New Clause 27 - Causing death or serious injury by negligent driving

Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:30 pm on 20th January 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 serious 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

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 indictment 10 years or a fine or both Discretionary Obligatory 3-11''.—[Vera Baird.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar

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

I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) and for South Dorset (Jim Knight), who have worked so hard on this massive issue. In a nutshell, the law on bad driving, which causes death and serious injury, needs to be rewritten. The new clause is an attempt to do so, or at least to ask the Government what they will do.

I can put the argument briefly, as it is well known: the charge of dangerous driving carries a maximum sentence of two years; the charge of causing death by dangerous driving carries a maximum sentence of 14 years. That is clearly because the law accepts that the sentence must be higher because of the gravity of a life being lost. If somebody is killed by driving that is careless but not dangerous, what is the situation? Careless driving on its own results in a fine and penalty points; causing death by careless driving on its own not being an offence known to the law, means that there can only be a prosecution for careless driving, and consequently, even though a death has been caused, the penalty is a fine and points in exactly the same way.

It is obvious from the first offence of dangerous driving and causing death that there is a principle that the law relates the consequence of death to the sentence, even when it is caused by the same level of fault that may cause no injury to anyone; yet that does not happen if someone causes death by careless driving. There is clearly a policy reason to change that and it is obvious from the work done by my hon. Friends, whom I have just praised, that there is a huge public demand for that to be done. My hon. Friends circulated petitions in their constituencies, and each had an overwhelming response. Everyone can cite a terrible case. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough raised the case of a young girl, Alexine Melnik, who was killed in a road accident. The driver of the car involved could be prosecuted only for careless driving, and he was fined £500. One can imagine how little satisfaction the Melnik family derived from that.

Careless driving may sometimes be nothing more than a momentary loss of concentration, but cars are dangerous items. The message must be sent out that they are dangerous items and that if a car driver has a loss of concentration that causes death, it will be dealt with gravely. This is not an anti-motoring campaign. It is a campaign for justice. I invite the Minister to respond.

Photo of Paul Farrelly Paul Farrelly Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme 6:45 pm, 20th January 2005

I also congratulate our two colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough and for South Dorset, on their work on the issue and thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar for raising it. It is a serious anomaly in the law that I hope the Government will address.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar

I thank the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I am aware that there is only a brief period in which to discuss the issue, so I will be extremely brief. I understand the upset of those who have lost relatives or loved ones in a road accident. Of course there may be circumstances in which the road accident that occurred was due to what, in the old days, we would have called a person's ''recklessness'' or the person driving dangerously, which implies that there was an element of serious culpability in their conduct because they should have been aware that what they were doing was dangerous. In those circumstances, I have always been of the view that the courts should, if necessary, punish people severely for their actions.

However, I was slightly shocked to hear the words of the hon. and learned Lady. She desires not only to criminalise negligence but to criminalise it with sanctions that are potentially extremely severe. She explained that negligence could amount to nothing more than momentary inadvertence. It is for good reason that the law has made no distinction between the penalty that it imposes on a driver for momentary inadvertence if there is no injury to somebody else and the penalty it imposes if there is death or even multiple death. 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.

If we go down that road, there is no reason why we should confine ourselves to motoring. We could apply the principle to every area of human activity in which negligence by an individual, often deeply regretted, leads to injury to another. On the whole, we have historically left that matter to civil law. Where we have allowed it to stray into criminal law, it has always been characteristic that the sanctions imposed have not been more than a fine and certainly not a sentence of imprisonment. Take, as an example, the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. I cannot support the new clause, which strikes me as being contrary to the entire tenor of how the law should operate. 

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

I will be quick, though that is not because we do not take the situation seriously. We have great sympathy with what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar said. I commend my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough and for South Dorset for their campaigning work, even though it arose out of the tragedies in their constituencies that affected the families that my hon. and learned Friend mentioned.

It is important that we see the introduction of such offences against the full background of the other offences and penalties that exist. To that end, we conducted a comprehensive review of road traffic offences involving bad driving. It is wide-ranging. We are considering all the issues concerning bad driving, particularly where death or injury occurs. The review makes a series of proposals. For example, it will consider a possible offence of death by careless driving. The review will be followed by the publication for public consultation of a paper setting out our proposals. We are treating that publication as a top priority and hope to publish it in the near future. I hope that that gives my hon. and learned Friend and the Members on whose behalf she is speaking some reassurance. I therefore urge her to withdraw her new clause.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar

I am grateful to the Minister for her response. I am slightly surprised by the remarks of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, but I can discuss the matter with him on another occasion to try to get him to change his mind. There are plenty of precedents where the same degree of wrong that has caused real injury is dealt with more gravely than where the person who did the wrong happened to be lucky enough to escape the consequences of their action. On behalf of my two colleagues, I hope that the review produces something that will help them to give some satisfaction back to their constituents. I accept entirely that my hon. Friend is taking the matter extremely seriously. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.