I beg to move amendment No. 20, in page 2, line 39, leave out `reason' and insert `reasonable grounds'.
The amendment would require that a constable should have reasonable grounds to believe, rather than reason to believe, that a person has committed a penalty offence. There are a number of possible states of mind that a constable might have in giving a fixed penalty notice, ranging from suspicion to certainty beyond reasonable doubt that an offence has been committed. Surely, it is right to pitch the terminology between those two extremes. Will the Minister justify his choice—namely, that an officer should have reason to believe rather than reasonable grounds to believe?
Liberty is worried about the fact that a penalty notice can be issued if an officer has reason to believe that a penalty offence has been committed. As it points out, that is less than the criminal standard. The effect of accepting a fixed penalty notice will be to accept that behaviour to a criminal standard has occurred, so Liberty believes that officers imposing the penalty notices should be required to be satisfied to the same standard. I do not accept that, but it is a reasonable point: simply to say that one has reason to believe something may not be quite enough. If a person who is issued with a notice goes to court to protest his or her innocence rather than pay the fine, the burden of proof will then be beyond reasonable doubt. One practical implication of that is that large numbers of people may challenge the notices, which, in Liberty's view, would place an administrative burden on the system.
The amendment would require the officer to have reasonable grounds for issuing a notice. It makes the distinction between having a reason and having a reason with grounds to it, and its effect would be to create an objective, rather than a subjective, test for police officers. Currently, a police officer has only to believe that someone is guilty rather than having to demonstrate why he came to that belief on the basis of objective evidence. The amendment would not necessarily make a huge difference in practice, but it would be beneficial in that an officer would have his mind focused on the possibility that his decision could be challenged in court at a later date, so he would make that decision in the way that we would all hope for.
If a group of people were drinking and being rowdy, it would be necessary for the police to ensure that each member of the group individually had been contributing to the disturbance and/or had been drinking. As we believe that the police are likely to use the FPN fairly liberally, we will need to ensure that they are issued as accurately as possible and that the magistrates courts are not clogged with people appealing their notices.
It concludes that if people do need to appeal, the police should be able to offer objective evidence to the effect that they believe that the notice should have been given, as is required with the breathalyser test.
As the hon. Gentleman has stated, the effect of the amendment would be to change the tests that the constable would have to apply before issuing a penalty notice. Instead of having reason to believe that an offence has been committed, he or she would have to have reasonable grounds to believe. The phrase ``having reason to believe'' is a test that is applied in the case of other fixed penalties such as those for road traffic. It is an appropriate test for schemes such as this that are based on consent, and has no impact on the fundamental rights of the individual—to go to court for example. If individuals receiving penalty notices do not believe that the grounds are reasonable, they may challenge the allegation in court.
We are not talking about a criminal standard as cited by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, as I think that he would acknowledge. The fixed penalty notice in no sense removes the right of individuals to go to court if they feel that the matter is not dealt with properly. In those circumstances, the type of test that applies in the case of other fixed penalties is appropriate. I hope that on the basis of my explanation, the hon. Gentleman will be prepared to withdraw his amendment.
I beg to move amendment No. 10, in page 2, line 39, leave out `18' and insert
`16 or over, or (in the case of a penalty offence which may only be committed by a person aged 18 or over) aged 18'.
The amendment would reduce the age at which a person could receive a notice to 16. Clearly, many of the offences about which we have been talking are often committed by those under 18. The Library estimated the figure as 25 per cent. of all offences, although for some offences that figure is as low as 10 per cent, and for others it is higher than 25 per cent.
Many of those who commit offences are in the 16-to-18-year age range. Many of those who responded to the consultation exercise undertaken by the Government supported the idea of including 16 to 18-year-olds. For example, Alcohol Concern supported the idea and the Association of Chief Police Officers was generally in agreement. The Association of Chief Officers of Probation said that one benefit might be to bring a child's behaviour to the notice of his or her parents, so there is an element of support there.
