Standing Committee F
Tuesday 13 February 2001
[Mr. Jimmy Hood in the Chair]
Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough): On a point of order, Mr. Hood. I wish to draw the attention of the Committee to the events of last weekend, when more than 1,000 animal rights activists rampaged over four counties protesting about clients of Huntingdon Life Sciences and boasted to the Daily Mail that they were now organised like an army. Will you use your good offices to ensure that the Committee has adequate time to debate those parts of the Bill that will counter such urban terrorism?
The Chairman: I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order. She will be aware that, as always, all members of the Committee will receive adequate time to debate such matters. If she catches my eye when they are being discussed, I shall be only too pleased to call her to speak.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): On a point of order, Mr. Hood. It would be extremely helpful if the Committee received information from the Minister about three particular matters at an early stage. Has he told you when we may receive the details about the size of the penalty notices under clause 3, and information about the important guidance under clause 6 and the draft new clauses that deal with the Huntingdon Life Sciences issues, to which the hon. Lady referred?
The Chairman: The Minister has not such discussions with me. If he had, I would have advised the Committee of them.
Mr. Heald: I beg to move amendment No. 15, in page 3, line 11, at end insert
`(6)(a) Any person who, in connection with the giving of a penalty notice by a constable under this section, knowingly or recklessly gives that constable relevant information which is false in any material particular shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.
(b) In this subsection, ``relevant information'' means the name, address and date of birth of the person to whom the penalty notice is to be given.'.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hood. At our first sitting, when welcoming Mr. Gale to the Chair, we said that we knew that you, too, would deal with us firmly but in your usual charming and pleasant manner.
The amendment would create an offence of giving false particulars to an officer when a fixed penalty notice is being issued. Given the range of offences in clause 1, there must be a risk that the accused will give false particulars to the officer, such as the wrong address, date of birth and name. That already happens in public disorder incidents. The amendment is designed to deter such behaviour. It is difficult to identify individuals out on the street. The Justices' Clerks Society said that fixed penalties for motoring offences work well because the vehicle number plate and the driver's licence identify the offender. Those advantages would not apply with fixed penalty notices. It would be helpful to have the Minister's view on the likely risk of false details being given and the steps that he thinks should be in place to avoid that happening.
The Association of Chief Police Officers has also expressed worries about notices being issued in the street. It fears that offenders would be unlikely to co-operate with the police in such circumstances. We have only to consider the nature of the penalty offences to realise the risks of drunk, violent offenders being asked to co-operate and give certain details. Even if the police receive details from them, the question arises whether such information is reliable. Unless the offender is quiet and sober, he will have to be taken to the police stationbut if he is quiet and sober, he is unlikely to have committed an offence and been served with a fixed penalty notice. How could a police officer rely on the details that a person has given in the street without checking them at the police station?
In reply to the consultation, Sir Edward Crew, chief constable of West Midlands police, said:
``Without doubt the most significant area of concern expressed by colleagues was that the issue of Fixed Penalty Notices, as shown in the consultation paper, would mainly take place on the street. In view of the nature of offences likely to be covered by the . . . system, it seems more appropriate and likely that suspects would be arrested, and the FPN issued in custody as an alternative form of disposal. It would be inappropriate and highly unlikely, for example, that officers should issue tickets to those either drunk, violent, or both. Such offenders may not understand the consequences of a Fixed Penalty Notice and would be unlikely to co-operate with the officer or comply with the payment of the ticket once issued.''
The consultation paper also lacks detail about the custody process.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The Criminal Bar Association expressed similar anxieties. As we said in the first sitting, the association's response to the Government's proposals emphasised encapsulating the problem that disorderly drunks are, by definition, not in a fit state to be served with a legal document that has penal consequences.
Mr. Heald: That is correct. The Parliamentary Secretary almost conceded that serving a fixed penalty notice on someone who was obviously drunk or not in a quiet and sober condition would be impossible.
Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): The Opposition seem determined to push a one-size-fits-all approach for the police. The clause is intended to give the police choices. If the policeman is satisfied about the details given and the ability of the person involved to understand what is happening, he will issue a standard penalty. If not, he will take the person to the police station. Why are the Opposition against giving the police choice?
Mr. Heald: If the Opposition were making the point without support, I would have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman and it might be considered simply as part of the ebb and flow of party political debate. However, we are probing the Government and our case is that the ACPO, which is probably one of the most expert bodies on policing, says that offenders will be unlikely to co-operate with the officer involved.
The Opposition are not being unreasonable in suggesting that false details are a risk. Indeed, that point has also been made by the Justices' Clerks Society, which says that the matter is different in that context from motoring offences. The Police Federation itself is worried about the issue and wants Government guidance on what offences and incidents should be covered. Sadly, because the Bill is being rushed through the House at short notice and is being presented as a great plank of Government policy, even though little thought has gone into it, we do not have the draft guidance that the Minister himself has said three or four times is essential to understanding the provisions.
It is not entirely fair to suggest that this is a baseless attack. Our amendments are rooted in the expertise of the police service from top to bottom and we hope to receive answers that satisfy us. I do not believe that the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) would seriously suggest that a drunken youth committing threatening behaviour or a youth found drunk in the street is unlikely to say that he is called Mickey Mouse and lives at an address made famous by Tony Hancock. People do that already. We need a practical way of tackling that problem and the offence suggested in the amendment is one such way. We all wait with bated breath to hear what the Minister says about issuing notices on the street, given the real risk of false particulars being offered.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I am happy to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hoodfor the first time, I believe.
I apologise to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) for not having been here for the first few moments, but I anticipated his line of attack and am sympathetic to it, as he would expect. He is attempting to deal with what is the practical issue for most of the offences listed in the Bill. He is confronting the reality of life on the street, which we discussed last week, which is that most people confronted with an officer walking toward them would not hang around to receive a fixed penalty noticethey would scarper and would certainly not give their name. As I said last week, if I were in that situation I would certainly scarper and not give my name. Nobody is asking to be nicked and done; that is just not the real world.
Therefore, although I am sympathetic to the proposal, it compounds an unsatisfactory procedure with another unrealistic offence. We will get more offences on the statute book that are unlikely ever to achieve anything. Trying to find and then prosecute people who have no money and who are unlikely to be compliant strikes me as unsatisfactory. It would be far better to do as was implied both in suggestions from some police organisations and in our debate last week: not to give the police the choices for which the hon. Member for South Thanet was arguing, but to provide for fixed penalty notices to be issued at the police station. Pretty well all the offences are ones where people are likely to be antagonistic and reluctant to co-operate and give their name, but if the police manage to lay their fingers on someone's collar and get him into the police station there is a realistic chance of discovering who he is and giving him a fixed penalty notice.
Mrs. Brinton: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the National Association of Probation Officers that the majority of misdemeanours involve not an officer on the spot apprehending someone committing a crime but other individuals reporting information to the police? We should not continually talk about officers on the street nabbing people committing crime. Does he agree that we need to build into the process provisions to ensure that people are not reported on in their absence and discriminated against? NAPO mentions particular groupsgay men, black people and Irish peoplewho are already at risk. Should we not build in a provision to ensure that discrimination is not enshrined but removed?