HL Deb 30 April 1964 vol 257 cc1088-112

4.56 p.m.

LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they would agree with the proposition that in cases brought under Section 6 of the Road Traffic Act, 1960, as amended by the Act of 1962, relating to driving or being in charge of a vehicle while under the influence of drink or drugs, it is not essential for medical evidence to be called in order to prefer a charge or obtain a conviction; or whether they consider that the law requires amendment in this regard. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask Her Majesty's Government the Question standing in my name upon the Order Paper. I would tell your Lordships quite frankly that the reason why I have put it on the Order Paper is that I, in concert with all your Lordships, take the view that the good and respected relations between public and police are a first essential to the proper enforcement of the law. I borrow the term "respected" from the noble Lord, Lord Willis, who said during the debate upon the Police Bill that, while the police could never be loved, they at least should be respected. In fact that was in all your Lordships' minds, and was running right through the debate on the Police Bill.

Your Lordships will all agree, I know, that the task confronting the police is getting more difficult every day, especially when it comes to the proper enforcement of the traffic laws. I am apprehensive that recent happenings in some of the courts, many in the Metropolitan area, are damaging to that image which I think is so essential. The police have been severely criticised, in my view quite wrongly, for carrying out a duty imposed upon them by Section 6 of the Road Traffic Act, 1960, as amended by Section 1 of the Act of 1962. To show the disapproval that the benches have felt for the actions of the police, they have been awarding substantial costs against the police—because they could be awarded against nobody else—and these costs have to be paid out of public funds.

I will not weary your Lordships by a dissertation upon the evils of drunken driving: you do not want to be reminded about that. Your Lordships had that theme right in front of you when you discussed the provisions in the Road Traffic Act which, incidentally, went through your Lordships' House twice. On the first occasion it had to be abandoned because of an Election, and the second time we had all the arguments all over again. Both your Lordships' House and another place spent many days grappling with the problem of how we could more successfully overcome this great social evil of drunken driving, and eventually both Houses approved unanimously the Amendment that is now in Section 1 of the Road Traffic Act, 1962.

By the courtesy of The Times and the Daily Telegraph—because reports of quarter sessions are not subject to the meticulous scrutiny of the Times Law Reports—I have here in my hand all the Press cuttings of all the cases that have been reported in their respective newspapers. I do not intend to weary your Lordships by reading them, as most of you have already done so, but I can tell your Lordships this: that, according to those reports, in not one of those cases, whether from the benches, the Bar or the medical profession, was the existing law quoted accurately. The only people who presented the case as it was intended by Parliament that it should be presented were the police.

The law on this matter is simple to state and I will quote it. This is what Section 1 of the Road Traffic Act, 1962, says: For the purposes of section six of the principal Act (which imposes penalties for driving, attempting to drive or being in charge of a motor vehicle while unfit to drive through drink or drugs) a person shall be taken to be unfit to drive if his ability to drive properly is for the time being impaired.

The test is the ability to drive properly; and the ability to drive properly at the moment of time when the person charged was driving or about to drive—not an hour, two hours or three hours afterwards, when he was being medically examined as to his fitness to drive. It is essential that that should be understood.

Further, there is no Statute which says that the fiat of a doctor is necessary before the police may bring a charge or sustain a charge or a court can convict—not one. In point of fact, I would suggest that the only real value of the testimony of a medical practitioner is when he is an eye-witness to the accident or an eye-witness when the driver was stopped by the police, or if he is prepared to give an opinion as to whether the accused was not driving properly at some time previously owing to the influence of drink or drugs.

The Act puts the responsibility squarely upon the shoulders of the police as to whether they shall prefer a charge, and of producing the necessary evidence which they think fit to produce. As the Assistant Deputy Chairman of Middlesex Sessions, Lord Dunboyne, was reported by The Times of April 7 to have said—and I think he was the only one who talked any sense on this point: If police decided whether to charge people with driving under the influence of drink mainly on the advice of a doctor it would amount to trial by doctor.

That, I think, is quite outside the province laid down in the decision of Parliament. All this was done by deliberate intent by the Government and was agreed to by Parliament. If your Lordships will bear with me, I will bring out that point and will refresh your memories as to the exact statements made by Government spokesmen when this Act was a Bill going through your Lordships' House. This is what the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, said in his Second Reading speech when he presented the Bill first of all to your Lordships [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 230, col. 346]: Under Section 6 of the Road Traffic Act, 1960, it is an offence to drive a motor vehicle on a road when under the influence of drink … to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of a motor vehicle.' Magistrates convicted in 93 per cent. of the prosecutions brought under this section during 1958. The corresponding proportion of convictions secured from juries was 55 per cent. It may well be that the words: 'incapable of having proper control' bring to many people's minds the idea of 'drunk and incapable', which goes much further than is necessary for someone's ability to drive properly to be adversely affected. It seems to be one of the shortcomings of the present position that this definition laid down in Section 6 is not effective, and therefore we have tried to make it effective. The new Clause 1 refers to ability to drive properly being ' for the time being impaired' due to alcohol. This is likely to bite on someone in cases where the interpretation which is often at present given to the law would not bite on them. That, my Lords, is exactly what we intend.

