HC Deb 31 October 1988 vol 139 cc774-93

11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Peter Bottomley)

I beg to move,

That the draft Penalty Points (Alteration) Order 1988, which was laid before this House on 21st October 1988, be approved. It is not just the law that has led this country to having the lowest road casualty rate of those countries that have cars and whose populations drink. In about 1983, in relation to population and the number of motor vehicles, Japan's casualty rate improved dramatically and, I think, led the world. It is generally recognised now that Britain is in the lead. Last year, our casualty rate dropped by 10 per cent. We had about a 5 per cent. reduction in casualties. In 1987, the number of people killed and seriously injured was reduced by about 5 to 6 per cent. There are many things to be grateful for.

What we cannot be grateful for is that road offences contributed to a large number of the 5,200 people who died and the 300,000 who were injured on our roads last year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set a target of cutting the number of casualties by one third by the year 2000, so that, within the next 11 years, we want to save about 1,700 lives and about 100,000 injuries a year.

There can be nothing more serious in transport than safety. During the last year or so, the House has heard about many transport safety issues. The House rightly gives attention to air safety, public transport safety, and safety at sea. Tragically, one can add up the deaths on other forms of transport but they would not amount to more than the number of road deaths in a month or two in a bad year. We cannot put names to the people who will die or be injured, but we know roughly how many child pedestrians, cyclists, car drivers, lorry drivers and so on will be killed or injured. The facts are too obvious and too serious to allow the present situation to continue.

I now refer to the role of the law. Obviously, the police have an important job in enforcement, but it is not purely in enforcement. They do a great deal of work in school road safety education. They are welcomed in most schools. I acknowledge that there is little political in road casualty reduction. The police do good work, road safety officers do good work, and many parents do what they can to encourage road safety training for children. I pay tribute to the media, especially local and regional media—radio, television and newspapers—who constantly return to what we can do to make safer our co-operative interaction on the roads.

There is a role for the courts, which is imposing penalties after due convictions. The purpose of the order is to increase penalty points for four road traffic offences. Those offences are careless or inconsiderate driving, failure to stop after an accident, failing to give particulars or report an accident, and driving without insurance against third party risks. The order, if passed, would come into effect on 1 March 1989.

The increases arise from recommendations in the report of the road traffic law review, the North report. I pay tribute to those who served on the committee. I recommend those who have an interest to read the report, which is closely argued and well presented in plain English.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

My hon. Friend has referred to the North committee, which reported in April, and he invited many outside bodies and organisations to comment on the report by September. My hon. Friend is bringing forward proposals that pre-empt any of the consultations which may or may not have taken place. In other words, he has not really given sufficient time for outside bodies to bring forward their views on the North report. Why is my hon. Friend being so hasty?

Mr. Bottomley

The North committee put out for consultation some initial views. My hon. Friend rightly says that the committee reported in April. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave his preliminary response to the North report on 26 July. In that was the decision to recommend to the House the four specific changes that are before us. Anyone who reads the 16th and 17th chapters of the North report will find the reasons for that.

My hon. Friend will recognise also that the Government are not putting to the House precisely what the North committee recommended. Our proposals incorporate more flexibility than that which the committee recommended. It is worth noticing also that the primary body with the most major concern is the Royal Automobile Club. As an associate member of the RAC, I lean rather more to the Automobile Association's views than those of the RAC, but I do not want to try to balance the numbers in either organisation.

We are trying to deal with the problems that arise from a range of careless or inconsiderate driving offences, along with failure to stop after an accident, failure to report an accident or give particulars of it, and driving without insurance against third-party risks. The issue is why there should be further delay if the House comes to the conclusion, as the North committee did, that these problems should be brought into the open.

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one body that might have an interest in this matter is the Magistrates Association, whose members have to administer the law? What has the association's response been to these proposals, and what account has my hon. Friend taken of its views in coming to his conclusion?

Mr. Bottomley

I have taken fair account of the association's views and I have spent quite a lot of time with magistrates. I have not been able to get round to all the county associations, but when I was with 300 magistrates in a particular county, not one of them raised one of the four issues that are before us, even though the relevant announcement was made on 26 July.

I welcome the views that are submitted by the association, but I do not believe that there is a burning sense of injustice that the discretion that magistrates traditionally want, which was not recommended by the inter-departmental working party report in 1981, nor by the North committee, has not been given to them.

It is obvious to the majority, and certainly to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King), whose motoring interests are well known to me and to the House as a whole, that there are three opportunities for the exercise of discretion. Perhaps the middle one is not really discretion. The first opportunity rests with whether a motorist is charged. The police can issue an informal warning or a caution. The second opportunity lies with whether the court finds that an alleged offence is proved. The third opportunity arises when consideration is given to what the penalty shall be. It is worth noting that in none of these offences are we talking about immediate disqualification. Instead, we are discussing a range of penalty points.

If a motorist subsequently or previously accumulates penalty points, it is up to the court to exercise its discretion when determining what the period of disqualification should be. If a motorist feels that he has been unlucky in being charged and has been wrongly convicted, and has penalty points, he may have a sense of grievance. Such a case would require the magistrates to impose a period of disqualification which would be disproportionate to the various offences.

I do not think that anyone would claim that any particular range is necessarily precise or that no argument could be advanced for a wider range or for no range at all, so we should remove the discretion element. I submit that what is before the House makes sense.

It might be sensible if I were to end my introductory remarks now, listened to hon. Members' views and responded in greater detail later rather than trying to anticipate what might be said. There has been much discussion about undercharging and, in the Government's view, the careless driving offence should go to the top of the proposed range. I remind the House that the North committee recommended that any offence that would earn two penalty points would more properly be dealt with by a caution or a warning.

