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Mr. Clarke: I am happy to comment on that briefly. I was the first Minister to give evidence to the Joint Committee on the implications of the legislation, and that was a substantive and critical process. The Committee's report was positive and constructive and opens up ways in which we can address human rights issues more effectively. Many fears have been expressed about the implications of the Human Rights Act 1998 for many aspects of public life. So far, however, the courts' decisions on those questions, including the High Court's decisions on planning yesterday, indicate that the Act can improve and enhance the way in which we work without jeopardising the traditional way in which we have done things in this country. The work of the Joint Committee, to which my hon. Friend referred, is important in that regard, and I pay tribute to its report.

The amendments will remove two offences from the list under clause 1 to which fixed penalty notices apply. That will mean that penalty notices cannot be issued for offences of criminal damage or offences under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. Amendments were tabled in Committee by Lord Cope, Viscount Bridgeman and Baroness Buscombe. As a result of an extremely constructive debate in the other place and after careful consideration, we are content to omit both offences from the list of those for which penalty notices can be issued. That will allow time for further consideration of the practicalities of how the penalty notice scheme will operate in relation to such offences. The affirmative order procedure can then be used to put back in whatever is agreed.

I acknowledge that, in Committee, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) raised many concerns about high level criminal damage and that well-motivated amendments were tabled by his colleagues in the other place; they were trying to improve the law, not adopting a pettifogging or nitpicking approach.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): What is it about those two offences that distinguishes them from the others? Why has the Minister agreed to the removal of just those two from the list?

Mr. Clarke: There was a different reason for removing each offence. In Committee, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire made a series of arguments about criminal damage. He said that, with the higher level of criminal damage, there was a danger of the fixed penalty notice procedure being used to evade the full possibility of higher level criminal sanctions. I think that he would acknowledge that I made it clear that that was not our intention and that we were dealing only with offences that caused a lower level of criminal damage. However, there was the ambiguity to which he drew attention in Committee, as did his noble Friends in the other place. We therefore decided to remove the offence from the list.

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On the public order offence, it was argued in the other place and by the hon. Gentleman in Committee--he can speak for himself in this debate--that it was important to have a clear record of individuals who had been involved in such offences. Concern was expressed that without such a record, the fixed penalty notice procedure could undermine what the police sought to achieve more generally.

We did not entirely accept that argument. We did not think that it had as much force as the criminal damage point that the hon. Gentleman raised earlier, but we thought that it was not an insubstantial point. Because secondary legislation will allow us to revisit the matter, we were prepared to accept the amendments tabled in the other place. That was our reason for picking those two offences out of the list of eight--I think that that was the original number--offences under the fixed penalty notice procedure. I hope that the House will agree to the amendment tabled by the Lords.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): May I say how pleased I am that the other place has agreed the two amendments? As the Minister said, the matters were discussed in Committee. The argument for omitting the two offences from the fixed penalty notice regime was based partly on the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) on Second Reading, and partly on our analysis of fixed penalty notices.

Fixed penalty notices should deal with the most minor offences of their type. They are not for more serious matters. As my hon. Friend pointed out on Second Reading, if a more serious offence of criminal damage was dealt with under this procedure, first, there would be a problem with compensation, which is payable only on conviction, and secondly, the procedure would not mark the event adequately. Serious offences of criminal damage are serious matters.

We took the view that public order offences are serious and that the fixed penalty notice regime was not entirely suitable. As the Minister observed, and as I pointed out previously, it is important that we know who is committing public order offences and that we have a record so that if, for example, we want to identify those who are guilty of football hooliganism in order to implement the appropriate provisions, or if we want to deal with those who are conspicuous in their activities on May day, we know how many times those people have committed public order offences and broadly what they have done. That was the thinking behind the amendments. I am pleased that the Minister agrees that the Lords amendments should stand.

