HC Deb 23 July 1963 vol 681 cc1381-4
Lady Tweedsmuir

I beg to move, in page 13, line 32, to leave out "two hundred and fifty" and to insert "one hundred and fifty".

Mr. Speaker

On the face of it, there are good reasons to ask the House to discuss with this Amendment the next Amendment on the Notice Paper, which is in identical terms, in page 13, line 32, leave out "two hundred and fifty" and insert "one hundred".

Lady Tweedsmuir

There is also a consequential Amendment to Schedule 5, in page 39, line 30, leave out "two hundred and fifty" and insert "one hundred and fifty".

I am glad that we may discuss with this Amendment the next Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross), and I hope that we may also discuss the consequential Amendment to Schedule 5.

Mr. Speaker

Yes, if the House wishes

Lady Tweedsmuir

During the Committee stage there was general acceptance that there was a case for a general increase of the fines to be imposed in the summary courts in common law cases on the lines proposed in Clause 23. But considerable anxiety was expressed about the new level of fines, which follow the recommendations of S.A.C.T.O. in its report on short sentences. Particularly, there was concern expressed in the case of the sheriff summary court where the power of fine was proposed to be increased from £25 to £250. I do not think I need repeat the arguments for a general increase in these powers of fine because, apart from the fall in the value of money since they were first enacted in 1908, there is evidence that substantial fines have been underrated and there is a risk that if the powers of fine are too low the court may feel obliged to use imprisonment because the maximum fine is an insufficient deterrent to the offender of means. But, of course, it is also true that the amount of the increase cannot be determined by any exact mathematical calculation. It is a matter of judgment.

I felt that the anxiety expressed in Committee on this point arose from the fear that the new powers might be used unwisely and result in hardship, or even imprisonment, in default of payment, for persons who genuinely had not the means to meet the fine. The Government have no fear that this would in any way be a common result of a maximum power of fine of £250, and I think we all have regard for the very careful way in which sheriffs examine these cases. But one cannot guarantee that this would not happen. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen shire, West (Mr. Hendry) referred to cases in which a high monetary fine was in his view appropriate.

In the light of what was a general anxiety expressed in the Committee, the Government felt it right to consider to what extent it was possible to reduce the new powers of fine in the sheriff summary court while still achieving the purpose to which I have referred.

As I have said, this is not a matter of exact mathematical calculation. But we think that a maximum of £150 instead of £250 meets the case. I hope therefore that the House will accept this Amendment and feel that it is more appropriate than the Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock.

Mr. Ross

You said, inadvertently, Mr. Speaker, that this Amendment could be discussed with the next one which, if I recollect your words, you said was in "identical terms".

Mr. Speaker

I apologise. My error is obvious on the face of the Paper.

Mr. Ross

Your error is, of course, obvious to anyone who reads the Notice Paper, because my suggestion, which is a repetition of the suggestion I made in Committee, is that the £250 should be £100, but I am not going to argue about £50.

Mr. Bence

I would.

Mr. Ross

We are grateful that, belatedly, the Government have seen the force of our arguments and are prepared to reduce the maximum in relation to subsection (2) of this Clause from £250 to £150. Although I think they have more or less met our argument, I am not entirely happy about some of the things the hon. Lady said. Her fears were once again about the sheriffs' discretion. It is no good putting in £250 if we do not want the sheriffs to use it. A fine of that magnitude might determine whether or not a case would be dealt with by the sheriff under summary proceedings or dealt with in a different way. Considerable anxiety was expressed by the Glasgow Bar Association that it might mean that the sheriff would deal with much more serious cases with all the implications that would have on the individual, particularly in view of the discussion we had about legal aid.

When we are arguing about and discussing S.A.C.T.O. Reports, and concerned about the number of people going into prison because they cannot pay fines, it seems rather inconsistent to raise the maximum in this Section from £25 to £250. We felt that was rather high. We did not press the Amendment in Committee but withdrew it in order to allow the Government to give further consideration to the matter. It is easy for the hon. Lady to take refuge in the fact that there is no mathematical certainty in relation to this matter. How could there be? The penalty of £10 is raised to £50, a fivefold increase. In the same subsection the amount of caution is raised twenty-five times and in subsection (3) penalties are raised four times. In view of this, we could not agree to an increase of tenfold. I am prepared to accept this Amendment, however, and not to move the one which I originally preferred.

Amendment agreed to.

It being Ten o'clock, further consideration of the Bill, as amended, stood adjourned.

Proceedings on Government Business exempted at this day's Sitting, from the provisions of Standing Order No. 1 (Sittings of the House).—[Mr. Hughes-Young.]

Bill, as amended (in the Standing Committee), further considered.