Police Powers to Suspend Driving Licences

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Monday 10th January 2022

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Hansard Text

Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer (Plymouth, Moor View) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a privilege to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for her clear précis of the case and her clear, direct questions to the Minister, which I want to add to. I will not speak for long, but I want to pick at a couple of key issues in this case that the family want to understand, as would I and any ordinary citizen who sees such a tragedy and the response from law enforcement, the law of the land or, indeed, Parliament to that loss.

We have heard about Tom and what a lovely man he was. I pay tribute to Christina, his partner, and Charlotte, his mother, who have campaigned long and hard in the two years since Tom’s death. I also pay tribute to the police and emergency workers involved that night and particularly to Jason Mullard, a police liaison officer for the family who has done an exceptional job.

There are a couple of key points that I want the Minister to explain. Although she might not be able to answer our questions this afternoon—I accept this broaches issues for different Departments, such as the Home Office, Justice and so on—I want to get these answers from Government. If you commit an offence with a firearm—unfortunately we had one of those in Plymouth this year as well—or are involved in a domestic abuse incident, orders can be put in place to preclude contact between the protagonists in the case. If you drive without insurance, your car can be seized, but it seems that if you commit an offence such as the one that we are talking about today, you can be taken in for the night, sober up and get everything come out of your system, then pick up your keys and just carry on driving.

In situations involving domestic violence, which are complicated, terrible events, it is often hard to understand what is really going on, but with the technology we have available now, drink-driving or drug-driving are binary. They are black and white: people either fail a test or they do not. So it is hard to understand how the scenario can present itself wherein police officers operationally decide—we have heard it is an operational decision—that an individual who has abused their privilege of driving can just crack on the following day as though nothing has happened. I have concerns that the family of the individual who has lost their life—in this case Tom—wherever it may be in this country, will see those individuals carrying on as though nothing has happened, waiting for a court appearance. They are not being served by the law, and I totally understand their pain and frustration. Where that is the case, we have a duty, as Government, Ministers and MPs, to represent them and address the problem.

Paul Howell Portrait Paul Howell (Sedgefield) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just death caused by driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs that we are talking about here? Careless driving, rather than dangerous driving, with all the subtleties around that, can cause massive injuries. I had a constituent, Thomas Gill, who suffered massive injuries due to a drug-driver, but the nuances in that case were such that the driver ended up with a pathetically light sentence. This issue is important in more cases than those involving death.

--- Later in debate ---
Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, because there is a serious point here. I have heard it anecdotally, speaking to prison officers and others who spend their time in prison, that if is often said, “If you want to kill someone, run them over,” because the sentences are such as joke. We have known about that for such a long time in this country that it is hard to understand why it still exists.

Even police officers who have seen Christina’s campaigning in this case have said that they need this power. We have been working with the family and Government, with the to-ing and fro-ing that happens in this space, and the Government have said in response that the police have those powers. They may well have them, but when the figures requested by the hon. Member for Neath come out of the Government, we will see that they are hardly ever used, so there is clearly a problem. Either the police do not know about it, or the problem is with their training and understanding that seeing a perpetrator driving round for the next 12 months without any sanction whatever, having seriously injured or killed one of our constituents, is clearly not acceptable, and not only for us as MPs who represent these cases. Imagine being a family member seeing that. We clearly have to address something there.

I reiterate my request that the Minister meets the family. It is so important that these voices are heard. As MPs, we see a lot of injustices and so on, but this one appears particularly egregious. Think about your son or partner losing his life in the way Tom did, with the perpetrator leaving the scene of the accident, admitting perverting the course of justice, drink-driving and so on and going to prison for three and a half months for killing your son or fiancée. That is not right. We all know it is not right, but no one has quite been bold enough to grasp the nettle on this. I commend the Government for increasing sentences from 14 years to life for some crimes, but that needs to be broader. At the moment, there does not seem to be a clear delineation between the damage someone can cause by, for example, knocking off a wing mirror and failing to report it and actually killing a human being. It is pretty basic stuff, but we do not often see it until it is clearly painted by seeing one of the families, as we have here today.

