Road Safety Bill [Lords]

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Stephen Hammond: I have listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman’s comments. All Committee members want a reduction in the number of people killed on our roads through drink-driving, including both those who bring that upon themselves and, perhaps more importantly, those who take others with them. However, I am not sure that the evidence that he has given us will convince us that that will happen if we enact the proposed measures.

The hon. Gentleman gave us a quantification of limit and risk—two times and five times—and I would be interested to know where that came from and how it was calculated. I am sure he can elucidate that point. I would also like to know whether he has done any work on the evidence from overseas. He spoke about a number of countries that have reduced their limits to 50 mg. Portugal is a country that I know particularly well. It had a history of having almost no drink-driving limit at all, but it has now adopted the 50 mg limit. I am unsure whether there has been any decrease in drink-related deaths on Portuguese roads—and, indeed, whether there has been an improvement in the culture of Portuguese driving—as result. However, the situation might be different in other countries. The Committee would be interested to learn whether there was clear evidence from overseas that the reduction in the limit had had some effect.

I am also concerned about new clause 2. The hon. Gentleman says that the powers of the police are restricted, but I disagree. I was stopped for drink-driving two years ago. The police had set themselves up very effectively in a village in Hertfordshire; they took up positions on three roads so that, whichever way drivers left that village, they would meet one of the police cars. The police officers asked drivers whether they had been out for dinner or to a pub that night. If the answer was yes, they were asked whether they had had an alcoholic drink of any nature. If the answer to that question was also yes, the police officer said that he might have reasonable grounds to believe that they were over the limit. Whether random or targeted, that procedure is clearly available at present. I had had a drink that night and I was pretty certain that I had kept to the limit. Even so, it was the most nervous 30 seconds of my life at that stage.

2 pm

Mr. Kidney: In another Committee in another context, I was described last week as a jobbing lawyer, because I was a solicitor before I was elected to Parliament. I hesitate to give a legal opinion without the full facts, as any lawyer would say, but I suggest that if the police set up a roadside test knowing that they would ask everyone about alcohol so that they could carry out a breath test it would be illegal. As I said, however, the police can stop people for other reasons and can then form a reasonable suspicion and conduct a breath test.

Stephen Hammond: I am happy to take the advice of a lawyer, jobbing or otherwise. All I can say is that that is how the police operated the system in the instance that I mentioned. We were asked no other questions. There was no other inspection of my vehicle. The
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police clearly have found a way of targeting drink-driving, and they particularly wanted to target one village. I guess they thought that as there were three or four pubs, there were many potential drink-drivers.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): I am reluctant to muddy the waters even further by bringing in Scottish law and practice, but I point out that every Christmas and new year, Strathclyde police set up exactly the kind of roadside inspection area that the hon. Gentleman described and randomly test drivers for alcohol intake. That is accepted without objection every year because it is seen as an effective way of clamping down on drink-driving and the resulting deaths and injuries.

Stephen Hammond: Scottish law is even further outside my legal competence, so I shall not pursue the point, but I am grateful for that intervention and the point that the hon. Gentleman makes.

We are concerned about the unintended consequence of new clause 2, which I am sure the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) did not intend. Under proposed subsection (1), I could have two or three drinks in a House of Commons Bar tonight, walk out of the building to my vehicle and be stopped by a police inspector who may take the view that I might be involved in a drink-driving incident. As the new clause is phrased, people can be stopped before they go anyway near a car and breath tested. On that basis alone, we think that the new clause would not work and is not fit for purpose.

Paul Rowen: I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford on his well-argued case both for a revision in blood alcohol limits and for introducing some means of codifying when police inspections should take place. Regardless of what other hon. Members have said, he rightly pointed out that the police should reasonably stop someone only when another offence has taken place. At Christmas or where places may be open late under the new licensing laws and there is a suspicion that large numbers of people are drinking and may be over the limit, the new clause would give the police powers to act. In those cases, the issue is very much about sending messages out to people about what is and what is not acceptable.