Why has the Minister decided not to choose 16 as the age at which a person can be served with a fixed penalty notice? I raise two other issues. First, if an officer is out dealing with an incident, there may be difficulties in differentiating 16 and 17-year-olds from 18 and 19-year-olds. It would be easier for the police if the age were set at 16. Secondly, different disposals could be used with the same group of youths in a way that might not be entirely fair. For example, if a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old were involved in an incident and the police decided to charge the one who was under 18 because he could not be given a fixed penalty notice, but the one who was over 18 was given a notice, it would be ridiculous. The older person would receive what most people would consider to be a lesser disposal than the younger one. Equally, if the police decided to caution the 17-year-old while serving a fixed penalty notice on the 18-year-old, the older boy might feel that that was unfair, because they had both been involved in the same incident.
I endorse my hon. Friend's argument. I know of a parallel case involving offences that related partly to motoring and partly to dishonesty that took place in my constituency in the past three months. The young defendant, because he was involved both in the dishonesty and was at the wheel of a motor car, was potentially at risk of a more serious penalty. The matter was ultimately dealt with under the new procedures on caution, but the issue nevertheless arose under the law as it stands. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to continuing problems under the proposals.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that. As he may recall, on Second Reading my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who is knowledgeable about such matters, referred to the difficulties involved in differentiation and the different disposals that might result. Will the Minister explain his decision and why he has ignored, or not taken on board, the views of such bodies?
The Minister might ask why we are suggesting 16, not 14. For the proposals in the Bill that relate to child curfew orders, he has chosen 16 as the cut-off point. The age of 16 is generally recognised as the end of practical childhood, especially in many social work and housing contexts. For various social reasons, 16 has a certain resonance as an age that defines the gap between a child and an adult, although 18 is the age of majority. I do not believe that our suggestion would present a particular problem, and making 16 the starting point for the orders would avoid difficulties.
I am looking forward to the debate. The Conservative spokesman has made a logical proposition given that the proposal for fixed penalty notices has, for the time being at least, been accepted in principle following the debate on clause 1.
The Government have proposed in the Bill a package of measures. The curfew system is to be expanded until the age of 16. As we shall hear later, people will be swept up by the curfew until they are 16, and will receive fixed penalty notices after they are 18. However, in discussing how best to deal with disorderly behaviour, people generally make the case that such behaviour often involves people between the ages of 16 and 18—aged either 16 or 17.
I do not know the Parliamentary Secretary and his constituency as well as I know the Minister of State, but I presume that he lives in the real world and realises that, although in theory people cannot buy alcohol until they are 18, they do, and that they drink, get drunk, become disorderly and do all the other wicked things on the Government's list. Given that fact, it seems logical to apply the same principle to people between 16 and 18 as applies to those over the age of 18.
My party takes the view that we should be straightforward about the matter and that people should be treated as adults from the age of 16. They should be able to vote at 16—they already pay tax. They can marry at 16, and we have just legislated that they can have same-sex relationships at that age. We propose that 16 should be the age, and that 18 should be the age at which people may stand for elected office if we want them to have a couple of years of being able to vote for people before they may stand. The logic is that people become adults at 16 and the criminal justice system should treat them as adults.
Herein lies the problem because, unless I am mistaken, the criminal justice system treats people as becoming adults at 17. That is the age at which a person goes from being a young offender to an adult offender and from being put away in a young offenders institution to being in an adult prison. In the Bill, we should at least try, even if only partially, to end the anomalies and differences. We should at least try to be consistent and take account of the age at which people are free from their parents' authority, and can therefore leave school, marry and, by definition, have their own household and be accepted on to local authority housing lists, along with all the other aspects of life that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire describes. It seems sensible to include 16-year-olds in provisions for adults under the criminal justice system.
The Government should be logical and set an age at which people move from being classed as young people under the criminal justice system to being adults. The age should be 16 years—school-leaving age—and we should treat young people of that age as adults not only under the Bill, but in all respects, as they are in many other walks of life.
I realise that people in other age groups are affected by the law—one cannot drive motor vehicles until one is 17 and one cannot drive heavy goods vehicles until one is older than that. I hope that the Government will explain their view about the age of majority and the age of adult criminal responsibility. Whether or not the Bill is enacted in the form that they want, I hope that its proposals will be consistent with other parts of the criminal justice system.
The Bill fails the reality test. We are discussing a proposal for fixed penalty notices to deal with widespread disorder. Those who are familiar with police activities will know that young males aged 16 and 17 account for a significant amount of disorderly behaviour—they are beginning to test their powers against authority and, historically, young men have behaved in that way. The Government are proposing to give the police more flexibility and extra weapons in the battle against low-level hooliganism and misbehaviour, which so disfigures much of our society. That is why the Prime Minister came up with his initial proposal about dealing with drunken hooligans.