There is no equivocation about that, and what the noble Lord was saying was that it was the Government's intention to gather under this new definition what I would call, colloquially, the "fringe drunken driver."

On the Committee stage, when the Bill was first in your Lordships' House, the then noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, Lord President of the Council, speaking on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol 230, col. 974]: Our view is what I believe to be the view of the overwhelming mass of people in the country, that if a man cannot, by reason of drink or drugs, drive properly, he is a danger to people if he tries to drive. There is no third class of person. There are only those two classes: those who are fit to drive and those who are not; and those who are not fit to drive should not drive.

But the then noble Viscount, when the Bill was before your Lordships on the second occasion of the Committee stage, was even more forthcoming. I will not read all he said, but he went on to ask the reason why it all broke down and the reason why we could not make any inroads into this problem. He repeated, in the language which your Lordships know so well, precisely what the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, said on Second Reading, except that he added this [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 235, col. 1047]: It is for this reason that the new phraseology is introduced into Clause 1 of the Bill: that a person shall be taken to be unfit to drive if his ability to drive properly is for the time being impaired. This does not mean … that his driving is impaired. The word which governs the sentence is 'properly'; if his ability to drive properly is impaired. If he continues to be able to drive properly, the fact that he is not able to drive perfectly is immaterial. But if, in fact, by reason of drink or drugs, his ability to drive properly is impaired, the view of the Government is that he is committing an offence.

You could not have anything more plain than that. That is the law which the Government intended to be in force.

I say this with the greatest possible respect: those who are administering the law have to administer the law as it is laid down by Parliament, not a law which they would like to see laid down, not a law which they wish could be laid down. And they ought to be fully alive to the wishes and the intentions of Parliament. Indeed, the Lord Chief Justice has said quite publicly that the courts, right from the High Court to the quarter sessions courts and the magistrates' courts, have a duty to pay due regard to the expressed intentions of Parliament.

I say this, and I feel I ought to say it, because it ill becomes those who are charged with the responsibility of administering the law to give tongue to such remarks as that they are sick and tired of the police bringing these cases before their courts—in other words, carrying out the duty that Parliament has instructed them to carry out—and expressing regret that they have not the power to make those responsible for carrying out those duties pay out of their own pockets the costs which it has pleased the court, mistakenly, to impose. Whose pockets do these administrators of the law think they are coming out of—the pockets of the Chief Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis?—for it is he who issues the orders. Or perhaps it is out of your Lordships' pockets—because, of course, your Lordships, Parliament hold the final responsibility for the law. I say this again quite bluntly: I think that such ill-chosen remarks and behaviour, which are quite reprehensible from administrators of the law, can do nothing but poison the relationship between the police and the public, and deserve the condemnation of any right-thinking person.

It had been my intention, when I put this Question on the Order Paper, to confine it to the Metropolitan Police District, but as soon as it had appeared I was inundated—I do not want to exaggerate; I will not say "inundated"; but, at any rate, I had a considerable number of letters expressing disapproval of the action of these benches. I made a number of inquiries, and tried to collect a few of the voices of chief constables in the provinces. I was rather staggered, because I found that they were all apprehensive: they were afraid that this disease would spread. If this goes on, they said, everybody who is charged with driving under the influence of drink, or with having his ability to drive properly impaired, will demand to go before a jury, and the number of acquittals will go up at an alarming degree. And they told me, "We are more subjected to the pressures and the persuasions of the local watch committee than is the Commissioner of Police in London, and if they have to find these silly penalties or costs out of public funds there will be more pressure."

Let the noble Lord who is to reply take heart. I was rather interested to have my attention drawn by a noble Lord to to-day's Daily Telegraph, which reports the case of a man who was charged with an offence under Section 1 of the Act of 1962. A police surgeon had not certified him as being unfit to drive, but the man's counsel said, "The doctor did not find against my client, but we are practising law here, not medicine, and he is guilty of this offence". The defendant was fined £30 and disqualified for two years. So sense does seep in somewhere. But all the time I would impress upon the noble Lord that this is the mistake; that the 1962 Act has not sunk in. Repeatedly we hear that the man was not unfit to drive. But that is not the criterion.

I think the foolishness of the confusion is best exampled by a case that was tried at Oxford Quarter Sessions only last Thursday. Let me give your Lordships these few details, because it illustrates the trouble so well. A man was summoned for being unfit to drive through being under the influence of drink, and these were the undisputed facts. He was in collision with a taxicab and did not stop. The police found his car a little while afterwards, with its back wheels in the ditch and the front wheel outside the ditch. When the doctor finished examining him, one and a half hours afterwards, the doctor said that he was then not unfit to drive. The report of the West Midlands Forensic Science Laboratory examination said that the test showed that this man had a minimum of 4¼ pints of beer in his inside, and he gaily admitted that he had drunk 4 pints of beer. The jury acquitted him. He drives across a crossroads; he is in collision with a motor car; he ends up in a ditch. But, because of one doctor, he is said to be quite fit to drive properly.

