Clause 4 deals with the accused person's request to be tried for the alleged offence and how he may make such a request. Under subsection (3), such a request must be made by a notice given by the accused person in the manner specified in the penalty notice and before the end of the period of suspended enforcement, which is dealt with in clause 5.
What form does the Minister expect the request to be tried to take? Might the fixed penalty notice have a tear-off slip that the accused could send, or does the Minister have another idea for dealing with the practicalities involved? The clause specifies
``in the manner specified in the penalty notice'', but it would help to know the Minister's thinking on the matter, especially as the notice may be given to people who are drunk or vulnerable. We want to know what will happen given such problems and in the case of people with disabilities.
The document that I am waving in my hand is the Metropolitan police service fixed penalty notice for a non-endorsable offence, which is already widely available. With courtesy to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), it is not a special document. It is simply an illustration of the sort of document one may have. Because my officials are acutely prepared for every eventuality, they have everything to hand that the Committee may possibly need.
I said earlier that I served on the Committee that considered the Armed Forces Discipline Bill. That Bill introduced an appeals procedure for people who were dealt with under summary discipline in the armed services. Previously, service men agreed to accept the penalty imposed by their commanding officer whatever it was, without appeal. The Bill, because of the Human Rights Act, instituted an appeals procedure for those summary procedures. One effect was that service men were not allowed to be exposed to a higher penalty on appeal than that awarded by their commanding officer. If the commanding officer awarded someone 14 days' detention and that award was appealed, on appeal that award could not be increased by the summary appeals court.
I fear that there is a parallel. It was explained to us in Committee that the Ministry of Defence was receiving advice that, under the Human Rights Act, the fact of an appeal could not expose someone to a higher penalty. That is the effect of the clause. If someone is awarded a fixed penalty notice, he will have 21 days, under clause 5, to consider whether to accept the penalty and to discharge his obligation, or to opt for trial. There may be a parallel between the advice given to the Ministry of Defence on human rights legislation and the right for individuals to choose whether to go to trial, which might be seen as an appeal against the fixed penalty notice. I do not know the answer. I simply saw the parallel and invite the Minister to put my mind at rest if it is not appropriate.
I shall start where the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) left off. As far as I can read it, I do not think that he is drawing an exact parallel because the system of which he reminds us is an appeals system from an internal disciplinary procedure to a recognised court procedure. However, there is an issue that I thought he was going to raise in relation to the Human Rights Act: self-incrimination. The Minister should at least tell us how he has addressed and answered that point. If by inactivity someone lands himself with the obligation to pay a fixed penalty notice, not having taken the active step of asking for trial, his inactivity renders him liable to penalty, although not an offence. Under the Human Rights Act, someone may argue that, because it is only a penalty, not a criminal offence, the self-incrimination issues that arose in both a Scottish case and a Birmingham Crown court case did not apply. However, will the Minister explain what the effect is of the two-tier system in the context of the Human Rights Act—an issue similar to the one raised by the hon. Gentleman?
I will raise one wider issue and one smaller issue. Have Ministers addressed at all the wider issue—the fact that the system should work in reverse? If an individual is stopped for one of these offences, he should effectively be given a charge sheet on the spot. However, if he then wanted to take the option effectively to buy himself out of the process, he would have 21 days to ``redeem'' the prospect of a criminal charge. That is a much fairer system, because by definition everyone is kept within the criminal justice system and all rights are open to defence and prosecutor. The individual would still, for example, retain the right to present his financial circumstances. He would have the chance of taking the risk, although it is a certain risk, of deciding to pay his way out of the offence, because he may decide that he is guilty or likely to be found guilty, and would prefer the offence to be disposed of in a non-criminal way.
I put seriously the proposition that in relation to all these matters that are not related to street trading, driving or cycling offences, it would be a fairer and more equitable system to have a charge sheet and obligation to report to the police station within 21 days. The documentation could be simple, and the whole process could be effected straightforwardly. If the individual failed to act, the normal process of law would follow. It could have the disadvantage that more people would choose to go to court rather than to take the summary disposal route. However, there is no danger that the person who cannot read, has learning difficulties, does not understand, does not speak English, or is elderly, cannot manage the system, irrespective of the police officer's belief that they can handle all that.
