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

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is quite right; indeed, that is one of the points that I was coming to and it is also one that the Magistrates Association has made. I disagree with the Magistrates Association on the general principle of magistrates being sidelined by PNDs, because the whole point is to try to avoid criminalisation at the first, low-level stage. However, there are a number of cases where PNDs are used—there would have been a lot more had the statutory instrument been introduced in December—where that might be appropriate.

The example that the right hon. and learned Gentleman gave is exactly one of those cases. Does the use of PNDs for more serious offenders tackle the root cause? If a shoplifter is given a PND the first time they are caught and if the reason they are shoplifting is that they are addicted to alcohol or drugs and trying to feed their habit, giving them a PND, which they are probably not going to pay anyway because of their disorderly lifestyle, will not lead them to the kind of treatment that might result from a court order higher up. As I keep saying, PNDs have to be used in the appropriate circumstances for quite low-level offences, which was the original intention in 2001.

The Magistrates Association has expressed other concerns. One is that magistrates courts have a much better success rate in collecting fines than the 50 per cent. for PNDs. The association has also pointed out that magistrates courts are not funded by the Government for all the extra work created as result of having to deal with the fall-out from whatever proportion of the 50 per cent. who do not pay their PNDs are sent to magistrates courts.

Magistrates are worried that the Government intend at a later stage—although obviously not with the order before us today—to reintroduce some, most or all of the 20 or so more serious offences that were intended in December, which magistrates do not think are appropriate for PNDs. Those offences include throwing stones at trains. I could see that a PND might apply if someone is throwing a very small stone. However, if someone is throwing things of any size at trains, it does not take much of a leap of the imagination to see them throwing a brick through a window and killing a driver, which has happened at least once. That is not a minor offence. There is therefore concern about what might be included at a future date if we move from minor offences to more serious ones.

There is some concern about inflexibility and the fact that the figure is £50 or £80, whereas magistrates can use a lot more discretion and judgment. However, that inflexibility is probably inevitable if we are looking for a quick and simple measure that police officers can use to avoid spending half their shift in the station filling out paperwork, rather than being out on the beat.

There are a number of concerns, then, about the way PNDs are working out in practice—or might be if they are extended in the way originally proposed—but the principle remains good.

Specifically on cannabis, there seem to be huge inconsistencies in Government thinking about the drug. Recently, and against all the scientific evidence presented to them—a point to which I shall return—the Government upgraded cannabis to a class B drug. Here, however, in this instrument, they are treating cannabis as a more minor offence that is suitable for a PND in the first instance. That is a complete contradiction: either cannabis is a serious class B drug or it is not, and no other class B drug is included. Ketamine, amphetamines and Ritalin are sometimes mentioned as drugs that can be misused, so why are they not on the list if the Government really believe that all class B drugs—now including cannabis—should be treated in a certain way related to how dangerous they are?

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