Railways and Transport Safety Bill

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Mr. Hopkins: I thought that I should say a few words because, for some four years, I was chair of the all-party group on alcohol misuse. I sympathise with what the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said. People with alcohol problems are good at disguising them and often, if they are not caught by random testing, they can avoid being discovered for many years and that is very serious if the people concerned are airline pilots, engine drivers, long-distance lorry

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drivers and so on. That is one reason why random testing is important to identify such people, and to persuade them to face up to their problem and to go into rehabilitation so that they can not only overcome their alcohol problem but save their jobs and livelihoods and drive, fly and steer boats safely.

I have some sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I am sure that the Government want to ensure that alcohol problems are treated as a disease and not a deliberate criminal act. Treatment is often more appropriate than imprisonment.

Mr. Jamieson: I have great sympathy with what my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North said, which reflects, to some extent, the comments of the hon. Member for Bath, who said that alcoholism is a disease, not a crime. That is true of a pilot or the driver of a car if they are abusing alcohol in their own time and have no intention of flying an aircraft or driving a car, but if they attempt to do that, their alcoholism, rightly, becomes a crime. In the other circumstance, when it could be seen to be a disease, it should be treated as such, but we have a duty to protect the safety of people whose lives could be lost in large numbers because someone who is under the influence of alcohol attempts to fly an aircraft.

Mr. Randall: I entirely agree with the Under-Secretary. The other point, with which I hope he will agree, is that we are discussing offences that may be caused not by alcoholism but by people who have simply had a couple of pints of beer. They would be irresponsible and, therefore, committing a crime, but they would not necessarily be suffering a disease.

Mr. Jamieson: There are gradations. People may be alcoholic, or they may simply have had too many drinks on a rare occasion and made themselves unfit to fly an aircraft. The law would apply equally in both circumstances if they attempted to fly an aircraft or to be part of the cabin crew.

4.15 pm

David Cairns: The hon. Member for Bath can correct me if I am misreading the amendment, but would its effect not be that only those whose licences have been suspended would receive the course of treatment and rehabilitation? Those who have been fined or sent to prison will not receive that, because there is an ''or'' in the amendment rather than an ''and.'' If we are going to treat people with this illness, we should treat not only the people whose licences are suspended, but those who are sent to prison or fined. Is that not a flaw in the argument and in the wording of the amendment?

Mr. Jamieson: My hon. Friend makes a sound point, and I wish to reinforce it, as I am sorry to say that I am opposed to the amendment.

The amendment provides for the suspension of an offender's licence and requires him or her to undertake treatment or rehabilitation on conviction. I understand the sentiments behind the amendment: its intention is good, but it would have only limited application. It does not extend the power to suspend a licence to convictions on indictment. In addition, the

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courts would not have jurisdiction to suspend a licence issued outside the United Kingdom—which is probably of relevance to the example of the Balkan airlines, which my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North raised a long time ago. Aviation is an international industry. Many pilots flying in UK airspace hold licences issued by overseas aviation authorities. Cabin crew would be unaffected because they are not required to hold a licence to perform their duties.

On the principle behind the amendment, I am sure that the hon. Member for Bath agrees that there are many issues of fitness with regard to an individual continuing to hold an aviation-related licence, and that the specialised Civil Aviation Authority is much better able to address them than a court. It already has procedures in place to deal with reported alcohol and drug misuse among personnel who require a medical certificate to validate their aviation licences: those personnel are pilots, flight navigators, flight engineers and air traffic control officers. Once the results of a failed test have been confirmed, the CAA will, on medical grounds, temporarily suspend the individual's medical certificate. The aim of this review is to determine whether the incident was the result of a long-term problem or—as the hon. Member for Uxbridge said—an isolated lapse. Once the assessment has been carried out, a decision can be taken as to the most appropriate course of action, which may include an agreed recovery or treatment programme.

