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9 Oct 2006 : Column 67

Mr. Chope: I should say at the outset that a lot people thought that it was already an offence to be at the wheel of a car with illegal substances in one’s body, but that is not the law as it stands. We do not tolerate train drivers who have illegal substances in their body when they are driving trains, or airline pilots who have illegal substances in their body when they are at the controls of an aircraft, yet the law seems to be much more relaxed about those who take the controls of motor vehicles on our roads, some of which, as we need not remind ourselves, are very large lorries. New clause 1 would outlaw driving with illegal substances in the body. I am the first to accept that before introducing a new criminal sanction we need to be satisfied that there is a real and serious problem that needs to be addressed, and I hope that the House will accept that there is. Not only that—the problem is getting worse. Many innocent people are being killed or seriously injured as a result of Parliament’s failure to address the problem.

I began looking into this issue in February last year, when I was the shadow transport Minister taking the lead on road safety matters. The Southern Daily Echo reported an horrific case in which a driver was jailed after a crash in which he killed a young Bournemouth university student on the first day of their university career. That accident occurred because the driver, whose vehicle hit the student’s car head on, had been under the influence of amphetamines—an illegal drug—which he had been taking to try to keep awake. Although taking amphetamines may have that short-term effect, when it wears off a state of acute drowsiness occurs. That is what happened in that case, and a young life was lost on our roads as a result of a driver with illegal drugs in his system.

Sadly, such an occurrence is far from unique. In 2000, the Transport Research Laboratory published data on the percentage of drivers killed in motor accidents who had illegal drugs in their body. I was amazed to discover that 22.9 per cent. of drivers killed in motor accidents had illegal drugs in their body.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman explain what he means in his new clause by “traces”? In dealing with other drugs such as alcohol, we state the limit. Does he accept that this is an open-ended clause that could lead to anybody being “done”, as with athletes who have minor traces of a drug in their body which has no effect on performance whatever?

Mr. Chope: The question of the amount of the drug is obviously a matter for mitigation, but as the hon. Gentleman may know, at the moment, a train driver who has traces of an illegal drug in their body is guilty of an offence and will probably lose their job immediately. I know that the Liberal Democrats have a history of being slightly soft on this subject, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will realise that, at the moment, there is a big anomaly, and that there is everything to be said, in terms of road safety, for putting those who drive other vehicles on a par with those who drive trains or pilot aircraft.

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Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in Northern Ireland—unfortunately, the road traffic accident statistics there are even more horrific than in other parts of the United Kingdom—the second highest cause of death on our roads is drivers with illegal substances along with alcohol found in their body? Indeed, illegal drugs are increasingly the problem and are rapidly overtaking alcohol. Does he accept my support for his new clause, having regard to that information?

Mr. Chope: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. Increasingly there is evidence that this is not an either/or situation: it is not a question of illegal drugs or excess alcohol. Often, drugs are mixed with alcohol and although the level of the latter might be below the legal limit, the concoction is lethal and radically affects such people’s ability to drive.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I commend the intentions behind the new clause. As a practising criminal solicitor for a number of years, I know the problems that prosecutors face in seeking to mount a successful prosecution of someone charged with driving while unfit through the use of drugs. In particular, properly proving that someone has cannabis in their system, and that it makes them unfit to drive, is a real issue. I know that those who have successfully defended such cases have been sympathetic to the problems faced by the prosecution. When someone has traces of cannabis in their body, it is often difficult to determine whether that is because they passively smoked it as a passenger in a car in which it was being smoked, or whether they were actively smoking it.

Mr. Chope: If the driver has traces of an illegal substance in his body, he would be guilty of an offence under the new clause. My hon. Friend—I hope that he will have the chance to make a proper contribution to this debate and to bring his experience to bear—seems to be saying that there are circumstances in which the detection equipment might falsely indicate that somebody had smoked cannabis when in fact they had merely been in the presence of somebody smoking it. I hope that the law will be able to distinguish between such cases.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Given the fact that, unfortunately, so many young people are using illegal substances, does my hon. Friend agree that the time has come to place a zero-tolerance ban on the use of such substances while people are driving? Many lives are being taken, as the Minister mentioned earlier. Does my hon. Friend agree that such a ban would prevent some of the horrific loss of life that we have seen in recent times?

