As the Minister was leaving this morning, I raised a point of order to say that it would help the Committee if the draft guidance for clause 6 and the draft order under clause 3 were made available to the Committee before we debate those clauses. I repeat the point now, so that the Minister may hear it for himself.
This morning, I asked about the cost implications of managing and enforcing fixed penalty notices. I referred to issues raised by the inner London magistrates court service about that and IT. I mentioned the Criminal Bar Association's view that dealing with non-compliance might have significant resource implications, and I referred to the concern of the Police Superintendents Association about the impact of fixed penalty notices on the use of police time—a concern echoed by the Police Federation. The Criminal Bar Association also raised specific concerns about the problem of applying fixed penalty notices when the person concerned is drunk. The notice might aggravate antisocial behaviour on the street.
I asked about the possible effect on the criminal justice system if the notices are ignored and subsequently dealt with administratively—rather like parking tickets. I asked the Minister how he would verify details of a person served with a fixed penalty notice when the action that required it occurred on the street. According to the Criminal Bar Association, the person must be warned of the consequences of failing to provide details, and Human Rights Act implications are relevant. I asked the Minister to explain his views in greater detail.
What is the interaction between the fixed penalty notice procedure and powers of arrest? How does the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 operate when a fixed penalty notice is issued? What is the basis of the power of arrest and what happens in respect of detention? Will the options of payment or going to court be clearly explained to the defendant orally? Is the only form of explanation effectively the wording of the fixed penalty notice as described in clause 3, or is there an additional formula that an officer must declare or hand out on a piece of paper? Can the defendant offer an explanation? If he is asked to do so, will it be under caution? That is particularly relevant where the offence is one for which a reasonable excuse is a defence, or if the offence is committed where there is no cause for the action concerned.
What is the effect of fixed penalty notices on deterrents? Is it not convenient for the offender? On a fixed penalty notice, he can pay the money without additional penalty. The consequences seem to be less than for a conviction and some of the offences under discussion are definitely in the bracket that anyone would describe as criminal. Obviously they are all offences, but they are on that tier described by the Criminal Bar Association as ``clearly criminal''.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the biggest concerns that many commentators—not merely the Criminal Bar Association but a number of other organisations concerned with the administration of justice—have stressed regarding the Government's proposals, is that they will lead to a downgrading of a significant part of the criminal law. In effect, they are a move towards decriminalisation. Would that not be a most worrying and dangerous trend if the Government were allowed to proceed with it?
That is an important point. We have already established that some of the offences with which we are dealing are serious. Some of them are liable to level 5 fines, which is the highest level applicable in the magistrate's court. Some of them involve imprisonment as the maximum sentence. In those circumstances, there is a genuine concern that the offences should not be trivialised or downgraded. I accept that they remain offences and so they are still ``criminal'' but a point we will come to in a later debate is, what exactly is the effect of a fixed penalty notice being issued? It clearly is not a conviction and there are issues that surround that.
The Government talk about being tough on law and order and tough on crime, but in this part of the Bill they seem to suggest that one can deal with serious offences almost as though they were fairly minor motoring or parking offences. If that is the case, it is difficult to see how this is a war on yob culture.
Why does the hon. Gentleman think that organisations such as the Association of Chief Police Officers support us in what we are proposing here? I acknowledge the various aspects of substance where there are differences of emphasis, but in the fundamental thrust of what is being proposed in the Bill we are supported by ACPO. Given the hon. Gentleman's concerns, why does he think that they support us?
The concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), which I am relating, has also been expressed by others. As ACPO and others have recognised, there is an advantage in that, when an offence occurs, it will marked in some way—it would be wrong not to do so. I told the Minister on Second Reading that we are not against the principle. The measures will range from cautioning and fixed penalty notices to charging and conviction. I am asking him whether he feels that sufficient deterrents exist for the persistent offender in such cases, in particular, the young person who regularly commits acts of that sort.
The Minister raised an interesting point. Can I suggest a more cynical, but perhaps more accurate reason, in answer to the Minister's question to my hon. Friend. Could it not be the case that chief police officers in particular and police authorities are reacting by saying that they will be able to cope with the system and it is all right, because they have been so overwhelmed by unnecessary bureaucracy and starved of resources that anything that reduces their work load is welcome, including the introduction of a fixed penalty system. Ideally, however, they would like proper resourcing, which the Government have patently failed to provide.
Yes, I am sure that that plays a part. Obviously, one hopes that the fixed penalty notices will be a quick and easy method of disposal for the minor cases and will enable the event to be marked with less bureaucracy and be commensurate with the offence. We will come to whether that will be the case. I am raising concerns expressed by the Criminal Bar Association that the system may not work out like that.
If the hon. Gentleman is saying that the concern formulated by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath plays a part in the submissions that have been made by the Association of Chief Police Officers, will he tell us where that concern was raised in its response or in other material? It is certainly not the Government's understanding that that is the chief police officers' motivation. If the hon. Gentleman has different information, I am sure that the Committee will be interested to hear it.
I do not entirely follow the question, but I am happy to return to the matter if the Minister wants me to do so. I am making the point that was made by the CBA, which says:
``If the legal consequences of payment of a notice are to be exactly the same as for a court hearing, logic suggests that the only effect will be to induce some people to pay by post rather than having the inconvenience of a court hearing. Convenience is clearly a strong argument in favour of such a scheme. Costs and time will also be saved if people can plead guilty by post. On this approach, tickets could be issued to sober and calm people on the street or sober people back at the police station. This is not, however, anything to do with deterrence.''
The CBA goes on to make four other points, which I have paraphrased.
It is right that the Association of Chief Police Officers has broadly welcomed the proposals. I have raised its important concern about criminal damage and its wish to add unlawful street trading to the provisions. However, I certainly did not say that ACPO had said that the system would be a cheap way of dealing with crime because the police were under resourced. If I said something that sounded like that, I was wrong. That does not mean that no chief constables are saying that they are thoroughly under-resourced; chief constables do say that, as I regularly tell the Minister in our debates. I think that we had three debates last week, and the Minister will concede—
I may have lost the votes, but I certainly won the argument, as the Minister knows only too well. Normally, when he is losing an argument, he claims that I am being rhetorical. That reminds me of his comments about on-the-spot fines. When the Prime Minister came out of the meeting in Japan and said, ``Oh yes, we'll take them all down to the cashpoint machine for a £100 fine'' or words to that effect, the Minister was trotted out to explain that the Prime Minister meant that as a metaphor. Incidentally, that may be why The Guardian, in a wonderful article by John Kampfner, suggested that the Minister was bound to make it to the top of the Labour party and become its leader. He is now doing the leader's job, or at least covering for him on occasions, and highly necessary that is too.
I am sure that you would not want me to go into the Minister's long and distant past, Mr. Gale.
The CBA has raised the issue of the effect of fixed penalty notices on deterrence. How is the officer to exercise his discretion to use a fixed penalty notice? Is the decision justiciable under the Human Rights Act 1998? Would a claim of unequal treatment as between accused on racial or sex discrimination grounds be justiciable, and in what circumstances would that be the case?
Those 10 questions from the CBA and the other points are the ones that I wanted to raise on clause stand part.
We tabled an amendment that became subsumed in the questions about whether the clause should stand part. Given the starting point that my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard), other colleagues and I have adopted, we shall vote against the clause standing part. However, now, I want to pursue one or two matters
I shall not repeat points already made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) on behalf of the Conservative party. He asked perfectly proper questions—some that had been put to us and some that we had spotted or thought of ourselves—that came from people outside who are thinking about the practicality of the procedures that we are discussing. The first practical point relates to the lists that the Government give us, which we are being asked to accept as part of the package.
