I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 4, line 9, leave out `21 days' and insert `one month'.
The amendment is the only one selected in relation to clause 5. That is the clause that deals the period between the fixed penalty notice being given to someone, and the period within which they can invoke the process of going to trial—after which the system will act against them because nothing has happened if they have not paid the money.
The amendment would extend to 28 days the period of 21 days that was set out under the Bill. I tabled the amendment, first, because 21 days is too short a period; secondly, because people do not think in periods of three weeks; and thirdly, because such a period is far more likely to catch people who did not intend to be caught and, fourthly, because I question whether the matter is not something that should be dealt with by secondary legislation rather than under the Bill.
I sense that the general precedent may reflect that time limit in the Bill. I have not done a trawl, but that probably is the case. Again, it would be helpful to know details of the precedent. I am conscious that my proposal raises the question whether a month is 28 days or a calendar month. I am clear in my mind, from personal experience as the recipient of fixed penalty notices as well as for other reasons, that people are far more likely to remember that time is running out if a month passes and they are in a different month. If a person were issued with a parking ticket in February, a trigger mechanism would come into play and he would remember by the end of March that he must do something it. The person would not remember the date or even the day of the week, but he is likely to remember roughly when it was.
If the period were extended to the end of the month after the issue of the notice, that would give people reasonable time within which to do something. The enforcement process for not paying or the time within which a person should pay should expire no earlier than a month after the notice was issued. Ideally, it should be on the first day of the month that follows the month when the offence took place. If it is to be a system where money is collected, for heaven's sake let us make it a system whereby people are likely to pay. It must be a system that will give people longer time to pay so those on low incomes will not be disadvantaged. Let us give people a longer time to find the money, so that it will not disadvantage the forgetful and mentally ill.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument, but I am approaching the matter from the opposite direction. Obviously, two weeks would be far too short a period. That would be ridiculous. However, three weeks would give the offence a sense of tension. Let us consider library fines, for example. To my shame, I was rather late paying them when I was at school. However, if people are allowed longer periods to pay fines, it is human nature to put off paying them, and to think that they can be paid the next week or the week after that.
We talked earlier about ``Hooray Henrys'', who may be just a type of people who pick up many penalty notices. I would not want them to think that they could simply re-offend and not bother to pay their fines. I am keen to put pressure on such people.
The second point made by the hon. Lady would not make the slightest difference. If people incur regular fines, they must have a date when they click into payment. They will not be hugely affected whether they receive another notice in the same period. No theology is involved. I should be interested to know why the Government chose a period of 21 days. They must have received background briefing to reach a conclusion. I strongly urge the Government to make it a longer period. I should be grateful if the Minister would at least say that he will take away the proposal and I seriously ask that a time of at least a month afterwards be considered for all the reasons that I have given. It is a matter of great importance and I hope that the Minister can respond positively. If not, I will put it to a vote.
Before I call the Minister, may I make a point? We have had a number of interventions today and I am getting confused, as are some hon. Members. An intervention is supposed to brief and should not be a speech. I hope that future interventions will be a lot shorter.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey raised the question of the length of time in clause 5. First, as he said a month is significantly less flexible than a period of days such as 28 days, and causes confusion. That is why we usually use the formula X number of days or, as we now say, A number of days or B number of days. On those grounds alone, I urge him to reconsider his amendment.
Secondly, on the more substantial ground of the length of time involved, we chose the period of 21 days because it is a relatively routine situation. There is a precedent in section 52(3)(a) of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 where 21 days is referred to in the primary legislation. I acknowledge that there is a relatively arbitrary element as between 21, 28, 35 and 14 and there are all kinds of arguments that one can make. We decided to go with precedent. I think that 21 days is a perfectly adequate time to deal with the situation.
The hon. Gentleman referred to people who for some reason did not have the capacity to deal with a situation. First, they would be unlikely to be issued a fixed penalty notice. Secondly, if they felt that they had been traduced on the amount of time available, they have the ability under clause 12 to go to court, and the court could decide in the interests of justice not to proceed with the penalty. Those are the reasons for the 21 days. I hope that, on consideration, he will withdraw his amendment.
I am slightly surprised that the Minister was not a little more willing to consider the alternatives, and will therefore press the amendment to a Division. The period should be longer. If by some amazing fluke the amendment does not win today, I hope that the Minister will, none the less, regard it as valid. In future, all amendments will substantively come from a Government containing Liberal Democrats in every corner, but that may take just a few more months yet. Until that happy moment arrives, I hope that the Minister will reconsider his response.
In the unlikely event of a Liberal Democrat Government being formed in the near future, could the hon. Gentleman tell us how high a priority amending this Bill from 21 days to 28 days would be?
