Criminal Justice System

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing the debate. Hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I am not running for election as a police and crime commissioner. I support fully the passionate words on behalf of victims that we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and many others.
As treasurer of the all-party parliamentary cycling group and a keen cyclist, I know many people who have been affected by this issue. Today, I would like to talk about vulnerable road users who are victims in our system. We need changes right the way through the system, from how cases are investigated, to charging standards and the involvement of victims and to sentencing.
 I will start with a chilling statistic. We have now reached the 95th cyclist death on the roads in Britain. Some 82 of those were caused by collisions with vehicles, and many of those cases are still being investigated. The overwhelming majority of deaths to cyclists are caused by collisions with vehicles, and not because of carelessness.
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Indeed, we saw in statistics from Transport for London for last year that only 6% of cyclist deaths were attributable to carelessness on their part. The majority were attributed to fault by the driver. That needs to be stressed.
In many cases, of course, there is not enough evidence either way, but the majority of deaths are caused by motorists, so we need to be very clear about where the balance of fault lies in these instances. If we look at deaths and serious injuries together, last year 3,192 people were killed or seriously injured on our roads. For far too long, justice has been weighted in favour of the motorist.
Terminology is also an issue. We all refer to road traffic accidents, but I put it like this: if a cyclist is killed by a speeding lorry driver on a mobile phone, that is not an accident but a crime, and we should refer to them as road traffic collisions rather than road traffic accidents. That would help to drive a change in culture. This debate is not about being anti-car—I am a road user myself. In fact, most people who are campaigning on this issue both cycle and drive.
There are examples of unsafe cycling out there. I am sure that I owe my life to a traffic policeman who hauled me over the coals for cycling down what he called the “tunnel of death” between two lanes of slow-moving lorries and buses. Hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I did not shout; I just apologised very meekly. Sometimes, being informed about these things makes a difference.
Inconsistencies run right through our system. We need look at the boundaries between careless driving, death by careless and inconsiderate driving, and death by dangerous driving. There is evidence, because of the higher conviction rates, that offenders are being driven towards lesser charges. That has huge implications for sentencing. In many cases, there is the decision that there is no one to blame at all. That cannot be right.
As with the Sentencing Council guidelines on the impact on victims of assault, let us have victim statements. Losing a child through a collision with a speeding motorist has no less impact than losing them as a result of an assault, so let us take that seriously. We should look again at strict liability in civil cases, and I would like the Minister to talk about that.
3.45 pm
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): I would like to pick up on some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). Let us be clear—when people are behind the wheel of a vehicle, they are in charge of a lethal weapon. If somebody is killed or seriously maimed because of careless or dangerous driving, that is no different from killing or seriously injuring someone through any other kind of negligent or dangerous behaviour.
According to figures given to me in parliamentary answers, more than 500 killer drivers have avoided jail in the past five years. While the number of people convicted of causing death by careless or dangerous driving in England and Wales between 2007 and last year rose, there was a dramatic fall in the proportion of those convicted receiving a custodial sentence.
In 2008, there were 271 such convictions; in 2011, there were 383. However, in 2008, 90% of drivers who were convicted went to jail, while in 2011 only 50% of them did. That is totally unacceptable for the families and loved ones of the victims. They feel a deep sense of injustice and unfairness when they see somebody who has killed their loved one get off with little more than a rap on the knuckles. It brings the whole of our criminal justice system into disrepute.
I welcome the relatively new Minister, the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), to her post. I have not had the opportunity to congratulate her personally because I do not see her anymore around our neighbouring offices. I hope this will not damage her career, but I was delighted at her well deserved promotion. I have a number of questions for her; if she cannot answer them now, I would be grateful if she wrote to me.
Has there been any change in the sentencing guidance issued to courts in relation to these offences? If the guidance has not changed, how does she explain the huge drop, which is way beyond the possibility of statistical fluctuation based on the individual circumstances of the cases? Will she agree to the request from CTC and other cycling and road safety groups for a review of how the criminal justice system is working in these cases?
We have a good record in Britain, going back over many years, of improving our road safety and reducing death and injury on the roads. That has not happened by accident; it has happened through joined-up Government policies that have boosted safety and changed our whole culture and attitudes towards road crime. I am sure that the Minister, who is a reasonable woman, would not wish to see the recent worrying reversal of that progress as part of her legacy. To avoid that, she needs to ensure that we can restore the confidence of the victims of road crime in the justice system.
Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing the debate. I would like to follow on from some of the points made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) and ask the Minister to look at the sentences that drivers receive after killing or injuring cyclists, which many people feel are often derisory.
For example, British Cycling employee Rob Jefferies was killed when he was hit from behind on an open, straight road in broad daylight by someone who had already been caught for speeding. Unbelievably, the driver got just an 18-month ban, a retest, 200 hours’ community service and a small fine. That was in line with the guidelines, so there was no hope of an appeal. Mr Jefferies’ brother, Will, is following this debate. He said:
“The present state of the law meant that his killer could never receive a sentence proportionate to the crime.”
The lorry driver who killed another cyclist, Eilidh Jake Cairns, admitted in court that his eyesight was not good enough for him to have been driving. He was fined just £200. He was free to drive again immediately. Unbelievably, 18 months later, he knocked down and killed Nora Gutmann, an elderly pensioner. His eyesight was still poor and he was not wearing his prescribed glasses. If he had been convicted of causing death by careless driving the first time, he would have been given a driving ban and would not have been able to kill Nora Gutmann. The justice system failed not only Eilidh, but Nora.
When Cath Ward, who worked for the police in the west midlands, was knocked off her bike and killed, the driver was convicted of careless driving and received just a short driving ban. Cath’s friend, Ruth Eyles, wrote to me:
“What shocks me is that the driver who killed Rob Jefferies will be able to drive again in 18 months…If that young man had had a legal firearm and had accidentally shot and killed someone through carelessness, would he be given a new licence 18 months later?”
All too often, incidents in which people are seriously injured are downgraded from dangerous driving to careless driving because it is easier to secure a conviction, but a conviction for careless driving usually results in the driver just having to attend a course.
We need a comprehensive review of how the justice system operates when people are hurt or killed on the roads that includes, first, a full analysis of how the police and coroners investigate such cases; secondly, a review of the charging standards and legal guidance used by the CPS; thirdly, a full examination of the offences available to the CPS, particularly causing death by careless driving; and fourthly, a review of the sentencing guidelines to ensure that they adequately reflect the actual or potential consequences of an offence.
British Cycling, of which I am a member, has called on the Ministry of Justice to start a review. Despite repeated letters and 78 MPs signing an early-day motion in favour, it has had no response to its request. I congratulate the Minister on her appointment and welcome her to her post. Is she prepared to meet a delegation from British Cycling to discuss justice on the roads in more detail, as the organisation has requested? Is she prepared to undertake a review of the justice system?
Mr Bradshaw: I am sorry that the Minister has not been able to respond to the points made by three hon. Members about road traffic victims. Would she at least agree to meet a delegation led by British Cycling to discuss the issue?
Mrs Grant: I will write to the right hon. Gentleman and I agree to meet a delegation.
I am right out of time, so I will just say that our package of reforms is designed to ensure that victims’ services are put on a more intelligent and sustainable footing. It is designed, in particular, to ensure that those in greatest need of help and support get what they actually need when they need it. It is not about one size fitting all. I am committed to these reforms.
4.50 pm
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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