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11 Mar 2009 : Column 297

Point of Order

12.32 pm

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you are aware, the preventing violent extremism pathfinder fund distributes more than £70 million of public money to local authorities. Last year, after a delay of some six months, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was persuaded to place in the Library details of how that fund was being spent for that year. Earlier this year, I wrote to the Secretary of State to ask her to place in the Library the corresponding details for this year. I received no reply. After a written question, I received a reply studiously ignoring the request I had made. This morning, I phoned the Secretary of State’s private office and was told that the Department may—I stress “may”—no longer holds these financial details for this year at all.

My point of order is as follows. Either the Department no longer holds the details of where a substantial tranche of £70 million-worth of public money is going, which is a scandal, or it is refusing to place in the Library details of where that money is going, which, frankly, is no less scandalous in relation to information that Members of this House and members of the public have the right to see. What can you do, Mr. Speaker, to assist Members of this House in obtaining access to information that they have a right to know?

Mr. Speaker: It is up to Ministers as to how they answer parliamentary questions. I will look into the matter the hon. Gentleman raises, and I will get back to him. I thank him for raising it.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to point out my concern, which I hope is shared by the House, that it seems easier to get information from the Government through freedom of information requests, which would work for my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), than through written questions. That is a very worrying development.

Mr. Speaker: It would certainly worry me. When parliamentarians seek information through parliamentary questions that is all-important and they should be a priority for any Minister.


11 Mar 2009 : Column 298

Theft from Shops (Use of Penalty Notices for Disorder)

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

12.35 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I beg to move,

The Bill has cross-party support and I am grateful to my co-sponsors for their support. Organisations representing retailers, including the British Retail Consortium, the Association of Convenience Stores and the Federation of Small Businesses, are supportive of the work that I am doing and welcome the Bill. I am delighted that the Magistrates Association also supports the Bill and that the Justice Secretary has taken the opportunity to meet many of the organisations concerned.

Crimes against business cost the UK economy £19 billion every year according to the British Chambers of Commerce. The cost to small business of shoplifting alone in the past 12 months ran to £1 billion according to the Federation of Small Businesses. In 2007-08, more than 290,000 incidents of shop theft were recorded, and, of course, there might have been many more.

By introducing the Bill, I am seeking to amend police guidelines to ensure that penalty notices for disorder or fines are limited to first-time offences and to ensure that the guidelines state that penalty notices for disorder should be issued only in a police station and that victims of shop theft should be consulted on the appropriate action to be taken by the police.

Secondly, I am seeking to improve the police database to ensure that all recent shop theft offences are entered on the national computer system for ease of reference across the police forces.

Thirdly, I am seeking to amend sentencing guidelines to give greater flexibility in tackling persistent offenders and to check that offenders are able to pay, as well as to ensure that when offences fuel a drug or drinks habit, the offender appears before the court so that they can receive proper treatment and rehabilitation. The Magistrates Association has noted

Furthermore, the association states:

Shop theft is not recognised as a serious offence. Retailers are often not consulted before fines are issued and the police do not always liaise with the victims of
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the crime. The police are switching from cautions and prosecutions to the increasing use of penalty notices for disorder and fines. The police find penalty notices for disorder attractive as they reduce paperwork and free up police time, but from the retailers’ point of view, as the victims of the crime, PNDs do not match the value of goods stolen. The average value of goods stolen is £149, but the initial fine that is incurred is £80, with a penalty of only a further £40 if that is not paid.

More worryingly, 50 per cent. of all fixed penalty notice fines go unpaid. The Magistrates Association believes that such notices simply do not address the underlying causes of offending, and that they make no contribution to reducing offending behaviour—surely the object of any legislation.

In my view, the Government are not being tough on crime or on the causes of crime. I believe that the punishment should fit the crime, and that is why I want to restrict penalty notices for disorder to first-time offences of shop theft, where the goods stolen are limited in value. Again, a PND would be issued only after consultation with the victim of the crime—that is, the shopkeeper or shop owner.

When a community sentence is issued after persistent or aggravated offences of shop theft have allowed a case to go before the court, that sentence must be seen to be served in full. When shop theft is deemed to fuel a drug or drink habit, the court should be allowed to analyse and treat the underlying causes, and a programme of rehabilitation should be issued, where appropriate. That means that a package of measures should be put in place.

Penalty notices for disorder were introduced by the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. Shoplifting was introduced as an offence that attracted a PND in 2004. The notices are regarded as an alternative way to deal with low-level offending because they deliver swift, simple and effective justice and also carry a deterrent effect. A crime report is always required for the offence of retail theft.

A notice may be issued provided that a police officer has reason to believe that a person has committed an offence, and that the officer has sufficient evidence to support a successful prosecution. Sufficient evidence may be based solely on reliable witness testimony. The amount levied by such a notice is specified by the Secretary of State and must not exceed a quarter of the maximum fine on conviction for the offence.

Notices can be issued for the higher sums of £200 or £500 only in exceptional circumstances, and notices for theft would usually be issued only when goods have
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been recovered. As I said earlier, the penalty notices carry a fine of only £80. If the notice is paid within 21 days, it does not result in a criminal record. Originally, the notices were intended for low-level, usually first-time, offending and were not considered appropriate for those who offend repeatedly.

The British Retail Consortium believes that, in addition to losing £1 billion to retail crime every year, firms must invest £1.4 billion in crime prevention measures, such as installing CCTV cameras and shutters. They also incur higher insurance premiums. Given that there could be job losses to cover those additional costs, the wider community definitely suffers from this crime.

