Clause 78 - Prescribed limit

Railways and Transport Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 27th February 2003.

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Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 4:30 pm, 27th February 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 9, in

clause 78, page 32, line 17, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

'(1) The prescribed limit for alcohol for the purposes of this part is—

(a) in the case of breath, 22 microgrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres,

(b) in the case of blood, 50 milligrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres,

(c) in the case of urine, 100 milligrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres.'.

I said earlier that it was clear that members of the Committee were thoroughly enjoying themselves and were desperate for our deliberations to continue for a longer time. Indeed, I noted with considerable interest—you may not be aware of this, Mr. Hood—that the message was being spreading around but a few minutes ago that the Government Whip was anxious for our deliberations to carry on until a slightly later hour this evening, because we were not making fast enough progress. However, so great was the enthusiasm of the Committee to carry on that more members of the Committee spoke immediately after the Government Whip said that than have spoken at any other time. I suspect, therefore, that there will be much interest in the amendment.

I shall set out the context. You will be aware, Mr. Hood, that I intend later to move an amendment, subject to your selection, to reduce the various prescribed limits for alcohol for car drivers. We are currently debating an amendment that relates to the prescribed limits for mariners. The Minister has already made it clear that he believes it appropriate for the same limit to apply to all modes of transport, and therefore it is also appropriate, in proposing this

amendment, to put it in line with our later amendment on car drivers.

The issue was raised with the Secretary of State on Second Reading; he was asked why a provision on prescribed alcohol limits for car drivers was not included in the Bill, and said:

''We do not have any plans to reduce the limit below the current limit. That is why the matter is not addressed in the Bill.''—[Official Report, 28 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 773.]

I hope that, as a result of discussions on this amendment or on our later amendment on car drivers, the Government may be prepared to think again. The Minister agreed earlier that there is growing evidence on alcohol abuse and driving. We must see whether we can benefit from experience gained over many years that has generated research showing that the time has come for a reduction in the alcohol limits.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about motoring, although we are not now discussing reducing the alcohol limits for motorists. In motoring, everything moves very quickly, and it is the reduction in reaction time that is crucial. In other areas of transport, particularly navigation, things move much more slowly and reaction time is not so crucial, although judgment may be impaired by alcohol. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it may be appropriate to have more relaxed limits for navigation than for motoring?

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

The hon. Gentleman refers back to a discussion that took place about half an hour ago when the hon. Member for Ilford, North referred to a marine incident in which she had been involved, and in which things happened very quickly. In that situation, fast reaction times were important. Nevertheless, I accept the broad thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument that a case could be made for differential limits.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that different limits are prescribed for certain aspects of aviation later in the Bill. However, I suggest that we should stick to the broad thrust of what the Minister has told us is the Government's intention—that there should be comparable levels across all modes of transport. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not only support our later amendment on car drivers, as he has indicated that he will do, but that he will support the amendment on those involved in safety-critical areas in shipping.

The growing research evidence available on alcohol and its impact on people's ability to react quickly suggests that the current alcohol limits are too high. Some will argue that there is no evidence of that in this country. However, I suggest that the Government share my view. On 2 February 1998 the Government published a document entitled ''Combating Drink Driving: Next Steps''. Section 13 expresses the problem extremely well. It reads:

''The second problem group are drivers whose blood alcohol is below the current limit but whose ability to drive safely is nevertheless impaired. The current drink-drive limit is too high to catch all those who drive while impaired by alcohol. It has been recognised for some years that, for most drivers, impairment begins (and hence accident risk increases) at much lower levels than 80mg. It is possible to prosecute and convict drivers who produce a negative breath test but

whose driving is obviously impaired, under the offence of ''driving while under the influence''. Though it is rare for such drivers to be prosecuted simply for driving while impaired, those whose driving causes a death are liable to be charged with the ''causing death'' offence even if their blood alcohol was found to be below the 80mg limit and significant numbers are convicted.''

