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Mr. William Ross: The Minister stated that the chief electoral officer said that there was no evidence of electoral malpractice, but on page 10 of the Select Committee report Mr. Bradley states:

He witnessed it himself.

Mr. Murphy: I was referring to the absent voter aspect. I entirely accept that electoral malpractice exists, and furthermore that the perception of such malpractice leads to a lack of confidence in the electoral system. It is important that the review takes into account all the views that have been expressed by hon. Members, the Select Committee, the forum and political parties. When the review emerges later in the summer, I believe that its recommendations will produce the confidence that is necessary for proper democracy in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We now come to the debate on road traffic accidents.

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Road Traffic Accidents

1 pm

Ms Patricia Hewitt (Leicester, West): I propose to speak for about 10 minutes and then, with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall allow my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) to make brief contributions before the Minister replies.

This debate is a memorial to one of my constituents, Chantel Crofts Botterill, who was killed by a car driver last September. Chantel died on a Sunday afternoon. She had gone out with two of her sisters and a friend. They were walking along the pavement of one of the main residential roads in my constituency, Fosse Road South, when Chantel wanted to try out her friend's new bike. She hopped on and rode for a few yards, still on the pavement, which at that point was raised well above the road and guarded from it by a metal railing. She rode for only a few minutes until she was hit by a car that had swerved off the road, careered on to the pavement and smashed through the railings into her. She died instantly. She was 15.

Chantel's parents, Gail and Ronald Botterill, are here for this debate. I pay tribute to their courage and to the courage that so many other bereaved parents and families have shown in coping with their loss. I am a mother as well as a Member of Parliament and can imagine nothing worse than to lose a child. I honour and share the Botterills' determination to do everything they can to prevent other families from suffering as they have suffered.

My constituents have launched a petition and have already gathered hundreds of signatures. They want--we all want--roads that are safe for our children. They want, and we should all want, laws that hold drivers responsible for their actions, and provide proper support for the families of people killed on the roads.

Chantel was unique in her life, but she was not unique in the manner of her dying. In 1996, the last year for which we have statistics, 186 cyclists and 995 pedestrians were killed by car drivers--that is 1,181 men, women and children. Like most right hon. and hon. Members, I drive a car. It is an enormous personal convenience and I would not want to be without it, but I also know that a car is not merely a personal convenience, but a lethal weapon. A family saloon travelling at 35 mph has 90 times the power of a shotgun blast and at 40 mph a car that hits a pedestrian or cyclist will almost always kill.

The driver who killed Chantel has been charged with causing death by careless driving while under the influence of alcohol. It took several months for that charge to be brought--several months of delay that added to my constituents' distress.

I raised the case with the Director of Public Prosecutions and, finally, a senior Crown prosecutor reviewed it and agreed the charge. As the driver will be committed for trial next Monday, I will say no more about that prosecution, except to stress how rarely that charge is used. In 1995, of a total of 3,274 deaths in road crashes, there were only 13 charges for murder and manslaughter, and 369 for causing death by dangerous driving or careless driving while under the influence. In the majority of cases--seven out of eight--the horror of a death on the

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roads is followed by nothing more than a charge of careless driving and, if the driver is convicted, a fine of a few hundred pounds and the imposition of a few penalty points.

An inspector of the Leicestershire constabulary, with whom I have liaised on the death of Chantel, reminded me yesterday of the conviction in Loughborough magistrates court of a driver who killed two people in a crash on the A1. He was charged with and convicted of careless driving and was punished--if we can call it that--with a fine of £250, £120 costs and six penalty points. That is why we need a change in road traffic law.

These are not tragic accidents, as we so often refer to them, but the predictable result of criminal offences. Driving too fast, which is the cause of at least one in three road accidents and more than 1,000 deaths a year, running through a red light and accelerating across a pedestrian crossing are not acts of unfortunate carelessness, but crimes that will obviously, in many cases, kill or injure an innocent person. However, at present, the law leaves the police, the prosecuting authorities and, above all, the families of victims in an intolerable position. If the authorities believe that they cannot prove dangerous driving--and it is difficult as the law stands to do so--and if there is no evidence that the driver was using drink or drugs, they are left with nothing else than bringing a charge of careless driving, with the derisory penalties that usually follow a conviction.

Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): I wish to offer my support. Relatives of victims in my constituency have pointed out to me exactly what the hon. Lady is saying. They are left grieving, because they do not feel that they have had restitution.

Ms Hewitt: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that support.

Drivers will not take bad driving seriously when the courts and the law do not. For that reason, we need a new offence of causing death by negligence, as is the case in Germany, or causing death by driving--motor manslaughter--as in California.

The issue crosses departmental boundaries, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to tell us when the badly needed review of the Road Traffic Act 1988 will take place, and will assure the House that Ministers will seriously consider the changes that I and other hon. Members have proposed. I hope, too, that the forthcoming White Paper on transport will contain comprehensive proposals for cutting drivers' speed. In the meantime, will my hon. Friend ensure first, that, in future, the statistics for convictions for careless driving offences distinguish those in which a death or serious injury has been caused?

My second concern is with sentencing. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon will take up the issue shortly. I strongly support the North committee's recommendation, made many years ago and sadly not implemented, that the courts should be able and, indeed, required to take account of the consequences of the road traffic offence in determining sentence.

I welcome the Court of Appeal's decision this morning in one particular case, but I think that we need to go further. Any conviction for a road traffic offence where someone has suffered death or serious injury should, in

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my view, require the courts to disqualify the driver for a minimum period of five years. No driver who has killed and been convicted of a road traffic offence should be able to drive himself away from court.

The third issue that I wish to raise briefly is drug- driving. The previous Conservative Government took many steps, which we all welcome, to reduce the incidence of drink-driving and to make drivers understand the seriousness of it; of course, there is still more to be done on that. I believe that we need a parallel effort on drug-driving. I welcome the recent announcement by the Minister for Roads, Baroness Hayman, about the trial of a roadside drug-testing kit. We should require the police, in cases where there has been a death or serious injury, routinely to test the driver for drugs. We also need a clear standard for drug use which is equivalent to the legal limit on alcohol. If a blood or urine test shows that the driver has been using an illegal drug, that of itself should constitute unfitness to drive within the terms of section 3A of the Road Traffic Act.

Finally, there is the issue of support for families--the secondary victims, as Mr. and Mrs. Botterill call themselves. On the various occasions when I have been burgled, I have received without any prompting a letter from Victim Support. I have not felt the need to use it, but I have known that Victim Support was there if I needed it. I was appalled to discover that Mr. and Mrs. Botterill have received no such offer of help. They were not given the support that would, for example, have been received by the family of someone who had been murdered. Whatever the law says, from Mr. and Mrs. Botterill's point of view, their daughter has been murdered.

I do not know whether such support would best be provided by Victim Support or by organisations such as RoadPeace and BRAKE, which do excellent work. However, I know--I hope that the Minister will ensure that this takes place--that all police forces should notify the support services when there is a fatal road crash and ensure that the bereaved receive proper advice and information.

The Government were elected on a promise to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. My hon. Friends and I want to hear from the Minister that the Government will be equally tough on car crime, and ensure that the rights of car drivers are properly matched by their responsibilities. That is the least that we can do for Chantel, for all the other innocent people who have been killed by car drivers, and for the families who have been left to grieve.

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