What do I want on behalf of the family? I want the Government to take this issue seriously and really address that core point. Leaving the scene of an accident is not a normal reaction. In other instances, such as an athlete failing to take a drugs test, it will be pretty obvious why they have done that. We need to make the sanction for leaving the scene of an accident as bad as being done for the crime, so that people are actually honest and victims can actually get some sort of justice.

Ultimately, we are all accountable, and police officers are public servants too, and I am a huge fan of them, but where operational decisions cause this much pain and injustices of this scale, we have to intervene and ask what is going on with these sentencing provisions. A person can essentially kill someone, using a car as a weapon, leave the scene drunk or high on drugs, go and hide and then hand themselves in the next day and get away with three and a half months in prison. That is extraordinary. It reflects really poorly on all of us. Crucially, think about if that happened to your son, partner or fiancé. You would be absolutely livid if that was the price that we, as legislators, or the House of Commons or the police put on your son’s or fiancé’s life.

I urge the Minister to think about those things in her response. I reiterate the request that she meet the family. We will continue with this campaign. If someone fails a binary drugs or drink test at a roadside with calibrated equipment and is therefore clearly not fit to drive, they have not taken their privilege of driving responsibly enough, and I can honestly see no clear reason why they should not therefore lose their licence. If the judge decides afterwards to give it back, fine, but there should be some sort of mandate whereby someone loses that privilege—it is a privilege, not a right—to drive if they are caught over the limit for drink or drugs. That is a very low bar for a Government that is committed to victims and to upholding the rule of law to achieve.

--- Later in debate ---
Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. He underlines the fact that, when a petition reaches 100,000 signatures, that does not happen by accident. It happens because there is an issue of concern. It normally happens because there is a campaign and passionate people behind it. The fact that we have signatures from all over the United Kingdom speaks volumes for the case that the family are making.

I do not intend to repeat everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Neath and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View have said, but I will raise a number of aspects to highlight my concerns to the Minister. The rather brilliant Library brief that was put together for this debate put a stress on bail conditions. It is true that if someone is arrested for drink or drug-driving, bail conditions can be applied to the individual to ensure that they cannot drive. The difficulty in this case and many other cases is that bail conditions are not being applied to those individuals, because those individuals are released under investigation.

I have significant concerns about RUI and the effect that it has, not only in parking many crimes, but in not giving victims and their families justice or updates. It elongates the process. We know that there is a crisis in our courts, and our police are stretched, so RUI does give them with the ability to provide longer periods for investigation. That is certainly true, but justice delayed is justice denied. My fear about the increased use of released under investigation, especially in cases of drug and drink-driving, is that it is not giving the police and the authorities the pressure to deliver swifter prosecutions, nor is it delivering the important justice for the families to see someone charged for their crime and that crime brought forward to a court.

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think the police would say that they have a certain period of time in which they can hold people, pre-charge, on bail, and that is why they use RUI. When it comes to the issue of drink and drug-driving, the technology is now so good that someone will have a test on the roadside and it will be clear whether they have failed. It is not like investigating an assault or something where there are two sides to the story. It is black and white, and there is no real reason why a bail condition cannot be imposed that someone is not allowed to drive, having abused that privilege by being caught drink-driving.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Member raises a good point. One of the difficulties the Minister has in replying to this debate is that, as a Transport Minister, she will only be able to speak on behalf of the Department for Transport. However, this issue stretches across the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. The 11 months that Tom’s family had to wait for justice is far too long. That is because of pressures on the court service and the police. As much as I would love to put the responsibility on the Minister herself, it is the responsibility of other Departments. We need to see a joined-up approach to make this work.

Release under investigation is a particular problem that is delaying justice. It is delaying justice in cases like this and in many others. That is why the police and the authorities can attach those bail conditions to individuals. If someone is released under investigation for something that happens many times in the future, there are no such bail conditions attached to a release under investigation status. Therefore, the provisions that exist in law, quite correctly, to limit the behaviour of an individual—in this case, probably to ensure that another crime is not committed in that way—do not apply.

From my interpretation, that is effectively why Tom’s law is seeking to backfill and repair some of the legal fabric that has been changed by release under investigation. If the suspect in this case were bailed, I suspect those bail conditions would have been attached. That is one of the difficulties we have in this case. I hope that the Minister will agree to meet the family to discuss this, but I would also be grateful if she would put in a good case for a meeting with the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. I think there is a cross-Government approach that needs to be adopted here.

