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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: John Bercow
Browne, Des (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab)
Cruddas, Jon (Dagenham) (Lab)
Fisher, Mark (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab)
Fitzpatrick, Jim (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)
Goodwill, Mr. Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh, South) (Lab)
Hunter, Mark (Cheadle) (LD)
Ingram, Mr. Adam (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab)
Knight, Mr. Greg (East Yorkshire) (Con)
Leech, Mr. John (Manchester, Withington) (LD)
Reid, John (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab)
Seabeck, Alison (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab)
Tami, Mark (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)
Timpson, Mr. Edward (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)
Tredinnick, David (Bosworth) (Con)
Wilson, Mr. Rob (Reading, East) (Con)
Mick Hillyard, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 3 March 2009

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Draft Road Safety (Financial Penalty Deposit) (Appropriate Amount) Order 2009
10.30 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Road Safety (Financial Penalty Deposit) (Appropriate Amount) Order 2009.
I am sure that I speak on behalf of the Committee when I say that it is a pleasure to see you presiding over our proceedings, Mr. Bercow. It is also a pleasure to see right hon. and hon. Members in the Committee.
The order is needed to help to implement a wider package of measures designed to improve how we enforce road traffic law. The package includes a new power that will allow examiners from the Department for Transport’s Vehicle and Operator Services Agency to issue fixed penalties for road traffic offences that they already routinely prosecute in court. That will save time for all involved and leave both VOSA and the courts more time to concentrate on more serious offenders.
The package also includes a new power for the Secretary of State to graduate, by statutory instrument, the level of fixed penalties according to the level of offending. A further new power will enable the enforcement agencies—by that I mean the police and VOSA—to immobilise vehicles that are overloaded or unroadworthy or, in the case of commercial vehicles, whose drivers have exceeded the time for which they are permitted to drive without taking appropriate rest. All the measures will help further to improve road safety. They will be brought into force by our commencing relevant sections of the Road Safety Act 2006 and making a number of statutory instruments. Those statutory instruments are subject to the negative procedure, apart from the order before the Committee.
The background to the order is the pressing need to give enforcement agencies in Britain a much improved mechanism for dealing with foreign road traffic offenders in particular and, indeed, for dealing with any alleged offender who does not appear to have a satisfactory address in the United Kingdom at which they could easily be located subsequently. Hon. Members will appreciate that, as things stand, it is difficult for our enforcement agencies to follow up routine offences committed by foreign drivers while in Britain. It is possible for them to do so, but it means having to issue a court summons outside the jurisdiction of the UK. That carries uncertainty about whether an alleged offender would be likely to respond to a summons or subsequently to pay any court fine.
In practice, the unfortunate fact is that most routine road traffic offences committed by non-UK-resident offenders are not followed up. In turn, that weakens the incentive for non-UK-resident drivers to comply fully with our road traffic law. That is, for obvious reasons, not an ideal situation and the Government have sought to correct it with new enforcement provisions in the 2006 Act.
Once implemented, the new provisions associated with this order will enable the enforcement agencies to require the immediate payment of a financial deposit from any alleged offender who does not have a satisfactory address in the UK. That payment will be a deposit either in respect of a fixed penalty—or a conditional offer in Scotland—issued by the police or VOSA, or as a form of surety to guarantee the payment of any fine that may be imposed following a subsequent court hearing. The payment is classified as a deposit because that is all it is when it is collected. The idea is to allow alleged offenders not resident in the UK exactly the same 28-day period as alleged offenders resident in the UK already have, under the existing fixed penalty scheme, in which to decide whether they wish to accept a fixed penalty or instead to go to court. Consequently, if an alleged offender decides to accept a fixed penalty or conditional offer, the deposit will simply be used to pay off the fixed penalty sum. That process will happen automatically 28 days later unless within that period the driver indicates that he wishes to have the matter heard in court.
If, in such a case, a non-UK-resident driver indicates that he wishes the case to proceed to court, the deposit will continue to be held until the outcome of the hearing. Similarly, a deposit taken at the roadside in respect of an intended prosecution will be held until the court action has been concluded. At that time the deposit will be used to pay off any imposed court fine. If the deposit payment exceeds the level of court fine, the court will refund any overpayment together with any accrued interest. If the court fine exceeds the level of deposit, it will be a matter for the court to seek to collect any balance outstanding.
