Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to undertake a review of the maximum penalties for driving offences causing death and serious injury; and for connected purposes.
I stand today to present this ten-minute rule Bill because of something that happened in the village of Overton in my constituency of Clwyd South in October 2009. That was when Robert James Gaunt, a nine-year-old boy, tragically lost his life. Robert was a schoolboy from the village. He was mown down by a driver while crossing the road. Young Robert was killed. The driver who so carelessly took Robert Gaunt’s life was unlicensed and uninsured. He hit Robert, killed him, and drove away. He not only failed to stop, but did not even report the accident. Even worse, he attempted to cover up his crime by re-spraying his car.
Robert’s life came abruptly and needlessly to an end—and for this, the driver incurred a pitiful sentence of 22 months. That was the very limit of what was possible under the law for that offence. This man hit a child, took a young boy’s life and, after driving away to leave that child to die, was sentenced to a grand total of 22 months and a four-year driving ban. The man served only 10 months in jail, which cannot be right.
After the injustice of this case and many others like it, people from my constituency launched a petition calling for sentences for this sort of crime to be raised. More than 1,300 names were added online and a further 2,000 collected on paper. The campaign continued, even though a change of Government meant an early closure to the online petition. Many of the people who signed the petition had probably never signed a petition before and perhaps never signed one since, but they did so on this occasion out of a passion for justice for Robert and for other victims of road accidents around our country.
As the local Member of Parliament, I stand here to give my support by calling for the law to be changed. This motion calls for the Government to bring in a new Bill to do exactly what the family of Robert James Gaunt was calling for back in 2009. We are asking the Government to look at the maximum penalties for driving offences that lead to death and serious injury.
Currently, those who cause death by driving face a number of charges and a large scale of sentences, ranging from mere months to 14 years. However, no driver has been handed a 14-year term since Parliament first lengthened the maximum sentence from 10 years in 2004. The reality is that sentencing guidelines mean that there must be a large and frankly improbable series of aggravating factors for a judge to issue anywhere near that sentence. Tougher penalties are not being used because judges are being held back by guidelines that prevent them from handing out longer sentences.
My own party in government was right to fight for higher maximum penalties in 2004, and the current Government, encouraged by the tireless campaigning of many hon. Members of all parties, are equally right to have incorporated into the Crime and Courts Act 2013 new rules on drug taking while driving and to have amended the Road Traffic Act 1988. Both Governments can rightly be proud of having brought in changes that go in the right direction—but, as we know, there is much further for us to go.
If a driver is caught driving with
“deliberate decision or flagrant disregard for the rules of the road”,
the starting-point for judges when choosing a sentence is eight years. This can be longer for a number of reasons, such as when a person is killed or when the driver is driving a stolen vehicle. Let us reflect for a moment on how subjective
“deliberate decision or flagrant disregard for the rules of the road”
is. If a driver is seen to be creating significant danger—the lowest level of seriousness—the starting point for sentencing judges is three years, and the maximum term is five years. If the driver is injured, the sentence is shortened; if the victim was a friend, the sentence is shortened; and on and on we go.
In general, I think it absolutely right that our criminal justice system distinguishes between those who make a mistake, commit a crime and acknowledge that crime, and those who, as in the case involving Robert Gaunt, flee, hide and pervert the course of justice. However, I feel that what we are seeing in relation to driving offences simply beggars belief. Drivers who plead guilty before their trials have their sentences automatically reduced by a third, and most will be released on licence after serving only half their given sentences.
The rules and guidelines set out by the law mean that drivers who end the lives of innocent people on our roads have their sentences reduced, reduced and reduced until, bit by bit, they decline to mere months. For the families of those who are killed, that is clearly not justice, which is why I am urging the Government to review the sentencing guidelines relating to penalties for driving offences that lead to death or serious injury. If we change the law and the sentencing guidelines are reformed properly, that will bring some measure of justice. I hope that it will also give people who are uninsured or unlicensed grounds to pause before they get behind the wheel of a vehicle.
Today, I have spoken about the tragic case of Robert James Gaunt, but cases similar to Robert’s happen all over the country. Innocent people are killed by drivers who are given risibly low sentences. Families throughout our nation have lost loved ones through reckless, dangerous or negligent driving, and the law is not doing enough to hold those who take lives in this way accountable. Why should a sentence be so short when the injury has been caused by a car rather than a weapon? Sentences for assault are much longer, even when the act is not premeditated. The average sentence served by drivers who kill or seriously injure another human being while driving is currently just 11 months. Since I have been a Member of Parliament, I have seen other Members who, while probably agreeing on precious little else politically, are at one in urging reform on this issue. We know that there is a tremendous amount of support for a review from Members of all parties.
I firmly believe that this is about finding justice for those who have been let down by the system, and ensuring that the punishment fits the crime. Tragically, that is often not the case at present. I wholeheartedly support the provision of a range of different sentences for driving offences; what I am calling for today is a logical development of the current system and more consideration of what sentences are given.
My constituents embarked on their campaign to secure justice for Robert. Of course we can never secure true justice for a young boy who was so tragically and needlessly deprived of his life, but what I hope that we can do is to take action that will save more families from similar heartbreak in the future. That is why I stand here today—on behalf of the family of Robert James Gaunt, the people of Overton, and people throughout the country who share our concern—and urge the Secretary of State to undertake a review of the maximum penalties for driving offences that lead to death and serious injury.
Question put and agreed to.
That Susan Elan Jones, Chris Ruane, Albert Owen, Mr Mark Williams, Ian Lucas, Julie Hilling, Karl Turner, Mr David Hanson, Ms Margaret Ritchie and Mark Tami present the Bill.
Susan Elan Jones accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 February and to be printed (Bill 152).