'''level 5, when the offence involved a collision resulting in death or serious injury and in all other cases level 4''.'.
The clause increases the maximum penalty for careless or inconsiderate driving by doubling the maximum fine from £2,500 to £5,000, but it does not differentiate between the consequences of such driving. The thinking behind the Government's move to increase the maximum penalty was to try to give some consolation to the people, or the relatives of people, involved in an accident resulting in death or serious injury. At present an accident resulting in death which is caused by careless driving carries a maximum penalty of a £2,500 fine, whereas one caused by dangerous driving carries a maximum penalty of no fewer than 14 years' imprisonment.
The Government have tried to fudge this serious issue, which I think is common to all constituencies. In the clause they merely increase the maximum fine without saying whether it would be applicable in a particular set of circumstances. I accept that my amendment would be only a halfway measure, but, if accepted, it would at least initiate a recognition by Government that the maximum penalty for causing death or serious injury by careless or inconsiderate driving should be greater than that for careless driving.
The hon. Gentleman will know that I have tabled a new clause that addresses this issue. He calls, rightly, for the clause not to be fudged. I wonder whether he agrees, however, with this statement:
''The culpability lies in the behaviour and, as the culpability is a negligent culpability, without any intention, it is . . . profoundly wrong . . . to impose a further sanction to mark public disapproval because of the consequence.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 20 January 2005; c. 450.]
I agree with that; it is the traditional approach. I do not know from whom the hon. Gentleman is quoting: it could easily have been a quote that I would have given when we discussed this matter 10 years or more ago. The traditional approach of lawyers has been that we should judge people's culpability rather than the consequences that flow from it.
I am not trying to embarrass the hon. Gentleman. It was not a quote from him, but he is right to say that that was the traditional approach. The amendment nudges us towards a different approach. Will he go on the record to say that we should mark culpability differently where criminally negligent driving causes death?
I am grateful to you, Mr. Pike, for pointing that out. I am sure that when the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) makes his contribution he will address his remarks specifically to the amendment. One of the things that concerns me and, I am sure, other members of the Committee, is that this amendment emanates from the results of a report on road traffic penalties initiated by the Government in December 2000. That report left the concerns to which I have just been referring unresolved.
The Government then commissioned the Halliday report. Presumably we get the chance only once every 10 years, on average, to debate the amendments to the level of road traffic penalties. It is a cause of great frustration that the Halliday report, which is out of the control of the Home Office, does not seem to have produced anything in time for us to be able to amend this Bill accordingly. That is a serious issue.
Amendment No. 52 gives the Minister the chance to state for the record that the purpose of raising the maximum penalty for careless and inconsiderate driving is to cover the situation where that type of driving results in death or serious injury. We would then have two differential maximum penalties, depending on the consequences. Without anticipating the debate on new clause 4, I think that that might be a tentative step forward and I therefore commend it to the Committee.
The report in today's Daily Express of the enormous increase in the number of people killed as a result of police driving is a cause of great concern. One of the suspicions that might be raised is that the Home Office, the Department responsible for the police, does not want to get into a situation where police drivers who are not engaged in an emergency call—about three quarters of the incidents resulting in deaths were not related to emergency calls—but are involved in accidents resulting in death or serious injury find themselves in jeopardy of a substantial penalty. We will come on to the detail of whether that might include prison when we debate new clause 4. There does seem to be an issue here.
The other point I would like to make is that whatever we decide in this Committee about maximum penalties seems to have little influence on what actually happens in the courts. I think it was the Road Traffic Act 1991 that doubled the penalty for driving without insurance, but we can see that there has been hardly any response to that measure in the courts. Similarly, despite the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving having risen from 10 to 14 years' imprisonment, a constituent wrote to me last week to say that she had been given an indication by the police that in a case in which her son was killed, and where the person has pleaded guilty to causing death by dangerous driving, no custodial sentence may be imposed. I do not want to get involved in the details of that case here, but the police are taking the view that a custodial sentence may not necessarily follow from a case of causing death by dangerous driving, notwithstanding that the decision of this House that the maximum penalty should be no less than 14 years' imprisonment. That is an example of the disconnection between what we decide as Parliament and what is implemented on the ground by the courts.