It is extraordinary, however, that such a proposal does not involve the behaviour of 16 and 17-year-olds because it is missing a significant part of the target. We have only to consider the offences listed in the Bill to see whether they are likely to be committed by 16 or 17-year-olds. It refers to
``Throwing fireworks in a thoroughfare''.
If someone aged 18 years or over was discharging fireworks dangerously, that would be an extremely serious offence. If young kids were running around with bangers, it would be a different matter. However, for 16 or 17-year-olds—those on the cusp—who really should know better and have some awareness of the effect that that action would have on people, a fixed penalty notice would perhaps be the most effective weapon in the police's armour and one to which they would want to turn.
The Bill refers also to people who
``Knowingly giving a false alarm to a fire brigade''.
If an adult did that, it would be immensely serious. Surely it would result in a court summons. However, if a 16 or 17-year old acts in that way, the police are in the business of judging how aware such individuals are of the consequences of their action, and a fixed penalty notice would be appropriate in such circumstances.
I have read the list of offences, bearing in mind the judgments that must be made by the police officer, and each time I come back to the view that, if a 16 or 17-year-old were involved, we would make a different set of judgments about the sort of punishment that would be appropriate than we would if the person was over 18 and into full adulthood. We are trying to give the police the flexibility to deal with low-level misbehaviour, yet we are taking it away as regards the vast number of people to whom the measure will apply.
The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire both referred to the fact that a curfew order can be placed on someone up to the age of 16, but there will be a lacuna for 16 to 17-year-olds, who will not be tackled by the Bill. I suppose that there is a procedural difficulty in bringing 16 and 17-year-olds within the ambit of the law. I note that the Association of Chief Officers of Probation said that there may have to be ancillary powers to make the system work if parents are to be responsible for payments for children under the age of 18.
It also makes the point that, without proof of age, determining who is or is not over 18 could be difficult, especially if there are lesser penalties for the under-18s. By giving the police these powers, we are placing them in a position where they have to make difficult judgments about on-the-spot-penalties, particularly when faced with a group of young louts aged anywhere between 11 through to 20. We are taking away from the police the flexibility that is one of the arguments for this set of penalties.
Chief Inspector Coulson of the Bedfordshire police, believes that
``The lower age limit for receipt of a fixed penalty should be 18 years.''
He also makes the point that
``Police do have difficulty in dealing formally with persons under that age and without a change in legislation the practice would be doubtful at least.''
I suspect that is what the Minister will rely on, in replying to this debate. Chief Inspector Coulson goes on to say
``It may be unenforceable, depending upon the nature of the offence and the circumstances surrounding it. Again, this is a legal transaction and to involve minors there must be safeguards for both the offender and the police officer.''
He is talking about the target audience, and the Government should have been able to overcome this hurdle of dealing with 16 and 17-year-olds. Most of the offences on the face of the Bill will be committed in the main by young adults—usually male, often people who are repeat offenders or are falling into criminal ways and are already identified to the local police already as members of society with a poor record. Even those who are coming to the attention of the police for the first time are likely to be in 16 or 17-year-old age group. I have seen this situation with the Fulham division of the Metropolitan police. It is a pity to go to the trouble of implementing fixed penalty notices, only to eliminate half the target to which they will apply.
This is an entirely legitimate debate. There was a wide range of evidence from different bodies in the consultation process that we have had, as well as many views in Government on how we should address this issue. It is right that we debate it. Before I get into the detail, I would like to deal with a number of the points that were raised.
We should not be tempted too far down a debate on general issues—important and difficult though they are—such as when the age of majority comes. I remember when I was involved in the British Youth Council—more years ago than I care to mention—doing an analysis of what stage people took on different ages of majority. I do not think the attraction of simplicity is necessarily the right approach. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey mentioned an example, but I would be loth to say that, at 16, everyone should be able to drive a car on the public highway. I am doubtful about allowing people to buy drink in a pub under the age of 18. The age of 18 is established as the age of majority in a number of international environments, and also in domestic laws such as the Children Act 1989. I am not saying it is not a legitimate debate, but at the moment we have a structure of law—which may seem inconsistent as one travels from minority to majority, crossing different ages for different areas. I do not think it is the case to put a line in and say that it all happens at 16.