That specifically refers to driving, but the research is all about the impairment of a person's ability to react quickly to the sort of circumstances referred to in shipping by the hon. Member for Ilford, North. There is now significant evidence to suggest that our limits are too high in this country. Indeed other countries have already concluded that our limits are too high and they have lower limits. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position the Minister of State says that they have problems with enforcement. He should do greater research because that is not the case. Levels in Sweden are much lower. I had discussions in Stockholm with the head of the police section responsible for this issue. The Swedes have been successful in enforcing lower levels and there has been a corresponding reduction in the number of accidents, injuries and deaths on Swedish roads.

That evidence can mirror the situation in relation to the sea. It has long been established that alcohol can affect the safety-critical functions of people at sea. That is covered in existing legislation. It is rightly thought necessary to go a stage further in the Bill and to introduce a testing regime and statutory limits. If we are to do that, it would be better to set the limits at a level that would ensure greater safety at sea than the proposed limits would do. I will later move an amendment to reduce the current limits, and I hope the Committee will support the amendment to ensure that we have appropriate levels at sea.

I conclude with an admission. Just as on a number of occasions hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have pointed out typographical errors in what they have presented, there is sadly a typographical error in this amendment. The final line reads:

''in the case of urine, 100 milligrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres.''

It should be 67 millilitres, the figure that appears in the amendment we have tabled in relation to driving. The Minister will doubtless have picked that up. The figures in the amendment would still be a significant improvement on the Government's proposal.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport) 4:45 pm, 27th February 2003

I read the amendment with interest. I can see where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. The Secretary of State said on Second Reading that the Government wanted the same blood alcohol limit as for motoring, which is 80 mg per 100 ml. We have always considered that a higher standard is right for road transport because that is the transport context in which most injuries or deaths occur annually. Almost 1,000 people a year are killed on the roads and many more are injured. We regret that it was not considered appropriate to include road safety in the provisions, since statistics show that there is substantially more chance of being injured on the road than on railways, at sea or in an air accident.

I hope that we can keep the limits under review. We are minded for the moment to support the

Government limits, rather than to support the lower limits in the amendment, with the proviso that, curiously, there will be some discrepancy. We have advocated equal levels of safety for all modes of transport, but there will now be three different sets of alcohol limits according to whether sea, road or air travel is used. I wonder whether the Government are comfortable with that. I am sure that the amendment is intended as a probing one, given that I am sure that the hon. Member for Bath understands that disasters on recreational craft, such as the Marchioness, are very rare. We do not want to go overboard.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Conservative, Westbury

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York. It is bizarre that the hon. Member for Bath should confuse cars and boats. They are different, and the limits that have been suggested for motoring are well grounded in evidence. A huge amount of research has been done by the Transport Research Laboratory, and others, to establish those limits. The same research has not been done with respect to boats, and I agree with the hon. Member for Luton, North who elegantly expressed the difference between cars and boats. I know that Bath is an inland constituency, but the hon. Member for Bath should appreciate that difference.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Minister of State (Department for Transport)

It will be interesting to discover whether, in view of the location of their constituencies, the Liberal Democrats are going to the quayside pubs of Cornwall, Devon, Scotland—although the provision is not of immediate relevance there—Dorset and the Norfolk Broads to tell their constituents that they consider them to be a menace if they have more than one pint. I also notice with interest the normal Liberal Democrat pick'n'mix with Europe. I always used to say that Britain, along with Sweden, had Europe's lowest death rates on the roads. I do not have to say so now. The latest figures show that Britain has the safest roads in Europe—something that the hon. Member for Bath failed to mention. I acknowledge that that has been the result of a continuing policy under Administrations of both main parties. We are undertaking further work to deal with deaths of youngsters. In particular, there is significant work in south Lancashire, where there is evidence of difficulty.

The hon. Gentleman quoted levels in Sweden. He ignored the rest of Europe, but would rightly say that there are lower levels in a number of European countries. However, he neglected to mention that penalties are quite different in those other countries. Most countries in the European Union that have a limit of 50 mg do not have an automatic ban for exceeding that limit. Indeed, my recollection is that bans come in only when one goes over 100 mg, which is much higher than our limit. Once again, the hon. Gentleman needs to consider proportionality, which is precisely what we are trying to do with regard to marine matters. We recognise that there are some problems and some potential problems, and we want a proportionate approach that enables people to enjoy recreational marine activities, but without having a draconian policy. Hon. Members ought either to be

clear about getting that balance right or to be out campaigning among their constituents saying what they want to do.

