Clause 2 - Penalty notices

Part of Criminal Justice and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:45 pm on 6th February 2001.

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Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate 6:45 pm, 6th February 2001

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.