Clause 6 - Power to give fixed penalty notices

Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 18th January 2005.

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Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:45 pm, 18th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 24, in clause 6, page 7, line 15, at end insert—

'( ) The local authority shall provide the authorised officer with the means or equipment by which the officer may contact the police directly and request immediate assistance at any time during the issue or attempted issue of a fixed penalty notice.'. 

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 25, in clause 19, page 15, line 20, at end insert—

'( ) After subsection (1) insert—

''( ) The litter authority shall provide the authorised officer with the means or equipment by which the officer may contact the police directly and request immediate assistance at any time during the issue or attempted issue of a fixed penalty notice.''.'.

No. 26, in clause 23, page 23, line 21, at end insert—

'( ) The principal litter authority shalll provide the authorised officer with the means or equipment by which the officer may contact the police directly and request immediate assistance at any time during the seizure or attempted seizure of material under sub-paragraph (1) above.'.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

I would like to discuss the narrow points raised by the amendments, before having a more general discussion on the clause stand part.

I think that I am right in saying—I will stand corrected if the Minister contradicts me—that most of the fixed penalty notices would be imposed either by the police or by local authorities. Will he confirm that? We believe that that is not clear in the original drafting. We want to see that the police will still maintain a residual authority. There is general concern about how the fixed penalty notices will apply. We believe that the amendment, which is meant in the most constructive way possible, could assist the Government in ensuring that fixed penalty notices will be applied by all relevant officers—either of the local authority or of the local police force.

Amendment No. 25 refers to clause 19, so I presume that I can address it now, but not formally move it until we reach clause 19.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

Order. We can debate the amendment concerned. It does not have to be moved at this stage.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

On the issue of fixed penalty notices, we are reiterating the point that we raised in relation to earlier provisions: we believe that we are getting too far away from the good co-operation that we have seen between police forces and local authorities, whether in regard to nuisance car parking or, as in clause 19, the authority responsible for litter. That is why we want to state specifically—I hope that the Minister will agree to this—that the authorised officer will be given the means or equipment to

''contact the police directly and request immediate assistance''.

Some altercations and extremely unpleasant situations could arise. We understand that, in other parts of the Bill, officers such as environmental health officers or local government officers will not have the power of arrest. If that is the case, the provisions in this area of the Bill will be prevented from taking effect. If an officer cannot apprehend a culprit who is being particularly belligerent or aggressive, we believe that it is important that the police work jointly with the relevant local authority.

Amendment No. 26 would amend clause 23, which deals with controls on free distribution of printed matter. I apologise for the typo in the amendment. The   word ''shall'' normally has only two l's—or perhaps I see three because my glasses are playing up. Again, we want the police and the local authority—in this case, the litter authority—to act together.

Perhaps it was not his intention, but it seemed that the Minister studiously ignored my remarks on the scenario in Boston and other parts of the United States, where there is seamless co-operation on enforcement between the local authority and the police. That is a federal system in which local authorities are responsible for the enforcement of provisions that are similar to those we are discussing. The local authority officials work seamlessly and jointly with police officers. I humbly submit that the provisions that the Minister is introducing in this part and this clause will be for nought if there is not continued involvement with the local police force. With those introductory remarks, I await the Minister's response.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities 4:00 pm, 18th January 2005

We will not support the amendments. We are slightly baffled by them, as they all ask that the local authority

''provide the authorised officer with the means or equipment by which the officer may contact the police directly''.

My understanding is that dialling 999 on a mobile phone has the effect of contacting the police directly. I am not aware that local authorities have other means of contacting the police directly in any other circumstances in which a fixed penalty is issued or in which any other form of enforcement—for example, an eviction notice—is carried out. Therefore, the amendments would result in unnecessary centralisation by the Conservatives, who would dictate to councils what they should do. They ought to leave it up to the good judgment of local authorities to decide whether they need to spend money on such devices.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I have no doubt about the integrity of the hon. Member for Vale of York in tabling the amendments, so she will appreciate that I am teasing her when I say that I am not sure whether mobile phone companies and radio companies were included in the long list of interests that she declared earlier.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Minister is absolutely right to mention that. As a result of a recent BT division, I may now have some O2 shares, whatever good that does me. Perhaps the Minister would like to purchase them from me.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am not sure how to respond to that bid.

