The procedure at this stage of a Bill involves our dealing with the amendments in the order in which they were dealt with, or certainly numbered, by another place. We therefore dot about from one subject to another.
We return here to the points system being introduced by the Government for endorsing the licences of those who commit endorsable traffic offences. The House will recall that when the Bill was first introduced we proposed that all offences should attract a fixed number of what are now to be called penalty points. I remember trying to persuade the Standing Committee that this was desirable not only to ensure that there were no discrepancies of practice between different courts and different parts of the county but to avoid a great deal of court time being taken up in otherwise straightforward cases by offenders pleading for the lowest possible number of points in order to reduce the risk of disqualification.
Members on both sides of the Committee expressed some disquiet about the system and argued particularly that special circumstances applied to the group of offences comprising failure to stop and failure to report an accident. On consideration of that debate, the Government agreed that those offences should attract a range of points because they differed so widely in the degree of seriousness of individual offences.
Several members of the Committee expressed disquiet on a wider front than simply that of failing to stop or report. Similar views were expressed in another place, and after further debate there amendments were pressed on the Government to introduce a range of points for driving without due care and attention—careless driving, as it is loosely called—and driving while uninsured. On consideration of the discussion, and bearing in mind that the arguments urged upon the Government in another place were strikingly similar to those urged upon us by Members on both sides of the Standing Committee, the Government decided to accept the amendments.
Now that discretion has been left to magistrates' courts in all those groups of offences—failure to stop, careless driving and driving while uninsured—when the Bill finally receives Royal Assent it will give discretion to magistrates in the points that they apply in nearly 20 per cent. of the total traffic offences that come before them, compared with 2 per cent. under the Bill as originally drafted.
Nevertheless, a broad range of opinion has identified these as offences where justice and fairness demand that some discretion should be given to magistrates. I hope that the changes made by Lords amendments will therefore receive widespread agreement.
The Under-Secretary of State has already referred to the fairly prolonged and interesting discussion in the Standing Committee on the new concept of penalty points. I well recall those debates. I believe that I was one of those who proposed on behalf of the Opposition a flexible range of points for certain categories of offences. I recall being supported by the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens), who, as a practising magistrate with a good deal of experience in these matters, saw the logic of the argument. Schedule 7, with the amendments, is much better now than it was when it was originally presented to us.
I am pleased that their Lordships took up two of the points that we alluded to in Committee. Careless or inconsiderate driving can involve varying degrees of seriousness and we felt that it ought not to attract a five-point penalty and that some flexibility should be built into the system. I am pleased that the Lords amendment covers that.
Using, causing or permitting the use of a motor vehicle uninsured and unsecured against third party risks originally attracted a low rating. That worried us and we are glad that the Lords amendment proposes to increase the points penalty from four to eight. That reflects the concern of hon. Members. The Opposition find much satisfaction in schedule 7, as amended, and we hope that the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Trippier) will not press his opposition to the amendments.
I shall refer mainly to amendment No. 44. There is much to be welcomed in the Bill, but I am unhappy about the introduction of a variable points system for any motoring offences. My interest stems from my work as a magistrate and parliamentary spokesman for the Association of Magisterial Officers, for which I receive no financial benefit.
Amendments relating to the penalty points system introduce an extra tier of judicial discretion which, in practice, will be cumbersome to administer while not enhancing the administration of justice. It is not disputed that the time is ripe to replace the three endorsments in three years totting-up system with something that is more flexible and will produce fairer results.
The new scheme provides that motorists will be awarded a number of points on conviction of an endorsable offence, and the number of points will vary according to the offence. When the motorist has attained 12 penalty points within three years, he will be in peril of being disqualified from driving.
The Bill as amended provides that variable points should be awarded for the following offences: failing to stop after an accident, between five and nine points; failing to report an accident, between four and nine points; careless or inconsiderate driving, between two and five points; and using a motor vehicle without insurance, between four and eight points.
