Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 140 - 159)



  140. You have now got to the nub of the problem of course, that there is pressure on the prison population, that there are not enough prison places, really it is a capacity problem and that is why this fine system is breaking down. You cannot send people to prison because there are no places in prison for them. Do you agree with that?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) If you look back the fine enforcement figures are persistently at about the sort of level we are talking about. It is not necessarily self-evident from that that the impact of prison or the threat of prison was improving the rate of payment of fines.

  141. But it was exacting a punishment in lieu of the fines. The whole point of a court issuing a fine is both to punish people and to deter them. You might be right in saying that it was not very good as a deterrent, but it was good as a punishment because there were 20,000 people who instead of having to pay a fine actually ended up in prison. Would you agree with that.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) They are the facts.

  142. Do you see what I mean? It may not be very effective as a deterrent but it was a punishment. At least there were 20,000 people more who did get some kind of punishment for the offence they had committed as opposed to a punishment in terms of a fine which they never actually served.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I accept that.

  143. The problem I have with the answers you are giving is that you have done what Permanent Secretaries do not always do, which is to say yes, the whole system is a shambles, is it not? Yes and why is it a shambles. There seems to be no clear sign that it is going to improve. The second paragraph of the foreword of this report is absolutely shocking, ". . . there is an urgent need to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of collection. The process of enforcement is often over-complex and time consuming . . . delays . . . hampered by unreliable management information . . . difficult to compare performance". There is a computer system which does not work and a series of regional seminars for magistrates and the possibility that you might consider things like fixed payments at some undefined point in the future. You are not actually getting to grips with a problem which, I agree, has been a long-term problem. There is no evidence you are actually getting to grips with it now.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) First of all, I would not accept that by agreeing with members of the Committee, where they point to an acknowledged weakness in a report which has been agreed with the NAO, I am doing anything other than behave perfectly sensibly. I would not describe this as a shambles. I mentioned to you a whole range of administrative measures we are taking, further new resources, the bringing together of former responsibilities of the police for warrant execution in this area, to which they gave very little priority, so that this year for the first time, we are able to set targets and have some confidence in the fact that we can meet them and can improve the system. There is a whole range of measures of that sort. I have mentioned some of them and I do not want to bore the Committee by going over it again and again. Secondly, I have mentioned that there is a whole range of areas where we are looking at changing the law to strengthen the opportunity to provide a wider range of penalties and speed up the system. What I am trying to argue is that this has now been given a priority, which it was not previously given and that we now need to give it a year or two to see whether the measures we are taking have the effect that I believe they can actually have.

  144. You mentioned New Zealand and interesting examples of things they were doing. Could you say something about other international comparisons, what they do in various states in the United States, what they do in Europe? Is this an endemic problem in all western criminal justice systems or have other countries found ways?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) My references to Australia and New Zealand were that when we did our work on international comparisons they had been the most successful in dealing with this. My own understanding of the position in continental Europe is that the delays in handling cases are much greater than they are in this country and that the results are less satisfactory than ours. If you are interested in the wider international research we did, I am very happy to let the Chairman and the Committee have that information if it would be useful.[12]

  Mr Osborne: That would be very useful. Thank you.


  145. We are very happy for you to say a bit more about it now, if you wish to. You must be familiar with it. The wide international comparisons are very interesting. Just tell us a bit more about it now.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) The research we have done led us to the view that the most relevant comparisons were the ones I have mentioned. I do not have the detail of the position to hand.

Mr Field

  146. Reading the report and particularly the appendix, it would appear that in some areas of the country we are fast approaching the situation where paying fines is voluntary. Would you agree with that?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) In some parts of the country for some types of offender, given the length of time it takes, you are taking fines from those who are prepared to respect the system and finding it very difficult to get fines back from those who do not respect the system. One does need to take account of the number of cancellations which have to take place under judicial authority obligatorily in looking at the overall picture as well as the write-offs.

  147. Even taking that into account, and given what you said to Mr Howarth about the word going out, are we not viewing a situation where it is pretty late in the day to try to reinforce a culture that if you are fined you should pay?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) It has taken too long to get to the point at which we are able to give this the sort of priority to enable us to tackle that problem. We should tackle it and I am optimistic that we can make some inroads in that and try to get more of the `voluntariness' out of the arrangement.

  148. One of our tasks as a committee is to look at what is going wrong because it is taxpayer's money which is being used or lost. We also have a duty to try to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit in the public sector. If we are too tough on the first, we can obviously kill the second because the word goes round that it is better to play safe and take no risks and you do not get hauled up before the Committee of Public Accounts and done over by the members. I wonder whether we can spend a few minutes on the successes within the system. Whereas one can point to those areas where it looks as though it is becoming voluntary whether you pay fines, there are clearly areas where it is not so. Do you have in your mind's eye in the Department those centres which are the ten best centres for collecting fines?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) If you look at the overall statistical position, which is set out in the report in the Appendix, our best proxy for success is the payment rate. There will be areas there—it is difficult for me to single them out—which are doing better than others because they are better organised. On the other hand I should be very chary of identifying them because the socio-economic make-up of particular areas will vary enormously and the amount of fines handled in any one year will partly depend on what has happened in the past, it will not necessarily be a typical picture. If one area happens to receive a very large financial penalty in one year, that will improve its ratings enormously. I agree with the report which says that one of the things we should do is to look at the idea of setting up centres of excellence and make sure that we have systems by which the best practices of some are available to and known by a wide range of others. We have tried to do that through the series of regional conferences we have just completed, bringing everyone together so that once we are in a position where priority is given to this in a way which did not occur in the past and it is clear that there are best practice lessons in terms of tracing defaulters and getting information before the court, we can breathe new life into the system.

