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Crime: Drink-driving

Volume 739: debated on Monday 8 October 2012


Asked By

My Lords, to tackle drink-driving, we need to give the police effective tools and to streamline the enforcement process. Our plans include revoking the right to opt for a blood test following the breath test, as this results in delay and some offenders avoiding prosecution; re-launching the drink-drive rehabilitation scheme; streamlining the enforcement processes for the drink-drive testing regime, starting in 2014; and developing publicity about the consequences of drink-driving.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very useful Answer that moderate drinking and then driving is generally reasonable. Spending on drink-driving must become acceptable; it is reasonable to expect expenditure on drink-driving.

My Lords, it is important to understand that my department is solely concerned with road vehicle safety; it is not concerned with the health aspects of drinking. However, of course, I answer on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government.

My Lords, 45 years ago, as a Home Office Minister, I co-operated with the excellent Ministry for Transport of the then Secretary of State for Transport, Barbara Castle, on drink-driving legislation. She very bravely ignored all the forecasts about a violent backlash from motorists and the law is now widely accepted. As Australia, New Zealand and most of the American states have now accepted random testing, which is by far the most effective way of reducing deaths and serious injuries, will the Minister advise the present Secretary of State for Transport to show the same kind of courage that was shown by Barbara Castle 45 years ago?

My Lords, the difficulty with random testing is that it would not achieve the desired result. The object of random testing is to create an expectation among drivers but that would fail to produce results if not backed by raising the actual level of testing. This would not be cost-effective or a justified use of police resources in the current economic climate, because if most of these tests were random, they would prove to be negative.

Can the Government explain why they have not considered lowering the limit from 80 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood down to 50 or lower to bring us into line with the rest of Europe and most of the rest of the world? Why have they not considered a zero tolerance to alcohol, given that a survey by Brake showed that more than one in four people were driving the day after having consumed large amounts of alcohol and were almost certainly above the limit, although not formally tested?

My Lords, we have carefully considered this issue, and we have considered and reported back on the North report. The difficulty is that if we lower the limit to 50 milligrams, we would divert resources away from the cohort of drivers who ignore the law and drive quite often at double the legal limit. The police would be tied up with dealing with these low-level offenders and would not be dealing with the much higher-risk offenders.

Is not the real argument that the Minister is putting forward that any reduction in the level to that of the rest of Europe goes against the total anti-Europe policy that we see across so many fronts, rather than trying to save a lot of lives on the roads by lowering the limit?

My Lords, I think I shall be having a chat with the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, about that matter tomorrow. It is important to understand that other European countries have a lower limit but also much milder penalties. We have a policy of a slightly higher limit, which is based on the Grand Rapids study, but with severe penalties for the slightest infringement. Our results are better than the European results. I can assure the noble Lord that it is not an anti-European policy.

My Lords, what advice have the Government received about the number of lives that could be saved by lowering the limit to 50 milligrams?

My Lords, the only thing that my department is concerned about is saving lives by having an effective policy. That means correctly allocating resources and addressing the most serious problem, which is persistent unregulated drinkers who consistently flout the law and drive with very high blood-alcohol levels.

My Lords, the noble Lord has referred to the report of Sir Peter North. He stated that he thought that, if the limit were lowered from 80 milligrams to 50 milligrams, 168 deaths a year would be saved by such action. Surely, that is a compelling argument for the Government to consider.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, it would not be if it diverted police resources from the much more serious problem of those who pay no regard whatever to the law.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is merit in monitoring the impact of new legislation in France and elsewhere in Europe, which now requires motorists to carry breathalysers in their vehicles, to raise awareness of the problems and to encourage self testing by the more responsible motorists who may not know whether they are above or below the limit?

My Lords, I am very much aware of the French policy. However, the difficulty is that, if a motorist has a means of testing his blood-alcohol level, he will then drink up to the limit.

He will, my Lords. The difficulty is that the motorist would drink more than he would otherwise and, therefore, would take greater risks. We do not want people to drink at all.

Having just returned from Australia, I have brought back two points about this message. I believe that random testing has a very good effect: the young change their attitude and if they are going to a party, one of them drinks nothing. My other point is that new drivers, who have the highest proportion of accidents, have a nil level for at least one year after they qualify. Will the Government consider either of those possibilities?

My Lords, on my noble friend’s last point, during the passage of the Road Safety Bill under the previous Administration, that proposal was suggested. The previous Government turned it down and I believe that they were probably right to do so.

My Lords, although I recognise that the major problem that we face is dealing with repeat offenders, does the noble Earl agree that the second group with which we have the greatest problem, and who suffer the most deaths and have the most accidents, are people aged under 21? Following on from the previous question from that side of the Chamber, would the Government be prepared, among the several initiatives they are looking at, to contemplate a programme of zero tolerance for the under-21s, so that we might perhaps achieve a cultural change and so get the benefit in future generations?

The noble Lord is quite right that young drivers feature disproportionately in the statistics. A difficulty arises in initially telling youngsters that they cannot drink at all and then, at a certain point, we tell them that they can. The problem is not so much youngsters with a little bit of alcohol in them, but when they have drunk far too much.

My Lords, I am puzzled about an answer that the noble Earl gave to an earlier question concerning the impact of a 50 milligram limit in Europe. He appeared to imply that if the limit were that low or lower, penalties would have to be commensurately lower as well. I cannot entirely understand the logic of that. Why could we not have a lower limit and the same rigorous penalties?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. She will be aware that Scotland now has the ability to set a different limit but it cannot change the penalties. If Scotland goes for a lower limit, the current penalties will apply.