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6.30 pm

I think that my hon. Friend is wrong. I do not see any evidence that we are targeting our policing efforts on catching those people. The number of police officers responsible for policing the roads is not going up appreciably; neither is the number of breath tests carried out by police forces each year. In Committee, I tabled an amendment to give the police a new power on the targeted use of breath tests in order to catch the very people whom my hon. Friend has talked about, but he resisted it. I see no signs that we are cracking
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down on that group. If, as he suggests, we must wait until we have got on top of that problem, we will never address the issue raised by new clause 30. In the meantime, people are dying on our roads because there are people just exceeding the current limit who would, by any reasonable estimate, adjust their drinking and driving if the law were changed. PACTS commissioned a study that found that reducing the limit from 80 mg to 50 mg would save about 65 lives a year and save about 230 people a year from serious injury. That is why most of the road safety lobby and the British Medical Association support an amendment such as new clause 30.

Although my hon. Friend can be congratulated on some further reductions in road casualties in the 2005 statistics, and although one of those is a fall in fatalities due to drink-driving since 2004, I hope that he will not rely on that as an argument for his approach. In 1998, there was a low of 460 in the number of deaths caused by drinking and driving. In 2000, that figure rose to 530, and by 2004 it had reached 590. There is a clear trend of rising deaths owing to drink-driving. In 2005, there was at last a reduction to 560, but that is still high by historical standards, and at a time when the overall figures are showing a reduction in people killed and seriously injured year on year. Something is seriously wrong when drink-driving deaths are not falling in line with all the other reductions.

Dr. Ladyman: Even on the figures that my hon. Friend has given us, if 65 people had between 50 and 80 mg of alcohol in their blood, 495 had more than 80 mg. That is why I argue that at this stage it is better to try to deal with the 495 than to worry about the 65.

Mr. Kidney: That is a false choice. There are several areas in which we must take action to keep the trend in road deaths going downwards. My point is that the trend in drink-driving deaths is not going downwards, unlike all the others. More therefore needs to be done in terms of lowering the drink-drive limit, giving the police the power of targeted breath testing at the roadside to detect these people, rehabilitating drink-driving offenders, and introducing an alco-locks pilot. All those together, as a programme, will make a difference. The Minister is saying, “Until I’ve solved one problem, I’m not going to look at the others.” That is a blinkered approach to saving lives on our roads.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The problem is that the group of people with whom we are dealing are the very same as those who may well have taken an illegal substance or abused prescribed medicines, and while they may not have taken an excessive amount of alcohol, the three elements together could be calamitous.

Mr. Kidney: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who echoes the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). That cocktail effect is a particularly dangerous set of circumstances in putting people’s lives at risk on the road.

When Parliament introduced a law against drinking and driving, it was resisted by some people at the time but has become widely accepted, and most people now regard drinking and driving as socially unacceptable.
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We have won that argument. We have reduced the number of deaths on our roads, but not, in recent years, the number of deaths caused by drinking and driving. In the meantime, most countries have overtaken us by adopting a limit of 50 mg in blood instead of our limit of 80 mg. I am not suggesting that we have to follow others, but we are falling behind the rest of the civilised world in our limits despite having led the way in introducing them in the first place. The Minister should give more thought to ensuring that combating deaths due to drinking and driving is part of the Government’s overall programme, so that deaths on our roads decrease in every respect.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) on tabling the new clause, which represents our policy on the previous incarnation of the Bill which fell at the general election.

Research shows that almost a quarter of those killed in road traffic accidents have illegal drugs in their bloodstream. There have been an increasing number of accidents in which the presence of drugs in the driver’s body may have been a contributory factor in the cause of the crash. As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said, drug-driving is most common among 20 to 24-year-olds, and clubbers are particularly prone to taking control of a car in a chemically altered state. As a survey by the Scottish Executive showed, well over 80 per cent. of clubbers have driven after recreational drug use, often under the misguided apprehension that drugs can improve their driving skills. In fact, as the BMA and other authorities have shown, commonly taken illegal drugs such as cannabis cause concentration to wander, affect reaction times, and can cause paranoia, drowsiness, distorted perception and a sense of disorientation, all of which could lead to loss of control at the wheel.

