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Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, would he care to rephrase his expression "parliamentary beer festival"? Although I did not attend it, I think it was anything but that.

Lord Methuen: My Lords, the parliamentary beer group? What is the correct title?

Lord Geddes: My Lords, I wonder whether I can help the noble Lord and the House. It was in fact a meeting of the Parliamentary Beer Club, which heard from three different witnesses--I use the word advisedly--purely, as my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth said, on the subject of drink-driving. It was certainly not a festival.

Lord Methuen: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his correction. The club seems to have had very good speakers at that meeting and I was disappointed not to be able to attend. The notification arrived on the morning of the meeting. I believe that the club was lucky to have those speakers. It was interesting that the Canadian speaker said that two excellent documents were currently available: one was the Government's consultative paper and the other the report which we are debating.

8.26 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the Select Committee on producing a most interesting report and my noble friend Lord Geddes on his comprehensive and thorough introduction to it.

The report and today's debate are most timely because responses to the Government's consultation paper, Combating Drink Driving: next steps, published in February, are due this Friday. My speech will attempt to cover both the committee's report and the Government's consultation paper.

There is no doubt that the drink drive campaign over the past 30 years or so has been a major success story, and along with seat belts and, among other things, better roads and better cars, has resulted in a reduction in the number of deaths on our roads to record low levels. In 1949 there were 4,773 deaths and 4.1 million vehicles on the roads. In 1996 there were 3,598 deaths--fewer than in 1949--but an increase in vehicles to 26 million. The United Kingdom, with 6.4 deaths per 100,000 population, has the best record in Europe, Australia or the United States.

I believe that the main factor in the reduction in drink drive casualties has been the change in people's attitudes. That has taken many years, much publicity and much effort by successive Ministers and others involved in the issue. There is no doubt that drinking and driving was an activity that was considered perfectly acceptable

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by many people 30 years ago but is now thought socially unacceptable by the vast majority. In considering any possible reduction in the blood alcohol limit, one first needs to look at whether such a reduction will help with public support against drinking and driving or will damage that support, particularly from people who consider themselves perfectly capable of driving safely at up to the present limit. There is also the very important question of the relationship between the motorist and the police.

Secondly, as we have heard, only 14 per cent. of fatal accidents involve drivers with illegal levels of alcohol. I believe that that figure is itself rather crude. My understanding is that it takes no account of whether alcohol played any part in the accident or whether the accident would have happened anyway. After all, 86 per cent. of accidents do not involve alcohol. To give an extreme example, if a driver is stationary at a red traffic light and is hit from behind by a motor-cyclist, with fatal consequences, and if the driver of the stationary car tests positive, as I understand it, that accident is recorded as an alcohol-related accident. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, who I am sorry to see is not in his place, made reference to that point. Paragraph 31 of the report quotes the British Medical Association as saying that it is safe to assume that any accident-involved driver with an illegal BAC contributed to the cause of that accident. I do not believe that to be a true assumption.

In speaking in this debate, I find myself involved with no fewer than three of the organisations that gave evidence to the committee. I am a member of the public policy committee of the RAC, a trustee of the Medical Commission on Accident Prevention and a director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. Those three organisations did not have the same opinions on all the matters of report, particularly on the main issue of lowering the limit, but it is not my role necessarily to agree with what was said by them. Both the RAC and the Medical Commission on Accident Prevention oppose a reduction, while PACTS supports one. Nevertheless all three make some very good points in their evidence.

As both the report and the Government's consultation paper point out, there are two critical target groups: those who drive well in excess of the limit and new, younger drivers, usually men in their twenties. I agree with the conclusion of the report that efforts should be targeted particularly at these two groups.

Enforcement is an issue that rightly comes up again and again, particularly random breath testing, a phrase that means different things to different people. My understanding is that the police have all the powers they need to stop a driver on suspicion of being over the limit. If, as the report suggests, the police need better training in the powers available to them, I support that. I am not in favour of setting up roadblocks and testing everyone who comes by. As well as being a waste of precious police resources that would be better employed targeting high-risk offenders, they infuriate the innocent motorist and do nothing to help with the all important public-police relationship.

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The Medical Commission on Accident Prevention makes the point that lowering the limit would divert police enforcement towards lower risk cases with an above average risk of two-and-a-half times and away from the over 50 per cent. of presently convicted drink drivers that have over 15 times the risk of accident involvement. After a motorist is stopped and tested positive he or she has to be taken to the police station and retested, a great deal of paper work has to be done and one way or another that particular police patrol car is off the circuit for a long time. Peter Joslin, Chief Constable of Warwickshire, to whom my noble friend Lord Lucas referred, suggested that lowering the limit might increase the number of hit-and-run cases. More motorists, even those not at fault, might be reluctant to stop and fear the risk of being breathalysed. In addition, if I read the figures from annex 1 to the Government's consultation paper correctly, over the three years 1993 to 1995 only around 2 per cent. of drivers and 3 per cent. of motor-cyclists who were killed in road accidents had blood alcohol levels above 50 but under 80.

Both the committee and PACTS agree that making road policing a core policy objective would be helpful and could help reduce accidents, not just those involving alcohol. The committee, too, was concerned that emphasis put on reducing the 14 per cent. of fatalities involving drink driving is out of proportion to the other 86 per cent. of fatal accidents.

Like the committee, I can see no clear benefits for the Community in harmonising limits at 50. I very much agree that setting the level is a matter for member state governments. In any case, the limit is only one factor. Penalties are just as important, and they seem, from the evidence that I have seen, to vary from one country to another almost as widely as it is possible to imagine. Nor is there evidence that in countries where the limit is lower there are fewer fatalities; quite the contrary. Portugal, for example, with a limit of 50, has a fatality rate over double those of countries with an 80 limit.

