Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Stephenson.)
This debate is the last parliamentary business before the recess and, indeed, the last business of the year, but it nevertheless deals with an issue that is of great seriousness and grave concern to my constituents and to many others, given the number of people who have been injured or killed when cycling on our roads.
On 12 December last year, 58-year-old Ian Winterburn was cycling to work at 7.30 am, as he did every day. Ian was a keen and regular cyclist. As usual, he was wearing his cyclist’s high-visibility jacket, and all his bike lights were on. He always wore a cycling helmet. As he was passing the junction of Whitkirk Lane on the A6120 ring road in Halton, Leeds, a silver Skoda Fabia was signalling to turn right, but instead of waiting for Ian to cycle past, the driver went straight into him, knocking him off his bike and fatally injuring him. She claimed that she had not seen him. After 10 days in a coma, Ian died from his injuries on 22 December.
Cyclist Charlie Alliston was famously sentenced to 18 months in prison recently for fatally injuring pedestrian Mrs Briggs in one of two such fatal accidents last year, yet any more cyclists have been killed or badly injured by cars during the same period. Alliston’s case justifiably received plenty of media coverage, but shocking deaths such as that of Ian Winterburn scarcely receive any, and public anger towards cyclists is now at an all-time high.
The 51-year-old driver of the Skoda that killed Ian was sentenced on 20 October by Leeds magistrates court for causing death by careless driving.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating the debate. I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on cycling, and I commend to him one of the recommendations of our report on justice for cyclists. We asked the Government to address
“Confusion and overlap between ‘careless’ and ‘dangerous’ driving”
in such cases.
I shall deal with the issue of careless versus dangerous driving and the different penalties involved. Indeed, I shall refer to the all-party parliamentary group that my hon. Friend so ably chairs, and of which I am currently the treasurer.
The driver of the Skoda was given a four-month prison sentence suspended for two years, a £200 fine, 200 hours of community service and a two-year driving ban. Her licence had been suspended previously for 14 months for drink-driving.
One of the most shocking aspects of this tragic case—apart from the loss of a much-loved husband, father and teacher—is the way that the family have been treated by the various authorities involved in dealing with the terrible and totally avoidable loss of such a valuable life. Ian Winterburn was hit at 7.30 am that day, but the West Yorkshire police crash investigation team did not arrive at the scene for more than an hour.
The police and the Crown Prosecution Service believed that the driver did not adequately defrost her car windscreen before setting off from her home nearby. There was circumstantial evidence to support that, as her windscreen wipers and car heating were on full power although it was a dry day. However, because the crash investigation team took so long to arrive, they could not confirm the state of the windscreen at the time of the accident. Of course, had they arrived sooner, there could have been proof that the windscreen was not properly de-iced. The driver would then have faced a charge of causing death by dangerous driving, which carries a considerably higher sentence on conviction than the lesser charge of death by careless driving.
There is only one crash team for the whole of West Yorkshire, an area with a population of 2.3 million. The family have asked a number of pertinent questions about that issue alone. They asked, for example, why there was only one crash team for such a large area, how many people were in that team, how many crash investigations they investigated each week and where the team was based.
It took more than three hours for the police to contact Mrs Winterburn that day to inform her about the collision. When she asked why it had taken so long, the answer was that the crash team was too busy securing the crash site and collecting evidence, which was its main priority, and that there were not enough staff to contact Mrs Winterburn earlier. As Members may imagine, this was extremely traumatic for Mrs Winterburn and her family and greatly added to the trauma they experienced upon hearing such terrible news.
But it gets worse. When the family arrived at the hospital, they spent a number of hours in the resuscitation unit, where no staff were available to keep them updated. Ian Winterburn was still wearing his cycling clothes, and it was to be another 16 hours before any member of staff gave the family information about the extent of Ian’s injuries, the prognosis or, indeed, the next steps in his treatment.
Let me move on now to the role of the coroner service. Although Ian died on 22 December, just one year ago tomorrow, it took until 10 January to obtain a death certificate. That was apparently because of a backlog over the Christmas and new year holidays, but it meant that Ian’s body had to be kept at the Leeds General Infirmary mortuary for two weeks before a funeral could take place. As Members may imagine, this added considerably to the stress and trauma suffered by the family. Presumably, people still die from unknown causes or accidents over holiday periods, and although everyone deserves holidays and time off, especially public servants, surely it is important that the coroner service does not close, except perhaps on Christmas day itself.
The Crown Prosecution Service told the family that the case against the driver who killed Ian was so serious that it would be heard in the Crown court and that they should not even attend the magistrates court hearing, which would be merely a formality and would only last for a few minutes. However, in the event, the driver was convicted, after two one-hour sessions, by the magistrates court, and no support whatsoever was given to the family.
