Drug driving in the Crime and Courts Bill 15/01/2013 09:49:00
Yesterday the Home Secretary introduced the Crime and Courts Bill for its Second Reading in Parliament. I took part in the subsequent debate, focusing specifically on Clause 37 of the Bill which outlines new legislation concerning drug driving. This is what I, and others, had to say about it:
Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central, Conservative)
It is always a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, and doubly so since he was so kind about me in his speech. He speaks with great authority on all these issues, and although he tempts me towards the issue of appeals in relation to family immigration, I hope he will understand if on this occasion I rise to speak specifically to clause 37, which deals with drug-driving.
On 26 June 2010 my constituent, Lillian Groves, was killed outside her house. She was just 14 years old. The driver of the vehicle that knocked her down was driving a car that was not licensed in his name. He had no insurance to drive that vehicle, was driving at 43 miles an hour in a 30-mile-an-hour zone, and a half-smoked joint of cannabis was found on the car’s dashboard. When the police found him he was not at the scene of the accident as he had gone some distance down the road.
I hope the House will not mind if I pause for a second to reflect on what Lillian might have done in the rest of her life, the people whose lives she would have touched, the children she might have had, and the contribution she might have made to our local town. It is not just the loss of her life, but the impact her death has had on her friends and, most particularly, her family. Lillian was taken to hospital and pronounced dead some hours later. Sadly, the blood of the vehicle’s driver was not tested immediately, and only after Lillian died did the police conduct a test. Cannabis was found in his blood. The family have never been told the level that was found although the Crown Prosecution Service told them that it was not sufficient to warrant a charge of causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drugs.
The driver was sentenced to just eight months in jail. He served just four months and was released. He lives locally to the family, so for the rest of their lives they will be faced with the knowledge that every time they go to the local shops there is a danger that they will bump into this individual who has never spoken to them, apologised or shown any remorse at all for what he has done.
To my mind, those of my constituents, and I hope all Members of the House, that family did not receive justice in any sense of the word, and I want to pay tribute to Gary and Natasha—Lillian’s parents—and Michaela, her aunt. A number of Members, including the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee and the Home Secretary, have been kind to give me credit for the campaign I have run, but I do not feel that I deserve that at all as I am just doing my job. Those who deserve credit in this instance are Lillian’s family. They took a terrible situation that no parent would ever want to endure, and rather than be consumed by anger—as I fear many of us would be—they wanted to turn it into something positive and see a change in the way that we as a society deal with this issue so that other families do not have to experience their anguish.
Lillian’s family found a powerful and useful friend in our local paper, The Croydon Advertiser, and in particular an excellent young reporter called Gareth Davies who worked with them to put together a campaign for what they have called “Lillian’s law”. They came to see me at my surgery to ask for my support, and the package they were looking for contained four items. First, they wanted a change in the law itself. As the Home Secretary mentioned in her speech, although it is currently an offence under section 4 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 to drive while impaired by drugs, it is extremely difficult to secure convictions under that legislation because it is difficult for the prosecution to prove impairment. There is no equivalent to the law on drink-driving whereby if someone has more than a certain level of a drug in their blood, that is held to be evidence of impairment. The law is not weighted in the same way. The first thing, therefore, was to change the law, which is what clause 37 does.
I hope the House will not mind if I mention a couple of other things that the family are also looking to see happen. The second point is to have a device, equivalent to a breathalyser, initially for use in police stations but in the longer term for use at the roadside. At the moment, the police conduct a field impairment test, the suspect can be taken to the police station and a doctor must be called to conduct a blood test. That is expensive and time consuming and there is therefore a disincentive to conduct such tests. It is important to get devices in place that allow tests to be carried out that are equivalent to those for drink-driving. I am pleased that the Government have recently given type approval for devices for use at police stations, and I understand—perhaps the Minister will confirm this—that the intention is to approve a device for use at the roadside by 2014.
The third issue was to look at sentencing and to ensure appropriate punishment for those convicted of such offences. The Bill would provide a level of sentence equivalent to that for drink-driving. The fourth thing, which can only happen once the three other pieces of the jigsaw are in place, is to look at an enforcement campaign similar to that of the 1980s on drink-driving. There was a time when lots of people drove under the influence of drink—to a degree, it was the cultural norm. It took that enforcement campaign in the 1980s to change attitudes, and I think we now need a similar campaign about driving under the influence of some drugs that, sadly, are all too prevalent in society today.
