Clause 2 - Graduated fixed penalties

Road Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 20th January 2005.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 10:45 am, 20th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 6, in clause 2, page 2, line 3, at end insert—

'(bb) the time of day it was committed.'.

Photo of Mr Kevin Hughes Mr Kevin Hughes Labour, Doncaster North

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 7, in clause 2, page 2, line 3, at end insert—

'(bb) the number of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users in the vicinity at the time,'.

No. 8, in clause 2, page 2, line 3, at end insert—

'(bb) the prevailing weather conditions,'.

No. 9, in clause 2, page 2, line 3, at end insert—

'(bb) the conditions of visibility,'.

No. 10, in clause 2, page 2, line 4, at end insert—

'(cc) whether the contravention resulted in a collision,'.

No. 11, in clause 2, page 2, line 7, at end insert—

'(dd) any mitigating circumstances put forward by the offender,'.

No. 16, in clause 3, page 2, line 37, at end insert—

'(bb) the time of day it was committed,'.

No. 17, in clause 3, page 2, line 37, at end insert—

'(bb) the number of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users in the vicinity at the time,'.

No. 18, in clause 3, page 2, line 37, at end insert—

'(bb) the prevailing weather conditions,'.

No. 19, in clause 3, page 2, line 37, at end insert—

'(bb) the conditions of visibility,'.

No. 20, in clause 3, page 2, line 38, at end insert—

'(cc) whether the contravention resulted in a collision,'.

No. 21, in clause 3, page 2, line 41, at end insert—

'(dd) any mitigating circumstances put forward by the offender.'.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The helpful briefing that the Minister and his officials provided to some of us yesterday explains that the clause relates particularly to the new power in clause 4 that enables vehicle examiners to give fixed penalty notices. However, the wording of the clause is not restricted, which gives us the chance to question the Government on their thinking behind the choice of criteria in paragraphs (a) to (d).

The amendments that I have tabled give some alternative and additional criteria. Amendment No. 6 would add the time of day when an offence is committed, which can often be a highly relevant factor. Amendment No. 7 would add

''the number of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users in the vicinity at the time'', which again is a highly relevant factor. Much of the correspondence that we have received from road safety campaigners in the run-up to the debate on the Bill in Committee has emphasised their concern about   vulnerable road users, and pedestrians and speeding vehicles. If we accept that concern, which I share, and that priority, the other side of the coin is that when no pedestrians or other vulnerable road users are in the vicinity at the time, the offence might be regarded as less serious.

Photo of Mr Paul Stinchcombe Mr Paul Stinchcombe Labour, Wellingborough 11:00 am, 20th January 2005

I have listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman. He makes some interesting and valid points and has just mentioned the factors that might make an offence more or less serious. He will see from subsection (2)(b) that one factor of which account must be taken is how serious the offence is. Are the issues raised by his amendment not already in the clause?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but I do not believe that the words ''how serious it is'' in paragraph (b) are sufficiently precise. Who will judge that? How will the judgment be made? What criteria will apply? I believe that something specific about, say, the number of vulnerable road users and pedestrians in the vicinity at the time would be relevant to assessing the gravity of the offence, but that is not spelt out in the clause. Why should we as Parliament not take this opportunity to spell it out?

Photo of Mr Paul Stinchcombe Mr Paul Stinchcombe Labour, Wellingborough

The difficulty about spelling things out is that what is not spelt out is then necessarily excluded, whereas putting a word such as ''serious'' into the Bill gives the decision-maker discretion to consider all the facts and any given circumstance and come to his own judgment.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I do not ask that my amendments should be at the expense of leaving ''how serious it is'' out of paragraph (b). I ask that additional factors should be taken into account. It is the essence of a mature democracy that discretion should be exercised, instead of there being absolutism. The fixed penalty regime has proved convenient for administrators and enforcers and, on occasion, for the perpetrators of offences; not least, as the Minister will know, because it normally means that they can perpetrate the offence without any risk of publicity. Before such offences were dealt with under the fixed penalty system, a Member of Parliament—dare one think of such a possibility?—who offended against a speed limit in his constituency shortly after having campaigned on road safety issues would risk publicity. If he or she were to offend against a speed limit now, there is a chance that they might be able to avoid publicity. It is rather like ticking the box on the old pools coupon; people can avoid publicity by going for a fixed penalty. I am not suggesting that a fixed penalty scheme is wholly one-sided, but it has resulted in hard cases. I would welcome more flexibility.

To take a hypothetical example, if a person taking a sick child in their car to hospital in an emergency goes too fast past a speed camera and is detected, at present there is no scope for being able to reduce the fixed penalty notice imposed. That is not something that we should tolerate in a mature democracy, where we have the ability to exercise our discretion. I give that as an   example of the sort of circumstance that might occur. The other relevant criteria are the conditions of visibility and whether the contravention resulted in a collision. It is difficult to legislate for a penalty system based on the outcome of behaviour, but there is increasing demand among the public to link penalties to the consequences of people's actions.

Mr. Stinchcombe indicated assent.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman agrees.

Amendment No. 11 refers to

''any mitigating circumstances put forward by the offender''.