The hon. Gentleman is saying that he and his colleagues intend to vote against clause stand part. Will he make it clear whether that is because he is against fixed penalty notices, because he is against the particular list, or because he is against the whole part of the Bill, clauses 1 to 13? It will be important to the public debate that will ensue that he makes absolutely clear the basis of his opposition.
I know the Minister well enough to know that question, which is trotted out about once a week in Committee and was trotted out last week downstairs. I answered last week and I am happy to answer it again today.
In a clause stand part debate we express and form views on an individual clause. We have made it clear that we are not against fixed penalty notices in certain circumstances; however, we are against their extension to all the subjective offences of which the list is full. We do not believe that we should proceed with a list that mixes some subjective offences, some offences that should not be subject to fixed penalty notices because they are more serious than that and so should not be in the same category, and others that we think are incapable of being properly enforced. We also take the view that a system of fixed penalty notices for such offences, should be trialled and passed, after which we should consider the evidence.
Let me get the point clear. Would the Liberal Democrats vote in favour of clause stand part if the list set out in clause 1(1) contained certain individual offences—and if so, which ones? Alternatively, is the hon. Gentleman simply opposed to all of them? Can he be specific as to which offences fit which of the criteria that he has mentioned?
The Minister is so impatient, although his question is perfectly proper. I was about to explain precisely that. He knows from our previous exchanges that I always try to give direct answers and not to fudge the issues. He accepts that, even if the answers I give are ones with which he does not always agree.
I will go down the list by category. We think that
``Being drunk in a highway other public place or licensed premises''. should not be included. Similarly,
``Trespassing on the railway . . . Throwing stones etc at trains or other things on railways''
``Disorderly behaviour while drunk in a public place'' should not be included. I shall return to the issue of criminal damage, which we discussed previously. To continue, the listed offences of
``Threatening, abusive or insulting words or disorderly behaviour''
``Consumption of alcohol in designated public place'' should not be included. The reasons that we think that they ought not to be included on that list are that they are subjective and that they will give rise to big practical problems. For example, giving a fixed penalty notice to a person who is ``drunk in a highway'' lends itself to the possibility of that person either not knowing or not remembering that he has received it, as well as to all sorts of practical questions about whether the notice has been served and properly given to that person, and so on. Equally, the identity of the culprit in offences such as
``Throwing fireworks in a thoroughfare'' may be unclear, so we would not include such offences on the list.
Three further offences:
``Knowingly giving a false alarm to a fire brigade . . . Wasting police time or giving false report''—
The hon. Gentleman is confused. One Opposition party may not be represented, but there is a perfectly adequate Opposition—indeed a better one—still here. We are Opposition Front Benchers; it is just that the Bench is occasionally occupied by Tories. Long before the hon. Gentleman was elected, the Tories started a debate in the Chamber on the Bill that abolished the Greater London council. I spoke from the Dispatch Box for 80 minutes, because there was no Labour Member on the Opposition Front Bench. I was the first Liberal to do so since Asquith.
The three offences of
``Knowingly giving a false alarm to a fire brigade . . . Wasting police time or giving false report''
``Using public telecommunications system for sending message known to be false in order to cause annoyance'' are too serious to be the subject of fixed penalty notices. Fixed penalty notices diminish the seriousness of such offences, so they ought not to be included in the list.
The one offence in respect of which we think it would be reasonable to trial fixed penalty notices is
``Buying or attempting to buy alcohol for consumption in a bar in licensed premises by a person under 18'' as that would clearly normally be based on the evidence of the person serving the drink. In addition, the offence occurs in a contained space, so the culprit is much more likely to be identified, whether he is seeking to buy alcohol for himself or for others. As I made clear on Second Reading, we support the provision in law that is to be introduced to test whether the illegal sale of alcohol has occurred; such a test already exists in respect of tobacco sales. There is a provision elsewhere in the Bill to allow, in certain protected circumstances, people aged less than 18 to be used to determine whether the law is being broken by people selling alcohol.
In response to the proposition put forward by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, I indicated that, where there is clear evidence of the damage, the criminal damage provision lends itself quite readily to a fixed penalty system; however, where evidence of the link between the damage and the culprit is less clear, the provision lends itself less readily to such a system. Therefore, criminal damage—even the lesser criminal damage under clause 1(1)—is something of a portmanteau offence, wherein some will reasonably fall within a fixed penalty notice system and some will not. It will depend on the extent of the criminal damage—whether a scratch on a window or the breaking of a shop front.
As I told the Minister, the Liberal Democrats are not against fixed penalty notices for appropriate offences such as motoring or cycling offences, litter dropping, or dog fouling. Nor are we opposed to a proposition that there is power to put them in legislation. There should be an Act that gives Ministers power to bring proposals before Parliament, which would then be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Ministers are willing to accept an amendment to that effect; therefore, for things that will come later, we now have the right process and there will be a one-by-one assessment by Parliament of any order that the Minister introduces.
I apologise if I did not include that. The arguments for that provision are linked to those in favour of having fixed penalty notices for persons committing an offence inside a bar. I am nervous about its inclusion in the list, as it might be difficult readily to identify the culprit—for example, if a group of youngsters has a few cans of lager, it may be difficult to identify who is actually consuming the alcohol. I would prefer that the offence were not on the list.
The sorts of offence that should be in the list include buying alcohol illegally in a pub and perhaps criminal damage, as well as selling illegally through street trading, as has been proposed. That is our general approach and I hope it is a consistent one. I am surprised that the three offences I listed—giving false alarms and so on—are not regarded as being sufficiently serious to be kept out of the fixed penalty notice system.
Is it really the Liberal Democrat position that every trespass on a railway must result in a full trial and that police officers should not be able to deal with even the most minor of cases in a straightforward way? Do they really suggest that that is the best use of the court's time?
That intervention raises a series of issues. The first is that at present railways and railway premises are policed by the British Transport police. I have received many complaints that that is not the sensible way to organise matters. It would be better if the railway track and grounds were policed by the local police, who are more likely to be able to manage recurrent problems than the transport police, who pass by only rarely. A wider issue is how we deal with trespass on railway lines and all the offences that happen in car parks owned by the railways. The transport police are never there, but the local police are often there. The responsibility should be properly transferred.
The second issue is the possibility that individuals will be inaccurately prosecuted—a group of youngsters, for example. We will debate later whether these measures should apply to the over-16s or over-18s, but a subjective view can be taken about whether a person is on railway ground. A group of people is seen near the railway line, the police arrive and give a fixed penalty notice to someone who may or may not have been there. Trespass comes under the same category of dangerous offence—in terms of accuracy about the defendant—as using threatening, abusive and insulting words. In some cases, it is obvious that someone is committing the offence, just as it may be obvious that someone is committing one of those other offences. We are being asked to approve a system in which a fixed penalty notice can be served for anything called trespass on a railway. That is too wide and dangerous a proposition and in the normal course of events it should be dealt with through the courts.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the reported occasions when hounds, in pursuit of a fox have strayed on to railway lines? In such an event, can he imagine who would be issued with a fixed penalty notice?
I was not thinking of that example, but it is a proper point. If I were the Member for Taunton and my hon. Friend were the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey my mind would be more on hounds on the railway line. My hon. Friend says that it has happened. There are real issues there. It is important that people do not trespass on railway lines or anyway else where they could cause damage. Again, I take the view that if the matter is to be dealt with, it should be through the normal court process in the normal way.
