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Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I want to push my right hon. Friend on that point. In the context of clause 16, is he therefore saying that he is open to persuasion that the arguments set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) might be a better solution than his initial feeling that a move down is possible? Is he open to persuasion, or is he taking a fixed view at this stage?
Mr. Darling: It will clearly be for the Secretary of State to decide the Government's final view after the Bill has been enacted. Last September, I recognised that the issue is controversial, but I thought that my proposal was fairer and more appropriate. However, it is self-evident that not only Second Reading, but Committee and the rest of the proceedings should be used to raise those issues in the House of Commons, and I am sure that my hon. Friend and others will make their views clear.
At the moment, my view remains that my proposal from last September is reasonable, but we must consult formally, and when we consult there will be a specific proposal which will allow everybody concerned, whether organisations or individuals, to come forward, and the House will form a view. Throughout the past year or so, speed cameras have been a controversial issue. People understand that a balance must be struck between being fair to all of us, including those of us who drive, and remembering the purpose of speed cameras, which is to save lives. That point underpins my whole approach. We have to be fair and take people with us, but let us not lose sight of the fact that speed cameras do save lives and reduce serious injury. It is good that since we published the figures last summer we have heard rather less of the hysterical talk about removing every speed camera wherever it is.
The Bill has other provisions on developing and using retraining courses for more serious speeding offences. They are based on the successful drink-drive rehabilitation schemes and are set out in clauses 24 and 25.
Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend tell us about the Government's thinking on drink-driving, especially in relation to discussions with the Home Office about increased sentences for drink-driving and increased sanctions for uninsured or even unlicensed drivers, as in the major problem of kids taking cars and joyriding?
Drink-driving is obviously a matter of major concern, and we continue to have discussions with colleagues in the Home Office in relation to that offence. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that despite all the campaigns of the past 30 years, alcohol is a factor in nearly one in seven of all fatal crashesthat is, nearly 500 deaths a year. That must be dealt with. Up to 20 per cent. of those drink-drive convictions concern the cases that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) is particularly worried about, involving repeat offenders who are predominantly younger male
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drivers. We must not only improve education, but improve detection and increase the number of people who are caught drinking and driving.
The Bill provides for the introduction of roadside evidential breath-testing, which is far more efficientit avoids the visit to the police station and saves police timeand more effective. There is a secondary power under which we intend to make repeat drink-driving offendersfor instance, someone who is automatically banned for three years after a second convictionretake their driving tests. That is justified. We are also making provisions concerning serious offenders in relation to their medical examinations, as there is a loophole there that needs to be closed. Finally, we are allowing for the future use of alcohol ignition interlocks, which have been shown to be effective in discouraging reoffenders in other countries. Those provisions are set out in clauses 14 and 15.
In 1998, when the Department for Transport was part of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, it estimated that lowering the legal limit from 80 to 50 would save about 50 lives a year. Has my right hon. Friend's Department updated that estimate to today?
Mr. Darling: We continually keep the level of the limit under review. Most of the people with whom we deal are way above 80. Obviously, if the limit were lowered additional people would, by definition, be caught by it. However, at the moment the Government believe that the right level is 80. We always keep such matters under review. I am very conscious of the fact that our problem in this country, sadly, is that people are often not just over the limitthere would be a stronger argument for a reduction if we were catching a lot of people on 82 or 85but way over the limit. The people we must really have a go at are those who do not just do it once but are caught and second and a third time. The bigger problem, which I suspect would occur even were the limit dropped to, say, 50, concerns the people who believe that they can have one or two drinks and it will be all right. In some cases it is not all right.
For a long time, I thought that we were reaching a situation in which drinking and driving would become socially unacceptablethat people simply would not put up with it and peer group pressure would take effect. Sadly, however, there appears to be a trend, especially among younger people, of saying, "It doesn't matter." We need to get it across to people that drinking and driving can kill the driver, the driver's friends and others. We will keep the level under review but the Government currently believe that it is set at the right amount and have no plans to change it.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con):
I believe that the Government are right to keep that under review and not to make a change. Since 1979, the number of
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deaths that have occurred when the driver or rider is above the existing legal limit has decreased from approximately 1,800 a year to around 500. Even if the lower limit would bring the drivers involved in another 50 deaths into the ambit of the law, it is far better, as the Secretary of State said, to concentrate on those who are over the current legal limit or have consumed twice that. Cultural change needs to continue so that drink driving does not go on even at its current rate.
Will the right hon. Gentleman report to the House if it transpires that countries with a lower legal limit turn out to have fewer drink driving deaths than us? While we continue to have fewer deaths than those countries, it is better to continue with an effective policy rather than do things that simply change numbers, not behaviour.
Mr. Darling: I should certainly report to the House if such evidence emerged. However, the evidence, especially in continental Europe, does not show fewer deaths. My counterpart in France has been here to see what we do, because drinking and driving in France is a serious offence. Some countries in other parts of Europe have lower limits but no automatic disqualification. Drinking and driving is so important that it is right to signify our concern and disapproval through automatic disqualification of someone who is caught doing it. Of course, we will examine evidence not only from the rest of Europe but other parts of the world.
Two things will make a difference. The first is repeating the message that drinking and driving can kill. Secondly, if people believe that they are more likely to get caught than not, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. I therefore welcome the fact that many chief constables are turning their attention to the matter and recognising that it is a problem that needs to be tackled and regarded as seriously as other crimes.
I said that the Bill will increase penalties. The penalty for careless driving will increase from £2,500 to £5,000. Driving using a hand-held mobile phone will become an endorsable offence. We will also unify the penalties for seat-belt offences in relation to children. There is currently a lesser penalty for not wearing a seat belt in the back seat than for not wearing one in the front seat. There is no good reason for that. We will also introduce a mandatory disqualification for a second offence of using a vehicle in a dangerous condition.
The second strand of measures clamps down on drivers who do not respect the rules of the road. Recent research has shown that unlicensed drivers are six to nine times more likely to have an accident than drivers with road tax. We need to deal more effectively with the one in 20 drivers who currently drive without insurance. We know from experience that they are high risk drivers who impose costs on the rest of us and can also cost lives. That is why the Bill includes several provisions to tighten up the regime.
The Bill will enable the police to make use of data already held by the motor insurance industry about vehicles that are not insured. Furthermore, for the first time, the police will be given the power to seize and
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dispose of vehicles that are uninsured, as part of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, which is currently in Committee.
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