HC Deb 06 December 1973 vol 865 cc1438-9
16. Captain W. Elliot

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what discussions he has had with magistrates on the non-payment of fines ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Carlisle

Home Office officials have recently had exploratory discussions on a number of aspects of fine enforcement with representatives of the Magistrates' Association. I welcome the fact that such discussions take place on a variety of matters concerning the administration of justice.

Captain Elliot

Will my hon. and learned Friend examine the action that has been taken by the Manchester City justices? During the last quarter of 1971 a total of 243 defaulters were committed to prison forthwith, and they all paid up at once. The process was continued during 1972. It was so successful that the cashier had to attend the court to collect the fines. In addition, the justices were able to make adjustments and changes for deserving cases. Could not the other justices learn from the Manchester justices?

Mr. Carlisle

I am sure that what Manchester says today the rest of the country will say tomorrow. I take note of what my hon. and gallant Friend says. Taking the country as a whole and bearing in mind the only relevant figure, which is the amount of the fines written off, the amount is between 2 per cent. and 3 per cent. of the total amount imposed.

Mr. Harper

Is it not a fact that the prisons are already bulging at the seams? Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that what is suggested by the hon. and gallant Member for Carshalton (Captain W. Elliot) is impracticable? Does he agree that we should readjust the attachment of earnings so that we can recoup the fines in that way? As a former magistrate, I found that when a man or woman came to court and was either out of work or on the dole he or she could not pay the fine. Surely some thing could be done in that respect?

Mr. Carlisle

My hon. and gallant Friend's point was that the defaulters paid up and did not go to prison. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the most appropriate way to enforce the fines is, where possible, through the attachment of earnings scheme. The existing provision is that people cannot be sent to prison in default without a means inquiry.

Mr. Grieve

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the situation regarding the payment of fines has become very much worse since the machinery was changed by the Criminal Justice Act 1967? Does he think that the time has come for a review of the whole procedure to ensure that fines are paid more readily, so that even the small percentage to which he has referred is not left outstanding?

Mr. Carlisle

We are having discussions with the Magistrates' Association on various aspects of fines enforcement. Although it is true that the volume of money outstanding is greater than it was before the 1967 Act, the total amount of fines imposed is higher. The proportion which in the end remains unpaid is much the same as it was before the 1967 Act.

Sir Elwyn Jones

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman resist any pressure to fill the prisons with debt and fine defaulters?

Mr. Carlisle

This Government have thought a good deal about the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point and have taken action in attempting to achieve that aim.