HC Deb 11 March 1987 vol 112 cc285-6
8. Mr. Norman Hogg

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what proportion of the present prison population is made up of fine defaulters; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Lang

The latest available figures are for December 1986 when approximately 4.5 per cent. of the average daily population in Scottish penal establishments were fine defaulters.

Mr. Hogg

I thank the Minister for that reply, but does it not show that there is a continuing crisis in the Scottish prison system? What steps is he taking to ensure that this problem is met, so that the offenders are dealt with under the original sentence that they receive and not under this secondary imposition? Surely, this displays a very unhealthy situation in the prison system.

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman may know that about 78 per cent. of sentences passed in 1985 involved fines. The vast majority of those fines are paid. But it is necessary to preserve some sanction of imprisonment to sustain the credibility and effectiveness of fines. We have introduced fine enforcement officers in sheriff courts, and it is hoped that this will relieve the problem arising from fine defaulters.

Mr. John Mark Taylor

Does my hon. Friend agree that fine defaulters are customarily given every tolerance by the courts, so he can safely say that those who are in prison are those who are defiant or even contemptuous of their liabilities?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend has underlined the point that I made. We need the sanction of imprisonment to support the effectiveness of fines. Only about 7.5 per cent. of those who are fined end up in prison and they are there for only short terms.

Mr. Hugh Brown

Given the recent serious disturbances in the Scottish prisons, would the hon. Gentleman agree to some kind of inquiry— public or otherwise— to investigate the possibilities of reducing the number of fine defaulters in prison and of imposing more non-custodial sentences?

Mr. Lang

That point certainly justifies further exploration. As I have said, we have introduced fine enforcement officers. So far, there are 12 in place and there are to be three more. The success of this arrangement will be evaluated by the Scottish Office central research unit. During the past three years, community service orders have been used increasingly, and they should also help to relieve the problem.

Mr. Fairbairn

Will my hon. Friend look urgently at the possibility of having a much simpler regime for fine defaulters so that they do not have to go through the rigidity of admission and release, which is absurd for people who are merely being detained until they pay a fine?

Mr. Lang

Yesterday, my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General for Scotland explained in some detail how the Debtors (Scotland) Bill, which is before the House, will provide for more efficient methods of arresting the earnings of a debtor in the hands of his employer. I hope that this, too, will help to relieve the problem.

Mr. Tom Clarke

Has the Minister considered the important report on this matter by the Association of Directors of Social Work in Scotland, which takes into account the fact that nearly half of those admitted to prison come from this category? Is the hon. Gentleman prepared to consider the alternatives proposed by the association?

Mr. Lang

I have just received that report, which is being closely studied. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it was published only a couple of weeks or so ago.

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