New Clause 1 - Alcohol-prescribed limits

Road Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 3rd February 2005.

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'(1) The Road Traffic Act 1988 (c.52) is amended as follows—

(2) In section 11(2) the meaning of ''the prescribed limit'' is amended as follows—

(a) in (a) leave out ''35'' and insert ''22'';

(b) in (b) leave out ''80'' and insert ''50''; and

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

(3) In section 8(2) leave out ''50'' and insert ''35''.'.— [Mr. Kidney.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

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

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 2—Driving under the influence of illegal drugs—

'A person who when driving or attempting to drive a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or other public place found to have traces of an illegal drug in his body shall be guilty of an offence.'.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

The new clause would lower the legal limit in relation to alcohol in one's blood, breath or urine for drinking and driving. All the relevant levels are referred to in the new clause. I want to concentrate on the 80 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of blood, which the new clause would reduce to 50 mg.

I accept that since the 1970s there has been a big reduction in those killed or seriously injured by people who have consumed too much alcohol. In 1979, more than 1,600 people were killed in incidents relating to drink driving. By the mid-1980s, that had been reduced to about 1,000 a year. A decade later, we had halved that figure. The law in this country is settled. There is a culture in which drinking and driving is socially unacceptable and we have been cutting the number of deaths. However, my argument is against complacency. A number of recent factors, taken together, show that we have come to the end of a phase and that it is time for a new one.

After that laudable reduction in deaths over two decades, the number of deaths is rising. In 1998, there were 460 deaths on our roads due to drinking and driving. By 2003, there were 560. That is 21 per cent. more. As that rise occurred over five years, it is trend, not a blip.

Photo of Mr Adrian Flook Mr Adrian Flook Conservative, Taunton

The hon. Gentleman is quoting the figures as they appear. Will he put them in the context of the number of motorists who were on the road over that time?

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

Yes, of course. The hon. Gentleman makes a point about the increase in the number of vehicles on our roads. That is quite right. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has 60 million vehicles registered. That is a big increase since the 1970s. I do not deny that in the slightest. However, we take pride in reducing deaths and serious injuries from all causes. The figures have reduced year on year, and the Minister can tell us of the success of the present road safety strategy later. That is continuous, but here is one instance, amid all the reductions, in which the trend is   going in the wrong direction. We all need to take account of that alarm bell. So the increase in deaths over the past five years is one factor.

The second factor is the practices in the drinks industry. There are new kinds of drinks, such as alcopops, and there are higher strengths of beers and wines. When we set the limit, a mainstream beer was typically about 4 per cent. Today it is often 5 per cent. Wines were about 8.5 per cent. by volume strength. Today they are typically 12 to 14 per cent. A significant development is that people buy wine in all sorts of sizes of glasses. A typical measure used to be a 125 ml glass. Now there are 175 ml and even 250 ml glasses.

Ideas about the legal limit which have been established over 20 years, in particular the number of drinks that we can consume and still safely drive, are simply myths and are wrong. Many people have too great an ignorance of what is a safe measure. I have some sympathy with the argument made by some, including the British Medical Association, that a new level of 50 mg would give people the message that if they drink and drive, the only thing of which they can be sure is that one unit of alcohol is definitely within the limit. That is a clear message for everybody to grasp.

Bearing in mind that the Minister's response will be, in part, that we have a settled law and that it is important to have known harsh penalties, strict enforcement and so on, the third factor relates to a briefing from a company called TTC 2000. It claims to be the

''largest provider of the Department for Transport drink drive rehabilitation course''.

We mentioned that course on Tuesday. In the course of its briefing to me, TTC 2000 said:

''It is amazing how many drink drivers that we see who were surprised to find that there was an automatic minimum disqualification of 12 months.''

That is a significant factor because the Minister assumes that everybody knows that we have one of the harshest penalties in Europe and that that penalty is a great deterrent. However, if people have lost that message, they do not know about the harshness of the penalty and it is not a deterrent. So complacency is setting in.

Lastly, in January we received the results of the breath tests that the police carried out in the two-week Christmas period. It is a tradition to have a crackdown during Christmas and new year. The police produce figures that tell us how that crackdown went in the following January. As part of its report, the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland produced a news release on 6 January, in which it said that, despite the successes of this year's campaign,

''a worrying proportion of those involved in collisions are still driving having consumed excess alcohol. The trend has been increasing since 1999 and . . . the current rate of 8.75 per cent.,''— of positive tests—

''although less than last year, has, for the second year running, virtually reached the 1997 baseline of 9.11 per cent.'' 

