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Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 100 - 119)



  100. So it is even lower as a proportion than the proportion of fines you are collecting.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No. Here is another area where breach of community penalties and warrants based on that need to be much better enforced than they have been in the past.

  101. How will you do that?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) We will need to produce a mixture of measures of the sort we are trying now in relation to information, to more civilian enforcement officers, to trying to get better information about where people are, the fact that they have disappeared, that they have gone without trace and so on. We must work very hard on that area. We must set targets which have not been set before in order to enable that to happen.

  102. It all sounds very weak to me. They just sound like words to me. You have already failed to collect more than 63% of fines imposed by magistrates. You are now proposing for those people you feel cannot afford it—and you have no idea about the financial backgrounds of those who are receiving these fines, you have just told me you do not know what proportion have county court judgments, you do not know what proportion of defaulters is receiving benefits so despite a lack of knowledge of those key areas—imposing community service orders where people do have financially straitened circumstances, yet that has a lower proportion of enforcement even than fines. Is your Department not in complete disarray?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I have been given some facts about community sentencing. About 155,000 offenders were given community sentences in the year 2000 and I was overestimating the failure rate: the current breach rate is about 30%, so it is not as bad as I was implying.

  103. How many people who have received community service orders have had their sentence written off and been told they do not need to serve it?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I shall have to send you that.

  104. Is it any? Have any been told they do not have to serve their community service sentence and had them written off?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I do not think it works quite like that.

  105. How does it work?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) What you will find here is that it is not just a question of writing off the community penalty.

  106. I thought it happened. I thought I read somewhere that they had.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) In some way or another a person has to complete their sentence and if they are in breach of a community penalty on a regular basis, then the court will look at that and decide what further penalty should be imposed. It might be a prison sentence.

  107. Could you do a note? I recall reading in the newspaper that actually several tens of thousands of these community service orders had been written off and that they were not required to serve them. Could you send a note to the Committee expanding on that? It alarms me that you are not up to speed on that particular issue. Is your Department in disarray in terms of enforcing penalties imposed by the judicial system?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No, I would put it the other way round precisely.[9]

  108. You think a 30% failure to enforce community service orders is good, a 37% failure rate to impose fines is good?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No, I am not suggesting it is good, but I would not describe that as being in disarray. I would say that three major decisions have been taken over the last year: bringing together warrant execution in the responsibility of the magistrates' courts rather than it being divided with the police has given it a new priority; I would claim, although I think you think there are perverse incentives here, that providing additional resources for enforcement will make a real difference. We would also claim that we have set up an arrangement which brings together all those who are working on this on the ground across the country to talk about best practice and improvement. These things have not happened before and they are happening now. That is a positive statement and one to be welcomed by the Committee rather than one to be criticised.

  Mr Gibb: We shall see whether you can get up to 100%, shall we, in the next few years? I shall monitor that with great interest.

Mr Howarth

  109. It seems apparent from the answers given to Mr Gibb and others that basically you know absolutely nothing about the people who are defaulting. You cannot explain any of the circumstances properly, you do not quite know how it all comes about. All we know is that you have a computer system which is in the process of being introduced and it has slipped back by a year because of software problems. Could you make a stab at trying to describe the sort of people you think are defaulters?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I suppose it could be summed up in the slogan "Some can't pay and some won't pay". Clearly a large number of people, the majority, do pay. Among those people who cannot pay are those who are less well off, have more chaotic lifestyles. Among those who will not pay are those who are just not prepared to respect the judgement of court; they may not respect the judgements of any authority. Given the mobility with which people move around these days, the difficulty of laying your hands on these people is very great. There has been no national research, no national data about the profile and the nature of these offenders, but we have now commissioned a research project into precisely the question you have asked, so that we do have for the future a profile of the people who are not paying as a basis for further developing policies.

  110. Do you know anything about whether employment or unemployment is a factor?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I would expect that unemployment was a factor for some of those who cannot pay.

