Thursday 17 September 2015
[Mr David Amess in the Chair]
Arms Sales (Human Rights)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the implications for human rights of promoting arms sales.
I am particularly pleased to be having this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Amess; we have been in the House for about the same amount of time, so it is a great pleasure. I am also pleased to see so many hon. Members here to discuss this very important issue. I will keep my speech relatively brief to allow everybody to get in who has something to say, so that as many Members as possible can share their views about the implication for human rights of promoting arms sales.
As many hon. Members know, I have always been passionate about human rights and have argued against arms sales to human rights violators ever since I became an MP. As chair of the Committee against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq—known as CARDRI—in the 1980s, I argued against the supply of military equipment to Saddam Hussein, a man who, at that time, was gassing his own people, had executed a British journalist and generally oversaw a very repressive and brutal regime. Iraq was, of course, also then at war with Iran.
I was horrified when, in 1986, the then Conservative Government invited a five-strong Iraqi delegation, led by its director of armaments and supplies, to the British Army equipment exhibition in Aldershot. Of course, in 1990 Saddam’s troops invaded Kuwait, and he became no longer a friend, but an enemy of the west. Lord Justice Scott’s report a few years later detailed the involvement of the UK Government and British companies in arming him. However, Saddam had not changed overnight in 1990.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for securing this very important debate. Does she recall that the ultimate obscenity was that because these weapons were sold using the export credit regime, and were never paid for, the British Government, in fact, gave them to Saddam Hussein?
That is a very good point. I am really sorry that so few companies have been prosecuted since for supplying some of the arms. The authorities did that in Germany, and are continuing to do so, but there have been very few prosecutions in this country.
As I was saying, in 1990 Saddam’s troops invaded Kuwait and he became an enemy of the west, but Saddam had not changed overnight. Enough was already known about his regime’s human rights violations—backed by detailed information from inside the country about the savage nature of the regime—and about the UK Government’s and companies’ attempts to arm him. Some us had tried to stop that, but our warnings were not heeded.
When the Labour Government came to office in 1997, there was a test case for the new Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s “ethical foreign policy”. I remember sitting at the Foreign Office, listening to the speech he made. I went up to him at the end of it and said, “I am very pleased to hear those words from you, but I’ll be watching you”. I did not realise how quickly I would have to put those words into operation, because the test case for the ethical foreign policy that he spelt out, with human rights at its heart, was selling arms to Indonesia, as we were doing at that time. Anybody who followed that particular conflict will know that repression in Aceh, for example, was acute. President Suharto’s troops were still occupying East Timor then. I am glad to say that our new Leader of the Opposition came to East Timor with me at the time and monitored some of the things that were going on there.
The previous Conservative Government had issued licences for the export of Hawk aircraft and armoured vehicles to Indonesia, but when Labour came to power, the equipment had not yet been delivered. Unfortunately, Robin Cook was not able to convince his Cabinet colleagues at that time and the export licences were not revoked. Hawk aircraft were later in action in Aceh and the armoured vehicles out on the streets of Jakarta.
However, the new Labour Government in 1997 did institute annual reports on arms export licences. Members of the four relevant Select Committees—the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Trade and Industry Committee, the International Development Committee and the Defence Committee—came together to look at those reports. Initially known, for obvious reasons, as the Quadripartite Committee, it became the Committees on Arms Export Controls in 2008. I was a member of the Committees in both guises.
In the last Parliament, the Committees on Arms Export Controls was chaired by Sir John Stanley. As everybody knows, he is a former Conservative Defence Minister; I pay tribute to the work of Sir John, my colleague both on the Committees on Arms Export Controls and the Foreign Affairs Committee. I also note that every CAEC—as it began to be known—report was unanimously agreed by their members during their 15 years of existence, including those when Sir John was chair. Sir John assiduously raised arms export issues with Ministers and civil servants and he came to see what is at the heart of this debate—that it is not possible to promote human rights at the same time as promoting arms exports. The two are not compatible.
The CAEC report from the last parliamentary Session said that
“the Government would do well to acknowledge that there is an inherent conflict between strongly promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticising their lack of human rights at the same time rather than claiming, as the Government continued to do…that these two policies ‘are mutually reinforcing’”.
Although so far unable to convince Governments of this, the Committees on Arms Export Controls’ oversight was of immense benefit—I stress that it really was of immense benefit—in shedding light on this cross-departmental issue. For six months now, we have been without those Committees. As yet, my inquiries have not indicated when they are likely to be reformed. The global situation regarding conflict and arms transfers, not least as it affects the middle east and north Africa, makes it vital to have the Committees functioning at the earliest possible date. I would therefore urge the relevant Committee Chairs to come together as a matter of urgency to ensure that this process of scrutiny continues.
UK Governments—plural—argue that they operate one of the most rigorous and transparent arms export control regimes in the world, that their export licensing criteria take human rights into account and that licences will not be granted if the equipment might be used for human rights abuse, or more particularly, if there is a clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression, to provoke or prolong armed conflicts or to aggravate existing tensions or conflicts in the country of final destination. All applications are subject to a case-by-case assessment.
In the first instance, I note with regard to the “clear risk” criteria that I just mentioned, that that is vague as to what exactly constitutes a clear risk. How can that be defined? What meets that threshold? To my mind, “clear risk” is in effect a blank cheque in human rights terms. In connection with that, it would be helpful, as a starting point, to know about the UK’s risk assessment methodology. We were always being told, when Ministers in Governments of all colours were being questioned, that there would be or was monitoring in the countries to which the arms were supplied. However, I have continually failed to find out what that monitoring constitutes.
In the previous Parliament, CAEC also raised concerns about the insufficiency of information being released about specific end users. Although the country is mentioned, there is no more specific designation. That means that the public are left in the dark about exactly who will be receiving the arms in question. I call on the Government to provide information about who exactly UK-supplied equipment will be used by and for what purpose.
In addition, situations change. The fact that after the uprisings in north Africa and the middle east in the spring of 2011, more than 150 licences—more than 150—had to be revoked indicates that the Government’s licensing process leaves a lot to be desired. Frankly, many of those licences should never have been granted in the first place, because licence revocation can be of only limited effect, for the simple reason that revocation is of no use whatever for exports that have already been shipped—those arms can never be recovered. It is imperative, therefore, that the utmost caution—that is, much more caution—be exercised when assessments are being undertaken on arms exports to authoritarian and war-torn countries.
However, the incompatibility between promoting human rights and promoting arms exports is primarily a difficulty not with export controls, but with the mindset that prioritises export promotion. Arms sales are promoted by those right at the top of Government. That is not new. Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron have all led delegations to promote arms sales, including to some of the world’s most repressive regimes. Earlier this year, licences to Foreign and Commonwealth Office-designated countries of concern were valued at almost £12 billion.
In the middle of the brutal suppression of protest in the middle east in February 2011, the Prime Minister chose to go ahead with an arms promotion tour of Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. The message sent to those regimes is quite alarming; the UK Government were in effect legitimising the regimes and provided them with political cover. Even the help of the royal family is enlisted. Prince Charles famously did a sword dance in Saudi Arabia in 2014 to secure a fighter jet deal for BAE.
Those high-level sales efforts in relation to human rights abusers such as Saudi Arabia mute any criticism of their abuse of human rights. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it is a “priority market” for the UK Government’s arms sales agency, the UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation.
I think that the desire for arms deals prevents meaningful UK Government criticism of, for example, Saudi human rights abuses. That is a country where, according to Amnesty International, someone is executed every two days. Raif Badawi was brutally flogged and is in jail simply for blogging. Women are treated as second-class citizens, and immigrant workers far worse. The arms sales links have prevented the UK Government from criticising Saudi Arabia for the humanitarian catastrophe being created in Yemen. There are, it is said, even UK civil servants and military personnel in Saudi Arabia, who are now presumably supporting the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign.
I mentioned the licences that the Government were forced to revoke in 2011, when the Arab uprisings took place.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, in her excellent speech, to highlight the Gulf area, because that is one area where the contrast between human rights and arms sales is very clear. Does she agree that that also applies to Bahrain? For example, the UK was one of 33 countries this week criticising Bahrain at the UN Human Rights Council for not upholding human rights, while going ahead with not just arms sales but building a naval base there.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I chair the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s committee on the human rights of parliamentarians. At our biannual conferences, we have delegations from the countries where parliamentarians are in jail, not able to carry out their mandates or, in some cases, have been murdered. We follow up their cases, and Bahrain, in the next three weeks, will be on our agenda again in Geneva.
I mentioned the licences that the Government were forced to revoke in 2011, when the Arab uprisings took place. However, even then not a single licence to Saudi Arabia was revoked. The Government presumably did not want to undermine one of their most lucrative defence export markets, as well as other security, intelligence and trade arrangements. That was despite the fact that UK armoured vehicles supplied to Saudi Arabia were being used to protect vital infrastructure in Bahrain, arguably giving the Bahraini forces a free hand to attack protesters. I emphasise that there is even more reason to re-examine licences now, with the Saudis’ use of military force in Yemen.
Today, the biennial Defence and Security Equipment International exhibition, one of the world’s largest arms fairs, which generates millions in arms deals, is taking place at the ExCeL centre in London’s docklands. It is organised by a private company, Clarion Events, but the Government’s arms sales agency, UKTI DSO, has issued the official invitations to 61 countries. Those include countries on the Foreign Office’s list of countries of concern on human rights grounds, such as Colombia, Iraq, Pakistan and, inevitably, Saudi Arabia, plus others where human rights are a major issue, including Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Turkey, which I shall return to discussing, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Ukraine.
Clarion says that there are 1,500 international exhibitors, comprising suppliers from 121 countries, Israel being among them with a big pavilion. They will be displaying the full range of military equipment and components, taking part in seminars and building the relationships that facilitate the deals. That DSEI is a global arms fair is emphasised in the letter of understanding between UKTI DSO and Clarion:
“Since DSEI is an international exhibition, the necessity of achieving a fair and equitable share of delegation time between exhibiting UK companies and overseas exhibitors affects both the short term perception and long term survival of the event. DSEI needs to continually develop and maintain its position as the leading global market place. For this to happen, both UK and international companies need to feel they have equal and reasonable access to delegations.”
Arms sellers meet arms buyers at DSEI. If they agree a deal whereby the equipment does not come into the UK, it is not subject to any UK export controls. If the equipment is a UK export, it will go to one of well over 100 countries across the globe for which UK export licences are granted. The FCO’s “Human Rights and Democracy” report, which I have here, identified 28 “countries of concern”. In 2014, the UK approved arms export licences to 18 of these, including Israel, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
I turn briefly to a specific example that worries me greatly. Turkey may be a member of NATO—
Before my right hon. Friend moves on to Turkey, I should say that she mentioned Israel as a country of concern. The arms trade with Israel is huge—there were more than £11 million of licences last year and nearly £29 million of dual-use licences—but last year also saw Operation Protective Edge, in which 2,200 people were killed in Gaza, including 550 children. Is that not one of the most blatant examples of double standards?
I think that the majority of us would agree with my hon. Friend, and I thank him for making that point.
Turkey, as I said, is a member of NATO, but it is also a country in a region of great turmoil and its Government are cracking down hard on their opponents. Over the last two years, brutal tactics have been used against protesters during rallies in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. There is also some evidence that arms acquired by Turkey, although not specifically from the UK, may have fallen into ISIS hands. That is an apt illustration of what can happen when weapons have left a supplier country, particularly in an unstable region: they can end up anywhere and with anyone.
Turkey has long been involved in a conflict with separatist Kurds, although there were hopes that negotiations might lead to a permanent end of hostilities. Recently, however, it has undertaken bombing missions across the border in Iraq, and locally built AgustaWestland attack helicopters, purchased for use against the PKK, have been deployed and reportedly used in recent renewed fighting. Since the pro-Kurdish HDP party won seats in the general election in June, Turkey has once again carried out attacks on the Kurdish population living within its borders. Earlier this month, Turkish military and police mounted a relentless assault on the town of Cizre in a counter-terrorism operation against the PKK, killing 21 people. A 10-year-old girl was shot dead by snipers as she left her home, with her hands in the air, in an attempt to get medical help for her father. He was also killed. This month, police shot three children from an armoured vehicle. They had left their houses to buy bread.
Turkey is a priority market of the UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation. The UK Government have officially invited Turkey to send a delegation to the DSEI exhibition in 2015. We do not know who will be on the delegation, but last time it included the deputy Defence Minister. Turkey is also a welcome guest of the UK Government at other military exhibitions here. Turkish delegations were present at both the 2014 Farnborough air show and this year’s security and policing exhibition. If Turkey buys weapons at the DSEI exhibition, they could be used to support the repression of its political opponents or its attacks on Kurdish people. With such sales, the UK Government are sending the message that the lives and human rights of the Turkish and Kurdish people are of little importance.
