Standing Committee F
Tuesday 6 February 2001
[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
The Chairman: Before we start this afternoon's proceedings, I want to announce that the Press Gallery will be reserved for the press during this sitting. In recent weeks, there has been a tendency to allow people other than the press to occupy the Press Gallery in Committee sittings. That does not apply to this Committee, which started sitting only today. If the Modernisation Committee wants to make appropriate provision in Committee Rooms for political advisers, researchers and others, it is a matter for that Committee to decide, but we owe a duty to the press to maintain their right to occupy the Press Gallery. I mention this now to prevent embarrassment later. I have instructed Officers of the House to ensure that the Press Gallery be occupied only by people carrying a gallery card.
Offences leading to penalties on the spot
Question proposed [this day], That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.
Question again proposed.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): As the Minister was leaving this morning, I raised a point of order to say that it would help the Committee if the draft guidance for clause 6 and the draft order under clause 3 were made available to the Committee before we debate those clauses. I repeat the point now, so that the Minister may hear it for himself.
This morning, I asked about the cost implications of managing and enforcing fixed penalty notices. I referred to issues raised by the inner London magistrates court service about that and IT. I mentioned the Criminal Bar Association's view that dealing with non-compliance might have significant resource implications, and I referred to the concern of the Police Superintendents Association about the impact of fixed penalty notices on the use of police timea concern echoed by the Police Federation. The Criminal Bar Association also raised specific concerns about the problem of applying fixed penalty notices when the person concerned is drunk. The notice might aggravate antisocial behaviour on the street.
I asked about the possible effect on the criminal justice system if the notices are ignored and subsequently dealt with administrativelyrather like parking tickets. I asked the Minister how he would verify details of a person served with a fixed penalty notice when the action that required it occurred on the street. According to the Criminal Bar Association, the person must be warned of the consequences of failing to provide details, and Human Rights Act implications are relevant. I asked the Minister to explain his views in greater detail.
What is the interaction between the fixed penalty notice procedure and powers of arrest? How does the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 operate when a fixed penalty notice is issued? What is the basis of the power of arrest and what happens in respect of detention? Will the options of payment or going to court be clearly explained to the defendant orally? Is the only form of explanation effectively the wording of the fixed penalty notice as described in clause 3, or is there an additional formula that an officer must declare or hand out on a piece of paper? Can the defendant offer an explanation? If he is asked to do so, will it be under caution? That is particularly relevant where the offence is one for which a reasonable excuse is a defence, or if the offence is committed where there is no cause for the action concerned.
What is the effect of fixed penalty notices on deterrents? Is it not convenient for the offender? On a fixed penalty notice, he can pay the money without additional penalty. The consequences seem to be less than for a conviction and some of the offences under discussion are definitely in the bracket that anyone would describe as criminal. Obviously they are all offences, but they are on that tier described by the Criminal Bar Association as ``clearly criminal''.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the biggest concerns that many commentatorsnot merely the Criminal Bar Association but a number of other organisations concerned with the administration of justicehave stressed regarding the Government's proposals, is that they will lead to a downgrading of a significant part of the criminal law. In effect, they are a move towards decriminalisation. Would that not be a most worrying and dangerous trend if the Government were allowed to proceed with it?
Mr. Heald: That is an important point. We have already established that some of the offences with which we are dealing are serious. Some of them are liable to level 5 fines, which is the highest level applicable in the magistrate's court. Some of them involve imprisonment as the maximum sentence. In those circumstances, there is a genuine concern that the offences should not be trivialised or downgraded. I accept that they remain offences and so they are still ``criminal'' but a point we will come to in a later debate is, what exactly is the effect of a fixed penalty notice being issued? It clearly is not a conviction and there are issues that surround that.
The Government talk about being tough on law and order and tough on crime, but in this part of the Bill they seem to suggest that one can deal with serious offences almost as though they were fairly minor motoring or parking offences. If that is the case, it is difficult to see how this is a war on yob culture.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): Why does the hon. Gentleman think that organisations such as the Association of Chief Police Officers support us in what we are proposing here? I acknowledge the various aspects of substance where there are differences of emphasis, but in the fundamental thrust of what is being proposed in the Bill we are supported by ACPO. Given the hon. Gentleman's concerns, why does he think that they support us?
Mr. Heald: The concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), which I am relating, has also been expressed by others. As ACPO and others have recognised, there is an advantage in that, when an offence occurs, it will marked in some wayit would be wrong not to do so. I told the Minister on Second Reading that we are not against the principle. The measures will range from cautioning and fixed penalty notices to charging and conviction. I am asking him whether he feels that sufficient deterrents exist for the persistent offender in such cases, in particular, the young person who regularly commits acts of that sort.
Mr. Hawkins: The Minister raised an interesting point. Can I suggest a more cynical, but perhaps more accurate reason, in answer to the Minister's question to my hon. Friend. Could it not be the case that chief police officers in particular and police authorities are reacting by saying that they will be able to cope with the system and it is all right, because they have been so overwhelmed by unnecessary bureaucracy and starved of resources that anything that reduces their work load is welcome, including the introduction of a fixed penalty system. Ideally, however, they would like proper resourcing, which the Government have patently failed to provide.
Mr. Heald: Yes, I am sure that that plays a part. Obviously, one hopes that the fixed penalty notices will be a quick and easy method of disposal for the minor cases and will enable the event to be marked with less bureaucracy and be commensurate with the offence. We will come to whether that will be the case. I am raising concerns expressed by the Criminal Bar Association that the system may not work out like that.
The Parliamentary Secretary of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): If the hon. Gentleman is saying that the concern formulated by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath plays a part in the submissions that have been made by the Association of Chief Police Officers, will he tell us where that concern was raised in its response or in other material? It is certainly not the Government's understanding that that is the chief police officers' motivation. If the hon. Gentleman has different information, I am sure that the Committee will be interested to hear it.
Mr. Heald: I do not entirely follow the question, but I am happy to return to the matter if the Minister wants me to do so. I am making the point that was made by the CBA, which says:
``If the legal consequences of payment of a notice are to be exactly the same as for a court hearing, logic suggests that the only effect will be to induce some people to pay by post rather than having the inconvenience of a court hearing. Convenience is clearly a strong argument in favour of such a scheme. Costs and time will also be saved if people can plead guilty by post. On this approach, tickets could be issued to sober and calm people on the street or sober people back at the police station. This is not, however, anything to do with deterrence.''
The CBA goes on to make four other points, which I have paraphrased.
It is right that the Association of Chief Police Officers has broadly welcomed the proposals. I have raised its important concern about criminal damage and its wish to add unlawful street trading to the provisions. However, I certainly did not say that ACPO had said that the system would be a cheap way of dealing with crime because the police were under resourced. If I said something that sounded like that, I was wrong. That does not mean that no chief constables are saying that they are thoroughly under-resourced; chief constables do say that, as I regularly tell the Minister in our debates. I think that we had three debates last week, and the Minister will concede
Mr. Charles Clarke: The hon. Gentleman lost every time.
Mr. Heald: I may have lost the votes, but I certainly won the argument, as the Minister knows only too well. Normally, when he is losing an argument, he claims that I am being rhetorical. That reminds me of his comments about on-the-spot fines. When the Prime Minister came out of the meeting in Japan and said, ``Oh yes, we'll take them all down to the cashpoint machine for a £100 fine'' or words to that effect, the Minister was trotted out to explain that the Prime Minister meant that as a metaphor. Incidentally, that may be why The Guardian, in a wonderful article by John Kampfner, suggested that the Minister was bound to make it to the top of the Labour party and become its leader. He is now doing the leader's job, or at least covering for him on occasions, and highly necessary that is too.