[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered road safety and the Government’s proposed sentencing review.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. In January 2014, I stood before the House of Commons and called on the Government to review the sentencing guidelines for maximum penalties for driving offences that lead to death or serious injury. I urged the Government then to make changes to the rules and guidelines set out by law that mean that drivers who end the lives of innocent people on our roads sometimes have their sentences reduced to mere months.
In Bradford, our local “Stop the Danger Drivers” campaign calls for tougher action to tackle these criminal drivers. Does my hon. Friend agree that tougher action is needed to tackle dangerous driving, which blights so many of our local communities?
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
It is again a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey.
In January 2014, I raised the issue of the need for a sentencing review for maximum penalties for driving offences that lead to death or serious injury. Many Members of Parliament stood with me and explained why the issue mattered to their constituents and why the review is so desperately needed.
Let me begin by talking about why this issue matters so much to me and my constituency. In the village of Overton in my constituency, a nine-year-old boy was tragically killed in 2009 while crossing the road. The driver who so carelessly mowed young Robert down was unlicensed and uninsured. He hit Robert, took his life and then drove away. He did not stop to help and did not report the accident. He resprayed his car to hide the evidence, attempting to cover up his crime. The driver who took Robert’s life incurred a pitiful sentence of 22 months, yet that was the very limit of what was possible under the law for that offence. That man hit a young boy and took his life, and after driving away and leaving that child to die he was sentenced to a grand total of 22 months and a four-year driving ban.
My constituent, Sean Morley, was similarly knocked over and left to die by a driver who left the scene. Does the hon. Lady agree that the sentence needs to reflect the severity of the crime? Currently, it is prosecuted under hit and run, so people get the same sentence that they would have got if they had knocked off a wing mirror.
I agree totally. That shows that this is a cross-party issue that affects communities across the country.
That driver served only 10 months in jail. Clearly, that cannot be right. Almost two years ago, I asked the Government to reconsider the arrangements for sentencing. Currently, those who cause death by driving in the way I have described face a number of charges and a wide scale of sentences, ranging from mere months to 14 years, but the reality is that sentencing guidelines mean that there must be a large and, frankly, improbable series of aggravating factors for a judge to issue anywhere near the maximum sentence. Tougher penalties are not being used, because judges are being held back by guidelines that prevent them from handing out longer sentences. I know from the many families I have spoken to that there are instances when tougher penalties were very much needed.
In 2004, the Labour party was right to fight for higher maximum penalties. The Government, encouraged by the tireless campaigning of many Members from all parties, were equally right to incorporate new rules on drug taking while driving into the Crime and Courts Act 2013 and to amend the Road Traffic Act 1988. We know that there is a tremendous amount of cross-party support on the issue in this House. Both of those Governments can be rightly proud of having introduced changes that go in the right direction, but there is much further to go.
I have spoken about Robert Gaunt from Overton in this House previously, and I wish I could say that that case is tragic but unique, but it is not. Innocent people have been killed by drivers who have been given low sentences across our country, and it has continued since I raised this issue in 2014.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this important subject to this Chamber. I just wish we had longer than half an hour to talk about it. My constituent, Joseph Brown-Lartey, was, sadly, killed by a dangerous driver. I have talked about him before and I am working on the Justice for Joseph campaign. I want to make the point that, as my hon. Friend said, she and indeed all of us present have been working on the issue for many years, but we do not seem to be getting anywhere with the Government. I hope that this debate will push it forward.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. Again, that highlights the point about diversity —she represents an urban constituency, mine is predominantly rural. These issues occur absolutely everywhere.
The average sentence served by a driver who kills or seriously injures another human being while driving is, believe it or not, only 11 months. Families are losing loved ones because of reckless, dangerous and negligent driving, and the law is not doing enough to hold those responsible to account. Innocent families are being let down by the system and the punishments given simply do not fit the crimes committed.