Turkey is not only present as an arms buyer; it wants to build its reputation as an arms seller. The Turkish Government’s Defence and Aerospace Industry Exporters Association is present at this week’s arms exhibition in London’s docklands as an international partner. It is currently building new drones, redesigning a battle tank and developing its own fighter jets. The association’s chair has said:
“A country’s development can be associated with the development of its defence industry. We identified our export target as 25 billion USD for year 2023, which is the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Turkish Republic. We desire to take”
“place at the top 10 of”
the “world defence industry.”
During the 2015 Turkish election campaign, the AKP boasted that Turkey would make all its own military equipment, with massive posters on the streets proclaiming, “We’re making our own warplanes” and “We’re making our own tanks”. President Erdogan stated:
“Our goal is to completely rid our defence industry of foreign dependency by 2023.”
Prime Minister Davutoglu said in January 2015:
“Now we have a Turkey that won’t bow to others with its own national defence industry. This is the new Turkey.”
It is disappointing for those of us who have been involved in these matters for many years that the Government appear to have learned so little from their predecessors’ experiences of arming Saddam Hussein, President Suharto and President Gaddafi. It would seem that if a repressive regime has the money, a blind eye can be turned to human rights abuses. Turkey’s presence, and that of other countries that are or should be of concern, at the London arms exhibition this week essentially allows more arms to be provided to volatile and increasingly repressive regimes.
It is time for change—fundamental change. The UK Government need to change their policies and practices, and end their military sales to despotic regimes. That change would prove popular, because 70% of UK adults who were recently polled agreed that the UK Government should not promote the sale of British military equipment to foreign Governments who have a poor record on human rights.
Order. The three largest parties will make their contributions starting at 2.30 pm. I think we have six or seven colleagues who wish to contribute. My maths, unfortunately, makes it about three or four minutes each at the most, but I want to call everyone who has made the effort to be here.
I applaud the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for securing the debate. I would like to declare that I am a member of Amnesty International and of the British Medical Association.
I want to mention some points that have not been raised. First, I want to honour the Londoners in the docklands area who peacefully protest against the ExCel arms fair, and the religious leaders who come every two years to pray peacefully in that area. We are talking about the human rights of Londoners, who get off the Docklands Light Railway near the ExCeL centre and see murals commemorating the destruction and civilian loss of the second world war. I do not believe that it is an appropriate location for the arms fair. As Amnesty has reported, shockingly, companies at the 2013 arms fair were selling cluster bombs and equipment for torture. I am not reassured that this year’s arms fair will not involve the sale of cluster bombs, torture equipment, depleted uranium, phosphorous or other items that I do not believe to be ethical, which no Londoner would wish to have sold in this area.
On Bahrain, I strongly urge the Minister and any members of the Government who are going to ExCeL this year to ask for the release of Dr Ali Al-Ekri. He is a consultant paediatric orthopaedic surgeon, and he should not be imprisoned. The only criminals in the situation are the Bahraini Government, because medical neutrality is a fundamental right.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for securing this important debate on ethical questions. As a global arms export player, the UK is second only to the US, with a share of global contracts worth 22% of the total market. Over the summer, I had real concerns about our contribution to the devastating situation in the middle east, and I am grateful to the House of Commons Library for supplying me with so much information. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills strategic export controls report—all 686 pages of it—was chilling reading, and enabled me to see where our arms trade was leading. It led me to shine a spotlight on the situation in Saudi Arabia and where our arms can end up. I have had discussions with an expert on Syria, who talked about how Saudi Arabia is supplying weaponry to help resistance organisations in the current crisis. Some of those resistance groups have fallen into the hands of Daesh, which is of huge concern, but we also know that Daesh has received weapons, probably including weapons manufactured in the UK, from other parts of the region.
Turning the spotlight back to Saudi Arabia, which is one of our major export markets, some £3.9 billion-worth of contracts were signed under the previous Government. We therefore have many aircraft, helicopters, combat vehicles, explosive devices and other weaponry in the region. We have heard how Saudi Arabia is using UK-manufactured aircraft on one side of the conflict in Yemen while we are delivering humanitarian aid to that country. Saudi Arabia may well be bombing the refugee camps that we are supporting, and at the very least it is creating more refugees. There is therefore deep concern, and we must seriously scrutinise what is happening.
Once our manufactured goods enter the region, we have no control over how they will be used, where they will end up and who they may kill. With such destabilisation in that part of the world, as in so many others, we need to ask serious questions when issuing each licence. Why are we exporting the goods? Would we class it as a humanitarian act to help defenceless countries provide safety and security, or is it an opportunity to generate revenue? Is our export control list extensive enough? Surveillance technology, for example, is not subject to the same export rules. What are the risks, now and in the future, of signing a contract with another country? What are the human rights records of those countries? Let us face it, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain—as we have heard—and so many other places, particularly in the middle east, do not have a good human rights record. What do countries such as Saudi Arabia have to do for us to stop selling arms and to say that their human rights record has crossed the line? I believe that they have well and truly passed that mark. What diplomatic pressures can we apply to encourage more countries to sign up to the UN arms trade treaty?
The time has come for us to ask whether UK- manufactured goods are directly, or indirectly, contributing to the mass humanitarian crisis that we are witnessing. What steps will the Government take to stop that?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir David. It is a special joy to support my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who has a heroic record of working for Indict and CARDRI. She took on a lonely task, and she behaved with genuine heroism by going to inspect the wars for herself. It is a shame that previous leaders of our party have never been as aware of her talent as the present leader may be. Her best days are ahead.
My right hon. Friend mentioned Yemen. We should be greatly concerned that, in a country of 21 million people, 84% of the population are in need of humanitarian aid. It is an extraordinary crisis that has had very little attention. What is going on in Yemen? A group, the Houthis, are regarded as rebels, and the Saudis have gone in, supported by us, and are creating a terrible situation. At least 4,000 people have been killed in the past few months. Last week, on “Newsnight,” we saw a water-bottling plant that was bombed, with the workers turned into carbon. All that was left of them was their burned bodies, and we had a hand in doing that.
The extraordinary thing, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) said, is that the Government are behaving in two different ways: they are providing humanitarian aid, which we do very well—the Government should be congratulated on their record of maintaining the 0.7% aid budget—but, on the other hand, they are feeding the war machine that is causing death and creating refugees.
There is a nasty regime in Azerbaijan under Aliyev. I spoke to him a year ago, and he told me that it is untrue that Azerbaijan imprisons journalists, demonstrators and opponents. He promptly went home from that meeting, which took place when, absurdly, his country headed the Council of Europe, a body in charge of human rights, and arrested dozens more journalists, demonstrators and opponents. Yet there is a campaign in this House to get as many Members as possible to join the all-party group on Azerbaijan. Members of that group are welcome to go on the caviar trail, and they will be very well looked after while they are in Azerbaijan.
The arms trade contributes to undermining the work of this House. When the war drums are beating, we are all blackmailed into supporting new wars because there will be jobs at stake in our constituencies. We hear from those workers and are told that, if we are against the war, we are against jobs in our constituency. The powerful arms trade lobby is deeply corrupting. The Government are trying to edge us into a new war, into blundering into the four-sided civil war in Syria, with God knows what consequences. Just two years ago they wanted us to fight Assad, and now they want us to take on ISIL—they are both deadly enemies—but the House no longer trusts Government information. We lost 179 of our brave British soldiers in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We went into Helmand in 2006, having lost just four soldiers in battle up to that point, on the assurance that not a shot would be fired; in fact, millions of shots were fired and we lost 454 soldiers. Again, we were told two years ago to prepare for war with Iran because it was going to attack us with its non-existent long-range missiles carrying non-existent nuclear weapons.
We in this House must look to the arms trade. Yes, there are benefits to be gained from that trade, but we must resist the temptation to go ahead and support oppressive and murderous regimes in the name of profit. A sensible line must be drawn between our great record on humanitarian aid and our record of unnecessarily shoring up wicked regimes that create the problems of deprivation, cause deaths and create a large number of refugees. We must have a consistent, rational policy that makes sense.
Poverty is a factor in conflict and the buying of arms. In turn, conflict is the root cause of poverty, important in itself and intertwined with other causes. High military spending means overconsumption of resources, and it results in degradation of the environment and distortions in the economy. Such spending is intimately related to problems of debt, illegal drugs and the denial of democracy and human rights. It may lead to armed conflict that causes loss of civilian life, displacement—we are well aware of that today—destruction of the environment and infrastructure, and severe disruption of the economy.
I particularly wanted to speak in this debate because of my role on the Select Committee on International Development. Unless we address the issues already raised pertaining to arms sales and human rights abuses, I fear that we will not reach our global goals of ensuring action for people, planet, peace, prosperity and partnership. I will particularly address humanitarian issues linked with arms sales to countries that have child soldiers and with our UN obligations.
There are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers in the world today. People may not be aware of it, but 40% of all child soldiers are girls, who are often used as wives—in other words, sex slaves—for male combatants. Many rebel groups use child soldiers to fight Governments, but some Governments also use child soldiers in armed conflicts.
Africa has the largest number of child soldiers. They have been used in armed conflicts in the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Sudan. In June 2013, the United Nations set a goal of having no child soldiers anywhere in the world by 2016. Of the eight Government armies listed for the recruitment and use of children, six have committed to making their armies child-free. In 2012, South Sudan, Myanmar, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo signed action plans with the UN, and Afghanistan and Chad made similar commitments the previous year. Discussions initiated with the Governments of Yemen and Sudan are expected to lead to action plans.
I speak also as a clinical psychologist. It is important to note that children are used as soldiers because they are easier to condition and brainwash. They do not eat much food, they do not need much pay and they have an underdeveloped sense of danger, so they are easier to send into the line of fire. As children make up the majority demographic in many conflict-affected countries, the supply of potential recruits is constant, and due to their size and, tragically, their perceived expendability, children are often sent into battle as scouts or decoys, or sent in the first wave to draw the enemy’s fire.
The effects on children are felt long after their physical scars have healed. Many child soldiers are desensitised to violence, often at a formative time, and it psychologically damages them for life.
It is crucial that we as a Government support aims to get children out of army uniforms and into school uniforms. It is crucial to support humanitarian efforts and ensure that arms are not sold directly or indirectly to countries or regimes that deploy child soldiers. Although child soldiers can go through formal demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration programmes when they are free, many are vulnerable and marginalised, and are not accepted back into society. We must ensure that we support humanitarian efforts to make child soldiers a thing of the past.
I am pleased to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I praise everybody who has contributed to this important debate.
I am not a particularly religious person, but my politics and those of my party are probably shaped more by Methodism than by Marxism. Matthew 5:9 is a guiding principle as pertinent today as it was when it was written:
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
Amnesty International estimates that roughly 500,000 people are killed every year by firearms in the battlefield, as a result of state repression, or by criminal gangs. Many more millions around the world die after being denied access to things that most people in my constituency take for granted, such as healthcare, water and food, because they are trapped in conflicts fuelled by the poorly controlled flow of arms. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, it is estimated that more than 5 million people have died since 1998 as an indirect result of the armed conflict.
The new politics that puts people before unfettered profiteering demands that it is time for the march of the peacemakers. Some may ask why it is a concern for my constituents in Ashton, Droylsden and Failsworth. Some may talk about job creation and economic growth stemming from the arms trade. I say that hundreds of my constituents have written to me over the last few weeks demanding that the current Government show more compassion for the families, women and children fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria. I agree wholeheartedly that the Government need to do more and that we should take our fair share of those seeking sanctuary and refuge, but I also say that we must do more to deal with the causes of the migration crisis by tackling head-on the countries that supply arms to regimes and nations with appalling human rights records.
On the question of job creation, the arms industry is in decline while new and emerging industries require research, investment and development. The greatest investment in conflict resolution is the creation of jobs and the building of houses, good schools, hospitals and road and rail infrastructure. That is the peacemaker approach.
When I came to this House, I promised my constituents I would do all that I could to protect, and provide for, the next generation. They deserve a future. The issue affects us all; we are all children of one world. I am concerned that despite the grand words and intentions in the arms trade treaty, an event such as the DSEI arms trade fair carries on in ignorant bliss.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on securing this important debate and on her work in this area. I remind those here and beyond that, as she mentioned in her opening remarks, the treaty requires
“that no state authorises arms transfers to those committing genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and serious violations of human rights law, or turns a blind eye to dealers supplying arms likely to be used to commit serious human rights violations."
