HC Deb 13 February 1968 vol 758 cc1157-63

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend Part I of the Road Safety Act 1967; and for connected purposes. Nobody could deny that the introduction of the breathalyser has had a significant effect upon accidents, and particularly upon fatal accidents. To this extent I think that we can all be pleased that it is a good thing to have reduced death on the roads. This has been done to some extent by cutting down on driving itself, particularly driving at night, and it would perhaps be better if we could reduce accidents through all sorts of other causes as well.

In considering this matter I discount the side effects of the introduction of the breathalyser. The first of these is the effect it has had on the country inn. This is a sore issue in my own constituency, but it would seem to me right if we can save lives that this should be a consequence which we should accept. In passing, I think it sad that the Minister of Transport has seen fit to spend£347,000 of public money on advertising the test, whereas bankrupts or publicans in financial difficulties have had no relief at all.

The second point is again something which I fear I must discount. I quote from the Daily Telegraph of 2nd February: A police surgeon said there had been a steady increase in indecent assaults, rape, unlawful sexual intercourse and other sex offences since the breath test became law last year. Last month he had examined about 20 girls and women instead of the usual four or five. I mention that just to show the strange ideas which have entered some people's minds in relation to the breath test. I believe, however, that the House has need to look at the result of introducing the breath test to see whether there are ways in which it could be civilised and made more acceptable to the public. This is not in any way to attempt to reduce the effect it is having on casualties on the roads. Clearly, we must take into account the effect this new measure is having upon social life, life in the country, the general habits of the population to pursue perfectly reasonable normal pursuits, and entertainment in the evening.

The offence is not to have a drink. This is no backdoor vehicle for teetotalism. The offence is to drive dangerously or drive badly. Therefore, we should concentrate our attention not on preventing people from going out at night, but on preventing people from driving dangerously and badly. On the analogy of the thief, the thief can be apprehended only if the police have good cause to believe that he is a thief. They do not stop people in the street and search them to see if they are thieves. Before premises can be searched the police must have a search warrant. Therefore, I believe it is right— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate by running commentary.

Mr. Ridley

Therefore, I believe that it is right to amend the law, by making it a ground for defence against a charge, that a motorist was driving perfectly well and that the police had no good reason for stopping that motorist. The 1967 Act, Section 2, says that a constable can stop a motorist if he has reasonable cause (a) to suspect him of having alcohol in his body; or, (b) to suspect him of having committed a moving traffic offence. Those two grounds are probably acceptable, but there was much discussion in Standing Committee as to what this would mean, and apprehension was expressed by hon. Members as to how it would be applied.

The Parliamentary Secretary gave a categorical assurance at that time that this would be restricted to the purposes described. He said: We shall strongly represent to them"— that is, chief constables— that it is not intended to give power to stop cars to see whether the driver has alcohol in the blood. The intention is that the stops would be the same kind of stops as before and the test would be only an incidental result if it were found that the driver had been drinking."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee E, 1st December, 1966; c. 148.] That is an acceptable position, but many hon. Gentlemen expressed doubts that that is what would happen. The first thing that happened was that the Home Office issued a circular giving instructions which none of us can welcome. I quote from Circular 129 of 1067: Having stopped a vehicle for any other reason, a constable will be able to require the driver to take a breath test if he thinks the person has consumed alcohol, however little. For this purpose, a constable will have to observe some specific indication that a person has been recently drinking. If a constable stops a vehicle for a suspected traffic offence, however, he can require the driver to take a breath test whether or not he suspects the driver of having consumed alcohol. The random element in this discretionary power will add considerably to the deterrent effect of the new law. It is that to which I wish to draw attention and which I wish to put right. It Seems quite wrong that there should be anything random or discretionary about this matter.

It is for that reason that I ask the House to give leave to bring in the Bill so that the point may be clarified and made clear to the chief constables and the ordinary citizen can go about his business without considering whether what he is doing is within the law or not. For those reasons, I seek to amend the Road Safety Act to make it a ground for defence that a constable either stopped the motorist without good cause, because he was driving perfectly correctly, or that the constable had no cause for stopping him because he was not driving well.

If it comes to court, whether or not the complainant is found guilty will be a matter for the jury. I believe that this small amendment to the law will make this test much more acceptable to the public at large.

4.9 p.m.

Mr. William Price (Rugby)

It is difficult to imagine a more ill-timed and ill-conceived Bill than this one. It is perhaps ironic and bad luck for the hon. Gentleman the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) that it came out on the evening the November accident figures were out. The Evening Standard story was: B-Tests—A real life saver. Road deaths 20 per cent. down. Serious injuries 15 per cent. down. Slight injuries 13 per cent. down. These were the dramatic road toll reductions for November. This was in a month in which the volume of traffic went up.

The Evening News said: One life in five saved by breath test ". The breathalyser test reveals a dramatic one-in-five cut in road deaths during the first complete month of the tests. In the light of those figures the hon. Gentleman is either very courageous or very stupid. Being a generous person, I am prepared on this occasion at least to give him the benefit of the doubt.

May I make my own position quite clear. I am a persistent drinker. I drive 1,000 miles a week. Unlike some of my hon. Friends, I have a good deal of sympathy with the licensed trade. Indeed, I was directly involved in a demonstration of 5,000 licensees in London organised through my own local association. I have had an Adjournment debate on the problems of the licensed trade, particularly in the rural areas. I have taken a national delegation to see the Minister. I therefore hope that nobody will accuse me of having a puritanical attitude towards drinking. I sometimes wish that I had.

