Criminal Justice and Police Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): This is an interesting debate and I am looking forward to the Minister's reply to it. It is agreed generally that it is worth while giving the police the powers that they need to deal with such offences, but the closer I come to the practicality of how such proposals will work, the more the difficulties that present themselves. The Police Superintendents Association stated in its evidence:

    ``Prior to the Bill our members expressed some concerns as to how practical these measures would be.''

The reassurance that it received was based on the fact that the likely outcome of such a system is that offenders will be arrested and a fixed penalty ticket issued later at the police station. That would negate a significant part of the value of the fixed penalty notices, whereby police officers would not be taken off the street to go back to the police station to deal with the paperwork and the offender there. Having taken part in the parliamentary police scheme, I know how fast a shift on duty is taken off the streets when it has to return to the police station to deal with paperwork.

Superficially, the provision has significant attractions, enabling the police to stay on the streets, but when we consider the offences that they are likely to be dealing with, the situation becomes clear. ACPO has said that, when the police discharge their responsibilities, especially if they are dealing with offenders who are drunk or violent, they will not deal with them on the street but will have to arrest them and deal with them at the police station. They will then decide whether to issue a fixed penalty notice or a caution or to charge them.

The response of the Criminal Bar Association went to the nitty gritty of those questions that must be addressed on a legal level. There are devastating questions for the Minister to answer. That is why I am particularly looking forward to his response. What is the answer to the association's point that

    ``Disorderly drunks are by definition not in a fit state to be served with a legal document with penal consequences.''?

Presumably, ACPO has recognised that. The advantage of the system will be negated by the fact that, if a drunk is arrested, he will have to be taken to the police station and the police will have to wait until he is in a fit condition before a fixed penalty notice can be served on him.

The Criminal Bar Association said:

    ``Drunk and/or disorderly persons are unlikely to be alone or compliant.''

The handing out of fixed penalty notices on the street in public is more likely to inflame the public order problem than to provide a solution to it.

Mr. Hughes: I know that we are to have a debate later on the issue, but one solution to such a problem is to take that person's particulars and deal with the matter later. I presume that the hon. Gentleman's experience is the same as mine, and I have found that the chances of any identification being volunteered by those in question is pretty minimal. As a result, further offences will be committed and an arrest will have to be made for there to be any chance of following up the case.

Mr. Blunt: I agree. The police know who the bad hats are—especially difficult repeat offenders—and if they see a policeman about to issue a fixed penalty notice, they are likely to leg it at the first opportunity. That means that the police will have to capture them and make an arrest to issue a fixed penalty notice.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): Surely the clause gives the police choice. Why does the hon. Gentleman not want that?

Mr. Blunt: The hon. Gentleman has highlighted the main argument. If we allow the clause to stand part, we are giving the police wider powers and a greater range of options. However, having given them such powers, we must consider how difficult it will be for the bobby on the beat to decide whether to use the new methods that are available to him and whether it is worth it. We need to consider the recording of fixed penalty notices, about which I hope that the Minister will advise us. Will no record be kept once someone has paid a fixed penalty notice? If so, repeat offenders who constantly receive fixed penalty notices will never progress to a more serious stage of the criminal justice system.

5.15 pm

I should be grateful if the Minister would explain the type of recording that will take place. In the state of New York, for example, notices can be issued for offences such as fishing in the wrong place, and relevant records are kept. A young man of 17 who wanted to go to West Point to get a commission in the American army was unable to do so because he received such a notice after fishing in the wrong place, and the offence was placed on his record. How will such offences be recorded in this country? Will repeat offending be taken into account?

ACPO states that it would rather avoid the bureaucracy of a complicated recording procedure. It wants to opt for a simple system that deals with a single offence, rather than recording offences on the police national computer and thereby creating additional bureaucracy for the police.

Evidence from the Criminal Bar Association about the application of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 also gives me cause for concern. The association asked:

    ``Will PACE 1984 apply from the moment of police intervention and what powers exactly will be used up to the time of the issue of a Notice: arrest or something new?''

Will an offender who is being dealt with by a policeman on the street be given the opportunity to explain his behaviour? Will the policeman be able to assess the sort of person whom he is dealing with? Will he be able to assess whether he is dealing with a young man who is of good character and a responsible member of society, but who has merely indulged in drunken high jinks, or with someone of bad character who is likely to be a repeat offender? Perhaps some hon. Members fell into the former category in their student days. Such information would enable the policeman to establish the appropriate penalty.