In the march of the peacemakers—the new politics for which so many in our nation and in my constituency are crying out—we must ensure that we press the UN and all signatories to the arms trade treaty to implement the treaty obligations fully. We also need to invest both aid and time in the industries of peace, stability and sustainable growth to create a safer world for all. I ask the Minister to do all that he can in that vein.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for securing this important debate and for her thorough and impressive speech on the issue, about which I know she is extremely knowledgeable and passionate. I share her deep concern about the promotion of UK arms sales to countries with poor human rights records. My contribution will focus on the UK arms trade and military-industrial collaboration with Israel.
The House will know that last summer, while Gaza was under military attack, there was widespread horror and opposition to Israel’s bombing and invasion. Protests took place across our country involving hundreds of thousands of people. In my constituency, nearly 2,000 people marched to protest at the Israeli Government’s actions. The Israeli assault on Gaza in July and August 2014, in which 2,205 Palestinians were killed, including 521 children, is only the most recent example of the Israeli Government’s indiscriminate acts of violence against the Palestinian people, but the United Kingdom continues to treat Israel’s defiance of international law as, at best, an inconvenient detail to be worked around when making decisions on arms trade control. Contrary to their own criteria, the Government grant export licences allowing British military hardware and components to be supplied to Israel. At the same time, they import Israeli military hardware and components and provide training in the UK for Israeli military personnel.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley has outlined the criteria against which arms export licences are considered, yet the Government have been reluctant to refuse or revoke export licences to Israel. Since 2010, they have licensed the export of £42 million worth of military equipment to Israel, and have purchased from Israel targeting systems, drone technology and drones. The latter were developed by Israel’s Elbit Systems in a joint venture with Thales UK under a contract awarded by the Ministry of Defence. Members of the Israeli military have attended education courses for military personnel in the UK, and Israeli firms, including Elbit Systems, receive funding through 46 projects under the European Union’s framework research programme.
Although much was made of the Government’s decision during the Gaza war to halt 12 licences for components in the event of serious hostilities, no definition of “serious hostilities” was ever offered, and although violence resumed the very next day, those licences were not halted. In July 2015, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills announced that those licences were no longer under review, as he was content that the licences for material, including components for military radar and tanks, met the UK’s export criteria.
Israeli military and industry sources openly attribute the success of Israeli exports to the fact that weapons and technologies are combat-proven in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This means that when the UK imports Israeli arms, it helps Israel to benefit from unlawful practices. Despite official controls on arms exports, UK-made arms and military technologies continue to be sold to and used by the occupying Israeli forces. The value of licences awarded for export to Israel amounted to more than £11.5 million for military use and nearly £29 million for dual—civil or military—use in 2014 alone
Importing arms from and selling arms to Israel makes the UK complicit in Israel’s continuing violations of human rights and international law. So long as the Governments of the world engage in the arms trade with Israel, it has no incentive to relinquish its unlawful use of force and its illegal colonies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This is why four Nobel peace laureates—Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Mairead Maguire and Rigoberta Menchú—together with the former UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk, have accused the USA and the European Union of complicity in Israel’s crimes and have backed the call for an international military embargo against Israel.
I ask the Government—please—to refuse all of the export licences to Israel, directly or via a third country, where the end user is the Israel defence forces or military industry; to revoke any extant export licences to Israel, directly or via a third country, where the end user is the Israel defence forces or military industry; ban arms imports from Israel; and ban collaborations between UK-based companies and the Israel defence forces or Israeli military industry. We must end our shameful complicity in Israel’s continuing violations of human rights and international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on securing this debate. Since my time on the all-party group on human rights, I know how assiduous she has been in pursuing these issues. Her dedication to the cause is probably only matched by that of my friend in the House of Lords, Lord Avebury, who is equally assiduous in following such matters.
It is clear that the arms trade and human rights is an issue that concerns many of our constituents. I am sure that all Members here today will have been on the receiving end of a campaign email, which rightly highlights concerns around the defence and security equipment in the arms show that is being held in London at present. That campaign email focuses on two particular matters: Egypt and Israel. In relation to Egypt, it is regrettable that the UK Government are rolling out the red carpet for el-Sisi when he comes to visit. I think that that is a mistake. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain why such a decision was taken.
In relation to Israel, Members will know that last year my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg), who was then Deputy Prime Minister, said that if Israeli forces go back into Gaza and use disproportionate force, the UK Government should take action. What is the new Government’s position in that respect?
Also, what is the UK Government’s explanation for allowing arms sales to countries that are on the FCO list of countries about which it has human rights concerns? Many of the countries that we have talked about in this debate are on that list. There may be different versions, but one suggests that North Korea and Zimbabwe might be on that list. I hope that that is not the case but, if it is, what weapons and security equipment might we be exporting to those two countries?
Indeed. Another country that has been mentioned where we have such concerns is Yemen. Clearly, the Saudi Arabians, with a coalition of other nations in the region, including the United Arab Emirates, have embarked on what many have said is indiscriminate military action that has put many civilian lives at risk or killed many civilians. We are providing a pathway for bombs to that campaign. Can the Minister say anything about that? Also, perhaps as a side issue, what impact might that have on the RAF and its ability to deal with any future crises?
I just want to respond to this issue that has come up many times. I will not have enough time to respond to everything, but on this particular point on Yemen, President Hadi has invited support because of what is happening with the Houthis. Other countries have been invited to assist a country in need in the same way that President Abadi in Iraq has invited us to assist his country in dealing with a threat. That is why Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are involved in south Yemen.
They may have been invited in, but if countries such as Saudi, which are supplied with UK weapons, are acting indiscriminately in that country, we need to be concerned.
Clearly, there is a role for a strong UK arms industry. It creates jobs and helps technological development, but there is certainly no role for a UK arms industry that exports weapons made here to repress people in other countries.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
Those of us speaking today will certainly not be short of words. The defence and security equipment exhibition taking place this week in this city has brought the issue to the fore. The UK Government have invited many countries to attend the four-day event. To make the most of my time, I will focus on Saudi Arabia.
In 2014, the Economist Intelligence Unit, not usually known as a radical source, ranked Saudi Arabia at 161 out of 167 in its democracy index. Only six of the world’s Governments are deemed more repressive, including Syria, North Korea and the Central African Republic.
It is easy for me to stand here and quote statistics today, but I would rather give an example that seems to be making the news: the case of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, who was arrested in February 2012 when he was only 17. He was accused by Saudi authorities of participating in an illegal protest and of firearms offences. Despite there being no evidence to justify the charges, he was convicted of the alleged offences by the specialised criminal court. His final appeal, which was held in secret and without his knowledge, was dismissed. The young man’s life is now set to be cut dramatically short and he has been sentenced to death on charges that include insulting the king and delivering religious sermons that disrupt national unity. It is an absolute outrage and I intend to write to the Minister to ask for urgent action to be taken.
As if all that was not alarming enough, Ali’s sentence is due to be barbarically carried out by crucifixion. I feel for this young man and his family. Reading Ali’s story this morning filled me with grief for his life about to be savagely and abruptly ended. How in 2015 can a supposedly civilised country impose such an inhumane and merciless penalty on any of its citizens, let alone one so young?
Ali is but one of countless examples of Saudis falling foul of the ruthlessly relentless regime. While human life holds little or no value to the Saudi establishment, our own Government seemingly place a high value on the arms business. Saudi is one of the largest arms export markets, worth billions of pounds to our Exchequer: blood money that the UK Government are happy to take. We supply weapons and ammunition. We deliver military aircraft and we help to train Saudi personnel. We even co-operate with the military action. Saudi is leading the coalition that is bombing Yemen, killing and maiming many civilians as well as destroying their homes. This is being done, with the apparent blessing of the UK, using arms purchased from us.
The Government appear to be bending over backwards to sustain the relationship. In 2014, when David Cameron could not get the Saudis to agree the financing for a multi-billion-pound Eurofighter Typhoon deal, Prince Charles came to the rescue. The prince visited Saudi Arabia and did a sword dance in traditional dress at a festival supported by BAe. His visit came two days before BAe was due to issue its financial results, amid rumours that its share price was set to fall unless agreement could be reached on the pricing of the Typhoon deal. The next day, Saudi Arabia and BAe Systems announced that a deal had been finalised. So while the royal family grovel to maintain the status quo of our arms trade with the Saudis, the human rights abuses continue apace. On average, one person is executed every two days in Saudi Arabia.
It seems that for the UK Government the interests of BAe Systems trumped any frank speaking to the Saudi authorities about human rights. There can be no doubt that such determined pursuit puts commercial relationships before human rights, and sends a strong signal of UK support for the regime. The blind eye that we officially turn to Saudi Arabia’s dreadful denial of human rights only serves to support its savage and sadistic regime. Can the Minister please answer the points I have made?
I am the last person to speak today before the Front-Bench spokespersons and, as people can well imagine, a lot of things that I am going to say have already been said. However, if we stand together and say the same thing, it will make the story and make our case even stronger.
I am very pleased that we are having this debate today. As we have already heard, the debate about UK arms sales and human rights internationally is very relevant, as this week London is hosting the Defence and Security Equipment International arms fair, one of the largest arms fairs in the world. Countries with very bad human rights records are present at that fair, including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Egypt and Thailand, so it is right that we ask whether UK arms sales are compatible with promoting human rights around the world. I firmly believe that they are not.
We recently learnt that warplanes made in the UK have been used by Saudi Arabia in attacks on Yemen. Those air strikes have already killed hundreds of civilians, including more than 64 children. Saudi Arabia also has an appalling record when it comes to domestic human rights. The regime is engaged in a campaign of repression against opposition and pro-democracy groups in the country. It also carries out scores of executions against individuals, often after unfair trials.
The UK has also continued to sell arms to Israel, despite its ongoing illegal occupation of the west bank. Israel currently holds more than 5,000 Palestinians as political prisoners, and last summer it carried out a military campaign that besieged the Gaza strip and led to the death of more than 2,000 Palestinians, over 500 of whom were children.
By selling arms to countries involved in these violations, the UK is not only condoning the Governments who are carrying out these policies but actively supporting them. This activity also sends out the message that the UK will turn a blind eye to human rights violations committed by its allies. That is bad in itself, but it also weakens our hand when it comes to promoting human rights in countries that are not our allies at the moment, leaving us open to charges of hypocrisy.
No doubt we will hear from the Government that the UK has one of the strictest arms control regimes in the world. That may be true, but our controls are clearly not good enough if weapons made in the UK still end up in the hands of regimes that violate basic human rights and carry out attacks that harm civilians.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am reminded of the early days of the Scottish Parliament, when it was chaired by Sir David Steel, who was also addressed as “Sir David”. If the House of Commons ever seeks a change, who knows, they might welcome that opportunity back up the road.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for securing this very valuable and timely debate. I also pay tribute to her long-standing commitment to the issue of the arms trade and to the peace movement. She is joined in that by the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). Sadly, he has not made it to Westminster Hall today, although I do not know what the conventions are. I also pay tribute to all the Members who have made extremely valuable speeches. I hope that the Minister will have time to respond to their points, particularly the specific points about countries of concern such as Israel, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and some of the powerful points made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on the issue of child soldiers.
When I was a student, I had the opportunity to visit New York and the United Nations, which is committed to the building of peace and stability around the world. I was struck by a display—nowadays, we would call it an infographic—that showed the proportion of arms sales to the cost of just about everything else that the UN is there to try to achieve: the cost of universal free education; the cost of ending hunger; and the cost of providing clean water and sanitation to everyone in the world who lives without that. The arms trade dwarfed all those other things. That image has stayed with me ever since. I saw it in the days before smartphones were ubiquitous, so I was not able to grab a photo of it, but I know that similar infographics and statistics are all too readily available nowadays.
Figures reported recently in The Independent showed that British companies secured export deals for weaponry that were worth £8.5 billion in the past year. By comparison, the departmental expenditure limit for the Department for International Development is only slightly more than that figure, at £11 billion.
The trade in arms is “the trade in death”, as it has been described by numerous thinkers and peace campaigners, not least various popes. Today is the anniversary of the speech to this Parliament by Pope Benedict XVI, in which he spoke about the arms trade and its insidious impact on stability and security around the world. The money that goes to waste on arms when it could be spent on much better and more important things is truly shocking, and one of the great scandals of the modern world.
The regulation around arms has also come up many times. Amnesty cites the interesting fact that there are more international laws regulating the trade in bananas than regulating the trade in weapons. Even with the arms trade treaty, which I will come back to, it seems that very little consideration is given to the end-use of a lot of weapons. The arms trade is seen simply as a valuable export market and a way of achieving economic growth, but economic growth should not come at any cost.
The UK Government’s dealings on this issue go way back. In 1966, Denis Healey set up the Defence Sales Organisation, which was located within the Ministry of Defence. Today, it goes by the name of the UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation. However, its essential purpose remains, which is to sell UK military equipment overseas.
