HL Deb 28 April 1970 vol 309 cc983-96

5.28 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. May I begin what will be a comparatively brief speech by saying that the Bill was introduced in another place by my honourable and learned friend Mr. Niall MacDermot. He had in the course of framing the Bill the assistance of right honourable and honourable and learned friends who had an experience of chairmanship or deputy chairmanship of quarter sessions. It was in the light of their experience, and in the light of some remarks which were made by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice in a very particular case, that this Bill was thought of and ultimately drafted. Therefore, with that kind of thinking in another place, I have the utmost possible confidence that your Lordships might give this Bill a Second Reading in your Lordships' House. In point of fact, in another place the Second Reading was taken "on the nod", and occupied only seven minutes of a Committee of the Whole House. That was all that the other place felt was necessary in consideration of the Bill.

However, so far as the purpose of the Bill is concerned, I think I can take it very quickly. In the 1962 Road Traffic Act—this is what Clause 1 deals with particularly—among many other things, penalties were established for varying motoring offences. In many minor cases no disqualification was involved at all; in others a disqualification was laid down in the Act, but it was enforceable at the justices' discretion—for example, the case of "totting up". Some of us who were on the Standing Committee of an-other place during the passage of the Bill were somewhat concerned at the totting up system, whereby if a man had had his licence endorsed three times in three years he could be disqualified at the discretion of the magistrates—and some peculiar instances were given at that time. I remember one of my honourable friends saying that he had been convicted of driving in Regent's Park at 25 m.p.h., the limit then being 20 m.p.h., and he felt that if it happened to him again he might be disqualified. Some of us were concerned about that.

Things became easier, and in effect that kind of disqualification has been at the discretion of the justices. But other offences were made mandatory so far as disqualification was concerned. In other words, justices have no choice but to disqualify people for certain offences, and unfortunately it crept into the Act, so far as that list was concerned, that if a man drove a motor car while he was disqualified, he should be further disqualified for so doing. As the years have gone by this has turned out to be a complete anomaly, in a way that I am quite certain was not intended by Parliament. The Bill seeks to do one simple thing so far as Clause 1 is concerned; namely, to remove that offence from the list of mandatory disqualifications into the list of discretionary disqualifications for the magistrates. Clause 2 would enable people who have already been disqualified because they drove while disqualified to appeal for the purpose of getting that final disqualification wiped out. Magistrates in the lower courts, chairmen of quarter sessions, recorders and judges have had this experience time and time again over the years, and they have come to the conclusion that it is time that Parliament did something about it.

My Lords, I had hoped that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice might be here—he indicated that he might—to support the Bill. In his absence, perhaps I may be permitted to cite a case, because it was in this particular case that everything came to light. It was a case in May, 1969, Regina v. Johnson, and in giving judgment the Lord Chief Justice explained: The appellant was a man with 19 previous convictions, nearly all connected with motor cars. He was a compulsive driver while dis-qualified. In no instance was there a case of his being a bad driver, but because of the statutes applicable, he had already run up a period of disqualification which did not expire until 1984, and the court was now compelled to add a further two and a half years, making it 1987. Yet the probation officer in his report said that probably the only thing that would keep the appellant out of trouble in the future, and the only thing he could do, and do well, was to get a job driving a car. Such circumstances were constantly appearing in cases with which the court had to deal. The noble and learned Lord added: Really it is for Parliament to consider whether this court should not have the power to unravel all these disqualifications and give a young man a chance to do perhaps the one thing that he can do in life. My arguments are largely based on that statement by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice, and my honourable and learned friend Mr. Niall MacDermot tells me that he has had help in this Bill from the Joint Parliamentary Secretaries to the Ministry of Transport and from his honourable friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department.

It may be, my Lords, that someone may think that there are many other anomalies arising in that same Act. This is true. I understand that the Ministry of Transport are considering all these anomalies at this time. It might be asked: why this one now? All I can say is that this is urgent, and the Ministry of Transport give the assurance that if this Bill goes through it will not in any way interfere with their consideration of the future Bill. That being so, I do not think there is a great deal more I want to say, except to stress—and I think this is important—that this is not taking away the disqualification for driving a motor vehicle while disqualified. It is taking away the mandatory side and allowing the magistrates to have discretion. I have always felt in magisterial work that justices should have as much discretion as can possibly be given to them. I have said so in both Houses, and I have always felt that it was a mistake to shackle justices with mandatory penalties. Every case differs from every other case and it is only the magistrates who can judge. In this case, all the circumstances will be taken into consideration when the magistrates come to deal with the matter. Therefore, I hope that your Lordships will see fit to give this Bill a quick passage through this House—as quick as it obtained in another place. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.— (Lord Royle.)

