I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give effect to schedule 6 to the Courts Act 2003;
to provide thereby for the imposition of unpaid work orders to pay financial penalties;
and for connected purposes.
I have sat as a magistrate for six years, and I and my colleagues frequently wonder whether, when fines are levied by the court, they will be fully paid off. There are currently 1,680,000 outstanding fines, as of March 2012. They are worth a total of £593 million. Last year a full £106 million was left unpaid and £54 million was spent trying to collect fines. Of course, the courts will always try to secure a full, up-front payment in court, but owing to an inability or unwillingness to pay in full, this does not always happen.
Various legislation over the past few years has provided several additional ways in which fines can currently be paid off by defendants. For example, the value of the fine can be deducted from any benefits received by the defendant or from any earnings in the same way as PAYE, by the order of a court. But for a number of individuals these conventional options just do not work. This is not so much an issue of lost monies, but more about how to deliver justice to society. Our constituents reasonably expect that justice will be done—that when the courts give out fines and financial penalties, they will be paid promptly by defendants.
Section 97 and schedule 6 of the Courts Act 2003 provide for the imposition of unpaid work orders, so that fines can be paid off at a designated hourly rate, either in full or in part, though of course court costs and compensation will still be paid to victims. A pilot scheme for unpaid work orders was run between September 2004 and March 2009 in a number of local justice areas across England and Wales, but was not brought in on a permanent basis at the end of that trial. The report on the scheme issued by the Ministry of Justice in September 2010 said that unpaid work orders had “wide support” and could be considered relatively successful, but it warned that the number of defendants that they could apply to would be small, and that there would be “major barriers” to overcome. It recommended that any implementation should be cautious and gradual.
The political agenda in 2009 and 2010 was very crowded, but the principle underlying the scheme still stands. I think it is time to look again at unpaid work orders as an additional means of compliance with sentences. The number and total of unpaid fines is so large, and the cost of enforcement so significant, that we should try a new means of ensuring that justice is served and fines really are paid, whether through straightforward monetary payment or, when it becomes clear that that is unlikely to happen, through unpaid work that benefits a local community.
The Bill would provide for another pilot scheme to take place, but with some differences from the first. One problem with the first pilot scheme was that the supervisory role was given solely to the probation service, a stretched organisation that has a heavy burden. The Bill would therefore allow local authorities and charities to share the supervisory role. Many charities would be willing to supervise an individual if that meant they could benefit from a number of hours of work that are of real benefit to a local community.
A second consideration is that the Ministry of Justice’s report suggested that the number of eligible individuals and their commitment levels could vary widely. Surely the emphasis should be on looking at who would be eligible to undertake unpaid work in lieu of a fine, rather than who would not be suitable. The pilot scheme would therefore also take place with an explicit view to the issuing of clear guidance and positive eligibility criteria that would allow unpaid work orders to become a regular option used by the courts to collect financial penalties, especially when magistrates have reason to believe that non-payment is very likely. In practice, that would mean that the time and money spent chasing fines by ordinary means could be turned into productive work in the local community, a principle that the courts already recognise as valuable through the existence of unpaid work as a sentence in itself.
There are some efficient existing options for fine collection if an individual is unable to pay up front, but magistrates frequently do not have the confidence in means assessments to make realistic predictions about a payment schedule. To my mind, there are two clear cases where unpaid work orders could be a preferable means of payment: first, where the deduction of a fine from benefits would risk serious implications for the well-being of the defendant or their household, or where a deduction from a benefits order request is refused because the benefit cannot statutorily be reduced; and secondly, the small number of cases where the defendants wish to accelerate the payment to preserve their income, especially if they are relying on benefits. That would be a compassionate measure to allow the poorest to pay back their community in kind, rather than by financial payment. It would also safeguard fine defaulters from imprisonment if they were genuinely unable to pay. The measure would align with the
Government’s stated commitment in “Swift and Sure Justice” to have a greater focus on community-based, restorative justice.
There will inevitably be objections to these proposals, which I will now seek to deal with briefly. For those concerned about health and safety or how defendants will be supervised, these practical issues can be worked out and overcome in the pilot scheme, with ministerial direction given to draw up guidance and ensure practicality in the long term. The report on the pilot scheme expressed concerns about the level of commitment and the number of defendants that would be suitable for unpaid work orders. I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that unpaid work will be a useful solution for individuals who are difficult to trace, but at a time when courts are willing to spend a large amount on enforcement and other costs, such as for translation in court, surely we should be looking for ways to ensure that justice is delivered. The Bill also requires that the pilot scheme takes place specifically with a view to issuing guidance on eligibility, which should give magistrates the confidence and clarity when issuing these orders that they might not have had before.
These proposals represent a practical, restorative and compassionate means of paying fines. The public—our constituents—expect justice to be done and that fines levied by the courts will be paid by the individuals concerned, either financially or in kind. In my view, £593 million of unpaid fines is too much, and the situation should not be allowed to continue. I commend this Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
John Glen accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on