Courts Bill [Lords]

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Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): Those people who are in employment can suffer an attachment of earnings, and those who are in receipt of benefit can have an attachment of benefits, but as we know from the child support system, quite a few people are self-employed and miss such punishments. Is there any power to make those who are self-employed pay fines if they do not do so voluntarily?

Mr. Leslie: There certainly is. There will be provisions in respect of the normal payment by a corporate structure. An individual who is self-employed will have to make that payment, even if that person is the only employee of a particular company. It is possible to set conditions, so that the company will pay the employee, even if they are the sole employee, and make deductions. The provisions from the original schedule that we have kept cover some of those matters and collection orders have the scope to consider those in self-employment. I shall want to look into the matter in greater detail because there is a series of issues where people have avoided payment throughout by one means or another. We need to find systems that will tighten the process up and catch everyone, so that there is no way of avoiding obligations should fines be imposed.

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Mr. Kidney: May I make a suggestion? In civil proceedings there is another way of enforcing an order, called a garnishee order. If a third person owes money to a debtor, the creditor can go directly to the third person and have the money paid over to them. It is very common when a bank account is in credit. One can garnishee the account. If someone were self-employed, the person who was engaging that person to do work would owe them money. That would not be a matter of wages but we could attach the money that they were due to pay. Would my hon. Friend the Minister consider that? I know that it is a bit late in the proceedings, but it would be nice if we could tie up all the ways in which people can dodge out of paying fines.

Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend makes an entirely reasonable suggestion. We framed the new schedule, and the existing one, in order to have as much flexibility as possible in the way that we draw together the pilot schemes. We want to be able to make modifications to cover such eventualities should they prove necessary. All Committee members should accept that approach, and I shall certainly consider my hon. Friend's suggestion further.

I want to say a word about the amendments that I have outlined which will ensure that fines will be collected, where possible by the attachment of the offender's earnings or benefits. New Schedule 2 will allow fines to be discharged by means of unpaid work where other enforcement methods open to the court are likely to be impracticable or inappropriate. The possibility of working off a fine will not be given to all offenders—only to that small number from whom the money cannot be collected by any of the usual methods.

The provision is designed to complement the new fines collection measures. If an offender is fined and the new scheme is not applicable to him, he will be able to agree to work off the fine at a given rate. The new collection scheme may not be practicable or appropriate because he may have no money, no job or is either not claiming benefit or is already having the maximum amount deducted. That will not apply to compensation or costs. If the offender has sufficient resources, it should be available to the victim where a compensation order has been made.

If the offender consents, the court imposes a work order setting out how much he owes, how many hours he has to work and how long he has to complete it. The order will also name a fines officer who is to be responsible for the order and a supervisor who will monitor the performance of the work.

We hope that we will be able to look to the voluntary sector to provide that supervisory function. From discussions with them we believe it will be possible to develop local arrangements whereby the courts and local voluntary organisations will work together to operate the scheme. Many local organisations already have experience of working with offenders and we believe that they will be able to provide suitable work that will enable the offender to repay the community while at the same time

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discharging his fine. When the work is complete, the supervisor will report back to the fines officer and the fine will be regarded as paid.

If the offender fails to complete a work order without a reasonable excuse, the court will need to deal with him as a serious defaulter. An amendment to the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 will give the court the power in such circumstances to deal with the offender in the same way as it currently deals with someone who will not pay a fine. That includes committal to prison or the community alternatives of curfew, community punishment or driving disqualification. If the offender is having difficulty complying with the order for a valid reason, the court can revoke it or vary its terms, perhaps to allow more time for its completion. In any particular case, the court can ask or require the supervisor to attend court as a witness to help to determine how much work has been done.

We will pilot the new proposals with the other measures in the Bill. The results of the pilots will be taken into account in drawing up the final arrangements, which must be confirmed by affirmative resolution of both Houses. We hope to progress the pilots rapidly following Royal Assent.

The purpose of the Government amendments is to make the fines collection regime more robust and, where it is necessary, to allow fines to be discharged by unpaid work. We hope that the measure will avoid the need for courts to remit fines or to impose discharges where an offender cannot pay. Together with the fines collection scheme, it should lead to a position where no offender leaves the court without an arrangement to discharge their sentence, and robust measures will be in place to tackle default. I hope that the Committee recognises the benefits of the new measures.

Mr. Hawkins: The Committee will realise that our amendments were tabled with the contents of the original Bill in mind. In particular, amendments Nos. 51 to 57 relate to the original schedule 3, which the Government are replacing in its entirety, so I shall not spend much time on them.

When I saw the Government amendments, I considered tabling further amendments to the revised schedule, but the Government have taken account of a number of points raised by my noble Friends Baroness Seccombe and Lord Renton on Report in another place on 8 May. We made our concerns clear in another place about the parliamentary scrutiny of the matter and about whether the Lord Chancellor should have complete discretion. We have been reassured both here and in another place, but after the pilots the final version of the legislation will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, for which I am grateful to the Minister. However, it would be better if the affirmative resolution procedure were used for the pilots.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) pointed out that in his experience—I share his view—garnishee orders are often useful in civil law.

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We could debate those issues in examining the pilot scheme, and amendment No. 50 suggests that we should use the affirmative resolution procedure in those circumstances. We will not fall out over that issue, but I hope that the Minister will continue to reflect on the matter. It would be helpful if he were to state that he will continue to discuss the matter with his officials. Given that the Government have changed the whole schedule, it may be better to use the affirmative resolution procedure for the pilot to allow us to debate the issues. Amendment No. 49 would delete subsection (8) which gives the Lord Chancellor too wide a discretion, so amendment No. 49 goes with amendment No. 50.

Following the replacement of schedule 3 by the Government, who took into account what was said in another place, amendment No. 55 is the one remaining matter of substance. Amendment No. 55 is, of course, no longer in a proper form so I shall do no more than probe the matter. A little while ago, I referred to the Private Security Industry Act 2001 on which I led for the Opposition at the end of the past Parliament. We want to make sure that the Bill and the 2001 Act work together. I hope that the Minister will say that between now and Report he will examine not only the point that I raised earlier this morning about the 2001 Act and training, but licensable conduct under the 2001 Act. I had hoped that the Government would specifically refer to licensable conduct in the Bill, and I hope that the Minister will at least say that he will examine the matter because he has said that he will examine the 2001 Act in relation to training.

In another place, my noble Friend Baroness Seccombe said that the Conservative party welcomes the idea of giving people an incentive to pay a fine. From the Government side, Baroness Scotland talked about how many people are so attached to their cars that the threat of clamping can concentrate the mind wonderfully and mean that money is magically found to pay fines. It is for such incentives that many people who have sat as magistrates or district judges over the years have been crying out. However, there must be safeguards, and Lord Goodhart, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats in another place, was concerned about human rights issues.

The Government have talked about work orders and the way in which they can be used in a similar way to community service. In my constituency, several people have told me that when they have had people doing community service, they have not been able to rely on it being done properly. I was talking not long ago to a headmaster who had had a party of community service order workers at his school. He said that they were so unreliable and caused him so much concern that in the end he had said that never again would he have any more community service people in his school. I know that the Government will analyse the pilots very carefully, but they must bear in mind the existing concerns of many law-abiding members of the community over the way in which community service order work is not always done or not always supervised properly, which was one of that headmaster's concerns.

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Having said that, I hope that the Committee will be able to see that we are not opposing root and branch all of what the Government are putting forward. We recognise that there is a benefit to pilot schemes, but we would have preferred to have been able to have a debate under the affirmative resolution procedure when the Government come forward with a pilot.

 
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