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5 Dec 2007 : Column 286WH—continued

I know the devastating effect that Stephen’s death had on the whole of my family, particularly my Auntie Harriet and Uncle Doug—who has since passed away—and Stephen’s brother Dougie and his sister Coran. Steve was 25 when he died and a really good sportsman—particularly at rugby. He was three months younger than me and was in my class at Grimethorpe junior school. I certainly miss him a lot.

It is no wonder that a Department for Transport survey conducted in 2005 showed that in cases where careless driving convictions were made, only 20 per cent. of victims and victims’ families felt that justice had been served. Almost half the victims felt that the gap in penalties between dangerous and careless driving is too great. I know that the Minister will probably inform the Chamber that the Department is creating a new offence of causing death by careless driving, with a maximum sentence of five years, but, as I understand it, it will not specifically recognise in penalty terms a driver who is guilty of leaving the scene of a major accident. That is the main point that I would like to make in today’s Adjournment debate.

I shall turn briefly to the statistics. In 2002 in South Yorkshire there were two fatal road hit-and-run accidents. In 2006, that had trebled to six. Nationally, in 2002 there were 142 fatal hit-and-run accidents, and in 2006 the figure was exactly the same. In South Yorkshire in
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2002, there were 530 hit-and-run accidents where someone was slightly or seriously injured, increasing to 566 such accidents in 2006. In England as a whole, there were 24,040 accidents where someone was injured by a hit-and-run driver, and that figure dropped to 19,046 by 2006. Those statistics from the Department for Transport show the state of the problem.

The Minister will know that I tabled a question with her Department for answer on 15 October, which read:

I received the following reply from the Minister:

I suggest that she takes a look at that database with a view to being able to produce that information in future. It is important that we have an evidence base to show whether a person found guilty in a hit-and-run accident case receives a heavier sentence than otherwise. Will the Minister cover that point when she sums up?

I have often wondered why a person involved in a serious road accident would choose to drive off. As in my cousin Stephen’s case, the driver often says in court, “I panicked. I didn’t know what to do” and so on. Many of my constituents believe that many hit-and-run drivers have an ulterior motive—for example, those drivers’ cars might not have been insured, taxed or tested. Equally, they feel in many cases, as in that of our Stephen, that the driver was drinking and that self-preservation kicked in.

It would be interesting to know how many drivers guilty of a hit-and-run offence were also guilty of drink-driving, assuming that they were tracked down by the police in a matter of hours, as the person who killed Stephen was. It would also be interesting to know whether the number of hit-and-run accidents has increased since the breathalyser and the offence of drink-driving were introduced. I have the feeling that it probably has—I have no evidence base to prove it, but that is my feeling.

Many previous debates on the subject in the House have become embroiled in the difference between careless driving and the more serious offence of dangerous driving. Needless to say, in hit-and-run accidents it is much more difficult to prove dangerous driving. I do not intend to become too embroiled in that point of law. The main legal point that I want to make is that because there is no direct correlation between leaving the scene of an accident and a more severe penalty, that may act as a perverse incentive to drivers with something to hide to leave the scene. Of course, I know that magistrates and juries can use their discretion to take that into account when sentencing, but that is not the same as having a compulsory minimum sentence for leaving the scene of an accident. My main point is that the Government should consider introducing such a compulsory minimum sentence.

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I do not advocate a certain length of sentence. Some people say that there should be a minimum of three or five years, and some say that there should be a minimum of three years for careless driving and five years for dangerous driving. I know that Mrs. McDermott and many of my constituents in Mexborough advocate the application of the maximum penalty of 14 years for dangerous driving to all fatal hit-and-run drivers. That may be slightly excessive, but I shall be interested to hear what the Minister says.

I simply wish to sow the seed in the Minister’s mind to give this extremely important issue detailed consideration. We owe it to the likes of Kyle McDermott and his family to ensure that, in future, no other parents of fatal hit-and-run victims will feel that the person responsible for their son or daughter’s death has got away with murder. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

2.48 pm

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Before I pass comment, Mr. Williams, I wish to put on record that I have come from a Select Committee meeting at which I was the only Conservative member, and I must return to it. I hope that the Minister will forgive me for not being here for her winding-up speech.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on securing this debate on a most important subject, which affects many constituencies, Members of Parliament and the people whom we represent across the country. It is a most devastating thing for a family to deal with, and the hon. Gentleman did extremely well to articulate the tragic example in his constituency, which is echoed in situations that I have faced in my own. In October, I contributed to a timely debate in this Chamber on road traffic accidents and young drivers. I focused specifically on the point that the hon. Gentleman has just made—sentencing for fatal hit-and-run drivers—and I am pleased to raise those points again today.

Motorists who kill on the road while under the influence of alcohol or drugs currently face a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison whereas—this is the important part of the law—failing to stop at the scene carries a maximum sentence of just six months. I believe that that is an anomaly. I am not suggesting that every young person is a rogue and does things on the road that they should not, but an awful lot of young people drive around in the way described earlier, perhaps in untaxed and uninsured vehicles. Most important, a lot of young people know the law, and they know their rights. As it stands, the law effectively encourages those over the limit to drive off, leaving their victims injured or dying, in the hope that by the time the police catch up with them, they will have sobered up sufficiently to pass the relevant test and will therefore be sentenced for a lesser charge. That is a real problem, and it must be addressed.

During our debate in October, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) was made patently aware of the issue by hon. Members from all parties. I do not think that the issue involves party politics. I have tabled questions about it during the past couple of years, because such accidents occur time and time again
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on the roads of my constituency in rural Norfolk. They are not quite accidents—some people say that they are murders, as someone is killed on the road when someone else is responsible. There is a technical point, as has been described, about someone who has caused an accident saying that they are innocent and how the court actually finds them. It is a great disgrace that the grief of bereaved families, who have so often lost a young family member who could have made an ample contribution to the community and society, is compounded by the fact that the person who perpetrated that crime, murder, accident or whatever it is called gets away relatively easily to lead their life again.

During the past couple of years, I have read newspaper reports about some of the excuses that people give. There is no excuse for killing someone by driving recklessly—God forbid that it should happen to anybody in this House. Having said that, remorse is one thing, but the most important thing is that justice is served at the start of the process. A message must be sent out that we will not tolerate such behaviour. At the moment, the guidelines offer an incentive in the law for people to leave the scene of a crime.

During the debate in October, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport told me that he would raise the matter with the Ministry of Justice. I hope that when the Minister responds, she will tell us what communication has taken place between the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Justice to deal with the issue, so that it can be dealt with effectively and put on the statute book in such a way that no one will be able to misunderstand the law or misuse it in their favour when such an incident happens. I look forward to reading, if not hearing, the Minister’s response.

2.52 pm

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): Like the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser)—I agree with everything that he has said—I must apologise to you, Mr. Williams, and to the Chamber, as I must leave a little early, perhaps before this debate concludes. I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on a moving speech. His speech was typical of his work as a greatly respected Member of the House—it was extremely well informed and came up with solutions. The solutions that my hon. Friend described are important, and all right hon. and hon. Members seem to agree that they are appropriate.

My reason for speaking—I have had the opportunity to discuss the matter with my hon. Friend—relates to a case in my constituency that raises many comparisons with the tragic case that he has mentioned. Gillian Curran, a bright, vivacious young woman, was coming home from work just before Christmas a few short years ago. She had completed her Christmas shopping just the day before. When I last spoke to her parents, Sandra and Patrick, they told me that those presents and her room remain exactly as they were. Obviously, her sister, Nicola, was devastated. The community reflected on what took place and approached me in the way that my hon. Friend’s constituents approached him. I presented a petition to the House that was signed by around
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11,000 people, and I attended a debate in this Chamber. I am happy to acknowledge that many of the representations that I made were taken on board by the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), when he piloted the Road Safety Act 2006 through Parliament.

The circumstances of the case are as follows. The young woman was returning from work in a Christmas rush and found herself in a tailback just outside the Hilton hotel in Bellshill. A driver, who was clearly driving too fast, hit her, and her car in turn hit the car in front. The situation ended tragically, with her fighting without success for her life—sadly, she passed away in the evening. On the evidence so far, life for that family will never be the same again. Although they are not looking for vengeance—they have told me that again and again—they find it unacceptable that, because of the ambiguity of legislation on careless driving and dangerous driving, the people who had to make a decision about a prosecution decided that the charge would be careless driving. The consequence was that the person responsible was fined £500 and disqualified for six months. It was not possible to draw the attention of the court to the fact that a life was lost—the court was completely unaware of it. Clearly, that was not acceptable, and I therefore welcome the initiative of the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet, who sought to clarify that aspect of legislation which, rightly, if I may say, applies to the whole United Kingdom.

Remembering that family and that lovely young woman, whose life was lost so early and who had so much to offer, her family, the community and Scotland’s Campaign Against Irresponsible Driving take the view that notwithstanding the 2006 Act, which they welcomed, the matter has not yet been clarified to deal with that case or other cases, such as the one outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough. Something like nine people a day are killed on the roads. If that is still the case, the law throughout the United Kingdom ought to be absolutely clear. As my hon. Friend has said, it is not necessarily possible to set a minimum or maximum sentence—I am sure that the House would want to address that—but the court should at least have the right to know the circumstances of a case.