So the police report a worrying trend of increasing positive results. Richard Brunstrom, the well known chief constable of North Wales police who leads for ACPO on such issues, says in the same news release:

''I again reiterate my strong belief that it is time the Government followed the European Commission Recommendation that the blood alcohol limit be lowered from 80 mg to 50 mg.''

He strongly supports the case that I am making.

Are the four factors that I mentioned simply straws in the wind or signs of something more serious? I answered that by saying that alarm bells are ringing and it is time for us to take notice of them. I accept that we do not really know how many people drive with excess alcohol in their blood, except for those indicators that I pointed to—rising deaths and a rising number of positive breath tests after accidents at Christmas.

However, in 1990 we did know, because the Department paid for roadside surveys to find out what the general level of drink-driving was in this country. In a six-month period, officials from the Department for Transport stopped 14,500 drivers and asked them to take part in the survey. Slightly less than 1 per cent. refused, which is an interesting factor. Of those who agreed to be tested, 3 per cent. were found to have in their blood between half the legal limit and the legal limit of alcohol, and 1 per cent. were found to be driving with excess alcohol in their blood. That was 15 years ago. I suggest to the Minister that more people are now driving with excess alcohol in their blood. If he cannot agree to the new clause, will he agree to repeat his Department's survey to find out whether I am right and, therefore, agree that more action needs to be taken?

The new clause has a lot of support. I mentioned the chief spokesperson for ACPO. I also mentioned the British Medical Association, which is well placed to have a view on the subject, bearing in mind that doctors understand the effect of alcohol on people's behaviour, have to treat those who are mangled in car crashes caused by drink-driving and manage to save some lives but fail to save others and, sadly, see people die. Road safety groups such as Brake and the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety also support the new clause. As I mentioned, I co-chair PACTS so do not give much weight to its support, but it is the pre-eminent organisation that gives advice to the House based on evidence and research, rather than opinions about what should be done.

The best advice to any driver is, ''Never drink and drive''. I fully support all the money that the Department for Transport spends on its hard-hitting advertisements and on education to persuade people to be responsible, but we must accept that, human nature being what it is, some people will drive with some alcohol in their blood. We must also accept that some medical treatments, and the natural reactions in some people's bodies, mean that it is not possible for everyone to have zero alcohol in their bloodstream. There is also the difficult question of the time it takes for alcohol to leave the bloodstream after it is consumed.

A limit of 50 mg is more reasonable. I have explained the BMA's ''simplicity of understanding'' argument. I will focus on the argument that such a limit would save lives. The explanation for that lies in the calculations of Professor Richard Allsop, of the Centre for Transport Studies at University college London. He breaks down drivers into three groups. Some 97 per cent. of all drivers, by far the biggest group, never drive with an alcohol level over 50 mg. One per cent. drive with an alcohol level far over 80 mg. They are the most dangerous drivers, and he estimates that they cause more than 400 deaths every year. They completely ignore the law and we are not going to persuade them to accept my limit of 50 mg. For them, detection and severe penalties are always going to be the answer.

That leaves the 2 per cent. who drive at somewhere around the present legal limit of 50 mg to 110 mg and who cause about 130 deaths a year. Professor Allsop calculates that if they modified their behaviour and drove somewhere around the limit of 50 mg, 65 lives a year would be saved and 230 serious injuries prevented. An alcohol level of 50 mg is dangerous enough. We all understand that the risk of death increases with the increase in alcohol consumption. According to Professor Allsop's calculations, the risk increases by five times at a limit of 50 mg, but at 110 mg it increases by 34 times.