I am grateful to the Minister. I take his point that he is going to return to the matters raised by my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Hertfordshire and for Reigate. While I recognise that the Minister is right to say that there is no blanket age that covers everything—I accept his points about driving and about drink—and I do not agree with the arguments of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, he must recognise that the main force of our argument relates to the question of who commits these offences, and at what age.
I am not sure that I will give way to the hon. Gentleman again, as that is precisely the point that I was coming to. I will read from my notes on that point.
Public perception is that some of the offences listed in clause 1 are predominantly committed by under-18s. However, I want to place on the record that the figures show that, in 1999, in England and Wales, more proceedings were brought against over-18s than against under-18s for all the offences. That is not to refute the point made by the hon. Member for Reigate, to which I shall shortly return, that under-18s are a major issue—I just want to outline the statistical situation.
No, I will not. I will finish what I have to say and, if the hon. Gentleman does not feel that I have answered his points, I will give way to him before I finally sit down.
I shall come to the thrust of the argument in a second. First, there are two issues that arise wherever one draws the line. The first is that of identification of the individuals concerned, which is an issue whether the distinction to be made is between the ages of 15 and 16, of 18 and 19 or of 17 and 18. Wherever one draws the line, that problem arises. That situation is inevitable, but police officers deal with it every day. The police will be able to do all that they presently can to establish identity and age but, if in doubt, they will be able to take the individual to the police station to establish the truth. If the offender is under 18, they will be able to use reprimand and final warning system.
The second point that arises in the context of age limits is that of unfairness, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. I understand the point, but the problem arises wherever the dividing line falls—whether the limit is set at 16 or 18. The issues raised by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Reigate, about how the police deal with groups of young people, arise whatever the age difference. How to deal with groups is a matter where the best practice to which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department referred in the previous debate is very important. It could be difficult to deal with different people in the same group in different ways in particular circumstances. That argument does not specifically concern the age group that we are discussing, because the problem arises under all sorts of circumstances.
I want to make one final technical point before I deal with the substantial part of the argument. Some under-18s will probably be dependent on their parents to pay the penalty for them, which raises the prospect of juveniles having to respond to penalty notices on the basis of their parents' willingness, or otherwise, to pay, rather than from their own choice. If the parents pay, the direct intervention with the young person, which happens under the current system, is avoided. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire should know that that is the nub of why, after much discussion in Government, we came down on our chosen side of the debate. I would like to place the remarks of ACPO on the record, because they set out the position with admirable clarity. In answer to the question, ``What should be the lower age limit for the receipt of fixed penalties?'' ACPO states:
``There is much in favour of issuing fixed penalty notices to 16 and 17 year olds, and we are generally in agreement that this age group should be included in the fixed penalty notice system. However, careful consideration must be given to the relationship between fixed penalty notices and the fledgling reprimands/final warnings system, and to ensure the full involvement of Youth Offending Teams in dealing with all young offenders. Colleagues''— that means colleagues within ACPO—
``also expressed concern regarding the apparent lack of involvement of appropriate adults in the proposed fixed penalty notice process''— which is related to the observation that I just made about fines paid by parents—
``and queried liability for payment of fines for 16 and 17 year olds.''
That is the full response of ACPO on that point, and we have considered it carefully. The reforms to the youth justice system introduced in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, including the youth offending teams and the Youth Justice Board, are in place and are generally considered to be working well. After consideration, we decided that it was better not to destabilise that position, which is based on a strictly progressive system of reprimand, final warning and charge, in and in which there is a positive intervention by youth offending teams, to confront offenders with the consequences of their actions. Our concern was that adding financial penalties would weaken what we believe to be an increasingly effective youth justice scheme for 16 and 17-year-olds.
That is not to say that we regard it as an open and shut case; we thought about it at length, which is why I was at pains to tell the hon. Gentleman that his amendment was perfectly reasonable. On the balance of judgment, however, we concluded that we should continue to strengthen and improve the work that we are engaged in for that age group, through our youth offending teams and in other ways, and, most important, to confront young people with the consequences of their actions rather than to impose fixed penalty notices that might allow evasion—perhaps because parents pay them.
