HC Deb 20 February 1967 vol 741 cc1176-88
Mr. Graham Page

I beg to move Amendment No. 39, in page 1, line 9, after 'alcohol', to insert 'or having taken a drug'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Eric Fletcher)

I think that it would be for the convenience of the House if with that Amendment we discussed the following: Amendment No. 40, in page 2, line 3, after 'alcohol', insert: 'or having taken a drug'.

Amendment No. 41, in page 2, line 13, after 'alcohol', insert 'or a drug'.

Amendment No. 42, in Clause 6, page 8, line 1, after 'means', insert: 'in relation to alcohol'.

Amendment No. 43, in page 8, line 4, at end insert: 'and in relation to drugs such proportion as may be prescribed by regulations as aforesaid in respect of any drug specified in the said regulations'.

Mr. Page

I am obliged to you for saying that we may discuss these Amendments together.

This group of Amendments is intended to apply a standard to driving when a person's skill is impaired by drugs in the same way as the Bill applies a standard to driving when a person's skill is impaired by alcohol. In the Bill we have accepted the principle that the danger from driving when a person has been drinking alcohol can be measured by the quantity of alcohol in the blood, and therefore the quantity of alcohol in the driver.

The Long Title to the Bill deals with driving after consuming drugs. It says: To make further provision with respect to persons driving or being in charge of motor vehicles after consuming alcohol or taking drugs …", but nowhere in the Bill can I discover any provisions relating to the driving of motor vehicles after consuming drugs. This would be introduced into the Bill if the Amendments were accepted.

Section 6 of the 1960 Road Traffic Act says: A person who, when driving or attempting to drive a motor vehicle on a road or other public place, is unfit to drive through drink or drugs … That was amended by the Road Traffic Act, 1962, when the phrase unfit to drive through drink or drugs was defined as meaning that a person's driving ability was thereby impaired. The important point to which I draw attention is that Clause 2(1) of the Road Traffic Act, 1962 said: … the court shall … have regard to any evidence which may be given of the proportion or quantity of alcohol or of any drug which was contained in the blood or present in the body of the accused, as ascertained by analysis or measurement of a specimen of blood taken from him with his consent by a medical practitioner, or of urine or breath provided by him, at any material time … I stress the words "or of any drug". It seems from that that at the time the House passed the Road Traffic Act, 1962, it must have been satisfied that the quantity of drugs in a person's body could be measured otherwise, so far as it refers to drugs, Section 2(1) of that Act is meaningless. It seems, therefore, that Parliament was satisfied at that time that from a specimen of blood or urine an authorised analyst could certify the proportion of drugs in the specimen, and therefore the proportion of drugs in the person's body.

Under those circumstances, it seems that we ought to give the right hon. Lady the Minister a power under this Bill to prescribe a limit for any particular drug. I appreciate that for different drugs the prescribed limit may have to be a different figure. There may have to be a different formula and a different calculation, but the Minister should now take power to prescribe a limit in connection with drugs in the same way as she is taking power by the Bill to prescribe a limit for alcohol in the accused's body.

Scarcely two years ago the Ministry was saying that one could not satisfactorily measure alcohol in the blood to make it an offence to have so much alcohol above a prescribed limit, but now, in this Bill, the principle has been recognised. In a very short period of time medical science has become so much more accurate that it is possible to legislate in that respect. Between the passing of the Road Traffic Act, 1962 and this year, progress in ascertaining the proportion of alcohol in the blood which would be likely so to impair driving that its existence ought to be made a crime has made it possible to have Part I of the Bill.

As far as I know, no publicity has been given to any research into the proportion of particular drugs which would similarly be likely to impair driving. I do not think that the assertion that drugs affect different people in different ways is an excuse for not setting a standard in relation to drugs as we are setting in relation to alcohol.

