New Clause 1 — Driving with Illegal Drugs

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 5:45 pm on 9 October 2006.

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Votes in this debate

'A person who when driving or attempting to drive a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or other place is found to have traces of an illegal drug in his body shall be guilty of an offence.'.— [Mr. Chope.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 5— Medical fitness to drive—

'(1) The Motor Cars (Driving Instructions) Regulations 2005 are amended as follows.

(2) In regulation 5, paragraph (b), after "users", insert "recognising the dangers posed by driving while medically unfit to drive".

(3) The Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) Regulations 1999 are amended as follows.

(4) In regulation 71(1), after paragraph (e) insert—

"(f) liability to sudden attacks of disabling giddiness, faintness or drowsiness caused by a sleep disorder.".

(5) In regulation 71, after paragraph (2) insert—

"( ) The disability prescribed in paragraph (1)(c) is prescribed for the purpose of section 92(4)(b) of the Road Traffic Act in relation to an application for a Group 1 or Group 2 licence if the applicant suffering from that disability satisfies the Secretary of State that—

(a) the driving of the vehicle by him in pursuance of the licence is not likely to be a source of danger to the public; and

(b) he has made adequate arrangements to receive regular medical supervision by a sleep disorder specialist who holds a hospital appointment.".'.

New clause 30— Alcohol limits—

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

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

(a) in paragraph (a) for "35" substitute "22";

(b) in paragraph (b) for "80" substitute "50"; and

(c) in paragraph (c) for "107" substitute "67".

(3) In section 8(2) for "50" substitute "35".'.

New clause 39— Disqualification for drink offence—

'(1) Section 36 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 is amended as follows.

(2) After subsection (2) insert—

"(2A) Subsection (1) above also applies to a person who is disqualified for a period in excess of 12 months on conviction of a relevant drink offence.

(2B) In this section "relevant drink offence" means—

(a) an offence under paragraph (a) of subsection (1) of section 3A of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (causing death by careless driving when unfit to drive through drink) committed when unfit to drive through drink,

(b) an offence under paragraph (b) of that subsection (causing death by careless driving with excess alcohol),

(c) an offence under paragraph (c) of that subsection (failing to provide a specimen) where the specimen is required in connection with drink or consumption of alcohol,

(d) an offence under section 4 of that Act (driving or being in charge when under the influence of drink) committed by reason of unfitness through drink,

(e) an offence under section (5)(1) of that Act (driving or being in charge with excess alcohol),

(f) an offence under section 7(6) of that Act (failing to provide a specimen) committed in the course of an investigation into an offence within any of the preceding paragraphs, or

(g) an offence under section 7A(6) of that Act (failing to allow a specimen to be subject to a laboratory test) in the course of an investigation into an offence within any of the preceding paragraphs."'.

Amendment No. 50, in page 15, clause 14, leave out lines 5 to 15 and insert—

'(1) This section applies where—

(a) a person is convicted of a relevant drink offence by or before a court, and

(b) the period stated by the court as that for which he would be disqualified is not less than six months.'.

Amendment No. 51, in page 15, leave out from beginning of line 16 to end of line 22 on page 16 and insert—

'(3) Where this section applies, the court shall (subject to subsection 7) make an order (an "alcohol ignition interlock programme order") requiring the offender to comply with the alcohol ignition interlock conditions.

(4) The period which the offender shall comply with the alcohol ignition conditions shall be a period specified in the order of—

(a) not less than six months, and

(b) not more than two years.

(5) If the offender contravenes the alcohol ignition interlock conditions, a further order disqualifying him for the rest of the period specified under subsection (4) is to be treated as having been made by the court immediately before the contravention.

(6) "The alcohol ignition interlock conditions" are that the offender—

(a) must participate fully in an approved alcohol ignition interlock programme specified for the duration specified in the order, and

(b) during the period specified in the order, must not drive a motor vehicle unless it is fitted with an alcohol ignition interlock in good working order and must not drive a motor vehicle which is so fitted when not using the alcohol interlock properly, and

(c) must make due payment of fees for the programme which shall include the cost of the alcohol ignition interlock being provided, fitted and maintained to a motor vehicle.

(7) A court may decline to make an alcohol interlock programme order if it appears to the court that the offender will not comply with the alcohol ignition interlock conditions in which case the court will specify an additional period of disqualification for a period equal to the period which it would have otherwise ordered the offender to comply with the alcohol ignition conditions.'.

Amendment No. 53, in page 16, line 11, at end insert 'and

(c) must make due payment of fees for the programme which shall include the cost of the alcohol ignition interlock being provided, fitted and maintained to a motor vehicle'.

Amendment No. 52, in page 17, line 4, after 'offender', insert—

'(13) Nothing within this section shall prevent the court from making an order in accordance with section 34.'.

Amendment No. 54, in page 17, line 16, at end insert 'fitment'.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I should say at the outset that a lot people thought that it was already an offence to be at the wheel of a car with illegal substances in one's body, but that is not the law as it stands. We do not tolerate train drivers who have illegal substances in their body when they are driving trains, or airline pilots who have illegal substances in their body when they are at the controls of an aircraft, yet the law seems to be much more relaxed about those who take the controls of motor vehicles on our roads, some of which, as we need not remind ourselves, are very large lorries. New clause 1 would outlaw driving with illegal substances in the body. I am the first to accept that before introducing a new criminal sanction we need to be satisfied that there is a real and serious problem that needs to be addressed, and I hope that the House will accept that there is. Not only that—the problem is getting worse. Many innocent people are being killed or seriously injured as a result of Parliament's failure to address the problem.

I began looking into this issue in February last year, when I was the shadow transport Minister taking the lead on road safety matters. The Southern Daily Echo reported an horrific case in which a driver was jailed after a crash in which he killed a young Bournemouth university student on the first day of their university career. That accident occurred because the driver, whose vehicle hit the student's car head on, had been under the influence of amphetamines—an illegal drug—which he had been taking to try to keep awake. Although taking amphetamines may have that short-term effect, when it wears off a state of acute drowsiness occurs. That is what happened in that case, and a young life was lost on our roads as a result of a driver with illegal drugs in his system.

