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5.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): I begin by trying to deal with some of the points made by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes). We can agree across the House that cannabis use is harmful. Cannabis is an illegal drug and should not be taken. It needs to be tackled through a comprehensive package of measures as part of a drug strategy that includes prevention, education, early intervention, enforcement—which is what we are dealing with—and treatment when that is necessary.

We believe that cannabis can pose a real threat to health. It can produce both immediate and longer-term harm to physical and mental health. For that reason, enforcement of the fact that it is illegal is an important part of deterring its use and trying to ensure that we minimise the harm caused to and by those who use it.

Mr. Malins: If the Minister’s argument is right, why permit possession of cannabis to be treated by a penalty notice, which does not involve a criminal record and never comes to the notice of the court or anybody else? It is as though the offender has not done anything, if they pay the money. Why do that if it is important, as the hon. Lady says, to bring offenders into court for treatment?

Maria Eagle: I shall deal with that point. At present, the 2004 Association of Chief Police Officers’ administrative arrangements on cannabis warnings for possession are in use. Any police officer catching somebody in possession has the immediate capacity and jurisdiction to arrest if the circumstances warrant it, but if it is simple possession with no aggravating features, he or she may take the view that some sort of warning is appropriate if it is a first offence. At present there is an administrative warning in England—a cannabis warning—which, anecdotally, has been used on more than one occasion.

The arrangements that we are putting in place through the order, part of which introduces a penalty notice for disorder for a second offence, create an escalation such that an individual who is caught in possession, in circumstances that the officer concerned considers appropriate, can receive a cannabis warning—an administrative warning—for a first offence, a PND for a second offence, and can be arrested for a third offence. This is a regime of escalation. I accept the importance of sending signals, as the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said. He called the measure a three-strike policy, but it is an attempt to escalate the consequences of being caught more than once.

Keith Vaz: What would the Minister say to the point made by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes)? He said that the first stage in the three-stage process—I think it a good process—is not recorded and therefore cannot be monitored.

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Maria Eagle: That is a good point, as I have accepted in previous discussions. There are local arrangements within particular forces for making notes of such things. PNDs are now available, and can be issued for offences; that has been possible since 26 January, as the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said.

Possession of cannabis is a recordable offence and should therefore be put on the police national computer within 24 hours; that is the arrangement. That, of course, works only if a cannabis warning has already been given as part of the escalation. PentiP, the computer system that will record cannabis warnings and PNDs across England, will be in operation by 2010. Until then, we will rely on local forces’ own, more informal recording of cannabis warnings. The PND would, of course, be recorded on the police national computer and there would be an arrest for a further offence of possession.

I remind the House, however, that every investigating officer uses his or her judgment at the time and in the circumstances. They certainly have the power to arrest for a first offence if there is an aggravating feature—if there appears to be an attempt to supply or if the individual is hanging around outside a school gate, for example. We want the individual police officer to exercise their professional judgment, and it is possible for them to arrest for a first offence.

Keith Vaz: I thank the Minister for the spirit in which she has addressed the point made by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate. Bearing in mind that she has accepted that it is important that we record the first stage, could she not speak to the Home Secretary about the matter? The Home Secretary could write to the chief constables of the 43 authorities and tell them that, in her view, it would be a good idea if they started to make sure that these matters were recorded in local notes. After all, we accept the sensible points made by the hon. Gentleman.

Maria Eagle: I am happy to talk to the Home Secretary, but I do not accept that these matters are not recorded locally, although I accept that there might be disparities in how well they are recorded and that they might not all be recorded as one would hope. By 2010, when PentiP comes in, we should have a more reliable, England-wide recording system.

Mr. Hogg: The Minister fairly said that the police have discretion to arrest and charge. However, does she agree that the fixed penalty is an easier option for the officer, who does not have to go through the arresting and recording process and subsequently, if necessary, go to court? There is therefore a real risk that the fixed penalties will be used by officers as an easy option and that appropriate prosecution will not follow.

Maria Eagle: We have to trust the professional judgment of the officers out on the beat. I would not expect them to issue a PND when there were aggravating features and the person should have been arrested.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Maria Eagle: I will, but I will answer one point before taking another.

It is important that we trust the professionalism of the officer on the beat, who knows what they see in
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front of them. There is always a balance to be struck. Hon. Members often complain about the bureaucracy surrounding the police and the paperwork that they have to fill in. We have to be careful not to prescribe precisely what should happen in every circumstance. We have to trust the professional judgment of the officers concerned, and I am content to do that.

