Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Sir Nicholas Lyell: For clarification, is the fact that someone has paid a fixed penalty notice recorded in any way; and if so, is it open for that fact to be referred to in future court proceedings for other offences?

Mr. Clarke: We debated that at length during our previous sitting. The fact is that we do not have a comprehensive national system of recording fixed penalty notices, but we expect individual forces to hold records of what has happened. However, that is not a criminal record, and so does not stand on the record in the way that the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggests.

Let us get back to the amendment. We have spent a lot of time hearing interventions from Conservative Committee members in what was nevertheless a serious debate. Identity problems are nothing new—that is self-evident—and the police have a great deal of experience with dealing them. The amendment concerns the remedies available should false identification be provided, as was stated by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who made a speech that was to the point. The Government's position is that correct identification details are essential to the efficient operation of the new system, as they are in every aspect of police rights across the system.

Obviously, not every offender engaged in disorderly or anti-social behaviour will volunteer correct information when first asked, whether because of particular circumstances such as those adduced or because they take the advice of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that when approached by a police officer, the best thing to do is to leg it. For that reason, we have a range of safeguards to deal with the problem, and our considered view is that the safeguards that I shall now cite make the creation of the new offence unnecessary. However, I take seriously the points that the hon. Member for Reigate made so clearly. I hope that he will consider carefully what I am about to say about the specific safeguards.

The Bill includes a power for the Secretary of State to issue guidance to the police about the issue of notices and the exercise of discretion under the new scheme. I should clarify—this may offer an assurance to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire—that we intend to issue guidance making it absolutely clear that penalty notices should not be issued while identification is in doubt, for exactly the reasons stated and as is general practice, and that powers are available under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to arrest offenders and take them to a police station for identification to be established. I believe that that meets the point made by the Association of Chief Police Officers, and I can give a further assurance that ACPO will be fully involved in the drawing up of such guidance.

We believe that the deliberate telling of a lie to a police officer in these circumstances could constitute an offence of wilfully obstructing a constable in the execution of his duty under section 89(2) of the Police Act 1996. I say to the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire that that offence is a more accurate description of the sanction than wasting police time, although it does offer an alternative route. Giving false information to the police is a serious matter and it is not unique to the fixed penalty notice.

11.30 am

If a penalty notice were completed with false particulars about the offender, they will relate probably to a person unconnected with the offence. If so, the first that that person is likely to know about the matter is when he receives a notice informing him that a fine has been registered against him. We have included special provision under clause 12 to deal with such a situation. A default court considering such a case will have the power to adjourn to allow the claim that the named person did not commit the offence to be investigated. It will then have to accept the claim, unless the contrary can be shown, and has the power to set aside the fine in the interests of justice. If it does not direct that no further action is to be taken, it must direct that further consideration is given to the case, as appropriate. That might include steps being taken against the offender who committed the penalty offence.

If a juvenile offender falsely claims to be more than 18 years old and, as a consequence, is issued with a penalty notice, the notice will be void and, provided that the offender is informed of that—and why—and any payment is returned, it will be possible to deal with the juvenile for the offence in any way that would have been available had the notice not been issued.

The four safeguards in the Bill are the guidance that will be issued; the fact that powers under the Police Act 1996 can be used; the procedure under clause 12 to deal with false particulars; and the provisions to deal with the possibility that a youth offender claims falsely to be over 18. They provide sufficient ways in which to handle the provision of false particulars. A further offence will not be necessary.

Mr. Blunt: The problem with the Minister's explanation arose when he said that such powers could relate to section 89(2) of the Police Act 1996. It would have been better if he had used the word ``would''. When a police officer is trying to obtain details for the issue of a fixed penalty notice, such action should be linked explicitly to section 89(2) of the Act, so it would be clear to the courts that the offender

    ``wilfully obstructs a constable in the execution of his duty''.

He said ``could'', not ``would'', but that risk should not be taken.

I am worried about the Secretary of State's guidance, to which the Minister referred. We have not seen the details of that guidance and it will be difficult for us to debate clause 6 without them. He said that the guidance will include the provision that no fixed penalty notice shall be given when identification is in doubt. Well, if that is to be the standard practice, fixed penalties will never be issued.

