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Lord Monson moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 19, Amendment No. 19A:

Line 8, at end insert—

Where a person is convicted of an offence under this section, the court must order him to be disqualified for such period not less than two years as the court thinks fit unless the court for special reasons thinks fit to order him to be disqualified for a shorter period or not to order him to be disqualified.""

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a very large group of amendments. Apart from one very minor point of detail, I have no quarrel with Amendment No. 20, which deals with deliberate offences, committed in the full knowledge that they are illegal. However, Amendment No. 19 is clearly extremely controversial, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, rightly conceded. If that were not the case, its provisions would have been passed into law decades ago. After all, the problems that it purports to address
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are not getting worse, like anti-social behaviour or gun crime; on the contrary, they are either static or declining slightly. Fatalities per million vehicle miles are well under one-tenth of what they were 40 or 50 years ago. Although one should never be complacent, it is worth noting that we have almost the lowest road fatality rate in the world.

What has changed is public sentiment. Forty or 50 years ago when a road fatality took place, people would say, "How very sad, how tragic, but accidents will happen". Nowadays, people—at any rate, the younger generation—refuse to accept that accidents will happen. They maintain that almost all accidents are avoidable and that anyone responsible for a fatal one should have the book thrown at them, whether they be a motorist, a hospital doctor, a nurse, a railway signalman, an air traffic controller or anyone else who is deemed to be responsible for a death. Objectively, one can see many philosophical and practical flaws in this attitude. However, subjectively, one cannot help but sympathise enormously with the family and friends of the victim, which is why I have been in favour—certainly, since our very lengthy consideration of the Road Traffic Bill in 1988 in which I took a fairly active part—of some modest change in the law, as I indicated in Committee, with the accent on the word "modest".

Unfortunately, the change that the Government propose is very far from modest. I wonder how many noble Lords realise that the maximum sentence proposed today for causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving is exactly the same as that stipulated in the 1988 Act, which received Royal Assent 17 years ago last week, for causing death by dangerous or reckless driving. Monetary inflation in this country is thankfully down to below 2.5 per cent per annum, but what one might term "maximum sentence" inflation has been running at about 7 per cent per annum compound, certainly where death by dangerous driving is concerned: the maximum sentence has gone up by almost by three times in something like 16 years.

The ostensible reason for what is now proposed is to eliminate careless driving and thereby save lives. By and large, it will not achieve this objective, although, obviously, if even a handful of lives are saved that is to be applauded. It will not achieve this because as long as the human race exists human errors will occur. But the largely unspoken reason for the amendment is to give the public and the tabloid press what they have asked for. In this, the Government may be successful—in the short term at any rate.

However, unless the maximum sentence of five years is reduced, there will be two unintended consequences. If the maximum remains at five years, the public and the tabloid press will understandably expect everyone who is convicted of this new offence to be sent to prison for at least three or four years where careless driving verges on the reckless and for between 12 and 18 months in other cases. There will be outrage in the press if only non-custodial sentences are imposed.
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In consequence, not only irresponsible yobs like boy-racers will go to prison—there will be a few of those, of course—but also considerable numbers of students, young mothers with small children, hard-working heads of families, little old ladies and drivers of HGVs whose vehicles "inconsiderately" spray mud and slush over the windscreens of cars causing the latter to crash and kill someone. We know this because an increase in the prison population is anticipated: one of the reasons that this amendment is so late in reaching your Lordships—it is late to bring it in at Report stage—is that the Treasury was apparently unhappy about having to find the funding for extra prison places.

The second unintended consequence is that jurors will very soon become reluctant to convict, realising that "there but for the grace of God go I". However, if the maximum sentence is reduced to two years—or three years as I propose in Amendment No. 19C—it will be tacitly understood that prison will be reserved for those whose careless driving verges on the reckless, with almost all others receiving fines, possibly community service—perhaps in an accident and emergency ward—and of course disqualification.

As the noble Lord, Lord Davies, mentioned, in Amendment No. 19A I have proposed raising the minimum discretionary period from one to two years, as with the assistance of Back-Benchers of all parties and none I was able to do in 1988, for dangerous driving. I firmly believe that if the family and friends of victims are satisfied that the guilty party is to be kept off the road for a period they will not be so vocal in calling for a prison sentence to be imposed.

Reverting to imprisonment, I favour a two-year maximum sentence, but I calculated that I might get more support from various quarters of the House if I made it three years. A three-year maximum is not habitual, but there is certainly plenty of precedent for it. I have discovered at least seven offences that were created between 1959 and 1986 inclusive in which a three-year maximum sentence features.

Amendments Nos. 19B and 20A are essentially probing amendments dealing with the number of penalty points. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, explained these to my satisfaction. I find it hard to believe that the Government would want offences as serious as this to attract potentially a mere three penalty points, but, none the less, in view of the time that we have available, I am prepared to not go any further with them

My Amendment No. 29A is important. I listened very carefully naturally to what the Minister said, but there cannot be a single driver with more than 100,000 miles under his or her belt who has not from time to time found that their normal driving standards have lapsed for one reason or another. This amendment is designed to acknowledge human imperfection. However, again, I am not prepared to go much further on that unless I get support from other parts of the House.

The noble Lord said that the Government have consulted a number of organisations on what they propose and that the legal profession is not very happy
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about it. I take it that they have consulted the Bar Council, the Law Society, the Lord Chief Justice and the Magistrates' Association, as well as ACPO and the motoring organisations. No doubt the noble Lord will verify that. If such consultations have taken place in the three weeks since the Government's precise intentions became known, were those organisations entirely in favour? Obviously, some of them are not. Did they disagree in whole or in part? Could we have more detail on what they disagreed with? Was it the maximum sentence, for example?

