Viscount Simon (Labour)
My Lords, I feel somewhat out of step with most noble Lords who have spoken in that I will not be talking about financial matters. The proposal to introduce legislation to address the problem of driving under the influence of drugs was not only in the gracious Speech but was mentioned in the newspapers a few days earlier. It had, none the less, been my intention to raise this subject had the proposals not been included in the Government’s legislative programme.
I find it interesting that the Transport Research Laboratory now estimates that drugs are an important factor in a quarter of road deaths. Along with the Department for Transport, the company that produces a drug swipe test carried out the world’s largest trial at the roadside. Almost 100% of the 5,000 drivers stopped agreed to partake in the testing and most saw no problem with being screened in the future. A report was made but the press office at the DfT denied its existence to inquisitive journalists for some years. Why did it do that? I have no idea. Any legislation in this area needs to address those who cause the most harm. At the same time, it should ensure that its provisions can be enforced effectively by efficient use of existing resources and by guaranteeing that it does not become overbureaucratic and overburdensome on officers and the CPS.
Many types of drugs could impair driving ability and care must be given to those that need to be included in any analysis and to determining the appropriate reading for driving legally. It should be remembered that a road vehicle is a lethal weapon and that alcohol or drugs can impair a driver’s reaction. The law does not recognise that when a driver kills someone, and that needs to be changed.
When the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 was passing through this House, one of my amendments was agreed. It enabled an evidential breath test for alcohol to be taken at the roadside and used in court, rather than the driver being taken to a police station where the reading might fall due to the time that has elapsed prior to getting the official reading. The kit for this test has still not been officially approved, despite it already being available to officers. I hope that the drug testing apparatus will be approved immediately; after all, it is being used very successfully in many other countries. To put the problem into perspective, in 2010 the number of drug-driver prosecutions in the UK, which has just been released by the Department of Justice, was 34. During the same period, the number of drivers losing their licences in Germany, where the drug swipe test was used, was 34,000.
Lots of people think that roads policing officers, who used to be called traffic officers until the name was adopted by the Highways Agency, purely give out tickets for exceeding the speed limit, but that is not the case. They are officers at the front line of crime fighting and their specialist skills and knowledge enable them to deter, hunt down and arrest serious criminals. I always think of these officers as police officers first and roads policing officers second, as their arrest rate for non-traffic offences is quite exceptional. Bearing that in mind, with budgets being reduced I wonder whether the proposed training will lead to a reduction in standards. As an aside, although it is somewhat relevant to this, a few years ago I was invited to a police driving school to sit in on the testing of three officers as response drivers and not-I repeat not-as roads policing officers. All three officers passed. I subsequently told the inspector that I would have failed one of them and gave my reasons. He said that I was probably right but that the course had been reduced from three weeks to two.
Training has been reduced on quite a large scale and it is not only the public who might become involved in this reduction. Should something go wrong, the officers might become the subject of investigation. I recall a police pursuit being stopped recently for health and safety reasons purely because the person being chased was not wearing a helmet, and if an accident had occurred the officers could have been temporarily removed from their specialist duties.
When departments are reduced, it is imperative that roads policing skills are not lost and that continual training is maintained in order that officers can deal with fast-roads policing. About 10 years ago, I passed the police’s fast roads course, since when driving conditions have changed. Perhaps I should declare that I am qualified in roads policing. Driving behaviour has changed and visible patrols are vital to maintain the confidence and discipline that led to a reduction in casualties over the past 10 years. However, with the number of roads policing officers and marked police vehicles decreasing, I would not be surprised if those statistics showed an increase in casualties in the near future. It is acknowledged that the threat of being caught is an effective deterrent, whether it be by breathalysers, drug swipe tests or speeding, but they all require trained and experienced officers.
It is interesting that partnership enforcement operations exist to target coaches and heavy goods vehicles. I have attended three of these operations where not only very highly qualified roads policing officers but people from Customs and Excise and VOSA are present. They are very efficient and I just hope that, with the financial cuts, they will be allowed to continue.
We have seen proposals to raise the speed limit from 70 mph to 80 mph and to decrease it from 30 mph to 20 mph in certain areas. Average speed cameras are very effective but they are not everywhere, just as roads policing officers are not everywhere. So how will these changes be enforced? Numerous research and common sense shows that a speed limit raised to 80 mph would result in more collisions and, because of the increased speed, more road deaths and serious injuries. After all, while vehicle design may change the human body does not. This, of course, flies in the face of the DfT’s long-standing commitment to reducing collisions and casualties.
The Ministry of Justice consultation document, Getting it Right for Victims and Witnesses, fails to make any proposals to improve the services offered to victims and witnesses of road deaths. Paragraph 56 says that more needs to be done but fails to make any recommendations. It is proposed that responsibility for the funding of victims’ services will soon be handled by appointed police and crime commissioners, but that will not be underpinned by a set of minimum standards that would ensure a consistent approach across the country. The Road Victims Trust, of which I am a patron, is concerned that the already patchy approach to support victims and witnesses of road deaths will simply be made worse. With pursuits being closely monitored and health and safety at the forefront of senior officers’ minds, will officers, within the bounds of the law, be allowed to follow and stop those who are driving dangerously?
Finally, road casualties and deaths are a national issue that requires a joined-up and co-ordinated response. The Government have a duty to ensure that, with the advent of police commissioners later this year, suitable methods are employed to encourage greater co-operation between government departments, the Department for Transport, the Home Office, the justice department and individual forces to continue to drive down the blight of deaths and injuries on our roads for years to come.