HC Deb 30 April 2003 vol 404 cc73-94WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Joan Ryan.]

9.30 am
Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck)

I am grateful to the House for allowing me this debate. I intend to cover a range of issues relating to aggravated dangerous driving. I shall focus on the tragic death of Rebecca Sawyer and call for a number of changes to laws relating to motoring offences.

The tragic events of the last new year's eve caused shock and revulsion throughout the United Kingdom. At 10.44 pm on Tuesday 31 December 2002, in Ashington in Northumberland, Mr. Steven Sawyer was driving his two children home after they had spent an evening at their grandparents' house. Mr. Sawyer was driving the family motor car south on Hawthorn road, towards the traffic light junction with College road and Sixth avenue, in an area with a 30 mph speed limit. Rebecca Sawyer, aged six, was strapped in the rear of the vehicle next to her younger sister, Kirsty, who was secured in a child seat. At the same time, a stolen Vauxhall Astra, driven by Ian David Carr, was travelling west at high speed towards the same traffic light, which all witnesses confirm was on red as he approached it.

Ian Carr had three passengers in the stolen vehicle, two men and a woman. The stolen Vauxhall Astra sped through the red light, crashing into the Sawyer family's car, with horrific consequences. The three members of the Sawyer family were seriously injured and taken to Wansbeck general hospital, where, tragically, Rebecca Sawyer died at 5 past 12 on 1 January 2003. Kirsty suffered critical injuries and had to be transferred to Newcastle general hospital's intensive care unit.

What of the fate of the driver and passengers in the offending vehicle? Eye-witnesses stated that after the collision the offending vehicle eventually stopped on the footpath directly outside an Asian-run shop. As soon as the car stopped, a male, described as tall and slim, was seen getting out of the driver's seat. That person ran off immediately and did not return to the scene. Shortly afterwards, the rear offside passenger door opened. A male and female left the car. The male ran off first, quickly followed by the female.

Ian Carr made no attempt even to check whether his passengers were injured, let alone to seek help for the terrible injuries he had caused. He did what he has always done: he ran away—a callous, cowardly act. Carr then went into hiding. Two of the three passengers gave themselves up to the police the next day, the third having been arrested near the scene. The three passengers showed the same total disregard for human life that Carr did. They made no attempt to offer assistance and must bear a heavy responsibility for leaving the scene of a serious crime without offering any help. Those were not the actions of innocent people.

At 4.57 pm on Tuesday 2 January 2003, Carr was traced and arrested at an address in Lynemouth, Northumberland, by a Northumbria police motor patrol and was taken to Bedlington police station. He was later interviewed in the presence of a solicitor, and confirmed that he was the driver at the time of the collision. Carr was described by the officers who interviewed him as showing no regret for the death of Rebecca or for the serious injuries that he had caused. He was described as being completely without remorse or compassion.

Carr had 89 previous convictions. One of his offences was committed on 14 October 1990. An Austin Metro car was stolen in Ashington. It was involved in high-speed races with another stolen vehicle. The Metro overturned at Woodhorn crossroads in Ashington while travelling at 90 mph. One of the passengers, Mark Wren, was flung from the vehicle and suffered serious head injuries. In all probability, he was killed outright. The driver of the vehicle tried to get Mr. Wren from the scene, but that was not possible, and he left Mark's body draped over a fence at the roadside before running away.

The driver then asked the other passengers to provide an alibi by saying that the deceased was the driver of the stolen vehicle. In fact, Ian Carr was the driver, and he was charged and convicted at Newcastle Crown court, and sentenced to 12 months youth custody for causing death by reckless driving, the maximum sentence permitted because of his age. Carr was described as arrogant, callous and uncaring. He showed absolutely no remorse. His only thoughts were for himself, which was exactly how he was described before he was sentenced for his latest terrible crime.

In passing sentence for that crime this year, the judge stated:

"The circumstances of this offence in which you caused the death of a much loved little girl, inflicted critical injuries to her baby sister and caused less serious injuries to her father have torn at the hearts of people throughout this region and indeed further afield as well. Nothing I can say can begin to adequately describe the revulsion that the community feels at what you have done. Everyone is understandably appalled."

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Joe Benton)

Order. I wish to make a point at this stage. I am sorry for interrupting the hon. Gentleman. I am listening carefully and with deep interest to the debate. What I am about to say is intended in a general sense for all contributors. Will hon. Members please bear it in mind that, if any matter is sub judice in any shape or form, I warn against their referring to it. I do not know whether the matters under discussion are still sub judice, but I think it as well to warn the House to refrain from referring to any matter that might be.

Mr. Murphy

Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The matters to which I am referring are not sub judice. I checked on that before I decided to use names. We are on fairly safe ground.

The judge was absolutely right. The community of Ashington and the north-east region was horrified that Ian Carr had once again caused death and destroyed a decent, loving family. Everyone in the north-east demanded action. It is a credit to our excellent regional newspapers, the Evening Chronicle and The Journal, that they decided to run high-profile campaigns to make people in the region aware of the case. They collected tens of thousands of signatures in support of a petition to be presented to the Home Secretary calling for changes to the law for criminal motorists.

Since the tragic events of new year's eve, I have had numerous meetings with Superintendent Bob Pattinson of Northumbria Police, an experienced and dedicated officer. Many of the recommendations that I will put before the House today were suggested by him and are based on actual offences and sentences. I am grateful for his help, his skill and professionalism. I record my thanks on behalf of the good people of Wansbeck to him and all his colleagues. Everyone to whom I have spoken, including the Sawyer family, have placed great value on their help.

Carr received nine and a half years in prison for his string of offences. As he was on licence at the time of the offence, he had to serve the rest of his previous term: 668 days—the maximum sentence that the judge could give. That brings me to my first recommendation. A new offence of aggravated death by dangerous driving should be introduced, carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The aggravating factors would 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, or driving a class of vehicle for which no licence has ever been held.

People such as Carr will continue to pose a threat to the public. A life sentence would reflect the terrible nature of their crime and ensure that they will be monitored after release for the rest of their lives. The probation service and police would have to be informed before anyone was released on licence, and would be involved in monitoring them. Offenders such as Carr should never be released until the appropriate authorities are satisfied that they no longer pose a threat to the general public. Her Majesty's Prison Service should be required to notify police of people identified as posing a risk to the public before they are released, even if they have received a lesser sentence.

