Amendment of Prescribed Limits

New Clause 83 – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 28th June 1988.

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`In Schedule 8 of the Transport Act 1981, in the definition of "the prescribed limit" in paragraph 12(2), for the figures "35", "80", and "107", there shall be subsituted the figures "22", "50" and "67".'.—[Mrs. Ann Taylor.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor , Dewsbury

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I note that the measures which have just been proclaimed as having received the Royal Assent include the Scotch Whisky Act 1988, followed quickly by the Brighton and Preston Cemetery Act 1988. Without wishing to make fun of a serious situation, that is apt when we consider the problems relating to drinking and driving.

New clause 83 is an important new clause which seeks to amend the prescribed limits of alcohol which are permissible in the bloodstream when someone is allowed to drive legally in this country. I emphasise the word "legally," because we are all well aware that many people take risks and drink and drive, often without realising the impact that that will have on their driving ability. That affects the safety of our roads and of many people.

Those who have studied the problem realise that drinking and driving is extremely serious, and the problem has escalated in recent years. Our actions to deal with the problem in Britain lag behind those of many other countries, especially in western Europe.

Many problems are associated with drinking and driving. It is a major cause—perhaps the major cause—of avoidable deaths in this country. Figures show that between 1,400 and 1,600 people per year are killed on our roads as a direct result of people drinking and driving. We are all well aware of the grief, anguish and misery that drunken drivers cause, although many of them feel that they are capable of driving when they set out in their motor cars.

The problem of drinking and driving is always highlighted at one particular time of the year. It is good to see a representative of the Department of Transport in the Chamber, because it is the campaigns of the Department of Transport which bring the dangers of drinking and driving most before the public, usually around Christmas. I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but that is not necessarily the worst time for accidents involving drinking and driving. Indeed, I understand that most accidents involving drinking and driving occur at this time of the year when the evenings are light and many people go out to country pubs for a drink. People often drink more than they should until they are over the limit, and they cause accidents and frequently deaths.

The problem of drinking and driving is difficult, and it causes, as I have said, a great deal of grief and anguish. It is a problem that the House would do well to recognise and take seriously. It is because we think that the time is right to take action on this problem that we have tabled new clause 83.

The question is what we should do about the problem of drinking and driving. I do not think that anyone would dispute the fact that it is a serious problem. We can, of course, wring our hands and express regret, but the House could take a whole range of measures that would directly reduce the problem. The new clause deals with one of our suggestions of how to reduce the problem. That suggestion—amendment of the prescribed limit—would have an impact, although obviously it would have most impact if it were introduced as part of a whole range of measures. I am thinking particularly of such items as the random breath test, which I believe we shall eventually have in this country. We tabled an amendment on that, but unfortunately it was not selected.

Photo of Mr Peter Thurnham Mr Peter Thurnham , Bolton North East

Is the hon. Lady aware that random breath-testing was introduced in Australia recently and that it has led to a great reduction in drinking by people who intend to drive?

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor , Dewsbury

Australia's experience is shared by other countries that have introduced random breath-testing. I shall deal later with some of the other evidence from Australia. There is increasing evidence from many countries, both in Europe and beyond, which suggests that, if we had random breath tests and tightened up a range of matters, there would be safer roads and fewer lives lost as a result of drinking and driving.

The random breath test would be a contribution, as would a revision of the penalties involved and more action to help those people who have a drink problem, but who, unfortunately, believe that they are capable of driving. Home Office Ministers should consider the defence that is sometimes advanced—called the hip-flask defence—whereby those who are charged have a drink after the offence has been committed and use that as a means of getting themselves acquitted.

All those measures have a part to play, but I want to concentrate my remarks, to keep in order, on the amendment to limit the prescribed amount of alcohol in a person's bloodstream when he or she is driving. We are all aware that, 20 years ago, when the original drinking and driving legislation was introduced, there was an outcry from some people that it was an infringement of liberty and that we should let people drink and drive and use their own judgment of their ability to drive and when they had to exercise restraint. That outcry faded very quickly, and the breathalyser is now generally accepted as being right and a constructive measure in road safety.

Unfortunately, the initial impact of the breathalyser has worn off for some people. That is one of the reasons why so many people are now drinking and driving above the limit and why it is a major problem in this country. It is a major problem for the victims and their families and for the Health Service and the police. We therefore need to do more. It is interesting to see how the number of people charged with drinking and driving has increased over the years, which substantiates the argument that the initial impact of the breathalyser has worn off.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton , Bassetlaw

Can my hon. Friend say whether the figure has increased in line with the number of drivers? Is she aware that there are now three times more drivers and three times more cars on the road than there were when the legislation was introduced, yet there are not three times more convictions?

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor , Dewsbury

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Since the introduction of the breath test 20 years ago, there has been a fivefold increase in convictions in England and Wales, and findings of guilty for those who drink and drive, per 100,000 vehicles, which takes into account my hon. Friend's point about more vehicles on the road, have increased from 225 in 1969 to 545 in 1984. That shows that the fivefold increase in convictions has been the result of people becoming more lax in their attitudes to drinking and driving. All the evidence about people's reaction time when they are drinking and driving shows that it is extremely unwise to drink and drive, that reaction time is increased, that concentration and attention are reduced, that people are slower to process information and that their visual functions are impaired.

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor , Dewsbury

I am glad to see the Minister agreeing with all those points. All the evidence from all the countries, including this country, shows that drivers have a poorer performance when alcohol has been consumed. Although many drivers may be confident about their driving ability when they have been drinking, it is false confidence. That is one of the problems related to alcohol consumption.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Hind Mr Kenneth Hind , West Lancashire 5:15 pm, 28th June 1988

The hon. Lady has a good point, but does she not think that we should be considering other factors in relation to this matter? First, perhaps we should consider more severe sentences for those people convicted of such offences. Secondly, we should consider whether getting into a car while over the limit for driving is a reckless act in itself and, therefore, we should be looking to charge people with reckless driving. Thirdly, to assist in that, we should consider whether the police should have the power to conduct random breath tests whenever they wish to do so.

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor , Dewsbury

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has been in the Chamber during the whole of my speech, but I made those three points earlier. I agree that we must consider the sentencing of people who are found guilty and the charges made against people. Many hon. Members agree that there is a strong case for random breath tests, which I would support because it would be a constructive measure.

Photo of Mr Ian Lloyd Mr Ian Lloyd , Havant

I have followed the hon. Lady's comments with great. interest. I had hoped that, having read the speech, that I made on the Adjournment some months ago, when I described in great detail what is now possible, she would be admitting, welcoming and asking the Government to endorse a new possibility. The problem can be dealt with by technology. It does not require law. It requires a willingness to recognise, as has occurred in Australia, that the breathalyser ignition lock and various associated attachments could make it impossible for anyone to drink and drive, provided that it became a law of this country that every new car coming into use after a certain date should be fitted with a breathalyser ignition lock.

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor , Dewsbury

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting suggestion. That would be one way of preventing those people who have been drinking to excess from driving. However, I believe that we have a greater responsibility. We must stop people drinking and then wanting to drive. We must ensure that people recognise their responsibilities and the dangers inherent in drinking and driving. Unfortunately, many people underestimate the impact of drinking on their driving ability.

I mentioned a moment ago some of the many difficulties that result from drinking and the way in which a driver's reaction is impaired. Many people do not realise that impairment starts at a very low level. The present level of 80 mg is rather high when compared with many other countries. All the evidence shows that concentration is impaired at as low a level as 30 mg of alcohol in the blood. Therefore, we should carefully consider reducing the present legal limit.

