Monday 8 July 2019
[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 236952 relating to dangerous driving.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Moon. The petition calls for life sentences for causing death by dangerous driving.
To lose a child is the worst thing that most of us could imagine. To lose a child at the age of only four, mown down by a speeding driver, is something we do not even wish to imagine. Yet that is what happened to Mr and Mrs Youens, who started the petition. To listen to their story is to step into a world of horror. To hear about parents called to a hospital knowing that something must be dreadfully wrong; to see their child grievously injured; to have to follow the ambulance transferring her to Alder Hey, unable to go into that ambulance because the doctors were still working to keep her alive; and to hear their story of lying with their daughter until she died is something for which I do not have the words to describe. I cannot even pretend to plumb the depths of their grief, but I do congratulate them on their courage and tenacity in wanting something good to come out of that grief. They began that process when they allowed some of Violet’s organs to be donated after her death to save other lives. Many of her organs could not be used because her injuries were so severe. Her parents have continued the process with the petition because, as they rightly say, they do not want anyone else to suffer.
Violet-Grace was with her grandmother when a car doing 83 mph in a 30 mph zone mounted the pavement. The car was stolen and had false numberplates. Violet suffered catastrophic injuries and died later. Her grandmother suffered life-changing injuries. The driver and his passenger did not even attempt to help, and they fled the scene. There is evidence that they had to step over the bodies of their victims lying in the road to get out of the car. The driver, Aidan McAteer, fled to Amsterdam to clear his head, as he said later, and smoke some weed. Clearly, he thought it was all about him. Eventually, he returned to this country and was tried and sentenced to nine years and four months. His passenger got six years and eight months. Neither showed any remorse, either at the time or later. In fact, they had their sentences increased while in jail for having illegal mobile phones and posting on social media. That does not seem much for a young life so cruelly taken and other lives destroyed in the process. As Mr and Mrs Youens said to me, the driver and his passenger will be out after serving less time than Violet-Grace lived.
The law does not cope well with such offences. It leaves families believing they have not had justice and the public looking on in amazement at what seem to be unduly lenient sentences. I met some of the families today and heard their stories. They told me that they felt they were treated as though they were the criminals. They were not allowed to show emotion in court and were sometimes told not to sit in the court. They were not allowed to read out all their victim statement in case it upset the perpetrator. They sometimes felt that they were the ones on trial. These cases are not unique. There are a lot of them, and our justice system is simply not working for these people.
I have other examples. In February this year, a driver was sentenced for causing the death of a pedestrian and catastrophic damage to a house when he was driving at twice the legal speed limit. He was a lorry driver—a professional—and he got 10 years and six months. In March, Antonio Boparan was sentenced for causing the death of Cerys Edwards. She was only 11 months old when he hit her in 2008 and she was held to have died later from complications arising from her injuries. He got 18 months, having previously served 21 months for dangerous driving. Families have told me this afternoon of seeing people cheer in court because their sentence was so light and of people who did not go to jail at all. That matters for confidence in our justice system.
It is a long time since I practised law, and I know, from being around the courts, it is very difficult to make judgments on cases unless you have heard all the evidence, but I believe that in the most serious cases we ought to have life sentences available. As Mr Youens said to me, in the wrong hands a car is a lethal weapon.
My hon. Friend is making a passionate and moving speech, and I am pleased to see so many families here. She, like me, will have spent far too many hours in grieving families’ living rooms talking about these issues and their relatives taken away so swiftly. Does she agree that people who hire high performance vehicles should be held liable if those vehicles that they give to others are then used in criminal acts of murder on our streets?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We need to do many things to reform the law. We have had numerous petitions on increasing sentences for death by dangerous driving, and on imposing lifetime bans for people convicted of dangerous driving.
I had a letter from Amy O’Connor whose brother, Andy, was killed on his way to the gym one morning. It took 15 days to find the van and the perpetrator because the van had been hidden. By that time, it was impossible to do drug or alcohol tests, and the only thing the driver could be charged with—she understands why—was leaving the scene of an accident. She very reasonably asks why do we not increase the sentence for people leaving the scene of an accident when they have caused death or serious injury.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her speech. Although we need a change in the law to make life sentences available for death by dangerous driving, I cannot understand why, in the worst cases of death by dangerous driving, the Crown Prosecution Service does not bring a charge of manslaughter, thereby giving the court the option of a life sentence for the worst types of offending.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point on something that I will come to later. I understand why it is difficult for people to understand the law in this area, because we often punish the type of driving rather than the outcome. We used to have three offences—dangerous driving, careless driving and reckless driving—but the offence of dangerous driving as it was then was abolished under the Criminal Law Act 1977 because it was felt there was not sufficient distinction between dangerous driving and reckless driving. However, soon after, it appeared to people that the law was not punishing the most serious cases effectively. In fact, a review of the law by Dr Peter North in 1988 showed that many people thought that the law was not dealing with the most serious cases properly. Also, recklessness is obviously very difficult to prove, as it is subjective.
At the time, the Government were focused on dealing with drink-driving, to which I will return, because I think we can learn some lessons from it. The offence of causing death by dangerous driving was not introduced until the Road Traffic Act 1991. Even then, it was clear to many people that the law was still not being used effectively. There were widespread complaints that the Crown Prosecution Service was often charging people with the lesser offence of careless driving, because it felt that it was more likely to secure a conviction.
Attempts were made to address that, with advice to Crown prosecutors in 2007, and revised guidance in 2013 that set out some of the constituents of dangerous driving, such as excessive speed, racing, aggressive driving, ignoring traffic signs or lights, and failing to have regard for vulnerable pedestrians. Most of those elements were present in Violet-Grace’s case. There were also attempts to deal with people’s fears through changes to advice from the Sentencing Advisory Panel.
It is also fair to say that Governments of all colours tried to fill in the gaps in the law so that it operated properly. In the Road Safety Act 2006, the Labour Government introduced the offence of causing death by careless driving, and causing death by driving while unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured. In the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the coalition Government introduced the offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. In the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, the offence of causing serious injury when driving while disqualified was introduced, punishable by four years’ imprisonment and a fine. Causing serious injury through careless driving was punishable by a sentence of up to five years’ imprisonment.
All those measures were welcomed by road safety campaigners and had widespread support across the House, but they still did not deal with people’s fears that the worst offences were neither being dealt with nor sentenced appropriately, even though, in 2003, the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving had been increased from 10 years to 14 years. That matters because if the law is to work effectively people have to have confidence in it. It has to do three things: protect the innocent, punish the guilty and deter further offences. There was a widespread belief that that was not happening.
That belief was why, after a consultation, the current Government announced in October 2017 that they would increase the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving from 14 years to life. At the time, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), who was then a Justice Minister, said that the decision had been taken to reflect
“the seriousness of the worst cases, the anguish of the victims’ families, and maximum penalties for other serious offences such as manslaughter”.
He said that the change would be introduced when parliamentary time allowed. The same thing was said in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), who has also campaigned on this issue.
I must ask the Minister, why the delay? Everyone in Parliament knows that when we are not debating Brexit we have very little business. The proposed change could be dealt with swiftly, almost in a one-clause Bill. It would receive widespread support across the House and the support of the general public. I know that the Government want to deal with other issues, but why wait for a big Bill when we could get on and do this now? Surely we do not need to wait for someone else—God forbid, another child—to be killed before we act.
I would go further. In the Violet-Grace case, the car was stolen, which was clear evidence of criminal intent, and it had false numberplates, went through two red lights and was doing 83 mph. The driver had previous criminal convictions for burglary and failing to comply with a court order. He should have been charged with manslaughter—something the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) mentioned. This was a criminal act by a known criminal, with a complete disregard for other people’s lives. However, that is not what the petition asks for; it asks simply for life sentences to be made available for the offence.
The petition also asks for a minimum tariff of 15 years, which I think is a little more problematic. Generally, our law does not set minimum sentences; it sets maximum sentences and leaves it to the trial judge, who has heard all the evidence, to set the tariff. Clearly, if we went down that road there would have to be changes to the sentencing guidelines to reflect that. My fear about setting a minimum tariff is that it might have the opposite effect to what is intended: it might make juries more reluctant to convict in some cases, and lead to the situation that we have seen before of people being charged with careless driving instead of dangerous driving.
The same, or at least a similar, problem comes with calling for consecutive sentences. Normally in our law, sentences are served concurrently for convictions arising from the same incident, and consecutively if they arise from different incidents. I understand entirely why families want consecutive sentencing for offences when someone has been killed and someone else has been seriously injured, but my fear is that the tariffs set would be lower. Therefore, those proposing the change would not necessarily achieve what they want. However, that could be looked at and considered.
It is clear that we should get on with increasing the maximum sentence, but that by itself is not enough. I referred to how we tackled drink-driving in this country. We did two things: we not only brought in the breathalyser and ensured that serious sentences were available, but we did a public education campaign that, in the end, changed people’s attitudes. It used to be quite socially acceptable to knock back a load of pints and get behind the wheel of a car. It no longer is. I am not saying that that does not happen, but it is no longer socially acceptable.
We need to do those two things. Mr and Mrs Youens are already doing their part by speaking at speed awareness courses to alert drivers to the damage that they can do. We need to do our part as politicians and introduce a proper public education campaign, because the aim in the end is surely not to have lots of people serving life sentences; it is to deter them from committing the offence in the first place and to save people’s lives. Will the Government please now get on with that?
