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Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way and also for his comprehensive reply to a full debate. However, will he comment on my question as to what action has been taken to prevent any more disruptive leaks from the Northern Ireland Office?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness. I missed that point when I was going through the various comments.

It is difficult to identify people who make leaks and there have been a number of damaging leaks over the years--some recently--from the Northern Ireland Office which seem to be calculated to undermine the very process that we have been discussing today. It is hard to identify people. Measures have been taken to seek to identify the sources of the leaks and to prevent their recurrence in the future. We have tightened up. However, it is impossible to run a system without a number of officials having access to papers. If one of them chooses to be so disloyal as to leak information, it cannot always be prevented. However, we are doing our best in that direction.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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Blood Alcohol Levels for Drivers: ECC Report

6.25 p.m.

Lord Geddes rose to move, That this House take note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Blood Alcohol Levels for Drivers (16th Report, HL Paper 82).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, before getting into the substance of our report, I should like to express my thanks to a number of people. First, I thank our specialist adviser, Dr. Andrew Clayton of the British Institute of Traffic Education Research. He brought to our deliberations enormous expertise and guided us subtly through them. My thanks also go to our secretary, Jane Sanders, who worked tirelessly on any number of redrafts.

My particular thanks go to our Clerk, Kate Ball, whose first inquiry this was. She joined the committee office only in October of last year. I will not say that this was a baptism by fire; she certainly learnt an enormous amount, not least about the idiosyncrasies of her chairman's grammar. Finally, I thank all members of Sub-committee B who were most tolerant of their chairman. I am delighted that six out of the nine--excluding myself--are speaking this evening, though I am not entirely certain whether their motive is only interest in the subject matter or whether they also want to ensure that their chairman does his job properly. Time will tell!

The committee's inquiry was probably one of the most interesting ones in which I have ever participated. It was prompted by interviews given by the European Commissioner for Transport--Neil Kinnock--in the media proposing the revival of a directive which has been gathering dust since 1988. The proposal was to harmonise the permitted blood alcohol level for drivers at 50mg/100ml. The present limit in the United Kingdom, as I am sure all noble Lords are aware, is 80mg/100ml. Currently, nine of the 15 member states have a 50mg limit with two further member states currently introducing legislation to that effect--the details of that are on footnote 6 on page 10 of our report.

During the inquiry the Government announced a consultation on the document Combating Drink Driving: Next Steps. That paper invited comment on a number of issues that the committee was considering in the course of its inquiry into the European Commission's proposal. The Government's consultation period ends in two days' time on 8th May and I express my thanks to the usual channels for the timing of this debate.

Our committee took evidence from 23 witnesses of whom 12 gave oral evidence. The duration of our inquiry was four months, though that included the Christmas Recess.

Each year around 540 people are killed in the United Kingdom because of drink driving. Interestingly and infuriatingly that number has stuck at 540 or very close to it since 1993. Equally, the figure of 540 represents only 14 per cent. of the total of fatal road accidents, which leaves 86 per cent. which have other causes.

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Sadly, comparable figures across the European Union are not available. Estimates from other member states varied from 1 per cent. of road accident fatalities in Italy to 40 per cent. in France. Frankly, we do not believe either. However, the committee was concerned--this is spelt out in paragraph 88 of the report--that the emphasis of pursuing the 14 per cent. may well be out of proportion to looking at the causes of the 86 per cent.

The committee found that the actual permitted blood-alcohol level was only one of a number of ways in which to tackle drink driving. As our report states in paragraph 85,

    "A package of measures, rather than any single [measure] would be the most effective way to [tackle drink driving.]"

The committee looked at a four-way matrix of countermeasures involving penalties, enforcement, publicity and education, and the legal limit. Of these four, penalties and enforcement were, in our opinion, by far the most important.

Penalties for drink driving vary widely across the European Union. In Britain the minimum is 12 months' disqualification for the first drink driving offence and three years' disqualification for any subsequent offence within 10 years of the first. This compares with Sweden where drink driving with a blood-alcohol content over 100mg/100ml carries a maximum prison sentence, or electronic surveillance, of two years. At the other extreme, in Belgium an offence between 50 and 80 milligrams carries a suspension from driving for three hours--a sort of "sin bin" approach. The committee recommended that the minimum 12-month penalty should stay, even at a lower limit. This penalty has, in our opinion, done an enormous amount to keep the numbers of fatal drink-drive accidents at a level which is one of the best in the European Union.

