New Clause 4 - Causing death or serious injury by negligent driving

Road Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 3rd February 2005.

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'(1) The Road Traffic Act 1988 (c.52) is amended as follows. After section 2A (Meaning of dangerous driving) insert—

''2B Causing death or injury by negligent driving

(1) A person who causes the death of or serious injury to another person by driving a mechanically propelled vehicle negligently on a road or other public place is guilty of an offence.

(2) A person is to be regarded as suffering serious injury if he suffers injury that is life changing or life threatening or both.

2C Meaning of negligent driving

(1) A person is to be regarded as driving negligently if he drives without due care and attention, or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the road or place.''

(2) The Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 (c.53) is amended as follows.

In Part 1 of Schedule 2 to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 (c.53) (prosecution and punishment of offences: offences under the Traffic Acts), after the entry relating to section 2 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 insert a new entry—

RTA section 2B

Causing death or

serious injury by

negligent driving

On indict-

ment {**c**}10 years

or a fine

or both {**c**}Discret-

ionary {**c**}Obligatory

3-11'

[Mr. Stinchcombe.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mr Paul Stinchcombe Mr Paul Stinchcombe Labour, Wellingborough

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause stands in my name and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman). I am delighted to inform the Minister and the Whips Office that I am no longer a disloyal rebel but a proud proponent of Government policy. I am delighted to be the first MP to be able to put on the record the fact that the Government have concluded that there should be a new offence of causing death by careless driving, for which a prison sentence of up to five years should be available, although that sentence should not be used in every case.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

Let me be the first to congratulate my hon. Friend on the pressure that he has brought to bear. It has finally led to the Government's policy in response to the Halliday report coming to light.

Photo of Mr Paul Stinchcombe Mr Paul Stinchcombe Labour, Wellingborough

I thank my hon. Friend for those kind words. The purpose and effect of new clause 4 is almost identical to Government policy. The only difference is that the new clause would implement a slightly different maximum potential prison sentence. However, the general purpose is identical: to introduce into the law of the United Kingdom for the first time the offence of causing death by careless driving.

The reason why it is important in policy terms to introduce such an offence is that cars kill. If I am careless with a cup of tea in my kitchen, the worst that I might do is burn myself and cause a mess, but if I am careless with a car that weighs 3.5 tonnes and travels at 60 mph, the worst that I might do is kill someone.   Indeed, if, through my carelessness, I hit someone at just 40 mph, in nine times out of 10 that person will die. Every year, 3,500 people die on our roads. That is 10 people every day. A large number of those people are children. Roads are the second biggest killer of children after cancer.

I attended the funeral of my second cousin 15 years ago. She was a teenager. The whole school walked through the village of Wotton-under-Edge to go to the funeral. I can remember that harrowing moment. We should mark, in the law, the respect that we owe to all who grieve and have lost loved ones.

Enough children die on our roads every year to fill a school, but that is not reflected in the law. The law is asymmetric and inconsistent. We mark the gravity of the offence of culpable driving, when it causes a life to be lost, and is dangerous driving, through the application of a second offence, with a markedly different penalty. If it is just dangerous driving, someone might be put in prison for two years, but if someone is killed as a result of dangerous driving, the driver might be put in prison for 14 years. Yet we do not mark at all whether culpable driving is criminal negligence. There is no offence known to English law of killing someone by careless driving. So someone can only be charged with careless driving and he can only be fined.

On the gradations of carelessness, there is a huge continuum of careless acts when someone is driving. Someone could be killed by mere inattention, very careless driving or dangerous driving. On the threshold known to law between carelessness and dangerousness, when someone is just below or just above dangerous driving, there is a huge gap in the law. The prosecutor or jury have to decide whether someone was killed by dangerous driving, in which case they can send someone to prison for 14 years, or by extremely careless driving, which was not dangerous, in which case they can only fine. That huge hole needs to be filled because it causes injustice, not just in how we mark our moral disapproval of that behaviour.

I want to pay particular tribute to the family of Alexine Melnik, two of whom are in the room today. Alexine Melnik was a 17-year-old constituent of mine. She was being driven home from a pop concert in Great Yarmouth last year. The car behind hers did not brake in time and drove into her car, which was forced into the oncoming lane. There was a collision and she died.

The driver admitted culpability by driving unlawfully to a level of negligence that was criminal. He pleaded guilty and received a £500 fine for killing Alexine. As he pleaded guilty, the trial did not even consider the circumstances that lead to that death. As he could only be fined, questioning him forensically as to why he did not brake in time did not matter. When Peter and Tracy Melnik left that court they did not know what acts of carelessness caused the loss of their daughter's life. That adds a deep sense of injustice to a burning sense of grief. That is why I have tabled the new clause to fill that gap.

Vikky Bailey—24 years old—was filling her car at a petrol station in Little Irchester in my constituency, just off the A45. A car came off the road at 60 mph. That car hit her car, her car hit her, and she lost her foot, her job and her home. If that accident was caused by carelessness, the gravity of the offence should reflect the severity of her injury.

