I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Before I speak to my Bill, may I, on behalf of the whole House and my constituents, congratulate His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, on his 90th birthday today?
My Bill, which I hope will receive a Second Reading today, is part of an iterative process to try to maintain pressure on the Government to take seriously the issue of drug-driving. They talk the talk—I refer to both the present and the previous Government—but they have not delivered on the action. Since I was a Minister with responsibility for road safety and then a shadow Transport Minister, I have taken a deep interest in the subject of trying to get evidence to ensure that people are deterred, detected and punished if they are guilty of driving with drugs in their body.
There have been some horrific fatal accidents and accidents causing serious injury. I remember one on the A31 in my constituency, in which a young student was killed in a head-on crash because a lorry driver was on the wrong side of the road, having gone to sleep after taking a lot of amphetamines. There is a real problem here, as the Government accept. As recently as last Sunday, the Minister with responsibility for roads, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), produced an article saying that it was essential to get to grips with the issue. My concern is that unless or until the Government enable roadside drug testing to take place, we will never get to grips with the issue.
Back in 2003 I served on the Standing Committee on the Railways and Transport Safety Bill, which was enacted that year. That Bill included provisions to alter the road traffic legislation to allow a roadside drug test of people suspected of having drugs in their system. The test was to show not whether they were impaired by drugs, but whether they had drugs in their system. We were told then that the technology existed and that in due course the test would be available. It was spelled out in the Bill, however, that Home Office type approval was necessary.
That was back in 2003, and not only do we still not have Home Office type approval for a roadside drug- testing device, but the Home Office has not yet even been able to draw up a specification against which type approval might be given. Until a specification is drawn up, it is not possible for the experts in the field to submit their ideas. The best the Government can do is say that they have agreed a specification and type approval for a testing device which could be retained in police stations. That is something, but it is not the answer to the problem. It means that the police will have to have grounds for arresting somebody at the roadside before taking them to the police station. One can assume that relatively few people will be taken to the police station because of the difficulty of establishing at the roadside a reasonable suspicion that a driver has drugs in his system.
Why can we not have a system of roadside drug-testing devices? The irony—it is so sad—is that in this country we are trying to achieve an export-led manufacturing recovery for our economy. It is British experts and British manufacturers who are the key players in the technology. A firm called Concateno is already exporting devices to enable roadside drug testing to take place. It is exporting them all over the world. Various countries, including Finland, Croatia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have introduced legislation to enable roadside testing for drugs to take place, often utilising the very same devices produced by Concateno. Even more ironically, these drug-screening devices are used by the police forces themselves to screen police recruits to see whether they have drugs in their system. They are also used by the Ministry of Justice in the Prison Service and by quite a lot of schools, where pupils who have been caught with cannabis or other drugs are put on a drug abstinence regime which is then reinforced by these screening devices. These devices are therefore widely used.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is rather strange that the police, and by implication the Home Office, should have sufficient confidence in these devices to use them to test members of the police force, and yet they apparently do not have enough confidence in them to test drivers at the roadside?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. When presented with such evidence, one has to question the motives. Why has the Home Office been so slow in coming forward with a specification against which it might be able to give type approval for these devices? It may be because it knows that were there to be such roadside testing, there would be a lot more work for the police to do, because many drivers have drugs in their system and if they were detected by such screening devices at the roadside following an accident, the whole process of law would come into play and many of them would end up with a conviction. We know that there is a cost associated with that, and I suspect that behind all this delay is a reluctance by the Home Office to open up a Pandora’s box of increased detection of offences and increased burden on the court system, and ultimately, perhaps, increased numbers of people in prison.
What could be happening? Funnily enough, on Wednesday of this week there was a short post from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from the Limestone Coast police in South Australia, which said:
“Statistics released by Limestone Coast police have shown significantly more people are being caught driving under the influence of drugs, than under the influence of alcohol. Superintendent Trevor Twilley says 6 per cent of people tested for drug driving are coming back with positive results, while less than half a per cent are returning positive results for alcohol.”
That is a direct consequence of the state of South Australia equipping its police with the technology and the means to do roadside drug tests. It is relatively new in South Australia but it is already having a major impact. If it can be done in South Australia, why can we not do it here, and now?
My Bill, like previous Bills along the same lines, says that a type approval for this drug-testing device must be in place within 12 months. My original Bill, introduced under the ten-minute procedure in April 2007, had the exclusive support of those who were at that time Opposition Members. Among those who supported that and subsequent Bills are a number of distinguished Members of the House. The Bill that I introduced in December 2007, which was identical to my ten-minute rule Bill, was supported by none other than my right hon. Friend the Leader of House, who I am delighted to see in his place today, and also by four colleagues who are now Select Committee Chairmen, and one colleague who is now a Deputy Speaker of this House, as well as, of course, what might be described as the more usual suspects, my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for Shipley (Philip Davies). The legislation thus had a wide range of support, and that was back in 2007. The Bill then said that the type approval should be produced within one year. My right hon. Friend was obviously keen that that should happen. He is now in a very powerful position in the Government—arguably even more powerful than the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who will reply to the debate.
Why cannot the Government, with the support of the Leader of House and that of the Minister with responsibility for roads, who was also a signatory to one of my Bills in identical terms on this subject, deliver on this reasonable proposition that we should have type approval for a roadside drug-testing piece of equipment? I am sure that it would result in far fewer people driving on our roads under the influence of drugs or with drugs in their system. Far too few people are being brought to justice at the moment, so people think they can drive with drugs in their system with impunity. It is relatively rare that the courts are asked to deal with people who are guilty of drug-driving, because it is quite hard to detect at the moment.
One of the most famous recent cases was reported on 14 September 2010 when somebody called George Michael was jailed for eight weeks for drug-driving. He crashed his car while under the influence of cannabis and was given a five-year driving ban. He had also been guilty of driving under the influence of drugs on a previous occasion. I am not sure what Members of the House will think about the sentence that was imposed, but it shows that this illegal activity of drug-driving is taking place in this country, and the police themselves suggest that it is much more widespread than has so far been recognised by the Government.
We have had any number of Government initiatives promising to clamp down on drug-driving and have a publicity campaign about it. Even this week, in the Mail Online, there is an article similar to that in The Sunday Times to which I have already referred, saying that the Minister is determined to do something about it. All he has to do, if he really has the will, is to go to Concateno and ask what type approval would be needed to ensure that we can have a roadside testing device. Concateno would be able to give him that information relatively easily and the specification could be drawn up and the testing device given type approval sooner rather than later.
In the Government’s most recent road safety programme, they refer to this issue but only in the most general terms. Even the target that was set as recently as March, that the type approval for the device that would be used in police stations would be completed, has not yet been met. It was said that it would done by the end of April, but we are now in June and it still has not been completed. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be candid in explaining the reasons. For one reason or another, we have still not got the type approval that we need for both the roadside testing device and the testing device to be used in police stations. Until we get that we will not have an effective regime for dealing with the scourge of drug-driving.
The principle that Ministers should apply is this: where there is a will, there is a way. If the ministerial team has the will to do something about this and is prepared to override the block in the Home Office, particularly in its scientific branch, they will be able to deal with this. I think that it is an indictment of the Home Office’s scientific branch that, despite all its expertise, it is still unable to come up with the type approval specification.
Is the Home Office not right to be cautious about approving a device that could lead to someone getting a criminal sentence, and possibly going to jail if the accident is serious enough? On this occasion, delay may be wise and prudential, rather than the folly of bureaucracy.
My hon. Friend is certainly right that it is absolutely vital that the devices used in police stations to provide conclusive evidence that a person has drugs in their system are 100% accurate. We are on the threshold of having type approval for such devices. I am dealing with screening devices that could be used at the roadside and that are comparable to the devices used to identify those suspected of drink-driving. Those screening devices, which people have to blow into through a tube, indicate prima facie whether there is excess alcohol in the system. It might turn out that those people, even if they have a positive breath test, are found not to test positive when they get down to the police station and a blood sample is taken. The device is a screening device. It enables the police, following road traffic accidents or offences, to screen people they suspect of having alcohol in their system. I am suggesting that we urgently need a similar system for people who are suspected of having drugs in their system.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. Press reports are saying that the screening devices used for drug-driving will be made evidential in and of themselves, without a second test back at the police station. Would it not be rather peculiar to have two different standards for roadside testing, one that had to be checked at the police station and one that had become evidential in itself?
My hon. Friend is right, but he has read reports that these roadside devices will be used to provide evidence of guilt in themselves. As a lawyer, not to mention as a politician, I would be rather concerned about that, because I think that trying to streamline the processes in such a way could lead to an enormous amount of injustice. On the most recent sitting Friday we heard that quite a lot of criminal records are inaccurate. If the criminal records are inaccurate, how can we be sure that a roadside device for indentifying whether someone has excess alcohol in their system will be 100% accurate?
In response to my hon. Friend’s reasonable concerns, I would argue that we should keep the existing system for detecting alcohol, which has proved successful and resulted in a significant reduction in the number of people driving with excess alcohol in their system. We should keep the system of a roadside test and apply the same screening principle to people suspected of having taken drugs or whose driving is impaired as a result. We should then ensure that there is a cast-iron, rigorous system at the police station for ensuring the accuracy of those tests.
My hon. Friend is making a compelling case and I agree with much of what he says. We hear of the dangers of passive smoking, so if a person has been in the presence of someone smoking cannabis and has ingested the fumes passively, might that not show up in some tests? Can we be assured that someone would not be found to have taken drugs when there had been a passive intake, rather than a distinct taking of drugs?
I am afraid that my hon. Friend leaves me speechless, because I know nothing anything about how people can be contaminated by others smoking cannabis and so cannot comment on that. Perhaps he will in due course make a further contribution to the debate and explain a little more of his background knowledge—and how he acquired it. To be candid, I do not know the answer to his point.
Whatever the answer is, it should be within the capabilities of the Home Office’s scientific branch to reach a conclusion within an eight-year time scale, as it has already been working on this for eight years and we are now talking about another two or three years. If all the promises that have been made are treated in the same way in future, we will still be debating this in five, six or seven years’ time. Meanwhile, people will continue to be killed and maimed on our roads as a result of drug-driving. Drug-driving kills or injures people on our roads every week. I know that the Government and the Minister responsible for road safety take the issue seriously. They talk the talk, but can we please ensure that we introduce roadside drug-testing systems sooner rather than later, which means before the end of this year?
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for showing such determination and persistence in bringing the Bill before the House. I think he has been hiding his light under a bushel to some degree, as he has attempted no fewer than four times to get his Bill a Second Reading. Today is very much a red letter day in the life of the Bill. It was first brought to the attention of the House in April 2007 under the ten-minute rule. A similar, if not identical, Bill was presented to the House on 10 December 2007. Sadly, as the time-honoured phrase “due to lack of parliamentary time” so aptly describes, it befell the fate of so many private Members’ Bills and proceeded no further than that first hurdle.
Unperturbed by this and remaining convinced of the merits of the case, my hon. Friend presented the Bill for a second time in the following Session and it had its First Reading on 26 January 2009. Sadly, the legislative gods again did not smile kindly on the Bill. Despite being on the Order Paper so many times, it failed to make any further progress. Until I looked at the list of sponsors of those previous Bills, I was unaware that I, as a sponsor of this Bill, was replacing one of the Deputy Speakers or the Leader of the House. Had I known that, I certainly would not have changed my decision to support it.
We have already heard my hon. Friend explain the thinking behind the Bill and what it seeks to achieve. I think it makes good parliamentary sense, because essentially it seeks to amend what is effectively a dormant provision in an Act of Parliament.
It breathes life into the provisions of section 6C of the Road Traffic Act 1988, so that rather than being just words they can be used in practice, which is no doubt what was intended so many years ago when they were introduced as an amendment to the 1988 Act. The whole purpose of the Bill is to make it easier for the police to detect those who drive under the influence of drugs.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) quite rightly raised concern that if machines are not accurate innocent drivers might be convicted and receive a criminal record. I acknowledge that risk, but, as I will outline later in more detail, medical evidence shows that even an infinitesimally small amount of drugs can impair one’s driving ability. The reading from the machine will not represent proof beyond all doubt, because it will be for the courts to assess its strength and validity, but it surely must be better than what happens at the moment.
There are penalties for people who drive under the influence of drugs, and the police are advised about the steps to take if they think that someone is doing so. Five exercises are designed to assess their abilities: a pupil dilation test, designed to test for the presence of drugs; counting out 30 seconds; walking in a straight line, nine paces forward and then back—the classic test to check co-ordination and balance; raising a foot in the air 6 to 8 inches off the ground, which is designed to test the balance; and touching one’s finger to one’s nose with the eyes closed.
It occurs to me that those tests are rather unfair on people who are not necessarily particularly numerate or athletic, and that standing on one leg with one’s foot 6 to 8 inches off the ground might be rather difficult for a lot of people on a normal day.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The police are concerned that many completely sound people, who had never been within a mile of a drug or been involved in any drug taking whatever, would fail such a test. I would doubt my ability to perform all those functions without some error, and I have to concede that it would be difficult for even a sober person to pass all those tests easily.
In the Romberg test, for example, motorists are asked to stand up straight, tilt their head back, close their eyes and count to 30. If they sway and lose count those are regarded as an impaired ability to drive. It is like a scene from a Hollywood movie, seeing a suspect have to walk nine paces in a straight line and then nine paces back, and the idea of somebody having to stand alternately on their left and right legs without falling over is really rather ridiculous, so anything that moves away from those subjective tests and puts things on a more scientific basis can only be a step in the right direction.
The evidence obtained by the police must be of sufficient quality to enable them or the Crown Prosecution Service to secure a conviction in court, and it is important to determine what is meant by “drugs”. We all might think that we know what is meant, but what does the legislation state? Fortunately for us, and for the purposes of the 1988 Act, we are enormously assisted by section 11, entitled “Interpretations of sections 4 to 10”. Section 11(2) states that
“‘drug’ includes any intoxicant other than alcohol”.
