Clause 60 - Amount of fixed penalties

Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 25th January 2005.

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Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:45 pm, 25th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 109, in clause 60, page 53, line 21, from 'order' to 'is' in line 25.

I meant to speak on clause 59 stand part, but I guess that I have missed my opportunity. However, I am sure that there will be ways of raising those issues at a later date.

The amendment has been tabled because of concern raised with Opposition Committee members by interested bodies about the effects of this clause. There is concern about the principle that local authorities should set their own penalty levels for dog-control offences. Before I get to the meat of the amendment, it might be sensible to make the remarks that I was going to make about clause 59. A real burden and additional administrative work would be imposed on local authorities as a result of this regime change. I think that we can all agree on that. The fear is that there would be pressure on local authorities to raise expenditure, to put it crudely, through the over-use of fixed-penalty notices. It would be disappointing to discover that local authorities thought that way, but we are aware of how certain constabularies use speed cameras as a means of revenue generation.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Opposition Whip (Commons) 4:15 pm, 25th January 2005

The point that I had reached before we were interrupted was that there was potential for local authorities to be over-zealous and to use a fixed penalty notice regime as a nice little earner.

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

I should be interested to know whether it has occurred to the hon. Gentleman that it would be open to the population—dog owners, in particular—to frustrate any attempts by a local authority to use these provisions as a fund-raising measure simply by not committing any offences.

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Opposition Whip (Commons)

The logic of the Minister's argument is impeccable, but it is not a logic that has managed to operate in the sphere of car speeding. Individuals believe that they are committing offences only because over-zealous authorities place cameras where there is allegedly no safety problem—and clocking motorists for offences that, in the eyes or minds of car drivers, probably should not be taken to prosecution or a fine.

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

Order. Could I bring the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds back to Amendment No. 109 to clause 6?

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Opposition Whip (Commons)

I will, of course, return to the amendment.

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

I want to make the point to the hon. Gentleman that these provisions actually require local authorities to decide where the powers will apply. They are, of course, accountable to their local communities—whereas the other circumstances, into which I will not trespass, are entirely different.

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Opposition Whip (Commons)

I note that my analogy is not a perfect one. The analogy that I was seeking to draw, but that I will not discuss further for fear of attracting Mr. Taylor's strictures, is that there are fine mechanisms in place outside the dog control world where authorities—in this case motor authorities, camera partnerships and so forth—have been able allegedly to generate money through the zealous imposition of fines and penalty notices. Now, there is at least a risk of that happening, though as the Minister correctly points out, there is a democratic lock on the ability of authorities to behave in that way. It would be better if authorities did not see fixed penalty notices as a cash generation device.

I note that the Kennel Club accepts in principle the new regime on penalty notices. It has not objected to extending the power to issue fixed penalty notices to other bodies—such as contractors employed by a local authority for this purpose—provided that they are competent and well trained to a national standard. That leads to the whole question of the amount of penalties in clause 60 and the amendment to it and whether there will be adequately trained officers to carry out duties on behalf of local authorities who wish   to employ them. We need to have confidence that this regime will be enforced in a fair way and that the rules will be enforced sensibly. If these new powers for fixed penalties are to have the respect of the dog owning public, they must be effective. The question of those officers enforcing the law needs to be addressed in the Minister's comments.

The level of fixed penalty notices logically follows on from the regime of fixed penalty notices. The setting by local authorities of their own levels of penalty for dog control offences runs the risk that, in irresponsible authorities, dog owners will be clobbered financially—disproportionately. A fine is acceptable, but we should not welcome disproportionately high fines.

I wonder what the Minister's thinking was in deciding upon the radical devolution of the powers in question. The Bill states an appropriate level of £75 as a default position, and if that had been set as a national standard, it might have contributed simplicity and consistency to the new system. The Bill, of course, still allows the local authority a discretionary power to reduce the fine if it is paid in a certain time or if it is felt that the level has been set too high. However, I should be grateful if the Minister could share his thoughts on the matter.

There is some concern that, without the relevant proviso, some local authorities might set an amount that dog owners would consider draconian and disproportionate, as a means of generating extra income.