There has not been an opportunity for members of the Committee to thank the staff, the police and the Chairman of the Committee. I shall say nothing further about the Committee stage. There is still a motion on the Order Paper, which I am glad will not be debated. However, it is right to put on record our thanks to the staff and all those who helped us in Committee, as we would have done if the Committee had ended in the normal way.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): We support the amendments. The Government and colleagues will remember that our view was that the list of fixed penalty offences was far too long. To correct the Minister's recollection, there were 12 offences in the list that

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the Government wanted added. We thought that some of them were too serious to be the subject of fixed penalty notices, and some were not serious enough. We took the view that if the Government had been doing their work properly, they would have provided for other offences to be added, but allowed for separate consideration of those offences in due course, without pressure, rather than picking out of the consultation process such a motley group of offences.

The amendments whittle down the group of offences from 12 to 10. To that extent, the Bill has been improved and brought nearer to what we sought to achieve. However, it is still not ideal and contains offences that are inappropriate for the application of fixed penalty notices. It is sad that we must now proceed by amending legislation in future to get the matter right, rather than by deciding it through the secondary statutory instrument procedure that is otherwise available to us.

2 pm

Neither the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) nor I engaged in the debate that we could have had a moment ago, as such discussion would have eaten into the time that is allowed us. However, I want to place on record one of the frustrations of the way in which the Bill has been considered--a frustration that does not apply only to amendments such as those before us. The process has ensured that the flagship Bill of this Session has been rushed through this House, pushed under pressure in the other place and then guillotined in its final stage. We all understand that matters are curtailed when the Dissolution of Parliament is announced and we make no complaint about that. However, it is entirely unsatisfactory to allow flagship legislation to be chopped for debate in the House of Commons, pressurised into less debate in the Lords and then chopped and curtailed again in this House. I regret that that process ensures that, although there are matters proper for debate, we will have the minimum time available--one hour--to debate them. The amendments improve the Bill, but in our view, they do not improve it enough. Of course, I expect that we will speak about some of its remaining defects later.

Mr. Malins: As always, I declare an interest as a recorder of the Crown court and a deputy district judge.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), I have been made a little happier, as the amendments remove two of the potentially more serious offences from the clause, so that we can see how it works. The problem with an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 is that the top end of the scale is quite nasty and can be very serious.

If a youngster tells a policemen to "something off"--the House will know what I could have said--his action can be used by the police as a section 5 offence. That happens a lot in London. I would be a little unhappy if such an offence were to get a ticket. There is sometimes a risk of moving into the criminal sphere matters that it does not encompass, and the large scale of section 5 means that it is right for the specified offence to be removed from the clause. Likewise, for the reasons so eloquently explained by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, there is an argument for removing the criminal damage aspect of the clause.

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The Minister should note that the clause nevertheless contains two potentially troubling offences. First, it refers to

I assume--and I should know--that that does not cover bomb hoax calls, which are dealt with by separate legislation and are a very serious matter.

The sending of false messages by telephone can be nasty. I am trying to think of examples. Certainly, the act of knowingly giving a false alarm to a fire brigade can be serious. The inclusion of such offences in such a small provision is odd. It is hard to say whether it is over the top to suggest that such offences can be serious and ask whether they can be just as serious as, for example, the bottom end of the specified criminal damage offence or of section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. I know from my colleagues on the stipendiary bench that they sometimes treat wasting police time or giving false report as very serious. I appreciate that the Minister intends that those offences should be suitable for a ticket only when they are at the bottom end of the scale. However, the wide-ranging nature of the issue means that it will involve the exercise of a certain amount of discretion by people whom I hope will be trained or adequately qualified to exercise it.

The Minister will know that what was then the metropolitan stipendiary bench was not consulted before the Bill was produced. That was extraordinary because 90 per cent. of all crime is tried in magistrates courts. The stipendiary bench, as it was, takes the lead in all crime in inner-city areas and, as he knows, is full of experts. It is too late to do anything about that now, but in future when he is consulting or discussing how the legislation is working I hope that he will not forget to consult that element of our judiciary.

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