HC Deb 16 December 1999 vol 341 cc497-504

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

7.2 pm

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

I am pleased to have secured this debate. The case that I am about to recount was instigated by the poignant and completely unnecessary death of a young police officer in my constituency in April, but the injustice that it represents will be familiar to many hon. Members in constituencies throughout the country.

Last year, I secured an Adjournment debate on death on the roads in my constituency, but that concerned accidents on a dangerous stretch of the A27 between Lancing and Worthing, whereas what occurred last April was entirely avoidable: the tragic death of a police officer at the hands of a convicted felon, driving recklessly and dangerously.

Just before midnight on the evening of Saturday 24 April, PC Jeff Tooley, aged 26, a police officer based at Shoreham and living in my constituency, was carrying out his duty perfectly properly, manning a speed check on the Brighton road. He was wearing a highly visible fluorescent uniform and holding a torch. In no way could he be described as the author of his own misfortune. He moved out to stop a white Renault van clocked at 51 mph in a 30 mph zone; but the van did not stop or decrease its speed. Subsequently, it hit him, lifting him off the ground and depositing his body about 70 ft further along the road, before speeding off.

It was claimed that the 48-year-old driver of the van, from Brighton, had been drinking and fell asleep at the wheel, but subsequently the van was found burned out in nearby Hove: hardly the act of a driver suffering from tiredness and drunkenness. Some 12 hours after the incident, PC Jeff Tooley succumbed to his injuries and died in Worthing hospital. I am grateful for the comments of the Minister at the time, who paid tribute to PC Tooley when I raised the case on the Monday immediately after that tragic event.

The case gained a high profile because the victim was a police officer doing his duty. However, the circumstances and subsequent judicial procedures should be viewed no less seriously than if it had been a pedestrian hit by the van while crossing the road on his or her way home.

PC Tooley is said to be the first serving police officer in the Sussex constabulary to have lost his life in the line of duty. His family and his colleagues at Shoreham police station and throughout the Sussex force were understandably devastated. At a packed funeral in Chichester cathedral, which I attended, seasoned and long-serving police officers, including the chief constable himself were reduced to tears. Jeff Tooley was greatly liked in his force. He was described as an experienced, committed and highly motivated officer. He had held a burning ambition to become a police officer and joined the force in 1990. He had an exemplary record and a promising career ahead of him. At his funeral, an epitaph to Constable CT483 read simply,

When one of us falls, the rest of us stumble. The waste of such a promising young life, with so much to live for, was distressing enough, but the grief felt by family and friends has been compounded by the subsequent shortcomings of the justice system in dealing with the driver who caused PC Tooley's death. His family were also especially distressed that his organs could not be used to save the life of another, because the guilty party fled the scene of the crime and PC Tooley's body had to be made available for legal reasons.

Three days after Jeff Tooley's death, the killer turned himself in, although by that stage the police were well aware of his identity. At the subsequent hearing, he denied causing death by dangerous driving and performing an act intended to pervert the course of justice—setting fire to the van—and pleaded not guilty. However, on 11 November before the case came to court, the killer changed his plea to guilty. Subsequently, he was sentenced to seven years imprisonment.

The maximum penalty available to the sentencing judge was just 10 years, and he was obliged to reduce that because of the 11th-hour change of plea to guilty. Indeed, up to 1993, the maximum penalty was just five years. After time spent on remand is taken into account, the killer will be eligible for parole in just three years. That is despite the fact that he has a long criminal record, stretching back to 1966, including a seven-year prison sentence in the 1970s for attempted robbery and eight years in the 1980s for robbery.

The comments of the sentencing judge struck a chord with many people who followed the case. Judge Anthony Thorpe at Chichester crown court said:

Parliament has decided that the maximum penalty for death by dangerous driving is 10 years, whereas the maximum penalty for burglary is 14 years…that might strike the public as an odd approach to the value placed on human life. I agree, as do the many hon. Members—of all parties, and from Sussex and the rest of the country—who have signed my early-day motion on the subject.

If that criminal had stolen PC Tooley's car that night, or broken into his home but left him unscathed, he would have faced a sentence of up to 14 years' imprisonment, instead of a maximum of 10. Patently, there is a grave inconsistency in our legal system's treatment of dangerous driving offences. It is increasingly perceived to be unfair and to undermine the seriousness with which that crime is taken and prosecuted. This case has shown that clearly and that is why we believe that the courts should have available the possibility of imposing a life sentence on the worst cases of death by dangerous driving. This case would appear to qualify as just such a one.