The number of people who fail to stop after an accident, possibly because of links to drink driving, has been rising. The failure to give particulars or report an accident where necessary is an important offence and can lead to a lack of compensation and redress for innocent parties in crashes. To drive without insurance is a serious office and the House should demonstrate that by accepting the proposed changes.

If there are points to which I should respond later, I will do so.

11.10 pm
Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

The issue of consultation has already been raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) and I have considerable sympathy with his view. I do not think that it is satisfactory to come to the House and say that, because the Government's view was trailed, that is an excuse for not allowing the consultation process its full merit. It is worth considering what the North committee said about consultation. Paragraph 1.8 states: It was, in our view, very desirable to give the widest opportunity for that experience to be made available to us. For many people the use of the roads is the aspect of their lives where their own behaviour and the rules laid down by Parliament and enforced by the police most often come together. We took the view, therefore, that it was essential that road traffic law should command the widest possible support. This made it important that everyone concerned about the areas of road traffic law to which we were directed should have, and feel that they had had, an opportunity to convey their views to us. I commend that principle to the Minister. Inevitably the way in which the public perceive the laws and penalties that Parliament imposes is of fundamental importance to the success with which our road traffic laws are operated.

On this occasion I am in the rather unusual position of agreeing essentially with the Government's proposals, but there is a real issue about consultation. I hope that in future the Department of Transport and the Ministers involved will accept that the public are more reassured by a proper consultation exercise and the belief that it takes account of a diversity of views even though inevitably in the nature of things where views are contrary some will have to be ignored.

I join the Minister in saying that many hon. Members view with some seriousness the fact that road traffic offences are seen in a different light from many other forms of behaviour that bring the individual into conflict with the law. There is a sense in which road traffic offences are seen as being morally neutral or acceptable. In passing laws, it is important that the House makes it clear that they are backed by the sanctions of Parliament and that, where offences have serious consequences for society in general, there can be no argument other than that the penalties should reflect the serious consequences.

The Royal Automobile Club wrote to all hon. Members, commenting on the changes that the order seeks to introduce, and perhaps it will help if I go through them one by one. Careless driving must be seen in the light of the North report's generalcomments—that that offence must be taken in the context of other changes that the report recommends.

It is a little unsatisfactory that we have a small measure before the House tonight when major legislation is, one assumes, to be delayed for at least one full Session. Perhaps the Minister will say what is in the Government's mind in introducing a more substantial review of the law in the light of the North report.

There will inevitably be some dissatisfaction if the present offence of reckless driving will, at the lowest level, attract only one penalty point more than careless driving. I do not want Conservative Members to imagine that I am over-sympathetic with the view that a nine-point penalty is not appropriate for careless driving. North and his colleagues clearly make the point that there are certain circumstances in which careless driving must be viewed as a very serious offence; they describe it as "a quite serious offence."

There are circumstances in which "a quite serious offence" merits an individual being subject to a penalty level that will take him three quarters of the way to disqualification, which is the argument put forward in the report. I should not want Conservative Members to assume that, because I sympathise with the view that we are in danger of having too narrow a differential between the offences of reckless driving and careless driving, I believe that the maximum penalty for careless driving should be altered. That, too, is a serious offence, and the nine-point penalty reflects that it is.

I accept the point made in the report and reiterated by the Minister that, at the lower level, if an offence is not worthy of at least three penalty points, the offender should not be required to appear before the courts. However, such a policy needs to be clearly defined by the Department and thoroughly understood by those responsible for its administration. It is at the point where people are brought before the court for a relatively trivial offence, and consequently feel a sense of injustice, that the law will cease to command the respect of the motoring public.

For the offence of failing to stop after an accident or failing to report one, the balance that is before the House tonight is about right. In most circumstances, that ought to be viewed as a serious offence. The RAC makes the point that there are circumstances in which failing to stop after or to report an accident may seem a trivial or technical offence. If it is the result of ignorance, then, as North comments, no offence can really be said to have been committed. Again, a purely technical or trivial offence ought not to merit court proceedings.

The alternative is the calculated offence of deliberately failing to stop after or to report an accident. It must be viewed seriously in the light of the increasing number of such offences, particularly the oft quoted example where the offender concerned has been drinking and driving, and whose failure to stop or report the accident is a way of getting round automatic disqualification.

I believe that I am correct in thinking that one of the reasons why the Government diverge from North in that respect is the way in which the law is structured. They insist that, rather than have a fixed penalty, it is necessary to substitute one range of penalties for another. Therefore, this Parliament has inevitably saddled itself with some slight untidiness in its primary legislation.

Driving without insurance should be viewed as a very serious offence. I do not feel that it can be argued that there is such a thing as a technical offence in this context. Failure to be insured should command little sympathy from hon. Members, for the consequences are potentially very serious for those who may be accident victims. I have little sympathy with the suggestion that a "technical offence" should receive a lower penalty. I consider that, if anything, the upper range is about right, although the courts will be able to use their discretion in applying a penalty of between six and eight points. But it must be firmly established that two offences of failure to possess adequate insurance cover would lead to disqualification, because it would be criminal folly for the offence to be repeated. In some circumstances, the deliberate failure to carry insurance should, in my view, lead to automatic disqualification, but that again would have to be taken into account by the courts.

It would be helpful if the Minister took us into his confidence and told us how the North report generally will be dealt with, and if he would comment specifically on consultation. As I have said, I have some sympathy with his hon. Friend the Member for Northfield, who has his own doubts about that aspect.

11.21 pm
Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

I consider tonight's proceedings very unsatisfactory. If I were speaking on behalf of all motorists, which I do not claim to do, I should feel that they, too, would think this an unsatisfactory way of handling a matter that is of such importance to so many people.

