Skip to main content

Motor Car Legislation

Volume 178: debated on Tuesday 16 July 1907

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

rose to ask His Majesty's Government what consideration had been given to the Report of the Royal Commission on Motor Cars, and when it was their intention to introduce fresh motor legislation. The noble Earl said: My Lords, in 1905, a very important and influential Royal Commission was appointed to consider the subject of motor cars, and what legislation was desirable when the Act at that time existing, and which was limited to three years, expired. That Commission held a great many sittings and examined a great many witnesses; it was extremely painstaking in its work, and presented a very carefully considered and somewhat voluminous Report. Their Report was, I think, presented almost exactly twelve months ago, and the object of the Commission was stated at the time of its appointment to be to advise His Majesty's Government for the time being as to what fresh legislation was necessary when the existing Act expired. The Motor Car Act of 1903 was limited to a term of three years from 1st January, 1904, and would, therefore, in the ordinary course, have expired on 1st January, this year. It is at present continued by having been inserted in the Expiring Laws Continuance Act. Questions were asked during the last session as to what legislation, if any, was proposed, and His Majesty's Government said, very reasonably, that as the Report was presented in August, it was obvious that there was no time to consider the Report or to do anything in that session. I notice that there have been several Questions in another place addressed to the President of the Local Government Board as to whether legislation would take place this year, and for some time the reply was to the effect that he had not decided and could not make any announcement; but it has now been definitely stated that there will be no legislation this year. I think I may say that motorists as a whole would feel that it is more desirable that legislation should be postponed for another year than that it should be introduced at the fag end of the session. The present Act suffers from having been passed in the month of August and in a great deal of haste. Amendments were made in another place of a substantial character, which could not receive any discussion at all in your Lordships' House owing to want of time. Whenever legislation is introduced I hope it will be introduced quite early in the session, so that the proposals may be examined and considered at leisure. I should be glad to extract from His Majesty's Government some intimation as to what consideration has been given to the Report of the Royal Commission. I assume, of course, that it has been carefully considered by the Department concerned, and I should be glad to know whether it is proposed to found fresh legislation upon it, and whether it is proposed to introduce it at some time during next session. There is always the danger when an Act is passed temporarily that it may be continued, by inclusion in the Expired Laws Continuance Act, until it becomes permanent. Against that I think we should be entitled to protest. It is obviously convenient for the Department and the officials concerned, but I hope that policy will not be adopted in this case, and that at some time or another fresh legislation will be introduced. I have been impelled to put this Question on the Paper on account of a statement which was made in the other House. There is a maxim that it is well to let sleeping dogs lie, and it may be thought that, unfair to motorists as the existing legislation is, and inequitably as it is enforced in many cases, it is better to let things remain as they are. But I was very much startled by a statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the effect that he had decided, at some future date, to impose an additional tax on motor-cars. It is true that one of the recommendations of the Royal Commission was that such additional tax should be imposed, but this was only a portion of the scheme of other recommendations, one of which is that the artificial speed limit should be abolished. I hope it is not the intention of His Majesty's Government to legislate piecemeal on this subject, and gradually to impose upon motorists any additional disabilities which may be suggested in the Report of the Royal Commission and leave untouched the other important matters dealt with. It appears to be a tempting thing sometimes to tax motor-cars, but I have not been able to understand why that particular vehicle should be more subject to taxation than other vehicles. Mr. Asquith, in his Budget speech, said he thought it was a tax which was in every way desirable, because it was a tax on a luxury which was apt to degenerate into a nuisance. There may be different opinions as to its being a nuisance, but it is not the case that a large proportion of motor-cars in use are of the nature of a luxury. That is not the purposes for which motor-cars are used nowadays. Motor-cars have emerged from the stage of being the playthings of the rich and have become the ordinary means by which ordinary people go from place to place about their business. I do not, however, deny that they are also used for purposes of pleasure. When the system of toll gates was abolished in this country I understood that the principle was then enunciated that it was to the advantage of the community that the roads should be supported by the community as a whole and their maintenance should become a charge on the rates. I do not know whether that principle is to be departed from by taxing one vehicle in preference to another. I regard the abolition of the speed limit as the most important recommendation of the Royal Commission. The Motor-car Act of 1903, as introduced into this House and assented to by your Lordships, contained no provision for an artificial speed limit, but that provision was inserted in another place. There are many objections of the most serious character to an artificial speed limit quite apart from the objection of the motorist himself. One objection is that it makes into a crime an act which may not be criminal or anti-social in its character. It is impossible for anyone to say that it is always and in all places an anti-social act to go over twenty miles an hour. What it is possible to say and what ought to be emphasised, though it is not emphasised now, is that it is an anti-social act, and should be a criminal act, to drive in such a way as to endanger any other human being. The way in which the artificial speed limit is enforced now tends to obscure that. The home counties have been specially disgraced by the manner in which the Motor-car Act has been administered. Attention is not directed to that which I think your Lordships all agree is of importance—the safety of the public. Policemen are not stationed in the villages where there are people about who might be in danger, but are hidden in hedges or ditches by the side of the most open roads in the country. Motorists may drive through villages in any way they like. In other counties the road is left alone in the matter of the police traps, but the villages are guarded. This state of things is not confined so much as it used to be to the home counties. It has been found that motor trapping is a very profitable employment. East Sussex has gone in for an elaborate electric timing apparatus, which has earned its original cost many times over; and this system of trapping is now being extended all over the country. The result is that careful and considerate motorists are constantly being trapped, and become indistinguishable from the reckless and careless motorists whose licences ought to be taken away. It is a very regrettable thing that this enactment, which has been condemned by a Royal Commission who went very carefully into the matter, should be utilised by the police authorities throughout the country for the creation of an enormous number of these artificial crimes, and I hope His Majesty's Government will recognise that they cannot hold their hand indefinitely, and will at some Lime or another amend the existing law and place it on a rational footing.

