HC Deb 17 November 2003 vol 413 cc498-500

Lords amendment: No. 24A to Commons amendment No. 24.

4.13 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Speaker

With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 24B to 24D.

Mr. Leslie

The Government tabled substantial amendments in Committee to the fine enforcement provisions. Those amendments were widely welcomed and demonstrated the Government's strong commitment to improving enforcement of fine across the country.

The amendments from the other place make small changes to the new schedule that this place added in Committee in relation to the discharge of fines by unpaid work. Amendments Nos. 24A, B and C are drafting amendments and remove redundant references to "parts of" schedule 6, for which there is no need. I am grateful to their lordships for taking the opportunity to agree to that drafting improvement.

The fourth amendment, No. 24D, subjects the regulations setting the hourly rate for converting a fine into unpaid work to affirmative resolution, rather than to the negative procedure provided for in the Bill as drafted. That reflects the Government's acceptance of the recommendation in paragraph 4 of the 26th report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Hon. Members often prefer powers to be taken by positive resolution, as that allows for greater scrutiny, so I hope that the House will welcome the small but important change that the Government have agreed to.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

As the Minister explained, the discharge of fines was debated in another place. We also had, as he will recall, quite a lot of discussion in Committee of fines and the scandal that many fines imposed by the courts are not collected. My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who shares my shadow Home Office responsibilities and also serves as a recorder and district judge, has expressed concern to the House on many occasions about the large number of fines that are not collected from offenders. It is therefore a good thing that the Government are going to pay greater attention to fines.

It will also be beneficial for the rate at which fines can be discharged by unpaid work if the affirmative rather than the negative procedure is adopted. As the Minister rightly said, Conservative Members have regularly called for such a procedure, not only for this Bill but for many other measures. My noble Friend Baroness Anelay of St. Johns had discussions about this matter with Ministers in another place, and we have made it clear that we would strongly prefer the rates to be set by affirmative resolution. We were therefore delighted that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee made the same recommendation, and we are pleased that the Government agree with us about that, in addition to other significant concessions that we discussed on Report and Third Reading and which the Government have made.

I welcome not only the three drafting changes that the Minister mentioned but the substantial concession that the affirmative procedure will be adopted if changes are made in future. I do not doubt, as I said on Report and Third Reading, that the amendment is a further change that proves that Parliament has done its job in both Houses, and the Bill is a great deal better than it was when the Government originally introduced it.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

It is always dangerous to say so, but I suspect that we may not use all the time allocated for debate on the amendments, as they are entirely welcome. That is particularly true of amendment No. 24D because, as the Minister pointed out, it provides for the use of affirmative resolution in the setting of rates, for which we, along with Conservative Members, argued in Committee and elsewhere. Such powers are an important part of secondary legislation. I still have concerns, as the Minister knows, about the level at which rates are set, but I will have an opportunity to debate that with him when the orders are laid, and I look forward to doing so at the earliest opportunity.

The three drafting amendments suggest the perils of amendments not receiving proper scrutiny if they are introduced at a late stage in proceedings on a Bill. Clearly there must have been a word-processing problem that allowed references to "parts of" schedule 6 to remain, or there may have been an alternative schedule to the Bill or—who knows?—another Bill has been truncated and modified to fit the legislation. Either way, it would have been better, as I think the Minister accepts, if the change had been introduced earlier, so that it could have had the benefit of proper consideration in Committee. The proposals were effectively rubber-stamped in the House and in the other place, and there was no debate on the content of the amendment. Had it not been for sharp-eyed draftsmen in the Department, the error would not have been noticed in time to be corrected before the Bill completed its passage. Once we remove references to "parts of" schedule 6 and the redundant title of part 1, we will have a better Bill, and I certainly do not intend to oppose the amendments.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

I know that the Minister is anxious to join up parts of Government in the criminal justice system. Will he bear in mind the probation service, young offenders teams and the community by ensuring that it is possible for the community to make suggestions for the unpaid work to be done by people who have committed offences? That applies not just to community service but to unpaid work as proposed in the new schedule, which may include tasks such as cleaning up verges in the countryside. From speaking to the probation service, I know that reasons are found—not least because of guidance issued by the Government—not to have such work done by people who are on probation. It is often difficult to have such work done by people on young offenders teams who are under the relevant age.

Mr. Heath

I do not want to prolong the debate, but the hon. Gentleman will recall that we debated these matters during proceedings on both the Criminal Justice Bill and the Courts Bill. He is on to an important point. If any form of community sentencing is to be seen as a viable alternative, it must be visible to the communities affected by the original offences. I entirely concur with the hon. Gentleman's views.

Mr. Allen

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. Such visibility is important for the community. I am not proposing that unpaid work, whatever form it takes in the criminal justice system, should be only punitive because there is a need for rehabilitative work as well. In afflicted communities such as mine, which includes many outer-city estates, appropriate work, such as cleaning up graffiti or filth and litter, which sadly blight our communities, would be seen as relevant punishment, even if it is only part of the sentence or part of the unpaid work. I underline the need for a balance between the punitive and the rehabilitative. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider that with his colleagues in the Solicitor-General's office and the Home Office.

Mr. Leslie

That short but perfectly formed debate covered a number of useful points. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) urged the Government to bear in mind the need to join up all aspects of the criminal justice system and to reflect the needs of local communities and neighbourhoods in any voluntary activity undertaken as part of the unpaid work programme. Clearly, we must engage not just probation and young offenders teams but the voluntary organisations to which we will look to supervise some of the unpaid work in those petty session areas in which we intend to pilot the programme. We need visible justice, and such unpaid work must be useful to the neighbourhoods that are affected by crime.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) rightly stressed that fine enforcement must be a continuing and constant priority. We agree that revenue collection is not the only issue. but it is critical for the justice system to prove that when the magistrates bench or any other court issues a fine as a punishment, it must be carried through. We will not tolerate default.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's welcome for the affirmative procedure for setting the hourly rate for the unpaid discharge of fines. The affirmative procedure will also give opportunities to debate some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who asked about the rate, which we are still considering but which is likely to be no less than equivalent to the national minimum wage. I apologise for the drafting improvements that are now required but we are, at least, taking the opportunity to correct the Bill.

There is no need to take up any more time. It is pleasing that there is consensus on these important matters at the final stage of the Bill.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 24B to 24D agreed to.