Clause 21 - Causing death by driving: unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured drivers

Road Safety Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:45 pm ar 28 Mawrth 2006.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport) 12:45, 28 Mawrth 2006

I beg to move amendment No. 90, in clause 21, page 25, leave out lines 22 and 23.

Photo of Janet Anderson Janet Anderson Llafur, Rossendale and Darwen

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 91, in clause 21, page 25, line 28, column 2, leave out ‘unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured’ and insert ‘unlicensed or disqualified’.

No. 93, in clause 21, page 25, line 33, column 3, leave out ‘summarily’.

No. 94, in clause 21, page 25, column 4, leave out lines 33 to 39.

No. 92, in clause 21, page 25, line 35, column 2, leave out ‘unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured’ and insert ‘unlicensed or disqualified’.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

Before I came to the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire and I visited the Minister, who was generous with his time. He gave us a preliminary briefing on the Bill and some explanations to our questions.

We were uncertain about the exact intention behind clause 21, and, if I understood correctly, the Minister gave us the following explanation: if a person is in, or driving, a car that is uninsured, unlicensed or while disqualified, and that car is in an accident that results in the death of another, whether or not any causal behaviour was attached to the car or driver, that person would be charged with causing death. The Bill effectively says that the death would not have occurred had that vehicle not been on the road, and that therefore the driver or passenger has caused death simply by being in the car.

My hon. Friends and I were slightly perplexed by that explanation, as too were those from whom we took legal advice. Our amendments are part probing and part principled. At the end of the debate, should we have been reassured by the Minister that either some of our misgivings are misconceived or ill   understood, or that on reflection he will come some way to compromise with us, I should be happy to withdraw the amendment.

Perhaps I might explain my misgivings with two examples. First, let us take the case of a hard-working Member of Parliament who represents, say, a Scottish constituency, and who, on a Monday, drives to either the train station of the airport, parks his car, travels to London by train or by air and has a hard-working week in London—as I am sure we all do working for the benefit of constituents. On the Thursday, the MP flies home and notices that his insurance expired the day before, resolves in his own mind to renew the insurance in the morning and drives home. On the way home, a group of youths leaving a local pub overtake another car, collide with the MP’s car, hit a wall and spin out of control, causing the death of one of the passengers. Under the Bill, the MP would be charged with causing that death, even thought he did not cause the death, he did not drive carelessly or even dangerously, and there was no intent. If anything he was the victim of the accident, yet he would be charged if the Bill is not amended.

At the moment, it is common practice—as I am sure that the Minister will concede—for the police, in such circumstances, and insurance companies, to allow at least a fortnight, but in some cases, up to a month, for insurance renewal. Equally, it is similar practice to do so for car licences.

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

I am not sure if my question will help or hinder the hon. Gentleman, but I will ask it anyway. In the circumstances that he has outlined—I dare say that in those circumstances I should declare an interest—in what way could that MP be said to have caused the death of the passenger? Surely, someone else caused the death?

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

That question might be best addressed to the Minister. The answer is that he caused the death simply by being in the car when it was uninsured, even though it had been uninsured for just two days and he had intended to renew the insurance. As I understand the Minister’s explanation, under clause 21, that person would be charged.

Let us take a second example involving the same MP—poor chap. On Thursday night, he arrives home to similar circumstances and resolves to renew his insurance in the morning. However, he has to drive home via a busy A road or motorway on which there has been an accident. Cars are forced to stop, but someone driving too close to him shunts him from behind, the MP shunts the next vehicle, which shunts the next one, and then the one in front of that goes across the carriageway and the driver is killed. As I understand it, only one person in that chain of events is likely to be charged—the MP, for being in his car without insurance.

As we have said all the way through deliberations on the Bill, our intention is to pursue and catch the hardened few who abuse the motoring laws of our country and to make the roads safe for the other 34   million mainly law-abiding drivers. It is the Government’s intention also to catch the hardcore of drivers who disregard our laws, drive untaxed, unlicensed and uninsured, and while disqualified. However, it is a question of long periods, with no end. The trouble with the clause is that no account can be taken, when someone is charged with an offence—particularly as to insurance—of whether their insurance ran out the previous day or they never had any. I am sure that the Government intend to catch those people who have never had insurance, or who have not renewed it after what, under the old common practice, was a fortnight’s leave of grace. A significant step change is happening in the law.

There are currently no custodial sentences for driving unlicensed or uninsured—only non-custodial fines or penalty points. We support the Government with respect to drivers who are persistently unlicensed or uninsured, but there appears to be no leeway or discretion. Whereas we highlighted in our discussion on the previous clause the fact that all too often the CPS fails to prosecute people who should be charged with manslaughter or dangerous driving because of uncertainty about the charge and the conviction rate, under clause 21 conviction would be a certainty.

