Variation of Penalties for Certain Offences

Orders of the Day — Road Traffic Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26 July 1974.

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Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mr Oscar Murton Mr Oscar Murton , Poole

With this Question we may discuss Schedule 5 and the following amendments:

No. 27, in Schedule 5, page 51, line 16, column 4, leave out '£50' and insert '£20'.

No. 28, in page 51, line 18, column 5, leave out '£50' and insert '£20'.

No. 29, in page 52, line 4, column 4, leave out '£100' and insert '£50'.

No. 30, in page 52, line 6, column 5, leave out '£100' and insert '£50'.

No. 31, in page 55, line 20, column 4, after '£50', insert: 'or, on a second or subsequent conviction £200'.

No. 32, in page 58, line 20, column 4, after '£100', insert or three months' imprisonment'.

No. 33, in page 66, line 20, column 4, leave out '£200' and insert: £400 or three months' imprisonment'.

No. 43, in page 70, line 16, leave out paragraph 4.

No. 34, in page 70, line 20, at end, add 'or 4 months' imprisonment'.

No. 52, in Clause 7, page 13, line 4, leave out '£100' and insert: '£10 for a first offence, £20 for a second offence and £50 for subsequent offences'.

3.15 p.m.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Camden Hampstead

May I speak to amendment No. 31, which deals with a matter which I raised in Committee but on which I failed to get a satisfactory reply? The Minister pointed out that it was a Home Office matter but at that time the appropriate Minister was engaged a few Committee Rooms away on other business.

I do not understand the purpose of the alteration in page 59. I would have thought that in London, particularly, this problem was affecting a large number of local authorities who are finding fake coins in their meters and people tampering with the meters. I would have preferred the Government to deter people by a more substantial fine. At the moment, anyone tampering with a parking meter or using a false coin is liable to a maximum fine of £50 or three months imprisonment, or both. The Government are proposing simply to make the maximum punishment a £50 fine.

I appreciate that that means £50 per coin and that anyone putting four fake coins in a meter would be liable to a maximum fine of £200. But if that person two weeks later does the same thing again I am advised that he would start again at the maximum fine of £50. It is wrong for a subsequent conviction to be subject to the same maximum as a first offence. The court should be told that on a subsequent occasion the maximum fine per offence should be £200.

I do not necessarily argue with the decision to delete the provision for imprisonment, but to retain the £50 maximum is wrong and does not meet thy, needs of some London boroughs, particularly my own borough of Camden, where people have been tampering with meters and where the borough has offered rewards to people who report such offences. I hope that the Minister will think again.

Unless he can convince me, whatever my hon. and right hon. Friends will wish to do, I should like to press the amendment. I feel most strongly that on subsequent conviction the fine should be more than £50.

Photo of Mr Alex Lyon Mr Alex Lyon , City of York

On a point of order, Mr. Murton. Before you call the next speaker, may I suggest that since the amendment referred to by the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) is out of keeping with the other amendments in the group I could reply to the hon. Member and any other hon. Member who wishes to speak to it. Hon. Members could then raise points on the other amendments in the group and I could reply to them subsequently.

Photo of Sir Ronald Bell Sir Ronald Bell , Beaconsfield

I am not sure where I stand after that, Mr. Murton, but I wish briefly to intervene on the amendment my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) referred to. Since I have agreed with him on other occasions today, perhaps he will not mind if I disagree with him now. Fines imposed for this sort of offence rarely, if ever, reach the maximum, and therefore the matter is somewhat theoretical. My hon. Friend is concerned simply with the offence of tampering with, or putting a foreign coin in, a parking meter. Of course, if there is any question of someone stealing money from the meter or damaging it different and far more serious offences are involved. They are offences of theft or malicious damage of property and they carry much higher penalties.

Therefore, we are dealing solely with some form of tampering with the meter, which does not amount to abstracting money from it which would be theft, or damaging it, which would be malicious damage to property. It comes to nothing much more than putting in an Irish coin instead of a British coin, for example which I am sure is wicked, but a fine of £50 would adequately represent at any rate my sense of horror at that dreadful thing, and I should not want it to be £200.

