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House of Commons
Session 2004 - 05
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Standing Committee Debates
Road Safety Bill

Road Safety Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

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Chairmen: †Mr. Peter Pike, Mr. Kevin Hughes

†Atkins, Charlotte (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)

†Byrne, Mr. Liam (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab)

†Chope, Mr. Christopher (Christchurch) (Con)

David, Mr. Wayne (Caerphilly) (Lab)

†Ellman, Mrs. Louise (Liverpool, Riverside)(Lab/Co-op)

†Fisher, Mr. Mark (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab)

†Flook, Mr. Adrian (Taunton) (Con)

Heyes, Mr. David (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab)

†Jamieson, Mr. David (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)

†Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)

†Knight, Mr. Greg (East Yorkshire) (Con)

†Mahmood, Mr. Khalid (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab)

†Merron, Gillian (Lincoln) (Lab)

†Reed, Mr. Andy (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op)

Rosindell, Mr. Andrew (Romford) (Con)

†Stinchcombe, Mr. Paul (Wellingborough) (Lab)

†Thurso, John (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)

†Wilshire, Mr. David (Spelthorne) (Con)

†Younger-Ross, Richard (Teignbridge) (LD)

Dr. John Benger, Frank Cranmer, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee
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Standing Committee A

Thursday 3 February 2005


[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]

Road Safety Bill

9.25 am

The Chairman: Before I start the proceedings, may I point out that we have got quite a lot of new clauses today? All of them should be reached, but that is in the hands of the Committee. Both this morning and this afternoon's sittings are time limited. There is no flexibility on that whatever.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Charlotte Atkins): On a point of order, Mr. Pike. In the course of our debate on driving instruction on Tuesday 1 February, I responded, in column 255 of Hansard, to a request from the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) regarding possible loopholes relating to paid instruction. I would like to clarify that point.

Subsection (5) of the new section 123 contained in schedule 4 provides a definition of paid instruction, which covers payment other than in money and is largely based on some of the wording used in the existing section 123 of the Road Traffic Act 1988. We understand that some instructors have concerns about people offering driver training as part of selling other services such as car sales. I have no evidence of the scale of the problem, but the existing provisions in section 123(3) of the 1988 Act seek to prevent such a loophole. We have strengthened those provisions.

The provision in proposed new section 123(6) of schedule 4 allows for regulations to prescribe the circumstances in which instructions provided free of charge may be deemed to be paid instruction. That replaces the existing section 123 with a clearer provision and provides a mechanism to close any loopholes that may emerge.

The Chairman: That was not really a point of order, but it was important to correct the record, so I accept it.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): Further to that point of order, Mr. Pike. I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that point and putting it on the record.

The Chairman: Thank you.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Pike. I was surprised and rather alarmed to notice on page 110 on Ceefax, the BBC teletext service, a page under the heading ''The Government is planning to create tougher punishments for people who cause death by driving''. The page went on to say:

    ''The new proposals follow a review of the current laws.''

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You know, Mr. Pike, that Mr. Speaker has deprecated Ministers issuing press releases before statements are made to the House. To make matters worse, this news item has been spun by someone in the Government at a time when the House has set up a Committee—this Committee—specifically to look at those issues. Day after day we have had the opportunity to question the Minister, who has said not a word about the proposed new law. Is this not an insult to the House and a greater insult to the Committee, and should the Minister not be invited to apologise to us and make a full statement to explain precisely what on earth is going on?

The Chairman: Mr. Speaker has made his views on these issues known to the House and I endorse his view. I cannot comment on the particular point to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, but the Minister heard what he said.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): Further to that point of order, Mr. Pike. Any press release that may have been made has certainly not come from me or my Department. As we have explained during the Committee's proceedings, the Home Office has undertaken a review and is putting out a consultation paper on offences. I flagged that up and said last week that it would arrive during the next few days.

Perhaps the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) has seen reference to a consultation paper that is due to be published today by the Home Office, and I hope that we shall have copies of it in the Committee shortly. It relates not to the Bill in any way, but to entirely separate issues that I flagged up previously, which are being dealt with by the Home Office.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Pike. This is intolerable. When we discussed the amendment that I tabled on the penalties for careless driving, and the results of careless driving leading to death, the Minister said that the matter was being dealt with by the Halliday review. I asked him when the Halliday review was going to report. He said that he did not know and that I should table a parliamentary question. I did so, and on 1 February I received a holding reply from a Minister in the Home Office, thereby implying that she did not know when the Halliday report was going to be published. However, obviously it was known. So I was fobbed off, despite the fact that that was a material issue for the consideration of the Committee.

The Chairman: That is not a matter for the Committee. The hon. Gentleman has made a point and the Minister has responded. Any other matters relating to that are for the Floor of the House. We are even talking about a different Department. My responsibility is to see that the Bill makes progress.