I share the pleasure of my hon. Friend the Minister at the reduction in the number of road casualties, but I would ask him— with respect for what he has done in this regard —if we could proclaim it a little less often. Circumstances in one country are so different from those in another, and it is a simple fact that 5,000 deaths a year are far too many. Perhaps if we increase the rate of congestion and reduce the speed of cars still further—I believe that the average in London is now 11 mph—we would reduce the number of road casualties even further. But the number of casualties is terrifyingly high, and I fear that we are tempting fate if we proclaim too often that we are better than other countries.

Why do I feel that today's debate is so unsatisfactory? Many motorists who break the law are often guilty of criminal behaviour—criminal in the fullest sense of the word. In many cases they should receive prison sentences for their crimes. Sometimes they do, but perhaps not often enough. Many others, however, are perfectly decent, ordinary citizens who are guilty of one error of judgment, or sometimes of technical errors.

Because there is such a range of difference between these people, I believe that we must always leave it to the magistrate to make the final judgment about whether they should receive a very severe or a very minor penalty. There is a difference between the technical and the criminal offence. That is where I disagree with the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd), particularly in regard to driving without insurance. It is a very serious offence, and in some cases a sentence of imprisonment may be appropriate, but in others it may be a technical matter. That is why I worry about the proposals that we are debating.

Mr. Tony Lloyd

Will the hon. Gentleman nevertheless accept that even in the most technical offences the absence of insurance can have dramatic consequences for the victims of accidents, for instance?

Mr. Moate

I agree. We do not regard it as a serious enough offence. In some circumstances it should be treated very seriously, but please let us leave it to the magistrates to judge when such an offence is a technical one and when it merits further penalties. The maximum penalty is not enough, but we ought not to apply strict minimum penalties, as is done throughout the order, for a range of offences which sometimes are only technical.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Moate

No. I should like to make my general point. I do not intend to speak for very long.

The North report is tremendously important, but we have not debated it. The Government announced in July what they intended to do, and organisations were invited to comment by the end of September. A number of hon. Members have gleaned information about it, but only a very small number of hon. Members are here. We have picked up information from whatever sources are available to us. That is a most unsatisfactory way in which to debate very important matters. I am not attacking my hon. Friend the Minister. I know that he is passionately concerned about these matters. We must not, however, be cavalier or superficial, which we are becoming, simply because there is a large Government majority, with orders of this kind being carried almost automatically. We must not take the parliamentary procedure for granted. In this case we are in danger of doing so.

I feel very strongly about this issue. The penalties that we are allowed to impose are in many cases not severe enough. I fear that the order will provide an excuse for inaction rather than for action over road penalties. I am particularly concerned about the maximum penalties that magistrates can impose if people drive while disqualified—people whose activities are near-criminal, because they go on the road time and time again, although they have already been proved to be a menace to other road users. The same applies to people who drive time and time again without insurance. The magistrates do not have the power to impose sufficiently harsh penalties.

This minor order, which is defective in many ways, has been introduced late at night, without very much notice, and the House is taking very little notice of it. I do not believe that that is the way to deal with serious matters of this kind.

That is my general complaint. My specific observations are these. I should have liked the order to retain lower minimum penalties. I do not object to the higher maximum penalties. To drive while uninsured or while disqualified, and also careless driving and failing to stop after an accident, can be technical offences. In those cases, magistrates ought to have the power to take account of the circumstances and impose a lower penalty. If the minimum penalty imposed in such cases is so high, it might result, if another not very serious motoring offence is involved, in the disqualification of a driver who ought not to be disqualified.

It is all out of balance. Often we penalise, I shall not say the innocent, because nobody on the road is innocent; we are in charge of motor cars that can be dangerous. We cannot plead innocence or ignorance if we infringe the law. However, we often penalise disproportionately the decent citizen compared with the way in which we deal with the near-criminal person who disregards the law, takes his vehicle on the road and endangers other people's lives carelessly, frequently and time after time. The subject is worthy of much more debate. The order does not arouse my admiration.

11.28 pm
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

I welcome this attempt to distinguish between minor traffic offences and serious traffic crimes, in particular when unsafe and dangerous driving is involved. I am pleased that the legislation increases the penalties for careless driving—a charge that in practice is often laid because of the difficulty of identifying bad driving as reckless driving. It has often proved to be difficult clearly to define reckless driving, which warrants the imposition of stricter penalties than are imposed for genuinely careless driving.

Careless driving covers a variety of driving offences. If we provide a wider range of penalties, covering anything from leaving a junction without paying due care and attention to hitting a stationary vehicle, we are giving the courts flexibility to distinguish between different offences.

I take this opportunity briefly to raise an issue arising from an incident in my constituency. A Ministry of Defence lorry drove into a car carrying some of my constituents. The car had stopped at a junction and the traffic lights had been red for some time. My constituents tell me that they were told that the police no longer took action in such cases. That seems extraordinary. It is to be hoped that the order will go some way towards correcting the position. I am raising the matter in the meantime, and I hope that the Minister will feel able to comment on that general point. He is indicating that he will not, which is understandable, but I hope that we shall be able to get to the root of the matter, as it gives cause for considerable concern. In the case to which I referred, serious whiplash injuries were suffered, as well as major damage to the car, and it seems extraordinary that no action should have been taken.

I have some reservations about the minimum penalty for failing to report an accident, which is being increased from four to eight points. I understand why some hon. Members say that it is a serious offence in many cases, but I agree with the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) that that is not always so. It seems a somewhat questionable move to set the minimum level at eight points, given that the penalty for drunken driving is 10 points.

I feel very strongly about the penalties for lack of insurance. If we are to attach high penalty points to that offence—as I believe we should—we must be sure that people are made aware of the technical breaches that exist so that they can avoid them. Many people with "any driver" insurance assume that that term means what it says. In practice, they are usually not insured for under-25s or for people with a record of accidents.

