Courses offered as alternative to prosecution: fees etc

Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 21 March 2017.

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Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:45, 21 March 2017

I beg to move amendment 28, in clause 23, page 18, line 22, at end insert—

“(6A) The Secretary of State must collect and publish quarterly statistics relating to fixed penalty notices and diversionary courses, including—

(a) the number of persons issued with a fixed penalty notice after attending a diversionary course,

(b) a breakdown of the number of persons under subsection 6A(a) by police and crime commissioner geographical area.

(6B) The Secretary of State must publish a review into the diversionary courses in place of the issuance of fixed penalty notices, which includes—

(a) effectiveness in improving driver education,

(b) impact on road safety and incidents.”

This amendment requires the Government to collect and publish statistics about reoffending rates for persons issued with fixed penalty notices after a diversionary course and to review the impact and effectiveness of diversionary courses in place of fixed penalty notices.

We now come to yet another subject area in the Bill, which is that of courses offered as an alternative to prosecution. The clause makes a change to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 that would provide the legal basis for policing bodies to charge a fee to a person who enrols on a course offered in England and Wales in relation to a fixed penalty notice.

The amendment seeks to achieve two reasonable things. First, it would require the Government to collect and publish statistics about reoffending rates for persons issued with fixed penalty notices after a diversionary course. The second purpose is to review the impact and effectiveness of diversionary courses in place of fixed penalty notices.

I start from the premise that all members of the Committee, the Government, the police, the crime commissioners and all chief constables want our roads to be as safe as possible. We have some of the safest roads in the world, but as the Transport Committee and road safety campaigners—unanimously—and the Labour party will recognise, progress has stalled rather worryingly since 2010. The latest rolling figures show that there has been no reduction in total road deaths and a 2% increase in serious casualties in the past 12 months alone.

Clause 23 is simply a technical change that will clarify existing practices of policing bodies charging a fee to a person who enrols on a course offered in England and Wales as an alternative to a fixed penalty notice. The amendment does not waste the opportunity critically to consider the effectiveness of diversionary courses and fixed penalty notices within the context of our stalled progress on road safety. By publishing reoffending rates statistics by police and crime commissioner area, we will be able to see for ourselves the effectiveness of different practices across different regions. That would in no way encroach on the operational independence of any police force but would allow a route to finding best practice. It would also go some way to help the second aspect of our amendment, which would require the Government to review the effectiveness of diversionary courses.

It is imperative that there is some founded basis on which to establish whether these courses are worth while and, if so, how much. I recall that at a recent Westminster Hall debate on road traffic law enforcement, the Minister’s transport colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Andrew Jones assured us that fixed penalty notices are

“an effective way to proceed.”—[Official Report, 23 February 2017; Vol. 621, c. 493WH.]

However, a subsequent written answer, which I received from the same hon. Gentleman, made two very interesting points. First, he clarified that the Department for Transport has

“no record of how many participants have since reoffended”.

That is, since taking such a course. Secondly, the answer went on to say that the Department is commissioning research with the Road Safety Trust to

“look at a number of aspects of the speed awareness course, including the impact of the courses on reoffending rates”.

Can we assume from that written answer that collection of such statistics will start promptly? Does the Minister know whether the collection of that data has started? Otherwise, what is the value for taxpayers of commissioning research when we simply do not know the reoffending rates for people who have been on diversionary courses, nor whether that rate at which drivers involved in serious road incidents attended a course?

I will end my argument by accepting that collecting such data would by no means be a silver bullet to kick-start the stalled progress that has been made towards safer roads. The Government could take on board our call to reinstate national road safety targets, which coincidentally were scrapped at the same time as road safety stagnation. Perhaps that could be considered at a later stage of the Bill.

The Government might also want to heed the warnings about the capacity we have these days to enforce our laws effectively. According to the response to my written question on 1 February, official figures show that since 2010 the number of police officers outside the Met who have road policing functions has fallen from 5,337 to 3,436. That is a cut of around a third. If forces do not have the resources to do their job effectively, all too often it is the road traffic policing that falls off the end of the list of priorities. As the Institute of Advanced Motorists has summarised perfectly, falling levels of enforcement risk developing a culture in which being caught is seen as a matter of bad luck rather than of bad driving.

If we want to return year-on-year falls in road casualties, it would be worth while approving the amendment today, so that we can have a clearer evidence base on which to make decisions about how far fixed penalty notices or diversionary courses should be used. We also need to consider what more can be done on the enforcement of our existing laws, so that we can ensure that the Bill exploits the opportunities it has to improve the situation, rather than waste them.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Minister of State (Department for Transport)

It will come as no surprise to the Committee to hear that I have always believed that what we imagine is more important than what we know, for it is in our dreams that we create. For those reasons, I am inclined to a largely emotional view of the world, but there are matters that require an evidential approach of the kind the hon. Gentleman recommends, and this is one of them. It is important that we evaluate the effectiveness of these courses. The case was made by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough on Second Reading, and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield has repeated that case today. I have exciting news for them both and for the whole Committee. I will refer to my notes in a moment, but I do not want to be constrained by them too much.

The Department, in conjunction with the Road Safety Trust, has commissioned an evaluation of national speed awareness courses. As the hon. Gentleman will know, this is only one of several courses offered, but it covers about 85% of those that offend. The evaluation methodology will be suitable for the future evaluation of other schemes. Because the hon. Gentleman will ask me, I will tell him in advance that the research is examining course impact, including reoffending and reconviction rates and collisions. That will therefore provide analysis of the data requested in new subsection (6A) of the amendment. In fact, the amendment suggests a one-off basis, but I want to do this on a continuing basis. I expect the final report to be presented to the project board no later than the end of this year.

