Criminal Law

Part of Theft from Shops (Use of Penalty Notices for Disorder) – in the House of Commons at 5:19 pm on 11th March 2009.

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Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield 5:19 pm, 11th March 2009

As we have heard, the reason for our being here this afternoon is a long story. The original statutory instrument, which was laid before the House in December, had to be withdrawn at short notice because the Government had not consulted about many of its provisions—for example, the one on taxi touts. Taxi touting was one of the 21 new offences that were included in that statutory instrument. As a result of having to withdraw it hastily, the Government introduced the order that we are considering, which relates specifically to cannabis as the only new offence of the original 21.

Penalty notices for disorder are, in principle, good policy instruments for several reasons. First, they save police time. The Under-Secretary made one of the standard arguments, which we hear all the time, about the amount of paperwork and bureaucracy that keeps police from carrying out their front-line duties and ties them up in the station. Using penalty notices for disorder in the appropriate circumstances is a great time-saver. I believe that it takes half an hour to issue a penalty notice for disorder, compared with a minimum of two and a half hours for a more detailed case if the police have to go down another route. That is a great advantage.

Secondly, PNDs help to avoid criminalisation. Again, that is welcome in the correct circumstances. I tabled an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill, which has recently completed its Committee stage, that would have a similar effect. I proposed that local authorities could take similar measures against graffiti and fly-posting and use restorative justice, thus allowing the offenders to repair the damage that they had done and avoid getting a criminal record. Hopefully, that early shock would prevent people from going on to greater criminal activity. We support the principles of restorative justice and trying to avoid criminalisation at the first stage of offending.

However, PNDs are supposed to be used for only minor public order offences and minor antisocial behaviour offences, not serious offences. A concern about the original statutory instrument was that several of the offences were more serious than the minor offences for which the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 provided.

In principle, we support penalty notices for disorder, but we have doubts about how they work in general, and specifically about their use for cannabis offences. Where is the evidence base for the policy? Eight years have passed since the 2001 Act, which was extended in 2004 to bring children over 10 within its scope. Incidentally, I understand that, in the previous statutory instrument debate, the Under-Secretary said that PNDs would not be used for people under 18 who used drugs and that other Acts would apply in that case.

Some 400,000 PNDs have been issued in the eight years since they were introduced. After eight years, what do we know about their effectiveness? The Magistrates Association is sceptical about how far an £80 fine would go in deterring someone who was found selling alcohol to minors, presumably from an off-licence. How do PNDs tie up with other Government police policy, such as the Policing and Crime Bill's dropping the "three strikes and you're out" to two for licensees? If there are to be only two steps, where does the £80 PND fit in that sequence?

It appears that only 50 per cent. of the people issued with the notices pay. Where is the research into what happens next? What happens to the 50 per cent. who do not pay? How effectively are they pursued? Where is the research base to show whether PNDs work? As a first step, do they help to prevent people from being criminalised and reoffending? What are the reoffending rates? It appears—remarkably—that, eight years after PNDs were introduced, no research has been conducted to ascertain whether they are effective as well as widely used. In answer to a parliamentary question, the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing said:

"We have...no overall assessment."—[ Hansard, 5 March 2009; Vol. 488, c. 1772W.]

For a Government who long ago proclaimed that they believed in evidence-based policy making, it seems strange that they should have neither the evidence nor the research to follow the policy through.

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