I was about to put to the hon. Gentleman a point about trespass on the railway. First, however, I must ensure that the Minister's sedentary response to the query posed by the hon. Member for Taunton is recorded for posterity. He said that the fox should receive the fixed penalty notice. I hope that that goes into the Official Report.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that in many constituencies, including mine, there have been repeated and serious trespasses by youths throwing large rocks at trains, which poses a huge danger to railway staff, drivers, ticket collectors and passengers. Three weeks ago, one of my borough councillors was on a well-lit train at night. He was clearly visible to yobs on the land next to the railway, who were throwing rocks at the train. He was shocked to discover, on raising the matter with the station staff when he got off the train at the next station, that the windows of the previous train had been broken but that nothing had been done about it because of the lack of resources in the transport and local police. The attack by yobs on one train was sufficient to take it out of service but, despite the clear risk to life and limb, nothing had been done. Does that not reinforce the hon. Gentleman's argument?
Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that many acts of damage and criminal offences on railways are committed not by people trespassing on railway lines, but by those who walk lawfully on bridges, roads and footpaths, from which they throw bricks and boulders. There have been many reported incidents of people dropping things from bridges, causing terrible accidents on the railway.
In my constituency, there have been recent examples of people attacking buses and other forms of public transport with missiles such as rocks and bricks. That reinforces my view that those offences should be dealt with by proper criminal process. If they are serious, as in the example given by the hon. Gentleman, the police should be on the spot where it has happened before at a time when they expect that it may happen again. They should be keeping watch and using intelligence, as part of good policing. The people who have done such a thing should not merely be given a piece of paper, as that hardly reinforces their awareness of the severity of what they have done in putting lives at risk. Those people should be nicked, charged and taken to court and, if necessary, they should be locked up.
The subsection contains a motley collection of offences, some of which are far too serious to become fixed penalty notices and should be dealt with in the normal way, and some of which do not lend themselves to the process of the fixed penalty notice. Drunken people or people behaving in a disorderly way may be the victims of a subjective judgment in the first place, an inability to assess intention in the second place, and confusion as to who was or was not committing the offence in the third place.
The system outlined in the clause will penalise more the relatively poor and less educated and those less able to cope. It is bound to be like that. If those who have little money do not pay, the penalty will clock up—the fine will increase and they will get into more difficulty. They will become enmeshed in the system when the matter could have been dealt with properly by an arrest and a caution, or an arrest and proper disposal in the local court. The system will also take money from activities on which they need to spend, such as looking after their kids. Hooray Henrys will not be disadvantaged by the Bill. They come out in bow ties and dinner suits and lark around, but they can pay up tomorrow. The policy is not consistent with the supposed Government intention to create social inclusion rather than exclusion. This is not joined-up government.
In many cases, it will be difficult to adjudicate whether the offence was committed and the fixed penalty notice issued. Many people may dispute receipt of such a notice—just as people often dispute a parking ticket when it is put on the windscreen of a car. They say, ``I never saw it, it wasn't there.'' There will be far more disputes if a police officer tries to give the notice to someone who refuses to accept it. That is why the Prime Minister's wonderful idea of marching people off to the cashpoint was so barmy. If he had thought for two seconds before he uttered it, he would have realised what a barmy idea it was.
Will the Minister tell us whether the number of fines and the sum collected from fixed penalty notices has risen in the past five, 10, 15 or 20 years—not only because the penalty has increased but because more people have committed those offences? If the answer is yes, the evidence does not support the argument that the measure will provide a wonderful deterrent. There is no evidence that fixed penalty notices and their multiplication act as a deterrent. They simply become a replacement for penalties, many of which are not paid. It does not help to uphold the criminal justice system if one can escape unpaid fines.
Does the hon. Gentleman have evidence to support that? There are surely other explanations. To take a simple example, the figures on cases of domestic violence or rape show dramatic rises in recent years, but that suggests not that the penalties are wrong but that different things are happening in society. I wonder what the evidence is to support the assertion that fixed penalty fines have that impact.
To be fair, I was not drawing that conclusion but asking the question. I have noticed, from what I have read and seen, that the number of fixed penalty notices continues to rise, as does the number of uncollected fines, so it might be reasonable to assume that they are not as great a deterrent as people think. There are of course other factors, as the hon. Gentleman says.
The system lays down that if one can pay, one does not get a criminal record, but if one cannot, one does. What sort of justice system is that? It is an arbitrary, unfair system that picks on the more disadvantaged people from the outset, with no prospect of change. The person with no money is bound to be in a disadvantaged position. I am surprised that a Labour Government—although few things now surprise me about a Labour Government—with any commitment to Labour's traditional principles believe that that is part of an agenda of equality. I believed that they were committed to achieving equality as part of their original commitment to social justice.
When I was a teenager, I did, but then Harold Wilson came to power and I was soon disabused of the notion—and have not believed it since.
I wholeheartedly endorse the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. What evidence is there to show that paperwork will not increase, that the police will not be committed to bureaucratic follow-up procedures or that it will relieve pressure on police time? There is no such evidence. The proposal is much more likely to do the opposite, in which case it gives no advantages to the police, although ACPO supports it, because the police obviously want more powers; generally, they want as many powers as possible. I have never heard police officers saying that they wanted fewer powers. It is the police's job to have as many powers as possible, so ACPO's support is not an overwhelmingly objective one. We should ask the view of the public, rather than of the police.
Because the Government will want the legislation to work, there will be no likelihood of increased pressure on the police to deliver fixed penalty notices. I echo the question of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath: is that really what we want the police to be doing, when serious offences are not being dealt with? The public believe that there are other ways of dealing with such offences and they want the police to deal with serious offences and persistent offenders, and the court system to ensure that the individual, particularly the recurrent offender, is dealt with properly. When my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton and I visit any prison and talk to any prison governor, we are told that the same people keep on coming round again. The system is geared to that—and the richer one is, the more willing one will be to come round again. Such offenders are happy to get a parking fine in the same place day after day. There is no deterrent effect.
The proposal is unproven and is a distraction from the main issues—it is a bauble in the shop window of a party with an election in the offing. We would do far better to get shot of it and start again. If the Minister wants to propose a workable trial for such offences, with agreement across the three parties, let that be done—but not when the majority of the public, on opinion poll evidence, are against such a proposal, and when there is great scepticism about it, not only among Opposition Members but in some parts of the Labour party and certainly among many members of the public.
This is an interesting debate and I am looking forward to the Minister's reply to it. It is agreed generally that it is worth while giving the police the powers that they need to deal with such offences, but the closer I come to the practicality of how such proposals will work, the more the difficulties that present themselves. The Police Superintendents Association stated in its evidence:
``Prior to the Bill our members expressed some concerns as to how practical these measures would be.''
The reassurance that it received was based on the fact that the likely outcome of such a system is that offenders will be arrested and a fixed penalty ticket issued later at the police station. That would negate a significant part of the value of the fixed penalty notices, whereby police officers would not be taken off the street to go back to the police station to deal with the paperwork and the offender there. Having taken part in the parliamentary police scheme, I know how fast a shift on duty is taken off the streets when it has to return to the police station to deal with paperwork.
Superficially, the provision has significant attractions, enabling the police to stay on the streets, but when we consider the offences that they are likely to be dealing with, the situation becomes clear. ACPO has said that, when the police discharge their responsibilities, especially if they are dealing with offenders who are drunk or violent, they will not deal with them on the street but will have to arrest them and deal with them at the police station. They will then decide whether to issue a fixed penalty notice or a caution or to charge them.
The response of the Criminal Bar Association went to the nitty gritty of those questions that must be addressed on a legal level. There are devastating questions for the Minister to answer. That is why I am particularly looking forward to his response. What is the answer to the association's point that
``Disorderly drunks are by definition not in a fit state to be served with a legal document with penal consequences.''?
Presumably, ACPO has recognised that. The advantage of the system will be negated by the fact that, if a drunk is arrested, he will have to be taken to the police station and the police will have to wait until he is in a fit condition before a fixed penalty notice can be served on him.
