Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Heald: I do not intend to press any of the amendments to a vote.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I want to point out something that has come out in the course of our debate and really does need either explanation or further thinking through by the Government. May I say, without rancour, that I strongly object to any suggestion that this careful scrutiny is intended to string out our proceedings. It is not. These penalty notices are very sensible in many ways, but unless they are done fairly they are a significant infringement on the liberty of the subject, and it is important to get them right. There will probably be tranches of the Bill in which we will have fewer points to raise—I hope that that will be the case—but these are important matters.

I found what the Parliamentary Secretary said pretty astonishing, and I would like a proper explanation. If I have understood him correctly, he said that penalty notices and warning notices will normally be given together. I totally see that that might happen if one goes back to the police station, because the officer in charge will be au fait with where the next opportunity for trial is likely to be, and the system will work perfectly well. We are legislating for circumstances in which police officers will go out equipped with a pocketbook that enables them to issue a penalty notice then and there. The notion that those pocketbooks can be prepared in a way that indicates the date and place of trial seems to be much less practical. If the system is to work in those circumstances, it makes sense that the penalty notice should be issued, the citizen should respond by saying that he wishes to be tried, and the warning notice should then be issued, sensibly constituting the equivalent of a summons under the magistrates court.

So far, fair and good, but the way in which the clause is structured suggests that someone who has been given a warning notice—albeit he has already been given a penalty notice and said that he wants to be tried—must make another request to be tried, or at least that, if the warning notice is to be treated as a properly served summons, he must make that request, because subsection (3), which enables the warning notice to be treated as a properly served summons, applies only where a person who has been given a warning notice makes the request. It does not say, ``has made a request to be tried.'' Some thought needs to be given to that, both for good drafting purposes and for the protection of the citizen.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I have one point to raise about the generality of the process of going from a fixed penalty notice to a magistrates court. I shall use the example that I heard reported on the radio last week, because that is all the information that I have. It relates to the issue of the proximity of the magistrates court to the place where the fixed penalty notice arises. I heard on the radio that a court commended someone in north Wales, because he had walked from somewhere in Snowdonia to Dolgellau magistrates court—a distance of about 50 miles. He managed to hitch a lift for some of the way and walked the rest. He was due to be at court at 10 am, but arrived at 4 pm, just before it closed. The magistrates were so impressed that the man had made such an effort to get there that they disposed of the case much more generously than they might otherwise have done. He then walked home again, arriving at about midnight.

That is an example of one case, but there is an issue about the need to ensure that a magistrates court in rural Britain that deals with fixed penalty notices is somewhere accessible. People may choose to go for trial, or the process may take them into trial mode, which we discussed at some length the other day. I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to reassure me that the normal rule about the nearest magistrates court applies. That is not a problem in urban areas, but is much more significant in rural areas, particularly with the gradual closure of courts in many rural towns and large villages, and the centralisation of the magistrates courts system. Do the Government have a policy on the maximum distance that anyone should be from a magistrates court?

Mr. Hawkins: I, too, recall very well the case mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, and I entirely agree with him. He may not be aware that both the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), a Plaid Cymru Member, and I raised it with the Parliamentary Secretary during Lord Chancellor's Department questions. The significant fact is that the court in Lampeter had just been closed, which led to the need for that ludicrous journey.

Mr. Hughes: That is helpful. I was not present at Lord Chancellor's questions when the case was raised. When I heard about it on the radio, it reminded me of the story of Mary Jones and her Bible, which featured in a book that I was given at Sunday school. Again, in north Wales, a similar long journey was made to ensure that people received the first version of the Bible in Welsh.

Will the Parliamentary Secretary guarantee that a case will go to the nearest court and that it will be both within a maximum distance and accessible by public and other forms of transport. Some people will inevitably have low disposable incomes. They may not have free bus passes, and even if they do, there may be no public transport in the area. We must have a realistic system, under which the entitlement to claim the right to trial is something of which people can avail themselves, rather than something impractical.

