HC Deb 20 October 2003 vol 411 cc455-8
Mr. Leslie

I beg to move amendment No. 38, in page 47, line 27, leave out 'a local justice area, or particular local justice areas' and insert 'the local justice area or areas specified in the order'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may take Government amendments Nos. 41 to 43 and Government amendments Nos. 11 to 36.

Mr. Leslie

I shall try to be brief, as these are relatively minor technical and drafting changes, none of which affects the substance of policy in schedules 5 and 6. If Members indicate that they would be interested, I can speak at length and in fascinating and minute detail about all or at least some of the amendments; otherwise, I shall speak about them generally.

Broadly, the amendments allow nationwide piloting to be within the scope of the piloting undertaken in respect of the fines enforcement arrangements that we envisage. We want to broaden the term "fines officer" to "fines office", so that if a fines officer is off ill we are not caught out by semantics. We want to clarify slightly the definition of "fine", and to tighten provisions in respect of the unpaid work scheme to discharge fines.

Mr. Hawkins

I am afraid that I must ask the Minister to speak at a little more length on certain points. I hope that he can answer my questions this evening or in writing to me and other interested Members.

The Minister says that some of the amendments are technical. Certainly, amendment No. 38 makes a technical change to insert a reference to the local justice area…specified in the order". Will he provide more detail on the reason for that change?

Amendment No. 41 replaces the words "a pecuniary penalty" with the word "any", thus widening the scope of schedule 5. Will he clarify the thinking behind that?

Amendments Nos. 42 and 43 replace "fines officer" with "fines office". That is a sensible and helpful change that makes the provision clearer and more flexible, because the court will not get caught out if a named fines officer is unavailable through illness or absence.

As the Minister said, amendments Nos. 11 to 36 make technical changes to schedule 6 in relation to work orders and the like. However, I wonder whether amendments Nos. 26 to 32 might have a sting in the tail. I sense something sinister in the proposal to refer not to magistrates, but to any court. Is that part of the Government agenda, which we have seen in one or two other contexts, to downgrade the role of the lay magistracy by trying to use stipendiaries—or district judges, as they are now called—rather more? The Minister shakes his head, but I would be grateful for reassurance on the record.

Amendment No. 36 inserts a reference to the national minimum wage. When I first saw the Bill as originally drafted, it struck me that only in the peculiar culture that this Government have brought about since 1997 could anybody think that someone doing work in relation to a compensation order qualifies for the national minimum wage. I hope that the Minister will say that the Government inserted it for the avoidance of doubt, but Conservative Members would think it common sense that such a person could not possibly be so regarded.

I do not want to detain the House any longer, but I should be grateful for the Minister's further clarification on those points.

Mr. Heath

I do not want to spend a long time on the amendments: they are fairly self-explanatory and I have no argument with them. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) mentioned amendment No. 36, which relates to the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, and which he took to mean that a person doing unpaid work in mitigation of a penalty would additionally be entitled to the national minimum wage.

Mr. Hawkins

No, that is not right.

Mr. Heath

In that case, I misunderstood him; I shall not impute any further meaning to his remarks.

There is a slightly more complex issue that the Minister needs to explain. My understanding is that a notional wage would be attached to any work carried out by a convicted person in mitigation of their penalty, which would count against the total pecuniary penalty incurred as a result of their offence. Here, the 1998 Act probably ought to apply. Given that the notional wage indicates work being done instead of paying a penalty, such work ought surely to be valued, at minimum, at the level of the national minimum wage, to be consistent with the Government's policies. Otherwise, it is being devalued and the offender is, in effect, paying more than they would be subject to paying if they were fined instead. Perhaps I have grievously misunderstood the Minister's intentions—I probably have—but amendment No. 36 seems to introduce an internal inconsistency to the Government's policies. I would expect such work to attract a notional value at least equal to, not less than, the national minimum wage. However, it is hard to understand what other construction can be applied to the amendment.

