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7 pm

Amendments Nos. 50, 51, 53, 52 and 54 deal with the use of alcohol ignition interlocks, or AILs, which the Government are, bravely and quite rightly, bringing into use through the Bill. However, I have severe reservations about how they are doing that, because introducing the use of AILs—or alco-locks, as they are more colloquially known—as a mechanism by which somebody might reduce the period of disqualification sends out the worst possible signal. The development of those devices offers us particular opportunities, but we are in danger of missing them by using AILs in the way that the Government suggest.

The amendments propose a period following disqualification in which the AIL would be fitted at the disqualified person’s expense, thereafter ensuring a continued period of protection for the public following the expiry of that disqualification. The proposal is not,
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I would suggest, a silver bullet. It is not foolproof and there are certain ways to get round it, but I say to the Minister that it would be a further defence that would enable the effort to be targeted on those who pose the greatest risk to our communities—the repeat offenders.

By erecting that further barrier and by making things difficult for such people, we would have the opportunity to reduce the number of people who come before the courts as repeat drink-drivers. That has been borne out by research in other parts of the world. The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) touched on that in referring to a 90 per cent. reduction. That is, in fact, a 90 per cent. reduction in reoffending rates, which the Traffic Injury Research Foundation of Canada found to have taken place after the trial of an AIL in that jurisdiction. That also follows the experience in a number of states in the United States, which have also taken results-based decisions to use AILs following trials.

We commend and support the Government on the introduction of AILs through the Bill, but we believe that the manner in which they want to use them is not appropriate and can be improved. I hope that the Government will give the closest possible consideration to the improvements outlined in our amendments Nos. 50 to 54.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I support my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and new clause 1. Technology has moved on, and we know that drugs are a real problem on the road. I would like to hear from the Minister that there will at least be more trials, or indeed more public education, on this very important subject.

On the whole, Britain does not have a bad record in terms of the number of people killed on the roads. Not that long ago, the figure was 5,000 a year, but we have got it down to about 3,200. However, over the last two or three years, we seem to have been stuck at that number. If we are to drive that figure down further, which I think is what we all want, we must focus on the reasons for people being killed on the roads. Drugs are an important cause, as is alcohol and, in particular, the hard core who break the current limit. We have to get much tougher with them. We must also consider tyres, weather conditions, road design and layout, and tiredness, all of which contribute.

One consequence of relying a lot more on speed cameras and redeploying people from traffic policing is that, although we might catch more people speeding, we do not have the traffic policemen to look out for tyres, tiredness and the other factors that sometimes cause accidents. My hon. Friend raised an important point in that context.

There are still doubts about the technology, and we have heard concerns about the level of drugs in blood, but it is time that the House sent a message. We ought to be trialling a lot more. The most compelling argument that my hon. Friend made is that youngsters put under peer pressure to take drugs could say, “No, I’m driving tonight. I am taking you home and I’m not going to do it.”

We have seen a sea change in terms of drink-driving because people accept that the current level is fair, and because when those who are driving are asked whether
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they want another drink before they leave the pub, there is no argument—people accept that driving is a sound reason for not drinking to excess. We have changed attitudes on that issue, and we have to change attitudes on drug taking, as well as to the practice of people taking cocktails of drugs and alcohol and thinking that they can get away with it.

A lot more has to be done. I hope that the Minister will at least say that he has listened to what my hon. Friend said and perhaps make some Government proposals on this important matter. We need to drive the number of deaths on the roads down from the figure of 3,200 that we seem to be stuck at, and we need to consider the range of issues that I have raised if we are to achieve that.

Dr. Ladyman: I must take issue with the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) about the figure for road deaths being stuck at about 3,200. If he looks at the figures for the last two or three years, he will see that they are again on a downward trend. Of course, once a number of road deaths is reached—albeit one that is still way too high; I acknowledge that immediately—that is, compared with the distances travelled, the lowest in the world, it becomes increasingly difficult to reduce the figure. We must expect that, and we must expect the rate of improvement to slow. Nevertheless, we still have that rate of improvement, and the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that messages about drugs and about drug taking and driving will play a key part.

The hon. Gentleman said that we need to do more to get the message across. I say to him that, to get the message over on drug-driving, we try to target those who are most likely to be drug-drivers. I might be wrong, but I do not think that Conservative Members of Parliament are a target group for that message, but young people are, so we target it on the radio channels that young people listen to, pop concerts and other places where young people congregate.

Our evidence suggests that we are pretty good at targeting those messages, and we hit that target group, but does that go far enough? No, it does not. So, let me say to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) that I entirely agree with the sentiments that he has put to us tonight. If I was in a position to tell the House that there is a robust method of detection and that there is agreement that there is a correlation between the level of a drug in someone’s system and the level of impairment when driving, I would be here with a Government proposal to introduce the measures to the House. However, we do not have that robust system of detection and we do not have that agreement on what is an appropriate level of drug taking to indicate impairment. We are somewhat stuck over a way to move forward.