It is a simple fact that, at the present level of 80 mg, the average person is four times more likely to have an accident than if he or she had not been drinking. At 50 mg, the average person is still twice as likely to have an accident than if he or she had not been drinking at all.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton , Bassetlaw

A short while ago my hon. Friend said that only 500 drivers out of every 100,000 are convicted of drink-driving. That is half of 1 per cent. On my hon. Friend's figures—not on mine—the original rate was 200 for every 100,000, which is 0·.2 of 1 per cent. Surely my hon. Friend is taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor , Dewsbury

I do not know whether my hon. Friend recalls the figures that I produced, but they showed a fivefold increase in convictions since the breathalyser was introduced. I hope that my hon. Friend will not be complacent about the impact of drinking on driving. I am sure that he would not want to encourage motorists to drink and drive. It is the attitude of those who think that they are capable of drinking and driving that leads to so many of the serious accidents that occur. We all have a responsibility to ensure that motorists do not drink and drive, and that if they feel a need to drink they should minimise their drinking to the smallest level possible.

Photo of Mr Neil Macfarlane Mr Neil Macfarlane , Sutton and Cheam

Many of my hon. Friends and I have sympathy with what the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) is saying, and many of her sentiments will be echoed throughout the country. Part of the problem is that the courts are not severe enough on those who are prepared to take the risk and do drink and drive. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) referred to this indirectly in his comments about reckless driving. The 1957 legislation bore upon this and eliminated some of the potential convictions.

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor , Dewsbury

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. That was one of the reasons why we tabled a new clause that called for the introduction of random breath tests. Unfortunately, it was not selected for debate. We see the proposal in new clause 83 as one of the measures that should be introduced. We would also support the introduction of random breath tests, because a lowering of "the prescribed limit" and random testing, when taken together, could have a significant impact on the number of deaths that occur through drinking and driving.

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Bradford South

I am listening carefully to the exposition of my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor). Sympathetic comments have been made by some Conservative Members, who want to see improved road safety and a reduction in drinking and driving. Many of them, however, found themselves in what might be called the brewers' lobby when the Licensing Bill, as it then was, was proceeding through the House. They voted for longer opening hours, to provide a greater opportunity to drink more and then to drive.

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor , Dewsbury

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It was one that we raised when the Licensing Bill was passing through the House some months ago. We felt that the Government were creating a serious problem by legislating to increase pub opening hours before doing anything to tackle a range of problems associated with alcohol abuse, of which drinking and driving is one. If my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) considers the evidence in Scotland, where there has been all-day opening for some time, he will find that the peak time for drink-related road accidents starts in the late afternoon, at about 5 o'clock. Many of us are worried that that trend might be found in this country when the new licensing laws come into operation.

I shall return to the main issues raised by the new clause rather than get sidetracked on to some of the important but slightly wider issues that arise from it. I shall mention some of the difficulties that arise from the present limit of 80 mg when breathalyser tests are carried out. At 80 mg, the average person is four times more likely to have an accident than if he had not consumed alcohol. There are particular problems for certain groups in the population. Many countries have undertaken a great deal of research and obtained a considerable amount of information about the problems that arise for those of certain ages.

The House may be interested to know that drivers over the age of 55 years have an increased risk of having an accident while driving even if they have consumed only very small amounts of alcohol. Other research shows that 18 to 24-year-olds especially have a much higher increased rate of accidents when they have been drinking and driving. I hope that the Minister will consider introducing an even lower limit than the 50 mg that we are suggesting for learner drivers and new drivers. The mixture of motorists new to driving and new to drinking alcohol can be lethal. Young drivers, especially young men, who are drinking and driving and trying to improve their standing among their peer group in terms of the macho image, which, unfortunately, is so popular now, are in a particularly dangerous position.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe , Kent Mid

I have listened with great attention to the most recent argument advanced by the hon. Member, but I wonder whether it is not part of a wider one. Should not the size and maximum speed of cars be related to the experience of those driving them? The hon. Lady's figures do not, as she has presented them, differentiate clearly between the weight that we should put on experience and the weight that we should place on our experience in the consumption of alcohol.

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor , Dewsbury

I do not wish to follow the hon. Gentleman down that path. He has raised some interesting issues, but I do not think that they are especially pertinent to the new clause. They go somewhat wider than the clause. I agree that there is a range of road safety matters that we should be considering. Many countries have already revised their limits, and these are in line with the suggestion that is set out in new clause 83. Australia, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, Iceland, Japan, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and parts of the United States have accepted that a limit of 50 mg is right and that it can he introduced with public acceptance. It is recognised that it is adequate for the police to monitor and enforce.

I believe that the time has come for us to revise the breath test laws. There is sufficient public concern and acceptance of the introduction of random breath tests and of a reduction in the amount of alcohol that can be permitted when someone is proposing to drive, but reducing the amount of alcohol that is allowed to be consumed by motorists is only one development. We must ensure also that there is enforcement of the limit, and of the right limit.

That is why I hope that the Government are considering carefully the introduction of random breath tests and the other measures that I have outlined. I believe that it is only a matter of time before we have random breath tests and a reduction of the limit. I hope that the House will not delay any longer, because with every delay we shall lose more lives. We should act now. The House should accept the new clause, which sets out a constructive suggestion which would help to save lives on our roads.

Photo of Bernard Braine Bernard Braine , Castle Point

I rise to support the new clause, which was moved so persuasively by the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor). I give it my full support, hut I have one reservation, which concerns its effective enforcement. First, however, I shall deal with the reasons why I believe that it should be accepted. This is one of the occasions—they are all too few—when we can take a view across party lines. We are all in close touch with our constituents and I feel that there are many Opposition Members who will agree with a great deal of what I have to say. I hope too, that I shall be persuasive enough to ensure that many of my hon. Friends will agree with me as well.

The reason for my concern can be expressed quite simply. The international scientific consensus is that a blood alcohol level of 50 mg is the maximum compatible with the safety of other road users. Almost exactly 30 years ago an article appeared in the British Medical Journal reporting the results of a series of experiments to test the effect of small doses of alcohol on driving skill. The conclusion of the article was: performance begins to deteriorate with very low blood alcohol concentrations, certainly of the order of 20–30mg per cent. and that the deterioration is progressive and linearly related to blood alcohol level. There is, in the study, no evidence of a threshold effect. The key words were: with alcohol there is no threshold, behaviour begins to deteriorate as soon as it is in the blood. Some people may argue that, on that basis, the legal alcohol limit for driving should be reduced to 30 mg, or even to zero. I myself have great sympathy with that view. The absence of a clear threshold means that the choice of any blood alcohol level must to some degree be arbitrary. It involves accepting a level of consumption that has already impaired the capacity to drive safely. Therefore, no legal limit can be a safe limit, but some legal limits are considerably more unsafe than others. I hope that the Government will consider further whether even a 50 mg limit may be too high, especially for the young and inexperienced driver.

5.30 pm

On 13 January 1981, in the debate on the Transport Bill, I referred to the suggestion made by Miss Barbara Sabey, then of the Transport and Road Research Laboratory, that there should be a differential lower limit of 30 mg for young drivers. Since then, such legislation has been introduced in Australia. I hope that the Department of Transport keeps a watching brief on developments there and will be able to inform the House of the effects. It is sad that, despite so many warnings over the years—it has not happened just recently—from experts outside, here and elsewhere in the world and from parliamentarians on both sides of the House, we are still pressing the obvious, without any satisfaction.

One specific reason for reducing the present limit is that the introduction of evidential breath testing actually resulted in the legal limit in effect being raised to a level above 80 mg. The normal practice of not prosecuting drivers whose blood alcohol level is 40 micrograms per 100 ml of breath means that, in practice, the legal alcohol limit is now over 90 mg. There is, therefore, a compelling case for reducing the legal limit simply to take account of that factor, let alone the known effects of even small quantities of alcohol in impairing driving performance.

The argument normally put forward against lowering the limit is that the majority of those convicted of drinking and driving are found to be, not slightly above the present limit, but two or three times over it. Thus the majority of offenders do not make a slight, innocent error in calculating their blood alcohol level: they make no attempt to remain within the limit. There is little reason, therefore, to suppose that a lower limit would make any difference to them.

