HC Deb 02 May 1995 vol 259 cc172-4 3.31 pm
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the forensic testing of those alleged to be involved in causing death as a result of road traffic incidents. I do so following representations made to me by the family of Thomas Wellman, many of whose members live in my constituency. Mr. Wellman died after being hit by a driver who was over the limit and whose punishment was in the same league as that given to Eric Cantona—community service. My Bill would take a small step towards dealing with the horrific issues arising from drink-driving.

Throughout the European Union, 50,000 people are killed every year on the roads, which is the equivalent of an A320 airbus crashing every day of the week. The latest provisional figures for the United Kingdom suggest that 3,651 people died on our roads in 1994, which is the equivalent of an A320 airbus crashing every week that Parliament sits. If we saw road deaths in those terms, the House might take the issue much more seriously.

From time to time, the House deals with the causes of that carnage. For example, the hon. Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark) has just piloted a Bill through Committee covering the testing of new drivers. Such measures are important. Christopher Brown of the statistics directorate of the Department of Transport states: We cannot prevent people aging but we could prevent all road deaths if only, as road users, we took more care. On 22 March, I received an interesting answer from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department after tabling a number of parliamentary questions about the role of coroners: The available information collected on deaths reported to coroners is published in an annual Home Office Statistical Bulletin. The latest bulletin, 'Statistics of Death Reported to Coroners: England and Wales, 1993', issue 7/94, was published on 21 April 1994 and is available in the Library. Specific information on road deaths is not collected separately".—[Official Report, 22 March 1995; Vol. 257, c. 201.] That really is not good enough. I would ask the Minister to speak to his colleagues and treat this as a matter of urgency. Coroners, police and magistrates must be required to maintain statistics properly, so that some of these issues can be dealt with in a less haphazard way.

The Bill deals with two aspects: first, testing for blood alcohol levels at the scene of an incident. The latest figures available, for 1993, show that 25 of the 52 police authorities now routinely test after all incidents; a further five test after fatalities or serious injuries; and one tests after all fatalities. In other words, 21 police authorities leave it to the discretion of the officers.

My Bill would make blood alcohol testing mandatory at the incident, except when officers were otherwise committed to the safety and well-being of others. In such cases, tests would have to be done at the earliest practical time. That changes the emphasis in the Road Traffic Act 1988 to one of compulsion, by changing section 6 to read that a constable will require him to provide a specimen", instead of the current wording, which is "may". Similarly, the Bill would change section 6 to require the person allegedly causing a death to give a sample, by changing "may" to "will" in the relevant subsections.

The second category concerns a person who allegedly caused a crash but was himself hospitalised. Section 9 of the 1988 Act covers that. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend (Mr. Byers) sought to improve its wording in Committee on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, but was told by the Minister that blood samples could be taken only by registered medical practitioners. The BMA, he said, would be very unhappy about samples being taken from someone who was unconscious and had not given his consent. Although the Minister was sympathetic to the point, he said that the Government could not move towards such a policy, because our law fundamentally depends on the consent of the person involved. I understand the BMA's position, but I cannot say that I agree with it. There is always a broader social aspect to be considered.

I believe, however, that I can now present the House with a mechanism which overcomes this ethical argument. My discussions with the BMA suggest that it would regard it as acceptable, too. The changes that I propose to section 9 would have the effect of a sample being taken and provided for analysis at the earliest possible time, provided that the sampling does not have a detrimental effect on the health of the patient.

My provision would not allow the prosecuting authority access to the information until the patient was well enough to give consent. If he subsequently refused consent, the courts would be empowered to interpret his refusal against the background of other information available to them. I believe that refusal without medical cause should always be interpreted thus, and be subject to interpretation by the courts.

There are huge technical difficulties in testing for intoxicants other than alcohol, except under laboratory conditions. Section 10 of the 1988 Act must be enforced to ensure that drug abusers as well as drinkers cannot avoid prosecution. Consistent with my earlier reference to people alleged to have caused a death who are themselves hospitalised, I think that any refusal to provide a sample under section 10 should be subject to interpretation by the courts.

Following all these changes, enforcement should take place at the earliest opportunity, to ensure that forensic samples have the maximum value.

These are small changes to the law, and, when the Bill is published, I should like some sign from the Government that they will give me clear support to enable our common objective to be achieved. The families of victims killed on the roads deserve the maximum support from society, which the law fails to give them at present.

Cases like that of Thomas Wellman regularly occur throughout the country—many hon. Members have had them brought to their attention—but they could and should be avoided. This House should make it absolutely clear in the strongest possible terms that we will not defend the drink-driver.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Andrew Miller, Mr. Nick Ainger, Mr. Stephen Byers, Dr. Michael Clark, Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody, Mr. Peter Bottomley, Ms Glenda Jackson, Mr. Robert Key, Mr. Ken Livingstone and Mr. Ian Pearson.