Alok Sharma leads a Parliamentary debate calling for a change in the law to toughen up sentencing for those convicted of death by dangerous driving backing the campaign by constituents Tracey Fidler and Hayley Lindsay whose fiancés Kris Jarvis and John Morland were killed by a dangerous driving last year.
Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): I beg to move,
That this House has considered penalties for dangerous driving.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in this Parliament, Mr Hollobone.
On 13 February last year, the lives of two families living in my constituency were devastatingly changed forever as a result of a most appalling act of dangerous driving. My constituents Kris Jarvis and John Morland were out that day enjoying their regular pastime of cycling. They were cycling back home to their young families. Both men were wearing safety helmets and clothing that made them visible to motorists. Sadly, that did not save them from being mowed down by a stolen sportscar, driven by an individual by the name of Alexander Walter.
Walter was driving at 70 mph in a 30 mph zone. He was almost two and a half times over the legal blood alcohol limit. He was found to have taken cocaine in the 24 hours before the appalling incident. He had 67 previous convictions, one of which related to his having phoned Heathrow airport to deliver a hoax bomb threat only days after the devastating 9/11 tragedy. He was also serving a four-year ban from driving. Every time I read this litany of Walter’s transgressions, it leaves me absolutely numb with shock.
Kris Jarvis and John Morland died as result of the injuries they sustained, killed by the actions of a dangerous driver. As a result of Walter’s actions, Tracey Fidler lost her fiancé Kris and their five children—Kyle, Ryan, Luke, Emma and the youngest, Adam, who was nine years old at the time of this tragedy—lost a father. Hayley Lindsay lost her fiancé John and their two young children, Harvey and Jazmin, who was seven years old at the time, lost their father. Both couples had planned to marry this year. Tracey and Hayley are here today watching this debate.
Unless someone has gone through the same horrific experience as Tracey and Hayley and their families, it is impossible to imagine how difficult it has been at times for them and their children to cope with this harrowing tragedy. I have got to know Hayley and Tracey and members of their extended family over the past year, and I know that at times it has been a case of taking each day as it comes. The pain of their loss is with them constantly. They have been helped by their families and friends, and I pay tribute to all of them, including Karen Rowland who has accompanied them to Parliament today. Tracey and Hayley are remarkable women: incredibly brave, wonderfully caring and hugely determined. Determined to make sure that John and Kris’s lives were not lost in vain. Determined to get justice for the families of future victims whose lives are cut short by the actions of dangerous drivers such as Walter.
Talking of justice, I should note that for killing two people and ruining the lives of two families Walter was sentenced to 10 years and three months in prison. Given how the current justice system operates, he will probably be out in less time than that. To add insult to grievous injury, Walter decided to appeal against his sentence.
Thankfully, he was not successful. In contrast, Tracey and Hayley and their families started, on 13 February last year, a life sentence without Kris and John. In their case, life really does mean life. Simply put, this is not justice. This is not fair. This regime of sentencing for those who cause death by dangerous driving has to change. It has to get much tougher, and Tracey and Hayley believe it needs toughening, too.
Tracey and Hayley started a Government e-petition last year calling for a change in the law so that a dangerous driver receives a maximum sentence of 14 years for each person they kill, with the sentence to be served consecutively, not concurrently as happens right now. If the terms of the e-petition became law and if a dangerous driver killed two people, he or she would face up to 28 years behind bars. Thanks to Tracey and Hayley’s tenacity, the e-petition had reached over 102,000 signatures when it closed in March. I want to thank the national media, in particular The Sun, and our local papers, the online getreading and The Reading Chronicle for all that they have done to publicise the petition.
It is a remarkable achievement to reach over 100,000 signatures on a Government e-petition, and it is all the more remarkable that that was done by a few individuals. It was not backed by any national organisation or campaign team, but by two women and their friends and families, who care so much about this matter. It also demonstrates that constituents across this great country of ours want the law strengthened when it comes to sentencing for dangerous driving.
Tracey and Hayley have brought their campaign for justice for victims and their families to the heart of Government. We had a constructive meeting last year with the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who also responded in an extremely sympathetic tone to a short debate that I held last November on sentencing for dangerous driving offences. In February this year, Tracey and Hayley met the Prime Minister to set out their reasons for why the law should be strengthened. They were joined in this meeting by the family of Ross and Clare Simons, who have been greatly supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore)in their own campaign to strengthen the sanctions against dangerous drivers. I am sure that my hon. Friend will speak about that case. I know that Tracey and Hayley are incredibly grateful and touched by the personal interest that the Prime Minister took in both cases.
