Previous Section Index Home Page

11 Mar 2009 : Column 364
4.36 pm

Derek Twigg: I want to make a brief speech to finish what I was saying before the last vote. First, I completely support what my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench have said. They have been extremely good at listening to the arguments, taking on board the concerns, ensuring that there are safeguards in the Bill and listening to ideas about how they can further those safeguards. I congratulate them on that.

The Opposition are strong on saying that certain provisions are not great for business and that they will harm business, yet they produce no evidence that that is the case. I listened to what the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce and other business representatives had to say in the Committee hearings and they made some strong points, but I was left with a disappointing overall view that we still do not trust local government. My experience on the ground does not match up with that. In my area I see a great deal of partnership working and working together to try to deal with the issues that challenge businesses and local communities, and I know that that happens in other areas, too.

A point was made earlier about the difficult economic climate and it is probably more important than ever that we consider the infrastructure and economic development needs of areas more strongly and in a more focused way than before. That means that the local authorities, with business and the wider community, should work together. I am arguing that local government has come a long way. It often takes the lead in regeneration and economic development and I am disappointed that the Opposition do not trust it. We should put more trust in it, given its track record and the enormous strides that it has made in economic development. Of course, the power is an enabling power. We are not saying that local government has to do anything and that is crucial to remember.

When the Opposition talk about a ballot, they are actually asking for a veto on these schemes for business, but the schemes do not just affect businesses—although businesses are being asked to contribute—but the wider community, too. I do not support a veto. I believe that what my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government said provides plenty of safeguards. Local government is vibrant and it has taken the lead in some difficult times. It is under additional pressures today, and I believe that it will do the right thing and work with business to bring forward the best possible schemes, which are sensible and logical, to help their areas.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Criminal Law

4.39 pm

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I beg to move,

11 Mar 2009 : Column 365

The motion brings to light, and to the House’s attention, the penalties for disorderly behaviour. Without it, the Government would have got away with simply rushing a statutory instrument out a few days before their policy U-turn on the reclassification of cannabis, which went live on 26 January.

The order that we are considering fixes the amount of penalty for possession of cannabis and restates the existing penalties for other offences such as theft, shoplifting and criminal damage. To determine how we come to be debating it today, we need to head back to the heady days of new Labour in 2000, when on-the-spot fines for minor acts of disorder were the previous Prime Minister’s big idea. He told the Global Ethics Foundation in Germany that thugs would be marched by police to cash points. Well, we all recall the response to that suggestion, which was soon revised.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Before the hon. Gentleman goes back to those heady days for the history of this matter, will he confirm that the Conservative party supports the reclassification of cannabis from a class C to a class B drug?

Mr. Burrowes: I am grateful for that intervention, as it allows me to make it clear from the outset that we wholeheartedly support the reclassification of cannabis. Indeed, we have always regarded possession of the drug as a class B offence, and we welcome the Government’s U-turn in belatedly recognising the harm that it can inflict and its proper status as a class B drug.

The question at the heart of the motion is not reclassification, but how the class B offence should be enforced. Later, I shall say why the order that we are challenging will lead to a downgrading of enforcement, and explain why it will not ensure that we are tough on cannabis possession.

I do not propose to go too far into a history lesson, since we still have a globe-trotting Prime Minister, but I point out that penalty notices for disorder have changed. The notion of marching thugs to cash points was revised after only a few days to a recognition that the proper response had to be based on a fixed-penalty notice regime. Now, however, penalty notices do not apply simply to disorder. One would think that there was a clue in the title—after all, they are penalty notices for disorder—but the notices have been expanded to cover offences that go beyond what we would traditionally call disorder. They now apply to theft and other offences, including the possession of cannabis. It is the latter offence that is the main focus of this debate.

The list of offences covered by notices could well have been longer than the one in part 1 of the schedule to the order. The Government originally intended to add 21 further offences, including making off without payment and taxi touting. Was it that the Government changed the list only after careful consideration, to leave us eventually with the revised order now before us? No, it was not: the list was revised only after an uproar from representative associations that had not been consulted properly. I understand that there was also a conversation between the Justice Secretary and the Mayor of London the weekend before the order was due to be considered in Committee. It was those steps that led the Government to think again.

11 Mar 2009 : Column 366

A hastily redrafted statutory instrument that covered cannabis only was laid before Parliament. The statutory instrument relating to the motion before the House today was revoked and revised, and the 21-day period required for proper scrutiny was abridged. I draw the circumvention of normal process to the attention of the House to highlight the Government’s ham-fisted approach to that aspect of delegated legislation, and to expose the dangers of increasing out-of-court disposals.

