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Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. It is clear from what the hon. Lady has said that the tragic case to which she referred is sub judice. Under the rules of the House, Members should not debate that case, which is shortly to be dealt with in the courts.

1.13 pm

Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness): First, I express my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) and the Minister for allowing

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me to make a short contribution to this important debate. I echo and support my hon. Friend's call for a review of certain aspects of the Road Traffic Act 1988.

I shall confine my remarks to section 3 of the Act and the offence of careless driving. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to respond to two points, if he can. First, an inadequate range of options is available to the magistrates courts when they are sentencing in careless driving cases. Under current legislation, there is the ability only to disqualify a driver, at the magistrates' discretion. There is no mandatory disqualification and no mandatory requirement for a convicted careless driver to undergo a compulsory road driving test again. That is a mistake. It is a gap in the law and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider whether that gap can be closed.

Secondly, I strongly support my hon. Friend's recommendation that the Minister should take the opportunity to look again at the North committee's report, which recommended that magistrates courts should have the power to take into account the consequences of careless driving. One of my constituents was killed last October--a three-year-old girl, Wallis Fenton--by an act of careless driving. My constituents' reaction to the sentence imposed in that case has been general concern that magistrates do not have a broad enough range of sentencing options that properly reflect the importance of human life and punish careless drivers appropriately.

There is a gap in section 3 of the Road Traffic Act. Careless drivers are not currently subject to appropriate sanctions and penalties. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to say something encouraging about his review of road traffic legislation in this respect.

1.15 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) on securing this important debate. During 20 years' experience as a personal injury lawyer, I have seen many bereaved families who have suffered tragedies, and I have heard them express their feelings of injustice, both in civil and criminal law.

All the points that my hon. Friend has made are illustrated by the case of the Asamoah family.Hans Asamoah was killed tragically on 22 September 1996. His mother is listening to the debate.

The facts are that a car driven by Nicholas Tunstall crashed. Hans, a passenger, was thrown out of the car and killed instantly. Tunstall decamped and gave a false name at the hospital. He initially falsely claimed to have been a passenger; he refused a blood test. He showed no remorse. When charged with causing death by dangerous driving, he pleaded not guilty at the Crown court. After half an hour, the jury found him guilty. He was found to have had two and a half times the alcohol limit and to have been using cannabis. The car had been driven at 70 mph in a 30 mph limit.

On 5 February 1998, the case came to sentencing at the Crown court. Mrs. Asamoah had previously been promised that she would be informed that it would be necessary for her to attend court. Instead, she was told that she need not go. A letter was read out in court from the parents of another victim. Tunstall was sentenced to 240 hours' community service.

Mrs. Asamoah first heard of the result when she read it in The Sun. Fortunately, she is a determined woman. Her distress, although it was compounded by the result,

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led her to take up the matter with me and the Attorney-General, who, I am pleased to say, referred the matter to the Court of Appeal, which heard the case yesterday. I am also pleased to say that the Court of Appeal increased the sentence to one of three and a half years' imprisonment, with a five-year ban and an obligation to undergo a re-test, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West. Mrs. Asamoah now feels that justice has been done. However, no sentence, lenient or harsh, can ease her pain and bring her son back.

The lessons from the case are clear. It is not only a matter of changing the law. We must also ensure that sentencing policies are carried out fully and are brought to the attention of the court, in the same way in which the Court of Appeal made its recommendations yesterday. The Crown Prosecution Service must adopt a more aggressive line in these matters. As my hon. Friend has said, the victims must have their views taken into account and heard. They must be treated with consideration and tact, and they must be given proper information about what is going on.

1.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I begin by saying how moved I was, and how sorry to hear the description given by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) of the tragic circumstances of the death of Chantel Crofts. When listening to my hon. Friend, I realised that I knew the relevant part of Leicester reasonably well. I know Fosse Road South, which is to the west side of Narborough road, where the incident happened.

Like my hon. Friend, I am a parent. I have two young children. I agree with her that I cannot imagine anything worse than the loss of one of my children. I convey my sympathy and sincere condolences to Chantel's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Botterill, and to her sisters and brothers at this difficult time for them. I also convey condolences to Mrs. Asamoah, in the case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). Similarly, I offer condolences to the family involved in the case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton).

I cannot comment on the circumstances of the individual case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) because, as Mr. Deputy Speaker rightly said, it is sub judice and it would be improper for a Minister to comment on the circumstances at this time. However, I am concerned at the delay that she mentioned and I will ask for a report seeking reasons for that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West made various proposals for legislative change in her usual persuasive style, and I will consider them. These are important issues and we want to ensure that we get it right. Criminals who use cars are criminals none the less, and we intend to ensure that our response is firm and tough. As my hon. Friend requested, I will liaise with colleagues in other Departments, particularly the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, on how we can tackle road safety issues more effectively. I undertake also to write to my hon. Friend about the proposal that the police should have available

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to them the pamphlet from BRAKE, and that the support services should be notified of the possible need to help bereaved families in circumstances such as this.

That said, I shall now seek to address the broader issues. This involves difficult and complex issues of charging and sentencing, and I hope that I can address them with a degree of sensitivity, which is important in cases such as this. Sometimes, those who kill on the roads are punished only by relatively low fines. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness described circumstances in which offenders have been charged with careless driving.

I can well understand the deep anger and frustration felt by relatives who have lost a loved one and who believe that the person responsible has not been adequately punished. Such cases pose particular difficulties forthe court. No one can dispute the seriousness of the consequences when death is the result of a crash, but the criminal law must consider the extent of the offender's culpability. The difficulty in these cases is that the offender has, in law, acted carelessly rather than intentionally, but the consequences of his act are disproportionately serious.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West said, this whole subject was looked at in depth by the North committee in 1988. The report concluded that it would be wrong to impose on a driver severe penalties for tragic consequences if his actions amounted to carelessness.

The Government must ensure that the courts have the powers they need to deal with the offenders who appear before them. That is certainly our responsibility. It is the responsibility of the courts to deal with the cases that come before them and to decide on the appropriate sentence in each case. We believe that the law should provide appropriate sanctions to enable the courts to deal severely with instances of bad driving that are worse than careless, and where the offender bears a greater responsibility for his actions.

As hon. Members will know, there is a graduated scale of penalties. Careless driving carries a maximum fine of £2,500 and an obligatory endorsement of the offender's driving licence. Driving while disqualified and drink-driving both carry maximum penalties of six months' imprisonment, a £5,000 fine and an obligatory disqualification from driving. More serious driving offences rightly carry more severe penalties. The maximum penalty for dangerous driving is two years' imprisonment and for causing death by dangerous driving or driving while under the influence of drink or drugs, the maximum penalty is 10 years' imprisonment. The courts may disqualify the offender from driving a motor vehicle for a period of disqualification up to life. That framework gives courts the powers to impose severe penalties on those who commit the most serious driving offences.


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