Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 120 - 139)



  120. The point I am making is that your argument, as I understand it, was that the decision on defaulters should be subjectively made in each case, possibly to a community sentence in the event of defaulting. The example I have given and I suspect it is not an isolated example, shows that community sentences for many people hold no fears whatsoever and fines are no deterrent because they know they will not pay them anyway and they know that if then sentenced to community service they will not finish that. Eventually somewhere along the line, maybe two or three years away when they have re-offended on numerous occasions, somebody might actually give them a custodial sentence. At that particular time the whole thing is irrelevant to them. Do you not think that is part of the problem?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I have to say that it is rather beyond my brief to comment on the whole range of sentencing policy which is indeed really for the magistrates and the judges to conclude on. The structure is meant to be that fines are used for the least serious offences and then you are meant to work up through a hierarchy until you are dealing with the much more serious offences or repeated offenders where prison will be considered. That essentially remains the sentencing policy pattern and I would think that was the right pattern. That is what you are saying, I think.

  121. It is very kind of you to interpret it. Earlier it became increasingly apparent that the computer system you are piloting now and rolling out will not really be effective until 2004. I have not misunderstood, have I?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No, that is what I said. It is a year late.

  122. We have a serious problem and you are taking some measures and you are hoping that it will come down. Do you think there is anything in the meantime which could be done? We are talking about 18 months away and I have to say that in areas like mine some of the problems we are experiencing might be dealt with better if we had an effective fine system, but at the moment we do not seem to have anything. We have community sentences which often do not work, fines which do not work. Is there any way in the meantime you can speed up that process without the computer system, make it more sensible and make it more of a penalty rather than what at the moment seems to be a licence not to do anything?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes, there are things which can be done, but they have to be done on the basis of individual areas rather than big national schemes which take time to get off. The ways in which individual magistrates' court areas are going about using the new money is our best hope in this. The hiring of new civilian enforcement officers in some areas. Another area I know is spending money on a stand-alone until they get the IT system from us on a tracking project so they can track through where the warrants are and the speed with which they are pursued. A number of other courts are buying in additional administrative staff to support more frequent court sittings to hear these things. At the moment we really have put a very substantial proportion of these resources into the system with a series of defined projects and between now and the IT system we were talking about earlier coming on stream, that is the most practical way of trying to go forward.

  123. To be honest, I am a bit more confused now than when I asked the question. I accept that it is put into areas where it can have some useful effect, but putting more money into anything can be a useful way of dealing with it. I can understand how a stand-alone system could be implemented which would enable them to track individual offenders more closely, but you implied that there was a lot more happening and yet I only understood those two things. Is more happening?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) In terms of attempting to speed up the system?

  124. What exactly is going on with this additional money other than buying stand-alone systems, which is probably quite a waste of money because in 18 months' time a completely new system will be in place?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Under current arrangements most of the money will be going—and I can give details of this for a whole range of parts of the country and I can send you information about that in detail—into additional staff for enforcement which will create the time for them to spend in tracing offenders, in tracking them down, in interviewing them and so on. Resources have not been there in the past. While you are still dependent on a new IT system coming on stream, that will make quite a difference, I hope, during the course of this year. It is a two-year scheme. We are funding them for two years while we evaluate the impact of that. I think that is the best practical way forward that I can suggest to the Committee.[10]

Mr Osborne

  125. May I pick up on the questions about this computer system? Would you tell us something about the memo which your Department sent to magistrates' courts about the problems you were having with distribution, the one which was in all the newspapers?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) We have explained to them that there were problems with the construction of the software in the standard package and that this was leading us to renegotiate or have discussions about the renegotiation of contracts to make sure this was delivered and that basically it was delayed. That is the position as I understand it now.

  126. Your memo says that despite the best efforts of all those involved, you have been unable to reach an agreement with Fujitsu on a proposition for Libra which represents value for money and which you can afford. It is a bit more definite than what you have just said.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) We have been unable so far to reach that agreement, but our discussions are not at an end.

  127. It also says that you are discussing a fallback position. What is the fallback position?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) If the discussions lead to a position where we cannot secure it through them, we will have to look to another supplier whom we would judge was capable of doing the task.

  128. What implication would that have for people down on the ground who are waiting for this system?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) We have said to them that our plan is to make sure that not only all the infrastructure but also the standard software system is delivered by the end of 2004. That is our target. That would be no different a position than the one which they now have.

