Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 180 - 199)



  180. How does someone ignore a summons to appear before a court if the system does not have their address?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) You mean if they have never received the summons.

  181. If you do not know where they are, how can they have ignored a summons to appear?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) People are summonsed on the basis of the last known address. They may not be there because people move on and often quite rapidly. This is as true in the problem of enforcing civil debt as it is in crime.

  182. May I ask about these payment rates? There are several reasons for the variation and the report alludes to one or two of them. Were you basically saying that one of the underlying reasons is the socio-economic difference around the country?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes; in some areas that is the case.

  183. In that case can you explain why the payment rate in Staffordshire is 90%, whereas in Surrey it is only 58%? When one thinks Gin and Jag one does not think of Staffordshire, but one does think of Surrey. So the socio-economic conditions in Surrey, where you have a payment rate of 58% would appear to be a lot better than those in Staffordshire where you have a payment rate of 90%.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) It is very difficult to answer these things off the cuff. It depends on the mix of cases, the type of cases which have been flowing through the system over time. It is a fact that if a court's area has a large stretch of motorway going through it, it tends to have a high payment rate because of the number of fixed penalties for motoring offences. There are all these variations. On the face of it, it is very difficult to say that this must be a good result, this must be a bad result. What I have undertaken in response to Mr Field's question is to find the ten areas or courts which we think have overall, taking account of all the factors involved—and there are several of them—given us at the moment a very good performance compared with the rest.[16]

  184. From that you will draw up a standard enforcement procedure, will you, which you will promulgate to all the others?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) It is difficult for me to do that or for the Lord Chancellor to do that because it is the responsibility of local magistrates' courts committees. We can give guidance but we cannot force them to do things unless we find that they have failed completely to follow best practice.

  185. Presumably unless you legislate to change the situation.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Absolutely.

  186. You could advise Ministers that in light of this woeful record, it was time to legislate, could you not?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes. I think they would want to take account of a number of other considerations apart from the report here.

  187. But it is open to you to do that. I should like to ask about paragraph 2.27. It says, "In some courts the decisions to take specific actions have been delegated to administrative staff but in the courts we visited we found inconsistent views amongst staff on what authority they had". Presumably whatever authority they have, it is the same from court to court, is it not?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Absolutely.

  188. Why do they not know that? Why are they not aware of the authority they have?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I imagine because in a particular court, with a turnover of staff, the precise details of the delegation, which are set out and which are enshrined in law, were not known to some of those staff to whom the NAO talked.

  189. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that the courts and administrative staff in courts have a consistent view of the authority that they hold? Who is responsible for that?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) It will be the responsibility of either the magistrates' chief executive, the chairman of the bench or of the justices themselves collectively. The position is set out in statute. I do not want to take you through it. It is there and it is clear and it is set out and it has been circulated to every magistrates' courts committee. It is up to them to make sure their staff are aware.

  190. It has been circulated by whom?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) When the rules are promulgated it will be circulated by my Department.

  191. Do you think your Department has any responsibility for ensuring that courts do understand these things? Presumably that is why you issue guidance, is it not?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) We have a responsibility for making sure that people know what the rules are, but it is the responsibility of those on the ground to make sure that their staff know about it.

Mr Steinberg

  192. I must say that I found this report very depressing indeed. I have to say that I found your answers even more depressing. When law and order has never been so high on the agenda, it seems to me that your Department is apparently very complacent about the whole situation. What would you say to that?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No; I would say precisely the opposite. I would say that the actions we have taken in the last couple of years indicate that this is a priority in a way that it has not been before. New systems, new money, new approaches and a real determination to give this a priority among the whole of the magistrates' courts community which it has not been given for two decades.

  193. The report does not seem to indicate that, does it? If you read the report you get a clear indication that the persistent offender is frankly getting away with it.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) The report is agreed. It has pointed to several weaknesses in the system which have persisted for a long time.

  194. That is what I mean about complacency. It has been there for a long time and something should have been done about it many years ago.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) What I am saying to you is that far from being complacent about it, we have now taken action and we are taking action and I hope and believe the situation will improve. Indeed the NAO refer to a number of measures towards the end which we are taking.

  195. I think that your Department is very complacent. I also think the courts are very complacent as well. If you look for example at paragraph 2.38 on page 24, my view is that if a court passes a punishment or a sentence on somebody, then they have the obligation to see that sentence or punishment is carried out. In paragraph 2.38 it says, "Some staff felt that enforcement was accorded a lower priority than other court work and it was, therefore, the first activity to get `squeezed' when there was pressure elsewhere". What pressure elsewhere? What is more important than ensuring that the punishment they have given is carried out? What is more important than that?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) There is a range of activities in the courts which are very important, work in court as well as this work out of court. What I would say to you is that you are absolutely right and that is why we have taken action—

  196. All afternoon you have said to every single member, "I think you are absolutely right". So why has something not been done about it? I read this report at the weekend. If we are absolutely right, presumably you and your Department have known this has been going on for decades. Why has it taken the NAO to bring out a report now for you to keep saying "You are absolutely right"? No questions have been answered. You have not been able to give us statistics. If I had been in your position this afternoon, it would have been obvious to me that I would be asked for some of the statistics which have been asked for, yet you sitting there cannot give them and your colleagues behind have not moved and given you any information. It is quite incredible. That is why I think you are complacent.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No, we are not complacent; absolutely not. When I say that is right, it is because it is an agreed report between us and the NAO and if I said it was not right, then we would not have had that agreement. What I am saying to you is that we have taken two major steps to change the system in the last 18 months. The first is to bring together all responsibilities for enforcement, which were divided between the police and the courts on the one hand. That has made an enormous difference. It has taken a long time to achieve that and get agreement. Secondly, we have increased the resources available through enforcement by 20% beginning from this April. That gives the staff the time and the numbers to put much more effort into this work, but if you are saying to me, do I not wish this had been done sooner, of course I say that and I am not trying to be complacent in saying so either.

  197. Those are all fine words again. What is the point of a court imposing a fine, which is after all a punishment, a deterrent so that offenders will not offend again, when they do not have to take it seriously because they know it is not going to be enforced. The hardened criminal knows that it is not going to be enforced. You made an amazing statement earlier on and I wrote it down. You said that the fines were not enforced because they may have other priorities. That is basically what you said. It is like saying that I am going to send you to prison but because you are going to Majorca for a fortnight I will not bother because that is a bigger priority. That is basically what you were saying. If a fine is given to an offender that fine should be paid over to the court. That is the priority.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I was answering that in relation to the state of mind which I was asked about of people who did not pay. Of course I agree with you that we should pursue a system in which we progressively improve in the collection of fines. That is why we are trying to pursue the range of measures I have outlined today. In the majority of cases, 63% and we plan to increase it to 68% this year, fines are paid.

  198. Let us move on slightly. One of the areas the National Audit Office looked at was my area, Durham and Durham seems to be quite good because the payment rate is 67%. That means that 33% of people in Durham who are fined do not pay that fine. It seems to me that for the 33% crime actually does pay.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Of those 33% some will have had their fines cancelled automatically.

  199. No, I do not think so. Unless I am totally wrong, and if I am I apologise, I think you are wrong. I think that 67% do pay, 30% do not pay. If you look at the statistics in Appendix 1, clearly those who write-off and cancel cannot be included in the payment rate.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No. It is wrong to add the numbers up as though they were all the same thing. What I am saying is that the amount which is cancelled is relevant to performance.

16   Ev 29-31 Back

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