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Driving Without Entitlement (Penalties)

3.30 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I am delighted to have this opportunity to launch this short debate on penalties for driving without entitlement. I am glad to see that the Minister is about to take his place, because I know what an interest he takes in the issue. I should say at the outset that I am grateful for the briefings and advice that I and other hon. Members have received from the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety or PACTS. I am also grateful for the interest that the media have taken in the subject, and in particular for the campaign run by The Sun. Also, I support the campaign by the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), who presented a ten-minute Bill, of which I was pleased to be a co-sponsor, just before the summer recess. We wish that well.

On 12 October 2003, a year ago yesterday, there was a horrific crash in Hove, which is adjacent to my constituency. My constituent Natalie McCabe, known as Flo, a 21-year-old nursery nurse, and her friend Vicki Browne, aged 19, died in that horrific crash. Becky Fish, the third passenger, lost a leg, and will be maimed for life. The driver was a 21-year-old barman, who was relatively unscathed and later found hiding in a shop doorway. He had no licence. In fact, he had never possessed a licence or passed his test. He had no tax and no insurance for the car. It was estimated that he was driving at 60 mph in a 30 mph zone in the middle of town, and he was almost two times over the alcohol limit. The cruel irony was that he had offered to drive the girls home as he thought that it would be safer.

On 18 March this year, the driver was sentenced to five and a half years' imprisonment on two counts of causing death by dangerous driving, driving without a licence and insurance, and drink-driving. At least he had the decency to plead guilty. He was also banned from driving for five years. I do not know what the significance of that is, given that he had no licence in the first place. Perhaps he will seek to take driving lessons while he is in jail.

In April, the family asked the Solicitor-General whether she would review the case on the basis that too lenient a sentence had been handed out. Unfortunately, the Solicitor-General declined and said that there were no grounds for doing so. The driver will be eligible to get out of prison to go for job interviews next Easter. In January 2006, he will be eligible to apply for early release and by July 2006, if he behaves himself, it is likely that he will be released, despite the seriousness of the crimes. Meanwhile, the McCabe family and the family of Vicki Browne have each lost a daughter, both of whom had everything to live for. The tragedy has overshadowed the families. To add insult to injury, the McCabe family had to pay for the funeral expenses plus VAT. They are to get a headstone on which they will also be charged VAT.

The McCabe family did not take the matter lying down. Despite their obvious grief, they decided to get up and do something about the injustice suffered by the families. They campaigned for a change in the law to include a separate penalty category for drivers without a licence who maim or kill. They contend that that should
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carry a similar sentence to death by dangerous driving. They also advocate a system whereby drivers are required to display a valid driving licence and insurance documents on the windscreen of their vehicle.

I support that campaign and have given the family every assistance. It culminated yesterday, which marked the first anniversary of Flo's death, with the McCabes—the parents and other members of the family—coming to Westminster to present a petition signed by more than 23,000 people from my constituency and neighbouring areas in Sussex. The petition was presented to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and last night I presented the petition formally on the Floor of the House. The family gathered that amazing number of signatures mainly by standing outside shopping centres every weekend for most of the past year. The McCabe family also e-mailed all Members of Parliament asking them to support early-day motion 1495 on penalties for driving illegally, which I tabled back in July. So far almost 90 hon. Members have signed it, and I hope that more across the political spectrum will add their support to it. Throughout the year, the McCabe family have been campaigning under the slogan "You don't need a licence to kill".

I pay tribute to the courage and dignity of the McCabe family and to the way in which they have responded to such an enormous tragedy. However, they—and I—now want action. This is not just a constituency issue that is relevant to me; it is relevant nationwide. It is an issue that has inspired many debates in this Chamber, as it has several early-day motions and private Member's Bills. I have referred already to the hon. Member for South Dorset.