The Criminal Bar Association said:
``Drunk and/or disorderly persons are unlikely to be alone or compliant.''
The handing out of fixed penalty notices on the street in public is more likely to inflame the public order problem than to provide a solution to it.
I know that we are to have a debate later on the issue, but one solution to such a problem is to take that person's particulars and deal with the matter later. I presume that the hon. Gentleman's experience is the same as mine, and I have found that the chances of any identification being volunteered by those in question is pretty minimal. As a result, further offences will be committed and an arrest will have to be made for there to be any chance of following up the case.
I agree. The police know who the bad hats are—especially difficult repeat offenders—and if they see a policeman about to issue a fixed penalty notice, they are likely to leg it at the first opportunity. That means that the police will have to capture them and make an arrest to issue a fixed penalty notice.
The hon. Gentleman has highlighted the main argument. If we allow the clause to stand part, we are giving the police wider powers and a greater range of options. However, having given them such powers, we must consider how difficult it will be for the bobby on the beat to decide whether to use the new methods that are available to him and whether it is worth it. We need to consider the recording of fixed penalty notices, about which I hope that the Minister will advise us. Will no record be kept once someone has paid a fixed penalty notice? If so, repeat offenders who constantly receive fixed penalty notices will never progress to a more serious stage of the criminal justice system.
I should be grateful if the Minister would explain the type of recording that will take place. In the state of New York, for example, notices can be issued for offences such as fishing in the wrong place, and relevant records are kept. A young man of 17 who wanted to go to West Point to get a commission in the American army was unable to do so because he received such a notice after fishing in the wrong place, and the offence was placed on his record. How will such offences be recorded in this country? Will repeat offending be taken into account?
ACPO states that it would rather avoid the bureaucracy of a complicated recording procedure. It wants to opt for a simple system that deals with a single offence, rather than recording offences on the police national computer and thereby creating additional bureaucracy for the police.
Evidence from the Criminal Bar Association about the application of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 also gives me cause for concern. The association asked:
Will an offender who is being dealt with by a policeman on the street be given the opportunity to explain his behaviour? Will the policeman be able to assess the sort of person whom he is dealing with? Will he be able to assess whether he is dealing with a young man who is of good character and a responsible member of society, but who has merely indulged in drunken high jinks, or with someone of bad character who is likely to be a repeat offender? Perhaps some hon. Members fell into the former category in their student days. Such information would enable the policeman to establish the appropriate penalty.
One must also consider whether an explanation will be given under caution—a point that gives rise to the Criminal Bar Association's questions about the application of PACE. How will granting the police another level of punishment interact with the Human Rights Act 1998? The option of a caution will remain but, in dealing with an offender, the police will have a further three levels of discretion.
The Government must take into account those difficult questions, and I wonder whether the Minister might help by adducing some international evidence. Is such a system in play and working elsewhere in the world? The only evidence that I have seen are the appalling statistics in New South Wales concerning those who pay fixed penalty notices for failing to obey a police officer, or for carrying a knife. In New South Wales, there is between 92 and 97 per cent. non-compliance with fixed penalty notices. Is there any international evidence that such a system works?
Neither the country nor the police are ready for this measure to be introduced untested. I fear that it is a rather inelegant attempt to cover the Prime Minister's embarrassment over his poorly thought out idea about dealing with drunken hooligans. Such people are a real nuisance on our streets and to law-abiding citizens, and one can see what he was trying to achieve. However, the idea of dragging someone off to a cash machine to draw £100 out of their account to pay a fine was laughed off the court on the grounds of impracticality, and the Government are now trying to find a way of doing something similar to the Prime Minister's idea.
I look forward to the Minister making a case for the measure based on evidence from around the country. If, after the debate, we vote that the clause stands part of the Bill, will the Minister consider allowing police forces in certain areas to trial different methods of using fixed penalty notices in order to judge how effective they will be and what is the best way of putting them into practice? At the moment, the police do not know exactly how they will work.
I apologise for my unavoidable absence during the first sitting of the Committee.
My hon. Friends have raised some important matters. It is our duty as an Opposition to try to tease them out, both to help the Government in a course of action to which we are not wholly and fundamentally opposed and to produce law that is sensible and workable.
I have real fears about the ways in which fixed penalty notices may be used. It is highly significant that they can be used only by authorised police officers. I feel sure that that is because police officers will require a great deal of training before they start to use them. Fixed penalty notices work reasonably well in relation to motoring offences such as parking and some on-the-spot fines—
I refer the right hon. and learned Gentleman to clause 2(1), which we have not yet reached, where he will find that the power is exercisable by any constable in uniform outside a police station. The authorised constable is a provision that applies only within a police station. I hope that that is helpful.
It is helpful as an explanation of how the Bill works. However, perhaps my misunderstanding of the Bill has raised a question that is worth considering. It remains true that officers will require a good deal of training before using such a fixed penalty system.
To be anecdotal for a moment, significant problems arise in relation to fixed penalty parking fines. There can be few members of the Committee who drive motor cars but have never received a parking fine, which one can receive without it being put on one's car. Traffic wardens are entitled to issue a parking fine against a motorist whose car has infringed, but who drives away before they can stick the fine on the car. I suspect that many motorists who drive away realise that they are taking a risk in doing so. None the less, the system is unsatisfactory because one can only pay the smaller fine—£40 rather than £80—within 14 days of it having been issued, rather than within 14 days of notice of the penalty having been received. If that problem occurs in relation to parking penalties, which we, as British citizens, generally accept as a reasonable way to attempt to control parking because the criminality of the offence is seldom high, it will arise more often in relation to this kind of fixed penalty notice.
During the 22 years that I have been in the House, we have experienced difficulties on policing issues such as stop and search, the sus laws—when they applied—and powers that are easier for the police to use when the offender happens to be known to them because he or she has offended before. The structure of the Bill means that, if one does not wish to pay the penalty notice, and one is sufficiently organised to write back to say that one wishes to be tried, the notice is treated as though a magistrate had issued it. One issue in the enforcement of civil and criminal law is that summonses are frequently not served, and that is a major problem with debt proceedings, which can lead to trouble in relation to credit agencies and unpaid civil liabilities.
Recent legislation has intermingled civil and criminal law, which results in criminal or quasi-criminal conduct leading to civil, rather than criminal, penalties. The intermingling of the fringes of civil and criminal law leads to procedures that are deemed to have occurred as though they had gone through the formality of magistrates court summonses, with which people are comparatively familiar, but in practice that will not have occurred.
``about the exercise of the discretion given to constables by this Chapter'', and also
``about the issuing of penalty notices''.
He questioned whether a summons has been served in those circumstances. If the accused is alleged to have been ``drunk in a highway'' or one of the other conditions involving drunkenness or high excitement, such as threatening behaviour and the like, there is a danger that the actual process of serving a notice may be a contentious issue. Until one has seen a draft of the guidance issued by the Secretary of State, it is hard to work out what is proposed.
My hon. Friend and I will have your thoughts in mind, Mr. Gale.
We are dealing with the substance of clause 1, which concerns the nature of offences for which penalty notices can be issued. I am concerned about the practicalities of issuing penalty notices for virtually all the 10 offences in subsection (1).
Although the Criminal Bar Association's questions about section 25 of PACE and the European convention on human rights are not developed particularly fully in the briefing, they will nevertheless prove to be real, and I am extremely grateful that they were raised at all. I sympathise with the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary, because it is rather difficult for the Government legal service, the Home Office and the Attorney-General's chambers to apply a wet towel and think through all those questions. I shall listen constructively and quite sympathetically to the answers that we receive, but I should point out that those questions deserve a lot of thought in the three weeks or so that are allotted to examining the Bill. I look forward to listening carefully to the Minister's answers, so that I can learn and try to contribute to a better Bill.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has more experience of such matters than most of us. Does he think that it will be necessary to prove that a fixed penalty notice has been served, rather than assuming a deemed service? If so, as he rightly says, many intended recipients will run away as fast as they can—I certainly would, and I am sure that others would. I am assuming that the issue of service is a matter that would have to be proved immediately in the courts.
