Clause 36 - Fines officers

Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 am on 10th July 2003.

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Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 9:30 am, 10th July 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 149, in

clause 36, page 17, line 12, after '2(1)' insert

'or provided under a contract made by virtue of section 2(4)'.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 47, in

clause 36, page 17, line 12, leave out 'and'.

Amendment No. 48, in

clause 36, page 17, line 13, at end insert

'and

(c) provided with training as a fines officer by the Lord Chancellor.'.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

This group of amendments is important. I shall not refer to amendments Nos. 47 and 48 now because I should like to hear the debate on them first.

Schedule 3, following its passage through the other place, already introduces several measures, including the new role of fines officer with increased flexible powers, an incentive of discounts for prompt payments and increases for default from fines. There will be a greater onus on the offender to provide a suitable means of information and the opportunity for further sanctions on default, such as vehicle clamping and fine registration.

Last week, the Government tabled the amendments, as well as new schedules 1 and 2, which we will be discussing later, to make it easier to deduct the fine directly from the offender's pay or benefits. To permit the private sector to be brought into the collection of fines, when the courts have been less effective in such collection, we will introduce a new offence of failing to provide details of income and expenditure to allow deductions to be made. For those who are genuinely unable to pay a fine, we will allow the court to convert the fine into a fines payment work order.

We will pilot the new proposals for changes to the scheme with other measures already in the Bill, and look for opportunities for separate pilots of contracting out, should that be desirable. The results of the pilot will be taken into account in drawing up the final arrangements, which will need to be confirmed by affirmative procedure of both Houses. We hope to progress the pilots rapidly following Royal Assent.

The purpose of the amendments is to make the fines collection scheme even more robust. They will ensure that no court imposes a fine on an offender without being certain that it can and will be collected.

Government amendment No. 149 follows in the wake of a recently commissioned independent consultant's report; I think that the consultant was Pannell Kerr ForsterPKF. It was published in June, and it recommended that we introduce more flexibility to the legislation to allow the role of fines officer to be contracted out, should it prove beneficial and cost effective to do so. As a result, the objective of the amendment is to allow more flexibility in the administration of the fines collection scheme. The amendment will allow the role of the fines officer, which under the current Bill must be carried out by an employee of the Lord Chancellor, to be carried out by a contractor. Where courts have been ineffective in the

collection of fines, such flexibility will allow the private sector to be brought into the fines collection process.

The report argued that the draft Bill is too restrictive in insisting that all fines officers' new functions need to be carried out by employees of the new agency. Under current arrangements, some fines enforcement functions take place outside the courts. For example, some magistrates courts committees have contracts with private approved enforcement agencies, and others have contracts with the police. The review also suggested that considerable commercial expertise should be involved in debt collection, but under the Bill as drafted there is little flexibility to draw on outside commercial expertise in the new fines enforcement function. After discussions across Government, we have decided to introduce the amendment to increase flexibility, while retaining the Bill's safeguards against contracting out judicial functions, and also ensuring consultation. Those are important safeguards.

For contracting out, we introduced a safeguard on Lords Report. For work to be eligible for contracting out, it must be specified in an order and the senior judiciary must be consulted on the terms of that order. There is no intention to privatise across the board, or to outsource all fines officers from day one of the new unified administration in April 2005. The amendment simply allows outsourcing of the role, if it appears beneficial and cost effective to do so. I hope that most hon. Members view that as a sensible adjustment to the clause, and I urge the Committee to accept the amendment. I am interested to hear arguments for other amendments in the group.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I can deal with this group relatively briefly; there is greater substance in the second group of amendments to the clause.

In prefacing my remarks about amendments Nos. 47 and 48, I must say that we are aware that the collection of fines has been a serious problem. Not long ago, the Public Accounts Committee drew attention to the woefully low rate of fines collection. We welcome, in general, any measure to improve the proportion of fines that is collected.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) has experience of sitting as a district judge, and he has regularly spoken in the Chamber about his concerns that fines are not being collected. Home Office Ministers have regularly congratulated my hon. Friend on drawing attention in a constructive way to what he has seen in the courts. Will the Minister confirm, as Home Office Ministers have done in the past, that the Government in general, and he in particular will take account of the views of magistrates and judges? Will he confirm that he would be happy to discuss matters with my hon. Friend the Member for Woking, given that he is a Home Office shadow Minister?

Amendments Nos. 47 and 48 would require the Lord Chancellor to provide training for fines officers. That would be sensible and it cannot do any harm to have that written into the Bill. It is a small point, and I

am sure that the Minister will say that that is implicit in what is done and that there will be training. However, I was delighted that he suggested the other day that he may accept one of my amendments.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The collection of fines at the moment is far from satisfactory. The matter has been debated in several contexts, not least in debates on the Criminal Justice Bill and elsewhere. I and colleagues, from my party and other parties, have suggested ways in which to make the collection of fines more effective and deal with defaulters in a more appropriate way that is more likely to get them to pay what is due.