There is a serious anomaly in the present sentencing policy where serious injury has occurred, rather than death. The maximum sentence for that is only two years. Nationally, there are thousands of cases of persons who have been seriously injured—some disabled for life—and who are very bitter that the people who caused their injuries serve only two years. If two motorists have a disagreement and one strikes the other, the guilty person can be charged with assault causing actual bodily harm and could be sentenced to five years in prison. If a driver deliberately or recklessly damages another driver's motor vehicle and is charged with criminal damage, a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment is available to the Crown courts. It is essential that the period of imprisonment for the offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving is increased substantially beyond two years, especially if aggravating factors are involved.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to draw up new advice to the courts, in consultation with the Home Office, for sentencing those who are repeatedly convicted of driving while disqualified. I have been provided with many examples that demonstrate that far too many people consistently re-offend and that there appears to be no effective deterrent. Absolute and conditional discharges seem commonplace. If we are determined to make our roads safer for the public to use, there must be an active deterrent to prevent people from getting behind the wheel without any regard for the law. Consideration should be given to introducing a mandatory jail sentence for anyone who drives while disqualified, as that is a serious offence.

Ian Carr carried three passengers in the offending vehicle. They were not charged with any offence. The Crown Prosecution Service stated "that there is no direct, reliable evidence to show that the passengers definitely knew that Carr was driving a stolen vehicle". The three passengers were well known to the police as all of them had serious criminal records. They knew Carr well, and they were aware that he was a dangerous serial offender. They all initially lied to the police, denying the driver's identity. Given all that and the seriousness of the crime the CPS should have prosecuted, in the public interest.

I am concerned that no power of arrest for dangerous driving exists, and I urge the Minister to consider making dangerous driving an arrestable offence.

A number of other issues are associated with repeat offenders, and I would like the Minister to consider them. There is a need to crack down hard on the use of pool cars by criminal groups or young joyriders. Pool cars are not registered in anyone's name, are not insured and are usually in a poor state of repair. They are kept for use when required. Given that most police officers are aware of the criminal records of the offenders on their patch, there should be a deliberate enforcement process to remove those vehicles from the streets and to have them crushed.

I also suggest that, in order to keep that type of vehicle off the street, the Minister should consider banning the resale of scrapped vehicles. It is possible for someone to go to any scrapyard in the land, buy a large, powerful car without having to show either a driving licence or proof of insurance, and drive the vehicle off the premises. That can be done for less than £200. The cost of insuring the car could be several thousand pounds, so no one should be surprised that that type of vehicle is never insured, although it is exactly the type of vehicle that becomes pooled. It is essential that that practice be stopped.

Another self-inflicted problem seems to be the disposal costs, or recycling costs, of motor vehicles. A cost will undoubtedly be associated with any scheme, but whatever it is, it must be charged to the new vehicle. If it is not, hundreds, if not thousands, of vehicles, will have their identification removed and be left to rot. It is inconceivable that the last person to own a motor car legally, who probably bought it as a cheap run-around, will drive it to the scrapyard and hand over a wad of cash amounting to more than he paid for it in the first place just to ensure that it is disposed of correctly. I have a genuine fear that unless there is an incentive to dispose of vehicles properly, many will be left with their keys in to create new hazards in areas ill equipped to deal with them. I suggest that the Minister should seriously consider offering a payment to people who dispose of their motor vehicles legitimately.

The issues that I have dealt with have related mainly to serious motoring offences of a criminal nature. Research recently conducted by Northumbria police showed that of 61 fatal crashes in the past year, eight involved disqualified drivers, who caused eight deaths. All the disqualified drivers were young, and all had a long history of offending. I shall briefly run through the careers of two of them—man A and man B.

Man A is 25 and first appeared in court at the age of 13. He has subsequently been convicted a further 37 times for more than 190 separate offences. The majority of his offences are vehicle related: 42 were for taking vehicles without consent, 17 of which were aggravated by involving police chases; and 31 were for driving while disqualified. Yet the maximum sentence imposed was only 15 months.

Man B is 35, and he first appeared in court when he was 15. He has been convicted many times for a variety of offences. Three were for driving while disqualified, 23 for having no driving licence, 35 for having no insurance, 25 for theft, and nine for absconding. He is currently subject to six outstanding periods of disqualification.

All the other individuals involved had similar records. From checking through the records of 30 motorists who received driving bans, I can say that more than half were already banned from driving at the time of their offence. Half committed one or more offence after the ban, with some appearing in court six more times for serious motoring offences. That cannot be allowed to continue.

I am aware of the wider debate on accident reduction and general road safety. The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety has produced an excellent document, "Road Traffic Law and Enforcement: A Driving Force for Casualty Reduction", which contains several recommendations that would certainly help in casualty reduction. It identifies a number of issues that would help to make Britain's roads much safer: there should be better publicity about the risks and consequences of committing road traffic offences; only specially trained magistrates should handle road traffic cases; with regard to roadside enforcement, police should have full access to information about both drivers and vehicles; carrying driving licences should be compulsory; the Government should appoint a named body or individual to progress more actively the use of new technology by all road traffic law enforcement agencies; and vehicle technology to prevent law breaking should be developed. The council also advised that bad driving offences, especially those involving death, are often not dealt with in a manner that signals to society that they are serious.

The appropriate agencies need to review their procedures so that a more effective response to bad driving is achieved. If that does not work, a new offence of causing death by bad driving should be introduced. That is exactly what I am suggesting to the House this morning.

I have covered a number of issues relating to death and serious injuries caused by aggravated dangerous driving. I have put forward reasonable additions and amendments to the current laws, most of which, I am sure, will have the full support of the House. I am grateful for the all-party support that I have received to date, and for the interest shown in today's debate.

Our roads are some of the most congested in the world, yet our road safety record is one of the best. Standards of driving in the United Kingdom are generally high, but still the lives of thousands of people are blighted by criminal motorists with no respect for the law, property, or even human life. It is possible to identify from an early age those who will pursue that type of life, and much more work needs to be done on prevention. We need to send the clear message that society will not tolerate people who use a motor vehicle to maim or kill.