Mr. Heald: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the point that I have been making? Normally, it is the magistrates who have the discretion to say that a summons can be served outside their petty sessional division. It looks as though, under clause 7(4), that is going to end if a warning notice is served, because such a summons is to be treated

    ``as properly issued on the information by a justice of the peace for the area for which the magistrates' court notified as the court of trial acts, requiring A to appear before that court to answer to that information''.

That suggests that the magistrate does not make that decision. It is all treated as having already happened, provided that the warning notice refers to the magistrates court mentioned in the warning notice.

10.45 am

Mr. Hughes: That is certainly my reading of subsection (4). The last issue, prompted by that, is the case where a series of fixed penalty notices might be given to a group of people involved in a common disorder, even though some of them may not come from the area. It would be logical for the trial to take place in the court for the area where the disorder occurred.

If there were an offence, for example, of trespass on the railway line, and the person trespassing was on holiday, it might be in everybody's interest, and save the state a huge amount of money, if the court disposing of the matter, which is by definition regarded as a lesser matter because it is in the system, was not at the other end of the country, requiring the person to get from, say, Croydon to, say, Aberystwyth, but in Croydon. There is an issue, which I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it, as to whether it is logical and sensible for the hearing to be held in a court near to where the person lives, rather than in a court at the opposite end of the country which the person is unlikely to attend.

Mr. Blunt: The more I listen to the debate, the more concerned I get about the practicality of the warning notices, how they are to be issued, and the questions raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey regarding the practicality of individuals attending sessions near their home. I am also concerned about the principle, if one can call it that, which seems to underlie the warning notice.

The fixed penalty notice seems to say to the recipient, ``Go on, make my day. We're ready for you. We've got all the procedures lined up. If you dare to be so impertinent as to elect for trial, this is where you are going to come. We've got all the lawyers and magistrates ready to bang you up and send you down with a serious fine if you dare to exercise your right to trial.''

I find that distasteful. Someone who is served with a fixed penalty notice has 21 days to consider whether to take the option of paying the fine, thereby discharging his obligation to the policeman who gave it to him, and avoiding the prospect of getting a criminal record.

If the person elects for trial, that is a serious consideration because, if he is found guilty, he will have a criminal conviction. As we have seen throughout the debate on the clause, the warning notice procedure is heavy handed, with all the administrative complications of trying to make it equivalent to a summons—for example, in the way in which it is handed out—and all the administrative difficulties that come with it.

Should policemen wander around with warning notices on them and be briefed on which sessions will be available? If a policeman hands out a fixed penalty notice, 21 days will be the minimum period, because a person has the right to make an election. Will the policeman indicate the magistrates sessions at which these people are going to come up in front of the beak, or will people have to go back to the police station to get their notices there?

What would happen at events such as the Reading festival, Glastonbury or some large demonstration on Trafalgar square, where violence is anticipated and the police have set up procedures whereby they are going to take people away in large numbers and try to deal with them? The police could find that if there were semi-organised protesters, as there were in the protest against the City, people would accept fixed penalty notices. They would then be told where they were going for trial and be dozens, if not hundreds, of people who had been served fixed penalty notices, all electing for trial, would all turn up on the same day, and there would be total chaos because the system simply would not have the capacity to cope.

The provision is an unnecessary complication. People will receive a fixed penalty notice and then have 21 days to decide whether to risk a criminal conviction or to discharge the liability. The idea of ``Go ahead, make my day'', which seems to underlie the principle of a warning notice and challenges people to go to trial, is distasteful.

Warning notices have the potential to be administratively chaotic and add nothing to fixed penalty notices. If people elect for trial, they should get a proper summons in the ordinary way. It would be a serious election for them to make, and they should be treated with respect as citizens who are trying to defend a principle by risking a conviction or facing a bigger fine. I will vote against the clause.

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Prepared 15 February 2001