I know that the Government are looking to include other provisions in a road safety Bill, dealing with such things as cycling. Those measures are worthy in themselves, but they are delaying action on something that many of us believe needs action now. The Government would have the support of the public and widespread support among all parties in the House, and such action would rebuild confidence in the law and recognise the campaigning of bereaved families. Most importantly, it might save lives—and surely saving even one life makes this worth doing.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on an excellent speech; she opened the debate brilliantly. She has done great justice to all those who have travelled a long way to hear the debate in Parliament. It is also a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon.
It is unfortunate that I have been called so early in the debate, because I will talk about something that is slightly different, although important to my constituents. My constituents Tom and Jackie Luxon were involved in a car crash with their then two-year-old daughter. The force of the impact was so great that the Isofix that the two year old was travelling in broke, and she sustained life-changing injuries that initially caused paralysis; amazingly, in the two years since, she has recovered to some degree. There is evidence that the person who hit the Luxons that day had been driving dangerously for 16 miles before the collision.
The incident was brought to my attention because Jackie was 26 weeks pregnant at the time and her baby, Grace, was stillborn as a consequence. We are debating whether there should be life sentences when dangerous driving is the cause of death of someone who is alive, but Grace was 26 weeks in gestation at the time of the impact. Obviously, she was killed as a direct consequence of the impact, but the man responsible received three years and seven months in prison. If Grace had been delivered when she was taken to hospital with her mother and had taken just one breath, the situation that we are debating would have applied and we would have been talking about whether that man should have been liable for a life sentence—or, as is the current position, something less satisfactory. Grace did not take a breath, however, so three years and seven months is all that could be served on that man for killing her.
PC Owen Davies, the investigating officer for Avon and Somerset police, wrote to me in despair. I hope he does not get in trouble for that with his chief constable, because he did exactly what a police officer should do—showed how much he cares. He said that he and the Crown Prosecution Service
“looked into charging the driver with death by dangerous driving but we hit a brick wall when we discovered that the Road Traffic Act 1988 does not recognise a healthy 26-week-old unborn baby as a person. Instead we had to charge him with causing serious injury by dangerous driving (x2)”—
for the mother and the daughter—
“with nothing able to be charged for the death of the baby.”
A couple of weeks ago, I asked about the issue at Prime Minister’s questions, and the Prime Minister gave a considered answer. The key thrust of her answer related to the danger that any such discussion about the rights of unborn children could have unintended consequences. That is as far as her answer went; she was obviously talking about abortion law. I agree with her that the impact could be challenging, but there is precedent.
It is great to see the Minister in his place. As such a distinguished practitioner of the law, he will see that there is an opportunity to get it right. The Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 says that a foetus is viable at the age of 24 weeks. The Act’s wording explicitly sets out clear exemptions, precisely so there are no unintended consequences of that definition. It is also worth noting that a child who was stillborn as a consequence of the awful Grenfell Tower tragedy was officially recorded as a victim. There is precedent, therefore, and there are examples in law where it is possible to recognise the rights of an unborn child.
I beg the Minister to consider that when he considers the wider merits of the case that is made in this debate, which is hugely important. It should be possible and the norm to give life sentences for dangerous driving, because cars can be weapons in the wrong people’s hands. The Luxons’ child was denied to them at 26 weeks’ gestation and the punishment for the person responsible was just three years and seven months. I urge the Minister to look beyond what we do to punish people who kill the living, and consider what we should do to punish people who cause babies to be stillborn as a consequence of such collisions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for her excellent introduction and the work that she has obviously put into the debate. I pay tribute to other hon. Members who have contributed.
I praise the three people who have made the debate happen: Rebecca and Glenn, who are present in the Chamber, and Violet-Grace, whose tragic and senseless death is the reason for it. I praise everyone who has signed the petition, and I praise the St Helens Star and the whole St. Helen’s community for supporting Rebecca and Glenn’s tireless work to get their e-petition signed, to get the debate and to prevent something similar from happening in future.
Rebecca and Glenn are asking for the law to be changed and for a sentence that fits the crime: “Life sentences for Death by Dangerous Driving”, as the petition states. That will hopefully deter others from reckless driving, so that what happened to Violet-Grace does not happen to another child—or, if it does, so that those responsible receive a sentence that fits the crime they have committed, and that gives them the time necessary to reflect, to be rehabilitated, and to have proper regard for, consideration of and understanding of their actions.
The law must be improved for victims and survivors. In the case that we are discussing, the defendant’s barrister objected to the parents reading out their full impact statement and argued that the defendants would find it too upsetting. The judge accepted that, so the CPS barrister gave the parents a copy of the victim impact statement with the parts that they could not read out in open court highlighted. The whole purpose of the victim impact statement is the impact on the victims and the survivors, not the defendant. Guidance should be given to the judiciary that the overriding consideration is for the victim and their family, not whether the impact statement may upset the defendant.
We are asking for a sentence that fits the crime. Violet-Grace was a beautiful, angelic-looking four-year-old child. Some hon. Members may find the following upsetting—my family have not been able to say it or hear it. On Friday 24 March, she was simply walking home from pre-school and calling on her aunty and her four-year-old cousin with her nan. Her nan had lifted her up to carry her safely across the road, but had not put a foot on the road when she was struck by a stolen vehicle, which had been recklessly driven at 83 miles per hour in a 30-mile zone before it collided and mounted the pavement.
The stolen car that struck them was fitted with false numberplates and had a cloned key. The driver had no licence or insurance. The Independent Police Complaints Commission later reported that there had been complaints about the car being driven dangerously since noon that day. The driver and his passenger then fled the scene, running over Violet-Grace, who had been thrown 50 yards away. The passenger ran back to the car, stepping over the child again, to retrieve a bag that he needed. The whole incident was witnessed by her four-year-old cousin.
A fireman working in the area heard the noise and saw two young men running at speed. He ran to the main road, found the scene and Violet-Grace, and worked with a local dentist to resuscitate her. The driver fled the country and travelled to Amsterdam to “clear his head” by getting some weed. He then fled to Alicante.
Glenn Youen received a phone call at work to tell him to get to Whiston Hospital urgently. Rebecca, who was working in Warrington Hospital, received a similar call. She set off driving—sobbing—and spotted a parked police car. She got out, banged on the window and pleaded for help, so the police took her under blue light to Whiston Hospital. Violet-Grace’s injuries were horrific, and it was essential to move her to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. Rebecca and Glenn were told that she could not survive her injuries. They knew her as a loving, caring child, always wanting to help others. They courageously decided to donate her organs to help to save other young children’s lives. They say that that is what Violet-Grace would have wanted.
It was suggested that Rebecca get into bed with Violet-Grace, but she was reluctant to do so with all the tubes and equipment around her. She was persuaded to do so. She prayed and pleaded, “Please breathe, please breathe.”
Violet-Grace passed away with the local priest, Father Tom Neylon, saying prayers around her. He checked the time: it was 11.58 pm on 25 March. He said, “Ah, today is the day that the angel Gabriel came down to tell Mary she is to have a baby called Jesus.” The family wept. Violet-Grace was the angel Gabriel in her school’s nativity play. She was so pleased, and she used to dance around singing, “I’m the boss of the angels, I’m the boss of the angels.” Her kidney and pancreas were donated to save the lives of two other young children.
Nan, a nurse who trained at Great Ormond Street Hospital, suffered numerous injuries and was in a critical condition. It was a miracle that she survived, but she had life-changing injuries. Grandad, a university lecturer, has had to retire to take care of her—all that while the driver was in Amsterdam clearing his head.
Earlier, I said that all we are asking for is a sentence that fits the crime that has been committed. The two men responsible for Violet-Grace’s death will serve less time in prison than she was alive—less than four and a half years. In fact, by pleading guilty, and with good behaviour, the driver might be out even sooner. I ask everyone here today, is that truly a sentence that fits the crime that was committed? I believe that most, if not all, of us would say no. Clearly, the 164,632 people who signed the petition would agree.
I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for her work on this issue. I reiterate what she says about the Youen family. As well as our sympathy and solidarity, and the outpouring of love for the family from our community in Warrington, Wigan and across Merseyside and the whole north-west, there is a deep sense of anger about how they have been treated and a determination to make sure no other family is ever treated like that.
I thank my hon. Friend for saying that.
The current laws on sentencing for dangerous driving are simply not good enough. We need to equip our judges with sentencing guidelines that enable them to provide that key tenet of our judicial system: justice. The Youens actually praised the judge and said his hands were tied. I am sure some will say, “What constitutes dangerous driving? What if I sneeze and lose control of my vehicle? Will I now face those increased sentences?” My simple answer is no. We are talking about giving judges the option through Sentencing Council guidelines to issue a higher sentence where they deem it to be just. A judge will consider all the evidence provided to them and pass a sentence appropriate to the crime committed, whether it be the minimum or the maximum sentence in the guidelines, as with any other crime. I and many others are arguing that the maximum sentence that a judge can issue for dangerous driving is far too low.
For gross negligence manslaughter, judges have the option to issue life as the maximum sentence, with a range of sentencing options below it—one to 18 years. I do not see why dangerous driving should have a lower maximum sentence than gross negligence manslaughter. Both involve a disregard for the lives of others, and as we see too often, both can lead to the death of innocent people. An individual’s direct, reckless and callous actions can lead to the death of another. Stealing a car and driving 83 mph in a 30 mph zone can cause life-changing injuries, and the suffering and death of an innocent four-year-old child. How can we not give our judges the option to deliver a sentence at least on a par with gross negligence manslaughter for dangerous driving?
