Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Exchange of Letters between the Chairman of the Committee and Home Office Ministers

Letter to the Home Secretary from Chris Mullin MP, Chairman of the Committee


  Last week the Home Affairs Committee took evidence from Professor Rod Morgan, HM Chief Inspector of Probation. One of the points made by Professor Morgan was the use of fines had declined because of the difficulties of collection. He advocated a restoration of the unit fine principle briefly introduced, then abandoned, in 1991, and claimed 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 5%, were increased to the sort of level that the courts typically like to have paid 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."

  Professor Morgan's proposal struck the Committee as being worthy of further exploration. We would be very grateful to receive your comments on it. I enclose a complete transcript of the evidence session (please note that this is an uncorrected and unpublished version). The relevant comments by Professor Morgan are at Questions 24 and 40 to 43.

February 2003

Letter to David Winnick MP, Acting Chairman of the Committee, from The Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Minister of State, Home Office

  The Committee asked for our comments on the evidence presented by Professor Rod Morgan, about the possible restoration of unit fines.

  The Government is totally committed to revitalising the fine and to increasing confidence in it as a sentencing measure. Although community penalties are effective in dealing with more serious offenders, there is a sizeable group at the bottom of the range for whom community intervention is not necessary and for whom a fine can provide a perfectly adequate disposal. We are already working with the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Treasury to introduce measures which we hope will encourage sentencers to consider a fine for such offenders.

  The issue of unit fines and the case for their reintroduction was considered towards the end of last year. At that juncture it was decided not to go ahead, partly because of the unsuccessful implementation of the policy after the 1991 Criminal Justice Act and partly because the current arrangements for setting fines seem to work reasonably well. It was felt that the statutory scheme was too rigid and did not allow sentencers to exercise their discretion in order to avoid the imposition of wholly unrealistic fines.

  Because of your interest and the evidence from Rod Morgan we have revisited the subject, but even so we have not been convinced at this stage that unit fines would be a profitable way forward.

  However, the concept has not been wholly dropped, even though the statutory scheme was not a success. The current Magistrates' Association Sentencing Guidelines do, in fact, incorporate a less rigid version of unit fines, which appears to work satisfactorily. This was introduced in the most recent revision of the guidelines, in 2000. It includes a table which allows guideline fines to be read off depending upon the offender's disposable income and the fine `band' into which the guidelines place the offence in question. For example, an offender with weekly disposable income of £100 convicted of an offence of TV licence evasion, which falls into band `A', would have a suggested fine of £50. At the higher end of the scale, for an offender with a weekly income of £300 convicted of criminal damage, in band `C', £450 would be suggested. But this is just a starting point for magistrates and is to be increased or decreased depending on any aggravating or mitigating factors and whether there has been an early guilty plea. This guidance enables magistrates to operate flexibly, using their own discretion and taking income information into account, to ensure that a fine is set at an appropriate level.

  We believe that the main current priority for increasing the use of the fine lies in supporting the considerable number of current initiatives designed to promote its use, particularly those in the Courts Bill, which is introducing a wide range of provisions to ensure the collection of fines. The Government is proposing to make wider use of the existing arrangements for recovering fines income by the attachment of earnings and benefit. The Courts Bill also includes plans for the creation of fines officers and a single debt registry which will result in fine defaulters being black-listed for credit. In addition, Home Office research published in March identified ways within existing legislation for improving enforcement which, together with LCD, we are taking forward. With the exception of unit fines, these initiatives, when taken together, do pick up most of Rod Morgan's concerns.

  There are however no plans at present to increase the maximum amount that may be deducted each week from an offender's benefit, as he proposed. This was considered in the Courts Bill context, but decided against because of its disproportionate impact on the very poor.

  We will monitor very carefully the effect of all these measures on the use of the fine and will take any further action which is necessary. I would also expect this to be a key issue for the current review of correctional services being led by Pat Carter, supported by the No. 10 Strategy Unit, and we will clearly want to consider carefully any recommendations that come out of that review.

June 2003

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