The extent of the problem is alarming. It has been estimated that 1.25 million people are driving without insurance. It has been assessed that that is 5 per cent. of all drivers. That compares with an estimate of only 1 per cent. of drivers in other northern European countries who are driving without insurance. It is also estimated that about 1.75 million drivers are driving untaxed vehicles, which is 6 per cent. of all drivers. Most worryingly though, it has been calculated that such unentitled drivers are nine times more likely to be involved in accidents and 10 times more likely to have driving convictions. It has been assessed that unlicensed drivers commit about 9.5 per cent. of all recorded motoring offences and that almost two thirds of them do not tell their passengers that they are driving illegally—as was the case with Natalie McCabe and her friends a year ago. It has also been calculated that such irresponsible behaviour adds at least £500 million to the insurance premiums of responsible drivers who are entitled to drive.

Having a road traffic accident is one thing; having a road traffic accident while under the influence of alcohol is bad enough, as it has been estimated that 6 per cent. of all accidents involve drink-driving; but not being entitled to drive and getting behind the wheel of what can be a lethal weapon, as was clearly the case that night a year ago, is completely unacceptable. It is sticking two fingers up at society, the law and responsible citizens, the majority of whom go about their business lawfully and much more safely.
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Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): This is a very important debate and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing it. I wish to bring an extra dimension to our discussion and refer to the interaction between military law and civil law. I had the most ghastly experience in my constituency in which a young lady aged only 18 years lost her life in a car driven by a soldier who was serving in Palace barracks in Holywood, County Down. It transpired that that particular soldier had been disqualified months beforehand in Scotland. The Army at Palace barracks had been notified but that gentleman continued to be allowed to drive in Northern Ireland while disqualified—on duty, I understand—and while there were two warrants for his arrest. The interaction between civil and military law must be examined in respect of those who are disqualified drivers and not legally entitled to drive on our roads—on or off duty.

Tim Loughton : I am very alarmed to hear what the hon. Lady says. I cannot comment on that case, but I am sure that she will be taking it up with the relevant authorities. When there are agencies of government that could avoid such accidents, it is doubly unacceptable that they have happened.

Generally, the United Kingdom has a good safety record. In 2003, 1,169 drivers, 600 car passengers and 774 pedestrians were killed. That sounds a lot. Of course it is far too many, but it compares with a figure of about 40,000 drivers who were killed in the United States. Men are three times more likely than women to die in traffic accidents. However, just over 3.9 per cent. of all fatal or personal injury crashes involved a driver who was subsequently prosecuted for unlicensed driving, while about 14,500 drivers who caused injury or death went untraced. That figure has been increasing. In my constituency in West Sussex, 89 pedestrians were killed or seriously injured, including 23 children, and 41 cyclists died. So, there is a problem in my area and throughout the whole country, but what are the penalties?

Currently, the average fine for driving while not entitled to do so is £150 and occasionally some points. The maximum penalty is £5,000, disqualification and potentially six months in jail, but it is used very rarely. For the risk of a £150 fine, a person can buy what is virtually a disposable car. It is not a bad bet for people to drive recklessly on the basis that they do not really need the car if it is of low value anyway.

There have been some improvements, such as the merging of the DVLA database with the industry-run motor insurance computer database, so that non-insured drivers can be chased automatically. Some years ago in my constituency, PC Jeff Tooley was knocked down in Shoreham while on speed traffic control by a white van driven by somebody who did not stop. It turned out that the driver was over the limit. He was eventually apprehended, but the sentence that he received was later reduced from six years. That sentence could have been higher if he had stolen the policeman's motor car rather than knocked him down and killed him. I am glad to say that the Government have responded to that issue, and I am sure that that was one case that contributed to the weight of opinion that brought about an increase in the penalty for causing death by dangerous driving to 14 years' imprisonment, which we welcome.
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There has also been greater use of automatic vehicle number plate recognition and the possibility of powers being given to traffic wardens. We welcome the greater use of technology. However, overall the number of traffic police has sharply declined in recent years and it is not viewed as a priority. There are concerns that too many people are still flouting the law. The Road Traffic (New Drivers) Act 1995 revokes the licence of a new driver who accumulates six penalty points within two years of passing the driving test, but as at April 2004, of the 78,000 drivers who have been disqualified under the 1995 Act, only 37,000—fewer than half—have successfully retested. What has happened to the other 40,000? Have they just given up driving? I very much doubt it. I fear that many of them are driving while not entitled to do so.

