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Road Safety (Temperance Posters)

Volume 529: debated on Tuesday 29 June 1954

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

2.16 a.m.

I wish to raise with the Minister of Transport some further queries concerning the banning of posters referring to the danger of alcohol to safe motor driving. The matter follows a Question asked by me in the House on 5th May. One of the posters was displayed at New Street Station, Birmingham, where temperance posters have been shown for many years. After standing a few days, the poster was blacked out on the requirement of the Transport Commission.

The legend of this poster, which I have already shown the House, was:
"One for the road may be one for the grave."
It shows a glass of liquor obscuring a man's face. Part of the face behind the glass appears as belonging to a skull. I express my own view, and a view which I think is widely held, that the poster is a startlingly effective comment on what a representative of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Road Accidents called the motorists' pernicious habit of having one last drink. The Royal Society published the poster.

Among a variety of changing reasons for banning the poster advanced by Mr. J. H. Brebner, the publicity officer of the Transport Commission, was that it was controversial, that it was a "knocking" poster, that it maligned the commodities extolled by other advertisements and that it had been
"banned by the Birmingham Accident Prevention Council and other similar bodies as being too gruesome."
Actually, the poster is being widely displayed by accident prevention committees, even among Birmingham's neighbours, Staffordshire County Council and Rugby being only two examples. I saw it prominently displayed in Rugby only this last week-end.

The action of the Birmingham committee, which is supported largely by public funds for which the Ministry has some responsibility, cannot be ignored when that action is offered as an excuse by Mr. Brebner of the Transport Commission for their banning the poster. I ask the Ministry of Transport, has it made any comment upon, or does it propose to offer any advice to, the Birmingham road safety committee? That body took action on the initiation of the representative of a large Birmingham brewery who said that the poster was an attack on his trade. If it was, then his trade was more than ever attacked by a new poster which the Transport Commission has now approved. I will show and read from that poster in a moment.

The chairman of the Birmingham road safety committee showed himself so biased in the brewers' favour that he told the "Birmingham Post" that the poster, "One for the grave," might give the impression that a drink was a horrible thing, which it was not, he said. The poster did not say anything about any one glass of beer. It said, "One for the road might be one for the grave," which the chairman himself ought to be saying anyhow. The chairman also said it was gruesome. He seems quite oblivious of the fact that if drink has caused any proportion of the 220,000 killed on the roads in the last 44 years that would be more horrible than any poster.

Mr. Brebner took his cue from the chairman and thought the poster gruesome. They should both be told that the British Medical Association recently reported that the influence of alcohol is responsible for thousands more road accidents than would appear from the official figures. Mr. Brebner's position has become quite untenable in view of subsequent action. The Birmingham Temperance Society on 30th March submitted for approval to the Transport authority a slogan, "Most important, remember that Alcohol blurs your judgment and slows your reactions." It would have been interpreted as an attack on the trade if submitted to the brewers, and an attack on any glass containing alcohol had the slogan been submitted to the chairman of the Birmingham road safety committee.

Actually, the slogan was part of a speech by the Minister of Transport in the House of Commons. It was broadcast by the B.B.C. uncensored by Mr. Brebner or anyone else. It was reprinted in an official leaflet issued to all applicants for driving licences in 1953. But it was rejected as "controversial" by the Transport Commission on 7th April.

The next day two further quotations were submitted for appearance in poster forms; one was from a speech by the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Sir G. Braithwaite), when Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry; the other by a former Chief Medical Officer of the Ministries of Health and Education. Both quotations were rejected by the Transport Authority as "controversial."

At last, a quotation submitted by the Birmingham Temperance Society from the Highway Code seems to have been accepted by the Transport Commission. It was rather long for a poster, though the matter was excellent for printing in the Highway Code. The poster reads:
"The Highway Code states: Be sure you are fit to use the road. Alcohol even in small amounts lowers your alertness and sense of caution. A fraction of a second may make all the difference between safety and disaster. If you cannot give the necessary concentration, you are risking not only your own life but the lives of others."
And, as if all that were not enough, the Ministry or the Authority has insisted on the further addition:
"Many drugs have the same effects, and so also has fatigue."
It will thus be seen that a magnificent effort to bring home to careless people the gruesome nature of death on the road and the part drink has in causing it as exhibited in the poster, "One for the grave," has ended in almost prolix and loquacious statements which ought to have been terse and arresting. That is not the fault of the Temperance Society but of the Transport Commission, who have put every difficulty in the Temperance Society's way in their reasonable work.