Steven Sawyer should have had the right to drive his children home safely to their mother, Sharon, on the fateful evening of 31 December, without fear of a dangerous maniac killing their innocent little girl, Rebecca, critically injuring Kirsty, and wrecking their lives. Carr should never have been out on licence in the first place. He should be locked away for the rest of his natural life, or at least until he and people like him no longer pose a threat to society. Never again will the Sawyer family have the joy of looking forward to Christmas. The tragic events of that terrible night will haunt them forever.

I pay tribute to the brave and dignified way in which Mr. and Mrs. Sawyer have acted. In a moving statement during the trial, Mr. Sawyer described the grievous loss that his family had sustained in Rebecca's death, and concluded: "Whatever sentence the person responsible gets will never ever be anywhere near the sentence me and my family will suffer". It is essential that we change the law to ensure that no more families suffer the same fate as the Sawyers.

9.51 am
Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) on securing this important debate. I—like almost every Member of the House, I suspect—agree with every word he said. Almost all of us could relate a similar incident that occurred in our constituency, and I am no exception.

Everyone has great sympathy for those who are killed or maimed by motorists and for their families, but it is difficult to appreciate the immense frustration and distress experienced by those affected when the motorists concerned are clearly guilty of more than a temporary lapse. That is what two of my constituents are experiencing. Like my hon. Friend, I will relate an incident in my constituency: it concerns Mr. and Mrs. Briggs and what they encountered following the dreadful death of their daughter Susan.

Susan Briggs was 30 years old. She and her two friends, Angela Ovington and Victoria Fisher, had their whole lives ahead of them, but had them murderously—I use that word carefully, but most sincerely—snatched away by the reprehensible actions of a self-absorbed drunk driver. Susan and her friends were returning to their new house in Huddersfield after a night out when a car mounted the pavement, hit a wall and drove up the pavement, ploughing into the girls and causing horrific fatal injuries. A fourth member of the group managed to scramble to safety and narrowly escaped.

The driver of the car was Allan Jackson. He tried to leave the scene but was stopped by the police: he was found to be three times over the drink-drive limit. Jackson had been caught driving while banned in the past and had previous convictions for drink-driving. Plainly, the punishment that he received for those offences did not provide the necessary deterrent, as is evident from the fact that he continued to drink and drive.

Jackson was initially charged with manslaughter, but that was reduced to causing death by dangerous driving because, on the advice of his solicitor, he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge. For each person he killed—Angela, Susan and Victoria—he was sentenced to eight years in prison, a total of 24 years. However, the sentences ran concurrently, making a total of eight years' imprisonment for taking three innocent young lives. Those three people were not given the second chance previously afforded to Jackson, the motorist in question.

Although the judge recommended that Jackson should serve five years four months for the tragedy—in my view, that was a pathetic recommendation—he was downgraded to an open prison two years later, and after eighteen months he can apply to be let out on licence. Three innocent young women were killed and the guilty party could be out on the streets in less than four years—four years for murdering three young women, after which he will be free to do that again.

While I was writing this speech yesterday, my assistant asked if she could tell me about an incident in her family. She told me that her niece, while a back-seat passenger, was killed in an horrific car accident shortly after her 18th birthday—I believe that it was last year. The driver was subsequently charged with driving without due care and attention and fined £200. The victim's mother was recently stopped by the police and fined £60 for allegedly—she denied the charge—driving through an amber light. I am sure that all hon. Members can appreciate her views on the fairness of the system: a £200 fine for the motorist who killed her daughter and a £60 fine for her for allegedly driving through an amber light.

I support the view that sentences imposed are not tough enough. Evidence suggests that they do not deter people from repeating offences that can have tragic consequences. The issue must be addressed or we will continue to see the appalling and heartbreaking cases that regularly appear in the media when thoroughly decent, law-abiding citizens mourn loved ones who have been killed by criminal motorists.

Mr. Alan Campbell (Tynemouth)

What signal does my hon. Friend believe is sent out by a constituency case of mine in which an elderly gentleman going about his business was killed in a hit-and-run incident? The driver of the vehicle was sentenced to five years in prison, but was considered for release after serving less than 18 months.

Mr. Steinberg

My hon. Friend substantiates my points. The fact is that present sentencing policy and the law are not adequate. Something must be done or such cases will continue to arise. They will not stop simply because the law and sentencing policy are changed, but surely there will be a greater deterrent effect than at present.

Under the charge of driving without due care and attention—the charge faced by most drivers who kill or maim on the road—any death or injury is considered to be a "tragic but disproportionate consequence of a minor driving error". Magistrates say that under that charge 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 and not for the death that results from it. 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 charge carries a maximum fine of £2,500 and a driving ban, but drivers who are guilty of killing or seriously injuring someone on the road are routinely fined around £250 with a few penalty points thrown in for good measure.

A charge of driving without due care and attention must be made against a negligent driver within six months of a crash—I shall return to that point. The bereaved and injured often find the obscenely lenient sentence and the fact that the death or injury is not the central issue of the trial the most distressing aspect of post-crash legal proceedings. To put the charge in context, were the police to prosecute the driver of a vehicle that collided with another in a supermarket car park, they would use the careless driving charge. That just shows how ridiculous the situation is.

The law should be changed so that a more appropriate charge—manslaughter or assault—is brought against all drivers whose negligence results in the death or injury of another road user. Such a charge would address the death or injury as the central issue of the trial, as befits the seriousness of the offence. Even a charge of vehicle homicide should be considered.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

I have had the same sort of experience in my constituency, in a case involving a young lad. The Fisher family lost their son in a hit-and-run incident. When the case got to court, the driver was prosecuted and the same old sentence was dished out. After the court case, it was discovered that the driver had been smoking cannabis before he hit the lad, but the police never took that into consideration. No wonder people get light sentences if such things are not taken into consideration,.

Mr. Steinberg

Every Member of Parliament could give an example of a constituent who has suffered because of the appalling attitude and performance of some drivers—it is difficult not to be rude when describing such people. My hon. Friend has described another incident of someone basically getting away with murder.

The charge of causing death by dangerous driving is the more serious of the two charges, but it is seldom brought, because of the burden of proof. The charge, together with that of causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs and that of causing death by aggravated vehicle taking carries a maximum sentence of only 10 years' imprisonment and a driving ban. Unlike the charge of driving without due care and attention, which is heard in the magistrates court, such charges are heard in the Crown court, before a jury.