Another issue that I wish to raise on behalf of Rebecca and Glenn, and that I believe falls within the scope of this debate, is concurrent sentencing. Rebecca, Glenn and many others think it is unacceptable that criminals can serve two sentences at the same time. They describe it as “buy one, get one free”. The crux of this issue is that the current legal system does not adequately explain to victims what is happening, and thus it does not appear to be delivering the justice it is supposed to deliver.
I just cannot imagine the pain that Violet-Grace’s parents feel. As my hon. Friend indicated, two years ago the Government promised to introduce life sentences for death by dangerous driving and create a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. Many families across this country—including my constituent Mr Addy from Burscough, whose daughter was mown down in 2016 by a driver who received a fine of £500 and no jail sentence—are waiting for that promise to become law. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need not only appropriate punishment but effective deterrents for dangerous and careless driving, excessive speeding and reckless joyriding? We need it now; everyone has waited long enough.
I accept what my hon. Friend says; people are feeling that.
I call on the Minister to explain to my constituents why concurrent sentences are used, and to investigate how our judicial system explains its practices to victims. I and others are not calling for a knee-jerk change to the law. We are arguing not for punishment for the sake of punishment, but merely for a sentence that fits the crime that has been committed. We are under no illusions about the impact that the change would have on preventing dangerous driving. Changing the sentencing for dangerous driving may only deter a few people from driving dangerously, but those few people changing their behaviour could save lives like Violet-Grace’s. If it saves more lives, surely it is worth it. It will also send a clear message to those who might consider driving dangerously that we as a society see it as morally abhorrent.
Some may not change their behaviour and may cause death by dangerous driving, but by changing the sentencing guidelines we will finally deliver justice for families such as the Youens and others who are affected by such recklessness. It cannot be acceptable that individuals such as those who struck down Violet-Grace and tore open the Youen family can serve sentences shorter than the time she was alive. They have sentenced Rebecca, Glenn and Violet-Grace’s little brother Oliver to a life of grief, and denied them the joys of watching her grow up and experiencing the joyous occasions and events that a maturing daughter gives to a family. That loss can never be repaid in this life.
In October 2017, the Government pledged to increase sentencing for death by dangerous driving to life, but we have not seen any meaningful movement on that issue in nearly two years. I therefore call on the Minister to set his civil servants to the task of getting the laws on dangerous driving changed. That gap in our legislation and our justice system must be filled sooner, rather than later.
I understand that issues such as Brexit put a strain on Departments and Parliament, but we must not allow this vital issue to be lost in the miasma of current politics. Rebecca and Glenn want the change in the law to be made properly and as quickly as possible. The Government have a duty to get it done. The longer we leave it, the longer our judicial system will fail to deliver the justice that the Youens and the other families we met today deserve. Although we can never heal the wound that has been opened, we must improve justice for victims and survivors and show that we care for them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Mrs Moon.
First, I want to express my heartfelt sympathy to the family of Violet-Grace—and, indeed, to all the families with us today. No parent should have to endure what they have endured. It is to their credit that they created this very successful petition to try to get some justice for families who have lost loved ones to death by dangerous driving and for those who have endured serious and life-changing injuries.
Sadly, Violet-Grace’s story and the bereaved family’s pain and sense of injustice are all too familiar to me. In 2014, my constituent Joseph Brown-Lartey was killed by a dangerous driver. Joseph was just 25 years old, with a promising career opening up ahead of him, yet his plans and his life were destroyed by an uninsured, unlicensed 18-year-old named Addil Haroon, who chose to drive a hired high-powered car at 80 mph in a 30 mph zone, ran a red light and smashed into Joseph’s car. The impact was so great that Joseph’s car was split in two and, tragically, Joseph was killed outright. Police officers who attended the scene said it was the worst crash they had ever seen on an urban street.
Addil Haroon was convicted of causing death by dangerous driving but was given a jail sentence of just six years, of which he will serve just three in custody: he will be released on licence after serving half his sentence. Joseph’s parents, Dawn and Ian Brown-Lartey, contacted me for help after that derisory sentence was given. I wrote to the Attorney General asking for the sentence to be reconsidered in view of the gravity and tragic consequences of the crime. The reply I received was that the judge had acted within sentencing guidelines, and that the sentence had not been “unduly lenient” and would not be reconsidered. As we heard, the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving is 14 years, yet few convictions result in a sentence that long. In 2017, the average sentence was just four years and nine months.
Joseph’s parents, with the help of the road safety charity Brake and campaigning journalist Michelle Livesey, launched a petition and a campaign called “Justice for Joseph”, calling for tougher sentences for those who cause death and serious injury by dangerous driving. The petition gathered 20,000 signatures and was handed into Downing Street with support from me and the then police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester, who is now my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd).
Brake then launched another campaign, “Roads to Justice”. For the launch of that campaign, Joseph’s parents allowed the wreckage of his car to be displayed outside Parliament. Hon. Members may recall seeing the shocking sight of a wrecked Audi split clean in two on their journey into work that day. That wreckage is now used by Greater Manchester police as part of its road safety campaigning and teaching, having been kindly donated by Joseph’s family in the hope that it would serve as a lesson to other drivers.
In response to that pressure—sadly, many other MPs have had similar tragedies in their constituencies—the Government held a consultation on sentencing for causing death and serious injury by dangerous driving. They received around 9,000 responses. It took many months to process them all, but everyone involved in the campaign was delighted when the Ministry of Justice announced in October 2017 that, as a result of the consultation, the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving would be extended from 14 years to life.
Joseph’s parents felt that all their campaigning had paid off and, although nothing could bring Joseph back or bring justice in his case, at least another family bereaved in such terrible circumstances would not suffer the heartache of seeing their loved one’s killer receive a derisory sentence. Yet what has happened since then? Although I and other MPs have asked numerous questions in the House, the Government’s constant refrain has been that they will bring legislation to the House “when parliamentary time allows”. This Government have presided over hours of parliamentary inaction, with sessions closing early and the business of the day being wound up mid-afternoon on numerous occasions. There has been ample parliamentary time to bring legislation forward, yet nothing has happened. The change was promised in October 2017. Twenty-one months on, nothing has changed.
The tragedy is that we are still seeing deaths, such as that of poor Violet-Grace, as some drivers simply do not get the message that, in the wrong hands, a car is a lethal weapon. I strongly believe that longer sentences would reinforce that message. At the moment, some drivers have an extremely careless approach and drive in an extremely reckless manner because they know that if they cause an accident that kills or maims they will serve only a relatively short sentence. That has to change. Families such as the Brown-Larteys in my constituency and the Youens in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) need to see justice being done.
If I have one question for the Minister, it is this: when is the maximum sentence of life for causing death by dangerous driving, which the Government announced 21 months ago, going to be brought to Parliament? The response “When parliamentary time allows,” is simply not good enough. These families need to see justice—for Joseph, for Violet-Grace and for all the other victims killed or maimed on our roads by the scourge of dangerous driving. It is time that the punishment fitted the crime.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for opening the debate so eloquently on behalf of the Petitions Committee.
I begin by paying tribute to the family of Violet-Grace, who, tragically, was killed by a dangerous driver in March 2017 aged just four. Her mother and father, Rebecca and Glenn, started this petition when the driver, who mounted the pavement in a stolen car before fleeing the scene and subsequently the country, was sentenced to a derisory nine years and four months in prison.
Violet-Grace’s killer was convicted of causing death by dangerous driving. I, along with many other hon. Members and campaigners, have long campaigned for reform of the sentencing guidelines for that offence. As it stands, the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving—driving that falls far below the expected standard—is just 14 years. As we have seen in this and many other cases, killer drivers too often are given considerably less than 14 years.
It is not right that people who drive recklessly, with no regard for human life, and cause death and serious injury get away with lenient sentences because our sentencing guidelines are not tough enough. That is why I warmly welcomed the Government’s announcement in October 2017 that they would bring in tougher sentences for drivers who kill someone by dangerous or careless driving, as well as a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving.
My simple question to the Minister is this: it is nearly two years on, so where are those tougher sentences? The Government have said repeatedly that they will bring forward legislative proposals “as soon as parliamentary time allows”. I sincerely hope that we do not hear that phrase from the Minister today. As we all know, there has been ample parliamentary time in recent months for these changes to be discussed, debated and implemented. One could fairly conclude that the Government, having announced they intended to introduce those tougher penalties, have now changed their mind. That is an appalling way to treat families affected by this terrible crime.
I have used this quote before, but I will read it again. It is from a family member of an 81-year-old man who was killed by a speeding driver in 2017. He said,
“The Government’s delay in implementing tougher penalties has denied my family the justice that we need...The Government has a duty to families like mine to ensure that justice is delivered by bringing in these new laws now, not several months or years down the line. There can be no excuse.”
That is exactly right: there can be no more excuses. Many in the Chamber will know the lasting pain and loss of losing a loved one so brutally. I struggle to explain to bereaved relatives in my constituency why the Government are choosing to delay. The Minister should either announce today when he intends to bring forward proposals for tougher sentences for Parliament to consider, or else be honest, say that the Government no longer intend to do so and explain why.