My view is born not out of some knee-jerk wish to seek revenge but out of a desire to ensure that dangerous driving is taken far more seriously as the life-threatening act that it can be, and to ensure that the severity of the penalties available act as a real deterrent and highlight the unacceptability of dangerous driving which, in the extreme, can lead to an innocent person's death. The killer may well not have set out to cause the death of a policeman on that night but, despite the lack of obvious intent, someone who spends an evening drinking heavily in a pub and then speeds home on a dangerous stretch of road at 51 mph should be no less responsible for his actions and the result of his recklessness than if he had set out to cause the death with intent. A motor vehicle in irresponsible hands is a lethal weapon—no less potent than a gun or a knife. In this day and age, citizens who qualify to drive and exercise that right should be fully responsible for the effects of exercising that right.

Let us consider the statistics. Between 1993 and 1996, the average penalty for death by dangerous driving was just 33.7 months. That compares, over the same period, with the average penalty for manslaughter of 62 months. Between 1993 and 1996, there were 1,989 convictions for the charge of death by dangerous driving, but only 47 of those cases were given terms of imprisonment of five years or more. In fact, the terms had been rising, but fell back in 1996.

More recently in 1997, 205 people were convicted of causing death by dangerous driving, but the average sentence for the 125 of them convicted in Crown courts was again just 33 months.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Loughton

May I proceed and perhaps give way later?

At a time when road traffic deaths are falling, the number of successful prosecutions for death by dangerous driving seems to be falling disproportionately faster, and the subsequent sentences remain stubbornly unconvincing. It is clear that, because it is often difficult to get a charge of death by dangerous driving to stick, the charge often drops to the lesser crime of careless driving. That may have been the point that the hon. Gentleman was about to make. Careless driving is the more usual offence brought after a road death and it relates only to the standard of driving and excludes the death.

I wish to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) who highlighted the gap in the law and expressed the need for an intermediate offence between death by dangerous driving and driving without due care and attention. I was happy to support the campaign that she launched, together with her local newspaper the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, earlier in the year. I thank the road traffic victim charity, RoadPeace, for the information that it has provided. It says:

The principle that a driver is not responsible for the consequences of his actions is contrary to the public interests—it must have an effect on driver behaviour. Some experts say that the current penalty system for death by dangerous driving militates against the crime being properly investigated with the necessary resources. Nicholas Atkinson QC believes that too many cases involving causing death on the roads are not properly investigated and often end up being charged as driving without due care and attention. Increasing the maximum available sentence could mean that greater attention would be paid to the investigation, the prosecution and the sentencing of offenders involved in death crashes.

The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, in a long report published in July which I commend and which was entitled "Road Traffic Law and Enforcement", agrees with that view. It claims:

Bad driving offences, especially those involving death, are often not being dealt with in a manner which signals to society that such offences are a serious matter. It must be right that the appropriate charge should be one that makes the death and culpability for the death the issue, rather than determining a standard of driving. In many cases, the circumstances of the incident include matters such as leaving the scene of the crime, as happened in the case of PC Tooley, that do not relate to the standard of driving.

Making a life sentence award available to a judge, purely at his or her discretion, for the very worst cases would not tie his or her hands but rather enable the courts to recognise the real seriousness of the crime of causing death by dangerous driving because, as the Jeff Tooley case so vividly illustrates, low sentences are a symptom of the low priority given to death and injury on our roads, not the totality of the problem.

In the United States, for example, and in many European Union countries, a charge of homicide would result, and it is time that we empowered the courts to send out a clear signal in this country that there will be zero tolerance of such behaviour and that responsible, law-abiding citizens have a right to protection from those who persist in flouting the law in such an extreme manner.

The Jeff Tooley case has struck a particularly strong chord with many people in Sussex. I am grateful to the local media, particularly the Brighton Evening Argus, for giving the case such a high profile. The Argus launched its "Justice for Jeff' campaign last month in horror at the apparent injustice meted out to the seasoned criminal who killed him. Like me, the local media want life sentences available for the worst cases of causing death by dangerous driving.

Such a change in the law will not, alas, bring back my constituent or the many hundreds of others killed in appalling circumstances while lawfully going about their business or performing their jobs. Some of the worst cases involve children who come into contact with dangerous drivers while crossing the road on the presumed safety of a pedestrian crossing.

However, a change in the law might just act as a deterrent. Making dangerous drivers think twice about the consequences of their irresponsible behaviour might prevent more such tragic waste of promising young lives. I hope that the Minister will agree to meet a delegation made up of my constituents, families of victims, road safety groups and the police—all of whom support the change in the law that I have set out.

If the Government take this anomaly in the law seriously, and if we make progress towards achieving the change that I have described, my constituents at least will be able to say that justice for Jeff has been achieved in part, and that something positive will have come from his senseless and tragic death.

