HC Deb 08 July 1994 vol 246 cc632-6 2.15 pm
Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

I beg to move, That this House considers that:— 1.—(1) A court seeking to enforce a compensation order against a convicted criminal should have power to make a written request, signed by a Magistrate, for the following information in relation to the criminal:

  1. (a) his place of residence;
  2. (b) his place of work and the name of his employer;
  3. (c) his income and capital; and
  4. (d) his real or personal property.
(2) Any such written request should be addressed to any person or body whom the court making the request has reasonable grounds for thinking may be in possession of the information requested. 2. The Secretary of State should have power by regulation to establish an Agency to enforce compensation orders made in favour of the victims of crime by courts of criminal jurisdiction. 3. The Powers of Criminal Courts Act 1973 should be amended:—
  1. (1) to require criminal courts to assess compensation without regard to the ability of the criminal to pay, as is already the case in the civil courts;
  2. (2) to overrule case law which puts a time limit on the period over which money may be recovered under a compensation order, and which exempts a criminal's house from seizure for the purpose of satisfying a compensation order.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin) for withdrawing her motion. I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in Parliament on behalf of the victims of crime, but I am disappointed that not one Liberal Democrat has bothered to turn up for this important debate.

I am as committed as anyone to the prevention of crime and I support everything the Government are doing in this respect, not only directly through the Home Office but in their housing, education, social security and other policies. Nevertheless, however successful the Government's policies, I fear that we shall never see the day when there is no crime and there are no victims of crime. Many of today's victims of crime are, and probably always will be, from the poorest sections of our community. We must keep faith with them and make it clear that, although we appreciate the problem, poverty cannot be accepted as an excuse for crime.

For many years, the courts have had the power to order a convicted criminal to pay compensation to his victim, but, all too frequently, payment is not made under the order, either because the criminal disappears and cannot be traced or because he has been economical with the truth when asked about his income and assets. Information about his whereabouts and assets is very often on the files of the Department of Social Security, the Inland Revenue, banks and buildings societies, but, when they are asked to disclose it, they say that they are sorry they cannot do so, because it is confidential.

I am delighted that we have a Home Secretary who is determined to roll back 30 years of libertarian attitudes towards crime and to put the victim first. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill is a step in the right direction, but there is much more to be done. In Britain, we can be proud of the fact that anyone who suffers a serious criminal injury will be compensated out of public funds, but anyone who suffers a personal injury valued at less than £1,000 or who is the victim of a crime involving his property or money will not be compensated out of public funds. At present, there is about £100,000 worth of unpaid compensation orders made in favour of victims in every magistrates court in the land.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

I thank my hon. Friend for making an important point about outstanding sums. May I point out that Sutton magistrates court found that there is £143,000 outstanding in compensation payments?

Mr. Stephen

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that figure, which confirms what I believe to be the situation throughout the country.

I tabled three new clauses to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill when it was in Committee in February and the substance of this motion is much the same as that of the new clauses. I was not a member of the Committee, so two of them were moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) on my behalf. The Government responded sympathetically, but did not commit themselves to doing anything about it.

Before I deal with those new clauses, I pay tribute to The Mail on Sunday for its excellent work in researching this topic and for drawing the attention of Members of Parliament and the public to the serious problem of non-payment of compensation orders. I refer to two cases that the newspaper has discovered. The first is a man in Bristol who went on a rampage of violence and caused £4,000 worth of damage to his victim's home. He was ordered to pay £3,855 in compensation, but he paid nothing. He went on holiday to Australia and failed to turn up in court where he was ordered to pay compensation. He claimed to be unemployed. His victim said: I think it is disgusting the way that victims of crime are treated. There should be a radical review of the compensation system. Victims should not be coming out at a loss. They don't ask for their homes to be damaged or to be attacked. The second case was in Windsor in Berkshire. A criminal stole and wrecked a nurse's £1,100 moped. He was ordered to pay compensation, but he refused to pay. He was jailed for 28 days and the debt was written off. He said: I had the money, but decided to go to jail instead. It was my first offence and I don't think it was fair what they gave me. The victim's view was: I work long unsociable hours to support my daughter and I see this criminal walking around doing nothing all day. He is a strong man who could work if he wanted to and he should be made to pay something. The Government have not been idle on the matter and I give credit for their work in the Criminal Justice Act 1991, the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and the victims charter, which, for the first time, focused the attention of all involved in the criminal justice system on the needs of the victim. Hitherto, attention had always been on the needs of the criminal. However, there are still 28 agencies supporting criminals and only one supporting victims—the victim support scheme, to whose work I pay tribute.

The first paragraph of my motion incorporates new clause 30 which I tabled in Committee. It would require information to be given about the whereabouts and financial resources of criminals who have failed to pay compensation orders. Departments of state, banks and building societies will not disclose such information and say that it is confidential. They sometimes pray in aid the Data Protection Act 1984. I point out that the Act is the "Data Protection Act", not the "Protection of Criminals Act". The Act should be changed so that the information can be made available to courts seeking to enforce compensation orders.