Sadly, such an occurrence is far from unique. In 2000, the Transport Research Laboratory published data on the percentage of drivers killed in motor accidents who had illegal drugs in their body. I was amazed to discover that 22.9 per cent. of drivers killed in motor accidents had illegal drugs in their body.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport

Will the hon. Gentleman explain what he means in his new clause by "traces"? In dealing with other drugs such as alcohol, we state the limit. Does he accept that this is an open-ended clause that could lead to anybody being "done", as with athletes who have minor traces of a drug in their body which has no effect on performance whatever?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The question of the amount of the drug is obviously a matter for mitigation, but as the hon. Gentleman may know, at the moment, a train driver who has traces of an illegal drug in their body is guilty of an offence and will probably lose their job immediately. I know that the Liberal Democrats have a history of being slightly soft on this subject, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will realise that, at the moment, there is a big anomaly, and that there is everything to be said, in terms of road safety, for putting those who drive other vehicles on a par with those who drive trains or pilot aircraft.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in Northern Ireland—unfortunately, the road traffic accident statistics there are even more horrific than in other parts of the United Kingdom—the second highest cause of death on our roads is drivers with illegal substances along with alcohol found in their body? Indeed, illegal drugs are increasingly the problem and are rapidly overtaking alcohol. Does he accept my support for his new clause, having regard to that information?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. Increasingly there is evidence that this is not an either/or situation: it is not a question of illegal drugs or excess alcohol. Often, drugs are mixed with alcohol and although the level of the latter might be below the legal limit, the concoction is lethal and radically affects such people's ability to drive.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

I commend the intentions behind the new clause. As a practising criminal solicitor for a number of years, I know the problems that prosecutors face in seeking to mount a successful prosecution of someone charged with driving while unfit through the use of drugs. In particular, properly proving that someone has cannabis in their system, and that it makes them unfit to drive, is a real issue. I know that those who have successfully defended such cases have been sympathetic to the problems faced by the prosecution. When someone has traces of cannabis in their body, it is often difficult to determine whether that is because they passively smoked it as a passenger in a car in which it was being smoked, or whether they were actively smoking it.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

If the driver has traces of an illegal substance in his body, he would be guilty of an offence under the new clause. My hon. Friend—I hope that he will have the chance to make a proper contribution to this debate and to bring his experience to bear—seems to be saying that there are circumstances in which the detection equipment might falsely indicate that somebody had smoked cannabis when in fact they had merely been in the presence of somebody smoking it. I hope that the law will be able to distinguish between such cases.

Photo of Lee Scott Lee Scott Conservative, Ilford North

Given the fact that, unfortunately, so many young people are using illegal substances, does my hon. Friend agree that the time has come to place a zero-tolerance ban on the use of such substances while people are driving? Many lives are being taken, as the Minister mentioned earlier. Does my hon. Friend agree that such a ban would prevent some of the horrific loss of life that we have seen in recent times?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support and I agree with him 100 per cent. That is why my right hon. Friend Mr. Knight and I first raised this issue in Committee before the last general election. We were keen to resurrect it, and new clause 1 was tabled as long ago as Easter, so that we could ensure a debate on Report.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

May I add my wholehearted support for the new clause? My hon. Friend will know that I sit as a part-time judge, so I recognise the scourge of illegal drugs. Any message that we in this House can send that somebody should not drive with any illegal substance inside them is a powerful and good message.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Knowing that he sits as a part-time judge, I feel that his support is worth perhaps even more than that of just one hon. Member, because he brings to this debate a great wealth of experience.

If there is still anyone in the Chamber who has any doubt about the gravity of this matter or about the growth in drug-driving, I commend to them TRL report No. 495, because it shows that since the 1980s the incidence of alcohol in road accident fatalities has decreased, while the incidence of drugs has risen from just over 7 per cent. to more than 22 per cent.—and who can doubt that it is probably even higher now?

In July this year, Auto Trader, that well known magazine for those who are interested in buying or selling motor vehicles, surveyed 2,100 motorists. One in seven of those surveyed admitted driving under the influence of illegal drugs, and one in 15 admitted having had an accident or a near miss while so doing. That is pretty compelling evidence. These are people who are responding to a survey and admitting to that culpable behaviour. It may not be illegal behaviour, but they are admitting to culpable behaviour and also to having taken illegal drugs.

Unfortunately, that survey has been corroborated by other surveys. In June this year, More Th>n, a well known insurance company, surveyed more than 1,000 people between the ages of 25 and 35, and 21 per cent. of that sample admitted driving after taking drugs.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

The crux of the issue is that "The Highway Code" has a prescribed limit for alcohol, but with regard to drugs says only that one must not drive under the influence of drugs and that taking illegal drugs is highly dangerous. My hon. Friend's point that there should be zero tolerance on this is totally welcome.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. In case anyone thinks that this is just an English problem, I should say that it is also a problem in Scotland. In 2000, a report published by the Scottish Executive central research unit under the title "Recreational drugs and driving: a qualitative study" showed that 85 per cent. of club-goers in Scotland had at some time driven after using illegal drugs. I do not know whether that is just because of the cost or unavailability of buses or the cost of taxis in Scotland, but it is a pretty staggering statistic.

We may not need to go into the following area, but does drug use affect one's driving? The British Medical Association has the following opinion:

"The known effects of cannabis are that it can impair co-ordination, visual perception, tracking and vigilance. Impairment is also shown when subjects are tested under simulated driving conditions. Studies report that the majority of fatal cases with detected levels of cannabis are compounded by alcohol. Alcohol alone, or in combination with cannabis, increased impairment, accident rate and accident responsibility."

Photo of John Leech John Leech Shadow Minister (Transport)

Given the hon. Gentleman's position of zero tolerance on drugs, would he also support a zero-tolerance policy on alcohol?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

My policy is zero tolerance on illegality. At the moment it is not illegal in this country to consume alcohol. It is not illegal yet to smoke, although I see in tonight's Evening Standard that it is proposed to make it illegal to smoke in the open air in London. That is barking and disproportionate. What I am talking about is what I see as a serious issue of people who are taking illegal substances, thereby committing a criminal offence in itself, and then compounding that by driving motor vehicles when they are likely to be impaired as a result of having taken those drugs, sometimes with alcohol, sometimes without, sometimes with a series of different drugs. Fortunately, the police are taking it increasingly seriously. The effect of cannabis and other drugs on people's state of mind is an issue on which medical and expert opinion has changed dramatically over recent years as a result of what we have seen in our streets and towns where people have committed major crimes as a result of being drug-crazed.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Rt Hon David Miliband, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 6:15, 9 October 2006

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on making his case so powerfully. There is a serious problem with people driving under the influence of drugs. There is an offence already of driving when ability is impaired by drink or drugs, and to date the main problem in enforcement has been the absence of a roadside test that is accurate enough in detecting the presence of drugs in a person's body. Does the hon. Gentleman intend to deal with how we will detect, and therefore enforce his proposed law?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I hope to deal with that point. To conclude the last point, I should just add that this summer Cleveland police felt it necessary to take out television advertising in their area in order to warn drivers about the consequences of taking drugs and then getting behind the wheel of a vehicle.

The Government recognise that we have a serious problem and that is why under schedule 7 to the Road Traffic Act 2003 new powers were provided for the police to carry out impairment tests at the roadside. The problem is that the equipment for doing that is not up to the job, and we also have evidence from a study by Glasgow university that in one third of cases the equipment is not even capable of detecting those who have illegal drugs in their system.

