Amendment 158

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (6th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 8th November 2021.

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Baroness Randerson:

Moved by Baroness Randerson

158: After Clause 76, insert the following new Clause—“Definition of “exceptional hardship”In the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, after subsection 35(4), insert—“(4A) In subsection (4)(b) above, the hardship that would be caused by an offender’s disqualification should be regarded as exceptional if and only if it is significantly greater than the hardship that would arise for a large majority of other drivers if the same disqualification were imposed on them.(4B) In assessing whether the hardship arising from the offender’s disqualification would be exceptional, a court may take account of—(a) any circumstances relating to the offender’s economic circumstances or location of residence that would make it exceptionally hard for him to access key services such as grocery shops and postal, banking and healthcare facilities,(b) any hardship that would be incurred by the offender’s family or others who are disabled and who depend on the offender to provide care for them, and(c) any other circumstance which it believes would make the hardship genuinely exceptional.””Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause provides a definition of “exceptional hardship” for the purpose of RTOA.

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, at various points in the Bill, the Government are seeking to increase penalties and create new offences, but it is fairly pointless increasing penalties on paper if you regularly allow people to avoid them through what has effectively become a legalised loophole. People avoid a driving ban under the totting-up procedure by pleading exceptional hardship. The problem is that this excuse is being used far from exceptionally. I recall, when in court as magistrates, that we would expect such a plea from some solicitors as a matter of routine for all their clients. The reality is that the definition of exceptional is very broad and applied unevenly.

To give an example, in 2015 Christopher Gard killed cyclist Lee Martin. It was the ninth time he had been caught using his mobile phone while driving. Magistrates had repeatedly accepted that a ban would cause exceptional hardship. There is a case on record of a man being allowed to continue to drive because of the “exceptional hardship” it would cause him if he could not walk his dog—he had to drive a mile to the local park to do that.

This amendment provides a definition of “exceptional hardship”. It is exceptional

“only if it is significantly greater than the hardship that would arise … if the same disqualification were imposed” on the great majority of drivers. To assist, it gives examples of what the court can take into account.

For example, where you live: if you live 10 miles from the nearest shops and healthcare facilities, halfway up a mountain with no bus service nearby, the ability to drive is clearly very important to you—although, of course, if you live with other family members, you would not be likely to face exceptional hardship because they could probably drive you there instead. If you have to drive as part of your job and will presumably lose your job if you cannot drive, then that would be exceptional hardship; although one wonders whether any employer would want such a bad driver. At the moment, with the shortage of drivers, they might put up with it but in normal circumstances, not so. Clearly, if you are disabled, or a carer on whom a disabled person relies for being taken to the shops, to healthcare and so on, then you would experience exceptional hardship if you could no longer drive. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and I are not being hard-hearted; we are, instead, seeking to ensure that the “exceptional hardship” proviso is used as it was intended to be used.

Finally, to give this some context, in 2020 in England, 33,196 drivers were disqualified under the totting-up procedure and 8,764 people are currently driving around with more than 12 points on their licence. Noble Lords will immediately see from those figures that the “exceptional hardship” plea is being accepted in such a high proportion of cases that it cannot be regarded as exceptional. I urge the Government to give consideration to the need to tighten up that definition.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour

My Lords, I support this amendment and I shall add just a few words to the noble Baroness’s excellent introduction. I have a friend in Cornwall who is quite famous and about a year ago he was caught driving at about 80 mph in a 50-mph zone. He already had 12 points on his licence, so he pleaded exceptional hardship because he had to visit his ailing mother every day. He was allowed to keep his licence. Two months later, exactly the same thing happened and he made the same plea. As noble Lords will know, you cannot make the same plea twice for the same offence and the magistrates took away his licence, which made him very angry. But he should not have been angry, because there is an easy solution to this: do not do it in the first place.

The noble Baroness gave many examples of exceptional hardship. I could give a lot more, but I am not going to at this time of night. However, there is a solution to this, which is, do not do it in the first place. Stick to the speed limit, do not go through red traffic lights or whatever else people might think about.

This is not a question of hardship. It is a question of not doing it in the first place so that you are not taken to court and maybe convicted. The definition that the noble Baroness has put in this amendment is a very good one. If the Minister does not like it, perhaps he can come back with an alternative before we get to Report, but we need to find a solution to the 83,000 drivers who have escaped driving bans in the past 10 years because, unless they learn to behave, driving is going to get more dangerous. I hope that the Minister will agree at least to look at the text and come back with something else before Report.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees 9:30 pm, 8th November 2021

My Lords, I support the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson.