Photo of Mr Alex Lyon Mr Alex Lyon , City of York

Perhaps I may reply on this point now, and wait to listen to the discussion on the magistrates' powers.

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell). It is clear that however much of a nuisance tampering with meters is to boroughs in London, the difficulty is to catch people doing it. When they are caught and brought before the courts, the penalties that get anywhere near £50 must be very few. I should think that only oil sheiks getting into their Rolls-Royces are likely to be fined anything like that sum. Therefore, it seemed to us that when we were removing the power of imprisonment for good penological reasons it was not appropriate to increase the maximum fine.

Although there could be an argument for putting it up to £100 or so, the amendment adds a figure of £200 for subsequent offences, and in principle we take the view that it is wrong to have accelerated fines for subsequent convictions, that it is better to have a large maximum fine and to leave the matter to the discretion of the bench, because it will know the appropriate amount to tine in any case.

Even on a second conviction of this comparatively minor offence, it seems unlikely that any bench would fine anywhere near £50. The hon. and learned Gentleman is right. If the offence amounts to something much more serious, there are criminal provisions which can deal with the matter, and even a sentence of imprisonment and trial by a higher court are open to the authorities. I am sure that the situation should be left like that.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Camden Hampstead

This is one of the few offences for which the penalty has been reduced, because it was £50 or three months' imprisonment, or both, and the Minister is now making it merely £50. At least from what he said there seemed to be a case for raising the maximum to £100, if not £200. Will the hon. Gentleman see whether, in the light of the figures that are at his disposal and not at my disposal, that is warranted? If he feels that it is, he might like to move a manuscript amendment to make the fine £100. Will he consider that?

Photo of Mr Peter Fry Mr Peter Fry , Wellingborough

I do not wish to press my amendments, because I understand that, with the exception of Amendment No. 52, they are covered by those of some of my hon. Friends. But we have this interest in common: we are very concerned about the rights of drivers to apply for trial by jury under some of the provisions of the Bill.

Considerable attention was paid in the other place to the dissatisfaction of magistrates about the removal of their powers, but there has not been sufficient attention so far to the existing rights of drivers to elect trial by jury, nor, I understand, has there been widespread discussion with the motoring organisations on what is a quite far-ranging change in the law. I very much hope that the Minister will accept the amendments of my hon. Friends, so that this important right will remain. The right to trial by jury is one of the most important safeguards that we have. I do not believe that anyone would say that that right is particularly abused in motoring offences.

It may be said that the conviction rate is somewhat lower when people take the opportunity to elect trial by jury. The answer must be that only those people who believe that they are right will go to the Crown courts. They do so knowing that if they are found guilty the penalty will probably be higher. On that basis only those who believe that they are innocent will avail themselves of the choice. Of course, it is likely that some of those people will be found not guilty. I hope that the Minister will take the matter very much to heart and that he will be able to make some concessions.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

I speak to Amendments Nos. 32, 33 and 34. The Committee will be aware that the Bill, in addition to its provisions relating to safety, the convenience of administration and the highly important topic on which we divided earlier, has the effect of drastically curtailing the powers of the magistrates' courts. It is to that subject that I shall address myself.

In Standing Committee I addressed my remarks to the Minister for Transport and he listened with characteristic sympathy, but this afternoon it would be more appropriate if I addressed my remarks to the Minister of State, Home Office. Clause 26 and Schedule 5 have the effect of removing completely from magistrates' courts the power to impose imprisonment for any offence other than driving whilst disqualified. I suggest that the power of imprisonment should be retained for serious offences of dangerous or reckless driving and for drink cases.