  129. According to the General Secretary of the Association of Magisterial Officers, Ms Rosie Eagleson, if the core service is not delivered you are right back to square one except that enormous sums of public money will have been expended to deliver the sort of hardware and software that is available off-the-shelf at PC World. Do you agree with that?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No.

  130. You do not agree with the Association of Magisterial Officers.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No.

  131. All they will get is a load of computer terminals without the software which is going to enable you to allow magistrates' courts to speak to each other.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) If everyone went out and bought individual PCs in the way that implies, you would not have a national network, you would not have a national network of servers and security and you would not have backup and resilience across the board, which is why we have a national system. That would provide for every magistrates' court to be linked by e-mail and information would be exchanged electronically and the sort of thing which has been criticised before by members of the Committee, namely that we did have different systems all over the place, will mean that they can now be linked up. There is a difference between that and going down the road and buying something.

  132. With the greatest of respect most computers you can buy at PC World enable you to communicate with each other by e-mail.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No, what I said was that the main thing was to have a national infrastructure, national backup, so that you are assured that these services can consistently be maintained between courts right across the country.

  133. What is the cost of the deal? Since you have been Permanent Secretary can you tell me something about how the cost of the deal has increased?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) When the contract was signed in 1998 it was £183 million and that was revised in 2000 to provide a range of additional services and a longer timescale to the order of £300 million. We are now in discussions, looking at what the contract should now be and what the price should be.

  134. In other words the cost has virtually doubled and the timetable for delivery of the system has also virtually doubled.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes.

  135. That is not very good value for money, is it?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) The value for money judgement has to be made when we see what the actual results are and what the final cost is over what period.

  136. According to these various newspaper reports, the answer you were not prepared to give Mr Williams, but if we were all readers of Computer Weekly we would know, is that Fujitsu is expected to receive more than half of the contract's value because it is now being paid to deliver the PCs and Microsoft Office support software anyway. So it is in line to get over half the money even if it does not actually deliver the core service you were looking for. Is that correct?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) We are looking to see the extent to which they can deliver the core service. They have already rolled out 75% of the basic infrastructure service and they are servicing that, so we are bound to pay them for that particular provision.


  137. Why could you not have said that earlier to Mr Williams in answer to his questions? Apparently it has all been published anyway.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I thought I had explained this. As far as I know, we have made no announcement by the Department formally about the state of negotiations or our plans. This information is based on conversations which journalists have obviously had with people around the system. I am in some difficulty in commenting on stories of that nature.

Mr Osborne

  138. If I might suggest, this may be an issue which the National Audit Office should look at as the basis for a report in itself on Libra the computer system but my time is limited so I shall move on. One of the things you have said is that you are looking at a whole range of further sanctions which can be applied to people who do not pay up. What about the sanction of imprisonment? It says in this report, which I found a most staggering figure, that in 1994 22,469 people were imprisoned because of non-payment of court fines. In the year 2000 only 2,500 people were imprisoned, just 10%. Why has there been such a dramatic fall in the number of people imprisoned for non-payment?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Two basic reasons for that. The first is a general concern to try not to send to prison unnecessarily those people whom it would not in itself be the right sanction for given the size of the prison population. The most important cause of that was reported in the NAO Report and was a judgement in 1995 which laid down the conditions by which magistrates should decide whether or not someone should go to prison. The court has to be satisfied that a person's refusal to pay is wilful and the court has considered and tried all other means of enforcing payment and that they consider them to be inappropriate or unsuccessful. The defendant has to be examined in detail by the court on every single aspect and the warrant for committal to prison has to specify the reasons why no other course of action is right. Basically that is the historical position as I understand it.[11]

  139. Did you never make an attempt either with the previous Government or the current Government to introduce legislation which would get round that judgement which has obviously led to an absolutely catastrophic fall in the number of people imprisoned.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Not so far as I know. I have no record that either the previous Government or this Government concluded that the court's decision, the criteria, should be changed by legislation. This is something which Ministers in this Government or the previous Government could have looked at. It is only right to say that the pressure on the prison population is such that it would be very difficult to contemplate trying to reverse this in a major way because you would end up with either lots of short-term prisoners in jail, precisely the people for whom it is not the right punishment, and the over-crowding is such that it is a very difficult thing to contemplate.

10   Ev 28 and 33-34 Back

11   Note by witness: The court has to be satisfied that the default is due the defaulters wilful refusal or culpable neglect and the court has considered or tried all the other means of enforcing payment of the sum and it appears to the court that they are inappropriate or unsuccessful Back

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