That is an enormously important point. I do not know whether my hon. Friend reads the Daily Mail regularly, but it pointed out earlier this week that if one had five cups of coffee in a day one could hallucinate, so under the Bill will we roadside-test people who have had just one extra cup of coffee?
That is indeed a problem, because caffeine can be regarded as an intoxicant, as indeed—I was very surprised to find out—can water. Those apparently harmless substances, if consumed to excess, can result in intoxication, so the definition in section 11 captures not just the obvious drugs that we think of when we hear “drugs”.
The road haulage industry is in a quandary, because a number of lorry drivers drink high-caffeine drinks, such as Red Bull and Relentless. Is there not a danger that such hauliers, who are just trying to ensure that they are very aware of what they are doing as they drive down the road, and just trying to do the best that they possibly can in maintaining control of their vehicle, could be subject to the Bill and find themselves breaking the law?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting issue. I appreciate that he says such drivers are not doing anything wrong, and are just trying to do their best in their job, but medical evidence may well show that, although they think they are doing the best they can, by ingesting so many intoxicants, which is what they are doing according to the definition, they are putting themselves in a state of well-being whereby they are prepared to take chances that they might not take if they were completely sober.
It would be for a court to weigh up the evidence of whether a person was driving under the influence of drugs, which, under an earlier section of the 1988 Act, is the offence in question, and one can easily see how a bench of magistrates or a jury might decide that a lorry driver who had drunk several cans of highly concentrated caffeine-based drinks had subjected their body to such external influences as to result in their having driven under the influence of drugs.
The fact that the definition in the Road Traffic Act is so widely drawn is one of the reasons it is necessary to bring this Bill before the House. I suspect that it is also one of the reasons there has been such a delay in having a device approved by the Secretary of State for the carrying out of a preliminary drug test within the scope of section 6C. Perhaps when that that legislation, and the amendment to it, was drafted, section 6C should have used the word “devices” instead of “device”, because that might have made it easier for scientists and developers to devise and manufacture one device to deal with one set of drugs and another to deal with another set of drugs. The use of the word “device” has meant that the manufacturers, the scientists and the Home Office Scientific Development Branch have had to work towards coming up with a catch-all machine that is capable of detecting any number of substances. The Act is drawn so widely that a large number of substances could be termed a drug.
Apart from all the obvious drugs, which I will, for ease of reference, call illicit drugs, it is arguable that, as we have heard in my hon. Friends’ interventions, the definition will cover other substances—not only substances that we take in every day, such as coffee and water, but prescribed medical drugs. Intoxication is one of a number of conditions that come under the umbrella term “substance-related disorders”. Of course, the drugs most likely to cause impairment are those whose use is prohibited by law. I want briefly to explain the different ways in which such drugs can affect people. Different drugs affect different people in different ways, and the effects can last for several days, sometimes without people even realising it.
Cannabis slows the actions, affects concentration and often has a sedative-like effect resulting in fatigue and affected co-ordination. I would not be surprised if somebody suggested that cannabis was rather like one of my speeches on a Friday. The parliamentary correspondent from the BBC might put that in one of his reports.
Cannabis is often the drug of choice for younger members of society. Is my hon. Friend aware that RAC surveys of young drivers show that they are more likely to have been driven by somebody who has used illegal drugs than by somebody who has used alcohol?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Although the statistics show that thousands more people have been convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol than of drugs, whenever a survey is carried out we find that people, especially if they have been to a club, will admit that they are more likely to have been driven in a vehicle by somebody who has had drugs than by somebody who has had alcohol.
This is a very interesting discussion of the effects on people’s behaviour. One of the most dangerous ages for driving is 18 to 25 for young men. If they are having accidents because they are going too fast, and cannabis slows them down, are you saying that they ought to be using cannabis when they drive?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) said, people may think that by taking certain substances they are doing themselves great benefit and putting themselves in a state where it will be easier for them to drive. If they are feeling all pumped up and hyped up after being in a nightclub, they think that taking cannabis might slow them down and get them back on the right track. I would submit that it is very dangerous for anyone to go down that road.
That is cannabis. Secondly, there is cocaine.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has dealt with cannabis.
It is thought that one of the reasons prison officers are so relaxed about the widespread use of cannabis in prison is that it keeps the prisoners—or inmates, as the politically correct would describe them—in a relaxed state.
That might be so, but the fact is that the use of such drugs is illegal. I hope that one of these devices will be authorised for roadside drug testing in the near future, because it would then be a small step for them to be used in prisons, making it easier to ascertain which of the inmates has had access to illicit drugs.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is some concern about the fact that if these devices are to be used purely to detect whether drugs are present in a person’s system, that creates the possibility of a greater move towards a police state, because the current legislation states that the authorities must prove that the individual was impaired by the use of drugs in driving the vehicle, as opposed to having drugs in their system?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Ultimately, however, it will be for the courts to decide, not the police, so I do not think it could be said that we would be living in a police state. The police will put the evidence before the magistrates court or, in appropriate cases, the Crown court, where the jury will weigh up the evidence and decide whether the person is guilty of the offence. Let us stick to what we are talking about, which is driving under the influence of drugs.
Cocaine causes over-confidence and can cause erratic behaviour. After a night out using cocaine, people often report that they feel as though they have flu. Some people, however—I said that different drugs can affect people in different ways—feel sleepy and lack concentration.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) commented that drug taking among young people, particularly in nightclubs, is still very prevalent. One of the principal drugs used in those circumstances is ecstasy. Ecstasy makes the heart beat faster, which can cause a surge of adrenalin and result in a driver feeling over-confident and therefore taking additional risks that could, and do, cause accidents.
LSD can, depending on the individual concerned, appear to speed up or slow down time and movement, making the speed of other vehicles difficult to judge. It can distort colour, sound and objects, and users often see objects that are not there. LSD can cause people to feel panicky and confused—obviously a dangerous state to be in while driving.
Speed makes people feel wide awake and excited. Of course, I refer to speed, the drug, rather than vehicle speed. People who have taken speed find it difficult to sit still and have difficulty sleeping. Someone who has taken speed and has not been able to sleep at the weekend would probably be tired and dangerous on the road. Speed can also make people feel very panicky.
The problem is complicated by the fact that medicinal drugs that are legally prescribed by a qualified medical practitioner can also adversely affect a person’s ability to drive. It is, of course, the responsibility of the driver to ensure that he does not commit an offence when driving under the influence of drugs. Doctors do, however, advise patients of the dangers of the side effects of medication. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency issues advice to general practitioners on the possible effects of a variety of drugs. GPs are advised to assume that the majority of adult patients are actual or potential drivers.
The Medical Commission on Accident Prevention has published a booklet, which is available to all GPs, setting out its views on the commoner conditions that affect one’s fitness to drive safely. The booklet, entitled “The Medical Aspects of Fitness to Drive”, contains chapters on prescribed and illicit medicines and driving. Various suggestions are offered to GPs on the advice that should be given to patients, such as not driving at all until any side effects are known, not driving if feeling unwell, and not combining alcohol with drugs. As will be seen from the cases I refer to later, the combination of alcohol and drugs is sadly all too common in cases of death by dangerous driving. GPs are also advised to warn that stimulants and euphoria-producing drugs may lead to unnecessary risks being taken.
In addition to that advice, the DVLA issues the “At a glance guide to the current medical standards of fitness to drive”, which contains sections on driving while taking medication for psychiatric and cardiovascular disorders. Specific illnesses such as epilepsy and diabetes are also covered. A review of the effects of over-the-counter medicines and the associated potential for unwanted sleepiness was published in 2004.
We should not forget the impact of the internet in this area. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency noted in its evidence to the North review, to which I will refer later, that
“there is an increasing trend of buying prescription only medicines over the Internet.”
Clearly there are dangers that medicines purchased in that way may be misused, because there is no opportunity for an individual to be given advice about the possible dangers and side effects.
Publicity was first given to the problems of driving under the influence of drugs, particularly lawful drugs, by a report published as long ago as April 1995 by the Institute for Human Psychopharmacology, entitled “Drugs other than alcohol and driving in the European Union”. Compared with the research into drink-driving, there was little real understanding of the effects of drugs on one’s ability to drive.
That might be so, but, as I have pointed out, drugs are defined as anything that is an intoxicant, and that includes not just illicit drugs but medicinally approved and prescribed drugs and common drinks such as those containing caffeine and, in extremis, water. Although the focus will be on illegal drugs when the device is eventually brought into use, the producers of the device ought to look at the definition of the word “drug” and produce a device that covers both illicit and medically prescribed drugs, because both are dangerous.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again; he is being enormously generous. Are not the same drugs sometimes illegal and sometimes legal? Drugs that are banned for use in the wrong circumstances, such as opiates, may be prescribed by physicians to treat pain. Such drugs would be illegal if you bought them—sorry, Mr Speaker, I mean if my hon. Friend bought them, because I think it inconceivable that you would buy them—in a corner shop in Cheam.
My hon. Friend makes the valid point that a drug that for all other intents and purposes is illegal becomes legal if it is prescribed by a GP. As Members on both sides of the House will be aware, we are often lobbied by those who feel that cannabis should be more widely available to make it easier for those with certain medical conditions to bear the symptoms. I understand that cannabis can make it easier for people to bear certain symptoms that are otherwise unbearable.
To return to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), is the problem not that the Road Traffic Act deals with whether a drug impairs someone’s ability to drive and does not prescribe a limit for how much can be contained in the blood or urine?
My hon. Friend raises a good point. With alcohol, the law sets a specific limit of 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood. It is relatively easy to test whether someone has more or less than the proscribed amount of alcohol in their blood, whereas a subjective decision has to be taken on whether someone is driving a vehicle under the influence of drugs. The 1988 Act is specific about that. That is indeed part of the difficulty that the Home Office has faced in proposing an appropriate device, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said, no standard for device specification has been set. As I will say later, some studies show that as little as 1 nanogram can adversely affect one’s ability to drive.
Fortunately, those who have to draw up the specification will be aided by the fact that some research has been carried out on the appropriate level to be set. A research programme was initiated by the Department for Transport, the Home Office, the Coroners Society and the Association of Chief Police Officers, aimed at establishing systematically the incidence of drug use among fatal road casualties—not just illicit drugs but those that are prescribed or sold over the counter. The interim results were released in February 1998 and included in the road safety White Paper entitled “Tomorrow’s roads: safer for everyone”, published in March 2003. That White Paper stated:
“Studies have shown that compared with ten years ago, five times as many people killed in road accidents had a trace of an illegal drug in their body. Cannabis was by far the most common illegal substance found. However, whilst it is likely that shortly after use the active ingredient of cannabis impairs driving, traces of the drug can remain in the body for up to four weeks, long after it has ceased to have any effect. This can present difficulties for enforcement until we have further research findings.
Class A drugs are most likely to have an adverse effect on driving. According to interim survey results, they were found in 6% of cases (compared with 12% for cannabis). This was a small increase compared with 10 years ago.
In the studies of road accident fatalities referred to above, it was found that there had been no change in the incidence of medicinal drugs over the period. There is scope, nevertheless, to improve enforcement and to make people more aware of the risks of driving while their ability is affected by drugs.”
The RAC has also surveyed a group of young drivers and found that young people are twice as likely to have been driven by someone who has taken illegal drugs than by someone over the drink-drive limit. A Transport Research Laboratory report on the effects of cannabis on driving was published in December 2000, and found that there were measurable effects on driver performance and that drivers could be impaired. A report on the effects of cannabis and alcohol was published in 2002, which confirmed the earlier observations and judged that the general medical examination and standardised impairment testing applied by police surgeons were generally effective in determining impairment.
It may well be that those reports led the Home Office to think that the testing that was already being done was generally satisfactory, and that the matter was therefore not as urgent as supporters of the Bill feel it is. However, there have been several other small-scale qualitative and quantitative studies that have examined patterns of recreational drug use and driving. I wish to refer in particular to one, undertaken by the Scottish Executive. It was published in 2001 and examined aspects of driving while under the influence of recreational drugs. It identified general patterns of personal drug use. When stopped on a toll bridge, some 3% of survey respondents aged 40 and over, and 13% of those aged 17 to 39, had taken an illegal drug in the previous twelve months. Among those attending dance clubs, 76%—three out of every four—had taken illegal drugs in the previous month. Drug-driving was particularly evident among those attending nightclubs.
My hon. Friend says that 76% of those who have been to dance clubs have been taking drugs before driving. Ought we therefore to have a test for people who have been to dance clubs, since it seems so many of them will be unfit to drive when they leave?
I would hate the public listening to this debate to think that everyone here believes that anyone who goes to a club for a good night out is much more likely than others to take illicit drugs and then drive illegally when impaired by them. Most people go there for a damn good time, and they manage to do that. They might well have a drink or two, and they might well have a good boogie in what my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) might refer to as a discotheque, but most of them are law-abiding citizens just enjoying themselves on a night out.
I could not agree more. I am merely drawing the House’s attention to the findings of a particular survey. I do not seek in any way to draw any further conclusion from it, but there is clearly a problem if that survey—and it is only a single survey—is to be believed.
Is there not an even more important survey, which is the one that shows that half of the young people who admit to driving with drugs in their system say that they would not do so if they thought that there was a possibility of their being subject to roadside testing for the presence of those drugs?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I shall touch later on the fact that the lack of roadside testing, and the knowledge of that fact among young people, may well lead to widespread use of illegal drugs.
I mentioned that 76% of respondents to a survey who had attended dance clubs had taken illegal drugs in the previous month. Drug-driving was much more prevalent among those attending nightclubs than among the general population. The study showed that 85% of those who had attended a nightclub had driven after taking illegal drugs on at least one occasion. Some 37% per cent reported that they drove after taking illegal drugs on at least a weekly basis, most of whom—89%—were cannabis users. However, whereas drug-driving appeared to be widespread among the sample of those interviewed who attended clubs, it was not identified as being widespread among the general population.
