Previous SectionIndexHome Page

12.39 pm

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) on securing this important debate, and I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye.

I, too, have a sad case to relate. It is one of many of which I have now become aware. On 10 June 1997, David Burrows, a 15-year-old, was walking home when he was struck by a speeding car and killed instantly. It happened a very short distance from where I live. His father Keith has been working tirelessly--just as we heard from the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate that the parents of the victim in his constituency did--and in December I also delivered a large petition signed by people, not only in my constituency, but from a wider area.

The driver convicted of David's death, who was found to have caused death by dangerous driving, did not receive any form of custodial sentence. In the view of the people who signed the petition, it was a derisory sentence, and this is just one of thousands of similar cases. I suggest that it is time for the courts to send a clear message that causing death by dangerous driving is a very serious offence, and sentences must reflect that.

12.41 pm

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) on raising this subject. I have been a patron of the charity Road Peace for several years, and I am pleased to have been asked to chair the all-party group campaigning for justice for road traffic victims and their families.

Some years ago, I gave evidence to the Law Commission for a study that resulted in the report entitled, "Involuntary Manslaughter". I believe that, alongside the suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate, that report may provide a course of action for the Home Office to consider. The proposal is that there ought to be a new crime that has an application beyond road traffic cases and which encompasses the concept of involuntary manslaughter. Motor manslaughter differs from any other killing in that intent is not the issue.

Clearly, there is no intent in the circumstances described by my hon. Friend or the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), but society takes the view, as does anyone who has been involved in such cases, that we can no longer accept the courts dealing with these matters so leniently. Road Peace is considering a number of issues which we will raise with the Minister. They range from road design to difficult ethical matters and savings that can accrue to the Treasury, but the suggestion that I outlined could send a powerful signal to all motorists that we need to consider our actions much more carefully.

12.43 pm

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) on securing this debate. I am glad to support everything that he said.

20 Jan 1999 : Column 869

I was made aware of the issue because Cissie Atkinson, Livia Galli-Atkinson's grandmother, lives in my constituency and has written to me. Her letters are poignant and the hurt is very apparent, but the sense of injustice that she expresses is overwhelming. It is extraordinary that someone who, even in a fit of carelessness, does something that leads to someone else's death should not be expected to face a custodial sentence, unless there are significant mitigating factors. The presumption should be that the courts must understand that. I am advised that all those involved in the case, certainly on the prosecution side, were absolutely sure that a custodial sentence would be passed down and were correspondingly astonished when that did not happen. I am sure that the Minister will understand that the public disquiet about this has to be dealt with.

Picking up on a point made by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), we are talking about a change in our culture. Most of us drive. We know that we could be careless and that our carelessness could have consequences similar to those described today. However, if we knew that our carelessness was likely to lead to a custodial sentence, it would have a definite effect on the basic level of courtesy on our roads and on the standard of driving, which needs to be raised. People would be made to understand that causing the loss of a life is something for which there is a heavy penalty. There can be no sense of justice if the courts do not apply that principle.

12.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth): Sadly, I am sure that many of us--some would say too many of us--are aware of cases in our constituencies in which bad driving has resulted in deaths on the road. Those of us who have not been bereaved in this way can only begin to imagine the effect that it must have on the families of those who have. How the criminal law is able to contribute to our response to this terrible state of affairs is clearly a matter of great concern, and I value the opportunity to debate it this afternoon.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) for raising this subject. I undertake to reflect on what he said, and, if appropriate, I shall write to him about the points that I do not manage to cover in my response. He will appreciate that there is not a great deal of time to deal with them all now. I also thank other hon. Members for their brief but nevertheless important contributions, which arise out of the experience of their constituents or those related to their constituents, as in the case of the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce).

I was certainly very sorry to hear and read about the tragic circumstances of the death of Miss Galli-Atkinson. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate has already written to the Minister of State, Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), but I take this opportunity to pass on my condolences to the family. I understand that they must have been devastated by what happened. This is particularly close to home for me since there was a similar case, although not exactly the same set of circumstances, in my constituency some years ago. I understand that, at the end of the process, the families of those who have been killed in this way often feel somehow cheated.

20 Jan 1999 : Column 870

There are a number of general points to make before I get into the detail of this aspect of the law. It is necessary to recognise that the question of how those who cause death on the roads are dealt with involves difficult and complex issues of charging and sentencing. At the same time, I can well understand the deep anger and frustration that relatives often feel when they have lost a loved one, especially when they believe that the person responsible has not been adequately punished.

No one can dispute the seriousness of the consequences when death is the result of a crash on the roads. There should be no doubt that the criminal law must address the extent of the offender's culpability. Of course, it is the responsibility of the Government to make available to the Crown Prosecution Service, the police and the courts offences appropriate to the degree of culpability of the driver in the circumstances in question. The difficulty in some cases is that the offender might, in law, have acted carelessly rather than intentionally, although the consequences of his act are disproportionately serious. When this happens, it is both likely and understandable that families will feel aggrieved at the outcome of the case.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate asked for some statistics on manslaughter and what happens in such cases. I shall provide what statistics we have, but it would take too long to plough through them now. I certainly undertake to review them to see whether we can learn anything more by examining or collecting them differently.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea): I am fully conscious of the fact that, unfortunately, I did not attend the first few minutes of the presentation of the case by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg). The distinction between careless and dangerous--a higher level of culpability--should surely be determined by the courts. One of the grossest injustices that arises in these cases surely stems from the fact that the Crown Prosecution Service and the police tend to deal out plea bargaining ahead of the hearing. As a result, the court is very frequently not allowed to distinguish between the two levels of culpability, which leads to the greatest frustration in the bereaved families.

