It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, but a greater pleasure to thank Helen Jones for opening the debate with a sensitive and sensible speech. She used her experience in the law to helpfully give us a pen-portrait of the evolution of driving legislation in England and Wales. She was right to draw the House’s attention to the way the law has evolved in this area.
When we take the steering wheel of a car or a vehicle, it means that we assume a responsibility to any passengers in the vehicle, to other vehicle users, to pedestrians and to wider society. Driving law rightly criminalises what we would regard as unacceptable behaviour. It also rightly draws distinctions between types of behaviour. I readily accept that the law gets into difficulty where we have a combination of extreme culpability and blameworthiness in the manner of driving, and the extreme level of harm that can be caused by that degree of bad driving. We now call it dangerous driving; the hon. Member for Warrington North referred to it as reckless driving, as it was known prior to the 1991 reform. I have grappled with that difficulty—not just as a Member of Parliament, serving my constituents, but as a professional and a member of the criminal Bar, having been called upon to prosecute these cases, as well as in my latter incarnation as Her Majesty’s Solicitor General.
Before coming on to those examples, I add my own tribute to the families of the victims of these horrendous crimes who have come here today, have supported petitions calling for reform and have, with extraordinary dignity, exemplified all that is good in our society and positive in our world, despite the horrendous experiences they have gone through.
The offence of causing death by dangerous driving is a particularly unusual, sensitive and difficult scenario because all of us, in this room or outside, could suddenly find ourselves in the same situation as the families here today and the thousands of others who are not here but share the same experiences. Suddenly, without any warning, they are drawn into an entirely different world: a world of police and criminal justice, of procedure, of court proceedings that they never expected they would become involved with in a month of Sundays. That can only add to the sense of loss, grief and suffering that the families endure, and continue to endure—often for many years after the incident itself. It is a set of circumstances that all of us struggle to put into words and to come to terms with fully. I still struggle now, even though it is probably a quarter of a century since my first direct contact with a family who have suffered in this way.
Frankly, there is nothing that a court or this House can do to right the wrong that has been done to such families. Having said that, merely acknowledging that is never going to be enough. That is why we, as parliamentarians and legislators, must do all we can not just to mitigate the circumstances or to try to create a degree of justice, but to send a wider message to society that the system supports those who suffer, works in their interest and at least tries to deliver the highest degree of justice.
I was struck by the conversations I had this afternoon. I am grateful to the hon. Members for Warrington North and for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) for allowing me to come and meet the families. It was extremely useful and informative, and I felt the better for having heard what they had to say. I pay warm, meaningful and deep tribute to them.
To directly answer the question put by Judith Cummins, I should say that the Government have not changed their view about the need to reform the law of causing death by dangerous driving. It is our settled intention to increase the maximum penalty from 14 years to life imprisonment; the issue is when. I want to do this as soon as possible; I would like to see legislation done in a swift and effective way.
My offer to right hon. and hon. Members here and across the House is to work together, to ensure that any Bill that is introduced can be dealt with as speedily and expeditiously as possible, without—with the greatest respect to hon. Members, who have the right to amend any Bill they see before them—a plethora of amendments and other issues that could impede or slow down the process of legislation. That is my request and my offer; I would very much like to work with Members of the Opposition on that, in order to achieve our common goal.