To take up the hon. Gentleman's point, new equipment is now available. It is colloquially called a drugalyser, and it is already being used effectively in Germany, Switzerland, Australia, and, for all I know, in other countries as well. It is, in essence, a hand-held device. It can detect cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine, and from one swab of saliva a police officer can test for a single drug in 90 seconds at the roadside, and he can test for more complex cocktails in six minutes. That is pretty astonishing to me, and it shows the extent to which the new technology has changed over the past couple of years, which we as legislators should take into account. It was a change in technology some 39 years ago that really led to the change in the law, replacing the impairment test for driving with drink in the system with a test for excess alcohol, because we could measure the amount of alcohol in the blood or in the breath.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody Labour, Crewe and Nantwich

I am listening carefully, because the hon. Gentleman has an extremely important point to make. However, I am a little worried that he does not seem to be addressing the problem of people who take medicinal drugs and do not treat them as though they have an effect on their driving ability when it is clear that they do. Does he envisage some extension beyond simply the drugs that he has mentioned so that the amount of other drugs in the bloodstream can be assessed?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The hon. Lady makes an important point. I would like the Government to acknowledge this issue first, which is about illegal drugs, although it is important in road safety education that we should emphasise that people who are taking prescribed drugs should be very careful about continuing to carry on their recreational or professional driving. The Government have done some work on the issue, and there has been some talk about new labelling on some prescribed drugs to warn about their effect and about possible impairment while driving, but that is a large and separate issue. If the House will forgive me, I do not want to go down that route, because there is a more easily detectable and distinct area of criminality. I do not want to criminalise people who are on prescription drugs and who unwittingly find that those drugs adversely affect their driving, whereas people who deliberately take illegal drugs and then go driving are more culpable.

Returning to 1967, when my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron was one year old, the Road Safety Act introduced the breathalyser and the concept of making it illegal to drive with excess alcohol. The legislation recognised that proving impairment by making people walk along a white line, which required police officers to supervise, monitor and assess the test, was disproportionate to the problem on the roads, which involved too many drivers having excess alcohol in their blood and on their breath. The law was altered to reflect changing technology and a change in society, which wanted a tougher line to be taken.

The situation is similar 39 years later. We have an increasing problem of people driving after having taken illegal drugs, which has resulted in carnage on the roads. For example, the RAC Foundation has said that one of the main contributory factors to the large increase in fatalities among young people on the roads is the use of the dangerous cocktail of drugs and alcohol.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

The hon. Gentleman is making a good point, but I want to return to the point raised by Paul Rowen. The hon. Gentleman has prayed in aid the 1967 legislation, which concerns excess alcohol in the blood. The problem involves the thresholds for such measurements, because some illegal drugs, such as heroin, can be present in the body for between three and six months after use. I suspect that most medical experts would recognise that the presence of heroin in the body of someone who last used the drug three months earlier would not impair their driving. Although the act of taking the drug is illegal, it would be made a further illegal act under new clause 1.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Many people take the view that their driving is not impaired when they are over the excess alcohol limit. In order to cut through such arguments, Parliament decided to introduce an arbitrary cut-off limit, which relates to a lawful substance. However, we are discussing unlawful and illegal substances, the possession or use of which are criminal offences in themselves. If we were to introduce a law under the umbrella of road traffic legislation that deterred people from taking illegal drugs, a double benefit would arise. We are not comparing like with like when we compare alcohol with drugs, because one substance is lawful and the other is not.

As I have said, it is already illegal to take such drugs, so if people take illegal drugs and get behind the wheel of a car, lorry or motorcycle, why should it not be an offence? New clause 1 would send out a strong message about the use of illegal drugs. One consequence of the 1967 Act was that Parliament gave an excuse to the weak-willed who were pressurised into drinking and driving. It allowed them to say, "I am sorry, but I am not going to have another drink, because I am going to drive." If we pass new clause 1 into law tonight, we will send clubbers and other young people a similar message, which will allow them to turn to their friends and say, "I am not going to take any drugs, because I am going to be at the wheel of a car tonight and do not want to cause an accident or injury, to lose my licence or to suffer a penalty." New clause 1 would reinforce some important messages.

It is encouraging that my proposal has attracted wide support. More than 90 per cent. of those surveyed by Auto Trader acknowledged that drug-driving is dangerous; 80 per cent. acknowledged that punishments for drug-drivers are too lenient; and 80 per cent. supported roadside testing for drugs. Perhaps most encouragingly of all, the insurance firm More Th>n found that if we were to introduce roadside tests, more than one third of those who were surveyed and who currently take drugs and drive would be deterred from so doing, which would result in a one third reduction in drug-driving at a stroke. That would be a substantial win for road safety, which is sufficient justification for new clause 1 in itself. The RAC 2006 motoring report states that 55 per cent. of respondents named drug-driving as one of the top three road safety issues, and the RAC believes that drug-driving could be as prevalent and dangerous as drink-driving.

Today, a demonstration has taken place outside Parliament by people who think that we do not discuss the issues that matter to the British people. This debate is an example of an issue that affects the British people. The issue is getting worse, and it has affected so many lives and caused untold misery. I therefore hope that Opposition Members and Government Members will not hesitate to support new clause 1.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Rt Hon David Miliband, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

About three years ago, I chaired a conference for the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety—although I no longer chair the conference, I am still a member—on drug-driving. On the day, the big issue was the one that I raised in my intervention on Mr. Chope about reliable forms of roadside detection for use by the police. At that conference, a manufacturer made a presentation about the latest product, which is used to perform the tests that, as the hon. Member for Christchurch has said, are available in some European Union countries.

I was a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which included a requirement for the police to test for drugs when releasing people from custody, whether or not the offence with which such people had been charged or arrested involved drugs. Stafford police station was one of the pilots for that testing, which allowed me to see what was then the up-to-date technology. I made several visits over a period of months, during which time the technology changed from the analysis of swabs taken from inside the mouth to the analysis of swabs taken from the sweat on the palm of someone's hand, so the technology is developing all the time. As the hon. Member for Christchurch has said, the technology is catching up, and it allows us to introduce a provision such as new clause 1. However, I suspect that a final product is a little way away, and we need to obtain approvals similar to those for breath tests for alcohol.

We also need to debate the precise wording of the law. I have been impressed by the arguments about thresholds, and we need to debate the issues of people who take legally prescribed drugs that contain as a base a drug that is illegal in another form and people whose blood contains a low level of a drug that would not impair a driver. I await the Minister's response to those points with interest.

New clause 30 concerns drink-driving and the legal limit for alcohol in a driver's blood, urine or breath. Today's amendment stands in the names of several Liberal Democrat Members. I tabled similar amendments to the previous Bill that we debated before the general election. The Minister will see that I have given up trying to persuade him to accept such an amendment. I recognise that his objection is solid, but that does not mean that I agree with his judgment that we do not need to change the law. In summary, his view is this: we have a robust law with firm penalties, but some people exceed the maximum legal limit by a great deal and cause many deaths, so they are the top priority for enforcement, and when we have got them off our roads to a satisfactory degree, perhaps we can consider changing the limit.

I think that my hon. Friend is wrong. I do not see any evidence that we are targeting our policing efforts on catching those people. The number of police officers responsible for policing the roads is not going up appreciably; neither is the number of breath tests carried out by police forces each year. In Committee, I tabled an amendment to give the police a new power on the targeted use of breath tests in order to catch the very people whom my hon. Friend has talked about, but he resisted it. I see no signs that we are cracking down on that group. If, as he suggests, we must wait until we have got on top of that problem, we will never address the issue raised by new clause 30. In the meantime, people are dying on our roads because there are people just exceeding the current limit who would, by any reasonable estimate, adjust their drinking and driving if the law were changed. PACTS commissioned a study that found that reducing the limit from 80 mg to 50 mg would save about 65 lives a year and save about 230 people a year from serious injury. That is why most of the road safety lobby and the British Medical Association support an amendment such as new clause 30.

