Skip to main content

Short Title, Consequential Repeals And Amendments, Commencement And Extent

Volume 171: debated on Friday 27 April 1990

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 11, at end insert—

' ( ) In Part I of schedule 2 to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 (punishment of offenders) in column 4 (punishment) for the entry relating to section 16(1) of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 there shall be substituted "Level 1 on the standard scale if committed by a pedestrian on a footpath, or a pedestrian, equestrian or pedal cyclist on a bridleway or byway open to all traffic (as defined in section 127 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984), or a pedestrian or pedal cyclist on a cycle track (as defined in the Highways Act 1980), level 3 on the standard scale otherwise.".'.
I hope that the Minister will accept amendment No. 2. I realise that he has gone urgently to consult to find out about the closure of Downing street, but I hope that someone will make it clear to him that, if he cannot accept the amendment today, he should urge the other place to accept a similar provision. The amendment deals with the fines that can be imposed if one insists on walking down a road, bridleway or footpath where a closure notice is displayed. Obviously, the Minister has not found out what is going on in Downing street. We are all trying to find out about the closure of the road or footpath there and what is happening about the poll tax. Perhaps we could be enlightened on both matters later.

I understand that if a part of a motorway is coned off or if a major road is closed and some enterprising motorist who thinks that the cones are unnecessary and does not understand why the road has been closed simply moves the cones to one side and drives down the road, that could cause considerable danger, first, because the motorist may not be aware that the road surface is more dangerous than it looks and, secondly, because people might be walking along the road legitimately and might suddenly be faced by a car approaching at speed. There is quite a reasonable argument for motorists incurring a substantial penalty if they ignore a temporary closure notice.

However, I am rather puzzled as to why such a draconian penalty should be incurred by a walker who ignores a temporary closure notice. It could lead to an amazing situation. One might be walking along a footpath and suddenly see a temporary closure notice. If one continues along that path when it has been legally closed, one is committing a criminal offence and becomes liable to a fine of up to £400, although I am not too sure about the scale of fines. On the other hand, if one stops at the side and turns right or left and walks for 20 or 30 yards parallel to the footpath across open land, one is no longer committing a criminal offence. The worst one could be doing is trespassing, and such matters are pursued through the civil courts. It is odd that one should be liable to a heavy penalty for ignoring a footpath closure as if it were a road.

Will the Minister consider the matter and weigh up whether it is logical to impose such a penalty? In my view, it would be virtually impossible to enforce. In my experience of walking in north Wales, I was surprised to discover that recently the Forestry Commission has applied for temporary closure notices where trees are being felled. In the past the Forestry Commission relied on the common sense of the people who were cutting down the trees to shout and make it clear to anyone in the vicinity that it was a good idea to move out of the way when a tree was coming down. If they saw trees coming down, most people would be sensible enough not to walk under or close to them. It may be that insurers have told the Forestry Commission that such a common sense approach could land it in the courts, so it had better go for temporary closure notices instead, which it has been doing.

One of the major problems with temporary closure notices is that some of them disappear. I can think of one case in which the Forestry Commission worked conscientiously to put up five notices on possible paths approaching the piece of land that it was closing. The notices told people that the paths would be closed for two months, but soon after they were put up three of them disappeared. The Forestry Commission replaced them once, but then gave up.

Several people approaching an area that was temporarily closed have tried to get through and found that closure notices were in place. I know of one person who took the common sense view, took no notice of the notices and walked straight through. It was a Sunday and there was no sign of the Forestry Commission felling trees, although it was a little unpleasant to have to walk over some of the felled branches. I suspect that that person—if I read the regulations correctly—was committing a criminal offence. I am sure that he would argue if the case came to court that there were no proper warnings and that in any case he had deviated sufficiently from the footpath because of the fallen trees to have been committing trespass, not a criminal offence.

Many of the notices put up by the Forestry Commission get damaged by the elements and cease to be visible before the order has expired. Under this legislation the notices could stay up for 18 months, but that is ridiculous since they will not remain legible that long. I suggest that the Minister think carefully about whether it is necessary to impose the higher level of penalty on people who take no notice of these orders on footpaths and bridleways. He should also consider the problem of determining when someone is on a footpath or bridleway and when he is not. I am not sure whether the width of a footpath is defined in law, but if someone took no notice of an order and walked a few feet away from the old line of the footpath it would be virtually impossible to bring a criminal prosecution against him.

