I beg to move,
That this House has considered the law on dangerous driving.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allotting the time for this debate. Members in all parts of the House feel strongly on this issue and I recognise that I am not the only Member to have raised concerns regarding the law on dangerous driving. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay) launched a “Stop Dangerous Drivers” campaign and my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) gathered a significant petition relating to a case in his constituency. Many other Members are on the record as being committed to changing the law on dangerous driving. The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) recently introduced a ten-minute rule Bill, supported by 12 Members from all political parties, calling for the Government to consider the sentencing guidelines as they relate to penalties for dangerous driving offences that lead to death or serious injury.
I applaud my hon. Friend for his work on this matter. He talks about sentencing for dangerous driving. Does he agree that we also need to consider offences linked to dangerous driving? For example, the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving is 14 years, but for causing death while disqualified it is two years. Does he agree that the latter sentence should be 14 years, in line with that for dangerous driving?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I will address that issue later in my speech. I wanted to ensure that we had a general debate on the law on dangerous driving so that Members of all political parties could have their say on individual cases in their constituencies, giving them an opportunity to raise matters important to them and to the House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Will he find time in his opening remarks to talk not just about sentencing, but about when the Crown Prosecution Service chooses to prosecute? In my constituency, there was a case where somebody was convicted of another offence and the police decided not to pursue a conviction for dangerous driving because they were already in prison.
I thank my hon. Friend for that remark. I will focus on the law on death by dangerous driving, but other Members have raised the issue of whether the Crown Prosecution Service’s definition of careless driving should be classified as dangerous driving. I understand from alarming statistics that too many drivers have been prosecuted for careless driving when dangerous driving was at play. As a result, their sentences were far more lenient than they would have been if they had been prosecuted for dangerous driving.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. In my time as an MP, one of the most difficult things I have had to do is to meet the parents of young people killed by dangerous driving with regard to the sentences that have been handed down. There was a case in my constituency, three years ago to the day, where two young girls were killed. The driver who caused the accident received a sentence of 36 weeks, despite the fact that he ran away from the scene of the crime and left the young ladies to die. My constituents cannot understand how such sentences can be considered proportionate, when they suffer a lifetime of regret and misery.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that case from his constituency. I entirely agree that it is shocking and inconceivable that we have so many cases in many constituencies where the penalty does not reflect the severity of the incident—violent death as a result of dangerous driving.
I will not take any more interventions at the moment. I want to carry on with my speech and raise a case in my constituency. Today is the first anniversary of that case.
The Government are committed to reviewing the law surrounding offences of dangerous driving, and I hope the debate is able to influence their position in the next few months. Already, as part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving has been established, with a penalty of five years. It came into force on 3 December 2012 and received cross-party support. I hope that the tone of this debate reflects the cross-party support for reviewing and changing the law on dangerous driving.
The debate is topical not just because there are so many Members who want to raise individual constituency cases, but because of the current situation. On 28 August 2013, the Government announced that the Sentencing Council would review sentencing guidelines for the recently introduced offences of causing death by careless driving; causing serious injury by dangerous driving; and causing death by dangerous driving. It was with that review in mind that I wanted to hold the debate, so that the will of the House, and the views of Members from all parts of the House, could be heard and made known to the Sentencing Council. I hope that the Minister will take note of the various issues raised, and that they will inform the Government’s own decisions, once the Sentencing Council has conducted its review, so that they are aware of the strength of feeling about the fact that the laws on dangerous driving need to be changed.
I know that many Members are committed to campaigning for a change in the law as a result of tragic constituency cases of deaths caused by dangerous driving, and they will have met families of victims of dangerous drivers who have had their loved ones cruelly torn from them, often at a young age, only to find that the law is not on their side. The pain and suffering of losing a family member to such a violent death at the irresponsible hands of a dangerous driver are unthinkable, but for the perpetrator of so great a crime then to be given a custodial sentence of a few months or years, or even just a fine and a suspended sentence, is an injustice that few could agree is acceptable. It is in their memory that we hold this debate.
Today is the first anniversary of one of the most tragic cases of death by dangerous driving—a case that made national headlines and led to a campaign involving thousands of people in the Bristol region demanding that the law on dangerous driving be changed. On the afternoon of Sunday 27 January 2013, Ross and Clare Simons were riding their recently purchased tandem bike along Lower Hanham road in my constituency. The couple, 34 and 30, were in the prime of their lives and had been married just 18 months. Only the previous day, they had celebrated the news that they were about to begin IVF treatment to start a family. With everything to live for, they had their entire future together to look forward to.
Elsewhere in Hanham, Nicholas Lovell, 38, was driving his partner’s Citroen Picasso at speed when he was spotted by police, whose sirens quickly indicated to him to pull over. It was not the first time Lovell had been confronted by the law. Having amassed 69 previous convictions, he was well versed at showing blatant disregard for the rules of the road. Taking part in road races throughout his youth and 20s, he had been in and out of the revolving doors of the courts. Repeatedly, he had shown no interest in either his own safety or anyone else’s. In December 1998, high on drugs, he drove at 70 mph on the wrong side of the road as he fled police in Bradley Stoke, speeding all the way to Downend, before crashing head on into another car. During the ensuing court case, he predicted:
“If I don’t deal with this problem now, I am either going to kill myself or kill someone else.”
It was perhaps the only real truth he had ever uttered. Fourteen years later, on the afternoon of 27 January 2013, he did not know that his chilling prophecy was about to become a reality.
What Lovell did know, speeding in his partner’s Citroen Picasso through Hanham, the police now on his tail, sirens blazing, was that he should never have been in that car in the first place—he was serving a driving ban, having been disqualified from driving. It was not ignorance of the law that had driven him to take the wheel of a car that afternoon; he had simply chosen to ignore it. Neither was it the first time he had been banned from driving. He had committed 11 offences of driving while disqualified and been convicted for dangerous driving four times. Not that he seemed to care: two weeks earlier, he had met an acquaintance, John Fleming—nicknamed “Johnny Fireball”—outside the Jolly Sailor pub on Hanham high street, where he challenged him to a race. “He said, ‘Come on, Johnny Fireball. Let’s have a race. I’ve got a fast car put down’”, Fleming later recalled, adding that Lovell also told him, “I don’t care if I do 90 mph and hit someone.”
At 3.50 pm exactly a year ago today, as Lovell sped into Lower Hanham road, with the police in pursuit, he was driving too fast to control his car. Clipping a parked car, his vehicle launched itself across the other side of the road. Call it what you like—the wrong place, the wrong time, that split second moment that can make the difference between life and death—the uninsured car hit a newly purchased tandem bike being ridden by Ross and Clare Simons. They did not stand a chance, and their deaths were almost immediate. Lovell, on the other hand, was still very much alive—alive enough to run away on foot from the scene of the accident, leaving his partner to claim that she had been driving the car at the time, giving the police a false name.
The deaths of Ross and Clare Simons quickly made the national headlines, and their loss shook the entire local community I represent. I never met them, but no one had a bad word to say about this couple, who lived their short lives to the full, touching so many people along the way. A week later, I attended the vigil at the site of their deaths on Lower Hanham road, where easily over 500 people stood silent as we marked the minute when they had been struck. I made a pledge then to Ross’s father, Edwin, that I would do everything in my power, as the local MP, to help them and to ensure that they achieved justice for their tragic loss.
Only when Lovell was finally tracked down and charged did the enormity of his crime become known. As I have already stated, he had 69 previous convictions, including for four offences of dangerous driving, for which he was disqualified from driving completely back in 1999, only to be given a further 11 convictions for driving while disqualified.
My hon. Friend paints a shocking picture of a horrific offence by an individual who had 11 convictions for driving while disqualified. The maximum sentence for that is six months, whether it is someone’s first, 15th or 11th offence. Do we not need to ensure a stiffer sentence for repeat offenders, as I proposed in a private Member’s Bill?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Indeed, it is the basis of my speech, and I will talk later about what needs to happen to toughen up the law and make driving while disqualified at least an aggravating factor, if not something more, in cases of death by dangerous driving. In Canada, for instance, while causing death by dangerous driving can incur a penalty of 10 years, causing death by dangerous driving while disqualified can incur a life sentence. We should be going down that route of much tougher penalties for these people, who should not be let out of jail in the first place so as to be able to commit these crimes.
Back in 1999, Lovell was banned from driving essentially for life. The horror of previous crimes included fleeing from the police in 1998 after being spotted at the wheel of a stolen car and, as I have said, driving at speeds of 70mph. In August 2000, he again fled from the police and drove on a public footpath and subway before crashing into a tree, and eight years later, he was spotted by police who wanted to question him about two robberies, but reversed at speed into their vehicle, causing damage, before mounting a pavement to undertake vehicles waiting at traffic lights, forcing two pedestrians to jump out of the way in order to avoid being hit. He was a ticking time bomb. Given the number of his offences, it was inevitable, as he prophesised himself, that he would one day cause death by dangerous driving.
At first, when these details were revealed in court, it seemed inconceivable that someone with so many convictions and disqualifications could have been allowed to kill in this way. How had he managed to flout the law so many times? How had the justice system, for more than a decade and a half, allowed this man persistently to slip through the net and to treat the police, the courts and the laws of this land with contempt? Perhaps there will never be an answer, but that we have even to ask these questions highlights the need for the law to be changed.
Lovell pleaded guilty at the trial, and received the maximum possible sentence for causing death by dangerous driving of 14 years—in fact, he was the first person to be given this sentence since its introduction in 2004—but as a result of his guilty plea, it was reduced by a third to 10 years and six months. Both sentences were then ordered by the judge to run concurrently. The result is that, pending good behaviour, Lovell could be out of prison after six years. Ross’s father, Edwin, summed up the mood at the end of the trial, when he said:
“he’s going to serve three years for each of our children’s lives.”
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. It seems bizarre. In 2004, the previous Government legislated, absolutely correctly, to increase the penalty for dangerous driving. A car is a lethal weapon, but the consequences, if someone causes death while driving, are not on a level playing field with deaths caused in other circumstances, and that is what we are fighting for in this debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the poignant, powerful speech that he is making. Does he agree that the charging guidelines may need to be reconsidered? I do not understand why, in many cases, the charge is not one of manslaughter rather than causing death by dangerous driving, given that the imposition of a life sentence is an option for any court that convicts an offender of manslaughter.
I am extremely glad that my hon. Friend has placed that on the record. A manslaughter charge could and should be considered as a way of toughening the law on dangerous driving and increasing sentences. I intend to look into the issue of disqualification. I am not a lawyer, but I think that when judges or barristers have to decide whether intent or lack of intent can be proved, manslaughter or murder should be considered. When it comes to cases in which there was a lack of intent but it is known that someone was driving dangerously in the first place, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) made an excellent point. The advantage of a manslaughter charge is that it is not necessary to prove a specific intent; what happened may have been the result of a reckless act. As my hon. Friend rightly said, sentencing powers are at large. Is not the issue the way in which we charge offenders? Are we not in danger of limiting the options of the courts by opting for charges such as causing death, which, although convenient and appropriate, may not fully reflect the gravity of the acts committed?