That is not in the existing criteria in the Bill.

Intriguingly, paragraph (d) refers to whether

''the offender appears to have committed any offence or offences of a description specified in the order during a period so specified.''

I am not sure how that will be ascertained when the offence is committed. I would have thought that a defence of mitigating circumstances should be available.

I had some constituency correspondence recently about a gentleman who went past a speed camera in Bournemouth three or four times in an area where the speed limit had recently changed. He was caught by surprise and only on the third occasion did he realise that he had been caught on camera because the offences took place within 24 or 36 hours. The form that was sent to him stated that if he had mitigating circumstances, he could have a hearing in court. He thought that he had mitigating circumstances and went to court, but was told that it was a complete waste of time because the court had no discretion and had to impose the three points on his licence.

I then wrote to the Court Service saying that there must be something wrong with the standard form because it specifically invites offenders to go to court if they have mitigating circumstances. When they get there, they find that it meant that they could go to court if there were exacerbating circumstances for a penalty higher than the minimum, but that the court has no discretion to award a penalty lower than the minimum. He was fortunate that the court was understanding and did not penalise him further with an order for costs.

I hope that the Minister will consider that issue because, at the moment, the standard form refers to mitigating circumstances. But if someone takes that at face value and goes to court, they find that the court has no scope to exercise the discretion that it should have in a civilised society.

It will not have escaped the notice of the Committee that amendments Nos. 16 to 21 refer to the equivalent provisions in clause 3. It is obviously convenient to deal with that in one debate because, essentially, the same issues arise. As with so many amendments, they provide an opportunity for the Minister to explain exactly what he has in mind; whether the criteria in clause 2 were designed to deal with the sort of offences referred to in clauses 4 and 5, or whether they were intended to be more wide ranging, and why those examples of mitigating circumstances were chosen rather than the ones I set out in the amendments. 

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate, but on this occasion he has not entirely convinced me of the necessity of the amendments, although it seemed to me when we discussed tabling them that the Committee should debate the issue. I think that the Committee is led back to the intervention of the hon. Member for Wellingborough. If one goes through the amendments—it is fair that we ask the Minister to respond to them on the record—and considers the case of someone falling foul of the law at 6 am on a sunny morning with no vehicle, pedestrian or possible collision in sight, one could conclude that the offence was not a serious one. That is contained in the Bill.

So I am with my hon. Friend as far as saying that we want the Minister to confirm that all the circumstances in the amendments are covered by his wording. Does he agree that that is the position?

Photo of Mr Paul Stinchcombe Mr Paul Stinchcombe Labour, Wellingborough

How could the idea of mitigating circumstances possibly be subsumed in the existing clause? The clause is concerned with fixed penalties.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am confining my remarks to amendments Nos. 6 to 10. I have not come on to amendment No. 11. My points are correct for amendments Nos. 6 to 10.

The danger in seeking to include a list in a Bill is that it may not be comprehensive. Someone may find an example that is not included in the list and say that it should not be taken into account. That was another point that the hon. Member for Wellingborough made. For example, what is the status of the road? Is it a motorway, which is clearly built to cater for vehicles travelling at about 70 mph, or is it a country B road with twists and turns, for which a much lower speed would be safe? There is a problem in trying to tag a list on to the Bill, but I would be reassured if the Minister confirmed that he envisaged that all of the circumstances contained in the amendments will be covered by the Bill.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

My right hon. Friend said that one could conclude that the offence was not serious. It is certainly true that someone might conclude that it was not serious, but someone else might conclude that the circumstances that he described were serious. Many absolutists believe that any infringement of a speed limit is serious and should not be the subject of mitigation.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Based on what I have heard the hon. Member for Stafford say on previous occasions, he would take such a position. I think that anyone viewing an offence would take such matters into account, but I want the Minister to confirm that that is also his understanding.

On amendment No. 11, it is important that there is some recognition that there may be mitigating circumstances of which the police officer was not aware that should be taken into account when he is appraised of the circumstances. It is right and proper to put that in the Bill. 

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

I apologise for missing the beginning of the debate and hope that I do not cover ground that was covered in my absence. There is a prison in my constituency that regularly causes me immediate grief, which is what happened a moment ago.

I received a phone call from the local accident and emergency department 23 years ago, telling me that my 12-year-old daughter had been admitted and was seriously ill. I did what any parent would do; leapt into my car and drove the 14 miles from home to Bath as fast as I could. Sadly, I got there too late, but that is a separate issue. Reflecting on the incident, I have little doubt that I did not drive well. Although I cannot remember, I am fairly certain that I broke assorted speed limits. In the circumstances, I could have broken the law, done something very stupid and killed somebody. I would not consider that I had any justification for behaving like that, despite the fact that I was distressed.

On the other hand, had I just happened to be doing 40 mph in a 30 mph area, with nobody about, when the visibility was good, I could reasonably have argued that perhaps in the circumstances most people would have behaved like that and I did no harm to anybody.