I am sure that the Minister would agree that it would be silly to include in the legislation fines and penalties that could not be imposed in the courts. If he is keen to get this measure through, he should at least reduce the penalties for offences on footpaths and bridleways—that is only common sense.

The Minister will say that it keeps the Bill simple if the penalties are all the same for all roads, bridleways and footpaths, but I suggest that legislation ought to reflect common sense, not simplicity for the Minister and his officials.

It is perfectly true that the present penalties apply to all traffic regulation order offences, but the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is missing the point, which is that these are maximum penalties. I cannot conceive of a magistrate failing to take account of the gravity of an offence or of whether it was committed on a quiet Sunday morning. It is equally true that temporary restrictions and prohibitions need not apply to all classes of traffic. Exceptions can be made for pedestrians and cyclists whenever appropriate. If only motorised traffic needs to be restricted, the orders can make that clear, so much of the illustration that the hon. Gentleman gave the House does not apply.

I know of no other road traffic laws to which the remarks of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish would apply. These penalties are prescribed maximums. Surely it is the seriousness of the offence that matters, not by whom it was committed. If, in the opinion of a court, a pedestrian or a horse rider has committed a serious offence, the fact that he was walking or riding a horse does not somehow make it less serious; and merely because a person who commits a minor offence is behind the wheel of a car does not make it a major offence. It is the circumstances that count. I do not believe that most of the cases that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish described would ever come to court.

Day after day, perhaps unwittingly, we may all commit criminal offences without realising it, but we do not all go to court and face the maximum penalty. So I ask the hon. Gentleman to live in the real world and to accept that all the Bill does is prescribe the maximum penalties. It is up to the courts to decide what level of penalty to impose, but I cannot believe that magistrates will say that the maximum is the minimum.

10.45 pm

Of course magistrates will use their common sense, but the whole idea of prescribing levels of fine is to give them some guidance on how Parliament thinks of the seriousness of particular offences. I accept that if someone walks along a motorway, there is a strong argument for hinting to the magistrates that he should be given the highest possible fine, but, in the case of footpaths and bridleways, the House should not be hinting that magistrates should consider the maximum. They should consider much lower fines.

I am afraid that I cannot agree. It would be wrong of the House to second-guess the circumstances. In most of our criminal law, this House sets the maximum penalties, not the minimum sentences. The Lord Chancellor's Department sets out certain guidelines for all our courts, but we set maximum penalties and allow the courts to decide the seriousness of an offence, and that is the proper way to conduct these matters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo), in his usual way, has dealt cogently with the argument. There is clear disagreement between my hon. Friend and me and the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), for the reason that my hon. Friend has already enunciated, and I do not have a great deal to add.

It is a central tenet of the criminal law that penalties relate not to the status of the offender but to the nature of the offence. We are talking about maximum penalties. In my view and that of the Government, therefore, it would weaken the deterrent considerably if low penalties were imposed for offences committed by pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders. I hope that, in the circumstances, the hon. Gentleman will agree to disagree and will withdraw his amendment.

I am disappointed with the Minister's reply. To give him the opportunity to sort out what is going on in Downing street, I think that we should divide on this issue.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 7, Noes 27.

Division No. 184]

[10.48 am


Hattersley, Rt Hon RoyWise, Mrs Audrey
Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Randall, StuartTellers for the Ayes:
Rees, Rt Hon MerlynMr. Andrew F. Bennett and
Skinner, DennisMr. Tony Banks.
Spearing, Nigel


Arbuthnot, JamesLeigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Atkins, RobertLightbown, David
Batiste, SpencerLloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Brandon-Bravo, MartinMcCrea, Rev William
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterNicholson, David (Taunton)
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)Norris, Steve
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)Renton, Rt Hon Tim
Carrington, MatthewTaylor, John M (Solihull)
Couchman, JamesThompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Garel-Jones, TristanWaller, Gary
Goodlad, AlastairWheeler, Sir John
Hill, James
Irvine, MichaelTellers for the Noes:
Johnston, Sir RussellMr. Graham Bright and
Kilfedder, JamesMr. James Arbuthnot.
Knapman, Roger

Question accordingly negatived.

