As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you know, this very important, wide-ranging Bill deserves the highest level of scrutiny. We were promised a day for Report and Third Reading, but now, because of the two statements, important though they were, we are faced with considerably less time in which to debate a whole raft of new clauses and amendments. As the House has today returned reinvigorated and refreshed from the summer recess, I wondered whether you have heard from those on the Treasury Bench that they intend to make provision to allow the debate to continue until midnight.
I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s concern about the timing of today’s debate, and about the time that we have already taken up, on which he may have heard my earlier comments. We cannot now go over the time allowed, for that has already been decided by the House. I can only suggest to the House that any time devoted to debating this point further would be better spent on the business before us.
New Clause 6
Immediate suspension and revocation of drivers’ licences
‘(1) Part 2 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 (c. 57) (hackney carriages and private hire vehicles in England and Wales outside London) is amended as follows.
(2) In section 61 (suspension and revocation of drivers’ licences), after subsection (2) insert—
“(2A) Subject to subsection (2B) of this section, a suspension or revocation of the licence of a driver under this section takes effect at the end of the period of 21 days beginning with the day on which notice is given to the driver under subsection (2)(a) of this section.
(2B) If it appears that the interests of public safety require the suspension or revocation of the licence to have immediate effect, and the notice given to the driver under subsection (2)(a) of this section includes a statement that that is so and an explanation why, the suspension or revocation takes effect when the notice is given to the driver.”
(3) In subsection (3) of that section, after “under” insert “subsection (1) of”.
(4) In section 77 (appeals), after subsection (2) insert—
“(3) Subsection (2) of this section does not apply in relation to a decision under subsection (1) of section 61 of this Act which has immediate effect in accordance with subsection (2B) of that section.”.’.—[Dr. Ladyman.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government new clause 7—Abolition of “contract exemption”.
Government motion that clause 53 be transferred to the end of line 23 on page 56. Government amendments Nos. 1 to 3.
I hope that it is not impertinent of me to say thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the ruling that you have just given.
New clauses 6 and 7 deal with taxis and private hire vehicles, sometimes known as minicabs. Both clauses have the same objective: to make travel safer for people who use those modes of transport. Against the background of the Bichard report and the legislation that we have brought forward in that regard, we have considered carefully whether we should use the opportunity presented by the Road Safety Bill to deal with any urgent safety concerns relating to taxi and PHV legislation. The result is these new clauses to deal with two worrying aspects of the legislation that we identified.
New clause 6 addresses our concern about a taxi or PHV driver’s right to continue working while appealing against a decision to suspend or revoke his licence, even if he is considered to represent an immediate threat to public safety. The new clause gives local licensing authorities in England and Wales, outside London, a new power which will enable them to suspend or revoke a taxi or PHV driver’s licence with immediate effect on safety grounds. That power has been available to the licensing authority in London—Transport for London—for a number of years.
Drivers’ automatic right to continue working pending appeal has been a source of justified concern to many taxi and PHV licensing authorities. They want to use their licensing powers to ensure that passengers are safe using local taxi and PHV services. They play a tremendously important role in protecting residents and visitors who use taxis and PHVs in their areas. The new clause will enable them to do so even more thoroughly in some circumstances—for example, when a driver has committed a serious offence or is suffering from a medical condition that makes it unsafe for him to continue working.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister so early in his speech. He will know that there is concern among private operators who provide special-needs transport because they are subject to enhanced Criminal Records Bureau checks, and many are locked into local authority contracts until 2010. Operators in my constituency want to know when the Minister intends the enhanced protection regulations to come into force, because owing to the local authority contracts they are already subject to the checks. I gather that there may be some room for manoeuvre over when the imposition will actually occur. If the Minister could provide any guidance, those operators would be very grateful.
I understand their concern. If the new clause is accepted today, there will be a consultation with all stakeholders following Royal Assent. One of the issues that we will consider during the consultation is the time at which the changes will come into force. However, I emphasise to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that a key principle on which we shall have to decide when making a decision is the safety of the public. I am sure that he and his constituents would agree with that. There may therefore be a conflict between the interest of protecting the public and the interests of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who have existing contracts. I hope that we shall find a way of resolving that conflict, but if there is no way of doing so, we shall have to come down on the side of public safety. I hope that despite that caveat, and given the promise of a thorough consultation involving all stakeholders, the hon. Gentleman will be reassured that we will listen to his constituents’ concerns.
New clause 7 deals with our concern about what is commonly known as the contract exemption: the provision that exempts drivers, vehicles and operators outside London from licensing if the vehicles are hired only under contracts lasting seven days or more. On Second Reading and on other occasions, the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) expressed concern about what will now be clause 53, which tightens the definition of a private hire vehicle in London and will bring vehicles dedicated to contract work within the London PHV licensing regime.
One of the hon. Gentleman’s points was that the clause would be inconsistent with retention of the contract exemption outside London. In Committee I promised to consider the matter, while warning the hon. Gentleman that those who open a can of worms must expect what they are likely to find in it. Having considered, I reached a conclusion—also reached by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron)—that was not the one for which the hon. Gentleman had hoped. Our conclusion was that public safety, and indeed consistency, required not that we did not make the provision in London, but that we extended it to the rest of the country and ensured that contract private hire work was licensed both in London and elsewhere. That is why we tabled the new clause.
Having sat in Committee, I appreciate how much work had been done on amendments in the meantime. Most organisations, certainly the Scottish Campaign against Irresponsible Drivers, are delighted at the work that has already been done, but one matter has not been taken into account in any of the amendments or new clauses. Will you comment on the fact that—[Interruption.] Will my hon. Friend comment on—
Order. I was about to correct the hon. Lady, but she has now corrected herself.
I will take up those issues as we discuss the various amendments before us. There is a difference between causing death and causing serious injury, and I believe that the provisions dealing with them should be different. I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, which she has put to me before and, if she will accept it, I will deal with them in greater detail at a more appropriate place in our debate.
To continue my discussion of new clause 7, there are no compelling reasons why private hire services provided under long-term contracts should be outside the arrangements for ensuring public safety, which are considered to be essential for other private hire work. The need to ensure public safety remains the same, regardless of whether the hiring is a one-off or part of a long-term contract. For a passenger possibly at risk, the method of hiring is not relevant; what is important is that there is no doubt that all the necessary checks and procedures have been comprehensively and effectively carried out. There are good grounds for removing the contract exemption in terms of ensuring a level playing field in the industry. Unlicensed contractors have a commercial advantage over their licensed counterparts, which cannot be justified.
I believe that both new clauses are strongly supported by those who have responsibility for taxi and PHV licensing.
I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene so early. Given that we are so keen on the safety of drivers and that we are introducing so many sensible amendments, will he explain why there is no discussion of pedicabs, which are highly dangerous, yet seem to be of no concern to anyone? It is quite possible, if one is bored with someone, to put them in a pedicab.
It would be wrong for me to debate Mr. Speaker’s selection of amendments. I know that some hon. Members tabled amendments on pedicabs, but they have not been selected. However, I know that Transport for London intends to bring pedicabs within a regulatory regime. In my view, the proposed arrangements will be adequate to cover the issue. My hon. Friend may have a different view, however, as she does on so many issues that we discuss.
As I was saying, both new clauses are strongly supported by those with responsibility for taxi and PHV licensing and have been welcomed by many in the industry. They are necessary to safeguard the public and I commend them to the House.
We agree with the Government on one of the new clauses, but probably not on the other. New clause 6 introduces new provisions into the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976. That Act currently allows a local authority or other licensing power or body to exercise the power to revoke, suspend or refuse a licence where the subject is convicted of specific offences or for “any other reasonable cause” that the authority has “grounds” for believing. If I understand the intention behind the new clause, it will allow a local authority or licensing body to revoke or suspend the licence of taxi driver or minicab with immediate effect where it is a “matter of public safety”, or on other grounds after 21 days where notice has been served on the driver.
Our question, on which I seek clarification, is this; the Government currently have powers under the 1976 Act to revoke a licence for “any other reasonable cause” and for a “specific conviction.” The proposed public safety grounds represent a power that is additional to the Act and it is unclear how this will work in practice.
I assume that a conviction for a serious driving offence would be covered under the specific conviction provision. I assume that a conviction for an assault such as actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm against another road user, a pedestrian or a passenger would again be covered under the specific conviction provision. I assume that driving a vehicle without a valid MOT or in an unroadworthy condition as designated by the police or by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency would be covered under the reasonable cause provision. I assume that a deterioration in a given medical condition would be covered by that provision as well.
If the Minister is willing to tell me that my assumptions are incorrect, I will see the need for the new clause. If so, perhaps he will give me three specific examples where public safety needs arise beyond those already dealt with by the 1976 Act. The Minister made much in Committee about powers that were not being enforced at present, and said that we should not introduce more new powers that were unlikely to be enforced. We need clarity from the Government as to exactly how the new clause will work.
There was substantial discussion in Committee of new clause 7 and the Minister has done what he warned us he would do; he has closed what he described as the can of worms. However, as new clause 7 puts into effect for the rest of the country what clause 53 does for London, is it necessary? The 1988 Act is working perfectly well within London. There are vast numbers of contractors supplying private hire services to councils on a contract basis. They are Criminal Records Bureau-checked and their vehicles are checked and comply with safety provisions, but they are not available to the public. There seems to be no reason for the Government to intervene in an Act that is working well. This seems to be another piece of unnecessary legislation.
The hon. Gentleman is being slightly disingenuous. Were we here today debating an abuse of a vulnerable person by someone driving a private hire vehicle who had not been appropriately checked and who had been allowed to drive because of the contract exemption, I suspect that his argument would be that I should resign my position because I had not taken the opportunity of the Road Safety Bill to close that loophole.
Clearly there are opportunities within the process that someone must go through to have the right to drive a vehicle under the contract exemption that might allow someone who had not been appropriately checked to drive. We had this debate on Second Reading, when the hon. Member for Orpington said that the need for checks would put his constituent, who had a PHV company that was taking advantage of the contract exemption, at a competitive disadvantage, because he would now have to pay for his drivers to be checked. Clearly there is a loophole. I agreed in Committee to look at the matter and to decide whether, in the interests of consistency, we should close the loophole not only in London, as Transport for London had requested, but in the rest of the country. We took the view that we should close it in the rest of the country.
The hon. Gentleman asked me to cite three examples, but I cannot do so. I hope that nobody will ever be in a position to do so, because we have closed the loophole. Serious questions would certainly be asked if we did not do so. Will the change be a major regulatory burden on the industry? No, it will not. I hope that anybody who has used the contract exemption in the past has checked their drivers and gone through the whole process. The fact that they will now have to do so by law is neither here nor there. It should be no additional burden if they have followed best practice in the past. If they have not been doing so, there will be an additional burden, but I argue that it is an appropriate burden for them to carry.
The Minister is carefully—but not helpfully—intertwining the two clauses. Under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 a taxi or minicab driver can be suspended for being convicted of a specific offence or for any other reasonable cause decided by the licensing authority. I would like the Minister to tell us what public safety requires beyond “any other reasonable cause”. As yet, he has not told us.
The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the purpose of the new clause and I accept full responsibility for not having explained it. There will be no new powers to suspend or revoke a licence. One would still have to satisfy the grounds for a suspension or revocation of a driver’s licence as under the present legislation. The difference is that at the moment if the individual whose licence is suspended appeals against that suspension, they can continue to drive people around while they await the hearing of the appeal. If someone is accused of a serious offence—as serious as rape or some other sexual offence—it would be horrendous if they were allowed to continue to drive a private hire vehicle while waiting for the appeal against suspension to be heard. Under the new clause, when the licensing authority takes the view that the offence is serious, it will be able to suspend the licence.
The argument that was put to us by some taxi drivers was that it might leave them open to false allegations and they might lose their livelihood over a trivial allegation while awaiting the hearing of appeal against suspension. However, in the experience of the use of the power in London, where it has been in place for some time, it has not been abused. Drivers have had their licences suspended pending appeal only in cases in which a serious allegation has been made against them. Given the seriousness of the offences that might be involved, I think that the new clause is a proportionate response to the situation. No driver should lose their livelihood lightly even for a short time, but when someone is accused of an offence of sufficient seriousness to justify the revocation or suspension of their licence, it is appropriate that they should not continue to drive pending an appeal.
I hope that I have at least partially reassured the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and other hon. Members, and that the new clauses will be added to the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 7
Abolition of “contract exemption”
‘In section 75(1) of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 (c. 57) (hackney carriages and private hire vehicles in England and Wales outside London: savings), omit paragraph (b) (vehicles used only for carrying passengers for hire or reward under contract for hire for not less than 7 day period).’.—[Dr. Ladyman.]
Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 28
Delegation of power to make level crossing orders
‘(1) In paragraph 7 of Schedule 3 to the Railways Act 2005 (c. 14) (agreements by Secretary of State and Office of Rail Regulation for that Office to carry out on his behalf functions other than powers to make instruments of legislative character), after sub-paragraph (3) insert—
“(4) Sub-paragraph (3)(b) does not prevent the Secretary of State and the Office of Rail Regulation from entering into an agreement for that Office to carry out on his behalf the function of making orders under section 1 of the Level Crossings Act 1983.”
