Dangerous Driving Penalties
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): I beg to move,
That this House has considered penalties for dangerous driving.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in this Parliament, Mr Hollobone.
On 13 February last year, the lives of two families living in my constituency were devastatingly changed forever as a result of a most appalling act of dangerous driving. My constituents Kris Jarvis and John Morland were out that day enjoying their regular pastime of cycling. They were cycling back home to their young families. Both men were wearing safety helmets and clothing that made them visible to motorists. Sadly, that did not save them from being mowed down by a stolen sportscar, driven by an individual by the name of Alexander Walter.
Walter was driving at 70 mph in a 30 mph zone. He was almost two and a half times over the legal blood alcohol limit. He was found to have taken cocaine in the 24 hours before the appalling incident. He had 67 previous convictions, one of which related to his having phoned Heathrow airport to deliver a hoax bomb threat only days after the devastating 9/11 tragedy. He was also serving a four-year ban from driving. Every time I read this litany of Walter’s transgressions, it leaves me absolutely numb with shock.
Kris Jarvis and John Morland died as result of the injuries they sustained, killed by the actions of a dangerous driver. As a result of Walter’s actions, Tracey Fidler lost her fiancé Kris and their five children—Kyle, Ryan, Luke, Emma and the youngest, Adam, who was nine years old at the time of this tragedy—lost a father. Hayley Lindsay lost her fiancé John and their two young children, Harvey and Jazmin, who was seven years old at the time, lost their father. Both couples had planned to marry this year. Tracey and Hayley are here today watching this debate.
Unless someone has gone through the same horrific experience as Tracey and Hayley and their families, it is impossible to imagine how difficult it has been at times for them and their children to cope with this harrowing tragedy. I have got to know Hayley and Tracey and members of their extended family over the past year, and I know that at times it has been a case of taking each day as it comes. The pain of their loss is with them constantly. They have been helped by their families and friends, and I pay tribute to all of them, including Karen Rowland who has accompanied them to Parliament today. Tracey and Hayley are remarkable women: incredibly brave, wonderfully caring and hugely determined. Determined to make sure that John and Kris’s lives were not lost in vain. Determined to get justice for the families of future victims whose lives are cut short by the actions of dangerous drivers such as Walter.
Talking of justice, I should note that for killing two people and ruining the lives of two families Walter was sentenced to 10 years and three months in prison. Given how the current justice system operates, he will probably be out in less time than that. To add insult to grievous injury, Walter decided to appeal against his sentence.
Thankfully, he was not successful. In contrast, Tracey and Hayley and their families started, on 13 February last year, a life sentence without Kris and John. In their case, life really does mean life. Simply put, this is not justice. This is not fair. This regime of sentencing for those who cause death by dangerous driving has to change. It has to get much tougher, and Tracey and Hayley believe it needs toughening, too.
Tracey and Hayley started a Government e-petition last year calling for a change in the law so that a dangerous driver receives a maximum sentence of 14 years for each person they kill, with the sentence to be served consecutively, not concurrently as happens right now. If the terms of the e-petition became law and if a dangerous driver killed two people, he or she would face up to 28 years behind bars. Thanks to Tracey and Hayley’s tenacity, the e-petition had reached over 102,000 signatures when it closed in March. I want to thank the national media, in particular The Sun, and our local papers, the online getreading and The Reading Chronicle for all that they have done to publicise the petition.
It is a remarkable achievement to reach over 100,000 signatures on a Government e-petition, and it is all the more remarkable that that was done by a few individuals. It was not backed by any national organisation or campaign team, but by two women and their friends and families, who care so much about this matter. It also demonstrates that constituents across this great country of ours want the law strengthened when it comes to sentencing for dangerous driving.
Tracey and Hayley have brought their campaign for justice for victims and their families to the heart of Government. We had a constructive meeting last year with the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who also responded in an extremely sympathetic tone to a short debate that I held last November on sentencing for dangerous driving offences. In February this year, Tracey and Hayley met the Prime Minister to set out their reasons for why the law should be strengthened. They were joined in this meeting by the family of Ross and Clare Simons, who have been greatly supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore)in their own campaign to strengthen the sanctions against dangerous drivers. I am sure that my hon. Friend will speak about that case. I know that Tracey and Hayley are incredibly grateful and touched by the personal interest that the Prime Minister took in both cases.
When we debated the matter previously, many colleagues brought examples from their constituencies, which demonstrates clearly that we need the law to be strengthened. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy),who unfortunately cannot be here today due to other commitments, asked me to highlight the case of his young constituent Laura Thomas. Laura, who worked in a school for children with special needs, was killed by a truck when the driver was browsing the internet on his phone. It was a shocking waste of a young life. Laura’s mother, Lisa, and her family certainly want tougher enforcement and tougher penalties in future cases.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), who unfortunately also cannot be with us today, for launching a big campaign and working extremely hard with the families of victims.
Indeed, he has produced a charter of the sort of changes that they would like to see when it comes to strengthening sentencing.
As I am sure we will hear from the Minister today, a Government review of sentencing for all driving related offences is currently under way. After the aforementioned meeting with the Prime Minister, he wrote, as he had promised, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), the then Justice Secretary, setting out his thoughts following the discussion with Hayley and Tracey. I want to read from part of the Prime Minister’s letter, which mirrors what Hayley and Tracey are asking the review to consider.
The Prime Minister wrote:
“I agreed that the following issues should be considered in depth as part of the review we are carrying out on sentencing for driving-related offences: The maximum sentence length available for causing death by dangerous driving (currently a 14 year sentence); Whether offenders convicted of causing death by dangerous driving should be denied automatic early release from prison at the half-way point in the sentence”.
If such a provision were in place now, we would not be facing the thought of Mr Walter coming out of prison before his 10 years and three months had been served.
To those issues, the Prime Minister added:
“The question of whether sentences should be awarded concurrently or consecutively in cases where a number of people are killed as a result of dangerous driving, whilst recognising that the courts normally determine this issue; The discounts provided for late guilty pleas in these types of cases; The length of the driving ban given to offenders, and the potential for ensuring that no period of their sentence counts towards the driving ban.”
I would be grateful if the Minister, in summing up, confirmed that those suggestions do indeed form part of the review. We would all be grateful if he also set out the timetable for when the review will be published and how long the public consultation process will be. What actions will his Department take to publicise that consultation?