It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next Sitting of the House.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would you consider having the Division called again? There has been considerable confusion. It is rare to have Divisions at 10·45 on a Friday morning and there was some confusion among hon. Members about what was going on. I spoke to an hon. Member who clearly had no idea what was taking place. When the Division was called, I was at the other end of the building obeying a call of nature. I managed to get back to the Chamber in time. I had been in my place earlier in the morning and I was aware that something might be happening. If the Division were called again, it is possible that the requisite number of hon. Members would pass through the Lobbies. It would be most unfortunate if the Bill, which has wide support, were to fall because of a confused Division. As there is bound to be some dispute about the Division, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will you call it again?

I cannot help the hon. Gentleman in that way. There was no confusion in the minds of the Tellers and the Division was conducted in a proper manner. As fewer than 40 Members voted, it is inevitable, according to our procedures, that the business on the Bill will have to stand over to another day.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is interesting that 40 Members were not present, bearing in mind that there is a Government majority of about 150 over the official Opposition.

Yes, it is private business, but we expect Members, especially Ministers, to be present. There is an absence of Tory Members and Ministers because the Government are in a shambles over their legislation.

You will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that when the sitting began at 9.30 am I raised a point of order when Mr. Speaker was in the Chair about further poll tax legislation being suggested by no less a person than the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary as a result of the current poll tax legislation being in disarray. Mr. Speaker did not comment on whether there would be a statement at 11 am.

I am sure, Mr.Deputy Speaker, that you expect Ministers to tell the truth at all times. Earlier this week Ministers of the Department of the Environment were asked whether any changes would be made to poll tax legislation and they stated—their answers appear in Hansard, and one of my right hon. Friends may refer to them specifically—that there would be no changes. It appears that when those questions were being answered in the House the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary was running around Tory Members telling them that everything would be all right and that changes would be made. Is it not——

I am just coming to it, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I ask you to be patient for a moment. This is an important issue.

You will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we had, business statement yesterday. You probably heard the Leader of the House announce the business for next week.

Now we are being told that the poll tax legislation is in ruins. It is high time the Government told Mr. Speaker that they intend to make a statement about the poll tax shambles. Let us get rid of it. People outside the House—in your constituency, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and in mine—are demanding that the poll tax be dropped.

Let us have a Minister come to the Dispatch Box to tell us exactly what is happening.

Order. Let me deal with one point of order at a time. There has been no request for a statement. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) must use his ingenuity to raise the matter on another occasion. I hope that he will not do so during private Members' time.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wish that I were able to do something to bring back before the House the Road Traffic (Temporary Restrictions) Bill, which has fallen for a number of weeks. I hope that there is some way in which it can be brought back quickly before the House.

This morning, I have been answering constituents' letters about poll tax. When I asked the Minister earlier in the week whether further changes were proposed to the poll tax system, the answer was no. Those who are writing to me are not those who parade in the streets. They write because they cannot afford to pay. What am Ito tell them? Should I write, "Don't worry—there is going to be a change now because the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary has spoken"? It is a serious matter and we must have a statement as soon as possible.

I am sure that the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) will use his ingenuity and his very long parliamentary experience to find a way of raising the matter.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The item of business that we were considering prior to the Division fell because there was not a quorum. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has said, it appears that Conservative Members are more interested in talking outside this place about poll tax than in coming to the House to tell us what is happening. An item of business having fallen, we now have quite a bit of time. Would it not be possible for a Minister to use that time to tell us what the Government are doing about poll tax? The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) could no doubt negotiate with ramblers' organisations and other bodies outside this place and reach agreement with them. His Bill could then come forward on another Friday and get through on the nod.

It is an insult to the House for Ministers to arrange for information to be given outside before it is provided in the House. Surely we should have a statement now. Will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, through the usual channels available to the Chair, impress upon the Government that the last moment for a clear statement on poll tax is next Monday? There are people outside this place who are involved in the local elections, in which poll tax is a major issue. They want to know what the Government are doing. It is not satisfactory for the people to be going to the polls with the hint that the Government will do something about the ridiculous poll tax but not having the benefit of a clear statement from the Government. There will be people who think that they will be had if there are hints of change rather than a clear statement.