Judges recognise the inadequacy of the current sentencing guidelines and want to be able to hand down tougher sentences so that the law of the land reflects the severity of the crime. As it stands, families are being let down and denied justice, and the Government’s inaction is making their suffering worse. The Government may be in their last weeks, but they still have time to right this wrong and get these changes on to the statute book. I ask the Minister today to leave a legacy for this Prime Minister’s Government and introduce tougher sentences without delay.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I pay tribute to the bereaved relatives with us here today, who have suffered pain and hurt.
In October 2017, the Government announced proposals to: increase the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving from 14 years’ imprisonment to life; increase the maximum penalty for causing death by careless driving under the influence of drink or drugs from 14 years’ imprisonment to life; and create a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. It is now 2019 and we are still waiting for those changes to be implemented. The Government constantly tell us, “We will bring forward proposals for reform of the law as soon as parliamentary time allows.” When will that be? These proposals are necessary to improve safety on our roads, act as a deterrent to would-be offenders and restore fairness in our justice system. Moreover, they enjoy wide cross-party support and are therefore relatively straightforward to implement. There is simply no excuse for the continued delay.
Let us be clear: while the Government dither, families such as the Platt-May family from Coventry continue to see the killers of their loved ones receive paltry prison sentences, which simply adds to their grief and sense of injustice. Two-year-old Caspar and six-year-old Corey Platt-May were two lovely little boys who lived in my constituency, only yards from where I was brought up as a child. In February last year, they were killed in a horrific hit-and-run incident at the hands of a driver who had no licence or insurance, was doing more than 60 mph in a built-up residential area and was high on cocaine at the time. The driver was given a meagre nine-year jail term, which was increased to 10.5 years on appeal, while the Platt-May family were sentenced to a lifetime of grief at the loss of Corey and Casper. They suffered the double injustice of seeing the perpetrator receive a prison sentence of just a few years.
Casper and Corey’s mother, Louise, said:
“what our family has had to go through, and will continue to experience for the rest of our lives, highlights the need for the toughest possible sentences to be handed out to drivers who ruin lives. We call on the Government to honour Corey and Casper’s legacy by ensuring its proposals for tougher sentences for drivers who kill are made law as soon as practically possible.”
It is time for the Government to heed that call, honour Corey and Casper’s legacy and introduce legislation immediately so that drivers who kill are jailed appropriately.
While it is true that no sentence can alleviate the anguish caused by the loss of a loved one in such horrendous circumstances, a lenient sentence can and does add to a family’s pain. Families are being ripped apart through tragedy, and although nothing can bring their loved ones back, an appropriate prison sentence, which more closely reflects the severity and impact of the crime, keeps the killer off the roads and prevents them from causing similar misery to another family, will surely bring them a semblance of comfort.
It is in the Government’s gift to provide that comfort to these grieving families, to make our roads safer and to put in place a law that is both a proper deterrent and a punishment. I urge the Minister to act without further delay.
It is a pleasure to see you presiding, Mrs Moon. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I pay tribute to the petitioners. I thank Brake and the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety for their briefings, and I thank the Petitions Committee for facilitating the debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for her excellent introductory speech, and I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher).
Apart from the specifics in the briefings, which I will come to, my concern is that government generally, this Government in particular and society do not attach enough seriousness to road deaths—let alone those caused by dangerous driving, which cause even more pain. If there were 1,500 deaths a year in aviation or on trains, there would be a demand for a public inquiry, and with the number of road deaths stagnating in recent years, we need to address this issue much more seriously. The Government’s refusal in 2010 to set a target for casualty reductions, abandoning a 30-year consensus of all Governments since the Thatcher Administration, is indicative of the coalition and now this Conservative Government’s relaxed approach. We had seen a gradual reduction in road deaths over the decades, but since 2010 that has stalled.
Our general attitude to road deaths is far too complacent, and it sends all the wrong signals. It creates a climate of “roads deaths happen”. When they are committed as part of another crime, they are not condemned as heavily as they ought to be. It is almost as if these deaths—murders—are obscured by all the deaths happening on our roads. Road crashes are the cause of more deaths among young people than anything else. The Government proposed a Green Paper for graduated licences for new—mostly young—drivers to impress upon them how serious a step it is to get behind the wheel of a vehicle. The Green Paper disappeared.
We do not create the appropriate attitude in our new drivers: that, as many colleagues have said, they are in charge of a lethal weapon and, if they use it to cause harm or death to others, there are serious consequences. Just as we do not approach this issue appropriately from an educational or training point of view, nor do we do so from a legal one. We need to approach driving much more seriously.
I am not generally in favour of mandatory sentences because the bench and judges should have discretion, but if my family—my child or my grandchild—were the victim of one of the atrocious crimes we have heard about, I would want the full extent of the law used against the criminals who perpetrated that crime. I would want the penalty under the law to be appropriate, as so many colleagues have said. The law is lacking, to say the least, and the Government know that. They have promised change for years. The question to the Minister, who is held in high regard across the House as a man of integrity, is: when will it happen?
I turn to the briefings, and the one by Brake in particular. Brake says:
“Deaths and serious injuries on our roads cause terrible suffering every day. This suffering is often compounded by a flawed legal framework which lets serious offenders get away with pitiful penalties and allows dangerous drivers back on our roads. We are calling on the Government to finally implement the tougher sentences for killer drivers it announced in…2017”.
Two of its demands are: to bring forward legislation that implements maximum sentences; and to simplify and improve legal definitions of unsafe driving behaviour, and specifically the use of “dangerous” and “careless”. Brake continues:
“It cannot be right that the average prison sentence for a driver who has killed someone through dangerous or illegal driving is four years. When we consider that the minimum sentence for domestic burglary with no additional charges of bodily harm is three years.”
It is a very powerful point. Brake also echoes a point made by my hon. Friends:
“In 2014, the then Secretary of State for Justice…promised a full review of all road traffic offences, yet this promise remains unfulfilled.”
Why is that?
Brake also mentions the 2016 consultation:
“Brake does not, however, agree with the Government’s contentions in their response that ‘There is a risk that juries may be less willing to convict…Juries would be able to receive clear direction that a range of penalties would be available in sentencing, with precedent shown, negating this as an issue.”
Brake discussed the important issue of careless and dangerous driving, and called for the legal definition of unsafe driving to be simplified and improved. It wrote:
“The maximum sentence for causing death by careless driving is only five years, compared to 14 for causing death by dangerous driving.”
Brake discussed the contrast between the two sentences and found that
“since it was introduced in 2008…in the first few years after the new charge was introduced, the number of ‘death by dangerous driving’ convictions dropped off as the number of deaths by careless driving convictions increased. In 2007…there were 233 death by dangerous driving convictions, this then fell to 114 in 2011, when there were 235 death by careless driving convictions.”
The question is whether one rate of conviction is coming down while the other is going up, resulting in lower penalties for people found guilty of a less serious offence. Brake thinks there is a relationship between the two rates of conviction, so perhaps the Minister could comment on that.
Brake has also stated:
“Additionally, the use of the term ‘careless’ in cases where driving has resulted in death and serious injury undermines and trivialises the gravitas of the offence and its impact on victims and their families.”
The Minister knows that language is critical, and that “careless” just does not convey the seriousness of the crime. I agree.
The issue of dangerous driving is hugely important to the safety and wellbeing of all our constituents. The Government have been making the right noises and the right promises. So many deaths are caused by human actions: speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, the use of drink and drugs, or using a mobile phone—all deliberate human actions. Such actions are perhaps not criminal or serious enough for people to be charged with the most serious offence, but road deaths are caused by human beings who make decisions and do not care about the rest of us. Those people need to be brought to boot.
Not for the first time in Westminster Hall, I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman has said. Clearly, we must bring forward changes to the sentencing guidelines. I have listened to some incredible contributions. I wonder whether he is aware of the Don’t Motor On Meds campaign, which has not been mentioned during the debate. It focuses on the role that prescription medication can have in dangerous driving—it can often create unwittingly lethal drivers. Yes, the Government could change the sentencing guidelines, but the pharmaceutical industry could act quickly—now—to label medication much more clearly as “not safe to drive with”. Many of the charities are very good at doing that, but many of the pharmaceutical companies bury it in the small print. We are all about prevention, as well as the right punishment when tragic events happen.
The hon. Gentleman makes an appropriate point. Individual drivers have personal responsibility: when they get medication, they need to ensure that it does not impair their judgment and that they are not a risk to others on the road. Pharmaceutical companies have a role in that, because they should be printing large warning labels on medication to say: “Do you know this means you are not fit to drive?” GPs have a responsibility to report to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency drivers who are not fit to drive—be it for eyesight, mental health issues or other problems that individuals have—and individuals also have responsibility. Right across the piece, we all need to recognise that there are problems.
I have recently been looking at the issue of more frequent testing for the over-70s, because there have been some publicised cases of older drivers driving up motorways the wrong way and causing death. The evidence from other countries suggests that if mandatory testing is introduced for all over-70s or over-75s and they pass, they think they can go back to driving like they did when they were 45 or 50. It actually has a countereffect, and it is therefore not always easy to identify simple solutions. There are no simple solutions to this.