Let us suppose that someone is wandering around with a wallet that he nicked from someone and is able to produce a driver's licence or some other identification that was not his. Unless the same standards of proof are demanded as would be obtained from photo-identity cards to establish correct identification, in almost all circumstances fixed penalty notices will not be handed out. It is unlikely that people in those circumstances will be carrying such identification, so the system will not work. There will have to be an element of doubt. The police will have to make a judgment.

Mr. Clarke: I undertook last Tuesday to do my best to ensure that the Committee has the draft guidance before it rises. That is my intention and I take this opportunity to reiterate it.

On the point about ``could'' or ``would'', the reason that I said ``could'' is that I am not a judge, and I hope never will be, and it is not for me to pre-empt the decision of a court on whether the Police Act 1996 has been breached. The power in the Act, which refers to someone who

    ``wilfully obstructs a constable in the execution of his duty''

is rightly widely drawn, to give the courts proper discretion to deal with particular circumstances. The Government consider that failure to co-operate with a police officer in relation to fixed penalty notices would be something that a court could consider in that context, but it is not for me as a Minister to prejudge the court's decision.

Mr. Hughes: Am I right in thinking that all the ways of dealing with non-compliance, whether as proposed in the amendment or in the ways that the Minister described, would produce a criminal offence and a criminal record? If so, have the Government made any assessment of how many additional criminal offences are likely to flow in any year from the operation of the fixed penalty notice system?

Mr. Clarke: We have not made such an assessment because, unlike the hon. Gentleman, I believe that the incidents that we are discussing will not happen a great deal. It is impossible to predict exactly what will happen. On the question of criminal offences, if one

    ``wilfully obstructs a constable in the execution of his duty'',

that is a criminal offence. I am not sure whether the other measures are criminal offences, but I shall return to that later, if I may, rather than giving an off-the-cuff answer.

I urge the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Heald: We have had a good debate, and the Minister has tried to reassure us, but we remain concerned on several grounds. First, yes, there will be guidance; yes, the Minister has told us what will be in it; and yes, he tells us that we will have it before the Committee rises. What sort of help is that? We need the guidance before we discuss the clauses to which it is relevant. It is not good enough to say that we will have it on the last day. Why cannot we have it now?

Secondly, although I accept the Minister's assurance that he will do his best to cover the point in the guidance, until we have seen the detail, that is no replacement for the law, which is what the clauses deal with.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: The Minister reaffirmed today that we are not sitting next week. Would it not be reasonable to ask him to provide the guidance before the start of our sitting the week after that?

Mr. Heald: That is a very sensible suggestion. I do not know whether the Minister will intervene at some point to tell us his exact timetable. If we received the guidance on the morning of 8 March, that would be a pointless exercise—useful on Report, but not in Committee.

The Minister may well be right to say that the offence under section 89(2) of the Police Act 1996 would cover some relevant situations, but I was not convinced that even he was convinced that it would necessarily cover them all. I know that in other recent Bills the Government have thought it necessary to create offences of that sort—there was one in the Vehicles (Crime) Bill. It would be helpful in deterring those who may use false particulars to have a specific offence related to the circumstances that is well known, and which would highlight the position.

I was grateful for the other two assurances that the Minister gave but, on balance, it is right to press the amendment to a Division, although I will take great account of what my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate said about whether the penalty was sufficient. I rather like the idea of the Amsterdam proposal of a three-day period of imprisonment, and we can discuss that before Report stage.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 11.

Division No. 5]

Blunt, Mr. Adrian
Gray, Mr. James
Hawkins, Mr. Nick
Heald, Mr. Oliver
Lyell, Sir Nicholas

Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Brinton, Mrs. Helen
Clarke, Mr. Charles
Grogan, Mr. John
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Hughes, Mr. Simon
Humble, Mrs. Joan
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Lock, Mr. David
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
Thomas, Mr. Gareth R.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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Prepared 13 February 2001