HC Deb 17 July 1962 vol 663 cc334-45

Section one of the Road Traffic Act, I960 (causing death by reckless or dangerous driving), is hereby repealed.—[Mr. Ronald Bell.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Ronald Bell

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

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Robert Grimston)

With this new Clause the House may discuss the Amendment in the name of the hon. Member in the Fourth Sohediule, page 47, line 10, column 3, at the beginning to insert "Section one".

Mr. Bell

This is a proposal to strike out the Section of the Road Traffic Act, 1960, constituting the offence of causing death by dangerous driving. That Section and that offence were new in the 1956 Road Traffic Act. Until then we had the offence of driving without due care and attention; then the more serious offence of driving to the danger of the public or recklessness, and, finally, the offence of manslaughter, which might be defined as causing death by a degree of negligence which was wanton.

8.30 p.m.

There were other refinements. The Lord Chancellor at the time told us that there were six separate degrees of negligence in driving before this Section was introduced. This makes seven. Broadly, the categories were the three that I have mentioned. The new offence of causing death by dangerous driving was introduced in a deliberate attempt to increase the number of convictions for manslaughter. That, broadly speaking, was the intention.

Juries were reluctant to convict motorists of manslaughter. To do so they had to be satisfied that there was a degree of recklessness or wanton negligence which had caused the death. It is a fact, fortunately, that on the roads at the present time—and indeed then—there are not many cases of wanton or reckless driving. Unfortunately, there are many cases of carless driving, of driving in a manner which is dangerous to the public, but there is not a great deal of what one might cynically call negligent driving. On the whole, people who drive are ordinary human beings, good family men; but, somehow, in a motor car they do not always quite live up to their own standards. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) will be content with that definition.

I think that juries were right in deciding that on the whole they did not want to send a man to prison for bad driving. It is not a natural and appropriate punishment for the sort of misjudgment that people make on the roads. For that reason, juries were rather reluctant to convict. I do not find fault with the juries for that; I think that they were right.

This offence was introduced in the 1956 Act to get more convictions. My objection is that it introduced a much heavier punishment—five years' imprisonment and automatic disqualification for the first offence because the dangerous driving resulted in a death. Let me make it clear that the standard of negligence or of error of judgment is no higher in this offence than it is in the offence of dangerous driving; it is identical. The offence is that of causing death by dangerous driving. If one is merely— I say "merely" by contrast with the offence that I am trying to abolish— guilty of dangerous driving than one is, of course, subject to a smaller maximum penalty; there is no automatic disqualification until the second offence. One can be fined and almost always is fined. If, unfortunately, what one does results in someone being killed, one is in very great danger indeed of going to prison and will be automatically disqualified, often for a very long period.

There is no logic whatever about this. In our law we do not punish people by reference to the consequences of their wrongful act. I hope that nobody does that in any law. Originally that was done; in our early history people were punished strictly according to the consequences, without regard to the intent. Attempts were not punished at all, because the consequences had not ensued. Attempts to murder were not punishable unless one did some injury to the person at the same time, and then one was punished for that. Intent did not matter until the Second Statute of Westminser. Originally society looked only to the outward results, but as people grew more civilised and more subtle they tried to punish according to the degree of wickedness or guilt. That has been the progressive development of our law— always in that direction.

But suddenly, in 1956, we did a 180 degree turn and went back in a purely recidivist way to punish people not according to what they had done wrong but according to what had chanced to happen. If one drives dangerously and strikes a young person and injures him, one is charged with dangerous driving and gets the average treatment, whatever it is. If one strikes a very old and frail person, and on falling he fractures his skull and dies, one is likely to find oneself in one of Her Majesty's prisons, as well as being automatically disqualified from driving.

That is a monstrous situation. I protested bitterly against it at the time, as did the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) all through the Committee stage and on the Floor of the House. I told the right hon. Gentleman that I should quote what he said on that occasion, but I need not do so because he is here. I think that he will agree that foe said that it was a grave mistake. We were overborne because of this passionate desire to get convictions against motorists.

I am as much opposed to bad motorists as is anybody, and I want to see them punished appropriately and convicted where they should be convicted, but I do not like this bludgeoning approach, "We are going to get them and to punish them severely and not look too closely at the methods by which we do it." I regard this as a thoroughly bad development. I do not want to make a long speech, but I hope that I have made the point and that others on this side of the House will express their opinions on it and say whether we should now get rid of this provision.

