Clause 13 - Period of endorsement for failure to allow specimen to be tested

Road Safety Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 1:30 pm ar 23 Mawrth 2006.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Janet Anderson Janet Anderson Llafur, Rossendale and Darwen

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 1—Alcohol—prescribed limits—

‘(1)The Road Traffic Act 1988 (c. 52) is amended as follows—

(2)In section 11(2) the meaning of “the prescribed limit” is amended as follows—

(a)in (a) leave out “35” and insert “22”;

(b)in (b) leave out “80” and insert “50”; and

(c)in (c) leave out “107” and insert “67”.

(3)In section 8(2) leave out “50” and insert “35”.’.

New clause 2—Breath testing—

‘(1)Where a police officer of or above the rank of inspector reasonably believes that incidents involving persons driving on a road or other public place while unfit to drive through drink or drugs may take place, he may give an authorisation that the powers to administer preliminary tests conferred by this section shall be exercisable on that road or place for a period not exceeding 24 hours.

(2)If it appears to an officer of or above the rank of superintendent that it is expedient to do so, having regard to offences which have, or are reasonably suspected to have, been committed in connection with any activity falling within the authorisation, he may direct that the authorisation shall continue in being for a further 24 hours.

(3)If an inspector gives an authorisation under subsection (1) he must, as soon as it is practicable to do so, cause an officer of or above the rank of superintendent to be informed.

(4)This section confers on any constable in uniform power to administer—

(a)a preliminary breath test,

(b)a preliminary impairment test, or

(c)a preliminary drugs testpursuant to the provisions of sections 6A to 6D of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (c. 52).

(5)A constable may, in the exercise of those powers, administer any preliminary tests he thinks fit whether or not he has any grounds for suspecting that alcohol or drugs have been consumed.

(6)A person who without reasonable excuse fails to co-operate with a preliminary test in pursuance of a requirement imposed under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale and four penalty points or discretionary disqualification or both.

(7)Any authorisation under this section shall be in writing signed by the officer giving it and shall specify the grounds on which it is given and the locality in which and the period during which the powers conferred by this section are exercisable and a direction under subsection (2) above shall also be given in writing or, where that is not practicable, recorded in writing as soon as it is practicable to do so.

(8)Where a preliminary test is administered by a constable under this section, the driver shall be entitled to obtain a written statement that the test was administered under the powers conferred by this section if he applies for such a statement not later than the end of the period of twelve months from the day on which the test was administered.

(9)In this section—

“vehicle” includes a caravan as defined in section 29(1) of the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 (c. 62)

“preliminary breath test” means a test as specified in section 6A of the Road Traffic Act 1988

“preliminary impairment test” means a test as specified in section 6B of the Road Traffic Act 1988

“preliminary drugs test” means a test as specified in section 6C of the Road Traffic Act 1988.

(10)The powers conferred by this section are not in derogation of any other powers conferred.’.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Thank you, Mrs. Anderson. It is a pleasure to be serving on a Committee so ably chaired by yourself and Sir Nicholas. I thank you both for selecting new clauses 1 and 2 with this stand part debate in order for such an important subject to be properly and fully debated in Committee.

On drink-driving, it is worth pointing out that other measures in the Bill are welcome: increased use of retraining courses; mandatory retesting of drivers disqualified for 24 months or more; and, as we have just heard, the closure of the loophole regarding high-risk offenders driving again before they have been medically assessed as safe to do so.

It is also worth remembering that in the Road Safety Bill that did not make it on to the statute book last year was a measure that subsequently found a home in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005: the ability for the police to carry out evidential road-side breath testing so that they need not take people back to police stations to ascertain that they are definitely over the limit and committing an offence.

All those things are welcome, but new clauses 1 and 2 suggest that the Bill does not go far enough in tackling drink-driving. It is worth at the outset assessing the scale of the problem. Is there a problem that we, as politicians, should be tackling? I suggest that there is. In 2004, 590 people were killed on our roads because of someone drinking and driving. That figure is almost 20 per cent.—it is exactly 18 per cent.—of all that year’s road fatalities. Some of those people were drink-driving, and they crashed and killed themselves. In that sense, they brought it on themselves, but some took with them their passengers or completely innocent people in other vehicles who did not know that a drink-driver was approaching. Some of the drink-drivers survived their crash and just left other families to pick up the consequences of family bereavements. Any of us who have met the relatives of someone who has been killed on the road knows how deeply distressing it is for grieving families.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify that he is talking about drivers who are already in breach of our law and are therefore committing an existing offence and will lose their licence for at least 12 months?

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Yes, these are people who are over the present limit. I am happy to make that clarification for the right hon. Gentleman.

