HC Deb 26 July 1934 vol 292 cc2122-9 A. Two years shall be substituted for six months as the maximum term of imprisonment to which a person shall be liable on conviction on indictment for an offence under section eleven of the principal Act (which relates to reckless or dangerous driving).

1.26 a.m.


I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

This is the Clause which in earlier discussion I indicated increases the penalty from six months to two years. It may be considered with an Amendment which appears later in page 9, and which says that, upon a person indicted for manslaughter, being convicted, the jury may convict under Section 11 of the principal Act. Under the original Act, the maximum penalty was six months. This Amendment proposes to make it two years. Two things are worth emphasising at the outset. This Amendment merely increases the maximum penalty. The court will impose the proper penalty. If they consider that the larger penalty is not required, they will not impose it. This really fixes a maximum which can be imposed, and there is no reason to believe that because the maximum is increased the maximum will be inflicted. The other point which is of importance is that this only applies to proceedings undertaken under Section 11 for reckless or dangerous driving under the Act of 1930. It is, of course, only in what one may call really serious cases that proceedings are taken by indictment, and the matter will come up before a judge of the High Court who will deal with the question.

It may be asked: why should this penalty be increased? I think having had brought to our notice, as we all have had, the dire consequences in loss of human life and human limbs this House to-day does take a more serious view of the criminality and culpability of reckless driving than it did four years ago. After all in reckless and dangerous driving, if it results in the loss of life, the offence of manslaughter would, in most cases, be committed, for which the maximum than can be imposed is penal servitude for life. So far as culpability is concerned, it is mere luck whether a serious accident results in the death of a person or serious injuries. At present, if it results in death and the jury convict of manslaughter, the maximum is penal servitude for life, but, if it results in a man being maimed for life, or disabled, the maximum penalty is only six months. That, I think, is quite disproportionate. This Amendment enables a sentence of two years to be imposed as the maximum. I do not think any person would think it an excessive sentence for a judge to impose in a really bad case. It is said that owing to the fact that very heavy sentences can be imposed for manslaughter juries are reluctant to convict of that offence. In the Clause to which I have referred, if it be accepted by the House, the jury can convict of reckless or dangerous driving where the charge is one of manslaughter. It may be said that, given that alternative, juries will give the man the benefit of the doubt and even in a really bad case where death results convict of dangerous driving, and that that may well be a case where the judge may think it right to inflict a heavier sentence than six months.

1.33 a.m.

Lieut.-Colonel LLEWELLIN

There are two things I want to say on this Clause. It has obviously been put in, not by the Government, but by some member in another place. So far as I have considered offences under the Motor Car Acts, I have regarded being under the influence of drink as a far more serious offence than that of reckless driving, and indeed it was so put forward in the Act of 1930. If we are accepting this Amendment by altering the maximum sentence to two years for reckless driving and at the same time we leave the maximum sentence for being drunk in charge of a car six months' imprisonment, then we are showing that reckless or dangerous driving is a more serious offence than being drunk in charge of a car. The Amendment has been put into a Bill in a haphazard fashion in another place, and that is a strong reason why Amendments should not be rushed through at this time of night. The Minister is merely asking us to endorse all the Amendments of another place—that is obviously what we are being asked to do—in order that he can get his Bill.

Personally, I think, if we are going to alter this sentence, we certainly ought to alter the sentence for being drunk in charge of a car. There may well be manslaughter cases where the accused person is under the influence of drink, and, I think that man should be liable of conviction for that as well as being liable to be convicted of reckless driving. We ought to get matters into line, and it is really a poor method of legislation to do it in the way that we are doing it to-night. This Amendment might have a rather different effect on the jury from that which the Solicitor-General thinks it will. It is seldom that 'any person convicted of motor manslaughter gets more than twelve months or the maximum of two years. There have been very rare cases in which those sentences have been exceeded, and, in face of that, juries are reluctant to convict in manslaughter cases where the judge may give a man a sentence of twelve or eighteen months or two years' imprisonment. If you have exactly the same maximum for dangerous or reckless driving, the jury, it seems to me, will be equally reluctant to put that power in the hands of the judge whereas, if the sentence were limited to six months, you would be more likely to get a conviction. Personally, I think there would be very few judges who would consider themselves justified in giving more than six months for reckless driving when probably the sentence they would have given for manslaughter would have been only twelve months. It is true that the maximum sentence for manslaughter is penal servitude for life, but I do not think such a sentence has ever been given for motor manslaughter in this country. I think it is fair to say that it is a real punishment for motorists, who are not habitual criminals, to have a sentence of nine or twelve months passed upon them. I think that this Amendment will work other way, and I appeal to the Solicitor-General and the Minister of Transport to consider the matter and to reject an Amendment which makes the law different in two cases. I hope the House will resist the Amendment.

1.41 a.m.

Sir G. FOX

I wish to register my protest that the penalty for being under the influence of drink is not brought into line with this provision. Some way should be found to introduce some relationship in the matter. It is a farce that we have to accept what has come down from another place, whether it can be improved upon or whether it cannot. Here is one great chance to improve the law and stop this "mass murder on the roads." Many cases of accidents on the roads are due to people being under the influence of drink. In many cases it has been difficult to get convictions; the magistrates have not wished to convict because it might damage a man's future life.

1.42 a.m.

