New clause 42 - Powers of authorised officers executing warrants

Part of Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 6th July 2004.

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Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 2:30 pm, 6th July 2004

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.