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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:09 pm on 17th September 2015.

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Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 4:09 pm, 17th September 2015

I thank my hon. Friend for that correction, which makes the finding even more significant. Like him, I was deeply shocked by the case he mentioned of someone driving at more than twice the legal speed limit through a red light, killing someone, and the sentence that was passed down. I tell him, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire, that sentencing guidelines make it clear that driving without care in the vicinity of a pedestrian crossing, hospital, school or residential home are all to be taken into account as aggravating factors when determining an appropriate sentence. I note her further comments on these matters.

My hon. Friend Craig Tracey also made an excellent contribution, and he highlighted the tragic case of Sean Morley. We were all extremely moved by his description of the highly distressing circumstances of that utterly terrible case. I have taken very careful note of what he said.

Finally, my hon. Friend Chris Skidmore, in another powerful speech, told us of an horrific incident in which a couple riding a tandem bicycle were tragically killed in his constituency. He said that the former Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. Friend Chris Grayling, has visited the spot. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood that the similarities between a knife, a gun and a car are fairly strong when it comes to taking someone’s life or causing horrific injuries. I note the judge’s comments in that case, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s persistence in raising such matters. He said that the Justice Secretary can raise the maximum penalty, but that is not correct; it is actually for Parliament to set the maximum penalty for an offence, but I understand his point.

Douglas Chapman, who speaks for the Scottish National party, talked about the reduction of the legal alcohol limit in Scotland. Those powers are devolved to Scotland and are the responsibility of colleagues in the Department for Transport. I will pass on his comments.

The shadow Minister also has a long-standing record of personally campaigning on dangerous driving. He told us that he has previously been to see the Prime Minister, which led to a change in the law. I pay tribute to him for that, and for the contribution that he has made on the issue. A recent inspection report on Crown Prosecution Service practice has recommended better training and more specialist road traffic prosecutors. I am sure that he will be grateful to know that, and I will write to him on the further specific details for which he asked.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to go in some detail through the matters brought before us in this debate. On the particular case that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West brought before the House, the driver entered a guilty plea to a number of offences, including two counts of causing death by dangerous driving and driving while disqualified. He received a sentence of 10 years and three months on 16 April 2014, and he was banned from driving for 15 years.

Turning to the specific issues that my hon. Friend raised, he will know as well as I do that sentencing is a matter for judges, who are independent. The judges decide on a sentence, having considered the full details of the case and the offender. They are best placed to decide on a just and proportionate sentence. The duty on the courts is to follow guidelines or, if they do not, to say why. That leads to greater transparency in the sentences likely to be imposed, and will hopefully lead to increased consistency in sentencing practice.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the appeals procedure allows the Attorney General to make a reference to the Court of Appeal in serious cases if a sentence is unduly lenient, or if the offender believes the sentence is unduly harsh. In this case, the offender appealed the sentence. I was particularly struck by the care taken in the case by the Court of Appeal to consider not only the appalling driving involved but the harm that it had caused to the families. I know that the appeal would have been a difficult experience for the families, and I hope that its dismissal has brought some reassurance.

A reduction for an early guilty plea is not just about saving money and time; it is designed to ensure that wherever possible, victims, their families and witnesses are not required to relive or be cross-examined about dreadful events in court. It can also lead to swifter justice. In keeping with the current law and guidelines, the driver in this case had his sentence reduced for pleading guilty to the offence at an early stage. A guilty plea at the earliest opportunity will normally attract the maximum sentence reduction of one third, but judges retain discretion in regard to that reduction. In this case, as the evidence against the driver was overwhelming, the judge exercised that discretion and did not apply the full discount. Taking account of a lesser discount for the early plea, the 10-year sentence imposed is close to the 14-year maximum penalty for the offence. The Court of Appeal gave a clear judgment upholding both the sentence and the judge’s decision not to grant the full reduction for the early guilty plea.

Turning to my hon. Friend’s calls for changes in the law, I should say that he raised two main points. The first relates to the imposition of maximum and minimum penalties; the second is that when more than one person is killed, the court should make the sentence for each additional death follow on from the first, so that they are served consecutively rather than concurrently. On maximum penalties, it is worth stressing that although sentencing is a matter for the courts, setting the framework within which the courts work is for Parliament. The 14-year maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving was set by Parliament to cover the worst imaginable case of that specific offence.

When deciding what sentence to impose within the maximum available, the court is required to take account of all the circumstances of the defence and any mitigating or aggravating factors. Where there is more than one victim, that will be taken into account and will aggravate the seriousness of the offence, meriting a longer sentence. The sentencing guidelines for causing death by dangerous driving specifically mention that the courts should take account of the higher harm caused by the offence where there is more than one victim. That is exactly what the court did in this case; it took the very high harm caused by two deaths, applied a smaller than normal reduction for the early guilty plea and arrived at a sentence close to the maximum.

It would be contrary to our system of justice to impose a maximum penalty for any death in any circumstances, in road traffic or in any other offence. The Government do, however, want maximum penalties that allow the courts to respond appropriately to the full range of cases as they are likely to take place. Where there is a clear failing in the law, Parliament has moved to remedy it. In the past, where offenders have left a victim with serious injuries, the maximum penalty for the offence has related to the driving, not the harm caused.

In the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving was created, with a five-year penalty, as the Opposition spokesman told us. That change in the law means that there is now a range of offences and maximum penalties dealing with dangerous driving that more properly reflect the harm caused. In addition, under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, the maximum penalty for disqualified drivers who kill or cause serious injury has been increased. The previous maximum was only two years for causing death, but it has now been increased to 10 years. The measure came into force in April 2015. I hope that hon. Members will see that there has been action in response to the quite proper parliamentary pressure in that area.

I am aware of your strictures, Mr Hollobone. Everyone else has obeyed them, so I feel that I should as well. I could say more, but it is right that I give the remaining time available to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West. I thank him again for what he has said. I realise the strength of feeling on this extremely important matter, and I will continue to engage with him and other hon. Members on it.