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31 Mar 2003 : Column 730—continued

Miss McIntosh: The Opposition recognise that drink-driving is a very serious offence that is well established on the statute book with widespread popular support. For a number of reasons, we wish to keep under review the specified level of alcohol in the blood, but we recognise that the existing limits enjoy widespread support and are concerned about the introduction of any measure that might break that popular consensus without a longer consultation period than has been allowed and without compelling evidence.

We are aware that a number of studies and research projects are under way and we would like them to have time to reach their natural conclusions. Personally, I recognise that alcohol exists naturally in the blood, I think in the form of ethanol, and that it can be contained in certain legally prescribed medication. For that reason, we have reservations about considering making a reduction at this stage. However, we would like to keep an open mind on the matter, to which we would like to return at a later date.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): I have to declare a non-pecuniary interest as a co-chairman of PACTS, the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, which is a registered charity and an associate parliamentary group whose charitable objective is to promote transport safety to save lives through research-based solutions. I should like to explain to the House that PACTS strongly supports reduction of the blood alcohol concentration limit in this country, partly because of research that has shown the need for such a reduction.

As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) pointed out, 10 deaths a week on our roads are attributable to drinking and driving. Adding together deaths and serious injuries produces an average of about 10 incidents a day, so the problem is very serious. Who are the drink-drivers? The research tells us that they are overwhelmingly male; only 8 per cent. are female. Almost half of all drink drivers are over 33, and, surprisingly, 40 per cent. have a criminal history in addition to their propensity to drink and drive. That suggests that the offence rewards attention by the police in tracking down other sorts of crime. It also saves us from thinking, as we might be tempted to do, "There but for the grace of God go I." Clearly, we in this House do not have a propensity to commit criminal offences generally.

7.30 pm

A lot of the pressure to lower the limit comes from hon. Members, safety organisations, people who have been injured in road accidents that involved drinking

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and driving and, not least, those who have been bereaved due to such accidents. That is a powerful electorate to which we should pay attention. Research from the Grand Rapids study shows that 50 mg alcohol in 100 ml blood is the concentration at which a person's inability to drive becomes more seriously impaired. There is a scientific basis for a limit of 50 mg, and the hon. Member for Bath pointed out that 11 EU member states have such a limit. Sweden's limit is 20 mg and two other countries have the same limit as ours. Although there is no EU directive to set a standard limit throughout Europe, there is a directive about the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications throughout states. That creates an obvious pressure because if we are to recognise other states' disqualification due to drink-driving offences, it makes sense for all countries to have the same alcohol limit.

A lower limit will save lives although, as the hon. Member for Bath said, it is difficult to know how many until after the measure has been implemented. He said that estimates show that about 50 lives a year would be saved due to a lower limit, and most people predict that between 50 and 100 lives a year would be saved. That is a valuable prize at which to aim. Like the hon. Gentleman, I agree that this country's media campaigning, enforcement and prosecution policy has been so successful that we have made drinking and driving beyond the current limit socially unacceptable. We must not disturb that position and I understand why the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) said that we must be careful to carry the public with us—I totally agree.

I am not convinced that lowering the limit would be unhelpful. There is a common misconception among the public that the legal limit represents about two drinks. That attitude is out of date in these days of larger measures and drinks with stronger alcohol content. People would definitely be below the proposed 50 mg limit if we said, "One drink and no more." That would be a simple message, although we and the police would want to say, "If you are the driver of a vehicle, please do not drink at all", because any alcohol impairs one's ability to drive.

Tom Brake: Will the hon. Gentleman explain the Government's somewhat confusing position? They say that they are unwilling to support reducing the limit to 50 mg, but they have a policy that people should not drink at all. Their position is not consistent.

Mr. Kidney: That is not the Government's problem but a problem for all of us. People want to drink and then drive, and our responsible advice must be that drivers should not drink. That brings me to the nub of my point about opposition to reducing the limit: it is not Government-led opposition, it is more general. However, to conclude my answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, the written answer on 20 March 2002 at column 360W that the hon. Member for Bath cited does not give us a clue why the Government will not go for the reduction.

