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5 Dec 2007 : Column 292WH—continued

It would be encouraging if a new law were introduced that gave that extra levy of punishment for the offence. It is a horrible, horrendous offence. It is bad enough, as in the cases of my constituent and that of the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, when the driver stops. However, when the driver leaves someone—a young boy—dying in the road, we should assume the worst of them, not the best. The point that I want to make today is that we should assume punishment at the highest possible level and that the courts can work down from it, rather than leaving it on the lower tariff.

3.8 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on securing the debate. I thank the hon.
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Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser), the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) and the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) for their thoughtful contributions on this serious matter.

For the record, Mr. Williams, I am a chairman of the all-party group on road safety. I am also chairman of an associate all-party group called Justice for Road Traffic Victims, which is sponsored by RoadPeace.

I had an Adjournment debate on road safety seven years ago, and it is rather sad that today we are repeating the points that were argued then. However, I welcome the fact that the Government have introduced measures during the intervening years, which have taken us forward; however, there is still a long way to go.

I deliberately do not use the phrase “road accident”, because crashes that result in injury or death are seldom accidents. They are normally the result of incompetent driving at one end of the spectrum and reckless driving at the other, with the latter often associated with excessive drinking.

I believe that the single biggest step that we could take to reduce the number of road crashes would be to take tougher action against those who endanger lives through their driving, whether because of excessive speed, lack of care and attention, general bloody-mindedness—sometimes known as road rage—or, worst of all, driving under the influence of drink or drugs. Seven years ago, I welcomed a Government consultation paper on road traffic penalties, which proposed tougher action against motorists who drive dangerously, or at excessive speed, or while drunk. I invite the Minister to provide a progress report on what has happened since that report.

I shall repeat a very telling example that I gave in the debate seven years ago, because it is an example of the way in which road deaths are treated as less important than any other form of involuntary death. That was set out in shocking and graphic detail on 6 December 2000 in a four-page report in The Sun,part of which read:

The report described how Jackson killed three young teachers as a result of his drunken-driving. Had he shot them or stabbed them to death, he would now be serving three life sentences for murder, but because he was a drunk-driver, and despite his having been banned twice for drink-driving convictions, the judge jailed him for just eight years—less than the maximum sentence, which is only 10 years. Given that he was jailed seven years ago for eight years, I can almost guarantee that, with remission, he is now out, despite having killed three people. What message does that send out? Quite simply, the message is this: if someone is killed in a road crash, the guilty person is treated more leniently than if he had killed using a weapon other than a car driven recklessly.

In 2000, before my Adjournment debate, I took up a case on behalf of a young father whose wife had been killed, leaving him with three young sons to bring up, although I should stress that the driver who killed his wife was not a drink-driver. In meetings with the Solicitor-General and various departmental officials at that time,
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I asked for four things, one of which was the creation of a new offence of causing death by driving negligently; the court would determine the severity of the case and the sentence. To a large extent, that request has been met, although the measure has yet to be implemented. At least the Government took my request on board, which I appreciate. They have not used my terminology; nevertheless, the spirit is the same.

My second request was for the referral to the Crown Court, for trial by jury, of all magistrates court cases involving a road crash death, and for sentencing by a judge even in cases where a guilty plea is entered. My third request was immediately to suspend the licence of any driver involved in a fatal crash, pending a medical inspection to determine whether they have a health condition that might affect driving. The final request was to provide for an extension beyond the current six-month legal limit during which alternative charges can be introduced if further evidence emerges, either from the defence or prosecution, that affects the original charge.

A national crusade against the number of road crashes is needed. The only sure way to reduce road deaths and injuries is for civilised society to regard those who drive at speed, fail to stop after an accident—“accident” is the legal term—or drink and drive in exactly the same way as we regard those who carry out assaults. We need to shame those responsible as though they were thugs—thugs on wheels. The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk referred to murder on our roads. We regard assault as unacceptable and we need to change attitudes so that those who endanger others through their driving are likewise condemned for their irresponsible behaviour.