As the hon. Gentleman said, while we may have led the way in terms of the introduction of drink-drive laws, other countries have adopted more stringent laws and implement them more effectively. He has quoted figures showing a rise in the number of deaths. The Minister may say that some continental countries have a worse problem than we do; perhaps that is why they have tightened the law more than we have.

Dr. Ladyman: I would argue that they all do.

Paul Rowen: That may be the case. Nevertheless, when it can be shown that by lowering the limit, 65 lives and a couple of thousand injuries a year can be saved, that is not to be sniffed at. We are discussing the Road Safety Bill, and I believe that such a measure is
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a sensible and effective means of improving road safety. I commend the hon. Member for Stafford for tabling the new clauses.

Mr. Knight: I read recently of the case of an Estonian priest who was charged with driving while under the influence of drink. When he got to court he claimed that it was an act of God. He said that he had been obliged that day to take communion and, because it was a rule of the Church that wine had to be taken, wine was in his system. The report that I read did not reveal what the judgment of God was, but the court would have none of it, and he was convicted, in my view rightly.

The area is a difficult one, in which what is correct is not necessarily absolute. We must make a judgment as to where we should draw the line in framing a law that the majority of law-abiding people deem to be fair and therefore respect and obey it. On balance, I think that our present law is about right. The police have very wide powers. We have heard from the hon. Member for Stafford the grounds on which the police can stop a vehicle, but in reality that means that they can stop a vehicle for any reason, as is evidenced by the many breath tests that take place at Christmas time, which by all accounts are within the law. I am not convinced, therefore, that we need to take the step urged on us today, and my instinct is to vote to retain the status quo.

If I may, I should like to refer en passant back to clause 11, and say to the Minister that I gladly accept his offer to go out with a vehicle examiner.

Mr. Paterson: I want briefly to pick up on one of the important points raised by the hon. Member for Stafford. I congratulate him on his speech, which I listened to carefully.

We have to live with the world as it is, and that world is one where we have fewer police. I am not making a tiresome political point, but the number has gone down from 9,201 in 1996–97 to 7,103 in 2005. We have a limited number of traffic police. Much as one understands the hon. Gentleman’s argument, surely it is better to get everyone below 80 mg first and to allow the limited number of police to concentrate their efforts on those drinkers before going further. As the figures that he read out show, despite the enormous improvement over the past 20 years, drink-driving is still a problem.

Mr. Harris: Surely the number of available traffic officers is irrelevant to the argument, because the existing drink-drive limit is self-enforceable. A lower limit would be similarly self-enforceable, because it is not for the police to enforce the vast majority of judgments where drivers decide to take their car out. We do not obey the law because we will get caught otherwise; we obey it because it is the law. I am perhaps not making myself entirely clear. If the Committee and the Government decide to reduce the level to 50 mg, surely that would be a self-enforceable law that would not depend on the number of police officers on our roads.

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Mr. Paterson: That was a helpful intervention. To some extent I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the problem is with those on over 80 mg. More accidents, misjudgments and mistakes will occur among those over 80 mg than among those between 50 mg and 80 mg.

My contention is that we have come a long way. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire made an important point: we must do this by consent. That goes back to the point that I made several times on Tuesday: we cannot coerce 34 million drivers. There has been a major change during the past 20 years in public perception. The vast majority of drivers recognise the 80 mg limit and try to stay within it. The problem is with those who are over 80 mg, who are likely to make more dangerous misjudgments. Therefore, they are the people whom the limited number of police should concentrate on. That is the simple point that I want to make.

The other important point is that we have the confidence of the driving public on this matter. There has been a major cultural change, and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire made an important point in that regard. To go lower at this stage might create a barrier between the enforcers and the enforced—the barrier that we want to get away from. We want collaboration. That goes back to Peel’s concept of policing, which I mentioned on Tuesday. The status quo may not be ideal, but it is about right, and the efforts that we make should bear down on those who are over 80 mg.

Mr. Harris: I rise again to make a genuine inquiry. Is the hon. Gentleman aware—if he is not, my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford may be—of any opinion poll evidence showing whether there is public support for a change in the legal limit? Once again, the Committee seems to have been relying heavily on anecdotal evidence, but from my own such experience, I know of very few people who would object to a reduction from 80 mg to 50 mg. If the opinion polls say otherwise, I should be happy to accept that. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of any empirical evidence of that kind?