When the family came to see me at my surgery, I was faced with the challenge of what to do and how to help them. As usual, the House of Commons Library was a great place to start, and I began researching the law and previous efforts to change it—and to be fair to the last Government, they looked at this issue. It was a difficult and complicated matter, however, as several different Departments were involved: the Home Office, in relation to the police’s responsibilities; the Ministry of Justice, in relation to the criminal offence; and the Department for Transport.
I decided to raise the profile of the issue and ask about it in Prime Minister’s questions. I want to put on the record my thanks to the Prime Minister, because he agreed to meet the family and invited them to 10 Downing street to see him. I guess they found in him one of the few Members of the House who sadly could understand exactly what they had been through in losing a child. The staff at No. 10 have worked closely with all three Departments to get the change in the law before us today through as rapidly as possible.
I want to ask a couple of questions about the detail. Dr Huppert alluded to this matter in a question that he asked the Home Secretary earlier about what the limits for specified drugs might be. Proposed new section 5A(9) in clause 37(1) provides that specified limits could be zero. Paragraph 562 of the explanatory notes, which are always a great source of guidance, contains the wonderful sentence:
“New section 5A(9) provides that specified limits could be zero, though this does not mean that limits would in fact be set at zero.”
One can make of that what one will.
Lillian’s family feel strongly that the level for illegal drugs should be set at zero. As a matter of principle, they feel that people should not be taking these substances and therefore should not be driving under their influence. There is the strong counter-argument, however, that we should be led by science, as the hon. Member for Cambridge tried to point out, that we should try to discover what level of an active substance in the blood stream leads to the same level of impairment as the blood alcohol limit and that we should set the limits that way. Clearly, as the Bill tries to do, we also have to consider prescribed medications that have the same active substances as some illegal drugs.
David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate, Conservative)
I commend my hon. Friend for his leadership in driving through this important change. I want to ask about the sentencing impact. Assuming its safe passage, this proposal will have as its outcome a sentencing maximum of 12 months. If someone is impaired by being over the limit, whether in relation to drugs or alcohol, plainly that is inherently careless, but only if they were charged with causing death by careless driving while under the influence would their case get to the High Court for a much heavier sentence, which is what many of these people deserve.
Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central, Conservative)
As usual, my hon. Friend makes a good point, and I will explore those issues once I have dealt with the limits.
A decision needs to be made about whether the levels should be based as far as possible on the scientific evidence of similar levels of impairment to that caused by alcohol or whether there is a case, as the family believe, for zero limits for some of the most serious substances. As I understand it, the Government have set up the Wolff panel to consider the detail. They themselves are finding this a highly complex and difficult area and are taking a bit more time than originally envisaged to do this work, but I would be grateful for any guidance that the Minister could give in his winding-up speech about the timing of the panel’s report.
Julian Huppert (Cambridge, Liberal Democrat)
It is a fascinating balance. I have seen comments from the Wolff panel suggesting that alcohol is far and away the most dangerous substance that people can take, so although I support the aim in the Bill of reducing impairment, perhaps more work still needs to be done on drink-driving as well.
Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central, Conservative)
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point.
I am conscious of the time and of the fact that other Members wish to speak, so I will end by addressing the point about sentencing raised by my hon. Friend Mr Burrowes. The explanatory notes make an interesting point. They state that the sentencing has been set at the same level as for driving under the influence of alcohol. Paragraph 560 of the notes states that these are “the penalties set out in Schedule 2 to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 as increased, for England and Wales, by certain provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 which are not yet in force”.
Will Ministers give some guidance on what the provisions of this Act passed nine years ago are and why neither the previous Government nor the current one have yet brought them into force?
Paragraph 567 also makes an important point that I think answers the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate. It reads:
“Paragraph 2 amends section 3A of the 1988 Act so that if the person had a controlled drug in the blood or urine in excess of the specified limit for that drug, the person could be charged with the more heavily penalised offence in that section of causing death by careless driving”.
I believe that that means—I would be grateful if Ministers could confirm this—that the limits will apply to both offences and that in a case such as Lillian’s, if the driver’s cannabis level is above the limit subsequently set, the more significant charge could be brought against the individual.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to Lillian’s family for their work in advancing this cause. The House will know that Lillian is far from the only individual whose life has sadly been cut short by a drug-driver. No doubt, sadly, other Members will have examples from their own constituencies, but for me it has been a great privilege to speak up on behalf of this wonderful family, who want to ensure that other people do not go through the agony that they have experienced. I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and all the Ministers responsible for bringing the Bill before the House.