HC Deb 13 July 2004 vol 423 cc1278-81 1.37 pm
Jim Knight (South Dorset) (Lab)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to create offences of motor vehicle manslaughter and aggravated motor vehicle manslaughter; to amend the law relating to road traffic; and for connected purposes. In bringing this Bill before the House I am building on the work done by RoadPeace and other groups that have, through their hard work, put this important issue on the political agenda.The Sun newspaper has also been running a vigorous campaign, with its readers, against drivers who kill and maim.

Since I was elected to the House in 2001, three cases relating to this matter have been brought to my attention. My constituents Anthony Wakelin, Tom Dowdney and Claire Clements were killed on the roads due to the negligence and dangerousness of drivers, who in turn escaped with fines in the magistrates court. I am aware that many right hon. and hon. Members have equally tragic stories of families whose lives have been similarly affected by death on the roads, and I am grateful for their support.

About 3,500 people die each year as a result of traffic offences. More than 500,000 people are injured and more than 100,000 are seriously injured. There is a genuine challenge for us to reduce the number of deaths on our roads and I welcome moves by the Government to introduce higher penalties for various driving offences and to increase the general safety of drivers, which will, we hope, lead to fewer accidents on our roads. But we need to go further and change the law, so I propose replacing the existing offence of death by dangerous driving with two new charges of motor vehicle manslaughter and aggravated motor vehicle manslaughter.

In October 2002, a 15-year-old boy, Anthony Wakelin, was killed by a speeding motorist while cycling in his home village of Wool in my constituency. The driver concerned, James Boffey, already owed £1,400 in driving fines from previous convictions and had no driving licence or insurance. At Wareham magistrates court, Boffey admitted careless driving, plus driving without insurance or a licence, and was subsequently handed a £200 fine and a two-year driving ban.

James Boffey had a string of previous convictions. Despite the fact that he never passed his driving test and has been convicted nine times of driving without a licence or insurance, he was still only charged with careless driving. Plainly, the punishments that Boffey received previously did not provide the necessary deterrent, as is evident from the fact that he continued to drive while disqualified. He continues to stick two fingers up at the law.

Anthony's mother, Sarah, and sister, Natalie, were obviously shocked and confused that the Crown Prosecution Service and the police elected for the charge of careless driving. The public would naturally assume that, when a persistent offender who has been banned from driving kills someone on the road, it would constitute dangerous driving, but to bring a charge of dangerous driving, the prosecution is required to prove that the driving itself constituted dangerous driving. As it could only be proved that Boffey was travelling at a maximum of 43 mph, the prosecution could not proceed with the charge of dangerous driving.

Magistrates say that they cannot take account of any fatality or injury but must consider only the driving error itself. In other words, a motorist who kills an innocent party through negligent driving can be sentenced only for that driving, not for the resulting death. As a result, the death or injury is sometimes not even mentioned by the prosecution in court, and when it is mentioned, defence lawyers and magistrates labour the point that it can have no influence on the sentence passed.

The police and the CPS are often reluctant to use the charge of causing death by dangerous driving, despite their desire to secure justice for the victim and their family. Why? Because the prosecution must prove that the driving was dangerous, but what constitutes dangerous driving? What is good driving and what is careless driving, and how does that differ from dangerous driving? How do we agree what is well below the driving standard expected? That allows clever barristers a field day. All those loose definitions make it very difficult to agree on a charge and therefore, by default, the lesser charge of careless driving is more often than not used to ensure at least some sort of conviction.

The Bill would remove that argument over definitions. It would provide a better solution than the offence of death by careless driving that some suggest, which would involve the same problems about defining an adjective. The term "manslaughter" is understood, as is "aggravation". That clarity would make the offence more robust and increase confidence in the system. That leads me to perhaps the most important reason why we need to change the law: the Government have stated their commitment to reform on behalf of victims and witnesses, putting their needs at the heart of the criminal justice system. The new charge would give recognition that a death has occurred. That is very important for victims and their families. At present, there is a deep sense of grief and inadequacy among friends and victims about the way in which they are treated by the criminal justice system.

