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5Clause 36, page 17, line 12, after "2(1)" insert "or provided under a contract made by virtue of section 2(4)"

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 5. In doing so, I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 6, 12 to 14, 16 to 18, 22 to 26 and 28. I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 24A to 24C, which amend Amendment No. 24, and to Amendment No. 24D, which amends Clause 106.

The amendments deal with the collection of fines by fines officers and the discharge of fines by unpaid work. Taken together, they replace the existing Schedule 3 with a new one which allows wider use of attachments of earnings and deductions from benefits within the fines collection regime. They also introduce a new schedule to give effect to the Government's proposals on the discharge of fines by unpaid work. My noble friend Lady Scotland gave early warning of the amendments on 8th May on Report. They were tabled prior to Committee in another place, and comprise the addition of two new clauses, a complete revision of the former Schedule 3, and a new schedule on fines payment work.

The amendments add to the fine enforcement scheme by making wider use of attachments of earnings and deductions from benefits, particularly for offenders who are in default on other financial penalties. They also create a new offence, penalising those who fail to provide means information and/or the financial details necessary to allow an attachment of earnings or deduction from benefits order to be made.

We also introduced a new schedule, amending the Bill to allow the courts to impose a period of unpaid work instead of a fine when the fine cannot be collected by any recognised means. In addition, we introduced Amendment No. 5, which would enable the role of the fines officer to be contracted out. The Government have decided that to radically improve the collections of fines, which is clearly necessary, we should not rule that out as an option in the future, should circumstances appear to justify it. In such a situation, we would contract out only in the interests of better fines collection, and subject to the appropriate restrictions and controls.

Any arrangements for such contracting out will be subject to the existing prohibition on contracting-out functions which involve a judicial decision or discretion. They are also subject to the same safeguards as exist in the Court Service, which we introduced by amendment on Report in the Lords. Those safeguards are that the work to be eligible for contracting out must be specified in an order, and the senior judiciary must be consulted on the terms of that order.

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Amendments Nos. 6, 14, 17 and 18 deal with the piloting arrangements for the proposals. Those are important measures, but they are clearly experimental. It is sensible that, before they are introduced at large, there is provision and capacity for piloting them. The amendments will enable both the schedules to be piloted in specified local justice areas, and enable different elements of the package to be piloted in different areas.

The wider use of attachments of earnings orders and deductions from benefits, together with the new offence for non-provision of means information, will be piloted nationally. A combination of other variations of the new measures will be piloted locally in Cambridgeshire, Cumbria, Devon and Cornwall, and South Yorkshire, with the full scheme being piloted in Cheshire and Gloucestershire. That approach will enable the Government to bring forward a package of tried and tested measures, which we can be sure will deliver the improvements in performance that all members of this House want to see.

The first items in Amendment No. 24 make drafting amendments only. Its second part is that the Government have accepted the recommendations in paragraph 4 of the 26th report of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers. The amendment therefore changes the status of regulations governing the fine-to-work conversion rate, making them subject to affirmative resolution before both Houses.

Amendments Nos. 25, 26 and 28 make minor and consequential amendments to the provisions governing fine collection and the discharge of fines by unpaid work.

I apologise for the length of my comments, but I hope that it helps subsequent brevity. I commend the said Commons amendments to the House.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 5.—(Lord Filkin.)

Lord Renton: My Lords, I greatly welcome Amendment No. 6, because getting rid of Clause 36(2) to (8) is really good riddance.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I would be less than frank if I were to say that the amendments met with full-hearted support on these Benches. We are less than entirely happy with a number of aspects of them. I note that the original schedule has now been replaced by one that has increased in size from 25 paragraphs to 53 paragraphs. It is of very considerable length, which adds to the quantity of statutory material now being churned out.

I am sorry that the Government have not taken on board a point that I raised at an earlier stage about the problems with imposing strict time limits on action that can be taken by someone who is required to pay a fine, who in a number of circumstances has to take action by way of appeal, for example, within 10 days. Rigid time limits with no possibility of extension are a notable cause of injustice. However, that matter was fully ventilated at that earlier stage.

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We are unhappy with the system of deduction from benefits, because of fears not only that it may have an impact on the person drawing the benefits but, where that person is in a family relationship and children are involved, it may adversely affect the children. When the Government undertake their piloting schemes, I hope that one issue that they will look at is the impact that deductions from benefits appear to have on other members of the household of the person who would otherwise be entitled to those benefits.

We are also concerned in principle that something as close to a judicial function as the fines officer is capable of being contracted out. Although we would not seek to delay the matter any further, we are concerned about it and hope that our concerns will be looked at carefully within the piloting period.

