Clause 33 - Imposition of civil penalties

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

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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) 4:45, 27 January 2005

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.