Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

[back to previous text]

Lady Hermon: I tabled the amendment so that I might ask the Minister why the offence of intentionally obstructing the chief inspector of criminal justice will attract such trivial punishment. Frustrating the chief inspector should be seen as a serious offence, but that is not reflected in the Bill. The penalty under clause 48(4) is a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale, which is also the statutory maximum punishment for being found drunk and disorderly.

We should not trivialise the seriousness of obstructing or frustrating the chief inspector during his inspections. I believe that falsifying, destroying or concealing information, intentionally or recklessly, should attract a serious penalty. That is why amendment No. 197 proposes that the punishment for such offences should include the option of imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years. I am not suggesting that that term should always be imposed, but that it should be a maximum.

I seek some recognition from the Minister that the matter is serious. We should send out the message that co-operation will always be expected when the chief inspector carries out an inspection of any of the organisations listed in clause 46(1).

Mr. Blunt: I rise to support the hon. Member for North Down and I look forward to hearing the Minister's remarks about amendment No. 195. I am slightly confused by the language used in the amendment because it differs from that used in amendment No. 197. The hon. Lady's amendments refer to a statutory maximum, but would it be better to refer to level 5, and is that the statutory maximum? I would be grateful if the Minister would assist me on that.

The amendment raises an issue about consistency across the piece, which was illustrated by the earlier intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight. It seems bizarre that someone who obstructs the investigation of a school inspector should be liable to a level 4 fine, but that someone who obstructs an investigation surrounding the issue of justice should be liable to only a level 3 fine. That appears to be inconsistent, so I should be grateful if the Minister would reflect on the matter and consider whether an amendment should be tabled on Report. In my judgment, a level 5 fine or the statutory maximum, as proposed by the hon. Lady, would be more appropriate.

Lembit Öpik: As the inspection regime depends on a level of deterrence, it seems sensible to toughen up the consequences of trying to cheat the system. Does the Minister feel that that is something for which he could

Column Number: 252

find space in the Bill, either now or on Report? The onus is on the Government to explain why they feel that the current penalties are sufficient to achieve the intended deterrent.

Mr. Browne: From the conduct of the debate, I gather that Committee members understand how the fine structure is applied across offences. When levels of fines were introduced into the system, they were designed to address the issues of proportionality and recording the seriousness of offences—albeit in broad groupings—that the hon. Member for North Down raised. I am interested in her reference to the offence of being drunk and disorderly. In my experience of representing clients who have been charged with it, that offence is a broad church—it is a bit like breach of the peace in that it covers a wide range of behaviour. Being drunk and disorderly cannot be described as a trivial offence per se, although it might be in certain circumstances. The objective of the amendments is germane to the structure of fines, which is designed to narrow down the opportunity for disparity and disproportionality between fines for different offences. It also makes it easier to increase or move fines, so that it is not necessary to amend a whole range of statutory offences in relation to penalties; that can be done by reference to penalty provisions in relation to standard fines.

In response to the hon. Member for Reigate, I confirm that the phraseology and shape of the amendments are correct. The statutory maximum is level 5, which is £5,000, but that relates only to a summary conviction. There is no statutory maximum in relation to convictions and indictments, so the wording is entirely correct and reflects the penalties available.

The onus is, of course, on the Government to show the argument in relation to proportionality. I pray in aid the fact that the choice of the level of penalty and the decision not to include imprisonment were informed by the penalty that was passed by Parliament in 1998 in relation to a directly analogous set of circumstances, namely obstruction of an inspector of a juvenile justice centre or attendance centre in Northern Ireland. We adopted those penalties in the Bill knowing that they had been considered appropriate in that situation.

I take on board what the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said. As he knows, the Education Bill is not yet law. I also accept the point of the hon. Member for Reigate. I am not pretending that I was aware of it, and I am grateful to him for bringing it to my attention. However, the Bill is not yet law. We may need to revisit these matters, but I do not know whether Parliament will retain that penalty in the measure. I prefer to look for support in fixing penalties at a certain level by referring to existing legislation.

