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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Driving Licences (Disqualification Until Test Passed) (Prescribed Offence) Order 2001

Eighth Standing Committee

on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 4 December 2001

[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]

Draft Driving Licences (Disqualification until Test Passed) (Prescribed Offence) Order 2001

4.30 pm

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Driving Licences (Disqualification until Test Passed) (Prescribed Offence) Order 2001.

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce the draft order and hope that it will not be necessary to take up too much of the Committee's time.

Hon. Members will be aware, from the publication of our road safety strategy last year, of the Government's commitment to improving the safety of all those who use roads and reducing road traffic casualties to a minimum. The strategy set out a wide range of plans to achieve that. If approved here and in another place, the order will make a further contribution to achieving those aims.

The effect of the order is simple. In future, anyone convicted of the offence of causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs will be required to pass a driving test before being allowed back on the road. Such persons will have to demonstrate their competence to drive again, which will mean passing the theory test, even if they did not have to take it when they originally qualified.

I shall briefly explain the background to the proposal. As the law stands, when a court has disqualified a person from driving on conviction of some especially serious road traffic offences, it is obliged to order that person to be disqualified until he or she has passed the appropriate driving test. That is provided for in section 36(1) of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, to which I shall refer as the 1988 Act, as substituted by section 32 of the Road Traffic Act 1991, to which I shall refer as the 1991 Act. I shall explain the meaning of ''appropriate'' in a moment.

The offences specified in section 36(2) of the 1988 Act, to which the mandatory provision applies, are manslaughter by a driver of a motor vehicle, causing death by dangerous driving and dangerous driving alone, which are three of the most serious road traffic offences. The appropriate driving test to which I referred may be what is termed ''a test of competence to drive''—that is, a standard driving test—or an extended driving test, which is a double-length test. Those convicted of motor manslaughter, causing death by dangerous driving or dangerous driving alone are required to take an extended test.

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Under section 36(3) of the 1988 Act, the Secretary of State may by order prescribe other offences involving obligatory endorsement, so that in such cases there would be obligatory disqualification until an extended driving test had been passed. The proposed order would extend the requirement to the offence of causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs, which is provided for in section 3A of the Road Traffic Act 1988. It would oblige courts to disqualify anyone found guilty of that offence until they passed the appropriate test. As section 3A carries a mandatory minimum disqualification of two years, the appropriate test would be the extended retest, as is the case with the other offences covered by section 36.

The concept of disqualifying drivers ''until test passed'' who have committed certain road traffic offences dates back many years, but the current statutory provisions, created by the Road Traffic Act 1991, derive from the wide-ranging North review of road traffic law, which reported in 1988. The North committee believed that that impact of a requirement to retake a driving test on the individual offender was likely to be more significant than a fine at the level that courts tend to set.

Hon. Members will agree that the penalty of having to take another examination of driving competence would be an opportunity to correct any bad driving habits acquired over the years. The North committee considered that the deterrent effect on drivers should be an incentive to maintain standards of driving skills and to avoid an offence that might put them under such scrutiny. It recommended that a retesting order should be added to the range of sentencing options and imposed by the court in combination with, or instead of, other such options.

The North committee also concluded that although retesting, if adopted, would be a disposal at the discretion of the courts, driving misconduct of a sufficiently serious nature should result in an obligatory retest. That could be justified not only because of the seriousness of the offence but because of the time that the offender was likely to have spent off the road.

Although many of the North committee's recommendations were subsequently implemented in the 1991 Act, it was decided in the first instance to limit mandatory retesting of offenders to the most serious offences only. The committee recommended that it should apply to anyone disqualified for 12 months or more, which would have meant that virtually all drink-drive offenders had to take a retest. However, the then Government considered that such offenders were more likely to benefit from drink-drive rehabilitation training courses, which are designed to influence their attitude towards alcohol and driving rather than their driving skills. We are convinced of the benefits of such courses, but we also feel that there is a case for extending the use of mandatory retesting in certain circumstances.

In last December's consultation paper on the review of road traffic penalties, in which we made proposals on penalty changes, we suggested that a requirement to pass a test could be seen as an appropriate remedy even

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for drink-driving offences. As the North report noted, that would be especially beneficial when the driver had been disqualified for a lengthy period in which his or her driving skills might have become rusty.

The consultation exercise invited respondents to make suggestions on the extension of mandatory retesting to other offences or on the length of disqualification to which it might apply. There appears to be strong support for the idea of more retesting of road traffic offenders, especially following lengthy disqualification. Although we have not reached any final conclusions on the penalties review, we believe that there are good grounds to extend mandatory retesting under section 3A of the Road Traffic Act 1988, regardless of further changes that might be made in the light of the review.

That extension will bring the section fully into line with other serious road traffic offences that attract mandatory retesting. Causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs carries the same maximum penalties as causing death by dangerous driving. Both attract a mandatory minimum of two years' disqualification.

Court decisions have made it clear that, for sentencing purposes, causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs are to be regarded as equal. Hon. Members may want to consider Regina v. Brown and Regina v. Locke, both cases from 1995. In the latter, the court felt that it would not be correct to say that causing death by dangerous driving, which might be committed without the aggravating feature of substantial alcohol consumption, was necessarily a graver offence than causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink. In the light of that judgment, it would seem sensible to put the two offences on the same footing for the retesting requirement.

