Animals (Penalty Notices) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:17 am on 4th February 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland 10:17 am, 4th February 2022

I join all other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend Andrew Rosindell on introducing the Bill and getting this far. There is a worrying sense of unanimity in the House, which always gives me cause for concern. I will not breach it, save to highlight one or two slight concerns I have about the drafting of the Bill.

There is much to welcome in the Bill, and chief among them is the immediate impact that the levelling of a fixed-penalty notice has on both the individual who receives it and the wider community. There is a direct relation between cause and effect. We all know that speed in justice is enormously important. One of the great problems we have in society today is the delay that has bound up the criminal justice system, particularly in the Crown court but also in the magistrates court.

I also like the direct link between the severity of the offence and the penalty notice amount, with the factors, aggravating and mitigating, set out in clause 4. I recognise that there is also provision for the Secretary of State to give guidance on how those should be properly applied. That is a very important factor that needs to be taken seriously by the Secretary of State for the Bill to be properly applied.

However, the reasons behind the Bill’s benefit also give me some grounds for caution as we seek to apply fixed-penalty notices as a mechanism for bypassing the normal course of the criminal justice system. One of the reasons my hon. Friend the Member for Romford gave for why it is so important to have fixed-penalty notices was the delay in the magistrates courts. Surely, the best way to deal with delay in criminal justice is not to bypass it with fixed-penalty notices but to adequately fund magistrates courts and the criminal justice system that serves all of our country.

There is a requirement in clause 1(1) for the enforcement authority to be “satisfied beyond reasonable doubt”, but there is no requirement in the Bill for them to obtain or secure sufficient evidence to be satisfied. I query whether there is a risk that a prosecuting authority may see this as a shortcut past obtaining sufficient evidence to create a proper prosecution, and that fixed-penalty notices may be given more readily than a decision to prosecute otherwise would be. If that were the case, it would be a cause for concern for us all.

That leads me to who those enforcement authorities are. We see from clause 1(4) that the Bill does not tell us who they are; we are told that that will be provided by regulation. There is nothing wrong per se in secondary legislation providing further detail, but in this instance I start to get a little concerned. In clause 1(5), we are told who the Secretary of State might consider to be an enforcement authority. It says that that may be the Secretary of State himself or herself—fair enough—a local authority or, in paragraph (c),

“any other person that the Secretary of State considers appropriate.”

It would be impossible to draft that definition more widely. I respectfully highlight that issue to the Minister and invite her at least to consider it in responding to the debate, because this is the very definition of a blank cheque for the Secretary of State.

I wonder whether enforcement authorities might include, for example, private prosecutors such as the RSPCA. If that were the case, it would run counter to the current considerations of the Law Commission, which is interested in considering the future for all kinds of private prosecutors. We have a recent history of significant miscarriages of justice where private prosecutors have acted. I have only to pray in aid the biggest criminal justice scandal in our nation’s history—the Horizon scandal, where the Post Office acted in the role of private prosecutor—to demonstrate why the Law Commission may not be keen to continue to allow private prosecutors right across our criminal justice system.

The reason I know that is that I approached the Law Commission myself in relation to the Care Quality Commission and its powers as a private prosecutor in the health sector because of a scandal at Cawston Park Hospital in my constituency, where three patients with mental ill health and autism, as well as Down syndrome, died over a 27-month period because of neglect and, certainly in one case, physical abuse. I therefore raise a serious concern about whether private prosecutors could amount to enforcement authorities under clause 1(4).

Finally, I turn to clause 5(2). Enforcement authorities can apply a fine of up to £5,000. Most of that money will return to the central funds, but clause 5(2) gives enforcement authorities the ability to deduct their own costs of prosecution from any fines. That is a clear financial incentive to issue fixed-penalty notices, because it pays for their own operations. I hope we will all be naturally concerned to ensure that we do not apply a parking fine company approach to this area of law. That would be wholly not what my hon. Friend the Member for Romford, or any of us, intends. It is important that the Secretary of State, when coming to the secondary legislation and regulation on this matter, thinks hard about that potentially poisonous mix of financial incentive and private prosecution.

In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Romford again for getting behind this legislation and bringing it to the House and, I hope, to a happy conclusion, but I ask the Minister to think carefully about potential unintended consequences. We have heard about Staffordshire bull terriers and about Spike and Buster, but let us not forget that we need to look after John Bull as well, as he is persecuted by the heavy hand of the state. We want to give him protection too, and we must ensure that our legislation is well drafted.