  111. Do you have any statistics on it?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No, I just said that there has been no national research whatever. We have now commissioned that research, so we will have these profiles.

  112. In the report, paragraph 1.6 on page 10, it says that only one in five male defaulters was employed, so presumably the rest are on benefit. Typically female defaulters were in restricted financial circumstances—only one in ten had any sort of job and so on. Were you not aware of those statistics, even though they were published in the report?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) They are in the report.

  Mr Howarth: I know they are in the report, I have just referred to them. When I asked you the question a few moments ago, you did not have a clue as to whether that was a factor other than that in a general sense you thought it might be.


  113. You have agreed this report, have you not?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Absolutely; on a number of occasions.

  114. Have you read it?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes and I marked up that particular passage twice. I have not been into the detail of that Home Office research but I do not think there has been a national research project until now on the profile of these offenders.

Mr Howarth

  115. It would have been easier had you referred back to the paragraph when I asked the question. However, let us move on. I am not sure whether you realise the origin of the slogan "Can't pay, won't pay" but we will pass over that for the moment. You said that in a significant number of cases the problem is that people simple cannot pay, they have other commitments, they may be having their gas, electricity, rent paid directly by the benefits system and therefore they do not have any access to money. Mr Gibb made the point that in some senses it is a question of priorities. Do you not think if people felt something worse was likely to happen if they did not pay their fine, that magically they might be able to come up if not with all, with some of the money?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes, that could be possible. The first thing to get right is to get before the magistrates at the time they are sentencing someone to a fine all the information about whether a person is capable of paying. That is the first and crucial step. Then, if someone continues to default, we have to look to see what other batteries of measures we can take. I have already mentioned the fact that we are looking at the issue of incentives for early payment and further sanctions for persistent default such as registration, which would undermine someone's credit worthiness, clamping vehicles, that sort of thing, a whole range of measures of that sort which would add further penalties and sanctions as well as providing incentives. I understand from our research that these have been very successful in New Zealand and Australia.

  116. The legislation as currently before the House does not allow the fixed penalty option to be applied in the sort of circumstances you are referring to. Are you aware of that?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes.

  117. You are talking about fixed penalties then as a concept rather than as something in the current legislation before the House.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I mentioned it in the context of TV licences and other things, which is a very large proportion, 27% of these, where fixed penalties might actually be a helpful way forward for some offenders.

  118. Do you think the inconsistency in sentencing on the part of magistrates might be a factor in the reason why people do not pay the fines in a large number of cases?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Do you mean inconsistency in the sense of inconsistent sentencing between similar individuals or between different parts of the country?

  119. Either between different individuals or in an example which I can give you if it helps, with one person. Two weeks ago with my neighbouring colleague I met the Knowsley magistrates and we had with us some examples from Merseyside police. One example was of a young man who had five breaches of bail order and failed to complete a community sentence and was before the court for shop lifting and being drunk and disorderly. He also had a very long record of previous convictions. In those circumstances the court in their wisdom decided to fine him £30. You are suggesting that it ought to be the other way round. That in fact if he failed to pay the £30 he should have had a community sentence and so on. Do you not think that it might be the case that a lot of people are gambling on not paying the fine? It is a fairly safe bet in many cases that they will get away with it.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) From your case study and from the four case studies in the NAO Report, though it is difficult for me to comment on individual cases, it is undoubtedly the case that word gets around that if the system is not capable of tracing you and getting the fine, people know about that and they will buck the system. We have to make a series of changes in the system to make it much less easy for people to avoid their responsibilities here and if we do that and we also give the courts a suitable range of options for sentencing, we must do that. Through other ways, through the judicial studies board and other things, we can try to ensure that magistrates receive the sort of training, guidance, information about sentencing patterns which they do not regularly get now, about the impact of their sentences, so your point about consistency can gradually feed through into the system.

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