New Clause 2 — Prescribed limits

Railways and Transport Safety Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:15 pm on 31st March 2003.

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'( ) The Road Traffic Act 1988 (c.52) shall be amended as follows—

(a) In section 11(2):

(i) in (a) leave out "35" and insert "22";

(ii) in (b) leave out "80" and insert "50"

(iii) in (c) leave out "107" and insert "67";

(b) In section 8(2) leave out "50" and insert "35";.—[Mr. Don Foster.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

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

After a discussion about the death of so many people on our roads due to snow and ice, it is appropriate to turn to another cause of death on our roads: drink-driving. I preface my remarks by making recognition of the work carried out by Governments past and present, by Departments, local authorities, the police and the media—through publicity—to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries caused by drink-driving. It would be wrong not to acknowledge the work that is already being done.

I realise that setting a limit is one thing, but that without proper advertising and, more important, appropriate enforcement, the exercise would be fruitless. In the UK, we have more advertising and stricter enforcement than in many other countries and, as a result, fewer casualties. None the less, there are several worrying trends, especially involving persistent drink-drivers. During Committee, there was considerable debate about the various medical and other interventions that might tackle the problem of persistent drink-drivers. We referred to work being done in this country and in Sweden, where punishments for persistent offenders include the option of medical treatment programmes.

I appreciate entirely that an amendment that merely referred to changes in the drink-driving limit would be inadequate by itself; we also need to continue advertising and enforcement at their present levels. However, that should not inhibit us from considering and discussing appropriate limits. As I pointed out in Committee, when Barbara Castle introduced the breathalyser legislation in 1967 she said that the 80 mg limit for blood alcohol was "overgenerous". Much more recently, before the 1997 general election and the creation of the Labour Government, the then transport spokesman for the Labour party, Glenda Jackson, made it clear, in a speech on 30 November 1996, that, in office, Labour would introduce legislation to reduce the drink-driving limit from 80 mg to 50 mg. The day before the hon. Lady made that speech, she issued a press release that stated:

"The new Labour Government will show no leniency to those who wilfully put their desire for a pint before the life of a person. The pain and misery of drink driving lasts for life, not just for Christmas."

So the Labour party gave a very clear commitment before it became the Labour Government.

Subsequently, in 1998, the Government started a detailed consultation on the issue. In February that year, they published a report entitled "Combating Drink Driving: Next Steps", which stated:

"For drivers in the 50-80mg range, the risk of a non-fatal accident is around 2 to 2.5 times as high as for a sober driver: for a fatal accident the risk is about 6 times as high."

The new clause deals with that 50 to 80 mg category. All the evidence gathered for that report indicated that there would be real benefits in a reduction of the drink- driving limit from 80 to 50 mg.

It was anticipated that the Labour Government would act, but they did not do so. A little later, in March 2000, they told us in a subsequent document that because there was a possibility that European legislation would require EU-wide harmonisation, it would be preferable to wait until that requirement came forward. Well, it did not do so, and although no specific legislation was proposed by the EU, the Commission made a clear recommendation that all countries should move to a harmonised limit of 50 mg.

Despite that, on 20 March last year, the Under-Secretary made it clear that the Government had decided that there would be no change after all. In a written answer, he said:

"The limit will stay at 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood."—[Hansard, 20 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 360W.]

A clear statement was made that the Government were not prepared to move on the issue, despite all the clear evidence that was before them about the benefits and the lives that would be saved. It is worth reflecting that this country, Ireland and Luxembourg are the only ones in the European Union that continue to have an 80 mg limit. All the other countries have already reduced their limits to 50 mg and some did so a considerable time ago. Indeed, every single European country that is seeking to join the EU in the relatively near future already has a limit of 50 mg or less. We remain one of the very few countries that have not heeded all the research evidence showing that a change such as the one that I propose in the new clause will save lives.

How many lives would such a change save? Clearly, it is difficult to be precise. As I said, the issue will depend not only on the limit, but on advertising and enforcement. Nevertheless, the research is pretty clear that the minimum number of lives that would be saved each year is 50, and it is almost certain that more would be saved. Indeed, a very significant number of serious accidents running into many hundreds would be avoided as a result of introducing such a measure. Sadly, despite all that evidence, the Government have decided not to move.