(2) Subsection (2) of section 13 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (c. 37) (agreements by Health and Safety Commission with Minister to perform functions on his behalf not to be taken to authorise performance of powers to make instruments of legislative character) is not to be taken to have prevented the performance by the Health and Safety Executive (on behalf of the Health and Safety Commission), in reliance on an agreement under subsection (1)(b) of that section, of the function of making orders under section 1 of the Level Crossings Act 1983 (c. 16).’.—[Dr. Ladyman.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 37—Increase of penalties for failure to comply with traffic lights at level crossings—
‘(1) A person guilty of an offence under section 36(1) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (c. 52) (drivers to comply with traffic signs) consisting of a failure to comply with a traffic sign placed at or near a level crossing indicating that vehicular traffic is not to proceed over the level crossing shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or to both and shall have his licence endorsed with six penalty points.
(2) This section applies in relation to offences committed after the date on which this Act comes into force.’.
New clause 38—Increase of penalties for careless or inconsiderate driving causing damage to a railway or other bridge over a road—
‘(1) If a person causes damage to a railway or other bridge over a road by driving a motor vehicle on a road or other public place without due care and attention, or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the road or place, he is guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or to both and shall have his licence endorsed with not less than 6 penalty points.
(2) This section applies in relation to offences committed after the date on which this Act comes into force.’.
Government motion that clause 50 be transferred to the end of line 23 on page 56.
Government amendments Nos. 17 to 19.
I urge the House to agree the amendments, which seek to confirm that the making of level crossing orders can be delegated to the rail safety regulator. First, I apologise to the House for the short notice given of the amendments, and for our failure to table them earlier, but I hope that it will accept the explanation.
Level crossing orders set out the protective measures that are to be provided at each level crossing. “Protective measures” are the types of signs, barriers and lights needed to ensure that the crossing has the most appropriate measures for safe operation by both rail and road users. The general process has been that, after consultation with the local authority, the level crossing operator—Network Rail in most cases—applies to the Secretary of State for an order setting out the measures that it wants at the site. The proposals are considered by Her Majesty’s railway inspectorate and the order is made by HMRI on behalf of the Secretary of State. That procedure continued after 1990, when HMRI transferred from the Department of Transport to the Health and Safety Executive.
With the transfer of HMRI from the Health and Safety Executive to the Office of Rail Regulation earlier this year, we intended that HMRI would continue to make level crossing orders on behalf of the Secretary of State, but I am afraid that doubt has been cast on whether the wording of the Railways Act 2005 allows that. In turn, that has cast doubt on whether the delegation to the HSE in 1990 was sufficiently robust. We therefore seek to amend the 2005 Act to put beyond doubt the fact that the making of level crossing orders can be delegated, and to make it clear that orders made on behalf of the Secretary of State by HMRI inspectors of the HSE are valid. If approved, the amendment will confirm that the legal position is what everyone always thought it was, as it has worked well for level crossing safety.
Before the Minister finishes his mea culpa—and may I say that it gives one or two of us joy to see the Department caught out on something so important?—I should like to ask why the amendments introduced in another place on the related subject of bridge strikes, of which there are nearly 2,000 a year, seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth with the speed of light. Why is it so important to deal with level crossing safety, but not bridge strikes, which affect all sorts of people?
For the simple reason that, in my view, the legislation on bridge strikes deals perfectly adequately with anybody who causes a bridge strike. The amendments that were sought at an earlier stage would have provided additional powers that are unnecessary. I take issue with my hon. Friend’s belief that the Department has been caught out. I remind her that it is not the Department under this Government that was caught out, but the Department under the auspices of the previous Government, back in 1990. If I may say so, we are fixing what is possibly the last bungle of rail privatisation—or at least the last one that we know about; it is always possible that others may appear in the near future.
We have introduced the amendments to make the legal position what everyone thought it was. I do not think that the technical loophole has been exploited to date, but we want to take the opportunity to make the law on level crossings clear and robust, and new clause 28 will help us to achieve that. I do not think that it is controversial, so I hope that the House will support it. I will comment on the other new clauses later if anyone wishes to raise them in debate.
I shall certainly apologise for the failure of Members on the Treasury Bench to vote with us on these matters in Committee.
During the passage of the Bill in the other place six new clauses were added to deal with safety at level crossings. The Government stated at the time that they would remove them. In Committee, my hon. Friends and I aired and discussed those clauses and amendments, which were designed to protect the public, punish drivers who fail to obey signals at level crossings and who fail to obey bridge guidelines. To their shame, the Government voted against each of those sensible amendments to aid road safety.
The Minister stated that the Government would make new proposals to improve safety at level crossings by clarifying the powers of the relevant authorities, yet today we have before us a new clause whose intent is merely to amend paragraph 7 of schedule 3 to the Railways Act 2005, so that the Office of Rail Regulation can make regulations. Provisions under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 allow the Health and Safety Commission to do the same thing.
That is all that the Government propose to do, and it is a huge disappointment to those of us who have spoken to Network Rail and to the operators. The Government cannot be aware of what Network Rail said about the seriousness of the offences being committed—of drivers pulling out and overtaking queues, zig-zagging around barriers or pulling out on to the line and reversing to avoid trains and vehicles. They cannot be aware of the seriousness of the impact of those offences and of the consequences for human life when a train collides with a car due to a failure to stop at red warning lights. The Minister seems to be saying—as he seemed to say in Committee—that red lights at a level crossing are exactly the same as those elsewhere. They are not. A driver who skips a red light at an ordinary road junction will not hit or derail a train. It should not need pointing out that a collision on a level crossing between a car and an express train travelling at speeds of up to 125 mph is likely to cause the death not only of the driver but of scores of railway passengers.
The new clause is a monumental lost opportunity. The Government had the option to write into the Bill sensible measures that would have had an enormous impact on road safety. Current fines and penalties for offenders at level crossings—often serial offenders—are insufficient. Those offences are at least as serious as drink-driving, and sentencing ought to reflect that. Magistrates could have had powers to impose substantial custodial sentences and endorsement penalties on persistent offenders. The matter should be on the face of the Bill. New clause 28 will not affect the problem and the Minister stands charged with failure to fulfil what he undertook to do in Committee.
We are also dealing with new clauses 37 and 38. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I am grateful to Lib Dem Members for proposing provisions that are so close in form and substance to those we tabled in another place and which we aired in Committee. If the Lib Dems had been writing a novel they might have been guilty of plagiarism, so some of them might want to join us and support the real thing rather than follow a pale imitation.
We applaud new clauses 37 and 38 and the flexibility that would allow magistrates to pass custodial sentences. Our original amendments proposed slightly higher custodial sentences and endorsement penalties. None the less, we noted the Liberal Democrats’ support in Committee and if they are minded to test their new clauses tonight I shall ask my hon. Friends in the official Opposition to support them.
In relation to the points made by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), it is indeed my intention to test the opinion of the House on new clause 37.
Before I address new clauses 37 and 38, I want to say a word or two about the Government’s proposals. Clearly, they are not the new clauses that we were promised earlier in the deliberations on the Bill, and they do not strike at the fundamental problem—the lack of force behind the current offences. As the hon. Member for Wimbledon says, it is quite improper to suggest that running a red light at a level crossing is the same in its consequences or seriousness as doing so on a road.
I, too, have seen the videos produced by Network Rail. Some of what is recorded is, frankly, chilling. The way in which some drivers are prepared to take risks at level crossings is exceptionally disturbing. This debate is partly about the message that we are sending, and I fear that the message being sent by the Government does not attach sufficient seriousness to the offences as they occur daily at level crossings.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that an amendment is made more important by the fact that some parts of our rail network are approaching saturation point? In many cases the time between the barriers opening and closing again can be as little as one minute, which encourages some local people, who get used to the situation, to flout the law and cause accidents, which are, sadly, increasing.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is doubtless capable of remedy by operational procedures put in place by Network Rail rather than necessitating an impact on the Bill, but it is an indication of the seriousness with which the issue is regarded in constituencies throughout the country. I can say that as a somewhat impartial observer because I have not a single level crossing in my constituency. Indeed, I have not a yard of railway track in my constituency. I hope that the House will accept that in this matter I appear as an objective and independent-minded arbiter of the truth.
I have been listening very carefully, and I want to ask the hon. Gentleman a very simple question. Is he prepared to support the commitment of very large sums from the railway budget to an urgent investigation of alternatives to level crossings in the many thousands of places where they are found? Has he done any research on what that would cost, where it would be necessary and what alternatives could be looked at?
Every time I am asked about commitments of finances I hear groans from my colleagues in our Treasury team. No, we have not done such research, and, with respect to the hon. Lady, that is not what this new clause is about. It is about the level of penalties that are imposed under the present regime. I am certainly prepared to work with her and others in the industry and in pressure groups to see what alternatives might be available to us, how they might be implemented, what they would cost and what benefits would arise. To answer the hon. Lady’s question directly, no I have not done the sums, but if she has done them, doubtless she will favour us with them later in the debate.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about penalties. I think I understood him to say that if new clause 37 did not find favour with the Government he would seek to test the opinion of the House on it. May I refer him to the wording of line 5? I do not think that it would be very good legislation to refer to
“a fine not exceeding six months”.
Would he care to clarify?
That is line 6 in the copy that I have, but I fully accept that there is a typographical error. If the Government are prepared, or indeed if the House is prepared, to accept the new clause today, it would still be capable of straightforward remedy in the other place because its agreement on the new clause would have to be sought. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman raises a fatal objection, but I acknowledge that typographical error.
The Minister has explained what lies behind the introduction of the Government new clauses. I have one or two concerns that I wish to explore with him in relation to the retrospective nature of the new clauses.
The Minister wrote to me on 5 October, and I understand that copies of that letter and others have been placed in the Library. He stated that the Government were
“tabling the attached amendment to put beyond doubt that we can delegate the making of level crossing orders to ORR and to validate those orders made by HSE since 1990.”
What legal advice has he obtained on the matter? He will be aware that retrospective legislation is generally not encouraged and is generally considered to run contrary to the principles of natural justice. It is not without precedent, of course, but must be undertaken with due regard to proportionality. Is the Minister satisfied that the measure is proportionate in respect of its retrospective application? Will he place on the record when Ministers were first made aware that there was an issue, and that amendments had to be brought before us?
I place on record our acknowledgement of the fact that the Conservatives in the other place worked closely with my noble Friends on new clause 37, and I hope they will continue to do so.
On new clause 38—the bridge-bashing clause, so to speak—it would appear from the frequency of bridge- bashing incidents that the current law is not acting as a deterrent to the drivers responsible for them, notwithstanding the awareness campaign launched recently by Network Rail. It is defined as
“an incident in which a vehicle, its load or equipment collides with a bridge.”
In 2003-04 bridge bashing was the 15th worst cause of cumulative delay, which was no less than 335,442 minutes. I am grateful to Network Rail—or perhaps trainspotters.com—for these statistics. Two hundred and twelve bridges have been struck more than three times a year, and Cook street in Glasgow was struck 17 times last year. Whitehouse road, Swindon, and Southend lane, Lower Sydenham have each been struck 127 times since 1996. It is clear that this is a matter of significant difficulty and that it is causing substantial delay and expense to road users and to Network Rail. Current legislation is not adequate and accordingly we shall insist on our proposals in new clause 38.
The Minister kindly apologised to the House for tabling new clause 28 at rather short notice because a problem has recently been revealed. I hope he will reconsider the wording of the new clause, particularly subsection (2). Although the Bill originated in the other place, it will go back there because of amendments made in this place. The wording of subsection (2) is somewhat opaque. I do not see why there is effectively a double negative in line 4—
“not to be taken to have prevented”—
rather than “to be taken to have allowed” or some such wording. Such problems arise when measures are drafted at the last minute and come before the House with little notice. I understand the Minister’s position, but if the clause is agreed tonight, I urge him and his colleagues in the other place to re-examine the wording, which is not felicitous. As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) said, retrospective legislation is rare. If we are to have it—and I understand the reasons for it—we should be clear that the wording is right, and that it is not rushed and likely to create further problems.
On bridge bashing, may I ask the Minister whether any work has been done on systems to warn drivers of heavy goods vehicles and large goods vehicles of the possibility of such collisions? Such a system would save many thousands of pounds. It is not a complex situation, and if we could get the support of the House it would save changing the law. It would be a positive step that would be greatly welcomed by those who have to pay out large sums for bridges that are damaged every day.
I understand the concerns expressed and I take the issue of bridge strikes very seriously. Were we to require the fitting of equipment to vehicles, we would have to go through the European Union and seek the agreement of all members of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, which is responsible for type approval of new vehicles.
Should it be deemed valuable to install such equipment in vehicles, however, the process for securing approval would not require the legislative change that is being proposed. If there is a case to be made to the European Union—the cost savings to industry and the public infrastructure—we can pursue it with our colleagues in Europe. I am happy to ask my officials to look into the evidence, to see whether such a change to type approval would be necessary and, if so, how we pursue it.
Would it not be a lot cheaper and simpler to have something 100 m from a bridge that is of the same height and that would form a soft barrier across the road—it could be roughly the height of a heavy goods vehicle—so that vehicles would hit the soft barrier instead of the bridge?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, but, again, we would not need the proposed amendments to require that. I suspect that the same people who are asking us to agree the amendments would soon come back and introduce ten-minute Bills about street furniture and the clutter on our urban and rural roads if we were to do so. Nevertheless, we would not require the proposed measure to do what has been suggested.
As an HGV driver, I am all too aware of the problems of low bridges. I am sure that the Minister agrees that in most cases of an HGV or double-decker bus driver hitting a low bridge it is an inadvertent act. I am unsure, therefore, whether increasing the penalties would reduce the number of bridge strikes.
