Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Lock: The hon. Gentleman has frequently alleged that the Government the Government underestimated the cost of the implementation of the Human Rights Act. To allow us to understand whether that is political rhetoric or something of substance, will he tell us his estimate of the likely true cost, if it is not the same as the Government's? Does he have evidence of the cost being in excess of the Government's estimate? As he knows, the evidence to date is that the additional work in the courts is substantially lower than we estimated.

[Mr. Jimmy Hood in the Chair]

11.15 am

Mr. Hawkins: I know that you will stop me if I stray too far beyond the terms of the amendment, Mr. Hood. However, I must try to give one answer with which the Minister will be familiar. I and my hon. Friends have said repeatedly during Question Time in the Chamber that the Government certainly did not incorporate in their predictions the huge apparent cost of the modification of a huge number of magistrates courts. Home Office officials are suggesting to local magistrates court committees that, because of the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998, there will have to be a huge programme of works. It is suggested that there is something degrading about an offender in custody's being seen by members of the public. That has been highlighted in the national press, and has been raised on several occasions by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson). That is one example, of which I could give hundreds, but, Mr. Hood, you would not want me to take up the Committee's time in doing so.

This is a problem that the Government have created. The Prime Minister's obsession with so-called eye-catching initiatives has ended up as a half-baked scheme that is not so much eye-catching as eyewash.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): Forty-six minutes into this morning's debate, I, too, welcome you, Mr. Hood, as Chairman of the Committee. You have already had a brief summary of the way in which our business is being conducted. I want to respond to several points.

The opposition in principle to the proposals has been set out most clearly by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. I want to respond to his point about consultation. If I may draw the Committee's attention to the matter, we published a consultation document in September 2000. Paragraphs 9 and 10 of that consultation document answered the question of what offences involving disorder should be covered by the fixed penalty system, and listed them in detail. Paragraph 19 of that consultation document says:

    ``The Government would welcome comments on the following questions''.

It lists them again and gives the name and address of an official at the Home Office to whom details can be sent.

I have a list of organisations that responded. There were 111—which those of us from Norfolk refer to as a Nelson—including the main professional organisations to which reference has been made, a range of trade organisations, a range of police organisations, a range of legal organisations and a range of councils and probation services. It is a comprehensive list, but the Liberal Democrats do not feature in it. Why? I do not know. An open and public consultation took place, and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey could have responded if he had thought it appropriate. He decided not to do so. The hon. Gentleman made it clear in the clause 1 stand part debate that he was against such penalties in principle. I was grateful that, in his intervention, the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) confirmed that he was also totally opposed in principle to such penalties. The official Opposition and Liberal Democrats voted against clause 1 stand part. The Opposition Whip, in his intervention, confirmed that the Opposition are in principle opposed to the use of the fixed penalty notice.

Mr. Heald: As the Minister knows only too well, the Opposition have made it clear throughout that they are in favour of the principle. During the stand part debate, I made it clear that, in the event that the proposals with which we disagreed were voted down, we would table a new clause on Report to reinstate fixed penalty notices, but with the necessary safeguards.

Mr. Clarke: I heard the hon. Gentleman, but Hansard will bear out that the Opposition Whip made it clear that he was opposed in principle to fixed penalty notices.

Mr. Gray: As I was not present, I did not hear the reference to me. If I indeed erred—we shall find out tomorrow when we read the record—I did not intend to suggest that I oppose the principle of fixed penalty notices. I am certainly not qualified to speak for Her Majesty's loyal Opposition. I speak merely as a Back Bencher. I wholeheartedly favour fixed penalty notices; it is the means by which they are applied that we are trying to correct in Committee. I hope that I did not mislead the Minister.

Mr. Clarke: I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying his position on the matter. I was referring to the speech of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and the intervention that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire made on that speech. I may have misunderstood that intervention, and I am grateful for that clarification. The fact that the official Opposition voted against clause 1 will remain on record.

Mr. Hughes: I do not understand why the Minister misunderstands, or misrepresents, the matter. Fixed penalty notices are the proper response to some activities, as I said last week. However, as I said then, most of those listed are not among them.

Mr. Clarke: In the debate on clause 1, the hon. Gentleman correctly went through the offences, explaining that the proposal was either too heavy or not heavy enough in each category and explaining his party's position. Although I did not agree with his party's position, I thought that he explained it clearly. He also suggested some offences to which he would be prepared for fixed penalty notices to apply. However, he made it clear that the reason behind his voting on clause 1 stand part was that he did not agree with the offences specified in clause 1. My observation on his observation on consultation is that a consultation was held, to which the Liberal Democrats did not respond.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I am sure that the Minister understands, but we should have on record whether he agrees that people's view on the principle of the Bill is expressed on Second Reading. How one or more Members or an Opposition party vote on a clause in the stand part debate does not necessarily relate to whether they oppose the clause in principle. They may well vote against the clause standing part because they believe that it ineffectively achieves what it is intended to do or has other undesirable aspects.

Mr. Clarke: I understand that point, and I am sure that when the Conservative party's position is explained to John Humphrys on the ``Today'' programme, the subtleties of that will come through. I was struck by the fact that in the clause 1 stand part debate the Liberal Democrat spokesman clearly explained his position and the reasons for it, and subsequently decided to vote against the clause, and the official Opposition decided, in what I thought was a spirit of me-tooism, to join the Liberal Democrats in that Lobby in that debate for no clear reason in principle. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire made his usual fluent and effective defence of what was effectively an indefensible position.

Mr. Heald: The Minister will recall that, following ACPO's suggestion, we did not want criminal damage to be included in that clause. The Minister failed to meet our demands on that. He subsequently made the concession that fixed penalty notices would not be issued in cases of criminal damage that involved a direct victim. Does he agree that what we did worked?

Mr. Clarke: The position that I stated was the position that we had taken throughout—but enough of such party politics.

Mr. Blunt: On a point of order, Mr. Hood. I am glad that the Minister has finally said that we had had enough of such party politics. You will be aware of directions from Mr. Speaker in the Chamber about the propensity of Ministers to talk about the official Opposition's policies. We have had a rather lengthy discourse from the Minister about the Conservative party's position on clause 1 and what we meant by voting against it, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire had to explain the Conservative party's position. Would it be possible, bearing in mind Mr. Speaker's guidance, for guidance to be given about whether Ministers should confine themselves to their own responsibilities rather than discussing those of Her Majesty's Opposition?

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman will know that I always take Mr. Speaker's guidance, and had the Minister been out of order, I would have told him so.

Mr. Clarke: Thus far, I have been speaking for eight minutes, and the previous 46 minutes were taken up almost entirely by Opposition Members. Indeed, a significant part of my eight minutes has been taken up by interventions, and I am now trying to deal with the various points made in the debate, which some may consider to have run widely.

The issue of discrimination raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is obviously important in all conduct of police business. We do not believe that it is exacerbated by the availability of fixed penalty notices. The right to trial remains completely without qualification; the fixed penalty notice is not a coercive power. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion—I think I am paraphrasing him correctly—that someone will be repeatedly picked on if the police do not like him is unsubstantiated; there is no evidence that the existence of the fixed penalty notice exacerbates those powers in any respect.

On criminal records, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the payment of the fixed penalty notice leads to no criminal record. If the hon. Gentleman wants to reduce the number of criminal records, he should be supporting our fixed penalty notice legislation. Indeed, one reason for the fixed penalty notice from its inception was to make the whole justice process more rapid and effective, in a way that means fewer criminal records, although never taking away the right of individuals to go to court if they so wish.

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Prepared 13 February 2001