May I come now to the last part of my Question: do the Government consider that the law requires amendment? There may be a great many answers to that. I can quite see the arguments that could be used, the arguments used in this House about the Scandinavian system: to take the whole thing out of opinion and say, "If a man has a certain content of alcohol in his blood, without any argument, without going before any court at all, he is guilty". That is one argument. There is the other one that I put up some two or three years ago: that we should take the decision out of the jury's hands; that we should alter the law so that a man who is charged with being drunk in charge of a car—I use the colloquial expression—should not have a right to go to a jury. That would have meant altering the law, because under any Statute which provides a penalty of over three months' imprisonment for any offence a person has a right to go before a jury. If the maximum were three months, he would not have the right; over the three months there is the right. The Government could not see their way clear to do that. I quite appreciate the reasons why. Parliament could not make up its mind last time, but I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, will give an Answer this afternoon which will clarify the Government's view until Parliament has made up its mind.

Do the Government hold to-day the same view as was so forcefully and logically expressed by the Government of 1961?—because we could not have anything more plain than that. Do they support the police? I understand that they support the Metropolitan Police—I only understand that, but I hope it is true. It is only by having this wider public image that this problem will be recognised. On the Second Reading of the Police Bill, the noble Lord put his finger on the spot when he said that things like this only exaggerate and extend uninformed, ignorant public pressure. We must preserve the dignity of the police. They are carrying out our instructions, and they deserve our defence.

5.22 p.m.


My Lords, I want to support everything that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has said. I want to speak from the medical point of view, but I am not representing any particular body of doctors; I think I am speaking on behalf of the whole medical profession in what I say. The noble Lord said that he did not want to speak about the evils of drunken driving. I want to say that, unfortunately, it is part of the duty of the medical profession to look after the results of the evils of drunken driving, in the shape of the maimed and cruelly injured people who suffer as a result of these wicked accidents.

Far more people suffer, are terribly maimed or are killed as a result of drunken driving than are murdered or are victims of crimes of violence or of any of the conventional types of crime. Many road accidents result in the most horrible type of cerebral injury from which a person is converted into a vegetable for the rest of his existence. These ghastly, tragic cases are caused because people are selfish, thoughtless, callous and drink too much, and then take a lethal weapon on the road. I think that this is a foul and filthy crime. But they are getting away with it.

The role of the medical profession here is quite misunderstood by certain courts. Medical assessment of drunkenness is extremely insensitive; it is a rough, clinical judgment only—little better, if at all, than that of a police officer. What the doctor does when he examines a person who is alleged to be drunk is to try to determine whether that person is suffering from something else which may have produced a picture of drunkenness. The commonest thing he is looking for is a cerebral catastrophe; that is to say, a hæmorrhage or thrombosis within the brain: the person feels ill, takes a drink, and then falls over and is picked up by the police and thought to be drunk because he smells of alcohol. This, of course, can occur, although but rarely. But in a car accident, much more commonly the person has taken some alcohol and has sustained a head injury as a result of the car accident. Then a difficult and delicate medical problem may arise, although by no means an insoluble one.

The third thing the doctor is looking for is something like epilepsy. The fourth thing is the most unlikely possibility of drugs. The fifth thing is hyperglycæmia; that is, a lowering of the blood sugar as a result of an overdose of insulin, or a proper dose of insulin without a meal. I will say a word or two about this in a moment, because this is the latest defence which is being put up on behalf of these people, quite wrongly. Those are the things that the doctor looks for when he is confronted with a drunken, or a supposedly drunken, person at a police station. His opinion on how drunk this man is is of little significance. His opinion of the person's capacity to drive a car properly, his judgment whether his ability to drive properly is for the time being impaired, is, I would say, of no consequence unless the fellow is so drunk that it is obvious to all. It is his performance as a driver that matters, and that is that.

There are three stages in alcoholism. The first stage is excitement, loss of inhibitions—what we all feel at a cocktail party. And I venture to say that most of us ought not to drive after we have been to a cocktail party unless we have confined ourselves to two small whiskies or their equivalent. That is the most we should allow ourselves to drive on. The next stage is confusion, when speech begins to be slurred and there is blurring of vision. Here the doctor applies certain rather ridiculous tests. He asks the patient to say "British Constitution", and if he says "Brishish Coshisushun" then he is considered to be suffering from the second stage. The third stage is stupor, which is manifest and obvious. But it is in stupor that the mistakes can occur, because stupor can be produced by things besides alcohol. It is here that a medical opinion is important. But it will not arise in this sort of case because the person will be flat out.