5.37 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Royle, on introducing this little Bill so cogently and clearly. I do not disagree with the general principle that courts should have discretion, but there are one or two points that I think the Minister might help us by answering when he winds up the debate.

If this Bill is put on to the Statute Book —and I gather that it has a very fair wind from the Government, so it probably will be—the leniency that is pro-posed here will make an odd contrast with the mandatory disqualification in drink-and-driving oases. There has been a growing tendency for Parliament to take a stiffer view about the more serious road traffic oases, because of the danger to life and limb of other people; and personally I do not disagree with this. But I should like to hear the Government expound their view of how they reconcile the relaxation which is proposed here with the distinct tightening of severity in other aspects of road traffic law. Would the Minister also say what is the position now about disqualified drivers who con-tinue to drive? Am I right in thinking that there are large numbers of people without driving licences driving about the roads? How serious is this? Perhaps the Minister can tell us. Are we going to make this position worse or better? The case quoted so cogently by the noble Lord, Lord Royle, to which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice referred, is in itself very convincing, but in the law there is a little adage to the effect that "hard cases make bad law". I should like the Minister, if he will, to deal with that aspect. In general, as I have said, I am in favour of the courts' having discretion. But I would also support the general stiffening of legislation in regard to road traffic cases, and I should like to hear the Minister expound on how he reconciles the two.

5.40 p.m.


My Lords, this Bill is entitled, An Act to amend the law relating to disqualification for the offence of driving while disqualified. When considering what amendments are proposed in the Bill, I think it is necessary to cast one's mind back on the history of how these offences have been dealt with in the past, back a little further than did the noble Lord, Lord Royle, who only touched on the matter of disqualification. Before the Road Traffic Act 1960 came into force, a per-son convicted of driving while disqualified was punishable in accordance with the provisions of the Road Traffic Act 1930, the material portion of which reads as follows: … that person shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or if the court think that, having regard to the special circumstances of the case, a fine would be an adequate punishment for the offence, to a fine not exceeding fifty pounds, or to both such imprisonment and such fine … The High Court, in a case before them in 1951, held that the circumstances which avoided imprisonment must be special to the offence and not special to the offender, and it was further held, in another case in 1955, that in the case of a defendant under 21 years of age the justices should have regard to the Criminal Justice Act 1948 and not sentence him to imprisonment unless of opinion that no other method of dealing with him is appropriate.

At this date, endorsement or disqualification was discretionary under the Road Traffic Act 1956. It must be remembered that at that time a driver disqualified for less than a year could apply after six months for a removal of the disqualification, or, if disqualified for less than six years but not less than one year, after half the period of disqualification had passed. The position of the person convicted of driving whilst disqualified was materially changed by the Road Traffic Act 1960 in the following ways. That Act made such a person: liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or,… to a fine not exceeding fifty pounds, or to both such imprisonment and such fine. In other words, the Act no longer pro-vided that driving whilst disqualified should ordinarily be punished by a term of imprisonment. Nor will a term of six months' imprisonment normally take effect immediately, as the Criminal Justice Act 1967 obliges the court to suspend the taking effect of such a sentence. But once again it must be remembered that by the Road Traffic Act 1962 a person convicted of driving whilst disqualified must be disqualified for such period, not less than twelve months, as the court thinks fit, unless the court for special reasons thinks fit to order him to be disqualified for a shorter period or not to order him to be disqualified.

The same Act requires that "the period of any disqualification imposed" for driving whilst disqualified shall be in addition to any other period of disqualification imposed, whether previously or on the same occasion. The Lord Chief Justice, as has been mentioned, has on more than one occasion drawn attention to the difficulties arising from the compulsory further disqualification for twelve months of persons convicted of driving whilst disqualified where the offender is a young man who appears unable to resist the temptation to drive. Some of these offenders, as a result of repeated convictions, have accumulated a series of consecutive disqualifications which together amount to a disqualification for a quite unrealistic number of years. And here it must be remembered that the Road Traffic Act 1962 also introduced the procedure known as "totting up", whereby an offender whose licence is endorsed for the third time within a three year period must be disqualified for six months. The disqualified driver is frequently caught by this further disqualification, as he may well have more than one endorsement on his driving licence within three years. Moreover, he will almost invariably attract at least two consecutive periods of six months' disqualification under the totting-up provisions, as the disqualified driver is also the uninsured driver. The Bill's proposals do not appear to be designed to affect this.

