Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hughes: The hon. Lady is right: the offences are not only alcohol related. I wish that the Government had sat down with Conservative and Liberal Democrat spokespeople and others to decide which offences would reasonably fall into this category. I am not against the principle of fixed penalty notices for the right offences, but most of the offences in the Bill are not the right ones. It might be reasonable to have fixed penalty notices for people misbehaving on the underground, but if we apprehend people in enclosed spaces, there could be a risk of their overreacting. I want to have an intelligent debate on such matters, but until the Government are willing to engage in it, carte blanche agreement to a list of offences, most of which raise severe practical problems, is inappropriate.

I hope that this is intended as a probing amendment, but it proposes a road of no return. People would be issued with a fixed penalty notice, and if they then gave a wrong name or resisted receiving it, both of which would be entirely understandable, that would be a criminal offence. That would be going in completely the wrong direction, and the sooner we can reduce fixed penalty notices to what can be properly dealt with and reasonably managed after some piloting, the better.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): I regard this as a probing amendment. I think that it highlights the dilemmas that surround the great extension of the use of fixed penalty notices. Obviously, to give people a fixed penalty notice, one needs their name and address, and especially in the cases of drunkenness and consumption of alcohol in a public place, there is a real risk that the police officer will be given false particulars. Plainly, without some check on that, officers will be left increasingly frustrated, and will use the power only in cases where they already know the name and address of an individual.

There is a real dilemma about whether we should add a further offence of giving a false name and address. I note that under section 5(2) of the Criminal Law Act 1967, it is an offence to waste police time or give false report. Does the Minister regard giving a false name and address in answer to a question to enable a constable to issue a fixed penalty notice as giving false report, or does that have to be at the initiative of the individual concerned, rather than in response to a request for information? If the provision has the wider meaning, an officer may be able to use it if a false name and address is given.

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The irony of such action is that it would enable another fixed penalty notice to be issued at the same time. Let us suppose that we want to enable the police station to become a mini police court and avoid the whole aspect of court procedure. If we were wedded to such an idea, that would not be wholly stupid. If, at the time when a person was issued with a fixed penalty notice, he put up his hands and it was discovered that he gave a false name and address, it will cost him a further £40, instead of the matter being taken in front of the magistrates court.

It has been rightly pointed out that the Prime Minister started a large number of hares by his suggestions that culminated in the Bill. At present, it lacks something if it gives the officer no opportunity to respond to a person who gives a false name and address and to issue proceedings again for such action. Consequently, I am inclined to support the amendment. It is certainly helpful and rightly teases out the proper issues, but I shall listen carefully to the Minister before I decide what action to take.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Like my right hon. and learned Friend, I am inclined to support the amendment. I listened with care to the arguments of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). He went through the agonies of someone who regarded the fixed penalty notice regime in proper policing as a red herring. We debated the offences for which fixed penalty notices will be issued when we discussed clause 1. We now have to wrestle with making the system work. It will not work without there being serious consequences for those whose automatic reaction when faced with a fixed penalty notice is to run away or give a false name and address and who are, in effect, negating the system by taking the actions to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

For the system to work, which is a departure for the police in how they deal with minor misdemeanours, it will have to be backed up by serious penalties for those people who are subject to it and then obstruct it. The amendment would do that. My only worry is that it refers to

    ``a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.''

Let us consider the experience in Holland, which has acquired an enormous reputation as a liberal country. The Association of Chief Police Officers said that when people do not pay the fines for street trading in Amsterdam,

    ``Non payment of FPNs in Amsterdam is punishable by an automatic 3 day custodial sentence and whilst this may seem draconian, it is essential that a FPN system is supported by rigorous enforcement to ensure that FPNs continue to be an effective deterrent.''

We shall come to what happens in cases of non-payment when we debate clause 4. Failing to give one's correct name and address is the same as seeking to escape the system by providing the police with false information. There should be an explicit penalty for obstructing the process; that should be clear and associated with the legislation that we are passing on fixed penalty notices.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) made a point about the link between giving false information to the police under other legislation. He is a lawyer but I am not, and I do not understand the detail of that point. I hope that the Minister will make it clear whether the legislation whereby people are deemed to commit an offence by failing to provide the police with proper information could be linked directly to these provisions. If there is no such link, or if there is any element of doubt about it, the penalty proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire should be in the Bill.

A level 3 fine might not be sufficient, however, because those who put their hands up to an offence punishable by a fixed penalty notice may thereby avoid the full panoply of a trial and criminal record. They should be subject to serious sanction if they muck about with the police. If people were not discouraged by the level 3 fine, they might waste police time by giving false information.