One must also consider whether an explanation will be given under caution—a point that gives rise to the Criminal Bar Association's questions about the application of PACE. How will granting the police another level of punishment interact with the Human Rights Act 1998? The option of a caution will remain but, in dealing with an offender, the police will have a further three levels of discretion.

The Government must take into account those difficult questions, and I wonder whether the Minister might help by adducing some international evidence. Is such a system in play and working elsewhere in the world? The only evidence that I have seen are the appalling statistics in New South Wales concerning those who pay fixed penalty notices for failing to obey a police officer, or for carrying a knife. In New South Wales, there is between 92 and 97 per cent. non-compliance with fixed penalty notices. Is there any international evidence that such a system works?

Neither the country nor the police are ready for this measure to be introduced untested. I fear that it is a rather inelegant attempt to cover the Prime Minister's embarrassment over his poorly thought out idea about dealing with drunken hooligans. Such people are a real nuisance on our streets and to law-abiding citizens, and one can see what he was trying to achieve. However, the idea of dragging someone off to a cash machine to draw £100 out of their account to pay a fine was laughed off the court on the grounds of impracticality, and the Government are now trying to find a way of doing something similar to the Prime Minister's idea.

I look forward to the Minister making a case for the measure based on evidence from around the country. If, after the debate, we vote that the clause stands part of the Bill, will the Minister consider allowing police forces in certain areas to trial different methods of using fixed penalty notices in order to judge how effective they will be and what is the best way of putting them into practice? At the moment, the police do not know exactly how they will work.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): I apologise for my unavoidable absence during the first sitting of the Committee.

My hon. Friends have raised some important matters. It is our duty as an Opposition to try to tease them out, both to help the Government in a course of action to which we are not wholly and fundamentally opposed and to produce law that is sensible and workable.

I have real fears about the ways in which fixed penalty notices may be used. It is highly significant that they can be used only by authorised police officers. I feel sure that that is because police officers will require a great deal of training before they start to use them. Fixed penalty notices work reasonably well in relation to motoring offences such as parking and some on-the-spot fines—

Mr. Lock: I refer the right hon. and learned Gentleman to clause 2(1), which we have not yet reached, where he will find that the power is exercisable by any constable in uniform outside a police station. The authorised constable is a provision that applies only within a police station. I hope that that is helpful.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: It is helpful as an explanation of how the Bill works. However, perhaps my misunderstanding of the Bill has raised a question that is worth considering. It remains true that officers will require a good deal of training before using such a fixed penalty system.

To be anecdotal for a moment, significant problems arise in relation to fixed penalty parking fines. There can be few members of the Committee who drive motor cars but have never received a parking fine, which one can receive without it being put on one's car. Traffic wardens are entitled to issue a parking fine against a motorist whose car has infringed, but who drives away before they can stick the fine on the car. I suspect that many motorists who drive away realise that they are taking a risk in doing so. None the less, the system is unsatisfactory because one can only pay the smaller fine—£40 rather than £80—within 14 days of it having been issued, rather than within 14 days of notice of the penalty having been received. If that problem occurs in relation to parking penalties, which we, as British citizens, generally accept as a reasonable way to attempt to control parking because the criminality of the offence is seldom high, it will arise more often in relation to this kind of fixed penalty notice.

During the 22 years that I have been in the House, we have experienced difficulties on policing issues such as stop and search, the sus laws—when they applied—and powers that are easier for the police to use when the offender happens to be known to them because he or she has offended before. The structure of the Bill means that, if one does not wish to pay the penalty notice, and one is sufficiently organised to write back to say that one wishes to be tried, the notice is treated as though a magistrate had issued it. One issue in the enforcement of civil and criminal law is that summonses are frequently not served, and that is a major problem with debt proceedings, which can lead to trouble in relation to credit agencies and unpaid civil liabilities.

Recent legislation has intermingled civil and criminal law, which results in criminal or quasi-criminal conduct leading to civil, rather than criminal, penalties. The intermingling of the fringes of civil and criminal law leads to procedures that are deemed to have occurred as though they had gone through the formality of magistrates court summonses, with which people are comparatively familiar, but in practice that will not have occurred.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 6 February 2001