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31 Mar 2003 : Column 733—continued

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): You will be all right.

Sir Brian Mawhinney: I am grateful for the support of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) for that view.

I hope that the hon. Member for Bath will not push this amendment to a vote. I hope that he will understand that the importance of this little debate is the message that it sends to the Government, because unless and until the Government honour that 1996 pledge, this reduction is not going to happen. That is the reality. I do not wish to be overly melodramatic, but the Minister needs to understand that, with every year that passes without the limit being reduced, people die who would not otherwise do so.

Mr. Tyler: I had not intended to contribute to this debate, but this is an issue on which I feel strongly, and I was moved to speak by the weasel words of the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). I am

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grateful, too, for having had the opportunity to listen to the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir Brian Mawhinney), because he has confirmed me in my view.

Before I come to the issues that have already been addressed, I would like to respond to the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on the issue of rural licensed premises. There are a great many in my constituency, and the Cornishman is capable of taking his drink, just like the best of them. I hope that the Minister will agree that nominated drivers are becoming increasingly popular and that taxis are now doing very good business in this regard. In rural areas, there is an increasingly responsible attitude to the problem of drinking and driving. I do not know the exact figures for Cornwall—I have not had the opportunity to check them—although I should perhaps declare an interest, in that my wife is a magistrate and therefore takes a particular interest in these matters. I did not, however, manage to check the latest figures with her last night. It is true, though, that in rural areas, as in urban areas, people are becoming more and more responsible. I have not noticed any more pressure being brought to bear by rural licensed premises than by urban ones.

Mr. Kidney: The licensing industry produces its own newsletter, called The Bullet-Inn, which it sends to Members of Parliament. It regularly states that the industry opposes this reduction from 80 mg to 50 mg. I am not saying that it refers specifically to rural premises, but the point is that the industry represents a strong body of opposition.


Mr. Tyler: I understand that point, but I was trying to suggest that it is not merely rural licensed premises that take the view that I have outlined. Indeed, based on my own private, local experience, I believe that the rural community in Cornwall would address this issue with the same seriousness of approach that has been demonstrated by a number of hon. Members tonight—not only my hon. Friend the Member for Bath, but the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) and the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire.

I want to spend a moment on the issue of public support. Many attempts have been made to improve the quality of the safety that we accept as a natural discipline—through the introduction of safety belts and drink-drive legislation, for example—and I am sure that the same will apply to the use of mobile phones; I hope that the Minister will respond to the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Luton, North on that. I am also sure that people now recognise that death and injury on our roads are such serious issues that the House constantly has to lead on these matters, rather than coming in from behind with endless consultation and research.

I disagree with the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire on only one point. I believe that we should take into account the experience of other countries. That evidence might not be conclusive, but we should add it to the body of research and consultation carried out in this country. We cannot just ignore it. The evidence that has been placed before the House this evening has been placed before successive Secretaries of State, and Ministers should take it very seriously indeed.

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I would like to pay tribute to the work of Brake on road safety—I am not referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), although he happens to be a distinguished member of that pressure group—which has been absolutely outstanding. I know that the Minister agrees with that, because he said so to some of its members just the other day when I was there. I hope that he will therefore support its efforts, and those of other organisations, to bring this issue to the top of the agenda again. I do not recall precisely when the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire was—no doubt undeservedly—moved from his position as Secretary of State for Transport, but it was many years ago. I believe, that sufficient time has elapsed since then, and that we now need to make a decision.

Mr. Jamieson: I well recall a debate taking place in the students union during my college years—that was quite a long time ago, although not quite as long as for the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir Brian Mawhinney)—in which the motion before the house was that drink-driving laws were an affront to personal liberty. If my memory serves me correctly, the motion was narrowly carried. If such a motion went before even a body of students these days, I believe that it would be well and truly defeated. That is an indication of how attitudes to drink-driving have changed substantially over time, just as they have changed in relation to the use of seat belts and crash helmets. Who knows?—they might even change in relation to using a mobile phone while driving.

We have a good record on road safety in this country. Indeed, it probably compares with the best in the world. For the amount of traffic that we have on our roads, we have the lowest number of casualties. Anecdotally, one can say that our roads are generally safe places to be. However, we still have a substantial number of casualties and we can never be complacent. We have to carry on driving down those figures. We have to focus on what is important in this debate, which—as hon. Members have mentioned—is not lowering a limit or reducing a speed but getting rid of the casualties. We need to get to the issue that really affects people's lives. Road accidents create a great deal of misery for the people involved and, when there are deaths, for their families. Account must also be taken of the enormous economic cost of those casualties, which the country has to bear.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) spoke with sincerity on this issue, and we are agreed that we need to reduce the number of casualties, not only from drink-driving but across the board. I know that he and I share that aspiration. I also accept his argument that measures other than reducing the limit need to be taken—that is right and proper—but I would not necessarily want European harmonisation, nor would I want to say that that would benefit this country, as most other European countries have a much worse record on road casualties. Some have lower limits, but they have lower penalties. Some are very low indeed, at the 50 mg level, and they can hardly be called a deterrent. Were we to go down that road, we could find ourselves being pressured to have lower levels of punishment for lower blood-alcohol levels.

