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Road Traffic Offences (Sentencing)

Volume 563: debated on Thursday 16 May 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

First, let me say that it is not my intention to take up the full two hours that are available to us for this debate, but I do want to raise an issue that is very important, in particular to my Sherwood constituency. One of the issues on which I stood for election was resolving the terrible road safety record in Sherwood, particularly around the A614, a stretch of road with which all in the east midlands will be familiar. There have been a lot of fatal accidents on it, with people killed at some of the terrible junctions. That was affecting the local community.

There was one tragic accident in which six people were killed, which resonated particularly strongly with the local community, and it became one of my ambitions to get elected as a Member of Parliament and resolve some of the problems facing the people living around the A614. I have campaigned long and hard to introduce measures to improve junctions. We have been able to improve the Ollerton roundabout and make traffic flows much smoother. We have also been able to put in new traffic lights at the Rose Cottage junction and improve the flows in and out of Edwinstowe.

We have also introduced average speed cameras, which have reduced traffic speeds along the A614 and—I hesitate to say this—stopped the fatal accidents; there has not been another one since they were introduced. Those cameras are not universally welcomed. Some of my constituents do not like them; they complain they delay their journey, so it takes them longer to get from A to B. I recognise the frustration of some drivers travelling up and down our busy roads, but my priority is making sure people are not killed on the roads.

It is important to draw a distinction between a conviction for speeding, for which someone might get a £60 fine and three points on their licence, and more serious incidents for which the perpetrator might be convicted of dangerous or careless driving. There is a conception among the public that it is easy to secure a conviction for speeding, such as driving at 34 mph in a 30 mph zone, but that there is less enthusiasm among the police and in the Crown Prosecution Service to go after the more challenging conviction of dangerous driving, as the burden of evidence is much greater.

I was contacted by a constituent of mine, Louise Stanbrook, who had been to a concert at the Nottingham arena and was crossing the road to walk home when she was knocked over by a driver and quite seriously injured. She suffered a broken collar bone and was knocked unconscious. She also suffered damage to her teeth and spectacles and to her possessions. It was a very serious incident. The perpetrator had a number of previous driving convictions, and was also due to be sentenced for another crime unconnected to this driving offence. The CPS and the police decided it was not in the public interest to pursue the individual for the driving offences he had committed on this occasion, as he was serving an offence unconnected to driving.

It strikes me that the justice system is there for two reasons, the first of which is to make sure that those who commit crimes are rehabilitated and are able to come back into society, having paid their debt. However, the justice system is also there for the victims to see that justice has been done and that when they have been violated in any way the perpetrators of the crime against them make recompense and have to pay a debt to society. That might involve a fine, a custodial sentence or a driving ban, which is another point I wish to deal with a little later.

Louise would say that it is a perception—it is her perception—that people who commit a minor speeding offence, which is still an offence, are prosecuted on a regular basis, as we can agree is only right and fair, but people who commit a much more serious offence such as dangerous driving or careless driving do not suffer the same enthusiasm from the Crown Prosecution Service; there is a reluctance to pursue convictions for such offences because of the amount of evidence that has to be gathered in order to pursue them. That sends the wrong message to society, and the House needs to overcome that and ensure that we turn that tide, so that not only is justice being done, but it is being seen to be done by our constituents and they can have confidence in it. We have to put our hands up and say that many people get caught speeding, but people need to feel that those who commit serious offences are being pursued by the legal system with the same vigour and enthusiasm.

That is very important and it leads me to my second point, which relates to where the justice system is letting us down. It seems wrong that where someone is convicted of a very serious driving offence and is sent to jail, and part of the sentence is a driving ban, they can serve that ban while they are in prison. Given that they cannot drive then anyway because they are being held at Her Majesty’s convenience, it would seem only appropriate that any driving ban that is part of the sentence should be served when they come out of prison and back into society. I would ask the Minister to pass my comments on to the Justice Secretary; he should examine that issue closely on his return, as it is a fundamental part of this debate.

There is another perception that people get enormously frustrated about—my constituents certainly do. Most people work hard, they purchase a car, which can be very expensive, they pay their tax by buying their tax disc and they pay for insurance to drive that car. They also pay for an MOT to make sure it is roadworthy and if they are caught committing a driving offence, they of course pay their fine. However, a section of society does not take out insurance, does not pass a driving test and does not obey the laws. When such people are caught committing a driving misdemeanour, they are often taken to court, prosecuted and then given points on their licence—which they do not possess—and banned from driving, even though they did not possess a driving licence in the first place. Members of the public find it enormously frustrating when they see all the hoops they have to jump through to be a law-abiding citizen and to drive appropriately, yet they perceive that those people who—I hope hon. Members will forgive my Sherwood language—stick two fingers up at the law and ignore it seem to get away with it. That really does need addressing.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one idea worth considering is giving greater flexibility for juries on the upper sentences allowed at the moment? It seems to me that there are certain cases where juries ought to be able to give a higher sentence based on the situation in the case, because, as he rightly says, it is ludicrous how low some sentences are.

