Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hughes: That intervention raises a series of issues. The first is that at present railways and railway premises are policed by the British Transport police. I have received many complaints that that is not the sensible way to organise matters. It would be better if the railway track and grounds were policed by the local police, who are more likely to be able to manage recurrent problems than the transport police, who pass by only rarely. A wider issue is how we deal with trespass on railway lines and all the offences that happen in car parks owned by the railways. The transport police are never there, but the local police are often there. The responsibility should be properly transferred.

The second issue is the possibility that individuals will be inaccurately prosecuted—a group of youngsters, for example. We will debate later whether these measures should apply to the over-16s or over-18s, but a subjective view can be taken about whether a person is on railway ground. A group of people is seen near the railway line, the police arrive and give a fixed penalty notice to someone who may or may not have been there. Trespass comes under the same category of dangerous offence—in terms of accuracy about the defendant—as using threatening, abusive and insulting words. In some cases, it is obvious that someone is committing the offence, just as it may be obvious that someone is committing one of those other offences. We are being asked to approve a system in which a fixed penalty notice can be served for anything called trespass on a railway. That is too wide and dangerous a proposition and in the normal course of events it should be dealt with through the courts.

Jackie Ballard (Taunton): Is my hon. Friend aware of the reported occasions when hounds, in pursuit of a fox have strayed on to railway lines? In such an event, can he imagine who would be issued with a fixed penalty notice?

Mr. Lock: It should be the fox.

Mr. Hughes: I was not thinking of that example, but it is a proper point. If I were the Member for Taunton and my hon. Friend were the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey my mind would be more on hounds on the railway line. My hon. Friend says that it has happened. There are real issues there. It is important that people do not trespass on railway lines or anyway else where they could cause damage. Again, I take the view that if the matter is to be dealt with, it should be through the normal court process in the normal way.

Mr. Hawkins: I was about to put to the hon. Gentleman a point about trespass on the railway. First, however, I must ensure that the Minister's sedentary response to the query posed by the hon. Member for Taunton is recorded for posterity. He said that the fox should receive the fixed penalty notice. I hope that that goes into the Official Report.

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that in many constituencies, including mine, there have been repeated and serious trespasses by youths throwing large rocks at trains, which poses a huge danger to railway staff, drivers, ticket collectors and passengers. Three weeks ago, one of my borough councillors was on a well-lit train at night. He was clearly visible to yobs on the land next to the railway, who were throwing rocks at the train. He was shocked to discover, on raising the matter with the station staff when he got off the train at the next station, that the windows of the previous train had been broken but that nothing had been done about it because of the lack of resources in the transport and local police. The attack by yobs on one train was sufficient to take it out of service but, despite the clear risk to life and limb, nothing had been done. Does that not reinforce the hon. Gentleman's argument?

5 pm

Mr. Hughes: Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that many acts of damage and criminal offences on railways are committed not by people trespassing on railway lines, but by those who walk lawfully on bridges, roads and footpaths, from which they throw bricks and boulders. There have been many reported incidents of people dropping things from bridges, causing terrible accidents on the railway.

In my constituency, there have been recent examples of people attacking buses and other forms of public transport with missiles such as rocks and bricks. That reinforces my view that those offences should be dealt with by proper criminal process. If they are serious, as in the example given by the hon. Gentleman, the police should be on the spot where it has happened before at a time when they expect that it may happen again. They should be keeping watch and using intelligence, as part of good policing. The people who have done such a thing should not merely be given a piece of paper, as that hardly reinforces their awareness of the severity of what they have done in putting lives at risk. Those people should be nicked, charged and taken to court and, if necessary, they should be locked up.

The subsection contains a motley collection of offences, some of which are far too serious to become fixed penalty notices and should be dealt with in the normal way, and some of which do not lend themselves to the process of the fixed penalty notice. Drunken people or people behaving in a disorderly way may be the victims of a subjective judgment in the first place, an inability to assess intention in the second place, and confusion as to who was or was not committing the offence in the third place.

