The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Dominic Raab)
I begin by thanking you for your stewardship of these debates over the past year, Mr Speaker, and I wish you a restful Christmas with your family.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) on securing today’s debate. It is fitting that we finish by debating such an important issue and fitting that the debate is being led by the hon. Gentleman in his doughty way. He is passionately defending and championing his constituents, who have raised an issue not just of local concern and concern to him, but of national importance. Colleagues who have dealt with tragic cases in their constituencies know that careless or dangerous driving can ruin lives and devastate families. Numerous colleagues from across the House have raised their cases with me, as the hon. Gentleman has done passionately and tenaciously, and with my predecessors who held this portfolio at the Ministry of Justice.
By way of context, road deaths in Britain have been falling over the past 30 years as a result of a whole range of factors, including safer infrastructure, new vehicle technologies, tougher law enforcement and shifting social attitudes—there has been a ground shift in how people think about drink-driving. We should also pay tribute to our precious NHS, which provides far better trauma care than was the case when I was first learning The Highway Code. As a result, casualty figures show a 5% fall from last year alone. However, more than 27,000 people died or were seriously injured on our roads last year. While many of those were tragic accidents, too many of them involve criminal behaviour, whether classified as dangerous or careless driving, or people failing to stop at the scene so that there is proper accountability. Of course, behind each and every collision statistic, each of those 27,000 cases represents an individual story of a life or a family devastated, personal suffering or family trauma.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East is raising one of those tragic cases: the death of cyclist Ian Winterburn, the father of his constituent, Alexandra Wilks. I believe that some of the family are here today, so I extend my personal condolences and deepest sympathies to them, particularly at this delicate time as we approach Christmas. Mr Winterburn was involved in a road traffic incident just over a year ago and, as the hon. Gentleman said, tragically died of his injuries. As the hon. Gentleman will know, as a Justice Minister, I cannot comment on the judicial treatment of the individual case, the decision on prosecution, or the charges brought by the CPS. Those matters are dealt with independently, which is of course right as politicians should not interfere with either prosecutorial or judicial matters. He will know that some of the operational police matters are for his local constabulary or police and crime commissioner.
The hon. Gentleman has raised many questions, and I want to focus on as many of them as I can in the time available. I can talk, as he knows, in general terms about what the Government are doing to ensure the courts have adequate powers to deal with the most serious offences committed on our roads that result in either death or injury. As I think he and the APPG will know, on 16 October the Government published their response to the consultation on driving offences and penalties relating to causing death and serious injury. It concentrated on the most serious driving offences—those that result in death or serious injury—and considered a range of concerns raised in recent years by victims of these crimes and their families, by members of the public, whether individually or as signatories to petitions, and by parliamentarians, both in debates and on behalf of their constituents.
The consultation closed earlier this year and we received 9,000 responses, which I think is close to, if not, a record, showing how widespread is the public interest and concern in this pertinent area of law. It is not one of those esoteric areas of law; it affects people’s daily lives. We considered all the submissions in detail before publishing our response, and in that response we distilled and considered the views and came forward with three specific changes to the law, all of which received overwhelming support in the consultation. I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome them too. I am always careful about such matters, given the suffering and the fact that justice can go only a small part of the way, but I hope that victims and families find some solace in these measures and that the public see in them a stronger sense of justice.
We propose to give courts additional powers to deal with the most serious cases where life is lost, by increasing the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving from the current 14 years to life imprisonment. That means that in the most serious cases—for example, where an offender has previous convictions for serious crimes, where their behaviour was particularly dangerous or culpable, or where there are multiple victims—offenders could face, depending on the judicial determination, a maximum life sentence.
We also propose to raise the maximum penalty for causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs from 14 years to life imprisonment. Although the standard of driving in that category of cases may not amount to dangerous driving per se, we consider that, if combined with a decision to get behind the wheel while under the influence of drink or drugs, the overall seriousness of the offence should be considered the same as for dangerous driving and that the penalty should be the same.
We also propose to close a gap in the law. Currently, the maximum penalty for careless driving is a fine. Not least given some of the anguish the hon. Gentleman reflected in his powerful speech, it is time to consider whether that really is good enough. A fine is the maximum penalty in all cases of careless driving that do not result in death. Even if the driver injures another road user, cyclist or passenger, and even if the incident results in the victim being left with a serious, debilitating or permanent injury, the court can only impose a fine. It seems clear that the law needs to provide a stronger response to careless driving that results in serious injury. We propose, therefore, to create a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. This will carry a custodial penalty and sit alongside the existing offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving. Again, this was supported by those who responded to our consultation earlier this year.
We intend to bring forward these proposals for reform as soon as parliamentary time allows. The Government are determined to clamp down on all dangerous, careless and reckless criminal behaviour on our roads, and it is right that any changes to legislation take account of the Government’s wider proposals for safer roads. We want to make sure that we have a consistent sentencing framework for those who kill or cause serious injury on our roads, and we intend to incorporate the changes I just outlined, along with those that emerge from the review of cycling safety that the Transport Secretary announced back in September and which I am sure the APPG would commend and welcome.
In the time available, I want to touch on some of the wider points the hon. Gentleman raised. He asked about the Sentencing Council, which is obviously independent and is responsible for issuing the guidelines and keeping them under review. A review of the guidelines for motoring offences involving death is on the council’s work plan and has been postponed pending the Government’s consultation and any changes to the law that flow from it. It is, of course, sensible that the guidelines should reflect changes to the law—there is no point reviewing the guidelines if the law is about to change—and new draft guidelines will be subject to full public consultation in due course.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the distinction between careless driving and dangerous driving, which the APPG also considered. The law, as it currently stands, sets out an objective test designed to compare the driving of a defendant in the specific circumstances of a case with what would be expected of a notionally careful and competent driver.
What amounts to dangerous driving is determined not, as is more normal in criminal law, by considering the driver’s state of mind or intentions, which in the context of driving is often quite difficult to gauge or ascertain, but by examining the nature of the driving itself. In general terms, if the court considers that the driving falls far below the expected standard, and if it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that the manner of driving was dangerous, the court will find it to have been dangerous driving.
The consultation examined the option of a single bad driving offence, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and we set out in detail why we are not persuaded of the case for change. Those who propose a single test tend to say it will lead to more convictions and longer sentences—I totally understand the impetus and drive behind that—but, as we explained in the consultation, we do not think that will necessarily be the case, because the maximum penalty for a single offence would have to be broad enough to cover the most serious offences. We have proposed that causing death could result in a life sentence but, in the least serious cases, a driver’s culpability for the death could be much lower. The challenge is to reconcile or unite those two offences.
If the offences do not make a distinction between the seriousness of the offending, it is possible that the conviction rate could actually fall because juries might be reluctant to convict a driver in some less serious cases—ones where they could imagine themselves in the same position—for an offence with a very serious maximum penalty. Of course, sentences also may not increase, because a judge would still consider the culpability of the offender in deciding the appropriate sentence. I would not want to mislead victims or families that a broader offence might result in higher sentences. I am also not sure that a single offence would mean the Crown Prosecution Service is unable to accept a lesser plea in circumstances where that is inappropriate.
I hope I have addressed at least some of the wide-ranging concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman in this important debate. This is our last debate before we rise for Christmas. I cannot think of anything more tragic than the loss of a life, especially where that loss is avoidable—we are all trying to prevent such deaths.
Again, I extend my deepest condolences to the Winterburn family, especially as we approach Christmas time. No punishment will make up for the loss of a loved one—we all know that—but we can and should make sure that justice is properly done. That is the least the victims and the families deserve, and it is precisely what the public expect.
Question put and agreed to.