Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Blunt: When I first read the provisions that deal with the fines payable under the fixed penalty notices, I assumed that there would be a standard tariff. That would be the effect of the amendments tabled by the Liberal Democrats and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire. I look forward to hearing the Government's thinking on such matters because the explanatory notes to the Bill state:

    ``Subsections (1) and (2) allow the Secretary of State to specify the level of the penalty for each offence up to a maximum of 50 per cent. of the maximum fine for the offence.''

If we are to have a system of cheap and cheerful justice without an admission of guilt, it would be better to have a standard tariff, which is why I am attracted to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend. The first offence listed under clause 1 of

    ``Being drunk in a highway, other public place or licensed premises''

attracts a level 1 fine. My hon. Friend's two amendments are inconsistent, one saying that there would be a fine of £100 and the other wanting a fine of £50, so there would be a slight problem if the Government accepted them. However, given the Government's track record so far in listening to our side of the Committee, I doubt whether that will happen.

Mr. Clarke: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, earlier in our proceedings, we not only accepted an Opposition amendment but voted for it—an unusual occurrence?

Mr. Blunt: The Minister makes a good point. My approach is slightly affected by what happened in the Committee of the Bill that became the Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000. You will recall, Mr. Hood, having taken evidence on such matters when we served together on the Select Committee on Defence, that the Government refused to listen to anyone's advice during the entire proceedings. They went through the whole Bill rigorously without amending it. I remember the Home Secretary standing in the House saying that he knew of not one Bill that could go through parliamentary procedures and not be improved in some way. Well, I have been a member of a Committee when nothing in the Bill under discussion was amended.

Mr. Clarke: One reason why that happened, despite the merit of the clause, was to encourage a constructive, appropriate and focused debate. We are slightly disappointed that such a gesture has not been reflected in the speeches from the Opposition Benches.

Mr. Blunt: I sincerely hope, Mr. Hood, that the Minister is not referring to me or implying that your chairmanship or that of Mr. Gale has been lacking.

A serious issue is involved. The offence of

    ``Being drunk in a highway, other public place or licensed premises''

rightly attracts a level 1 fine, whereas the offences of

    ``Using public telecommunications system for sending message known to be false in order to cause annoyance''

    ``Destruction of, or damage to, property without lawful excuse''

attracts a level 5 fine.

I want to pick up on the points made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. I disagree that the effect of the penalties will be exclusively at the cost of people who will have difficulty in affording them. The police will be able to make such judgments on the ground when deciding whether to levy a fixed penalty notice, accept a caution or take the person to trial. In principle, one of the advantages of fixed penalty notices is that they give local police who understand their area greater discretion in deciding the appropriate way to deal with people with whom they are involved. They will obviously consider the effect of a £100 standard fine, if that is ultimately specified in the Bill, a £50 fine or a tariff to be levelled by the Government by order, to ascertain what that effect will be.

For the system to work and be widely understood, it is important to set a standard tariff of £100 so that the police know what they are dealing with in respect of all the offences. If the offences are serious and attract penalties of up to level 5 in the scale, they are clearly not suitable to be dealt with under the fixed penalty notice scheme. They should go to trial, and people should receive a conviction if the offences are so serious that they would merit serious penalty.

I support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, which suggests £100. I hope that he will not press his other amendment—which would become nugatory if the penalty were specified in the Bill—unless the Government decline to accept the amendment suggesting £100, in which case I hope that they would accept my hon. Friend's amendment to change the amount specified from one half to one quarter of the tariff if different tariffs will apply for different offences.

Mr. Clarke: I obviously exempt the hon. Gentleman from my general strictures. Throughout the Committee, he has tried to keep to the point of the amendments under discussion, and I appreciate that.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey referred to discrimination against the most vulnerable in society. We must be clear that if the recipient of the penalty notice fails to respond to the penalty notice, a fine may be registered against him. If the fine is not paid, the court before which the individual then appears as a fine defaulter would be able to order payment of the final instalment if he cannot afford to pay it all at once. That will ensure that no one goes to prison because he cannot afford to pay the fine arising out of an unpaid fixed penalty. The Bill also gives the court the power to set aside the fine in the interests of justice. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's general argument.

