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11 Mar 2009 : Column 382
5.45 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), but I would not want the public watching from the Gallery or on the Parliament Channel to think that the only choice that Members of Parliament give to their children is, “Would you like some red wine or some cannabis?” The hon. Gentleman very honestly answered the question from the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), but there are other social activities available to the children of Members of Parliament.

Paul Holmes: Simply for clarification of the record, and before my words are twisted, I was responding to a hypothetical question from a Tory Member. It was not something that I suggested.

Keith Vaz: Absolutely, and the hon. Gentleman was not given a multiple choice beyond wine or cannabis. I am sure that in Chesterfield there are lots of other choices available to the children of Members of Parliament.

This is a very serious debate and although the hon. Member for Chesterfield pointed to what he regarded as an inconsistency on the part of the Government in hyping the importance of a debate on drugs yet ensuring that the penalty was not as serious as it should be by using this method of enforcement, I think that there is agreement on all sides of the House about the harmful effects of cannabis and the serious nature of drug taking.

At the moment, the country is gripped by the story of Julie Myerson and her young son in the book “The Lost Child”. I have not read the book but there has been much press comment about it and about how a parent can become so frustrated with the drug taking of his or her child that they lock them out and exclude them from their homes. That is not the only example; there are many other case histories that we have read about.

The Government are right to begin any consideration of the policy of enforcement with a clear and unequivocal statement about drug taking and drug use. The Minister was right to point out the harmful effects of taking cannabis. There is research and medical evidence to support what she said and although this debate is not specifically about cannabis—in the sense of whether our penalties are severe or not—and is on a limited motion that deals with enforcement, it is important that the House looks at the issue.

I am pleased to see in his place the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), who is a member of the Select Committee that I chair. The Committee has decided to undertake a major inquiry into drugs that will begin at the beginning of April. We will look not just at what the Government have done in this case and at classification, but at the way in which drugs enter this country and at whether the penalties are sufficient to deal with what has been an increase in the availability of cannabis and other drugs. It will be a long inquiry and will be concluded at the end of the year, and we are willing and eager to have evidence and views from all political parties.

The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) made what I regarded as a thoughtful speech in which he accepted the Government’s position on cannabis but was worried about the process. He is perfectly entitled
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to be concerned about these matters, but I ask him not to let the process get in the way of a decision that has to be made by the House today. I hope that the Conservative party will not vote to have the order annulled because it is important that we have the necessary penalties in place to deal with the situation. I know that he feels that the penalties are not sufficient. I gather from his speech that he would like the £80 fine that is to be imposed to be even higher, but I think that the three-stage process set out by the Government is a method that works and that we can support.

I hope that the Minister will, as a result of the debate and the other deliberations she has had upstairs, now ensure that sufficient research is done in support of the Government’s view that those penalties work. I know that some research has been commissioned in the past, and I do not think the issuing of 400,000 fixed penalty notices since 2004, implemented across all 43 police forces, would have resulted in nobody being discomfited, so such steps clearly work, but there is a need for further research of the sort that the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate spoke about.

The hon. Gentleman was also right when he said that this three-stage process must be properly monitored, and I was grateful that the Minister responded positively to that suggestion. The worry is that the warning that should currently be given is not in the local notes of police officers. That is why I have put to the Minister—and I put it to her again now—that if there is concern that there is not proper monitoring, the proper course of action is for the Home Secretary to write to the chief constables in the 43 areas or to communicate with ACPO. There are many methods by which the Home Secretary can get across to chief constables the importance and necessity of recording such information—and I notice that the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing has just entered the Chamber to listen to the debate. I think that that deals with the Opposition’s point. I therefore hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), will go away and, not have an informal chat with the Home Secretary, but actually make sure something is done to support this, so that there can be more robustness to the three-stage process that she spoke about.

On the level of penalty, I have no problems with the fine that has been mentioned or with the effectiveness of the PNDs. I think they have been effective. We know that skunk now accounts for between 70 and 80 per cent. of the cannabis seized on the streets, whereas six years ago it only accounted for 15 per cent., and, as we also know, skunk is a much stronger version of the drug.

Paul Holmes: As Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, does the right hon. Gentleman have more evidence for what he has just said about knowing that PNDs are effective? The Government do not have any evidence on whether they are effective or not—there is no research base—so has the Select Committee taken any evidence on this? The Chair of the Select Committee said he knew they had been effective—how?

Keith Vaz: From the information that has come to me. No, we have not taken evidence on this, which is why it is important that we look at this issue in the inquiry we are about to start, and I promise the hon.
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Gentleman that we will. Obviously, the Government take slightly longer than a Select Committee to commission reports and then review them and conclude, but we will look into the issue, and it is to be hoped that we will have the evidence he seeks. If PNDs are not effective, he can be clear that, with Members such as the hon. Member for Monmouth sitting on the Committee, the report will not be agreed by the Committee. We will certainly look at penalties.

