Dangerous Driving Offences (Sentencing)
Start: 4.49 pm
Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton, in this incredibly important debate on sentencing for dangerous driving. The fact that so many hon. Friends and colleagues have turned up for the debate demonstrates the strength of feeling across the House on the issue. I want to highlight the case of my constituents, John Morland and Kris Jarvis, who were killed by a dangerous driver. I also want to press for a change in the law to toughen sentences for dangerous driving.
The case of John and Kris is incredibly tragic. They were cycling in my constituency on 13 February and were hit from behind by a car driven by a man called Alexander Walter. He had stolen the car, was disqualified from driving, and was two and a half times over the alcohol limit. In the 24 hours before the accident, he had taken cocaine, and it emerged afterwards that he had already made 14 court appearances and had 67 convictions, one of which related to him phoning Heathrow airport to make a bomb hoax only days after the 9/11 tragedy. Walter walked away from the wreckage without a scratch. John and Kris did not; they died at the scene due to their appalling injuries.
John and Kris were family men, and as a result of the accident seven children lost their father; parents lost their sons; brothers and sisters lost their siblings; and the fiancées of John and Kris, who are present and are listening to the debate, Hayley Lindsay and Tracey Fidler, lost the love of their life. I was particularly touched by a point that Tracey made in the local paper: since the age of 17, they had never spent a day apart. I pay tribute to the courage, bravery and strength of character of Tracey and Hayley. They have spent months trying to rebuild their shattered lives and dreams. They are very grateful to their friends and families, who have helped them, but the reality is that those families started a life sentence on 13 February.
Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend most wholeheartedly on securing this vital debate. I pass on my condolences to the families he mentioned. I have enormous sympathy for their case. A year ago yesterday, two teenage girls from my constituency were mown down by a gentleman driving at more than twice the speed limit on a cocktail of drugs, for which crime he received a nine-year prison sentence, which amounts to less than 4.5 years per life. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is completely inadequate for the life sentence that that man inflicted on those families?
Alok Sharma: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will make the case for changing the law, but she has set out clearly that at the end of the day we are talking about families and justice. That is what we are all fighting for in this House. As I said, the families started a life sentence—a life without their loved ones—on 13 February. By contrast, Walter got 10 years and three months for killing two innocent men. He committed what I understand from the Crown Prosecution Service guidance to be a level 1 offence. He was also responsible for just about every aggravating factor listed in the guidance that anyone could think of. Perhaps the Minister will comment, but why on earth was the maximum tariff of 14 years not levied against that man?
Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I commend my hon. Friend for taking up this serious issue. Will he join me in requesting that the Crown Prosecution Service considers charging with manslaughter far more often, rather than charging with death by dangerous driving? If a person causes someone’s death by behaving in a grossly negligent or reckless manner anywhere else in society, they are charged with manslaughter. If that happens on the road, however, they are not; they are charged with death by dangerous driving. There is no legal reason why that should be. If a person is convicted of manslaughter, that gives the sentencing court far more powers, and a maximum possible sentence of life, rather than 14 years.
Alok Sharma: My hon. Friend is an expert in the law, and he knows about these matters, so I hope that the Minister has listened to what he said. We will talk about the review being conducted by the Minister, but I hope that that point will form part of it.
Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on a timely debate. I started the campaigning group PACTS, the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, many years ago, because I saw two people lying by the side of the road dying. My passion has always been to stop such needless deaths. Does he agree that we want evenness of justice in this country? Wherever in our land that ghastly offence of death by dangerous driving occurs, there should be the same penalty with the same severity.
Alok Sharma: The hon. Gentleman is right. I was about to say that even had the offender in the case I mentioned got 14 years, that would not have been enough. The reality is that that man, Walter, will probably be out of prison in a lot fewer than 10 years.
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on raising again this most emotive issue. I draw the attention of the House to my constituent, 18-year-old Olivia Flanagan, who was killed last December by Luke Sykes. Mr Sykes was over the drink-drive limit and had hit a number of cars before ploughing into Olivia’s car. He was driving at a blind summit on the wrong side of the road, and Olivia happened to be coming the other way. The man had 15 previous driving convictions and had only recently got his driving licence back. He had also ticked a box on the licence stating that he did not suffer from mental illness, although he had a history of such illness.
Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. I am afraid that is far too long for an intervention.
Alok Sharma: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He makes the important point that we must have a punishment that fits the crime. We have a justice system that sometimes has much more regard for the criminal than the victims—not only the victims who are killed, but their families and friends who are left behind to pick up the pieces.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the point that he is making is particularly relevant to motoring offences? Until the legal system—the courts and the police—treats people who get behind the wheel of a car as being in charge of a lethal weapon, and until those people realise that they are in charge of a lethal weapon, his constituents and the constituents of all of us who have experienced such terrible losses will never feel that justice has been done.
Alok Sharma: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As we all agree, the law has to change in the case of dangerous driving.
Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and I agree with everything that he has said so far. Another element is that the CPS, when looking at such cases, sometimes chooses to go for the lesser charge of careless driving. That is what happened in the case of my constituent, James Still, who was killed on new year’s eve 2010, and whose family I am supporting. May I also bring my hon. Friend’s attention to the round-table meeting that I am setting up with MPs and victims’ families? All hon. Members are invited to meet with the families. I will ensure that anyone who has not already had an invitation gets one.