Mr. Paterson: I have no opinion poll evidence either way. I believe that the police should concentrate on those over 80 mg. If we looked at 50 mg to 80 mg, that would be a knock to our collaboration with the majority of the public and to their confidence, and it would give the police an enormous number of possible people to chase. I believe that we should concentrate on those on over 80 mg first. Let us get the 80 mg level firmly respected—we will discuss in a minute how that might be done—and then look further.

Dr. Ladyman: My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford argued his case well, and it is not without merit. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire put his finger on it: this is not a black-and-white issue. It is a matter of judgment in which we have to balance many different factors before reaching our opinion. I shall state my case. I will probably not convince my hon. Friend, so while I am making my comments, my
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hon. Friend the Government Whip will gently twist his arm up his back. Nevertheless, I will put the case to the best of my ability, and I accept that it is a complex one.

My hon. Friend talked about the number of people whose lives are ended as a result of drink and about the rise in such deaths over recent years. I agree with him entirely: it poses a question, and it is a worrying trend. It is not a simple one, however. It is not simply that the figures have suddenly started to shoot through the roof; the figures are conflicting.

2.15 pm

In 1979 there were 1,640 fatalities as a result of people having illegal alcohol levels and 8,300 serious casualties. In 2004 there were 590 fatalities and 2,350 serious casualties. By any measure that is a massive reduction, and clearly a trend that we want to continue. As my hon. Friend suggested, it is true that, over the past few years, the figures have begun to go up. If we concentrate for a moment on fatalities, in 2001 there were 530. The figure went up to 550 in 2002, 580 in 2003 and 590 in 2004. The low point was in 1998–99, when there were 460 fatalities. On the face of it, that is clearly a worrying trend, but it is not necessarily indicative of a change in society’s attitudes. If we consider the number of serious casualties over that same period—we might argue that in many cases the difference between someone dying in a road accident and being seriously injured is more a matter of good fortune than judgment—we see that there were 2,690 in 2001. The figure rose to 2,790 in 2002, but it has steadily been going down since. It was 2,590 in 2003, and 2,350 in 2004.

Exactly the same pattern is mirrored in the figures for slight injuries involving people with illegal blood alcohol levels. In other words, the number of accidents involving alcohol that cause casualties is going down, while the number of fatalities is going up. It is not reasonable to argue that society’s attitude to drink-driving is changing in some malevolent way, and that therefore we need to change the blood alcohol limit to send a different message to society.

The figures for fatalities or serious injuries related to illegal levels of blood alcohol since 1979 appear not to be a gradual progression. I managed to do some thermodynamic calculations for hon. Members on the back of an envelope the other day, but, as my mental acuity does not extend to statistical significance calculations on the back of an envelope, I cannot be definitive about this, but it seems that progress is made by steps. For a few years, the serious casualty figures hovered around 8,000 or 7,900. Suddenly there was a drop to 7,300 between 1980 and 1981. The figure went back to 8,000 but then steadied around 6,800 for a few years. There were step changes to about 5,000 some time in the middle of the 1980s, to 3,000 in the early 1990s and to about 2,500 in the late 1990s, where it has hovered ever since. In other words, it is not a gradual move from high to low and getting better every year. The changes seem to go in steps. We have to ask why that is, what is changing, what creates the steps and why there is the complexity of serious injuries decreasing while deaths are increasing.

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Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): It is more common today for drivers to drive under the influence of more than one drug. As poly-drug use is on the increase, I suggest to the Minister that those who drive under the influence of alcohol are more likely also to be driving under the influence of another drug, which could account for the fact that deaths are increasing. It seems remarkable that we are arguing today about the limits for one drug but do not discuss the limits of any other drug, whether licit or illicit, that might affect a person’s driving.

