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Driving Offences: Government Consultation

Volume 621: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)

Most drivers drive safely, and Britain has one of the best safety records in the world. It is good to see growing public awareness of the need for safety, and a growing number of community groups are working with the police to reduce the incidence of speeding on our roads. I refer, for example, to the excellent work of the Draethen, Waterloo and Rudry community voice project and the Machen community road watch, both in my constituency.

At the same time, with a growing number of vehicles on the road, there is growing public concern about aspects of the law as it relates to driving. In particular, the law and sentencing guidelines do not always provide a proportionate response to the crimes committed on our roads. In that context, I refer to an accident that occurred in south Wales a year-and-a-half ago.

In October 2015, an horrendous accident occurred in Georgetown, Merthyr Tydfil in which three young men from Gilfach, Bargoed in my constituency lost their lives. They were passengers in a car that crashed into a roadside telegraph post. Two of the young men were presumed dead at the scene of the accident, and the third man died of his injuries some weeks later. The driver of the car and the front-seat passenger both survived the accident.

The driver of the car was arrested some weeks later on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving. He was released on police bail and allowed to continue driving. I understand that the law has now been changed to prevent such an occurrence.

At the end of the trial, the judge stated that there was insufficient evidence to

“prove to the right standard that the defendant’s driving was dangerous”.

Instead, the defendant was found guilty of causing death by careless driving. The defendant admitted three counts of death on that basis and was jailed for 10 months. The charges of death by dangerous driving were dismissed by the judge.

The sentence that was delivered was, I am told, in line with sentencing guidelines and reflects the plea of guilty made by the defendant. But given the severity of the crime, the families of the three young men who had lost their lives were naturally shocked and appalled by the leniency of the sentence. Indeed, everyone who has read or heard about this case has been aghast at how such a lenient sentence could have been imposed. I am told that the defendant showed no remorse during the trial and, to make matters worse, he was released from prison having served only five months of his sentence.

Although I do not expect the Minister to comment on this case, I would like to make two further points relating to it. First, I am told that a material fact was not brought to the attention of the judge due to a police failing: some months before the accident, the defendant had been cautioned for a driving offence, but that caution had not been recorded properly by Gwent police and therefore it was not brought to the attention of the judge. The caution would probably have been inadmissible as evidence, but it may have had a bearing on the sentence delivered. The matter has been taken-up with Gwent police and with the police and crime commissioner for Gwent.

I am also concerned about the apparent lack of sensitivity and support for the families of the deceased young men shown by the Crown Prosecution Service. Having indicated to the families that a charge of death by dangerous driving was being pursued, the CPS did not then sufficiently explain to the families why a lesser charge was being imposed. This case is obviously germane to the Government’s consultation on “Driving offences and penalties relating to causing death or serious injury”. That consultation concluded at the start of this month. It was an important consultation and I have made a submission to it. The Government will now consider whether the sentencing guidelines ought to be modified.

The hon. Gentleman has brought a very important issue to the House for consideration, and we are all here because we support him and congratulate him on doing that. Does he agree that the average sentence of not even four years is certainly not enough of a penalty for those who take a life in this way? Does he further agree that we should consider a life sentence for those who have a history of careless driving offences, such as those he has referred to?

I have a great deal of sympathy with the point that has been made. One point I want to elaborate on later is the inadequacy of the sentencing for crimes of this sort.

I referred to the consultation and I am disappointed by it, as, unfortunately, the Government circumscribed it from the start. They did that by stating that they had already decided that there was to be no change in the legislation relating to the definition of careless driving and dangerous driving. Although the consultation paper from the Ministry of Justice acknowledges that the distinction between careless and dangerous driving has been

“the subject of extensive scrutiny and debate”,

the Government indicated that they had already made up their mind in favour of maintaining the status quo. This is most unfortunate.

The case regarding my constituents from Bargoed has, among other things, highlighted that the distinction between careless driving and dangerous driving is artificial and unhelpful in ensuring that sentences reflect the gravity of the crime they seek to punish. The definition of careless driving is set-out in section 3ZA of the Road Traffic Act 1988 and it stipulates that a person is driving carelessly if they are driving without “due care and attention'”. The law also adds that there is careless driving if the manner of driving falls below what could be expected of a competent and careful driver.

What constitutes dangerous driving is set out in section 2A(1) of that Act. It applies to a person whose driving falls far below what could be expected of a competent and careful driver.

The consultation paper makes the fair point that it is impossible to set out what might constitute careless or dangerous driving in every case because, quite obviously, every case is different. However, that is a strong argument for having a continuum of what I will call bad driving, rather than a division between careless and dangerous driving. As things stand, given that the threshold for proving dangerous driving is quite high, it is much easier to err on the side of caution and secure a conviction for the lesser offence of careless driving. That is an argument relevant to a prosecutor’s decision, as well as to a judge’s determination.

As I have said, I have made a submission to the consultation. An important submission has also been made by Brake, the road safety charity, in which it, too, argues that the distinction between careless driving and dangerous driving is questionable, particularly in cases relating to death and injury. Brake has also pointed out that there is a lack of consistency in the differentiation between careless driving and dangerous driving. Its submission says:

“the test lacks any bench-mark for consistency due in large part to the variability of facts on a case to case basis”.

In reality, the line between the low of what is expected of a competent and careful driver, and far below that, is impossible to pinpoint with any degree of accuracy. As Brake has pointed out, there is also a need to change our terminology. I accept that it is insufficient simply to advise the judiciary to refer to “bad driving”. Equally, it is inappropriate to talk of careless driving when we are referring to death or serious injury. The language of the charges needs to be changed to reflect the seriousness of the issue.

