Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Clarke: I will give way if the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about parking tickets, but not otherwise.

Mr. Hawkins: I am not sure that the Minister is able to impose conditions.

I want to intervene on the Minister regarding what he was saying about A and B. Although he says that it is a matter of taste, would he be prepared—in the light of the united opposition from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire, a former Attorney-General, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, and myself and my hon. Friends—to reflect on the matter further, given that we all think that it is a bad innovation, even if it started off in the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000? One can see a reason in relation to family law matters, where individual parties in cases are anonymised in the law, for using alphabetical symbols. However, in this field of law it is less helpful. As all on the Opposition Benches, from our respective legal practices, are unanimous in feeling that it would be unhelpful and confusing, particularly when A is used twice within four clauses, will the Minister undertake to reflect further with officials?

Mr. Clarke: My general working hypothesis is that if a load of barristers are against something, then the rest of public should be in favour of it. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, who is not in place just at this moment, is an outstanding example of a lawyer who has turned on to the path of justice. I am not sure why the hon. Member for Reigate is laughing at my sincere accolade to my hon. Friend.

The question of clear language is an important issue for legislators. My prejudices are in favour of the kind of process that we have got here. I agree with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, and perhaps through you, Mr. Hood, this could be passed on, that the relevant offices of the House could think how language is used. I would argue for simplification, for plain English. Something that frustrates me even now—as a relatively experienced Member dealing with complex legislation, such as the Terrorism Act 2000, and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000—is how inaccessible our legislation is to the ordinary citizen. That is a weakness of our legislating process and anything that we can do to improve it would be a good thing.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I have spotted another point that the Minister can no doubt clarify quickly. Subsection (5) states:

    ``If, by the end of the suspended enforcement period...

    (b) ``A has not made a request to be tried''.

Could the Minister state categorically what constitutes the making of a request to be tried? Is it filling in the form, posting the form, or delivering the form to someone? When precisely is that request to be tried deemed to have been made?

Mr. Clarke: That is set out in clause 4(3), in the manner specified on the penalty notice. As I said in answer to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire's first question, we were considering the tear-off slip as a possible means of doing that. but there could be other means of doing it. It is a matter that we specified in universal, which will fulfil the criteria that he sets out.

Mr. Heald: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Clarke: No, I will not give way any more.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill

Clause 5

General restriction on proceedings

Mr. Simon Hughes: I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 4, line 9, leave out `21 days' and insert `one month'.

The amendment is the only one selected in relation to clause 5. That is the clause that deals the period between the fixed penalty notice being given to someone, and the period within which they can invoke the process of going to trial—after which the system will act against them because nothing has happened if they have not paid the money.

The amendment would extend to 28 days the period of 21 days that was set out under the Bill. I tabled the amendment, first, because 21 days is too short a period; secondly, because people do not think in periods of three weeks; and thirdly, because such a period is far more likely to catch people who did not intend to be caught and, fourthly, because I question whether the matter is not something that should be dealt with by secondary legislation rather than under the Bill.

I sense that the general precedent may reflect that time limit in the Bill. I have not done a trawl, but that probably is the case. Again, it would be helpful to know details of the precedent. I am conscious that my proposal raises the question whether a month is 28 days or a calendar month. I am clear in my mind, from personal experience as the recipient of fixed penalty notices as well as for other reasons, that people are far more likely to remember that time is running out if a month passes and they are in a different month. If a person were issued with a parking ticket in February, a trigger mechanism would come into play and he would remember by the end of March that he must do something it. The person would not remember the date or even the day of the week, but he is likely to remember roughly when it was.

If the period were extended to the end of the month after the issue of the notice, that would give people reasonable time within which to do something. The enforcement process for not paying or the time within which a person should pay should expire no earlier than a month after the notice was issued. Ideally, it should be on the first day of the month that follows the month when the offence took place. If it is to be a system where money is collected, for heaven's sake let us make it a system whereby people are likely to pay. It must be a system that will give people longer time to pay so those on low incomes will not be disadvantaged. Let us give people a longer time to find the money, so that it will not disadvantage the forgetful and mentally ill.

Mrs. Brinton: I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument, but I am approaching the matter from the opposite direction. Obviously, two weeks would be far too short a period. That would be ridiculous. However, three weeks would give the offence a sense of tension. Let us consider library fines, for example. To my shame, I was rather late paying them when I was at school. However, if people are allowed longer periods to pay fines, it is human nature to put off paying them, and to think that they can be paid the next week or the week after that.

We talked earlier about ``Hooray Henrys'', who may be just a type of people who pick up many penalty notices. I would not want them to think that they could simply re-offend and not bother to pay their fines. I am keen to put pressure on such people.

Mr. Hughes: The second point made by the hon. Lady would not make the slightest difference. If people incur regular fines, they must have a date when they click into payment. They will not be hugely affected whether they receive another notice in the same period. No theology is involved. I should be interested to know why the Government chose a period of 21 days. They must have received background briefing to reach a conclusion. I strongly urge the Government to make it a longer period. I should be grateful if the Minister would at least say that he will take away the proposal and I seriously ask that a time of at least a month afterwards be considered for all the reasons that I have given. It is a matter of great importance and I hope that the Minister can respond positively. If not, I will put it to a vote.

The Chairman: Before I call the Minister, may I make a point? We have had a number of interventions today and I am getting confused, as are some hon. Members. An intervention is supposed to brief and should not be a speech. I hope that future interventions will be a lot shorter.

6 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

6.15 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey raised the question of the length of time in clause 5. First, as he said a month is significantly less flexible than a period of days such as 28 days, and causes confusion. That is why we usually use the formula X number of days or, as we now say, A number of days or B number of days. On those grounds alone, I urge him to reconsider his amendment.

Secondly, on the more substantial ground of the length of time involved, we chose the period of 21 days because it is a relatively routine situation. There is a precedent in section 52(3)(a) of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 where 21 days is referred to in the primary legislation. I acknowledge that there is a relatively arbitrary element as between 21, 28, 35 and 14 and there are all kinds of arguments that one can make. We decided to go with precedent. I think that 21 days is a perfectly adequate time to deal with the situation.

The hon. Gentleman referred to people who for some reason did not have the capacity to deal with a situation. First, they would be unlikely to be issued a fixed penalty notice. Secondly, if they felt that they had been traduced on the amount of time available, they have the ability under clause 12 to go to court, and the court could decide in the interests of justice not to proceed with the penalty. Those are the reasons for the 21 days. I hope that, on consideration, he will withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Hughes: I am slightly surprised that the Minister was not a little more willing to consider the alternatives, and will therefore press the amendment to a Division. The period should be longer. If by some amazing fluke the amendment does not win today, I hope that the Minister will, none the less, regard it as valid. In future, all amendments will substantively come from a Government containing Liberal Democrats in every corner, but that may take just a few more months yet. Until that happy moment arrives, I hope that the Minister will reconsider his response.

 
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Prepared 13 February 2001