The project board overseeing the work includes representatives from the Department for Transport, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Road Safety Trust, the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety and the RAC Foundation. The project team has worked hard to ensure that appropriate and rigorous data processing arrangements are in place to enable data transfer between the police, the DVLA and Ipsos MORI, which is the organisation we have commissioned to do the work with those organisations.

So the data reflect the proper enquiries of members of the Committee, including Opposition Members, about how we test the effectiveness of these approaches, and, as a result, negate the need for proposed subsection (6B). On proposed subsection (6A), I agree with the underlying premise that we should be as open as possible in publishing statistics about public sector activity. There is always a balance to be struck between the publication of such material and the administrative and bureaucratic burden placed on agencies, including the police and associated bodies, because the task of recording the issue of a fixed penalty notice to someone who has previously attended a diversionary course will fall to the police.

Although figures on fixed penalty notices are already collected and published by the Home Office, data on diversionary course attendance are not. Precisely because forces divert people away from the criminal justice system, data on course attendance are compiled and published by UKROEd Ltd, the organisation that approves and co-ordinates course delivery. It is thus not clear how we will be able to satisfy the requirements of the proposed amendment without increasing the burden of data collection.

We have also at the present time not considered whether the police’s current IT systems will be able to capture and record the information being requested. Further work will need to be done to determine whether that can be done and how much it would cost. I further note that the Home Office currently publishes police powers and procedures statistics that include data on fixed penalty notices annually. Proposed subsection (6A) calls for quarterly statistics, which would place us in the odd position of publishing quarterly details on a subset of offenders who had previously taken a course and only publishing annually the overarching group of those issued with a fixed penalty notice. I know that is not the intention of the amendment, but that would be its effect.

So the addition of subsection (6A) would, as explained, have an unspecified and so far uncalculated cost effect on the police. It would require recording a great deal more information, and its publication in the form proposed in the amendment would create—I accept that this is not its intent—an anomaly. Therefore, given that we have committed to evaluating the effectiveness of courses, and that we are concerned about the detail of subsection (6A), I do not think that it would be unreasonable to ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

I want to go further than that, however, because I have some doubt anyway about the business of maintaining in perpetuity a database of people who have been on the courses. Many people who receive a fixed penalty notice go on a course, and there would be questions to be asked about whether those data should then remain on record in perpetuity. That would be a very significant step to take and not one that I think would be universally welcomed. There are some data protection issues that we would need to explore at some length were we to go down that road.

I understand why the amendment has been tabled, and I am not unsympathetic to its intent, but it has consequences that might be unhelpful rather than helpful. I am determined to make sure that the courses work, and to ensure that we have the evidential base—notwithstanding my commitment to emotion at all times—that allows us to evaluate and move forward accordingly. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Transport) 4:00, 21 March 2017

It is very important to remind people of road safety and the consequences of driving behaviour, so we welcome the approach to alternatives. I am delighted by the fact that the Minister has confirmed that he will bring forward assessments and reviews of the effectiveness of those alternative measures. It is important to have evidence to prove their effectiveness or otherwise so that everyone can learn from the process and benefit from improved road safety in order to save lives. In that context, will the Minister consider existing evidence that road safety would be increased and lives would be saved by lowering the drink-driving limit, as has happened in Scotland? As part of his further discussions on road safety, will he consider introducing that revised limit in England?

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport)

I hope that I can set the Minister’s mind at rest about the collection and holding of data. The data that I am referring to is anonymised; it is not data that will identify individuals. I am grateful for his comments about proposed subsection (6B) and the commissioning of research in conjunction with a number of road safety bodies. That is not new, because his colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Andrew Jones, confirmed in an answer to me that research would be done on the effectiveness of diversionary courses, including reoffending rates.

The nagging question for me is: how do we reach any conclusion on the effectiveness of diversionary courses on reoffending rates unless we collect the data on those rates? I simply do not see how that research can be done to achieve any results unless those data are collected. If the proposal created an administrative burden on police forces, and I do not believe that it would be hugely onerous, it would be in terms of the collection of the data rather than their publication. We need to know how good those courses are at stopping people from reoffending and thereby getting fixed penalty notices. To me, that is a basic requirement of the information required to assess the effectiveness of diversionary courses. That is the purpose of the amendment. It is a simple request, and for that reason I want to press the amendment to a vote.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Let me make one final attempt to persuade the hon. Gentleman that we are in the same place on this matter. I am grateful for his assurance about anonymised data, but it is hard to know how we could analyse data until course and penalty data had been married up, and of course the fixed penalty will precede the course. I entirely agree with him about the measure of effectiveness, which is why we have commissioned the work. Of course that is right, and I am very surprised that it was not done before, because such diversion courses have been going for a very long time, as he will know. It seems absolutely sensible that we should check whether they are having an effect; it would be odd not to do so. We will therefore do that, and people can tell from what I said earlier that it is a thorough and studious piece of work, engaging organisations of a range of types, all of which have both expertise to bring to bear and an interest in these matters.

I do not think that there is much difference between us here. It may well be that the research necessarily samples data in the way that research into this kind of thing does. That is quite different from routinely collecting the data, in a way that proposed subsection (6A) would necessitate. I understand the principle and the intent, but the collection of these data on a routine basis with systems that may not yet be capable of marrying all the material together, and at an uncertain cost, is not something that I could commit to now, and I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman would do so if he was standing in my shoes.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Division number 2 Seasonal Working — Courses offered as alternative to prosecution: fees etc

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 5