Order. There is nothing that I can add to what has been said already. I remind the House that we are in private Members' time. There are many private Members' Bills, and many private Members waiting to discuss them. It would be unfair on the House to continue with these points of order. I have given a ruling. I have told hon. Members that they must find other ways of raising the matter. We must now get on with the business before the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There was an extensive debate on the community charge legislation on Wednesday, in Opposition time. It was marked by very successful speeches from both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities, and also by the absence of any alternative policy from the Opposition.

On the point about private Members' Bills, will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker think carefully about the precedent set this morning, when an excellent and well-prepared Bill was cut down and thrust back by at least a number of weeks through the calling of a spurious Division?

I can only say that the Division on the amendment to the private Member's Bill was in order. If the hon. Gentleman wants to draw the matter to the attention of the Select Committee on Procedure, he is free to do so.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The circumstances surrounding the shambles that the Government are in on their poll tax legislation are quite exceptional. Ministers have stated that there will be no change, yet there have been clear reports today suggesting that there will be a change. The poll tax is having a dramatic effect on, and causing great despair to, people throughout the country. We are close to local government election day and there are political ramifications. I beg you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to ensure that everything possible is done to get a Minister to the House to tell us and the people outside exactly what is happening with the shambolic poll tax.

Order. I will take the points of order, but they must be brief. I remind the House that this is unfair to hon. Members who have business on the Order Paper for today.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I assure the House that I feel much better than I sound. I have given due notice to a Conservative member that tomorrow I shall be campaigning in his constituency on behalf of my colleagues. I support the view expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) because I, too, have received letters about the poll tax and I know that tomorrow I will be asked about the current position. I therefore give notice that unless the Government make a statement at 2.30 pm, as they can and should do, I shall advise electors in that constituency that the Government have ambiguous policies, that Ministers apparently do not know what the policies are, and that I——

It is that I support the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South that the urgency of the matter is not confined to letters. That is why there should be a statement at 2.30 pm.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Surely hon. Members could go through the usual channels to get a Minister to make a statement, rather than resorting to what has happened this morning—a great deal of caterwauling from Labour Back Benchers who got themselves into a terrible position by calling for a vote which then lost a Bill that they wanted. Those are rather strange circumstances.

Whitehall has already stated that reports in the newspapers are based on pure speculation and I feel that that is true. People throw in red herrings and others are willing carriers of them. In the due process of time there will no doubt be a statement, so it would be wrong today to try to force the Government's hand to make a statement based on pure speculation.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I sympathise with the position that you are in this morning. You are trying to protect private Members' interests as the house is due to debate a number of private Members' Bills. I have a particular interest in the Sunday Trading Bill and I hope that the House will find time to discuss it today. I declare an interest as a Member sponsored by the Union of Shop Distributive and Allied Workers.

The general rumours and the statements in the media this morning make us suspect that there will be a change in the Government's poll tax legislation. Some of my hon. Friends have, therefore, drawn your attention to very necessary points, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you are occupying the Chair this morning, I hope that you will consider taking the information already given to you by hon. Members to Mr. Speaker and to the Government and suggesting to them that even if the statement requested at 9.30 am could not be prepared for 11 am—the usual time to interrupt business—it should at least be ready by 2.30 pm so that the whole country can be told of the proposed changes.

I have made this plea to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because Labour Members who have advised their constituents not to pay the poll tax, and who have been criticised for that from all quarters, may now find that they gave the right advice. If the poll tax is changed during the current period, how will councils refund the poll tax already paid? Is it a guideline——

It is not really a point of order for you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have a very high regard for you and I say publicly that when you are in the Chair hon. Members have more liberty to make important points, especially those who rarely rise on points of order. You believe that we have the right to raise these points. My plea to you is to exercise your authority by asking Mr. Speaker and the Government to come to the House before the end of business today and to make a statement on this crucial issue.

Order. I have allowed hon. Members on both sides of the House a good run. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) has answered the point for me by making it clear that it is a matter for the Government and not for the Chair. The points raised have been heard by Government Front-Bench Members. We must now continue with private Members' business.