As I said, in 2004, 590 people were killed on our roads. If that figure is multiplied by 20, it still does not come to the total who were injured due to people driving while over the legal drink-drive limit: in 2003, 15,000 people were injured; in 2004, 17,000 people were injured. Therefore, although the Government are making good progress to meet the targets in the 2000 road safety strategy, “Tomorrow’s Roads—Safer for Everyone”, which by 2010 are to

“reduce the number of road deaths and serious injuries by 40 per cent.”,

drink-driving fatalities are a stubborn exception to the overall downward trend.

Since 1998, the number of deaths caused by drink-driving has stopped falling. In fact, it is going in the opposite direction. The figure of 590 is a rise from the year before, which was a rise from the year before that. There is evidence, therefore, that the situation is getting worse instead of better, and that is why there is a need for action. What can be done, and what does new clause 1 seek to do?

The present drink-driving limit was set in section 5 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, and the following information can be found on page 19 of House of Commons research paper—

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

Before the hon. Gentleman goes into technical detail and talks about millilitres per whatever, will he consider this more general point? About 20 years ago, many people exerted a great deal of pressure to make it clear to young drivers that drinking and driving is extremely serious and antisocial. In recent years, that peer pressure seems to have become less intense. Do a small minority of drivers believe that they can get away with drinking and driving? Can the hon. Gentleman explain that worrying trend?

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I agree that over the past couple of decades, this country has achieved dramatic success in making it socially unacceptable to drink and drive. In fact, on any normal day, if we were to test everyone on the roads, we would find that 97 per cent. of drivers would have a blood-alcohol level of either zero or fewer than 50 mg per 100 ml of blood. Our campaigns have been successful, but the hon. Gentleman is right, a worrying trend has developed recently, and some people—often younger people—are driving with more alcohol in their blood. The trend among younger people is perhaps because the pressure to make drink-driving socially unacceptable was not sustained and younger drivers do not understand how unacceptable it is.

There are, however, other pressures. The hon. Member for North Shropshire referred to the Licensing Act 2003, and we must consider also trends in the licensing trade, such as the strength of drinks and the size of glasses.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

The hon. Gentleman has just said that 97 per cent. of people on the roads are found to be driving with no alcohol in their blood—

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

That probably exemplifies the problem. The police superintendent with whom I did a tour of duty for one afternoon last year told me that the problem with drink-driving is not the people just under the limit, or even the need to lower the limits. The problem—and the reason why deaths are increasing—is the number of people who are continually, persistently a long way over the limit. I am interested to hear where the hon. Gentleman is going to lead us, but I am not sure that his proposal will attack that problem.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I will happily deal with that in a moment, because I want to persuade the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench team and my own Front Benchers that, although it is important to tackle the 1 per cent. of drivers who are always massively over the limit—the answer to that is of course increased detection and punishment and taking them off the roads, with which new clause 2 would help—I am at the moment concerned with the other 2 per cent. who, as the hon. Gentleman said, are somewhere near the legal limit. Those are the people who are causing some of the 590 deaths a year and whom new clause 1 would tackle.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman’s first point. My party wants to be much tougher on serial drink-driving offenders, and I hope that he will support our later amendments to that effect.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We will look at that when we get to it.

I was just setting out the present legal limit: 35 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of breath; 80 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of blood; or 107 mg in 100 ml of urine. Obviously, they are all intended to be roughly the same limit, but the one on which I shall concentrate, so that I can consistently refer to the same thing, is the limit of 80 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of blood. The new clause would reduce those limits. For our roads, I say that the limit should be 50 mg instead of 80 mg.

What does that mean to motorists? Some bodies—I may pick out the British Medical Association, alcohol awareness charities such as Alcohol Concern, and the industry-funded Portman Group—point out that modern developments in the licensing trade have undermined some comfortable assumptions that were often made in the past. They were assumptions, of which we were all guilty, about how much it is safe to drink while still being able to get into a car and drive without breaking the law.

I remember that in my youth we all used to think that we were safely under the limit after two pints of bitter. However, stronger alcohol concentrations have developed, not just in beers and wines but in the whole range of drinks. People’s assumptions about how much they have consumed, and how safe it is to drive, have been undermined by larger measures, such as the larger wine glasses in some pubs and wine bars these days, and by subtle developments such as alcopops, which people thought were non-alcoholic, but which in fact contain some alcohol.

Those considerations are important in assessing a safe level of drinking for people getting behind a driving wheel today. I think that I am right in saying that it is still the Minister’s official position that it is best for a vehicle driver not to drink at all. The law says something different in its tolerance of what we can consume. The practical situation in the bar room has changed, however, and drivers ought to be more cautious about how much they drink.

I want to address the safety issue in a different way and consider the effect of alcohol on competence to drive a vehicle. Between 50 mg and 80 mg, the average driver is about two to two and a half times more likely to be involved in a road crash. That is because of the effect of alcohol on their judgment and reactions, and their ability to react to situations in front of them. For young and inexperienced drivers the risk is as much as five times greater. That is why in 1998 the Government said in a consultation paper called “Combating Drink Driving: the Next Steps” that they were minded to lower the alcohol limits for drinking and driving.