7.16 pm
Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I cannot call the hon. Lady unless I have had notice that both the hon. Member who has secured the Adjournment debate and the Minister agree to her participation. It is a courtesy to let such participation be known to the Chair beforehand, but, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) and the Minister are both signifying that they agree to her making a contribution, I call the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton).

Mrs. Brinton

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for being remiss in not contacting you on this matter,

although I have been in touch with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) and my hon. Friend the Minister.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham on securing a debate on this important subject, and on the way in which he has pressed his case tonight. I fully support his contention that the penalty for causing death by dangerous driving is inconsistent with the penalties for other crimes, such as those that he has described eloquently to the House this evening.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is aware of, and has supported, the campaign being run by the Peterborough Evening Telegraph in my constituency to change the law in a subtly different way. I am also aware of, and support, the excellent campaign "Justice for Jeff' that he is spearheading, along with the Brighton Evening Argus, which deals with dangerous driving matters. The hon. Gentleman provided very able support earlier this year to the campaign in Peterborough, which aims to increase the maximum penalty available in such cases, and to make the whole range of penalties fit the crime.

The Evening Telegraph began its campaign to bring justice to the families of victims such as Glenn Jones, a 24-year-old Peterborough man killed on the road. The driver's cursory and trivial punishment was a fine of £250 and nine penalty points on his licence. What price human life unless we change the law?

The hon. Gentleman is at the forefront of all campaigns to make our roads safer. I hope that the debate this evening and the additional matters that I have raised briefly will find a resonance with my hon. Friend the Minister.

7.18 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke)

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) on the very effective and powerful way in which he put his case, for which I have immense sympathy. I assure him that I should be more than happy to receive a delegation, led by him, of those involved in the "Justice for Jeff" campaign.

Since I have been a Minister, I have received a delegation led by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton). I have also met a number of the various other organisations campaigning for change in this area. The House may be interested to know that this is not a matter raised by only a few isolated hon. Members: more than 20 hon. Members have written to Home Office Ministers over the past year or so about similar cases in their constituencies. Concern over the matter is widespread, and the hon. Gentleman is right to raise it in this debate. He made a powerful speech.

I should like to take this opportunity to express the condolences of the whole House to the family and friends of Jeff Tooley, whose life was lost in such a terrible way. The fact that he was a policeman means that the force of the tragedy is that much greater for me, given my responsibilities for the police. However, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, many people lose their lives in that tragic and appalling manner.

The criminal law can contribute to a response to this terrible state of affairs. I welcome the opportunity to debate the subject this evening. No one can dispute the

seriousness of the consequences when death is the result of a crash on the roads. Criminal law must address the extent of the offender's culpability. The Government have the duty to make available to the Crown Prosecution Service, the police and the courts offences appropriate to the degree of culpability of the driver in the circumstances in question. As the hon. Gentleman said, in some cases there is a difficulty that, in law, the offender has been defined as acting carelessly rather than intentionally, but the consequences of his act are disproportionately serious. That has given rise to the concerns raised in today's debate. It is especially likely that families will feel aggrieved at the outcome of such a case.

It is worth setting out the current framework of the law. The North committee looked at all these matters and reported on this issue in 1988. It addressed concerns that the law relating to road traffic accidents had not developed satisfactorily. The committee gave detailed consideration, among a wide range of other things, to the possibility of creating a new offence of causing death by careless driving, but concluded that it would be wrong to visit on a driver severe penalties for unforeseen tragic consequences if his or her actions were careless.

During the past 10 years or so, that view has been accepted by Governments. Where the driving which resulted in death is thought to be only careless, there is no causing death offence, unless the offender was driving while under the influence of drink or drugs. By 1991, a consensus had emerged that the consumption of drink or drugs before driving carelessly was an aggravating factor which justified treating this behaviour more severely if a death were to result. The Government are actively reviewing the question of whether a new offence of causing death by careless driving should be introduced. The arguments are powerful and need to be reconsidered in the light of the whole debate that has taken place.

Mr. Miller

I have been following the debate with great interest in view of my role in RoadPeace. Will my hon. Friend re-examine the March 1996 Law Commission report on involuntary manslaughter? It may provide the answer to some of the searching questions asked by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton).

Mr. Clarke

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he and RoadPeace have been doing to raise these issues. He makes a serious suggestion which needs active consideration.

Within the current framework of law, the CPS role is to decide how to view the case. To do this, it must look at the evidence and decide whether sufficient evidence to establish guilt of a particular offence exists. It is a matter for the CPS, which is independent of government, and it is not appropriate for me or any Minister to comment on or interfere in the decisions on the charges to bring in a particular case.