We are driving vehicles that can kill people and the responsibility lies with us, as well as with other people and other family members to ensure that we are safe when we get behind the wheel. That is not what we are talking about today; we are talking about criminals who deliberately do things that they ought not to be doing and who cause death and destruction, and grief and bereavement, to decent families across the country. I do not point the finger at the Conservative Government, because dangerous driving has affected all parties and Governments. As a Parliament, we need to ensure that we have the right penalty to fit the crime. If we do not, people outside will feel that they are not being well represented and will be forced to take action themselves.
I believe that we need to approach driving differently—educationally and culturally. Great progress has been made on improving the practical and theoretical driving tests in recent years, but there is more to be done. We must remember that we have among the safest roads in the world—we are usually in the top three countries for safe roads, but we are still killing 1,500 people a year. Dangerous, criminal drivers are hidden among all that, and they should be taken out and identified so that they act as a deterrent to other people who commit the same crimes.
As hon. Members have said, the punishment does not always match the crime at the moment. The petitioners are waiting to hear what the Government intend to do. Like other hon. Members, I have high regard for the Minister; I look forward to his response, which I hope will give us all some reassurance.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to follow the incredibly powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). I extend my sympathies to the families here today.
The tragic case of Violet-Grace, like the others we have heard about, starkly illustrates the devastating results that can occur when people recklessly ignore the rules of the road and drive dangerously. That is a reminder of just how important it is to get the law right—but in this context, it is increasingly clear that that is simply no longer the case. The sheer number of members of the public who have thrown their weight behind this campaign shows the strong desire for a law that fits the crime in instances of death by dangerous driving. Sadly, that feeling is known to many of my constituents—in Barnsley East, we have shared in our own tragedy.
According to Library figures, there were 293 traffic accident casualties in my constituency in 2017. Of those, 62 were serious and four fatal. The following year, Brierley’s Jacqueline Wileman was hit and killed by a HGV lorry that had been stolen by four men, who joyrode the vehicle around Barnsley for two days. They damaged cars, injured pedestrians and nearly killed a man, stopping only when they crashed into a house while travelling at a speed at least twice the limit. Sadly, that was not before they hit and killed Jackie on her daily walk through the village. All four men had criminal records, with nearly 100 convictions between them—some were for driving offences, including one for death by dangerous driving. One man pleaded guilty and the other three were also convicted, but with plea deductions and time on licence, all will serve between five and just over six years. That is a huge blow to an already grieving family—Jackie’s life was taken, and their lives have been torn apart since that day.
It goes without saying that Jackie’s family have wondered whether one of those involved would have been free to acquire this second sentence if he had been given a longer and more appropriate sentence for his first conviction for death by dangerous driving. The turmoil that they have gone through is indescribable, and what’s more, the judge who sentenced those responsible agrees. His hands were tied by the 14-year maximum sentence for death by dangerous driving, and he admitted that the increase was unfortunately a matter for Parliament, not for him.
So what are we waiting for? Expert judges, the public—demonstrated by the petition’s support—and MPs across the House all support an increase in the maximum sentence for death by dangerous driving. More importantly, so do the Government, who have the power to increase the maximum sentence. The Minister is aware of the importance of that, having met Jackie’s family and me just a few weeks ago.
I implore the Government not to ignore the cases of Jacqueline Wileman, Violet-Grace, and others tragically killed by dangerous driving. Increase the sentence now, provide a genuine incentive to avoid driving dangerously, and give judges the ability to take those who do so off our streets. We in this House must do everything that we can to ensure that nobody else has to suffer like the families we have spoken of today.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I am sorry to have missed the first two minutes, but I was otherwise engaged. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), who spoke movingly about the seriousness of this issue, and thank all hon. Friends and hon. Members who have contributed.
I want to look at two issues, starting with numbers, which we have not really talked about. These numbers are a bit dated—I hope the Minister accepts that they will be greater now—but between 2016 and 2017, approximately 90,000 people were banned from driving in this country. That is from a driving population of 33 million, so I estimate that to be 0.002% of the driving population.
To be banned, a driver has to receive 12 points or be convicted of a serious driving offence. My figures state that around 11,000 people are driving with more than 12 points because they have been let off for one reason or another. That is not necessarily part of the Minister’s brief, but it is interesting that people are let off so easily. Anyone who pleads that a conviction will have an injurious effect on their employment can get away with numerous points above 12—that needs to be looked at.
Over the last four years, some 300 people have been caught driving while disqualified in the county of Gloucestershire, while that figure was said to be 38,000 nationally—those figures come from a freedom of information request, so I suppose that they are right. Considerable numbers of people with a ban chance it when they should not be driving. In my view, driving is a privilege, not a right, but those people flagrantly disregard their bans. They go to court again and, presumably, some further action is taken against them.
An awful lot of people drive while disqualified or take huge risks because they are not suitable to be driving for whatever reason. I will not go into the age issue mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), but because of the deficiencies that come with age—that is what happens when we get older—some people should perhaps decide not to drive at all.
We have a huge cultural problem in that very few people are banned, and even when they are, they take risks for whatever reason. We have to change that culture in the same way that we did with drink and drug driving. We have to nail people for those crimes because they are not just risking their own life and limb, but other people’s, too.
My second point is on road safety. I have done a lot of work with my local road safety group, and I am indebted to a gentleman called Charles Pedrick, whom I have mentioned before. He spends hours and hours of his time on local road safety issues, to the extent that he visits parish councils and local road safety groups, a number of which have taken on the opportunity to install automatic number plate recognition cameras or use handheld devices.
Those groups found that most people drive reasonably safely and, although they may speed slightly, they are largely within safety parameters. A minority, however, drive exceedingly dangerously—not just occasionally, but regularly. Those people get caught out by the ANPR staff, but there is little that the volunteers can do, and because the activities are voluntary, not even the police can do much.
In my area, the police now go around, knock on the door and say, “We have got you n times. If you carry on this way, you will cause a serious accident.” Normally, that has the desired effect and people say, “Sorry, I shouldn’t have been doing that. I have learned my lesson.” Sadly, a minority of people flagrantly break the law and do not care at all because they think that they can get away with it. I know that this is not the Minister’s direct responsibility—he will have to talk to the Home Office and elements of law enforcement—but it would be helpful if those voluntary groups were given some traction to stop dangerous drivers.
Unless we stop dangerous drivers at source, they will continue to drive dangerously. It is important that the people who give up their time to monitor those who speed have the satisfaction of something coming of their work. The dangerous drivers will be the ones who kill others, because they do not care. Unless we stop them, the inevitable consequence is that they will kill.
I hear the heartrending stories and I sympathise. We have to stop the dangerous drivers at source. They should lose their licences and go through due process, and until they have learned to drive responsibly, they should not get their licences back. The people who track the dangerous drivers should have the satisfaction that something is being done about the issue. They are frustrated that the police only knock on the door and that is as far as it goes, and that they cannot prosecute because their activities are voluntary.
We know who the dangerous drivers are and we should be doing something about them. I hope that the Minister hears my plea and will get some activity going to make the ANPR information shareable and useable, so that people who drive dangerously cannot get away with it. I hope he has a good response to my plea.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the petitioners and the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), who introduced the debate. She said that talking about the issue was to step into a world of horror, and she underlined that when she spoke about the heartbreak of families such as that of Violet-Grace. Like the hon. Lady and others, my sympathies go to the families and others who have been similarly affected by such criminality—that is what it is.
The hon. Lady described the selflessness of the organ donation following that incident. That is in stark contrast to the incredible speed, criminality and heartless cowardice of those who perpetrated such a heinous crime.
The hon. Lady went on to talk about the failures of the justice system, which, rightly, has always been different in Scotland, so I will not talk too much about those ins and outs. Regulations are of course set by the UK Government, but the law is different. Comparisons must be made with wherever people drive, however, and lessons must be drawn from the accidents and criminal acts that occur when someone is behind the wheel. Actions should always be taken as a result to make our roads safer.
The hon. Lady talked about the need to deter further offences. She mentioned education campaigns and drink-drive actions, which I will talk about in a minute or two, after I recap the words of hon. Members, first those of the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer). She talked about Rebecca, Glenn and Violet, and all the people who signed the petition. She talked about the balance of the impact on victims versus that on the defendants, giving more details of the terrible events surrounding the incident involving Violet-Grace. She talked about the understandable rise in anger in the communities, and other hon. Members spoke about how their constituents were similarly affected.
The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) told us about the terrible case of Joseph, whose car was put on display outside Parliament for everyone to see. That was a particularly heartbreaking sight to witness. If every vehicle involved in something like that was put outside, we would not be able to contemplate the carnage caused by drivers being irresponsible or—as others have said, and will say many times in future—carrying out criminal acts behind the wheel.
The hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) discussed some serious and troubling crime involving drug use on the roads, and recounted the story of poor little Corey and Caspar. This has been a difficult debate to listen to, hearing about all the personal tragedy involved and thinking about all the issues that go on to wash into families and communities, as well as the devastating impacts on people’s lives outwith the initial incident, but going on, perhaps even for generations afterwards. She talked about how those boys were mown down when they had barely even started their lives.
The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) talked about previous convictions hardly being acknowledged in another tragic case, and the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) discussed van drivers disregarding the law. He discussed the need to change the culture and the minority of people who regularly drive dangerously. Some can be educated, but a shameful minority just ignore that. He also mentioned the help needed for voluntary groups.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) made a powerful contribution, as has been said. He talked rightly about the need for greater seriousness on road deaths and about the targets required by the UK Government for casualty reduction. He went on to what I will talk about now, which is education, training and of course the law, as well as the cultural change required.