There has been some progress on the number of prosecutions. In 2002, there were 24,338 prosecutions for driving, or for causing or permitting another person to drive, other than in accordance with a licence. That was up from 23,482 prosecutions 10 years earlier. However, too many people are still getting away with it. I fear that the Government are not going to review penalties as they stand.

I am glad to see the report from Professor David Greenaway at Nottingham university, which identifies the scale of the problem. He recommends the greater use of technology to catch offenders before they can cause accidents. He also recommends considering the confiscation of cars, which is a policy that my party certainly supports—whether or not the car is owned by the driver. We need separate penalty categories in order to send out a clear message. The McCabes were obviously disappointed that the judge did not even use the tougher penalty from the maximum range allowed to him.

Perhaps we need to be more imaginative in sentencing too. A judge in Texas recently ruled in a fatal road rage crash that the offender must carry a photograph of the mangled wreckage from the horrendous crash that he caused; that he should take medicine that will make him violently ill if he drinks alcohol; that he must drive only vehicles of less than 130 hp; and that he must display a bumper sticker asking other motorists to ring the local probation department if he is driving recklessly. Those are quite extreme alternatives, but they are imaginative and they get to the heart of the problem.

I ask that, as part of the review I know that the Government are carrying out, they consider bringing in a separate category of offence for drivers who cause accidents while not entitled to drive, and who stick two fingers up at the rest of us, who go about our business lawfully. There should be serious penalties attached to that offence along the lines of causing death by dangerous driving.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): I support all that my hon. Friend is saying. I suggest that he also ask the Minister to go on reviewing whether there should be extra penalties for drivers involved in a crash who do not stop even though they are pretty sure that someone has been injured. In the case of Callum Oakford, the late brother of Kathryn Proudfoot, in my constituency, the driver may have been driving only
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carelessly—he was uninsured and without a licence—but he certainly drove away knowing that an injury had been caused.

Tim Loughton : My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which I was going to finish on. I was aware of the case, which hit the headlines nationally and locally. What made that case all the worse was that not only was the person who caused the accident not entitled to drive and should not have been there in the first place, but they did not stop afterwards despite having known that someone had been knocked down and was seriously injured—he eventually died. If anything could have been done to save the life of that child, it was incumbent on the driver, however bad the accident for which he may have been responsible, to help out. The fact that he just drove on is quite outrageous and another factor that must be taken into account.

None of this will bring back Flo McCabe or Vicki Browne. However, changes along the lines that the family and I are suggesting might go some way to preventing more Flo McCabes or Vicki Brownes from losing their young lives needlessly. A change in the law would be a fitting response to the strength of feeling of those 23,000 people who signed the petition, and it would be a fitting tribute to the courage, determination and bravery shown by the family and parents of the two girls who have worked so hard on the campaign.

3.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins) : I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing this debate on penalties for driving without entitlement. As he said, he has tabled early-day motion 1495, which has attracted signatures from hon. Members from all parties. I have learned through this debate, and through others in which I have participated with him, that he has a knack of assiduously taking the concerns and the experience of his constituents and applying them to wider issues of public policy. I congratulate him on the way in which he has done that again today. I welcome the spirit in which he mentioned the work of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight). I am also pleased that the hon. Members for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) and for North Down (Lady Hermon) have been able to participate and raise issues of constituency concern to them.