The police and the Crown Prosecution Service are reluctant to use the charge of causing death by dangerous driving even when there is clear evidence that a driver has been driving dangerously prior to a fatal crash. Falling asleep at the wheel, speeding, overtaking in the face of oncoming traffic, going through red lights and ignoring pedestrian crossings do not usually, in the eyes of the authorities, constitute dangerous driving.

Most drivers who kill on the road should be charged with causing death by dangerous driving. Sometimes, under pressure from bereaved relatives, the charge of driving without due care and attention is upgraded to that of causing death by dangerous driving, but if that is done, the alternative charge of driving without due care and attention should not be left off the charge sheet. There have been instances in which drivers found not guilty of causing death by dangerous driving have escaped any censure because the alternative, lesser charge, on which the prosecution should have fallen back, has not been included on the charge sheet. There is no time limit for laying the charge of death by dangerous driving, but if the authorities change their minds about the charge after six months have elapsed, they cannot then lay the lesser charge of driving without due care and attention.

Police officers sometimes refer to a charge of reckless driving, even though that charge was scrapped in 1991. Both the police and the CPS talk about intent and claim that, because a driver who killed or maimed on the road did not have any intent to kill, they cannot press charges of causing death by dangerous driving. However, intent is not a requirement and has not been one since changes to road traffic legislation in 1991.

A comprehensive approach to road traffic law reform can deliver the necessary changes and should be urgently addressed in the Criminal Justice Bill, which is now going through Parliament. As well as reforms to the current road traffic penalties, there must be reform that goes much further. Urgent change is needed in several other areas. When considering offences, we need to ensure that the fact of death or injury is a key point in criminal proceedings. There should be a variety of sentences based on the degree of culpability, including manslaughter. The courts must use the powers available to them: the low sentences for causing death by dangerous driving, the derisory fines for driving without due care and attention, and many other sentencing practices, cause a deep sense of injustice. The issue, therefore, is not only the penalties available, but the courts' use of them.

The Crown court should be the sole venue for cases of driving offences involving death or personal injury. Dangerous driving offences should be heard in the Crown court, not as mere summary offences in a magistrates court. The practice in magistrates courts of not mentioning and recording the fact of death is a disgrace and must stop immediately. The training of CPS lawyers in traffic matters and the proper use of charges including manslaughter and causing grievous bodily harm are very important.

The authorities are, I am afraid to say, frequently oblivious of and insensitive towards road victims. That is reflected in the conduct of proceedings, the weighing up of discretionary facts, such as inconvenience to the offender, and the language used in court, but there are many other examples. Victims face obstacles due to lack of information, and rights of appeal for victims' families in relation to serious road crash verdicts often appear to be applied unjustly, while offenders appear to be able to reduce their sentences on appeal. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck made another point: the responsibilities of persons being carried in the offending vehicle should also be recognised when considering offences and, where appropriate, they too should be prosecuted.

I agree with my hon. Friend that when guilty persons are released, they should be electronically monitored until it is established that they no longer pose a threat to the general public. I asked a parliamentary question about the following point. In the year 2000, 359 cases of causing death by dangerous driving were brought to court. Of that number, 72 were charged with causing death by dangerous driving under the influence of drink or drugs and 34 were charged of causing death by aggravated vehicle taking. That is a total of 465 offences that each resulted in at least one death, and perhaps more, committed by motorists who have subsequently been charged with a motoring offence. In comparison, in 2000–01, there were 73 recorded homicide offences by shooting. The Government were very quick to take action at the beginning of the year on gun crimes—and rightly so—but they have not been so quick to take action on dangerous driving.

Since March 2001, I have met two Secretaries of State and a Minister of State to discuss the problems. I took Mr. and Mrs. Briggs with me on two occasions. Although there is no doubt that the Ministers were very sympathetic, no concrete proposals have been introduced. Innocent victims and their families continue to suffer, while action taken against guilty offenders is derisory, ineffective and provides no real deterrent. In other words, such people get away with murder.

10.8 am

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North)

As my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) said, we all come across tragic cases, and we can only extend our sympathies to the parents and relatives of Rebecca Sawyer, whose case was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy). Such cases are tragedies, and people cannot understand how, when death is caused, the resulting sentence seems to trivialise the life that has been lost. There is a deep sense of grief and inadequacy among friends and victims as they have to confront the tragedy, and they feel a deep sense of hurt, which is often compounded by the way in which they are treated by the criminal justice system.

I certainly support what my hon. Friends have said about the need constantly to review the law, and I commend the work done by organisations such as RoadPeace, which has, over a period of years, put that important issue on to the political agenda. Nationwide, the consequences are enormous. Some 3,500 people die each year as a result of traffic offences. More than 500,000 are injured, and more than 100,000 are seriously injured. Considering purely the economics, or the bottom line, the result is an enormous cost to the national health service.

As my hon. Friend the Minister will point out, this country's record compares well with that of other countries. A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2000 of fatalities per billion vehicle kilometres travelled puts the United Kingdom at the bottom of the list for the number of road fatalities. Our figures were lower than those for comparable countries such as the United States, Australia and Germany. Nevertheless, our newspapers regularly report tragic cases in which life has been taken away but a fine of, for example, only £100 has been given. Politicians have a responsibility to address the issue.

As I said, we have a relatively good record in this country, but it seems that differences between countries have been flattening out. In fact, the number of fatal and serious injury road traffic accidents in the United Kingdom may be increasing. For the operational command unit in my part of the west midlands, the figure increased from 50 to 57 in the past year. Otherwise, the crime results are very satisfactory. Vehicle crime, burglary and other crimes are decreasing, but that increase stands out, although it is, admittedly, slight. Other areas in the west midlands have also seen an increase. The figures represent an enormous social problem involving shattered lives and individual tragedies.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Wansbeck and for City of Durham said, there is a range of offences. The most serious is manslaughter, but there are very few prosecutions for that. The Crown Prosecution Service must take into account the likely success or otherwise of a prosecution, and it is reluctant to bring a manslaughter charge without a realistic prospect of conviction. Other offences are causing death by dangerous driving, which has a penalty of 10 years, dangerous driving with no death involved, although there could be serious injury, and careless driving. As a result of the North committee report in the late 1980s, there is now the additional offence of causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck asked whether we should have an additional offence of aggravated dangerous driving causing death. I hope that the Government will seriously consider that, as well as other proposals for an intermediate offence between dangerous driving causing death and careless driving. Organisations such as RoadPeace have put forward strong arguments for a new offence of causing death by careless driving.

