Road Deaths (Charging Policy)

– in the House of Commons at 12:30 pm on 28 April 1999.

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Photo of Rosemary McKenna Rosemary McKenna Labour, Cumbernauld and Kilsyth 12:30, 28 April 1999

I am very glad to have been able to secure this debate on the role of Scotland's legal system in implementing charging policy in road deaths involving vehicles. This may very well be the final opportunity to debate a matter that, after 1 July, will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and it is appropriate that the debate should be on such an important issue. Although the Road Traffic Act 1991 is a United Kingdom responsibility, prosecution of the law in Scotland, under the separate Scottish legal system, is a devolved matter.

Many of my colleagues have sent messages of support for the debate, although—for a variety of reasons, which hon. Members will appreciate—they have not able to attend it. Nevertheless, I am pleased that so many hon. Members are able to be here.

On 18 September 1998, Steven Dekker, my constituent and near neighbour, celebrated his 24th birthday with his family and his girl friend of six years, Gail. On Saturday, 19 September, Gail and Steven spent the day in Glasgow, shopping, enjoying being together and planning their future together.

As they drove home to Cumbernauld, at 6 pm, on a bright, clear evening, a van being driven the wrong way on a single carriageway hit them head on, killing Steven and injuring Gail. The collision occurred as Steven came round a bend, on a one-way single carriageway, with no chance of his taking any avoiding action.

I am pleased that Steven's parents, his sister Vivien, Gail and other members of the family are here for today's debate. I should like to express their and my appreciation to the Minister for sparing time to meet them earlier today.

In the past two years, the issue has been debated in the House on several occasions, and in two notable Adjournment debates. One of those was initiated by the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt), and the other by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg).

As parliamentarians, we are faced with a significant problem that we have the power to deal with. The House, after investigation and debate, passed a law—the 1991 Act—that established the offence of causing death by dangerous driving. The charge is simple and clear, and it should be a powerful weapon in deterring very bad driving. However, Steven Dekker's death has taught me—and, so far, more than 2,000 constituents who have signed a petition—that the Crown Office is failing properly to charge the very people for whom the charge was designed.

The Crown Office decided to prosecute Andrew Wilson, the man who killed Steven Dekker, not with death by dangerous driving, but with the lesser charge of careless driving. The proceedings in court lasted 15 minutes.

In June 1997, Steven Dekker graduated with a BA (Hons.) degree from Stirling university. He was ambitious. He had been employed for a year with British Airports Authority as a graduate trainee manager. He was one of eight people selected, from 1,300 applicants, for the position. He was a people person, and was liked well by all who knew him. He loved all sport. He played golf, football and ran in half-marathons. In short, he loved life.

Andrew Wilson was returning home from a planned trip. He ignored the safety of his own children from the very moment that he left his home, transporting a six-year-old child in the front of his van, and nine and six-year-old children in the rear of his van, none of whom were seated or restrained by seat belts. In the rear of the van were also motor-cross bikes, unrestrained.

Andrew Wilson ignored eight directional road signs, to turn across chevron markings and road arrows and travel the wrong way down a main road. In court, his defence agent made it clear that he did not make a spur of the moment decision. He stopped his van, which he drove for a living, and consulted with his fellow passenger, who was a lorry driver by trade. Then, after a few moments, he made a U-turn, across solid-line chevron markings and against road arrows, to travel the wrong way on the main road into Cumbernauld. My constituents, and those who have seen the evidence and photographs, are incredulous. The question is: Where on earth did he think he was going?

In court, the procurator fiscal revealed that Andrew Wilson was found by police at the scene, wandering around in a dazed state saying it was my fault I was going the wrong way". In court, his defence agent said that Andrew Wilson was lost. Had the Crown Office levelled a charge of causing death by dangerous driving, all the facts and arguments would have been heard.

