Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Heald: My right hon. and learned Friend is developing an argument that concerns me. Clause 6 provides for the Secretary of State to issue guidance

    ``about the exercise of the discretion given to constables by this Chapter'',

and also

    ``about the issuing of penalty notices''.

He questioned whether a summons has been served in those circumstances. If the accused is alleged to have been ``drunk in a highway'' or one of the other conditions involving drunkenness or high excitement, such as threatening behaviour and the like, there is a danger that the actual process of serving a notice may be a contentious issue. Until one has seen a draft of the guidance issued by the Secretary of State, it is hard to work out what is proposed.

The Chairman: Order. I have been extremely lenient. I must remind members of the Committee that interventions are supposed to be exactly that.

5.30 pm

Sir Nicholas Lyell: My hon. Friend and I will have your thoughts in mind, Mr. Gale.

We are dealing with the substance of clause 1, which concerns the nature of offences for which penalty notices can be issued. I am concerned about the practicalities of issuing penalty notices for virtually all the 10 offences in subsection (1).

Although the Criminal Bar Association's questions about section 25 of PACE and the European convention on human rights are not developed particularly fully in the briefing, they will nevertheless prove to be real, and I am extremely grateful that they were raised at all. I sympathise with the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary, because it is rather difficult for the Government legal service, the Home Office and the Attorney-General's chambers to apply a wet towel and think through all those questions. I shall listen constructively and quite sympathetically to the answers that we receive, but I should point out that those questions deserve a lot of thought in the three weeks or so that are allotted to examining the Bill. I look forward to listening carefully to the Minister's answers, so that I can learn and try to contribute to a better Bill.

Mr. Simon Hughes: The right hon. and learned Gentleman has more experience of such matters than most of us. Does he think that it will be necessary to prove that a fixed penalty notice has been served, rather than assuming a deemed service? If so, as he rightly says, many intended recipients will run away as fast as they can—I certainly would, and I am sure that others would. I am assuming that the issue of service is a matter that would have to be proved immediately in the courts.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point that I was trying to illustrate in relation to the motorist who drives away at the moment when he suspects that the traffic warden is printing out a ticket. As soon as the traffic warden touches his machine, he must proceed—I doubt whether he can abort the process. Those are the type of practical problems that will arise.

According to my quick reading of this complex Bill and the relevant clause, everything is deemed to have been dealt with. However, I wonder whether the alleged offender will be able to question whether the penalty has been served, even though to do so would be unfair. On the other hand, the alleged offender might say, ``It is no good deeming that it has been served. I never received it and I wasn't even in the street where it is alleged that I was drunk and disorderly. This is a case of mistaken identity and I should not be asked to pay the penalty.''

I foresee enormous problems, and offer that example to the Minister in the hope that he can give a quick and comforting reply. As it stands, if a police officer says that he has issued a fixed penalty notice and writes down a name, the notice is deemed to have been served, even though the person concerned was not there and did not receive it. That person will then find out that he is automatically expected to pay a fine that is 50 per cent. above the amount of the fixed penalty notice. How can he challenge that? Before what tribunal and under what system will he be able to defend himself by saying, ``It wasn't me.''? He might also say, ``Yes, I was there, but the notice wasn't given to me. A mistake must have been made in the police station, and in any case I wasn't drunk.'' A brief explanation of how the provision will work in practice would be very helpful.

Mr. Hawkins: I think that I can be relatively brief, because many of the issues have been addressed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), and my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Hertfordshire and for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). However, I want to make a couple of points in support of their comments, and I should perhaps begin by returning to a matter that I raised during an intervention on the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).

