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Standing Committee A
Tuesday 3 February 2004
[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]
Increase in penalties for
summary offences under 1991 act
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 38, in
page 18, line 10, leave out subsection (1).
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 39, in
page 18, line 14, leave out subsection (2).
No. 40, in
page 18, line 19, leave out 'level 4' and insert 'level 3'.
No. 41, in
page 18, line 21, leave out 'level 5' and insert 'level 4'.
No. 42, in
page 18, line 22, leave out subsection (4).
No. 43, in
page 18, line 30, leave out 'level 4' and insert 'level 3'.
No. 44, in
page 18, line 31, leave out 'level 5' and insert 'level 4'.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): On a point of order, Miss Begg. It is slightly unfortunate that Mr. Beard is not in the Chair because, having removed my beard, I was subject to abuse all of yesterday. If anyone wants to be rude, could they get it over with now?
The Chairman: That is not a point of order, and it is certainly not a matter for the Chair. I would not dream of making any comment about the hon. Member's lack of hair.
We are moving on to part 4. I had a marathon journey back to Aberdeen after I left the Committee last. It took me 20 hours, but that is another matter. This is traffic management and nothing to do with hair or a bit of snow.
Mr. Chope: I begin by confirming my view that my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) is as handsome as ever.
The amendments are concerned with penalties and they respond to putting the cart before the horse. We know that the Government are keen on penalising as many people as possible, so it is worth putting the penalties in context. There is a lot of difference between a penalty on level 4 and one on level 3. Currently, the maximum fine on level 3 is £1,000. The proposals to change it to level 4 with a £2,500 maximum fine, or level 5 with a £5,000 maximum, are significant in anybody's language.
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In adducing arguments to support the change, the Government have used the specious justification of inflation. Fines are already covered by inflation because from time to time the maximum fine at particular levels is increased by statutory instrument. That is why we no longer have legislation framed with a maximum fine of £1,000, but a maximum fine on level 3. Inflation is a specious justification for the substantial increase in penalties.
The second argument that the Government advance is that under the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991, little use has been made of the penalty regime, and that the maximum penalties should be increased.
Mr. Wilshire: I am interested in the point that my hon. Friend makes about the use of existing provisions. Has he been able to establish how much use has been made of them?
Mr. Chope: I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister and it seems that there is no direct evidence, which is surprising. Before the Government recommend that the maximum fine for an offence should be raised fivefold, which is what some of the proposals envisage, one might imagine that they would do their homework. The best information that they have is provided by the Local Government Association, which shows that little use has been made of the penalties.
Mr. Wilshire: If my hon. Friend is suggesting that there is no evidence that fines at the existing rates have been used, how is it possible to know that the existing amounts would not be adequate? If the provision is not being used, what is the point of increasing levels of fines?
Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend anticipates my argument, and I hope that the Minister addresses it in responding to the debate.
Sometimes there is evidence that the magistrates, in those few cases where there have been prosecutions, express their view that penalties are inadequate by imposing fines up to—if not at—the maximum level. In this instance, there is no evidence that the fines imposed have been anywhere near the existing maxima, showing that the view of the magistrates is that the existing levels are more than adequate.
The rationale behind the provisions is a proposal to introduce a fixed penalty notice regime. The fixed penalties will be related to the maximum fine that can be imposed by a court. If the existing level of fines continues and fixed penalty notices are introduced, those notices might be set only at the level of about £300. That is pretty small beer as far as many local authorities are concerned. It does not seem small beer to me, but that is the view of local authorities. Those authorities might think it much better if they were able to issue a fixed penalty notice and obtain largesse in excess of £1,000 or £2,000. I suspect that that is the hidden justification, which is why the Government's arguments in relation to the proposal to increase the maximum penalties are so weak.
I challenge the Minister to cite any instance in which a magistrates court has said to an offending
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company or organisation when imposing a penalty, ''We take such a grave view of these matters that we will impose the maximum penalty allowed, and we wish that the Houses of Parliament had given us power to levy an even higher penalty.'' I suspect that that has not happened. We know that there are examples where similar things have happened in relation to charges of killing people while under the influence of drink or dangerous drugs.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson) indicated assent.
Mr. Chope: The Minister is acknowledging that. He would accept that that was important and potent evidence when considering whether maximum penalties for such offences should be increased by the House of Commons. I challenge the Government to adduce similar evidence, if it exists, in relation to the maximum penalties imposed by magistrates courts for offences under the 1991 Act.
What does the regulatory impact assessment say about the matter? The RIA, as it relates to this part of the Bill, is voluminous in the extreme, but vacuous as well. There is no clear evidence in the assessment that benefits will flow from the provisions that will outweigh the burdens, and there is a certain amount of speculation related to the issue of deterrence. The best sort of deterrent is surely the knowledge that one is going to be prosecuted. Local authorities, which have the power to prosecute, are choosing not to prosecute at the moment.
A further relevant issue is that normally, if one of these offences is committed, a mass of them will be committed. It has always been possible for magistrates courts to add up the offences and impose a swingeing fine. There is no evidence to suggest that if someone gets on the wrong side of the law with regard to the offences in question, they will not be penalised to an extent that is reasonable, fair and just. By increasing the maximum, the Government are going too far. I challenge the Minister to give a reasonable justification for what is proposed.
Amendment No. 39 would leave out subsection (2), which would substitute level 4 or level 5 for level 3—level 3 is what is in place at the moment. Will the Minister explain the rationale behind raising some of the penalties to level 4 and others to level 5? I remind the Committee that level 4 is a maximum of £2,500 and level 5 a maximum of £5,000, which is five times the maximum for level 3. Amendments Nos. 40 to 44 seek justification for proposed increases from level 3 to level 4 and level 4 to level 5 in subsections (3) and (5). Similar arguments apply.
When we come on to the next group of amendments, we will discuss whether the case has been made for lane rental. The impact of the penalties could well mean that there was a tax on a stealth tax. [Interruption.] I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), has been waiting for me to utter the words ''stealth tax'' for the first time. I shall be uttering them quite a lot in the context of this part of
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the Bill. There is massive evidence to show that the proposals for lane rental will amount to a stealth tax.
Mr. Wilshire: Does my hon. Friend agree that even increasing the fines is a stealth tax? If magistrates impose only 60 per cent. of the maximum for level 3, and go on imposing 60 per cent. of the maximum for levels 4 and 5, they will be taxing people more and putting more money into the Revenue.
Mr. Chope: Yes. My hon. Friend is right. At the moment, prosecutions are brought only when they are reasonable and magistrates can adjudicate, but under this part of the Bill there is a proposal to introduce fixed penalty notices, the yield from which will be able to go direct to local authorities, if the Treasury agrees with the proposals. That would be a specific stealth tax, and a new and additional burden on utility companies and those who are doing their best to improve the infrastructure of our country—for example, by extending broadband and telecommunications services to those who do not already enjoy the benefits that they bring. A host of organisations are intent on improving the quality of the infrastructure in run-down inner-city areas. Under the proposals, they will suffer an additional burden because of the penalty regime. I hope that the Minister will think again about the matter, that he will seriously consider the purpose of increasing the maxima in the way that is suggested, and that he will admit that the justification given for increasing the levels from level 3 to levels 4 or 5 is specious and indefensible.
Mr. Wilshire: My hon. Friend has raised a number of questions.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty): Not that many, really.