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Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I have read the Committee stage debate on this issue. Having listened carefully to the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, I ask myself what sanctions we should apply, how we should apply them, and how we can support civil liberties while at the same time encouraging civil responsibilities.
Those of us who condemned the behaviour of English soccer hooligans may have wondered how we could have prevented that behaviour from happening in the first place. I should have thought that tough deterrents could have prevented it. I refer, for example, to the withdrawal of passports. I regard the threat to withdraw driving licences as a deterrent. The lack of a car can sometimes constitute an obstacle. However, that obstacle can be avoided by complying with certain rules. I suspect that more people drive than play cricket. They certainly do not play cricket in Texas. We should remember that the courts can take into account whether someone needs a driving licence to enable him or her to earn a living.
Only 66 per cent of the maintenance that is due is paid. What can we do to remedy that situation? What can we do to support children? What can we do to tackle child poverty? The payment of maintenance forms part of the solution. If the threat of removing a driving licence results in more people paying maintenance, surely that is a valid approach.
I oppose the amendment. Recently the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, wrote that most people accept the values of honesty, of not committing crimes, of parental responsibility and fidelity. He wrote that people's general instinct is not to harm neighbours, partners or children. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that if the clause was retained, people would break the law through driving without insurance. If we applied that argument across the board we would not make it illegal to commit burglary because people might well commit burglary and break the law. It is a nonsense. There is, of course, the Motor Insurance Bureau, which looks after the interests of people injured by people driving without insurance. It is a non-argument. One has only to stand in a pub and listen to people talking about the football hooligans in Belgium to understand that, generally speaking, we still have decent values in this country.
As a former police officer, I was often accused of being perhaps a little hard on offenders; that I was too quick to recommend custodial measures without first trying other alternatives such as community sentences. Perhaps that is true. It has to be said that the record of prison is not good, but neither is the record of other forms of non-custodial treatment.
In my former life I always tried to achieve justice for the victim of crime. That does not always mean imprisoning the offender; it could mean paying compensation, or even a restorative justice measure such as meeting the victim and apologising for the offence. In other words, we seek to achieve the best outcome for the person wronged. That is the way we should approach this measure.
I spent many hours persuading people who were acting anti-socially of the error of their ways. I have used humour, threats, promises and, yes, deception on occasions--although I will not go into details--to deal with the myriad of situations with which a police officer is confronted. I was always told--and, indeed, always practised--never bark unless you are prepared to bite. In other words, if you threaten to arrest someone, always be prepared to carry it out in the final analysis, and have the lawful powers to do so.
The law should use every means at its disposal to ensure that decisions made by the law are enforced. It is rather like golf; we should have a range of clubs at our disposal, even if we do not use them all. I know the salutary effect that the threat of losing one's driving licence has on the vast majority of drivers. It is very important; it makes them think twice before they continue a course of conduct which they know will attract disqualification. In other words, it concentrates the mind.
If the threat of being disqualified from driving corrects driving behaviour, why should we not use it to correct social behaviour? We are talking simply of another club being used which is available to the court.
I remember that a few years ago the former Home Secretary, Michael Howard, used this idea as a sanction against criminal offenders under the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997--and why not if it deterred offenders and reduced the number of victims of crime? It seems to me to be perfectly legitimate.
Magistrates do what magistrates do best--that is, they apply common sense. Clearly they will not impose a ban if it means that a person's job would be affected. The ideal would be for such driving bans not to be needed at all. It is to be hoped that compliance will be achieved by simply having the ban available and the non-compliant person realising that.
This is a last resort measure. The public of this country are fed up to the back teeth with people evading their social responsibilities. It is a sanction that has worked well in other jurisdictions and we should learn from that. There is very little logic in saying that driving bans should be used only to promote safer driving. It is an effective sanction; let us use it to achieve compliance. The beneficiaries will be justice and, in the long term, children.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, Amendment No. 59 relates to the power to introduce a new civil penalty that will enable an order to be made by magistrates disqualifying a non-resident parent from holding or obtaining a driving licence as an alternative to committal proceedings. I am aware--if I was not aware before, it has been made clear to me today--that the penalty of disqualification from driving for failure to pay child support causes concern to some noble Lords on the Opposition Benches.
Clause 16 will enable an order to be made by magistrates disqualifying a non-resident parent from holding or obtaining a driving licence. As my noble friend Lord Mackenzie said, it will exist partly as an alternative to committal proceedings--that is, to imprisoning the offending person. It will be imposed--like imprisonment--very much as a last resort on those parents who have resisted every attempt over some period of time to get them to meet their responsibilities to their children. At this stage, the non-resident parent will have had every right to dispute his liability or to appeal it to an independent tribunal. The money owing will be money legally determined on the basis of child support legislation.
