Clause 24 - Penalty points

Road Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 1st February 2005.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

There are no amendments to the clause, but it merits a brief debate for at least three reasons. First, the courses dealt with here could become one of the Bill's more significant boosts to road safety. Secondly, the Government ought be congratulated on introducing such a measure. Thirdly, I have some questions about how the statutory provision here relates to current practice.

Drink-driving rehabilitation courses were established by law by the last Conservative Government in 1991, piloted in 1993, and made into a national scheme by Labour in 2000. They are now nationally available and well-established, with a statutory basis, national guidelines and approved course providers. The courts use them well enough; 30,000 people passed through them in 2003. They also appear to be effective, according to research and evaluation by the Transport Research Laboratory's paper TRL613, which says it is most people who go through such courses are unlikely to drink-drive again in the future.

That is what is in place already. Clause 24 proposes to extend those courses to other road offences, most significantly careless driving and speeding. In those cases, courses are already available. However, they are not on a statutory basis, hence this provision; nor are they as well established as the drink-driving rehabilitation courses in terms of national guidance, or even their national reach. It is down to the discretion of individual police forces to offer people the chance to go on, for example, a driver improvement course, instead of accepting a conviction for careless driving. The person pays for the course and undertakes the rehabilitation and education instead. In the case of speeding, some police forces exercise their discretion and offer a place on a speed awareness course, instead of going to court and collecting the fine and the points. Again, the person pays for that course.

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

My hon. Friend refers to ''discretion''. Will he say slightly more about that? Who confers the discretion on the police forces that exercise it? What basis in law, if any, does it have at present?

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

I hope that the Minister can help me about the statutory basis. I am not aware that there is any beyond the fact that the police have discretion over whether to take cases to court. At present, in cases of careless driving, police forces sometimes offer the offender the opportunity—instead of going to court and facing a fine and penalty points—to pay to go on a training course and undertake rehabilitation and education at his or her expense. Driver improvement courses are subject to some kind of national guidance by police forces and there are registered driver trainers used under contract. I do not think they are available everywhere, but most places now offer them.

I want to raise the issue of how the new statutory provisions interact with the existing courses and the basis on which people will be offered courses. Driver improvement courses can be offered to anybody who is facing a careless driving offence. It might be their first offence, or their second or third. Under the clause, it is a precondition that the person must have at least seven points already on their driving licence before the court can direct that instead of a conviction, penalty points and a fine, they should undertake one of the courses. I question the logic of that. Should it not be first offenders who are offered the opportunity of rehabilitation and education and who are able to undertake courses instead of being prosecuted, rather than those who are at a stage where their licence is at risk? With seven points they would be getting close to disqualification.

For example, take a persistent speeder. To get at least seven points on their licence under the current law, they would need to have been caught speeding three times. In that case, they would have nine points on their licence. They could not get seven, because it is three points each time. So, when that person comes into court for the fourth time, they will have at least seven points on their licence. If they are convicted for a fourth time, they will get three more points. If all the offences have occurred within three years, they will be disqualified under the totting-up procedure.

The Bill offers an opportunity to avoid the penalty prescribed by law in relation to disqualification, rather than an opportunity to educate someone who has erred. I just wonder whether, as a matter of public policy, we would prefer to offer the education at the beginning, rather than giving people the chance to buy off disqualification because they are persistent offenders. That is why I ask about interaction and about why we offer the courses under those conditions rather than the conditions I mentioned.

Driver improvement courses and speed awareness courses are being offered on a discretionary and voluntary basis to first offenders at the moment. Must that stop if we pass this law, or can the courses continue to exist side by side with the law? If we say, ''No, courses will be offered only on the statutory basis in the future,'' I am concerned that we will prevent people from undergoing education and rehabilitation at the beginning, as they can at the moment in some parts of the country. I hope that the Minister can answer my questions.

I raised those issues for obvious reasons. The significance of widespread opportunities for rehabilitation and education is that they could be an extremely valuable tool in reducing future casualties on our roads, as long as we get the model right in   relation both to the conditions in which the courts make directions and offer courses to offender, and to the content of the course.

