Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hughes: I had not realised that other colleagues would take the bait to the extent that they have, and expound so much on my short point. However, it is an important issue and I am glad that they have done so.

There will soon be a review of the criminal justice system by Lord Justice Auld and, in the spring, the conclusions will be released of the sentencing review. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this debate should take place in that context, along with debates on issues such as non-payment of council tax? We might then discuss how people are dealt with for offences that have not traditionally been crimes but breaches of some obligation, and debate which offences should be in the latter category and which remain in the criminal offence category, for which a person would get a criminal record.

12 noon

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, because I entirely agree with him. We have repeatedly said that the Government are rushing into this legislation. One might ask them, ``Where's the beef? Where's the rush?''—but we know that they want to rush things through before a projected general election. The legislation does not take into account the issues that will arise from the Auld review and a consideration of how the Narey reforms are working in practice. As a result, it is rushed and half-baked. The Government must give better answers on those matters than those that they have given us so far. The point is reinforced by the fact that senior members of the Bar, such as Mr. Philip Katz QC, who will have to put the measures into practice in the courts, are expressing serious concerns.

The authors of the Criminal Bar Association paper say, on the related issue of deterrence:

    ``If the legal consequences of payment of a Notice are to be exactly the same as for a court hearing, (i.e. a conviction) logic suggests that the only effect will be to induce some people to pay by post rather than have the inconvenience of a court hearing.''

That is what tends to happen with parking tickets.

    ``Convenience is certainly a strong argument in favour of such a scheme. Costs and time will also be saved if people can plead guilty by post''—

which is a point that we appreciate. The paper goes on:

    ``On this approach tickets could be issued to sober and calm people on the street or sobered people back at the police station. This is not, however, anything to do with `deterrence'.''

That is the point about which the Government are confused. The paper continues:

    ``If on the other hand the legal consequences of a Notice are to be less than a conviction, then the deterrent effect is even harder to identify. As we have seen, that is the legal consequences of the road traffic fixed penalty scheme and compounding. People are not deterred from speeding or parking illegally because of the risk of a fixed penalty notice as opposed to a prosecution. If they are deterred at all, it is because they have to pay either way. The fixed penalty notices provide a convenient way of paying up and avoiding a conviction. Some people''—

one remembers, for example, various scandals involving African embassies—

    ``collect large numbers of parking tickets as part of their business expenses. The deterrent to Customs duty evaders is the risk of penalty and of prosecution. The availability of compounding is the exact opposite of a deterrent and is seen by some persistent evaders as the risk they are prepared to take...The offences listed in the Paper straddle what some might regard as the criminal threshold. The demarcation lines between conviction and penalty, and between criminal and non-criminal conduct need to be clear as a matter of principle''—

on the grounds set out by the authors of that paper, and on other grounds.

I will not go through the whole paper, but it is important to understand the substantive point that the difference between criminal and non-criminal conduct needs to be clear as a matter of principle. That is our concern.

Mr. Hughes: My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) cannot be here now, but will be present later. She told me that, in a women's magazine that she read recently, someone included car fines and parking fines as part of her monthly expenses—as part of her normal budget. It may be difficult to believe, but some people write those costs into their normal expenses. They do not think of the fines as a punishment for anything criminal; they are simply part of the ordinary disbursements of life.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I am sure that he is right. I did not see the article that the hon. Member for Taunton saw, but I have seen similar budgeting done. Indeed, a column is running in The Daily Telegraph at present that is based on the fictitious account of the life of a woman in the City of London, and I believe that that contains similar arrangements, so I am sure that it is based on truth. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey reinforces my argument. We retain serious concerns; we will listen to what the Minister has to say, but the proposal has been rushed and contains serious problems. The Government would certainly have been wiser to await detailed responses to the Auld review—which they themselves set in train—before making this proposal, in which they appear not to have properly thought through issues of legal principle.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I want to put it on the record that so far Government Members have spoken for 15 minutes of the hour and 35 minutes for which we have been sitting. After the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) read out most of the Criminal Bar Association's submission verbatim—perhaps being faithful to his former profession by simply reading the brief in front of him—I was tempted to detain the Committee by reading out the 111 submissions received from a variety of organisations, so that we could have on record the view not only of the Criminal Bar Association, crucial though that is, but of the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Chief Officers of Probation, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Inner London Magistrates Courts Service, Justice and others of the 111 organisations. [Interruption.]

I am tempted to respond to that popular demand from Government Committee members to read them all out, but it is important to put it on the record that the Criminal Bar Association is only one of those giving evidence, and many different people and organisations are interested in the Bill. I hope that the Committee will not regard the Criminal Bar Association as having the only view of significance, despite the fact that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath declared his interest, and then proceeded simply to read out the brief.

Some points of substance were made in the debate, and I want to respond to them. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey asked about consultation. We really tried to consult. I take his point about political parties not conventionally responding to that invitation, but when I was in the official Opposition, it was common for us not necessarily to respond formally to a consultation document but to make our position clear by speeches, letters or other devices. It is no criticism of him that that was not done in this case; I am simply responding to his point that somehow we had not consulted, because it does not stack up.

The hon. Gentleman asked about piloting. We have not included the formal power to pilot the proposal because we consider it technically impossible. Formal pilots require fixed geographical areas, which are not suitable for powers available generally in the streets. However, it may be of interest if I put on the record the fact that we intend, with the co-operation of the police, to do what we can to test the application of the scheme in particular areas before it is widely used.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we considered making the powers available only at police stations? The answer is yes, we did, but for the reasons explained in earlier interventions by my hon. Friends the Members for South Thanet and for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton), we think that it is important to give the police the choice in certain circumstances—using their discretion in accordance with guidance—to use the fixed penalty notice power on the streets.

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire asked who would be an authorised constable. The fundamental position is that police forces are covered under the Police Acts and the generality of police legislation. All regular forces are covered, as well as special constables, who are dealt with under section 29 of the Police Act 1996. Fire officers are not included, as they are not so covered by that Act. We propose that police officers, not fire officers, should have the powers.

On the special services, the Bill relates to all geographically based forces covered by police legislation. In addition, the British Transport police asked for specific coverage because of the offence of trespassing on the railways. Other forces—for example, the Ministry of Defence police and the Royal Parks police—did not ask to be covered by the measure, so they are not. The Bill applies generally to police forces and to the British Transport police because of the nature of the offences set out in clause 1.

The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire, who intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, was correct to say that if an individual pays the fixed penalty notice he avoids conviction for the reasons set out in clause 2(4) and keeps a clean slate. I am happy to assure him that it will not be evidence of previous guilt in a future trial, and there will be no unofficial criminal record.

I was asked whether there is any local recording. We should ensure that offenders do not receive repeated penalty notices; even without written records, constables would be aware which local offenders had numerous penalty notices, although they would have discretion in every case. I assure the Committee that information about earlier notices will be used for no other purpose than to check the word of an individual who had received previous fixed penalty notices. It will not be used in other court hearings, it will not be on the record in any sense and it will not be an unofficial record.

The meaning of clause 2(4), as the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, is absolutely explicit. I reinforce the point that there is no finding of guilt if the payment is made; that, too, is absolutely clear in the Bill. The record is local and administrative.

An unpaid fixed penalty notice becomes registered as an unpaid fine, and in that circumstance could be relevant in future proceedings, because unpaid fines are on the record. If the individual pays a fixed penalty notice, as set out in the Bill, there is no admission of guilt and no official or unofficial criminal record.

I have tried to deal with the various points made in the debate.

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