HC Deb 14 March 1984 vol 56 cc411-2 4.32 pm
Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to remove the power of imprisonment in cases of default of payment of fines imposed for offences for which imprisonment cannot be imposed. The purpose of the Bill is to remove what appears to be an injustice and anomaly in the law whereby a person can be sent to prison for a non-imprisonable offence. This aspect became obvious to me when I recently read in a paper—I am sure right hon. and hon. Members also read the article—of a 74-year-old man who died in prison during his thirty-fourth confinement for nonpayment of a fine levied for not wearing a crash helmet. Surely it could never be said that not wearing a crash helmet should be an imprisonable offence.

When I looked at the matter in more detail, it became readily apparent that not only were such people being sent to prison in increasing numbers, but people who had committed no offence were being sent to prison. For example, the parent of a child who fails to attend school can be fined, and, if the fine is not paid, imprisoned. Similarly, if a child is fined, the parent can be ordered to pay the fine. If the fine is not paid, the parent can be imprisoned.

Such matters lie behind the first limb of my Bill. My Bill seeks to remove from the courts the power to imprison in cases where imprisonment could not be ordered, in the first instance, for the offence.

I accept that to bring in a Bill merely to remove that power would beg the question: how will the fines be collected? Accordingly, as a second limb, my Bill contains a series of alternative methods of enforcing fines imposed in penal and non-penal cases. I use the word "penal" to mean those cases which bear imprisonment.

Our methods of enforcing fines are inadequate. There are only two methods of enforcement: first, the penal sanction of imprisonment for non-payment of fines; and, secondly, the use of the bailiffs to seize goods and chattels. Last year, about 25,000 people were sent to prison for fine default. Therefore, it appears that the prisons are being filled with people who should not be there.

I propose three further methods to deal with nonpayment of fines. One of those methods is already in use in matrimonial cases involving the payment and nonpayment of maintenance. Each week a set amount is taken from earnings, subject to stringent safeguards on dependency levels, and so on. The fine for default could be collected in that way.

Secondly, for those on supplementary benefit, a nominal attachment of 10p or 50p a week could he made. That might make courts look at the level of fines imposed on those in receipt of supplementary benefits. Recently a man who had borrowed his brother's car and been involved in an accident was fined £75 for careless driving. His total benefit was approximately £25 a week. The fine effectively represented his income for three weeks. In the same court, about five minutes later, a man involved in a similar case, who had an income in excess of £20,000 a year, was fined £75. There seems to be no correlation between the two cases. Perhaps the part of my Bill dealing with that aspect will make courts, especially in motoring cases, look more closely at the ability to pay and the means of payment of fines before such fines are imposed. Many people in motoring cases are being sent to prison for nonpayment of fines.

I urge the Government to look at the third method of payment. At present, there are a considerable number of community service centres. It would be reasonable for people to work off their fines by voluntary attendance at those centres and thereby provide an input of work into the community for the benefit of the community. A tariff could be fixed for fines to be dealt with in that way.

Those are the limbs of my Bill. The Bill is designed to reduce the prison population. I am sure all hon. Members will support that approach.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill to be brought in by Mr. Gerald Bermingham, Mr. Gerald Kaufman, Mr. A. E. P. Duffy, Mr. D N. Campbell-Savours, Mr. Robert Parry, Mr. John Ryman, Mr. Robert N. Wareing, Mr. Robin Corbett, Miss Janet Fookes, Mr. Charles Irving, Mr. Alex Carlile and Mr. Paddy Ashdown.