However, in our response to particular tragedies in our constituencies, it seems that we are concerned not so much with the offences but with sentences that seem lenient. The Government have announced that the penalties for road traffic offences causing death will increase from 10 to 14 years—perhaps the Minister can give us the timetable for that. It is a welcome step, but many other penalties, some of which my hon. Friends mentioned, could be given serious consideration. For example, it strikes me as strange that someone who is stopped and found to be over the limit for alcohol is not immediately deprived of his or her licence. It is thought to be somehow contrary to the person's human rights that they should not retain the licence until they go to court.

From what my hon. Friends have said, it also seems that previous convictions, which will be admissible under the Criminal Justice Bill, will help in some prosecutions. As has been said, some offenders have very serious previous convictions. If those were put before a jury, prosecutions for manslaughter or causing death by dangerous driving would have a greater chance of success.

My hon. Friends have pointed out that in sentencing, a death that results from driving is often not taken into account. That goes back to the North committee and, before that, to decisions of the Court of Appeal. It has always been said that the consequences of bad driving ought not to be taken into account unless a serious moral culpability is attached to the quality of the driving. For example, where there is dangerous driving, a death could be taken into account, so we have such an offence. However, paragraph 6.17 of the North report says: "We agree that it would be wrong to visit on the driver severe penalties for the consequences of an act which amounted only to carelessness." The North committee went on to say that those serious consequences ought to be taken into account in sentencing and suggested that legislation provide for thatB; unfortunately, the previous Government did not follow that recommendation.

That has always struck me as strange in comparison with other aspects of criminal law. In other cases, one does take the consequences of an act into account. For example, it is often said that the difference between wounding and manslaughter can be a fraction of an inch—a particular wound not causing death in one case but doing so in another and justifying the manslaughter charge. More generally, where the possible consequences of driving are foreseeable, they ought to be taken into account in sentencing if they then occur, whether or not they amount to death or serious injury.

When I was Solicitor-General, until 2001, I referred a number of cases to the Court of Appeal as being unduly lenient, to try to get judges to address the consequences of dangerous and careless driving. In the 1990s, the Court of Appeal said quite clearly in several cases that one should not take into account the fact that a death had occurred. In 1996, in the case of Downing, the Court of Appeal said that the judge should have had regard solely to the degree of carelessness and culpability involved, and should not have taken into account the tragic death that ensued. There were similar cases, such as Morling, and earlier ones such as Krawec.

In a case called Simmonds in 1999, the Court of Appeal clearly established that where death had resulted from careless driving, a higher sentence should result. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham touched on the fact that magistrates do not seem to have got that message. One can take into account the consequences of dangerous driving, such as death, when sentencing.

Earlier in April, in a case called Cooksley, the Court of Appeal made it quite clear that death can be taken into account in the sentence imposed by a Crown court. That case has also made it quite clear that when drivers cause death as a result of dangerous driving, they normally must expect a custodial sentence. It is a very detailed judgment, which resulted from the particular matter being considered by the sentencing advisory panel. One paragraph from the judgment commented that motor vehicles could be lethal if not driven properly. That being so, drivers must know that if, as a result of their driving dangerously, a person is killed—no matter what the mitigating circumstances—a custodial sentence will normally be imposed. I hope that Crown courts and magistrates courts will take that into account when sentencing in the future.

Sentencing is important, but as my hon. Friends have rightly pointed out, certain offenders do not get the message. They have previously been sentenced for motoring offences, yet they continue to drive in a way that ultimately leads to death. There is a core of persistent offenders, and my hon. Friends were quite right in saying that their activity makes them criminals. We must think not only of the substantive law in terms of the offences, and not only of how we sentence those cases, but must think of other ways to address a serious social problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck mentioned the fact that there seems to be a huge amount of driving by people who have been disqualified. We do not seem to be addressing that issue.

As for alcohol, in the Cooksley case the Court of Appeal said that where there was death by dangerous driving, the fact that a person had been drinking would be an aggravating feature. About 14 per cent. of fatal road accidents involve drivers with illegal levels of alcohol. About half those drivers are at almost twice the legal limit, and about 30 per cent. are young men. We must do something to address that. There has been a downward trend over the years in the number of drink-related casualties, but the trend seems to be flattening out. We must address the issue by enhancing the rehabilitation courses that drink drivers must take. We also need more drastic action in terms of allowing those people to drive again. As for breathalysing, it is possible for the police to stop vehicles and to breathalyse on the basis of a suspicion that a driver has been drinking, but why should we not have random tests?

We have introduced speed cameras and we have allowed the hypothecation of moneys raised through their use. There are now netting-off arrangements, and the evidence certainly demonstrates that there has been a substantial effect. Research published in February by University College London and PA Consulting demonstrated that there had been a 35 per cent. reduction in the number of people killed and seriously injured at camera sites. We have done a certain amount, but I have to say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I agreed with the Select Committee on Transport when it said that the new rules about visibility and location of cameras were unreasonable. Those rules stated that cameras had to be painted yellow and could not be obscured in any way. The Select Committee said that people would die as a result. I agree with the Government that we have to target the areas where the most serious speeding occurs, but I see no objection whatsoever to putting cameras in concealed places or to the use of hand-held cameras.

We must introduce a range of measures to address a serious social problem. We will always face political problems, and I concede that. However, we faced them over seat belts. This country was very slow in introducing compulsory seat belt wearing. In the early 1980s, it was said that compulsion was an unjustified invasion of freedom. It was said that seat belts, far from preserving life, imperilled it in some cases. It was said that some people would have difficulty in complying with the law. Finally, however, we bit the bullet, and, as a result, seat belts have saved many lives.

There will always be a backlash; we saw that when cameras appeared on the political agenda in early 2000. Various newspapers, especially the tabloids, ran campaigns about how cameras were one more thing oppressing the motorist, how they were affecting the right to drive, how it was somehow unsporting of the police to catch people in such a way, and so forth. We will face such problems. However, many people in the community support such measures, and we should not be misled by what the tabloids, motoring organisations or motoring journals might say.

