|Criminal Justice and Police Bill
Mr. Heald: The Minister did not really respond to my point that criminal damage is a serious offence. There is a serious offence under subsection (2), but the offence under subsection (1) is also serious. The groups that I mentioned earlier, such as the Association of Chief Officers of Probation, are not known as hawkish bodies, but they made it clear that they believed that criminal damage is often part of a serious offence that has a direct victim. We must not think that a fixed penalty notice is a tough disposal. For several reasons, it is softer than being sentenced in court by a magistrate. It does not lead to a criminal record; it is convenient to the offender; and it does not involve public knowledge of the offence. We should not think, ``Gosh, we have these tough new fixed penalty notices.'' They are useful for marking offences, but they are not suitable for dealing with serious offences. Criminal damage is too serious to be dealt with in that way.
On compensation to victims, the Minister's information reinforces the point that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath made. If 51 per cent.more than halfof cases in magistrates courts involve compensation, it is wrong to give a police officer the discretion to take compensation away from the victim. The Minister knows that I have the highest respect for police officers, but I become suspicious when we are told that a matter will be dealt with through guidance. That is to concede that the law that is being made is not adequate on its own and needs to be supplemented to achieve its purpose. I thought that he was unconvincing about that.
The Minister mentioned the proportion of cases in which cautions are issued compared with the proportion that go to court, but did not seem to say that the fixed penalty notice cases would be additional. I thought that the Government wished to introduce fixed penalty notices for the class of case that is not currently dealt with or even marked. The Bill would then add something new. However, he did not suggest that that would be the case for criminal damage. The serious offence of criminal damage will be downgraded if it is treated as the Bill proposes. [Interruption.]
The Chairman: Order. I have already said that I do not expect communication between the Floor and the Gallery. I do not want to have to say so again.
Mr. Heald: Thank you, Mr. Gale.
Criminal damage is downgraded if it is treated in the same way as a parking offence. The proposals would deprive victims of compensation without good reason, and the Minister has not suggested any additionality in terms of law and order. Unless he renounces his opposition to the amendment, we will press it to a Division.
The Minister went some way towards reassuring me about threatening behaviour, although I was not entirely convinced. We do not intend to press amendment No. 22 to a vote. We want to divide on amendment No. 24. If ACPO, through Sir Edward Crew, says that adding such offences to the list would be a useful way of tackling pickpocketing and street robbery, I argue that we ought to do so. I do not think that my argument has been seriously challengedthe Minister clearly needs more time to think about it. We want to vote on amendments Nos. 21 and 24.
Question put, That the amendment be made:
The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 9.
Division No. 2]
Amendment proposed, No. 24, in page 2, line 27, at end insert
The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 9.
Division No. 3]
Mr. Heald: On a point of order, Mr. Gale. The Minister said that guidance will be issued in respect of clause 6. Clause 3 says that the Secretary of State may specify by order the amount of the penalties and the form of the penalty notice. Has the Minister offered to tell the Committee, before we reach those clauses, what penalties are envisaged under the order-making power in clause 3 and what draft guidance he has in mind under clause 6? Is there any assurance that the Committee will be able to debate those matters with full knowledge of what is being proposed?
The Chairman: As the hon. Gentleman well knows, information provided by the Government is a matter for them, not for the Chair. I always take the view that the more information can be provided to both sides, the better. I am sure that the Government heard what he had to say.
Mr. Heald: I beg to move amendment No. 9, in page 2, line 36, leave out subsection (5) and insert
The amendment would provide for the entries in subsection (1) to be amended only by using the affirmative resolution procedure. The Minister kindly said before he left for his engagement that he was prepared to accept it. I welcome that important concession, but I have a couple of points for the Parliamentary Secretary.
The offences for which fixed penalty notices are suitable are at the bottom end of the scale and are not serious. We do not want administrative disposal of more serious cases, especially those involving crimes such as assault or the more serious public order offences, because of the effect on respect for the criminal justice system when slight measures are taken after serious offences. There could be a temptation to clear up offences by serving fixed penalty notices that do not involve large sums rather than making the defendant go to court. That would keep the prisons clearer. There would be advantages in some ways, but disadvantages in others. It is important to take a firm stance on law and order. The Government have not achieved that with measures such as their early release scheme for prisoners.
The use of devices to reduce the prison population or short-circuit the courts poses problems, not least because it would embolden the criminal and fail adequately to support the victim.
Previous Bills containing order-making powers have included such lists. I was involved in discussions on such a Bill last year, and I recall that, even as we were debating the offences to be included in the list, the Home Office had contacted other Departments to find out whether they wanted particular offences to be included under the order-making power at a later date. Has such an exercise occurred in respect of the sort of offences that are dealt with under subsection (1)? Has the Home Office contacted other Departments to find out whether they would like fixed penalty notices to apply to any offences?
The Association of Chief Officers of Probation said that it had doubts about including threatening behaviour and criminal damage. It also said that certain other offences, such as urinating in public and failure to have a television licence, should be included in the list because they are not particularly serious matters and they clog up the courts, so a simple disposal might suit them.
Has the Minister taken any steps to discover whether other Departments might want any other offences to be added to the list? Has he received representations from bodies other than ACOP suggesting offences that might be included? If so, what are the proposed offences, and why have they not been included?
Mr. Simon Hughes: I support the amendment and I am glad that, as the Minister said earlier, the Government are minded to accept it.
It is important in a controversial area such as this that, if a new offence is to be added to the list, it should be accompanied by a guarantee that it will first be debated and approved by both Houses. That is the purpose of the amendment, and it is sensible.
I tabled an amendment that was not selected: I am not criticising that decision because I understand that it would have come close to opposing the purpose of the clause, but it would have been better to have started with the principle and to have debated whether to extend the range of notices, and for the Government to have made specific proposals only after debate in both Chambers and in Committee.
There is a danger in this way of addressing the matter. The Government put a list on the table, albeit after some consultation, but it is a hit and miss list. It has been based on the principle of disorder, and therefore precludes, for example, the unlicensed activities that were discussed in the previous debate, the inclusion of which was supported by the hon. Members for North-East Hertfordshire and for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). I supported it, too.
It would have been better to have had a general debate about the principle and the criteria for the inclusion of offences. If hon. Members believed that the right process had been found, those criteria could have been applied. Then it would have been open to Ministers to make changes by way of secondary legislation that could have included one, five or 10 offences, which might have had more widespread parliamentary support.
I agree with the proposal of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire on television licences. In a crucial respect, it is different from urinating in public. Not everyone owns and uses a television. It is like driving: most people do it but it is not compulsory. If one decides to have a television, one opts into a system. That would be a better subject for fixed penalty notices. My colleagues and I believe that failing to buy a television licence should not be a criminal offence, because non-payment cases clog up the courts and the offence could be dealt with by civil penalties in the normal way. A halfway house would be a fixed penalty notice, which would be easier to operate and could involve cumulative fines and other penalties for non-compliance.
I support the general principle of the amendment and I am glad that the Government have said that they are likely to accept it. I hope that the Minister will be positive when he examines the proposals, specifically in relation to television licences. I realise that this is a cross-departmental issue but it would be helpful if that could be examined. Proposals to change the way in which we deal with such matters would be welcomed by the police, by the courts and by the public at large.
|©Parliamentary copyright 2001||Prepared 6 February 2001|