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Dangerous Driving involving Death: Sentencing

Volume 629: debated on Tuesday 17 October 2017

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered sentencing in cases of dangerous driving involving death.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your wise chairmanship as ever, Mr Hollobone. As hon. Members and the Minister will know, this debate is timely, given the publication on 16 October of the response to the Government’s consultation on maximum sentences for particular driving offences. Our debate today is inevitably and rightly informed by the changes that the Government announced yesterday, but like many other Members, I sought this debate in response to a case in my constituency in which the perpetrator was convicted after pleading guilty to causing death by dangerous driving. As a former Minister, I understand and sympathise with the fact that the Minister will not be able to comment on individual cases, but my aim is to use this tragic case as an example to question whether the current sentencing regime is fit for purpose, to discuss some of the Government’s proposals and changes, and to discuss how this case and ones like it need to lead to a change in policy.

I am sure that many will know of the sad case of four-year-old Violet-Grace Youens, who was killed this year and whose grandmother was left seriously injured when they were returning from their nursery. A stolen car crashed into them at 80 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone in St Helens. Two young men were in the car, one driving and one not. One of them ran past dying Violet-Grace laughing, making his getaway. The other posted a video from his prison cell celebrating his birthday; it depicts drug-taking and misbehaviour in prison. One will understand why Violet-Grace’s parents are deeply distressed and have no faith in our justice system. The boy who was celebrating his birthday received a 10-day extension to his sentence for posting the video. I have read these proposals with interest and welcome them, but please consider those who may not have been on drugs and drink at the time.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Obviously, that is a horrendous case and a great deal needs to be done on our prisons policy. It is not for us to debate that here today, but there is much to be done to improve the current state of affairs in our prisons, and I sympathise with her constituents and their families.

I want to talk about Sophie Taylor, a 22-year-old constituent of mine; she was a young woman in the prime of her life, with much to look forward to. She was described by her distraught mother, Jackie, as a loving and caring individual. I pay tribute to Jackie for somehow finding the strength to come and talk to me about the case, and to talk to the media about her horrific loss and her subsequent experience of the criminal justice and court system.

During the early hours of the morning of 22 August 2016, Sophie and her friend, Joshua Deguara, were chased through the streets of Cardiff by her ex-boyfriend, Michael Wheeler, and another driver. I will not comment on the case of the second driver, because elements of that case might still be sub judice, but I will focus on the actions and sentencing of Michael Wheeler, who entered a guilty plea and whose case is not subject to appeal.

During the chase, Sophie called 999 because she was scared and felt unsafe. She was on the phone, talking to an operator for 24 minutes. As that duration shows, the chase was a sustained and deliberate action by Mr Wheeler. During that time, his car reached speeds of up to 56 mph as he chased Sophie and Joshua into narrow residential streets. Then, he turned his car to the left into Sophie’s, causing her car to crash into a block of flats. The collision caused Sophie a catastrophic brain injury, which led to her death. Joshua suffered life-changing injuries, including a brain bleed, a shattered pelvis and an injury to his leg that has since led to its amputation. News reports stated that Mr Wheeler drove away after the crash before parking nearby, where he was arrested.

The judge who heard the case at Cardiff Crown court described what happened that night as

“nothing more than a pack chasing its prey”.

He added:

“You were trying to ram her off the road and you did”.

It is also worth noting that Sophie had made several reports to the police and visited the police station in the weeks leading up to her death about the problems she was experiencing with Mr Wheeler. The chase was an act of decisive, prolonged and co-ordinated aggression, and in my view, one which should have led to an even more serious charge than causing death by dangerous driving, but the judge was clear, saying

“you were consumed by a self-righteous and jealous rage, chasing her down to frighten her and teach her a lesson”.

We can only imagine Sophie’s family’s loss and the stress and torment that they have endured throughout the legal process. As I said, I met her mother, Jackie. Understandably, she is absolutely devastated by what happened, but she is equally determined to do what she can to prevent other families having to go through what her family has suffered.

As I said, I completely understand that the Minister cannot comment on individual cases. However, the details of the case that I have outlined are extremely pertinent in discussing the sentencing of cases of death by dangerous driving.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Members might know of an incident that happened in Penge last year, when two of my constituents, Makayah McDermott—a 10-year old boy and aspiring young actor—and his aunt, Rozanne Cooper, were killed when a stolen vehicle was travelling at 55 miles per hour in a residential area just opposite a playpark. That case is particularly close to my heart because I was at school with the mother of the boy and his aunt, both of whom died. Does my hon. Friend agree that the disparity between sentences for manslaughter and sentences for death by dangerous driving has long been unjust?