That argument is not, by any means, wholly convincing, because it overlooks the substantial change in public attitudes towards drinking and driving that appears to be taking place, as we know from our local newspapers. All of us have conversed with our constituents at our weekly surgeries and know that they are worried that we do not appear to be acting in the face of the mayhem on the roads caused by drinking drivers. Many people are increasingly inclined to see a contradiction between the message of the Government's anti-drink drive campaign that "One drink can kill" and a legal limit that still permits the consumption of large quantities of alcohol.

A reduction of the legal limit to 50 mg would therefore be an acknowledgment of the shift in public attitudes and a move in the right direction. For that reason alone, I would support the new clause. Such a reduction would be far more consistent with the message of the Government's campaign. If that is not grasped by Ministers, I for one cannot take their campaign seriously.

The difficulty about enforcement cannot be ignored, and that is the weakness of the new clause. If we do not succeed in enforcing effectively the present 80 mg limit, there is a danger that a lower limit will result in even greater difficulties. In the words of one of the early authorities on this subject, the Blennerhassett committee: to reduce the limit to 50mg would be of doubtful benefit while police resources remain severely limited; there are real disadvantages in enlarging the category of potential offenders when it is certain that many over the present limit avoid detection. The majority of those who drink and drive are playing the percentage game. They know that their chance of detection on any journey is so small as to be negligible. No less a body than the National Audit Office pointed that out just two weeks ago. Countries such as Finland, Norway and Sweden and most of the states of Australia which are tackling drinking and driving successfully have a 50mg limit, but they also have random breath testing to ensure that the limit is enforced.

I do not believe that a 50mg limit, any more than an 80mg limit, could be enforced primarily by an education and publicity campaign. My hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic has campaigned vigorously in this direction and one cannot fail to admire him for that, but he has recently claimed that his campaign is having a greater effect than would random testing. That is a bold claim and is wholly at variance with experience in this as well as in other countries. The Government's interdepartmental review of road safety pointed out that education and publicity campaigns have not been shown to be effective in reducing the number of casualties. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make available to the House the evidence on which he bases his claim.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I shall certainly do that. The interdepartmental review took place before the last year and a half of the campaign, and drink driving above the legal limit has halved among young men, who are the primary target group. That is a greater reduction than the drop claimed in Finland and Australia. It is worth remembering that 20,000 people were last year discovered to be above the legal limit in Sweden, which has one seventh of our population. That suggests that there is more drink driving there than here.

Photo of Bernard Braine Bernard Braine , Castle Point

After all the intensive efforts that have been made, I should be surprised if there had not been some results. As my hon. Friend chose to intervene at this point, I would point out that I asked for this information in a letter to him. In his reply, he perhaps absent-mindedly omitted to provide it. Of course, the proper place to provide it is on the Floor of the House of Commons. However, I take comfort from the fact that he has promised to provide that information. I suspect, however, that the evidence to which he refers is no more than a bit of market research data, derived from interviews with extremely small samples of the population, and is not, therefore, a measure of the real frequency of drinking and driving.

These days one cannot open up a newspaper after the weekend without seeing what is happening in the towns and villages of our peaceful countryside. Mobs of drunken youths, many of them arriving and leaving in their cars, are causing unprecedented disturbances. [Interruption.] It is no use my hon. Friend the Minister shaking his head. The evidence is there in the newspapers and in what chief officers of police have been saying. I hope that this matter will be taken seriously. I assure my hon. Friend that it is taken seriously in the country as a whole, and this is reflected in Members' postbags, certainly in mine. Market research is a doubtful means of finding out something entirely different—the willingness of people to admit that they drink and drive.

We have had anti-drink driving campaigns in Britain for decades.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton , Bassetlaw

They do not work.

Photo of Bernard Braine Bernard Braine , Castle Point

The hon. Gentleman should say that to people who have lost dear ones in road accidents. Death and injuries are happening all the time. An improvement is certainly welcome, but the casualties still occur. Hon. Members and Ministers in this responsible Parliament should not forget that the toll goes on and that our efforts should not cease until it is reduced much further.

The slogan "If you drink don't drive, and if you drive don't drink" must be at least 50 years old. I was chairman of the National Council on Alcoholism for about nine years and that slogan was well known and greatly flourished at that time. Yet, in spite of it, the carnage on our roads has continued. Ironically, the main effect of the present campaign may well have been to firm up public opinion in favour of a lower legal limit and an effective system of enforcing that limit.

Despite the harsh words that I used about my hon. Friend the Minister, I admire a great deal of what he is trying to do and the energy that he puts into it. However, if he wants his campaign to succeed, he must accept something along the lines of the new clause. He must accept random breath testing, and he must demonstrate to the nation as a whole that he means serious business. I shortly hope to raise this and other matters with the Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords.

I shall listen intently, therefore, to the Minister's reply. I should like him to give an assurance that the Government have an open mind on this question, are receptive to change, and are prepared to consider a lowering of the limit and effective enforcement of that lower limit. No hon. Member can have constituents who have not lost a loved one or a friend or a neighbour due to the recklessness of those who drink and drive. The nation is looking to the House to take effective action. If we fail to do so, it will not lightly forgive those responsible. I commend the new clause to the House on the understanding that the nettle of enforcement—that is the key—is firmly grasped.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton , Bassetlaw

It is difficult to defend drunken driving, and I do not intend to do so. No hon. Member has any pity for someone who drinks and drives and causes an accident. However, we should get away from some of the extremism in the debate and look at the matter rationally. I shall begin by giving a few statistics. They are not my statistics, but come from reputable newspapers such as this week's Sunday Times.

Britain does not have an alcohol problem. A tiny section of the population, mainly teenagers in the open air marching down the streets to a football match or on the Costa Brava, at the Notting Hill carnival or in New Year's Eve celebrations, can be seen drinking from cans of lager and showing off, vandalising and wrecking the neighbourhood. That is where the problem with alcohol lies. The problem is not with the average middle-aged bloke who has a couple of pints in the pub and then goes home for his Sunday lunch or who goes home at half-past 10 during the week.

Britain's record on alcohol consumption is good. We are 20th in the world league table; and that statistic is taken from this week's Sunday Times. I do not want to bore the House but I shall read out the league table. France is at the top, followed by East Germany, Portugal, Hungary, Spain, West Germany, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Italy, Australia—which hon. Members have mentioned many times— Argentina, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Canada and the USA. All those countries have a greater alcohol consumption per head of population than Britain.

5.45 pm

Statistics show that the consumption of alcohol in Britain is going down every year. Last year it went down another 1·5 per cent. Britain drinks only half the amount that it consumed 50 years ago. However, there is much more hysteria now, more media attention and publicity campaigns and more effective protests by the temperance lobby. That is why there is a cry of wolf against the average person having a drink in a pub.

In 1968, when the legislation was introduced, there were far fewer cars on the road. There are now three times as many cars and three times as many drivers as when the breathalyser was brought in, but there are about the same number of accidents caused by drivers over the limit. There has been a great improvement not just in terms of drink and driving accidents but in terms of all accidents. The standard of driving is much higher and the cars are of much better quality. There are not as many 20-year-old cars on the road as there were in 1968, and roads are better, and better lit. As I say, in terms of drunken accidents or other accidents, the statistics are far better than they were in 1968. The number of positive tests has dropped by two thirds.

I am wary of statistics, because I often hear them trotted out about accidents involving drink and then find that many of them are caused by drunken pedestrians. They are the people who stagger out of a pub and walk into the middle of the road. A perfectly sober motorist is unable to avoid such a person, the pedestrian is knocked down, and that becomes a drink-related accident and goes into the statistics.