Cannabis is the most commonly traced drug, with more than 800,000 people travelling under its influence every year. A study produced by the Transport Research Laboratory established that people who drove a car at 66 mph had a stopping distance of about 270 ft, but after smoking a joint that increased on average by 15 per cent. to 310 ft. In a slalom test, those who had just smoked a joint knocked over 30 per cent. more cones. Similarly, cocaine is a psychostimulant that leads to misjudging driving speeds and stopping distances and gives a distorted sense of light and sound and a feeling of overconfidence. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch mentioned amphetamines, but ketamines, LSD and magic mushrooms also strongly influence the senses and give drivers a sense of unreality, placing themselves and other road users in danger.

As the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) said, there has been a problem with detection, but I understand that detection methods have dramatically improved. It could be said that one advantage of these drugs is that they remain detectable for longer than alcohol. The urine test EMIT—enzyme-multiplied immunoassay technique—can establish the presence of amphetamines for up to two to four days; that of
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barbiturates for a day and of long-acting barbiturates for two to three weeks; that of cannabinoids for three to 30 days; that of cocaine for two to four days; that of opiates for two to four days, and that of anabolic steroids for up to 14 days. The technology has moved on and my hon. Friends’ proposals are therefore considerably more practical.

We have slipped behind other countries. A meeting of the International Council on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety took place in 2002, with representatives of 16 nations and 12 US states. It established that most statutes required proof of impairment owing to the use of an illegal drug. That legislative approach has been difficult to enforce, because proving that the drug caused the impairment has been a major problem. Germany, Belgium and eight US states have established a per se law, which avoids having to prove impairment due to the drug. That approach allows the prosecution to be based solely on the analytic detection of drugs in body fluids such as blood or urine.

The Belgian experience shows how a country got a grip on the problem, developed a strategic plan, gradually changed legislation, overcame a myriad political problems and implemented a comprehensive drug-driving strategy. The result is that, sadly, we have fallen behind. The detection rate for drug-driving is much higher in Norway—750 cases per million inhabitants. In Finland, it is 190 cases per million inhabitants; in Sweden, it is 90 cases per million, whereas we are down at 30 cases per million. Conservative Members believe that the technology has caught up. Other countries have shown what can be done and we will support new clause 1 if it is pressed to a vote.

The hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) is not here and perhaps she will therefore not press new clause 5. [Interruption.] Indeed, perhaps she has fallen asleep. A diagnosed narcoleptic is required to declare his condition to the DVLA and failure to do so voids his insurance cover. The DVLA will generally issue a temporary licence to a narcoleptic, renewable every three years, provided that the applicant’s GP can satisfy the DVLA that the condition is controlled by treatment. If that were properly enforced, it would appear to cover the intention of new clause 5. I shall be interested in the Minister’s comments on that.

I had a most interesting visit to an organisation called TTC group—Telford Training Consultants—during the recess. It managed to get itself on the front page of our local papers by pointing out that the new pub opening hours were sweeping up a large number of people who were unaware that, although they behaved responsibly, they had alcohol in their blood that put them over the limit. I was told of a case of a highly responsible person—a police constable—who had gone out for a curry, been measured in the amount that he drank, deliberately gone to bed at 10 o’clock, got up for an early shift, but unfortunately had a bump and was found to be over the limit. The visit showed the importance of education.

I was especially struck by two points. First, 10 years ago, wines were 9 per cent. alcohol by volume whereas they now average 12.5 to 13 per cent. Secondly, the group presented an interesting demonstration about glasses. The standard measure is 125 ml but people are frequently offered 250 ml as a standard or small glass. I cannot believe that many hon. Members in the
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Chamber would want to offer their friends a small drink. However, 250 ml is nearly half a pint. The group did a demonstration with differently shaped glasses. The shapes were deceptive. I benefited from that brief introduction, and it was proved that re-educating offenders reduced recidivism by 50 per cent. Such courses are of low cost to the taxpayer. Those who go on them have to pay £100 and £150. I would prefer to go down that route rather than chase a tight target.

I appreciate that the hon. Member for Stafford has spent much time on the matter, which he raised in Committee. However, trying to reduce the figure from 80 mg to 50 mg when we are struggling to enforce 80 mg is not the right way to proceed. I should like the effort to be put into re-education, and I believe that the Government share that view.