Since 1998-99, the number of recorded offences of shoplifting has averaged an astonishing 295,000 each year. That is equivalent to nearly 6,000 offences a week. Since 2004, the use of penalty notices has become increasingly widespread. In 2004, 1.8 per cent. of shoplifting cases attracted a penalty notice, but that proportion had risen to 27 per cent. by 2006. In fact, from 2002 to 2007, there was a 27 per cent. decrease in the number of people prosecuted for theft from shops. The use of penalty notices is replacing court sentences as a means of combating retail theft, but I believe that the current system is simply not working.

The use of the notices means that shoplifters are treated in the same way as people who leave litter in a public place, or who are prosecuted for a parking offence. The penalty for stealing up to £100 of goods is too modest, and I believe that it should be more severe. Forty five per cent. of businesses state that crime costs them more than £5,000 each year, and that is a heavy price for small firms to pay.

It gives me great pleasure to present this Bill to the House. I hope that the Government will look wisely and supportively on my three modest calls for action—that the police computer be amended so that all multiple and persistent offences are entered into it, that the guidelines for the police be amended so that only first-time offences attract a penalty notice fine, and that the sentencing guidelines be modestly amended to allow such cases to be referred to the court, especially when there are underlying causes.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Miss Anne McIntosh, Mr. Roger Gale, Kelvin Hopkins, Peter Bottomley, Mr. Shailesh Vara, Mr. Frank Field, Patrick Mercer, Bob Russell, Mr. Brian Binley and Kate Hoey present the Bill.

Miss Anne McIntosh accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 19 June and to be printed (Bill 74).


11 Mar 2009 : Column 301

Business Rate Supplements Bill (Programme No. 2)

Motion made, and Question proposed,

12.46 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): My hon. Friends and I are concerned about the programme motion because, although the Bill is insubstantial in volume, it could have an enormous impact on businesses in the United Kingdom. It could impose a burden of up to £600 million a year on businesses, even though business rates have already increased by 5 per cent. this year and there is a prospect of a further revaluation using a multiplier that is now out of date in the light of the changed economic circumstances.

Although the Bill has been through a careful and constructive Committee stage, it raises a number of technical issues, and I notice that two significant new clauses have been tabled for discussion today—one by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) and the other by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford). They both raise issues that deserve serious consideration. In fairness, during the course of the Bill’s consideration in Committee, the Minister said that he would look at some of those issues, in particular the question of the property owner levy in business improvement districts, which is the subject of the new clause tabled by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, and the issue of business’s involvement in the delivery and oversight of the business rate supplements project, which I and other hon. Members raised.

We have not yet received an inkling of the Government’s thinking on those matters, although I am sure that it will emerge in the debate today. However, given that the House is not overburdened with business at the moment, it might have been better to devise a programme motion that allowed for more reflection on those issues, so that we could consider whether, if my hon. Friends and I are unsuccessful in winning our principal point of opposition to the Bill, we could at least do more to ameliorate any unforeseen and perverse impacts on certain sectors of the business community. For that reason, we shall seek to oppose the programme motion.

12.48 pm

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I share the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). There is also a general point to be made here. How much longer will the Government go on with this absurd process of guillotining and timetabling every Bill? Under previous Governments of both parties, most Bills went through this House without any guillotine whatever. They went through in the time that the House felt they needed.
11 Mar 2009 : Column 302
Sometimes we needed less time than the Government might have thought, and sometimes we needed more. Governments of both parties accommodated the wish and will of the House on the ground that this is the democratic Chamber, and the place in which we ought to be able to talk sensibly about a Bill for as long as it takes to deal with any problems.

This is a particularly nasty and spiteful little Bill. It will impose up to £600 million of taxation on business at a time when business is running out of money and when the grotesque mismanagement of the money supply and the banking system in this country by the Government and their regulators has left business in a very weak position. Now we see them back for third helpings wanting up to £600 million more out of businesses’ coffers at a time when they are having to worry about how they pay the gas bill or the staff wages, or keep in business at all.

I do not know for how long the House would like to discuss the Bill, but I do not understand why the Government cannot let us discuss it for as long as we think it should take. They may get a pleasant surprise; some of its stages may take less time than they have laid down in their motion. However, surely the least that they could do in the circumstances would be to give us the freedom to express ourselves and to have the debate that we want.

This is a revenue-raising Bill. This great House of Commons built its democratic strength on being able to challenge how much money was raised and how it was spent. It is doing a dreadful job of that at the moment. Huge sums of money go through without our having the opportunity to discuss and challenge them in the normal way, as we saw with this week’s £20 billion supplementary estimate, which was not even down on the Order Paper for debate and went through on the nod. This £600 million should not go through on the Government’s timetable but according to the will of the House.

I urge the Minister, at this late stage, to do the decent thing by withdrawing the guillotine motion and letting us discuss this properly. If it takes longer than until 7 o’clock tonight, what is the problem? We are paid to do our job. I am happy to stay here a bit later if there are lots of colleagues with sensible points to make, so why are the Government not willing? Why will they not do the decent thing?

12.51 pm

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I entirely agree with the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). Those who have been following our debates on the Bill closely are likely to be those who will be affected by it, including the representative organisations that have taken the trouble to contact hon. Members and talk to us. However, many of the businesses that will be affected probably do not yet understand how big an impact this might have on them. As we heard from the right hon. Member for Wokingham, there are huge pressures on business at the moment, and the issues on which business people will rightly be concentrating are staying in business, managing to get the finance that they need from banks, and so on. Liberal Democrat Members are certainly willing to explore the issue,
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provided that those who are to pay any extra levy have the final say through a ballot, which we will discuss later.

The undue haste with which the measure is being pushed through is not the proper way to proceed. If hon. Members feel that they need more time to tease out the issues and explore them in more detail, they should have that time. This legislation is potentially very serious in terms of the extra burden that it could place on businesses without their having the opportunity to comment on it in their local area. That is why I share the concerns that have been raised about the nature of motion before us.


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