No help was even offered to the family in the preparation of their victim statements, which of course they had little knowledge of how to prepare and no previous experience of writing. This further added to the anxiety felt by Ian’s close family, and made them lose faith in the whole criminal justice system. One of the pertinent questions asked by Ian’s daughter, my constituent Alex Wilks, who is here today, when she came to see me about her father’s death and her family’s treatment by the various authorities was, “Why is the most senior CPS lawyer in West Yorkshire only employed for two days a week?”
After the shock of the brief court case and what the family feels is the inadequate sentence for a driver who had previously been given a 14-month driving ban after a conviction for drink-driving, the family was told by the police that the coroner would now close the inquest because there had been a criminal conviction. A short while later, the coroner phoned Georgina, Ian’s widow, to tell her that there would still be an inquest and that a number of witnesses would attend it.
As we can imagine, this came as a huge shock to the family, and Alex, Ian’s daughter, rang West Yorkshire Victim Support to ask what the family should expect from the hearing, only to be told that it knew nothing about the hearing. The next day the coroner’s office rang Georgina to tell her that there had been a “mix-up” and that there would not be an inquest after all. No apology has ever been offered for the further upset caused to the family by this so-called “mix-up”.
Many Members will know that I am a keen cyclist, because I pester them every summer to donate to my annual charity bike ride, and I can often be seen arriving at the Palace of Westminster in my hideous, brightly coloured lycra on my carbon racing bike; indeed you, Mr Speaker, have generously seen me off on some of my cycling jaunts.
I am also an officer of the all-party group on cycling, which last July published a report on cycling and the justice system. We took a huge amount of evidence from cycling groups, lawyers, the police, the CPS, Transport for London, local authorities and many others. Among our conclusions were the following recommendations. The police must ensure that a higher standard of investigation is maintained in all cases where serious injury has resulted. That includes eyesight testing, mobile phone records and assessments of speed, drink and drug driving. We received many examples of the police failing to investigate properly, or even to interview witnesses or victims. Too often, weak investigations have undermined subsequent cases. I hope that the Minister will want to comment on this.
We also recommended that all police forces should ensure that evidence of common offences submitted by cyclists or other witnesses using bike-mounted or person-mounted cameras or smart phones should be put to use and not ignored. Too often, these bits of evidence are ignored. The confidence of cyclists that their safety is a priority for the police will be undermined if such evidence is dismissed and no action is taken. In some cases, just a written warning could be enough to change bad behaviour.
The length of time required by the police to serve a notice of intended prosecution for a road traffic offence is currently just 14 days, and that must be extended. That was one of our strong recommendations. We believe that that period is too short to enable cases to be adequately processed. In some cases, it could enable offenders to escape justice altogether.
We also said that there was confusion and overlap between careless and dangerous driving, a point echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), so bad driving often does not receive the level of punishment that the public feel it should. New offences introduced over the past few years have started to plug some of the gaps in the legislation, but many problems remain, particularly when cyclists are the victims. We believe that the Ministry of Justice should examine in more detail how these offences are being used, including the penalties available for offences of careless and dangerous driving.
The police and the CPS should ensure that victims and bereaved families are always kept adequately informed throughout the process of deciding charges. This is done in many cases, but we have heard of victims being ignored and informed only at a much later date that cases have been dropped or that guilty pleas for lesser offences have been accepted.
I am a member of the Justice Committee, and one of the issues that we have heard about—which applies not only to cases such as this one—is that the cutbacks in the Courts Service and the Ministry of Justice mean that there are fewer people to carry out these important administrative tasks. In too many cases, administrative failures mean that justice is not being served, either for the victims or for their families, because there are not enough people to make the kind of contact that is, as my hon. Friend says, so important at times like these.
Again, I thank my hon. Friend for her helpful intervention. I think that the first part of my speech clearly showed that the family of Ian Winterburn are just such a family. They had appallingly bad service from the CPS; they were not kept informed at all. They were given no assistance; there was no family support whatever. I do not know whether that was the result of cutbacks or of bad organisation and training. I think my hon. Friend probably knows more than I do about that, because she is a member of the Justice Committee, but I will leave it to the Minister to respond to that point.
The final recommendation in our report involves the fact that the number and length of driving bans appears to have declined, with a 62% fall in driver disqualifications over the past 10 years. That is double the fall in convictions for driving offences. Furthermore, very large numbers of drivers are escaping disqualification on reaching 12 points or more on their licence. The Ministry of Justice should examine the reasons behind the decline in the use of the penalty of disqualification and in particular the effect of the so-called exceptional hardship scheme.