I am grateful for that intervention. I was just coming to that point.

I suppose the challenge is that the law is in chunks—careless driving, death by careless driving, dangerous driving, death by dangerous driving—and there are very tight boundaries. There is no sliding scale of punishment. I believe that lack of flexibility is what drives the CPS sometimes not to go for the more serious chunk, but to satisfy itself with a conviction lower down the scale because it can be sure of obtaining one. That needs addressing, and the only way to do that is to have a review of what laws are in place and whether those tools need adapting. Within the current law the tools are available to make those serious prosecutions, but at the moment the CPS is not minded to go for those serious convictions, whether that is because of the chunking of the convictions or the lack of a sliding scale. That is what needs addressing.

As a point of interest, the Nottingham Post reported that in Nottinghamshire, 58,373 speeding tickets were issued in 2011-12. That shows that our police force is out there, robustly enforcing speeding offences.

Does my hon. Friend agree that speed cameras have a bit of a bad reputation? They are almost regarded as a cash machine only to be used by the police. Would he, like me, be encouraged by the increased use of speed awareness courses, which are a restorative way of combating speeding rather than simply going straight for the points and fines, and would he hope that that would be extended across the UK?

I would agree with that. We must remember that the purpose of speed cameras is not to catch people; it is not to get cash out of drivers. It is to prevent them from being killed or seriously injured. I get many letters from constituents asking for the police to go into their village—I hesitate to use the words “speed trap” because it gives the wrong impression, but that is what they often ask for. They want the police to enforce speed limits to ensure that people driving through their villages and towns do not break the speed limit, particularly outside primary schools and other local schools. That gives me confidence that we are on the right side of the argument—that our constituents want enforcement of speed limits and want the law to be obeyed. However, they want a balance between serious and minor offences. The perception is that there is not that balance at the moment.

If I may summarise, my No. 1 request is to remove the anomaly of driving bans coinciding with prison sentences. If a person is convicted of an offence, serves time in jail and receives a driving ban, the start of the driving ban should be postponed until their release from prison, so that there is that extra removal from our roads for those who have been convicted of a driving offence. Secondly, I want to encourage the CPS and the police to use all the tools at their disposal. I am sure the Department would be more than happy to receive representations from the CPS or the police if they have reservations about some of those tools. I would encourage the CPS and the police to be more diligent and look at going for more serious convictions if they feel they can gather the evidence to get those convictions. They should not simply lay the burden of keeping up the number of convictions on the minor offences.

There have been some terrible accidents in which people have been injured, and some fairly high-profile ones which reached the media. Bradley Wiggins, our Olympic and Tour de France-winning cyclist, was a victim of a cycling accident in which he was knocked off not far from your constituency, Mr Deputy Speaker. We do not want to be knocking off our potential Olympians, to say the least. That case drives home the fact that people out there, pedestrians and cyclists especially, are at risk of serious injury, and when that tragedy happens, we look to the law to recompense us for that injury and to give us the justice that we deserve.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on obtaining this afternoon’s debate on the sentencing of people convicted of road traffic offences. I commend him on his thoughtful and considered speech, which I listened to with great interest. I know that he is an assiduous and hard-working Member, serving his constituency and his constituents and raising issues of concern to them.

May I express the apologies of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), for not being here to respond in person to the debate on behalf of the Government? He is at a conference in Birmingham and asked me to respond on his behalf. I am delighted to be able to do so.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood made clear, driving offences are a very important issue, with potentially very grave consequences when they result in accidents and innocent victims are harmed, injured or killed. I was extremely sorry to learn of the case of his constituent, Louise Stanbrook, a pedestrian who was injured by a dangerous driver.

I should like to highlight the interesting and valuable contributions made by the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry). My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) is in his place and I know that he, too, is concerned about the issues of sentencing and road traffic offences. My late father, Norman Evennett, said to me many years ago when I started to learn to drive, “Remember, a car driven dangerously or badly can be a lethal weapon”—very wise words indeed.