Mr. Chope: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support and I agree with him 100 per cent. That is why my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) and I first raised this issue in Committee before the last general election. We were keen to resurrect it, and new clause 1 was tabled as long ago as Easter, so that we could ensure a debate on Report.

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Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): May I add my wholehearted support for the new clause? My hon. Friend will know that I sit as a part-time judge, so I recognise the scourge of illegal drugs. Any message that we in this House can send that somebody should not drive with any illegal substance inside them is a powerful and good message.

Mr. Chope: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Knowing that he sits as a part-time judge, I feel that his support is worth perhaps even more than that of just one hon. Member, because he brings to this debate a great wealth of experience.

If there is still anyone in the Chamber who has any doubt about the gravity of this matter or about the growth in drug-driving, I commend to them TRL report No. 495, because it shows that since the 1980s the incidence of alcohol in road accident fatalities has decreased, while the incidence of drugs has risen from just over 7 per cent. to more than 22 per cent.—and who can doubt that it is probably even higher now?

In July this year, Auto Trader, that well known magazine for those who are interested in buying or selling motor vehicles, surveyed 2,100 motorists. One in seven of those surveyed admitted driving under the influence of illegal drugs, and one in 15 admitted having had an accident or a near miss while so doing. That is pretty compelling evidence. These are people who are responding to a survey and admitting to that culpable behaviour. It may not be illegal behaviour, but they are admitting to culpable behaviour and also to having taken illegal drugs.

Unfortunately, that survey has been corroborated by other surveys. In June this year, More Th>n, a well known insurance company, surveyed more than 1,000 people between the ages of 25 and 35, and 21 per cent. of that sample admitted driving after taking drugs.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The crux of the issue is that “The Highway Code” has a prescribed limit for alcohol, but with regard to drugs says only that one must not drive under the influence of drugs and that taking illegal drugs is highly dangerous. My hon. Friend’s point that there should be zero tolerance on this is totally welcome.

Mr. Chope: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. In case anyone thinks that this is just an English problem, I should say that it is also a problem in Scotland. In 2000, a report published by the Scottish Executive central research unit under the title “Recreational drugs and driving: a qualitative study” showed that 85 per cent. of club-goers in Scotland had at some time driven after using illegal drugs. I do not know whether that is just because of the cost or unavailability of buses or the cost of taxis in Scotland, but it is a pretty staggering statistic.

We may not need to go into the following area, but does drug use affect one’s driving? The British Medical Association has the following opinion:

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Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Given the hon. Gentleman’s position of zero tolerance on drugs, would he also support a zero-tolerance policy on alcohol?

Mr. Chope: My policy is zero tolerance on illegality. At the moment it is not illegal in this country to consume alcohol. It is not illegal yet to smoke, although I see in tonight’s Evening Standard that it is proposed to make it illegal to smoke in the open air in London. That is barking and disproportionate. What I am talking about is what I see as a serious issue of people who are taking illegal substances, thereby committing a criminal offence in itself, and then compounding that by driving motor vehicles when they are likely to be impaired as a result of having taken those drugs, sometimes with alcohol, sometimes without, sometimes with a series of different drugs. Fortunately, the police are taking it increasingly seriously. The effect of cannabis and other drugs on people’s state of mind is an issue on which medical and expert opinion has changed dramatically over recent years as a result of what we have seen in our streets and towns where people have committed major crimes as a result of being drug-crazed.

6.15 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on making his case so powerfully. There is a serious problem with people driving under the influence of drugs. There is an offence already of driving when ability is impaired by drink or drugs, and to date the main problem in enforcement has been the absence of a roadside test that is accurate enough in detecting the presence of drugs in a person’s body. Does the hon. Gentleman intend to deal with how we will detect, and therefore enforce his proposed law?