The Minister will know that there were two principal concerns about the clause. I refer first to the view that the fines officers might be able to vary sentences effectively extra-judicially, although I think that the Minister dealt with that when discussing previous amendments. Secondly, there are genuine concerns about the contracting out of the services, so that they can be implemented by private companies. It has already been said that the private sector has expertise in that area. Expertise can be a term that covers a wide range of practice, which I am sure the Minister understands. Although we want a firm system for the collection of unpaid fines, we want a fair system that recognises the dignity of the individual and does not put inappropriate pressure on people. It has to be said that there are some in the private sector who put inappropriate pressure on people to pay unpaid debts.

We need to monitor the position carefully. The Minister suggested pilot schemes. It is important that they are evaluated in terms of not simply the additional revenue from fines collection—which is, of course, an important factor—but the experiences of the courts and permanent staff of the Department about how the individuals or companies employed for that purpose relate to their core duties. It would be useful for the Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department to scrutinise that in due course. The Public Accounts Committee should not have to blow the whistle on an unacceptable state of affairs. It could be better done by a Departmental Committee, and I invite the Minister to suggest to the Select Committee that it looks at the pilot schemes after time and gives its evaluation of how the systems are working and whether they are working effectively. However, I will not argue against the amendment.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentlemen who have spoken in the debate so far. I assure the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) that the Government will take account of the views of the judiciary and representatives of magistrates on the process of fines enforcement, not least because magistrates courts are so closely involved in the day-to-day work. Although I have not spoken to the hon. Member for Woking on those matters, I will bear his suggestion in mind, and if I bump into him in the course of business, I shall certainly mention that we discussed the matter in Committee. I think that it is a perfectly reasonable suggestion.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome highlights that some will undoubtedly be wary of the concept of contracting out, and that is one of the reasons why we have made sure that there are

important safeguards offering a certain level of protection, not least in terms of the consultation that would be required on any contracting out thought to be desirable. Also, an order will have to be made to make such contracting out possible.

The hon. Gentleman talks of the need to evaluate fines enforcement. That is why we have taken the piloting approach set out in the new schedules. He also suggests that it might be appropriate for the Select Committee to investigate how well the pilots do. Far be it from me as a Minister to suggest what Select Committees should inquire into, but I think that it would be entirely appropriate for it to look into fines enforcement in the piloting. I would certainly welcome that.

Amendment No. 47 is a drafting amendment, and amendment No. 48 contains the substance. I am sure that all Committee members agree on the importance of ensuring that fines officers are properly trained. That is vital to the success of the pilot schemes, as well as to the eventual national implementation of the new measures. However, I do not want the amendments to be made. It is not usual legislative practice to put training provisions in Bills, and before pilots begin there must be consultation with magistrates courts committees on the format and content of the training needed.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 9:45 am, 10th July 2003

I intervene simply to point out that what I regard as a related Bill, the Private Security Industry Bill, now the Private Security Industry Act 2001, was considered towards the end of the previous Parliament, and I was the lead shadow Minister on the Committee considering it. There were huge requirements for training under that Act, so the Minister cannot say that we do not normally put requirements for training in a Bill. Will the Minister at least look back at the 2001 Act, although I know that he was not dealing with it, and keep the matter under review, so that we can perhaps return to it on Report?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I am grateful for that information; I was not aware of that legislative provision. The reason why we are less keen to have such a blanket training provision in the clause is that it would replace the process that we are going through as we move towards the new measures—it would replace the piloting and initial testing of much of the work.

Obviously, the only fines officers who will require extra training before the pilots begin are those who participate in the pilots. Any training guidance published prior to the completion of the pilots will necessarily be only a first draft and largely untested in practice. During the pilots, not all fines officers will apply the full range of sanctions set out in schedule 3, so each fines officer participating in the pilots will be trained and given guidance about the particular package of measures in the final collection scheme that they have piloted in their area. The pilots will provide the opportunity to test the quality and scope of the training provided and to identify any further training needs. It is therefore likely that training materials will be refined and supplemented during the pilots.

National guidance will be made available to all courts areas and will be based on material that has been tested in the field and that relates directly to the final scheme, which will be approved by Parliament. However, if we were to accept the amendments, commencement of the pilot could be delayed and the opportunity to test the quality of guidance would be deferred. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will think again about the amendments.

