"Nothing to be done" Government inaction on delayed sentencing review continues

Ministry of Justice; Flickr cc: DncnH
Two years ago the then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced a full review of all driving offences and penalties. Replaced by Michael Gove last year, what do Grayling and Gove have in common apart from their views on Brexit? The answer is under their watch, waiting for the review is like Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s play where there is nothing to be done, and [SPOILERS] nothing happens

Elastic Promises

When Cycling UK reported on Grayling’s announcement in May 2014 there was cautious enthusiasm amongst road justice campaigners. With a promise of a full review of driving offences and penalties "over the next few months", plans to change the law "shortly" to introduce new, tougher maximum sentences, and an assurance that the changes were "expected to be implemented in early 2015", it was hoped that Grayling’s review would not get stuck in first gear.

Many of the issues raised within Cycling UK's Road Justice campaign concern charging decisions in cases of bad driving, where the distinction between careless and dangerous driving creates uncertainty and inconsistent decisions. Those problems are exacerbated in the sentencing process, where there is often an inadequate use of disqualification and confiscation powers. All of this has to be addressed within a broad review of offences and penalties, with wide and open consultation.

Alas, the devil was in the detail. The press release accompanying the announcement also confirmed that the outcome of the review would be published "in due course"; a phrase which has been repeated five times in the last eight months by three different Government Ministers responding to various MP’s written questions about the delay in commencing this review.

If somebody asked you in your working life when you would complete a task and you answered ‘in due course’, that would be considered an inadequate answer. Presumably the Government would have a similar response if you promised to pay your taxes ‘soon’, or ‘in due course’!

Fobbing off backbenchers

To the credit of many MPs the Government has not been allowed to kick this review into the long grass without enquiry or opposition. Alarmingly their questions have elicited answers which defy that description. An exercise in obfuscation of which Sir Humphrey would be proud.

Jim Fitzpatrick MP attempted to nail down the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Andrew Selous MP, at a debate in Westminster last September. Keen to know when the widespread public consultation would begin, Fitzpatrick was assured by Selous that Ministry of Justice (MOJ) officials were working on the review "in earnest".

Alok Sharma MP’s efforts to clarify the timetable details fared no better, with Selous merely indicating that he hoped to engage the public "soon" and that this would be "widely publicised".

Questions and answers

Undeterred by Selous’s cursory dismissal of their colleagues in September, various MPs have since November repeatedly tabled Written Questions to the Justice Secretary. Responding on his behalf to a question from Ben Bradshaw MP last November about when the review would commence, Selous gave his first "in due course" response.

Presumably unsatisfied with that response Daniel Ziechner MP, the Shadow Minister for Transport with the responsibility for cycling, picked up the baton later that month, asking a different question to clarify whether the definitions for careless and dangerous driving would be included in the review. Selous ignored that question and replied answering one that was not asked, suggesting that it was important that all criminal justice agencies should "explain clearly any decisions made in relation to careless or dangerous driving".

Trying a different tack Zeichner came back to Selous with another question in December, probing about when legislation concerning sentencing options for driving offences would be brought forward, with Selous replying that the Justice Secretary was "meeting colleagues to discuss this in the new year". The first hint of progress!

Back to Bradshaw to maintain the momentum, with a blunt question in January about when the review would commence, when the consultation on that review would take place, and what was the timetable. Selous was too slippery to fall for the simple question ruse, allowing plenty of leeway in replying that it was the intention "to consult on sentencing proposals, including driving, before the end of this year".

Just in case you are confused at this point, yes all of this started with Grayling promising in May 2014 to do things in months which would be implemented in early 2015, but by early 2016, when nothing had happened, Selous was expressing an intention to start consulting by the end of this year!

Ignoring the Lords

Given the MPs respective travails when attempting to extract a straight answer to questions, it will come as no surprise to hear that Cycling UK’s attempts were similarly unsuccessful, so Cycling UK’s Vice President Lord Berkeley (also Secretary of the All Party Cycling Group) wrote to Selous last November asking various questions about the review including the inadequate response to MP’s questions.

Selous did not reply, so Lord Berkeley wrote again on 26 January with specific questions regarding the unsatisfactory answers to date. Selous eventually responded on 11 February, avoiding the direct questions and confusing the situation further by suggesting that the review of driving offences had been "ongoing since the summer of 2014", but then adding that this would be "considered as part of the wider sentencing framework", which they intended to commence a consultation on "before the end of the year", with driving offences expected "to form part of this consultation".

So whether the consultation on driving offences has commenced, or not, is as clear as mud. Every direct question to clarify this and the scope of the consultation has been side-stepped.

In due course, another Minister

With Selous’s due course, soon and contradictory responses wearing thin he tagged Dominic Raab, fellow Under-Secretary of state for Justice to deflect the next salvo of questions from disgruntled MPs who had the temerity to expect unequivocal answers.

Up stepped Greg Mulholland in April, with admirable Yorkshire bluntness repeating Zeichner’s question regarding the remit of the review, if it would include the careless and dangerous driving distinction, and whether the terms of reference for the review would be published.

Faced with a tricky question Raab took a leaf from Selous’s book and answered one that wasn’t asked, reverting to the assertion that it was the intention "to commence a consultation in due course which will look at driving offences and penalties". Have we not heard that one before?

Not a man to be placated Mulholland volleyed back asking for a clear assurance that the review would happen quickly, but Raab was not to be trapped by commitments and replied confirming that the Government would look at a range of proposals "in due course", that they were "looking at driving offences", and would "welcome ideas along the way".

One such idea might be to stop doing nothing and do what you said you would do two years ago.

Another Department, same course

Presumably exasperated with the MOJ’s "in due course" mantra, Zeichner shifted targets earlier this month, putting a question regarding the review to the Department for Transport rather than the MOJ. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport was awake to this however, on the same course as his MOJ colleagues, and repeated verbatim Raab’s "in due course" response to Mulholland.

With a two pronged attack, Zeichner went back to the MOJ, but Raab had the "in due course" script ready and cut and paste his earlier response to Mulholland.

No matter how the question is asked, the answer reveals nothing, except that we are back in the opening scene of Beckett’s play, with nothing happening and the Government determined that there is nothing to be done.  

Lords to debate the deflated review

In an attempt to re-inflate this punctured review in the brave new post referendum world Lord Berkeley has secured a debate in the House of Lords on the 7 July. As we have for many months, Cycling UK will continue to actively lobby MPs and the Government to progress the review. Hopefully the frustrated voices of cross-party Peers in July, added to the general public discontent regarding claims, promises and answers to questions during the recent referendum campaign, will assist to remind Government that if they promise to do something there is an expectation that they do it, and if they don't and are asked repeatedly why not, a straightforward answer to a simple question is what people expect.

Perhaps I am naive, but if you are tired of waiting for successive Justice Secretaries to follow through on the Government's promise to review motoring offences and penalties, and frankly offended by the procrastination of Ministers in response to what are straightforward questions, why not email your MP and ask them to raise this with the MOJ?

This will be a priority within our Road Justice campaign in the coming months, so we need cyclists to make as much noise about this with their local MPs to overcome the current headwind hindering progress.