Second Reading

Road Traffic Act 1988 (Alcohol Limits) (Amendment) Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 10:56 am on 29 January 2016.

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Moved by Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

That the Bill be read a second time.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour 11:01, 29 January 2016

My Lords, I am grateful for the privilege, the opportunity, and not least the luck in the ballot to get the chance to bring forward this Private Member’s Bill. I am also grateful to all those who have kindly assisted me, including our clerks and the many outside organisations and campaigners who support this aim, and of course to the noble Lords who are going to speak today. I offer apologies from my noble friend Lord Rea, who was down to speak but has had to scratch.

This is a simple Bill whose objective is to better protect innocent citizens from accidental death, injury and harm from vehicle drivers who consume alcohol and then drive impaired. It also seeks to protect the drivers themselves. Specifically, it amends the Road Traffic Act 1988 to lower the maximum alcohol limits permissible when driving in the UK from the present blood alcohol concentration of 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood down to 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood. There would be corresponding changes to breath and urine limits, but in this debate I will refer solely to the limit change using the acronym BAC.

The Act would apply to the whole of the UK, although, as most noble Lords know, Scotland has already enacted this. What they may not know is that the Welsh Assembly has proposed the adoption of a BAC limit of 50 for the Principality, and across the Irish Sea the North Ireland road traffic amendment order not only proposes a lower 50 BAC limit, but an even lower limit of 20 BAC for novice and some commercial drivers.

This amending Bill is precisely in accord with what was piloted from 2014 through the Scottish Parliament. As a consequence, I regret that Clause 2 contains a provision to reduce the limit below which a person could elect to have a specimen of breath replaced with a specimen of blood or urine. This statutory option was removed from the Road Traffic Act 1988 by Part 1 of Schedule 11 to the Deregulation Act 2015 which came into force in April 2015. 1 will therefore need to withdraw Clause 2 later, and I hope that this will make life easier for the Minister.

The European Union does not have a directive on a drink-drive limit, but as long ago as 1988 it first proposed harmonisation throughout Europe at a 50 BAC limit, which it recommended should be adopted. Over the years it has been adopted by all European Union countries except two: Malta and the UK. So I ask: who offers better protection to their citizens, and are the interests in favour of sticking with the present limit being better protected than innocent lives and limbs? To get the answers we need to look at a bit of history and then come up to current developments. These have been recently summarised by Professor Richard Allsop in his 2015 paper for the RAC Foundation entitled Saving Lives by Lowering the Legal Drink-Drive Limit.

It is now well recognised that drinking and driving impairs performance and is a leading cause of road traffic accidents. But, as some noble Lords may recall, that was not always the case. Even in the mid-1960s there was still debate as to whether moderate drinking increased or decreased the risk of collision. But others had recognised the danger much earlier. As long ago as 1954, the World Health Organisation reported that,

“the inference cannot be avoided that at a blood alcohol concentration of 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood, a statistical significant impairment of performance was observed”,

in more than half the cases it examined in the experiments it had undertaken. As a result, the WHO recommended a BAC limit many years ago.

The UK set up its own study in 1953 using what it called laboratory “tasking”, resembling driving vehicles on the road, which reported in 1959. It did not agree with the WHO’s recommendation but, while it acknowledged that substantial impairment of performance still occurred at levels below 80 BAC, it was suggested that those below that limit should not be criminalised. That was the reason given for not embracing the lower limit. In 1962-63 there was a large-scale study at Grand Rapids in the USA. This study quantified the relationship between BAC level and the risk of collision, and provided convincing evidence of greatly increased risk dependent on a driver’s alcohol level.

So why was the 80 BAC limit chosen? The choice of 80 BAC made by Barbara Castle, the then Minister of Transport, should be understood in the context of the evidence available at the time, and in 1967 it was probably influenced by several other salient factors too. The Grand Rapids evidence indicated that the average risk of involvement in a collision was roughly doubled at 80 milligrams. Further, 80 milligrams was within the range of levels then being considered or implemented by other countries. It was plausible that public and parliamentary acceptance could be gained, partly on the basis of advice that most people could have three small drinks without exceeding the 80 limit. However, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has long contended that 80 was not decided solely on the basis of empirical accident risk assessments, but was influenced upwards by the need to make acceptable to the public the introduction for the first time ever of legislation limiting the amount of alcohol that drivers could consume.

Eighty milligrams was the level at which the Grand Rapids evidence in the form in which it was published enabled the increased risk to be established with the conventional statistical 95% level of confidence against a background of genuine difference of opinion as to whether the risk was increased or decreased. The last of these points is more statistically technical than the others, but it carried weight among those preparing advice for Ministers, as no doubt former Transport Minister the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, may pray in aid when he comes to make his points. But I will argue that that precise basis is relevant to the case for lowering the limit.