I shall try again to get the Minister to clarify exactly how the system will work. I listened carefully to the Minister's previous answers, but I may have missed something. What worries me is exactly when the citizen can either indicate that he wants to be tried or stop the process of a trial by paying the penalty issued.
I suspect that payment of the penalty is comparatively straightforward, at least in theory: the citizen has to get the cheque in the post in time for it to be delivered and received within the 21 day period—although the Minister may clarify that. I suspect that, in practice, another week will be allowed to enable cheques to be cleared. However, it is important for the Minister to spell out what is the precise theoretical time scale and what it is that stops proceedings.
The request to be tried is more important. Subsection (2) covers what happens when payment is made, but subsection (3) deals with the request to be tried. What ought to be the case is that, provided that the citizen can demonstrate proof of posting of the request to be tried, or can demonstrate delivery of it to a police station—no doubt the police station specified on the notice—the opportunity for proceedings to be brought ought to be stopped.
Why does the clause begin with the words ``proceedings for the offence'' rather than ``proceedings to enforce the penalty''? Where a notice has been issued—which is what this chapter is about—unless it is paid or a request to be tried is made within the given period, what is primarily anticipated is enforcement of the penalty in its increased form as a fine, rather than the issuing of proceedings for the offence. I am not saying that is wrong to have a subsection that states that the authorities cannot start proceedings for an offence for 21 days, but in practice I think that it is enforcement that would not be started for 21 days. I want to know exactly how the citizen brings the matter to a halt, either by paying up or issuing a request to be tried. I need to know the modalities.
If the Minister has to tell the Committee, ``We haven't thought through the modalities; they will appear in regulations; we haven't got a precedent; I don't know exactly how it will work; but I will try to help the Committee later,'' I shall understand that, but I want as good an answer as the Minister can give, if he would be so kind.
The sentence that opens clause 5—
``Proceedings for the offence to which a penalty notice relates'' means precisely that. It relates not simply to the enforcement of the fine but to the offence to which the penalty notice relates—one of the offences specified in clause 1.
The proceedings may relate to the fixed penalty notice or the trial process. That is why that language has been used. The offence to which the fixed penalty notice relates is the offence specified in clause 1, and the proceedings can be either the fixed penalty notice or the trial. At any point in the 21 days specified, which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey argued should be 28 days, the person may request to be tried. At any point in those 21 days, as stated in clause 5(2), the penalty may be paid. The 21 days have been provided to allow a choice. They have been provided from the moment of the event happening, and at any point within that time the person may choose which course to take. That is extremely clear.
The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire asked about modalities. The modalities are as generally specified in legislation, but I shall be specific in response to his points. The first, which related to clause 4(3), was how the request would be made. The answer is, by a notice given
``in the manner specified in the penalty notice'', as we discussed when we debated the previous clause, and I have nothing further to say about the matter.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned posting. The procedure specified in clause 9(3) deals with the question of a person's showing that a letter has been posted. The essential modalities of the process are specified in clause 9, which states:
``If a person to whom a penalty notice is given decides to pay the penalty, he must pay it to the justices' chief executive specified in the notice.''
The penalty must be paid
``by properly addressing, pre-paying and posting a letter containing the amount''.
Subsection (3)(b) refers to showing how the letter was posted.
Clause 9 also states that
``payment is to be regarded as made at the time at which the letter would be delivered in the ordinary course of post.''
Subsection (5) makes it clear that other means of payment are acceptable. Subsection (6) makes it clear that a letter is properly addressed for the purposes of the clause
``if it is addressed in accordance with the requirements specified in the penalty notice.''
The clause specifies the modality as clearly as possible for how payment will be made, and it details the process by which payment will be made. That is as clear as I can be on the matter in endeavouring to answer the right hon. and learned Gentleman's question.
I am most grateful to the Minister. I entirely accept that when the citizen pays up clause 9 provides a clear procedure, and I apologise for not having spotted that before. However, unless the Minister can draw it to my attention, I see no such clarity about the request to be tried. Will the Minister explain the procedure and modalities for the request to be tried? I have not spotted them.
First, the fundamental process is specified in clause 4(3). I do not want to be rude to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but I honestly believe that we have been going around this circuit for a considerable time. The modalities of notification of court and date of trial and the right to ask for trial are specified in clause 7, in much the same way as the procedure for the fine is specified in clause 9.
