Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): He has already done it once.

Mr. Heald: I am sure that you would not want me to go into the Minister's long and distant past, Mr. Gale.

The CBA has raised the issue of the effect of fixed penalty notices on deterrence. How is the officer to exercise his discretion to use a fixed penalty notice? Is the decision justiciable under the Human Rights Act 1998? Would a claim of unequal treatment as between accused on racial or sex discrimination grounds be justiciable, and in what circumstances would that be the case?

Those 10 questions from the CBA and the other points are the ones that I wanted to raise on clause stand part.

4.45 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): We tabled an amendment that became subsumed in the questions about whether the clause should stand part. Given the starting point that my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard), other colleagues and I have adopted, we shall vote against the clause standing part. However, now, I want to pursue one or two matters

I shall not repeat points already made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) on behalf of the Conservative party. He asked perfectly proper questions—some that had been put to us and some that we had spotted or thought of ourselves—that came from people outside who are thinking about the practicality of the procedures that we are discussing. The first practical point relates to the lists that the Government give us, which we are being asked to accept as part of the package.

Mr. Charles Clarke: The hon. Gentleman is saying that he and his colleagues intend to vote against clause stand part. Will he make it clear whether that is because he is against fixed penalty notices, because he is against the particular list, or because he is against the whole part of the Bill, clauses 1 to 13? It will be important to the public debate that will ensue that he makes absolutely clear the basis of his opposition.

Mr. Hughes: I know the Minister well enough to know that question, which is trotted out about once a week in Committee and was trotted out last week downstairs. I answered last week and I am happy to answer it again today.

In a clause stand part debate we express and form views on an individual clause. We have made it clear that we are not against fixed penalty notices in certain circumstances; however, we are against their extension to all the subjective offences of which the list is full. We do not believe that we should proceed with a list that mixes some subjective offences, some offences that should not be subject to fixed penalty notices because they are more serious than that and so should not be in the same category, and others that we think are incapable of being properly enforced. We also take the view that a system of fixed penalty notices for such offences, should be trialled and passed, after which we should consider the evidence.

Mr. Clarke: Let me get the point clear. Would the Liberal Democrats vote in favour of clause stand part if the list set out in clause 1(1) contained certain individual offences—and if so, which ones? Alternatively, is the hon. Gentleman simply opposed to all of them? Can he be specific as to which offences fit which of the criteria that he has mentioned?

Mr. Hughes: The Minister is so impatient, although his question is perfectly proper. I was about to explain precisely that. He knows from our previous exchanges that I always try to give direct answers and not to fudge the issues. He accepts that, even if the answers I give are ones with which he does not always agree.

I will go down the list by category. We think that

    ``Being drunk in a highway other public place or licensed premises''.

should not be included. Similarly,

    ``Trespassing on the railway . . . Throwing stones etc at trains or other things on railways''

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

should not be included. I shall return to the issue of criminal damage, which we discussed previously. To continue, the listed offences of

    ``Threatening, abusive or insulting words or disorderly behaviour''

    ``Consumption of alcohol in designated public place''

should not be included. The reasons that we think that they ought not to be included on that list are that they are subjective and that they will give rise to big practical problems. For example, giving a fixed penalty notice to a person who is ``drunk in a highway'' lends itself to the possibility of that person either not knowing or not remembering that he has received it, as well as to all sorts of practical questions about whether the notice has been served and properly given to that person, and so on. Equally, the identity of the culprit in offences such as

    ``Throwing fireworks in a thoroughfare''

may be unclear, so we would not include such offences on the list.

Three further offences:

    ``Knowingly giving a false alarm to a fire brigade . . . Wasting police time or giving false report''—

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): On a point of order, Mr. Gale. Is it in order for not one Opposition Front-Bench Member to be in attendance? Is it not at least a grave discourtesy?

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman is aware that it is entirely up to hon. Members to decide whether to be in the Committee Room. It is not a matter for me.

Mr. Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is confused. One Opposition party may not be represented, but there is a perfectly adequate Opposition—indeed a better one—still here. We are Opposition Front Benchers; it is just that the Bench is occasionally occupied by Tories. Long before the hon. Gentleman was elected, the Tories started a debate in the Chamber on the Bill that abolished the Greater London council. I spoke from the Dispatch Box for 80 minutes, because there was no Labour Member on the Opposition Front Bench. I was the first Liberal to do so since Asquith.

The three offences of

    ``Knowingly giving a false alarm to a fire brigade . . . Wasting police time or giving false report''

    ``Using public telecommunications system for sending message known to be false in order to cause annoyance''

are too serious to be the subject of fixed penalty notices. Fixed penalty notices diminish the seriousness of such offences, so they ought not to be included in the list.

The one offence in respect of which we think it would be reasonable to trial fixed penalty notices is

    ``Buying or attempting to buy alcohol for consumption in a bar in licensed premises by a person under 18''

as that would clearly normally be based on the evidence of the person serving the drink. In addition, the offence occurs in a contained space, so the culprit is much more likely to be identified, whether he is seeking to buy alcohol for himself or for others. As I made clear on Second Reading, we support the provision in law that is to be introduced to test whether the illegal sale of alcohol has occurred; such a test already exists in respect of tobacco sales. There is a provision elsewhere in the Bill to allow, in certain protected circumstances, people aged less than 18 to be used to determine whether the law is being broken by people selling alcohol.

In response to the proposition put forward by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, I indicated that, where there is clear evidence of the damage, the criminal damage provision lends itself quite readily to a fixed penalty system; however, where evidence of the link between the damage and the culprit is less clear, the provision lends itself less readily to such a system. Therefore, criminal damage—even the lesser criminal damage under clause 1(1)—is something of a portmanteau offence, wherein some will reasonably fall within a fixed penalty notice system and some will not. It will depend on the extent of the criminal damage—whether a scratch on a window or the breaking of a shop front.

As I told the Minister, the Liberal Democrats are not against fixed penalty notices for appropriate offences such as motoring or cycling offences, litter dropping, or dog fouling. Nor are we opposed to a proposition that there is power to put them in legislation. There should be an Act that gives Ministers power to bring proposals before Parliament, which would then be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Ministers are willing to accept an amendment to that effect; therefore, for things that will come later, we now have the right process and there will be a one-by-one assessment by Parliament of any order that the Minister introduces.

Mr. Clarke: I am not clear about the hon. Gentleman's the final point.

    ``Consumption of alcohol in designated public place''

is now the subject of byelaws.

Mr. Hughes: I apologise if I did not include that. The arguments for that provision are linked to those in favour of having fixed penalty notices for persons committing an offence inside a bar. I am nervous about its inclusion in the list, as it might be difficult readily to identify the culprit—for example, if a group of youngsters has a few cans of lager, it may be difficult to identify who is actually consuming the alcohol. I would prefer that the offence were not on the list.

The sorts of offence that should be in the list include buying alcohol illegally in a pub and perhaps criminal damage, as well as selling illegally through street trading, as has been proposed. That is our general approach and I hope it is a consistent one. I am surprised that the three offences I listed—giving false alarms and so on—are not regarded as being sufficiently serious to be kept out of the fixed penalty notice system.

Mr. Lock: Is it really the Liberal Democrat position that every trespass on a railway must result in a full trial and that police officers should not be able to deal with even the most minor of cases in a straightforward way? Do they really suggest that that is the best use of the court's time?

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Prepared 6 February 2001