Amendment 187

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (7th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 10th November 2021.

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Lord Paddick:

Moved by Lord Paddick

187: Clause 96, page 84, leave out line 18Member’s explanatory statementThis is consequential on Lord Paddick’s objection to Clause 97 standing part of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, in moving Amendment 187 in my name I will speak to the other amendments in this group. I ask the Committee to forgive the repetition.

I understand the Government’s desire to simplify out-of-court disposals and take the pressure off courts but, as I have said in several previous groups, research has shown that moving to the system suggested by the Bill, as piloted by some police forces, is likely to cost more, do nothing to reduce offending and have little or no impact on victim satisfaction.

I have also suggested that the complexity of having to impose conditions in every case when a police caution is given, whether a diversionary or community caution, is likely to have the unintended consequences of increasing the number of cases dealt with by no further action being taken and the number of cases sent to court—anything to avoid the complicated process of setting, arranging and monitoring compliance with the conditions that must be set whenever anyone is given a police caution. Research already shows a reduction in the number of out-of-court disposals in recent years, and these changes are likely to result in further reductions.

Clause 97 abolishes all other forms of out-of-court disposal. I will give some illustrations of what this means in practice. A young lawyer or medic who, completely out of character, has too much to drink, gets drunk and ends up making a nuisance of himself is arrested and, once sober, is given a simple caution. The salutary effect on such an individual’s future behaviour is dramatic, the impact on his career prospects negligible and the amount of time taken by the police to deal with the case minimal. If the impact of his being stopped and spoken to by a police officer has an immediate sobering effect, he might even be given a fixed penalty notice for disorder and sent on his way. Neither of these out-of-court disposals would be available under the Bill as drafted.

If someone drops litter, is seen by a police officer and refuses to put it in the bin, at the moment, that police officer can issue a fixed penalty notice for disorder. Under the Bill, the only course for the officer would be either not to take any action at all, undermining both the law and the authority of the police, or to arrest the person and take them to a police station so that they can be cautioned with conditions attached. I am at a bit of a loss as to what conditions might be attached to a caution for littering, but perhaps the Minister can enlighten the Committee.

Altogether, there are currently 27 minor offences that can be dealt with by a police officer issuing a fixed penalty notice on the spot, from cycling in a park where cycling is prohibited to possession of khat or cannabis. In all these cases, the only way to proceed, if this Bill passes unamended, would be to make an arrest, so that a community or diversionary caution with conditions attached could be administered.

This is a recipe for an increase in anti-social behaviour that goes unchallenged, because police officers faced with the bureaucracy of arrest and a community or diversionary caution with conditions attached will look the other way. What is unclear—the Committee needs to know this, and if the Minister cannot answer from the Dispatch Box, I ask him to write to me—is what happens to cannabis and khat warnings where people who have cannabis or khat found on them are seized by a police officer and a warning is given to them on the street. I would argue that that is a type of out-of-court disposal. Is this also to be outlawed by the Bill? If it is, it will have serious consequences for police resources.

What is proposed by this clause, with community and diversionary cautions being the only out-of-court disposals allowed, will result in fewer people having any action taken against them for anti-social behaviour and significant police resources being used to deal with minor offences. That is why Clause 97, which abolishes other forms of out-of-court disposals, such as fixed penalties for disorder, should not stand part of the Bill and the simple police caution should be retained. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, is to retain simple cautions. The examples he gave illustrate the point I made earlier: that this is a very complex area, with a lot of history of government trying to manage out-of-court disposals in different ways. He gave the example of 27 minor offences which can be dealt with by fixed penalty notices and asked what happens with cannabis and khat warnings. I would be interested to hear the answer.

The noble Lord asked—I think rhetorically—what else a police officer can do other than give a conditional caution. The answer is that they can do nothing. They can give the person they are dealing with a talking to; in my experience, police officers are perfectly capable of doing that. Nevertheless, as I said in an earlier group, this is a very complex area. The Government have tried a number of different out-of-court disposal regimes in recent years; I am not aware that any approach was particularly better than previous ones. Indeed, the noble Lord gave examples of the not obvious success of the pilot schemes for this regime.