I am trying to think what else I can say to help the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I believe that the matter is as clear as it could possibly be. I am sorry if that is not sufficient, but I cannot say any more about the matter, and that is not because there is something that I should or do know and am not saying. The Bill is absolutely clear.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire made the point that it is not clear exactly what the process will be for the police and prosecution authorities if the penalty is not paid. Will enforcement proceedings automatically take place to get enforcement against A as a fine or will the guidelines deal with a reassessment by the police and prosecution authorities on whether to institute trial proceedings at that point? Will all that become clear in the guidelines on how the police are to operate the system?
After the 21 days, the citizen may make his payment or trial request, provided that the fine has not been registered. The chief constable has the discretion to accept late payment or request for trial. Once the fine has been registered, a citizen may make to the fine enforcement court any arguments about how that fine is enforced.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the prosecution decision. Again, I am trying to think how I can be clearer about it than I have been. Let us imagine that the Bill does not exist in any form and will not go on to the statute book. For each of the offences set out in clause 1, there is a process according to which a trial may or may not take place according to the judgments on prosecution that are made by the relevant authorities in each case. That is the case under section 12 of the Licensing Act 1872, section 80 of the Explosives Act 1875 and so on. The Bill says that, in addition to that process—which is clear, established in law and works reasonably effectively as far as one can tell—there is the possibility for a fixed penalty notice to apply. In the event that such a notice does not apply, because the individual says, ``I want to opt for trial,'' the situation is exactly as it is today, without the Bill being enacted. The process is clear and straightforward.
The point of concern is that an officer must have reason to believe that an offence has been committed to issue a fixed penalty notice. Let us imagine that he does so, and the person elects for trial. Is the Minister saying that the whole thing goes back to square one at that point and that the CPS becomes involved and takes a decision on the usual prosecution basis of whether there is a beyond 50 per cent. chance of success and so on?
Yes. I was looking anxiously to my learned colleague to ensure that I did not get the answer wrong. Back to square one is as good a way as any of describing the process, which exists today. As now, judgments will be made about the situation.
The point on which I sought elucidation from the Minister was exactly what people can expect if they receive a fixed penalty notice but do not pay it. Will the police and CPS then make a judgment about whether to bring the case to trial or will the process for enforcement be continued? I imagine that it is likely to be a matter of judgment by the police and prosecution authorities. Will the guidelines make clear to people on the receiving end of the process the point at which non-payment of a penalty turns into a trial, rather than enforcement proceedings to get the money for the fine and the penalty, which they presumably accepted by taking the notices?
I hope that everyone is clear on the circumstances in which the fixed penalty notice is paid. I thought that we were discussing the choice of trial, on which it was said that there was a lack of clarity. I certainly feel clear about that choice and was trying to offer clarity on it. For the sake of argument, let us use the code of ``back to square one'', which was suggested by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire.
The third possibility is that the individual chooses to pay a fixed penalty notice, but does not pay the fine in accordance with his or her commitment to do so. At that point, clause 4(5) comes into play. It says:
``If, by the end of the...period—
(a) the penalty has not been paid in accordance with this Chapter, and
(b) A has not made a request to be tried,
a sum equal to one and a half times the amount of the penalty may be registered under section 10 for enforcement against A as a fine.''
In those circumstances, a fine one and a half times the amount of the penalty is registered as a fine to be paid and collected in the normal way through a magistrates court.
The Minister has answered two of the three questions, but has not clarified what one has to do to register a request to be tried. If one posts it on the 21st day and it arrives on the 22nd, is that good enough? The Bill does not set that out. It sets out a pretty good code in clause 9, but does not set one out for requesting to be tried in clauses 4, 5 or 7. Can the Minister clarify that?
On some of the fixed penalty notices that I have received, time has passed and I have been asked by written communication whether I had representations to make before a decision was taken. The Bill does not clarify the process between the end of the 21 days and a potential decision to prosecute as a result of normal criminal procedure. Will people be given the opportunity to make representations before a decision is made? In one case where I made representations, I got a nice letter back saying, ``In the light of what you have said, we will take no further action. Thanks very much. Good afternoon,'' for which I was grateful. Is that procedure included in the process and, if not, can we include it?
I am aware that I am in danger of being impatient and I do not wish to be. Perhaps I am being stupid and not understanding the point, but the position is as clear as possible. The individual chooses the fixed penalty notice or opts for trial—
By the process set out in the Bill. That is now the seventh time that that question has been asked. The third option is that a fixed penalty notice is chosen but not paid. The Bill sets out fully the process for each of those circumstances, particularly in clauses 4 and 5, but also in clauses 7 and 9. If I am guilty of not having understood the point, I apologise and ask Opposition Members to explain it more clearly. If I am not, the position is clear and direct.