We are seeking an arrangement that will enable that officer to use their professional judgment, while enabling us as a society to show the escalating effect of repeated offences, which we have not had until now. That will allow us to make clear to those who continue to wander about in possession of this drug that that is not acceptable. After a certain period of time, certain leeway and certain warnings, they will be taken before the court and dealt with appropriately.

Mr. Malins: The Under-Secretary is being generous in giving way, and she is taking the argument seriously, which we all appreciate. However, given that a penalty notice apparently does not require an admission of guilt and does not result in any record of a criminal conviction, what will the position be in court when the magistrate or the district judge asks for a list of matters known against the defendant, which are vital in sentencing? Will there be absolutely nothing, or something?

Maria Eagle: As I said, the PND for a recordable offence is put on to the police national computer, and it will be known to that degree. Magistrates will be aware of the usual escalation and will be aware that there have been previous offences.

Mr. Malins: How?

Maria Eagle: As I say, because it is a recordable offence, the PND is on the police national computer. If these matters get to court, magistrates will deal with them in the usual way. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) is harassing me from a sedentary position, but those of us who have experience of the courts can say that magistrates are perfectly capable of dealing with matters that come before them, and of doing so in an efficient and sensible way.

There has been some concern about the level of the fine. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said that £80, which is the level at which the financial penalty will be fixed under this order, was too little. I do not know whether this assists the House, but the average fine for cannabis possession in 2006 was just under £80, and just over £81 in 2007. The level of financial penalty will be about the same as the average fine when a case is taken to court, according to the latest statistics. I hope that that allays any concerns about whether the penalty is sufficient.

The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate referred to enforcement, and the hon. Member for Woking knows that it is right that only about half of PNDs are paid, because he was nodding when his hon. Friend made his remarks. If they are not paid, they are increased by 50 per cent. and enforced as fines. I can tell the House that 85 per cent. of fines are collected, but I cannot disaggregate the percentage that started out as PNDs. There is a high chance that enforcement will follow, and one wishes that individuals who are subject to a financial penalty would pay it, and that the matter would be
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enforced if they did not. Certainly, 85 per cent. is not a bad place to start, but we are always focusing on fine enforcement to increase that level.

We believe that PNDs offer a proportionate second step in the escalation process. Cannabis is the most widely used drug, and the PND offers a method of disposal that provides a greater penalty than simply an administrative warning—the cannabis warning that the Association of Chief Police Officers uses in England at present. It offers a disincentive to the individual concerned of a financial penalty to make them think about their behaviour, which a cannabis warning does not. If a person chooses not to pay the penalty notice, they remain liable to be convicted, and will be chased under the enforcement arrangements for the penalty that they have not paid. We therefore believe that penalty notices represent an escalation from the cannabis warning and a salutary and important suggestion to people that if they overstep the mark again, they will be going to court.

The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) made points about the use of PNDs changing in respect of some offences. I accept that there has been a move away from using them simply for disorder, which is where their name came from. They now cover a variety of minor antisocial offences. The right hon. and learned Gentleman made the point that PNDs are used for some offences that sound too serious to be dealt with in that way. However, they are designed to be used only at the very lowest end of the scale of those offences. For example, in the case of false reporting to police, they are for abuse of 999 calls. One would not expect them to be used for such offences at a higher level. They provide an extra option at the lowest end for the police when they are trying to make use of the limited resources that are always available. There is never enough money for them to do everything that one would wish them to do.

The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate asked how issuing fixed penalty notices can be seen as being tougher. The answer is simply that we are moving to an escalating arrangement whereby it will be made obvious to the person committing an offence that things will get worse if they continue to behave in the same manner. We trust in the professionalism and good sense of our police officers out on the beat to make the appropriate choice, in the circumstances that they find in front of them, about whether a penalty notice is the right way forward for a particular offender. Of course, they always retain the capacity to arrest if they believe it appropriate.

Mr. Burrowes: I hear the Minister’s point about the important principle of trusting our police to make decisions, but have the Government made any analysis of whether the Scottish and Northern Irish devolved Administrations trust their police more? They allow them the discretion to refer people for prosecution rather than use cannabis warnings or the escalation arrangement that the Government want to introduce. Surely the position there is eminently preferable, as there is discretion to prosecute.

Maria Eagle: The point is that in Northern Ireland and Scotland, the administrative arrangements for cannabis warnings set out by the Association of Chief Police
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Officers have not been in place. If someone is caught in possession, they are therefore considered for prosecution. As all the lawyers in the House will know, being considered for prosecution does not necessarily mean that one ends up being prosecuted. Charges might not be brought, or there might be other reasons why a case does not end up before the courts.

