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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Collection of Fines (Final Scheme) Order 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: John Cummings
Bryant, Chris (Rhondda) (Lab)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
Cohen, Harry (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab)
Connarty, Michael (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab)
Creagh, Mary (Wakefield) (Lab)
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan (Huntingdon) (Con)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Harman, Ms Harriet (Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs)
Hollobone, Mr. Philip (Kettering) (Con)
Howarth, David (Cambridge) (LD)
McCafferty, Chris (Calder Valley) (Lab)
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah (Portsmouth, North) (Lab)
Pelling, Mr. Andrew (Croydon, Central) (Con)
Redwood, Mr. John (Wokingham) (Con)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Wright, David (Telford) (Lab)
Miss Welfoot, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 8 June 2006

[John Cummings in the Chair]

Draft Collection of Fines (Final Scheme) Order 2006

2.30 pm
The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Collection of Fines (Final Scheme) Order 2006.
The order will bring into force the final scheme for the collection of fines, which offers an improved system for the collection of financial penalties imposed in magistrates courts. It changes the way fines are enforced, gives new roles to courts staff and provides new sanctions to ensure that offenders comply with the orders of the court.
More than 1 million fines are issued each year in the magistrates courts, so it is essential that the judiciary, the public and offenders all believe that such sentences are effective. Magistrates must be confident that fines will be paid and rigorously enforced and that offenders will be punished for the crimes they commit. The new scheme, together with other projects, has already brought about significant improvements to fines collection during piloting and the first few months of national implementation.
I am seeking the Committee’s approval for a statutory instrument made under the Courts Act 2003. We have already piloted the scheme—a statutory instrument was enacted to provide such a power—and have begun national roll-out in three phases. The order will make permanent that national roll-out, which was based on our experience of the pilot and which makes permanent something that should be happening already.
The order improves the ability of magistrates courts to trace defaulters through access to the police national computer, the Department for Work and Pensions customer information system and the credit reference agency, Equifax. We are creating a national enforcement service to oversee improved enforcement and compliance with orders of the court and a distinct and clearly identifiable body of enforcement professionals, who will focus on improving performance across all aspects of criminal enforcement.
In the past few years, the collection of fines has improved significantly from what we all agree was a woeful payment rate of 55 per cent. in 2002-03 to a much better but not-there-yet 83 per cent. in 2005-06. The new scheme will help to continue that improvement and ensure that fines are paid and that compensation is collected and paid out promptly to victims. The scheme includes several important changes to the way in which financial penalties are enforced.
The new role of the fines officer will involve managing the enforcement process and making use of the new powers to set the time to pay after the offender is sentenced, to vary payment terms in favour of the offender, to decide on the most appropriate sanction or next step in the case of non-payment and to refer cases back to court. As the majority of those responsibilities were previously undertaken by magistrates in a fines court, there will be savings in court time, which will allow the bench to deal with more serious or complicated cases.
Once the court has imposed a fine, enforcement will primarily be an administrative process. By making enforcement decisions themselves, fines officers will ensure that those who attempt to dodge their fines are dealt with quickly and required to pay through new and strengthened sanctions. For those who genuinely cannot pay fines, the fines officer will be able to vary payment terms in their favour or refer them to the court to make an unpaid work order in lieu of the fine.
There are also several new sanctions available to the fines officer and court. If an offender has already defaulted on an existing fine, the court must consider making an attachment of earnings order, which will require the offender’s employer to make deductions from the offender’s salary to pay the sum owed. If the offender is receiving benefits, the court must consider making an application for deductions from benefits. Deductions of up to £5 a week may be taken by the DWP from jobseeker’s allowance and income support to pay the fine. Those two methods of deduction can also be used with the offender’s consent, and offenders often choose to pay that way, because it is evident how the payments are structured.
