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Death by Dangerous Driving: Sentencing

Volume 636: debated on Wednesday 28 February 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered death by dangerous driving and sentencing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I thank the House of Commons digital team for their support in publicising this debate on social media. They put details of the debate on the House of Commons website, and I understand that 5,500 people saw that post and several hundred engaged with it. From the key themes identified, those who have lost loved ones said that they felt they were serving a life sentence, and they did not feel that the person convicted of causing death by dangerous driving received an adequate sentence.

In support of tougher sentencing, Carole said:

“Definitely. We are now a family living a life sentence. The dangerous driver that caused my 19-year-old son’s death served 22 months and is out living their life.”

Patricia said:

“My 17-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver. He got two years, four months, while I am doing life. I’m so angry.”

I thank those members of the public who took the time to comment, especially those personally affected by this topic.

In securing this debate I intended to support a campaign initiated recently by the Express and Star, following recent tragic cases in the black country. I therefore make no apology for borrowing from articles that that paper, and others, have published on this subject. The Express and Star’s “Stop the Speeders” campaign has attracted thousands of signatures, and it urges the Government to introduce tougher sentences for killer drivers. I am also extremely grateful for the support of Walsall Labour councillor, Doug James, who has spoken of his support for the campaign.

Support for tougher sentencing is echoed right across the country, and I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay) for his work in this area following a very sad case in his constituency. On 20 February 2011, 22-year-old Jamie Butcher was crossing at a pelican crossing in Wisbech when a speeding driver careered into him, throwing him 43 metres through the air and killing him instantly. He had been walking into town after a family dinner with his parents when the driver, who was travelling at twice the 30 mph speed limit, ran a red light and killed him. The driver was sentenced to just 43 months in prison. Following their son’s death, Steve Green and Tina Butcher joined road safety charity Brake, and campaigned relentlessly for a change in the law. Partly as a result of their hard work, in December 2016 the Government launched a consultation on driving offences and penalties relating to causing death or serious injury.

For the purpose of this debate I would like to draw attention to the summary findings in respect of the penalty for death by dangerous driving. Consultees were asked:

“Do you think that the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving adequately reflects the culpability of the offending behaviour or should it be increased from 14 years’ imprisonment to life?”

Some 70% of the 8,305 respondents to that question thought that the maximum penalty for the offence of causing death by dangerous driving should be increased to life imprisonment. Only 15% of respondents thought that the current 14 years was adequate. Those who agreed with an increase in the maximum penalty commented that that would provide the courts with tougher sentencing powers in the most serious cases.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that in many of these instances the charge should be manslaughter, not death by dangerous driving? If someone were to kill another person in any other circumstance through dangerous or reckless behaviour, they would be charged with manslaughter, yet it seems that that is not the case on the roads. With a charge of manslaughter the court could give a maximum of life imprisonment rather than 14 years.

I completely concur with my hon. Friend, and I will touch partly on that issue later in my speech.

It was also argued that an increased maximum penalty would better reflect the culpability of dangerous driving behaviours and the disregard that some motorists had for others. A number of respondents also suggested that deliberate driving actions directed at other road users should be charged as murder or manslaughter. Under the current law, the Crown Prosecution Service can, and will, charge a person with manslaughter where the evidence supports that charge. However, as many of those who did not agree with an increase commented, in many driving cases the offending behaviour, which may be highly irresponsible, does not suggest that the vehicle was intentionally used as a weapon to kill or commit grievous bodily harm, so it would not amount to murder or manslaughter.

It was also suggested that causing death by dangerous driving should attract the same sentence as murder or manslaughter because the harm caused—the death of the victim—is the same in all three offences. Increasing the maximum penalty for this offence would enable the courts to impose a life sentence or any lesser sentence, including a determinate sentence of any length. However, increasing the maximum penalty does not guarantee sentence length, as decisions on sentencing remain with the independent courts and are made on a case-by-case basis.

Some also suggested that consecutive sentences should be imposed for each death caused. It is an established principle of law that sentences are served concurrently when they relate to the same course of events, and consecutively when they relate to separate incidents. The court will impose a sentence length that reflects the seriousness of the offending behaviour. Therefore, in circumstances where multiple deaths were the result of a single incident, concurrent sentences will be imposed by the court, but it will take account of the number of victims when setting the overall length of the sentence.

