May I ask the Minister whether he will allow the courts to make their own minds up when deciding what the penalty points should be or whether, concurrently or consecutively to the passing of the Bill into law, he will issue guidance to magistrates to give examples of the points that they should impose? If he intends to issue guidance, he should share it with the Committee before the Bill completes its passage through Parliament.
We discussed clause 16 when we dealt with clauses 2 and 3, so we have been pretty well round the houses on the issues. As I said at the time, we would have to put forward a proposition. There would have to be a consultation on that proposition and it would then have to come before the House in the form of a positive resolution statutory instrument before any of the measures could be introduced. As I was at pains to say last Thursday, and as I will repeat now, we have listened carefully to the debate on the issue in Committee and outside, and we shall be mindful of that as we take matters forward.
The law fixes the penalty imposed on an offender. If driving at a certain speed attracted, say, four, five or six points on a person's licence, there would be no discretion. If the person decided to contest that and go to court instead, the magistrate would have some discretion over the fine up to the maximum level permitted for that offence. Generally, the law sets out, as guidance to magistrates, obligatory amounts of penalty points that are imposed for an offence. We would need to have further discussions if we had a proposition to change that. The proposal would then go before the House again. It would be then be converted into guidance for courts, and it would probably be appropriate to look at any guidance that may be given to magistrates. I hope that that is helpful.
I am grateful to the Minister for that. When he talks about the guidance, could he also discuss mitigating circumstances, which I mentioned earlier? The standard notices that go out with the penalty points will say that if there are mitigating circumstances the matter can be taken to the magistrates courts. As we know, the magistrates have no right to reduce the number of penalty points from the standard three imposed under the existing law or below the minimum under the new law. When the Minister produces guidance will he ensure that it extends to those pro forma letters? People who receive fixed penalty tickets will then realise that they cannot obtain any mitigation in respect of the penalty points by having the matter referred to the magistrates court. That is not clear at present.
The other problem is that the fine associated with fixed penalty points is fixed. Although magistrates cannot change the number of penalty points imposed, they have some discretion over the fine, and in making their decision they will want to take into account the offender's means, which will have to be disclosed in any claim for mitigation. That will open up a new can of worms for the offender who wants mitigating circumstances taken into account but does not want to raise the spectre of a £60 fine becoming much higher because he happens to be of substantial means. I hope that the Minister accepts that there is an inconsistency which should be addressed in any guidance. This question arises from a constituency case which I mentioned before. I have had a substantive but much delayed reply about it from the Court Service, which has identified that there is a problem with the present law.
The use of the word ''mitigation'' is becoming a bit confused. If someone feels that they have been wrongly accused they can go to court, and the court could throw out the evidence. The person would essentially be not guilty of the offence of which they had been accused. Mitigation is usually where there has been a guilty plea or where the person has been found guilty and the offender wants to plead some very special circumstances. As I understand it, there may be some offences in respect of which magistrates have discretion over both the points and the financial penalty, but in most cases the law clearly sets out that the penalty points are mandatory. Generally, however, it is within the gift of the magistrates to operate their discretion over the financial penalty. The guidance to the court and the magistrates would not come from my Department. I am sure that careful note will be taken of the information that is given to the offender along with the notice. Safeguards are built into the proposal.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.