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The noble Baroness said: The amendment seeks to ensure that a vehicle which is clamped is owned by the fine defaulter. I am sure that none of us wants to see a situation whereby a defendant has an order against him, and a car which he does not own is clamped.
The Government's drafting permits the order to be made against the car of the registered keeper, who may not be the same person as the car's owner, and it could be unduly harsh on the car's owner to find the vehicle clamped because of the default of someone else. Let us take, for example, the situation where a marriage breaks up and the car is owned by the wife. She could go off with the car and then find it clamped because her husband, who is the registered keeper, is in default of fines that have nothing to do with her. What would be fair or right about that?
My noble friend Lady Anelay asked about this at Second Reading but did not receive an answer on that occasion or in the letter sent to Peers by the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, during the Christmas Recess. I have tabled the amendment to give the Government an opportunity to explain why they are intent upon proceeding against the registered keeper. I beg to move.
Lord Donaldson of Lymington: At Second Reading I suggested that as there was no necessary correlation between the keeper and the owner it would be relatively easy for a defaulter to remove his name as the car's registered keeper. The amendment is far more difficult to justify than the Government's original suggestion. I have no figures, but I venture to doubt whether more than 50 per cent of cars are owned by the people who believe they own them. Most cars are bought on hire purchase; that being so, such people are not the owners until the end of the hire purchase agreement.
I was thinking of that horrible possibility while I was sitting hereone of the advantages of being on the Cross-Benches and not moving amendments is that you can thinkand it occurred to me whether there is a case for providing in the Bill that where a defaulter has a driving licence his licence should be suspended pending payment of the fine. Where there is a family car, the children still could be taken to school and, if the wife has to drive because the husband is the defaulter, I am sure that she would join with the fines officer in trying to get the fine paid.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, that there are greater problems with the amendment than with the Government's position. I respectfully adopt all the arguments that he makes about the flaws in regard to ownership.
Checking vehicle registration with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority is the only means of independently establishing a link between the defaulter and the vehicle. I do not, however, suggest that that is in itself without difficulties; I acknowledge that there are the drawbacks alluded to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, when he made his intervention at Second Reading.
I would answer the point in part by pointing out that the fines collection scheme provides that a "further steps" notice will be sent to a defaulter who fails to co-operate with the court, signalling the intention to make a clamping order. The offender has 10 days in which to contact the fines officer. I believe that it is unlikely that that 10 day period will give the defaulter sufficient time to register the vehicle in another person's name.
Taking the example of the noble Baroness about what may happen to the poor wife who is subject to this process, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, is right to say that it would give her an opportunity to join forces with the fines officer to ensure that proper weight is given to who should be paying the fine and the proper course to be taken.
I should also point out that even if a determined defaulter manages to re-register the vehicle or takes other steps to avoid the clamping order, the fines collection scheme provides the fines officer with a number of alternative enforcement methods including ordering deductions from earnings or benefits, distraining against the defaulter's goods, and registration of the debt. The defaulter who re-registers or hides his vehicle will therefore have been put to considerable inconvenience to no purpose. As the fines officers will be persistent in chasing payment, we expect that the majority of defaulters will eventually be persuaded to take the line of least resistance and pay what they owe.
Finally, as I have said already in relation to other amendments, the pilot schemes will reveal whether or not the clamping provision will cause significant problems. Speaking entirely for myself, I find terribly attractive the suggestion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, in regard to the removal of licence. I do not know whether other noble Lords share my initial response, but it is certainly something that we should think about.
The Criminal Justice Bill re-enacts Sections 35 and 40 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 and will cater for driving licence suspension as an alternative sentence on default on a fine. So there is scope for some creative thinking similar to that which the noble and learned Lord on the Cross Benches has managed to do.
Lord Goodhart: I, too, find the idea advanced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson of Lymington, attractive. I can see one problem; namely, if the non-payer of the fine were employed as a bus driver or HGV driver, it might be disproportionate in terms of punishment to impose an order that would mean that the person was unable to carry out that job. So the power would have to be discretionary; and any discretionary power of that kind would have to be decided by the court and not by a fines officer.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I underline that the whole purpose of providing the flexibility of the different methods of enforcement is that an appropriate means of enforcement can be tailored to the particular person who appears before the court. Certain strategies will be more effective with one offender than with another. One has found in many circumstances that being able to drive and having a car is seen by some offenders as more valuable than anything else.
Baroness Seccombe: The debate has highlighted the Government's problem and the fact that we all have more thinking to do before we return to this matter on Report. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Hunt of Wirral: Earlier today, the Minister stressed the importance of fines and in particular their enforcement. As this schedule deals with the collection of fines, I should like to raise with her an issue that is causing considerable concern; namely, the non-payment of finesoften very substantial fineswhen they have been levied on companies under the Health and Safety at Work Act etc. 1974 and under subsequent legislation.
The All-Party Group on Occupational Safety and Health, of which I have the honour to be president, has on a number of occasions raised with the noble Baroness's ministerial colleagues the fact that a number of substantial fines levied on companies situated overseas have not been paid and few steps have been taken to enforce the fines. I have in mind not only the substantial fines levied in the aftermath of the Heathrow tunnel collapse, but also those following a number of similar substantial accidents. There is a
I do not want the occasion to pass without reminding the Minister of this serious concern. It may be helpful to return to this issue on Report to see whether there is a need for further legislation to make enforcement easier, either within a Bill of this nature or within the European Union. I am aware of several companies within the EU and just outside it where fines are still outstanding. Will the Minister please consider writing to me and to other Members of the Committee setting out the position. Where fines of over half a million pounds have been leviedperhaps over the past few yearsbut remain unpaid, could they be identified? It would be helpful to have that information so as to be able to consider whether any further steps need to be taken.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I shall be more than happy to write to Members of the Committee. I am not sure whether we have the data or whether it can be collected without disproportionate cost, but I shall make inquiries. One of the issues that we have been examining through the enforcement review is how to make the enforcement of fines of a consistently high quality. The whole point of debating these provisions is to make sure that the efficiency and value of enforcement of this nature tells on those against whom the courts have levied fines. I hope that the noble Lord will see that all these provisions have been brought forward in order to make the system better. I shall write to the noble Lord with pleasure if I have any useful information pertaining directly to the issues raised.