Clause 14 - Alcohol ignition interlocks

Road Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 25th January 2005.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 3:30 pm, 25th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 57, in clause 14, page 17, line 17, leave out paragraph (a).

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 58, in clause 14, page 17, line 40, leave out '9' and insert '30'.

No. 59, in clause 14, page 18, line 14, at beginning insert

'without reasonable excuse to comply with a reasonable requirement.'.

No. 60, in clause 15, page 21, line 35, leave out from '2010' to end of line 37.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The purpose of the amendments is partially to draw more from the Minister about the thinking behind the path that is being taken with this clause. Amendment No. 57 would remove from subsection (7) the provision that a court must be satisfied that a place on an approved alcohol ignition interlock programme will be available before it can make an alcohol ignition interlock programme order. Does the Minister agree that that provision could be a big inhibiting factor in the implementation of such a programme?

The provision will apply only in specific areas of the country, and in those areas the magistrates and courts will know where it applies. The best solution would be for the courts to be able to put offenders on such programmes when it appears to them that the offender should go on the programme and consents to do so, rather than their having to be satisfied that there is a place on such a programme before they can make an order. A sentence could be imposed and if there were any problem with its implementation, a further order could be made. The current wording is likely to result in far fewer orders being made than would otherwise be the case.

I move to amendment No. 58. Can the Minister explain why, although the legal limit is 35 micrograms of alcohol in 100 ml of breath, when it comes to having an alco-lock, one will be in breach of the order or will be unable to make the vehicle work if one has more than 9 micrograms of alcohol in the breath? In this probing amendment, I replaced the figure nine with 30 on the basis that 30 is less than 35, but gives a larger margin within the legal limit than nine does. Nine micrograms of alcohol in 100 ml of breath is probably in line with what one could get in the atmosphere in a pub full of people, or it might be the amount of alcohol that is residual in the body for many hours, if not half a day, after one has been drinking.

Amendment No. 59 deals with certificates of failing fully to participate, and is a practical suggestion that I am putting forward, with all due humility of course, to the Minister. At the moment, the provision is absolute in that if the offender has failed

''to attend at a place specified by the programme provider for the monitoring and maintenance of the alcohol ignition interlock, at a time specified by the programme provider or a person with whom the programme provider has made arrangements for its monitoring and maintenance'', he has got himself in a mess.

Photo of Mr Paul Stinchcombe Mr Paul Stinchcombe Labour, Wellingborough

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify two aspects of the amendment? First, is he suggesting that if someone fails to attend such a course with an excuse, they can be certified as having participated in a course that they did not attend? Secondly, why is he seeking to insert the phrase ''without reasonable excuse'' only in one paragraph of new section 34E(2)?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

To deal with the last point first, the issue of reasonableness does not arise in subsection (2)(a), which refers to making payment of fees and is straightforward. The hon. Gentleman will also notice that reasonableness already appears in paragraphs (b) and (d), but is conspicuous by its absence in paragraph (c).

The final amendment in this group is to clause 15 and is related to the experimental period operating for clause 14. We are asking whether the Government should be able to extend that period beyond 2010 at their own behest. The provisions currently enable the Secretary of State to run the experimental period for much longer before coming to a decision on whether it should be made permanent. Again, I hope that the Minister can explain why he needs to take the extra power of enabling an order to be made at

''such later time as may be specified . . . by the Secretary of State'' rather than at or before the end of 2010.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 3:45 pm, 25th January 2005

I will take the Committee, and in particular the hon. Member for Christchurch, down memory lane again. He will recall from his days in office the early development of the drink-drive rehabilitation courses and the arrangements put in place under the Road Traffic Act 1991 to refer offenders to such courses. On successful completion of such a course, an offender can have a reduction in his period of disqualification. We are replicating here something that was tested in those early days.

The scheme was begun as an experiment—here again we are trialling it—in a limited number of court areas, but in 2000, after evidence had been gathered that reoffending among the course attenders was about two and a half times lower than for non-attenders, it was rolled out nationally and continues to be successful. In the new system of alcohol ignition interlock programmes, the scale of application may be slightly narrower, but the impact could still be significant.

Broadly speaking, referral to an alcohol ignition interlock programme works in the same way as referral to a drink-drive rehabilitation course. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will remember, albeit that it is 14 years ago, what was in the 1991 Act. We have now replicated it in the Bill. That is why I was surprised that he tabled amendment No. 57, because it seems to contradict what he put into the legislation in the heady days of the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am sure that the Minister is really saying that he does not believe that the legislation that I pushed through the House was subject to as much detailed scrutiny and argument as the Bill.