In a separate survey in 2001, the Transport Research Laboratory measured the incidence of drugs among fatal road accident casualties. An earlier study published in 1989 had found that the incidence of medicinal drugs, at 5.5%, and illegal drugs, at just 3%, was relatively low in comparison to alcohol, which was at 35%. However, the 2001 study, based on results collected between 1996 and 2000, found that the incidence of medicinal and illegal drugs in the blood samples of road traffic fatalities was three times higher than in the previous study, at 24%, while the incidence of alcohol had fallen slightly to 31%.
It is a matter of conjecture whether those changes arose as a result of the legislative framework that existed—my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch made the point that it is well known that there is no device for roadside drug testing—or whether they were merely a result of social changes. I venture to submit that it was probably a combination of both those factors.
The findings of further research, which was sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council and led by Dr Philip Terry, were set out in January 2004 in a paper entitled, “Indirect harm from regular cannabis use”. It was found that 52% of those surveyed had driven while under the influence of cannabis and of those, 70% believed that that had impaired their driving.
In December 2005, no less a publication than the British Medical Journal published an extract of a paper by—I apologise in advance for my pronunciation—Bernard Laumon, Blandine Gadegbeku, Jean-Louis Martin, and Marie-Berthe Biecheler on cannabis intoxication and fatal road crashes in France. The research was based on a sample of 10,748 drivers, with known drug and alcohol concentrations who were involved in fatal crashes in France. The paper found that of the drivers studied, 7% tested positive for drugs and 21.4% for alcohol, including 2.9% for both drugs and alcohol. Men were more often involved in crashes than women, and were also more often positive for both cannabis and alcohol, as were the youngest drivers and users of mopeds and motorcycles. Positive detection was more commonly associated with crashes that happened during the hours of darkness.
In the light of that growing body of academic evidence, it is perhaps no surprise that Parliament legislated against driving while under the influence of drugs. Under section 3A of the Road Traffic Act 1988, as amended by the Road Traffic Act 1991, the offence of causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs requires the prosecution to show that the driving caused the death of another person and fell below the standard expected of a reasonable, prudent and competent driver in the circumstances; and that the driver was unfit through drink or drugs, or that the level of alcohol was over the prescribed limit, or that there was a failure to provide a specimen. Such a charge can be heard only in Crown court. The maximum penalty is an unlimited fine and/or 14 years imprisonment; an obligatory disqualification for at least two years, or a disqualification for three years if there is a relevant previous conviction; and the obligatory endorsement of the driver’s licence with between three and 11 penalty points. The maximum penalty was originally five years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine, but that was doubled to 10 years imprisonment from August 1993 as a result of the Criminal Justice Act 1993, and it was increased again to 14 years in February 2004 under the Criminal Justice Act 2003.
Under section 4 of the 1988 Act, it is also an offence to drive or to be in charge of a vehicle, as we have heard, while unfit to drive through drink or drugs. The maximum penalty for driving or attempting to drive while unfit is six months in prison, a £5,000 fine and disqualification. The maximum penalty for being in charge while unfit is three months in prison, a £2,500 fine and a disqualification, or 10 points on a licence.
In January 2007, the Sentencing Advisory Panel announced a consultation on advice about “causing death by driving” offences. In January 2008, the panel published its new advice to the Sentencing Advisory Council on those offences. In total, the panel made 18 recommendations. Among them, the panel recommended that when there is sufficient evidence of driving impairment, the consumption of alcohol or drugs prior to driving will make an offence more serious. It said that consuming alcohol or drugs unwittingly before driving can be regarded as a mitigating factor, but that consideration should be given to the circumstances in which the offender decided to drive or continued to drive while their driving ability was impaired.
In November 2008, the Department for Transport published a consultation document on road safety compliance and asked for views of the public on the proposed creation of a new offence for driving with drugs in one’s system. The consultation paper explained:
“We could explore the viability of creating a new offence to target those who drive after taking illegal drugs—those that are controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971—which can impair a user’s ability to drive. The public rightly perceive users of these drugs who drive as a danger to road safety.”
I have always thought that the insurance industry has a role to play. Currently, when somebody’s driving is impaired by drugs or alcohol and they are involved in an accident, if they have comprehensive cover, they can get their car repaired, regardless of the offence that they committed of why they committed it. There is a great deal of benefit in the argument that someone driving under the influence of alcohol should have their third-party liabilities covered, but that damage to their car or their injuries should not be covered, because that damage occurred as a consequence of their taking drugs or alcohol before driving.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point indeed. I am not an expert on insurance policy contracts, but I suspect that it is possible for an insurance company to write such a provision into a contract—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) wants to contribute, he can do so.
It is possible that such provisions are already written into contracts—I would be unsurprised if they are. If they are, perhaps they should be more widely advertised. People might know about driving while unfit from alcohol, but they may be unaware that driving under the influence of drugs risks invalidating insurance policies.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if a measure such as the one outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) were implemented, insurance premiums for a great many law-abiding motorists would be reduced, which I am sure would be welcomed by one and all?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point indeed. That is one beneficial and happy side effect of the Bill. As a result of fewer people driving under the influence of drugs, there will hopefully be fewer accidents. Therefore, insurance premiums for everyone else would be much lower.
If I may, I shall continue my brief explanation of the contents of the Department for Transport consultation document, which states:
“The public rightly perceive users of these drugs”—
drugs that are controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971—
“as a danger to road safety. As this paper has shown, it is difficult for the police to deal with these offenders. The nature of the effects of the drugs they take mean it is inappropriate to regulate the use of impairing illegal drugs using a prescribed limit based on the same principles as the limit for alcohol, even if it was acceptable to do so…Such an offence could be framed in such a way that a driver could be convicted of a new offence if an appropriate test showed such an illegal drug in their body. The effects of particular drugs on different individuals are complex, and, as set out below, there would be a lot of further work to do to develop this possibility, but our ultimate aim would be to treat in this way any illegal drug that is capable of impairing driving…The penalties for drivers exceeding the prescribed limit for alcohol are the same as for those convicted of the alternative offence of driving while unfit through drink or drugs. We therefore envisage that penalties for the possible new offence should be the same as for the existing offence of driving while unfit through drugs, which is a mandatory minimum disqualification of 12 months; offenders may also be fined up to £5,000 and sent to prison for up to 6 months.”
That consultation closed in February 2009, and in December 2009 the then Labour Government announced that they would seek further advice on the matter from Sir Peter North—it was his review that I referred to earlier as the North review. Although Sir Peter North provided initial advice to the then Minister, Lord Adonis, before last year’s general election, his final report was not published until 16 June last year, which of course was after the change of Government. The main recommendations of the North review relating to drug-driving were that police procedures enforcing current drug-driving laws should be improved, and that there should be early approval for saliva testing. The press notice accompanying the review stated:
“The Review also assesses Great Britain’s less well-understood drug driving problem, challenging the lack of reliable statistics, out-dated research and police emphasis on drink driving detection. In the short term, Sir Peter recommends that police procedures enforcing current drug driving laws are improved, making it more straightforward for police to identify and prosecute drug drivers by allowing nurses, as well as doctors, to authorise blood tests of suspects. Medium-term, he recommends early approval of saliva testing of drug driving suspects in police stations, which will largely overcome the environmental problems in roadside use that had previously slowed technological development of so-called ‘drugalysers’.”
On the question of a new law setting banned drug levels, Sir Peter was keen to say:
“The focus should be on public safety. Any new offence should therefore focus on establishing levels of drugs in the blood at which significant impairment – and therefore, risk to public safety – can be reasonably assumed, as is the case now for drink-driving”.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way for what must be the dozenth time. Has the issue of cannabis remaining in the body for up to a month been settled in terms of this type of testing? If limits of this kind are to be set and people have not taken an illegal substance for a month, would it be reasonable to penalise them? Is the testing yet sophisticated enough?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is one of the difficulties arising in this area. It might well be that the body retains chemical traces of an intoxicant drug—if I may use that term, as we have now learned that it is perhaps the correct way to describe these drugs. The question would be whether that trace was having any effect on the ability of that person to drive, and that would be a matter for the court to determine. The court might well decide that a person was guilty of the offence—if it were to be an offence—of driving while having drugs in the body. Were that to be made an absolute offence, of course they would be guilty of it.
I made the point that the focus should be on public safety, and that any new offence should therefore focus on establishing levels of drugs in the blood at which significant impairment—and therefore the risk to public safety—can be reasonably assumed, as is the case now for drink-driving. Responding to concerns from patients and health care professionals that people taking medicines would be banned from driving, Sir Peter stresses that this is not his intention. Instead, he highlights that although medicines can be as impairing to driving as illegal drugs, there is an important opportunity for the relevant parties to work together to improve public awareness and the driving patient’s safety.
The power that the police have to conduct roadside drug testing was introduced under schedule 7 to the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003. However, in the absence of any approved device, testing was of a rather more subjective nature. Guidance was issued in December 2004 on the conduct of the preliminary impairment tests. As I mentioned earlier, the police may ask drivers whom they suspect are under the influence of drugs to perform a series of physical tests, usually at the roadside, such as walking along a straight line, touching the tip of their nose with their finger, and standing on one leg. The police also examine drivers’ pupils to see if they are dilated while checking for slurred speech and poor co-ordination. If the police officer is not satisfied, the suspect is taken to a police station and a blood test is undertaken.
The problem with these tests is that they are subjective and not scientific compared with breathalyser tests. However, the police still feel that they are successful in identifying those who have been taking drugs. Moreover, the law does not make a distinction between illegal or misused drugs and over-the-counter prescription drugs taken as directed by a medical practitioner. For these reasons, there were often problems associated with prosecuting those who drove under the influence of drugs. In practice, the police have preferred to use the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, as amended, if they stop a person whom they suspect of taking drugs. Section 5(1) of the Act makes it unlawful to possess a controlled drug unless authorised by regulations under section 7. It may more often be the case that drivers thought to be unfit to drive and found with drugs in the vehicle would be prosecuted for possession of drugs and not for driving while unfit. However, problems may arise with the prosecution of a driver found in possession on the basis of a positive blood or urine sample, because once drugs have been consumed their character is altered and the person consuming the drugs is no longer considered to be in possession.
The same problem was highlighted in the submission by the Department for Transport to the North review team last June:
“The complex nature of drug pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics makes it difficult to establish values that would represent impairment in the general population. The main challenges in determining suitable cut-offs include: individual variations, drug tolerance, interactions with other drugs, and the variable effects of the same blood concentrations of drugs depending on whether the concentration is rising or falling. One review of the evidence for levels of cannabis related to impairment has suggested a cut-off for THC in whole blood of between 3.5–5 ng/ml, although a population-based study in France suggests that impairment is evident at lower levels (above 1 ng/ml). Attempts to develop comparable levels for amphetamines, however, have found greater variation in the association between blood concentrations and tests of impairment and thus recommend that per se cut-offs are inappropriate for this drug group. Tolerance issues and interactions with other drugs suggest that identifying suitable cut-off values for other drugs may also be inappropriate. Within Europe, a variety of drug driving policies has been adopted by the different countries, ranging from zero tolerance per se limits (e.g. Sweden) to proof of impairment (e.g. current UK laws), each with subtle variations. A zero tolerance approach overcomes the difficulties associated with: a) proving impairment; and b) deciding on scientifically valid cut-offs from conflicting sources of data. However, zero limit per se laws also have the potential to penalise drivers who are not impaired and pose no risk to safety. Studies of the effectiveness of Sweden’s zero tolerance laws have found them to have been unsuccessful in deterring DUID”—
driving under the influence of drugs—
“re-offenders. Further research into the correlations between blood concentrations of certain drugs and impairment may help to move toward developing suitable cut-offs (like those developed over time for alcohol). However, ‘before’ and ‘after’ studies of newly introduced laws to evaluate the performance of these various approaches in practice may be more useful.”
Perhaps I should add by way of explanation that pharmacodynamics explores what a drug does to the body, whereas pharmacokinetics explores what the body does to a drug. It is also worth bearing in mind the infinitesimally small amounts of a substance that have to be detected. The review of evidence that I have just quoted stated that some studies had found impairment at levels as low as 1 nanogram per millilitre, and a nanogram is one billionth of a gram.
I am sure that there is a method of doing so, but I could not do it now. However, my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that I will briefly touch on the European Union later. In all seriousness, however, 1 nanogram is one billionth of a gram, which may account for why it has taken the Home Office so long to produce a realistic specification for such a device, given the extremely small—indeed, unbelievably small—levels that it is expected to detect.
With all that in mind, it is perhaps worth considering some of the tragic cases of people losing their lives as a result of drivers taking the wheel while under the influence of drugs. It is perhaps all too easy to get bogged down in the technicalities and the dry scientific details of the drugs that we have been considering, and to forget the human tragedies that lie behind the problem. The road safety charity Brake has briefly and helpfully summarised some of those cases on its website. For example, it cites the case of a 20-year-old young woman, Katharine Davis, who was killed by a banned driver, Lee Fitzgerald. The case was reported in The Northern Echo, which stated that Fitzgerald was not only almost two times over the legal drink-driving limit, but had taken a cocktail of drugs, including cocaine and ecstasy. He then got behind the wheel of a friend’s car and gave a lift to Katharine and a work colleague. As he was being followed by the police, he crashed the car and Katharine lost her life. Fitzgerald was jailed for five years.
In another case, a young girl, Lucy Bellamy, aged only nine, was hit and killed while on a pelican crossing by one Andrew Wilkinson, who at the time was just 20. Wilkinson admitted to police that he had been smoking cannabis through a makeshift pipe. He apparently had not even tried to brake, even though he was approaching a pelican crossing. He was jailed for four and a half years. Further such cases arise all the time.
