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Standing Committee E
Tuesday 6 July 2004
[Dame Marion Roe in the Chair]
'(1) After section 125B of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 (c.43) insert—
''125BA Powers of persons authorised under section 125A or 125B
Schedule 4A to this Act, which confers powers on persons authorised under section 125A or 125B for the purpose of executing warrants for the enforcement of fines and other orders, shall have effect.''
(2) After Schedule 4 to that Act insert the Schedule set out in Schedule (Powers of authorised officers executing warrants) to this Act.'.
Brought up, and read the First time.
Question proposed [this day], That the clause be read a Second time.
Question again proposed.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following: Government new clause 43—Disclosure orders for purpose of executing warrants.
Government new clause 44—Procedure on breach of community penalty etc.
Government new schedule 2—Powers of authorised officers executing warrants.
Government new schedule 3—Procedure on breach of community penalty etc.
Government amendments Nos. 125 and 126.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I welcome you to the Committee this afternoon, Dame Marion. I was exploring the difficulties that could flow from Government new clause 42 and new schedule 2, which deal with the powers of authorised officers executing warrants. I was explaining my concerns about an individual who is probably very skilled and conscientious in what they do, but who nevertheless has not been trained and does not work within structures such as those of a police force, in which someone who holds the office of constable would work. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) appropriately widened the concerns, and it is a substantial concern to me that such an individual would not be trained in arrest. They will be trained if they have a good employer, but not all of them will necessarily be trained in that area.
Those people will be working within a structure that has no obvious rank structure—there is no senior officer to whom they are responsible, as a police
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constable would be responsible to a basic command unit commander or, in the final reckoning, to a chief constable—and no recognised complaints structure. Indeed, the Minister's failure to provide even a glimmering of a structure this morning suggests that that has not figured much in the Government's thinking so far.
There is also a real fear—although I do not want to overstate this—that occasionally an officer will take action in circumstances involving delicate community relations, for which we insist that police officers have special training. We go out of our way to ensure that they exercise their powers of arrest, and particularly their powers of search, properly. Indeed, a huge study has just been launched to ensure that police officers use the power of search appropriately. None of that applies to authorised officers.
I foresee a further operational problem. One advantage of not being able to effect a forced entry to premises or to make an arrest without a constable attached is that the local police will be aware of the circumstances, and of what is happening. There is therefore a clear opportunity for the local police commander to say, ''Hang on a minute, you will jeopardise a police operation if you do things in that way at that time.'' There is a real possibility that a court official could arrive halfway through a surveillance, blast their way through the door and start doing cack-handed searches while the crime squad waits outside, frustrated by the fact that its entire operation is being brought to naught by such action.
The Minister is smiling, as if that would not happen. Let him consider the history of operations in which more than one force was involved, or in which a force and Her Majesty's Customs and Excise have failed to communicate properly. If he considers all the opportunities for destroying what may have required many months of patient police work, he will realise that this is a real threat, which should be avoided.
For all those reasons, I am wary of the proposal. I want effective enforcement of court orders and fines imposed by a court. I want things to happen within the rule of law, and I want to ensure that everyone involved is properly trained, and that there is redress beyond the very basic redress of a civil remedy that the Minister seems to advocate in the case of an action that falls outside the scope of paragraph 2 of new schedule 2. We are not yet satisfied that that is the case.
I want to ask one direct question. The authorised officer is defined as an authorised officer as specified in the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980. Could that include, mutatis mutandis, the designated officers under the Courts Act 2003? It seems to me that although they would not normally be operating in those circumstances, there is a mix and match between them. There are fines officers appointed by the Lord Chancellor, there are designated officers under the Courts Act who are, effectively, appointed by the local magistrates bench, and there are these authorised officers. I want to ensure that we are talking about the same species in all instances, and that there is a
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read-across between the different pieces of legislation. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response, because he has not yet convinced me that this is not a hefty sledgehammer with which to crack a relatively small nut.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I do not want to detain the Committee for long. I have said before that I would like the collection of fines to improve, and the Minister has told me that the level of collection under his jurisdiction has improved, which is a matter for great rejoicing.
However, I know from other Front-Bench utterances that the Government will seek to rely increasingly on fines. It seems to me that these provisions are fairly draconian, in order to back up that policy; the level of fine collection must remain the same or improve, so that the Government's intentions are not defeated.
I am particularly worried about one aspect. On 30 June, the Minister sent a letter to me explaining these latest amendments, and it says that they would establish certain powers. One is a primary data-sharing power to enable the courts to demand access to data held by credit reference and financial institutions. I appreciate that that is a limited amount of information, but the demand itself may have unintended consequences. Therefore, I want to probe a little further what is in the Minister's mind.
It seems to me that the very act of demanding access to data held by a bank, a financial institution or a credit reference agency might in itself cause that bank, financial institution or credit organisation to draw adverse inferences about the individual who the courts have in their sights. How does the Minister view that demand from the court? Will it be accompanied by a proviso to ensure that the institution of which the inquiry is being made draws no adverse inferences from the inquiry? How will the citizen be protected? When the state takes for the courts powers that allow any financial institution and any credit reference organisation to be accessed, we have to ensure that there are no unintended consequences.
In the past—even some Committee members might know this—if people did not make payments on their American Express cards, the company was particularly vociferous in ensuring that their credit ratings went down all round the world. When someone is travelling a long distance and is away from home for six or eight weeks, that can be a bit embarrassing, because if they pay their credit card by cheque they have not been at home to do so. When they find that they have a bad credit rating that has followed them to the other end of the world, it can cause difficulties. I seek assurances from the Minister, because that is important.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): First, it would be useful to address the point about data sharing and the data disclosure order, which the hon. Lady raised. She made a reasonable point about the act of demanding rather than simply requesting. As I have said, I do not think that the data disclosure order will be required frequently, because I hope that through discussions and persuasive means we can get
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the consent of different public and private organisations to share data on the limited basis that we are talking about—using the national insurance number, address, name or date of birth for the purposes of preventing crime and ensuring that sentences are upheld. Where those orders need to be made—I can envisage such circumstances—we will have the coercive power to ensure that that data is relinquished to the court. That is justifiable.
Some may have asked whether the provision is compatible with general human rights such as the right to privacy; in a sense, the hon. Lady's point touches on those issues. However, the provision is justified for the sake of preventing crime. The need to uphold the deterrent effect of sentences and sanctions gives us a justification for stepping into the realm of private data. That is part of the data protection arrangements that are already well entrenched.
The hon. Lady may not be familiar with this, but a pilot is taking place in south Yorkshire under provisions in the Courts Act 2003 for a register of judgments to be set up. Fines would be put on a register available to financial institutions. That would be an additional deterrent for individuals and would ensure that they paid their fines when they were due. We are testing that principle in the field to see how it works. It has received a lot of publicity, and many people who have felt that their credit rating may be affected by defaulting on criminal fines have been persuaded to pay them more readily. That is a perfectly legitimate incentive to give someone convicted of a criminal offence, to ensure that they pay their fine. I take on board the point that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham asked about, but as we need to ensure that the courts have the information to pursue enforcement, the provision is warranted and reasonable.