Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Clarke: I know that the hon. Gentleman likes soundbites, but it is important to emphasise that individuals who are charged can choose whether they wish to go to trial. We will come to that when we discuss later clauses. There is absolutely no qualification: if people prefer not to be dealt with under the fixed penalty notice procedure, then they do not need to be. That is one of the fundamental reasons why it is not true, as he suggested, that the process gives all the cards to the police and none to the citizen. As we set out in clause 3(3)(g), the notice must make it clear that the suspect has the right to trial and thus all the rights that he has now.

Regarding the inability of the poor to pay on time, we believe that there is flexibility in the situation. The hon. Gentleman discussed potential police victimisation. Police officers already have discretion in how they deal with offenders. They can charge, caution or move on someone whom they find committing an offence. Fixed penalties are simply an additional power in the repertoire that is already used professionally by the police. We do not accept the charge that this is a charter for incompetent police, which is what has been suggested.

Mr. Heald: Will the Minister point to a provision that gives flexibility regarding the means of a defendant and the time allowed to pay?

Mr. Clarke: When a fine has been registered, the enforcement court has discretion to allow payment in instalments or to set aside the fine in the interests of justice. We will debate those provisions at greater length when we come to the relevant clauses, but I believe that there is flexibility.

Mr. Hughes: On the compensation point, the Minister must accept that if someone decides to pay a fixed penalty notice within the given time, there is no criminal conviction, and that is the end of the matter. The recipient of the fixed penalty notice makes a decision that precludes the compensation option, and the range of penalties from which a court would be able to choose in other circumstances is inhibited.

Mr. Clarke: In a narrow sense, the hon. Gentleman is correct, but the true situation is that in an average year there are 28,000 cases where there is no compensation of any kind. I am sure that he can point to many areas in his constituency where there has been damage to street furniture, for example, where no compensation has been paid for a variety of reasons. We are clear that where such activity takes place, there should be a penalty. That is why we included the provisions in the Bill.

The offending behaviour covered by section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 includes

    Threatening, abusive or insulting words or disorderly behaviour within hearing or sight of person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress.

I emphasise the words ``harassment, alarm or distress''. Again, that seems to typify the behaviour to which we would like the new scheme to apply. The description of the offence even includes the words ``disorderly behaviour''. It does not seem logical deliberately to omit it from the list before there has been a chance to see how it works in practice. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we intend to issue guidance to the police on this issue, as on the others set out here. We consider that the offence is important enough to be a penalty offence.

Amendment No. 24 concerns unlawful street trading. The hon. Gentleman was right to cite the letter from the Association of Chief Police Officers. In response to our consultation document, Sir Edward Crew, on behalf of the association, said:

    ``There is much support for extending the fixed penalty notice system to include other non notifiable offences, for example unlawful street trading, which can attract large audiences in busy market areas, providing an ideal environment for pickpocketing and street robberies.''

The response goes on to talk about the practice in Amsterdam, as part of the Streetwise initiative, which focuses on such matters. I see the merit in his argument. I am an aficionado of ``The Bill'', as many people with young children are likely to be, and I know that you, Mr. Gale, are a keen advocate of watching the media on such matters. You might have seen the battle of the hot dog stalls that featured in that programme last week. It was a particularly appropriate illustration of this point.

We considered the views of a wide range of organisations—perfectly legitimately put—about what should be in and out of the list, and concluded that we should not include offences with a financial motive in the scope of the penalty notice system, which should focus specifically on disorder. That is why the list of offences that we have established is as it is, and why—although it is perfectly reasonable—we disagree with amendment No. 24. We felt that penalty notices for such offences, which principally involve financial recoupment, might result in the perpetrator seeking to recoup the cost of the penalty through increased activity elsewhere. We did not consider that the point put by ACPO and Sir Edward Crew was not legitimate, but we felt that we should concentrate on disorder offences.

