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Lord Bassam of Brighton: With the greatest respect, I was not saying that there is no such thing as community. I believe the expression the noble Lord remembered was, "There is no such thing as society", but I may be wrong.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: I stand corrected. Might we use the word "stakeholders" instead? My enthusiasm for the word "stakeholders" has increased since I looked in the Oxford English Dictionary and discovered that it was first used in the sense used by the Minister by my noble friend Lord Dahrendorf in the 1970s. When after the next general election we take our seats on the Benches opposite, we shall say, "We are the stakeholders now" at the same time as singing "Lloyd George knew my father".

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: I am not going to sing or indulge in fanciful ideas that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, might be sitting opposite me on another occasion, but I am sure that will be the only time he and I shall have cross words on the Bill. I am grateful

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to the Minister for the care that he took in his response. I agree that the drafting is not as good as it should be; the amendment was tabled to stimulate our debate.

In moving the amendment I was telegraphic to a fault when I said that I underlined everything I had said in moving my amendment under Clause 1, because I did not make it clear that the underlying problem in Clause 1(2) was the public concern about court closures. I am grateful to noble Lords who picked up the cudgels on that point.

I will not go into detail on noble Lords' responses. They were all right in some respects. I will take account of everything that was said, particularly the Minister's remarks, in order to look more carefully at the drafting. I agreed with his observations, with the exception of that on the word "community". There is such anxiety about closures and the necessity to ensure clarity in the Bill in giving reasonable powers to the Lord Chancellor that I shall return to the matter in some form on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 25 agreed to.

Clause 26 [Immunity for acts within jurisdiction]:

Lord Goodhart had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 57:


    Page 12, line 33, at end insert—


"( ) Nothing in this section or section 27 excludes a right to damages under section 9 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (c. 42)."

The noble Lord said: I intended to raise an issue discussed by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its first report on the Bill. However, as a result of subsequent correspondence between the Joint Committee and the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, in a report published today the Joint Committee has declared itself satisfied on the issue and, it appears to me, on grounds that are convincing. In those circumstances, I do not intend to move the amendment.

[Amendment No. 57 not moved.]

Clause 26 agreed to.

Clauses 27 to 30 agreed to.

Clause 31 [Fines officers]:

Baroness Seccombe moved Amendment No. 58:


    Page 14, line 39, at end insert—


"(c) provided with training as a fines officer by the Lord Chancellor"

The noble Baroness said: We come to the difficult and thorny question of fines officers. I tabled this amendment after listening to the issues raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, at Second Reading (at col. 65 of Hansard of 9th December 2002) when he posed some questions that the Minister did not fully address. First, what will be the status of fines officers;

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and, secondly, from whose ranks are they likely to be drawn? The letter of the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, stated:


    "Fines officers will largely be drawn from existing MCC staff, many of whom have long experience of dealing with defaulters. They will have training and guidance to support them in their new role and this will be developed in the course of the pilot schemes".

But we need to ensure that the Minister puts the matter on the record at the Dispatch Box. If fines officers will "largely" be drawn from existing MCC staff, where will the minority be drawn from?

As a new and difficult role in the courts' system, it is essential that the correct training procedures are put in place in order for the position to be respected. As I have previously stated, fines are the most common penalty handed out by magistrates' courts. For that reason alone, this new role will be busy and demanding. It is essential that the officers are given proper support and guidelines from the beginning. We wish to know what training they will be given. Will it be completed before the first pilot scheme is launched?

We accept, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, says in her letter, that fines officers will not decide the amount of any increase or discount. That amount will be set down in regulations. But they will decide whether to,


    "vary in the defendant's favour the method and timing by which the fine imposed by the court should be paid, and to take 'further steps' to secure payments of a fine".

So they are taking sensitive decisions. What if they mistakenly decide not to vary terms? That could have disastrous consequences for a defendant, or it might cause him or her not to bother to pay.

As the Lord Chancellor will appoint the new fines officers, we feel that he should also have responsibility for their training. It would be common sense for the Lord Chancellor to provide this training in order to ensure consistency throughout the country. It would also enable fines officers to operate in any of the local justice areas, thereby providing flexibility of employment.

If we are to improve the system for collection of fines, it is vital that the new system is robust and well respected—otherwise people will continue to fail to pay their fines. I beg to move.

