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What legal advice has he obtained on the matter? He will be aware that retrospective legislation is generally not encouraged and is generally considered to run contrary to the principles of natural justice. It is not without precedent, of course, but must be undertaken with due regard to proportionality. Is the Minister satisfied that the measure is proportionate in respect of its retrospective application? Will he place on the record when Ministers were first made aware that there was an issue, and that amendments had to be brought before us?

5.45 pm

I place on record our acknowledgement of the fact that the Conservatives in the other place worked closely with my noble Friends on new clause 37, and I hope they will continue to do so.

On new clause 38—the bridge-bashing clause, so to speak—it would appear from the frequency of bridge- bashing incidents that the current law is not acting as a deterrent to the drivers responsible for them, notwithstanding the awareness campaign launched recently by Network Rail. It is defined as

In 2003-04 bridge bashing was the 15th worst cause of cumulative delay, which was no less than 335,442 minutes. I am grateful to Network Rail—or perhaps—for these statistics. Two hundred and twelve bridges have been struck more than three times a year, and Cook street in Glasgow was struck 17 times last year. Whitehouse road, Swindon, and Southend lane, Lower Sydenham have each been struck 127 times since 1996. It is clear that this is a matter of significant difficulty and that it is causing substantial delay and expense to road users and to Network Rail. Current legislation is not adequate and accordingly we shall insist on our proposals in new clause 38.

Rob Marris: The Minister kindly apologised to the House for tabling new clause 28 at rather short notice because a problem has recently been revealed. I hope he will reconsider the wording of the new clause, particularly subsection (2). Although the Bill originated in the other place, it will go back there because of amendments made in this place. The wording of subsection (2) is somewhat opaque. I do not see why there is effectively a double negative in line 4—

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rather than “to be taken to have allowed” or some such wording. Such problems arise when measures are drafted at the last minute and come before the House with little notice. I understand the Minister’s position, but if the clause is agreed tonight, I urge him and his colleagues in the other place to re-examine the wording, which is not felicitous. As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) said, retrospective legislation is rare. If we are to have it—and I understand the reasons for it—we should be clear that the wording is right, and that it is not rushed and likely to create further problems.

Mrs. Dunwoody: On bridge bashing, may I ask the Minister whether any work has been done on systems to warn drivers of heavy goods vehicles and large goods vehicles of the possibility of such collisions? Such a system would save many thousands of pounds. It is not a complex situation, and if we could get the support of the House it would save changing the law. It would be a positive step that would be greatly welcomed by those who have to pay out large sums for bridges that are damaged every day.

Dr. Ladyman: I understand the concerns expressed and I take the issue of bridge strikes very seriously. Were we to require the fitting of equipment to vehicles, we would have to go through the European Union and seek the agreement of all members of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, which is responsible for type approval of new vehicles.

Should it be deemed valuable to install such equipment in vehicles, however, the process for securing approval would not require the legislative change that is being proposed. If there is a case to be made to the European Union—the cost savings to industry and the public infrastructure—we can pursue it with our colleagues in Europe. I am happy to ask my officials to look into the evidence, to see whether such a change to type approval would be necessary and, if so, how we pursue it.

Rob Marris: Would it not be a lot cheaper and simpler to have something 100 m from a bridge that is of the same height and that would form a soft barrier across the road—it could be roughly the height of a heavy goods vehicle—so that vehicles would hit the soft barrier instead of the bridge?

Dr. Ladyman: My hon. Friend makes a good point, but, again, we would not need the proposed amendments to require that. I suspect that the same people who are asking us to agree the amendments would soon come back and introduce ten-minute Bills about street furniture and the clutter on our urban and rural roads if we were to do so. Nevertheless, we would not require the proposed measure to do what has been suggested.

Mr. Goodwill : As an HGV driver, I am all too aware of the problems of low bridges. I am sure that the Minister agrees that in most cases of an HGV or double-decker bus driver hitting a low bridge it is an inadvertent act. I am unsure, therefore, whether increasing the penalties would reduce the number of bridge strikes.

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May I suggest that the Minister drive between Wakefield and Doncaster, where there is a low bridge? A beam across the road about half a mile before the bridge warns HGV drivers that they might strike the bridge if they continue. If the Government are serious about wanting to reduce bridge strikes, more such technology should be deployed in other parts of the country.

Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman makes a constructive suggestion, and we will certainly discuss it with Network Rail. Again, the amendments are not necessary for us to pursue that course of action. I had not appreciated that the hon. Gentleman is an HGV driver—I have not seen him floating around the Members’ Tea Room with a Yorkie in his hand—but he makes a sensible suggestion, which we shall pursue.