Although my hon. Friend can be congratulated on some further reductions in road casualties in the 2005 statistics, and although one of those is a fall in fatalities due to drink-driving since 2004, I hope that he will not rely on that as an argument for his approach. In 1998, there was a low of 460 in the number of deaths caused by drinking and driving. In 2000, that figure rose to 530, and by 2004 it had reached 590. There is a clear trend of rising deaths owing to drink-driving. In 2005, there was at last a reduction to 560, but that is still high by historical standards, and at a time when the overall figures are showing a reduction in people killed and seriously injured year on year. Something is seriously wrong when drink-driving deaths are not falling in line with all the other reductions.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport 6:30, 9 October 2006

Even on the figures that my hon. Friend has given us, if 65 people had between 50 and 80 mg of alcohol in their blood, 495 had more than 80 mg. That is why I argue that at this stage it is better to try to deal with the 495 than to worry about the 65.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Rt Hon David Miliband, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That is a false choice. There are several areas in which we must take action to keep the trend in road deaths going downwards. My point is that the trend in drink-driving deaths is not going downwards, unlike all the others. More therefore needs to be done in terms of lowering the drink-drive limit, giving the police the power of targeted breath testing at the roadside to detect these people, rehabilitating drink-driving offenders, and introducing an alco-locks pilot. All those together, as a programme, will make a difference. The Minister is saying, "Until I've solved one problem, I'm not going to look at the others." That is a blinkered approach to saving lives on our roads.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The problem is that the group of people with whom we are dealing are the very same as those who may well have taken an illegal substance or abused prescribed medicines, and while they may not have taken an excessive amount of alcohol, the three elements together could be calamitous.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Rt Hon David Miliband, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who echoes Mr. Chope. That cocktail effect is a particularly dangerous set of circumstances in putting people's lives at risk on the road.

When Parliament introduced a law against drinking and driving, it was resisted by some people at the time but has become widely accepted, and most people now regard drinking and driving as socially unacceptable. We have won that argument. We have reduced the number of deaths on our roads, but not, in recent years, the number of deaths caused by drinking and driving. In the meantime, most countries have overtaken us by adopting a limit of 50 mg in blood instead of our limit of 80 mg. I am not suggesting that we have to follow others, but we are falling behind the rest of the civilised world in our limits despite having led the way in introducing them in the first place. The Minister should give more thought to ensuring that combating deaths due to drinking and driving is part of the Government's overall programme, so that deaths on our roads decrease in every respect.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Chope and my right hon. Friend Mr. Knight on tabling the new clause, which represents our policy on the previous incarnation of the Bill which fell at the general election.

Research shows that almost a quarter of those killed in road traffic accidents have illegal drugs in their bloodstream. There have been an increasing number of accidents in which the presence of drugs in the driver's body may have been a contributory factor in the cause of the crash. As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said, drug-driving is most common among 20 to 24-year-olds, and clubbers are particularly prone to taking control of a car in a chemically altered state. As a survey by the Scottish Executive showed, well over 80 per cent. of clubbers have driven after recreational drug use, often under the misguided apprehension that drugs can improve their driving skills. In fact, as the BMA and other authorities have shown, commonly taken illegal drugs such as cannabis cause concentration to wander, affect reaction times, and can cause paranoia, drowsiness, distorted perception and a sense of disorientation, all of which could lead to loss of control at the wheel.

Cannabis is the most commonly traced drug, with more than 800,000 people travelling under its influence every year. A study produced by the Transport Research Laboratory established that people who drove a car at 66 mph had a stopping distance of about 270 ft, but after smoking a joint that increased on average by 15 per cent. to 310 ft. In a slalom test, those who had just smoked a joint knocked over 30 per cent. more cones. Similarly, cocaine is a psychostimulant that leads to misjudging driving speeds and stopping distances and gives a distorted sense of light and sound and a feeling of overconfidence. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch mentioned amphetamines, but ketamines, LSD and magic mushrooms also strongly influence the senses and give drivers a sense of unreality, placing themselves and other road users in danger.

As Mr. Kidney said, there has been a problem with detection, but I understand that detection methods have dramatically improved. It could be said that one advantage of these drugs is that they remain detectable for longer than alcohol. The urine test EMIT—enzyme-multiplied immunoassay technique—can establish the presence of amphetamines for up to two to four days; that of barbiturates for a day and of long-acting barbiturates for two to three weeks; that of cannabinoids for three to 30 days; that of cocaine for two to four days; that of opiates for two to four days, and that of anabolic steroids for up to 14 days. The technology has moved on and my hon. Friends' proposals are therefore considerably more practical.

We have slipped behind other countries. A meeting of the International Council on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety took place in 2002, with representatives of 16 nations and 12 US states. It established that most statutes required proof of impairment owing to the use of an illegal drug. That legislative approach has been difficult to enforce, because proving that the drug caused the impairment has been a major problem. Germany, Belgium and eight US states have established a per se law, which avoids having to prove impairment due to the drug. That approach allows the prosecution to be based solely on the analytic detection of drugs in body fluids such as blood or urine.

The Belgian experience shows how a country got a grip on the problem, developed a strategic plan, gradually changed legislation, overcame a myriad political problems and implemented a comprehensive drug-driving strategy. The result is that, sadly, we have fallen behind. The detection rate for drug-driving is much higher in Norway—750 cases per million inhabitants. In Finland, it is 190 cases per million inhabitants; in Sweden, it is 90 cases per million, whereas we are down at 30 cases per million. Conservative Members believe that the technology has caught up. Other countries have shown what can be done and we will support new clause 1 if it is pressed to a vote.

Mrs. Riordan is not here and perhaps she will therefore not press new clause 5. [Interruption.] Indeed, perhaps she has fallen asleep. A diagnosed narcoleptic is required to declare his condition to the DVLA and failure to do so voids his insurance cover. The DVLA will generally issue a temporary licence to a narcoleptic, renewable every three years, provided that the applicant's GP can satisfy the DVLA that the condition is controlled by treatment. If that were properly enforced, it would appear to cover the intention of new clause 5. I shall be interested in the Minister's comments on that.

I had a most interesting visit to an organisation called TTC group—Telford Training Consultants—during the recess. It managed to get itself on the front page of our local papers by pointing out that the new pub opening hours were sweeping up a large number of people who were unaware that, although they behaved responsibly, they had alcohol in their blood that put them over the limit. I was told of a case of a highly responsible person—a police constable—who had gone out for a curry, been measured in the amount that he drank, deliberately gone to bed at 10 o'clock, got up for an early shift, but unfortunately had a bump and was found to be over the limit. The visit showed the importance of education.