It is clear that the law needs to be changed. As it stands, the law, and the sentencing guidelines that emanate from it, do not command full public confidence. Surprising though it must seem, only a minority of people convicted of death by careless driving are given a custodial sentence, and the average sentence is little over a year. In 2011, the average length of a custodial sentence for causing death by careless driving was 15.3 months; in 2014, it was 10.4 months; and in 2015, it was 14.4 months. In the case I have highlighted, in which three young men lost their lives, the sentence was a mere 10 months.

I hope the Government listen to what members of the public are saying and take heed of what Brake is arguing for. The consultation may have concluded, but I very much hope that the Government will begin a more fundamental consultative process that will eventually lead to a change in the law. Any changes made will not correct the wrongs that have been done to the families of the three young men from Bargoed, but they will at least help to ensure that other families might not have to go through the torment that they have experienced over the past year and a half.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) on securing this debate about the Government’s consultation on driving offences and penalties relating to causing death or serious injury. In one way, the debate is timely, as the consultation closed last week—on 1 February. I want to take this opportunity to thank the thousands of people—more than 9,000, in fact—who took the time to respond. We received responses from road safety groups such as Brake, driving organisations, academics, Members of this House, police officers, prosecutors, defence lawyers and families who lost loved ones as a result of terrible driving offences. We also heard from from members of the general public who simply wanted to share what they thought about road traffic offences and penalties. I am grateful for the time and effort that all those people put into their responses.

I am sure that Members appreciate that I am not going to set out now, just a week later, the Government’s assessment and our response to the consultation. We will, of course, consider every one of those 9,000-plus responses. We will then produce a written response and bring forward proposals for legislative or other changes.

Before the consultation closed, I met a number of families who have experienced terrible losses as a result of driving offences. I was struck by how much they wanted to respond to the consultation because they needed to share their experience and wanted to make the law as effective as possible. As a Justice Minister, I cannot comment on individual cases, inlcuding the charges brought or the sentences imposed. However, from talking to those families and a series of debates that I attended last year, I know that many Members of this House will be aware of cases involving road deaths in their own constituencies.

I know that there was a particularly tragic case in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency when three young men were killed by a driver who was subsequently convicted of causing death by careless driving. I extend my deepest sympathies to the families and friends of those three young men who died when they were just at the beginning of their adult lives.

Although I cannot comment on individual cases, I do want to deal with the main points raised by the hon. Gentleman. He suggests that the Government should have expanded the consultation to include a consideration of the differences between careless driving and dangerous driving. The consultation does in fact deal with that important issue, particularly the suggestion that the distinction between careless driving and dangerous driving should be abolished and replaced with one “bad driving” offence.

I recognise, as is set out in the consultation, that this can be a difficult area of law. What amounts to dangerous driving is determined not, as is more normal in the criminal law, 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 that is designed to compare the driving of a defendant in the specific circumstances of their case with what would be expected of a notional careful and competent driver. In general terms, if the court considers that the defendant’s driving falls far below that standard, and it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that the manner of the driving was dangerous, the court will find it 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 offender’s culpability for the death may be significantly different. The consultation examined the option for a single bad driving offence. It set out in detail why the Government are not persuaded of a case for change. Those who propose a single test have said that it will lead to more convictions and longer sentences. As is set out in the consultation, we do not believe that that is necessarily the case. That is because the maximum penalty for the single offence would have to be broad enough to cover the most serious cases—we have proposed a life sentence for causing death—and also the least serious when the driver’s culpability for the death is very low. If we do not have a distinction in the offences between the seriousness of the offending, it is possible that the conviction rate may actually fall because juries might be reluctant to convict a driver in lesser cases—one where they can imagine themselves in the same position—for an offence with a very serious maximum penalty.

I acknowledge the Minister’s argument, which I have heard before. If we went out to consultation on this specific issue, which we have not really done, would it not be far better if the Government were informed by a wider legal debate as well as public opinion in case they might want to change the law in the future?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I suspect that if I were to look at his submission to the consultation, I would see that he has made points similar to those that he has raised in this debate. When members of the public have concerns, I am sure that they will have made us aware of them through the consultation process. That is absolutely fair—it is why we have a consultation—but a consultation has to start and finish somewhere.

The Government’s case is that if we do not have a distinction between the seriousness of offences, the conviction rate could fall. Sentences might not increase either, because the judge in the case would still consider the culpability of the offender when deciding the appropriate sentence. I would not want to mislead victims and families by suggesting that a broader offence would necessarily result in higher sentences.

I disagree that a single offence would mean that the Crown Prosecution Service would be unable to accept a lesser plea in circumstances when that was inappropriate. The CPS operates under the code for Crown prosecutors and will bring the most serious charge appropriate for the behaviour when there is a reasonable chance of securing a conviction that is in the interest of justice. It is worth noting that a judge may direct that there is no evidence to sustain a more serious charge in some cases.

In conclusion, let me repeat that there can be nothing more tragic than the loss of young lives—any lives—especially when that loss is avoidable. I know only too well that many hon. Members have seen cases where people have died in such circumstances in their constituencies, and where there are concerns about the sentences imposed. As I said in a debate at the end of last year, for too long these concerns have not been acted upon. At that time, I reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to consulting on the offences and penalties for driving offences resulting in death and serious injury. That is what the Government have done. We will analyse all the responses and come forward with plans in the near future.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.