I am not persuaded of the case for special offences in respect of breaching red lights at railway crossings; nor am I persuaded of the case for special offences in respect of bridge strikes. There have, sadly, been many tragic instances on the roads where crossing a red light has had catastrophic consequences for motorists and pedestrians—as catastrophic as a collision on a railway crossing. I understand the point about far more people being involved in railway crossing violations, but jumping a red light anywhere could lead to somebody’s death, and if it is done in a wilfully it should be treated exactly the same way.

Stephen Hammond: We have again heard the Minister say that he regards the two violations as the same offence. He surely must recognise that there is a major difference between jumping an ordinary red light and jumping a red light at a level crossing. The potential impact and other possibilities are significantly greater than they are for jumping a red light on a normal road, and the consequences thereof need to be accepted and the offence recognised. The point was made both in Committee and on the Floor of the House today that those who commit the offence are usually serial offenders who endanger their own lives and, more importantly, the lives of others at rural level crossings. The magistrates courts need the power to deal with them.

Dr. Ladyman: The point is that the courts do have the power to deal with them. Someone who recklessly endangers the lives of other people should be prosecuted not for jumping a red light but for dangerous driving. The police will prosecute if the evidence can be gathered. If people wilfully jump a red light on a level crossing, it might be dangerous driving, and if they jump the traffic lights around Parliament square they should be prosecuted accordingly.

I challenge the hon. Gentleman to answer the following case that would be put to him if we were to accept that there is a difference between the two offences. What would he say when a parent brought the photograph of their dead child into this House and said, “My daughter”—or son—“was killed on a street because somebody jumped a red light, and you treat their offence differently from that of somebody who does the exact same on a level crossing”? I suspect that if the hon. Gentleman were in my position now, he would find that unanswerable.

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Cases need to be judged on their merits. The police need to take a view on the appropriate offence, and the courts need to take a view on the appropriate sentence. Where a violation is blatant and dangerous, the driving can and should be prosecuted as such, with a significantly higher penalty, including custody, than that which applies to a normal breach of a red light.

The hon. Gentleman accused me of making promises in Committee that I have not kept. I have to say to him that, again, he is not being entirely accurate. In Committee, I introduced into the Bill the measure that is now clause 50. That amendment had been agreed with, among others, our stakeholders—including Network Rail—in order significantly to improve the safety of level crossings. It is my understanding that Network Rail no longer supports the amendments that are before the House, and that it is happy with the position that has been agreed. In Committee I said that I was sympathetic to the argument that a specific tougher penalty would send a message to lunatics who frequently zig-zag through crossings, possibly endangering the safety of rail passengers, and that if there was evidence of a problem I would be prepared to consider using the subordinate powers under clauses 3 and 4, subject to the agreement of Parliament, to set a higher fixed penalty and a higher penalty points tariff for breaches of red lights at railway crossings.

I still believe that the current offence of careless and inconsiderate driving with a maximum fine—subject, again, to Parliamentary approval for clause 22—of £5,000 is sufficient to deal with bridge strikes. In extreme cases where danger is caused to other road users it might be appropriate to prosecute for dangerous driving, but I believe that the power already exists to enable that.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) asked when the Government became aware of the need for new clause 28. Ministers were made aware of the issue early in September. I do not have a precise date, but if he is interested in knowing the precise date when it was first brought to our attention I am happy to provide it to him. However, I can assure him that as soon as it was brought to our attention Ministers moved rapidly to try to assess the issue.

The Attorney-General was consulted on whether existing legislation was sufficiently robust before we decided to move to bridge the possible loophole. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), who requested this information, that the clauses have been checked by counsel. I promise him that I shall have them checked again before the Bill passes to the other place.

The loophole is possibly the last of the errors of the disastrous railway privatisation, and we moved to close it as soon as we discovered it. I should of course emphasise to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that we will not know whether retrospection will be necessary unless somebody takes a test case to the courts and they confirm our interpretation of the law. It may well be that everything was all right; nevertheless, in our view it was essential to move as rapidly as we did to close any loophole in such an important area of the law.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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New Clause 1

Driving with Illegal Drugs

‘A person who when driving or attempting to drive a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or other place is found to have traces of an illegal drug in his body shall be guilty of an offence.’.— [Mr. Chope.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

6 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 5— Medical fitness to drive—

‘(1) The Motor Cars (Driving Instructions) Regulations 2005 are amended as follows.