Sentences in individual cases are a matter for the courts to decide, subject to the maximum limits and sentencing guidelines. When deciding what the appropriate sentence within the range should be, the court will consider the seriousness of the offence. This includes both the culpability of the offender and the harm that the offence has caused. The court will also consider any other aggravating or mitigating factors. The law therefore seeks to punish those who cause death or injury on the road in a way that is appropriate to the degree of blame that can be attributed to the driver.

Our framework of driving offences and penalties is kept constantly under review, and the Government have striven to ensure that the framework remains balanced and proportionately addresses the range of unacceptable behaviours which occur on our roads. We will consider what my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood said today and we continue to monitor these issues as a matter of course. Our current law provides a framework of offences to deal with bad driving and dangerous practices that impact on driving at every level. Every offence is extremely serious, irrespective of the consequences.

On the topic of very serious offences, my hon. Friend will appreciate that the most serious of all driving offences is one in which someone loses their life. He will be aware of the reduced mortality rate when people are travelling at 20 mph rather than 30 mph. Will he join me in congratulating Lancashire county council, which recently made the speed limit on all side streets 20 mph, which is fast enough wherever we live, and will he join me in encouraging Blackburn with Darwen council to take a similar initiative to help save the lives of young people in Darwen?

I welcome any measure that helps to save lives. The issue that my hon. Friend raises is a matter for the Department for Transport, not for the Ministry of Justice, but I take on board what he said and congratulate any council that reduces the speed limit, which has a positive result, saving lives and preventing injury.

Fatality, of course, holds a special place in these affairs, which is why particularly robust penalties are available where death is caused by bad driving. Where drivers cause death either by dangerous driving or by careless driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, judges can sentence them to a maximum of 14 years in jail. Other measures include an unlimited fine and a minimum two-year driving disqualification. Where death is caused and there is sufficient evidence of gross negligence, drivers can be charged with the offence of manslaughter, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Summary road traffic offences include careless driving, speeding, driving with excess alcohol, driving while disqualified and using a mobile phone while driving, as well as other offences relating to the condition of the vehicle, safety measures such as seat belts and offences relating to non-compliance with, for example, driving direction and traffic lights. Those offences are punishable in some cases by short custodial sentences. Some carry mandatory disqualification. All carry the potential for robust fines and points on an individual’s licence.

Following the 2005 review of road traffic offences, two new offences were created and, since 2008, have been available to prosecutors: causing death by careless driving, and causing death where a driver is unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured. The maximum penalties for those offences are five years and two years respectively. They attract a minimum disqualification period of one year and can be punished by an unlimited fine. In December 2012 the Government introduced a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving in order to fill the gap where bad driving causes very serious injury but sentences were previously limited to two years because only the plain offence of dangerous driving could be charged. The new offence has a maximum penalty of five years.

Therefore, it is apparent that the offences and penalties are kept constantly under review to keep the framework appropriate to changing behaviour on our roads. However, our courts sentence independently, having full regard to the features of each individual case and to guidelines.

My hon. Friend is doing a fine job of outlining for the House the current tools available in the tool box. Ministry of Justice figures show that, tragically, the number of motoring deaths remained static between 2002 and 2012. Meanwhile, the number of convictions for dangerous and aggravated offences has come down and the number of convictions for careless driving has gone up, which suggests that those deciding what to prosecute are choosing the lesser option of careless driving. Would he care to comment on those statistics?

We are of course aware of those statistics and look at them carefully. We are determined, in the guidelines, to encourage prosecution of the more serious offences, and we are endeavouring to do that. However, I must highlight that it is very difficult for the Ministry of Justice, because it is not our responsibility to do that. On the other hand, we are setting the guidelines and giving the courts the independence and freedom, and we want to ensure that they use the powers they have.

The Sentencing Council sets out guidelines, which the courts must have regard to, advising in greater detail what courts should do in particular types of cases. We give the guidelines and encourage, within the statutory limits Parliament has set, of course. We encourage, but the courts have to make the decisions. The Sentencing Council has issued two relevant sets of guidelines: those on driving offences where death is caused, which were issued in 2008; and the magistrates court sentencing guidelines, including guidelines on summary driving offences, which were updated in 2012. Obviously we constantly look at updating those.

With regard to the relevant treatment of speeding and drink-impaired driving, speeding is punishable by a fine of up to £1,000, or £2,500 when committed on a motorway. The court may disqualify the offender and must impose penalty points. Driving under the influence of alcohol is punishable by a fine of up to £5,000 or up to six months’ imprisonment. The court must disqualify the offender for at least 12 months. Those convicted of serious driving offences face the prospect of lengthy custodial sentences. In 2011, the average custodial sentence length for those convicted of causing death by dangerous driving was over four years. Accident statistics from the Department for Transport suggest that speeding and drink or drug-driving are fairly equally unacceptable in terms of harm caused. In 2011, an estimated 9,990 reported casualties—5% of all road casualties—occurred while the driver was over the legal alcohol limit. The provisional number estimated to have been killed in drink-drive accidents was 280. Exceeding the speed limit was reported as a contributory factor in 5% of all accidents, but these accidents involved 14% of fatalities. Drug impairment was reported as a contributory factor in 644 road casualties.

