New Clause 17

Road Safety Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 1:15 pm ar 20 Ebrill 2006.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Failing to stop at the scene of an accident

Part 1 of Schedule 2 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 is amended as follows—

(a) In section 170(4), in column 3, leave out “summarily” and insert “on indictment”

(b) in section 170(4), in column 4, leave out “six months or level 5 on the standard scale or both” and insert “up to 14 years”.'. —[Mr. Paterson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This new clause relates to hit-and-run accidents and is another attempt on our part to bear down on the infamous hard core. In 2004, 145 people were killed in 23,714 hit-and-run accidents and in 1997, 119 people were killed in 18,357 similar accidents. That is a 22 per cent. increase in the number of deaths and a 30 per cent. increase in the number of hit-and-run accidents. The number of people injured rose by 31 per cent. from 21,574 in 1997 to 28,397 in 2004. There is a real problem.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) said, another aspect is that at the moment there is a strong incentive for some drivers to get away from the scene of an accident. They may have had a drink or be part of the large number of people—perhaps 1 million—that the Government have announced are driving without insurance. Our intention in the new clause is simple: to impose a strong sanction on those who leave the scene of a crime. We intend the new clause to be used when there has been an injury and other motorists are involved. At the moment, members of the hard core have everything to gain from getting away and getting off scot-free. Our intention is to provide a strong incentive to make them stay on the spot and, if necessary, help an injured person or call the emergency services and wait for them to arrive.

This is a simple provision that would change the offence in section 170(4) of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 from a summary to an indictable one with an increase in the penalty from six months’ imprisonment to 14 years. That would impose a severe sanction on those who attempt to get away in appalling cases when they might have injured a third party.

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

The Committee will not be surprised—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not  be—that my advice is to resist the new clause. Having said that, I entirely agree with the sentiment behind it. Hit-and-run driving is abhorrent and we need to clamp down on it. It is already an offence, punishable with six months’ imprisonment and a £5,000 fine. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the new clause would make available a raft of more significant penalties.

One of the unintended consequences would be that it would affect someone who genuinely did not know that they had been involved in an accident and, therefore, did not stop. That occasionally happens. It might not mean that they were not at fault for the accident, but they might not have realised that they had been involved—we have discussed truck drivers who cannot see what is happening on the road all around them. If someone in those circumstances failed to stop and was subsequently prosecuted, one of the side effects of the new clause would be that they could face 14 years in jail, which would be an over-reaction. However, we have said many times on previous clauses that one would expect the courts to be rational about the way they imposed such sentences, and that is the way to deal with the matter.

I am prepared to offer the hon. Gentleman the assurance that I shall take the matter up with the Home Office—indeed, I am already doing so—to look at sentencing guidelines, so that the existing penalties can be used more appropriately when people have failed to stop.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 1:30, 20 Ebrill 2006

Two points. First, as I understand it, if no third party is involved there is currently no requirement to remain at the scene of a crime or to demand the emergency services or anyone else. In fact, the police advise people to move on as quickly as possible. Secondly, the Minister must acknowledge that under current legislation there is flexibility for courts. We are not suggesting a mandatory 14-year prison sentence for someone who inadvertently brushes another vehicle and does not realise what he has done. We intend for the very severe penalties to be restricted to the hard core who make the serious and unpleasant decision to leave the scene of a crime where someone might have been mortally wounded.

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

If personal injury is involved, there is already a clear requirement to stop and report an accident. There is also a list of other circumstances in the 1988 Act under which a person is required to stop and report an accident but where only damage has been caused. The problem is not with that list, which requires people to stop and report an accident, and I do not think that anyone whom the hon. Gentleman is trying to reach with the new clause fails to realise that they have committed an offence and that they should stop.

My understanding of what the hon. Gentleman said is that he is trying to catch those people who know perfectly well that they should stop and report an accident, but do not because they think that the consequences of doing so might be worse than those of being caught subsequently, having not stopped. He is  right that we need to ensure that the offences that are available for not having stopped are used sufficiently strongly to deter people from not stopping. However, allied to the offence that the individual has committed, and for which they can still be prosecuted, the additional offence of failing to stop already carries a sufficiently wide range of penalties that, if they are used appropriately by the court, can ensure that there are sufficient incentives for people not to drive away from the scene of an accident.

I offer the hon. Gentleman the assurance that I shall speak to the Home Office about the use of sentencing guidelines to deal with the problem.

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

I am not entirely reassured, but I should like to reserve our position and possibly come back to the matter on Report. With that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.