Dr. Ladyman: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I have no doubt that people are using multiple drugs these days. I made the point in the Transport Committee the other day that young people in particular may designate a driver who abstains from alcohol but sits and smokes a joint while everybody is drinking alcohol, and then drives everyone home. Many young people do not realise the effects of illegal substances.

Indeed, the point was made to me that people do not realise the effects of legal substances that they may use. I entirely concur. Prescription drugs carry messages these days such as, “This compound may make you drowsy. Do not drive, if affected.” However, half the time people do not know whether they are affected. One of the things that was found out about alcohol in the early days was that many people did not believe that they were affected by it. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) has helped me to make is that we are not talking about a simple issue. We must examine what has created the step changes over the years. Was it a change in the Government’s policy? Was it a change in police enforcement? Was it a change in advertising? Was it a change in educational efforts made over the years by successive Governments? What is happening at the moment? We have a strange increase in deaths while the number of serious injuries is decreasing.

I concur entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford that the figures are asking us questions that we need to answer. We must look with great care at what is happening. We might need to undertake further road-side surveys. We might need to carry out more research. We need to look at our advertising and, in particular, the way in which we enforce the existing laws.

A future Government might want to propose a change to the blood alcohol level on the basis of the research, but we are not yet in a position to do so. Some 590 people were killed in accidents involving people who were over the 80 mg level, but it seems that there were only 60 fatalities involving those who had alcohol levels of between 50 mg and 80 mg, so where should we be putting our resources? It is obvious that I should be encouraging the police to enforce the law at 80 mg and above, and to do so more stringently than they are at present before I ask them to disburse resources on people driving with between 50 mg and 80 mg of alcohol.

I said clearly at the Transport Committee, as I did on Second Reading, that I can envisage a situation in which a future Government will want to implement my
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hon. Friend’s amendments. Friend. We are just not at that point now. The correct thing to do is to enforce measures at the 80 mg level and get that right first.

Mr. Kidney: I want to correct a slight inaccuracy in what my hon. Friend said about the proportion of the 590 deaths who were near the present level of 80 mg. Professor Allsop said that another 65 lives might be saved if the limit were lowered, but that is because of his conservative estimates of the numbers who would transfer to a lower level, but who were already above. Some deaths occur at possibly twice that level. I do not disagree that the majority of the deaths occur when people are miles over the limit, but the number of those who were near the legal limit is certainly many more than the 65.

Dr. Ladyman: I guess that we can argue about the figures. I shall certainly reconsider the research to see whether it influences my opinion. I think that my hon. Friend agrees that the majority of deaths have occurred when people were above the current legal limit. While we are asking ourselves such difficult questions, it is appropriate to ask the police to target their resources on better enforcement measures at that limit. While we are doing that, we must consider the long-term trends and the way in which we go from plateau to plateau, and ask ourselves what causes that.

In particular, I am determined to get to the root of why we might be seeing a steady increase in deaths, while the number of serious injuries is going down. Are we dealing with a hard-core drink-driver who does not care about whether the amount is 50 mg or 80 mg? He has had a skinful and drives anyway; he drives so fast and is so out of control that he is more likely to be killed in the accident. Perhaps that has something to do with it. We need answers to such questions before we take the step of going to a 50 mg limit. As the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire said, we must not break the bond that has been established with the driver. The driver must see the fairness and reasonableness of our action to respect it.

On Tuesday, I said that, if people do not respect the law on speeding, they will not obey it and that that makes it much more difficult to enforce. By trying to build a mutual respect and by getting drivers to respect the fact that we are taking fair and proportionate decisions, we get them to obey the law more. That is a better way forward. Were we to reduce the 80 mg limit to 50 mg without solid evidence and without being able to make the case to the driving public and explain why it would benefit them, we would be in danger of breaking the bond that we are trying to establish.

In encouraging my hon. Friend to withdraw his motion, I repeat that I can see the merit of his argument. I can see a situation in which a future Government may want to implement the provisions of the new clause, but I do not think that it would be right to do so now. I also ask him to withdraw his other new clause, on the powers to test, because we have consulted ACPO and others and they are satisfied with the powers that they have at the moment. They do not see any need for further powers.