Given the very large number of deaths that occur on our roads, 50 may not seem many, but it is worth reflecting that we have today spent the vast majority of our time discussing issues relating to the railways, the rail accident investigation branch and the establishment of new structures for the British Transport police, predominantly in relation to their work on railways. Yet, as I said, 150 lives have been lost on our railways since 1997. Set against that level, 50 lives a year seems a very significant number. We should be working hard to save those lives, and that is what the new clause would do.

I am delighted that an early-day motion dealing with the issue has attracted a large number of Labour Back-Bench supporters. I therefore hope very much that, even if the Under-Secretary is not prepared to be moved in the light of all the prevailing evidence suggesting that he has got it wrong so far, a large number of his hon. Friends will be doing what they have indicated they will do by signing the early-day motion and supporting the new clause.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I rise to speak very briefly in support of everything that Mr. Foster has said, and not only because he is wearing what looks suspiciously like a Labour party tie.

I have felt for a very long time that we must bring the limits down to a level that is seen as sensible in other countries. We are better drivers and we have a lower death rate on our roads, and that is an admirable quality in our fellow citizens, but there is inevitably a downward curve when alcohol consumption is plotted against driving deaths—lower alcohol means that fewer people die.

I also believe that our Government will introduce the legislation at some point in the not-too-distant future; they simply need to be pressed a little harder. I hope that they might introduce it at the same time as legislation to outlaw the use of mobile phones while driving. There is another aspect of our character: as well as being good drivers, we are always reluctant to make such changes. We resisted introducing legislation on seat belts for too long, but have saved thousands of lives in the years since they were made compulsory. We have just heard about the gritting of roads. We hold off, but eventually give in. I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary seriously to consider giving in on this one too and introducing the lower limits forthwith.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Opposition recognise that drink-driving is a very serious offence that is well established on the statute book with widespread popular support. For a number of reasons, we wish to keep under review the specified level of alcohol in the blood, but we recognise that the existing limits enjoy widespread support and are concerned about the introduction of any measure that might break that popular consensus without a longer consultation period than has been allowed and without compelling evidence.

We are aware that a number of studies and research projects are under way and we would like them to have time to reach their natural conclusions. Personally, I recognise that alcohol exists naturally in the blood, I think in the form of ethanol, and that it can be contained in certain legally prescribed medication. For that reason, we have reservations about considering making a reduction at this stage. However, we would like to keep an open mind on the matter, to which we would like to return at a later date.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

I have to declare a non-pecuniary interest as a co-chairman of PACTS, the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, which is a registered charity and an associate parliamentary group whose charitable objective is to promote transport safety to save lives through research-based solutions. I should like to explain to the House that PACTS strongly supports reduction of the blood alcohol concentration limit in this country, partly because of research that has shown the need for such a reduction.

As Mr. Foster pointed out, 10 deaths a week on our roads are attributable to drinking and driving. Adding together deaths and serious injuries produces an average of about 10 incidents a day, so the problem is very serious. Who are the drink-drivers? The research tells us that they are overwhelmingly male; only 8 per cent. are female. Almost half of all drink drivers are over 33, and, surprisingly, 40 per cent. have a criminal history in addition to their propensity to drink and drive. That suggests that the offence rewards attention by the police in tracking down other sorts of crime. It also saves us from thinking, as we might be tempted to do, "There but for the grace of God go I." Clearly, we in this House do not have a propensity to commit criminal offences generally.

A lot of the pressure to lower the limit comes from hon. Members, safety organisations, people who have been injured in road accidents that involved drinking and driving and, not least, those who have been bereaved due to such accidents. That is a powerful electorate to which we should pay attention. Research from the Grand Rapids study shows that 50 mg alcohol in 100 ml blood is the concentration at which a person's inability to drive becomes more seriously impaired. There is a scientific basis for a limit of 50 mg, and the hon. Member for Bath pointed out that 11 EU member states have such a limit. Sweden's limit is 20 mg and two other countries have the same limit as ours. Although there is no EU directive to set a standard limit throughout Europe, there is a directive about the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications throughout states. That creates an obvious pressure because if we are to recognise other states' disqualification due to drink-driving offences, it makes sense for all countries to have the same alcohol limit.