My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. I apologise for not having been here for the start of the debate and I do not know a great deal about this area, but is there any scope in such circumstances for using legislation on driving dangerously? There is no specific law on the use of illegal substances, but could the offence of driving dangerously or of causing death by dangerous driving be used instead against someone who had taken an illegal substance that prevented them from driving safely?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is perhaps one that those with greater knowledge of the workings of the criminal law—particularly as it relates to road traffic offences—would be more able to deal with.
There are two more recent cases that I would like briefly to raise, because I do not want people to think that everyone convicted of driving while under the influence of drugs is sent to jail. There was a case reported in the Dudley News of a Dudley man who was handed a suspended jail term for driving while unfit to do so through drugs. He was given a six-week jail sentence, suspended for 18 months, and banned from driving for 18 months. To run consecutively, the defendant was also jailed for six months, suspended for 18 months, for possession of a class A drug, heroin. He was ordered to pay £600 compensation and court costs at Dudley magistrates court.
My hon. Friend has been generous in giving way to me throughout this debate, which I very much appreciate. He has listed a whole bunch of terrible tragedies that no one in this place would wish had happened, although the criminal justice system has then caught up with the characters involved and punished them—perhaps not accordingly, but it has at least punished them. Surely the art in this case is in stopping people taking drugs and getting in a car in the first place. Even the devices that he was talking about earlier do not do that. Perhaps we need a much stronger education campaign about the effects of drugs on drivers.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Such education starts at school, with teachers and parents explaining the dangers of drug taking and the terrible damage that it can cause to the individual and, if they get behind the wheel of a car, to others. We would do well to send that message out loud and clear this morning.
Let me turn to the very heart of the Bill: the drug-testing device. For about a decade now, the Home Office has been developing a type approval specification for a drug- screening device—known as the “drugalyser”—that will help police at the roadside to detect the presence of drugs. A Metropolitan police trial took place between January 2001 and 2002. It had some success, but was hampered by the fact that testing had to be voluntary. In their February 2007 review of road safety, the then Labour Government stated that the first devices developed to specification could be available by the end of 2007, and that the Home Office was developing a prototype device that could both screen and analyse samples, and which was likely to be ready in two to three years. In February 2008, the then Minister told the House of Commons that the Home Office scientific development branch,
“in consultation with the Department for Transport, continues to discuss possible improvements to the field impairment test currently used by the police…HOSDB continues to investigate a possible impairment measuring device through established contacts working in this area. Opportunities for partnership with a suitable university or other outside agency continue to be sought.”—[Official Report, 19 February 2008; Vol. 472, c. 582W.]
This is rather like a mirage of an oasis in the desert—the nearer we get to it, the further away it appears to be. The Times subsequently reported that the Home Office was “preparing to approve” hand-held drug-screening devices, and that
“Philips…announced that it will start deliveries to police next year”—
that is, 2009—
“of a machine that detects five different drug groups, including cocaine, heroin and cannabis, in just 90 seconds from a single saliva sample”.
However, no type approval has yet been given. There is the rub: the Home Office might have thought that it was about to approve such a device, but, as we know, that never happened.
I have seen a picture of the machine, and it is a very simple device. A person is asked to provide a sample of saliva, which is placed into a small tube that is inserted into the machine. The sample goes into the measurement chamber, which contains magnetic nanoparticles coated with ligands that bind to one of the five different drug groups. This delivers test results in one and a half minutes. Philips had apparently been busy developing that device since 2001. It was built as an optical device that would be easy to mass-produce for law enforcement purposes.
Sir Peter North’s review reported on the problems as follows:
“To date a type-approval specification for such a device has not been produced. Consequently, while a range of commercial drug screening devices is available, none is suitable for enforcement purposes in the UK.
Home Office Scientific Development Branch has been working on the development of a roadside screening device based on surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) over the last 10 years, both in house and externally. A SERS based device would be a considerable advance over existing commercially available devices in that it would be capable of identifying any drug.
Following an expert peer review in 2008, the in-house development by HOSDB of the SERS substrates required for such a device was halted and the emphasis placed on developing external technologies, including those based on SERS. Following two calls for research initiated at the start of 2009, two external research contracts were placed, with the aim of developing prototype devices within the next three years.
With regard to drug screening devices for use at the roadside, the preferred matrix for analysis is oral fluid, which is easy and convenient to collect, and any drugs detected in this medium are indicative of recent use.
Early trials of roadside drug screening devices based on oral fluid…concluded that none of the devices tested at that time was suitable for use in enforcement at the roadside. However, recent evaluations of drug screening devices have highlighted continued improvements in sensitivity and the general performance of oral fluid drug testing devices, but also that the reliable detection of cannabinoid use and benzodiazepines still remains problematic.”
Mr Deputy Speaker, you can imagine my delight when I discovered that the long tentacles of the European Union had found their way into this subject. I promised my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset that I would touch on this matter. It appears that there is a project funded by the European Commission—using some of the billions of pounds that we contribute to the EU each year—and I hope that you will not think that I am straying from the subject if I mention the word “DRUID”. It is actually an acronym for the project funded by the European Commission, and it stands for “driving under the influence of drugs, alcohol and medicines”—[Laughter.]
It is a kind of organised acronym. We have the D and R from “driving”, and the U from “under”. Then we miss out the “the”, adopt the I from “influence”, miss out the “of”, adopt the D from “drugs” and miss out the “alcohol and medicines” bit. That is how we get to DRUID.
But I am not a druid! I am a practising member of the Church of England. I am not sure whether the Archbishop of Canterbury has commented on this matter yet, but no doubt he will later.
The DRUID report includes an analytical evaluation of several on-site oral fluid screeners. The final report is still in production but early results suggest that police evaluations of the devices tested were broadly positive. Eight of the 13 evaluated devices were rated as “promising” and were subsequently included in a scientific evaluation focusing on sensitivity and specificity.
My hon. Friend asks a good question, but I do not know the answer. I suspect that they might have been tested throughout the European Union, although I would like to think that at least some of them were tested in the United Kingdom.
Early drafts of the report go on to state that research papers in the press have reported on the evaluation of four of the devices. While one device was considered unsuitable, three demonstrated excellent sensitivity for amphetamines and moderate sensitivity for the detection of cocaine and cannabis. A newer version of one of the devices using new generation oral fluid screening tests demonstrated improved sensitivity—as high as 93%—for tetrahydrocannabinol.
A recent evaluation of the zero tolerance approach adopted in parts of Australia is particularly informative. A report on the first 12 months of the new law in Western Australia reveals that 9,716 roadside tests were conducted during that period. Of those, 517 tested positive for one or more proscribed drugs, which equates to 5.3% of the total.The results suggest that a zero tolerance policy utilising roadside screening devices has distinct advantages over the UK’s impairment-based approach. Specifically, the process is simple, straightforward, quick to administer and unambiguous.
Drug-impaired driving legislation, which is akin to our own impairment-based approach, was introduced in conjunction with the roadside oral fluid testing procedures. However, drug-impaired driving appears to have been largely ignored as an anti-drug-drive measure, in favour of the roadside oral fluid testing approach. During the study period, only five drivers were charged with drug-impaired driving. Police officers appeared to be more comfortable with administering the roadside oral fluid tests than with trying to demonstrate impairment in order to secure a conviction for drug-impaired driving. The Australian experience suggests that, were the UK to move to a zero tolerance system, one effect would be that police officers would be less likely to pursue a case for driving under the influence of drugs under section 4 of the Road Traffic Act 1988.
Since the Bill had its First Reading last year, there have been significant developments in this area by the Government. First, in written evidence to the Transport Committee submitted in September 2010, the Department for Transport set out the Government’s views on how they intended to proceed in the area of drug-driving. In March this year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport set out how the Government would proceed. Subsequently, on 11 May this year, the Department for Transport published its strategic framework for road safety. This stated:
“On drink and drug driving our priority is to deter driving when unfit through drugs or alcohol, and to ensure that those who persist in this dangerous behaviour are detected and punished effectively. Considerable progress has been made in the abatement of drink-driving, but we now aim to achieve similar results with drivers who are impaired through the use of drugs. The prospect of an effective means of detecting and deterring drug-driving will—for the first time—allow a serious enforcement effort against this dangerous behaviour. That is our first priority, which we believe is shared by the police.
It can be just as dangerous for people to drive impaired by alcohol or drugs, and it is currently unbalanced that it is easier to get away with one than the other. We want to give the police the means to identify drug-drivers and allow them to request evidential samples for testing. There needs to be a clear message that drug-drivers are as likely to be caught and punished as drink-drivers.
Our strategy is to focus resources and any legislative changes on measures which will have the most impact in reducing dangerous behaviours. There are therefore two main priorities to continue the successful abatement of drink-driving and achieve similar success against drug-driving;
To give the police effective tools to identify and proceed against drug-drivers;
To streamline the enforcement process for drink and drug driving to relieve pressure on police and other enforcement resources, and enable these to be targeted better.
We have issued a specification to manufacturers for drug testing technology that will be able to be used in police stations. It is for manufacturers to supply, and police forces to obtain, approved devices and put them to use. We are also finalising the additional requirements for type approving such devices for use at the roadside.”
At that point, one might add, “About time, too”. It continues:
“We will explore the case for introducing an offence of having a specified drug in the body while driving in addition to the current offence of driving while impaired by drugs. An objective measure of whether a drug driving offence has been committed should deliver a significant improvement in the enforcement of drug driving.
This is a complex issue and so we will continue the research and other work that is necessary before any decisions can be made. We cannot at this stage pre-empt that work by describing any additional offence, or give a firm date for its potential introduction. Any proposals will be subject to further consultation, regulatory clearance and other impact assessments in the usual way.”
I look forward to hearing from the Minister what further progress the Government have been able to make in this area since that report was issued. Finally, I join my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch in commending the Bill to the House.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on pushing this matter as he has in this debate. I know he has a significant long-term interest in the subject and has been frustrated over a long period of time about the lack of movement in securing the appropriate checks for the roadside detection of drug use. That is why I congratulate him and rise to support him as best I can.
I also obviously welcome the brief comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), who has demonstrated in some detail his considerable knowledge of this area of policy, with its history and accompanying problems. I am also waiting for the debate on my Onshore Wind Turbines (Proximity of Habitation) Bill, in which I shall tilt at windmills. Perhaps we will reach that fourth debate in the fullness of time, although I am not so sure.
I have followed road safety issues for a number of years—ever since, indeed, the sister of one of my closest school friends was killed by a drink-driver just after I left school at the age of 18. I have toured around many a primary school in my constituency to talk about road safety in general terms. This is another side of the coin: it is not just about making people aware of what they should do when they cross the road, but about ensuring that we protect those who use our roads and those who walk beside them.
Most people in the UK see driving under the influence of drugs as a growing problem and a growing mess. It is one of those areas where, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North described, the devil is in the detail. We all agree that we want to get rid of this menace; it is a question of having the appropriate method of detection, being able to stand up in court whatever evidence the police have found and then to secure appropriate convictions. That should act as a deterrent to those who might be considering such a course of action.
The public and the press—and, indeed, most hon. Members—would really like to see some action on this matter. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North about all the problems that the detail brings, but we have had a lot of time to think about it. I flicked through some research in preparation for this debate and thought it was interesting to see how past Governments had tackled the issue. There is cross-party agreement on it, so I refuse to make any party political points; there is little distance between the two main parties’ positions—or among any of the parties, for that matter.
If we go back to 31 May 2005, we find BBC reports saying:
“Police officers could soon be using special hand-held detectors in a roadside crackdown on drug-driving. The machines would be used to test motorists for recreational drugs or tranquillisers—which can seriously affect them—at the wheel.”
We then get to what I guess is the main point:
“The Home Office is expected to release its specifications for a testing device soon”,
which we will find is a common theme of the press releases. It continued:
“In December 2004, police were given new powers to carry out roadside impairment tests on drivers they suspected of being under the influence of drugs. Prior to that drivers could choose to take part in the impairment tests, but refusal became an offence in the same way as failure to provide a breath test.”
Back then, a company was touting its wares in this field, with a device that it claimed could pick up a number of the problem drugs.
Moving to 10 May 2009—we should note that all these dates seem to be around the time of local or other elections; that is not a criticism of Labour, because we have done the same this year ourselves—we see a newspaper article which states:
“Motorists face roadside drug tests under Government plans.”
It is as if it has been lifted from the BBC and rewritten, which is quite odd because normally the BBC lifts its information from other news organisations. This is a report in The Daily Telegraph—[Interruption.] There is no one from the BBC up there in the Press Gallery; they will watch us later! The article goes on:
“The Government is ready to change the law so that any driver can be prosecuted for getting behind the wheel with any illegal drug in their bloodstream. Officers would be issued with so-called ‘drugalyzers’ to enable them to screen motorists for a number of substances including cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine. Should the tests prove positive, the driver would be arrested and taken to the police station for a doctor to take a blood sample”—
and so on and so forth in the process outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North.
“The change in the law would bring Britain into line with a number of countries, including Italy, Romania, Croatia and part of Australia, where roadside testing is already in place.”
Although discussions had started in 2005, it was not until 2009 that the Home Office was talking to a number of companies about a design that could be used by the police in Britain. The article went on:
“Detailed specifications are expected to be drawn up by the Home Office and Forensic Science Service within the next few months”—
“and roadside tests could become a reality in two to five years.”
Two years later, I could turn to yet another press release—but I will not, because Members will guess what it contains.
The public are beginning to get a tiny bit hacked off with politicians. We all know that they are hacked off with us in general—they think that we do not do as much as we should, or as quickly as we should, and that what we do, we do badly. We have great public support for action in this field, and they do not understand why it has taken us so long to move from recognising the problem to having a workable solution out on the streets that helps the police to detect a crime that causes so many accidents.
