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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 17th September 2015.

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Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons), Shadow Solicitor General 4:00 pm, 17th September 2015

It is always an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I begin by congratulating Alok Sharma on securing the debate and on the work that he has done for at least the past 12 months to raise this issue.

In my experience, the Prime Minister is always very receptive to Members on this subject. I saw him a few years ago on behalf of a constituent, and he was helpful in ensuring that the law was changed. I represented constituents, whom I will not name in the debate because I have not had the opportunity to check whether that is permissible, who were involved in a very serious road traffic incident. On that occasion, unfortunately, the Crown Prosecution Service decided, for whatever reason, not to continue the prosecution that it had begun. Had it continued with the prosecution, however, the court, on conviction, would have been able to sentence the offender to only two years.

In that scenario, the dangerous driver had caused very serious injury but had not, fortunately, brought about the death of the people in the vehicle. The maximum sentence at that point was two years. Fortunately, after I lobbied the Prime Minister, he allowed provisions from my private Member’s Bill to be introduced into the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 as a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving. The maximum sentence for that offence is five years.

This is not a party political issue. Members on both sides of the House raise serious concerns about driving offences on behalf of their constituents. In my experience, the civil service sometimes tend to be a little reluctant to listen carefully to what is raised by Members of Parliament, but Ministers—including the Prime Minister—have been very receptive.

I have professional experience of dealing with road traffic offences from my time as a criminal lawyer. I recall, on occasion, standing up in the Crown court representing a defendant and listening to the prosecution outline the facts of the case, which were sometimes horrendous and for which one would expect heavy penalties. If I was defending—often, I would be prosecuting the cases—I would begin my mitigation on behalf of the defendant; I remember the expressions on the judges’ faces when I started to say, “This is not the worst case you have ever seen, your honour. It is mitigated by various factors.” The judge would say, “Thank you very much indeed, Mr Turner. The maximum sentence, as you know, is two years. It is worth an awful lot more than that, but my hands are tied.” He or she would often sentence the defendant to 12 months or less, even though the victims of those horrendous crimes and their family members had to deal with serious injuries.

I am pleased to say that the law has now changed, but it is not good enough yet. In this country, 23,000 people suffer serious injury or are killed in road traffic incidents each year. The previous Government did a great deal of work to reduce that figure and improve road safety, but this Government have taken their eye off the ball in certain regards. It is startling that the average sentence for road traffic offences is four years. In my respectful submission, it is of great concern—I suspect that this is, in part, the result of cuts to the CPS and the police—that defendants charged with dangerous driving when they attend court will often, after counsel and solicitors for both sides have had the opportunity to discuss the case, have that charge reduced to careless driving.

There is a huge difference between the two offences. Dangerous driving is where the offender’s standard of driving falls far below the standard of a reasonable, competent driver. Careless driving is where the offender’s standard of driving falls below that standard. Dangerous driving is not a momentary lapse of concentration; it is going out with a dangerous weapon, driving it completely recklessly—in some cases, quite deliberately, in my experience—and causing that offence to occur.

I do not want to take up too much more time, because I want the Minister to answer the points that each and every Member has made. The Opposition support the Transport Committee’s inquiry into road traffic enforcement, because that is an issue. I have made the point—I do not mean it to sound party political—that the CPS is struggling. I think it is fair to say that CPS lawyers are accepting pleas to lesser offences when they should probably be pursuing dangerous driving cases to trial and allowing the jury to decide whether the offender was driving dangerously.

There is a question about funding to local authorities. I think I am right to say that most local authorities are reporting that their attention to, and efforts on, road safety have been reduced by as much as 90% since 2010. That is of serious concern to all of us in the House.

I have a couple of questions for the Minister. Will he confirm whether the Department is considering a review into the effect of policing and cuts on driving offences? That would definitely assist the Government. As I have said from the outset, the Prime Minister, in my experience, is keen to do everything that he can to assist in such cases. Secondly, I believe that the hon. Member for Reading West requested a timeline for the Government’s review of sentencing for driving offences. Will the Minister confirm when he plans to publish that review and what mechanism his Department will use to initiate the legislation?

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. The subject is, as I have said, absolutely not party political. We all do our best to represent our constituents as well as we can.