Driving Licences and Dangerous Drivers

– in Westminster Hall at 10:53 am on 14th June 2022.

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[Relevant document: e-petition 548682, Tom’s Law— Give police the power to suspend driving licences.]

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 10:57 am, 14th June 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered driving licences and dangerous drivers.

I am grateful to the Minister for her time today, given the sensitivity of the issues that we will be discussing. While the debate could have been called on behalf of any of the estimated 1,390 families who so very sadly lost a loved one to a road death in the last year, it is because of a grieving family in my constituency that I am here. Given their case is subject to an ongoing investigation, I recognise the rules of the House and the importance of ensuring that under the rule of law, judgment can be cast fairly.

I am sorry that I cannot lay out my constituent’s case in full. My understanding is that someone has been charged and it is important that the case is not jeopardised, but I can assure the family and the Minister that I will return to this issue once I can speak more freely. What I can say is that in December last year, my young constituent was tragically killed in a car crash, leaving behind her devastated family. It is important to note that the circumstances of the case raise concerns about drivers being able to continue to drive unless and until they are found guilty of driving-related offences. Although I am here on behalf of my constituent and her family, I hope that the Minister will consider the wider principle that affects any family who loses a loved one to dangerous driving.

As it stands, there is no law to stop any dangerous driver continuing to jump in their car after a tragic accident unless and until they not only are charged but are found guilty. I make it clear to the Minister that, of course, I recognise and wholeheartedly support the justice system upon which our rule of law is built: crimes must be investigated in full and presented before a jury to cast an impartial verdict. My call is not for guilt to be presumed before innocence—it is right that the tragic death of my constituent be investigated in full and all the evidence presented—but we must recognise that waiting for a trial in such a case can take years. It is wrong to allow somebody to continue to take to the road while they face an accusation of and investigation for death by dangerous driving. For the protection of others, for their own safety and for the peace of mind of the bereaved family, the person accused of killing their loved one by dangerous driving should not be back behind the wheel.

I cannot begin to imagine the anguish, grief and despair that a family has to face when they receive that dreaded knock on the door. It is a message that no family should ever have to hear. The pain is unimaginable, but it must be made even worse by the knowledge that nothing prevents the accused dangerous driver from driving while an investigation is still under way. We cannot bring loved ones back, but we can change the law to ensure that, while under bail conditions, nobody accused of death by dangerous driving is back on the road until the investigation is complete. It is really that simple.

Although I am unable to go into the details of my constituent’s case, I will tell the Minister about an investigation that has been completed. I understand from my hon. Friend Bridget Phillipson that her constituent, Carol King, tragically lost her partner, Richard Jordan, in a dangerous driving accident on 4 August 2019. Carol and Richard’s daughter was 19 months old when he died. Eleven days after burying her partner, Carol found out that she was pregnant, and she went on to have their second daughter in March 2020. The defendant was sentenced to six years and eight months’ imprisonment, and was also banned from driving for three years following his release. That person, who had previous convictions for driving offences and is responsible for the pain of a mourning family, will be back on our roads in a matter of years.

As it stands, the current laws and framework do not allow for the immediate removal of a driving licence from a person who is arrested or charged in connection with an offence of being over the legal limit for drink or drug-driving. Why can the police revoke a driving licence from members of the public when they fail an eye test or—as in my sister’s case—when they have an epileptic fit, but they do not have the power to remove a driving licence from someone who is driving when over the alcohol limit or under the influence of drugs?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I support what she is trying to achieve, and I know that the Minister will respond positively. Does the hon. Lady agree that the change in the law that she wants for the UK mainland would be beneficial for all the regional Administrations? It would provide consistency in police enforcement and in the laws of the land.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The change should apply across the countries of the United Kingdom.

Carol and her grieving family will be listening carefully to the Minister’s answer. In preparing for the debate, I was interested to see that similar calls were made in this very Chamber in January, in a debate about police powers to suspend driving licences. It was heartbreaking to read that debate, and I truly commend those families who have had their lives turned upside down but who have channelled their grief into the fight for justice and into achieving change for others. It is clear from that debate in January that that includes the McConnachie family.

On 24 February 2019, Tom McConnachie was killed in a hit and run by a drink-driver, who left Tom fatally injured on the road. He then drove to Okehampton and set fire to the vehicle. The offender was able to continue driving for 11 months before being disqualified, as only a court can disqualify a driver. Tom’s family are calling for police officers to be able to provide a suspension notice from the moment the offender is caught drink, drug or dangerous driving until they appear in court. It would then be for the judge to determine whether a ban continues or whether the offender can drive again.

As it stands, the police can impose bail conditions for particular purposes, one of which is to ensure that no further offence is committed while on bail. I understand that a driving ban as a condition of police bail may be deemed appropriate for some cases. However, the remarks made by my hon. Friend Sam Tarry in January’s debate made clear that we simply do not know in how many instances a licence has been suspended while someone is awaiting trial, and whether police forces are making use of those powers or even regularly considering them.

Looking further back to November and yet another debate, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, Andrew Stephenson promised that the Government were considering a review of road traffic offences and penalties, yet six months later we are still waiting for the review to get under way. A review could clarify or amend the definition of dangerous and careless driving. It could close the exceptional hardship loophole whereby drivers routinely avoid driving bans by pleading that it would cause them exceptional hardship—a plea that Cycling UK argues happens so frequently that it makes a mockery of the term “exceptional”. A review could also provide a chance to strengthen the penalties for hit-and-run offences where the driver leaves a victim for dead. Will we be back in this Chamber speaking on behalf of another grieving family in a few months’ time?