Let me explain the situation. If a driver is caught driving with
“a deliberate decision to ignore (or a flagrant disregard for) the rules of the road”,
the starting point for judges when sentencing is eight years. That can be longer for a number of reasons, such as when a person is killed or when the driver is driving a stolen vehicle. Let us reflect for a moment on how subjective that is—“a deliberate decision” about, or “ a flagrant disregard for” the rules of the road. If a driver is seen to be creating significant danger—the lowest level of seriousness—the starting point for a sentencing judge is three years and the maximum term is five years. If a driver is injured, the sentence is shortened. If the victim was a friend, again the sentence is shortened; and on and on we go.
As I said in 2014, it is absolutely right that our criminal justice system differentiates those who make a mistake, commit a crime and acknowledge it, and those who flee, hide and pervert the course of justice, as in the case involving Robert Gaunt in Overton. I wholeheartedly support the provision of a range of different sentences for driving offences—indeed, our country’s justice system is built on that—and I am calling for a logical development of the existing system and more consideration of the sentences given.
As a result of the rules and guidelines set out by the law, drivers who end the lives of innocent people on our roads have their sentences reduced again and again until, bit by bit, they decline to mere months. Drivers who plead guilty before their trials have their sentences automatically reduced by a third, and most will be released on licence after serving only half their given sentences. For the families of those who are killed, that is clearly not justice—nor is that justice for the rest of society.
After the injustice of cases such as that of Robert Gaunt and many others like it nationwide, people from my constituency launched a petition calling for sentences for this sort of crime to be increased. More than 1,300 names were added online and a further 2,000 collected on paper. The campaign continued, even though a change of Government meant an early closure of the online petition. Many of those who signed had probably never signed a petition before, and perhaps have not since, but they did so on that occasion out of a passion for justice for Robert and for other victims of road accidents throughout our country.
Almost two years ago, as I said, I asked the Government to look at the maximum penalties for driving offences that lead to death and serious injury. I asked for the same thing that the family of Robert James Gaunt was calling for back in 2009—but we are still waiting today.
In response to a recent parliamentary written question on this issue, the Government stated:
“It is our intention to commence a consultation before the end of the year which will look at driving offences and penalties.”
I welcome that, and I am pleased that the Government are still willing and open to do something. However, almost two years ago, that same commitment was made to me when I brought the issue to the House of Commons. I and other Members of Parliament who were passionate in support of a sentencing review were told that one would take place and that justice would be offered to those who had lost loved ones so tragically.
If we change the law and the sentencing guidelines are reformed properly, that will bring some measure of justice. I hope that that would give people who are uninsured or unlicensed grounds to pause before they get behind the wheel of a vehicle. So let me be absolutely clear why I am here today: we urged the Government to act; the Government promised to hold a review; and the review has not taken place. It is taking far too long.
Since 2009, my constituents have been calling for changes, and many others across the country and across party have been making the same plea. At a recent meeting of the all-party parliamentary group for transport safety, I had the opportunity to ask the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who has responsibility for road safety, why that has taken such a long time. He admitted that there had been considerable delay. In response to a recent question in the House of Lords by Lord Berkeley on this issue, the Government responded that the criticism that they had taken too long was “fair”.
The Government keep telling the House their intentions. I am pleased that they intend to conduct a review. I am pleased that their intention is to take this matter as seriously as everyone in this Chamber does, but it has been almost two years since I was promised in the House of Commons in 2014 that a review would take place. On that occasion, the Government told me that a sentencing review would start, but for all the promises we have been given, I have yet to see anything actually happening. Intentions are grand and fine things, and they are to be welcomed, but they are not much use if we do not get a real review and if sentencing guidelines are not reformed. It is now time to see real results.
I have been urging the Government to look at the issues since 2011. I will continue to raise them again and again until action is taken, and many, many colleagues in this House feel similarly. It is time for the Government to give us the review that Members of Parliament are calling for. It is time for the Government to deliver on the promises they made to me almost two years ago. Most important, it is time for us to give families the opportunity to receive the justice that they have waited so long for. It is time for a review, and I and many others will keep asking for it until it arrives. This is not about politics; it is about justice. It is time for us to move on with the issue. I have left the Minister a considerable amount of time in which to respond and, I hope, to make some commitment on a timeline for when justice can be expected.
I understand that Mr Jake Berry wants to contribute. To be clear, the revised time for the conclusion of the debate is 4.43 pm. We want to hear the Minister’s reply, so brevity would be much appreciated, but before I call Mr Berry, may I confirm for the record that you, Susan Elan Jones and the Minister, are quite happy for me to do so?