I shared a flat with the late Frank McElhone who was a Member of this House. He drove home from the pictures in Glasgow one night where he had been with his wife. It was New Year's Eve and as usual a drunk shouted, "Hello, Jimmy," and walked into the middle of the road and was knocked down. Frank had to go to be breathalysed, and was very upset. It was quite right that he was breathalysed, but it went on to the statistics as a drink-related accident. Far too often, people deliberately confuse the statistics. The present system is working well. I do not defend drunken drivers and have no lack of sympathy for people who have had relatives or friends injured in a drunk driving accident. Later in my speech, I shall look at how to prevent such accidents.

In my constituency we had a massive experience of random breath testing, as did the whole of Nottinghamshire in 1986 and, I think, 1985 when we had a chief constable, Mr. McLaughlin, who was a teetotaller and took on himself a one-man crusade to introduce random breath testing. I think that in doing that he broke the law, but nobody could stop him because there is no democratic control over chief constables.

In 1986 in Nottinghamshire, Mr. McLaughlin tested 4,733 people in about 10 days around Christmas. In the county of Derbyshire, 528 people were tested. South Yorkshire next door tested 652 people and in Cleveland 54 people were tested. When all these people had been tested it was found that 3 per cent. of them were over the limit. The percentage was exactly the same in Derbyshire or anywhere else. Mr. McLaughlin tested 10 times as many people as the other counties.

My constituents reacted with intense anger and uproar about the way in which the tests had been carried out. People were tested while they were filling their cars with petrol. A policeman would come up and say, "I suspect that you are over the limit." That used to happen at 5 o'clock, when people were on their way home from work. There were allegations that policemen had been given quotas and had been told—perhaps not by the chief constable but by others down the ladder—that they were expected to breath-test 35 motorists every day. People driving home from work when the pubs were shut were doing no harm at all but were faced with road blocks and were told by the police that they were conducting a test on tyres or windscreen wipers. When a motorist had demonstrated the windscreen wipers, he was given a breathalyser bag to blow into.

Such things caused an enormous protest, especially from people who did not drink. They were incensed that they had been stopped on their way home from work or stopped at a petrol station and forced into random breath testing. The other unfair aspect was that it depended on which county one lived in.

What is random? Does one stop one in 10 or one in 20, or is it up to the chief superintendent, who may feel liverish that morning, or may think that statistics are down and need bolstering? Perhaps the police will go out on odd days of the week and check every car with an odd number or every car with an even number. What is random? It depends on whether the chief constable is a teetotaller. It is the same with hon. Members, whose views are influenced by whether they are anti-drink. They are entitled to their opinion, but they should make it clear that they are anti-drink rather than against the present limits.

Photo of Mr Alf Morris Mr Alf Morris , Manchester Wythenshawe

I remind the House that, when Mrs. Barbara Castle introduced the Act in 1986, I assisted her in taking it through the House. The House was given an assurance that there would be no random testing under that legislation. We must accept that, whatever one's views of random testing, a change in the law is needed if it is to be authorised.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton , Bassetlaw

Testing can be carried out only when a moving traffic offence has been committed. That was not the case in Nottinghamshire during those two Christmases. There was certainly a massive amount of testing—4,000 tests in 10 days.

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor , Dewsbury

I hope that my hon. Friend will press the Minister on the specific point about whether random breath testing is legal at present. The Minister for Public Transport implied that random testing was possible, but Home Office Ministers have always insisted that a driver can be stopped at random for a purpose, but that there cannot be random testing. The Minister for Public Transport was slightly misleading the House.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton , Bassetlaw

My hon. Friend illustrates the problems of this difficult matter well. If we accept the new clause, far more people will appear in court. There will be far more wrangles and extended arguments, and loopholes will be found. Matters will be far worse than at present.

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham Small Heath

Does my hon. Friend accept the fundamental proposition that the civil liberties of the people of this country should prevent them from being apprehended and inquired into in circumstances that are an affront to their dignity, if there is no evidence available to the police officer to cause him to apprehend them?

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton , Bassetlaw

My right hon. Friend is right. Such an action would irritate and annoy the public to such an extent that any affection that they might have for the police would be quickly alienated.

Lowering the levels would have a great effect on rural constituencies such as mine. My constituency covers 300 square miles, with 50 towns, villages and parish councils. My constituents cannot be told to use public transport; there is no public transport. Many of the villages do not have a bus service after 6.30 in the evening. If people want to go for a casual drink, they have to go in their car or walk a mile along an unlit road with no pavement, which they do not want to do, especially in winter.

If the levels are lowered, many of the smaller clubs, such as miners' institutes and labour clubs, will close. There is no question about that. They will close because the average 50-year-old bloke who takes his wife out does not have a lot of money on which to get drunk. Even poor people in such areas have to have a car because there are no buses. Their night out means going down to a working man's club for a game of darts, two pints of bitter and a shandy, and when they drive home the only thing they meet on the road is a rabbit. There is nothing else to be seen on the road.

If the new clause is accepted, those people would sit indoors watching television with a can of lager. The new clause would have a great effect on the social fabric of rural areas. The institutes and the working men's clubs—where mums and dads go on Saturday nights to have a game of bingo—are the backbone of the community. Club members lay on the pensioners' treats at Christmas and organise a couple of bags of coal for them. I went to a function at one of these clubs last week. At the club, there were 259 widows from one pit in my constituency. They would never have gone out or done anything or got any attention if it were not for the miners' institute. It is only the Friday and Saturday nights that keep the institutes going.

In rural areas, there is little recorded drunken driving. The drink-driving accidents that occur, as the Minister said, involve 21 or 22-year-old yobboes driving old bangers, and not the people who keep the clubs going.

I understand why hon. Members want to prevent death on the roads. I should be more enamoured of the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) and of the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) if they covered all death on the road, and not just drunken driving. As the Minister knows, one of the biggest killers is weight and speed, not drinking and driving. Heavy lorries on motorways, particularly in fog, may plough into a line of cars and kill 60 or 70 people at a stroke. That causes far more damage than the average drink-driver. Why do we not have weighbridges and police to divert lorries off the M1 for compulsory weighing to establish whether they are carrying a weight too heavy for their brakes?

If hon. Members tied in their campaign with death on the roads from causes such as that, rather than hounding all those who have a drink, I should have more sympathy with their arguments. But they do not. They adopt the King Herod principle and say that the way to stop death on the roads is to stop all drinking. They might as well abolish all motor cars. They might as well say that to stop women being raped we should have a curfew and that women should not be allowed out after 6 o'clock at night. My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury tabled a very good new clause dealing with rape. If we had rape legislation equivalent to this new clause, there would be a tremendous public outcry.

People who go two or three times over the limit and kill others must be punished far more severely. That is the way to solve the problem. The Government should bring in legislation providing that anyone who kills someone while they are over the limit is charged with manslaughter and spends 10 or 15 years in prison. That would produce a far bigger decrease in the number of people over the limits. Word would get round that drivers who were over the limit would not just be fined £500, lose their licence for six months and pay more insurance, but would go to prison like anyone else who takes a life. I would support that 100 per cent. Collective punishment—the argument that the way to catch the culprit is to stop everyone—does not work. It builds up public resentment.

I accept that there is too much of a gamble. I accept that at the moment people weigh up the odds of getting stopped on the way home, work out that there is a 40:1 chance and think, "I am only one pint over. I will take the chance." They take that chance knowing that, if they get caught. they will only have to pay a £500 fine and lose their licence for six months. If they knew that they would have to go to prison and that the crime was classed with other crimes of violence such as grievous bodily harm and manslaughter and attracted the same penalties, they would adopt the same attitude to drink-driving as to those crimes. That would be a far better proposal.

We are at risk of setting a dangerous parliamentary precedent. The proposal should be dealt with in private Member's legislation. If we vote for the new clause, it will reach the statute book with less than an hour's debate. There has been no consultation with our constituents and none of the argy-bargy of listening to lobby groups. The new clause will not have been considered and wrangled over in Committee, as the Abortion (Amendment) Bill was. It will become law, it will have been bounced through and the reaction in the headlines tomorrow will rightly be one of outrage. It would be undemocratic to do so. A controversial subject such as this should be debated in Parliament over several weeks, not one hour. That is what the House is about. It would be a retrograde step to approve the new clause.