As the Committee knows, drunken driving convictions are rising steadily. That was brought out on Third Reading in another place in January of this year. If the possibility of imprisonment is removed that must inevitably lead to the downgrading of offences which are already becoming equated with minor driving infringements, whereas quite often they entail widespread danger to the public. With great diffidence I suggest that we turn to current judicial opinion. In the case of the Queen v. Tupa before the Court of Appeal the judgment read: It has been suggested to us in argument that it would in any event have been wrong in this case, where the blood alcohol content exceeded by some three times the permitted limit, to have passed a custodial sentence. If that view is in any way prevalent at the present time, the Court wishes to make it as clear as can be that in many cases of this kind where the amount of alcohol imbibed … is anything like the quantity in this present case, whether the conviction is at a Crown Court or in a Magistrates' court, a custodial sentence is entirely proper and ought not to be interfered with on appeal. Then there is an administrative matter. It is contended that if the magistrates' courts are no longer allowed to imprison offenders the load on the Crown courts may be diminished. In fact, the reverse is more likely to be the case. There would always be the possibility, in all cases in which the accused had a right to trial by jury, that the defence would insist that the case should go to the Crown court. That would lead to a serious overloading of the Crown courts. A committee is currently examining the congestion in the Crown courts. If this measure were passed it would impinge on or pre-empt the decisions of the committee. If the defence were to remit all cases to the Crown courts because on account of the amount of alcohol imbibed, there was the possibility of imprisonment, that would lead to an extra 15,000 cases a year being sent to the Crown courts.

3.30 p.m.

I draw the attention of the Committee to the fact that under the Criminal Justice Act 1972 the reference of an accused person by a magistrates' court to borstal or an attendance centre, or even to community service, is restricted only to those cases where the court has power to impose a custodial sentence. Clearly, if this power is removed from the magistrates there will go with it the power to sentence an accused to a custodial sentence of less than three months.

The Committee will recognise that this power is particularly important with persons up to the age of 21, who constitute an increasingly large proportion of traffic offenders. Consequently, I ask the Committee to view these amendments favourably, on administrative grounds in that they will be helpful in relieving the load on Crown courts, on grounds of pure administrative protocol in that if they were rejected they would pre-empt certain commissions currently sitting, and on grounds of humanity in that they would preclude justices passing custodial sen- tences other than imprisonment upon juveniles and those up to the age of 21, when this would clearly be appropriate.

Photo of Mr David Waddington Mr David Waddington , Nelson and Colne

In this case both the previous Government and this Government have got things entirely right. I cannot accept the argument advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Welling-borough (Mr. Fry). The only reason why motorists have this right to trial by jury in the cases to which he has referred is that they are liable to imprisonment for more than three months. If the law is changed, as is proposed in the amendments, so that they are no longer liable to such periods of imprisonment, it is difficult to understand why the motorists or motoring organisations should complain.

As to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark) I cannot see any point in retaining imprisonment as a possible penalty if it is never imposed. I am sure my hon. Friend would agree that whatever may be the views of the Magistrates Association it is the rarest thing in the world for a person to be sent to prison for these offences. It does not do any good.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

The number of persons sent to prison for these offences in the last year for which figures are available was 307.

Photo of Mr David Waddington Mr David Waddington , Nelson and Colne

I shall not detain the Committee now, but at some time I should like to hear the breakdown of those figures as between various offences, because we are dealing with a group of amendments. In the last two or three years I have never heard of a person who has been sent to prison by the magistrates for a first offence arising out of a breathalyser case. Obviously, it happens on rare occasions, but it is certainly not the course adopted by the vast majority of magistrates. If it is not used as a normal penalty for these offences it does not do much good to leave it on the statute book as a possible penalty.

If we believe that the imprisonment ought to be for more than three months—if magistrates think that to be right—and we thus give the offender the right to trial by jury, we are adding to the burdens already placed on the Crown courts, and if we are saying that the law should remain so that the man is liable to imprisonment for three months or less, the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough are valid, and we are saying that a motorist is to be exposed to the penalty of imprisonment without any right to trial by jury. The sensible way to approach it is to look at the practice. The truth is that what deters the motorist from committing these offences is the fear of disqualification. Provided the courts have the power to impose heavy fines and disqualify I cannot see that it is of any advantage to the community to leave powers of imprisonment with the magistrates.