In arguing for the clause, I already have the support of the 82 Members of Parliament who have signed my early-day motion 541, of PACTS, and, now, of the Home Office. I also have the support of the British public. Four weeks ago I launched a campaign in my constituency, with the assistance of Peter and Tracy Melnik and the Evening Telegraph. We invited the paper's readership and my constituents to say whether they supported the new clause. I have the responses here. There are more than 2,500 of them, of which only seven disagree. All the others agree. They are not just from my constituency, or from those of Labour Members of Parliament. They come from across the political divide and from a number of areas across the country, as well as more locally. There is a huge weight of public opinion in support of the proposal. Indeed, if the Home Office is asking for there to be consultation, they will receive these responses in a parcel as consultation replies.

I make a special appeal to Opposition Members. I would hope that this new clause, or a similar one that reflected more closely the Government's concluded view, had the support of every party in the House, but at the moment it does not have the support of the Conservatives. Only one brave Member of that party has signed my early-day motion, and we know, because I read it into the record last week, that the shadow Attorney-General thinks the proposal is profoundly wrong. Last week I asked the Conservative Front Bench spokesmen nine times whether they would disagree with the shadow Attorney-General's view. I do not want to embarrass the Opposition. I want, instead, to beg them to support the campaign by lending their names and, in due course, their votes to it so that we bring about a change in the law, fill the existing gap and mark, albeit inadequately, the deaths of so many people, including Alexine Melnik. 

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 11:00 am, 3rd February 2005

We live in interesting times, Mr. Pike. I suggested that we should have a differential penalty for careless driving that related to the consequences of that driving, and that we might debate that alongside new clause 4. I now understand exactly why the Government did not want that to happen—although, in my naivety and ignorance, I did not want it to happen either. They knew jolly well that they had cooked up an announcement, to be made at a time when it would be too late for Members of the Committee to table new clauses, and to debate and consider that announcement. That has come forward today—

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Not at the moment.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) said the paper in question was a White Paper, but it is nothing like one. It is a consultation document. If it were a White Paper, it would be subject to a full statement in the House today, as the Speaker has said so many times. Then we could have had a discussion about it.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Not at the moment.

The way in which the Government have dealt with Committee Opposition Members on this serious issue is frankly despicable. Having mouthed about the need for consultation, and, as far as possible, for getting consensus on these issues, they have deliberately kept us in the dark by behaving in the way that they have.

I asked the Minister when we would be getting the report from the Halliday review. I said it was regrettable that the report had not been produced in advance of consideration of the Bill. The Minister said, as I recall, that he did not know when we would be getting the Halliday report and suggested that I put down a parliamentary question to find out. I duly out down a parliamentary question. That question was due for answer on 1 February—the day before yesterday—and on that day the Minister responsible at the Home Office sent me a holding reply. That is not open government. That is government designed—

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

In a moment.

That is government designed to prevent proper and open debate, because we could have had that information earlier. The Minister said, in the context of our debate on cycling, that there was a document which was not in perfect form for distribution. Yet the document that we have received today obviously went to the printers before Tuesday. It must have been known that it was going to be produced today and the Government decided that, rather than allow it to be made available to us earlier, they would delay it until the very end of the Committee proceedings.

I am not as gullible as the hon. Member for Wellingborough about this because, in the short time we have had to look at the document this morning, I have looked at the costs. I notice that chapter 5 says: 

''The Government believes that the proposals canvassed in this paper would improve the quality of justice dispensed through the courts in road traffic cases, and increase public confidence in the criminal justice system, including its contribution to road safety. Government Departments have done some preliminary work on the possible costs of the proposals, including their impact on the size of the prison population. This preliminary work suggests that the proposals in respect of offences of bad driving could create an additional demand for about 800 prison places. The great bulk of these would result from increasing the maximum penalty for dangerous driving from 2 to 5 years' imprisonment, to which the Government is already committed, when resources are available. The proposed new offence of causing death by careless driving would probably also create additional demand, although much would depend on how it was used by prosecutors and courts''.

I suspect that, all along, the Government have been seeking to use the delaying factor to prevent putting on to the statute book a law such as the one canvassed in that consultation paper today, in support of which the hon. Member for Wellingborough has spoken. We know that the previous Home Secretary said he thought that our prisons were too full of people who have been convicted of motoring offences. I suspect that the Government are not really committed to doing what the public wants, which is to stamp down really hard on bad drivers and put them, if need be, behind bars.

I do not see the new clause as being the answer that the hon. Member for Wellingborough thinks it is because if it was, the Government could have legislated for it in the Bill. They could have introduced their proposals when it was published before Christmas, and then we could have had consultation about this in the intervening period, followed by resolution. The new offences could have been incorporated into the Bill if thought appropriate and put on the statute book to come into operation in the summer. Instead, we have a consultation paper, with a closing date of 6 May, when there will be a change of Government. This is an issue, therefore, that we will have to take forward as a Conservative Government. It could have been addressed, nevertheless, by this Bill, but the Government have deliberately decided not to, leaving us in the dark.