Although there is a general condemnation of those who drive while under the influence of drink or drugs, not all drivers have got the message, and the police are having to take increasing numbers of breath tests. When responding to that debate seven years ago, the then Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), made reference to the Government’s consultation paper on penalties for road traffic offences, and specifically referred to the

He said that the review had

I would welcome an update this afternoon. Are the police now encouraged to

He acknowledged,

I am most grateful to Brake, the road safety charity, for providing a briefing for this afternoon. It starts by telling me:

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We have heard graphic examples this afternoon of how such incidents are increasing. According to the Department for Transport’s report “Road Casualties Great Britain: 2006”, the number of people who are leaving the scene of a hit-and-run involving fatal, serious and slight injuries has increased in the past decade from 18,357 to 21,006, so it is a growing problem. More than one in 10—11 per cent.—of death and injury crashes on our roads involve a hit-and-run driver.

At the moment, the prosecutors have to prove that the standard of driving was far below the standard of a careful and competent driver, but if the person has left the scene, that is increasingly almost impossible to prove. The hon. Member for Wellingborough makes a good point, which Brake certainly endorses, that there should be a specific charge for killing or injuring someone in a hit-and-run. If someone leaves the scene and there is a serious injury or fatality, that should be considered a crime in its own right. The courts should be able to punish such offenders, because they clearly have no respect for the law or for the lives that they devastate. We must have tougher prison sentences.

The principle of prosecuting a driver whose illegal behaviour is linked to a death, regardless of the standard of driving, can be seen in the welcome new charge of causing death while driving while unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured, as set out in the Road Safety Act 2006. If I understood her intervention correctly, the Minister said that that provision was likely to be introduced or to commence some time early in the new year. I hope that it is—I and other hon. Members will table questions in the new year if that has not come to pass.

We need a change in the law to ensure that killer drivers do not escape justice, and to act as a disincentive to others from leaving the scene of a crash. We need a charge for leaving the scene of a crash after causing death or serious injury by driving. Brake suggests that that could be a separate charge, or perhaps an amendment to the existing charge of causing death while unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured. The charge would carry a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment, which is equivalent to the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving. In addition, I certainly endorse the point made by the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough that when a driver is disqualified and sent to prison, the disqualification should start on the day that they are released from prison, not while they are serving a prison sentence.

I have already mentioned that in the last year for which figures have been published, 2006, there were 21,006 crashes resulting in death and injury that involved a hit-and-run driver. That is a shocking statistic by any standard, and I hope that today’s debate will lead to the Government taking further action.

3.20 pm

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): It is a pleasure and a privilege to speak in this extremely important debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on securing it. I praise him for the compassion and concern that he has shown not only today, but ever since the traumatic death of Kyle McDermott was brought to his attention. I also praise him for the
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passion and concern that he has shown in speaking about his constituents and his cousin Stephen and I pay tribute to him for the way in which he did so. It is difficult to bring stories about those close to home to the House, although it must mean so much to the hon. Gentleman and his family to be able to do so. Finally, I pay tribute to him for his passion and concern in seeking justice for Kyle, Stephen and his community in respect of these hit-and-run incidents, which we see throughout the country.

It is important to look at the case of Christopher Collins in some detail because it highlights the issues that hon. Members have brought to our attention today. Speaking of the case, Jools Townsend, the head of education at Brake in Huddersfield, quite properly said:

That is well said.

The case of Christopher Collins also highlights the great disparity in sentencing, which all hon. Members have discussed. If one looks in detail at the sentence of five months’ imprisonment, one sees that it did not result from the failure to stop and report an accident or, indeed, from driving without due care and attention, because the penalty for that is not a custodial sentence. The sentence resulted from Collins’s admitting to having perverted the course of justice, although there is concern that it was not adequate even in that respect. That, however, is the only reason why there was a custodial sentence.

Collins was arrested a week after the accident, after a member of the public spotted his damaged van parked outside a colleague’s house in Mexborough. Even then, Collins lied to the police, claiming that he was not the driver. It was only 11 months later that he finally owned up to having been behind the wheel, giving rise to the charge of perverting the course of justice.

The concern is that failing to stop and report an accident is hardly given any regard. Many of us think that seeking to evade justice after a hit-and-run accident is not far short of perverting the course of justice; indeed, in certain circumstances, the two are tantamount or indistinguishable in terms of their consequences for victims. It is therefore important to bring the Collins case to everyone’s attention to highlight the disparity in current legislation.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough has been raising his concerns for some time and did so again in the petition of 29 October, for which I pay tribute to him. He has also asked parliamentary questions, in which he has been supported by other hon. Members who have asked questions and sought debates. In that respect, I should note that I am chairman of the all-party group on road safety, which has certainly raised the issue, along with other groups.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) raised the issue in October and has also tabled parliamentary questions. Today, he highlighted the disparity between the 14-year maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving or while under the influence of drugs or drink and the maximum for failing to stop and report an accident, which is six
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months in prison. He also raised concerns about drink-driving incidents and people seeking to evade justice by avoiding an early reading of their proportion of alcohol to breath. He properly made the point that that is an incentive to leave the scene of the crime.

