Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: What I am saying is that, given that the Government are talking about their own fixed penalty scheme, I want the Minister to confirm that the problems associated with fixed penalties for parking in London will not arise in respect of this provision. If the Minister can produce guidance or give a firm undertaking that a raft of cases will not be transferred to extremely inconvenient courts when appealed, we will be happy. I hope that he can give some reassurance in that regard.

Mr. Charles Clarke: First, I want briefly to reprise the previous debate, so that I can answer the point that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey made about fining, which is subject to the negative procedure. Under section 143(6) of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980, when fines are revalued they are subject to the negative procedure to which the Committee agreed in respect of the process that we have just discussed.

With the help of my colleagues, I brandished the form that is in my hand because it is of a type that one can imagine being used. We are discussing the precise nature of the form, and it may well be that the tear-off strip is the right approach to adopt. It is important to emphasise the distinction between the cases to which the hon. Member for Reigate referred. His comments on the armed forces were interesting, but the fact remains that choosing to go to court—a choice open to anyone in the situation that we are discussing—does not constitute an appeal process. The court can impose any fine within the maximum that appears appropriate, but it is not an appeal process akin to that which he described.

Mr. Blunt: I should be grateful if the Minister would seek further advice on this matter. Of course, the military discipline procedure as administered by the chain of command is not seen as proof against human rights legislation. That is one reason why the Government have said that there must be a procedure of appeal to a summary appeals court. That seems fair enough in itself, but my concern is whether, in the light of further advice, this procedure—which is a non-legal procedure in terms of human rights legislation—could expose the person in question to a higher penalty at appeal. Such advice would appear to have originated in the light of appearance in front of a compliant court. I simply wonder whether a higher penalty and exercising one's right to trial might create problems in terms of the Human Rights Act.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman made his point in the spirit of constructive inquiry. I intended to refer to the Human Rights Act point that he raised in general terms. The Home Secretary has signed a certificate saying that the Bill complies with the Act. That was not a lightly considered act on his part; he signed it after receiving full advice about the various points that were made to him. I have not yet referred to that in this Committee, but I have done so in other Committees on which I have served. We believe that there is adequate flexibility and judicial safeguards in the Bill to ensure fairness and compliance with the Act.

Even if people do not pay the fixed penalty notice or request trial, they can argue any specific reasons why they should have a trial, when they are called before the fine enforcement court, which can set aside the fine in the interests of justice. That flexible approach deals with the considerations of the Human Rights Act.

The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire made several points. The times, processes and so on that are established if individuals decide that they will go to trial on the penalties rather than pay the fixed penalty notices are not affected by the Bill. The normal time scales apply; for example, allowing six months from the issue of the fixed penalty notice, which is the same as the date of the offence, is the standard process in law and not affected by the new measures. The decisions taken by the Crown Prosecution Service will be taken in exactly the same way as they are taken now, on the basis of whether it is in the public interest to proceed with the prosecution. The process that he described as regards the time scale, the manner of the request, the prosecution and the length of time allowed to initiate proceedings will not be affected if an individual chooses trial. The legislation deals only with the circumstances in which the fixed penalty notice is chosen.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I understood the Minister to say that, if people say that they want to be tried and fill in a slip to that effect, they have to wait six months before they find out whether they are in the clear. That seems a long time—but no doubt the Minister will answer that point more fully in a moment.

The Minister said that nothing would change as regards the Crown Prosecution Service. I would anticipate that the decision to prosecute would in the first place be taken by a police officer, and that a member of the service would review the matter when it was about to be listed for court. What opportunity will the citizen have to write something that might impinge on the person deciding whether to prosecute—whoever that person is—and on the view of the Crown prosecutor in due course?

Mr. Clarke: First, the six months period to which I referred is the maximum period, not the desired period. That situation is not changed by this legislation. The right hon. and learned Gentleman may think that that period should be shorter—an argument for which there is a good case. I am glad to tell him that the Labour Government's approaches to speeding up the criminal justice system will help us to make progress in those areas.

