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5 Dec 2007 : Column 298WH—continued

Sadly, I did not have the opportunity during the passage of the Road Safety Act to go through current legislation to see whether the situation of people who do not know that they have caused an accident is covered. Section 170 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 properly requires a driver to stop their vehicle if a road traffic accident has occurred and there has been either personal injury or damage. That duty on the driver
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applies only if he knows that the accident has occurred. In the case of Harding v. Price in 1948, it was established that the prosecution must prove that the driver knew of the accident or ought reasonably to have known it. In 1970, the case of Hansen v. Powellinvolved a lorry driver. Convictions were quashed because the driver’s knowledge was a necessary ingredient of an offence. Case law and statute therefore already make that point and deal with the Minister’s concerns, which have previously been voiced, about those who do not realise that they have been involved in an accident.

We need to deal with the horrendous cases in which the driver plainly knew and sought to evade justice. We have all seen cases in our constituencies, and I have seen them in court, in which the offender deliberately did not stop and, regardless of their motives, may well have denied the victim urgent medical assistance, which might have led to their dying on the streets. In other cases, they may prevent the prosecution from properly identifying them. There are ways and means of doing that: number plates might be cloned through the internet or in other ways, which is not currently barred. They may have other ingenious ways of avoiding identification, but they may well do it simply by driving off and then evading justice, perhaps to avoid being charged with the road traffic offences of having no insurance or licence. The offences that they are avoiding may be on a minor scale, or much more serious if they have alcohol in their system or there are other serious driving offences involved.

We heard in the Livia award process from police officers who do sterling work in serving justice and victims that, time and time again, they are prevented from dealing speedily and properly with the concern of victims and their families by people hitting and running and then trying to flee justice. The time that it takes the police to identify the offender and bring them to justice is of great concern to them. They, and hon. Members, are concerned that there should be a proper deterrent so that people know that, if they fail to stop, they may well face a sanction that is not just six months but could be increased.

I would ask the Minister particularly to address the issue of guidance. Yes, the guidance to magistrates makes it clear that failure to stop is now an imprisonable offence under the 1991 legislation, but sentences of imprisonment are rarely imposed for failure to stop. The court and the prosecution look to the bad driving offences rather than at the failure to stop and the merits of the offence. It should attract a severe penalty in certain circumstances. Guidance indicates that it will invariably be dealt with by way of a financial penalty and penalty points rather than any custodial sentence. It is important that that is addressed urgently.

It is also important that victims’ expectations are dealt with. They can be poorly managed. Brake made the point that there is often a disparity between sentencing and expectations. Victims see a sentence of five months and think that that is far too short for the loss of their loved one. It is impossible to compensate for that loss through a sentence, but nevertheless it is important to manage those expectations well and, not least, to have a clear and honest sentence. When a sentence of imprisonment is imposed, it is important that victims and their families know that it will be served. If a sentence of five months is given but the person comes out after a matter of weeks, the families see that and do
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not understand it. It is important that when a sentence is imposed by the court the public know that it will be properly served. It is important that sentences are explained.

I invite the Minister to take up the question raised by the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough about the driving disqualification. Should it run at the time that the sentence is imposed, concurrently, so that people serve their ban in prison? That can mean that they come out and, soon after, are driving on the streets in the same community. That raises great concerns. Should the disqualification period begin after their release from prison?

The understandable point of a driving disqualification is to protect the public. Obviously, that does not make sense: how are the public protected by a driving disqualification that has been served in prison? However, as I understand it, Court of Appeal guidance on disqualification periods, particularly lengthy ones, is on the side of offender rehabilitation. Once they have finished their term of imprisonment, the guidance considers disqualification for a lengthy period to be onerous. There is reference to considering a lesser disqualification period when it is allied to a sentence of imprisonment, in order to be on the side of rehabilitating an offender once they are in the community. It is important that the Minister give careful thought to the guidance that courts use when dealing with sentences for those who will receive a custodial sentence.

I want to give the Minister ample opportunity to reply to all the concerns raised by hon. Members. It is important to seek to plug the gap. I spoke to the Minister who took the Road Safety Bill through Parliament—the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman)—on the evening after the Livia award last year. He said that when the ink is hardly dry on the last Road Safety Act, everyone jumps up and down with extra measures for the next one. Nevertheless, the point was raised before and during the passage of the 2006 Act, and it will not go away. I know that hon. Members will not let it go away. It is important that we have answers to fill this important gap and deal with the ambiguity. For the sake of Kyle McDermott and all those others who have been mentioned today, I ask the Minister to respond in full.

3.39 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate for the way in which they have done so and for their examples. In particular, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), not only on his good fortune in obtaining the debate but on the powerful way in which he set out his concerns. He did so with great distinction. I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), who told us that he would be unable to stay to the end of the debate and is no longer here, said about my hon. Friend and the way in which he set out his case. My hon. Friend’s reasoning and the solutions that he offered gave us all a great insight into why he sought the debate and into what he wants to happen. That cannot always be said of debates in the Chamber.

