HC Deb 23 July 1963 vol 681 cc1264-70

3.30 p.m.

Mrs. Judith Hart (Lanark)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that any person of the age of eighteen years or under who is sentenced by a court of summary jurisdiction to a fine not exceeding twenty pounds shall be entitled to seven days within which to pay such fine. My proposed Bill is a modest one and carries out what I believe to be an essential reform. It would be supported by hon. Members of all three parties who are, individually, members of the National Council for Civil Liberties. It relates to the treatment by a court of summary jurisdiction of persons found guilty of minor offences and sentenced to the payment of a fine, and, in default of that payment, to a short period of imprisonment.

I firmly believe that it would be very wrong to separate in any way the treatment of those who have come in recent years to be called political prisoners from those of other categories, and I would not wish to do so. Nevertheless, a number of cases have been brought to my attention and to the attention of other hon. Members as a result of recent political demonstrations, both at the time of the Cuba crisis, last autumn, and two weeks ago, in London.

I want to quote one example of the kind of thing that has been brought to my attention. Two weeks ago. at Marlborough Street Court, 10 persons, two of whom were under the age of 19—and this is the age group to which the Bill refers—were fined, for offences carried out during the demonstrations in London, amounts of £2 plus costs amounting to between 40s. and three guineas, plus various sureties, on binding over, in the sum of £20, and so on. None of them was given time to pay his fine. Therefore, unless he had the money in his pocket at the time, he was committed to prison in default of payment of his fine. These people were committed to prison for periods ranging from one month to two months in default of the payment of the fine.

If it were the case that, when this kind of sentence is imposed by a court upon a young offender, he has permission and is given the opportunity to make contact, from the court, with friends or with his family, who may then be asked to pay the fine, and if that had been the case here the situation would have been different, but not one of these young persons was given permission to make a telephone call from the court. None of them could inform his family or friends that he was being taken to prison because he did not have £5 or £6 on him at the time. Since most of these were young people it was not surprising that they were not carrying £5 or £6 at the; time of their arrest.

One example was that of a 17-year-old grammar school girl. She is in the sixth form of a grammar school in the London area. Her parents were on holiday, and she had no friends in court when her case came before the magistrate. As a result, although she asked for permission to make a telephone call from the court, it was refused, and she was taken to Holloway because she did not have the money to pay her fine. Again, when she reached Holloway, she asked for permission to make a telephone call, but was told, quite correctly, that the regulations did not allow for any other than one letter to be sent on the day after admission. This means that two days must elapse between being taken through the admission procedure at Holloway to the point at which a prisoner's family may receive a letter informing them of what has occurred.

This girl went through the whole admission procedure. Hon. Members may know, from some reports that have recently been written about prison procedures, that the general conclusion of those who are sent to prison for the first time is that it is those first 24 hours—the admission procedure period—which provide the shock and degradation to those who have never expected to find themselves in such a place.

The girl in question, and others who were above the age of 19—to whom the Bill does not refer—were subjected to the usual medical examination. Their clothes were taken from them and they had four or five hours sitting around in the prison, in dressing gowns, waiting for the further formalities to be gone through. They had an issue of prison clothing. They had all to go through the rather degrading procedure which is quite normal for those admitted to any prison. One young girl who happened to be an Anglo-Catholic was not allowed to retain her rosary, being told, "You are only an Anglo-Catholic. There is no need for you to have a rosary". This sort of humiliation is an inevitable result of the admission procedure.

This girl got out of Holloway by half past nine that evening, but she was able to do so only because the W.V.S., whose representatives are frequently in attendance at Holloway, were informed of her predicament and were able to get in touch with friends, who came along and paid her fine.

Some difficulties of this kind where young people are committed to prison in default of a payment of a fine arise because the court does not accept cheques in payment of fines. I have an example of this quoted in a letter from somebody who was arrested in the Cuba crisis demonstrations last autumn. She says: We were fined £2 each and we each had to pay five guineas costs. My sister had one cheque with her which she was going to sign for the total cost of £14 10s. The police sergeant refused to accept one cheque for both of us, saying that I had to pay my fine separately. Fortunately, a very kind and sympathetic policeman offered to help us by donning a civilian coat and calling at the bank to change my sister's cheque. He returned with the money and we were able to pay separately in cash. Neither my sister nor I have been fined previously. There was no question of us being given time to pay. This was a ludicrous situation, where these two young girls had to rely on a particularly kind policeman.

