Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Heald: Obviously, we knew that the average fines were roughly of that order, and a quarter seems to me to give plenty of scope. None of the average fines are anywhere near that level, as far as I can see. Can I tempt the Minister to accept amendment No. 78?

Mr. Clarke: As always, the hon. Gentleman is very tempting. I have never been seduced by him and hope never to be so, but I can see the attractions in the way he talks. The fact is that, under the offence in section 12 of the Licensing Act 1872, the average fine is now £37, and a quarter of the level 1 fine would be £50, which is relatively close. Obviously, in relation to fines of level 2 and above, there is less of a dislocation, but I want to consider the matter further before coming to a view, which is why I would ask him not to press the amendment at this stage.

Mr. Hughes: The Minister gave a helpful reply, for which we are grateful, and apparently intends to proceed in a constructive way, taking on board the arguments that have been put to him. The amendment was simply intended to open up the debate.

12.45 pm

There remains a strong argument in favour of the views expressed by myself and the hon. Member for Reigate that there should be a fixed amount for street-based fixed penalty notices. I ask the Minister not to reject that. There is also a strong argument for ensuring that the mechanisms for considering fine levels and for considering fixed penalty levels are always taken together. Fixed penalty notices should be considered whenever a change is made in the maximum fines as the result of a sentencing review. Those things go together, so it would be illogical to raise a fine level in any of the five categories without linking in the fixed penalty notice.

There is scope for sensible debate. Perhaps the amendment should not be made, because we must try to avoid legislation wherever possible, and the provisions will have to be reviewed regularly through secondary legislation. I ask the Minister to act on the averages that he gave us, however, none of which were more than £300, and most of which were as low as a two-figure sum. Will he also keep in mind the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire? There might be a fixed amount for the first period of the life of the legislation, after which we could return to the matter.

Mr. Heald: The Minister has been constructive, although I was disappointed that he would not accept amendment No. 78 outright. However, I recognise that he wants to consider the question further, so I will not press the amendments to a Division. If he fails to offer a satisfactory solution to the issues that we have raised, we intend to return to the matter on Report.

Mr. Hughes: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Heald: I beg to move amendment No. 79, in page 3, line 20, leave out 'give' and insert

    `include a statement by a constable with respect to the alleged offence giving'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 17, in clause 6, page 4, line 18, at end insert—

    `and the constables' witness statement to be served therewith, including the form and length of such a statement.'.

No. 16, in clause 8, page 5, line 20, at end insert—

    `( ) The statement is to be treated as admissible as evidence to the like effect as oral evidence to the like effect by that person for the purposes of section 9 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967 even though the conditions mentioned therein are not satisfied provided that such conditions as may by order be prescribed by the Secretary of State are satisfied.

    ( ) The power to make an order under subsection ( ) shall be exercisable by statutory instrument and no such order shall be made unless a draft of it has been laid before Parliament and approved by resolution of each House.'.

Mr. Heald: The amendment would require that the fixed penalty notice should include not simply particulars of the alleged circumstances of the offence but a statement from a constable giving those details. The trio of amendments is designed to help the police and avoid unnecessary paperwork for them.

Amendments Nos. 17 and 16 would enable guidance to be given on the form and length of a constable's witness statement, to be served with the fixed penalty notice, and to allow the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1967 to be varied by order so that shorter witness statements may be part of the fixed penalty notice itself.

Police organisations are worried that no police time will be saved by the procedure if officers have to do the paperwork for a contested case—prepare full witness statements and so on—in order to serve a fixed penalty notice. The Police Federation has said:

    ``Fixed penalties initially appear a good idea if policing is speeded up. If we arrest somebody for disorderly conduct when they are drunk or under the influence of drugs and take them to a police station, where they are issued with a fixed penalty ticket, they might admit their behaviour immediately. This, possibly, is a fast track system of getting people through the criminal justice system. But, the following day, they may dispute their behaviour and allege the police acted wrongly. They may try and plead not guilty or propose to plead not guilty, leaving the officer involved reliant on notes and statements from witnesses. So the fixed penalty ticket may be an addition to the set of papers that have already been issued. That is the issue for us. It will be a good system if it reduces bureaucracy, but we need to test the practicalities of what has been suggested to ensure it lessens rather than increases the burden.''

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath foreshadowed the debate when he raised the matter earlier.

The view of the Police Superintendents Association is the same as that of the Opposition, which is that a sea of bureaucracy is not what we want from the measure. The association said:

    ``Prior to the Bill our members expressed some concerns as to how practical these measures would be. It would appear that the likely outcome of the system is that offenders will be arrested and the FP ticket will be issued later at the police station. As such this will save court time and make justice swifter if the fine is paid. If it is not then it is likely that staff will be involved in collecting fines and attending court anyway.

    Section 8 is, I confess, confusing to me in that officers would appear to have to make a statement to serve on the offender at the time. If this relates to a full witness statement this will not save officer time or return them to the streets quicker than is the case now. If this section requires a simple comment such as `found in the street, drunk and incapable' then it would be simpler for our officers and save considerable time. Some of the other offences that do not have a power of arrest of their own may not, because of section 8, be practical for FP notices.''

Is it possible to issue a fixed penalty notice without doing all the other work that would normally be done if someone were charged with an offence? It is difficult to understand how a police constable can avoid making a statement that has enough detail in it to prove the offence. If he does not make such a statement or have a record that was made at the time, and the accused decides to bite and to contest the matter, the evidence will not be available. If he had prepared it 21 days later, which is after the period for giving notice for trial, the defence solicitor or barrister could say in court, ``This is stale. It wasn't prepared contemporaneously.''

Is it possible to have a halfway house to deal with the problem, which involves less paperwork for officers and saves police time? Does the Minister imagine that the fixed penalty notices will be dealt with without the constable preparing a statement? If so, why are the provisions under clause 8 in the Bill? If not, does he have in mind a shorter statement that would fit in with what the police organisations want? Clearly, there is difficulty in preparing a short statement when there is a question about the intention of the accused or when it must be shown that there was no cause for the action of the accused.

Some offences, especially that of threatening behaviour and criminal damage, involve evidence of identity. It must be proved who committed the offence. Usually, that would involve certain evidence being contained in the statement to identify the accused. Will the Minister explain the procedure for the police officer? Will there be extra paperwork and bureaucracy, as Fred Broughton suggested? In other words, will the police constable have not only to prepare the statement for trial but to write out a fixed penalty notice in each case—or will there be some easy way round that?

Does the Minister envisage that the constable's statement will be part of the fixed penalty notice? The amendment would make that the case. Can the statement be as short as the Police Superintendents Association's suggestion of

    ``found drunk and incapable in the street''?

We would welcome the Minister's assurances and a detailed explanation on those points. One of the points that is often made to me when I visit the police is that once a person is arrested, the shift is used up. They have to spend the rest of the shift—often as much as seven hours—doing the paperwork. Will that still happen with fixed penalty notices? Surely one of the purposes of fixed penalty notices is to have a more streamlined system.

How can a fixed penalty notice be issued without a constable's statement for court being prepared? If it has to be so, can it be as short as possible and included as part of the notice? We want to know what extent of formality is required. When the Prime Minister outlined his original idea of on-the-spot fines, which the Minister later described as a metaphor, he was talking about avoiding lengthy procedures at the police station. Unless the Minister has a helpful comment to make about the constable's witness statement, however, that will be exactly the result and the fixed penalty notice will be yet another burden on our already overstretched police.

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Prepared 13 February 2001