I wanted to make it clear that I have understood what the Minister said in respect of my points on option 3, when someone accepts a notice but does not pay the penalty. Under clause 4(5) a fine not exceeding one and a half times the penalty may be registered against him. Under the Minister's argument, will that person not be liable for trial for that offence, but simply be pursued as a defaulter on the fine? By accepting the fixed penalty notice, will he be immune from being tried for that offence?
At the risk of irritating the Minister—I assure him that it is not my intention—let me say that he has not been as clear as he would wish. We are discussing clause 5, but he rightly relates the question back to clause 4. I am concerned about the modalities of making it clear that one requests that the matter be tried. The Bill says only that
``Such a request must be made by a notice given by A...in the manner specified in the penalty notice''.
The Minister has not told us any more than that, which is not good enough, because it is in precisely that area that problems will arise.
I will give the Minister an example, so that he may either concede that he has not thought the matter through properly—which I believe to be the truth—or provide an explanation of how the system would work in that example. Let us suppose that an officer gives me a penalty notice on the first of the month. On the 21st day of the month, I fill in the tear-off slip that accompanied the notice—the Minister has been reasonably clear about that aspect of the process—sign it, requesting that the matter be tried, and post it with a first-class stamp, so that it is delivered the following day: the 22nd day.
Have I made the request to be tried in time? The letter may not be delivered for a week, even though I have posted it by first-class post. If I am using the postal system, must I ensure that it is delivered within the 21 days—by paying for next-day delivery, for example? The matter is vague at this point. Will
``the manner specified in the penalty notice'' include an opportunity for me to go in person with the form and to hand it into a police station?
Those questions are simple. If the Minister has answered them before, he can draw my attention to Hansard and I will read it. However, I do not believe that he has.
For the eighth time, I am asked the same question, but I will try to answer it as fully as I can.
First, under clause 4(3)(a), the
``request must be made...in the manner specified in the penalty notice''.
Secondly, clause 3(3) details the form of the penalty notice. It states that the
``notice must...be in the prescribed form...state the alleged offence...give such particulars of the circumstances alleged to constitute the offence as are necessary...specify the suspended enforcement period...state the amount of the penalty...state the justices' chief executive to whom, and the address at which, the penalty may be paid; and''— this is the important point—
``inform the person to whom it is given of his right to ask to be tried for the alleged offence and explain how that right may be exercised''.
Clause 3(5) states clearly that the form of the notice will be established through regulations laid before the House in the conventional way. When the discussion began, I brandished—in the way referred to by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire—the tear-off slip of the fixed penalty notice that is currently used by the Metropolitan police for traffic offences. By giving that example, I tried to show how the system might work. That document contains a large amount of information on how to deal with that in the way that is specified.
The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire raised the question of the post and the 21 days that are allowed. He must be familiar with the fact that, in practice, further action is not taken on the 22nd day; leeway is built in to deal with the sort of eventuality that he described. That is how the court system in Britain is administered. In any case, an enforcement for court can set aside the fine and direct a trial in the interests of justice—someone may argue that the case has not been justly dealt with by other means.
No, I am not going to give way again. I have already answered the question as many times as I can. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman thinks that what I have said is inadequate, he is entitled to his opinion and no doubt he will vote with the Liberal Democrats that the clause should not be part of the Bill. However, I have done my best to describe the process as clearly as I can for the whole Committee and for the right hon. and learned Gentleman in particular.
The Minister may have missed part of the point. Throughout the years, in all sorts of cases—civil and criminal cases—there have been problems over the service of documents, the giving of documents and what that means in terms of procedure. I give the example of the service of a summons, which is the service of a document. Rule 99(1) of the magistrates courts rules runs to the best part of a page and explains how the document could be served, making the requirements clear, so that there is no argument about it.
The point that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire is making is that, given the problems that can arise, what is the rule for the service of that particular request? It is not unreasonable to ask that question, given the many times that problems have arisen in that regard. The Minister may say, ``If the person posts it a day before the 21 days are up and he can prove he posted it then, that is good enough.'' I think that that is known as the postal rule. In civil cases, it does apply.
I cannot understand why the Minister is not able to answer that question. It comes up in every circumstance where a document must be served. His officials will be well apprised of the matter. He is sitting next to a lawyer from the Lord Chancellor's Department, who must come across the problem all the time. I am sure that he can give us a better answer and explain what will happen. What will the postal rule be in this situation?
I am concerned that the hon. Gentleman is dancing a series of angels on the head of a pin. He is right to refer to the rules. Is it not right that these matters are always sorted out in secondary legislation and in rules? He is asking my hon. Friend, the Minister of State, Home Office for details of precisely how the system will be structured. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that this is not the place for precise details? For the reasons that he has set out, the matter should be sorted out in rules. We should move on and consider only matters that it is proper to consider.
