Courts Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Heath: I should like to deal with a few issues in new schedules 1 and 2. I broadly welcome the Government's approach here, so this is not intended to be an objection to the orders. I think that the Government have listened to some of the concerns expressed in another place.

First, on compensation orders, I want to make absolutely sure that I understand what is involved in the Government proposals. There is a complicated formulation in new schedule 1, which I believe means that compensation orders are included in the relevant sum under paragraph 1, separately from the fine, but that only the fine can be discounted. I hope that that is correct because it would seem entirely inappropriate for a compensation order to be discounted so that the recipient of the compensation thereby did not receive the total sum to which they were entitled. We know that the problem at the moment is that such people often receive nothing at all from a compensation order, and it is important that compensation orders are included in the scheme so that there is proper recovery.

That leads me to my second point. New schedule 2 has a slightly different formulation. Under paragraph 3, a work order is made

    ''in order to discharge by virtue of this Schedule his liability for the relevant sum'',

rather than for the relevant fine. It appears that a work order can substitute, under new schedule 2, a pecuniary compensation order made by a court because the term used here is ''sum'', rather than ''fine''. I am not sure whether that is entirely appropriate. Unless there is a mechanism by which the collection agency can then pay the sum to the person to whom the compensation was awarded, someone who has been punched on the nose, or whatever, and received a compensation order, is hardly going to be pleased to be told that the money to which he or she is entitled has been transferred to relaying a pavement in a school.

Mr. Kidney: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: I will; the hon. Gentleman may be able to help me.

Mr. Kidney: I shall have a good go. When the Minister presented his argument, he said that the fines were affected, not the compensation and the costs order. The first paragraph of new schedule 2 defines the relevant sum as:

    ''the sum for which P is liable as mentioned in sub-paragraph (1), but excluding any pecuniary compensation or any sum due in respect of prosecution costs.''

It seems that only the fine can be worked off.

Mr. Heath: That is helpful, except for the fact that paragraph 1(1)(a) defines that as a sum that

    ''consists of or includes a fine''.

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Something else that is not defined may be included. There is still a problem with the wording, although perhaps I am misreading it. If the Minister cannot give an answer, I invite him to consider the wording again to ensure that it is correct. The principle is clear, but I am not sure that the definitions are accurate.

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In my view the clamping or impounding of a car is an appropriate punishment for someone who defaults on motoring offences. Nothing is more guaranteed to focus the minds of people who have incurred motoring-related fines than the loss of their prized possession and the inability to use it. I support the Government on that.

On a slightly technical matter, the Bill is unclear—although perhaps it is clear in other statutes—about what the relationship is between the collection process, the application for benefit deductions, attachment of earnings orders and the relatively new benefits arrangements regarding minimum income guarantee and tax credits. I am unclear whether tax credits are dealt with as benefits for the purposes of the Bill and whether the minimum income guarantee might replace the money that had been removed by an attachment of earnings order. We would not want that to happen. The whole apparatus would be made nonsensical if the Government were effectively paying the fine through other Departments. Although I do not expect the Minister to give a comprehensive answer today on whether that is allowed for in the proposals, I ask him to consider that.

I strongly support the view of the hon. Member for Stafford on garnishee orders on non-employed people. That loophole is exploited far too often. The hon. Gentleman's view is sensible. Although the Minister was clear that there were arrangements for bodies corporate that were parallel to the provisions, I am not entirely sure that that is so. I should like to be satisfied that people could not evade fines by ensuring that the liability fell on the body corporate.

Are we to suppose that work orders will be administered by the same mechanism as community service orders?

Mr. Leslie indicated dissent.

Mr. Heath: The Minister shakes his head. I was hoping that he would nod. It is silly to have two separate arrangements for administering work in the community as a penalty. I hear what the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said about the school in his constituency. However, a school in my constituency was delighted with the work done by people on a community service order and I do not understand why more of those orders are not used in the local community to produce something to the common good. I argued repeatedly in the Standing Committee on the Criminal Justice Bill that we should make community service orders far more visible and that they should be of more benefit to the community against which a crime is committed. One of the difficulties of persuading people that those are a good, effective form of punishment is that they are invisible and often do not have the desired effect of a

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proper contribution being made to the community that was adversely affected by crime.

There are cost benefits from having a single scheme, rather than two. I have no problem with commuting a fine into a different form of punishment. However, I would be concerned if that resulted in an executive version of community service orders for nice middle-class people who do not want to pay a fine, while there was a different version for those who were ordered directly by the court to carry out community service. That would not be appropriate. As far as possible, there should be commonality between the two systems.

Mr. Kidney: I rise to make a speech, because if I said the following in an intervention, Mr. O'Brien, you would tell me off for taking too long.

