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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:53 pm on 17th September 2015.

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Photo of Douglas Chapman Douglas Chapman Scottish National Party, Dunfermline and West Fife 3:53 pm, 17th September 2015

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, Mr Hollobone, and it is a pleasure to do so under your chairmanship. I commend Alok Sharma for securing this important debate. I admire how he has gone about the campaign and today’s debate and the obvious care and concern that he has shown for his constituents, whom he is obviously representing today.

That said, the families here today could be any of our constituents. Hon. Members who have served for many years as MPs or local councillors—or, indeed, through their own family connections—have had vast experience of tragedy striking because of the callous and unacceptable behaviour of a few. Where a serious injury results or, more devastatingly, a life is lost, the impact on the family and the experience of loss inflicted on them can be excruciating. Families are often left asking the simple question, “Why?” There is never an adequate answer that we as Members of Parliament can give that will fill the void left by the loss of a much-loved father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife or friend.

The case brought by the hon. Member for Reading West before the House today involved not just one family, but two. The case was described by Chris Skidmore as well. The loss of two lives just doubles the pain that families face.

Drinking and driving lies at the core of many deaths on our roads. In summing up the debate, I want to focus some of my comments on that aspect. In Scotland last December, the blood alcohol limit was lowered from 80 mg to 50 mg in every 100 ml of blood. That new law brings Scotland in line with most of Europe. Projections suggest that it will reduce the number of arrests and prosecutions, as we have already seen in the Republic of Ireland, where drivers have adjusted their behaviour to take account of the lower limit. From my own social circle, I know that the change in the law in Scotland is causing similar changes in behaviour there. The pre-festive season campaign that will be run on TV, on radio, in the print media and on motorway overhead gantry signs is that “none” is the best advice when it comes to drinking and driving.

Evidence in Scotland is that 20,000 Scottish drivers are stopped by Police Scotland every month. That is equivalent to one driver every two minutes. Chief Superintendent lain Murray, head of road policing in Scotland, said to the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee that

“research shows that drink driving and alcohol counts across the board tend to drop following the introduction of lower limits.”

The North report cites that reducing the drink-drive limit in Scotland would save anything between three and 17 lives on Scotland’s roads every year. There are families with us today who would give anything to have just one life saved if the clock could only be turned back. The North report also cites that having one alcoholic drink and then driving makes someone twice as likely to be involved in a fatal car crash. Surely that is too much of a risk to take.

I do not want to take anything away from the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s debate by raising a constitutional issue. However, in Scotland we have only the power to set the drink-driving limit itself. We would love to have extended powers also to consider differential limits for young and newly qualified drivers and for professional drivers such as those driving heavy goods vehicles, taxis and buses and to consider random breath testing or to change the penalties available to the courts for drink-driving offenders. I reiterate that I raise that not as a constitutional point, but in order to ask the Minister to explore all the possibilities.

Hon. Members also spoke about speeding. Certainly the introduction of “20’s Plenty” zones has been successful in changing driver behaviour, but as Jim Fitzpatrick said, such initiatives need to be, and be seen to be, enforced with appropriate policing resources. In my own local authority area, the number of children whose lives are lost through dangerous driving remains at zero, and long may that continue. It is a direct result of a “20’s Plenty” scheme across the county.

Hon. Members have given their own accounts of harrowing cases where lives were lost—absolutely unnecessarily, some would say—and we now have to consider whether the law as it stands is adequate to deal with these tragic cases, whether the punishment fits the crime and whether there should be a change in the way in which the courts consider serial offenders.

Following the success of the e-petition, the hon. Member for Reading West has met the Prime Minister and, more recently, the Justice Secretary. Thanks to the hon. Gentleman’s interventions and those of the families, a full review is now under way. The calls by the hon. Member for Reading West should be supported. To back his calls, we need clear information about the consultation process and an assurance that the outcome will be listened to. A timetable must be laid down to ensure that any recommendations from the review can be translated into the law of the land as timeously as possible. Without wishing to prejudge the recommendations, the law must be amended where necessary to give greater recognition to the rights of innocent parties who are the victims of reckless behaviour, and to ensure that appropriate and consistent sentences are applied.

It would, of course, be greatly preferable for time, effort and energy to be put into preventing such dreadful accidents and tragic losses from occurring in the first place. I hope that the Minister will also comment on some of the prevention measures that could be taken to reduce the number of serious accidents and deaths on our roads.