6 pm

Photo of Mr Ian Lloyd Mr Ian Lloyd , Havant

I agree with so much of what the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) said that I am able to keep my remarks briefer than I intended. Obviously, there is general agreement about the objective. No hon. Member would disagree with that. We wish to reduce the consequences of drunken driving, however and wherever they occur. That is obviously a matter of the gravest common sense. However, there is disagreement about the subsidiary objectives and the methods to achieve them. We must start thinking much more fundamentally about that point.

The hon. Gentleman was right to say that, if we go too far and too quickly down this road, we shall pose a major challenge to the social fabric and social behaviour patterns. Surely we do not have to recall the experience of prohibition in the United States to realise that the most powerful legislature can make an awful damned fool of itself if it passes laws that are effectively unenforceable because they require too radical, too drastic and too far-reaching a change in social behaviour, and require it too quickly.

Apart from the merits of the alcohol limit, it has been clear to me for a long time that there is a paradox, an inherent inconsistency between the law as it stands, which prescribes a limit that may or may not be too high—it is probably about right, but there is room for argument—and the suggestion that no one should drink and drive. That is an absolutist view. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, we shall achieve that only by eliminating driving or by eliminating drinking. That is not realistic.

The country spends on alcohol just under what it spends on the National Health Service. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, it spends half that sum on drinking alcohol in 2·5 million public houses. The vast majority of those who consume alcohol in such places get to and from them by car. That will not be changed by Government, and it will not be changed by law. Even the proper objective of eliminating drunken hooligan youths causing mayhem in villages and towns cannot be achieved by law, but it can be eliminated if no cars can be started by drunken drivers.

The technology is now available. It has been effectively demonstrated in Australia, where limits are lower, and it has been used for drivers on probation in California. The technology is not all that expensive. Obviously, it cannot be brought in overnight, and it will probably be difficult to apply it to existing vehicles, but if the House is serious and it wants to eliminate drunken driving, there is only one way to do it, and that is to fit every vehicle with a breathalyser ignition lock. That would create one problem. In any society there are always individuals who will say, "I shall get around that. I shall fiddle with the sealed box. I shall break the seals and tamper with the electronics in such a way that, even though the car has a breathalyser ignition lock, I can override its commands."

That would pose the same kind of problem as going through the green customs channel when one should go through the red channel. Obviously, the penalties must be infinitely higher. It will not eliminate the need for occasional or systematic checks of drivers' alcohol intake, but the police would be entitled to assume that every vehicle beyond a certain age and which was so equipped could not he driven by a drunken driver. In such cases, the penalties for so doing could properly be five or 10 times those for drivers of any other vehicle. The problem can be taken care of.

The essence of this extremely difficult and important matter is that we shall not achieve our objective by any changes in the law that have as their basic assumption—my hon. Friend the Minister takes it as his basic assumption—total abstinence on the part of every driver on every possible occasion. That is a counsel of perfection. Human societies do not achieve perfection. For heaven's sake, when technology comes rushing in with new devices that enable us to achieve our objectives without draconian laws and draconian enforcement, let us use them.

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington

My speech will be quite brief, as I made the case for lowering the blood alcohol limit when I presented a private Member's Bill earlier this year. That Bill was supported by all political parties.

Tomorrow, Parliament will receive a lobby group. That is not exceptional—Parliament receives many lobby groups. But tomorrow's lobby will be the most emotional for some considerable time. It is organised by the Campaign Against Drinking and Driving, a group that supports the families of people who are killed or injured by drunken, irresponsible drivers. I invite my hon. Friend the Member Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and other hon. Members to attend the meeting in the Grand Committee Room at half past 2 tomorrow afternoon.

My hon. Friend is a forceful speaker, and he made his points strongly. He said that, when random checks were made in several counties, 3 per cent. of drivers were found to be over the limit. Three per cent. is one car in every 30. If one stands beside fast-moving traffic, 30 cars will pass by every minute. If one in 30 drivers is over the limit, people on motorways or fast-moving dual carriageways are at significant risk. Three per cent. is a huge figure.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton , Bassetlaw

It was 3 per cent. who were over the limit, not 3 per cent. who were involved in accidents. That is a different figure.

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington

I concede that 3 per cent. of all drivers were over the limit. If one is over the present limit, one's chances of being in an accident are high. I shall be even more wary if, every time I drive my car, one driver out of the 30 drivers that pass me is over the legal limit. If that is the case, a large number of people are breaking the law.

My hon. Friend referred to non-drinkers being incensed. He knows full well that I am a non-drinker. He went on to suggest that non-drinkers are against alcohol. Living in the north-east of England and being a member of two dozen workmen's clubs, many of which I visit regularly——

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington

My hon. Friend says, "Not any longer." I have introduced two private Member's Bills, one on random breath testing and one on lowering the blood alcohol limit. On each occasion, the response was favourable, because the people I represent—the working people in the north-east—have more wit. They understand the family consequences of some drunken slob killing somebody.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton , Bassetlaw

Send the driver to gaol.

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington

The victim does not go to gaol. It is too late to send people to gaol when they have wiped out a family or a part of a family.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton , Bassetlaw

My hon. Friend said that the reaction of the public was favourable. Is he aware that Barbara Castle said exactly the same when she introduced the original Bill, but in the following month at a Leicester by-election the Labour party was slaughtered and lost a seat as a result of public reaction? The silent majority are those who do not write letters. My hon. Friend would find a different reaction from people in his club if the amendment were passed.

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington

My hon. Friend said that he was suspicious of data and market research; I am dubious and suspicious about that little piece of evidence. He said that people would react but, obviously, he has not been reading the recent opinion polls, especially those on random breath tests. The latest shows that more than 80 per cent. of the public wished random breath testing to be introduced.

Even in the correspondence column of the Spectator, I have praised what the Minister for Roads and Traffic is doing. In fact, I praise anybody, especially the Government, who does anything about drinking and driving and alcohol abuse. All hon. Members should welcome that. I cannot understand why my hon. Friend has a blind spot. On everything else he is going in the right direction, but he runs into a brick wall whenever random breath tests are mentioned.

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington

Will my hon. Friend give me a second or two? He had a long crack at his speech. The Whip is looking at me and we all know that that means that I must end my speech.

I have never lived in a city, but when the canny and sensible folk in the north-east go out in fours, three of them will drink and one will not—[Interruption.] I notice that the heckling is coming from my hon. Friends.

I wish that the Government would do more to promote non-alcoholic drinks, because that would solve part of the problem. People could spend an evening in a pub, club, hotel or wherever and drink as many non-alcoholic beers as they wished. I am not an expert on these matters, but my friends who drink non-alcoholic beers tell me that they are as enjoyable as alcoholic ones. [HON. MEMBERS: "Not true."] I still advocate them, and I ask the Minister to push them very strongly.

The Campaign Against Drinking and Driving press release states that at half past 2 tomorrow: A representative group of victim families, from as far afield as Manchester and Newcastle"— and, I understand, Northern Irelandwill be pleading with M.P.s to work for the introduction of an effective system of random breath testing before another 500 innocent victims are killed on our roads by drinking drivers.Each will carry a white flower for the dead victim(s) in their family who has been killed in circumstances which they regard as a form of murder. One family coming tomorrow will be carrying three white flowers. Just think what that actually means—some arrogant, selfish individual killed three members of one family. It is all right for my hon. Friend and other hon. Members to say, "They should have sent him to jail," but that is not the solution. I do not want more people in jail. I want people to drive cars without alcohol in their systems. That will stop people being killed on our roads.