In 1988, MORI asked people to respond to this statement: "The police should be allowed to stop drivers at any time and perform 'Spot Checks'". Some 41 per cent. strongly agreed, and 37 per cent. tended to agree. A MORI poll in 2001 found that 67 per cent. of drivers wanted cameras outside schools, and 80 per cent. did not think that they were an infringement of civil liberties.

We must also deal with the problem of criminality. Often, as my hon. Friends have said, serious perpetrators on the roads are criminals. Home Office research briefing note 5/00 found that a high percentage of dangerous and disqualified drivers were also perpetrators of other kinds of crime, and that traffic officers therefore had a dual role in protection against both traffic and mainstream offences. We must do more.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck on raising this important issue and putting it on the agenda again. The law has not caught up with the fact that cars can be dangerous killing machines. As my hon. Friend has said, causing death or injury as a result of negligence should not be punished lightly because such a crime was committed while someone was driving.

10.27 am
Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) on securing the debate. He will be aware that this country has the dubious honour of being the place in which the first ever road accident death occurred, 107 years ago. Tragically, during the intervening years, the number of people who have died on our roads, and throughout the world, has increased phenomenally. It is estimated that more than 1 million people are killed worldwide every year as a result of road accidents. As other hon. Members have observed, we in the UK have a relatively good record of reducing deaths and serious injuries on the roads. Even so, in this country some 3,500 people die every year, which means that about 10 people will die today, and tens of thousands of people are injured, so about 1.400 will be injured today. Much more work must be done.

Although it is worth bearing in mind that research done in 1999 by the Transport Research Laboratory suggested that the official figures probably understate the number of people who die and are injured, even if the official statistics from 1999 onwards are used, we find that some 150 people died on the railways, but 17,000 died on our roads in the same period. We all know that a rail accident gets acres of front-page media coverage day after day, yet the tens of thousands of people who die or are seriously injured on our roads rarely get even a column inch. It is important that we give more attention to deaths and serious injuries on our roads, which is why I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has secured this brief debate today.

Like others, I pay tribute to the work of RoadPeace, which was established in 1992 to represent and support road traffic victims. It supports the victims of all road accidents, not only those that result from dangerous driving and aggravated dangerous driving, but all its recommendations and proposals, if adopted, would certainly benefit victims of the crimes that we are discussing. For example, ever since it was established, RoadPeace has argued that it is vital to put the victims of road crime at the heart of policy making.

We should give much greater support and assistance to the victims of road traffic accidents. We should, for example, allow much greater use to be made of victim impact statements in court cases. There is no doubt that when the statements are used, victims feel that they have been part of the process and that their voice has been heard, and that that has been reflected in the sentences handed down. One person who was able to make such a statement said: "The fact that the barrister for the crown and the judge referred to" the impact statement "at length, reading aloud extracts, made a big difference to my brother and myself. I was very grateful to RoadPeace for making us aware that we could do this." She said that she felt that she had "made a valid contribution."

We must give more information and support to such victims. My hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who apologises for not being able to be here, told me of a case that occurred some 18 months ago in which the 14-yearold son of his constituents Christine and Jim Bradford died in a road accident. Not only did they have to cope with the trauma of their son's death, but they faced a huge struggle with the complex process that followed and its various procedures, not least in trying to get all sorts of information that they wanted, including independent measurements and so on. It is vital that we make that process easier for the victims of crime.

It is worth reflecting on the fact that although many victims want access to police reports, they are difficult to come by and can in some cases cost hundreds of pounds—it seems that there is no common charging policy. Perhaps we should consider making those reports more readily available and affordable. There is difficulty assessing information, but in some cases we make it particularly hard. If a case leads to a summary conviction, there is a six-month time limit on bringing charges. Whether a case comes before a magistrates court as a summary offence or whether a more serious charge is brought is decided in light of the information gathered, yet the time limit makes it difficult to gather the information in the appropriate time. We should address that.

A key point rightly made by many hon. Members is that sentencing policy does not appear to reflect the seriousness of the crimes committed. There is no doubt that in many of the examples given by hon. Members—and I could cite others from my constituency—victims have been led to believe that the criminal justice system simply does not take cases of death by dangerous driving or aggravated dangerous driving anything like seriously enough. We need to ensure that offenders are appropriately dealt with in relation to the crime, and that we send out a clear signal to society about the importance of the issue.

As the hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) rightly pointed out, research shows that, many perpetrators of dangerous driving or aggravated dangerous driving have fairly lengthy criminal records. They are not hapless victims of unfortunate circumstances; they are criminals, and should be treated as such. The Department's most recent research shows that 75 per cent. of dangerous driving offenders are males under 30, so it is worth bearing in mind the importance of giving training to young people.

The figures also show that almost invariably, those charged with dangerous driving are not facing their first or their last driving offence: 46 per cent. of them have previously been convicted on three or more occasions and 56 per cent. of offenders with three or more previous court appearances in 1996 went on to commit a further offence in 1997. That suggests that the whole process is riot acting as a deterrent. Evidence shows that serious traffic offenders cannot be thought of as otherwise law-abiding members of society: 50 per cent. of dangerous drivers had previous convictions and 30 per cent. of them had convictions for car theft.

The hon. Member for Wansbeck suggests that there should be a new category of offence. I am aware of the argument that, for example, the Crown Prosecution Service could use a charge of manslaughter, but appears to be reluctant to do so. There may well be great merit in the argument, which is supported by RoadPeace, but if nothing else, we ought to get our current procedures right. That is why I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should look closely at the commitment already made by the Home Office to increase the minimum sentence from 10 years to 14 years.

The Government made that commitment in July 2002. It is worth reflecting on the seriousness with which the Home Office views the matter, which is shown in the press release of 24 July that was produced as a result of various Government consultations on road traffic penalties. It states: "The paper recommends that the maximum penalty for the offences of causing death by dangerous driving; causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs; and causing death by aggravated vehicle taking, should be increased to 14 years." The Government made a clear commitment to introduce that. The press release continues: "Home Office Minister Bob Ainsworth said: 'The message we are sending out is clear: dangerous driving kills and those found guilty can expect to be severely punished."' The Government have an opportunity to do something in that respect: it is possible to table an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that is currently passing through the House. It has been suggested that such an amendment would be outside the scope of the Bill as it currently stands, but the Government have suggested in Committee that they intend to introduce a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for the possession of illegal firearms. If they are prepared to do that in respect of the use of illegal firearms, it is possible for them to table an amendment to increase the sentence for certain road traffic offences from 10 to 14 years, and I hope that they will do so. I know of several right hon. and hon. Members serving on the relevant Standing Committee who intend to table their own amendment to that effect in an attempt to persuade the Government to act, but it would be far better if the Government did it themselves. I hope that we will hear a clear statement from the Minister today that that is their intention. It is peculiar that the maximum penalty for burglary is 14 years but the maximum penalty for the offence of aggravated dangerous driving is only 10 years. That sends out the wrong signal. I hope that we will take this issue seriously, and I want to hear a clear commitment from the Government on that today.