I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment or, if not, come back with a reworked version on Report.

Mr. Hawkins: I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hood. Like the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, I have not had the pleasure of serving on a Committee under your chairmanship before, but you were a distinguished leader of a parliamentary delegation to Gibraltar that I was on, so I know about your inspirational leadership.

I want to expound on the concerns expressed by the Criminal Bar Association. I declare my interest, as a member of the Bar. The association is worried about the implications of the matter, as are police officers at the sharp end.

[Mr Crispin Blunt in the Chair.]

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Blunt.

I want briefly to quote from an interview given by Fred Broughton, the chairman of the Police Federation, during consultation on the proposals that led to these provisions. I should mention that Fred Broughton consults widely and represents all serving police officers at the sharp end. Of people who have been issued with fixed penalty notices when drunk, he said that

    ``the following day, they may dispute their behaviour and allege the police acted wrongly. They may try and plead not guilty or propose to plead not guilty, leaving the officer involved reliant on notes and statements from witnesses. The fixed penalty ticket may be an addition to the set of papers that have already been issued . . . we need to test the practicalities of what has been suggested''.

Fred Broughton then commented on the Government's whole range of proposals as contained in the original consultation document:

    ``Fixed penalty notices, etc, are not going to work when we are given a bogus name and address. People who are under the influence of drink and drugs sometimes don't start to speak sensibly until hours after they have been arrested. So issuing them may not be ideal until we have a good system of identification in place.''

The Police Federation—the officers at the sharp end—does not think that the measures will work, and the Criminal Bar Association has severe reservations. I have referred already to the association's concern about disorderly drunks, who are

    ``by definition not in a fit state to be served with a legal document with penal consequences.''

The association continues:

    ``Whether the drunkenness is public or private, whether it is associated with other criminal conduct or not, it does not provide any sensible or fair opportunity for the issue of a penal Notice. Most parking tickets etc are not issued to anyone in person. When they are served personally—

in other words, when the owner of the car happens to return as the traffic warden or police officer is issuing the ticket—

    ``there is occasional unpleasantness for the issuer.''

We are all familiar with reports in the press of serious altercations between owners of vehicles and traffic wardens or police officers—it has been called ``parking rage''. Serious violence has been inflicted on traffic wardens, which has led to criminal prosecutions. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire says, fixed penalty tickets work for most motorists, because most are law abiding and accept them. However, even under the current system serious offences of violence can occur to those who issue the tickets.

The Criminal Bar Association continues:

    ``Drunk and/or disorderly persons are unlikely to be alone or compliant. They are likely to be offending in public, often crowded places. Notices take some few minutes to write and this is so even for a traffic warden who does not have to establish the identity of an individual in difficult circumstances.''

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire made the point that the police and traffic wardens can check the identity of the offender through the registration number or on the police national computer. Under the Government's proposals, an officer would have to check the identity on the spot. The Criminal Bar Association says:

    ``The issuing of a Notice might well aggravate a situation requiring fast action such as the speedy removal of offenders from a scene. This consideration is relevant to two stated aims of the scheme, namely to put an immediate stop to the conduct and to save police time''.

That is contained in the Government's consultation document. The association says:

    ``It would be unfortunate if the issuing of a Notice in itself created a situation in which further offences were committed and/or brought about further breaches of the peace.''

That brings us back to the relevant points raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. I would observe that it might be better if his constituency office were in a different place, given all the problems that he has described. Public drunkenness always contains the possibility of further offences, and one would not want the issuing of a notice to aggravate the position further.

The association asks:

    ``What are the consequences to be if a Notice is issued but subsequently ignored? . . . it is common knowledge that in some areas at some times only a percentage of parking tickets have been enforced. No doubt this was as a result of some form of cost/benefit or general resource problems. Non-enforcement of parking tickets is one thing. A scheme carrying with it any possibility of non-enforcement of Notices for criminal behaviour is quite another . . . Even assuming sobriety and compliance, how exactly are an individual's details to be verified in the street? It is not difficult to envisage a degree of farce, which will be compounded if the officer has to verify whether the individual has had any previous Notices . . . The individual would have to be warned of the consequences of non-provision of details. If the alternative is an arrest, there may well be issues arising by virtue of the Human Rights Act 1998.''

We believe that the Government have woefully underestimated the cost of implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998. We may return to the substantive issue of the power of arrest in a later debate.

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Prepared 13 February 2001