HL Deb 14 March 1984 vol 449 cc728-30

2.52 p.m.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government when the recently-announced measures to increase the fines magistrates may impose upon offenders will come into force.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary intends to make an order doubling maximum summary fines and other sums affecting magistrates' powers. The maxima in the proposed order will apply to offences committed on or after 1st May 1984.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that reply, may I ask whether he can say what has been the reaction of the Magistrates' Association and, further, can he say whether these fines are expected to be across the board? Can he give an assurance on that point?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the Magistrates' Association has indicated its welcome for this overhaul of magistrates' powers to impose financial penalties and says that sentencing practice is unlikely to change suddenly because they are obliged by law to take account of offenders' means. I take it that that answers my noble friend's second supplementary question.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, would the Minister agree that one of the dangers of having very high fines is that there must be a temptation in some cases for the more wealthy to be fined because they can pay the fine whereas those who cannot afford it might have prison sentences imposed upon them? Would that not be a very undesirable situation?

Lord Elton

My Lords, it would indeed be an undesirable situation. That is why we have in Section 35 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 a requirement that magistrates should have regard to the means of an offender before they fix the level of the fine.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, can my noble friend say what proportion of fines imposed today are in fact never paid?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I have an idea that if I was a little quicker with my papers I could answer my noble friend more rapidly than I am now doing. I understand that about 1,750,000 fines are imposed each year but that only 25,000 of those fined have to be imprisoned for default.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, can some fresh look therefore not be taken at a situation where 25,000 were sent to prison for non-payment of fines? Is this not a very serious and unhappy situation?

Lord Elton

My Lords, it is both serious and unhappy. The effect of the length of sentences is that at any one time only about 1,000 members of the prison population are in prison because of default. It is necessary, I think, to have this reserve threat to those who contemplate not paying fines. If we did not have it, the balance between those who pay and those who do not would be far more inappropriate than that which I revealed in my last but one supplementary answer to my, noble friend.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, do not the courts have power to distrain on the assets of people who fail to pay fines? If they do not have any assets, what is the point of sending them to prison anyway?

Lord Elton

My Lords, if I have understood the noble Lord aright, if a person has committed a crime and cannot pay the penalty in cash terms, it is not right that he should escape paying any penalty at all.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, have the Government looked at community service as an alternative to prison for those who do not pay their fines?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Baroness for her question. We are, indeed, considering making community service available as an alternative to imprisoning fine defaulters. We are also about to send a circular to magistrates' courts drawing their attention to a range of procedures and measures that can be used to improve enforcement and reduce the need for imprisonment.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the noble Lord answer the first part of my question as to whether courts do have the power to distrain on the assets of those who fail to pay fines, and why have they not used that power in the case of the 25,000 people who went to prison?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I do not know what the bases of the decision on the 25,000 individual cases were. As to the power of distraint, I regret that I cannot give the noble Lord a straight answer because I do not know. I suspect that many of your Lordships do, and I apologise for my ignorance.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, do the Government think that weekend imprisonment might be a suitable penalty for fine defaulters, particularly those who happen to have jobs?

Lord Elton

My Lords, we are concerned to examine the possibility of intermittent imprisonment, among others. We wish to reduce the number of people in prison in default of fine payment. It is better that they should pay and stay out.