Nevertheless, I think that out-of-court disposals are appropriate. They need to be handled in a proportionate way and with the right amount of training for the police officers dealing with them. Clearly, an appropriate level of intervention would, one would hope, be for the benefit of the offenders, given that it is very likely that a large proportion of the offenders will be drug and alcohol users. Having said that, I will be interested to hear why the Minister thinks a simple caution is not appropriate to retain on the statute book.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, it is fair to say that this group of amendments goes to the heart of why reform to out of court disposals was needed and the aims of the new cautions framework. The background is that the public consultation on out of court disposals showed that more than half of respondents did not believe that they deterred offending. As such, it was felt that there should be a framework with more meaningful and proportionate consequences and a move away from “warnings” and “simple cautions” to a system with, on the one hand, repercussions for the offender but, on the other, an opportunity to reduce reoffending and address often complex needs.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, has indicated his intention to oppose Clause 97 standing part of the Bill. Removing that clause would allow existing cautions to remain in use. That would undermine the entire reform and change that we are trying to bring about and would continue the current inconsistent approach that we have across police forces. We do not want to stick with the status quo; we want to improve it.

As I understand it, Amendments 187 and 188 are consequential to the removal of Clause 97. Amendment 189 seeks to retain the option to use the simple caution as well as the new diversionary and community cautions. It also means that, if any existing cautions were retained, the giving of these disposals to offenders would then be taken into account in any repeat offending. Clause 96 deals with the provisions of restrictions on multiple use of cautions, so I will not expand further on that point at this stage.

Following the joint government and police review of out of court disposals between 2013 and 2014, it was established that the existing disposals framework needed reform. The National Police Chiefs’ Council developed its own two-tier out of court disposal strategy in 2017, which removed the need for the simple caution, penalty notice for disorder and cannabis and khat warnings. I will come back to the specific point the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked about. Since then, one-third of forces have moved to the two-tier framework, using conditional cautions along with the non-statutory community resolution. We believe that attaching conditions to the caution means that the recipient must engage in some way with the outcome as well as accepting responsibility. That is a more proactive and robust approach than the simple caution, which requires no further engagement by the offender and is often nothing more than a warning.

Removal of the simple caution does not mean that there is no provision for offenders where conditions requiring higher levels of engagement are considered unsuitable. As I said in response to an earlier group, we want to ensure a wide range of conditions is available, including those that require a low level of engagement on the part of the offender; indeed, it goes down at the bottom end to an expectation not to reoffend, so that such conditions can be selected where appropriate. The critical point is that there should be flexibility in the conditions that may be set in terms of the level of engagement that is required from the offender, so that the authorised person has discretion in this regard when choosing the conditions.

On the specific point of cannabis and khat warnings, which the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, also echoed, the community resolution already replaces cannabis and khat warnings. This is NPCC policy. The community resolution will be retained by the police as the only non-statutory option. Police are well practised in using the community resolution for this type of drug possession, and it does not require a formal admission of guilt either.

The final point I make is that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, implied—I think; I may have got this wrong—that removing the simple caution meant that a low-level offence could be dealt with only by means of a diversionary or community caution. Fixed penalty notices do not fall under the reform to out of court disposals and will still be available for use where relevant. The example of littering given by the noble Lord may be dealt with by those means or indeed by community resolution, which is an alternative and non-statutory disposal that police forces will retain. I hope that answers his question on the khat point and also his point on littering.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour 3:15 pm, 10th November 2021

Does the Minister not agree that good law is about a combination of rules and discretion? I quite understand that he is here to advocate his new scheme and approach, which the Government have considered and think is the way forward, but why not have a little residual discretion for some of the examples that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, gave? The Minister said that a simple caution is really a bare warning but, occasionally, is not a bare warning better than nothing at all in terms of a police officer, in reality—sometimes underresourced, in difficult times—doing his job in the community?

Why do we have to be so rigid that we make a simple caution—which of course is not ideal and does not have the diversions and other things suggested— impossible to give? In circumstance where there is a student who is annoyingly drunk but has not really harmed anybody—as in the example given—why not allow a bare warning rather than no warning and no action at all?

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Without turning this afternoon into a jurisprudential seminar, I certainly agree with the thrust of the point made by the noble Baroness that good law is often a combination of rules and discretion. At the level of generality, I would agree. However, it is not right to say that this is rigid; the conditions that can be applied are extremely flexible.