Mr. C. Royle

I am so often in disagreement with the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) that I feel almost like apologising for supporting him. A very serious matter is involved in this new Clause, and the House ought to give it serious consideration.

This is the kind of case in which a man may be either lucky or unlucky in what happens to him for exactly the same offence. If he drives recklessly or dangerously and knocks down a robust person who recovers reasonably easily from the accident, he does not submit himself to all the serious consequences of the law. But if he knocks down an old person who dies following the shock of the impact, the motorist meets the full consequences of the law. This seems to me quite unfair in law and in practice. The crime is no worse because someone has been killed as a result of the accident. The crime is bad because the driving is reckless or dangerous. The fact that death ensues does not make it a worse offence. It is merely a case of being unlucky.

When we discussed the terms of the main Act there were debates about this question and great problems arose in people's minds. Anyone who is involved in the administration of the law in higher circles must be seriously concerned about the implications of what is suggested in the First Schedule. I therefore hope that the Minister will have another look at this question and will ensure that the question of how the law and its penalties shall apply will not be a matter of luck. The hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South has something here to which the House should give serious consideration. I hope that we can persuade the Minister to look at the question again.

Mr. Niall MacDermot (Derby, North)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. C. Royle), I hope that the House and the Minister will look favourably upon the new Clause. I think that I can say that many people who practise at the Bar in the criminal courts regard this as one of the most unsatisfactory provisions on the Statute Book. I hope that the Minister will have the courage to accept the new Clause, or at least to agree to look at it further. I say "courage" because it will need courage.

The Section was enacted to give way, as I would suggest, to somewhat primitive and retrograde feelings; and it is a somewhat primitive and retrograde enactment. It creates a criminal offence which, as far as the nature and quality of the act is concerned, is identical with another less serious offence, namely, the offence of dangerous driving, but which is made a more serious offence depending solely upon a chance result which was never intended and which might have no relation to the degree of gravity of the offence itself, namely a resultant death.

All of us who practise in the courts know of cases where people have been convioted of the more serious offence in what has been a borderline case of dangerous driving at the bottom end of the scale—something about which one might have grave doubts whether it was dangerous driving at all and where, if death had not resulted and the person had been prosecuted in a magistrates' court, he would have got off on a dangerous driving charge and would have been convicted of careless driving. But on this charge he goes before a High Court. The case is tried not even at quarter sessions, but at the assizes, with the full panoply of an assize trial. The jury, knowing that death has resulted, and of the slaughter on the roads, naturally has a strong inclination to convict.

It is true, as the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) has said, that the historical reasons why the House first enacted this was because of the reluctance of juries to convict people of manslaughter. There was, of course, a stigma attaching to the very word "manslaughter" which made people reluctant to convict somebody of manslaughter for what was really a piece of dangerous driving and little more. And the legal definition of manslaughter was such that it had to be shown that a person was driving in a manner which showed a wilful or reckless disregard of the safety of others. This, again, was another reason why juries were reluctant to convict.

8.45 p.m.

I do not think it right to say that juries are reluctant to convict on this offence, nor are they reluctant to convict on dangerous driving alone. The only effect of accepting the new Clause would be that persons who did commit the offence of driving dangerously, and death resulted, could, and should be prosecuted on indictment. They could go before a jury—at present, the case would probably go to quarter sessions— and be tried for dangerous driving, the identical offence in respect of the nature and the quality of the act as the offence in the Section. If convicted, they could be given a suitable penalty.

People can be, and are, sent to prison for up to two years when convicted on indictment of dangerous driving. For the offence in the Section, which is the more serious one for the illogical reasons that have been outlined, a person can be sent to prison for five years. He is also automatically disqualified for at least one year unless there are special reasons for not doing so—and it is very seldom that, in law, there is anything that amounts to special reasons. In practice, therefore, people get, first, a more serious penalty, and, secondly, the stigma attaching to what appears to be a more serious offence, but which is really a chance result of their offence.

Again, those of us who practise in the courts know that there are very bad cases of dangerous driving where death does not result and which happen to be first offences, as a result of which there is a relatively light sentence—much lighter than anybody is likely to get who is convicted of this present offence.

