interesting one that we should disqualify from driving anybody who has been convicted of a criminal offence—or, at any rate, that such a person should come up for some further test. I am sure the hon. Member will realise that it is an entirely novel suggestion that we should grant or refuse licences according to whether the applicant has been convicted of some criminal offence. I think it would lead us into considerable difficulties.

Mr. Renton


Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I would remind hon. Members that this is a Second Reading Debate and not a Committee stage; the great majority of points that have been raised are Committee points.

Mr. Strauss

We may be able to pursue that matter a little further in Committee, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend would resist a suggestion that he should refuse licences to persons because of some offence which they may have committed which has nothing at all to do with driving. The granting of driving licences, and the driving test, are connected with one thing only, and that is safe driving on the roads.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Willesden (Mr. Viant) questioned whether 12 months was a sufficient period. There may be many people who had driven a car for that period or for more than that period who are still bad drivers. That is perfectly true, but when you come to frame legislation of this sort and deal with this type of problem, you must settle on some figure, and it appeared to us that a man who had been driving under a provisional licence for 12 months or more, was probably a fairly experienced driver. We might have said 24 months, but there might have been equal objection to that from other hon. Members. We are fortified in selecting the figure of 12 months, because that is the period suggested by the Committee on Road Safety in its interim report as a reasonable period, and on balance I think it is. I have already informed the House that the driving examiners will go through one of the police colleges and have an intensive course there before they are allowed to carry out their examination.

It has been suggested that the present standard of driving is low compared to that of prewar years, and the hope was expressed that having good examiners to put applicants through a stiff test might raise that standard. Of course this is a matter of opinion, but my impression, and I think probably that of a good many hon. Members, is that the standard of driving today is higher than it was in prewar days. Certainly, if one examines the accident figures on any comparable basis, the number of accidents is less than it was prewar, taking into account the amount of traffic on the roads. I do not accept the general allegation against motor drivers that their standard is worse now. My view is that, maybe largely as a result of the intensive road safety campaign, the standard is higher than it was before the war. I think I have now dealt with all the points raised—

Lieut.-Colonel Dower

I do not think this is a Committee point; driving may or may not be as good as it was before the war, but in my opinion congestion in London and other cities is worse. Could the hon. Gentleman therefore say whether applicants will be put through tests to encourage greater efficiency in traffic, with a view to reducing congestion?

Mr. Strauss

I think that I answered that point when I said that the tests will be of the same standard as before the war Drivers then had to show proficiency under traffic conditions. Later on we may raise the standard higher, but we do not think that it would be possible to do that at the moment. I was asked whether there was any point in testing applicants who had been convicted of drunkenness. We think that anyone who has been convicted of a serious traffic offence should not be relieved of the obligation, and maybe the nuisance, of being properly tested, and that may have some psychological effect upon the applicant, discouraging him from again committing the same sort of offence.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer

My point was in regard to medical tests.

Mr. Strauss

Medical tests would be extremely difficult, and it is not proposed to introduce them at the moment. All the points which have been put by hon. Members can be considered further on Committee I hope, with the explanations I have given, that the House will be good enough to give a Second Reading to this Bill.

Mr. Lipson

Will the Parliamentary Secretary explain a little further why he thinks that the test must be the same as before the war? He does not necessarily want to increase the number of people who are given licences, unless there is good justification, in view of the congestion and road accident figures. Why is it not possible, therefore—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member can ask a question, but he cannot make a second speech.

Mr. Strauss

In the first year or so we shall have to test not only all the applicants for new driving licences, but a very large number of people who held provisional licences for less than a year during the war. When we have overcome that back-log, which will be substantial, we will then consider having a more severe test.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee.