Road Safety Bill [Lords]

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Dr. Ladyman: I hope that I will provide a convincing response. The closest I came to agreeing with the hon. Members for Wimbledon and for North Shropshire was when they said that the police should do a lot more to enforce road traffic legislation in respect of cyclists. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire mentioned his experience the other day. I suspect that the two individuals he described were committing at least four offences for which they could have been stopped and prosecuted, irrespective of whether a new offence is created. There is indeed already an offence of not being in proper control of one’s cycle, which is quite adequate to deal with the circumstances that the right hon. Gentleman described. What is lacking at present is the unwillingness of the police to enforce that legislation, a matter that I will discuss at my regular meeting with the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Last week, on two occasions, I saw a cyclist riding his bicycle the wrong way round Parliament square in front of at least four police officers standing at the gates of Speaker’s Court. If that person was not even stopped and told to be more sensible, is it any wonder that cyclists largely ignore the highway code? However, there is already legislation to deal with the matter. We do not need the amendment, which would just be another piece of legislation for some of those people to ignore. What we need is to encourage the police to deal with them.

During this debate, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire confessed to two things that surprised me. I always thought he was a car lover who understood motor cars, but I now discover that he has neither a Ferrari nor an Alfa Romeo, which says to me that he has no judgment whatever about Italian machinery. He also tells me that he puts his car “in park”, which means that he is driving an automatic, so in my book he is no lover of driving.

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The right hon. Gentleman describes scenarios, such as when one is in a traffic jam on the motorway. The hon. Member for North Shropshire mentioned similar events. In such circumstances, if people are phoning to say that they are stuck, immobile and cannot get on, why cannot we leave it to the police to use common sense about not booking them? That is what I would recommend. If we go down the route suggested by the Conservatives and set some criteria determining when people are not driving their car, what would sort of situation would we end up with? The second a policeman tapped on a person’s window, saying, “Hey, you! You’re using a mobile phone,” the person would whip their car into neutral, put the handbrake on and say, “I can use my mobile phone in these circumstances. I’m not driving my car.”

Having called all Vehicle and Operator Services Agency officials swinish followers of the law the other day, the right hon. Gentleman has now referred to those honourable boys and girls in blue as nincompoops. If I were him, I would keep my 15 vehicles well away from the highway any time in the next few months.

It is reasonable for a policeman to stop people using a mobile phone when he sees them driving up to a traffic light and can stop them without causing any danger or inconvenience to other road users. However, the Conservative amendment would allow people to pull up to the traffic lights, use their handbrake and say, “Sorry, officer, I’m not driving my vehicle so I don’t need to listen to what you say about the use of my mobile phone.”

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend pre-empts my point about the amendment, which would, as it is worded, allow anyone to stop their car and put it in “park”, which many people already do at traffic lights. He has used that form of words because a traffic jam cannot be defined in legislation.

In defence of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire, and all of us who use automatic cars, using an automatic enhances the driving experience.

Dr. Ladyman: For once, I shall have seriously to disagree with my hon. Friend. I am of that group of motorists who would never give garage room to an automatic vehicle. However, he is right to say that the amendment would be unenforceable. It is difficult enough already to enforce the rules about using a mobile phone while driving, so trying to define what is meant by driving will just make the situation even worse and more impossible.

My strong advice to Conservative Members is not to refer to the police as nincompoops any more, but trust them to use their common sense, encourage them to enforce the new penalty that we will discuss in the clause stand part debate and ensure that people stop using their mobile phone while driving. I remind Opposition Members, before they think that there may be any votes in being soft on the use of mobile phones while people are driving, that in the Christmas poll organised by Radio 4, that was voted the second most annoying offence that people see committed in this country. The public at large expect the police to start
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getting tough about it and the clause gives the police that power. I am afraid that the Conservative amendments would weaken their ability to enforce it.

Mr. Paterson: I was not wholly convinced by the Minister’s response. I stress immediately that the Conservatives do not endorse the use of hand-held mobile phones when driving. We were addressing circumstances—we have to repeat this—where the vehicle was clearly stationary. There is also a safety angle, which the Minister did not address. I should like him to look at the research in America, which suggests that there are real safety advantages from drivers having mobile phones.

Dr. Ladyman: One of the problems we face with the internet Sir Nicholas, of which I am a great fan—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Dr. Stephen Ladyman, did I hear a mobile telephone? A Blackberry? I am very conscious of mobile telephones at this moment.

Dr. Ladyman: Sir Nicholas, I am a great fan of the internet, but it has two problems. One is that my constituents in the Friday afternoon surgery are usually better informed about issues than me. The second is that it allows Conservative Members to trawl for research that they would otherwise never find and that tends not to be very well peer reviewed. I can assure the hon. Member for North Shropshire that the research we have done makes it clear that the use of mobile phones is dangerous. Indeed, the use of hands-free phone kits is also very dangerous and we need to do anything we can to clamp down on it.

