Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hughes: The hon. Lady makes a good point, which is certainly supported by the professional body to which she refers, and is an argument in favour of having the procedure dealt with at the police station. It would be even more nonsensical for people to be served with a fixed penalty notice on the street on the basis of information, without any direct police observation of the offence. There are many hoax calls; youngsters will often suggest that someone else is creating trouble, and some will willingly allow others to be caught for serious crimes. The police regularly receive false information on who committed an offence.

The proper conclusion is that if we are to have fixed penalties, they should be imposed either where the vehicle, bicycle, litter or dog poo is—where there is something visible, which can be linked to an individual—or they should not be served in the street. The process should at least be carried out in the police station, where there are proper control procedures and there is not the same risk of getting the person or the procedure wrong.

10.45 am

Dr. Ladyman: I have no doubt that most penalty tickets will be issued at the police station, as the police will decide that that is the only sensible thing to do. There will be circumstances, however, in which the policeman recognises the individual and it is appropriate to administer the fixed penalty ticket on the street there and then—the modern equivalent of a clip round the ear. Why should we not give the police that choice when it is appropriate?

Mr. Hughes: Because we have not piloted the scheme; most of the offences are not conducive to it; it has the wrong bureaucratic procedure following it; justice should be administered in the courts, not on the street; and it is disadvantageous to people on low incomes and of low intelligence and ability—all the reasons that I have used to argue against the process as a whole. I do not want the police, on an unpiloted, untested and untried scheme, to have that new power. They do not need it, it would not help them, and, by and large, it provides additional opportunities for bureaucracy. It puts the cart before the horse—the whole thing is the wrong way round.

The presumption should be that there would be a trial of the case, if there is a charge, and normal due criminal process. I would be much more favourably disposed to a system that then allowed people to opt for fixed penalty options. If the hon. Gentleman were charged, in the normal way, with being disorderly in the street, he would usually be taken to court. He could then ask for the matter to be dealt with by fixed penalty notice and fine. That would be much quicker and shorter, but it should be at his instigation, not that of the police.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): What the hon. Gentleman says about most fixed penalty notices being dished out at the police station is of eminently good sense. It is supported by the police organisations, and is broadly the purpose of the clause. None the less, the amendment is not about fixed penalty notices dished out at the police station, as by and large people will by then be sober and giving the correct information. It is about penalty notices dished out on the spot in the middle of the night. The Prime Minister, memorably, said:

    ``There should be on-the-spot fines for those people who engage in disorderly conduct . . . summary justice, on the spot, is the essence of the proposal.''—[Official Report, 5 July 2000; Vol. 353, c. 323.]

We consider that a bad principle, but that is what we are discussing. Under the amendment, if an on-the-spot fine were given to a drunkard the night before, and he gave false information to the police, he would be criminally liable.

Mr. Hughes: I understand that, but it compounds the problem. If the hon. Gentleman had had a few too many, and was going home through the middle of Chippenham on a Friday night—which I am sure has not happened once in his whole career—he might not be overly keen, for all the reasons given, and not least because he is the constituency Member, to volunteer his correct name. There are many examples of people, in high office and low, who do not immediately volunteer their correct name. If a person is pissed—let us be crude and straight about this—he is much less likely to volunteer his correct name. He is likely to see it as a bit of a laugh and a joke and try to get out of it in all sorts of ways. If he is 18 and pissed, he would not normally volunteer his correct name. If a person is extremely pissed, he is probably incapable of giving his address.

The reality is that this species of criminal procedure is likely to be targeted on people who probably do not have much money, or who are likely to be disadvantaged. Those are the people who are likely to be charged with a further offence, making them more and more criminal, although the purpose of the fixed penalty notice is that it is not a criminal but a civil penalty procedure. The hon. Gentleman's perfectly reasonable suggestion for perfectly reasonable people behaving in a perfectly reasonable way when they are stone cold sober would make them criminals if they refused to give their name and address, which refusing to accept the fixed penalty notice would not do. I understand his point of view, but it will make a bad position eminently worse, and more people will have criminal records The Government's aim seems to be that lots of people should have criminal records and that everyone's DNA samples should be kept. That is not my aim: I want fewer people with criminal records and as many people as possible to be disposed of in a way that does not involve the criminal justice system.