When we debated the matter previously, many colleagues brought examples from their constituencies, which demonstrates clearly that we need the law to be strengthened. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy),who unfortunately cannot be here today due to other commitments, asked me to highlight the case of his young constituent Laura Thomas. Laura, who worked in a school for children with special needs, was killed by a truck when the driver was browsing the internet on his phone. It was a shocking waste of a young life. Laura’s mother, Lisa, and her family certainly want tougher enforcement and tougher penalties in future cases.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), who unfortunately also cannot be with us today, for launching a big campaign and working extremely hard with the families of victims.
Indeed, he has produced a charter of the sort of changes that they would like to see when it comes to strengthening sentencing.
As I am sure we will hear from the Minister today, a Government review of sentencing for all driving related offences is currently under way. After the aforementioned meeting with the Prime Minister, he wrote, as he had promised, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), the then Justice Secretary, setting out his thoughts following the discussion with Hayley and Tracey. I want to read from part of the Prime Minister’s letter, which mirrors what Hayley and Tracey are asking the review to consider.
The Prime Minister wrote:
“I agreed that the following issues should be considered in depth as part of the review we are carrying out on sentencing for driving-related offences: The maximum sentence length available for causing death by dangerous driving (currently a 14 year sentence); Whether offenders convicted of causing death by dangerous driving should be denied automatic early release from prison at the half-way point in the sentence”.
If such a provision were in place now, we would not be facing the thought of Mr Walter coming out of prison before his 10 years and three months had been served.
To those issues, the Prime Minister added:
“The question of whether sentences should be awarded concurrently or consecutively in cases where a number of people are killed as a result of dangerous driving, whilst recognising that the courts normally determine this issue; The discounts provided for late guilty pleas in these types of cases; The length of the driving ban given to offenders, and the potential for ensuring that no period of their sentence counts towards the driving ban.”
I would be grateful if the Minister, in summing up, confirmed that those suggestions do indeed form part of the review. We would all be grateful if he also set out the timetable for when the review will be published and how long the public consultation process will be. What actions will his Department take to publicise that consultation?
Can the Minister also confirm—this is an incredibly important point—that if the public consultation suggests that constituents up and down the country consider any of the changes to the sentencing regime for dangerous driving proposed in the review to be too lenient, the regime will be strengthened further? We want justice—that is what the 102,000 people who signed the petition want—and I hope that is reflected when the consultation is completed.
Tracey and Hayley have done everything to keep the memory of Kris and John alive. They have held a range of events locally in Reading. Tracey has been nominated for a Pride of Reading award—an award given to those living in Reading who have done exceptional public service. She has been nominated because of the campaigning she has done on changing the law so that the families of future victims get more justice than Kris and John did.
Tracey and Hayley know that none of that will bring back Kris and John—that is something they will have to live with all their lives. However, they do not want the loss of Kris and John to be in vain. They want justice. They want a change in the law so that we are much tougher on those who kill through dangerous driving. I have pledged to them that I will fight by their side for justice for as long as it takes. If we are able to achieve a change in the law, and it is indeed strengthened, it would be fitting if that law was referred to as “John and Kris’s law”. That would be a tribute to the memory of two family men whose tragic deaths led to a national campaign to strengthen sentencing for dangerous driving.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Andrew Selous): As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Thank you for the efficient way in which you have chaired our proceedings.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) on securing this important debate. The seriousness with which dangerous driving is taken is evident from the strength of feeling among Members on both sides of the House. I pay tribute to him for his persistence and for how he has brought this matter before the House. Indeed, I thank all hon. Members for the non-party political way in which these serious matters have been addressed.
My hon. Friend was right to say that it is not possible for us to imagine the pain of the families who have lost loved ones to such terrible experiences. I regularly meet victims, and I will continue to be available to do that to try to give myself the best possible idea of what they have been through. He mentioned the 102,000-signature petition, which is a significant achievement. I note that he has been to see the Prime Minister. The shadow Minister spoke about the Prime Minister’s supportive attitude on this matter.
I am also grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), whose constituent, a teacher, was killed on account of someone browsing the internet while driving a lorry—an atrocious thing to have done. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading West asked three particular questions and, yes, the five issues that he raised are being considered as part of the Government’s review. Secondly, I hope to be able to move to the public phase of the review soon, and we will do everything possible to attract the widest public attention. Thirdly, the reforms are likely to require legislation and so will be debated by Parliament. All hon. Members will have a chance, as they have had this afternoon, to put the views of their constituents in that debate.
Jim Fitzpatrick: The Minister says that he hopes the review will move to its public phase soon. Can he be more specific about the definition of “soon”? When I was the Minister for a time, a civil servant drafted an answer for me that said, “The answer to the parliamentary question will be published in the autumn.” I asked, “When is the autumn?” They said, “23 December, Minister.” I said, “Well, that’s usually Christmas.” They said, “It’s the end of the autumn Session, Minister.”
