Report (5th Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 20th March 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development) 6:45 pm, 20th March 2012

My Lords, this has been another useful debate. I welcome the support of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for the Government's changes to the duty to explain. I encourage him to feed in his concerns to the committee. I have no doubt whatever that noble Lords will scrutinise how the duty is being implemented. The fact that this may not be part of legislation will not stop people reporting, debating and asking whether this is working as it should. The Government clearly cannot dictate to the committee what it should make its rules on and what it should say, but I have no doubt that when and if noble Lords find that this is not being implemented as they feel it should be, that will have its effect.

On distress warrants, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for her guarded welcome of the Government's amendment. She questioned whether the amendment goes far enough and was kind enough to send an e-mail with a number of questions. She has referred to our response, which gives me an opportunity to expand on or clarify a number of those points. She was concerned, among other things, about whether it allowed for the withdrawal of a distress warrant where there had been a change in the offender's circumstances or where the offender was deemed to be vulnerable. I will do my best to reassure her on a few points.

It is clear that the government amendment allows for the withdrawal of a warrant where there is a mistake in the decision to issue the warrant in the first place. The amendment covers the case where an offender is not in court when the warrant is issued, which results in the court not having the full information before it. This, in effect, amounts to a mistake. I hope that that also helps to reassure my noble friend Lord Thomas. If there has been a change of circumstances that, had it been known to the court, would have had an impact on the decision to issue a warrant, it is open to the debtor to argue that the warrant had been issued by mistake.

The noble Baroness also raised the question of bailiffs dealing with debtors who find themselves in hardship or appear to be vulnerable. It is important that we strike the right balance between protecting the vulnerable-she is right about that-and ensuring that fines, where appropriate, are paid. Noble Lords will have seen recent criticisms of fine payment rates. The fine is by far the most used sentence of the criminal courts.

In practice, however, when bailiffs come across hardship as defined in the guidance they should not execute the warrant and return it to the court. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, I must say that we would welcome any further information on this matter and on the effectiveness, which she has queried, of the guidance. It is very important that that is monitored. The Government do not think that it would be appropriate for a bailiff simply to withdraw a warrant in regard to a fine issued by a court. This could undermine the decision made by the court, which is why such a power is not included in the amendment, although I realise that that will disappoint the noble Baroness. If, however, the fine was imposed because the full facts were not made clear to the court, or they had changed, the provision in the Bill could apply.

In the case of changed circumstances since the fine was imposed, the debtor can contact the court at any time to speak to a fines officer to have the matter reviewed. The Government would encourage any debtor to contact the fines officer or court about a change of circumstance, which is clearly a better approach than waiting until a bailiff seeks to execute a warrant, but it is important that we separate the two parts in that respect.

As I said in Committee, the Government think it is important that bailiffs are dealt with via effective guidance, national standards and contractual obligations. As the noble Baroness knows, the Government are consulting on the operation of bailiffs, and we will carefully consider responses to that consultation. I hope that the noble Baroness and the organisations with which she is associated will feed into that consultation.

I hope that the noble Baroness can be reassured that the government amendment addresses the key legal issue with distress warrants and places the decision on them properly with the courts. How bailiffs operate is a matter for consultation in order to make sure that they operate properly and as we would wish. I hope therefore that the noble Baroness is reassured and content with what the Government have brought forward.