I defer to my hon. Friend’s knowledge, given that he is a lawyer who, I am sure, has encountered plenty of cases of dangerous driving, and death by dangerous driving, in his time. All I know is that we and the Sentencing Council need to give the courts more tools to deal with these cases. The judge who presided over Lovell’s trial said that he wished that he could have imposed a tougher sentence. As it was, he could impose a sentence of no more than 10 years and six months, but if the necessary power had been vested in him by Parliament, he would have imposed that tougher sentence. It is our responsibility as legislators to make our voice heard to the Minister and the Sentencing Council in order to bring about a change in the law.
I am sure that, if we put ourselves in the shoes of the families involved, each one of us would be not only heartbroken by the loss of a relative, but aggrieved by the nature of the sentences handed down by the courts. The fact that the judge in the Lovell case wanted to impose a heavier sentence but was unable to do so simply rubs salt in the wounds.
A full year has passed since the deaths of Ross and Clare Simons, but the devastation remains. As Kelly Woodruff, Ross’s sister, explained:
“What the perpetrators don’t realise is the devastation they cause—people’s lives, like ours, are scarred forever. We will never live the way we should be living, all because of that man, my future has been stolen.”
During this period of unspeakable grief, however, Kelly has also commented:
“Over this year we’ve realised we are not alone. So many people have contacted us who have gone through the same thing all over the country.
The sentences some people have received for dangerous driving are awful—12 months for killing someone.”
Indeed, recent figures relating to convictions for death by dangerous driving offences speak for themselves. In 2011, 153 of the 408 people convicted of causing death or bodily harm while driving dangerously, or under the influence of drink or drugs, avoided jail altogether. Five were given fines, and 63 were given suspended prison sentences.
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Ross and Clare Simons and sending condolences to their family. It appears that the perpetrator of that offence did not care at all that he was causing a risk to others through his actions. If we are to deter such people in future, should it not be possible to impose longer custodial sentences before people reach the point of killing someone? That would be the real deterrent, given that simply caring about other people does not cross their radar.
My hon. Friend is right. Lovell showed no remorse at his trial, just as he had showed no remorse following the offences that had led to his previous 69 convictions and his being banned for life from driving.
A deterrent is a limited option. It may be unlikely that people who think in that way will ever be deterred from getting into a car, driving at speed, and then killing someone. What we need is the opportunity to give the police and the courts the power to ensure that such people are off the road in the first place, and cannot commit crimes. The tragedy for Ross and Clare Simons was that Nicholas Lovell should never have been in that car to start with. He was not allowed to be in a car, but that did not prevent him from getting into one. Rather than being on the road, he should have been in jail serving time for the previous crimes that he had committed so relentlessly. We need to deal with that problem if we are to prevent further tragedies.
Of the 255 people who went to prison in 2011, 21 were given less than six months in jail, 104 were jailed for under two years, and just 37—one in seven of all those who were convicted of death by dangerous driving—were given prison sentences of more than five years. It is clear that the severity of the sentencing for those who cause death by dangerous driving is a national issue that needs to be addressed.
It is not just a question of sentencing; there is also the issue of what happens when someone who has caused serious injury, or death, to another person, continues to drive until his case is heard. If a car is indeed a lethal weapon, as others have suggested, why do courts not exercise their discretion to set bail conditions that make it impossible for people to drive when a test has established that their blood contained alcohol or drugs? That issue has been raised by other Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), who, like me, has a constituency interest. Jamie Still, the 16-year-old son of one of my constituents, was tragically killed on new year’s eve. The perpetrator drove for months until, finally, there was a conviction. Is that not wrong as well?
I cannot imagine how distressing it must be for the families of those who have been killed by dangerous drivers to know—while awaiting what is bound to be a highly stressful and emotional trial—that someone who, although he has not yet been convicted, has committed a crime which—and the consequences of which—has been clearly witnessed, is behind a wheel yet again. Those families must be distraught. I urge the Minister and the Government to consider the point raised by my right hon. Friend, which may, indeed, be within the remit of the Sentencing Council.
The tragedy of Ross and Clare Simons has been repeated across the country. Sentences are being handed down that do not fit the crime. I believe that the sentencing guidelines for dangerous driving, and, indeed, the law, need to be changed to reflect the added culpability of a driver who has already been disqualified and should never have been in a car in the first place, and who then causes death by dangerous driving. As I said earlier, in Canada the penalty for causing death by dangerous driving is a prison sentence of 10 years, and someone who was already disqualified from driving at the time is given a life sentence. At the very least, the fact of killing someone while driving dangerously and while disqualified should constitute an additional aggravating factor, and should result in a longer sentence.
Over the past year, the families of Ross and Clare Simons have been determined to call for exactly that. Their campaign, Justice 4 Ross and Clare, has issued a petition calling on the Government
“to review and change sentencing guidelines for dangerous driving so that drivers who have previous convictions for dangerous driving, including driving under the influence of drink and drugs, or have been disqualified from driving, and continue to commit dangerous driving offences, causing death or injury as a result, be given far longer and tougher sentences than currently exist.”
The petition has attracted more than 13,000 signatures so far, and is still going strong.
On 9 October 2013, I raised the campaign, and the need to strengthen the law applying to offences of death by dangerous driving, with the Prime Minister in the House. The Prime Minister replied:
“This is the most appalling crime: someone with 10 previous convictions, as my hon. Friend says, and who was disqualified at the time driving dangerously and killing two people, snuffing out their lives. The sentence was 10 years. As I understand it, the maximum sentence available for a crime like this is 14 years. The Government have introduced a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving, so we are looking at this whole area. I can also tell him that the Justice Secretary has asked the Sentencing Council to review the sentencing guidelines for serious driving offences, and we should look at this specific case in the light of that.”—[Official Report, 9 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 156.]
In the light of the Prime Minister’s comments, I want to take this opportunity to ask the Minister to ensure that the Sentencing Council is made fully aware of the specifics of the case that I have raised, with a view to considering increasing the sentences for persistent offenders who cause death or injury by dangerous driving. Will the Minister also update the House on when the review will finally produce its report?
Will the Minister also look closely at introducing a change in the law to create a new offence of death or injury being caused by dangerous disqualified drivers, with a far tougher penalty than those that are currently imposed under the dangerous driving laws? Such a change would, I hope, act as a deterrent, even though deterrents are not always enough. I hope that it would also ensure that the likes of Nicholas Lovell could be kept behind bars for as long as possible. I know it is the hope of the family of Ross and Clare that, if anything is to come out of their tragic deaths, it should be a positive step that will ensure that we avoid similar tragedies in the future.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing this important debate. I want to use this opportunity to ask the Minister to look into what many people feel are the derisory sentences received by those who kill or injure cyclists. I have raised examples of such cases with Ministers before, and we will have to continue to do so until the police investigate them properly and the Crown Prosecution Service prosecutes them properly.
For example, British Cycling employee Rob Jefferies was killed when hit from behind on an open, straight road in daylight by someone who had already been caught speeding. Unbelievably, the driver got just an 18-month ban. He had to resit his driving test, do 200 hours’ community service and pay a small fine. That was in line with the guidelines, so there was no hope of an appeal. Rob’s brother, Will Jefferies, said that
“the present state of the law meant that Rob’s killer could never receive a sentence proportionate to the crime.”
The lorry driver who killed another cyclist, Eilidh Jake Cairns, admitted in court that his eyesight was not good enough for him to have been driving, but he was fined just £200. He was free to drive again immediately, and 18 months later knocked down and killed Nora Guttmann, an elderly pensioner. His eyesight was still poor and he was not wearing his prescribed glasses. Surely that is dangerous driving.
I am spurred to intervene on the hon. Gentleman because one of the things that upsets me about these sentences is that when those people have served their time, they presumably consider themselves to have been released from their responsibility for having taken a life. The law should reflect the fact that taking a life is a heinous crime, and it should carry a heavier sentence.
The hon. Gentleman is completely right, and I am sure that that sentiment will be echoed by many Members on both sides of the House tonight.
If the driver who killed Eilidh had been convicted of causing death by dangerous driving, he would have been issued a driving ban and would not have been on the road and able to kill Nora Guttmann just a few months later. In that case, the justice system failed both those women. When police officer Cath Ward was knocked off her bike and killed, the driver was convicted of careless driving and received a short driving ban. Cath’s friend Ruth Eyles wrote to me to say:
“What shocks me is that the driver who killed Rob Jefferies will be able to drive again in 18 months. If that young man had had a legal firearm and had accidentally shot and killed someone through carelessness, would he be given a new licence 18 months later?”
Many people who are convicted of a driving offence and sent to prison often receive a driving ban that runs concurrently with their prison sentence. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the ban should not begin until they are released, rather than taking effect when they are in prison and cannot drive anyway?
In some cases, there must surely be a good argument for never allowing the person to drive again. Firearms have been mentioned; if someone misused a firearm resulting in death or injury, the chances of their getting a licence to use one again would be nil. Why is that not the case in relation to driving?
There is no doubt that some people drive in an extremely reckless and dangerous way, without any regard for other road users, and of course they should never be allowed behind the wheel of a car again. Cars are dangerous things, and people must be incredibly careful to obey the law when they are behind the wheel.
I was on the scene of—and the closest witness to—an incident in which a dangerous driver, overtaking when it was not safe to do so, swung aggressively into the path of two cyclists, putting both of them in hospital. He also failed to stop. That driver was simply sent on a course. The police completely failed to investigate the incident properly, and the CPS completely failed to take it seriously. I have known that same police force to investigate other cases in a very poor way. I was careful, when putting together my statement, to demonstrate clearly that that man’s driving met the criteria for a charge of dangerous driving, but no prosecution was brought. The guy was simply sent on a course. In fact, I believe that it was an anger management course, so it was clearly accepted that he had been driving dangerously because he was angry. He was not prosecuted, however. That was absolutely unbelievable.
All too often, incidents in which people are seriously injured are downgraded from dangerous driving to careless driving because that makes it easier to secure a conviction. However, a conviction for careless driving usually results in the driver just having to attend a course. We need a comprehensive review of how the police investigate such incidents and of how the justice system operates when people are hurt or killed on the roads. Enforcement of traffic laws should be reviewed to improve road safety. That would benefit all road users, but particularly cyclists and pedestrians. Road traffic police numbers have decreased dramatically over the past 10 years, and we should look at reversing that trend to improve enforcement and investigation. Prosecution guidance needs updating to ensure that bad driving that causes obviously foreseeable danger should be classed as a dangerous driving offence. Long driving bans should be more widely used to penalise drivers who have caused serious danger, but not recklessly or intentionally. Where drivers have caused serious danger recklessly or intentionally, or have a history of breaching bans, long prison sentences are more appropriate.
Underpinning all that, there needs to be better information on how the criminal justice system deals with collisions. Currently, the complete lack of information makes it difficult to prevent future accidents from happening. Ministers should look at linking the information taken by the police at the scene of a collision with the information from the criminal justice system. That would make it easier to analyse the response of the justice system to road collisions. It would also help to identify areas that need improvement.
British Cycling, of which I am a member, has been doing extensive work on this issue, and I would urge the Minister and his colleagues in the Home Office to look at its recommendations when they are published on Monday 10 February. I would like to invite the Minister to attend the event, here in the House, at which those recommendations will be launched. I will write to him with the details. Will he also agree to convene a meeting between himself, British Cycling and Ministers from the Home Office and the Department for Transport, to discuss British Cycling’s proposals in detail?
