Clause 3 - Graduated fixed penalties

Road Safety Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:15 pm ar 21 Mawrth 2006.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 12:15, 21 Mawrth 2006

I beg to move amendment No. 20, in clause 3, page 2, line 16, at end insert—

‘()the time of day it was committed,’.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Ceidwadwyr, Macclesfield

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 21, in clause 3, page 2, line 16, at end insert—

‘()the number of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users in the vicinity at the time,’.

No. 22, in clause 3, page 2, line 16, at end insert—

‘()the prevailing weather conditions,’.

No. 23, in clause 3, page 2, line 16, at end insert—

‘()the conditions of visibility,’.

No. 24, in clause 3, page 2, line 16, at end insert—

‘()any mitigating circumstances put forward by the offender.’.

No. 26, in clause 4, page 3, line 7, at end insert—

‘()the time of day it was committed,’.

No. 27, in clause 4, page 3, line 7, at end insert—

‘()the number of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users in the vicinity at the time,’.

No. 28, in clause 4, page 3, line 7, at end insert—

‘()the prevailing weather conditions,’.

No. 29, in clause 4, page 3, line 7, at end insert—

‘()the conditions of visibility,’.

No. 30, in clause 4, page 3, line 7, at end insert—

‘()any mitigating circumstances put forward by the offender.’.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Following our bitter disappointment that the amendments to clause 2 did not quite make it, we move on to clause 3. Again, the Opposition approve generally of what the Government are trying to do. I think that it was my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire who spoke on Second Reading about flexibility. We think that it is sensible to vary fixed penalties according to certain conditions, as proposed by the clause.

My party believes that there is a small number of what my right hon. Friend called, I think, bad hats—a hard core on which we should help the Government to bear down. The trick is not to go overboard on the vast majority of drivers who are hard-working, conscientious people, trying to get from A to B. While looking at some of the press reports, I found one of a completely ridiculous case in Fife, where a 38-year-old was found doing 85 mph in a 30 mph zone, causing the deaths of two people. In another case, in Lewisham, an uninsured 16-year-old drove an illegal car and killed two people.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport)

I think that I heard the hon. Gentleman quote the case from Fife of a driver doing 85 mph where there was a 30 mph limit, and that that caused the deaths of two people. That is well outwith the range of anything dealt with by a fixed penalty offence; it is an indictment offence for causing death by dangerous driving.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

That was helpful information, and I think that I know where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. My point, which we shall discuss at length when we deal with dangerous driving and causing death by dangerous driving, is that when one reads the press reports one sees that there is an extraordinary distance between a small number of people causing real damage and behaving extraordinarily badly, stupidly and dangerously, and, at the other extreme, the large numbers of people who are trying to go about their daily lives. The trick is to frame the legislation to encompass the two.

We are keen to help the Government bear down on the hard core—the small number of people who simply must be removed from the roads and punished extremely heavily. Driving at 85 mph in a 30 mph limit is absolutely ludicrous—I am sure that all members of the Committee endorse that view. The trick is somehow to come up with a framework of law that does not alienate the 34 million drivers. On that basis, we support the clause.

I have touched only upon speed. I am aware that the clause covers other motoring offences, but speed is the one that really catches the public imagination. As I said, there is a danger of losing the support and collaboration of many motorists. On that basis, the amendments propose a number of factors that should have an influence on penalties for those who have contravened a speed limit. I think that the time of day, as mentioned in amendment No. 20, is fundamental. There is a big difference between going at 32 mph, 33 mph or some speed just over the limit at 6 o’clock on a June morning in broad daylight when one is fresh and wide awake, and driving at the same speed at a busy time in the evening on a November evening when it is pouring with rain, one has driven 200 miles down from Manchester, and there are people coming out of schools. That point touches on the comment that I made about my friend in Yorkshire who taught a lesson to his son. The time of day should be taken into account.

As amendment No. 21 suggests, there is big difference between going out early on a clear summer’s morning when there is no one around and going out when people are coming home from work or leaving schools. That should have a bearing and a sensible driver should take into account the number of pedestrians who are around. We know that the majority of pedestrian accidents happen in towns.