The facts are that, on the day that Steven was killed, the main road to Cumbernauld was closed, and that anyone who travelled on the A80 would have known that. That morning, Andrew Wilson travelled along the A80. What he did not know was that the main road into Cumbernauld could be accessed by another slip road. Perhaps that lack of knowledge explained his bizarre manoeuvre. However, since the Crown Office charged Andrew Wilson with merely careless driving, to which he pleaded guilty, those facts and that argument could not be aired in court. Therefore, there is absolutely no way of knowing.

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge and Chryston

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, and congratulate her on obtaining this debate—which, given the demands on parliamentary time, is not an easy thing to do. As she will know, some of my constituents— particularly Mr. and Mrs. Dekker, whose nephew Steven was, and who both live in my constituency, in Chryston—want very much to support the tremendous work that she has done. One of the points that should be made is that the accident, and other accidents, occurred despite substantial investment in road works in the area. That should have made things easier, rather than more difficult and leading to this terrible loss.

Photo of Rosemary McKenna Rosemary McKenna Labour, Cumbernauld and Kilsyth

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is absolutely no problem of road investment in the area. One of the reasons why people find it so difficult to understand the issue is that the roads are good, safe and secure. People should be able to drive on them safely, and to feel safe as they drive about their town.

All the facts point to the Crown Office not being prepared to prosecute on the basis of the law. Evidence shows that, since 1991, of charges brought by police of death by dangerous driving, only 47 per cent. of people so charged will be proceeded against, and that the remaining 53 per cent. of charges are downgraded or plea-bargained to the lesser charge of dangerous driving, which ignores the fact that a death has occurred.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

As my hon. Friend knows, I chair the all-party group for justice for road traffic victims and their families. The research shows that the figures that she quoted can be extended right across the British Isles. I do not know—1 should be grateful if she can tell me—whether, in Scotland, police conduct their investigations of road deaths with the same emphasis that they investigate any other violent death. The statistics that I have seen suggest that police do not treat that type of violent death as the scene of a crime, as they do in investigating any other violent death.

Photo of Rosemary McKenna Rosemary McKenna Labour, Cumbernauld and Kilsyth

My hon. Friend is right. Moreover, because the Crown Prosecution Service is not prosecuting cases as dangerous driving, police are tending to reduce the number of charges of death by dangerous driving. Therefore—although the 1991 Act was an attempt to ensure that people are protected properly, and that death by dangerous driving is recognised as a criminal act—there has been a downwards, rather than an upwards spiral in dealing with the matter. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that it is a serious problem that has been highlighted today and in previous debates.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea

I apologise to the hon. Lady for arriving a couple of minutes late for her important debate. Regarding the point raised by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) and others, as I have said before in the House, part of the problem with such horrendous tragedies relates to the language with which they are described. All too often, the police and the press describe such deaths as having occurred in a road accident. The implication of the word "accident" is that it is the result of ill fortune and cannot be avoided. It downplays the culpable criminal element that all too often is involved in such incidents.

Photo of Rosemary McKenna Rosemary McKenna Labour, Cumbernauld and Kilsyth

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that excellent point. The family has lost a son, a nephew and a brother, yet the language of the law does not recognise that. That adds to their despair and they feel that their grief has been intensified by the way in which the case has been treated by the law.

Another difficulty is that many of the decisions are taken out of court. Decisions are made by the prosecution service to plea bargain or reduce the charge which should be properly applied. The family is not involved and they feel excluded. They feel that there is no transparency in the decision-making process and that is a serious concern.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The purpose of the Adjournment debate is to allow the hon. Member to put her case to the Minister and for the Minister to reply. The hon. Lady has taken several interventions and should leave it at that.

Photo of Rosemary McKenna Rosemary McKenna Labour, Cumbernauld and Kilsyth

The fact that so many hon. Members are here and wish to intervene shows how important they consider the issue. The Minister must understand that and realise that it will be raised regularly.