Amendment agreed to

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I beg to move amendment No. 150, in

clause 36, page 17, line 14, leave out subsections (2) to (8).

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 49, in

clause 36, page 17, line 34, leave out subsection (8).

Amendment No. 50, in

clause 36, page 17, line 39, at end insert—

'(9) The Lord Chancellor may by order make fines collections regulations.

(10) No order may be made under this section unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing it has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.'.

Amendment No. 51, in

schedule 3, page 66, line 28, at end insert—

'( ) For the avoidance of doubt, where this Schedule applies, the court may reserve to itself any case which shall not then be subject to enforcement through the fines collection scheme.'.

Amendment No. 52, in

schedule 3, page 66, line 35, at end insert—

'( ) After a collection order has been made the court may require the fines officer identified in it under the provisions of subparagraph (2)(a) to report back to the court at any time required by the court which has made the collection order.'.

Amendment No. 53, in

schedule 3, page 69, line 8, leave out from 'determined' to end of line 9 and insert

'by the court at the time of setting the initial terms of the collection order.'.

Amendment No. 54, in

schedule 3, page 69, line 10, leave out subparagraph (4).

Amendment No. 55, in

schedule 3, page 70, line 38, at end insert—

'(2A) For the avoidance of doubt any action taken to enforce a clamping order shall not be licensable conduct for the purposes of the Private Security Industry Act 2001 (c 12).'.

Amendment No. 56, in

schedule 3, page 70, line 39, after 'except', insert 'by a court and'.

Amendment No. 57, in

schedule 3, page 73, line 22, at end insert

', and

( ) has been notified to the court which imposed the fine.'.

Schedule 3—Collection of fines by fines officers.

Government amendments Nos. 156, 152 and 153.

Government new clause 4—Collection of fines and discharge of fines by unpaid work.

Government new schedule 1—Collection of fines.

Government new schedule 2—Discharge of fines by unpaid work.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I now turn to this large group amendments, new clauses and new schedules that deal with the collection of fines by fine officers and the discharge of fines by unpaid work. I hope that the Committee will bear with me, as these are new provisions, but I will be as brief as possible.

Baroness Scotland gave early warning of these amendments on 8 May and my predecessor, now Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), confirmed our intention to table them at Committee stage during the Second Reading debate on 9 June and announced various aspects concerning that.

First, I will deal with amendments Nos. 150, 152, 153 and new clause 4, which relate to piloting the proposals in the Bill as well as those introduced by these amendments. Amendments Nos. 150 and 152 delete existing references to piloting from clauses 36 and 106 respectively. New clause 4 and amendment No. 153 replace them with new provisions. They will enable the new measures on the collection of fines that are set out in new schedule 1 and the measures dealing with the discharge of fines by unpaid work that are set out in new schedule 2 to be piloted in specified local justice areas.

New clause 4(6), along with an order under subsection (5), will allow for modification of the measures, so that different elements of the package can be piloted in different areas. That will enable their effectiveness to be evaluated. Following the pilots, by virtue of new clause 4(7), the Lord Chancellor may make an order introducing the measures permanently. That final package, which could either be one of the pilot schemes or a version that has been modified in the light of experience of the pilots, will then be put to Parliament for approval under the affirmative resolution procedure before being rolled out nationally.

I know that the Committee will welcome that final package. That approach will enable the Government to bring forward a package of tried and tested measures, which we can be sure will deliver the improvements in performance that all hon. Members want.

For the convenience of the Committee, we decided to replace the existing schedule on fines collection entirely, rather than very substantially add to or amend it. New schedule 1, which replaces schedule 3, includes the material in schedule 3 but it will make it possible to use to greater effect existing powers to make deductions from an offender's earnings or benefits to recover the sum due.

I shall deal with the mechanism for ensuring that the court has accurate information about the offender's ability to pay, and the information that will be needed in order to make attachment orders, when introducing amendment No. 151 and new clause 3.

New schedule 1 makes a clear distinction between offenders who co-operate with the court and pay their dues and those who do not. Special arrangements are necessary to deal with those who are able to pay but choose not to. Special arrangements are also necessary to cater for the circumstances under which an attachment of earnings or benefits might fail. For those in employment, those circumstances might include the offender being sacked or leaving their job, or the company going bust. For those on benefits, they may include the offender having already reached the limit of deductions that may be made from his benefits because of other debts, or the offender finding a job.

I will explain how the new schedule deals with offenders who are fined and who are not currently in default on any other fine or similar payment ordered by the court. Unless offenders pay immediately and in full, or volunteer for an attachment of earnings or benefits order, they will be made subject to a collection order, which will set out the repayment terms set by the court. Provided offenders pay in accordance with those terms, they may be eligible for a prompt payment discount on the fine.

