Courts Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Heath: I am trying to understand clearly what is envisaged. Is it to be assumed that the work required will have an assumed monetary value, which will be consistent for work irrespective of the abilities of the person involved? We should not have a situation where someone who used to be an accountant discharges the fine in half an hour when someone who does not have those executive skills would need to work for a week to get to the same point.

Mr. Leslie: We are envisaging a flat-rate equivalent so that a number of pounds per hour would be discharged under the system. We have not finalised the value of the fine that would be discharged in any given hour, but that is the sort of the approach we shall take. It will be a fair scheme in that sense, and I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about a number of other issues. First, he asked about compensation orders and whether they would be effectively discountable for prompt payment. I can assure him that they would not be eligible for discount. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford rightly pointed out the ''relevant sum'' is clearly defined in paragraph 1(2) of new schedule 2. The system of compensation orders would not be affected. It is the fine alone that would be subject to discount, if we discount in that manner in some of the pilot schemes.

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On the question of work orders, I can also assure the hon. Gentleman that we do not envisage that people will be able to work away the compensation order. The work order relates to the fine and not to compensation. I am glad that he welcomed the new tool of vehicle clamping available to fines officers. That is an important new initiative which, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said, will drive home—please pardon the pun—the issue of a fine to the offender.

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West): Forgive me for taking a simple approach, but would it be better in sentencing guidelines not to fine someone in the first place, but to give a community penalty? That would avoid going through this process when people cannot pay and getting to the community penalty at the end.

Mr. Leslie: Different offenders have different penalties imposed on them by the courts and the courts are the best people to judge what the penalty should be. Fines are one of the main vehicles by which courts impose sanctions, and they are a good sanction. A fine can be an important disincentive to further offending. I would not want to see a diminution of fining. I should like to see a reduction in the defaulting on and dodging of fines. Sadly, too many people are getting away with not paying their dues.

The package of new measures puts together an administrative net to throw around the system to ensure that offenders who have been fined do not have access to such dodges and escapes. They will be given every incentive—not just encouragement, but sanctions—to ensure that those fines are collected. They are a genuine advance and I look forward to seeing how the pilots work.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford asked on the attachment of benefits orders which benefits would be taken in. The only benefits that would be applicable would be income support and jobseeker's allowance. Tax credit arrangements would not be affected in that way. That is the clear advice I have from the drafting, and I hope that that is a helpful assurance to the Committee.

My hon. Friend raised the matter of garnishee orders and the self-employed. If the Committee will allow me I should like to return to that point, look at it in a little more detail and perhaps write to my hon. Friend and the rest of the Committee about how we envisage such individuals being brought into the system. The point is interesting and I should like to investigate it further. I do not want a system in which anyone has a way out just because of the nature of their personal employment.

On work orders, I think that I have already answered the point raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and the other issues raised. I hope that the Committee will see that this measure is a significant advance. We hope that the pilots will eventually lead to a much stronger national system of fine collection and a better regime, making sure that, as a nation, we raise our game in the collection of fines imposed in the courts. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see fit not to press his amendment.

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Amendment agreed to.

Clause 36, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 3 disagreed to.

Clause 95

Fixing of fines: Failure to furnish statement

of financial circumstances

Mr. Leslie: I beg to move amendment No. 151, in

    clause 95, page 46, line 42, at end insert—

    '( ) Amend section 20A of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (c.53) (false statements as to financial circumstances) as follows.

    ( ) After subsection (1) insert—

    ''(1A) A person who is charged with an offence who fails to furnish a statement of his financial circumstances in response to an official request shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 2 on the standard scale.''

    ( ) In subsection (2)(b), after ''may impose'', insert ''and how it should be paid''.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government new clause 3—Recovery of fines etc. by deductions from income support: failure to provide information.

Mr. Leslie: Thank you, Mr. O'Brien, for progressing the Committee so well. I apologise for some of my interesting gestures during the past few minutes.

The amendment and new clause are designed to ensure that courts are provided with the necessary information to set fines at the right level and, if necessary, attach earnings or benefits provisions. Amendment No. 151 makes the failure to provide a statement of financial circumstances in response to an official request an offence punishable by a fine of up to £500.

