Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Simon Hughes: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lock: May I make a final point in answer to the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire? Inasmuch as the fixed penalty notice itself, as opposed to the offence for which it was issued, gives rise to obligations, those obligations will be set out in the notice. I refer him to clause 3(3), which sets out what the notice must state. There is a requirement for the notice to contain warnings to the effect that, if one does not pay the fine, one will be taken to the magistrates court, and to inform one about how to comply with the notice. That will satisfy the obligations under the Human Rights Act.

Mr. Hughes: While answering our questions, has the Minister concluded that, in the real world, the chance of people standing around and waiting for a fixed penalty notice is about 1 per cent.? In fact, they will probably run away without giving their name. The chances of them waiting for that bit of paper seem to me to be zilch. If the Government want to go ahead with the fixed penalty notice system, should they not recognise that the only time when such a system will be of any use is after arrest, when there is a disposal in the cell in the police station? The officer might, at that time, decide whether to charge or issue a fixed penalty notice. Is that not the only realistic chance of any significant number of people receiving, or accepting that they have received, such a notice?

Mr. Lock: I appreciate the perspective that the hon. Gentleman brings to the matter as an inner-city Member of Parliament, along with his experience, which I share, as a full practising member of the Bar. However, his view is not that of police officers. I accept that it may on occasion be appropriate to issue fixed penalty notices in the police station. However, it will be an appropriate way of dealing with low-level disorder and criminal damage on the street committed by people who, because they do not want to aggravate their problems, decide to co-operate rather than run away—as some defendants do. That is the view of the police who have experience of such things day in, day out. It is also the Government's view, because it will keep officers on the street, doing their jobs, rather than being caught up in a maze of paperwork at the station.

It was asked whether the discretion exercised by police officers was justiciable and whether there would be any control over police officers' discretion to issue a fixed penalty notice. That is a red herring, because it assumes that, in the event of a fixed penalty notice being issued, the defendant's rights are somehow changed. They are not. The defendant has all the rights to challenge the facts underlying a fixed penalty notice and to have a trial on the issues that gave rise to the alleged offence as he would have had if he had been charged and brought before the court. The discretion exercised by the police officer to offer the defendant the choice of a fixed penalty notice, or to have his day in court and take the punishment if he is found guilty or walk away if found not guilty in no way diminishes the defendant's rights.

Mr. Heald: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lock: I shall make a little more progress.

Let me respond to the issue concerning railway offences, regarding which my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, said that we were not talking about serious offences. The provision before us does not affect the treatment of serious offences; it is right and proper that their seriousness is marked by an appearance in court. It is important that that is understood, and that there is no suggestion that police officers will abuse the system if the option to issue a fixed penalty notice is introduced.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath effectively said that we are not trusting police officers to exercise properly their discretion to issue fixed penalty notices where it is appropriate to do so; he implied that we think that they will abuse the system by taking short cuts. We do not believe that. Giving police officers the right to issue fixed penalty notices where appropriate does not suggest that they will do so where it is inappropriate.

That leads me to the point made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey concerning the position of the Liberal Democrats. They do not trust the police with the discretion to judge the seriousness of offences and to decide whether they should be dealt with by a fixed penalty notice, even though the fixed penalty notice in no way takes away the rights of the defendant to challenge the issue by a trial, should he wish to do so. It is understandable that the Liberal Democrats will not allow certain offences to come within that category. However, concomitantly, they would deny the police the tools that the police themselves have asked for and that both the police and the Government believe would enable them to do their job better. Offences including low-level crime, disorder and nuisance and the type of offences set out in clause 1, which cause so many problems in my constituency and constituencies across the country, will be effectively dealt with by giving the police this further option. When it comes to deciding which party gives the police the tools to do the job and is prepared to trust the police to have discretion while maintaining the rights of the defendant to challenge, the hon. Gentleman's position will be well noted.

Mr. Blunt: A fixed penalty notice is likely be served in circumstances which to date might have attracted a caution if a person had to be taken to a police station. Can the Minister explain the difference between the consequences of a fixed penalty notice and a caution? I understand that a caution is recorded, which means that a person then has a criminal record. There will be frequent occasions on which a policeman decides between giving a fixed penalty notice, which can be discharged with payment of money, or a permanent entry on someone's record. Is that the sort of decision that the police will be making?

6.15 pm

Mr. Lock: The hon. Gentleman has got it right. The advantage of a caution is that it incurs no financial penalty. The defendant has accepted that he committed an offence, but the price for doing so is not marked—to use the term favoured by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire—as it is under a fixed penalty. Conversely, a caution can be referred to again later in limited circumstances. The other difference is that a caution involves the admission of guilt by a defendant at the police station. A fixed penalty notice does not require the admission of guilt. When a defendant contests his guilt, a police officer can issue a fixed penalty notice leaving the defendant a choice between challenging it and opting for a trial, or paying up under that notice. There are plusses and minuses in each case. A range of options is available to police officers to deal with the various offences.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I understand why the Minister wants to put his own spin on our position, but we are entitled to express it in our own words. In the exceptional circumstances of an individual not contesting the offence, we prefer the penalty to be decided by a court rather than by the police. Allowing the police to determine the penalty mixes responsibilities in the criminal justice system adversely and wrongly.

Mr. Lock: I accept that as a principled position, but the problem is that fixed penalties are ruled out on all occasions. As the hon. Gentleman conceded, fixed penalties are appropriate for some offences under clause 1, so the argument is inconsistent.

Some questions were raised about whether Britain is ready for fixed penalty notices. First, the police say that they are ready. Secondly, people who believe that we are not ready now will never be ready: for such people, there will never be enough consultation or enough time. However, we believe that it is time to get on with it.

International comparisons were made. Fixed penalty notices are used in a variety of ways in the United States and in Europe, but we must be cautious about translating experiences too readily from one jurisdiction to another because of the wide range of variables—different levels of fine, for example, as in Australia. We need to work out the right level of fine for tackling disorder problems in this country. The fact that one country tackled the problem successfully in one way does not necessarily mean that it would be effective in this country.

The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire, who is not present, asked about officers' training. Part V expressly deals with and makes extensive provision for the training of police officers. I hope that that part of the Bill will be uncontentious and will receive a warm welcome on both sides of the Committee. Proper training of police officers has to be in everyone's best interests. Guidance under clause 6 is specifically designed

    ``with a view to encouraging good practice in connection with the operation of provisions of this Chapter.''

The guidance is not general, but for a specific purpose. I hope that that deals with the issues raised by the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Finally, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire asked what happens when a fixed penalty notice is not served—perhaps someone is impersonating another person, or the individual is simply not served with the notice—and a person finds himself summoned before the court and asked whether there is a proper defence to the subsequent claimed fine. There is—clause 4 states:

    ``This section applies if a penalty notice is given to a person (``A'') under section 2''

and then goes on to talk about the liability incurred by A—the person who has been served. Clearly if the person who comes before the court is not A, it follows that the liabilities—for example, the liability under clause 4(5) to pay one and a half times the fine if it is not paid within the fixed period—do not apply to that person, because he has not been served. If there is any doubt, I refer the Committee to clause 12(5), which allows the court to set aside a fine in the interests of justice. I hope that I have provided a complete answer.

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Prepared 6 February 2001