I have spoken to insurance brokers and to members of the general public. The general public are often not aware of the problem, whereas many insurance brokers seem to regard it as neither here nor there. It is just one of those things, and people do not pay much attention to it. Even those brokers who mention it to drivers they are insuring do not really expect them to remember it. Is there anything that the Government can do to draw people's attention to the potential seriousness of not being properly insured? Even if someone is not directly responsible for an accident and no careless driving has been involved, his lack of insurance can have very serious consequences for those whom he injures.

I support those hon. Members who have complained about the consultation process. It is not acceptable for the Government to say that responses have to be in by September and then make the announcement in July. There may be general support for what the Government seek to do in this measure. We would certainly all support the objective of reducing accidents and ensuring that people are properly compensated when their vehicles are damaged or when they are injured. However, that is no reason for the Government to announce a consultation period and then to short-circuit it.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

In precisely what way are the Government or the North committee supposed to have been deficient in the consultation process?

Mr. Taylor

I shall give the Minister a straightforward example. The RAC understood that its response had to be submitted by September—

Mr. Bottomley

There may be a lot of reliance on the RAC, and I pay tribute to it in many respects, but it will have seen the Secretary of State's press notice of 26 July, which talks about what is accepted in principle, what conclusions are accepted where views are sought, and states: Regulations will be amended which is shorthand for saying proposed to Parliament— in the autumn to change the penalty points awarded for the offences of driving without insurance; failure to stop after an accident; and for careless driving. It then gave the proposed new ranges. It was about as specific a statement of Government intentions as is possible. It was made in July. It seems to me that, given the great interest in the House and outside in having the North committee's report and the Government's response brought forward, the one thing of which we cannot seriously be accused is lack of consultation. In anticipation of winding up the debate, may I say that paragraph 1.8 is the North committee talking about its own consultation.

Mr. Taylor

What the Minister has said is of some interest to hon. Members. We shall see what the response is. It would have been helpful to organisations if they had known that the Government intended to bring forward their basic response. If the Minister is saying that there is still time for the fine tuning of consultation, perhaps organisations could have been told, or perhaps there might have been a separate procedure.

I hope that the Government will learn from these criticisms and will not repeat the exercise. Nevertheless, I think that there is general support for what the Government are trying to do, and I hope that the order will be approved.

11.36 pm
Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)

I declare my non-financial interest as a member of the RAC public policy committee, which examines proposals for legislation and comments on them. There has already been much discussion of the briefing that the RAC has sent out.

The RAC is as committed as the Minister—I can give it no higher praise—to road safety. It strongly believes that people who flagrantly disobey the law should attract the highest penalty. What the RAC and I, as a motorist, object to is not the increase in penalties at the top, but the lack of flexibility. It is not good enough to say "If it is a technical offence the case will not be proceeded with." The law is the law. I fear that some policemen are slightly overzealous and might push prosecutions which others would not.

The danger associated with imposing higher penalties is that treatment could be very unequal as between different parts of the country. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister wants to avoid that. The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) said that an "any driver" certificate would not cover any driver under age 25. I do not think that that is quite correct, but the small print, which the driver or owner often does not read, can make a tremendous difference to the cover. In such circumstances, there can be much innocent breaking of the law, or at least unintentional breaking of the law. That is to say nothing of cover notes that do not arrive, cover notes that are incorrectly written, postal strikes and other factors.

Mr. Bottomley

It would be helpful, in view of my hon. Friend's experience, if he could say in what circumstances there is no insurance cover. If the cover note has not arrived but the insurance has been accepted by the insurance company, a person is insured although he does not have a cover note.

Mr. Fry

A cover note is not necessarily evidence of insurance. Some insurance brokers on the point of leaving their businesses issue cover notes like confetti and never pass them on to the insurance company, with the result that there is no cover. I assure my hon. Friend that in a whole range of cases the person who, technically, has broken the law is the innocent party because of the negligence of a third party who may be issuing the insurance.

Another example is that most insurance certificates allow someone to drive any car that is in the possession of the policy holder. There are occasions when, at the end of the year, or when the car is changed, the insurance company insists on a specified registration number, or may suggest limited terms. If the insured does not have the proper document at that time, I understand that there is a risk that a fairly high penalty point can be imposed against him. As has already been said, two comparatively minor offences can lead to a driver automatically losing his or her licence.

As for not reporting an accident, we all want the motorist who does not report an accident because he has had too much to drink, or because he has caused injury and is afraid of the consequences, to face the most severe penalty. However, I can give my hon. Friend an example that happens nearly every day. Many cars have offside mirrors, and when two cars are travelling down a narrow road their offside mirrors may touch. Technically, by not reporting that those mirrors touched, the drivers could be accused of not stopping and not reporting an accident. In that extreme circumstance, I do not think that many cases would go to court, but it illustrates that there is a vast difference between technically breaking the law and an accident in which someone has been run down and left by the side of the road and the motorist has driven away with no intention of reporting the accident.

I believe that my hon. Friend is guilty of not giving magistrates the necessary flexibility. I ask him to think again, particularly about the lower limits on driving without insurance and failing to stop after an accident.

It is very rare that the two Houses of Parliament debate the same subject. In the debate in the other place earlier tonight, not one speaker approved of the order. We want many of the recommendations of the North report to come into effect, but I agree that we should first have a major debate on the issue. If we do not have that debate, there will be the feeling that some people will be penalised because, late at night, a handful of us allowed this order to go through. Would it not be wiser for my hon. Friend to withdraw the order tonight, to complete the consultation period, to have a full parliamentary discussion and then to come forward with his proposals in toto in the spring? I suspect that then nearly everyone who is criticising him tonight will be with him in the Lobby.