I do not think that we need to prescribe that local authorities must issue authorised officers with mobile phones or portable radios, or make arrangements centrally. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) that the amendments would lead to excessive centralisation. Common sense suggests that an employer who is asking employees to undertake such duties ought to consider their training and ensure that they are aware of how to seek help if they need it. This is part of a general co-operative   approach at local level between the police and the local authority, above all others, but involving many other organisations as well. Indeed, that is what clause 1 is about.

In later clauses, we provide legislation that will enable the partnership to do its work. Some actions will be taken by local authorities, some will be taken by the police and some will be taken by other organisations. The seamless co-operation between the local authority and the police that we want is not hindered by anything in clause 6.

I was interested recently to see a co-operative exercise in Birmingham, where the police, the local authority, DEFRA, the Environment Agency and a variety of other agencies including the Revenue were examining vehicles and asking questions about what was wrong with them. It was interesting that the issues of overloading, safety and the use of red diesel and the possibility of criminal activity were all teased out through the teamwork of officers and officials from a variety of different central Government and local government organisations.

Rather than amend the clause, we can leave it to local authorities' common sense to ensure that their officers are properly trained and equipped. We certainly encourage that as good practice, and when I say ''we'' I mean not just DEFRA but the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Office, as well as the Local Government Association, which is very much engaged with us in discussing the appropriate ways of ensuring that best practice is provided and spread. Co-operation between local authorities and the police is normally good; it will be further encouraged by crime and disorder reduction partnerships.

Ways of dealing with and preventing the activity that is addressed by the clauses from becoming a problem in the local area will be identified by the work of the partnership, and therefore supported by the police, although local authority officials will undertake the work. My understanding is that local authorities will cover matters such as conflict management when training authorised officers to issue fixed penalty notices. The amendments are unnecessary and rather patronising to local authorities, which will apply common sense in training their officers appropriately.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

You will notice, Mr. Taylor, that I did not refer to training of officers. I wish to consider that separately.

What the hon. Member for Ludlow said was extremely revealing and rather startling to hear from the Liberal Democrats—we have come to accept that sort of thing from Labour Members. I am very conscious of the fact that I represent an extremely rural area—probably the most extremely rural area of that represented by any hon. Member present. In my part of the world we have had great problems with mobile phone communications, to such an extent that the police radio network did not work. Both my pager and my mobile phone either have very poor reception or fail to receive a signal at all. That may be anecdotal evidence, but if one multiplies it, it can be said that   such problems arise in many instances. I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman, who claims to come from a rural area, does not understand those problems.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I do not normally leap to the defence of Liberal Democrats, but the hon. Lady does not seem to know how rural Ludlow or West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire are. Rural areas are well represented in this Committee, and in my previous incarnation I was well aware of communications problems experienced by police and local authorities. The problem does not feature everywhere, so it is in the places where it does so that training should take account of the best way of communicating and ensure that officers are able to deal with any issues that arise in a way appropriate to their area.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

Order. Interventions should not be short speeches.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

Thank you, Mr. Taylor—however interesting that intervention was.

The most alarming incident—I have never heard of this happening before—took place during the recent high winds that affected Cumbria, Northumberland, County Durham and North Yorkshire, when we lost the mobile network completely. If there is a very poor signal, it is normally still strong enough to make emergency calls, but in that instance there was no network whatever. I am sure that the Committee would join me in expressing satisfaction that that does not happen too often. I shall return to the question of training in the clause stand part debate.

I am disappointed that the Minister thought that our helpful, probing and constructive amendments were disagreeable. He referred to the crime and disorder reduction partnerships, but our concern is that the police are being excluded from them. In response to a question this morning from my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who had in mind neighbourhood watches, the Minister would not list the organisations in the partnerships. The farm watches in rural North Yorkshire make a huge contribution to reducing crime and antisocial behaviour, so I hope that he will look favourably on them. He also failed to say what the position would be with regard to young offenders and children, but we can take that up later.

Those are our reasons for tabling the amendments, but I believe that there is scope for more work on the provisions. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on the clause and on other measures in this part of the Bill. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

I want to turn to the broader points on the clause, on which the Minister touched a little prematurely.

The Minister will be aware that a great deal of opinion has been expressed, perhaps most eloquently and forcefully by the Law Society, on the further   expansion of the use of fixed penalty notices, as envisaged in the clause. I hope that, from his sedentary position, he is not indicating that he has a problem with lawyers from either branch of the profession. That would put him in bad odour not only with the leader of his party, the Prime Minister, but with many others, including the Lord Chancellor.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

Not many of my friends say that. I hope that the Minister will take my comments in good part.

