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21 Jun 2005 : Column 211WH—continued

Gillian Curran

12.30 pm

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to hold this debate on careless driving and the case of Gillian Curran. I stress from the outset that I genuinely wish that there was no need for such a debate. However, I regret to say that the law as it stands is wholly inadequate in relation to the matters that I intend to raise.

In the course of my speech, I shall describe in some detail a tragedy of the utmost gravity for a family in my constituency. On 15 December 2003, one of my constituents, Gillian Curran, aged 24, from Coatbridge, was travelling home from work and, while in her stationary car at the end of a tailback, was hit from behind by another vehicle. Gillian suffered head injuries and was trapped in her car for 45 minutes after the crash. She died later in hospital.

From that moment, the lives of Gillian's loving parents, Patrick and Sandra, and her devoted sister, Nicola, have immeasurably changed for ever. Without warning, they lost a beautiful, bright, good-humoured and delightful daughter and sister, who had everything to live for. Everyone who knew Gillian would readily agree that she possessed a tremendous warmth coupled with an immense spirit of vitality for life. A young life—Gillian's life—was cut short far too soon.

How do we begin to appreciate the despair, devastation and depression that that family have suffered since the tragedy of Gillian's death? How Parliament recognises the life of Gillian Curran will be tested in my representations.

There was a continuous outpouring of grief from the entire community of Kirkwood, where Gillian lived and was brought up. Indeed, one family felt so strongly about the lack of justice that they took the time to write to the Glasgow Evening Times. Mr. and Mrs. Paul McLaughlan said in their letter:

They concluded their letter by saying:

That reaction encapsulated the depth of feeling that was evident throughout the community. Parliament cannot ignore such strong feelings of injustice among people who have no axe to grind other than to see justice done.

As hon. Members will recall, Mr. and Mrs. Curran and Nicola requested that I present a petition—containing no fewer than 11,000 signatures—on the Floor of the House, calling for a change in the law.

Before I turn specifically to the law I want to set out the clear demands of my constituents. The aim of Gillian Curran's family is to bring pressure to bear on Parliament to take a long, hard look at the inadequate penalties being handed down to those found guilty of motoring offences, and particularly of careless driving
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that results in death. The family firmly believe that if drivers knew that there were stiffer punishments for various driving offences, they would think twice before taking risks. At present, there is no offence between that of driving without due care and attention and that of causing death by dangerous driving. I therefore believe that we need a charge of causing death by careless driving, or something similar. I will develop that theme later.

I want also to discuss the law, but it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to Isabel Brydie and Margaret Dekker, who are leading figures of the campaign in Scotland called SCID—the Scottish campaign against irresponsible drivers. Both Isabel and Margaret have lost members of their family in circumstances similar to those of Patrick and Sandra Curran. I know that Mr. and Mrs. Curran would like me to put on record their thanks to that organisation, which has been a tremendous source of considerable strength, support and advice throughout their horrendous ordeal.

There is no doubt that the driver of the vehicle that careered into Gillian's car was travelling at speed. The case was heard at Hamilton sheriff courts. Paul Kearney, prosecuting, said:

Speeding is a massive problem throughout the United Kingdom. It is not just inconsiderate driving; it contributes to the 36,000 serious injuries and 3,000 deaths that occur on Britain's roads each year. More than two thirds of all accidents in which people are killed or seriously injured happen on roads where the speed limit is 40 mph or less. The Department for Transport's "Road Casualties: Great Britain 2003 Annual Report", published in September 2004, made the following points. In 49 per cent. of fatal accidents—nearly half of them—either excessive speed or careless, thoughtless, reckless behaviour was a contributory factor. Excessive speed was the most frequently cited contributory factor to fatal accidents, recorded in 28 per cent. of such accidents between 1999 and 2002. Careless, thoughtless, reckless behaviour was the next most common contributory factor, accounting for a further 21 per cent. of fatal accidents.

I am not alone in dealing with the problem. Other hon. Members have dealt with the distressing questions posed by grieving constituents, especially after the driver responsible for the accident has been charged with only a minor traffic offence. They believe that the penalty often seems totally inappropriate in relation to the seriousness of the accident. In fact, it has led to MPs being concerned about the adequacy of road traffic law, or the application of it in dealing with those responsible for fatal road accidents.

In February 2005, the Home Office published a consultation document on the review of road traffic offences involving bad driving. That document put forward proposals for consultation aimed at closing the perceived justice gap between the two main bad driving offences of dangerous driving and careless driving. There are several concerns about the current system of
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traffic offences, many of which were outlined in the sixteenth report of the Select Committee on Transport in October 2004. It drew attention to the difference between dangerous and careless driving charges being often unclear. It also pointed out that there is a large gap in the range of penalties for those facing charges of dangerous driving and careless driving.