In the RAC Foundation briefing to Members for Second Reading, there was a comment about the variable quality of the courses at present. In that respect, the Bill will make a big improvement. The other thing is public acceptability; whether those who are not offenders think that people are dodging the law by undertaking the courses or genuinely contributing to improving road safety, which benefits us all. That is why I raised these issues with the Minister, and I hope that he can explain and justify what is proposed.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) has raised a number of issues, many of which I wanted to raise myself with the Minister. This is potentially a good and useful clause, which emphasises the importance of education and training in improving road safety. As the hon. Gentleman said, it builds on the initiative introduced by the Conservative Government in the Road Traffic Act 1991 to establish drink-drive rehabilitation courses. There are some pertinent questions about why the figure of seven to 11 points has been specified in the Bill, and I await the Minister's explanation on that and other questions that have been put to him.

One other question that I want to ask the Minister is why 12 months must elapse from the date of the order before there is a reduction in the number of penalty points. It is important that the courses are undertaken as quickly as possible, because, as soon as they are completed successfully, there is a better driver on the road than there was before. Surely the reduction in penalty points on the licence should take place as soon as the course has been completed. As I understand it, it would not take place until after a year, thereby reducing the individual's incentive to undertake the course quickly instead of waiting until the end of the one-year period, as only after a year will they see a reduction in the number of penalty points on the licence.

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

I agree with the thrust of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and indeed with the spirit of what the hon. Member for Christchurch said. However, before my hon. Friend the Minister replies, will he think about answers to a couple of questions?

This is a sensible clause that I hope we shall pass, and I shall certainly support it, but is it based on empirical evidence? Do the courses work? The hon. Gentleman said that they were of variable quality. Have the Government done any study of whether those undertaking them are deterred from reoffending? The idea behind them seems excellent, but there is no point in having a system of education and training if it simply defers the moment when a habitual careless driver or speeder meets his nemesis and is disqualified. Do the courses work and have the Government carried out any surveys?

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

This has been a short but useful debate. The clause enables the courts to offer offenders convicted of certain specified offences the opportunity   to undertake a retraining course, which will give them a remission of penalty points. The clause inserts into the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 new sections 30A, B, C and D, which enable the court to offer persons convicted of the offences of careless and inconsiderate driving, failing to comply with traffic signs or speeding the opportunity to pay for and undertake a retraining course in circumstances where the driver is not to be disqualified but his licence endorsed with penalty points. Those circumstances are that at least seven and no more than 11 points are to be taken into account at the time of sentence.

I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, but we must look at the worst cases first. People caught with a couple of offences are perhaps the ones we need to tackle first. If we later think that there is some merit in looking at those on the first occasion, we may do so.

The hon. Member for Christchurch asked why we set the number at 11. We did so because it is the maximum amount of points that one can get before being disqualified. That includes the points from the most recent offence. If the person has three points, they must have had at least eight points to get to 11. They cannot get a remission of their penalty points if the offence takes them over the top; to 12, 13 or 14 points.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford 10:30 am, 1st February 2005

I am interested in my hon. Friend the Minister's decision to ''take the worst first'', and give attention to them. A four-time speeder is the worst offender and rightly should be disqualified from driving to teach them a lesson, rather than being sent on a course to avoid that disqualification. That is what I think should happen to the worst.

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

Perhaps I gave a bad example. Of course the worst get disqualified. That is absolutely correct. They cannot be given remission of their points. However, those who are moving in the wrong direction may be within redemption. That is what the clause is about; trying to redeem those who have sinned somewhat but have not proven to be serial sinners, although they may be en route to losing their licence.

On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, I will check what research has been done on the courses that are offered. I know from what he called empirical information, or what one might call anecdotal information, that people who have been on the courses are full of praise for them. They would not have been totally cynical, or they would not have agreed to do a course, but they may have gone into it with a bit of cynicism, but most people I have spoken to said that the course changed their attitude and was extremely valuable to them.