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Rather than test your patience when we come to clause stand part, Mrs. Anderson, I will say now that clause 13 is a change intended to fix an oversight in the law, and is relatively straightforward. I hope that members of the Committee will support it.

Mr. Kidney: The good news for my hon. Friend is that this is the stand part debate, and I therefore do not need to withdraw the motions for my new clauses. They can however be discussed again on Report if they are selected by Mr. Speaker. We will see what happens if so.

My hon. Friend was right to predict that I would not agree with him, but I think that he is an excellent Minister. He is doing a really good job and he is quite right to say that this is a complex issue. I hope that he would give me credit for having the bigger picture in mind and for suggesting a balanced range of measures, even though I have focused on new clause 1 in this debate. While I am on my feet and getting all these brownie points, I should say that the poor Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy), should be defended from the Minister’s suggestion that he had my arm twisted behind my back. I have had nothing but the greatest courtesy from him throughout these proceedings.

I shall respond briefly to some of the points made in the debate. The hon. Member for Wimbledon asked me where the calculation of increasing risk comes from. The House of Commons research paper is a wonderful starting point. On page 20 it reminds us that studies have been going on since the 1960s. Today, the seminal calculation that everybody cites is from the Transport Research Laboratory’s research in 1997, written by a man named Maycock. There is also an excellent statement of drink and drugs policy called “Driving for Work: Drink and Drugs” on ROSPA’s website. It takes readers through the risks and dangers of drinking and driving. It is common sense that when we have had alcohol our judgment is impaired and our reactions are slower.

The hon. Member for Wimbledon also said that there was some weakness in the drafting of new clause 2. In a sense, that is irrelevant. If we think it is a good issue, we will get the wording right with all the officials at our disposal. The issue is whether the police need the extra, targeted power laid out in the new clause. Considering the situation that we are in and the resources that we have, as the hon. Member for North Shropshire pointed out, giving the police more power to use their existing resources more effectively would be a better way to get the most out of our policing. That is why I tabled the new clause. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rochdale for his support. I made the same argument in Committee on the previous Road Safety Bill and the Liberal Democrats were equally supportive then.

The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire spoke about the important issue of public acceptance, drawing the line at the right place and being fair. That is why I took so long to talk about the assumption in my youth that two pints of beer was the right amount
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to remain under the limit, and about how that view has been eroded by developments in the industry. The public’s attitude to the Licensing Act 2003 and increased discussion on binge drinking show that there is an appetite for Government to do something. We could establish a new comfortable assumption that if someone has one drink, they will definitely be under the limit of 50 mg, but if they have more than one, they will be taking a risk. That could be a useful enforcement tool and might keep more people safe.

2.30 pm

I was asked whether there was any empirical evidence. The RAC Foundation is not in favour of my new clause, but its opinion polls on the public’s attitude to lowering the limit show that 60 per cent. of motorists support a limit of 50 mg. Therefore, I might make the argument to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire that there is public appetite for changing the limit. He said that given that the police manage to do a lot of testing at Christmas, why do they need extra powers? I remind him that more than 9,000 of the tests carried out at Christmas 2005 were positive. Let us ask ourselves what is happening on the roads when the police are not carrying out high-profile testing. Mini Christmas campaigns should take place throughout the year, and the extra powers in new clause 2 would enable the police to facilitate that.

What motivates me to continue arguing, even though the Minister has told me to stop and Conservative Front Benchers have told me that they will not support my proposal? I feel an urgency and a determination about all those unnecessary deaths on the roads. Tomorrow it could be somebody I know; it could be a member of my family. I do not want to think that I did not do everything possible to reduce the death toll on our roads. New clause 2 offers a safe way to reduce that toll.

If I cannot persuade the Minister to change the Government’s policy, will he have a word with the Whip to arrange a free vote on Report?

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 14

Alcohol ignition interlocks

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Paterson: Perhaps the name of the hon. Member for Stafford was noted in the Whip’s book—he will recover.