I was especially struck by two points. First, 10 years ago, wines were 9 per cent. alcohol by volume whereas they now average 12.5 to 13 per cent. Secondly, the group presented an interesting demonstration about glasses. The standard measure is 125 ml but people are frequently offered 250 ml as a standard or small glass. I cannot believe that many hon. Members in the Chamber would want to offer their friends a small drink. However, 250 ml is nearly half a pint. The group did a demonstration with differently shaped glasses. The shapes were deceptive. I benefited from that brief introduction, and it was proved that re-educating offenders reduced recidivism by 50 per cent. Such courses are of low cost to the taxpayer. Those who go on them have to pay £100 and £150. I would prefer to go down that route rather than chase a tight target.

I appreciate that the hon. Member for Stafford has spent much time on the matter, which he raised in Committee. However, trying to reduce the figure from 80 mg to 50 mg when we are struggling to enforce 80 mg is not the right way to proceed. I should like the effort to be put into re-education, and I believe that the Government share that view.

Bluntly, we need more traffic policemen. They have declined from 9,201 in 1997 to 7,103. Conservative Members believe that more active enforcement is the way ahead. Let us get 80 mg established. We have made massive progress, but rather than trying to screw the figure down to 50 mg, education and more active enforcement are more sensible uses of Government time.

The retesting requirement in new clause 39 would not be used in the context of testing skills but is simply an addition to section 36 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, which lists convictions, and requires, after obligatory or discretionary disqualification, the court to instruct the person who has been convicted to take another test. I do not like the idea of taking a driving test being part of the punishment. Again, I prefer the route of education. The little bit of extra research that I have done since I went to Telford convinced me that education would be more effective.

Amendment No. 51 deals with alco-locks. The matter was raised in Committee and Conservative Members' opinion has not changed. I know that the Minister does not like my rattling off stuff from the internet so I shall not go into detail at length. Evidence from the United States, Australia and Canada shows a 40 per cent. or even a 90 per cent. reduction in the rate of drink-driving repeat offences. However, that appears to happen only as long as the alco-locks are in place. In Europe, where we are only beginning to establish such programmes, the Swedes have a programme with 900 drink-driving offenders, but because they have been so strict, almost a third of the participants have dropped out. France is about to introduce a pilot project in Annecy and we have not even started. We fear that the programmes are a bit of a distraction.

In Belgium, the Belgian Institute for Road Safety has produced a report. Under the heading, "Effectiveness. Has the project reached its objective?", it reported that no project results were available for evaluation. We believe that it is a little early to decide about such projects. They could be a distraction and, again, we would like the effort put into re-education because when the locks are removed, we believe that the hardcore cases will revert. We are also convinced that a strong sentence—a short, sharp shock—could be more effective.

That is a quick canter through our thoughts on the group of the amendments.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport) 6:45, 9 October 2006

Although I want to confine the bulk of my remarks to the new clauses and amendments that my hon. Friends and I have tabled, we have had a good debate on the amendments that Mr. Chope tabled and I want to contribute to that.

Mr. Kidney approaches the matter from much the same viewpoint as me. Although I have a great deal of sympathy with the issue that the hon. Member for Christchurch raises, it struck me that current provisions in the Road Traffic Act 1988 catch many of the different scenarios relating to driving while unfit through the influence of drink or drugs that he outlined. Some related practical matters require further attention and I shall deal with them shortly. However, I continue to be worried by the lack of precision in new clause 1 to enable individual citizens to regulate their conduct according to it.

My hon. Friend Paul Rowen sought clarification of a "trace". That can vary greatly between drugs. My recollection from my days of studying forensic medicine some years ago is that lysergic acid, for example, can remain traceable in the body for up to six months. Reference has also been made to heroin, which can remain in the body for between three and six months.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is no mention in new clause 1 of the amount of the illegal drug. Would he accept, however, that no minimum sentence would be attached to such an offence either? Someone with a trace of such a drug in their body that was deemed by experts to be fairly minimal could therefore be dealt with appropriately by the courts.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport)

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; that is a perfectly fair point. However, I do not think that we should be quite so blasé about creating offences that would have enormous resource implications for the courts and for police time if the benefit to be derived from them were not proportionate. If we sought to prosecute everyone who was found to be driving with a trace of an illegal drug in their body, it would take up an enormous amount of court time—and to what effect?

We are dealing with the Road Safety Bill, and it is entirely appropriate that we should have regard to the test that we have always had: that of a person's fitness to drive being impaired through the use of drink or drugs. Drink and drugs are relevant to road safety because they impair a person's fitness to drive, and once we move away from that simple test, we open up a whole range of conduct for examination. It would be very easy for someone to say that they did not know that there would still be a trace of drink or drugs in their bloodstream.

The hon. Member for Christchurch referred to train drivers and pilots, but I cannot recall the existence of any criminal offence in that context. If he can enlighten me on that, I will be interested, but I cannot think of an instance in which a pilot or train driver would be guilty of a criminal offence merely by having a trace of drink or drugs in their body. If he or she were unfit to drive or fly through having used them, that would of course be a different matter. Pilots, train drivers and others who are found, through a workplace testing scheme, to have a trace of an illegal drug in their system are often caught by their employer's disciplinary procedures, but that does not involve a criminal offence. Once we start to blur the distinction between a criminal offence and a disciplinary offence under employment law, we will be going down a dangerous track.

I should like to say a word or two in defence of the present approach in road traffic law, which places the emphasis on impairment and unfitness to drive. This point was also made by Mr. Burrowes, and I am sorry that he is no longer here, because, as a court practitioner, he has an important contribution to make to the debate. In practical terms, there is usually a reasonable ground for a driver to be stopped—normally that of erratic or defective driving. Thereafter, a breath test will almost certainly be carried out. If that test is negative, the police officer involved should surely look for another reason for the impairment. All sorts of other symptoms might be present, including dilated pupils or slurred speech, depending on the illegal substance in question. My recollection from my time as a criminal court solicitor and as a prosecutor is that a lengthy checklist is gone through, which would thereafter entitle the officer to arrest the person and take them back to the police station where the full impairment test could be undertaken.

As the hon. Member for Christchurch rightly said, a number of much more sophisticated devices are now on the market, and I hope that they will be tested and, if appropriate, approved for use by the Department for Transport. All these factors will improve the workability of the present law on unfitness to drive as a result of the use of drink or drugs. I am not without sympathy for the hon. Gentleman's proposal, and I certainly do not underestimate the scale of the difficulty facing us in relation to drug- driving, but I remain to be convinced that his new clause is the panacea that he suggests. It could create problems as well as solutions.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that the testing equipment is not good enough to trace drugs, or that the new clause is not a good proposal because it uses the term "traces" of illegal drugs? Would he be happier if a limit, such as that relating to alcohol consumption, were included in the proposal?

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport)

No, I approach this from the point of view of first principles. The reason why we arrived at what has been described as the rather arbitrary limit for alcohol was that it was decided that that was the level at which a driver's ability to respond would be impaired. The question of a limit is therefore consistent with the general approach of punishing those who drive while unfit through their taking of drink or drugs. I cannot as yet envisage a mechanism by which it would be possible to set a similar level for illegal substances. It might happen, but I think that it is highly unlikely. We shall probably always rely on the question of fitness to drive in relation to drug-driving. There is a lot more to be done on the training of police officers, prosecutors and the judiciary as to what constitutes fitness to drive while under the influence of drugs, but to depart from the principle of assessing fitness in the way proposed in the new clause is unnecessary and would be a step too far.