In doing a little bit of research for this, I went on to the internet and put in “road traffic offences exceptional hardship”. I think I referred in an earlier intervention earlier to the huge legal business that exists to assist drivers who wish to contest some of the allegations against them for their driving. If you put that phrase into a search engine, first of all, you find a huge number of law firms giving you chapter and verse on the ways in which one can plead exceptional hardship. Pressing where it says “videos” gives a whole series of videos where very convincing lawyers, looking very smooth, tell you with a great degree of confidence—probably on the basis of some financially lucrative experience—just how it is possible to contest a ban and plead exceptional hardship. The very fact that it is so easy to find and is clearly a large and lucrative business tells us immediately that something is clearly wrong. The law is, to some extent, making an ass of itself. For those who are able to benefit from it, it is a very profitable endeavour.

Having a licence is not a right; it is a privilege. If people misuse and abuse that privilege, it is completely right that it should be removed. An awful lot of those people who do regard it genuinely as a right, and are deeply affronted at the idea that they should be stopped, are precisely the people against whom a ban is the most effective. In many cases, their driving and their ability to be seen by others driving, often rather flagrantly, is part of their persona and part of their identity. In a sense, removing their ability to drive is a form of emasculation. Despite being male, I am all in favour of emasculation when it comes to an egregious offence like that.

Again, we are looking at huge inconsistency. I will use only one example; it is such an egregious example that I hope your Lordships will forgive me. There is a gentleman called Alex McFarlane who, in only three months—between June and August 2014, so in one year—triggered safety cameras seven times and did not respond to a single penalty notice. In that three months, he managed to rack up a total of 42 points on his driving licence. When he came in front of the magistrates in Southend, what did he say? He said, “If banned, I will lose my job and my home, and I will be unable to pay off my debts”. The second point he made was the clincher. “Since the incident”, he claimed, “I have been treated for a nervous breakdown, which led to a spending spree and me incurring very heavy debts”. The magistrates accepted his plea. I rest my case.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, I rise to support the noble Baroness. My only complaint is that I do not think it is aggressive enough. I have driven for several decades. I have driven for hundreds of thousands of miles. Touch wood, I have never been prosecuted for a moving traffic offence. The penalty points system is a good system. If I picked up three points for speeding, or for some minor offence, I would be extremely careful not to reoffend. So I do not understand why, if people get a few points, they cannot take the lesson and be compliant. I strongly support the noble Baroness’s amendment.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and actually agree with him for a change. The wording is not strong enough, so well done to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for putting this amendment forward.

As the noble Baroness said, at the moment, “exceptional hardship” is anything but exceptional. I cite the case of a person who was exempted from a ban because he said that he had to walk his dog and drive to the nearest park, which was a mile away. I find that absolutely extraordinary; it leads me to think that magistrates ought to get a bit more tuition.

Essentially, points on a licence and the threat of losing that licence are an important part of ensuring that people drive safely and take care of other road users. Around 8,800 people are still driving despite having 12 or more points on their licence, and there is a whole industry of solicitors advising drivers on how to work the system in this way. It is very frustrating for the traffic police who care about enforcing the law and find themselves working hard to bring people to justice and get them convicted, only to see those people allowed to drive home after the case.

There are times when hardship may be truly exceptional, for example if an offender is the sole carer of a person with a disability who would suffer if the offender were unable to drive. Even then, it is a failure of the state if the only way a person with a disability can survive is by getting lifts from a person who is such a dangerous driver that they should not be allowed on the road.

Amendment 158 would ensure that “exceptional hardship” is a true exception rather than just a plea of convenience. Our current road traffic laws, as I started to say earlier, are based far too much on the convenience of drivers rather than justice and safety for other road users. This amendment would ensure that the very worst drivers on the roads do not have a convenient excuse to keep driving.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

This issue was also raised by my colleague, Ben Bradshaw MP, in the Commons. As has been said, exceptional hardship is the plea a person can use when charged with road traffic offences to avoid losing their licence if not being able to drive would cause them exceptional hardship. Obviously, as we have heard, the concerns about the system are that exceptional hardship is being agreed to too frequently for repeat offenders and in spurious cases.

What has quite clearly been asked of the Government —that is, what is being sought—is a tightening-up of the definition of exceptional hardship. I ask the Government to say in their response, first, whether, in their view, there is an issue with exceptional hardship being agreed to rather too frequently. Do the figures show that the number of times exceptional hardship is being agreed to is going up year by year? As I understand it, between 2011 and 2020, there were more than 83,500 cases where drivers did not receive a driving ban by pleading exceptional hardship. Do the Government have a feel for whether it is the case that instances of exceptional hardship being agreed to are increasing? Are they aware of any areas, perhaps in relation to courts, where there is what they regard as best practice, where the system is working well?

I remember once being told that “exceptional hardship” was something that people suffered, for example, at times of war. When it comes to the loss of a licence, perhaps we are talking more about a form of inconvenience than necessarily about hardship. Even in the more extreme case where somebody was able to persuade you that they would lose their job, presumably it is relevant to ask, “Well, that may be the case, but if it is for a short period of time, will the employer be prepared to live with it and give out other duties that do not involve driving?” Perhaps, if they are going to lose their job, it would suggest that the employer is not necessarily highly enamoured of their performance. But, even in a case where you might lose your job, it must surely be assessed against “exceptional hardship”: what would the individual’s prospects be at that time of getting another, completely different job that did not involve driving, if a ban would cause them to lose their job that involved driving?