Can the Minister also confirm—this is an incredibly important point—that if the public consultation suggests that constituents up and down the country consider any of the changes to the sentencing regime for dangerous driving proposed in the review to be too lenient, the regime will be strengthened further? We want justice—that is what the 102,000 people who signed the petition want—and I hope that is reflected when the consultation is completed.
Tracey and Hayley have done everything to keep the memory of Kris and John alive. They have held a range of events locally in Reading. Tracey has been nominated for a Pride of Reading award—an award given to those living in Reading who have done exceptional public service. She has been nominated because of the campaigning she has done on changing the law so that the families of future victims get more justice than Kris and John did.
Tracey and Hayley know that none of that will bring back Kris and John—that is something they will have to live with all their lives. However, they do not want the loss of Kris and John to be in vain. They want justice. They want a change in the law so that we are much tougher on those who kill through dangerous driving. I have pledged to them that I will fight by their side for justice for as long as it takes. If we are able to achieve a change in the law, and it is indeed strengthened, it would be fitting if that law was referred to as “John and Kris’s law”. That would be a tribute to the memory of two family men whose tragic deaths led to a national campaign to strengthen sentencing for dangerous driving.
Several hon. Members rose—
Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order. Let me set out for Members the terms of the debate. We will get to hear Mr Sharma sum up for three minutes at the end. Under the rules, the Scottish National party spokesman, the Opposition spokesman and the Minister are all entitled to 10 minutes each. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen just before 4 o’clock, with the debate due to close at 4.30 pm. Six people stood to speak. I will not impose a time limit, but six sevens are 42, so if those six Members all speak for about seven minutes, you will all get in. This is such an incredibly important subject that I want everyone to have their say. We will start with a Member who has probably seen more car accidents than anyone else, given his previous career as a firefighter—Jim Fitzpatrick.
Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): Thank you very much, Mr Hollobone. It is good to see you presiding over our business this afternoon. I will certainly do my best to follow your stricture about time.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma). I congratulate him on securing the debate and on his continuing campaign on this issue. This is not the first time he has raised it, and he continues to lobby all of us to make sure that, if we can, we support him in his endeavour. He makes a powerful case that the punishment should fit the crime.
I look forward to hearing the Minister and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), respond to the points that Members raise in the debate. It is good to see colleagues here, and I welcome them to their places.
The issue that underpins the question of penalties for dangerous driving is road safety. In itself, that is not controversial. There are no party politics involved in this issue; there may be differences of approach and emphasis, but we all want the same outcome: safer roads and fewer casualties.
When individuals break the law, the appropriateness of their punishment arises. As the hon. Gentleman said, that is not about vengeance or retribution, but about society making a statement. Attitudes to road safety have been changing. Drinking and driving used to be the norm; now it is socially unacceptable, but that took time. Getting people to wear seatbelts took even longer, and thousands of people were killed in the meantime.
The language around these issues is critical. In the fire service, in which I served, we used to talk about RTAs—road traffic accidents. They are now classified by the police and the fire service as RTCs—road traffic collisions. That language is important, because the majority of crashes, collisions and incidents have an avoidable cause: people drinking, taking drugs, speeding and using mobile phones. We are talking about deliberate decisions by human beings—drivers—that impact on innocent victims. In that sense, these are not accidents. Although some accidents do happen, the majority of fatalities and serious casualties are caused by people doing something deliberate. The word “accidents” is now passé for the emergency services, and, given how important language is, it should be passé for us too.
I am grateful to the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety and the Cyclists Touring Club—the national cycling charity—for their briefings for the debate. Both make what is for me the most important point: enforcement is the most effective deterrent. Penalties and tariffs are important, but enforcement is critical.
That takes me to the issue of policing. CTC’s briefing says:
“CTC’s Road Justice campaign has for several years been highlighting the fact that roads policing has suffered disproportionate cuts in recent years, compared with overall police numbers. Traffic police officer numbers fell by 37% from 2002/3-2013/14”.
This is not a party political point; these things have happened under different Governments. The CTC goes on to say that traffic police numbers have fallen
“from almost 7,000 uniformed officers down to just 4,356…total policing levels fluctuated a little from year to year, but not to this degree”—
overall police numbers fell by about 3.5%, but traffic police numbers are down by nearly 40%.
Both PACTS and CTC cite individual cases where the punishment does not fit the crime, and the hon. Gentleman movingly recounted many such cases, drawing on his own experience and that of other colleagues. Of the punishment, the CTC says that the length of the prison sentences and the length of the driving bans is totally inappropriate.
The CTC also raises the review the Government promised, which the hon. Gentleman also mentioned. The previous Justice Secretary announced a review of road traffic offences and sentencing. In a previous debate, also moved by the hon. Gentleman, the Minister’s predecessor promised widespread consultation on sentencing, but no word has been heard since. The hon. Gentleman asked the Minister for an update, and I am sure we would all be grateful for one.
I pay tribute to all the campaigning organisations, many of which have been founded by victims’ relatives and have campaigned for years, and even decades. When I was Road Safety Minister, I had my first request from a victim’s family for a meeting to discuss their relative’s death. I have huge regard for the civil service, but my civil servants said, “Don’t do it, Minister.” I asked why not, and they said, “If you meet one, you’ll have to meet them all.” My line was, “If I meet one, I will meet them all.”
These people have a lesson to teach the rest of us, and if we understand their suffering, we can use it to emotionally drive us to arrive at the right conclusions and to get the balance right between crime and punishment. They were some of the most moving meetings I ever had, and were inspiring at the same time, because bereaved families want to make sure that no one else suffers as they did, as the hon. Member for Reading West explained. I look forward to the Minister’s updating us on the review.
Preventing road traffic collisions in the first place and protecting pedestrians, cyclists and other road users is essential, and enforcement is the key to that. We have all seen how road users behave near speed cameras, in average-speed camera zones and when a high-visibility police car is travelling on the same stretch of road that we are on. Their attitude is completely different from that of the minority of drivers who just do not care about the rest of us. The real deterrent is visibility and visible, effective policing.
I would like ordinary citizens to be able to empower the police more. Some constabularies operate a system by which if several members of the public report someone they have seen in the pub getting into their car, the police will send the driver a warning letter to say, “You have been reported to us; we are watching you.” That has an impact, and I have been told, and have read, evidence of that. I want ordinary citizens to be more empowered to report drivers they know are breaking the rules. That system might help to restrain the minority of selfish, dangerous and potentially killer drivers, before they ruin lives.
As to prosecutions, PACTS writes:
“There are reports that the reductions in CPS budgets and staff are impacting on the level of Dangerous and Careless Driving prosecutions.”
