HL Deb 23 June 2003 vol 650 cc7-9

2.53 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why motorists driving without insurance no longer face the risk of disqualification for a first offence.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, under Section 143 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, a person must be insured against third-party risks if using a motor vehicle on a road or other public place. Not to do so is an offence punishable either summarily with a fine of up to £5,000, six to eight penalty points and discretionary disqualification, or by a fixed penalty of £200 and six penalty points. Magistrates may disqualify for a first offence if the severity of the offence merits it.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I am glad to hear that reply. It deserves wider circulation, because on 9th June, the home affairs editor of the Daily Telegraph said: Thousands of motorists caught without insurance will escape a driving ban for a first offence under new rules. Offenders will face an automatic £200 fine and six penalty points instead of a court appearance at which they could be disqualified". A spokesman for the Magistrates' Association said: Youngsters paying well over £1,000 now know that if they do not bother with insurance they face only a £200 fine". Will the Minister confirm, following his first sentence, that those two reports are inaccurate? If they are, will he see that the world gets to know that?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I certainly would be a busy Minister if I sought to correct every inaccuracy in the national press. Even the Daily Telegraph can get things wrong on occasion.

The headline of the article that the noble Lord mentions reads: Let-off for car insurance dodgers when both he and the House will recognise that the intention is to make sure that car insurance dodgers who get off at present will be successfully prosecuted. Through the system of automatic number-plate recognition, the police are in a position to take note of a car which does not have valid insurance and to act accordingly. Therefore, the issue is not the severity of the punishment but the certainty of detection.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, could the Minister say how severity is determined? Either they have insurance or they do not—there is nothing but black and white in that particular case. Does he agree that it is time that people purchasing insurance for their cars should at the same time obtain a disc that they can display in their cars—the same as the road tax disc? It would make enforcement very much easier, as police could look at parked cars and see which cars were insured and which were not. That is currently being done in most European countries which, for once, are doing something better than us.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I notice the noble Baroness's constructive suggestion. As I have indicated, we take this offence seriously. The number of prosecutions has been fairly constant over the past four years. The number is quite high, at 182,000 cases a year. So this is an offence that we need to tackle with rigour. Our chosen method with regard to first-time offenders, is to guarantee that everyone becomes aware of the fact that if they drive a motor car on the public road, detection equipment can identify the number of the car, whether that car has been insured and, if not, suitable action will inevitably be taken.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the increasing concern expressed about reliance on speed cameras for detection of offences, resulting in motorway patrol cars and others being reduced so that dangerous driving, tailgating and other offences are being allowed to go scot-free?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am not sure that the noble Lord is right in his proposition that this evidence is unreliable. I think what has happened—and I believe most noble Lords would bear testimony to this—is that the introduction of speed cameras has significantly affected road behaviour in this country. We cannot guarantee that everyone stays within the limits all the time, but it is certainly clear that the levels by which those who break the law and exceed the speed limits have been moderating significantly in recent years, a reflection of the fact that the system of cameras works.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that it is still the case that before you can receive or obtain a road fund tax disc, you have to provide a certificate of insurance? If people do not have a road fund tax disc on their car, the chances are that they have no insurance either, which is one means of identifying them.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, my noble friend is right that often more than one offence is committed in the circumstances, and that several pieces of documentation are not valid for the car. As I have indicated, magistrates will take strong action when they regard the offence to be a multiple one and of a serious nature. My noble friend is reflecting the fact that compliance with the vehicle registration requirements also needs to be pursued with vigour. I can assure him that it is.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the penalty of disqualification from driving should remain available in cases where it is appropriate; that it is not in the public interest thereby to increase the number of those who are unemployable; and that it is therefore an important object of public policy that as many people as possible should remain able to go to work without the use of a motor car?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I understand the noble Earl's point. I am seeking to assure him—as I hope I did in my initial Answer—that magistrates have the choice of whether to try a case and insist on disqualification when that is merited by the seriousness of the offence. However, in more orthodox cases where a first-time offender does not have the appropriate insurance, the penalty will not be disqualification but a fixed-penalty fine and six penalty points—a serious penalty which will affect the driver, but will not disqualify him for his first offence.