Mr. Heald: But how does the Minister explain punishing the person who has no means by making the registered fine one and a half times the original fixed penalty notice? We need to provide a mechanism that avoids people without means being placed in that position.

Mr. Clarke: People can avoid being placed in that position by not accepting the fixed penalty notice and going to court directly. That is a matter for them, and nothing in the Bill removes that power.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey suggested that the Bill is for the well heeled. It is not. It is perfectly flexible.

As the hon. Gentleman helpfully suggested, I shall place formally on the record punishments and average fines. For offences under section 12 of the Licensing Act 1872, the average fine is £37 and the maximum punishment is level 1; under section 80 of the Explosives Act 1875, £274 and level 5; under section 31 of the Fire Services Act 1947, £96 and level 3.

Under section 55 of the British Transport Commission Act 1949, for the offence of trespassing on a railway, the average fine is £53 and the maximum punishment is level 3, and under section 56 of that Act, for throwing stones on a railway, the average fine is £53 and the maximum punishment is level 3. Under section 169 of the Licensing Act 1964, which relates to buying or attempting to buy alcohol for consumption in a bar in licensed premises by a person under 18, the average fine is £20 and the maximum is level 3. Under section 91 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967, for disorderly behaviour while drunk in a public place, the average fine is £58 and the maximum punishment is level 3. Under section 5(2) of the Criminal Law Act 1967, which covers wasting police time, the average fine is £240 and the maximum punishment level 4. Under section 1(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971, the average fine is £97, the maximum punishment level 5. Under section 43(1)(b) of the Telecommunications Act 1984, the average fine is £135, the maximum punishment level 5. Under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, the average fine is £88, the maximum punishment level 3. Under clause 14 of the Bill, which relates to consumption of alcohol in a designated public place, there is as yet no average as we have no data, but the maximum is level 2. That sets the record straight as to what we are discussing.

Mr. Hughes: Will the Minister confirm the current maximums for the five fine levels?

Mr. Clarke: I will. The current maximum for level 1 is £200, for level 3 it is £1,000, for level 4 it is £2,500 and for level 5 it is £5,000. The maximum for level 2 is £500.

I turn to the substance. First, we do not accept the argument—although I can see its attraction—that we should necessarily have the same fine for all those offences. They are different and there is no logic for them all to have one fine figure. That said, I accept the force of the argument made by the hon. Member for Reigate that the system needs to be clear and simple so that people know where they stand, so we are not talking about wide disparity. Secondly, we do not believe that financial amounts should be stated in the Bill, in order to retain flexibility in respect of inflation and other such considerations. Also, circumstances change and the Government of the day may want to address the matter in a different way.

Thirdly, the overwhelming bulk of responses that we received suggested fines in the order of £50 to £100, and I want to confirm and place on the record that that is the order of fine that we are considering in this regard. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire asked whether we would consider a fine of £2,500 for throwing a firework. The answer is no; that would be completely outside what we are discussing. However, I am not in favour of the amendments setting fines of £50 or £100 for all offences, because I do not think that we should do the same for all and I believe that we should retain flexibility.

I confess that I am more attracted by the amendment setting a maximum of a quarter rather than a half. When one looks at the figures, there is something to be said for that, and I am prepared to consider that as we progress. I am certainly prepared to say that before the Secretary of State lays an order we are happy to discuss it widely. We have already received many views in response to the consultation, and we certainly would not want to legislate for anything significantly outside the range suggested in those responses.

I am trying to be helpful in my response to the amendments. If the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire presses them to a Division, I ask Government Committee members not to vote for them, but I hope, especially in the light of what I said about the merits of his proposition on the maximum of a quarter rather than a half, which I shall carefully consider, that he will be prepared not to press the amendments.

 
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Prepared 13 February 2001