With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 75, in page 54, line 32, leave out from ‘shall' to end of line 33 and insert
‘be disqualified for not less than twelve months.'.
No. 76, in clause 51, page 54, line 41, leave out from ‘conviction' to ‘to' in line 42.
This clause relates to the most important and necessary road safety development. Anyone who is seriously interested in road safety will not and cannot oppose the clause. Anyone who has taken a briefing from Network Rail will have seen that the incidence of this offence on the railway network is increasing. It poses a threat to other drivers on the roads and to train drivers and passengers. What concerns us about the clause is that the scale of the punishment does not meet the seriousness of the crime.
I invite any member of the Committee who has not done so to ask Network Rail to provide them—it will be happy to do so—with the DVD briefing that deals with the problems caused by motorists not obeying traffic signals at level crossings. It is the most scary and disturbing DVD that people could watch. There is the driver who decides that he will play chicken with the oncoming train and there is the driver who plays chicken with the barrier descending. There is the driver who goes around the line of traffic and the half-barrier and across the track—the train passes less than three seconds later. There is the driver who goes around the line of traffic on to the railway line, sees an oncoming train and reverses into the front car in the line of traffic. This is a serious offence, committed with intent. It is not a careless act, and it is time for us to recognise that.
If the Government are serious about catching hardened criminals and continual offenders and those people who act with the intent to endanger the lives of others on our roads, it is time to increase the penalties. Amendments Nos. 74 and 75 would give magistrates considerably more flexibility. Six months is not sufficient, 12 months would be more appropriate. This offence is as dangerous to public safety as drink-driving is, and, therefore, it requires the same period of disqualification.
Amendment No. 76 is slightly different in intent and effect, and I suspect that given what the Minister intends to do with clause 51, we will reach some agreement. If a person causes malicious damage to a bridge, it is an offence. However, if someone causes damage to a bridge by skidding on black ice, which might be considered to be driving without due care and attention, it does not seem right that that person should be subject to imprisonment. It is worth combining amendment No. 76 with amendments Nos. 74 and 75 because it highlights the seriousness of the offences listed in clause 50, and it is the intention of amendments Nos. 74 and 75 to increase the penalties for these most serious of offences.
In our earlier sittings, we discussed reckless and careless driving. The crux of the Bill is road safety, and the clauses we are debating today concern an area—cars coming into contact with railway lines—that has not had much attention in the past. If a train were carrying several hundred people, it would be extremely difficult for it to stop quickly, and, therefore, railway signals on roads are there for a purpose. There have been several well-documented examples of drivers ignoring those signals and causing accidents. In one sense, an accident to themselves could be considered their own fault, but more importantly, as we acknowledged when we discussed reckless and careless driving, they are potentially putting several hundred people at risk. That is as serious as some of the offences we discussed earlier, such as driving without insurance or a licence.
It is important, as the hon. Gentleman said, that we treat this with the same degree of seriousness as drink-driving. In many respects, it is more serious. Potentially, more people are at risk, and that is why it is important that amendment No. 74 be made. It sends a clear message, particularly as we expand and build in a greater number of areas. There will be more traffic travelling over the crossings, and people must know that a severe penalty will be administered if they attempt to jump a crossing light.
I am pleased that the Liberal Democrats support our amendment. The hon. Member for Rochdale is absolutely right. This is part of our campaign to bear down on the hardcore offenders. I raised this local element on Second Reading but I would like to remind the Minister that the number of instances seems to be astonishing. According to the British Transport Police, there have been 70 incidents in Shropshire in the past 12 months, and that county has, sadly, less busy railways than other parts of the country.
Inspector Derek Cheetham of British Transport Police said:
“We continue to receive reports of vehicle drivers misusing railway level crossings in Shropshire. In 2005, 73 offences were reported involving motorists ignoring the red flashing lights, driving over the crossing, zigzagging across as the barriers are in the process of lowering and even colliding with the lowering barriers.”
That is criminal stupidity and not only puts at risk the person involved and his passengers but can put those who are completely innocent in the path of an oncoming train. I hope that the Minister will support the Opposition parties in wanting to get tough on such criminally stupid behaviour.
There is some common ground among us here. As the hon. Gentleman said, the behaviour in question is criminally stupid. None of us would have a moment’s sympathy for drivers who treat level crossings in such a manner; there can be no excuse for it. It is the most hideously stupid and horrendous act imaginable of callous disregard for other people’s lives.
The hon. Member for Rochdale inadvertently put his finger on the reason why we should not support the amendments, however. As he described, and as in the case of the offences that we discussed earlier in the Committee, these offences are dangerous driving. They go beyond the offence of just jumping a red light; they clearly involve a dangerous disregard for the lives of other people on the road. They should be treated as such, and people who commit them should be prosecuted for dangerous driving with all the penalties that that can bring.
I am again going to advise the Committee not to allow the clause to stand part of the Bill and to turn down the amendments. I assure Opposition Members that I am prepared to take other action that does not necessarily need legislation. Under the terms of the Bill, we will have further consultation about graduated penalties. I am prepared to offer the Opposition the concession—they are entirely right to highlight this issue—that we will include in that consultation the possibility of increasing the penalty for jumping a red light at a level crossing to £5,000 and six penalty points.
I am also prepared to discuss with the Home Office whether it would be appropriate to change the sentencing guidelines to recognise the seriousness of offences committed at level crossings above and beyond the seriousness with which the courts currently consider them. I stand firm on the principle that when somebody is responsible for jumping across a level crossing when the train is coming, if the police have evidence, that person should be tried for dangerous driving with all the penalties that it brings to bear.
The final assurance that I am prepared to give Opposition Members is that I will discuss with the Association of Chief Police Officers its attitude to such offences at level crossings, to trying to enforce them more rigorously than at the moment and to having a campaign to crack down on them. In so doing, we might demonstrate that it would be more appropriate to use such offences as dangerous driving when people are guilty of such activity.
I would be reassured if we were getting prosecutions, but I cited a local situation: there have been 73 cases in Shropshire that have not led to prosecutions for dangerous driving. Why is the current law not being used?
That is exactly the point with which I was going to conclude. I do not know whether those involved in the 73 incidents to which the hon. Gentleman refers were prosecuted at all, even for jumping a red light. That offence is already available and it is not being used. If such things are happening at level crossings—the evidence that he and Network Rail have provided clearly shows that they are happening—we need to do something more about enforcement. There is no point worrying about the level of the offence if even the current offences are not being properly used. I want to talk to the Association of Chief Police Officers about what we need to do to ensure that greater efforts are made to catch people who jump the lights at level crossings.
Yes. The red lights at a level crossing are exactly the same as red lights anywhere else, and they have the same status, so enforcement can be done by CCTV. We will come to the matter of who will pay later in our considerations, but I assure my hon. Friend that the responsibility will be clear when we have finished debating the Bill.
We should clamp down on those who commit this offence and work with the police, Network Rail and the British Transport police to catch people doing it. When there is a clear and callous disregard for human life, the offenders should be prosecuted for dangerous driving, and we will consider in the consultation the possibility of imposing a much steeper fine for a less serious offence. It would be worth discussing the imposition of six points in such cases.
I have given great thought to what the Minister said. He and the Committee recognise the seriousness of the offence.
The Minister’s concessions will go to another round of consultations, but we are concerned about the hard core who commit the offence and about the lack of action now and when the Bill comes into force, and the potential delay. We feel that a term of imprisonment would be appropriate for this offence.