The discount would apply only to the fine element of the sum due and not to fixed penalties registered as fines, to compensation, or to costs. Like the original schedule, the new schedule states that the amount of any discount is to be determined in accordance with regulations, as set by the Lord Chancellor, but must not be greater than 50 per cent. of the fine. Fifty per cent. is mentioned simply to place a limit on the power. I do not envisage a discount as large as that being offered. Rates will be piloted, but discounts will probably be no more than 20 per cent. I anticipate that, as thinking on pilots develops and discussions with practitioners continue, a few technical changes to the new schedule might be introduced on Report. An adjustment to the theoretical maximum percentage could be one of those changes.

As soon as the offender first defaults on agreed payment terms, he will lose any eligibility for a prompt payment discount and an attachment of earnings or benefits order will be imposed on him. Should the attachment order fail for any reason, the offender will be sent a notice warning him that the fine will be increased unless he contacts the fines officer, makes new arrangements to pay the sum due and sticks to them. Failure to co-operate will result in the increase standing and further enforcement steps being taken by the fines officer. Those steps include registering the fine with the registry of judgments set up under clause 96, which we will discuss later, issuing a distress warrant, and clamping the offender's vehicle and, if necessary, selling it.

Offenders who are existing defaulters often have a ''tail'' of unpaid fines and represent a major problem for the courts. Under the new regime, existing defaulters will be subject to an immediate attachment order unless they pay up immediately. They will not qualify for any prompt payment discount.

At the same time as the attachment order is made, the court will make a collection order, stating the ''reserve terms'', which are the repayment terms that

will apply automatically if the attachment order fails. If offenders default on the reserve terms, they will be sent a notice warning them that the fine will be increased unless they contact the fines officer, make new arrangements to pay the sum due, and stick to them. Failure to co-operate will result in the increase standing and the further, more punitive, enforcement steps that I have described being taken by the fines officer.

I appreciate that the new schedule is long and complex, but the problems of enforcement are also serious and complex, as both the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have recognised. The new schedule provides the fines officer with a broader toolkit for dealing with defaulters. Although not all the tools will be used on all offenders, the measures need to be flexible enough to cater for the different circumstances and behaviour of the offenders who are being targeted.

The new schedule applies a series of filters, with the aim of isolating and dealing sharply with the hard cases. The collections regime need not involve any complications at all, provided that the offender either pays immediately, or sticks to the repayment terms set by the court. For those who are not existing defaulters, the incentive to do so is the potential prompt payment discount. When imposed, an attachment of earnings or benefits order will ensure that deductions are made automatically. If the attachment fails, the offender will have the opportunity to pay off the sum due by other means. An increase in the fine and further enforcement steps are reserved for those who refuse to co-operate, or who seek to play the system.

At each stage, the numbers affected will become smaller, and the incentives to co-operate should ensure that offenders will recognise that it is in their best interests to pay promptly.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

Those people who are in employment can suffer an attachment of earnings, and those who are in receipt of benefit can have an attachment of benefits, but as we know from the child support system, quite a few people are self-employed and miss such punishments. Is there any power to make those who are self-employed pay fines if they do not do so voluntarily?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

There certainly is. There will be provisions in respect of the normal payment by a corporate structure. An individual who is self-employed will have to make that payment, even if that person is the only employee of a particular company. It is possible to set conditions, so that the company will pay the employee, even if they are the sole employee, and make deductions. The provisions from the original schedule that we have kept cover some of those matters and collection orders have the scope to consider those in self-employment. I shall want to look into the matter in greater detail because there is a series of issues where people have avoided payment throughout by one means or another. We need to find systems that will tighten the process up and catch everyone, so that there is no way of avoiding obligations should fines be imposed.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford 10:00 am, 10th July 2003

May I make a suggestion? In civil proceedings there is another way of enforcing an order, called a garnishee order. If a third person owes money to a debtor, the creditor can go directly to the third person and have the money paid over to them. It is very common when a bank account is in credit. One can garnishee the account. If someone were self-employed, the person who was engaging that person to do work would owe them money. That would not be a matter of wages but we could attach the money that they were due to pay. Would my hon. Friend the Minister consider that? I know that it is a bit late in the proceedings, but it would be nice if we could tie up all the ways in which people can dodge out of paying fines.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My hon. Friend makes an entirely reasonable suggestion. We framed the new schedule, and the existing one, in order to have as much flexibility as possible in the way that we draw together the pilot schemes. We want to be able to make modifications to cover such eventualities should they prove necessary. All Committee members should accept that approach, and I shall certainly consider my hon. Friend's suggestion further.

