HC Deb 15 November 1967 vol 754 cc420-3
39. Mr. Marten

asked the Minister of Transport whether she will amend the law so that drivers can request a breathalyser test from the police before driving.

Mrs. Castle

No, Sir. I do not think that the additional burden on the police would be warranted. In any case, such voluntary tests might encourage motorists to drink "up to the limit" which could well be dangerous.

Mr. Marten

Of course that is true, but any sensible motorist would wish to have a test if he could pay, say, 5s. for it. Would the Minister look at this again, because there may be a danger of people thinking that she is more interested in obtaining prosecutions than in helping keep death off the road, and that would he impossible if motorists were allowed to have a police test in return for some small payment?

Mrs. Castle

That accusation is completely unsupported by the attitude which my hon. Friends and I took during the passage of the Road Safety Bill. An example of our desire to have prevention rather than prosecution was the change in the "in charge" law, which everyone recognised was an attempt to help the motorist. That is what I want to do. There are two big difficulties. First and foremost, such an ad hoc test could be misleading. For example, if it was taken shortly after the motorist had stopped drinking, the blood/alcohol level might not have reached its peak. Secondly, I do not think we have the right to put this additional burden on the police.

Mr. Orme

Is my right hon. Friend aware that not only is the Bill working effectively to prevent accidents but the opinion poll headlined in the Evening Standard today shows that public opinion has gone up from 65 per cent. support in August to 69 per cent. today?

Mrs. Castle

I have not yet had an opportunity of seeing this report in the Evening Standard, but it confirms a great deal of evidence which has come to me through my own correspondence.

Mr. Peter Walker

Whilst appreciating the point made by the right hon. Lady on the difficulties of putting extra burdens on the police, could she examine the method of taking the blood test, because there are reports of police dissatisfaction of the actual method by which they have to take the blood test, thus causing bad relationship between the public and the police?

Mrs. Castle

I am not aware of that. If official representations were made by the police to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, he and I would look into them, but I am not aware that this is so.

Dr. David Kerr

Would my right hon. Friend explain to hon. Members opposite that the best thing is not to have a drink before being put in charge of a lethal weapon? If they are anxious about breathalyser tests, this is the best service they could do to the public.

Mrs. Castle

I do wish to reaffirm that the only safe rule is not to drink and drive. This is not a measure directed against motorists; it is merely against the coupling of drinking and driving. I endorse what my hon. Friend has said.

46. Mr. St. John-Stevas

asked the Minister of Transport how she proposes to seek to modify the rules governing the use of the breathalyser in order to respect the liberties of the subject.

Mrs. Castle

I do not consider that any modification is necessary.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

But does the Minister realise that one simple modification would do much to reassure people, namely, if a motorist were given the opportunity, if he had failed the relevant test, to prove that he was fit to be in charge of a motor car?

Mrs. Castle

I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the whole purpose of the Act, which I thought was accepted by the whole House, which is that we want an objective measurement whether a man is or is not fit to be in charge of a motor car. This is based on medical evidence and medical advice that above a certain concentration of alcohol in the blood a man is impaired, whether physically impaired or consciously.

Mr. Sharples

Is the right hon. Lady aware that in certain areas the impression is growing that the police are using purely technical motoring offences to introduce what are virtually random tests? Will the right hon. Lady take steps to correct this impression?

Mr. Molloy

Name the police force involved.

Mrs. Castle

I do not accept that that is so. The House accepted three circumstances under which the test could be made. First, if the motorist had been involved in an accident. Secondly, if the police considered that there was reasonable ground for thinking that a motorist had committed a moving traffic offence, and, thirdly, if they suspected that a motorist had alcohol in his body. Those three conditions were accepted by the House, and during the discussions on the Bill I explained that this meant that there was a random element. This has not been contravened by the police. There is no evidence whatsoever that the police are going beyond the terms of the Act approved by the House.

Mr. Rankin

Would my right hon. Friend agree that while the liberty of the subject is important the safety of the subject is of equal importance, and the breathalyser is playing a part in extending this?

Mrs. Castle

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I have always said that the Act gives a great extension of liberty because it gives the motorist a chance to use his car and stay alive.

Mr. Bellenger

Has my right hon. Friend observed that although the breathalyser test provides a good prima facie case for a further examination, nevertheless when people are taken to police stations for further positive tests they are found to be innocent of breaking the terms of the Act? Is this due to defective breathalysers, or is it due to defective police action?

Mrs. Castle

We have always made it clear that, although we have made the breath test as accurate as possible, there is bound to be some margin of error. This is why the breath test is not taken as evidence in court. It is merely prima facie evidence on the basis of which a more reliable test can be made. There are bound to be a small number of cases in which the breath test is not endorsed by the blood test.