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

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. Indeed, such cases can also involve other offences or attract other criminal liabilities. That is why these offences are most properly dealt with in the magistrates court. Earlier today, my hon. Friend Miss McIntosh introduced a ten-minute Bill that outlined the prevalence of shoplifting and the importance of its being dealt with other than as at present, whereby shoplifters, on repeat offending, are given penalty notices, which does not satisfy the victim and certainly does not satisfy justice.

Year by year, the Government have often treated criminal justice legislation as a messaging service when they want to sound tough, and it is no different in relation to cannabis. However, let us look at what enforcement really means. Often, the fixed penalty notice and £80 penalty is imposed not on an offender coming to the attention of the police for the first time but on a repeat offender. The Government have introduced what could be termed a "three strikes" policy for cannabis possession: strike 1 is the warning, strike 2 is the fixed penalty notice, and strike 3 is the arrest. However, the police will often struggle even to get beyond strike 1 because warnings are not being recorded. In previous discussions, the Minister herself has accepted that the position in many areas is hit and miss. With that first strike, we are in the realms of hit and miss. It does not give much confidence that the possession of cannabis will be dealt with robustly.

The computer system—PentiP—is not in place to be able to deal with the regime that the statutory instrument would have us enforce. It was due to be introduced in September 2009, at a cost of £9.3 million—an amount that has increased, as ever with such systems, to £19.3 million. We now have an indication that implementation will not take place until May 2012, yet in the recent debate the Minister said that the implementation date would be 2010. I ask the Minister once again to provide some reassurance on the implementation date of the computer system, because it is crucial that the warning be recorded if there is to be effective enforcement of the three-strike policy; otherwise, people can run up multiple warnings before a fixed penalty notice is deemed appropriate. Even if a person gets past the first and second strikes, let us not forget what we are left with at the third strike. It would effectively be a third offence, and would lead to arrest. That could involve prosecution, and the case could eventually go to the magistrates court, but it could simply mean a caution, or indeed no further action.

I do not wish to dwell today on the reclassification of cannabis; we have been consistent on that subject. The question for debate today is why, for possession of cannabis, enforcement should take the form of an £80 fixed penalty notice. Is that decision based on the prevalence of the drug? Is that why cannabis is to attract a fixed penalty notice? If that is the case, why does the policy not extend to ketamine, a class C drug that is increasingly becoming the drug of choice for young people? Is there a risk that the penalty notice for disorder regime will be extended to other drugs? Can the Minister provide a specific assurance that there will not be such an extension to other drugs, whether they be class B or class C? Would issues of prevalence, or any evidence that disorder was affected by the possession of drugs, lead to fixed penalty notice enforcement?

The problem with the statutory instrument is that there is a lack of evidence on the effect of the penalty notice for disorder. No doubt it assists the Government with their targets on bringing offenders to justice. No doubt it relieves the police of some paperwork and saves some time. However, what is the evidence that it deters offenders and ensures that justice is done? The Magistrates Association has called on the Government to gather and publish evidence, and I invite the Minister to take up that call and to say where the evidence is to justify the expansion in penalty notices for disorder. Have the Government considered the efficacy of the enforcement regime for possession of cannabis in Scotland and Northern Ireland? They have ruled out cannabis warnings, and there is a presumption of prosecution.

The order before us is not just about cannabis. As hon. Friends have pointed out, it deals with other serious offences, including theft and criminal damage. As we heard earlier today, this year there have been some 295,000 shoplifting offences; that is 6,000 a week. The largest increase in the number of penalty notices for disorder issued has been for shoplifting. The number rose from 38,000 in 2006 to 45,000 in 2007. Will the Minister provide reassurance that the use of fixed penalty notices for theft will be limited to first-time offenders, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York has suggested? When, as is often the case, there are underlying causes of theft, such as the need to feed an addiction to drugs or alcohol, will that lead to intervention by the court? The court is best placed to deal with an order for treatment to deal with those underlying causes. That opportunity would be completely lost if a fixed penalty notice were simply issued.

I now come to the issue of criminal damage. Did the Minister assess the impact of reinstating the penalty for criminal damage before hastily putting the order together? Has she assessed the impact on the victim? When a fixed penalty notice is issued, the victim does not benefit from the opportunity to receive a compensation order for up to £500 through a magistrates court. Does the Minister have any details of whether such victims have taken up the only opportunity left to them, which is to pursue a civil claim? Has there been any consideration of those victims, who say that they have lost the opportunity to get true justice through the courts?

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