Reference has been made to the cost of the alcohol industry. The latest paper that I have received states that drink-related accidents are costing the NHS—the taxpayer about £400 million a year. Therefore, not only are people being killed, but a heavy strain and cost is being placed on the Health Service.

6.15 pm

I support lower alcohol limits. I do not have time to read the letters that I received each time that I introduced my ten-minute Bills, but they are tragic and bring tears to my eyes, even when I re-read them. Many people are being killed on our roads. In fact, three people will be killed today, three more people tomorrow and three more the day after. On every day of this year three people will be killed on the roads because some other people will drive with too much alcohol in their blood, thus impairing their driving.

I support the proposal to reduce the blood alcohol limit. My advice to youngsters, new drivers and even experienced drivers—in fact, to everyone, and I am prepared to say it to my constituents broadly and loudly—is "if you go out with your car, do not drink alcohol." That must be the message.

Photo of Mr Neil Macfarlane Mr Neil Macfarlane , Sutton and Cheam

I do not wish to detain the House for very long, because I know that my hon. Friends want to make progress. The hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) gave the House a powerful reminder of the dilemma that we face. Of course, the comments of hon. Members underline the dissent on both sides of the House.

I have a general sympathy for the aims and objectives of the new clause that the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) so articulately moved. Many people outside this House will echo her remarks. During the past few months there has been some disquiet about which Government Department is in charge. In recent years I had some loose connection with this problem in another area. While I commend my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic for his annual campaign, as I did not support the Licensing Bill I cannot help but feel that that campaign should be prolonged over a 12-month period, not just over four, six or eight weeks.

However commendable the hon. Lady's proposal, I am not convinced that it is legislatively absolutely right. I shall listen closely to what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department has to say. If our right hon. and noble Friend the Minister of State is to be believed, and from what I saw a few months ago on television, the Home Office is not entirely seduced by the argument on random breath testing. Our right hon. and noble Friend made it clear to the annual meeting of police officers that he would not encourage further conflict between the motoring fraternity and the police. If that lead is taken, this problem will be kicked into touch quite a long way.

We have a problem with the relevant influence of the Department of Transport and the Home Office. Even if we accept only one quarter of what we read in the newspapers and see on television—not just in recent weeks or months, but the pattern during the past two or three years—no one doubts that alcohol abuse and alcohol and liquor consumption are problems.

I shall listen closely to what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has to say about the package that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Home Affairs intends to introduce. We will be sitting on a powder keg if some serious action is not taken.

Photo of Mr Ivan Lawrence Mr Ivan Lawrence , Burton

Drunken driving is an appalling offence, particularly when it leads to death. Everyone has a burning desire to stop it and to toughen the various penalties that exist, but there is a danger of over-reaction.

What we are discussing is whether we have the balance right regarding our drink-driving laws, whether there should be a tightening up, and, if so, which direction that should take. It is not immediately apparent to me that there are millions or even thousands of people who believe that the way in which to improve the situation is to reduce the level of alcohol that drivers can consume before they are not permitted to drive. I have received hardly any letters suggesting that that particular solution to the problem has the public's favour. If the changes in the law do not meet with public approval and support, they will do far more harm than good.

We have been discussing random breath-testing, and I believe that something should be done. As the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) has said, it is perfectly true that it is unlawful to breath-test at random. However, it is not unlawful to stop a driver at random and then to breath-test if there is a suspicion of alcohol in the breath. It seems to me that the end is the same. The public are disturbed by the fact that there is no lawful random breath-testing yet that is sometimes what the police seem to he enforcing. The matter must be clarified.

Random breath-testing does take place. We are aware of police forces that carry it out and, as it were, say, "We are doing it; now take action against us." I believe that it should be open to the police to target campaigns when they choose in order to stop people getting into their cars after they have been drinking to excess. If that means that such campaigns would take place outside public houses or clubs, that would benefit society, provided that the police do it with good sense and provided that is what the law specifically allows. The confusion about whether random breath tests are allowed disturbs people and distracts one from the true argument. We should have a law that is clear to everyone and reduces the number of drivers who drive under the influence of drink.

The courts have in recent years tightened up on drink-driving offences. The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) said that we must get rid of the hip flask defence, which enables a person to argue that he has taken a drink after he has got into a car and driven. The hon. Lady is behind the times. Such a defence was stopped seven years ago. The appeal courts are tightening up on the rules determining the degree of a person's blame while driving under the influence of drink.

It is iniquitous that a driver under the influence of drink who kills somebody should be able to "cop a plea" of careless driving and receive a fine, together with disqualification. No wonder the public are appalled at that. I hope that the Government will take on board the new North committee proposals, which are designed to ensure that such a practice does not happen in the future, and that a drunken driver who kills receives a substantial sentence. It should no longer be possible for a court to accept pleas of guilty to a lesser charge. I hope that the fact that the Crown prosecution service has replaced the police as the prosecuting unit will have some effect.

There are areas in which we can, with public acceptability, reduce the incidence of drink-driving. We must ask, however, whether the new clause will help. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will provide some facts and statistics that are somewhat different from the picture that is generally thought to exist. We are reducing the amount of drinking that goes on and there are fewer people driving vehicles under the influence of drink. Whenever there is a party or a gathering nowadays there are couples where one partner touches no drink and drives home. That habit is gaining momentum in our society.

There is a danger that we will over-react and tilt the balance in the wrong direction. We could stop people dying on the roads by banning the motor car. As a result 20,000 fewer deaths would occur. We could stop people dying from smoking by banning cigarettes—2,000 deaths a year would be avoided. We could stop people being killed by shotguns or any other firearm, accidentally or deliberately, by banning firearms. We could stop women being raped at night if we had a curfew on our women.

Do we want to restrict movement in our society and alter the social fabric by implementing restrictions that are so extreme that they interfere with the broadly pleasant and happy life that our people enjoy? If we go too far to restrict the liberties of the individual and if we do not put some brake on the trend to do so, we may find ourselves living in a Britain where nobody wants to enjoy themselves and where few will want to stay.

I believe that my hon. Friend the Minister should be cautious. We should do whatever we can, of course, to restrict and put an end to drinking and driving, if that is possible, but such restrictions must be acceptable to the public. I believe that the proposals in the new clause are years ahead of their time. I do not detect the public calling out for a further reduction in the level of drinking that takes place. Such a reduction would destroy a part of our rural life. The village pub may be several miles from some villagers and they would be unable to get to and from it unless they had a vehicle. Such village pubs are of value to our society and we would do well to try to maintain them and the rural way of life that they represent.

Photo of Mrs Elaine Kellett Mrs Elaine Kellett , Lancaster

In common with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), I am in favour of people living a broadly pleasant and happy life, but they can do so only if they manage to stay alive. Drink-driving wipes out far too many people.

I disagreed with the original proposals introduced by Lady Castle. I believe that the driver of a vehicle should not drink at all. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton has said that such a custom has grown, but I believe that it should be the law of the land, as it is in many other countries. There should be a non-drinker in every vehicle. Given that that suggestion does not form part of the new clause, I believe that that new clause is the next best thing.

I believe that it is exceedingly important that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should provide incentives for the supply of soft or low alcohol drinks. At the moment such drinks are as expensive or more expensive than the full-bodied beer, which Opposition Members appear to rate so highly. I plead with the Minister to make provision for a non-drinking driver in every vehicle but, in lieu of that, the new clause is the next best thing.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

There has been much discussion about random breath testing, and I believe it would be helpful to remind the House of the law. The position is governed by section 159 of the Road Traffic Act 1972. That Act enables the police to stop, at random, any motorist they choose. Having stopped a motorist, a policeman may require him to take the test if any of the ordinary three criteria exist: suspicion that the driver has alcohol in the blood, has committed a moving traffic offence, or has been involved in an accident. There is no statutory power to require random tests, but there is a statutory power to stop at random and then, if the three ordinary criteria exist, the test may be required. That seems a sensible approach.

