Standing Committee F
Thursday 15 February 2001
[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
The Chairman: Before we recommence proceedings, I have a housekeeping announcement to make.
I have considered carefully the progress made and the time scale for the Bill. My view, and that of my co-Chairman, is that, to date, there has been no untoward or over-lengthy debate. Members on both sides of the Committee will accept that we are dealing with intricate issues that require careful consideration. No one knows whether what lies ahead will be as intricate or a lot simpler. The usual channels have courteously told me that they will probably wish to sit in the evening of Tuesday 27 February, and I have conveyed that to staff. Members may wish to know that so that they can make domestic and other arrangements.
Depending on how we proceed, I am minded to reconvene the Programming Sub-Committee at 5 pm on Wednesday 28 February. That is not an invitation to any hon. Member to take advantage of possible alterations to the timetable. We need this information now so that hon. Members who are also members of the Programming Sub-Committee can hold themselves in readiness for such a meeting.
Statements by constables
Question proposed [this day], That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Question again proposed.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): The substantive point raised by hon. Members is the question whether the system for a constable witness statement, which would not be mandatory, but elective, is compatible with the European convention on human rights. I understand that point and refer hon. Members to the statement in the Bill from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, which refers to its compatibility under section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998. I appreciate the points that have been made, especially by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), but will he consider over the half-term recess whether he wants to put to me in writing his concerns about a possible breach of human rights? His observations were rather generalI do not criticise him for thatbut I undertake to consider any matters of substance posed orally or in writing.
Given the specific nature of the requirements of the Human Rights Act, it is one thing for the hon. Gentleman to say that he is concerned that there may be human rights implications and another to say so after the Government have considered the matter and are satisfied as to the Bill's compliance. I will consider specific concerns put in writing.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for his constructive approach to that issue. Over the half-term break, will he and his officials consider whether any there are any parallels with the chosen method of bypassing section 9 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967?
Mr. Lock: I will examine that matter, and if the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me about it, I will provide the information as part of my reply and ensure that, if it is relevant, other members of the Committee can receive it as well.
The point about human rights was the only substantive one raised on the constable's witness statement. As I said, it is not a requirement, but an option for the police that is designed to cut down on their paperwork and ensure that constables can operate more efficiently. With that proviso, I commend the clause to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Subsection (2) encourages people to send cash through the post as an acceptable form of payment. As the Post Office has always cautioned people that it is singularly unwise to mail cash, should such provision be made in legislation? There are obviously complications, because cash will be an acceptable form of payment, but the Post Office has spoken about the temptations open to their workers if money is sent by non-registered mail. The Bill does not say that such mail should be registered and I would be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary would explain that.
Mr. Lock: The hon. Gentleman raised an interesting point and I suspect that he is right and that it would be wise for people not to send cash through the post. Equally, it would be unwise to precludein the Bill or elsewhereanyone who does not have a bank account, lives far away from the court to which the money should be sent or does not want to pay the additional cost of a postal order, from paying a fine by cash through the post. In practical terms, such an individual could get proof of posting so as to be confident about proving that the letter had been sent.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point and I shall consider it, but the words in question are a standard form that has been used in many Bills dealing with similar topics and, to date, has not given rise to any problems.
Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): One used to regard it as standard that if a letter were posted first class one day, it would be delivered the next. Can the Parliamentary Secretary confirm that that remains his understanding? Will there be guidance that, if someone posts a letter first class and obtains a record of posting from a post office, it will be respected? Will he give the matter some thought and inform the Committee at a convenient moment?
Mr. Lock: As my hon. Friend the Minister of State has made clear, some latitude exists already in respect of how fines for fixed penalties, most of which are for motoring offences, are received. As long as the letter is posted in the prescribed period, even if it arrives two days lateobviously there are problems before Christmas, for examplethat is generally treated as a proper satisfaction of the fixed penalty notice and no further action is taken.
Ordinarily, a first-class letter is expected to arrive the next day and a second-class letter within three days. In practice, however, I do not think that there will be a problem. Under the existing operation of fixed penalty notices, reasonable latitude is given to those who are clearly attempting to pay. I hope that the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) will accept my assurance that that is how the notices will work in practice.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 10 to 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Sir Nicholas Lyell: On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I tried to catch your eye to speak on clause 12.
The Chairman: I am sorry, but the question has been put and agreed to. Committee members must be faster on their feet.
Sir Nicholas Lyell: Forgive me, Mr. Gale. You were quite rightly making progress, but you were looking away from me. I was rising, but was unable to catch your eye.
The Chairman: I am sorry. I do not wish to quarrel with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but I have ruled on the subject.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): I think that I was pretty quick there, Mr. Gale.
The clause includes the chief constable of the British Transport police under ``chief officer of police''. The Armed Forces Bill, which is being considered by a Select Committee, will extend to the Ministry of Defence police the same powers and jurisdiction as the regular constabulary. It is proposed that the 3,500 MOD police will have jurisdiction over civilian, and not just military law, matters. They will be accountable to the Secretary of State for Defence, and not to any police authority, even with that enhanced role. Their powers will be national, whereas those of the regular constabulary in England and Wales are, to an extent, local.
If the Government intend thus to widen the role of the MOD police, will the definition ``chief officer of police'' include the MOD police, given that the authorised constables under clause 2(5) who will be able to hand out fixed penalty notices are ``authorised, on behalf of the chief officer of police for the area in which the police station is situated, to give penalty notices''?
If this Bill and the Armed Forces Bill become law, is it envisaged that the MOD police will have powers not only to deal with civilians in general but to serve them with fixed penalty notices?
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): Unless my memory fails me, I think that we discussed the matter in some detail when we debated an amendment to clause 1.
The key point is that the general powers of the police apply to the territorial police forces. The British Transport police specifically asked to be included because of the offences in clause 1 that involve railway lines and railway transport. We have no intention to include other police forces, such as the MOD police or parks police, in the Bill. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) is right that the Armed Forces Bill contains a proposal about general MOD police powers in this context, but we do not intend to include the powers in this Bill. There is no reason to include the MOD police. Should they say that they think there is an issue here, we would re-examine it, but we do not see any need to legislate on that now.
Mr. Heald: Is the Minister able to say
The Chairman: I call Mr. Heald.
Mr. Heald: I am sorry, Mr. Gale. I am rushing to ensure that I get in.
The Chairman: Ahead of your colleagues.
Mr. Heald: Is the Minister saying that there is no intention to include the MOD police? At present, they cannot be included because they do not have the relevant powers. Is he ruling that out?
Mr. Clarke: Who knows what might happen under some future Government, whether Labour, new Labour, Conservative, new Conservative, Liberal Democrat or new Liberal Democrat? However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government will not introduce a proposal to include the MOD police in the definition of police officers in the Bill.