HC Deb 19 December 2000 vol 360 cc333-42

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

11.25 pm
Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

The tragic death in the early hours of this morning of PC Jon Odell, killed by a hit and run driver while he was carrying out checks on speeding motorists in Kent, gives added poignancy to tonight's debate, particularly as it has come just four days after two students were killed by an out-of-control car while they stood on a pavement in Nottingham. I know that I speak for the whole House when I extend condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of these three young people, and those of the estimated 40 other people who have been killed on our roads during the past four days.

In the final five days before Christmas there is every likelihood that another 50 people will die. Every day, on average, 10 people are killed in road crashes—about 3,500 will have died this year. Yet despite such an appalling state of affairs, the Library has confirmed that at no time since the 1997 general election have the Government initiated a debate on road safety. Indeed, according to the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety—PACTS—the last time the Government of the day had a debate on road deaths was in November 1994. In the six years since then more than 20,000 people have been killed on our roads.

I declare an interest in that I am a member of RoadPeace, the national charity for road traffic victims. It was established nine years ago by parents of children killed in road crashes.

Research undertaken by the Transport Research Laboratory compared hospital and police reported road casualties—it concluded that official statistics are substantially under-recorded. The true financial cost to the nation of crashes involving serious and slight injuries is probably more than £18 billion a year—twice the official figure.

I would like to say much more about RoadPeace's detailed research document, "The Missing Chapter", published in response to the Government's road safety strategy launched in March this year, but I do not have sufficient time this evening to do it justice. I urge the Minister and his colleagues to study it closely.

I deliberately do not use the words "road accident", because crashes that result in injury or death are seldom an accident, but rather the result of incompetent driving, at one end of the spectrum, or reckless driving, at the other—the latter often associated with excessive drinking.

With an average of 10 deaths every day on the roads, that puts the Hatfield rail crash, which resulted in four deaths, into context. Yet the Hatfield disaster attracted massive media attention, with questions and statements in the House, and major disruption of rail services. In contrast, the thousands of deaths in road crashes have been ignored.

It is a tragic irony that the high-profile work to make our railway system safer has caused more deaths and injuries on our roads, as a consequence of people using their cars instead of trains.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

As chairman of the all-party group that supports RoadPeace, I commend the hon. Gentleman for the tremendous work that he does. Does he agree that the public perception of the difference between road and rail deaths is not helped by the official Opposition, who last night described the Government's attempts to recoup money from speed cameras for communities as a stealth tax? Will he, on behalf of the Liberal party, join the Labour party in condemning that?

Mr. Russell

I shall indeed, because all of us in public life should welcome any measures that may reduce road deaths. I also pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the part that he has played in RoadPeace and in many other ways to bring to public attention the awful number of road deaths in this country. I mentioned that people leaving trains to use their cars has had the consequence of more road deaths. Indeed, on 8 December, The Oxford Times reported: A sudden and disturbing rise in deaths and serious injuries on Oxfordshire roads is being, linked to commuters switching from rail to car. Fatal and serious injury accidents are up by nearly a third on the same period as last year. In the period in question there were 56 crashes involving serious injury and fatalities, compared with 43 the year before.

It would be wrong to say that successive Governments have totally ignored road deaths. My complaint is that too little has been done. Nothing has been done to address the fundamental issue that road crashes and their consequences are not given the importance that they should. I particularly should like to praise the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) who, when he was a transport Minister, introduced the country's first casualty reduction target. That was a good start, which we need to build on. That welcome initiative was an attempt to change the attitude of society which, over the years, has seemingly shrugged its shoulders and become accustomed to accepting the huge human and financial cost of deaths on our roads as one of those things that we can do little to prevent.

I have never accepted the inevitability of any death on our roads. I hope that tonight the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), will give a commitment that the present Government does not either. Surely, the aim should be for a zero death rate, not a target that would still mean that nearly 2,000 of our citizens were being killed every year? The present projection is that one in 80 people will die as a result of a road crash, but the Government's target is to reduce that to one in 160. To bring that statistic into the Chamber, between four and eight hon. Members face the prospect of being killed in a road crash.

No price can be put on the loss of life, but the best official estimates are that the financial cost to the public purse of every fatal crash is about £1 million; it is about £110,000 for a serious injury crash; and £11,000 for a slight injury crash.

I welcome the Minister, but, in truth, I would much prefer a Minister from the Home Office, not the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, to respond to my debate. The biggest single measure that can be taken to reduce road crashes would involve tougher action against those who endanger lives through their driving, whether because of excessive speed, lack of care and attention, general bloody-mindedness—sometimes known as road rage—or, worst of all, driving under the influence of drink or drugs.

Making cars and our roads safe' creates the feeling that the question of reducing the number of people being killed or injured is being addressed. However, if dangerous driving habits are not challenged, all that we are doing is making it more likely that bad drivers will feel even more immune to the consequences of their driving.

I welcome this afternoon's publication of the Government's consultation paper, "Road Traffic Penalties", which proposes tougher action against motorists who drive dangerously, or at excessive speed or while drunk. But what is the point of tougher penalties, when the courts do not use to the full extent the powers that they already have? The Government would do better to get magistrates and judges to start imposing existing penalties in advance of introducing the proposed new ones.

Let me cite an example of the way in which road deaths are treated as less important than any other form of involuntary death. It was set out in shocking, graphic detail in a full-page report in The Sun of 6 December, under a lengthy headline that read: Allan Jackson was 3 times over the limit when he ran down and killed 3 pals on the pavement. The sentence—Just 8 Years. The report went on to describe how Jackson killed three young teachers as the result of his drunken driving. Had he shot them or stabbed them to death, he would now be serving three life sentences for murder. But because Jackson was a drunk driver, and despite the fact that he had twice been banned for drink-driving convictions, the judge jailed him for just eight years, which is less than the maximum sentence which, in any event, is a pathetic 10 years. With remission, he could be out of prison in four years.

What sort of message does that send out? Quite simply, if someone is killed in a road crash, the guilty person is treated more leniently than if he had killed using a weapon other than a car driven recklessly. The mother of one of the teachers said: In my mind the man has committed murder and his car was a lethal weapon. The court hearing, which The Sun reported, involved a crash in Huddersfield. It is ironic that the headquarters of Brake—a national organisation that promotes road safety in the widest sense—is less than a mile away. Brake held a reception last evening at the House. Those of us who attended were told in a report by executive director Mary Williams: Ten families a day in the UK lose a loved one in a road crash. These deaths are sudden, horrifying, and violent, causing extensive grief and trauma. Of course, I accept that measures to make our roads safer are a matter for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, working with the Highways Agency and local councils. However, although I will continue to press for more to be spent on traffic-calming schemes and other road safety measures, the single most important measure that will make a difference is a change of attitude by society towards those who kill and maim on our roads.

That takes us beyond the DETR—it involves not only the Home Office, but also the offices of the Lord Chancellor and the Solicitor-General. In October, accompanied by my constituent Mr. Raymond Mason, whose wife was killed in May 1999 in a road crash, which left him with three young sons to bring up, I had a meeting with the Solicitor-General. We were concerned because the driver whose car killed Mrs. Mason escaped prosecution. I regard our one-hour meeting as potentially the most productive that I have experienced since I became a Member of Parliament.

The Solicitor-General, in consultation with the Home Office and other Departments—I hope that they include the DETR—is now considering changing the law in the following ways: creating a new offence of causing death by driving negligence—the court would determine the severity of the case and the sentence; the referral of all crashes involving a road death by the magistrates court to the Crown court for trial by jury or sentence by a judge, even in cases where a guilty plea is entered; immediately suspending the licence of the driver involved in a fatal crash, pending a medical inspection to determine whether he or she has a health condition that may affect driving; providing for an extension, beyond the current six-month legal limit, when alternative charges can be introduced if further evidence emerges either from the defence or prosecution that affects the original charge.

There must be a national crusade against the number of road crashes. The only sure way to reduce road deaths and injuries is for civilised society to regard those who drive at speed, fail to stop after an accident or drink and drive in exactly the same way as we regard those who carry out assaults. We need to shame the irresponsible as if they were thugs—thugs on wheels. We regard assault as unacceptable. We need to change attitudes so that those who endanger others through their driving are likewise condemned for their irresponsible behaviour. Their actions result in thousands of deaths and injuries every year.

The Government, supported by MPs and councillors, should set an example by making driving skills and attitudes the major features in improving road safety. It is all very well making our highways and cars safer, but if reckless and anti-social drivers carry on regardless, crashes will still occur at a sickening rate. We need much tougher legislation against bad drivers, and encouragement for the courts to hand down deterrent sentences against drivers who cause death and injuries.

The worst culprits are the young, and they are often the victims. One in four drivers who die are under 25. That reflects both on their driving inexperience and tendency to take risks. Brake points out that most serious crashes are caused by drivers; the roads and vehicles are not to blame. Deterrent sentences are therefore the most potent method of reducing road crashes.

Drivers who cause accidents through their failures should be more readily disqualified than currently happens. Their vehicles should be taken from them for varying periods. Those who drive too fast put lives at risk. It is regrettable that not everyone agrees that breaking speed limits, especially in built-up areas or on narrow country roads, is socially unacceptable, dangerous and a major cause of deaths and injuries.

