Dangerous Driving — [Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 8th July 2019.

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Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Chair, Petitions Committee 4:30 pm, 8th July 2019

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point on something that I will come to later. I understand why it is difficult for people to understand the law in this area, because we often punish the type of driving rather than the outcome. We used to have three offences—dangerous driving, careless driving and reckless driving—but the offence of dangerous driving as it was then was abolished under the Criminal Law Act 1977 because it was felt there was not sufficient distinction between dangerous driving and reckless driving. However, soon after, it appeared to people that the law was not punishing the most serious cases effectively. In fact, a review of the law by Dr Peter North in 1988 showed that many people thought that the law was not dealing with the most serious cases properly. Also, recklessness is obviously very difficult to prove, as it is subjective.

At the time, the Government were focused on dealing with drink-driving, to which I will return, because I think we can learn some lessons from it. The offence of causing death by dangerous driving was not introduced until the Road Traffic Act 1991. Even then, it was clear to many people that the law was still not being used effectively. There were widespread complaints that the Crown Prosecution Service was often charging people with the lesser offence of careless driving, because it felt that it was more likely to secure a conviction.

Attempts were made to address that, with advice to Crown prosecutors in 2007, and revised guidance in 2013 that set out some of the constituents of dangerous driving, such as excessive speed, racing, aggressive driving, ignoring traffic signs or lights, and failing to have regard for vulnerable pedestrians. Most of those elements were present in Violet-Grace’s case. There were also attempts to deal with people’s fears through changes to advice from the Sentencing Advisory Panel.

It is also fair to say that Governments of all colours tried to fill in the gaps in the law so that it operated properly. In the Road Safety Act 2006, the Labour Government introduced the offence of causing death by careless driving, and causing death by driving while unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured. In the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the coalition Government introduced the offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. In the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, the offence of causing serious injury when driving while disqualified was introduced, punishable by four years’ imprisonment and a fine. Causing serious injury through careless driving was punishable by a sentence of up to five years’ imprisonment.

All those measures were welcomed by road safety campaigners and had widespread support across the House, but they still did not deal with people’s fears that the worst offences were neither being dealt with nor sentenced appropriately, even though, in 2003, the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving had been increased from 10 years to 14 years. That matters because if the law is to work effectively people have to have confidence in it. It has to do three things: protect the innocent, punish the guilty and deter further offences. There was a widespread belief that that was not happening.

That belief was why, after a consultation, the current Government announced in October 2017 that they would increase the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving from 14 years to life. At the time, Dominic Raab, who was then a Justice Minister, said that the decision had been taken to reflect

“the seriousness of the worst cases, the anguish of the victims’
families, and maximum penalties for other serious offences such as manslaughter”.

He said that the change would be introduced when parliamentary time allowed. The same thing was said in answer to a question from my hon. Friend Judith Cummins, who has also campaigned on this issue.

I must ask the Minister, why the delay? Everyone in Parliament knows that when we are not debating Brexit we have very little business. The proposed change could be dealt with swiftly, almost in a one-clause Bill. It would receive widespread support across the House and the support of the general public. I know that the Government want to deal with other issues, but why wait for a big Bill when we could get on and do this now? Surely we do not need to wait for someone else—God forbid, another child—to be killed before we act.

I would go further. In the Violet-Grace case, the car was stolen, which was clear evidence of criminal intent, and it had false numberplates, went through two red lights and was doing 83 mph. The driver had previous criminal convictions for burglary and failing to comply with a court order. He should have been charged with manslaughter—something Gareth Johnson mentioned. This was a criminal act by a known criminal, with a complete disregard for other people’s lives. However, that is not what the petition asks for; it asks simply for life sentences to be made available for the offence.

The petition also asks for a minimum tariff of 15 years, which I think is a little more problematic. Generally, our law does not set minimum sentences; it sets maximum sentences and leaves it to the trial judge, who has heard all the evidence, to set the tariff. Clearly, if we went down that road there would have to be changes to the sentencing guidelines to reflect that. My fear about setting a minimum tariff is that it might have the opposite effect to what is intended: it might make juries more reluctant to convict in some cases, and lead to the situation that we have seen before of people being charged with careless driving instead of dangerous driving.

The same, or at least a similar, problem comes with calling for consecutive sentences. Normally in our law, sentences are served concurrently for convictions arising from the same incident, and consecutively if they arise from different incidents. I understand entirely why families want consecutive sentencing for offences when someone has been killed and someone else has been seriously injured, but my fear is that the tariffs set would be lower. Therefore, those proposing the change would not necessarily achieve what they want. However, that could be looked at and considered.

It is clear that we should get on with increasing the maximum sentence, but that by itself is not enough. I referred to how we tackled drink-driving in this country. We did two things: we not only brought in the breathalyser and ensured that serious sentences were available, but we did a public education campaign that, in the end, changed people’s attitudes. It used to be quite socially acceptable to knock back a load of pints and get behind the wheel of a car. It no longer is. I am not saying that that does not happen, but it is no longer socially acceptable.

We need to do those two things. Mr and Mrs Youens are already doing their part by speaking at speed awareness courses to alert drivers to the damage that they can do. We need to do our part as politicians and introduce a proper public education campaign, because the aim in the end is surely not to have lots of people serving life sentences; it is to deter them from committing the offence in the first place and to save people’s lives. Will the Government please now get on with that?

I know that the Government are looking to include other provisions in a road safety Bill, dealing with such things as cycling. Those measures are worthy in themselves, but they are delaying action on something that many of us believe needs action now. The Government would have the support of the public and widespread support among all parties in the House, and such action would rebuild confidence in the law and recognise the campaigning of bereaved families. Most importantly, it might save lives—and surely saving even one life makes this worth doing.