Clause 3 - Graduated fixed penalties

Road Safety Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 21st March 2006.

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Question proposed [this day], That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question again proposed.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I was reflecting on what we are letting ourselves in for if we accept clause 3. Will the Minister give us some idea of the scope and nature of the orders that will flow from the clauses 3 and 4? I have no difficulty at all with the status quo, whereby a police officer trained in the rules of evidence can give out a fixed penalty ticket in certain circumstances where he feels that an offence has been committed. The clause breaks new ground, however, in that an element of flexibility has been introduced. To some extent, that will lead to a subtle shift in the behaviour of the police in which they will move from being mere enforcers of the law to acting to some extent as a judge of the situation. As I understand it officers will, for the first time, have the precise level of sentence in their own hands.

Although I support the principle of flexibility, I am just a little concerned about how such provision will operate in practice. Will the police officer carry in his car or in a box on his bike a range of tickets with different penalties? Or will he have a box to tick when he fills out the ticket for a motorist who he believes has committed an offence? Is the heat of the moment the best time for the police officer to make that judgment? There is a real risk that where a motorist who has been stopped for an offence is truculent or bellicose, the police officer may decide to ratchet up the level of penalty, although the offence does not warrant it, merely because he has experienced a degree of friction with the motorist.

Hitherto, the Government attitude has been that the motorist can take it or leave it; he can accept what is in the fixed penalty ticket or he can go to court. However, that answer is not entirely satisfactory. Has the Minister considered that point? If not, will he do so before the orders are made? Is there not a case for having the police officer issue an open ticket—a ticket recording the offence and inviting the motorist to tell the officer what mitigating circumstances there are, if any? Within 14 days of such a ticket being issued, someone else in authority could decide what grading the ticket should have. A person behind a desk seeing both the facts as alleged by the police officer and any   comments in mitigation by the motorist would be better placed to determine the grading. I wonder whether the Minister has reflected on that possibility.

Clearly, we do not want motorists arguing by the side of the road with a police officer. We do not want motorists saying, “No, I should be graded down one,” and the officer saying, “No, I think that you should be graded higher.” I wonder whether a system in which that is done at base will remove the risk. The police officer could simply issue a ticket and say, “Within 14 days you will know full details of the impact of the ticket. Is there anything that you want to say?” That could be fairer, and it is more likely to be just. If the motorist decides at the end of the day to take the matter to court, the prosecution will make great play with asking, “What did the defendant say when the accusation was first put to him? What did he say in answer to the allegation?” The prosecution will not ask, “What is he saying now, in court?” If the motorist is invited to have his say there and then, when he is stopped by the police officer, and the police officer puts that in his notebook, it is more likely to lead to a just outcome.

Those concerns are relevant to cases in which the ticket is issued by a police officer, but how much more relevant are they when the scope is widened, as the Minister said, and a non-police officer issues the ticket? What if it is issued by a vehicle examiner who has no experience or knowledge of the rules of evidence? Should not he be encouraged to note down what the driver has to say at the time of the offence, before the grading of the penalty is determined?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

The intention is not that that flexibility should exist at the roadside. The flexibility will exist when we come to make the order in Parliament. That order should prescribe the circumstances in which a motorist will get a particular type of penalty. In other words, if the officer stops a motorist at the roadside, the officer should be in a position to say, “You were doing 45 mph in an area with a 30 mph speed limit, and I am able to offer a fixed penalty for that. The fixed penalty is this, because that is what Parliament has prescribed for these circumstances.” That will be the level of flexibility.

Having said that, I can see some merit in what the right hon. Gentleman suggests, in that perhaps the appropriate thing is for the policeman to just say, “This is the offence I’ve stopped you for, and you will hear within a period of time as to whether we’re going to offer you a fixed penalty, and what it will be.” I shall reflect on the matter and confirm what I say later, but to the best of my knowledge, a policeman would not be prevented from taking that course of action if it were the view of the local constabulary that that was how it wanted to issue tickets. The flexibility will come when we make the order in Parliament, and we will prescribe the precise circumstances at that stage.

I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says about the fact that if somebody is belligerent at the roadside, there may be a temptation for the policeman to ramp up the penalty. That will almost certainly not be a circumstance that Parliament would want to cover in the order. In such circumstances, the policeman’s   response should be to say “Okay then, there will be no fixed penalty. We’ll take you to court, and I’ll be explaining to the magistrate how you have behaved.”

I have a childhood memory of my brother driving a car, with my uncle in the passenger seat. My brother was stopped by a policeman, and my uncle kept repeating to my brother, “Humble pie, humble pie,” to keep him calm while the policeman told him off. In the end the policeman sent him on his way, so my advice to any motorist who is stopped by a policeman in future is, “Plenty of humble pie; listen carefully to what the officer has to say and learn from it, and maybe that will serve you well.”

I repeat, however, that the flexibility will arise from making the order in Parliament that will prescribe the circumstances in which a penalty will be available.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.