Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. I would suggest something entirely different which is that if I want to have a good write-off rate in terms of my indices of management—presumably you require some performance-related indices of some kind—I would cancel quite a lot so that the write-off rate was not quite so high, indeed we discover in my own patch in West Yorkshire there is quite a low write-off rate but a very high cancellation rate. Going quickly through the figures, there does appear to be a correlation between the extent to which one writes off and the extent to which one cancels. Is there not a correlation? Has anybody bothered to look at that?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I thought about that. I concluded that whatever the superficial look is, there is no such correlation. Cancellations are in a real sense obligatory on the court. When a person reaches a certain situation—

  21. I think a judgement is being exercised, with all due respect.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) They are judicial decisions and I should be pretty careful as a member of the executive not to comment on that.

  22. I am a member of the legislature and I will comment. It would certainly occur to me, and it has occurred to you as well, that it is possible to manipulate the figures in that way. I guess you would measure on write-off rates rather than on cancellation rates because the write-off rate is a measure of one's efficiency as a magistrates' court, whereas it could be argued the cancellation rate is not. I suspect that some manipulation is going on between the two. I want to ask about a case of which I am aware which illustrates some general points. I have a man who is a French citizen driving on a British road in my constituency and he kills somebody who was driving on the correct side of the road and the French driver was on the wrong side of the road from the English point of view and my constituent was killed. There is an argument about the kind of charge he faced but I do not want to go into that. He was fined £500, which you might think is cheap for a death and I certainly do think that. He then went back to France with three points on his licence, which do not count in France so he was able to continue with his business, but the court never bothered to chase the £500 because he had gone back to France. What should the court have done in a case like that?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) As far as I know, there is no means for an English court to enforce a fine on a foreign national who then returns home. I am not passing any judgement on that. As far as I know, subject to correction, that is the fact. The way we would have to deal with that would be within the context of the European Union or bilaterally or whatever, to have mutually agreed and understood arrangements between any one country and another for the enforcement of financial penalties abroad on foreign nationals.

  23. That is my understanding. I just wonder at the magistrates' bench, which was advised—I do admire the magistrates tremendously but they do rely to some extent upon advice which they receive—that a fine levied on a foreign national would not be paid if that person chooses not to pay. I just wonder about the guidance. He is presumably not the only person who lives abroad and has committed an offence who has been fined and failed to pay. I bet there are significant amounts of money uncollected from foreign nationals. Has that been looked at?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) My understanding is that we need a legal and agreed basis between ourselves and other countries to enable this to be enforced.

  24. The way in which the fine is levied might be considered. Presumably one can insist the money is paid before he leaves the court?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) In that sort of case what the magistrates should do and would do—and I do not know whether they did—is precisely what you said, to try to make sure that the person did pay. The magistrates are entitled—I forget which section of which Act it is—to cause someone to be searched to see whether they have the money on them and the wherewithal to pay.

  25. He had a wagon.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) They have to be very careful about how they handle that because in a vast array of cases people will not have the money and even if they did have some on them, the magistrates are required to make sure that taking the money away does not cause more injury to the person than getting it.

  26. I am certainly not xenophobic in any way but I do think there is an issue about foreign nationals not paying fines. If it has happened in my constituency in the last year, I am sure it is happening elsewhere. Do we have any statistics at all on this particular matter?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I do not have statistics.

  27. Would these fines be subject to cancellation or write-off?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) They would be subject to write-off.

  28. They would be written off rather than cancelled.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes. The right way forward is to have an agreement and we are working on this in the European Union to get a framework agreement so that financial penalties in one state can be enforced in another.