Paragraph 22 of the proposed new schedule on collection of fines states that no application may be made by the person subject to the fine for a variation of the payment terms unless there has been a material change in that person's circumstances since the last collection was made, or that person is making further information about their circumstances available. No such restriction was included on the making of an application in the original version of the schedule. Can the Minister give any explanation of why that change was introduced? The same point arises in connection with paragraphs 31 and 36 of the new schedule.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I am delighted to get the support of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, on at least one aspect of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, rightly comments that sometimes our processes lead to Bills getting longer rather than shorter, which is not always a sin.

The impact on the dependants of someone who has been convicted of an offence is a central and difficult problem of a justice system. Sending someone to prison clearly affects their dependants and family. Nevertheless, I shall ask officials to reflect on the point made. If it is possible to consider that as part of the monitoring, we shall seek to do so, but I cannot give a total commitment without knowing exactly what is happening.

We would not be rushing contracting out either. We are not seeking to go back to 17th century France in any respect whatever.

Since inspiration is coming to me rather slowly this afternoon, I shall have to answer the noble Lord's last point subsequently if he will bear with that.

On Question, Motion agreed to.


6Page 17, line 14, leave out subsections (2) to (8)

7Clause 41, page 20, line 27, at end insert— "( ) No act is invalidated merely because of the disqualification under this section of the person by whom it is done."

8Clause 42, page 21, line 1, leave out "before 31st January 2002" and insert ", whether made before or after the passing of this Act,"

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Lord Filkin: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 6 to 8.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 6 to 8.—(Lord Filkin.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

4.30 p.m.


9Clause 92, page 44, line 30, leave out subsection (2)
10Page 44, line 35, at end insert— "( ) When including any provision in an order under this section, the Lord Chancellor must have regard to the principle that access to the courts must not be denied."

11Page 45, line 16, leave out subsection (11)

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 9 to 11. The amendments concern access to justice and court fees, which is an issue that received considerable consideration in the early stages of the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 accept the principle of an amendment which was passed during the Lords passage of the Bill. An amendment was passed in Committee which would make it a statutory requirement that the Lord Chancellor should have regard to the need to facilitate access to justice when prescribing fees. The Government have listened to those concerns. After careful consideration, we have concluded that even though subsection (2) is not strictly necessary, the effect of the provision should be included.

Amendment No. 9 removes the original Lords amendment. Amendment No. 10, the Government's proposal, will ensure that the Lord Chancellor must have regard to the principle that access to the courts must be not be denied when including any provision in an order under that clause. For the first time, that will place the common law position, established by Witham, on a statutory footing.

In addition, the Court of Appeal in Witham has already confirmed that a citizen has a constitutional right of access, although not a right of free access, to the courts. A system of exemptions, remissions and reductions already exists under the current fee-setting powers to achieve that for less well-off litigants.

If the House agrees with the amendments, the regime for setting courts fees will be much stronger and clearer and have a statutory basis in principles for the first time. Clause 92 includes, also for the first time, an express power to exempt or remit fees. That, along with a new fees order, will be subject to wide consultation with the heads of division and, for the first time, the head and deputy head of civil justice and, for civil proceedings, the Civil Justice Council. It will also, for the first time, be subject to parliamentary scrutiny by way of the negative resolution procedure.

Amendment No. 11 removes an amendment that was added in this House, which would prevent judicial salaries being taken into account when setting fees.

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After much consideration, we are firmly of the view that that would be an undesirable obstacle to the Lord Chancellor's powers in exercising his ministerial responsibilities. I am afraid that we cannot accept it.

The Government's policy is to recover the full cost of services provided, including judicial salaries, based on the general principle that parties are expected to pay the cost of that part of the civil justice system that they are using to resolve their dispute. The general policy of recovering most of the costs of the courts through fees ensures the best targeting of scarce public resources. Those are properly public expenditure decisions for government.

The Government's policy on setting fees and charges is set out in the Treasury's fees and charges guide. That explains that fees should be set to recover the full cost, subject to any agreed subsidies. The provision would provide a subsidy for all types of cases. The Government consider that an approach that closely targets those in need by way of the system of exemptions, remissions and subsidies is a more cost-effective way of ensuring access to justice.

I shall not go into much greater detail. I should also point out that the recovery of judicial salaries as part of the objective of policy was introduced by the Conservative Party in 1992. We believe that they were correct in that. I shall not upset the House by indicating the scale of loss of income that would follow from that. I shall merely indicate that that would not be seen by the Government as a trivial issue. For reasons both of principle and of the Government's right to protect their income sources, I hope that the House will understand why we are resistant to that amendment, if not to the others in the group.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 9 to 11.—(Lord Filkin.)

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