Moving on to amendment No. 22, the weather must also be taken into account. It would be sensible to state in the Bill that weather conditions play a huge part in accidents. We have seen the highly publicised press reports of accidents happening in bad weather, when a sensible driver would have taken account of the prevailing conditions. That relates also to amendment No. 23, which mentions visibility. There are still cases of people driving at inappropriate speeds in the fog. Visibility is a measurable fact and it would be sensible to take it into account. Amendment No. 24 makes the blanket addition of any other mitigating circumstances.

We support the graduated fixed penalties, because they will give the Government and the authorities a chance to show flexibility and acknowledge that in a speeding case it is the appropriate speed that counts, not the absolute speed. Our amendments would improve clause 3, and I will be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on them. On the whole, we are in favour of the clause.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I support the aim of my hon. Friend’s amendments. My only doubt is whether they are necessary. The Government’s own list is not exclusive. Proposed paragraphs (a),(b) and (c) in subsection (2) list as considerations

“the nature of the contravention ... how serious it is” and

“the area, or sort of place, where it takes place”.

One could argue that that would include the time of day when an offence was committed. That is covered by the words “how serious it is”. If it was committed on a sunny day, I think that most people would say that it was less serious than if it had been committed on a foggy evening. One could argue that the number of   pedestrians also has a bearing on “how serious it is”, and the same is true of the prevailing weather conditions and the visibility.

It will be interesting to hear what the Minister says. I applaud my hon. Friend’s amendments, and I am with him on his aims but as a lawyer I am not convinced that we need to tack on to the Bill every imaginable set of circumstances, because the existing description pretty much covers all the eventualities that my hon. Friend wants us to consider.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport) 12:30, 21 Mawrth 2006

Although the Government have set down several criteria, we received a number of representations from the road transport lobby and others about the way in which we define “serious” and whether that is sufficiently precise. The thrust of the amendments in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire is to ensure greater precision in the wording of the clause.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

If the Minister does not convince the Committee, I will be with my hon. Friend on any vote he may wish to press for, although I suspect that the Minister may take the view, which I take, that the amendments are superfluous. I hope that he will be able to answer in detail shortly.

I have a different point that I would like the Minister to answer. Are the graduated fixed penalties in this clause and the graduated fixed penalty points in clause 4, which relate to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, in respect of fixed penalty notices, howsoever issued, or do they relate only to fixed penalty notices issued by a police officer? I have concerns if they cover all fixed penalty notices. We all know that police officers are trained in the rules of evidence and that, by and large, unless one is dealing with a rogue officer, a police officer has a sense of justice. If he feels that a case is marginal and the driver is contrite, the officer may not even bother to write out a ticket and may wave the driver on, telling him to be more careful in future. A civilian person, however, might have been told by his line manager that the more tickets he gives out, the more likely he is to get a bonus at the end of the year or to ingratiate himself with those who employ him. I would have reservations about that and would take the view that we should perhaps put in extra safeguards. Therefore, I look forward to hearing the Minister explain whether the offences are in respect of tickets issued by police officers or go wider.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport)

I do not think that anyone would take issue with the comments of the hon. Member for North Shropshire about cracking down on the hard core. However, if what a person does is so severe as to be worthy of the description of hard core, they should never be the subject of fixed penalty notices. I accept that I am perhaps a little old-fashioned in this respect, but I think that this is what the courts are there for. I speak as one who made his living as a criminal court solicitor, first as a prosecutor as a procurator fiscal depute and latterly as a defence agent, before entering Parliament. Indeed, examples such as the one from Fife that the hon. Member for North Shropshire cited   must be placed before the court. That applies equally to the other examples that he cited, as it would to that of the Yorkshireman whose learner-driver son drove at 28 mph in a way that could at the very least be described under the terms of section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 as careless or inconsiderate.