Madam Deputy Speaker, you have given me permission to refer to your own tragic loss last October when your own mother-in-law was killed in a car crash in Aberdeenshire. All of us who know you understand the sense of grief that you experienced at the loss of Margaret. It is hard to come to terms with the fact that such a gentle elderly lady, who had given her life to caring for people, could be killed in such a brutal and savage way. It must be painful and poignant for you to be in charge of our discussions this afternoon.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for securing this debate and for the way in which he introduced it. All of us speaking in the House today will have particular constituency cases that have caused profound pain. As Members of Parliament, and not as members of the families involved, we have felt a great sense of anger and distress at the way in which things have sometimes been handled.
On the afternoon of 30 November 2011, William Avery-Wright, a 13-year-old schoolboy at Worth Abbey school in Sussex, but who lived at Crowborough in my constituency, was killed when he was crossing the road between the school and its rugby pitches. William was recognised by all as a gifted and promising student. He was a talented young golfer, ranked fourth in the Sussex junior league, with the whole of his life ahead of him. The road was not in a dangerous condition; the driver was driving relatively fast but well within the 60 mph speed limit. That limit has since been reduced to 40 mph, which demonstrates the fact that this stretch of road was recognised to be dangerous.
My comments relate less to the law on drivers with regard to dangerous driving than to the law on others, such as schools, and their responsibility to keep children safe on dangerous roads. In this case, there were failings by the Health and Safety Executive, the Crown Prosecution Service and the school itself, which should have been prosecuted. The way in which the school handled the incident was horrific and compounded the parents’ distress.
At 5pm, as Mr Avery-Wright was on his way to East Surrey hospital, where William had been taken, the headmaster of Worth Abbey, Mr Gino Carminati, sent an e-mail to the parents of all school pupils, with the specific exception of Mr and Mrs Avery-Wright, to say that William had been killed. As a consequence, Mr Avery-Wright was receiving messages of condolence on his mobile, before he had even reached the hospital to identify his son. Although the school has offered its sympathies and condolences on a number of occasions it has never issued Mr and Mrs Avery-Wright with an apology, in writing or in person, for William’s death or for its failings. However, the parents did receive an apology letter from the headmaster for his conduct after William’s death.
The school wanted to act as if the accident had not happened. At times, it seemed more concerned about its own reputation than the loss and grief of William’s parents. Mr and Mrs Avery-Wright understandably wanted to leave flowers at the place of the accident, and the guidance from West Sussex county council is absolutely clear that temporary floral tributes can remain in place for 12 weeks after an accident. On 5 January 2012, just over a month after the accident, the headmaster asked for the flowers to be moved, as he did not want them there at the start of the new school term.
Above all, it is clear that the school breached its own health and safety policy. The coroners’ inquest, which took place on 8 and 9 July 2013, said:
“A School Rule that pupils in his year group [year 8] should not cross the road without adult supervision was not enforced or adhered to.”
The school had long known about the risks. The school bursar, Father Aidan Murray, and the headmaster, Mr Carminati, co-authored a letter to West Sussex county council in December 2007—four years before the accident —acknowledging the inherent risks to school pupils crossing the Paddockhurst road. In the letter, they said:
“The speed and volume of traffic on this section of the road is of great concern to myself and to the Headmaster, who has responsibility for the safety of the 430 pupils of Worth School.”
They talked about the measures outside Ardingly college. They said:
“We feel that similar speed restrictions or a traffic calming scheme on the Paddockhurst Road outside the School and Abbey are needed before a fatality occurs.”
The school was sufficiently concerned about the prospect of injury or death to pupils crossing Paddockhurst road that it was recorded in their risk register ranked as “high”. As a result, the school committed to take action to mitigate the risk, by escorting years 7 and 8 pupils across the road. However, as Mr Avery-Wright says in one of his letters:
“The written evidence from pupils interviewed by the police confirms that this ‘Action’ was not enforced or adhered to prior to William’s death.”
Clearly, a bridge across the road, such as the one that has now been constructed, would have been the best solution, but we know from the inquest that, in spite of these long-standing concerns, Worth school made no planning application for a bridge to be constructed in any of the 12 years preceding William’s death.
Furthermore, the school's risk assessment identifies the hazard as “A2”, which means that urgent, early attention is required to remove risk—not just to mitigate it. We need to understand what A2 means. “A” is the level of severity. It means a risk of death, major injury, damage or loss of property or equipment, and “2” refers to the likelihood of incidents occurring. The “2” means frequent or often likely to occur.
In January 2013, the police submitted their findings to the Crown Prosecution Service for consideration. Subsequently the police were informed by the CPS that
“there are insufficient grounds to proceed with a gross negligence manslaughter prosecution against any individual at the school.”
Mr Avery-Wright received a document from West Sussex police, which attempts to answer a number of questions raised by him and his wife. He said that the CPS guidance to the police was
“that these failures do not constitute a breach of Health and Safety, for a gross negligence charge of Corporate Manslaughter to proceed.”
In April 2013, Nick May, detective superintendent at the Surrey and Sussex major crime team confirmed to the parents that the Health and Safety Executive would not be taking any action in respect of William’s death. For further inquiries Mr May advised Mr Avery-Wright to contact the Health and Safety Executive director, David Rothery. Mr Rothery, responded in December 2013, repeating that the HSE could not take this matter further and quoted the relevant legislation, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, to support his statement. He said:
“Summarising the factors involved in the evidential test [no prosecution can go ahead unless the prosecutor finds there is sufficient evidence to provide realistic prospect of conviction] the fact that the school recognised the risk and tried to take action by contacting outside authorities, by setting up a system and letting staff and pupils, irrespective of whether that system could indeed be observed in every situation, makes it unlikely that the evidential test would be passed.”
It seems that a school can highlight a serious risk in its risk register, propose actions to mitigate those risks, but then not implement them, and when that results in the death of a child, as far as the HSE is concerned, that does not warrant prosecution.
Mr Avery-Wright replied to Mr Rothery’s letter and raised the following questions. He said:
“How can the Risk Assessment be argued as being impractical, and that the school had done all that was reasonably practicable, the legal requirement, by alerting staff, pupils and other authorities?”
He said that the school risk assessment is unambiguous in what supervision the school will provide for the road crossing. It does not use words such as “we will endeavour to” or “in so far as reasonably practical”' to lessen its impact.
Furthermore, Mr Avery-Wright has provided the HSE with photographs taken in October 2013, demonstrating the quality of adult supervision provided on behalf of pupils using the school crossing today. That raises the question: if structured adult supervision for the road crossing of this quality could be provided after William’s death, why could it not have been delivered before his death in compliance with the school’s own risk assessment for the road crossing? Mr and Mrs Avery-Wright maintain that the school was in breach of its statutory duty of care to William, and I agree with that. The lawyers representing the public liability insurer, the RSA, have conceded legal liability for his death, but the school has still not apologised for its negligence.
Mr and Mrs Avery-Wright have been let down by the Health and Safety Executive and the CPS, which decided not to prosecute the school for the catastrophic breach of its own health and safety rules, even though it had already identified the risk and the potential for fatalities. The coroner could not have been more clear about those failings, but the HSE decided that that was not sufficient. I disagree with its findings. They were let down by West Sussex county council, which received letters saying that the road was dangerous. However, it was only after William’s death that the speed limit was reduced from 60 to 40.
Most of all, Mr and Mrs Avery-Wright have been let down in the most shocking and appalling way by the school following the loss of their only child. The headmaster who presided over a failure to enforce the school’s health and safety rules that resulted in the death of a promising student remains in post two years later. Throughout, he has been supported by the chair of governors, Mrs Alda Andreotti. A school has a duty of care to its students. In this case, Worth Abbey has failed in that duty in the most devastating and tragic way.
It is more than 20 years since I was first elected this House, and I do not think that I have ever called publicly for anyone’s resignation. I do not understand, however, how two human beings, the head teacher and the chair of governors, whose primary duty should be the well-being of the children in their care, could possibly countenance staying in post when they have failed so evidently and dismally in their responsibilities with such tragic consequences. If they had any decency, they would both have resigned as a matter of principle, and it is still not too late for them to take that action to show their genuine contrition to William’s parents.
It is a great privilege to take part in this important debate. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for the thoughtful, comprehensive and moving way in which he opened the debate, which was a great credit to him and to the whole House.
On 8 January, I stood in this Chamber to present a ten-minute rule Bill on driving penalties, with all-party support. I presented that Bill on behalf of the community of Overton and the family of Robert James Gaunt, who was tragically killed in the village in October 2009. Robert Gaunt was a nine-year-old boy who was mowed down by a driver while crossing the road. The driver who hit Robert was unlicensed, uninsured and horribly irresponsible. Young Robert was killed. I want to highlight the case again because it shows clearly how the laws on driving offences are not in proportion to the crime. The driver hit Robert, killed him and drove away. He did not stop, he did not report the incident. Indeed, he returned home and re-sprayed his car. He took a life, he ran away and he tried to hide the evidence. In this case, the driver incurred a pitiful sentence of 22 months, with a four-year driving ban. He served only 10 months in jail.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) said, there are clear discrepancies with what would have happened had the car been a firearm. If the case had involved a gun, a knife or a baseball bat and a life was taken, it is highly likely that the sentence would have been vastly longer. In cases when death is caused by a weapon rather than a vehicle, sentences are much longer even when the act is not premeditated.
I recognise that a car is not a gun or a knife and I am not trying to claim that driving a car and carrying a firearm are the same thing. All I am saying is that although the use of a car is a necessity in our modern lives, especially in rural areas, that makes it all the more important that we review the situation. A car in the hands of someone irresponsible or dangerous can cause the same devastation as a firearm. A driver behind the wheel who is dangerous can cause as much damage as a pedestrian with a baseball bat, if not more. Ten months in jail for ending the life of a young boy is not right. It is not right when the deliberately dangerous actions of an individual are not treated seriously enough by the justice system.
My ten-minute rule Bill called on the Government to consider the maximum penalties for driving offences that lead to death or serious injury. Those who cause death by driving currently face a number of charges and a large range of sentences from mere months to 14 years. No driver has been given a 14-year term since Parliament first lengthened the maximum penalty from 10 years in 2004, and the law is clearly letting families down.
Such tragic cases have taken place all over the country. They do not stop at borders and they are not a rural, suburban or urban problem. This is a truly national problem with tragic consequences in all places. For instance, let us consider a similar incident suffered in the constituency that neighbours mine, Wrexham. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) has kindly allowed me to bring it to the attention of the House on his behalf and I know that he is working diligently for the family.
A young woman lost her life after a driver decided to overtake another car at the end of a 70 mph dual carriageway. The driver in question braked hard when the road suddenly became a single carriageway, lost control of his vehicle and crashed head-on into a Ford that was being responsibly driven at 40 mph, considering the wet conditions that day. The driver of the Ford, Ms Christina Barchetti, suffered terrible injuries as her car was pushed through a wall into woodland. Ms Barchetti lost her life at the local hospital following the incident. She also lost the life of the unborn child that she was carrying at the time.