I give an historical example of the sort of person who would not have been prejudiced by the proposed system. Derek Bentley lived in the constituency that I now represent, before he moved to Croydon. He was, as we all know, convicted and hanged for an offence for which in the end he was pardoned. Of course, that was a very serious offence. He was, in the old parlance, ``a very simple bloke''. He was not of full intelligence. One of the reasons for which it is thought that he was convicted, apart from Lord Chief Justice Goddard and other matters, was his inability to explain his predicament. Historically, there are many people like that.
No, I certainly am not. I am sure that the Minister will be aware that I am not arguing that. There are many cases. In the Hanratty case, we discovered that there had been wrongful convictions. Of course, the criminal justice system is not perfect, but I would rather that there was a trial of my guilt than a finding of an offence without trial. I would always opt for trial. That may be a difference between the Minister and me. The Minister is suspicious of lawyers and courts. I would rather that my case went into a criminal justice system properly than went round the edge. The serious question is whether Ministers have thought about the alternative process, and if not, why not. I would rather that they were honest about that. If they have not thought about the alternative process, could they undertake to commission some research to look at the alternative benefits and disbenefits of that sort of system? I endorse and repeat the request by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire to know how the procedure will work, which is also covered by the clause as it was by clause 3. I, no doubt like many other people, have been the recipient of fixed penalty notices for motor vehicle parking offences. I concede that on some occasions I did not think that I was rightfully given a notice, because the meter did not work, or some other process, and I completely forgot about it, and time passed and the 21 days ticked over and I then found myself in the other system, and I got 50 per cent. added on and all the other things that happen.
It is important that people are given clear and accurate information and, if one is requesting a trial, that it is given in a way that is clear, in large print, with advice to take legal advice and the rest.
I do not remember ever seeing in any Bill the drafting as in this clause, where we end up with someone called A or B or C or D. I may be wrong about this. This strikes me as an innovation. The question is, is it an innovation? If so, it is a bad innovation. If it is not, where are the precedents for it happening before? Even if it is not an innovation, please may we have the Bill re-drafted, so that we do not have such drafting?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because he has anticipated the point that I was also going to make. I was going to ask the Minister precisely the same question, because it also seemed to the Opposition that this drafting is an innovation. If it is an innovation, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that whether it is or not, it is a bad thing, would he recognise, as I do, that it reads very much like a legal textbook and that in itself is not a helpful way in which statute law should be drafted?
I agree with all those things, and it starts to become nonsense. It is a bit like Gilbert and Sullivan, although I cannot remember in which operetta there was an A and a B and so on. If we have got an A here, do I presume that, later in the Bill, there are characters called B and C? It is just nonsense, and we need to get rid of it. Bills are meant to be written in good English, not substitutes for good English, and this is neither English nor good English. It is not coherent and does not read entirely appropriately, and I hope we can have a drafting amendment from the Minister on Report to clear up all this sort of nonsense in legislation like this.
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, my Member of Parliament, and to find that he has the same parking problems that I had when I resided in his constituency. I should like to raise three important points. The first—I concur with the dislike of the way in which this clause is drafted—is time scale. Subsection (2) says that if A asks to be tried for the alleged offence, proceedings may be brought against him. It may be that some other Act is brought in to bear on this, but could the Minister clarify how long the prosecuting authority, whoever it may be, has to institute those proceedings? In other words, how long does citizen A have to wait before he or she knows that they are in the clear, having written in to request to be tried?
The second question refers to the manner in which people are expected to write in and request to be tried. It says in subsection (3) (a) that it is the manner specified in the penalty notice, but this is important, because the effect of this missive, this request, is to impinge on the mind of the person who is going to take the prosecuting decision. That is quite likely to affect the decision whether or not to prosecute. If, for example, the piece of paper is simply a tear-off slip which says ``I request to be tried'' and suggests that one signs there, then that will give the prosecuting authority absolutely no information as to whether it is a good idea to try the case or not over and above the statement pursuant to clause 3 giving reasonable information about the offence. However, if a substantial piece of paper is attached with, for example, the opportunity to write 15 or 20 lines of explanation, that could be helpful to the prosecuting authority. I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on that, if the matter has been thought of.