The civil rights lobby will say that it is an infringement of civil liberties to provide confidential information to magistrates courts. Of course, it is an infringement of civil liberties, but criminals are not the only people who have civil liberties. Victims have civil liberties, too, and they have every right, under law, to receive compensation from the criminal for the damage caused. If a criminal does not wish his civil liberties to be infringed, the remedy is in his own hands—do not commit crime.

It was said in Committee that it would be rather draconian to employ such a measure against motorists who had been ordered to pay compensation and who had not paid. I do not see why. In any event, enforcement is in the hands of the courts, which can decide how they wish to enforce payment. I do not see why a motorist who has not paid compensation to his victim should be treated differently from any other criminal who has not paid compensation.

In Committee, the Government suggested that legislation would not be necessary and that the objective could be achieved by non-legislative means. If that is the case, what are the non-legislative means? What precisely are the Government doing to use those means to ensure that the victims of crime are properly compensated?

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) on obtaining this short debate; I realise that the seconds are ticking away. A number of Opposition Members wholly endorse the principle that people who are trying to dodge their moral obligation to pay compensation should be pursued with vigour. We look forward with interest to seeing what the Government will do to ensure that compensation is paid to the victims of crime. The failure to pay compensation is an outstanding blot on our criminal justice system.

Mr. Stephen

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) for his support. I am sure that his constituents are as concerned as mine are about the matter.

The second paragraph of the motion incorporates new clause 25 which I tabled in Committee. I believe that the courts are not well suited to the enforcement of orders. I often receive letters from people who say that they believe that the courts have gone to sleep after they have made compensation orders and that no real attempt is made to enforce them. People tell me—and it accords with my experience—that means inquiries in magistrates courts are rather like shelling peas, they are done so quickly. The whole thing is a farce. Magistrates do not have the time or the means to inquire rigorously into the income and the assets of criminals. That job requires an agency with specialised personnel and proper information technology to be able to chase the criminals. I know of the value of information technology in that area because I happen to be the parliamentary adviser to EDS-Scicon—a company working in that sphere.

The courts need to be reminded of the requirements of the victims charter. One of those requirements is that the courts must keep the victim informed of the progress of his case. Often, it turns into a dispute between the Crown and the criminal, and the victim is forgotten. In particular, the victim should be given an opportunity to give evidence of the means of the criminal once a compensation order has been made. An elderly lady running a newsagents shop in my constituency knew perfectly well that the criminal who was ordered to pay her compensation had assets much greater than those to which he was willing to admit, but she was never given an opportunity to go to court and say so.

Sometimes, notwithstanding the 1988 Act, no compensation order is made because no application is made. I believe that the courts should normally award compensation, unless they are specifically asked not to. The prosecuting solicitors and barristers must also be reminded that, although they are formally representing the Crown in the proceedings, they have also have a duty to represent the interests of the victim and to ensure that they have the necessary information from the victim to be able to argue effectively for a proper level of compensation.

In the criminal courts, there should be the same measure of damages as there is in the civil courts. A Home Office study in 1992 suggested that awards, especially for personal injuries made in the criminal courts, are much lower than those in the civil courts. The measure of damages in either the civil court or the criminal court should not be related in any way to the ability of the criminal to pay. That is certainly not the case in the civil courts and should not be so in the criminal courts. Often, defendants in civil proceedings are people of moderate means, but that does not affect the measure of damages. Means are relevant to enforcement, not to the amount of compensation. The criminal's ability to pay will vary over time. On the day of the hearing, he may not be able to pay, but he may get a job the next week or next month, or he may be left some money, or he may even win the pools. If he subsequently has the ability to pay, he should be made to pay, and section 35(4) of the Powers of Criminal Courts Act 1973 requires further amendment.

As for the argument that if we enforce compensation orders against criminals they will go out and commit further offences, I do not think that a civilised society could ever give in to such blackmail and any criminal who thinks that he can get away with that, has got another think coming. If a criminal does not have a job, if he cannot or will not work, work must be found for him so that he may pay the compensation that he owes. It is an affront to the public and the victim for the criminal to be sitting at home, drawing benefit and doing nothing to earn any money to pay his victim. If a criminal is fortunate enough, as some are, to sell their story to the press, the money should be confiscated and used to compensate the victim and any balance should be forfeited to Her Majesty—that is the effect of my new clause 56.

Also, courts should be reminded of their statutory duty to give priority to compensation orders over fines and they should never reduce compensation orders on the ground of the criminal's ability to pay if they are, at the same time, imposing a fine. Often, when the criminal is sent to prison, no compensation order is made. That is wrong because the criminal pays his debt to society, not to his victim, by going to prison. The courts should not send criminals who are in default of payment to prison quite so often. That is an easy option for an old lag. Compensation orders should remain in force, and if it takes 20 years to recover the money, so be it. There should be no time limit on the recovery of compensation orders. We should also repeal the absurd provision that makes it legally impossible to sell a criminal's house, if he has one, to compensate his victim.

I congratulate the Government on the efforts that they are making in the area of criminal justice. There is wide public concern. Much of it has been addressed by the Government, but much still remains to be done. We must consider the victims—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.