Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme

– in the House of Commons at 5:30 pm on 23 November 2022.

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

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North 6:41, 23 November 2022

On 19 June 2021, the Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke community was rocked when it learned of the tragic death of six-year-old Sharlotte-Sky. Sharlotte was killed when John Owen hit her with his car on Endon Road in Norton Green on that fateful day. John Owen was twice over the drink-drive limit, had a series of drugs in his system, was using a mobile phone, had no seatbelt on, and was speeding. Sharlotte was on the pavement with her father, who was also struck. She was on the way to get some sweets for a girls’ night with her mother. This unforgivable and selfish act has taken away a precious young life, left a family broken and scarred a community. It was an event that shocked the entire city of Stoke-on-Trent, with hundreds of people lining the streets for Sharlotte’s funeral in an outpouring of profound grief.

Since that horrific night, I have been working with Sharlotte’s brave and inspiring mother, Claire Reynolds—she is in the Public Gallery alongside Sharlotte’s grandfather —The Sentinel and her friends to get the justice they rightfully deserve. Before I speak about why I join Claire and the Stoke-on-Trent community in wanting Mr Owen’s sentence increased so that justice can rightfully be served, I want to take a moment to promote the idea of Sharlotte’s law.

Mr Owen caused much distress by prolonging the investigation into Sharlotte’s death, to exploit, in my opinion, loopholes in our justice system. Mr Owen was in a coma when the investigation began, and the law brought about significant problems. Legally, blood samples can be taken without a suspect’s consent yet not subject to a test until consent is given. Therefore, in such situations, the investigation is delayed until consent is received. The current law addressing that is section 7A of the Road Traffic Act 1988. Subsection (4) outlines three criteria that must be met to test a blood sample, one of which is the person providing their consent.

I understand from subsection (6) that

“A person who…fails to give his permission for a laboratory test of a specimen of blood” without a reasonable excuse is, under section 7A,

“guilty of an offence.”

It therefore seems that consent is simply a formality. Effectively, anything other than providing permission would constitute an offence. The law protracted the investigation into Mr Owen and caused knock-on delays in moving the case forward. Claire has been so brave, sharing her struggles with not just me but the local press, too. She has been battling her own mental health problems that have no doubt been exacerbated by the delays and issues brought about by this law.

It seems simple to me. If we are to free up police time and resources, testing blood samples should be happening regardless of consent, in order to get answers. If a suspect has nothing to fear, why would they object to testing? Claire is adamant and defiant that Sharlotte’s death and the torment her family went through will not be for nothing. She wants to see the consent law scrapped where loss of life has occurred due to a collision with a motor vehicle.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his assiduousness in looking after his constituents. He has done that since he first came to this place and he continues to do so. I fully and wholeheartedly support what he puts forward. When it comes to justice and victims, the victims should be the priority. Those who are guilty, even at an early stage, of not giving a blood sample should be advised that there is no other option—they must give it. Does he agree?

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I could not agree with him more and I thank him for his kind words. I have rehearsed this speech a few times, hoping not to get teary. It is quite difficult. He is right that people should not fear the law if they have not done anything wrong. A six-year-old should not have lost her life. Worst of all, she should not have had her killer sentenced to only two and a half years in prison. That is not justice.

I have pursued this disparity in the law with parliamentary colleagues and raised it in the House multiple times. I have met officials and made a submission to the Department for Transport’s call for evidence on drug driving. I am seeking support from Ministers to implement Sharlotte’s law. Obviously, I will cheekily use this opportunity to see if the Solicitor General, my hon. Friend Michael Tomlinson, will add his name to that call.

The main purpose for holding this debate today is to consider the unduly lenient sentence scheme. On 4 October 2022, John Owen was sentenced to six years and four months in prison, with the most shocking revelation being that Mr Owen would only spend two and a half years behind bars. Considering that Judge Glenn told Mr Owen that he was

“an accident waiting to happen”, that rubs salt into the wounds of Sharlotte’s family. The whole north Staffordshire community, myself and most importantly Claire and Sharlotte’s family are rightly outraged at this insultingly lenient sentence, which means that John Owen will have served less time than the young life he has taken.

With Claire’s support, I wrote to the Attorney General, who at the time was my right hon. and learned Friend Michael Ellis, to seek to have the sentence challenged as part of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. Regrettably, the initial response I received from the Solicitor General failed to answer some of the questions I raised about the insulting sentencing of John Owen. I therefore re-wrote to the now Attorney General, my right hon. Friend Victoria Prentis, seeking clarification on several points.

