HC Deb 30 November 1967 vol 755 cc631-3
30. Mr. Gresham Cooke

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will instruct the Metropolitan Police to cease making random breathalyser tests under the purport of acting under Section 2(1, a) of the Road Safety Act, 1967, when no traffic offence has been committed and there is no reason to believe that any offence under the Road Safety Act has been committed.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dick Taverne)

Section 2(1, a) empowers a constable in uniform to require a breath test of a person driving or attempting to drive a motor vehicle only if he has reason to suspect that person of having alcohol in his body. Such tests are not, therefore, made at random. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the power should be used only on reasonable suspicion of a blood alcohol concentration exceeding the prescribed limit, that would not be practicable, for the concentration cannot be estimated simply by inspection.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Is the hon. and learned Gentleman aware that there are complaints—there is one in my constituency—about the police picking up a motorist coming out of the forecourt of a public house where he could not have shown his prowess or otherwise at driving? Is he aware that such acts are contrary to the intention of the Act and contrary to the assurances which were given about random testing when the Act was being passed?

Mr. Taverne

It was certainly said when the Act was being passed—indeed, I said it—that it was not anticipated that the police would hang around public houses, although we made it clear that we would not try to prevent them from doing so in certain circumstances. In fact, it would be undesirable to prevent them from doing so in many circumstances because of the likely effects. At the recent Central Conference of Chief Constables, it was confirmed that, on the whole, random tests were not being taken by the police.

Mr. Carlisle

Would it not be sensible now to amend the law so that the power of the police to stop and breathalyse people is limited to cases where an offence has been committed or to where the police suspect that one has been committed?

Mr. Taverne

That argument was exhaustively considered during the passage of the Measure. The really important principle established by it was that the police would no longer have to go only on outward behaviour in these matters—having to prove that eyes were glazed, gait faulty and speech slurred—and I thought that that principle was generally accepted.

Mr. Hector Hughes

Is my hon. and learned Friend satisfied that the instrument being used for breathalyser tests is scientifically accurate? In other words, is he satisfied that people so tested are not often wrongly accused?

Mr. Taverne

We did tests on the approved instrument and these showed an error of approximately 10 per cent., which is much the same as the results found abroad. However, this is only a screening device and there is a second opportunity to take the test. Thus, if one takes 10 per cent. of 10 per cent. the likelihood of a wrongful accusation comes to about 1 per cent.

Mr. Frederic Harris

While the Metropolitan Police are undoubtedly trying hard to ensure that random tests are not undertaken by the police, does the hon. and learned Gentleman not appreciate that there will always be the odd abuse in this matter by a policeman here or there? Is he also aware of the strong feeling that exists that the law should be amended accordingly?

Mr. Taverne

I do not think that that is correct. Certainly special representations have been made to the effect that the law should be amended, but the information we have had, from the polls and so on, is that the law in its present form has wide public support.

34. Mr. Hector Hughes

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the working of the breathalyser test to the latest convenient date and indicate his plans for extending that test to pedestrians injured in road accidents.

Mr. Taverne

It is too early to make a balanced assessment of the working of the new provisions. The Government have no proposals for legislation to extend them to pedestrians.

Mr. Hughes

Has my hon. and learned Friend made scientific inquiries to satisfy himself that the instrument being used for breathalyser tests is sufficient to ensure accuracy and that people are not wrongly accused?

Mr. Taverne

I have already completely answered that question. The risk in using the approved device, which was scientifically tested, in effect gives a possible margin for error of 1 per cent.; so there is no reason for disquiet.