Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Blunt: I hope that the Minister appreciates that the issue that will give cause for controversy outside this place is the amount of the tariff that the police can impose if these fixed penalty notices become widespread, as the Minister hopes. That will be a matter of controversy. If the Minister's Government or any future Government are then, to a degree, perceived to be smuggling through changes in the tariff, particularly if the maximum remains unchanged at one half—rather than moving down to one quarter, as it may if a Government amendment to that effect is tabled on Report—that will be a legitimate area of controversy and we, as parliamentarians, will not be seen to have done our duty in this respect by implementing an affirmative measure. It is a controversial area, and I hope that the Minister will reconsider the amendment.

Mr. Clarke: First, as far as Parliament is concerned, on the negative resolution procedure it is open to the Opposition to pray against a particular order and to have a debate about it. We had such a debate just the other day. I cannot remember whether it was in this Committee or another one, but there was a 20-minute debate about an issue of substance that went through that process. If there is as much controversy as the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, I am sure that the Opposition of the day would feel able to follow that course.

However, the controversy surrounding the level of the fine and whether it should be £50, £100, £150 or £200 is utterly trivial compared with the controversy about the introduction of the fixed penalty notice system for such offences and new offences that might arise. That is why the affirmative resolution is appropriate in one case but not the other.

Mr. Hughes: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Clarke: No, I will not give way. I have done so several times.

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

Mr. Heald: If the Minister had promised us that, if we prayed against the order in question, he would ensure that we had a debate on it, I might have been tempted to agree to his blandishments. However, as everyone knows, if we pray against such an order, the chances of our securing a debate, given that the decision is entirely in the hands of the Government, will be small. Such a controversial issue should be debated. As the Minister has not given us the draft order, as I had hoped, which would have enabled us to deal with the matter differently, I shall press the amendment to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 13.

Division No. 7]

Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Gray, Mr. James
Hawkins, Mr. Nick
Heald, Mr. Oliver
Hughes, Mr. Simon
Lyell, Sir Nicholas

Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Brinton, Mrs. Helen
Clark, Mr. Paul
Clarke, Mr. Charles
Grogan, Mr. John
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Humble, Mrs. Joan
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Lock, Mr. David
McDonagh, Siobhain
Smith, Miss Geraldine
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
Thomas, Mr. Gareth R.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

Effect of penalty notice

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

Mr. Heald: Clause 4 deals with the accused person's request to be tried for the alleged offence and how he may make such a request. Under subsection (3), such a request must be made by a notice given by the accused person in the manner specified in the penalty notice and before the end of the period of suspended enforcement, which is dealt with in clause 5.

What form does the Minister expect the request to be tried to take? Might the fixed penalty notice have a tear-off slip that the accused could send, or does the Minister have another idea for dealing with the practicalities involved? The clause specifies

    ``in the manner specified in the penalty notice'',

but it would help to know the Minister's thinking on the matter, especially as the notice may be given to people who are drunk or vulnerable. We want to know what will happen given such problems and in the case of people with disabilities.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I hope that I am not wrong in believing that the people who advise the Minister have a prototype of the type of ticket involved. If so, perhaps the Minister will share it with the Committee.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman should know that it is not proper for us to draw attention to officials.

Mr. Heald: I notice that the Minister is waving a document in his hand. I have no idea where he got it.

Mr. Clarke: The document that I am waving in my hand is the Metropolitan police service fixed penalty notice for a non-endorsable offence, which is already widely available. With courtesy to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), it is not a special document. It is simply an illustration of the sort of document one may have. Because my officials are acutely prepared for every eventuality, they have everything to hand that the Committee may possibly need.

5.15 pm

Mr. Heald: Is that the sort of notice that the Minister has in mind and does it have a tear-off slip? What is the procedure? What does he have in mind about how an individual would seek a trial?

Mr. Blunt: I may have spotted a problem with clause 4. I hope that, if the Minister cannot answer me now, he will ask for advice on the matter.