As we have heard today, all too often such sales are made to regimes that have a terrible record on human rights. According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, UKTI DSO is staffed by about 130 civil servants, to say nothing of the high-profile political and royal visits that work behind the scenes to promote the trade in arms. That support for military sales helps arms to account for less than 1.4% of UK exports. According to CAAT’s research, sectors covering the remaining 98.6% have 107 dedicated civil servants. That is completely out of proportion, given the things that we are trying to achieve.
As we have heard, in 2014 the UK approved arms export licences to 18 of the countries that the FCO lists as countries of concern. Despite the well-documented repression and human rights abuses, some of those countries have been priority markets for UK arms sales. Since the UK Government do so much to help companies to promote their sales, it is inconceivable when it comes to issuing export controls that licences will be refused. Regulation through export licensing is at risk of becoming little more than a bureaucratic exercise. As we have heard, it seems that the only time that arms export licences are revoked is when the Government are shamed or embarrassed by coverage in the media, for example, during the Arab uprising.
We live in a world in which there are structures and conventions that ought to prevent that. I mentioned the arms trade treaty, which is the subject of a hugely successful and long-running campaign by a large number of civil society organisations around the world. Article 13 requires annual reporting on the sales. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us today whether the annual report will include an assessment of the end-use and the end-users of UK-supplied equipment and arms. Article 10 requires regulation of brokering. Perhaps the Government can tell us when it will introduce a register of arms brokers in the UK.
Of course, the debate today is taking place in the context of the DSEI exhibition at the ExCeL centre in London. Amnesty has identified nine companies that have violated UK law at past DSEI events—at least one at each event between 2005 and 2013. What steps are the Government taking to enforce controls at their own arms fairs? Will they commit to prosecuting any company found in breach of the law?
At the end of the day, the arms trade is a choice; it is not a necessity or something that we should depend upon, celebrate or think is the only way of growing the UK economy. It is increasingly difficult to see how the trade, especially in its current forms, can be compatible with the human rights obligations to which this country has rightly chosen to commit, so I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a great pleasure to participate in this debate under your chairmanship, Sir David. I begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on securing this debate and above all on her passionate and determined campaigning on this issue over many years. I also thank the Members who served previously on the Committee on Arms Export Controls. I echo the comment on the need to re-establish that Committee as quickly as possible in the new Parliament.
I begin by saying that in an uncertain world, we need to acknowledge—uncomfortable though it is for some—that the defence industry plays a part in enabling us to protect our own security. States have the right to acquire the means to defend themselves. We are commemorating the 75th anniversary of the day in the battle of Britain when the RAF in effect defeated the Luftwaffe. If we had not had Spitfires and Hurricanes, where would we have been as a nation?
My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) raised an important point about Daesh. She is absolutely right that it has in all probability acquired weapons that had been supplied to others: the Government of Iraq and perhaps the peshmerga, to whom we have supplied some heavy machine guns. We did that because they are trying to protect themselves from a brutal group of people who rape, enslave and sell women, decapitate aid workers and recruit child soldiers. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) spoke about the effect that that has on children. Their childhoods have been stolen, which is something I saw for myself in the Democratic Republic of the Congo when I was International Development Secretary. We have to acknowledge that defence is an important industry in the UK, providing 160,000 jobs directly and 100,000 indirectly.
Just as arms exports can be a force that enables countries to protect themselves, the opposite can also be the case, and that is why it is vital that we have a responsible trade in arms exports. It is why we have to ensure that the system has proper accountability and transparency and is correctly exercised, including in respect of human rights. We have the export licensing criteria and the EU consolidated criteria, which show what can be achieved by working together within the European Union. I pay tribute in particular to the last Labour government and the late Robin Cook, who played such an important part in bringing that about. Reference has also been made to the arms trade treaty, which Britain campaigned on for many years and was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2013.
It has been said in the debate—we will no doubt hear this from the Minister—that we have one of the toughest regimes in the world. The rules are there and they are clear; the issue is how they are applied in respect of particular applications, and scrutiny of that is the responsibility of the Committee on Arms Export Controls. We have heard how during the Arab spring, there was a great deal of controversy over UK arms exports to middle eastern and north African countries, including Bahrain and Libya. The Committee expressed some concerns, which led to some of the licences being revoked. The Committee asked questions about the decision-making process that led to the granting of the licences in the first place and about the speed with which decisions are taken when it is finally decided that there is a risk of breaching the guidance. I think that that led the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, to announce that the Government would
“introduce a mechanism to allow immediate licensing suspension to countries experiencing a sharp deterioration in security or stability.”—[Official Report, 7 February 2012; Vol. 540, c. 7WS.]
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) that there is a question on how that is applied. Improvements have been made to the transparency of the system, and transparency is important, because it allows all of us to hold the Government and the Committee to account.
The Committee expressed concern when the Government decided that they would delete from the consolidated criteria the words:
“An export licence will not be issued if the arguments for doing so are outweighed by…concern that the goods might be used for internal repression.”
The Government’s argument in response was that it was a general statement that formed part not of the criteria, but of the introductory text. If that is the case, I wonder why it was felt necessary to remove the words, because they did seem to send a signal. Sir John Stanley, who chaired the Committee, expressed concerns about that. At the time, he expressed the concern that too many licences were initially being given that subsequently had to be suspended or revoked. I think that change was in a backwards direction. The Government may try to argue to the contrary, but the change sends a signal.
The question of Yemen and the great humanitarian crisis there has been raised in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) described how more than 80% of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance, including 10 million children. Some 500,000 children are severely malnourished. The aid agencies have serious access problems and report aid being diverted, not on the basis of need, but depending on where people were and who they were believed to be supporting in the conflict. I know the Minister has a lot to reply to and will not have time—if he could write to us all, it would be appreciated—but will he respond to reports of attacks on civilian targets, including those on “Newsnight” last week? What discussions are he and his FCO colleagues having with their Saudi counterparts about the conflict and these concerns? Given that it is reported that since the conflict began, the Government have issued a further 37 arms export licences to Saudi Arabia, does he know whether the defence equipment we have sold has been used in that conflict? Has he made an assessment of whether that is consistent with the consolidated criteria?
In the “United Kingdom Strategic Export Controls Annual Report 2014”, published in July this year, the Government set out that their policy on arms exports to Israel would be “subject to further review”. Will the Minister confirm whether that remains the case?
Finally, will the Minister comment on the invitations issued to countries to attend the biennial Defence and Security Equipment International arms fair this week? We heard from a number of Members that they include countries on the FCO’s list of countries of concern on human rights grounds. What criteria were used to judge whether those countries, given that they are on that list, could be invited? Were any countries not invited because they were on the list and the Government thought it inappropriate? Given what the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) said, will he confirm that no cluster bombs or torture equipment are being displayed or sold at the fair?
The debate has been extremely important, and we are all grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley for giving us the chance to raise these matters. Like everyone, I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Thank you, Sir David. It is a pleasure to be able to call you that, and I am delighted to work under your chairmanship today. I begin by joining others in paying tribute to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). She has a formidable reputation in this House going back many years. She has been consistent not only on this issue, but on wider humanitarian concerns. It is no surprise that she is at the forefront of this debate today. I echo the tributes paid to Robin Cook and the work that he did on this area and to Sir John Stanley, who continues to be active in these areas. I met him only a few days ago to discuss these matters.
To make it clear, I will not have the opportunity to answer all the questions, but as I have done in the past, I will write to Members personally and individually—I am looking at my officers behind me—to ensure that each question is answered in detail. I have done that before and I will honour that today. Ten minutes does not do these debates justice.
I will touch on some of the important contributions, and I echo the comments on the standard and importance of this debate. It is a healthy debate for the House to have. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) mentioned cluster munitions, as did the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn)—I have got to know him so well that I wanted to say my right hon. Friend; I am pleased to see him in his place and welcome him. I can confirm that cluster munitions are not on sale in any form at the DSEI exhibition. The exhibition is patrolled to ensure that every bit of kit meets the required standard and that such equipment is not on sale.
My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham also mentioned Bahrain, an example of a country that is on the list of concern, but also a country with which we have a strong military relationship. We do sell it military equipment—air force, navy and army components—but, as in all the cases of countries that are on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office list and with which we have a defence relationship, we make sure that our robust controls are honoured. That allows us to have a strong and robust relationship with countries. Bahrain is a great example of where that allows us to be frank and up front about human rights concerns. I will write to my hon. Friend with the detail on how our experts are working with the Bahraini Government to improve human rights. That is welcome, and we can do it and be frank with them because we have built up that relationship.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) talked about Daesh and the potential for UK weapons to fall into their hands. I would be grateful to know of any examples. There have been many suggestions that UK equipment might have fallen into the wrong hands, but we need to make a distinction between press reports and evidence. If the hon. Lady has any actual evidence, she should please provide that to us and we will certainly look into it. I am not aware of any evidence on that front.
The same goes for Yemen. I touched on this in an intervention on the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). The coalition was put together at the request of the Yemeni President. UN Security Council resolution 2216 states that all means and measures should be taken to support the country. The Houthis were asked to return and back away from the areas that their military had taken over. They refused to do so, which is why military action was confirmed. There is the potential that the military equipment that has been sold could be used, but that would be deemed a legitimate use of those weapons systems. It comes down to the fundamental right, guaranteed in article 51 of the UN charter and mentioned by the shadow Minister, for any country to have the means and the right to defend itself, or to provide support to other countries for the same reason.
If the right hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not because I have so much to get through. If there is time at the end, I will certainly come back to him.
The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) is no longer present, but his views on this matter have been consistent. He spoke about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which certainly worries me. All the humanitarian aid is currently coming through the port of Aden. Until the port of Hodeidah is liberated, the humanitarian crisis will not be avoided. In fact, we are one step away from famine breaking out in Yemen, affecting some 20 million people. The international community should certainly be concerned about that, but we can all be proud of the British humanitarian contribution in providing aid and support to that country.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) spoke about the connection between conflict and poverty, on which I agree with her. She also made it clear that, as a clinical psychologist, she has experience and brings expertise to the House, which is very much to be welcomed. I absolutely agree with her ambition to remove those children who are in uniform and put them into school uniforms. If I may, I will write to her with more detail on the programmes we are involved in to make that happen. That is exactly what we should be doing.
The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) began by quoting Matthew 5:9—“Blessed are the peacemakers”. I wrote that down and underlined “makers”. How do we make peace? That is a big debate in its own right. She also discussed the causes of the crisis and looking at ways to deal with the source of the problem, not just those who are running away from it. The House will soon have to look in detail at what more we might want to do in relation to Iraq and Syria.
The hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) spoke about another very important area: what has happened in Israel. There was huge scrutiny of the most recent events that unfortunately unfolded in front of the world’s eyes. We have to recognise that Israel lives in a very difficult neighbourhood, confronting Hamas on one side and Hezbollah on the other. Arms exports came under huge scrutiny during those events, but Israel does have the right to defend itself, and we conducted the necessary reviews to ensure that our robust rules, which have been mentioned a number of times, actually fell into place. The hon. Lady spoke with particular passion and, may I say, expertise, and if she would like to meet to discuss the issue in more detail, I would be delighted to do so.
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, on whom I intervened, also spoke about UK weapons being used for oppression. I return to the fundamental question about our ability to have influence in a country by having not only a defence relationship with it, but a relationship right across the spectrum, in order to have influence on the improvement of human rights. Again, if he is aware that any UK weapons systems are used for oppression, it is important that he makes me aware of that.
I visited the United Arab Emirates only last week, and what is happening in Yemen, from the military campaign to the humanitarian issues, came up in our discussions. I am interested in any and every aspect of what we are doing in Yemen. If any reports with bona fide evidence suggest that that is happening, we would be the first to ask how our arms exports are being used. That applies not only there but in every situation, which absolutely must be the case.
The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) discussed a specific case. She said she would write with more detail; I do not know whether I am the Minister to whom she was going to write, but I would be more than delighted not only for her to write to me but to meet her to discuss that case.
The hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) spoke about Saudi Arabia. I do not have enough time to go into everything now, but I have a whole list of areas—such as human rights, labour reform, migrant worker reform, political reform, and the elections taking place in which women are participating for the first time—in which things are moving forward. They are not moving forward as much as everyone would like; sometimes progress is slow, particularly in countries with a more conservative approach where reform can be difficult, but we are making inroads and progress. I will write to the hon. Lady with specific details about what is happening in Saudi Arabia.
The Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), spoke in detail about the arms trade treaty. I think I can answer his outstanding questions in the affirmative, but, again, I will write in more detail to clarify the Government’s position in relation to all his questions.
The shadow Minister gave a very measured response, which I was pleased to hear. He underlined the importance of article 51 on the right of individual countries to defend themselves.