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

Once the clause is, as I hope, passed and becomes law, is it my hon. Friend's intention to issue national guidance so that there is uniformity among the courses and common high standards? As I understand from everything that has been said in the   debate by my hon. Friends and others, the courses are being developed in a piecemeal fashion, so different courses have different standards.

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

It is true that the courses have been developed on a piecemeal basis. I do not think that they have been any the worse for that, although some are indeed better than others. We have been finding our feet.

On page 29, clause 30C and 30D says that the national authority—the Secretary of State or the Secretary of State for Wales—will approve the courses and, in 30D, other provisions to ensure the quality of the courses are set out. As the courses roll out further and become more widely available to the courts, it is inevitable that there will be some standardisation throughout the country. The courses do not all need to be the same, but we need guidelines as to their quality. After all, although the offender will have penalty points taken off their licence, the courses will cost about £150 or £200. They are not a cheap option.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford asked about the police's driver improvement courses. They tend to last about a day or a day and a half, whereas we are envisaging a course that lasts 16 to 30 hours in total, on at least three separate days. That means that it will be much more intensive. It may be for offences other than speeding, perhaps something more complex, such as addressing the carelessness in someone's driving or their deficiencies.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

If the courses are going to last for 16 to 30 hours and be spread over three days, surely the cost will be much greater than £150 to £200, unless the courses will be subsidised.

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

I said that the costs are in that region at the moment. They may cost more. We must, however, ensure that we get good value for money. There is no intention to subsidise the courses. It is not the role of the taxpayer to subsidise people who break the law and then get a remission of their penalty points. It is absolutely proper that that is paid for by the offender not by the taxpayer.

The hon. Member for Christchurch mentioned that it takes ten months before the points come off the offender's licence. That is reasonable and sensible because, if a person had the points taken off their licence immediately, they might think that they could reoffend. They have to demonstrate over almost a year that they have not reoffended. If they reoffend during that period having completed their course, they may, after totting up, lose their licence. First, the person takes the course, and secondly, they receive some remission of points. The provision is a further incentive to that person, who will have almost another year in which to demonstrate that they have learned from the course. Otherwise, the points come winging their way back and could lead to a disqualification. It is right that that provision is included and the clause is valuable and useful.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

I just want to check two final points with my hon. Friend the Minister. First, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent,   Central, will he provide an assurance that, just as the Transport Research Laboratory researched and evaluated the drink-drive rehabilitation courses, there will be similar research into and evaluation of the proposed courses? Secondly, does that scheme crowd out the existing discretionary schemes, including offers to first-time offenders? If so, will my hon. Friend the Minister look more closely at my concern that first-time offenders will lose the opportunity of education at the right time; when they first offend?

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

I do not think that the scheme will crowd out those courses. The clause provides in specific circumstances for certain courses. My hon. Friend just reminded me of something rather important when he mentioned drink-driving, as the provision would not be appropriate for drink-drivers. They do not receive any remission of points; they face an immediate ban. The provision would be inappropriate for a person in those circumstances. My hon. Friend will see that some of the other drink-driving issues are covered in the clause that we are about to address.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

On getting access to those courses, as the clause is drafted one would be able to gain access to them only through the court. If, for example, a driver has three fixed penalty speeding fines, giving him nine points, how would he get his case before a court, thereby enabling him to get on one of those courses and reduce those points? Otherwise, it is all done administratively. As I understand it, the virtue of the driver improvement and speed awareness courses that the police offer is that they are done as a trade-off at the point where the police meet the offender.

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

If somebody already had nine points on their licence and they committed another offence that meant another three or more points on their licence, the provision would not be available to them. The provision covers what a court and not the police may impose.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

So if somebody has six points on their licence and they incur another fixed penalty for speeding, they should, rather than accept the fixed penalty notice, elect to go court to access the provision. Is that what the Minister is saying; that one must go to court before one is eligible for the improvement to driving that will flow from those courses?

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

As the clause is written, that is the case.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.