Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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The Chairman: Before I call the next speaker, I must make it plain that we have a limited amount of time. That is made clear on the amendment paper. The Chair has a duty to protect, as far as possible, the interests of Back Benchers as well as Front Benchers.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Thank you, Mr. Gale. I am grateful for that reassurance of protection. I will not go on about the absurdity and the scandal that the programming resolution represents. My hon. Friends have already made that clear.

I want to place on the record my concern that the Programming Sub-Committee can meet, discuss individual availability of Ministers and then resolve to have 14 sittings, instead of the 16 that were promised on Second Reading and in the programme motion on the Floor of the House. No one has asked me about my availability to serve on the Committee. I take my duties as a legislator seriously and I get involved in the detail.

We shall suffer from the effect of cramming everything in before the deadline of 8 March. It will become impossible if we try to lever in the five extra hours that the Minister graciously promised. However, the programming resolution contains no qualification that, if more time is needed, it will be available. I want to place on the record how unhappy I am with the resolution and with the way in which the whole process is managed. I shall allow a minute or two for the Minister to reply.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I have listened to hon. Members' remarks about the process of the programme motion and the issues surrounding it raised on the Floor of the House and in Committee today. This is not the place to conduct that discussion more fully, but I place on the record that it is the Government's function to support the Chair in its decisions. In response to the whole process of modernisation, we are ready to discuss aspects of this experiment through the usual channels, including such matters as the publication of minutes of Programming Sub-Committees.

I reinforce, as strongly as I can, the statement that the Government are ready to make the same time available as would have been provided in the full 16 sittings to which I referred in the Chamber, without any qualification or inhibition.

Mr. Blunt: Why, then, can we not go back to the House and extend the deadline beyond 8 March?

Mr. Clarke: That has been made clear and I will simply reassert the point. The House rightly decided that the Committee should end on 8 March but, until then, we are ready to debate for the full time. I say to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) that, for the convenience of the Committee, we are ready to commit to an early proposition about how that can be achieved. That is a reasonable request, and I commend the resolution to the Committee.

11 am

Question put:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 6.

Division No. 1]

Brinton, Mrs. Helen
Clark, Mr. Paul
Clarke, Mr. Charles
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Lock, Mr. David
McCabe, Mr. Stephen
Smith, Miss Geraldine
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
Thomas, Mr. Gareth R.

Ballard, Jackie
Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Gray, Mr. James
Hawkins, Mr. Nick
Heald, Mr. Oliver
Hughes, Mr. Simon

Question accordingly agreed to.

The Chairman: Before the Committee proceeds to substantive consideration of the Bill, I want to state again that, as far as I am concerned, the Chair will do its utmost to accommodate the wishes of the Committee, within the reasonable bounds of human comfort. I would be grateful if the usual channels conducted their deliberations as early as possible, so that as much notice as possible can be given both to Committee members, who might have to rearrange other business, and to the Officers of the House, who have to organise their lives too.

Clause 1

Offences leading to penalities on the spot.

Mr. Heald: I beg to move amendment No. 21, in page 2, leave out lines 15 and 16.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 22, in page 2, leave out lines 21 to 25.

No. 24, in page 2, line 27, at end insert—

    `paragraph 10(1) Schedule 4 Local Unlawful street trading'. Government (Miscellaneous

Provision) Act 1982

Mr. Heald: Thank you for indicating that you want a flexible approach involving the usual channels to operate in the Committee, Mr. Gale.

Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend raises an important point. The programming resolution is curious because it does not lay down times for concluding consideration of particular clauses. In other words, it invites the usual channels to arrange the business as best they can. That was precisely how Committees used to be organised and it is why we so dislike the present system.

Mr. Heald: I agree with my hon. Friend. We had no problems under the previous system. It is a pity that we must have a firm end date.

The amendment would remove criminal damage from the list of offences for which a fixed penalty notice can be given. Clause 1(1) lists the offences for which such notices may be applied.

Amendment No. 22 would remove the offence of using

    ``Threatening, abusive or insulting words or disorderly behaviour''.

Amendment No. 24 would add offences concerning unlawful street trading.

On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made it clear that, although we are not opposed in principle to the issuing of fixed penalty notices, we want to examine the details of the proposals.

The two offences that would be deleted from the list are potentially serious in terms of their effects both on victims and on the wider community's general sense of public order and safety. Should those who are accused of such serious offences be dealt with without arrest and charge and, potentially, conviction and sentence? Would attempts to deal with such offences on the street be likely to aggravate situations?

Criminal damage, in particular, is an offence that affects its victims. It can be a harassment offence—an act of criminal damage or vandalism that continues a campaign of harassment. It can be an offence in which the monetary value is small but the effect on the individual is substantial.

The same is true of

    ``Threatening, abusive or insulting words or disorderly behaviour''.

Such offences can arise in the context of a neighbour from hell, or can be committed as part of a series of public order problems on our high streets at the weekend. There are a range of circumstances in which the two offences can occur, but they are often serious offences, with serious consequences. We accept that there is to be an element of discretion here, but question whether such offences should be fixed penalty notice offences.

In response to the Government's consultation on fixed penalty notices, Bedfordshire police said:

    ``The type of offence to be included in this scheme should not be one where the circumstances are likely to increase existing confrontation''

and specifically mentioned ``abusive or insulting behaviour''.

The Association of Chief Officers of Probation has remarked:

    ``As threatening abusive or insulting words or behaviour may include some serious incidents and often have a direct victim, we would have doubts about their inclusion.''

Two serious bodies have therefore expressed doubts about whether such offences might be too serious to be included in a list of fixed penalty notice offences and dealt with in that way, and whether that is practical.

The Association of Chief Officers of Probation commented that it believes that the same applies to cases of criminal damage, which can be

    ``part of an incident that is serious and has a direct victim.''

It also says that, in such cases,

    ``reconciling the desirability of compensation for the damage with the simplicity of a fixed penalty might be difficult.''

We agree that criminal damage can cause great distress, even where there is little monetary value involved. The chief constable of the West Midlands police, Edward Crew, said that the Association of Chief Police Officers was broadly happy with the proposed list of fixed penalty offences except for criminal damage. He said:

    ``As you know, this offence is an `arrestable offence', is triable `either way', and can have an enormous impact on victims' lives even in the most minor instances. There was therefore considerable concern about whether it would be appropriate to deal with such offences by way of FPN.''

He added that there was a consensus that criminal damage should always result in the arrest of the alleged offender, and also pointed out:

    ``Criminal Damage is also notifiable for fingerprinting and DNA purposes and there is some fear that should such offences attract the issue of FPNs on the street, the vital opportunity to obtain fingerprints and DNA samples will be lost.''

Does the Minister agree that some offences are too serious to be dealt with by fixed penalty notice? There are certainly offences that could occur on the street that are not included in the list, and I suspect that that is because he would not want to diminish their seriousness. However, are the two offences under discussion not also too serious to be dealt with by fixed penalty notice?

Why has the Minister not followed the views of such important bodies as the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Chief Officers of Probation and Bedfordshire police?

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend and other hon. Members will recall the ridicule that the Prime Minister faced when he announced a half-baked scheme for people to be dragged to cashpoints to pay fines on the street. The Government dropped that stupid proposal quickly. Does my hon. Friend agree that the major problem with the Government's revised proposal, among the other problems that he highlights, is summed up in one sentence from the Criminal Bar Association, which says:

    ``Disorderly drunks are by definition not in a fit state to be served with a legal document with penal consequences''?

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Prepared 6 February 2001