Mr. Gray: An example has sprung to mind, although I give it hesitantly. There was a well-known case of a young drunken yob being arrested not so long ago in Leicester Square, who gave his name as Euan Cameron and failed to give his last name. That is a good example of the kind of thing that we have in mind.

Mr. Hughes: The hon. Gentleman gave the example that I assume we all had in mind. I am sure that Euan Blair is a perfectly decent young bloke, who is growing up in difficult circumstances, as his father is the Prime Minister and his mother is also well known. It must be dire for him—the poor bloke's liberty must be restricted more than anyone else's in the country. I am sorry for him and wish him all the best, and do not blame him in the slightest for not wanting to own up to who he was. As it happens, he is under 18, but I would not blame him for making the same decision if he were over 18, just as I would not blame Prince William if he went out on a stag night while he was at St. Andrews—should the law apply in Scotland—and did not want to own up to who he was. I would not want to do so myself, and most sane, sober people, waking up in the morning, would not think that it was a good idea.

We should not make laws for a ridiculous, authoritarian, unbelieving, unreal world. We should concentrate on useful proposals for real reform of the criminal justice system, and not entertain such ridiculous ideas, which are drawn from the speech made by the Prime Minister when he tried to think up two easy, good ideas before breakfast.

Mr. Heald: Listening to the hon. Gentleman, I am reminded of what the Prime Minister said. He said:

    ``Bizarrely, as the law stands, the police have the power in Britain to levy on-the-spot fines for cycling on the pavement and dog fouling. And yet they have to deal with drunks who get offensive and loutish and often can do nothing about it without a long, expensive process''.

Does the hon. Gentleman think that handing out these notices is at all akin to the process for cyclists on pavements and dog fouling? Is there not an essential difference between the type of offence and the sort of situation in which those notices would be given? Most people who cycle on pavements and do dog fouling—or, at least, their dogs do it—are not necessarily drunk, angry and in a confrontational frame of mind.

Mr. Hughes: I agree entirely. We are approaching the issue in the wrong way. People are often drunk on the step of my constituency office in Bermondsey, because it is in a building owned by the Methodist Church, which runs various good projects that include a weekly Alcoholics Anonymous session. Dealing with a bloke curled up with his cans of lager by giving him a fixed penalty notice would be barmy. One needs to deal with his alcohol problem, not give him a fine.

Those who are regular offenders in the street and drink too much cannot be dealt with by such notices. They would simply build up a dialogue with the law, which is not helpful to anyone and does not deal with the causes of crime and misbehaviour. I agree that we should identify the offences that can be dealt with properly through that process, such as offences connected to vehicles. Cars normally have number plates and are of a specific colour and model, and most people are on the list of the vehicle registration system, so they are easy to track down. That is not the case with the offences that we have been discussing.

The system lends itself to abuse and contains the risk that police would regularly target people if they did not like them. Most police officers are brilliant, but some are not, and I would be cautious about giving the police powers that allow them to pick on the same people all the time, without allowing those people the possibility of a fair hearing.

Mrs. Brinton: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as with other topics that we discussed last week, we are perhaps in danger of falling prey to tunnel vision by interpreting the use of fixed penalty notices as a drunks charter? Especially with the age group that we are discussing, I have observed instances when I could put hand on heart and say that not a drop of alcohol has been touched, but disorderly and unsuitable behaviour has still occurred. A couple of days ago, I observed an incident of charging and harassment on the London underground that was in danger of causing a stoppage. Does he agree that we should widen our discussion from abuse of alcohol?

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Prepared 13 February 2001