My hon. Friend is correct: the saga continues. A game of table tennis seems to be going on between the Home Office and the Department for Transport. The public, and I, would like to see some action. Approval should be given for detection devices for use by police officers in testing. They have been developed, and a number of them are in existence. We ought to get our bureaucratic processes sorted out, so that we can have them available for use across the police forces of the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North detailed the Department for Transport’s consultation document on road safety compliance back in November 2008. Produced just a handful of years ago, that paper stated:
“We could explore the viability of creating a new offence to target those who drive after taking illegal drugs—those that are controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971—which can impair a user’s ability to drive. The public rightly perceive”—
this had already been spotted—
“users of these drugs who drive as a danger to road safety”
and to everybody on the roads. The public wanted action to protect themselves.
People who drive under the influence of drugs increase the number of accidents on our roads, and they increase the cost of insurance for all those drivers who drive innocently and honestly on our streets. As we have heard, the human cost of the accidents that they cause can be massive.
The Labour party issued a consultation, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North detailed, and it asked the right questions and got the right answers. Sir Peter North’s consultation was very good and was received well on both sides of the House, although the final report was not published until 16 June 2010. The main recommendations of the North review relating to drug-driving were that police procedures enforcing current drug-driving laws should be improved and that there should be early approval for saliva testing and a device that can do that. Both those recommendations have great cross-party support.
That goes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North. In England, the law concerns itself with impairment to your ability to drive. You might be impaired three days after you smoked a joint—it is down to the individual. I do not mean you, Mr Deputy Speaker—a member of the public might be impaired.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is completely correct—[Interruption.] Let us not go back down that route; I will stick to where I was going.
It is impairment of an individual’s ability to drive that we are seeking to identify—there is a line that one might cross, and different individuals’ bodies will metabolise drugs, as they do food, in different ways. We have already accepted that with regard to alcohol, so let us make a bold leap. Why not introduce tests for the five main types of recreational drugs—those listed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North—that tend to be found in individuals who have caused an accident to which the police are called? This hinges on getting approval for a device, and that is the bureaucratic nonsense behind it all. Having accepted the principle of introducing a level—I would push for a zero level, as in Sweden, because that is much easier for everybody to come to terms with—why should we not bring forward such devices?
In his review, Sir Peter North said:
“The focus should be on public safety”.
The protection of our constituents from those who take drugs and then decide it is fine to jump in a car is one reason why we are all interested in this debate. Such drivers might not feel that their ability is impaired, and even if they do, they probably do not care too much for the other individuals concerned. Sir Peter continued:
“Any new offence should therefore focus on establishing levels of drugs in the blood at which significant impairment—and therefore, risk to public safety—can reasonably be assumed, as is the case now for drink-driving.”
That is a fairly simple statement. We have accepted levels for alcohol, so let us accept them for some of the more commonly used recreational drugs, and get the type review device approved by the Home Office and out on the streets, adding to the deterrents that we have.
Under schedule 7 of the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003, the police have the power to conduct roadside drug tests, so there is no problem with that side of the argument. Guidance was issued back in December 2004 on the conduct of the preliminary impairment tests detailed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North. There is a host of reasons why we should put more pressure on the Government to get on with this job.
Having had private conversations with the Minister, I think he understands that there is a great deal of anxiety about how long the process has taken. The crime is relatively new, but it is also one of the crimes most on the increase. As my hon. Friends have detailed, the problem is the scientific ability of drug-screening devices to detect what we would like them to identify.
For about a decade, the Home Office has been developing a type approval specification for a “drugalyser” that would help police at the roadside to detect the presence of drugs. The Metropolitan police took part in a trial between January 2001 and January 2002 which, although reasonably successful, was—according to the official phraseology—“hampered” by the fact that testing had to be voluntary at that time.
In their February 2007 review of road safety, the Labour Government stated that the first devices developed to specification could be available at the end of that year, and that the Home Office was already developing a prototype device which could both screen and analyse samples and was likely to be ready in two to three years. In February 2008, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), then a Minister, told the House that the Home Office’s
“Scientific Development Branch… in consultation with the Department for Transport, continues to discuss possible improvements to the field impairment test currently used by the police… continues to investigate a possible impairment measuring device through established contacts working in this area. Opportunities for partnership with a suitable university or other outside agency continue to be sought.”—[Official Report, 19 February 2008; Vol. 472, c. 582W.]
Clearly there has been no lack of work, and that work has been carried out for a host of years. However, someone sitting in the beautiful village of Flore in my constituency as traffic rattles along a road that desperately needs to be bypassed, and fearing that one night, on one of the bad bends, a person who has had far too much of a good time and used illegal drugs will pile into the side of their house, may feel that, given the length of time for which this deterrent had been talked about, a Government of any colour should have acted much earlier.
As we know, The Times reported in 2008 that the Home Office was “preparing to approve” hand-held drug-screening devices, and that
“Philips…announced yesterday that it will start deliveries to police”
early in 2009. I wonder where those deliveries have got to. There is a problem somewhere, and I hope that, in his considered reply, the Minister will tell us how he is trying to unblock the channels that seem to be blocked.
Is my hon. Friend aware of a report that has appeared in the Daily Mail in the last few days? Apparently police in Australia are launching trials of a testing system this week, and similar equipment is already in use in Finland and is being tested in Italy.
I was aware of that. It was in one of the press releases that I chose not to read out earlier. It adds to the frustration that people feel, which I hope I have been able to convey to the Minister.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North mentioned the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), the road safety Minister. Not long ago, he said:
“Drink and drug driving are serious offences and drivers should be in no doubt that if they are caught behind the wheel under the influence this summer they risk losing their licence as well as facing a fine and even a prison sentence.
We are taking forward measures to make it easier for the police to tackle drink and drug driving and protect law abiding road users including plans for drug testing kits to help detect drug drivers and tightening the law on drink driving.”
We would all welcome that, but I have a sneaking suspicion, based on the press reports that I read out earlier, that Ministers have been heard to utter those exact words before. If there is a drug-testing kit that we are happy to put on the streets in the summer, let us arrange for it to be type-approved by the Home Office and supplied throughout the country.
Back in December, the Minister—this Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire)—said:
“Any equipment for use by the police in this country must be of a type approved by the Secretary of State. Type approval is granted on the basis of compliance with a specification which sets out the detailed requirements a device has to meet and the testing regime which it has to pass to be suitable for use in British operational conditions and within the British legal framework. We hope to issue very shortly the specification for a device for use in a police station and are continuing work towards the specification for a roadside device. It will be for manufacturers to submit for testing and approval any devices which they think meet the specification.”—[Official Report, 2 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 1098W.]
Given that we have been waiting for specifications for so many years, can we please get them out quickly? The question of when the devices will be available is of concern to our constituents throughout the country.
I do not wish to condemn a certain section of society too much, but it is possible to see examples of it daily on the Jeremy Kyle show. There is a type of person who is much more at risk of taking drugs and getting into a car without realising what he or she has the potential to do as a result of lack of education, awareness or care. Such people tend to be young, and they tend to be uninsured and untaxed. They tend to be breaking the law simply by getting into their cars, let alone having taken drugs beforehand. They are probably either going to or coming from a location that is known to the police. Obviously such locations do not exist in North East Somerset, and I should of course be stunned and surprised were there any in Northamptonshire. Indeed, such people tend to be known to the police themselves. I am afraid that there are not too many surprises when the police stop them and subsequently find that they have been driving under the influence of drugs, and when their names flash up on the system in connection with an earlier drug-related offence.
I suggest to the Minister that there is a certain group of individuals out there who need to be targeted—not as in police targeting but for education purposes, so that they can come to terms with the fact that in taking an illegal drug and then getting into a car, they are not just already committing a crime but are about to drive a lethal weapon that could potentially kill someone’s child. Although this debate is about roadside testing, surely the whole point of it is the need to stop people even being tempted to take drugs before getting into a vehicle, so that none of us have to experience a tragedy in our constituencies or among our friends, as I have in the past and as so many other Members have.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on securing this important debate and moving the topic of drug-driving higher up the agenda. It is a great pleasure to follow the brief remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris).
Although I agree with many of the principles associated with the Bill, I am unable, for a number of reasons, to agree with the Bill as it is currently worded. Before I go on to detail those reasons, I stress that I am a trustee of a charity in Stevenage called The Living Room, which tries to break the cycle of addiction, specifically drug and alcohol addiction, and the devastating impact that that has on the lives of those who are addicted and, more often than not, their families. In many cases, the involvement of those individuals in criminal activities has a devastating impact on the victims and their families.
Drugs are a huge problem in our society and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry suggested, we must focus more on education, on ensuring that people who enter a world of drugs to escape their current reality recognise that that is not the right path, and on identifying why they take that line.
One of the issues that I have with the Bill is the nature of the offences as detailed. Primary legislation would probably be required for its provisions to be introduced. At present the offence is driving while impaired by drugs or causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs. Although a roadside screening device can identify whether someone has drugs in their system, that will not necessarily be a criminal offence. The police need to have reason to believe that the person’s driving was impaired by having the drugs in their system.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North mentioned some tragic cases that were the result of an individual causing death by careless driving because of drugs. Under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the penalty was increased to 14 years, so the five years that such an individual would receive under the present law would be increased to 14 years. Section 4 of the 1988 Act stresses the need to show that the person was unfit to drive while under the influence of drugs. My hon. Friend detailed well the Department for Transport’s consultation in 2008, which asked for views on the creation of a possible new offence—driving with drugs in one’s system. That consultation closed in February 2009 and in December 2010 the Government announced that they would seek further advice from Sir Peter North.
My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry referred to Sir Peter North’s response. On the question of a new law setting banned drug levels, Sir Peter stated that the focus should be on public safety. Any new offence should therefore focus on establishing levels of drugs in the blood at which significant impairment and therefore risk to public safety can be reasonably assumed, as is the case now for drink-driving. That brings me back to my concern about the Bill. It would require primary legislation to introduce a new offence of driving while having drugs in the system.
I am not entirely convinced that the Bill seeks to establish a new offence. It calls on the Secretary of State to approve a device for administering the preliminary drug test, which was envisaged in section 6A(1) of the 1988 Act. Will my hon. Friend expand a little on his objections to that?
Indeed. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) said, the device used to establish drink-driving, the breathalyser, provides the evidential basis. My concern is that if a drug-screening device is produced in the next 12 months, it will identify whether people have drugs in their system, as opposed to the police stopping someone because they thought his driving was impaired by having drugs in his system. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch cited a case in which an individual was prosecuted for crashing his car and received eight weeks in prison for being under the influence of drugs.
As the law stands, if the police stop a driver because they feel that he is driving the vehicle irrationally and is impaired in some way, they have the power to take him back to the police station and test whether he has drugs in his system. Increasing the powers of the police would move us closer towards a police state, as they could stop anybody and test them for drugs, because the drug- screening device would have evidential power, whereas at present only a blood sample is allowed to be used in court.
Hon. Members have given a number of examples—discotheques in North East Somerset, dance clubs where one boogies in Daventry, or dance clubs in Bury North. Statistics show that 76% of young people surveyed admitted to having drugs in their system. That brings me to my second objection to the Bill, which is the social aspect. We would not want the police to use a drug-screening device to target younger people leaving such premises to identify whether they had drugs in their system. My concern is the practical one of the device being used in a slightly different way.
I understand my hon. Friend’s argument, but surely some existing drug-screening devices are appropriately used—for example, to detect drug use among the prison population. It is a case of horses for courses. If we try to keep ourselves focused on a device that is proven to work for a limited amount of illegal drugs for roadside use by the police, hopefully we can, with debates in the House and pressure on Ministers, maintain it for that use and not have it spread further in ways that might impinge on people’s liberty.
I agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments. As I have said, I also agree with many of the sentiments in the Bill. My concern is how it will be applied in practice. My real concern is how individuals will use these devices to target specific sections of society and then use that evidence to say that people are under the influence of drugs.
The Bill would not introduce random testing. At the moment we do not allow random breath testing for alcohol and the Bill would not allow random testing for drugs. It would allow testing where the motorist has either been seen to be committing a road traffic offence, or been driving in a way that has caused the police to believe that he might be driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I agree with much of what he says, but the key point is that the police can already tell such individuals that they believe they are under the influence of drugs and will test them at the police station. I am not sure many police officers in Hertfordshire would be keen to allow an individual to get back into a vehicle and continue driving if they felt that the individual was sufficiently impaired to stop and question them in the first place. In nine cases out of 10 they would no doubt take them back to the police station and test them.
There is also the issue of costs and road safety. The previous Government and this Government have done a lot to highlight road safety. A number of excellent charities such as Brake are doing everything they can to ensure that people are educated in improving road safety and, for example, are made more aware of the fact that if people drive at 20 mph in a residential area instead of 30 mph, small children will be less likely to be killed. A lot of work has gone into that and I would refute the suggestion that the reason for the delay by parties on both side of the House was cost. The real reason, as the previous Government concluded, is that none of the previous devices have been considered sufficiently reliable to be used for roadside testing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry spoke about specifications, and the Bill seeks to introduce the specification in the next 12 months. If the previous Government concluded that none of the specific kit out there is sufficiently reliable, I am not sure that we should simply say that one of those pieces of equipment should be taken on board within the next 12 months. My fear is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) mentioned on more than one occasion, that would endanger innocent people, and delay may not be the result of bureaucracy but of ensuring—
I hope that the Minister will respond to that point, and that the scientific evidence for the devices is being considered. Some of the statistics and evidence we have heard today do not provide any reliable comparisons, and we need to look at this further. I agree with the concept and know that we are all frustrated that we are not moving fast enough, but I am concerned that if people felt they were being wrongly prosecuted it would be open to judicial review and would drag on an awful lot longer. If we get the specification right to begin with, the process will move on much faster and further, and in practice rather than in theory.