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

If a Bill is not receiving detailed scrutiny and argument, that is the Opposition's fault, not the Government's. I was not in the House at the time, but I am sure that my hon. Friends gave the Bill careful scrutiny. I am sure that you were here, Mr. Pike, and I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) was here. Had he been on the Committee considering the Bill, he would have given it the closest and most thorough scrutiny, as befits a good Opposition. The hon. Member for Christchurch might learn something about being a good Opposition from this Government, because once he has learnt to be a good Opposition, there is a good chance that he might one day become a good Government.

Accordingly, the provisions for the drink-drive courses have been modelled closely on those in section 34A, B and C of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988. The sections have clearly served us well and we have largely stuck with them.

By amendments Nos. 57, 58, 59 and 60 the hon. Gentlemen have sought to make some refinements to the arrangements, and I shall go through them quickly. Amendment No. 57 would delete subsection (7)(a) of new section 34D, one of four conditions that must be satisfied before a court can make an alcohol ignition interlock programme order. Paragraph (a) says that the court must be:

''satisfied that a place on the approved alcohol ignition interlock programme specified in the order will be available for the offender''.

There would be no point in the court referring someone to the alco-lock programme if no place was available. The court would have to be sure that a place was available, as it must be now with the rehabilitation courses. The intention here is clearly not to raise false expectations of a course of action that cannot be fulfilled. In practice, the effect of the requirement is that the courts assure themselves of the general availability and capacity of courses in their area and liaise with course providers. We would expect much the same co-operation with alcohol ignition interlock programme providers under the provisions in the clause.

The hon. Gentleman said that the court would be saying, ''Thou shalt attend''. That is not quite the case. First, not all drink drivers will be able to go on the programme. Certainly serious offenders and those on the rehab courses will not be able to. The court, in its wisdom, would have to decide whether a person was sufficiently contrite and would benefit from such a course. If it did not feel that they would, it certainly would not give them any remission of the ban.

We have to remember that the alco-lock system will not be imposed against the will of the offender; it will have to be done with their co-operation. The person would have to agree beforehand where they were going to attend, how the lock was going to be fitted, and confirm that they understood the limits of what they   could do. The lock could be fitted only in those circumstances. It would certainly not be fitted without the total acquiescence of the offender.

On the other point, an alco-lock programme order is not a compulsory course of action for a court. Before the course is taken, it will be for either the court or the offender to suggest it. Once the offender has begun the course, they will be compelled to complete it properly. If they do not, they will be removed from the course and their ban will start again—and quite right too. The option should not be an easy one, but one for those who are seriously contrite and want to mend their ways.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

What happens if somebody changes their address and moves from an area where courses are available to one where they are not? They may have to travel quite a long distance to have their ignition lock tested. It may not be impossible for them to do that, but their ability to do so instantly would be limited. They may need a bit more notice than ''Next Wednesday morning''. Will the system be sufficiently flexible to accommodate people who move outside the area where the experiment is running?

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

A person in such circumstances would have a number of choices. First, they could negotiate with the provider of the course and ask to move to a course in another part of the country. Secondly, they could come off the programme and face a resumption of their ban. They would have to decide which course of action they wanted to take. There could be difficulty in some circumstances, but as the system is rolled out throughout the country, the number of such cases would decline.

Nevertheless, the course is not an easy option. Those on the course have to comply with its terms; it is not there for their convenience. If it does not suit, they will find themselves banned again. They have to fit the course, rather than the other way round.

As for amendment No. 58, new section 34D(9) defines an alcohol ignition interlock for the purposes of legislation. Subsection (10) states that the level beyond which the proportion of alcohol in the breath will cause the alco-lock to prevent the engine from being started is 9 micrograms of alcohol per 100 ml of breath. The amendment would change the figure of 9 to 30. That is just below the legal limit for alcohol in the breath, which the Committee will know is 35 micrograms per 100 ml of breath.

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the alco-lock should only operate when a person has drunk so much that they are approaching the limit of being able to drive legally? Is he saying that people should be able to say to themselves, ''I can have a pint or two before I go, then test the machine to see if I am somewhere near the limit''? That is not the point of the provisions. We are telling people that it is not just a question of driving below the limit, but driving when they have not drunk alcohol.

The figure of nine micrograms amounts to virtually zero for all intents and purposes. Some people, due to medical conditions, have a background amount of alcohol in their breath all the time that may be a little   more than nought, so the amount of 9 micrograms is treated as zero. We are saying that people on the programme should be sober. They should not drink up to the limit and hope that they can get away with it. If someone is drinking just up the limit of 30 micrograms—just below the legal limit—they have not learned their lesson, should not be on the road and certainly should not get remission of some of their ban.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I wonder if the Minister can answer a scientific question. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch raised the rather alarming thought that the human body might ingest alcohol through the air. I think my hon. Friend referred to this in his opening remarks. If one were in a pub but not drinking, a person might find that they had ingested 9 micrograms. I have heard of passive smoking; I have never heard of passive drinking. I wonder if the Minister will confirm that that is a scientific impossibility. Will he also explain what 9 micrograms would constitute? If a person consumed one glass of wine and waited 20 minutes, where that would put them on the range before us?

