Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Clarke: In the unlikely event of a Liberal Democrat Government being formed in the near future, could the hon. Gentleman tell us how high a priority amending this Bill from 21 days to 28 days would be?

The Chairman: Order. Do not be tempted.

Mr. Hughes: I can be short. I did not see it in the draft manifesto. I now ask hon. Members to join me in voting for the amendment on the basis that a longer period would be a good thing.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 1, Noes 12.

Division No. 8]

Hughes, Mr. Simon

Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Brinton, Mrs. Helen
Clark, Mr. Paul
Clarke, Mr. Charles
Grogan, Mr. John
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Humble, Mrs. Joan
Lock, Mr. David
Smith, Miss Geraldine
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
Thomas, Mr. Gareth R.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Hughes: Because the period for payment remains in the Bill and has not been amended, I will ask for a Division on the clause as well.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I shall try again to get the Minister to clarify exactly how the system will work. I listened carefully to the Minister's previous answers, but I may have missed something. What worries me is exactly when the citizen can either indicate that he wants to be tried or stop the process of a trial by paying the penalty issued.

I suspect that payment of the penalty is comparatively straightforward, at least in theory: the citizen has to get the cheque in the post in time for it to be delivered and received within the 21 day period—although the Minister may clarify that. I suspect that, in practice, another week will be allowed to enable cheques to be cleared. However, it is important for the Minister to spell out what is the precise theoretical time scale and what it is that stops proceedings.

The request to be tried is more important. Subsection (2) covers what happens when payment is made, but subsection (3) deals with the request to be tried. What ought to be the case is that, provided that the citizen can demonstrate proof of posting of the request to be tried, or can demonstrate delivery of it to a police station—no doubt the police station specified on the notice—the opportunity for proceedings to be brought ought to be stopped.

Why does the clause begin with the words ``proceedings for the offence'' rather than ``proceedings to enforce the penalty''? Where a notice has been issued—which is what this chapter is about—unless it is paid or a request to be tried is made within the given period, what is primarily anticipated is enforcement of the penalty in its increased form as a fine, rather than the issuing of proceedings for the offence. I am not saying that is wrong to have a subsection that states that the authorities cannot start proceedings for an offence for 21 days, but in practice I think that it is enforcement that would not be started for 21 days. I want to know exactly how the citizen brings the matter to a halt, either by paying up or issuing a request to be tried. I need to know the modalities.

If the Minister has to tell the Committee, ``We haven't thought through the modalities; they will appear in regulations; we haven't got a precedent; I don't know exactly how it will work; but I will try to help the Committee later,'' I shall understand that, but I want as good an answer as the Minister can give, if he would be so kind.

Mr. Charles Clarke: The sentence that opens clause 5—

    ``Proceedings for the offence to which a penalty notice relates''

means precisely that. It relates not simply to the enforcement of the fine but to the offence to which the penalty notice relates—one of the offences specified in clause 1.

The proceedings may relate to the fixed penalty notice or the trial process. That is why that language has been used. The offence to which the fixed penalty notice relates is the offence specified in clause 1, and the proceedings can be either the fixed penalty notice or the trial. At any point in the 21 days specified, which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey argued should be 28 days, the person may request to be tried. At any point in those 21 days, as stated in clause 5(2), the penalty may be paid. The 21 days have been provided to allow a choice. They have been provided from the moment of the event happening, and at any point within that time the person may choose which course to take. That is extremely clear.

The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire asked about modalities. The modalities are as generally specified in legislation, but I shall be specific in response to his points. The first, which related to clause 4(3), was how the request would be made. The answer is, by a notice given

    ``in the manner specified in the penalty notice'',

as we discussed when we debated the previous clause, and I have nothing further to say about the matter.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned posting. The procedure specified in clause 9(3) deals with the question of a person's showing that a letter has been posted. The essential modalities of the process are specified in clause 9, which states:

    ``If a person to whom a penalty notice is given decides to pay the penalty, he must pay it to the justices' chief executive specified in the notice.''

The penalty must be paid

    ``by properly addressing, pre-paying and posting a letter containing the amount''.

Subsection (3)(b) refers to showing how the letter was posted.

Clause 9 also states that

    ``payment is to be regarded as made at the time at which the letter would be delivered in the ordinary course of post.''

Subsection (5) makes it clear that other means of payment are acceptable. Subsection (6) makes it clear that a letter is properly addressed for the purposes of the clause

    ``if it is addressed in accordance with the requirements specified in the penalty notice.''

The clause specifies the modality as clearly as possible for how payment will be made, and it details the process by which payment will be made. That is as clear as I can be on the matter in endeavouring to answer the right hon. and learned Gentleman's question.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I am most grateful to the Minister. I entirely accept that when the citizen pays up clause 9 provides a clear procedure, and I apologise for not having spotted that before. However, unless the Minister can draw it to my attention, I see no such clarity about the request to be tried. Will the Minister explain the procedure and modalities for the request to be tried? I have not spotted them.

Mr. Clarke: First, the fundamental process is specified in clause 4(3). I do not want to be rude to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but I honestly believe that we have been going around this circuit for a considerable time. The modalities of notification of court and date of trial and the right to ask for trial are specified in clause 7, in much the same way as the procedure for the fine is specified in clause 9.

I am trying to think what else I can say to help the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I believe that the matter is as clear as it could possibly be. I am sorry if that is not sufficient, but I cannot say any more about the matter, and that is not because there is something that I should or do know and am not saying. The Bill is absolutely clear.

6.30 pm

Mr. Blunt: My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire made the point that it is not clear exactly what the process will be for the police and prosecution authorities if the penalty is not paid. Will enforcement proceedings automatically take place to get enforcement against A as a fine or will the guidelines deal with a reassessment by the police and prosecution authorities on whether to institute trial proceedings at that point? Will all that become clear in the guidelines on how the police are to operate the system?

Mr. Clarke: After the 21 days, the citizen may make his payment or trial request, provided that the fine has not been registered. The chief constable has the discretion to accept late payment or request for trial. Once the fine has been registered, a citizen may make to the fine enforcement court any arguments about how that fine is enforced.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the prosecution decision. Again, I am trying to think how I can be clearer about it than I have been. Let us imagine that the Bill does not exist in any form and will not go on to the statute book. For each of the offences set out in clause 1, there is a process according to which a trial may or may not take place according to the judgments on prosecution that are made by the relevant authorities in each case. That is the case under section 12 of the Licensing Act 1872, section 80 of the Explosives Act 1875 and so on. The Bill says that, in addition to that process—which is clear, established in law and works reasonably effectively as far as one can tell—there is the possibility for a fixed penalty notice to apply. In the event that such a notice does not apply, because the individual says, ``I want to opt for trial,'' the situation is exactly as it is today, without the Bill being enacted. The process is clear and straightforward.

Mr. Heald: The point of concern is that an officer must have reason to believe that an offence has been committed to issue a fixed penalty notice. Let us imagine that he does so, and the person elects for trial. Is the Minister saying that the whole thing goes back to square one at that point and that the CPS becomes involved and takes a decision on the usual prosecution basis of whether there is a beyond 50 per cent. chance of success and so on?

Mr. Clarke: Yes. I was looking anxiously to my learned colleague to ensure that I did not get the answer wrong. Back to square one is as good a way as any of describing the process, which exists today. As now, judgments will be made about the situation.

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Prepared 13 February 2001