Mr. Chope: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I hope to deal with that point. To conclude the last point, I should just add that this summer Cleveland police felt it necessary to take out television advertising in their area in order to warn drivers about the consequences of taking drugs and then getting behind the wheel of a vehicle.

The Government recognise that we have a serious problem and that is why under schedule 7 to the Road Traffic Act 2003 new powers were provided for the police to carry out impairment tests at the roadside. The problem is that the equipment for doing that is not up to the job, and we also have evidence from a study by Glasgow university that in one third of cases the equipment is not even capable of detecting those who have illegal drugs in their system.

To take up the hon. Gentleman’s point, new equipment is now available. It is colloquially called a drugalyser, and it is already being used effectively in Germany, Switzerland, Australia, and, for all I know, in other countries as well. It is, in essence, a hand-held device. It can detect cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine, and from one swab of saliva a police officer can test for a single drug in 90 seconds at the roadside, and he can test for more complex cocktails in six minutes. That is pretty astonishing to me, and it shows the extent to which the new technology has changed over the past couple of years, which we as legislators should take
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into account. It was a change in technology some 39 years ago that really led to the change in the law, replacing the impairment test for driving with drink in the system with a test for excess alcohol, because we could measure the amount of alcohol in the blood or in the breath.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I am listening carefully, because the hon. Gentleman has an extremely important point to make. However, I am a little worried that he does not seem to be addressing the problem of people who take medicinal drugs and do not treat them as though they have an effect on their driving ability when it is clear that they do. Does he envisage some extension beyond simply the drugs that he has mentioned so that the amount of other drugs in the bloodstream can be assessed?

Mr. Chope: The hon. Lady makes an important point. I would like the Government to acknowledge this issue first, which is about illegal drugs, although it is important in road safety education that we should emphasise that people who are taking prescribed drugs should be very careful about continuing to carry on their recreational or professional driving. The Government have done some work on the issue, and there has been some talk about new labelling on some prescribed drugs to warn about their effect and about possible impairment while driving, but that is a large and separate issue. If the House will forgive me, I do not want to go down that route, because there is a more easily detectable and distinct area of criminality. I do not want to criminalise people who are on prescription drugs and who unwittingly find that those drugs adversely affect their driving, whereas people who deliberately take illegal drugs and then go driving are more culpable.

Returning to 1967, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) was one year old, the Road Safety Act introduced the breathalyser and the concept of making it illegal to drive with excess alcohol. The legislation recognised that proving impairment by making people walk along a white line, which required police officers to supervise, monitor and assess the test, was disproportionate to the problem on the roads, which involved too many drivers having excess alcohol in their blood and on their breath. The law was altered to reflect changing technology and a change in society, which wanted a tougher line to be taken.

The situation is similar 39 years later. We have an increasing problem of people driving after having taken illegal drugs, which has resulted in carnage on the roads. For example, the RAC Foundation has said that one of the main contributory factors to the large increase in fatalities among young people on the roads is the use of the dangerous cocktail of drugs and alcohol.

Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman is making a good point, but I want to return to the point raised by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen). The hon. Gentleman has prayed in aid the 1967 legislation, which concerns excess alcohol in the blood. The problem
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involves the thresholds for such measurements, because some illegal drugs, such as heroin, can be present in the body for between three and six months after use. I suspect that most medical experts would recognise that the presence of heroin in the body of someone who last used the drug three months earlier would not impair their driving. Although the act of taking the drug is illegal, it would be made a further illegal act under new clause 1.

Mr. Chope: Many people take the view that their driving is not impaired when they are over the excess alcohol limit. In order to cut through such arguments, Parliament decided to introduce an arbitrary cut-off limit, which relates to a lawful substance. However, we are discussing unlawful and illegal substances, the possession or use of which are criminal offences in themselves. If we were to introduce a law under the umbrella of road traffic legislation that deterred people from taking illegal drugs, a double benefit would arise. We are not comparing like with like when we compare alcohol with drugs, because one substance is lawful and the other is not.