As I understand the law—listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch—I would have had no justification for saying, ''Look, hang on a minute. For other reasons, I have got x penalty points on my licence and this one will do for me. It will get me disqualified.'' There are individual cases where mitigating circumstances ought to be considered and will do no harm to the public, and where that will not set a precedent. God forbid that anyone has to use what I could have used as a mitigating circumstance on that occasion.

Even if the Minister says that there is no need for that or that it would be better done some other way, perhaps the Hansard report of this Committee would be a sufficient indication to magistrates, the police or whoever else has to deal with this matter. Progress could be made in that direction. I would be grateful to hear what the Minister has to say. I am not saying that amendment No. 11 will automatically do the trick, but I support its spirit for the reasons that I have given. I look forward to the Minister's comments.

On the other issues, I am not a lawyer and I often puzzle over the way lawyers talk about these things. I heard the hon. Member for Wellingborough say that because the provision mentions ''how serious it is'' there is no need for the list that we want to include. I can follow that argument until I look at paragraph (c), which states:

''the area, or sort of place''.

If the lawyer's argument is that ''how serious'' covers everything, why is there then a list? If the Government feel it necessary to specify in paragraph (c), which begins the list, where an offence takes place, what is wrong with saying when it takes place? 

Photo of Mr Paul Stinchcombe Mr Paul Stinchcombe Labour, Wellingborough 11:15 am, 20th January 2005

The hon. Gentleman is making a good point. However, there is some structure to the clause. It mentions the nature of the offence, its gravity, its location and the form of the offender.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

Yes, but the time of day is one of the most relevant things. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. The location and type of offence are included. However, at the risk of opening myself to prosecution, I will admit that on motorways very late at night, in good weather, I have driven slightly in excess of 70 mph. I would argue that when the motorway is empty at 2 o'clock in the morning and I am minding my own business and breaking the speed limit, that is an entirely different offence from going down the fast lane—I appreciate that we are not supposed to call it that—in the rush hour at 85 or 90 mph. Doing 85 or 90 mph on a motorway can be more serious than doing 110 mph; I hasten to add that my car will not do 110.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

It might just; going downhill, with the wind behind it. We will not go into that. I shall dig an even bigger trench for myself before I know where I am. I assume that previous endorsements are not relevant declarable interests as far as the Committee is concerned. Or perhaps we all ought to queue up and confess to you, Mr. Hughes.

I will not speak about the other things on the list. I understand the points that have been made. However, if we are going to list where an offence takes place, perhaps we ought also to say when it takes place.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Christchurch, who tabled amendments Nos. 6 to 11. I shall ask the Committee to resist them because the conditions that they deal with are adequately covered in the clause.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough kindly did part of my job for me by pointing out that specifying factors in the Bill could exclude other factors unless the list was totally exhaustive. The danger in being too specific is that we may appear to rule out other circumstances, rather than having some clearly ruled in by those set out in paragraphs (a) to (d). Paragraph (b) deals with most of the issues that the hon. Member for Christchurch was talking about; the question of the seriousness of the offence. That covers a wide range of different activities that a person may have undertaken.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am pretty much with the Minister when he says that it is better to have broad headings that narrow definitions, but will he explain why he suggests that the Committee should reject amendments Nos. 11 and 21?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I shall come to that. The right hon. Gentleman has helped me with a little bit of a mystery that I was considering in the past couple of days; the reason why some of the amendments had attached the names of three Opposition Members, while some had only one. It is clear that the right hon. Gentleman disagrees with the hon. Member for Christchurch on some of the amendments, which is why he spoke   against them. I thought that he was doing my job for me at one stage as well; I am looking for aid and assistance from all quarters during the proceedings.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

I was interested in what the Minister said. He might like to reflect that, unless I am a bit slow on the uptake, on the only occasions when there are two signatories to our amendments, it is my name that is left out and not that of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I thought, Mr. Hughes, that I heard you mutter under your breath, ''Put the spade down'' at one stage, and the hon. Gentleman seems to be digging himself a little further into the various trenches he described during his previous contribution.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

I accept the Minister's general point that to prescribe closely creates more problems than it solves, but does he accept the general thrust of what the hon. Member for Spelthorne said about timing? For instance, an offence committed outside a school at two o'clock in the morning is very different from one committed during school hours, particularly as schoolchildren are coming out. Is he confident that that will be accepted and understood when the Bill becomes law?  

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I totally accept what my hon. Friend says, and the general thrust of what the hon. Member for Christchurch said. That is why I pointed out paragraphs (b) and (c), which deal with the seriousness of the offence, and the area or sort of place where it occurs. That would clearly suggest to me that a school at times when children are coming out or going in was more risky a place than it would at three in the morning. The generic specification in those paragraphs more than adequately covers the issues raised.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The Minister talks about how the seriousness of the offence is covered by all amendments. Does he believe that the question of seriousness includes the consequences of what happens? Those consequences may be a collision or injuries resulting from that.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Yes, that is covered because the seriousness of the event would also include any injuries, whether it was a minor scrape or whether it inflicted a number of deaths. That is what the term ''serious incident'' suggests to me.

The clause amends section 53 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, which will enable the Secretary of State to prescribe by order—

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock. The Committee consisted of the following Members: