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Standing Committee Debates
Fire and Rescue Services Bill

Fire and Rescue Services Bill

Column Number: 317

Standing Committee G

Tuesday 2 March 2004

(Morning)

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Fire and Rescue Services Bill

Clause 33

Pensions etc

9.25 am

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 120, in

    clause 33, page 16, line 8, leave out from 'conviction' to 'to' in line 9.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 121, in

    clause 33, page 16, line 12, leave out subsection (6)(a)(ii).

Mr. Hammond: We have moved on from the lengthy subsection (2) to subsection (6). This modest pair of amendments seeks to probe the Under-Secretary for an explanation as to why a different regime of imprisonment on summary conviction is provided for in England and Wales as opposed to Scotland. That is, of course, not a devolved matter, so it seems inappropriate that the penalty for a United Kingdom offence should be different depending on which constituent country of the UK the offender lives in. It is not at all clear why people residing in England and Wales should, on summary conviction, be subject to a prison term four times longer than that for someone residing in Scotland. The amendment would standardise the treatment of offenders in England and Wales with that in Scotland. I await with interest the Under-Secretary's explanation of the discrepancy in the Bill.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope): The amendments are misleading because we are dealing with separate criminal jurisdictions. As a result of the commencement of section 154(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, to which subsection (8) refers, the penalties on summary conviction will differ. Sentencing is a matter for the Scottish Executive, and they are awaiting the outcome of the McInnes report, a review of summary justice, before considering any changes to the existing policy. That, I hope, makes it clear that the systems are different and it will be for the Scottish Executive to change their sentencing policy if they wish to match the one that is being changed in the Bill. I hope that with that explanation the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment. If not, I am happy to try to deal with any other queries that he has.

Mr. Hammond: I find it deeply troubling that that aspect of devolution means that, where matters are reserved as UK matters, and a single regime applies across the UK, there will not be a single, comparable

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set of outcomes. We are not talking about a nuance; a sentence could be four times greater in England than in Scotland. There is the potential for heightening still further the sense of injustice felt by many English people about the beneficial regime that Scotland appears to enjoy.

Phil Hope: The White Paper, the review of the criminal courts of England and Wales, and the report by John Halliday, ''Making Punishments Work: Review of the Sentencing Framework for England and Wales'', arrived at the conclusion that that should be the punishment for those offences in England and Wales. I emphasise that, because of the different criminal jurisdictions, it is a matter for the Scottish Executive. The equivalent to the Halliday report, which informed the England and Wales divisions, is the McInnes report. It is for the Scottish Executive to decide, in light of that report, whether they wish to continue the different system.

Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to the Under-Secretary. I suppose that there is a glimmer of hope in that it is possible that sentencing regimes may be brought into line in future. What I have not heard is an acknowledgement from him that the situation, if it were to continue, would be unacceptable. Will the review that is going on in Scotland require primary legislation to amend the provision in subsection (6)(a)(ii)? If, as he suggests, there may be a change in the sentencing regime, that would presumably require primary legislation. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary is indicating dissent, as they say in Hansard, from a sedentary position, but it is not clear to me how we would deal with the provision that contains the phrase,

    ''in Scotland, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months'',

if the review going on in Scotland determined that there should be a longer sentence.

The principle involved is quite important. Of course, when matters are devolved, there will be different regimes. There will not necessarily be any symmetry in what happens in England and what happens in Scotland, which gives rise to problems of its own. However, when a matter is reserved and this Parliament determines the regime for the whole of the UK, it is wholly unacceptable that sentencing that relates to an outcome of that regime should be a devolved matter. The potential is there for the devolved authority in Scotland entirely to undermine the intention behind the UK policy by decreeing a nugatory sentence for an offence that this Parliament intends to result in a substantial punishment in England and Wales—perhaps up to 12 months in this case.

Obviously, if we are simply stuck with a timing discrepancy, and the Scottish sentencing regime is to be brought into line, that will resolve the problem. However, a potentially serious, and broad, issue has been highlighted. It goes a long way outside my brief on local government, and I will want to consult with

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my colleagues. I will not press the amendment to a Division, but I will want to discuss the wider implications of the matter.

Phil Hope: I cannot speak for the Scottish Parliament. However, I want to emphasise that it is a matter for the Scottish Parliament if it wishes to increase sentences. It has the powers to do so, even though this is a reserved matter, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. It is for the Scottish Parliament to decide: that is the nature of devolution. The hon. Gentleman may have wider concerns about that, beyond those of the Bill and the clause, but I want to emphasise that that is the situation.

Mr. Hammond: I understand the situation and I may indeed have wider concerns, but they are not relevant to this debate. The relevant point is that the clause has drawn my attention to the fact that the Scottish Parliament can, if it wishes, entirely undermine the intention of the UK Parliament in respect of a matter that is incontrovertibly reserved, given that it has control of sentencing for offences committed even in relation to reserved matters.

On a much wider canvas, sentencing for serious offences relating to significant matters of reserved policy could be entirely undermined if the Scottish Executive were able, for example, to decree a maximum five-day sentence for an offence that in England and Wales carried a maximum five-year sentence—I use an extreme example. The effect of that would be to apply nominally the same body of law in England and in Scotland, but in practical terms to create a situation in which the offence was not punished in Scotland. Surely that is a perverse outcome of the process of devolution. As I said, the issue goes much wider than the narrow confines of the Bill. I am grateful to the draftsman for drawing my attention to something that strikes me as very serious indeed. I hope to return to the issue in another forum, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): I beg to move amendment No. 181, in

    clause 33, page 16, line 28, at end add—

    '(10) The Secretary of State shall provide a separate flexible pension scheme for firefighters employed on the retained duty system within six months of the enactment of this Bill.

    (11) The retirement age of firefighters will be determined by their willingness and fitness to serve beyond the age of 55.'.

I have received a document, which I had not seen before, on part 4, ''Employment'', which goes some way towards answering the questions that lie behind our amendment.

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

Richard Younger-Ross: I have barely started but I will give way.

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Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman referred to a document, but I missed the title. Would he give it again? Has the document been circulated to the Committee?

Richard Younger-Ross: For the record, I am referring to the note on regulation-making powers in part 4 of the Bill.

I was seeking to have the Under-Secretary state whether retained fire crews will be entitled to a pension scheme such as that in part 4. Will he expand briefly on that? I also wanted him to explain further the Government's thinking about retirement age. At present, the cut-off is 55. A point put to me by several retained and full-time firefighters is that the rule is nonsense. There should be no reason why someone who is fit and willing cannot continue beyond that age if they wish. With a clear statement from the Under-Secretary, we may be able to move on swiftly.

Mr. Hammond: I would briefly like to record my party's support for retained firefighters and our recognition of the need substantially to improve their recruitment and retention. The Under-Secretary will probably agree that, if anything could undermine the modernisation process, it would be an inability to recruit and retain the required number of retained firefighters for the service that is envisaged. Addressing the pensions issue may be only one part of the answer to that problem.

I know that the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) represents an area where the fire service is almost entirely made up of retained personnel, but I am not entirely certain that their interest would be best served by a separate pension scheme. I would be grateful if the Under-Secretary could confirm my understanding that the Government are committed to making proper pension arrangements for retained firefighters.

Richard Younger-Ross: The amendment does not say that there should be a separate scheme; it says that there should be a flexible one. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that the arrangements could come under an existing scheme.

 
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