May I suggest that the Minister drive between Wakefield and Doncaster, where there is a low bridge? A beam across the road about half a mile before the bridge warns HGV drivers that they might strike the bridge if they continue. If the Government are serious about wanting to reduce bridge strikes, more such technology should be deployed in other parts of the country.
The hon. Gentleman makes a constructive suggestion, and we will certainly discuss it with Network Rail. Again, the amendments are not necessary for us to pursue that course of action. I had not appreciated that the hon. Gentleman is an HGV driver—I have not seen him floating around the Members’ Tea Room with a Yorkie in his hand—but he makes a sensible suggestion, which we shall pursue.
I am not persuaded of the case for special offences in respect of breaching red lights at railway crossings; nor am I persuaded of the case for special offences in respect of bridge strikes. There have, sadly, been many tragic instances on the roads where crossing a red light has had catastrophic consequences for motorists and pedestrians—as catastrophic as a collision on a railway crossing. I understand the point about far more people being involved in railway crossing violations, but jumping a red light anywhere could lead to somebody’s death, and if it is done in a wilfully it should be treated exactly the same way.
We have again heard the Minister say that he regards the two violations as the same offence. He surely must recognise that there is a major difference between jumping an ordinary red light and jumping a red light at a level crossing. The potential impact and other possibilities are significantly greater than they are for jumping a red light on a normal road, and the consequences thereof need to be accepted and the offence recognised. The point was made both in Committee and on the Floor of the House today that those who commit the offence are usually serial offenders who endanger their own lives and, more importantly, the lives of others at rural level crossings. The magistrates courts need the power to deal with them.
The point is that the courts do have the power to deal with them. Someone who recklessly endangers the lives of other people should be prosecuted not for jumping a red light but for dangerous driving. The police will prosecute if the evidence can be gathered. If people wilfully jump a red light on a level crossing, it might be dangerous driving, and if they jump the traffic lights around Parliament square they should be prosecuted accordingly.
I challenge the hon. Gentleman to answer the following case that would be put to him if we were to accept that there is a difference between the two offences. What would he say when a parent brought the photograph of their dead child into this House and said, “My daughter”—or son—“was killed on a street because somebody jumped a red light, and you treat their offence differently from that of somebody who does the exact same on a level crossing”? I suspect that if the hon. Gentleman were in my position now, he would find that unanswerable.
Cases need to be judged on their merits. The police need to take a view on the appropriate offence, and the courts need to take a view on the appropriate sentence. Where a violation is blatant and dangerous, the driving can and should be prosecuted as such, with a significantly higher penalty, including custody, than that which applies to a normal breach of a red light.
The hon. Gentleman accused me of making promises in Committee that I have not kept. I have to say to him that, again, he is not being entirely accurate. In Committee, I introduced into the Bill the measure that is now clause 50. That amendment had been agreed with, among others, our stakeholders—including Network Rail—in order significantly to improve the safety of level crossings. It is my understanding that Network Rail no longer supports the amendments that are before the House, and that it is happy with the position that has been agreed. In Committee I said that I was sympathetic to the argument that a specific tougher penalty would send a message to lunatics who frequently zig-zag through crossings, possibly endangering the safety of rail passengers, and that if there was evidence of a problem I would be prepared to consider using the subordinate powers under clauses 3 and 4, subject to the agreement of Parliament, to set a higher fixed penalty and a higher penalty points tariff for breaches of red lights at railway crossings.
I still believe that the current offence of careless and inconsiderate driving with a maximum fine—subject, again, to Parliamentary approval for clause 22—of £5,000 is sufficient to deal with bridge strikes. In extreme cases where danger is caused to other road users it might be appropriate to prosecute for dangerous driving, but I believe that the power already exists to enable that.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) asked when the Government became aware of the need for new clause 28. Ministers were made aware of the issue early in September. I do not have a precise date, but if he is interested in knowing the precise date when it was first brought to our attention I am happy to provide it to him. However, I can assure him that as soon as it was brought to our attention Ministers moved rapidly to try to assess the issue.
The Attorney-General was consulted on whether existing legislation was sufficiently robust before we decided to move to bridge the possible loophole. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), who requested this information, that the clauses have been checked by counsel. I promise him that I shall have them checked again before the Bill passes to the other place.
The loophole is possibly the last of the errors of the disastrous railway privatisation, and we moved to close it as soon as we discovered it. I should of course emphasise to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that we will not know whether retrospection will be necessary unless somebody takes a test case to the courts and they confirm our interpretation of the law. It may well be that everything was all right; nevertheless, in our view it was essential to move as rapidly as we did to close any loophole in such an important area of the law.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 1
Driving with Illegal Drugs
‘A person who when driving or attempting to drive a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or other place is found to have traces of an illegal drug in his body shall be guilty of an offence.’.—[Mr. Chope.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 5—Medical fitness to drive—
‘(1) The Motor Cars (Driving Instructions) Regulations 2005 are amended as follows.
(2) In regulation 5, paragraph (b), after “users”, insert “recognising the dangers posed by driving while medically unfit to drive”.
(3) The Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) Regulations 1999 are amended as follows.
(4) In regulation 71(1), after paragraph (e) insert—
“(f) liability to sudden attacks of disabling giddiness, faintness or drowsiness caused by a sleep disorder.”.
(5) In regulation 71, after paragraph (2) insert—
“( ) The disability prescribed in paragraph (1)(c) is prescribed for the purpose of section 92(4)(b) of the Road Traffic Act in relation to an application for a Group 1 or Group 2 licence if the applicant suffering from that disability satisfies the Secretary of State that—
(a) the driving of the vehicle by him in pursuance of the licence is not likely to be a source of danger to the public; and
(b) he has made adequate arrangements to receive regular medical supervision by a sleep disorder specialist who holds a hospital appointment.”.’.
New clause 30—Alcohol limits—
‘(1) The Road Traffic Act 1988 (c. 52) is amended as follows.
(2) In section 11(2) the meaning of “the prescribed limit” is amended as follows—
(a) in paragraph (a) for “35” substitute “22”;
(b) in paragraph (b) for “80” substitute “50”; and
(c) in paragraph (c) for “107” substitute “67”.
(3) In section 8(2) for “50” substitute “35”.’.
New clause 39—Disqualification for drink offence—
‘(1) Section 36 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 is amended as follows.
(2) After subsection (2) insert—
“(2A) Subsection (1) above also applies to a person who is disqualified for a period in excess of 12 months on conviction of a relevant drink offence.
(2B) In this section “relevant drink offence” means—
(a) an offence under paragraph (a) of subsection (1) of section 3A of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (causing death by careless driving when unfit to drive through drink) committed when unfit to drive through drink,
(b) an offence under paragraph (b) of that subsection (causing death by careless driving with excess alcohol),
(c) an offence under paragraph (c) of that subsection (failing to provide a specimen) where the specimen is required in connection with drink or consumption of alcohol,
(d) an offence under section 4 of that Act (driving or being in charge when under the influence of drink) committed by reason of unfitness through drink,
(e) an offence under section (5)(1) of that Act (driving or being in charge with excess alcohol),
(f) an offence under section 7(6) of that Act (failing to provide a specimen) committed in the course of an investigation into an offence within any of the preceding paragraphs, or
(g) an offence under section 7A(6) of that Act (failing to allow a specimen to be subject to a laboratory test) in the course of an investigation into an offence within any of the preceding paragraphs.”’.
Amendment No. 50, in page 15, clause 14, leave out lines 5 to 15 and insert—
‘(1) This section applies where—
(a) a person is convicted of a relevant drink offence by or before a court, and
(b) the period stated by the court as that for which he would be disqualified is not less than six months.’.
Amendment No. 51, in page 15, leave out from beginning of line 16 to end of line 22 on page 16 and insert—
‘(3) Where this section applies, the court shall (subject to subsection 7) make an order (an “alcohol ignition interlock programme order”) requiring the offender to comply with the alcohol ignition interlock conditions.
(4) The period which the offender shall comply with the alcohol ignition conditions shall be a period specified in the order of—
(a) not less than six months, and
(b) not more than two years.
(5) If the offender contravenes the alcohol ignition interlock conditions, a further order disqualifying him for the rest of the period specified under subsection (4) is to be treated as having been made by the court immediately before the contravention.
(6) “The alcohol ignition interlock conditions” are that the offender—
(a) must participate fully in an approved alcohol ignition interlock programme specified for the duration specified in the order, and
(b) during the period specified in the order, must not drive a motor vehicle unless it is fitted with an alcohol ignition interlock in good working order and must not drive a motor vehicle which is so fitted when not using the alcohol interlock properly, and
(c) must make due payment of fees for the programme which shall include the cost of the alcohol ignition interlock being provided, fitted and maintained to a motor vehicle.
(7) A court may decline to make an alcohol interlock programme order if it appears to the court that the offender will not comply with the alcohol ignition interlock conditions in which case the court will specify an additional period of disqualification for a period equal to the period which it would have otherwise ordered the offender to comply with the alcohol ignition conditions.’.
Amendment No. 53, in page 16, line 11, at end insert ‘and
(c) must make due payment of fees for the programme which shall include the cost of the alcohol ignition interlock being provided, fitted and maintained to a motor vehicle’.
Amendment No. 52, in page 17, line 4, after ‘offender’, insert—
‘(13) Nothing within this section shall prevent the court from making an order in accordance with section 34.’.
Amendment No. 54, in page 17, line 16, at end insert ‘fitment’.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
“The known effects of cannabis are that it can impair co-ordination, visual perception, tracking and vigilance. Impairment is also shown when subjects are tested under simulated driving conditions. Studies report that the majority of fatal cases with detected levels of cannabis are compounded by alcohol. Alcohol alone, or in combination with cannabis, increased impairment, accident rate and accident responsibility.”
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.
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?
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 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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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 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.
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, 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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 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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
The Liberal Democrats, who tabled new clause 39, raised the question of mandatory disqualification. I believe that the new clause is among a number of amendments inspired by the insurance branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland. I am happy to congratulate the Liberal Democrats on their interest in the matter and the work that they are doing. The views and constructive ideas of stakeholders are always welcome, and I can see the logic behind the proposal, but I simply do not accept it.
When the original provisions of clause 36 were made following the road traffic review—the so-called North report—it was decided that while mandatory retesting should apply to drivers who committed the most serious road traffic offences, such as dangerous driving and worse, it was less appropriate for drink-drivers, whose driving skills, it might be argued, were less in question than their judgment about drinking.
I remind the House that the vast majority of drink-drivers are disqualified for 12 to 18 months, during which time their driving skills may not diminish as much as those of drivers who are disqualified for longer. More recently, however, it has been considered that the worst drink-drivers who were disqualified for longer periods, such as two years or more, should be subject to a retest because of the length of time for which they were off the road. Clause 36 will enable that to be done by means of secondary legislation, but it will be subject to further consultation. I hope that, on that basis, the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland will not press his new clause.
Finally, let me deal with the issue of alcohol ignition interlocks, which feature in a number of amendments proposed, again, by the Royal Bank of Scotland. If I understand correctly, their purpose is to impose a wider application of alcohol interlock programmes by extending their availability to all drink-drivers, and to require courts to impose orders unless they believe that there is good reason for not doing so.
We currently want to target the most serious offenders, and certainly those who cannot stop themselves from reoffending. That is where we can expect both the incentive and the commitment to participate fully, and, of course, where we might expect to achieve the best accident risk reduction. There may be a case for a more widespread application, but it has yet to be made. Best practice advice based on research suggests that a period of interlock use of less than a year is not likely to provide a benefit, and for shorter periods the fixed costs of installation and training may make it less cost-effective.
As for making the scheme mandatory, I have some difficulty with the idea of courts’ imposing such cost burdens on drivers, some of whom would not have the financial means to undertake the programme. Such drivers might have to sell their cars to pay for it. The Department would welcome the opportunity to have further discussions with insurance companies about drink-driving and other aspects of road safety.
I remind Members that our proposal is modelled on the successful drink-drive rehabilitation programme introduced by the last Administration in the early 1990s and rolled out nationally by this Government in 2000. In making the decision to undertake the course at their own expense, offenders recognise the value of learning how to change their behaviour. We should be very cautious about deviating from an approach that has served us well so far. I hope that the House will reject those amendments as well.
We have had an excellent debate. The Minister’s was a classic “Yes, Minister” response. As a former transport Minister, I congratulate his civil servants on having taken to heart his brief, which was to try to find an objection to every possible solution.
Every Member recognises that there is a real problem that needs to be addressed. It is causing the loss of a great many lives on our roads, unnecessarily, every year. But the Minister has come up with a whole lot of trivial objections. For example, he says that we need to establish the correct level for illegal drugs, but why do we need a legal limit for illegal drugs? Surely any level of illegal drugs should be illegal and the law should deal with it. What sort of message does the Government’s talk on this matter send out to young people who may be tempted to get into the drugs scene?
The Minister says that there is a large variability of effects for the same dose taken. Well, that is exactly the same argument that was used against the breathalyser law. Perhaps you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, can drink 10 pints without it having any effect on you, whereas some colleagues might drink one pint and be paralytic. What are the Government doing in resorting to that old, failed argument?
From the way in which the Minister spoke about the difficulties of testing, anyone would think that we did not have drug testing in prisons, schools and in sport—all promoted by the Government. So why cannot we have drug testing at the roadside? That is what the new clause is about. My Front-Bench colleague was absolutely right to draw our attention to the statistics that show that the proportion of drivers detected and prosecuted for drug-driving in this country is far below that of other countries. That is not because we do not have drug-driving, but because the Government are not dealing with the problem.