Having said all that, differentiating between careless driving that results in an accident involving minor injury or no injury and that which results in death or serious injury is worth doing, and my amendment would achieve that objective.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's speech because he is nudging in the right direction, albeit tentatively. It seems clear to me that we have to mark the loss of a life caused by careless and negligent driving more seriously than we treat a mere dent or scratch. That must be right, not just because of the emotional outrage caused when a constituent or family member dies, but to mark a real policy decision.
When we drive, we drive something that weighs between 3 and 3.5 tonnes; we can drive it at speeds of up to 70, 80, 90 or 100 mph, and it can kill people. Cars kill 3,500 people every year. In the wrong hands, a car can be a weapon—a lethal weapon. When we take a vehicle on the road, we must keep in mind the responsibility to drive carefully, lest fatal consequences flow from our negligence. It is right that the hon. Gentleman moves in that direction, and in doing so, he is agreeing with the comment of the Secretary of State on Second Reading, when he said in response to my intervention that
''killing someone with a car, where someone is culpable, needs to be dealt with. It needs to be treated by the courts with the utmost seriousness and, where necessary, exemplary sentences ought to be imposed. We should be very clear about the fact that someone who drives dangerously or carelessly and causes the death of someone who would otherwise be alive is just as guilty as if they took a weapon to them, resulting in their death.''—[Official Report, 11 January 2005; Vol. 429 , c. 214.]
At least on the principle, we are ad idem.
I shall not trespass on to new clause 4, but where do we mark the distinction between causing death by careless driving and causing death by dangerous driving? That is where I depart from the hon. Gentleman because his amendment would have the following consequence: in the continuum of culpable driving, from careless through very careless and extremely careless to dangerous, there would be a threshold between dangerous driving and very careless driving resulting in death. Where the threshold is crossed, the maximum potential penalty would be 14 years in prison, and where it is not, it would be a fine of £5,000. I have to say that that is a huge, gaping chasm, and such a gap should not exist in our law.
The hon. Gentleman is making a fair case. He referred to the chasm being too wide, but I want to put to him circumstances in which the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) would be appropriate. If two drivers are equally careless, and one is killed and the other is not, would it not be grossly unfair to send the survivor to prison for 10 years?
I would not be sending anyone to prison. I propose that there should be a proper trial to determine the degree of culpability and impose a sentence that marks both the degree of culpability and the fact that death was a consequence.
At the moment, many people make a plea of careless driving, and because there is no offence of causing death by careless driving, they cannot be charged for that. The maximum penalty is a £2,500 fine and there is no determination of the facts that led to the accident because it is not necessary to determine a sentence. If a prison sentence were a possibility, there would have to be an appraisal of the facts, and survivors or loved ones would walk away from court knowing what led to the loss of life, which could be marked by the sentence. I leave it to those deciding the sentence to determine the appropriate length of imprisonment.
I ask Conservative Members, in their nudging towards a new recognition of cases in which loss of life occurs, if they disagree with the traditional approach that results in this sentiment:
''The culpability lies in the behaviour and, as the culpability is a negligent culpability, without any intention, it is wrong—in my view profoundly wrong—to impose a further sanction to mark public disapproval because of the consequence.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 20 January 2005, c. 450]
In light of their amendment, I tentatively suggest that they cannot agree with that sentiment, but they have not gone on the record to say so. It would be good if they did.
I oppose the amendment, but I would like to congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch on raising two very important issues, which have both been touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough. The first is the huge gap between the consequences when a death leads to a charge of causing death by dangerous driving and when it just leads to a charge of careless driving. One charge results in a maximum of 14 years in prison; the other does not result in imprisonment and entails a maximum fine of £2,500, or £5,000 in future if the provision is agreed to.