We consider the use of criminal sanctions under this part of the Bill to be wholly appropriate. As I said in my initial remarks, railway workers, professional drivers and—under part 4 of this Bill—mariners, are or will be subject to such sanctions. I cannot see any compelling reason to treat those in the aviation sector any differently. Representations have been made suggesting that peer intervention would be a more appropriate way of dealing with alcohol and drug misuse in the aviation community, and I take on board the points of the hon. Member for Bath about rehabilitation, but the CAA already operates a support service along the lines of the peer intervention programme that has been suggested. Such a system complements, rather than imposes an alternative to, this legislation.

Miss McIntosh: Would the Minister elaborate on what is a peer intervention system?

Mr. Jamieson: Peer intervention is an intervention by one's peers: assessments are conducted by people who are on the same level of competence

4.19 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.36 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Jamieson: May I say how unusually pleased we are to see you back in Committee this afternoon, Mr. Hood. Random testing for tea drinking might be appropriate. [Interruption.] It is also lovely to see the hon. Member for Vale of York here.

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The hon. Lady asked me about peer intervention. The United States human intervention and motivation system describes such intervention as a pilot confronted by colleagues, managers and family members and encouraged to admit his or her problem. The individual surrenders his or her licence and enters a recovery programme. I hope that that helps the hon. Lady.

This is not a witch hunt, but the travelling public must ultimately be protected from those individuals who can buy alcohol or drugs and who are responsible for flying aircraft. I hope that the hon. Member for Bath will withdraw his amendment in view of its limited application and the fact that the procedure is already in place to meet its aims.

Mr. Foster: I, too, am delighted to see you back in Committee, Mr. Hood.

I am grateful for the Minister's response. Nevertheless, he was not especially helpful on a couple of points. For example, he said that it was inappropriate for the courts to determine whether someone should be entitled to a licence. The exact parallel occurs in relation to driving where the courts do have the power to take licences from people. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and other bodies are responsible for awarding licences, but the courts can remove them. It does not strike me as illogical for the courts to have the opportunity to remove a pilot's licence in certain circumstances.

The Minister also said that the difficulty with the amendment was that it could not apply to those people who were given licences by other awarding bodies outside the United Kingdom, and that clearly it would not apply to those people who did not hold licences, such as cabin stewards. He is right. However, I must say to the hon. Member for Luton, North that the amendment adds an extra piece to the armoury of the courts in dealing with this issue. The Minister rightly said that the rehabilitation work continues, which I acknowledged from the beginning. However, the difference is whether someone who is convicted is obliged to undertake rehabilitation.

Mr. Jamieson: The hon. Gentleman draws a parallel between the provisions in the clause and those that relate to the road. In the case of a road offence, there is no equivalent of the Civil Aviation Authority. I dare say that it is entirely possible for courts to ban someone from driving in a motor vehicle for a fixed period of time, but the CAA may hold back part of the medical certificate for longer, until it thinks that the person is medically fit to undertake their duties.

Mr. Foster: The Minister is right. Of course procedures are in place. I am suggesting that the court's armoury for dealing with these matters should include this provision as well. He and I are not in significant disagreement about it. However, I hope he will bear it in mind, when we consider the issue at a later stage, that all the research shows that a high percentage of those convicted of drink-driving offences, and even of those below the drink-driving level, have serious alcohol problems. We are not dealing here with the many people who have a couple of pints once in a blue moon, as he puts it. The

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evidence shows that a high proportion of those who are caught and convicted for drink-driving offences have alcohol or drug-related problems.

David Cairns: I have some sympathy with the general thrust of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but if that is what the research shows, why would his amendment limit the requirement

    ''to undertake a course of treatment and rehabilitation''

to those whose licences have been withdrawn and not extend it to those who have been fined? Presumably, those who have been fined may have committed a more serious offence and may be in greater need of such treatment. The hon. Gentleman seems to reserve the requirement for the lesser categories, not the more important ones.

 
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