Where are we today, and why are we still debating this subject in Westminster Hall, rather than the Chamber of the House of Commons? Four months after the publication of the consultation findings, the law remains unchanged and, as of today, no Government time has been allocated to implement those changes. That can be of no comfort to the family of John Hickinbottom, whose killer recently received a seven-year sentence for killing John in Walsall while speeding. The court heard that on Friday 9 June 2017, Craig Edwards got behind the wheel, despite pleas from his mother to hand over the keys to his BMW because he was drunk. He travelled just a quarter of a mile before losing control of the car as it sped at almost twice the 30 mph limit along Bentley Road North in Walsall.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing up this issue for consideration by the House. In Northern Ireland, the reduction of the drink-driving limit has reduced deaths and accidents significantly. Importantly, it has also reduced the police’s workload. Does he agree that liaising with the devolved Administrations to ascertain their direction would be helpful, and that reducing the drink-driving limit to 50 mg in England and on the mainland would be a step in the right direction?

That is an interesting suggestion. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that when he replies to the debate.

Taking a right-hand turn, Craig Edwards careered on to the pavement, hitting Mr Hickinbottom, a retired builder from Bentley, who died three days later last June. Mr Howard Searle, prosecuting, said that Edwards left the wrecked BMW clutching a bottle of Baileys and, when told by an eyewitness that he had knocked down a pedestrian, replied, “So?”

The 29-year-old defendant from Walsall had 15 previous convictions for 34 offences, including two previous cases of dangerous driving. He was jailed for just seven years after admitting causing death by dangerous driving, failing to stop at the scene of an accident, driving when disqualified, drink-driving and having no insurance. He was also banned from driving for four and a half years on release from prison.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. There can be no excuse for the Government not to take the matter forward, because that example clearly shows why this should be treated like manslaughter. That driver’s disgraceful actions merit nothing short of a manslaughter punishment.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. People need to understand that when they are in control of a vehicle, it is a lethal weapon, and that is manslaughter.

I thank my hon. Friend for the excellent speech he has delivered so far and the harrowing local cases he has explained. In Scotland over the last five years we have had 166 convictions for death by dangerous driving. However, many of the concerns he has raised in England are also pertinent in Scotland, where there are concerns about the overly lenient sentences. Does he agree that this is an issue that the devolved Administrations must also look at?

I completely agree. The crime is the same, regardless of where in the United Kingdom it is committed, and the impact is felt equally.

The time has come. The Government must now make Government time available to implement the change. We must ensure not only that those who kill while speeding face the full force of the law, but that there is a new charge for those who fail to stop at the scene of an accident. On that point, I completely agree with Brake, the road safety charity, which said:

“There needs to be a new charge of ‘failing to stop following a fatal or serious injury crash’. This would not have any requirement to prove the driver who failed to stop caused the crash, as there can be an assumption that if they fled, they caused it. This is necessary because, at present, British law acts as an incentive for the worst law-breaking drivers to flee a crash if they kill someone. If a drink or drug driver kills someone and remains at the scene, they are likely to be tested for alcohol or drugs, prosecuted for ‘causing death by careless driving when under the influence of alcohol or drugs’, and face up to 14 years’ imprisonment. But if they run away and sober up, and there was no other evidence of careless or dangerous driving, they can only be prosecuted for the minor offence of ‘failing to stop or report an accident’, which carries a paltry maximum sentence of six months. If someone steals a car, kills someone and remains at the scene, they will be identified by the police as driving a stolen car. They can be prosecuted for ‘aggravated vehicle taking’ and face a maximum 14 years’ imprisonment. Much better to flee, ditch the car, and hope never to be identified. Drivers who hit and run are despicable: to escape the law, they leave behind suffering and dying victims in need of urgent medical attention. The law must be changed to remove this incentive to flee.”

This Government are on the side of those affected by atrocious crimes of that kind. We sympathise completely with the families of those affected and we understand the need to send a strong message to the public that we will come down hard on those who show total disregard for the lives of others.