There are two main identifiable groups of drink drivers. The first are young, inexperienced drivers who account for nearly 30 per cent. of drink-drive accidents. In our opinion, specific education is needed in schools on the dangers of combining drinking and driving. We do not, however, recommend different limits or penalties for the reasons that we spelt out in our report, not least that it would give an incorrect message. For instance, if the penalties were greater for the younger driver up to, say, age 24, then at the age of 25 the same person would say, "Good, I can now drink more". We were concerned at the thought process of having tiered penalties for young drivers.

The second of the two main identifiable groups are those who drive well over--and I emphasise "well over"--the legal limit. These drivers are known by different terms in different countries. But in our experience they were known as high risk offenders; the HROs. They account for over half of drink-driving accidents. At any one time that group, according to the evidence we received, represents about 85,000 disqualified drivers in Great Britain and nearly 30,000 of those are recidivist drink drivers--repeat offenders. The committee recommended that in the United Kingdom the blood-alcohol content at which a drink driver becomes a high risk offender should be

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reduced from the present 200mg/100ml to 150mg/100ml. In addition, at that limit of 150mg, we recommended that stiffer minimum penalties should apply.

The committee took evidence from experts in Germany and Sweden on how they deal with high risk offenders. In Germany the high risk offender, at the end of the disqualification period, has to undergo a medical-psychological assessment which involves an assessment by both a doctor and a psychologist before being given back his or her licence. In Sweden HROs are required to undertake an assessment for alcohol dependency lasting between three and six months.

The committee recommends most strongly that the HRO assessment in the United Kingdom should incorporate some of these features, particularly a more rigorous examination over a period of time involving psychological as well as medical assessment.

Police powers of enforcement vary across the EU. In some member states, including the United Kingdom and Germany, the police require "reasonable suspicion" before a breath test. Other member states--for example, France--use road blocks. Outside the European Union random breath testing is used in some Australian states. The committee were not in favour of either road blocks or random breath testing. However, we favoured targeted enforcement. By that we mean pinpointing large groups of people; for instance, large sporting occasions or rock concerts where it is known that alcohol is consumed. We could see every justification why the police should be able to target those specific points.

We also favoured evidential road-side testing. That is a somewhat more controversial aspect, but we were of the opinion, from the evidence that we received, that the technology of evidential road-side testing was now sufficient that it could be relied on in court. We believe that the introduction of evidential road-side testing would release a lot of police time in having to take someone who is initially over the limit, according to the initial breath test, to a police station where two or three more police are involved.

We believe--again, this is perhaps a controversial opinion--that road policing should be made a core objective of police policy. We believe that that would reduce the number of accidents, raise the profile of road policing and stimulate increased police activity in enforcing road safety legislation.

We also favoured the introduction of--my apologies for this rather large expression--the breath alcohol ignition interlock devices. That is quite a mouthful. In lay terms that is equipment fitted into a car into which a driver has to blow or breathe. The car will not start if the content of that breath is at a level in excess of the level set on the machine.

We also favoured--interestingly, police evidence was against this--the use of home breathalyser kits. It was put to us that this could be dangerous because such kits would not be sufficiently checked or calibrated and could give wrong evidence to the driver. Nevertheless,

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we took the view that it would be a helpful aid to drivers so that they could get some idea of whether they were over the limit.

We very much favoured the Government's latest campaign slogan, "None for the road". We thought that that was more effective than the old message, "Don't drink and drive", which has been around for a long time. We thought that "None for the road" was a good, catchy expression and should be repeated. However, we strongly did not favour any attempt to define how many drinks one could have in order to get to whatever the limit may be. At that stage we were not talking about 80 or 50 milligrams. The reason is that it varies enormously with the individual and literally depends on the size and metabolism of the individual. It could well be that a rather slight anorexic lady--I do not wish to be sexist on this--might well be over the top, whatever the limit might be, on one-and-a-half glasses of wine, but a second row England rugby player may well be able to have four pints. One simply cannot say that a limit equals so many glasses because each individual is different.

We looked only peripherally at the subject of drugs and driving. We found that the data was very sparse. The committee recommended more research into the effects of drugs on driving performance. We recognised, however, that there were problems in measuring impairment. The committee found no evidence of clear benefits of action at Community level. We rejected the idea of harmonisation across the European Union. I am using here my own words and not those of the committee. It appears a nonsense to try to harmonise the limit across the European Union and still leave hugely differing penalties and enforcement. It just does not make any sense.

Finally, and perhaps of the least importance in our deliberations, we came to the one that the media likes best or gets most excited about; namely, the actual limit itself. We came to the conclusion that reducing the legal limit would make only a marginal difference to the number of accidents. The majority, however, did come to the conclusion that it would have an important psychological effect, as part of a package of measures, as I have already outlined. The report therefore recommended that on balance the drink-drive limit in the United Kingdom should be reduced to 50mg/100ml. That is spelt out in some detail in paragraphs 111 to 114 of our report.

