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

My hon. Friend makes an important point; I am perhaps illustrating in my response the struggle, the tension and the difficulty that exist here in fully reflecting the harm and the loss caused as a result of that particular course of driving. That is why I am firm in my conclusion and the Government’s conclusion that to deal with those very serious offences, which come to the top in terms of not only culpability, but harm, judges need more headroom.

I have already thanked Liz McInnes for her important contribution. She quite rightly talked about a case involving her constituent and his family. I thank her for drawing to our attention a powerful example of how the current law is not providing the degree of justice that so many families look to the system to provide. I look forward to working with her on this issue in the months ahead.

Jim Fitzpatrick made an important and interesting contribution to the debate, talking about the position on road safety. He rightly reminded us that there is no room for complacency on this issue and that, while this country is among the safest in the world when it comes to road traffic incidents, there are still far too many incidents that are simply avoidable.

It is important to note that, although the hon. Gentleman says they have plateaued, road deaths have continued to fall over the past 12 years—the reduction in fatalities was some 39% in the years since 2007—but I accept that that is almost always as a result of other initiatives that have been taken, rather than better driver awareness. We have safer infrastructure measures; we have new vehicle technologies; we have better hazard perception testing; we have better trauma care, where lives are often saved that would not have been some years ago; and, yes, we have a sense of shifting social attitudes, which I am glad of—we all welcome it.

Hon. Members have referred to the fact that when it comes to drink-driving, what would have been acceptable a generation ago is no longer acceptable at all within society. That is all welcome, but we still experienced more than 26,000 deaths or serious injuries on our roads in 2017, of which 48 were young children. Too many of those incidents involved criminal behaviour, whether dangerous or careless driving, or failing to stop at the scene, and every avoidable death is one too many.

It is hard to see how the criminal justice system can ever adequately compensate for the loss and grief felt by families in these dreadful circumstances. Since 2012, however, we have seen a greater proportion of drivers who have caused fatalities through careless or dangerous driving being sentenced to immediate custody; it increased from 53% in 2012 to 60% last year. We have also seen an increase in the average length of custodial sentence for those offences.

Clearly, the courts are in some measure reflecting societal attitudes and the change in attitude that we have seen toward those serious driving offences. That is reflected by the number of people who signed the petition that prompted today’s important debate and the fact that, as we have heard, the consultation that took place was one of the most significant undertaken in recent years, because the number of responses was considerable.

As a result, not only was this proposal put forward, but two other key proposals were accepted. The first was to increase the maximum penalty for causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs from 14 years to life imprisonment, and the other was to provide a stronger response to offences of careless driving resulting in serious injury. We propose to deal with that by introducing a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. It will sit alongside the existing offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving, which was introduced in 2012.

I confess to a sense of frustration at the incremental nature of the way we deal with driving offences. If I were able to wave the proverbial magic wand, I would like to see a thoroughgoing codification of the law to make it readily and easily understandable, but I recognise that I cannot do that and that time is not on our side. Therefore, the incremental approach is the best way forward if we are to achieve real change for society, and for the families and victims who have been affected.

I was talking about the contribution of the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, and I was particularly interested in his discussion of Brake’s helpful and important work in this field. I have probably partially answered his question about a review. Tempting though it is to use that as a cloak for inaction, that would not be good enough. I bear in mind what he says about the sentencing gap caused by the gradation between careless and dangerous driving. I do not have an easy answer about that.

Returning to what the hon. Member for Warrington North said, I do not advocate introducing an offence of reckless driving—a subjective test offence, which might better reflect the gradation in individual driving standards, but which could make the test more difficult in terms of actually proving an offence. This is a vexed question that needs to be debated properly, and I thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse for raising it. I do not want it to be used as a reason for further delay.

Stephanie Peacock made an important and powerful contribution on the case of Jacqueline Wileman, which she has put to me before in the Chamber. I am grateful to her for having brought Jacqueline’s family to meet me some weeks ago. What they said to me was powerful, informed, measured and dignified, and I pay tribute to her constituents for playing their part in adding to the swell of pressure rightly being brought to bear today. I thank her again for campaigning in this area.

That was an important case because the prosecutors used the principle of joint enterprise to bring to book those who were not actually driving but who were part of the course of conduct in that heavy goods vehicle. That sensible use of the law will hopefully send a wider message to prosecutors that, just because an individual might not be at the wheel, it does not mean that he or she is not responsible for what happens in the vehicle and the consequences of those unlawful and criminal acts. I am grateful to the hon. Lady.

Dr Drew made a distinctive contribution in which he rightly talked about the number of people disqualified from driving. He asked about discretionary disqualification. It was certainly always my understanding, from practice, that to achieve an exemption from a discretionary disqualification, one had to show exceptional hardship above and beyond the ordinary inconveniences of not being able to drive. If that test is not being applied stringently, that is a matter of concern to me. It was intended not to be some cheap get-out clause, but to reflect those exceptional cases where there might be real hardship—usually not to the driver, but to people who might depend upon that person.

The hon. Gentleman made a general point about impunity and rightly prayed in aid the important work of local voluntary groups in speed watch schemes. I am a qualified speed watch operator, and I have joined many local groups in my constituency to patrol roads of particular concern, with some good effect, I am glad to say, where the behaviour of drivers has changed, with greater forethought given to the quality or otherwise of their driving, particularly in residential areas.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about consequences and how to better use the information obtained from devices in speed watch schemes to improve conduct and enforcement. That information is usable, and I am happy to talk further on that with him, and perhaps with some of our local police and crime commissioners, to see how we can achieve further crime reduction in our neighbouring police constabulary areas. I readily take up that invitation for us to work together.

Drew Hendry rightly drew the House’s attention to the work of the Scottish Government on reducing road casualties and on dealing further with the offence of driving while over the alcohol limit. I am glad to say that, on the south side of the border, work continues within Government to pursue the strategy set out in the 2015 road safety statement, which drew together a number of important safety measures. That statement resulted in: a number of successful bids to the safer roads fund from right across the country; increased penalties for drivers who use handheld mobile phones while driving; and—I think rightly—learner drivers being allowed to go on our motorways, thereby obtaining vital experience before qualifying, rather than leaving it until after qualifying, which I always thought was an odd way to train new drivers.

That road safety statement is refreshed and improved upon periodically; this work is ongoing. As always in the sphere of criminal law, before and after devolution, much we have learned from the Scottish criminal justice system has been used here. While I cannot make any commitments relating to drink-driving legislation on behalf of my colleagues from the Department for Transport, we watch with great interest the effect of those changes on behaviour within the population. I note the figures that the hon. Gentleman cited on the reduction of drink-driving incidents, which I found extremely informative.