We entirely agree with the Government that continual offenders should be caught and harshly dealt with. It is clear to us, for instance, that far too many young men drive around and fail to insure their cars, because the premium is higher than the fine that they might receive. That is an anomaly that might easily be remedied by increasing the fine and providing for a second offence of driving uninsured to attract a custodial sentence.

Royal Bank of Scotland insurance has rightly stated in a briefing that I am sure all members of the Committee have received that reducing the number of uninsured drivers will reap significant road safety benefits. It has some ideas on reducing the cost of insurance for young drivers. I want some reassurance from the Minister this morning, particularly on the point about insurance—and I am sure that he can see the anomaly that I am driving at, of the lack of leeway in the law. We perhaps should have framed our amendments more tightly, including a time scale within which to renew, but many people suffer a slip of the mind on insurance.

We discussed last week whether people try to kid insurance companies or suffer genuine slips of the mind. However, the clause will make criminals of many people who drive their car when they have not renewed within the common period of grace of about a fortnight accepted by the police. I hope that the Minister will accept that we strongly support what we believe to be the intention behind the clause; we support the prevention, detection and punishment of persistent offending. However, the clause will have a by-product that I am not sure the Government intend. If they do intend it, that will, potentially, make criminals of many law-abiding citizens.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Llafur, Bolton South East

How can a driver who is already insured have a slip of the mind, when all responsible insurance companies notify drivers well in advance of the need to renew their insurance? Surely a person who does not do so is negligent. [Interruption.]

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

From a sedentary position my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk said that that person might be a busy MP. Indeed, people do get prior warning—of when their MOT is due, and when they are due to renew all sorts of things. However, not everyone necessarily remembers. The question is whether that is negligent or just careless. The issue that I am concerned about is that the police accept a common period of grace of about a fortnight after the renewal date, which gives time to renew the insurance.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Llafur, Bolton South East

Does the hon. Gentleman know of any case in which a person has killed someone during that period of grace and the insurance company has bailed the driver out?

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

No, I do not, but I am not sure that that is the point. The clause is not about that. It creates an offence. It is not a question of the insurance company bailing a driver out. Under the clause, simply by getting in the car, that driver will, if involved in an accident where there is a death, be the person charged with causing death.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I rise to add my voice to that of my hon. Friend, in pursuing the probing nature of the amendment. The Minister owes the Committee an explanation as to why he thinks the clause is necessary. The purpose may be to bring home to all drivers the seriousness of driving either without a licence or insurance, or while disqualified. On the face of it, that seems a reasonable position, but my question for the Minister is whether in certain circumstances the clause could operate in a too heavy-handed manner. I think that that was the essence of what my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon was seeking to argue.

Proposed new section 3ZB of the Road Traffic Act 1988 states:

“A person is guilty of an offence under this section if he causes the death of another person by driving a motor vehicle on a road and, at the time when he is driving, the circumstances are such that he is committing an offence” by driving without a licence, while disqualified or without insurance. However, does not the phrase “if he causes the death” mean that a death happens? If two vehicles collide in the centre of the road and it is one driver’s fault, but the driver who is not at fault is without insurance, is he or she not at risk of being charged, because a death has occurred? That is my first question.

Secondly, if the Minister convinces the Committee that we need the clause, there is a case for allowing some statutory mitigation to prevent a person from being charged. There is a world of difference between a yob who has never had insurance for his motor vehicle and who drives round knowing that he does not have insurance and—never mind the Member of Parliament—the little old lady who puts her insurance renewal document behind the clock and forgets. She has had insurance, but it has lapsed.

What about those situations where the insurance company says, “Well, there was a valid certificate of insurance in force, but this motorist didn’t tell us that there was change in their circumstances, so we are avoiding the policy.”? For my policy, I have to say every year whether the vehicle will be kept garaged during the evening and whether I have had any endorsements on my licence since I last had insurance with that company. To those who fail to notify the insurance company of any change—perhaps a son or other relative puts their car in the garage and the policy holder’s car is left outside—it will argue that the contract of insurance is not valid, because of the special nature of the contract between the motorist and the company. What happens in those circumstances if, sadly, someone is involved in an accident where a death is caused? Are they to be charged under the clause in addition to any other charges that they may face?

Driving without insurance is a serious offence and the consequences can be devastating, not only for the family of the person who is killed. Someone who kills someone else while driving without insurance, but who has money and assets—a freehold property and perhaps a couple of motor vehicles, for example—can find all that property at risk in a civil action resulting from that death. The Minister is saying in effect that, in addition to perhaps losing all their assets and having to sell their home to pay for civil action, someone who kills someone while driving without insurance could end up losing their job by serving two years in prison.

Is the clause reasonable in those circumstances? Why has the Minister included the offences related to insurance? Why does he not consider it appropriate to allow statutory mitigating circumstances to apply where someone can show that they had insurance that has recently lapsed or where the insurance has been avoided by the company, owing to someone not notifying it of a change of circumstances?

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.