Road Safety Bill

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Mr. Wilshire: Of course it is possible to start arguing about technicalities, but if someone wants to cite mitigating circumstances I suspect the last thing on their mind will be playing the barrack-room lawyer and trying to trip up the system. A mitigating circumstance is a personal circumstance that overtakes a person. It is all very well to suggest that they could, if they knew it, take advice or argue whether the signs were in the right place, but I doubt whether that is what would be on their minds at the time.

Mr. Jamieson: The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Christchurch used the example of someone taking a person to hospital or rushing to a member of the family who was in hospital. It is understandable that if a driver wants to help a loved one or get to them rapidly in such circumstances, his mind may leave consideration of the road for a time. That is understandable; it is human and it could happen to us all. I have taken people to hospital on a few occasions. Once it was someone who was badly injured and losing a lot of blood, and it struck me that if I was going too fast I might occasion a further accident, which would increase the need for the person to get to hospital and decrease my ability to get them there.

It is difficult, in the cold light of day, to weigh up such things in an emergency. In the example given by the hon. Member for Spelthorne, if a person is rushing to visit someone in hospital, or is in an emergency situation or rushing to a catastrophe at home, I believe that the driver would almost certainly plead guilty or be found guilty of the offence, which would give the court no discretion about issuing penalty points. However, the magistrate may then say, ''Given what you have gone through and the fact that you have penalty points, I think you have suffered enough.'' He may decide not to inflict further penalty. That is my understanding of the operation of the law. I hope that that is helpful.
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Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): The Minister will recall that when we were debating the Traffic Management Act 2004, we dealt with the rigidities in the fixed penalty system and the representations made by adjudication officers that local authorities—effectively, they are the equivalent of the prosecuting authority in the cases that we are discussing now—should have the chance to review the circumstances and decide whether they wish to proceed.

What the Minister said makes it clear that the prosecuting authority has no discretion. It receives the letter of explanation from the person who has had the fixed penalty notice setting out the mitigating circumstances, but if there had been a police officer at the scene he would probably have exercised his discretion and said, ''I am not going to prosecute in these circumstances.'' We are arguing for a similar sort of discretion for the prosecuting authorities, to prevent a prosecution from proceeding.

Mr. Jamieson: The difference is that the people issuing the tickets in the circumstances mentioned by the hon. Gentleman would largely be civilian traffic wardens. We are now talking about police officers, who are trained to a much higher level of competence—I do not mean that the others are not competent, but that the police officers operate under a different system and have a higher level of training. The person still has the safeguard of going to court, but most of the offences that the hon. Gentleman refers to would not attract penalty points. They would be parking offences, which do not attract penalty points on the licence, and there is the procedure whereby one can go back to the local authority and then, if necessary, to the adjudicator. In this case, however, once the police officer has made his judgment, it can be challenged in court.

Mr. Chope: I accept that is what happens if a police officer is present who makes a judgment on the situation, but I am describing what happens if the penalty is triggered by a machine—a safety camera—which cannot understand the circumstances involved. Surely, if the penalty is triggered by a machine, it should be possible to introduce a human element into the process so that discretion can be exercised and a prosecution not proceeded with.

2.45 pm

Mr. Jamieson: If the hon. Gentleman has not already done so, I suggest that he visits his local safety camera partnership to see how it operates when it receives the film. Having seen that myself, I know that the person who looks at the film is highly trained. They must determine whether the equipment shows that someone was speeding and must look into other circumstances, such as the proximity of other vehicles. When there is close proximity of two vehicles, there may be confusion as to which vehicle triggered the light and I understand that there can be issues of the beam bouncing from one vehicle to another. The person who looks at the film uses discretion to ensure that cases are clear-cut when the penalty notices are
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sent out. When I visited the safety camera partnership, a large number of cases—about 20 per cent. at a guess—were thrown out because the operator decided that they were not satisfied that the matter could not be challenged if the recipient of the penalty notice took the matter to court and the film was shown to the magistrates.