What has happened since 1967, as well as the widespread harmonisation of a 50 BAC limit in so many other countries, including Scotland? Importantly, there have been further large-scale studies, including those conducted in the late 1990s at Fort Lauderdale and Long Beach in the USA. They were similar to the Grand Rapids study, but were helped by advances in statistical techniques which had been developed since the 1960s. Further studies were done in nine states in the USA between 2006 and 2008, and all were read across to the UK in a similar way to the original Grand Rapids evidence. They indicated that the increase in the risk of a driver’s involvement in a collision if they have a BAC of 80 milligrams to be nearly three times as much for collisions leading to injury and about six times for collisions leading to death as compared to the mere doubling which had informed the setting of the limit at 80 BAC in 1967. Even at the lower BAC level of 50, which this Bill proposes, the increases in risk are respectively about 1.5 and 2.5 times more—that is, double the Grand Rapids figures back in 1967.

There is now a broad consensus that risk of involvement in a collision is increased rather than decreased by moderate drinking. Acceptance of this changes the appropriate statistical process for assessing the level of confidence in analysing the Grand Rapids and similar data from a two-tailed to a one-tailed test. The meaning of this for the Grand Rapids data in the form in which it was published is that increased risk is established with a statistical 95% level of competence from 60 BAC upwards instead of the then 80 upwards as applied. There is a stark difference, and there was also a stark difference of opinion on this in 1967.

The foregoing may seem a bit dry, but the science proves that the 1967 BAC of 80 is now not only outdated but can mislead to risk life and limb. At the end of the day, of course it is the motorist’s right to decide whether or not to drive after drinking, but they have a right to know the facts about the risks and impairment that drinking has on their driving. It is the

Government’s duty and responsibility to provide those facts, especially when quite innocent citizens are involved or affected through drink-driving motoring accidents. Even though I am moving this, I ask the Minister, first, do the Government accept that the 1967 BAC of 80 carries far more risk than was originally believed? If so, what do they intend to do about correcting that? If, however, they maintain that 80 is still appropriate, I would like them to revalidate the figure and produce the science from a more scientific perspective than we have done previously.

Of course, it can be argued that limits do not really matter, and it is the deterrent of being caught and punished with heavy penalties that really counts. To a degree, that is, no doubt, true. In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the UK achieved major reductions in road deaths, injuries and accidents with 80 BAC. This was because the Government more vigorously enforced the limit than did many other countries, even though some had lower limits than we had.

This House produced two EU Select Committee reports on the Commission’s call for a 50 BAC limit in 1998 and 2002. Both supported the Commission’s recommendations. In response to the first, the Government, using their words, “was minded” to move to 50. The transport department supported it also. It was delayed, however, on the basis that it intended to deal with the matter in the context of a possible EU directive. That never came but, instead, in January 2001, the Commission issued a non-binding recommendation that member states should set a 50 BAC limit. It was scrutinised here and, again, adoption of the 50 BAC limit was recommended. The department supported the reduction but, to many people’s surprise, including my own as I chaired the sub-committee, the Government did an about turn at the 11th hour. Instead, they said that they wanted to review the issue in their proposed longer term motoring strategy that they were about to undertake.

During the ensuing decade, deaths and injuries continued to remain high but were reducing slowly, although the 2007-08 recession saw the biggest fall for quite some time. Opinion polls, however, particularly those conducted by the motoring associations, began to reveal growing public concern about drink-driving and support for the lower limit. This culminated in December 2009 in an independent review of drink and drug law by Sir Peter North QC. Most judged his report in 2010 as an excellent piece of work. On drink-driving, North was convinced by the evidence that the risk of involvement in a collision is increased by even moderate drinking. In particular, the review found that lowering the limit from 80 milligrams to 50 milligrams could save over 100 lives a year, based on evidence from NICE, as well as preventing many more serious accidents.

As a consequence, he recommended that the 80 BAC should be reduced to 50 for five years, after which there should be a further review with the aim of establishing a 20 BAC. The newly elected House of Commons Transport Select Committee in 2010 was not so convinced. It believed that the North report sent mixed messages. It in turn sent few messages or recommendations from its report. It did not dispute that drivers were impaired further at 50 BAC and saw an effectively zero limit, although too great a step at that time to take, as probably the best option in the longer term. Instead, its key recommendation was that,

“any reduction in the legal drink drive limit should only occur after an extensive Government education campaign, run in conjunction with the pub, restaurant and hospitality industries, about drink strengths and their effect on the body”.

The committee’s report evidence shows that heavyweight lobbying was on it from the drinks industry. In that decade, 5,330 people were killed and 170,000 casualties were also witnessed in the UK.

Since the North review in 2010, there has been a levelling off in the previous declining figures for drink-related road deaths and casualties. Further models, including that proposed by the RAC Foundation’s report authored by Professor Richard Allsop, also associate significant, if not as dramatic, reductions in death and injury which a drop to 50 BAC would produce. Allsop’s “cautious” estimate is that there would be 25 fewer deaths and 95 fewer serious injuries per year.

Even more recent news and perhaps the most compelling for change comes from Scotland where a 50 BAC limit is now in force. The BAC change has been accompanied by a wide-ranging publicity campaign which has stimulated a nationwide debate on drink-driving on a scale not witnessed previously. An RAC survey shows 79% of Scottish motorists believe that moving the limit to 50 is a positive move while a Scottish Government survey found that 82% of people agreed that it is unacceptable to drink any alcohol before driving, and only 12% of people disagreed with that, which was quite a surprise and a very big change in public attitudes.