Those are the illogicalities attaching to this Section, which the new Clause seeks to abolish, As I say, it will need courage to accept the new Clause, because it will look to the public as though, in some way, one is condoning dangerous driving and condoning causing death on the roads by dangerous driving. That would be a complete misunderstanding; one is doing nothing of the sort. People who do kill by dangerous driving can be, and still are, convicted of dangerous driving and, if necessary, they are sent to prison.

If it is thought that two year's imprisonment is not enough, let us increase the sentence for dangerous driving, but do not let us continue the invention of this new offence which itself offends against the principle that the gravity of the offence should depend on the nature and quality of the act itself, and not on its result. Under the existing law, a person who kills as a result of wanton driving, and a wilful and reckless disregard for the life and safety of others, can be charged with manslaughter, and still is, but that is rightly reserved for the worst cases of all.

Mr. Ede

I always get very suspicious when lawyers start talking about the illogicality of the law. I have never been so oppressed by that argument as I was when, towards the end of his speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. MacDermot) got into a "spirit of logic" by suggesting that what is now regarded as the minor offence should carry the same penalties as that which he is attempting to have removed from the higher offence. I suppose that is one of the ways out.

I recollect that immediately after the war, I was approached by the judges with regard to the maximum penalty for attempted rape, and I brought in a Bill to raise it. A very distinguished legal friend of mine, no less a person than my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), said that nobody ought to be punished for attempted rape because nobody set out to commit that crime. We can become involved in this kind of illogicality alleged by some lawyers with regard to the outcome of the profession in which they practise and the most absurd things can be said.

The number of deaths on the road is still far too high. We hear from judges, Ministers and others about the way in which the law has so far been unable seriously to reduce the toll. This penalty was introduced a few years ago to mark the feeling the House had about any action on the roads that caused death. Has there been any agitation on the part of the general public to indicate that we have readied a stage where anything that emphasises the detestation that good citizens ought to feel about the toll on the roads should be relaxed? I do not think that there has been. I am surprised at a Clause of this nature being put before the House at this stage.

If the Clause were accepted it would be taken by the general public as indicating that the House feels that the behaviour of motorists is now such that we need not enforce this heavy penalty. Except the one instance I have mentioned, I do not think I have known of a previous case of this nature, although there have been plenty of instances in which penalties have been reduced.

I cannot believe that anyone will say in the House tonight that, if the Clause were accepted, the general public would believe that we are sincere when we deplore the number of casualties on the roads. I understood that the Bill is merely directed at impressing on the public—not merely on motorists, but on the general public—out belief that the standard of conduct on the roads is not yet so high that we can afford to reduce any of the penalties that have been provided by previous Parliaments.

Mr. Marples

I am sure that the House is grateful to the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) because he has a great knowledge of this type of offence which he has acquired in the high offices he has held, such as Home Secretary. I should make it clear from the beginning that the Section to which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) objects is not a creation of mine. It is not in this Bill. It is already on the Statute Book. It seems that the Bill I am trying to get the House to accept has proved to be a vehicle for my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South to complain of deficiencies in something which I am not proposing. I should explain that my hon. Friend wishes to alter something that was passed by the House in 1956 and is existing law.

I can assure the right hon. Member for South Shields that there has been no agitation at all by the public. I have received no letters from anyone. There has been no pressure or demand to alter the provision in question and I wish to make that quite plain. I have not received a single letter.

I now come to the merits of the Clause. It is suggested that the consequences of whatever happens are not really important and that if a man does something, crosses a red light or something similar, it does not matter whether he hits someone—whether he kills, wounds or does not wound someone— because the offence is the same. It is purely a question of degree. If I had a revolver—and sometimes in this House a revolver at the Dispatch Box would be a useful implement—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—and if I pointed it towards the door leading to the Chamber— [Interruption.] I did not mean to indicate that I was pointing it at hon. Members opposite. I was merely seeking to inquire whether if I aimed it in that direction and killed six people my crime would be greater than had I missed altogether and merely hit the lights?

The Section under discussion was introduced in 1956 and created a new offence. It was then proposed by the Attorney-General in an attempt to overcome difficulties which had arisen because of the reluctance of many juries to convict on a charge of manslaughter in motoring offences. This reluctance was, no doubt, due in part to the feeling of juries that however recklessly someone might have driven, the person did not set out with the intention of hurting anyone and in part to the warning which must be given to juries that they must be satisfied that the accused was guilty of a high degree of negligence.

