Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



  40. Going back to fines, the reason why the use of the fine has declined is, as you have said, because they were uncollectible in many cases, and nothing is more designed to bring the system into disrepute than fining people who never have to pay. So it is a good thing the fine is in decline, is it not? Are you say that lots of people with resources that could pay fines are not being asked to?
  (Professor Morgan) There is a nettle I think Parliament has to grasp in relation to fines, and I would like to think that one or other of the Bills currently before the House might eventually include some measures which would grasp that nettle. I personally think that it was a disastrous error to abandon the unit fine principle which was introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 1991 and then shortly thereafter abandoned because, frankly, it was not well designed at the time. The unit fine principle is that the court determines the seriousness of the offence on a scale, and that scale is then, through an algorithm, quite precisely related to the size of the defendant's net disposable income. That principle is applied in practically every other jurisdiction in north-western Europe, and very successfully, and in most of those jurisdictions those fines are collected. We know from the research evidence that a very high proportion, possibly as many as two-thirds, of all defendants in the magistrates' courts are dependent upon state benefits. Thus, the nettle that has to be grasped is, are people on benefits capable of being fined? If they are not capable of being fined, what else are we to do with them? I think myself that if the unit fine principle were restored, and the proportion of state benefit that could be paid in the form of a fine, which is currently limited to five per cent, were increased to the sort of level that the courts typically like to have paid per week, which is normally about £4 or £5 minimum per week, we could fine a much greater proportion of the defendants before the courts than we currently do, and collect them by deducting them at source, and doing so in a much more efficient way than the very cumbersome way in which it has to be done currently. Basically, at present fines cannot be deducted at source unless the person is already in breach. So you have to wait for non-payment to happen before you move into it, and it is a complicated process, as a result of which, the numbers of defendants who are currently having fines deducted at source is pitifully small in relation to the overall number of defendants who are being fined. I repeat my earlier point: if unemployment has progressively fallen for the last 9-10 years, can it be logical for our use of the fine to have declined at the rate that it has done, from 42 to 28 per cent for indictable offences? One of the errors of the scheme in 1991 was that we included in the unit fine principle standard administrative fines for traffic offences, so that if you were the driver of a car that faded in an uncomfortable position and you came to rest on a double yellow line, and you then got a standard ticket for a £40 fine, and you thought that that was a bit unfair given the circumstances of your standing there, and you challenged it in court, and you did not give any information about your income, then on unit fine principles it would be assumed that you had an average income and you could end up with what looked like a massive fine. My own view is that it is not sensible to attach the unit fine principle, as we did in 1991, to fines where defendants are not likely to appear, so those traffic offences should be left out of the equation.

  41. One of the problems with multiple offenders is that if you fine them and you are deducting from their benefit at say £4 a week, you cannot deduct their latest fine until they have finished paying off the backlog, and therefore it is of no interest to them one way or another; they just recognise it as a permanent feature of their life. I can remember cases in my own constituency where that has been the case. That naturally brings the system of fines into discredit.
  (Professor Morgan) Yes. There are quite a lot of people, of course, who regard repeated parking offences as a standard feature of their life. I agree with you it is a problem.

  42. Not just parking. I was thinking in particular of a case of a lady who was killed by a driver who had no insurance, no tax and who had probably been drinking, and his fine, a large fine, was to be deducted at £2 a week—this is several years ago—and be added when he had finished all his other fines, which were also for driving offences of that nature.
  (Professor Morgan) But someone who had been convicted of relatively serious offences of that nature, and over a period of time, I would agree with you we would probably have to be thinking of something else, but it is a myth—and I want to underline it as a myth—that we cannot do what I am proposing because a very high proportion of persons fined in the magistrates' court are likely to have multiple debts for which they are already having deductions from their benefits for utilities bills. In fact, the Home Office did some research on this issue at the beginning of the Nineties and the proportion who were in that position and who were incapable of having deductions made for fines at any point in a 12-month period was relatively small.

  43. I will draw the Home Secretary's attention to your remarks on this.
  (Professor Morgan) I have already drawn the Home Secretary's attention, but I would be grateful for your endorsement.

  44. We will follow it up.[2] I have another question. If someone is sentenced to community punishment, how long normally elapses between the sentence and them actually joining a community punishment scheme?

  45. Does that happen, generally speaking?
  (Mr Hutchings) It would vary from area to area. It is something which is monitored by the National Probation Directorate in terms of its monitoring of national standards, and it has been something we have looked at in our area inspections as well.