I anticipate the Minister will express interest and welcome the Scottish developments. But I suspect that the Government will then want more time and data to assess what is happening north of the border—perhaps even two or three years before they get the figures that they would want to analyse. Meanwhile, the Government state that drink-driving “remains a priority”. But they have made only very small changes to the law over the past five years, nor have they indicated anything really radical ahead. In fact, their policy has probably stalled since 2010, which is why there has been a plateauing in the number of deaths and injuries. In addition, since 2010, police numbers have been cut by 23%, which has had an effect right across the whole of motoring, including drink-driving. 1 was not surprised, therefore, that 10 of the Government’s police and crime commissioners were in touch with me yesterday pledging support for this Bill. Furthermore, they were pointing out that from a financial perspective, the Local Government Association’s estimate that lowering the current drink-drive limit to 50 BAC would save almost £300 million annually by reducing the number of call-outs to accidents and the associated public sector costs of police, ambulances and hospital admissions. It argued that this funding could be ploughed back into making communities safer. It went on to say that it has overwhelming public support for this legal change. Research released only this morning from the RAC’s Brake, the road safety charity, and the Alcohol Health Alliance of an opinion poll of 5,000 respondents shows that 77% of people in the country favour a 50 BAC limit bringing England and Wales in line with Scotland and virtually the rest of the EU, apart from Malta.

Therefore, the Government have no problem in carrying the country with them on this Bill, apart perhaps the drinks industry. The public know increasingly on this topic what is right and what will help best to protect them. The cost of the change to this highly questionable and now unsafe law made back in 1967 will be minimal. It will be far outweighed by other cost savings, but even more importantly by the saving of more life and limbs. If, however, the Government delay—and it would be a delay because I believe, deep down, that they must know that this will have to come, as we cannot have differing levels between the UK countries, with trains and cars crossing borders every day as we have at the moment—I forecast that they can expect to see at least 600 people killed and around 25,000 casualties over the next three years as a result of maintaining the present level. The Minister and his colleagues can avoid or minimise these figures. They simply have to join the public view and do what is right now. I beg to move.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative 11:20, 29 January 2016

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, for so expertly moving the Second Reading of his Bill, although I have some difficulties with it. When the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, commissioned the North report, I assumed that he had identified the next step of our road safety programme, which would be to lower the blood alcohol level, or BAC, for drivers. I thought that the report was to provide the necessary evidence for the changes. In the UK, we have a very good road safety record because successive transport Ministers of all parties—one of them, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is in his place—have followed the evidence, expertly analysed by officials, rather than taking a populist course of action, which is what the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, has suggested the Minister should do.

At the time, I thought that, if a BAC of 80 milligrams would damage the hospitality industry, so be it. However, I must tell the House that I cannot recall ever seeing an impact assessment on the effect on that industry. My understanding is that the Scottish Government had not done one before lowering their BAC limit. To this day, I have never received any briefing from that industry on this issue.

When my party got into government, I found that the advice from officials regarding North was rather more complex than I thought it would be. Will my noble friend the Minister confirm that the Government have implemented all the significant recommendations in the North report, apart from lowering the BAC?

My first point is that any alcohol intake at all will cause a deterioration in driving capability and skills. The Grand Rapids report referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, shows that the chances of having an accident increase alarmingly after 80 milligrams. However, there is no safe limit and the best advice is not to drink and drive at all. I hope my noble friend the Minister can confirm that this is his position.

Secondly, we have some data available from the STATS19 system and the coroner’s records. For those accidents where at least one driver was killed, a staggering 19% were over the limit of 80 milligrams. However, for these accidents, only 1.7% had at least one dead driver who was between the proposed new limit of 50 milligrams and the current limit of 80 milligrams. That is a very small slice. There are lies, dammed lies and statistics, but this rather suggests that the problem lies not with those who drive with an unwise and imprudent BAC level of between 50 and 80 milligrams, but rather with those drivers who are totally non-compliant. I refer to them as unregulated drinkers.

That is not to say that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, is wrong. It is obvious that the Bill would reduce the BAC level of compliant drivers—a bit—which could produce a commensurate reduction in accidents. My fear is that the reduction will not be as great as hoped, since compliant drivers will already normally be driving with a BAC of less than 50 milligrams. If I am right, I do not think that it will take compliant drivers very long to find out that they do not need to reduce their intake much, if at all.

Thirdly, we have a problem with what I have termed unregulated drinkers. These people are often clinically dependent upon alcohol. They do not know how much they have drunk and they have no regard for the law, so the noble Lord’s proposal will have precisely no effect on them at all. They are also very hard to catch. I suspect that this is because they drive on minor roads for relatively short distances: my guess is three or four miles in a rural area and one to two in an urban area, but with a very high risk of having an accident. Noble Lords will realise that the window of opportunity for the police to detect such drinkers is very short, apart from in the event of an accident. If we have a formal Committee stage, I am tempted to run an amendment about permitting the police to instigate random breath tests, if that is what they want to do to solve their problems.

