Labour peer jailed over motorway texts

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The Independent Online

Labour life peer Lord Ahmed was jailed for 12 weeks today for dangerous driving by a judge who heard he sent and received a series of text messages from his car on a motorway.

Sheffield Crown Court was told Lord Ahmed was involved in an accident which left a man dead on the M1 near Rotherham, South Yorkshire, on Christmas Day 2007.

But the judge made clear the text messaging had finished before the accident took place and was not connected to the fatal incident.

The judge, Mr Justice Wilkie, heard Lord Ahmed got on to the M1 motorway at Dewsbury in the early evening of Christmas Day 2007.

The court heard the peer sent and received a series of five text messages, all of which were described as substantial, rather than a few words.

The judge said the exchange of messages with a journalist amounted to a conversation, which took place as the peer was travelling at around 60mph over a 17.8-mile stretch of the southbound carriageway.

The judge was told the fatal accident happened close to junction 35 of the motorway.

Lord Ahmed's Jaguar ran into an Audi. Its driver, Martyn Gombar, 28, had crashed minutes earlier and is thought to have been trying to retrieve his mobile phone from the vehicle.

The court was told that subsequent tests showed father-of-two Mr Gombar had been drinking and crashed his car into the central reservation, spinning it round.

As Lord Ahmed approached the Audi, it was facing the wrong way, straddling the two outermost lanes in total darkness.

The court heard another car clipped its wing mirror and a further vehicle had taken such drastic avoiding action that it also collided with the central reservation.

But the judge said Lord Ahmed's text message conversation ended three kilometres (1.86 miles), or two minutes, before the collision with the Audi.

Lord Ahmed stared straight forward in the dock as the judge passed sentence.

He sat next to a single security guard wearing a smart dark suit over a blue shirt and tie.

Sentencing him, Mr Justice Wilkie made clear the texting incident had no bearing on the fatal collision.

He said: "After a full and thorough police investigation it's clear the dangerous driving had no causal link to the accident."

But the judge went on: "It is of the greatest importance that people realise what a serious offence dangerous driving of this type is."

He concluded: "I have come to the conclusion that by reason of the prolonged, deliberate, repeated and highly dangerous driving for which you have pleaded guilty, only an immediate custodial sentence can be justified."

After jailing him for 12 weeks, the judge also imposed a one year driving ban and ordered the peer to pay £500 prosecution costs.

Earlier, Jeremy Baker QC, defending, put a series of points of mitigation to the judge including Lord Ahmed's years of service to the community and the country.

The barrister also pointed to the peer's attempts to help Mr Gombar and how he took it upon himself to warn other motorists about the incident at some personal risk to himself.

Mr Baker described how the defendant came to Britain as a child speaking no English but built up a successful business and political career before he was made a life peer.

The barrister said his client provided an important function for the country both nationally and internationally, particularly in the field of inter-faith relations.

Outside court members of Mr Gombar's family said they were not happy with the sentence.

His cousin, David Cicak, said he was hoping for a long prison term.

Mr Cicak said: "We're not happy with this.

"He could be out in six weeks, that's nothing."

Asked about his cousin, he said: "He's left behind two small kids now with only their mother."

Also outside court, Chief Inspector Andy Male, head of South Yorkshire Police's road policing team, said the fatal accident had been thoroughly investigated.

He said: "Research shows the use of mobile phones while driving is dangerous. That's why it's an offence. Today's sentence reflects the seriousness with which the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police view this offence."

The court heard that a police investigator who examined the crash scene had driven his own car towards the Audi at 50mph to check how visible it was and had to take last minute avoiding action even though he knew he was coming up.

Lord Ahmed's solicitor, Steve Smith, said outside court that he thought his client had been used as a "scapegoat" by those attempting to drive home the message about not using a mobile phone while at the wheel.

Mr Smith said he was launching an immediate appeal against the sentence and said he would be pressing the Court of Appeal to deal with it quickly as it was likely the peer would only be in prison for a short time.

He said: "I've been with him. He's very philosophical. He's approaching it with great dignity.

"He says 'If that's the law, if that's what the law says, then that's what must be'.

"I, on the other hand, tend not to agree with it.

"I am extremely disappointed with that sentence."

Mr Smith went on: "I think he's been used as a scapegoat because there aren't any cases on the topic of using mobile phones by way of messaging in driving cases.

"So to that extent I think he's been used as a fall guy."

The solicitor said: "I don't think it's right that you can simply say in text message cases you must automatically go to prison and here's a nice example for you."