The Attorney-General is involved if there is unduly lenient sentencing which could undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system. Courts do not always make full use of their powers. The Attorney-General has powers to refer cases of indictable offences, including causing death by dangerous driving, to the Court of Appeal where it appears that the sentence was unduly lenient. The Court of Appeal then has power to increase the sentence. That must be done within 28 days of the last sentence in the case being passed. The Court of Appeal can impose a higher sentence only if it finds that the sentence was unduly lenient.

I now come to sentencing guidelines. Obviously, there is a wide range of practice across the country on these matters. The Government are keen to promote consistency in sentencing. It is only right that offenders should be treated equitably and that inappropriate regional variations in sentencing should be avoided wherever possible. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 established provisions which place a statutory duty on the Court of Appeal whenever it receives an appeal against sentence to consider whether it should frame a new sentencing guideline or revise an existing guideline.

The Act established a sentencing advisory panel to provide advice on such guidelines to the Court of Appeal. The panel will provide the court with statistical information about existing sentencing and consult a range of interested parties. The panel can act in three sets of circumstances: when advised by the Court of Appeal that it intends to frame a guideline, at its own instigation, and when the Home Secretary directs it to provide views to the court. This is an important development since the 1998 Act, designed to establish consistency of sentencing. It is a matter for consideration whether such sentences might be examined by the panel.

The Government are responsible for ensuring that the courts have the powers that they need to deal with the cases before them. We believe that the law should provide appropriate sanctions to enable the courts to deal severely with instances of bad driving that are worse than careless and in which the offender bears a greater responsibility for his actions.

Within the broad statutory limit set by Parliament, individual sentences are a matter for the courts alone, taking into account all the circumstances of the offence and the offender. Of course, the independence of our courts is an important principle. It is not appropriate, therefore, for me to interfere in specific cases and sentences passed in particular circumstances. However, I believe that Parliament and the public are entitled to expect the courts to impose long and heavy sentences in serious cases.

The maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving or causing death while under the influence of drink or drugs is 10 years' imprisonment. That was doubled from five years as recently as 1993. The maximum penalty for dangerous driving is two years' imprisonment. Careless driving carries a maximum fine of £2,500 and an obligatory endorsement of the offender's driving licence. I can well understand why, when someone causes a death by careless driving and a fine of this kind is imposed, real despair and anger is felt among the families concerned. It is an understandable response, which I share.

The Government decided to conduct a review of penalties in road traffic offences, which is taking place. It will include consideration of the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving, and we shall deal with some of the issues discussed. The provisions will, I hope, lead to more comprehensive sentencing guidelines, which will ensure greater consistency in sentencing. The offence of causing death by dangerous driving could be one of the offences considered in this way.

The Government are determined to address these issues very seriously as a matter of priority. They represent an important element in public confidence in the criminal justice system, and need to be properly addressed. I assure the House that the opinions expressed in the contributions to this evening's debate will be fully considered in the review.

Lord Whitty today announced a new speed camera funding system, with eight pilot schemes in Essex, Northampton, Thames valley, Nottingham, south Wales, Cleveland, Lincolnshire and Strathclyde. It will establish a much more coherent and effective regime for testing for people who are speeding, and will be able to identify and, we hope, deter speeding. That is an important and positive development, which will inhibit the reckless and speedy driving that is sometimes the immediate cause of the accidents that cause the tragedies which have been discussed.

Finally, I want to mention research. Road traffic law should provide a framework for safe driving, lay down clear standards for driver behaviour and deter drivers from breaching those standards. The Transport Research Laboratory of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is carrying out research on behalf of DETR into the way in which bad driving cases proceed through the criminal justice system. It is the intention of the research to obtain evidence as to whether there is sufficiently clear guidance on the law and its purpose, and how that affects the choice of penalty.

The researchers are looking in detail at the decisions taken by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts. We expect to have the results next year, when the Government will be in a better position to judge changes in this area of law and its operation.

I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham secured this debate. The Government are fully in sympathy with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman and others during the debate. My Department and I will continue to work with colleagues from other Departments to ensure that we get our policy right in tackling these important and serious issues. I am glad to have had an opportunity to respond to the debate, and I am delighted to assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall receive a delegation to discuss the matter more widely and will continue to meet and discuss the issue with a wide range of different organisations.

In moving on these matters, it is exceptionally important to be in line with the body of public opinion. Law should properly reflect what people feel. That is why this debate has been important. The whole range of views expressed will be fully taken into account.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Seven o'clock.