Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Collins: I sensed that the Minister was bringing his remarks to a conclusion. I hope he will forgive me if

8 Jul 2003 : Column 1106

I take him back briefly to the group of amendments that he touched on earlier, relating to the new provisions enabling the police to try to assess whether drivers and others are impaired by the use of drugs. He will know that one of the keys to that is the extent to which police officers are trained in sufficient numbers to conduct the high quality impairment tests that have been learned by a number of police officers from overseas experience.

Can the hon. Gentleman say a word or two about the extent to which the Government are committed to expanding the pool of police officers who have that training, and whether the Government may consider introducing targets for chief constables to increase the number of their officers who have passed those tests?

Mr. McNulty: With the smooth passage of the Bill, as we hope it will be, it follows that the amendments to which the hon. Gentleman refers—Nos. 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 11 and 12 in part or in whole—require greater training and a widening of the pool of officers, otherwise those powers are not helpful. Whether targets are associated with them, with or without the endorsement of the chief constable, is a matter for others far better placed to deal with that than I. On the resource and training issue, those matters should follow. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point.

I commend the new clause that we propose in lieu of Lords amendment No. 10, which is the only minor matter on which we disagree. I have given the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) the assurances that he sought. I also commend to the House amendments Nos. 1 through 9, to use a crude Americanism, and amendments Nos. 11 and 12.

9.30 pm

Mr. Collins: I should like to begin by congratulating the Minister once again on his recent promotion.

I reiterate that the Bill remains largely uncontroversial. It left this House as a very good Bill and it is coming back from the other place as an even better one. As the Minister perfectly reasonably pointed out, the vast majority of the amendments that we are considering have been tabled by the Government in response to representations made in the other place by members of other parties. In particular, I hope that he will join me in paying tribute to Lord Dixon-Smith, whose wish to improve the law in relation to drug-impaired people in charge of vehicles took shape in a private Member's Bill and then in amendments to this Bill. I am glad to say that the Government took away those amendments, improved them and made them technically feasible, and have now tabled them in a form that I suspect will command the support of hon. Members in all parts of the House.

The Minister was good enough to tell me in response to an intervention that the Government recognise the need to step up the training of police officers who will be expected to implement the new provisions inserted into the Road Traffic Act 1988. As he will know, if the amendments are agreed to, they will affect the entirety of that Act, so it will be necessary for the police to undertake a considerable amount of training. He may be amused to know that, following my recent visit to Kendall police station in my constituency, there is in the

8 Jul 2003 : Column 1107

archives of the esteemed journal, the Westmorland Gazette, a photograph of yours truly performing some of the impairment tests. I was able to demonstrate to the satisfaction at least of myself, the photographer and the police officer who were present that I was able to place my finger on my nose while standing on one foot without toppling over. That seemed to reassure at least some of those present that I was not, at least at that moment, impaired by the use of drugs, illegal or otherwise.

I hope that the Minister will take away from our proceedings a strong indication that, as in the other place, there is a clear understanding in this House of the fact that drug-driving is as dangerous as drink-driving. Regrettably, it is a rapidly growing phenomenon in our society. Just as it is welcome that the incidence of drink-driving is falling, it is deeply worry that drug-driving is increasing.

In addition to ensuring that the police are adequately trained in respect of the high-quality impairment tests that I believe have been pioneered in the United States, which no doubt could be improved in this country, I hope that the Minister will also take away from this debate the very strong wish—this is certainly the feeling on the Opposition Benches, but I am sure that it is shared much more widely—that the Government should, as a matter of priority, continue to press ahead with research to see whether it is possible to produce a machine that can provide as quick and clear an indication of whether someone is under the influence of drugs as the breathalyser does in respect of alcohol. For some time, that idea has been something of a holy grail for law enforcement agencies around the world. It is extremely difficult to produce technology that can provide an absolutely clear result, even in testing for a single known drug.

The concept of a broad-spectrum machine that can test for a variety of different substances is, for the moment, extremely difficult. Given technological advances, however, its development might not be so difficult for ever. It would be helpful if the Minister could take that message away and say whether the Government are committing research to such issues, perhaps not purely on a national basis, as there may be a case for such work to be done on a European basis or an even wider international one.

We welcome amendment No. 4 and associated amendments. They do not go quite as far as was originally intended in the private Member's Bill introduced by Lord Dixon-Smith, but they go a great deal further than the current law. When we initially discussed the Bill in this House, the common view among all the party spokesmen was that we should not allow the fact that we were taking forward a railway safety Bill to send out a signal that we were anything other than deeply concerned about road safety. In the light of that fact, we should commend the other place and congratulate it on the way in which the Bill has been improved there.

The other place has done its traditional job of seeking to probe the Government's intentions in a number of respects. It also succeeded in clarifying exactly what the Government mean by various provisions. In that context, I very much welcome Lords amendment No. 1, which would extend to the British Transport police the provisions in the Police Reform Act 2002 that enable the

8 Jul 2003 : Column 1108

recruitment and use of community support officers and investigation, detention and escort officers. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm in writing that the amendment would make the British Transport police indistinguishable, in terms of their powers and functions, from a regular Home Office police force. One of the original purposes of the Bill was to regularise the handling of the British Transport police to ensure that they were equal to Home Office police forces in terms of status, standing, powers and resources. Will the Minister confirm that the amendment would have that effect?

As the Minister said, the only point on which there may be a difference between us—certainly, there is a difference between what the other place has added to the Bill and the alternative wording that he is commending to the Commons—relates to his proposal to replace what could be described as new clause 108, inserted by the other place, with Government amendment (a). The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) rightly pointed out that the most significant change relates to replacing the word "shall" with the word "may". The Minister was able to give us some assurances on that. His comments were extremely welcome and were phrased with his characteristic candour and openness; they were a pleasure to hear.

The Minister talked about the Bill's phraseology in relation to national trails and long-distance routes. I hope that he will forgive me if I press him a little further on that. There is no doubt, as he said, and as became clear in the deliberations in the other place, that the principal concern stems from those who are keen to preserve the Ridgeway, which is a very beautiful and important part of the English countryside. Many hon. Members represent, to a greater or lesser extent, beautiful parts of the English countryside. Some of those areas are already part of the national trails network. The area of the Yorkshire dales that forms part of Cumbria and is in my constituency is due to become part of the national trails network in the next couple of years. So far, that has not been proposed for the Lake District, which is also largely in my constituency.

I hope that the Minister recognises that concern about the use of what the Lords amendment describes as

is not confined to those people who enjoy or live near to the Ridgeway, nor is it confined purely to people who use national trails or long-distance routes. I hope that the Minister will take away from our deliberations a clear message that, although the Government have made a welcome concession to those who are worried about the use of inappropriate mechanically propelled vehicles in some contexts, there would be an even wider welcome were they to indicate that that is part of a process of reviewing the entirety of the appropriateness of access of certain vehicles to certain parts of the countryside. In many parts of the countryside, routes that were designed only for pedestrians, or, at most, horses, and often involve ecologically fragile and valuable areas, are regularly churned up, not only by four-wheel-drive vehicles but by motorbikes and other inappropriate vehicles. I hope that the Government's amendment will send a signal not only to those who are worried about the Ridgeway but others that they intend to revert to the issue and perhaps devise a national

8 Jul 2003 : Column 1109

framework for potential legislation. The matter was considered during the passage of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. It was not possible to legislate on it then, but I hope that the Government will examine the matter in detail.

Next Section

IndexHome Page