I roundly charge the Transport Commission with sabotage of the excellent work of the Minister and of the Royal Society and of the temperance bodies who, in bringing this issue of the danger of drink on the roads prominently before the public, have done a good piece of public work. That sabotage ought to stop, and the ban on the Royal Society's poster should be withdrawn at once.

One of the inferences of Mr. J. H. Brebner was that the ban was inspired by the British or London Advertisers' Association. The secretary of both bodies writes to me to deny this. Thus, the responsibility for what has been condemned in many newspapers rests squarely on the shoulders of the Commission and the pusillanimous guidance that it has taken from the Birmingham accident council. That abbreviation of its title is about all that that body deserves, because it is an accident council rather than a road safety council.

If the banning of all posters on public property is to be persisted in, where is it all to end? Brebner stated to the "British Weekly" that any mention of drink or alcohol in any temperance poster was likely to be derogatory of the alcohol industry. The words of the Highway Code now printed are derogatory enough of that industry. Are they then to stand or not? We may be quite sure that if the ineffable Brebner is to be allowed further rein he may try his hand next at the controversial character of the newspaper posters on the stations.

What happy medium would he strike between the "Daily Worker" and the "Daily Telegraph"? What about allowing the "Tribune" and the "Spectator" and the books to "knock" one another on the station bookstalls? His Goebbels eye glances approvingly, it would seem, at the "Piccadilly Midnight Nudes," for there they are on the underground hoardings, with others, confounding the excellent rule re-stated by the "Manchester Guardian" that blasphemous, libellous and pornographic matter should be excluded from all posters.

Under this policy—or is it this pretence—that there can be no controversy on the station hoardings, the Society of Friends has had its peace posters turned down. Its poster, "The Password for Peace is Reconciliation," did not suit the Transport Commission, though it seems to have become the watchword for the Prime Minister in Washington. Anti-gambling posters have been forbidden. The Second Coining has been proclaimed on station hoardings although that might fairly raise a point of controversy in the minds of Jews or of agnostics.

In all this kind of trouble, before he is done the Minister may need a Senator McCarthy to settle the question of what is controversial and what is not. At any rate, he will not have to travel by sea or air. He has already arrived—by British Railways. Let us bundle him out.

2.29 a.m.

All of us will agree that the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson) is invariably true to his colours. I assure him that I am going home immediately after this debate is over and that I have not had any alcohol since midnight and, in any case, I shall not be driving myself. Nor am I conscious of having paid any particular attention to posters in Piccadilly. I saw the poster in New Street Station to which the hon. Member refers on a number of occasions when I visited my constituency. I must say I thought that it was an unfortunate one and that I was rather glad when it was withdrawn. Quite apart from anything else, it did not seem to me to be in good taste.

I certainly have no objection to temperance propaganda within reason, but it always seems to me that posters using phrases like, "One for the grave," bringing the idea of death as vividly as that before the public, are doubtful in taste. I feel the same sort of repugnance to this poster as I felt to a poster some years ago, which was commented on in this House, of a widow seeing her child killed as he crossed the road. It struck me that the poster was altogether too violent in tone really to serve the cause which the hon. Member had at heart.

I think that some of the earlier posters for which the Temperance Society has been responsible on New Street Station will do the cause of temperance more good than the poster to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I believe that the decision was the right one.

2.31 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation
(Mr. Hugh Molson)

The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson) has raised the question of a decision which was taken by the British Transport Commission with regard to a certain poster. I begin by making it plain that the Ministry of Transport regard the Commission as being in precisely the same position as any other commercial undertaking, and it is free to follow what policy it likes with regard to advertising. The Ministry of Transport does not claim to exercise any authority over it in what it does.

Therefore, in replying to the debate, I am not accepting any responsibility on behalf of my right hon. Friend for what has been done. It is entirely a matter which is left to the Commission. Having said so much by way of explanation of the autonomy in this matter of the Commission, let me now say that in my opinion the action of the Commission was entirely right.