That makes my point. That contains the power to make regulations about the prescription of the penalty notice. We are not talking about that now. We are talking about the way in which the notice in clause 3 is to be served. That is not listed as one of the provisions to be prescribed under clause 3(3), 3(5) or 3(6), unless the Minister is telling me I am wrong.
At the risk of being repetitive—I have said this so many times— clause 3(3)(g) states that one of the things on the penalty notice is to:
``inform the person to whom it is given of his right to ask to be tried for the alleged offence and explain how that right may be exercised.''
Clause 3(5) states that that will be done by order, in the way that the Parliamentary Secretary has indicated.
Yes, but the prescription is for the form of the penalty notice: I refer to clause 3(3)(a). The clause states what is to be within the notice, but the point that the Minister was making, as I understood it, was that there was an order-making power to deal with the issue of how to give the request. I do not see that, unless the Parliamentary Secretary would like to intervene again.
This is the last time that I will rise. Clause 4(3) states:
``Such a request must be made by a notice given by A—
(a) in the manner specified in the penalty notice''.
How that is to be ascribed in the notice will be set out in regulations to be made under clause (3)(3)(g). Accordingly, if the hon. Gentleman links the two provisions, he will see beyond a shadow of doubt—it should be clear even to him—that the terms of the penalty notice specified in regulations will include the manner in which the request for a trial is to be exercised in accordance with clause 4(3).
With the help of the Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister, we are focusing on the point, which is that the Secretary of State must in his regulations explain how the rights may be exercised. We have been asking the Minister to tell us, but so far, apart from telling us that the Secretary of State must do so, he has gone no further. That is my worry; does my hon. Friend share it?
Yes. The provision says that the form will be prescribed; fine. Clause 3(3)(g) says that the notice must inform the person of the way in which his right may be exercised. Clause 4(3) says that the request must be made
``in the manner specified in the penalty notice''.
I fully understand all that, but is the Parliamentary Secretary saying that that will include a provision on what amounts to effective service of the request for trial? If so, will he give us detail about what he has in mind?
May I break the habit of a lifetime and say that on this issue I think that Ministers are right, although we have not had the answer to the question? It is clear to me that there is a power under secondary legislation to table regulations that deal with the procedure, and in the procedure the process will be explained. I think that is what Ministers are saying, and I share that interpretation. I hope that they will register that they owe me one later, because this is a rare occurrence.
However, there is a substantive issue, because we have not seen the guidance, so it would be helpful, earlier rather than later, to have the regulations, or at least the draft of them—it would be helpful if Ministers would tell us whether they have, somewhere on their desks, in their brief or with their officials, all the bits and pieces: the annexes to the Bill; secondary legislation; guidance; and the rest. I think that that would deal with a lot of the obfuscation.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; he is my Member of Parliament in London and he was my late mother-in-law's Member of Parliament in London. I hope that he will agree that, in the context of parking, if we do not get things right to the letter, we are into a nightmare of correspondence. That is my experience when dealing with people who had friends and relations who were well capable of helping them, however frustrated they were. People being served with fixed penalty notices are often likely not to be terribly well educated, and if it is not clear—
Order. I asked members of the Committee to make interventions brief and to the point, and not turn them into speeches. If they want to make contributions to the debate, they can do so.
I accept the proposition of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I represent many hon. Members when they are in London, and many have come to me in the past year to ask for my help in taking up an issue that they have been unable to resolve. If people in this league are not able to sort out problems of administration with local or central Government, and have to come to their Member of Parliament, it does not hold out much hope for rest of the citizenry of the country who are in difficulty.
There are numerous Appeal Court decisions on the process surrounding the forms used for fixed penalties for parking and motoring offences. Hundreds of cases have ended up there, because people have argued about the breathalyser process or the parking ticket process.
I think that the Ministers are correct in their interpretation of clauses 3 and 4, but I would like them to tell us when we are to have sight of the process regulations and all the other things that are referred to as coming later in the Bill? We can barely contain our excitement.
I shall be very brief, Mr. Hood—your reproof was quite rightly made. The Minister has answered me as far as he can, in that he has pointed out that the Secretary of State will be under a statutory duty to make it crystal clear, pursuant to clause 3(3)(g), how the right to opt for trial may be exercised.
The Minister has suggested by waving some document from the Metropolitan police that there may be some precedent for the provisions. It would be very helpful if, perhaps at our next meeting on Thursday, he could come up with precedent to meet the case. I seek not to prolong our proceedings but to attain clarity in what I believe to be a matter of great importance.
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 11, Noes 1.