I mentioned the short sentence. I, too, welcome the increase in the tariff in the sentencing for those people who kill via drink-driving from 14 years to life. However, that did not apply in this case, and I think it is entirely legitimate for any family who have been robbed of the life of their loved one to look at the sentence that has been afforded and say, “Three months and three weeks is not justice.” I have sympathy with the family for the way in which they seek to pursue that aim through the courts, and now through politics as well. My hon. Friend the Member for Neath mentioned one of the remarks of the judge in this case: that “the surest thing” was that the offender would have to live with the consequences. No, the surest thing is that the family will have to live with the consequences for much longer, and with a much deeper sense of pain and loss, than the offender. That is why there is a real difficulty in relation to this issue.

My hon. Friend echoed the words of the family: driving is a privilege, not a right. One of the questions that we must ask ourselves in this place is, “To what extent does that privilege apply where a vehicle has been used to either kill or maim someone and the driver has been under the influence of drugs or alcohol?” At that point, it is reasonable for us as Parliament to take a view as to whether there should be a legal ability to prevent that person from driving. Indeed, to a certain extent, we have already taken that view: long before I or my neighbour, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View, was in this place, Parliament passed legislation that put bail conditions on those individuals. There is precedent here, but that view has not been applied to release under investigation in the same way, so there is a sound argument for looking at whether RUI has changed the social contract—the deal—between the state and victims as to what applies in the event of someone being maimed or seriously hurt when a driver has been under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It is important to look at that issue.

The challenge in this debate is not only how we can remember Tom, and give the family who have campaigned so thoroughly, professionally and compassionately in his memory the justice that the courts, through the low-bar sentencing, did not deliver. The challenge is also how we can we prevent this from happening in future. The responsibility and obligation that falls on parliamentarians is to ensure that no other family goes through what Tom’s family have gone through. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View has been pursuing that aim with the family for some time, and I act as his assistant in this respect to support the measures he has taken.

I would, however, like to add some words of caution. I am concerned that if we give extra responsibilities to the police or the courts system without adequately resourcing them, justice could be further delayed. If steps are to be taken, I would like them to be accompanied by the proper resources, to ensure that doing so does not elongate the process in relation to any cases and that we continue to reinforce the primacy of the courts in this matter. The ability of the police themselves to deliver restrictions on the kerbside or from the point of charge should always be tempered by the ability of a court to judge the person involved. Drink and drug-driving is one of those offences that is peculiar among cases in the criminal justice system, in that the courts see people from every single walk of life. It is important that when applications are put in, everyone can have justice when their cases are heard, but most importantly, that the victims and their families in those cases can have justice at the same time.

I would be grateful if the Minister could look at some of those aspects of this issue. I appreciate that, as a Minister in the Department for Transport, many of the aspects I have raised are not her responsibility. However, there is a need to join up with the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to ensure that the right questions are being asked of the competent Departments in relation to this issue, so that Tom’s family can truly have justice and the likelihood of something like this happening again can be reduced.

--- Later in debate ---
Trudy Harrison Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Trudy Harrison)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for the way in which she opened this debate on e-petitions relating to police powers to suspend driving licences. Those petitions raise specific concerns about allowing drivers who are suspected of committing road traffic offences to continue driving.

I also put on the record my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) for his effective and convincing portrayal of the situation and for his work with Tom’s family. Likewise, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) for noting that although Plymouth has been well covered in the debate, the issue affects the whole country. I thank all Members for the way in which they have contributed to the debate.

I reassure Members that the Government take road safety seriously; it is at the core of the agenda of the Department for Transport. Any death or serious injury is, of course, an absolute tragedy, and our deepest condolences go to Tom’s family, who are here today. My ministerial colleague with responsibility for roads, Minster Baroness Vere of Norbiton, has met the families of victims of similar incidents, and is aware of the devastating effect on the families involved. I am not the roads Minister, but I can confirm that Baroness Vere is willing to meet Tom’s family. I understand the tragic circumstances surrounding Tom’s death, and I extend my sympathy to all.