All those who took part made similar points and I want to get on to dealing with them, but first I want to set out the current trends. There is no doubt that a
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death in a road traffic accident—that is what they are called, although not everyone sees them as accidents, in certain circumstances—is an appalling tragedy, particularly when it is the death of a young child or young person who, everyone feels, has suddenly and avoidably been snatched away for no good reason. The loss of potential is keenly felt by all who observe such circumstances. Members are of course often part of the chain of observation. That is apart from the consequences for families. My hon. Friend set out very well the long-term consequences and impact of such bereavements. One can see why the effects last for many years. Families can learn to live with those situations, but one never gets over the sudden snatching away of a family member in that way.

The Government, like all the hon. Members present, recognise the tremendous importance of the issue. There is also general recognition that in the past—not just the past 10 years, but probably ever since there has been motor traffic on the road—such matters have perhaps been undercooked, as to the seriousness with which they have been treated. That is the basis of the arguments of many hon. Members today.

If we take the years 1994 to 1998 as the baseline, casualty rates for those killed and seriously injured are down 33 per cent. There is a clear downward trend in the numbers of people killed and seriously injured on the roads. The average has gone down 1 per cent. on the 2005 number, so it is a continuing downward trend, I am glad to say. In the same period the number of children killed and seriously injured went down by 52 per cent., and the figure is down 5 per cent. since 2005. Slight casualties—involving injuries that are not fatal—are down 28 per cent., and down 6 per cent. on the 2005 figure. Every instance, particularly of serious injury and death, is a tragedy to the family concerned, but I am glad that the trends are strongly downwards, which must be positive.

Bob Russell: We all welcome the fact that trends are going down, but the debate is about sentencing for fatal hit-and-run accidents, and I understand that official Government statistics show an increase of between 2,000 and 3,000 in the number of hit-and-run incidents involving death and injury in the past decade. That is therefore an area of growth, which is what we should be addressing.

Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is correct in that the hit-and-run element is an important issue. My information is that 11 per cent. of all reported personal injury road accidents involve at least one hit-and-run driver or rider. That is a significant percentage of cases in which people flee and seek to evade responsibility, for whatever reason. I do not want to say that it is always for a bad reason, although obviously it frequently is. There may always be mitigating circumstances. I accept, as hon. Members have said, that there are blatant examples in which the reason for flight is probably to evade responsibility and minimise the impact on the driver.

Mr. Burrowes: The trend is important. It is increasing in respect of hit-and-runs, and the number of cases of people being left to die is increasing—from 113 fatal crashes in 1977 to 152 in 2006, an increase of 35 per cent. It is important to focus on the right trend.

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Maria Eagle: I accept that. It is also important to place matters in the context of the fact that there is an increasing focus on such crimes as a result of which society in general is beginning to regard them as more important. There is now much more social disapproval of both drunk driving and people getting away with such behaviour. That increasing disapproval assists policy makers and the Government in our job of dealing with the higher end of the incidents to which my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough has brought the attention of the House.

My hon. Friend asked why a driving ban is frequently served concurrently with a sentence of imprisonment, an issue to which the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) also referred. I understand my hon. Friend’s point. It seems nonsensical in many ways for someone to serve a driving ban when they cannot drive because they are locked up. I intend to have a think about the problem and discuss it with my colleagues at the Department for Transport and the Home Office who have responsibilities and interests in such matters.

I want to stress that matters are not always as simple as they seem. The hon. Gentleman said that rehabilitation is a common issue in sentencing, and that lesser offences are overtaken by more serious offences, so imprisonment would be considered more seriously. There are circumstances in which those in prison can be released on temporary licence as part of their rehabilitation. People in open prison can be released and get jobs as part of their rehabilitation into the community. It might then be sensible for the ban to be served concurrently because we would not would want a chap like Mr. Collins out on temporary licence and able to drive, and banned only from driving when he properly finished his sentence. There are always difficulties in taking a blanket approach, but I am certainly happy to talk further with colleagues in the Government and officials about what, if anything, could be done and whether such a proposal would be a sensible way forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough also mentioned Ministry of Justice statistics. He made the reasonable statement that we need to be able to tie in the offences with the sentences, otherwise it is difficult to know the trends. I accept that point, but if only that were easy to do. It is a difficult issue, and again I cannot promise to make a difference to the position quickly, but I hear his point about the statistics and see the sense in his argument. However, our data on sentencing often come from the courts, and it is not possible collect everything that we want and tie it to individuals. Our systems of data collection are not always as sophisticated as we would wish. I am certainly willing to have another look at the matter, but I cannot promise to come back swiftly with an all singing, all dancing, joined-up statistics arrangement that will enable us to provide him with what he wants. I do, of course, understand his point.

My hon. Friend also asked about leaving the scene of an accident. Brake and hon. Members have said that the sentences for failing to stop or leaving the scene of an accident are less than those for substantive driving offences, especially those that cause death by dangerous driving. The change in the law under the 2006 Act, which everybody has welcomed, is a substantial improvement. Everybody has accepted that. The new offence of causing death by careless driving, and the implementation of the 2006 Act’s provisions shortly, will plug a significant gap.