  46. What conclusions have you reached?
  (Mr Hutchings) The conclusion would be mainly that some services could do better, others are able to achieve this very successfully. A lot of it depends on the efficiency of the area systems to get people into work quickly. There are some people where it would be more difficult to get them into work quickly, for example, if they had family commitments, those sorts of things, but in the main, most areas take the view that people could be started in that time, and indeed, some people would hope to start people within a much shorter period than the ten days.

  David Winnick

  47. As far as sentencing policy is concerned, we know that the Lord Chief Justice came under much fire because of remarks he made, particularly regarding people convicted of burglary as a first offence. I wonder how far you feel, Professor Morgan, that you have a responsibility—perhaps you consider that you do not; you will soon tell us—in trying to persuade the courts that in many instances a custodial sentence would be inappropriate.

  (Professor Morgan) I do not think it is my place to comment on what should be sentencing policy generally. That is not my function. That is a task for others. What I do think is very important is that, given that we have a proliferation, which has gathered pace during the 1990s, of non-custodial community penalties, it is incumbent on the Probation Service effectively to explain to sentencers, both nationally and locally, what the day-to-day reality of those sentences operationalised is, so that they fully understand what is going to be required of an offender and what the sentence will mean. I am not persuaded that the Probation Service does yet as effective a job right across the country in that regard as it might do. I think we need to have much better communication in some areas. Some areas do a splendid job, and I have attended conferences for sentencers in different parts of the country where it has been done very effectively, but I know that the Magistrates' Association feel that communications between the Probation Service and sentencers in some parts of the country is not as good as it might be, and I think we have to pay more attention to explaining the meaning of non-custodial sentences very much better than is currently the case.

  48. How can that be done?
  (Professor Morgan) I think it can be done by a variety of means: meetings with sentencers; using some offenders to explain what a sentence has meant for them in reality is extremely effective; in addition, attaching pamphlets to pre-sentence reports, spelling out precisely what a particular programme means if the court decides to impose a community rehabilitation order with a provision for involvement in a particular accredited programme; and so on and so forth. Perhaps I could highlight it like this: there is enormous enthusiasm amongst sentencers, we know from the early evidence, for the drug treatment and testing order. I do not know how familiar you are with the way that order works but one of the requirements is that the offender be brought back to court periodically for the sentencer to review the operation of the order, which means that there is feedback, which means that the sentencer takes ownership, to some extent, of the way it is working. They will receive regular reports on whether the drug usage by the offender has reduced; whether there is evidence, even if the offender continues to use drugs, that it is at a reduced level; and whether the evidence suggests that he or she is not offending. There is great enthusiasm for this order and it means that sentencers are much more attuned to the difficulties of weaning people dependent upon class-A drugs off that habit; the time that it takes; and the fact that you cannot reasonably expect all drug usage immediately to cease and that what we are looking for is progress. All of the evidence suggests that crown court judges, district judges and lay magistrates are very willing to let orders continue to run, even where there is evidence of drug usage, providing that there is evidence of progress. I think that sort of communication—which of course is one of the proposals in the Halliday Report and now in the provisions of the Criminal Justice Bill—suggests that is one way in which the views of the judiciary may be changed by greater involvement.

  49. I have one last question on this. When you say that it is not your role in any way to comment on sentences—and perhaps you consider that it is a matter for your counterpart, the Chief Inspector of Prisons—do you feel in any way a responsibility to spotlight the crisis in prisons: hopelessly overcrowded; two in a cell, perhaps, in some cases, three in a cell; humiliating conditions and the rest of it, which in no way would possibly be seen as a form of rehabilitation once these people are released? Do you feel there is a responsibility to draw attention to that aspect?
  (Professor Morgan) Yes.

  50. Have you done so?
  (Professor Morgan) That is why, in the last three or four months I have been talking about the overloading of the correctional services and the fact that I think, if that trend continues, it may be unsustainable. Because it is not my function to talk about the appropriateness of particular sentences in particular cases but it is, I think, the duty of both myself and the Chief Inspector of Prisons to talk about the repercussions of overall policy and the way it works through in terms of the operation of the probation service and the prison service. That is why I have been talking in the way that I have about sentencing drift, and not just overcrowding of prisons but the silting up of probation caseloads with low-risk cases. It is a misuse of resources which I do not think adequately protects the public.

  David Winnick: We certainly have a crisis in the prisons all right.


  51. Mr Hutchings, just going back for the moment to this question of the time that elapses between the imposition of an order and actually getting on to a suitable programme. Here is a letter I received yesterday from a probation officer in North London.[3] He says that someone sentenced to a community order could wait for up to six months for a letter summoning him or her. Is that correct?