  29. In the meantime do you think it would be a good idea for somebody centrally, probably yourselves, to give some kind of guidance to magistrates' courts in such eventualities to avoid this kind of situation arising in the future.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I see the point. It will take a couple of years, but pending clear-cut agreement in the European Union to indicate to them the steps they could take to minimise the risk of the fine not being paid is certainly something I will have a look at.[2]

  30. I want to raise one final point, again about the same case but it does raise generic issues and that is why I am using it. It turns out this Frenchman was given free legal aid and advice. I am not talking about foreign nationals now, I am talking more generally. It occurs to me that many of these people now paying fines and the hundreds of millions of pounds not being paid in fines will be receiving free legal aid and advice. Presumably in order to obtain free legal aid and advice, all kinds of information is given by the alleged criminals. Surely that information could be used in some way to ensure that the court has data with which to pursue the fine which otherwise is written off. Is the data available, is it accessible and how is it used?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) You are raising a subject which has exercised the NAO and this Committee and myself and my predecessors over many years. In the old days—it has stopped now—we used to get means information at magistrates' courts for the purposes of legal aid payment. This was a system which was incredibly bureaucratic, often wrong and the accounting mechanisms were no good. We have changed that now. People are entitled when charged with a criminal offence to legal aid in their defence and we would be in difficulty with the Human Rights Act if we did not grant it. That is what happens. The information which is available now to a court about a person's means and ability to pay depends entirely on the court's enquiries of that person rather than them filling up any form about legal aid. We can come on to the issue possibly about whether there should be a more systematic way of finding out the financial position of a defendant, but I am afraid that is the position as it is now.

  Jon Trickett: It does seem to me that it causes great offence when a victim, in this case a widow, discovers that not only was the fine not paid, that the court had imposed a fine which could not be levied because it was a foreign national living abroad, but that the man had received free legal aid and advice and the data which he gave to the court to get legal aid and advice was not then used in some way to try to ensure that the fine was paid. That is the point I was trying to make.

Mr Williams

  31. We all accept that the collection of financial penalties is essential, as it says in the report, if the credibility of the system as a punishment is to be maintained. It is also important, as in the case the Chairman cited, if victims are to receive justice as well where compensation is involved, is it not? Why is no financial incentive offered to people who pay promptly? I can understand there being no penalty; since they are not paying in the first place a penalty would probably not deter them. Why is there no incentive to encourage people to pay quickly?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) The technical answer is that it would require legislation to put incentives and indeed sanctions into play.

  32. Is it something you have looked at?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) It is something we are looking at. There is a general feeling now that arrangements like that really are worth looking at, provided they do not unfairly penalise those who genuinely are in financial difficulty.[3]

  33. It has taken a long time to get around to it, has it not?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes, it has.

  34. It is a fairly obvious first step. Why do you think it has not been dealt with before?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) There has been a general consensus view over the years—and I would not pretend to be an expert on this—that you should treat everyone in exactly the same way and you should not try to get incentives into the system.

  35. You are supposed to be the expert. That is why you are here today.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I am talking about the history here.

  36. As long as the incentive is available to everyone you are treating everyone in the same way.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) You are then; I accept that. The simplest answer I can give is that it has not been done, we are looking at it and it could be of value in the battery of measures we are looking at it.

  37. Are you looking at it through the right end of a telescope or the wrong end of a telescope? Is it way, way in the distance, or is it something which is near your desk for consideration at the moment?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) The second; that it is near my desk and not a long, long way out there.

  38. It is near your desk. Do drop us a note as soon as it happens. I am sure we would be overjoyed to hear from you.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I shall try to keep up my track record of letting the Chairman and PAC know before something happens rather than afterwards.4

  39. That is very good, as long as it then happens afterwards. It astonished me to find that magistrates may not have information on an offender's outstanding financial penalties at the time of the sentence. Magistrates can have someone sitting in front of them who is a gross and persistent non-payer and quite happily be imposing more financial penalties on him, not realising that he or she has not the slightest intention of paying in the first place. Why is that information not available?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) In some cases what you say is true; it is not generally true of all cases. Again it is a question of making sure you have information systems which are instantly available, which have the right records and information in them and frankly we do not have those yet, which is why we are setting up new IT systems in order to deliver them.

2   Ev 27 Back

3   & 4 Ev 27 Back

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