We then tried to find what that might mean in terms of the saving of life, and here we ran into quite wide differences in estimates. The Government's consultation paper, which is an extremely impressive document, worked through in a logical sequence and came to the opinion that reducing the figure from 80mg to 50mg would probably save 50 lives per year. However, in the same document and indeed in other evidence we received the figures indicated that that reduction from 80mg to 50mg would equal somewhere between 2 per cent. and 3 per cent. That, in purely arithmetic terms, works out at 16 lives.

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I am not at all saying that any lives saved are not well worth while, but I think it is important that the House should understand the perspective of this and the numbers we are talking about. According to our evidence, it is somewhere between 16 and 50.

I would ask Members of the House, either now or perhaps after this debate, to look carefully at Annex 1 on page 34 of our report. This extremely interesting graph shows where the impairment bites. You will see three curves there: one for young drivers; one, if you like, for average drivers; and one for the heavy-risk offenders. They break at different points. For the young driver it is approximately 50mg; for the average driver it is somewhere around 80mg; and for the heavy-risk offender it is well up, probably about 150mg, when the graph really starts to go vertical.

I am sure your Lordships will have observed that at sub-committee level there was disagreement. That is spelt out in annex 2 of our report. Those who are very observant may have seen that the chairman of Sub-Committee B--namely, myself--abstained. I did that because I favoured the minority view in fact, but I thought it incorrect, as chairman of the committee, to support the minority view and at the same time still try to put forward the committee's report: namely, the majority view.

I held that view very strongly at the Select Committee, where, as will be observed from Appendix 3, there was again a difference of opinion and again I state quite clearly that I abstained. I abstained at that stage because I thought it was totally incorrect for the Select Committee to try to reverse the findings of a sub-committee whose members had spent four months looking into this subject. I felt that the Select Committee should not try to do it simply on a reading of the report. So my motives for abstention were actually quite different on the two occasions.

I declare my hand. I am actually in favour of a reduction in the limit for drink driving but I do not personally consider that it is worth going from 80mg to 50mg. To use slightly lay terms, I would regard that as "tinkering" with the system. If the limit is to be lowered--and I repeat that I personally believe it should be--then I think it should be lowered to an effective zero, which, according to the Swedish evidence--and they probably know more about this subject than anyone else in the European Union--is 10mg/100ml. At the moment Sweden has 20mg, and Dr. Laurell, who gave us the evidence, said that he thought it was too high to be an effective zero. I can assure your Lordships that you can never get to an actual zero because there is alcohol in all sorts of things like mouthwash, toothpaste and so on--in fact it is amazing how alcohol comes into everyday use, which one does not appreciate.

I have deliberately ended on a personal note because I wanted the House to be clear that I reported, I hope faithfully, the committee's view but on that one--and I emphasise that we thought it was the least important of the four-way matrix--I took a different view from the majority of the committee. Having said that, I very much honour the majority of the committee, and I put that view forward at Select Committee level. It goes

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without saying, therefore, that I and, I am sure, all speakers this evening, look forward with some anticipation to what the Government are going to say in response to this debate and in particular on this specific issue. I say no more at this stage. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House take note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Blood Alcohol Levels for Drivers (16th Report, HL Paper 82).--(Lord Geddes.)

6.45 p.m.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, as a member of Sub-Committee B, I congratulate, in conjunction with the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, our Clerk, Kate Ball, and our special adviser, Dr. Clayton, who gave us fantastic advice and guidance. We have heard the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, summarise the report and then give his personal views. It is very much my pleasure to congratulate him on a very balanced chairmanship and on keeping his personal views private, although they did come out sometimes. It was an excellent piece of chairmanship and he did not try to influence the committee in any way. I congratulate him.

I, like him, found this a fascinating inquiry, with wide-ranging evidence. I might perhaps mention a little personal involvement as I had the experience some 25 years ago of someone running into me who had so much alcohol in him that he could not stand up; but he did not seem to get convicted or even get his licence taken away. That may colour one's thinking a little. However, I fully support the conclusion of the report.

My support starts from the basis that there is very solid scientific evidence, as noble Lords can see when they read the report. First of all, the methods and accuracy of measuring the levels of blood alcohol, either directly or by breathalyser equipment, are very well proven world wide.