The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) made similar points and raised the historical ambiguity in relation to road traffic legislation. He spoke with great passion and concern about Gillian Curran and the loss to her family and the constituency. As I understand it from a recent speech by the Director of Public Prosecutions, the charging policy that the right hon. Gentleman raised is being particularly considered with the aim of avoiding the situation that I have seen in courts where I have practised in Enfield and Haringey. The easy option is often followed, in that people go for careless driving rather than dangerous driving. I am encouraged by recent remarks that I have heard and documents that I have seen.

Mr. Bone: In Northamptonshire, the CPS takes a different line now. The director reviews every case in which there is a death as a result of driving to ensure that the service is prosecuting correctly. That would be good practice throughout the country.

Mr. Burrowes: Yes. Perhaps we can hear from the Minister whether that practice could be adopted elsewhere. I was encouraged by the Director of Public Prosecutions saying that the CPS is taking the issue very seriously and is not now looking at the easy option. We need to see whether that is being followed through out in the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) rightly raised the tragic loss of Alexine Melnik. That loss, together with that of Kyle McDermott and others, will not be in vain. That is the point of this debate: such deaths should not be in vain but should lead to changes. They have led to changes through the Road Safety Act 2006, but the concern today is that there are still significant gaps. As described by my hon. Friend, hit and run is a horrible, horrendous offence. We should not be dealing with the lower end of sentencing. We should be able to give the courts the full range of options so that they can deal appropriately with the particular circumstances of a failure to stop.

All hon. Members have tragic cases in our constituencies on which we campaign. Soon after I was elected, Abigail Moore, who was aged 25 and from Hadley Wood, tragically lost her life as a result of a hit and run accident in Hackney. There was also the case of Livia Galli-Atkinson. My predecessor as MP for Enfield, Southgate, Stephen Twigg, passionately championed the concerns of the Galli-Atkinson family. Livia’s death was not the result of a hit-and-run accident but was caused by dangerous driving. A paltry fine of £2,000 was imposed following that incident on 12 January 1998. It is the efforts of the Galli-Atkinson family, the Melnik family, the McDermott family and others that bring us here to seek to ensure that road safety is taken extremely seriously and is not the poor relation when it comes to criminal justice.

Let us consider the passage of the Road Safety Bill, which is now on the statute book. There was a missed opportunity in that respect. I sought to table an amendment
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to create a new offence that would properly recognise the importance of allowing failure to stop offences to be dealt with on an either-way basis—either in the magistrates court or in the Crown court. Sadly, sufficient time was not given to the measure in Committee and on Report to allow consideration of what hon. Members are saying today.

However, this cause is being championed. I mentioned the Galli-Atkinson family, who have instigated the Livia award, which commends the service provided by police officers investigating these crimes on a daily basis. It is designed to commend exceptional service for road crash victims and for the cause of justice. We met last month to give awards to many officers in the Metropolitan police for their efforts. At that gathering, it was significant that, time and again, senior police officers, while accepting their awards for dedicated service, mentioned their concern that hit-and-run incidents and failing-to-stop offences were not being given due regard and attracting the penalties that they merited. Lord Simon, as well as myself and others, pointed out the need to tackle such offences and deal with them properly.

The Livia award panel, on which were senior Crown prosecutors, former chiefs of the operational command unit of the Metropolitan police, senior solicitors, journalists and myself, made representations to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), on tackling the matter and the need for a proper penalty for failing to stop at the scene of an accident. His response was similar to that made in the Committee on the Road Safety Act 2006. He wrote:

The example that has been given—the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) might give a similar one today—is of a lorry driver who goes along a narrow road and does not realise that he has caused an accident, and goes on his way without knowledge. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport wrote:

There may well be circumstances in which it is right, but there are many others, as we have heard, in which it is plainly wrong and an injustice. We need to ensure that there are options on the statute book and that we are not limited to a summary-only offence, so that it can be dealt with as an either-way matter and therefore at the Crown court. I do not need to go into different sentencing levels, as the point has been well made by hon. Members.

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