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Policing and Crime Bill - Report (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 7th December 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Conservative 7:00 pm, 7th December 2016

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 175. Amendments 174 and 175, in outline, seek to reduce the legal limit for alcohol in the blood for drink-driving and introduce changes for younger or probationary drivers. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for their assistance and for putting their name to the amendments. I thank the Minister for all her interest and efforts regarding this matter. I thank her particularly for arranging a meeting yesterday for interested Peers with the Minister, Andrew Jones, who has responsibility in this area.

I shall not seek to repeat in full the arguments made in Committee, save to mention that the number of deaths from drink-related accidents has remained static for five years, at 240 a year, and that 2.9% of those accidents fall within the 80 milligram to 50 milligram range to which the amendment relates. I know that the Minister has explained that there is a group of persistent offenders, but the 2.9% of accidents that fall between 50 milligrams and 80 milligrams are within the low-hanging fruit area that could be avoided if there was a reduction in the limit allowed in the blood.

Before I mention two additional areas for consideration since Committee, I want to outline how I see the debate on this issue. Both sides, whether it is those moving the amendment and all the organisations, such as the RAC and RoSPA which support it, or the Government, base their arguments and conclusions on evidence—they have come to different conclusions and interpretations on the evidence. For instance, a PHE study recently published in The Lancet said that 40 milligrams in the blood increases the risk of an accident. I therefore hope that I have misunderstood Her Majesty’s Government in saying that theirs is the only evidence-based position. It is not conducive, particularly in today’s climate, to conduct debates in a polemic way rather than seeking to accept that both sides are acting on evidence and coming to different conclusions.

Of the two additional matters to have arisen since Committee, the first relates to disparity and the second is conceptual. On disparity, the amendment relates to the law and the specific offence of having too much alcohol in the blood. That is an offence in and of itself under our law. There is now a different limit in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. That offence often stands in conjunction with, and is pertinent evidence for, the more serious offences in our law of causing death by dangerous driving or causing death by careless driving, the latter being a more recent change to our law. It is important to remember the context of those offences. They were introduced because it was very difficult to persuade juries to convict for manslaughter. Juries cannot relate to walking down the street with a knife or a gun, but they can relate to being in a car, failing to drive properly and causing an accident. That is the background to those offences.

A particular disparity in relation to this matter has come to my attention, and it relates to devolution. We have devolved to Scotland the power to set a different level of permitted alcohol in the blood—it is now 50 milligrams there—but the offences of causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving are the same on both sides of the border. Many of your Lordships may have watched the very popular television series, “The Bridge”, a Scandinavian drama where the murder victim’s body is found on the huge bridge between Denmark and Sweden. Therefore, both police jurisdictions are involved in investigating the case. But let us consider the case of someone driving from Scotland into England whose inadvertent driving causes a death first in Scotland and then later a death in England. In the fictional series that I have mentioned, there was no problem in both police forces investigating the murder because it was a murder in Sweden and in Denmark, but, because of the way in which the law is framed between England and Scotland, such an offence would be particularly difficult to investigate here because, in relation to charging for causing death by careless driving, in one jurisdiction 70 milligrams is over the legal limit and in the other it is not. The offence would obviously be considered very differently by the Crown Prosecution Service and the procurator fiscal because, in a decision whether to prosecute, the 70 milligrams is much weightier evidence before the court if it is also a criminal offence. Assuming a decision to prosecute is made, how does a judge direct the jury in each jurisdiction? Such a direction is affected by whether the level of alcohol in the blood is a criminal offence in the courtroom. We have created this problem in relation to how we prosecute these matters.

It matters particularly to victims. Even when we are not talking about the same perpetrator, which I recognise is unlikely, will we not end up in a situation where the standard of driving, particularly driving without due care and attention or careless driving, may be very similar but the limit for alcohol in accidents that occur in Scotland will be different from that in those that occur in England. Surely families in England and Wales will also want the criminal law to recognise that the behaviour that led to the death of their relative is meritorious of a conviction or at least a trial in the criminal court. At its best, the criminal justice system is part of the healing process for victims. It is not too far-fetched or the stuff of fiction to think that we will end up with victims in England and Wales feeling that the death of their relative was not viewed in the same manner as that of someone in Scotland or, I might add, in Northern Ireland. If there are prosecutions for the 240 annual deaths that I talked about, it will be important to gain that evidence as well.

On the conceptual point, it has been mentioned again and again from the very beginning in meetings with Her Majesty’s Government that there is a balance to be struck between personal freedom and public safety. I of course accept that you are free to go to the pub; you are free to drink; you are free to have many drinks, subject to the licensee’s obligations. You are also free in this country, although I would be very sad to see it, to drink yourself to death if you wish. But it is a very different consideration for public safety if, when you have had at least some alcohol, you then get behind the wheel of a car. You cannot pilot a plane or drive a train or tram while you have any alcohol in your blood, and you are not allowed to operate many other types of machinery. So this is not about fining people who have had one glass of wine in the pub. Bringing down the limit and beginning to create zero tolerance to drinking and driving would not be a bad thing.

I recognise that there will soon, I hope, be evidence available from the Scottish change in the law. There will be evidence, as we heard outlined previously, about the rural economy, and there will, I hope, be evidence about the reductions in deaths and injuries. We need to be careful about the difference between correlation and causation when we look at that evidence. But there will also be, I hope, the evidence from the criminal courts on how the change in the alcohol limit affects prosecution, particularly that of causing death by careless driving. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to give assurances that the Government will take forward this matter constructively. I beg to move.