6.45 pm

Bluntly, we need more traffic policemen. They have declined from 9,201 in 1997 to 7,103. Conservative Members believe that more active enforcement is the way ahead. Let us get 80 mg established. We have made massive progress, but rather than trying to screw the figure down to 50 mg, education and more active enforcement are more sensible uses of Government time.

The retesting requirement in new clause 39 would not be used in the context of testing skills but is simply an addition to section 36 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, which lists convictions, and requires, after obligatory or discretionary disqualification, the court to instruct the person who has been convicted to take another test. I do not like the idea of taking a driving test being part of the punishment. Again, I prefer the route of education. The little bit of extra research that I have done since I went to Telford convinced me that education would be more effective.

Amendment No. 51 deals with alco-locks. The matter was raised in Committee and Conservative Members’ opinion has not changed. I know that the Minister does not like my rattling off stuff from the internet so I shall not go into detail at length. Evidence from the United States, Australia and Canada shows a 40 per cent. or even a 90 per cent. reduction in the rate of drink-driving repeat offences. However, that appears to happen only as long as the alco-locks are in place. In Europe, where we are only beginning to establish such programmes, the Swedes have a programme with 900 drink-driving offenders, but because they have been so strict, almost a third of the participants have dropped out. France is about to introduce a pilot project in Annecy and we have not even started. We fear that the programmes are a bit of a distraction.

In Belgium, the Belgian Institute for Road Safety has produced a report. Under the heading, “Effectiveness. Has the project reached its objective?”, it reported that no project results were available for evaluation. We believe that it is a little early to decide about such projects. They could be a distraction and, again, we would like the effort put into re-education because when the locks are removed, we believe that the hardcore cases will revert. We are also convinced that a strong sentence—a short, sharp shock—could be more effective.

That is a quick canter through our thoughts on the group of the amendments.

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Mr. Carmichael: Although I want to confine the bulk of my remarks to the new clauses and amendments that my hon. Friends and I have tabled, we have had a good debate on the amendments that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) tabled and I want to contribute to that.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) approaches the matter from much the same viewpoint as me. Although I have a great deal of sympathy with the issue that the hon. Member for Christchurch raises, it struck me that current provisions in the Road Traffic Act 1988 catch many of the different scenarios relating to driving while unfit through the influence of drink or drugs that he outlined. Some related practical matters require further attention and I shall deal with them shortly. However, I continue to be worried by the lack of precision in new clause 1 to enable individual citizens to regulate their conduct according to it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) sought clarification of a “trace”. That can vary greatly between drugs. My recollection from my days of studying forensic medicine some years ago is that lysergic acid, for example, can remain traceable in the body for up to six months. Reference has also been made to heroin, which can remain in the body for between three and six months.

Mr. Greg Knight: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is no mention in new clause 1 of the amount of the illegal drug. Would he accept, however, that no minimum sentence would be attached to such an offence either? Someone with a trace of such a drug in their body that was deemed by experts to be fairly minimal could therefore be dealt with appropriately by the courts.

Mr. Carmichael: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; that is a perfectly fair point. However, I do not think that we should be quite so blasé about creating offences that would have enormous resource implications for the courts and for police time if the benefit to be derived from them were not proportionate. If we sought to prosecute everyone who was found to be driving with a trace of an illegal drug in their body, it would take up an enormous amount of court time—and to what effect?

We are dealing with the Road Safety Bill, and it is entirely appropriate that we should have regard to the test that we have always had: that of a person’s fitness to drive being impaired through the use of drink or drugs. Drink and drugs are relevant to road safety because they impair a person’s fitness to drive, and once we move away from that simple test, we open up a whole range of conduct for examination. It would be very easy for someone to say that they did not know that there would still be a trace of drink or drugs in their bloodstream.

