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 am not aware of any communication between UK Ministers and Ministers in Northern Ireland. I will ask the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims, within whose responsibilities this issue lies, to respond directly to the hon. Gentleman.

We recognise that it is important to respond quickly where there is a clear gap in the law or where a maximum penalty is clearly inadequate. We also need to ensure that there is a consistent and proportionate sentencing framework. That is why earlier this year we announced our intention to look, across the board, at the maximum penalties for offences involving bad driving. That review, which looks at a number of issues that many Members of this House have already raised, is currently under way and being conducted by the Ministry of Justice working with the Department for Transport. I am particularly pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Mr Goodwill, is here on the Bench with me this afternoon. The review will focus on the maximum penalties and gaps in current offences. It will soon be taking the views of victims, families of victims, road users and criminal justice professionals. I do not want to pre-empt any findings, but I hope that the review will lead to recommendations that the next Government can act on in the early stages of the next Parliament.

In addition to the custodial sentence imposed in this case, the offender was also banned from driving for 10 years. He was also ordered to complete an extended driving test before he can regain a licence to drive in the UK. Driving disqualification and extended testing requirements are an important element of dealing with drivers who kill and are a mandatory requirement.

The length of a driving ban is for the court to set. Guidance already makes it clear that the court should consider the time spent in custody so that the ban is not extinguished or severely diminished by the time the offender is released. Provisions in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 reinforce that message by placing a statutory duty on courts to extend driving bans when imposing a custodial sentence. We have recently sought to make amendments to that legislation in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill to enable those important provisions to be commenced as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about the Crown Prosecution Service and its understanding of bereavement. Let me say that in any case involving a death, the CPS should be sensitive to the need to minimise the extra distress criminal proceedings are likely to cause the victim’s family and friends. The CPS guidance on that is very clear. In murder, manslaughter and fatal road traffic cases, the CPS will provide an enhanced service to family members. In such cases, the prosecutor should offer to meet the victim’s family from an early stage to explain how the case will be handled and what is expected to happen at each court hearing. The prosecutor will also explain the likely sentence should the defendant be convicted. The prosecutor will inform the victim's family that they can make a victim personal statement, and he will bring the statement to the attention of the court. If my hon. Friend has a specific concern about the handling of this case, I would be happy to pass that on to the Director of Public Prosecutions who has responsibility for the CPS.

On the question of mutual recognition of driving bans across the EU, I should say that such a system is in place with the Republic of Ireland, but not, as my hon. Friend says, for other countries in the EU. We agree, in principle, that co-operation over disqualifications between member states, other than Ireland, is desirable. Any EU member state may wish to enter into similar arrangements to those we have with Ireland in the future. It is important to understand that a practical and effective system of mutual recognition across the EU would have to be ratified by the vast majority of member states. In the case of the existing 1998 convention, only a small number of states have ratified. I should stress that the offender in this case will not be able to drive in the UK as a result of the driving disqualification for a decade.

My hon. Friend also raised the question of deportation of foreign national offenders. The Home Office considers for deportation all foreign national offenders who are sentenced to a period of imprisonment following a criminal conviction. For European economic area nationals, the deportation consideration process takes account of the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2006. Deportation will normally be pursued where the person is sentenced to two years’ imprisonment or more, as in this case, or 12 months’ imprisonment for a sexual, drug or violent offence. Where an EEA offender receives a shorter sentence, deportation will be pursued where it can be justified in accordance with the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations, taking into account the particular circumstances of the case. For non-EEA nationals, there is a duty for the Secretary of State to deport a non-EEA foreign national who is sentenced to a period of imprisonment of 12 months or more.

My hon. Friend will know that the regulations covering cross-border haulage firms are detailed, and are governed in the UK by the Department for Transport. In short, those who operate commercial vehicles on international journeys will need a number of authorisations and permits. The authorisations will depend on the countries in which the vehicle is to travel, but include driver certificates of professional competence, community licences and a standard international operator’s licence. These requirements include regulating the amount of time a driver spends at the wheel through the EU drivers’ hours rule, as well as a requirement for an EU driver to have undertaken the certificate of professional competence.

The principal aim here is to ensure better trained drivers across the EU, who are up to date with current legislation. As my hon. Friend will realise, this is a technical area of regulation, and I would be happy to pass on specific concerns raised by my hon. Friend to my colleagues in the Department for Transport.

My hon. Friend also raised the question of the length of a driving ban and suggested that there should be a lifetime ban for those who cause death. The length of a driving ban is a decision for the judge in the individual case. In some cases a driving ban of a specific length provides an incentive for offenders to comply with their sentence in order that in time they can regain their licence. Where offenders are given a life ban, they may be more likely to flout that ban and drive illegally and irresponsibly. But I do recognise the point that my hon. Friend makes in regard to those who cause death, especially by dangerous drink-driving. We will be looking at the current sentencing practice and driving ban lengths as part of the driving penalties review, which will report early next year. I suggest that my hon. Friend sends a copy of this debate and a submission to that review, and that will be most welcome.

Let me conclude by again thanking my hon. Friend for securing this short but important debate, and by offering my own condolences to the family and friends of Callum Wark. Mercifully, the number of people dying on our roads continues to fall, aided by better cars, better roads, more awareness of road safety, better policing and advances in emergency medicine. But I know that that will be of no consolation to the family of Callum and his many friends.

But the criminal justice system also has an important role to play in dealing with those who continue to drive badly and put themselves and others at risk. The Government have already shown their willingness to ensure that the courts have the powers they need to deal effectively with drivers who kill or cause serious injury to other road users. We have created new offences where there was a gap in the law, and we have increased maximum penalties where the courts were frustrated by a lack of sentencing power. We are now actively reviewing the sentencing framework for the range of driving offences. We want to ensure that sentences are consistent and proportionate, but that the law also ensures that those who kill innocent people, such as Callum Wark, are punished appropriately.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.