The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point that I was trying to illustrate in relation to the motorist who drives away at the moment when he suspects that the traffic warden is printing out a ticket. As soon as the traffic warden touches his machine, he must proceed—I doubt whether he can abort the process. Those are the type of practical problems that will arise.
According to my quick reading of this complex Bill and the relevant clause, everything is deemed to have been dealt with. However, I wonder whether the alleged offender will be able to question whether the penalty has been served, even though to do so would be unfair. On the other hand, the alleged offender might say, ``It is no good deeming that it has been served. I never received it and I wasn't even in the street where it is alleged that I was drunk and disorderly. This is a case of mistaken identity and I should not be asked to pay the penalty.''
I foresee enormous problems, and offer that example to the Minister in the hope that he can give a quick and comforting reply. As it stands, if a police officer says that he has issued a fixed penalty notice and writes down a name, the notice is deemed to have been served, even though the person concerned was not there and did not receive it. That person will then find out that he is automatically expected to pay a fine that is 50 per cent. above the amount of the fixed penalty notice. How can he challenge that? Before what tribunal and under what system will he be able to defend himself by saying, ``It wasn't me.''? He might also say, ``Yes, I was there, but the notice wasn't given to me. A mistake must have been made in the police station, and in any case I wasn't drunk.'' A brief explanation of how the provision will work in practice would be very helpful.
I think that I can be relatively brief, because many of the issues have been addressed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), and my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Hertfordshire and for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). However, I want to make a couple of points in support of their comments, and I should perhaps begin by returning to a matter that I raised during an intervention on the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).
We were discussing the significance of the sometimes serious incidents of youths throwing stones at trains. One reason for the concern that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and I, as well as other Opposition Members, share is that there will be a perception that the offence is being downgraded, although I realise that the Government are not saying that everyone who commits the offence would always receive a fixed penalty. I stress, not only in my capacity as an Opposition Front Bench spokesman but as chairman of the all-party railways group, that the Minister will have to take account of the fact that those who represent the most vulnerable people--the rail workers--will be upset if they believe that the Government are downgrading the seriousness of the offence. Some train drivers, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, have suffered horrendous injuries as a result of stones being dropped off railway bridges and so on. If they believe that the offence is being downgraded, they will be very upset.
I want to reinforce the constituency case to which I referred in my intervention. I am holding a reply that I received today from a helpful chief inspector--Mick Day--of the north-west Surrey police division. He states that he is liasing--he always does so, and very helpfully--with his counterparts at Guildford police station so that we can consider how the local police can deal with those yobs and ensure a speedy police response.
I have already had a response from the British Transport police which makes the same point as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey--that the British Transport police cannot always be patrolling every mile of railway track. The local police often have the most detailed knowledge of where the most vulnerable points of the track are and where the yobs tend to congregate. In this case, the trouble spot next to the line is well known. It is so well known that Railtrack has fenced in the bridges, but, unfortunately, that does not stop youths standing in open ground beside the line or in one of the gardens in Winchester road in my constituency and regularly lobbing rocks at trains. The problem is serious. My constituents and my councillor, Nick Sutcliffe--he was, unfortunately, a victim of one of those attacks--would be very concerned to hear that the Government are doing something that will be perceived, despite what the Minister says, as downgrading the offence.
I want to return to one or two of the issues concerning the way in which the courts will deal with fixed penalties generally. One of the submissions to Opposition Members came from the chief executive to the Justices for Inner London. As a lawyer, I treat seriously any concerns expressed by those in the court service. The chief executive to the Justices for Inner London refers to the origins of the Bill in the Government's consultation paper. Christine Glenn, the Justices' chief executive quotes from that consultation paper, stating that introduction of the fixed penalty system for anti-social behaviour offences will provide immediacy of punishment in a way that a court appearance at some time in the future does not. That lies behind the Government's proposal. The Justices' chief executive said:
``It is suggested the proposal might achieve exactly the opposite . . . Since the introduction of the Narey reforms''-- she is referring to her own court and it may not be true in all courts--
``anyone charged is in fact brought before a court within a day or two. Under the proposed system the issue of the notice may indeed be swift but payment will be delayed for at least a statutory period and in many if not most cases will not be made at all''-- that refers to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and others made so well—
``at least without further court appearances either in the form of a summons for the offence or a means warrant for non-payment. The issue of compensation is not addressed.''
The chief executive continues:
``The compliance rate taken across the whole range of motoring fixed penalties is certainly fairly high. This may reflect the fact that parking and other minor motoring offences are committed by a very wide section of the public, including those who are (otherwise) entirely law abiding.''
We all know on both sides of the Committee that this is true. The document continues:
``However, compliance rates from non-endorsable fixed penalties are much lower at about 40 per cent. and it is suggested this might be the maximum that could realistically be expected.''
In addition, the justices' chief executive questions
``whether a high rate of compliance can be anticipated from the section of the population likely to be the candidates for the new scheme. Bearing in mind the non-payment rates for court fines we would be surprised if more than 30 per cent. paid immediately.''
I suspect it would be a lot lower than that. My personal estimate would be less than 10 per cent. from my experience in the criminal courts with the kind of people that the chief constable of the area that my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate and I represent, has termed the Guildford warriors. My hon. Friend and other Surrey colleagues were with me when we were shown an absolutely fascinating and rather worrying section of closed-circuit television film. It showed a great deal of drunkenness and violent behaviour, including the kind of criminal damage in Guildford town centre that the Bill might be intended to deal with.
If the Minister had been with us when we saw that film, he would have seen that, even though the police panda car arrived within two or three minutes, to break up the fights and deal with the drunks and the criminal damage, quite serious offences had already been committed. The Governments' proposals might suggest that such offences would merit a fixed penalty issued by a police officer.
The hon. Gentleman has this fundamentally wrong, both in relation to the rail offences that he talked about and the kind of offences that he is talking about now. I have certainly seen CCTV footage of the most appalling offences. I saw one video at a station represented by my hon. Friend for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) when I visited him just before Christmas. The kinds of offences that he is describing would not conceivably be appropriate for fixed penalty notices. They are much more serious than that. The suggestion that we are trying to downgrade those kinds of offences, whether on the railway or in relation to the type of offence to which he referred, is completely wrong.
The problem for the Minister is how the law-abiding public and the media are going to perceive the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire pointed out, the way in which the Government approach this matter fits so neatly into the description given the memo, in which we were all interested, in which the Prime Minister said to the head of all his focus groups:
``I want to be associated with eye-catching initiatives, especially on law and order.''
This is one of these eye-catching initiatives. The Bill is full of gimmicks, but it will be perceived by the public as downgrading crimes. The Ministers know perfectly well that the press, in writing about this part of this Bill, have already portrayed it in that light. Those remarks is not coming just from the Opposition Benches, but from analysis of what the Government are up to.
Now that the hon. Gentleman knows that what he has said is not the case, and that guidance will be issued to ensure that it is not, will he give an assurance to the Committee that he will not take part in misleading the public or giving the wrong impression? I am sure that he would not want to be party to misleading the public about what the Bill is designed to do.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire rightly says, where is the guidance? We are not prepared to take the word of the Minister, or any Labour Minister. We want to see the guidance in advance, as do those who are commenting on these proposals. Only then will we be able to judge whether there is any substance to what has been said. We have seen the memo about the eye-catching initiatives, and we know that Ministers often live in a fantasy land, in which they can pretend that black is white, and that words means exactly the opposite of the natural meaning of the English language. On this occasion the Ministers cannot escape from the Prime Minister's own words—
``I want to be associated with eye-catching initiatives, especially on law and order.''