It has taken such an unreasonably long time for the specification for a device to be approved because it has to be very detailed and precise, and no doubt one problem will be that the Government will want it to adhere to a specific rationale and the manufacturers will want it to be commercially viable, so there is that tension. Will the Minister invite manufacturers to propose specifications so that devices can be tested scientifically, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North has suggested? Is the specification unrealistically demanding? I do not think that any specification is unrealistically demanding if it prevents innocent people from being prosecuted unnecessarily, which is a key issue. We have to do what is right to ensure that innocent people are allowed to carry on with their lives and are not caught up in this process.
That brings me to a point about medication. I am not a scientist and so am unaware of how much theory, evidence and scientific support there is for the device. I can only identify the number of drugs that might be tested for—I cannot repeat their names, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North did so eloquently, no doubt challenging the Hansard reporters to spell them correctly. I am not sure whether medication would be picked up by the devices in the same way as some illegal drugs would be. Some people who take medicine prescribed by their doctor for health reasons could be accused of taking illegal drugs and, as a result, taken down to the police station and prosecuted. All that rigmarole will have a huge impact on their lives simply because they are taking medication. It is really important that the drug-screening device, which I fully support, does the right job at the right time and that we ensure that we stop people who are under the influence of illegal drugs.
Finally, I feel that the delay is of paramount importance to protect innocent people who are taking medication. We do not want the drug-screening device to be used to stop and search people. It is very important that those who are considered to be driving under the influence of drugs are prosecuted in exactly the same way as they are at present. Although I fully support the actual intention of the Bill, I cannot support it at the moment because of its current wording and its instruction to the Government to agree on a device within the next 12 months.
I almost entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), who put absolutely clearly and rightly his point that most people want this desperately serious issue to be dealt with fairly and forcefully. There is undoubtedly a scourge in the country of people taking illegal substances and then doing unwise things, which include driving cars, but, although we are talking about cars, we need also to talk about carts and horses, because with this Bill the cart is being put in front of the horse, for one very obvious and clear reason: we have the test, but we have not set the limits that apply.
We have heard learnedly from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) about nanograms, a term that I had not previously been particularly familiar with, but if we are dealing with nanograms of substances in people’s blood we need to say whether a nanogram is a legal or illegal nanogram when we test it, because if we have not established that, we will not know what the benchmark is; hence the cart is in front of the horse.
In that context, a great deal more work needs to be done, because, as has been widely discussed, there are varying views on what level of substance in somebody’s blood could impair their driving and, indeed, what combination of substances could impair or unimpair their driving. Earlier, we discussed the person—the youth perhaps, or the dangerous driver—who was calmed by taking cannabis. But then he might have had a cup of coffee to pep him up, so how are we going to balance those substances in one little drop of spittle, which I must say is not an ideal way for the police to go around collecting samples?
I feel rather sorry for the officer on duty at the roadside who stops somebody driving in zig-zags and not absolutely on the straight and narrow and then has to get him to spit. I feel sympathy for the enforcers of law and order, given that we cannot find a better roadside test than one based on spittle. We need to be clear, as we are with alcohol, however, about the amount that is allowed before we can make the test effective.
If I have misunderstood this point, I hope that somebody will intervene on me to explain it more clearly, but the current law states that one has to be shown to be impaired, hence the roadside tests, the standing on one leg and all that, because the police can turn up in court and say, “Mr Bloggins couldn’t stand with one leg 8 inches from the ground for more than 30 seconds while counting up to 100,” or whatever the test is. That is evidence either that he is a poor unbalanced man anyway, or that he has taken illegal substances and that conclusion might be backed up by a blood test taken at the station, showing that an offence of operating a motor car when under the influence of drugs has been committed.
First, let us be absolutely clear: we have not set the benchmarks, so the test does not test anything particularly evidential. Secondly, however, there is the point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North again made so wisely and rightly, about drugs themselves and what is legal and illegal. [Interruption.] Does my hon. Friend want to intervene? He looks as if he is about to spring from his perch, coiled as he is.
I wish merely to comment on my hon. Friend’s previous point about what the offence is. He is quite right that it is not an offence merely to have drugs in one’s body, because that is not what the 1988 Act states. It states:
“A person who, when driving or attempting to drive a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or other public place, is unfit to drive through drink or drugs is guilty of an offence.”
The difficulty facing the court is in determining, first, whether the person was unfit to drive and, secondly, whether it was as a result of drink or, in this case, drugs.
My hon. Friend, in his opening remarks, put it extremely clearly that the courts should determine these matters, but I do not agree. The courts should not determine the levels. They can determine the individual case. They can say, “Yes, we accept what the police are saying, yes we accept that that person was unable to hold his leg 6½ inches off the ground for two hours”—or whatever it is—“and that therefore he was affected by drugs.” However, it would not be right for the courts to establish the broad principle that 1 nanogram of some substance was the limit, or 2 nanograms. I could keep counting up to one full gram; on another occasion, Mr Deputy Speaker, I may find it advisable to do so, but not today. This should be decided by Parliament, because that is what we are here for—to determine the principles that are then applied by the courts.
I worry when we give either too little or too much discretion to the courts, because it depends so much on the area that is covered. When it comes to the appropriate sentence, we should set the maximum, and possibly the minimum, but we do not want to set the finer details. With quantities of drugs, likewise, we want to set the minimum and the maximum for legality, but we do not want the judges to develop their own precedent that gives them a power that rightly belongs to Parliament. That is why the Government are right to consider this. I have not suddenly decided that I am in favour of bureaucratic dithering, because it is not bureaucratic dithering; it is a right understanding of the very difficult issues that exist.
I move on to the question of what is legal and what is illegal. I thought of quoting Coleridge:
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree”.
That was written under the influence of what would now be an illegal substance. Coleridge had been taking opium for some time beforehand, and he wrote out his poem until interrupted by a gentleman from Porlock, which is notably in the county of Somerset. Taking opium was perfectly legal at the time. He was not committing any offence by doing so, nor are some people today who are prescribed opiates for the relief of pain. If somebody is prescribed an opiate for the relief of pain and is driving perfectly well, is it conceivably reasonable to say to them, “We’ve found a nanogram of this substance in you and therefore you’ve committed an offence and must be banned from driving for a year”? It is not the same with alcohol, because very few people absolutely need to take alcohol. That is not entirely true, as I knew a man who was prescribed gin and tonic by his doctor towards the end of his life, but that was for more complex reasons than as a curative—I think it was more of a palliative. Some people need these serious and otherwise illegal drugs for good and proper medical reasons, and therefore a blanket test could be a very unfair and unjust way with dealing with them. That is why the Government are right to consider this thoroughly and properly so that ultimately we can not only set the limits but differentiate as regards where the limits ought to be set and what we are trying to include and to exclude.
Beyond the drugs that are illegal in certain circumstances and legal in others, there are the drugs that are always legal but can, in certain quantities, create an impairment. That leads to a balance of advantages. Lots of people suffer from hay fever, for example. If someone is driving along and has a fit of the sneezes, that is quite dangerous, as they could drive into a ditch, or something worse. If they take a more old-fashioned type of antihistamine, they may find that it makes them feel a little sleepy if they have that type of reaction to antihistamines. Are we suddenly going to say that someone who takes an antihistamine cannot drive because it is better that people should have a fit of the sneezes? Would it show up in the test anyway?
The broad problem that, I am afraid, often comes up on Friday mornings is that the laws that we look to pass are about motherhood and apple pie. They are saying, for example, “The world is simple and it’s all very straightforward—we’ll have a nice test, and bingo, we’ve got the drug dealers and the drug users off the roads.” But it is not quite like that; the situation is much more complex and nuanced, regarding not only the levels but the legality and the illegality, and then some of the broader general principles.
I want to return to the piece in the Daily Mail on coffee earlier this week. I was astonished to read that anybody who has five cups of coffee a day is likely to hallucinate. I should think that I have had at least five cups of coffee every day since I was a young teenager, and I have never, to my knowledge, hallucinated; it may be that one does not notice these effects. I would be very reluctant to see the Government introduce some hand-held device to test Members of Parliament as they drive out of New Palace Yard to see whether they have too much caffeine in their system. After some of our sittings that last until 4 in the morning, quite a lot of Members have a lot of caffeine in their system, not to mention some who might have other things in their system. I would not think it right for the police officers on duty to ask us to spit at them, as I mentioned earlier, which would be most unpleasant and improper. There are real issues and difficulties in how we deal with legal and illegal drugs, and the measuring of them.
There is also the general principle. I have a certain sympathy with the US constitution, and the fifth amendment in particular, which allows people not to incriminate themselves. We have made an exception for drink-driving. The motorist, oddly, is the one person in British life who is not protected from the general principle of non-self-incrimination. The motorist who does not reply to a speeding ticket is guilty of an offence and therefore incriminates himself, and occasionally members of his family. There are obvious questions over the breathalyser, because a failure to provide a sample without good reason is an offence and one incriminates oneself by failing to give one. Already with drug-driving, as I have said, it is an offence to refuse to stand on one leg for the specified time with the other leg a specified number of inches from the ground. That ought to worry us constitutionally.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I know that it is unwise to interrupt his flow of words, eloquent and beautiful as it is, and especially so after five cups of coffee on a Friday morning. There is another group of individuals in the position that he has detailed. Sportsmen and athletes have to report in about where they will be going in hourly or three-hourly segments—I cannot remember which—and they have random drug tests. This is not just something that is proposed in the Bill; we accept the concept that drug testing should be allowed in some circumstances. Surely when a person is pulled over for a road traffic offence and the police suspect that they have been taking drugs, the police should be equipped with a device so that they can test the person there and then.
I think that my hon. Friend’s point is slightly disconnected, because belonging to a voluntary body, the rules of which state that one must subject oneself to a test, is very different from Her Majesty’s Government and Parliament, through legislation, taking away one’s right not to self-incriminate. One does not have to be an athlete—I never could be anyway. It is not compulsory to be a runner or a jumper. It ought to be compulsory to be a cricketer, but sadly it is not. However, if the Government get involved, one may commit an offence by going about one’s ordinary daily life and that is a higher degree of intrusion. The same point applies to the earlier intervention about the Home Office testing the people who work for it with these machines.
Where the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) is slightly wrong is that a sportsman who does not take a drug test does not commit a criminal offence, although he may be banned by his sport. However, I understand that it is a criminal offence for airline pilots and crew not to give samples when required by the aviation authorities. Is not the bar set so much higher for airline pilots and drivers because they are responsible for other people’s lives?
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I was merely making the point that this is something that we should be concerned about, and that we should be aware of what we are doing. The fifth amendment in the United States gives a clear protection. Our constitutional system does not have such clear protections. It is therefore quite easy for Parliament to eat into them and gnaw away at them slowly, sometimes without really thinking. Once we have done it for drink-driving, we say, “Well, why don’t we do it for driving on drugs?” We then say, “Well, drugs are illegal anyway, so why not just test the whole population and see whether they are committing a criminal offence?” That might not be hugely popular in all our constituencies.
My hon. Friend refers to the fifth amendment, but he will be aware that there is statute law in the United States stating that there is implied consent on the part of every driver of a motor vehicle. By taking out a driving licence, they are not covered by the fifth amendment, because by implied consent in law they agree to be subject to a test if the police suspect that they have an illegal substance in their body while driving. I am not sure that he is comparing like with like, because a similar statutory regime exists in the United States notwithstanding the fifth amendment.
My hon. Friend’s intervention is extremely helpful, but we can see how clear America is about understanding the process that is followed, and about what it is doing in relation to people’s constitutional rights. That is what I am highlighting.
If we do what is suggested in the Bill, we have to be aware of the very important principle that is, to some extent, being undermined. It is not necessarily disproportionate to do it, and it may be absolutely essential—I would not begin to say that we should not have the breathalyser and the assumption that if someone refuses a test, they have probably committed an offence anyway. I do not think that is disproportionate, but it is important to be aware of the risk that we are taking with our constitution, and we must ensure that we are very careful if we ever take the idea further. The next time an hon. Member introduces a private Member’s Bill that would do something that looks very good and would improve society, we must consider whether we are doing anything to the constitution that we should be very careful about.
That is another reason for supporting Her Majesty’s Government in this particular area. They are right to be slow and deliberative. The worst thing to do would be to get some fancy bit of kit introduced—made by Philips, as I think was suggested earlier, or perhaps by Samsung Electronics—that comes in, absolutely whizzo, and tests for all drugs but one, or takes just one reading. This “nanogram” thing really makes me suspicious, because it must be easy to find a nanogram from somewhere if that is what one wants to do, or for a nanogram to be stuck in the machine from the last person, who might have come from Gloucestershire. The police might cross over into Somerset, and then some good Somerset fellow would spit on this thing and find himself caught out by a Gloucestershire nanogram. I am very concerned about Gloucestershire nanograms.
I urge Her Majesty’s Government to be very careful about the testing of the machines, and to ensure that they really do what they are said to do. That is the other great point of complexity. When a Labour Transport Minister, one Barbara Castle, introduced the breathalyser in the late 1960s, it was simply a few crystals that changed colour if somebody was over the limit, and they then went for a test. The machines have obviously become much more sophisticated, but they are testing for one thing and one thing only. They are not about finding out whether someone has had five cups of coffee, or whether they have been in one of those dance clubs that we were hearing about earlier, where 76% of people have taken drugs. I must say, I was shocked by that. We have tea dances in Somerset, where I do not think such things take place. The machine that we have is accurate and accepted, but the machines that are yet to come in may be given increasing evidential value despite testing for so many things and being at greater risk of getting things wrong. The Government really need to be, and clearly are being, very cautious.
We have heard a lot of comparisons with Australia. It is not always the model for the United Kingdom to follow, although it sometimes is. In its drink-driving laws, it has accepted random testing for a very long time, because it felt that it had a very serious problem. We have never accepted that. Australia may feel, in its circumstances, that having something relatively untested is necessary in the light of the problems that it has faced.