When the hon. Member for Warrington North began the debate, she said that there was no need to delay action. Indeed, there is no need to delay. Things can be done, and they do not have to wait for other bits and pieces to fall into place or for other issues to be dealt with. In Scotland, action has been taken on some of the issues that the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse was talking about. Through Scotland’s road safety framework to 2020, the Scottish Government are committed to achieving safer road travel. The framework sets out Scotland’s first ever national casualty reduction targets. Will the Minister let us know whether he intends to follow that lead in this instance?
The SNP Scottish Government have taken a wide range of actions to reduce road traffic accidents in Scotland, including cutting the blood alcohol limit and introducing drug-driving limits in 2019. I will give more detail on that in a moment. Action has resulted in the number of people killed or injured on Scotland’s roads reaching the lowest level since records began.
In Scotland, by nature of our geography, road safety is an everyday issue. Most of us use the roads every day as drivers, passengers, cyclists or pedestrians, and for many it is the main way of getting to their jobs—for some, it is doing those jobs. The Scottish Government and the road safety partners are committed to the outcome of safer road travel in Scotland for everyone. To that end, the Scottish Government produced a framework for improving road safety for the next decade. The framework describes for Scotland the road safety vision, aims and commitments, including those targets for road death reductions that I mentioned.
The Scottish Government will also seek to establish a “Drive for Life” culture, which will seek to influence young people’s attitudes to road safety and future driving behaviour before they get behind the wheel. They will conduct a public debate on young driver issues, including graduated licences and additional training, and encourage and support the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents Scotland with the formation of the Scottish Occupational Road Safety Alliance in order to raise employers’ awareness of the need to have a policy for managing occupational road risk. They will also investigate ways to promote and facilitate initiatives relating to further training for older drivers, including consideration of incentives for that.
The hon. Member for Warrington North, when discussing those shocking and desperate acts, also talked about the need to reduce accidents. Specifically, it is important to reflect on the legal blood alcohol limit in Scotland, which has been reduced from 80 mg to 50 mg per 100 ml, lower than the rest of the UK. Incidentally, England, Wales and Northern Ireland still have the 80 mg limit, which is the joint highest in Europe. In Scotland, making that change saw a reduction of 7.6% in drink-driving in 2015 compared with the previous year.
At that time, Transport Minister Humza Yousaf also announced plans for a cycling taskforce, the main aim of which will be to drive forward ambitious cycling infrastructure such as segregated cycle paths. Although dangerous driving is rightly the focus of this debate, we must not forget that other road users are in danger on the road not only from dangerous drivers, but from other irresponsible driving behaviour.
The SNP MSP Gillian Martin introduced a Member’s Bill in the Scottish Parliament to require seat belts to be fitted in all dedicated home-to-school transport in Scotland. The Bill received Royal Assent in December 2017. Furthermore, in 2019, the Scottish Government introduced drug-driving offences and, by the end of this financial year, we will have spent more than £8.2 billion on Scotland’s motorways and trunk road network to improve road safety, including the M8 missing link, the Queensferry crossing and—this one is important in my constituency— average speed cameras on the A9. If the Minister is looking for an example of something that has changed driver behaviour dramatically, those average speed cameras are now welcomed by the community, which saw the difference they made in adjusting the behaviour both of locals using the road regularly and of visitors.
There has been excellent progress, but there is always more to do. We are not content that rates are at the lowest since records began; we have to do more to maintain that improvement. The Scottish Government have been working with the Welsh Assembly on the casualty reduction targets. Official figures revealed that we have had a drop, but we intend to continue the improvement work.
I hope that the Minister will answer the questions about the legal issues that have been raised by hon. colleagues. He will take notice of the passion of the petitioners, the heartache of the families and the pleas of hon. Members in this Chamber and from all parts of Parliament who want action to prevent further road deaths and to tackle those who deliberately flout the law, affecting people’s lives in many ways.
I thank you for the opportunity to speak, Mrs Moon. I look forward to hearing about the action that will be taken, and whether the Minister will take into account the lessons that may be learned from Scotland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I thank all hon. Members across the House who have spoken in this important debate and made some powerful points. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) did justice to this debate by setting a substantial tone for what I hope will be a serious but productive conversation.
I pay tribute to the petitioners—the parents, friends and family of Violet-Grace—for the strength and courage that they have shown in what must be the most difficult period. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) set out those circumstances in her emotional speech, which no one could help but be moved by. Hon. Members from across the House went through some truly horrific and tragic personal cases that they have had to deal with. I look to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), as we in Bradford are no different—some truly tragic cases have come to us.
I pay tribute to road safety campaigners such as Brake, which my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) referred to. I pay tribute to the campaign run by the Telegraph and Argus in my district and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South. It has led calls locally not just for much stronger sentences for dangerous drivers and those causing death by dangerous driving, but for increasing resources for the police, to enable them to crack down on dangerous driving—I will substantiate that point a little later.
Those who drive dangerously and sit behind the wheel while under the influence of drink or drugs do so with no thought for the consequences of their actions. They care little for the lifetime of grief and misery that they can end up causing the friends and families of those they kill with their reckless actions. While they never set out with the intention to kill, they conduct themselves behind the wheel in a way that makes it a very real possibility. Despite the life-shattering consequences of death as a result of dangerous driving or careless driving under the influence, the sentence that such an offence attracts, in reality, is far from what the public expect or want. As we have heard, in many cases those who have killed through dangerous driving receive a custodial sentence of just a few years.
The offences of causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs should be treated with the severity that they deserve, to match the consequences of those actions. However, we must be careful not to tie the hands of the judiciary too tightly, as we must respect its independence and ability to view and judge cases based on the evidence and facts that are brought before it. We must give it the power and flexibility that it needs to pass sentences that fit the crime of which the defendants are convicted.
Because of the backlash, referred to by some hon. Members, over short sentences imposed for such serious crimes, in 2014 the Government rightly stated their intention to launch a consultation on the matter. Many hon. Members have gone through the chronology, but I will look at the pertinent points. It took a further two years for the consultation to be published, and a further year for the Government to publish their response to the findings of the consultation, despite the fact that within days it had become one of the consultations most widely responded to that the Ministry of Justice had ever issued.
Despite being four years on from the Government’s statement of their desire to increase the maximum sentence available to judges, we are still no closer to the legislation that would bring such a desire into effect, as many hon. Members have said. Now, we hear that they will bring forward legislation when parliamentary time can be found; they have stated as much to many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who is not in this debate.
The Government have used that excuse for the past two years, but the point has been made that time has been abundant for them to bring forward that legislation, and they have refused to do so. Perhaps the Minister will explain why they have left the words and promises they gave to victims’ friends and family to ring hollow. To be fair to the Minister, I am not levelling criticism directly at him since he was not in his role at the time. As I said, this issue is serious enough that we should work together on it. I hope that in his response, the Minister will say what everyone here wants him to say.
The massive cuts to police numbers have not taken up a lot of time in this debate, understandably, but they are important. I am attempting not to use the issue politically but to make a factual point: since 2010, £2.7 billion in real terms has been cut from police budgets across the country, and over 21,000 police officers have been lost for good. In my region of West Yorkshire, there are more than 700 fewer officers. Those cuts have fallen the hardest on specialist forces who are much harder to recruit, train and replace, such as our road traffic police who, according to The Times, dropped 11% between 2016 and 2018.
The loss is keenly felt on our streets, where the reassuring presence of the police no longer deters dangerous drivers. The Police Federation has said that dash camera evidence from drivers is no replacement for patrols; motorists regularly drive in an antisocial, dangerous and aggressive way because they are less fearful of being caught. Evidence shows that increased levels of road policing can reduce traffic violations and road casualties. We all know that prevention is better than the cure; we do not want to be in a position of sentencing those found guilty of causing death by dangerous driving, because by then it is too late—the irreversible damage has been done and another life has been needlessly lost. Instead, we want those who would otherwise drive dangerously to be deterred from ever setting out on the road, because of a near-certain chance of being caught. We want those drivers never to be able to take another life.
In addition to putting police back on our streets and our roads, we need to look at cases of dangerous driving where, thankfully, there is no death or injury, to look at what is driving people to make such foolish decisions behind the wheel. Such offences may rightly warrant a custodial sentence depending on their severity, but they certainly warrant much greater rehabilitative efforts to make sure that the next time a dangerous driver gets behind the wheel, they do not repeat their mistakes, drive dangerously and end up killing someone.
Those killed by dangerous drivers or careless drivers under the influence of drink or drugs deserve real justice. Their friends and family deserve to see punishment for those whose reckless and dangerous behaviour has left huge holes in their lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, but a greater pleasure to thank the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for opening the debate with a sensitive and sensible speech. She used her experience in the law to helpfully give us a pen-portrait of the evolution of driving legislation in England and Wales. She was right to draw the House’s attention to the way the law has evolved in this area.
When we take the steering wheel of a car or a vehicle, it means that we assume a responsibility to any passengers in the vehicle, to other vehicle users, to pedestrians and to wider society. Driving law rightly criminalises what we would regard as unacceptable behaviour. It also rightly draws distinctions between types of behaviour. I readily accept that the law gets into difficulty where we have a combination of extreme culpability and blameworthiness in the manner of driving, and the extreme level of harm that can be caused by that degree of bad driving. We now call it dangerous driving; the hon. Member for Warrington North referred to it as reckless driving, as it was known prior to the 1991 reform. I have grappled with that difficulty—not just as a Member of Parliament, serving my constituents, but as a professional and a member of the criminal Bar, having been called upon to prosecute these cases, as well as in my latter incarnation as Her Majesty’s Solicitor General.