What on earth is the Bill if it is not one of those?
I share the serious concerns of the Criminal Bar Association and concern about the 10 issues that my hon. Friend has raised. The Government must reassure the public a great deal more. If we could see the guidance and matters were not being rushed through before an election—a forced timetable—the Bill might be much more serious.
``I am delighted to see that the issue of Fixed Penalty Notices has been progressed so quickly, and I am pleased to be able to give you a response to the consultation paper on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers.
The consultation paper largely mirrors the suggestions in my original paper, and having canvassed Chief Constables from across the country, I found broad support for the introduction of Fixed Penalties for low level disorder offences.''
I am sure that those who read the Official Report of this debate will notice the urging of caution—that this is not the right time—and Opposition Members will give all manner of reasons why they do not want to give the police officers the tools that they need and have asked for to do the job on the streets. The Government will give police those tools, and we could not have a greater endorsement than that the chief constables are thanking the Government—while, admittedly, drawing attention to certain details—for responding to their ideas.
I want to ask the hon. Gentleman a question. He and his ministerial colleague have said that we will only be able to find out how the system will be administered when the guidance is published. When will the draft guidance appear?
I was going to deal with that. It is one of many issues that were raised, to which I shall try to respond. We shall attempt to publish draft guidance as quickly as possible.
I was asked about costs. A range of offenders are likely to be dealt with through fixed penalties. Some who would have gone to court will be dealt with by a fixed penalty, which will mean a considerable cost saving. Others, who would not have been processed or would have been cautioned will be subject to a fixed penalty. If we consider the overall balance of police time, the best estimate—from ACPO, not the Government—is that the introduction of fixed penalties will save the police considerable time and paperwork and considerable time in terms of attending court. We must remember that the police are subject to considerable delays when they are required to attend court. Any process whereby an offence can be marked, which stops a police officer having to attend court, frees up that officer to perform his duties on the street, which is where the public want him, and where most police officers want him. That is far to be preferred to having officers sitting in a magistrates court waiting to give evidence in a relatively minor criminal damage case.
It is interesting that the Minister should finish by mentioning criminal damage. He has adduced ACPO in support of the proposals, but he ignored what ACPO said about the inclusion of criminal damage in the list of offences. He also ignored ACPO's plea to include non-notifiable offences such as street trading, which we discussed previously. In relation to costs, if the police will be saved court time, offences that are currently tried in court will be dealt with by the fixed penalty system. That gives weight to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath that the Bill degrades the punishments that people receive.
I will deal with the points raised during the course of my observations.
A point was made about IT systems. The existing IT systems in courts for dealing with fixed penalties will need some adaptation. In the magistrates court, a very large IT system, the LIBRA system, is presently being rolled out. The adaptations to those systems to deal with fixed penalties would not be nearly as great as if we had to start from scratch and introduce a new system for fixed penalties.
I cannot give precise estimates as to cost at this stage, but I will endeavour to write to him with that information.
A number of points were made raised a number of points made about the Criminal Bar Association, and I can deal with those reasonably swiftly. First, it was suggested that drunks are not in a fit state to receive and understand a penalty notice. I understand that point, but the police are used to dealing with drunks, as part of their jobs—I have spent evenings with them, and have admired their professionalism in how they deal with people in various stages of inebriation.
People who are too drunk to understand that they are being given a fixed penalty notice—if what they were doing was an offence that could justly be dealt with by a fixed- notice—will, in practice, be arrested, as they would be for committing an offence in the first place. They will be taken to the police station, and sobered up. At the point at which they would either have been charged—and therefore processed through the court system—or cautioned, the police would have a third option of issuing a fixed penalty notice. I refer hon. Members to clause 2, to which I referred when I intervened on the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire, explaining how the fixed penalty notice can be issued in the police station. That is the answer to the first point.
I am not sure that it is possible to answer that question. The exact way in which the power to impose fixed penalty notices will be used, and therefore the range of notices to which they will apply, will be matters for the discretion of police forces. Guidance will be issued, but as in any area we must respect the operational independence of the police. If the hon. Gentleman is asking, for example, how many of the people who come before the courts charged with criminal damage plead guilty, we could give him that figure, but not every case of criminal damage, would be suitably dealt with by a fixed penalty notice. It is impossible to say at the moment what proportion of the criminal damage cases that come before the courts would, in the police officers exercise of their operational independence, attract a fixed penalty notice. I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman those figures.
I had read the Bill as entitling a police officer to issue a fixed penalty notice in the street, if he saw someone who was drunk. The Minister has suggested, however, that if an officer sees someone drunk, he will arrest the person, take him back to the station and then issue the fixed penalty notice. Is the former option not available to the officer? Could the Minister explain how the system would work in relation to the questions that I asked?
I will try to address these points, but section 25 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 provides general powers of arrest in the case of a person reasonably suspected of committing an offence. What is important about this part of the Bill, is that it is not creating new offences. It is a method of dealing with offences that are already being committed under other statutes. The police officer will the have the power, therefore, under section 25 to arrest someone who commits an offence of, say, criminal damage. There are other offences such as drunkenness, for which, under provisions of the Act, if the police officer is unable to identify the defendant, or the defendant is incapable of dealing with the police officer, the officer has the power of arrest.
This part of the Bill does not create new powers of arrest—there are already sufficient powers. Clause 2 will give police officers the option of giving a fixed penalty notice in the street, if appropriate, or exercising his power of arrest. At a later point in the system, back at the police station, an authorised officer can, under clause 2(5), issue a fixed penalty notice if, at the discretion of the police, that is the right way to dispose of the matter to prevent other officers going to court.
No, I am going to make a bit of progress.
The next point raised was whether the issue of a fixed penalty notice to an offender or group of offenders might blow up a situation and make disorder worse. We are making a range of tools available to the police in the right circumstances. The police are experienced in dealing with rowdy situations and with disorderly groups on the street. It is for the police in their independent operational duties to determine the best way to defuse a situation. It is up to them to decide whether to deal with the public order issue by issuing a fixed penalty notices or by making an arrest under their existing powers. In the case of arrest, the offenders can be taken back to the station, where the police can consider disposal—either issuing a caution or a fixed penalty notice or proceeding to court, depending on the seriousness of the matter. The fact that they have the option of issuing a fixed penalty notice will not make difficult situations any more difficult.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath asked what would be the effect on the criminal justice system of massive non-payment of penalties? That misses the point, which is that penalties would be issued to people who commit offences that can dealt with by a fixed penalty notice. If those individuals do not pay the fines, the fines will mount up at the magistrates court, as would any other fines.
That brings me to the point—raised by various hon. Members—of whether there will be a limit on the number of fixed penalties that can be imposed. That option was canvassed in paragraph 13 of the consultation paper. Both the Police Superintendents Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers responded. In summary, their response was that the possible benefits of knowing of the cumulative number of fixed penalty notices would be more than outweighed by the administration, red tape and bureaucracy necessary to maintain such records.
If someone was collecting a large number of fixed penalty notices, that would clearly become apparent to the local police officers who were dealing with that person in the same place in the same way. Alternatively, offenders will come up as repeated fines before the court. Those sources of information would be the best way of dealing with any problem. There is no perfect answer to that point, as the consultation confirmed.