Yes I do, as a matter of fact, and I extend my sympathies to my hon. Friend and her constituents in relation to that tragic case. The case I will try to develop in my argument is that it is not enough just to get parity of sentence. We need to look at what sentences are being handed out and why, and whether justice is being served by the system, whatever ultimate maximum tariff the Government decide is appropriate for this offence.

The details of this case are pertinent. As hon. Members know, the maximum sentence for death by dangerous driving has been raised in recent years to 14 years in custody. I note that in its guidelines, the Sentencing Council characterises a level 1 conviction for causing death by dangerous driving as

“a deliberate decision to ignore (or a flagrant disregard for) the rules of the road and an apparent disregard for the great danger being caused to others.”

Given that Sophie was deliberately and persistently chased through the streets of Cardiff and forced off the road in a way that ultimately led to her death, it seems to me that a level 1 sentence would have to apply in this case. However, although the starting point for a level 1 conviction is eight years in custody, Wheeler was sentenced to seven and a half years, which is just over half the maximum sentence available. My constituent Jackie Taylor’s understanding is that the guidelines available to the judge did not allow for the maximum sentence to be given, despite the obvious aggressive and aggravating factors in this particular case.

The Justice Secretary said in reply to a letter that I sent to him about this case that the courts must follow sentencing guidelines

“unless it is not in the interest of justice to do so”.

That leads to an obvious question: how could it be in the interests of justice to opt for a shorter sentence in a case such as the one that I have outlined? The sentence following Sophie Taylor’s death poses questions about the current frequency and circumstances of use of the maximum sentence that are particularly timely, given the Government’s announcement that they intend to increase the maximum sentence from 14 years to life in cases of death by dangerous driving.

The first issue is how often the maximum sentence is used. In my previous correspondence on the matter with the Justice Secretary, I asked how many maximum sentences for causing death by dangerous driving had been handed out in recent years. I noted that the Government press release yesterday containing the announcement on the maximum sentence said that 157 people were sentenced in 2016 for causing death by dangerous driving. In his response to the question I asked in my letter, the Justice Secretary—it is not like him not to respond to my direct question—simply said that the maximum sentence was rarely used. When the Minister responds, can he give us that figure? I looked carefully at the Government’s press release to see whether it was there, but it was not.

I say gently to him that such sensitive matters should be carefully proofread. The final point of the notes to editors in the press release says:

“The government will give further consideration to increasing minimum driving bans for those convicted of causing serious death.”

I know that that is an error, but an error so crass is not really acceptable in something so sensitive.

My hon. Friend is getting to the fundamental point. This week, Merseyside Road Safety Partnership announced a strategy to reduce road deaths dramatically by 2020, but I am sure he will agree that preventive measures are useful and good only if those who cause death by dangerous driving know that they will be dealt with harshly by the law.

Justice should be served by the right sentence being given for the offence. There should also be an anticipation that offenders are likely to be caught and justice served upon them. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: if that is not clear, such offences will continue.

I hope that the Minister can at least give us that figure. The public are entitled to know. When my constituent, Jackie Taylor, read the Justice Secretary’s response, she said:

“I note that the right hon. David Lidington, CBE, MP mentions about the government in consultation on driving offences and penalties relating to causing death and serious injury, possibly increasing to life imprisonment. This will only deem as a deterrent, not deal with the offence committed. If 14 years has never been passed down to any individual for this charge, why would life imprisonment ever be used? If the Sentencing Council control what the judges can serve, and are recommending low guidelines in the criteria that the judges work with, then what difference would it make if it’s life?”

That is a reasonable question for my constituent, as a victim of this crime, to pose to the Government. I hope that the Minister can deal with it in his response to this debate.

Obviously, I am interested in how often the maximum sentence is given, as the Government’s consultation showed that 70% of respondents did not feel that the current maximum of 14 years was long enough. The Minister will understand that if the sentence of 14 years is hardly ever used, it raises the question how a new increased maximum would be used and why it was found to be necessary. Have the Government estimated how often they estimate the new maximum sentence is likely to be given, based on current experience and their consultation? Likewise, what effect does he think the new maximum will have on the average sentence for causing death by dangerous driving? If there is no answer to those questions, the obvious next question is what is the point of the proposed change.