The hon. Gentleman asked about which benefits could be attached. That is a good question, because with all the new tax benefits there is a lot of confusion about people's concessionary entitlement. I have certainly seen problems in my constituency. In paragraph 10 of new schedule 1, there is a definition:

    '' 'relevant benefit' means a benefit from which the Secretary of State may make deductions by virtue of section 24 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. . . (recovery of fines etc. by deductions from income support etc.)''

I bet that that section of that Act has been amended a few times. It would be interesting to know what is now covered, although I do not suppose that we will have the answer today.

Mr. Heath: The very title of the section suggests that it has not moved with the times.

Mr. Kidney: I would not assume that for a moment. Every time we make new legislation, we are fiddling with past legislation and adding bits. It is a nightmare for lawyers to keep up with, not to mention for citizens who do not need lawyers.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome raised the question of garnishee orders. Perhaps as a result of our experiences with the pilots, we will know whether the power is necessary. What is the legislative position on that? The hon. Gentleman objected to clause 36(8), which gave to the Lord Chancellor a Henry VIII power to change any enactment in order to follow up a pilot. It is good to learn from the experiences of the pilot and to make adjustments to get the smoothest possible practice; we do not want to overburden Parliament by coming back for extra legislation. However, I query whether a fundamental change, such as introducing a garnishee power and attaching things others than earnings, should happen through secondary legislation. I would prefer that to be included in primary legislation. I accept that we are late on in the process, and perhaps I should have spoken up earlier than today—I apologise for not doing so—but I still think that it is a cracking good idea.

Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend is very good with his cracking good ideas—he is renowned for them. I appreciate them, even if they are new.

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I thank the hon. Member for Surrey Heath for not speaking to every single amendment in the group as that would have significantly prolonged proceedings. I shall confine my remarks to amendments Nos. 49 and 50, to which he referred, and to amendment No. 55 on vehicle clamping.

The provisions in clause 36 are necessary if we are to implement the best possible fine collection scheme. By piloting different elements of the scheme in different areas, the effectiveness of the new measures can be evaluated. We will then be able to adjust any parts of the scheme that are found to be ineffective, and put to Parliament for approval by affirmative statutory instrument a package of tried and trusted measures for national roll-out.

Amendment No. 49 proposes that clause 36(8) should be deleted from the Bill. That would mean that the Lord Chancellor could not make an order that defined the collection scheme in the light of piloting. I am concerned that that might deny the full value of the pilot scheme. We need to have the ability to modify schemes, if necessary, to get the full value from pilots. The whole point of piloting is to identify weaknesses or unworkable parts of the scheme and then weed them out. It is likely that the pilots will provide opportunities to refine and tweak existing measures so that they operate more effectively, and that flexibility would be lost if the Government were to accept amendment No. 49. We should be prepared to learn from this new area of practice. The fact that the final package will be approved through affirmative procedure statutory instruments should give a certain level of assurance.

On amendment No. 50, I disagree with the point of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath that the early regulations must be subject to the affirmative procedure. It would be too burdensome to make any regulations for fines enforcement subject to the affirmative procedure, particularly as many of them will be primarily concerned with procedural matters, not substance. Indeed, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee did not recommend more than the negative procedure in that case. We should look to its suggestions on the matter.

On amendment No. 55, which is about the licensing of those who undertake vehicle clamping under the provisions of the Private Security Industry Act 2001, it is important to set out not only that clamping of defaulters' vehicles is an acceptable sanction to elicit payment of a fine, but that clamping is to be licensed. We do not want the cowboy clamping industry to view the measure as a way into the market.

There are concerns about who carries out clamping functions. We do not envisage that clamping of vehicles will be undertaken by fines officers. Enforcement action can be contracted out to approved agencies, and that will probably take place via the magistrates courts committees that are involved in the pilot. Regulations will clearly set out those who are authorised to carry out the enforcement of a clamping order, and I assure the Committee that enforcement functions will be contracted out to approved bodies. I hope that that gives a certain measure of assurance. I understand the point about

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aligning regulations with other Acts of Parliament that touch on the issue.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath raised general queries about community punishment—what used to be known as community service orders. He was concerned that pilots of the work orders should not give the impression to those who have become cynical over the years that they are a soft option or not particularly effective or useful to the community itself. The Government want to ensure that the voluntary sector involved truly engages in a mechanism whereby useful activities can be undertaken for the community and for reparation for the misdeeds of the offender, and that the fine can be repaid and discharged in the way that we envisage.

Work orders will involve the consent of the individual concerned. Therefore, the level of activity is different from that of the traditional orders to which Opposition Members referred. Obviously, if the work order were not undertaken, the supervisor would report that to the fines officer and tougher sanctions would be triggered and would be consequent on the individual concerned. The Government are investigating forms of work order activity that are different from the community punishment orders administered by the probation service and others.

I understand the concerns of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about the duplication of systems. Again, the piloting process will help to flesh out whether there is, effectively, a lesser tariff for discharging a fine than the punishment under a community punishment order. That is the reason why the different schemes have been envisaged, but I shall consider the matter as it develops during the pilot.

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