I am glad that the Minister said why the Government were considering interlinking the new final warning and reprimand system and the arrangements put forward in the Bill. He said that it is a sensible debate about a serious subject. In reaching their decision, the Government must have recognised that many serving officers—the police constables at the sharp end, who have to deal with the sort of incidents that my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate described so graphically described—would not necessarily agree. The Minister has told us about ACPO; what does he think are the views of the Police Federation, which represents officers at the sharp end?
I shall come to the Police Federation view when winding up. I shall make the more general point that, in my experience—the hon. Gentleman can say in a moment if he does not agree—that sharp-end police officers—an unattractive shorthand term—are increasingly seized of the value of the youth offending team and the sort of partnership approach that has been built up between the police, social services, youth services and so on. It is not correct that police officers at the sharp end would say, ``It's terrible; let's just hit him like this,'' and take no account of the views of ACPO.
I do not have the full Police Federation evidence before me, but the summary shows that it raised a number of questions about the difficulty that a police officer might face when trying to decide how severe an offence was—that is, whether it merited a fixed penalty notice—but it did not have a considered view on whether 16 and 17-year-olds should be included. However, as a result of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the modern police office is increasingly working in partnership and would understand the force of our arguments. That said, I do not regard it as open and shut argument. We have come to a view, which we shall carry through, but I do not malign the integrity of those who argue the other side of the case. It is a reasonable case to put, but I believe that my arguments carry weight.
The Minister accepts that we are debating a serious issue. Will he at least keep an open mind? If the Opposition provide further evidence to suggest that the Government should think again, will he at least keep open the slight possibility that they may be persuaded to come back with their own version of our amendments on Report?
We will keep an open mind, but I do not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman. The Government's firm view, after much consideration, is the one that I have set out today. We would need a great deal of persuasion that we had not chosen the right course. As I said earlier, it is not as if a great issue of principle is at stake; it is a question of doing what is most effective when dealing with that age group. We believe that it is best to intervene directly, and that can be done under the youth offending team structure set up by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. It is not simply a question of dealing with the expensive hangovers that might afflict the Wooster types on boat race night, which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey talked about.
I am grateful to the Minister for his understanding of the proper debate. If the Government hold to that view on the youth offenders team system—which is one that we support—does it not follow that the difference in penal treatment should apply at 18 and not 17? Should not those under 18 be kept in young offenders institutions?
I will not be drawn into more general arguments about the youth offenders system. When we came to office in 1997, we felt strongly that the system of youth justice was not as it should be and needed major reform. For that reason, we made important policy commitments in the area and established the regime that we have.
I concede that the kind of approach that we have talked about in relation to young offenders may have important lessons for the future as we go up the age range. Certainly, that must be the case if redemption is to be a possibility in the criminal justice system. The reason that we have decided that young people should be the priority—and the hon. Gentleman will be familiar with it—is that that is where the problem is greatest and where early intervention is most important to prevent the development of offending habits.
Some exceptions already exist, such as the fixed penalty notice scheme for motoring offences, which will apply to 17-year-olds. That remains outside the scheme of reprimands and final warnings and young offenders teams. The Minister tells us that the guidance will state that only the minor examples should be served with a fixed penalty notice. Should those not constitute a different category of offence from the serious examples that should lead to more serious considerations? Or is he saying the opposite? In the latter case, can we have the guidance?
We will do our best to ensure that the Committee has the draft guidance before it rises. That is our intention.
To conclude, I will tell a story. A young man in my constituency, who lives about two streets from me, two Fridays ago, at the age of 17, got drunk celebrating his birthday. He was refused admission to a nightclub because he was so drunk, and a taxi driver refused to pick him up. He disappeared and has not been found. He was at the same school as my son. In our neighbourhood, his disappearance is the biggest issue: all the families think all the time about what has happened to him. Many think that he fell into the river, but nobody knows. His disappearance is traumatising the city of Norwich.
Suppose that event had not happened, but the boy had committed the type of offence that we are talking about, and suppose the system had worked in a much better way. I am glad to report that the clubs are now dealing with such situations in a much better way. They have learned lessons from that awful tragedy. Would it be better to have a form of intervention that said to the boy, ``You shouldn't behave like that in the future. These will be the consequences if you do''? Alternatively, would it be better for a fixed penalty notice to be slapped on him, which his parents might pay?