I should be grateful if the Minister commented on that observation, in the light of the evidence cited by the hon. Member for Reading West about reduced numbers of bans and the complications of concurrent bans. [Interruption.] I see the Minister’s officials nodding, so perhaps a note will be coming in a moment; I look forward to a response to what PACTS has asked.
The debate is about penalties for dangerous driving. All the evidence informing public opinion is that more could and should be done to prevent dangerous driving, but the social mood has changed about those cases where it happens and convictions are secured. The punishment should fit the crime.
Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Hollobone. I am delighted to take part in this important debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma). He has been a champion on this issue, as he says, since the tragic deaths of two of his constituents who were killed by a dangerous driver. Any positive changes that may come about on penalties for dangerous driving will be attributable to his and his constituents’ hard work. Such events affect families for ever; it never goes away.
Last week in the main Chamber, I held an Adjournment debate on the issue of road traffic safety outside Morley primary school in my constituency. I want measures to be taken outside the school to prevent another tragedy. When anyone’s child is killed it affects the whole community, and speeding and the death of a child outside the school would be witnessed by many children. I want to prevent that. One of the main issues I focused on was enforcing penalties for dangerous drivers and what can be done to reduce instances of dangerous driving. If penalties are not enforced and drivers think there will not be consequences for not sticking within the law on the roads, there will be more deaths on our roads and more debates like this one, calling for something to be done to prevent them.
In the previous Parliament, the then Secretary of State for Justice announced a review of dangerous driving sentences, and the outcome of that review process has yet to be finalised. For many victims and families of victims injured, sometimes fatally, by a car driver, it can be baffling, and a source of disappointment and anger, when, often, the driver is charged with a minor traffic offence rather than the more serious crime of dangerous driving. Making sure there are tough and clear penalties for dangerous driving should go hand in hand with practical efforts to tackle it.
One of the key ways in which, I think, we can combat dangerous driving is by increasing the use of cameras that can detect when someone goes through a red light and is speeding. While speed cameras are utilised for recording motorists speeding, bringing prosecutions for dangerous driving strongly relies on there being witnesses to the incident. In rural areas, such as in Morley, that is not always possible, and I agree with the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who said that cameras can and will change behaviour.
Every constituency has areas of high risk where the chance of someone being hit by a car is much higher. In my constituency the busy A608 leads traffic to and from Derby city and runs through a crossing where schoolchildren cross twice a day, which means that there are up to 200 crossings a day. I do not want to bog this speech down with statistics, but I will highlight a few instances that really frighten me. Outside Morley primary school, over a 40-minute period, with a police van present and children crossing, a car ran straight through a red light at speed, driving at over 59 mph.
The children are used to crossing the road, day in, day out. They stop when there is no green man. They start walking, or running, towards the school or home, when the beeping starts and it is safe to cross; but it is not safe to cross if a car is going through the red light. The children are well disciplined; it is the drivers who are not. During the same 40-minute period, four other drivers travelled at over 40 mph outside a school where there is an explicit 30-mile-an-hour limit. It is my hope that the school’s campaign to have the speed limit reduced to 20 mph will be successful—but it will be successful only if the county council is listening.
Just as importantly, I want the drivers to be properly prosecuted. Kate Marsland, the head, has to spend half an hour at each end of the day trying, alongside the accompanying parents, to protect the children. The drivers know there is a school on the road and they put the lives of the children in great danger by what they do. We only know they were breaking the law because of the school’s requests to have the area monitored by the police. However, the police cannot always be there to monitor the situation. Cameras on areas of high risk can really help to catch dangerous drivers before they kill someone. They can also greatly help with prosecutions by showing not just the speed of the car but whether the driver is doing anything illegal at the time, such as using their phone or texting. The clearer the picture of what happened, the easier it is to prosecute.
Moving control for enforcing traffic penalties directly to local authorities could also make a difference. As it currently stands, traffic penalty enforcement is under the remit of the police who have limited resources to spend on traffic violations. They have many other important things to do. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), said in July that he wants to make effective enforcement of traffic laws a priority to help keep our roads safe.
Would the Minister consider looking at the issue again, and assess the possibility of giving local authorities the power to enforce traffic penalties or even take forward prosecutions, which might persuade drivers to be more careful and obey the law? Giving greater power to local authorities, so that they can allocate more resources to catching dangerous drivers, will help get the message across. If people drive dangerously they will be caught and face the consequences. Maintaining consistency in the penalties given to dangerous drivers will also make people think about their actions before deciding to check their phone or glance at the paper while driving at speed.
I want such measures because I do not want never to have raised the issue if a child is killed. That is what will happen, with many children witnessing it. They will never get over that and neither will the parents or the school. I want the law changed to allow enforcement against dangerous drivers to be increased.
Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) for securing the debate. I will touch briefly on what I call the three Es of traffic safety—education, engineering and enforcement. Enforcement has been well dealt with by Members on both sides of the Chamber today.
In particular, my experience has come from my time in a local authority. I was the council leader who brought in the 20 mph zone across the whole borough, which was in some ways popular and some ways unpopular. That measure, however, brought to the fore the importance of traffic speed. A 20 mph limit may not be introduced in the whole area, but zones should be considered. Certain schools have zones, which is a positive development in our engineering.
Capital funds must be made available for engineering. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) commented on the fall in the number of enforcement officers. The capital spend for local authorities to fund the necessary engineering for safety, however, has also dropped in recent years. I am talking about real basics—kerbs, traffic lights, cycle lanes and so on. All such engineering changes to make pathways and roads safer must also be funded.
On education, obviously much can be done in schools. It does not stop the bad behaviour later by people who are driving as criminals almost, but it improves general awareness early on of the importance of road safety. Again, such programmes need to be funded. I am aware that cycle funding, for example, has been reduced in the past few years, which is a pity, particularly in built-up areas such as the London boroughs and other metropolitan areas. Even in rural areas much can be done to teach about cycle, pedestrian and indeed driver safety.
Education about better signage is not necessarily a miracle fix for everyone, but where we have not paid attention to adequate and high-quality signage it can be confusing for motorists. We need to look into that and improve the general feeling of safety in a particular area. In more built-up areas, signage is becoming increasingly important, because we have a high turnover of different sorts of drivers who might need more education in how traffic moves, in particular as the light changes at different times of the year. The statistics for road traffic accidents show a spike around this time of year, as we go into the shorter days. I wonder whether we could do more on education in that regard.