I believe in joined-up government, but what we have had from the Minister is a silo mentality, whereby drugs issues are viewed as nothing to do with his Department. I would like to see his Department deal with drug taking and drug use alongside the Home Office. One way of achieving that would be to make it an offence for anyone to be at the wheel of a car with illegal substances in their body. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) for making it clear that the Opposition will support the new clause. I hope that many Government Members will join us, too.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—
New Clause 12
‘In the Road Traffic Act 1988 (c. 52), after section 80 (approval marks) insert—
“80A Retro-reflective markings
The Secretary of State shall, by 31st December 2007, by regulations made by statutory instrument require the fitting of retro-reflective tape complying with ECE 104 to international category vehicles N2 and N3 and on goods trailers under the international classification 03 and 04 newly registered in the United Kingdom.”.’.—[Mr. Drew.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 21—Passenger-side mirrors on HGVs—
‘All vehicles over 3.5 tonnes, operating in the UK, must have a mirror positioned on the exterior of the vehicle on the passenger side, which enables the driver to have a full view of vehicles and other road users in the neighbouring lanes, when driving on all roads in the United Kingdom.’.
New clause 22—HGV audible warnings—
‘All HGVs with trailers, registered in the UK, shall, by 31st December 2007, be fitted with an audible warning system that shall sound if the driver exits the vehicle when the brakes are not applied.’.
New clause 27—Daytime running safety lights for motorcycles—
‘(1) All motorcycles used on a public highway shall continuously display a dipped headlight beam and a red light during daylight hours.
(2) Any motorcycle manufactured before 1st January 1973 shall be exempt from the provisions of this section.
(3) Any person riding on a motorcycle which is not displaying daytime running lights and which is not exempt under subsection (2) commits an offence punishable by a fine not exceeding level 2 on the standard scale.’.
It is with a feeling of déjà vu that some of us will approach the new clause, which stands in my name and that of several other hon. Members. I make no apology for bringing the matter back on Report, given that currently we have an unsatisfactory situation. We were sure that the Government had seen some sense; with the Lords accepting the amendment, it seemed that the Government would let it ride.
There were arguments in Committee about whether this very minor change could be brought in at the earliest possible stage. I pay due regard to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who tabled an amendment in Committee to ensure that this measure could be introduced as early as 2007. Not only did the Government not accept it, they voted against clause stand part, meaning that we had no opportunity to introduce this very minor but important amendment.
I will not speak for very long. I hope that the Government have rethought their position, but I want to deal with some of the canards relating to this very small change. The biggest stumbling block appears to be that if we made the change we would be outwith some marvellous EU ability to deal with the matter. However, it appears that the EU is likely to accept the placing of retro-reflective materials on the side of heavy goods vehicles. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East raised a point of order, as did the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), to point out, in the nicest possible way, that what the Minister was saying was not the whole truth. Italy has passed the measure into law and the EU does not appear to be chasing Italy around. Italy does not seem to be having difficulties; it is to be congratulated on getting on with this minor but important change.
My hon. Friend is right. Italy did move on this matter, but there were objections to that not only from Great Britain, but from France and Germany. The European Commission is almost certainly—it has started the preliminary stages—about to begin infraction proceedings against Italy. As I have said repeatedly, no matter how strong the merits of retro-reflective tapes, we have to conform to ECE—United Nations Economic Commission for Europe— regulations. We cannot move ahead of those regulations without facing the same measures that Italy will face.
I am not sure that that helps, but it does put the matter into perspective. If we are to proceed at the speed of the slowest vehicle—in this case, the EU—we are all doomed. This is a simple measure and it makes sense to do it now to save lives. If the argument is that we must proceed at the speed of the EU, it is a crass abdication of responsibility. This should be introduced now.
If only we had that power. I will stick to the retro-reflective tape, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
I wish to address other canards. It is argued that the measure would be too costly. All the research—including the Government’s research done by Loughborough university, for which I am grateful, because I have been pursuing the issue for more than two years—suggests that this is not a cost issue. The addition of £100 will not break the bank for those buying new vehicles worth £100,000.
I would like to go much further; we could do more retrospective work. Another canard is that such changes will make very little difference, but the evidence shows that although accident rates are declining, the rate of accidents involving heavy goods vehicles has increased by 8 per cent. There is also evidence that the greatest threat is at night. Many heavy goods vehicles are well lit, but not all, and the minimum we expect is that British HGVs have the tape fitted to make them clearly visible and further to decrease the number of road traffic accidents. I do not understand why the Government are so reluctant to accept that point. As Lord Berkeley said in the other place, this issue is a “no-brainer”. It is a straightforward minor measure, but the Government have got very steamed up about it.
The final canard is that the pressure to adopt the measure comes from those who manufacture the tape. I have worked with lobbyists on the issue, but if it saves people’s lives it is appropriate for the industry to promote it. Many companies have already installed the tape, and drivers and cyclists—as I am—know that it can be seen clearly at night. That gives cyclists especially a chance to get out of the way. Too many accidents are caused because people simply do not see the poorly lit vehicles that do not have the appropriate reflective tape.
This is a minor road safety measure that could make a difference and I plead with the Government to accept it. Everyone seems to want it and I suspect that opposition to it comes from within the road transport lobby, although I do not know. That lobby is split on the issue, and given that people’s lives are at risk, we should be prepared to make our case. Otherwise, we will be surrendering to the basest instincts and I am not prepared to do so.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who managed to get his name down first on our amendment. We are happy to join him, because this is a ridiculous situation. We debated the issue at some length in Committee and the facts are clear. Indeed, the Minister agrees with us. We had all-party support, because everybody agrees that night-time collisions are a problem.
In 2001, there were 9,000 collisions in which an HGV was struck by another vehicle. In 34 per cent. of those cases, the HGV was struck on the side. Research by the university of Darmstadt found that 37 per cent. of all collisions with trucks at night occurred because they were seen too late. The same study also found that adding retro-reflective contour markings reduced accidents involving trucks and passenger cars in conditions of poor visibility by 95 per cent. In the USA, where retro-reflective markings are mandatory, side and rear impact collisions involving HGVs have fallen by 41 per cent. The Loughborough report, which was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, showed that fitting ECE 104 markings to new HGVs would cost about £100, or just 0.001 per cent. of the vehicle’s cost.
The measure is inevitable. As long ago as 2004, the Commission recommended that all new HGVs in the EU weighing over 3.5 tonnes should be fitted with ECE 104 retro-reflective tape. It is not only the Italians who have broken ranks. They went ahead and imposed this simple measure, which has a remarkable impact, and the Greeks, Spanish and French are also considering similar action. The Dutch transport safety board has also recommended the compulsory use of retro-reflective contour marking. We do not, therefore, understand why our Government are being so timid. I am astonished that the Minister said that he had been involved in action against the Italians. That is bizarre.
The total cost of road accidents in 2001 was £17.76 billion. The markings cost only £100 per lorry, but the cost of having a lorry off the road is £212 a day.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should find it surprising that we seek to defend British industry from anti-competitive practices in other countries. That is the rationale for a commitment to the whole of Europe moving together on such issues. It is not an EU matter alone. The UNECE is the body that has to agree the measure on behalf of all the states in Europe, not only those in the EU. The simple reason why we argue that the change cannot be achieved before 2010 is that we believe in the rule of law and it would be illegal. I do not know how many different ways I can say that. Even if we accept the new clause tonight, it would be illegal and we would be breaking treaties to which this country is a party.
That is a bizarre way of looking at cost. To hauliers, costs arise when their trucks are not running on the roads. If trucks are not run into, they carry on running, and the haulier does not have to bear the cost of having to repair them, will not have them off the road, and will not lose business. The Minister’s way of looking at the issue is completely inverted—[Interruption.] Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s and John Lewis have already started to use retro-reflective tape voluntarily, because they know that it is worth while to do so.
It is extraordinary that this should happen in what is supposed to be a sovereign Parliament. Members of all parties agree that this very simple and cheap measure would save lives. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon)—it is a pity that he is not here—made a very good comment in Committee:
“I do not like breaking the law, although I am tempted to break certain European laws because they are barmy. It is a personal opinion, but I think it is barmy that we have to wait until 2011 to save lives.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 23 March 2006; c. 149-150.]
There is a United Nations committee treaty to which we have signed up; the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe is not a European Union body, but we signed a treaty to say that there must be type approval in accordance with the UNECE agreement. That is a treaty to which our sovereign Parliament signed up.
I shall say this one final time: they are not doing so. The Italians have gone ahead and will face infraction proceedings as a consequence. The others may have talked about it, and bodies may have recommended the measure to them—just as bodies have recommended it to me—but if they go ahead, they will face the same infraction procedures.
So it is a choice between infraction procedures and hanging around until 2011, by which time there will have been 1,540 more collisions. We are discussing a road safety Bill at a time when more than 3,000 people a year are killed on our roads, and before us is a measure that is backed by responsible Members of Parliament of every single party. The Minister is being utterly pusillanimous—absolutely feeble to a degree. We will push the new clause to a Division later, and I hope that the hon. Member for Stroud will join us. The situation is utter nonsense. Our very simple measure would save lives, and we feel strongly about it. We believe that given that Members of Parliament think that the new clause would save lives, they should have the right to vote on it, and it should be made law.
Moving on to the other new clauses in this group, we have a similar case in respect of mirrors. We find it extraordinary that the Minister, as a Kent MP, did not back new clause 21. I cited in Committee the terrible example of what happened to the wife of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) who was driving in the fast lane of a motorway in Kent. Alongside was a Hungarian truck that was correctly set up according to Hungarian regulations, with mirrors on only the left side of the vehicle—that is, on the driver’s side in Hungary. The truck was completely blind on the right-hand side—the offside, where my hon. Friend’s wife was driving—and the driver forced her into the central barrier. I am glad to say that she was not hurt, but we have found that there is a consistent pattern, as those accidents are always happening. It is such a simple measure to make it mandatory to install mirrors on both sides of all heavy trucks operating in the UK. The Hungarian driver was aghast and horrified by what had happened, but he was operating within the rules as they stand. Again, the Minister has been utterly feeble, which I find bizarre considering that he represents a marginal Kent seat.
There is a political angle to the issue, because why should not just British citizens but all those who come to this country—there were 1.5 million vehicles from abroad here last year—be put at risk for the simple lack of a mirror on the continental blind side? The Minister appears to be lagging behind the European Commission, which only last week said that it would require large trucks to install blind-spot mirrors. EU member states have to improve infrastructure on vehicles, and the Commission would ensure that vehicles weighing more than 3.5 tonnes installed new mirrors so that they could see not just cars but motorbike riders and cyclists. It said in a statement:
“Every year approximately 400 road users lose their lives in accidents, because lorry drivers fail to notice them when taking a right turn.”
All that the new clause would do is pre-empt the European Commission and introduce a measure with profound safety benefits in this country.
Again, other countries have already taken action; the Dutch and Belgians have introduced measures on blind-spot mirrors. I therefore hope that the Minister, who, as I said, has been utterly pusillanimous on the issue of retro-reflective tape, will steel himself to take action on this issue. The measure would be very cheap, as it does not cost much to install mirrors on heavy goods vehicles. It will soon be mandatory to do so, but let us get on and make it mandatory now.
Turning to new clause 22, it is the same old story. Every year, about seven people are killed in this country while hitching up a tractor to a parked articulated trailer. The trailer’s air brakes remain on until it is connected to the tractor’s air supply. When the tractor reverses, there is a large clunk as the fifth wheel engages with the trailer and the whole unit remains stable, because the air brakes are still locked on the trailer. All too often, however, the driver does not engage the handbrake because he believes that the whole unit is solid. After jumping down from the tractor he climbs on to the trailer to connect the Susie hoses to engage the air. As soon as the air passes into the trailer, the brakes disengage, and the whole unit moves. In some cases, sadly, the driver panics, and while trying to jump off and scramble into the cab he is run over. In other cases, the united vehicle rolls up or down the slope, crushing someone else.
Our extraordinarily simple technical measure would, we estimate, prevent seven deaths a year. The kit would cost about £100, as we are merely suggesting that an alarm be triggered if the tractor is left with the handbrake off. In Committee, the Minister said that he could not proceed with the measure for all the reasons that have just been given, as the infrastructure of vehicles is a European competence. However, the European Commission is not composed of unmenschen—its members are human beings. If he engaged with them and talked to them—he said in Committee that he would, and he has had the whole summer to do so—we could achieve a result. The measure is terribly simple and would save seven lives a year.
Finally, new clause 27, which was tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), requires daytime running safety lights to be installed on motorbikes. On the whole, we think that that is a good idea. Indeed, a study by the Institute of Transport Economics at Oslo in Norway discovered that it resulted in a 32 per cent. reduction in multi-party daytime accidents. The proposal therefore has merits, as information about permanent lights on motorbikes from the Transport Accident Commission in Victoria in Australia demonstrates. We therefore support the new clause. Our main aim, however, is to persuade the Minister to steel himself to take action. We have tabled three measures that would save lives, that are very cheap, and that have been introduced in other European countries. Will the Minister therefore accept our new clauses?
May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on the amount of work that he has undertaken on the issue? I shall be brief, because much of what I wanted to say has already been said by him and by the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson).
I wish to express my support and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends for new clause 12, which was tabled by hon. Members on both sides of the House and would make the use of ECE 104 retro-reflective markings mandatory on all UK-registered HGVs. Although there would be a minor cost to the owners of such vehicles, the new clause would have a significant impact in improving road safety and reducing casualties on our roads. The new clause would enable other motorists more easily to identify the size and shape of the vehicle, especially in poor light and at night.
