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Bail (Dangerous Drivers)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:59 pm on 17th July 2012.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Vara.)

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): On new year’s eve, 31 December 2010, as people in Otley and all over the country were celebrating, my constituent James Peter Still, known as Jamie to his family and friends, was doing what 16-year-olds were doing up and down the country. He was out enjoying the evening with friends. Tragically, at around 9 pm, Jamie was hit by a drunk and speeding motorist, who lost control of his vehicle and veered on to the pavement.

Jamie was assisted by people at the scene, including regulars from the White Swan and Manor House pubs. He was rushed to hospital but died soon afterwards. His mother, who had rushed to the scene, was at his bedside. No other members of the family were able to get there in time to see him. His death left a family devastated and a community and town in shock.

The driver had been out drinking. His blood-alcohol content was estimated at about twice the drink-drive limit. He had been travelling at speeds estimated at 50 mph in a 30 mph zone in the middle of the town. Shortly before the accident he was reportedly performing handbrake turns in the car park of a nearby garden centre. In addition, he had been using his mobile phone, and in the half hour before the crash had received no fewer than 12 calls from his girlfriend. She was pleading with him to stop driving. It was not until 24 May 2011 that the driver was charged with causing death by careless driving while under the influence of alcohol, and pleaded guilty to those charges. He was finally convicted at Leeds Crown court on 8 September 2011. He was sent to jail for four years and disqualified from driving for five years.

The point of my debate and the campaign is that the driver who killed Jamie Still on new year’s eve was allowed to—and indeed did—carry on driving until his sentence, eight months later in September. The man who had killed someone by driving dangerously was allowed on the roads for a further eight months. Usually, an individual’s licence is suspended soon after a drink-driving offence, because prosecution is swift, but unfortunately, in this case, as the driver had actually killed someone, the prosecution took much longer, and the licence is not suspended until conviction. That is, in effect, a loophole that allows many people charged with death by dangerous or careless driving to continue to drive, long after they are arrested, and even charged, up until their conviction and sentencing; that can, as this case has shown, be many months later.

I was pleased to meet the Minister, along with Jamie’s mother, Karen, his sister, Rebecca and his grandfather, Peter. I thank the Minister for meeting the family to hear their concerns, and I appreciate that he is looking into the matter. I was also very pleased to receive a response on the issue from the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions. He said:

“He raises a very important point about what happens in cases such as these and what one can and cannot do with bail conditions. I will certainly go away and look at that. It may well be that this is something that we can consider alongside the recommendations that we are considering about drug-related driving. There is more

work for the Government to do in this area, and I will certainly listen to my hon. Friend’s and his constituents’ concerns.”—[ Official Report , 1 February 2012; Vol. 539, c. 822.]

That was very welcome news.

Let me make it clear that this is not an isolated case. The campaign group, RoadPeace, in its guide for bereaved families in precisely this situation, says:

“Bail can be conditional or unconditional…Drivers charged with causing a death are not immediately banned from driving. Driving bans are imposed only if the defendant is believed to be at risk of reoffending, but this is rarely the case. If a driver has a driving ban as part of his bail condition and they are caught driving, they can be put in jail”,


“Insufficient priority is given to keeping dangerous drivers off the road. Driving bans are short and can overlap with custodial sentences. It is a sad indictment of our society that we will imprison drivers before we will confiscate their vehicles and that we will crush vehicles for being driven without insurance but not for being driven”

in these cases.

It is true that a driving ban can be handed out following a guilty plea, or prior to sentencing reports, but that is at the discretion of the trial judge, and is simply not being applied in many cases. If someone is accused of drink-driving but has caused no harm, they will lose their licence quickly, yet if a drink-driver has killed another human being, they can, and often do, hold on to their licence and continue to drive. We can only imagine the distress that Jamie’s mother, Karen, and his sister, Rebecca, had to face as a result of this man continuing to drive in the weapon with which he killed their loved one. Indeed, Karen says:

“why does the law allow offenders such as McRae to continue performing the activities that led to someone’s death?”

Recently, Humberside police banned two drivers who were caught being too drunk to drive following a night of watching Euro 2012. Those two men had their licences suspended immediately, yet in the case that I am raising, that is not happening, although there is a charge of death by careless or dangerous driving.

The family and I are calling on the Government to look into making the suspension of driving licences in such fatal cases no longer discretionary, but mandatory. Currently, driving bans are imposed only if the defendant is believed to be at risk of reoffending, or a risk to the public, but that is rarely believed to be the case, and it misses the point about the distress that Jamie’s family had to endure as a result of the driver continuing to drive. It is surely possible to make a driving ban a condition of bail in all cases where an offender is charged with death by dangerous or careless driving.

At the heart of the campaign is Jamie’s sister, Rebecca. Unbeknown even to her own mother, she decided, off her own bat, even though she was grieving, to start an e-petition calling for those who kill as a result of dangerous driving to have their licences suspended as a condition of bail. It has now received more than 12,000 signatures. We believe that that is possible, and I hope sincerely that the Minister will look into it.

It is possible to apply the measure to people who have been drink-driving and have tested more than twice over the legal limit. The Institute of Alcohol Studies has suggested that

“those at least twice over the limit or…have previous convictions should have their licence withdrawn as a condition of bail. The

Government should be prepared to effect this by primary legislation and treat the bail condition as an interim disqualification.”

To make the position clear, we are talking about suspension from the moment of charge until trial. If someone is found to be innocent, as applies to any bail condition, their driving licence would be reinstated immediately, so there would be no implication that this is in any way a suggestion of guilt.

Jamie’s family believe that driving bans for such crimes are far too short and should not overlap custodial sentences. I urge the Minister to look at that because, as he knows, driving bans do overlap custodial sentences, which in many cases nullifies the driving ban. In this awful case, the driving ban was set at five years, but the custodial sentence was four years in jail, which means that if the driver served his full sentence—in reality he will not do so—his driving ban would last only a year after release. It is simply not acceptable that someone who has caused a death as a result of dangerous or careless driving and has behaved recklessly and criminally should be allowed back on the road after being out in society for just one year. The family feel aggrieved, as they have told the Minister, and believe that the five-year sentence handed down to the perpetrator is not enough, given that he knowingly took to the wheel of his car twice over the drink-drive limit.

I am pleased that this is on the agenda. The family are grateful, and they feel that Ministers, including my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, have listened to their campaign on what appears to be a loophole that could be closed fairly easily. I hope that my hon. Friend will take this forward, echoing the Prime Minister’s comment that he will look at that alongside tightening the drug-driving laws—something else that I support. I have pledged to the family that I will carry on campaigning alongside Rebecca, Karen and Peter, Jamie’s grandfather. It is astonishing that, despite their devastating loss, which can never be rectified—a hole that can never be filled—they still want to do something at least to prevent some of the pain and trauma from affecting other families. I will carry on campaigning with them until we have secured changes to achieve that. I thank the Minister for his interest, and I hope that he will work with me and the family to see what we can do to address some of these issues.