My Lords, I rise to support the appeal which the noble Earl opposite has made that the Government should not altogether overlook the terms of the Report of the Royal Commission. At the same time I think there is a very large body of opinion in favour of letting sleeping dogs lie, as the noble Earl expressed it, rather than endeavouring to secure fresh legislation on the subject at present. I am aware that the Royal Commission reported in favour of the abolition of the artificial speed limit, but we have to consider, not the abstract right and wrong of the recommendations of the Royal Commission, but whether the House of Commons as at present constituted would pass any new legislation in which a speed limit was absent. I am inclined to think that new legislation might be in the direction of making the speed limit twenty-five or thirty miles an hour instead of twenty, but, on the other hand, the penalties for all kinds of offences would be very largely increased, and there might be other points in the new legislation which would operate adversely to motorists. I venture to think that motoring is becoming less unpopular every day, and if we could only get rid of the dust nuisance a great deal of the unpopularity still remaining would be removed. I am entirely in sympathy with what the noble Earl said with regard to police traps. In my opinion they are manifestly absurd as a protection to the public, and they are used in many counties merely as a means of extracting money from the passing traveller in a way which reminds one of the highwaymen of the Middle Ages. As to the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to which the noble Earl referred, I do think it would be grossly unjust that fresh taxation should be put on motor-cars, and that that should be done before many other important questions, such as, for instance, the constitution of a central authority for roads, are dealt with. I hope the Government will be able between now and next session to think out a measure which, without imposing further taxation on motor-cars, will deal with the other portions of the Commission's Report. So far as motorists generally are concerned I am confident that they will view this matter entirely free from party bias, and would willingly accept even more onerous conditions so long as there was fairness and justice in new legislation, and they were dealt with in a statesmanlike manner. I should also like to join in the appeal of the noble Earl that when legislation is introduced it should not be brought in in the dog days. Not only is that a bad time for the introduction of any legislation, but it is more so in the case of motor-cars, as it is just at that season that the dust nuisance is at its greatest. I hope His Majesty's Government will be able to give us some information in reply to the question of the noble Earl

My Lords, my noble friend who raised this question, and the noble Lord who has just sat down, have to some extent, I venture to think, answered their own inquiries. His Majesty's Government fully recognise the importance of this matter, and have not lost sight of it. As your Lordships have been reminded by Lord Russell, the Report of the Royal Commission was issued at the end of last session, just twelve months ago, and it was obviously impossible at that period to introduce legislation on the subject. The Motorcar Act of 1903 was therefore included in the Expiring Laws Continuance Act and remains in force until December next. I can assure the noble Earl who raised this question that it is not the intention of His Majesty's Government to continue this course indefinitely, although they will have to include the Act in the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill again this session. Your Lordships will probably agree with me that the most important points in connection with motor-cars dealt with by the Royal Commission were (1) the codification of the law with regard to all mechanically-propelled vehicles on highways; (2) the allocation of the proceeds of taxation for the purposes of improving highways; (3) the question of speed-limit, which some people may consider the most important of all. As to what the Chancellor of the Exchequer may have in view I have no notion, and we shall have to wait another year before we know what his proposals are. The question of the speed limit is no doubt the crux on which legislation will turn, and, although I do not propose to follow the noble Lords into that, I agree with a great deal of what they have said with regard to it. But there is considerable divergence of opinion in the country, and it should not be forgotten that the Commissioners were not entirely unanimous on this question. It therefore behoves His Majesty's Government to walk warily. If legislation were attempted on the lines suggested in the Report, it would embrace, not only the speed limit, but a variety of other points which would involve a considerable amount of discussion; and having regard to the state of public business, the Government are unable to introduce a Bill dealing with the question this year. But His Majesty's Government feel that the delay in legislation is not altogether to be regretted. The use of motor-cars is increasing, and it would be rash and unwise to assume that it has yet reached its full development. The postponement of legislation, therefore, gives a great chance of a lasting and satisfactory settlement in the light of further experience.

My Lords, speaking as one having practical experience of motor-cars, I have no fault to find with the Answer which has just been given on behalf of His Majesty's Government. Undoubtedly the question of a speed limit is one on which it is extremely difficult to legislate. The question of confining motorists to twenty miles an hour is, to my mind, equally dangerous to the public, for a low speed is far more dangerous in a crowded town than a speed of fifty or sixty miles an hour is in open country, and in those places where these useless police traps are mostly located. Again, it should be remembered that motor-cars are not now as unpopular as they once were. When they were first introduced into this country they were generally detested by the agricultural classes, and this was due to the fact that a great number of the chauffeurs came from abroad, where there was no speed limit; and they drove their cars regardless of the discomfort which they caused to other people who used the roads. That has now been very much altered. We now have a different class of drivers, and they do consider the comfort and welfare of others. Motor-cars have come to stay, and they are owned by a very large number of people. Moreover, the working and construction of motor-cars gives a large amount of employment. Therefore, to my mind nothing should be done that would be detrimental to the motor-car industry. With regard to the use of the roads by motorcars, I should like to see adopted the suggestion which was made by a friend of mine in the other House, who advocated a tariff on motor-cars of £1 or 10s. per horse-power. The owners would not feel the extra expense; and the very large sum which would be derived from the tariff should be placed at the disposal of some Government Department to be distributed for the maintenance of roads, so that dust would not accumulate, or for the compensation of those who suffered inconvenience from motor-cars.