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

I have enormous respect for the Minister, but am, frankly, flabbergasted by the speech that he has just made. I suspect that when he reads it in Hansard he will reflect on it and regret much of what he has said. The Minister is well aware, or at least he ought to be aware, that we are dealing not only with recreational vessels, but with large shipping vessels with large numbers of people on them. To trivialise the issue and suggest that I am going to go round telling people that they are a danger because they have had more than one pint and are on a punt on the River Cam is to belittle the Minister's own achievement in bringing the Bill forward.

I am equally surprised that the Minister is not willing to acknowledge what he himself has just said: that nearly every other European country has considered the matter and has decided that it is appropriate to introduce lower limits. He is right that in some of those countries the penalties are different. However, he is wrong if he is suggesting that those other countries saw no reason whatever to introduce the lower limit. They considered the question long and hard, and brought in lower limits in an attempt to improve safety on their roads. They did not do that on a whim. There is clear evidence that the Minister does not seem to be willing to accept.

Further, the Minister seems to accept the argument from the hon. Member for Westbury that there are some significant differences between shipping and road vehicles. That is fine. I have already said that I accept that there might be an argument for that. However, the Minister cannot have it both ways. In the Bill he proposes to introduce measures whereby the limits—higher than I would like—in respect of cars and shipping are exactly the same. If the Minister is saying that there should be different limits, and he is prepared to give me a nod and a wink to suggest that those are the desired limits in respect of shipping and that he will accept a differential level in relation to cars, which the hon. Members for Westbury and for Vale of York talked about, I might at least feel slightly more cheerful about the Minister's response. Frankly, I believe that the Minister could make a case on the limits in relation to shipping, and I am really disappointed that he did not make it.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

To return to the hon. Gentleman's second point, can he explain why, if there are lower limits on the continent, there are none the less higher death rates?

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 5:00 pm, 27th February 2003

I can tell the hon. Gentleman of a number of factors that contribute to that. In some cases, they have different speed limits. I hope that all Committee members—[Interruption.] The Minister says that that is not true. It certainly is. Only a few countries are introducing speed limits on their motorways, autobahns and so on. The second reason is road design, and the third is street lighting.

There is a range of crucial issues, so the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) would be

wrong to separate out this one. The problem is that road safety is complex. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree with the hon. Member for Vale of York and with me that the biggest shame is that the Bill contains no road safety measures. Will he, therefore, support our amendments, which are designed to create an opportunity to discuss road safety as a major part of the Bill?

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

The hon. Gentleman has made my point—road deaths are not due solely to alcohol. There are other factors. Nevertheless, does he not agree that there is a clear graph that suggests that if one reduces alcohol intake, one reduces road deaths?

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

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support. He is right. All research evidence shows something that, sadly, the Minister of State seems not to accept. There are clear correlations between the amount of alcohol consumed and the likelihood of being involved in an accident that leads to serious injury or death. That graph continues below the 80 mg limit, demonstrating clearly, as all the research shows, that any level of alcohol can have a detrimental effect on ability. The Minister compounds his felony with nonsense about telling people that they are a complete menace if they have more than one pint. The research shows that one can, particularly in relation to driving cars—but it is true of other vehicles—be a complete menace when one has had only one pint. I hope that the Minister will look at that detailed research.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Minister of State (Department for Transport)

May I ask the hon. Gentleman whether all his Liberal Democrat colleagues, who represent substantial rural areas and villages, do campaign on the issue in their areas?

Mr. Foster rose—

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Order. We are not discussing road traffic safety. We are discussing ships and ports. I would ask the hon. Gentleman to speak to the amendment.

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

Perhaps the Minister will save up that question until, perhaps with even more passion than I had intended, I move the amendment in relation to the reduction of alcohol. I am slightly at a loss. I have great respect for the Minister's concern about transport issues and the seriousness with which he takes them. I compliment him for having introduced the Bill. This is the first time in a long time that I have heard him respond in such a way, and that is a great disappointment. In order to allow him time to reflect on his response, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 78 ordered to stand part of the Bill.