We know that alcohol has a similar variety of effects on different people, but we are in the Bill accepting a standard which we believe to be fair to those who may be able to "carry their drinks better than others". We have accepted this principle with regard to alcohol, and in these Amendments I am asking that we should accept the same sort of principle with regard to drugs.

5.0 p.m.

Until comparatively recently, it was thought that driving with one's skill impaired by drugs was a remote offence, something unusual. But, only a short while ago, the House debated the effect of drugs on society and I am sure that many of us were shocked at the facts then revealed. As a result, we feel that accidents caused by those who drive under the influence of drugs are not so remote as we might have thought. I believe that a substantial number of accidents is caused by those whose driving is impaired by drugs. It may be a very long time before we have another Road Safety Bill—a long time in terms of the progress of medical knowledge, which happens very quickly. Before then, we may know very much more about drugs and accidents, drugs and driving, and the measurement of drugs in the body.

This is an opportunity which the right hon. Lady should not miss, to put powers in the Bill to set that standard, when she feels that medical knowledge has progressed far enough to tell her that, if there is x amount of any drug in a driver's body, it is so dangerous for him to drive that he ought to be held to be committing an offence. This principle is accepted in the Bill for alcohol: let us accept it also for drugs, which are becoming such a serious menace.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson

I support my hon. Friend's Amendment and share his surprise that, although drugs are mentioned in the Long Title, there is practically nothing about them in the rest of the Bill. I reinforce his point. The question of drugs is very topical. Until little time ago, when we talked of drugs we were thinking of the killer and habit-forming drugs which were not, perhaps, in common use and still, fortunately, are little used. However, there are many other drugs which are greatly used and which, if taken in any quantities and sometimes in conjunction with alcohol, can be very dangerous—pep pills and the like.

There may be difficulties in ascertaining what quantities have been taken. If that be so, it is high time that those doing research looked into the matter to see whether they can devise some way of measuring the effect. It is having an effect on some people which can be highly dangerous, especially when taken with alcohol. When some means of measuring has been found, the right hon. Lady ought to have powers in reserve so that she can make the necessary Regulations.

Mr. Bessell

Although I am in complete sympathy with all the sentiments of the hon. Members for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) and Truro (Mr. Geoffrey Wilson), I have some difficulty over the Amendment. The words are "… of having taken a drug". What does that mean? For example, a person suffering a severe pain, perhaps a headache, may take three or four aspirin, which would constitute "taking a drug". There are certain tranquillisers which are very effective and of which about 900 million are sold in this country each year. Is it suggested that these—which are certainly drugs—should create an offence if taken in a certain quantity by a person who then drives?

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson

The hon. Member will see further down the words "… exceeds the prescribed limit". There would naturally have to be a limit.

Mr. Bessell

I am grateful to the hon. Member. I see the point about the prescribed limit and was going on to say that Amendment No. 43 meets the case much better. At least it gives the Minister the right to take this power if and when it can be shown that drugs of various types and in various quantities are dangerous.

The intention behind Amendment No. 39 is excellent, but I have doubts about its administrative possibilities. Amendment No. 43 has a point which should be seriously considered, as this is an opportunity for the Minister to take powers which are necessary in the light of the numbers of dangerous drugs being taken, particularly, by young people, and which, as the hon. Member for Truro said, can be very dangerous, in conjunction with alcohol.

Mr. Deedes

I strongly support the idea of the Amendment, though there may be difficulties, about which I hope the Under-Secretary will tell us, which will preclude it from having the effect for which my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) hopes. He is right to say that, in logic, as the Long Title refers to drink and drugs, both should be taken into account. Our legislation on these lines does take the two in partnership. It is well known that the admixture of drugs to alcohol— or the other way around—can be very dangerous in certain circumstances.

One point ought to be stressed. Whether or not we can achieve what my hon. Friend wants, we ought not to underrate the size of this problem. In a country where, in the last year—according to figures given to the House the other day —6 million prescriptions for barbiturates can be issued in six months and 3 million for amphetamines in one year, nobody can doubt that a large number of people who drive must be mixing both with alcohol; and both mixed with alcohol constitute a serious danger to health and driving.