6.30 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Sir I. Lloyd) made a powerful argument in favour of some forms of technology. I know that he has a particular device in mind. This matter was addressed at some length by Dr. North in his recently published report, and I refer my hon. Friend to paragraph 350 on page 44. There are serious problems with all the devices known to and identified by Dr. North in that report, but Dr. North recommends that the Government should keep in close contact with technological developments. I entirely agree, although I am somewhat cautious about the idea that one can resolve this problem by means of technological devices.

The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), in a powerful speech, commended caution in making major changes in the law on Report. I agree with him. This would be a major change, and it would have been arrived at without the benefit of discussion in Committee. Therefore, I find myself strongly supporting the hon. Gentleman's argument.

Turning to the major issue of whether we should lower the threshold——

Photo of Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds

I accept my hon. Friend's general point, but I hope that he will apply it to his own right hon. and hon. Friends. He will know that only a few days before this debate the Government introduced on Report entirely new matter dealing with DNA. My hon. Friend was wrong to do that; but he is right to say that substantial changes should not be made without Committee stages on the Floor of the House.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

As a general proposition it is desirable not to introduce major changes on Report. However, when changes are introduced on Report they often reflect detailed discussion in Committee, although they were not the subject of specific amendments there. I am only asserting a general proposition. Of course I accept that there will be exceptions to it. I shall not rise to the bait that my hon. Friend has so seductively put before me.

The threshold is the subject of the new clause. I do not think that drinking and driving mix. The conclusion to which I have come, and to which I now try to adhere in my own life, is that one cannot safely drive if one has been drinking. That is the only message that can properly be expressed. At the same time, I do not yet think it right to incorporate that view in statute.

The essential question is the point at which to set the threshold. We are divided between two propositions-50 and 80 mg——

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington

The Minister has said that it was not yet right. When will it be? How will he determine when it is right—when another 10,000, 20,000 or 50,000 people have been killed by drunken drivers?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I cannot answer that question, because the law must both reflect and lead public opinion in matters of this sort. The time may come when public opinion will favour a level of alcohol concentration so low as to amount to a no-drinking rule. I put it like that because the body produces natural alcohol levels, so a certain level must be allowed for. That time, however, has not yet come and I cannot see it coming in the near future. It may come. I do not close down the range of possibilities.

The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) suggested that our level of 80 mg is on the high side compared with other countries. I think that she is mistaken. It is true that a number of countries have a lower level, but many countries have the same one. I use the 1985 figures because they are the latest ones known to me. Countries which have a level similar to our own include Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Switzerland.

What should we be trying to do? We need to secure a greater compliance with the law rather than to reduce the threshold. The 1986 figures show that there were about 303,000 roadside tests, of which 68 per cent. were negative. I am glad to say that the proportion of negative tests has been rising substantially. In 1983, for example, it was 58 per cent.; in 1984, it was 59 per cent.; in 1985, it was 62 per cent.; and in 1986, 68 per cent. That shows, not conclusively but encouragingly, that drivers are now getting the message that drinking and driving do not mix.

We are achieving success in this area by a process of education and persuasion. We should continue with that, rather than reduce the statutory threshold.

Photo of Mr Ian Lloyd Mr Ian Lloyd , Havant

It would be interesting to elucidate this point. When a breathalyser test—positive or negative—is given by the police, are the police obliged to record which of the three reasons entitled them to give the test?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I do not know the answer to that off hand. I note that the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) thinks they do not. He may well be right. If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall have to write to him with an answer.

Photo of Dr Lewis Moonie Dr Lewis Moonie , Kirkcaldy

I thank the Minister for giving way, especially as I have not been here for most of the debate.

The argument is surely not about what other countries do, or what public opinion will accept, or whether there are other means of stopping people drinking and driving; it should be about whether the level of 50 mg is significantly safer than 80 mg. The Minister should be aware, as I am, that 80 mg in the blood is a level at which it is unsafe to drive. It impairs performance significantly. Both levels impair performance, but 50 mg does so significantly less.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The figure of 80 mg was fixed after careful research as being the point at which the risk increased sharply. I am not trying to pretend that people are not a little safer at 50 mg: they probably are. Nevertheless, 80 mg represented a considered assessment. We must take a balanced view and determine what we are trying to do. I believe that we should seek to achieve better compliance with the law before making statutory changes of the sort that have been canvassed tonight.

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor , Dewsbury

I shall be brief, because we want to discuss many other things tonight. I want to answer some of the points that have been raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) suggested that all who want a tightening up of the laws against drinking and driving are against drink, but that is not so. Many people enjoy a drink and regard themselves as social and responsible drinkers, but understand from the available evidence that drinking and driving do not mix and that we have a responsibility to ensure that they do not.

My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) mentioned the lobby that will take place tomorrow when families of victims of drunken drivers will lobby Members for stiff penalties and for tighter laws on drinking and driving. I hope that hon. Members will listen to those families and that this evening they will consider the anguish that has been caused and the avoidable deaths that have been caused. In few other areas are so many people killed in a way that is avoidable. We cannot dispute the statistics, which show that every year 1,500 or 1,600 people are killed as a result of drinking and driving.

Some Conservative Members, including the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) and the Minister, talked about getting the balance right. There is little balance for the victims of drunken drivers. Their lives, and often the lives of their families, have been destroyed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), who came in late because he had been detained at a meeting, made an important point to the Minister. Although the debate has been widened to include many aspects of drinking and driving such as random breath tests, because the new clause must be seen in the context of the existing breathalyser laws, the basic point is whether the permitted blood alcohol level should be 50 or 80 mg. All the evidence that has been presented by hon. Members on both sides of the House proves that there is a significantly higher risk of accidents if people are allowed to drive with a blood alcohol level of 80 mg.

Photo of Mr Gerry Bermingham Mr Gerry Bermingham , St Helens South

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister said that the level of 80 mg was fixed in about 1967, based on the research then available? Since then considerably more research has been done and we know more about the subject. It is apparent that the danger risk level of 80 mg is far too high and that the appropriate level would be about 50 mg.

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor , Dewsbury

My hon. Friend is right. The updated evidence from Australia and other countries supports that proposition. There is now general agreement on the matter.

In an intervention, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport said that he spends much of his time and his Department spends much money campaigning against drinking and driving. He believes that it has had some effect. That may be the case, but the £2·5 million spent by the Department of Transport recognises the problem and I hope that he will persuade his hon. Friends in government that we should go further. We should campaign, not simply to discourage people from drinking and driving, but to ensure that there is a proper limit, and we suggest that 50 mg should he that limit.

The matter gives rise to controversy among hon. Members on both sides of the House and it provokes strong feelings. The Licensing Act that the Government have just pushed through Parliament will allow people to drink throughout the day, and the pattern that has emerged in Scotland will be repeated here. The peak time for drink-related vehicle accidents will start earlier, as has happened in Scotland. If there is to be more drinking throughout the day, we should do more about the problems created by drinking and driving. We need more than new clause 83, but it is a step in the right direction and I hope that the House will accept it.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 139, Noes 281.