The second important issue involves somebody in front of the courts who is charged with careless driving, the consequence of which was that somebody died, but because the court focuses on the carelessness, nothing to do with the death is relevant to the evidence before the court. That is probably the greatest single source of anger and frustration among the bereaved relatives of people who are killed. The issue of whether the maximum fine would be £2,500 or £5,000 is probably a lesser concern for bereaved families than the court hearing what the consequences were and marking its disapproval by the penalty that it imposes.
On the issue of the big gap between the consequences, I favour not only my hon. Friend's suggestion of a new offence of causing death by negligent driving, but a total review of all the circumstances in which death is caused on our roads. All the possible offences with which people can be charged—manslaughter, causing death by dangerous driving, a new offence of causing death by negligent driving and so on—would be brought together and the court would be given a set of sentence options that fitted. That review should include the ability to impose interim penalties, from the moment of arrest and charge, to stop people driving until they face their court sentence. I would like to see all of that done.
The hon. Member for Christchurch was quite right to criticise the Government for the great delay in hearing the result of the Halliday report. The knowledge and information that that report will give us will enable us to frame those charges and debate that network of offences for the future. I regret that we cannot go much further on that today.
Incidentally, it seems that the amendment would overturn, by a side wind, all the legal practice and the law that underpins it in the courts, where the magistrates refuse to consider any evidence about the death when the charge is careless driving. If the amendment were accepted, they would have to know whether there was a death to decide whether the higher or the lower sentence applied. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues agree with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, although they have not explicitly said so.
I want to ask a couple of questions about the new sentencing that would be available. Perhaps I can preface my other questions by asking the Minister whether there has been any consultation by the Department about making the change. The provision seemed to come slightly out of the blue, but perhaps it is underpinned by consultation, or by research that the Department or the Home Office has undertaken about the effectiveness of a careless driving charge. I would be grateful if the Minister took a few minutes to respond to those points.
The other two points that I want to ask about reflect what the hon. Member for Christchurch said when moving the amendment. First, there is currently a maximum fine of £2,500, but the fines that are imposed in the courts are usually much lower than that. Will the Minister tell us the level of penalty usually imposed for careless driving? Does the level often reach the maximum of £2,500? That would inform our debate about whether there is a need to increase the maximum sentence.
The second issue, which comes about as a result of another recent announcement by the Government, is whether we are going to go back to an approach of unit fines, where people who are wealthy pay larger fines than people who are not. That might be in the Management of Offenders and Sentencing Bill. It certainly made the new headlines. In that case, would a maximum of £5,000 be right? The example that I heard on the news—one of many—said that whereas somebody with average earnings might face a £5,000 fine, somebody who was wealthy might be fined £15,000. Clearly, the reporter was not talking about careless driving because the maximum for everybody is £5,000. I would be interested to know whether there is a meshing of this proposal and the new suggestion about unit fines.
We all have sympathy for those who have been injured and in cases where death occurs we have sympathy with the family of those who have lost their lives. Of course, nothing the courts can do can compensate a family for the loss of a loved one.
The hon. Member for Wellingborough asked for our view on the culpability test. I think that the test is right, and I do not wish to see it removed. If I understood him correctly, he was suggesting that because my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has moved an amendment that would give the courts greater scope in sentencing, he was nudging away from the culpability test. I do not see it as a nudge; I see it as an attempt to widen the scope of the powers available to the courts by raising the level of fine that they can impose in certain circumstances. We all know from experience that cases of careless driving can range massively, from a small degree of inconsiderate driving or lack of care right up to a case that is borderline between careless and dangerous. It is quite right that my hon. Friend seeks to give the courts greater scope when deciding on an appropriate sentence.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give a clear answer to the points that I put to his hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch? The amendment would not make provision for a higher sentence where there is very careless driving; it would make the sentence potentially greater where careless driving causes death. Do the Opposition believe that one should mark more seriously the fact that a death has been caused by culpable driving than where it does not arise from culpable driving?
My hon. Friend must answer for himself, and I am sure that he will when he comes to wind up the debate, but unless I have misread the amendment, I do not think that it would impose a greater sentence where death is involved. The amendment would give the courts greater scope and allow them, where they deem it appropriate, to impose a greater fine where death has been caused. It does not necessarily follow that in every case where there is a death, the greater fine would be imposed; the courts would merely have the power to do that, if in the circumstances they thought it appropriate.