On practicability, my hon. Friend thought that we should add a limit in respect of drugs as we have done in respect of alcohol. There are certain drugs, I think, which can be quantitatively and qualitatively measured, either in the blood or the urine, but unfortunately neither amphetamines nor barbiturates are among them, and these are the two principal drugs with which we should be concerned.

The other day, I ascertained as far as I could from those who have studied this in Washington whether any tests exist. My information is that there is no way of ascertaining the quantity of barbiturates or amphetamines taken by a person, although, by a test of the eyes, it is possible to tell whether it has been taken or not. In other words, the presence can be detected, but not the quantity which puts us into real difficulty in respect of the Bill.

First, I see no reason why we should not be the first to succeed in research on the subject. We are very good at this kind of thing and should pursue research activity because, without drugs added to it in the sense urged by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby, there is a large lacuna in the Bill. We have been talking about alcohol, but as long as people can drive with alcohol and drugs mixed, we are not dealing with road safety in this Bill, although it may be called a Road Safety Bill. I hope that research will be pushed hard. There is no reason why we should not find the right answers.

Secondly, surely we should signal this Bill with fresh guidance to everyone who takes drugs as to the danger that alcohol and drugs can constitute. I am thinking not only of people who may be using barbiturates and amphetamines but those who may be taking special drugs for specific complaints. Fresh guidance should be issued about what these can do in conjunction with alcohol. If the hon. and learned Gentleman is unable to accept the main points of the Amendment, I hope that at least we shall have some reassurance on these lines.

Mr. J. T. Price (Westhoughton)

The views expressed by hon. Members opposite on this matter are not confined to one side of the House. I share some of them very strongly. I shall not weary the House by examining the technical difficulties—of which we are all aware—in establishing any form of enforcement in the present stage of our medical knowledge.

I know that in many ways those who have supported the imposition of penalties on alcoholic drivers have always been met by the technical difficulties in evolving a sufficiently accurate test of the reputed intoxication to a certain degree. What cannot be denied is that the purpose of the Bill is to deal with those who are in a degree of intoxication, either by the taking of alcohol or by the taking of drugs, so as to seriously impair their ability to drive a motor vehicle.

In that sense, I cannot think that my hon. and learned Friend will be well advised merely to say "No" to this proposition and to say that it is impracticable. I believe that the Ministry should have reserve powers and that we should pursue our researches a little further to see how far we can apply to drugs the penalities which are to apply to alcoholic drivers.

Another aspect is directly linked with this subject. In some countries—certainly in Canada, to my knowledge—it is an offence to be caught driving a motor vehicle while in the possession of alcoholic drinks. To be caught carrying alcoholic beverages of any kind—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I do not think that that arises on the Amendment before the House, which relates to the question of whether we should add the words, or having taken a drug".

Mr. Price

I realise that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I shall not pursue the point. But surely it is an equal offence to carry noxious substances such as drugs, which are such a menace to the country, as the Press has been telling us in recent controversy, and this aspect should be dealt with also. I hope that the Minister will give consideration not only to reserving to herself power to apply penalties to those who are incapable of driving because they are under the influence of drugs but also to those who are carrying drugs. This aspect might well be the subject of another Amendment.

Sir Clive Bossom (Leominster)

I do not feel that the Home Office is giving a clear and precise enough direction to the police about the taking of drugs on top of drink, or even about a driver who has taken drugs only. Unfortunately, drugs are being taken by larger and larger numbers of people in larger and larger amounts. These people come from all walks of life and are of all ages. Not only are drugs being taken to relieve pain, but young people take them "for kicks".