That raises the third question: who will take the decision in the case and to what extent will the Crown Prosecution Service be involved? If a prosecution came to court, and one would expect it to do so, as a notice has been issued and a request to be tried sent, I would expect the case to be prosecuted by a member of the CPS, who would have applied his or her independent judgment to whether it was right to prosecute. At what stage will that happen? Will the constable who issued the notice decide whether to take further steps under succeeding clauses to put in place a trial—by giving a warning notice pursuant to clause 7—or will it be an inspector of police or someone else? I should be grateful to the Minister if he would help us on those points.
I wanted to expand on one of the aspects raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and I am glad that his concern and mine is shared by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell). Since the court's ruling in Pepper v. Hart, the proceedings in the main Chamber or in Committee can be referred to in court when one is looking to the courts to clarify the intention behind a statute. The point about the inelegant and apparently novel drafting is that the figure of A is not only referred to in the clause but crops up again in clause 7. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, this novel figure should immediately be abandoned. If we start talking about A and B, it will not be long before we get to X, and X marks the spot. As a Committee, we should give the black spot to this novelty, which will not help anybody and is inconsistent with the way in which statute law is normally drafted. Moreover, anything that makes a statute look like a first-year law student's textbook is a bad example.
I also want to refer to the tear-off slip debate. The Government may be storing up trouble for themselves of the kind that I mentioned earlier in relation to the way in which local authorities have not used fixed penalty notices properly. As I have said, the Evening Standard has run a substantial campaign, of which I am in favour, to support motorists who have been unable to challenge fixed penalty notices issued by various incompetent and appallingly badly run Labour-controlled London boroughs. The Evening Standard rightly highlighted the fact that, even though there is a parking adjudicator for London, all the cases were transferred en bloc to a court outside London—in this case Northampton. Law-abiding motorists who could prove that their vehicle was not in the place where it was alleged to have been and who were unable to challenge the parking ticket, had to go to Northampton to appeal and those who had busy jobs or limited means found it almost impossible to get there. I hope that the Minister will deal with that matter. Will the Government give an undertaking that when the Bill becomes law, if it does, the fixed penalty tickets will not be transferred en bloc to a court far away from the place where the offences took place? We shall want to see that safeguard in the guidance.
No, of course I am not. To judge by that intervention, the Minister is, to my surprise, unaware of the substantial campaign that has been waged over many months, involving a huge number of examples of the problems that have arisen throughout London. I have some experience of the problems faced by the parking adjudicator for London, who said, ``I cannot deal with some of the London boroughs, because even though I have certain powers as parking adjudicator, the boroughs never respond to my requests for them to look at matters.'' This is a complete nonsense, and the Evening Standard has performed a considerable public service by highlighting the problems. Given that the Government are talking about extending fixed penalties—in the context of this clause, we are talking about tear-off slips—they must be able to ensure certain safeguards. If problems that are particularly prevalent in London spread nationwide—
The hon. Gentleman talks a lot about parking and parking offences, but, as I understand it, the offences for which fixed penalty notices will be issued relate to disorderly behaviour. I cannot see the relevance of concentrating on parking.
What I am saying is that, given that the Government are talking about their own fixed penalty scheme, I want the Minister to confirm that the problems associated with fixed penalties for parking in London will not arise in respect of this provision. If the Minister can produce guidance or give a firm undertaking that a raft of cases will not be transferred to extremely inconvenient courts when appealed, we will be happy. I hope that he can give some reassurance in that regard.
First, I want briefly to reprise the previous debate, so that I can answer the point that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey made about fining, which is subject to the negative procedure. Under section 143(6) of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980, when fines are revalued they are subject to the negative procedure to which the Committee agreed in respect of the process that we have just discussed.
With the help of my colleagues, I brandished the form that is in my hand because it is of a type that one can imagine being used. We are discussing the precise nature of the form, and it may well be that the tear-off strip is the right approach to adopt. It is important to emphasise the distinction between the cases to which the hon. Member for Reigate referred. His comments on the armed forces were interesting, but the fact remains that choosing to go to court—a choice open to anyone in the situation that we are discussing—does not constitute an appeal process. The court can impose any fine within the maximum that appears appropriate, but it is not an appeal process akin to that which he described.