Such tragic cases happen around the country and I pay tribute to the campaigning organisation Brake, which has done so much to bring the issue to the attention of parliamentarians and Government. These cases speak for themselves, showing the devastation experienced by families when the rules of our roads are not taken seriously enough.
I support the hon. Lady’s speech, which strikes a chord with me. I have a constituent who lost her niece because someone who was medically unfit to drive, and knew that they were, continued to do so. I am concerned that there are occasions when people who do not consider themselves criminal or dangerous drivers, who have a previously good record and who have been warned that they are unfit continue to drive because they feel all right and cause death and serious injury. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need to review the sentences for those individuals, too, so the message is sent to them that it is a serious matter if one drives after being told that one is unfit to do so?
That is absolutely right. One purpose of today's debate is to ensure that any review of the guidelines is comprehensive and I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point.
Today, we are talking about the devastating results when drivers are dangerous, negligent or careless. When I presented my ten-minute rule Bill on the laws on driving, I was fully aware that no justice or consolation can be given to those families who have lost a loved one. The heartbreak experienced at the loss of a loved one cannot be cured by any debate in this House, but we can ensure that the laws in such cases reflect the crimes that we talk about.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work that she has done on this matter. As regards ensuring that the sentence is commensurate to the injury caused, does she support what I have proposed in my private Member’s Bill on driving while disqualified? At the moment, causing death by driving while disqualified has a two-year maximum sentence, whereas causing death by dangerous driving has a 14-year maximum sentence. Does she agree that the sentence for causing death by driving while disqualified should increase significantly to reflect that for causing death by dangerous driving?
I certainly do, and I hope that the Sentencing Council is listening to the debate.
I urged the Government to review the sentencing guidelines for maximum penalties for driving offences that lead to death or serious injury. Today, Members are urging the Government to consider the laws on dangerous driving. It is clear that the law is not doing what it should be doing as regards driving offences. The rules and guidelines set out by the law mean that drivers who end the lives of innocent people on our roads sometimes have their sentences reduced to mere months.
The guidelines are terribly subjective and open to interpretation, and they hold back judges from making the decisions that, in all justice, need to be made. The average sentence served by drivers who kill or seriously injure another human being—a mother, father or child—while driving is 11 months. For the family of Robert Gaunt in Overton, of Christina Barchetti in Wrexham, or of any of the other people mentioned today, that is clearly not justice.
If we change the law and the sentencing guidelines are reformed properly, my hope is that it will not only bring some comfort to those who have lost treasured family members, but cause people who are uninsured, unlicensed or just frankly irresponsible to pause before they get behind a wheel.
I am really concerned about people being killed by dangerous driving. I very much support the idea that whatever the custodial sentence handed down to those drivers, if they have robbed someone of their life, through dangerous driving or stupidity, they should never in their life be given a driving licence.
I think the hon. Gentleman speaks for many who believe that there should be a thorough review in this area. When the Minister sums up, I would like clarity on the nature of any review that the Government will undertake. I would also like to know about the timing, because that is important. If there is a need for legislation, I hope that the Government will bring it forward, because, to put it as politely as I can, we do not have the fullest of legislative timetables, and I am sure that there would be co-operation.
Bearing in mind what the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) said, we have to be careful not to limit the powers of the courts, and careful to look at maximum penalties, including, as the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said, bail conditions. It is striking that in the Chamber today, there are Members who would probably agree on very little else, politically. Outside the Chamber, too, cross-party, we know that something has to be done on this issue. There is a tremendous amount of evidence on that. The law is not doing enough to hold accountable those who take lives in this way, or to find justice for those let down by the system.
On behalf of families such as the Gaunts and the Barchettis, and countless others across the country, it is vital that we urge the Government to make this logical development to our system, and to consider what sentence is given for what crime. I know that none of this will bring back anybody whose life has been tragically lost in this way, but it is vital that we in Parliament, and the Government, do something to ensure that some measure of justice is done.
In this Chamber, we often say that it is a pleasure to take part in a debate, but it gives me no pleasure to have to recount the awful experiences of my constituents, just as other hon. and right hon. Members have had to recount the awful experiences of theirs.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), whose work has been a comfort, not only to me in my desire for change but, more importantly, to the families whom I have done my best to represent, as their MP, just as he has done his best to represent the family of Ross and Clare Simons. I met Ross and Clare’s family members when they visited Parliament, and as the hon. Gentleman knows, I have also had Jamie Still’s family come to visit Parliament and No. 10. I have also had to deal with the family of David and Dorothy Metcalf. Going through what we have to go through—listening, experiencing, and sitting through the awful accounts of what the victims and their families have been through—is hard enough; imagining what the families have gone through is just about impossible.
Already in this debate—more right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak, and I am pleased that they are here to do so—we have heard of too many incidents of the kind of criminal driving that destroys lives. There is simply a lack of adequate justice for victims and their families. I am pleased to have spoken to the hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay) on the issue. I am aware that a number of hon. and right hon. Members are very much involved on this issue. They include my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who has a very recent case in her constituency, and the hon. Members for Gloucester (Richard Graham), for Dudley North (Ian Austin), for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), and for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney); there are also others whose cases I am not aware of. We must all get together and ensure change, because when we do get together, I am sure that we will get change.
My constituent, whose son was killed in a driving incident nearly a year ago, contacted me very early on with her concerns about lenient sentences. Today, the driver of the car was given a 12-month sentence. I have yet to learn all the details, but on the mother’s behalf, I would like to join my hon. Friend and others here in asking the Minister to look really carefully at sentences for driving offences.
I thank my hon. Friend. That is another example of a sentence, given only today, that surely cannot reflect the reality of killing someone through criminal driving. I use the phrase “criminal driving” very deliberately. This debate is entitled “Dangerous Driving”, but we are all aware that what we are actually talking about are various forms of criminal driving—any form of it that has resulted in someone losing their life. One of the weaknesses in the system is the confusion in both the sentencing framework and the sentencing guidelines as to whether particular forms of criminal driving should be regarded as particularly serious. I will come back to that important point.
I wish to relay to the House briefly the awful case of Jamie Still, who was just 16 years old, with everything to live for. He was a schoolboy in Otley, a market town in my constituency. He was out with friends on new year’s eve in 2010. At around 9 o’clock, when crossing a road in the middle of town, he was hit by a car that was travelling at 50 mph in a 30-mph shopping zone. He was flung through the air. He died later, as a result of the injuries that he sustained, in his mother’s arms; his mother managed to get to see him, but his sister did not. As people were celebrating new year’s eve and seeing in the new year, that family lost a beloved son and brother, and the community lost a young man with an awful lot to give.
Part of the awful injustice is that despite the seriousness of the crime—a crime is clearly what it is—the perpetrator was allowed to continue driving, right up to when he was sentenced. He lived only a few miles away, and was seen driving in Otley—the very place where he ended this young man’s life. It is hard to imagine the distress that that must have caused Jamie’s mother, Karen, and his sister, Rebecca. The man responsible was found to have been twice over the drink-drive limit. Eight months later, he was sentenced to four years, but the sentence was reduced to 12 months after he wrote to the judge—not the family—to say how sorry he was. That followed a two-year reduction in his possible sentence after he pleaded guilty, even though, at previous court hearings, he had not done so.
The hon. Gentleman said that the offender was twice over the limit when the incident occurred. Does he agree that the laws on drink-driving and sentencing are completely inadequate? For example, the maximum first sentence for drink-driving is six months. Whether it is someone’s second, third, fourth, eighth, 10th or 15th offence, the maximum they can get is six months. That is completely unacceptable. I introduced a Bill in the House saying that repeat offenders should get stiffer sentences. Does he agree that that deserves serious consideration?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. He is quite right. He has exposed to the House yet another area where the law simply does not make sense—it is not common sense.
I have also had to deal with the awful deaths of David and Dorothy Metcalf, who were killed a year after Jamie Still, on new year’s day 2012, on the Stanningley bypass in Leeds. They were an honest, hard-working couple, who had just begun to enjoy retirement. They were hit by a driver—rear-ended—who was speeding at 100 mph. The impact of the crash caused the Metcalfs’ car to be thrown 10 feet in the air before it flipped over. Mr Metcalf died instantly, and Mrs Metcalf some time later in hospital. The driver, Mr Eduard Mereohra, was a Moldovan national in the UK illegally. He had been drinking all night at a party, and even the next morning he had twice the permitted level of alcohol in his system. He had previously been deported for entering the UK illegally, but somehow he had entered the country illegally for a second time. He fled the scene, only to be caught by a heroic bystander, guided by another heroic individual who told the police where the man was fleeing, having witnessed the incident from their house.
When he was caught, Mr Mereohra first tried to deny being the driver. Later he tried to blame David Metcalf for the accident. As if that was not bad enough, to make it even more galling, he had been caught speeding a few weeks beforehand, yet nothing had been flagged up to say that he was here illegally. There was no evidence at all to suggest that he had a valid driving licence, and it could not even be established that he had a national insurance number. I still have not received an answer to that question.
The whole House will be shocked by the two cases that the hon. Gentleman has brought to our attention. In respect of the second case concerning a foreign national who has committed a crime in our country, were his convictions in Moldova, or wherever he resided, brought to the attention of the court before his sentence, or was there a problem obtaining that information?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who chairs the Select Committee on Home Affairs, for that intervention. The speeding offence occurred in the UK. Clearly there was a catalogue of failures, which warranted a full investigation, which I asked for and got somewhere with. The most galling thing is that, because Eduard Mereohra is a foreign national in the UK illegally, he is likely to serve only half of his nine-year sentence—frankly, his offence should automatically have triggered a 14-year sentence, given the catalogue of offences—before, quite rightly, he is deported. The trouble is that we can impose no parole conditions on him in a foreign country, so it is likely that he will serve considerably less time than if he were a UK national. That is another blow for the family.
Those are two cases with which I have dealt, both of which shattered the new year for two families in my constituency. We need change because of their experience and the experiences described by right hon. and hon. Members. The first thing that needs to change is at the core of the Jamie Still campaign, which was set up by Rebecca Still, the amazing sister of Jamie Still. As part of her grieving for her big brother, she decided to launch a petition—without even speaking to her mother. I was delighted to take that petition, along with the family, to Downing street last year. At that stage, it had amassed 13,000 signatures.
The first aim of the Jamie Still campaign is to impose—and this is supported by the excellent charity, Brake—a bail condition in cases in which someone is charged with death by dangerous or careless driving that automatically suspends their driving licence. That is important. Brake says:
“Brake believes drivers who kill and maim should be taken off the road once they are charged, as a condition of bail. Prosecutions often take many months to come to court, and in many cases the driver charged with causing the crash is able to continue driving, potentially putting other innocent road users in danger, and often in the same community where they caused carnage. This can be incredibly offensive and upsetting to bereaved families and people injured by the driver, but it also means that other people are being put at risk.
If you are a teacher being investigated for misconduct, you are immediately suspended from teaching in school to protect pupils. If you are a doctor suspected of malpractice, you are immediately suspended from practising medicine to ensure no patients are harmed. Yet if you are charged with killing someone because of your bad driving, you are allowed to keep driving until you are sentenced in court”.