I cannot agree with the point made by my hon. Friend about the prosecuting solicitor being able to ask for the matter to be dealt with on indictment. Again, drawing on my experience, I cannot think of a single case when a man has been charged with driving with excess alcohol in his blood and the prosecuting solicitor has said that he wishes the matter to be dealt with on indictment. It does not happen. One should not get into a panic about these changes in the law and imagine that magistrates will be deprived of a useful power, when that power is never exercised.

Photo of Mr Roger Sims Mr Roger Sims , Chislehurst

The effect of the changes in the clause are twofold. One effect is to increase fines imposed under existing legislation and the other is to remove powers of imprisonment by magistrates' courts for a large number of offences. I raise no objection to the proposal about fines—we must accept the change in the value of money—but I take exception to the proposal to remove the power of imprisonment by magistrates' courts for such a wide range of offences as it proposed. As a magistrate I hasten to add that I have no vested interest in imposing prison sentences. No magistrate imposes such sentences lightly, but there are circumstances where they are appropriate.

I accept that there are many cases in which imprisonment is inappropriate, but there are some offences for which the power of imprisonment should be retained, such as those covered in the amendments put down by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark) and myself. We believe that there are certain offences for which imprisonment should be retained not only because, if the clause goes through as it stands it would diminish the powers of magistrates' courts, but because it would reduce the seriousness of the offences in the eyes of the public. The public look upon an offence according to the sentence applied, and therefore the lesser the sentence the lesser will be considered the seriousness of the offence.

The clause would also preclude the courts from making various orders, particularly those affecting young offenders—for instance, attendance centre orders, detention centre orders, probation orders. Community service orders have intersting possibilities. Initial experiments with these orders have held out hope of success. It would be unfortunate if courts were precluded from making such orders, or if their powers to make such orders were lessened.

As has been pointed out, the right to trial by jury would also be removed. If imprisonment is no longer attached to these offences, courts will no longer have the power to require the attendance of the offenders. The courts are normally required to impose fines in accordance with an offenders' means, but it may not be possible to do this because the power to issue a warrant for attendance applies only to offences where imprisonment is involved.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Waddington) suggested that the power of imprisonment is used relatively little, but criminal statistics for 1973, which have just been issued, indicate that for motoring offences other than reckless and dangerous driving and those involving drink and drugs, magistrates sent 680 people to prison and imposed a similar number of suspended prison sentences. and orders of one form or another were made in 3,410 cases. It is not possible to say what all those offences were, but I suggest that some of them were offences covered by the amendments put down by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and myself. I accept that those figures are relatively small in proportion to all the other offences in the statistics. Nevertheless, they related to cases in which magistrates' courts felt that imprisonment was appropriate.

If the clause goes through in its present form magistrates' courts will no longer have power to impose prison sentences for a wide number of offences.

The first of our amendments refers to the offence of failing to stop after an accident and to give particulars, or to report an accident, the sort of offence commonly known as hit-and-run. That is a particularly mean and despicable offence. I am referring not to the chap who scrapes another fellow's car and drives off, but the serious case that sometimes involves serious injury and even death. Recently, a motorist struck a cyclist' as he passed, the cyclist was knocked into a ditch and the cycle went on top' of him. He was injured so seriously that when he was eventually found, he was dead. That indicates how serious the offence can be. Failing to stop is a serious offence that should be treated as such, and imprisonment should be kept for it.

Another amendment refers to not having insurance. The consequences of someone not being insured are well known to all Members. Any of us or any member of our families could be knocked down by a car driven by someone who is not insured. We could go to court and get, perhaps, tens of thousands of pounds worth of damages and yet have the utmost difficulty in getting the money, because the person concerned was not insured. I know that the Motor Insurers' Bureau goes some way to meet the problem, but that does not lessen the seriousness of the offence.