Mr. Heath: I have not had the opportunity to look up the relevant section of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. Perhaps the Minister can help me by telling me whether the analogous provisions to new clause 3, which would qualify this new subsection, are already in the 1991 Act, that is to say, a person

    ''makes a statement which he knows to be false in a material particular, recklessly provides a statement which is false in a material particular, or knowingly fails to disclose any material fact.''

I am assuming that those are already covered, so are not in the amendment. Perhaps he can confirm that.

Mr. Leslie: My understanding is that under the 1991 Act as it stands, someone causes an offence if in providing financial information they mislead those involved. We are today seeking also to make it an offence to withhold financial information. That is, in essence, the change that we are making.

Amendment No. 151 widens the range of purposes for which a statement of financial circumstances may be required. Existing legislation permits a request about financial circumstances to be made for the purpose of determining the amount of any fine that the court may impose. The amendment adds:

    ''and how it should be paid.''

The effect is that a person who, on conviction, fails to provide the information necessary for the court to set

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the appropriate fine and the information necessary to make an attachment of earnings order or application for benefit deduction will be guilty of an offence. These measures complement the provisions already in clause 95 which, in the absence of means information provided by the offender, allow the court to make an inference about the offender's ability to pay and to impose a fine accordingly. The measures also complement paragraph 48 of new schedule 1. That establishes the offence of failing to provide a statement of financial circumstances to a fines officer on request and of giving false information to a fines officer or failing to disclose relevant information.

New clause 3 amends section 24 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 and makes it an offence to fail to provide the court with the information necessary to make a deduction from benefits order. It also creates the offence of giving false information or failing to disclose information. Those new offences mirror ones that are already on the statute book relating to attachment of earnings orders. That is the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. The provisions will cater for offenders who fail to provide the necessary information on the first default or where it is known to the court that the offender receives benefits.

In addition, the Government intend to use regulation-making powers in paragraph 44 of new schedule 1 to modify the 1991 Act and the Attachment of Earnings Act 1971 in two respects: first, so that the fines officer may make attachment orders or apply to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for deductions from benefits; and, secondly, so that the relevant offences apply where that information is requested by a fines officer. I commend the amendment and the new clause to the Committee.

Mr. Hawkins: We have no problem with what the Government propose in the amendment and the new clause.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 95, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 96

Register of judgments and orders etc.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Hawkins: Opposition Members hoped for an opportunity to debate what should precede the clause that comes next if the Bill is taken in strict numerical order. Clause 97(2) has caused concerns on the part of the Association of High Sheriffs of England and Wales, which is known as the Shrievalty Association.

I sought to table a new clause to deal with the concerns that were raised with me and that were raised by the shadow Attorney-General, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), on Second Reading and by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on behalf of high sheriffs in Lord Chancellor's Department questions, as they used to be. Unfortunately, the new clause was ruled to be beyond the scope of the Bill, and the amendment that I tabled

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is starred today, so my only opportunity to raise the matter is on clause stand part.

Will the Minister be so kind as to say that he will consider the amendment, even though it is starred, to see whether the Government can take account of it between now and Report, and whether he might be prepared to meet Mr. Roger Bramble of the Association of High Sheriffs of England and Wales?

The issue is that in the past there has been an arrangement between high sheriffs and under-sheriffs. This relates to clause 97(2) as it now is; I think that it was clause 91(2) when the Bill was before another place. In the past, each high sheriff has mandated the function of enforcing writs to his under-sheriff, who is traditionally a solicitor. In return, the under-sheriff has indemnified the high sheriff against litigation costs and awards, usually through the medium of an insurance policy.

High sheriffs are concerned that, because of clause 97(2), litigants might be able to proceed against high sheriffs who have been in office in any of the past six years—that is, until the normal statutory limitation would cut in. The high sheriff might have to pay costs and awards out of his or her own pocket. My hon. Friends have raised that concern. High sheriffs are particularly concerned that underwriters are reluctant to provide an effective insurance-based solution.

I would be enormously grateful if the Minister would say that he will consider the issue—I realise that it is new to him personally—and that, if it cannot be resolved between now and Report, he might agree to meet Mr. Bramble of the Association of High Sheriffs of England and Wales.

10.45 am

 
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