Fourthly, this change would have some resource implications. First, I am told that all the evidential breath test equipment would have to be recertified and recalibrated. I do not find this a convincing reason for not making the change. But secondly, and rather more persuasively, a considerable amount of police time could be tied up processing drivers who get caught by the new limit. Of course, this might not be the case if, in fact, even today few drivers drive with a BAC of between 50 and 80 milligrams.

My fifth point is looking around the corner. We are very careful not to let drivers know how much they can actually drink while remaining compliant. One good reason for this is that we know that there is no safe limit. Another is that, if drivers knew what their intake limit was, they might be tempted to go closer to it. This could mean that, on average, drivers would consume a bit more and therefore, on average, have more accidents. It is possible that law-abiding motorists might use their own breathalysers to ensure compliance with the new and lower limit. This could result in an increase in average intake and, therefore, the accident rate. I hope that I am wrong.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, pointed to lower limits in other EU countries, but, with the exception of Sweden, they do not have as good a road safety record as we do and in any case, as the noble Lord well knows, they have different penalty regimes. However, Scotland will provide us with an almost-perfect laboratory. There will be the same enforcement regime as in England because they cannot change the penalties, but a lower BAC. After three or four years we will get the stats and data from Scotland, which will tell us which way to go.

The Library Note suggests that compliance has improved by 12.5 %. I am bound to say that that is a rather disappointing figure, but unfortunately consistent with my analysis. It will take time for properly analysed statistics to be available, but if they show a significant improvement then we should consider following the Scots. In the mean time, my counsel to the Minister is to leave the BAC alone and concentrate on eliminating unregulated drinkers.

Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues) 11:28, 29 January 2016

My Lords, I congratulate and thank my noble friend Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe for bringing forward the Bill. He has been a marvellous campaigner on this subject for a long time. It is a shame that the Government have not taken action, especially given what my noble friend said about their knowledge of the extra risks of people driving with a BAC between 50 and 80 milligrams.

We increasingly stand alone internationally by retaining the 80 milligram rather than adopting the 50 milligram figure. It is now just Northern Ireland, England, Wales and Malta in Europe that stick at 80 milligrams. In fact, four EU countries have a limit of zero. Indeed, proud Welsh girl that I am, I have to take my hat off to the Scots, who have done the deed—and the sky did not fall in. In fact, as the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said, there has been a 12% drop in offences, while eight in 10 Scots believe that drinking any alcohol before driving is unacceptable.

This is always a difficult subject for me to discuss, as, a day short of my 10th birthday, I lost my mother because of a drunk driver. Who knows, she might have been saved and lived had she been wearing a seat belt. In those days, of course, they were not even fitted, much less compulsory. However, as a result of endless campaigning, and finally an Act of Parliament—in both of which my noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen played a key role—the law was changed with regard to seat belts. Now, we would not think of driving without wearing one. That is what I want to see happening with regard to drinking and driving—I want it to be unthinkable. A step towards that is to reduce the limit because we know that that will reduce the number of accidents. I think we have done with campaigning—just as we did in relation to seat belts before we brought in the relevant law. It is time to make the change.

I pay tribute to those who have campaigned on this issue, not just my noble friend but organisations such as the Campaign Against Drinking and Driving—CADD—set up to help the families of those bereaved through drink-driving, the Livia Trust and others who campaign for safety on the roads. We owe it to them, to those who have lost loved ones, but also to those who have been injured through someone driving after drinking, such as the Paralympian, Simon Richardson, to make this change.

For myself, I could, being a moderate person, live with this measure being introduced gradually, perhaps initially for drivers under the age of 21—as we know, they are overrepresented among the fatalities—or, perhaps drivers in their first two years after passing their test, or while holding a provisional licence; but start we must. Fifteen per cent of deaths in accidents involve at least one driver over the limit. Those are tragic but avoidable figures. In 2013 there were 250 deaths and 8,000 injuries, 1,000 of which are very serious, due to somebody driving after drinking. Would we accept so many deaths due to any other cause and do nothing about it?

Clearly, as has been said, lowering the limit is not all that is needed. We also need enforcement and publicity for real change to be made. However, a reduction to 50 milligrams would make a difference. As my noble friend said, that reduction is supported by more than three-quarters of the population. We know that at 80 milligrams, drivers are six times as likely to die in an accident as those who have not drunk at all. This is partly because, even if they do not cause the incident, they are less likely to be able to avoid a dangerous incident after they have been drinking. We are well aware that there is a direct relationship between the amount that is drunk and the ability to function behind the wheel. Even between 20 and 50 milligrams, drivers increase their chance of an accident threefold. Up to 80 milligrams, the risk increases sixfold, and up to 100 milligrams, they are 11 times as likely to have an accident. Therefore, reducing the legal limit would lower the number of accidents and improve road safety for all of us.

We, of course, are not the first to call for this, nor are we the only people who support this change. My noble friend Lord Brooke reminded us of the North report of 2010, which estimated that a reduction to 50 milligrams would save 100 lives a year. That is two a week. Those are real lives: they matter. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said that of the people who died, only one was between the 50 and 80 milligrams level.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, only 1% were between 50 and 80 milligrams, compared with the others.

Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues)

It is even more than that in terms of people and human lives, and when you think of the families affected. Surely that makes the case for us to make this change. As has been said, the Local Government Association has said that about £300 million a year could be saved in police, hospital and ambulance costs. That is without taking account of the costs to families. However, it is not just a question of victims. When I stated to campaign on this issue for obvious reasons a long time ago, I was worried about the organisations representing drivers. In fact, the AA, the RAC, the Chief Fire Officers Association, the Police Federation and the Road Haulage Association all support this change. Let us listen today to the victims and to my noble friend Lord Brooke and, for once, not take the advice of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and give this Bill not just a Second Reading but our wholehearted support.

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 11:36, 29 January 2016

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, for bringing this Bill forward because I believe it is certainly time we looked again at the alcohol limits for driving.

One of the great social changes of our lifetime is being discussed here today. It is undoubtedly no longer socially acceptable to drink and drive. However, it was once so. I am a keen reader. If you read a book written earlier than, say, the 1960s, but within the 20th century and the driving era, you will see that this subject was talked about publicly and flippantly. That has changed. I well remember the controversy and public discussion when this limit was introduced.

There have been other similar social changes in our lifetime regarding smoking, attitudes to women and equal marriage. They have all been a journey, backed up, or led by, legislation. However, on drinking and driving we seem to be stuck in a bit of a time warp. There has been no legislative journey on this to any great extent. The world has changed since this limit was introduced in legislation. Drinking habits and patterns have changed and we undoubtedly drink more on average. Some people drink a great deal on a regular basis. Back in the 1980s, I was part of an interesting demonstration involving the breathalyser and the 80 milligram limit. I was a trainee magistrate taking part in a residential training course. Over dinner in the evening we were given a plentiful amount of wine, after which the police breathalysed us. Noble Lords will be relieved to hear that none of us was going anywhere other than to bed. However, what struck me was that some of the people who were breathalysed had drunk a disturbingly large amount but were still not over that limit. That is very worrying indeed.

Testing systems have become more precise, as have scientific and technical knowledge. They have all moved on since this limit was introduced, and social attitudes have changed. To accommodate the legislation, we now have the phenomenon of the designated driver. In my experience, the younger generation has, on the whole, an exemplary attitude to drinking and driving, and a group of young people normally has a designated driver.

As noble Lords have said, the alcohol limit in England and Wales is now one of the highest in the world. That is pretty risky, given that this is a crowded island with severe traffic congestion. Most other European countries have lower limits. As we have already heard, Scotland and Australia have recorded far fewer fatal accidents since the introduction of lower limits. My noble friend Lord Beith, who was in his place earlier in this debate, said to me that, in his part of the world, it was important to remember which side of the border with Scotland you were on if you were going to have a drink and drive. My noble friend does not drink. Simplicity is important for drivers and the public; confusion should not be allowed.

I welcome the Bill. I do not know if 50 is the right limit, but it is undoubtedly time to look again at this issue. I hope the Government will take the opportunity to announce an independent review, led by experts. We need this for public confidence, because 50 is, to a certain extent, a number plucked out of a range. It is a moderate number but many people would say it should be lower, or zero. We need a thorough look at this, so I urge the Minister that the Government should set aside pressure from the drinks industry and ensure that the issue is investigated fully.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 11:42, 29 January 2016

My Lords, I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe on his Bill, which addresses an issue on which he and many others feel strongly and have actively campaigned for a considerable time.

As my noble friend said in his powerful and persuasive speech, the Bill lowers the maximum alcohol limits permissible when driving in the UK, from 35 to 22 micrograms of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath and from 80 to 50 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood. It also provides for a similar reduction in relation to urine. As has already been said, the effect of these changes is to bring the drink-driving limits in the rest of the UK in line with those applicable since December 2014 in Scotland. The lower limit was introduced in Scotland following a consultation in which 74% of respondents backed a reduction in the drink-driving limit.

The Bill is driven by concerns over the devastating impact of alcohol on the ability to drive safely. Department for Transport figures indicate that, in 2013, some 15% of all deaths in reported road traffic accidents involved at least one driver over the limit, and that around 250 people died in accidents involving drink-driving. In addition to these figures, there are those who are injured, seriously and otherwise, in drink-drive accidents for whom, as I understand it, the figure was some 8,300 in 2013. The 2013 casualty figures relating to drink-drive accidents do show a fall from the previous year, but they are still far too high.

I was a sitting lay magistrate for many years, and dealing with drink-driving cases was an all too regular occurrence. The frequency with which defendants who were well over the limit claimed they had had little more than “half a lager” never ceased to amaze me. In the majority of cases I sat on, the defendant had not been involved in an accident but had been stopped for other reasons, including odd or irregular driving, and been found to be over the limit. The number of people driving on our roads whose driving ability is impaired by the amount of alcohol they have drunk is, of course, far, far higher than the stark death and injury statistics indicate, but each and every person who drives having recently drunk alcohol is a potential killer if their ability to drive—and speed of response to what is happening around them on the road—is impaired.