Lieut.-Colonel MOORE - BRABAZON

The Government are priding themseves upon dressing up this Bill. Why therefore should they not get the penalties evened out? They have introduced several Amendments. A man can get two years for driving at a reckless speed, but only six months for being drunk in charge of a car. I want to draw the attention of the House to the curious psychological outlook of the Solicitor-General. He takes the view that motorists will start out in a different state of mind if they are liable to get two years instead of six months for driving recklessly. It will not make any difference whether they get six months or two years. He said that he supported this change only because of the public outcry which there has been about accidents. If he is going to say that, I must draw his attention to the fact that accidents have not exceeded those which occurred when there was the twenty mile speed limit. If it be the policy of the Government to introduce a change of this type it was within the province of the Minister of Transport in the Committee to insert such increased penalties. Nothing of the sort occurred. In the Committee we had no inkling that that was in the mind of the Government. Has anything been said in another place to bind the Government? I would like to register my protest against this indignity of having to agree to a change of this kind at this hour of the night.

1.43 a.m.


There appears to be one point of substance in this provision which has been rather overlooked. I do not know whether the Solicitor-General proposes to deal with the case where there has been a charge of manslaughter later reduced to one of reckless driving or dangerous driving. At present in a minor case of reckless, or dangerous, driving the defence at a police court can decide whether the defendant proposes to be tried there or to go before a jury. He will now be in a serious quandary. He will have to decide, not only whether he wants a jury to try him, but whether he will take the risk of going to the Assizes, where the penalty may be two years, whereas in a police court it would be only four months as the maximum penalty. That appears to be rather a serious matter, because the learned Solicitor-General will know that already it is an exceedingly difficult thing for a man to decide. The man might prefer to be tried by a jury, but it is difficult for him so to decide because of the expense that he is likely to incur. Now he is to have this additional trouble of deciding whether he is to take the risk of two years as against four months. It may in very many cases work considerable hardship. It may be possible even at this late hour to make some addition, or amendment, in order better to cover cases of that description.

1.45 a.m.


I must say that I was not in the least impressed by the remarks of the learned Solicitor-'General. The penalty for driving to the danger of the public, or driving recklessly, is to be increased from six months, as it is in the original Act, to two years. The penalty for being drunk in charge of a vehicle is still to remain at six months. If anybody be prosecuted for driving recklessly, he will probably plead that he was drunk at the time. He will then not get two years, but six months. That is certainly illogical.


It is not a defence to a criminal charge to say that you were drunk at the time you committed it. It would be no defence to a charge of reckless driving to say that you were drunk.


Then, if a person were drunk in charge of a car, he would be prosecuted for driving to the danger of the public?


It would depend on what he was doing. If he were driving to the danger of the public and was drunk at the time, then you would proceed under that charge.


It would have been very much better if in the Clause on page 27 about manslaughter something had been included about penalties. The alternative prosecution was for manslaughter or dangerous driving or some other offence. If something could have been put in there as to the increased penalty, that would have been very much better than to have done what has been done in this particular Clause, namely, to make a maximum of two years instead of six months. The Solicitor-General says that is the maximum. I do not see why he should speak of two years any more than five years. He might just as well put in a maximum of five years. It only shows the difficulty of this sort of Clause which was not put in by the Government at all, but by a Member in another place. It has been brought down here without having been discussed before, and at ten minutes to two in the morning it is being forced through. The Minister is sticking his toes in and not going to make any concession at all. The whole thing is a complete farce, and we are going simply to sit here until he has got the Bill and it becomes the law of the land and all the protests that we make are completely useless.

1.53 a.m.


May I make one suggestion to the Solicitor-General which I think may provide a solution? There are only two cases in which a person can be tried on indictment for dangerous driving—first, when he himself elects to go before a jury; and, secondly, in a new case, which results from a later Amendment brought up in another place. There has been a difference of judicial opinion about what would happen where a person is tried for manslaughter, and whether it be possible to acquit him on that charge and at the same time say that he has been guilty of negligence. I understand that a later Amendment, on page 9, proposes to clarify the law on this question and to show that where a man is acquitted of manslaughter he may at the same time be convicted of dangerous driving. That is a new departure. If you make the maximum penalty two years on the first head when a man elects to go before a jury on a charge under Section 11 of the principal Act, then you raise two dilemmas and difficulties which have been pointed out compellingly by the hon. and gallant Member for Uxbridge (Lieut.-Colonel Llewellin). I do not think you can escape from those dilemmas, if you make two years apply to ordinary cases where a person is brought before the magistrates and elects to go before a jury.

It would meet the whole position if you were to reject the first Amendment which we are now discussing and add at the end of the Amendment on page 9 a very short sentence saying that, in the case where a man is acquitted of manslaughter but convicted under Section 11, there shall be a maximum penalty of two years. That would meet the whole case of the Solicitor-General and avoid the two dilemmas. I hope the Solicitor-General will see that they are serious dilemmas, and, although this is only an impromptu suggestion on my part, it does seem to me to be a solution.


I think it would be most undesirable that in any case where under a later Clause the jury convicted for dangerous driving—there having been an original charge of manslaughter—this House should say that in that case alone the larger penalty could be imposed. That does not seem to me a solution of the problem.


Is it not equally logical to make the size of the penalty depend on the mode of trial?


That is done. It is in the Act of 1930. If the hon. Gentleman will look at Section 11, he will see that the maximum penalty is four months, whereas on indictment it is six months, and that the maximum fine is £50 whereas on indictment it is 100. I am satisfied that there are many cases where the maximum penalty on indictment is higher. It is logical to have a higher penalty for reckless and dangerous driving than where a man is drunk. If a man be drunk and is driving dangerously and recklessly, he is proceeded against on that charge.