Lord Goodhart: This is the first amendment to raise questions about the fines officers. The issue has caused me a good deal of concern. I support the amendment. However, having considered in detail the amendments before the Committee, there are further issues which they do not raise. I intend on Report to return to some of those matters. I apologise for not addressing them in Committee. There are two aspects with which I am particularly concerned. The first is the increase in the fine. There is considerable advantage in having interest payable on default rather than having a single massive uplift in the fine. Secondly, I am concerned about the

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extent to which the fines officer can take decisions to apply a clamping order. Those topics, unfortunately, cannot be discussed at this stage.

Lord Donaldson of Lymington: I wish to make a point which I hope will not be regarded as what the noble Baroness would describe as a "hair-splitting" one. The proposal is to add a paragraph to what is a definition clause. We might then have the following position. If it could be shown by a disgruntled defaulter that a particular fines officer had not been provided with the training required under the Act, it might be claimed that he was not a fines officer at all. That would be unfortunate.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Clause 32 provides for the Lord Chancellor to designate fines officers, whose role will be to manage the collection and enforcement of fines. I am very happy that the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, has read out much of my letter. I endorse everything that I said in the letter and I say from the Dispatch Box that we do not resile from any of it. That is our position. I hope that helps the noble Baroness.

Amendment No. 58, tabled by the noble Baroness, proposes that a line be added to the Bill that identifies a fines officer as someone who has been provided with training by the Lord Chancellor. I entirely take the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, that that would be an additional flaw to the provision.

It is in the interest of the fines collection scheme that fines officers are well trained. However, it is not the usual practice to make statutory provisions for training court staff.

Clause 31(1) states that fines officers are appointed by the Lord Chancellor under Section 2(1) and are designated as fines officers by him. Fines officers will largely be drawn from existing magistrates' courts committee staff, many of whom have had long experience in dealing with defaulters. The noble Baroness asked about the minority. We are now in the days of open competition where experienced and expert people can apply. I am sure that it would be open to the courts to decide whether they were satisfied that a person applying for a fines officer's job had the appropriate understanding, experience and so on.

Of course I cannot say that each and every person will be drawn from the current cadre of people who serve the courts, but the noble Baroness will know that it is more likely than not that such persons will have the ability and experience that best places them to fulfil that role. It would be quite improper on the face of the statute to exclude anyone who is not currently employed by the Court Service. The provision is framed to enable the reality of that situation to be voiced.

Guidance will be given to magistrates' courts as to the specific training a fines officer will require. These requirements may be further developed throughout the pilots. The fines collection regulations will provide clear procedures for fines officers to follow. I hope that that meets many of the concerns of the noble Baroness.

10 Feb 2003 : Column 509

It is also right that, as I set out in the letter, the fines officer will have no power to decide whether or not a fine should be imposed or to determine the level of a fine. The Courts Bill gives a fines officer power to vary the method and timing by which the fine imposed by the court should be paid, and to take "further steps" to secure payment of a fine; for example, issuing a warrant of distress, registering the sum due in a new combined register of judgments, making an attachment of earnings order and making a clamping order. Sanctions imposed for late or non-payment are a consequence of non-compliance with the financial sentence imposed by the court and are designed primarily to encourage payment.

The noble Baroness asked what would happen if the individual applicant did not agree with the fines officer's wishes for disposal of the fines. In those circumstances there could be an appeal or a "referring back"—that is perhaps more accurate—to the court for it to so determine. Therefore, the person subjected to the fine would have a right of recourse if he was not in agreement with the arrangement made by the fines officer.

I hope that that assists the noble Baroness with the issues that she raised. I note what the noble Lord said in relation to his further matters. If and when those are raised we shall of course respond. I also reiterate that we shall meet Front Bench spokesmen and other interested noble Lords to discuss this topic between Committee and Report. If there are any issues that noble Lords want to raise between those times, or indeed between Committee dates, I shall be more than happy to respond as best I can.

6 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe: I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing the contents of her letter and to having them recorded in Hansard, saying that the Government's view is that there should be open competition. If that is so, it is even more essential for some form of training to be given to applicants from outside the court service. I was interested to hear that if there were a dispute between the defendant and the fines officer, it would be referred back to the court.

We are grateful for the Minister's helpful assurances, but we shall read Hansard carefully and take it from there. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


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