First, it is important to realise exactly what the sequence of events has been. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, which is subsidised by my Department, produced a poster to which objection was subsequently taken. Local organisations associated with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents have complete autonomy in these matters, and the Birmingham Accident Prevention Society refused to buy the poster on the ground that it was too gruesome. I am interested that my hon. Friend the Member for Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) who has actually seen the poster displayed—I have not—takes the view that, on the ground of taste and psychology of the public, the Birmingham Accident Prevention Society was wise in deciding not to buy or to display the poster.

As the hon. Member for Ealing, North, said, it is perfectly open to other associations and societies, or branches of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, if they like to do so, to buy the poster and to display it. It is equally open to the Birmingham Accident Prevention Society not to do so. It was at that point that the Birmingham Temperance Society stepped in, bought a number of these posters and displayed them at New Street Station.

The House should pause to consider exactly what this implies. The whole motive had now changed. The Birmingham Accident Prevention Society exists to reduce accidents and is interested in alcohol only in so far as it may be a contributory cause of accidents. The Birmingham Temperance Society exists to reduce the consumption of alcohol and is interested in road accidents only in so far as they serve to point the moral that alcohol, as the Society thinks, is in itself a bad thing. That is obviously an important distinction which we have to take into account.

I have, it is true, a special responsibility in the matter of road safety, because I am chairman of the road safety committee. Had it been that a road safety committee or the Birmingham Accident Prevention Society had wished to display a poster and had been prevented from doing so, I should, naturally, have taken a certain interest in the matter. But it is not a matter in which I am in the slightest degree concerned if there is a difference of opinion between a temperance society and the Transport Commission. Even had it been the case that a branch of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents or one of our local accident prevention committees had desired to display this poster and had been prevented from doing so, I still should not have considered that any intervention on my part was justified.

There is a code of conduct which has been laid down for the advertising industry, and it has a number of rules as to what may and may not be displayed. One of its rules, which, I think, is a wise and proper rule, is that, generally speaking, it is willing to publish posters which advertise a particular product, but the industry is not willing to publish a poster which is "knocking" copy and which criticises some other product. It has made no objection, and the Transport Commission, acting on the general principles of the Joint Censorship Committee of Outdoor Associations, has made no difficulty, about publishing posters of the temperance societies which advocate temperance as such.

It is an entirely different matter when the temperance society wishes to publish posters which are critical of and hostile to the products of other organisations, whether commercial or anything else. The hon. Member has himself quoted the poster which is now being displayed with the full consent and approval of the Commission, and all that he has to say about it is that he considers that it is too long. There are a number of posters which the Commission has always been willing to publish which advocate temperance and various other ways in which it is possible for care to be taken to reduce accidents upon the roads.

I say in conclusion, recapitulating what I have said, that it is not the responsibility of the Ministry of Transport to intervene in a matter of this kind. Even if it were, I would still hold the view that a poster of that kind is open to grave objection. In the next place, the British Transport Commission has always shown itself willing to publish suitable posters in the interest of road safety, and I can see no ground for criticising the Commission, as the hon. Member for Ealing, North has done, for refusing to publish posters of this kind. Instead of concentrating upon the importance of temperance and safety on the roads, these posters chose to criticise even the moderate use of alcohol.

The Minister said that he was prepared to take action against "knocking" posters. Will he take action against the "knocking" posters of the brewers? On railway stations the brewers have posters declaring, "Beer is Best." Surely that is knocking at temperance drinks; it is drawing a distinction which is invidious. It is carrying out the principle to which the Parliamentary Secretary objected where temperance posters were concerned. Why does he discriminate?

I get into a train at Euston. I have not gone far in the train before I see on railway property a poster which says, "You are One Mile Nearer Mitchells and Butler, the Brewers." I want to protest against discrimination against a strong body of opinion which believes in temperance principles. It is monstrous that nationalised undertakings should be used to bolster the brewing industry which has caused more misery, harm, and suffering to the community than any other industry in the country's history.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Seventeen Minutes to Three o'Clock a.m.