I want to take the opportunity to join the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham in offering my sincere condolences to the families of Natalie McCabe and Victoria Browne. As we have heard, they died so tragically just a year ago yesterday. As the hon. Gentleman explained, the driver of the car in which they were passengers was disqualified from driving; he was uninsured and was over the drink-drive and speed limits. He was sentenced to five and a half years' imprisonment on two counts of causing death by dangerous driving.

I know that the families of the victims felt that the sentence was lenient, and the hon. Gentleman referred to that. They requested that the Crown Prosecution Service consider referring the case to the Attorney-General as an unduly lenient sentence. As we have heard, that did not take place, because the sentence fell within the range of the relevant guideline. Therefore, the case was not sent on to the Court of Appeal.
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I know that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot comment on an individual case. It is, of course, a matter for magistrates and judges to sentence offenders on the facts of each case and to do so within the maximum limits that are laid down by Parliament. However, it may be helpful if I briefly make reference to the Court of Appeal guideline on causing death by dangerous driving, which was issued on 3 April 2003 and was based on the advice of the sentencing advisory panel after wide consultation. It suggests as a starting point a sentence of six years' imprisonment or more for cases involving the most serious culpability.

Hon. Members and their constituents will take their own view about the appropriateness of that guideline. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham accepted, in this particular case account would have been taken of the driver's guilty plea and the sentence was within the maximum limit of 10 years. Although I recognise that no sentence can address the anguish of bereaved families, we have since increased the penalty for causing death by dangerous driving to 14 years. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that. That is the highest maximum penalty for any type of offence, save the most serious, where the maximum is a life sentence. The higher maximum penalty now available might well have led to a more severe sentence in this dreadful case.

The increase arose from the concerns that were expressed during the road traffic penalties review, which reported in July 2002. It became apparent that there was a good deal of concern about the framework for the more serious bad driving offences and the adequacy of the maximum penalties in dealing with offenders who drive badly and cause death and injury on the roads. As a consequence of the review, the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving was increased and the penalty for causing death by careless driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs was also increased from 10 to 14 years. Aggravated vehicle taking where a death occurs was increased from five to 14 years' imprisonment. The new maximum penalties for those offences were introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and applied to all offences that are committed on or after 23 February.

In announcing the increased penalties for the most serious driving offences, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary underlined our position that dangerous drivers who kill should be properly punished. The devastation that they can cause is immeasurable not only for victims' families but whole communities. Apart from the specific offences for bad driving, manslaughter can be charged in certain cases, for which the penalty is life imprisonment. For that offence the standard of proof is necessarily high in view of the penalty available. In relation to bad driving, manslaughter is not often used, but where it is charged it is mainly used where a person intended to cause harm, for example by deliberately driving into someone.

Under the Criminal Justice Act, we also introduced extended sentences and a sentence of imprisonment for public protection for specified violent offences, which can include the most serious driving offences where the court considers that the offender poses a significant risk of serious harm to the public. The reforms under the 2003 Act are designed to modernise and rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of victims, witnesses and communities.
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In the debate on the clauses relating to causing death by bad driving, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said:

This Adjournment debate is, of course, one such occasion for hearing those public concerns. I want to reassure all hon. Members present that we will take careful note of what has been said today, of the strength of public feeling caused by such tragic cases and of the issues they raise. I join the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham in congratulating the McCabe family on the huge campaign that they have led over the past very sad 12 months and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the size of the petition that he presented yesterday to Parliament.

We have ensured that the law provides for the most severe penalties in cases where bad driving has led to a death on the road. For the offence of causing death by dangerous driving, it is necessary to prove that the standard of driving fell far below that of a reasonable and competent driver. If the manner of driving is simply lower than that which is expected, the appropriate charge will be careless driving. It is the behaviour of the driver rather than the consequences that is the deciding factor in determining the appropriate offence to charge.