To conclude, I do not agree with the majority of the committee that the limit should be lowered to 50, but, excluding that, I very much agree that a package of measures would be the most effective way, particularly targeting the two groups most at risk. But above all I agree that more emphasis should be given to reducing the 86 per cent. of fatal accidents not involving drink driving.

The Government are naturally keen to develop a strategy to reduce road casualties. They have a difficult task, and we must wish them well. I note that on page 11 of the consultation paper they compare the 3,598 road fatalities in Great Britain in 1996 with the 850 homicides in the UK that year. Murder has always been an offence with well-known and severe penalties, and yet there are still 850 a year. I do not know whether that trend is up or down. I very much hope the trend in road casualties continues downwards, but it is clearly unrealistic to suppose that they can be eliminated altogether. I fear, like some noble Lords, that we may be nearing a plateau.

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I look forward to hearing the Minister's response on the particular aspect of road safety we have been debating this evening. However, I urge her to concentrate most of her efforts on the vast majority of accidents not involving alcohol, and the many ways, including fairly low-costs road safety schemes and restoring the bypass programme, that can help reduce casualties far more than tinkering with the levels.

8.34 p.m.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am grateful, as is the whole House, to the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, and his committee for the work that they have undertaken on this subject. It was clear from the contributions made today that it was not an easy task to chair this committee. The noble Lord obviously achieved it with great skill and the congratulations offered to him were heartfelt.

I too offer heartfelt congratulations and thanks to the committee on the timing of its deliberations and recommendations. As was pointed out by many speakers, it coincided with the Government's consultation on a range of measures to combat drink driving. I hope that noble Lords will not think it diminishes the work of the committee if I say that, from my perspective, it is an enormously well-researched and well-thought out contribution to the consultation process that we are currently undertaking. I suspect that some noble Lords will not be as happy as I am because, with the consultation process not finishing until the end of this week, I shall not be able to give as definite an answer to some of the recommendations as I would be able to in other circumstances.

We will shortly be letting the committee have the Government's formal response to the recommendations. Many of the conclusions are in line with our policy proposals and it is reassuring to know that we have the Select Committee's support in so many areas. However, I hope that noble Lords will understand that I shall need to reserve the Government's position on certain points until we have had time to take account of the responses to the consultation exercise.

As is only right and proper, the debate tonight showed how wide the views can be on this issue. Many noble Lords referred to the importance of compliance, acceptability and understanding of the measures being put forward. That is why it is a real consultation process in which we wish to hear people's views. I was slightly disappointed in the majority of the responses to the consultation document in that they focused only on the issue of the blood alcohol level. We tried in that consultation document to make clear that we were considering a range of measures and that the Government accept wholeheartedly what is the thesis of the Select Committee; that is, that there is no single quick fix in this area; that if we look to other jurisdictions and to our experience in this country, we need a package of measures that is a balanced one. I am glad therefore that the committee did the opposite of what some of the respondents to the consultation document did and went slightly wider than its original

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brief, which was to look only at the terms of the draft directive. It very properly commented on a whole range of issues in relation to drink driving.

It has been an excellent debate this evening. I was delighted that many noble Lords shared with me a somewhat surprised attitude at how fascinating the subject has been. For many road safety did not, on the surface, look to be an issue that was both intellectually challenging and of desperate importance to individuals. It is only when, for some reason--either through personal experience or through working in the field--we actually come into contact with the issues that we realise that it is both of those things and many others as well. It is an interesting political, rather than party political, issue with which to be involved.

The contributions tonight were excellent. I also received a kind message from my noble friend Lady Castle. She would have liked to be here this evening but it is a little late for her. I join with earlier speakers in paying tribute to her courage and foresight--a debt that all of us in this country owe to her--in introducing the original drink drive and breath-test legislation into the Road Safety Act 1967. She helped this country turn the corner in casualty reduction. Many noble Lords referred to our achievements and our comparative record in relation to other countries. My noble friend played a great part in that and it is important that we recognise the seminal events that helped us to achieve that record. It is interesting to talk to her occasionally and to learn that some of the debates and the passions that we are experiencing now were also rehearsed before the 1967 Act, just as in other jurisdictions they are being rehearsed at present. These are important issues and there are balances to be struck.

The Select Committee obviously looked at this issue because, by definition, it was in its terms of reference examining a draft directive. It sees the situation from a European perspective. That is not the perspective from which the Government are looking at these issues. That was not the genesis of our consultation document which came from a longstanding commitment to consult about the blood alcohol level. More importantly, it comes from the document that we put out last year looking at a road safety strategy and targets for the year 2000 and beyond. We see any proposals about drink drive in that context.

Just as the committee believes that we need a package of measures on drink drive, the Government believe that that package has in turn to be part of a wider range of measures that contribute to a road safety strategy. I did bridle a little at paragraph 88 of the Select Committee's report. When one invites witnesses and, as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, pointed out, one sets up an inquiry into drink drive and blood alcohol limits, it is difficult then to criticise people for commenting only in that area.

I am very aware that there are many other issues in road safety that we need to tackle. That is why the Government are consulting on and implementing a strategy on a whole range of measures. I share the passion of the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, that we should not be exclusive about this. I do not believe that we are exclusive or disproportionate when I look at the work

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of the department at the moment and what I am doing as the Minister responsible for road safety in the month of May. The reason why I am dealing with drink drive issues is the need to answer correspondence on the consultation document. We are re-launching the radio advertising campaign on "Kill Your Speed". That campaign will take £3.5 million of departmental resources this year compared with £2 million of advertising on drink drive.


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