I want to say one word about blood alcohol because it shows precisely what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, was talking about when he mentioned that this is not merely a Metropolitan phenomenon. As I shall show in a moment, it is a shocking and disgraceful state of affairs. The blood alcohol is the only accurate measure of the effect of alcohol on a person's brain. The amount of drink the person has consumed does not matter so very much, because the speed of absorption of the alcohol varies. The speed of absorption from the stomach varies depending on a number of factors: whether the alcohol is iced or warm—it is speeded up if it is warm; whether it is diluted or not; whether the person has taken a meal, which slows up absorption; and also whether the person has got chronic gastritis as a result of being a chronic taker of alcohol, in which case the speed of absorption is slowed up.

What matters is the amount of alcohol in his blood. This determines the way the person's brain behaves, and consequently the way in which he drives. There is no difficulty about finding out the amount in the fellow's blood. It is perfectly easily done, and usually done, by finding out how much there is in the urine. The ratio of the alcohol in the urine to the alcohol in the blood is approximately 4 to 3; so it is easy to determine. It is possible to express the amount of alcohol in the blood as a percentage; but this is a bad thing to do because it involves decimal points and noughts, which lead to mistakes and confusion even in the best circumstances. It is far better expressed as milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres (which is the same as c.cs.) of blood.

If the blood alcohol is above 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres, that person's driving capacity is very slightly but definitely impaired. The absolute minimum amount of alcohol required to reach 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres is 2 pints of beer or 2 double whiskies. You cannot get above 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres without taking that amount, and you probably would have to take a good deal more because the test figures have been done on volunteers who take absolute alcohol, which is rather unpleasant, and have blood estimates done afterwards. With non-absolute alcohol in the form of conventional drinks considerably more than this is required. If the blood alcohol is above 100 milligrams per 100 millilitres, it is absolutely certain that the driving will be impaired. If it is above 150, the person will be manifestly and grossly drunk.

Yet in the North-East not long ago an analysis was made by the staff of the Forensic Science Laboratory at Newcastle, which was published in the British Journal of Addiction in January, 1963. They analysed 286 cases brought before the courts of people accused of driving while impaired by alcohol. The average blood alcohol for those convicted was 220 milligrams per 100 millilitres—and I have just explained to your Lordships that at a figure of 150 the person is grossly and most obviously drunk, and at 100 he is definitely and firmly impaired. The average for those acquitted was 180 milligrams per 100 millilitres. This is absolutely monstrous. What is happening is that counsel in the courts cross-examine the police witnesses as to the equivalent of blood alcohol in terms of pints and quarts of beer which the person has drunk. The police are forced to give the only known equivalents, as I have tried to give them to your Lordships, and the jury say, "Well, he had only taken seven pints of ordinary beer". That is the way so-called justice is administered.

I do not know whether any of your Lordships saw the I.T.V. programme just before Christmas, when an I.T.V. interviewer went to a public house in North London and interviewed a series of people coming out, getting into their cars and driving away. It was the most disgusting piece of self-deception by these potential murderers. They were just saying, "I've only had 7 pints; I am perfectly safe. I've only got to drive 17 miles in my Jag". It is a monstrous disgrace to humanity that this should go on, and we have got to stop it. The first way in which we must stop it is by administering the existing law, and we must make sure that we give the police every conceivable backing in doing this unpleasant job. Do not let us suppose that we doctors can help the police a great deal here. We can only exclude the other causes which simulate alcoholism. We cannot, if we are honest, say what is the degree of impairment of a person's driving when we are called in three-quarters of an hour or an hour after the time at which the defendant was first seen.

The police have had the greatest difficulty in getting doctors to do this work. When the National Health Service Act came in they stopped having police surgeons. The police surgeons were there primarily to look after the police force, and with all the police force then being covered by the National Health Service there was no case for the police surgeons to be kept on. It was found that no doctors were ready to do police work, for it is an unpleasant, disgusting sort of work and always occurs at bank holidays and at periods of that kind. So most areas have police surgeons again, but not, I am sorry to say, all areas. The doctor is paid a small retaining fee, something like 50 guineas a year, to be a police surgeon, and he has to make arrangements to be on call and to cover himself for ordinary emergencies during the period when he is called out on police work. I do not think that it is an excessive retaining fee, but, even so, some forces object to paying it. The police surgeon has to hold himself available to see these people at the police station so as to exclude the possibility of injury, disease or drugs.

I mentioned diabetes and the latest defence, which is hyperglycæmia. If a diabetic takes his insulin and forgets to take his sugar, his blood sugar goes right down and he starts to behave as though drunk. This is a genuine risk which all diabetics run, and all diabetics are told to carry a couple of lumps of sugar with them which they can take if necessary. Some clever Smart Alecks have started taking the blood sugars of people who are coming round from an alcoholic intoxication, and finding low blood sugars have said, "Although this patient is not a diabetic, nevertheless he is suffering from hyperglycæmia and this was the cause of his alleged alcoholic behaviour". This is complete rubbish. It is well known that the taking of alcohol first raises the blood sugar and then depresses it. So if one takes an analysis of the blood sugar in a normal individual who has taken alcohol, after an hour or so the blood sugar will be found to be low. This defence is seen for what it is—completely phoney.