I will finish by asking two things of the Minister. First, I ask him to listen to the thousands of people who have already backed the campaign by the Express and Star asking the Government to implement tougher sentences for killer drivers. Secondly, I ask him to listen to the call from Brake, the road safety charity, to create a new offence of failing to stop following a fatal or serious injury crash. Let us work together to ensure that fewer families have to grieve for the loss of loved ones. Let us stop the speeders.

It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) for bringing this extremely important debate to the House. I also pay tribute to the work of the Express and Star and to the local Labour councillor, Doug James, who has done an enormous amount of work on the issue.

This issue combines the House across different parties, linking people from Scotland, Northern Ireland and England, and I am sure that colleagues from Wales would be here too, because, as my hon. Friend pointed out in his eloquent speech, this horrifying tragedy is something that does not stop at any national border. He has provided, much more eloquently than I can, a description of what that means for a family. We have seen cases in the last week where dangerous drivers have killed a toddler and a baby in a pram by charging across a road. Those are people whose recklessness with 1.5 tonnes of metal—an incredibly dangerous weapon —is unbelievable. The loss that it means for a family is something unimaginable. The hole it leaves in somebody’s life to have lost a child or a loved one in that way is unbelievable.

That is why we as a Government have committed to increasing the penalty for causing death by dangerous driving to a life sentence, and why we are now working to find time in the legislative agenda to bring that in. That needs to happen, and the fundamental reason for that is that families feel the system is not just. They feel it is not fair to them or to their experience. That has also been brought forward clearly by my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) and for Moray (Douglas Ross), by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and indeed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who raised it with me yesterday in relation to his constituents.

The one area where the Government would have some disagreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North is on the question of somebody fleeing the scene. There is already an offence for fleeing the scene, and although he pointed out that that in itself is a short offence, it is a very serious aggravating circumstance when the judge comes to convict. Were the judge to find that somebody had killed someone and then fled the scene, it would significantly increase the sentence that the judge was able to give. Once the opportunity for a maximum life sentence for causing death by dangerous driving is provided, fleeing the scene is an aggravating factor that would drive the sentence up towards a life sentence.

I know that Members of Parliament have challenged that, so I will be clear about what we are talking about. It is of course true that we are dealing with an enormous number of different types of situation. Those situations range all the way from somebody who is drunk, driving at twice the speed limit in a town and speeding through a red light, to my 25-year-old constituent who overtook, sober, at 5 in the afternoon and killed somebody coming the other way because he misjudged his overtaking. All of us in this House understand the importance of the judge and jury in making those difficult decisions in different cases.

We should be in absolutely no doubt about what dangerous driving means. Dangerous driving means that all those people, whatever they were doing, fell well below the standard we would expect of a careful and competent driver. They ought to have been aware of their physical surroundings, aware of the normal laws of causation, aware of the terrible danger posed by the vehicle they were driving, and aware that their dangerousness caused the ultimate thing—a lack of life.

The disagreement over whether that should be a case of murder is around the question of intention. This House believes that there is a difference between somebody who intentionally sets out to murder someone—to stab or shoot them—and somebody who is behaving dangerously in a car, who is overtaking, who may not intend to kill the person. However, the impact on the family is exactly the same; whether the individual intended to kill their family member or accidentally killed their family member, the impact is the same. That is why we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Members of Parliament who have campaigned tirelessly on the issue, which has been neglected by this House. That is also why we will be bringing legislation forward, and why I pay tribute again to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North, to the Express and Star, and to all the Members of the House who have campaigned on this important issue.

The Minister is right to point out that there are a range of circumstances. That is why courts should be given lengthy maximum penalties, to cater for the different scenarios that can arise. We have a situation where the maximum penalty for someone charged with causing death by driving without due care and attention and then fleeing the scene is just three years. Worse than that, any unduly lenient sentence cannot even be appealed by the prosecution. Therefore, we need the matter to be reviewed right across the board.

The Government’s belief is that, by increasing the maximum sentence to a life sentence for causing death in that situation, the distinction my hon. Friend is drawing between different types of crime—in particular, the question of manslaughter that he raised in his intervention earlier—will be dealt with. The maximum penalty of life that the Government will introduce will then allow life sentences to be imposed on an individual who did that, regardless of whether it was done in a car or in some other fashion. With that, I will conclude with another tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.