The official drink-drive accident statistics only cover incidents where there was a failed roadside breath test based on the current limit of 35 micrograms of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath, or where there was a refusal to give a breath test specimen. As I understand it, the official figures do not cover accidents where the level of alcohol was below the current limit, but in excess of the limit in Scotland and, indeed, in virtually all other European countries. If I am correct, to that extent, the official figures almost certainly do not reflect the number of accidents and casualties which are related to the consumption of alcohol by one or more of the drivers involved in the accident. According to the European Transport Safety Council, the United Kingdom—outside Scotland—has the joint highest drink-driving rate in Europe, and the most common limit applied across the EU is the same as that proposed in the Bill. Four countries in the EU apply a zero alcohol limit. From this month, Department of Health recommended limits on weekly alcohol intake for men are either the lowest or about the lowest in Europe. However, when it comes to drink-driving, we have just about the highest alcohol figure in Europe allowable under the law.

It has been reported that, since the lower limit was introduced in Scotland, police figures show that the number of drink-driving offences there have fallen compared with the same nine-month period the previous year, even though, presumably, the number of potential offenders—and thus offences—has increased with the lower limit. However, not everyone in Scotland supports the lower limit. The Scottish Licensed Trade Association has apparently described the law change as a “catastrophe” for the sector, with a 5% decline in sales across outlets since the previous year. If this is the case, it perhaps also gives a feel for the extent to which alcohol was being purchased—and is probably still being purchased, albeit at a lower level—by people intending to drive. People’s jobs, of course, matter: so too, though, do people’s lives.

The Government have been saying since March 2013 that they will publish a Green Paper on improving the safety of newly qualified drivers. To the best of my knowledge, that Green Paper has yet to appear. In October 2013, a Transport Research Laboratory study, commissioned by the Government, proposed the introduction of graduated driver licensing, the aim of which is to enable young and novice drivers to build up ability and experience through a structured and phased approach. Apparently, this study was only made public through a Freedom of Information request from the insurance industry. Graduated driver licensing exists in various forms in a number of countries. The exact components differ, but one of the more common elements is a lower alcohol limit. The Transport Research Laboratory study said that the proposed introduction of graduated driver licensing should include a lower alcohol limit but, as I understand it, went on to state that this should preferably be extended to apply to all drivers. I do not wish to argue the case for graduated driver licensing, but it would also be helpful to know from the Minister what weight—or otherwise—the Government attach to the Transport Research Laboratory study’s view on lowering the alcohol limit for all drivers.

The Government have stated that tackling drink-driving is a priority, which is hardly a surprising stance and one that we of course share. But they have also said, in a Written Answer last October, that they would be interested in seeing,

“a robust and comprehensive evaluation of the change to the Scottish drink drive limit”,

rather than that they want to introduce similar limits here. I therefore assume that the question of an evaluation is one that the Minister will develop in his response.

Given that tackling drink-driving is rightly a priority, I take it that the Government are actively, rather than passively, pursuing the question of when such an evaluation is likely to be undertaken and completed, and by whom. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that. Finally, perhaps he will also say what issues or considerations the Government think such an evaluation should address in order for it to be comprehensive—the word they have used in relation to it.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport), Parliamentary Under-Secretary 11:51, 29 January 2016

My Lords, first, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. In particular, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, for bringing forward the Bill. I listened carefully to all the contributions and I thank him for his comprehensive, thoughtful and compelling contribution. He asked for my views on the BAC in 1967. I declare a personal interest: I was not even a twinkle in my parents’ eyes at that time—maybe I was. The Government consider it very important to monitor all the elements that contribute to the number of deaths on our roads.

My noble friend Lord Attlee talked about the lower number of deaths that occur in the United Kingdom. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, made a very personal contribution about her experience. I remember as a young child the experience of drink-driving was not on a personal level—I suppose I should declare an interest as someone who, on faith and on principle, does not touch a drop, which will perhaps give an inkling of my views in this respect. It is important to underline as a general point that it is not a case of doubt: if you are drinking, you should not drive. That is a message that successive Governments have sought to give and it is right on a point of principle that that is where the doubt first arises.

Although I do not drink, I have been to wine bars and pubs and I am sure there are notices to that effect but they do not go into detail about 50 milligrams or 80 milligrams. They have a simple, concise message, understood by people of all ages: if you are drinking you should not drive. In my student days, I did not drink but had to drive others who had drunk. It was not a pleasant experience, I can assure your Lordships—not least if we were pulled over to the side with a whole bunch of people who were perhaps more merry than I was. To say I was not merry would be an understatement.

Turning to the matters before us today, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, in a very poignant contribution, talked about how drink-driving leaves families shattered, hurt and bereaved. I remember giving evidence in court after someone smashed into the back of our car, quite late on a Saturday evening, clearly drunk, but he got away with it because he drove off. Thankfully, it was late at night and there were no passengers in the car but it formulates the challenge that we have to face. The Government have taken this issue very seriously and I will come on to those points in a moment.