I am left with exactly one minute for my speech, but I will try to articulate the main messages by reiterating that, as Members would anticipate me saying, we take arms export responsibilities very seriously. We aim to operate one of the most robust, vigorous and transparent systems in the world. Our core objective in export licensing is to promote global security and prevent controlled goods from falling into the wrong hands, while at the same time facilitating responsible exports and supporting British businesses. I make it clear that as we develop relationships with various countries, we very much scrutinise what is actually happening, and if we think there is something untoward, we try to correct it.
This debate proves that we need more debates of this kind. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] The quality of the debate has been excellent and I thank everyone who took part, on all sides. I want particularly to thank the Campaign Against Arms Trade. There are other organisations, but CAAT in particular informs us so well about what is going on.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Dangerous Driving Penalties
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered penalties for dangerous driving.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in this Parliament, Mr Hollobone.
On 13 February last year, the lives of two families living in my constituency were devastatingly changed forever as a result of a most appalling act of dangerous driving. My constituents Kris Jarvis and John Morland were out that day enjoying their regular pastime of cycling. They were cycling back home to their young families. Both men were wearing safety helmets and clothing that made them visible to motorists. Sadly, that did not save them from being mowed down by a stolen sportscar, driven by an individual by the name of Alexander Walter.
Walter was driving at 70 mph in a 30 mph zone. He was almost two and a half times over the legal blood alcohol limit. He was found to have taken cocaine in the 24 hours before the appalling incident. He had 67 previous convictions, one of which related to his having phoned Heathrow airport to deliver a hoax bomb threat only days after the devastating 9/11 tragedy. He was also serving a four-year ban from driving. Every time I read this litany of Walter’s transgressions, it leaves me absolutely numb with shock.
Kris Jarvis and John Morland died as result of the injuries they sustained, killed by the actions of a dangerous driver. As a result of Walter’s actions, Tracey Fidler lost her fiancé Kris and their five children—Kyle, Ryan, Luke, Emma and the youngest, Adam, who was nine years old at the time of this tragedy—lost a father. Hayley Lindsay lost her fiancé John and their two young children, Harvey and Jazmin, who was seven years old at the time, lost their father. Both couples had planned to marry this year. Tracey and Hayley are here today watching this debate.
Unless someone has gone through the same horrific experience as Tracey and Hayley and their families, it is impossible to imagine how difficult it has been at times for them and their children to cope with this harrowing tragedy. I have got to know Hayley and Tracey and members of their extended family over the past year, and I know that at times it has been a case of taking each day as it comes. The pain of their loss is with them constantly. They have been helped by their families and friends, and I pay tribute to all of them, including Karen Rowland who has accompanied them to Parliament today. Tracey and Hayley are remarkable women: incredibly brave, wonderfully caring and hugely determined: determined to make sure that John and Kris’s lives were not lost in vain; determined to get justice for the families of future victims whose lives are cut short by the actions of dangerous drivers such as Walter.
Talking of justice, I should note that for killing two people and ruining the lives of two families Walter was sentenced to 10 years and three months in prison. Given how the current justice system operates, he will probably be out in less time than that. To add insult to grievous injury, Walter decided to appeal against his sentence. Thankfully, he was not successful. In contrast, Tracey and Hayley and their families started, on 13 February last year, a life sentence without Kris and John. In their case, life really does mean life. Simply put, this is not justice. This is not fair. This regime of sentencing for those who cause death by dangerous driving has to change. It has to get much tougher, and Tracey and Hayley believe it needs toughening, too.
Tracey and Hayley started a Government e-petition last year calling for a change in the law so that a dangerous driver receives a maximum sentence of 14 years for each person they kill, with the sentence to be served consecutively, not concurrently as happens right now. If the terms of the e-petition became law and if a dangerous driver killed two people, he or she would face up to 28 years behind bars. Thanks to Tracey and Hayley’s tenacity, the e-petition had reached over 102,000 signatures when it closed in March. I want to thank the national media, in particular The Sun, and our local papers, the online getreading and The Reading Chronicle for all that they have done to publicise the petition.
It is a remarkable achievement to reach over 100,000 signatures on a Government e-petition, and it is all the more remarkable that that was done by a few individuals. It was not backed by any national organisation or campaign team, but by two women and their friends and families, who care so much about this matter. It also demonstrates that constituents across this great country of ours want the law strengthened when it comes to sentencing for dangerous driving.
Tracey and Hayley have brought their campaign for justice for victims and their families to the heart of Government. We had a constructive meeting last year with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice, who also responded in an extremely sympathetic tone to a short debate that I held last November on sentencing for dangerous driving offences. In February this year, Tracey and Hayley met the Prime Minister to set out their reasons for why the law should be strengthened. They were joined in this meeting by the family of Ross and Clare Simons, who have been greatly supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) in their own campaign to strengthen the sanctions against dangerous drivers. I am sure that my hon. Friend will speak about that case. I know that Tracey and Hayley are incredibly grateful and touched by the personal interest that the Prime Minister took in both cases.
When we debated the matter previously, many colleagues brought examples from their constituencies, which demonstrates clearly that we need the law to be strengthened. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy),who unfortunately cannot be here today due to other commitments, asked me to highlight the case of his young constituent Laura Thomas. Laura, who worked in a school for children with special needs, was killed by a truck when the driver was browsing the internet on his phone. It was a shocking waste of a young life. Laura’s mother, Lisa, and her family certainly want tougher enforcement and tougher penalties in future cases.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), who unfortunately also cannot be with us today, for launching a big campaign and working extremely hard with the families of victims. Indeed, he has produced a charter of the sort of changes that they would like to see when it comes to strengthening sentencing.
As I am sure we will hear from the Minister today, a Government review of sentencing for all driving related offences is currently under way. After the aforementioned meeting with the Prime Minister, he wrote, as he had promised, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), the then Justice Secretary, setting out his thoughts following the discussion with Hayley and Tracey. I want to read from part of the Prime Minister’s letter, which mirrors what Hayley and Tracey are asking the review to consider.
The Prime Minister wrote:
“I agreed that the following issues should be considered in depth as part of the review we are carrying out on sentencing for driving-related offences: The maximum sentence length available for causing death by dangerous driving (currently a 14 year sentence); Whether offenders convicted of causing death by dangerous driving should be denied automatic early release from prison at the half-way point in the sentence”.
If such a provision were in place now, we would not be facing the thought of Mr Walter coming out of prison before his 10 years and three months had been served.
To those issues, the Prime Minister added:
“The question of whether sentences should be awarded concurrently or consecutively in cases where a number of people are killed as a result of dangerous driving, whilst recognising that the courts normally determine this issue; The discounts provided for late guilty pleas in these types of cases; The length of the driving ban given to offenders, and the potential for ensuring that no period of their sentence counts towards the driving ban.”
I would be grateful if the Minister, in summing up, confirmed that those suggestions do indeed form part of the review. We would all be grateful if he also set out the timetable for when the review will be published and how long the public consultation process will be. What actions will his Department take to publicise that consultation?
Can the Minister also confirm—this is an incredibly important point—that if the public consultation suggests that constituents up and down the country consider any of the changes to the sentencing regime for dangerous driving proposed in the review to be too lenient, the regime will be strengthened further? We want justice—that is what the 102,000 people who signed the petition want—and I hope that is reflected when the consultation is completed.
Tracey and Hayley have done everything to keep the memory of Kris and John alive. They have held a range of events locally in Reading. Tracey has been nominated for a Pride of Reading award—an award given to those living in Reading who have done exceptional public service. She has been nominated because of the campaigning she has done on changing the law so that the families of future victims get more justice than Kris and John did.
Tracey and Hayley know that none of that will bring back Kris and John—that is something they will have to live with all their lives. However, they do not want the loss of Kris and John to be in vain. They want justice. They want a change in the law so that we are much tougher on those who kill through dangerous driving. I have pledged to them that I will fight by their side for justice for as long as it takes. If we are able to achieve a change in the law, and it is indeed strengthened, it would be fitting if that law was referred to as “John and Kris’s law”. That would be a tribute to the memory of two family men whose tragic deaths led to a national campaign to strengthen sentencing for dangerous driving.
Order. Let me set out for Members the terms of the debate. We will get to hear Mr Sharma sum up for three minutes at the end. Under the rules, the Scottish National party spokesman, the Opposition spokesman and the Minister are all entitled to 10 minutes each. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen just before 4 o’clock, with the debate due to close at 4.30 pm. Six people stood to speak. I will not impose a time limit, but six sevens are 42, so if those six Members all speak for about seven minutes, you will all get in. This is such an incredibly important subject that I want everyone to have their say. We will start with a Member who has probably seen more car accidents than anyone else, given his previous career as a firefighter—Jim Fitzpatrick.
Thank you very much, Mr Hollobone. It is good to see you presiding over our business this afternoon. I will certainly do my best to follow your stricture about time.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma). I congratulate him on securing the debate and on his continuing campaign on this issue. This is not the first time he has raised it, and he continues to lobby all of us to make sure that, if we can, we support him in his endeavour. He makes a powerful case that the punishment should fit the crime.
I look forward to hearing the Minister and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), respond to the points that Members raise in the debate. It is good to see colleagues here, and I welcome them to their places.
The issue that underpins the question of penalties for dangerous driving is road safety. In itself, that is not controversial. There are no party politics involved in this issue; there may be differences of approach and emphasis, but we all want the same outcome: safer roads and fewer casualties.
When individuals break the law, the appropriateness of their punishment arises. As the hon. Gentleman said, that is not about vengeance or retribution, but about society making a statement. Attitudes to road safety have been changing. Drinking and driving used to be the norm; now it is socially unacceptable, but that took time. Getting people to wear seatbelts took even longer, and thousands of people were killed in the meantime.
The language around these issues is critical. In the fire service, in which I served, we used to talk about RTAs—road traffic accidents. They are now classified by the police and the fire service as RTCs—road traffic collisions. That language is important, because the majority of crashes, collisions and incidents have an avoidable cause: people drinking, taking drugs, speeding and using mobile phones. We are talking about deliberate decisions by human beings—drivers—that impact on innocent victims. In that sense, these are not accidents. Although some accidents do happen, the majority of fatalities and serious casualties are caused by people doing something deliberate. The word “accidents” is now passé for the emergency services, and, given how important language is, it should be passé for us too.
I am grateful to the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety and the Cyclists Touring Club—the national cycling charity—for their briefings for the debate. Both make what is for me the most important point: enforcement is the most effective deterrent. Penalties and tariffs are important, but enforcement is critical.
That takes me to the issue of policing. CTC’s briefing says:
“CTC’s Road Justice campaign has for several years been highlighting the fact that roads policing has suffered disproportionate cuts in recent years, compared with overall police numbers. Traffic police officer numbers fell by 37% from 2002/3-2013/14”.
This is not a party political point; these things have happened under different Governments. The CTC goes on to say that traffic police numbers have fallen
“from almost 7,000 uniformed officers down to just 4,356…total policing levels fluctuated a little from year to year, but not to this degree”—
overall police numbers fell by about 3.5%, but traffic police numbers are down by nearly 40%.
Both PACTS and CTC cite individual cases where the punishment does not fit the crime, and the hon. Gentleman movingly recounted many such cases, drawing on his own experience and that of other colleagues. Of the punishment, the CTC says that the length of the prison sentences and the length of the driving bans is totally inappropriate.
The CTC also raises the review the Government promised, which the hon. Gentleman also mentioned. The previous Justice Secretary announced a review of road traffic offences and sentencing. In a previous debate, also moved by the hon. Gentleman, the Minister’s predecessor promised widespread consultation on sentencing, but no word has been heard since. The hon. Gentleman asked the Minister for an update, and I am sure we would all be grateful for one.
I pay tribute to all the campaigning organisations, many of which have been founded by victims’ relatives and have campaigned for years, and even decades. When I was road safety Minister, I had my first request from a victim’s family for a meeting to discuss their relative’s death. I have huge regard for the civil service, but my civil servants said, “Don’t do it, Minister.” I asked why not, and they said, “If you meet one, you’ll have to meet them all.” My line was, “If I meet one, I will meet them all.”
These people have a lesson to teach the rest of us, and if we understand their suffering, we can use it to emotionally drive us to arrive at the right conclusions and to get the balance right between crime and punishment. They were some of the most moving meetings I ever had, and they were inspiring at the same time, because bereaved families want to make sure that no one else suffers as they did, as the hon. Member for Reading West explained. I look forward to the Minister’s updating us on the review.
Preventing road traffic collisions in the first place and protecting pedestrians, cyclists and other road users is essential, and enforcement is the key to that. We have all seen how road users behave near speed cameras, in average-speed camera zones and when a high-visibility police car is travelling on the same stretch of road that we are on. Their attitude is completely different from that of the minority of drivers who just do not care about the rest of us. The real deterrent is visibility and visible, effective policing.
