Every year over 23,000 people are killed or seriously injured on Britain’s roads. Each and every one of those crashes is a tragedy. We may have seen major improvements in road safety over the past few decades but progress on reducing casualty rates is stalling. Far too many crashes causing death or serious injury are the result of dangerous, careless, drunken or disqualified driving on our roads.
These crashes shatter lives and victims and their families deserve justice. But David Cameron’s government is asleep at the wheel and he has repeatedly failed to clamp down on bad drivers causing chaos and misery on our roads. Ministers may have been trumpeting plans to ensure that drivers who have killed on the roads in the UK will be banned for longer. But this, like other changes to the justice system needed to prevent dangerous driving, have been delayed for too long.
Thousands of people continue to drive while disqualified, putting public safety at risk. In 2012, 8200 people were convicted of driving while disqualified – many of whom are repeat offenders. This is a staggeringly high number of people who are wilfully defying court orders and carrying on to drive while banned.
Last year Labour proposed a change in the law to clampdown on this reckless flouting of the law. We wanted to see disqualified driving treated as a ‘triable either way’ offence, with a penalty of up of two years’ imprisonment. The current maximum is a mere six months which may be fair for some cases – but the punishment is not enough for those repeat offenders with multiple disqualifications on their record, who carry on driving oblivious to the courts.
But coalition ministers opposed Labour’s sensible proposal, giving the greenlight to repeat offenders. Two-year maximum sentences would mean serial offenders spend up to four times longer in prison than is the case now — and of course, they would be off the road for all that time. Labour’s priority is to deter disqualified driving by sending a clear message that it is unacceptable.
Sadly ministers are more bothered about rhetoric than action. Their attempts to tackle road offences has been piecemeal and delayed – with announcements on changing the law made in the press, but not delivered. The current proposal to ensure that drivers causing death by dangerous driving only start serving bans after they leave prison has been delayed in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill for months. Why? Because that Bill includes proposals to build a new £88m borstal and neuter the key legal mechanism of judicial review, which has been repeatedly rejected by the House of Lords. By lumping important changes to driving offences in with a mismatch of random criminal justice policies, Ministers continue to let down victims of tragic road crashes.
While the Conservative Party seem content to just try to grab headlines, a Labour Government would look properly at sentencing and justice for road offences. There are serious questions to answer about how our courts treat offenders who endanger lives, and how justice is done for victims. Our consultation on a new Victims Law – which will give victims of crime new rights and entitlements – has heard strong calls from campaigners that road crash victims need to start being treated as victims of crime too.
Since 2013 Labour has been calling for a review of how sentencing and the justice system treats road users. It took until the following May for the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, to finally to back our proposal. And where is it? The Sentencing Council cannot officially reform their guidelines for driving offences until after the government have published this review but it is nowhere to be seen. It was promised in ‘due course’ but it looks to have been kicked into the long-grass until after the general election. Yet more delays for victims.
A Labour government will restore road safety as a priority again – starting with restoring the national targets to cut road deaths and serious injuries that were scrapped by the coalition. Targets will focus minds on improving safety – not only within the Department of Transport, but in law enforcement agencies and councils, and of course within the Ministry of Justice too. This government’s piecemeal and complacent record in making our roads safer is not good enough. Everyone who uses our roads deserves better than this out-of-touch government.
Richard Burden is Shadow Minister for Roads and MP for Birmingham Northfield. Andy Slaughter is Shadow Minister for Justice and MP for Hammersmith.