I made that point earlier. Not only do I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman that someone should be suspended immediately, but I feel strongly that someone who has killed someone else, whether wilfully or perhaps as a result of drink-driving, should have the stigma of not being allowed to drive legally in our country ever again in their lifetime, as they have taken another life. I think that that is fair.
I thank my hon. Friend, who has raised something, certainly in serious cases, that should be part of the review, to give the sense that those people can never get behind the wheel of a car, which they have turned into a lethal weapon.
The second thing that needs to change—it has already been covered, and I want to add my support—is the failure of sentencing to give real justice to the families. Let me make it clear that this is not an instance of politicians saying, “We want longer sentences per se.” We have a confused and, in some ways, conflicted system for sentencing people. We have too many different offences and a wholly inconsistent approach when it comes to the interpretation of guidelines, and there are weaknesses in those guidelines. After four years and 20 weeks of his sentence, the driver who killed Jamie Still was allowed to move to an open prison, and could drive—potentially in the area where he had committed that crime.
That brings me to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) that it is absurd for driving bans to run concurrently with prison sentences. It is such an obvious, simple and common-sense thing for driving bans to begin on the day on which people can drive again, whether on weekend day release or whether they are out. Certainly, as soon as they have an opportunity to get into a car, those terms must be considered. Far too few people have received the maximum sentence available, even where it is warranted, as in some of the cases that we have mentioned.
Another problem concerns plea bargaining and the fact that far too often the charge for dangerous driving is careless driving. I have great sympathy with Brake’s view that the solution is to get rid of the offence of causing death by careless driving and to have only the offence of dangerous driving. The judge can then sentence on the basis of appropriate guidelines, with a maximum sentence for the worst offences to lower ones for lesser offences.
We have heard of cases today from up and down the country of terrifying, wilful, aggressive, reckless criminal driving being deemed not dangerous, but careless. That is simply dishonest, untrue and wrong. That fails people such as the family of Jamie Still. Due to plea bargaining and due to the CPS deciding that it is easier to obtain a prosecution for death by careless driving, people who are clearly guilty of dangerous driving are allowed to opt for a lower sentence. That is why we need the offence of dangerous driving with adequate sentencing guidelines for all who have driven dangerously, as all the people mentioned clearly have done.
It seems to be police practice, at least in some areas, that someone who has failed a breath test, and is therefore deemed to have broken the law, is not automatically drug tested. There are instances where it is strongly believed, or even known, that someone has taken drugs as well as being over the drink-drive limit, but that is not tested for, because a prosecution will be guaranteed anyway. That is another factor that should be taken into consideration when assessing the severity of the offence, its recklessness, and therefore the sentence.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood said, it is utter nonsense that the maximum sentence for causing death by driving illegally while uninsured or disqualified is two years. That is absurd. In the case of David and Dorothy Metcalf, the driver was in this country illegally and therefore was not allowed to drive here, yet that could not be treated with the severity that it should have been. The fact that someone should not be behind the wheel of a car should be treated as a serious factor in increasing the sentence, as it is in other countries.
At the moment, the families of victims of dangerous, careless driving, who are suffering the most unimaginable loss, are not eligible for compensation under the criminal injuries compensation scheme, even though they have lost their loved one as a result of criminal activity. Why should the families of the victims of murder or manslaughter be compensated through this important scheme, while the families of those who have died as a result of a car being driven in a dangerous and reckless way as a weapon are not? That is another example in this litany of cases of how, despite improvements, our system still does not adequately give justice to the families who have lost their loved ones.
The lives of two families in my constituency have been devastated by the appalling criminal, reckless driving of others. In neither case did the perpetrators of those crimes receive the punishment that they deserved, and therefore the families did not receive justice. I am delighted that the review has happened, but the message from the House today is simple. We have a year of this Parliament to try to change the law. We all speak on behalf of our constituents, and I hope that our voices will be heard loud and clear and that we get not just a review but the kind of common-sense change that we are talking about today. We need justice for all the families who have been referred to today. We need justice for the Simons family, the Still family and the Metcalf family. The amazing campaigning efforts of Karen Strong, Jamie’s sister, Rebecca and Peter, Jamie’s grandfather, show that these people want change to stop such things happening to other families. We cannot prevent people from getting behind the wheel of a car and behaving in a reckless and criminal fashion, but we can, as a civilised country, sentence them appropriately. All hon. Members from both sides of the House who have had these experiences must get together. I look again to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench and ask that we please have some simple, common-sense change, so that in future people will at least know that they will get real justice if they are in the awful situation of losing a loved one to such appalling, reckless, criminal behaviour.
I too congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing this important debate. I want to approach the matter in a slightly different way and to talk a little more about what precedes a death caused by dangerous driving. I want to talk about how we do not take driving laws seriously in this country. We still believe that driving is a right and that, often, laws are there to be broken. Consider the attitude of many hon. Members to speed cameras. People talk about them being cash cows, not recognising them as devices to get us to obey the law or that they are often in place because of long campaigns by local residents about the dangers associated with a particular piece of road. We know that excessive speed is a contributory factor to the vast majority of serious accidents.
I want to talk specifically about the number of people legally driving on our roads at this moment in time with more than 12 points on their licence. A person in Liverpool is driving with 47 points on their licence, a woman in Bolton with 27 points on her licence, and 8,000 other people with more than 12 points. What does that say about the seriousness with which we treat driving laws? The law says that people should be banned when they have 12 points, unless they would face exceptional hardship. Exceptional hardship is not about losing one’s job, but it could be about losing one’s home or other people losing their job.
I wonder why the Squeeze singer, Chris Difford, escaped a driving ban after pleading that it would cause exceptional hardship as he would no longer be able to travel the country playing gigs. The 57-year-old, who earns up to £100,000 a year performing around the country, was caught doing 88 mph on a 70 mph road. The son of Tony Christie, famous for his song “Amarillo”, claimed exceptional hardship because he would not be able to drive his dad to gigs after he had totted up 25 points. The jockey Kieren Fallon escaped a driving ban after he claimed that it would cause exceptional hardship because the state of the racing industry was such that he could not afford a full-time driver. Premiership footballer Zak Whitbread who admitted speeding at 97 mph with 17 points escaped a ban after saying that he would not be able to find another football job if he could not drive. There are many other cases of people who have escaped bans. Not all those 8,000 people are famous, but often they are rich enough to pay a good barrister to get them off.
Drivers cannot use the same exceptional hardship plea each time they are taken to court, but there is no central record of which plea has been used. There is also no record of whether drivers are involved in later accidents. If a driver can clock up 47 points, 27 points, or even just 15 points, it seems to me that they have a disregard for the law and therefore pose a risk to other road users.
We need to tackle not only the sentencing of people convicted of causing death or serious injury by dangerous driving, but the whole issue of driving offences and our attitude to the way cars can be used as weapons. We need drivers to realise at every level of offence that bad behaviour will be punished in order to make our roads safer. Some 83% of the people who took The Bolton News survey believe that 12 points should mean that people are banned. We know that young people aged between 15 and 24 are more likely to die in road traffic accidents than as a result of any other single cause.
We also need to do a great deal more to educate people about the consequences of driving badly. I was visited in my surgery on Friday by the brother of a man who was involved in a road traffic accident 30 years ago. A 14-year-old girl was killed in the accident and the man’s brother—I will call him Peter—suffered devastating injuries. He is now unable to walk properly and cannot go out without assistance. More crucially, he has an acquired brain injury that leaves him dependent on care 24 hours a day. Yes, he got compensation to help pay for the carers, but the money is now running out. His life has been ruined by the accident, and the lives of his parents and siblings have been drastically affected. Of course, a young life was also lost in the accident. What makes it worse is the fact that he was partly to blame, because he was speeding—a Jack the lad who thought that he was invincible. Still, a life was ruined and a life was lost.
For me, this is not just about increasing penalties but about enforcing the law and educating young people about the consequences of road accidents. We need to look at graduated licences for young people. We need to ensure that action is taken rapidly on dangerous roads. I have one such road in my constituency where there have been a number of fatalities, but we have been very slow to alter the road to make it safer.
Of course we need justice for those who have lost loved ones. Yes, we need deterrents, but we know that the number of deaths is sadly increasing. We have to take road safety and driving behaviour seriously and do everything in our power across the whole spectrum, from the point at which people start offending behaviour in a car to the final catastrophic effects of a terrible accident. I urge the Minister to do everything possible to see how we could strengthen legislation to try to stop these terrible accidents happening in our communities.
I am delighted to take part in the debate, principally because I have been asked to by a constituent, Mrs Jacqui Watson, who had the terrible plight of seeing her husband, Andrew Watson, killed when his motorbike collided with a tractor that was being driven by a 16-year-old boy. I find it incredible that such huge vehicles can be driven on our roads by 16-year-olds.
It was a fine, sunny evening when Andrew, who was 50 years old and had 34 years of motorcycling experience, was driving along the A515 in Newborough, near Burton, along with his son Thomas, who is 21, and their friend Jason Hudson. They were all experienced motorcyclists. They came over the brow of the hill and collided with a tractor being driven by the 16-year-old boy, who had his 17-year-old girlfriend in the cab.
The police later found that the tractor was wider than the legal limit for a vehicle driven under a category F licence by a 16-year-old, but the Crown Prosecution Service, in its wisdom, decided that because it was only marginally bigger, because the other tractor that the boy usually drove had broken down, and because he was apparently of good character, it was unable to prosecute him for any offence.
I find it incredible that in this country we do not trust 16-year-olds to drive anything larger than a 50 cc motorbike. We do not trust them to drive a Ford Fiesta or a Mini, yet we allow them, under category F licences, to drive vehicles that can be 2.4 metres wide; to put that into context, a Ford Fiesta is less than 2 metres wide. Those tractors are huge vehicles that can go at well over 50 mph, yet we are putting them in the hands of 16-year-olds. That cannot make sense.
We heard earlier about how a vehicle can be a weapon in the wrong hands. If that is true, how can we allow 16-year-olds to drive such large vehicles? The law allows them not only to drive such a tractor, but to tow a trailer behind it, so long as it is no wider than 2.45 metres. In the wrong hands, they are death traps on the roads, yet the law allows them to be driven in that way. Of course, much of our licensing in the UK is determined by EU directives that dictate that we must have a common approach across the whole European Union in relation to licensing, but category F is specifically a national competence. It is specifically something that the UK Government can take action on.
It will not surprise the Minister to learn that the lives of Jacqui and her son Thomas were devastated by the loss of a beloved husband and father. The accident was of such severity that two air ambulances were needed at the scene, along with two traditional ambulances. No family should have to go through the plight and turmoil of being told that they have lost a husband or a father as a result of a road traffic accident. Accidents will always happen, and vehicles will always fall into the wrong hands, but it is up to the Government and to us as parliamentarians to do all we can to mitigate that and ensure that drivers on our roads are proportionately trained, that they are driving within parameters that we have agreed and that they are as safe as possible.
I do not believe that it can be argued that it is safe to allow a 16-year-old to drive a tractor that is 2.4 metres wide and can travel at 50 or 60 mph on our roads. I urge the Minister to look at those laws, ensure that he is satisfied that they are safe and help ensure that no more families have to go through what the Watsons have gone through.
