Whitlam’s Law: parity of esteem in law for death by drink driving

Alec secured an Adjournment Debate in the House of Commons on Thursday 20th July, calling for a change in the law to allow the prosecution of driving offences committed on private land.

The amendment dubbed ‘Whitlam’s Law’ came about after 11-year old Harry Whitlam was killed at Swithens Farm, Rothwell in August 2013 after he was hit by a tractor driven by a farm worker twice over the legal drink-drive limit.

The Crime Prosecution Service (CPS) were unable to bring a prosecution under drink-driving legislation (Section 3 of the Road Traffic Act) because the accident had taken place on private land. The only punishment available was for the Health & Safety Executive to prosecute the driver for “Failing to ensure the safety of persons other than employees, contrary to Section 3(2) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

The two offences carry very different sentences. Had the driver been prosecuted under drink-driving laws his likely sentence would have been 6 years (the crime attracts a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment). Instead, he was sentenced to just 16 months and 2 weeks.

Introducing a motion to the House of Commons, Alec said:

“The death of 11-year old Harry Whitlam in 2013 stunned our community, but it was the lack of prosecution that shocked us to the core. Harry died after the tractor reversed into him at Swithens Farm in Rothwell. An inquest later heard that the driver was twice over the legal alcohol limit on the day of the crash. He was not prosecuted at the time as the incident happened on private land.

 This case has highlighted an anomaly in the law. Because Harry’s killer was operating a vehicle on private land whilst under the influence of alcohol he could not be prosecuted in the same way he would have been had the incident happened on a public highway. There is an urgent need for parity of esteem when it comes to causing death by dangerous driving whether on public of private land and I hope this Adjournment Debate will trigger a change in the law in this respect”.

Responded to the debate in the House of Commons, the Minister of State for Transport, John Hayes, said:

“I am pleased to tell the House that I will consider how we might address the matter, including the possibility of future legislative reform. I am not able today to say exactly how the law will change, but given the short time from the point when this debate was announced, doing otherwise would have indicated that we had not thought this through properly. The implications of any such move will be planned carefully and considered, and we will proceed with certainty as a result of that deliberation. But I tell Members this: we will proceed with the firm intention that tragedies such as Harry Whitlam’s might be prevented in the future”.

Brake, the Road Safety charity who support Alec’s campaign said:

As a charity that supports bereaved and seriously injured road crash victims, we know only too well the devastation and suffering caused by drink driving. A drunk driver, in charge of a vehicle, of any type, is a lethal combination. Whether this takes place on private or public land ought to be irrelevant.

The current loophole in the law, which has been demonstrated in this tragic case, is one that needs closing. The families we work with often tell us how they feel let down by the inadequacy of our current criminal driving laws, with drivers who kill often let off with lenient sentences.

Far too often, grieving relatives are let down by our legal system. We are aware of similar cases to that of Harry’s and support his family’s call to have the current drink driving law changed to include vehicles being driven on private land. We need to send out a clear message to all drivers that it is not safe to operate a vehicle if you have alcohol in your system – and that includes if you are on private land.”