Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is right to look at the matter in that context. I have a practical example. Someone who protested last year against the visit of the President of China because of China's actions in Tibet might have been guilty of

    ``insulting words...within hearing or sight of persons likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress''.

The President of China might, in my view justifiably, have been alarmed, distressed or perturbed by the demonstration—I hope that he saw as many demonstrators as possible. In such a case, it would be possible for a police officer to say, ``You're nicked.'' Is that appropriate? Is that the sort of behaviour for which someone should receive a fixed penalty notice? Is it right that those people from my constituency who protested during the Chinese President's visit should be subject to on-the-spot justice by a police officer, especially as we now know that the police acted inappropriately? Everyone has accepted that the police went over the top in that situation and behaved in a way that was overly restrictive of liberty for reasons that were explored last year. That is a good example of how difficult it is to know what is distressing to whom in any particular circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman raised another issue. Of a group of seven people, who are, perhaps, waving at two police officers coming down the street, which will the police officer choose? Should it be the one who is most likely to run away quickly or the one whom the police officer is most likely to be able to get hold of? If I was a police officer, I think that I would choose the one who was least likely to give me grief, least likely to bop me over the head and least likely to be able to run away quickly. Therefore, there is an element of subjectivity, which means that the police officer might choose the person who is most vulnerable or least able to run. Depending on the circumstances, the police officer will make a judgment at the time, and if he has no reinforcements, he is hardly likely to go for the biggest, strongest, fittest individual, who is most likely to give him trouble. That person will then escape the fixed penalty notice and all sorts of justice, while someone else who is a less effective combatant will not.

Furthermore, a fixed penalty notice might be served on someone who does not actually receive it, or there might be some argument about whether the notice was received or whether the person dropped it on the pavement—we will come to other examples of how barmy the whole process is. Then the process must be followed up in the event of a challenge being made later.

Yesterday, I was told about a poll carried out by BBC Online with ICM, for which 1,000 people in England, Scotland and Wales were interviewed in the past few days. It is interesting that, by a narrow margin, a majority—or a large minority: 49 per cent. to 47 per cent.—of people do not think that fixed penalty notices are an appropriate punishment. Most people think that fixed penalty notices are an inappropriate way of dealing with any offences, not just the ones listed in the Bill. As I argued on Second Reading, if we want to take this approach, we should pilot the scheme in certain areas and make a judgment on the basis of the experience of the magistrates, police, probation service, youth service and local authority.

Amendment No. 24 would include street trading. I am sympathetic to that because there are more open and visible signs of street trading. London is an obvious example, but there are also other places where fly-by-night—although they are usually fly-by-day—people illegally pitch their burger stalls or flag stalls. It seems that that would be easier to deal with because it is more difficult for traders to scoot away with their barrows on two wheels or their kebab stalls. Admittedly, some traders in shopping centres can just close their suitcases or briefcases and run away, but I agree with the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire that that is the sort of offence that should logically be included in the list.

Therefore, I am sympathetic to deleting the two offences that the hon. Gentleman suggests should be deleted, and will vote accordingly if he presses his amendment to a vote. However, contrary to my general view that fixed penalty notices are an inappropriate way of dealing with most offences, I am sympathetic to including unlawful trading and would support that amendment. I am still not persuaded that a long list of offences should be included before we have tested the basic idea. We should do that in a localised way to see whether it has any validity and whether any of the fines, if properly issued, would be collected in significant numbers and thus bring the criminal justice system into greater repute.

Mr. Heald: On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I have tabled three amendments, and it was my intention to press amendment No. 21 to a vote. However, in the light of the comments of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, is it possible to have a separate Division on amendment No. 24?

The Chairman: Yes, it is possible.

Mr. Blunt: I support the amendments. They distinguish between offences in respect of their nature and of the sorts of people who are likely to commit them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) mentioned our concerns about some of the other fixed penalty notices. Alcohol Concern and the Criminal Bar Association are worried about the capacity of drunks to receive fixed penalty notices. Such concerns will be discussed in the clause stand part debate.

Amendments Nos. 21 and 22 are distinctive because they remove from the Bill offences that are likely to be committed by people who have a low regard for the criminal justice system.

11.45 am

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire drew attention to the astonishingly low compliance with fixed penalty notices in New South Wales. Those notices were issued for carrying weapons, and the rate of non-payment was in the region of 92 to 95 per cent.

Fines are likely to be paid if the system of penalties works and is respected, as it does in relation to cars. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, if a car owner is fined because he does not have a licence, he is likely to pay because there is some leverage over the car owner.

The offences of

    ``Destruction of, or damage to, property without lawful excuse'',

    ``Threatening, abusive or insulting words''—

a distinction should be drawn in the case of lawful demonstrations—are different from the other offences. They are likely to involve acts of violence and to be committed by people who ignore fixed penalty notices, even if they can be served when the offence takes place.

Although offences such as

    ``Throwing stones etc at trains or other things on railways''

    ``Throwing fireworks in a thoroughfare''

involve a degree of violence, they are minor misdemeanours that are likely to be committed by children. It would be appropriate to punish those crimes with a fixed penalty notice, although the Bill does not apply to people aged under 18. That is a pity, as I do not imagine that many adults commit such offences.

Adults who engage in the destruction of property or in threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour are likely to belong to a class of offender that does not respect fixed penalty notices, in which case they will have to be taken to court.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire made it clear that those are serious offences, and that is another reason why it is not suitable to deal with them by means of the fixed penalty notice. That is not a serious enough punishment for people who have destroyed property or engaged in insulting behaviour that is likely to cause ``harassment, alarm or distress'' in the proper sense of those words. Such people should be charged and taken to court if the police find it necessary to intervene to the extent of issuing a notice.

I want to reinforce the point that was made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey on the judgment that would have to be made about what constitutes

    ``Threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour''.

As he said, there was great concern about the policing of the visit of the President of China. Many people, including me, judged that the police overreacted to protect the President's sensibilities.

The Chairman: Order. I have to say to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that, although I have tried to be lenient, I cannot allow conferences to take place in the Gallery. If he wants to consult political advisers, he must do so outside.

Mr. Blunt: I support the points that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has made.

Amendment No. 24 seeks to include unlawful street trading, which lends itself to a fixed penalty notice. The offence is easily identifiable, and if the police are dealing with someone who is trading on the street, they can physically take hold of the person. The issuing of a fixed penalty notice will make it clear to such people that their activities cannot continue. There have been difficulties in moving street traders on in the royal parks, and regulations had to be introduced to deal with that. The provision would help the police and authorities to ensure that unwelcome, unlicensed, unlawful street trading is ended outside the royal parks.

For those reasons, I support the amendments. I would like to discuss further the difficulties of fixed penalty notices for the other offences in the clause stand part debate.

Mr. Hawkins: I join other hon. Members in welcoming you and Mr. Hood to the Chair, Mr. Gale.

I support the amendment that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire moved, and want to talk about the problems that might arise were the Government's plans to go through unamended. I also want to highlight further what my hon. Friends have said about criminal damage. When I began my career at the Bar in the late 1970s, I spent much time dealing with criminal damage cases—like most young barristers, including my hon. Friend, who was on the same circuit as me, and, perhaps, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and the Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock). When one is starting at the Bar, one has much work on circuit in magistrates courts, although there are fewer and fewer magistrates courts because of the Government's ridiculous policy of closure. However, you would not allow me to stray down that road, Mr. Gale.

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Prepared 6 February 2001