Let us have some intellectual honesty and clarity. Under the amendment the higher potential sentence would be available only where culpable driving, whether it be very culpable or just careless, causes death or serious injury. Does that mean that the Opposition believe that one should mark the seriousness of an offence more gravely where death or serious injury occurs?
My hon. Friend will answer that point, because he tabled the amendment. I am rising to support the amendment, but the basis of my support is not the basis of the premise of the question, if that answers the hon. Gentleman's question. I believe that in every case the courts should look at culpability whether or not death has occurred. An example of where the courts should be more severe is when someone is charged with careless driving, and there is evidence that at the time of the accident he was seeking to light a cigarette. That is a case that one should view more seriously than a case where without apparent reason a driver wandered near to the centre of the road. In supporting my hon. Friend, I see the amendment as a provision that would give the courts greater scope.
Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough about the emphasis on death? I suspect that every member of the Committee has had constituents killed in appalling circumstances. I remember a case of a woman and her two children who were knocked down and killed on a zebra crossing, and the driver concerned got a small fine and two-year ban. We are discussing precisely that sort of case today. Does not the right hon. Gentleman understand that when death is caused, something more severe is required? He is just not addressing the point about fatality.
We will have an interesting debate when we get to new clause 4. I am aware of your earlier ruling, Mr. Pike, that we should not treat this as a debate on that clause. I accept that there is a wide body of opinion outside the House that feels that, if someone has been killed on the roads, and the driver involved was, at least, careless, he or she should be dealt with very severely. Speaking personally, and not for my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, I am not yet convinced that in such cases we should throw the culpability rule out of the window.
The right hon. Gentleman is gracious in giving way. He is expressing real concern about marking the offence of careless driving more gravely when death arises, but he is not yet persuaded of the case for a more severe sentence in that situation. Does he agree with the traditional approach, which I quoted earlier, that it would be profoundly wrong to mark that offence more seriously when death is caused?
That is my view as I address the Committee, but I am willing to listen with an open mind when we get to the debate on new clause 4. The Committee may be able to place on the table arguments that have some merit. However, at this moment, I have not heard anything that leads me to say that we should abandon the culpability rule.
Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider his remark that, in the situation he referred to, the driver who died got away ''scot-free''? Is he not in danger of misunderstanding the situation and entering the Monty Python territory of dead parrots? The idea that somebody killed in an accident has got off scot-free is one that, I am sure, he will want to reconsider and withdraw on mature consideration, before he makes a complete fool of himself.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reconsider and withdraw his remarks. I said that there was a death in the other vehicle—either the driver or a passenger was killed. It could be that a passenger was killed, and the driver of that car, still alive and possibly uninjured, was not prosecuted, so the full weight of the law was brought against the driver of the vehicle in which no fatality took place. That was my point. If I did not make it clear enough, some of the blame lies with me. I was certainly not making the comment, which would indeed be ridiculous, that if someone is killed they get off scot-free. That was not my point. I was saying that, where two vehicles are in a collision, an occupant of one vehicle is killed, and it is the driver of the other vehicle who is prosecuted, the driver of the vehicle in which a passenger died may have been equally guilty. That is not a situation that I feel we should encourage, because culpability matters.
Although we tend to find that, understandably, it is where families have lost a loved one that our involvement and help is sought, there is a cost to the other family as well. A driver may, because of a moment's inattention, have on his shoulders for the rest of his life the burden of having killed someone. Are we saying that that person should receive a huge prison sentence in every case, no matter how minimal the degree of inattention? Currently, I do not take that view.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are talking about someone who causes death by very careless driving, not simply by mere inattention. They may be driving at considerable speed in something that weighs 3.5 tonnes, and they may know that doing so could kill. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that it would be appropriate to fine someone who carelessly discharged a gun and killed someone else?
I sure that you would shoot me down if I did, Mr. Pike. I am not convinced by the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the culpability test should go out of the window. We should give the courts the range of powers that they need to deal with all such cases on the basis of the evidence placed before them.