In the White Paper on transport in 2000, the Government said that the reduction would be made in the European context, and everybody awaited the pronouncement of the European Union Commission with baited breath. In fact, the Commission’s pronouncement in 2001 was slightly disappointing. It   recommended a drink-driving limit across Europe of about 50 mg, but that it would be left to member states to decide their own limit, to which I am sure some Opposition Members would say, “Hurrah—our sovereignty preserved.”

As a result, most states followed the recommendation and adopted a lower limit of 50 mg. Not all of them did. One country among the present 25 EU member states has a higher level than Britain—Cyprus, which has a limit of 90 mg. Two others have stuck with us at 80 mg—Luxembourg and Ireland. A few went past the 50 mg. Sweden, Poland and Estonia have limits of 20 mg. Some have gone the whole hog and have said that the limit should be zero. They include the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Members may be relieved to hear that I do not think that we should set the limit at zero. There are situations in which we naturally produce some alcohol in our blood, perhaps as a result of a medical condition or a treatment that we are undergoing.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport 1:45, 23 Mawrth 2006

I think that it is appropriate to point out that when the Commission reviewed the levels across Europe, it also pointed out that the UK was one of the two best performing countries on blood alcohol and driving, alongside Sweden. Our higher limit is not preventing us from having good performance.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I think that the number of deaths when the Commission expressed those views, using the figure for 1999, was about 520 a year. I am reminding the Minister and the Committee that in 2004, there were 590 deaths. If we were to go back to the Commission and ask it how it thinks we are performing today, it might gently suggest that we should look again at its recommendation of a lower limit.

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

What my hon. Friend says is true, but the number of serious injuries related to drink has gone down in the same period.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I do not deny that, but the statistics that I gave include serious injuries caused by drinking and driving on British roads. In 2003, there were 17,000 serious injuries, and in 2004 there were 19,000. I do not know whether the Minister is disagreeing with me, but I am saying that an alarm bell is ringing. If we ignore the issue, it will be very sad both for us and for the people who will die on the roads in accidents that, if we had acted, we could have averted.

After having said that they were minded to lower the limit and that they would do so in the European context, the Government walked away from that decision in 2002. They announced that the limit would stay as it was and that they would rely on existing enforcement and penalties to crack down on drink-driving. I hesitate to say that, as the hon. Member for North Shropshire reminded us in our last sitting, since 2002 the number of road traffic police to enforce the drink-driving laws has fallen. I question whether the Government have done the things that they said they would do instead of reducing the limit, which is one   good thing that could have been done. To answer the hon. Member for Wimbledon, I am not suggesting that that is the only thing that we should do. I shall come to that in a moment.

In terms of public confidence, now is a good time to make the proposed change because of people’s concern, driven by the introduction of the Licensing Act 2003, about binge drinking and its consequences. The Minister referred to people who drink later at night, wake up the next morning and get in the car when they are still above the legal limit. People are concerned about such issues. Lowering the limit now would be a good antidote to people’s concerns about the 2003 Act.

I know that people will be worried that fewer customers would drive to rural pubs if the limit were lowered. I think that that is wrong. Pubs are widening the range of services that they offer to attract a wider clientele. There are meals, coffees and non-alcoholic drinks instead of alcohol, and there are some very good schemes about nominated drivers that we should all do our utmost to support. We can make a success of lowering the legal limit without harming people’s businesses.

I shall move on to some arguments that the Minister might rehearse when he responds to the debate. If lowering the alcohol limit is not the best way to lower the death toll from drinking and driving, what is? That has not been done through more road policing, because the number of traffic police has fallen. I welcome, as I did on Second Reading, the road policing commitment that the Department for Transport, the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers signed in January 2005. It would be nice to see that commitment backed more firmly across government and by police forces. The problem has certainly not been addressed with more roadside breath tests. I shall come to that point in more detail when we discuss new clause 2, which I think the Government also oppose. We carry out fewer breath tests than most European police services.

We require a balanced package of additional measures, because the number of deaths is going in the wrong direction. Lowering the limit is just one among the package of measures needed. How many lives would that measure alone save? There is regular research that is constantly updated, and in the House of Commons research paper, the most common quoted figures suggest that 50 fatalities, 250 serious injuries and 1,200 slight injuries per year would be avoided.

I want to mention the work of Professor Richard Allsop of University college London, who updated his own calculation last year and came to a slightly higher figure, saying that 65 lives a year could be saved if we lowered the limit. Again, we are talking about people who drive somewhere near—just below or above—the current legal limit of 80 mg. Professor Allsop makes an assumption about how many of those people would adjust their behaviour because the law had changed and obey the new rule. That is how he came to the figure of 65 lives a year saved as a result of this one measure.

The supporters of the proposal are many and wide ranging. I should like to mention PACTS—the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety—and, in doing so, declare an interest. I chaired PACTS for six years, until last year, and this year I remain a member, although I am no longer an officer. PACTS strongly supports this measure, as does the BMA, for an obvious reason. Doctors see the results of drink-driving in their surgeries and accident and emergency departments; they provide the treatment to try to save lives, and they strongly support lowering the limit.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents also supports this measure. In a press release on 11 January, it urged the Government to ditch the current drink-drive limit in favour of a lower one, because too many motorists think that it is safe to try to drink up to what is clearly not a safe limit. That document contains a quote from Kevin Clinton, ROSPA’s head of road safety, in the context of releasing figures for Christmas and new year breath tests by police forces:

“Three hundred people caught drinking and driving each day in December shows far too many think they can get away with drinking and driving. They believe the current legal limit of 80 mg is a safe one and it is not. We want to see the limit reduced to 50 mg, because between 50 mg and 80 mg you are two to two-and-a-half times more likely to be involved in an accident and six times more likely to be in a fatal crash than with no alcohol in your system.”

ROSPA is a strong supporter.

I contacted the Association of Chief Police Officers about today’s debate and asked for its view. Hugh Alford e-mailed me:

ACPO has long supported the call for a lower drink-drive limit (to bring it in line with other European nations and rationalise enforcement) and this was reiterated again by Mr. Meredydd Hughes, chief constable of south Yorkshire and head of ACPO road policing, in ... evidence he gave the other day at the Transport Select Committee.”

Other supporters include the charity and pressure group, Brake—although it wants a lower limit of 20 mg, so I disappoint it by arguing for 50 mg—the Safer Streets Coalition, a coalition of many organisations with a keen interest in road safety, and AA members.

Having put my arguments why we ought to consider making that reduction, I want to deal new clause 2 and with a question about increasing the ability of the police to test people who are driving for the level of alcohol in their blood. The current law is that a police constable can stop any vehicle at any time for any reason, but not specifically for the purpose of administering a breath test. A landmark case said that if the police officer stopped a vehicle for one reason and, in conversation with the driver, smelled alcohol and suspected that they were breaking the law, that was a good enough reason to administer the test. The usual three grounds on which a police officer can ask for a test are as follows: first, reasonable cause to suspect alcohol in a driver’s body; secondly, the commission of a moving traffic offence; and thirdly, the driver having been involved in a crash.

The current testing levels in the UK are among the lowest in the European Union. Again, the House of Commons research paper sets out the statistics.   Apparently, we stop and breath test one in 67 head of population on our roads, compared with one in 30 in Spain, one in 16 in the Netherlands and a curious one in four in Finland, which seems to be extensive testing. A study done in 1998 in Switzerland, which I know is not a member of the EU, found that random breath testing was one of the most cost-effective safety measures that could be introduced to reduce drink-driving fatalities and serious injuries. This new clause does not suggest that there should be random testing, and I do not argue for it. It would be too intrusive and would concentrate too much power in the hands of the police, and there would be too much public opposition.

I suggest an intermediate position between the existing law, which is very restrictive, as I have explained, and random testing, which is too broad. That intermediate position is called targeted testing. The police would be able to test in an area or on a particular road if they had reasonable cause to suspect that it was a place where a lot of drink-driving was going on. I suggest that such reasonable cause would usually arise from intelligence received by the police; for example, it might be known that a local pub was staying open late into the night and that the same people seemed to be there for long periods. That would allow the police to set up a testing place on the road and to test lots of people.

New clause 2 also proposes safeguards. The police would be able to exercise that right only if they had information that proved that they had reasonable cause, and it would last only for a short period. This measure, which could be used to address the rising tide of fatalities from drink-driving, also appeared in a Government document of 1998, “Combating drink-driving—next steps”, and it has been drafted similarly to the police stop-and-search power in the Knives Act 1997.

There are some welcome measures in the Bill, and I wish to add two more to make a balanced approach to tackling what is a serious problem. Some of the measures I propose will hit more on one group than another, but taken as a whole, we should be able to hit on all the groups in this country that are likely to drink and drive. To those who say that some people completely ignore the limit and drink miles more alcohol than is safe and legal and that they are the ones on whom we should concentrate, I say that I listen to Professor Allsop. In a news release last year, he brought his evidence up to date in respect of the 65 lives a year that we could save. In response to a similar point, he said that when he received advice on making his home safe against crime, he was told that he should put window locks on the windows and extra locks on the door, and that he did not ignore the advice about window locks because fewer people could get through the window than through the door. Instead, he thought it was sensible to put both sets of locks on so that nobody got into his house by either means. The situation is the same in respect of new clause 1 and new clause 2. They are both necessary—not just one or the other. That is why I wanted to have this debate.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I have listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman’s comments. All Committee members want a reduction in the number of people killed on our roads through drink-driving, including both those who bring that upon themselves and, perhaps more importantly, those who take others with them. However, I am not sure that the evidence that he has given us will convince us that that will happen if we enact the proposed measures.

The hon. Gentleman gave us a quantification of limit and risk—two times and five times—and I would be interested to know where that came from and how it was calculated. I am sure he can elucidate that point. I would also like to know whether he has done any work on the evidence from overseas. He spoke about a number of countries that have reduced their limits to 50 mg. Portugal is a country that I know particularly well. It had a history of having almost no drink-driving limit at all, but it has now adopted the 50 mg limit. I am unsure whether there has been any decrease in drink-related deaths on Portuguese roads—and, indeed, whether there has been an improvement in the culture of Portuguese driving—as result. However, the situation might be different in other countries. The Committee would be interested to learn whether there was clear evidence from overseas that the reduction in the limit had had some effect.

I am also concerned about new clause 2. The hon. Gentleman says that the powers of the police are restricted, but I disagree. I was stopped for drink-driving two years ago. The police had set themselves up very effectively in a village in Hertfordshire; they took up positions on three roads so that, whichever way drivers left that village, they would meet one of the police cars. The police officers asked drivers whether they had been out for dinner or to a pub that night. If the answer was yes, they were asked whether they had had an alcoholic drink of any nature. If the answer to that question was also yes, the police officer said that he might have reasonable grounds to believe that they were over the limit. Whether random or targeted, that procedure is clearly available at present. I had had a drink that night and I was pretty certain that I had kept to the limit. Even so, it was the most nervous 30 seconds of my life at that stage.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:00, 23 Mawrth 2006

In another Committee in another context, I was described last week as a jobbing lawyer, because I was a solicitor before I was elected to Parliament. I hesitate to give a legal opinion without the full facts, as any lawyer would say, but I suggest that if the police set up a roadside test knowing that they would ask everyone about alcohol so that they could carry out a breath test it would be illegal. As I said, however, the police can stop people for other reasons and can then form a reasonable suspicion and conduct a breath test.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am happy to take the advice of a lawyer, jobbing or otherwise. All I can say is that that is how the police operated the system in the instance that I mentioned. We were asked no other questions. There was no other inspection of my vehicle. The   police clearly have found a way of targeting drink-driving, and they particularly wanted to target one village. I guess they thought that as there were three or four pubs, there were many potential drink-drivers.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris PPS (Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State), Department of Health

I am reluctant to muddy the waters even further by bringing in Scottish law and practice, but I point out that every Christmas and new year, Strathclyde police set up exactly the kind of roadside inspection area that the hon. Gentleman described and randomly test drivers for alcohol intake. That is accepted without objection every year because it is seen as an effective way of clamping down on drink-driving and the resulting deaths and injuries.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

Scottish law is even further outside my legal competence, so I shall not pursue the point, but I am grateful for that intervention and the point that the hon. Gentleman makes.

We are concerned about the unintended consequence of new clause 2, which I am sure the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) did not intend. Under proposed subsection (1), I could have two or three drinks in a House of Commons Bar tonight, walk out of the building to my vehicle and be stopped by a police inspector who may take the view that I might be involved in a drink-driving incident. As the new clause is phrased, people can be stopped before they go anyway near a car and breath tested. On that basis alone, we think that the new clause would not work and is not fit for purpose.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford on his well-argued case both for a revision in blood alcohol limits and for introducing some means of codifying when police inspections should take place. Regardless of what other hon. Members have said, he rightly pointed out that the police should reasonably stop someone only when another offence has taken place. At Christmas or where places may be open late under the new licensing laws and there is a suspicion that large numbers of people are drinking and may be over the limit, the new clause would give the police powers to act. In those cases, the issue is very much about sending messages out to people about what is and what is not acceptable.

As the hon. Gentleman said, while we may have led the way in terms of the introduction of drink-drive laws, other countries have adopted more stringent laws and implement them more effectively. He has quoted figures showing a rise in the number of deaths. The Minister may say that some continental countries have a worse problem than we do; perhaps that is why they have tightened the law more than we have.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport

That may be the case. Nevertheless, when it can be shown that by lowering the limit, 65 lives and a couple of thousand injuries a year can be saved, that is not to be sniffed at. We are discussing the Road Safety Bill, and I believe that such a measure is   a sensible and effective means of improving road safety. I commend the hon. Member for Stafford for tabling the new clauses.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I read recently of the case of an Estonian priest who was charged with driving while under the influence of drink. When he got to court he claimed that it was an act of God. He said that he had been obliged that day to take communion and, because it was a rule of the Church that wine had to be taken, wine was in his system. The report that I read did not reveal what the judgment of God was, but the court would have none of it, and he was convicted, in my view rightly.

The area is a difficult one, in which what is correct is not necessarily absolute. We must make a judgment as to where we should draw the line in framing a law that the majority of law-abiding people deem to be fair and therefore respect and obey it. On balance, I think that our present law is about right. The police have very wide powers. We have heard from the hon. Member for Stafford the grounds on which the police can stop a vehicle, but in reality that means that they can stop a vehicle for any reason, as is evidenced by the many breath tests that take place at Christmas time, which by all accounts are within the law. I am not convinced, therefore, that we need to take the step urged on us today, and my instinct is to vote to retain the status quo.

If I may, I should like to refer en passant back to clause 11, and say to the Minister that I gladly accept his offer to go out with a vehicle examiner.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I want briefly to pick up on one of the important points raised by the hon. Member for Stafford. I congratulate him on his speech, which I listened to carefully.

We have to live with the world as it is, and that world is one where we have fewer police. I am not making a tiresome political point, but the number has gone down from 9,201 in 1996–97 to 7,103 in 2005. We have a limited number of traffic police. Much as one understands the hon. Gentleman’s argument, surely it is better to get everyone below 80 mg first and to allow the limited number of police to concentrate their efforts on those drinkers before going further. As the figures that he read out show, despite the enormous improvement over the past 20 years, drink-driving is still a problem.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris PPS (Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State), Department of Health

Surely the number of available traffic officers is irrelevant to the argument, because the existing drink-drive limit is self-enforceable. A lower limit would be similarly self-enforceable, because it is not for the police to enforce the vast majority of judgments where drivers decide to take their car out. We do not obey the law because we will get caught otherwise; we obey it because it is the law. I am perhaps not making myself entirely clear. If the Committee and the Government decide to reduce the level to 50 mg, surely that would be a self-enforceable law that would not depend on the number of police officers on our roads.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

That was a helpful intervention. To some extent I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the problem is with those on over 80 mg. More accidents, misjudgments and mistakes will occur among those over 80 mg than among those between 50 mg and 80 mg.

My contention is that we have come a long way. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire made an important point: we must do this by consent. That goes back to the point that I made several times on Tuesday: we cannot coerce 34 million drivers. There has been a major change during the past 20 years in public perception. The vast majority of drivers recognise the 80 mg limit and try to stay within it. The problem is with those who are over 80 mg, who are likely to make more dangerous misjudgments. Therefore, they are the people whom the limited number of police should concentrate on. That is the simple point that I want to make.

The other important point is that we have the confidence of the driving public on this matter. There has been a major cultural change, and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire made an important point in that regard. To go lower at this stage might create a barrier between the enforcers and the enforced—the barrier that we want to get away from. We want collaboration. That goes back to Peel’s concept of policing, which I mentioned on Tuesday. The status quo may not be ideal, but it is about right, and the efforts that we make should bear down on those who are over 80 mg.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris PPS (Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State), Department of Health

I rise again to make a genuine inquiry. Is the hon. Gentleman aware—if he is not, my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford may be—of any opinion poll evidence showing whether there is public support for a change in the legal limit? Once again, the Committee seems to have been relying heavily on anecdotal evidence, but from my own such experience, I know of very few people who would object to a reduction from 80 mg to 50 mg. If the opinion polls say otherwise, I should be happy to accept that. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of any empirical evidence of that kind?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I have no opinion poll evidence either way. I believe that the police should concentrate on those over 80 mg. If we looked at 50 mg to 80 mg, that would be a knock to our collaboration with the majority of the public and to their confidence, and it would give the police an enormous number of possible people to chase. I believe that we should concentrate on those on over 80 mg first. Let us get the 80 mg level firmly respected—we will discuss in a minute how that might be done—and then look further.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford argued his case well, and it is not without merit. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire put his finger on it: this is not a black-and-white issue. It is a matter of judgment in which we have to balance many different factors before reaching our opinion. I shall state my case. I will probably not convince my hon. Friend, so while I am making my comments, my   hon. Friend the Government Whip will gently twist his arm up his back. Nevertheless, I will put the case to the best of my ability, and I accept that it is a complex one.

My hon. Friend talked about the number of people whose lives are ended as a result of drink and about the rise in such deaths over recent years. I agree with him entirely: it poses a question, and it is a worrying trend. It is not a simple one, however. It is not simply that the figures have suddenly started to shoot through the roof; the figures are conflicting.

In 1979 there were 1,640 fatalities as a result of people having illegal alcohol levels and 8,300 serious casualties. In 2004 there were 590 fatalities and 2,350 serious casualties. By any measure that is a massive reduction, and clearly a trend that we want to continue. As my hon. Friend suggested, it is true that, over the past few years, the figures have begun to go up. If we concentrate for a moment on fatalities, in 2001 there were 530. The figure went up to 550 in 2002, 580 in 2003 and 590 in 2004. The low point was in 1998–99, when there were 460 fatalities. On the face of it, that is clearly a worrying trend, but it is not necessarily indicative of a change in society’s attitudes. If we consider the number of serious casualties over that same period—we might argue that in many cases the difference between someone dying in a road accident and being seriously injured is more a matter of good fortune than judgment—we see that there were 2,690 in 2001. The figure rose to 2,790 in 2002, but it has steadily been going down since. It was 2,590 in 2003, and 2,350 in 2004.