Although not specifically road traffic law, another provision of the Criminal Justice Act 1967, besides the provisions I have mentioned already, provides for social inquiry reports before a sentence of imprisonment is passed. Although this section is not yet in force, the Secretary of State has recommended that such re-ports should be obtained. If there is merit in the suggestion that custodial treatment is particularly appropriate for the person convicted of driving whilst disqualified, and that the position that existed under the 1930 Act ought therefore to be re-stored, it should also be made clear that this class of case is excluded from the Secretary of State's recommendation, and the offence of driving whilst disqualified added to the offences which are listed as being offences for which the penalty is six months' imprisonment or less, that can be ordered to take effect immediately.

Many of those convicted of driving whilst disqualified are under 21 years of age, and therefore it is relevant to observe that they can be sentenced to a period of detention in a detention centre, although the possibility of this often depends on whether there is a vacancy in such a centre at the time when the sentence is passed. Driving whilst disqualified is a serious offence deliberately committed, and the punishment therefore must be one that reflects the seriousness.

To sum up, therefore, while I agree that to burden the offender with consecutive disqualifications can mount up to such proportion that they become un-bearable, this sanction must be replaced with a suitable punishment that reflects the seriousness of the offence and which will act as a deterrent. Many of these offenders are young men who cannot pay fines of the size which should be imposed, and, if they pay at all, pay over such long periods and after many inquiries into their means, with perhaps a period of supervision, that the immediacy and force of the punishment is diminished. The impact of disqualification is for most drivers very real and is the strength of the 1962 Act. Stern measures must be taken to prevent a small section of the community flouting the law while disqualified.

In my experience, there are now many more cases that come before the magistrates' courts of driving whilst disqualified than there were prior to the abandoning of the penalty in the Road Traffic Act 1930, and therefore I am convinced that by far the best way to deal with such offenders is to restore the provisions of the 1930 Act. Then it will be possible to warn the offender who is disqualified for the first time in some such terms as, "To drive whilst disqualified is a very serious offence, and if you are convicted by a court of so doing the court might have no option but to send you to prison; so be very careful not to drive again before your disqualification comes to an end." I hope that if this Bill proceeds consideration will be given at a later stage to the matters I have outlined.

5.49 p.m.


My Lords, I have no objection to the principle of this Bill, and I am given added confidence by the fact that I know that the noble Lord who introduced it is, as I am, a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, and therefore his opinion is likely to be very reliable. But I do share to a certain extent the misgivings of my noble friend, Lord Nugent. I hope that magistrates are not going to interpret this Bill as an instruction for leniency, and the reason for that hope is this: by far the greatest number of accidents on the road to-day are due to nothing more nor less than gross carelessness and lack of consideration for other people. They are not due to in-ability to know or lack of instruction as to what the rules are. They are, of course, increased by bad road surfaces, bad weather conditions and so on, but the fact is that a careful driver could always avoid doing these things. Therefore, I sincerely hope that magistrates; will interpret this Bill not as an instruction for leniency but merely, as the noble Lord said, as an ability to exercise discretion.

5.50 p.m.


My Lords, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice has recently pleaded for more discretion for learned judges, and also for magistrates, and one must have that plea in mind when considering this Bill. To pass this Bill would be consistent with Lord Parker's plea, and I personally humbly support it. But I should like to make two or three observations: upon it, because it will quite properly deal with the case that one gets from time to time in a magistrates' court, where a man is already disqualified for a very long period. I had such a case a week or two ago, where the person concerned had al-ready been disqualified until 1985, and under the totting-up procedure we ought to have disqualified him for a further six months. We refrained from doing that on the somewhat doubtful grounds; that the fact that he was disqualified for such a long time was a mitigating circumstance; but I understand that it was held by the High Court to be such.

I do not at all dissent from what was said by the noble Lords, Lord Nugent and Lord Swaythling. I agree that driving while disqualified is a serious matter. When a man is disqualified in my court, I personally always try to remember to warn him of what will happen if he drives. As Lord Swaythling has suggested I warn him that probably he will go to prison if he drives while disqualified.