The hon. Member for Christchurch referred to train drivers and pilots, but I cannot recall the existence of any criminal offence in that context. If he can enlighten me on that, I will be interested, but I cannot think of an instance in which a pilot or train driver would be guilty of a criminal offence merely by having a trace of drink or drugs in their body. If he or she were unfit to drive or fly through having used them, that would of course be a different matter. Pilots, train drivers and others who are found, through a workplace testing
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scheme, to have a trace of an illegal drug in their system are often caught by their employer’s disciplinary procedures, but that does not involve a criminal offence. Once we start to blur the distinction between a criminal offence and a disciplinary offence under employment law, we will be going down a dangerous track.

I should like to say a word or two in defence of the present approach in road traffic law, which places the emphasis on impairment and unfitness to drive. This point was also made by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), and I am sorry that he is no longer here, because, as a court practitioner, he has an important contribution to make to the debate. In practical terms, there is usually a reasonable ground for a driver to be stopped—normally that of erratic or defective driving. Thereafter, a breath test will almost certainly be carried out. If that test is negative, the police officer involved should surely look for another reason for the impairment. All sorts of other symptoms might be present, including dilated pupils or slurred speech, depending on the illegal substance in question. My recollection from my time as a criminal court solicitor and as a prosecutor is that a lengthy checklist is gone through, which would thereafter entitle the officer to arrest the person and take them back to the police station where the full impairment test could be undertaken.

As the hon. Member for Christchurch rightly said, a number of much more sophisticated devices are now on the market, and I hope that they will be tested and, if appropriate, approved for use by the Department for Transport. All these factors will improve the workability of the present law on unfitness to drive as a result of the use of drink or drugs. I am not without sympathy for the hon. Gentleman’s proposal, and I certainly do not underestimate the scale of the difficulty facing us in relation to drug- driving, but I remain to be convinced that his new clause is the panacea that he suggests. It could create problems as well as solutions.

Mr. Bone: Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that the testing equipment is not good enough to trace drugs, or that the new clause is not a good proposal because it uses the term “traces” of illegal drugs? Would he be happier if a limit, such as that relating to alcohol consumption, were included in the proposal?

Mr. Carmichael: No, I approach this from the point of view of first principles. The reason why we arrived at what has been described as the rather arbitrary limit for alcohol was that it was decided that that was the level at which a driver’s ability to respond would be impaired. The question of a limit is therefore consistent with the general approach of punishing those who drive while unfit through their taking of drink or drugs. I cannot as yet envisage a mechanism by which it would be possible to set a similar level for illegal substances. It might happen, but I think that it is highly unlikely. We shall probably always rely on the question of fitness to drive in relation to drug-driving. There is a lot more to be done on the training of police officers, prosecutors and the judiciary as to what constitutes fitness to drive
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while under the influence of drugs, but to depart from the principle of assessing fitness in the way proposed in the new clause is unnecessary and would be a step too far.

The hon. Member for Stafford referred to new clause 30, which he supported tonight. Indeed, he has supported similar proposals many times in the past. He has already made many of the points that I was going to make, and I shall not reiterate them. The Department for Transport has demonstrated through its own research that there could be a reduction of about 50 fatalities and 250 serious injuries per year if the Government were to adopt this measure. The hon. Gentleman was quite right to say that the Minister sets up a false choice by suggesting that we can target either those who are grossly over the limit or those who fall into the rather narrower band. I happen to think that, for very little additional effort and use of resources by the police and the prosecution services, it would be worth saving those 50 lives and preventing those 250 serious injuries every year. As the hon. Gentleman also said, the proposed lower limit would bring the United Kingdom into line with virtually every other country in western Europe.

New clause 39 would bring within the ambit of section 36 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 all those offences that involve driving while under the influence of alcohol. We are proposing a fairly measured response here, by seeking to introduce a requirement for someone who has been disqualified from driving for a drink-driving offence to re-sit their driving test before they are given their licence back. The proposal would apply to anyone who received a sentence of disqualification in excess of the minimum 12-month period under section 5 of that Act. This reflects a practice that has already been adopted in many courts up and down the country in all the jurisdictions that make up the United Kingdom.

We should also have regard to how road traffic law has developed in a wider context. There is something profoundly anomalous about a new driver with six points on his or her licence, as a result of perhaps two speeding offences, being required to re-sit the test as a result of the new drivers’ regulations while somebody who has been convicted of a drink-driving offence that merits more than the minimum sentence of disqualification does not have to go through the same procedure.

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