I would like ordinary citizens to be able to empower the police more. Some constabularies operate a system by which if several members of the public report someone they have seen in the pub getting into their car, the police will send the driver a warning letter to say, “You have been reported to us; we are watching you.” That has an impact, and I have been told, and have read, evidence of that. I want ordinary citizens to be more empowered to report drivers they know are breaking the rules. That system might help to restrain the minority of selfish, dangerous and potentially killer drivers, before they ruin lives.
As to prosecutions, PACTS writes:
“There are reports that the reductions in CPS budgets and staff are impacting on the level of Dangerous and Careless Driving prosecutions.”
I should be grateful if the Minister commented on that observation, in the light of the evidence cited by the hon. Member for Reading West about reduced numbers of bans and the complications of concurrent bans. [Interruption.] I see the Minister’s officials nodding, so perhaps a note will be coming in a moment; I look forward to a response to what PACTS has asked.
The debate is about penalties for dangerous driving. All the evidence informing public opinion is that more could and should be done to prevent dangerous driving, but the social mood has changed about those cases where it happens and convictions are secured. The punishment should fit the crime.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Hollobone. I am delighted to take part in this important debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma). He has been a champion on this issue, as he says, since the tragic deaths of two of his constituents who were killed by a dangerous driver. Any positive changes that may come about on penalties for dangerous driving will be attributable to his and his constituents’ hard work. Such events affect families for ever; it never goes away.
Last week in the main Chamber, I held an Adjournment debate on road traffic safety outside Morley primary school in my constituency. I want measures to be taken outside the school to prevent another tragedy. When anyone’s child is killed it affects the whole community, and speeding and the death of a child outside the school would be witnessed by many children. I want to prevent that. One of the main issues I focused on was enforcing penalties for dangerous drivers and what can be done to reduce instances of dangerous driving. If penalties are not enforced and drivers think there will not be consequences for not sticking within the law on the roads, there will be more deaths on our roads and more debates like this one, calling for something to be done to prevent them.
In the previous Parliament, the then Secretary of State for Justice announced a review of dangerous driving sentences, and the outcome of that review process has yet to be finalised. For many victims and families of victims injured, sometimes fatally, by a car driver, it can be baffling, and a source of disappointment and anger, when, often, the driver is charged with a minor traffic offence rather than the more serious crime of dangerous driving. Making sure there are tough and clear penalties for dangerous driving should go hand in hand with practical efforts to tackle it.
One of the key ways in which, I think, we can combat dangerous driving is by increasing the use of cameras that can detect when someone goes through a red light and is speeding. While speed cameras are utilised for recording motorists speeding, bringing prosecutions for dangerous driving strongly relies on there being witnesses to the incident. In rural areas, such as in Morley, that is not always possible, and I agree with the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who said that cameras can and will change behaviour.
Every constituency has areas of high risk where the chance of someone being hit by a car is much higher. In my constituency the busy A608 leads traffic to and from Derby city and runs through a crossing where schoolchildren cross twice a day, which means that there are up to 200 crossings a day. I do not want to bog this speech down with statistics, but I will highlight a few instances that really frighten me. Outside Morley primary school, over a 40-minute period, with a police van present and children crossing, a car ran straight through a red light at speed, driving at over 59 mph.
The children are used to crossing the road, day in, day out. They stop when there is no green man. They start walking, or running, towards the school or home, when the beeping starts and it is safe to cross; but it is not safe to cross if a car is going through the red light. The children are well disciplined; it is the drivers who are not. During the same 40-minute period, four other drivers travelled at over 40 mph outside a school where there is an explicit 30-mile-an-hour limit. It is my hope that the school’s campaign to have the speed limit reduced to 20 mph will be successful—but it will be successful only if the county council is listening.
Just as importantly, I want the drivers to be properly prosecuted. Kate Marsland, the head, has to spend half an hour at each end of the day trying, alongside the accompanying parents, to protect the children. The drivers know there is a school on the road and they put the lives of the children in great danger by what they do. We only know they were breaking the law because of the school’s requests to have the area monitored by the police. However, the police cannot always be there to monitor the situation. Cameras on areas of high risk can really help to catch dangerous drivers before they kill someone. They can also greatly help with prosecutions by showing not just the speed of the car but whether the driver is doing anything illegal at the time, such as using their phone or texting. The clearer the picture of what happened, the easier it is to prosecute.
Moving control for enforcing traffic penalties directly to local authorities could also make a difference. As it currently stands, traffic penalty enforcement is under the remit of the police who have limited resources to spend on traffic violations. They have many other important things to do. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), said in July that he wants to make effective enforcement of traffic laws a priority to help keep our roads safe.
Would the Minister consider looking at the issue again, and assess the possibility of giving local authorities the power to enforce traffic penalties or even take forward prosecutions, which might persuade drivers to be more careful and obey the law? Giving greater power to local authorities, so that they can allocate more resources to catching dangerous drivers, will help get the message across. If people drive dangerously they will be caught and face the consequences. Maintaining consistency in the penalties given to dangerous drivers will also make people think about their actions before deciding to check their phone or glance at the paper while driving at speed.
I want such measures because I do not want never to have raised the issue and a child to be killed. That is what will happen, with many children witnessing it. They will never get over that and neither will the parents or the school. I want the law changed to allow enforcement against dangerous drivers to be increased.
I thank the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) for securing the debate. I will touch briefly on what I call the three Es of traffic safety—education, engineering and enforcement. Enforcement has been well dealt with by Members on both sides of the Chamber today.
In particular, my experience has come from my time in a local authority. I was the council leader who brought in the 20 mph zone across the whole borough, which was in some ways popular and some ways unpopular. That measure, however, brought to the fore the importance of traffic speed. A 20 mph limit may not be introduced in the whole area, but zones should be considered. Certain schools have zones, which is a positive development in our engineering.
Capital funds must be made available for engineering. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) commented on the fall in the number of enforcement officers. The capital spend for local authorities to fund the necessary engineering for safety, however, has also dropped in recent years. I am talking about real basics—kerbs, traffic lights, cycle lanes and so on. All such engineering changes to make pathways and roads safer must also be funded.
On education, obviously much can be done in schools. It does not stop the bad behaviour later by people who are driving as criminals almost, but it improves general awareness early on of the importance of road safety. Again, such programmes need to be funded. I am aware that cycle funding, for example, has been reduced in the past few years, which is a pity, particularly in built-up areas such as the London boroughs and other metropolitan areas. Even in rural areas much can be done to teach about cycle, pedestrian and indeed driver safety.
Education about better signage is not necessarily a miracle fix for everyone, but where we have not paid attention to adequate and high-quality signage it can be confusing for motorists. We need to look into that and improve the general feeling of safety in a particular area. In more built-up areas, signage is becoming increasingly important, because we have a high turnover of different sorts of drivers who might need more education in how traffic moves, in particular as the light changes at different times of the year. The statistics for road traffic accidents show a spike around this time of year, as we go into the shorter days. I wonder whether we could do more on education in that regard.
On driver education, we can do all we like, but if drivers are going to behave criminally, as the hon. Member for Reading West suggested, there is not much we can do. We can, however, try to explain sometimes to young drivers in particular the long-term impact on people’s lives when these terrible accidents occur. Some of our statistics show that it is our younger drivers who are sometimes having these terrible accidents, perhaps because they have not encountered the extreme human pain involved.
Those are the three Es of education, engineering and enforcement. Obviously, my knowledge of them is to do with the cycling and pedestrian experience, but they also relate to drivers. I thank you, Mr Hollobone, for allowing me to speak, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for proposing the motion.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, praise my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) for securing this important debate. I also praise those who lie behind it, not only for backing the debate, but for their petition.
This important issue has been raised with me by constituents on a number of occasions. I, too, have raised it with the Ministry of Justice, and I will refer to that later. A huge concern is that with the increase in traffic comes an increase in dangerous driving, which can have a big effect on our constituents. Only yesterday I was at a meeting of the joint all-party group on rural issues and policing, where a startling statistic was revealed, that the fear of crime in rural areas was much increased over the reality—although in the case of dangerous driving, the reality is all too visible. More than 63% of people who had responded to the survey had a fear of road traffic crime. It was a huge and sad number, and behind it is the public reaction to lenient sentences in the area. Happily, the Select Committee on Justice, of which I am a member, has picked up on the matter a number of times. Only this week, we had the opportunity to question the Attorney General on lenient sentences.
A letter that I received from the Ministry of Justice in 2013 explained:
“When considering the appropriate charge, it is the driving behaviour that is the deciding factor, that is, whether the driver was careless or dangerous, rather the outcome of the incident however tragic.”
I suspect that at some point that ought to lead us to a review of sentencing guidelines, which are produced independently of government. The Justice Committee is a statutory consultee of the Sentencing Council, which produces the guidelines, and I shall certainly take it upon myself to respond and to try to achieve the things that my hon. Friend set out in this debate, so that is an important contribution that I can make.
We need to do something to take forward work on the subject, which has never been more required. I can illustrate this with a couple of cases from my own postbag. For example, a constituent wrote to tell me that his nephew had been run over and killed by a hit-and-run driver. His nephew was a 22-year-old student who was knocked down on a pedestrian crossing by a driver who went through a red light at twice the legal speed. The killer received a sentence that means he will spend less than two years in prison. That example from my constituency makes the very point that my hon. Friend was making and shows why the law needs to be changed.
Another constituent wrote to me asking for an urgent review of how such criminals are allowed to turn the law on its head. One wrote:
“To make a difference we need larger fines to act as a deterrent”—
although I am not sure that larger fines are the only answer. We should submit proposals to the Sentencing Council to review the guidelines.
My constituency has the fifth worst record in Britain for serious incidents involving people being killed and seriously injured. The issue of sentencing and fines has come to my postbag as well. For example, an individual was banned from driving for 12 months and ordered to pay a fine of £300 for a drink-driving incident in south-east Sussex. In another incident, the driver who was behind the wheel of his car while twice over the alcohol limit was banned for six months. Another individual was caught with herbal cannabis and admitted to smoking the drug, but was only banned for 12 months and fined £300. I would like some clarity on sentencing and some sort of order to the convictions—sentencing is erratic and often depends on which part of the country an individual is in. Clarity would be useful.
I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent remarks and for providing yet more examples of what my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West was discussing when he opened the debate. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to the various cases. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) made about the criminal process is a good one, and one on which I would like to see action.
I fully support the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West and his call for consecutive sentencing, because that will help to overcome some of the problems that he illustrated. I echo his call for the information requested to be provided, so that we do not have such a situation again.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this very important debate, which is my first here in Westminster Hall. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) on securing it and on the powerful argument that he made.
During my previous career as an insurance broker, all too often I saw the aftermath of avoidable dangerous and careless driving offences. I was frequently left amazed by the lenient sentences handed out to the offenders and by an apparent reluctance to apply the law fully. Low penalties for motoring offences send the message that these are minor infringements, rather than serious offences that cause needless suffering and loss of life.
Brake, the road safety charity, says that Government figures show that only three in five people convicted of killing someone for risky driving are currently jailed, with an average sentence of just four years. Many drivers who kill or injure receive low or no custodial sentences at all. Major improvements are needed to charges, penalties and sentencing to ensure that justice is done and that there is a strong deterrent against risky and illegal driving.
For my main contribution to this debate, I would like to expand on the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West and other Members, and point out further inadequacies in the laws surrounding motor offences. I would specifically like to refer to the case of Sean Morley, a 20-year-old constituent who was tragically killed as he crossed a road on his way home in 2012. Sean, a keen rugby player and about to start his final year at university to study history and politics, was struck by a car as he crossed the A444 near Bedworth. Although the driver of the vehicle initially stopped at the scene, he subsequently left without checking on Sean, despite his car being so badly damaged that he was unable to open the door. After managing to drive home to nearby Coventry, one of the two passengers in the car returned to the scene later on that night with another person, but denied seeing Sean. He was eventually discovered by the roadside at 6.20 am the next morning by a passing lorry.
Mr Morley’s parents were advised that it was likely that he lived for at least two hours after the accident, and the decision by either the driver or the passenger not to call the emergency services was critical. At best, it could have saved Sean’s life, and at worst, it would have given his loved ones the opportunity to say goodbye. The driver handed himself in to police at 2.30 pm the following day and was found to have drugs and alcohol in his system. He was subsequently convicted for the incident and given a 16-week custodial sentence. He was also banned from driving for 12 months. That cannot be fair and highlights a huge imbalance in the law.
In the instance of Sean, the only offence that the courts could prosecute on was hit and run, for which the maximum sentence of six months was not even handed out. As Sean’s mother Kerry points out:
“The worst thing is that in the eyes of the law Sean’s death was not important. If you kill someone in a car it’s not deemed as serious as punching someone, and I think that’s wrong. I’m not talking about people being jailed for life if someone steps out in the road in front of them, but people who text while driving, or speed, or drive when drunk or drugged.”