There are really two parts to the answer. First, within the new cautions regime, there is a great deal of flexibility as to the conditions that can be set out. If the noble Baroness looks at Clause 80 for diversionary cautions—which is mirrored in Clause 89 for community cautions—subsection (4) sets out the restrictive conditions and goes down to the one I mentioned in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, which is

“not to engage in specified conduct”.

That is, essentially, the lowest form of engagement when no other suitable conditions exist. That really creates a condition where the offender is expected not to commit any further offences. That is a very low level of engagement, and when that is suitable will be a matter for the code of practice.

The second part of the answer is to repeat the point I made earlier that other forms of out of court disposal are still available—I mentioned fixed penalty notices and community resolution—so, with respect, I do not agree that we are putting in place a rigid regime. The conditions are flexible and there are some disposals that are outside the cautions structure, even now.

I do not think I did so before, but I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Can the Minister clarify something? I think he said something along the lines that the lowest level of condition is that the offender should not engage in similar activity again. So, if somebody is arrested and cautioned and the police say to them “Don’t do it again”, is that a condition attached to a caution?

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

As I said a moment ago, this relates to Clause 80(4) and Clause 89(4), if the noble Lord looks at the last condition in each of those subsections. The code of practice, as I said in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, will make further provision for the circumstances in which that would be appropriate. Importantly, and I think differently from the simple caution, the police would still need to monitor conduct to ensure that someone had not reoffended, but that would be less onerous. This is a good example of where the new structure that we are putting in place preserves the best of the old regime but still has it on a more structured basis, focused on preventing reoffending as well as on the rehabilitation of the offender.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour

Forgive me, but I sense an element of unworldliness about this. If it is appropriate in a given case for there to be just words spoken and a warning, and it would be proportionate, do we really need the constable in question to go through the process of the recording and the monitoring?

I say no more on that but, if the Committee will indulge me, I would like to mention that Mr Gareth Dowling, the doorkeeper, is retiring today after some years of service and I hope that the Committee, if not the whole House, will join me in congratulating him and wishing him all the best for the future.

Noble Lords:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

May I first deal with the caution points? I do not want to run those two topics together. On cautions, there is a fundamental point here. The simple caution is really what it says on the tin: a simple caution. In circumstances where the officer decides that it is appropriate to give a community caution with the lowest level—the one that we are talking about now—importantly, to get there, the officer or the authorised person still has to go through the process of speaking to the victim, thinking about what other options are available and looking at what other conditions are available. That process is valuable in all cases. That is one of the strengths of the new regime. I accept that that requires more consideration, but you end up with a system which is more robust and suitable and which results in a more proportionate response. Quite separately, I join the noble Baroness in what she said about Mr Dowling.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I thank noble Lords who have participated in this short debate and am grateful for the qualified support from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede.

If I heard the Minister right, he referred to public consultation and the proportion of respondents who said that they did not believe that out-of-court disposals reduced offending. Is he really saying that the Government are now legislating on the basis of public opinion rather than on the basis of evidence? There is no evidence that the two-tier system that has been piloted by a third of forces is any more effective, as I have quoted at length and repeatedly—which the Minister ignores. There is no evidence that this will be a better system for reducing offending. With the greatest of respect, just because the Government assert that it will be does not mean that it is.

I am struggling here. If we take the example of somebody who is arrested for being drunk and disorderly and who the police want to caution, they now have to attach conditions. Presumably, the lowest level of condition will be, “You should desist from behaving like this in the future.” Then the Minister says, “But of course the police will have to put measures in place to monitor the accused’s future behaviour.” I am completely at a loss as to what sort of monitoring the Minister has in mind in such circumstances. The more the Committee examines these proposals—perhaps I should say the lack of them, bearing in mind that we will not see whatever is contained in the code of practice until well beyond the Bill receiving Royal Assent—the more the whole thing begins to unravel.

Clearly, I will apologise to the Minister and to the Committee if I have misunderstood the legislation in terms of withdrawing the police’s ability to give fixed penalty notices for disorder. I hope that the Minister will do the same if it turns out that I am right and he is wrong. However, at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 187 withdrawn.

Amendment 188 not moved.

Clause 96 agreed.

Clause 97: Abolition of other cautions and out-of-court disposals

Amendment 189 not moved.

Clause 97 agreed.

Clause 98 agreed.

Schedule 10: Cautions: consequential amendments