Following the North report, the Road Traffic Act 1991 replaced an earlier offence of reckless driving with the new offence of dangerous driving. The new offence is based more on the standard of driving—for example, on the driving being far below the standard of a reasonable and competent driver—and less on the driver's state of mind. It was designed to make the offence easier to prove in court. The intention was to enable more prosecutions to be pursued for the more serious dangerous driving offence.

The report decided that a new offence of causing death by careless driving should not be introduced as "a crime based on consequences" might be justified where the level of culpability was high, but not in the case of carelessness. The committee's definition of carelessness was as follows: Carelessness might amount to no more than a minor error of judgment or a moment's inattention. We must focus on the distinction between a minor error of judgment or a moment's inattention and a higher level of culpability.

The North report stated: Death should be singled out for special treatment because it is the most serious consequence of a criminal act, and in doing so would exemplify the concern of the law for the sanctity of life.

In Steven's case, the police prepared the charge of death by dangerous driving, or alternatively careless driving—as is the procedure. The charge of death by dangerous driving is not brought lightly by the police, who spent resources of time and money to substantiate the charge.

The Crown Office, which acts in the public interest, looked at the culpability of Andrew Wilson and prosecuted him with one charge of careless driving. In their words, the investigation revealed the required degree of very bad driving to be absent". We find that incredible.

In court, the sheriff checked with the fiscal that a charge did not take Steven's death into account. The fiscal confirmed that that was true. The sheriff stated that his "hands were tied", fined the defendant £750 and banned him from driving for one year.

Steven's family feel that the concern of the law for the sanctity of life has been ignored in the charge of careless driving. International human rights law is based on the inherent dignity of the individual and the Crown Office appears to respect neither Steven's dignity nor that of his family.

At the 15-minute hearing no evidence was presented and no witnesses heard as the accused pleaded guilty to the reduced charge. There are many questions to be answered. The Dekker family is considering the possibility of a fatal accident inquiry to ventilate in public the facts, to establish how Steven died and possibly to launch a civil action for damages in order to get legal recognition that Andrew Wilson killed Steven Dekker.

I support the words of Mary Williams, executive director of Brake, an independent road safety organisation. She said: It is our carefully considered opinion that the charge of careless driving, which carries a maximum sentence of a very low fine, should be dropped, and drivers who break the law should be charged with dangerous driving, death by dangerous driving or manslaughter if their actions have killed. There can be no carelessness behind the wheel of a vehicle—spilling a bottle of milk is careless, failing to drive safely can only be considered dangerous. A wide sentencing structure would accommodate the wide variety of illegalities which could be encompassed under these charges.

The public sense of justice requires that the distinction between careless and dangerous —a higher level of culpability—should be determined in court, with all evidence presented and statements from witnesses heard. It is a gross injustice to innocent victims such as Steven that their life and death can be denied that recognition by the state. Like many other families, the Dekker family has found that the non-implementation of the law adds additional grief to families who are already bereft, and to society, an undermining of the expectation of justice.

Mr. and Mrs. Dekker lost a son, Vivien lost a brother and Gail lost her best friend and her future with Steven. I totally support the family and Gail in their attempt to bring the matter to the attention of Parliament and the wider public. Nothing can bring Steven back, but if the law can be changed as a result of his death and the deaths of others on the roads, some good may come of it.

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Minister for Home Affairs and Devolution, Scottish Office 12:47, 28 April 1999

First may I record my appreciation to the House? The fact that this is a short debate in no way detracts from the serious concerns that have been raised by several hon. Members who would have wished to debate them for longer. I recognise that and acknowledge their deep concern.

The death of Steven Dekker last September was a tragedy. Any sudden death is tragic and none more so than the death of a young man as promising as Steven Dekker, who was a graduate trainee at the British Airports Authority. This morning, I had the benefit of meeting Steven's family. I understand something of the depth of feeling and my heart goes out to them for their loss. Since his death, many questions have been asked about road safety and the proper way to deal with road traffic cases that arise under criminal law. It is only right that such a tragedy should make us ask such questions and I pay tribute to the diligence of my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mrs. McKenna) in raising the matter on behalf of her constituents.