The hon. Gentleman, in introducing the new clause, essentially told the House, “Look, we don’t have agreement on what an appropriate level is, so let’s just say it’s any level. If it’s any level, you’re breaking the law.” That is entirely inconsistent with existing legislation, which requires a level of impairment. In a moment, I shall come on to the problems of detecting the amount of drugs in somebody’s system, but I also suggest that a key problem with detection is exactly what is being detected.

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The active ingredient of cannabis spends only a short period in the blood. Detection systems therefore tend not to detect the active ingredient that would impair driving. Detection systems detect a metabolite of cannabis that stays in the blood for a long time. The presence of that metabolite in someone’s system does not, however, mean that their driving performance would be impaired; it simply means that they have used cannabis at some time in the previous few days. If one is trying to devise a detection system for an employer who wants to make sure that none of his employees has ever used drugs, it is a perfectly acceptable test. The presence of the metabolite allows one to say that the person has used drugs, although one does not know whether they used them yesterday or last week. Therefore, if an employer has a policy not to employ those who use drugs, he can say that he will no longer employ that person. If one is trying to test whether someone’s ability to drive a car is impaired, however, testing for that metabolite is not reasonable. That is one of the key problems with detection.

Mr. Goodwill: Does not the Minister think that, in practice, the Crown Prosecution Service will take a view based on how successful litigation has been? While it is illegal, for example, to steal things in this country, one is unlikely to be prosecuted for stealing an orange, but more likely to be prosecuted for stealing a lorry full of oranges. The CPS will take a view based on the amount of drug or metabolite in the person’s system, as well as on whether the person was stopped for a tail light being out or where multiple injuries were involved. Does not he think that legal cases would set the norm for such prosecutions?

Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but he is tempting us into a minefield where the courts would be asked to judge whether somebody’s driving had been impaired as a result of drug use that may have happened some considerable time previously or passively rather than actively. I am told by the lawyers that it is possession of drugs that is illegal in this country, and that if they are in one’s system, one is not legally in possession of them. It is not as if a body of case law exists to suggest that because people have particular metabolites in their system the courts may take a view on whether they have been using drugs, as they will not necessarily have broken the law or be prosecutable for it.

I have been speaking about cannabis, but there is a panoply of different drugs that could impair one’s performance. Many of the comprehensive sample tests, such as sweat, saliva, urine or hair, are not technically accurate for several drug groups. Where a blood sample is taken, analysis for all the drug groups can be very expensive, and costs about £1,000 per blood sample. How much resource are we going to devote to that when, with the best will in the world, resources are limited?

The hon. Member for Christchurch seemed to imply that many robust technologies can be used for roadside testing. I take issue with him on that. The Home Office takes a view on such matters, and studies them regularly. Its view is that there is not a robust test that can be used
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at the roadside. Between 2003 and 2005, a major European Union project known as ROSITA II was carried out to evaluate the usability and analytical reliability of onsite saliva drug-testing devices. Although that was an EU project, it also involved some non-European countries. At the end of the study, it was concluded that no device was reliable enough to be recommended for roadside screening of drivers. The report acknowledged that experience in the state of Victoria, Australia, had shown that random roadside oral fluid testing of drivers for methamphetamine and cannabis had had a deterrent effect, but also pointed to the risk that drivers will realise that the tests being used are limited, and will therefore feel more confident about driving without risk of detection. They will then start to use the drugs that are not included in the panoply of roadside tests. If we send out the message that we can test only for cannabis and methamphetamine, we can expect drivers who have been using cocaine and other drugs to take to the road.

7.15 pm

Unlike with alcohol, there is no clear relationship between the amount of drug taken and its impairing effect, with large variability between individuals who have taken the same dose. Issues of drug tolerance and withdrawal are additional problems. Some studies have found that the risk of crashing for drivers with cannabis in their systems is lower than for drivers with no drugs in their systems. Other studies find that the risk of crashing for such drivers is between one and a half and two and a half times that for sober divers. Evidence about the crash risks associated with benzodiazepines is also mixed. The level of risk tends to vary with the type of benzodiazepine and how long the driver had been using it, with the greatest risk associated with early use. Crash risk elevation is between 1.6 to five times that of a driver with no drugs in their system. As hon. Members will probably be aware, the relative crash risk for a driver above the current alcohol limit is in the range of six to 10, so there is a clear disparity in relation to the risk level among drivers using drugs.

Clinical studies have tended to be inconclusive because of ethical and safety considerations, so studies have tended to use lower dosages of drug than might be taken by typical users. The issue of drug control, of course, is dealt with under other Government legislation, and I believe that that should remain the case. For road safety, however, the dangers of drug misuse extend to medication. I think that my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee pointed that out. Drugs used every day, such as in headache preparations, may also be taken contrary to pharmacological guidelines. Benzodiazepines, which are found in commonly prescribed tranquilisers, are possibly one of the most impairing drugs in drivers when used improperly. Methadone, used for the treatment of heroin addiction, is not illegal, but, if abused, it can impair. The current law, under section 4 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, deals with that.