On driver education, we can do all we like, but if drivers are going to behave criminally, as the hon. Member for Reading West suggested, there is not much we can do. We can, however, try to explain sometimes to young drivers in particular the long-term impact on people’s lives when these terrible accidents occur. Some of our statistics show that it is our younger drivers who are sometimes having these terrible accidents, perhaps because they have not encountered the extreme human pain involved.
Those are the three Es of education, engineering and enforcement. Obviously, my knowledge of them is to do with the cycling and pedestrian experience, but they also relate to drivers. I thank you, Mr Hollobone, for allowing me to speak, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for proposing the motion.
John Howell (Henley) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, praise my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) for securing this important debate. I also praise those who lie behind it, not only for backing the debate, but for their petition.
This important issue has been raised with me by constituents on a number of occasions. I, too, have raised it with the Ministry of Justice, and I will refer to that later. A huge concern is that with the increase in traffic comes an increase in dangerous driving, which can have a big effect on our constituents. Only yesterday I was at a meeting of the joint all-party group on rural issues and policing, where a startling statistic was revealed, that the fear of crime in rural areas was much increased over the reality—although in the case of dangerous driving, the reality is all too visible. More than 63% of people who had responded to the survey had a fear of road traffic crime. It was a huge and sad number, and behind it is the public reaction to lenient sentences in the area. Happily, the Select Committee on Justice, of which I am a member, has picked up on the matter a number of times. Only this week, we had the opportunity to question the Attorney General on lenient sentences.
A letter that I received from the Ministry of Justice in 2013 explained:
“When considering the appropriate charge, it is the driving behaviour that is the deciding factor, that is, whether the driver was careless or dangerous, rather the outcome of the incident however tragic.”
I suspect that at some point that ought to lead us to a review of sentencing guidelines, which are produced independently of government. The Justice Committee is a statutory consultee of the Sentencing Council, which produces the guidelines, and I shall certainly take it upon myself to respond and to try to achieve the things that my hon. Friend set out in this debate, so that is an important contribution that I can make.
We need to do something to take forward work on the subject, which has never been more required. I can illustrate this with a couple of cases from my own postbag. For example, a constituent wrote to tell me that his nephew had been run over and killed by a hit-and-run driver. His nephew was a 22-year-old student who was knocked down on a pedestrian crossing by a driver who went through a red light at twice the legal speed. The killer received a sentence that means he will spend less than two years in prison. That example from my constituency makes the very point that my hon. Friend was making and shows why the law needs to be changed.
Another constituent wrote to me asking for an urgent review of how such criminals are allowed to turn the law on its head. One wrote:
“To make a difference we need larger fines to act as a deterrent”—
although I am not sure that larger fines are the only answer. We should submit proposals to the Sentencing Council to review the guidelines.
Nusrat Ghani (Wealden) (Con): My constituency has the fifth worst record in Britain for serious incidents involving people being killed and seriously injured. The issue of sentencing and fines has come to my postbag as well. For example, an individual was banned from driving for 12 months and ordered to pay a fine of £300 for a drink-driving incident in south-east Sussex. In another incident, the driver who was behind the wheel of his car while twice over the alcohol limit was banned for six months. Another individual was caught with herbal cannabis and admitted to smoking the drug, but was only banned for 12 months and fined £300. I would like some clarity on sentencing and some sort of order to the convictions—sentencing is erratic and often depends on which part of the country an individual is in. Clarity would be useful.
John Howell: I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent remarks and for providing yet more examples of what my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West was discussing when he opened the debate. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to the various cases. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) made about the criminal process is a good one, and one on which I would like to see action.
I fully support the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West and his call for consecutive sentencing, because that will help to overcome some of the problems that he illustrated. I echo his call for the information requested to be provided, so that we do not have such a situation again.
Craig Tracey (North Warwickshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this very important debate, which is my first here in Westminster Hall. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) on securing it and on the powerful argument that he made.
During my previous career as an insurance broker, all too often I saw the aftermath of avoidable dangerous and careless driving offences. I was frequently left amazed by the lenient sentences handed out to the offenders and by an apparent reluctance to apply the law fully. Low penalties for motoring offences send the message that these are minor infringements, rather than serious offences that cause needless suffering and loss of life.Brake, the road safety charity, says that Government figures show that only three in five people convicted of killing someone for risky driving are currently jailed, with an average sentence of just four years. Many drivers who kill or injure receive low or no custodial sentences at all. Major improvements are needed to charges, penalties and sentencing to ensure that justice is done and that there is a strong deterrent against risky and illegal driving.
For my main contribution to this debate, I would like to expand on the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West and other Members, and point out further inadequacies in the laws surrounding motor offences. I would specifically like to refer to the case of Sean Morley, a 20-year-old constituent who was tragically killed as he crossed a road on his way home in 2012. Sean, a keen rugby player and about to start his final year at university to study history and politics, was struck by a car as he crossed the A444 near Bedworth. Although the driver of the vehicle initially stopped at the scene, he subsequently left without checking on Sean, despite his car being so badly damaged that he was unable to open the door. After managing to drive home to nearby Coventry, one of the two passengers in the car returned to the scene later on that night with another person, but denied seeing Sean. He was eventually discovered by the roadside at 6.20 am the next morning by a passing lorry.
Mr Morley’s parents were advised that it was likely that he lived for at least two hours after the accident, and the decision by either the driver or the passenger not to call the emergency services was critical. At best, it could have saved Sean’s life, and at worst, it would have given his loved ones the opportunity to say goodbye. The driver handed himself in to police at 2.30 pm the following day and was found to have drugs and alcohol in his system. He was subsequently convicted for the incident and given a 16-week custodial sentence. He was also banned from driving for 12 months. That cannot be fair and highlights a huge imbalance in the law.
In the instance of Sean, the only offence that the courts could prosecute on was hit and run, for which the maximum sentence of six months was not even handed out. As Sean’s mother Kerry points out:
“The worst thing is that in the eyes of the law Sean’s death was not important. If you kill someone in a car it’s not deemed as serious as punching someone, and I think that’s wrong. I’m not talking about people being jailed for life if someone steps out in the road in front of them, but people who text while driving, or speed, or drive when drunk or drugged.”
They need tougher sentences imposed. She continues:
“Just because someone has been killed by a car or a lorry doesn’t make it less of a death than if they’ve been killed by a knife or a gun.”
It is difficult to disagree with her.