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

I oppose the amendment, which would restrict the flexibility of local government. In my normal Front-Bench capacity for the Liberal Democrats, as spokesman on the business of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, I have the unfortunate task of listening regularly to the corresponding Front-Bench Conservative spokesmen. They continually talk about giving extra flexibility and power to local authorities. I should have thought that the power in question was exactly the sort of power that they would want to provide. I struggle to find the reason for the Conservatives' position. Perhaps their Whips are not in touch with their spokesmen on the matter, but I welcome the fact that the Government are giving local authorities some flexibility.

Were a local authority seen to be completely unreasonable in its approach, I am sure that the electorate would punish it harshly, just as, for instance, when a local authority overdoes the charges in its car parks, the electorate often rise up in anger. The adjoining local authority to mine is Labour-controlled Telford, where I believe that exactly that sort of thing has just happened. Indeed, I think that it led to the change of leadership of the council there. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley), who is in the Room, may have had a tiny bit to do with that. It shows that public pressure can pay.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I hear what the hon. Member for Ludlow has to say. He must appreciate that this is a probing amendment to tease out of the Minister information as to exactly what the Government intend to do. As he will well know from former battles, I do not support in any way, shape or form the National Assembly for Wales, but I support devolution to the lowest level possible. That includes down to individuals, but the buck must stop somewhere when it comes to what the levels of fines will be.

We are all veterans of knocking on doors in local authority elections and—whether in county or district elections—I am sure that we have all seen the confusion on the faces of the public as to who does what. People are confused about where the line of responsibility lies. Sometimes I am guilty of that when I try to work out who is doing what, under agency rules, for local authorities, where it is a county responsibility, but the district operates its powers as an agency. Therefore, there are clearly problems about the public's understanding of who has responsibility in any given area.

I suspect that the clause tries to bring clarity to the amount of the fines that can be levied. The Minister said earlier that he hoped that authorities would work together to establish coherence. I also take on board the fact that, from one local authority area to another, there are different charges for other things, such as car parking. In some areas car parking is free, whereas in others there are prohibitive charges for parking for longer than three hours. Therefore, the public are already used to having to read notices when they go from one town to another so that they know what they will be liable for.

I assume that if, under the clause, the penalty can differ from area to area, the authority will have a responsibility to ensure that the public are made aware of its byelaws. If it decides to bring in notices under clause 55 to deal with fouling of land or

''the keeping of dogs on leads'' or whatever the violation is, the public will know, first, that a byelaw has been introduced and, secondly, what the fine is likely to be if it is transgressed.

Although subsection (1)(b) says that, if no amount is specified, the levy will be £75, I fully appreciate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds said, there may be extra enthusiasm on the part of some local authorities, which, let us admit it, are hard pressed for cash. If they are allowed to keep the fines, they will they have to start to pay people to enforce the byelaws, and the fine may not be £75 but a much higher figure.

Does the Minister believe that a ceiling will operate here? I know that he talked about the public's democratic abilities. I appreciate that if the great dog-owning public are scorched by an over-zealous authority, which is obsessed with trying to raise as much money as it can from dog owners who transgress   the law, they will allow their voice to be heard at elections. Is there any protection for dog owners that there will be a ceiling, which will be known? I saw level 3 mentioned in an earlier clause. I hope that the Minister can assure us that, even if local authorities are given the flexibility to charge above the £75, the figure will not go to ridiculous heights.

I am also pleased that the clause provides that those who pay the fines on time can do so at a reduced level. Clearly if fines are not paid on time or are not paid, people will be liable for higher charges if the case later goes to court. It all boils down to what the Minister said earlier about the clause: as long as the public abide by the laws, they should not fear any of the penalties mentioned in the clause. However, the public must know what the law is, particularly as authorities will be able to impose different regulations in different districts.

We talked about cross-border areas earlier. If a parish council is the authority dealing with the matter, it may have a different rule from another authority, which might impose something different. It simply a question of giving the public information. Generally, I agree that local authorities, or whatever the body is, should be given the discretion to do it. That is probably good for the democratic process. It gets people more involved in decision making in their local authority areas, as long as they know what they are supposed to be doing and have protection against over-exuberant fines. [Interruption.]

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire 4:30 pm, 25th January 2005

Order. I remind Committee members that mobile phones should be switched off.