They need tougher sentences imposed. She continues:
“Just because someone has been killed by a car or a lorry doesn’t make it less of a death than if they’ve been killed by a knife or a gun.”
It is difficult to disagree with her.
The law is inadequate when drivers are almost encouraged to flee the scene of an accident if they have drink or drugs in their system, rather than to stay to face the consequences. The penalty for leaving the scene of an accident, as I have referred to, is currently up to six months in prison. Had the driver stayed and reported the accident and either drugs or alcohol had been found in their system, they could have been prosecuted for the higher offence of dangerous driving, which carries the greater sentence of 14 years—hardly an incentive to hang around and do the right thing.
As my hon. Friend rightly stated, even the 14-year maximum for dangerous driving is not always a sufficient penalty for the crime, but in the case of my constituent, it would have been a welcome increase on the paltry sentence that was handed down. I know that substantial work on the penalties of driving was done by the Leader of the House of Commons when he was Secretary of State for Justice. He worked with Sean’s family, my predecessor and me—his contribution was greatly appreciated by all—but there is much more that we can do.
First, we need an appropriate sentence for drivers who hit a person and leave them to die. Currently, the charge is the same as it would be for knocking off someone’s wing mirror. The driver who killed Sean knowingly left him to die, yet because he would probably not have lived even with medical intervention, due to the severity of the impact, the charge of manslaughter was not followed. Yet the driver’s actions were still the same. What I, Sean’s family and many other people would like to see is that where drivers leave the scene, guilt should be assumed. Currently, it is up to the police to find the driver and prove fault, and then it is at the behest of the Crown Prosecution Service as to what charges will be allowed.
Secondly, at least three others, excluding the driver, were involved that night, knowing that Sean was lying somewhere along the A444. None of those people has ever been brought to account for their lack of action that night in not calling for an ambulance or the police. In the eyes of the law, their only obligation was moral, not legal. Sadly, it seems that Sean was the only one with no rights that night.
Finally, the court process needs to be more controlled. In this case, and, I am sure, in many more around the country, the driver simply played the system. He chose not to plead either way, turned up without legal representation and then finally made his plea at the end of the hit-and-run court process to get credit for pleading guilty on the day. He also received a lesser sentence for his drugs conviction as he had no criminal record, despite the court process for the hit-and-run case having started before the drug trial. As a result, the driver served absolutely nothing for killing Sean as he was already in jail for the drug offence at the time.
I am sure that this tragic case, as well as the representations made by other colleagues today, perfectly highlights the desperate need for a review of the laws concerning motorists. We have more cars than ever on our roads, and, in the wrong hands, they are a dangerous and deadly weapon. The law must reflect that when passing sentence.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) for going to the Backbench Business Committee and the Committee itself for giving us this time today. The fact that we have Members from all parties here shows the strength of feeling involved, which goes beyond party politics. Members can be from Labour, the SNP, the Conservatives, or the Liberal Democrats and still passionately know that a grave sense of injustice remains in the judicial process and the sentencing process that currently applies to dangerous driving.
As local Members of Parliament, we all know that nothing is more tragic or terrible than when constituents come to us with such awful cases. We know that we must act, because our constituents do not have that voice to be able to raise these issues in Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading West has, superbly, voiced this issue continually over the past year, and we have gone to meetings with the Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary in order to keep ensuring that this issue is raised at the highest level. We are having this debate today to make sure that we carry on raising it, and we will continue to do so if no action is taken.
As the Member of Parliament for Kingswood, I very clearly remember Sunday 27 January 2013. I looked on the internet and saw, on BBC News, that there had been an incident involving Ross and Clare Simons, two of my constituents, who were riding a tandem bike down Lower Hanham Road when they were hit by a dangerous driver, who was actually disqualified at the time. I am not afraid to name him—Nicholas Lovell. He had 70 previous convictions, many for dangerous driving, and had been disqualified four times previously, yet he was able to get in a car, despite being disqualified, and drive at 70 miles an hour in a 30-mile-an-hour zone and knock Ross and Clare off that tandem bike. The pictures that were recently published in the Daily Mail were absolutely horrific. Edwin, Ross’s father, had the courage to release those photos, showing the impact that the tandem bike had on Lovell’s car. It was wedged straight through the grille and into the engine, such was the velocity of that impact.
Lovell fled the scene. He was eventually arrested and we went through the trial process. I pledged, as the Member of Parliament, that I would do all I could to bring justice to the case of Ross and Clare, because they did not get justice in that court case. The maximum sentence of 14 years—it had gone up to 14 years—was applied for the first time in the case of Nicholas Lovell. Because he pleaded guilty in the last week of the trial, that went down to 10 years and six months and, because the sentences were served concurrently instead of consecutively, Lovell was serving the two sentences back to back and, due to good behaviour, may be out within five to six years. The family of Ross and Clare Simons, including Edwin, Dawn, Colin, Kelly Woodruff, Ross’s sister, and his nephew, Callum Woodruff, feel that it is in effect two lives for the price of one.
I understand that there are reasons for the concurrency law taking effect, but two lives were lost. In a tragically similar case a year later, nothing changed. In the case of John and Kris, two lives were lost, yet the same penalty was applied, and the judge in the court case said that if he had been given the chance by the judicial system to impose a tougher penalty, he would have done so, but he had to give the maximum sentence that he could at the time—14 years.
In the previous Parliament, as the local Member of Parliament, I campaigned on the issue of disqualified driving. Because Lovell was disqualified, he should never have been in the car in the first place. That was automatically an act of dangerous driving, because of his being disqualified. Previously, it was only a two-year sentence if someone was disqualified and killed someone; it has now gone up to 10 years. We had a petition, which was signed by 18,000 residents in my local area, and we took that to Downing Street. That shows that the law can be changed. This is not an isolated example. We can go further.
I am determined to work with all hon. Members, but particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West, in pushing for a change in the maximum sentence. My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) made the point very clearly. A person could take any other weapon and kill someone and they would get life. If they get in a car, they will get 14 years. Where is the justice in that? That, for me, is the tenet of this debate: we need to look at the maximum sentence. I understand from having had several meetings with the previous Justice Secretary that the Justice Secretary has the executive power to raise the maximum sentence. That is isolated from whatever happens with the Sentencing Council. I realise that there has been a significant and unhelpful delay in the Sentencing Council reporting back, but the Justice Secretary can take action now, and that action now is what we are demanding as local MPs.
So many families across the whole country are suffering now. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West said, they are serving their own life sentences. We see the justice system throw back at them this insult that someone can kill their relative, get just a couple of years in prison and end up back on the streets and, potentially, back in a car. That is just too horrendous to imagine.
I speak today as the Member for Kingswood, on behalf of my constituents. I cannot imagine what it must be like for families to deal with this day in, day out. I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take this matter back to the Ministry of Justice. We have the Prime Minister on our side; we met him in March. The previous Justice Secretary came down to the site and stood in front of where we had marked what had happened and paid tribute to Ross and Clare Simons, who were killed. He did an excellent job. We now need to see that that work is followed through in the Department, that it is taken seriously and that our demands are met.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, Mr Hollobone, and it is a pleasure to do so under your chairmanship. I commend the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) for securing this important debate. I admire how he has gone about the campaign and today’s debate and the obvious care and concern that he has shown for his constituents, whom he is obviously representing today.
That said, the families here today could be any of our constituents. Hon. Members who have served for many years as MPs or local councillors—or, indeed, through their own family connections—have had vast experience of tragedy striking because of the callous and unacceptable behaviour of a few. Where a serious injury results or, more devastatingly, a life is lost, the impact on the family and the experience of loss inflicted on them can be excruciating. Families are often left asking the simple question, “Why?” There is never an adequate answer that we as Members of Parliament can give that will fill the void left by the loss of a much-loved father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife or friend.
The case brought by the hon. Member for Reading West before the House today involved not just one family, but two. The case was described by the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) as well. The loss of two lives just doubles the pain that families face.
Drinking and driving lies at the core of many deaths on our roads. In summing up the debate, I want to focus some of my comments on that aspect. In Scotland last December, the blood alcohol limit was lowered from 80 mg to 50 mg in every 100 ml of blood. That new law brings Scotland in line with most of Europe. Projections suggest that it will reduce the number of arrests and prosecutions, as we have already seen in the Republic of Ireland, where drivers have adjusted their behaviour to take account of the lower limit. From my own social circle, I know that the change in the law in Scotland is causing similar changes in behaviour there. The pre-festive season campaign that will be run on TV, on radio, in the print media and on motorway overhead gantry signs is that “none” is the best advice when it comes to drinking and driving.
Evidence in Scotland is that 20,000 Scottish drivers are stopped by Police Scotland every month. That is equivalent to one driver every two minutes. Chief Superintendent lain Murray, head of road policing in Scotland, said to the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee that
“research shows that drink driving and alcohol counts across the board tend to drop following the introduction of lower limits.”
The North report cites that reducing the drink-drive limit in Scotland would save anything between three and 17 lives on Scotland’s roads every year. There are families with us today who would give anything to have just one life saved if the clock could only be turned back. The North report also cites that having one alcoholic drink and then driving makes someone twice as likely to be involved in a fatal car crash. Surely that is too much of a risk to take.
I do not want to take anything away from the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s debate by raising a constitutional issue. However, in Scotland we have only the power to set the drink-driving limit itself. We would love to have extended powers also to consider differential limits for young and newly qualified drivers and for professional drivers such as those driving heavy goods vehicles, taxis and buses and to consider random breath testing or to change the penalties available to the courts for drink-driving offenders. I reiterate that I raise that not as a constitutional point, but in order to ask the Minister to explore all the possibilities.
Hon. Members also spoke about speeding. Certainly the introduction of “20’s Plenty” zones has been successful in changing driver behaviour, but as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) said, such initiatives need to be, and be seen to be, enforced with appropriate policing resources. In my own local authority area, the number of children whose lives are lost through dangerous driving remains at zero, and long may that continue. It is a direct result of a “20’s Plenty” scheme across the county.
Hon. Members have given their own accounts of harrowing cases where lives were lost—absolutely unnecessarily, some would say—and we now have to consider whether the law as it stands is adequate to deal with these tragic cases, whether the punishment fits the crime and whether there should be a change in the way in which the courts consider serial offenders.
Following the success of the e-petition, the hon. Member for Reading West has met the Prime Minister and, more recently, the Justice Secretary. Thanks to the hon. Gentleman’s interventions and those of the families, a full review is now under way. The calls by the hon. Member for Reading West should be supported. To back his calls, we need clear information about the consultation process and an assurance that the outcome will be listened to. A timetable must be laid down to ensure that any recommendations from the review can be translated into the law of the land as timeously as possible. Without wishing to prejudge the recommendations, the law must be amended where necessary to give greater recognition to the rights of innocent parties who are the victims of reckless behaviour, and to ensure that appropriate and consistent sentences are applied.
It would, of course, be greatly preferable for time, effort and energy to be put into preventing such dreadful accidents and tragic losses from occurring in the first place. I hope that the Minister will also comment on some of the prevention measures that could be taken to reduce the number of serious accidents and deaths on our roads.
It is always an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) on securing the debate and on the work that he has done for at least the past 12 months to raise this issue.
In my experience, the Prime Minister is always very receptive to Members on this subject. I saw him a few years ago on behalf of a constituent, and he was helpful in ensuring that the law was changed. I represented constituents, whom I will not name in the debate because I have not had the opportunity to check whether that is permissible, who were involved in a very serious road traffic incident. On that occasion, unfortunately, the Crown Prosecution Service decided, for whatever reason, not to continue the prosecution that it had begun. Had it continued with the prosecution, however, the court, on conviction, would have been able to sentence the offender to only two years.
In that scenario, the dangerous driver had caused very serious injury but had not, fortunately, brought about the death of the people in the vehicle. The maximum sentence at that point was two years. Fortunately, after I lobbied the Prime Minister, he allowed provisions from my private Member’s Bill to be introduced into the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 as a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving. The maximum sentence for that offence is five years.
This is not a party political issue. Members on both sides of the House raise serious concerns about driving offences on behalf of their constituents. In my experience, the civil service sometimes tend to be a little reluctant to listen carefully to what is raised by Members of Parliament, but Ministers—including the Prime Minister—have been very receptive.
I have professional experience of dealing with road traffic offences from my time as a criminal lawyer. I recall, on occasion, standing up in the Crown court representing a defendant and listening to the prosecution outline the facts of the case, which were sometimes horrendous and for which one would expect heavy penalties. If I was defending—often, I would be prosecuting the cases—I would begin my mitigation on behalf of the defendant; I remember the expressions on the judges’ faces when I started to say, “This is not the worst case you have ever seen, your honour. It is mitigated by various factors.” The judge would say, “Thank you very much indeed, Mr Turner. The maximum sentence, as you know, is two years. It is worth an awful lot more than that, but my hands are tied.” He or she would often sentence the defendant to 12 months or less, even though the victims of those horrendous crimes and their family members had to deal with serious injuries.