I had a go at drawing together all the legal limits in different countries. There was some controversy over whether Luxembourg's limit is 80 mg or 50 mg. In the whole of Europe, both inside and outside the European Union, there is a zero limit in Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Lithuania. There is a limit of 20 mg in Poland, Sweden and Norway. A 50 mg limit applies in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Austria, Slovenia, Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Macedonia, Croatia and Yugoslavia. That leaves us on 80 mg with Ireland and Switzerland. Clearly, the mainstream has moved on, and we have not moved on with it. It is time we did.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 9:45 am, 3rd February 2005

I shall initially address my remarks to new clause 2, which is in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends. It deals with a gap in the law that has been highlighted by the soaring increase in the use of illegal drugs and the large number of people who drive with such drugs in their bodies. Often, the drugs are mixed with alcohol, creating an even more dangerous condition in the driver.

It may be helpful if I quote briefly from a British Medical Association briefing, which states:

''The negative influence of alcohol on the ability to drive safely is proven. National campaigns educating the public of the risks posed by drink driving are generally accepted as being successful. The BMA recognises that a similar problem now exists in relation to drug driving . . .

The use of illegal drugs by the younger generation has been found to be frequent and increasing. Nearly half of 16 to 24 year olds in England and Wales are reported as using cannabis . . . Furthermore, 39 per cent. reported having taken hallucinogens, with other drugs being taken by fewer 16 to 24 year olds.''

Most stunningly, a report headed ''Recreational drugs and driving: a qualitative study'', which was published in 2000 by the Scottish Executive central research unit, stated that 69 per cent. of club goers in Scotland had taken cannabis and 85 per cent. had at some time driven after using illegal drugs. Those statistics are staggering.

The wider implications of such behaviour are now beginning to emerge. Recent research indicates an increasing incidence of road traffic accidents in which people have tested positive for drugs; that is, drugs may have been a contributory factor to the cause of the crash. The Transport Research Laboratory carried out tests to detect alcohol and drug levels in people involved in fatal collisions between 1985 and 1987 and then again between 1996 and 1999. The results show a sixfold increase in the percentage of people testing positive for illegal drugs, with detection of cannabis increasing from 2.6 per cent. to 11.9 per cent. Over the same period, the incidence of use of medicinal drugs and alcohol had not changed much at all. Overall, it meant that drug taking increased by a factor of three, and the proportion of those testing positive for multiple drugs increased dramatically.

''The known effects of cannabis are that it can impair co-ordination, visual perception, tracking and vigilance. Impairment is also shown when subjects are tested under simulated driving conditions. Studies report that the majority of fatal cases with detected levels of cannabis are compounded by alcohol. Alcohol alone or in combination with cannabis, increases impairment, accident rate and accident responsibility. Therefore, the consequences of mixing alcohol with drugs must also be explored as the side effects of each substance are often exaggerated.''

The BMA realises that there is a serious problem.

The Government have introduced roadside testing to ascertain whether there is evidence of impairment of driving caused by drugs , but those tests are far from easy to administer. Bearing it in mind that we are dealing with illegal substances, the use of which is criminal, we do not need to have tests similar to those for alcohol, because alcohol is a lawful substance, although it is unlawful to have it in one's body beyond a particular extent when driving. It is unlawful to have unlawful drugs in one's body at any time, and it should be a specific offence to have those drugs in the body while driving, because there is substantial evidence that people who are driving with drugs in their body, with or without alcohol in addition, are a menace to themselves and others.

Regrettably, an increasing number of fatalities are being recorded as a result of the unlawful use of drugs. There was a tragic case in my constituency where a person on his first day at Bournemouth university was killed by a driver who fell asleep at the wheel as a result of taking amphetamines. We know that people use amphetamines to keep themselves awake and to stimulate themselves, but once the effect wears off, the result can be an almost immediate lapse into sleep. That is what happened in this tragic case, and it resulted in the waste of a young life and an able student.

We must send out a strong message to people. They should not be taking illegal drugs in the first instance, but if they do take an illegal substance, get behind the wheel of a car and are then found to have that substance in their body, they should, irrespective of the level, make themselves liable to a substantial penalty. In new clause 2, I have not spelled out what the penalty should be, because I want to see whether the Government will accept the principle of the new clause, and I thought it would be easier to accept if it did not specify a penalty. However, mandatory penalty points would be needed. There is a question mark over mandatory disqualification, but it should be subject to discussion by those involved. I hope that the Government will accept the principle enunciated in the new clause.

