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House of Lords

Tuesday, 21st November 2000.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.

Death By Dangerous Driving

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the average penalty applied to a person convicted of accidentally killing another person while in charge of a motor vehicle.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, the fact that a death has occurred forms an essential element in three road traffic offences. For both causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs, the average sentence for males imprisoned in 1998 was 39 months. For aggravated vehicle-taking where a death results, the equivalent figure for 1998 was 23 months.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Is he aware that there is widespread concern that inappropriate charges are being brought and therefore occasionally inappropriate penalties applied in cases of causing death by dangerous driving? The suggestion has been made that the CPS is using an unnecessarily high standard of proof. Can the Minister say what action, if any, the Government are taking in that regard? Secondly, has the review of the penalties which was supposed to be taking place been completed and, if so, when will the results be published?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Government are well aware of those concerns. The noble Baroness will know that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has taken a deep and profound interest in such cases, sparked particularly, perhaps, by the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of PC Tooley.

I can advise the House that since Labour came to government we have been looking carefully at these matters. In 1999 the Transport Research Laboratory was invited to carry out research on behalf of the DETR into the way in which bad driving cases proceeded through the criminal justice system. That report is currently being finalised and we shall need to study it carefully--it is a complex area of law--with a view to publication. We shall then be in a better position to judge whether any changes in this area of law and its operation are necessary.

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I should also advise your Lordships' House that we are in the process of finalising a consultation paper on the outcome of a more general review of penalties for road traffic offences.

Lord Carlile of Berriew: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in respect of offences of causing death by dangerous driving, it is extremely important to keep the fullest range of judicial discretion in sentencing? Such offences may involve heinous criminality and criminal intent, justifying the maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment. But they may also involve little or no criminal intent, relying simply on an error of judgment committed in a moment of bad driving which may not justify any sentence of imprisonment at all.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with great wisdom on these matters. That must be so because that is exactly what it says in my brief.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, given that we are now on the 21st day of the eleventh month of the year 2000, can the Minister say why he was only able to give us statistics from 1998?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is the best that we can produce in the circumstances. I shall of course go away and reprimand those Home Office officials who have been rather laggardly in bringing forward the data.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the first ever case of corporate manslaughter, brought against a lorry driver and his company, for causing death by dangerous driving one year ago? I understand that both the company and the driver received suspended sentences. Without commenting on specific cases, does not my noble friend consider that to be a bit of a light sentence?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am damned if I do and I am damned if I don't. I am in one of those situations where my noble friend is inviting me to comment on a case and also telling me that I should not comment on the case, and that is the course I am going to follow.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, what is the situation regarding penalties received by police officers convicted of accidentally killing another person while in charge of a motor vehicle?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, police officers would be in exactly the same position as other members of the public. They should be treated equally, without fear or favour.

Viscount Simon: My Lords, when a driver has pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of careless driving, is my noble friend aware that the courts may not be aware that a fatality has occurred and that may well pre-empt a coroner's decision?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I know that concerns have been expressed that courts are

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sometimes unaware of the position. As Ministers, we have received a number of letters on that point, particularly from Members of Parliament. The Crown Prosecution Service guidelines make it clear that that should not happen. If clear evidence exists that courts are unaware of those factors, it would be helpful for us to be informed because we clearly need to act in those circumstances.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, would my noble friend agree that, by way of plea bargaining or otherwise, it is wrong in principle that the Crown Prosecution Service should reduce charges simply for the purpose of improving its statistics in terms of convictions?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am sure that that sentiment is widely shared in your Lordships' House. Ultimately, it is for the courts to make a determination as regards the severity of a sentence and such matters are best left to the courts. However, there must be clear guidance in those circumstances.

National Audit Office Reports

2.43 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they see and contribute to reports by the National Audit Office before these are made.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, there is a long-standing convention that the Comptroller and Auditor-General's reports to Parliament are agreed with the accounting officer as to the facts. That is to avoid the Public Accounts Committee having to arbitrate between the Comptroller and Auditor-General and the audited body over disputed facts when they take evidence on reports.

Accounting officers may have some reservations about the interpretation of the facts in the report. Where such differences have not proved capable of resolution in discussion, they are explained in the report with the reasons for the differences of opinion clearly stated.

The conclusions and recommendations of the report are, however, for the Comptroller and Auditor-General alone to determine.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, in the outside world the relationships between client, auditor and regulators are separate, clearly defined and well understood, with the Inland Revenue having a well-known interest in conclusions. In a situation in which the government fill all of those roles, is the Minister confident that they can satisfy the public about the integrity of the arrangements which are necessary to keep the various roles separate?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, appears to ignore the fact

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that the Comptroller and Auditor-General reports not to the Government but to Parliament. It is the decision of Parliament--and it has been for many years--that the Comptroller and Auditor-General should clear up any issues of fact before the report is issued and considered by the Public Accounts Committee.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that, whether or not Ministers or officials contribute to National Audit Office reports, no rules prevent the prompt debate of such reports in this House? Does he further agree that there is a strong need for an early debate of the report on the Dome?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, there has been a convention for many years not only in this Government but in previous governments that reports from the Comptroller and Auditor-General to Parliament are considered by the Public Accounts Committee before there are further parliamentary procedures. It is our intention to continue with that very proper convention.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, what is to prevent the Comptroller and Auditor-General from clearing up matters of doubt, which one can understand may exist, with the Government before they publish the report?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, that is exactly what he does.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, will my noble friend consider reviewing the procedures that he has described, because one often finds that in practice the dividing line between fact and opinion is obscure? Will he consider my concept of the matter: that the public are entitled to complete confidence in the National Audit Office and that it is desirable in the public interest, never mind tradition, that nobody, but nobody, should interfere with the report which the Comptroller and Auditor-General seeks to make on his own initiative?

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