The law is inadequate when drivers are almost encouraged to flee the scene of an accident if they have drink or drugs in their system, rather than to stay to face the consequences. The penalty for leaving the scene of an accident, as I have referred to, is currently up to six months in prison. Had the driver stayed and reported the accident and either drugs or alcohol had been found in their system, they could have been prosecuted for the higher offence of dangerous driving, which carries the greater sentence of 14 years—hardly an incentive to hang around and do the right thing.
As my hon. Friend rightly stated, even the 14-year maximum for dangerous driving is not always a sufficient penalty for the crime, but in the case of my constituent, it would have been a welcome increase on the paltry sentence that was handed down. I know that substantial work on the penalties of driving was done by the Leader of the House of Commons when he was Secretary of State for Justice. He worked with Sean’s family, my predecessor and me—his contribution was greatly appreciated by all—but there is much more that we can do.
First, we need an appropriate sentence for drivers who hit a person and leave them to die. Presently, the charge is the same as it would be for knocking off someone’s wing mirror. The driver who killed Sean knowingly left him to die, yet because he would probably not have lived even with medical intervention, due to the severity of the impact, the charge of manslaughter was not followed. Yet the driver’s actions were still the same. What I, Sean’s family and many other people would like to see is that where drivers leave the scene, guilt should be assumed. Presently, it is up to the police to find the driver and prove fault, and then it is at the behest of the Crown Prosecution Service as to what charges will be allowed.
Secondly, at least three others, excluding the driver, were involved that night, knowing that Sean was lying somewhere along the A444. None of those people has ever been brought to account for their lack of action that night in not calling for an ambulance or the police. In the eyes of the law, their only obligation was moral, not legal. Sadly, it seems that Sean was the only one with no rights that night.
Finally, the court process needs to be more controlled. In this case, and, I am sure, in many more around the country, the driver simply played the system. He chose not to plead either way, turned up without legal representation and then finally made his plea at the end of the hit-and-run court process to get credit for pleading guilty on the day. He also received a lesser sentence for his drugs conviction as he had no criminal record, despite the court process for the hit-and-run case having started before the drug trial. As a result, the driver served absolutely nothing for killing Sean as he was already in jail for the drug offence at the time.
I am sure that this tragic case, as well as the representations made by other colleagues today, perfectly highlight the desperate need for a review of the laws concerning motorists. We have more cars than ever on our roads, and in the wrong hands, they are a dangerous and deadly weapon. The law must reflect that when passing sentence.
Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) for going to the Backbench Business Committee and the Committee itself for giving us this time today. The fact that we have Members from all parties here shows the strength of feeling involved, which goes beyond party politics. Members can be from Labour, the SNP, the Conservatives, or the Liberal Democrats and still passionately know that a grave sense of injustice remains in the judicial process and the sentencing process that currently applies to dangerous driving.
As local Members of Parliament, we all know that nothing is more tragic or terrible than when constituents come to us with such awful cases. We know that we must act, because our constituents do not have that voice to be able to raise these issues in Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading West has, superbly, voiced this issue continually over the past year, and we have gone to meetings with the Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary in order to keep ensuring that this issue is raised at the highest level. We are having this debate today to make sure that we carry on raising it, and we will continue to do so if no action is taken.
As the Member of Parliament for Kingswood, I very clearly remember the day of Sunday 27 January 2013. I looked on the internet and saw, on BBC News, that there had been an incident involving Ross and Clare Simons, two of my constituents, who were riding a tandem bike down Lower Hanham Road when they were hit by a dangerous driver, who was actually disqualified at the time. I am not afraid to name him—Nicholas Lovell. He had 70 previous convictions, many for dangerous driving, and had been disqualified four times previously, yet he was able to get in a car, despite being disqualified, and drive at 70 miles an hour in a 30-mile-an-hour zone and knock Ross and Clare off that tandem bike. The pictures that were recently published in the Daily Mail were absolutely horrific. Edwin, Ross’s father, had the courage to release those photos, showing the impact that the tandem bike had on Lovell’s car. It was wedged straight through the grille and into the engine, such was the velocity of that impact.
Lovell fled the scene. He was eventually arrested and we went through the trial process. I pledged, as the Member of Parliament, that I would do all I could to bring justice to the case of Ross and Clare, because they did not get justice in that court case. The maximum sentence of 14 years—it had gone up to 14 years—was applied for the first time in the case of Nicholas Lovell. Because he pleaded guilty in the last week of the trial, that went down to 10 years and six months and, because the sentences were served concurrently instead of consecutively, Lovell was serving the two sentences back to back and, due to good behaviour, may be out within five to six years. The family of Ross and Clare Simons, including Edwin, Dawn, Colin, Kelly Woodruff, Ross’s sister, and his nephew, Callum Woodruff, feel that it is in effect two lives for the price of one.
I understand that there are reasons for the concurrency law taking effect, but two lives were lost. In a tragically similar case a year later, nothing changed. In the case of John and Kris, two lives were lost, yet the same penalty was applied, and the judge in the court case said that if he had been given the chance by the judicial system to impose a tougher penalty, he would have done so, but he had to give the maximum sentence that he could at the time—14 years.
In the previous Parliament, as the local Member of Parliament, I campaigned on the issue of disqualified driving. Because Lovell was disqualified, he should never have been in the car in the first place. That was automatically an act of dangerous driving, because of his being disqualified. Previously, it was only a two-year sentence if someone was disqualified and killed someone; it has now gone up to 10 years. We had a petition, which was signed by 18,000 residents in my local area, and we took that to Downing Street. That shows that the law can be changed. This is not an isolated example. We can go further.
I am determined to work with all hon. Members, but particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West, in pushing for a change in the maximum sentence. My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) made the point very clearly. A person could take any other weapon and kill someone and they would get life. If they get in a car, they will get 14 years. Where is the justice in that? That, for me, is the tenet of this debate: we need to look at the maximum sentence. I understand from having had several meetings with the previous Justice Secretary that the Justice Secretary has the executive power to raise the maximum sentence. That is isolated from whatever happens with the Sentencing Council. I realise that there has been a significant and unhelpful delay in the Sentencing Council reporting back, but the Justice Secretary can take action now, and that action now is what we are demanding as local MPs.
So many families across the whole country are suffering now. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West said, they are serving their own life sentences. We see the justice system throw back at them this insult that someone can kill their relative, get just a couple of years in prison and end up back on the streets and, potentially, back in a car. That is just too horrendous to imagine.