In so far as new clause 1 is concerned, the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) has answered his own question. The problem is that 1 per cent. of people are over the existing limit, and they are causing 400 deaths a year. The reason the number of people over the limit is rising is lack of enforcement. We should be reducing that percentage to nil, rather than complicating the matter by trying to introduce into the   realms of criminality a group of people who are at the moment driving lawfully. It may well be that those people are unwise to drive with as much alcohol in their blood as they have, and I do not dispute that some fatalities result from it. However, the Government have reduced by about 30 per cent. the number of traffic police on the roads; surely we should bring them back and carry out much stronger enforcement of the existing law. If we did that, we would be able to reduce significantly the figure of 400 deaths a year caused by those driving with excess alcohol in their blood.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but does it really need to be a question of one or the other action being taken? We should have both: better enforcement and a law that makes sense in today's world.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am not saying that it has to be one or the other; the issue is one of priorities. We know that a large proportion, almost half, of those who are driving over the 80 mg limit are not just over the limit but twice over it. There are some real menaces out there on the roads, and I would prefer the Government and the police to concentrate on bringing those people to justice—getting them disqualified from driving and being deterred from driving with excess alcohol—rather than complicating the matter by criminalising many others who are not yet criminalised, so this is an issue of priorities. I certainly believe we should be increasing the number of road traffic police, and trying to deter and detect those who are substantially over the existing limits.

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)

I support new clause 1 and congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford on speaking to it in an extremely serious and important debate. It certainly deserves to be discussed. My party's position is straightforward; it is in total agreement with him and would like to see the relevant limit brought down to 50 mg. I recall how my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) pushed the matter to a vote in the House. I must tell the Committee that in that vote I was not in the Lobby with him; I was in the other Lobby, as I hold a different, personal, view, which I would like to express this morning. I am, however, open to persuasion on the arguments. My decisions at present are finely balanced.

What the hon. Member for Stafford said is absolutely right; there is a problem, and it is a growing one. There is a trend of greater drink-driving. I make it my business, as I am sure other hon. Members do, to talk to various area commanders in my half of Scotland. During the summer I had an interesting discussion with the area commander for Ross-shire, where, as I may have mentioned on Second Reading, the concern was the rise in the number of people drink-driving and the fact that many were middle-aged men, not young people. These were not people who were a little bit over the limit, having thought that they could have three drinks but then miscalculated, but people   who were seriously over the limit and had clearly set out to drink and drive. There is absolutely no excuse for that, and as the hon. Member for Stafford said, the best advice to anybody is simply, ''Don't''.

There is a great deal of common ground between us. A further point made by the hon. Gentleman with which I would concur concerns the lack of understanding. I made a great mistake on Second Reading, in response to an invitation, in describing a conversation between my mother and myself. She had clearly not quite taken on board the fact that three drinks was a rough approximation, not something that was allowed—and that people should aim to have nothing if they are going out. That was duly reported in the diary section of The Press and Journal, and I have to say it caused me some problems when I went home that weekend.

The point that I was trying to make is that there are many people out there who wish to be law-abiding and think they are law-abiding, yet they have this mythological understanding that they can have three drinks. However, they have no understanding of the differences of percentage by volume of alcohol, of the rate at which different metabolisms absorb it into the body, or of the fact that a regular drinker who is around six foot tall and a bit overweight can probably take on a bit more than an extremely slim and good-looking lady who is 5 ft 2 in. There are also considerable differences in the rate at which alcohol metabolises out of the body.

Any false formula that people might like to adopt is damaging and unhelpful. We need to discourage the idea that there is some level of drinking that can be done. However, I am not yet persuaded of the case for an actual reduction in the legal limit, partly because I am not sure that I would want to see an automatic ban of 12 months for a level of 50 mg. It is important that there be a relationship between the severity of the punishment and the level at which the punishment is imposed.