I think that I take a different view from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath on this issue, although it is clear that I misunderstood what he had to say on it. That said, nor do I entirely understand what the Government had to say on it. They seem to be saying that some form of reduced value work will be offset against a pecuniary fine. If that is the intention, will the Minister publish a tariff, so that we know what value the courts are expected to place on such work in part-payment of a fine? What is the minimum at which they will set the value of that work, or is it open to magistrates courts simply to say that a person who has no means can work for ever and a day in discharging a fairly modest fine? That surely cannot be the intention—there must be some arbitration as to the value of work in such circumstances—but it is not clear what the level will be once the amendment is passed. Perhaps it is set down in guidance, but if so we have not seen it yet.

Mr. Leslie

I knew that I should not have tried to be brief in speaking to these amendments—perhaps I was encouraged by others to ensure that I take a strategic approach to the Bill—but I am happy to provide detail on some of the specific issues raised.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) mentioned amendment No. 38, the purpose of which is to make a small change to clause 97 to allow national piloting of attachment of earnings orders and deductions from benefits applications. Currently, clause 97(5) allows only local pilots to take place before national implementation of the measures contained in schedule 5. National pilots were not envisaged when the clause was originally drafted. However, the courts already have access to attachments and deductions, and in conjunction with the Treasury I have decided that the wider use of attachment of earnings orders and deductions from benefits applications justifies national piloting, given the greater benefits that they will provide across the country. The measures will therefore be piloted nationwide, together with national roll-out of the new offences on provision of means information. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman's question.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about amendment No. 41, which seeks to clarify what we mean by a "fine". It is a technical amendment, the intention of which is to reduce the confusion generated by the term "pecuniary penalty" by removing it from the schedule altogether. A "pecuniary penalty" means any financial penalty, and includes, for example, fixed penalty notices before they are registered as fines. The use of the words "pecuniary penalty" in the definition of the word "fine" therefore widens the meaning of that word beyond what was intended—I hope I have taken the House with me so far.

Both the word "fine" and the word "penalty" can mean different things in different enactments. For example, it can be convenient for the term "fine" to cover money ordered to be paid on conviction to someone other than the state. Although it is reasonable to talk about a fine as a pecuniary penalty, not every pecuniary penalty is a fine. We are satisfied that deleting the reference to pecuniary penalties will bring into the scheme pecuniary penalties that are classed as fines.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath asked about amendment No. 21, and suggested that because we are changing the term "magistrates' court" to the term "relevant court" we intend, in a sinister way, to move discreetly towards a greater use of stipendiary magistrates or district judges in their place. That is not the case. This is simply about providing flexibility and making sure that all the courts, should they be involved with these provisions, have the same powers.

9 pm

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath says that amendment No. 36 is something to do with the peculiar culture that has existed since 1997. Well, I am glad that our "peculiar culture" includes a national minimum wage, but for the avoidance of doubt, when we are talking about punishing offenders we need to make it clear that when those who cannot afford to pay fines carry out unpaid work to discharge those fines, we shall not actually pay them the national minimum wage for doing so. They do not qualify for it.

As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome suggested, we may want to introduce an equivalent work rate, and the Bill gives us a regulation-making power to do so, but I must make it clear that we do not intend to pay offenders for the work that they do.

Mr. Heath

I certainly did not expect the Minister to say that the offender would be paid for the work; the phrase "unpaid work" makes that clear. However, it would be helpful if he said whether he intends to say in regulation that the tariff for unpaid work in place of a fine will be set at the level of the national minimum wage. I think that it should be, and I am asking for the Minister's confirmation that it will be.

Mr. Leslie

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that confirmation, because I have not decided yet—but the most important thing is to make it clear that the offender will not get a payment, whether the national minimum wage or anything else: the work to discharge a fine will be unpaid. Offenders need to pay the price for their offences, and unpaid work is one mechanism by which they can do so. We need to ensure that the exclusion from the National Minimum Wage Act is in place.

Amendment agreed to.

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