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Driving Instructors Convicted of Sexual Offences (Suspension)

Volume 481: debated on Tuesday 21 October 2008

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the immediate suspension from the Register of Approved Driving Instructors of driving instructors convicted of sexual offences; and for connected purposes.

I am standing here today because of a brave young woman called Lesley Anne. Learning to drive can be a stressful experience; people have to learn all the signs and how to do three-point turns and hill starts. They should not also be thinking that their driving instructor could be a sexual predator. Lesley Anne Steele’s was, and almost three years ago she suffered a humiliating and degrading sexual assault. Thankfully, her instructor, James Bennett from west Fife, was convicted. Yet even after that conviction, he continued to be a threat to young women, as he was permitted to continue as a driving instructor.

However, picking Lesley Anne as one of his victims was the biggest mistake that Bennett made. She is not to be messed with at all, and has a steely resolve—Steele by name, steel by nature. She was determined that what happened to her would never be allowed to happen again and waived her right to anonymity so that she could tell her story. That is when she got me involved.

Shortly after the incident, Lesley Anne wrote to me:

“On the day of the trial, Mr Bennett was found guilty of assaulting me and with immediate effect was placed on the sex offenders’ register. I was relieved that this was finally over and thought that Mr Bennett wouldn’t be allowed to continue to teach. The following day I received a call from a friend who had just seen Mr Bennett out teaching. Then my partner spotted Mr Bennett on the Monday, picking up a pupil close to our house.”

Now, that is rubbing her nose in it. He was close to her house, in the small village that she lives in.

Together, Lesley and I have discovered massive failings in the Driving Standards Agency and loopholes in the law. Lesley Anne received an apology from the predecessor of the Minister here today, and the DSA and the then Minister made commitments to make substantial changes. Many of those changes were made, but the law remains the same. All of that happened two years ago. I am frustrated that such urgent legislative changes have still not been made.

There are more than 40,000 approved driving instructors in the UK in whom we entrust our safety on the roads. The overwhelming majority of them are upstanding members of society. My issue is not with them, but with those who seek to tarnish their reputation—those who are a threat to our learner drivers. The nub of the issue is that the Driving Standards Agency does not have the right to suspend an instructor from the register of approved driving instructors. It does have the power to remove, but only after the full procedure is followed, including an individual’s right to appeal. If the offence committed is serious, but not serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence, the instructor could operate for a further 42 days after conviction. I have no objection to the individual’s right to dispute the proposal to remove, but I do not see why that cannot be undertaken under suspension. The Government agree with me, and I want to give them some credit for the progress that they have made.

First, the Minister at the time admitted that there was a loophole, and admitted the mistakes that had been made and the flaws in the system. He made a personal apology to Lesley Anne, and I thank him for that. Secondly, the DSA and the Government introduced enhanced criminal record checks for all current and future instructors. That process, conducted during the past year, weeded out eight offenders who can no longer pose a threat to learner drivers. If it were not for Lesley Anne, those people would still be on the road. Thirdly, they changed the complaints procedures and customer care, so that complaints, such as those made by Lesley Anne, will be dealt with in a more sympathetic and effective manner. However, it should not require the involvement of an MP to get such a complaint dealt with seriously. The profession of driving instructor is now a notifiable profession for the Home Office and the Scottish Executive. If an instructor is convicted of an offence, the DSA is automatically notified, which was not the case before.

However, despite that progress, it is regrettable that two years on, the loophole of a lack of power to suspend remains in place. Some have suggested that instructors should be suspended immediately on being charged, not just when they are successfully prosecuted. However, the requirement to prove guilt, rather than simply allege, is a right that must be protected. Malicious allegations should not be permitted to have more effect that they already do. During a debate in Westminster Hall in November 2006, the then Minister, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), told me:

“Current legislation is clearly deficient, and we need to change the law through primary legislation as soon as we can to ensure that we have the power to suspend people immediately on conviction for such offences.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 28 November 2006; Vol. 453, c. 54WH.]

In the past two years there has been at least one case of a driving instructor being successfully prosecuted but not jailed for that offence. David Austin from Suffolk was convicted of sexual assault. I understand that he has been removed from the register, but I do not know whether he was teaching after conviction and before he was removed. If he did not teach, it was his choice, because it is not within the DSA’s power to remove him. That must change. We must remove the power from those individuals to continue teaching.

Doing research for the debate, I discovered that the problem was identified before I raised it today. In 2005, in the Rochdale Observer, there was a story on a driving instructor who was convicted of sexual assaults on female pupils but who continued to teach. The article read:

“Despite being found guilty of nine offences last month, Peter Knowles, aged 67, has a legal right to keep giving lessons according to the Driving Standards Agency.”

The DSA knew about the situation earlier than the point at which I raised it in the House, which makes it more difficult to understand why we have not made any further progress two years on.

If my Bill does not make progress today, I hope that my contribution in the Chamber will spur on the Government—perhaps by some other mechanism—to introduce the legislation that is required. If the power to suspend is not introduced immediately, we will not be performing our duty to do everything that we can to protect learner drivers.

Lesley Anne has now passed her driving test and is a very proficient driver, no thanks to her instructor. She also recently married and is enjoying life. Let us pass the legislation and get the situation sorted, for her sake and for the thousands of young women who learn to drive every year. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Willie Rennie, Mr. Mark Lancaster, Ms Katy Clark, Nick Harvey, Mr. Adam Holloway, Gordon Banks, Jo Swinson, Linda Gilroy, Mr. Alan Reid, Danny Alexander, John Barrett and Mr. David Hamilton.

Driving Instructors Convicted of Sexual Offences (Suspension)

Willie Rennie accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the immediate suspension from the Register of Approved Driving Instructors of driving instructors convicted of sexual offences; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 27 October, and to be printed [Bill 154].