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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I shall seek to address immediately two important questions of the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe. She asked whether there were safeguards for magistrates to keep control of cases rather than hand them over to fines officers. There are. The court may reserve a case to itself by not

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making a matter subject to the fines collection scheme, with the result that they will remain seized of it. Also, there will be nothing to prevent the fines officer referring a case back to a court, or the court stipulating at the point of sentencing that it wishes the matter to be referred to it at any stage. So the court will retain judicial oversight of the case throughout.

Before discussing the substance of the amendments, I shall deal with the issues that arose. I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, for generously accepting that if, as we provide, the issue is referred to the court for it to determine, that deals with his points. Respectfully I agree with him—not surprisingly—and thank him for the generosity that he evidenced by making that concession.

The issue raised by my noble friend Lord Graham will be dealt with when we consider Clause 90. It provides a single piece of legislation on the registration of judgments and fines. As the noble Lord mentioned, the register of county court judgments has operated successfully for 150 years—a long time. The clause will re-enact and bring up to date Sections 73 and 73A of the County Courts Act 1984, which deal with the registration of county court judgments and extend the power of registration to High Court judgments and fines. I shall discuss the matter further when we reach Clause 90.

My noble friend Lord Jones discussed the performance of magistrates' courts fines collection and the sensitivity that one needs to adopt to the different economic background against which fines are made. We agree with the noble Lord that that may have been a factor. However, in our research, it was interesting to discover that the administrative acts taken to enforce fines were different and not totally dependent on the economic backdrop against which they were made.

That leads to the question of how we can ensure that there is enforcement at an appropriately high standard across the piece. The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, was right in saying that the problem in setting fines is that the punishment must fit the defendant as well as the crime. He is right in saying that what may be onerous for one defendant because of the size of his pocket may be a mere bagatelle for another—even a 10,000 fine, which would not be a huge impediment for some extremely wealthy defendants. Those issues must be taken into account. Again, the noble Viscount was right in saying that it is important to get the fines structure right so that a fine remains a valid sentence capable of ceasing aberrant behaviour and ensuring that people comply with their duty.

The noble Lord, Lord Jones, asked what the Government based their proposals on, and what research had been carried out. A major report on what works in fine enforcement has been undertaken as part of the Government's crime reduction programme. It will be published next month. Emerging research findings have highlighted the importance of delegating the administrative task of collecting the money to the greatest possible extent. That view was confirmed in

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the National Audit Office report published in March 2002 and the subsequent Public Accounts Committee report published in November 2002.

I understand why the noble Baroness tabled Amendments Nos. 62 and 63. But Schedule 2 provides for the payment and enforcement of fines, costs and compensation imposed after criminal proceedings. It provides new powers for fines officers to enable enforcement actions to be taken swiftly and without the need for a court hearing in many instances. It also gives the court additional enforcement powers on top of existing provisions.

I hope that, as a result of what I have said, the noble Baroness will not feel it necessary to press either amendment, and that she will be content to withdraw them.

Lord Jones: I thank my noble friend for her informative reply.

Lord Goodhart: The Minister did not reply to the question on time limits. I appreciate why it would be difficult for her to do so. But will she look at the matter again before Report stage?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I am happy to do so.

Baroness Seccombe: I am grateful to noble Lords who have taken part in what has proved an interesting and wide-ranging debate. I am delighted that we were able to provide a vehicle for the noble Lord, Lord Graham, to talk about the fines enforcement agency. It has emerged that all noble Lords understand the importance of the imposition of an appropriate fine so that it does not have to be varied later. Obviously, circumstances can change; but it is important to ensure that the appropriate level is imposed at the right time.

I thank the noble Baroness for her detailed explanation and for undertaking to take on board what has been said. It is a serious issue, which has proved that it is even more important to return to the matter at a later stage. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 63 not moved.]

Baroness Seccombe had given notice of her intention to move Amendment No. 64:


    Page 61, line 35, leave out from "determined" to end of line 36 and insert "by the court at the time of setting the initial terms of the collection order"

The noble Baroness said: In view of the previous debate, it will not be necessary to move Amendments Nos. 64 and 65.

[Amendments Nos. 64 and 65 not moved.]

Baroness Seccombe moved Amendment No. 66:


    Page 63, line 23, at end insert—


"(2A) For the avoidance of doubt, any action taken to enforce a clamping order shall not be licensable conduct for the purposes of the Private Security Industry Act 2001 (c. 12)."

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The noble Baroness said: In speaking to Amendment No. 66, I speak also to Amendments Nos. 67 and 69.

Amendment No. 66 seeks to enquire whether "clamping orders" will have to be enforced in accordance with the arrangements in the PSI Act—clamping is a licensed activity that can only be carried out under the supervision of the new Private Security Industry Authority—or whether the arrangements for clamping under Schedule 2 will be wholly separate.

Will the Government clarify the following points on clamping orders? Who will carry out the clamping? Will they have to be licensed under the PSI Act 2001? What consideration has been given to the interrelation between clamping orders under Schedule 2 and the provisions of the PSI Act? If the PSI Act is, or is not, to apply, and there has been a conscious decision taken to have, or not to have, it applied, will the Government explain the reasons for their decision? Such an order should be made only by the court and not by any other person. Amendment No. 67 seeks to ensure that.

Finally, I turn to the topic of fine collection by fines officers. The Bill states that a person commits an offence if he provides false information to a fines officer about his financial circumstances and will be liable on summary conviction to a fine. Asking for information is only valid if, in addition, it has been notified to the court which imposed the fine; the fines officer cannot go fishing for information without the court's knowledge. That would make for better management of fine collection and reinforce the general position that we have taken. The fines officer should be subordinate to the will of the court. I beg to move.