Photo of Mr Paul Stinchcombe Mr Paul Stinchcombe Labour, Wellingborough 11:15 am, 3rd February 2005

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his extremely gracious response to the new clause. When such a measure appears in a Bill, will he support it?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

We do not yet know whether the Government themselves are going to support it. This is a consultation document.

Photo of Mr Paul Stinchcombe Mr Paul Stinchcombe Labour, Wellingborough

What about the hon. Gentleman?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I have had less than an hour and a half to look at this, and the hon. Gentleman will know that I will not assert that I am going to support everything in this document when I know jolly well that it needs to be the subject of consultation with a much wider range of people than were involved when it was prepared. For example, the Institute of Advanced Motorists was not among those consulted. Why was   the RAC Foundation not consulted? We have not even got, as far as I can make out, the full review in front of us. All we have is a summary. I hope the Minister will confirm that the whole document is going to be placed in the Library and will be subject to consultation.

Labour Members are suggesting that it is unreasonable of the official Opposition not to have a definitive answer to all the points in this document today. One thing I do have a definitive answer to is that I think that the proposal on penalties is, as the hon. Gentleman has accepted, inappropriate. He is suggesting that the maximum penalty for causing serious injury through dangerous driving would be no less than a 14-year imprisonment. That is far in excess of the present offence of careless driving, which has a maximum of a level 4 fine. Indeed, the Government, in this Home Office review, seem to be of the mind that that level of maximum penalty would be grossly disproportionate.

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

Is the hon. Gentleman not being a trifle disingenuous when he says that this document, and more particularly the issue it addresses, comes as a complete surprise to him and that he has not had time to consider it? My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough has been campaigning very publicly, and, we now see, successfully and skilfully, for a great deal of time on this issue. The early-day motion shows the width of support he has. For the hon. Member for Christchurch to say ''I cannot possibly comment on this. I have only seen it for a few hours'', is a fairly ludicrous position. Nobody is asking him to give his endorsement to the exact wording.

Does the hon. Gentleman support the thrust of the new clause? I would have thought that it would help the Committee to know. It would be a strange position if he could look the Committee in the face and say, ''We do not support it.'' So if he does support it, is he not being a trifle heavy-handed and heavy-footed? Would it not be rather more gracious to say that he, like my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough and many others, feels that this is right, and welcomes the fact that the Government agree?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The length of the hon. Gentleman's intervention was such that I cannot answer all his detailed points. He is accusing me of being disingenuous. All I can say is that I plead guilty to being naive in thinking that the reason why I had received a holding reply from a Home Office Minister, in answer to my question of when the Halliday report would be published, was because she did not know the answer. Now I realise that she knew the answer but declined to tell me because she wanted to obtain a party political advantage.

I was naive about that, but the hon. Gentleman described me as disingenuous. He knows jolly well that the document is primarily a Home Office document. Indeed, that was the Minister's defence—namely, that we were talking about a Home Office matter and that he was really an also-ran as a Minister at the Department for Transport, even though all Departments were responsible for publication. For the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central to suggest   that I should announce a definitive Opposition policy on the document when I have not even had the chance of discussing its contents with anyone from our shadow Home Office team, is—to use his term—to show a high degree of disingenuity. He is a Minister—

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

He was a Minister. He knows that we operate on the basis of preparing for joined-up government on 6 May. In doing so, I shall certainly consult with our Home Office team about the document. We shall read it and take account of its results. However, we shall not be bounced into an instant response when the Government have deliberately delayed publication for as long as possible in order to prevent the contents from being included in the Bill.

I am disappointed at the way in which the Government have treated the Committee. I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Wellingborough thinks that he has won the day, even though he has not read the small print and seen that the Home Office attitude is exactly the same as it was under the previous Home Secretary—namely, not really thinking it in the public interest to lock up more people who are guilty of road traffic offences. That is the Government's Achilles heel, which is why they have not been prepared to legislate.

Several hon. Members rose—

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

Order. Who is the hon. Gentleman giving way to?  

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The hon. Member for Wellingborough.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

Before I call the hon. Member for Wellingborough, I should make it clear that although I accept that the consultation document is relevant—I would not have allowed the debate to go on otherwise—at the end of the day we are debating the new clause and have been for some considerable time.

Photo of Mr Paul Stinchcombe Mr Paul Stinchcombe Labour, Wellingborough

The hon. Member for Christchurch is suggesting that we have cooked something up for party political advantage. Would he care to confirm that every Conservative Member received a letter from Peter and Tracey Melnik, which I posted in advance of Second Reading, and that the hon. Member for South Suffolk, who led in that debate, even quoted from it, thus giving every Conservative Member an opportunity to support the new clause and the early-day motion?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I certainly accept that the letter from the hon. Gentleman's constituent was sent to me, that I saw it and that I drew it to the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk, who led for us on Second Reading. We were aware of the contents of that letter in good time and my hon. Friend responded to it, as the hon. Gentleman knows. As for the new clause, the hon. Gentleman has indicated that he will withdraw it in preference to—

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

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.