Written statement to Parliament

Court notification of drink-drive offences

Written statement by Mike Penning MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Mike Penning MP

In conjunction with my Hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the MP for Huntingdon, I wish to inform the House of serious errors that have been identified in the way in which data on drink drive convictions is shared between the police, courts and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA).

At the end of last year, I asked the DVLA to review communication between the courts and the DVLA. As a result of these investigations it became clear that the alcohol levels for some drink driving convictions were either not provided to the DVLA by the courts, or were inconsistent when there was a delay between the court sending the information and the reconciliation of this information by DVLA. These errors have been happening for more than 20 years. As a result, in some cases, driving licences were reissued to individuals whose ban had expired, but without them undergoing legally required medical tests.

As soon as the problem was reported to me in August 2011, DVLA put in place manual checks so that any court notification received at DVLA without an alcohol reading was immediately investigated and no licences were re-issued without the alcohol level being provided. In addition, DVLA have worked to identify cases where information was incomplete in the backlog of data since 1991.

The courts and DVLA are now implementing IT changes which will mean that their systems will not allow cases to be processed at either the courts or DVLA unless valid alcohol readings are provided. Furthermore, new operational guidance has been issued to staff who deal with these cases.

Drivers convicted of drink driving offences with more than 2 and a half times the permitted legal alcohol limit are regarded as High Risk Offenders (HROs). The law requires that such convicted drivers are required to prove their medical fitness before they can be relicensed at the end of their disqualification period.

As a result of the review DVLA have undertaken, I was informed that some convicted drivers who should have been treated as HROs have been granted a driving licence at the end of their disqualification on the basis of their own declaration of health, without undertaking the required medical assessment.

In total, 265,225 driver records have been found to be missing the relevant information on alcohol levels. Correct alcohol levels have now been obtained for 50,330 of these. We have identified within this group 3,895 drivers who should have been treated as HROs - and therefore should have undergone a medical assessment - before being granted a licence following their disqualification. These drivers present a potential risk to road safety and are being contacted so that they can undergo a medical assessment immediately. Those who fail to comply, or cannot demonstrate their medical fitness to drive, will lose their entitlement to drive.

The Ministry of Justice, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, the Scottish Courts Services and the police are working together urgently to identify the correct alcohol readings for a further 28,830 records. Any further HROs identified from these will also be required to undergo a medical assessment.

We have identified that of the 265,225 cases, some 53,028 relate to convicted drivers who have not yet applied to renew licences. These individuals do not therefore pose an immediate road safety risk. Their records have been blocked to ensure that if they do apply for a licence in future any identified as being HROs will have to undergo the medical assessment before a licence can be issued.

Records retention policy and the time limits set under the terms of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, means that it will not be possible to act upon the alcohol readings in the remaining 133,037 cases identified. We cannot therefore say how many of these drivers would have been HROs at the time of their conviction.

It is with great regret that I inform the House that we have identified two cases in 1996 and 2006 where a driver who was issued a licence without first proving their medical fitness to drive, has subsequently caused death while driving under the influence of alcohol. Every death on the road is a tragedy and we have the deepest sympathy for anyone affected by the actions of these drink drivers. It is not possible to say whether the drivers in these cases would have got their licences back following a medical examination. Every effort is being made to contact the victims’ families to inform them and to ensure they receive full and proper support.

I can assure the House that we regard road safety and ensuring convicted drivers are treated correctly as of critical importance. Everything possible will be done to take action, where we are legally able, against those who represent a risk to other road users. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice and I have ensured that immediate action has been taken to deal with this issue and to make sure it does not happen again. I must make clear that this investigation is continuing but due to the complexity of accessing very old court data, final figures will not be known for a number of months.

Published 8 December 2011