Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Heald: Will the Minister describe that a little more clearly? I am not A, but B; however, I find that because I have been summonsed I have a fine registered against me and I am in the magistrates defaulters court. What happens?

Mr. Lock: The hon. Gentleman is in exactly the same position as if someone pretended to be Oliver Heald and was served with a parking ticket, or if someone was stopped for any other offence and gave the hon. Gentleman's name and he were summonsed as a result. The answer is that he simply has to prove that he is not the person to whom the police issued the penalty, in exactly the same way as in the other circumstances. Given that the hon. Gentleman's appearance is very distinctive, if I may say so, I would not have thought that in his case that is likely to be a matter of enormous controversy.

Mr. Hawkins: The debate that the Minister is having with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire prompts another thought in my mind. The Minister will be aware that there has been extensive concern and campaigns, not least in the Evening Standard, about how fixed penalties have been pursued through various London boroughs. Entirely innocent motorists have found it almost impossible to challenge them. Is not the Minister opening up a fresh can of worms for anybody who has been on the receiving end—as I and many other hon. Members have been—of such nonsense? When one goes to the parking adjudicator or the parking committee for London, they simply cannot reverse any fixed penalty because the Labour-run London boroughs are so inefficient that they will not talk to the parking commission.

Mr. Lock: I was waiting for the pejorative sting in the tail, and of course it came—rather galling, rather inaccurate, but rather predictable. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman simply does not appreciate the nature of the structure that is being erected. The cases will come before the magistrates court. To pursue the analogy, if the defendant is called and says, ``I am the true Oliver Heald. The person who was found drunk and disorderly on Chippenham High Street at 11 o'clock last Friday night cannot have been me; I was attending to my parliamentary duties in my constituency,'' I would expect the court to adjourn under clause 12(3) for the claim to be investigated. When it was proved conclusively that the hon. Gentleman was indeed attending to the affairs of his constituents, the confidence that we all have in magistrates courts—I know that the hon. Gentleman has repeatedly said how much he admires them, and I am sure that he would agree that they would investigate such an allegation with scrupulous care—would be justified by its being proved that, whoever it was the police served a notice on in Chippenham high street at 11 o'clock on Friday night, was not the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire; he would be able to walk away without a stain on his character and it would have been proved that the appeals system had worked perfectly well.

The final point that I wanted to answer was that raised by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath and the Justices' Clerks Society. It is of course true that as a result of the Narey reform introduced by the current Government, defendants are coming before the courts much faster than they ever did under the previous Government. Early first hearings are resulting in a number of offenders having their cases disposed of the day after the offence was committed. That is a good thing. Low-level public disorder offences—say, drunkenness—are entirely suitable for Narey-type hearings. Therefore, an individual can either be given a fixed penalty notice or be brought before the court the following day having sobered up in the cells overnight, but probably still be given a financial penalty. These are analogous cases.

If people charged with more serious offences were brought before the court the following day on an early directions hearing, fixed penalty notices would not be suitable. Therefore, while I understand the point made by the clerks that the courts are working so swiftly these days that many low-level disorder cases are processed through the courts very quickly. Where Narey hearings are working well, they are nearly as efficient and fast as the provision of a fixed penalty notice. That is a factor on which police officers will have to exercise discretion as to whether, on the facts of the individual case, there should be a fixed penalty notice.

I have attempted to respond to the various points that have been raised. I hope that I have explained why the system we propose is one of a range of options that the Government believe should be given to the police to enable them to deal with low-level disorder offences of the sort set out in clause 1, such as being drunk in a highway, other public place or licensed premises, a minor case of throwing stones at the railway—not the type of major incident referred to by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey—and low-level criminal damage. I hope that the clause, as drafted, commends itself to the Committee.

Mr. Heald: I thank the Minister for that response. He answered fully five of the questions asked by the Criminal Bar Association. However, I noticed that on many occasions he referred to future guidance under clause 6, and that is a matter of concern.

Given the views of Association of Chief Police Officers, we cannot support the clause while it includes criminal damage or while there are no safeguards in respect of paperwork for the police. As the Police Superintendents Association and the Police Federation have raised the matter, we need to be satisfied that there will be no extra paperwork involved. If the Minister can satisfy us in coming days on the remaining five matters raised by the Criminal Bar Association and on the issue of paperwork, on Report—assuming we win the Division—we will table a new clause that provides for fixed penalty notices in a way that reflects the views of ACPO, the Police Superintendents Association and the Police Federation.

Question put, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 6.

Division No. 4]

Brinton, Mrs. Helen
Clark, Mr. Paul
Clarke, Mr. Charles
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Lock, Mr. David
McCabe, Mr. Stephen
Smith, Miss Geraldine
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry

Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Gray, Mr. James
Hawkins, Mr. Nick
Heald, Mr. Oliver
Hughes, Mr. Simon
Lyell, Sir Nicholas

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

6.30 pm

The Chairman: Before we move on to clause 2, it may be convenient for members of the Committee to be aware that if there is a Division on the Floor of the House I shall, as is customary, suspend the Committee for 15 minutes, and for another 15 minutes after the start of the second Division, should there be one.

I have agreed through the usual channels that the Committee will sit until 7.30 pm, not 7 pm, on the understanding that thereafter we shall not sit again tonight.

Clause 2

Penalty notices

Mr. Heald: I beg to move amendment No. 20, in page 2, line 39, leave out `reason' and insert `reasonable grounds'.

The amendment would require that a constable should have reasonable grounds to believe, rather than reason to believe, that a person has committed a penalty offence. There are a number of possible states of mind that a constable might have in giving a fixed penalty notice, ranging from suspicion to certainty beyond reasonable doubt that an offence has been committed. Surely, it is right to pitch the terminology between those two extremes. Will the Minister justify his choice—namely, that an officer should have reason to believe rather than reasonable grounds to believe?

Liberty is worried about the fact that a penalty notice can be issued if an officer has reason to believe that a penalty offence has been committed. As it points out, that is less than the criminal standard. The effect of accepting a fixed penalty notice will be to accept that behaviour to a criminal standard has occurred, so Liberty believes that officers imposing the penalty notices should be required to be satisfied to the same standard. I do not accept that, but it is a reasonable point: simply to say that one has reason to believe something may not be quite enough. If a person who is issued with a notice goes to court to protest his or her innocence rather than pay the fine, the burden of proof will then be beyond reasonable doubt. One practical implication of that is that large numbers of people may challenge the notices, which, in Liberty's view, would place an administrative burden on the system.

The amendment would require the officer to have reasonable grounds for issuing a notice. It makes the distinction between having a reason and having a reason with grounds to it, and its effect would be to create an objective, rather than a subjective, test for police officers. Currently, a police officer has only to believe that someone is guilty rather than having to demonstrate why he came to that belief on the basis of objective evidence. The amendment would not necessarily make a huge difference in practice, but it would be beneficial in that an officer would have his mind focused on the possibility that his decision could be challenged in court at a later date, so he would make that decision in the way that we would all hope for.

Liberty states:

    If a group of people were drinking and being rowdy, it would be necessary for the police to ensure that each member of the group individually had been contributing to the disturbance and/or had been drinking. As we believe that the police are likely to use the FPN fairly liberally, we will need to ensure that they are issued as accurately as possible and that the magistrates courts are not clogged with people appealing their notices.

It concludes that if people do need to appeal, the police should be able to offer objective evidence to the effect that they believe that the notice should have been given, as is required with the breathalyser test.

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Prepared 6 February 2001