Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend is right to air that issue. I hope that, in the clause stand part debate, we shall examine the 12 or more issues raised by the Criminal Bar Association, which deal with how orders might operate for the offences listed in clause 1(1). I am concentrating on criminal damage and threatening behaviour, but many people have asked whether fixed penalty notices should by used for these types of offences or whether they would be better used for others. I should like to discuss with the Minister and the Committee where I think that fixed penalty notices might be useful. Subject to your ruling, Mr. Gale, that would probably be better considered in the clause stand part debate, rather than in debate on these narrow amendments that deal with criminal damage, threatening behaviour and street traders.

The Chairman: Those who have previously served under my chairmanship know that I take a relaxed view of stand part debates. My view has always been that a Committee can have a stand part debate either along with the first group of amendments or at the end, but cannot have both. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that he wants a stand part debate, that is fine by me. However, because this is a narrow group of amendments, debate should be confined to them.

Mr. Heald: But the amendments raise important issues. If the Association of Chief Police Officers says that criminal damage is not suited to the procedures, the Association of Chief Officers of Probation says that threatening behaviour is not suited to them and Bedfordshire police also has reservations, we should concentrate on their concerns.

Does the Minister think that the penalties will work for those two offences? He will be aware that the New South Wales ombudsman, Brendan Delahunty, responded to the Government consultation. He sent the Minister a paper called ``Policing Public Safety''. In chapter 12, pages 308 to 310, that paper described the experience of issuing fixed penalty notices for public order offences under the Australian Police and Public Safety Act. Offences mentioned are public order offences such as carrying a knife and refusing to do what a police officer says when direction is appropriate. The paper showed that although fixed penalty notices generally achieve a good level of payment, it drops dramatically where public order offences are concerned. In New South Wales, 95 per cent. of penalties were not paid for the offence of custody of a knife and 92 per cent. were not paid for refusing police direction. Payment was therefore received from between only 5 and 8 per cent. of those served with fixed penalty notices. The paper concluded that the bulk of offenders served with fixed penalty notices were young—under 24—that the fines were far too high, and that offenders had limited capacity to pay and did not understand the legal consequences of non-payment.

The Association of Chief Officers of Probation took up that point and said:

    ``A judgement needs to be made about whether the current compliance rate of 77 per cent. for fixed penalties is satisfactory or whether it is too low. Extending fixed penalties to non-motorists, especially those with alcohol problems, probably means fixed penalty compliance will dip sharply. From probation experience we know that successful compliance and enforcement is critical to public confidence.''

Why does the Minister think that it would be different for penalising threatening behaviour or criminal damage in this country? Would we not end up with a lack of respect for the law if those comparatively serious matters were treated in such a manner? Threatening behaviour is an offence often committed by young men on a Saturday night, at a football match or in the heated environment of a dispute with a neighbour. It might be serious or not so serious. It is the type of offence that fits into the category identified in New South Wales of offences committed by young people who do not understand the legal consequences of not paying and who are unlikely to pay.

Will penalties become a farce because of high levels of non-payment? I may deal with the cost of that when we come to clause stand part. Are not penalties on the spot particularly unsuitable for those two offences?

I want to ask the Minister about criminal damage. The victims of criminal damage have lost money. They may have had a fence kicked in or a tyre punctured or some other act of vandalism committed against them. If the amount involved is small, say a couple of hundred pounds, they might not try to recover it in a civil court. Currently, a victim is entitled to make a compensation claim if the criminal is charged, and a compensation order can be made on conviction. Will victims be deprived of the opportunity to receive compensation by the use of fixed penalty notices? If so, is that not monstrous?

The questions regarding criminal damage are whether the offence is too serious and whether it is right to deny compensation to a victim who has suffered a no doubt worrying incident and the loss of a small amount of money. Many victims might agree with ACPO, which has said that the offence should not be included.