11.43 pm
Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry), I regret very much that my hon. Friend the Minister has brought the order before the House tonight, in this form and with so little notice. It it extremely unsatisfactory.

I understand that the order has been brought forward now because a consolidation of the road traffic law is taking place. No doubt my hon. Friend is anxious that that consolidation should include the revised number of points for different offences so that the law is not immediately out of date. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Consolidation, &c. Bills, so I understand that there are reasons for wanting to tidy up the law in a sensible fashion, but quite frankly that is not sufficient reason for overriding the views of many parties who have an interest in the matter and for bringing forward an order without adequate consultation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough spoke about the RAC. It is unsatisfactory that an announcement should be made about a change in the law when the consultation period is in mid-stream.

The Magistrates Association is different from meetings of individual magistrates, because it brings together the views of magistrates as a whole. It has not yet met to consider its formal response to the North report, but it has submitted a draft response. I understand that the meeting to consider and confirm its response will take place on Thursday. Even so, many changes to the recommendations of the North report are implemented in the order. Is my hon. Friend aware that the Magistrates Association, in its draft response, has said that the present minimum of five points for failure to stop is too high and should be reduced? Is that not something that we should debate properly? Surely we should consider the association's views before we implement the law. It is the magistrates who will have the job of ensuring that the law is administered.

Mr. Tony Lloyd

I disagree with the view that the low limit should be even lower, but the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that that matter should be properly debated by the House. When we take into account the fact that the order will not come into force until March next year, there can be no argument against the fact that the laying of the order could have been delayed until the consultations for which the hon. Gentleman and I are arguing have taken place.

Mr. Waller

The hon. Gentleman is right. The only reason for bringing it forward now is to include the points tariff in the consolidated law, and that is not a sufficiently good reason.

It might be helpful to go back to 1981, when my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) and I were on the Standing Committee that considered the original tariff and penalty points proposals. It is interesting to note that when the Government initially brought forward their plans relating to failure to stop there was a single six-point system. We debated that for a full morning in Committee. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) went away after the debate and supported the views that had been expressed in Committee. He came back, after giving the matter considerable thought and having consulted widely, and introduced the range of five to nine points for that offence. It was not something that somebody thought of off the top of his head. It was carefully considered.

On page 172, in paragraph 16.23, the North report refers to the failure to stop. The committee concluded: Of course prosecution discretion would filter out many minor cases". That is quite right. However, other cases would not be filtered out by discretion. Is my hon. Friend the Minister saying that there should be no mid-point between a caution and eight points? Offences do not happen like that. Many different types of offence are involved in a failure to stop. The idea that one can distinguish clearly between those which should have a caution and those which should have eight points is nonsense. Further thought should be given to that.

When the Standing Committee considered that matter on 19 March 1981, it was not argued that we should be more lenient. One of the reasons why we argued the point so fervently was that we believed that some cases should have more than six points. It is interesting that, when one looks back at the points that one made, one still agrees with them. I said: However, in this case of failing to stop after an accident, it seems to me that the variation between the most minor type of offence of this nature and the most serious is enormous. That is why I propose that a considerable amount of discretion should be left to the courts. In fact, I propose that there should be a minimum of two points and a maximum of ten. The Committee debated various options and there was a vote on a range of four to eight points, on which the Committee divided equally. There was strong feeling that a considerable range of options should be considered.

I continued: In the event that someone drives into a bus queue, knowing full well that he or she has had far too much drink and that there is no possible way that he or she could pass a test for the presence of drugs or alcohol, that person has a considerable incentive to get away as quickly as possible. Surely we need a penalty which takes account of that sort of incentive. In other words, I think that ten points is not too high a penalty for such an offence and that the six points specified in the Bill is too few to deter someone who wishes to make such a getaway. I later referred to the more minor type of offence and said: I argue that there is variation in the range of accidents and that an accident in which a driver knocked people down and then drives off to escape the consequences is considerably more serious than many other incidents of failure to stop. Many hon. Members referred to cases of failure to stop. The late Martin Stevens, who was a magistrate, said: there is hardly a motoring offence that comes before the courts where the degree of gravity varies more widely than the offence of failure to stop. It can be a purely technical offence. This is the offence for which my hon. Friend the Minister proposes that there should be a range of only two points. Martin Stevens' words are worth recalling. He said: It is not unknown for motorists to suppose that they have reported the offence whereas, in reality—because no proper note was taken or they did not give their name and address in the proper form, or because of a technical deficiency either in the way in which they made their statement or in the way in which it was recorded—what they thought they had done does not amount to reporting. They therefore find themselves, to their surprise, accused of failure to report. That is the type of case—there are many—where a magistrate would give a defendant an absolute discharge, where there is no guilty mind and the defendant is possibly the victim of someone else's error."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 19 March 1981; c. 1144–48.] In such a case, someone could be charged with failure to stop.

I should like to refer to a case that has been brought to my attention recently. A lady was driving off a motorway slip road and as she stopped at a roundabout she felt a tap at the rear of her car. She realised that the following car, whose driver had failed to pay attention to vehicles approaching from the right of the roundabout, had moved and slightly struck the rear of her car. Because she thought that no damage had been done and the roundabout was a dangerous place to stop—the accident clearly was not her fault—she drove off. The incident was witnessed by the police, who stopped her and warned her. Although it was not her fault—she had not thought it a good place to stop —she was told that she would be reported with a view to action being taken against her for failing to stop and report an accident. I do not know the outcome of the case, as no decision has yet been made. It is a case where an innocent party, who made an error of judgment in not stopping as soon as she could, may find that she has eight penalty points on her licence.