The word “soon” is even less specific than “autumn” and certainly “this year.” It would be nice to know whether that means the calendar year or the parliamentary year.
Andrew Selous: The right hon. Gentleman is a former Minister, and he knows how such things work. I am sorry that I am not able to be more specific, but I can tell him and every other Member here that I get it. There is clearly huge concern on both sides of the House about dangerous driving. A commitment has been made to have the review, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that my officials and others are working on that in earnest. I would be extremely grateful if he were good enough to accept that for now.
The hon. Gentleman made an excellent speech, and he is right that we all want safer roads. He spoke about the language we use in such matters, and I agree that using drink, drugs or phones does not make it an accident. Getting the language right matters, and I hugely agree that enforcement is critical, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West also said. As a former road safety Minister, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) brings great experience and knowledge to this debate. The issue of prevention resonated most strongly with me, and the public reporting of drivers who break the rules is an interesting idea. He also said that the punishment should fit the crime.
I assure hon. Members that Ministers and officials in the Department for Transport will be sent the transcript of this debate so that they can study what has been said, because that is an important aspect of our proceedings. The hon. Gentleman specifically asked about prosecutions and, despite the increased number of cars on our roads, the number of incidents and, more significantly, the number of deaths on our roads have fallen very significantly. As a result, there are fewer prosecutions for causing death by dangerous driving, but the sentence length has increased, which is part of a long-term trend.
I listened with great interest to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham). Safety near schools is incredibly important, and I commend her for continuing to campaign on that issue. She made an important point, which links to the point raised by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, about the need for effective enforcement. Again, I will ensure that that point is passed on to the Department for Transport.
The three E’s mentioned by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West)—education, engineering and enforcement—are right. She also made a useful contribution to our proceedings. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) told us of a personal experience from his constituency. He speaks as a member of the Select Committee on Justice, so I welcome his contribution. I am struck that 63% of respondents in his constituency expressed a fear of road traffic crime. I agree that that is a significant finding, and one of which we should take note.
John Howell: That was 63% across the UK, not just in my constituency.
Andrew Selous: I thank my hon. Friend for that correction, which makes the finding even more significant. Like him, I was deeply shocked by the case he mentioned of someone driving at more than twice the legal speed limit through a red light, killing someone, and the sentence that was passed down. I tell him, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire, that sentencing guidelines make it clear that driving without care in the vicinity of a pedestrian crossing, hospital, school or residential home are all to be taken into account as aggravating factors when determining an appropriate sentence. I note her further comments on these matters.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) also made an excellent contribution, and he highlighted the tragic case of Sean Morley. We were all extremely moved by his description of the highly distressing circumstances of that utterly terrible case. I have taken very careful note of what he said.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), in another powerful speech, told us of an horrific incident in which a couple riding a tandem bicycle were tragically killed in his constituency. He said that the former Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), has visited the spot. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood that the similarities between a knife, a gun and a car are fairly strong when it comes to taking someone’s life or causing horrific injuries. I note the judge’s comments in that case, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s persistence in raising such matters. He said that the Justice Secretary can raise the maximum penalty, but that is not correct; it is actually for Parliament to set the maximum penalty for an offence, but I understand his point.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), who speaks for the Scottish National party, talked about the reduction of the legal alcohol limit in Scotland. Those powers are devolved to Scotland and are the responsibility of colleagues in the Department for Transport. I will pass on his comments.
The shadow Minister also has a long-standing record of personally campaigning on dangerous driving. He told us that he has previously been to see the Prime Minister, which led to a change in the law. I pay tribute to him for that, and for the contribution that he has made on the issue. A recent inspection report on Crown Prosecution Service practice has recommended better training and more specialist road traffic prosecutors. I am sure that he will be grateful to know that, and I will write to him on the further specific details for which he asked.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to go in some detail through the matters brought before us in this debate. On the particular case that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West brought before the House, the driver entered a guilty plea to a number of offences, including two counts of causing death by dangerous driving and driving while disqualified. He received a sentence of 10 years and three months on 16 April 2014, and he was banned from driving for 15 years.
Turning to the specific issues that my hon. Friend raised, he will know as well as I do that sentencing is a matter for judges, who are independent. The judges decide on a sentence, having considered the full details of the case and the offender. They are best placed to decide on a just and proportionate sentence. The duty on the courts is to follow guidelines or, if they do not, to say why. That leads to greater transparency in the sentences likely to be imposed, and will hopefully lead to increased consistency in sentencing practice.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, the appeals procedure allows the Attorney General to make a reference to the Court of Appeal in serious cases if a sentence is unduly lenient, or if the offender believes the sentence is unduly harsh. In this case, the offender appealed the sentence. I was particularly struck by the care taken in the case by the Court of Appeal to consider not only the appalling driving involved but the harm that it had caused to the families. I know that the appeal would have been a difficult experience for the families, and I hope that its dismissal has brought some reassurance.