The hon. Member for Stafford referred to new clause 30, which he supported tonight. Indeed, he has supported similar proposals many times in the past. He has already made many of the points that I was going to make, and I shall not reiterate them. The Department for Transport has demonstrated through its own research that there could be a reduction of about 50 fatalities and 250 serious injuries per year if the Government were to adopt this measure. The hon. Gentleman was quite right to say that the Minister sets up a false choice by suggesting that we can target either those who are grossly over the limit or those who fall into the rather narrower band. I happen to think that, for very little additional effort and use of resources by the police and the prosecution services, it would be worth saving those 50 lives and preventing those 250 serious injuries every year. As the hon. Gentleman also said, the proposed lower limit would bring the United Kingdom into line with virtually every other country in western Europe.

New clause 39 would bring within the ambit of section 36 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 all those offences that involve driving while under the influence of alcohol. We are proposing a fairly measured response here, by seeking to introduce a requirement for someone who has been disqualified from driving for a drink-driving offence to re-sit their driving test before they are given their licence back. The proposal would apply to anyone who received a sentence of disqualification in excess of the minimum 12-month period under section 5 of that Act. This reflects a practice that has already been adopted in many courts up and down the country in all the jurisdictions that make up the United Kingdom.

We should also have regard to how road traffic law has developed in a wider context. There is something profoundly anomalous about a new driver with six points on his or her licence, as a result of perhaps two speeding offences, being required to re-sit the test as a result of the new drivers' regulations while somebody who has been convicted of a drink-driving offence that merits more than the minimum sentence of disqualification does not have to go through the same procedure.

Amendments Nos. 50, 51, 53, 52 and 54 deal with the use of alcohol ignition interlocks, or AILs, which the Government are, bravely and quite rightly, bringing into use through the Bill. However, I have severe reservations about how they are doing that, because introducing the use of AILs—or alco-locks, as they are more colloquially known—as a mechanism by which somebody might reduce the period of disqualification sends out the worst possible signal. The development of those devices offers us particular opportunities, but we are in danger of missing them by using AILs in the way that the Government suggest.

The amendments propose a period following disqualification in which the AIL would be fitted at the disqualified person's expense, thereafter ensuring a continued period of protection for the public following the expiry of that disqualification. The proposal is not, I would suggest, a silver bullet. It is not foolproof and there are certain ways to get round it, but I say to the Minister that it would be a further defence that would enable the effort to be targeted on those who pose the greatest risk to our communities—the repeat offenders.

By erecting that further barrier and by making things difficult for such people, we would have the opportunity to reduce the number of people who come before the courts as repeat drink-drivers. That has been borne out by research in other parts of the world. Mr. Paterson touched on that in referring to a 90 per cent. reduction. That is, in fact, a 90 per cent. reduction in reoffending rates, which the Traffic Injury Research Foundation of Canada found to have taken place after the trial of an AIL in that jurisdiction. That also follows the experience in a number of states in the United States, which have also taken results-based decisions to use AILs following trials.

We commend and support the Government on the introduction of AILs through the Bill, but we believe that the manner in which they want to use them is not appropriate and can be improved. I hope that the Government will give the closest possible consideration to the improvements outlined in our amendments Nos. 50 to 54.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 7:00, 9 October 2006

I support my hon. Friend Mr. Chope and new clause 1. Technology has moved on, and we know that drugs are a real problem on the road. I would like to hear from the Minister that there will at least be more trials, or indeed more public education, on this very important subject.

On the whole, Britain does not have a bad record in terms of the number of people killed on the roads. Not that long ago, the figure was 5,000 a year, but we have got it down to about 3,200. However, over the last two or three years, we seem to have been stuck at that number. If we are to drive that figure down further, which I think is what we all want, we must focus on the reasons for people being killed on the roads. Drugs are an important cause, as is alcohol and, in particular, the hard core who break the current limit. We have to get much tougher with them. We must also consider tyres, weather conditions, road design and layout, and tiredness, all of which contribute.

One consequence of relying a lot more on speed cameras and redeploying people from traffic policing is that, although we might catch more people speeding, we do not have the traffic policemen to look out for tyres, tiredness and the other factors that sometimes cause accidents. My hon. Friend raised an important point in that context.

There are still doubts about the technology, and we have heard concerns about the level of drugs in blood, but it is time that the House sent a message. We ought to be trialling a lot more. The most compelling argument that my hon. Friend made is that youngsters put under peer pressure to take drugs could say, "No, I'm driving tonight. I am taking you home and I'm not going to do it."

We have seen a sea change in terms of drink-driving because people accept that the current level is fair, and because when those who are driving are asked whether they want another drink before they leave the pub, there is no argument—people accept that driving is a sound reason for not drinking to excess. We have changed attitudes on that issue, and we have to change attitudes on drug taking, as well as to the practice of people taking cocktails of drugs and alcohol and thinking that they can get away with it.

A lot more has to be done. I hope that the Minister will at least say that he has listened to what my hon. Friend said and perhaps make some Government proposals on this important matter. We need to drive the number of deaths on the roads down from the figure of 3,200 that we seem to be stuck at, and we need to consider the range of issues that I have raised if we are to achieve that.

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

I must take issue with Mr. Syms about the figure for road deaths being stuck at about 3,200. If he looks at the figures for the last two or three years, he will see that they are again on a downward trend. Of course, once a number of road deaths is reached—albeit one that is still way too high; I acknowledge that immediately—that is, compared with the distances travelled, the lowest in the world, it becomes increasingly difficult to reduce the figure. We must expect that, and we must expect the rate of improvement to slow. Nevertheless, we still have that rate of improvement, and the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that messages about drugs and about drug taking and driving will play a key part.

The hon. Gentleman said that we need to do more to get the message across. I say to him that, to get the message over on drug-driving, we try to target those who are most likely to be drug-drivers. I might be wrong, but I do not think that Conservative Members of Parliament are a target group for that message, but young people are, so we target it on the radio channels that young people listen to, pop concerts and other places where young people congregate.

Our evidence suggests that we are pretty good at targeting those messages, and we hit that target group, but does that go far enough? No, it does not. So, let me say to Mr. Chope that I entirely agree with the sentiments that he has put to us tonight. If I was in a position to tell the House that there is a robust method of detection and that there is agreement that there is a correlation between the level of a drug in someone's system and the level of impairment when driving, I would be here with a Government proposal to introduce the measures to the House. However, we do not have that robust system of detection and we do not have that agreement on what is an appropriate level of drug taking to indicate impairment. We are somewhat stuck over a way to move forward.

The hon. Gentleman, in introducing the new clause, essentially told the House, "Look, we don't have agreement on what an appropriate level is, so let's just say it's any level. If it's any level, you're breaking the law." That is entirely inconsistent with existing legislation, which requires a level of impairment. In a moment, I shall come on to the problems of detecting the amount of drugs in somebody's system, but I also suggest that a key problem with detection is exactly what is being detected.