Stating that no person should be issued with more than three fixed penalty notices within 12 months would require a large amount of paperwork to record and maintain the necessary information. The whole rationale behind this part of the Bill is to give the police an option to allow them to discharge their duties more effectively, while maintaining all the rights of a defendant, but with less paperwork. The balance of the view from the police—both the Police Superintendents Association and ACPO—was that we would be better off to accept that running up repeated fines and dealing with the matter in court according to the level of repeated fines would be better than trying to limit penalty notices to a fixed number with all the counting and bureaucracy that would be necessary. How on earth can a police officer who sees somebody drunk in the street know whether that person has had two or three fixed penalties already this year? That being so, he could not issue another one when the purpose was to give that person an expensive hangover.
I foresee a problem. Let us say that someone has received a lot of fines and becomes well known, or the police constable realises that the person has already been given half a dozen fixed penalty notices when the matter goes to court, because the police have had enough. Will the court be made aware of the number of fixed penalty notices that have been issued? The Minister will know that it is always possible to get a printout of motoring offences. If all fixed penalty notices are to be on computer, will a similar printout be possible?
In the first instance and on the assumption that every time a fixed penalty notice is issued a fine is paid, the answer is no. However, in practice, I strongly suspect that the type of individual to whom the hon. Gentleman refers is also the type who is unlikely to pay the fine. That would result in the unpaid fine—multiplied one and half times under clause 4(5)—being registered at the magistrates court, so when that individual comes back before the court, the fine will be before the court. In the case of a rather unusual individual who repeatedly gets drunk in a public place and repeatedly gets fined but pays all the fines off, the scenario painted by the hon. Gentleman is possible; however, in practice, I do not think that that is likely.
The hon. Gentleman asked if there were human rights implications if warnings about the consequences of not providing details were given. It is quite correct to require that any individual who commits an offence—in a fixed penalty system, an offence has already been committed—who is approached by a police officer and asked for details of his identity in relation to that offence, is warned if he either refuses to say who he is, or he adopts the course advocated by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and legs it. That requirement arises regardless of the Bill. However, if the police officer takes the view that the issuing of a fixed penalty notice is appropriate, it implies a degree of co-operation at that stage regarding the defendant's actions. If there is a dispute and a person refuses to say who he is, at that stage the issuing of a fixed penalty notice is not appropriate; it is likely that the individual will be arrested, and that is the point at which the appropriate warning should be given.
The warnings arise not in relation to the fixed penalty notice, but in relation to the offence, which is the condition precedent for giving a fixed penalty notice. Therefore, the Government do not accept that there are human rights implications associated with the fixed penalty notice system. We do accept that anyone who commits an offence and is then approached by a police officer and required to give his name and refuses must have his rights explained to him, but that does not arise under this part of the Bill.
On the question of the recording of the fixed penalty notice and the offence, if somebody receives a fixed penalty notice and pays it in due time, what record will there be for the authorities to check if, for example, that person is investigated for another series of offences and all the state authorities want to establish his precise pattern of behaviour. Is there to be no record or will the record be expunged once he has paid his fine?
I understand that in the unlikely circumstance that every fixed penalty is paid within the time, there is no record. I will certainly have the matter checked and either return to it later in my speech or write to hon. Members.
The Minister said that someone who was, for example, given a fixed penalty notice for being drunk would have to be warned. Can he explain that, because I do not think it is in the Bill? If it is, will he draw the provision to my attention? My impression is that a fixed penalty notice could simply be written out by the police officer and handed to the individual—although I am not clear as to whether it even needs to be handed to the individual.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman must appreciate that the requirement to warn and the issues relating to the Human Rights Act 1998 arise in relation to the offence, not to the fixed penalty notice. The notice is one way of dealing with an offence. The requirement on a police officer to warn, demand co-operation and explain the consequences of non-co-operation arises in relation to the original offence, be it criminal damage, trespass on a railway line, or whatever. The fixed penalty notice is a way of dealing with the offence itself. I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman appreciates that distinction.
To return to the matter raised by the hon. Member for Reigate, it may be possible for police officers to keep local administrative records of fixed penalty notices, but nothing in the Bill formally requires them to do so. We will certainly reflect upon that.
May I make a final point in answer to the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire? Inasmuch as the fixed penalty notice itself, as opposed to the offence for which it was issued, gives rise to obligations, those obligations will be set out in the notice. I refer him to clause 3(3), which sets out what the notice must state. There is a requirement for the notice to contain warnings to the effect that, if one does not pay the fine, one will be taken to the magistrates court, and to inform one about how to comply with the notice. That will satisfy the obligations under the Human Rights Act.
While answering our questions, has the Minister concluded that, in the real world, the chance of people standing around and waiting for a fixed penalty notice is about 1 per cent.? In fact, they will probably run away without giving their name. The chances of them waiting for that bit of paper seem to me to be zilch. If the Government want to go ahead with the fixed penalty notice system, should they not recognise that the only time when such a system will be of any use is after arrest, when there is a disposal in the cell in the police station? The officer might, at that time, decide whether to charge or issue a fixed penalty notice. Is that not the only realistic chance of any significant number of people receiving, or accepting that they have received, such a notice?
I appreciate the perspective that the hon. Gentleman brings to the matter as an inner-city Member of Parliament, along with his experience, which I share, as a full practising member of the Bar. However, his view is not that of police officers. I accept that it may on occasion be appropriate to issue fixed penalty notices in the police station. However, it will be an appropriate way of dealing with low-level disorder and criminal damage on the street committed by people who, because they do not want to aggravate their problems, decide to co-operate rather than run away—as some defendants do. That is the view of the police who have experience of such things day in, day out. It is also the Government's view, because it will keep officers on the street, doing their jobs, rather than being caught up in a maze of paperwork at the station.
It was asked whether the discretion exercised by police officers was justiciable and whether there would be any control over police officers' discretion to issue a fixed penalty notice. That is a red herring, because it assumes that, in the event of a fixed penalty notice being issued, the defendant's rights are somehow changed. They are not. The defendant has all the rights to challenge the facts underlying a fixed penalty notice and to have a trial on the issues that gave rise to the alleged offence as he would have had if he had been charged and brought before the court. The discretion exercised by the police officer to offer the defendant the choice of a fixed penalty notice, or to have his day in court and take the punishment if he is found guilty or walk away if found not guilty in no way diminishes the defendant's rights.
I shall make a little more progress.
Let me respond to the issue concerning railway offences, regarding which my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, said that we were not talking about serious offences. The provision before us does not affect the treatment of serious offences; it is right and proper that their seriousness is marked by an appearance in court. It is important that that is understood, and that there is no suggestion that police officers will abuse the system if the option to issue a fixed penalty notice is introduced.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath effectively said that we are not trusting police officers to exercise properly their discretion to issue fixed penalty notices where it is appropriate to do so; he implied that we think that they will abuse the system by taking short cuts. We do not believe that. Giving police officers the right to issue fixed penalty notices where appropriate does not suggest that they will do so where it is inappropriate.
That leads me to the point made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey concerning the position of the Liberal Democrats. They do not trust the police with the discretion to judge the seriousness of offences and to decide whether they should be dealt with by a fixed penalty notice, even though the fixed penalty notice in no way takes away the rights of the defendant to challenge the issue by a trial, should he wish to do so. It is understandable that the Liberal Democrats will not allow certain offences to come within that category. However, concomitantly, they would deny the police the tools that the police themselves have asked for and that both the police and the Government believe would enable them to do their job better. Offences including low-level crime, disorder and nuisance and the type of offences set out in clause 1, which cause so many problems in my constituency and constituencies across the country, will be effectively dealt with by giving the police this further option. When it comes to deciding which party gives the police the tools to do the job and is prepared to trust the police to have discretion while maintaining the rights of the defendant to challenge, the hon. Gentleman's position will be well noted.