We are not convinced by the proposal for alcohol ignition interlocks. A recent report from the European Transport Safety Council notes that alco-locks have been used in rehabilitation programmes for drink-driving offenders in the USA, Australia and Canada. It claims:

    “experiences in the USA and Canada have shown that the interlocks can lead to a 40 to 95 per cent. reduction in the rate of drink-driving repeat offences”.

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It continues:

    “Existing studies clearly indicate however that this reduction in recidivism is limited to the period of alcolock installation in the car, or at best for a limited time thereafter”.

European trials have been limited. In Sweden, 900 drink-driving offenders have been on an alcohol interlock programme, but about a third of them dropped out because the programme was strict. Finland is only just about to introduce an alcohol interlock programme lasting one year for all drink-driving offenders, and France has begun a pilot project, with only 40 participants, in Annecy. The UK is cited in the report as also taking part.

The European Transport Safety Council refers to P. R. Marques, who has written an in-depth report for the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Calveston, Maryland. The report states:

    “20 years beyond their initial field trials in several California counties, interlock devices and programs have reached a high level of maturity”.


    “Researchers will need to continue to evaluate interlock effectiveness evidence to determine if interlock programs can reduce recidivism systemwide, not just in small programs, and no one has yet documented and overall crash reduction due to interlocks although alcohol-related crashes are almost certainly reduced. Much more needs to be done to enhance the impact of interlock programmes, through integration and other counter-measure programmes, most notably alcohol treatment and rehabilitation . . . An interlock programme requires some level of administrative control and monitoring”

and needs to

    “make good use of the dual functions of control and monitoring.”

Although it admits that this is a problem in all societies, it thinks that rehabilitation and other measures are more important.

That finding is confirmed by a survey conducted on behalf of the European Union by the Belgian Institute for Road Safety, which had a project running from December 2003 to December 2005 that came up in some cases with no answers. On relevance—how the project objective is linked to the programme objective—the answer is:

    “This can however not be assessed yet.”

On effectiveness, and whether the project has reached its objective, it says:

    “No project results were available for the evaluation.”

There is a blank, rather than an answer to the question about whether the results support the programme objectives. On utility, the answer to whether the project includes a baseline and a potential impact assessment is a blank, and for sustainability—whether the project results will last after the project has been completed—there is another blank.

These are early days. The system has been extensively used in the States, where the evidence is that these gadgets, or machines, work only as long as they are in place. It would, in some ways, be irresponsible to install them, because they have not reduced the rate of recidivism and offenders seem to go back to their bad ways afterwards.

That is confirmed by the final report that I should like to call in aid—which goes right across the board, on alcohol as a problem with motoring—by Dr. James Nichols of the National Highway Traffic Safety
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Administration and H. Lawrence Ross of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at the university of New Mexico. Their report touches on our earlier debate; they

    “feel that swift and sure license actions provide the greatest potential on both counts”

on reducing drink-driving and alcohol-related crashes. Their

    “model system would provide for mandatory minimum fines . . . and mandatory minimum hard license suspensions of no less than 90 days, followed by a probationary or restricted license period”,

after which, there would be

    “alcohol education, assessment, and referral programs.”

They say:

    “To make license actions more effective, greater emphasis would be placed on keeping suspended and revoked drivers from driving during their license withdrawal period.”

The conclusion is that taking licences away for longer periods has a more beneficial impact.

It seems to me, having rattled through some research papers, that work on this measure is a bit premature. We are all in favour of and open to new ideas, but I think that this system should be kept at the trial stage in limited numbers and not be written into the Bill as a major part of the Government’s alcohol programme. I particularly do not like the idea of

    “a lesser period of disqualification (“the reduced period”)”,

in clause 14(3), which may be given if an offender is prepared to take on one of these gadgets. It appears that the effect lasts only as long as the gadget is in the car and, from the evidence that I have quoted showing that people sadly revert afterwards, taking people’s licences away seems to have a bigger impact. Actually, the biggest shock is a brief period of imprisonment.

All credit must go to the Government for looking at new ideas, but this system is in the very early stages in Europe and we should see how other countries get on. By all means let us have some small trials in this country, but I do not think that it is appropriate to build this initiative into the Bill as it stands.

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