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Baroness Seccombe: We may next week see exactly that from the congestion charge. Having listened to the Minister, I should like to read what she said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 60 and 61 not moved.]

Clause 31 agreed to.

Schedule 2 [Collection of fines by fines officers]:

Baroness Seccombe moved Amendment No. 62:



"( ) For the avoidance of doubt, where this Schedule applies, the court may reserve to itself any case which shall not then be subject to enforcement through the fines collection scheme."

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 63. The amendments cover a subject on which I have already touched but wish to expand. We are concerned about the removal of powers from magistrates to fines officers. There appears to be no safeguard in the Bill as drafted for magistrates to ensure that they can keep control of a case and exercise their judicial function, rather than handing it over to the fines officers. We seek assurance from the Minister that the court may reserve to itself any case rather than send it to a fines collection officer.

I again want to raise the issue of human rights and ensure that they will be complied with and that people will be judged by magistrates, not fines officers. It makes sense to include in the Bill provisions to enable magistrates to keep control of cases which they feel may need reviewing or changing, as they are best placed to make such decisions and have the authority to do so. On Second Reading, the Government said that the Bill allowed a court to do that, but it is not clear in the Bill. Our amendment would make it clear. I beg to move.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: This may not be the most appropriate time to raise the point, but the amendments relate to fines, their enforcement and

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collection. I apologise to my noble friend for not having given her better notice of what I consider is an important related aspect.

When I came to the House in 1983, a friend of mine, Mr Malcolm Hurlston, asked me to be busy on his behalf. I took a deputation to see the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham. My friend was concerned about consumer credit and a range of bodies had an interest in the matter. Eventually, with the support of Lord Hailsham and his department, a body called Registry Trust was established. The function of Registry Trust, which is a non-profit making body, is to work, by and large, on behalf of the consumer movement and consumer credit givers to ensure that the creditworthiness of people who get themselves into difficulty—and are sometimes fined as a result by the courts for non-payment—is codified.

If not tonight, perhaps at some other time, my noble friend can say something about the relevance of Registry Trust and its valuable work over the past 15 years. In 1985, a contract with the Lord Chancellor's Department for the administration of the registry was signed. Since then, it has been a free-standing part of, but adjacent to, the credit-giving industry and the fines enforcement agency, which we are now discussing. It is self-financing, so we are discussing interlocking the various bits of the jigsaw. The revenue for the registry comes, first, from fees from members of the public, which are set by the Lord Chancellor's Department in consultation with the Treasury. Secondly, it comes from fees from the purchases of small files, which are set at 30p per judgment compared with 40p per judgment, which was the fee when the registry was operated directly by the department in 1985. Subscriptions from purchasers of the full consumer and commercial files are agreed by the Registry Trust board and vary according to the number of purchasers. There is interest income from the trust's reserves. Since then, as we know, the credit industry has grown and grown. Many good people previously not affected by it now find that their interests and those of their families and communities are affected by the impact and implications of giving credit.

Can the Minister say anything about the development and the importance of fines officers as regards the current well-established and well-operated Registry Trust? Obviously, that body will be looking with some care at the burgeoning credit enforcement business, which is the fines officers. This matter has come completely out of the blue because I received the facts only an hour ago. The Minister may be able to say something which knits together these two important segments. I pray in aid Lord Hailsham who showed his interest in these matters, not by encouragement but through recognition of the valuable part that a body like the Registry Trust can play.

Lord Jones: With diffidence, I follow the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Graham, and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe. Magistrates and the courts are given targets for the collection of fines. On what do the Government base their proposals as they

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affect magistrates? What research have the Government undertaken on the collection of fines and on which they make their proposals? Is there any detail so far as regards the collection of fines, which Ministers and the department have worked on for the presentation of their proposals?

