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23 Feb 2010 : Column 64WH—continued

We could not stop every truck coming through Dover or Immingham, and ask the drivers to pay up. However, it is true that the directive is being reviewed.

Mr. Mitchell: That would mean more bother in Immingham, where more than 6,000 foreign vehicles come in daily, than in Dover. Is my hon. Friend saying that we cannot impose on foreign vehicles for the period that they are in this country a proportionate share of the heavy tax burden that is imposed on our vehicles?

Paul Clark: I am setting out the complexities of finding a scheme that would be fair, meet my hon. Friend's objectives, not tie us up in litigation, and achieve what we both want without being unfair to our domestic hauliers. The Eurovignette directive is being reviewed, and we are strongly backing amendments that would allow member states to charge more for externalities, and to include, for example, issues such as congestion in the calculation. However, I need not tell my hon. Friend that that work is not easy because, not surprisingly, many member states oppose it. The Spanish presidency has said that it does not want to take that work forward at this stage, but that does not stop us trying to do so.

Mr. Mitchell: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Paul Clark: I will give way once more, but I want to cover some other issues.

Mr. Mitchell: Is my hon. Friend saying that we will not have charging for foreign vehicles until we get general road-user charging? Is it being postponed for ever?

Paul Clark: My hon. Friend knows that a Minister will never rule out anything for ever, but clearly I want to ensure that if we had such a system at some stage-as I said, work on that continues-we would want it to be robust and to provide exactly the objectives that we both want.

I want to deal with some other issues that my hon. Friend raised. On cabotage, he will be aware that stringent changes that come into force on 14 May will limit the number of journeys to three in no more than seven days subsequent to a loaded international delivery coming into this country. Previously, the vehicle coming in might not be loaded, and there could be unlimited jobs during a 30-day period. The new limit is much tighter. In addition-this is significant-the onus is on hauliers to prove that they are operating within the rules, instead of the other way round when the enforcement agency had to prove that hauliers were operating outside those rules.

On the safety of foreign-registered vehicles, in 2008, 1,651 accidents occurred involving foreign registered vehicles, which was 1 per cent. of all accidents recorded in the UK. Of those, 53 per cent. involved good vehicles. However, we are not complacent, and we have given
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£24 million extra over three years to the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency to look into high-risk vehicles on international journeys. That has resulted in increased safety. The graduated fixed penalty and deposit scheme is having an effect on finding those who contravene rules and regulations in this country and, when there is no acceptable UK-registered address, allowing us to immobilise those vehicles. We are working closely with the UK Border Agency to agree access to its freight-targeting system for VOSA so that we can identify and highlight companies that are causing concern, not only in the UK-we already have a traffic light system-but foreign visitors.

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Road Traffic Accidents (Compensation and Sentencing)

1.30 pm

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. I am also pleased to have secured this important debate on road traffic accident compensation and sentencing. I accept that the title is broad, but I hope to raise several different but interconnected issues on the subject. Specifically, I would like to take the opportunity to discuss two constituency cases, those of Mr. Jim Alston and Mrs. Sandra Hudson, who are both watching the debate today. As is often the case, it is those cases that involve real people and their lives which point to the defects in our man-made and too often process-driven justice system. I believe that both these cases raise serious issues about the general state of sentencing and Government policy.

I will begin with the case of Mr. Robert Hudson, and I will try to deal only with the facts as they are known. Mr. Hudson died of brain injuries after being hit by an unlicensed driver, Mandy Lewis, in December 2008. He was crossing the road close to his home, I believe to post a letter. His wife, Sandra, was nearby. Lewis was a 28-year-old single mother of two, who had come to Reading to meet a man at a local hotel after arranging it via the internet. She drove all the way from Essex to Reading for that night, and was on her way home at approximately 11 am the following morning after stopping at a petrol station. Lewis held only a provisional licence, and was therefore driving without proper insurance. She sped off knowing that she had hit Mr. Hudson, leaving him fatally injured. The judge in the case, Stephen John, said that Lewis had evaded her responsibility and prolonged the agony of the Hudson family.

Mandy Lewis was eventually identified by the police via CCTV footage from the petrol station. However, despite her obvious guilt, she steadfastly refused to answer police questions. In defence of her actions, her counsel highlighted the recent death of her mother from cancer. The judge said:

What so shocked Sandra Hudson is what happened with the sentencing. Mrs. Hudson attended the court with her family only to discover that, after initially protesting her innocence, Lewis pleaded guilty. Mandy Lewis's original sentence of 36 weeks' imprisonment was immediately reduced by a third to just 24 weeks after she changed her plea to guilty. Along with many others in her situation, Mrs. Hudson has had to face the sad reality of the sentencing guidelines, particularly for the new offence of causing death while unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured. The new offence differs from the usual bad or dangerous driving offences in that the culpability arises only from the offender driving a vehicle on a road when, by law, they are not allowed to do so. Because the offence does not require proof of any fault in the standard of driving, the emphasis is on the decision to drive taken by the offender, rather than on the standard of driving. The offence carries a lower
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maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment. Most people would find it astonishing to hear that somebody without a licence and proper insurance cannot be judged by a court on how safely they were driving following a hit-and-run accident.