The case in my constituency differs in a number of ways from the one outlined by my hon. Friend—there was no drink involved and the driver stayed at the scene of the accident—but, nevertheless, when there are cases such as the one that he has described, it is clearly wholly unacceptable that we, as a Parliament, have not yet addressed the reality that people face. Of all the constituency cases that I have dealt with over the years, none struck me with the same poignancy as that of Gillian Curran. As her parents have said on several occasions, we cannot bring Gillian back, but we have a responsibility to others—young people, certainly, with their lives ahead of them—as fellow citizens, who have the right to feel that they can use the streets and roads of our country in safety. If people act blatantly against the law, as we have heard about this afternoon—our constituents can describe many other such cases—they should clearly face the full penalty of the law. I therefore plead that legislation on road safety should reflect what happens on Britain’s roads today and face up to the challenges of some of the less attractive aspects of modern Britain.

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The House is being invited to look at the facts and to respond in order to remove any ambiguity and to ensure that if people misbehave, as many sadly do, and that leads to loss of life, the penalty should be paid. Parliament should do its utmost in the interests of road safety and of the people who use the streets and roads of our country.

3.1 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) and my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser), whose powerful speeches I agree with in their entirety. I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on securing an exceptionally important debate. I do not want to embarrass him, but he is clearly one of the most respected Members in the House, and when he speaks he is worth listening to. I also welcome the Minister, who is always willing to listen to an argument and to respond and take it on board, if it is fair.

Clearly this is an all-party matter. Representatives of all parties are here today, and I should declare an interest as the secretary of the all-party group on road traffic victims, which fights for justice for them. However, I am upstaged by the presence of the group’s chairman, the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who I am sure will catch your eye later, Mr. Williams. I shall congratulate the Government later, but first I want to ask for my condolences to be passed to Kyle McDermott’s family.

The description by the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough of the incident made it difficult to hold back tears. I have a seven-year-old, and one thinks how one would feel in that situation. It is not a question of revenge when we seek higher penalties. It is a matter of wanting to warn people who get into a car that they are driving a potentially lethal weapon. If one asks a police officer the best way to get away with murder, he will say it is to get in a car and run over a person, because that is likely to result in a fine of a few pounds and some points on one’s licence.

I was drawn into the debate before I entered Parliament. In my constituency, a bright young girl was travelling home from, I think, her first weekend away from her parents. I think that she was 17. She was sitting in the back of a car—she was not even driving. Another car hit the one in which she was travelling from behind. The car in which she was travelling spun in front of another car, and she was killed instantly. The driver concerned had been driving for a considerable time, but he was charged not with dangerous driving but with careless driving. I do not think that the fact that Alexine Melnik died was taken into account. The driver was given a small fine and points on his licence. He was not even disqualified.

Peter Melnik, Alexine’s father, and the rest of the family, have been extremely brave. They campaigned long and hard for a change in the law. That campaign was supported by my predecessor as Member of Parliament for Wellingborough, Mr. Paul Stinchcombe, and I supported it when I was the prospective Conservative candidate. I know that Mr. Melnik’s efforts had a significant input into the change in the law that the Government instituted.
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I was pleased to enter the Aye Lobby with Government Members to support the new law of causing death by careless driving, which has a five-year maximum penalty. That is wholly the right way to go, because it recognises the severity of such accidents. The threshold for a conviction on dangerous driving is so high that the Crown Prosecution Service is always under pressure to opt for the lower offence, as it can get a conviction. That is understandable, but the problem is that it leads to a minimal punishment. The new law should change the situation.

I apologise to the Minister, because I must leave slightly before the end of the debate as I have to be somewhere else at 4 pm. However, if she has any evidence on how the new law is working, I would be very interested to know about it.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. The new offences will be introduced once the Sentencing Guidelines Council has set out its views, so that they can be operated consistently by sentencers. We hope that implementation will take place earlier rather than later in the new year.

Mr. Bone: That is exceptionally good news. We obviously want to monitor how the CPS progresses.

I believe that the situation has moved on. At the moment, people are clearly trying to avoid prosecution. They are leaving the scene of devastating accidents and not helping the injured, and they are doing it for their own benefit. It is possible that the car involved in such cases is not insured, or it may be for other reasons. However, the main reason for that behaviour is that such people have probably been drinking. By the time the police catch up with them, there is no evidence one way or the other, and I urge the Government to recognise that.

If someone leaves the scene of a fatal accident, the punishment should be equivalent to that for causing death by dangerous driving. The 14-year sentence is the maximum for dangerous driving. It would be exceptional for someone to be sentenced to 14 years, but such an arrangement would give the courts the opportunity to punish appropriately. If the driver has left the scene, the assumption should be made that they have done so for personal gain, because they were drunk or for some other reason.

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