We were discussing the significance of the sometimes serious incidents of youths throwing stones at trains. One reason for the concern that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and I, as well as other Opposition Members, share is that there will be a perception that the offence is being downgraded, although I realise that the Government are not saying that everyone who commits the offence would always receive a fixed penalty. I stress, not only in my capacity as an Opposition Front Bench spokesman but as chairman of the all-party railways group, that the Minister will have to take account of the fact that those who represent the most vulnerable people--the rail workers--will be upset if they believe that the Government are downgrading the seriousness of the offence. Some train drivers, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, have suffered horrendous injuries as a result of stones being dropped off railway bridges and so on. If they believe that the offence is being downgraded, they will be very upset.

I want to reinforce the constituency case to which I referred in my intervention. I am holding a reply that I received today from a helpful chief inspector--Mick Day--of the north-west Surrey police division. He states that he is liasing--he always does so, and very helpfully--with his counterparts at Guildford police station so that we can consider how the local police can deal with those yobs and ensure a speedy police response.

I have already had a response from the British Transport police which makes the same point as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey--that the British Transport police cannot always be patrolling every mile of railway track. The local police often have the most detailed knowledge of where the most vulnerable points of the track are and where the yobs tend to congregate. In this case, the trouble spot next to the line is well known. It is so well known that Railtrack has fenced in the bridges, but, unfortunately, that does not stop youths standing in open ground beside the line or in one of the gardens in Winchester road in my constituency and regularly lobbing rocks at trains. The problem is serious. My constituents and my councillor, Nick Sutcliffe--he was, unfortunately, a victim of one of those attacks--would be very concerned to hear that the Government are doing something that will be perceived, despite what the Minister says, as downgrading the offence.

I want to return to one or two of the issues concerning the way in which the courts will deal with fixed penalties generally. One of the submissions to Opposition Members came from the chief executive to the Justices for Inner London. As a lawyer, I treat seriously any concerns expressed by those in the court service. The chief executive to the Justices for Inner London refers to the origins of the Bill in the Government's consultation paper. Christine Glenn, the Justices' chief executive quotes from that consultation paper, stating that introduction of the fixed penalty system for anti-social behaviour offences will provide immediacy of punishment in a way that a court appearance at some time in the future does not. That lies behind the Government's proposal. The Justices' chief executive said:

    ``It is suggested the proposal might achieve exactly the opposite . . . Since the introduction of the Narey reforms''--

she is referring to her own court and it may not be true in all courts--

    ``anyone charged is in fact brought before a court within a day or two. Under the proposed system the issue of the notice may indeed be swift but payment will be delayed for at least a statutory period and in many if not most cases will not be made at all''--

that refers to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and others made so well—

    ``at least without further court appearances either in the form of a summons for the offence or a means warrant for non-payment. The issue of compensation is not addressed.''

The chief executive continues:

    ``The compliance rate taken across the whole range of motoring fixed penalties is certainly fairly high. This may reflect the fact that parking and other minor motoring offences are committed by a very wide section of the public, including those who are (otherwise) entirely law abiding.''

We all know on both sides of the Committee that this is true. The document continues:

    ``However, compliance rates from non-endorsable fixed penalties are much lower at about 40 per cent. and it is suggested this might be the maximum that could realistically be expected.''

In addition, the justices' chief executive questions

    ``whether a high rate of compliance can be anticipated from the section of the population likely to be the candidates for the new scheme. Bearing in mind the non-payment rates for court fines we would be surprised if more than 30 per cent. paid immediately.''

I suspect it would be a lot lower than that. My personal estimate would be less than 10 per cent. from my experience in the criminal courts with the kind of people that the chief constable of the area that my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate and I represent, has termed the Guildford warriors. My hon. Friend and other Surrey colleagues were with me when we were shown an absolutely fascinating and rather worrying section of closed-circuit television film. It showed a great deal of drunkenness and violent behaviour, including the kind of criminal damage in Guildford town centre that the Bill might be intended to deal with.

If the Minister had been with us when we saw that film, he would have seen that, even though the police panda car arrived within two or three minutes, to break up the fights and deal with the drunks and the criminal damage, quite serious offences had already been committed. The Governments' proposals might suggest that such offences would merit a fixed penalty issued by a police officer.

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