A lot of fuss has been made over the right of a patient to call for his own doctor or another doctor besides the police doctor. Your Lordships will have read in the newspapers that the police have suggested that police surgeons should not necessarily tell the patient that he has this right, because the police had the duty of informing the person of this right. This has now all been ironed out. The police are happy that the police surgeon should repeat what they have said. All it amounts to is that they shall let the patient try to get another doctor, if he can. Of course, he is not really a patient, but is, I suppose, a self-indulgent sot. That is why he is not covered by National Health Service treatment from his own doctor. He has the greatest difficulty in finding a doctor to come and see him, and his own doctor, having refused to come (quite rightly in my opinion) they have to ring round and try to find an independent doctor. What a waste of human energy!

The police do not necessarily call the police surgeon in the court of law, and there is no reason whatever why they should do so. If the person is ill he will not be charged; that is all there is to it. And that is all the police surgeon can tell them: either that he was ill or that he was not well. The rest is up to the police and up to the ordinary human behaviour. plus the blood or urine alcohol. That is all I have to say. My sympathies in this matter are absolutely 100 per cent. with the police, and the way the law is at present being administered in certain courts is such that we lean over backward to protect drunken drivers.

5.40 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say just one word. While I entirely agree with what has been said by both noble Lords, there is, to my mind, one difficulty; and that is the fact that one can drive very improperly without having taken any drink or drugs whatsoever, or without suffering from any disease. 'There is plenty of very improper driving on the roads today. Some people have never been able to drive properly, owing to the fact that they have been taught badly. Others are unwilling to drive properly, owing to the fact that they have no consideration for others, and have never learnt the meaning of good manners. Therefore, if what we want to eliminate is improper driving, or driving that causes danger to others, I cannot see why we should place more emphasis on drunken driving than on these other forms of bad driving.

5.42 p.m.


My Lords, I hope the noble Lord who has just resumed his seat will forgive my saying that he is really quite off the point. There are a number of crimes with which the sort of driver he has been describing can be charged, and is from time to time charged, in the courts. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, is dealing with a specific point which has been very much before the public in recent months; and very properly so. Anybody who, like myself, has to try these cases at quarter sessions continually, has had only too much experience of the type of case which the noble Lord has described. Certainly in the court where I preside I would say that on five occasions out of six the man who pleads "not guilty" is found not guilty by the jury, when I think the bench are unanimously of the opinion that the jury has made a mistake. This, undoubtedly, is a very serious situation, but I cannot sec that it will be improved by the innuendo in the noble Lord's Question, which, as I understand it, is that doctors should not be called to give evidence in these cases.


No. Will the noble Lord forgive me? I used the word "essential". It is not essential that they should be called. It is a matter for the discretion of the police.


As a matter of strict law, of course, that is so; but it would, in my submission, be a very serious mistake if doctors were not normally called in in this sort of case. It is one of the basic principles of the administration of criminal law in this country that all the available evidence, whether it is for the prosecution or for the defence, should be put before a jury by the prosecution. The prosecutor is not a persecutor in that sense of the term: he is a minister of justice, there to have an impartial investigation made. It is true that he has to put the case for the prosecution, in the first instance; but in an English criminal trial all available witnesses are called by the prosecution, even if the burden of their evidence is in favour of the defendant. That, I think, is one of the distinguishing marks of the administration of criminal law in this country.

We had this point out in this House only a few weeks ago, in connection with the Bill for giving the defence the last word before the case is decided by the jury. It would be a very unfortunate thing if the police got into the habit of not calling a doctor because they knew that the doctor was going to give evidence which might favour the defendant in this sort of case. After all, all these people are not, in fact, guilty.


My Lords, this is exactly the dilemma that we doctors are in. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, appears to think that we have some evidence to give him. We have none. We have no knowledge of the degree of impairment at the time. This is precisely the difficulty we are in.


My Lords, with great respect to the noble Lord, the doctor frequently has the most valuable evidence to give to the court. I sit and try these cases, and I know what I am talking about. The doctor's evidence is often of very great value indeed. A man may be brought in, and within a few minutes, in a good case, the doctor is putting him through the tests. These tests show very clearly whether or not the man was capable of driving properly.


Indeed they do not.


The law is that they do.


The law is not that they do.


We are administering the law and not doing what the medical profession tells us is right. The doctor's evidence is accepted by the courts, who are, after all, the judges of the administration of the law of the land, as being relevant evidence. That is the point. It would be very wrong if the police were to get into the habit of saying, "We are not going to call a doctor in this particular case", because the doctor's evidence is, in fact, relevant to a decision by the jury, and by it they have to pass judgment. I think it would be very wrong if it became the accepted view of the police that these doctors should not be called.