Alok Sharma: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I was aware of the meeting and will of course attend, as I am sure everyone present will. Despite the grief that Tracey and Hayley have to live with every day, they want justice for John and Kris. They want to ensure that the lives of their loved ones were not lost in vain. They are asking for a change in the law. Despite all the problems that they face as a result of the loss of their fiancés, they have had the courage to put forward an e-petition, which was prepared with the help of a fantastic local campaigner in my constituency, Teresa Colliass, and is now on the Government website. The petition calls for drivers to receive a maximum sentence of 14 years per person who has been killed.
Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. Tragically, there was a similar case in my constituency last year, when Ross and Clare Simons, riding a tandem bike, were mown down by a dangerous driver who was disqualified and had many previous convictions. Ross and Clare’s families, and the campaign, “Justice for Ross and Clare”, today back Tracey, Hayley and their families in a common cause: 14 years should be 14 years per person killed. We should not have concurrency—sentences being served together. My offer is that we and those families work together to get the law changed urgently.
Alok Sharma: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: families want to make sure that we have not concurrent but consecutive sentences. If Walter had been given 14 years for each death, he would now be facing 28 years behind bars rather than being out in what will probably be a lot less than 10 years.
Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. We all agree on the importance of the review of sentences for driving offences. I am sure that like everyone else here, he would be grateful for clarity from the Minister on when that review will happen.
Alok Sharma: I am sure the Minister will address that point in detail. I put on the record my thanks to the Reading Post and The Reading Chronicle for publicising the case and the petition. I also thank The Sun, which has done so nationally, and many others for helping to publicise the petition. So far, 25,000 people have signed. Both I and the families want to see a lot more signatures.
I do not believe that 10 years was a long enough sentence for what Walter did. The families affected do not believe that, and, so far, 25,000 people across our land do not, either. We have heard today that Members of Parliament representing many, many people across our country do not believe that that was right. I would like us all to sign the petition, which should influence the review, and to bring about a change in the law.
There are a number of specific things I want to hear from the Minister. I understand that he cannot predetermine the review. But does he understand the strength of feeling there is in the country about this issue and that Members of Parliament, members of the public and families who are affected by such tragedies want to put victims first? Does he have sympathy for the petition’s aims? The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) talked about the ongoing review on all driving offences. How can members of the public influence the review? Will there be a public consultation?
I want justice for John and Kris, as do their families. Hon. Members want justice for the families of constituents who have been affected by this crime. When it comes to dangerous driving, the punishment must fit the crime. It is high time we had a change in the law.
The Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims (Mike Penning): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) on securing this debate, which I welcome. My thoughts and prayers are with his constituents’ families, and all those who have been mentioned today. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), a former Road Safety Minister, is in his place to listen to the debate. I pay tribute to him, and will refer back to the work done on this issue over the years, not least the work that he and I both did in our former occupation.
Far be it from me to nudge my colleagues into going before any Committee, but given the absolutely understandable strength of feeling here today, the petition may well get 100,000 signatures, and no doubt should. It should go before the Backbench Business Committee, as we need a much longer debate on the matter. I do not mind whether I respond to that debate or the Road Safety Minister does, but the House should hear more about the effects on Members’ constituents, including my own—Ministers should never forget that we are still MPs, and I know my constituents will support many of the comments made today.
Nothing I say today will bring back Kris and John. As an ex-fireman, ex-paramedic and ex-Road Minister—I have lots of ex-careers—one of the most poignant jobs I have ever had was going to what used to be called, inappropriately, road traffic accidents and are now quite rightly called road traffic collisions. I pay tribute to all our blue-light responders: our police, ambulance and fire crews, and representatives of local authorities, who are now often there. They do a fantastic job for us every day. Going to an incident is enormously difficult, as responders can see what has been done to an individual or individuals by someone who should never have been driving the car in the first place because they were disqualified—as in this case—who should not have been behind the wheel because they were drunk and who had no regard for another person’s life.
Far be it from any parliamentarian, including me, to tell a judge what they should do in their court—we do not have that system in this country, thank goodness—but it is absolutely right and proper that Parliament decides the punishment for a crime. It is then for the judges to interpret that. In this particular case the judge interpreted the law and decided that the sentence would be 10 years and three months. The offender and his legal team appealed against that sentence, but thank goodness we saw common sense.
For this offence it falls within the capabilities of the prosecuting team to appeal to the Attorney-General against an unduly lenient sentence. I do not know what the Attorney-General might have decided, but that option was certainly within the capability of the prosecution. As a Back-Bench MP, I appealed against lenient sentences on many occasions, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) touched on the issue of what the CPS looks at. I am not a lawyer—there are many in the House—but the problem with the law as it stands is the issue of intent. It is a question of whether the driver intended to go and do what they did. That is why the CPS tends to hold back from prosecuting for murder or manslaughter. It is entitled to do that, however; that is within the regulations.