My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) has made some moving points. I recall being 16 and offering to help with the harvest. I was not used to the hard work and ripped my hands to shreds within a few hours. I was completely useless at baling hay and so was given the job of driving the tractor. I had no training, as I had not even started learning to drive a car. I think that 16-year-olds, like me at the time, need that greater degree of protection.
I also remember in 2004 offering to buy someone who was campaigning for me a beer. He expressed surprise, because I had absolutely no idea that he was 16. I bought him a diet Coke and said, “Not only can I not buy you a beer, but you cannot even drive.” He replied, “No, but I can fly.” He had a private licence and flew out of Southend airport. My point is that there should perhaps be a review of consistency and risk, as well as about what should be done.
This has been a great debate. It has not been difficult for you to keep order, Madam Deputy Speaker, but it has been difficult in other ways. I know that I shy away from some debates in the House of Commons that I would find too emotional. It is very brave of you to be here today, so thank you for that.
The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) mentioned that this has been a very unpartisan debate. The very moving comments made about Burton or Bolton might have been made about anywhere by Members on both sides of the House.
I was particularly perturbed by the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), who talked not about individual but corporate actions in relation to the responsibility of schools. That made me reflect on schools in Rochford and Southend East. State schools in Southend have very good protections for passengers from errant vehicles, but that cannot be said about private schools. We should perhaps look not only at private schools, to make sure that they are treated in a similar way to public ones, but at nurseries. As the boundary between the definitions of public and private schools merges in the form of free schools, such protections may become even more important.
I want to speak in today’s debate because of a tragic incident that happened in 2009 at 9.45 at night only a few hundred yards away from where I live. With my young children, it had been a particularly difficult day and—unimaginably, once I had found out what had happened so close to my house—I slept through the entire incident, and was unable to provide any support at the time. Subsequently, I hope that I have been able to do a few things.
The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) struggled to find the right words about this being a “good” debate, but we should not shy away from using such a word. Clearly, we all have horrific examples to bring to the House, but perhaps some good can come from those examples. That is why I am speaking about what happened at 9.45 pm on Friday 6 March 2009.
A 17-year-old pupil from Southend grammar school was driving a Citroen C1. That evening, there had been a birthday in the area. He had only recently passed his driving test, and he was showing off. He was attempting a handbrake turn to impress a group of about 14 of his friends. The police now estimate that he was travelling at about 47 mph in a residential road. He simply did not have the skills to control the vehicle, and he hit all the teenagers. Teenagers who gather and go from place to place for a birthday celebration tend to chat; getting from A to B is as much a part of the birthday celebrations as the actual outing to a location. Some of the individuals were knocked through a garden fence, and others were thrown as high as 15 feet into the air. The noise was evidently enormous, despite its not rousing me from my sleep.
Thankfully, the accident happened opposite a doctors’ surgery, and several of the doctors lived in the surrounding area. The fact that they were able to get to the scene within minutes lessened the final impact on those people. Fortuitously, some of the students or individuals who could get up off the ground and help had recently been through first aid training. Again, that may very well have saved a few people.
Ten youngsters were defined by the hospital as seriously injured, of whom eight had head injuries and broken limbs, and two had significant physical injuries. Eleanor McGrath, who was 14—she is the individual to whom I particularly wish to draw attention—was fatally injured and, sadly, her life support machine was switched off after the accident. Another individual, a young man of 16, has been profoundly physically and mentally impacted. A whole generation of people from Southend have been affected.
Although no one would wish such an event on anyone, the accident has had a profound and positive impact on a generation of people in Southend. Trying to find some rhyme or reason behind the event, Eleanor’s friends decided that they wanted to do something. They launched an awareness campaign called Driving with Grace—Eleanor’s middle name was Grace—and they sent a DVD to all schools in the United Kingdom. The campaign received support from our local Essex police and the Safer Roads Foundation. Indeed, many secondary schools still use the DVD now, and Eleanor’s friends received an award for their work from the police in 2010. Road crashes are the most common form of death and serious injury for young people. The Driving with Grace campaign seeks to highlight the importance, for someone driving, of thinking about what they are doing before they act.
Under-25s make up only a tenth of the population, but a quarter of the number of drivers killed on the roads, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, so they are clearly a massive danger. Far too many people, when they pop out to drive, do not feel that they are in a powerful weapon that they risk killing with: they have no idea of such possibilities. As young men, they feel invincible. I think that I can say that; I am sure young women also feel invincible behind the wheel. In my experience of observing drivers in my part of the country, Southend, I am certainly aware that there is a particular problem with young drivers.
Eleanor’s parents have engaged in extensive research over several years. They did not leap to react immediately, but have thought deliberatively about what needs to be done and have tried to be as constructive as possible. When people suffer such tragedies, they sometimes react by expecting absolutely everything to be done, including by encroaching on people’s liberties and incurring costs, but Eleanor’s parents have been very responsible. Specifically, they believe in the graduated driving licence, which was mentioned earlier—that a compulsory P plate should be displayed for three years after someone passes their test, signalling a probation period for new drivers.
People who have just passed their driving test can feel on top of the world—invincible—and it is a little less macho to have a big “P” on the back of their 1-litre banger or on a new car. I hope that that might change attitudes. I am sure that when hon. Members see a learner, they give them a little extra space. If they cut us up by accident, stall or are a little over-cautious, we think, “Well, I was there once.” The moment people pass their driving test and the L plate is removed, however, we expect them to be equally competent as a driver who has perhaps driven for 20, 30 or 40 years and passed an advanced driving test. The probationary plates not only allow other people to exercise a little more care around such drivers, but demonstrate to their peer group that they are still young adults and are still learning.
Graduated driving licence systems are in place in several states in the US, and in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Finland, France and Northern Ireland. We do not need to make up a new system to find a proven one that works. I call on the Government to introduce, initially, a simple three-year system, but there are several other options. In different areas, features of systems include compulsory logging of the initial 120 hours of driving experience, a minimum period of driving on certain types of roads or a two-stage probationary period, which in some places is recognised by the use of P1 and P2 plates. In some places, there are peer passenger restrictions, so that only a certain number of people of a certain age are allowed in the car after dark or late at night. I urge caution in considering that option, because it would have other implications such as young people being left on the streets. There are certainly many options for the Government to consider if they do not want a simple three-year probationary period.
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), has been very good on this issue. I visited him with Eleanor’s parents at the beginning of the month and left him with a probationary plate to put on his desk as a reminder of Eleanor and of what I expect of him, which is to bring forward a solution. I am reassured to see the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), who is a very able Minister, on the Front Bench. I know that he will take these matters just as seriously. I ask him to speak to my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby, to ensure that these issues are joined up.
Being a wise Minister, I am sure that my hon. Friend will not have a knee-jerk reaction, leap to the Dispatch Box and announce 10 of the excellent ideas that we have heard today as Government policy, however tempting that may be. All too often with this type of debate, changes drip out subsequently. I ask him not to write to Members who have contributed to the debate straight afterwards, but to write to us six months to the day and say, “After calm reflection, this is what has happened over the past six months as a result of the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) and the contributions that were made by Members across the House.” That would be a worthwhile initiative and I hope that the Minister will consider taking part in it.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak at the end of this debate on the law on dangerous driving. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing the debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting such a good example of a non-party political debate on an issue that, literally in this case, affects life and death.
The debate began with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood telling us the desperately sad story of Ross and Clare Simons, which he pieced together with the precision of the professional historian that he is. He rightly left it to us to imagine, all too vividly, the emotions involved for the family and friends.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) described the death of the mother-in-law of the Deputy Speaker who was in the Chair before you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as well as that of William Avery-Wright. We have also heard from the hon. Members for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), for Dudley North (Ian Austin) and for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) and my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths). Lastly, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) told us the ghastly story of Eleanor. All those contributions will have moved everybody in the House. We must not forget all the other Members who are not here, but who have similar horror stories to tell from their constituencies.
In 2012, 377 motorists were found guilty of an offence that resulted in a fatality and 116 were found guilty of causing death through dangerous driving. That is almost 500 unnecessary deaths a year or almost three every two days. One of those deaths, which occurred almost exactly two years ago in March 2012, was that of my constituent, Paul Stock, who was affectionately known as Gloucester’s best welder. He was killed while crossing a road in Tredworth with his wife, Mandy, by a man called Graham Godwin. Mr Godwin was riding the scooter that caused the death while disqualified, uninsured and speeding, and there was a female riding pillion on the one-seat scooter. He had multiple previous driving convictions and said in court that the law did not apply to him. The judge described him as
“an absolute menace on the road”
and gave him what he explained was the maximum possible sentence—just two years in prison.
Paul’s widow, Mandy, later wrote to me saying that the law needed to be changed to reflect the devastating consequences of such a crime, whether it causes death or serious injury, when the sentences for careless or dangerous driving can be up to 14 years, as other Members have mentioned. By extraordinary coincidence, I had the opportunity to raise the matter at Prime Minister’s questions almost immediately afterwards. In responding to my question, the Prime Minister said:
“It is important that we give our courts a sense that when there are appalling, extraordinary crimes, they can take exemplary action. That is important in a justice system.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 904.]
I was fortunate that Mandy’s sister, Sue, was a constituent of the Prime Minister. They were therefore both able to meet him at one of his surgeries not long after that. I was also grateful that the Secretary of State for Justice allowed Mandy, Sue and me to see him shortly afterwards.
There is no doubt that everyone in the House agrees that the current sentencing guidelines are inadequate. The question is what should be done and when. Although one or two Members, notably the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling), have made some interesting points about wider issues relating to driving offences, I want to focus on the sentencing guidelines for cases in which people die as a direct result of behaviour that comes under the general heading of dangerous driving. In particular, I want to speak about situations in which drivers have caused death while uninsured and disqualified. I believe that we should let judges decide what sentence is merited when Mr Godwin lifts two fingers not just to Paul’s widow, Mandy, but to our whole system of justice by saying that the law of the land does not apply to him. I believe that we need consistency in seeing that justice is done and that maximum flexibility should be left to the judge to interpret how severe the sentence should be for individuals who have caused death.
I am in no doubt that all Members agree on that simple proposition. I am in no doubt that the Minister and the Secretary of State for Justice agree. I am in little doubt that they intend to bring legislation forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East suggested that Ministers should mull this matter over for the next six months. I do not believe that further consideration is needed. Ministers are well aware of the issue and of what needs to be done. Therefore, I urge them not to linger. I know that the Secretary of State had hoped to bring new legislation before Parliament this spring. I hope that the Minister will confirm today that that is what they intend to do. The time has come for all those who have been mentioned in this debate and all the constituents of Members who are not here to feel that the law is on their side and that judges will be able, where appropriate, to sentence people much more severely than they can at present.
It is a privilege to respond for the Opposition to this debate on a serious and tragic subject. Dangerous driving is a difficult issue that the law has wrestled with for a long time. It has legal, practical and, above all, human consequences, and it is about certain people’s relationship with the motor car, which we do not seem to be able to get right even after more than a century.