I should be grateful if the Minister would seek further advice on this matter. Of course, the military discipline procedure as administered by the chain of command is not seen as proof against human rights legislation. That is one reason why the Government have said that there must be a procedure of appeal to a summary appeals court. That seems fair enough in itself, but my concern is whether, in the light of further advice, this procedure—which is a non-legal procedure in terms of human rights legislation—could expose the person in question to a higher penalty at appeal. Such advice would appear to have originated in the light of appearance in front of a compliant court. I simply wonder whether a higher penalty and exercising one's right to trial might create problems in terms of the Human Rights Act.
The hon. Gentleman made his point in the spirit of constructive inquiry. I intended to refer to the Human Rights Act point that he raised in general terms. The Home Secretary has signed a certificate saying that the Bill complies with the Act. That was not a lightly considered act on his part; he signed it after receiving full advice about the various points that were made to him. I have not yet referred to that in this Committee, but I have done so in other Committees on which I have served. We believe that there is adequate flexibility and judicial safeguards in the Bill to ensure fairness and compliance with the Act.
Even if people do not pay the fixed penalty notice or request trial, they can argue any specific reasons why they should have a trial, when they are called before the fine enforcement court, which can set aside the fine in the interests of justice. That flexible approach deals with the considerations of the Human Rights Act.
The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire made several points. The times, processes and so on that are established if individuals decide that they will go to trial on the penalties rather than pay the fixed penalty notices are not affected by the Bill. The normal time scales apply; for example, allowing six months from the issue of the fixed penalty notice, which is the same as the date of the offence, is the standard process in law and not affected by the new measures. The decisions taken by the Crown Prosecution Service will be taken in exactly the same way as they are taken now, on the basis of whether it is in the public interest to proceed with the prosecution. The process that he described as regards the time scale, the manner of the request, the prosecution and the length of time allowed to initiate proceedings will not be affected if an individual chooses trial. The legislation deals only with the circumstances in which the fixed penalty notice is chosen.
I understood the Minister to say that, if people say that they want to be tried and fill in a slip to that effect, they have to wait six months before they find out whether they are in the clear. That seems a long time—but no doubt the Minister will answer that point more fully in a moment.
The Minister said that nothing would change as regards the Crown Prosecution Service. I would anticipate that the decision to prosecute would in the first place be taken by a police officer, and that a member of the service would review the matter when it was about to be listed for court. What opportunity will the citizen have to write something that might impinge on the person deciding whether to prosecute—whoever that person is—and on the view of the Crown prosecutor in due course?
First, the six months period to which I referred is the maximum period, not the desired period. That situation is not changed by this legislation. The right hon. and learned Gentleman may think that that period should be shorter—an argument for which there is a good case. I am glad to tell him that the Labour Government's approaches to speeding up the criminal justice system will help us to make progress in those areas.
The process involving the police and the CPS will be exactly the same after the Bill is enacted—if indeed it is—in relation to the individual who chooses trial for any of the offences listed in clause 1. The situation will be identical. The legislation simply allows the police to consider the option of the fixed penalty notice if it seems appropriate, in addition to using the normal process.
I am not sure that the Minister is right in saying that the situation is exactly the same. In a normal case in which a person is arrested and subsequently summonsed, the matter will be considered before the summons is issued. In this case, the constable, either in the police station or on the street, will have initiated the matter already, before it is referred for immediate reconsideration to the citizen who said that he wished to be tried. Will the Minister enlighten me by telling me what the normal situation is to which he referred? Who will consider the request to be tried and decide whether to press for a prosecution or let sleeping dogs lie?
I beg his pardon. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was Attorney-General and Solicitor-General. He has a great deal more experience than I have of the precise operation of the process in each of these circumstances. I am arguing, incontrovertibly, that the process in relation to time, manner of serving, decision to prosecute and so on, is not affected by the Bill in the event that the individual decides to go to trial. I know that he is challenging that interpretation, but that is my view. That is where I stand.
The difference is that, if a person is arrested, he will be given an opportunity, in the police station, to make a statement. That would be wise if he regards himself as innocent, unless it is a tricky matter needing a solicitor. The statement would therefore be considered before prosecution. In this case, he may or may not be given an opportunity to make a statement—the Minister has not yet answered that—but who will look at the statement and decide whether to press ahead with proceedings if the person has requested to be tried? The Minister is flattering me, but I think that it is because he does not know the answer. If I did know it, I have forgotten it.