In some cases, of course, it may be that the doctor's evidence is largely irrelevant, because, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, said, in some of these cases there may be two or three hours' delay before he sees the man. I had a case only the other day where a man was taken in by the police and it was a long time—an hour and a half, I think—before they got the doctor there. Then the doctor spent about an hour asking him questions about what he had been doing during the day (and this, in my submission, is a mistake which the doctors very frequently make), instead of putting him through the tests at once; examining his eyes and his speech; seeing to his co-ordination of his muscular movements, and that sort of thing.

Such tests should be done as near as possible to the time on which the charge is based, the time when it is alleged that the man was not properly capable of driving the car. But doctors sometimes postpone the physical tests, which are so important, to have a rather long cross-examination in which the man is asked what he was doing during the day. In the case I am thinking about it was not until another hour had elapsed, making two and a half hours altogether, from the time when the man was arrested by the police, that the doctor began to administer these tests. By that time, of course, the man was quite capable of walking along a line and doing many of the other tests which the doctor put to him. I am sure that the noble Lord has a good case on this point; that very frequently by the time the doctor administers the test, the man is once more capable of driving a car, and juries naturally attach very great importance to this.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, has referred to the defence to these cases. I will not say it is unscrupulously carried through, because it is the job of counsel for the defence to put the case strongly on behalf of his client. But in this sort of case the defending counsel is at a very considerable advantage, because the sympathies of the jury, as we all know, are very often engaged on the side of the defendant. With that advantage, a skilful defending counsel, who has obtained from the doctor a statement that the man has walked along the line quite correctly, that he has picked up a pencil from the floor, and that he has touched his toes without making a mistake, is in a position to address a strong argument to the jury. The result is that in five cases out of six a man who, in the view of the magistrates who are sitting on the bench, ought to have been convicted, obtains a verdict of not guilty. Then, of course, counsel asks for his costs—which is the crowning insult. Actually, in my own court we do not give him costs in a case of this sort; but other courts take a different view and think that, if the jury has found a defendant not guilty, he ought to have his costs, however satisfied the bench themselves may be that that decision was a mistaken one. But the main point—I am afraid that here I cannot agree with the noble Lord—is that in these cases the evidence should, in my view, be called before the court.

We shall probably be driven, in the end, into adopting in this country the Scandinavian system. I should have preferred to support a Bill introduced to do that, because the present situation really is very serious. While I do not agree with some of the things that my noble friend Lord Taylor has said, substantially I entirely agree with him that this is a disgusting and vicious type of crime and the community will very shortly have to take effective steps to deal with it.

5.50 p.m.


My Lords, I did not intend to speak, but, in view of the remarks which have been made by my noble friend Lord Chorley, which I think indicate the difficulty of the bench and of the general public, I think I should remind him that in the words he used he referred to being "incapable of driving". Surely, that is not the issue so far as the 1962 Act is concerned. The word in the Act, which I believe my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth read two or three times, was "impaired". There are many people—and one can see them among one's own friends—who go out in the evenings perhaps to cocktail parties, who are certainly not of a vicious character, and who are perfectly capable of driving their cars home in reasonable circumstances, but could well be impaired in driving if an emergency arose. And that is the issue.


Of driving a car properly.


Properly, when an emergency arises. I think one of the greatest difficulties for the public is to determine the amount of alcohol they can take without impairing their ability to drive a car.

I think it was my noble friend Lord Taylor who referred to "potential murderers". I do not think that the large number of people who go into public houses on a Sunday afternoon, who perhaps fall into happy company and have more than they originally intended, are potential murderers. They are potential killers. They are killers without appreciating that fact. All of us must have heard somebody say, "I can take three large whiskies and am perfectly able to drive the car"; or even some who may say, "I can drinks six large whiskies and still drive my car home". It may well be that, on a certain day, that individual could drink six large whiskies and get his car home, and perhaps not be a tremendous menace on the road; but there may be another day when he is tired, when he may have had a day of strain in his office, and when six large whiskies put him into a quite different category without his being aware that he has entered that category.

No word has been said this evening on the effect of drugs together with alcohol. The other day I saw the effect of alcohol on a stimulant. The person had had only one small brandy, but the effect of one small brandy on one of the stimulant drugs was that the person was very close to being considered slightly inebriated. Such people are a considerable menace to themselves. But do the general public really understand the effect of a combination of drink and drugs? I doubt it. I think the public would be helped very considerably in this matter if it were laid down that, if a person had consumed more than a certain quantity of alcohol, then by law he would be considered to have taken sufficient to impair his driving ability—not his capability to drive, but his ability to drive properly.


My Lords, will my noble friend permit me to interrupt? That is, as judged by the blood alcohol.