Evidence suggests that in 2001 about a third of all collisions involving HGVs were when they had been hit on the side by another vehicle. More than a third of those side collisions at night occurred because the other driver saw the vehicle too late. The same research, which was carried out by the University of Darmstadt, concluded that the number of collisions in poor visibility or at night could be reduced by up to 95 per cent. simply with the addition of retro-reflective markings.
Where those markings were introduced as mandatory in America, it resulted in significant reductions in side impacts on HGVs. Not only has it reduced the number of accidents, it has also had a significant cost benefit in terms of economic savings because there were fewer accidents.
The cost of introducing the markings would be only about £100 per vehicle. When that is factored into the overall cost of an HGV, it is a mere drop in the ocean. I have never bought an HGV, but I have been given information by Reflect, which estimates that the cost of the markings would be less than 0.01 per cent. of the overall cost of the vehicle. By comparison, that would be equivalent to paying only an extra 80p on the cost of my car to improve its safety.
I am slightly disappointed that the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), who has much experience with HGVs, is unfortunately not in the Chamber to add something to the debate. I am sure that he could have made a number of comments and I was looking forward to hearing what he had to say.
The overall cost would be a small price to pay for saving lives. It would reduce the number of collisions by an estimated 1,185 between now and 2010, if the Loughborough university report is to be believed. Given that the number of deaths from accidents involving HGVs has risen while the overall number of deaths on the roads has dropped, it is clearly time that this practical, cost-effective measure to improve HGV safety was made mandatory.
I rise to draw the House’s attention to my new clause 27, which would require all motorcycles used on a public highway to display dipped headlight beams continuously and a red light during daylight hours, with an exemption for historic motorcycles. Any motorcycle failing to comply with that requirement would be guilty of an offence.
It is not a radical innovation. Careful motorcyclists in this country have already developed the practice of using their headlights at all times. Why? Because it increases their visibility and safety, so it is to be welcomed. The practice has been given official sanction. The highway code advises all motorcyclists to use their lights during day-time hours. It even includes a cartoon with a caption pointing out that it is wrong to drive a motorcycle without lights, so there is official blessing for the contents of new clause 27 in the highway code. The new clause would merely enshrine good practice in legislation.
Personally, I am against unnecessary legislation, so if the Minister can tell me that the current position, with the recommendation in the highway code, is an effective practice to which most motorcyclists adhere, I should probably be content and would not wish to push new clause 27 to a vote. But I have a second purpose in speaking to the new clause: I should like to tease out from the Minister his wider view, which I hope is that the provision should not be extended to cover all motor vehicles at all times on our roads. I hope that his support will extend only to motorcyclists, because somewhere deep in the heart of Brussels there is a regulation-ridden, form-filling, pen-pushing nincompoop of a Eurocrat who feels that the one-size-fits-all policy, which we see all too often in the EU, should be applied to day-time running lights and every EU member state should have compulsory day-time running lights on all motor vehicles, and further that such a provision should be retrospective and should thus apply to existing vehicles on our roads. I hope that the Minister, while indicating his support for the aims of new clause 27, will also be able to tell the House that he does not support the proposal currently being debated in Brussels to make every motor vehicle on the road use day-time running lights.
There are a number of reasons why new clause 27 is good, but to go further would be bad—clutter, to start with. One benefit for motorcyclists in having their headlights on is that it makes them more visible to other road users. If every motor vehicle on the road was obliged by EU law to run with headlights or day-time running lights, we should have visual clutter and light pollution. Motorcyclists would be less visible because we would not be able to identify them from other vehicles. Such a law would remove the current safety benefits for motorcyclists.
The one-size-fits-all view is also wrong when we consider the climate and the number of daylight hours of EU member countries. Some European countries have few daylight hours; indeed, in the depths of winter some have no daylight. What might be right for them is not right for the UK. In some EU countries it is not light until 9.30 or 10 in the morning and it is dark again by 2.30 or 3 o’clock. In this country, there are many periods of good, bright weather in winter, so to say that motorists should have their headlights on at all times is inappropriate. It is the heavy hand of the nanny state.
If such a provision came into force, there would be a side-effect as it could affect the use of historic motor vehicles. At this point I declare an interest as the owner of several historic vehicles and as chairman of the all-party historic vehicles group. As the Minister knows, it is a technical issue; some early motor vehicles use gas lighting and the majority of historic and classic motor vehicles use a generator rather than an alternator to recharge their battery. The generator is—
Indeed. And a dynamo or a generator is less effective than an alternator and an old vehicle forced to run its headlights all day would soon have a flat battery. One of the side-effects would be to take historic vehicles off our roads because they would be unable to run.
I hope that the Minister will say that although he supports motorcyclists using headlights—as does the highway code—he does not see the need for us to go any further. Of course, new cars fitted with day-time running lights, such as the Volvo, have lights of slightly less intensity than dipped headlights, so older vehicles, manufactured before a change in the law, would experience a bigger drain on their battery.
I do not know whether unanimity is required in any EU discussions on the issue. I fear that it is not and that the issue could be decided by a majority vote, so once again the meddling European Union could impose on this country a new law against the wishes of our elected Government.
Has my right hon. Friend considered that to run headlights or sidelights on every vehicle would consume more fuel, albeit only a small amount? But in total, across the country, a considerable amount of extra fuel would be used if the regulation went through.
I will take advice from the experts on that point. I am not sure that that is correct in every case. Certainly, if one runs air conditioning, it is true, but I am not sure whether a dynamo or an alternator has the same effect. If it does, my hon. Friend has made a very good point.
I hope that when the Minister comes to speak to these new clauses he will tell the House that he will oppose, with all the powers at his disposal, the implementation of mandatory daylight running lights on all motor vehicles in the United Kingdom. I hope that if, in the discussions that he will no doubt attend, all appears to be lost at some point in the future, he will at least plead for an exemption for all those vehicles in the UK that are currently registered or taxed as historic. In earlier interventions the Minister made it clear that when the EU has spoken it is often too late to take the action that we would like to take. I hope that on this issue he can persuade the EU to show us a period of silence.
I rise to support my colleagues in their new clauses. In answering a point made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), may I say that as somebody who has worked in road haulage for a number of years I am not aware of any lobbying from within the industry to prevent lorries, particularly new ones, from being fitted with reflective tape? I can understand why a haulier who owns 50 or 100 vehicles would baulk at paying what I think would be considerably more than £100 a time to have that fleet fitted with reflective tape retrospectively. But if this measure is to apply to new vehicles and if the cost is to be only £100 a time, it is a drop in the ocean for any haulage operator. Those who operate new vehicles tend to be the big boys anyway, and they are usually very keen to adopt any new safety procedures.
The hon. Member for Stroud plaintively says, “It’s a no-brainer. Where is the opposition coming from?” It is clear that it is coming not from the industry but from Brussels or whoever it is within the bowels of the United Nations who decides what sort of reflective tape should go round a lorry. That is a decision that should be made in a sovereign nation. If we have signed up to legislation saying that somebody else should be making that decision, I say that we should unsign it and say that this is a matter that should be devolved. We are perfectly capable of deciding for ourselves in this country what sort of reflective illuminated tape should go round our HGVs.
Frankly, it was even more astounding that the Minister then went on to say that he had been responsible for taking action against states that have pressed ahead with the legislation before the UN or the EU has got around to it, because it is anti-competitive. I speak as somebody who knows a bit about the hardships faced by people in the haulage industry. If the Minister is worried about anti-competitive measures, why is he not looking at the fact that vehicle fines and tachograph procedures are not properly enforced on the drivers of foreign vehicles that come here? Why is he not looking at fuel duty? Every British haulier could tell him that we are paying far more in fuel duty than anywhere else in Europe, and that we have to pay to use roads on the continent, yet when continental drivers come over here, they do not have to pay for any of that. That is why so many of the very large operators are now registering their companies in the Netherlands and elsewhere—to get out of paying some of the taxes. As a result, British hauliers are going out of business.
I particularly want to speak to new clause 21. This, too, is a bit of a no-brainer. I do not know whether the LGV test has changed significantly since I took it back in the early 1990s. At the time, it involved a minimum of two weeks’ training and at least 40 minutes was spent taking the test itself. We got those licences and took that training in a flat-bed vehicle with a tractor fitted with a rear window and a rear-view mirror, so it was relatively easy. As soon as one gets out on to the roads, one is normally driving either a box-type vehicle or a curtain-sider. Even if one is driving a flat-bed, obviously for much of the time it is fully loaded. I have driven many kinds of articulated vehicles both here and abroad, and my recollection is that very few of the cabs are fitted with a rear-view mirror. Even if there is a rear window it is quite distracting for drivers to look in a rear-view mirror because, most of the time, they will be driving a fully loaded vehicle and will be unable to see anything out of it.
It is obvious that if the driver of a 40ft, 40 tonne vehicle has only the driver-side mirror to look into when trying to move back across from the fast lane or, on a motorway that forks, to go into a left-hand lane, they are driving a death-trap. Driving on the continent, the danger is greatly magnified. So once again, we have a new clause that is a complete and utter no-brainer. In fact, it was news to me that someone could drive an articulated or goods vehicle without a mirror on the passenger side. I find that quite extraordinary. No responsible haulier would send a vehicle out like that, although I do know from experience that there are plenty of irresponsible ones around, so it would not surprise me if one or two do.
I can add to the debate only by pointing out that a 3.5 tonne vehicle is still a dangerous one to be driving without a passenger-side mirror. Most people would think of such a vehicle as being a Ford transit, but there are larger vehicles that have a slightly lower payload but nevertheless can travel at 80 mph. I would not know that from experience of course, but many of them will be able to do that. Those vehicles will often be in the middle lane if not the fast lane of the motorway, and the idea that they could be changing lanes without a passenger mirror is absolutely frightening.
We must bear it in mind that any sort of goods vehicle will often be loaded, and any loaded vehicle, whether it is a flat-bed or some sort of a box, will not allow a proper view out of the rear-view mirror. We should therefore not only be pushing for HGVs—anything over 3.5 tonnes—to have a passenger mirror as quickly as possible, but extending that to any kind of goods vehicle.
I am totally anti-regulation, as a rule. I am completely against piling further unnecessary regulation on to the haulage industry because I have seen so many of my friends going bankrupt as a result of unnecessary regulation, but this is one bit of regulation that no responsible operator would want to avoid. It is one thing that we ought to do to increase safety on the roads and ensure that responsible hauliers are not operating at a disadvantage because the irresponsible cowboys are driving vehicles that should not be let loose on the road.
I do not know how many different ways I can say it: the United Kingdom is a law-abiding nation that signs treaties and then tries to live by them. We believe in the rule of law, and when we agree to follow certain rules and laws, we do not break them and we do our best to make sure that everybody else complies with them. That is the way we live our lives, because once we break that rule as a Parliament—once we say that there are some laws that we as a nation can ignore—we are saying that everybody can ignore any law that they do not particularly like.
We signed a treaty that stated that because there are competitive issues involved in the type approval of vehicles, we would abide by rules laid down at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. Why did we choose UNECE to lay down those rules? I cannot tell the House that. I was not involved at the time that we made those agreements. I suspect that that occurred under the previous Government. The reason is that not every state in Europe is a member of the European Union, and we needed a set of type approval rules that would cover not just the European Union but Switzerland, Norway and any other country whose vehicles might be driving through Europe, so we agreed to follow UNECE regulations.
European law—the European Community regulations —requires us to go along with UNECE regulations on type approval. Those regulations provide for retro-reflective tape to be made mandatory. In the discussions we are pressing for that to happen as soon as possible, but that is unlikely to be before January 2010. We will press harder to try and get it done faster. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) will accept that assurance from me, but the date is likely to be 2010.
The measure may involve only a small amount of money on the price of a new vehicle, but it is a point of principle that we must have the type approval. The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) accuses me from the Opposition Front Bench of being pusillanimous for not agreeing to break the law, which, as I have explained, is the position he is trying to put me in. He calls that pusillanimous. I call it the reason why we have a Parliament in this country.
The hon. Gentleman then argues that we should obey the same rule in respect of close proximity mirrors and the fitting of mirrors on the side of vehicles. He spoke to the new clause calling for the fitting of close proximity mirrors. The same rules that he says we should break when it suits us are the rules that will require those to be fitted to new vehicles in Europe from the beginning of next year. If we decide not to obey the rules, will we accept that people elsewhere in Europe can decide not to bother with close proximity mirrors and drive into our country in future? Is it only when we agree with a set of rules under the treaty that we will obey them?
My hon. Friend is in danger of rolling two things into one. Those of us who do not take a xenophobic attitude towards Europe, as some Opposition Members obviously do, would argue that we want to abide by the rules, but when my hon. Friend tells us that something as simple as putting reflective tape on heavy goods vehicles cannot become law until 2010, there is something seriously wrong. Our Government should go in with hobnail boots on and deal with the matter. It is not a little matter if someone dies on our roads. It is a big matter if one person dies because of the lack of reflective tape. I hope my hon. Friend will give the House an assurance—the House usually agrees with him on transport safety matters—that he will go in with hobnail boots and do something about the implementation date.
I can certainly give my hon. Friend the assurance that we will press for as early an implementation as possible. If it can be done earlier than 2010, we will press for that, but I have a duty to give the House a realistic assessment of how long such matters usually take. Our assessment is that it will probably take until 2010. If we can get agreement to implement the measure more quickly, we will do so. There is nothing to stop the voluntary fitting of the tape by anyone who is buying a new vehicle. What we are not allowed to do is require the mandatory fitting of it by everybody who brings a new lorry into Europe in the intervening time, but I can assure my hon. Friend that I will be pressing as hard as possible to try to get the issue resolved as early as we can.