I know that our report, which was published seven months after Ian Winterburn was killed, will ring many bells in the minds of his family, who still grieve for him every day. The family would like answers to a number of more specific questions, notwithstanding the recommendations I have just read out, so will the Minister answer the following questions? What is the current status of the review of guidelines for causing death by careless driving? Is a review even being carried out? Why do drivers who have caused death not face mandatory custodial sentences? How many complaints does the Ministry of Justice receive about the coroner service every year? What training is given to the coroner service staff? Who holds the coroner service to account? Is it the Ministry of Justice or is there any form of local accountability? When was the last review of the coroner service, and what were its findings? Finally, when will the coroner service website be improved to offer more and better information to grieving and unsupported families, which seems a simple, straightforward reform?
In conclusion, if we truly care about our environment and about the growing public health crisis, surely we must do far more to encourage cycling, both as a healthy activity and as a way to reduce carbon emissions and congestion, but tragedies such as the death of cyclist Ian Winterburn do nothing but discourage the public from cycling. We need to make cycling far easier and much, much safer, and part of that task is about ensuring that when terrible fatal accidents do occur, the appropriate administration of justice can be relied upon. We all need the assurance that cycling is a safe activity and a good way to move around our towns and cities for everyone who is capable of using a bike. Meaningful answers to and action from the Winterburn family’s pertinent questions, born out of tragedy and grief, would be a good start.
I begin by thanking you for your stewardship of these debates over the past year, Mr Speaker, and I wish you a restful Christmas with your family.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) on securing today’s debate. It is fitting that we finish by debating such an important issue and fitting that the debate is being led by the hon. Gentleman in his doughty way. He is passionately defending and championing his constituents, who have raised an issue not just of local concern and concern to him, but of national importance. Colleagues who have dealt with tragic cases in their constituencies know that careless or dangerous driving can ruin lives and devastate families. Numerous colleagues from across the House have raised their cases with me, as the hon. Gentleman has done passionately and tenaciously, and with my predecessors who held this portfolio at the Ministry of Justice.
By way of context, road deaths in Britain have been falling over the past 30 years as a result of a whole range of factors, including safer infrastructure, new vehicle technologies, tougher law enforcement and shifting social attitudes—there has been a ground shift in how people think about drink-driving. We should also pay tribute to our precious NHS, which provides far better trauma care than was the case when I was first learning The Highway Code. As a result, casualty figures show a 5% fall from last year alone. However, more than 27,000 people died or were seriously injured on our roads last year. While many of those were tragic accidents, too many of them involve criminal behaviour, whether classified as dangerous or careless driving, or people failing to stop at the scene so that there is proper accountability. Of course, behind each and every collision statistic, each of those 27,000 cases represents an individual story of a life or a family devastated, personal suffering or family trauma.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East is raising one of those tragic cases: the death of cyclist Ian Winterburn, the father of his constituent, Alexandra Wilks. I believe that some of the family are here today, so I extend my personal condolences and deepest sympathies to them, particularly at this delicate time as we approach Christmas. Mr Winterburn was involved in a road traffic incident just over a year ago and, as the hon. Gentleman said, tragically died of his injuries. As the hon. Gentleman will know, as a Justice Minister, I cannot comment on the judicial treatment of the individual case, the decision on prosecution, or the charges brought by the CPS. Those matters are dealt with independently, which is of course right as politicians should not interfere with either prosecutorial or judicial matters. He will know that some of the operational police matters are for his local constabulary or police and crime commissioner.
The hon. Gentleman has raised many questions, and I want to focus on as many of them as I can in the time available. I can talk, as he knows, in general terms about what the Government are doing to ensure the courts have adequate powers to deal with the most serious offences committed on our roads that result in either death or injury. As I think he and the APPG will know, on 16 October the Government published their response to the consultation on driving offences and penalties relating to causing death and serious injury. It concentrated on the most serious driving offences—those that result in death or serious injury—and considered a range of concerns raised in recent years by victims of these crimes and their families, by members of the public, whether individually or as signatories to petitions, and by parliamentarians, both in debates and on behalf of their constituents.
The consultation closed earlier this year and we received 9,000 responses, which I think is close to, if not, a record, showing how widespread is the public interest and concern in this pertinent area of law. It is not one of those esoteric areas of law; it affects people’s daily lives. We considered all the submissions in detail before publishing our response, and in that response we distilled and considered the views and came forward with three specific changes to the law, all of which received overwhelming support in the consultation. I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome them too. I am always careful about such matters, given the suffering and the fact that justice can go only a small part of the way, but I hope that victims and families find some solace in these measures and that the public see in them a stronger sense of justice.