Let me first turn to the role of the criminal law in dealing with road traffic accidents and make it quite clear that there is no lack of serious charges to bring, depending on the evidence in the case. However—and this is a point that the relatives of the victim may naturally and understandably find hard to accept—the fact that an accident has had fatal consequences does not necessarily mean that the other driver involved is guilty of dangerous driving. We all take a risk every time we drive and a simple misjudgment can have consequences as terrible as those of any deliberate crime. The law has to cover a wide variety of circumstances. At the upper end of the spectrum there are, fortunately, very rare cases when the vehicle is used deliberately as a weapon. In such cases, it might be appropriate to bring charges under the common law, and if the victim was killed, the prosecution would not hesitate to consider indicting the person on a charge of murder or culpable homicide.

Next in gravity is the offence of causing death by dangerous driving, for which the maximum sentence under the road traffic legislation is 10 years. This offence cannot be dealt with under summary procedure.

Next again is the offence of dangerous driving, which has a maximum prison penalty of two years under solemn procedure, and of six months under summary procedure. Finally, there is the offence of careless and inconsiderate driving, which cannot give rise to a custodial sentence and which cannot be dealt with under solemn procedure.

In his role as head of the prosecution service, the Lord Advocate is independent of the Government of the day. The House will recognise that it is important that he should be so. It is for the prosecution to select the appropriate charge and the mode of trial, taking into account any statutory restrictions that may apply, what the evidence suggests about the relative culpability of the driver who will face the charges, and, of course, the need to prove any charge beyond reasonable doubt.

Ministers are not in a position to comment on what charges should be brought in any individual case. That is why I cannot comment on the charges brought in this case. The Crown Office has made it clear that the most careful consideration was given to what charges were justified on the available evidence and under the existing law.

There is a lot of publicity about the downgrading of charges. The charge brought was one of those made by the police soon after the event, but, as often happens, the police—who were not in full possession of the facts at the time—charged the accused with a number of alternative offences. However, it is for the procurator fiscal to select the appropriate charge after full investigation in the light of the evidence.

At the request of the family, the charge selected by the prosecutor was reviewed, but, in this case, was confirmed as being appropriate. The Crown Office has stated that the question of costs played no part in the decision about what charge was appropriate. As we have heard, the sheriff who heard all the evidence on the circumstances decided that the appropriate sentence was a fine of £750 and a ban from driving for one year. The sentence imposed is entirely a matter for the court, but clearly it reflects the culpability of the accused and not the terrible consequences of the accident.

There remains the question of a fatal accident inquiry. I understand that the procurator fiscal has received a letter from the solicitors acting for the Dekker family, confirming that the family wish such an inquiry to be held. That is a matter for the Lord Advocate to decide.

The Government rightly stand clear of such decisions and of decisions on prosecution. However, we need to consider whether such cases suggest any need for a change in the law. I should therefore like to say a little about what we are doing to keep the law under review.

This matter was last reviewed fully in the North report, published in 1988. Detailed consideration was given to the possibility of creating a new offence of causing death by careless driving. However, the report recognised that any road accident has the potential to have serious consequences, whether the accident occurred as a result of deliberate bad driving or of a lapse in concentration.

The North committee therefore took the view that, as a general rule, sentences for road traffic offences should be based on the standard of driving, rather than on the consequences of that driving. That issue has threaded its way through this afternoon's debate.

Where the death is due to carelessness and there is no question of drink or drugs, the committee did not consider that it was appropriate to have a "causing death" offence. That is the philosophy underlying the current formulation of the offences in the road traffic legislation, and it has been supported by successive Governments. There is a view—which I understand—that it would be desirable to have an offence of causing death by careless driving, even when there is no question of drugs or drink being involved. The Government are currently reviewing that possibility.

