Dangerous Driving Penalties — [Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:14 pm on 17th September 2015.

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Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Limehouse 3:14 pm, 17th September 2015

Thank you very much, Mr Hollobone. It is good to see you presiding over our business this afternoon. I will certainly do my best to follow your stricture about time.

I am pleased to follow Alok Sharma. I congratulate him on securing the debate and on his continuing campaign on this issue. This is not the first time he has raised it, and he continues to lobby all of us to make sure that, if we can, we support him in his endeavour. He makes a powerful case that the punishment should fit the crime.

I look forward to hearing the Minister and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Karl Turner, respond to the points that Members raise in the debate. It is good to see colleagues here, and I welcome them to their places.

The issue that underpins the question of penalties for dangerous driving is road safety. In itself, that is not controversial. There are no party politics involved in this issue; there may be differences of approach and emphasis, but we all want the same outcome: safer roads and fewer casualties.

When individuals break the law, the appropriateness of their punishment arises. As the hon. Gentleman said, that is not about vengeance or retribution, but about society making a statement. Attitudes to road safety have been changing. Drinking and driving used to be the norm; now it is socially unacceptable, but that took time. Getting people to wear seatbelts took even longer, and thousands of people were killed in the meantime.

The language around these issues is critical. In the fire service, in which I served, we used to talk about RTAs—road traffic accidents. They are now classified by the police and the fire service as RTCs—road traffic collisions. That language is important, because the majority of crashes, collisions and incidents have an avoidable cause: people drinking, taking drugs, speeding and using mobile phones. We are talking about deliberate decisions by human beings—drivers—that impact on innocent victims. In that sense, these are not accidents. Although some accidents do happen, the majority of fatalities and serious casualties are caused by people doing something deliberate. The word “accidents” is now passé for the emergency services, and, given how important language is, it should be passé for us too.

I am grateful to the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety and the Cyclists Touring Club—the national cycling charity—for their briefings for the debate. Both make what is for me the most important point: enforcement is the most effective deterrent. Penalties and tariffs are important, but enforcement is critical.

That takes me to the issue of policing. CTC’s briefing says:

“CTC’s Road Justice campaign has for several years been highlighting the fact that roads policing has suffered disproportionate cuts in recent years, compared with overall police numbers. Traffic police officer numbers fell by 37% from 2002/3-2013/14”.

This is not a party political point; these things have happened under different Governments. The CTC goes on to say that traffic police numbers have fallen

“from almost 7,000 uniformed officers down to just 4,356…total policing levels fluctuated a little from year to year, but not to this degree”— overall police numbers fell by about 3.5%, but traffic police numbers are down by nearly 40%.

Both PACTS and CTC cite individual cases where the punishment does not fit the crime, and the hon. Gentleman movingly recounted many such cases, drawing on his own experience and that of other colleagues. Of the punishment, the CTC says that the length of the prison sentences and the length of the driving bans is totally inappropriate.

The CTC also raises the review the Government promised, which the hon. Gentleman also mentioned. The previous Justice Secretary announced a review of road traffic offences and sentencing. In a previous debate, also moved by the hon. Gentleman, the Minister’s predecessor promised widespread consultation on sentencing, but no word has been heard since. The hon. Gentleman asked the Minister for an update, and I am sure we would all be grateful for one.

I pay tribute to all the campaigning organisations, many of which have been founded by victims’ relatives and have campaigned for years, and even decades. When I was Road Safety Minister, I had my first request from a victim’s family for a meeting to discuss their relative’s death. I have huge regard for the civil service, but my civil servants said, “Don’t do it, Minister.” I asked why not, and they said, “If you meet one, you’ll have to meet them all.” My line was, “If I meet one, I will meet them all.”

These people have a lesson to teach the rest of us, and if we understand their suffering, we can use it to emotionally drive us to arrive at the right conclusions and to get the balance right between crime and punishment. They were some of the most moving meetings I ever had, and were inspiring at the same time, because bereaved families want to make sure that no one else suffers as they did, as the hon. Member for Reading West explained. I look forward to the Minister’s updating us on the review.

Preventing road traffic collisions in the first place and protecting pedestrians, cyclists and other road users is essential, and enforcement is the key to that. We have all seen how road users behave near speed cameras, in average-speed camera zones and when a high-visibility police car is travelling on the same stretch of road that we are on. Their attitude is completely different from that of the minority of drivers who just do not care about the rest of us. The real deterrent is visibility and visible, effective policing.

I would like ordinary citizens to be able to empower the police more. Some constabularies operate a system by which if several members of the public report someone they have seen in the pub getting into their car, the police will send the driver a warning letter to say, “You have been reported to us; we are watching you.” That has an impact, and I have been told, and have read, evidence of that. I want ordinary citizens to be more empowered to report drivers they know are breaking the rules. That system might help to restrain the minority of selfish, dangerous and potentially killer drivers, before they ruin lives.

As to prosecutions, PACTS writes:

“There are reports that the reductions in CPS budgets and staff are impacting on the level of Dangerous and Careless Driving prosecutions.”

I should be grateful if the Minister commented on that observation, in the light of the evidence cited by the hon. Member for Reading West about reduced numbers of bans and the complications of concurrent bans. [Interruption.] I see the Minister’s officials nodding, so perhaps a note will be coming in a moment; I look forward to a response to what PACTS has asked.

The debate is about penalties for dangerous driving. All the evidence informing public opinion is that more could and should be done to prevent dangerous driving, but the social mood has changed about those cases where it happens and convictions are secured. The punishment should fit the crime.