Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill [Lords]

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Mrs. Gillan: I was not aware of the pilot but I will be interested to see the outcome of it. I am worried, because surely a name, date of birth, national insurance number and address can be obtained from sources other than financial institutions and credit reference agencies—so why go to those lengths? This is effectively a ''name and shame'' policy; surely the courts and the Government can provide that information from their own records on individuals.

Mr. Leslie: Indeed, we hope that the bulk of the information is already in the public sector and in the public realm. However, we are finding that certain individuals manage to evade that possibility: they simply never put their names on the driving licence database, complete their tax returns or anything else. They manage to skip through society without recording themselves in a consistent and verifiable way. Yet, they will still be able to get credit, loans and access to resources through the private sector and the financial services industry, which, on occasion, quite happy to co-operate.

In some circumstances we need the back-stop ability to say that we have this power, and we want the extra information. I am sure that the hon. Lady knows that although the public sector's computerised recording systems and many other databases are near-perfect, from time to time there is a loophole or

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lacuna and things are missed out. We should be able to get the information from other sources, which is why the provision has been included. It will be interesting to see the outcome of the pilot in south Yorkshire concerning the deterrent effect. Although this measure will not have precisely the same effect, it is in harmony with those changes.

2.45 pm

I shall deal with the points raised by the hon. Members for Beaconsfield and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). I am sorry that they are cautious about these measures and have used the word ''draconian'' and other doom-and-gloom terms. There are sufficient safeguards in place to ensure that they will work effectively.

Both hon. Gentlemen are concerned about complaints processes. We must not forget that civilian enforcement officers have been around for a long time and, from time to time, complaints have been made against them. Such a complaint goes to the manager of the enforcement section of the magistrates court committee. If no satisfaction is received at that stage, the complaint moves to the justices' chief executive of the magistrates court committee, whose adjudication on the complaint is normally final as far that that organisation is concerned. If any further redress is necessary, it falls to the courts to sort it out—for example, individual officers can be sued for trespass if they have used force, and so on. It is important not to neglect the fact enforcement officers will need guidance and training—which we already provide—particularly as they step up into the realm of approved enforcement activity. We will continue to do that.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned the onset of the new fines officer posts. The Courts Act 2003 will already be kicking in in many magistrates courts authorities. There is a significant package of training and best practice guidance rolling out throughout the country, not least in anticipation of unified administration, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that the necessary training for fines officers to operate these provisions satisfactorily will be incorporated in it.

There is a need to consider the adequacy of the complaints arrangements. Although I a little bit sceptical about whether that is necessary, I am aware that the White Paper published in March 2003, which considered enforcement and security industry issues in general, speculated about whether it might be possible for the Security Industry Authority—established as a statutory body—to contain a complaints board. We have not come to that conclusion in relation to criminal fine enforcement activity, but in the light of the comments made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, I will talk to my colleagues who are involved in that area of policy and see whether we can investigate that idea further. My feeling is that it is not necessary and the current provisions are suitable.

The hon. Gentleman concluded that we were talking about bailiffs. It is important not to regard all the individuals involved as bailiffs—or, as we traditionally know them, those involved in serving

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distress warrants and sequestering or seizing goods to pay for debts. We are, by and large, talking about civilian fine enforcement officers who have warrants for arrest and arrest people, and take them to court using bail and no-bail warrants; they are already engaged with and trained in a number of relevant activities. We are talking about all officers authorised by the court to act on its behalf who are acting after due process has been gone through in respect of each of the individuals concerned. The individual will have been convicted of a criminal offence, will have a sentence outstanding and will already have been subject to attempts to enforce that sentence; the different avenues will have been fruitlessly explored. In extreme situations, a point may be reached where there is a need for face-to-face visits, arrest and, if necessary, entry to property to ensure that the sentence is upheld.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to hear about some of the different avenues. I am still a little confused about the differences between authorised officers in the Bill and designated officers and fines officers in the Courts Act 2003. Is one group a subset of the other, or is each group entirely distinct, in which case some will not have the powers that accrue from the new clause and proposed new schedule 4A to the specific category of authorised officers appointed under the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980?

Mr. Leslie: That is a fair point. The hon. Gentleman knows that the courts are in a transitional phase. We are changing from having 42 magistrates courts committees, which approve their own officers to execute warrants of the same type that can be executed by any civilian enforcement officer across the country, to a new system under unified administration wherein, in effect, civil servants will have the new powers once they become fines officers; that will give them the extra powers under the Courts Act. We anticipate that the individuals will largely be the same, although technically the post is different so it comes with requirements for training and expertise. The jobs will be similar and parallel, but fines officer posts will be introduced along with unified administration in April 2005.

Mr. Heath: I am sorry to labour the point, but, in that case, the amendment does not give the powers to the right people. There is nothing in the Courts Act that redesignates people who are authorised officers under section 125A of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 as the officers who are referred to in the 2003 Act. I ask the Minister to look at that again, as there seems to be some disjunction.

Mr. Leslie: I will look at that again. Our intention is that the powers will apply to fines officers as they will be known from April 2005. I would have thought that there was an amendment to the 2003 Act relating to changes to the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980.

Mr. Heath: I cannot find it.

Mr. Leslie: If the hon. Gentleman cannot find it, I shall certainly look. We want to make sure that the changes are technically watertight.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that such powers should be exercised only by the police. As I said, it is

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important that we try not to place the burden of court enforcement on the police on all occasions, which is what we might have to do if we continue with the requirement for having a police officer at all times.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I do not share the view that the powers have to be exercised by the police—indeed, I am not 100 per cent. whether that was what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome was saying. We agreed in respect of those who exercise the powers that we must be mindful of the impact that that exercise is likely to have, and that there should be adequate preparation. In particular, there should be proper mechanisms of accountability and consultation for what I fear could otherwise become a freelance operation. The Minister said that the officers in question are not bailiffs. Of course, they are not, but he knows that many of them will come from that background.

Mr. Leslie: I understand the point that both hon. Gentlemen are making, but there is sufficient structure and accountability in the courts themselves through the management of the enforcement sections and the justices' chief executives, which are responsible for managing them. There is a good structure in place for complaints, discipline, training and supervision.

I was intrigued by the point that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made about the possibility of a police SWAT—special weapons and tactics—team camping outside someone's door, only for a hapless enforcement officer to come along and ruin it all by appearing on the scene. Of course, at present, enforcement officers knock on doors, make arrests, take people away and so forth, so any problems envisaged with the provisions in future should be occurring now, and we do not think that there are any. There are good relationships between police and court enforcement staff and there is liaison between them, and we hope that that will continue. However, that does not necessarily mean that enforcement officers should require a police officer to come with them whenever they are enforcing in a significant way, such as when they are searching or entering a property.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield raised the issue of transferring community penalty breach warrants and asked how courts would be apprised of the full facts of a case if a different court had been considering it. I appreciate his experience in some of these matters. He suggested that courts sometimes do not have all the paperwork to hand. We will put in place systems that will improve the transmission of information from one court to another—indeed, transferring the whole order to another court should ensure that the information and files go there as part of that process. As we move towards improved information technology and better use of it by the courts, I am confident that those problems will begin to disappear.

The new clauses and new schedules are vital to the next phase of improving fine enforcement. Although I understand the points raised by Opposition Members, I regret that we have not focused sufficiently on the need to uphold the decision of the courts to collect compensation on behalf of victims. That would make

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sure that the balance is shifted in favour of the victims of crime and the law-abiding public, and that we close loopholes for those who have been convicted of criminal offences. I believe that the new clauses and schedules will make an appreciable difference to the powers in the enforcement process, and I commend them to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

 
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