New clause 22 - Prescribed limits

Railways and Transport Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 11th March 2003.

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

(a) In Section 11(2):

(i){**?h=8pt**}in (a) leave out ''35'' and insert ''22'';

(ii){**?h=6pt**}in (b) leave out ''80'' and insert ''50'';

(iii) in (c) leave out ''107'' and insert ''67''.

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

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

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

I am conscious of the time and I am also conscious that this is a matter that many Government and Opposition Members would be interested in debating. I therefore hope that there will be an opportunity, if we are not able satisfactorily to finish the debate today, to return to the topic at a later stage of the Bill's passage.

As I have done in relation to other road safety matters, I shall begin by placing on the record my praise for the work done by a large number of people in seeking to reduce the number of accidents caused by drink-driving. We ought to record our great thanks not only to the police for their work, but to Government Departments and past Governments, which have undertaken effective advertising campaigns, particularly at Christmas.

I also want to record my tribute to local organisations and local newspapers, such as The Bath Chronicle, which have worked in the field—[Interruption.] Its readers will be delighted to know that so many Committee members are avid readers. Like many other newspapers, it started a campaign in autumn 2001, which it has continued since, working

closely with local police and developing a name-and-shame approach in the event of any drink-driving prosecutions.

The new clause would reduce the current limits on alcohol in blood, urine and breath. It is worth recording that Baroness Castle of Blackburn, who as Barbara Castle first introduced the breathalyser law on 10 May 1967, said at the time that she thought the blood limit was overgenerous. It was, and is, 80 mg in 100 ml. I will touch briefly on the fact that there has been a great deal of work subsequently to suggest that the limit is overgenerous and that it would be appropriate to reduce it.

I note with interest that in a speech on 30 November 1996, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), when she was Opposition transport spokesperson for the Labour party, made a clear policy commitment that Labour would reduce the limit to 50 mg once in office. The night before that speech, she said:

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

That was the clear commitment made by the Labour party before the 1997 general election. Having won that election, the Government undertook various consultations, and in their February 1998 report, ''Combating Drink-Driving—Next Steps'', said:

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

That is the category of drivers that my new clause would affect.

All the data gathered for that Government consultation report pointed to the need to reduce the limit along the lines proposed in the new clause. In March 2000, however, the Government changed their tack. In ''Tomorrow's roads: safer for everyone—the Government's road safety strategy and casualty reductions targets for 2010'', they said:

''The European Commission is currently reviewing its existing proposal for a Directive on the drink-drive limit. Though we do not yet have details, it is likely there will be continued pressure for a harmonised 50mg overall limit in Europe, and possibly even lower limits for specific categories of driver. If the UK acted unilaterally, we could end up having to readjust to new European regulations soon afterwards.

We therefore intend to deal with proposed reductions in the European context.''

In other words, the Government put off the issue and waited to see what European directives would be introduced.

More recently, the Under-Secretary made it clear in a written answer on 20 March 2002 that the Government had no plans to make a change in the foreseeable future:

''The limit will stay at 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood. The Government consulted on this in 1998 and waited upon proposals from Europe before considering the matter further. No firm legislation was forthcoming from the European Union although the European Commission produced a Recommendation which, among other measures, recommended community wide

harmonisation of the legal blood alcohol content limit for motorists at 50 mg.''—[Official Report, 20 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 361W.]

Now, it is clear that even when the Government were saying that they were not minded to take any action they were aware of the desire at European level for a reduction in this country to bring about harmonisation. With the exceptions of Ireland, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom, drink-drive limits in all other member countries are set at 50 mg. The limit is lower in Sweden and lower still in many parts of eastern Europe. When we touched on the issue previously, the Minister of State emphasised that the penalties in other countries, which are mostly lower than the penalties here, should be taken into account. I have checked the Minister's documents, which are incorrect. In the majority of countries, the disqualification maximums are higher than in this country, as are the prison sentence maximums. The one difference, to which I suspect the Minister is referring, is the limit at which automatic disqualification applies. On that, he is correct. In this country, the threshold for disqualification is lower, but overall, the penalties imposed in other countries are higher.

