Criminal Law

Part of Theft from Shops (Use of Penalty Notices for Disorder) – in the House of Commons at 4:39 pm on 11th March 2009.

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Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Shadow Minister (Justice) 4:39 pm, 11th March 2009

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?

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