Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: I endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey.

Even under the Minister's much vaunted new scheme involving reprimands and final warnings, the most important aspect of the matter for the victim is the compensation payment. A case of criminal damage occurred recently in my constituency. I note that the victim of the tragedy that happened in the Minister's constituency lived near to him, and in this case also the victim of the offence lived quite close to my home. The most important aspect of the matter is relevant to the reprimand and final warning case. The prosecution agreed that such a disposal was appropriate only because compensation was being paid. That was part and parcel of the Government's new system.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire that we shall need a lot of persuading that it is right for compensation to be lost from the procedure for dealing with criminal damage. From my recent experience—including one or two matters that I have taken on a pro bono basis—and from discussions with Victim Support, which other Members may also have had, I know that the main thing that many people want to know, especially in cases involving criminal damage, is whether they will be compensated in full. I hope that the Minister will be as helpful as he was on the previous amendment, and say that he still has an open mind. If victims are important and Victim Support is an important organisation, which I suspect is common ground in the Committee, the compensation element must be retained.

Mr. McCabe: I have considerable sympathy with the views expressed by the hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and for North-East Hertfordshire. It would be a mistake if people who, under normal circumstances, were entitled to criminal compensation found themselves deprived. The amendments are defective and hold some dangers. They would further extend the powers of the police—a matter that caused concern earlier. We would be asking them not only to impose a fixed penalty but to determine compensation. That would be both difficult and impractical, given that the fixed penalty would most likely be administered shortly after the offence. In addition, it may be necessary to assess the extent of the damages, so the actual cost of the damage could not be known at the time.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the issues raised to see whether there is another mechanism by which we can ensure that the victims do not lose the right to compensation, which would be an unintended consequence of the clause.

Mr. Charles Clarke: The amendments would make compensation payable to victims of criminal damage through penalty notices. I will not dwell on the technical issues.

The most effective way to ensure that victims of criminal damage have the ability to gain compensation is by the assurances that I have given, which I hope satisfy the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. I would have given those assurances whether or not the amendment—which is perfectly well-meaning—had been moved. The guidance that we publish for the consideration of the Committee will state that where a person can be identified as a victim, no penalty notice should be issued. If somebody can be clearly identified as the victim of the act, a fixed penalty notice will not be used. Following on from that, penalty notices should be reserved for cases in which the victims are unknown or are corporate bodies unlikely to seek compensation in minor cases. I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that that is at least as a good a way of achieving his purpose as the amendment.

Corporate victims or public authorities that wish to discuss the implications of the scheme in relation to damage to their property—for example, if the local authority wants to deal with a problem with rubbish bins—will find that the crime and disorder partnerships will provide an excellent forum for local discussions. That is the most effective way of dealing with the situation.

Particular aspects of the amendments would ask a great deal of the police officer dealing with such a case for the reasons set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe). If they were given the duty of setting the compensation, it is possible that the police officers could be laid open to the risk of false allegations of corruption. Additional bureaucracy would result from the need to record victims' names and compensation amounts. If there were disputes, there would be a good deal of disagreement and difficult.

The setting of compensation is properly a matter for the courts. The guidance—I give the assurance again—will ensure that fixed penalty notices are not used in cases when there is an identifiable victim, but only in cases when victims are unknown or when they are corporate bodies unlikely to seek compensation in minor cases.

I hope that my assurances are satisfactory and that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Heald: The Minister has gone a long way to meeting our worries on compensation, although we shall want to see the draft guidance when it is ready. His assurances are welcome. It is something of a triumph for the Opposition to have got this far—although we always want to go further, so he must not be too confident. We may want to return to the matter on Report if we are not happy with the guidance. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Seven o'clock till Tuesday 13 February at half-past Ten o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Gale, Mr. (Chairman)
Ballard, Jackie
Blunt, Mr.
Brinton, Mrs.
Clark, Mr. Paul
Clarke, Mr. Charles
Gray, Mr.
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Hawkins, Mr.
Heald, Mr.
Hughes, Mr. Simon
Humble, Mrs.
Ladyman, Dr.
Lock, Mr.
Lyell, Sir Nicholas
McCabe, Mr.
Smith, Miss Geraldine
Sutcliffe, Mr.
Thomas, Mr. Gareth R.

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Prepared 6 February 2001