A lower limit will save lives although, as the hon. Member for Bath said, it is difficult to know how many until after the measure has been implemented. He said that estimates show that about 50 lives a year would be saved due to a lower limit, and most people predict that between 50 and 100 lives a year would be saved. That is a valuable prize at which to aim. Like the hon. Gentleman, I agree that this country's media campaigning, enforcement and prosecution policy has been so successful that we have made drinking and driving beyond the current limit socially unacceptable. We must not disturb that position and I understand why Miss McIntosh said that we must be careful to carry the public with us—I totally agree.

I am not convinced that lowering the limit would be unhelpful. There is a common misconception among the public that the legal limit represents about two drinks. That attitude is out of date in these days of larger measures and drinks with stronger alcohol content. People would definitely be below the proposed 50 mg limit if we said, "One drink and no more." That would be a simple message, although we and the police would want to say, "If you are the driver of a vehicle, please do not drink at all", because any alcohol impairs one's ability to drive.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 7:30 pm, 31st March 2003

Will the hon. Gentleman explain the Government's somewhat confusing position? They say that they are unwilling to support reducing the limit to 50 mg, but they have a policy that people should not drink at all. Their position is not consistent.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

That is not the Government's problem but a problem for all of us. People want to drink and then drive, and our responsible advice must be that drivers should not drink. That brings me to the nub of my point about opposition to reducing the limit: it is not Government-led opposition, it is more general. However, to conclude my answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, the written answer on 20 March 2002 at column 360W that the hon. Member for Bath cited does not give us a clue why the Government will not go for the reduction.

Objection to a change comes from people who make money from selling drink, such as those who run public houses. There is a lot of concern in rural areas that a reduction in the limit would affect such people's businesses. Those people are a powerful lobby group because they have many customers who would not want politicians to tell them how to behave in their private lives. The answer is to have a more public promotion of the concept of a nominated driver. Public houses and similar places of fun, relaxation and entertainment should promote the idea that designated drivers deserve a decent range of reasonably priced drinks and other items when they go to such places because that would persuade them that they are doing the responsible thing by not drinking. That would give public recognition to the good deed that is done by being a driver who lays off alcohol. That is how the Minister should persuade people that doing that is right.

I suspect that the Minister will mention the 400 or so deaths a year that are not caused by drink-drivers and cite the unquantified deaths caused by people who are miles over the legal limit and who persistently drink to excess: the high-risk offenders. However, if we continued to define high-risk offenders as people who are two and a half times over the limit, reducing the legal limit for everyone would reduce the limit for high-risk offenders. Consequently, we would catch more high-risk offenders and more people would be subject to more intensive treatments and punishments that would be required before they might get their licences back.

We could consider going further and reducing the multiplier to define high-risk offenders to twice the legal limit in order to catch more people. We would tell such people that they pose a greater risk to people who behave lawfully and innocently on our roads and that we do not want their behaviour to kill such people. However, we would not want to keep them off the road for ever provided that we could correct their behaviour. We try to give high-risk offenders treatment and ask them to take tests to prove that their attitude has changed and that they are competent and safe drivers. If people drive more safely after going through the process, what is wrong with catching more people and putting them through it? I hope that the Minister will give a more sympathetic hearing to the proposal this year than his Department did last year.

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney Conservative, North West Cambridgeshire

The last time I addressed the House, I said that there was no point in it expressing its will if it was not prepared to support the means necessary to meet that will. The debate is all about willing means and willing ends. We will the end of achieving road safety, but for a strange reason that I do not understand, we baulk at willing the means to that end.