Where a death has occurred it is especially important that offenders are brought to justice, but as the law stands death does not by itself turn an incident into careless driving or turn careless driving into dangerous driving. Offences such as driving without a licence or insurance are punishable with a fine, penalty points and possible disqualification from driving. The fact that a death has occurred can be taken into account by the court when sentencing, but the court will be limited by the maximum penalty available for those offences. There is no culpability for any consequences resulting from driving with no licence or insurance built into the offence. Those penalties can and do seem insignificant when, as sometimes happens, drivers go on to be involved in a fatal road incident. We fully recognise the anguish and grief of families and friends who lose loved ones in those circumstances.

I had a case in my constituency three years ago in which a 12-year-old boy, Geoffrey Foy, was killed in a road traffic accident involving a driver who had no licence or insurance and who was speeding. The offender received only a fine, which made the tragedy all the harder for the family and, indeed, the wider community to bear.

The Government take a serious view of people who drive without insurance cover. Figures show—the hon. Gentleman highlighted some of them—that antisocial drivers are 10 times more likely to have been convicted of drink-driving, six times more likely to have been convicted of driving an unsafe vehicle and three times more likely to have been convicted of driving without due care and attention. That is why we have announced a tough new approach to target the estimated 1 million motorists on our roads who drive without insurance.
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The Department for Transport plans to introduce as soon as possible a provision that will enable the police to seize and, in appropriate cases, destroy a vehicle being driven by someone not fulfilling the requirement to be insured against third-party risk. Such vehicles will be released only on production of insurance documentation and payment of removal and storage charges.

Uninsured drivers add about £30 on average to the annual premium of honest motorists and are more likely to be involved in road traffic accidents, to be non-compliant with other road traffic requirements and obligations, and to be involved in other criminal activity. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Greenaway report. I am glad that he did so. That piece of work, which was commissioned by the Department for Transport, was published in August and made 20 recommendations. The Government have accepted the majority of the recommendations and are looking at them closely to see how and when it will be possible to implement them. I will be happy to ensure that we write to the hon. Gentleman to keep him up to date on that.

The Government are also increasing police powers to use new technology in order to make detection and enforcement more effective. A powerful new tool—again, the hon. Gentleman mentioned this—is the extended use by the police of automatic number plate recognition, or ANPR. It enables the police easily and immediately to check passing vehicles against entries on the police national computer and other databases. They can then take action as appropriate in respect of drivers who may be of interest for some offence, including that of having no insurance.

To make the use of ANPR even more effective for tackling the offence, the Government have introduced a fixed penalty of £200 as an alternative to prosecution. It
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is much higher than other fixed penalties and enables the police to enforce the offence on the spot, at the roadside, with an immediate impact on the offender. Of course, the police still retain the discretion to seek a prosecution if they consider that to be the more appropriate course of action, and prosecution is automatic if action is taken in respect of a second or subsequent offence.

The use of ANPR is resulting in much more rigorous enforcement, with more offenders being caught and dealt with. As ANPR usage develops further, motorists will find it increasingly difficult to drive uninsured vehicles without their being detected. Detection will largely be automatic and will no longer require the time and vigilance of individual police officers.

We plan to legislate at an early opportunity to strengthen enforcement still further by improving the information available from ANPR. To assist enforcement, the Government fully supported the Association of British Insurers in the setting up of the motor insurance database, which went live in July 2001. The database makes checking insurance a much simpler and more effective operation by giving police officers immediate access to information about insurance policies at the roadside. Police inquiries to the database are running at about 25,000 a day.

Finally, I want to mention the current review of all bad driving offences that is being led by the Home Office. We must ensure that the criminal law provides a comprehensive and clear framework for addressing bad driving and its all too often appalling consequences. We are aware of the strength of feeling generated by difficult cases such as the one outlined by the hon. Gentleman. The review will be followed by a public consultation exercise, and we shall listen carefully to all responses to the consultation paper on this area of the law. Work is ongoing on the detail of the paper, which will be published as soon as possible. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and others present today will contribute to that consultation as and when they are able to do so.
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