Dangerous Driving — [Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:09 pm on 8th July 2019.

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Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 6:09 pm, 8th July 2019

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a date. That is a matter of bitter regret to me, but today’s debate will be used as an important platform to indicate the degree of concern, impatience and anger that people now feel about the delay. It certainly reinforces me in my determination to get the matter sorted out. As I have already mentioned, my ministerial and professional experience has led me to the firm conclusion that to deal with the full criminality of the gravest crimes under the definition in question, judges need that space—the ability to use their discretion.

Before I deal with individual speeches, it would be right for me to dwell for a moment on the important submissions that hon. Members have made to me, the accounts that family members have given me of their experience of the system, and my concern on hearing about aspects of the use of the victim personal statement. It would be invidious for me to intrude on proceedings where I have not read all the evidence, or seen the transcript, but I would be concerned if the reason for the editing of a victim personal statement was that somehow it would upset an offender. That seems a wholly irrelevant and inadequate explanation to give to anyone, legally qualified or not.

Surely what should drive proceedings is relevance. Having read hundreds of victim personal statements, lawyers and court practitioners are well able to distinguish when an opinion given in the statement might take matters no further; but a real sense of the effect on a victim comes through a well written and well prepared VPS. Since the introduction of the system, police officers have become better and better at drawing out from a victim or their family the sense of loss and bereavement—the whole effect of the crime on their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Those documents are important and must form a key part of the decision making in sentencing.

I was heartened to hear some families’ praise for the way individual judges dealt with each case with sensitivity, care and precision. We are fortunate that almost universally we are well served by our judiciary, who find such cases particularly difficult. I have spoken to many of them, and they feel at the end of a case a sense of inadequacy about what cannot be undone, and what cannot be restored to the families and loved ones of those who have died.

I thank the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston, who made a significant contribution to the debate, not just for her speech, but for her persistence in working with my predecessor, and with me, to ensure that her constituents’ point of view and cause are heard. Her contribution today was particularly important in that respect, and I thank her for it. She asked several questions—in particular about manslaughter. She is absolutely right to talk about the existence of that offence, which has long been part of our criminal law and remains an available option for prosecutors in certain circumstances. Those circumstances would involve cases of the highest gravity. Case law is clear that manslaughter would be charged where the facts disclosed a very high risk of death to another person—a type of offending at the very high end of culpability.

That is why the offence of causing death by dangerous driving has been a very important addition to the criminal law. It has made the test somewhat more straightforward, as opposed to that used in manslaughter. I can therefore see huge merit in marrying up the sentence level—a maximum of life imprisonment—with the advantages provided by using the test for causing death by dangerous driving. Those sorts of offences should not become some sort of legal minefield or maze. They are difficult enough for everybody involved without adding those extra complications. That is why, although the offence of manslaughter is, of course, available and is used, we must understand that it is hedged around with particular tests that mean that it is not always the most straightforward case to prosecute.

I was asked by my hon. Friend James Heappey about a particularly harrowing case involving his constituents, to whom I pay tribute and who, as we heard from him, have been through unimaginable pain. He asked about the terribly distressing circumstances involving the death of a child yet to be born. He asked me to consider what can be done to reflect the loss of such a child in traumatic circumstances. He rightly anticipated the argument that I would put to him, that there is a danger in changing the law relating to the position of unborn children. Consequences for the autonomy of mothers and the ability to take otherwise lawful action must be considered carefully before attempting to change the law.

However, that is a matter that I would be happy to discuss further with my hon. Friend; it seems to me that the real issue is how to take into account the full harm and the full sense of the impact upon a family in those circumstances. We come back to the matter of harm; paragraph 3 of the current sentencing guidelines, which are now some 11 years old, says of causing death by driving:

“Because the principal harm done by these offences…is an element of the offence, the factor that primarily determines the starting point for sentence is the culpability of the offender.”

That gives us a clear indication of where the law starts from on these matters.