I said earlier that I served on the Committee that considered the Armed Forces Discipline Bill. That Bill introduced an appeals procedure for people who were dealt with under summary discipline in the armed services. Previously, service men agreed to accept the penalty imposed by their commanding officer whatever it was, without appeal. The Bill, because of the Human Rights Act, instituted an appeals procedure for those summary procedures. One effect was that service men were not allowed to be exposed to a higher penalty on appeal than that awarded by their commanding officer. If the commanding officer awarded someone 14 days' detention and that award was appealed, on appeal that award could not be increased by the summary appeals court.

I fear that there is a parallel. It was explained to us in Committee that the Ministry of Defence was receiving advice that, under the Human Rights Act, the fact of an appeal could not expose someone to a higher penalty. That is the effect of the clause. If someone is awarded a fixed penalty notice, he will have 21 days, under clause 5, to consider whether to accept the penalty and to discharge his obligation, or to opt for trial. There may be a parallel between the advice given to the Ministry of Defence on human rights legislation and the right for individuals to choose whether to go to trial, which might be seen as an appeal against the fixed penalty notice. I do not know the answer. I simply saw the parallel and invite the Minister to put my mind at rest if it is not appropriate.

Mr. Hughes: I shall start where the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) left off. As far as I can read it, I do not think that he is drawing an exact parallel because the system of which he reminds us is an appeals system from an internal disciplinary procedure to a recognised court procedure. However, there is an issue that I thought he was going to raise in relation to the Human Rights Act: self-incrimination. The Minister should at least tell us how he has addressed and answered that point. If by inactivity someone lands himself with the obligation to pay a fixed penalty notice, not having taken the active step of asking for trial, his inactivity renders him liable to penalty, although not an offence. Under the Human Rights Act, someone may argue that, because it is only a penalty, not a criminal offence, the self-incrimination issues that arose in both a Scottish case and a Birmingham Crown court case did not apply. However, will the Minister explain what the effect is of the two-tier system in the context of the Human Rights Act—an issue similar to the one raised by the hon. Gentleman?

I will raise one wider issue and one smaller issue. Have Ministers addressed at all the wider issue—the fact that the system should work in reverse? If an individual is stopped for one of these offences, he should effectively be given a charge sheet on the spot. However, if he then wanted to take the option effectively to buy himself out of the process, he would have 21 days to ``redeem'' the prospect of a criminal charge. That is a much fairer system, because by definition everyone is kept within the criminal justice system and all rights are open to defence and prosecutor. The individual would still, for example, retain the right to present his financial circumstances. He would have the chance of taking the risk, although it is a certain risk, of deciding to pay his way out of the offence, because he may decide that he is guilty or likely to be found guilty, and would prefer the offence to be disposed of in a non-criminal way.

I put seriously the proposition that in relation to all these matters that are not related to street trading, driving or cycling offences, it would be a fairer and more equitable system to have a charge sheet and obligation to report to the police station within 21 days. The documentation could be simple, and the whole process could be effected straightforwardly. If the individual failed to act, the normal process of law would follow. It could have the disadvantage that more people would choose to go to court rather than to take the summary disposal route. However, there is no danger that the person who cannot read, has learning difficulties, does not understand, does not speak English, or is elderly, cannot manage the system, irrespective of the police officer's belief that they can handle all that.

I give an historical example of the sort of person who would not have been prejudiced by the proposed system. Derek Bentley lived in the constituency that I now represent, before he moved to Croydon. He was, as we all know, convicted and hanged for an offence for which in the end he was pardoned. Of course, that was a very serious offence. He was, in the old parlance, ``a very simple bloke''. He was not of full intelligence. One of the reasons for which it is thought that he was convicted, apart from Lord Chief Justice Goddard and other matters, was his inability to explain his predicament. Historically, there are many people like that.

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Prepared 13 February 2001