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Road Traffic Act 1988 (Alcohol Limits) (Amendment) Bill [HL]

Volume 771: debated on Friday 22 April 2016


Clause 2: Extent, commencement and short title

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 2, page 1, line 12, leave out “Sections 1 and 2” and insert “Section 1”

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 2 standing in my name. These amendments are consequential to the amendments I moved in Committee. Technically I should have moved them then, and I apologise for not having done so. However, the merit of moving them now is that I have the chance briefly to express regret that in Committee the Minister firmly reiterated the Government’s unwillingness to support this Bill, notwithstanding that it seeks simply to bring us into line with what is happening in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in reducing the drink-drive alcohol limit from 80 to 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood.

The UK, where motorists can drive between three countries, should surely have common laws in this regard. That is logical and pure common sense, and I cannot understand why so often the Conservative Party allows itself to end up in the same bed as UKIP. As the Minister knows, that party is now campaigning in the forthcoming Scottish parliamentary elections on a manifesto that wants to lift the Scottish drink-drive limit of 50 back up to 80 milligrams, and of course to reintroduce cigarette-smoking rooms in pubs. Surely we do not support that—I hope not—and nor will the general public or motorists. RAC and AA polls now consistently show a majority in favour of reducing the limit of 80 milligrams, as do many police and crime commissioners, the National Police Chiefs Council, the Local Government Association and most other health, accident and road safety bodies and services.

The noble Lord makes the assertion that the general public would support his Bill. I have to say that in 23 years as a Member of Parliament nobody ever came to me saying that he or she wanted a reduction in the alcohol limit—in fact, rather the opposite.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his intervention, but times are changing. A lot of things were different 23 years ago. My noble friend Lady Hayter on the Front Bench says that she wrote to the noble Lord. I will leave him to sort that one out afterwards.

In Committee on 11 March, the Minister stated:

“The Government … maintain … that lowering the limit in itself is not going to change people’s behaviour”.—[Official Report, 11/3/16; col. 1571.]

With respect, that is wrong, as Scotland is proving. The Scottish drinks and hospitality industries certainly share that view; otherwise, why are they so up in arms about the change that has taken place? Is the Minister aware of their protests and the reason for them? Is it not because a cultural change is truly coming through in Scotland?

Is this not a case similar to that of plastic bags in supermarkets, where the devolved nations and regions led the way and in a populist stance the Government, only in a very tardy way, followed the precedent set by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

I am grateful to my noble friend for that helpful intervention and I share his view. Unhappily, many deaths, accidents and injuries still occur as a result of drinking and driving. As I have argued previously, there has been little change since 2012—in fact, there has been a plateau—and the Government’s current policies are not really making any great difference. Therefore, I believe it is time that the Government themselves—I am seeking to help them in any way I can—embraced and encouraged such a change. The fact is that the drinks and hospitality industries will have to face up to the fundamental shift in opinion and culture that is starting to take place.

This has had a very damaging impact on the hospitality industry in Scotland, as the noble Lord said earlier. Will he tell the House how many jobs he would expect to be lost if his proposals were carried out?

I am grateful for that intervention but I cannot give a precise figure. However, if the noble Lord will be patient, I will come to tell him not only how the number of jobs in the hospitality industry will be secured but will, I hope, be increased.

The simple fact is that the drinks and hospitality industry will have to change its attitude, as it had to do with the smoking ban—when people talked about all the jobs that would disappear and said that it would be the end of the world when smoking in public places was stopped. The industry should not be plying drivers with alcohol but encouraging patrons instead to have a non-drinking driver. It should look to improve—this is where I come to the answer to the noble Lord’s question—its competitiveness to attract more customers than it is at present. It is not this legislation that is the biggest threat to the industry. The biggest threat is cheap booze that is sold in supermarkets and off-licences, which leads to people drinking more at home rather than going out. The industry’s competitiveness is, in the main, weak at the moment because it has to sell alcohol in hotels and pubs at quite high charges compared with supermarkets and off-licences. If, as the Prime Minister wanted, the Government were prepared to undertake and embrace higher minimum unit pricing to have a level playing field for competitiveness, the industry could look forward to getting more people back into pubs and clubs. They would not buy so much in off-licences and supermarkets because drink would no longer be so cheap there.