The use of out-of-court penalties has grown out of all proportion, compared with the number of people coming before our courts. Across England and Wales, in the 12 months to last March, only 724,179 of the 1.4 million offenders “brought to justice”, as Government-speak would have it, actually came before the courts. This has been described in various forums as “justice in secret”, and as “duff justice” in a leader in The Times not so long ago. I would describe the practice as leading to soft justice. The House does not need to take my word for that, however. John Thornhill, chairman of the Magistrates Association, has said:

To illustrate properly what is happening in our courts, and what would happen as a result of the statutory instrument that we have prayed against, I shall give the House an example of what has happened in Staffordshire. The situation came to light last August, when a letter was sent to all the magistrates in the county by the justices’ clerk. It highlights the consequences of the increasing use of on-the-spot fines. It says:

Keith Vaz: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Conservative party is against fixed penalty notices? They can be useful in certain cases, and I am sure he would accept that the courts are pretty overburdened at the moment. Surely there are circumstances in which these notices have proved to be extremely useful.

Mr. Burrowes: The right hon. Gentleman will have to be patient if he wants to hear our position on fixed penalty notices. They certainly have a place. If penalty notices for disorderly behaviour did exactly what it says on the tin, and were issued only for minor acts of antisocial behaviour, as originally intended, we could see a rationale for them. However, we must challenge the Government over the way in which that rationale has been extended to cover additional offences, including the possession of cannabis.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): May I say from a personal point of view that I do not think that many of us have an objection to penalty notices for fairly minor matters, such as being drunk on a highway or depositing litter. I hope that the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) will take that point on board. However, I strongly differentiate those minor matters from offences such as possession of cannabis or theft, which are potentially very serious.

11 Mar 2009 : Column 367

Mr. Burrowes: We can certainly draw that distinction. A case that recently came into the public eye was that of Ashley Cole, who was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and was fined £80. No doubt he was more affected by the £160,000 fine imposed by his club, but that area of offending illustrates the suitability of penalty notices, as their use no doubt relieves the burden on police time and helps all concerned.

A wholly different situation pertains in regard to other offences, however. Magistrates have contacted me, and the Magistrates Association has stated forcefully that there is ever-increasing scope for the notices to be used beyond their original remits. There is certainly a worry that they are being used more for administrative convenience than for the purpose of ensuring that justice is done and seen to be done. We know that it can be done properly in the magistrates courts, where summary justice should take place.

The burden on courts has been mentioned, but we should not assume that the expansion of the use of penalty notices will lead to a reduction of the burden on magistrates. The administrative burden is still there. Approximately half of all penalty notices for disorder are unpaid, and it is the magistrates who have to follow those cases through to try to enforce the payment of those unpaid fines. That is particularly relevant to this statutory instrument, and to the related instrument that the Delegated Legislation Committee considered in January. The explanatory memorandum to that statutory instrument stated that the costs of enforcement may be in the order of £1.5 million by year 3. On 22 January I asked the Minister for an assurance that the overstretched court budgets would be able properly to enforce the expansion of the penalty notice for disorder regime to cannabis. I repeat that question today and hope that there will be an answer.

The Government say that penalty notices for disorder are an appropriate penalty for possession of cannabis. They say, as the Minister did on 22 January, that they are an extra weapon in the police’s armoury. They talk belatedly about being tough on cannabis, now recognising, as Conservative Members have all along, that cannabis is a harmful drug, and increasingly so given the high potency of the skunk varieties that are on our streets. They talk about wanting such possession to be robustly enforced. However, what is the reality behind this talk? Let us be clear that the use of fixed penalty notices for cannabis possession and the attraction, under the order, of a penalty of £80, is not a tough sanction. It leads to no criminal liability, and there is no admission of guilt and no criminal record.

The Government want to use penalty notices for several activities, including dog fouling and illegal cycling. How, in that context, can we consider them to be properly used for possession of cannabis?

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): It is surely more serious to use such a notice for theft or for giving a false report to the police, which in certain circumstances can amount to perverting the course of justice.

Mr. Burrowes: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. Indeed, such cases can also involve other offences or attract other criminal liabilities. That is why these offences are most properly dealt with in the
11 Mar 2009 : Column 368
magistrates court. Earlier today, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) introduced a ten-minute Bill that outlined the prevalence of shoplifting and the importance of its being dealt with other than as at present, whereby shoplifters, on repeat offending, are given penalty notices, which does not satisfy the victim and certainly does not satisfy justice.

Year by year, the Government have often treated criminal justice legislation as a messaging service when they want to sound tough, and it is no different in relation to cannabis. However, let us look at what enforcement really means. Often, the fixed penalty notice and £80 penalty is imposed not on an offender coming to the attention of the police for the first time but on a repeat offender. The Government have introduced what could be termed a “three strikes” policy for cannabis possession: strike 1 is the warning, strike 2 is the fixed penalty notice, and strike 3 is the arrest. However, the police will often struggle even to get beyond strike 1 because warnings are not being recorded. In previous discussions, the Minister herself has accepted that the position in many areas is hit and miss. With that first strike, we are in the realms of hit and miss. It does not give much confidence that the possession of cannabis will be dealt with robustly.