On 21 December last year the Government set out their plans for road safety in Working Together to Build a Safer Road System. Our priorities and plans are quite clear. We will consult on ways to tackle dangerous in-car mobile phone use, reported by the RAC as being one of motorists’ top concerns, with a view to increasing penalties for drivers using handheld mobile phones. I start on that point because it is important to set out what the Government are doing to reduce the number of all forms of road casualties. In addition, we have set up a £750,000 grant for police forces in England and Wales to build on drug-driving enforcement capability. We are consulting on legislative changes to improve cycle safety by ensuring that sideguards and rear under-run devices are not removed from HGVs, and consulting on proposals to support safety for motorcyclists, who account for 19% of all road deaths. We are consulting on ways to incentivise and reward the uptake of more pre-test practice and a broader range of real-world driving experiences for those who are starting to learn to drive, and undertaking a £2 million research programme to identify the best possible interventions for learner and novice drivers. We believe that these are all important steps that will help to reduce casualties further. As the Minister at the DfT responsible for our agencies, including the DVLA and DVSA, these are areas that I have already looked upon as priority issues to take forward.

But let me come back specifically to drink-driving. As we have already heard, it is estimated that 240 people were killed in collisions involving illegal levels of alcohol in 2013. Drink-drive deaths in 2013 were among the lowest since detailed recording began in 1979, when 1,640 people were killed, and accounted for around 14% of all road deaths. However, these are 240 too many. While police continue to robustly enforce against this reckless behaviour, the numbers of those testing positive or refusing a breath test—and, alongside this, prosecutions and convictions—have been falling continuously. This is good news.

However, drink-driving is still responsible for too many deaths and injuries. In order to prevent this, the Government will continue to take tough action against the small number of drivers who ignore the drink-drive limit. Many drivers killed in drink-drive collisions, or prosecuted for drinking and driving, are significantly over the current drink-drive limit. We have prioritised enforcement efforts to identify and deal with these dangerous individuals. We have a robust approach to deal with these high-risk offenders. As I am sure noble Lords will be aware, last year we made it a requirement for them to undertake medical tests to ensure that they are not still dependent on alcohol before they are allowed to drive again.

The same legislation, the Deregulation Act 2015, also made an important change to drink-driving laws by removing the so-called statutory option that allowed those drivers who provided a breath test that was slightly in excess of the prescribed limit to demand a blood or urine test. By removing this provision, individuals have been denied the chance to sober up and so drop below the prescribed limit while waiting for a blood or urine sample to be taken. There is also no longer a requirement for the police to do a preliminary test by the roadside if they use a mobile evidential breath-testing device. This has paved the way for the introduction next year of mobile evidential breath-testing instruments, which will enable taking evidential samples at the roadside quickly and efficiently and before a suspect has the chance to sober up and fall below the limit. This has the potential to make the enforcement process more efficient, giving officers more time being visible on the road while they deal with drink-driving offenders. This will in turn help bring the message home to other motorists that if they drink and drive they risk getting caught—with serious consequences.

My noble friend Lord Attlee spoke about the North review. I assure him that we have implemented most of the recommendations, including, as I have already said, that relating to the statutory option for drink- drivers. We have also implemented the drug-driving recommendations. We do not tolerate any form of impaired driving. That is why we introduced the new drug-driving offence in March 2015, setting specified limits for 17 drugs. The police are being successful in taking these dangerous drivers off our roads: more than 4,500 drug drivers have been convicted since the new offence came into force, compared to fewer than 900 in 2014. Moreover, 20% of drug-drivers have a previous drink-driving conviction. By clamping down on drug-driving we are therefore removing a significant number of dangerous drivers from our roads.

With regard to the lower drink-drive limit, I accept that apart from Malta, all other European countries have a lower alcohol limit than England and Wales but, as my noble friend Lord Attlee pointed out, they do not have a better record on reducing drink-drive casualties. In England and Wales, the penalties for drink-driving are more severe than in other countries, including those with lower limits. I am sure all noble Lords will therefore agree that lowering the limit in itself is not going to change people’s behaviour. Neither would it be the best use of our resources in improving safety on our roads at this time. That said, with regards to Scotland, which the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, and others referred to, we will of course be very interested to see the full impact across casualties and the rates of drink-drive offences.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, and others mentioned waiting for the evidence base. One thing that I will take back from this debate is, certainly, to take up directly with the appropriate Scottish Minister when we are likely to see that substantial evidence base, with a view to holding a meeting. It is important to base our decisions on evidence and the Scottish experience will be crucial to that.

We have had strong successes in tackling drink-driving through rigorous enforcement, tough penalties and changing the social acceptability of drink-driving, including through our award-winning campaigns. This is how we will continue to tackle those people reckless enough to consider getting in their car after drinking. As noble Lords will know, our award-winning THINK! road safety campaigns remain an important tool to educate people about changes in our motoring laws and safer behaviour choices.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, talked about education—in part, about looking at the DVSA and graduate driving. For the first time since 2007, we are running a drink-driving campaign on television, ensuring a very wide reach. It tackles those drivers who we know drink before getting in a car. A staggering one in five men between 18 and 34 declare that they would consider having two or more drinks before driving, so our campaign aims to persuade them to change their behaviour in a way that we believe will work. We will of course evaluate this campaign, as we always do. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, pointed out the importance of having independent reviews and analysis. I will certainly take that back to the department and look at what work has been done in that respect.