There are many minor offences of that kind, and if one doubts that one should look at the table of offences in Scotland, which is included in the North report. In 45 cases in 1986, only a fine of up to £5 was imposed. In a further 228 cases, a fine of up to £10 was imposed. Should not the points tariff bear some relationship to the fine and the way in which the magistrates have assessed the case but found a technical offence? It must. It is nonsense to rely on discretion not to bring a charge. Often there will be such a charge.

There has been inadequate consultation on this matter and magistrates feel that this is unsatisfactory. If my hon. Friend the Minister presses ahead with the order, if will be passed. There are many hon. Members who have not heard the debate, but who could, if necessary, be called upon to support the order. If my hon. Friend withdraws the order, he will get great support from people throughout the country who will recognise that he has been willing to listen, that he wants to consult properly and that he intends to introduce another order soon, after it has been properly considered and debated, so that the House can give its view. If my hon. Friend does not do that, I am afraid that his reputation, as one who is concerned to change the law so that it reduces casualties, will be damaged. People will feel that we have not got off to a good start in passing the order

11.55 pm
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Croydon, North-West)

I share my hon. Friend's concern about discretion. The offences of failure to stop and exchange particulars and of failure to report can be extremely serious. In the worst examples, disqualification and imprisonment may be appropriate. I am worried that, by passing the order, we will put the fairly innocent offender in the same camp as the very guilty.

First, I shall give an example of failure to stop and exchange particulars. A man and his wife park their car in the high street. The man reverses the car gently and it bumps the car behind him. He says to his wife, "Will you give the people the particulars? I have to nip into the bank." The wife stays to exchange particulars and the man goes off to do his business. He is guilty of failure to stop and exchange particulars. There can be no doubt about that. He stands to get eight points, and we may think that that is wrong.

Secondly, I shall give an example of failure to report. A man driving home along a country lane after work skids going round a corner. His vehicle comes slightly off the road and hits a five-bar gate, causing it slight damage. He waits for a few minutes. No one is around, so he goes home. The next day, at lunchtime, he rings his police station and says, "By the way, I bumped a gate yesterday. No one was hurt." He is guilty of failure to report because the obligation is to report as soon as reasonably practicable. If he can report the incident in the evening when he gets home or at breakfast time, he must do so. If he reports the next day at lunchtime, he is guilty of failure to report. No other car or people were involved, only a fence. Do we want to put such a man in the same camp as the very guilty? If the order is passed, he, too, will get eight penalty points.

In those two examples, without doubt the offences of failure to stop and exchange particulars and of failure to report have been committed. It is not good enough to say that the police will exercise their discretion and not prosecute, because those are two reported cases where they have prosecuted. We must ensure that magistrates have the discretion to say, "This is a technical offence and we shall deal with it leniently," or, "This is a terrible offence and we shall deal with it harshly." The problem is that we are imposing a harsh penalty on the relatively innocent. That is unfair.

11.59 pm
Mr. Den Dover (Chorley)

Given the number of hon. Members who, to a man, have spoken against the order, it is clear that my hon. Friend the Minister should withdraw it. I appreciate that he wanted to let the traffic world know his and the Department's views and I therefore applaud to some extent his announcement in July, but I must question why just a few offences have been pulled out from the whole array of motoring offences. Surely the whole matter should be considered at length and in detail as it was in 1981. Only then can one balance and counterbalance the various ranges of penalty points against one another and provide heavy or light weighting for appropriate offences.

I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend has the authority to withdraw the order today as it is clear that wider consultation would be of benefit in deciding on the allocation of points to the various offences. There is a great deal of grievance on both sides of the House about this, and I very much hope that the order will be withdrawn.

12 midnight

Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

At this hour I shall detain the House for no more than a few moments. There has clearly been a lack of opportunity to debate the road traffic law review report, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give us that opportunity at an early time.

There is certainly a need for wide publicity of penalties. In this context, I commend to my hon. Friend the possibility of sending out a list with the annual registration renewal form. In this debate, I shall deal briefly with just two or three examples.

Reference has been made to careless driving. Nine points for that offence would surely be draconian—just one point less than for reckless driving, although the whole House recognises the difference between the two offences.

For failure to stop after or report an accident, an automatic move to eight to 10 points will restrict magistrates' choice. We have heard examples of trivial and technical offences which come into this category, so a scale of two to 10 points would be more appropriate. Here I make not just a constituency point but a personal point. If one takes the trouble to report an accident —one may be involved in an accident with a third party—the police should be encouraged to keep one aware of what is taking place. Having done my public duty after a number of constituency engagements and reported a hit-and-run or other such incident to the North Yorkshire police, I have then not been informed at all of what subsequently took place. I have been delighted to hear of their vigilance and of the fact that prosecutions have been brought, but had I not persisted in asking I should still be in the dark.

Finally, on the subject of driving without insurance, will my hon. Friend the Minister have discussions with his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that we move to the system used in some countries whereby a valid insurance sticker must be displayed? If the insurance is cancelled, the relevant sticker is removed and returned to the insurance company. In that way, the public can tell at a glance from the relevant colour whether the vehicle is insured and whether the insurance is up to date.

I believe that the order is rather too hasty and has not been well considered by the Department. The wider scale of penalties that we should all like to see, not just on behalf of motorists but on behalf of those who enforce the law, is not available. I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Minister, whom I hold in very high regard in respect of road traffic matters, to heed what has been said today and to consider all those factors.

12.4 am

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

I shall be brief because my hon. Friends have covered most of what I had intended to say. I am not yet convinced that there has been full consultation. It is strange to say that there will be consultation and then to introduce amendments to the four major items on which most people would want the opportunity to comment. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister could tell us about the attitude of the police to the recommendations that he has put before the House tonight.

One snag is that, if the goalposts are moved on the four important offences, what will happen with the linkage with all the other traffic offences such as speeding and so on? Without considering them all as a whole, there is a danger of going over the top with some and going light on others when the time comes to consider them all.