Thank you, Mr Bailey, for calling me. I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on an exceptionally good, thoughtful and thought-provoking speech. I want to add to it only briefly—I, too, want to give the Minister as much time as possible to respond.
I want to draw attention to an issue that I raised in Prime Minister’s Question Time on 25 November 2015. On 3 August 2015, an intoxicated John Morton offered Amy Baxter, aged 27, and Hayley Jones, aged 32, a lift home in his car. He crashed that car. The injuries that Amy Baxter suffered are so severe that she did not see her children for seven months, because of her head injuries. Even after that, it was too distressing for those children to see her. She is paralysed from the neck down. Her injuries have been life-changing. The issue is not just about death; it is also about serious injuries caused by dangerous driving.
Unbelievably, when Mr Morton pleaded guilty in March 2015, he was simply sentenced to a three-year driving ban, a fine and a 20-week overnight curfew. That is an appalling thing for the family to deal with. They feel that he really has had no punishment whatever for causing life-changing injuries to one of their family members.
But it gets worse than that. Three weeks after Mr Morton was given his overnight curfew, he went to Bolton magistrates court to have his tag removed to enable him to go to a stag party in Portugal. When the family came to see me, they said they felt like that was another sentence with which the magistrate had slapped them in the face. That is absolutely disgusting behaviour by our courts. I do not for one moment blame the magistrates, because I do not believe that they have the sentencing guidelines or flexibility to attach real punishment to people such as Mr Morton.
I wanted to contribute to the debate to say that I certainly have not forgotten Amy Baxter’s tragic injuries and the fantastic campaign that her mother, my constituent Pauline Baxter, has run. Following my question at Prime Minister’s questions to the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, I went to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who was at the time Secretary of State for Justice, and he told me, as he told the hon. Member for Clwyd South, that something would happen and there would be a review of sentencing. Amy Baxter’s is just one more appalling case, and I say from the Government side, reflecting cross-party support for the hon. Lady’s call: “For goodness’ sake, let’s get on with it.” We have had promise after promise. How many poor mothers like Amy Baxter have to see the drink-driver who caused them life-changing injuries not punished properly before the Government will take action? I hope that the Minister will respond with something concrete, because there is frustration on both sides of the House about the intolerable delay in the Government’s review of these sentences.
May I say how wonderful it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey? I thank the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) for securing this debate on road safety and the review of driving offences and penalties, and all hon. Members for their contributions. She first highlighted the tragic death of her constituent, Robert Gaunt, as far back as 2009. Young Robert’s death, which could have been avoided, must have been devastating for his family and friends, as she rightly and understandably outlined.
Many of us have had road deaths in our constituencies that need not have happened. It will be no comfort to victims and their families, but we should not lose sight of the fact that despite the significant increase in road users, our roads are getting safer and road deaths are at their lowest ever. In the time allotted to me, I will look at some of the issues that the hon. Lady raised.
On sentences and sentencing guidelines, once offenders are charged and convicted, their sentencing is a matter for the independent courts, which decide on sentences having considered the full details of the case and the offender. The courts are best placed to decide on just and proportionate sentences. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) also referred to the sentencing guidelines in his passionate speech. Those guidelines are produced by the independent Sentencing Council, and the courts are required to follow them in deciding on a sentence, but it is worth stressing that a judge may depart from them if it is in the interests of justice to do so. The council plans to review those guidelines in due course. One good thing about them is that they lead to greater transparency about the sentences that are imposed and ensure that there is some consistency. A review of the guidelines for motoring offences involving death is on the Sentencing Council’s work plan, as I have alluded to. That review was postponed following the Government’s own review, which I will talk about. New draft guidelines will be subject to a full public consultation shortly.
Both hon. Members raised the question of maximum penalties. It is worth stressing that although sentencing is a matter for the courts, we all know that Parliament sets the legal framework within which the courts operate. Maximum penalties are set by Parliament to cover the most serious imaginable behaviours for specific offences, which is why the maximum penalty is rarely imposed. When deciding what sentence to impose, the courts are required to take account of all the circumstances of the offence and the offender, and any mitigating or aggravating factors. Some people have suggested that the courts should impose the maximum penalty in every road traffic case that results in death. However, imposing the maximum penalty for any death in any circumstance for any offence would be contrary to our system of justice. Making all sentences the same would remove the courts’ ability to single out and highlight the most serious cases and offences.