Mr. Foster reminded us that the new Labour Government were committed in 1996 to introducing legislation to reduce the legal limit from 80 to 50 mg of alcohol. However, given that Glenda Jackson made the commitment, I have my doubts. That was not the first time that such a change was contemplated because I know of a Secretary of State for Transport who thought seriously about reducing the limit. However, before he had time to do anything about his thoughts, he was moved to another Department, so I was.

My hon. Friend Miss McIntosh made the perfectly valid point that it is important not to lose public support for whatever limit might be set, and we would all agree with that. However, that has echoes of debates long gone. Some of my hon. and right hon. Friends and, indeed, some Labour Members had a problem with the principle of whether we should interfere with people's lives. We have had the same debates about seat belts, crash helmets and alcohol limits. Perhaps the House will one day have the same debate about the effect of drugs on people's ability to drive. However, a principle has been established from those debates. We are in an unusual, yet interesting, situation of saying that reducing the limit would be to the advantage of many people because they would be enabled to live, but that we must not lose public support. It is kind of hard to believe that the public could not be encouraged to support reducing the limit to save lives.

I understand the point that the hon. Member for Bath made on this issue; indeed, I agree with him. Road safety is at least as much about messages, promotion, guidance, encouragement and setting good examples as anything else. In my time, I have done the Christmas drink and drive message, as has the Minister. We have all been there and done that, and we have all given our support to fairly robust measures, so far as the courts are concerned. Mr. Kidney made that point eloquently.

The issue is whether there would be a genuine benefit in this reduction. I am not desperately impressed by the fact that it has been done elsewhere, although that is an argument that can be put forward. The question is whether we should do it here, and I shall listen with great interest to the Minister's arguments as to why we should not. I hope that he will not take us down the "We need more consultation" route. We have consulted, then we have consulted on the consultations. We have researched, then we have researched the research. We have then consulted on the research and researched the consultations. We know what the facts are. The problem is that the House has difficulty in willing the means to achieving the laudable end.

Having said all that, this is a matter for the Government. I find it extremely difficult to be supportive of the Liberal Democrat party on anything.

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney Conservative, North West Cambridgeshire

I am grateful for the support of Mr. Tyler for that view.

I hope that the hon. Member for Bath will not push this amendment to a vote. I hope that he will understand that the importance of this little debate is the message that it sends to the Government, because unless and until the Government honour that 1996 pledge, this reduction is not going to happen. That is the reality. I do not wish to be overly melodramatic, but the Minister needs to understand that, with every year that passes without the limit being reduced, people die who would not otherwise do so.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

I had not intended to contribute to this debate, but this is an issue on which I feel strongly, and I was moved to speak by the weasel words of Miss McIntosh. I am grateful, too, for having had the opportunity to listen to the former Secretary of State, Sir Brian Mawhinney, because he has confirmed me in my view.

Before I come to the issues that have already been addressed, I would like to respond to Mr. Kidney on the issue of rural licensed premises. There are a great many in my constituency, and the Cornishman is capable of taking his drink, just like the best of them. I hope that the Minister will agree that nominated drivers are becoming increasingly popular and that taxis are now doing very good business in this regard. In rural areas, there is an increasingly responsible attitude to the problem of drinking and driving. I do not know the exact figures for Cornwall—I have not had the opportunity to check them—although I should perhaps declare an interest, in that my wife is a magistrate and therefore takes a particular interest in these matters. I did not, however, manage to check the latest figures with her last night. It is true, though, that in rural areas, as in urban areas, people are becoming more and more responsible. I have not noticed any more pressure being brought to bear by rural licensed premises than by urban ones.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

The licensing industry produces its own newsletter, called The Bullet-Inn, which it sends to Members of Parliament. It regularly states that the industry opposes this reduction from 80 mg to 50 mg. I am not saying that it refers specifically to rural premises, but the point is that the industry represents a strong body of opposition.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall 7:45 pm, 31st March 2003

I understand that point, but I was trying to suggest that it is not merely rural licensed premises that take the view that I have outlined. Indeed, based on my own private, local experience, I believe that the rural community in Cornwall would address this issue with the same seriousness of approach that has been demonstrated by a number of hon. Members tonight—not only my hon. Friend Mr. Hopkins and the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire.

