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Courts Bill [Lords]

Courts Bill [Lords]

Column Number: 191

Standing Committee D

Thursday 10 July 2003

Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]

Courts Bill [Lords]

9.30 am

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. I am not about to criticise the Minister because the matter is not down to him, but I wish to issue some guidance to his officials. On opening my House of Commons post about half an hour ago, I was surprised to find a detailed letter from the Minister explaining the amendments that we are about to discuss. The letter was dated 7 July. When a large group of amendments has been tabled, especially when a schedule is to be replaced, copies of the explanatory letter should be supplied to all members of the Committee, especially to spokesmen for the Opposition, on the day that it is written, by fax or by being put on the Members' Letter Board. I gather that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has not received such a letter.

Given the security measures in the House, letters do not necessarily arrive the following day by post. The Minister's letter took three days to reach my office. We have all read the amendments, but an explanatory letter about them from the Minister should reach Opposition spokesmen and, if possible, all members of the Committee on the day when it was signed by the Minister—in this case, 7 July. It is not beyond the wit of man to achieve that end by fax or by leaving letters on the Letter Board. It has often happened in the past. I hope that the Minister will take such matters on board.

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman will realise that that matter is not a point of order for the Chair. However, I am sure that the Minister will have noted what he said.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Further to that point of order, Mr. O'Brien. I apologise for the delay, either in the dispatch or in the postal process, in the hon. Gentleman receiving the explanatory letter on the new amendments. They were tabled some time ago, but explanatory notes are often helpful. I will undertake to find ways in which to communicate more speedily in future. Moreover, I shall try to be as explanatory as possible when referring to the amendments.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Further to that point of order, Mr. O'Brien. It would be extremely helpful if a copy of the letter were to find its way to the Liberal Democrat Bench this morning before we start discussing the amendments.

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman cannot receive a better delivery than that.

Clause 36

Fines officers

Mr. Leslie: I beg to move amendment No. 149, in

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    clause 36, page 17, line 12, after '2(1)' insert

    'or provided under a contract made by virtue of section 2(4)'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 47, in

    clause 36, page 17, line 12, leave out 'and'.

Amendment No. 48, in

    clause 36, page 17, line 13, at end insert

    'and

    (c) provided with training as a fines officer by the Lord Chancellor.'.

Mr. Leslie: This group of amendments is important. I shall not refer to amendments Nos. 47 and 48 now because I should like to hear the debate on them first.

Schedule 3, following its passage through the other place, already introduces several measures, including the new role of fines officer with increased flexible powers, an incentive of discounts for prompt payments and increases for default from fines. There will be a greater onus on the offender to provide a suitable means of information and the opportunity for further sanctions on default, such as vehicle clamping and fine registration.

Last week, the Government tabled the amendments, as well as new schedules 1 and 2, which we will be discussing later, to make it easier to deduct the fine directly from the offender's pay or benefits. To permit the private sector to be brought into the collection of fines, when the courts have been less effective in such collection, we will introduce a new offence of failing to provide details of income and expenditure to allow deductions to be made. For those who are genuinely unable to pay a fine, we will allow the court to convert the fine into a fines payment work order.

We will pilot the new proposals for changes to the scheme with other measures already in the Bill, and look for opportunities for separate pilots of contracting out, should that be desirable. The results of the pilot will be taken into account in drawing up the final arrangements, which will need to be confirmed by affirmative procedure of both Houses. We hope to progress the pilots rapidly following Royal Assent.

The purpose of the amendments is to make the fines collection scheme even more robust. They will ensure that no court imposes a fine on an offender without being certain that it can and will be collected.

Government amendment No. 149 follows in the wake of a recently commissioned independent consultant's report; I think that the consultant was Pannell Kerr Forster—PKF. It was published in June, and it recommended that we introduce more flexibility to the legislation to allow the role of fines officer to be contracted out, should it prove beneficial and cost effective to do so. As a result, the objective of the amendment is to allow more flexibility in the administration of the fines collection scheme. The amendment will allow the role of the fines officer, which under the current Bill must be carried out by an employee of the Lord Chancellor, to be carried out by a contractor. Where courts have been ineffective in the

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collection of fines, such flexibility will allow the private sector to be brought into the fines collection process.