Objection to a change comes from people who make money from selling drink, such as those who run public houses. There is a lot of concern in rural areas that a reduction in the limit would affect such people's businesses. Those people are a powerful lobby group

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because they have many customers who would not want politicians to tell them how to behave in their private lives. The answer is to have a more public promotion of the concept of a nominated driver. Public houses and similar places of fun, relaxation and entertainment should promote the idea that designated drivers deserve a decent range of reasonably priced drinks and other items when they go to such places because that would persuade them that they are doing the responsible thing by not drinking. That would give public recognition to the good deed that is done by being a driver who lays off alcohol. That is how the Minister should persuade people that doing that is right.

I suspect that the Minister will mention the 400 or so deaths a year that are not caused by drink-drivers and cite the unquantified deaths caused by people who are miles over the legal limit and who persistently drink to excess: the high-risk offenders. However, if we continued to define high-risk offenders as people who are two and a half times over the limit, reducing the legal limit for everyone would reduce the limit for high-risk offenders. Consequently, we would catch more high-risk offenders and more people would be subject to more intensive treatments and punishments that would be required before they might get their licences back.

We could consider going further and reducing the multiplier to define high-risk offenders to twice the legal limit in order to catch more people. We would tell such people that they pose a greater risk to people who behave lawfully and innocently on our roads and that we do not want their behaviour to kill such people. However, we would not want to keep them off the road for ever provided that we could correct their behaviour. We try to give high-risk offenders treatment and ask them to take tests to prove that their attitude has changed and that they are competent and safe drivers. If people drive more safely after going through the process, what is wrong with catching more people and putting them through it? I hope that the Minister will give a more sympathetic hearing to the proposal this year than his Department did last year.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): The last time I addressed the House, I said that there was no point in it expressing its will if it was not prepared to support the means necessary to meet that will. The debate is all about willing means and willing ends. We will the end of achieving road safety, but for a strange reason that I do not understand, we baulk at willing the means to that end.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) reminded us that the new Labour Government were committed in 1996 to introducing legislation to reduce the legal limit from 80 to 50 mg of alcohol. However, given that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) made the commitment, I have my doubts. That was not the first time that such a change was contemplated because I know of a Secretary of State for Transport who thought seriously about reducing the limit. However, before he had time to do anything about his thoughts, he was moved to another Department, so I was.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) made the perfectly valid point that it is important not to lose public support for whatever limit might be set, and we would all agree with that. However,

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that has echoes of debates long gone. Some of my hon. and right hon. Friends and, indeed, some Labour Members had a problem with the principle of whether we should interfere with people's lives. We have had the same debates about seat belts, crash helmets and alcohol limits. Perhaps the House will one day have the same debate about the effect of drugs on people's ability to drive. However, a principle has been established from those debates. We are in an unusual, yet interesting, situation of saying that reducing the limit would be to the advantage of many people because they would be enabled to live, but that we must not lose public support. It is kind of hard to believe that the public could not be encouraged to support reducing the limit to save lives.

I understand the point that the hon. Member for Bath made on this issue; indeed, I agree with him. Road safety is at least as much about messages, promotion, guidance, encouragement and setting good examples as anything else. In my time, I have done the Christmas drink and drive message, as has the Minister. We have all been there and done that, and we have all given our support to fairly robust measures, so far as the courts are concerned. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) made that point eloquently.

The issue is whether there would be a genuine benefit in this reduction. I am not desperately impressed by the fact that it has been done elsewhere, although that is an argument that can be put forward. The question is whether we should do it here, and I shall listen with great interest to the Minister's arguments as to why we should not. I hope that he will not take us down the "We need more consultation" route. We have consulted, then we have consulted on the consultations. We have researched, then we have researched the research. We have then consulted on the research and researched the consultations. We know what the facts are. The problem is that the House has difficulty in willing the means to achieving the laudable end.

Having said all that, this is a matter for the Government. I find it extremely difficult to be supportive of the Liberal Democrat party on anything.


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