Does my noble friend not have a slight unease at any social policy that is being determined by price, which absolutely inevitably is of no consequence whatever to people who are better-off but substantially affects the less well-off?

I am grateful to my noble friend for that intervention. I do have that concern, but equally I have a very big concern about the cost to the National Health Service and the whole country. That cost bears down on the shoulders of all sections of the community.

I am sympathetic to what the noble Lord is advocating, but he is making a Second Reading speech. If he could explain to us the purpose of the amendments, that would be extremely helpful.

I was endeavouring to be brief but I did not expect so many interventions. These are technical amendments that follow from those I moved previously. They are straightforward and I am sure there will be no objection to them from the Minister. I am probably going beyond my brief at this point in the debate but I hope I can encourage the Minister to be more supportive than he has been so far, and that the Government will give some stronger leadership. Coming back to Scotland, I think the Minister is in favour of an evaluation taking place there. Will he tell the House when that is likely to start and when it is likely to report? I beg to move.

My Lords, I would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Brooke—that is what my notes say—but I extend my thanks to all noble Lords who have contributed to this Bill and debate. I will be brief.

As my noble friend Lord Cormack rightly pointed out, the substance of the amendments is to seek to clarify the language of the Bill following the changes which were previously approved in Committee, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, mentioned. As I have previously set out, although the Government’s position remains not to support this Bill to lower the drink-drive limit, these amendments are sensible and helpful clarifications to the language of the Bill. Let me reiterate that drink-driving remains a very important issue, and although the Government have no plans to lower the drink-drive limit, we will continue to support the police in their rigorous enforcement efforts against all dangerous drivers.

To pick up on one point about Scotland, as the noble Lord will be aware, and for the benefit of all noble Lords, of course we are looking very closely at the situation there. My honourable friend Andrew Jones, the Minister with responsibility for roads, is already in contact with the Scottish Government and they will be meeting in due course. We welcome any substantial evidence from the Scottish Government, and they can provide that at any time. However, I once again reiterate that it is not the Government’s position to lower the limit. That is really all I have to say.

Before my noble friend sits down, will he perhaps indicate whether the Government have any view on the impact of this Bill on jobs, particularly in pubs and the hospitality industry? Of course, what it would mean is that people would no longer go to the pub at all, which has been the experience in Scotland. In looking at this, will he very carefully consider that balance? As far as the safety of motorists is concerned, will his department turn its attention to the scandal of people driving under the influence of drugs and not being brought to account for it, which seems to me to be a far greater problem than people driving within the legal limit at present?

As ever, my noble friend raises the important point about the wider economic impact. That is why the Government are considering their position in this regard—

If one follows the view put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, we should be changing things in the other direction so that people can drink as much as they like because that would help the drinks industry. Is that what he is saying?

I am sure I speak for my noble friend when I say categorically no. I am sure that if the noble Lord reflects on my noble friend’s remarks he will see that that is not what he was suggesting. What we are saying is that we will observe the current status quo. I have already indicated that we are talking to the Scottish Government. I was going to make a point on the issue raised by my noble friend Lord Forsyth about the wider economic challenges that a lowering of the limit poses. Of course that needs to be considered in any decision being taken. As I said, it is entirely appropriate, and I think right, that we observe what the situation in Scotland is. I should, for the sake of completeness, declare a personal interest in that I do not drink myself. Nevertheless, I understand and appreciate that the notion of someone having a small drink at lunch time is one that many people, not just in this House but beyond, quite welcome.

My Lords, if the Minister is going to look at further evidence on the effect of lowering the alcohol limit on people driving to pubs, could he look at evidence relating to people, including younger people, not drinking alcohol but still driving to pubs with other people who may drink? There is evidence that suggests that some younger people are much more responsible than older people when it comes to drinking and driving.

As someone who during his university days was often the driver for others who were merrier in the car, I can perhaps reflect on a personal dimension. Of course, the noble Lord is quite right that we need to consider the full impact of that and to look at the evidence base as presented.

My Lords, I thank those who have intervened in this short debate. I am grateful to hear from the Minister that positive steps are now being taken to embark on a discussion with the Scottish Government.

Amendment 1 agreed.

Amendment 2

Moved by

2: Clause 2, page 1, line 12, leave out “come” and insert “comes”

Amendment 2 agreed.