Courts Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Leslie: I am grateful to the hon. Gentlemen who have spoken in the debate so far. I assure the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) that the Government will take account of the views of the judiciary and representatives of magistrates on the process of fines enforcement, not least because magistrates courts are so closely involved in the day-to-day work. Although I have not spoken to the hon. Member for Woking on those matters, I will bear his suggestion in mind, and if I bump into him in the course of business, I shall certainly mention that we discussed the matter in Committee. I think that it is a perfectly reasonable suggestion.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome highlights that some will undoubtedly be wary of the concept of contracting out, and that is one of the reasons why we have made sure that there are

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important safeguards offering a certain level of protection, not least in terms of the consultation that would be required on any contracting out thought to be desirable. Also, an order will have to be made to make such contracting out possible.

9.45 am

The hon. Gentleman talks of the need to evaluate fines enforcement. That is why we have taken the piloting approach set out in the new schedules. He also suggests that it might be appropriate for the Select Committee to investigate how well the pilots do. Far be it from me as a Minister to suggest what Select Committees should inquire into, but I think that it would be entirely appropriate for it to look into fines enforcement in the piloting. I would certainly welcome that.

Amendment No. 47 is a drafting amendment, and amendment No. 48 contains the substance. I am sure that all Committee members agree on the importance of ensuring that fines officers are properly trained. That is vital to the success of the pilot schemes, as well as to the eventual national implementation of the new measures. However, I do not want the amendments to be made. It is not usual legislative practice to put training provisions in Bills, and before pilots begin there must be consultation with magistrates courts committees on the format and content of the training needed.

Mr. Hawkins: I intervene simply to point out that what I regard as a related Bill, the Private Security Industry Bill, now the Private Security Industry Act 2001, was considered towards the end of the previous Parliament, and I was the lead shadow Minister on the Committee considering it. There were huge requirements for training under that Act, so the Minister cannot say that we do not normally put requirements for training in a Bill. Will the Minister at least look back at the 2001 Act, although I know that he was not dealing with it, and keep the matter under review, so that we can perhaps return to it on Report?

Mr. Leslie: I am grateful for that information; I was not aware of that legislative provision. The reason why we are less keen to have such a blanket training provision in the clause is that it would replace the process that we are going through as we move towards the new measuresóit would replace the piloting and initial testing of much of the work.

Obviously, the only fines officers who will require extra training before the pilots begin are those who participate in the pilots. Any training guidance published prior to the completion of the pilots will necessarily be only a first draft and largely untested in practice. During the pilots, not all fines officers will apply the full range of sanctions set out in schedule 3, so each fines officer participating in the pilots will be trained and given guidance about the particular package of measures in the final collection scheme that they have piloted in their area. The pilots will provide the opportunity to test the quality and scope of the training provided and to identify any further training needs. It is therefore likely that training materials will be refined and supplemented during the pilots.

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National guidance will be made available to all courts areas and will be based on material that has been tested in the field and that relates directly to the final scheme, which will be approved by Parliament. However, if we were to accept the amendments, commencement of the pilot could be delayed and the opportunity to test the quality of guidance would be deferred. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will think again about the amendments.

Amendment agreed to

Mr. Leslie: I beg to move amendment No. 150, in

    clause 36, page 17, line 14, leave out subsections (2) to (8).

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

Amendment No. 49, in

    clause 36, page 17, line 34, leave out subsection (8).

Amendment No. 50, in

    clause 36, page 17, line 39, at end insertó

    '(9) The Lord Chancellor may by order make fines collections regulations.

    (10) No order may be made under this section unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing it has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.'.

Amendment No. 51, in

    schedule 3, page 66, line 28, at end insertó

    '( ) For the avoidance of doubt, where this Schedule applies, the court may reserve to itself any case which shall not then be subject to enforcement through the fines collection scheme.'.

Amendment No. 52, in

    schedule 3, page 66, line 35, at end insertó

    '( ) After a collection order has been made the court may require the fines officer identified in it under the provisions of subparagraph (2)(a) to report back to the court at any time required by the court which has made the collection order.'.

Amendment No. 53, in

    schedule 3, page 69, line 8, leave out from 'determined' to end of line 9 and insert

    'by the court at the time of setting the initial terms of the collection order.'.

Amendment No. 54, in

    schedule 3, page 69, line 10, leave out subparagraph (4).

Amendment No. 55, in

    schedule 3, page 70, line 38, at end insertó

    '(2A) For the avoidance of doubt any action taken to enforce a clamping order shall not be licensable conduct for the purposes of the Private Security Industry Act 2001 (c 12).'.

Amendment No. 56, in

    schedule 3, page 70, line 39, after 'except', insert 'by a court and'.

Amendment No. 57, in

    schedule 3, page 73, line 22, at end insert

    ', and

    ( ) has been notified to the court which imposed the fine.'.

Schedule 3óCollection of fines by fines officers.

Government amendments Nos. 156, 152 and 153.

Government new clause 4óCollection of fines and discharge of fines by unpaid work.

Government new schedule 1óCollection of fines.

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Government new schedule 2óDischarge of fines by unpaid work.

Mr. Leslie: I now turn to this large group amendments, new clauses and new schedules that deal with the collection of fines by fine officers and the discharge of fines by unpaid work. I hope that the Committee will bear with me, as these are new provisions, but I will be as brief as possible.

