My Lords, the Government are introducing legislation increasing the penalties for using a hand-held mobile phone while driving from three to six penalty points, and from £100 to £200 when a driver is issued with a fixed penalty notice. We will be running a THINK! campaign when these higher penalties are introduced to alert drivers to the changes and raise awareness. Drivers also need to understand that it is unacceptable to put lives in danger.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and I declare an interest as a vice-president of RoSPA. We all welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to make this dangerous and potentially devastating practice socially unacceptable. The increased penalties and the proposals that drivers who kill while using a mobile phone could face a life sentence should be a real deterrent to this growing and seemingly obsessive addiction. But previous increases in penalties—
The noble Lord makes an important point about enforcement. Laws are only as good as their enforcement. We have seen a rising tide in the use of mobile phones by drivers in vehicles; they have admitted it themselves through various reports. We will be working closely with the police and crime commissioners, as well as the police forces, to ensure much more effective enforcement.
My Lords, if the maximum sentence is increased to life imprisonment, will my noble friend remind people that it would be discretionary rather than mandatory? Given the fact that the courts presently impose sentences which fall far short of the maximum permitted, reflecting as they do culpability as well as consequences, it is unlikely that the overall sentences would increase to any great extent.
My noble friend is referring to the consultation launched today in this respect by the Ministry of Justice, which will be open for the next 12 weeks. He also makes the important point that the actual sentencing is determined on a case-by-case basis and by the judge looking at the circumstances prevailing in each case.
My Lords, increased sentences will no doubt help but, as the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Jordan, recognise, a change of culture is really what is required. Has the Minister’s department considered introducing, in addition to a penalty for mobile phone offenders, mandatory attendance at mobile phone awareness courses, paid for by the offender, rather than offering such courses as an optional alternative to points and a penalty as at present?
It has been left to the discretion of the police whether to offer the courses to which the noble Lord refers. However, the Government’s view is that this issue needs to be scaled up. We are therefore suggesting that those discretionary courses are not offered and that awareness is raised through campaigns such as THINK! and increased regarding the revised penalties that will be implemented if someone is caught using a mobile phone. Let us be clear: if you use your non-hands-free mobile phone and you are caught, it is a criminal offence.
My Lords, your Lordships’ House will appreciate that this is quite a difficult subject to regulate. I am grateful to the Minister for outlining the Government’s plans. Given that motoring organisations seem to be extremely dubious about the safety of using hands-free equipment in a motor car, do the Government have any plans to regulate car manufacturers’ ability to produce this equipment, which is distracting, I believe, and can cause accidents?
The right reverend Prelate raises an issue about the manufacture of motor cars. The Government are not talking specifically on this issue. Hands-free mobile phone use is very difficult to regulate and enforce, and there are often other distractions in a car, such as loud music. I am the father of three children, and if I have all three of them in the back seat at the same time, that is quite a distraction. On a more serious point, we are looking to ensure that we inform the public, and campaigns such as THINK! will stress the importance of not using handheld mobile phones when driving.
I am very pleased to hear the Minister adopting such a carefully reasoned approach in his responses so far. May I suggest to him that the reason that he must do that is that increasing sentences excessively, even though they are discretionary, leads to sentencing inflation? With the situation in our prisons today, we cannot afford to have further sentencing inflation. Additionally, juries will not convict if they think that sentences are inappropriate. As the Minister has already accepted, the real thing is to change the culture, as happened with drink-driving.
The noble and learned Lord is right to inform your Lordships’ House about the importance of our justice system and the pressures on it and the prison system. Returning to an earlier point, we have learned over time—particularly if we look at drink-driving—that informing and educating the public is an important part of ensuring that we eradicate the illegal use of such phones.
My Lords, have Ministers considered the circumstances in which it might be appropriate to introduce, on a mandatory basis, mobile phone signal jamming equipment? It is currently available on the internet. You can google it. Would it not be wise to consider that kind of product?
Again, the noble Lord makes an important point, and I am sure he would acknowledge that that is being looked at. We all use flight mode, for example, when we board planes. Others in the car may well be using a mobile phone quite legitimately. Of course, when you are travelling great distances, if the driver is not using a mobile phone but others are, that can be a lifeline if certain issues or challenges arise during a trip.