Criminal Law

Part of Theft from Shops (Use of Penalty Notices for Disorder) – in the House of Commons at 5:01 pm on 11th March 2009.

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Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Parliamentary Secretary (Government Equalities office) (also in the Ministry of Justice), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 5:01 pm, 11th March 2009

As I say, because it is a recordable offence, the PND is on the police national computer. If these matters get to court, magistrates will deal with them in the usual way. [ Interruption. ] Mr. Malins is harassing me from a sedentary position, but those of us who have experience of the courts can say that magistrates are perfectly capable of dealing with matters that come before them, and of doing so in an efficient and sensible way.

There has been some concern about the level of the fine. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said that £80, which is the level at which the financial penalty will be fixed under this order, was too little. I do not know whether this assists the House, but the average fine for cannabis possession in 2006 was just under £80, and just over £81 in 2007. The level of financial penalty will be about the same as the average fine when a case is taken to court, according to the latest statistics. I hope that that allays any concerns about whether the penalty is sufficient.

The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate referred to enforcement, and the hon. Member for Woking knows that it is right that only about half of PNDs are paid, because he was nodding when his hon. Friend made his remarks. If they are not paid, they are increased by 50 per cent. and enforced as fines. I can tell the House that 85 per cent. of fines are collected, but I cannot disaggregate the percentage that started out as PNDs. There is a high chance that enforcement will follow, and one wishes that individuals who are subject to a financial penalty would pay it, and that the matter would be enforced if they did not. Certainly, 85 per cent. is not a bad place to start, but we are always focusing on fine enforcement to increase that level.

We believe that PNDs offer a proportionate second step in the escalation process. Cannabis is the most widely used drug, and the PND offers a method of disposal that provides a greater penalty than simply an administrative warning—the cannabis warning that the Association of Chief Police Officers uses in England at present. It offers a disincentive to the individual concerned of a financial penalty to make them think about their behaviour, which a cannabis warning does not. If a person chooses not to pay the penalty notice, they remain liable to be convicted, and will be chased under the enforcement arrangements for the penalty that they have not paid. We therefore believe that penalty notices represent an escalation from the cannabis warning and a salutary and important suggestion to people that if they overstep the mark again, they will be going to court.

The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate and Mr. Hogg made points about the use of PNDs changing in respect of some offences. I accept that there has been a move away from using them simply for disorder, which is where their name came from. They now cover a variety of minor antisocial offences. The right hon. and learned Gentleman made the point that PNDs are used for some offences that sound too serious to be dealt with in that way. However, they are designed to be used only at the very lowest end of the scale of those offences. For example, in the case of false reporting to police, they are for abuse of 999 calls. One would not expect them to be used for such offences at a higher level. They provide an extra option at the lowest end for the police when they are trying to make use of the limited resources that are always available. There is never enough money for them to do everything that one would wish them to do.

The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate asked how issuing fixed penalty notices can be seen as being tougher. The answer is simply that we are moving to an escalating arrangement whereby it will be made obvious to the person committing an offence that things will get worse if they continue to behave in the same manner. We trust in the professionalism and good sense of our police officers out on the beat to make the appropriate choice, in the circumstances that they find in front of them, about whether a penalty notice is the right way forward for a particular offender. Of course, they always retain the capacity to arrest if they believe it appropriate.

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