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Furthermore, as the hon. Gentleman knows, many other European countries have much lower levels of enforcement. He mentioned some accession countries. They may have drink-driving laws on their statute books and limits lower than 80 mg, but in some of those countries enforcement is not just low, but zero. In this country, enforcement is very strict indeed.

Mr. Hopkins: I make the simple point to my hon. Friend that it is not a sufficient condition to have lower limits, but a necessary one. Other factors are equally important.

Mr. Jamieson: I accept that, and I shall move on to those points.

Miss McIntosh: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Jamieson: In a moment, when I have dealt with the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), who spoke with great sincerity. If lower limits were introduced, would that have the effect that we wanted it to have? That is the genuine question. I say to him that if the evidence for that being the route forward were overwhelming and compelling, perhaps in the future that is the road that we would go down, but I have yet to be convinced.

Miss McIntosh: I thank the Minister for allowing me to interrupt him. Do the figures not speak for themselves? Alcohol-induced accidents involve significantly fewer casualties, fatalities, serious injuries and slight injuries than those caused by speed. If anything, there is more pressure on him to act against speed rather than alcohol as a cause of road accidents.

Mr. Jamieson: Yes, and the two issues are sometimes closely related: people who are speeding are over the alcohol limit as well. The simple answer is that we must tackle all three issues that are involved here. Alcohol is important, as are speed and issues such as people facing unwarranted and unreasonable expectations at work, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham).

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who is a doughty campaigner on road safety issues, raised some good points, such as the important matter of having a designated driver. That is probably prevalent among younger people, the vast majority of whom are extremely responsible—perhaps, I might say, more responsible than the older generation. They have a "des", or designated driver, who elects not to drink alcohol and takes the rest of the group home. I say that as one who has had teenagers, who are now in their twenties. I have seen that system in operation and younger people are very responsible in that respect, but it is also true that a small minority, particularly younger men, are not. I shall come to that in a moment.

The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire made a powerful and compelling speech, but I am not going to allow him to chide me for anything that we may or may not be doing. He was Secretary of State—he left the job in 1995, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) may be interested to know—but, although I was not a Member of the House at the time, I do not recall him

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campaigning on that particular issue. I accept, however, that he may have changed his position, and we are pleased about that.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall made the point that the vast majority of people in rural areas are responsible. That is the case, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, but unfortunately a small minority are not responsible. I shall move on to those people in a moment.

The merits of introducing a blood-alcohol content limit of 50 mg or even lower have been extensively examined and debated over a long period. Much research has been done and the experiences of other countries have been taken into account. In our 1998 consultation paper, "Combating Drink Driving: Next Steps", the Government acknowledged that many drivers experience some impairment below the 80 mg level, but the potential injury savings from lowering the limit to 50 mg depend very much on assumptions and estimates.

The extent of driving impairment below 80 mg in individual drivers is less certain than at over 80 mg. We would probably all accept that. We know that the results of research based on experience in other countries where legal limits have been reduced to below 80 mg are likely to have been affected by the influence of other anti-drink-driving measures. In most cases, it seems that the underlying trends and concurrent factors such as publicity and enforcement policies were not always measured in relation to the reduction of the blood-alcohol level limit. That makes it difficult to apportion the beneficial effects of the whole package of measures to each contributory factor, including a reduction in the limit.

Another factor that needs to be taken into account is the penalty regime for road traffic offences, which is a key element in the enforcement of drink-driving laws. Penalties in this country are far more severe for exceeding the 80 mg limit than in most other European countries with a limit of 50 mg or lower. There is, for example, a mandatory minimum disqualification of 12 months for any drink-driving offence, which can be combined with up to six months' imprisonment and a £5,000 fine. 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 below alcohol levels of 100 mg or more.

Applying our penalties at 50 mg would put us further out of line with Europe in terms of sanctions. It is also likely that that would be regarded as unduly harsh. Critically, it would be unlikely to command as much respect from the motoring public at large. The alternative of adopting a system of lesser penalties at the lower alcohol level would create the unfortunate impression that the Government were willing to regard some levels of drink driving as more acceptable than others. We also have concerns about whether the lower-level penalties would have any real effect on offending rates.

The vast majority of those involved in incidents that cause serious casualties on our roads are well over the 80 mg level, so we must give our time to those people who are probably not even aware of the limits; nor do they

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care. We have to turn our attention to those people because they are causing the death and injuries on our roads. For those reasons, it is right to be cautious about reducing the prescribed limit.

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