As I have said, it is already illegal to take such drugs, so if people take illegal drugs and get behind the wheel of a car, lorry or motorcycle, why should it not be an offence? New clause 1 would send out a strong message about the use of illegal drugs. One consequence of the 1967 Act was that Parliament gave an excuse to the weak-willed who were pressurised into drinking and driving. It allowed them to say, “I am sorry, but I am not going to have another drink, because I am going to drive.” If we pass new clause 1 into law tonight, we will send clubbers and other young people a similar message, which will allow them to turn to their friends and say, “I am not going to take any drugs, because I am going to be at the wheel of a car tonight and do not want to cause an accident or injury, to lose my licence or to suffer a penalty.” New clause 1 would reinforce some important messages.

It is encouraging that my proposal has attracted wide support. More than 90 per cent. of those surveyed by Auto Trader acknowledged that drug-driving is dangerous; 80 per cent. acknowledged that punishments for drug-drivers are too lenient; and 80 per cent. supported roadside testing for drugs. Perhaps most encouragingly of all, the insurance firm More Th>n found that if we were to introduce roadside tests, more than one third of those who were surveyed and who currently take drugs and drive would be deterred from so doing, which would result in a one third reduction in drug-driving at a stroke. That would be a substantial win for road safety, which is sufficient justification for new clause 1 in itself. The RAC 2006 motoring report states that 55 per cent. of respondents named drug-driving as one of the top three road safety issues, and the RAC believes that drug-driving could be as prevalent and dangerous as drink-driving.

Today, a demonstration has taken place outside Parliament by people who think that we do not discuss the issues that matter to the British people. This debate is an example of an issue that affects the British people. The issue is getting worse, and it has affected so many lives and caused untold misery. I therefore hope that Opposition Members and Government Members will not hesitate to support new clause 1.

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Mr. Kidney: About three years ago, I chaired a conference for the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety—although I no longer chair the conference, I am still a member—on drug-driving. On the day, the big issue was the one that I raised in my intervention on the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) about reliable forms of roadside detection for use by the police. At that conference, a manufacturer made a presentation about the latest product, which is used to perform the tests that, as the hon. Member for Christchurch has said, are available in some European Union countries.

I was a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which included a requirement for the police to test for drugs when releasing people from custody, whether or not the offence with which such people had been charged or arrested involved drugs. Stafford police station was one of the pilots for that testing, which allowed me to see what was then the up-to-date technology. I made several visits over a period of months, during which time the technology changed from the analysis of swabs taken from inside the mouth to the analysis of swabs taken from the sweat on the palm of someone’s hand, so the technology is developing all the time. As the hon. Member for Christchurch has said, the technology is catching up, and it allows us to introduce a provision such as new clause 1. However, I suspect that a final product is a little way away, and we need to obtain approvals similar to those for breath tests for alcohol.

We also need to debate the precise wording of the law. I have been impressed by the arguments about thresholds, and we need to debate the issues of people who take legally prescribed drugs that contain as a base a drug that is illegal in another form and people whose blood contains a low level of a drug that would not impair a driver. I await the Minister’s response to those points with interest.

New clause 30 concerns drink-driving and the legal limit for alcohol in a driver’s blood, urine or breath. Today’s amendment stands in the names of several Liberal Democrat Members. I tabled similar amendments to the previous Bill that we debated before the general election. The Minister will see that I have given up trying to persuade him to accept such an amendment. I recognise that his objection is solid, but that does not mean that I agree with his judgment that we do not need to change the law. In summary, his view is this: we have a robust law with firm penalties, but some people exceed the maximum legal limit by a great deal and cause many deaths, so they are the top priority for enforcement, and when we have got them off our roads to a satisfactory degree, perhaps we can consider changing the limit.

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