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Baroness Seccombe moved Amendment No. 59:


The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 59, I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 60 and 61, which are intended to probe a number of issues.

First, I refer to the statement made at Second Reading by the Lord Chancellor that on fines there will be a "framework of national standards" for fines collection to,


    "tackle poor performance and unacceptable variations".—[Official Report, 9/12/02; col. 17.]

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Another issue is the statements made by the Lord Chancellor about the way in which Schedule 2 will operate in giving guidance to fines collection officers. If the officers are to be allowed to carry out the quasi-judicial functions referred to in the Bill, the regulations will need to be closely and carefully drafted to ensure that the officers can exercise their discretion appropriately.

At the moment the Bill gives the Lord Chancellor the power to amend the operation of the fines collection scheme, which is of course a pilot. That means that the scheme that he ultimately implements may bear little resemblance to the one that we are debating now. The amendment would delete from the Bill the power of the Lord Chancellor to modify or alter Schedule 2 without the approval of Parliament. In other words, what we see is what we get.

We have concerns about magistrates alone having the power to vary sentences—to increase or decrease them in their judicial function. We do not want to see fines officers taking on a judicial role and blurring the line between the administration and the Bench. Surely the European Convention on Human Rights requires punishment to be imposed by an independent and impartial tribunal after a fair and public hearing. We therefore seek assurance that the Lord Chancellor will not increase or vary the powers of fines officers without leave of Parliament. I beg to move.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I shall reiterate the purpose of Clause 31 to put in context some of the issues. Clause 31 will give court staff—the fines officers—responsibility for the management and collection of financial penalties on behalf of the court, while reserving courtroom hearings as a last resort when judicial decisions are called for. That will give magistrates time to deal more rigorously with cases of persistent default. Taken together with the provisions of Schedule 2 and Clauses 89 and 90, the new arrangements will help to prevent the build-up of arrears and increase timely payments. They will do this by a system in which the outstanding financial order is constantly monitored and prompt action is taken, through the fines collection scheme set out in Schedule 2, to ensure payment.

As we said earlier, one of the difficulties with which many magistrates are faced is the variable quality and approach of fines enforcement. Fines are a very powerful form of sentencing tool if used correctly and if properly enforced. Obviously we want the imposition and collection of fines improved throughout the court system.

Amendments Nos. 59 and 60 would prevent the modification of Schedule 2 either before or after the pilot schemes, which Clause 31 allows. Amendment No. 61 would make the regulations setting out the detail of the fines collection scheme subject to affirmative resolution, and in the case of Amendment No. 144, would make the details of the pilot schemes subject to affirmative resolution.

I understand the interest in the details of the proposed arrangements that have prompted the amendments. However, I can explain why the

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provision in Clause 31(5), which allows modifications of Schedule 2, is necessary if we are to get full value from the pilots. It will allow different elements of the scheme to be piloted in different areas, so that their effectiveness in improving the payment rate can be evaluated. For example, a discount for prompt payment and/or an increase for default may be piloted in one area; and wheel-clamping or registration of the debt as sanctions for defaulters may be piloted in another. That flexibility would be lost if the Government were to accept Amendment No. 59.

The enforcement measures, as a number of noble Lords have made plain, are a significant departure from existing practice. The Government believe that they should be thoroughly tested before implementation. There would be little merit in piloting the measures unless it were possible to change, or even abandon, elements of the package that did not work as intended. Pilots will be carried out immediately following Royal Assent during late 2003 or early 2004 with an aim to introducing the fines collection scheme as soon as possible following that evaluation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, will know that those who operate within the courts are best placed to tell us how effective the measures are. We are willing to accept that some of them may not work as well in practice as they appear to work in theory or on paper. We shall evaluate the position as some of these measures may be wrong. If so, we shall set them aside.

As the Bill stands, once the pilot schemes have been evaluated, the Lord Chancellor may make an order under Clause 31(8) modifying Schedule 2 and associated legislation in the light of experience of the pilots. That final package, which may be the whole scheme as presently envisaged, or a modified scheme, would then be put to Parliament for approval under the affirmative resolution procedure before being rolled out nationally. If it seems appropriate there is nothing to prevent that happening prior to the introduction of the unified administration.

This approach will enable the Government to bring forward a package of tried and tested measures, which we can be sure will deliver the improvements in performance that all Members of the Committee want to see. However, that would not be possible were the Government to accept Amendment No. 60.

Amendment No. 61 would make any regulations in relation to fine enforcement, including those made for the purpose of enabling the scheme to operate with existing legislation, subject to the affirmative resolution of Parliament.

As currently drafted, the Bill provides for fines collection regulations that will flesh out the fines collection scheme. The regulations will set out the percentage level for discounts and increases; the procedures for enforcing a clamping order; and the responsibilities of fines officers. They will provide the detailed scheme to be tested in the pilots. The Government believe that the necessary level of detail and flexibility ought not to require a high level of parliamentary scrutiny. The Select Committee on

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Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform found that the power for fines regulations to be subject to negative resolution was appropriately delegated and subject to the correct level of parliamentary control.

Lastly, I turn to Amendment No. 144. I think that I have the old grouping here.

Baroness Seccombe: Amendment No. 144 has been returned to its natural place.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I apologise to the Committee; I suddenly realised when I began to speak to Amendment No. 144 that that was under the old grouping, not the new one; it is now detached.

I hope that I have said enough to allow the noble Baroness to understand why we have phrased the powers for the pilots as we have. That will give us the flexibility we need.

The noble Baroness asked whether, if officers have quasi-judicial functions, the regulations will need to be carefully agreed, I think. Fines officers are concerned with administrative implementation of the court's decisions, not a quasi-judicial function. The scheme to be introduced will be based on the pilots; the requirement for confirmation by affirmative resolution is in place. Officers' powers are confined to what is in Schedule 2. The powers could be introduced in part, but additional powers could not be introduced.

I hope that I have said enough to reassure the noble Baroness on that point and that she will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Seccombe: I thank the Minister for explaining her thinking on the matter. I am sure that all Members of the Committee agree that prompt action on enforcement is essential if one is to obtain a good response.

One issue concerns me. I should be glad to hear the Minister's thinking on increases in fines. We all understand that remission may be due to someone losing their employment or experiencing some other financial problem in the family. But would an increase be in interest on the amount? Otherwise, that appears to be a quasi-judicial function.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I hoped that I had made plain that the regulations will indicate the criteria to be applied for the increase to occur. They may specify that non-payment of the fine within a specified period will lead to a specified rate of increase. So fines officers will not be setting the level but implementing what the court has already determined.

I anticipate that what will happen will be similar to what happens now when a court comes to sentence. The court will tell the individual concerned that they will be fined the sum of X and there will be the usual discussion about how the fine should be arranged over time. It may then be for the court to say, "If there are further or other difficulties, you may make application to the fines officer". I anticipate that the court would then outline the variations that the fines officer could be charged with arranging and say, "In the event that

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you do not agree with the fines officer, you may return the matter to court and we will determine it". So the fines officer will be the tool to deliver the judgment and sentence imposed by the court. Fines officers will not themselves be carrying out a judicial or quasi-judicial function.

We do not propose that interest will be charged in that connection. The schedule provides for a percentage increase or a discount to be set by the Lord Chancellor that will be applied universally by all courts in the appropriate circumstances. One can compare that to what happens with a value added tax return: if one does not return it within X amount of time it rises by X per cent, which tends to encourage people to pay.

As I said, each pilot will trial one arrangement—wheel clamping may be another example—and we will see which is the better course. We may find that all are equally successful and there will then be a menu from which the court can take its delight. We shall see.


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