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Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I was not planning to speak in this debate, but because of my concern about Amendment No. 19 I feel I should say how much I support those who have spoken against it. An accident caused this way is not a deliberate action; it is the consequence of the action of driving. In addition, five years' imprisonment is high on the sentencing tariff.
I should like to illustrate this by mentioning a case that came before me when I was sitting as a magistrate. It was a dark November evening, a bit murky, and on a main road, coming out of a well lit area, there was an underpass. The cyclist, aged 18, had come underneath the underpass and a van came round an island to go down on to the main road. The driver said, "I just never saw him at all". That was an error of judgment. He was absolutely mortified, and when he came to court, the effect on him was obvious. The young man's parents were in court, and seeing them and talking to them about what had happened would stay with the driver for the rest of his life. It has certainly stayed with me, and made me wonder what good it would have done to imprison him. I bet he is probably the safest driver on the roads today.
Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I was going to speak in favour of the amendments when my noble friend introduced them. Having heard comments from other noble Lords, I am afraid that I have to congratulate my noble friend even more. I believe that what he is doing is absolutely right.
We have heard so many stories about momentary errors of judgment that people have to live with for ever. We have heard about poor mothers taking their children to school and youngsters on benefits. We are forgetting the victims, whose relations will suffer and remember this for ever.
It is possible to drive carefully within the law by concentrating and keeping to the speed limit, and we have a duty of care to do that. I get the impression that a number of noble Lords feel, "There but for the grace of God go I". If this proposal gets people to drive more carefullyand it is not noble Lords who are the main cause of the problem, as we all knowit is a very good thing.
One noble Lord mentioned the Health and Safety Executive and what would happen in a factory. None of us works in factories, so we would not know. The Health and Safety Executive does a great deal of good in factories; it has also done a great deal of good on the railways. It may have done too much good and spent too much money, but, in general, it has done a great
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deal of good. I have suggested for a number of years that it should be involved in road safety. If it was, and it applied the same rules to roads as it did to factories, we would all be driving at 20 miles an hour, which would save an awful lot of lives.
I do not know whether the details of the amendments are right, but the sentiments are right. We must recognise that there is a demand for this, because we are still killing 3,500 people a year and seriously injuring 10 times that number. The amendments are a major contribution to reducing that number, and I shall certainly support them.
Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I have serious doubts about Amendment No. 19. In order to help me, will the noble Lord give us the Government's estimate of the additional number of years of custodial sentence which will be applicable if the amendment were to be passed? How many people would be likely to be sent to prison for how long? Our prisons are grossly overcrowded; surely the custodial sentence is not the only solution to the problem. It seems to me that a much longer suspension of driving might be almost an equal deterrent to a custodial sentence.
Lord Tebbit: My Lords, I have listened, fascinated, to this debate. I have found myself wondering how it would be if we applied the tests of carelessness set out in Amendment No. 19 to the conduct of Ministers in the Ministry of Defence at times. It would be irrational to do so, and Amendment No. 19 is irrational.
One of the purposes of lawthe noble Lord who just spoke almost touched upon itis to change people's behaviour away from a criminal act towards behaving lawfully. Would the amendment affect whether somebody was distracted momentarily when they were driving? Would they have it in their mind, "If I were careless tonight, I would face imprisonment"? Would it really be a deterrent?
What about the Government's programme to reduce the prison population? Would this contribute to that? The amendment is entirely wrongly conceived. People do not wilfully act carelessly. If it was a wilful act, it could be prosecuted under the dangerous driving provisions, and with that we all agree. But there will always be accidents caused by carelessness, and the person who commits that careless act will not be disincentivised, discouraged or inhibited from committing it by this sort of provision. It is simply wrong and, as my noble and learned friend Lord Lyell indicated, it seems to be fundamentally very poor law.
Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I shall refer specifically to the question of injuries. The Minister said that it was about injuries that the consultation had taken place with various legal officers, the Bar Council and others, not about death by dangerous driving.
Amendment No. 63 is a probing amendment; we wanted to know where injuries stood in the scale of things. I can accept that there is a very wide variation in degree of injury between people who suffer a cut or a graze and, at the other extreme, somebody who ends up in a vegetative state. I know that the Minister will
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go away and think about what has been said tonight. I ask him to reconsider whether there is a degree of life-changing injuryif a person ends up minus a limb or in a wheelchair and is permanently injured, for examplethat will lead to their case being considered special. I am not talking about trivial injuries.
On the rest of the amendments, it must now be apparent to the Minister that there is great unease about the custodial element of the punishments proposed for careless driving. I do not consider tiredness, where somebody is dropping asleep, as being careless driving. The person should take a rest. We are told to do that often enough. But where the offence is genuinely a momentary lapse, further consideration should certainly be given to the range of community sentences to which the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, referred, because prisons are overcrowded and sending somebody to prison brings in its train all kinds of other problems such as who is to support the prisoner's family and who is to look after his children. It is a devastating situation with which to be confronted. There may be people who go to prison habitually, but the vast majority of us regard it as something with which we would certainly not wish to get involved.
So when the Minister sums up, will he answer these questions? I shall not press Amendment No. 63. It is simply a probing amendment to discover whether there is any degree of injury which the Minister considers should be included in those things which we have discussed.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, this has been one of the most interesting debates that I have heard in this House for a very long time. It has been enormously thoughtful. I hope that the Minister will not push ahead with the amendment today, but provide an opportunity to discuss it further. As has already been said, this is a very late stage in the Bill at which to table an amendment which turns out to be of some magnitude. By the sound of it, some pretty hasty consultation has taken place on the matter externally. This House, by and large, was not expecting it until it saw it in on the Marshalled List. There has not been quite enough time to put it together and to allow us to come to sensible conclusions about it.
All the points have been extremely well made. The need for a balance between a court having to consider the absolutely disastrous effect on a family of one of its members being killed and the fact that the person who caused it had no intention of doing so has been well stressed. A balance has to be struck in deciding whether that careless moment is of such a magnitude that it should result in a possibility of a custodial sentence, because it would be the last weapon in the armoury of a court. It is one of the options that a court could consider.
But I am mindful of the fact that a court is required to decide whether its sentence should be a punishment and, in this case, for whom. Should it be punishment on behalf of the victim's family? Should it be
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punishment for the person who has caused whatever injuries are suffered? Should it be retribution for the common good, to enable people to see that a sentence is a retribution for what has happened and a deterrent? In all those three respects, there are some considerable difficulties with the possibility of a custodial sentence.
I cannot add anything more to this debate. We on this side of the House want to consider further what the Minister is putting forward. If he intends to proceed with the amendment, I can promise that it will be reviewed at Third Reading by way of further amendment. If the Minister is prepared not to proceed with the amendment today, I think that a number of noble Lords will be very happy to discuss it before it reappears. As Amendment No. 19 stands, it seems to be too controversial. Therefore, I cannot offer the Minister my support on it today.
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