A fixed penalty notice is likely be served in circumstances which to date might have attracted a caution if a person had to be taken to a police station. Can the Minister explain the difference between the consequences of a fixed penalty notice and a caution? I understand that a caution is recorded, which means that a person then has a criminal record. There will be frequent occasions on which a policeman decides between giving a fixed penalty notice, which can be discharged with payment of money, or a permanent entry on someone's record. Is that the sort of decision that the police will be making?
The hon. Gentleman has got it right. The advantage of a caution is that it incurs no financial penalty. The defendant has accepted that he committed an offence, but the price for doing so is not marked—to use the term favoured by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire—as it is under a fixed penalty. Conversely, a caution can be referred to again later in limited circumstances. The other difference is that a caution involves the admission of guilt by a defendant at the police station. A fixed penalty notice does not require the admission of guilt. When a defendant contests his guilt, a police officer can issue a fixed penalty notice leaving the defendant a choice between challenging it and opting for a trial, or paying up under that notice. There are plusses and minuses in each case. A range of options is available to police officers to deal with the various offences.
I understand why the Minister wants to put his own spin on our position, but we are entitled to express it in our own words. In the exceptional circumstances of an individual not contesting the offence, we prefer the penalty to be decided by a court rather than by the police. Allowing the police to determine the penalty mixes responsibilities in the criminal justice system adversely and wrongly.
I accept that as a principled position, but the problem is that fixed penalties are ruled out on all occasions. As the hon. Gentleman conceded, fixed penalties are appropriate for some offences under clause 1, so the argument is inconsistent.
Some questions were raised about whether Britain is ready for fixed penalty notices. First, the police say that they are ready. Secondly, people who believe that we are not ready now will never be ready: for such people, there will never be enough consultation or enough time. However, we believe that it is time to get on with it.
International comparisons were made. Fixed penalty notices are used in a variety of ways in the United States and in Europe, but we must be cautious about translating experiences too readily from one jurisdiction to another because of the wide range of variables—different levels of fine, for example, as in Australia. We need to work out the right level of fine for tackling disorder problems in this country. The fact that one country tackled the problem successfully in one way does not necessarily mean that it would be effective in this country.
The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire, who is not present, asked about officers' training. Part V expressly deals with and makes extensive provision for the training of police officers. I hope that that part of the Bill will be uncontentious and will receive a warm welcome on both sides of the Committee. Proper training of police officers has to be in everyone's best interests. Guidance under clause 6 is specifically designed
``with a view to encouraging good practice in connection with the operation of provisions of this Chapter.''
The guidance is not general, but for a specific purpose. I hope that that deals with the issues raised by the right hon. and learned Gentleman.
Finally, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire asked what happens when a fixed penalty notice is not served—perhaps someone is impersonating another person, or the individual is simply not served with the notice—and a person finds himself summoned before the court and asked whether there is a proper defence to the subsequent claimed fine. There is—clause 4 states:
``This section applies if a penalty notice is given to a person (``A'') under section 2'' and then goes on to talk about the liability incurred by A—the person who has been served. Clearly if the person who comes before the court is not A, it follows that the liabilities—for example, the liability under clause 4(5) to pay one and a half times the fine if it is not paid within the fixed period—do not apply to that person, because he has not been served. If there is any doubt, I refer the Committee to clause 12(5), which allows the court to set aside a fine in the interests of justice. I hope that I have provided a complete answer.
The hon. Gentleman is in exactly the same position as if someone pretended to be Oliver Heald and was served with a parking ticket, or if someone was stopped for any other offence and gave the hon. Gentleman's name and he were summonsed as a result. The answer is that he simply has to prove that he is not the person to whom the police issued the penalty, in exactly the same way as in the other circumstances. Given that the hon. Gentleman's appearance is very distinctive, if I may say so, I would not have thought that in his case that is likely to be a matter of enormous controversy.
The debate that the Minister is having with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire prompts another thought in my mind. The Minister will be aware that there has been extensive concern and campaigns, not least in the Evening Standard, about how fixed penalties have been pursued through various London boroughs. Entirely innocent motorists have found it almost impossible to challenge them. Is not the Minister opening up a fresh can of worms for anybody who has been on the receiving end—as I and many other hon. Members have been—of such nonsense? When one goes to the parking adjudicator or the parking committee for London, they simply cannot reverse any fixed penalty because the Labour-run London boroughs are so inefficient that they will not talk to the parking commission.
I was waiting for the pejorative sting in the tail, and of course it came—rather galling, rather inaccurate, but rather predictable. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman simply does not appreciate the nature of the structure that is being erected. The cases will come before the magistrates court. To pursue the analogy, if the defendant is called and says, ``I am the true Oliver Heald. The person who was found drunk and disorderly on Chippenham High Street at 11 o'clock last Friday night cannot have been me; I was attending to my parliamentary duties in my constituency,'' I would expect the court to adjourn under clause 12(3) for the claim to be investigated. When it was proved conclusively that the hon. Gentleman was indeed attending to the affairs of his constituents, the confidence that we all have in magistrates courts—I know that the hon. Gentleman has repeatedly said how much he admires them, and I am sure that he would agree that they would investigate such an allegation with scrupulous care—would be justified by its being proved that, whoever it was the police served a notice on in Chippenham high street at 11 o'clock on Friday night, was not the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire; he would be able to walk away without a stain on his character and it would have been proved that the appeals system had worked perfectly well.
The final point that I wanted to answer was that raised by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath and the Justices' Clerks Society. It is of course true that as a result of the Narey reform introduced by the current Government, defendants are coming before the courts much faster than they ever did under the previous Government. Early first hearings are resulting in a number of offenders having their cases disposed of the day after the offence was committed. That is a good thing. Low-level public disorder offences—say, drunkenness—are entirely suitable for Narey-type hearings. Therefore, an individual can either be given a fixed penalty notice or be brought before the court the following day having sobered up in the cells overnight, but probably still be given a financial penalty. These are analogous cases.
If people charged with more serious offences were brought before the court the following day on an early directions hearing, fixed penalty notices would not be suitable. Therefore, while I understand the point made by the clerks that the courts are working so swiftly these days that many low-level disorder cases are processed through the courts very quickly. Where Narey hearings are working well, they are nearly as efficient and fast as the provision of a fixed penalty notice. That is a factor on which police officers will have to exercise discretion as to whether, on the facts of the individual case, there should be a fixed penalty notice.
I have attempted to respond to the various points that have been raised. I hope that I have explained why the system we propose is one of a range of options that the Government believe should be given to the police to enable them to deal with low-level disorder offences of the sort set out in clause 1, such as being drunk in a highway, other public place or licensed premises, a minor case of throwing stones at the railway—not the type of major incident referred to by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey—and low-level criminal damage. I hope that the clause, as drafted, commends itself to the Committee.
I thank the Minister for that response. He answered fully five of the questions asked by the Criminal Bar Association. However, I noticed that on many occasions he referred to future guidance under clause 6, and that is a matter of concern.
Given the views of Association of Chief Police Officers, we cannot support the clause while it includes criminal damage or while there are no safeguards in respect of paperwork for the police. As the Police Superintendents Association and the Police Federation have raised the matter, we need to be satisfied that there will be no extra paperwork involved. If the Minister can satisfy us in coming days on the remaining five matters raised by the Criminal Bar Association and on the issue of paperwork, on Report—assuming we win the Division—we will table a new clause that provides for fixed penalty notices in a way that reflects the views of ACPO, the Police Superintendents Association and the Police Federation.
Question put, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 6.
Before we move on to clause 2, it may be convenient for members of the Committee to be aware that if there is a Division on the Floor of the House I shall, as is customary, suspend the Committee for 15 minutes, and for another 15 minutes after the start of the second Division, should there be one.
I have agreed through the usual channels that the Committee will sit until 7.30 pm, not 7 pm, on the understanding that thereafter we shall not sit again tonight.