The position that would arise under this Bill has been compared with the position under the Road Safety Act: it is questioned whether the discretion should be extended to that Act. I hope that the day will come when magistrates can be trusted with a discretion under that Act, but I do not think that it has yet come. I believe that that is an exception to the rule; but one day I hope that it will come. In my view, this Bill will be an improvement to the law because, as I have said, it will deal with the man who is described by probation officers as "motor car mad"; that is to say, those who cannot do anything except drive cars, and who cannot be restrained from driving cars. I think that this Bill will cope with the situation which arises from those cases. Therefore, while I agree with the two noble Lords who have requested that a stiffer view should be taken of this serious offence, I nevertheless think that this Bill might well find its way on to the Statute Book.

5.54 p.m.


My Lords, the House is grateful to my noble friend for introducing this short Bill this evening. It is directed to a limited problem, but in the Government's view it is an important mea-sure. The noble Lord, Lord Nugent, asked me whether I could, as it were, quantify the size of the problem. I am afraid that I cannot do that. What I can say is that the views of the legal profession, starting with the Lord Chief Justice and spread over the nation as a whole, have convinced my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport that this measure is necessary. That is why we have this short Bill introduced this evening in your Lordships' House.

I think that nearly everybody who has spoken is himself a magistrate and has experience of this particular problem; and I know that the views expressed are reinforced by the leaders of the legal profession. We believe that affairs as they now exist create difficulties which hamper the rehabilitation of a large number of young offenders who are unlikely to find useful employment or to settle down in society unless they can lawfully drive a car, but which, in a significant number of cases, virtually make criminals of boys who might otherwise have got through a period of car-mad adolescence, not without contact with the law, but at least without serious crime.

We have to face the fact that driving while disqualified is a difficult offence to deal with. Disqualification itself is a means of removing dangerous drivers from the road. It is also a deterrent of unique value to the most serious road traffic offences, and buttresses an import-ant part of our road traffic law. Driving while disqualified involves an element of contempt of court—indeed, of the whole fabric of road traffic law—which makes it particularly serious. I think the noble Lord. Lord Nugent, expressed concern about this aspect of the problem. For many drivers it is probably self-enforcing. I suspect that some who, wrongly, feel that, say, a conviction for speeding would not mark them as anti-social, would still regard it as nearly unthinkable to ignore any disqualification which the courts might impose in respect of the offence, and would view the possible consequences of doing so, not only the legal consequences but the withdrawal of trust on the part of their employers, for example, as quite un-acceptable. But for the car-mad youngster the situation is very different. His desire to drive is so great that a disqualification is very difficult indeed to observe. There are only two things that will make him observe it: one is the risk of being caught; the other is the chance that by observing a supportable period of disqualification he can gain the opportunity of a new start and then drive law-fully.

The operative word here is "support-able". A long period of disqualification will leave a youngster such as this with no hope of ever making good as a responsible and law-abiding driver. The period of mandatory disqualifications under the Road Traffic Act is no more than one year and, apart from disqualifications from totting-up and for driving while disqualified, all disqualifications are concurrent. This was a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Swaythling. The courts are, in general, therefore free to avoid very long periods of disqualification, and for the most part we may assume that they impose them only where they consider a long disqualifica- tion necessary as a deterrent or to protect the public against a dangerous driver. In the case of consecutive disqualifications, however, they have no option but to impose periods which may in aggregate be very long, irrespective of their views on its value in the particular case.

It would not be in order for me to talk to-day about consecutive disqualifications on totting-up. In any case, this is probably not the main problem. The trouble normally begins where a driver— normally a very young driver—is initially disqualified for an offence such as driving under age, fails to observe the disqualification, and then once again is disqualified for at least another year running consecutively to the original disqualification. The future begins to look hopeless, and there seems no point in even trying to observe a period of disqualification which the boy knows he is going to find quite unendurable. Each time he fails to observe it and is caught, he automatically finds the period of his disqualification prolonged by at least a further year. Sooner or later, the in-evitable happens, and a court faced with an entirely unacceptable series of affronts to the authority of the law decides that there is no alternative but to send him to prison. If only they had been free to deal with him earlier on, just as severely perhaps but by some means other than disqualification, this progression need never have taken place.

But this is not the end of the difficulty. A driver who is disqualified for a single period of two years or more can apply for the removal of his disqualification, either after two years or, if that does not take him halfway through the period of disqualification, at the halfway point. He can in any case apply at the end of five years, even though he may have been disqualified for life. It does not follow that the court will always agree to remove his disqualification so early. But at least this gives him hope and a reason for observing the disqualification until he can apply for removal.