Before coming on to those examples, I add my own tribute to the families of the victims of these horrendous crimes who have come here today, have supported petitions calling for reform and have, with extraordinary dignity, exemplified all that is good in our society and positive in our world, despite the horrendous experiences they have gone through.
The offence of causing death by dangerous driving is a particularly unusual, sensitive and difficult scenario because all of us, in this room or outside, could suddenly find ourselves in the same situation as the families here today and the thousands of others who are not here but share the same experiences. Suddenly, without any warning, they are drawn into an entirely different world: a world of police and criminal justice, of procedure, of court proceedings that they never expected they would become involved with in a month of Sundays. That can only add to the sense of loss, grief and suffering that the families endure, and continue to endure—often for many years after the incident itself. It is a set of circumstances that all of us struggle to put into words and to come to terms with fully. I still struggle now, even though it is probably a quarter of a century since my first direct contact with a family who have suffered in this way.
Frankly, there is nothing that a court or this House can do to right the wrong that has been done to such families. Having said that, merely acknowledging that is never going to be enough. That is why we, as parliamentarians and legislators, must do all we can not just to mitigate the circumstances or to try to create a degree of justice, but to send a wider message to society that the system supports those who suffer, works in their interest and at least tries to deliver the highest degree of justice.
I was struck by the conversations I had this afternoon. I am grateful to the hon. Members for Warrington North and for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) for allowing me to come and meet the families. It was extremely useful and informative, and I felt the better for having heard what they had to say. I pay warm, meaningful and deep tribute to them.
To directly answer the question put by the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), I should say that the Government have not changed their view about the need to reform the law of causing death by dangerous driving. It is our settled intention to increase the maximum penalty from 14 years to life imprisonment; the issue is when. I want to do this as soon as possible; I would like to see legislation done in a swift and effective way.
My offer to right hon. and hon. Members here and across the House is to work together, to ensure that any Bill that is introduced can be dealt with as speedily and expeditiously as possible, without—with the greatest respect to hon. Members, who have the right to amend any Bill they see before them—a plethora of amendments and other issues that could impede or slow down the process of legislation. That is my request and my offer; I would very much like to work with Members of the Opposition on that, in order to achieve our common goal.
The Minister has struck an unnecessarily adversarial tone. It is very clear that there would be cross-party support for this. It was welcomed in October 2017; he does not need to concern himself that anyone in the Labour party—I am sure I speak for the SNP as well, in this case—would try to do anything to impede the progress of such a Bill. We just want it to come in as soon as possible.
I certainly was not suggesting in any way that hon. Members of any party would want to impede such a Bill. The point that I seek to make is that we can achieve this with broad and deep consensus. I absolutely take the hon. Lady’s point and embrace what she says; having listened carefully to her speech, I know that she comes at the issue with entirely the right and appropriate sense of inter-party and intra-party co-operation, and I am very grateful to her.
The point that speaker after speaker has made is “When? Not how, but when?”
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s contribution in her speech and intervention. I ask the question “How?” simply because it can very often be an issue for all of us, so ignoring it and trying to pretend that it is not an issue would perhaps be an easy way out for me as the responsible Minister.
I want to get on with this, and I know that all hon. Members present, as well as those with an interest who cannot be with us today, want to get on with it. I accept that we owe that not just to the families of those who have already been bereaved, but to future potential victims. I say that—I hope with sufficient force—because I have seen from my case experience as Solicitor General the problem with the current maximum.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher), who quite rightly mentioned the appalling case in her constituency. I became very familiar with that case because I dealt with the unduly lenient sentence reference myself; I felt that there was such a strong public interest to be served that I appeared before the Court of Appeal as Solicitor General and presented the case myself. I am glad that in that case Sir Brian Leveson, the then president of the Queen’s bench division—he has just retired, but during his long and distinguished career he took a keen interest in these cases—rightly increased the sentence to 10 and a half years.
I argued on behalf of the Crown in that case that there was justification, in cases of causing death where there were multiple fatalities, to depart from practice and to impose consecutive sentences. I felt that would be an acknowledgement of how, in cases of such seriousness, that was the only sufficient way for the court to reflect the gravity of the offending. The Court of Appeal did not accept my submissions. Therefore we are back in the position where, without an increase in the maximum sentence, the totality of the offending cannot be adequately reflected when, for example, there is more than one fatality, the driving conduct was particularly aggravated or there is aggravation because of previous convictions.
Therein, perhaps, lies some of the answer to the concerns expressed by families: that the total criminality is often not reflected by the level of the sentence. Sentencing precedent and guidelines allow that to be done when the principle of totality of sentencing is applied. Even though a charge is recorded on a particular offence that might not have merited a separate penalty, the offending should and must be taken into account when assessing the totality of the sentence. That might include having no insurance. Driving offences of that nature should be reflected in the overall sentence passed on the lead offence, which would often be the most serious matter.
I want to deal with each, in turn, of the excellent contributions that we have heard today.
I wanted to intervene before the Minister moves away from his general points. I pay due regard to his expertise as a former Solicitor General, to his explanations about complicated interpretation and definitions, and to what he said about the Court of Appeal not accepting what the Government were trying to do. However, given that he accepts that there would be unanimous support for Government legislation on this issue, can he give an indication of how long it will be before the Government come forward with proposals for legislative scrutiny?
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a date. That is a matter of bitter regret to me, but today’s debate will be used as an important platform to indicate the degree of concern, impatience and anger that people now feel about the delay. It certainly reinforces me in my determination to get the matter sorted out. As I have already mentioned, my ministerial and professional experience has led me to the firm conclusion that to deal with the full criminality of the gravest crimes under the definition in question, judges need that space—the ability to use their discretion.
Before I deal with individual speeches, it would be right for me to dwell for a moment on the important submissions that hon. Members have made to me, the accounts that family members have given me of their experience of the system, and my concern on hearing about aspects of the use of the victim personal statement. It would be invidious for me to intrude on proceedings where I have not read all the evidence, or seen the transcript, but I would be concerned if the reason for the editing of a victim personal statement was that somehow it would upset an offender. That seems a wholly irrelevant and inadequate explanation to give to anyone, legally qualified or not.
Surely what should drive proceedings is relevance. Having read hundreds of victim personal statements, lawyers and court practitioners are well able to distinguish when an opinion given in the statement might take matters no further; but a real sense of the effect on a victim comes through a well written and well prepared VPS. Since the introduction of the system, police officers have become better and better at drawing out from a victim or their family the sense of loss and bereavement—the whole effect of the crime on their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Those documents are important and must form a key part of the decision making in sentencing.
I was heartened to hear some families’ praise for the way individual judges dealt with each case with sensitivity, care and precision. We are fortunate that almost universally we are well served by our judiciary, who find such cases particularly difficult. I have spoken to many of them, and they feel at the end of a case a sense of inadequacy about what cannot be undone, and what cannot be restored to the families and loved ones of those who have died.
I thank the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston, who made a significant contribution to the debate, not just for her speech, but for her persistence in working with my predecessor, and with me, to ensure that her constituents’ point of view and cause are heard. Her contribution today was particularly important in that respect, and I thank her for it. She asked several questions—in particular about manslaughter. She is absolutely right to talk about the existence of that offence, which has long been part of our criminal law and remains an available option for prosecutors in certain circumstances. Those circumstances would involve cases of the highest gravity. Case law is clear that manslaughter would be charged where the facts disclosed a very high risk of death to another person—a type of offending at the very high end of culpability.
That is why the offence of causing death by dangerous driving has been a very important addition to the criminal law. It has made the test somewhat more straightforward, as opposed to that used in manslaughter. I can therefore see huge merit in marrying up the sentence level—a maximum of life imprisonment—with the advantages provided by using the test for causing death by dangerous driving. Those sorts of offences should not become some sort of legal minefield or maze. They are difficult enough for everybody involved without adding those extra complications. That is why, although the offence of manslaughter is, of course, available and is used, we must understand that it is hedged around with particular tests that mean that it is not always the most straightforward case to prosecute.
I was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) about a particularly harrowing case involving his constituents, to whom I pay tribute and who, as we heard from him, have been through unimaginable pain. He asked about the terribly distressing circumstances involving the death of a child yet to be born. He asked me to consider what can be done to reflect the loss of such a child in traumatic circumstances. He rightly anticipated the argument that I would put to him, that there is a danger in changing the law relating to the position of unborn children. Consequences for the autonomy of mothers and the ability to take otherwise lawful action must be considered carefully before attempting to change the law.
However, that is a matter that I would be happy to discuss further with my hon. Friend; it seems to me that the real issue is how to take into account the full harm and the full sense of the impact upon a family in those circumstances. We come back to the matter of harm; paragraph 3 of the current sentencing guidelines, which are now some 11 years old, says of causing death by driving:
“Because the principal harm done by these offences…is an element of the offence, the factor that primarily determines the starting point for sentence is the culpability of the offender.”