Certainly, by the blood alcohol. This would certainly help the courts. The courts would then make a decision, not on whether the man was capable of driving or not, but on whether, within the ruling that had been laid down by Parliament, he had consumed more than the limit. If he had, then, so far as the courts were concerned in administering the law, the man would be guilty; there would be no question of doubt in it.

I think it would do something more. If it were recognised in this country, as it is in Scandinavia and in Switzerland, that if you had consumed more alcohol than a certain limit you drove at your peril, then there would be no doubt about it. There is no difficulty, as I understand it from the medical profession and from the police, in gauging accurately from the urine and from the blood how much alcohol has been consumed: it is assessable. My Lords, apart from making the work of the courts easier, and administering justice throughout the country on the same level, I believe that if the public were to appreciate and understand that there was a certain limit up to which they could drink and drive and that beyond it they would drive at their peril, a great deal of drinking before driving would stop.

5.56 p.m.


My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, I did not intend to intervene in this debate. I would not object to the suggestion that he has made with regard to the amount of alcohol taken by a driver; but I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, as to the difficulties of the present position. After all is said and done, whether it be a magistrate or whether it be a chairman of quarter sessions with a jury, they have to be guided by the evidence which is put before them.

I should like to take the case of a man, brought before a magistrate, accused of being unable to drive properly as the result of having taken drink or drugs. A doctor is called by the police, and the doctor says, "At the time I examined him I could not say that his ability to drive was impaired". The only other witness is the policeman who arrested him. He gives his evidence, and it becomes a question of the evidence of the policeman against the evidence of the man himself. The magistrate is at once placed in a difficulty. He has no medical evidence to help him as to the condition of the man at the time he was arrested, because sometimes the examination by the doctor is carried out a long time after the arrest has occurred. He has, on the one side, the testimony of the driver himself, who claims that he was not unfit properly to drive his car, and, on the other, the evidence of the policeman, who says, "Well, I arrested him because in my view he was unfit properly to drive his car as the result of drink or drugs". What is the magistrate to do? The doctor's evidence does not help him.


My Lords, may I tell the noble Lord what the magistrate is to do?


May I just finish? The doctor has not, of course, said, "He was not incapable of properly driving his car at the time I examined him, but he may have been incapable at the time he was arrested. But I cannot say that; I am not able to do it." The magistrate is therefore deprived of valuable evidence by the doctor, and is faced with the prospect of choosing between the story that the man has told and the story that the policeman has told. If there were two policemen, the position would be different: it would be two to one. But that does not always happen.

I think we have to bear in mind the feelings of juries or of a magistrate in the circumstances that I have outlined, when they are placed in the position of deciding whether a man is guilty or not guilty of what, after all, is a very serious offence indeed. I think that the only proper remedy for this position is possibly that which the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, has suggested, involving some test of the amount of alcohol taken; and that, of course, would have to be subject to proof.

6.0 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, for raising this matter and to the other noble Lords who have spoken. I can assure them that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary will note carefully what they have said, and I should say straight away that the Government agree with the first proposition contained in the Question and, in consequence, do not consider that the law requires amendment in this regard. I hope that when I have said what I am going to say the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, and other noble Lords will agree with that view.

I am afraid that I shall have to cover some of the points that have been already mentioned, because I do not want to gloss over anything. I want the attitude of Her Majesty's Government to be quite clear in this matter. But I shall confine myself to the Question which is on the Order Paper, and to the opening speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth; because the debate has ranged very widely, going outside the Question on the Order Paper, and I think I should be taking too long if I did anything but that. But I will cover most of the points raised.

I think that the law in this matter is clear. It is an offence to drive a motor vehicle on a road if one's ability to drive properly is for the time being impaired because one has taken alcohol or drugs. There is no restriction on the evidence that may be presented by the prosecution to support the contention that at the material time the ability of the driver of a vehicle was impaired: and there is, equally, no requirement that any particular type of evidence must be produced. Medical evidence, particularly in drug cases, may often be very important, but the evidence which is most relevant to the material time will usually be that of the arresting officer and of any witnesses of the accused's behaviour while in his car. Other evidence may come from people who saw the accused thereafter, such as the officer at the police station who decided whether to accept a charge, and, still later, from the doctor or doctors called to examine the accused at the instance of either party.

It is the practice of the Metropolitan Police to call a doctor to ensure that the person concerned is not suffering from some illness or injury, or perhaps from the effect of drugs, which would make it necessary to remove him to hospital. During the course of the medical examination, however, the doctor will usually form an opinion about the extent to which the accused's fitness to drive was at that time impaired. This opinion is recorded and is made available to the court by the prosecution.

The only evidence the law requires the court to take into account in such cases is any evidence that may be offered about the proportion or quantity of alcohol or of any drug which was contained in the blood or present in the body of the accused". This is usually based on samples of urine which the accused is asked to provide. These are subsequently subjected to scientific analysis, and the results are made available to the court. There are, therefore, at least three kinds of evidence that may be placed before the court: evidence from eye-witnesses of the accused's conduct or condition, either in the car or very shortly afterwards; evidence from chemical analysis, and the evidence given by the doctor or doctors called to see him.