11.15 am

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): I have been following the hon. Gentleman's argument with great interest, but I cannot understand part of it. On the one hand, he said that there is no point in issuing fixed penalty notices for public order offences, because the people to whom they would be issued are unlikely to be able to pay, and on the other, he suggested that fixed penalty notices issued for criminal damage are unfair because those same people who are unable to pay will not attract a compensation order. Is that right? How does he reconcile those two positions?

Mr. Heald: I did not think that there was a problem. I imagine that the Parliamentary Secretary has been to court in his professional days—perhaps not, I do not know, but in any case, he will know that a compensation claim can be made when someone is prosecuted for criminal damage. It is true that the court will consider the individual's means in deciding how much should be paid and at what rate. For victims, compensation is a good thing, although they often complain about the rate of payment ordered by the court. He will know that the victim receives compensation before the fine is paid. In any event, he will at least agree that £50 or £100 paid at £5 a week is better than nothing. Compensation is eventually paid if court process is involved. What will happen with fixed penalty notices if enforcement is not adequate?

The law will be brought into disrepute if such serious offences are dealt with by fixed penalty notices and only 6 per cent. of offenders pay. I look forward to an explanation of how payment will be enforced. I invite the Parliamentary Secretary to intervene if he feels that I have not satisfied him on that point.

Mr. Lock: The hon. Gentleman has missed the point. His analysis is that that group of people would not pay fixed penalty notices. Why, then, does he think that they would pay compensation?

Mr. Heald: If such people do not, they will end up in court and be pursued by magistrates. As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, magistrates go after people time after time until, eventually, the money is paid. It is often paid at a low rate, but it is paid. His records will show that, although I guess that he would like a higher payment rate.

It is wrong to deprive victims of criminal damage of compensation, and the offence is too serious to be dealt with in such a manner.

On unlawful street trading, the Association of Chief Police Officers commented in the consultation:

    ``There is much support for extending the fixed penalty notice system to include other non notifiable offences, for example unlawful street trading, which can attract large audiences in busy market areas, providing an ideal environment for pickpocketing and street robberies.''

It also says that the use of fixed penalty notices for such behaviour is common in Amsterdam and focuses on such antisocial behaviour.

There has been a colossal 21 per cent. rise in robberies. Unlawful street trading allows street robbery to occur under the cover of a crowd. Why have Ministers ignored ACPO's advice and not included unlawful street trading—as set out in amendment No. 24—in the list of offences leading to fixed penalty notices?

Mr. Simon Hughes: I will limit my remarks to the amendments, but the Committee knows that we are sceptical of fixed penalty notices being used, other than for offences that leave a physical legacy for all to see. Most of the offences in clause 1 do not fall into that category.

Traditionally, the fixed penalty system applies to offences committed by car drivers. That is reasonable, as one does not have to drive a car—one gets a licence to drive. If such a licence is applied for and used, its conditions are known. That applies to any other motor vehicle, such as scooters and tractors. It is easy to deal with motoring offences in that way, because the vehicle is visible and identifiable by a unique characteristic—the number plate—in a way that individuals are not.

It has been argued that fixed penalty notices should apply to cycling offences, such as cycling on pavements. That is sensible, because physical evidence exists, although it is more difficult to establish firm facts, as bicycles do not have numbers and licence plates.

On Second Reading, we identified two other offences that leave a clear legacy and visible sign of offence: littering and dog fouling. They are more difficult to prove, as one has to be careful to link the dog or litter to the right person, but evidence exists. Some types of criminal damage come into that category, and some do not. If someone throws a brick through a window and there is only one person around, it is relatively easy to identify who has done it. However, in the case of criminal damage such as graffiti spray-painted on to a wall or a name scratched on a bus shelter—helpful if it is an individual's name, but not if it is just a tag from which the person cannot be identified—and a gang of youths aged 18 or over is hanging around, it may not be nearly so obvious. One could reasonably argue for keeping such damage on the list.

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire is trying to apply a principle to the system and is more sympathetic to it than I am. I am surprised that he wants to remove this offence while leaving in the others, which are far less capable of being linked to a specific perpetrator and a physical act.

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