Our provisions require the courts--not the CSA--to consider all the circumstances of the case when deciding whether disqualification from driving or imprisonment is the appropriate penalty. To help with this decision it is only right that the court should inquire into whether the licence is needed to earn a living, as well as into the non-resident parent's financial circumstances. It does not mean that where the liable person needs a driving licence to earn a living the licence can never be removed, but it is one of the circumstances that the court must take into account--
At the moment the courts have two broad sanctions--a fine, which usually fails to bite on someone failing to pay money, and imprisonment. To those sanctions we are adding one of removal of a driving licence. The courts will be able to impose a disqualification for a period of anything up to two years.
We are also proposing that the order disqualifying a non-resident parent from holding or obtaining a driving licence can be lifted or amended when the debt has either been cleared in full or a specified part payment has been made. So where a non-resident parent makes a genuine effort to pay off the debt, consideration will be given to giving him his licence back; it will be for the courts to decide. In other words, if the non-resident parent wishes to keep his driving licence, he pays for the support of his children; if, having lost his driving licence because he had failed to support his children, he then starts paying for his children, he will get his licence back.
Noble Lords on the Opposition Benches should make up their minds whether they object to this measure because it is too effective--which is the position of the noble Earl, Lord Russell--or it is so ineffective as to be silly--which is the word used by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins--compared to that of Texas.
We know that when somebody fails to pay it is right that society should use such sanctions as it can to ensure that fathers support their children. If they will not pay the money and not pay a fine, if they will not respond to a garnishee or a distraint order, the alternative facing the magistrates is imprisonment. We are offering the magistrates an alternative and lesser penalty than imprisonment, and one which is less likely to bite on the child.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked how will this person be able to earn a living; how will he be able to do this; how will he be able to do that? The answer is quite simple: he pays his child maintenance and the situation does not arise. All that man has to do--I am assuming it to be a man for these purposes, but it could be a parent of either gender if it is the non-resident parent--to keep his licence is to pay the maintenance. Once that maintenance is paid, the licence can be restored. If a period of disqualification ensures that maintenance is paid, then the scheme will have worked.
However, those non-resident parents who can pay but wilfully--I stress, wilfully--deliberately, knowingly and repeatedly refuse to support their children, but are happy for other fathers to do so, will now face an application by the CSA to the courts for the most severe sanction. In the past that meant committal to prison. The removal of the driving licence--this is the third stage--gives the courts an alternative final penalty, one that may allow the non-resident to continue working and so pay the maintenance that is due. It will be for the courts to decide whether the non-resident parent is deliberately refusing or neglecting to pay. If the magistrates decide that the penalty is appropriate, they will be able to consider all the relevant circumstances to ascertain whether that penalty is the right one.
I shall not trouble the House with the statistics from Norfolk and Manchester. I wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, about them. However, those pilots revealed that out of a total of 84,000 fines issued under the pilot scheme, 155 fine defaulters received driving disqualification: 12 in Norfolk and 143 in Manchester. The pilot schemes--introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch--showed that, where driving licence disqualification was used selectively, it appeared to be extremely effective.
At the end of the day, we believe that fathers should support their children. Children are entitled to that support. As I have said, every opportunity will be given to non-resident parents to enable them to make arrangements to pay. That is the kind of acceptable behaviour that we want to see. If they do not do so, they must be encouraged and persuaded. They have to be persuaded. Their children are entitled to support. Furthermore, that support should not be dumped on to other men and other fathers. If that means that the sanction of the loss of a driving licence as an alternative to imprisonment needs to be used, and as determined by magistrates rather than the CSA, that appears to the Government to be appropriate.
We know that it will have a severe effect, in particular on those living in rural areas. That is why we have provided that magistrates can take such considerations--in particular the ability to continue earning a living--into account. However, no non-resident parent, whether he lives in a town or in the countryside, needs to lose his driving licence. It is up to
However, to argue that we should knowingly not introduce a penalty which has been used effectively in the United States and which falls short of committal to prison--where the parent most certainly will not have any capacity to earn a living to support his child--is wrong. We should not knowingly put a non-resident parent's right to drive a car ahead of a child's right to support from his father. I regard that as an improper moral position.
As a result, if this amendment is pushed to a vote, I hope that noble Lords will support the Government by deciding that children must come first and the right to drive a car must come second. If a non-resident parent supports his children, then of course he may enjoy his right to hold a driving licence. It will not be under threat. I hope that your Lordships will not support this amendment.
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