Road Traffic Offences: Fatal Collisions

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Monday 15th November 2021

(2 years, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Andrew Stephenson Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Andrew Stephenson)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for opening this petitions debate relating to road traffic offences for fatal collisions and to specific concerns about the offence of failing to stop and report.

I pay tribute to all hon. Members who have spoken with such passion about families in their own constituencies and across the UK, many of whom have been fighting for justice for some time following what has happened to their loved ones. I thank in particular the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd), who spoke movingly about the death of his daughter.

I reassure all Members that the Government take road safety seriously. It is at the core of the work of the Department for Transport, especially as we are working so hard to boost walking and cycling across the UK. Many of the cases that have been mentioned have, tragically, involved pedestrians or cyclists.

James Grundy Portrait James Grundy (Leigh) (Con)
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More than 1,000 people in my Lancashire constituency of Leigh have signed the petition on Ryan’s law. Will the Minister give those people assurances that the Department is looking at both clarifying and strengthening the law on this matter?

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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I thank my hon. Friend for that point—I hope he will bear with me, as I will come to that in more detail. Like other hon. Members, I know the strength of feeling in my own constituency, where dangerous driving is a top concern for residents.

Let me be clear: any death or serious injury on our roads is unacceptable, and our deep condolences go to victims and their families. My ministerial colleague Baroness Vere of Norbiton, the Roads Minister, has met families of victims of similar incidents, as well as MPs who are campaigning for their constituents, including my hon. Friends the Members for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) and for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory).

We understand the tragic circumstances that have led to the petitions and to the concern that, in some cases, something is perhaps not working with the law. Although we must do all we can to improve the safety of our roads, we must also be careful that we do not make any rash decisions that could ultimately make things worse, or create other unforeseen effects, in a rush to resolve problems with the way in which the law currently operates.

I will start by turning to the current offence of failing to stop and report. In the case of failure to stop and report, we know that in a small number of cases the failure to stop may be related to an event that leads to death or serious injury to another person, but we must not forget that in the vast majority of cases convictions for failing to stop involve low-level traffic incidents such as hitting a wing mirror on a narrow street. It is only in an extremely small number of cases that there may not be any other evidence to connect the death or serious harm with the driver who failed to stop, meaning that the only offence that they have committed is that of failing to stop and report.

I understand the concerns that have been raised about the matter, which has previously been brought to the attention of my Department. However, increasing the maximum sentence for failing to stop and report, even in a limited scope where there has been a serious or fatal injury, cuts across the basis for that offence. I must stress that the offence of failure to stop and report is designed to deal with the behaviour relating to the failure to stop; it is not provided as an alternative route to punish an offender for a more serious but unproven offence. Increasing the custodial sentence so that it is comparable to sentences for causing death by careless or dangerous driving, or including it in one of those offences, would represent a massive uplift in the potential sentence, for an offence that I remind hon. Members requires no evidence of a causal link between the failure to stop and the death or serious injury.

It must be remembered that where there is evidence that a driver has caused harm, there is already a range of other offences, including causing death by serious injury or dangerous or careless driving, with which the driver can be charged. In those cases, courts can treat the failure to stop as a factor that adds to the overall seriousness of the offending. That can result in the offender receiving a higher sentence. Where there is evidence that the driver knew about the incident and took steps to avoid detection, they can be charged with perverting the course of justice—a common law offence that already carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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Does the Minister have any details on how often that has been invoked? It is one thing to say that they could be charged with perverting the course of justice. Does it ever happen?

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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It is unwise for Ministers to comment on prosecutorial or judicial decisions. I was reading this week about a case just outside my constituency where somebody who had failed to stop was charged with death by dangerous driving. We need to look at the suite of options for the charging authorities. Simply strengthening the failure to stop and report offence may not be the most effective way of ensuring the justice that I know many families are seeking to achieve.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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The concern that the petitioners and hon. Members have relates to the perverse incentive for people to flee the scene. Should there not be a new charge of failing to stop following a fatal or serious injury?

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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That is something that the Department has been looking at, and that Baroness Vere, the Roads Minister, has been talking to families about. We are keen to see more evidence on the reasons behind failures to stop and report such serious incidents. As I have said, it is clear that the majority of incidents that are treated as a failure to stop and report are low-level motoring incidents; however, we need to gain more evidence on the most serious cases.

In some of the cases cited today, drivers said that they felt they hit a fox or a deer. Various other people panicked. A range of justifications have been used. Whether they are true justifications or not, it is important that we understand the situation more. The University of Leicester carried out some research in 2017 on behalf of the Motor Insurers’ Bureau, but we have to build the evidence base to ensure that whatever we do to reform the offences does not have unintended consequences, but strengthens the law and gets families the justice that they deserve.

Linking death or serious injury with a failure to stop as a cause, however well intentioned, could risk creating an unfairly severe offence. The law already imposes severe penalties for vehicle owners who cause death or serious injury, but a clear causal link needs to be provided between the driver’s behaviour and the outcome. The proposals in the e-petitions essentially equate the seriousness of a failure to stop with culpability for causing death or injury. I repeat that that would create serious anomalies with other offences, which could result in potential injustices.

I want to be clear, however, that the Government are not dismissing the concerns that have been raised. We are aware of the traumatic effects of such incidents, which we have heard so eloquently expressed by Members from all parties today. We agree that there might be something wrong with the law as it stands; it may not be working as well as it should in this area. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will appreciate from what I have already said that this is a very complex area, and any change in the law should fit within the current driving offence framework. Officials from my Department have been exploring options that could be pursued in this area. They include, but are not limited to: the available penalties; how the offence operates; how the offence is dealt with in the sentencing guidance; and the potential for a new offence as part of a longer term and wider approach to road safety. I am sure that officials will consider the points raised by Members from across the House in the debate today as part of their considerations of that offence. As the next step, the Department is considering conducting a call for evidence on parts of the Road Traffic Act. Although details are still being worked on, I expect this will include failures to stop and report as an offence.

Ben Bradshaw Portrait Mr Bradshaw
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Could the Minister possibly address the question of where the full review of offences and penalties has reached? Is that what he was talking about? He seems to be suggesting a call for evidence on just a few areas, but we were promised a full review. Could he also say something about the use of exemptions to get off bans; is that involved in this call for evidence? It is an egregious problem.

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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As the right hon. Gentleman said, the Government committed to carry out this review of road traffic offences in 2014. A review of the most serious offences was carried out in 2017; the outcome of that review has fed into the measures that we are bringing forward as part of the police, crime, sentencing and courts Bill that was referred to by a number of hon. Members. Baroness Vere is looking at that and seeing how we could potentially go further. The further call for evidence would seek to build on the measures that we have already identified, and are bringing forward as part of the Bill—that would be in addition to the steps we have already taken.

I thank right hon. and hon. Members for what they have said; their contributions are being listened to by officials in the Department for Transport and across Government. This is an area that we have to get right. I especially pay tribute to the families who have come here and taken the time to share their stories with right hon. and hon. Members.