What are we to make of Government calls for tougher action against frequent offenders when we consider the action of Judge Tom Longbotham at Swindon Crown court? Last week, he quashed a three-month driving ban on a speeding motorcyclist because he was finding it difficult to get to work. The motorcyclist had been convicted of his third speeding offence; he had been travelling at 101 miles per hour. I can do no better than to quote the road safety manager for the Royal Automobile Club Foundation, Mr. Kevin Delaney, who said of the judge's decision: This sends out all the wrong signals and sets a dreadful precedent … Speeding is about an attitude of mind and this man clearly didn't care about the speed limit and was grossly irresponsible. If the Government want to be tough on serious road offenders, they had better make sure that magistrates and judges get the message.

Although there is general condemnation for those who drive while under the influence of drink or drugs, not all drivers have got the message. Tonight's Colchester Evening Gazette reports that, so far this month, Essex police have breathalysed 182 drivers who were over the limit. That is about 50 more than in the corresponding period last year.

I welcome the prospect of more traffic-calming road safety measures to prevent deaths and injuries; of more speed cameras to deter motorists who endanger others through driving too fast; and of educating drivers in how tiredness and lack of concentration such as the use of mobile phones can lead to crashes, but the biggest single measure is for society to regard those who cause crashes in the same way as it does those who are guilty of acts of thuggery and violence.

11.40 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill)

As is customary, I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) on securing this important debate and on the passion and detail with which he delivered his speech. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), who has also contributed to the discussion. I pay tribute to the excellent work of both hon. Members in RoadPeace. I join in the expression of condolences to the families of Police Constable Jon Odell, of the young people tragically killed in Nottingham and, indeed, of all those who have lost their lives in road accidents recently, the pain of whose loss will be acute to their bereaved relatives.

Although Britain's roads are, with Sweden's, the safest in Europe, the risk of accidents and the numbers of deaths and injuries are still unacceptably high. We must do all we can to reduce them.

I am certain that the House will be aware of the Government's firm resolve in that area. Earlier this year, the Prime Minister himself launched our new road safety strategy, which focused on 10 main themes and the corresponding casualty reduction targets that we have set ourselves. As has already been mentioned, by 2010, we want to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries by 40 per cent. and, within that, the number of child deaths and injuries by 50 per cent.

As the House will appreciate, with such a large range of activities, I shall have to restrict myself to some headline news on our latest initiatives. There is time only to scratch the surface.

Road safety is an integral part of all thinking about roads and traffic management and of our aim to reduce the use of cars by providing attractive, reliable and efficient public transport as a realistic alternative for many journeys. Clearly, if people think that the roads are unsafe, they will not want to walk or to cycle.

The Government's road safety strategy is a joint effort by many Departments, with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions co-ordinating. The Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department, for example, are primarily responsible for enforcement, justice and victim support, be it for people who have been involved in accidents, or for families who have had to suffer the sad consequences.

Similarly, the Department of Health is responsible for the care of the injured. We are pleased to be part of its new accidental injury taskforce, which is looking at accidents of all types, whether they occur at home, work or play or when travelling between them.

To start with the freshest news, it is only a few hours since Lord Whitty, who has lead responsibility for road safety in my Department, joined the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), at the launch of the Government's consultation paper on penalties for road traffic offences. We are applying the results of research to what we do and we want responses to our ideas. It is better to go forward with consensus.

Through the Home Office-led review that has produced the consultation paper, we have been looking for a robust package of measures to reduce drink driving. The review has specifically considered raising the minimum disqualification period for first-time, high-risk offenders from one year to two and making drink driving an offence for which a convicted driver has to retake the driving test.

We hope to clarify the law to allow the police to breath-test in locations where they suspect drink driving to be taking place, without having to have grounds for suspicion in each individual case. That is not random breath testing, but it will allow the police to take a more targeted, intelligence-led approach to that branch of enforcement.

On drug driving, which is already an offence, we are continuing our research into how drugs may affect drivers and into effective counter-measures, such as drug-testing devices. The "Cannabis and Driving" report, which was published last Friday, shows that driving under the influence of cannabis can be a hazard, although the effects are less drastic than those of alcohol. We are strengthening enforcement. The police are training officers to recognise the symptoms of drug use and impairment. We intend to give the police powers to test for drugs at the roadside.

Although it was not possible to commit ourselves to legislation on such matters in this Session, advance drafting of a new safety Bill was announced in the Queen's speech. Thai is the most likely vehicle for the final proposals when we have been able to take account of views expressed in response to the consultation. If I might offer some advice to hon. Members present, I am sure that it would be a good idea to respond now to the proposals in the consultation paper and, if necessary, draw attention to proposals that they favour, but which are not covered, rather than waiting for firmer proposals to come before the House.