I wish to briefly raise the concerns of another of my constituents, a class 3 mobility scooter user who fears that he could fall victim to dangerous or even non-dangerous driving on our roads. According to the highway code, he is allowed to use his mobility scooter only on the main road and not in cycle lanes. Understandably, he finds this unsafe and daunting, and the drivers of the vehicles that pull up behind him are equally frustrated as to why he is leaving the adjacent cycle lane empty while riding at his maximum speed of 8 mph. Does the Minister agree that that is an incredibly easy thing for us to resolve?

I conclude by turning our attention back to the grieving family in my constituency, who are watching today’s debate at home. They did not want to be here today. The pain is still too raw for them. That may never change. Their ask is simple: that the anguish they are facing is not burdened on any other family, and that their dreaded knock on the door can be a chance for change, for the law to be amended so that anybody accused of death by dangerous driving is immediately taken off our roads. I hope the Minister will agree that that does not sound like too much to ask.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 11:08 am, 14th June 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, in what is a very difficult debate—we need to be honest about that—but one that does need to be had. While Siobhain McDonagh has set out the reasons why she is unable to discuss the specifics of this ongoing and utterly tragic case, she can be assured that I have taken the time to study the details and circumstances of Lillie Clack’s death. I have also studied the hon. Member’s parliamentary interventions and I commend her for the diligence and determination that she has shown for her constituents—Lillie’s family—and I offer my most sincere condolences as well.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for opening the debate about immediately suspending the driving licences of anyone who causes death while driving. Let me reassure hon. Members that the Government take road safety extremely seriously. It is at the heart of the Department for Transport’s agenda. Any death or serious injury is unacceptable. The Roads Minister, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, has met many families of victims of similar incidents, and she and I are aware of the devastating effects that such incidents cause to the families and friends involved.

I understand the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Lillie Clack and I extend my sympathies to her family and friends. I also recognise the concerns that, in some cases, the police should be able to suspend the driving licence of an offender who is charged with causing death by dangerous driving. However, while we must do all we can to improve the safety of our roads, we must not make rash decisions that could ultimately make things worse or create other unforeseen effects in any kind of rush to resolve perceived problems with the law and how it operates.

Turning to the call for the suspension of driving licences and the current law, as set out in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the police can already impose bail conditions to ensure that no further offence is committed while on bail, and a driving ban as a condition of police bail may be appropriate in some cases. Decisions on when to use those powers are operational matters for the police, who have to balance the rights of defendants not yet convicted and the potential benefits to public safety from reducing the risk of further offences. It is worth noting that the criminal courts also have the power to impose an interim disqualification in certain cases.

The Government are committed to tackling drivers under the influence of alcohol and drugs and ensuring that all such drivers are caught and punished. We have a combined approach of tough penalties and rigorous enforcement, along with the highly respected and effective Think! campaigns, which reinforce the social unacceptability of drink and drug driving and remind people of the serious consequences.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden asked me to comment on recent Government measures. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 includes provisions to increase the maximum penalties for causing death by dangerous driving and for causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs to life imprisonment. The Act also introduces a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. The Act received Royal Assent on 28 April and the provisions will come into force on 28 June.

On minimum disqualification periods, we have changed the law to increase the maximum period of imprisonment and the minimum driver disqualification period for those who commit the most serious road traffic offences, which will ensure that those who commit the most serious road traffic offences are kept off our roads for longer. The increases will come into force at the end of June 2022, and will apply to the offences of causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs.

I want to be clear that the Government are not dismissing the concerns that have been raised today and, indeed, by other Members in previous debates. We are aware of the traumatic effects of such incidents, however rare, and we are prepared to act if we are satisfied that we should, in the light of responses to the forthcoming call for evidence on road traffic offences. We remain open-minded that more can be done in this area, but, without further work, we cannot assume that the solution proposed by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden is the only one, let alone the right one.

I am sure that hon. Members appreciate that this is a complex area, and that any change to the law should fit within the current driving offence framework. Officials from my Department have been exploring options that could be pursued in this area and will consider the points raised in this debate, as well as the information that comes as a response to the call for evidence.

With regard to any potential law changes for road traffic offences, we will need to consider the interests of victims and wider society and balance those against the rights of suspects. To explore those issues in full, the Department will conduct a call for evidence on parts of the Road Traffic Act 1988. While details of the exact scope are still being worked up, I can reassure hon. Members and the general public that the points raised in this debate on the suspension of driving licences will be considered.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

When the timetable is drawn up for that consultation, will the Minister or her colleagues make Members aware so that they can make contributions? It seems to me that, where someone dies in a road traffic accident and the driver is found to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, it would be entirely reasonable to have a blanket law that applies to everybody to withdraw the driver’s licence, and that that would not be making judgments about the eventual decision in court.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

The hon. Member makes a valid point. Most importantly, I can confirm that I will let her know about the timescales, the call for evidence and the conclusion date. I will also endeavour to keep her updated as we make progress. We can all agree that any death or serious incident is unacceptable, and it is my Department’s aim to reduce such incidents as far as we possibly can. I believe that the call for evidence will seek to do just that, while balancing the interests of the suspect, the victim and society, for whom this is completely unacceptable.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.