I am pleased to say that the law has now changed, but it is not good enough yet. In this country, 23,000 people suffer serious injury or are killed in road traffic incidents each year. The previous Government did a great deal of work to reduce that figure and improve road safety, but this Government have taken their eye off the ball in certain regards. It is startling that the average sentence for road traffic offences is four years. In my respectful submission, it is of great concern—I suspect that this is, in part, the result of cuts to the CPS and the police—that defendants charged with dangerous driving when they attend court will often, after counsel and solicitors for both sides have had the opportunity to discuss the case, have that charge reduced to careless driving.
There is a huge difference between the two offences. Dangerous driving is where the offender’s standard of driving falls far below the standard of a reasonable, competent driver. Careless driving is where the offender’s standard of driving falls below that standard. Dangerous driving is not a momentary lapse of concentration; it is going out with a dangerous weapon, driving it completely recklessly—in some cases, quite deliberately, in my experience—and causing that offence to occur.
I do not want to take up too much more time, because I want the Minister to answer the points that each and every Member has made. The Opposition support the Transport Committee’s inquiry into road traffic enforcement, because that is an issue. I have made the point—I do not mean it to sound party political—that the CPS is struggling. I think it is fair to say that CPS lawyers are accepting pleas to lesser offences when they should probably be pursuing dangerous driving cases to trial and allowing the jury to decide whether the offender was driving dangerously.
There is a question about funding to local authorities. I think I am right to say that most local authorities are reporting that their attention to, and efforts on, road safety have been reduced by as much as 90% since 2010. That is of serious concern to all of us in the House.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister. Will he confirm whether the Department is considering a review into the effect of policing and cuts on driving offences? That would definitely assist the Government. As I have said from the outset, the Prime Minister, in my experience, is keen to do everything that he can to assist in such cases. Secondly, I believe that the hon. Member for Reading West requested a timeline for the Government’s review of sentencing for driving offences. Will the Minister confirm when he plans to publish that review and what mechanism his Department will use to initiate the legislation?
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. The subject is, as I have said, absolutely not party political. We all do our best to represent our constituents as well as we can.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Thank you for the efficient way in which you have chaired our proceedings.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) on securing this important debate. The seriousness with which dangerous driving is taken is evident from the strength of feeling among Members on both sides of the House. I pay tribute to him for his persistence and for how he has brought this matter before the House. Indeed, I thank all hon. Members for the non-party political way in which these serious matters have been addressed.
My hon. Friend was right to say that it is not possible for us to imagine the pain of the families who have lost loved ones to such terrible experiences. I regularly meet victims, and I will continue to be available to do that to try to give myself the best possible idea of what they have been through. He mentioned the 102,000-signature petition, which is a significant achievement. I note that he has been to see the Prime Minister. The shadow Minister spoke about the Prime Minister’s supportive attitude on this matter.
I am also grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), whose constituent, a teacher, was killed on account of someone browsing the internet while driving a lorry—an atrocious thing to have done. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading West asked three particular questions and, yes, the five issues that he raised are being considered as part of the Government’s review. Secondly, I hope to be able to move to the public phase of the review soon, and we will do everything possible to attract the widest public attention. Thirdly, the reforms are likely to require legislation and so will be debated by Parliament. All hon. Members will have a chance, as they have had this afternoon, to put the views of their constituents in that debate.
The Minister says that he hopes the review will move to its public phase soon. Can he be more specific about the definition of “soon”? When I was the Minister for a time, a civil servant drafted an answer for me that said, “The answer to the parliamentary question will be published in the autumn.” I asked, “When is the autumn?” They said, “23 December, Minister.” I said, “Well, that’s usually Christmas.” They said, “It’s the end of the autumn Session, Minister.”
The word “soon” is even less specific than “autumn” and certainly “this year.” It would be nice to know whether that means the calendar year or the parliamentary year.
The hon. Gentleman is a former Minister, and he knows how such things work. I am sorry that I am not able to be more specific, but I can tell him and every other Member here that I get it. There is clearly huge concern on both sides of the House about dangerous driving. A commitment has been made to have the review, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that my officials and others are working on that in earnest. I would be extremely grateful if he were good enough to accept that for now.
The hon. Gentleman made an excellent speech, and he is right that we all want safer roads. He spoke about the language we use in such matters, and I agree that using drink, drugs or phones does not make it an accident. Getting the language right matters, and I hugely agree that enforcement is critical, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West also said. As a former road safety Minister, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) brings great experience and knowledge to this debate. The issue of prevention resonated most strongly with me, and the public reporting of drivers who break the rules is an interesting idea. He also said that the punishment should fit the crime.
I assure hon. Members that Ministers and officials in the Department for Transport will be sent the transcript of this debate so that they can study what has been said, because that is an important aspect of our proceedings. The hon. Gentleman specifically asked about prosecutions and, despite the increased number of cars on our roads, the number of incidents and, more significantly, the number of deaths on our roads have fallen very significantly. As a result, there are fewer prosecutions for causing death by dangerous driving, but the sentence length has increased, which is part of a long-term trend.
I listened with great interest to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham). Safety near schools is incredibly important, and I commend her for continuing to campaign on that issue. She made an important point, which links to the point raised by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, about the need for effective enforcement. Again, I will ensure that that point is passed on to the Department for Transport.
The three Es mentioned by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West)—education, engineering and enforcement—are right. She also made a useful contribution to our proceedings. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) told us of a personal experience from his constituency. He speaks as a member of the Select Committee on Justice, so I welcome his contribution. I am struck that 63% of respondents in his constituency expressed a fear of road traffic crime. I agree that that is a significant finding, and one of which we should take note.
I thank my hon. Friend for that correction, which makes the finding even more significant. Like him, I was deeply shocked by the case he mentioned of someone driving at more than twice the legal speed limit through a red light, killing someone, and the sentence that was passed down. I tell him, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire, that sentencing guidelines make it clear that driving without care in the vicinity of a pedestrian crossing, hospital, school or residential home are all to be taken into account as aggravating factors when determining an appropriate sentence. I note her further comments on these matters.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) also made an excellent contribution, and he highlighted the tragic case of Sean Morley. We were all extremely moved by his description of the highly distressing circumstances of that utterly terrible case. I have taken very careful note of what he said.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), in another powerful speech, told us of an horrific incident in which a couple riding a tandem bicycle were tragically killed in his constituency. He said that the former Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), has visited the spot. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood that the similarities between a knife, a gun and a car are fairly strong when it comes to taking someone’s life or causing horrific injuries. I note the judge’s comments in that case, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s persistence in raising such matters. He said that the Justice Secretary can raise the maximum penalty, but that is not correct; it is actually for Parliament to set the maximum penalty for an offence, but I understand his point.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), who speaks for the Scottish National party, talked about the reduction of the legal alcohol limit in Scotland. Those powers are devolved to Scotland and are the responsibility of colleagues in the Department for Transport. I will pass on his comments.
The shadow Minister also has a long-standing record of personally campaigning on dangerous driving. He told us that he has previously been to see the Prime Minister, which led to a change in the law. I pay tribute to him for that, and for the contribution that he has made on the issue. A recent inspection report on Crown Prosecution Service practice has recommended better training and more specialist road traffic prosecutors. I am sure that he will be grateful to know that, and I will write to him on the further specific details for which he asked.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to go in some detail through the matters brought before us in this debate. On the particular case that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West brought before the House, the driver entered a guilty plea to a number of offences, including two counts of causing death by dangerous driving and driving while disqualified. He received a sentence of 10 years and three months on 16 April 2014, and he was banned from driving for 15 years.
Turning to the specific issues that my hon. Friend raised, he will know as well as I do that sentencing is a matter for judges, who are independent. The judges decide on a sentence, having considered the full details of the case and the offender. They are best placed to decide on a just and proportionate sentence. The duty on the courts is to follow guidelines or, if they do not, to say why. That leads to greater transparency in the sentences likely to be imposed, and will hopefully lead to increased consistency in sentencing practice.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, the appeals procedure allows the Attorney General to make a reference to the Court of Appeal in serious cases if a sentence is unduly lenient, or if the offender believes the sentence is unduly harsh. In this case, the offender appealed the sentence. I was particularly struck by the care taken in the case by the Court of Appeal to consider not only the appalling driving involved but the harm that it had caused to the families. I know that the appeal would have been a difficult experience for the families, and I hope that its dismissal has brought some reassurance.
A reduction for an early guilty plea is not just about saving money and time; it is designed to ensure that wherever possible, victims, their families and witnesses are not required to relive or be cross-examined about dreadful events in court. It can also lead to swifter justice. In keeping with the current law and guidelines, the driver in this case had his sentence reduced for pleading guilty to the offence at an early stage. A guilty plea at the earliest opportunity will normally attract the maximum sentence reduction of one third, but judges retain discretion in regard to that reduction. In this case, as the evidence against the driver was overwhelming, the judge exercised that discretion and did not apply the full discount. Taking account of a lesser discount for the early plea, the 10-year sentence imposed is close to the 14-year maximum penalty for the offence. The Court of Appeal gave a clear judgment upholding both the sentence and the judge’s decision not to grant the full reduction for the early guilty plea.
Turning to my hon. Friend’s calls for changes in the law, I should say that he raised two main points. The first relates to the imposition of maximum and minimum penalties; the second is that when more than one person is killed, the court should make the sentence for each additional death follow on from the first, so that they are served consecutively rather than concurrently. On maximum penalties, it is worth stressing that although sentencing is a matter for the courts, setting the framework within which the courts work is for Parliament. The 14-year maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving was set by Parliament to cover the worst imaginable case of that specific offence.
When deciding what sentence to impose within the maximum available, the court is required to take account of all the circumstances of the defence and any mitigating or aggravating factors. Where there is more than one victim, that will be taken into account and will aggravate the seriousness of the offence, meriting a longer sentence. The sentencing guidelines for causing death by dangerous driving specifically mention that the courts should take account of the higher harm caused by the offence where there is more than one victim. That is exactly what the court did in this case; it took the very high harm caused by two deaths, applied a smaller than normal reduction for the early guilty plea and arrived at a sentence close to the maximum.
It would be contrary to our system of justice to impose a maximum penalty for any death in any circumstances, in road traffic or in any other offence. The Government do, however, want maximum penalties that allow the courts to respond appropriately to the full range of cases as they are likely to take place. Where there is a clear failing in the law, Parliament has moved to remedy it. In the past, where offenders have left a victim with serious injuries, the maximum penalty for the offence has related to the driving, not the harm caused.
In the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving was created, with a five-year penalty, as the Opposition spokesman told us. That change in the law means that there is now a range of offences and maximum penalties dealing with dangerous driving that more properly reflect the harm caused. In addition, under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, the maximum penalty for disqualified drivers who kill or cause serious injury has been increased. The previous maximum was only two years for causing death, but it has now been increased to 10 years. The measure came into force in April 2015. I hope that hon. Members will see that there has been action in response to the quite proper parliamentary pressure in that area.
I am aware of your strictures, Mr Hollobone. Everyone else has obeyed them, so I feel that I should as well. I could say more, but it is right that I give the remaining time available to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West. I thank him again for what he has said. I realise the strength of feeling on this extremely important matter, and I will continue to engage with him and other hon. Members on it.
We have had an excellent debate involving some excellent contributions from across the House. I agree with all colleagues who have made the point that there is cross-party consensus on this issue. Those watching this debate and those here today are seeing Parliament at its very best: we are debating issues that matter to all our constituents, and we want to find a common solution.
We have heard examples of too-lenient sentences being handed out, and we have heard of judges who think that the sentencing regime is not strong enough. I refer to the point made by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick): the social mood has changed absolutely, and we need to go with that. What we are hearing from across the country, through colleagues and in the petition, is that the country wants stronger sentencing for such offences. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood made the very good point that there is a grave sense of injustice in the judicial process right now. That absolutely must change.
I am delighted to hear from the Minister that there will be a review outcome soon; I hope that that means before the end of this calendar year. I am delighted that it will be widely publicised, and I am pleased that it will require legislation, because that will give all of us the chance to debate these matters again in detail. He is absolutely right that judges decide sentences, but he has also made the important point that the framework for that is set by Parliament. That is what we are here to do, listening to the wishes of our constituents across the country.
I am pleased that the Minister has listened, and I know that he has kindly agreed to meet with the families after this debate, but ultimately it is about ensuring that the punishment fits the crime. That is what we all want, and I hope that when the legislation is reviewed, that is what we will all get.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered penalties for dangerous driving.