What the order does in detail is to prescribe the amount of deposit requested in respect of particular offences. As hon. Members will have seen, the level of deposit in respect of a fixed penalty offence—or conditional offer in Scotland—is the same as the level of fixed penalty. As prescribed in the schedules to the order, the amounts range between £30 and £200, depending on the particular offence. Clearly it makes sense to set deposits at the same level as the relevant fixed penalty.
The level of deposit in respect of an offence that the enforcement agencies intend to pursue in court is set at £300. That is to reflect that, generally, only the more serious offences are likely to be taken to court. In turn, those are most likely to carry higher penalty levels. The draft order also sets a maximum of £900 in respect of multiple offences detected on any single occasion.
Our objective was to set a level of deposit for court hearings that reflected average fine levels for the type of offences concerned. It is open to debate whether £300 is either too little or too much. Arguably, £300 may seem a lot for a private motorist to pay, but hon. Members need to bear in mind that we are only talking about serious offences in respect of court deposits, and that the scheme applies equally to commercial vehicles and drivers, where the gravity of offences and penalty levels tends to be greater anyway.
We have of course consulted on the details, and I can confirm that we, frankly, have had no better suggestions. On the contrary, the majority of those who submitted responses were in agreement with our proposals. We shall keep things under review once the deposit scheme is up and running.
In summary, I remind the Committee that, although the notion of taking financial penalty deposits on the spot from alleged road traffic offenders is novel in Britain, it is commonplace elsewhere in Europe. The scheme we are implementing is fair and will mean that all alleged road traffic offenders are ultimately treated in a similar way, irrespective of where they live and of the country in which their vehicle is registered. It will go a considerable way to resolving the current unsatisfactory situation in which traffic offenders who are not resident in the UK are more likely to escape than are UK residents.
To conclude, the draft order is a fundamental feature of the new scheme. Without this affirmative order, the “financial deposit” aspect of the 2006 Act cannot be implemented. I therefore commend the order to the Committee.
10.37 am
Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr. Bercow, and to be in such illustrious company throughout the Committee.
Foreign lorries are three times more likely to be overloaded, defective or driven by drivers contravening driving hours regulations, according to VOSA statistics. We welcome the allocation last year of £24 million to VOSA to recruit and train 130 new people to staff round-the-clock checks. Have those staff been recruited? What about the target set by VOSA to increase the number of roadside checks by a factor of five, so that 22,500 checks per annum are being carried out on foreign vehicles? Will the Minister confirm that there has been no mission creep, because of financial constraints, on that target?
There is no point catching foreign trucks if the drivers abscond without paying the penalties. Therefore, we support the measure—it is long overdue. We are used to seeing many foreign vehicles on our road, not only foreign cars driven by the many EU nationals who have come to the UK to work, but also a large number of foreign heavy goods vehicles. In 1997, 671,000 foreign-registered commercial vehicles over 3.5 tonnes left the UK, but by 2004 that figure had risen to 1.595 million vehicles—a trend that has continued. That figure was confirmed in the answer to a parliamentary question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson). The answer was given by the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) on 9 January 2006.
The Government have failed to take action to create a level playing field for the UK haulage industry and this is only one part of that problem. UK hauliers face competition from foreign trucks that in many cases have filled up with 1,100 litres of cheap French or Luxembourg diesel and pay much lower levels of vehicle excise duty. The draft order addresses just one of the problems that contribute to us not having a level playing field for our hauliers—it addresses one inequality. It does not attack foreign drivers, but it will restore equality before the law.
I hope that the Minister will respond to one or two questions. The deposits that have been set are in line with the fines. Will there be an automatic increase, year on year, as fines increase, or will it be necessary to come to the House to increase the fines?
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Deposits.
Mr. Goodwill: Indeed. Will the level of court fines be monitored so that the level of deposit levied on foreign trucks will increase in line with the fines? The Minister mentioned that refunds would be made where cases go to court and the fine levied was less than the deposit. Although he mentioned that interest would be payable on the deposit refunded, who will bear the cost of an international money transfer, which in some cases may be used to refund the money and may cost £10 or £20? Will that sum come out of the deposit or will that be borne by the court? Will the courts be tempted—dare I say it?—to levy a fine of £300 to cut down on both the administration of issuing refunds and the hassle of trying to extract money over and above the deposit to make life simple? Will the Minister take steps to ensure that the level of fines given to foreign vehicle owners or operators and to UK operators are monitored to ensure that we are not setting a benchmark for foreign operators and that, if fines increase for UK operators, the level for foreigners increases as well?