Baroness Scotland gave early warning of these amendments on 8 May and my predecessor, now Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), confirmed our intention to table them at Committee stage during the Second Reading debate on 9 June and announced various aspects concerning that.

First, I will deal with amendments Nos. 150, 152, 153 and new clause 4, which relate to piloting the proposals in the Bill as well as those introduced by these amendments. Amendments Nos. 150 and 152 delete existing references to piloting from clauses 36 and 106 respectively. New clause 4 and amendment No. 153 replace them with new provisions. They will enable the new measures on the collection of fines that are set out in new schedule 1 and the measures dealing with the discharge of fines by unpaid work that are set out in new schedule 2 to be piloted in specified local justice areas.

New clause 4(6), along with an order under subsection (5), will allow for modification of the measures, so that different elements of the package can be piloted in different areas. That will enable their effectiveness to be evaluated. Following the pilots, by virtue of new clause 4(7), the Lord Chancellor may make an order introducing the measures permanently. That final package, which could either be one of the pilot schemes or a version that has been modified in the light of experience of the pilots, will then be put to Parliament for approval under the affirmative resolution procedure before being rolled out nationally.

I know that the Committee will welcome that final package. That approach will enable the Government to bring forward a package of tried and tested measures, which we can be sure will deliver the improvements in performance that all hon. Members want.

For the convenience of the Committee, we decided to replace the existing schedule on fines collection entirely, rather than very substantially add to or amend it. New schedule 1, which replaces schedule 3, includes the material in schedule 3 but it will make it possible to use to greater effect existing powers to make deductions from an offender's earnings or benefits to recover the sum due.

I shall deal with the mechanism for ensuring that the court has accurate information about the offender's ability to pay, and the information that will be needed in order to make attachment orders, when introducing amendment No. 151 and new clause 3.

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New schedule 1 makes a clear distinction between offenders who co-operate with the court and pay their dues and those who do not. Special arrangements are necessary to deal with those who are able to pay but choose not to. Special arrangements are also necessary to cater for the circumstances under which an attachment of earnings or benefits might fail. For those in employment, those circumstances might include the offender being sacked or leaving their job, or the company going bust. For those on benefits, they may include the offender having already reached the limit of deductions that may be made from his benefits because of other debts, or the offender finding a job.

I will explain how the new schedule deals with offenders who are fined and who are not currently in default on any other fine or similar payment ordered by the court. Unless offenders pay immediately and in full, or volunteer for an attachment of earnings or benefits order, they will be made subject to a collection order, which will set out the repayment terms set by the court. Provided offenders pay in accordance with those terms, they may be eligible for a prompt payment discount on the fine.

The discount would apply only to the fine element of the sum due and not to fixed penalties registered as fines, to compensation, or to costs. Like the original schedule, the new schedule states that the amount of any discount is to be determined in accordance with regulations, as set by the Lord Chancellor, but must not be greater than 50 per cent. of the fine. Fifty per cent. is mentioned simply to place a limit on the power. I do not envisage a discount as large as that being offered. Rates will be piloted, but discounts will probably be no more than 20 per cent. I anticipate that, as thinking on pilots develops and discussions with practitioners continue, a few technical changes to the new schedule might be introduced on Report. An adjustment to the theoretical maximum percentage could be one of those changes.

As soon as the offender first defaults on agreed payment terms, he will lose any eligibility for a prompt payment discount and an attachment of earnings or benefits order will be imposed on him. Should the attachment order fail for any reason, the offender will be sent a notice warning him that the fine will be increased unless he contacts the fines officer, makes new arrangements to pay the sum due and sticks to them. Failure to co-operate will result in the increase standing and further enforcement steps being taken by the fines officer. Those steps include registering the fine with the registry of judgments set up under clause 96, which we will discuss later, issuing a distress warrant, and clamping the offender's vehicle and, if necessary, selling it.

Offenders who are existing defaulters often have a ''tail'' of unpaid fines and represent a major problem for the courts. Under the new regime, existing defaulters will be subject to an immediate attachment order unless they pay up immediately. They will not qualify for any prompt payment discount.

At the same time as the attachment order is made, the court will make a collection order, stating the ''reserve terms'', which are the repayment terms that

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will apply automatically if the attachment order fails. If offenders default on the reserve terms, they will be sent a notice warning them that the fine will be increased unless they contact the fines officer, make new arrangements to pay the sum due, and stick to them. Failure to co-operate will result in the increase standing and the further, more punitive, enforcement steps that I have described being taken by the fines officer.

I appreciate that the new schedule is long and complex, but the problems of enforcement are also serious and complex, as both the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have recognised. The new schedule provides the fines officer with a broader toolkit for dealing with defaulters. Although not all the tools will be used on all offenders, the measures need to be flexible enough to cater for the different circumstances and behaviour of the offenders who are being targeted.

The new schedule applies a series of filters, with the aim of isolating and dealing sharply with the hard cases. The collections regime need not involve any complications at all, provided that the offender either pays immediately, or sticks to the repayment terms set by the court. For those who are not existing defaulters, the incentive to do so is the potential prompt payment discount. When imposed, an attachment of earnings or benefits order will ensure that deductions are made automatically. If the attachment fails, the offender will have the opportunity to pay off the sum due by other means. An increase in the fine and further enforcement steps are reserved for those who refuse to co-operate, or who seek to play the system.

At each stage, the numbers affected will become smaller, and the incentives to co-operate should ensure that offenders will recognise that it is in their best interests to pay promptly.

 
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