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I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to allow the Magistrates Court discretion to refer a third or subsequent offence for drink driving to the Crown Court for sentencing and to grant the Crown Court the jurisdiction to give a custodial sentence of up to two years.
When a driver gets behind the wheel they have a responsibility for their own and other road users’ safety, but public safety is put at risk by those who choose to drink and drive. Studies have consistently shown that someone’s ability to drive is impaired by having alcohol present in their blood and that the risk increases as more alcohol is consumed. This risk to public safety has been recognised in law for almost 90 years since the first drink-driving offence was introduced in 1925.
The current statutory provisions governing drink-driving make it an offence to drive or attempt to drive while unfit through drink or with excess levels of alcohol in the bloodstream. Currently the maximum sentence an offender can receive is six months in prison, which is the same for a first, second, third, fifth, sixth or even seventh offence. I believe that that needs to change so that those who continue to reoffend will face tougher sentences and those who persist in driving after drinking over the legal limits will be deterred from doing so.
There has been a huge shift in the public’s attitude towards drink-driving over the years and we should not lose sight of the significant achievements of successive Governments in tackling this issue. In 1979, 28 people were killed or seriously injured every day in drink-driving accidents. Thirty years later the number has fallen to four a day, despite the volume of traffic increasing by 80% since the 1980s. By combining education and enforcement through the THINK! campaign run over Christmas and during the summer, road safety has improved. However, more still needs and has to be done.
The figures show that in 2011, almost 10,000 casualties occurred when someone was driving while over the legal alcohol limit. Sadly, 1,570 people were killed or seriously injured in drink-driving accidents in 2011, which was up on the previous year. More people are in fact killed as a result of drink-driving than of knife crime, yet the maximum penalty for carrying a knife is four years in prison compared with the significantly lower six months for drink-driving.
Worryingly, many drivers continue to ignore the risks and get behind the wheel after drinking, with 8% of drivers admitting that they have driven in the past 12 months believing that they were over the legal limit. According to a recent AA/Populus survey, one in five motorists has admitted to risking drink-driving at Christmas. Nearly 20,000 extra breath tests were carried out by the police last December and more than 7,000 of those breathalysed were found to be drink-drivers. In Medway, which includes my own constituency, more than 30 arrests were made during the Christmas crackdown.
It is clear that the current law is not a powerful enough deterrent for many people, as 12% of offenders, some of whom will have been disqualified and uninsured, will go on to drink and drive again. The reoffending rate is even greater for high-risk offenders, including those who have previously been disqualified twice for drink-driving offences, with three out of 10 of them repeating the offence.
I say to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Stephen Hammond, who is in his place, that the same proposals that I am outlining today could also be applied to those who drive while disqualified, which is linked to drink-driving. In a recent case in Medway, a driver was caught an astonishing five times in 11 years but still escaped a prison sentence.
The latest review into drink-driving laws in 2010 by Sir Peter North noted that it is a minority of drivers who persist in drink-driving. The coalition Government’s response to the North review stated that many drink-drivers are well above the limit—a staggering 40% of those caught are two and a half times over the lawful limit.
To tackle this problem, it is the behaviour of that minority of hard-core drinkers that needs to be targeted. As the Secretary of State for Transport at the time of the North report, my right hon. Friend Mr Hammond, told the House in a written ministerial statement:
“Their behaviour is entrenched and displays a flagrant disregard for the law and the safety of other road users.”—[Hansard, 21 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 45WS.]
The Government’s response indicated that the biggest deterrent is the perceived risk of the severe consequences of detection. Under the plans that I am outlining today, there would be a serious deterrent not to drink and drive.
How would the proposal work in practice? On a first offence, the vast majority of drink-drivers receive a non-custodial sentence usually consisting of a fine and driving ban. On a second offence or in aggravating circumstances, we would expect the magistrates court to give a harsher sentence ranging from a community penalty to a custodial sentence. On a third offence, the magistrates court would have the discretion to refer the case to the Crown Court where the offender could receive up to two years imprisonment. This measure would provide the courts with the additional tools they need to tackle those who persist in flouting the law.
The principle of increased sentences for repeat offenders proposed in this Bill has already been applied to other crimes. The Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 provides a minimum sentence of three years for a third burglary offence. The system has also been adopted in other countries. In New Zealand, a motorist caught over the limit for a third or subsequent offence faces two years’ imprisonment. In the Australian state of New South Wales, people can receive a two-year sentence for subsequent offences. In America, many states have imposed more than one-year prison sanctions on those who reoffend three times or more.
It is clear that in order to reduce further drink-driving casualties we need to take a tougher stance. This proposal will send a clear message to those who continue to drink and drive that they will face up to two years in prison if they persist in exceeding the legal limits and continue to put innocent lives at risk. This Bill will mean that we continue to have not only some of the toughest drink-driving laws, but some of the safest roads. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Rehman Chishti accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on