Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Clarke: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not arguing that a fixed penalty notice might have been appropriate in that case, but is he arguing that the Derek Bentley case is a tribute to the criminal justice system of this country?

Mr. Hughes: No, I certainly am not. I am sure that the Minister will be aware that I am not arguing that. There are many cases. In the Hanratty case, we discovered that there had been wrongful convictions. Of course, the criminal justice system is not perfect, but I would rather that there was a trial of my guilt than a finding of an offence without trial. I would always opt for trial. That may be a difference between the Minister and me. The Minister is suspicious of lawyers and courts. I would rather that my case went into a criminal justice system properly than went round the edge. The serious question is whether Ministers have thought about the alternative process, and if not, why not. I would rather that they were honest about that. If they have not thought about the alternative process, could they undertake to commission some research to look at the alternative benefits and disbenefits of that sort of system? I endorse and repeat the request by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire to know how the procedure will work, which is also covered by the clause as it was by clause 3. I, no doubt like many other people, have been the recipient of fixed penalty notices for motor vehicle parking offences. I concede that on some occasions I did not think that I was rightfully given a notice, because the meter did not work, or some other process, and I completely forgot about it, and time passed and the 21 days ticked over and I then found myself in the other system, and I got 50 per cent. added on and all the other things that happen.

It is important that people are given clear and accurate information and, if one is requesting a trial, that it is given in a way that is clear, in large print, with advice to take legal advice and the rest.

I do not remember ever seeing in any Bill the drafting as in this clause, where we end up with someone called A or B or C or D. I may be wrong about this. This strikes me as an innovation. The question is, is it an innovation? If so, it is a bad innovation. If it is not, where are the precedents for it happening before? Even if it is not an innovation, please may we have the Bill re-drafted, so that we do not have such drafting?

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because he has anticipated the point that I was also going to make. I was going to ask the Minister precisely the same question, because it also seemed to the Opposition that this drafting is an innovation. If it is an innovation, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that whether it is or not, it is a bad thing, would he recognise, as I do, that it reads very much like a legal textbook and that in itself is not a helpful way in which statute law should be drafted?

Mr. Hughes: I agree with all those things, and it starts to become nonsense. It is a bit like Gilbert and Sullivan, although I cannot remember in which operetta there was an A and a B and so on. If we have got an A here, do I presume that, later in the Bill, there are characters called B and C? It is just nonsense, and we need to get rid of it. Bills are meant to be written in good English, not substitutes for good English, and this is neither English nor good English. It is not coherent and does not read entirely appropriately, and I hope we can have a drafting amendment from the Minister on Report to clear up all this sort of nonsense in legislation like this.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, my Member of Parliament, and to find that he has the same parking problems that I had when I resided in his constituency. I should like to raise three important points. The first—I concur with the dislike of the way in which this clause is drafted—is time scale. Subsection (2) says that if A asks to be tried for the alleged offence, proceedings may be brought against him. It may be that some other Act is brought in to bear on this, but could the Minister clarify how long the prosecuting authority, whoever it may be, has to institute those proceedings? In other words, how long does citizen A have to wait before he or she knows that they are in the clear, having written in to request to be tried?

The second question refers to the manner in which people are expected to write in and request to be tried. It says in subsection (3) (a) that it is the manner specified in the penalty notice, but this is important, because the effect of this missive, this request, is to impinge on the mind of the person who is going to take the prosecuting decision. That is quite likely to affect the decision whether or not to prosecute. If, for example, the piece of paper is simply a tear-off slip which says ``I request to be tried'' and suggests that one signs there, then that will give the prosecuting authority absolutely no information as to whether it is a good idea to try the case or not over and above the statement pursuant to clause 3 giving reasonable information about the offence. However, if a substantial piece of paper is attached with, for example, the opportunity to write 15 or 20 lines of explanation, that could be helpful to the prosecuting authority. I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on that, if the matter has been thought of.

5.30 pm

That raises the third question: who will take the decision in the case and to what extent will the Crown Prosecution Service be involved? If a prosecution came to court, and one would expect it to do so, as a notice has been issued and a request to be tried sent, I would expect the case to be prosecuted by a member of the CPS, who would have applied his or her independent judgment to whether it was right to prosecute. At what stage will that happen? Will the constable who issued the notice decide whether to take further steps under succeeding clauses to put in place a trial—by giving a warning notice pursuant to clause 7—or will it be an inspector of police or someone else? I should be grateful to the Minister if he would help us on those points.

Mr. Hawkins: I wanted to expand on one of the aspects raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and I am glad that his concern and mine is shared by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell). Since the court's ruling in Pepper v. Hart, the proceedings in the main Chamber or in Committee can be referred to in court when one is looking to the courts to clarify the intention behind a statute. The point about the inelegant and apparently novel drafting is that the figure of A is not only referred to in the clause but crops up again in clause 7. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, this novel figure should immediately be abandoned. If we start talking about A and B, it will not be long before we get to X, and X marks the spot. As a Committee, we should give the black spot to this novelty, which will not help anybody and is inconsistent with the way in which statute law is normally drafted. Moreover, anything that makes a statute look like a first-year law student's textbook is a bad example.

I also want to refer to the tear-off slip debate. The Government may be storing up trouble for themselves of the kind that I mentioned earlier in relation to the way in which local authorities have not used fixed penalty notices properly. As I have said, the Evening Standard has run a substantial campaign, of which I am in favour, to support motorists who have been unable to challenge fixed penalty notices issued by various incompetent and appallingly badly run Labour-controlled London boroughs. The Evening Standard rightly highlighted the fact that, even though there is a parking adjudicator for London, all the cases were transferred en bloc to a court outside London—in this case Northampton. Law-abiding motorists who could prove that their vehicle was not in the place where it was alleged to have been and who were unable to challenge the parking ticket, had to go to Northampton to appeal and those who had busy jobs or limited means found it almost impossible to get there. I hope that the Minister will deal with that matter. Will the Government give an undertaking that when the Bill becomes law, if it does, the fixed penalty tickets will not be transferred en bloc to a court far away from the place where the offences took place? We shall want to see that safeguard in the guidance.

Mr. Clarke: Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that fixed penalty notices for parking offences should be abandoned and replaced by a full trial in a magistrates court?

Mr. Hawkins: No, of course I am not. To judge by that intervention, the Minister is, to my surprise, unaware of the substantial campaign that has been waged over many months, involving a huge number of examples of the problems that have arisen throughout London. I have some experience of the problems faced by the parking adjudicator for London, who said, ``I cannot deal with some of the London boroughs, because even though I have certain powers as parking adjudicator, the boroughs never respond to my requests for them to look at matters.'' This is a complete nonsense, and the Evening Standard has performed a considerable public service by highlighting the problems. Given that the Government are talking about extending fixed penalties—in the context of this clause, we are talking about tear-off slips—they must be able to ensure certain safeguards. If problems that are particularly prevalent in London spread nationwide—

Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough): The hon. Gentleman talks a lot about parking and parking offences, but, as I understand it, the offences for which fixed penalty notices will be issued relate to disorderly behaviour. I cannot see the relevance of concentrating on parking.

 
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Prepared 13 February 2001