I am sure that the Law Society will have responded to the consultation process, although, regrettably, that is not shown in the summary of responses that is available on the web. The Law Society has reservations; in its view, it is essential that only properly trained officials issue notices. As a non-practising member of the Faculty of Advocates, I have some sympathy with the Law Society, which says that

''the Bill provides local authorities''— in England and Wales

''with the power to delegate to their employees the imposition of such notices.''

However, the Bill is silent on the level of employee that is to be responsible. The Law Society goes on to say:

''As a result, they''— fixed penalty notices—

''are likely to be issued by officials who are not fully aware of their legal significance.''

Therefore, the clause is one of the most contentious that we have considered so far.

Recipients of a fixed penalty notice should, for example, be advised that failure to pay could result in an increase in the penalty, with its conversion into a court fine and liability to prosecution. I heard what the Minister said, and I am sure that he will wish to elaborate on the response that he gave to the previous group of amendments, but the fixed penalty notices are quite substantial. Again, perhaps he will confirm whether they are discretionary.

The Government have already established the fact that a significant proportion of fixed penalty notices are not paid, resulting in court orders. The Law Society says that ''suspects''—I think that we call them the accused—

''should be made aware of their entitlement to appeal against a Fixed Penalty Notice and there must be appropriate procedures for such appeals to be heard.''

Clause 6 and the rest of this part of the Bill are silent about what right of appeal there will be.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

The hon. Lady has never had a parking ticket in this country, but I confess that I got one when my husband took me on my first ever visit to the United States. It was a rather romantic interlude in West Palm Beach, in a rather nice part of Florida—  

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

Order. This is fascinating, but will the hon. Lady please return to the stand part debate?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

The relevant point is that I innocently said to my husband—perhaps I should not confess this—that one perhaps did not need to pay the parking fine because the vehicle was hired and one would not be returning to Florida immediately. However, I was apprised of the fact that one would be unable to hire a car on any future visit to anywhere in the United States. That may commend itself to the Minister as a good enforcement measure. Having said all that, I shall probably now get a succession of parking fines, and I shall blame them entirely on this monstrous Government, although not the Minister personally.

Will the Minister respond to the serious point? How will those served with a fixed penalty notice be told that they can appeal? What are the appropriate procedures for that appeal? Why are they not set out in the Bill? What assurance can he give the Committee, the Law Society and all other interested parties, including future recipients of fixed penalty notices, on the consequences? What training, guidelines and regulations does he intend to put in place?

The Law Society is also concerned about the consequences for social exclusion of extending the use of fixed penalty notices, and the Minister will recall that I raised the issue when summing up on Second Reading. Unfortunately, one unintended consequence may be that those who are least able to pay will be subject to the increasing use of fixed penalty notices. This is the view of the Law Society:

''If the majority of Notices are issued against the more deprived members of society, their financial situation will only be made worse. The level of the Fixed Penalty Notice does not take into account the means of the recipient and could therefore have a disproportionate effect on someone reliant on benefits. The Government must weigh the risk of further social exclusion with its commitment to tackling the 'causes of crime'''— in this case, environmental crime.

I commend the Law Society's parliamentary brief to the Minister, because it raises some serious points.

Page 86 of the Department's full regulatory impact assessment says that the provisions on nuisance vehicles—not abandoned vehicles—are expected to raise receipts to local authorities. The sums are worked out as to receipts being raised at a 50 or a 75 per cent. payment rate. As the Law Society accurately points out, the problem with fixed penalty notices is that many are simply not paid. Whose responsibility will it be to ensure that the permanent address of those issued with a fixed penalty notice is taken to guarantee payment?

Clause 6(1) states that

''the officer may give that person a notice offering him the opportunity of discharging any liability to conviction . . . by payment of a fixed penalty''.

Is the Minister saying that the notice can be issued only by an officer of the local authority? The provision could give rise to conviction for failure to pay, so will there be a role for the police? In the United States, there has been seamless co-operation and residual responsibility has been left with the police as to payment of such fixed penalty notices. That   eventuality did not arise in our case, because we spent half a day presenting ourselves at the local police station in West Palm Beach, Florida, to ensure that the parking fine was paid.

When a person is given notice in respect of an offence, no proceedings may be instigated before a period of 14 days has elapsed. That begs the question, what if the person issued a fixed penalty notice has fled the area? What precautions will the Minister take against that? If a severe offence had been committed, the police would normally engage in hot pursuit. Will the police be involved? How will they ascertain where the person has absconded to?