Exactly the same pattern is mirrored in the figures for slight injuries involving people with illegal blood alcohol levels. In other words, the number of accidents involving alcohol that cause casualties is going down, while the number of fatalities is going up. It is not reasonable to argue that society’s attitude to drink-driving is changing in some malevolent way, and that therefore we need to change the blood alcohol limit to send a different message to society.

The figures for fatalities or serious injuries related to illegal levels of blood alcohol since 1979 appear not to be a gradual progression. I managed to do some thermodynamic calculations for hon. Members on the back of an envelope the other day, but, as my mental acuity does not extend to statistical significance calculations on the back of an envelope, I cannot be definitive about this, but it seems that progress is made by steps. For a few years, the serious casualty figures hovered around 8,000 or 7,900. Suddenly there was a drop to 7,300 between 1980 and 1981. The figure went back to 8,000 but then steadied around 6,800 for a few years. There were step changes to about 5,000 some time in the middle of the 1980s, to 3,000 in the early 1990s and to about 2,500 in the late 1990s, where it has hovered ever since. In other words, it is not a gradual move from high to low and getting better every year. The changes seem to go in steps. We have to ask why that is, what is changing, what creates the steps and why there is the complexity of serious injuries decreasing while deaths are increasing.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Llafur, Bolton South East 2:15, 23 Mawrth 2006

It is more common today for drivers to drive under the influence of more than one drug. As poly-drug use is on the increase, I suggest to the Minister that those who drive under the influence of alcohol are more likely also to be driving under the influence of another drug, which could account for the fact that deaths are increasing. It seems remarkable that we are arguing today about the limits for one drug but do not discuss the limits of any other drug, whether licit or illicit, that might affect a person’s driving.

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

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I have no doubt that people are using multiple drugs these days. I made the point in the Transport Committee the other day that young people in particular may designate a driver who abstains from alcohol but sits and smokes a joint while everybody is drinking alcohol, and then drives everyone home. Many young people do not realise the effects of illegal substances.

Indeed, the point was made to me that people do not realise the effects of legal substances that they may use. I entirely concur. Prescription drugs carry messages these days such as, “This compound may make you drowsy. Do not drive, if affected.” However, half the time people do not know whether they are affected. One of the things that was found out about alcohol in the early days was that many people did not believe that they were affected by it. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) has helped me to make is that we are not talking about a simple issue. We must examine what has created the step changes over the years. Was it a change in the Government’s policy? Was it a change in police enforcement? Was it a change in advertising? Was it a change in educational efforts made over the years by successive Governments? What is happening at the moment? We have a strange increase in deaths while the number of serious injuries is decreasing.

I concur entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford that the figures are asking us questions that we need to answer. We must look with great care at what is happening. We might need to undertake further road-side surveys. We might need to carry out more research. We need to look at our advertising and, in particular, the way in which we enforce the existing laws.

A future Government might want to propose a change to the blood alcohol level on the basis of the research, but we are not yet in a position to do so. Some 590 people were killed in accidents involving people who were over the 80 mg level, but it seems that there were only 60 fatalities involving those who had alcohol levels of between 50 mg and 80 mg, so where should we be putting our resources? It is obvious that I should be encouraging the police to enforce the law at 80 mg and above, and to do so more stringently than they are at present before I ask them to disburse resources on people driving with between 50 mg and 80 mg of alcohol.

I said clearly at the Transport Committee, as I did on Second Reading, that I can envisage a situation in which a future Government will want to implement my   hon. Friend’s amendments. Friend. We are just not at that point now. The correct thing to do is to enforce measures at the 80 mg level and get that right first.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I want to correct a slight inaccuracy in what my hon. Friend said about the proportion of the 590 deaths who were near the present level of 80 mg. Professor Allsop said that another 65 lives might be saved if the limit were lowered, but that is because of his conservative estimates of the numbers who would transfer to a lower level, but who were already above. Some deaths occur at possibly twice that level. I do not disagree that the majority of the deaths occur when people are miles over the limit, but the number of those who were near the legal limit is certainly many more than the 65.

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

I guess that we can argue about the figures. I shall certainly reconsider the research to see whether it influences my opinion. I think that my hon. Friend agrees that the majority of deaths have occurred when people were above the current legal limit. While we are asking ourselves such difficult questions, it is appropriate to ask the police to target their resources on better enforcement measures at that limit. While we are doing that, we must consider the long-term trends and the way in which we go from plateau to plateau, and ask ourselves what causes that.