I accept much of what the Minister is saying, but the law is the law and if a person is within the law, surely they are entitled to drive. If someone has under 30 micrograms in their body, he is not breaking the law, so why should he be prevented from driving?

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

Very simply, because that person has had some remission of their ban for drink-driving and has been allowed back on the road. The law gives them a small remission and allows them back on the road, but they must demonstrate that they are sober and that they have mended their ways. If they do not want to do that and want to carry on drinking, they just have to accept that they will not be able to drive. This Bill, when enacted, as I hope it will be, will not allow them to do that. Anybody who says that they can go into a pub, breathe deeply and get drunk is in a fantasy world. I have been into a few pubs in my time; oh that we could! It would save a lot of money.

Human bodies are different, and a large person who is used to drinking alcohol and has eaten food when they absorb alcohol is in a very different position from a very slight person who has not eaten and is not used to drinking alcohol. For some reason, women absorb alcohol into the blood quicker than men, and different racial groups have different rates for absorbing alcohol. Northern Europeans are more resistant to alcohol absorption in the blood than, for example, some of the Asian races. They are just physiological facts, so there is no answer to the question of how much one must drink to reach the drink-driving limit. The answer is that a person who receives a remission of their sentence must demonstrate that they are nowhere near the limit for drink-driving.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I think that the Minister is telling us that he is rather wedded to the figure of 9 micrograms. If that is the case, why does subsection (10) end with

''or such other proportion of alcohol to breath as the Secretary of State may by regulation prescribe''?

Why does he envisage making that change? 

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

It gives us that bit of flexibility. If from time to time there needs to be a change, we will be able to make it. If the figure of 9 micrograms was not appropriate or we received medical advice that it was not appropriate, we could make the change.

Amendment No. 59 concerns new section 34E, and deals with the issue of not fully participating with the requirements of an alcohol ignition interlock programme. Subsection (2) specifies circumstances in which the offender would be regarded as ''not fully participating''. Paragraph (c) specifies the condition

''to attend at a place specified by the programme provider for the monitoring and maintenance of the alcohol ignition interlock, at a time specified by the programme provider or a person with whom the programme provider has made arrangements for the monitoring and maintenance''.

Amendment No. 59 would insert at the beginning of that condition:

''without reasonable excuse to comply with a reasonable requirement.''

Although I understand the safeguard intended by the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Christchurch, it is superfluous. Reasonableness must be read throughout the provisions, and any law has to be imposed reasonably. In those circumstances, the provisions would not work. That is the reason why there is an appeal process; it can test whether the police or the providers of the course have acted reasonably.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

In that case, why does the proposed new subsection include references to the ''provider's reasonable instructions'' in paragraph (b) and a ''reasonable requirement'' of the programme provider in paragraph (d)? There is no reference to reasonableness at all in paragraph (c).

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

I shall deal with amendment No. 60 and return to that point.

Clause 15 (1) provides that no order shall be made under section 34D—that is a court order referring an offender to a programme—after the end of 2010 or

''such later time as may be specified in an order made by the Secretary of State.''

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was generally in favour of sunset clauses.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 4:14 pm, 25th January 2005

I was dealing with amendment No. 60 and I dare say that, in the fullness of time, the hon. Member for Christchurch will reappear so that he can hear my answer. He asked about reasonableness. I am told that reasonableness is inherent in the overall requirement of subsection (2) and hence the reference to it in paragraph (d). The difference between (b) and (c) is that (c) spells out more clearly what is required of the offender. I hope that is a perfectly reasonable answer to a reasonable question. Perhaps the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire can convey it to the hon. Gentleman when he reappears.

I hope that has been a helpful reply to some of the points made. I urge the Committee to resist the amendments before us.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

First, I apologise for not being back in time. I was on the telephone with a lawyer in Munich, where one of my erstwhile constituents is currently in jail. I am sorry that my telephone conversation overran slightly. I will not go into the details of the case, but I might share them with the Minister afterwards; he might have a wry smile.

As far as the substance of these amendments is concerned, I am grateful to the Minister for responding in the way that he has. I was disappointed, however, that he ignored that I said that amendment No. 58 was a probing amendment, and sought to take it literally, as a sort of policy option. I am also sorry that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire took the view that I was scientifically inaccurate about this matter. I am sure that what I intended to say was what the Minister effectively said in response; that up to the limit of 9 micrograms—one can give a puff here, or a puff there—anybody may well be at that limit.

