As at stage 2, when an almost identical amendment was voted down, I welcome Lewis Macdonald’s interest in improving fines enforcement. The commitment of all parties to that important work is welcome, and I appreciate the fact that he is acting on behalf of a constituent in his region.
Fines collection rates in Scotland are high, and I welcome the continuing efforts that the
Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service puts into enforcement. Recent statistics show that 90 per cent of the value of sheriff court and justice of the peace court fines imposed during the three-year period between 2015-16 and 2017-18 had either been paid or was on track to be paid. I accept that the remainder is a hard nut to crack, and I appreciate that that is exactly what amendment 121 is aimed at addressing. However, amendment 121 is not the best way of going about that. Despite some changes that Mr Macdonald has made to the amendment since stage 2, it remains somewhat flawed. Among other issues, failure to obey a court order is a contempt of court, and the penalties for contempt of court are set out in the Contempt of Court Act 1981. It depends on the court, but in all cases the penalties exceed the £1,000 set by amendment 121 and include the possibility of imprisonment. The offence that Mr Macdonald seeks to create does not even match the existing deterrent. There is no justification for creating a new criminal offence for conduct that can be already be dealt with by a court.
There are other technicalities that I can go into if necessary. More fundamentally, though, from a policy point of view, I am concerned, as I mentioned at stage 2, about the circularity of creating a new offence attaching a penalty of a fine in precisely those cases where the individuals concerned had already demonstrated their failure to engage with fine enforcement officers. I note that the offence appears to be little used in England and Wales, which suggests that there is little point in creating one up here.
There is a better way of dealing with this. Lewis Macdonald asked for an update from the Government about regulations. He is right—we want the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service to obtain relevant information about a person’s income directly from the Department for Work and Pensions and HM Revenue and Customs. I can confirm to Lewis Macdonald that before the end of the year we will put draft regulations before the Parliament to enable that to happen. What that means is that instead of asking the defaulting individual for information about income and benefits, the fine enforcement officers would be able to obtain that information directly from the DWP and HMRC. That would be a far more effective way of dealing with people who have already proved themselves reluctant to engage with the court service. It does not create a circular offence.
In summary, despite some of the changes to amendment 121 since stage 2—