I also want to discuss the effectiveness not of Government policy, but of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The hon. Member for Chesterfield referred to Professor Nutt. It was Professor Nutt who said recently that there was not much difference between horse-riding and ecstasy, and it was Professor Nutt and his council who said that cannabis should be downgraded from class B to class C. The body is called the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and it only advises the Home Secretary, and it is right that, in the end, the Home Secretary and politicians, who are accountable to this House, should make the final decision. The Home Secretary needs to have a few words with the chairman of the advisory council. First, she needs to put him right on his statement, although I think that he has made some subsequent comments about it. At the end of the day, it must be for the Home Secretary to decide on these matters and for the Government to send out an appropriate message.

If the Opposition vote to annul this order, they will be sending out the wrong message to the public—that this House does not treat the issue seriously enough. In accepting penalty notices for disorder and talking about the need for more research, and with the increase in the amount of skunk available on the streets of our capital city and other cities, the Government need to send out the message that it is vital that we continue with the Home Secretary’s tough line on drugs. We must continue to ensure, even if the advice is against us, that if the Home Secretary and the Government feel that it is important to reclassify this drug, that is what we should do. It is what we have done and we should ensure that we monitor the process so that those who mistakenly believe that in some way taking drugs is acceptable social practice—whether they are celebrities or whoever else—understand that this House will be very serious about the way in which it deals with this real and difficult problem.

5.56 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Because of the lateness of the hour, I shall be brief. I am not opposed to the principle of fixed penalty notices. They have a role to play, but they should be confined to relatively minor transgressions. Indeed, I would qualify that by saying that they should be confined to very minor transgressions.

My anxiety, looking at the schedule, is that the fixed penalty notices are capable of being applied in more serious cases. For example, in the example I gave to the Minister, giving a false report to the police can amount to conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. We can all recognise that theft is a very serious offence, and criminal damage ditto. The point about the sale of alcohol to persons under 18 has been ventilated frequently in this House. Incidentally, the last offence under part 1—knowingly giving a false alarm to one of the emergency services—can be a very serious offence.

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The Minister made a perfectly fair point in that she said, rightly, that the police have discretion and that a constable on the beat, identifying an offence of this character, can choose to arrest and to go through the prosecution process. However, that places a considerable burden on the police because they have to go through the arrest process and they might have to turn up in court. There is a temptation to an officer on the beat. Incidentally, many years ago I was a special constable, so I have some experience. There is a real temptation to take the easy option. Although I am not saying for a moment that all officers will do that, some certainly will. The truth is, as I have often said in this House, that if one gives powers to officials one can be sure that those powers will be abused at one stage or another.

The problem, it seems to me, is that when we extend the capacity to apply fixed penalties to offences that are not minor, we can be quite sure that on occasion they will be applied in cases that should go to the courts. Hon. Members have cited various good reasons why such cases should go to the courts, especially when an addiction of one kind or another is an underlying cause. In any event, I think that theft, for example, is an offence that should generally go to the courts. I am unhappy therefore with the concept of the various offences that I have mentioned, which are capable of being serious, being included in the schedule.

I want to be brief, as I know that three other hon. Members want to speak. I shall vote with my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) against the order, because it includes offences that should not be contained in the schedule.

5.59 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I, too, shall be brief in view of the shortness of the time. As always, I declare an interest as a lawyer, Crown court recorder and part-time district judge. What troubles me about the principle of fixed penalty notices is that the motive behind them seems to be to make life easier and simpler for the police, with less form-filling and less hassle than going the whole way to court. If that is part of the motivation, I think that it is wrong. I entirely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) that, if the matter concerned is of the very lowest seriousness—such as dropping litter, and so on—there is a case for the use of a fixed penalty notice. However, that is not appropriate for the more serious offences.

I am troubled about judicial discretion being exercised largely by officers on the beat, and I fear that some very serious matters will simply not see the light of day if penalty notices are being issued. The notes accompanying the order state:

That would be fine for dropping litter and similar matters, but what about the other offences? As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said, the schedule contains some serious offences. Theft carries a prison sentence, but the list includes wasting police time, criminal damage and selling alcohol to under-18s. It cannot be right that, for all those offences, something happens that does not result
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in any record whatsoever. Moreover, many of the offences also have victims, but they appear to have no say in what will happen.

I am troubled by those two points. In the remaining minutes at my disposal, I want to make it clear that I am also troubled that cannabis possession is to be included in the list of offences for which a penalty notice is handed out. Goodness knows what the courts will think when they discover that neither magistrates, judges nor anyone else will be able to know that a penalty notice—for theft, say—has been handed out to the people come before them. The law will not allow that knowledge to be made available, as it does not amount to an admission of guilt. It is therefore not relevant and cannot be taken into account.

Opinions vary about the sentences that should be handed out for cannabis possession, but I believe it to be a gateway drug to more serious crime. When a person is up for possession of cannabis, I would prefer it if the courts did not say, “Stand up! Here’s a £50 fine, next case, please!” I want the courts to take that offence more seriously, as I believe that, in the long term, cannabis can be very damaging drug indeed.

