Road Safety Bill

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Mr. Chope: Mr. Pike, I, too, welcome you to the Chair. It is a great pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship.

The Minister has addressed some of our concerns, but this interesting debate has highlighted a lacuna in the law, which hon. Members on both sides of the Committee would like addressed. It is the issue of someone who has personal mitigating circumstances which resulted in their speeding and being detected by a speed camera. Such personal mitigating circumstances would not be known by the operative
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who looked at the film—the operative would not know, for example, that there was a sick child in the back of the car who was being taken to hospital.

When we were discussing a similar issue in relation to the Traffic Management Act 2004 and the rigidity associated with, for example, moving traffic offences in box junctions and bus lanes, the then Minister was very accommodating in saying that a code of practice should operate to enable people who felt that a camera did not tell the whole story and who wanted to make written representations to the authorities to do so, thus giving the authorities the opportunity to say that in the circumstances they would not prosecute. Unfortunately, under the fixed penalty regime under clause 2, there is no equivalent discretion available to the authorities to enable them on receipt of representations from a motorist to decide that they will not prosecute. All that can happen is that the matter goes to court if the recipient of the fixed penalty notice looks at what I described earlier as a rather misleading form which says that if there are mitigating circumstances, the recipient should go to court. However, by the time they get to court, it becomes apparent that the court does not have any discretion to give the equivalent of an absolute or conditional discharge, which would be available in all other criminal proceedings.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman describes a lacuna, but he is extending it beyond where it would go in law. If I remember my law correctly—admittedly, I last practised eight years ago—there is a court procedure allowing people to show special reason why their licence should not be endorsed, or why they should not be disqualified when they would otherwise lose their licence—for example, in totting. That is one procedure, but I would not want the hon. Gentleman to extend the lacuna beyond that.

Mr. Chope: It is many years since I looked at ''Wilkinson's Road Traffic Offences'', the bible on such matters. It is true that special reasons can be dealt with in some circumstances, but that does not cover the situation described by the hon. Member for Wellingborough or by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne. I should have thought that, with the legal expertise of hon. Members and of those who are following our proceedings, it might be possible to address the problem.

It may not be as strong a case as that of someone taking their child to hospital in an emergency, but I heard of a case the other day in which a temporary traffic sign indicating that the speed limit had been reduced from the standard 50 mph in an urban area to 30 mph because of road words had been knocked down.

The gentleman concerned said that although it was at night and the works were not in progress, the temporary speed limit sign had been knocked over. He wrote to the police saying that the sign had been knocked over and sending a photograph of it that he had taken the following morning when he went back to check. Notwithstanding that, he was told that there was no discretion because he had no defence. It was an
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absolute offence. He was driving at a speed in excess of the prevailing 30 mph limit. The fact that the sign was knocked down was no defence.

That is another example of what I would describe as special circumstances, although I accept that they may not be special reasons; but common sense dictates that the authorities should have exercised discretion. The authorities failed to use discretion in that case. The gentleman is now faced with two options—paying up, under protest, or taking his case to court in the knowledge that he has no defence but only mitigation, and the prospect that if he goes to court the fine may be larger than if he had settled for a fixed penalty. That is one issue that has been highlighted in our debate.

I am grateful to the Minister for explaining in a little more detail how the criteria set out in clause 2 will be applied. I am still not clear how the clause will work in practice; perhaps we can briefly touch on that aspect during the clause stand part debate. It is far from clear how people are to find out what the graduated fixed penalties will be, and what time scale is set for their introduction.

I have given notice to the Minister of those questions that will arise on clause stand part. In the meantime, I invite everyone who reads the report of our debate, and those who have participated in it, to put on their thinking caps to see whether a way can be found—we could bring it forward later in the proceedings—to mitigate the full penalties in the special circumstances that we have outlined. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Chope: I have said that I would be interested to hear from the Minister what he has to say about the time scale for implementation and what it will mean in practice—whether the orders will be brought forward quickly, how much detail they will contain and so on.

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Mr. Jamieson: Before I come to that, I want to outline what the clause will do. Clause 2 amends the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 so that amounts of fixed penalties prescribed by order under section 53 can be graduated. The graduations would depend on the nature of the infringement and its severity, whether other prescribed offences have been committed during a prescribed period and where the offence took place.

We should remember that the clause does not create new offences. The hon. Member for Christchurch asked how people would know about the offences, but the offences remain unchanged. People can find out about them by reading the Highway Code, or even by breaking the law and being fined. We make it clear in the discussion document that before we go any further—this applies also to clause 3—there will be consultation. Following that, an order will have to be laid before the House, with another period before
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implementation. People will find out about the law in the usual way, and, when appropriate, revisions will doubtless receive attention in the newspapers and motoring magazines. However, it is obviously up to the motorist to be aware of the penalties that can be attracted by the various infringements of the law.

Mr. Chope: Perhaps I can ask the Minister to give examples. As a result of having a wide range of penalties, when someone triggers a speed camera, they will receive a fixed penalty notice that is not for the minimum in the available range but is rather higher. The view is taken that it is a serious offence and/or that the offender appears to have committed a previous offence.

How will the offender know whether that higher range fixed penalty is the appropriate penalty? Will he have the opportunity to make representations about it? Will case law apply? Could he be referred to any practice guidance? Or, bearing in mind that each prosecuting authority is distinct, will he be operating completely in the dark? It would help if the Minister could explain how it will work, perhaps by way of example.

Mr. Jamieson: As somebody who has not received too many such notices—in fact, I have not had one—[Interruption.] It is dangerous to say these things, and we can all transgress.

I have seen a notice, and I know that information is given with it showing the penalties. The notice also refers to the relevant Act. If someone felt that the information was not right, they could go to the library or seek legal advice to find out whether it was correct. They would have to trust what was on the notice, seek redress in the courts or take further consultation on the matter.

Before thresholds are changed for the financial penalty or for the number of points on the licence, another process has to be gone through. As I will say when we come to clause 3, the provision merely gives the ability to vary the fines for those offences. It does not set out what the fines will be or how many points would apply to an offence.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): As those orders come forward, I am worried that we will end up with inconsistencies across the country in the interpretation of what is serious and so on. Will the Minister explain how we can achieve consistency? As we have heard, the postcode lottery affects many other issues, and I would hate different interpretations to apply in different regions or counties. Will the Minister explain how to overcome that?

Mr. Jamieson: As my hon. Friend will see when we deal with the amendments to clause 3, our discussion document on speeding set a framework in which there could be no discretion—a person would be charged depending on the various elements. That was discussed and, if this becomes law, there will be further consultation. That is an example of a case in which, once a matter has been through consultation and discussed in Committees of the House, there is unlikely
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to be discretion. However, in other cases, police officers enforcing the law will, as they do now, take the circumstances into account and make a judgment.

When a police officer at the side of the road pulls somebody up, he makes a judgment as to the severity of the offence—for instance, driving at 40 mph in a 30 mph zone might on some occasions not appear to be dangerous, whereas on other occasions, in a busy high street, with children crossing the road, it can be utterly outrageous. One could argue that at 3 o'clock in the morning, that there is still a danger—partly because more crashes happen at night than during the day—but that it is less dangerous. It is for police officers to make that judgment, just as they do now on almost all offences.

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