I come now to some of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I shall give him an opportunity to intervene in a moment. I shall be very rude about him and I expect he will want to intervene. When he spoke about passenger-side mirrors, he claimed an expertise which I am not convinced he has. We are not talking about passenger-side mirrors. Of course lorries must have passenger-side mirrors. We are talking about an additional close proximity mirror, which will be required by law—the same laws and rules to which the Opposition object—to be fitted in new vehicles from January next year.
The new clause would require us to make that mandatory now. By the time we have Royal Assent and we have done all the paperwork and got the lawyers involved, it will be quicker to wait for the new European requirement to be introduced in January. The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) kept speaking about passenger mirrors. We are not dealing with passenger-side mirrors. Neither he nor the hon. Member for North Shropshire correctly referred to them as close proximity mirrors. They and other speakers implied that the problem that we face with the side-swiping of vehicles would disappear once close proximity mirrors were fitted.
I challenge that, although I think close proximity mirrors will have a role to play in reducing the incidence of side-swiping. The hon. Member for North Shropshire gave the statistics for the number of accidents caused by side-swiping as vehicles change lane. What he did not tell the House was that 80 per cent. of vehicles involved in such accidents already had close proximity mirrors fitted. So close proximity mirrors are not the solution—or at least they are not the only solution—to this problem.
That is why the Department for Transport has been showing real leadership across the European Union in exploring the question of what is the genuine blind spot that causes these accidents. We are about to start a trial with a Fresnel lens, which we will distribute to a number of lorry drivers coming into some of the channel ports, because we believe that such lenses allow the driver to see not the blind spot that close proximity mirrors reveal, but a blind spot that appears to exist to the side and just to the front of heavy goods vehicles. If that experiment is successful, we will have gone a long way toward preventing side-swiping.
Close proximity mirrors will reduce some of the problem and they will be fitted from the start of the new year, but we should not kid ourselves or anybody else that they will be the solution to the problem, because, as the statistics show, 80 per cent. of side-swiping incidents are caused by vehicles that already have close proximity mirrors. I should also point out to the House that none of the four fatalities caused by this sort of accident involved a foreign-registered vehicle; they were all British vehicles.
I have not mentioned close proximity mirrors. Our new clause 21 is written in very simple language. It states:
“All vehicles over 3.5 tonnes, operating in the UK, must have a mirror positioned on the exterior of the vehicle on the passenger side, which enables the driver to have a full view of vehicles and other road users in the neighbouring lanes, when driving on all roads in the United Kingdom.”
That would prevent the traumatising of innocent young Hungarian truck drivers who come here without mirrors on their passenger side, and it would also have an effect on UK drivers.
The hon. Gentleman has phrased a new clause in a way that requires a mirror to display all parts of the road. What I am saying is that my officials believe that the mirrors currently available, and which it is proposed should be fitted to the vehicle fleet—whether by Europe or by anybody else—leave a blind spot to the front and the side of the vehicle, and that nobody has yet devised a solution to that problem. We are going to test Fresnel lenses to see whether they are a solution to the problem. We will distribute them free in a pilot, along with educational material, to discover whether they help people to see the particular blind spot that we think is causing the side-swiping incidents. For that reason, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree to withdraw his new clause, and that he will accept my reassurance that we are taking this matter extremely seriously, are pushing ahead and will attempt to solve the problem as quickly as possible.
As was rightly pointed out, as I represent a Kent constituency, this matter is of considerable importance to me and I am not going to let it sit on the back burner. I am going to push as hard as I can, but I want a solution that works and that is supported by the evidence—not one that is just a reaction to the knee-jerk xenophobia that says that this must be something to do with foreign lorry drivers with a blind spot on the passenger side.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and I can assure him that he need not spare my feelings: many people in the Chamber both here and in Wales have been a lot ruder to me than he was just then. We have phrased the new clause in simple language, and perhaps the language that I used was a little simple, as well. Perhaps I reverted to a past profession, when I should have remembered that when one enters politics, one should try to use loquacious language. Nevertheless, the Minister knew exactly what we meant.
It is important that we solve this problem. The Minister must travel to the continent quite a lot, so he must know that when we go to France, we have to change the lights on the front of our cars in order to fit in with French regulations. Therefore, for him to say that we cannot do something different in Britain, either with cars or heavy goods vehicles, from what is being done on the continent surely cannot be correct, because different countries on the continent already apply different rules and expect drivers—whether of heavy goods vehicles or not—to obey them.
French drivers and other continental drivers when they come to this country have to fit lenses to their cars so that the lights dip on the other side. The rule is the same for all of us. When we drive on the right the lights have to dip in one direction and when we drive on the left they dip in the opposite direction, so that is not a good analogy. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman does not think that I was being particularly rude to him. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), said that I need to try harder.
May I suggest that when my hon. Friend is considering mirrors with blind spots he should do what we did when I drove buses in the ’70s in Canada. On the passenger side we had an arm sticking out on the front on the passenger side, somewhat like a proboscis, with a convex mirror on it. A convex mirror, properly positioned, will get rid of almost every blind spot, and the solution has been around for 30 or more years.
I will certainly ensure that my hon. Friend’s suggestion is considered, but I hope that he will accept the general principle from me that resolving the issue of side-swiping is not the simple matter that some people, and some newspapers in particular, have portrayed it to be. However, we are determined to get to the bottom of it.
I come now to audible warning devices. The hon. Member for North Shropshire said that I had made certain promises in Committee, and I have honoured those promises. My officials raised the matter at the meeting in September of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe on brakes and running gear. We asked for information from international sources on the incidence of runaway trucks and trailers and the level of the problem that he has identified, and member states represented there have shown considerable interest in the fact that we have raised this issue. We are waiting for responses from them and we intend to pursue the matter through the UNECE and hopefully therefore obtain buy-in from all continental member states in order to resolve the issue in due course. On that basis, I hope that he will not push the new clause to a vote.
With regard to daytime running lights there is the new clause with its literal meaning proposed by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), and then there is his real concern, which I share, that changes in the EU might lead to mandatory fitting of daytime running lights and even their mandatory use on all vehicles on all the roads of Europe. I have strongly opposed that in all forums that I have been represented at. In particular, I made strong representations at the Transport Council that that is not in the interests of road safety—for exactly the reasons that the right hon. Gentleman gave. In this country, because motorcycles use day-time running lights, they have greater visibility than they would do if everyone used such lights.
Given that one of the most serious problems that we face in this country is to bring down sharply the stubborn rate of motorcyclist fatalities, we cannot afford to compromise an important safety concern for motorcyclists. Therefore, I have made strong representations at all the meetings at which I have been represented and I intend to do so again at the ministerial road safety conference in Verona in two or three weeks’ time. I am making a presentation about motorcycle safety in general and what we need to do to try to reduce motorcycle casualties, but one of my key points will be the need to maintain the existing state control on the issue, because opinion on whether to compel the use of day-time running lights will vary in different states. In this country, I firmly believe that we should not do so.
However, I am increasingly pessimistic. The tide is running against me. A number of powerful states believe that it is a good idea. I believe that they think that it is a panacea and an easy solution to which their public will not object and which will help to reduce their casualty statistics. I do not think that it will reduce their casualty statistics, but it will affect our casualty statistics. I will continue to fight the good fight, but I cannot promise that I will win.
I am encouraged by the Minister’s reply and think that all hon. Members back his position. If it appears that that change is about to be made, will he bear in mind the special case of historic vehicles, in which case perhaps he would make a plea for such vehicles to be exempted?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to identify the fact that heritage vehicles often require special treatment, and I shall do my best to make that case, if the issue arises.
I have covered all the amendments, but I shall briefly return to retro-reflective tape. I hope that the assurance that I have given my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud encourages him to withdraw new clause 12, because I will do my best to push the issue as urgently as I can.
Unilateral action by this country linked to action by other countries that have expressed an interest is one way to bring the matter to a head. It would force the other treaty signatories to address the issue as a matter of urgency rather than waiting for another four years.
The problem with unilateral action is that it would encourage infraction proceedings against us and that it would weaken our argument on other matters such as close proximity mirrors, blind-spot mirrors and, perhaps one day, Fresnel lenses. My hon. Friend is a firm supporter of the United Nations and understands the need to obey its rules.
I have encouraged my hon. Friend down an avenue that I did not want to encourage him down. We should use the existing structures and work as hard as we can to try to reach an agreement as quickly as possible, but we should not break the laws and treaties to which we have signed up.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud is at least partially reassured. He should know that I am good-hearted in these matters, and I hope that he will withdraw new clause 12.
I did not know that hon. Members had come to this House to start a world revolution by taking on both the EU and the UN, but if that is what we must do to introduce a small measure of sanity into the issue of road safety, then so be it. In two days’ time, I will attend an event to which I have been invited by a number of people who ride disability scooters or use wheelchairs. The event celebrates the fact that they are fitting retro-reflective tape to their vehicles in order to be seen more clearly at night. If retro-reflective tape is good enough for people who travel rather slowly, but who want to be seen more clearly, it behoves us to do something about HGVs.
It is with some regret that I say that I will push new clause 12 to a vote. I do not understand the Minister’s argument, because we must start somewhere and should adopt this simple measure. It is important that hon. Members show that we support what, as the Minister knows, is a long-standing and popular all-party movement. Even at this late stage, I hope that the Minister will reconsider the matter before it is considered in Europe.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—
It being after Nine o’clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker proceeded to put the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [8 March].
I understand that a separate Division is sought on new clause 37. As the House is aware, there is a typographical error in the text of the new clause, in that some words are repeated. In lines 5 and 6, the words “six months or to a fine not exceeding” should be omitted. The intention is clear, and I am prepared to allow the clause to be moved in its corrected form.
New Clause 37
Increase of penalties for failure to comply with traffic lights at level crossings
‘(1) A person guilty of an offence under section 36(1) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (c. 52) (drivers to comply with traffic signs) consisting of a failure to comply with a traffic sign placed at or near a level crossing indicating that vehicular traffic is not to proceed over the level crossing shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or to both and shall have his licence endorsed with six penalty points.
(2) This section applies in relation to offences committed after the date on which this Act comes into force.’.—[Mr. Carmichael.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Motion made, and Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—
That clause 53 be transferred to the end of line 23 on page 56.—[Mr. Heppell.]
That clause 50 be transferred to the end of line 23 on page 56.—[Mr. Heppell.]
Amendments made: No. 17, page 61, line 4 , after ‘Sections’ insert
‘(Delegation of power to make level crossing orders),’.
No. 18, page 61, line 6 , after ‘but’ insert—
‘(a) section (Delegation of power to make level crossing orders)(2) does not affect anything done or omitted to be done before that day, and
(b) ’.—[Mr. Heppell.]
Amendment made: No. 19, page 61, line 12, leave out ‘Sections 10(3) and 15 and Schedule 4’ and insert
‘Section 10(3) and Schedule 4, section 15 and section (Delegation of power to make level crossing orders)(2)’.—[Mr. Heppell.]
repeals and revocations
Amendments made: No. 1, page 133, line 31, at end insert—
‘(15A) Hackney carriages and private hire vehicles
Short title and chapter Extent of repeal Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 (c. 57) Section 75(1)(b). Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998 (c. 34) In section 1(1)(a), in the definition of “private hire vehicle”, the words “to the public”.’.
Short title and chapter
Extent of repeal
Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 (c. 57)
Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998 (c. 34)
In section 1(1)(a), in the definition of “private hire vehicle”, the words “to the public”.’.
No. 2, page 134 , leave out lines 8 to 11.—[Mr. Heppell.]
No. 3, line 2, leave out ‘trunk road picnic areas and private hire vehicles’ and insert
‘hackney carriages and private hire vehicles, and trunk road picnic areas’.—[Mr. Heppell.]
Order for Third Reading read.—[Queen’s Consent, on behalf of the Crown, and Prince of Wales’s consent, on behalf of the Duchy of Cornwall, signified.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
It has been a long journey. When the Bill first entered Parliament in 2004, statistics showed 3,508 deaths on the road every year. The figure has dropped by 8.5 per cent., or 300 lives a year, since then.
My hon. Friend will know of Isabel Brydie, a formidable lady in my constituency. She is the Scottish “driver” of SCID, the Scottish campaign against irresponsible drivers. She spoke to me over the weekend, and asked me to pass on her congratulations, and those of her members and supporters. They welcome this Government initiative. I am sure my hon. Friend will join me in congratulating not only Isabel but the campaign.
I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating Isabel and SCID. I also congratulate all the road safety groups and lobby organisations that have taken such an interest in the Bill and given us their advice. I have not always accepted it or agreed with it, but it has always been constructive and useful to us all in our debates.
Since 2004, the total number of deaths and serious injuries has fallen by 13.5 per cent., and by 33 per cent. compared with the 1994-98 baseline. That is well on the way to our target of a 40 per cent. reduction by 2010. The number of children killed or seriously injured has fallen by 49 per cent. compared with the baseline. I am proud to say that this country has one of the safest road networks in the world, at or near the very top of any European league of road safety. We are making progress, with the number of road casualties falling every year. However, if we want to ensure that the number continues to fall, we cannot be complacent. Nine people a day are still dying on our roads.