On the financial penalty itself, as I have said, the average fine for simple possession offences in 2006 and 2007 was about the £80 mark that we have set for PNDs in the order. I cannot say that I have research to hand on whether public officials trust their courts and police more in Northern Ireland and Scotland. I will have to ask back at the Department a little later whether there is any such research, and if there is, I shall certainly point it out to the hon. Gentleman.

I hope that I have managed to deal with some of the points that have been made about the order, which the Opposition seek to annul. I hope that the House does not annul it, as along with the reclassification upwards, it forms an important part of the new arrangements for dealing properly and efficiently, but sensibly, with possession offences. Bearing in mind the fact that police retain the discretion to arrest for a first offence if they feel it appropriate, I hope that the House will agree that we should go ahead and ensure that the order is in force.

5.19 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): As we have heard, the reason for our being here this afternoon is a long story. The original statutory instrument, which was laid before the House in December, had to be withdrawn at short notice because the Government had not consulted about many of its provisions—for example, the one on taxi touts. Taxi touting was one of the 21 new offences that were included in that statutory instrument. As a result of having to withdraw it hastily, the Government introduced the order that we are considering, which relates specifically to cannabis as the only new offence of the original 21.

Penalty notices for disorder are, in principle, good policy instruments for several reasons. First, they save police time. The Under-Secretary made one of the standard arguments, which we hear all the time, about the amount of paperwork and bureaucracy that keeps police from carrying out their front-line duties and ties them up in the station. Using penalty notices for disorder in the appropriate circumstances is a great time-saver. I believe that it takes half an hour to issue a penalty notice for disorder, compared with a minimum of two and a half hours for a more detailed case if the police have to go down another route. That is a great advantage.

Secondly, PNDs help to avoid criminalisation. Again, that is welcome in the correct circumstances. I tabled an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill, which has recently completed its Committee stage, that would have a similar effect. I proposed that local authorities could take similar measures against graffiti and fly-posting and use restorative justice, thus allowing the offenders to repair the damage that they had done and avoid getting a criminal record. Hopefully, that early shock would prevent people from going on to greater criminal activity. We support the principles of restorative justice and trying to avoid criminalisation at the first stage of offending.

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However, PNDs are supposed to be used for only minor public order offences and minor antisocial behaviour offences, not serious offences. A concern about the original statutory instrument was that several of the offences were more serious than the minor offences for which the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 provided.

In principle, we support penalty notices for disorder, but we have doubts about how they work in general, and specifically about their use for cannabis offences. Where is the evidence base for the policy? Eight years have passed since the 2001 Act, which was extended in 2004 to bring children over 10 within its scope. Incidentally, I understand that, in the previous statutory instrument debate, the Under-Secretary said that PNDs would not be used for people under 18 who used drugs and that other Acts would apply in that case.

Some 400,000 PNDs have been issued in the eight years since they were introduced. After eight years, what do we know about their effectiveness? The Magistrates Association is sceptical about how far an £80 fine would go in deterring someone who was found selling alcohol to minors, presumably from an off-licence. How do PNDs tie up with other Government police policy, such as the Policing and Crime Bill’s dropping the “three strikes and you’re out” to two for licensees? If there are to be only two steps, where does the £80 PND fit in that sequence?

It appears that only 50 per cent. of the people issued with the notices pay. Where is the research into what happens next? What happens to the 50 per cent. who do not pay? How effectively are they pursued? Where is the research base to show whether PNDs work? As a first step, do they help to prevent people from being criminalised and reoffending? What are the reoffending rates? It appears—remarkably—that, eight years after PNDs were introduced, no research has been conducted to ascertain whether they are effective as well as widely used. In answer to a parliamentary question, the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing said:

For a Government who long ago proclaimed that they believed in evidence-based policy making, it seems strange that they should have neither the evidence nor the research to follow the policy through.

Maria Eagle: Some recent research has suggested that issuing fixed penalty notices has a positive effect, but the evidence would not be described as conclusive. More work needs to done to shore up the evidence base, but some research has indicated a positive impact.

Paul Holmes: I thank the Minister for that answer, which relates to one of my final points. I hope that the Government will commit to carrying out more research on the measure, which, in principle, is a sensible move when used in the right low-level circumstances. However, although we might believe that something is effective, it seems pointless to use it for eight years, 10 years or longer without checking whether it delivers the desired results.

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