The hon. Gentleman helpfully pointed out the table drawn from his research on European countries. I do not know—perhaps he can help me—whether he has researched the corresponding punishments that are offered. If someone in a zero-rate country is caught with an alcohol level of 15 mg, are they banned for 12 months or is there a gradated system? My opinion would swing towards that of the hon. Gentleman were there a lesser punishment for 50 to 80 mg while the strict ban at 80 mg was maintained. I might well be persuaded in that direction, but my principal concern is that simply to lower our very strong penalties and bring the level down to 50 mg would not necessarily address the target that we ought to aim at, which is people who set out on the roads with an alcohol level in excess of 80 mg, often well in excess of that, who are absolutely lethal. I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's comments and I hope that he understands from my remarks that I am open to persuasion, but I am not yet persuaded.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 10:00 am, 3rd February 2005

On the earlier points of order, the Home Office review of road traffic offences involving bad driving is now available in Committee. Although it does not appertain directly to the Bill, I thought that it would be helpful if copies were made available to members of the Committee.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

On a point of order, Mr. Pike. I wonder whether you would care to reflect on what was said earlier about that being a Home Office document, as distinct from a Home Office review. I notice from the back of it that the Department for Transport is a party to it. I wonder whether the Minister would like to reflect on the information that he gave us to the effect that it had nothing to do with his Department.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

The only person who seems not to have seen the document now is the Chairman. In all seriousness, I do not think that I can add to what I said. We must make progress on the issues that we are debating. Perhaps hon. Members will want to pursue the matter later today: there are business questions in the House.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

Thank you for the helpful information that you gave us earlier, Mr. Pike. The reason I left the Room was to ensure that Mr. Speaker is aware that we will indeed raise the matter.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

Thank you for making us aware of that, Mr. Wilshire.

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

Indeed, the Chamber is the proper place in which to raise such a matter. Although we have fed into the document, its publication is not in my gift, but in the gift of the Home Office.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford has raised extremely important issues through new clause 1, and I want to deal with some of them. He proposes that we lower the legal limits for alcohol in breath, blood and urine. Nearly 40 years after the introduction of legal limits and police breath testing, drink-driving remains a problem on our roads. Although the annual toll of casualties from drink-related accidents is, thankfully, only a fraction of what it was 30 years ago, we still have a problem. Rather worryingly, in the past year or so, there has been a plateau and probably a slight increase in the number of incidents involving people who have been drinking and driving. What we have to consider, and what has been exercising my mind in the past three or four years in which I have had responsibility for this issue, is the question of the solution to the problem. We must ensure that we take proportionate and sensible measures to find a solution.

Most countries with a lower legal limit impose only minor penalties at the lower alcohol levels, and imprisonment and licence removal are not generally available for alcohol levels below 100 mg. Germany, France and the Netherlands all have a 50 mg limit. In Germany, the punishment is a fine equivalent to £66 and two points on the licence, which is very slight. In France, the punishment is a fine of anything up to £500, three points on the licence and a three-day, not 12-month, ban. In the Netherlands, there is a fine of up to £175, no points on the licence and no ban.

The difficulty of reducing limits is that it could lead to two separate arguments. First, people might say that if we lower the limit, we should lower the punishment. I do not want to do that. We rightly have a harsh level of punishment for 80 mg, but I do not want people to say that at 50 mg there should be either a shorter ban or no ban, and a smaller fine. If we enter that debate, we would be saying that there are different levels of acceptability of taking alcohol, whereas our message should be unequivocally that there is only one acceptable level of alcohol in the blood when driving: zero.

Photo of Andy Reed Andy Reed Labour/Co-operative, Loughborough

I entirely agree with the Minister and do not want any reduction in the penalty because the signal sent out on drink-driving is most important. However, as he said, the figures are plateauing out. Has the Department researched the reasons that people caught with that level of alcohol feel that they can still drink and drive, despite the enormous social pressure and general public acceptance that drink-driving is totally unacceptable? Is there any research to suggest that people think that they will get away with it, or that there is misunderstanding of the current levels?

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

We have found that the group most likely to break the law are men aged 20 to 30, but I emphasise that we are talking about a tiny minority of that group. Attitude surveys show that drivers under 35 are extremely vigilant: they often do not drink and drive, and they are more responsible than their parents were. However, there is a small minority of mainly younger men and, increasingly, women, who not only have a drink or two and have levels of between 50 mg   and 80 mg, but, as the hon. Member for Christchurch said, go out, flagrantly ignore the law and get drunk. They are not in the lower bands; they are well over the 80 mg limit.

In response to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed), the greatest deterrent is the fear of getting caught. We have focused much of our recent advertising specifically at younger men. Two years ago, we undertook advertising in publications such as Loaded and FHM. I do not know whether my hon. Friend still reads those publications; he may feel that he is now outside that age group. I still have them available in my house because there are young men, my sons, living in my house who take them.

Hon. Members may have seen a recent television advertisement in which two men are in a pub; the table becomes the car, and a young woman is then hit. Again, that is very much focused on the younger age group. It makes the point that someone becomes a drunk driver not in their car but in the pub.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

I do not wish to quiz the Minister on his fantasies about his youthfulness in reading Loaded and FHM; I want to return him to the main thrust of his argument. I was sympathetic to the robust case that he made for zero tolerance—that what is acceptable is no alcohol in the bloodstream. I agree with him that that would be a simpler and clearer law. It is also in tune with how all of us behave.

Several years ago, once I became impressed by the then Government's campaigns against drink-driving, I went through a period of trying to drink very little when driving—perhaps one glass of wine. However, I found that that did not work, and that the only way to ensure that one was not driving with alcohol was to have nothing if one was going to drive—not a single drink. The Minister seemed to be making that case robustly.

Surely the logic of the case is that that should be the legal limit. Once one starts saying that we will allow the public some degree of alcohol it is then fair to say that there should be some gradation of penalty—the two are consistent and logical. If we do not want gradations of penalty, the logic inexorably leads us to saying that there should be no alcohol in a person's blood if they are driving a car.

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

I shall make two points in response to my hon. Friend's comments. Some people have small amounts of alcohol in their blood almost permanently, either due to medical conditions or to medicinal lotions that they are taking. Those people are generally not a risk, and so there could be a problem with testing if one set the blood limit to zero.

I remember when the drink-driving laws were introduced in the UK, back in the 1960s, many of the newspapers said that it was an affront to civil liberty to stop people having a few pints and then getting in their car and killing people. Now, I find those arguments extraordinary; we would not have such arguments   now. However, it was decided that there was a limit, which I believe was well researched at the time, at which the level of impairment reached a point where people became a danger on the road.

My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough and the hon. Member for Christchurch made the point that enforcement is very important. In recent years, the police in most areas have been targeting the people who they think will be of concern. Earlier in the Committee's proceedings, we had a brief discussion about random testing. We do not want to inconvenience the vast majority of good and sensible motorists who do not drink and drive. However, we want to be sure that we seriously inconvenience those people who do drink and drive.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

I understand that case. The Minister made a good and interesting reply. However, let me turn the argument the other way round. If there is a limit of a certain amount of alcohol below which one is safe, then it would be logical to say that, if one were just over that limit, one would be only slightly dangerous. One would be, for example, much less dangerous than someone who was three times over the limit. Surely, therefore, there should be gradations of penalty.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 10:15 am, 3rd February 2005

Indeed, there are gradations of penalty beyond the 80 mg limit. For example, if someone is found to be three times over the limit, they often face a prison sentence or an extremely long ban rather than a fine. People have been banned for up to 10 years, even if there has been no casualty, just for being well over the limit. The gradations are severe. If one is found to be drink-driving and causing death or serious injury, other offences kick in that can lead to 14 years in prison. I am satisfied that the penalties are very high.

If we adopt the 50 mg level, should we have a lower fine? In relation to the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, I do not want people asking, ''How much can I drink so that I am at 50 mg or 80 mg? Can I have one glass or two?'' We should not encourage that debate. The answer is that if someone is driving, there should be no drink. Zero drinking is the general message that the Department has put out consistently and over a long period. For the reasons I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), it does not mean absolute zero in the blood, but zero drinking if one is going to drive.

One campaign that we ran—very successfully—was the ''I'll be Des'' campaign, referring to a designated driver. It said, ''Go out, have some fun, but have one person in the group who stays sober and can drive the car home.''

Photo of Mr Paul Stinchcombe Mr Paul Stinchcombe Labour, Wellingborough

At this time, of all times, when we are liberalising the licensing laws to encourage responsible rather than binge drinking, would it be appropriate to support a new clause, such as the one under discussion, while   consistently arguing that when one drinks one has to be responsible, and that part of that responsibility is never to drive afterwards?

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

There are two issues to consider. The first is the responsible use of alcohol. I have no problem with people going out, having a drink and being responsible. The other measures that we have introduced are to do with people who act irresponsibly on the streets when they are not intending to drive, which is about people drinking excessively. The second is that my Department is dealing specifically with the idea that wherever and whenever one drinks, be it at home or out and about, if someone intends to drive, he should not drink in the period leading up to it. That is the important point. There are other minority issues to do with general drinking, but they have been addressed outwith the Committee.