  149. My plea really is that the Permanent Secretaries ought to go on the offensive with the National Audit Office and that one should not allow them to determine the terms of reference exclusively and that one ought to be in a position as a Permanent Secretary to say, all right, you are looking at those courts, here are the ten best courts and it is from these that we are trying to spread best practice. It is more of a comment really than a question in that there is the dual function of this Committee and many of us are very anxious that the entrepreneurial spirit should be fostered in the public sector and not pushed away. With that in mind, may I say—I hope it does not break any Gibbsian laws of the constitution in suggesting this,—that on one specific incident I have of a constituent, whose daughter was assaulted to within an inch of her life, the thug undertaking this was fined, did not pay. The next the mother and daughter knew was when she was asked whether this fine could be a write-off. She said it should not be a write-off, in no way should it be a write-off. The court said they did not know where he lived. On a number of occasions she said she would tell them where he lived and she kept the court up to date on where he lived. She did everything in her power, bar chaining herself to the railing outside the court, to draw attention to where the person lived. The response was that they were writing it off and they just wanted her agreement. She continued to refuse to give her agreement and that of her daughter and finally it was written off; so it would appear in Appendix 1. Though they have all the problems which Mr Williams has talked about on computers speaking to one another, here was a constituent talking to the court, saying "I am helping you. I am telling you where that person is". It makes me wonder, if in fact the courts were more open in asking those who feel aggrieved about fines not being collected, how much information is out there which would allow a court to trace some of these individuals and maybe get some of the fines. Is it not wrong that the balance was all towards the pressure on signing the form rather than "We hear what you are saying. Thanks for giving us this information, we shall be after him"? If that were so, might not we get more fines collected and greater interest in the fines being collected if the courts' collecting staff had performance linked pay like Permanent Secretaries do?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I should not comment on the individual case.

  150. I am sure my constituent would be pleased if you did.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) If I might know some more about it, I should like to try to use that as an example to find out why the sort of priority which we do want to give to compensation orders in these circumstances, does not appear to have been given by the court and why they appear not to have wanted to take information which was being given to them which would have enabled them to trace that. It would be very useful to know that. What is now being done in terms of trying genuinely to put some more energy and sense of priority into this whole area through the additional resources we are putting in and new people and giving people in the courts more time to deal with this work which has not been treated with the priority it should, I hope and believe that will be the case. I had better not go off on a dissertation about performance-related pay.

  151. Before we are totally consumed with sadness over the failure of the software for the computers, may not the Department realise that there are large numbers of people out there who might be able to trace quite a few of the people who are not paying their fines and it is those people against whom the actions were taken which brought the case which came to court. Maybe the Department in the meantime, while waiting for its computers to talk to one another, might actually talk to people who feel aggrieved by the system.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) It is very important that people do that locally and I shall make sure that we say that and say that clearly. I mentioned earlier that the arrangement we have with the Department for Work and Pensions has been very successful in tracing offenders. We have raised money we would never have raised in the past and it paid for itself within seven months. We are now trying to get similar agreements under the law with the Inland Revenue, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and we have agreed access to the Police National Computer, all this in the last year. We are trying. That is a bit of a success story. I am not saying it should not have been done years before, but it has now been done. Using local information and local contacts is also very important and we have brought Citizens' Advice Bureaux representatives onto our new criminal enforcement steering group so that in an informal way we can tap into voluntary organisations and others who will have good information on the ground. We are trying to create a sense of energy and purpose now which has not been there for a long time.

  152. I am sure if you had a day in Birkenhead when you invited people to come and tell you where the defaulters were, you would have crowd control problems. May I put that as a suggestion? While we are asking for information, because we are anxious to reward the entrepreneurial spirit, could we ask you to give us a supplementary note at some stage of the ten starred courts who are the best at collecting money?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Okay.[13]

Mr Bacon.

  153. Could you say when the contract for the computer system with ICL was first let?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) In October 1998.

  154. When in 1998?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I think October 1998.

  155. I thought I read December somewhere. Do you know which is correct, December of October?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) It was the late autumn of 1998. It just says here in 1998.
  (Sir John Bourn) It is December 1998.

  156. When were you appointed Permanent Secretary?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) April 1998. I signed the contract myself.

  157. So the whole project has been your baby basically from inception.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Since its signing. It had been `in being' for something like 12 years before that as a project.

  158. Have you ever bought a PC? Have you ever been down to PC World or a similar shop and bought a PC?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I have done that for a laptop, yes.

  159. In relation to this money, it is a PFI arrangement, is it not?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes.

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