Mr. Gray: I am unclear about what the Minister means. We have a case in Chippenham where the hot dog stall will not move. If the police were to serve a fixed penalty notice on that stall day after day, it would not matter if it recouped the cost from elsewhere. Why is it such a bad thing? What is important is the public disorder offence. The smell in Chippenham high street is unspeakable.

Mr. Clarke: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will aggressively address the smell in Chippenham high street. Hot dog traders are principally in business to make money; it is not principally a matter of disorder. Disorder may be a side effect of their money-making activity, and he gave a reasonable example. We are not profoundly opposed to the inclusion of that offence. Sir Edward Crew gave good reasons why it should be considered, with examples from elsewhere, but we decided that, in light of the public controversy in the area, we should focus on disorder.

Mr. Hughes: Given what the Minister said about his disorder-centred approach, can he explain how the ``threatening, abusive or insulting words or disorderly behaviour'' offence would bite in many of the circumstances that are pictured as those where the penalty is most needed. Anyone passing a pub in the Old Kent road at 2 am on a Saturday or Sunday knows the score: life is not peaceful, gentle and trouble-free. Nobody is likely to be ``caused harassment, alarm or distress'' because they would not be there if they expected a quiet journey home. It is unlikely to be a provable offence in the circumstances that are most often presented as those in which the Government would like to use the fixed penalty notice.

Mr. Clarke: There is a variety of different circumstances in which the penalty could be used. The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on

    ``behaviour within hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress''.

That may or may not be Friday and Saturday nights in inner-city centres where there has been a lot of drinking. He may be right that, in those circumstances, the police would judge that the people there are unlikely to be caused distress, but there are other imaginable and real examples, perhaps from his own constituency, where people on estates are exceptionally offensive and cause serious distress and harassment to people living their lives peacefully, and not necessarily at 2 o'clock in the morning.

Miss Geraldine Smith: Would one such example perhaps be that, in Morecambe, young thugs often sit outside drinking cans of lager and shouting abuse at tourists in nearby guest houses? They cause a lot of harassment to those holidaymakers and affect business in the tourism industry.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend gave a better example than I did. It is an excellent example of precisely the kind of case involving alcohol that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey described, but in which people are caused distress through no fault of their own.

12.15 pm

Mr. Hawkins: It occurred to me during the intervention by the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale that one of the reasons why such incidents still happen is the failure of the Government's antisocial behaviour orders. In my constituency, even where there is a willingness to start thinking about an ASBO, as they have been called, the bureaucracy is so enormous that everyone is put off. That is why there have been so few ASBOs. The hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), who is sadly not on the Committee, has repeatedly attacked his own Government for making ASBOs far too complicated.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman's comments are absurd. I will not give them the dignity of a response, because there is no logical connection between one's view of the success or failure of particular previous measures and a view on the likely success of the proposed measures. We have had this debate on many occasions, and I do not intend to repeat the arguments now.

Mr. Heald: I understand the Minister's point about unlawful street trading being a different kind of offence, but does he agree that, if someone as important and knowledgeable as the chief constable of West Midlands police, speaking on behalf of ACPO, says that unlawful trading areas are sites for street robberies and that fixed penalty notices could affect that, we should tackle the problem? That is particularly important because street crime is soaring. It is not good enough for to say that that is a different category. Will he address that more fully? Why does it matter that there is a commercial aspect to it, if we could tackle that sort of offence with fixed penalty notices?

Mr. Clarke: I am prepared to reflect on the point further, as I said earlier. I was seeking to explain the rationale behind the list that we established, because we have received a wide range of suggestions from different organisations about offences that could be included. I am ready to think again about the hon. Gentleman's point and see whether we might consider widening the scope in the way that he suggested. The Bill has focused on disorder rather than on other aspects, and that is why the offence is so defined. I urge the Committee to reject the amendments if they are pressed to a Division.

I apologise to you, Mr. Gale, and to Committee members because, as the Opposition know, I have to leave at 12.25 pm to respond for the Government in an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will deal with any points that arise on the amendment if we do not conclude by that time.

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Prepared 6 February 2001