I am sorry to say that I will not go on with such eloquence and at such length as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North. I am full of admiration for him, and I wish that I could do so. I wish to conclude with some key points that we have to remember. First, I hope that the Minister will ensure that we put the cart behind the horse—we have to get things the right way around—by establishing the levels that make a substance legal or illegal. Secondly, we must look at the question of somebody using a prescribed drug that in other circumstances is illegal. Will we simply ban them from driving whenever they go through that course of treatment? If we take the zero-reading approach that an hon. Friend suggested, we would do so. Thirdly, we must always bear in mind the deep constitutional principle of non-self-incrimination. We may accept that it can be overridden, but at least we would know what we were doing. Fourthly, we must consider the quality of the machine, and ask whether it will really work. Finally, we must keep the process in the hands of Parliament and not delegate these nanograms to judges. Noble, lordly and wise as they are, we need to make the law, so that they can enforce it.
I have listened with great interest to today’s debate, and I broadly support the idea of drug testing. As we have heard, drug use is now more prevalent. We may be in a similar situation to that in 1967, when Barbara Castle introduced drink-driving tests. I support the principle, but as other hon. Members have outlined, there are a few queries and wrinkles that get in the way of the Bill at the moment.
I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) in an intervention about passive drug taking, which might be prevalent in the clubs about which we have heard a lot—I have not visited them, but I am perhaps too old for that sort of thing nowadays. Even so, if people are in an arena where others are taking cannabis, will they inhale the fumes and then be tripped up by a drugs test because of that passive intake?
I realise that performance-enhancing drugs are not illegal, but in 1988, when Ben Johnson fell foul of a drugs test at the Seoul Olympics, Linford Christie, who was initially a bronze medallist, was also tested. After much thinking about whether his test was positive, it was thankfully found to be negative, and he was duly elevated to the silver medal position. The problem was that he had had a cup of ginseng tea. As far as I am aware, ginseng tea is not a performance-enhancing drug, but it created an anomaly. It is alleged in today’s newspapers that Kolo Touré, the Manchester City footballer who is currently serving a ban for taking a performance-enhancing or other drug, had taken a water tablet. Those are queries and anomalies with drug testing. As I said, those are not illegal substances, but the problems with tests for illegal substances could be similar. Will such tests produce rogue readings? That needs to be ironed out.
As we have already heard, there is a problem with caffeine in coffee, and as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) mentioned tea dances, I should say that there is also caffeine in tea. He could find that the good burghers of North East Somerset end up cluttering up the cells on their return from a tea dance because they have taken too much Typhoo or Brooke Bond.
I have been in the Chamber for the most of the debate—I left it only briefly—but I am unsure whether the issue of thresholds has been addressed. We are talking about illegal substances. If any such substance is found in a test, will someone then be taken away for a more detailed test? Is my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch proposing a threshold, as there is with alcohol, of which people are allowed a certain amount? Does any amount of an illegal substance mean that a person will fall foul of the law?
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) has told me of a drug- driving incident in Cambridge—not Gloucestershire, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset will be pleased to hear—and it bears repeating. The Cambridge News reported:
“A drug driver who led police on a seven-mile chase around Cambridge at speeds of up to 80 mph has been spared jail.”
“overtook on blind corners and ignored red lights as he tried to shake off officers in the early hours of the morning.”
The deployment of a stinger device did not stop him despite puncturing his tyre. The report goes on to say that the gentleman
“had taken cannabis and mephedrone, before he was eventually arrested in Great Shelford. He pleaded not guilty to dangerous driving and cannabis possession, denying that he was the driver, but was convicted…and…given a nine-month”
He was told by the recorder:
“'You were driving very fast, you overtook on blind corners, and you ignored a number of red traffic lights. It was…a miracle nobody was killed or injured.'”
We were hearing such stories 10 or 20 years ago to do with alcohol and drink-driving, but the world has moved on, and we now hear a lot about the prevalence of drugs and drug taking. Are we now in a position with drug-driving that we were with drink-driving many years ago?
We should urge the Government to take action as quickly as possible. However, for reasons that have been eloquently dilated upon today, I still have concerns about the mixture and the substances. I remember somebody saying many years ago, “Would you be done for drink-driving if you had had too many portions of sherry trifle?” We are now talking about illegal substances, which someone might have ingested unwittingly, and they could be criminalised for doing so. I support the idea in principle, and I think that we should move quickly, but let us not rush head over heels and make a mistake, and end up criminalising people on their way from a perfectly harmless tea dance in North East Somerset.
I echo the words of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) in beginning the debate. I am sure that he spoke for the whole House when he wished the Duke of Edinburgh a happy 90th birthday.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing yet another Bill on a Friday, and on enabling the House to debate this important topic. The contributions of Government Members demonstrated the dilemma facing the Government in dealing with this problem. The hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) actually put forward both sides of the argument—for and against rushing to introduce roadside drug testing, and on the problems that the technology presents. We welcome in principle what the hon. Member for Christchurch is seeking to achieve with this Bill, but I wonder whether it has been superseded by the attempts of previous Governments and this Government to achieve the same thing. On 4 June, the Daily Mail reported that the Home Office had indicated its intention to introduce laws paving the way for drug tests, and that those will be put before Parliament at the earliest opportunity—possibly later this year.
I noted the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Christchurch about why the Government might be dragging their feet, but I ask him to reflect on what he said. I am sure that we all agree that this is a serious problem, and we all want action taken as soon as possible to deter people from driving while under the influence of drugs, but he suggested that the Home Office had an ulterior motive for delaying introduction. It is not my place to stand at this Dispatch Box and defend the Government, but I do not think that anyone would stand in the way of preventing serious accidents caused by people under the influence of drugs. Were there a technological solution, any Government, regardless of persuasion, would want it introduced without delay. I ask him to reflect on that point when deciding whether to press the Bill to a vote at the end of the debate.
As early as 2001, the Transport Research Laboratory published a report on the incidence of drugs and alcohol in road accidents. It conducted a study of 1,884 incidents in which people were killed on our roads, and found that 20.9% of drivers and 20.3% of riders had “impairing drugs” in their blood, which represented a threefold increase on figures for the mid-1980s. A drug-driving test system has been in development for a number of years, and has, I believe, been installed in about 170 police stations. I understand that trials of a hand-held device will continue before the roll-out, which highlights the problem that successive Governments have faced in trying to deal with the issue. Several attempts have been made to develop a device that can detect the presence of illegal or performance-limiting drugs in drivers—whose ability to drive may thereby be impaired—and that has led to several false starts. The hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) referred to several press releases that perhaps wrongly gave the impression that the roll-out was imminent, when we are in fact still in the testing phase.
As the contribution from the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and the amusing but insightful contribution from the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) demonstrated, testing people for the presence of such drugs is not a simple matter. There are sometimes reasons why drugs will be present in the blood—or the saliva, even—of people stopped at the roadside. What has proven difficult is determining whether the nanogram of the substance in question is a legal nanogram or an illegal nanogram. That brings us back to the point made by the hon. Member for Daventry. Should the limit for illegal substances present in the blood of somebody who has been tested be zero, or should we set a legal limit, because we recognise that, as the hon. Member for North East Somerset pointed out—the hon. Member for Stevenage made a similar point—some people may be prescribed drugs that contain opiates or other normally illegal substances? That is the dilemma that has confronted successive Governments, including the current Government.
We have quite rightly placed an emphasis on tackling drink-driving and punishing those who do it; around 70,000 people are caught each year. There is evidence—and certainly anecdotal evidence that I am aware of—that young people today are extremely aware of the dangers of drink-driving and take steps to avoid it, such as by designating one of their friends as somebody who will drive but not drink when they go out for an evening. I see lots of evidence of many young people taking a responsible approach in that regard. However, there is also evidence that they might not take the same approach to the effects of the drugs that they may take from time to time—perhaps when they are out in the discotheques of places other than North East Somerset—or that they might not understand the danger in which they are placing themselves and others while driving under the influence of such drugs.
In 2009, the last Government had a drive—pardon the pun—to educate people, and particularly young people, about the dangers of taking drugs and driving. They also introduced the new FIT test—the field impairment test, to which the hon. Member for Bury North referred—to determine whether people were incapable or impaired, and should therefore not be driving. The test took various forms, which he described, one of which was for the driver to close their eyes, put their head back and attempt to place their finger on their nose. We would all agree that, if there is a technological equivalent to that, we would want it introduced.
Previous Governments—and, I am sure, this Government —have recognised that driving while under the influence of drugs is a problem. As many hon. Members have said, other countries have introduced roadside testing, not least Australia, Croatia, Italy and Romania, among others. It will be interesting to see whether the Government will think that the implementation of roadside testing in those countries gives us any guidance towards taking that step ourselves.
We welcome the fact that the technology is being developed in the UK, as the hon. Member for Christchurch said. Cozart Bioscience, based in Oxford, is developing the device, and Concateno is manufacturing it. One of the board members at Cozart Bioscience, Dr Chris Hand, has made some bold claims for the device. If he is correct, I am sure that we can look forward to its introduction up and down the country. He stated:
“Historically, the argument against such devices has been that the technology is not available. That is no longer true. We can adapt it to meet specific requirements of legislation.”
I shall be interested to hear whether the Minister agrees with Dr Hand, and whether the Government intend to introduce the equipment soon.
When the Conservatives were in opposition, their then transport spokesperson, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), said that he was satisfied that sufficiently developed technology was available for the process to be rolled out. Speaking about the police, he said:
“They are not being given the tools to catch these dangerous drivers. The Conservatives would change the law so the police could use a drugalyzer for roadside testing as they currently can with a breathalyzer. The Government say that the technology isn’t ready but it is already being used in countries like Australia.”
Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether that is also his view, and whether, as the Daily Mail suggested on 4 June, we can now expect legislation from the Home Office to enable a roll-out of this equipment?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch on allowing us to have this important debate. Whether the Bill goes through or not, it is clearly playing an important part in our scrutiny of what the Government are doing in this area. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I should like to join other hon. Members in congratulating His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh on his 90th birthday today. He has been a great servant of our country over an extended period, and we all wish him well today.
I commend the commitment of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) to the cause of road safety. He said that he had had a genuine interest in these matters for a long time—in fact, since he was a Minister with responsibility for road safety. I understand his commitment to the underlying issues, and his view that we need to treat the matter extremely carefully. We have heard today about the appalling tragedies that can arise as a consequence of drug-impaired driving. I also understand his reasons for introducing the Bill. However, I do not think that it is necessary, or the best way to proceed, and I hope that I will be able to persuade him and the House of that.
This has been a good debate on the important issue of drug testing and road safety. The debate has been good natured and there is a great deal of agreement across the House. I greatly welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), speaking for the Opposition and recognising some of the challenges and complexities that have developed over time.
It has also been a humorous debate in many ways, drawing together references to druids and Coleridge. Although we have had lots of references to impairment in the debate, there has been no impairment in the contributions, although I could not see from my place on the Front Bench whether my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) was delivering his speech while standing on one leg. I think I can safely say, however, that if my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) had attempted to do that, he would probably have required some medical attention, as it would have been quite a feat.
It has also been a full and well-informed debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for bringing this matter to our attention through his Bill. I certainly understand the frustration that he and other Members have underlined in respect of equipment for drug testing—whether at the roadside or in police stations—being brought forward. I will explain the steps that the Government have taken and where we are now in making progress on the issue.
It would be remiss of me not to underline the huge tragedies that these incidents can bring—the very personal cases that Members have brought to our attention today. We need to view the issue in that broader context. I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North—and also my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris)—who highlighted the impact of these incidents on young people. I can certainly think of many good local projects that involve working with young people to highlight the dangers of drug-driving and drink-driving and the importance of responsible driving, by which I mean not driving too fast, in the knowledge that young lives have literally been cut short as a consequence of some of these appalling incidents.
Drawing together the work of the medical profession, Highways Agency staff who keep our highways safe and the police, it is possible to go into schools and focus on prevention through hard-hitting messages. I have sat through some hard-hitting presentations myself and know that the victims of incidents are sometimes involved, which can make for powerful road safety messages for our young people and help to prevent these appalling tragedies. The breadth of our debate has been useful in that context.
My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight the organisations that tour around the country, teaching young people road safety and, indeed, the impact and consequences in the justice system of breaking the law. Has he heard of the “Prison? Me? No Way!” scheme? It involves crashing a car in school and calling the emergency services to cut people out; the magistrates sometimes come in to go through the legal process and prison guards may be on site, turning the classroom into a prison. It takes school kids through the whole thing. It is a fantastic scheme that has gone ahead in the whole of Northamptonshire and many midlands schools. It is exactly the sort of thing that improves people’s knowledge in this regard.
I am not aware of that specific scheme that operates in Northamptonshire and the midlands, but I am familiar with a number of innovative locally developed programmes that bring various agencies and organisations together to send out preventive messages about drug-driving, drink-driving and speed. I remember spending an afternoon watching one of those presentations and seeing some of the hard-hitting images. I saw a victim in a wheelchair and the lifelong impact that being involved in a road accident had had on him. The impact that that real-life context had on the young people who received that presentation was palpable. To get across road safety messages to young people, we should look at the broader context and underline the real-life consequences of thoughtlessness in relation to those who might be in the car or vehicle with them on the road.
Clearly, road deaths are a tragedy, and road traffic collisions are the leading cause of death for young adults aged 15 to 24. They account for more than a quarter of deaths in the 15 to 19 age group. Injuries caused in such collisions lead to suffering and distress, and can result in a serious lessening in quality of life. It is not only the victims who suffer, but their partners, children, families, friends and all those associated with them.