As has been pointed out, there is not any simple device which can be used to detect the effect of drugs. I remember the Under-Secretary of State, in Committee, told us that it would be … impracticable … to define an offence as driving with more than a prescribed quantity of drugs in the blood."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee E, 6th December, 1966; c. 207.] That was much too vague as it stood. The Home Office must do a great deal more research into this and give a much clearer direction. I do not think that it has gone into research into chemical antidotes—for example, the "Alcohol Pill" which could be called a type of drug. These have not been introduced into this country, but no doubt they will soon be produced and they will give a mixed-up reading on all the breath meter devices. In Standing Committee, the hon. and learned Gentleman was rather vague about this matter. I hope that now he will be able to clear it up rather more than he did then.

5.15 p.m.

Mr. Taverne

Obviously, drugs are a very important question in relation to driving. Obviously, too, they can become an increasingly important factor in the impairment of certain drivers, and I agree with those who have said that we should not under-estimate the problem. We will take note of the concern expressed about the need for research into this and the need, in certain cases, for guidance. But I hope to persuade the House that the Amendment is not appropriate to the Bill.

As I explained in Committee, the reason that drugs must be referred to in the Long Title is that there are references in the Bill to drugs. There are incidental references in Clause 3(8), for example, to Sections in the 1962 Act which deal with drugs. That is the only reason that drugs are referred to in the Long Title.

But the Bill is solely concerned with drink. It is not concerned with drugs. This is, firstly, because we do not have sufficient knowledge. There is no knowledge about the effects of particular concentrations of drugs, other than alcohol, on a person's ability to drive properly similar to that which exists in the case of accident liability at different blood alcohol levels.

It is therefore impractical at present to define an offence of driving with more than a prescribed amount of drugs in the blood. The effect of a combination of alcohol and drugs may complicate the issue. It is known that when alcohol and barbiturates are combined their joint effect is greater than the sum of each would suggest, which makes it more difficult to have prescribed limits for drugs. Research suggests that with most tranquilisers the effect of the combination with alcohol is merely additive. The cases where motorists are impaired solely because of drugs are at present only a very small proportion of the whole in Britain. It is undoubtedly possible that, with the greater use of drugs and the larger quantities of barbiturates being prescribed, the number may increase. But it is just as likely that, in future, greater problems will arise of motorists who will be affected by a combination of alcohol and drugs, and the need for some sort of guidance is something that we shall look into.

Secondly, apart from the difficulty of defining the prescribed level, there is the further difficulty that the machinery in the Bill, in Clause 2, for detecting offenders on the road is that of the breath device and this cannot be applied to drugs. Therefore, in future, drug cases will have to be dealt with as they have been in the past. Those who have more than a safe quantity of drugs and whose ability to drive is affected will have to be dealt with and may have to be arrested under Section 6(4) of the Road Traffic Act, 1960, which does not define impairment in terms of blood-alcohol concentration. Evidence of impairment from the behaviour of the driver can be given in future as in past cases. In some respects, however, the Bill will help. Subject to Clause 2(7), it will be possible to give a person arrested under Section 6 a breath test at the police station. If the result is negative, that fact, combined with an evident impairment in other respects, may point to its being a drug case and may warn the police to call in a doctor to examine the person with that in mind. In this respect the breath test may show a negative result when there is clearly impairment, and this may point to a drug case which would otherwise have been difficult to discover.

Since drugs cases cannot be positively detected by any means such as this, the police can at present arrest people only when there is evidence of driving impairment. As I have explained, it is impracticable to try to discover the amount of drugs present in the way that one can test for alcohol. Indeed, there is no prospect of our being able to make regulations covering the principle proposed by hon. Gentlemen opposite or in the machinery of the Bill. There is, therefore, no alternative method at present for dealing with this matter other than by the existing law.

It is true that in future scientific knowledge may enable drug cases to be brought within the general principles of the Bill, and certainly at that point an amendment of the Measure would be desirable and would obviously be made. But this is not at present envisaged as being likely and we consider that there are disadvantages in taking powers which we cannot see any likelihood of our using in the foreseeable future.