I do not take that view at all. New clause 4 is some way down the line, and we will be able to a full debate on it. In his amendment, however, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is saying that
''when the offence involved a collision resulting in death or serious injury'', the court should have wider scope to decide what sentence is appropriate. I find nothing offensive in that. He is not saying that there should be a mandatory sentence, so the chasm has not been crossed, and the amendment has not destroyed the culpability test.
The hon. Member for Wellingborough said that the amendment was a step in the right direction, but that it did not go far enough. He and I may disagree about the culpability test, but I hope that he will support the amendment if my hon. Friend seeks to test the mood of the Committee in a vote.
This has been a short but useful debate, which has reflected the considerable concern both inside and outside the House about finding appropriate punishments for crimes on the road, particularly those that cause death and serious injury.
Under section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, the offence of careless and inconsiderate driving spans a wide range of culpability, as we have discussed. One difficulty in dealing with the issue is that a wide range of activities involving a motor vehicle can cause death. Unfortunately, the consequences of a very minor error can be far greater for a driver than for someone going about the rest of their ordinary, everyday life. Usually, a moment's inattention or carelessness does not result in a death, but, unfortunately, even the slightest inattention when one is in a motor vehicle can sometimes have consequences way beyond any ambition of the driver.
On the one hand, we could have someone whose attention was caught by something else for a moment. Generally, they might be a very safe and careful driver and they might conduct themselves considerately towards others in the rest of their lives. However, they could find themselves doing something with consequences that are totally disproportionate to what they expected. On the other hand, we have a minority who drive furiously and recklessly, totally disregarding other people's safety. What amazes me is that when these people have crashes, there is sometimes little injury and damage. As we know, however, it is those very people who, by their wilful neglect and lack of care towards others, cause death and serious injury on many occasions.
It is also well known that there have been cases of fatal accidents where an initial charge of death by dangerous driving under section 1 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 eventually resulted in a conviction for careless driving. The Department explored that issue in our research report No. 26, ''Dangerous driving and the law'', which my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) asked about. The report has given rise to the Home Office's review of bad driving offences. We shall explore the issue later, but it might be helpful to mention that review briefly now, because it relates to this debate.
The Home Office has led a comprehensive review of road traffic offences involving all types of bad driving, in association with my Department, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Crown Prosecution Service. The hon. Member for Christchurch made the important point that Parliament passes laws, but sometimes the outcome in the courts is not what we expect. However, the general trend is for magistrates and judges to impose greater penalties where fines are increased. The scope of the Home Office review is comprehensive and embraces the entire framework of criminal law concerning bad driving, particularly where death and injury occur, to ensure that a sensible and appropriate framework of offences and penalties is put in place.
The review has considered a number of proposals to address the tragic consequences of driving that is not dangerous but nevertheless falls below the standard required of the competent motorist, including a new offence of causing death by careless driving. The review's findings will be published in a consultation paper that will set out our full proposals for reform in the relevant law. The Government are treating publication as a top priority, although in the end that will be a matter for the Home Office.
Yes. One of the other inadequacies of the amendment is that it refers to ''serious injury''. However, there is no definition in law of ''serious injury'', so there could be wrangles about whether an injury was serious or not. I am not sure that trying to decide in a court whether a broken leg or serious bruising was a serious or minor injury would be entirely helpful. It is important that the effect of what someone has done should be taken into consideration, but the degree of bad driving should determine the punishment.
We said in our original road safety strategy of 2000 that there was more to be done about careless driving and we reaffirmed that in the review of penalties in 2002. I understand the argument that the hon. Member for Christchurch advanced, which is that a distinction might be made between careless driving that causes injury and that which does not. However, some people are properly suggesting that courts should be given scope to impose a more severe sentence even than a level 5 sentence for the worst cases of causing injury by careless driving. That will be looked at after the more careful and wider consideration in the Home Office's review.
