Clause 33 - Imposition of civil penalties

Identity Cards Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:45 pm on 27 January 2005.

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Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Shadow Minister, Home Affairs 4:45, 27 January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 226, in clause 33, page 28, line 36, after 'notice', insert 'in writing'.

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 38, in clause 33, page 28, line 45, at end insert

'including methods by which payment may be made by instalments'.

No. 224, in clause 33, page 29, line 4, at end insert—

'(g) set out the grounds of objection to such a penalty contained in section 34.'.

No. 39, in clause 33, page 29, line 5, leave out '14' and insert '28'.

No. 227, in clause 33, page 29, line 12, after 'question', insert

'save a question of proper service of the notice'.

Before I call the hon. Member for Woking, it might be helpful to hon. Members who wish to contribute if I warn them that there will be a Division in the House at 5 pm.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

Briefly, we are on the penalty issue. Amendment No. 226, requiring that the notice be given in writing, is not a good amendment, because I think that the notice will inevitably be given in writing. I do not see how else it could be given. This amendment was drafted too late at night, I am afraid.

Amendment No. 38 is about making provision, either in the Bill or in the mind of the Secretary of State, for the of payment of penalties in instalments, given that probably 90 per cent. of all fines in magistrates courts are paid in instalments. The issue is important, but there is no reference to instalments in the clause. Beyond that amendment I need not go. The Minister may have a fairly brief reply for me on the matters that I raised. I hope that he takes them on board, but I am sure that there will be codes of practice in respect of them. I will have something to say about objections to penalties under clause 34, but I assure the Minister that it will not be very much.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Minister of State (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Nationality)

I shall deal very quickly with amendment No. 38, which, as I understand it, is the only amendment that the hon. Gentleman spoke to substantively. I give him the reassurance that, although it does not say in the Bill that payment of a penalty may be made in instalments, when the time comes to design the detail of the scheme, we will   consider making arrangements for penalties to be dealt with in such a way. The important thing is that clause 33(3)(d) does not preclude payment by instalment. I do not think it necessary additionally to refer expressly to instalments in the clause, but I give the undertaking that it is almost certain that there will be provision to allow them.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

On which basis, I am delighted to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Minister of State (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Nationality)

I beg to move amendment No. 189, in clause 33, page 29, line 14, after 'penalty' insert—

'( ) whether the imposition of the penalty was unreasonable;'.

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 190 to 193.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Minister of State (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Nationality)

This is a good day for the Opposition, in that these Government amendments follow our useful debates on civil penalties under amendments Nos. 33 and 117, which were tabled by the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer). As I said during last Thursday's debate, the Secretary of State will of course exercise his discretion reasonably when imposing civil penalties; indeed, he is required so to do. Where he is aware that a person has a reasonable excuse for having breached an obligation, a penalty will not be imposed.

I also said that the Secretary of State will have regard to a person's financial circumstances before determining the penalty. Furthermore, I have always taken the view that it will be open to a person to raise reasonable excuses at both the objection and appeal stages, notwithstanding that the Bill refers to two grounds of objection only—namely as to whether someone is liable to pay and whether the penalty is too high. Mindful of the concerns raised in the debate on amendments Nos. 33 and 117, I tabled these Government amendments to put beyond doubt the fact that objections and appeals may be brought on the ground that the circumstances make the imposition of a penalty unreasonable.

The amendments will not place an obligation on the Secretary of State to consider the circumstances of every contravention before imposing a penalty. That would be akin to a unilateral hearing and would not be appropriate in the context of a civil penalty scheme. I say again that, where the Secretary of State is aware of surrounding circumstances that would make it unreasonable to impose a penalty, he will not impose one. In that sense, penalties will not be imposed automatically.

The aim is not to generate revenue, but to encourage people to comply with the requirements imposed on them. Where that can be achieved by writing to a person and warning them that they are liable to a civil penalty, as opposed to immediately imposing the penalty, that is the route that will be taken.

Amendments Nos. 190 and 191 will provide an extra ground on which people can object to penalties under clause 34. That ground is that the circumstances   of the contravention in respect of which a person is liable make the imposition of a penalty unreasonable. Amendments Nos. 192 and 193 use the same formula to provide an extra ground of appeal to the court under clause 35, and amendment No. 189 makes it clear that no question as to the reasonableness of imposing the penalty may be raised in proceedings for recovery of a penalty by the Secretary of State. The proper forum for that question is the objection on appeal stage under clauses 34 and 35.

These amendments are specifically designed to respond to amendments Nos. 33 and 117, which I resisted and which hon. Members withdrew. I said that I would respond to them. I trust that the fact that I have taken their comments on board and reflected them appropriately in the legislation satisfies them. I commend the amendments to the Committee.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, Cabinet Office, Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

The amendments are welcome in terms of including challenges on the grounds of ''reasonableness'' in the objections procedure. I hope that the Minister can clarity amendment No. 189 and the proceedings for recovery of a penalty. I assume that once the objections and appeals procedures have been exhausted, we will be in a court situation. The courts will not consider ''reasonableness'', as amendment No. 189 suggests, because it will have been considered in the objections and the appeals procedures. What will such a court case look like such that it will not consider those grounds?

It would be helpful to understand what we mean by proceedings for recovery of a penalty that will not examine anything. The proceedings will simply involve saying, ''You owe us the money. Pay up''. How will that work in practice as far as the individual is concerned? What will happen if they do not pay? We are always interested it that as a back-stop position.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

I am grateful to the Minister for how he introduced his amendments. We remain content.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Minister of State (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Nationality)

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam asks for more flesh on the bones of the court proceedings. I will give him that quickly.

The Secretary of State can enforce a penalty by issuing a claim to the county court for judgment that the defendant owes a debt to him. A copy of the claim form will be sent to the defendant, who can agree that he owes the money or opt to dispute the claim. While it will be open to him to dispute the claim, by virtue of clause 33(6) no question can be raised about the amount of the penalty, whether he is liable to it or whether—given the surrounding circumstances—its imposition is reasonable. That is a matter that should be dealt with early in the proceedings. The proper forum for those issues to be raised is the objections stage or the appeals stage.

Once the Secretary of State has obtained a judgment that the debt is owed to him by the defendant, he can apply to the court for enforcement. There are a number of ways that the judgment can be enforced. It is my understanding that none of those will result in people going to prison. The court stage involves the recovery of a penalty that has already been through the process.  

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 33, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.