The most important consultation must surely be with this House. We could certainly have assisted in the debate on the vital issue of traffic safety. That concerns everyone, not only drivers, because we all have some connection with the roads. We could have put our views on whether to accept parts of the North report.

I agree with my hon. Friends about the question of failure to report an accident. On many occasions innocence could cause the unreporting of an accident. A bump at Hyde Park corner may, with a shrug of the shoulders and a certain gesture, make one party think that there is no damage. He might drive off and not report the accident, but subsequently the other party might report it and he is then guilty of a high penalty offence. A level of eight to 10 penalty points is too high, and perhaps a return to a lower minimum of four points would be better.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) gave examples of the conflict that could occur with uninsured driving in quite innocent circumstances. With a six to eight range of penalty points, there is not sufficient distinction between the car thief, the joy riders and those who wilfully ignore the law and the old lady or gentleman whose memory has lapsed and has committed a technical offence. They may be guilty of driving while uninsured, but there is a great difference between their offence and that of the car thief or joy rider.

Ideally, my hon. Friend should postpone this order to a later date, but I do not think that he will do so. I hope that he will comment in some detail on the points that have been raised tonight.

12.8 am

Mr. Peter Bottomley

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) would want me to repeat his remark. It is, perhaps, an echo of what some of my hon. Friends have said.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) offered a friendly caution against telling the truth about the reduction in road casualties. I am not in any way complacent about the cut in the number of casualties. I simply believe that there would not have been the significant reductions last year and, to some extent, this year without a large number of people modifying their behaviour.

There has been no change in the law on sentencing or in enforcement during the past two years, yet there has been a continued reduction in road casualties even though the mileage driven has risen. It has been almost across the board, with the exception of child pedestrians. Motor cycle rates have reduced faster than the drop in motor cycling itself and the car casualty rate has also reduced. Much of that has happened because we no longer put the burden solely on the police and the courts. Most people are now trying to drive better more often because they realise that that is important for themselves and that it is their duty as road users.

I do not want anything in this debate, which is about penalties available to the courts, to take anything away from us all realising that, if we were to drive from here to Birmingham, most of us would commit enough offences to lose our licences, even under the existing penalty point system.

Mr. Roger King

Speak for yourself.

Mr. Bottomley

I do speak for myself.

Because it goes with the job, I was asked to take the Institute of Advanced Motorists test and the RoSPA advanced driver test. I told them both that they would get more publicity if they failed me, but they still said that I had passed. I am aware that I am by no means perfect in my driving. I try to improve. We shall all realise that we make mistakes. As my hon. Friends have said, driving is one of the few areas where carelessness can be a criminal offence, and we should be aware of that. It is one of the major themes running through the North report. The House will join me in paying another tribute to the committee members who went out to consultation.

Two groups of hon. Members have spoken in the debate. Contributions have come from my hon. Friends the Members for Faversham and for Keighley (Mr. Waller). Other hon. Members may also have been involved in the 1981 legislation, which went from totting up three equal offences to losing one's licence, to the points system that has generally been welcomed.

There is a range of views. I was asked for the police view. The police and others put forward the view that, especially with a failure to stop offence, if one is in a large vehicle and is not aware that one has been involved in touching someone else's vehicle or having an accident, it would be unfair to have major penalties. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins) said, if one is unaware that that has happened, one is almost certain not to have committed the offence of failing to stop after an accident. One must have knowledge of the crash, collision or scrape to be successfully charged and convicted.

Mr. Fry

How does one prove it?

Mr. Bottomley

I do not have the answer to how one proves most things in court.

I emphasise that a certain voice has not been heard in the debate. I do not criticise hon. Members for that. Last Saturday, the annual general meeting of the Campaign Against Drinking and Driving was held. People met, and the only thing that they had in common was that a member of their family had been killed by a drinking driver. Many of those families had to bear a court prosecution for careless driving in which the fact of death was not even reported, because it was not apparently the intention that anyone should have been killed. Often, when someone is convicted and sentenced, people start to discover the full circumstances. Many people in Britain feel a grievance that the person who was involved in the crash or collision that affected them had been under-charged.

I refer hon. Members to chapters 16 and 17 of the North committee's recommendations. They were not fully summarised in some of the representations that were put to some hon. Members. If I singled out the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor), it is not because I want to pick on him, but when he was going on about this matter I realised that he had perhaps not had a full opportunity of reading chapters 16 and 17.

Paragraph 16.24 of the report states: We recommend that failure to stop after or to report an accident should carry 10 penalty points in all cases, and that the Magistrates Association should review its guidance on the use of disqualification for these offences with a view to securing an increase in the use of disqualification. It continues: The appropriate bodies in Scotland should consider issuing guidance. More argument appears before the statement, but the beginning of paragraph 16.24 states: The Magistrates Association's 'suggestions for traffic offences penalties' already advise magistrates to consider disqualification where both failure to stop and failure to report are present. A motorway case was put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley. I thank him for letting me see details of it in advance. That case emphasises that the duty to stop when people know that there has been an accident is important. It protects the innocent, provides a reminder to those who may have been at fault—obviously, it is difficult to tell in advance who is at fault—and provides a basic protection. It is important that those who are involved in bumps should stop. There is the example of two wing mirrors touching each other, and one motorist stops but the other does not. The motorist who stops has a defence if he is subsequently charged with failing to stop after an accident.

Mr. Waller

Of course a person in that situation should stop, but is a misjudgment of that kind really on a par with being drunk in charge of a motor vehicle? It carries a penalty of 10 points, which is only two more than the minimum that might be imposed for failing to stop in the most superficially minor case.