On the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, we are considering the research possibilities for obtaining new information. The roadside survey was very expensive. It is intrusive to the vast majority who are found to be negative—all those sensible people who drive carefully. We are examining the possibility of the police obtaining intoxication levels at the scene of accidents. We have not previously had that information, and I think we will build up some good information from the police. I will consider the issue about research evidence and see if we can provide better research.

New clause 2 deals with drug-driving, which, as the hon. Member for Christchurch says, is important. It is increasingly worrying because of the number of people who are taking what are often known as recreational drugs while driving. I find it difficult to understand why, as a recreation, one would put strange substances into one's body, but that is what they are called. We do not have any evidence about the total impact of drugs on people while driving; nor do we have the equipment to measure either drug levels or the impairment levels of a particular drug. From many years of experience we know that certain levels of alcohol in the blood have a certain effect on people's capacity to drive and act responsibly. We do not have the same detail about the effects of a variety of other drugs. As I said in an earlier debate, the complication is that many people who take drugs take not just one but a combination, and often alcohol is involved, too.

The new clause is important. What we want to detect is impairment, not necessarily the presence of a particular drug. That is the problem. It is true that cannabis can have an effect on a person for a period of time, but it remains in the bloodstream for long after it has ceased to have an effect.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I accept that that argument can be advanced, but does the Minister agree that train drivers are not allowed to drive a train with the evidence of any illegal substance in their blood? Someone who tries to drive a train with evidence of having taken cannabis, whether it was last week or last month, is immediately dismissed. Surely the same principle should apply to people who get behind the wheel of a car.  

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

We discussed people who drive trains and fly aeroplanes when we debated the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003, and there was some opposition to breathalysing pilots, which I found remarkable. We thought that even stricter laws should apply to those who had the responsibility for a very large number of people.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that if people are going to drive, they should not take any drug that could impair them. That applies to some prescription drugs, which people take for medical conditions, that can lead to a driver being impaired. For example, large quantities of cough medicine can elevate the presence of alcohol and other drugs in the blood. We have talked to the Department of Health about the issue because we want better labelling on drugs to ensure that when people take a prescription drug, doctors and pharmacists draw their attention to the possible effects of driving or operating machinery, or of doing anything that might endanger them.

Schedule 7 to the 2003 Act made important amendments to the Road Traffic Act 1988, including replacing section 6 with new sections 6 to 6E, which provided the police with new powers to assist with the roadside screening of suspect drivers. They included a power to require suspects to undertake a preliminary impairment test and a preliminary drug test. In practice, those allow for the use of what has become known as the field impairment test and the drug screening test. The hon. Gentleman may have seen our recent guidance to the police on using the field impairment test, which is used especially to detect people who are impaired by taking drugs. The results of such tests would give the police more confidence in judging whether a driver is impaired and whether that is due to drugs.

However, it is worth emphasising that in the absence of the type of evidence that will enable us to define statutory limits for driving under the influence of drugs, the road traffic issue must remain focused on the impairment of driving. If an officer remains suspicious after using a breathalyser to eliminate the use of alcohol, the new powers provided by the 2003 Act will enable him to require a specimen, such as saliva, using a roadside screening device, when such devices are available.

In December, we issued guidance to chief constables on the conduct of preliminary impairment tests. Training of officers in the techniques has increased. The Home Office is continuing to develop a type-approval specification for a drug screening device that would help police at the roadside to detect the presence of a drug. One factor that makes the drugs issue so different from that of alcohol is that there are probably at least five or six different illegal substances in use, and the impairment that they cause may be due to their use in combination with each other or with alcohol. I have great sympathy with the general thrust of new clause 2, but laws are already in place for the police to take action. What we need is equipment, which we are working on producing, to collect evidence that will stand up in court.

I am not convinced that just reducing the limits and opening up a debate about penalties and how much one can drink would take us any further forward in reducing the number of casualties. Nevertheless, the debate has been helpful and has aired some extremely important issues.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I certainly agree with the Minister's last statement. I still think that he has failed to address the issue of demonstrating the impairment of people who have illegal drugs in their system while driving. The old law in respect of the lawful drug of alcohol was that impairment had to demonstrated. Parliament decided that it was not necessary to demonstrate impairment but simply an excess amount of alcohol in the person's system, and that is for a legal drug.