Let me tell the House about the second case, that of Tom Dowdney— again, a young constituent of mine. Tom died after a road traffic accident that took place on 14 October 2003. The CPS could not prove the allegation that the car was travelling in excess of 100 mph. The driver of the car in which Tom was a passenger was charged with careless driving. He was fined £100 and disqualified from driving for 12 months.

I have spoken to Tom's mum, Susan. In her letter to me, she mentions her anguish that the offence that killed her son is without the recognition of Tom's death and that it is the fact that it will not be recorded that he —the driver—"has killed Tom" that particularly grieves her. Tom's mum was not even told by the police and the CPS that the case was going to court. She heard by hearsay that her son's killer had got off with a fine. That is not putting victims at the heart of the criminal justice system.

The other case is that of 17-year-old Claire Clements from Preston road in Weymouth. Claire was a passenger in a car that was travelling north on the M6 in April last year. All three in the car were cadets in the Merchant Navy. They were travelling to Scotland to visit family for Easter. As they drove up the motorway in Cumbria, the driver lost control of the vehicle while overtaking at speed on the outside lane of the motorway. The vehicle drifted across the three lanes of the motorway and down the embankment. Claire was thrown from the car some distance, hit her head on a post and died instantly.

The driver had a previous conviction for driving at 71 mph in a 30 mph zone. He was driving at between 80 and 85 mph when he hit the motorway kerb and crashed. He was fined £500, given a six-month ban and ordered to take a retest after being found guilty of careless driving. In that case, the CPS charged the driver with death by dangerous driving but, because he could not remember how the accident happened, they could not prove dangerousness beyond reasonable doubt. He was only convicted of careless driving. The gulf between careless driving and dangerous driving is so huge that it makes the whole process completely unworkable.

Claire's father, Mike Clements, told me, "It has left Barbara, me and Claire's brother, Jack, with a feeling of being let down by the courts and we feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with road traffic law and the way their particular offence is perceived."

What I am ultimately seeking is a change in our attitude towards road traffic accidents where serious injury or death occurs. It is nonsensical that the fact that a death has occurred is not taken into account. The US has an offence of vehicular manslaughter. In most European countries, the law addresses the death first. We must change the law so that such cases are given the priority that they deserve in our judicial system. We can then retain flexibility over sentencing, to allow judges to consider the individual circumstances of each case.

The new offences that I propose will also help to deter persistent offenders. Where individuals knowingly commit a criminal offence, even if it is driving without insurance or while disqualified, they would know that they would go to Crown court, with a higher chance of receiving a custodial sentence under the charge of aggravated motor vehicle manslaughter. I hope that the likes of James Boffey, who killed Anthony Wakelin in Wool, would then think twice.

The current offence of death by dangerous driving could not take all of James Boffey's criminal history into account. A charge of aggravated motor vehicle manslaughter would ensure that his lack of a licence or insurance would have formed a central part of the prosecution's case. Other aggravating factors could include, but not necessarily be limited to, driving while already disqualified, failing to stop for the police, driving under the influence of drink and/or drugs, having no insurance, driving a stolen motor vehicle, failure to stop or driving a class of vehicle for which no licence had ever been held.

At this point, it is worth mentioning that this is not and should not be seen as yet another attack on the motorist. Sixty per cent. of those who die on the roads are car occupants, so such new legislation is very important for motorists themselves. The heart of this proposal is to preserve life and prevent disability and death on the roads, but under the new legislation, people must be responsible and accountable for deaths. Justice is essential. Changing the law cannot by itself change attitudes, but bad law reinforces unacceptable conduct.

Those injustices have embittered fair-minded, upstanding and law-abiding citizens who, because of their experience on the receiving end of car crime, have become convinced that the current law is ineffective at deterring reckless driving and is too weak to deter persistent car criminals. The Bill seeks to restore the credibility of the criminal justice system in this area. It seeks justice for the families of victims like Anthony, Tom and Claire.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Jim Knight, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Ian Lucas, Mr. Andrew Miller, Bob Russell, Tim Loughton, Mrs. Louise Ellman, Mr. Denis Murphy, Mr. David Kidney, Mr. Alan Campbell, Clive Efford and Mr. David Amess.