Mr. Howarth: The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. A further point along the road makes the matter even more complex. Juries were often unwilling to convict motorists for the offence of manslaughter. Cause of death offences in road traffic cases were therefore introduced in the hope that they would provide an alternative to juries. The right hon. Gentleman is right that the situation is very complex.

The current framework of law in this area is broadly based on the views of the North committee, which reported on the issue in 1988. The report addressed in great depth the concern that the law relating to road traffic accidents had not developed satisfactorily. Detailed consideration was given to the possibility of creating a new offence of causing death by careless driving. However, the report concluded that it would be wrong to impose severe penalties for unforeseen tragic consequences if the driver's actions were careless. That view has been accepted for the past 10 years by the previous Government and, for the time being, this Government. Accordingly, where driving resulting in a

20 Jan 1999 : Column 871

death is considered to be careless, there is no causing-death offence, except where the driver was driving under the influence of drink or drugs. It is, however, an offence to cause death by dangerous driving.

We recognise the strength of opinion of many that an offence of causing death by careless driving in the absence of consumption of drink or drugs is necessary. We take those views seriously, and I assure hon. Members who have taken part in the debate that the Government will continue to consider whether such a new offence should be introduced. However, we see the strength of the arguments in the North report, and are not currently persuaded of the need to introduce such a measure. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate will be aware that my colleague in the Home Office, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, has agreed to keep the issue under review. That remains the position.

Having dealt with the offences, I turn to the question of charging. It is the role of the prosecution to decide at the beginning of the process how it is to view a case. It must look at the evidence and make the difficult decision whether there is sufficient evidence to establish that the defendant is guilty of a particular offence. The CPS, which takes the decisions, is independent of the Government, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment on or to interfere in its individual decisions on which charges to bring in a particular case. That is well understood in the House.

The Government believe that road traffic law should provide a framework for safe driving, lay down clear standards for driver behaviour and deter drivers from breaching those standards. We have no desire to be complacent about that. As part of the Government's commitment to that aim, the Transport Research Laboratory is carrying out research on behalf of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions into the way in which bad driving cases proceed through the criminal justice system. The intention is to obtain evidence on whether there is sufficiently clear guidance on the law and its purpose, and how that affects the choice of penalty. Researchers are looking in detail at the decisions taken by the police, the CPS and the courts. We expect to have results by the end of next year. At that point--hopefully--we should be in a better position to judge whether any changes in this area of the law and the way in which it operates are necessary.

I should say a little more about the vexed question of sentencing. Another of the Government's responsibilities is to ensure that the courts have the powers to decide on the appropriate sentence in each case before them. As the House would rightly expect, we take that very seriously.

As every hon. Member who has participated in this debate is aware, there is a graduated scale of penalties for road traffic offences. 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

20 Jan 1999 : Column 872

disqualification from driving. The maximum penalty for dangerous driving is two years imprisonment, and for causing death by dangerous driving or causing death while under the influence of drink or drugs, the maximum penalty is 10 years imprisonment. That framework rightly gives the courts the power to impose severe penalties on those who commit the most serious driving offences.

The Government are well aware that unduly lenient sentencing undermines public confidence in the criminal justice system. There are times when it seems that the courts have not made full use of the powers available to them. To help to deal with that problem, the Attorney-General has an important power to refer cases of indictable offence, such as causing death by dangerous driving, to the Court of Appeal, where it appears that the sentence was unduly lenient. The Court of Appeal has the power to increase that sentence, but it must be exercised within 28 days of the previous sentence. It is worth noting that the Court of Appeal can impose a heavier sentence only if it finds the sentence imposed unduly lenient.

We are also keen to do what we can to promote the important principle of consistency in sentencing. To this end, provisions in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998--due to come into effect in July--will place a new statutory duty on the Court of Appeal to consider, whenever it receives an appeal against sentence, whether it should frame a new sentencing guideline or revise an existing one. The provisions set out in detail the principles that guidelines must take into account.

The provisions also establish a sentencing advisory panel, to which reference has been made, to provide advice on such guidelines to the Court of Appeal. The panel will provide the court with statistical information about sentencing, and consult a wide range of interested parties, including victims' groups, which I accept is important. It will act in three sets of circumstances: when advised by the Court of Appeal that it intends to frame a guideline, at its own instigation, and when the Home Secretary directs it to provide views to the court. We hope and believe that those provisions will lead to more comprehensive sentencing guidelines, ensuring greater consistency in sentencing. The offence of causing death by dangerous driving could be one of the offences considered in that way.

I have very listened carefully to the debate. I assure the House that I shall continue to work with colleagues in other Departments to ensure that we get it right in tackling these serious and important issues. I put it on record again that I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate and others who have taken part in the debate for drawing the Government's attention to these issues and for providing the opportunity to debate them. We take seriously the concerns and the specific case highlighted. We shall keep the matter under review and, in due course, try to find a way through the sets of concerns, which I know are real and very harrowing for the families involved. This debate has been a very useful contribution to that process.

20 Jan 1999 : Column 873

Next Section

IndexHome Page