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Fixed Penalty Notices

17. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): If she will make a statement on the proposed use of fixed penalty notices for disorderly behaviour as part of the Government's respect action plan. [44681]

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): The respect action plan sets out the Government's intention to make more use of penalty notices as a swift response to those who accept that they are guilty of offences of disorder.

Andrew Rosindell: The Minister will be aware that the Prime Minister has said that an individual would be able to appeal against a fixed penalty. Will she confirm that in reality an individual could, if they chose, ask to be tried for the offence, and if not, the penalty would lapse, therefore tying up the courts or letting hooligans and yobs get off scot-free?

Ms Harman: I am not sure that the way in which the hon. Gentleman described the situation is right. If a fixed penalty notice is given for an offence of disorder, if the person who has been given the penalty accepts the conduct described in the notice and agrees that they did it, they can pay that fixed penalty. If they challenge that and do not accept that they did whatever it is, they can then go to court and have a trial.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Good use is already being made of fixed penalty notices, alongside court fines, but does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that, over the past few months, Her Majesty's Courts Service had a high-profile campaign for the collection of unpaid fines? Does she agree that, if the use of fixed penalty notices is to expand, it is important for the sake of public confidence that when penalties have been imposed, they are collected?
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Ms Harman: Absolutely. For people to have confidence in the fixed penalty notice regime, enforcement will be a key issue, and obviously the courts will be very much part of that.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): On collecting fines, are there any plans to march people to cash points, as was previously suggested?

Ms Harman: Fine enforcement is very important and it really concerns people if they think that the whole court process has been gone through, a fine has been awarded, yet the person just walks away without paying. That is why the courts have been increasing their emphasis on enforcement. One of the things that they have been doing is asking people to produce their credit cards in court, scraping the cards and taking the money off them before people leave court. So credit cards are now actually being used to pay fines.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Why have the Government lost faith in our judicial system? Surely such cases ought to be taken through the courts. Would my right hon. and learned Friend care to comment on the article in today's edition of The Times, which suggests that there are further discussions between the Lord Chancellor and the Solicitor-General about extending the number of offences to be covered? The Director of Public Prosecutions describes the people concerned as the

Can my right hon. and learned Friend tell the House what is happening, rather than allowing Members to rely on the writings of Frances Gibb?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is not right to say that we have lost faith in the courts—far from it. In fact, magistrates courts will have increased sentencing powers, which means that they will be able to deal with more serious cases. In cases where it is accepted that the person in question has committed the offence for which they received the fixed penalty notice, the issuing and paying of such a notice, instead of tying up the courts' time with a guilty plea, leaves the courts free to deal with more serious cases for which a trial is necessary. They are also free to deal with cases where, despite a guilty plea having been made, the offence is more serious and they therefore need to attend to the sentence.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Does the right hon. and learned Lady accept that the danger with fixed penalty notices is that the courts do not see a sufficient range of such cases to supervise the way in which they operate? In case the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) raised any doubt about the principle, can she affirm that so far as she is concerned—and, indeed, so far as I am concerned—a fixed penalty notice that cannot be challenged in the courts would not be acceptable?

Ms Harman: As I have said, if the person in question regards themselves as not guilty of the offence, they do not pay the fixed penalty notice and they go to court to explain why they are not guilty. Of course, the courts will have an opportunity indirectly to oversee the effect of fixed penalty notices, because those who do not pay them will go to court for enforcement proceedings.
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18. Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): What steps she is taking to monitor the sentencing practices of individual judges in the Crown court to ensure that there is reasonable consistency in sentencing for similar offences. [44682]

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): The Court of Appeal has a system for monitoring the sentencing of individual judges in the Crown court to ensure consistency. The Sentencing Guidelines Council publishes information by area and by court in order to allow areas to compare their sentences.

Vera Baird: I am very pleased to hear that there is monitoring of individual judges, because until fairly recently, there was not. Journalistic expertise, which I accept, has shown that there is a defined cohort whose sentences are appealed against far more frequently—10 to 20 times more—than others. As we systematically try to improve the criminal justice system, do we not need to monitor the situation and tackle incompetent judges? After all, there is no doctrine of judicial independence repeatedly to get it wrong.

Ms Harman: As my hon. and learned Friend knows, every case has to be dealt with according to the facts, and the courts must be independent of the Executive. It is true that the Court of Appeal takes the question of sentencing very seriously. It obviously wants to ensure that a sentence is right in respect not only of the offender, but of the victim and the local community, that it sends out the right message to society and that it puts the offender back on track. Formal monitoring by the Government would not be right, but we have established procedures through the Sentencing Guidelines Council whereby such monitoring can be carried out to ensure public confidence in the sentencing process.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Does the Minister agree that it is not the sentence handed out by the court that restores people's faith in the criminal justice system, but the sentence served? Because of the parole system, the latter can vary wildly from case to case. Does she agree that the way to restore people's faith is for prisoners to serve their sentences in full?

Ms Harman: The parole system is well established and is a matter for the Home Office, so if the hon. Gentleman wants to raise this issue in more detail, I suggest that he does so with my Home Office ministerial colleagues.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the apparent disparity and inconsistency in sentencing are not the monopoly of Crown Court judges, as the same problems are evident in the magistracy? Will she look in particular at the inconsistent approach to sentences for alcohol-related driving offences? Does not disparity begin because the Crown Prosecution Service is not consistent when it comes to charging?
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Ms Harman: Magistrates have to deal with the charge that comes before them, which is based on the evidence available to the CPS, and on what the CPS thinks is in the public interest. It is not for magistrates to address the issue of charging by the back door, as it were, but I do not want the House to run away with the idea that there is rampant inconsistency in this area, that no overview is taken and that nothing is being done in this respect. If the Law Officers—the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General—think that there is a concern that a particular sentence is unduly lenient, that case can be referred to the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal can then decide to keep the sentence as it is, or to increase it.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): To return to the point raised by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), does not public confidence in the judicial system require both consistency and transparency in sentencing? The public are very often confused and dismayed when a person sentenced to imprisonment is released well short of the date handed down. Would not it be better to express the sentence as a fixed term of imprisonment that will be served, followed by a period of release under licence, or of further imprisonment in the case of bad behaviour?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman should look at judges' comments on sentencing. I have read numerous transcripts of such comments, and they reveal that judges very often explain to the court what a sentence will mean in practice. That is important for the offender being sentenced, and for the victims and the wider community. That is good sentencing practice, and we hope that it will become more widespread.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I reinforce what the right hon. and learned Lady said about the importance of judicial independence? Does she agree that consistency will be best achieved through the intervention of the Court of Appeal in appropriate cases and the guidelines produced by the Sentencing Guidelines Council?

Ms Harman: I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for those comments, with which I agree wholeheartedly.

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