I would have liked the opportunity to say something about the need to reduce the drink-drive limit—I have already tried to persuade Parliament to do that—and about the importance of other factors in judging what constitutes aggravated dangerous driving, including the use of hand-held mobile phones. This is a serious issue, which is not given the attention it deserves in this country. I am therefore grateful to the hon. Member for Wansbeck for securing this debate.

10.39 am
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) on initiating this debate, on his moving and powerful speech, and on the constructive suggestions that he made. The hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) referred to a constituency case in which three people were killed as a result of illegal driving in November 2000. Probably like other hon. Members, I was informed by the harrowing account of a series of appalling road incidents given in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle on 3 February, which detailed nine cases from the Newcastle and north-east area. I think that I am right to say that all those cases involved persistent offenders and people who had been disqualified from driving over a long period—people such as Mr. Carr, who had been disqualified for life, and others who had repeatedly been drinking and driving.

We should discuss such a serious issue at two levels. I will focus first on persistent criminal behaviour. The debate is timely in that it has been initiated so soon after the result of the Attorney-General's reference and the strong recommendations by the Lord Chief Justice on 3 April that the Government should now increase the maximum penalty, as hon. Gentlemen have said. The offence of dangerous driving that results not in death but in serious injury should be increased from two years to five years and the maximum penalty for dangerous driving that causes death should be increased from 10 years to 14 years.

I agree with the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) that now is the time for the Minister to make a policy announcement about such matters and to say that an amendment will be made to the Criminal Justice Bill. The Government have introduced any number of criminal justice measures and I should be surprised if, as the hon. Gentleman said, they argued that there is not the scope in the Bill to extend the maximum penalty for such serious offences. I certainly hope that that happens.

Equally important is whether the sentence, whatever it is, is implemented—imposed and served. I refer to the sense of outrage felt by the victims' families when their loved ones are killed by criminal behaviour but the sentence imposed does not mean what it says. As the hon. Member for City of Durham said, the headline sentence might be eight years, but after two years and four months the person may go into an open prison, and in a few more weeks he may be scot-free. It does not set a good example to the public if that can happen to someone who killed three innocent victims in an appalling driving incident. It gives the impression that we take the subject too lightly.

Like the hon. Member for Wansbeck, I want to know how it came about that the Crown Prosecution Service did not feel obliged to prosecute any of the other occupants of Mr. Carr's car. He had been disqualified from driving for life as a result of another incident. The hon. Gentleman did not refer to that incident because there had been so many. That incident took place in Scotland. Mr. Carr was sentenced in the sheriff court to four years imprisonment and disqualified from driving for life, having driven furiously at a speed in excess of 100 mph. His friends must have known about his criminal background, and known that he did not have a driving licence, yet having behaved despicably, they were not brought to justice. I wonder whether the Crown Prosecution Service feels that pressure is being put on it by the Government not to bring too many cases to court, but to keep matters nice and simple by going for the main culprit and letting the others go by the wayside.

There is too much pressure on the courts from the Government to ensure that sentences imposed are reduced, or are not as great as Parliament has set down that they may be. We read in the papers that the Government are obsessed with the number of people in our prisons. I am the first to say that we should not have people in prison who do not deserve to be there or who need to be released sooner, but there must surely be space in our prisons for the sort of people that we have been discussing today to serve extended sentences as a result of their culpability. I hope that the Minister will make clear statements in response to those points.

The issues are very serious, but through their policy the Government have the chance to change the law in the Criminal Justice Bill and to make a robust statement responding to the decisions of the Court of Appeal in the Attorney-General's reference case on 3 April. It is better that I conclude my remarks now to give the Minister a little extra time to respond. I know that he always relishes the opportunity to answer all the points that have been raised.

10.45 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson)

I relish the opportunity to answer all points made during the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) on securing it, and in particular on the way in which he opened it and has conducted it. He spoke with considerable passion and conviction. He conveyed his anger, and that of his constituents, over a particular incident, and over other incidents in which death occurred. When there is a death of a young child, passions are even stronger. I noted the words of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg), who talked about the frustration and distress that such incidents cause, and I concur.

The debate has been wide ranging. We have touched on road safety, sentencing and the operation of the courts. I shall be somewhat restrained in responding to all those points. Hon. Members will appreciate that much of the debate has gone beyond my brief, but I shall nevertheless attempt to respond to it on behalf of the Government.

As a preface to my remarks, it is true to say, as other Members—not least my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston)—have said, that this country has a good road safety record compared with that of other countries. That said, more than 3,000 people still die on our roads each year, and about 10 times that number are seriously injured. A figure that sticks in my mind is that each year, the equivalent of a medium-sized primary school of children is killed. That is the problem that we face. Although we have a good record, it will never be good enough, which is why we must continue with our successful efforts to drive down the figures.

I listened carefully to the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck. I totally support the tougher measures for which he called to deal with those convicted of causing death by dangerous driving. I am grateful for the helpful contributions from other hon. Members. I have a great deal of sympathy for my hon. Friend's views. Road safety is a matter in which we all have an interest, and the Government take the protection of all road users very seriously.

I am sure that Members would agree that the vast majority of the motoring public are responsible, law-abiding people who treat their fellow road users with care and respect. Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend pointed out, a small minority, for whatever reason, seem either unwilling or unable to conform to the normal standards of driving behaviour that we have come to expect; they do not observe the laws that exist to protect us all. It is true that the vast majority of younger drivers are extremely responsible, and we are talking about a tiny minority of people who cause a disproportionate amount of distress to others.