Most particularly, the report drew attention to the fact that there is no separate charge for causing death or injury by careless driving, which is my main focus in this debate. Ever more traffic offenders are being charged with careless rather than dangerous driving; the category thus now comprises driving errors that range from "slightly inattentive" to "grossly negligent". There is a belief that road casualties are the result of unfortunate accidents rather than the grave consequence of driving irresponsibly.

The Department for Transport's postal survey of magistrates, police officers, prosecutors, procurators fiscal and crown court judges suggests dissatisfaction with the current system of prosecution for serious driving crimes, yet those are very people who deal with such issues every day. A majority of respondents felt that sometimes drivers are charged with careless driving when they should be charged with dangerous driving. Many respondents believe that in cases of dangerous driving or causing death by dangerous driving, magistrates and juries can become swayed in favour of either defendants or victims. The respondents thought that such sympathy often resulted in not-guilty verdicts or careless driving convictions in cases that appeared to involve clear-cut dangerous driving violations.

In another survey conducted by the Department for Transport on drivers convicted of dangerous or careless driving, respondents were asked what they thought of driving offences and penalties. In cases when careless driving convictions were made, only 20 per cent. of victims and victims' families thought that justice had been served. I cannot stress too strongly that Gillian Curran's family falls into the same category as the overwhelming majority of victims' families who believe that justice has not been served in such cases.

Almost 50 per cent. of victims in cases in which the conviction was for careless driving believe that the gap in penalties between dangerous and careless driving is too great. The Transport Committee recommended that a new offence be adopted: causing death or injury by negligent driving. The scope and penalties of that new offence would fall between the existing offences of driving without due care and attention and dangerous driving.

We all seek to bridge the gap in penalties between careless driving and dangerous driving. Such a response would be welcomed by my constituents. In my view, the new offence or something close to it would better deter poor driving by asserting to the public that drivers will be held fully accountable for the outcome of their actions. I therefore welcome the opportunity to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister, who I am sure will outline the Department's position. It is vital that drivers are left in no doubt about their responsibility. Put simply, they need to know that whatever they do or fail to do while driving can have a fatal impact on others.

Nothing I can say today will bring Gillian Curran back. But I owe it to Gillian, to her parents Patrick and Sandra and to Nicola to try to ensure that no other
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family should suffer in the way that they are still suffering. I can achieve that only if Parliament accepts the justice of the case that I have advanced for changing the law. I trust that Parliament will do so; it will go some way to recognising Gillian Curran—a beautiful life, tragically cut short.

12.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart) : I start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) for securing the debate. It is a subject that he has been seeking to raise for a long time, and his powerful articulation of the victim's case has been an important way of giving a voice to the injustice that he described.

The issue of road traffic legislation and the penalties that it should provide has aroused much debate. It has the potential to affect most of us, as a victim or a driver, and, in victims, I include families who are bereaved by bad driving, because they are victimised by their experience in exactly the way that my right hon. Friend has described. I was very sorry to hear of the case of Gillian Curran. I send my sympathy to her family and friends, and I praise their tireless campaign to use this devastating experience so that we can learn from it in terms of our legislation. They have campaigned to have the law changed on careless driving to allow the consequences of such behaviour to be reflected in an appropriate charge and penalty.

The terrible loss suffered by the Curran family has been compounded by their feelings that the justice system has failed them. One aim of the criminal justice system must be to ensure that victims of crime see that justice is done, which is why we need to consider closely whether the law is adequate. What have we done so far? The Government are committed to tackling the issue of those who are killed on the roads, and we have already made substantial progress. We have made significant advances in recent years in reducing deaths and injuries arising from road traffic incidents, but nevertheless 10 road users are killed every day and 35,000 people are killed or injured as a result of bad driving every year. We are determined that road safety and further reductions in the numbers of collisions, injuries and deaths should remain a high priority.

The problem needs to be tackled on several fronts—through education, to ensure that drivers are adequately trained and to make the public aware of the risks; through engineering, to ensure that vehicles and roads are well designed and have adequate signage and warnings; and through enforcement, to ensure that penalties for breaches are adequate and that breaches themselves are detected and investigated. It is clear that, on top of that, the criminal law must play its part in improving the safety of our roads.

My right hon. Friend called for a long hard look at how the law works for road safety and how the criminal offences operate. In many ways, he has had that long hard look through the review of road traffic offences involving bad driving, which the Government have consulted on. During that consultation, I received many letters from people who have lost loved ones due to careless driving.

Dangerous driving is rightly considered a serious crime, and we have already increased the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving or
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causing death by careless driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs to 14 years' imprisonment. However, many people, including my right hon. Friend, have argued that where the standard of driving is not categorised as dangerous but is none the less careless and results in a death, the law is inadequate.