I fully appreciate that the courts have complete judicial discretion to pass the sentence that they believe is appropriate in individual cases, after taking into consideration all the circumstances of the offence and the offender. However, not only was the defendant driving illegally in the first place, it is my understanding that leaving the scene of an accident is an additional factor that should add to the sentencing tariff. When both those factors are combined, is 24 weeks in custody a fair punishment for Lewis's actions when taking Robert Hudson's life? Has justice really been served by passing such an extraordinarily low sentence? Lewis even appealed against the 24-week sentence, but thankfully I understand that that appeal was quashed. Mrs. Hudson is left with strong feelings that Mandy Lewis will not serve even those 24 weeks of her sentence. Perhaps the Minister will confirm, either today or later in writing, whether the short 24-week sentence will be served in full.

When Mrs. Hudson inquired about the sentence discount given to Lewis because she entered that guilty plea, the Ministry of Justice informed her:

I think it is safe to argue that the sentence discount in this case was by no means beneficial to the family of Robert Hudson, and it is perhaps disrespectful to imply otherwise. If anything, the statement from the Ministry of Justice merely highlights the impersonal, sausage-machine nature of the justice system, which takes little or no account of individual circumstances.

The current sentencing policy is certainly not proving a deterrent for hit-and-run drivers. In Reading, East we have seen hit-and-run offences nearly double since 1999, and in Berkshire they have risen by almost a third over the past 10 years. At the very least, does not that suggest that sentencing is perhaps overly lenient?

Another issue in this case was the delay in the release of Robert Hudson's body; a delay that meant that his widow could not be allowed to make important funeral arrangements. I understand that the defence has the right to ask for a second post-mortem examination when the police are investigating a fatality case, and I also understand that that is established practice in the courts. However, surely we must be more sensitive to the impact that that has on the victim's family. The unrepentant Ms Lewis originally left Mrs. Hudson's husband to die by the roadside; one can imagine Mrs. Hudson's heartbreak and despair when Lewis added further to the delay to his burial. Under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, the Secretary of State has powers to make new regulations to govern this area. I sincerely hope that he will use those powers to stop this sort of abuse, which adds considerably to the grief of the family.

I would now like to turn to the case of Bobby Alston. Bobby was tragically killed, aged just 25, in June 2008 when his motorbike smashed into the side of a car driven by a foreign national, Bozhidar Iliev. After initially claiming that his car had suffered a burst tyre, Iliev was
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found guilty of causing death by dangerous driving in July 2009 and sentenced to a mere 18 months in prison with a three-year driving ban.

Bobby's father, Jim Alston, is obviously extremely upset by the leniency of that sentence. After the sentencing at Reading Crown court in September 2009, he told the press:

I fear that few would disagree with those sentiments.

As the Minister probably knows, Jim Alston is a card-carrying member of the Labour party, and feels that the Government have let him and his family down. It is his view, as told to me, that Government policy on sentencing is out of step with the Labour party's own commitment to be

As the Minister may know, Mr. Alston has been in correspondence with both the Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary on this matter.

We all know that there is complexity in sentencing. The offence of causing death by dangerous driving causes difficulty for the sentencers, let alone anyone else. On one hand, an offence involving a person's death is always serious and understandably leads to calls for severe sentences. On the other hand, an offender convicted of that offence most likely did not deliberately cause death or serious injury. In some cases, the driver may have had a momentary lapse in judgment, but in the worst type of case, he or she may be very much to blame, having driven with complete disregard for the safety of others.

In the case of Iliev, he was doing a U-turn on a dangerous bend. He pleaded not guilty and had to be found guilty at Reading Crown court. Although Jim Alston has had to accept that the judge was simply following the guidelines issued by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, I should be grateful if the Minister took this opportunity to explain, in a more general context, whether she thinks it acceptable to give such low sentences when accidents result in loss of life. One has only to open a newspaper to see other families devastated by the loss of a loved one killed on the roads.

Let me also mention the case of Ryan Batt, who was killed by Timon Douglin while walking on a pavement in Reading's Shinfield road. The killer got a sentence of three years and three months that even the judge said was inadequate. Douglin denied knowing that he had hit Ryan Batt, claiming that he had got out of the car and picked up a damaged bumper without realising that Mr. Batt was dying in the garden of 156 Shinfield road. Of course that was an absolutely absurd defence and was dismissed by the judge at Reading Crown court, who said that there was no way that Douglin would not have known that he had hit his victim. The evidence proved that Mr. Batt's head hit the windscreen in front of the driver of the car before he was propelled into the garden.