I am only too aware of the extremely distressing case to which my hon. Friend referred, and I have noted his early-day motion 668 calling for action to deal with criminal motorists who have killed other road users. The case of Rebecca Sawyer, who was just 6 years old, and her sister, Kirsty, who was just 18 months, is both tragic and shocking, as the debate has clearly demonstrated. The driver responsible for Rebecca's death and for seriously injuring Kirsty was, rightly, given a significant term of imprisonment. However, given his dreadful history of offending and his previous convictions for both motoring and other criminal offences, I fully appreciate the concerns raised by the case, particularly the importance of ensuring that there is an appropriate response to such utterly antisocial behaviour.

I share my hon. Friend's view that we should do everything reasonably possible to avoid any repetition of such an appalling incident. Indeed, the Government take seriously any suggestion that might help to reduce the annual toll of road deaths and injuries. I am sure that I need not remind the House that improving road safety is one of the priorities of the Government's transport policy. Hon. Members will be aware that the Government's road safety strategy addresses the whole spectrum of road safety issues.

Much has been achieved during the past few decades by successive Governments with better highway and vehicle engineering, improvements to driver testing and training, publicity and education, and focusing on the safety of road user groups. Improvement in car security systems has led to fewer car thefts because it is much more difficult to steal modern cars. Sometimes the crimes to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck referred take place in older cars without modern security systems.

We have also examined more rigorously the problem of driver behaviour and—this is of particular relevance to this morning's debate—it has been necessary, when persuasion does not seem to work, to look at stronger methods of enforcing road traffic law. One of our main commitments in that respect was to carry out a detailed review of penalties for road traffic offences in 2001, on which a report was published last year. A number of hon. Members have alluded to that.

On the specific issues raised by this debate, I share the concerns of my hon. Friend, and of many victims of road traffic incidents and their families, that appropriate sentencing for serious bad driving leading to death or serious injury is fundamental. The devastating impact of such crime is not always fully appreciated. As a number of hon. Members have said, such incidents are sometimes unreported. When cases come to court, the distress caused to victims and their families may not be raised or seems to be given minimal attention. The damage is, of course, most immediately experienced by the victims and their families, but there is also a significant threat to the security and general well-being of our communities.

In individual cases, sentences must be determined by courts on the basis of all the information that they have on each offence and offender. It has been suggested from time to time that there should be an additional "aggravated" offence that combines a measure of bad driving with the commission of other offences, such as driving while disqualified or without insurance. I think, however, that that is largely a matter for sentencing rather than for another offence. Normally, all relevant offences are put before the court, and it would be for the bench to take account of them in determining the appropriate sentence. However, the Government are aware that sentences perceived to be lenient can undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system. As a result, our report on the review of road traffic penalties, which sets out our preferences for changes to penalties, includes measures intended to provide the courts with sufficient additional powers to allow them to achieve a just disposal more readily in individual cases.

Most notably, in the review of penalties, we announced our intention to increase the penalties available for the offences of causing death by dangerous driving, causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs, and aggravated vehicle-taking where death results. We said that we would raise the sentence to 14 years' imprisonment as soon as a legislative opportunity arose. We will make an announcement on the matter. The hon. Members for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) raised the issue, as well. We have been looking for a legislative slot to deal with the matter. We are urgently considering it as a matter of considerable priority. An announcement will be made shortly.

Mr. Steinberg

With great respect, I have being hearing that since 2001. As I explained, I have met two Secretaries of State and a Minister of State. I was greeted with a lot of sympathy, but two years on, there is still no new legislation. Will the Minister guarantee that new clauses or amendments will be tabled to the Criminal Justice Bill, which is presently going through Parliament, to deal with the problem?

Mr. Jamieson

The issue is beyond the remit of my Department, so I cannot give my hon. Friend that guarantee. However, he has known me for a long time, in the House, and I assure him that it will not be long before he knows the result of the deliberations. The matter is of considerable importance to the Government, and we will make an announcement shortly. I hope that that announcement will bring some satisfaction to my hon. Friend. I cannot make the announcement now, but I hope that that is helpful to him.

In addition to the "causing death" offences, we said that we wanted to increase the maximum penalties for the core offences of dangerous driving, aggravated vehicle taking, other than where death occurs, and careless driving. For the first two offences the maximum penalty would be raised from two to five years' imprisonment, and for careless driving it would be raised from a fine of £2,500 to one of £5,000. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck said, that would make that offence arrestable. Again, we are looking for a legislative opportunity to bring those changes in and, again, we hope that it will not take too long. That matter will probably be more properly dealt with by my Department, and it will be addressed with some urgency.

My hon. Friend also made some important points about abandoned cars. That matter is very relevant to the debate. We are all concerned that abandoned cars blight the environment and all too often act as a magnet for crime and antisocial behaviour. My hon. Friend will be aware that, as a result of changes introduced in May 2002, local authorities can act more quickly against cars abandoned on the public road.

We also intend to reform the vehicle licensing and registration system to ensure that it is much more difficult for those who commit a whole range of vehicle-related offences—including the dumping of cars—to get away with it. We have already secured primary powers for a system of continuous registration, under which it will not be possible for people to evade responsibility for licensing their cars. We expect to make a full announcement soon.

In particular, we are promoting joint working between local authorities and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to tackle the problem of unlicensed and untaxed cars, which are tomorrow's abandoned cars and very often end up being used in the sort of criminal activity about which we have been talking today. Under the arrangements, the local authority can take the DVLA's powers to clamp and remove unlicensed vehicles. Joint working with a growing number of local authorities around the country has resulted in the removal of more than 8,000 vehicles in total, of which more than 3,500 have been crushed and removed permanently from the roads. Those initiatives have led to a reduction in abandonment, vehicle excise duty evasion, and other associated criminality. I understand that Wansbeck council is not currently participating in the scheme; I know that the DVLA would very much welcome an approach from the council, if it decides that it wants to go down that road.

Mr. Denis Murphy

That may well be because financial responsibility lies directly with the local authority. Will the Minister give us an assurance that extra resources will be made available to move those vehicles?

Mr. Jamieson

There is no time to go into that today. My hon. Friend's local authority can find out from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency what resources are available.

Time is against me. My hon. Friend and other Members have raised very important points and extremely distressing constituency matters. I hope that I have given some reassurance that the Government take such issues extremely seriously. If I have not been able to cover all the points, either the Home Office, which will also consider the debate very carefully, or I will respond later.

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