We propose to give courts additional powers to deal with the most serious cases where life is lost, by increasing the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving from the current 14 years to life imprisonment. That means that in the most serious cases—for example, where an offender has previous convictions for serious crimes, where their behaviour was particularly dangerous or culpable, or where there are multiple victims—offenders could face, depending on the judicial determination, a maximum life sentence.
We also propose to raise the maximum penalty for causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs from 14 years to life imprisonment. Although the standard of driving in that category of cases may not amount to dangerous driving per se, we consider that, if combined with a decision to get behind the wheel while under the influence of drink or drugs, the overall seriousness of the offence should be considered the same as for dangerous driving and that the penalty should be the same.
We also propose to close a gap in the law. Currently, the maximum penalty for careless driving is a fine. Not least given some of the anguish the hon. Gentleman reflected in his powerful speech, it is time to consider whether that really is good enough. A fine is the maximum penalty in all cases of careless driving that do not result in death. Even if the driver injures another road user, cyclist or passenger, and even if the incident results in the victim being left with a serious, debilitating or permanent injury, the court can only impose a fine. It seems clear that the law needs to provide a stronger response to careless driving that results in serious injury. We propose, therefore, to create a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. This will carry a custodial penalty and sit alongside the existing offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving. Again, this was supported by those who responded to our consultation earlier this year.
We intend to bring forward these proposals for reform as soon as parliamentary time allows. The Government are determined to clamp down on all dangerous, careless and reckless criminal behaviour on our roads, and it is right that any changes to legislation take account of the Government’s wider proposals for safer roads. We want to make sure that we have a consistent sentencing framework for those who kill or cause serious injury on our roads, and we intend to incorporate the changes I just outlined, along with those that emerge from the review of cycling safety that the Transport Secretary announced back in September and which I am sure the APPG would commend and welcome.
In the time available, I want to touch on some of the wider points the hon. Gentleman raised. He asked about the Sentencing Council, which is obviously independent and is responsible for issuing the guidelines and keeping them under review. A review of the guidelines for motoring offences involving death is on the council’s work plan and has been postponed pending the Government’s consultation and any changes to the law that flow from it. It is, of course, sensible that the guidelines should reflect changes to the law—there is no point reviewing the guidelines if the law is about to change—and new draft guidelines will be subject to full public consultation in due course.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the distinction between careless driving and dangerous driving, which the APPG also considered. The law, as it currently stands, sets out an objective test designed to compare the driving of a defendant in the specific circumstances of a case with what would be expected of a notionally careful and competent driver.
What amounts to dangerous driving is determined not, as is more normal in criminal law, by considering the driver’s state of mind or intentions, which in the context of driving is often quite difficult to gauge or ascertain, but by examining the nature of the driving itself. In general terms, if the court considers that the driving falls far below the expected standard, and if it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that the manner of driving was dangerous, the court will find it to have been dangerous driving.
The consultation examined the option of a single bad driving offence, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and we set out in detail why we are not persuaded of the case for change. Those who propose a single test tend to say it will lead to more convictions and longer sentences—I totally understand the impetus and drive behind that—but, as we explained in the consultation, we do not think that will necessarily be the case, because the maximum penalty for a single offence would have to be broad enough to cover the most serious offences. We have proposed that causing death could result in a life sentence but, in the least serious cases, a driver’s culpability for the death could be much lower. The challenge is to reconcile or unite those two offences.
If the offences do not make a distinction between the seriousness of the offending, it is possible that the conviction rate could actually fall because juries might be reluctant to convict a driver in some less serious cases—ones where they could imagine themselves in the same position—for an offence with a very serious maximum penalty. Of course, sentences also may not increase, because a judge would still consider the culpability of the offender in deciding the appropriate sentence. I would not want to mislead victims or families that a broader offence might result in higher sentences. I am also not sure that a single offence would mean the Crown Prosecution Service is unable to accept a lesser plea in circumstances where that is inappropriate.
I hope I have addressed at least some of the wide-ranging concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman in this important debate. This is our last debate before we rise for Christmas. I cannot think of anything more tragic than the loss of a life, especially where that loss is avoidable—we are all trying to prevent such deaths.
Again, I extend my deepest condolences to the Winterburn family, especially as we approach Christmas time. No punishment will make up for the loss of a loved one—we all know that—but we can and should make sure that justice is properly done. That is the least the victims and the families deserve, and it is precisely what the public expect.
Question put and agreed to.