Generally, Great Britain has a very good road safety record, but we cannot afford to be, and will not be, complacent. Deaths and serious injuries on the roads are a terrible tragedy for those affected, as highlighted in the case mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood. It must of course be welcome that the general trend is for road fatalities and casualties to fall, but every such case is one too many for the victims and their families.

Compared with the period 2005-09, the number killed in 2011 was 32% lower, the number reported killed or seriously injured was 17% lower, and the number of children killed or seriously injured was 19% lower. However, the Government will not be complacent. We will monitor those numbers and do what we can to push them down and to make sure that convictions of those who offend are implemented.

The Government’s vision for road safety remains one in which Britain is a world leader; where local authorities are empowered to take informed decisions about road safety in their area, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) described in his area; where driver and rider training gives learners the skills they need to be safe on our roads, which is vital; and where tough measures are taken against the minority of offenders who deliberately choose to drive dangerously. They are the ones we need to get to, because they are the ones who are causing such distress, danger and injury.

In 2011, colleagues in the Department for Transport published a new strategic framework for road safety that focused on supporting road users who have weak driving skills, or who have displayed a lapse of judgment, to improve their driving through a greater range of educational courses to help deliver safer skills and attitudes, while focusing enforcement resources against those who deliberately decide to undertake antisocial and dangerous driving behaviours that cover all careless and dangerous driving offences. This is the Government’s twin approach to improving road safety. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood will be reassured by that. We are determined to make sure that those who drive dangerously are dealt with appropriately.

I must admit that I have some experience of the speed awareness course. One of the incentives to get people to go on that course is that by not taking the penalty points, they will not increase the cost of their insurance premium. However, Admiral Insurance has recently asked people to disclose whether they have been on a speed awareness course, and that will potentially increase their premium. Does my hon. Friend share my fear that we will lose this vital driver re-education tool if people start to lose the insurance benefits?

I note what my hon. Friend says. I am looking at this in the context of educating people; the insurance situation is beyond my remit. However we manage to deal with it, the whole point is to educate more people to be considerate and better drivers. We should look at every aspect to improve the standard of driving so that we cut down on the incidence of injury and death on the roads.

Will the Minister talk to his colleagues in the Home Office to see whether people who are convicted of a driving offence while on holiday could conduct their road awareness training back in their own county to save them driving back to the location of the offence?

I will, of course, pass on that suggestion. We work closely with the Home Office and the Department for Transport; one of the many great things about this Government is that the Departments are working closely together. Our Department is working closely with colleagues in other Departments to make sure that the quality of life is improved for all our citizens, and this is one such example.

Since the publication of the strategic framework, the Government have continued to focus on empowering local decision makers, improving driver training and taking a more targeted approach to enforcement. Recent developments include the introduction of legislation on drug-driving to improve enforcement; the launch of a new speed limit circular to improve the flexibility of local authorities in setting the speed limits; and work with the insurance industry to develop policy opportunities to reduce risk in young drivers. That will, of course, include looking at insurance premiums and whether they can come down if people are good drivers and seeking to improve their driving skills. We are concerned to make sure that young drivers in particular have the skills and knowledge to be safe and good drivers. We are also creating a £15 million fund to improve safety for cyclists outside London by tackling dangerous junctions, alongside a £15 million fund for the same purpose in London.

Provisional figures show that Great Britain and the UK remain the leading performers in Europe on road safety. However, as I have said, every road accident that results in injury or fatality is a tragedy for the people concerned and the communities they live in. Our strategy will build on our solid foundations in order to improve our road safety performance even further and to ensure that sentences are appropriate to the offence, which is the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has highlighted. The sentence has to be appropriate for the road offence committed, and the Department is focused on doing our best to achieve just that.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving us this opportunity to debate sentencing for people convicted of road traffic offences, which is a very important subject for all our constituencies. I hope that I have set out the action being taken by the Government and I will pass on my hon. Friend’s comments and concerns to the Secretary of State and the relevant Minister. The Department will continue to monitor how to improve things for the benefit of every road user, whether they be a pedestrian, a cyclist or a driver, so that we can cut down on tragic fatalities and injuries and make sure that those who drive dangerously are punished accordingly.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.