I fully recognise that right hon. and hon. Members do not seek to undermine the existing legislation. It is important, however, that we do not give the public a misleading impression that the proposed new offence is a universal panacea for dealing with drug-driving. Rather than the zero tolerance approach implied by the
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new clause, the right response to the drug-driving problem must be to try to establish legal limits to drugs, similar to those imposed for alcohol—levels that have been demonstrated to be impairing, or at least beyond what could be attributed to medical treatment. I will not pretend that that will be easy; if it were, it would have been done already. World experts are not fully in agreement with each other, but we can expect some convergence of views as more research is done.

In the meantime, the priority must be to address detection. I am advised by colleagues in the Home Office that a specification for a drug screener will be issued shortly, which will mean that manufacturers can supply devices to the police to help them identify drivers who are using drugs. That will facilitate the process of obtaining an evidentiary blood sample and reduce the costs of doing so. In due course, the police should be able to give us more information about the prevalence of drugs in the driving population and at accidents. On that basis, we will be better armed to establish an absolute offence based on crash risk, rather than having to rely as we do now on evidence of impairment.

In the light of what I hope was a comprehensive response, I hope that the hon. Member for Christchurch will be prepared to withdraw new clause 1. I assure him once again that as soon as the science gives us the information that we need, and as soon as robust roadside detection devices are available that can be used by the police force under all conditions, I will want legislation to be brought back to the House to change the current position. Until such a time, however, it would be foolhardy to proceed with his new clause.

New clause 5 has not been moved, but I acknowledge the comments of the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), who is right that the existing law on sleep apnoea is sufficiently robust if properly enforced.

That brings me to new clause 30, and the comments of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on drink-driving. I suspect that we could argue about that for a very long time and never agree. I remain convinced that it is right for us to enforce the current level of 80 mg. If we did that with any reasonable degree of success, we would save several hundred lives on our roads. That would be better than focusing on the 65 people involved in accidents—only involved; not necessarily a causal factor—whose level was between 50 and 80 mg.

Let me now say something that may be controversial, and may even get me into a bit of trouble. I believe that in some parts of the country the police have dropped the ball on drink-driving, and are not enforcing the existing 80 mg level with the vigour that I would like to see.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): The Minister might be right in saying that the police are finding it difficult to enforce the law as they would like, but, as one who spent some time on the police parliamentary scheme with him over the summer, may I suggest that that may be partly because so many are seconded to squads set up by the Government, or are filling in the plethora of forms that the Government have provided for them?

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Dr. Ladyman: I am rather sorry that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman. He is talking absolute nonsense. The Government do not second police officers on to anything. I suspect that if the Government interfered in the life of the constabulary in that way, the hon. Gentleman and his friends would table a great many emergency motions to enable the House to discuss it.

The Government agree targets with police forces, which the Home Office accepts after thorough consultation with its stakeholders because they reflect the views of members of the public who want to see our streets policed safely. I believe that in some constabularies the chief constables and police authorities may well have got the balance wrong, and diverted too much of their resource from roads policing to other areas of police activity. If they have done that, it is not for me or for the Government to intervene; it is for local people and the local police authority to do so, and to make their views known.

Any Member who feels that the drink-driving law is not being properly enforced in his or her area should raise the matter directly with the local constabulary. I have raised the issue with the Association of Chief Police Officers, and with the chief constable responsible for roads policing. He is doing his best to convince his colleagues that there is a significant gain for them from enforcing the rules properly. I have undertaken publicly that once I am convinced that there is proper enforcement at the 80 mg level, and believe that we have secured all the benefit of enforcement at the 80 mg-plus level, we will be prepared to reconsider and adopt the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford on 50 mg. Until I have seen that effort start to pay dividends, however, I believe that the resources are going to the right place.

Mr. Paterson: Will the Minister name the police authorities and chief constables whom he has in mind?

Dr. Ladyman: No, and it is not for me to do so. I am a Kent Member of Parliament, and if I had concerns about the constabulary of Kent I would certainly express them; but it is for other Members to make their views known, for me to raise the issues with ACPO, and for ACPO to try to deal with matters themselves.

Mr. Kidney: In the last nine years, we have changed the law in this place so that the Home Office can publish a national policing plan containing the overarching priorities for all police forces in the country. Do my hon. Friend’s discussions with Home Office Ministers include representations suggesting that the plan should make roads policing a higher priority?

Dr. Ladyman: I do raise that with my Home Office colleagues, and roads policing is part of the national policing plan. If we continue to have concerns about whether roads are being properly policed, I shall have to raise the matter with them again and ensure that it is addressed in future versions of the plan; but I hope that the argument based on the reduction in casualties, and indeed the strong link between criminality on the roads and general criminality, will convince chief constables that they need to provide proper resources.

For all those reasons, I urge the House to resist the proposal to reduce the level further at this stage.

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