The hon. Gentleman talked about blue light vehicles causing injuries. Occasionally, police vehicles engaged in emergency responses are involved in crashes, which underlines why we must be careful about extending the groups who could exceed the speed limit in certain circumstances, as we debated the other day. For example, the figures for police vehicles engaged in emergency responses in 2001-02 show that there were 24 deaths, 168 serious injuries, and about 1,700 minor injuries. Generally, the trend seems to be that serious injuries are decreasing. Nevertheless, it concerns us that those in the emergency services, acting to protect us, sometimes find themselves involved in those casualties. However, regarding the hon. Gentleman's point about the Sunday Express, that does not in any way undermine our thinking.
I think I have covered the matter of disconnection from the courts. In conclusion, we have here a small opportunity to see the fine penalty raised for those involved in careless driving, but the major review taking place outside the remit of the Bill will be far more important. That has been given careful consideration, and will be the subject of careful consultation.
I cannot give a precise answer. That is in the gift of the Home Office. The hon. Gentleman can ask the Home Office about it. Some urgency is being given to the review, mainly because of the concern that has been expressed at the various stages of the Bill. There were some powerful remarks on Second Reading by many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and the Home Office has taken due note of those.
This has been a useful debate, and a curtain-raiser for the one we will have later on new clause 4. With regard to culpability, we must remember that the culpability test is already put on one side when dealing with offences of causing death by dangerous driving, for which the maximum penalty is greater than that for dangerous driving alone. Similarly, the maximum penalty for causing death while driving carelessly with drink is greater than the maximum penalty for driving carelessly with drink without causing death. The culpability test has already been eroded in those circumstances, as it has been in cases of assault where the assault results in the death of someone who has an eggshell skull.
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I ask him once more to state clearly whether he believes that it is right or wrong for there to be a more serious offence, marked by a more serious potential sentence, when careless driving causes death, than where it does not.
Obviously, there is no such offence at the moment. We will discuss that later. With my amendment, I was seeking to put into words what I thought was always the Government's intention—that is, to raise the maximum penalty for careless driving by doubling the maximum fine to cover the situation where that driving results in death or serious injury. The Minister says that that is not his intention and that this measure is not meant to be a proxy for some other consideration of the whole area.
I give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity again to say whether he believes that it is profoundly right or profoundly wrong—the words of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) in the House last week—that we should mark more seriously the offence of careless driving where it causes death.
If the hon. Gentleman is seeking to put clear blue water between me and my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, he will certainly not succeed. My hon. Friend is a highly respected member of the Bar and what he says on a range of criminal justice issues is listened to with great care. He is not suggesting that we should erode the distinction between causing death by dangerous driving and the maximum penalty for dangerous driving. I have not discussed with him whether there should be a similar distinction between the maximum penalty for causing death by careless driving and that for straightforward careless driving. I will draw his attention to the debate we are having, which is certainly useful.
The hon. Gentleman has accepted, by inference, that there is already scope within the law for having different maximum penalties which relate to the consequences of unlawful behaviour. In principle, if we go down the road of careless driving resulting in death—the issue of causation might be buried there—it would not be wholly without precedent.
The Minister commented on the casualties as a result of blue lights. It was not the Sunday Express but today's Daily Express which says that the annual death toll for civilians involved in crashes with police cars has risen from the figure the Minister gave for 2001-02—he said it was 24, while the Daily Express says 23—and that last year that figure rose to 30. Also, the number of people injured almost doubled, from 615 in 2003 to 1,181.
Clearly, there is a major and worsening problem there. That is the concern being expressed and there is a desire to ensure that the Home Office's attitude to this area of law is not unduly influenced by the police's seeming involvement in an increasing number of fatal collisions—and not always in responding to 999 calls. In the last year, the number of police car accidents was 20,221, but those involving 999 calls was only 5,940. Therefore, three quarters of police accidents did not involve 999 calls. Clearly, as the Minister has accepted, the standard of police driving is not as universally good as some people, certainly myself, would wish.
We have opened up a good debate and in the light of what has been said I will not press my amendment to a vote now. We will reserve our judgment on whether to come back on Report after listening to the new clause 4 debate. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.