Clause 37 - drugs and driving

Part of Crime and Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 7th February 2013.

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Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne The Minister of State, Home Department 12:00 pm, 7th February 2013

I have not had the opportunity to speak in the Committee for a couple of weeks. It is nice to be back ready, rested and willing to go. The right hon. Gentleman raised an important issue, and other Members contributed to the debate. I welcome their broad endorsement of what the Government are trying to do. Obviously, we want to avoid a situation in which people who are behaving legally and appropriately are caught by the provisions. At the same time, we do not want to provide a broad exemption—this touches on the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak—that could be used as a big hole in the legislation by people who have not behaved legally and appropriately, to escape the consequences of their actions in a way that none of us would like. That is the balance that we are trying to strike.

Before I get to the essence of the amendments, may I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central? He is a member of the Committee, but also a multi-talented man. He is a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Education, who is at this very moment explaining an important development in the evolution of Government policy in the main Chamber of the House, so my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central is not able to be in Committee at the moment. Members of all parties respect him for the campaigning that he has done on drug-driving, particularly on behalf of his constituents who have been directly affected. The provision is, to a great extent, testimony to his endeavours. I know that others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate, who is also on the Committee, have taken a close interest in the issue and I commend them.

The amendments relate to concerns about the Government’s approach to drug-driving and, in particular, how the new offence will affect drivers who take prescription or over-the-counter medicines: entirely legal medicines. Let me first reassure the Committee that the Government fully accept that the concerns are legitimate. It is to no one’s benefit for drivers who are innocent of any wrongdoing to be arrested. The new offence is intended to target those who drive after taking illicit drugs or prescription drugs that are being misused. The Government have therefore included a defence so that a person who has taken their medication in accordance with medical advice would not be guilty of the offence.

The medical defence itself provides considerable protection to those taking properly prescribed or supplied medical drugs. The defence—this is the point made by the hon. Member for Walsall South—places what is known as an evidential burden on a person accused of committing the offence. In practice, that means that the accused person must simply put forward enough evidence to raise an issue regarding the defence that is worth consideration by the court, following which it is for the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defence cannot be relied on. In other words, if somebody were to bring forward a prescription, that would be sufficient, unless it could be proven by the other side that they had behaved improperly.