Draft Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 (Amendment) Order 2002

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Simon Hughes: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pike, and despite what I said, I welcome the Minister to his job. I assumed that he lived in the real world, and I hope that in the months ahead he will persuade us that he does. However, the fact that he is proposing the order does not persuade me any more than its proposal by his predecessor a year ago.

I am implacably opposed to the order and the thinking behind it, and I am not persuaded by the fact that the police want to add to their armoury a different method of disposing of offences. We could be persuaded that it is in the interests of the police to establish many more offences and many more ways to deal with them, and that we should live in even more of a big brother state than the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary want us to.

This is a second-bite-of-the-cherry proposal. Just before the general election a year ago, we kicked it out because it was unsound. Of course, the Government reserved their position, but it is hopeless procedure to bring the measure back within 13 months, having been told no by Parliament once, because they think that they can get it through by statutory instrument. They knew they could not get it through last year by primary legislation, so they are trying this disingenuous and unsatisfactory route. As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said, this is a bad way to legislate.

We have a Government, a Prime Minister and a Home Secretary who, before the local elections in May, internally decided that, because law and order is a big issue, they would have to announce an initiative every day or so, and they did. They have kept playing to the gallery and populist right-wing tendencies among the public ever since, especially on asylum and immigration, but I am afraid that they are losing any credibility as defenders of liberty in not taking a balanced view on this issue.

The Home Office is going badly wrong, and the Government are badly letting down increasing numbers of their own supporters and others who, from what I can see, are becoming increasingly unhappy with the path they are taking. We are going in an increasingly right-wing direction. I always thought that Labour had right-wing tendencies, and I am afraid that more progressive elements are losing, rather than winning, the battle.

The Chairman: Order. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that comments must relate to the proposal before the Committee and not go awry?

Simon Hughes: Specifically in relation to the proposal, we will not get a criminal justice Bill in the autumn, although it has been trailed every day for the past three weeks, including today. If the Government believe that they need to come back yet again and suggest amendments to the law, even though

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Parliament rejected them, such change should be included in that Bill, not the order.

The fixed penalty notice system hardly works, and a report published by the Home Office last year shows that 60,000 fines totalling £4 million were written off in 1986. By 1994–95, 500,000 fines totalling £33.4 million were written off. By 2000, the year before the general election, £72 million of fines and costs from convicted criminals and defaulters were written off. The reality is that, increasingly, people do not pay.

If we had a system in which people paid, it might be credible, but the Minister cannot have read all the facts or been fully briefed if he thinks that fixed penalty notices and fines are a highly successful way to proceed on the offences that we are discussing. They are not, because people do not pay, and that does not even include those on whom they are served who hang around long enough to give an accurate name and address, rather than saying that they are Mickey Mouse and clearing off into the dark or the distance.

It is extremely undesirable to deal with the offences that we are discussing in such a way. Last year, we objected to a more tightly drawn definition. The proposal was that the offence should be threatening, abusive or insulting words or disorderly behaviour in hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress. The definition that we are discussing is wider, but I shall put the same case as I did last year.

I am sure that when the President of China visited this country, he was distressed—I hope that he was very distressed—by the protests about the Chinese Government's attitude to Tibet, but his view would have been entirely subjective. People should not go through life being protected against distress. It is sometimes good for people, particularly politicians, to be distressed. It is sometimes important for people to realise that others are unhappy with what they are doing. If we are to have an offence that allows the state to intervene regularly to protect people just because they have might have a low threshold for being distressed by certain behaviour, I am afraid that we are living in a namby-pamby world and not facing the reality that people express strong and different views that might, rightly, cause distress to others.

Mr. Grieve: I agree, but in those circumstances, one would advise those who had been handed fixed penalty notices by obstreperous police officers to contest them in the courts.

Simon Hughes: Of course, in some cases, but that would not have worked in the example of the Tibetan protests against the Chinese President. It would have required only an affidavit from the Chinese embassy saying that the protests greatly distressed the President, and the police would suddenly have made their case. Although the hon. Gentleman's suggestion might work in some cases, in many cases it would not.