The judge made it clear that although the sentence was inadequate, he had to follow guidelines when sentencing. That suggests that even judges feel that the Government sentencing guidelines are inadequate. In this case, the sentence was reviewed by the Attorney-General, as I understand it, due to popular outrage, but it was still left unchanged.

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In preparing for the debate, I have spent time examining the sentencing guidelines, and they are a quagmire. At the most basic level, they assess how valuable a life is against assessment criteria with aggravating and mitigating factors. It is cold, impersonal and extremely complex. I can understand why judges feel exasperated by the complexity, but it is utterly unfathomable to the ordinary man and woman. On no level can the sentences handed out to Iliev and Mandy Lewis be considered fair, appropriate or just.

I also find it absurd that causing death while unlicensed carries a lesser penalty, with the emphasis on the decision to drive by the offender rather than the standard of driving. Surely one is unlicensed for a reason. Why is it that because such incidents happened on the road, such reckless individuals do not pay the full price for their misdemeanours and crimes? It is not hard to understand why in such cases families feel so blatantly wronged by the criminal justice system in this country.

Due to my involvement in these cases, it is my understanding that following a number of extremely serious cases put before the MOJ over the past year, it has announced its intention to extend the minimum sentence for dangerous driving to five years when there is the appropriate legislative opportunity. I sincerely hope, for the sake of all families that are living through such tragic circumstances, that stiffer sentences come sooner rather than later, although with the sentencing discounts available to the guilty, it is hard to see what the overall impact will eventually be.

Continuing my comments about the case of Bobby Alston, I shall now say a few words about the compensation that families are eligible to receive following the death of a loved one. Jim Alston works as a private hire driver in west Berkshire and part time for a security company. Time is money in those occupations-if people are not on the road, they cannot gain an income. With the unexpected tragedy of his son's death and still grieving, Mr. Alston set about arranging a funeral and memorial service and attending the court proceedings. That is an expensive business, and insurance goes only part of the way towards covering the costs. The word "compensation" in this case should mean covering costs. Jim Alston spent more than £9,000 and received insurance for just under £5,000. That does not even begin to count his lost income from his employment.

I believe that Iliev should have had to cover any difference in costs, yet road traffic accidents-RTAs, as they are called-are specifically excluded from the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000, which gives a judge the authority to order that compensation, including funeral expenses, be paid by a convicted criminal. Section 130 states that a court may make an order requiring the person convicted of an offence to

this is the key part-

Because the criminal courts cannot help Mr. Alston, his option would be to fight a civil case, but he has been informed that that costs about £2,000 and it would hardly be worth it to chase £4,000. I think that the Minister should take the opportunity to review this system. A simple amendment to the Act could allow
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RTAs to be included in criminals covering the costs of bereaved families-for example, where insurance does not. If the Minister is not prepared to commit to that today, we need to understand why. I hope that the Government are on the side of the families affected, rather than the criminals.

The Government often point families affected by RTAs in the direction of the charity Brake. I place on the record my admiration and support for the important work that that road safety charity does, but I worry that the Government are using a charity to obscure their wider obligations to bereaved families.

The complexity of the issues involved means in this case that Mr. Alston has yet to receive the closure that he and his family deserve. After many months of correspondence on the matter and a great deal of frustration on Mr Alston's part, the Secretary of State has finally agreed to meet Mr Alston and me tomorrow. I had hoped to be able to report on the outcome of that meeting during today's debate. However, we must be patient and wait with anticipation for what he has to say at tomorrow's meeting. Needless to say, I shall be supporting Jim Alston and repeating what I have said today, but I will listen with interest to what the Secretary of State has to say about increasing the sentencing tariff and amending the legislation on compensation. In the meantime, I should be grateful if the Minister responded to the particular points that I have raised during the debate today.

1.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Claire Ward): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) on securing the debate. I realise that it is a very important debate for his constituents. Given the presence of his constituents today, I should like to extend my sincere sympathy to the Hudson family and to the Alston family for their loss. Any death or serious injury that occurs as a result of a road traffic accident is a tragedy, and the impact on the families of victims is immeasurable. The hon. Gentleman tried hard to give some examples of the impact on his constituents and their families.

Sadly, sentencing cannot bring anyone back. However, this is also about getting justice for the families and a sense of closure. Sentencing for road traffic offences where a fatal accident occurs is a very difficult exercise, because with road traffic accidents-the hon. Gentleman referred to this-there can be a huge difference between the harm done and the level of blameworthiness of the driver. I hope that it will assist if I set out what the law says about sentencing in such cases and describe what has been done through the statutory framework. I will also refer to the compensation issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the specific circumstances in his constituents' cases, but I hope that he and his constituents will understand that I cannot comment on individual sentencing decisions, because the courts are independent of the Government. It would not be appropriate, on the basis of the information that the hon. Gentleman has presented, for me to comment specifically on the details of those cases.

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