I want to spend a moment on the issue of public support. Many attempts have been made to improve the quality of the safety that we accept as a natural discipline—through the introduction of safety belts and drink-drive legislation, for example—and I am sure that the same will apply to the use of mobile phones; I hope that the Minister will respond to the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Luton, North on that. I am also sure that people now recognise that death and injury on our roads are such serious issues that the House constantly has to lead on these matters, rather than coming in from behind with endless consultation and research.

I disagree with the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire on only one point. I believe that we should take into account the experience of other countries. That evidence might not be conclusive, but we should add it to the body of research and consultation carried out in this country. We cannot just ignore it. The evidence that has been placed before the House this evening has been placed before successive Secretaries of State, and Ministers should take it very seriously indeed.

I would like to pay tribute to the work of Brake on road safety—I am not referring to my hon. Friend Tom Brake, although he happens to be a distinguished member of that pressure group—which has been absolutely outstanding. I know that the Minister agrees with that, because he said so to some of its members just the other day when I was there. I hope that he will therefore support its efforts, and those of other organisations, to bring this issue to the top of the agenda again. I do not recall precisely when the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire was—no doubt undeservedly—moved from his position as Secretary of State for Transport, but it was many years ago. I believe, that sufficient time has elapsed since then, and that we now need to make a decision.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I well recall a debate taking place in the students union during my college years—that was quite a long time ago, although not quite as long as for Sir Brian Mawhinney—in which the motion before the house was that drink-driving laws were an affront to personal liberty. If my memory serves me correctly, the motion was narrowly carried. If such a motion went before even a body of students these days, I believe that it would be well and truly defeated. That is an indication of how attitudes to drink-driving have changed substantially over time, just as they have changed in relation to the use of seat belts and crash helmets. Who knows?—they might even change in relation to using a mobile phone while driving.

We have a good record on road safety in this country. Indeed, it probably compares with the best in the world. For the amount of traffic that we have on our roads, we have the lowest number of casualties. Anecdotally, one can say that our roads are generally safe places to be. However, we still have a substantial number of casualties and we can never be complacent. We have to carry on driving down those figures. We have to focus on what is important in this debate, which—as hon. Members have mentioned—is not lowering a limit or reducing a speed but getting rid of the casualties. We need to get to the issue that really affects people's lives. Road accidents create a great deal of misery for the people involved and, when there are deaths, for their families. Account must also be taken of the enormous economic cost of those casualties, which the country has to bear.

Mr. Foster spoke with sincerity on this issue, and we are agreed that we need to reduce the number of casualties, not only from drink-driving but across the board. I know that he and I share that aspiration. I also accept his argument that measures other than reducing the limit need to be taken—that is right and proper—but I would not necessarily want European harmonisation, nor would I want to say that that would benefit this country, as most other European countries have a much worse record on road casualties. Some have lower limits, but they have lower penalties. Some are very low indeed, at the 50 mg level, and they can hardly be called a deterrent. Were we to go down that road, we could find ourselves being pressured to have lower levels of punishment for lower blood-alcohol levels.

Furthermore, as the hon. Gentleman knows, many other European countries have much lower levels of enforcement. He mentioned some accession countries. They may have drink-driving laws on their statute books and limits lower than 80 mg, but in some of those countries enforcement is not just low, but zero. In this country, enforcement is very strict indeed.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I make the simple point to my hon. Friend that it is not a sufficient condition to have lower limits, but a necessary one. Other factors are equally important.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I accept that, and I shall move on to those points.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

In a moment, when I have dealt with the intervention of my hon. Friend Mr. Hopkins, who spoke with great sincerity. If lower limits were introduced, would that have the effect that we wanted it to have? That is the genuine question. I say to him that if the evidence for that being the route forward were overwhelming and compelling, perhaps in the future that is the road that we would go down, but I have yet to be convinced.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I thank the Minister for allowing me to interrupt him. Do the figures not speak for themselves? Alcohol-induced accidents involve significantly fewer casualties, fatalities, serious injuries and slight injuries than those caused by speed. If anything, there is more pressure on him to act against speed rather than alcohol as a cause of road accidents.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Yes, and the two issues are sometimes closely related: people who are speeding are over the alcohol limit as well. The simple answer is that we must tackle all three issues that are involved here. Alcohol is important, as are speed and issues such as people facing unwarranted and unreasonable expectations at work, as mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr. Clapham.