Mr. Grieve: What the hon. Gentleman describes could happen anyway, even if there were a prosecution through the magistrates court. His criticism is of the offence, rather than of the method of implementation.

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Simon Hughes: I accept that. The point is that the offence is more widely drawn than was proposed last year, and for this method of implementation it is a combination of the two.

As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield hinted, the measure is likely to be discriminatory. The reality is that many people who are less well educated and less well able to look after themselves—those who are silly enough to wait around for the notices to be given to them or who are unable to turn on their heels and get away quickly enough—are less likely to know what the law is and to understand that they can contest things, and that it may be helpful for them to do so.

The notices will be much more easily applied by the police to people who are less likely to stand up for themselves. What we are discussing is much more likely to be contested outside a gentleman's club in Chelsea than outside a bar in Peckham. The reality is that people at the former would be more motivated, more prepared and have a greater understanding of the system and their rights. We are going down a dangerous road.

I shall tell the Minister what we should do. We should have a system that does not turn the police into issuers of bits of paper. That is an easy job to do: they simply write out a note, give it to someone on a Friday or a Saturday night and get lots of ticks in their boxes for people charged. The number of offences that they deal with will rise, as will their prosecution rate. The proposal will be terribly successful, the figures will look wonderful and the Government's figures will be much more satisfactory. That is much easier than arresting someone and taking them to the station—it is all dead easy. Police officers will not have to worry any more, especially if the Government succeed in establishing community support officers and neighbourhood wardens, all with powers of arrest.

The logic is that if someone commits these serious offences—let us assume that they are not best dealt with as breach of the peace matters—they will be arrested and taken to the nearest police station. The police will not hang around. They will hand the notices over straight away. If the person wishes to discharge his liability without going through the criminal law process by pleading guilty and accepting a fixed penalty that is fine, but it should be an option that he, not the police, chooses.

All that should be done in the police station where it can be monitored, not on the street where no one will be there to record what happens. As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said, no record is kept. The system will depend entirely on whether people hang around and wait for the bit of paper to be given to them. In the very real part of the world where I live, most people who are fit and able will not readily do so if they are sober enough to get away in time.

I ask the Minister to think again. Obviously, he will win today, but I shall vote against the order and encourage my colleagues in the Lords to oppose it. This is a bad way to legislate: it gives no credibility to the criminal justice system, it gives no extra credibility to the police, it gives no extra credibility to the Government and it is just another example of bad

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policy trying to make the Government look tough. I end with a question: if someone wants to contest a fixed penalty notice, are they in all circumstances entitled to legal aid?

4.57 pm

Mr. George Howarth: I had not intended to make a speech, and had I received a satisfactory answer to my intervention I probably would not have done so. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister reflects on the point that I made and at some stage gives me a considered view. However, I shall support the order, not least because I know from my conversations with Norman Bettison, the chief constable of Merseyside, that he thinks that it will be a useful additional tool in the police's armoury to deal with some problems that are experienced in my constituency and across the country.

Listening to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey gave me another incentive to take part, and I might turn his question back on him. Is he living in the real world? Quite honestly, the motivation behind the order, which I accept is sensible and targeted, has nothing to do with Tibetan protesters against the President of China or anyone else. Having some knowledge of his constituency and having stayed in it on and off for many years, I am surprised that he does not recognise the problem that the order is intended to address.

As I understand it, the order is intended to deal with the gangs who intimidate people going about their business. Gang members are usually teenagers, but some may be in their 20s. Such intimidation mainly happens in the evening, in town centres, shopping centres and housing estates. There are many housing estates in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, as there are in mine. If the order is one more measure that the police can use effectively in the right circumstances, it is appropriate, supportable and entirely proper.

I was a member of the Standing Committee that considered the private Member's Bill of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) this morning, and I listened to what the Liberal Democrats had to say. I begin to wonder whether they are willing to use the criminal justice system to address these problems at all and whether they are simply a mouthpiece for discontented lawyers who do not like some of what is happening, rather than representatives of constituents who are fed up with how some young people treat them and with the apparent lack of police powers to deal with those youngsters.

Finally, I very much doubt that the next ''Focus'' leaflet issued by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey will include his speech to the Committee.

 
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