I know that there are other instances where people come out with examples of it being almost impossible to get to work but where it turns out that, if they were prepared to get up an hour and a half earlier in the morning, they might be able to get there by public transport—but somehow it is regarded as an “exceptional hardship” to have to get up so much earlier to get there by public transport and it taking longer to get home. So I am aware of the way these arguments get used and put forward, and we need to be careful to draw a clear distinction between what is “exceptional hardship”, with a proper definition of “hardship”, and what may be closer to “exceptional inconvenience”.

I simply repeat what I asked earlier: do the Government have a feel for this one? Do they have any information on the extent to which “exceptional hardship” is being used and accepted more as an argument? Do they have any examples of where the wording is being applied in perhaps a more realistic manner, and are they looking to take action in this area? What is being asked for in this amendment is that we should tighten up the definition of what constitutes exceptional hardship. I await the Government’s response with interest.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords, and particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for her explanation of this amendment, which seeks to define the term “exceptional hardship” that applies in the context of a court’s decision on whether to impose a driving ban.

I reassure the Committee that the Government take road safety extremely seriously. Drivers who reach 12 points should automatically be disqualified from driving, to protect themselves and others. However, sentencing, including the imposition and length of a driving disqualification, is properly a matter for our independent courts, based on the facts of each case—we have heard of a number of interesting and diverse cases this evening. Courts have the discretion not to disqualify, or to impose a reduced disqualification, if they are satisfied that there are mitigating circumstances justifying a claim of “exceptional hardship”.

This amendment to introduce a definition of “exceptional hardship” is unnecessary, detrimental to judicial discretion and of questionable utility in assisting a court in applying the “exceptional hardship” test. It would introduce a narrow definition that would not be able to account for all circumstances that were presented to the courts and would remove the courts’ freedom to use their experience to reach decisions accordingly.

It might assist the Committee if I read out the sentencing guidance that is already in practice—from my mobile phone. It says:

“When considering whether there are grounds to reduce or avoid a totting up disqualification the court should have regard to the following … It is for the offender to prove to the civil standard of proof that such grounds exist. Other than very exceptionally, this will require evidence from the offender, and where such evidence is given, it must be sworn … Where it is asserted that hardship would be caused, the court must be satisfied that it is not merely inconvenience, or hardship, but exceptional hardship for which the court must have evidence … Almost every disqualification entails hardship for the person disqualified and their immediate family. This is part of the deterrent objective of the provisions combined with the preventative effect of the order not to drive … If a motorist continues to offend after becoming aware of the risk to their licence of further penalty points, the court can take this circumstance into account … Courts should be cautious before accepting assertions of exceptional hardship without evidence that alternatives (including alternative means of transport) for avoiding exceptional hardship are not viable.”

It concludes by saying:

“Loss of employment will be an inevitable consequence of a driving ban for many people. Evidence that loss of employment would follow from disqualification is not in itself sufficient to demonstrate exceptional hardship; whether or not it does will depend on the circumstances of the offender and the consequences of that loss of employment on the offender and/or others.”

I hope the Committee found that guidance helpful.

I conclude by saying that having a definition in primary legislation will not only remove the flexibility afforded to the courts but will make it difficult for any changes that might be needed to be made in the future. On that note, I hope the noble Baroness agrees that this matter is best left to judicial discretion, based on the facts of an individual case, and that on those grounds she will withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 9:45 pm, 8th November 2021

I thank the Minister for her response and also thank noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. I respond by pointing out that 12 points do not come out of nowhere; they are the result of repeated offences. In other words, drivers who acquire them have been ignoring the signs for a long while, in most cases.

I take issue with the Minister’s characterisation of this as interfering with judicial discretion. The amendment says that it would be exceptional

“only if it is significantly greater than the hardship that would arise for a large majority of other drivers if the same disqualification were imposed on them.”

That is a simple indication of what “exceptional” means. It goes on to talk about the things the court could take into account, including

“economic circumstances or location of residence” and any hardship to the family, especially to people who are disabled or for whom the offender provides care. Finally, it includes

“any other circumstance which it believes would make the hardship genuinely exceptional.”

That is about the broadest definition I can imagine.

Courts are used to having and following sentencing guidelines. The Minister indicated that to us, in some detail. I urge the Government, despite the Minister’s reaction, to look again at the sentencing guidelines to see what can be done. Of course, this is a probing amendment, but the statistics say it all: for one reason or another, the courts are not applying this in an exceptional manner, and the Government ought to look at why that is the case. I will of course withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 158 withdrawn.