Magistrates face a great deal of pressure to achieve full payment of fines. It is interesting to calculate what further pressure will come about and whether the courts' system can withstand it. The approach of various courts differs. Often it relates to the prevailing economic and social conditions pertaining to given areas. I believe I have heard employment, or the lack of it, mentioned.

The work of the fines courts can create very depressing occasions. In a fines court magistrates learn the consequences of their justice. They face the reality of what they have decided. In such courts where, presumably, fines officers will attend, the lives of those fined is laid bare. The extent of poverty is sharply defined under questioning from the magistrates who are themselves under pressure to collect. It also becomes very obvious whether or not the accused has the ability to manage the debt or his or her own budget.

We are discussing very sensitive and serious matters. I would like Ministers to be able to acknowledge that the relationship between the fines officer, the magistrates and their clerk will be crucial and that the proposals within the Bill will make it easier, not harder, for magistrates and others to achieve the Government's objective.

Lord Donaldson of Lymington: May I hark back to the mention of human rights? At Second Reading I expressed very grave doubts as to whether the position of the fines officer was compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act. The noble Baroness wrote a letter saying that of course they were compatible. I believe that at some stage I said, I hope in moderate language, that if that was right we could abolish any independence in the High Court, the circuit courts or in any tribunal so long as there was a right of appeal. I do not take that back.

There was a very significant passage in what the noble Baroness said earlier today. She referred to a right of appeal or, more accurately, a reference to the court by the alleged defaulter. I make it clear from my point of view that that is the difference. If a fines officer says that he is going to increase the amount to be paid, and if at that stage the alleged defaulter can say, "Thank you very much, but no, I wish the matter to be decided by a court", that is all right in my book. What is not all right is that the decision should be binding unless overturned on appeal. That would turn the matter into a judicial decision. I thought that this might be the opportunity to back track on the lines I have mentioned.

Viscount Tenby: I wish to refer to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Jones. There are figures about the non-collection of fines, which is part of the problem.

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They are not being collected for the most part. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that. It is important that they should be collected because if the overwhelming number of disposals of cases is by way of fines, and if they are not being paid, I can assure Members of the Committee that magistrates will be tempted into passing alternative sentences, which may not be half as attractive or applicable. Therefore, it is very important that fines are collected.

I say this so that I do not sound like a hard-hearted swine. It is also important that fines should be levied on the situation of the person paying them. That is absolutely critical. Even now, with all the training which magistrates receive, one still has cases of inappropriate fines being levied. For example, it may well be that a fine would be reasonable in certain circumstances if it were only 20, which would make the average man in the street gasp. But a fine of 20 on one particular person may present a mountain to climb whereas a fine of 1,000 for a city slicker would not be thought unduly harsh. I say to Members of the Committee something which I am sure they know already. Settling the issue of fines is of critical importance.

Lord Goodhart: This debate has raised an important issue. I am not entirely convinced about the desirability of Amendments Nos. 62 and 63 as they stand. Their significance has been to raise the debate rather than propose an effective solution. There are concerns about the powers of a fines officer. I am not entirely sure that they are contrary to the Human Rights Act. I note that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has not raised in its report any particular concern over this issue. Nevertheless, the power of a fines officer to increase a fine by 50 per cent is serious. If it is to be exercised in that form, it might be a more appropriate task for the court rather than a fines officer. That is one of the reasons why the Government should consider seriously having a system of interest payments rather than a single, large increase. That would enable a defaulter to pay his fine at a much more reasonable rate.

A point of serious importance has not been raised. Although, properly, there is a right of appeal of a fines officer's decision, it can be exercised only within 10 working days. There is no provision for an extension of that time. That will mean that if the appeal is not made within 10 working days there will be no way in which it can be brought before a magistrates' court. Where there is a time limit in the Bill, unless it also specifies that the time may be extended, there is no power to extend. It cannot be done by regulations. I may be wrong, but I see no such provision in the Bill. I intend to table an amendment on Report to allow magistrates' courts to extend the time.


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