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Road Safety Bill

Road Safety Bill

Column Number: 161

Standing Committee A

Thursday 27 January 2005

[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]

Road Safety Bill

Clause 19

Careless, and inconsiderate, driving

9.25 am

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 52, in clause 19, page 24, line 23, leave out 'level 5' and insert

    '''level 5, when the offence involved a collision resulting in death or serious injury and in all other cases level 4''.'.

The clause increases the maximum penalty for careless or inconsiderate driving by doubling the maximum fine from £2,500 to £5,000, but it does not differentiate between the consequences of such driving. The thinking behind the Government's move to increase the maximum penalty was to try to give some consolation to the people, or the relatives of people, involved in an accident resulting in death or serious injury. At present an accident resulting in death which is caused by careless driving carries a maximum penalty of a £2,500 fine, whereas one caused by dangerous driving carries a maximum penalty of no fewer than 14 years' imprisonment.

The Government have tried to fudge this serious issue, which I think is common to all constituencies. In the clause they merely increase the maximum fine without saying whether it would be applicable in a particular set of circumstances. I accept that my amendment would be only a halfway measure, but, if accepted, it would at least initiate a recognition by Government that the maximum penalty for causing death or serious injury by careless or inconsiderate driving should be greater than that for careless driving.

Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman will know that I have tabled a new clause that addresses this issue. He calls, rightly, for the clause not to be fudged. I wonder whether he agrees, however, with this statement:

    ''The culpability lies in the behaviour and, as the culpability is a negligent culpability, without any intention, it is . . . profoundly wrong . . . to impose a further sanction to mark public disapproval because of the consequence.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 20 January 2005; c. 450.]

Mr. Chope: I agree with that; it is the traditional approach. I do not know from whom the hon. Gentleman is quoting: it could easily have been a quote that I would have given when we discussed this matter 10 years or more ago. The traditional approach of lawyers has been that we should judge people's culpability rather than the consequences that flow from it.
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Mr. Stinchcombe: I am not trying to embarrass the hon. Gentleman. It was not a quote from him, but he is right to say that that was the traditional approach. The amendment nudges us towards a different approach. Will he go on the record to say that we should mark culpability differently where criminally negligent driving causes death?

Mr. Chope: That is inherent in my amendment. I have linked death and serious injury, because often only an act of God determines which it is.

Mr. Stinchcombe: Does that mean that the hon. Gentleman disavows the words that I quoted to him?

Mr. Chope: The hon. Gentleman is almost putting on a legal, adversarial hat. I tabled the amendment to try to start a debate about the issue.

The Chairman: Order. Would it be for the convenience of the Committee if I were to change the grouping and take new clause 4 with amendment No. 52? I can do that if it would help the Committee, as we do not want to repeat the debate. Would it help?

Hon. Members: No.

The Chairman: Then let us not debate new clause 4, because we will not reach it today. It is relevant to make slight reference to it, but not to debate it with the amendment.

Mr. Chope: I am grateful to you, Mr. Pike, for pointing that out. I am sure that when the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) makes his contribution he will address his remarks specifically to the amendment. One of the things that concerns me and, I am sure, other members of the Committee, is that this amendment emanates from the results of a report on road traffic penalties initiated by the Government in December 2000. That report left the concerns to which I have just been referring unresolved.

The Government then commissioned the Halliday report. Presumably we get the chance only once every 10 years, on average, to debate the amendments to the level of road traffic penalties. It is a cause of great frustration that the Halliday report, which is out of the control of the Home Office, does not seem to have produced anything in time for us to be able to amend this Bill accordingly. That is a serious issue.

Amendment No. 52 gives the Minister the chance to state for the record that the purpose of raising the maximum penalty for careless and inconsiderate driving is to cover the situation where that type of driving results in death or serious injury. We would then have two differential maximum penalties, depending on the consequences. Without anticipating the debate on new clause 4, I think that that might be a tentative step forward and I therefore commend it to the Committee.

The report in today's Daily Express of the enormous increase in the number of people killed as a result of police driving is a cause of great concern. One of the suspicions that might be raised is that the Home Office, the Department responsible for the police, does not
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want to get into a situation where police drivers who are not engaged in an emergency call—about three quarters of the incidents resulting in deaths were not related to emergency calls—but are involved in accidents resulting in death or serious injury find themselves in jeopardy of a substantial penalty. We will come on to the detail of whether that might include prison when we debate new clause 4. There does seem to be an issue here.

The other point I would like to make is that whatever we decide in this Committee about maximum penalties seems to have little influence on what actually happens in the courts. I think it was the Road Traffic Act 1991 that doubled the penalty for driving without insurance, but we can see that there has been hardly any response to that measure in the courts. Similarly, despite the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving having risen from 10 to 14 years' imprisonment, a constituent wrote to me last week to say that she had been given an indication by the police that in a case in which her son was killed, and where the person has pleaded guilty to causing death by dangerous driving, no custodial sentence may be imposed. I do not want to get involved in the details of that case here, but the police are taking the view that a custodial sentence may not necessarily follow from a case of causing death by dangerous driving, notwithstanding that the decision of this House that the maximum penalty should be no less than 14 years' imprisonment. That is an example of the disconnection between what we decide as Parliament and what is implemented on the ground by the courts.

Having said all that, differentiating between careless driving that results in an accident involving minor injury or no injury and that which results in death or serious injury is worth doing, and my amendment would achieve that objective.

Mr. Stinchcombe: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's speech because he is nudging in the right direction, albeit tentatively. It seems clear to me that we have to mark the loss of a life caused by careless and negligent driving more seriously than we treat a mere dent or scratch. That must be right, not just because of the emotional outrage caused when a constituent or family member dies, but to mark a real policy decision.

When we drive, we drive something that weighs between 3 and 3.5 tonnes; we can drive it at speeds of up to 70, 80, 90 or 100 mph, and it can kill people. Cars kill 3,500 people every year. In the wrong hands, a car can be a weapon—a lethal weapon. When we take a vehicle on the road, we must keep in mind the responsibility to drive carefully, lest fatal consequences flow from our negligence. It is right that the hon. Gentleman moves in that direction, and in doing so, he is agreeing with the comment of the Secretary of State on Second Reading, when he said in response to my intervention that

    ''killing someone with a car, where someone is culpable, needs to be dealt with. It needs to be treated by the courts with the utmost seriousness and, where necessary, exemplary sentences ought to be imposed. We should be very clear about the fact that someone who drives dangerously or carelessly and causes the death of someone

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    who would otherwise be alive is just as guilty as if they took a weapon to them, resulting in their death.''—[Official Report, 11 January 2005; Vol. 429 , c. 214.]

At least on the principle, we are ad idem.

I shall not trespass on to new clause 4, but where do we mark the distinction between causing death by careless driving and causing death by dangerous driving? That is where I depart from the hon. Gentleman because his amendment would have the following consequence: in the continuum of culpable driving, from careless through very careless and extremely careless to dangerous, there would be a threshold between dangerous driving and very careless driving resulting in death. Where the threshold is crossed, the maximum potential penalty would be 14 years in prison, and where it is not, it would be a fine of £5,000. I have to say that that is a huge, gaping chasm, and such a gap should not exist in our law.

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Prepared 27 January 2005