We have indeed seen notable successes on British roads in recent years, but will my hon. Friend comment on an article in the British Medical Journal that fails to find much of a correlation between the number of serious injuries caused by road accidents as recorded in hospital admission statistics and as recorded by the police? There seems to be a discrepancy that needs to be bridged.
I can comment on that. The fact is that there has always been a known under-reporting of accidents. There is, of course, no under-reporting of fatalities. Everyone agrees that fatalities are reported to the police as well as appearing in hospital statistics. The figures that I have just given include the fatality figures, and they are still falling. There has always been under-reporting of other accidents, but as it has always been there, there is no reason to believe that it is becoming more serious now than it ever was. Whether we take the police or the hospital figures, the trends are falling. However, the Department has acknowledged that further work is needed, and we are continuing to conduct research on the matter. Indeed, I would argue that we identified it as an issue needing research even before the appearance of the article in the British Medical Journal.
As I was saying, if we want to continue to drive down the number of accidents and fatalities, we cannot be complacent. We need further measures to raise the standard of driving and to make irresponsible driving a thing of the past, and that is exactly what the Bill seeks to do.
Does the Minister agree that dual carriageways are much safer than ordinary single carriageways, but that they need proper crash barriers? Is he aware that some stretches of dual carriageway do not have such crash barriers? Is he concerned about that and will he give any priority to the matter?
I am always anxious to see measures put in place that are based on evidence. Not all roads need crash barriers. A risk assessment has to be performed and if we use resources unnecessarily in one place, they cannot be used more effectively in another place. As a matter of principle, I would expect most dual carriageways to have crash barriers and, ultimately, they will all have them. On the trunk road system, however, where we have decided that crash barriers are unnecessary, the decision has to be based on a risk assessment of a particular stretch of road. I cannot provide the hon. Gentleman with a definitive statement about any specific road, but I can tell him that a mile of motorway in this country now costs an average of about £25 million, while four-lane dual carriageways cost about £16 million a mile. No one can accuse us of under-engineering the new road infrastructure. It is partly that engineering that has led to the decrease in the number of accidents and it helps to explain the fact that we have among the safest roads in the world. That is not to say that they cannot be made more safe or that we should not attempt to do more.
The Bill is designed to address irresponsible driving and to deal with non-UK residents who break the law. By seeking deposits from the drivers of heavy goods vehicles, we will deal with foreign drivers who break the law in the belief that they can get away without penalty. It even allows us to impound their vehicles if they do not have the cash to pay the deposit. It allows us better to enforce insurance legislation by moving towards a system of continuous insurance. The bane of honest drivers’ lives are people who are driving around this country without paying their insurance, costing us all an extra £30 a year on our premiums. I hope that that will be dealt with by the continuous insurance provisions.
The Bill also deals with many other important issues, such as speeding, recklessness and people who cause death by careless driving—a major new provision. Currently, someone may face a long custodial sentence if found guilty of dangerous driving, but because it is a difficult case to prove, he may be found guilty only of careless driving. He may then be given what appears to many victims and their families as only a slap on the wrist. The Bill fills that gap very well.
Will the Minister accept the thanks of many of my constituents for introducing this new law? A young girl, Alexine Melnik, was killed by a careless driver, who received a wholly inappropriate penalty. Labour and independents as well as Conservatives in Wellingborough have long campaigned for a change in the law. The father, Mr. Peter Melnik, is delighted to see this law passed.
I am delighted that he and other Wellingborough constituents are happy. I can understand their pain. A constituent of mine was killed by someone driving dangerously at a set of traffic lights, but because of the vagaries of the current law the driver was fined just £100 for causing a young man’s death and leaving a widow. That is unacceptable; the new legislation fills the gap in the law and fulfils our manifesto commitment at the last election. I am proud that we have been able to agree on the new measure. I very much hope that the House of Lords will accept the view of the Commons and will not attempt to change this provision.
I do not want to go through a long list of thanks to various people, because I know that hon. Members will want to contribute to our Third Reading debate. I would, however, like to pay tribute to both Front-Bench spokesmen for the constructive way in which they have participated. We have not agreed on everything, but we have had good fun debating the matter. Their arguments have been constructive, if occasionally wrong-headed. We have had a good debate and I commend all members of both Front Benches for that.
I wish to mention some of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), whose private Member’s Bill introduced the careless driving provisions that we have made part of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) has been a long-term campaigner on road safety and is a former chairman of PACTS. He has been constructive throughout the debate. He and I have different opinions on how we enforce the measures on the level of alcohol in the bloodstream, but there are very few things on which we disagree.
A Member who cannot be here tonight—he has apologised—has been with this Bill since 2004 but finally had to give in and go off with a Select Committee: my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). Had he been here, he would have been rebelling with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on retro-reflective tape.
Other hon. Members have contributed to this enjoyable debate and I would particularly like to mention the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), a doughty defender of the owners of heritage Bentleys. I am sorry that he cannot be here for the final stage of the Bill.
I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter), my Parliamentary Private Secretary, who has looked after me throughout the Bill. Most of all, I wish to thank my officials for the wonderful work they have done. We cannot acknowledge anything that happens outside this Chamber, but were they listening. I hope that they would feel proud of their contribution to making our roads safer. I commend the Bill to the House.
It has been a long ride; I feel positively arriviste, as my participation goes back only to the new year. However, the Bill began in 2004 and the Minister quite rightly said that its main objective is to reduce the number of those killed on our roads. In 2005, 3,201 people were killed on our roads; there were 271,017 casualties, of whom 141 were children who were killed. We have no intention of opposing the Bill, because there are certain measures that we think will help to reduce that figure. The Minister said it had come down, but it is still an unacceptable figure and we have a nasty feeling that it may have plateaued.
We are pleased about some elements of the Bill, such as road safety grants.
In my constituency last year, the rate of fatalities was, sadly, four times the national average. I hope that my hon. Friend will join me in recognising that road safety grants provide an opportunity for groups such as Time and Place in my constituency to get extra funding to continue the good work that they have done, particularly with younger drivers, to help bring down the rate of fatalities.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am not aware of the details of the organisation, but it is probably the sort of educational project of which we approve.
We are in favour of the financial penalty deposits and the immobilisation and removal of vehicles. That would certainly help our haulage industry, which is up against fearsome competition following the huge increase in the number of foreign trucks on our roads—up from 671,000 a year in 1997 to 1,595,000 in 2004. We hope that those sensible measures will work. We approve of medical inquiries for high-risk offenders following disqualification and of some of the measures to try to prevent deaths caused by uninsured drivers, although we feel they do not go far enough. Similarly, we approve of the measures to keep vehicles that do not meet insurance requirements, although we would want to go further. We like the tightening up on registration plates and the regulation of vehicles modified to run on fuels stored under pressure.
Overall, however, we felt that the Bill was a missed opportunity. As the Minister acknowledged, we did not take a partisan approach. We tried to table constructive amendments and new clauses that would help to save lives, but we are ultimately disappointed with the Bill. We will not oppose its Third Reading tonight, but it could have been so much better.
Some of the measures were petty, such as the ban on detection devices which effectively give drivers an extra pair of eyes and ears. We were also disappointed by the Government’s continuing pigheadedness and pusillanimity about taking on the European Commission on safety issues on which other countries have already gone ahead. Those issues included retro-reflective tape, mirrors and alarms.
We were disappointed on the issue of the inclusion of a rudimentary first aid element in driving tests. There is good evidence that if one can clear the airwaves of someone in an accident within four minutes they will live, but if not, they will die. We thought that such a provision would help to save lives, but we were turned down.
The nearest we got to changing the Government’s mind was on motorbikes in bus lanes. We all but got the Minister to accept that there should be a presumption that motorbikes should be allowed in all bus lanes unless specifically excluded, perhaps outside schools, hospitals or fire stations, but the Minister did not even give in on that.
We could not persuade the Government on other issues, including some of regulation. We proposed a regime for licensing limousines, the number of which has increased spectacularly from 3,000 in 2003 to more than 11,000 now. Those large vehicles are not properly regulated, but many people travel in them and we fear that there may be a horrible accident. We also proposed regulation of pedicabs. We tabled amendments, having consulted the businesses involved, but time and again we were rebuffed.
The Bill failed to address two big areas. We consistently tabled amendments that would have toughened up—
We won the amendment and then the Minister voted down the clause, so it was a pyrrhic victory.
The first big issue is the problem of rogue drivers. Some 750,000 cars are not properly registered on the database. Some 2 million drivers drive without tax or insurance, and some 500,000 may be unlicensed. The Department for Transport told us in September that as many as three in 10 vehicles may operate outside the laws on registration, vehicle testing and insurance. Research shows that drivers of such vehicles are 10 times more likely to have been convicted of drink- driving, six times more likely to have been convicted of driving an unsafe vehicle, and three times more likely to have been convicted of driving without due care and attention.
Our amendments would have borne down on hit-and- run drivers, for whom we wished to introduce a maximum penalty of 14 years so that there was no incentive to leave the scene of a serious accident if one had had a drink. We were disappointed that the Government did not accept the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), which would have caught those who constantly flout the law by giving a false address. We fear that instead of targeting the small number who cause disproportionate damage and mayhem, we risk alienating the 34 million drivers who just want to get from A to B safely and in comfort.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning new clause 17, which we did not reach tonight. The Minister mentioned the fulfilment of manifesto commitments, but I wonder whether he remembers that the previous Secretary of State said:
“If people are using a false address or fiddling the system and the police cannot get to them, we need to sort that out, and we will do so.”—[Official Report, 8 March 2006; Vol. 443, c. 834.]
We are still waiting to find out how that pledge will be fulfilled.
My hon. Friend has spoken with real passion on the subject, and he is absolutely right. It was disappointing that we did not manage to discuss the matter on Report or Third Reading. I urge the Minister to find out whether something could be done in the Lords, when the Bill goes back there, because there is a serious problem.
I remind hon. Members that the reason why we did not pursue the matter is that the head of roads policing for the Association of Chief Police Officers assured us that the police do not believe that any new powers are necessary. He is convinced that the police can enforce in this matter without any change in the law.
I think that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire would confirm that Bedfordshire police feel strongly about the issue. I suggest that the Minister invite my hon. Friend for a serious chat about the problem, to find out whether it could be resolved.
Looking at the clock, I see that I must make progress. I fear that we have not concentrated enough on rogue drivers. The danger, as I have said, is that we risk alienating the huge number of law-abiding drivers who want to get from A to B. There were 200,000 speeding fines 10 years ago, but that has rocketed to 2 million today. There are 1 million drivers on six or more penalty points, but the number of traffic policemen has fallen from 9,201 in 1997 to 7,103 in 2005. We are worried that there is too much dependence on mechanical, fixed forms of enforcement, and not enough on human beings—policemen—who can take account of varying conditions. We are concerned about that serious failing in the Government’s strategy.
We are concerned about young drivers. Drivers under the age of 29 cause a third of such accidents, and drivers between 17 and 20 are six times more likely to be involved in a collision causing injury than a driver over 40. We would like more emphasis on education, and on the need to show drivers that passing their test and no longer needing a provisional licence is only the beginning. It should be the start of a lifelong process of engaging with people who know more about driving, so that they can secure more skills and build them up. A massive opportunity has been missed in the Bill: I would like the Secretary of State and the Minister of State to take that on board, because young people cannot end the learning process at 17 or 18, as soon as they have passed their test. There should be a progression throughout their lives, and all of us should be involved.
The hon. Gentleman refers to education, but would he include in the categories of drivers to be sent back to the classroom the drivers of Chelsea tractors—the 4x4 vehicles that are the environmental polluters? In the British Medical Journal, to which I referred a moment ago, they have been shown to be much more likely not to be wearing seatbelts, and much more likely to be using mobile phones in a dangerous manner. Does not that category of driver require more attention?
That may be one category, but a wide range of people cease to concentrate on their driving skills. There should be a carrot among the measures; my last point is that the Bill is all stick. The Government’s strategy is dependent on stick, but it should concentrate on the rogue drivers, and there should be a carrot for the vast majority of drivers who, as I said, want to get from A to B in safety. We do not have that incentive system, which might possibly work for the people mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.
Other hon. Members wish to speak, but I should briefly like to thank my team. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who is sadly not in his seat, was a fund of information and knowledge, both as a former Minister and as an owner of 15 cars. I thank our Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), who kept us in line on procedure and chipped in with some helpful contributions in debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), who has been in the House for only a year, and who led with me on the Front Bench in a most competent and professional manner. That is a sure sign that he is going places, as, I am sure, is my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott)—he is not present—who made some sterling contributions.
We should congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris). It is remarkable what happens when a west midlands MP goes north to a little birthday party, but we give the new Under-Secretary our congratulations.. He emerged today on the Front Bench, but when we last saw him in Committee, he was a Back-Bench Member. It would be wrong of me not to mention the Committee Clerk, Dr. John Benger, who was a fund of advice to us and extremely helpful. I should be most grateful, Mr. Speaker, if you would pass our thanks on to him. With that, I wish the Bill well on its passage through the Lords.
I congratulate the team and the Minister on the Bill. Among other jobs, I spent several years as a professional driver of cars, trucks and buses before I entered this place, so I know how hard it is to legislate fairly in that area.
I seek assurance from the Minister on two issues. As he knows, I tabled two amendments that we were unable to discuss today. The first was to make the penalty for using a hand-held mobile phone obligatory disqualification, as it is for drink-driving. Research shows that using a hand-held mobile phone is as distracting for a driver as being at the blood alcohol limit for driving. Furthermore, the individual driving a car with a mobile phone in their hand will have impaired physical ability to control the vehicle. The Bill toughens up the provisions by making disqualification and points on the person’s licence a possibility, but I urge the Minister for an assurance that the Government will keep the matter under review, because the penalty is not high enough.