That gives us a clear indication of where the law starts from on these matters.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for his reply, and I welcome the opportunity to meet him to discuss this further. I simply reflect on the fact that, whatever the sentencing guidelines may say now, three years and seven months for life-changing injuries to mother and daughter, and for the loss altogether of a 26-week-old baby as yet unborn, suggests to me that the current guidance is nowhere near adequate, or does not apply well enough in those sorts of situations.
My hon. Friend makes an important point; I am perhaps illustrating in my response the struggle, the tension and the difficulty that exist here in fully reflecting the harm and the loss caused as a result of that particular course of driving. That is why I am firm in my conclusion and the Government’s conclusion that to deal with those very serious offences, which come to the top in terms of not only culpability, but harm, judges need more headroom.
I have already thanked the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) for her important contribution. She quite rightly talked about a case involving her constituent and his family. I thank her for drawing to our attention a powerful example of how the current law is not providing the degree of justice that so many families look to the system to provide. I look forward to working with her on this issue in the months ahead.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) made an important and interesting contribution to the debate, talking about the position on road safety. He rightly reminded us that there is no room for complacency on this issue and that, while this country is among the safest in the world when it comes to road traffic incidents, there are still far too many incidents that are simply avoidable.
It is important to note that, although the hon. Gentleman says they have plateaued, road deaths have continued to fall over the past 12 years—the reduction in fatalities was some 39% in the years since 2007—but I accept that that is almost always as a result of other initiatives that have been taken, rather than better driver awareness. We have safer infrastructure measures; we have new vehicle technologies; we have better hazard perception testing; we have better trauma care, where lives are often saved that would not have been some years ago; and, yes, we have a sense of shifting social attitudes, which I am glad of—we all welcome it.
Hon. Members have referred to the fact that when it comes to drink-driving, what would have been acceptable a generation ago is no longer acceptable at all within society. That is all welcome, but we still experienced more than 26,000 deaths or serious injuries on our roads in 2017, of which 48 were young children. Too many of those incidents involved criminal behaviour, whether dangerous or careless driving, or failing to stop at the scene, and every avoidable death is one too many.
It is hard to see how the criminal justice system can ever adequately compensate for the loss and grief felt by families in these dreadful circumstances. Since 2012, however, we have seen a greater proportion of drivers who have caused fatalities through careless or dangerous driving being sentenced to immediate custody; it increased from 53% in 2012 to 60% last year. We have also seen an increase in the average length of custodial sentence for those offences.
Clearly, the courts are in some measure reflecting societal attitudes and the change in attitude that we have seen toward those serious driving offences. That is reflected by the number of people who signed the petition that prompted today’s important debate and the fact that, as we have heard, the consultation that took place was one of the most significant undertaken in recent years, because the number of responses was considerable.
As a result, not only was this proposal put forward, but two other key proposals were accepted. The first was to increase the maximum penalty for causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs from 14 years to life imprisonment, and the other was to provide a stronger response to offences of careless driving resulting in serious injury. We propose to deal with that by introducing a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. It will sit alongside the existing offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving, which was introduced in 2012.
I confess to a sense of frustration at the incremental nature of the way we deal with driving offences. If I were able to wave the proverbial magic wand, I would like to see a thoroughgoing codification of the law to make it readily and easily understandable, but I recognise that I cannot do that and that time is not on our side. Therefore, the incremental approach is the best way forward if we are to achieve real change for society, and for the families and victims who have been affected.
I was talking about the contribution of the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, and I was particularly interested in his discussion of Brake’s helpful and important work in this field. I have probably partially answered his question about a review. Tempting though it is to use that as a cloak for inaction, that would not be good enough. I bear in mind what he says about the sentencing gap caused by the gradation between careless and dangerous driving. I do not have an easy answer about that.
Returning to what the hon. Member for Warrington North said, I do not advocate introducing an offence of reckless driving—a subjective test offence, which might better reflect the gradation in individual driving standards, but which could make the test more difficult in terms of actually proving an offence. This is a vexed question that needs to be debated properly, and I thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse for raising it. I do not want it to be used as a reason for further delay.
The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) made an important and powerful contribution on the case of Jacqueline Wileman, which she has put to me before in the Chamber. I am grateful to her for having brought Jacqueline’s family to meet me some weeks ago. What they said to me was powerful, informed, measured and dignified, and I pay tribute to her constituents for playing their part in adding to the swell of pressure rightly being brought to bear today. I thank her again for campaigning in this area.
That was an important case because the prosecutors used the principle of joint enterprise to bring to book those who were not actually driving but who were part of the course of conduct in that heavy goods vehicle. That sensible use of the law will hopefully send a wider message to prosecutors that, just because an individual might not be at the wheel, it does not mean that he or she is not responsible for what happens in the vehicle and the consequences of those unlawful and criminal acts. I am grateful to the hon. Lady.
The hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) made a distinctive contribution in which he rightly talked about the number of people disqualified from driving. He asked about discretionary disqualification. It was certainly always my understanding, from practice, that to achieve an exemption from a discretionary disqualification, one had to show exceptional hardship above and beyond the ordinary inconveniences of not being able to drive. If that test is not being applied stringently, that is a matter of concern to me. It was intended not to be some cheap get-out clause, but to reflect those exceptional cases where there might be real hardship—usually not to the driver, but to people who might depend upon that person.
The hon. Gentleman made a general point about impunity and rightly prayed in aid the important work of local voluntary groups in speed watch schemes. I am a qualified speed watch operator, and I have joined many local groups in my constituency to patrol roads of particular concern, with some good effect, I am glad to say, where the behaviour of drivers has changed, with greater forethought given to the quality or otherwise of their driving, particularly in residential areas.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about consequences and how to better use the information obtained from devices in speed watch schemes to improve conduct and enforcement. That information is usable, and I am happy to talk further on that with him, and perhaps with some of our local police and crime commissioners, to see how we can achieve further crime reduction in our neighbouring police constabulary areas. I readily take up that invitation for us to work together.
The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) rightly drew the House’s attention to the work of the Scottish Government on reducing road casualties and on dealing further with the offence of driving while over the alcohol limit. I am glad to say that, on the south side of the border, work continues within Government to pursue the strategy set out in the 2015 road safety statement, which drew together a number of important safety measures. That statement resulted in: a number of successful bids to the safer roads fund from right across the country; increased penalties for drivers who use handheld mobile phones while driving; and—I think rightly—learner drivers being allowed to go on our motorways, thereby obtaining vital experience before qualifying, rather than leaving it until after qualifying, which I always thought was an odd way to train new drivers.
That road safety statement is refreshed and improved upon periodically; this work is ongoing. As always in the sphere of criminal law, before and after devolution, much we have learned from the Scottish criminal justice system has been used here. While I cannot make any commitments relating to drink-driving legislation on behalf of my colleagues from the Department for Transport, we watch with great interest the effect of those changes on behaviour within the population. I note the figures that the hon. Gentleman cited on the reduction of drink-driving incidents, which I found extremely informative.
The Minister mentions the road safety statement, which was welcome and made a difference. It is refreshed occasionally, but that is now overdue by at least six months. The Department for Transport was supposed to produce it, and the reshuffle has delayed it even further. Perhaps he can have a quiet word with his colleague at Transport to find out when it will arrive.
My colleague will hear that. I am told that the statement is due later this year, so they had better crack on with it.
It was due at Easter. It is now summer.
The point is made and understood, which I can say because I can make promises on behalf of my colleagues. I am sure they would do the same for me.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), whose measured and sensible remarks drew together the debate in an informative way. He rightly reminded us that this issue goes beyond party politics and should bring people together in a constructive tone. That is certainly what I want to do, with him and other Members, to make the sort of progress that all our constituents expect.
I bitterly regret that I am not able to give hon. Members that all-important timescale, but the force of the speeches today leaves me and the Government in no doubt about the high priority placed on this much-needed reform—in fact, I would say it is the highest priority. The force of the argument put forward reinforces my sincere wish and drive to bring forward this reform at the earliest possible opportunity. Let us work together to do that.
I once again thank all right hon. and hon. Members for the part they have played in making this a wide-ranging and reflective debate. I hope it struck the appropriate tone not only for the families of those we have lost, but for everyone who rightly wants to see that higher degree of justice for offences of this appalling nature, because they are committed against us all.
I thank all those who have spoken in the debate. They have raised a number of issues about road safety, changing the culture and the treatment of victims. However, there is one thing on which we all agree, and that is the need to increase the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving to life. The Minister says that he cannot give us a timetable for that at the moment, and he wants us—rightly—to work together on getting it through, but I say to him that it is the Government who have to introduce a Bill. This is in the Government’s hands. If they introduced a short Bill simply to raise the maximum sentence, it could go through the House in a day, I am convinced. If the Government tried to include in it other things or, heaven forbid, to make it what the Clerks call a Christmas tree Bill—one on which the Government could hang anything—there would clearly be amendments tabled to it.
I urge the Minister to show the relatives of victims not words, but action. Bring forward the Bill and bring it forward soon, and it will have a clear, unimpeded passage through the House, I am certain. That is what people want to hear from him; that is what needs to be done. If he has been given no timescale for this, he needs to go and have a word with the Government’s business managers and get a timetable. We can all agree that that needs to be done and it needs to be done swiftly. That is no less than the relatives of victims deserve and no more than most people in today’s debate have asked for. For heaven’s sake, let us just get on and do it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 236952 relating to dangerous driving.