It is not only the case that some drugs cannot be quantified. There is also the question of the wide variety of drugs that could lead to, or could have contributed to, impairment. We are not, therefore, in a position to prescribe a limit, to accept the Amendment, or to take powers for which there could be no use in the foreseeable future.

Mr. Bessell

Would the hon. and learned Gentleman answer the question asked by the right hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes)? Is the Ministry of Transport doing anything to encourage research into this matter?

Mr. Taverne

I will look into that point. I do not think that the Ministry of Transport would be concerned with this matter in relation to drugs. I assure the hon. Gentleman that this is the subject of research, although I cannot tell him precisely what research is being done.

Mr. Carlisle

While sympathising with the difficulty in which the Under-Secretary finds himself, I was somewhat disappointed at the attitude he adopted towards the Amendment. It is not adequate merely to say that the Bill has nothing to do with drugs and that we must, therefore, leave the position entirely as it is.

I had some difficulty in understanding some of the objections voiced by the hon. and learned Gentleman. For example, he said that one objection was that alcohol and drugs combined—the combined effect they had on impairment—was greater than the individual effect of the two. While accepting that, and while agreeing that alcohol and drugs combined may produce a greater degree of impairment than merely drugs by themselves—

Mr. Taverne

In some cases.

Mr. Carlisle

—that is no argument against having some means of attempting to test for the amount of drugs in a person's system. We are merely saying that the Government should have power to take this matter further at the appropriate time, although we appreciate that the court will be dependent on the existing law where impairment to drive is shown.

The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to the breath test. We have understood that part of the object of this test is not merely to decide whether or not a person has had too much to drink, but also to be able to prove the offence. I have understood that the Bill was intended to meet the difficulty in drink cases where although one may have reason to believe that a person has had a great deal to drink it has been difficult to prove impairment. I cannot see why, merely because the breath test does not show the presence of drugs, the evidence which could be produced by showing that a quantity of drugs was in the bloodstream could not play an effective and important part in providing evidence for a prosecution. My hon. Friends and I appreciate the difficulty of being able successfully to test for the quantity of drugs which a person has taken. Nevertheless, the hon. and learned Gentleman will agree that this is a major problem, the size of which was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes), and that it is bound to be a growing one. We should, therefore, face the fact that probably the most dangerous combination of all is the combination of alcohol and drugs. I hope that the Under-Secretary will also ensure that the Home Office and Ministry of Transport undertake research into the effects of drugs and the possibility of testing for the amount of drugs in a person's body, particularly if research of this kind is not now being done.

Further to the remarks of the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell), I suggest that Amendment No. 43 is consequential on the other Amendments. If the word "drugs" were added to Clause 1, this would enable the Minister to prescribe, by regulations, the limit of any particular drug. This could be done at a later stage, under Clause 6, when scientifically we are able to measure the amount of drugs in a person's bloodstream. I hope that, if nothing else, this debate has clearly drawn people's attention to the real danger that exists, particularly among young people, from taking drugs in any quantity, then drinking alcohol and then driving.

Amendment negatived.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Morris)

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in line 15, to leave out from 'conviction' to 'to' in line 16.

This is a purely consequential Amendment.

Mr. Daniel Awdry (Chippenham)

I thank the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for accepting the principle of an Amendment which my hon. Friends and I moved in Committee and which was designed to alter the order of the penalties provided by the Bill. As originally drafted, the Bill provided that the first alternative penalty was imprisonment and that the second alternative was a fine. We felt that this gave the wrong emphasis; and that is why we asked for the order to be reversed. We were told on that occasion that in 1965 only 196 persons were sent to prison out of 6,489 people summarily convicted of driving when impaired. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will confirm that it is the Government's intention that only in rare cases will imprisonment be imposed under this Clause.

Mr. John Morris

I cannot add to what was said in Committee. As was requested by hon. Members on both sides, the order is being reversed. The implementation of this provision is a matter for the courts.

Amendment agreed to.