Mr. Paterson: I think the internet is good if it brings information from as far away as the United States to the Minister’s attention to show the security benefits of mobile phones. This was a 100-page report, which I hope someone in his office may get to read. However, we want to move on.

I am not entirely convinced by the Minister’s response, but we will reflect further and may well come back to the matter on Report. For the moment, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 27 and 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 29

Breach of duty to give information as to identity of driver etc.

5.45 pm

Stephen Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 68, in clause 29, page 33, line 28, leave out ‘“6”’ and insert ‘“3-6”’.

Clause 29 amends part 1 of schedule 2 of the Road Traffic Offences Act by raising from three to six the number of penalty points that can be imposed for
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failing to provide information about the identity of a driver. We have a concern that the provision would severely reduce the discretion that the courts had in this area. The Minister spoke long and hard about the discretion and centrality of the courts and police officers. By moving from three to six points, we will give the courts no discretion and no ability to consider the circumstances of the case, which means that injustices will occur.

We have no problem with the maximum end of the points being raised to six, which as I understand it, would correspond with the maximum for speeding. We remain concerned that the flexibility that the courts have is being removed. The Minister was waxing lyrical this morning about the ability of the courts to distinguish the gradients of the offence of carelessness. I therefore assume that he will agree that in these circumstances they will have the ability to be flexible and show discretion.

The amendment does not seek to require a leniency option. It merely gives the courts the discretion to decide, in the circumstances of various cases, whether they should give three or six points. A case which is often cited is where the husband and wife drive cars interchangeably. Who can remember who was driving which car at a particular point? My wife and I drive our cars interchangeably, although we describe my car as the Audi and hers as the Renault. None the less, we drive them interchangeably and there are certainly days where I could not be sure which one of us was necessarily driving which car.

Perhaps more importantly, there is the scenario where there are multiple drivers using one vehicle. That could happen in distribution companies, post offices and a large number of utility companies, where it is quite possible that one vehicle is used by numerous people during the week and possibly even during a single day. An offence could occur. Subsequently, a request for the provision of details of the driver is issued which may be difficult to provide. All the amendment is seeking to do, in line with the Minister’s desire elsewhere in the Bill, is to introduce that element of common sense, which will allow the courts to use their discretion. I trust that the Minister will have no problem with that.

Mr. Carmichael: The hon. Member for Wimbledon may have no problem with the change that the Government have made, but I do. On this occasion, the Government and Conservative Members, especially the Conservatives, are being unduly soft. I should like anything up to and including a period of disqualification for contravention of section 172. In terms of its use by the police for the investigation of road traffic incidents after the event and the operation of cameras, section 172 is crucial. It is a very useful provision for the police. There is a growing prevalence of the use of speed cameras. There have been some well-documented cases of people trying to evade their duties under section 172, and occasionally doing so successfully, so the full range of penalties should be available to the court.

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I return to my point that the prospect of losing a licence certainly concentrates the mind. Section 172 is one of the most important sections of the Road Traffic Act 1988 and it is becoming more important. The Government are going in the right direction, but I hope that the Minister considers increasing the number of penalty points. For the worst cases—there are some bad cases—disqualification should be made an option.

Mr. Knight: I understand why the Government want the provision in the Bill. If a motorist was exceeding the speed limit greatly and was aware that a speed camera had been triggered, he might decide that, if he claimed that he did not know who was driving, it would be worth three points rather than his admitting that he was driving and probably receiving six points for the much more serious offence of greatly exceeding the speed limit. I understand why the Government want to plug the gap, but I cannot understand why they are not willing to adopt the flexible approach suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon to allow the courts to judge the case on its merits.

When the House debated the Bill in the previous Parliament, which fell because of the election, I drew the attention of the Committee to an incident that involved the Conservative candidates for the European Parliament during the previous European elections in my county. They were lent two jeep vehicles by a party supporter to use during their campaigning. The insurance was such that it covered anyone driving for the campaign. The vehicles were chopped and changed between the candidates and campaign managers. Three weeks later, a ticket arrived on the desk of the owner of the vehicles because one of the jeeps had triggered a speed camera. An offence had been committed but, at that stage, no one was sure who had been driving the jeep in question when it triggered the speed camera. I must say that the triggering was minimal; it was three or four miles over the speed limit.

Let us consider the circumstances in which the owner genuinely did not know who was driving the car. Clearly, he owned the vehicle and must shoulder some responsibility, but it seems unfair that the owner must take six points when, if the culprit had come forward, the culprit would have received only three points. The Minister is taking matters too much the other way. He is correcting a loophole in the law but, by making the offence carry more points than a motorist may receive in certain cases, he has gone too far.