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

It is interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman waxing eloquent and showing what I would describe as over-enthusiasm, given that he has applied that term to local authorities. I would say in passing that it is a pity that the Conservatives have to maintain their opposition to the very existence of the Welsh Assembly—with the exception of the Conservative Assembly Members who are quite comfortable in their minuscule time capsule there, engaging in the negative politics one has come to expect from them. I hope that the general inclination of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley in the direction of devolution might extend not only to Wales, but to local authorities and the parish and town councils to whom the clause is relevant.

I shall set out the general situation, which is very straightforward. If an authority sets a fixed penalty notice at a level that is unreasonably high, it is quite clear what people can do. They will refuse to pay, go to court and get a lower fine. That will be a matter for the courts, but they do not have a tendency to be over-exuberant in the level of fines that they apply, so the outcome will be fairly predictable if the level of the fixed penalty notice is too high.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that there might be an increase in activity in order to secure the money to   finance that increased activity. It would be an odd authority that gambled on the likelihood that people would not notice the increased policing of the offensive activity, and would continue paying fines at a level that would pay for enforcement.

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

The hon. Gentleman makes a comment from a sedentary position. I am sure that he is deliberately trying to provoke you, Mr. Taylor. I have already pointed out that an entirely different set of circumstances exists in relation to speeding. Speeding provisions are universal, but in this case a local authority specifies places where the problem arises and the enforcement is applied to those locations that are defined. As I said earlier, the public can frustrate any fund-raising efforts by a local authority by simply refusing to offend. That is a neat conclusion because the problem then disappears. The provisions exist to change behaviour and stop that offending.

As for the need to make regulations in that regard, I draw the attention of Committee members to clause 60(5), which states that

''Regulations under subsection (4) may (in particular)—

(a) require an amount specified under subsection (1)(a) to fall within a range prescribed in the regulations;

(b) restrict the extent to which, and the circumstances in which, a primary or secondary authority can make provision under subsection (3).

It makes plans for a change in the default figure in the subsequent part of the clause. Should there be an outbreak of collective elected insanity in our town and parish councils that leads to onerous burdens being placed on people who offend under the provisions, notwithstanding the safeguards that I described, the provisions exist to deal with that in the Bill. I hope that those provisions are never used because they are there as a fail-safe. It is an intelligent fail-safe, and it is clear that hon. Members think that it is intelligent to put it there because they asked us to include it, not appreciating that we already had.

I conclude by saying that I strongly resist the amendment. I am aware that the Kennel Club was attracted by the argument that equity would be best served by a national level of fixed penalty, but I have explained to it that a key feature of the Bill is a range of policies that give local councils the flexibility that they need to respond to local conditions. Dog control orders can be made to cover areas of different sizes, from the very specific and tightly controlled urban areas to wide areas in the countryside, if that appears appropriate to the relevant local authority. The orders can be made for different offences, and they will address many different circumstances.

The case for giving local authorities the ability to vary fixed penalty levels to suit local conditions is particularly strong. I would strongly resist any temptation to renationalise the level of fines in that way. There is a default mechanism in the clause. If local authorities, and parish and town councils, feel that that is the appropriate level and that they do not need to vary it upwards or downwards, they do not   have to do so. The opportunity is there for them to do so if their local circumstances require a different level of fine in order to give the best service to the public in their area.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I hear what the Minister says and I am attracted by the argument that he makes. It is common sense that if those involved go over the top, there will be real problems for them. It could lead to their being taken to court, which would involve huge costs for them. Will he give me some reassurance that authorities will have to publicise the fines and the byelaws?

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

It is important that the authorities make that certain because the whole purpose is to change behaviour, which involves making people aware of the penalty. I hope that the publicity will not simply be about the penalty available, but will be part of a local campaign to make people realise how failing to control their animals causes a nuisance to others. I referred earlier to the work that ENCAMS has done successfully. I hope that that will be associated with any circumstances of this sort.

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 any sensible local authority would include on any notice—say about a field—the level of the penalty for the simple reason that it wants the notice to have a deterrent effect? If the notice did not have a figure on it and just said, ''Please don't let your dog poop on this field,'' there is a fair chance that people might ignore it, whereas if it said, ''Don't let your dog poop on this field or you will pay £75,'' there is far more chance of its being enforced.

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

That is absolutely correct. I hope that, in the light of that, we will have united support for the withdrawal of the amendment and for the clause.

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Opposition Whip (Commons)

Having heard what the Minister has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of the debate on the amendment proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question agreed to.

Clause 60 ordered to stand part of the Bill.