New clause 42 - Powers of authorised officers executing warrants

Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee on 6th July 2004.

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'(1) After section 125B of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 (c.43) insert—

''125BA Powers of persons authorised under section 125A or 125B

Schedule 4A to this Act, which confers powers on persons authorised under section 125A or 125B for the purpose of executing warrants for the enforcement of fines and other orders, shall have effect.''

(2) After Schedule 4 to that Act insert the Schedule set out in Schedule (Powers of authorised officers executing warrants) to this Act.'.

—[Mr. Leslie.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Question proposed [this day], That the clause be read a Second time.

Question again proposed.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne 2:30 pm, 6th July 2004

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following: Government new clause 43—Disclosure orders for purpose of executing warrants.

Government new clause 44—Procedure on breach of community penalty etc.

Government new schedule 2—Powers of authorised officers executing warrants.

Government new schedule 3—Procedure on breach of community penalty etc.

Government amendments Nos. 125 and 126.

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

I welcome you to the Committee this afternoon, Dame Marion. I was exploring the difficulties that could flow from Government new clause 42 and new schedule 2, which deal with the powers of authorised officers executing warrants. I was explaining my concerns about an individual who is probably very skilled and conscientious in what they do, but who nevertheless has not been trained and does not work within structures such as those of a police force, in which someone who holds the office of constable would work. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) appropriately widened the concerns, and it is a substantial concern to me that such an individual would not be trained in arrest. They will be trained if they have a good employer, but not all of them will necessarily be trained in that area.

Those people will be working within a structure that has no obvious rank structure—there is no senior officer to whom they are responsible, as a police

constable would be responsible to a basic command unit commander or, in the final reckoning, to a chief constable—and no recognised complaints structure. Indeed, the Minister's failure to provide even a glimmering of a structure this morning suggests that that has not figured much in the Government's thinking so far.

There is also a real fear—although I do not want to overstate this—that occasionally an officer will take action in circumstances involving delicate community relations, for which we insist that police officers have special training. We go out of our way to ensure that they exercise their powers of arrest, and particularly their powers of search, properly. Indeed, a huge study has just been launched to ensure that police officers use the power of search appropriately. None of that applies to authorised officers.

I foresee a further operational problem. One advantage of not being able to effect a forced entry to premises or to make an arrest without a constable attached is that the local police will be aware of the circumstances, and of what is happening. There is therefore a clear opportunity for the local police commander to say, ''Hang on a minute, you will jeopardise a police operation if you do things in that way at that time.'' There is a real possibility that a court official could arrive halfway through a surveillance, blast their way through the door and start doing cack-handed searches while the crime squad waits outside, frustrated by the fact that its entire operation is being brought to naught by such action.

The Minister is smiling, as if that would not happen. Let him consider the history of operations in which more than one force was involved, or in which a force and Her Majesty's Customs and Excise have failed to communicate properly. If he considers all the opportunities for destroying what may have required many months of patient police work, he will realise that this is a real threat, which should be avoided.

For all those reasons, I am wary of the proposal. I want effective enforcement of court orders and fines imposed by a court. I want things to happen within the rule of law, and I want to ensure that everyone involved is properly trained, and that there is redress beyond the very basic redress of a civil remedy that the Minister seems to advocate in the case of an action that falls outside the scope of paragraph 2 of new schedule 2. We are not yet satisfied that that is the case.

I want to ask one direct question. The authorised officer is defined as an authorised officer as specified in the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980. Could that include, mutatis mutandis, the designated officers under the Courts Act 2003? It seems to me that although they would not normally be operating in those circumstances, there is a mix and match between them. There are fines officers appointed by the Lord Chancellor, there are designated officers under the Courts Act who are, effectively, appointed by the local magistrates bench, and there are these authorised officers. I want to ensure that we are talking about the same species in all instances, and that there is a

read-across between the different pieces of legislation. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response, because he has not yet convinced me that this is not a hefty sledgehammer with which to crack a relatively small nut.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

I do not want to detain the Committee for long. I have said before that I would like the collection of fines to improve, and the Minister has told me that the level of collection under his jurisdiction has improved, which is a matter for great rejoicing.

However, I know from other Front-Bench utterances that the Government will seek to rely increasingly on fines. It seems to me that these provisions are fairly draconian, in order to back up that policy; the level of fine collection must remain the same or improve, so that the Government's intentions are not defeated.

I am particularly worried about one aspect. On 30 June, the Minister sent a letter to me explaining these latest amendments, and it says that they would establish certain powers. One is a primary data-sharing power to enable the courts to demand access to data held by credit reference and financial institutions. I appreciate that that is a limited amount of information, but the demand itself may have unintended consequences. Therefore, I want to probe a little further what is in the Minister's mind.