The system outlined in the clause will penalise more the relatively poor and less educated and those less able to cope. It is bound to be like that. If those who have little money do not pay, the penalty will clock up—the fine will increase and they will get into more difficulty. They will become enmeshed in the system when the matter could have been dealt with properly by an arrest and a caution, or an arrest and proper disposal in the local court. The system will also take money from activities on which they need to spend, such as looking after their kids. Hooray Henrys will not be disadvantaged by the Bill. They come out in bow ties and dinner suits and lark around, but they can pay up tomorrow. The policy is not consistent with the supposed Government intention to create social inclusion rather than exclusion. This is not joined-up government.

In many cases, it will be difficult to adjudicate whether the offence was committed and the fixed penalty notice issued. Many people may dispute receipt of such a notice—just as people often dispute a parking ticket when it is put on the windscreen of a car. They say, ``I never saw it, it wasn't there.'' There will be far more disputes if a police officer tries to give the notice to someone who refuses to accept it. That is why the Prime Minister's wonderful idea of marching people off to the cashpoint was so barmy. If he had thought for two seconds before he uttered it, he would have realised what a barmy idea it was.

Will the Minister tell us whether the number of fines and the sum collected from fixed penalty notices has risen in the past five, 10, 15 or 20 years—not only because the penalty has increased but because more people have committed those offences? If the answer is yes, the evidence does not support the argument that the measure will provide a wonderful deterrent. There is no evidence that fixed penalty notices and their multiplication act as a deterrent. They simply become a replacement for penalties, many of which are not paid. It does not help to uphold the criminal justice system if one can escape unpaid fines.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): Does the hon. Gentleman have evidence to support that? There are surely other explanations. To take a simple example, the figures on cases of domestic violence or rape show dramatic rises in recent years, but that suggests not that the penalties are wrong but that different things are happening in society. I wonder what the evidence is to support the assertion that fixed penalty fines have that impact.

Mr. Hughes: To be fair, I was not drawing that conclusion but asking the question. I have noticed, from what I have read and seen, that the number of fixed penalty notices continues to rise, as does the number of uncollected fines, so it might be reasonable to assume that they are not as great a deterrent as people think. There are of course other factors, as the hon. Gentleman says.

The system lays down that if one can pay, one does not get a criminal record, but if one cannot, one does. What sort of justice system is that? It is an arbitrary, unfair system that picks on the more disadvantaged people from the outset, with no prospect of change. The person with no money is bound to be in a disadvantaged position. I am surprised that a Labour Government—although few things now surprise me about a Labour Government—with any commitment to Labour's traditional principles believe that that is part of an agenda of equality. I believed that they were committed to achieving equality as part of their original commitment to social justice.

Mr. Hawkins: Surely the hon. Gentleman did not believe all that.

Mr. Hughes: When I was a teenager, I did, but then Harold Wilson came to power and I was soon disabused of the notion—and have not believed it since.

I wholeheartedly endorse the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. What evidence is there to show that paperwork will not increase, that the police will not be committed to bureaucratic follow-up procedures or that it will relieve pressure on police time? There is no such evidence. The proposal is much more likely to do the opposite, in which case it gives no advantages to the police, although ACPO supports it, because the police obviously want more powers; generally, they want as many powers as possible. I have never heard police officers saying that they wanted fewer powers. It is the police's job to have as many powers as possible, so ACPO's support is not an overwhelmingly objective one. We should ask the view of the public, rather than of the police.

Because the Government will want the legislation to work, there will be no likelihood of increased pressure on the police to deliver fixed penalty notices. I echo the question of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath: is that really what we want the police to be doing, when serious offences are not being dealt with? The public believe that there are other ways of dealing with such offences and they want the police to deal with serious offences and persistent offenders, and the court system to ensure that the individual, particularly the recurrent offender, is dealt with properly. When my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton and I visit any prison and talk to any prison governor, we are told that the same people keep on coming round again. The system is geared to that—and the richer one is, the more willing one will be to come round again. Such offenders are happy to get a parking fine in the same place day after day. There is no deterrent effect.

The proposal is unproven and is a distraction from the main issues—it is a bauble in the shop window of a party with an election in the offing. We would do far better to get shot of it and start again. If the Minister wants to propose a workable trial for such offences, with agreement across the three parties, let that be done—but not when the majority of the public, on opinion poll evidence, are against such a proposal, and when there is great scepticism about it, not only among Opposition Members but in some parts of the Labour party and certainly among many members of the public.

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Prepared 6 February 2001