I turn now to what we are going to do—and not only because of the debate, the petition and the ongoing review. There are a couple of matters I will touch upon.
Andrew Bridgen: Will the Minister give way?
Mike Penning: I will not. I know that sounds very rude, but I spoke to the Chair before the debate, and because so many people have intervened—that is why I would like a longer debate on the issue at some later point—I will not get through all the points I want to raise if I do. If I get through all the points that I promised my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West I would raise in my response, I will then give way.
The review is massively important, in that it will look not so much at the offences—those are within a different brief—but at what the penalties should be. I will not pre-empt the review but I agree that we need to look carefully at whether the punishment fits the crime. We should look at the difference between driving a car and killing somebody—when drunk, or without insurance, or a licence, or any of those things we know people should have—with the intent to do that and killing a person with intent in any other way. That will be part of the review.
We will consult extensively. I know that families are listening to me—not only those who are here today because of the debate but families across the country—and
I want everybody involved in that consultation. It is vital that not just judges, prosecutors and politicians, but the families of the victims themselves—I would say that as the Victims Minister—are involved.
We can make some changes while the review is going on. For instance, I find it completely perverse that the driving ban that that gentleman—I use that word in inverted commas—was given in court is running while he is serving his sentence in prison. I have never understood the legislation on that. That situation will change, outside of the review. The ban will start when they come out.
Mr Bradshaw: Will the Minister give way?
Mike Penning: If I give way to the right hon. Gentleman I will have to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen). I will do that if I can, but in a moment. I know the exact time that I have, and if there is time left I will give way.
It is also important that when someone gets this type of sentence there is openness and honesty about why it was given. I have been talking extensively to judges about that recently. Although the courts, quite rightly, must be independent, guidance from Parliament tells them what the will of Parliament is—that is what judges are supposed to look at—when such abhorrent offences take place. One area where we can give the courts and certainly the police more help is in matters such as the terrible incident that occurred in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), which was drug-related. At the moment, it is difficult to prosecute someone for drug-driving for myriad reasons, not least that some drugs leave the system quickly. That is why we intend to introduce roadside drugalyser testing—I started the process when I was the Minister responsible for roads—and in-station drugalyser testing.
I have often attended RTCs, and I know from experience, as does the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), who is another former Transport Minister, that someone who has been involved in an accident, often when someone has died, may have been under the influence of drugs. However, if they are breathalysed that may not show up enough to prosecute them, even though we all know that that person is under the influence of something. We must, morally, do something about that, and I have been working on it with other countries.
As I have made good progress, I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) and then to the right hon. Member for Exeter.
Andrew Bridgen: Does the Minister agree that we must tighten up when reissuing licences to people who have been disqualified? We need a multi-agency approach to ensure that repeat driving offenders get their licence back only if it is agreed they should.
Mike Penning: Yes, and that is important. We are tight on people who have been banned for drink-driving, and they are often required to get a medical report saying that they do not have a drink problem. Anyone who ticks the box to say that they do not have a mental illness or mental health issues when they have such problems breaks the law.
The key is to work with the insurance companies. That may be a strange way of looking at the issue, but they are interested in what offences have taken place because they insure the risk. That was why, when I was at the Department for Transport, I gave insurers access to Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency data so that insurers knew whether someone had been banned and whether they had points on their licence when applying for insurance. Such people often lie about that, as the person that my hon. Friend mentioned did. That person was subsequently involved in an incident and was not insured.
Mr Bradshaw: Why should anyone who has committed such an offence ever be allowed to drive again? They should be banned for life.
Mike Penning: I have some sympathy with that, but if someone comes out of prison and lives in an area where they must rely on driving to work—[Interruption.]
Mr Bradshaw: Tough.
Mike Penning: Well, at the end of the day, when someone has served their sentence I want them not to be a burden on the state but to work. In rural parts of the country, such as that which the right hon. Gentleman represents, that might exclude someone from working. I am willing to look at the suggestion, but it is not as simple as just saying “tough”.
Caroline Dinenage: The Minister is being incredibly patient in giving way. I strongly welcome what he said about looking at changing the rules so that a driving ban runs from the end of a sentence. That has been the biggest slap in the face for the families of Olivia and Jasmine in my constituency—the gentleman concerned was given a seven-year driving ban despite getting a nine-year jail sentence. That was utterly disgusting.
Mike Penning: We talked earlier about the punishment fitting the crime. What is the logic of giving someone a driving ban when it will be over when the offender comes out of prison?
It is poignant for the families to know that their petition works, and that so may colleagues from throughout the House have come to this debate. It is important that there should be a much more open debate on the Floor of the House, and I am sure that the Backbench Business Committee would be amenable to that, because there has been cross-party support in the Chamber today.
As the review goes forward, nothing should be ruled out, which is what I think my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West was alluding to in his comments to me. There will be some natural concerns from the judiciary and colleagues, which is fine. Let them put that into the mix, but the most important people who need to be part of the consultation are the families of the victims. No one can replace their loved ones, but if they have the courage of those who have come here today saying this should not happen to anyone else, perhaps we can make this country a safer place.
Question put and agreed to.
The debate was published on the parliamentary website.