The intervention is the key thing. It is a question of saying to the individual, ``This is how you behave or don't behave.'' I accept that there is weight in the hon. Gentleman's point, and I am not trying in what I have said to dismiss what he is saying. I do not regard it as a trivial or trite or party political point. However, we have built our reforms of the youth justice system on the proposition of telling young people that they must not behave in certain ways. The fixed penalty offences set out in clause 1 are precisely the offences where intervention has the greatest chance of making a difference. There are comparisons with the driving offences, but they are not strong. That is why I stick to our position, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider withdrawing the amendment, well meant though it is.
I accept that it would be right to give the matter further thought, but I have some doubts about the Minister's reply. If the police are dealing with two youngsters, one over 18 and one just under 18, it is difficult for them to act fairly or even to identify the age difference correctly. That is a practical problem.
We all recognise that minor offences can be dealt with by fixed penalty notices, as happens with motoring. Although I agree that there is clearly a need for intervention when a young person goes badly off the rails, I cannot help thinking of all the children of prominent people who have been found drunk or have committed some minor indiscretion. The idea that each of them needs to be brought before a young offenders team and given the full treatment is wrong.
At what level will fixed penalty notices be issued? Will they be used for the most minor matters, which most of us say do not require a great deal of intervention, or will they be pitched at a higher level, in which case more serious offences will be undervalued? Although the Minister is annoyed by the fact that I keep asking to see the draft guidance, it is fair to do so, given that he has said that matters of discretion arising from the Bill will be decided by officers on the basis of that guidance. It is also fair to say that we do not know how he will pitch the level of fixed penalties. Our view on them would depend on whether he pitched them at a high or low level. We need to see the information on the order under clause 3, or at least to know what he has in mind.
Although I do not promise that it will not return on Report, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 12, in clause 3, page 3, line 16, at end insert—
No. 13, in clause 3, page 3, line 24, after `penalty', insert
`and, as the case may be, compensation'.
I am afraid that it is me again. The amendments would enable the Secretary of State to set a level of compensation that could be awarded to the victim in addition to the fixed penalty. My preferred option is not to have criminal damage in clause 1(1). The Minister knows that we feel strongly about that, because we argued about it a good deal. The fact that we voted against clause 1 standing part of the Bill was substantially for that reason: I do not think that victims should be deprived of compensation rights in such circumstances.
Fixed penalty notices will be used in cases involving damage of a low value, typically under £200. Victims will not want to go to civil courts to recover such damage, as the cost in terms of time would outweigh the advantage. For those victims, the awarding of compensation on conviction is simple and straightforward. They can rely on it. They may have to wait a little to receive their money, for the reasons that the Parliamentary Secretary gave, but the compensation will still be there and paid first.
I do not want to hark back to my personal experience all the time, but I have worked on many criminal cases, and compensation claims are always considered important by the CPS and the prosecution. When one takes part in a case in court, the prosecution brief always reminds one not to forget about the compensation claim. It would be wrong for us to trample down that state of affairs because we are introducing a new system. A fixed, perhaps low, level of compensation might be necessary. I can see that the fixed penalty would—obviously—be fixed, but at least a constable could decide, when the amount was higher than specified in the regulations, that it would be necessary to charge the person concerned, because compensation would be unacceptable. In some instances, the damage to the property would come to slightly less than the amount fixed. Perhaps the order could provide for some element of recompense for the distress caused by the offence.
A simple system is necessary. It might be possible to find a way to provide compensation through the fixed penalty notice system. If that is not possible, I still argue that it is wrong to deny compensation to victims of criminal damage simply because an officer exercises his discretion to opt for a fixed penalty notice. I shall take a lot of persuading that I am wrong about that. All too often, victims have not been given the consideration that they deserve. Criminal damage is a nasty, mean offence and we should not deprive its victims of compensation.
I imagine that the Minister will tell me that the amendments are technically defective. We did our best. If he can come up with a way of dealing with the thorny problem that we have identified, we shall be happy to think about that.