The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, who reviewed Metropolitan Police practice very carefully two years ago, took the view, which was approved by my right honourable friend who was then Home Secretary, after consultation with the Director of Public Prosecutions, that it would be right to authorise the responsible officer at the station to go ahead with charging the member of the public who had been brought in if he felt satisfied that there was a prima facie case against him; namely, that, in the terms of the Statute as it now stands, there was evidence that he was unfit to drive since his ability to drive properly was for the time being impaired. Where such evidence is available it is, in the Commissioner's view, unnecessary to wait for the subsequent arrival of a doctor before the individual who has been arrested is charged. The evidence of eye-witnesses is, of course, often later supplemented by chemical evidence provided by analysis of the urine samples given by the accused.

My Lords, may I, at the risk of re-quoting figures used by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, about blood content, refer to the actual words of a Special Committee of the British Medical Association, because, apart from the figures the noble Lord gave, which I shall repeat, they are extremely interesting. This Special Committee on the relation of alcohol to road accidents, which reported in 1960 said: clinical examination in the absence of biochemical tests is neither sufficiently sensitive nor reliable enough to detect deterioration in driving performance of this degree that is, of a degree that increases appreciably the likelihood of accident.

In another part of the same report the Committee said: The Committee considers that a concentration of 50 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood while driving a motor vehicle is the highest that can be accented as entirely consistent with the safety of other road users. While there may be circumstances in which individual driving ability will not depreciate significantly by the time this level is reached, the Committee is impressed by the rapidity with which deterioration occurs at blood levels in excess of 100 mg./100 ml. The report continues—and I am quoting the actual words used because I want these following sentences to be remembered: This is true even in the case of hardened drinkers and experienced drivers. The Committee cannot conceive of any circumstances in which it could be considered safe for a person to drive a motor vehicle on the public roads with an amount of alcohol in the blood greater than 150 mg./100 ml. This statement demonstrates the importance of the chemical evidence that is placed before the court under the provisions of the Road Traffic Act, 1962.


My Lords, could I ask the noble Lord, for the benefit of those of us who are uninitiated in these mysteries, whether he could translate that into terms of the glass of water he has in his hand—in other words, how much liquid?


My Lords, if I understand the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, rightly it is virtually impossible to translate this amount into so many glasses of beer or of whisky: it can only be approximated. The test can be exact and has the effect as stated; but it depends upon the circumstances and on the person's make-up.


My Lords, would the noble Lord rather not make an approximation?


My Lords, I would rather not because I want to be accurate.


My Lords, will the Minister see that the Home Office representatives in the forensic laboratories discontinue this practice; because they frequently talk of equivalents in terms of so many glasses of beer or of whisky? That is the normal evidence of some of the representatives of forensic laboratories under the noble Lord's Ministry.


My Lords, I think the way it is given is that they are in excess of a certain amount. I think I am correct in that.

As a result of the publicity given to certain individual cases an impression may have been left that the police are bringing cases without supporting evidence and that they are wasting the court's time. This is not so. The information which my right honourable friend has received from the Commissioner of Police shows that during 1963, last year, 2,756 persons were arrested in the Metropolitan Police District for drunken driving, of whom 2,408 were so charged. In 2,058 cases the doctor considered that there was impairment of ability to drive. A total of 1,872 cases were disposed of in magistrates' courts, where 1,777, or 95 per cent., were convicted, and 498 persons were committed for trial. Of 403 disposed of at Sessions, 245 or 62 Per cent., were convicted and 158 acquitted.

My Lords, this is, as everyone agrees, a most serious matter. No one can underestimate the dangers that arise on the roads from the driving of vehicles by those whose ability to drive properly is impaired. It is essential to be fair to drivers, but, on the other hand, it is equally essential to ensure that drivers who have taken too much drink do not escape the penalty which is due under the law. My right honourable friend would not wish to dissent from the Commissioner's practice of bringing all relevant evidence before the court, and he thinks that it would be a retrograde step if the responsible officer at the station, once he was convinced by the evidence of those who had seen the driver's behaviour, did not decide to charge the individual concerned until he had a certificate from a doctor, who inevitably could not come on the scene until later.

I do not think that I wish to add anything further. The statement I have made is carefully worded, and I think that I have explained exactly what the law is, how it is operated and what is the evidence that may be brought forward. I hope that what I have said may provide the background against which this important matter can be considered. Again, may I say that I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, for having enabled me, by putting down this Question, to say what we think the law is.


My Lords, I can address the House again only with your Lordships' permission, and I ask that permission solely to thank the noble Lord very much for going to the trouble of consulting his right honourable friend and the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis. I can only hope that what he has said in the debate this afternoon will do some good and make some impact upon this terrible scourge.