My hon. Friend Mr. Kidney, who is a doughty campaigner on road safety issues, raised some good points, such as the important matter of having a designated driver. That is probably prevalent among younger people, the vast majority of whom are extremely responsible—perhaps, I might say, more responsible than the older generation. They have a "des", or designated driver, who elects not to drink alcohol and takes the rest of the group home. I say that as one who has had teenagers, who are now in their twenties. I have seen that system in operation and younger people are very responsible in that respect, but it is also true that a small minority, particularly younger men, are not. I shall come to that in a moment.

The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire made a powerful and compelling speech, but I am not going to allow him to chide me for anything that we may or may not be doing. He was Secretary of State—he left the job in 1995, Mr. Tyler may be interested to know—but, although I was not a Member of the House at the time, I do not recall him campaigning on that particular issue. I accept, however, that he may have changed his position, and we are pleased about that.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall made the point that the vast majority of people in rural areas are responsible. That is the case, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, but unfortunately a small minority are not responsible. I shall move on to those people in a moment.

The merits of introducing a blood-alcohol content limit of 50 mg or even lower have been extensively examined and debated over a long period. Much research has been done and the experiences of other countries have been taken into account. In our 1998 consultation paper, "Combating Drink Driving: Next Steps", the Government acknowledged that many drivers experience some impairment below the 80 mg level, but the potential injury savings from lowering the limit to 50 mg depend very much on assumptions and estimates.

The extent of driving impairment below 80 mg in individual drivers is less certain than at over 80 mg. We would probably all accept that. We know that the results of research based on experience in other countries where legal limits have been reduced to below 80 mg are likely to have been affected by the influence of other anti-drink-driving measures. In most cases, it seems that the underlying trends and concurrent factors such as publicity and enforcement policies were not always measured in relation to the reduction of the blood-alcohol level limit. That makes it difficult to apportion the beneficial effects of the whole package of measures to each contributory factor, including a reduction in the limit.

Another factor that needs to be taken into account is the penalty regime for road traffic offences, which is a key element in the enforcement of drink-driving laws. Penalties in this country are far more severe for exceeding the 80 mg limit than in most other European countries with a limit of 50 mg or lower. There is, for example, a mandatory minimum disqualification of 12 months for any drink-driving offence, which can be combined with up to six months' imprisonment and a £5,000 fine. Most countries with a lower legal limit impose only minor penalties at the lower alcohol levels, and imprisonment and licence removal are not generally available below alcohol levels of 100 mg or more.

Applying our penalties at 50 mg would put us further out of line with Europe in terms of sanctions. It is also likely that that would be regarded as unduly harsh. Critically, it would be unlikely to command as much respect from the motoring public at large. The alternative of adopting a system of lesser penalties at the lower alcohol level would create the unfortunate impression that the Government were willing to regard some levels of drink driving as more acceptable than others. We also have concerns about whether the lower-level penalties would have any real effect on offending rates.

The vast majority of those involved in incidents that cause serious casualties on our roads are well over the 80 mg level, so we must give our time to those people who are probably not even aware of the limits; nor do they care. We have to turn our attention to those people because they are causing the death and injuries on our roads. For those reasons, it is right to be cautious about reducing the prescribed limit.

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney Conservative, North West Cambridgeshire

I have listened carefully to the Minister. He understands, does he not, that he represents the Government? He can set the penalties, draw up the publicity and define those other activities. Also, he has told us that there would be a benefit in a reduction, although he will not quantify it, which is fine. Why is he unwilling to support a reduction?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Because the benefit is difficult to quantify. The benefits of other measures that we are taking on enforcement and advertising—in particular, the focus on those who are ignoring the drink-driving laws, who are mainly younger men, I am afraid to say—mean that it is better to expend our energy in that particular direction.

