Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this very important debate, which is my first here in Westminster Hall. I congratulate my hon. Friend Alok Sharma on securing it and on the powerful argument that he made.
During my previous career as an insurance broker, all too often I saw the aftermath of avoidable dangerous and careless driving offences. I was frequently left amazed by the lenient sentences handed out to the offenders and by an apparent reluctance to apply the law fully. Low penalties for motoring offences send the message that these are minor infringements, rather than serious offences that cause needless suffering and loss of life.
Brake, the road safety charity, says that Government figures show that only three in five people convicted of killing someone for risky driving are currently jailed, with an average sentence of just four years. Many drivers who kill or injure receive low or no custodial sentences at all. Major improvements are needed to charges, penalties and sentencing to ensure that justice is done and that there is a strong deterrent against risky and illegal driving.
For my main contribution to this debate, I would like to expand on the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West and other Members, and point out further inadequacies in the laws surrounding motor offences. I would specifically like to refer to the case of Sean Morley, a 20-year-old constituent who was tragically killed as he crossed a road on his way home in 2012. Sean, a keen rugby player and about to start his final year at university to study history and politics, was struck by a car as he crossed the A444 near Bedworth. Although the driver of the vehicle initially stopped at the scene, he subsequently left without checking on Sean, despite his car being so badly damaged that he was unable to open the door. After managing to drive home to nearby Coventry, one of the two passengers in the car returned to the scene later on that night with another person, but denied seeing Sean. He was eventually discovered by the roadside at 6.20 am the next morning by a passing lorry.
Mr Morley’s parents were advised that it was likely that he lived for at least two hours after the accident, and the decision by either the driver or the passenger not to call the emergency services was critical. At best, it could have saved Sean’s life, and at worst, it would have given his loved ones the opportunity to say goodbye. The driver handed himself in to police at 2.30 pm the following day and was found to have drugs and alcohol in his system. He was subsequently convicted for the incident and given a 16-week custodial sentence. He was also banned from driving for 12 months. That cannot be fair and highlights a huge imbalance in the law.
In the instance of Sean, the only offence that the courts could prosecute on was hit and run, for which the maximum sentence of six months was not even handed out. As Sean’s mother Kerry points out:
“The worst thing is that in the eyes of the law Sean’s death was not important. If you kill someone in a car it’s not deemed as serious as punching someone, and I think that’s wrong. I’m not talking about people being jailed for life if someone steps out in the road in front of them, but people who text while driving, or speed, or drive when drunk or drugged.”
They need tougher sentences imposed. She continues:
“Just because someone has been killed by a car or a lorry doesn’t make it less of a death than if they’ve been killed by a knife or a gun.”
It is difficult to disagree with her.
The law is inadequate when drivers are almost encouraged to flee the scene of an accident if they have drink or drugs in their system, rather than to stay to face the consequences. The penalty for leaving the scene of an accident, as I have referred to, is currently up to six months in prison. Had the driver stayed and reported the accident and either drugs or alcohol had been found in their system, they could have been prosecuted for the higher offence of dangerous driving, which carries the greater sentence of 14 years—hardly an incentive to hang around and do the right thing.
As my hon. Friend rightly stated, even the 14-year maximum for dangerous driving is not always a sufficient penalty for the crime, but in the case of my constituent, it would have been a welcome increase on the paltry sentence that was handed down. I know that substantial work on the penalties of driving was done by the Leader of the House of Commons when he was Secretary of State for Justice. He worked with Sean’s family, my predecessor and me—his contribution was greatly appreciated by all—but there is much more that we can do.
First, we need an appropriate sentence for drivers who hit a person and leave them to die. Presently, the charge is the same as it would be for knocking off someone’s wing mirror. The driver who killed Sean knowingly left him to die, yet because he would probably not have lived even with medical intervention, due to the severity of the impact, the charge of manslaughter was not followed. Yet the driver’s actions were still the same. What I, Sean’s family and many other people would like to see is that where drivers leave the scene, guilt should be assumed. Presently, it is up to the police to find the driver and prove fault, and then it is at the behest of the Crown Prosecution Service as to what charges will be allowed.
Secondly, at least three others, excluding the driver, were involved that night, knowing that Sean was lying somewhere along the A444. None of those people has ever been brought to account for their lack of action that night in not calling for an ambulance or the police. In the eyes of the law, their only obligation was moral, not legal. Sadly, it seems that Sean was the only one with no rights that night.
Finally, the court process needs to be more controlled. In this case, and, I am sure, in many more around the country, the driver simply played the system. He chose not to plead either way, turned up without legal representation and then finally made his plea at the end of the hit-and-run court process to get credit for pleading guilty on the day. He also received a lesser sentence for his drugs conviction as he had no criminal record, despite the court process for the hit-and-run case having started before the drug trial. As a result, the driver served absolutely nothing for killing Sean as he was already in jail for the drug offence at the time.
I am sure that this tragic case, as well as the representations made by other colleagues today, perfectly highlight the desperate need for a review of the laws concerning motorists. We have more cars than ever on our roads, and in the wrong hands, they are a dangerous and deadly weapon. The law must reflect that when passing sentence.