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

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Simon Hughes: I would be happy to include my speech, as I have no problem with telling all my constituents about it. If people misbehave, they should be arrested, not given bits of paper. Bits of paper will not do any good. Yes, there is sometimes trouble from gangs of youths and others, but they should be dealt with in the conventional way, not through this route. The hon. Gentleman is right: we think that the Bill

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proposed by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead is nonsense.

Mr. Howarth: I thought that I had concluded, but since you have invited me to step in again, Mr. Pike, I shall merely say that the fact that the hon. Gentleman thinks that my right hon. Friend's Bill is nonsense tells us that he is out of touch and that he is not living in the real world.

5.1 pm

Mr. Wills: The hon. Member for Beaconsfield made some thoughtful points. He referred to the criticisms that this was too serious an offence. I draw his attention and that of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey to the fact that this is the least serious of a range of offences that cause alarm, distress or harassment. Other offences, for which fixed penalty notices will not be issued, cover serious offending in which racial motivation, the threat of violence or the intent to cause alarm is present. Section 5 involves none of those. As my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) has already suggested, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey should keep a sense of proportion. We are talking about offences that deeply distress people, but are not serious in the bigger scheme of things. Ministers have already suggested that the sort of penalty under discussion will fall somewhere in the range of 50 to 100.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield also referred to subjectivity, which was mentioned before. Of course there will be a subjective judgment. However, it is always open to the individuals concerned to avail themselves of the statutory offence, and go to court in the usual way and have it tested.

Mr. Grieve: Of course, that is right. If that were not the case, my view on the order and any of the offences listed in section 1 of the 2001 Act would be very different. I hope that the Minister understands the concern that adequate information should be provided with the notice to indicate that the individual has not been adjudged guilty, and that it is their right to contest the matter if they wish to do so. That is simply a small civil liberty, but one that, nevertheless, is of considerable importance.

Mr. Wills: I thank the hon. Gentleman. Of course, that is an important point. It will be a matter for the guidance, which we must ensure will properly take it into account.

As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey says, we must be careful that the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our society do not suffer disproportionately in any process in the system. He is right about that, if not about much else. We are sensitive to that issue, and will carefully consider it when we draft the guidance. However, it has no bearing on the fundamental principles. I am grateful to him for sharing with us his speech to the Liberal party conference. I am not sure what relevance it had to the order, but it was interesting of its type.

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A sense of proportion should be brought to bear. It is out of order to talk of Big Brother and threats to individual liberty in discussing such offences. My hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East referred to the hon. Gentleman living in the real world, and if we are to connect with our electorates, we must talk in language that relates to the way in which they live. They do not see antisocial behaviour as a Big Brother matter; they see it, as my hon. Friend so cogently articulated, as something that makes their lives a misery night after night. It happens in my constituency, and there is not a single Member in Committee who does not experience it. I shall come to the detailed points about the operation in a moment, but to talk about Big Brother does not help the process of political understanding.

The hon. Gentleman made several serious points, as well as indulging in some political knockabout. He said that the fixed penalty system is not working, and he is right, but that is not an argument for not going down this route. There is a long history to the matter, as he will know. The police handled enforcement for many years, but since the 1960s, there have been attempts to take it out of the police's remit. No one wanted it under the police's remit, not least the police, and finally, last year, the Government transferred it to the magistrates courts. With that, we included a range of measures to increase enforcement.

The hon. Gentleman is right that enforcement is not yet good enough, but we are taking measures to drive up the record and we will make progress. However, that is neither here nor there in deciding whether we give the police this extra option and how to deal with such offences.

Simon Hughes: Given that I have seen no figures to show that the collection rates of fines or fixed penalty notices have improved, is there any evidence of a significant change for the better? I have not seen any in parliamentary answers.