I want to say a word about the amendments that I have outlined which will ensure that fines will be collected, where possible by the attachment of the offender's earnings or benefits. New Schedule 2 will allow fines to be discharged by means of unpaid work where other enforcement methods open to the court are likely to be impracticable or inappropriate. The possibility of working off a fine will not be given to all offenders—only to that small number from whom the money cannot be collected by any of the usual methods.

The provision is designed to complement the new fines collection measures. If an offender is fined and the new scheme is not applicable to him, he will be able to agree to work off the fine at a given rate. The new collection scheme may not be practicable or appropriate because he may have no money, no job or is either not claiming benefit or is already having the maximum amount deducted. That will not apply to compensation or costs. If the offender has sufficient resources, it should be available to the victim where a compensation order has been made.

If the offender consents, the court imposes a work order setting out how much he owes, how many hours he has to work and how long he has to complete it. The order will also name a fines officer who is to be responsible for the order and a supervisor who will monitor the performance of the work.

We hope that we will be able to look to the voluntary sector to provide that supervisory function. From discussions with them we believe it will be possible to develop local arrangements whereby the courts and local voluntary organisations will work together to operate the scheme. Many local organisations already have experience of working with offenders and we believe that they will be able to provide suitable work that will enable the offender to repay the community while at the same time

discharging his fine. When the work is complete, the supervisor will report back to the fines officer and the fine will be regarded as paid.

If the offender fails to complete a work order without a reasonable excuse, the court will need to deal with him as a serious defaulter. An amendment to the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 will give the court the power in such circumstances to deal with the offender in the same way as it currently deals with someone who will not pay a fine. That includes committal to prison or the community alternatives of curfew, community punishment or driving disqualification. If the offender is having difficulty complying with the order for a valid reason, the court can revoke it or vary its terms, perhaps to allow more time for its completion. In any particular case, the court can ask or require the supervisor to attend court as a witness to help to determine how much work has been done.

We will pilot the new proposals with the other measures in the Bill. The results of the pilots will be taken into account in drawing up the final arrangements, which must be confirmed by affirmative resolution of both Houses. We hope to progress the pilots rapidly following Royal Assent.

The purpose of the Government amendments is to make the fines collection regime more robust and, where it is necessary, to allow fines to be discharged by unpaid work. We hope that the measure will avoid the need for courts to remit fines or to impose discharges where an offender cannot pay. Together with the fines collection scheme, it should lead to a position where no offender leaves the court without an arrangement to discharge their sentence, and robust measures will be in place to tackle default. I hope that the Committee recognises the benefits of the new measures.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The Committee will realise that our amendments were tabled with the contents of the original Bill in mind. In particular, amendments Nos. 51 to 57 relate to the original schedule 3, which the Government are replacing in its entirety, so I shall not spend much time on them.

When I saw the Government amendments, I considered tabling further amendments to the revised schedule, but the Government have taken account of a number of points raised by my noble Friends Baroness Seccombe and Lord Renton on Report in another place on 8 May. We made our concerns clear in another place about the parliamentary scrutiny of the matter and about whether the Lord Chancellor should have complete discretion. We have been reassured both here and in another place, but after the pilots the final version of the legislation will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, for which I am grateful to the Minister. However, it would be better if the affirmative resolution procedure were used for the pilots.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) pointed out that in his experience—I share his view—garnishee orders are often useful in civil law.

We could debate those issues in examining the pilot scheme, and amendment No. 50 suggests that we should use the affirmative resolution procedure in those circumstances. We will not fall out over that issue, but I hope that the Minister will continue to reflect on the matter. It would be helpful if he were to state that he will continue to discuss the matter with his officials. Given that the Government have changed the whole schedule, it may be better to use the affirmative resolution procedure for the pilot to allow us to debate the issues. Amendment No. 49 would delete subsection (8) which gives the Lord Chancellor too wide a discretion, so amendment No. 49 goes with amendment No. 50.

Following the replacement of schedule 3 by the Government, who took into account what was said in another place, amendment No. 55 is the one remaining matter of substance. Amendment No. 55 is, of course, no longer in a proper form so I shall do no more than probe the matter. A little while ago, I referred to the Private Security Industry Act 2001 on which I led for the Opposition at the end of the past Parliament. We want to make sure that the Bill and the 2001 Act work together. I hope that the Minister will say that between now and Report he will examine not only the point that I raised earlier this morning about the 2001 Act and training, but licensable conduct under the 2001 Act. I had hoped that the Government would specifically refer to licensable conduct in the Bill, and I hope that the Minister will at least say that he will examine the matter because he has said that he will examine the 2001 Act in relation to training.