On researching sentences for deaths by dangerous driving, I uncovered that there are categories that judges use as a guideline to determine for how long an offender is sentenced. While Judge Glenn correctly placed Mr Owen in category 1, the highest and most serious category, it is incredibly disappointing that the sentence passed is at the lower end of the spectrum. Category 1 is anywhere between eight and 14 years. Judge Glenn sentenced Sharlotte’s killer to nine and a half years, before giving a third off to Mr Owen, who had, by some cold legal definition, given a guilty plea at the “earliest opportunity”. In reality, he had exhausted scapegoating the idea he was unfit to stand trial.

After my meeting with the Solicitor General, it became clearer that the sentence could have been higher if the following “aggravating factors” had been involved: multiple deaths; if the vehicle was stolen; if the driver had a previous history of bad driving; or if the driver fled the scene. In Sharlotte’s case, none of those applies. However, if John Owen having been drinking and on drugs does not act as a severe aggravating factor, and display a complete disregard for others’ lives and a willingness selfishly to endanger life such that a six-year-old girl was killed as she walked along the pavement in her home village of Norton Green, victims like Claire will continue to be failed by our justice system.

It is well documented from John Owen’s friends that he was drinking earlier on in the day and chose to get in the car, with complete contempt for life. That sheer selfishness should be an aggravating factor. It demonstrates that, despite his friends’ protests, he neglected the fact that he was not fit to drive and made an active choice to get behind the wheel. The devastating fact is that he simply did not care and then went on to kill a beautiful young girl.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

It is fairly obvious to everyone in the House that this is a very difficult experience for the hon. Gentleman and for the family, who are in the Gallery. I suspect that he is seeking a change to ensure that the law is sufficient when it comes to a blood test. He referred to aggravation and how the person disregarded the family and their feelings. We in this House unite with our friend and colleague to fully support him and what he proposes. In particular, on behalf of the family, who are here, I salute him—well done.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. The impact of Sharlotte’s death is impossible to overestimate. I have already explained the deeply saddening impact that it has had on Sharlotte’s immediate family. However, it has also had a huge effect on the local community.

The killing of an innocent child in such tragic circumstances comes with a set of exceptional impacts on the children around Sharlotte, which are unlikely to be felt in cases not involving the death of a child. Sharlotte’s classmates and children in the local community have been left with lasting effects, to the point where some have required specialist counselling and have been left scared to walk at the sides of busy roads. Sharlotte’s death will stay with these children long into adulthood, and I am staggered that that would not also have been considered as part of the sentencing.

In addition, I raised the legal ambiguities surrounding John Owen’s guilty plea. Mr Owen pleaded guilty long after he killed Sharlotte, in May 2022, when the report came back and demonstrated overwhelming evidence against him, including that he was under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Mr Owen did not plead guilty until that report was produced; he could have done that far earlier. Legally, he pleaded guilty at the “earliest possible” moment, but given the lengthy delay and ample opportunity, I do not believe that that should entitle him to the whole one-third reduction in his sentence. I feel the law should consider that with more nuance. It is totally different to plead guilty as soon as possible compared with as soon as “legally possible”.

By definition, the unduly lenient sentence scheme allows the Attorney General to refer a sentence to the Court of Appeal if it is too low. However, it appears that the scheme is practically useless if a case such as this one cannot be at least reviewed. The parameters to get a case reviewed by the Court of Appeal must be extraordinary. That, for me, brings into question the relevance of the scheme. I must ask: what is the point of it, considering that, as a Member of Parliament, I cannot help to get this truly harrowing miscarriage of justice at least appealed? Claire and I were no less than astonished by the Attorney General’s response, which ignored all my further questions. It feels as though the legal system did not care that a mother and a whole community felt completely let down by the law that is supposed to protect them.

To touch on the local actions following Sharlotte’s death, those should serve as an example to the Attorney General about how things must be adapted in response to such an emotive case. Local ward councillors for the area, such as Councillor Dave Evans and Councillor Carl Edwards, have been pushing for traffic-calming measures on Endon Road for many years. It is tragic that it has taken the death of a six-year-old girl for there to be a signalised pedestrian crossing, intermittent speed humps and more markings, but it shows a fundamental recognition that changes were needed following this tragedy—a concept that I advise the Attorney General and the Government to think about. Councillors are also pushing for a weight limit on the road to stop the HGV rat run; I hope that Staffordshire County Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council can work together to agree on that limit as soon as possible. I would like personally to thank Councillor Carl Edwards, Councillor Dave Evans, Norton Green Residents Association and the local community for their hard work in pushing for road safety in the area.

I am grateful for the Solicitor General agreeing to meet me, following our correspondence, and pleased that our meeting was constructive. During the meeting, he and I discussed gross errors. In legal terms, a gross error is when a judge incorrectly misapplies the law, for example by placing a defendant in the wrong category. Understandably, the Solicitor General argued that the case could not be referred to the Court of Appeal because no gross error had been made. That effectively means that if a judge puts a defendant in the right category, there is no way to argue that the sentence is too lenient.