The issue of release was raised, and it was suggested that those who plead guilty can get up to a third off their sentences at the judge’s discretion. In fact, under statute, all offenders serving determinate sentences are released automatically at the halfway point; that is not the case just for driving offences.
Despite what was said, the Government have taken some action, although we want to ensure that the courts are able to respond appropriately to the full range of cases that they are likely to face. Changes have recently been made to the law. In the past, where offenders caused very serious injuries, the offence with which they were charged related solely to their driving, not the harm they caused to the victim. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 created a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving, with a five-year maximum penalty. In addition, in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, the Government increased the maximum penalty for causing death or serious injury when driving while disqualified. The previous maximum was only two years; that has now been increased to 10 years. That came into force in April last year. Those changes mean that there is now a range of offences dealing with dangerous driving that have appropriate maximum penalties and more properly reflect the harm caused.
The hon. Lady raised the issue of failure to stop in the event of a so-called hit-and-run. Failure to stop is a summary-only offence with a six-month maximum penalty, because it is designed to deal only with drivers who fail to stop and report an incident. Where there is evidence that the driver caused death or serious injury, or the driver was found to have been driving carelessly or dangerously, separate charges apply. Where the driver seeks to evade detection, they may be charged with perverting the course of justice, which has a maximum penalty of a life sentence.
I touched on reduction of sentences as the result of a guilty plea, and I want to expand on that slightly. The sentencing guidelines provide a sliding scale of reductions, depending on the point at which the plea is made. The maximum reduction is a third, for a plea at the first reasonable opportunity; the recommended reduction falls to 10% when the offender pleads guilty on the day of the trial. Where the case against the offender is overwhelming, the guidelines provide for discretion on the part of the judge to give a lower reduction.
I am rather perplexed. The Minister is not providing total support for the existing guidelines. We are all very much under the impression that the Government want the sentencing guidelines to be reviewed. Can we have absolute clarity that they will be reviewed, and may we have a timescale for that?
If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I am trying to deal with the points she raised and how the law stands. I will then come on to what further action the Government will take.
On murder and manslaughter—an issue that has been touched on—I understand why in many cases causing death by driving is thought to be equivalent to attacking someone with a weapon. Under the current law, the Crown Prosecution Service can and will charge a person with manslaughter when the evidence supports that charge, it is the public interest to do so and there is a reasonable prospect of a conviction. Successful prosecutions have secured manslaughter convictions in driving cases.
Careless and dangerous driving has come up in such debates and there have been suggestions that the distinction between careless and dangerous driving should be abolished and replaced with one offence of bad driving. What amounts to dangerous driving is determined not by considering the driver’s state of mind or intentions, which in the context of driving is often difficult to ascertain, but by examining the nature of the driving.
The law sets out an objective test designed to compare the driving of the defendant in the specific circumstances of the case against what would be expected of a notional careful and competent driver. In general terms, if the court considers that the driving falls far below that standard and it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that the manner of driving was dangerous, it will find that to have been dangerous driving. Our law needs to reflect that while the harm caused in homicide cases and fatal driving offences is the same because someone has died, the culpability of the offender for the death may be significantly different.
Of course hon. Members want to know what happens next in the Government’s review. There can be nothing more tragic than the loss of a child, or any life, especially when that loss was avoidable. I know that there are concerns about sentencing for some driving offences and about the maximum powers available to the courts, as we have heard in the debate. It is important that those serious offences are considered in relation not just to the range of driving offences but to the full range of criminal offences to maintain proportionality within sentencing.
As I acknowledged in a debate only two months ago in this place, for too long those concerns have not been acted on. At that time, I reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to consult on the offences and penalties for driving offences resulting in death and serious injury and I do so again today. It is very much the Government’s intention that the consultation will be delivered, as promised in the previous debate, before the end of the year. I intend to honour that commitment.