Of course, I would be first to admit that one cannot make strict comparisons between countries merely by considering absolute limits. A range of other factors, such as enforcement and publicity, must be taken into account. I hope that the Committee will acknowledge, however—this was reported during a debate in the House of Lords some time ago—that, overall, bearing in mind those variations, the evidence suggests that reducing the limit would lead to an increase in the numbers of deaths and serious injuries that take place on the roads as a result of drink-drive related accidents, as it has in other countries.

I would like to say much more, but I am aware that we are short of time. There is considerable merit in the amendments, which would bring practice in this country into line with that in the majority of other European countries, something to which the Labour party committed itself before it was elected in 1997.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North 4:45 pm, 11th March 2003

We are very short of time but I want to say that I entirely agree with what the hon. Member for Bath said about drink-driving. I feel strongly about the matter and hope that we can persuade the Government to change their mind on this important issue. I believe that we could reduce the number of deaths that result from drink-driving. I also favour the more frequent use of long-term driving bans, including lifetime bans, for serious driving offences. I want to put that on the record. Although I imagine that this is not the appropriate time to add such a new provision, I hope that the Government can be persuaded to do so in the near future.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

We prefer to leave the limits as they are because we believe that reduced limits would be unenforceable.

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

This has been a short but interesting debate. Again, as I stressed in my opening remarks on the previous set of amendments, the Government's

ambition is not merely to reduce limits, but to reduce the casualties that are caused by those who drink and then drive on our roads. I agree with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North, that although we have severe penalties, we must examine better ways of enforcing them.

We must also examine the serious cases that are not addressed in the amendment of people who consistently drink to levels above the 80 mg limit. It is those people who cause most of the casualties on our roads, but I will not detain the Committee today with the measures that we are considering to give us more power over them. That is a more important issue than some that have been raised.

The hon. Member for Bath discussed harmonisation, as if there was some great value in harmonising legislation with other countries in the European Union. In some respects, I have no difficulty with that concept, but I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman would want us to harmonise with the number of casualties that are caused by drink-driving in France or in Spain, for example. Would he want us to harmonise with the level of enforcement in France? The United Kingdom enjoys greater enforcement of the drink-driving levels, and has fewer casualties caused by drink-driving than nearly all other European countries.

The merits of introducing a blood alcohol concentration limit of 50 mg or lower have been extensively examined and debated over a long period. Much research has been undertaken and the experiences of other countries have been taken into account.

In the 1998 consultation paper, ''Combating Drink Driving—Next Steps'', to which the hon. Member for Bath referred, the Government acknowledged that many drivers experienced some degree of impairment at blood alcohol levels below 80 mg. However, the potential injury savings from lowering the limit to 50 mg depend on the assumptions and estimates that are made. The extent of driver impairment below 80 mg in individual drivers is less certain than when the blood alcohol levels exceed 80 mg.

We know that the results of research from other countries, where legal limits have been reduced to below 80 mg, are likely to have been affected by advertising, enforcement or other measures taken. It is therefore difficult to disentangle the beneficial effects of any single measure, such as reducing the limit, from the overall effect of a whole package of measures, such as those that we have been successful in introducing in the UK.

Another factor referred to by the hon. Member for Bath was the penalties for road traffic offences. That is a key element in enforcing the drink-driving laws. Despite what the hon. Gentleman said, the penalties for exceeding the 80 mg limit in the UK are more severe than they are in most other European countries. There is, for example, a mandatory minimum disqualification period of 12 months for any drink-driving offence. That penalty can be combined with up to six months' imprisonment and a fine of up to

£5,000. I do not know of any other country that enforces such a rigorous limit.

A further problem would be that if we applied our penalties at a 50 mg limit, that would put us further out of line with the European Union in terms of sanctions. Moreover, if we had differential rates of 50 mg, 80 mg and so on, that could imply that there was a safe level at which to drink. We have heard strongly from my Department that only one message should be communicated: that there is no way to drink and drive safely. It is a no drink and drive message rather than a low drink and drive message. That is the difficulty when debating whether the limit should be 80, 50, 40 or 20. The message that we have been reinforcing successfully is no drink and drive rather than low drink and drive.