(Mr Hutchings) It may happen. We would be severely critical of that. My impression of it from inspections is that, even in London, that would be very much the exception to normal practice. He is saying that is the general—

  52. Perhaps I have misunderstood it. He says, "From the look of the "Community Orders" in this Bill—

  (Mr Hutchings) Is this from Mr Watson?

  53. Ah, you have got him.
  (Mr Hutchings) Yes, he sent Professor Morgan a copy of his letter.

  54. He did send you a copy of it, yes. "... an offender will be "sentenced" to, say, a "programme requirement", and [s]he will not be under supervision of a probation officer at all. [S]he will just go home and wait for a letter summoning them to start the group, which could be anything up to six months later, such is the shortage of groups."
  (Mr Hutchings) I have seen that letter. I think it is about an accredited group work programme rather than a community punishment group.

  55. Yes, it is, you are quite right.
  (Mr Hutchings) So there is a difference there. Clearly the times which people may have to wait to start programmes may be longer, although, I would imagine, in an area like London there will be sufficient offenders for offenders to start groups reasonably frequently. The expectation certainly of ourselves and the National Directorate is that somebody who has a condition to attend a programme would be under the supervision of a probation officer, their case manager, from the moment they left court when the order was made.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

  Bob Russell

  56. Professor Morgan, earlier you referred to the caseloads, the number of staff and so on. How do you assess the current state of staff morale?

  (Professor Morgan) I think the whole question of morale in any service is extremely difficult. I myself have worked in the public sector throughout my employed life and every branch of the public service in which I have worked has always described itself as in a "dreadful state of morale" and "its lowest ever," so I am relatively sceptical about such assertions. That is not to say that I am complacent about the morale problem—and I have referred to it at several points already today—but it is not my impression that there is a dreadfully low state of morale in the probation service. When I go out, I encounter a great deal of professional pride in new skills, many of which have been developed in a very recent period in relation to the "What Works" programmes. The composition of the probation service has changed quite significantly in the last five/six years. We have already referred to the significant increase in the number of so-called probation service officers who have been recruited to deliver programmes and to undertake other categories of work. I think it is on the cusp, frankly. The industrial action taken in a minority of areas is a straw in the wind, something to which we have to play close attention. It reflects what I think I would describe as mood music: concern about caseloads, about adequate support, about what the immediate future is going to look like. The service has gone through a period of massive change in the last three or four years and the fact that we have potentially no fewer than five Bills, all of which have some implication for the work of the probation service, currently before Parliament in this session, signals other major changes for the service to cope with. So there is concern about the future, about what it is going to look like, there is concern about workloads, but I would say that there is not a chronically low state of morale. There is as much pride in new skills and developments as there is concern about the changes that have taken place.

  57. Cannot pride in one's job also mean that there is low morale if they are having to take industrial action? You are saying these are straws in the wind and then you go on to indicate all the additional changes and increased workload which is coming down the track with the Criminal Justice Bill and, in particular, the Custody Plus scheme.
  (Professor Morgan) This is why I have balanced everything I have said hitherto in terms of those changes and the degree to which we are able to arrest the sort of sentencing drift that we are talking about. There are a lot of uncertainties. We do not know what the resources position is going to look like in order to back the changes in the Criminal Justice Bill, for example, and when those changes are going to be implemented. It may be that huge additional resources are going to be provided to back them up, and they can be implemented earlier. If not, then I emphasise once again that I think we have to do something to relieve the service of some of the work that it currently undertakes and we need initiatives to pursue that objective.

  58. Based on what has happened over the last few years and the changes that are coming down the track, is the Government making sufficient allowance for the increased workload in the new sentencing proposals? For example, would weekend prisons be one way of assisting?
  (Professor Morgan) I would have thought that weekend imprisonment would almost certainly be an irrelevance to most of the issues that we have been discussing. Even if it were introduced, it would probably engage a remarkably small proportion of all offenders.

  59. Putting that to one side, is the Government therefore making enough allowance for all the changes which it has introduced and those that are proposed?
  (Professor Morgan) We reserve our position about the workload and the strains, and that is why we have said it is something to which we want to pay close attention in the next year or two. The question you asks involves a large number of contingencies. Of the Bills before the House, I do not know yet which provisions Parliament will approve. I do not know what amendments might be introduced which might further some of the objectives that we have been talking about; for example, resuscitating the use of fines and the degree to which the probation service might be relieved of some of the work currently being undertaken. There are so many contingencies that I think it is impossible to answer your question.

2   See Ev 19-20 Back

3   See Ev 20-22 Back

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