Dr. Ladyman: The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire is right; he has put his finger on why we are making the change. If we did not, and someone was due to receive a six-point penalty for driving well over the speed limit, they would do better for themselves by saying that they did not know who was driving, and taking three points.

There is a defence for the circumstances outlined by the right hon. Gentleman, although now that I know it will be used to defend Conservative candidates, I
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might consider amending it. Section 172(3) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 provides a defence where a person

    “did not know and could not with reasonable diligence have ascertained who the driver of the vehicle . . . was.”

In such circumstances, the individual will not be penalised at all.

I hope that that is sufficient explanation for the change and that it provides the reassurance that the hon. Member for Wimbledon sought on a defence being available. I have noted that he regards the Audi as his vehicle and the Renault as his wife’s. I can only say that that is very sexist but entirely understandable.

The issue raised by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is one that reasonable people can have a reasonable disagreement about, but I undertake to reflect on his views before Report.

Mr. Knight: If the situation is as the Minister describes, he will have fully answered my concerns. While I am speaking, may I try to regain a little bit of street cred with him by saying that only half my vehicles are automatic? Two of them are Jensens. One is a Jensen Interceptor; the other is a Jensen C-V8. I have to tell him that an automatic gearbox does not lessen the experience of driving those cars.

Dr. Ladyman: I look forward to joining the right hon. Gentleman on a drive sometime. I will be in my Alfa and he can be in his Jensen.

Stephen Hammond: One reason why my wife agrees that the Audi is my car is that it has had slightly more accidents, but that is another story.

If the situation is as the Minister described, the reason why we sought flexibility in clause 29 is covered. I am sure that readers of Hansard will be amused to discover that flexibility is required in one case and absolutes are required in others. None the less, given the Minister’s reassurance on the point that I raised, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 29 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 30

Meaning of driving without due care and attention

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

Mr. Paterson: I rise to speak on clause 30 somewhat ruefully. You missed an interesting debate this morning, Sir Nicholas. I will not repeat what was said, but we proposed new clauses that would have set a cascading scale, with reckless driving being driving that fell “far below” what would be expected of a competent driver and dangerous driving being “significantly” below that. We felt that that was in tune with clause 30, which we had not reached at that point. It suggests that a simple definition of “careless, or inconsiderate, driving” be set in statute, which is driving that falls below what would be expected of

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    “a competent and careful driver”.

We thought that our new clauses would set a wholly logical new framework of law of which the new definition in clause 30 formed an integral part. It is somewhat ruefully, therefore, that we support clause 30 as it stands.

The Chairman: Does the Minister want to reply?

6 pm

Dr. Ladyman: Only to say that I mentioned in this morning’s debate that we had carried out a thorough consultation on the offences that we are discussing. The consultation suggested that although we had an adequate statutory definition of dangerous driving, which is that it falls far below the standard normally accepted, there ought to be a further definition in statute of what careless driving constitutes. That is why we have tabled the clause. Far from being in any way contradictory to the comments that I made in this morning’s debate, it is this clause that makes sense of those comments. It explains why we do not need the more graduated definitions of dangerous, reckless and the other standards of driving proposed by the hon. Member for North Shropshire.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 31 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 32

Alternative verdict on unsuccessful culpable homicide prosecution

Mr. Paterson: I beg to move amendment No. 69, in clause 32, page 34, line 29, at end add—

      ‘(d)   an offence under section 3 of that Act (careless driving).”’.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 70, in clause 33, page 35, line 7, at end add—

      ‘(e)   an offence under section 3 of that Act (careless driving).”’.

Mr. Paterson: These are probing amendments. Under the framework set up in the clause, if I understand it, if culpable homicide fails a case of dangerous driving could be brought. They are probing amendments to see whether within the rules of double jeopardy it would be possible in the case of dangerous driving also to be caught by the definition of careless driving.

Dr. Ladyman: Not being a lawyer, I may fall into dangerous territory. If I mislead the Committee I will, of course, write and correct it. I understand that if one is charged with an offence such as manslaughter, the alternative offences are offered by the judge to the jury if he believes that they cannot reach a decision on the substantive indictment. That will mean that dangerous driving can be an alternative verdict in a case where
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manslaughter is alleged. We have already made it clear that causing death by careless driving would be an alternative verdict when someone was charged with causing death by dangerous driving. I hope that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.

Mr. Paterson: Does that mean that there could be a cascade from manslaughter to causing death by dangerous driving to causing death by careless driving?

Dr. Ladyman: Again, as I am not a lawyer I am slightly hesitant, but my understanding is no.