It is interesting to note what happened after that Section was introduced. In 1953, for example, the figures for the number of charges of motor manslaughter were 62 charges and 12 convictions, 29 of those charges being reduced to dangerous driving. In 1954 the figures were 57 charges and 13 convictions; in 1955 they were 62 charges and 12 convictions; and the more recent figures following the passing of the Act were, in 1959, 345 charges and 228 convictions, and in 1960, 405 charges and 257 convictions.

Mr. MacDermot

Would not the Minister agree that there would be just as high, if not a higher, percentage of convictions if there wore a charge of dangerous driving as opposed to this new offence of causing death by dangerous driving?

Mr. Marples

I do not think so, because when the Government of the day decided that causing death by dangerous driving merited automatic disqualification—and it has been argued this evening that that is illogical—the existence of a separate offence attracting substantially higher punishment shows that the law takes into account the consequences as well as the quality of the dangerous driving. We cannot escape the fact that nearly 7,000 people are killed on our roads each year.

There are parallels elsewhere in the law. So far two lawyers, a magistrate and an ex-Home Secretary have addressed the House. I do not have their qualifications legally and I confess that straight away. But I am advised by the Law Officers that there are parallels elsewhere in the law. The same principle applies in the general criminal law of offences against the person. I think that the argument advanced by hon. Members who are lawyers was that this was illogical. In that case, I point out that it applies elsewhere in the law. The maximum penalty for manslaughter is greater than that for unlawful wounding. Why?

9.0 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Since my right hon. Friend has asked, I will tell him. The answer is that this was an historical development. Originally, all crimes were punished according to the consequence. This is a progressive development by which one looks at the intent instead of at the consequence. The instances which my right hon. Friend is putting forward are based on the ancient history of our law. They are not very good precedents for future developments.

Mr. Marples

The conscience of the ordinary man who is not a lawyer would be outraged if one did not take into account the consequences of what was done. It would be intolerable if it were thought that it is just as bad for a man to shoot at and kill about six people as it is for him to shoot at an open space. I have not heard such nonsense in my life. I am not a lawyer, but I will not accept that from my hon. Friend or from anyone else.

As I say, the maximum penalty for manslaughter is greater than that for unlawful wounding, although it may be a matter of chance whether the act of wounding causes death and the degree of blame attaching to the offender may be the same.

This is not a fresh power which I am asking the House to give me. It has been going since 1956, and I am told by the Law Officers that it has worked reasonably well. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South will not use the Bill which I am trying to get through as a road safety Measure as a vehicle for altering something which is just as it stands. I am fortified in that view by the right hon. Member for South Shields. The consequences of what a man does must be taken into acoount and cannot be ignored. I am sure that that would be the verdict of any ordinary man.

Mr. Strauss

The hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) said that I took the line which he is taking by opposing this provision in the law when the 1956 Bill was before the House. That is true. I was very doubtful then whether this provision was logical or realistic. I am still doubtful. I agree with the views expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Salford, West (Mr. C. Royle) and Derby, North (Mr. MacDermot). I am confirmed in this by the opinion expressed to me by a number of people in the legal profession, who say that this provision has worked most unfairly in a number of directions.

Whether that is so or not, one thing which is certain is that at this late stage of the Bill we cannot alter an important part of our legislation. Whatever the merits of the proposal, it would be exceedingly difficult at this stage to reduce any penalties. It would be a bold Minister of Transport who did that, and to make a fundamental alteration in the law at this very late stage without it having been discussed in Committee would be quite impossible. If we are right in saying that the present law is illogical, we must nevertheless be prepared to put up with it for a great deal longer.

Mr. Ronald Bell

I am disappointed by my right hon. Friend's reply. I do not think that it lived up to the arguments put forward in support of the new Clause. There is a serious case for this new Clause and it should not be disposed of by somewhat casual and humorous treatment.

I agree with what the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) said. I am to blame for not dealing with this matter in Committee, but the Committee stage was getting rather long and it seemed that we would be in danger of losing the Bill if it went on any longer. None of us wants to lose the Bill, because it contains valuable provisions.

I thought 'that it was important to have a debate on this matter on Report, or on some stage of the Bill, because I believe that this point has to be kept alive and has to be watched. I hope that before very long the change in the law which I was advocating a little while ago will be made. I think that it is a fair point that this is a rather late stage of the Bill to put it forward, and for that reason, and for no other, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new Clause.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.