The process involving the police and the CPS will be exactly the same after the Bill is enacted—if indeed it is—in relation to the individual who chooses trial for any of the offences listed in clause 1. The situation will be identical. The legislation simply allows the police to consider the option of the fixed penalty notice if it seems appropriate, in addition to using the normal process.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I am not sure that the Minister is right in saying that the situation is exactly the same. In a normal case in which a person is arrested and subsequently summonsed, the matter will be considered before the summons is issued. In this case, the constable, either in the police station or on the street, will have initiated the matter already, before it is referred for immediate reconsideration to the citizen who said that he wished to be tried. Will the Minister enlighten me by telling me what the normal situation is to which he referred? Who will consider the request to be tried and decide whether to press for a prosecution or let sleeping dogs lie?

Mr. Clarke: The right hon. and learned Gentleman was Solicitor-General in the previous Government.

Mr. Hawkins: Attorney-General.

Mr. Clarke: I beg his pardon. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was Attorney-General and Solicitor-General. He has a great deal more experience than I have of the precise operation of the process in each of these circumstances. I am arguing, incontrovertibly, that the process in relation to time, manner of serving, decision to prosecute and so on, is not affected by the Bill in the event that the individual decides to go to trial. I know that he is challenging that interpretation, but that is my view. That is where I stand.

5.45 pm

Sir Nicholas Lyell: The difference is that, if a person is arrested, he will be given an opportunity, in the police station, to make a statement. That would be wise if he regards himself as innocent, unless it is a tricky matter needing a solicitor. The statement would therefore be considered before prosecution. In this case, he may or may not be given an opportunity to make a statement—the Minister has not yet answered that—but who will look at the statement and decide whether to press ahead with proceedings if the person has requested to be tried? The Minister is flattering me, but I think that it is because he does not know the answer. If I did know it, I have forgotten it.

Mr. Clarke: I was not flattering the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He is a lawyer of great seniority and distinction. I will argue with his politics but not with his seniority and distinction as a lawyer. The point that I am obviously failing to convey—it is not because I do not understand it, although I am the first to admit to him and other lawyers that I do not fully understand many other aspects of the law—is that the process that he describes, of a decision to prosecute an individual who decides to go to court in such a circumstance, will be the same after the Bill is enacted as before. I will reflect for a moment or two on his comments to consider whether I can add anything further during my remarks.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey asked whether we had considered approaching the matter from the other way round. The answer is yes, but to be honest—he asked me to be honest—we did not consider it at great length. We have argued from the outset that the purpose of the legislation was to give the police an extra option in relation to this kind of offence in the form of the fixed penalty notice, in the type of circumstances that we have discussed. I know that the hon. Gentleman disagrees—he has been clear and straightforward about that.

As far as A and B are concerned—when I did arithmetic at school A and B were always filling up baths and tanks, and we had to work out what A doing it at such a speed, and B doing it at such a speed, meant for C—the use of the form A or B is not an innovation. It has been used in several pieces of legislation in recent years, including, I am advised, the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000. That is a matter for parliamentary counsel. Such symbols, in the Government's view, can greatly improve the clarity of legislation and avoid over-lengthy and convoluted paragraphs. I have been given an illustration that relates to the speech by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath or the Criminal Bar Association, whichever or whoever was speaking.

The Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 includes the phrase,

    ``references in this section to the recipient are to the person to whom the notice was given''.

It may be that the terminology of A, B or whatever is simpler to deal with. The use of A or B is no different from the type of description that people use in everyday speech, and makes legislation more accessible. For a barrister, the suggestion that it is like a legal textbook is the ultimate insult. For the lay person trying to understand the law, the secret garden that barristers and lawyers seek to inhabit, which prevents the rest of us understanding what is going on, is something that legislators should try to make a bit clearer. Whether the use of A, B and C succeeds in that goal is a matter of taste. However, that is its purpose, which is something that the Committee should in general support.

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Prepared 13 February 2001