Mr. Wills: As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the magistrates courts took responsibility just over a year ago and the measures that we put in place with that will take time to bear fruit. However, I shall tell him about some of the work that we are doing. There is an increase in funding for enforcement of something like 20 per cent through a netting-off scheme. We have introduced new staff training and a range of initiatives to test out the best ways in which to raise the level of enforcement. We are determined to do so, and the fact that the measures that we have already taken have not fed through into results does not mean that we will not be successful. Everyone recognises that we must get the rate up, and we will do so. We are sufficiently confident and see no reason for not using fixed penalty notices.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to a namby-pamby world. I was going to make similar remarks to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East, but he made them so well that I shall not repeat them. I will say only that it is not a namby-pamby matter for my constituents, and I do not think that they or any other Member's constituents expect us to shrug our shoulders at such behaviour. It may not be serious in the big scheme of

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things, but it can be distressing to individuals and we must take action.

The hon. Gentleman asked me a straightforward question about whether legal aid will be available. The answer is yes, and I hope that I have dealt with all the questions that have been raised. I should tell my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East that I take his point about the draft guidance seriously, and I will ensure that he receives a full written response when we are further down the line.

I hope that I have reassured hon. Members, because the order is a straightforward and common-sense matter. It will give the police something that they say that they need and which we believe that they need. It deals with an offence that can cause real distress. Rather than having automatically to go through the process suggested by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, the order will help the police to get back on the streets to do their job more efficiently and effectively and see justice done for all concerned. I hope that the Committee will support the order.

Phil Sawford (Kettering): I welcome this addition to the original list. There are many minor acts in our communities on which we would not want to see too much police time spent . They are not major criminal activities, but minor acts that affect people's lives and ruin the quality of life in our communities. Must the fixed penalty notices be physically handed out at the time by a police officer, or could they be posted to any perpetrator who is identified on a CCTV system? Could they be served through the post, as would happen with a speed camera?

Mr. Wills: The answer, I think, is that they can be handed out at the time.

Mr. Grieve: A notice cannot be sent by post, but must be handed out personally by an officer in uniform. More interesting is the question whether an officer can wander across and hand out a notice if he sees an offence being committed on CCTV.

Mr. Wills: I think that we have now clarified the position, which is that the offender must be present when the notice is handed out and be in custody at the station. It is a matter of individual circumstances whether they are identified by a CCTV camera and taken to the station where the notice is handed to them. We ask the Committee to support the measure.

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Simon Hughes: I have a question for the Minister that was prompted by the hon. Member for Kettering (Phil Sawford). Part of the debate is about the subjective nature of the offence, rather than the objective nature of some fixed penalty notice matters, which, for the record, we support. Will the Minister confirm that there are already a significant number of appeals to the non-subjective offences, such as parking on pavements and speeding? Plenty of such offences are appealed, and are much more likely to be contested than penalties for offences where vehicles do not move and can be identified as having been in a particular place. People might have different views about what is offensive behaviour.

Mr. Wills: If I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly, he is asking me whether a significant number of fixed penalty notices will be contested.

Simon Hughes: Does the Minister have any information to confirm that there are a significant number of appeals against fixed penalty notices for non-subjective offences, as against notices for objective offences where it is objective fact that one is parked on a yellow line, or over the limit? A subjective offence is much more likely to be contested.

Mr. Wills: I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman. It may take some time to pull together an appropriate definition of subjective and objective in relation to offences, but I am happy to give him some sort of written answer.

Question put:

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 1.

Division No. 1]

Anderson, Janet Goggins, Paul Henderson, Mr. Doug Howarth, Mr. George
Kemp, Mr. Fraser Sawford, Phil Wills, Mr. Michael

Hughes, Simon

Question accordingly agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 (Amendment) Order 2002.

Committee rose at fifteen minutes past Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Pike, Mr. Peter (Chairman)
Anderson, Janet
Gillan, Mrs.
Goggins, Paul
Grieve, Mr.
Henderson, Mr. Doug
Horam, Mr.
Howarth, Mr. George
Hughes, Simon
Kemp, Mr.
Sawford, Phil
Simmonds, Mr.
Wills, Mr.

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