I am sympathetic to the amendment. The technicalities can be dealt with later, but compensation is important. I think that the Government agree that a system of justice should allow the person who commits an offence to repay something to the person against whom it was committed. That direct link between the person whose property was damaged and the offender is appropriate.
The Minister knows my view about the system and will remember that in response to the Government's first list of offences to be covered by fixed penalty notices I said that in cases of significant criminal damage, in which the culprit could be identified, a fixed penalty notice system was appropriate, because of the lesser risk of misidentification and so on. It follows that if criminal damage is included in the system, a compensation option should be established. We should not foreclose compensation if the police choose to take the fixed penalty option. I maintain my reservations about the system as a whole.
I endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey.
Even under the Minister's much vaunted new scheme involving reprimands and final warnings, the most important aspect of the matter for the victim is the compensation payment. A case of criminal damage occurred recently in my constituency. I note that the victim of the tragedy that happened in the Minister's constituency lived near to him, and in this case also the victim of the offence lived quite close to my home. The most important aspect of the matter is relevant to the reprimand and final warning case. The prosecution agreed that such a disposal was appropriate only because compensation was being paid. That was part and parcel of the Government's new system.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire that we shall need a lot of persuading that it is right for compensation to be lost from the procedure for dealing with criminal damage. From my recent experience—including one or two matters that I have taken on a pro bono basis—and from discussions with Victim Support, which other Members may also have had, I know that the main thing that many people want to know, especially in cases involving criminal damage, is whether they will be compensated in full. I hope that the Minister will be as helpful as he was on the previous amendment, and say that he still has an open mind. If victims are important and Victim Support is an important organisation, which I suspect is common ground in the Committee, the compensation element must be retained.
I have considerable sympathy with the views expressed by the hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and for North-East Hertfordshire. It would be a mistake if people who, under normal circumstances, were entitled to criminal compensation found themselves deprived. The amendments are defective and hold some dangers. They would further extend the powers of the police—a matter that caused concern earlier. We would be asking them not only to impose a fixed penalty but to determine compensation. That would be both difficult and impractical, given that the fixed penalty would most likely be administered shortly after the offence. In addition, it may be necessary to assess the extent of the damages, so the actual cost of the damage could not be known at the time.
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the issues raised to see whether there is another mechanism by which we can ensure that the victims do not lose the right to compensation, which would be an unintended consequence of the clause.
The amendments would make compensation payable to victims of criminal damage through penalty notices. I will not dwell on the technical issues.
The most effective way to ensure that victims of criminal damage have the ability to gain compensation is by the assurances that I have given, which I hope satisfy the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. I would have given those assurances whether or not the amendment—which is perfectly well-meaning—had been moved. The guidance that we publish for the consideration of the Committee will state that where a person can be identified as a victim, no penalty notice should be issued. If somebody can be clearly identified as the victim of the act, a fixed penalty notice will not be used. Following on from that, penalty notices should be reserved for cases in which the victims are unknown or are corporate bodies unlikely to seek compensation in minor cases. I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that that is at least as a good a way of achieving his purpose as the amendment.
Corporate victims or public authorities that wish to discuss the implications of the scheme in relation to damage to their property—for example, if the local authority wants to deal with a problem with rubbish bins—will find that the crime and disorder partnerships will provide an excellent forum for local discussions. That is the most effective way of dealing with the situation.
Particular aspects of the amendments would ask a great deal of the police officer dealing with such a case for the reasons set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe). If they were given the duty of setting the compensation, it is possible that the police officers could be laid open to the risk of false allegations of corruption. Additional bureaucracy would result from the need to record victims' names and compensation amounts. If there were disputes, there would be a good deal of disagreement and difficult.
The setting of compensation is properly a matter for the courts. The guidance—I give the assurance again—will ensure that fixed penalty notices are not used in cases when there is an identifiable victim, but only in cases when victims are unknown or when they are corporate bodies unlikely to seek compensation in minor cases.
I hope that my assurances are satisfactory and that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.
The Minister has gone a long way to meeting our worries on compensation, although we shall want to see the draft guidance when it is ready. His assurances are welcome. It is something of a triumph for the Opposition to have got this far—although we always want to go further, so he must not be too confident. We may want to return to the matter on Report if we are not happy with the guidance. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Seven o'clock till Tuesday 13 February at half-past Ten o'clock.