The active ingredient of cannabis spends only a short period in the blood. Detection systems therefore tend not to detect the active ingredient that would impair driving. Detection systems detect a metabolite of cannabis that stays in the blood for a long time. The presence of that metabolite in someone's system does not, however, mean that their driving performance would be impaired; it simply means that they have used cannabis at some time in the previous few days. If one is trying to devise a detection system for an employer who wants to make sure that none of his employees has ever used drugs, it is a perfectly acceptable test. The presence of the metabolite allows one to say that the person has used drugs, although one does not know whether they used them yesterday or last week. Therefore, if an employer has a policy not to employ those who use drugs, he can say that he will no longer employ that person. If one is trying to test whether someone's ability to drive a car is impaired, however, testing for that metabolite is not reasonable. That is one of the key problems with detection.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Does not the Minister think that, in practice, the Crown Prosecution Service will take a view based on how successful litigation has been? While it is illegal, for example, to steal things in this country, one is unlikely to be prosecuted for stealing an orange, but more likely to be prosecuted for stealing a lorry full of oranges. The CPS will take a view based on the amount of drug or metabolite in the person's system, as well as on whether the person was stopped for a tail light being out or where multiple injuries were involved. Does not he think that legal cases would set the norm for such prosecutions?


I do agree with Mr Goodwill that difference is made depending on the degree of illegality and I also accept that the cost and consequences seems too much for only a few oranges. However, a few oranges will increase in time so should the full imposition be made early? This covers so many other things because they are not accepted as wrong because they are not prevented....

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

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but he is tempting us into a minefield where the courts would be asked to judge whether somebody's driving had been impaired as a result of drug use that may have happened some considerable time previously or passively rather than actively. I am told by the lawyers that it is possession of drugs that is illegal in this country, and that if they are in one's system, one is not legally in possession of them. It is not as if a body of case law exists to suggest that because people have particular metabolites in their system the courts may take a view on whether they have been using drugs, as they will not necessarily have broken the law or be prosecutable for it.

I have been speaking about cannabis, but there is a panoply of different drugs that could impair one's performance. Many of the comprehensive sample tests, such as sweat, saliva, urine or hair, are not technically accurate for several drug groups. Where a blood sample is taken, analysis for all the drug groups can be very expensive, and costs about £1,000 per blood sample. How much resource are we going to devote to that when, with the best will in the world, resources are limited?

The hon. Member for Christchurch seemed to imply that many robust technologies can be used for roadside testing. I take issue with him on that. The Home Office takes a view on such matters, and studies them regularly. Its view is that there is not a robust test that can be used at the roadside. Between 2003 and 2005, a major European Union project known as ROSITA II was carried out to evaluate the usability and analytical reliability of onsite saliva drug-testing devices. Although that was an EU project, it also involved some non-European countries. At the end of the study, it was concluded that no device was reliable enough to be recommended for roadside screening of drivers. The report acknowledged that experience in the state of Victoria, Australia, had shown that random roadside oral fluid testing of drivers for methamphetamine and cannabis had had a deterrent effect, but also pointed to the risk that drivers will realise that the tests being used are limited, and will therefore feel more confident about driving without risk of detection. They will then start to use the drugs that are not included in the panoply of roadside tests. If we send out the message that we can test only for cannabis and methamphetamine, we can expect drivers who have been using cocaine and other drugs to take to the road.

Unlike with alcohol, there is no clear relationship between the amount of drug taken and its impairing effect, with large variability between individuals who have taken the same dose. Issues of drug tolerance and withdrawal are additional problems. Some studies have found that the risk of crashing for drivers with cannabis in their systems is lower than for drivers with no drugs in their systems. Other studies find that the risk of crashing for such drivers is between one and a half and two and a half times that for sober divers. Evidence about the crash risks associated with benzodiazepines is also mixed. The level of risk tends to vary with the type of benzodiazepine and how long the driver had been using it, with the greatest risk associated with early use. Crash risk elevation is between 1.6 to five times that of a driver with no drugs in their system. As hon. Members will probably be aware, the relative crash risk for a driver above the current alcohol limit is in the range of six to 10, so there is a clear disparity in relation to the risk level among drivers using drugs.

Clinical studies have tended to be inconclusive because of ethical and safety considerations, so studies have tended to use lower dosages of drug than might be taken by typical users. The issue of drug control, of course, is dealt with under other Government legislation, and I believe that that should remain the case. For road safety, however, the dangers of drug misuse extend to medication. I think that my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee pointed that out. Drugs used every day, such as in headache preparations, may also be taken contrary to pharmacological guidelines. Benzodiazepines, which are found in commonly prescribed tranquilisers, are possibly one of the most impairing drugs in drivers when used improperly. Methadone, used for the treatment of heroin addiction, is not illegal, but, if abused, it can impair. The current law, under section 4 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, deals with that.

I fully recognise that right hon. and hon. Members do not seek to undermine the existing legislation. It is important, however, that we do not give the public a misleading impression that the proposed new offence is a universal panacea for dealing with drug-driving. Rather than the zero tolerance approach implied by the new clause, the right response to the drug-driving problem must be to try to establish legal limits to drugs, similar to those imposed for alcohol—levels that have been demonstrated to be impairing, or at least beyond what could be attributed to medical treatment. I will not pretend that that will be easy; if it were, it would have been done already. World experts are not fully in agreement with each other, but we can expect some convergence of views as more research is done.

In the meantime, the priority must be to address detection. I am advised by colleagues in the Home Office that a specification for a drug screener will be issued shortly, which will mean that manufacturers can supply devices to the police to help them identify drivers who are using drugs. That will facilitate the process of obtaining an evidentiary blood sample and reduce the costs of doing so. In due course, the police should be able to give us more information about the prevalence of drugs in the driving population and at accidents. On that basis, we will be better armed to establish an absolute offence based on crash risk, rather than having to rely as we do now on evidence of impairment.

In the light of what I hope was a comprehensive response, I hope that the hon. Member for Christchurch will be prepared to withdraw new clause 1. I assure him once again that as soon as the science gives us the information that we need, and as soon as robust roadside detection devices are available that can be used by the police force under all conditions, I will want legislation to be brought back to the House to change the current position. Until such a time, however, it would be foolhardy to proceed with his new clause.

New clause 5 has not been moved, but I acknowledge the comments of Mr. Paterson, who is right that the existing law on sleep apnoea is sufficiently robust if properly enforced.

That brings me to new clause 30, and the comments of Mr. Carmichael and my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney on drink-driving. I suspect that we could argue about that for a very long time and never agree. I remain convinced that it is right for us to enforce the current level of 80 mg. If we did that with any reasonable degree of success, we would save several hundred lives on our roads. That would be better than focusing on the 65 people involved in accidents—only involved; not necessarily a causal factor—whose level was between 50 and 80 mg.

