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31 Mar 2003 : Column 726—continued

Mr. Clapham: My hon. Friend will be aware that many road accidents befall people who are working. It is not often appreciated that the road is a workplace for many people. Has he considered whether the Health and Safety Executive should be involved in investigating accidents where it is proved that the person was actually at work?

Mr. Jamieson: Indeed, we have. It is an important and complicated matter. Between 20 and 25 per cent. of all

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injury accidents take place while people are working. We are concerned that a minority of companies may have unrealistic expectations of their drivers and may require them to meet certain targets too rapidly, which involves them in injury or accidents. Good companies, of which there are many, do the opposite: they ensure that drivers have realistic targets. For example, they do not expect drivers to answer mobile phones while they are driving.

I assure my hon. Friend that my Department is giving careful consideration to the point that he raised, but the matter is complex. We are dealing with tens of thousands of companies and the issue cannot be resolved simply and easily, but we are working on it actively at present.

Mr. Gray: Does the Minister realise that another of the proposals in my private Member's Bill was that the use of mobile phones while driving should be outlawed?

Mr. Jamieson: I assure the hon. Gentleman that at the earliest possible legislative opportunity we shall introduce measures on that and look forward to his support. As he knows, we have just held wide consultations on the issue. That was important because we learned a great deal from the process—as we always do. We are analysing the results and will announce some proposals shortly. One of my hon. Friends also tried to introduce a private Members' Bill to deal with the problem, so I hope that our proposals will bring joy to both hon. Members.

I commend the Government new clause, but ask hon. Members to resist new clause 11, not least because if we introduced the measures proposed by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, they would set up a new layer of bureaucracy and extra paperwork that would not bring many extra benefits in road safety.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

7.15 pm

New Clause 2

Prescribed limits

'( ) The Road Traffic Act 1988 (c.52) shall be amended as follows—
(a) In section 11(2):
(i) in (a) leave out "35" and insert "22";
(ii) 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.

Mr. Don Foster: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

After a discussion about the death of so many people on our roads due to snow and ice, it is appropriate to turn to another cause of death on our roads: drink-driving. I preface my remarks by making recognition of the work carried out by Governments past and present, by Departments, local authorities, the police and the media—through publicity—to reduce the number of

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deaths and serious injuries caused by drink-driving. It would be wrong not to acknowledge the work that is already being done.

I realise that setting a limit is one thing, but that without proper advertising and, more important, appropriate enforcement, the exercise would be fruitless. In the UK, we have more advertising and stricter enforcement than in many other countries and, as a result, fewer casualties. None the less, there are several worrying trends, especially involving persistent drink-drivers. During Committee, there was considerable debate about the various medical and other interventions that might tackle the problem of persistent drink-drivers. We referred to work being done in this country and in Sweden, where punishments for persistent offenders include the option of medical treatment programmes.

I appreciate entirely that an amendment that merely referred to changes in the drink-driving limit would be inadequate by itself; we also need to continue advertising and enforcement at their present levels. However, that should not inhibit us from considering and discussing appropriate limits. As I pointed out in Committee, when Barbara Castle introduced the breathalyser legislation in 1967 she said that the 80 mg limit for blood alcohol was "overgenerous". Much more recently, before the 1997 general election and the creation of the Labour Government, the then transport spokesman for the Labour party, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), made it clear, in a speech on 30 November 1996, that, in office, Labour would introduce legislation to reduce the drink-driving limit from 80 mg to 50 mg. The day before the hon. Lady made that speech, she issued a press release that stated:

So the Labour party gave a very clear commitment before it became the Labour Government.

Subsequently, in 1998, the Government started a detailed consultation on the issue. In February that year, they published a report entitled "Combating Drink Driving: Next Steps", which stated:

The new clause deals with that 50 to 80 mg category. All the evidence gathered for that report indicated that there would be real benefits in a reduction of the drink- driving limit from 80 to 50 mg.

It was anticipated that the Labour Government would act, but they did not do so. A little later, in March 2000, they told us in a subsequent document that because there was a possibility that European legislation would require EU-wide harmonisation, it would be preferable to wait until that requirement came forward. Well, it did not do so, and although no specific legislation was proposed by the EU, the Commission made a clear recommendation that all countries should move to a harmonised limit of 50 mg.

Despite that, on 20 March last year, the Under-Secretary made it clear that the Government had decided that there would be no change after all. In a written answer, he said:

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A clear statement was made that the Government were not prepared to move on the issue, despite all the clear evidence that was before them about the benefits and the lives that would be saved. It is worth reflecting that this country, Ireland and Luxembourg are the only ones in the European Union that continue to have an 80 mg limit. All the other countries have already reduced their limits to 50 mg and some did so a considerable time ago. Indeed, every single European country that is seeking to join the EU in the relatively near future already has a limit of 50 mg or less. We remain one of the very few countries that have not heeded all the research evidence showing that a change such as the one that I propose in the new clause will save lives.

How many lives would such a change save? Clearly, it is difficult to be precise. As I said, the issue will depend not only on the limit, but on advertising and enforcement. Nevertheless, the research is pretty clear that the minimum number of lives that would be saved each year is 50, and it is almost certain that more would be saved. Indeed, a very significant number of serious accidents running into many hundreds would be avoided as a result of introducing such a measure. Sadly, despite all that evidence, the Government have decided not to move.

Given the very large number of deaths that occur on our roads, 50 may not seem many, but it is worth reflecting that we have today spent the vast majority of our time discussing issues relating to the railways, the rail accident investigation branch and the establishment of new structures for the British Transport police, predominantly in relation to their work on railways. Yet, as I said, 150 lives have been lost on our railways since 1997. Set against that level, 50 lives a year seems a very significant number. We should be working hard to save those lives, and that is what the new clause would do.

I am delighted that an early-day motion dealing with the issue has attracted a large number of Labour Back-Bench supporters. I therefore hope very much that, even if the Under-Secretary is not prepared to be moved in the light of all the prevailing evidence suggesting that he has got it wrong so far, a large number of his hon. Friends will be doing what they have indicated they will do by signing the early-day motion and supporting the new clause.

Mr. Hopkins: I rise to speak very briefly in support of everything that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has said, and not only because he is wearing what looks suspiciously like a Labour party tie.

I have felt for a very long time that we must bring the limits down to a level that is seen as sensible in other countries. We are better drivers and we have a lower death rate on our roads, and that is an admirable quality in our fellow citizens, but there is inevitably a downward curve when alcohol consumption is plotted against driving deaths—lower alcohol means that fewer people die.

I also believe that our Government will introduce the legislation at some point in the not-too-distant future; they simply need to be pressed a little harder. I hope that

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they might introduce it at the same time as legislation to outlaw the use of mobile phones while driving. There is another aspect of our character: as well as being good drivers, we are always reluctant to make such changes. We resisted introducing legislation on seat belts for too long, but have saved thousands of lives in the years since they were made compulsory. We have just heard about the gritting of roads. We hold off, but eventually give in. I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary seriously to consider giving in on this one too and introducing the lower limits forthwith.

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