Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Charles Clarke: The hon. Gentleman has this fundamentally wrong, both in relation to the rail offences that he talked about and the kind of offences that he is talking about now. I have certainly seen CCTV footage of the most appalling offences. I saw one video at a station represented by my hon. Friend for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) when I visited him just before Christmas. The kinds of offences that he is describing would not conceivably be appropriate for fixed penalty notices. They are much more serious than that. The suggestion that we are trying to downgrade those kinds of offences, whether on the railway or in relation to the type of offence to which he referred, is completely wrong.

Mr. Hawkins: The problem for the Minister is how the law-abiding public and the media are going to perceive the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire pointed out, the way in which the Government approach this matter fits so neatly into the description given the memo, in which we were all interested, in which the Prime Minister said to the head of all his focus groups:

    ``I want to be associated with eye-catching initiatives, especially on law and order.''

This is one of these eye-catching initiatives. The Bill is full of gimmicks, but it will be perceived by the public as downgrading crimes. The Ministers know perfectly well that the press, in writing about this part of this Bill, have already portrayed it in that light. Those remarks is not coming just from the Opposition Benches, but from analysis of what the Government are up to.

Mr. Lock: Now that the hon. Gentleman knows that what he has said is not the case, and that guidance will be issued to ensure that it is not, will he give an assurance to the Committee that he will not take part in misleading the public or giving the wrong impression? I am sure that he would not want to be party to misleading the public about what the Bill is designed to do.

Mr. Hawkins: As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire rightly says, where is the guidance? We are not prepared to take the word of the Minister, or any Labour Minister. We want to see the guidance in advance, as do those who are commenting on these proposals. Only then will we be able to judge whether there is any substance to what has been said. We have seen the memo about the eye-catching initiatives, and we know that Ministers often live in a fantasy land, in which they can pretend that black is white, and that words means exactly the opposite of the natural meaning of the English language. On this occasion the Ministers cannot escape from the Prime Minister's own words—

    ``I want to be associated with eye-catching initiatives, especially on law and order.''

What on earth is the Bill if it is not one of those?

I share the serious concerns of the Criminal Bar Association and concern about the 10 issues that my hon. Friend has raised. The Government must reassure the public a great deal more. If we could see the guidance and matters were not being rushed through before an election—a forced timetable—the Bill might be much more serious.

5.45 pm

Mr. Lock: The Association of Chief Police Officers, writing to Sir Edward Crew, Chief Constable of West Midlands police, opened its response to the consultation paper by saying:

    ``I am delighted to see that the issue of Fixed Penalty Notices has been progressed so quickly, and I am pleased to be able to give you a response to the consultation paper on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers.

    The consultation paper largely mirrors the suggestions in my original paper, and having canvassed Chief Constables from across the country, I found broad support for the introduction of Fixed Penalties for low level disorder offences.''

I am sure that those who read the Official Report of this debate will notice the urging of caution—that this is not the right time—and Opposition Members will give all manner of reasons why they do not want to give the police officers the tools that they need and have asked for to do the job on the streets. The Government will give police those tools, and we could not have a greater endorsement than that the chief constables are thanking the Government—while, admittedly, drawing attention to certain details—for responding to their ideas.

Mr. Heald: The Minister knows that we support the principle of fixed penalty notices—[Laughter.] It is true. However, we are talking about the details.

Mr. Lock: I never talked about the details.

Mr. Heald: I want to ask the hon. Gentleman a question. He and his ministerial colleague have said that we will only be able to find out how the system will be administered when the guidance is published. When will the draft guidance appear?

Mr. Lock: I was going to deal with that. It is one of many issues that were raised, to which I shall try to respond. We shall attempt to publish draft guidance as quickly as possible.

I was asked about costs. A range of offenders are likely to be dealt with through fixed penalties. Some who would have gone to court will be dealt with by a fixed penalty, which will mean a considerable cost saving. Others, who would not have been processed or would have been cautioned will be subject to a fixed penalty. If we consider the overall balance of police time, the best estimate—from ACPO, not the Government—is that the introduction of fixed penalties will save the police considerable time and paperwork and considerable time in terms of attending court. We must remember that the police are subject to considerable delays when they are required to attend court. Any process whereby an offence can be marked, which stops a police officer having to attend court, frees up that officer to perform his duties on the street, which is where the public want him, and where most police officers want him. That is far to be preferred to having officers sitting in a magistrates court waiting to give evidence in a relatively minor criminal damage case.

Mr. Blunt: It is interesting that the Minister should finish by mentioning criminal damage. He has adduced ACPO in support of the proposals, but he ignored what ACPO said about the inclusion of criminal damage in the list of offences. He also ignored ACPO's plea to include non-notifiable offences such as street trading, which we discussed previously. In relation to costs, if the police will be saved court time, offences that are currently tried in court will be dealt with by the fixed penalty system. That gives weight to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath that the Bill degrades the punishments that people receive.

Mr. Lock: I will deal with the points raised during the course of my observations.

A point was made about IT systems. The existing IT systems in courts for dealing with fixed penalties will need some adaptation. In the magistrates court, a very large IT system, the LIBRA system, is presently being rolled out. The adaptations to those systems to deal with fixed penalties would not be nearly as great as if we had to start from scratch and introduce a new system for fixed penalties.

Mr. Heald: What will that cost?

Mr. Lock: I cannot give precise estimates as to cost at this stage, but I will endeavour to write to him with that information.

A number of points were made raised a number of points made about the Criminal Bar Association, and I can deal with those reasonably swiftly. First, it was suggested that drunks are not in a fit state to receive and understand a penalty notice. I understand that point, but the police are used to dealing with drunks, as part of their jobs—I have spent evenings with them, and have admired their professionalism in how they deal with people in various stages of inebriation.

People who are too drunk to understand that they are being given a fixed penalty notice—if what they were doing was an offence that could justly be dealt with by a fixed- notice—will, in practice, be arrested, as they would be for committing an offence in the first place. They will be taken to the police station, and sobered up. At the point at which they would either have been charged—and therefore processed through the court system—or cautioned, the police would have a third option of issuing a fixed penalty notice. I refer hon. Members to clause 2, to which I referred when I intervened on the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire, explaining how the fixed penalty notice can be issued in the police station. That is the answer to the first point.

Mr. Heald: Will the Minister be including that in the guidance?

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire cannot continually rise to his feet and intervene, without being called. If he wishes to intervene, he must ask the Minister to give way.

Mr. Heald: I apologise.

Mr. Lock: Thank you, Mr. Gale. I can say yes, those points will certainly be included in the guidance.

Mr. Simon Hughes: If the Minister does not know now, will he let us have figures showing the percentage of people who are currently charged with the relevant offences and plead guilty.

Mr. Lock: I am not sure that it is possible to answer that question. The exact way in which the power to impose fixed penalty notices will be used, and therefore the range of notices to which they will apply, will be matters for the discretion of police forces. Guidance will be issued, but as in any area we must respect the operational independence of the police. If the hon. Gentleman is asking, for example, how many of the people who come before the courts charged with criminal damage plead guilty, we could give him that figure, but not every case of criminal damage, would be suitably dealt with by a fixed penalty notice. It is impossible to say at the moment what proportion of the criminal damage cases that come before the courts would, in the police officers exercise of their operational independence, attract a fixed penalty notice. I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman those figures.

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Prepared 6 February 2001