Since, unfortunately, this new offence comes to us via not a Bill but a Report stage amendment no explanatory notes are provided, as would be normal. So, first, we are not told of the financial effects of the amendment; secondly, we are not told of its effects on public service manpower; and, thirdly, we are not told of the regulatory impact assessment stemming from the amendment. All of that would normally be in the Explanatory Notes.

Amendment No. 19C is the really important amendment, which reduces the maximum sentence. I fear that if it is not reduced, things will not go as benignly as the noble Lord, Lord Davies, suggests. Many more people will be sent to prison than the Government anticipate. But convention demands that at this point I move Amendment No. 19A. I beg to move.

6 pm

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I apologise for returning to the Chamber late. I strongly oppose Amendments Nos. 19 and 29, but I have no problem with Amendment No. 20 because, as noble Lords have identified, there is a criminal intent when the motorist starts driving without insurance. However, I do not blame the Minister. He is not in control. I do not think that anyone is in control of the Home Office. I am sure that if the Minister had intended these provisions to be in the Bill he would have had them in at Second Reading. Even if it was not his intention, he would have tabled an amendment for Committee stage. The work of the Home Office is clear for all to see.

The problem is that your Lordships have worked on the Bill on the basis that no significant changes would be made to the two most important bad driving offences; namely, careless driving and dangerous driving. I doubt whether many noble Lords have spent much time studying them. I certainly have not. It is clear that the Home Office has responded to pressures from the road safety lobby and the public, but one wonders how members of the public will react when they find that their best friend, an upstanding member of society, has had a ghastly accident and now finds himself being prosecuted for a very serious offence. While on the issue of public opinion, we should remember that public opinion supports hanging, but I suspect that few in your Lordships' House would support its reintroduction.

The difficulty is that many of those involved in these organisations have suffered personal tragedy. First, they want to reduce the chance of tragedy occurring to
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someone else, which is laudable. Secondly, however, they want to see someone else pay, and pay dearly. In fact, they want to see them go to prison, even for a minor transgression. But I do not want to belittle the efforts of the road safety lobby. If it were not for those efforts, we probably would not have the Bill at all.

While we all understand the mischief that it is very hard to secure a conviction for causing death by dangerous driving, it is quite easy to do so for careless driving—even, or perhaps especially, in the case of a fatality. But I can think of no activity outside of Her Majesty's Armed Forces where ordinary people, through a moment's inattention, can cause a fatal accident. In a factory, a process that results in fatal consequences because of a minor omission or slight error of judgment would simply not be tolerated. The HSE would impose an immediate prohibition on that process.

Noble Lords may not realise what a big change the Minister's amendment will make. To secure a conviction for dangerous driving, whether for a fatal accident or not, under Section 2A of the Road Traffic Act 1988 as amended by the 1991 Act, the prosecution has to show that the person's driving was far below the standard expected of a competent and careful driver and—this is most important—that it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous. That test does not apply to the offence of careless driving. If this test could be applied to the new offence, it might go some way towards alleviating our concerns.

We are going to create a very serious offence which would attract penalties similar to a serious assault; that is, imprisonment for up to five years, an unlimited fine and obligatory disqualification. But the failure would be merely to have driven without due care and attention. There would be no need to prove a guilty or negligent intent. In most criminal law, sentences take into account the consequences of the offence. However, in those cases the offender starts out with a criminal intent. Motorists do not normally do so. The mother taking her children to school does not intend to commit a criminal act. That is rather different from the person driving an uninsured vehicle who then kills someone, a point covered by government Amendment No. 20, to which I think most noble Lords will agree. But the mother may make a simple error by failing to check her mirror at the right moment. In emerging from a side road she looks to the right, but does not see the motorcycle. Perhaps it is dark and the motorcycle headlight is exactly superimposed on to the headlight of an oncoming vehicle, but of course the motorcycle is much closer. I have made precisely that mistake myself on a straight road. Fortunately no accident took place, but I did have an interesting discussion with the police motorcyclist involved. Humble pie tastes delicious. Going back to the mother taking her children to school, perhaps she does unfortunately cause the death of a motorcyclist. Of course she would be devastated. And maybe some 10 months earlier she ran into the back of a police car, so that she has already acquired a conviction for careless driving. For how long is it proposed to send her to prison?
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There are other difficulties here which have been identified by the noble Lord, Lord Monson. The jury might be extremely reluctant to convict while the defendant would certainly fight the charge very hard indeed, and not only because of the penalties. Although the Minister said that the sentence might not be that severe in a minor case, the defendant would still be convicted of causing death by careless driving. No one would want to bear that stigma. Perhaps they would be willing to accept that they had caused a fatal accident and therefore would accept the charge of careless driving rather than resist the charge; but causing death by careless driving sounds very serious to me. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, had it right when he used the words, "There but for the grace of God go I". Moreover, in the event of a fatal accident surely it would be inappropriate only to bring a charge of careless driving. If an accident results in a fatality, the charge would have to be that of causing death by careless driving every time.

What of the youngster on benefits who has committed his first offence? He cannot be fined very much because of his low income. There is a limit on how long he can be given to pay and how much he can pay each week, so the fine will be paltry. The only option left to the court may be a custodial sentence, perhaps suspended. What about the case of one accident where the failure in driving is minor but the consequences are fatal, and another accident where the failure is gross but does not result in a conviction for dangerous driving, nor one for causing death by careless driving because the victim has not died, but has been turned into a paraplegic for the rest of his life?

These amendments are extremely unwelcome and I hope that the Minister will withdraw them in order to think again. If not, we will have to come back at Third Reading with some attempt to try to mitigate their worst effects.

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