I speak today as the Member for Kingswood, on behalf of my constituents. I cannot imagine what it must be like for families to deal with this day in, day out. I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take this matter back to the Ministry of Justice. We have the Prime Minister on our side; we met him in March. The previous Justice Secretary came down to the site and stood in front of where we had marked what had happened and paid tribute to Ross and Clare Simons, who were killed. He did an excellent job. We now need to see that that work is followed through in the Department, that it is taken seriously and that our demands are met.
Douglas Chapman (Dunfermline and West Fife) (SNP): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, Mr Hollobone, and it is a pleasure to do so under your chairmanship. I commend the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) for securing this important debate. I admire how he has gone about the campaign and today’s debate and the obvious care and concern that he has shown for his constituents, whom he is obviously representing today.
That said, the families here today could be any of our constituents. Hon. Members who have served for many years as MPs or local councillors—or, indeed, through their own family connections—have had vast experience of tragedy striking because of the callous and unacceptable behaviour of a few. Where a serious injury results or, more devastatingly, a life is lost, the impact on the family and the experience of loss inflicted on them can be excruciating. Families are often left asking the simple question, “Why?” There is never an adequate answer that we as Members of Parliament can give that will fill the void left by the loss of a much-loved father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife or friend.
The case brought by the hon. Member for Reading West before the House today involved not just one family, but two. The case was described by the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) as well. The loss of two lives just doubles the pain that families face.
Drinking and driving lies at the core of many deaths on our roads. In summing up the debate, I want to focus some of my comments on that aspect. In Scotland last December, the blood alcohol limit was lowered from 80 mg to 50 mg in every 100 ml of blood. That new law brings Scotland in line with most of Europe. Projections suggest that it will reduce the number of arrests and prosecutions, as we have already seen in the Republic of Ireland, where drivers have adjusted their behaviour to take account of the lower limit. From my own social circle, I know that the change in the law in Scotland is causing similar changes in behaviour there. The pre-festive season campaign that will be run on TV, on radio, in the print media and on motorway overhead gantry signs is that “none” is the best advice when it comes to drinking and driving.
Evidence in Scotland is that 20,000 Scottish drivers are stopped by Police Scotland every month. That is equivalent to one driver every two minutes. Chief Superintendent lain Murray, head of road policing in Scotland, said to the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee that
“research shows that drink driving and alcohol counts across the board tend to drop following the introduction of lower limits.”
The North report cites that reducing the drink-drive limit in Scotland would save anything between three and 17 lives on Scotland’s roads every year. There are families with us today who would give anything to have just one life saved if the clock could only be turned back. The North report also cites that having one alcoholic drink and then driving makes someone twice as likely to be involved in a fatal car crash. Surely that is too much of a risk to take.
I do not want to take anything away from the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s debate by raising a constitutional issue. However, in Scotland we have only the power to set the drink-driving limit itself. We would love to have extended powers also to consider differential limits for young and newly qualified drivers and for professional drivers such as those driving heavy goods vehicles, taxis and buses and to consider random breath testing or to change the penalties available to the courts for drink-driving offenders. I reiterate that I raise that not as a constitutional point, but in order to ask the Minister to explore all the possibilities.
Hon. Members also spoke about speeding. Certainly the introduction of “20’s Plenty” zones has been successful in changing driver behaviour, but as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) said, such initiatives need to be, and be seen to be, enforced with appropriate policing resources. In my own local authority area, the number of children whose lives are lost through dangerous driving remains at zero, and long may that continue. It is a direct result of a “20’s Plenty” scheme across the county.
Hon. Members have given their own accounts of harrowing cases where lives were lost—absolutely unnecessarily, some would say—and we now have to consider whether the law as it stands is adequate to deal with these tragic cases, whether the punishment fits the crime and whether there should be a change in the way in which the courts consider serial offenders.
Following the success of the e-petition, the hon. Member for Reading West has met the Prime Minister and, more recently, the Justice Secretary. Thanks to the hon. Gentleman’s interventions and those of the families, a full review is now under way. The calls by the hon. Member for Reading West should be supported. To back his calls, we need clear information about the consultation process and an assurance that the outcome will be listened to. A timetable must be laid down to ensure that any recommendations from the review can be translated into the law of the land as timeously as possible. Without wishing to prejudge the recommendations, the law must be amended where necessary to give greater recognition to the rights of innocent parties who are the victims of reckless behaviour, and to ensure that appropriate and consistent sentences are applied.
It would, of course, be greatly preferable for time, effort and energy to be put into preventing such dreadful accidents and tragic losses from occurring in the first place. I hope that the Minister will also comment on some of the prevention measures that could be taken to reduce the number of serious accidents and deaths on our roads.
Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): It is always an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) on securing the debate and on the work that he has done for at least the past 12 months to raise this issue.
In my experience, the Prime Minister is always very receptive to Members on this subject. I saw him a few years ago on behalf of a constituent, and he was helpful in ensuring that the law was changed. I represented constituents, whom I will not name in the debate because I have not had the opportunity to check whether that is permissible, who were involved in a very serious road traffic incident. On that occasion, unfortunately, the Crown Prosecution Service decided, for whatever reason, not to continue the prosecution that it had begun. Had it continued with the prosecution, however, the court, on conviction, would have been able to sentence the offender to only two years.
In that scenario, the dangerous driver had caused very serious injury but had not, fortunately, brought about the death of the people in the vehicle. The maximum sentence at that point was two years. Fortunately, after I lobbied the Prime Minister, he allowed provisions from my private Member’s Bill to be introduced into the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 as a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving. The maximum sentence for that offence is five years.
This is not a party political issue. Members on both sides of the House raise serious concerns about driving offences on behalf of their constituents. In my experience, the civil service sometimes tend to be a little reluctant to listen carefully to what is raised by Members of Parliament, but Ministers—including the Prime Minister—have been very receptive.
I have professional experience of dealing with road traffic offences from my time as a criminal lawyer. I recall, on occasion, standing up in the Crown court representing a defendant and listening to the prosecution outline the facts of the case, which were sometimes horrendous and for which one would expect heavy penalties. If I was defending—often, I would be prosecuting the cases—I would begin my mitigation on behalf of the defendant; I remember the expressions on the judges’ faces when I started to say, “This is not the worst case you have ever seen, your honour. It is mitigated by various factors.” The judge would say, “Thank you very much indeed, Mr Turner. The maximum sentence, as you know, is two years. It is worth an awful lot more than that, but my hands are tied.” He or she would often sentence the defendant to 12 months or less, even though the victims of those horrendous crimes and their family members had to deal with serious injuries.
