HC Deb 09 December 1991 vol 200 cc694-9
Mr. Sheerman

I beg to move amendment No. 9, in page 4, line 21, leave out 'Obligatory' and insert `Discretionary'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

With this it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 10, in page 4, line 21, leave out first 'Obligatory' and insert— '(a) Obligatory where the vehicle was driven or the damage was caused by the offender or by another person incited by the offender. (b) Discretionary in any other case.'.

Mr. Sheerman

The purpose of the amendment is to make disqualification discretionary rather than obligatory. One is even more in danger of repeating the arguments that one made on Second Reading on a short Bill such as this, especially given the time scale, so I shall be brief.

As it stands, the Bill requires all those convicted of the new offence to be mandatorily disqualified for at least 12 months, even when they were a passenger rather than the driver or where the consequences which aggravated the offence were neither intended nor foreseen by the accused personally. That could lead to a great feeling of injustice, perhaps rightly.

Most of us involved in criminal justice want offenders to cease offending as soon as possible, to learn the error of their ways as soon as possible and to return to society as fully law-abiding citizens as quickly as possible. Therefore, it is important that we do not introduce barriers to that process. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that we encourage young people to become law-abiding, fully operating young citizens as soon as possible. Discretion should be exercised in those circumstances where the aggravated factors are outside the control of the defendant.

In some cases, a juvenile will be banned from driving two years after the offence was committed. A ban on driving imposed on a 15-year-old obviously will not come into force until that person is eligible to drive at the age of 17. However, two years is a long time. The individual may have paid his debt through some form of treatment or participation in a scheme. He may have become a model citizen. As the Minister acknowledged, young people change a great deal in a short time. They may mature and grow out of such a ghastly fashionable crime. If such a person is barred from driving for a year at the age of 17, that could hamper the process of making that young person a law-abiding member of society. The frustration felt may provide the spur for further offending.

9.30 pm

The magistrates courts and other courts are better able to make the relevant decision. They should have the discretion to decide whether a ban should be enforced. In many cases, disqualification will be the right course of action, but the courts should have the ability to exercise that discretion. The amendment aims to provide such flexibility.

We had similar arguments when considering the Criminal Justice Bill last winter. The amendments have been tabled in a positive spirit, and there are two reasons why they should be supported. The first is one of principle, because justice requires that the courts should have the ability to tailor their penalties to provide the just deserts to the individual offender. That principle underpinned the Criminal Justice Act 1991. Local magistrates and judges should have the option not to disqualify if the offender had no personal responsibility for the aggravating factors.

This argument will be repeated when we consider those found guilty of an aggravated offence who were not driving. Other offences which carry mandatory disqualification require bad or drunken driving on the part of the offender. It cannot be right to provide for mandatory disqualification for an offence with no such requirement.

The second argument in favour of the amendments is a practical one. Disqualification will often hinder the work of motor projects, which hon. Members have identified as a positive step. They divert offenders and potential offenders away from car crime and they are extremely effective.

I recently visited a motor project and was told that, to have maximum impact, that programme must consist of five essential elements. First, auto offenders should be confronted with the reality of their behaviour, and their attitudes should be challenged. That is no soft option, because the young people were made to meet victims and also relatives of those who had been killed or seriously injured. Secondly, offenders should receive education and training in the legal use of motor cars. Such training is a carrot to encourage young people. They are taught how to drive a car and to pass a test, which is a positive incentive.

The third element in any programme should obviously be practical hands-on driving experience with a view to taking a driving test which requires a full driving licence. Much of the preparatory work in many such projects is done off the road, but it is important to have some experience on the road when getting ready for a test.

Fourthly, a programme should contain a range of activities which are equally, if not more, exciting than driving illegally. Such programmes should provide excitement to young people. I know of programmes which involve climbing and other outdoor pursuits as well as difficult tasks to be completed with cars and motor cycles. They were challenging, got the young people on their mettle, tested their skill, and consumed a lot of their energy.

The fifth element in most courses is training in basic auto mechanics. I have been impressed by the enthusiasm shown by instructors and young people. All that is very good.

The sixth, unscripted, element that I would throw in is that many young people find themselves, for the first time in their lives, involved in something that interests them, and able to share their enthusiasm with a group of people who care about them. That is a very positive aspect. I wish motor schemes every success, and I would not want the Bill to harm the chances of those who run them working successfully with young people.

The opportunity for a young offender to obtain a driving licence is important. Project workers say that one of the most powerful incentives that they can offer young people is the prospect that they will eventually be able to drive legally and safely. As the Bill stands, that incentive could be eliminated in many cases because of disqualification, and because insurance companies require high premiums of recently disqualified drivers, in addition to those that they already require of drivers under the age of 25. If we stop young people who very much want to drive from doing so by that combination of factors, we might edge them into reoffending.

The courts must have flexibility in such cases, and the amendments provide alternative ways of providing it. Amendment No. 9 would make disqualification discretionary in any case, and amendment No. 10 in cases where the accused was not personally responsible for the aggravating behaviour. They are not wrecking amendments, but positive amendments which will improve the Bill, and they are sensitive to the real situation.

Mr. Anderson

I am against mandatory penalties in principle, but there are probably some cases in which they would work in justice. We should perhaps concede from the start that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, there must be disqualification, but the Minister must accept that, in a small number of cases, mandatory disqualification would not work in the interests of justice.

For example, a young man of good character may enter a vehicle, then learn that it has been taken without the owner's authority—and after travelling just a few hundred yards, it might collide with another vehicle in such a way that the gravity of the incident makes it an aggravated offence.

The Bill would impose disqualification for at least one year on such a person which would have the insurance repercussions that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) mentioned. In a number of cases, that could be viewed by the bench or the judge as working against the prospects of rehabilitation. There must be some scope for discretion in a limited number of cases. I hope that the Government will reconsider.