I believe that that is far too simplistic. It fails to consider that a category 1 sentence can range from eight to 14 years—a substantial difference that would have had a huge impact on the perception of the case. If, for example, the case had been referred to the Court of Appeal and John Owen’s sentence had been extended to the maximum 14 years, it would be perceived to be far more rigorous. However, because the gross error clause only allows cases in the wrong category to be referred, we were unable to bring Sharlotte’s killer to the real justice that he deserves.

It was a huge disappointment to hear that, especially considering that the Solicitor General and I both voted for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which takes a more robust approach to causing death by dangerous driving—indeed, it extends the maximum sentence way above 14 years. In my view, this sentence undermines the Act’s more rigorous stance on causing death by dangerous driving. Although I accept that that cannot be retrospectively applied to Mr Owen, it does not deter those who might think it sensible to get in their car under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.

The experience also raises obvious questions about the application of the new law by judges. If Judge Glenn arrived at this insulting sentence within the current parameters, I am not at all confident that a similar sentence would not be issued even under the changes that we have made in this House. I was hugely grateful to the Lord Chancellor for agreeing at Justice questions yesterday to meet Claire and me to discuss sentencing guidelines and try to ensure no other family feels let down by the justice system again.

Ultimately, it is without question that the difficulties that Claire has had in bringing the killer of her six-year-old daughter to justice are wholly unacceptable. There are significant nuances in the law that allowed Mr Owen to prolong the case significantly, yet unnecessarily. That meant that the case dragged on for too long, which has had devastating consequences for Claire and her family. More importantly, it is still my view and that of the Stoke-on-Trent community that John Owen’s sentence is shockingly lenient, considering what he did. The law clearly works in favour of the killer, not the victim—that is the message that I am hearing in the streets of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. As I said, John Owen is likely to spend only two and a half years in prison. That is simply nowhere near enough time behind bars, considering the consequences of his selfishness.

For all the nuanced, sophisticated legal arguments that the Solicitor General is forced to put forward, it is impossible to ignore the real consequences of what John Owen did on that day in June last year. After consuming far too much alcohol to drive, along with cocaine, he recklessly and selfishly decided that the law did not apply to him and got in his car. By taking that demonstrably thoughtless decision, he killed an innocent six-year-old girl. In my mind, that is one of the worst crimes imaginable.

Over the past year, Claire’s courage in the face of unimaginable adversity has been humbling. She will not stop until the man who killed her daughter is punished properly for the abhorrent crime that he committed. I will join her in that fight, on every step of the way.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I call the Solicitor General. I will have to interrupt him in about one minute to move the Adjournment again.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson The Solicitor-General 6:59, 23 November 2022

Thank you for the warning, Madam Deputy Speaker. I also thank my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis for securing this very important debate. I particularly thank him for raising the very difficult case of his constituent Sharlotte, who was tragically killed by the abhorrent driving of John Owen while she was walking on the pavement—a place where she was entitled to feel safe. I pay tribute to the family of Sharlotte, and particularly to her mother, Claire Reynolds. I agree with my hon. Friend that she has shown unwavering bravery and conviction in the fight for justice.

Driving dangerously and under the influence of drink and drugs is a most serious offence, which is resoundingly condemned by all in this House. Before I pick up on some of the specific points that my hon. Friend made, let me set out some of the general principles of the unduly lenient sentence scheme, known as the ULS scheme.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson The Solicitor-General 7:00, 23 November 2022

My role and that of the Attorney General is to act as guardians of the public interest. In exercising our functions, we act quasi-judicially in the public interest and independently of Government. I share the desire of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North to ensure that those responsible for terrible crimes are properly punished. In the vast majority of cases, sentencing judges get it right. They deal with a huge variety of cases that vary in complexity and severity, and I commend them for their work. Thousands of cases are dealt with in the Crown court each year, and a similar number of sentences are imposed. In 2021, 151 cases were referred to the Court of Appeal under the ULS scheme, and sentences were increased in 106 cases. That is a rate of 70%.[This section has been corrected on 17 May 2023, column 1MC — read correction]

The ULS scheme, as my hon. Friend mentioned, is intended to promote justice, fairness and consistency. It allows sentences that are too low to be increased, and is there to correct an error when judges get it wrong. Cases can, however, be referred to the Court of Appeal only if all three of the following conditions are satisfied. First, the offence must be within the ULS scheme. Secondly, the application must be lodged within 28 days. Thirdly, it must appear to the Attorney General or I that the sentence is not just lenient but unduly lenient. Of course, not all offences come within the scheme. It is reserved for those offences that are the most serious, such as murder, rape, robbery and causing death by dangerous driving. It has been extended over recent years.