The Minister has not really addressed the issue of people who are not teetotal, who have drinks in the evening and then get in their car the following morning. We know that if they get in the car in the morning and are over a level of 35, they have obviously had a skinful the night before. But there is a question mark over whether somebody might have a level of 15, having had drinks the night before; nobody would suggest they were anything other than sober. It is that area of doubt that I wanted to identify and draw attention to in my in my probing amendment. The Minister has given rather an absolutist response, saying, more or less, that this programme is only going to be suitable for people who are absolute teetotallers. I certainly did not think that was the original purpose.

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

I intervene partly so the hon. Gentleman can catch his breath, as he has been running up the stairs. It is not intended that the programme should turn somebody into a teetotaller. It   is intended to say to a person, whether or not they are carrying on with a moderate or relatively high level of drinking, that if they come onto this programme and get some release from the ban, they must demonstrate that they are not just near the limit, but virtually at a zero level when they get in their car and start driving it. That is totally fair and reasonable, as a person is getting off some of their ban. If we did anything other than this, it would be quite ludicrous, and offensive, particularly to those people who have suffered the death and injury of their relatives by drunk drivers.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am not sure that somebody who had killed somebody through drunk driving would be able to qualify for this course. The Minister and I are ad idem, however, on the principles that we are trying to address. I am trying to ensure that the practicalities are taken account of. My concern is that somebody who is, for all intents and purposes, sober—or capable of being able to drive safely—in the morning after having been out for dinner the night before will not find that because they have residual alcohol in their system, they cannot get the car started.

I have no technical expertise; I do not know the rate at which alcohol leaves the system. As the Minister says, it is impossible to say exactly what happens, because each person has a different constitution and a different speed at which they absorb alcohol and at which it is released around the system.

We should be able to have some general guidance as to whether someone who has been out drinking the night before and then makes to start his car to go to work the following day is likely to have a level above 9 micrograms and therefore will be incapable of using the vehicle.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

My understanding of the clauses is that the device is intended for those people who are high risk; those who have committed a relevant offence and are therefore in the high-risk category where the longer bans have been imposed. It is a way of mitigating that. We are not dealing with somebody who has committed one offence and is now living a normal life, having learnt their lesson. We are dealing with people who have a repeat offence track record, and sadly often suffer from alcohol addiction. In those circumstances, zero tolerance is right.

To help the hon. Member for Christchurch, roughly speaking one unit of alcohol metabolises from the average body in about one hour. One unit of alcohol is equal—very roughly as it depends on the size of the glass and the volume of the alcohol—to one glass of wine. One can therefore work backwards as to how much of a skinful someone has to have had to have residual alcohol the following morning. I do not think that it is too much to ask, given those figures, that people should be clear in the morning. I would therefore support the level of 9 micrograms.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has made more of a speech than an intervention. It is a pity that he did not join in the original debate,   as he is obviously a lot more expert in the matter than I am, and probably very careful in the calculations he makes.

To deal with the Minister's response to amendment No. 60, I intended to ensure that there was a clear sunset clause. The Minister seemed to interpret my amendment as against the principle of sunset clauses. My intention was to prevent the experimental period from running on.

I do not know whether the Minister will want to look at it again, but my intention was that by preventing a later time beyond the end of 2010 for incorporation, the experimental period would have to be finite. People who were planning and investing and so on in the programme, which might be quite expensive to set up, would know that it would end in 2010. Hopefully, it would by then have been such a success that it could be made permanent. People might invest because it looked inevitable that the measure would be made permanent, but might find themselves frustrated when the Government exercised the power in clause 15(1)(b), which would extend the experimental period, rather than dealing with the substantive case for removing the experiment and allowing it to be a general facility available to the authorities.

I do not think that we have quite established what my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire wishes to do, but I do not wish to divide the Committee on any of the amendments. However, it was important to raise the issues in the way we did. Although the start of the programme may be some way down the track, the detail will be highly relevant to those on it when it starts and to those who implement it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I rise to ask the Minister a question. I understand from something that he told the Committee that the Department has laid on a demonstration of the alcohol locks for the press. If the Department has a vehicle with such a lock fitted, I hope that the Minister will consider inviting hon. Members with an interest in such matters—I include all members of the Committee in that—to a demonstration. Personally, I would like to see one of the locks in operation.

Photo of Mr Adrian Flook Mr Adrian Flook Conservative, Taunton

I may well have missed the Minister's comments on proposed section 34D(10) of the 1988 Act, but could he clarify that it specifies 9 micrograms and not 8, 11 or 12?

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

First, I shall deal with the point that the hon. Member for Taunton made. Fortunately, our proceedings are recorded accurately by Hansard. If the hon. Gentleman consults Hansard, he will see that the point that he raised was dealt with fairly thoroughly, so I shall not detain the Committee further on it.

If there is an opportunity to demonstrate the device to Members of both Houses, we shall attempt to do so. We have given demonstrations of the hazard protection test, which I think many members of the Committee enjoyed. If we can put on a demonstration—not, if possible, with half the members of the Committee staggering about drunk and trying to start the car—I shall be happy do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.