Finally, I refer to the amendment dealing with reckless and careless driving, and driving under the influence of drugs or drink. Here, exactly the same arguments apply, but even more strongly. In 1973, 368 people were sent to prison by magistrates' courts for offences in that category. A similar number were given suspended prison sentences and 242 orders for probation, detention centres, and so on, were made. That suggests that although the figures were not large, there were cases when the courts felt that imprisonment was appropriate.

I refer particularly to the recent Younger Report. Among other things, it mentions attendance centres. I was disappointed to find that despite the persuasive evidence that I was able to give to that committee, it decided against ex- tending attendance centres as such. When the House has an opportunity to discuss that report I may be able to dilate a little more on that subject. In paragraph 298 of its report the Younger Committee said: …we maintain the view expressed in our report on Non-Custodial Penalties … that attendance centres designed for the training of traffic offenders and suitably equipped and staffed for the purpose should be introduced on an experimental basis. If such centres were introduced the courts would no longer have power to make orders sending people to them. I do not know whether that has occurred to the Minister, but I hope that he will give further consideration to the amendments and accept that there is a strong feeling that imprisonment should be retained for certain offences.

Photo of Mr Daniel Awdry Mr Daniel Awdry , Chippenham

We do not seek to divide the Committee on this clause, but I should like the Minister of State to explain the thinking behind the proposal to abolish sentences of imprisonment for all driving offences except driving while disqualified.

We have had some discussion about drunken driving. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Nelson and Collie (Mr. Waddington) seems to suggest that no one was ever sent to prison by a magistrate for this offence. However, in 1972 there were 43,836 offenders of whom 307 were given prison sentences by magistrates. That is a small proportion, but it is nevertheless a significant figure and the offence is serious.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) spoke of failing to stop or to report an accident. He confessed to being a magistrate, and I must declare that I have been a solicitor before magistrates for a number of years. I entirely agree that although this type of offence may be technical, it may also be rather sinister. One thinks of the hit-and-run type of case, the man who knocks someone down and then drives off. Such a man may well leave someone dying. There is also the offence of forgery, of tampering with documents or falsely presenting documents in order to get insurance, and that can be serious.

There is a risk that these offences may tend to be downgraded in public estimation if magistrates are no longer able to deal with them by sending offenders to prison. We accept that it is rare to find magistrates sending people to prison for driving offences, but there are certain cases in which this form of punishment may well be appropriate. Therefore, I would ask the Minister to give the reasons for this step. I appreciate that when the Conservatives were in office there was some thinking in the Home Office on this matter, and perhaps that is the reason why we shall not seek to divide the Committee. Nevertheless, many of my hon. Friends have misgivings and we are worried about this topic, as are other people who are concerned with justice. I hope we shall have from the Minister a clear explanation of this situation.

3.45 p.m.

Photo of Mr Alex Lyon Mr Alex Lyon , City of York

The hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry) asked me to explain the thinking behind this proposal, but he agreed in a moment of candour that the proposal originated in the Home Office under a Conservative Government. It was contained in the Bill as first introduced before the last election. There is at least a degree of all-party support on the proposal. Therefore, if he asks me what was the thinking that originated the proposition, I shall in turn ask him to tell me what it was. At least I can tell him the thinking that supported it thereafter.

I support the provision because I feel it to be a further move towards getting away from imprisonment or the custodial sentence as a way of dealing with offenders—although that view may sometimes be held by those who criticise penal reform as being "soft on criminals". The fact is that if we examine the situation in other European countries, we discover that the great majority find it possible to deal with their criminals in a way that does not bring about the degree of custodial sentencing which we adopt in Great Britain. I recently attended a conference of European Ministers on the subject of justice and I was struck by the comparison between their figures per thousand in respect of people sent to custodial sentences for crimes and our figures. We are markedly higher than anywhere else in Europe.