Today’s debate has illustrated that Members of all parties can rise to the occasion and meet the challenge. The issue brings together our role as lawmakers, our duty to our constituents and our ability to campaign for change. The nine speeches that we have heard have shown exactly how Members can bring those elements together. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for securing the debate and the Backbench Business Committee for permitting it. He began with the case of Ross and Clare Simons, which set the tone for the debate about how horrific the consequences of deaths and serious injuries caused by dangerous driving can be.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) spoke about individual cases in his constituency, as all Members did, but he also mentioned cycling, to which I will return in a moment. I know that he has championed in the House not just cycling but the issue of the particular risks faced by cyclists.
The hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) spoke bravely about his 13-year-old constituent William Avery-Wright, and without fear or favour spoke about what he described as the negligence and poor treatment that that young man and his family had received. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) talked about her constituent Robert Gaunt. Only about two weeks ago, she tabled a private Member’s Bill that would deal with many of the issues that we have discussed today.
We heard a detailed speech by the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland). He was particularly moving when he talked about the case of Jamie Still and others that, with his usual assiduousness, he has made himself the champion of. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) talked about people who have been driving when they should have been disqualified, and who should never have been behind the wheel in the first place. She also talked about how we can deal with driving standards, which I shall come to in a moment, and particularly about the graduated driving licence.
The hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) surprised some of us with his description of the tragic death of Andrew Watson at the hands of a 16-year-old driver who was driving a vehicle that he was clearly unable to cope with, whether or not he should have been permitted to have it. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) described a particularly tragic case, which showed how a single incidence of dangerous driving can traumatise not just a family or an individual but an entire community. Finally, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) described his constituent’s tragic case and then brought us back to the issue of sentencing policy, to which I will now turn.
Each case is unique and creates a lasting wound for the friends, family and community of the victim, but this is not a new issue. We have been dealing with it for decades. The North report, 25 years ago, was a full, clear and serious report that pointed out that the courts were not dealing with serious driving cases with the appropriate severity, particularly when there were aggravating factors such as the driver being under the influence of drink or drugs. In criminal practice at that time—I think the Minister is old enough to remember this, and I certainly am—the issue of consequence was often discussed. The culpability of the driver was not properly balanced with the consequences. We have moved on substantially from that. For example, we now have the offences of dangerous driving, with a maximum two-year sentence, causing serious injury by dangerous driving, with a maximum five-year sentence, and causing death by dangerous driving, with a maximum 14-year sentence. Parliament has given the courts the ability to deal appropriately with the degree of consequence as well as the degree of culpability. Both are relevant factors, but we have moved away from the era in which the primary consideration was simply the quality of the driving.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his helpful comments. On that point, may I bring to his and the House’s attention the problem of the difference between the charges of causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving? The latter is when the driving fell below the standard expected of a careful and competent driver, and the former is when it fell far below that standard. As we have heard today, there are some cases—I believe that there are many, and I have asked the Minister for a review—in which the driving has clearly fallen below that standard, yet people are charged with causing death by careless driving, not by dangerous driving.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The definitions of careless and dangerous driving are relatively new, having been introduced to try to correct defects in the reckless driving law. I will say a bit more about maximum sentences and sentencing policy, but I was coming first to the point that he has just made.
Many problems arise not necessarily from sentencing policy from Crown Prosecution Service guidelines and charging policy. CPS guidelines have moved on again, because as with every type of case, the CPS has to consider the realistic prospect of conviction as well as the public interest. In the past, it perhaps did not examine driving cases with the same assiduousness as other criminal cases. I believe that that has begun to change. The consequence was that charges were either not brought at all or brought at a lower level, because the CPS did not believe that there was a realistic prospect of success. In part, that may have been due to the influence of public opinion about standards and quality of driving, which has changed a great deal over the years, as it has in relation to driving under the influence.
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the general public’s reaction, which he has described, may have been exacerbated by the fact that in 2011, the latest year for which we have complete data, of the 20 cases of those found guilty of causing death while uninsured or disqualified, the average custodial sentence actually served was only 8.4 months?
I will come back to the issue of sentencing—the offence that the hon. Gentleman mentions carries a much lower maximum sentence than the ones that I have mentioned—but first I wish to explain my point about charging policy, which still leaves something to be desired. It is not a straightforward matter. First, there is the question of the degree to which the driving has fallen below the standard of competent driving, as the hon. Member for Leeds North West mentioned. That judgment needs to be made by the CPS.
In addition, having decided what level of offence to charge, there is the issue of seriousness regarding the quality of driving, and that of aggravating or mitigating factors, particularly if they pertain to the individual accused. Such matters are not straightforward, and again, on occasion, prosecutors err on the side of caution when deciding what to charge and what are their prospects of success. In the most serious driving cases it is open to the CPS to charge someone with manslaughter, but that happens very rarely.
Hon. Members from across the House have reviewed the nature of offences—again, in response to pressure from parliamentarians and the general public over time—and a number of changes were made by the previous Labour Government. In particular, under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving was increased from 10 to 14 years, as it was for causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs. The Road Safety Act 2006 introduced new offences of causing death by careless driving or by driving illegally. Those offences attract lower sentences—five years, I think, in the first case, and two years in the second—but they are new offences that came into effect in 2008.
Although it concerns a more recent offence, perhaps for completeness I should mention the offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving, which again attracts a maximum five-year sentence. That was introduced through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, and both the Minister and I had the pleasure of serving on the Bill Committee. That offence was contained in one of the few clauses of the Bill that attracted unanimous support in Committee, and it arose out of a private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner). That is significant not because he is also a doughty campaigner on these issues, but because many individual advancements in legislation have come about through private Member’s Bills or the actions of individual Members on behalf of their constituents, and indeed through debates such as this.
There have been substantial changes and increases in maximum sentences. That allows for new sentencing guidelines, and for longer—and indeed more careful—sentences to be given, since all the factors I have described must be taken into account by the sentencer. New offences were created where lacunae in the law were identified, which is right. The changes in law under the previous Labour Government led to the substantial revision of sentencing guidelines in 2008. I will not go through those in detail, but they substantially increased some of the guideline sentences and gave clear instructions to the courts about how aggravating or mitigating factors should be dealt with.
Although the sentence of just a few years for taking a life will always seem inadequate to the family of the victim, I suspect that what often causes most concern to families are the sentences handed out for some of the “lesser” offences such as causing death by careless driving or while driving illegally. Those sentences can be measured in months, or perhaps just one or two years, and that will never seem an adequate punishment for the taking of a life.
As I have said, steps were taken a decade ago, and more recently, and the ball is now firmly in the court of this Government. Sentencing guidelines are being looked at again, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. I know that—as always—he will give a careful and thoughtful response about when and where he believes the sentencing guidelines are going, and say what is in the Government’s mind regarding improvements in the law.
Before I conclude, I wish to pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East. Although we have focused narrowly—quite properly, as this is the subject of the debate—on the issue of dangerous driving and on lenient sentencing in particular, one cannot look at death on the road in isolation because it must be considered in the round. One must also look at prevention.
Safety on the UK’s roads has improved immeasurably over the past 40 years, and we have gone from having almost 8,000 deaths a year in the 1970s to around 1,700 a year—a phenomenal improvement. That is against a background around the world of 1.3 million deaths due to road traffic accidents—I saw those statistics today in The Economist—the vast majority in developing countries. There are now more deaths from road traffic accidents around the world than from tuberculosis or malaria. While we can congratulate ourselves a little on the improvements in this country, there is still more to do.
Numbers of driving offences and the use of the motor car as a weapon of destruction are increasing elsewhere, and there are particular problems in this country that we have not fully addressed. One is the issue of young drivers, who account for only 5%—
Order. Is the hon. Gentleman coming towards the end of his remarks, because he has been speaking for quite a long time? Normally there are 10 minutes, maximum 15, for the shadow Minister in a Backbench Business Committee debate, but he has gone over that. Perhaps he will conclude briefly.
I am most grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Yes, we have a better record and a long way to go, particularly on young drivers—I mentioned the graduated driving licence. We could do a lot more on road safety, particularly for cyclists. The Minister will have seen the horrific figure of six cyclist deaths on the roads in London in a two-week period just before Christmas.
I hope that, in responding, the Minister addresses the matter in the round—clearly, he will deal with it primarily from a Ministry of Justice perspective. I hope that he can give us some comfort on the central point that all hon. Members have raised: how can we deter and punish those who take lives on our roads, and how can we in some way mitigate the consequences for the sad and tragic victims and their families about whom we have heard in the debate?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing the debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to discuss this matter. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) has said, it is hard to take pleasure in such a debate, but it is right that we take pride in it. It has been an excellent debate. All hon. Members who have spoken have approached the matter in exactly the right spirit—they have spoken with both passion and a great deal of justified emotion.
As hon. Members have made clear, road traffic offences often have extraordinarily serious consequences—poor driving behaviour can result in injuries and fatalities. In these cases, the effect is felt not simply by the individual, but by their families. We have heard a great number of examples. We have heard about Ross and Clare Simons, Rob Jeffries, William Avery-Wright, Robert Gaunt, Jamie Still, David and Dorothy Metcalf, Andrew Watson, Eleanor McGrath and Paul Stock. Many others have been mentioned, but many have not. Some were old, some were young, and they were from up and down the country. It is important that we recognise that their sacrifices need to be discussed in the context of the criminal justice system and the system beyond it.
Hon. Members will understand that I cannot comment on the specific details of any sentencing case, because specific sentences are decided independently of the Government by the courts. In deciding what sentence to impose, the courts must take account of all the details of the offence and the offender, including both aggravating and mitigating factors, and give consideration to the culpability of the offender and the harm caused. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) has made clear, the cases are difficult, and it is not easy to draw rules and regulations from individual examples. He is right. The courts have recourse to sentencing guidelines, which have been mentioned a number of times in the debate. I will come back to them in a moment.
Road traffic offences are particularly difficult because the harm caused often outweighs the offender’s culpability. However, the law seeks to punish those who cause death or injury on our roads proportionately to the blameworthiness of the driver. A variety of different agencies and organisations must play their part in such cases. We expect them to do so properly and with sensitivity. Those agencies are both within and without the criminal justice system, including, of course, schools, in some cases. My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) spoke movingly of deaths occurring on or near school premises. Knowing him as I do, I know that he will almost certainly have raised those matters with colleagues at the Department for Education, but just in case, I will ensure that those colleagues are fully aware of the points he has made.
Similarly, there are matters of licensing to consider. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), is in the Chamber. I know he will take close account of what has been said on a variety of licensing issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) made serious points on the vehicles that people of different ages are permitted to drive, which I know will be considered further. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) made points on the need for a compulsory probationary period for drivers, which will be considered very carefully.
The Crown Prosecution Service and its involvement in bringing the right charges were mentioned. The charges considered by courts are dependent on the charges that the CPS chooses to bring. That will be based on its assessment of the quality of a defendant’s driving both preceding and at the time of impact. The CPS must give careful consideration when making charging decisions in cases involving driving that has led to a death. In deciding whether to charge death by dangerous driving or death by careless driving, it is the standard of driving to which prosecutors must have careful regard. As other hon. Members have explained, to amount to dangerous driving, the driving in question must be deemed to be far below what would have been obvious to a competent and careful driver. For careless driving, the driving needs to have fallen below the standards of a competent and prudent driver. Of course, each case should be looked at individually and decided on its own facts. Many things will play a part in those considerations.
The hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) mentioned cycling. He was right to do so; cyclists are particularly vulnerable. I will look carefully, as he urges me to do, at British Cycling’s recommendations on the matter, as will colleagues in the Department for Transport.
It is right that we consider what happens after a charge has been brought but before a case comes to trial. A number of right hon. and hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), made points on the need for interim driving bans between conviction and sentence, and for bail conditions to be considered. Hon. Members will know that the courts have those options. I would hope that they are carefully considered in all appropriate cases.
A great deal of debate was concentrated on sentencing. Successive Parliaments—indeed, successive Governments, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith said—have worked to ensure that we have a substantial framework of driving offences and penalties on the statute book. This Government, too, are committed to ensuring that the framework continues to provide the courts with the range of offences and penalties that they need to deal with the whole range of unacceptable driving behaviour on our roads.
At the most serious end of the framework, fatalities hold a special place in criminal law, as they should, and robust penalties are available where a death is caused by bad driving. The most culpable offenders—those who have caused death by dangerous driving, or by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs—face penalties of up to 14 years in prison. They are also disqualified from driving for a minimum of two years—often for much longer—and have to sit an extended retest before regaining a licence.
A number of hon. Members—my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer), the hon. Member for Dudley North and my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West—made points relating to the length of driving bans, and in particular what happens when a defendant serves a custodial sentence. It is the case that the courts should consider and take into account the length of any custodial sentence when fixing the appropriate length of driving ban. That is for precisely the reason mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West and others: it clearly would not be right, in appropriate cases, for all of the ban to be served in custody.
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. Following the 2005 review of road traffic offences, two new offences, to which the hon. Member for Hammersmith rightly referred, were created. Since 2008, they have been available to prosecutors to deal with drivers who cause death by careless driving, or who cause death by driving while unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured. The maximum penalties for these offences are, respectively, five years’ and two years’ imprisonment, and they have a minimum disqualification period of a year. Again, the court has the discretion to order a retest.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West urges us to abolish the offence of causing death by careless driving. I understand his argument, but he will appreciate that there are, of course, risks. The offence was created because in many cases the choices available to a prosecutor were either to bring a charge of causing death by dangerous driving, or a simple charge of careless driving where a death had resulted. If prosecutors felt unable to prove dangerous driving under the definitions we have discussed, they were left with what many would consider the inadequate remedy of a simple charge of careless driving. That was the reason why the offence was brought in, and we have to think through very carefully the consequences of removing it from the statute book.
I thank the Minister for giving way and for his useful round-up of the debate. Does he not accept that the greater ease of getting a potential conviction for death by careless driving is being misused, because there are cases—I would like to discuss some with him—where people’s driving clearly fell far below the standard and was clearly wilful and grossly dangerous? I believe it is being misused. That is why Brake believes it would be more sensible to categorise them all as dangerous driving, and then have appropriate guidelines and appropriate sentencing from less to maximum.
As I said at the outset, it is difficult for me to comment on particular cases, and it is for Crown prosecutors to decide what the appropriate charge should be. We would all expect, however, that where they feel they are able to prove that driving fell far below the required standard, dangerous driving would be the appropriate charge; or, indeed, as others have said, in cases of gross negligence manslaughter would be the appropriate charge. The difficulty is that where prosecutors believe that in their judgment it is not possible to prove that driving fell far below the required standard, were we to remove this offence from the statute book they would simply be left with the charge of careless driving, which, of course, has considerably lower penalties.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend could widen the issue. Prior to the change in the law in 1991, the old offence of reckless driving used to apply—the subjective test. There were a lot of problems with that test, which is why we went to an objective test, but does he think that there is any merit in looking again, 20 years on, at whether there are some merits in either what my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West says, or looking again at a subjective test?
There is merit in listening carefully to all that has been said in this excellent and thoughtful debate, and it is right that I consider many of the ideas and thoughts expressed in it, so I hear exactly what my hon. Friend says.
On ensuring that the law is effective, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith said, we have introduced a variety of new offences over the years to fill perceived gaps. We have created a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving, ensuring that dangerous drivers are punished appropriately when their actions have serious consequences short of death. The new offence fills the previous gap by specifically targeting cases in which dangerous driving results in serious injury. In addition, the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which received Royal Assent on 25 April, introduced the new offence of driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of certain controlled drugs in excess of set limits. The new drug-driving offence will improve the law available for tackling the problem of drug-driving, which presents a significant road safety risk. That resulted from the campaigning of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) and the death of one of his constituents. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith said, many of these changes come from such sources.
The Sentencing Council, which has been mentioned several times, has developed guidelines for the courts when dealing with these offences. It is important to recognise the distinction between the Sentencing Council’s guidelines and maximum sentences, the latter being for the Government and Parliament to set. The Sentencing Council sets guidelines for how courts ought to approach sentencing within those maximums, and has developed guidelines for the courts when dealing with this type of offence. Summary offences, including dangerous driving and careless driving, are dealt with within the magistrates courts sentencing guidelines—most recently updated in 2012—and the sentencing guidelines on causing death by driving were published by the then Sentencing Guidelines Council in 2008. The latter covers the offences of causing death by dangerous or careless driving as well as causing death by dangerous driving while under the influence of drink or drugs and causing death by driving unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured.
Several Members have referred to those sentencing guidelines, so it might be worth my drawing their attention to one or two specifics within them. First, on the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West, it is an additional aggravating factor—in fact, the first in the list—if a person has previous convictions for motoring offences, particularly offences that involve bad driving or the excessive consumption of alcohol or drugs before driving. Causing death by dangerous driving while disqualified, which my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood mentioned, is also on the list. On that list are offences committed at the same time such as driving other than in accordance with the terms of a valid licence, driving while disqualified, driving without insurance, taking a vehicle without consent and driving a stolen vehicle. These matters are in the existing guidelines.
I am grateful to the Minister for his thoroughness and his generosity in giving way, but he has slightly missed my point, which was not about previous convictions, but cases where someone is breathalysed, given a blood test and shown to be over the drink-driving limit and therefore to have broken that law. In such cases, people are not always also drug-tested, even if drugs are suspected, and that is quite wrong. If someone is over the limit and also under the influence of drugs, those two things make the act more reckless and more criminal, and they should have a higher sentence.
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend, who will recognise that the addition in the statute book of the drug-driving offence makes it more likely that that will be considered. My point about the guidelines is that consideration is also given to other offences committed at the same time as the offence of causing death by dangerous driving.
Yes, indeed, but that of course is a separate point. As I hope I indicated, I have listened carefully to what has been said, specifically about sentencing for the offence of causing death while disqualified from driving. We will take away everything that has been said, but I have paid particular attention to his point. The Justice Secretary wrote to the Sentencing Council—as it now is—asking it to review the death by driving guideline, and it has agreed to include that in its programme of work.
I apologise for not being present earlier. Is there a reciprocal agreement between this country and the Northern Ireland Assembly that if someone is disqualified from driving in Northern Ireland, that disqualification will apply in England, and vice versa?
We have striven to ensure that disqualifications, wherever they take place, are reflected in the knowledge of the courts here. I am sure that I will be able to give the hon. Gentleman more specific reassurance in writing, but I am confident that what he says is correct. I am sure that those of us on this side of the water would want to know about disqualifications on the other side.
As I said earlier, the review of sentencing guidelines that the Sentencing Council has been asked to conduct is not a review of maximum penalties, which it would be for the Government to consider. The Government will certainly consider all that has been said today, including what has been said by Members on both sides of the House about maximum penalties. We would need to ensure that any work done by the Sentencing Council was co-ordinated with what the Government were doing.
We will, of course, make every effort to make legislative time available for measures that we believe are urgent. Having emerged blinking into the daylight from the usual channels into my current job, I know better than to commit parliamentary time for any purpose, but I will make every effort to ensure that when we believe that there is a good case for change, space will be found.
Even in the context of this very worthwhile debate, we should take account of figures released by the Department for Transport. According to those figures, between 2011 and 2012 the number of people killed in road accidents reported to the police fell by 7.7%, to 1,754. That is the lowest figure on record. The number of casualties fell by 4%, and there was also a fall in the number of people who were seriously injured. That does not, of course, mean that there is any room for complacency. Every death and every serious injury is a tragedy, and it remains vital for us to reduce the number of people who are killed and seriously injured on our roads. I agree with the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) that we must think about education as well as enforcement. There is a great deal more to be said about that, but it will not fit neatly within the confines of this debate.
As I have said, we are continuing to look closely at the legislative framework relating to serious driving offences, and we are considering whether the current maximum penalties reflect the seriousness of offending behaviour. I have listened carefully to what has been said this evening, and I will consider it all further. I entirely understand the calls for urgency that we heard from, for example, my hon. Friends the Members for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and for Leeds North West, but I am also conscious of what I consider to be the wise advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East. It is important for us to consider these matters in the round, and to do so in a way that does not create discrepancies in the sentencing system. We must ensure that we understand fully how we can adapt our sentencing practice to deal with cases such as the many terrible ones that have been raised this evening, and to deal fairly and sensibly with driving offences such as those that we have discussed.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, and even more grateful for the excellent way in which Members have approached the subject. I will consider carefully what they have said.
I would like to sum up this Back-Bench debate by first thanking the Minister and the shadow Minister for their positive, constructive comments. I particularly want to thank the Minister for agreeing to look closely at what has been said today. Eight hon. Members have spoken, and a further eight have made positive interventions, and I hope that the transcript of the debate will be sent to the Sentencing Council.
We have heard some horrendous stories of lives, often young ones, being tragically cut short, often by cowards driving dangerously under the influence of drugs or drink. Some of those drivers were already disqualified, some were speeding, some fled the scene of the accident. We have also heard about the paltry sentences that are handed down to those cowards. I was shocked to discover from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) that a sentence of only 12 months had been handed down in her constituency only today. If only one question emerges from today’s debate, it is this: why should we as parliamentarians tolerate such short sentences for such devastating crimes?
At the same time, however, we have all seen the glimmer of human spirit that has shone through in the form of the bravery of those families who, though they are living with unspeakable pain and tragedy, are determined to campaign for justice for their loved ones. I mentioned that today was the first anniversary of the deaths of Ross and Clare Simons. Their families are at this moment watching our debate on a wide-screen television in the Cherry Tree pub in Oldland Common. They are determined to ensure that they get justice for Ross and Clare. Indeed, that is the title of their campaign. They know that nothing will bring Ross and Clare back, just as nothing will bring back Jamie, William, Eleanor, Paul, Robert, Andrew, Rob, David and Dorothy, all of whom have been mentioned in the debate today. So what will justice involve? What are the families of Ross and Clare, and of all the others who have been killed in tragic incidents, fighting for? Justice must mean that we, at the highest level in the House, must ensure that those people did not die in vain.
This debate has helped to give those families a voice here in Parliament, but justice is not merely about words. I have heard extremely wise, intelligent arguments and policies being put forward today, and the Government have kindly agreed to consider them, but justice is not only words; justice is action, and action is change. We need to change the law to ensure that we have tougher penalties for those who drive dangerously, for those who kill and maim and, above all, for those who will not take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. We as Members of Parliament must take responsibility for ensuring that those consequences are fully addressed.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the law on dangerous driving.