Mr. Bottomley

That argument is advanced on the assumption that motorists are failing to stop after minor accidents and that the Crown Prosecution Service is taking them to court. Points by themselves mean little. It is when they add up to 12 that disqualification takes place. The magistrates then have to decide what period of disqualification should apply, and, as I understand it, disqualification can range from one day to an extremely long period. We must take these issues together.

Mr. Malins

I mentioned two examples of offences that would be at the bottom end of cases of failure to stop and exchange particulars—we must not forget about the failure to exchange particulars. Are such offences not so wholly different from offences at the top end of the scale that a substantially different points penalty should be made available?

Mr. Bottomley

We need to—

Mr. Roger King

Just say yes.

Mr. Bottomley

If there is a growing number of cases of failure to stop, and if it is in general the intention of failing to stop that leads to the charge, followed by conviction and the penalty, we are on firmer ground. I expected to be criticised for watering down the North committee recommendations, which was for a flat 10 points. In the 1981 debate, it was the intervention of Conservative Back Benchers that led both to a minor lowering and a significant increasing of what the Government were then proposing.

I want to divorce the four offences and the penalties that are applicable to them from the major consideration of the North committee's recommendations. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made plain in July, there is a difference of treatment. Perhaps we could rightly be accused of complacency, although I recognise that we have not been this evening, if we had left these recommendations so that they could come with the fuller response in January. I was asked when the response will come. The Government plan to bring it forward in January.

My hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) talked about the importance of publicity on penalties. We shall consider how we can both publish the penalties and the reason why the offences are offences. We should not talk merely of what will happen if I offend, for example. We must talk also of why it is important that drivers should stop after an accident and carry insurance. It is important that we should publicise the extent of careless or inconsiderate driving. It has been said that the one point difference between the maximum points penalty for careless driving and the penalty for reckless driving seems small. In practice, the CPS has to decide whether to bring a charge of careless or reckless driving and we need to see a significant overlap.

Mr. Iain Mills (Meriden)

I have not spoken in the debate, but I do not understand the timing of the order. Has my hon. Friend consulted representative bodies in Scotland, for example? I would accept that that might be an irrelevant issue this evening. Why is my hon. Friend bringing the order forward so quickly, given the remarks that he has made recently and the comments of some of my hon. Friends? What is the rush?

Mr. Bottomley

In July, the Government explained in a parliamentary answer and in a press notice that we wanted to take action on the recommended adjusting of penalty points by lifting the maxima and some of the minima. That is a plain way of putting it.

I meet the RAC frequently, and normally without disagreement. Even when we disagree, it may be advancing a point of view to which we need to pay attention, which we do. I meet also the representatives of various motoring interests. There are few who get around the country as often as I do to meet these interests, whether it is the police, the magistrates or motorists. I have had few representations on this proposal, with the exception of that presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller), either inside or outside the House.

It is important to continue reiterating that this is a specific example of change following the North report. The committee began sitting before I took over the job of Under-Secretary of State, which was at least two and a half years ago. There is one point that I want to make plain to the House. This is the only proposed change that we intend to bring to the House before the Government have responded to the North report early next year.

Mr. Waller

As a matter of record, will my hon. Friend confirm that in the press notice in July, although notice was given of the intention to change the tariff for three penalties, there was no mention of failure to report? The three included failure to stop, but failure to report was not included and no notice was given of that until the order appeared.

Mr. Bottomley

My hon. Friend is correct about the early part and it would take me a little time to read through the subsequent pages. However, in paragraph 16.24 the North committee takes the two together.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West referred to the example of someone who goes into a bank and the person who interferes with a five-bar gate. One can find examples of apparent triviality in all cases. If a motorist believes that it is appropriate to report the five-bar gate incident, that should be done as soon as possible. That was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West. I find it difficult to believe that a magistrates court would apply a significant penalty if the five-bar gate incident took someone up to or above the 12 points. The period of disqualification is not mandatory and that is where the magistrates maintain their discretion. There is a fair amount of discretion within the system.

It is perhaps wise for me to realise that the interest expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House for consideration in depth should be reported to my right hon. Friends who manage the affairs of the House. Obviously I cannot say if and when there will be a major debate on road casualty reduction or about the law on road traffic offences to which the North committee addressed itself.

There is unanimity in the House over the fact that the law has a part to play in getting more of us to drive better more often. I repeat a basic theme of the North report: many examples of carelessness can lead to a criminal offence being committed. The North committee does not expect the police to arrest people for all the examples. Some big issues must be considered later as the North report is examined. There are proposals for determining a charge by the consequences rather than by the intent. Many of our legal friends will have a fair degree of interest in that.

Most of the reaction to the North committee recognises the committee's approach. It is obviously difficult for many people outside the House or outside the area of road casualty reduction to read the whole report because it is rather longer than most. However, that is a reflection of the effective way in which Dr. North and his colleagues went through the issues. It was one of the most open procedures that any committee has gone through since the Beveridge report. A combination of outsiders and public officials sat on the committee and the report has been public since April this year. The order represents one part of the report which, on reflection, the House will recognise did not have to wait for a fuller response on some of the other issues.

There is provision in the Road Traffic Act 1981 for modifications to be made to the range of penalties. As my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley rightly said, road traffic legislation is being consolidated, but that is not the overwhelming reason for having this debate. It fits in with the Government's response made in July when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that this was one area in which the Government proposed to take action in advance of the further consultation on many of the other specified issues set out in the written answer of 26 July.

I am probably the Minister who least relies on changes in the law to bring about better results. There are times when it is necessary to propose changes to the law. In general, I ask those who still feel strongly about these issues to reread and reconsider the arguments and facts that the North report advances and to recognise that those involved had the benefit of wide consultation on two occasions. I hope that the House will pass the order.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Penalty Points (Alteration) Order 1988, which was laid before this House on 21st October 1988, be approved.