My concern—I put it no more strongly than that—about graduated penalties is that their success or otherwise will be determined according to where the threshold is set. The danger is that by giving those who would otherwise go to court a fixed penalty, one downgrades the seriousness of the matter and risks losing some of the public disapprobation associated with going to court, not to mention the no small measure of inconvenience and expense associated with attending, which will act as a disincentive to the hard-core offender. That is why the definition of what constitutes hard core is crucial to the success or failure of the operation of the process.

I have seen the following happen as a result of actions taken by Governments of every colour during the years I have worked in the criminal justice system, and since I left it. There is a move to take people into courts, especially for what are considered to be minor road traffic offences. As the Minister said, speeding is not a minor road traffic offence; it is a particular species of antisocial behaviour and a very dangerous one at that. The move to pull people out of the criminal court system runs contrary to the Minister’s stated aim of improving our attitude towards speeding as a particularly antisocial offence.

Regarding the operation of clause 3, I go along with the view of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire. The amendments are well intentioned and have been proposed to probe the Government’s thinking. In fact, much of the language used in the amendments could well have been borrowed from the explanatory notes. However, to be as exclusive as the amendments appear to be may not be helpful.

I would like to probe the Government’s thinking on proposed new subsection (2)(d), where it says:

“whether the offender appears to have committed any offence or offences of a description specified in the order during a period so specified.”

I would be grateful if the Minister would confirm my understanding of that. I presume that if someone were speeding at a certain level that was unexceptional in itself—albeit over the limit—in a car with a number of defects which would bring it into contravention of the construction and use regulations, it is envisaged that a greater penalty could be imposed. Is that the meaning of proposed new paragraph (d), or is there some other meaning behind it? If the Minister could clarify the way in which that paragraph will operate, I would be immensely grateful.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I entirely agree with the hon. Member for North Shropshire: we have to get really tough with the hard core. Bad offenders really need to feel the fingers on their collar. I agree also with the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that when people commit disproportionate speeding offences, there   should be no hesitation about taking them to court and prosecuting them for the most serious offence available.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport)

We have heard many negative comments about the operation of speed cameras, but does the Minister accept that when a motorist does 85 mph in a 30 mph limit, as in the case outlined by the hon. Member for North Shropshire, the use of the camera would be essential and would be of enormous benefit to the prosecution? It would almost establish almost a cast-iron case of dangerous driving, and all that would remain for the prosecution to prove would be a causal link between the driver and the death.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I agree absolutely. The hon. Gentleman was entirely right when he said that someone who drives in excess of 80 mph in a 30 mph zone is clearly guilty of dangerous driving and not just of a minor speed infringement. If somebody has died as a result of that, the courts must impose serious penalties, and the camera would be vital in providing evidence to that effect.

With graduated penalties, we have a continuum available to us. At one end of the scale, there are people committing offences and breaching, for example, speed limits so seriously that they are guilty of dangerous driving. At the other end, there are people breaching the speed limit, which is a serious offence, but it would not proportionate to treat them in the same way. In between, there are grades of severity. It is clear that there are differences between those in a 30 mph zone who drive at 32 mph, and those who drive at 37 mph, 49 mph and 85 mph. We must have the flexibility to deal with those drivers differently.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is in favour of people having their day in court. Of course, people always have that opportunity. If they think that a fixed penalty has been imposed unfairly, they are entitled to say that they want their day in court and to argue either that they are innocent or that there were mitigating circumstances. I think that the hon. Member for North Shropshire slightly misunderstood matters when he suggested that mitigating factors should be included in the legislation. If an individual believes that there are mitigating circumstances that should be taken into account, it is for that person to make that argument in court. I have heard the stories about people racing to hospital and, therefore, believing that they had a rational reason for not obeying speed limits. If that is the case, by all means, they should have their day in court, make their case and see whether the magistrate agrees with them. That will be for the individual to decide.