Because the offence relates to careless driving, courts are likely to be concerned with both the objective standard of the defendant's driving at the time of the offence and his or her suspected impairment through alcohol or drugs. A requirement to undergo a further driving test would therefore seem appropriate for the offence, because the standard of driving would be an issue. In ordinary drink-driving cases, that is not necessarily so.

Hon. Members should also be aware that there is an important consideration on the timing of the order. Section 36(14) of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1998 prevents the Secretary of State from making orders to prescribe further persons convicted of offences to which mandatory retesting should apply after 31 December 2001, if he has not previously made any such orders. I confirm that this is the first such order.

The issue is therefore urgent. Should it not be possible to take the order through the necessary stages by 31 December, the order-making power in section 36(3) of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 will cease. To restore the power, the Government would be obliged to seek a replacement provision in new legislation.

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We believe that there are sound reasons for extending such retesting of drivers. They are based on common sense and the Government's desire not only to deter the kind of irresponsible behaviour that leads to too many tragedies on our roads but to provide for thorough retraining for individual drivers where required in order to discourage reoffending and to protect other road users. In our view, the provisions of the order are compatible with the convention rights as defined in section 1 of the Human Rights Act 1998, and I commend the order to the Committee.

4.40 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I am grateful to you, Mr. Hood, for allowing me to catch your eye. I am also grateful to the Minister for giving the Committee such a full explanation of the order, which the Opposition welcome. I hope that it will not be necessary to detain the Committee for too long, but there are one or two aspects on which I would like to probe the Government—some of the theory surrounding the matter, and some specific questions.

The Government produced a consultation paper in December 2000 called ''Road Traffic Penalties''. Paragraph e in chapter 9 states:

    ''Mandatory re-testing currently applies''—

as the Minister just said—

    ''only to dangerous driving offences and manslaughter (or culpable homicide). When it was introduced it was decided that it should not apply to the drink-drive offences because the then Government considered that those offenders were more likely to benefit from the rehabilitation courses designed to influence their attitude towards alcohol and driving.''

The Government are right to have reconsidered the matter. We warmly welcome their reconsideration. It is no coincidence that the order is being discussed on the day that the Government have launched their £1 million anti-drink-driving campaign. However, it would have been better if the order had come into force on 31 November, before Christmas, rather than on 31 January 2002, after the mayhem. There was an interesting article in The Daily Telegraph today, which talks about a worrying trend. The article states:

    ''Young drivers are becoming complacent about drink-driving laws, a survey shows. A quarter believed that they could drink up to five pints and still be under the legal limit, according to a poll for Manpower magazine. Nearly half felt that they drove better after having had two pints and that their driving ability was not impaired by double that amount.''

I welcome the order and hope that it acts as a deterrent for anybody thinking about having a drink over the limit at Christmas. The figures for the past three years, from 1997 to 2000, show that the number of positive tests at Christmas range from 972 in 1999 to 1,380 in 1997. Last year, the total had come down to 1,081. Nevertheless, that is still too many, and we welcome the order.

The Minister will be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) led an Adjournment debate on road sentences. The main issue that he was driving at in that debate was whether there should be an additional offence of causing death by careless driving. The problem at the moment is that the only offence of which somebody who has killed somebody in such

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circumstances can be convicted is causing death by dangerous driving. Very often, the authorities, for one reason or another, do not feel that they can secure a conviction for that offence.

In 1996, the last year for which figures are available, there were 333 cases involving causing death by dangerous driving and careless driving. I have been unable to get a breakdown of that, but I suspect that there are quite a lot of cases where deaths are caused but people are convicted of causing death by careless driving. Perhaps anybody who is convicted of careless driving when a death is involved should have to take a driving test. After all, we are talking about the judgment exercised by drivers in all these cases, and even if the charge is only careless driving, a person has still been killed.

The Minister said that the order was perhaps the first of several. However, will he consider the following proposition in the light of the powers that are available to him? The case of Regina v. Christopher Browning dealt with a lorry driver who reversed on to a road and killed two innocent motorists while putting a text message into his telephone. He was paying little attention to his driving, and that is precisely the sort of case to which mandatory retesting should be extended. Will the Minister consider extending retesting to other categories?

I have several specific questions about the order, and it would be helpful if the Minister would answer them today or at least write to the Committee. A person who is convicted of causing death while under the influence of drink or drugs will have his licence suspended, as is mandatory under the Bill. Will he be able immediately to apply for a provisional licence and L-plates at the end of the mandatory suspension period?

What about holders of licences for heavy goods vehicles and other categories who cause death while driving a car under the influence of alcohol or drugs? Will such people be required to retake the test for other categories of vehicle, including heavy goods vehicles? Will they simply have to retake the test for cars?

Could the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency automatically notify drivers that they must retake the test after their period of disqualification?

The Minister of State made it clear that retesting would apply to the theory test and the practical test. The theory test covers a period of two years. Will the person be required to retake the theory test if the period of disqualification ceases within that time?

There is a period between the theory test and the practical test. People are, therefore, likely to be off the road for several months more than they would have been before the order came into effect. In cases where the courts have discretion, will the suspension period be reduced to take account of that period for which they are likely to be off the road?

Can someone apply for a theory test while disqualified? In that way, people could take the test on the day that the period of disqualification ended—if they could obtain an appointment—and reduce the period for which they were off the road.

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4.48 pm


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