In 2015, with a maximum sentence of 14 years, the average custodial sentence length was 57.1 months. Is it projected, as the Government anticipated, that that will increase in line with the new maximum? The second issue is the circumstances in which the maximum penalty is used. Maximum sentences and sentences of a similarly lengthy duration are rightly reserved for the most heinous crimes. I have outlined the horrible circumstances of my constituent’s death. Given that Wheeler was sentenced to just over half the maximum time in custody, the victim’s mother’s question is what someone would have to do for the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving to be available, if it was not available in this case. How will that change as the Government change the maximum sentence?

As I mentioned, my constituent understands that the sentencing guidelines prevented the judge from giving Wheeler the maximum sentence; indeed, it was reduced by six months from the eight-year starting point. Sophie’s mother is concerned about how the sentencing guidelines operate. What assessment has the Minister made of how accountable the Sentencing Council is? I know that it is independent, but it should still be accountable for how it draws up its guidelines.

The Sentencing Council does important and valuable work, but does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that in some of its guidelines—for the sake of argument, let us say assault occasioning actual bodily harm, for which the maximum is five years—the range that the Sentencing Council imposes for the most heinous offence stops well short of the maximum, effectively sending a steer to the judges that says, “Don’t ever sentence for the maximum”? Does he agree that that is a concern?

I do, and I think that there are similar concerns in relation to the offence of causing death by dangerous driving. I do not advocate not having proper guidelines—we want consistency in sentencing—but it sometimes seems to victims that the sentence they are told the perpetrator is likely to get is a bit of a fiction, and that the tariff actually served is nothing like the maximum, even in a case such as the one I have discussed, in which there are horrific aggravating factors. Can the Minister address the questions posed by Sophie Taylor’s case about the frequency and circumstances in which a maximum sentence is given?

I want to make it clear that this is not about revenge; it is about justice. In the case that I am discussing, sentencing guidelines led to an outcome that outraged not only the victims’ families but the wider community. The Government need to be clearer about what they are doing to deter such crime. Knowing that a life sentence is a real possibility would be a start, as would increasing the likelihood of getting caught by funding the police properly; that is a vital part of it. The prospect that sentences could be increased on appeal when judges are too lenient is also important. I understand that out of 713 such requests in recent years, 136 have resulted in longer sentences, but not one has been for the offence of causing death by dangerous driving.

Sophie Taylor’s death was a horrible tragedy. Nothing will relieve her family’s loss. However, the perception that justice was not done because the maximum sentence is unreachable adds another burden for them to bear.

It is a great pleasure, as ever, to speak under your doughty chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I begin in the customary manner by congratulating the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) on securing this debate on sentencing for causing death by dangerous driving offences. I know that many colleagues here will have dealt with tragic cases in their constituencies; we have heard, movingly, of a couple of them. Those who have had that misfortune will know that reckless driving ruins lives and devastates families, whether the culprit is racing, talking on a mobile phone or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The hon. Gentleman has championed this cause tenaciously since the tragic case in the summer of 2016 in which Michael Wheeler and Melissa Pesticcio started a car chase that, as he described, left Sophie Taylor dead and her passenger Joshua Deguara seriously injured. I extend my deepest sympathies to Sophie’s mother Jackie, whom the hon. Member for Cardiff West described, and to Sophie’s wider family and friends. I cannot begin to imagine their loss. The technical and legal changes that we are making will not bring her back, but these reforms must try to deliver some reassurance and solace, through a greater sense that justice is being done. I also pay tribute to Joshua Deguara and his family, whose suffering has been immense. The case highlights the need for reform.

Thomas Crowther, QC, the Cardiff Crown court judge in the case of Sophie Taylor, said that

“that shattering of two families was completely avoidable. It was caused by…the self-righteous and jealous rage”

of the defendants, who were

“chasing her down to frighten her and teach her a lesson”.

The court sentenced Michael Wheeler to seven and a half years in prison and Melissa Pesticcio to six and a half years.

Such cases are far too common. The reforms that we have announced this week will come too late for the families of Kris Jarvis, John Morland and James Gilbey, to name the victims of just a few of the tragedies that have struck me as I have worked on proposals for reform. The hon. Members for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) and for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) gave moving accounts of tragedies in their constituencies; I pay tribute to them and extend my sympathies and condolences to the families. I appreciate the frustration and anguish that they must feel. I met Major Gilbey, James’s father, last week. It is right to pay tribute to his courage and strength, and to all the families who have campaigned for a change in the law. Numerous colleagues across the House have also raised cases with me and my predecessors at the Ministry of Justice.