The Government are also undertaking comprehensive research into the way in which bad driving offences are dealt with by the criminal justice systems, both north and south of the border. This is the key issue being addressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth. The research, undertaken on behalf of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, will examine the effect on convictions before and after the changes in the law made by the Road Traffic Act 1991. It is using current cases to examine the whole process, from charging to sentencing. The results of the research should be available by the end of next year.

Finally, I should mention the likely impact of the Scottish Parliament in this matter. Although the criminal law, with certain specific exceptions, will be mainly devolved to the new Scottish Parliament, road traffic law has largely been made on a Great Britain basis. I therefore expect that the new Scottish Ministers will be closely in touch with colleagues in Whitehall Departments in considering the way forward in an area of law in which it is so difficult yet so important to get the balance right.

I shall touch briefly on some of the other aspects of road safety that we are currently pursuing. The criminal law in this respect is vitally important, and that has been the focus of the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth, but it goes much wider in relation to road safety matters.

In 1997, 377 people were killed on Scottish roads. That is 377 people too many. Each of those deaths represents a tragedy for all concerned, especially for the family and friends of the person killed. To put that figure in perspective, I point out that it is higher than the total of 263 drug-related deaths in Scotland in that year.

Nothing can put matters right after a fatal accident. That is why our first and overriding aim has to be, as far as possible, to prevent such accidents occurring in the first place. The Government are therefore committed to reducing the number of road accident casualties in Scotland, and some considerable progress has been made.

In 1987, the target was to reduce casualties by a third by the year 2000, compared with the average for 1981–85. By 1997, the number of deaths in Scotland had fallen by 41 per cent., and the number of serious injuries had fallen by 51 per cent., despite substantial growth in road traffic. In fact, Scotland's road fatality rate is about 40 per cent. below the European Union average.

Our record is therefore good by international standards, but it is not good enough and we intend to do better. We must continue to drive down the number of casualties and we have already announced that we shall publish later this year demanding new casualty reduction targets for the period up to 2010, together with a strategy for achieving them.

Obviously, the behaviour of drivers is a major factor in road accidents. For example, speed is thought to be a factor in about one third of all road accidents, but research has shown that it is the norm among many drivers to exceed the speed limit by up to 10 mph. We believe that it is necessary to change drivers' attitudes to speeding. The long-term aim must be to ensure that speeding is stigmatised, in the same way that drinking and driving is now considered to be socially unacceptable. There is no doubt in my mind that the culture has to change, and reasonably quickly.

Measures to reduce further the number of drink-related road casualties, on which we consulted last year, will be announced in the context of the forthcoming road safety strategy. That strategy will also take into account the findings of the Great Britain review of speed policy, which is currently under way.

A driver behaviour strategy has been developed to modify drivers' attitudes, with the ultimate aim of reducing casualties. Tackling the problem of speeding will be a major component of the strategy, and a publicity campaign called "Full Speed" was launched in November last year. Because it is a long-term initiative, it will be some time before its effectiveness can be assessed.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland with responsibility for transport has also launched the first of 75 pilot 20 mph projects throughout Scotland. In residential areas used mainly by the people who live in them, the projects will test the effectiveness of schemes that do not include the use of relatively expensive engineering measures.

We are also making special efforts with driver training to cut accidents and casualties involving newly qualified drivers. Drivers in the 17 to 21 age group represent less than 10 per cent. of licence holders, but sadly are involved in about 20 per cent. of all road accidents in which injuries are sustained.

We are also taking various action on driving tests. In addition, we shall continue our hard-hitting television publicity campaigns to drive home the message that speed kills and that motorists should not drink and drive. Moreover, we are setting challenging targets for reduction in many areas of road activity.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth for raising these matters today. I assure her that the Government will keep this area of law under constant review. Above all, we need to take practical steps such as I have described to reduce the incidence of deaths on our roads. Everything that has been said today underlines our commitment to further improve safety.

Finally, I hope that the tragic death of Steven Dekker will lead us to renew once more our efforts to make Britain's roads safer and to minimise future loss of life on them.