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New Clause 1

Alcohol-prescribed limits

    '(1) The Road Traffic Act 1988 (c.52) is amended as follows—

    (2) In section 11(2) the meaning of ''the prescribed limit'' is amended as follows—

    (a) in (a) leave out ''35'' and insert ''22'';

    (b) in (b) leave out ''80'' and insert ''50''; and

    (c) in (c) leave out ''107'' and insert ''67''.

    (3) In section 8(2) leave out ''50'' and insert ''35''.'.— [Mr. Kidney.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 2—Driving under the influence of illegal drugs—

    'A person who when driving or attempting to drive a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or other public place found to have traces of an illegal drug in his body shall be guilty of an offence.'.

Mr. Kidney: The new clause would lower the legal limit in relation to alcohol in one's blood, breath or urine for drinking and driving. All the relevant levels are referred to in the new clause. I want to concentrate on the 80 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of blood, which the new clause would reduce to 50 mg.

I accept that since the 1970s there has been a big reduction in those killed or seriously injured by people who have consumed too much alcohol. In 1979, more than 1,600 people were killed in incidents relating to drink driving. By the mid-1980s, that had been reduced to about 1,000 a year. A decade later, we had halved that figure. The law in this country is settled. There is a culture in which drinking and driving is socially unacceptable and we have been cutting the number of deaths. However, my argument is against complacency. A number of recent factors, taken together, show that we have come to the end of a phase and that it is time for a new one.

After that laudable reduction in deaths over two decades, the number of deaths is rising. In 1998, there were 460 deaths on our roads due to drinking and driving. By 2003, there were 560. That is 21 per cent. more. As that rise occurred over five years, it is trend, not a blip.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is quoting the figures as they appear. Will he put them in the context of the number of motorists who were on the road over that time?

Mr. Kidney: Yes, of course. The hon. Gentleman makes a point about the increase in the number of vehicles on our roads. That is quite right. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has 60 million vehicles registered. That is a big increase since the 1970s. I do not deny that in the slightest. However, we take pride in reducing deaths and serious injuries from all causes. The figures have reduced year on year, and the Minister can tell us of the success of the present road safety strategy later. That is continuous, but here is one instance, amid all the reductions, in which the trend is
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going in the wrong direction. We all need to take account of that alarm bell. So the increase in deaths over the past five years is one factor.

The second factor is the practices in the drinks industry. There are new kinds of drinks, such as alcopops, and there are higher strengths of beers and wines. When we set the limit, a mainstream beer was typically about 4 per cent. Today it is often 5 per cent. Wines were about 8.5 per cent. by volume strength. Today they are typically 12 to 14 per cent. A significant development is that people buy wine in all sorts of sizes of glasses. A typical measure used to be a 125 ml glass. Now there are 175 ml and even 250 ml glasses.

Ideas about the legal limit which have been established over 20 years, in particular the number of drinks that we can consume and still safely drive, are simply myths and are wrong. Many people have too great an ignorance of what is a safe measure. I have some sympathy with the argument made by some, including the British Medical Association, that a new level of 50 mg would give people the message that if they drink and drive, the only thing of which they can be sure is that one unit of alcohol is definitely within the limit. That is a clear message for everybody to grasp.

Bearing in mind that the Minister's response will be, in part, that we have a settled law and that it is important to have known harsh penalties, strict enforcement and so on, the third factor relates to a briefing from a company called TTC 2000. It claims to be the

    ''largest provider of the Department for Transport drink drive rehabilitation course''.

We mentioned that course on Tuesday. In the course of its briefing to me, TTC 2000 said:

    ''It is amazing how many drink drivers that we see who were surprised to find that there was an automatic minimum disqualification of 12 months.''

That is a significant factor because the Minister assumes that everybody knows that we have one of the harshest penalties in Europe and that that penalty is a great deterrent. However, if people have lost that message, they do not know about the harshness of the penalty and it is not a deterrent. So complacency is setting in.

Lastly, in January we received the results of the breath tests that the police carried out in the two-week Christmas period. It is a tradition to have a crackdown during Christmas and new year. The police produce figures that tell us how that crackdown went in the following January. As part of its report, the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland produced a news release on 6 January, in which it said that, despite the successes of this year's campaign,

    ''a worrying proportion of those involved in collisions are still driving having consumed excess alcohol. The trend has been increasing since 1999 and . . . the current rate of 8.75 per cent.,''—

of positive tests—

    ''although less than last year, has, for the second year running, virtually reached the 1997 baseline of 9.11 per cent.''

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So the police report a worrying trend of increasing positive results. Richard Brunstrom, the well known chief constable of North Wales police who leads for ACPO on such issues, says in the same news release:

    ''I again reiterate my strong belief that it is time the Government followed the European Commission Recommendation that the blood alcohol limit be lowered from 80 mg to 50 mg.''

He strongly supports the case that I am making.

Are the four factors that I mentioned simply straws in the wind or signs of something more serious? I answered that by saying that alarm bells are ringing and it is time for us to take notice of them. I accept that we do not really know how many people drive with excess alcohol in their blood, except for those indicators that I pointed to—rising deaths and a rising number of positive breath tests after accidents at Christmas.

