HL Deb 02 July 2004 vol 663 cc453-6

11.58 a.m.

Lord Filkin rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 10 June be approved [21st Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Courts Act received Royal Assent in November 2003. It contained a new scheme for fine enforcement. The new measures make a clear distinction between offenders who cooperate with the courts and pay their dues, and those who do not.

The main provisions include the wider use of attachment to earnings and deduction from benefits orders; a new offence for non-provision of means information; a percentage increase in the fine on default; and further sanctions such as clamping and registration on the new register of judgments for persistent defaulters. The sanctions focus on those who may reasonably be called "won't payers", and combinations of these are currently being piloted in six magistrates' courts committee areas. A national pilot of the wider use of attachment to earnings and deduction from benefits orders is also under way.

For those who may be called the "can't payers", people genuinely unable to pay, the fine may be discharged through fines payment work as set out in Schedule 6 to the Courts Act 2003. This is the power of a court to allow an offender to work off his fine by means of unpaid work. This is the provision in the Courts Act that requires the regulations we are debating today.

Until now, offenders have been able to avoid punishment by claiming that they do not have enough money to pay their fines. These are not people who refuse to pay but who genuinely have no means of doing so. Typically they are offenders who have been fined but whose financial circumstances have changed since they were sentenced and from whom the money can no longer be collected. At the moment, courts have no option but to remit the fine; in other words, to let them off.

It is for these people that fine payment work is being introduced. Where it appears to a court that a fine cannot be enforced by any of the usual means, it can give the offender the chance to discharge the fine through unpaid work instead of cash. This is likely to avoid lengthy, expensive and probably fruitless fine-enforcement action. It also avoids having to remit the fine. We believe that fine payment work will be a valuable contribution to the improvement of fine enforcement.

Where the offender agrees to the proposal that his fine may be discharged through work, the court makes a "work order". I should say here that if the offender does not agree and does not have a good excuse for refusing, then serious consequences follow, including the possibility of imprisonment.

The work order must state both the amount of the fine outstanding and the number of hours of work required to discharge it. Clearly there needs to be a consistent rate at which an amount of fine converts into hours of work, and this is the subject of the regulations before the House today.

The Government are proposing a conversion rate of £6 an hour. For every £6 that the offender owes in fines, he must complete one hour of work. Any odd fractions of an hour are rounded up to the nearest whole number. The offender is therefore working at a nominal rate of £6 an hour, although, of course, he does not see any of that money. Indeed, no money changes hands at all. All that happens is that as the offender works the amount of fine that he owes reduces.

We are proposing a rate of £6 for two reasons. First, concern was expressed during the passage of the Courts Bill that offenders would be made to work for less than the national minimum wage. We have ensured that that will not be so. Secondly, the rate needs to be more generous to the offender than the unpaid work option in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which deals with fine defaulters, as those provisions deal with offenders who are unwilling rather than unable to pay.

The fine defaulter provisions in the Criminal Justice Act are available only where the court is at the point of being able to send a fine defaulter to prison; in other words, all other means of eliciting payment have been tried and failed or are considered inappropriate, and the only sanction left is imprisonment or the alternatives provided by the 2003 Act, one of which is unpaid work. This type of serious wilful refusal to pay a fine needs to be contrasted with the position of an offender subject to the fine payment we are discussing today, where the only reason for not paying could be that the person has lost his job through no fault of his own.

The conversion rate for the fine defaulter provisions is around the £5 mark; the offender is therefore working for a nominal £5 an hour. We have therefore decided that the fine payment work we are discussing today should be £6 an hour so that there is, for good reason, a differential between the two.

We will pilot the rate to see whether it is right in practice or whether it will require adjustment at the end of the pilot. Should it appear that change is required, the House will have a further opportunity to debate an amended rate. Schedules 5 and 6 to the Courts Act are being piloted to enable the best package of measures to be introduced nationally in the light of the experience gained. Prior to the final scheme being rolled out, the issue will be returned to the House for further debate. I recommend the regulations to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 10 June be approved [21st Report from the Joint Commit tee.—(Lord Filkin.)

Lord Kingsland: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for the manner in which he introduced the regulations. I believe that the regulations are made in the broader context of the Government's perfectly justifiable desire to improve performance in enforcing the payment of fines.

As I understand it, the background to what the Courts Act 2003 stipulated was provided by the July 2002 White Paper, Justice for All. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I read an extract from that document. It observed that the national payment rate for fines and other financial penalties— at least at that time—stood at 59 per cent. It continued: There are also unacceptably high levels of arrears and very marked variations in performance between areas, not all of which are explicable by socio-economic factors. The payment rate in West Yorkshire last year was 86% but in Merseyside it was 38%. In Dorset it was 89% but in Cambridgeshire it was 36%. Despite recent improvements in fine enforcement methods, such as obtaining information from the Department for Work and Pensions about defaulters' addresses, innovative payment methods, and an injection off £10 million extra for enforcement from April 2002, more needs to be done to bring the poorly performing areas up to the level of the best".

That is an observation about the relative performance across the country. Is the Minister in a position to tell us whether the ratios have changed over the past two years; and, in any case, to say what measures his department is taking to reduce these disproportionalities?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, is right as to the origin of these measures before the House today, and for good reason: because if the ultimate sanction decided by a court after having found a person guilty is not enforced, to both the individual and wider society the justice system would appear a sham. Fine enforcement, therefore, is absolutely fundamental to upholding the rule of law and justice.

The noble Lord rightly signalled that the historical position, by nobody's measure, was satisfactory; 59 per cent would not do. Let me give the noble Lord, from recollection, the position that we have reached over the past two years through this process of change. I shall have to write to him with the differentials in different areas because, even if I had the information in my head—which I do not—it is too complicated to give from the Dispatch Box.

The question concerns not only the extent to which the laggards have closed up with the leaders, but also the totality. It is a perfectly right and proper question. The total picture is one of significant and positive progress. That does not imply for one second that we think we are there. In the past year, the comparative figure to the payment rate of 59 per cent was 74 per cent. 'That is almost spot on with the target of 75 per cent. We would have been even more pleased had it been in advance of it, but it was fairly close to the target. According to the very latest figures for the national aggregate picture, in May an 82 per cent rate was achieved. So the trend is continuing in the right direction.

Getting there has been a process of implementing the measures in the Courts Act 2003, with particular focus on a persistent driving down by the court services, by magistrates' courts committees and by the Minister, my honourable friend Christopher Leslie, to ensure that this work is raised in profile within the courts services and magistrates' courts. One has to signal to people that this issue matters and that they have to get better at dealing with it.

The broad picture is as I have given it. Substantial progress has been made, but there is a substantial way to go. None of us should be satisfied until we have closed the gap as far as is humanly possible. We do not believe that we have got there yet, although we are pleased with progress to date.

These regulations will relate only to a relatively small proportion of people; out of some 1 million fines imposed a year, the regulations will affect only 40,000. But they enable us to ensure that 40,000 people, who would otherwise not have paid an appropriate fine or its equivalent, do not escape meeting the sanction they owe, as judged by the courts. I shall write to the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, with the further details that he requested.

On Question, Motion agreed to.