My second amendment related to the fitting of vehicle data recording devices—often called black boxes. Manufacturers are already doing that, but we do not have a regime for using the information from those devices, which are a major safety aid. In my area, the West Midlands police are retro-fitting black boxes in all their vehicles. They believe that the boxes will pay for themselves. In one case, information from the black box fitted in a police vehicle was used to exonerate a police officer accused of driving carelessly and injuring a pedestrian. The data from the electronic box showed that that was not the case. I seek the Minister’s assurance that the Government will continue to press that issue in the European Union so that we can have a regime across the EU whereby all new cars are fitted with vehicle data recording devices, which are a major aid to safety.
I, too, associate myself with the remarks made by the Minister and the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) about all those who have contributed in so many ways to the passage of the Bill. As the Minister indicated, the proceedings in Committee were, by and large, constructive and good humoured. As someone who came to my present job after being part of the Home Affairs team, I found that a pleasant change.
I place on record my appreciation of the efforts of my colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), and my predecessor in this job, my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who led for us on Second Reading, which was some time ago. I echo the congratulations of the hon. Member for North Shropshire to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), on his well deserved appointment to the ministerial team. The hon. Gentleman has been uncharacteristically mute this evening, but I know from the experience of many years locked with him in small studios at 4 Millbank, broadcasting to a tiny number of people in Scotland, that he is a doughty defender of Government interests. I have no doubt that when he is released from his silence his contributions will be characteristically well informed and of assistance to the House.
At times, I wondered whether we would ever reach Third Reading. It seems so long since we finished even the Committee stage. As has been reflected in other contributions, much in the Bill is good. However, so much more could be better. I feel sincere regret that on the big issues—the real opportunities in the Bill—there has been a certain timidity at the heart of the proposals and measures that the Government have introduced.
A reduction in drink-driving limits would have been a real opportunity for the House to make a significant difference in the number of lives lost and injuries caused, and to reinforce the message about the social unacceptability of drinking and driving. Likewise, there could have been an opportunity to reduce default speed limits in built-up areas, which we see already in many different communities throughout the country—Newcastle, Aberdeen and other places are making real progress in that regard. What a chance there was to offer those opportunities to every community, but unfortunately, owing to timidity and lack of conviction, the opportunity was missed.
Then of course there is that issue of massive geopolitical significance—the fitting of retro-reflective markings to heavy goods vehicles—which ultimately, it seems, will have to be resolved by the United Nations Security Council. It beggars belief that so many excuses can be produced for not doing something that is so sensible. It really was like finding oneself in the middle of a “Yes, Minister” sketch listening to the Minister tonight trying to defend the Government’s position.
Of perhaps less central importance but significant none the less is the question of pedicab regulation. I am concerned that we have missed an opportunity for proper, effective and responsible regulation of the pedicab industry. That is of particular importance to the capital, and for pedicabs to be squeezed off the streets by Westminster city council and taxi operators is neither fair nor sensible. I do not know how we will now resolve that issue. I fear that it will ultimately be dealt with by the courts, and it was something that we could have dealt with in this Bill.
I fear that we have not yet seen the last of the Bill. There are still a number of issues outstanding with the other place. I refer of course to the provisions relating to level crossings and to bridge strikes. We finish with the Bill tonight, allowing the Minister and his colleagues time for reflection. I hope that he will use it well and that, on mature consideration, he will see that there is worth in what the other place has done. I hope that he will not continue to resist Members in that place.
Those points aside, we wish the Bill well. We think that it will make a significant contribution to the safety of our streets and roads, and for that we are very grateful.
I shall speak for only a minute. We remain disappointed about the issue of retro-reflective tape, but I am sure that we will live to fight another day. Overall, this is a very good Bill, and I hope that it will become law as a matter of urgency, because many of these measures are required.
I add one thought, which is that we are not talking just about car users. We should also be talking about cyclists and pedestrians. Sometimes we spend an awful lot of time talking about one aspect of casualties on our roads—those who drive cars or who are in cars. Of course, cars have collisions with bikes and people. I hope that in due course we will also see further regulation to protect those who are not in cars or heavy goods vehicles, because they matter too—perhaps more.
It has been a long road to get to this point in improving road safety. Certainly I can commend much in the Bill, and my constituents will do likewise. It has been a particularly long road for those in my constituency who have been campaigning on a wide range of road safety issues, not least the Galli-Atkinson family, who lost Livia when, in 1997, she was the victim of a tragic crash caused by a dangerous driver who received a lenient sentence. They have been campaigning since then, not only on the need to increase penalties for dangerous driving but on a wide range of issues of education and other aspects of safety. They will no doubt commend much of the Bill.
The family helped to set up the Livia award. Its panel met last month with my predecessor and others to commend those police officers who have been most meritorious in their investigation of road crash incidents and who have shown outstanding service to road crash victims. During that meeting one example exposed a gap that the Minister is too ambitious in saying has been plugged. Last year, a driver high on drugs and drink sped away from a police patrol car, overtook a car on a pedestrian crossing by travelling on the wrong side of the road and struck a married couple on the crossing. The husband died and the wife survived but in a brain-damaged condition, and she now requires 24-hour nursing care. The eight-year sentence for causing death by dangerous driving was relatively appropriate, but there was no sentence at all for the injuries to the wife. I suggest that no sentence is provided by the Bill.
Another example is that of Rachel Jones, aged 13. She was crossing a road when she was hit by a car driven dangerously by Carl Smith at 98 mph. We all have concerns about dangerous drivers speeding and driving unlicensed and drunk. Rachel was left severely brain damaged and in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. She has no movement in the right side of her body. Her mum, Sheri Ozdemir, described Smith’s two-year jail sentence as “a joke”. She said:
“He ‘killed’ the Rachel we had for 13 years and yet he can get away with doing just two years. Rachel’s future as a bright and active young teenager was cruelly taken from her by a man who did not even have a licence to drive a car.”
The driver received a two-year sentence. The victim and her family have effectively lost a life. Although she is living, she is brain damaged.
The concern that I and others have, which we should like to have debated further on my new clause 26, is the gap between those convicted of dangerous driving and those convicted of causing death by dangerous driving. The gap in sentencing is too large, considering the serious injuries that often result from such incidents. In response to a consultation paper in February, the Government said they would take account of non-fatal injuries by way of a sentence for bad driving. They intended to increase the penalty for dangerous driving from two years to five years. They should reflect whether we need further legislation or an increased penalty for dangerous driving to plug the gap that still exists for those who have suffered serious injuries but not death.
Although the penalties for dangerous driving have increased, those who are almost at the point of death, who are seriously injured to the point of brain damage, do not receive the justice that they deserve. One cannot see the qualitative difference between the husband and wife who were both injured. One died and the other was left brain damaged. What is the qualitative difference between them as victims? That gap needs to be filled. It is not adequate for the Government to say that they will deal with the matter by introducing an aggravating factor for causing death by dangerous driving or for dangerous driving. We need a specific offence or, at the very least, increased penalties for dangerous driving.
Northern Ireland has an offence of causing death or grievous bodily harm by dangerous driving, but we do not. Why is that good for Northern Ireland but not for the rest of the United Kingdom? The Bill raises questions that victims in my constituency and elsewhere would ask. How can Parliament justify a penalty for causing death by dangerous driving but not for causing grievous bodily harm by dangerous driving? How can the Government and Parliament justify a penalty for causing death by dangerous driving but not for brain death by dangerous driving?
I am disappointed at not having secured debates on the amendments in my name on seat belt wearing and court presentation officers, but despite those minor disappointments, this is a good Bill. I am disappointed that my hon. Friend the Minister and I cannot see eye to eye about the legal limit for drinking and driving, but let there be no doubt that my opinion of him is that he is a very good Minister indeed for road safety in the United Kingdom. No one could doubt his personal commitment to high standards of road safety and driving down still further the casualties that occur day in, day out on our roads.
My hon. Friend was able to publish some good news recently, with the 2005 statistics for casualties on our roads, with reductions in deaths, serious injuries and total injuries. That is a good picture which he can feel some pride in. However, there was one worrying blip in those statistics—the number of cyclists killed in the last 12 months of the period covered by the statistics. I am sure my hon. Friend and his excellent team will want to evaluate what has gone wrong over the past 12 months and what we can do through further measures of education, enforcement of the existing laws and engineering measures to bring down the number of deaths of some of the most vulnerable road users.
Generally, the trend has been downward over a number of years. My hon. Friend can say that the Government are well on target to meet their casualty reductions for 2010. Some measures in the Bill will help towards those aims. In addition to the list that my hon. Friend provided, I draw attention to the promotion of a greater use of rehabilitation and driver improvement courses. They will prove to be significant over time.
Quite properly, the House is taking seriously the matter of death on our roads. There are in the Bill a number of measures to do with death, such as causing death by careless driving and causing death when driving illegally. Equally significant will be the alternative verdict permitted in a manslaughter case, which I hope will encourage prosecutors to be a little braver in charging people with manslaughter in appropriate cases—the most serious ones.
So all in all, this is a good Bill, which I hope will continue to promote the Government’s ambition, and the House’s wish, that the number of casualties on our roads will continue to decrease. I wish it well in the other place.
Like every Member who has spoken today, I welcome the Bill and wish it good passage on its way to the statute book, although we will have to see what the Lords do to it.
However, I have a huge disappointment that the Minister will be well aware of. For more than 18 months, I and Bedfordshire police—and, indeed, many other police forces throughout the country—have been trying to convince the Government that there is a very real problem with drivers who register their vehicles to addresses where the police cannot contact them. In response to my intervention on a Front-Bench colleague a few moments ago, the Minister said that the Association of Chief Police Officers told him that that was not a problem. Merely asserting that to be the case does not make it so. Officers from Thames Valley police and from the forces of Suffolk, Greater Manchester, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Essex, Nottinghamshire, Humberside, Derbyshire, Wiltshire, Warwickshire, Norfolk and Kent, to name but a few—those who actually have to do the job—have told Bedfordshire police that there is a very real problem. They have tried to feed that message up through ACPO. Perhaps there is a blockage in ACPO and its senior people are not listening to the officers on the ground who have to enforce the law, but there is a very real problem here.
I do not know why the Government have not moved on this matter; they have had plenty of warning. There have been two meetings at the Home Office and two at the Department for Transport, and we have had 18 months to look into this issue. In my constituency, there are horrendous examples of people driving unbelievably dangerously—speeding past cameras and jumping red lights time and again—whom the police can do nothing about. Bedfordshire police recently gave me a list of five fatalities, including that of an 18-month-old child, all of which could have been prevented if the Government had taken this issue seriously.
The Government say that the current law works properly. They did not like the amendments that I tried to put before them—we would have had before us a new clause 17 tonight—but at no time have they come forward with their own proposals, or any others, to deal with this matter.
I did not say that the current system is acceptable. What I said was that ACPO has given me a categorical assurance that it believes that this matter can be dealt with through policing techniques. Chief constable Med Hughes, who is the ACPO officer responsible for road policing, has told me that in his view—he believes that this is also the view of ACPO—this issue can be dealt with by different forms of policing. That is where he wants to put his efforts to start with, before we consider any further changes to legislation.
With the greatest of respect to the Minister and to the ACPO head of road policing, everything that I have been told by the officers on the ground who actually have to enforce the current law suggests that it does not work and that they simply have no options. The result is thousands of offences for which the fines are not collected, and the offences are repeated again and again; indeed, a whole morass of crime underpins this situation. Why would someone commit a crime in a vehicle other than one whose use means that they cannot be contacted? So I am afraid that I am not satisfied with the Minister’s answer.
I just want to say a few words in strong support of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who is my next-door neighbour, politically speaking. He is right to take a stronger line with errant drivers of the kind that he mentioned. I have always felt very strongly that we are too soft on this minority of drivers, who behave very badly and give a bad name to the millions of people who drive perfectly well and never cause an accident or an injury.
I very much hope that the other place will bring back amendments on reducing the alcohol level for drink-driving. In the past—unusually, I suppose—I have supported the Liberal Democrats on this issue in a previous Bill. We should fall into line with other European countries and take a much more serious view of the effects of alcohol on driving. We have all no doubt had a glass of wine or beer and driven afterwards, and we all know that it does make a difference to the way that we drive, however slight. The proposed half-limits that the Europeans have will make a difference, compared with those that we currently have. The change will be incremental, but there is no question but that lives will be saved. It might be 50 or 30 lives, but they will still be lives, so it is important that we take this step. It will also help to educate us all about the necessity of being responsible when we drive. Such strict laws reinforce—
It being Ten o’clock, Mr. Speaker put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [8 March].
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),
That the draft Smoking (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which was laid before this House on 4th July, be approved.—[Liz Blackman.]
Question agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),
Vehicle type Approval: Emissions Limits
That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 5163/06 and Addendum 1, Draft Regulation on type approval of motor vehicles with respect to emissions and on access to vehicle repair information, amending directive 72/306/EEC and Directive ../../EC; endorses the Government’s support for a package of measures to reduce vehicle emissions substantially, leading to improvements in health and the environment, whilst allowing appropriate flexibility for industry in the short-term; and further notes that the Government will keep under review the costs and impacts of the proposal, so that it can continue to seek the right balance between environmental and other benefits and burdens on industry.—[Liz Blackman.]
Question agreed to.