In another place, my noble Friend Baroness Seccombe said that the Conservative party welcomes the idea of giving people an incentive to pay a fine. From the Government side, Baroness Scotland talked about how many people are so attached to their cars that the threat of clamping can concentrate the mind wonderfully and mean that money is magically found to pay fines. It is for such incentives that many people who have sat as magistrates or district judges over the years have been crying out. However, there must be safeguards, and Lord Goodhart, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats in another place, was concerned about human rights issues.

The Government have talked about work orders and the way in which they can be used in a similar way to community service. In my constituency, several people have told me that when they have had people doing community service, they have not been able to rely on it being done properly. I was talking not long ago to a headmaster who had had a party of community service order workers at his school. He said that they were so unreliable and caused him so much concern that in the end he had said that never again would he have any more community service people in his school. I know that the Government will analyse the pilots very carefully, but they must bear in mind the existing concerns of many law-abiding members of the community over the way in which community service order work is not always done or not always supervised properly, which was one of that headmaster's concerns.

Having said that, I hope that the Committee will be able to see that we are not opposing root and branch all of what the Government are putting forward. We recognise that there is a benefit to pilot schemes, but we would have preferred to have been able to have a debate under the affirmative resolution procedure when the Government come forward with a pilot.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I should like to deal with a few issues in new schedules 1 and 2. I broadly welcome the Government's approach here, so this is not intended to be an objection to the orders. I think that the Government have listened to some of the concerns expressed in another place.

First, on compensation orders, I want to make absolutely sure that I understand what is involved in the Government proposals. There is a complicated formulation in new schedule 1, which I believe means that compensation orders are included in the relevant sum under paragraph 1, separately from the fine, but that only the fine can be discounted. I hope that that is correct because it would seem entirely inappropriate for a compensation order to be discounted so that the recipient of the compensation thereby did not receive the total sum to which they were entitled. We know that the problem at the moment is that such people often receive nothing at all from a compensation order, and it is important that compensation orders are included in the scheme so that there is proper recovery.

That leads me to my second point. New schedule 2 has a slightly different formulation. Under paragraph 3, a work order is made

''in order to discharge by virtue of this Schedule his liability for the relevant sum'',

rather than for the relevant fine. It appears that a work order can substitute, under new schedule 2, a pecuniary compensation order made by a court because the term used here is ''sum'', rather than ''fine''. I am not sure whether that is entirely appropriate. Unless there is a mechanism by which the collection agency can then pay the sum to the person to whom the compensation was awarded, someone who has been punched on the nose, or whatever, and received a compensation order, is hardly going to be pleased to be told that the money to which he or she is entitled has been transferred to relaying a pavement in a school.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I will; the hon. Gentleman may be able to help me.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

I shall have a good go. When the Minister presented his argument, he said that the fines were affected, not the compensation and the costs order. The first paragraph of new schedule 2 defines the relevant sum as:

''the sum for which P is liable as mentioned in sub-paragraph (1), but excluding any pecuniary compensation or any sum due in respect of prosecution costs.''

It seems that only the fine can be worked off.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

That is helpful, except for the fact that paragraph 1(1)(a) defines that as a sum that

''consists of or includes a fine''.

Something else that is not defined may be included. There is still a problem with the wording, although perhaps I am misreading it. If the Minister cannot give an answer, I invite him to consider the wording again to ensure that it is correct. The principle is clear, but I am not sure that the definitions are accurate.

In my view the clamping or impounding of a car is an appropriate punishment for someone who defaults on motoring offences. Nothing is more guaranteed to focus the minds of people who have incurred motoring-related fines than the loss of their prized possession and the inability to use it. I support the Government on that.

On a slightly technical matter, the Bill is unclear—although perhaps it is clear in other statutes—about what the relationship is between the collection process, the application for benefit deductions, attachment of earnings orders and the relatively new benefits arrangements regarding minimum income guarantee and tax credits. I am unclear whether tax credits are dealt with as benefits for the purposes of the Bill and whether the minimum income guarantee might replace the money that had been removed by an attachment of earnings order. We would not want that to happen. The whole apparatus would be made nonsensical if the Government were effectively paying the fine through other Departments. Although I do not expect the Minister to give a comprehensive answer today on whether that is allowed for in the proposals, I ask him to consider that.

I strongly support the view of the hon. Member for Stafford on garnishee orders on non-employed people. That loophole is exploited far too often. The hon. Gentleman's view is sensible. Although the Minister was clear that there were arrangements for bodies corporate that were parallel to the provisions, I am not entirely sure that that is so. I should like to be satisfied that people could not evade fines by ensuring that the liability fell on the body corporate.

Are we to suppose that work orders will be administered by the same mechanism as community service orders?