On the other side in the Department, someone told us that he had been unfairly dealt with and we suggested that he send for the film. The guy sent the film to me and said it was disgraceful that he had been prosecuted, but it seemed to me that he had been travelling faster than indicated on his ticket. He claimed that a car nearby had set off the camera, but there was manifestly no other car in the photograph. The photographic evidence is available to the person who is accused of offending and could show that there was doubt, but it often puts the case beyond doubt. If someone feels that there is doubt, they can go to court and if the court feels that the evidence in front of it is not good enough, the magistrates or the judge can call the proceedings to an end.

Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend clarify one matter? My father was once the recipient of a fixed penalty notice after he was caught on camera speeding when taking my son to hospital with a fractured skull. Is it not the case that even in such circumstances, there is always discretion as to whether to continue a prosecution?

Mr. Jamieson: I think that was the point I was making. If someone is caught on camera and receives a fixed penalty fine, they would have to challenge it in court and hope to plead mitigation. On the one hand, they may want to try to prove that they were not driving above the speed limit and if they could demonstrate that in court, the case would be dismissed. If they pleaded guilty and said that they were speeding but that mitigating circumstances led them to do so, the court could reduce the financial penalty, but, as I understand it, there is no leeway within the law for it to reduce the penalty points on the licence.

Mr. Stinchcombe: I fully understand the Minister's argument about a case that gets to court. I am asking whether there is an intermediary stage whereby someone might persuade the prosecuting authorities to withdraw a fixed penalty notice, or whether, once it has been issued, it is inexorable that it goes to court or leads to acceptance of a fixed penalty.

Mr. Jamieson: If that exists, it is not known to me and I do not believe that there is any other intermediary stage. I know that some people have written to safety camera partnerships. If a partnership felt that a mistake had been made by one of its operators, it may have some discretion. If my hon. Friend wants more information, we can probe the matter in a little more depth, but I am not sure that it is wholly relevant to the clause.

Mr. Chope: The Minister is very generous in giving way. If there is no leeway at the moment, should there not be some? The Minister said that there is no leeway
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under the law, but we have the opportunity in this Committee to change the law so that there is leeway and so that discretion can be introduced in circumstances such as those described by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe).

Mr. Jamieson: What I am trying to say is that there is a fairly high degree of discretion. The operator in the police station or in a place attached to a police station who looks at the film uses a fairly high degree of discretion. I cannot comment on every operator but, from what I saw, I would say that operators erred very much on the side of doubt. I dare say that one or two people who had speeded excessively got away with it because there was a tiny element of doubt and the operator was not prepared to accept that the driver might go to court and be found not guilty. There is some discretion already within the system.

Mr. Wilshire: I am aware that I took the Committee on this scenic byway instead of staying with the main principle of the clause. The Minister will have realised that I feel strongly about the matter. I readily accept that I am not a lawyer, but I am hearing things that lead me to believe that an informed and researched debate on the subject—I am not criticising the Minister in any way—might help to clear the air one way or the other. Perhaps I could table an amendment on Report to seek to build in some discretion. The Minister and the rest of us would by then have had a chance to do some research and perhaps we could usefully pursue the matter at that point.

The Chairman: Before I call the Minister, may I say that I accept that some important issues have arisen, but that we must not go down too many scenic byways because we want to make progress?

Mr. Jamieson: If the hon. Member for Spelthorne wants to go down a scenic byway, it is totally in his gift to do so on Report; or the matter could be the topic of a half-day Opposition day or even an Adjournment debate. I would be delighted to respond to a debate and to unravel the matter in as much detail as the hon. Gentleman felt appropriate. I am perfectly happy to mull over the matter.

This has been a useful and interesting debate in unravelling some of the issues that we have covered, but the amendments would not be helpful; in fact, I think they would be a hindrance to the proper operation of the law. Reluctantly, I ask the Committee to reject them.

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