We recognise that the law has too often prevented judges from handing down sufficiently long sentences for the very worst cases of dangerous driving, bearing in mind the severity of the harm and the anguish of the victims’ families. We have looked at the evidence, and now is the time to change the law. Although we cannot bring back lost loved ones, we can make sure that justice is done. Yesterday, we published our response to the consultation on driving offences and penalties relating to causing death and serious injury. The consultation, which closed earlier this year, received more than 9,000 submissions with different views on the offences and penalties. That shows the widespread public interest in reform and the concern about how the law has operated.

Based on the evidence, we propose three specific changes to the law. I hope the hon. Member for Cardiff West will welcome them, but I will also try to address his specific points. Even more importantly, I hope the changes will give the victims and the wider public a stronger sense that justice is being done. All three proposals received overwhelming support in the consultation.

First, we propose to increase the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving from 14 years to life imprisonment. We want the courts to have additional powers to deal with the most serious cases in which life is lost. In 2016, the average sentence for causing death by dangerous driving was five years. In the last two years, three sentences of longer than 10 years have been imposed. That makes the case that those sentences are not attracting the level of seriousness that the hon. Member for Cardiff West and the Government think is due.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman, the point of the change is to send an unequivocal, crystal-clear message to the courts that they can and should impose a higher sentence—a life sentence—for the very worst cases. It is for the Sentencing Council to decide whether new guidelines are needed on this sentence or on any of the others that I will mention. He is right to mention that the ULS—unduly lenient sentences—scheme applies to those cases and that they will therefore be referred to the Court of Appeal if the Attorney General so decides. He rightly acknowledges that as politicians, we cannot and should not interfere with individual decision making, as opposed to the sentencing framework that applies in such cases.

In very serious cases in which there are multiple victims, in which the offender has previous convictions or in which their behaviour is particularly reckless and culpable—as in some of the cases described by the hon. Members for St Helens South and Whiston and for Lewisham West and Penge—offenders will face a maximum life sentence. The effect of that change is twofold. Offenders who receive a life sentence will serve a minimum period in prison and will be released only when the Parole Board considers it safe. For offenders who do not merit a life sentence, the court will have the power to impose a determinate sentence of any length. That will empower the courts to reflect the full severity of the worst offending and its devastating impact on victims and their families.

The Minister speaks about sending a powerful message. A powerful message is sent to the Sentencing Council too. Does he agree that for offences such as stalking, for which the maximum sentence has been doubled, that message has been reflected to a large extent in the Sentencing Council’s most recently published guidelines?

My hon. Friend is right. I remember his tenacious campaign on that subject from my early days as a Justice Minister. As well as empowering the courts, the change sends a message that will have an effect, right through the system, on the raw power available to a sentencing court. It will have a knock-on effect on the Sentencing Council and its ability to assess and consider whether further guidelines need to be provided. At the appeal level, there is also the ULS scheme.

In the time available, I will address the other key proposals. The second proposal is to raise the maximum penalty for the separate offence of causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs. We recognise that although the driving in such cases may not amount to dangerous driving, the overall seriousness of the offence is the same, because of the combination of careless driving and the irresponsible decision to get behind the wheel under the influence of drink or drugs. Again, for the worst cases, we propose that the maximum sentence be life imprisonment.

Our third proposal will close a gap in the law. At the moment, if a driver who is driving carelessly injures another road user, passenger or pedestrian, the maximum penalty is a fine, even if the incident results in the victim being left with serious, debilitating or permanent injuries. The case that particularly struck me was that of Sophie Wilkinson, who was left in a coma with a life-changing set of injuries after a horror crash in 2007. We need the criminal law to cover careless driving that results in such severe harm and injury, so we will introduce a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. That offence will carry a custodial penalty and will sit alongside the existing offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving.

Those are the three key areas of reform that we plan to implement as soon as parliamentary time allows. We will incorporate any further changes that emerge from the review of cycling safety announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport last month, so that we have a consistent overarching framework for sentencing people who kill or cause serious injury on our roads. I am grateful for the time and effort that so many people, including the hon. Member for Cardiff West and the campaigning families, put into their responses to the consultation. No punishment in these cases can make up for the loss of a loved one, but we can make sure that justice is properly done.

The Minister says that three sentences longer than 10 years have been imposed in the last couple of years, but he did not say that the maximum 14-year sentence had been used. I hope he wants to signal that that maximum sentence should be used more frequently.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As we develop these proposals, I look forward to working with him and other hon. Members across the House. It is the very least that the victims and their families deserve.

Question put and agreed to.