Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Heald: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that fixed penalty notices also have the benefit that, as with motoring offences, there can be no real dispute about the identity of the person concerned? Inevitably, one must know who the householder is to find out that he or she has not got a television licence: the person's home clearly provides the identity. The other aspect is that such people—a more general cross-section of society—are more likely to pay. Therefore, the administrative costs of the fixed penalty notices are likely to be lower, as well as saving the courts a good deal of repetitive, time-consuming work. Does he agree about those three advantages?

Mr. Hughes: I agree absolutely. Television licence payment defaulters might also be, for example, council tax or rent defaulters. There is an obvious list of the various things that go with home ownership and occupation of property and it would be sensible to deal with them in the same way and place. They are normally dealt with in local county courts, but sometimes a special petty sessional divisional court will deal with a summons for non-payment of council tax.

The hon. Gentleman's proposals should be widened to examine the matters that could be dealt with together in a way that would make fine collection easier, the courts' burden lighter and the process by which we ensure that people pay their dues to society—both local authorities and the BBC are public institutions—more streamlined. If there were time for that to come out of the Bill, it would be of benefit.

Mr. Hawkins: Like my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, I welcome the fact that the Minister has responded helpfully. However, it is appropriate to mention that it is rather odd for one Minister to outline the position and leave another to respond to the debate. It is important to put it on record that, if the Government were to get rid of the wholly unnecessary Westminster Hall innovation, we would not have Ministers rushing away from a Committee on important legislation. They would be here to carry through their undertakings.

Mr. Lock: I will not answer that last point because it is plainly not a matter for the Committee. I will deal with the points that were in order.

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire asked whether a trawl was carried out in the Departments to find out whether they have any offences in their back pockets that they would like to include in the fixed penalty scheme. The answer to that is no, but we are open to suggestions, both from Departments and from outside, on what to include in the scheme of further offences that contribute to public disorder, since that is the main focus of the scheme. The Government do not have a monopoly of wisdom on the matter, and suggestions from interest groups or hon. Members will be carefully considered.

The hon. Gentleman asked what representations were made, and why certain offences were included or not included. My hon. Friend the Minister explained that the focus of the fixed penalty notice is disorder, and that is the rationale for the inclusion of offences.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of urinating in the street. That is clearly unpleasant behaviour, but it is not currently an offence under any law that applies throughout England and Wales, although it is an offence under certain local authority byelaws. It would be administratively complex to devise a national fixed penalty notice scheme that would apply to a local authority byelaw that applies in some parts of the country but not in others.

Without being too presumptuous, one may ask why individuals urinate in the street. They may be committing an offence under section 91 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967:

    ``Disorderly behaviour while drunk in a public place''.

A matter that cannot be included in a local scheme may be introduced in a national scheme.

Mr. Heald: The Parliamentary Secretary says that disorderly behaviour is being targeted, but given the wide ambit of the Bill, there is no reason why other offences could not be included. An offence may be found for which it would be convenient to have a fixed penalty notice scheme, perhaps to save court time. Is there a reason, other than the personal preference of Ministers and the Home Secretary's general theme of yob culture, why useful work cannot be done in the Bill?

Mr. Lock: One of the results of close co-operation between Departments is that I am in the Committee representing the Lord Chancellor's Department, with responsibility for running the courts. Naturally, I have an interest in ensuring that magistrates court or Crown court time is effectively used for issues that are of sufficient gravity to justify it.

It is right that the penalties are being considered in the context of disorderly conduct. As the hon. Gentleman noted, it is also right that the ambit of the Bill could be wider and should not be limited by that policy. Any extension to the ambit must be considered case by case. I do not rule out any extension that is appropriate to a particular case.

I have heard the points that have been made about television licences, and understand that in some cases a fixed penalty notice may be appropriate. That will be discussed with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which has primary responsibility for TV licences. In due course, if appropriate, the order-making power may be used to carry the matter through, in appropriate circumstances within the TV licence regime. It may not be right for all TV licence evasions, but it may be right for some.

Mr. Gray: I am sorry to bring the Parliamentary Secretary back to the less savoury subject of urinating in the street. He said that it would be difficult to apply fixed penalties to that offence as it is regulated by local byelaws. However, surely that is exactly what happens with fixed penalty notices for parking. They vary between local authorities, and the fixed penalty notice system works perfectly well.

Mr. Lock: It works well as part of the system of local byelaws. The problem is not that the offence is an offence under local byelaws; the problem is attempting to superimpose a national system of fixed penalties on to a series of discrete local offences that would be worded and fixed differently. For example, under clause 3, the amount payable in respect of a penalty is fixed by the Secretary of State by order. Clearly, fixing an amount that was different in Surrey from what it was in Hertfordshire would be extremely complex. That is the problem.

12.45 pm

Mr. Heald: Is it really so difficult? Looking at clause 3, one can simply make the penalty a proportion of the maximum penalty in place in each byelaw. The words ``byelaws dealing with'' could be added under clause 1. I do not see why it is so difficult. Why does the Minister not simply make a new offence of urinating in public and then put an entry in clause 1(1) stating that that offence will be dealt with by fixed penalty notice? We can change the law, so let us do it if we need to.

Mr. Lock: I am always cautious when someone rises and says, ``The simple answer is to change the law. If we introduce this offence, we will solve all the problems raised by this particular concern.''

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I urge my hon. Friend to exercise a degree of caution. I confess that my four-year-old son occasionally finds himself caught short in public. I would hate to have a fixed penalty fine applied to him in those rather desperate circumstances.

Mr. Lock: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that example. Before we introduce a new blanket criminal offence, we would have to give the matter much more thought than is possible in a Committee such as this. I am sure that hon. Members expect the Government to make proposals that have been properly formulated with proper consultation.

Mrs. Brinton: Following on from the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe), would it not be possible to insert an age limit elsewhere in the Bill?

Mr. Lock: That is a possibility, and I will ensure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State is made aware of the exchange.

The amendment deals with whether subsection (5) should be changed so that positive resolution procedure was required. I am happy to say that the Government will consent to that amendment.

Mr. Heald: I am very pleased with that concession, but I would like to tempt the Minister a little more on the two issues raised by the Association of Chief Officers of Probation. We have had some amusement about urinating in public places. However, given the diseases that can be transmitted in that way, it is important that we should not have urine all over our streets. I am not saying that we do, but anyone who wants to urinate in the street should be dealt with by the procedures. I do not see a problem with having a fixed penalty notice for such an offence.

I agree with the hon. Member for Hall Green that we do not want penalties for children who are caught short. I do not want to discuss my children's activities, but I take his point.

I agree with the suggestion of the hon. Member for Peterborough. It cannot be beyond the wit of an important Department such as the Lord Chancellor's Department to create an offence of urinating in public with an age consideration. It seems to me that if ACOP asks us to do something that is not absolutely daft, which this does not seem to be, we should respect its experience and knowledge and at least make an attempt at it.

Mr. Simon Hughes: The matter was an agenda item at a recent residents association meeting at Elephant and Castle. Every male aged over 18, including me, admitted to having done it when caught short. I am sure that that is true of every male in this Room. Women do not have the same problem because they have much better control. We must be cautious about making it a criminal offence because anyone could be caught. The answer is more accessible public toilets, not more offences.

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Prepared 6 February 2001