Division No. 386][6.43 pm
AYES
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)
Alton, DavidHughes, Simon (Southwark)
Anderson, DonaldJohn, Brynmor
Archer, Rt Hon PeterJones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn)
Armstrong, HilaryKellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Ashdown, PaddyKennedy, Charles
Ashley, Rt Hon JackKinnock, Rt Hon Neil
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Lewis, Terry
Battle, JohnLloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Bermingham, GeraldLoyden, Eddie
Bidwell, SydneyMcAllion, John
Blair, TonyMcAvoy, Thomas
Blunkett, DavidMacdonald, Calum A.
Boyes, RolandMcFall, John
Braine, Rt Hon Sir BernardMcKelvey, William
Bray, Dr JeremyMcLeish, Henry
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)McTaggart, Bob
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)McWilliam, John
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)Madden, Max
Buchan, NormanMahon, Mrs Alice
Callaghan, JimMeacher, Michael
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)Michael, Alun
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Cartwright, JohnMichie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)Moonie, Dr Lewis
Clelland, DavidMorgan, Rhodri
Clwyd, Mrs AnnMorley, Elliott
Cohen, HarryMorris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Corbett, RobinMorris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Cryer, BobMullin, Chris
Dalyell, TamMurphy, Paul
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)Nellist, Dave
Dixon, DonOakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Dobson, FrankO'Neill, Martin
Doran, FrankPatchett, Terry
Douglas, DickPendry, Tom
Dunnachie, JimmyPike, Peter L.
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs GwynethPrimarolo, Dawn
Fatchett, DerekQuin, Ms Joyce
Fearn, RonaldReid, Dr John
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)Richardson, Jo
Fisher, MarkRobertson, George
Foster, DerekRogers, Allan
Foulkes, GeorgeRooker, Jeff
Fyfe, MariaRoss, Ernie (Dundee W)
Galloway, GeorgeSedgemore, Brian
George, BruceShort, Clare
Godman, Dr Norman A.Skinner, Dennis
Golding, Mrs LlinSmith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Gordon, MildredSmith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Graham, ThomasSmith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)Spearing, Nigel
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)Steinberg, Gerry
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)Strang, Gavin
Grocott, BruceStraw, Jack
Hattersley, Rt Hon RoyTaylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Haynes, FrankTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
Heffer, Eric S.Vaz, Keith
Henderson, DougWall, Pat
Hinchliffe, DavidWallace, James
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Holland, StuartWigley, Dafydd
Hood, JimmyWilliams, Rt Hon Alan
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
Howells, GeraintWilson, Brian
Hughes, John (Coventry NE)Winnick, David
Wise, Mrs AudreyTellers for the Ayes:
Worthington, TonyMr. Frank Cook and
Wray, JimmyMr. Ken Eastham.
NOES
Alexander, RichardEmery, Sir Peter
Alison, Rt Hon MichaelEvans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)
Allason, RupertEvennett, David
Amery, Rt Hon JulianFallon, Michael
Amess, DavidFavell, Tony
Arbuthnot, JamesField, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)Fookes, Miss Janet
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)Forman, Nigel
Ashby, DavidForsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Ashton, JoeForth, Eric
Aspinwall, JackFranks, Cecil
Atkins, RobertFreeman, Roger
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)French, Douglas
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)Gardiner, George
Batiste, SpencerGill, Christopher
Beggs, RoyGilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Bendall, VivianGoodlad, Alastair
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Biffen, Rt Hon JohnGorman, Mrs Teresa
Biggs-Davison, Sir JohnGorst, John
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir PeterGow, Ian
Body, Sir RichardGreenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Bonsor, Sir NicholasGreenway, John (Ryedale)
Boswell, TimGregory, Conal
Bottomley, PeterGriffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E')
Bottomley, Mrs VirginiaGriffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)Grist, Ian
Bowis, JohnGround, Patrick
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir RhodesGummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Brandon-Bravo, MartinHamilton, Hon Archie (Epsom)
Brazier, JulianHamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Brittan, Rt Hon LeonHampson, Dr Keith
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterHannam, John
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')
Browne, John (Winchester)Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)Harris, David
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon AlickHaselhurst, Alan
Buck, Sir AntonyHawkins, Christopher
Budgen, NicholasHayes, Jerry
Burns, SimonHayward, Robert
Burt, AlistairHeathcoat-Amory, David
Butcher, JohnHeddle, John
Butler, ChrisHicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)
Butterfill, JohnHiggins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Campbell-Savours, D. N.Hind, Kenneth
Carlisle, John, (Luton N)Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)Holt, Richard
Carttiss, MichaelHowarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)
Cash, WilliamHowarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Channon, Rt Hon PaulHowe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Clark, Hon Alan (Plym'th S'n)Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)Hunt, David (Wirral W)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)Hunter, Andrew
Colvin, MichaelHurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Conway, DerekIrvine, Michael
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)Irving, Charles
Cope, Rt Hon JohnJack, Michael
Couchman, JamesJanman, Tim
Cran, JamesJones, Robert B (Herts W)
Critchley, JulianKey, Robert
Cunliffe, LawrenceKilfedder, James
Currie, Mrs EdwinaKing, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Curry, DavidKirkhope, Timothy
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)Knapman, Roger
Davis, David (Boothferry)Knight, Greg (Derby North)
Day, StephenKnight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Devlin, TimKnowles, Michael
Dicks, TerryKnox, David
Dorrell, StephenLamont, Rt Hon Norman
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesLang, Ian
Dover, DenLawrence, Ivan
Dunn, BobLeadbitter, Ted
Durant, TonyLeigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Dykes, HughLeighton, Ron
Lennox-Boyd, Hon MarkSackville, Hon Tom
Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)Sayeed, Jonathan
Lightbown, DavidScott, Nicholas
Lilley, PeterShaw, David (Dover)
Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)
Luce, Rt Hon RichardShepherd, Colin (Hereford)
McCrindle, RobertShepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Macfarlane, Sir NeilShersby, Michael
MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)Sims, Roger
Maclean, DavidSkeet, Sir Trevor
McLoughlin, PatrickSmith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
McNair-Wilson, Sir MichaelSpeller, Tony
McNair-Wilson, P. (New Forest)Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)
Madel, DavidSpicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Major, Rt Hon JohnSquire, Robin
Malins, HumfreyStanbrook, Ivor
Mans, KeithStanley, Rt Hon John
Maples, JohnSteen, Anthony
Marland, PaulStern, Michael
Marlow, TonyStevens, Lewis
Marshall, John (Hendon S)Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Marshall, Michael (Arundel)Stewart, Ian (Hertfordshire N)
Martin, David (Portsmouth S)Stokes, Sir John
Mates, MichaelStradling Thomas, Sir John
Maude, Hon FrancisSumberg, David
Maxwell-Hyslop, RobinSummerson, Hugo
Meyer, Sir AnthonyTapsell, Sir Peter
Miller, Sir HalTaylor, Ian (Esher)
Mills, IainTaylor, John M (Solihull)
Miscampbell, NormanTaylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Molyneaux, Rt Hon JamesTemple-Morris, Peter
Montgomery, Sir FergusThompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Moore, Rt Hon JohnThompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Morrison, Sir CharlesThorne, Neil
Moss, MalcolmThornton, Malcolm
Neale, GerrardThurnham, Peter
Nelson, AnthonyTownend, John (Bridlington)
Neubert, MichaelTracey, Richard
Newton, Rt Hon TonyTrippier, David
Nicholls, PatrickTurner, Dennis
Nicholson, David (Taunton)Twinn, Dr Ian
Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)Waddington, Rt Hon David
Oppenheim, PhillipWalden, George
Page, RichardWalker, Bill (T'side North)
Paice, JamesWaller, Gary
Patnick, IrvineWalters, Sir Dennis
Patten, John (Oxford W)Ward, John
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir GeoffreyWardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Pawsey, JamesWarren, Kenneth
Peacock, Mrs ElizabethWatts, John
Porter, Barry (Wirral S)Wells, Bowen
Porter, David (Waveney)Wheeler, John
Portillo, MichaelWhitney, Ray
Powell, William (Corby)Widdecombe, Ann
Price, Sir DavidWiggin, Jerry
Raffan, KeithWilshire, David
Raison, Rt Hon TimothyWinterton, Mrs Ann
Redwood, JohnWinterton, Nicholas
Rhodes James, RobertWolfson, Mark
Riddick, GrahamWood, Timothy
Ridley, Rt Hon NicholasWoodcock, Mike
Ridsdale, Sir JulianYoung, Sir George (Acton)
Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Roe, Mrs MarionTellers for the Noes:
Rowe, AndrewMr. Robert Boscawen and
Rumbold, Mrs Angela Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones.
Ryder, Richard

Question accordingly negatived.