Clause 6(3) states:

''A notice . . . must give such particulars of the circumstances alleged to constitute the offence as are necessary for giving reasonable information of the offence.''

Who will decide what is reasonable information?

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

In general, I share some of the hon. Lady's concerns about fixed penalty notices, but clause 6 relates to offences committed under clauses 3 or 4—such notices will be issued mainly to companies. Presumably, if the company flees the scene, the problem will have been resolved because cars will no longer be parked on the road for sale. I am struggling to see where she is coming from.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

We stand to be corrected by the Minister.

The Library notes inform us, and subsection (8) is clear, that:

''The fixed penalty payable to a local authority . . . is, subject to subsection (9), £100.''

Under subsection (9), that amount can be amended, so it will be helpful to know by how much it could change. Could it increase to as much as £1,000 or will there be a limit? Does the Minister believe that to be a substantial fine? If, as the hon. Member for Ludlow reminded us, those fined will be companies—though individuals within a company may be prosecuted—£100 is not a substantial figure, given that lucrative business could have taken place.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

The hon. Lady will be aware, as she was in the Room, that we discussed the level of fine, if it is not a fixed penalty notice, under amendments Nos. 29 and 30. The Minister assured us that the Government were considering increasing the amount from £1,000 to £2,500 where a prosecution is sought rather than a fixed penalty notice issued. We have already covered this.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

With the greatest respect, it is not. The Government have given an undertaking, but it has not been written into the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman has strengthened my argument that it is extremely important that people should be aware of what the offence is and, if those who commit it are to be liable to conviction, it is important for the local authority officer to be given the requisite training.   The Minister paid lip service to such training, but the clause does not explain what the training will be. He has not satisfied either me or the Law Society on the training and what level of official will implement the fixed penalty notices.

It is generally assumed from the representations and the responses to consultation that there will be nothing like a 50 per cent. payment rate for fixed penalty notices. The Committee can at least agree about that. As a result, all the calculations for the impact of fixed penalty notices on page 86 of the regulatory impact assessment are redundant.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful for the moment or two of entertainment during those exchanges, but I was most let down when the hon. Lady informed us that she had paid the fine. By the minute, I was expecting a warrant for extradition to the United States to appear and her to be dragged off, in which case, I am tempted to say, our proceedings might be rather shorter.

I do not agree with the Law Society's analysis or its comments on such matters. I am tempted to think that there might be a wish to defend the amount of activity in our courts, although I am sure that the views expressed by the Law Society are genuinely held. However, of course there needs to be appropriate training for those issuing fixed penalty notices. It needs to be appropriate to the activities being undertaken and the locality of the work. There will be big differences throughout the country.

I recall my many years as a magistrate. The time wasted on simple, straightforward offences when someone who had committed an offence could pay the fine and let everyone get on with their business, preferably with the offence not being repeated, was enormous. By that, I mean the time of the court, the magistrates, witnesses, police officers who would have been on the streets and local authority officers who would otherwise have been about their business.

The fixed penalty notice is a positive step as it will save time, make life straightforward for people and encourage enforcement authorities to undertake simple procedure, rather than thinking that if they act in response to a particular incident they will have to spend a few days in court, incur costs and waste time.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

Does the Minister agree that there can be genuine concerns about fixed penalty notices, especially with regard to social exclusion? However, that is not likely to apply under the clause, which is about people running businesses either repairing or selling cars on the highway. In such circumstances, we are not considering catching a 15-year-old cycling on the pavement and other less appropriate uses of fixed penalty notices.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, which I shall not repeat. There is a serious argument about unpaid notices needing to be chased up if there develops a sense in which they mean that nothing happens, rather than prosecution and, therefore, the likelihood of a heavier penalty and more inconvenience, which would be detrimental.

The hon. Member for Vale of York asked what level the penalty might rise to. That will be a matter for the House. Penalty notices will be fixed if a change is made by statutory instrument, and therefore the normal parliamentary scrutiny will apply. The purpose of the provision is to put in place the lesson that very often a fixed penalty notice can be a simple and effective means of conveying the point that certain activities are not acceptable. It is one way of ensuring that a clear, early signal is sent about that type of company activity, but I agree that, if necessary, prosecution should apply. We need to consider the level of penalty to ensure that it is sufficient to make it not profitable to break the law.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.