The real problem in the UK, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North, is not those who are on the margins but the people—often young men, I am sad to say—who consistently drive above the legal limit and do not see that there is any problem in doing so. Those are the people whom we must address, and they will be targeted by the action and research in my Department.

Although we share the strong ambition to reduce casualties, I urge the Committee to resist the amendments.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I am very conscious of the time. All the estimates show that between 80 and 100 lives would be saved every year if we reduced the legal limit. I pointed out that one cannot make easy comparisons because of enforcement and advertising. I point out to the Minister that one cannot advertise a 50 mg limit if one has not introduced a 50 mg limit; nor can one enforce it unless one has introduced it. This is an important issue that we have not had an opportunity to debate, although I hope we may do so in future. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill, as amended, to the House.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

May I thank you, Mr. Hurst, and your co-Chairmen, Mr. Hood, Mr. Benton and Mr. Mahmood, for gracing us with fine chairmanship? I think Mr. Mahmood was making his debut performance, and it was a very successful one. I thank Hansard for its sterling work, as ever. I thank the Clerks for giving us excellent service throughout, and I hope that we will continue to enjoy their services for the remaining stages.

I thank all the hon. and right hon. Members of the Committee, not least my hon. Friends the Members for Uxbridge, for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) and for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon). I thank the police for maintaining good order in our proceedings. I thank also the Minister's Department, which did a great deal of preparatory work. I thank the Doorkeepers for making sure that the Doors are locked firmly at night.

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

May I associate myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington with all of those thanks? I thank you in particular,

Mr. Hurst, and your main co-Chairman, Mr. Hood, and also Mr. Benton and Mr. Mahmood for their sterling work in keeping us in order. No doubt you have deliberated on the implications of a bigamist stepping off a trolley bus in Scotland onto a jet-ski on a lake in the vicinity of a railway line, only to be arrested by a constable whose hat had blown off. Those are the sorts of issues that we ended up debating, but with great good humour.

Although there are provisions in the Bill that many of us would like to see changed, we recognise that it is an important Bill, and in retrospect, we shall all be pleased to have played a small part in it. In particular, I hope that our deliberations on the British Transport police and the rail accident investigation branch will save ''Thomas the Tank Engine''—I see that there have been so many accidents in the BBC episodes of that programme that psychologists now say that children may be severely damaged for life. If we can reduce the number of accidents in episodes of ''Thomas the Tank Engine'', we will have done good for future generations as well as for present ones.

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

In the brief time left available by Opposition Members—as usual—I wish to thank you, Mr. Hurst, for your handling of the Committee. You are always on the lookout for hesitation, repetition or deviation from the subject under discussion. Even so, some Members on the Opposition Benches proved that they can speak for longer than just a minute. We must not forget the considerable help that we received from

your colleagues, Mr. Hood and Mr. Benton. The latter was kidnapped from the Corridor to officiate at our proceedings and who is now looking for stand-by money. I also thank Mr. Mahmood, and I hope that his contribution will be noted by the Speaker's Office.

We have enjoyed one another's company over the 18 sittings. The important thing is that, despite some deviations, the Committee has thoroughly scrutinised a highly important Bill. It will allow us to take important steps to improve the safety of transport by setting up an independent rail accident investigation branch, imposing alcohol limits on marine and aviation staff and creating an independent police authority for the British Transport police. Those and other measures will contribute to increasing passenger confidence and safer more reliable transport.

The Bill represents an important addition to our legislative framework, and I am pleased that so many of its measures have received so much support from both sides of the Committee. I hope that that will remain the case during its further progress through Parliament.

Photo of Mr Alan Hurst Mr Alan Hurst Labour, Braintree

Before I put the question, I join in the thanks to those who have served the Committee with such good humour. The question is that I report the Bill, as amended, to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Committee rose at Five o'clock.