I am pleased to say that the law has now changed, but it is not good enough yet. In this country, 23,000 people suffer serious injury or are killed in road traffic incidents each year. The previous Government did a great deal of work to reduce that figure and improve road safety, but this Government have taken their eye off the ball in certain regards. It is startling that the average sentence for road traffic offences is four years. In my respectful submission, it is of great concern—I suspect that this is, in part, the result of cuts to the CPS and the police—that defendants charged with dangerous driving when they attend court will often, after counsel and solicitors for both sides have had the opportunity to discuss the case, have that charge reduced to careless driving.
There is a huge difference between the two offences. Dangerous driving is where the offender’s standard of driving falls far below the standard of a reasonable, competent driver. Careless driving is where the offender’s standard of driving falls below that standard. Dangerous driving is not a momentary lapse of concentration; it is going out with a dangerous weapon, driving it completely recklessly—in some cases, quite deliberately, in my experience—and causing that offence to occur.
I do not want to take up too much more time, because I want the Minister to answer the points that each and every Member has made. The Opposition support the Transport Committee’s inquiry into road traffic enforcement, because that is an issue. I have made the point—I do not mean it to sound party political—that the CPS is struggling. I think it is fair to say that CPS lawyers are accepting pleas to lesser offences when they should probably be pursuing dangerous driving cases to trial and allowing the jury to decide whether the offender was driving dangerously.
There is a question about funding to local authorities. I think I am right to say that most local authorities are reporting that their attention to, and efforts on, road safety have been reduced by as much as 90% since 2010. That is of serious concern to all of us in the House.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister. Will he confirm whether the Department is considering a review into the effect of policing and cuts on driving offences? That would definitely assist the Government. As I have said from the outset, the Prime Minister, in my experience, is keen to do everything that he can to assist in such cases. Secondly, I believe that the hon. Member for Reading West requested a timeline for the Government’s review of sentencing for driving offences. Will the Minister confirm when he plans to publish that review and what mechanism his Department will use to initiate the legislation?
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. The subject is, as I have said, absolutely not party political. We all do our best to represent our constituents as well as we can.
Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Were the Minister kind enough to finish his remarks no later than 4.26 pm, that would allow Mr Sharma three minutes to sum up and one minute for me to put the motion to the Chamber.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Andrew Selous): As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Thank you for the efficient way in which you have chaired our proceedings.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) on securing this important debate. The seriousness with which dangerous driving is taken is evident from the strength of feeling among Members on both sides of the House. I pay tribute to him for his persistence and for how he has brought this matter before the House. Indeed, I thank all hon. Members for the non-party political way in which these serious matters have been addressed.
My hon. Friend was right to say that it is not possible for us to imagine the pain of the families who have lost loved ones to such terrible experiences. I regularly meet victims, and I will continue to be available to do that to try to give myself the best possible idea of what they have been through. He mentioned the 102,000-signature petition, which is a significant achievement. I note that he has been to see the Prime Minister. The shadow Minister spoke about the Prime Minister’s supportive attitude on this matter.
I am also grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), whose constituent, a teacher, was killed on account of someone browsing the internet while driving a lorry—an atrocious thing to have done. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading West asked three particular questions and, yes, the five issues that he raised are being considered as part of the Government’s review. Secondly, I hope to be able to move to the public phase of the review soon, and we will do everything possible to attract the widest public attention. Thirdly, the reforms are likely to require legislation and so will be debated by Parliament. All hon. Members will have a chance, as they have had this afternoon, to put the views of their constituents in that debate.
Jim Fitzpatrick: The Minister says that he hopes the review will move to its public phase soon. Can he be more specific about the definition of “soon”? When I was the Minister for a time, a civil servant drafted an answer for me that said, “The answer to the parliamentary question will be published in the autumn.” I asked, “When is the autumn?” They said, “23 December, Minister.” I said, “Well, that’s usually Christmas.” They said, “It’s the end of the autumn Session, Minister.”
The word “soon” is even less specific than “autumn” and certainly “this year.” It would be nice to know whether that means the calendar year or the parliamentary year.
Andrew Selous: The right hon. Gentleman is a former Minister, and he knows how such things work. I am sorry that I am not able to be more specific, but I can tell him and every other Member here that I get it. There is clearly huge concern on both sides of the House about dangerous driving. A commitment has been made to have the review, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that my officials and others are working on that in earnest. I would be extremely grateful if he were good enough to accept that for now.
The hon. Gentleman made an excellent speech, and he is right that we all want safer roads. He spoke about the language we use in such matters, and I agree that using drink, drugs or phones does not make it an accident. Getting the language right matters, and I hugely agree that enforcement is critical, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West also said. As a former road safety Minister, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) brings great experience and knowledge to this debate. The issue of prevention resonated most strongly with me, and the public reporting of drivers who break the rules is an interesting idea. He also said that the punishment should fit the crime.
I assure hon. Members that Ministers and officials in the Department for Transport will be sent the transcript of this debate so that they can study what has been said, because that is an important aspect of our proceedings. The hon. Gentleman specifically asked about prosecutions and, despite the increased number of cars on our roads, the number of incidents and, more significantly, the number of deaths on our roads have fallen very significantly. As a result, there are fewer prosecutions for causing death by dangerous driving, but the sentence length has increased, which is part of a long-term trend.
I listened with great interest to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham). Safety near schools is incredibly important, and I commend her for continuing to campaign on that issue. She made an important point, which links to the point raised by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, about the need for effective enforcement. Again, I will ensure that that point is passed on to the Department for Transport.
The three E’s mentioned by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West)—education, engineering and enforcement—are right. She also made a useful contribution to our proceedings. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) told us of a personal experience from his constituency. He speaks as a member of the Select Committee on Justice, so I welcome his contribution. I am struck that 63% of respondents in his constituency expressed a fear of road traffic crime. I agree that that is a significant finding, and one of which we should take note.
John Howell: That was 63% across the UK, not just in my constituency.