What will the practicalities of extracting the deposits be? I assume that nobody is suggesting that people will be marched to a cash point, but will the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency officers and police officers be allocated credit card processing facilities or will they require cash? How will the deposits be extracted? It is important that the process is as simple as possible. Haulage drivers, by and large, have the wherewithal with them to pay for fuel and other costs. If the deposits could be taken on the spot, in the same way, it would make life much easier.
The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I have seen no mention of offences relating to not having insurance. We are all aware of that problem. Although we have a good database in the United Kingdom and the automatic number plate detection systems will flag up UK-registered vehicles that are not insured, is it possible to extend the scheme to cover non-UK non-insured vehicles? How far down the road are we to having a European database, using the technology that exists for UK-registered vehicles, to ensure that we can check at the kerbside whether foreign-registered vehicles are insured and so that we can therefore levy deposits or fines in the same way that those are levied on UK operators?
What took the Government so long? How much has been lost in fines to the Exchequer over the intervening period? Is it possible, when vehicles and drivers return to the UK, having previously absconded without paying fines levied, to use this system to reclaim fines that should have been paid, or will the order relate only to actual fines levied at the time? People who have been fined and have absconded might return to the UK and a mechanism needs to be in place to ensure that any arrears on penalties or fines can be collected from them. The mechanism in the order seems a sensible way of getting hold of those arrears.
We warmly welcome the order and look forward to working with the Government to address any issues that may arise in connection with its introduction and operation.
10.44 am
Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): As always, Mr. Bercow, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. We warmly welcome the draft order, which expands on the graduated fixed penalties, financial penalty deposit and immobilisation schemes by laying out the deposits that will be required.
We supported the idea of penalty deposits during debate on the 2006 Act because they give the police more scope to tackle drivers who consistently flout our road safety laws and get away with it. Too often, foreign drivers—frequently, foreign lorry drivers—can evade fixed penalty notices or a court summons simply because they are not resident in the UK. They should not be able to get away with it. They not only avoid paying for that particular offence, but know that they are likely to get away with future offences. Foreign drivers currently have no real deterrent, and once they are at home, they can easily avoid going to court. I am therefore pleased to support the proposals, which we all hope will act as a deterrent to foreign drivers breaking the rules of our roads.
However, I would be grateful if the Minister could answer a number of questions. On the £60 deposit for exceeding the speed limit, there should surely be some discretion in the amounts asked as a deposit by police officers. For example, if a driver is exceeding the speed limit by 20 or 30 mph on a road by a school in difficult driving conditions, surely the policeman should be able to impose a higher deposit. I would imagine that, in some such cases, the police officer would rather introduce a court summons where ultimately the fine penalty could be up to £1,000. Is there the flexibility for the police officer to reflect that in the deposit, because £60 is not much punishment in the case described, especially if there is little chance of the offender turning up to court to pay the remainder?
During the Committee stage of the Road Safety Bill, the Minister at the time, the hon. Member for South Thanet, stated:
“If a policeman believes that an offence is serious enough to go to court, where a higher fine could be imposed than the deposit, then the deposit that he will ask for will be commensurate with the higher potential fine.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 23 March 2006; c. 119.]
Does that mean that the figures in the order are flexible, or have the Government decided to fix them?
At the time of the Bill, the Government said that those fines would need to be paid in cash. Is that still the case? Many people do not carry around a great deal of cash, so will there be an option for police officers to take drivers to the nearest cash point to get money out, which is a practice often used by dodgy private clampers? Have the Government looked at any other forms of payment at the roadside? We do not want to be in a position where a number of drivers have no facility to pay at the roadside.
Another issue on which I would like some clarification is the Government’s definition of a person who does not have a satisfactory address in the UK. In addition to drivers from abroad, could that also include those who have avoided paying fines or have missed court dates in the past? Perhaps it could include people who are not resident at the address that they have given in the past or who are difficult to get hold of when their court date approaches. Will the police check the past traffic history of the drivers to see whether there are any outstanding penalty notices or court summonses? Surely those persistent offenders need targeting just as much as foreign drivers. Does the Minister accept that the order would be a good opportunity to target those individuals as well—[Interruption.]
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