The magistrate's courts will have to decide, for example, whether a driving without due care offence is a two or a five point case and whether a failure to stop is a five or a nine point case. However, the majority of motoring cases are dealt with under the "guilty by letter" procedure. The defendant is served with a brief statement of the facts alleged, often prepared by police clerical staff from the reporting officer's notebook. If the defendant accepts his guilt, he may write to the court with a plea of guilty and give details of mitigating circumstances. The statement of facts and mitigating circumstances are read aloud to the court and the justices decide the penalty.
Under the amended Bill, if the offence is endorsable, the court will apply the appropriate number of penalty points and if the offence is in the special category it will decide the appropriate number of penalty points on the sliding scale.
To achieve any degree of uniformity between one bench and another will be impossible. Some courts may decide that a certain offence should always attract the maximum penalty points and others may be more liberal in their view, so a lottery results.
Reference was made to this by my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary of State on Report, when he said:
When we drafted the Bill we suggested fixed points penalties in each case, and did not leave any discretion to magistrates in respect of the number of points to be imposed once an offence had been proved or admitted.
That is accurate and I agree with it. My hon. and learned Friend went on to say:
One reason for not including an element of discretion was that we thought that if discretion was left to the magistrates' courts in each case the result would be an inevitable inconsistency between courts in different parts of the country. This could give rise to a feeling of unfairness among motorists. We felt, too, that if discretion was left to magistrates many motorists in routine cases in which they were happy to admit their
guilt would feel the need to go to the magistrates' court to argue for the lowest number of points possible."—[Official Report, 14 April 1981; Va. 89, c. 239.]
That is absolutely accurate.
I refer also to the speech made by the Lord Advocate in the other place. He said:
Merely to create a discretion does not necessarily mean that people have the idea that all is just, because they may find that with exactly the same offence with exactly the same circumstances in two magistrates' courts, to use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, earlier, one court is soft-hearted and the other hard-hearted, one gives five points and the other eight points."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 June 1981; Vol. 421, c. 57.]
On occasions a minor fault on the part of a driver may give rise to a prosecution for careless driving, where the consequences of the offence are very serious. In deciding the number of points, is the court to take account of his degree of fault or the consequences of the offence? If it is to be the latter, should the courts take into account contributory negligence on the part of the other driver?
I think it right to leave the consequences to the civil courts to determine and that the justices should deal with the elements of the offence. I feel that many motorists who would have been content to admit their guilt under a fixed points system will now feel the need to attend the court to argue for the lowest number of penalty points. The resulting work load on the courts will be insupportable. I favour a fixed points scale as a practical way of administering the new system, leaving no one in doubt as to where he stands upon conviction of a points offence.
The magistrates already have a wide discretion over the amount of the fine, whether or not there are special reasons for not ordering an endorsement and whether or not to disqualify in certain cases. To introduce a further tier of discretion is unnecessary.
The flexible points system will lead to fewer pleas of guilty by letter, longer speeches in mitigation, more not guilty pleas in order to ascertain the degree of culpability when it comes to considering the number of points the offence may carry if there is a conviction, more appeals to the Crown court and, finally, more applications for legal aid—all leading to more time being spent by benches when dealing with a large volume of road traffic work, with resultant delays and increased cost.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Trippier) knows that I have considerable sympathy with his point of view, because he has probably looked up the speeches that I made in Committee and on Report. I then tried to put forward the point of view that he is now arguing.
As my hon. Friend has observed, the Lord Advocate argued the same points in the other place on the questions of careless driving and driving whilst uninsured. Although I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support of our earlier views, those views did not prevail among the majority as the Bill proceeded through both Houses. As we have heard, the official Opposition welcome the Lords amendments. In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens), who is a magistrate, argued the case for discretion strongly. I recall support from my hon. Friends the Members for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) and for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Waller) and from several others. It became clear that those arguments were not prevailing.
I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale has a close connection with the Magistrates' Courts Association and he has passed its views on to me. However, on the whole, magistrates take the opposite view. In the other place Lord Fortescue, on behalf, I believe, of the Magistrates' Association, argued strongly for discretion. The Government must respond to parliamentary opinion. We have put the case and listened to the arguments. The time has come to accept that my original opinion and that still adhered to by my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale is a minority one and we should accept the Lords amendments.