The report argued that the draft Bill is too restrictive in insisting that all fines officers' new functions need to be carried out by employees of the new agency. Under current arrangements, some fines enforcement functions take place outside the courts. For example, some magistrates courts committees have contracts with private approved enforcement agencies, and others have contracts with the police. The review also suggested that considerable commercial expertise should be involved in debt collection, but under the Bill as drafted there is little flexibility to draw on outside commercial expertise in the new fines enforcement function. After discussions across Government, we have decided to introduce the amendment to increase flexibility, while retaining the Bill's safeguards against contracting out judicial functions, and also ensuring consultation. Those are important safeguards.

For contracting out, we introduced a safeguard on Lords Report. For work to be eligible for contracting out, it must be specified in an order and the senior judiciary must be consulted on the terms of that order. There is no intention to privatise across the board, or to outsource all fines officers from day one of the new unified administration in April 2005. The amendment simply allows outsourcing of the role, if it appears beneficial and cost effective to do so. I hope that most hon. Members view that as a sensible adjustment to the clause, and I urge the Committee to accept the amendment. I am interested to hear arguments for other amendments in the group.

Mr. Hawkins: I can deal with this group relatively briefly; there is greater substance in the second group of amendments to the clause.

In prefacing my remarks about amendments Nos. 47 and 48, I must say that we are aware that the collection of fines has been a serious problem. Not long ago, the Public Accounts Committee drew attention to the woefully low rate of fines collection. We welcome, in general, any measure to improve the proportion of fines that is collected.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) has experience of sitting as a district judge, and he has regularly spoken in the Chamber about his concerns that fines are not being collected. Home Office Ministers have regularly congratulated my hon. Friend on drawing attention in a constructive way to what he has seen in the courts. Will the Minister confirm, as Home Office Ministers have done in the past, that the Government in general, and he in particular will take account of the views of magistrates and judges? Will he confirm that he would be happy to discuss matters with my hon. Friend the Member for Woking, given that he is a Home Office shadow Minister?

Amendments Nos. 47 and 48 would require the Lord Chancellor to provide training for fines officers. That would be sensible and it cannot do any harm to have that written into the Bill. It is a small point, and I

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am sure that the Minister will say that that is implicit in what is done and that there will be training. However, I was delighted that he suggested the other day that he may accept one of my amendments.

Mr. Heath: The collection of fines at the moment is far from satisfactory. The matter has been debated in several contexts, not least in debates on the Criminal Justice Bill and elsewhere. I and colleagues, from my party and other parties, have suggested ways in which to make the collection of fines more effective and deal with defaulters in a more appropriate way that is more likely to get them to pay what is due.

The Minister will know that there were two principal concerns about the clause. I refer first to the view that the fines officers might be able to vary sentences effectively extra-judicially, although I think that the Minister dealt with that when discussing previous amendments. Secondly, there are genuine concerns about the contracting out of the services, so that they can be implemented by private companies. It has already been said that the private sector has expertise in that area. Expertise can be a term that covers a wide range of practice, which I am sure the Minister understands. Although we want a firm system for the collection of unpaid fines, we want a fair system that recognises the dignity of the individual and does not put inappropriate pressure on people. It has to be said that there are some in the private sector who put inappropriate pressure on people to pay unpaid debts.

We need to monitor the position carefully. The Minister suggested pilot schemes. It is important that they are evaluated in terms of not simply the additional revenue from fines collection—which is, of course, an important factor—but the experiences of the courts and permanent staff of the Department about how the individuals or companies employed for that purpose relate to their core duties. It would be useful for the Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department to scrutinise that in due course. The Public Accounts Committee should not have to blow the whistle on an unacceptable state of affairs. It could be better done by a Departmental Committee, and I invite the Minister to suggest to the Select Committee that it looks at the pilot schemes after time and gives its evaluation of how the systems are working and whether they are working effectively. However, I will not argue against the amendment.

 
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