I accept that there are difficulties. I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Waddington) that magistrates do not use their power of imprisonment for these offences to any great extent. In 1973, there were 1,200,000 traffic offences, and in only 2,000 of those cases—one-sixth of 1 per cent.—were any custodial sentences applied. Therefore, in most cases it cannot be said that we are removing a real power. In some cases involving hybrid offences there will be powers for the prosecurtor to ask the court to allow the matter to go to the Crown Court which will have much wider powers to deal with the matter, including the power of custodial sentencing. Therefore, in the worst cases the power will exist for the case to go to a higher court.

None the less, I am impressed by arguments which have been put forward against the clause here and in the other place, and particularly by the Magistrates' Association which came to see me about the matter. There were two matters which seemed to have weight. The first was that, because the power to have the defendant present before the court existed only where the person was liable to receive a prison sentence, it would not be possible to ensure that the defendant in a motoring case came before the court unless the court, having heard all the circumstances, decided to apply a sentence of disqualification, when it could have the defendant brought.

That could lead to a real change of public attitude towards these offences. I do not accept the argument which has been used today that the mere fact that the maximum penalty is reduced from imprisonment will cause a change in public attitude if the punishment of imprisonment is only rarely applied. What would make a difference would be if people thought that they could write a plea of guilty on the back of the statement of facts and get away with it in that way. Where they are charged with these offences it is right that they should be brought before the court so that they have the benefit of the full panoply of three magistrates in Lower Muddlecombe magistrates' court. I am impressed by that argument.

For that reason, we initially tried to find a way of ensuring that this power existed, although we have taken away the power of imprisonment. In the end we thought that it would be impossible to do that until we had done the review of magistrates' powers and sentencing and considered the whole matter comprehensively. It cannot be done simply in relation to motoring offences.

The second thing which we think of importance about the representations of the Magistrates' Association is that the power of imprisonment carries with it subsidiary powers of sentencing which cannot be applied in relation to offences which do not carry the penalty of imprisonment—for instance, community service orders. In the move away from custodial sentences I am anxious that we should move much more freely towards community service orders, particularly in motoring cases. It has been found in Sweden to be a more salutary way of dealing with driving offences than almost any other, particularly drunken driving cases. But I am not yet in a position to tell the Committee that community service orders apply nationally, still less, even if they did, that if we made the changes proposed in the Bill the magistrates would have the power to order community service orders. That would depend upon the power to order imprisonment as an alternative.

I am, therefore, prepared to make a concession and to accept Amendment No. 34 which relates to paragraph 4(1) of Schedule 5. It concerns offences of dangerous and reckless driving, driving under the influence of drink and driving over the limit prescribed. The rest of the paragraph relates to "in charge" and to failing to give a specimen.

The amendment would mean that for driving offences there would still be a power of imprisonment available to the magistrates. As those are the most serious offences in the public mind, I am prepared to concede, by accepting the amendment, that those powers should exist. I do so on the understanding that when community service orders and other alternatives to imprisonment are available to the magistrates much more widely than they are at present, and when we have completed our review of the powers and proceedings of magistrates generally, we may need to remove the power of imprisonment even in those cases. But then there will be an alternative available and it will be possible to mark the seriousness of the offences. I make that concession now, and I hope on that basis that these amendments will not be pressed.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

I am grateful to the Minister for his concession with regard to the most serious offences. I take his point, although he has admitted that if the clause is to be in this form we shall have a situation where magistrates' courts can neither call for the appearance of a defendant or make the various order. The Minister has said that he will think about these matters. I hope that it will be possible to restore these powers before long.

Photo of Mr Marcus Fox Mr Marcus Fox , Shipley

I am grateful to the Minister for his understanding of these problems, and I am sure that it will be welcomed by the two associations to which he has referred.

Photo of Mr Oscar Murton Mr Oscar Murton , Poole

Order. Before putting the Question, I should explain that Amendment No. 34 relates to Schedule, and will be incorporated when we reach the appropriate provision.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 27 ordered to stand part of the Bill.