Time for a change in the law

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Last month I secured an Adjournment Debate in the House of Commons to debate an anomaly in legislation relating to drink driving laws, writes Alec Shelbrooke, MP for Elmet and Rothwell.

This debate followed the tragic death of 11-year-old Harry Whitlam, who was killed when a tractor reversed into him on a farm in my constituency.

Exactly four years ago this week, Harry was playing with a friend in the pubic area of the open farm when a tractor towing a slurry tank reversed into him. Harry was taken to hospital but, sadly, died from his injuries.

The tractor driver, Gary Green, was later found to be more than twice over the legal drink-drive limit and yet the Crime Prosecution Service (CPS) were unable to bring a prosecution under the Road Traffic Act because the accident had taken place on private land and not on a public highway.

This is the anomaly in current legislation that I am seeking to correct.

In circumstances such as these the only punishment available is for the Health & Safety Executive to prosecute a driver for failing to ensure the safety of persons other than employees.

Had the same offence taken place on the public highway then a very different sentence would have been issued; the likely sentence would have been six years (the crime attracts a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment). Instead, he was sentenced to just 16 months and 2 weeks for a breach of Health & Safety laws.

In the House of Commons I called for parity of esteem when it comes to prosecutions relating to preventable deaths, whether on public or private land.

This variance is simply unjustifiable, not only to the family of victims such as young Harry Whitlam but also to the hundreds of people who are injured or killed on private land every year due to another individual operating vehicles whilst under the influence of alcohol.

Harry’s case highlighted an anomaly in the law and it is in his name that I brought this issue to the House of Commons but it is not the first time I’ve brought similar issues to the Commons Chamber.

In October 2014 I secured a debate calling for stricter sentencing of drivers guilty of causing death whilst under the influence of alcohol. This debate followed the death of my 19-year-old constituent Callum Wark, who was killed when his Renault Clio collided with a HGV in March. The HGV driver – a Bulgarian national – was found to be three times over the legal drink drive limit and was sentenced to just seven years and eight months.

Speaking after sentencing, Callum’s father Robert Wark said: “Even though the judge gave the maximum sentence he could in relation to a guilty plea, all the family feel very let down by the justice system knowing he will only serve half the sentence. This has made us feel Callum has had no justice.”

It is simply incomprehensible to understand the heartache of losing a child in such circumstances and the ensuing desire for justice is natural.

For Harry Whitlam’s family it was incomprehensible that, despite the fact his killer was operating a vehicle on private land while under the influence of alcohol, he could not be prosecuted in the same way as he would have been had the incident happened on a public highway.

Whereas Callum Wark’s case highlighted the need for stricter sentencing for those guilty of causing death by drink driving, Harry Whitlam’s case highlighted an urgent need for a change in legislation when it comes to penalties for causing death by dangerous driving, whether on public or private land.

Following my debate the Minister of State committed to future legislative reform on this issue and I will be meeting with him alongside Harry Whitlam’s family in the autumn to progress this issue further.

But it is clear to me that there is still a long way to go before we win the battle of educating drivers to the fatal risks of drink driving.