Let me turn specifically to the offence of causing death by dangerous driving, and pick up some of the more specific points that my hon. Friend mentioned. First, he made an important point about a discount for a guilty plea. Sentencing Council guidelines rightly encourage a defendant to accept responsibility and avoid the need for a trial. If there were no reduction for a guilty plea, there would be little incentive to plead guilty, and a defendant may as well just have a trial. That would cause more anxiety to witnesses, victims and their families, and would act as a disincentive to pleading guilty. We must, however, get the balance right—hence there is a process to encourage an early guilty plea.

As my hon. Friend said, the reduction is applied on a sliding scale from one third, with the largest discounts for cases where a defendant pleads guilty at the earliest opportunity. I heard loud and clear what my hon. Friend said, and I know that his campaign on this point will continue, but there may be occasions where the first opportunity legally is not the very first appearance in court. It may occur later in proceedings.

My hon. Friend asked when a case can be referred to the Court of Appeal. It is important to note that, as he rightly said, the ULS scheme applies only to sentences that are unduly lenient, not to sentences that are simply lenient. The test is a high one. Parliament intended that the Court of Appeal will grant permission to refer a sentence only in exceptional circumstances, as he said—for example, if the judge has passed a sentence that falls outside the range of sentences that a judge could properly consider appropriate, or if there has been a gross error in law.

I must pay tribute to the invaluable work of the Sentencing Council for its development of sentencing guidelines that assist judges in deciding just and proportionate sentences. On the categorisation in those guidelines, my hon. Friend rightly said that level 1 is for the most serious offences, and encompasses driving that involves a deliberate decision to ignore, or a flagrant disregard for, the rules of the road. Level 2 is less serious and is for driving that has created a substantial risk of danger. As my hon. Friend said, for an offence committed, importantly, before 28 June this year, the starting point for a level 1 offence is eight years in custody, with a range of seven to 14 years.

As my hon. Friend has rightly mentioned, aggravating and mitigating factors must be considered. Once a provisional sentence is arrived at, the court is required to take into account factors that might make an offence more serious, and that is quite right—they are called aggravating features—but it must also consider factors that might reduce the seriousness of the offence or reflect personal mitigation. Those are mitigating factors. Different aggravating and mitigating factors will apply in every case and it is for the court to decide what weight to place on those sentences.

My hon. Friend has rightly said that sentences for the very top end of the scale are reserved for particularly egregious offences and he mentioned some of the particular factors that are aggravating. According to the guidelines, they include previous convictions for motoring offences, and more than one person being killed as a result of the event. Every death on the road is a tragedy but there is a scale, and it is right that when more than one death occurs, that should be reflected in the sentence. That is an aggravating feature, as is serious injury to one or more victims. I will mention just two more: other offences being committed at the same time, such as driving without a licence; and driving off in an attempt to avoid detection or apprehension. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words about our constructive meeting on some of these detailed points.

In terms of recent reforms, our laws must strongly signal that causing death by dangerous driving will not be tolerated. I know that, recognising a trend of inadequate sentences for causing death by dangerous driving, my hon. Friend warmly welcomed and fully supported the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. He rightly said that it increases the maximum sentence from 14 years imprisonment to life imprisonment. Of course, that is only for offences committed after 28 June, when the Act comes into force, and he is absolutely right to say that it cannot be applied retrospectively.

I know that my hon. Friend is committed to tackling drivers under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and to ensuring that all such drivers are caught and punished. The Government are too. First, we have increased the maximum penalties for causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs. Secondly, we have changed the law to increase the maximum period of imprisonment and the minimum driver disqualification period for those who commit the most serious road traffic offences, ensuring that they are kept off our roads for longer periods. I know that my hon. Friend is also aware of the Department for Transport’s call for evidence relating to drug driving, which closed in June. This combined approach of tough penalties and rigorous enforcement reinforces the social unacceptability of drink and drug driving, and reminds people of the very serious consequences.

I am seriously grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this debate. The ULS scheme is not shrouded in mystery, and nor should it be, but it is not often that we have the opportunity to debate the scheme in any detail and I am grateful to him for providing this opportunity. I am also grateful to his constituents, and I acknowledge their courage in allowing Sharlotte’s case to be highlighted. I know personally how difficult it is for family members to come to Parliament after such a tragic event, and I know the toll that even this debate will be taking, but as my hon. Friend continues his campaign, it may be at least some little comfort to know that Sharlotte’s tragic case will help to highlight the scourge of dangerous driving and has helped to make a difference through my hon. Friend’s campaign and the increase in sentencing in the 2022 Act. Sharlotte’s memory will continue to have a positive impact in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.