In particular, I am determined to get to the root of why we might be seeing a steady increase in deaths, while the number of serious injuries is going down. Are we dealing with a hard-core drink-driver who does not care about whether the amount is 50 mg or 80 mg? He has had a skinful and drives anyway; he drives so fast and is so out of control that he is more likely to be killed in the accident. Perhaps that has something to do with it. We need answers to such questions before we take the step of going to a 50 mg limit. As the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire said, we must not break the bond that has been established with the driver. The driver must see the fairness and reasonableness of our action to respect it.

On Tuesday, I said that, if people do not respect the law on speeding, they will not obey it and that that makes it much more difficult to enforce. By trying to build a mutual respect and by getting drivers to respect the fact that we are taking fair and proportionate decisions, we get them to obey the law more. That is a better way forward. Were we to reduce the 80 mg limit to 50 mg without solid evidence and without being able to make the case to the driving public and explain why it would benefit them, we would be in danger of breaking the bond that we are trying to establish.

In encouraging my hon. Friend to withdraw his motion, I repeat that I can see the merit of his argument. I can see a situation in which a future Government may want to implement the provisions of the new clause, but I do not think that it would be right to do so now. I also ask him to withdraw his other new clause, on the powers to test, because we have consulted ACPO and others and they are satisfied with the powers that they have at the moment. They do not see any need for further powers.

Rather than test your patience when we come to clause stand part, Mrs. Anderson, I will say now that clause 13 is a change intended to fix an oversight in the law, and is relatively straightforward. I hope that members of the Committee will support it.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The good news for my hon. Friend is that this is the stand part debate, and I therefore do not need to withdraw the motions for my new clauses. They can however be discussed again on Report if they are selected by Mr. Speaker. We will see what happens if so.

My hon. Friend was right to predict that I would not agree with him, but I think that he is an excellent Minister. He is doing a really good job and he is quite right to say that this is a complex issue. I hope that he would give me credit for having the bigger picture in mind and for suggesting a balanced range of measures, even though I have focused on new clause 1 in this debate. While I am on my feet and getting all these brownie points, I should say that the poor Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy), should be defended from the Minister’s suggestion that he had my arm twisted behind my back. I have had nothing but the greatest courtesy from him throughout these proceedings.

I shall respond briefly to some of the points made in the debate. The hon. Member for Wimbledon asked me where the calculation of increasing risk comes from. The House of Commons research paper is a wonderful starting point. On page 20 it reminds us that studies have been going on since the 1960s. Today, the seminal calculation that everybody cites is from the Transport Research Laboratory’s research in 1997, written by a man named Maycock. There is also an excellent statement of drink and drugs policy called “Driving for Work: Drink and Drugs” on ROSPA’s website. It takes readers through the risks and dangers of drinking and driving. It is common sense that when we have had alcohol our judgment is impaired and our reactions are slower.

The hon. Member for Wimbledon also said that there was some weakness in the drafting of new clause 2. In a sense, that is irrelevant. If we think it is a good issue, we will get the wording right with all the officials at our disposal. The issue is whether the police need the extra, targeted power laid out in the new clause. Considering the situation that we are in and the resources that we have, as the hon. Member for North Shropshire pointed out, giving the police more power to use their existing resources more effectively would be a better way to get the most out of our policing. That is why I tabled the new clause. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rochdale for his support. I made the same argument in Committee on the previous Road Safety Bill and the Liberal Democrats were equally supportive then.

The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire spoke about the important issue of public acceptance, drawing the line at the right place and being fair. That is why I took so long to talk about the assumption in my youth that two pints of beer was the right amount   to remain under the limit, and about how that view has been eroded by developments in the industry. The public’s attitude to the Licensing Act 2003 and increased discussion on binge drinking show that there is an appetite for Government to do something. We could establish a new comfortable assumption that if someone has one drink, they will definitely be under the limit of 50 mg, but if they have more than one, they will be taking a risk. That could be a useful enforcement tool and might keep more people safe.

I was asked whether there was any empirical evidence. The RAC Foundation is not in favour of my new clause, but its opinion polls on the public’s attitude to lowering the limit show that 60 per cent. of motorists support a limit of 50 mg. Therefore, I might make the argument to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire that there is public appetite for changing the limit. He said that given that the police manage to do a lot of testing at Christmas, why do they need extra powers? I remind him that more than 9,000 of the tests carried out at Christmas 2005 were positive. Let us ask ourselves what is happening on the roads when the police are not carrying out high-profile testing. Mini Christmas campaigns should take place throughout the year, and the extra powers in new clause 2 would enable the police to facilitate that.

What motivates me to continue arguing, even though the Minister has told me to stop and Conservative Front Benchers have told me that they will not support my proposal? I feel an urgency and a determination about all those unnecessary deaths on the roads. Tomorrow it could be somebody I know; it could be a member of my family. I do not want to think that I did not do everything possible to reduce the death toll on our roads. New clause 2 offers a safe way to reduce that toll.

If I cannot persuade the Minister to change the Government’s policy, will he have a word with the Whip to arrange a free vote on Report?

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.