HC Deb 23 December 1976 vol 923 cc888-90
5. Mr. Neubert

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what proposals he has for more effective fine enforcement.

Mr. John

Since the effectiveness of fine enforcement depends mainly on the manpower resources available to the courts and the police, it can be increased only by adding to those resources. In the present economic situation, the extent to which this can be done is limited. Where, however, particular local problems have arisen, the magistrates' courts committees, with whom the primary responsibility for the staffing of the courts rests, have ordinarily been able to find a solution.

Mr. Neubert

But is the Minister aware that in three magistrates' divisions in North-East London alone the fines outstanding now total £750,000? Does he not agree that when outstanding fines reach that level disrespect for the courts may be induced? Would an increased number of fine enforcement officers not more than earn their keep by boosting public revenues?

Mr. John

I assume that the hon. Gentleman refers to the divisions of Havering, Newham and Waltham Forest. If so, I can tell him that there is a letter in the post from me informing him that there is no Home Office objection to the appointment of fine enforcement officers in those divisions and that the Magistrates' Committee has been so informed.

Mr. Sims

Does the Minister agree that the work and time involved in the present system of enforcing fines is not very satisfactory? Will he take the opportunity afforded by the Criminal Law Bill to give the courts power, when imposing a fine, to state a day by which it must be paid and to say that if it is not paid by then the offender must go to court and say why it has not been paid?

Mr. John

Although I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's concern at the working of the existing system, his suggested formula seems no more precise than the present one. I am certainly prepared to look at any matter which will help to improve the fine enforcement procedure, but it is not by any means so simple a matter that it can be encapsulated in a few words.

Mr. Alison

In view of what the Minister said about the difficulty of finding resources to improve the collection of fines, does he think that the higher penalties to be imposed under the Criminal Law Bill will simply lead to a greater volume of unpaid fines?

Mr. John

If the hon. Gentleman were to study the percentage of unpaid fines on any date, including, because of statistical conventions, fines which have not fallen due—fines which have been imposed but the time for payment of which has not expired—he will not find such an alarming increase as he supposes. I have no reason to believe that there will be a significant percentage increase in unpaid fines.

Mr. Edward Gardner

Will the Minister confirm that this is a serious problem? In many cases—there are far too many—if a fine is not enforced the sting is taken out and the sanction removed from what should, in appropriate cases, be one of the most useful and painful of sentences? As my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) has just referred to the Criminal Law Bill, will the Minister bear in mind the fact that a serious attempt must be made to solve what up to now has been an intractable problem?

Mr. John

I do not think that the problem is intractable. While the amount of fines outstanding is a matter for concern, the scale of escalation is not alarming or unusual. Certainly the problem is difficult; that is why solutions are not as easy as some people think. I am prepared to review any lines urged on me by hon. Members, but I warn them that the solution may be somewhat more difficult than the statement of the concern.