Mr. Miller

My hon. Friend tempts me; I have a long list. I thank him for his invitation. I concur fully with the observations made by the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell). Will my hon. Friend accept the first consultation from me? Page 15 of the consultation document deals with sentences and sets out the averages for sentences over five years. The figures for sentences in the circumstances mentioned by the hon. Member for Colchester are incredibly low. Will my hon. Friend bring that point firmly to the attention of the Lord Chancellor and the judiciary? Will he also look carefully at ensuring that driving bans do not run concurrently with prison sentences but are consecutive and, preferably, that they are life bans?

Mr. Hill

I shall draw both the points that my hon. Friend made so forcefully to the attention of the Lord Chancellor and other relevant Ministers. As of this moment, I can declare the consultation period open.

Although we have a while to wait for the safety Bill, the House will know that the Vehicles (Crime) Bill successfully completed its Second Reading yesterday. One of its measures provides for the transfer of some of the income from speeding fines so that it can be used to help pay for more safety cameras and the processing of more penalty notices. That will bring to the whole country the proven benefits of some successful pilot schemes that have been running in eight police authority areas, including Essex, where the hon. Member for Colchester has his constituency.

I know that safety cameras are not everyone's pet scheme—certainly not those who are fined or have penalty points added to their licence. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston rightly said, it is nonsense for some people and some newspapers to describe them as a form of stealth tax. They make a valuable contribution to road safety and, if people stop speeding, the cameras will stop flashing.

On education, the already heavy demands of the national curriculum mean that road safety cannot be taught as a subject in its own right. However, it will be covered as part of personal health and social education. We are also looking for ways to work the issues of safety into other lessons such as maths, physics and geography, where it can provide a link to the world outside through examples taken from real life.

One thing that does not transfer well from the classroom to the street is kerb craft. We are planning to encourage local authorities to give more practical experience at the roadside through a national pilot network of training schemes for children of about six and seven. We will be offering to pay authorities to employ co-ordinators to set up local schemes and to recruit parent volunteers to do the training. Initially at least, this may be mainly in areas of social exclusion because that is where statistics show that the children who are most at risk live and play.

It is also important to get road safety messages across to older children. Independent research has confirmed the value of the Driving Standard's Agency's schools programme—presentations by driving examiners about learning to drive and road safety generally. We are doubling the number of programmes this year to 1,500, reaching some 750,000 students aged 16 to 18. Further increases will follow.

The main role of the Driving Standards Agency, however, is to help improve the quality of its own novice drivers and the people who train them. We want to improve the way in which learner drivers are tested. Since the road safety strategy was published, the Transport Act 2000 has provided new powers to enable us to introduce compulsory training schemes for users of different classes of motor vehicle and to regulate the providers of such training. We shall now be considering how to use those powers to help us to deliver the commitments in the strategy to improving driving standards and reducing the number of road casualties.

Many of the vehicles driven on our roads are being driven for work purposes. Research indicates that, mile for mile, company car drivers have accident rates that are 30 to 50 per cent. higher than those of comparable private drivers. We have established a task group to consider how best to prevent work-related road-traffic incidents. The group will be publishing a discussion document early next year and holding a conference to debate the issues raised in the document, before making recommendations to us.

Switching to two wheels for a moment, early in the new year, we shall be implementing a package of measures to improve learner rider safety while scrapping unnecessary restrictions. All learners will be taking a theory test, and car drivers qualifying in the future who want to ride a moped will have to take basic training like other learner riders. At the same time, we are abolishing the old "two years on, one year off' rule for provisional motorcycle licences. We think that a training requirement is a better approach to longer-term learner riders than a one-year disqualification.

As for the role of local transport departments, authorities must build in safety for pedestrians and other vulnerable road users as one of their priorities in their local transport plans. That entails an intensification of road engineering, pedestrian separation where necessary, and more home zones and other safe-speed areas.

Although we no longer have ring fencing for local safety schemes within the local transport plan system, after last week's announcements of their spending allocations for 2001–02, with indicative allocations for later years, authorities know that there will be no excuses for holding back on that type of expenditure. Ultimately, it is up to them. However, we know from their bids that we are allocating enough to fund 8,000 safety schemes in England alone in the next five years. Local authorities bid for them, and now they must deliver them.

Despite the new hands-off approach on local spending decisions, we are not backward in coming forward with advice. The Transport Research Laboratory is working on a guide to good practice in road safety for us, and our consultants on the safe city project in Gloucester—where the five-year project that we have been funding has shown the great benefits of adopting an area-wide approach—are writing up the results of that work, too. Both reports will be launched at a special road safety conference, in June, that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents is organising for us.

Once again, I give my sincere thanks to the hon. Member for Colchester for raising this issue for debate. I hope that I have been able to respond to at least some of his main concerns. I assure him that I shall check the Official Report to see whether, because of the pressure of time, any points have not been adequately dealt with. If so, I shall send him a fuller response.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Twelve midnight.