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I shall say a little more than in my intervention about when that will happen and why it has not happened yet. It is important that the Sentencing Guidelines Council should be able to issue its guidelines before the offence is commenced. All that that will require is a commencement order, but the danger of doing so before receiving substantive, carefully thought through and properly consulted on guidance is that sentencers might be more lenient, or might take one view rather than another. We want to ensure that the guidance is issued before sentencers get their hands on the offence as an option. I hope that all hon. Members see the importance of that.

The Sentencing Guidelines Council goes through a specific process, including proper consultation—education of sentencers is also a part—before it issues guidelines. I hope that that will happen earlier rather than later in the new year, but I cannot give a date, as it is not in my power to tell the Sentencing Guidelines Council precisely when it must finish its job. It is engaged, however, and as soon as it has finished it is our intention to commence the offences and give the courts and sentencers the option of a five-year sentence for causing death by careless driving. That will make a significant difference and improvement, as everyone who spoke acknowledged. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) had some engagement on the matter with the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate at an awards ceremony, apparently—I am sure that that is true. It is certainly important for us to see what happens once the offence is commenced.

I take on board the points made about the remaining perceived gap created by the lack of a specific sentence for fleeing the scene after somebody has been injured or killed in a hit-and-run. I can see the points made with examples by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough and others. As the criminal law is kept under constant review—I can confirm that, being in the Ministry of Justice—it is certainly something that my policy making colleagues and I, as well as Ministers and officials from the Home Office and the Department for Transport, will want to look at. Hon. Members are right to raise the matter and to say, “Look here, this is still an issue.” It is also important to see what use sentencers can make of the new law and how much of an issue remains in practice.

Although some Members have suggested that the six-month sentence for failing to stop is an incentive to leave the scene of an accident, as the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) said, the alternative view is that if there is a five, eight, 10 or 14-year sentence for doing so, that itself could be more of an incentive to flee. I do not suppose that anyone flees thinking that they will be picked up later; they flee to escape the consequences of their actions, for whatever reason. There is a question whether a higher available sentence than six months would make it more or less likely that people would flee. One suspects that different people would react in different ways.

Jeff Ennis: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and for her kind remarks and those of other Members on my having secured this debate. I accept her point. We do not want totally to reverse what I described as a perverse incentive to leave the scene of a crime in order to avoid a bigger sentence. However, we do not want to go too far the other way. I accept that that is a very
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good point. I said that for the one in five people involved in hit-and-run accidents, the disparity between careless and dangerous driving is too big. There is a feeling on the streets that people are literally getting away with murder. We as a Government must take cognisance of that fact.

Maria Eagle: I accept that point. The new offences in the 2006 legislation do that. Whether they are adequate remains to be seen. My hon. Friend and others said that more needs to be done. We are not ruling that out, but let us get the new offence up and running and see what happens to sentences. On that basis, we will have a clearer view about whether more needs to be done. It is important that we give the new offence a chance to have its impact. Although it is important to change a law when it is flawed, we should not change it so often that nobody knows what the law is. I am talking about practitioners, sentencers and all of us who have connections with the criminal justice system. We need to ensure that we understand and implement the current law before we start changing it overly swiftly.

I am not trying to discourage hon. Members from all sides from continuing to campaign on this issue and to make their powerful points—no doubt they will and they all have today. What I am saying is let us see how the new offences bed in, assess whether they are adequate and whether the extra sentencing power that they give can deal with some of the circumstances raised by hon. Members. If we still see lacunae, I and fellow Ministers will be willing to look further at what more needs to be done.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) said that when courts come to sentencing, they assume the worst if someone leaves the scene of an accident. While I understand what he is saying, there are processes through which courts have to go to pass custodial sentences, and they also have very strong guidelines to follow. It is not always easy to reverse assumptions in respect of one set of offences and not another, although one understands strongly why he holds the view that it may be appropriate in this case.

The Crown Prosecution Service often decides on the charges in such cases, and we would want it to be able to make charges that are sufficient to deal with the circumstances of the case. It will be issuing updated guidance to prosecutors on the bad driving offences, including the new offences of causing death by careless driving in the 2006 legislation. It will issue that shortly in conjunction with the Sentencing Guidelines Council’s guidance.

One important thing that we have not discussed is education. As I hinted earlier, disapproval of bad driving and drink-driving has hugely increased. We need to take advantage of that by ensuring that we educate drivers so that we have more of an impact on those who choose stupidly and foolishly to drink while they are over the limit. There are various ways in which we can do that. One way in which we can seek further to cut deaths and serious injuries caused by dangerous and careless driving is to educate the driver. It is less acceptable now than it used to be to sit in a pub, drink five pints and then get in a car to drive home. The more that we can have an impact on that side of things, the more we will be able to cut those figures and see a downward trend in deaths and serious injuries.

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Public Service Broadcasting

[Relevant document: First Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Session 2007-08, on Public Service Content, HC 36-I.]

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