There can be little doubt that the approach adopted by successive Governments—by the present Secretary of State, among others—involving powerful publicity backed by tougher penalties has reduced the number of casualties by about two thirds. Given that the amount of road traffic has doubled during the period involved, that means that, in terms of miles travelled, we now see about a sixth of the number of drink-driving casualties that we used to see. As I said earlier, that has given us one of the best safety records in the European Union, and indeed in the wider world.

It is encouraging to note the provisional results produced in 2001. They are the latest available figures. The number of people killed in drink-related road accidents had fallen from 530 to 480, and the number of people seriously injured had fallen from 2,540 to 2,410. Of course we recognise that there is a great deal more to be done.

I think that all of us, including the hon. Member for Bath, share the same ambition. We want to reduce the number of casualties on our roads, and to reduce the consequent misery. I think that the new clause is founded on good intention, but I fear that accepting it would lead to a further debate on whether we should reduce the penalty relating to 50 mg because it is too harsh, and whether we should come more into line with Europe. That would distract us from the important issue—for the issue should not be whether low alcohol should apply when people are driving, but whether no alcohol should apply.

I do not want our efforts, which have been very successful over a long period, to be wasted. I think that ours is the best approach: support for a strong deterrent and punishment, backed by the enforcement that operates in this country, along with education and research.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 8:00 pm, 31st March 2003

No speaker today has in any way denigrated the enormously good work that has been done to ensure that we retain our good record on drink-driving. All have acknowledged the tremendous efforts of the present Government and their officials, previous Governments and their officials, and many others. But none has denied the central truth that a lowering of the alcohol limit would save lives.

I am grateful to Members on both sides of the House who have supported the lowering of the limit. It is traditional to comment on the contribution of the Conservative spokesman, but fortunately I do not need to do so, as Sir Brian Mawhinney, on the basis of considerable experience, effectively answered the point made by Miss McIntosh. She had argued that more consultation and debate were needed. He said that he hoped that the Minister would not involve us in more consultation, adding eloquently, "We know what the facts are"—and he is absolutely right.

Mr. Kidney rightly pointed out that studies had been carried out for many years. He referred to the Grand Rapids study, which was conducted in 1962. All subsequent research has confirmed the basic findings of that study. He was also right to point out that we must tackle many other issues relating not just to speed but to drink-driving. We should promote the idea of a nominated driver, and the provision of a good range of reasonably priced non-alcoholic options.

The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire said that we had reached a point at which—knowing the evidence, and knowing that if we accepted the new clause we could save lives—we must start discussing whether or not we were prepared to will the means. Normally I would agree with everything said by my hon. Friend Mr. Tyler, but I am about to surprise and slightly disappoint him. He said that this was one of the occasions on which, without doubt, the House should lead, Parliament should lead and the Government should lead, expecting others to follow—echoing what one or two others had said. The implication was that majority public support for this move does not already exist, although all the evidence suggests that such support exists. Moreover, surveys of other European countries employing the lower limit show that some 77 per cent. of the public in those countries support it.

The Minister told us, as he did on another occasion, that we did not want harmonisation because some things that were done in those other countries were not as good as what we do here. He is partly right and partly wrong. If he wanted—although in fact I will not do it—I could go through the penalty regimes of each European country line by line, and show that ours is roughly the same as those of other countries. I could give the figures relating to public perception of enforcement, and demonstrate that a number of other countries believe that their enforcement regimes are stricter than ours, although some are less strict. I do not need to do that, because we all accept that measures in addition to limit-setting measures are important.

We need a decent advertising campaign, appropriate penalties and appropriate enforcement. We know that a lower limit, along with those measures, would save many lives. I must tell the Minister, however, that it will not be possible to provide for appropriate advertising, to set penalties or to determine what is the right enforcement without first deciding on the limit. The new clause, based on all the research carried out over so many years, suggests an appropriate limit. Notwithstanding what the Minister said, I genuinely believe that—in the words of Mr. Hopkins—now is the time to press the Government a little harder.

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

The House divided: Ayes 32, Noes 282.

Division number 149

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.