There is also a serious detrimental impact on the emergency services, on health costs, on economic output, and on the roads. It is estimated that preventing all collisions could benefit the economy by £16 billion a year. Insurance payouts for motoring claims alone are now more than £12 billion a year. That is why I say clearly to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, who implied that there was a financial reason why measures had not been advanced more speedily, that that is absolutely not the case. Given the costs to society arising from such incidents, we need to move forward as quickly as possible to deliver on road safety and drug-driving. As the many contributions to the debate have highlighted, there are levels of complexity, and there are issues that need care and attention. Even so, we should get on with this and ensure that the relevant “drugalysers” are available in police stations and, thereafter, on our roads. There are, however, some complex issues and dilemmas in relation to how that will fit into the context of the existing law and in relation to appropriate changes to the law to make arrangements more robust.
Road deaths are not all a result of drug-driving—we do not know the level of drug-driving. A survey of a sample of victims of fatal road crashes between 1996 and 2000 showed traces of drugs in 18% of drivers—six times more than a survey 10 years earlier. Hon. Members who read their newspapers this morning may have read a survey by the insurer Direct Line, which highlights the potential scale of the problem. We are in no doubt about the seriousness of the issue and the need for it to be addressed effectively and appropriately.
Nevertheless, we can say that more than half of road deaths are associated with one or more of the following: driving while impaired by drugs; drink-driving; speeding; careless or dangerous driving; and driving while distracted and not wearing a seat belt. Drug-driving is a serious problem that we as a Government must address. We will address all bad driving behaviour, not just speeding, as sometimes appeared to happen in the recent past. Drug-driving, like drink-driving, is something to which we want to give particular attention.
As has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North and others, we set out our plans in the Government response to Sir Peter North’s report on drink and drug-driving law and to the related recommendations of the Transport Committee. Last month they were included in the Department for Transport’s new strategic framework for road safety. We agree, in principle, with the main thrust of the 23 recommendations in the North report. The steps recommended are
“to approve preliminary testing equipment which can be procured by police forces for use initially in police stations, and later at the roadside; to implement other measures to make the law against drug-driving work more effectively; to continue research into equipment which could be approved for the police to test for these substances; on the basis of this work, to examine the case for a new specific offence—alongside the existing one—which would relieve the need for the police to prove impairment case-by-case where a specified drug had been detected.”
The report proposed that
“priority should be given to type approval for, and supply to police stations of, preliminary drug testing devices… type approval ought in the first instance to focus on devices capable of detection of those drugs or categories of drugs which are the most prevalent, including amongst drivers, recognising that more than one device may be needed to cover the whole range.”
There has been discussion of both the nature of the drugs involved and the interrelationship between different drugs. Drugs are often not taken in isolation. They may be taken along with other substances, including other drugs. The concept of polysubstance, or multiple-substance, drug abuse is well known. The science and technology that can provide meaningful, reliable readings in the context of different substances taken together are not entirely straightforward. The need to assure those in the criminal justice system and those who may be required to take tests that neither false positives nor false negatives are being created, with all the consequences that that may involve, has informed the careful approach that has been taken.
Our priority is to deter people from driving when impaired by a drug, and to ensure that those who persist in such dangerous behaviour are detected and punished effectively. Considerable progress has been made in reducing the level of drink-driving, but drug-driving can clearly be just as dangerous, which is why we are anxious to do more work in that regard.
I noted the discussion between my hon. Friends the Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Bury North about the need for clarity on the provisions of the current law. Under section 4 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, it is illegal to drive, attempt to drive or be in charge of a mechanically propelled vehicle when unfit to drive through drink or drugs, whether legal or illegal. The offence is to be unfit, not simply to have a drug in the body. “Unfit” in this context means having, for the time being, an impaired ability to drive properly. Section 6 empowers the police, subject to certain conditions, to conduct at the roadside or at a police station compulsory preliminary or screening tests for impairment and the presence of a drug. If a preliminary test is positive, the police can immediately require the suspect to take a blood test. In the absence of a positive preliminary test, a blood test can only be authorised by a doctor.
While I think it right to engage in broader discussion of whether the law itself should be changed, the availability of equipment enabling the initial test to be conducted can itself make a difference in speeding up the process because the authorisation of a doctor is not required at that stage, thus ensuring that the process can be conducted more efficiently.
I want to clarify the fact that only the evidence from a blood test can be used in a prosecution to support a constable’s opinion that a person was driving while impaired by a drug. People might think that simply having a drug in one’s system creates the offence, but it is attempting to drive while unfit that creates the substantive offence.
The hon. Member for Eltham and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset referred to the field impairment test, which can be persuasive in demonstrating impairment when presented in court, but other evidence can be provided. It is not essential that the impairment test is failed. Other factors can be presented to the court, and ultimately it is for the court to determine, on all the evidence, whether the driving was impaired and whether the person was driving while unfit through drink or drugs. The various elements fit together.
The police can already take a suspected drug-driver to a police station and require him or her to provide an evidential blood specimen. Currently, however, the requirement can be made only if a medical practitioner is called to the police station and advises that the person’s condition may be due to a drug. The availability of an approved device will mean that if a positive reading is obtained, a blood specimen can be taken immediately, potentially by a custody suite nurse, without the need to call out a medical practitioner. Clearly, this will save time and money and, we believe, will be effective in ensuring that more people are brought to justice.
In that context, according to the latest figures I have on drug-driving, 1,598 were convicted of the offence—that is, the impairment offence. If one has more than the prescribed number of milligrams of alcohol in one’s blood, that is the strict liability offence, which my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset highlighted. The vast majority of cases are dealt with in that way, although probably many people who fail the drink-driving test have taken drugs as well as alcohol. It is therefore difficult to get specific figures for the conviction of those who have driven illegally, having taken drugs.
The essence of the Bill is that we need to do more. The coalition agreement sets out our commitment to authorising drug-testing technology, which will streamline procedures, for use in tackling drug-driving and we will fulfil that commitment. The analysis will show whether drivers had a drug in their system that might have caused impairment. In a prosecution it will support a police officer’s opinion that a person was driving while impaired by a drug.
In the debate we heard a number of contributions relating to the assessment of the device and the type approval process. Such a device must legally be of a type approved by the Secretary of State, and no devices are yet approved. Drug screeners are already commercially available, but they are designed for other purposes and use in other settings.
Successful use of a testing device—for example, where someone is referred for drug treatment—is not the same as testing to justify an invasive physical procedure for evidence that could support a criminal charge. Use of devices in other countries might be dependent on their different operational powers, requirements and practices, their different laws and legal conditions, and their particular social and political expectations. It is relevant to highlight experience from other countries, but it is also difficult to ascribe direct read-across in the way that perhaps has been suggested, albeit that we should learn from overseas experience.
The concept of type approval for drug screeners is parallel to the long-established type approval of devices used for other traffic law enforcement, such as speed and red light cameras, and breath-alcohol test devices. The primary purpose of type approval and its requirements is to ensure that the approved device is reliable, consistent, precise and accurate. This prevents repeated court challenges on the grounds that the reading allegedly justifying subsequent police action came from a device in which no confidence could be placed. If the level below which a device was not required to detect was raised, for example, some people pharmacologically affected by a drug might not be detected. If a device falsely gave a negative reading, a suspect might be allowed to continue driving, which apart from frustrating the ends of justice could clearly be dangerous. Not letting the suspect go despite a negative reading would be time-consuming and bureaucratic for the police, and might be seen by the suspect as oppressive and give rise, understandably, to complaint. Type approval of devices without requiring them to satisfy a detailed specification with clear standards and rigorous extensive testing, as required for all other type approvals, might be liable to judicial review on the grounds of unfairly favouring current manufacturers and of being irrational. But in saying all of that, I do not use that as an excuse for not getting on with things. I simply seek to set the context of the work that is required.
My hon. Friend talks about type approval, but surely the first thing is the specification. Am I right in believing that the Home Office has still not finalised the specification for the roadside drug-testing equipment? What is the problem in drawing up the specification?
As I have already said, we are seeking to prioritise, as was reflected in the North report, the creation of drug-testing equipment within the police station as the first step. We have worked on the specification for that and we want to see station-based devices available before the end of this year. Six devices are going through field trials and detailed laboratory tests are also necessary. Timing of approval depends on device performance, manufacturer’s reaction, and how quickly it is able to sign the agreement required with the Home Office before the Secretary of State signs the approval order. Purchase and deployment of the devices would then be matters for local police decision. We are pressing hard to see that by the end of this year. That then feeds through to the next step, which is the roadside testing, and our advisers are finalising the additional environmental requirement that devices would have to meet for use at the roadside. Obviously, the environmental issues are different out on the street compared with being in the police station. I can assure my hon. Friend that the specification document is going through final quality assurance, and we expect to receive it shortly. It will then be put to Ministers to decide how best to proceed further. I assure my hon. Friend that we are not just sitting on our hands. We are getting on with the work on the use of the device within the police station and are taking steps forward in relation to a device that can be type-approved for the roadside.
Will my hon. Friend therefore confirm that the Government’s response in March 2011 to the North review that they hoped to take decisions on type approval for the machine in the police station by the end of June is still on the programme, and can he assure me that the specification for the roadside test will be published before the end of this calendar year?
I can certainly assure my hon. Friend about the joint working between the Home Office and the Department for Transport, because I have had conversations with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who, like me, is seized of the need to progress quickly with the work that is required to deal with this issue. As I have indicated, we want to see the equipment in police stations by the end of the year and are moving forward with all expedition on the necessary specification for the roadside device. I am unable at this point to give my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch the assurance he seeks, but I can say that work is ongoing and that we recognise the need to get the specification sorted out and make progress on the roadside device. However, I would urge caution in relation to getting the approvals and the specification correct.
Will the Minister tell us what decisions are required of the House to implement roadside testing and whether the comments of the Home Office, quoted in a Daily Mail article of 4 June, that any decisions required of the House will be brought forward some time later this year, are accurate?
When we move from the specification to issuing the type approval, as it is known, a formal legal document has to be drawn up with the necessary approvals and presented to give that consent. In order for police forces to have the equipment in their police stations by the end of the year, the necessary legal documentation to facilitate the type approval, building on the experience of the pilots to which I have referred, would need to be in place. It is the approval that is absolutely key.
Reference has been made to experience in Australia, but recent research has shown that in western Australia, where roadside drug screeners have been brought into use, one in four tests was found to be inaccurate and more rigorous analysis of the specimens in a laboratory led to the exoneration of a number of motorists. Clearly we want to ensure that we get this right, and also recognise the need to take into account experience developed overseas.
On the issue of possible new offences and the question of whether there should be a different offence, and not simply looking at equipment to test or being able to support impairment, we are giving separate consideration to the case for introducing a simple, objective offence of having a specified drug in the body while driving. In addition to simplifying police enforcement, this could give a stronger message against drug-driving and act as a more powerful deterrent. Such an offence would also immediately make a roadside testing device much more valuable. The new offence would be in addition to the current offence of driving while impaired by drugs. Removing the need to prove impairment could deliver a significant improvement in enforcement.
We will, however, keep the impairment offence for those cases where impairment has been caused by a non-specified drug, such as one available on prescription or over the counter. That reflects a number of points that have been made by hon. Members in the debate. Introducing a new offence would be a very complex issue and there would be a need to consider a number of questions of principle, policy and practicality. In many ways that alludes to the comments made by hon. Members in our discussions on the Bill.
We will continue the research and other work that is necessary before any decisions can be made, but at this stage I cannot pre-empt that work. Any proposals that we produce will be subject to further consultation, regulatory clearance and other impact assessments, and implementation would clearly and, for the reasons that have been highlighted today, require primary legislation.
To conclude, I join my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch in wanting effective action against drug-driving. I applaud his dedication to the cause, and I recognise his frustrations and, indeed, those of previous Governments and other Ministers in taking action. It has therefore been good for us to hold this debate and to underline those issues today, but I hope he agrees that we are pursuing the goal vigorously and in the most appropriate manner, and in that context I hope that he will not press his Bill to a vote.
With the leave of the House, may I respond to what has been an excellent debate?
When I became a Member we used to have one day a year on a Friday for a road safety debate, and in a sense this debate has been about one aspect of road safety, highlighting the deep interest that Members from all parts of the House have in the subject. I am very grateful to my hon. Friends for their contributions and to the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) on the Opposition Front Bench for what he had to say.
I accept the bona fides of the Government and of my hon. Friend the Minister, but I remain disappointed that we are not going even faster. My hon. Friend was not even able to reconfirm, as the March response to the North review stated, that the Government hope to take decisions on type approval by the end of June. That has been replaced by a target for the devices to be in some police stations by the end of the year. So it goes on, as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) so brilliantly said, quoting from various press releases over the years. Action always seems to be just around the corner, but we never quite get there. Let us hope that we do get there in the end.
In responding to the points that have been made, rather than going into a lot of detail, I commend to Members a brilliant analysis by Tina Cafaro, clinical professor of law at the Western New England college school of law, writing in the Western New England Law Review in 2010, under an article entitled, “Slipping Through the Cracks: Why Can’t We Stop Drugged Driving?”
In 70 or so pages, Professor Cafaro goes into the detail of what has happened in other countries and the differences between drug-driving and drink-driving, concluding that we will never make good progress unless we have a system of zero tolerance for illegal drugs in the body when people drive—leaving to one side the problem of prescribed and legal drugs. She comes down in favour of zero tolerance, rather as a number of my hon. Friends have during this debate, and I hope that we will now have a widespread debate about where we go from here, because the Government recognise that we should do more.
I hope that the road safety lobby, and other colleagues who are concerned about civil liberties and so on, will engage positively in a debate on whether we should introduce new legislation to deal not only with people who drive while impaired by drugs but with those who drive with illegal drugs in their system.
Having said all that, and bearing in my mind my conflict of interest, given that I wish to proceed quickly to the next item on the Order Paper, I seek the leave of the House to give the Government the benefit of the doubt, reminding them that we will be here to hold them to account if the things said today are not delivered. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.