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Session 2004 - 05
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Standing Committee Debates
Road Safety Bill

Road Safety Bill

Standing Committee A

Tuesday 25 January 2005


[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]

Road Safety Bill

Clause 11

Power to require specimens of breath at roadside or at hospital etc.

Amendment moved [this day]: No. 53, in clause 11, page 14, line 7, at end insert—

    '(4A) Leave out subsection (1)(a) and insert—

    ''(1) to provide two specimens of breath for analysis by means of a device approved by the Secretary of State and operated by a trained operative in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions.''.'.—[Mr. Chope]

2.30 pm

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following amendments: No. 54, in clause 11, page 14, line 20, at end insert—

    ''(2AA) For the purposes of this section a breath test shall not be relevant if it is administered within 20 minutes of alcohol having been consumed or would have been so administered but for a failure to co-operate with it.''.

No. 56, in clause 11, page 15, line 3, at end insert—

    '(6A) In section 8 of the Act (choice of specimens of breath), leave out subsection (2) and insert—

    ''(2) If the specimen with the lower proportion of alcohol contains no more than 50 microgrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath the person who provided it shall be asked by a constable if he wishes it to be replaced by such specimen as may be required under section 7(4) of this Act and if he then provides such a specimen neither specimen of breath shall be used.''.'.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): The points that I was making before we adjourned are serious. I ask the Minister to put safeguards into the Bill. If that were to happen, it would have a salutary impact on this important area of interaction between the police and the public. I am not in the business of wanting to try to create loopholes; I want to ensure that the law is as clear as possible, thereby reducing the scope for a misunderstanding or a feeling on the part of the public that they have been hard done by.

Stories in the press today about the disproportionate effort made by the police to convict somebody of eating an apple show just how we should not be going in this country. The police have completely the wrong balance in their relationship with the motoring public. If the amendments become law, it will help to improve the relationship between the motoring public and the police.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I rise to support the thrust of the argument put forward so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and in particular to ask the Minister to focus on amendment No. 54.

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It always used to be the case in my experience that the police would wait for 20 minutes between a driver's last drink and the administering of a breath test. There is a very good reason for that. If any member of the Committee were to take a sip of an alcoholic drink and then immediately take a breath test, the breath test would record that member of the Committee as over the drink limit. However, if one were then to wait for 20 minutes, which is the time that the manufacturers of the machine recommend, the breath test would give an accurate reading and would indicate that someone who had just had one sip of one drink was well below the limit.

The practice is adhered to by the police because it is common sense. It saves them wasting their time; clearly, if they administer a breath test to someone who has consumed an alcoholic drink only seconds earlier, the reading will be over the limit and they will go through the process of arresting someone who, it will transpire, is probably under the limit. The 20-minute rule is an important one. Although my hon. Friend made the point that someone who is given a breath test within the 20 minutes will not suffer the injustice of being found guilty when they are under the limit because of the procedure that takes place at the station, there is nevertheless the injustice of being arrested and having one's liberty withdrawn, even if only for an hour or so. That important provision has served us well.

I am aware from my previous incarnation as a lawyer that where someone is stopped by the police and reveals to them that he has had a drink only five minutes previously, the police often make a judgment while they are waiting for the 20 minutes to elapse by speaking to the driver. On at least three occasions, to my personal knowledge, the police have concluded in that period that the driver was clearly cogent and not over the limit. They then changed their minds, aborted the process and let the driver proceed on his way.

I hope, even if the Minister does not want us to put this on the face of the Bill, that he will give the Committee an assurance that this practice of the 20-minute wait between the drink and the administering of the test—a good practice—will continue.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con): I am aware that we may have a small problem with the Committee, and I shall continue talking to help the Minister focus more accurately on the notes that he may have to refer to for the questions that I would like him to answer on this clause.

I am particularly concerned, not by the fact that there will be testing at the roadside, but about the kits themselves. I have never been breathalysed, but I have been pulled over on a purely random test. In fact, I was not driving, although it was my car; my then girlfriend, who herself had not been drinking, was driving. I have never seen a breath test carried out at the roadside, so I would appreciate the Minister going through how these evidential tests might differ from the current tests carried out by police constables at the roadside, for the sake of the record.

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I should particularly like the Minister to draw the Committee's attention to how the size of those kits might differ, whether police squad cars will be able to carry many of them, whether they will be scientific machines that will go along with everything else in—I presume—the rear of most police cars, and whether there will be extra training required to carry out those particular tests. As they are going to be evidential tests, will a policeman on his own be able to carry them out, or will he have to have a colleague with him?

If the Minister could also provide us with information about where these particular kits are currently being used elsewhere in the world, I should be most grateful. If they are being used in the European Union, will it be a simple crossover in terms of the compliance requirements? If they are being used in Canada or the United States, are they being used in particular states, and have there been any problems with those kits?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): An interesting situation has developed in the Committee; somewhere in between my office and here, I have dropped my glasses. I will therefore have some difficulty reading. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) is very generous in offering me a pair, but he has been beaten to it by the Liberal Democrats. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) has very kindly lent me a pair of his glasses. If I look like a north of Scotland MP for a moment, it will be because I am wearing his glasses. Fortunately, my Department has arranged for the type of my notes to be of a certain size, which allows me to read without my glasses.

I ask the Committee to oppose these amendments 53, 54 and 56. Section 7 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 has served us extremely well for many years in respect of the requirements it makes for the conduct of evidential breath tests. The amendments that the hon. Member for Christchurch has moved—with very good intent, I am sure—are unlikely to alter the way procedures are undertaken, or will in future be followed, by the police in dealing with drink-drive suspects.

These procedures are covered by a precisely worded set of documents known as the MG DD forms, and can be found on the Home Office website. I have got one copy of them here with me, and I daresay that if hon. Members want to have a look at some of the procedure, it is available to be seen. The police, in conjunction with the Crown Prosecution Service, will be adapting these to deal with the roadside and hospital circumstances for breath testing. So, although this will probably help the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook), they apply to the current regime of breath testing. Obviously, a new script will have to be written for the police officer in the light of the new procedures.

When I say ''script'', the police have to follow something like a script; there are words they have to say and questions they have to ask. Clearly, if somebody fails the first part of the evidential test, what is different is that instead of them being arrested and taken to the police station for the blood or urine test—
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or a breath test in some cases, with special machinery—the test can be administered at the side of the road. It will, however, be administered within the very careful guidance set down in the same way as in the past.

Under the Police Reform Act 2002, a new procedure for taking blood specimens from unconscious people was introduced, suitably adapted to meet the new scenario. I assure Opposition Members that the procedures at the roadside will be no less rigorous than those at the police station. [Interruption.] I now have my glasses—the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross has been extremely generous—and I can actually read the brief.

Amendment 53 aims to ensure that breathalyser equipment is used by trained persons in accordance with the manufacturers' instructions. One feature of the type-approval requirements is that equipment used in court evidence should be technically sound and foolproof. The hon. Member for Christchurch will, I am sure, recall from his time as a Minister that we are talking about an aspect of road traffic law on which legal challenges were once commonplace, and sometimes even successful.

Fortunately, the courts have dealt with such attempts to pick holes in the procedure and thereby undermine the police. Over time, a substantial body of case law has been established that helps to make procedure and equipment as close as possible to beyond challenge. As regards the breath-testing equipment supplied to and used by the police, I understand that if someone attempted to use the equipment other than as intended by the manufacturers' instructions, it would not produce the results required. Although I recognise the concerns that the hon. Member for Christchurch has raised, the procedures are well established and open, and a reference in statute will not make them any more or less effective.

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Prepared 25 January 2005