Secondly, as the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, has just summarised, there is a relationship between the level of blood alcohol and the risk of involvement in an accident. I think the link is already well proven and I shall come to that later. I do not think it is subject to debate. Looking at the statistics--and I am sure many speakers will be quoting them tonight--my right honourable friend Dr. Strang, the Minister for Transport, quoted the figure of 90,000 drink-driving convictions in a year for being over the limit, and 50 per cent. of them for being virtually twice over the limit: that is 45,000 or so.

As the committee has stated in its report, there are two main types of offender: the younger age group of 20-24 and the high-risk offenders. The Minister went on to remind us that 540 people were killed in drink-related accidents. We can argue whether drink caused the accident or whether they just happened to be drunk in charge of a car when somebody ran into them--somebody who was cold sober--but we can go on arguing about that for ever. Drink played a part, and I think everybody would accept that.

It is difficult to deny that drink-related driving offences are a serious problem. It says something for the road safety work done in this country over the years that our record here is rather better than many other EU

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countries. Perhaps we should be a little proud of what has been done, but it does not mean to say that we cannot do a little better. That is what all this report is about.

I want to concentrate this evening on two matters: the high-risk offenders and the alcohol limit itself. On high-risk offenders, as the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, said, 90,000 people are convicted each year of drink-related driving offences. I was interested in the evidence given by Dr. Major of the DVLA in Swansea about what happens to high-risk offenders who want their licences back. I refer to the bottom of page 48 of the report. Of the 90,000 drivers who lost their licences, over 29,000 applied to have their licences reinstated while 976 were refused their application. I calculate that that represents 4 per cent. In Dr. Major's evidence, summarised at paragraph 44 of our report, she said that the DVLA, when considering applications for the restoration of licences, needs to have a

    "very robust level of diagnosis",

which will stand up to examination in court. That means that applicants can challenge the DVLA if they think that they have had their application for the restoration of their licence rejected unfairly. Dr. Major said:

    "We are fairly sure that we are missing a lot of people".

I felt sorry for Dr. Major, who was obviously trying hard with a couple of hands tied behind her back, as it were.

Two things struck me when comparing Dr. Major's evidence with that of Mr. Hans Laurell from Sweden and that of Dr. Wolf Nickel from Germany. First, in Sweden, serious drink-drive offenders who are sent to gaol can serve their custodial sentence at home, provided they have a telephone with a machine that is capable of recording by smell whether they have been drinking. Those convicted must not drink at home. Effectively, they are off the drink, but they are not costing the state a lot of money by being kept in gaol. Offenders can be checked at any time to ensure that they are not drinking at home. That seems a sensible and comparatively cheap way of punishing people.

Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, explained the medical and psychological assessments which offenders have to undergo in Germany. On my calculation, keeping it simple, 30 per cent. of applicants in Germany failed to get their licences back. That compares with 4 per cent. in this country. I support the committee's recommendation and I hope that the Government will seriously consider the procedures followed in Sweden and Germany because there seems to be a lot that we can learn from them.

I turn now to the question of the alcohol limit and whether it should be reduced from 80 milligrams to 50 milligrams. I refer to the graph on page 34 and to the relationship between the risk of accident involvement and the alcohol content, to which the noble Lord referred. One line relates to older and heavier drinkers. Extrapolating the bottom line (alcohol content) to 150mg/100ml, one sees that even for the oldest and heaviest drinkers--the repeat offenders--the risk of accident involvement is five times that if they are not

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drinking. That seems significant. Whether or not the limit is reduced from 80 milligrams to 50 milligrams is completely irrelevant to them because they will exceed the limit in any event. I repeat that I find the fact that they are five times more likely to have an accident to be significant.

The graph also shows the risk of accident involvement for young drivers and infrequent drinkers. Reducing the limit from 80 milligrams to 50 milligrams would reduce their risk of accident involvement from six times what it would be if they did not drink to about 2.5 times. That is not as good as the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, would like, but it is a good deal better than nothing. If one adds to that the fact that young drivers are also inexperienced, there is a major argument to be made in favour of reducing the limit to 50 milligrams.

One can discuss the errors in the measurement, but I am not persuaded by the evidence from the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association, which basically said that if the limit were reduced, it would threaten the jobs created directly or indirectly in the community and would have adverse consequences for government revenue from taxation on alcohol. People are being killed by drunken drivers and the fact that government revenue may be reduced or pubs may lose business is sad, but surely society as a whole can learn to do what many of us have been doing for many years. If one is going out for dinner, one person in the party will not drink alcohol. It is not difficult; that person could drink soft drinks.

If we are talking about targeting people, by all means let us target pop concerts and other such events, but let us also target Ascot, Henley and so on because people there drink just as much and, in my view, they should not be on the road. One person should not drink--

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