A driver who has suffered a period of consecutive disqualifications is in a much less favourable position, however. He can certainly apply for the removal of any single disqualification at the appropriate point, and the commencement of the other disqualifications is then brought forward, but at best he has to apply to the court in respect of each disqualification and there is no question of his being able to apply for the removal of them all at the end of the initial five years. Moreover, if the individual disqualifications are each for two years or less, as may often be the case, he is unable to apply for early removal at all, and all this adds to the hopelessness of his situation. Even if he is sent to prison, it does not wipe the slate clean. Indeed, the courts, in disqualifying for an offence in. respect of which the offender has also been imprisoned, have been required to impose a period of disqualification which runs beyond the prison sentence. It may well happen, therefore, that a boy who has been sent to prison, who has lost his previous job and who is qualified for little else beyond driving, will find him-self precluded from taking up the one job he could do and so from settling down again after his sentence.

Against this background, the Government are in no doubt that the Bill pro-vides a useful measure of reform, and I thank my noble friend for bringing it before us to-day. I must, however, make it quite clear that in supporting the Bill— and I hope this will reassure the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford—the Government are in no way implying that it has come to regard driving while disqualified as other than a very serious offence. The provision for a mandatory, consecutive, disqualification has undoubtedly created problems in relation to the rehabilitation of the young offender, but it was an attempt to deal with a very serious problem. The problem, indeed, remains serious. In 1968, for example, there were nearly 12,000 convictions for the offence. This is no less than 170 per cent. higher than the level of convictions in 1962, when the mandatory consecutive disqualification was introduced. Admittedly during that time the volume of traffic on our roads has risen by about two-thirds, and the introduction of the totting-up procedure has also in-creased the number of disqualifications. Hence the number of people open to the temptation of driving while disqualified.

It follows that if we are to make less use of disqualification for the offence, we shall have to make increasing use of other penalties. It may be, for example, that at some stage we shall have to look at the possibility of some increase in the fines for the offence, and certainly I should expect to see greater use made of the suspended prison sentence. Already the courts are making a good deal of use of this penalty for driving while disquali-fied—in 1968 it was imposed in well over 2,000 cases—and it may be that this points the way to the future. I think noble Lords will agree—and I felt this was the sense of this evening's discussion—that it is essential that disqualification should not be disregarded with impunity. I hope I have said enough to make clear both the reasons why the Government support this Bill and also our determination that the offence of driving while disqualified shall continue to be dealt with as seriously as ever, although not necessarily by further disqualification.

As I understand the Bill, it is really designed to deal with the rather special case of the young man or woman who in many ways is living a perfectly sensible, normal life, but who has a peculiar impulse to drive, and this has brought about problems which the Bill is attempting to remove in order to prevent a young person in due course from drifting into a much more serious relationship with the law. I cannot myself, however, exactly relate the attitude of the Government towards this particular aspect of the problem with our attitude towards the much more serious problem of disqualifications arising from drinking and driving. I think the noble Lord will agree that it is rather difficult to quantify. I am sure we all agree that the question of driving while under the influence of drink is intensely serious and a very much more grave situation than the one we are talking about tonight. I will talk to my right honourable friend and bring to his notice what the noble Lord has said, and if he can perhaps make it rather clearer than I can I am certain he will do so. How-ever, I will write to him about it. I hope the points I have made about the greater use of a suspended prison sentence in affairs such as this goes some way to meet the point made by the noble Lord. Lord Swaythling. With those remarks, I hope your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading.

6.5 p.m.


My Lords, in view of the speech that has just been made by my noble friend Lord Winterbottom, I do not think I need say much more in winding up the debate except to express my gratitude to those noble Lords who have taken part, and particularly to those who have expressed reservations. We cannot come to an answer on a question of this kind without looking at every aspect of it, and I did not consent to take over the Bill in your Lordships' House without having studied the matter a long time ago, and particularly when it came as this particular Bill.

I agree with noble Lords who have said that it is a very serious offence to drive while disqualified. It is; but the important point is that many of those people who drive while disqualified are not guilty of any other road traffic offences at all, and yet they become disqualified, in many cases for many years. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Swaythling, and it has just been expressed by my noble friend, that it is perhaps necessary to have some review of the penalties. We must not forget that there are other sanctions besides the disqualification, and if this Bill becomes an Act of Parliament those sanctions will still be operative. There may be a necessity for the re-examination of the penalties, and I could not agree more with what has just been said by my noble friend that perhaps a suspended prison sentence is the answer in many cases. I am grateful for the interest which has been shown in the Bill, and I hope now that your Lordships will agree to its Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.