Careless driving is currently punishable by a maximum fine of £2,500 or, where the offence occurred on or after 4 April, a non-custodial penalty. That is because careless driving can apply to minor errors and there is no requirement for a driver to intend to harm, or even be reckless as to the harm that might result. However, even minor errors can have disastrous results.

Some say that the consequences of the behaviour are not relevant, as only the standard of driving must be assessed, not the tragic results. There is some truth in that. It is certainly true that the standard of driving must be the most important factor in judging culpability. However, that is not the whole truth. The Government are committed to ensuring that we strike a balance between the level of criminal fault on the part of the careless driver and the devastation that such behaviour can cause. Drivers have a responsibility to other road users, and we must consider that when striking the balance.

In 2003, the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) announced a review of the existing framework of criminal law, particularly when death or injury results from bad driving. The review was directed by a steering group, which included road safety organisations and Margaret Dekker, to whom my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill referred. The Scottish campaign against irresponsible drivers, which Margaret Dekker chaired, has been closely involved in the preparation of the proposals contained in the "Review of Road Traffic Offences involving Bad Driving" consultation paper.

The paper included a proposal that should help to address the concerns of Gillian's family and all those who have lost loved ones as a result of bad driving. The proposal was to create a new offence—exactly as my right hon. Friend called for—of causing death by careless driving, and we propose a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment for that offence. That would make available a custodial sentence where the circumstances of the case suggested that that was appropriate.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned speeding, which is a contributory factor in road traffic incidents. Speeding could be charged either as dangerous or careless driving depending on the facts of the case, and it would be an appropriate factor to take into account if someone were charged under the new offence.

There are other proposals in the consultation paper that the Government believe would help to create an effective framework of offences to deal with bad driving and create safer roads for everyone. They include a new offence of causing death by driving while disqualified or unlicensed, which was based on the argument that those who decide to take a car on the road illegally put road users at risk through their irresponsible and unlawful behaviour, regardless of their standard of driving. The
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Government believe that such drivers should be held culpable for the fatal consequences of their decision to drive illegally, and we invited views on that in the consultation.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned that the difference between dangerous and careless driving can be unclear. That is true to some extent because dangerous driving is defined in statute as driving that falls "far below" the standards expected of a competent and careful driver. It is widely accepted in case law that careless driving incorporates driving that falls "below", although not necessarily "far below", the standards expected, but that is not set out in statute. The consultation paper proposed that it should be, but it is true that the distinction between careless and dangerous driving is at times difficult to make. The issue was explored during the review and it was considered whether the offences of careless and dangerous driving should be replaced. It was concluded that they should not. I will not go into the full reasons here, but they are set out in the paper and copies are available in the Library.

I listened carefully to what my right hon. Friend had to say. His major concern was to ensure that actions have appropriate consequences, and the proposals put forward in the review do precisely that. The consultation period for the review ended on 6 May. We had a large number of responses from a wide variety of organisations and individuals from road safety organisations, the legal profession and the police to the families of those who have died as a result of road traffic incidents, local councils and organisations representing people with disabilities.

We have received several petitions, in addition to the one mentioned by my right hon. Friend and we are in the process of analysing the responses received. A summary of the consultation exercise and the next steps will be published in due course. I hope that they can be turned into legislation in a timely fashion, because I recognise that families such as the Currans feel that they cannot wait and that in order for justice to be done they need speedy action. I hope that we may make progress on the matter.

Mr. Tom Clarke : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's measured response, but I must push the point. Everyone I have spoken to who is involved in taking decisions on these matters feels that the current law is not adequate, so I plead with the Government to change it.

Fiona Mactaggart : I agree with my right hon. Friend. The review should provide us with the basis for creating an offence of causing death by careless driving. How we deliver that offence is something we need to look at carefully. We need to consider what appropriate legislative vehicle might exist and to take properly into account all the responses to the review; it would be inappropriate not to do so.

I am not only the Minister who is responsible for criminal law; I am also the Minister responsible for victims such as the Curran family. In order to deliver justice to them, the Government need to ensure that the courts can take consequences into account when sentencing. That is the most important demand. We must ensure that victims and their families feel that
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justice has been served and that road users are aware that they have a duty of care to others and that the criminal law will be used to enforce those standards.

I know that nothing can bring Gillian back to her family, and that nothing will heal the pain that they feel, but I believe that if the review of offences involving bad driving leads to an appropriate sentence for people who cause death through careless driving it may go some way towards assuring families that, although the consequences of causing death through careless driving were not felt in this case, they will be felt by other careless drivers who cause death. I share that ambition with my right hon. Friend.

I spend a lot of time talking to victims groups. Many of them tell me that they do not want the anger, depression and loss that they feel to have been wholly wasted. They want what they have learned through their devastating experiences to be used to make the law more sensitive to their needs. I hope that we will be able to do that in future.

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