Let me now say something that may be controversial, and may even get me into a bit of trouble. I believe that in some parts of the country the police have dropped the ball on drink-driving, and are not enforcing the existing 80 mg level with the vigour that I would like to see.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth 7:15, 9 October 2006

The Minister might be right in saying that the police are finding it difficult to enforce the law as they would like, but, as one who spent some time on the police parliamentary scheme with him over the summer, may I suggest that that may be partly because so many are seconded to squads set up by the Government, or are filling in the plethora of forms that the Government have provided for them?

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

I am rather sorry that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman. He is talking absolute nonsense. The Government do not second police officers on to anything. I suspect that if the Government interfered in the life of the constabulary in that way, the hon. Gentleman and his friends would table a great many emergency motions to enable the House to discuss it.

The Government agree targets with police forces, which the Home Office accepts after thorough consultation with its stakeholders because they reflect the views of members of the public who want to see our streets policed safely. I believe that in some constabularies the chief constables and police authorities may well have got the balance wrong, and diverted too much of their resource from roads policing to other areas of police activity. If they have done that, it is not for me or for the Government to intervene; it is for local people and the local police authority to do so, and to make their views known.

Any Member who feels that the drink-driving law is not being properly enforced in his or her area should raise the matter directly with the local constabulary. I have raised the issue with the Association of Chief Police Officers, and with the chief constable responsible for roads policing. He is doing his best to convince his colleagues that there is a significant gain for them from enforcing the rules properly. I have undertaken publicly that once I am convinced that there is proper enforcement at the 80 mg level, and believe that we have secured all the benefit of enforcement at the 80 mg-plus level, we will be prepared to reconsider and adopt the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford on 50 mg. Until I have seen that effort start to pay dividends, however, I believe that the resources are going to the right place.

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

Will the Minister name the police authorities and chief constables whom he has in mind?

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

No, and it is not for me to do so. I am a Kent Member of Parliament, and if I had concerns about the constabulary of Kent I would certainly express them; but it is for other Members to make their views known, for me to raise the issues with ACPO, and for ACPO to try to deal with matters themselves.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Rt Hon David Miliband, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

In the last nine years, we have changed the law in this place so that the Home Office can publish a national policing plan containing the overarching priorities for all police forces in the country. Do my hon. Friend's discussions with Home Office Ministers include representations suggesting that the plan should make roads policing a higher priority?

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

I do raise that with my Home Office colleagues, and roads policing is part of the national policing plan. If we continue to have concerns about whether roads are being properly policed, I shall have to raise the matter with them again and ensure that it is addressed in future versions of the plan; but I hope that the argument based on the reduction in casualties, and indeed the strong link between criminality on the roads and general criminality, will convince chief constables that they need to provide proper resources.

For all those reasons, I urge the House to resist the proposal to reduce the level further at this stage.

The Liberal Democrats, who tabled new clause 39, raised the question of mandatory disqualification. I believe that the new clause is among a number of amendments inspired by the insurance branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland. I am happy to congratulate the Liberal Democrats on their interest in the matter and the work that they are doing. The views and constructive ideas of stakeholders are always welcome, and I can see the logic behind the proposal, but I simply do not accept it.

When the original provisions of clause 36 were made following the road traffic review—the so-called North report—it was decided that while mandatory retesting should apply to drivers who committed the most serious road traffic offences, such as dangerous driving and worse, it was less appropriate for drink-drivers, whose driving skills, it might be argued, were less in question than their judgment about drinking.

I remind the House that the vast majority of drink-drivers are disqualified for 12 to 18 months, during which time their driving skills may not diminish as much as those of drivers who are disqualified for longer. More recently, however, it has been considered that the worst drink-drivers who were disqualified for longer periods, such as two years or more, should be subject to a retest because of the length of time for which they were off the road. Clause 36 will enable that to be done by means of secondary legislation, but it will be subject to further consultation. I hope that, on that basis, the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland will not press his new clause.

Finally, let me deal with the issue of alcohol ignition interlocks, which feature in a number of amendments proposed, again, by the Royal Bank of Scotland. If I understand correctly, their purpose is to impose a wider application of alcohol interlock programmes by extending their availability to all drink-drivers, and to require courts to impose orders unless they believe that there is good reason for not doing so.

We currently want to target the most serious offenders, and certainly those who cannot stop themselves from reoffending. That is where we can expect both the incentive and the commitment to participate fully, and, of course, where we might expect to achieve the best accident risk reduction. There may be a case for a more widespread application, but it has yet to be made. Best practice advice based on research suggests that a period of interlock use of less than a year is not likely to provide a benefit, and for shorter periods the fixed costs of installation and training may make it less cost-effective.

As for making the scheme mandatory, I have some difficulty with the idea of courts' imposing such cost burdens on drivers, some of whom would not have the financial means to undertake the programme. Such drivers might have to sell their cars to pay for it. The Department would welcome the opportunity to have further discussions with insurance companies about drink-driving and other aspects of road safety.

I remind Members that our proposal is modelled on the successful drink-drive rehabilitation programme introduced by the last Administration in the early 1990s and rolled out nationally by this Government in 2000. In making the decision to undertake the course at their own expense, offenders recognise the value of learning how to change their behaviour. We should be very cautious about deviating from an approach that has served us well so far. I hope that the House will reject those amendments as well.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

We have had an excellent debate. The Minister's was a classic "Yes, Minister" response. As a former transport Minister, I congratulate his civil servants on having taken to heart his brief, which was to try to find an objection to every possible solution.

Every Member recognises that there is a real problem that needs to be addressed. It is causing the loss of a great many lives on our roads, unnecessarily, every year. But the Minister has come up with a whole lot of trivial objections. For example, he says that we need to establish the correct level for illegal drugs, but why do we need a legal limit for illegal drugs? Surely any level of illegal drugs should be illegal and the law should deal with it. What sort of message does the Government's talk on this matter send out to young people who may be tempted to get into the drugs scene?

The Minister says that there is a large variability of effects for the same dose taken. Well, that is exactly the same argument that was used against the breathalyser law. Perhaps you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, can drink 10 pints without it having any effect on you, whereas some colleagues might drink one pint and be paralytic. What are the Government doing in resorting to that old, failed argument?

From the way in which the Minister spoke about the difficulties of testing, anyone would think that we did not have drug testing in prisons, schools and in sport—all promoted by the Government. So why cannot we have drug testing at the roadside? That is what the new clause is about. My Front-Bench colleague was absolutely right to draw our attention to the statistics that show that the proportion of drivers detected and prosecuted for drug-driving in this country is far below that of other countries. That is not because we do not have drug-driving, but because the Government are not dealing with the problem.

I believe in joined-up government, but what we have had from the Minister is a silo mentality, whereby drugs issues are viewed as nothing to do with his Department. I would like to see his Department deal with drug taking and drug use alongside the Home Office. One way of achieving that would be to make it an offence for anyone to be at the wheel of a car with illegal substances in their body. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Paterson for making it clear that the Opposition will support the new clause. I hope that many Government Members will join us, too.

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

The House divided: Ayes 164, Noes 290.

Division number 296 Orders of the Day — New Clause 1 — Driving with Illegal Drugs

Aye: 161 MPs

No: 287 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Abstained: 3 MPs

Abstained: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.