Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 240 - 259)



  240. If somebody who has been charged writes in to say they intend to plead guilty to the charge but they do not want to have to attend the court, they are quite happy just to plead guilty and accept whatever punishment is imposed, they will presumably in most cases normally be expecting a fine. Are they then asked how they will pay the fine before the court convenes?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) That I am not clear about in relation to guilty pleas. I will find out about that. If it is a guilty plea and non attendance.[20]

  241. Would it not be a good idea?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes.

  242. If you are looking for ways of getting more information, if somebody is going to be fined—
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I think it would be a good way. With the resources we put in, it may be economical for the courts to do it. In a lot of these areas people have found that the amount of bureaucracy involved in a lot of these things is quite great and they felt they had not had the resources to deal with it. I hope we have now changed that position.

  243. I would suggest that the bureaucracy involved in following up at least one third or two thirds of offenders who do not pay without being followed up, must be very considerable too. If you could reduce the bureaucracy in following up these cases by getting information in advance so you can tell where you should go straight for a deduction from earnings, it might save an awful lot of time and effort.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I agree.

  244. Is it important to get some money coming in quickly even if it is not the whole lot?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes, it is very important to do that as early as possible. If it has to be done in instalments to try to get those as few as possible. That is very important, otherwise people feel they can drag it all out, then your chances of getting the money in are less as further time goes by.

  245. You did say earlier that you wanted to give priority to compensation orders.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Everyone would want to try to give priority to that. Under the current arrangement under the law we are dependent on the money coming in from the person fined to pay the compensation to the victim.

  246. I understand that. If some of the money comes in, does that go to the compensation order before it goes to paying off the fine?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) The priority would be given to compensation in those circumstances, because it is in a sense what the fine is largely for.

  247. If somebody is paying in instalments, the early instalments until the compensation is fully paid will go the victim and only after the victim is fully compensated, will the instalments start paying for the fine.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I think that is correct. Yes, that is correct.

Geraint Davies

  248. I notice in the London statistics that only 47% of people are meant to pay anything and the other half is written off. Then 67% of these are in arrears. We have a situation in London where one in two people do not pay anything and two thirds of the others are in arrears. What sort of message do you think this sends to people who have been to court and who are habitual offenders and building up these fines? Does it not send a message that they can just keep on offending.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) It sends the message that if you are persistent and you refuse to pay and if it is very difficult to trace you then you are likely to get away with it and that is unacceptable.

  249. Is this not a message which is being institutionally sent essentially by your Department? The fact is that people can get that message and the alternative to it is basically better enforcement or probably more sensibly identifying these people who should not be fined in the first place. There are enormous gaps in the system in terms of telling magistrates not to fine this person who is an habitual offender and does not have any money, but to impose a community order.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Absolutely. Two comments. First of all, getting it right at the beginning is critically important for the whole of the rest of the system. Secondly, we are looking at giving a range of new choices to magistrates so they do not go on doing the same thing where it has proved ineffective in the past.

  250. When can we expect to be in a situation where an habitual offender, in coming to court, can expect not to be given a fine that he will not pay, but to be given a community penalty or something else that we may be moving forward to, weekend prison, sequestration of treasured possessions or whatever it is? When is that going to happen in Britain?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) First of all when it is decided to implement the Crime (Sentences) Act and this is the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor discussing this. Secondly, when we next get the opportunity for criminal justice legislation, that is the time when we can put in a range of measures which I described earlier.

  The Committee suspended from 18.35 to 18.40 for a division in the House

   251. I assume that you have a situation here where a small percentage of the people represent quite a significant percentage of the fines due. Is that true? If you looked at the distribution is it the case that a number of people will have a series of fines accumulating or is it the case that these are simply written off?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) It is a changing population, but there will be a number of persistent defaulters and they either have to be written off because after all the efforts have been made they cannot find the people concerned or, eventually, after too long a period they do eventually pay.

  252. Is there any evidence that you have a situation where a certain group of people think they do not have to pay and ultimately they prove to be right, then those people who do pay the fines find out about this and they later come back and offend and do not pay?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) It is difficult to say there is evidence of that because the rates of payment have remained very much the same for quite a period now. It is something one really wants to be concerned about. The more that is known and spread abroad about the system and where it might be weak, the more likely it is that people who might otherwise pay, will say they heard from so and so and they will try to avoid it too.

  253. In so far as victims know that there is a chance of seasoned offenders not paying any penalty for their injustice, is a reason for victims not coming forward sometimes given as there being no point in coming forward because they will just have put a fine on them and they will not pay it? Is there any evidence of that?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No. I think the reasons for victims and witnesses often not coming forward are usually about delays in courts proceedings, sometimes an unwillingness to appear anyway. I would only have anecdotal evidence at the moment of the number of cases there might be where somebody felt there was no point, it was not worth it because nothing would happen.

  254. Is it possible to provide a note on that? I know there may not be evidence but I should be interested.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I will see what information we have about the number of cases in which victims or witnesses failed to turn up and whether we have any information about the reasons for that failure in the magistrates' courts.[21]

  255. It will be one of many reasons, but I am interested to know whether it is perceived to be a growing reason. The fact is that people go to court and often have some glaring, arrogant, intimidating offender who knows that they are not going to face any real punishment. Over time that undermines confidence in the whole system and whole community.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I agree with that and intimidation is something which is very difficult to tackle, but it needs to be tackled seriously, both in court and outside court.

  256. What special reasons are there for Greater London having such a low payment rate? It is 47%.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) There will probably be at least two powerful reasons for that. First of all, the police up to a year ago were responsible in Greater London. This was not a priority for the police in London, given their other responsibilities. Secondly, we would find that in large parts of London where fines are imposed the population will be a very mobile one, who move around, who are difficult to trace and in some areas of London there will be a lot of people who just will not be able to pay.

  257. You have said that things will get better when we have legislation, but one of the key problems identified in this report is that magistrates do not know the background of offenders going forward in terms of whether they have any money, whether they have paid at all. Magistrates do not know the impact of their sentences and once they fine someone, they do not know whether that fine is paid down the line. Would it be a good idea generally to send a note to magistrates simply alerting them to this report and the general difficulties and try to encourage them to impose community service, graffiti clearance for instance, instead of fining people all the time? In London in particular there is so much graffiti, only about 47% of people are asked to pay and two thirds of those people are in arrears. That is not working. Would it not be better to tell magistrates that those are the facts and you suggest they get them clearing up all the mess people have created. Why do you not just do that?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) What we can do is to illustrate to magistrates the range of penalties which are available to them. What we cannot do as government is to tell magistrates what decisions they should take. We can indicate to them that obviously there is not much point in going on fining somebody who is not going to pay when there are alternatives available. We have to handle that relationship quite carefully.

  258. I appreciate what you are saying, but when there is a community service sentence, do you know to what extent people actually do it? When they are sentenced to clean graffiti on Saturday do they normally turn up? I know they do in Croydon but do they normally?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) The figures I think I gave earlier were that in terms of breaches of community penalties the failure rate was about 30%. People on the whole do turn up, but there, as well as in relation to fines, we have to grind up the level of performance.

  259. What I am suggesting is that you might send a note round showing the relative efficacy of different sorts of sentences in practice so that magistrates will suddenly realise that if they get some vandal in they are better off sending them to clean up their own mess.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I agree with that. The information from the NAO report and the information we have gathered from current research projects about the importance of the initial decision, all that information will go before the new group we have created on criminal enforcement which includes magistrates, justices clerks, chief executives, staff and a whole range of other organisations.

20   Ev 33 Back

21   Ev 33 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 27 November 2002