Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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The Chairman: Correct.

Mr. Hawkins: Much of my work in rural magistrates courts, especially with juveniles, involved prosecuting and defending in cases of criminal damage. I must compare and contrast those cases, and especially the way in which police officers reacted then, with the position of police officers, especially those in cities, if the Government's proposals went through unamended.

We must examine the position of police officers on the street under the Labour Government. I received the latest edition of the magazine Police in my parliamentary post this morning. It includes an article by Martin Smith that I think is appropriate. It talks about the reality of policing under the Labour Government, especially in inner-city London, and has relevance to the Government's proposals on criminal damage. I can give an overview of the situation by quoting the heading: ``Too few police officers, broken down vehicles, defective equipment ... in down-town South America? An outpost of a Banana Republic that has spent its meagre budget too soon? Not a bit of it. This is how policing is in an Inner London police station in the year 2001. Martin Smith reports from the Front''.

Mr. Smith talks about ordinary individuals who might want to report an offence such as criminal damage—or anything else—to the police, as law-abiding citizens are encouraged to do. To analyse the Government's proposals, we must ask whether their fixed penalty scheme would be workable. We doubt that it would be, because of comments by serving police officers in such articles.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins: I will in a moment, but I think that before he responds, the Minister should hear about the situation that four years of Labour Government have caused. The article, by a serving police officer, says:

    ``It's a shambles. What kind of an image does it portray to the public when they run to a police station to find it shut and are told to telephone the crime in? Police stations used to be seen as safe havens. More often than not now it is a derelict building with a `closed' sign on the front door and police officers are phantom figures tucked away in some Super Nick that the public have never heard of and will probably go nowhere near...It's the same with the control room. When we had our own control room on the ground, I would be in and out half a dozen times during the course of a night. I would talk to the CAD staff and from them I would know exactly what was happening anywhere on the ground and where each officer was. I can't do that any more. I don't know what's happening on my own ground and I am the supervisor of nothing and nobody.''

That is the reality of policing under a Labour Government in our capital city in 2001. I invite the Minister to apologise for the appalling situation that his Government have brought about.

Mr. Heald: Is my hon. Friend aware that, although the Minister has told us that, in London, 31 police stations have reduced their hours since the Government came to power, the Government do not know how many have closed? They have no idea about the rest of the country, either.

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The problem is that we are talking about having to make do and mend and patch up the criminal law. How can the Minister say that police on the front line will be able to operate the new fixed penalty system, when they have been reduced to struggling as described in this month's Police magazine?

Mr. Clarke: I had not intended to comment on police stations, as it is not entirely within the matter under discussion. Let me inform the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire—the data are published in parliamentary answers—that more police stations closed, and at a faster rate, under the Conservative Government than under this Government. Opposition Members have spoken with hostility about fixed penalty notices. Do they think that they should apply only to the offences in the amendments, or that there should be no fixed penalty notices at all?

Mr. Hawkins: I am talking about the amendments. We are trying to improve an inadequate Bill and inadequate law and order position. It is the Opposition's responsibility to say that the Bill is not particularly wonderful, but that our amendments would improve it. The Minister was completely unable to answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire. The Government do not know the answer or have any up-to-date figures. It is a disgrace.

Mr. Clarke: I published the answer.

The Chairman: Order. I am trying to allow a flexible debate, but we are moving wide of the amendments. I told the hon. Member for Surrey Heath that we can have one stand part debate. It can be now or later, but not both.

Mr. Hawkins: I will take your guidance, Mr. Gale. We would prefer to have the stand part debate later.

It is not only the Conservatives who have reservations: the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has reservations about how this part of the Bill will work in practice. Inevitably, it is part and parcel of analysing the Government's proposals to ask whether the people who will implement the new system will be able to make it work. Articles such as the one that I quoted suggest that it will not work.

We think that the Bill can be improved. I support amendment No. 24, on unlawful street trading, although I do not want to elaborate on that, because my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire dealt with it fully. There are serious weaknesses in the Bill that our amendments would improve. I am concerned that the Government have not realised the seriousness of the problems that they have created in policing, particularly in our cities and towns.

Mr. Clarke: Many valid issues have been raised, but in my response I do not intend to deal with the level of policing, beyond mentioning that crime is falling and police numbers are rising, which is good.

The amendments concern the list of penalty offences in subsection (1), and in particular the offences of criminal damage and offences under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which include illegal street trading. The Government intend to support amendment No. 9, to obtain an affirmative resolution debate on extension of the list.

The amendment would remove the offences of criminal damage and public order from the list so that no penalty notice could be issued for them. Unlawful street trading would also become a penalty offence.

In respect of criminal damage, the offence included in subsection (1) is that under section 1(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 and concerns the destruction of, or damage to, property without lawful excuse. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire will appreciate that we have deliberately not included the more serious offence under section 1(2), where life is endangered either intentionally or recklessly, because that is unsuited to the penalty notice scheme. We intend the Bill to catch behaviour at the less serious end of the spectrum where the damage caused is the result of disorderly or antisocial behaviour. We do not intend it to apply where the serious criminal sets out deliberately to destroy or severely damage the property of another person.

12 noon

I appreciate that the offences listed in subsection (1) encompass a range of behaviour. For that reason, we shall issue advice on the operation of the Bill to the police to make clear the type of offence that the scheme is designed to deal with. In particular, we shall draw attention to the need to consider carefully, before issuing a notice, whether, if the case went to court, a compensation order might be made in favour of the owner of the damaged property. In such a situation, it might be preferable for the case be dealt with by other means.

Mr. Heald: The offence under section 1(2) of the 1971 Act is very serious. It is an indictable offence that often involves arson and the like. The Parliamentary Secretary suggested that it was wrong to protect victims through compensation—which is the main aim of the amendment—because they do not pay up. Do the Government seriously think that we should not try to protect victims because defendants will not pay?

Mr. Clarke: I am sure that that was not my hon. Friend's intention, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman accurately represented his view.

The scale of the situation is suggested by the fact that compensation orders were made in 51 per cent. of criminal damage cases where a conviction was recorded. Some 28,000 offenders were cautioned for criminal damage in 1999, and no compensation was possible in those cases. That is a substantial number and requires careful examination.

The hon. Gentleman also suggested that there are differences in how the fixed penalty notice revenue might be achieved. A fine can be registered against an individual of one and a half times the penalty, if no trial is requested. The fine is enforced by the magistrates court, like any other fine or compensation order.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned New South Wales. Although I read the document carefully when it arrived, it was not at the forefront of my mind until he referred to it. I am advised that the experience in New South Wales is not transferable. There, the penalties were equal to the maximum that a court could impose, which, of course, would not encourage payment. We will have different levels of payment for the reasons set out in the Bill.

We acknowledge that there is an issue about compensation, but we believe that guidance to the police can effectively cover the point that has been made. We should not restrict the remit of the Bill in the way that has been suggested.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Does the Minister agree that a police officer on the pavement should not have to consider compensation when dealing with particular circumstances? He might have to make a subjective judgment. For example, a council will have a system for cleaning up spray-paint damage to a council building, so the police officer can proceed with fixed penalty measures, but compensation is appropriate if the damage is to the window of a privately owned car. Is that not exactly the sort of issue that a court should decide, and a good reason for having a court-based rather than a street-based justice system?

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Prepared 6 February 2001