MP accuses ministers over driving laws

A Norfolk MP yesterday accused policymakers of trying to keep people out of Britain's overcrowded prisons after it emerged that new sentencing rules could mean that drivers who kill could escape jail.

A Norfolk MP yesterday accused policymakers of trying to keep people out of Britain's overcrowded prisons after it emerged that new sentencing rules could mean that drivers who kill could escape jail.

South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon said that he feared the draft structure of punishments for drivers convicted of the new offence of causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving had been driven by growing pressure over prison places.

According to the consultation paper published yesterday, judges should be able to impose a community order even in cases of medium seriousness, and cases which lead to a death after a driver's “momentary inattention” could even be dealt with by low-level community order.

The normal maximum sentence for causing death by careless driving should be three years' imprisonment, even though the maximum allowed under the law is five years, the Sentencing Guidelines Council (SGC) said. The new “careless” offence received Royal Assent in November 2006 but has not yet been brought in.

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Mr Bacon said he thought it was right that action is taken by courts on an individual basis, but he added: “What I fear is that this piece of guidance is not driven by anything other than pressure on prison places and that is not the way to make a sentencing policy. The whole thrust of policy at the moment is to do anything to keep people out of prison.”

Two mothers who lost children in road crashes spoke of their anger over the guidelines.

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Liz Voysey, from Dereham, whose 19-year-old daughter Amy Upcraft was killed on the A47 in March 2004, and Bridget Wall, from Downham Market, whose 24-year-old son Adam died in 2002 on the same road, said the proposals sent out the wrong message and would make drivers think it was acceptable to flout the law.

Mrs Voysey, who has campaigned tirelessly for changes to the law, hit out at the proposals, saying: “When announcements like this are made it compounds the grief and the damage is incredible. I am doing this for Amy and all the other parents who will lose their children in this way because drivers think they can break the law or they are negligent and kill and it's okay. These new guidelines are reinforcing this message and it's not right.”

Mrs Wall, who chained herself to railings outside the House of Commons in 2004 in a bid to get changes made, said: “I am shocked and disgusted after hearing this. How can you give a community order to someone who has killed somebody? It doesn't seem right.”

The SGC also proposes new sentencing structures for the offences of causing death by dangerous driving, and when a motorist kills when under the influence of drink or drugs, or while driving illegally.

It says for dangerous driving the most serious offenders should receive between seven and 14 years' imprisonment and that uninsured or unlicensed drivers who kill on the roads should escape a jail term if there are no aggravating factors in the case.

Disqualified drivers who kill on the roads would face a jail term of between 36 weeks and two years, as would uninsured or unlicensed drivers whose actions lead to a fatality in cases where there are two or more aggravating factors.

The document - which will now go to justice secretary Jack Straw and MPs - also detailed how the courts should treat drivers who kill because they have been distracted by mobile phones, lighting cigarettes, reading maps, adjusting car radios or setting satellite navigation equipment.

The worst examples, carrying a punishment of between seven and 14 years' imprisonment, would include cases of a “prolonged, persistent and deliberate course of very bad driving”, or where substantial amounts of drink or drugs had been consumed.

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