Callum Wark (Sentencing of Foreign Drivers)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:12 pm on 29th October 2014.

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Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 4:12 pm, 29th October 2014

I thank my hon. Friend Alec Shelbrooke for securing this important debate and highlighting the issues surrounding the tragic death of Callum Wark. In particular, I thank him for putting on record his comments about Callum’s personality in the House of Commons today. I am sure that others will also have been particularly touched by the story of Callum turning back during a race that he probably would have won to help a friend with learning disabilities. That speaks volumes about the kind of fine young man he clearly was.

Any death on our roads is a tragedy. Road deaths lead to unimaginable pain for the families and relatives of the victims. Such deaths are made worse when they are caused by bad driving under the influence of alcohol and could have been avoided. It is particularly troubling that Callum was only 19 and had his whole life ahead of him. Most Members will know of similar cases in their own constituencies—we have already heard from Jim Shannon in that regard—but I hope that they will appreciate that I do not want to go into the details of their individual cases during this short debate.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell has said, Callum Wark was killed by a lorry driver, a Bulgarian national, who was found to be driving dangerously and well over the drink-drive limit. The lorry driver entered a guilty plea to a number of offences including causing death by dangerous driving. He was sentenced to seven years and eight months’ imprisonment on 20 March this year. He was also banned from driving for 10 years.

My hon. Friend raised a number of issues that arise from this case and other similar cases, which I will try to deal with in my remarks. It is, of course, right that our independent courts should decide on the sentence for an offence. It is the court that has the full knowledge of the case and the offender, and it is best placed to decide on a just and appropriate sentence. It is also important to remember that we have sentencing guidelines that the courts are required to follow—unless it would be unjust to do so—which lead to greater transparency in the level of sentence likely to be imposed and increased consistency in sentencing practice. For certain offences, the Attorney-General can refer a case to the Court of Appeal on the basis that the sentence is unduly lenient—that includes cases involving causing death by dangerous driving. Anyone can make representations to the Attorney-General to consider making such a reference. There is a 28-day time limit to appeal against an unduly lenient sentence, and in this case no appeal was lodged.

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. The reduction for an early guilty plea is not just about saving money and court time; it is designed to ensure that victims, their families and witnesses are not required to relive dreadful events in court. I pay tribute to North Yorkshire police and others in the criminal justice system in North Yorkshire for enabling this case to be concluded with sentencing occurring less than three weeks after the incident. As the police themselves have noted, the family were spared the trauma of sitting through a protracted court hearing.

My hon. Friend also raised concerns that the offender in this case will be released at the halfway point in his sentence. As my hon. Friend will know, release before the end of sentence is not new. Since legislation was introduced in 1967, successive Governments have maintained that approach, and the current arrangements are contained in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. In most driving cases, a standard determinate sentence will be imposed by the court, and the 2003 Act provides that such prisoners must be released automatically as soon as they have served half their sentence. The second part of a custodial sentence—the licence period—is an important part of the sentence, as it provides for the supervised transition of an offender into the community and the prospect of recall to prison for breach of the licence. If there were no licence period, offenders could be in prison for many years and then be released with no support or supervision, which would increase the risk of reoffending. If a foreign national prisoner is to be removed from the UK, it would make little sense to impose licence conditions to ensure an offender could be supervised in the community, given that they will not be released into our community. That is why after the period spent in custody for the purpose of punishment of the offence, we seek, where possible, to remove foreign national prisoners to their own country.

The driver in this case is a foreign national and, as a convicted offender, may be subject to deportation at the end of his sentence. I am aware that the judge in this case made a recommendation that the offender be deported after serving his sentence. The Government are committed to ensuring that foreign national offenders, including those committing serious driving offences, should be removed from the UK whenever possible. In some cases, offenders may serve some of their prison sentence in their own country under a prisoner transfer agreement. In other cases, an offender may be released from custody in order that they can be removed from the UK. A foreign national prisoner can be returned to their home country up to 270 days before the halfway point of their sentence, and we need to strike a balance between ensuring that foreign nationals are removed to their own country and ensuring that they are properly punished for the offences committed in this country.

On the wider issues of penalties, it is worth stressing that although sentencing is a matter for the courts, setting the framework that the courts work within is for Parliament. This Government want to see maximum penalties that allow the courts to respond to the full range of cases they are likely to face. The offence in this case, causing death by dangerous driving, already has a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment. The same maximum is available for causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs. Where there is a failing in the law we have moved to remedy it. In the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 we created a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving, with a five-year maximum penalty.

More recently, in response to the awful case of Paul Stock who was killed by a disqualified driver, we have, in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, proposed an increased maximum penalty for those disqualified drivers who kill or cause serious injury. The current maximum sentence is two years for causing death, but will increase to 10 years when those provisions become law.