Those sanctions can also be considered by the fines officer if the offender subsequently defaults on their fine. Before the Courts Act 2003, those measures were used infrequently, but during piloting they have proved a simple and effective way of ensuring that offenders pay their fines in compensation. In addition to those enforcement measures, the fines collection scheme includes new sanctions that the fines officer can apply if the offender fails to pay their fine. For example, vehicles can be clamped and then sold if necessary to pay fines, and piloting has shown that that approach is effective. Often, the mere threat of clamping, which applies regardless whether the original offence was motoring related, will elicit payment from the offender.
Names can be added to the register of orders, judgments and fines, which might affect the ability of offenders to obtain credit and access other services or employment. Again, that sanction proved to be useful in the pilot, with the threat of being added to the register being sufficient to make many offenders pay their fines in full. Existing sanctions are also now available to fines officers, such as issuing a distress warrant to seize an offender’s goods to the value of the fine, instead of being available only to the courts. If the fines officer has exhausted all those measures and payment is still not forthcoming, they can refer the case back to the magistrates court for further enforcement action, which could mean increasing the fine or considering whether imprisonment is appropriate for the most serious and wilful defaulters.
As has been said, the changes have all been extensively piloted. From March 2004, the fines collection scheme was piloted in five areas—Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Devon and Cornwall, and South Yorkshire. The purpose of the pilots was to test the measures in the scheme and to assess their impact on enforcement before national implementation. The pilot evaluation showed that the measures were a success. Halfway through the six-month pilot, the payment rate in pilot areas was 95 per cent. compared with a rate of 80 per cent. in non-pilot areas. At the end of the pilot, the payment rate had risen to 100 per cent., whereas the non-pilot area rate was 78 per cent.—the rate can reach 100 per cent. because some fines were from previous years.
Aside from improved levels of fine collection, there were further benefits. Court time has been saved through the transfer of business from fines courts to fines officers, and better quality financial means information has also been made available, enabling an improvement in subsequent enforcement. Enforcement is now more structured and rigorous, thanks to new sanctions and powers for fines officers, and fines officers can help defaulters and, if necessary, point them towards debt advice.
The order also contains new provisions to speed up the payment of compensation to victims. When sentenced, if an offender is ordered to pay compensation, the court must make either an attachment of earnings order or a deduction from benefit order, if appropriate. That differs from the existing scheme, in that the order is made regardless whether the offender has defaulted. The point of making such an order is to ensure that the victims receive compensation more quickly and with more certainty. The proposal will also contribute to our aim of a criminal justice system in which the needs and concerns of victims and witnesses are central.
The new scheme has been proven. It offers a better way to ensure that more fines are collected in the magistrates court and will also ensure that compensation is paid to victims of crime more quickly. The scheme has the support of the magistrates courts and their enforcement teams, and I commend the order to the Committee.
2.38 pm
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I thank the Minister for her full explanation of the process in the plain English that the order lacks and for her explanation how the pilot has worked in different parts of the country.
Non-payment of court fines is a matter of grave concern not only in terms of criminals not paying the penalties for their crimes, but in terms of lost revenue for the Minister’s Department. I was pleased to hear that collection has increased in the past financial year. The Minister said that the rate has increased to 83 per cent., which is a dramatic improvement on the lamentable performances in previous years. However, I would be grateful if the Minister were to expand on how much money was not collected in the past year and how much money was written off in the past few years, which will allow us to see the scope of the problem. Given the overspend in her Department, the problem has presumably been exacerbated.
Will the Minister also give the Committee some idea of her predictions for collection once the new arrangements are in place? She has mentioned that collection rates have increased to 100 per cent. through the pilot, which is commendable, and I congratulate the staff in her Department who produced that result, which would be a fine outcome in any organisation. Is it now proposed that collection rates should go up to 100 per cent. as a target across all court recovery services? And will the cost of the administration of the new provisions in terms of additional staff or infrastructure to introduce the mechanisms that she has mentioned be covered by the expected additional recovery?
2.41 pm
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I, too, broadly welcome the provisions. There is no dispute with the underlying premise that the collection of fines should be an administrative rather than judicial procedure—I have spent too many dreary afternoons as a criminal duty solicitor for the Legal Aid Board putting people through fines courts not to know the truth of that.