By giving the police the flexibility to treat different offences differently, we are creating this deal that I talked about earlier—making the punishment fit the crime. We are also helping the police to be maximally efficient, because if somebody does have their day in court, or if the police decide to take someone to court rather than issue a fixed penalty notice, a police officer will have to be in court and cannot be on the streets   enforcing the law. There is an efficiency argument for the disposal of a significant number of offences through the fixed penalty system, if we can do so.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport)

I must reinforce the point that a police officer who attends court to give evidence is enforcing the law. That is a very important part of his duty. Often, under the graduated system, it will be in the interests of the culpable motorist rather than of the public that he should accept the fixed penalty, because we have seen people at the upper end of the graduated scale dealt with in court, rather than in the privacy of their own front room with their cheque book.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but he forgets that offering a fixed penalty is at the discretion of the police. If they think that a higher penalty might be available to them if they take an individual to court, they will decide whether they should pursue that course of action to obtain the higher penalty. I do not envisage a system in which somebody who has committed a serious breach can sit at home, realising that if they accept the penalty notice they will automatically do better than if they take the matter to court. They may well do better if they take it to court, but the process will not be automatic and the police must have the discretion to decide whom they take to court and to whom they issue the fixed penalty notice.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I wanted just to inquire whether the circumstances on which the Minister bases his reply, namely the issuing of the ticket by the police, are the answer to my question. Will the provision relate only to tickets issued by police officers?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

No, those circumstances are not the answer to the question, and no, the provision will automatically apply not only to police officers. We are talking about speeding offences. That is where most of the publicity and consultation has been. It would be possible under the terms of the legislation for us to bring forward orders in which other offences—for example, breaches of the working time directive for heavy goods vehicle drivers, and other breaches—might be brought within the regime. They might be enforced not only by police officers, but by employees of the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, for example. The order would be needed to specify the levels of training and expertise necessary for somebody to issue those tickets. It is not as if we are talking about decriminalising those offences, hiring just anybody to issue tickets and civilianising the offences; the provisions would have to be set out.

Talking about orders, I hope that this argument will convince the hon. Member for North Shropshire. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire put his finger on it when he said that I would argue that there is sufficient detail in the Bill for our purposes. That is my view. To create an offence under the provisions before us, we would have to bring forward an order and carry out consultation. In the order, we would define exactly what we meant by “serious” and set out the offences that would be liable for graduated penalties.

The information in clauses 3 and 4 is sufficient detail. I cannot see any merit in putting in greater detail and tying this Government’s or future Governments’ hands any more tightly.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris PPS (Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State), Department of Health 12:45, 21 Mawrth 2006

Following on from the comments of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, I note that the consequence of the measure will be to remove some offences from the court system and deal with them through fixed penalties. Will my hon. Friend clarify whether there is a corollary? Currently, someone travelling at 32 mph in a 30 mph zone will—practically speaking—almost never be prosecuted. With a graduation of penalty points, might someone in that position face one or two penalty points for a small offence, 2 or 3 mph above the official limit?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. As he correctly points out, someone doing 32 mph in a 30 mph zone would almost never be prosecuted. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers guidelines, the figure is 35 mph in a 30 mph area. The first reason for that is that ACPO recognises that speed can drift up and down by 1 or 2 mph, even when one is diligently trying to stick to the limit. Secondly, there are inaccuracies in speedometers and in the equipment that measures people’s speed. For fairness and to be proportionate, ACPO does not recommend prosecution at 35 mph. I would not envisage that that is likely to change any time soon.

I would, however, add this caveat. It is not impossible that at some point in the future the decision might be taken that speedometers are so good and speed detection equipment so accurate that the ACPO guidelines need to change and we might want to say that we can enforce fairly at 33 mph in a 30 mph zone. I simply put that as a possibility because I want to be honest with my hon. Friend. But we have no intention of changing the ACPO guidance at present.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

Before I let the hon. Gentleman intervene again, could I give him an answer to his question about proposed paragraph (d)? Its main purpose was to build in repeat offending and cases where people might accumulate offences if we decide to include things like the working time directive and breaches of drivers’ hours regulations within this structure.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport)