It seems to me that the very act of demanding access to data held by a bank, a financial institution or a credit reference agency might in itself cause that bank, financial institution or credit organisation to draw adverse inferences about the individual who the courts have in their sights. How does the Minister view that demand from the court? Will it be accompanied by a proviso to ensure that the institution of which the inquiry is being made draws no adverse inferences from the inquiry? How will the citizen be protected? When the state takes for the courts powers that allow any financial institution and any credit reference organisation to be accessed, we have to ensure that there are no unintended consequences.

In the past—even some Committee members might know this—if people did not make payments on their American Express cards, the company was particularly vociferous in ensuring that their credit ratings went down all round the world. When someone is travelling a long distance and is away from home for six or eight weeks, that can be a bit embarrassing, because if they pay their credit card by cheque they have not been at home to do so. When they find that they have a bad credit rating that has followed them to the other end of the world, it can cause difficulties. I seek assurances from the Minister, because that is important.

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

First, it would be useful to address the point about data sharing and the data disclosure order, which the hon. Lady raised. She made a reasonable point about the act of demanding rather than simply requesting. As I have said, I do not think that the data disclosure order will be required frequently, because I hope that through discussions and persuasive means we can get

the consent of different public and private organisations to share data on the limited basis that we are talking about—using the national insurance number, address, name or date of birth for the purposes of preventing crime and ensuring that sentences are upheld. Where those orders need to be made—I can envisage such circumstances—we will have the coercive power to ensure that that data is relinquished to the court. That is justifiable.

Some may have asked whether the provision is compatible with general human rights such as the right to privacy; in a sense, the hon. Lady's point touches on those issues. However, the provision is justified for the sake of preventing crime. The need to uphold the deterrent effect of sentences and sanctions gives us a justification for stepping into the realm of private data. That is part of the data protection arrangements that are already well entrenched.

The hon. Lady may not be familiar with this, but a pilot is taking place in south Yorkshire under provisions in the Courts Act 2003 for a register of judgments to be set up. Fines would be put on a register available to financial institutions. That would be an additional deterrent for individuals and would ensure that they paid their fines when they were due. We are testing that principle in the field to see how it works. It has received a lot of publicity, and many people who have felt that their credit rating may be affected by defaulting on criminal fines have been persuaded to pay them more readily. That is a perfectly legitimate incentive to give someone convicted of a criminal offence, to ensure that they pay their fine. I take on board the point that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham asked about, but as we need to ensure that the courts have the information to pursue enforcement, the provision is warranted and reasonable.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

I was not aware of the pilot but I will be interested to see the outcome of it. I am worried, because surely a name, date of birth, national insurance number and address can be obtained from sources other than financial institutions and credit reference agencies—so why go to those lengths? This is effectively a ''name and shame'' policy; surely the courts and the Government can provide that information from their own records on individuals.

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

Indeed, we hope that the bulk of the information is already in the public sector and in the public realm. However, we are finding that certain individuals manage to evade that possibility: they simply never put their names on the driving licence database, complete their tax returns or anything else. They manage to skip through society without recording themselves in a consistent and verifiable way. Yet, they will still be able to get credit, loans and access to resources through the private sector and the financial services industry, which, on occasion, quite happy to co-operate.

In some circumstances we need the back-stop ability to say that we have this power, and we want the extra information. I am sure that the hon. Lady knows that although the public sector's computerised recording systems and many other databases are near-perfect, from time to time there is a loophole or

lacuna and things are missed out. We should be able to get the information from other sources, which is why the provision has been included. It will be interesting to see the outcome of the pilot in south Yorkshire concerning the deterrent effect. Although this measure will not have precisely the same effect, it is in harmony with those changes.

I shall deal with the points raised by the hon. Members for Beaconsfield and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). I am sorry that they are cautious about these measures and have used the word ''draconian'' and other doom-and-gloom terms. There are sufficient safeguards in place to ensure that they will work effectively.

Both hon. Gentlemen are concerned about complaints processes. We must not forget that civilian enforcement officers have been around for a long time and, from time to time, complaints have been made against them. Such a complaint goes to the manager of the enforcement section of the magistrates court committee. If no satisfaction is received at that stage, the complaint moves to the justices' chief executive of the magistrates court committee, whose adjudication on the complaint is normally final as far that that organisation is concerned. If any further redress is necessary, it falls to the courts to sort it out—for example, individual officers can be sued for trespass if they have used force, and so on. It is important not to neglect the fact enforcement officers will need guidance and training—which we already provide—particularly as they step up into the realm of approved enforcement activity. We will continue to do that.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned the onset of the new fines officer posts. The Courts Act 2003 will already be kicking in in many magistrates courts authorities. There is a significant package of training and best practice guidance rolling out throughout the country, not least in anticipation of unified administration, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that the necessary training for fines officers to operate these provisions satisfactorily will be incorporated in it.