Mr. John Patten

The young offender cited by the hon. Member for Swansea, East might not, in the circumstances that he described, fall foul of the law, because he might not be convicted of the basic offence under section 12 of the Theft Act 1968. He could be found not guilty, because an individual could not be found guilty of the aggravating offence unless he was found to have transgressed in respect of the basic offence.

I do not disagree with the hon. Member for Huddersfield about the value of motor projects. Any sensible programme aimed at dealing with car crime committed by young men should address prevention and punishment. Those schemes are valuable on the prevention side—as, in my opinion, are the adequate punishment and deterrence measures proposed in the Bill.

Disqualification will begin to take effect at the moment of conviction: that is, when the hands of the clock will start moving. There will be no delay, even when the offender is only 15 or 16. That may seem peculiar, but I believe that it is in the interests of justice. Between the ages of 15½ and 17, the offender might go straight, in which event it would be entirely wrong for any part of the punishment—the driving ban, for instance —to come into effect on his or, more rarely, her 17th birthday.

The ban would be recorded at an early stage. When the person concerned obtained a driving licence on, say, his 17th birthday, the endorsement would still be on that licence and it would remain there for up to four years.

Mr. Sheerman

I was under the impression that the disqualification of a person aged 15½ would not become meaningful until that person became eligible, at 17, to obtain a licence. I would take a rather different view if the Minister meant that the disqualification would be spent by the time the person reached the age of 17.

Mr. Patten

It could well be spent by that time if the offender was younger than 16 when convicted and if the driving ban was for less than 12 months. That, of course, is merely the mandatory minimum; the bench could impose a ban lasting five or 10 years or longer—although I understand that the Court of Appeal has advised against long bans, because people find it difficult to keep to them and may reoffend. That is a guideline judgment which has been handed down in a leading case.

What is the point of disqualifying a person who is not yet old enough to drive, the hon. Member for Huddersfield asks? I have given one answer: any punishment should happen from the moment of sentence. I believe that it flies in the face of natural justice to delay punishment. Secondly, if a person offends while banned from driving —even if he is still only 15 or 16; at any time before his 17th birthday—he will have committed a serious offence, as the hon. Member for Swansea, East will testify. Driving in defiance of a ban carries a sentence of six months' imprisonment, even if the offender is not yet old enough to hold a licence. The courts are free to impose a period of disqualification that extends beyond the offender's 17th birthday, if they see fit.

Surely it is right for every offender who commits and is found guilty of the more serious offence to be kept away from the wheel of a vehicle for at least 12 months. Similarly, the Bill is not concerned with who was directly responsible for the specific aggravating event; it is concerned with the illegal taking of a vehicle and its consequences. It is not relevant that a person who was a willing participant in the crime was not driving the vehicle at a particular time, or that he had not incited the driver —if I may revert to the language of an earlier set of amendments. Passengers and drivers will be equally liable, as they are for the basic section 12(1) offence in the Theft Act 1968. It makes no sense to differentiate between them for the purposes of endorsement.

This is a serious offence. The Government view it seriously and so, I believe, do the public. All who become involved should be equally liable for the penalties incurred by their criminal behaviour. I hope that, following that explanation, the hon. Member for Huddersfield will see fit to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Sheerman

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

9.45 pm
Mr. Sheerman

I beg to move amendment No. 11, in page 4, line 26, leave out subsection (2).

The First Deputy Chairman

With this, we shall take the following amendments: No. 12, in page 4, line 29, leave out 'subsection' and insert 'subsections'.

No. 13, in page 4, line 34, at end insert— '(I AA) Where a person is convicted of an offence under section 12A of the Theft Act 1968 (aggravated vehicle-taking), a special reason for the purposes of subsection (1) above may relate either to the offence or to the offender'.

Mr. Sheerman

The Committee will be pleased to know that this is the last group of amendments. Like the previous group, they are designed to provide the courts with greater flexibility over disqualification. They approach the issue in a different way, through the use of special reasons for not disqualifying a person. The effect of the amendments is to permit the courts to regard the fact that the offender was not driving as a special reason for not disqualifying him. However, the court could still disqualify, if it thought that that was appropriate. The amendment would also enable a court to take into account special reasons relating to the offender as well as the offence.

The last group of amendments builds on the main thrust of trying to make the Bill more reasonable and effective. We strongly believe that if the Bill eventually becomes an Act retaining some of its present imperfections, it will not address the very real problems that it should address.

Mr. John Patten

It is important to be clear about what the special reasons are, for the purposes of the legislation. Special reasons must relate to the offence, not to the offender. Special reasons do not include and have never included ill health and loss of employment. They might —I say "might" with a heavy emphasis on that word—cover an accident victim being carried to hospital in an emergency after a crash has been caused where special reasons could be pleaded, although not necessarily accepted. The courts are loth to find special reasons. The hon. Member for Huddersfield will find that section 34 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 is the legislation that governs special offences.

Amendment No. 11 would allow a court not to impose obligatory disqualification if it felt that there was a special reason—I have tried to explain, I hope to the Committee's satisfaction, what a special reason is—for not doing so: the fact that the offender was not driving the vehicle at the particular time. That runs entirely counter to the point of the Bill, which is that all those involved in the offence of illegally taking a vehicle are guilty and should be treated as such.

I can see no reason why this offence should be singled out in a way that would allow people to have taken into account the fact that inconvenience would he caused at work, when it is a long-established legal principle that special reasons do not relate to an offender's circumstances. To do so would seriously weaken the effectiveness of obligatory disqualification. I can see no reason for it.

In the light of what I have said, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Sheerman

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Back to
Forward to