Mr. Leslie indicated dissent.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:15 am, 10th July 2003

The Minister shakes his head. I was hoping that he would nod. It is silly to have two separate arrangements for administering work in the community as a penalty. I hear what the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said about the school in his constituency. However, a school in my constituency was delighted with the work done by people on a community service order and I do not understand why more of those orders are not used in the local community to produce something to the common good. I argued repeatedly in the Standing Committee on the Criminal Justice Bill that we should make community service orders far more visible and that they should be of more benefit to the community against which a crime is committed. One of the difficulties of persuading people that those are a good, effective form of punishment is that they are invisible and often do not have the desired effect of a

proper contribution being made to the community that was adversely affected by crime.

There are cost benefits from having a single scheme, rather than two. I have no problem with commuting a fine into a different form of punishment. However, I would be concerned if that resulted in an executive version of community service orders for nice middle-class people who do not want to pay a fine, while there was a different version for those who were ordered directly by the court to carry out community service. That would not be appropriate. As far as possible, there should be commonality between the two systems.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

I rise to make a speech, because if I said the following in an intervention, Mr. O'Brien, you would tell me off for taking too long.

The hon. Gentleman asked about which benefits could be attached. That is a good question, because with all the new tax benefits there is a lot of confusion about people's concessionary entitlement. I have certainly seen problems in my constituency. In paragraph 10 of new schedule 1, there is a definition:

'' 'relevant benefit' means a benefit from which the Secretary of State may make deductions by virtue of section 24 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. . . (recovery of fines etc. by deductions from income support etc.)''

I bet that that section of that Act has been amended a few times. It would be interesting to know what is now covered, although I do not suppose that we will have the answer today.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The very title of the section suggests that it has not moved with the times.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

I would not assume that for a moment. Every time we make new legislation, we are fiddling with past legislation and adding bits. It is a nightmare for lawyers to keep up with, not to mention for citizens who do not need lawyers.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome raised the question of garnishee orders. Perhaps as a result of our experiences with the pilots, we will know whether the power is necessary. What is the legislative position on that? The hon. Gentleman objected to clause 36(8), which gave to the Lord Chancellor a Henry VIII power to change any enactment in order to follow up a pilot. It is good to learn from the experiences of the pilot and to make adjustments to get the smoothest possible practice; we do not want to overburden Parliament by coming back for extra legislation. However, I query whether a fundamental change, such as introducing a garnishee power and attaching things others than earnings, should happen through secondary legislation. I would prefer that to be included in primary legislation. I accept that we are late on in the process, and perhaps I should have spoken up earlier than today—I apologise for not doing so—but I still think that it is a cracking good idea.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My hon. Friend is very good with his cracking good ideas—he is renowned for them. I appreciate them, even if they are new.

I thank the hon. Member for Surrey Heath for not speaking to every single amendment in the group as that would have significantly prolonged proceedings. I shall confine my remarks to amendments Nos. 49 and 50, to which he referred, and to amendment No. 55 on vehicle clamping.

The provisions in clause 36 are necessary if we are to implement the best possible fine collection scheme. By piloting different elements of the scheme in different areas, the effectiveness of the new measures can be evaluated. We will then be able to adjust any parts of the scheme that are found to be ineffective, and put to Parliament for approval by affirmative statutory instrument a package of tried and trusted measures for national roll-out.

Amendment No. 49 proposes that clause 36(8) should be deleted from the Bill. That would mean that the Lord Chancellor could not make an order that defined the collection scheme in the light of piloting. I am concerned that that might deny the full value of the pilot scheme. We need to have the ability to modify schemes, if necessary, to get the full value from pilots. The whole point of piloting is to identify weaknesses or unworkable parts of the scheme and then weed them out. It is likely that the pilots will provide opportunities to refine and tweak existing measures so that they operate more effectively, and that flexibility would be lost if the Government were to accept amendment No. 49. We should be prepared to learn from this new area of practice. The fact that the final package will be approved through affirmative procedure statutory instruments should give a certain level of assurance.

On amendment No. 50, I disagree with the point of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath that the early regulations must be subject to the affirmative procedure. It would be too burdensome to make any regulations for fines enforcement subject to the affirmative procedure, particularly as many of them will be primarily concerned with procedural matters, not substance. Indeed, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee did not recommend more than the negative procedure in that case. We should look to its suggestions on the matter.

On amendment No. 55, which is about the licensing of those who undertake vehicle clamping under the provisions of the Private Security Industry Act 2001, it is important to set out not only that clamping of defaulters' vehicles is an acceptable sanction to elicit payment of a fine, but that clamping is to be licensed. We do not want the cowboy clamping industry to view the measure as a way into the market.