There is a need to consider the adequacy of the complaints arrangements. Although I a little bit sceptical about whether that is necessary, I am aware that the White Paper published in March 2003, which considered enforcement and security industry issues in general, speculated about whether it might be possible for the Security Industry Authority—established as a statutory body—to contain a complaints board. We have not come to that conclusion in relation to criminal fine enforcement activity, but in the light of the comments made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, I will talk to my colleagues who are involved in that area of policy and see whether we can investigate that idea further. My feeling is that it is not necessary and the current provisions are suitable.

The hon. Gentleman concluded that we were talking about bailiffs. It is important not to regard all the individuals involved as bailiffs—or, as we traditionally know them, those involved in serving

distress warrants and sequestering or seizing goods to pay for debts. We are, by and large, talking about civilian fine enforcement officers who have warrants for arrest and arrest people, and take them to court using bail and no-bail warrants; they are already engaged with and trained in a number of relevant activities. We are talking about all officers authorised by the court to act on its behalf who are acting after due process has been gone through in respect of each of the individuals concerned. The individual will have been convicted of a criminal offence, will have a sentence outstanding and will already have been subject to attempts to enforce that sentence; the different avenues will have been fruitlessly explored. In extreme situations, a point may be reached where there is a need for face-to-face visits, arrest and, if necessary, entry to property to ensure that the sentence is upheld.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:45 pm, 6th July 2004

I am grateful to hear about some of the different avenues. I am still a little confused about the differences between authorised officers in the Bill and designated officers and fines officers in the Courts Act 2003. Is one group a subset of the other, or is each group entirely distinct, in which case some will not have the powers that accrue from the new clause and proposed new schedule 4A to the specific category of authorised officers appointed under the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980?

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

That is a fair point. The hon. Gentleman knows that the courts are in a transitional phase. We are changing from having 42 magistrates courts committees, which approve their own officers to execute warrants of the same type that can be executed by any civilian enforcement officer across the country, to a new system under unified administration wherein, in effect, civil servants will have the new powers once they become fines officers; that will give them the extra powers under the Courts Act. We anticipate that the individuals will largely be the same, although technically the post is different so it comes with requirements for training and expertise. The jobs will be similar and parallel, but fines officer posts will be introduced along with unified administration in April 2005.

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

I am sorry to labour the point, but, in that case, the amendment does not give the powers to the right people. There is nothing in the Courts Act that redesignates people who are authorised officers under section 125A of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 as the officers who are referred to in the 2003 Act. I ask the Minister to look at that again, as there seems to be some disjunction.

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

I will look at that again. Our intention is that the powers will apply to fines officers as they will be known from April 2005. I would have thought that there was an amendment to the 2003 Act relating to changes to the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980.

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

If the hon. Gentleman cannot find it, I shall certainly look. We want to make sure that the changes are technically watertight.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that such powers should be exercised only by the police. As I said, it is

important that we try not to place the burden of court enforcement on the police on all occasions, which is what we might have to do if we continue with the requirement for having a police officer at all times.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I do not share the view that the powers have to be exercised by the police—indeed, I am not 100 per cent. whether that was what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome was saying. We agreed in respect of those who exercise the powers that we must be mindful of the impact that that exercise is likely to have, and that there should be adequate preparation. In particular, there should be proper mechanisms of accountability and consultation for what I fear could otherwise become a freelance operation. The Minister said that the officers in question are not bailiffs. Of course, they are not, but he knows that many of them will come from that background.

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

I understand the point that both hon. Gentlemen are making, but there is sufficient structure and accountability in the courts themselves through the management of the enforcement sections and the justices' chief executives, which are responsible for managing them. There is a good structure in place for complaints, discipline, training and supervision.

I was intrigued by the point that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made about the possibility of a police SWAT—special weapons and tactics—team camping outside someone's door, only for a hapless enforcement officer to come along and ruin it all by appearing on the scene. Of course, at present, enforcement officers knock on doors, make arrests, take people away and so forth, so any problems envisaged with the provisions in future should be occurring now, and we do not think that there are any. There are good relationships between police and court enforcement staff and there is liaison between them, and we hope that that will continue. However, that does not necessarily mean that enforcement officers should require a police officer to come with them whenever they are enforcing in a significant way, such as when they are searching or entering a property.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield raised the issue of transferring community penalty breach warrants and asked how courts would be apprised of the full facts of a case if a different court had been considering it. I appreciate his experience in some of these matters. He suggested that courts sometimes do not have all the paperwork to hand. We will put in place systems that will improve the transmission of information from one court to another—indeed, transferring the whole order to another court should ensure that the information and files go there as part of that process. As we move towards improved information technology and better use of it by the courts, I am confident that those problems will begin to disappear.

The new clauses and new schedules are vital to the next phase of improving fine enforcement. Although I understand the points raised by Opposition Members, I regret that we have not focused sufficiently on the need to uphold the decision of the courts to collect compensation on behalf of victims. That would make

sure that the balance is shifted in favour of the victims of crime and the law-abiding public, and that we close loopholes for those who have been convicted of criminal offences. I believe that the new clauses and schedules will make an appreciable difference to the powers in the enforcement process, and I commend them to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.