In thanking all noble Lords for their contributions, let me reiterate that the Government regard this issue as a priority. I have highlighted some of the initiatives that we are taking in this respect. Clearly, more can and needs to be done but in changing any limits we must consider the evidence base, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, and others would acknowledge. However, I give my personal assurance that I will take back to the department the details and learning from what has been a very well-informed and, at times, personal debate. I would very much welcome a meeting with the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, to see how we can progress this matter because I believe, as do all noble Lords, that any life lost because of the reckless act of a particular individual wrecks lives and homes. We need to take action to ensure that we can eradicate this from our society.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour 12:03, 29 January 2016

My Lords, I am grateful to all who have spoken in this quite short debate. I thought that the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, would probably want to maintain the status quo for the time being but if he is contemplating tabling an amendment to go for random breath testing, which would help, I would be very pleased indeed to speak to him about it and would consider accepting an amendment from him in Committee. It will not be just one silver bullet that solves all the problems; neither would the Bill. There have to be a range of factors brought to bear. My complaint at the moment, as the House will have heard, is that the Government are stalling. Yes, the Minister has referred to a number of changes but, quite frankly, they are very small indeed.

The heart of this is that the Government have a policy of saying, “Don’t drink and drive” but in practice they do not try to put forward that policy. In truth, if there was such a policy, the limit would be 20 mg. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said that I had got the North report wrong. I have not; I have read the North report well and the Select Committee report. I have also read the Government’s response to the North report and the Select Committee. True, there has been no precise impact assessment made of how the industry would be affected but the industry made vehement and significant contributions to the work of the committee in 2010.

In particular, when the Government responded in Cm 8050, they said in paragraph 2.26 in regard to whether it would affect people that:

“The majority would not need to lower consumption to stay legal with a lower limit, but their response to the present limit suggests that they will not want to take any chance with the risk of offending. These responsible people have the choice to drink even less—and especially to drink less when they are out. If that happened, it would have a substantial impact on the businesses they patronise”.

That was the department’s view and I believe that it is what the Government support. That is why when they talk about a policy of “Don’t drink and drive”, they do not actually follow it through—because there is pressure from other quarters to continue to allow people to drink at low levels. What I have argued today is that those lower levels are dangerous. I have argued not solely about deaths but about those many thousands of people who are injured and still alive. There are such people around in wheelchairs, and so on.

Repeat offenders—those who go well over the limit—are an extraordinarily difficult group to deal with. I would not for a moment deny that and would be very happy to meet with the Minister and talk about that right across the board. But it is odd that in the evidence which has come out these people, when they are tackled, say that the one thing that would influence them would be to be told that there was no drink and driving whatever. Then they would not drink. That has never been tested and there is no science on it but that is the idea which they put forward. If we went to a 20 mg level in due course, maybe that would be the point at which it would be tested.

Scotland has already had a strong outcry from the drinks industry about the way that the changes affect it. To pick up the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, it is making a cultural change in Scotland. As she rightly argued, we have seen many other cultural changes but in this area we have been slow. It is now time to move on.

I thank my noble friend Lady Hayter so much for her support. I pay tribute to the work that she has done over many years. Many of your Lordships may not know that she was the original founder of Alcohol Concern, which deals not just with this issue but with a wide range of alcohol concerns. It has done tremendous work in campaigning over many years.

We need other changes, too. If restaurants and pubs have a problem, what I cannot understand is why the root of what takes their business away is not tackled: the cheap booze sold to the public in supermarkets. If we were to go to a minimum unit price then the pubs, restaurants and so on would be on an equal competitive basis and would find more people going to them than has been the case. They need not drink, as we would hope to be running a campaign saying that if you go to a restaurant and have a drink, you should have a non-drinking driver with a car among you. That is a very good campaign indeed and I would be happy to support efforts along those lines. A package of measures is needed. A minimum unit price, even though it is not being pushed here, is a significant part of it and would answer some of the criticisms that have been levelled.

There are a whole range of issues here that need to come together. I will be coming back in Committee. The British Transport Police has suggested that the present limit needs to be equalised with that in Scotland, where there is a disparity. I think that that arises under different legislation and I am not quite sure how it needs addressing. I will speak to the Minister about it and see whether it is appropriate to table an amendment to the Bill.

In the mean time, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions, in particular my noble friend Lord Rosser on the Front Bench. I know that he had a little difficulty in determining from our friends in the party at the other end just what line to take on the Bill. He pointed to some very interesting and useful statistics and facts. I rather suspected from the way he was speaking that he has been convinced that while he may not have had a strong lead on policy from the other end, he will now go back and give them a very strong lead on what the Labour Party’s policy should be. It remains for me just to thank everyone who has contributed. We will be coming back in Committee, as I have at least one amendment that I will be moving. I conclude by asking the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.