Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Sir Nicholas Lyell: I had read the Bill as entitling a police officer to issue a fixed penalty notice in the street, if he saw someone who was drunk. The Minister has suggested, however, that if an officer sees someone drunk, he will arrest the person, take him back to the station and then issue the fixed penalty notice. Is the former option not available to the officer? Could the Minister explain how the system would work in relation to the questions that I asked?

Mr. Lock: I will try to address these points, but section 25 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 provides general powers of arrest in the case of a person reasonably suspected of committing an offence. What is important about this part of the Bill, is that it is not creating new offences. It is a method of dealing with offences that are already being committed under other statutes. The police officer will the have the power, therefore, under section 25 to arrest someone who commits an offence of, say, criminal damage. There are other offences such as drunkenness, for which, under provisions of the Act, if the police officer is unable to identify the defendant, or the defendant is incapable of dealing with the police officer, the officer has the power of arrest.

This part of the Bill does not create new powers of arrest—there are already sufficient powers. Clause 2 will give police officers the option of giving a fixed penalty notice in the street, if appropriate, or exercising his power of arrest. At a later point in the system, back at the police station, an authorised officer can, under clause 2(5), issue a fixed penalty notice if, at the discretion of the police, that is the right way to dispose of the matter to prevent other officers going to court.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lock: No, I am going to make a bit of progress.

The next point raised was whether the issue of a fixed penalty notice to an offender or group of offenders might blow up a situation and make disorder worse. We are making a range of tools available to the police in the right circumstances. The police are experienced in dealing with rowdy situations and with disorderly groups on the street. It is for the police in their independent operational duties to determine the best way to defuse a situation. It is up to them to decide whether to deal with the public order issue by issuing a fixed penalty notices or by making an arrest under their existing powers. In the case of arrest, the offenders can be taken back to the station, where the police can consider disposal—either issuing a caution or a fixed penalty notice or proceeding to court, depending on the seriousness of the matter. The fact that they have the option of issuing a fixed penalty notice will not make difficult situations any more difficult.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath asked what would be the effect on the criminal justice system of massive non-payment of penalties? That misses the point, which is that penalties would be issued to people who commit offences that can dealt with by a fixed penalty notice. If those individuals do not pay the fines, the fines will mount up at the magistrates court, as would any other fines.

That brings me to the point—raised by various hon. Members—of whether there will be a limit on the number of fixed penalties that can be imposed. That option was canvassed in paragraph 13 of the consultation paper. Both the Police Superintendents Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers responded. In summary, their response was that the possible benefits of knowing of the cumulative number of fixed penalty notices would be more than outweighed by the administration, red tape and bureaucracy necessary to maintain such records.

If someone was collecting a large number of fixed penalty notices, that would clearly become apparent to the local police officers who were dealing with that person in the same place in the same way. Alternatively, offenders will come up as repeated fines before the court. Those sources of information would be the best way of dealing with any problem. There is no perfect answer to that point, as the consultation confirmed.

Stating that no person should be issued with more than three fixed penalty notices within 12 months would require a large amount of paperwork to record and maintain the necessary information. The whole rationale behind this part of the Bill is to give the police an option to allow them to discharge their duties more effectively, while maintaining all the rights of a defendant, but with less paperwork. The balance of the view from the police—both the Police Superintendents Association and ACPO—was that we would be better off to accept that running up repeated fines and dealing with the matter in court according to the level of repeated fines would be better than trying to limit penalty notices to a fixed number with all the counting and bureaucracy that would be necessary. How on earth can a police officer who sees somebody drunk in the street know whether that person has had two or three fixed penalties already this year? That being so, he could not issue another one when the purpose was to give that person an expensive hangover.

6.00 pm

Mr. Heald: I foresee a problem. Let us say that someone has received a lot of fines and becomes well known, or the police constable realises that the person has already been given half a dozen fixed penalty notices when the matter goes to court, because the police have had enough. Will the court be made aware of the number of fixed penalty notices that have been issued? The Minister will know that it is always possible to get a printout of motoring offences. If all fixed penalty notices are to be on computer, will a similar printout be possible?

Mr. Lock: In the first instance and on the assumption that every time a fixed penalty notice is issued a fine is paid, the answer is no. However, in practice, I strongly suspect that the type of individual to whom the hon. Gentleman refers is also the type who is unlikely to pay the fine. That would result in the unpaid fine—multiplied one and half times under clause 4(5)—being registered at the magistrates court, so when that individual comes back before the court, the fine will be before the court. In the case of a rather unusual individual who repeatedly gets drunk in a public place and repeatedly gets fined but pays all the fines off, the scenario painted by the hon. Gentleman is possible; however, in practice, I do not think that that is likely.

The hon. Gentleman asked if there were human rights implications if warnings about the consequences of not providing details were given. It is quite correct to require that any individual who commits an offence—in a fixed penalty system, an offence has already been committed—who is approached by a police officer and asked for details of his identity in relation to that offence, is warned if he either refuses to say who he is, or he adopts the course advocated by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and legs it. That requirement arises regardless of the Bill. However, if the police officer takes the view that the issuing of a fixed penalty notice is appropriate, it implies a degree of co-operation at that stage regarding the defendant's actions. If there is a dispute and a person refuses to say who he is, at that stage the issuing of a fixed penalty notice is not appropriate; it is likely that the individual will be arrested, and that is the point at which the appropriate warning should be given.

The warnings arise not in relation to the fixed penalty notice, but in relation to the offence, which is the condition precedent for giving a fixed penalty notice. Therefore, the Government do not accept that there are human rights implications associated with the fixed penalty notice system. We do accept that anyone who commits an offence and is then approached by a police officer and required to give his name and refuses must have his rights explained to him, but that does not arise under this part of the Bill.

Mr. Blunt: On the question of the recording of the fixed penalty notice and the offence, if somebody receives a fixed penalty notice and pays it in due time, what record will there be for the authorities to check if, for example, that person is investigated for another series of offences and all the state authorities want to establish his precise pattern of behaviour. Is there to be no record or will the record be expunged once he has paid his fine?

Mr. Lock: I understand that in the unlikely circumstance that every fixed penalty is paid within the time, there is no record. I will certainly have the matter checked and either return to it later in my speech or write to hon. Members.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: The Minister said that someone who was, for example, given a fixed penalty notice for being drunk would have to be warned. Can he explain that, because I do not think it is in the Bill? If it is, will he draw the provision to my attention? My impression is that a fixed penalty notice could simply be written out by the police officer and handed to the individual—although I am not clear as to whether it even needs to be handed to the individual.

Mr. Lock: The right hon. and learned Gentleman must appreciate that the requirement to warn and the issues relating to the Human Rights Act 1998 arise in relation to the offence, not to the fixed penalty notice. The notice is one way of dealing with an offence. The requirement on a police officer to warn, demand co-operation and explain the consequences of non-co-operation arises in relation to the original offence, be it criminal damage, trespass on a railway line, or whatever. The fixed penalty notice is a way of dealing with the offence itself. I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman appreciates that distinction.

To return to the matter raised by the hon. Member for Reigate, it may be possible for police officers to keep local administrative records of fixed penalty notices, but nothing in the Bill formally requires them to do so. We will certainly reflect upon that.

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Prepared 6 February 2001