Lembit Öpik: As the Minister has said in other debates, we are dealing with an environment in Northern Ireland in which there is particular incentive for some organisations to try to pervert the law. In the past, exceptions have been made for the Province in that regard. Does the Minister not feel that this is one

Column Number: 253

of the occasions on which we might wish to introduce a tougher package of penalties because of the particular situation in Northern Ireland?

11 am

Mr. Browne: I accept the hon. Gentleman's reasoning, but not what he said. We are dealing with public agencies and, by and large, with civil servants. I have answered the proportionality question. In doing so, I was informed by a decision, which is no more than three years old, of this Parliament on the level at which such fines should be fixed.

Let me deal now with amendments Nos. 196 and 197. Amendment No. 196 is designed to set out a particular kind of offence. The hon. Member for North Down is concerned that the Bill does not already cover certain behaviour. I can reassure her that subsection (3) already covers it. If a person were to do the sort of things that the hon. Lady envisages, that would constitute a clear, intentional obstruction. If it could be proved, it would lead to that person being convicted of an offence. I do not think that the hon. Lady intended to do more than elicit the reassurance that that sort of behaviour was already covered.

I have already dealt with the issue of the penalty raised by amendment No. 197.

Mr. Turner: I am grateful for the Minister's explanation. Just as he is not an expert on the Competition Act 1998, I was not reading the Education Bill last night before I went to bed. However, I would like to refer back to existing education legislation. The Education Bill has just received its Third Reading. The paragraph to which I referred deals with the obstruction of an inspector conducting an inspection of an independent school. Existing legislation already makes it an offence to obstruct an inspector while he is conducting an inspection of a maintained school, and I would be surprised if the fine for that offence was not equivalent to that for the offence that has yet to become law.

I wonder if the Minister might consider that and, more particularly, whether this level is appropriate for this purpose, bearing in mind the distinction—again, I do not speak from a great deal of knowledge—between a juvenile justice centre, which is perhaps equivalent to a school, and bodies such as the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland, which is more equivalent to a local education authority, though it is larger and considerably more important in the lives of the people of the Province.

For those reasons, I hope that the Minister will find time between now and Report stage to re-examine the level of the fines. There is a good case for doing so.

Mr. Browne: I am anxious not to expand the debate or lengthen it unnecessarily, but I do not want to be seen as misleading the Committee or leaving it with a wrong impression. The debate is interesting and raises questions about how one supervises the proportionality of penalties to offences. All of us could, no doubt, talk at length on the matter. The Government have a duty to keep such matters under

Column Number: 254

review. I will feed this debate into that process, particularly the observations of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight about the apparent disparity between inspection in education and the Bill's provisions on inspection in the area of criminal justice.

My argument is that recent decisions by Parliament on Northern Ireland are not directly analogous, because if they were we would not need this inspectorate. In analogous circumstances, however, there is a strong argument for proportionality in the Bill. The wider issue must be dealt with in a wider context. I am not giving an undertaking to the Committee that I shall bring the issue back on Report, but there is nothing to stop other Committee members raising it.

Lady Hermon: I find it disquieting, to put it mildly, that the Minister has read my mind. I was going to ask him whether the phrase, ''intentionally obstructs a person'' in clause 48(3)(b) includes the falsification, destruction or concealment of documents. He pre-empted that by explaining that ''intentionally obstructs'' covers those issues. I am happy with his explanation, which was welcome.

The other issues that concern me are the level of fines and the seriousness of obstructing the chief inspector in the course of an inspection. The Minister gave a helpful and comprehensive explanation of the background to the clause. There is a previous example of an inspection of a juvenile justice centre in Northern Ireland, and I must add it to my reading list.

Previous Contents Continue

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

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 7 February 2002