This has been an interesting and helpful debate. The Minister’s attitude has been central to that. It appears however that the effective operation of graduated penalties will depend on the decision of the police officer, certainly regarding the number of penalty points and the amount of fine that is to be imposed. What discussion has the Minister had with ACPO or any of the other police bodies to ensure that the officers who make what is no longer a straightforward decision, but one that brings with it a degree of discretion and no small measure of legal complexity, will be given the proper level of training and will be of appropriate seniority?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I envisage the issuing of fixed penalties as ultimately being a straightforward decision-making process. We published an earlier consultation on how this would work, which included the ACPO guidance and our first pass ideas of where people would be eligible for two points, a three points standard fine or six points. I will be talking about those issues on later clauses. If these enabling powers are passed we intend to publish an order that sets out our views on how these things would be done. There would be a full consultation and doubtless a debate in the House before such an order is made.

The break points for the issuing of fixed penalty notices will be a relatively routine process. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that a senior officer must be involved when a decision has to be taken on whether someone has now breached the law in such a way that they ought to be taken to court and a more serious offence pursued. I will be talking to ACPO about how it intends to address that issue. I can understand what the hon. Gentleman was trying to get at with these amendments but I do not believe that they are necessary. There is sufficient detail in the Bill already and there are sufficient safeguards in the orders that we will have to publish before we enact the legislation.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I should like to clarify the points that I was trying to make to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland.

I described some extreme cases to show what we are facing and we will come to “careless and dangerous.” We have tabled carefully thought-through amendments on that, because there is a clear problem with the complete idiot who goes at 85 mph. I quoted that little story of my friend from Yorkshire to show that the question is one of appropriate speed. There might be times of day when going at 30 mph through that twisty Yorkshire village is absolutely safe, because there is no one around. There might be times of day when one could go up to the ACPO level of 10 per cent. plus two—35 mph—when there is no one around and it is dry. That might be sensible. The point that my friend was making to his learner son was that on quite a busy Sunday afternoon that was not sensible. The son could not be done for careless driving or anything, but he was trying to teach him that the sign, with the disc and number, is not the last word. It is an indication. The key is appropriate speed.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport)

The hon. Gentleman is right. Dealing with the idiots is straightforward, the ones at the extreme end as simply as with those who are at the lower end, at 35 or 36 mph. That is not difficult. The difficulty comes on the margin. The challenge presented by graduated penalties is that there will be   much more discretion in deciding what is appropriate given to police officers. That will only work if they are sufficiently senior and trained.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point. The problem is the subjective judgment about conditions. I am pleased that we are now talking about this. That is part of the problem; adhering to the number inside the red disc is too brutal and too simplistic. He is right that there will have to be subjective judgments made by officers on the ground, but that is why I like what is being proposed in clause 3. We put the obviously probing amendments down, deliberately listing the conditions. The Minister made a good case for them probably being unnecessary, as was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire. The amendment is quite obviously probing. The trick is to get across about appropriate speed, which depends on conditions.

I did not mention a couple of studies. One, from British Columbia, where a big survey on speed limits was carried out, was particularly interesting. It said, bluntly, that posted limits that were set higher or lower and dictated by roadway and traffic conditions were ignored by the majority of motorists.

That was confirmed by another report, from the Arizona department of transportation, which talked about the 85th percentile, which is the speed up to which 85 per cent. of drivers are driving. Interestingly, they have established that the safest speed is at the 85th percentile speed. Those who were driving well below are dangerous and, obviously, the idiots who are driving well above are dangerous. The trick is to try to get the speed limits somewhere in line with the 85th percentile. That is extremely hard with fixed signs, therefore the clause, in attempting to get flexibility for the authorities to adjust their actions according to the conditions prevailing at the time, is very sensible.

We were obviously probing with our amendments, but on the basis of what the Minister said I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I had not intended to speak, but a couple of things came out of the Minister’s reply to the earlier debate that I would like to tease out of him. He indicated that the Government’s game plan is to widen the number of people who are able to issue the fixed penalty tickets from the police officer to employees of the Department who are qualified vehicle examiners.

It being One o’clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o’clock.