The computer system—PentiP—is not in place to be able to deal with the regime that the statutory instrument would have us enforce. It was due to be introduced in September 2009, at a cost of £9.3 million—an amount that has increased, as ever with such systems, to £19.3 million. We now have an indication that implementation will not take place until May 2012, yet in the recent debate the Minister said that the implementation date would be 2010. I ask the Minister once again to provide some reassurance on the implementation date of the computer system, because it is crucial that the warning be recorded if there is to be effective enforcement of the three-strike policy; otherwise, people can run up multiple warnings before a fixed penalty notice is deemed appropriate. Even if a person gets past the first and second strikes, let us not forget what we are left with at the third strike. It would effectively be a third offence, and would lead to arrest. That could involve prosecution, and the case could eventually go to the magistrates court, but it could simply mean a caution, or indeed no further action.

I do not wish to dwell today on the reclassification of cannabis; we have been consistent on that subject. The question for debate today is why, for possession of cannabis, enforcement should take the form of an £80 fixed penalty notice. Is that decision based on the prevalence of the drug? Is that why cannabis is to attract a fixed penalty notice? If that is the case, why does the policy not extend to ketamine, a class C drug that is increasingly becoming the drug of choice for young people? Is there a risk that the penalty notice for disorder regime will be extended to other drugs? Can the Minister provide a specific assurance that there will not be such an extension to other drugs, whether they be class B or class C? Would issues of prevalence, or any evidence that disorder was affected by the possession of drugs, lead to fixed penalty notice enforcement?

The problem with the statutory instrument is that there is a lack of evidence on the effect of the penalty notice for disorder. No doubt it assists the Government with their targets on bringing offenders to justice. No
11 Mar 2009 : Column 369
doubt it relieves the police of some paperwork and saves some time. However, what is the evidence that it deters offenders and ensures that justice is done? The Magistrates Association has called on the Government to gather and publish evidence, and I invite the Minister to take up that call and to say where the evidence is to justify the expansion in penalty notices for disorder. Have the Government considered the efficacy of the enforcement regime for possession of cannabis in Scotland and Northern Ireland? They have ruled out cannabis warnings, and there is a presumption of prosecution.

The order before us is not just about cannabis. As hon. Friends have pointed out, it deals with other serious offences, including theft and criminal damage. As we heard earlier today, this year there have been some 295,000 shoplifting offences; that is 6,000 a week. The largest increase in the number of penalty notices for disorder issued has been for shoplifting. The number rose from 38,000 in 2006 to 45,000 in 2007. Will the Minister provide reassurance that the use of fixed penalty notices for theft will be limited to first-time offenders, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York has suggested? When, as is often the case, there are underlying causes of theft, such as the need to feed an addiction to drugs or alcohol, will that lead to intervention by the court? The court is best placed to deal with an order for treatment to deal with those underlying causes. That opportunity would be completely lost if a fixed penalty notice were simply issued.

I now come to the issue of criminal damage. Did the Minister assess the impact of reinstating the penalty for criminal damage before hastily putting the order together? Has she assessed the impact on the victim? When a fixed penalty notice is issued, the victim does not benefit from the opportunity to receive a compensation order for up to £500 through a magistrates court. Does the Minister have any details of whether such victims have taken up the only opportunity left to them, which is to pursue a civil claim? Has there been any consideration of those victims, who say that they have lost the opportunity to get true justice through the courts?

Mr. Hogg: May I ask my hon. Friend to emphasise, too, the undesirability of using fixed penalties in respect of sale of alcohol to persons under 18? After all, it is an important part of the Government’s strategy to abate alcohol misuse, which lies at the root of much other crime, especially violence. That being so, surely fixed penalties for the sale of alcohol to persons under 18 are disproportionate and unwise.

Mr. Burrowes: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. The Magistrates Association made a similar point about that offence, which is associated more often than not with violence, not being downgraded to a fixed penalty notice. It is important that we look at the rationale for each extension and whether there should be an extension. The concern that many share and which the Government have not answered is that the extension is designed to relieve administrative burdens, rather than to seek true justice in each individual case.

The order has been put together in haste. It is intended to meet the Government’s policy U-turn on cannabis and to ensure that they have an enforcement regime in place, but it is an order that cannot be supported. That is the reason for the motion to annul the order. We
11 Mar 2009 : Column 370
cannot support what is, in effect, a downgrading of enforcement on cannabis. We cannot support an order that goes soft on proper enforcement or which further undermines summary justice and justice that should be administered primarily by a magistrates court, which is the public forum that is there for all to see, so that victims can receive justice and there is transparency. For those reasons, I urge the House to support the motion to annul the order.

Next Section Index Home Page