We know that the breathalyser is not a perfect measure. The Minister has made no such claim for it. It will need improving as time goes on. There are a number of changes which I hope that my right hon. Friend will introduce. The one aspect of the Act on which I am not prepared to compromise is its prescription of the permitted amount of alcohol in the blood. I had understood from what has appeared in the newspapers that the hon. Gentleman would raise this matter, but he did not. Nevertheless, it needs answering. There has been a suggestion that the limit of 80 milligrams should be increased. The hon. Gentleman has obviously had second thoughts about this, and I give him credit for that.

The position about the breathalyser is this. Obviously, one cannot take one month's figures and say, "This is a reliable guide for ever", even though one has the Christmas period to back it up. I agree with this position, as does the Minister. She could have had great fun with some of the critics on the basis of the early figures, but she did not do so. Her attitude is, "We will wait and see what happens in a full year".

If it is too early to claim that the Act is perfect, it follows that it is too early to claim that it needs changing, but this is what the hon. Gentleman has claimed. The evidence so far—this is the difference between us—is overwhelmingly on my side. As I understand, the hon. Gentleman has reduced the scope of his Bill to changing the circumstances in which the breath test can be administered. We know that there is no provision for random testing, but it has been accepted all along that there must inevitably be a random element within the Act. The fact that a motorist can be stopped for a moving traffic offence is a strong deterrent.

The House is concerned with prevention rather than with cure. If the proposal as to dangerous driving were accepted, it would place a most difficult burden upon the average police officer, who must make up his mind on the spot—he has no time to think about it—as to what constitutes dangerous driving and what does not. By then it may well be too late. It is an arbitrary decision which would be much harder to implement than the present provision.

The point I put to the House and which I ask the hon. Gentleman to remember is this. If an accident was not witnessed by a police officer, it would presumably not be possible to give a driver a breath test. This could be done only if it happened in the presence of a police officer, because if anybody else was giving the evidence in court it would by then be too late.

The position was best put by Birmingham's Chief Constable in the Birmingham Post last week. The heading is: Breath tests cut accidents drastically. If there is one issue upon which all the papers are agreed, with the ignoble exception of the Daily Express, it is the issue of the breathalyser test. I quote from the Birmingham Post: 'For the first time Mr. W. D. Capper, Birmingham's Chief Constable, yesterday said the breathalyser had drastically reduced the number of fatalities and serious injuries which occurred as a result of road accidents. Commenting on January figures for road fatalities and injuries, which showed a marked decline for the fourth consecutive month, Mr. Capper said, 'I think it must be the breathalysers. It is terribly difficult to pinpoint it, but people are driving more carefully and do not want to be involved in accidents for fear of having to take a breath test '. The measure has hit people hard. It has hit me harder than most, but of all the sacrifices that the Government have imposed upon the people, this is the one that I find most worth while. I believe that the vast majority of motorists have accepted it with good grace.

My last quotation is from last Friday's editorial in the Daily Mirror in which the breathalyser case was put as well as it is ever likely to be. It is headed: Living with the B-Test. The editorial says: After today few people will ever argue confidently against the breath test for motorists. Its potentiality as a life-saver is dramatically indicated by the impressive drop in road casualty figures for November…Most telling of all is the 49 per cent. drop in fatal and serious casualties between "— 10 a.m. and midnight. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ten p.m. surely."] Ten a.m. in Scotland— between 10 p.m. and midnight. After the pubs close. I commend this paragraph most particularly to the House. No reasonable person will claim that a single month's figures are conclusive evidence. Or that the initial improvement will be fully maintained. Or that all the improvement in the figures is entirely due to the B-test. But until somebody provides a better explanation, the breath-test is the simplest, the most obvious and the most convincing. I know that there are some who regard the breathalyser as an affront to their dignity. I do. It took a woman to switch me from pints of Guinness to halves of shandy, but the question we must ask ourselves is this: is the sacrifice worth while if people's lives are thereby saved? There is no doubt about the answer. Some people think that liberty is under attack. There is no greater lover of the freedom of the individual than I am. I do not like authority, bureaucracy or red tape, so I cannot stand the sight of either Front Bench.

I can see the logic of the argument. If a man wishes to drink eight or nine pints of Guinness, drive his car at 70 or 80 m.p.h. and collide head-on with a tree trunk, that is his affair. But it is not as simple as that. It is so often the innocent who are the victims, and it might be my child who gets caught between the car and the tree trunk. The House has a direct and heavy responsibility in the matter of road safety.

Finally, it is not often that I seek to give credit to the Leader of the Opposition. I seek to do so on this occasion with pleasure and I hope that my hon. Friends below the Gangway will forgive me. The Leader of the Opposition has made it clear where he stands in relation to road safety. He has made it clear that he will support measures designed to save lives, and in this respect has gone some way towards making this a nonparty issue. The right hon. Gentleman is entitled to our gratitude. The same cannot be said of some of his troops. They would not vote against the breathalyser in the House, but in the country they have endeavoured to imply that they are in some way opposed to this so-called Socialist doctrine. Today, they have the opportunity to come clean.

If there is a Division, I hope that hon. Members on both sides will take the view that, even if the Act eventually must be amended, this is not the time to do it. I therefore ask them to support what in my view is one of the most important, one of the most courageous and, so far, one of the most successful pieces of social legislation of our time.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at the commencement of Public Business), and negatived.