(2) In regulation 5, paragraph (b), after “users”, insert “recognising the dangers posed by driving while medically unfit to drive”.

(3) The Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) Regulations 1999 are amended as follows.

(4) In regulation 71(1), after paragraph (e) insert—

“(f) liability to sudden attacks of disabling giddiness, faintness or drowsiness caused by a sleep disorder.”.

(5) In regulation 71, after paragraph (2) insert—

“( ) The disability prescribed in paragraph (1)(c) is prescribed for the purpose of section 92(4)(b) of the Road Traffic Act in relation to an application for a Group 1 or Group 2 licence if the applicant suffering from that disability satisfies the Secretary of State that—

(a) the driving of the vehicle by him in pursuance of the licence is not likely to be a source of danger to the public; and

(b) he has made adequate arrangements to receive regular medical supervision by a sleep disorder specialist who holds a hospital appointment.”.’.

New clause 30— Alcohol 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 paragraph (a) for “35” substitute “22”;

(b) in paragraph (b) for “80” substitute “50”; and

(c) in paragraph (c) for “107” substitute “67”.

(3) In section 8(2) for “50” substitute “35”.’.

New clause 39— Disqualification for drink offence—

‘(1) Section 36 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 is amended as follows.

(2) After subsection (2) insert—

“(2A) Subsection (1) above also applies to a person who is disqualified for a period in excess of 12 months on conviction of a relevant drink offence.

(2B) In this section “relevant drink offence” means—

(a) an offence under paragraph (a) of subsection (1) of section 3A of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (causing death by careless driving when unfit to drive through drink) committed when unfit to drive through drink,

(b) an offence under paragraph (b) of that subsection (causing death by careless driving with excess alcohol),

(c) an offence under paragraph (c) of that subsection (failing to provide a specimen) where the specimen is required in connection with drink or consumption of alcohol,

(d) an offence under section 4 of that Act (driving or being in charge when under the influence of drink) committed by reason of unfitness through drink,

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(e) an offence under section (5)(1) of that Act (driving or being in charge with excess alcohol),

(f) an offence under section 7(6) of that Act (failing to provide a specimen) committed in the course of an investigation into an offence within any of the preceding paragraphs, or

(g) an offence under section 7A(6) of that Act (failing to allow a specimen to be subject to a laboratory test) in the course of an investigation into an offence within any of the preceding paragraphs.”’.

Amendment No. 50, in page 15, clause 14, leave out lines 5 to 15 and insert—

‘(1) This section applies where—

(a) a person is convicted of a relevant drink offence by or before a court, and

(b) the period stated by the court as that for which he would be disqualified is not less than six months.’.

Amendment No. 51, in page 15, leave out from beginning of line 16 to end of line 22 on page 16 and insert—

‘(3) Where this section applies, the court shall (subject to subsection 7) make an order (an “alcohol ignition interlock programme order”) requiring the offender to comply with the alcohol ignition interlock conditions.

(4) The period which the offender shall comply with the alcohol ignition conditions shall be a period specified in the order of—

(a) not less than six months, and

(b) not more than two years.

(5) If the offender contravenes the alcohol ignition interlock conditions, a further order disqualifying him for the rest of the period specified under subsection (4) is to be treated as having been made by the court immediately before the contravention.

(6) “The alcohol ignition interlock conditions” are that the offender—

(a) must participate fully in an approved alcohol ignition interlock programme specified for the duration specified in the order, and

(b) during the period specified in the order, must not drive a motor vehicle unless it is fitted with an alcohol ignition interlock in good working order and must not drive a motor vehicle which is so fitted when not using the alcohol interlock properly, and

(c) must make due payment of fees for the programme which shall include the cost of the alcohol ignition interlock being provided, fitted and maintained to a motor vehicle.

(7) A court may decline to make an alcohol interlock programme order if it appears to the court that the offender will not comply with the alcohol ignition interlock conditions in which case the court will specify an additional period of disqualification for a period equal to the period which it would have otherwise ordered the offender to comply with the alcohol ignition conditions.’.

Amendment No. 53, in page 16, line 11, at end insert ‘and

(c) must make due payment of fees for the programme which shall include the cost of the alcohol ignition interlock being provided, fitted and maintained to a motor vehicle’.

Amendment No. 52, in page 17, line 4, after ‘offender’, insert—

‘(13) Nothing within this section shall prevent the court from making an order in accordance with section 34.’.

Amendment No. 54, in page 17, line 16, at end insert ‘fitment’.

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