I am unhappy at any suggestion that the possession of cannabis—and skunk, of course, is so strong—or other potentially serious offences can be dealt with, not by a judicial authority but by something happening in the street, no record of which is kept at all.

6.2 pm

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Like another hon. Member who spoke earlier, I want to declare an interest in that I am a serving special constable. I am also a member of the Home Affairs Committee.

In an ideal world, there would be no such things as penalty notices for disorder. Unfortunately, the world that we live in is not ideal. The reality is that two police officers halfway through a shift who are faced with a person who has committed a minor offence will have to make a choice: they can turn a blind eye—one would hope that that would never happen—issue a penalty notice for disorder, in some instances, or make an arrest.

Let me make clear what making an arrest would entail for the two officers. Because of the rules about how custody suites must come up to various standards these days, they are few and far between, so the officers would have to wait for transport to take them to a police station far away. They would then have to wait to book their prisoner in, and wait again while the prisoner was assessed medically and while a solicitor and perhaps an interpreter were found. The officers would have to write up their notes, and then go back to interview the prisoner. The long and short of it all is that the officers will have written off practically their whole shift. A lot of time will also be used up by the custody sergeant and the other people involved in the process.

If, at the end of all of that, a meaningful sanction is applied to the prisoner, the process will have been worth while. However, if the person who has committed a minor offence is back out on the streets a few hours later and faces only a small fine some way down the line, one has to ask what any of it has achieved.

I am not against PNDs; in fact, I have come around to them, in principle, as a way to make the best of a bad job. The question that concerns me has to do with the
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crimes for which they are used. For the same reasons that other hon. Members have already outlined, I have a problem with PNDs being used for any form of theft, such as shoplifting, or of drug abuse. I do not accept the comments made earlier by an hon. Member who seemed to liken cannabis to alcohol. Cannabis is a very dangerous drug that leads on to other drugs. It is often used as a defence for heinous crimes, which suggests to me that the courts and the authorities need to bear down as strongly as possible on this drug. With all due respect to the Minister, I fail to understand why PNDs are being issued for the possession of cannabis.

I can think of two other offences that cry out for PNDs, and it might interest the Minister to know that I have tabled an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill, proposing that we implement PNDs for people who have committed minor ticket offences on the railways. I know from my own experience that the British transport police spend a great deal of time trying to sort out people who have committed such offences, and it would be absolutely great if they could give out a PND and impose an instant fine on people who admitted the offence. That would save a vast amount of time.

Another offence that is worth looking into in this regard relates to what I call professional beggars, although I would not want to table an amendment on the matter without doing further research. The people in question are often removed from railway stations and other places with very large amounts of money on them. They are often not arrested for any offence, but if they could be given an immediate PND, some of that money could be taken away from them. So there is a place for penalty notices for disorder.

If the Minister is trying to free up police time, I offer her those two suggestions in all helpfulness. I urge her please to look at the amendment that I have tabled, to see whether the Government can find a way of supporting it. It would have widespread support among the police, and I cannot see how it would go against anything that her Government stand for politically.

In an ideal world, offenders committing any sort of an offence would simply be marched into a court. There would be no long process; they would appear before a magistrate straight away and they would receive summary justice. We do not live in an ideal world, however. I hope that things improve, but until they do, there is a place for PNDs. Let them be used effectively, however, and let them be used for appropriate offences. Theft and drug possession are not appropriate offences for PNDs, and I will therefore oppose the motion.

6.6 pm

Mr. Burrowes: We have had an interesting and important debate, and it was a debate that the Government did not wish us to have. Their view was that the order should have been dealt with under the negative resolution procedure. If that had happened, this informed debate in the House would not have seen the light of day.

The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) urged the Opposition not to let process get in the way. This debate has highlighted the lack of process, the abridged time in which the hastily drafted order was put before the House, and the fact that 21 offences were
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taken off the order and that the order was revoked and then revised in its present form. We have been able to highlight those points today.

The debate about the process goes further, however. The process that the Government want to implement is an escalator, comprising the three-strikes warning, the fixed penalty notice and finally the possibility of arrest and prosecution. The reality that has been exposed today is that that escalator is not functioning, and it is unlikely to do so in many parts of the country, given the lack of a computer system and a means of recording the offences involved.

Opposition Members have also highlighted the number of serious offences in the order, and on the schedule, that will now be dealt with using a fixed penalty notice, rather than properly seeing the light of day in the courts. Summary justice has traditionally been done, and seen to be done, in magistrates courts. As we have already seen, the risk is that the expansion of the use of PNDs, which have their place in limited circumstances, will lead to their falling into disrepute. It could also have that effect on summary justice. The order that the Government sought to push through under cover has come to light, and we now need to annul it. I urge hon. Members to do that today.

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