HC Deb 26 February 1991 vol 186 cc874-7

aforethought, that in the long run it is cheaper not to pay for insurance. Clearly that is worrying. They may get away with it for quite a long time and, as things stand, they may save money.

Yesterday, the House carried the Criminal Justice Bill through its final stages. It provided for an increase in the level of fine to more than £2,000. I do not wish to pretend that that is not an improvement and that it is not likely to be some deterrent. However, the courts feel that there is a case for enabling them to impose a community service order on people who drive uninsured.

In 1974, the custodial sentence for this offence was abolished. That was first moved by the Conservative Government in the first half of 1974. The Bill was picked up and carried through by the Labour Government which was elected in 1974. The Bill faced fierce opposition in Committee but was carried on the Floor of the House. The sentence was abolished because the Government—it is fair to say that both sides of the House agreed—felt that the custodial sentence was, in most cases, too draconian, and I agree. When the House took that decision in 1974, the community service order was not on the statute book. As the House knows, community service orders depend on a custodial sentence. Magistrates would like the opportunity to impose community service orders, which they believe would be more effective than a fine in some cases, because of the inconvenience caused to the person concerned. There is a feeling that fines are generally treated lightly and with some disdain. Only rarely does the bench—or, in the case of a trial on indictment, the court—find it necessary to impose a prison sentence. The problem is that the custodial sentence, which the House is trying to recommend less, in general, is the key to the community service order.

As I have said, I do not wish to be doctrinaire about the matter. The problem caused by those who drive without insurance is important. It would indeed have been highlighted in three new clauses tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), which I had intended to move for him, but I am afraid that I let him down very badly. I sprinted along the corridor, but did not quite make it in time. My hon. Friend the Minister will remember, as I do, that there was unanimity on the issue in Committee, and I had the distinct impression at the time that my hon. Friend was not entirely opposed to the amendment that we discussed then.

I accept that what the House decides to do—I hope that it will decide to do something—must be in keeping with both the Criminal Justice Bill, which we passed last night and which is now in the other place, and the other sentencing proposals in this Bill. I know that my hon. Friend has already considered the matter carefully, but I ask him to continue to do so, and, if necessary, to tell me that he is prepared to table an amendment in another place if it is felt that my proposals are too draconian or out of keeping with the general context of both the Criminal Justice Bill and the Road Traffic Bill.

Mr. Allason

Driving without insurance is a serious offence: anyone without insurance causing an accident involving injury will ensure that the victim is not compensated. Not many people know that the Motor Insurers Bureau exists to compensate those involved with another vehicle so that their own vehicle can be repaired. The new clause has a deterrent value; another deterrent would be provided by the adoption of a disc along the lines of the road fund licence disc, which, if displayed in the car, would prove that the driver was insured. It is astonishing that anyone can buy a vehicle in this country without having to provide proof of an insurance policy. The only occasion when that needs to be done is when a vehicle needs to be retaxed: as we know from bitter experience, few people renew their road fund licences.

I urge the Government to accept the new clause.

Mr. Chope

My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) should not feel too concerned about his inability to be present for the new clauses tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). I would certainly have been prepared to consider the first seriously, in the light of what I knew that he wanted to say, although the second would have caused more difficulty.

Driving without insurance is a serious offence, and hon. Members on both sides of the Committee supported the principle that it should be dealt with as such by the magistrates court. The new clause would make the offence triable on indictment, because a maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment would be involved: if the sentence were limited to three months, it would be triable only in the magistrates court.

I believe that my hon. Friend has had the opportunity to discuss the matter with our right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, who is ultimately responsible for deciding on matters relating to imprisonment and on the maximum penalties. I know that my right hon. Friend is willing to discuss the issue with the Magistrates Association, on whose behalf my hon. Friend and others have spoken: indeed, it is because of the magistrates' interest in the issue that we are discussing it today.

8.45 pm

I know that my right hon. Friend is also willing to consider the possibility of increasing the maximum financial penalty even further, to the maximum penalty that the magistrates are empowered to impose. That would not deal with my hon. Friend's anxiety about the magistrates' ability to impose community service orders; it would, however, show the extent of the Government's concern about the offence of driving without insurance.

In the seven years between 1975 and 1982, the number of such offences increased by 60,000; in the seven-year period between 1982 and 1989, it increased by only about 17,000. The rate of increase is slowing, at a time when the number of private cars on the road has increased by some 30 per cent. and the number of road traffic offences has increased by 38 per cent. My hon. Friend is right in saying that, in many cases, driving without insurance was not the most serious offence—other offences were involved, such as taking a motor vehicle without authority, which used to be called taking and driving away—but in 1989 it was the most serious offence to be tried by the courts in about 127,000 cases.

Disqualification clearly protects the public from uninsured drivers by removing them from the roads, and, given the level of penalty points, it will not be difficult to reach the stage of disqualification under the totting-up procedures. I think, however, that it would be wrong to base sentencing purely on the deterrent effect. Experience and evidence suggests that that is not always the most important issue, and that is why the approach of the Home Office is to base sentencing on the gravity of the offence. I hope that my hon. Friend appreciates that the Government take the matter seriously and are willing to keep it under review, and that my right hon. Friend will be able to meet the Magistrates Association.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) raised an issue that has been raised many times in the past: the desirability of insurance certificates being displayed on windscreens. That happens in some other countries, but we see severe practical problems in the practice, which would need the co-operation of the insurance companies and a specified period for the duration of the certificate. We consider that the present system of an annual or, in some cases, six-monthly road fund licence renewal—to qualify for which a driver must show his insurance certificate and, if the age of the vehicle makes that appropriate, his MOT certificate—is sufficient.

One of the biggest problems is that, in this country, a single insurance certificate can cover more than one driver and more than one vehicle. In France, insurance has traditionally been based on a single driver and a single vehicle. Clearly, it would be much easier to have one certificate which would appear on the windscreen of the vehicle covered by the insurance.

I assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue to keep the matter under review. I hope that he will feel able to withdraw the motion.

Mr. Gale

I thank my hon. Friend for his generous understanding of the fact that hon. Members sometimes have to be in three places at once and for the undertaking that he has given, although not forced to do so. I hope that the matter can be dealt with in the other place. I warmly appreciate the time that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office gave me today and for his undertaking to meet the Magistrates Association to discuss the matter.

Clearly, the new clause would have ramifications that I did not wholly appreciate when I first tabled it, not least in terms of the general sentencing in context. I hope that the new clause will at least have shed some light on matters that require further discussion—I would not say, opened a can of worms. I hope that it will be possible to reconsider the matter in the other place. With that proviso, and with many thanks to my hon. Friend the Minister, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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