I recognise the concerns that in some cases the police should be able to issue a suspension notice with effect from the moment an offender is arrested at the roadside until they appear in court. Although we must do all we can to improve the safety of our roads, we must not, in an attempt to resolve perceived problems with the way in which the law operates, make a decision that could ultimately make things worse or have other unforeseen effects.

Let me turn to the current offence of failure to stop and report, and the calls for the suspension of driving licences. Currently, under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the police can impose bail conditions for particular purposes, as was mentioned earlier. One of those conditions is that no further offences are committed by the suspect while on bail. I asked the very question that the hon. Member for Neath raised, but I was unable to get the answers that she wants, so I will endeavour to write to her with that information. That might not be possible, because the information may not be collected in the first place, but I understand the need for more information, which it might be possible to seek through the courts. I assure Members that we will work with the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.

The criminal courts also have the power to impose an interim driving disqualification before sentencing in a case involving discretionary or obligatory disqualification from driving, or when transferring such a case to another court. I want to make it clear, however, that the Government do not dismiss at all the concerns that have been raised. We are, of course, aware of the traumatic effects of such incidents.

I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members appreciate that this is a complex issue that should fit within the current driving offences framework. Department for Transport officials have been exploring options that could be pursued, and they will consider with interest the points that have been raised in the debate as part of their consideration of road traffic matters. In respect of any potential law changes for road traffic offences, we will consider the triangulation of interests—those of the victim, the suspect and society. A call for evidence will enable issues to be fully explored, so as a next step, the Department will conduct a call for evidence on parts of the Road Traffic Act 1988. While details on its scope are being worked on, I am sure close attention is being paid to the points raised and to the campaign for Tom’s law.

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I appreciate the Minister’s response. She said that her officials will look at this debate and build it into a consultation. Will she ask her officials to write to me, as the constituents’ MP, with a reflection on today’s debate? The points raised are clear. I do not know if she has a reason, but there appears to be no clear reason why, with the technology available today, if someone fails a drink and drive test by the roadside, they should retain their licence. I would be interested to hear the Department’s position on that.

Trudy Harrison Portrait Trudy Harrison
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will endeavour to do just that. I will ensure that we write to my hon. Friend with that information as far as we can.

Most of all, I would like to thank Christina, Charlotte and Sandra for their bravery and courage campaigning for Tom’s law, and for being present for this debate. I expect the issue of police powers in serious road crime to form part of the call for evidence.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is welcome news that the Minister’s Department is looking into this matter. I think she made a commitment for a consultation, and it is welcome that it will be included. Her officials may say that the suspension of a driving licence should be a Home Office matter, but in her Department, would she look at penalty points notices? As it stands, someone who causes death by careless driving with alcohol and drugs above the limit can be subject to three to 11 points on their licence, and over that their licence is removed. The option of suspended penalty points means they can be applied to the licence in the period before conviction, which is another means of achieving what Tom’s law seeks to do. That is not necessarily a licence suspension, but an application, albeit temporary until a court process, of penalty notices or penalty point endorsements.

Trudy Harrison Portrait Trudy Harrison
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank hon. Gentleman for making those points. He will understand that I am not the roads Minister, and I am responding on the behalf of the roads Minister, Baroness Vere of Norbiton. Officials in the Department will be listening closely to what he says and will endeavour to take that into account. He is correct to mention a consultation; a call for evidence will be taken forward.

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for her magnanimous delivery, which is very measured. However, I have trouble with three things. First, if someone is released under investigation is that under guidance rather than under statute? Secondly, she referred to the data for which I asked—is that because it is not collected nationally, or because separate police forces do not have the IT or the staff to do it? Thirdly, I have a problem with RUI as opposed to police bail. The Minister must be aware of the tragic case of Kay Richardson, who was murdered by her estranged husband after he was released under investigation. He had previous domestic abuse convictions, but bail conditions might have protected her.

Trudy Harrison Portrait Trudy Harrison
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am afraid I cannot answer the wider questions on RUI. When I asked for the information, I was led to understand that it was not collected, which is why I am seeking further information through the courts system. We will get that information and I will endeavour to respond to the hon. Lady on those specific requests as soon as I can.

I thank hon. Members again for raising this important issue and for the campaign for Tom’s law.