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Earl Attlee: I draw the Minister's attention to the Highway Code when he reflects on the matter. If the Highway Code stated what constituted a reasonable call to be made while waiting in a traffic jam, that might be a helpful way of approaching the matter.
Lord Monson: If at the moment there is no distinction in law between being in charge of a vehicle and driving a vehicle, it is high time that there was. Perhaps the Minister might like to reflect on that before we reach the next stage.
Lord Davies of Oldham: I hope that I may respond briefly to that point before the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, speaks to his amendment. I take on board the points that have been made. However, the reasoning behind our present position is that being in control of the vehicle is the crucial issue which makes one responsible before the law. It is not a question of driving because the concept of driving is not defined in
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law. Being in control of the vehicle is the crucial matter. That is why under our drink-driving laws we are ablewith, I am sure, the common agreement of all Members of the Committeeto insist that a person can be held culpable even if they have the keys of the vehicle but do not have the engine switched on because of the potential threat to wider society which can be attested by the court.
Of course I accept that there may be a positive side to the matter. Inevitably, the law is there to identify what is not permissible. Through the Highway Code we could identify certain features enabling good behaviour to be interpreted in different ways. I shall have to reflect further on the matter. I certainly shall return to it. I recognise the strength of the debate. However, I hope that the Committee will recognise that we cannot accept the amendment. I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw it.
Lord Hanningfield: We have had an interesting debate. Generally, there seems to be a consensus in support of the thrust of what I am proposing if not the wording of the amendment. I know of cases where important meetings to discuss vulnerable children or elderly people have not taken place because those who were due to attend those meetings were not able to communicate a quick message that they could not reach the relevant meeting in time as they were stuck in a traffic jam. That is not a once-a-year experience; it is more than a once-a-week experience for people who live not necessarily in rural Essex but on the A12, A11, M11 or M25. At times you will be stuck for 20 minutes or so unable to move.
Most people doing that are not out on a drinking spree or for leisure. A lot of people are doing valuable work and supporting the community. I met a Minister this morningwe were talking about vulnerable childrenand I know that she would not want me to say "We cannot support half of the children because they are stuck in a traffic jam and cannot let people know where they are going to be". It is a part of joined-up government and supporting our society, in a way. Although we are talking about the Road Safety Bill, we have to have common sense and enable people to get on in supporting the community.
I hope the Minister will do as he says, and review this very seriously before Report stage. I sensed there was a lot of support around the House for what I was trying to say. With that, however, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is rather different from my last amendment, where I wanted to remove things from the courts. With this amendment I want to give something back to them.
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Clause 22 of Schedule 2 to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 would make it mandatory to increase the number of penalty points from three to six for the offence of failing to provide information about the identity of a driver. We are concerned that such a move would severely reduce the discretion of the courts, as I have said. By simply moving from three to six points and giving the courts no discretion, and no ability to consider the circumstances of the case, means that injustices could occur.
The amendment does not seek to require an ultra-lenient optionno-one wants to reduce the severity of these casesbut gives the courts the discretion to decide, in the circumstances of the case, whether they should give between three and six points. For example, we may be faced with a scenario where multiple drivers may use one vehicleI am thinking of perhaps the Royal Mail, or one of the large utilities where it is possible that one vehicle is used by numerous persons during the course of a week, or even a single day. If an offence occurs and a request is subsequently issued to provide details of the driver, it may be difficult for the registered owner of the vehicle to be able clearly to identify which individual was driving the vehicle at the time the offence was committed.
The amendment merely seeks to introduce an element of common sense and discretion to the courts, which would allow them the ability to set the number of penalty points to be awarded by taking other circumstances into consideration. I beg to move.
Viscount Simon: My Lords, I suspect that some of the vehicles that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, refers to are HGVs, and a tachograph will therefore be applicable, which will record the driver at the time that the offence might have occurred. Notwithstanding that, however, the offence is "Breach of duty to give information as to the identity of a driver". That is an absolute offence. Six points is absolutely right.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend Lord Hanningfield and take a contrary view. Some discretion is required. Supposing an older brother, known to be violent, was actually the driver at the time, and the owner of the car declines to give the necessary information. He can pick up six points because he was scared of his brother. Some discretion would be appropriate for the courts. As the noble Viscount said, it is an absolute offence. In that case, however, the courts would say "OK, we can understand that. That is three points". It would still be a big deterrent.
Lord Lyell of Markyate: My Lords, will the Minister clarify what is actually involved in committing this offence? There seem to be two very different things involved. One might be a wilful refusal to give very important evidence to the court as to who the driver was, when the person who was asked for that information knew the answer. The other might be a piece of carelessness or mischance, whereby one is normally asked to give the information within six weeks or some reasonable period, and they simply fail
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to do it. They may have huge piles of letters, get in a muddle and subsequently realise that they have failed to do it. They have put the police and authorities to some trouble and they apologise. Maybe three points would be pretty salutary for that. There is no deliberate intention to commit the offence, whereas some deliberate withholdingwhich, if it could be proved, would probably be another offence in itselfin circumstances where there was some significant moral harm should get six points. Would the Minister consider that?
Lord Monson: My Lords, as one of the many non-lawyers here tonight, I ask the Minister whether it is still the case that, in law, husbands and wives cannot be compelled to testify against one another? If so, how does that affect this particular offence?
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I ask the Minister what sanction is applicable in the case where the registered owner of a vehicle does not hold a driving licence and cannot therefore incur penalty points. It could be someone, for example, whose Rolls-Royce motor car was registered to them, and who had a number of people who could drive it for them. To whom are these points going to be applied in that case?
Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I rise in this case to be a bit cautionary. A problem with discretion is that, when cases go to a magistrates' court, the penalties imposed by the magistrates in a wide range of road traffic offences are at the very lowest end of the scale. When I have been out with the policeI declare an interest as a member of the Thames Valley Police Authorityand a lorry has been stopped in a deplorable condition, the VOSA inspector has told me that if the case is taken to the magistrates' court the driver will probably be fined £200. At the time, that was a tenth of what was allowed, and was less than the cost of one tyre, when the whole set of tyres on the lorry needed to be changed.
The fact is that many magistrates have no idea of the amount of trouble which people are causing. When somebody is required to name the driver at the time, very often the person who does not give that information is shielding a criminal. Some of them are very serious criminals, so they have a duty to tell the police who was in the vehicle.
The week before last, I went out with an automatic vehicle registration detector. We had a huge number of drivers who were not the registered owner of the vehicle, or were uninsured, had not paid their tax, had not had an MOT, were engaged in crime or were carrying drugs. Is this amendment really designed, as I fear it is, to protect what one would call "the innocent motorist"; or is it, in fact, another obstacle in the police carrying out very serious duties which they have to do every day?
It is essential that somebody who has a vehicle knows who is driving it. Thatand we are coming on to it in a momentconstitutes an insured risk. The driver of the vehicle is the person who should be
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covered by insurance. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, has referred to a driver of whom the registered owner is afraid. Is that person insured? Are they really allowing somebody who is known to be violent to drive their car while probably uninsured? There are many uninsured drivers now.
I support the strength of this legislation, because it is a weapon which the police need to use. They must use it sparingly, and go to the person quite politely and ask them who was driving. It is only when they fail to get that information that they must start to turn up the pressure. The person does not get the penalty points overnight. It is a long, drawn-out process.
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