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MPs debate tougher sentences for drivers who kill while banned

Monday's debate brought by MP campaigning for families of Bristol couple killed on tandem ride last year...

A Bristol MP who has supported the family of a married couple killed while riding their tandem by a disqualified driver last year has this week led a backbench debate in the House of Commons urging stronger penalties for people convicted of a dangerous driving offence while disqualified.

Ross Simons, aged 34, and his wife Clare, 30, died in January 2013 when they were hit by a car driven by Nicholas Lovell.

He was jailed for 10 years 6 months in May last year after pleading guilty to causing their deaths by dangerous driving, an offence that carries a maximum penalty of 14 years.

The judge who handed down the sentence said it was the most severe that could be imposed under current sentencing guidelines.

Initially banned from driving in 1999, Lovell had 11 convictions for driving while disqualified, and he had also been convicted four times on charges of dangerous driving.

Kingswood MP Chris Skidmore, who last year helped the couple’s families launch the Justice 4 Ross and Clare campaign and also brought the case to the attention of David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, secured a backbench debate this week on the subject.

So far, 13,000 people have signed a petition backing the campaign, and when he responded to Mr Skidmore’s question in Parliament last October, the Prime Minister said he would look at the petition.

He added: “the Justice Secretary has asked the Sentencing Council to review the sentencing guidelines for serious driving offences, and we should look at this specific case in the light of that.”

The families are urging more people to sign the petition, which they plan to present at Downing Street next month.

It calls on the government “to review and change sentencing guidelines for dangerous driving so that drivers who have previous convictions for dangerous driving, including driving under the influence of drink and drugs, or have been disqualified from driving, and continue to commit dangerous driving offences, causing death or injury as a result, be given far longer and tougher sentences than currently exist.”

During the debate on Monday evening (Hansard report), the first anniversary of the fatal incident, Mr Skidmore said: “The tragedy of Ross and Clare Simons has been repeated across the country. Sentences are being handed down that do not fit the crime.

“I believe that the sentencing guidelines for dangerous driving, and, indeed, the law, need to be changed to reflect the added culpability of a driver who has already been disqualified and should never have been in a car in the first place, and who then causes death by dangerous driving.

“In Canada the penalty for causing death by dangerous driving is a prison sentence of 10 years, and someone who was already disqualified from driving at the time is given a life sentence.

“At the very least, the fact of killing someone while driving dangerously and while disqualified should constitute an additional aggravating factor, and should result in a longer sentence.”

Replying to the MPs who had spoken in the debate, parliamentary under-secretary of state for justice Jeremy Wright said: “I cannot comment on the specific details of any sentencing case, because specific sentences are decided independently of the Government by the courts.

“In deciding what sentence to impose, the courts must take account of all the details of the offence and the offender, including both aggravating and mitigating factors, and give consideration to the culpability of the offender and the harm caused.”

He went on: “Road traffic offences are particularly difficult because the harm caused often outweighs the offender’s culpability.

“However, the law seeks to punish those who cause death or injury on our roads proportionately to the blameworthiness of the driver. A variety of different agencies and organisations must play their part in such cases. We expect them to do so properly and with sensitivity.”

He added: “We are continuing to look closely at the legislative framework relating to serious driving offences, and we are considering whether the current maximum penalties reflect the seriousness of offending behaviour. I have listened carefully to what has been said this evening, and I will consider it all further.”

Speaking about the debate on behalf of both families, Ross’s sister, Kelly Woodruff, quoted in the Western Daily Press, said: "Everyone's support has been fantastic from day one, when we first found out, until today.

"To get a debate in Parliament was our main goal and we thought it would take about three or four years to achieve.

"Over this year we've realised we are not alone. So many people have contacted us who have gone through the same thing all over the country.

"The sentences some people have received for dangerous driving are awful – 12 months for killing someone. What the perpetrators don't realise is the devastation they cause – people's lives, like ours, are scarred forever.

"We will never live the way we should be living, all because of that man, my future has been stolen,” added Ms Woodruff, who gave birth to her second child last July.

"Ross and I had some quite major plans and dreams, and now that's all gone. Ross and Clare are meant to be here now meeting their gorgeous little nephew.”

She added: "Stronger sentences are required to make people realise the severity of their actions."

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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