There are concerns about who carries out clamping functions. We do not envisage that clamping of vehicles will be undertaken by fines officers. Enforcement action can be contracted out to approved agencies, and that will probably take place via the magistrates courts committees that are involved in the pilot. Regulations will clearly set out those who are authorised to carry out the enforcement of a clamping order, and I assure the Committee that enforcement functions will be contracted out to approved bodies. I hope that that gives a certain measure of assurance. I understand the point about

aligning regulations with other Acts of Parliament that touch on the issue.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath raised general queries about community punishment—what used to be known as community service orders. He was concerned that pilots of the work orders should not give the impression to those who have become cynical over the years that they are a soft option or not particularly effective or useful to the community itself. The Government want to ensure that the voluntary sector involved truly engages in a mechanism whereby useful activities can be undertaken for the community and for reparation for the misdeeds of the offender, and that the fine can be repaid and discharged in the way that we envisage.

Work orders will involve the consent of the individual concerned. Therefore, the level of activity is different from that of the traditional orders to which Opposition Members referred. Obviously, if the work order were not undertaken, the supervisor would report that to the fines officer and tougher sanctions would be triggered and would be consequent on the individual concerned. The Government are investigating forms of work order activity that are different from the community punishment orders administered by the probation service and others.

I understand the concerns of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about the duplication of systems. Again, the piloting process will help to flesh out whether there is, effectively, a lesser tariff for discharging a fine than the punishment under a community punishment order. That is the reason why the different schemes have been envisaged, but I shall consider the matter as it develops during the pilot.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:30 am, 10th July 2003

I am trying to understand clearly what is envisaged. Is it to be assumed that the work required will have an assumed monetary value, which will be consistent for work irrespective of the abilities of the person involved? We should not have a situation where someone who used to be an accountant discharges the fine in half an hour when someone who does not have those executive skills would need to work for a week to get to the same point.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

We are envisaging a flat-rate equivalent so that a number of pounds per hour would be discharged under the system. We have not finalised the value of the fine that would be discharged in any given hour, but that is the sort of the approach we shall take. It will be a fair scheme in that sense, and I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about a number of other issues. First, he asked about compensation orders and whether they would be effectively discountable for prompt payment. I can assure him that they would not be eligible for discount. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford rightly pointed out the ''relevant sum'' is clearly defined in paragraph 1(2) of new schedule 2. The system of compensation orders would not be affected. It is the fine alone that would be subject to discount, if we discount in that manner in some of the pilot schemes.

On the question of work orders, I can also assure the hon. Gentleman that we do not envisage that people will be able to work away the compensation order. The work order relates to the fine and not to compensation. I am glad that he welcomed the new tool of vehicle clamping available to fines officers. That is an important new initiative which, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said, will drive home—please pardon the pun—the issue of a fine to the offender.

Photo of Stephen Hesford Stephen Hesford Labour, Wirral West

Forgive me for taking a simple approach, but would it be better in sentencing guidelines not to fine someone in the first place, but to give a community penalty? That would avoid going through this process when people cannot pay and getting to the community penalty at the end.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

Different offenders have different penalties imposed on them by the courts and the courts are the best people to judge what the penalty should be. Fines are one of the main vehicles by which courts impose sanctions, and they are a good sanction. A fine can be an important disincentive to further offending. I would not want to see a diminution of fining. I should like to see a reduction in the defaulting on and dodging of fines. Sadly, too many people are getting away with not paying their dues.

The package of new measures puts together an administrative net to throw around the system to ensure that offenders who have been fined do not have access to such dodges and escapes. They will be given every incentive—not just encouragement, but sanctions—to ensure that those fines are collected. They are a genuine advance and I look forward to seeing how the pilots work.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford asked on the attachment of benefits orders which benefits would be taken in. The only benefits that would be applicable would be income support and jobseeker's allowance. Tax credit arrangements would not be affected in that way. That is the clear advice I have from the drafting, and I hope that that is a helpful assurance to the Committee.

My hon. Friend raised the matter of garnishee orders and the self-employed. If the Committee will allow me I should like to return to that point, look at it in a little more detail and perhaps write to my hon. Friend and the rest of the Committee about how we envisage such individuals being brought into the system. The point is interesting and I should like to investigate it further. I do not want a system in which anyone has a way out just because of the nature of their personal employment.

On work orders, I think that I have already answered the point raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and the other issues raised. I hope that the Committee will see that this measure is a significant advance. We hope that the pilots will eventually lead to a much stronger national system of fine collection and a better regime, making sure that, as a nation, we raise our game in the collection of fines imposed in the courts. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see fit not to press his amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 36, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 3 disagreed to.