If the process becomes administrative, I hope that proper safeguards will be introduced through guidelines and that the decisions on the more severe, albeit necessary, penalties, such as car clamping, will be taken by somebody within the structure who is of a sufficiently senior grade, because in my experience there can occasionally be a slightly oppressive attitude among the lower grades when it comes to fine collection. What procedure will be put in place to deal with complaints against fines officers?
I also welcome the provisions on compensation orders. My professional experience over many years was that compensation offers were often made but not collected, which increased the sense of grievance felt by victims of crime as a result of their dealings with the criminal justice system. Anything that improves the early payment of compensation orders is welcome.
2.43 pm
Ms Harman: The answer to how much was not collected in 2005-06 is £282 million. We are talking about considerable amounts of money, and, although there has been a big increase in collection, a substantial amount is still not collected.
We all agree that the matter involves more than money. If a police investigation and a prosecution have taken place, and if the magistrates have sat and made an order, people become exasperated if they think that people are just walking out of court and taking no notice. The most important thing is the question of confidence in the criminal justice system, although the money certainly comes in handy. The Treasury’s Consolidated Fund, where the money goes, is always ready and will be waiting for the extra millions that will be rightfully coming in. The answer to the question where the money goes when it is collected is that it goes to the Consolidated Fund and does not come straight back to the Department.
Mr. Djanogly: I appreciate that the money does not come back to the Minister’s Department, but we are talking about an amount that is roughly double her Department’s overspend, which is significant.
Ms Harman: I do not think that that point has gone unnoticed by those whose responsibility it is to look after the Consolidated Fund. That is the situation in respect of fines. Of course, compensation for victims goes straight back to victims rather than via the Consolidated Fund.
I have been asked for our prediction of the collection level. We set a collections target rate for 2006-07 of83 per cent, which leaves 17 per cent. uncollected. Most ordinary people in the street would think that we have a long way to go, but we expect to exceed that rate, in which case we shall no doubt set a further target. We have no plans to introduce a 100 per cent. target, but there is a great deal of enthusiasm for improving the way in which the work is done. I join the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) in thanking those staff who have recognised the importance of collection and worked incredibly hard on it.
Mr. Djanogly: Are staff incentivised to collect?
Ms Harman: There is no financial incentive, and staff do not take a percentage cut of what they collect.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) is right about the processes. The order takes out of the judicial process something that should more rightly be an administrative process. There must be proper safeguards, training, guidance and a complaints system, and that will be the case.
All fines officers will be trained. I know that this sounds like a clichA(c), but there is a new enforcement culture and a pride in the professionalism with which officers go about their work. After all, they are trying to ensure that there is more confidence in the criminal justice system.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): As a Scot, I am happy to help improve the English system of justice. I have trained as a justice of the peace, which would be called a magistrate in England and which involves serving on the bench rather than defending people, and I echo the comments made by other hon. Members about the difficulty of getting fines and, in particular, compensation orders paid.
The measures will clearly add cost to the process. Under the Scottish system, sheriff’s officers are independent and are given the duty of collecting fines under a sheriff’s order, but they impose charges. If someone does not pay their fines or compensation, sheriff’s officers charge them every time they have to intervene. That approach has clearly not been considered, because training officers to collect money places an additional burden on the courts system and brings a cost. Why should that cost not be borne by the recalcitrant person who has been fined or who has a compensation order to pay?
Ms Harman: I will deal with that point in a moment. Costs are added where there are distinct expenses, such as clamping and distress warrants, according to a standard fee. However, the pilot has shown that it costs the system less overall to have the process handled in the right way and by the right people, instead of incurring the costs, which are not quantified, of returning to the magistrates. It is much cheaper to have a dedicated set of enforcement professionals in addition to trying to ensure that people pay their fines before they leave court, which a lot of courts do now. Courts are getting quite handy at ensuring that people do not walk out with money in their pocket. Magistrates courts now have chip and pin, because people used to walk out of court with money on them, saying that they could not pay, which local communities and, in particular, victims found incredibly annoying.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Collection of Fines (Final Scheme) Order 2006.
Committee rose at eleven minutes to Three o’clock.

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