A reduction for an early guilty plea is not just about saving money and time; it is designed to ensure that wherever possible, victims, their families and witnesses are not required to relive or be cross-examined about dreadful events in court. It can also lead to swifter justice. In keeping with the current law and guidelines, the driver in this case had his sentence reduced for pleading guilty to the offence at an early stage. A guilty plea at the earliest opportunity will normally attract the maximum sentence reduction of one third, but judges retain discretion in regard to that reduction. In this case, as the evidence against the driver was overwhelming, the judge exercised that discretion and did not apply the full discount. Taking account of a lesser discount for the early plea, the 10-year sentence imposed is close to the 14-year maximum penalty for the offence. The Court of Appeal gave a clear judgment upholding both the sentence and the judge’s decision not to grant the full reduction for the early guilty plea.
Turning to my hon. Friend’s calls for changes in the law, I should say that he raised two main points. The first relates to the imposition of maximum and minimum penalties; the second is that when more than one person is killed, the court should make the sentence for each additional death follow on from the first, so that they are served consecutively rather than concurrently. On maximum penalties, it is worth stressing that although sentencing is a matter for the courts, setting the framework within which the courts work is for Parliament. The 14-year maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving was set by Parliament to cover the worst imaginable case of that specific offence.
When deciding what sentence to impose within the maximum available, the court is required to take account of all the circumstances of the defence and any mitigating or aggravating factors. Where there is more than one victim, that will be taken into account and will aggravate the seriousness of the offence, meriting a longer sentence. The sentencing guidelines for causing death by dangerous driving specifically mention that the courts should take account of the higher harm caused by the offence where there is more than one victim. That is exactly what the court did in this case; it took the very high harm caused by two deaths, applied a smaller than normal reduction for the early guilty plea and arrived at a sentence close to the maximum.
It would be contrary to our system of justice to impose a maximum penalty for any death in any circumstances, in road traffic or in any other offence. The Government do, however, want maximum penalties that allow the courts to respond appropriately to the full range of cases as they are likely to take place. Where there is a clear failing in the law, Parliament has moved to remedy it. In the past, where offenders have left a victim with serious injuries, the maximum penalty for the offence has related to the driving, not the harm caused.
In the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving was created, with a five-year penalty, as the Opposition spokesman told us. That change in the law means that there is now a range of offences and maximum penalties dealing with dangerous driving that more properly reflect the harm caused. In addition, under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, the maximum penalty for disqualified drivers who kill or cause serious injury has been increased. The previous maximum was only two years for causing death, but it has now been increased to 10 years. The measure came into force in April 2015. I hope that hon. Members will see that there has been action in response to the quite proper parliamentary pressure in that area.
I am aware of your strictures, Mr Hollobone. Everyone else has obeyed them, so I feel that I should as well. I could say more, but it is right that I give the remaining time available to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West. I thank him again for what he has said. I realise the strength of feeling on this extremely important matter, and I will continue to engage with him and other hon. Members on it.
Alok Sharma: We have had an excellent debate involving some excellent contributions from across the House. I agree with all colleagues who have made the point that there is cross-party consensus on this issue. Those watching this debate and those here today are seeing Parliament at its very best: we are debating issues that matter to all our constituents, and we want to find a common solution.
We have heard examples of too-lenient sentences being handed out, and we have heard of judges who think that the sentencing regime is not strong enough. I refer to the point made by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick): the social mood has changed absolutely, and we need to go with that. What we are hearing from across the country, through colleagues and in the petition, is that the country wants stronger sentencing for such offences. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) made the very good point that there is a grave sense of injustice in the judicial process right now. That absolutely must change.
I am delighted to hear from the Minister that there will be a review outcome soon; I hope that that means before the end of this calendar year. I am delighted that it will be widely publicised, and I am pleased that it will require legislation, because that will give all of us the chance to debate these matters again in detail. He is absolutely right that judges decide sentences, but he has also made the important point that the framework for that is set by Parliament. That is what we are here to do, listening to the wishes of our constituents across the country.
I am pleased that the Minister has listened, and I know that he has kindly agreed to meet with the families after this debate, but ultimately it is about ensuring that the punishment fits the crime. That is what we all want, and I hope that when the legislation is reviewed, that is what we will all get.