Clause 29 amends part 1 of schedule 2 of the Road Traffic Offences Act by raising from three to six the number of penalty points that can be imposed for failing to provide information about the identity of a driver. We have a concern that the provision would severely reduce the discretion that the courts had in this area. The Minister spoke long and hard about the discretion and centrality of the courts and police officers. By moving from three to six points, we will give the courts no discretion and no ability to consider the circumstances of the case, which means that injustices will occur.
We have no problem with the maximum end of the points being raised to six, which as I understand it, would correspond with the maximum for speeding. We remain concerned that the flexibility that the courts have is being removed. The Minister was waxing lyrical this morning about the ability of the courts to distinguish the gradients of the offence of carelessness. I therefore assume that he will agree that in these circumstances they will have the ability to be flexible and show discretion.
The amendment does not seek to require a leniency option. It merely gives the courts the discretion to decide, in the circumstances of various cases, whether they should give three or six points. A case which is often cited is where the husband and wife drive cars interchangeably. Who can remember who was driving which car at a particular point? My wife and I drive our cars interchangeably, although we describe my car as the Audi and hers as the Renault. None the less, we drive them interchangeably and there are certainly days where I could not be sure which one of us was necessarily driving which car.
Perhaps more importantly, there is the scenario where there are multiple drivers using one vehicle. That could happen in distribution companies, post offices and a large number of utility companies, where it is quite possible that one vehicle is used by numerous people during the week and possibly even during a single day. An offence could occur. Subsequently, a request for the provision of details of the driver is issued which may be difficult to provide. All the amendment is seeking to do, in line with the Minister’s desire elsewhere in the Bill, is to introduce that element of common sense, which will allow the courts to use their discretion. I trust that the Minister will have no problem with that.
The hon. Member for Wimbledon may have no problem with the change that the Government have made, but I do. On this occasion, the Government and Conservative Members, especially the Conservatives, are being unduly soft. I should like anything up to and including a period of disqualification for contravention of section 172. In terms of its use by the police for the investigation of road traffic incidents after the event and the operation of cameras, section 172 is crucial. It is a very useful provision for the police. There is a growing prevalence of the use of speed cameras. There have been some well-documented cases of people trying to evade their duties under section 172, and occasionally doing so successfully, so the full range of penalties should be available to the court.
I return to my point that the prospect of losing a licence certainly concentrates the mind. Section 172 is one of the most important sections of the Road Traffic Act 1988 and it is becoming more important. The Government are going in the right direction, but I hope that the Minister considers increasing the number of penalty points. For the worst cases—there are some bad cases—disqualification should be made an option.
I understand why the Government want the provision in the Bill. If a motorist was exceeding the speed limit greatly and was aware that a speed camera had been triggered, he might decide that, if he claimed that he did not know who was driving, it would be worth three points rather than his admitting that he was driving and probably receiving six points for the much more serious offence of greatly exceeding the speed limit. I understand why the Government want to plug the gap, but I cannot understand why they are not willing to adopt the flexible approach suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon to allow the courts to judge the case on its merits.
When the House debated the Bill in the previous Parliament, which fell because of the election, I drew the attention of the Committee to an incident that involved the Conservative candidates for the European Parliament during the previous European elections in my county. They were lent two jeep vehicles by a party supporter to use during their campaigning. The insurance was such that it covered anyone driving for the campaign. The vehicles were chopped and changed between the candidates and campaign managers. Three weeks later, a ticket arrived on the desk of the owner of the vehicles because one of the jeeps had triggered a speed camera. An offence had been committed but, at that stage, no one was sure who had been driving the jeep in question when it triggered the speed camera. I must say that the triggering was minimal; it was three or four miles over the speed limit.
Let us consider the circumstances in which the owner genuinely did not know who was driving the car. Clearly, he owned the vehicle and must shoulder some responsibility, but it seems unfair that the owner must take six points when, if the culprit had come forward, the culprit would have received only three points. The Minister is taking matters too much the other way. He is correcting a loophole in the law but, by making the offence carry more points than a motorist may receive in certain cases, he has gone too far.
The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire is right; he has put his finger on why we are making the change. If we did not, and someone was due to receive a six-point penalty for driving well over the speed limit, they would do better for themselves by saying that they did not know who was driving, and taking three points.
There is a defence for the circumstances outlined by the right hon. Gentleman, although now that I know it will be used to defend Conservative candidates, I might consider amending it. Section 172(3) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 provides a defence where a person
“did not know and could not with reasonable diligence have ascertained who the driver of the vehicle ... was.”
In such circumstances, the individual will not be penalised at all.
I hope that that is sufficient explanation for the change and that it provides the reassurance that the hon. Member for Wimbledon sought on a defence being available. I have noted that he regards the Audi as his vehicle and the Renault as his wife’s. I can only say that that is very sexist but entirely understandable.
The issue raised by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is one that reasonable people can have a reasonable disagreement about, but I undertake to reflect on his views before Report.
If the situation is as the Minister describes, he will have fully answered my concerns. While I am speaking, may I try to regain a little bit of street cred with him by saying that only half my vehicles are automatic? Two of them are Jensens. One is a Jensen Interceptor; the other is a Jensen C-V8. I have to tell him that an automatic gearbox does not lessen the experience of driving those cars.
One reason why my wife agrees that the Audi is my car is that it has had slightly more accidents, but that is another story.
If the situation is as the Minister described, the reason why we sought flexibility in clause 29 is covered. I am sure that readers of Hansard will be amused to discover that flexibility is required in one case and absolutes are required in others. None the less, given the Minister’s reassurance on the point that I raised, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.