However, in 1990 we did know, because the Department paid for roadside surveys to find out what the general level of drink-driving was in this country. In a six-month period, officials from the Department for Transport stopped 14,500 drivers and asked them to take part in the survey. Slightly less than 1 per cent. refused, which is an interesting factor. Of those who agreed to be tested, 3 per cent. were found to have in their blood between half the legal limit and the legal limit of alcohol, and 1 per cent. were found to be driving with excess alcohol in their blood. That was 15 years ago. I suggest to the Minister that more people are now driving with excess alcohol in their blood. If he cannot agree to the new clause, will he agree to repeat his Department's survey to find out whether I am right and, therefore, agree that more action needs to be taken?

The new clause has a lot of support. I mentioned the chief spokesperson for ACPO. I also mentioned the British Medical Association, which is well placed to have a view on the subject, bearing in mind that doctors understand the effect of alcohol on people's behaviour, have to treat those who are mangled in car crashes caused by drink-driving and manage to save some lives but fail to save others and, sadly, see people die. Road safety groups such as Brake and the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety also support the new clause. As I mentioned, I co-chair PACTS so do not give much weight to its support, but it is the pre-eminent organisation that gives advice to the House based on evidence and research, rather than opinions about what should be done.

The best advice to any driver is, ''Never drink and drive''. I fully support all the money that the Department for Transport spends on its hard-hitting advertisements and on education to persuade people to be responsible, but we must accept that, human nature being what it is, some people will drive with some alcohol in their blood. We must also accept that some medical treatments, and the natural reactions in some people's bodies, mean that it is not possible for everyone to have zero alcohol in their bloodstream. There is also the difficult question of the time it takes for alcohol to leave the bloodstream after it is consumed.

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Setting a zero legal limit would be difficult, although some countries have done so. A better possibility is a limit of 20 mg, which already applies in several European countries, as well as to pilots and train drivers in this country. Perhaps Conservative Members remember that on Second Reading the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), who leads for them on this subject, drew attention to the difference in reaction in this country between 300 people dying in a train or plane crash, or the sinking of a sea ferry, and 300 people dying on our roads. We take the first three very seriously, but we ''shrug our shoulders''—his words—when we hear of 300 deaths on the roads. He implied that policy makers react poorly when it comes to driving. For his argument to be consistent, he should have gone on to say that since pilots and train drivers are subject to a 20 mg limit, perhaps the same should apply to drivers of cars on roads. However, in answer to an intervention from me, he said he supports the Secretary of State in not changing the limit.

A limit of 50 mg is more reasonable. I have explained the BMA's ''simplicity of understanding'' argument. I will focus on the argument that such a limit would save lives. The explanation for that lies in the calculations of Professor Richard Allsop, of the Centre for Transport Studies at University college London. He breaks down drivers into three groups. Some 97 per cent. of all drivers, by far the biggest group, never drive with an alcohol level over 50 mg. One per cent. drive with an alcohol level far over 80 mg. They are the most dangerous drivers, and he estimates that they cause more than 400 deaths every year. They completely ignore the law and we are not going to persuade them to accept my limit of 50 mg. For them, detection and severe penalties are always going to be the answer.

That leaves the 2 per cent. who drive at somewhere around the present legal limit of 50 mg to 110 mg and who cause about 130 deaths a year. Professor Allsop calculates that if they modified their behaviour and drove somewhere around the limit of 50 mg, 65 lives a year would be saved and 230 serious injuries prevented. An alcohol level of 50 mg is dangerous enough. We all understand that the risk of death increases with the increase in alcohol consumption. According to Professor Allsop's calculations, the risk increases by five times at a limit of 50 mg, but at 110 mg it increases by 34 times.

I had a go at drawing together all the legal limits in different countries. There was some controversy over whether Luxembourg's limit is 80 mg or 50 mg. In the whole of Europe, both inside and outside the European Union, there is a zero limit in Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Lithuania. There is a limit of 20 mg in Poland, Sweden and Norway. A 50 mg limit applies in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Austria, Slovenia, Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Macedonia, Croatia and Yugoslavia. That leaves us on 80 mg with Ireland and Switzerland. Clearly, the mainstream has moved on, and we have not moved on with it. It is time we did.

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I understand that there are other concerns about alcohol away from our roads, such as binge drinking, alcohol-related illnesses, accidents and deaths. Now there are high-profile media campaigns about concerns over the effects of the Licensing Act 2003. Some opinion polls suggest that the public, who have concerns about the effects of alcohol on people's behaviour in our society, would be very supportive of reducing the limit for drink-driving. A reduction would show that we take the issue seriously, and it would support other Government initiatives such as the public health White Paper and the alcohol harm reduction strategy. A reduction would have widespread public support, and I am certain that it would save lives and reduce the number of injuries on our roads. That is why I ask the Committee to consider the new clause.

9.45 am
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Prepared 3 February 2005