Mr. Carmichael: Perhaps the Minister would clarify why the Government have not included within the clause an alternative verdict for the clause that creates the offence of causing death by careless driving? As the Minister will be aware, the range of culpability in respect of culpable homicide can cover events that are low down the scale.

Dr. Ladyman: The rationale for that is that if one has started off with either manslaughter or culpable homicide, our feeling is that it is too far a drop to causing death by careless driving. If one cannot make the case for manslaughter in such circumstances, one would expect to be able to make the case for causing death by dangerous driving, rather than having to cascade all the way down to causing death by careless driving.

Mr. Paterson: That was a helpful explanation. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 32 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 33 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 34

Penalty points

Stephen Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 71, in clause 34, page 35, line 20, leave out ‘seven’ and insert ‘three’.

The clause enables the courts to offer offenders convicted of certain specified offences the opportunity to undertake a retraining course, which will give them a remission of penalty points. It inserts into the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 offences such as careless and inconsiderate driving, failure to comply with traffic signs and speeding. The opportunity to pay for and undertake retraining courses is offered where the driver is not to be disqualified but his licence is to be endorsed with penalty points. The retraining courses can be offered only when the offender has reached at least seven points and no more than 11. That is obvious; otherwise he would be disqualified.

We see what the Minister is driving at, but amendment No. 71 is designed to elicit from him why he has chosen seven penalty points as the starting point for a driver to apply for one of the retraining courses. We believe that they could be more specifically and successfully aimed at first-time or less serious
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offenders, so that there is no progression. Indeed, as I understand it, some police forces offer the courses in the place of prosecution, aimed particularly at the lower end of the scale. [Interruption.] They cost between £100 and £135 and should be self-financing.

Dr. Ladyman: On a point of order, Sir Nicholas. I wonder whether Front Bench spokesmen get three points for using a mobile phone.

The Chairman: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that they get six under me.

Stephen Hammond: That is very good news.

The courses are now being extended to the courts, so we are keen to find out why only serious offenders who already have seven points can apply for them. Surely the progression that we discussed earlier is equally important. We should encourage all individuals to be responsible users and should give them an opportunity to attend a retraining course. Surely someone who has only three points would benefit from such a course as much as someone who has seven. It seems sensible to us to try to nip what is irresponsible, bad driving rather than criminal activity in the bud well before someone gets to a massive seven penalty points.

Therefore, I should be interested to hear why the Minister wants to set the level at seven. Will it be simply a matter of resource?

Dr. Ladyman: I think that I can help the hon. Gentleman. The police can already, at their discretion, offer an alternative to three points when they are giving a fixed penalty notice. Typically, they would write to the individual giving them the opportunity to take a training course rather than pay the normal fixed penalty.

We want the courts to have the opportunity to offer courses. The amendment suggests that if the person is about to be given three points—that would indicate that they had not committed any previous offences—they would have the opportunity to take a training course instead of the three points. We thought it more sensible to set the bar a little higher than that so that, by definition, it must be the second offence. The maximum that the person could previously have got is six points, so seven points shows that, at the very least, it is their second offence. In those circumstances clearly a pattern is beginning to set in, which could perhaps be nipped in the bud by sending the individual on a training course, but a pattern had not been established at the first offence. However, the hon. Gentleman should remember that the individual may already have been sent on a course at the police’s discretion, as a result of having previously been offered a fixed penalty.

Again, this is an issue where reasonable people can have a reasonable disagreement. We have simply decided that the bar should be set slightly higher than the three points in the hon. Gentleman’s probing amendment.

Stephen Hammond: I am sure that this is indeed a case where reasonable people can have a reasonable disagreement, but if two offences have already been
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committed I suggest that a pattern is involved already and that things are not then being nipped in the bud. I hope that the Government will review this at some stage and that they might be able to reduce the level at which these courses are introduced. However, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Stephen Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 78, in clause 34, page 35, line 32, leave out subsection (3).

The amendment is designed simply to tease from the Government what other offences they have in mind that could be either added or removed given the qualification on these attendances. We also thought that a period of evaluation, to see whether the scheme works, might be sensible. It is therefore a simple probing amendment so that the Minister can tell us what other offences he may consider adding or removing in future.

Dr. Ladyman: I cannot really help the hon. Gentleman much because at this time we have no such offences in mind. There are no obvious candidates to be added but it would seem sensible to retain this power to do something by regulation, since bringing forward further primary legislation would, clearly, not usually justify Parliament’s time. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we have no particular offences in mind here. We simply think it more appropriate to retain the power in the Bill so that we need never come back to the full Chamber in future for primary legislation just to add something that has emerged from changing traffic conditions or changing attitudes to road traffic offences.

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