Andrew Selous: I thank my hon. Friend for that correction, which makes the finding even more significant. Like him, I was deeply shocked by the case he mentioned of someone driving at more than twice the legal speed limit through a red light, killing someone, and the sentence that was passed down. I tell him, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire, that sentencing guidelines make it clear that driving without care in the vicinity of a pedestrian crossing, hospital, school or residential home are all to be taken into account as aggravating factors when determining an appropriate sentence. I note her further comments on these matters.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) also made an excellent contribution, and he highlighted the tragic case of Sean Morley. We were all extremely moved by his description of the highly distressing circumstances of that utterly terrible case. I have taken very careful note of what he said.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), in another powerful speech, told us of an horrific incident in which a couple riding a tandem bicycle were tragically killed in his constituency. He said that the former Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), has visited the spot. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood that the similarities between a knife, a gun and a car are fairly strong when it comes to taking someone’s life or causing horrific injuries. I note the judge’s comments in that case, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s persistence in raising such matters. He said that the Justice Secretary can raise the maximum penalty, but that is not correct; it is actually for Parliament to set the maximum penalty for an offence, but I understand his point.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), who speaks for the Scottish National party, talked about the reduction of the legal alcohol limit in Scotland. Those powers are devolved to Scotland and are the responsibility of colleagues in the Department for Transport. I will pass on his comments.
The shadow Minister also has a long-standing record of personally campaigning on dangerous driving. He told us that he has previously been to see the Prime Minister, which led to a change in the law. I pay tribute to him for that, and for the contribution that he has made on the issue. A recent inspection report on Crown Prosecution Service practice has recommended better training and more specialist road traffic prosecutors. I am sure that he will be grateful to know that, and I will write to him on the further specific details for which he asked.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to go in some detail through the matters brought before us in this debate. On the particular case that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West brought before the House, the driver entered a guilty plea to a number of offences, including two counts of causing death by dangerous driving and driving while disqualified. He received a sentence of 10 years and three months on 16 April 2014, and he was banned from driving for 15 years.
Turning to the specific issues that my hon. Friend raised, he will know as well as I do that sentencing is a matter for judges, who are independent. The judges decide on a sentence, having considered the full details of the case and the offender. They are best placed to decide on a just and proportionate sentence. The duty on the courts is to follow guidelines or, if they do not, to say why. That leads to greater transparency in the sentences likely to be imposed, and will hopefully lead to increased consistency in sentencing practice.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, the appeals procedure allows the Attorney General to make a reference to the Court of Appeal in serious cases if a sentence is unduly lenient, or if the offender believes the sentence is unduly harsh. In this case, the offender appealed the sentence. I was particularly struck by the care taken in the case by the Court of Appeal to consider not only the appalling driving involved but the harm that it had caused to the families. I know that the appeal would have been a difficult experience for the families, and I hope that its dismissal has brought some reassurance.
A reduction for an early guilty plea is not just about saving money and time; it is designed to ensure that wherever possible, victims, their families and witnesses are not required to relive or be cross-examined about dreadful events in court. It can also lead to swifter justice. In keeping with the current law and guidelines, the driver in this case had his sentence reduced for pleading guilty to the offence at an early stage. A guilty plea at the earliest opportunity will normally attract the maximum sentence reduction of one third, but judges retain discretion in regard to that reduction. In this case, as the evidence against the driver was overwhelming, the judge exercised that discretion and did not apply the full discount. Taking account of a lesser discount for the early plea, the 10-year sentence imposed is close to the 14-year maximum penalty for the offence. The Court of Appeal gave a clear judgment upholding both the sentence and the judge’s decision not to grant the full reduction for the early guilty plea.
Turning to my hon. Friend’s calls for changes in the law, I should say that he raised two main points. The first relates to the imposition of maximum and minimum penalties; the second is that when more than one person is killed, the court should make the sentence for each additional death follow on from the first, so that they are served consecutively rather than concurrently. On maximum penalties, it is worth stressing that although sentencing is a matter for the courts, setting the framework within which the courts work is for Parliament. The 14-year maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving was set by Parliament to cover the worst imaginable case of that specific offence.
When deciding what sentence to impose within the maximum available, the court is required to take account of all the circumstances of the defence and any mitigating or aggravating factors. Where there is more than one victim, that will be taken into account and will aggravate the seriousness of the offence, meriting a longer sentence. The sentencing guidelines for causing death by dangerous driving specifically mention that the courts should take account of the higher harm caused by the offence where there is more than one victim. That is exactly what the court did in this case; it took the very high harm caused by two deaths, applied a smaller than normal reduction for the early guilty plea and arrived at a sentence close to the maximum.
It would be contrary to our system of justice to impose a maximum penalty for any death in any circumstances, in road traffic or in any other offence. The Government do, however, want maximum penalties that allow the courts to respond appropriately to the full range of cases as they are likely to take place. Where there is a clear failing in the law, Parliament has moved to remedy it. In the past, where offenders have left a victim with serious injuries, the maximum penalty for the offence has related to the driving, not the harm caused.
In the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving was created, with a five-year penalty, as the Opposition spokesman told us. That change in the law means that there is now a range of offences and maximum penalties dealing with dangerous driving that more properly reflect the harm caused. In addition, under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, the maximum penalty for disqualified drivers who kill or cause serious injury has been increased. The previous maximum was only two years for causing death, but it has now been increased to 10 years. The measure came into force in April 2015. I hope that hon. Members will see that there has been action in response to the quite proper parliamentary pressure in that area.
I am aware of your strictures, Mr Hollobone. Everyone else has obeyed them, so I feel that I should as well. I could say more, but it is right that I give the remaining time available to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West. I thank him again for what he has said. I realise the strength of feeling on this extremely important matter, and I will continue to engage with him and other hon. Members on it.
Alok Sharma: We have had an excellent debate involving some excellent contributions from across the House. I agree with all colleagues who have made the point that there is cross-party consensus on this issue. Those watching this debate and those here today are seeing Parliament at its very best: we are debating issues that matter to all our constituents, and we want to find a common solution.
We have heard examples of too-lenient sentences being handed out, and we have heard of judges who think that the sentencing regime is not strong enough. I refer to the point made by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick): the social mood has changed absolutely, and we need to go with that. What we are hearing from across the country, through colleagues and in the petition, is that the country wants stronger sentencing for such offences. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) made the very good point that there is a grave sense of injustice in the judicial process right now. That absolutely must change.
I am delighted to hear from the Minister that there will be a review outcome soon; I hope that that means before the end of this calendar year. I am delighted that it will be widely publicised, and I am pleased that it will require legislation, because that will give all of us the chance to debate these matters again in detail. He is absolutely right that judges decide sentences, but he has also made the important point that the framework for that is set by Parliament. That is what we are here to do, listening to the wishes of our constituents across the country.
I am pleased that the Minister has listened, and I know that he has kindly agreed to meet with the families after this debate, but ultimately it is about ensuring that the punishment fits the crime. That is what we all want, and I hope that when the legislation is reviewed, that is what we will all get.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered penalties for dangerous driving.
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