Lord Goodhart: Amendment No. 67 is particularly important and I strongly support it. A clamping order is one which can have serious consequences—in some respects, more serious than an increase in the fine. For example, it may mean that a vehicle is clamped which is needed for travel to work or to take children to school. There are many circumstances in which a clamping order on a vehicle can have serious consequences.

I appreciate that a person who is liable to pay a fine and fails to do so should be aware of the possible consequences of non-payment. Excuses for non-payment should not be easily accepted. However, although I am entirely happy, in principle, with the idea of the clamping order, the arguments are very strong for saying that it is sufficiently serious to require that it should be made by the court itself and not by the fines officer—even though the fines officer's clamping order can be subject to an appeal.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I appreciate why clamping orders have excited so much anxiety. We know that vehicles are sometimes the closest to individual hearts—closer sometimes even than members of the family. Therefore, vehicles must be jealously protected.

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The Government do not take the view that these amendments are necessary. I shall speak to them at some length in order to reassure noble Lords why the scheme should work well. Of course, I add the caveat that the pilot scheme will help us to taste whether the pudding is as good as it currently looks.

The amendments tabled by noble Lords and spoken to today by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, seek to place restrictions on the sanction of clamping by preventing a fines officer from making a clamping order, by requiring proof of ownership prior to clamping and by restricting only to vehicles parked on the road. Amendment No. 69 would require the court to be notified in every case where a fines officer seeks means information from an offender. The whole purpose of the fines officer is that he or she has specific tasks delegated to them by the court and, at all times, is subject to the court's direction.

Amendment No. 66 adds a subsection to Schedule 2 which refers to the Private Security and Industry Act. That subsection would state that a clamping order would not be licensable conduct under the Act. The fitting of an immobilisation device is an activity liable to control under this Act, but only when fitted to a vehicle which is not on the road. Stipulating that a clamping order is not licensable conduct would effectively mean that the person instructed to enforce the clamping order could only clamp a vehicle which is parked on the road. Vehicles proved to be registered in the offender's name, but parked on a driveway, could not be clamped. Knowing that, the offender could easily evade the sanction by moving the car as the clamping enforcers arrive to prevent an immobilisation device from being fitted.

Amendment No. 67 alters the wording of paragraph 13(3) of Schedule 2 to restrict the making of a clamping order to the court. A fines officer would not be able to make a clamping order. The Government's view is that a clamping order is a means of eliciting payment or prompting the offender to contact the court. In that respect, it is no different from other enforcement methods. The decision on which method is the best one to employ is an administrative matter which should fall to the fines officer. However, under our proposals, the court will make the decision on the sale of the vehicle after it has been clamped.

The pilot schemes will reveal whether the provisions relating to clamping will cause particular difficulties. Clause 31 contains powers which will enable the fines collection scheme to be modified in the light of experience of the pilots. Should any element of the scheme fail to operate as intended, we shall take the opportunity to make any necessary adjustments.

Amendment No. 69 requires the court to be notified in every case where a fines officer seeks means information from an offender. The fines collection scheme set out in Schedule 2 is designed to ensure that responsibility for the collection of financial penalties imposed by the court is placed in the hands of administrative staff. That builds on the existing enforcement regime, under which administrative staff already exercise delegated powers, under the Justices'

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Clerks Rules 1999, to allow further time to pay or to vary the number and date of instalments. Both the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee recommend greater delegation of enforcement responsibilities to administrative staff where appropriate.

Under the new scheme, the offender may apply to the fines officer for a variation in the initial repayment terms set by the court. The fines officer will only be able to vary the payment terms once and will not be able to determine, or alter, the level of the fine—only the rate of repayment. Subsequent requests for variation must be directed back to the court.

In support of any application for more favourable payment terms, the fines officer will expect the offender to provide information about his ability to pay. Paragraph 20 of Schedule 2 empowers the fines officer to request that information. The Government believe that it is unnecessary to inform the court of such requests as this would waste valuable court time and delay a purely administrative task. Any appeal against the fine officer's decision or any reference back to the court, or any subsequent request for variation, will be heard by the court, which will have before it any information the offender has provided at the request of the fines officer.

Furthermore, there is nothing in Schedule 2 to prevent the court at any time requesting that the fines officer report back to it on a specific case should this be deemed necessary. The fines officer's powers are clearly circumscribed by the terms of the collection order made by the court, but if the court feels that a specific case should be handled by the court and not submitted to the fines collection scheme, the court can reserve the case by not making a collection order at point of sentence. That gives into the court's hands the discretion to indicate which cases it thinks may need its careful oversight and which cases may appear to be routine and have no specific evident difficulties at the time of sentencing, and allows flexibility for the fines officer, and/or the offender who finds himself in disagreement about the instalment rate of repayment, to come back to the court for it to exercise its judicial function and to determine any dispute which may arise between the parties.

As to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, research has shown that involving court staff to a greater extent in chasing up fine defaulters produces results. As I said, the Public Accounts Select Committee has also recommended that more should be delegated to administrative staff, and that would appear to make sense. The enforcement of court orders is primarily an administrative process. As the noble Baroness will know from her experience, the majority of cases can be dealt with in that way.

But there are cases where circumstances change and unforeseen things happen, and what seemed reasonable in regard to repayment at the time of the court sentence becomes less reasonable as a result of those changes. But, to reassure the noble Lord, the

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most important thing is that throughout the fines officer remains the servant of the court and not the other way round.


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