New clause 2 deals with illegal drugs. It is already illegal to have such a drug in one's system, and it would be helpful to send out a strong message to people that they are guilty of an offence beyond that which is now on the statute book if they have illegal drugs in their system and get behind the wheel of a car, whether or not there is any evidence that their driving is impaired. The Minister has not addressed that.

Having said all that, I shall not divide the Committee on new clause 2 because I wish to study in detail the extraordinary document that has been sent out today. It is extraordinary in the sense that it has been produced at so late a stage that it was impossible for anyone to table a new clause reflecting the contents of it for discussion in Committee. I suspect that that was not by accident but by design. I hope that on Report we will have an opportunity to return to the matter of driving with illegal drugs in the body.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

My sole motive in tabling new clause 1 was a desire to improve road safety. Perhaps I meet more than my fair share of relatives who are bereaved because of a road traffic accident, but every life lost on the road through drink-driving is a tragedy to the whole of the person's family. Delightful, talented personalities are lost, often in such random ways. Because someone has the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, a life is taken by some idiot who has been drinking all night and then gets behind the wheel of a motor car. My sole motivation was to save lives on our roads, and I believe that I have produced evidence that this measure would do so.

It is true that Europe has lower legal limits, but the penalties are often lower too. The Minister was right to quote those that he did. There is a three-day ban in France and some countries have a two-week ban. Only Denmark goes beyond the limits of the severity of our punishments. I do not want in any way to undermine the certainty of those sentences, but we feel, as lawmakers, a sense of opprobrium about them, as any reasonable person in this country would. I am not in any way proposing that we change the limit.

I should like now to address the points made by the hon. Member for Christchurch. It is a shame that I do not have even the support of the Opposition for this change in the law. I fully concur with everything that the hon. Gentleman says about enforcement. The 1 per cent. of people who cause some 400 deaths a year should be caught and taken off our roads. However, I do not agree with him that although we are focusing on the misbehaviour of that 1 per cent., we should ignore the evidence that the time has come to change the law for the other 99 per cent. of road users. I often think of John Maynard Keynes who, when somebody accused him of changing his mind, said, ''When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?'' The evidence to support a change is now building up so compellingly that it is time that we made it.

I shall not press for a vote because there seems little prospect of my winning it, but I will work on the hon. Member for South Suffolk. In an answer to me in the debate on 11 January, he said that

''if it became clear that the hon. Gentleman's suggestion''— my proposal to reduce the limit from 80 mg to 50 mg—

''was the best way to make progress, I would have no objection to it in principle.''—[Official Report, 11 January 2005; Vol. 429, c. 229.]

I shall therefore work on the evidence to ensure that it is clear enough for the official Opposition to support the proposal.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central 10:30 am, 3rd February 2005

I understand why my hon. Friend is not going to press his new clause to a vote, but I feel that there is a general acceptance in the Committee that he has made a powerful case for a change in the law. If the Minister has to resist the measure today—because of his brief, and his beliefs—I do not think that that will be the end of the argument. My hon. Friend has made huge progress in winning support that will be reflected generally in the House, if it considers the matter independently. I am certain that he reflects sentiment   in the country. I hope that the Minister, although he may congratulate himself on resisting the new clause, will reflect on it, as the time for change has come.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

I am grateful for that support. I heard expressions of a lack of sympathy with my hon. Friend's comments in some quarters of the Committee. When the hon. Member for Christchurch intervened on the Minister in support of his new clause 2, on the subject of drugs, he referred to the practice of train drivers and called for consistency. I point out again that there is, of course, a much lower alcohol limit for train drivers. I made that point to the hon. Member for South Suffolk. Let us have some consistency from Her Majesty's official Opposition.

Finally, I thank the Minister for what he said about giving some thought to collecting up-to-date information about the incidence of drinking and driving in this country. I should like to meet him, if I may, after today to discuss proposals that he made to me about the police collecting evidence. I am concerned that we will have to wait for the crashes to collect the evidence. I thank him for the encouraging point that he made to me, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.