HL Deb 09 February 2005 vol 669 cc787-9

2.36 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

asked Her Majesty's Government

What was the cost of investigating, apprehending and charging Sarah McCaffery, who was seen driving a car while holding an apple, including the costs of the helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft involved.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, the total cost to Northumbria Police was £117. This comprises £50 in police officer time and £67 for a helicopter to carry out a 10-minute diversion to take aerial footage while returning to base from other operational duties. A fixed-wing aircraft was not used at any time in this case. The total cost to the Crown Prosecution Service was £425.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for that Answer, which was as surprising as it was unexpected. Perhaps I should declare an interest in that, invariably, on the way to and from your Lordships' House I eat a sandwich in the car to keep myself awake and prevent an accident.

That must be the most inexpensive form of helicopter possible; perhaps the noble Baroness will let me know how one can hire it. Does the noble Baroness not agree that this was a farce of gargantuan proportions? All of us, including the police, make asses of ourselves from time to time. Will she give an assurance that the Government will not react by giving the police instructions and diktats on how to perform their operations, when, despite their mistakes, they perform them very well?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, it is a rare occasion for me not to agree with the noble Earl but I regret to say that I do not on this occasion. I shall tell noble Lords why: the helicopter was on other operational duties; in such circumstances the police just say, "On your way back from doing something else, could you take a snapshot of this place?" That is why the operation took only 10 minutes and was very modest. I am sure that the noble Earl could employ the service if he so chose.

The case came to the police's attention because of the nature of the driving. The police thought that the driver's behaviour was a matter for attention. They stopped her; offered her a fixed penalty notice of £30, and no endorsement, because of her driving; she declined and took the case to court, where she was fined £60 with £100 costs. There is a lesson in that for us all.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I am not here to bash the police but perhaps I may ask a wider question: if the Crown Prosecution Service determines whether it is in the public interest to prosecute someone, what public interest was served in this case?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, a degree of levity has been used in relation to this case but it is serious. Unfortunately, 45,000 people either die or are injured on our roads. Two-thirds of the incidents do not involve other vehicles but are as a result of drivers' inattention. If you are eating, speaking on the telephone or doing something else in a way that affects the nature of your driving, you could cause a traffic incident in which you or somebody else will he injured. Unfortunately, an unacceptably high number of injuries and accidents happen on our roads every day. Ten people die every day.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that any driving without full attention can be lethally dangerous? Is she aware that—a few years ago now, I accept—I dealt with an accident where the driver was eating an ice-cream, left the road and ran into a bus queue, causing fatal injuries in some cases? We should not trivialise these issues.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I wholeheartedly agree with my noble friend; there have been some real tragedies. It is not just other victims who are affected. Quite often, the victim is the driver, whose family simply never gets over it.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the House has heard the noble Baroness's description of the events of this case. What added value was gained by bringing the helicopter into the picture?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the defendant pleaded not guilty, as she was entitled to, and wanted to have her day in court. Evidence had to be produced on where the incident took place, what the officer saw or did not see and the nature of her driving. That was the defendant's right. The Crown Prosecution Service, together with the police, has a duty to produce evidence that can be put before the court so that it can determine whether or not the person is guilty.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, did it ever occur to the powers that be to give the lady a caution?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords. the £30 fixed penalty notice could, by some, be described as a very effective caution; that the lady should concentrate on her driving and perhaps do a little less eating when turning left around a corner.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, should not the police have the credibility of the legal system in mind when they decide to prosecute?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, they absolutely should. But if an officer sees a person driving in a way that causes concern, he has a duty to bring that matter to the driver's attention and seek to make it right. If you eat an apple, try to turn left with one hand on the wheel and the other doing something else, it is not surprising if your driving becomes rather erratic in the process. As such, you put yourself and other people at risk. I am sure that the House would think that a very appropriate thing to try to stop.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, what is the position about smoking tobacco?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I believe that a number of people engage in it.