I was not flattering the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He is a lawyer of great seniority and distinction. I will argue with his politics but not with his seniority and distinction as a lawyer. The point that I am obviously failing to convey—it is not because I do not understand it, although I am the first to admit to him and other lawyers that I do not fully understand many other aspects of the law—is that the process that he describes, of a decision to prosecute an individual who decides to go to court in such a circumstance, will be the same after the Bill is enacted as before. I will reflect for a moment or two on his comments to consider whether I can add anything further during my remarks.
The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey asked whether we had considered approaching the matter from the other way round. The answer is yes, but to be honest—he asked me to be honest—we did not consider it at great length. We have argued from the outset that the purpose of the legislation was to give the police an extra option in relation to this kind of offence in the form of the fixed penalty notice, in the type of circumstances that we have discussed. I know that the hon. Gentleman disagrees—he has been clear and straightforward about that.
As far as A and B are concerned—when I did arithmetic at school A and B were always filling up baths and tanks, and we had to work out what A doing it at such a speed, and B doing it at such a speed, meant for C—the use of the form A or B is not an innovation. It has been used in several pieces of legislation in recent years, including, I am advised, the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000. That is a matter for parliamentary counsel. Such symbols, in the Government's view, can greatly improve the clarity of legislation and avoid over-lengthy and convoluted paragraphs. I have been given an illustration that relates to the speech by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath or the Criminal Bar Association, whichever or whoever was speaking.
The Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 includes the phrase,
``references in this section to the recipient are to the person to whom the notice was given''.
It may be that the terminology of A, B or whatever is simpler to deal with. The use of A or B is no different from the type of description that people use in everyday speech, and makes legislation more accessible. For a barrister, the suggestion that it is like a legal textbook is the ultimate insult. For the lay person trying to understand the law, the secret garden that barristers and lawyers seek to inhabit, which prevents the rest of us understanding what is going on, is something that legislators should try to make a bit clearer. Whether the use of A, B and C succeeds in that goal is a matter of taste. However, that is its purpose, which is something that the Committee should in general support.
I am not sure that the Minister is able to impose conditions.
I want to intervene on the Minister regarding what he was saying about A and B. Although he says that it is a matter of taste, would he be prepared—in the light of the united opposition from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire, a former Attorney-General, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, and myself and my hon. Friends—to reflect on the matter further, given that we all think that it is a bad innovation, even if it started off in the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000? One can see a reason in relation to family law matters, where individual parties in cases are anonymised in the law, for using alphabetical symbols. However, in this field of law it is less helpful. As all on the Opposition Benches, from our respective legal practices, are unanimous in feeling that it would be unhelpful and confusing, particularly when A is used twice within four clauses, will the Minister undertake to reflect further with officials?
My general working hypothesis is that if a load of barristers are against something, then the rest of public should be in favour of it. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, who is not in place just at this moment, is an outstanding example of a lawyer who has turned on to the path of justice. I am not sure why the hon. Member for Reigate is laughing at my sincere accolade to my hon. Friend.
The question of clear language is an important issue for legislators. My prejudices are in favour of the kind of process that we have got here. I agree with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, and perhaps through you, Mr. Hood, this could be passed on, that the relevant offices of the House could think how language is used. I would argue for simplification, for plain English. Something that frustrates me even now—as a relatively experienced Member dealing with complex legislation, such as the Terrorism Act 2000, and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000—is how inaccessible our legislation is to the ordinary citizen. That is a weakness of our legislating process and anything that we can do to improve it would be a good thing.
I have spotted another point that the Minister can no doubt clarify quickly. Subsection (5) states:
``If, by the end of the suspended enforcement period...
(b) ``A has not made a request to be tried''.
Could the Minister state categorically what constitutes the making of a request to be tried? Is it filling in the form, posting the form, or delivering the form to someone? When precisely is that request to be tried deemed to have been made?
That is set out in clause 4(3), in the manner specified on the penalty notice. As I said in answer to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire's first question, we were considering the tear-off slip as a possible means of doing that. but there could be other means of doing it. It is a matter that we specified in universal, which will fulfil the criteria that he sets out.