I took up with the Home Secretary the whole question of the acceptance of the payment of a fine by cheque. I had some correspondence with one of the Joint Under-Secretarys and, oddly enough, on the very day on which I gave notice that I would seek leave to bring in this Bill—in fact, one hour after I had done so—I had a letter from the Joint Undersecretary telling me that under Section 69 of the Magistrates' Courts Act, 1952, a court is required to allow an offender who cannot pay a fine forthwith at least seven days to pay unless some special circumstance justifies immediate committal.

Looking at that Section of that Act one sees what those special circumstances are supposed to be. It says: A magistrates court on adjudging a person to pay a sum by conviction shall, subject to the provisions of the next following subsection, allow him at least seven days to pay the sum or the first instalment of the sum and the qualifying conditions are, if he does not seem to have sufficient means to pay the sum forthwith, or if he does not ask for time to pay, or if he fails to satisfy the court that he has a fixed abode, or there is some other special circumstance appearing to the court to justify immediate committal. I imagine that the intention of the law here is quite clearly that people should be given time to pay, unless there are particular circumstances, and that those clearly are intended to apply only to the minority of offenders convicted and asked to pay fines. But what seems to be the position of offenders of the kind to whom I am referring? The 1961 Report of the Prison Commission shows that receptions under sentence of imprisonment in default of the payment of a fine, where no time to pay was granted by the courts—including all ages—totalled 3,408, compared with the figure of those who were given time to pay of 4,403.

So, in fact, 56 per cent. were given time to pay and 44 per cent. were not, presumably because they did not have a fixed abode, or did not look as if they could pay, or because there were special circumstances which made it necessary for the court to commit them to prison without giving time to pay a fine. That figure of 44 per cent. does not seem to me to be a correct interpretation of the intention of the law under the Magistrates' Courts Act.

If we look a little further and take the figures for those under the age of 21, we find that in 1961 those given no time to pay were 158 males and 69 females. Those given time to pay were 269 males and 27 females. It is difficult to correlate this information with the figures in the Report for those who were actually received into prison for various types of offences.

One cannot correlate these according to people under 21 from the statistics given in 1961. But of those committed for various offences who were there in default of payment of a fine, taking the whole adult population of the prison, one finds that only a small minority were there because they had committed offences under the heading of "other offences". In other words, we are here dealing primarily not with people guilty of violence or theft or serious crimes, but with a general category of other offences. Of 201 women committed to prison because they were not allowed time to pay a fine, 79 were under 25, and of126 sentenced to not more than one month 131 had had no previous institutional sentence.

I am certain that it is correct to allow the courts the maximum amount of flexibility in the way in which they deal with offences. But one wonders whether there is developing in the courts a tendency to use the no-time-to-pay system as a means of giving offenders a taste of prison which the magistrates feel might be a good thing for them. If that is the case, the law needs to be amended in order that it cannot happen. There are many other ways in which the courts of summary jurisdiction can give offenders a brief taste of prison without using a mechanism which is not in accord with the intention of the 1952 Act.

A court has the power to collect a fine and if seven days are allowed in which to pay, and payment is not made, the court has adequate procedures at its disposal to make sure that the money is collected.

If the House gives me permission to bring in my short and simple Bill my proposition will refer to those of 18 and under. I have made it that age, because I wish to gain the support of the whole House. There is a strong case for relating it to a far wider age group. But let us begin with these youngsters for whom it cannot be a good tiling that, having committed a minor offence for which the imposition of a fine would be appropriate, they should be put into contact with more serious offenders in prison even though only for a few nights.

I propose, therefore, that they shall always be given seven days in which to pay a fine and that there should be a modification of the Magistrates' Courts Act, 1952.

Question put and agreed to,

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Hart, Miss Vickers, Mr. Lubbock, and Mr. Greenwood.


Bill to provide that any person of the age of eighteen years or under who is sentenced by a court of summary jurisdiction to a fine not exceeding twenty pounds shall be entitled to seven days within which to pay such fine, presented accordingly and read the First time; to be read a Second time upon Friday 26th July and to be printed. [Bill 149.]